In Bonaparte’s Backback

Review of Howard Gaskill (ed), The Reception of Ossian in Europe (Thoemmes Continuum, 2004)

In his introduction to this symposium on the reception of Ossian in Europe, Howard Gaskill acknowledges that ‘any suggestion of a general rehabilitation’ of James Macpherson ‘would be premature’. But if the task is to be accomplished, a demonstration of the seminal importance of Ossianic poetry for European romanticism is probably the best way forwards. Meanwhile, as several contributors acknowledge, it is curious how perfectly Ossianic poetry fits the requirements of contemporary literary theory. If your interests lie in nationalism and invented traditions, in Romantic forgery, in the oral-literacy debate, in translation studies, in reception theory, in post-modernist indeterminancy, or whatever (except, so far, queer theory), Macpherson is your perfect author, with the added advantage that virtually nobody in Britain reads him.

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In Cannibal Country

Review of Tim Jeal, Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer (Faber, 2007)
& Clare Pettitt, Dr. Livingstone, I Presume? Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers & Empire (Profile Books, 2007)

In January 1963 in his gap year, Tim Jeal set out by steamer, bus and truck on a journey from Cairo to Johannesburg. Over forty years on, his main memory is of his insecurity, of being utterly dependent on the undependable. To get stranded, a ‘guideless stranger would soon be lost … and likely to die in the bush, if not from thirst or exhaustion then in the jaws of a wild beast’. At night, when he was not fretting about snakes or scorpions, he thought about those Victorian explorers, making similar journeys without diesel trucks or insect repellent creams, and his admiration became a lifetime obsession.

Earlier writers on Africa have had similar epiphanies – George Shepperson, speculating about the Nyasalanders under his command in Burma during World War 2, Jan Vansina made curious by his spell of military service in the Belgian Congo, Basil Davidson wondering in mid-travels why there was nothing he could read about the ancient cities of West Africa. By 1963, along with a handful of others, these had become the founding fathers of the new discipline of African History. Jeal comments that as he passed through independent Uganda and soon to be independent Tanganyika, he knew the explorers were considered ‘anachronistic embarrassments’. But he has stuck with them, and imbibed much of their worldview.

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Terras de Lava

Visiting the Azores for the first time, I’ve figured out just where in the world they are. Ideally, you need a two-page map of the Atlantic, with Lisbon to the right, New York to the far left, and Bermuda lurking in the south west. The nine islands of the archipelago are about a third of the way across. But atlases are grudging about water, and the Azores get squeezed into separate boxes at odd corners of the maps of somewhere else. To my surprise, they turn out to be west of Lisbon – not a hint of Africa, about them – the visible bits of something called the north mid-Atlantic ridge, and on the same latitude as Washington DC.

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Letters from Portugal


by Landeg White
Kondwani Publications

Letters from Portugal, Landeg White’s latest collection, illustrated by António Bandeira Araújo, makes free use of the epistolary form to range widely in subject matter and style. The letters are interspersed with shorter poems, equally broad thematically, while demonstrating his mastery of lyric forms.

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Where the Angolans are Playing Football


by Landeg White
Parthian Press 2009

Containing selections from the poet’s previous five publications, as well as new poetry.

This volume is a comprehensive introduction to a poet who writes with humor, pathos, and a gift for observation.

When Paul Celan met Heidegger
in that Black Forest hut

where the philosopher and nature met
in the manner of soiled centuries,

his question hung in the damp air:
what of Jews and the Gypsies?

Blue-eyed Hitler, vegecologist,
anti-smoker and folklorist,

concentrated all wanderers
and earthed them in his fires.

Such was the poet’s right to ask
the philosopher was silenced,

and it echoes whenever a plot’s
patrolled, viz., what

of refugees, aliens,
asylum-seekers, Palestinians?

Celan found beautiful sport in the orchid.
I write in praise of the canine hybrid

that claims its space by hoisting
a leg, no matter who planted the lamppost.

from “Where the Angolans are Playing Football” by Landeg White


“The expatriate poet can easily become a lotus-eater, but Landeg White (though clearly partial to the fruit) prefers living to dreaming. It is not always clear where his poems are located, but in all other respects they are securely earthed, as accessible as any prose travel writing, richly evocative of place. The poet writes sympathetically of people too, although there is much grim colonial history recalled, and one or two chilling personal anecdotes. White retains his sense of humour and that love of game-playing essential to the poet. His poems are finely crafted though not restrictingly formal. He demonstrates a convincing public manner. He often uses voices, Captain Stedman or the blind fiddler in Bounty, and even, when back in Britain, his eye made alert by his travels to what is primitive in the so-called developed world, adopting tones of Dante.”

Times Literary Supplement

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