An English bookshop in France

Shakespeare’s sonnet CLV

The Glass Key holds a literary dinner every month with the most recent commemorating the life and work of the poet Christopher Hampton. We had invited people to enter a sonnet-writing competition with the winner being selected by ballot at the dinner. I had offered a prize of a book token for 25,00 to be spent at The Glass Key. All the entries were read out and I have printed the winning entry below. Modesty prevents me from naming the winner.

Shall I compare thee to my lederhosen?
Thou art more lovely, but they hardwearing.
Rough winds can blow when cabbage has been chosen.
But trousers for a summer leased will need returning.
Sometimes my eyes on thee so hotly burn
That I can scarcely stand; so dimly sit
And see the declination of the things that yearn
As my unnatural braces slide to the pit.
But nothing here shall be allowed to fade
And you shall hold one-handed onto life.
Death will not brag nor stand you in his shade
Because you are both trouble and my strife.
So long as trousers last and men desire
So long wear out the one and quit the fire.

Alive and Well

Alive and well and living in Montmorillon

My friend Ruth Walton suggested that as well as recording some of the famous people who died in Montmorillon I should also reveal some of the famous people whose deaths have been misreported and who are in fact alive and well and living in Montmorillon. I have promised not to be too specific about their addresses which are all in the environs of Montmorillon and I have received the agreement of all those I write about that I can reveal their existence here. I am pleased to say that to a man (or woman) they avoid the Kindle and buy their books at The Glass Key in rue de la Poelerie. I am thinking of putting up a sign outside the shop stating: Some of my best customers are supposed to be dead.

Firstly we have the nearly late and very great Elvis Presley living here quietly under the assumed name of Cole. Elvis was a bloated, drug-riddled wreck when he was shipped here in 1977. He spent a number of years at the Maison Dieu getting himself clean and back to something like his former figure. If you are lucky you can hear him sing the occasional number at Kim’s bar La Terrasse in the centre of town. Elvis is a great fan of the crime novels written by Robert Crais.


Died on this day – 22 June 1754

It was the night his number came up! Whilst complaining bitterly about the meagre space devoted to music and books on music in The Glass Key bookshop in Montmorillon Nicolas Siret suffered a heart attack and died. It was a moment of especial poignancy because at the time he was guest of honour at the Salon du Livre in Montmorillon (an event which flourishes to this day.) Siret, born in 1663 was a French baroque composer, organist and harpsichordist. He was born in Troyes, France, where he worked as organist in the Church of Saint Jean and the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Both his grandfather and his father were organists in Troyes. Siret was a friend and admirer of François Couperin, and his first collection of harpsichord pieces, published approximately in 1709, was dedicated to Couperin.


Died on this day – 2 June 1927

Lizzie Borden
Lizzie Borden
It was just eighty-seven years ago today that Lizzie Borden died whilst looking at the books in the true crime section of The Glass Key bookshop in Montmorillon, she was sixty-eight years old. Lizzie Andrew Borden was born on 19 July 1860 in Fall River, Massachusetts. In 1892 she was tried for the murders of her father and stepmother – both savagely hacked to death with an axe. The case was a cause célèbre throughout the United States. In 1893 Lizzie was acquitted. Following her release from the prison in which she had been held during the trial, Borden chose to remain a resident of Fall River, Massachusetts. After years of ostracism she left the USA and moved to France where she lived in quiet obscurity for the rest of her life in the Cité de l’Ecrit in Montmorillon. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts elected to charge no one else with the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden and speculation about the crimes still continues more than 100 years later.

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.


Died on this day – 9 November 1953

Dylan_Thomas_photoIt was just sixty years ago today that Dylan Thomas downed a last large scotch in La Trappe aux Livres in Montmorillon and staggered round the corner from the bar to The Glass Key, a secondhand bookshop offering a wide range of poetry books. And it was here that he died on 9 November 1953.

Dylan Marlais Thomas (born 27 October 1914) was a Welsh poet and writer whose works include the poems “Fern Hill”, “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “And death shall have no dominion”, the “play for voices”, Under Milk Wood, and stories and radio broadcasts such as A Child’s Christmas in Wales and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. He became popular in his lifetime and remained so after his premature death. In his later life he acquired a reputation, which he encouraged, as a “roistering, drunken and doomed poet”.

Thomas was born in Swansea, Wales and it was the publication of “Light breaks where no sun shines”, in 1934, that caught the attention of the literary world. While living in London, Thomas met Caitlin Macnamara, whom he married in 1937. In the early part of his marriage, Thomas and his family lived hand-to-mouth, settling in the Welsh fishing village of Laugharne.

Although Thomas was appreciated as a popular poet in his lifetime, he found earning a living as a writer difficult, which resulted in him augmenting his income with reading tours and broadcasts. His radio recordings for the BBC during the latter half of the 1940s brought him a level of celebrity. In the 1950s, Thomas travelled to America, where his readings brought him a level of fame, though his erratic behaviour and drinking worsened. His time in America cemented Thomas’ legend, where he recorded to vinyl works such as A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Thomas died on 9 November 1953 and his body was returned to Wales where he was buried at the village churchyard in Laugharne.

A small personal true story: on one of his Fitzrovia drinking evenings Dylan Thomas met my uncle Gordon Fraser and Gordon ended up offering Dylan a place to stay for the night. The next morning a broke Dylan wanted to give my uncle something as a ‘Thank you’ token for the shelter and he spotted a copy of his book of poems Twenty-Five Poems on my uncle’s bookshelves. Crossing out the gift inscription already in the book Dylan signed it as if a gift from himself!


Favourite poems from Poetry Please

Having just read an article about the ten poems most requested by listeners to Radio 4’s Poetry Please I thought that, over the next several days, I would post the ten poems on The Glass Key blog. A book, Poetry Please: The Nation’s Best-Loved Poems has recently been published by Faber.

Poem number ten is To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell:

Had we but world enough and time
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand for the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.


Died on this day – 25 September 1933

Ring_LardnerRinggold Wilmer Lardner better known simply as Ring Lardner was born in Niles, Michigan on 6 March 1885. Lardner became a sports columnist and short story writer best known for his satirical takes on the world of sports. Lardner never liked his given name and shortened it, naming one of his sons Ring Jr.  It was Ring Jr who became the journalist and screenwriter blacklisted through the offices of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

Lardner started his writing career as a sports columnist and in 1907, he moved to Chicago. Two years later, Lardner was in St Louis, writing the humorous baseball column “Pullman Pastimes”. In 1913, Lardner returned to the Chicago Tribune, which became the home paper for his syndicated column “In the Wake of the News”. It appeared in more than 100 newspapers, and still runs in the Tribune.

In 1916, Lardner published his first successful book, You Know Me Al, an epistolary novel written in the form of letters by “Jack Keefe”, a bush-league baseball player, to a friend back home. The letters made heavy use of the fictional author’s idiosyncratic vernacular. Like most of Lardner’s stories, You Know Me Al employs satire, in this case to show the stupidity and avarice of a certain type of athlete. The journalist Andrew jackson wrote that “Ring Lardner thought of himself as primarily a sports columnist whose stuff wasn’t destined to last, and he held to that absurd belief even after his first masterpiece, You Know Me Al, was published in 1916 and earned the awed appreciation of Virginia Woolf, among other very serious, unfunny people.”

Lardner was a close friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald and other writers of the Jazz Age. His books were published by Maxwell Perkins, who also served as Fitzgerald’s editor. Lardner influenced Ernest Hemingway, who sometimes wrote articles for his high school newspaper under the pseudonym Ring Lardner, Jr. The two met in December 1928, thanks to Max Perkins, but did not become friends.

In 1933 despite his ill-health Lardner visited France and called at The Glass Key bookshop in Montmorillon to sign copies of his novel You Know Me Al. It was here that Lardner died on 25 September 25 at the age of 48 of complications from tuberculosis.


Died on this day – 14 September 1927

ImageIt was eighty-six years ago today that Angela Isadora Duncan met her death in Montmorillon, France. Through her dancing Duncan restored dance to a high place among the arts. Breaking with convention, she traced the art of dance back to its roots as a sacred art. She developed within this idea, free and natural movements inspired by the classical Greek arts, folk dances, social dances, nature and natural forces.

Duncan was born in San Francisco in 1877 and began her dancing career by teaching lessons in her home from the time she was six through her teenage years. A desire to travel brought Duncan to Chicago where she auditioned for many theatre companies, finally finding a place in Augustin Daly’s company. This job took her to New York City. Feeling unhappy and limited with her work in Daly’s company and with American audiences, Duncan decided to move to London in 1898. There she found work performing in the drawing rooms of the wealthy and inspiration from the Greek vases and bas-reliefs in the British Museum. From London, Duncan traveled to Paris, where she drew inspiration from the Louvre. She spent most of the rest of her life in this manner, touring in Europe as well as North and South America.

In 1914, Duncan moved back to the United States and transferred her school there. In 1921, her leftist sympathies took her to the Soviet Union where she founded a school in Moscow. However, the Soviet government’s failure to follow through on promises to support her work caused her to move back to the West.

Both in her professional and private lives, Duncan flouted traditional mores and morality. She was bisexual and alluded to her Communism during her last United States tour, in 1922–23; Duncan waved a red scarf and bared her breast on stage in Boston, proclaiming, “This is red! So am I!”

Duncan bore two children, both out of wedlock – the first by theatre designer Gordon Craig and the second by Paris Singer, one of the many sons of sewing machine magnate Isaac Singer. Both children died in an accident on the river Seine in 1913.

In 1922 she married the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin who was 18 years her junior. Yesenin accompanied her on a tour of Europe and the United States. The following year he left Duncan and returned to Moscow. Duncan had an affair with poet and playwright Mercedes de Acosta which is documented in numerous revealing letters they wrote to each other.

By the end of her life Duncan’s performing career had dwindled and she became as notorious for her financial woes, scandalous love life and all-too-frequent public drunkenness as for her contributions to the arts.

Duncan’s fondness for flowing scarves was a contributing factor to her death in an automobile accident in Montmorillon, France, at the age of 50. After a visit to The Glass Key bookshop Duncan climbed into a friend’s Amilcar automobile and the shawl, having become tangled in the open spokes of one of the wheels, tightened and broke her neck.

Isadora Duncan was cremated, and her ashes were interred at Père Lachaise Cemetary in Paris.