Dog Days: Selected Writings, By Elspeth Barker


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The Independent Culture

A bibliographer set to work on Elspeth Barker's slim-line oeuvre would probably finish the job in a morning.

Kicking into gear a quarter of a century ago, when a glossy magazine-editing daughter commissioned a piece about her hens, it has so far taken in a prize-winning novel (O Caledonia, 1991), a handful of luminous short stories, a clutch of book reviews, mostly for The Independent on Sunday, and not a great deal else. A small garland, as some polite Edwardian critic might have put it, and yet surprisingly evergreen.

Dog Days, which collects some of this occasional journalism, is a mixed bag: lit-crit; despatches from the north Norfolk domestic front-line; and fragments covering topics as varied as the author's garden and her pets to life with her legendary first husband, the poet George Barker. Little in their marriage is off-limits and she is horribly funny about a sit-down with Barker's biographer, Robert Fraser and his subject's professional routines, in which a hard week's work was followed by a Brueghel-esque Saturday night.

As a reviewer, Ms Barker earns top marks for taking an individual line on topics about which most readers may think they already know rather too much (Betjeman, Waugh, Bloomsbury) and not respecting several reputations she comes up against. Nobel-winning Toni Morrison, for example, will doubtless not have been too pleased to learn that in her novel Mercy "she cannot handle straight narrative. The writing is stiff, over-explanatory, often clumsy and astonishingly amateur", nor Jenni Calder simper before the judgment that her biography of Naomi Mitchison is "sparse, colourless and cautious".

Barker's speciality, whether in criticising literary lives or East Anglian landscape painting, is unobtrusive deflation. Naturally, most of her observations on poets and poetry are aerated by her 30 years' experience of watching one particular poet at work and play. These are remarkably un-self-pitying, and consistently acute.