This is really tough – how can I neglect to praise Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal??
Nevertheless, I’m just going to mention one old inspiration and one new inspiration. The old favourite is William Morris’s The House of the Wolfings. Morris is my hero, just as he seems to have been a hero to everyone who knew him back then (except, possibly, his wife). The House of the Wolfings is the tale of a Gothic tribe menaced by a Roman invasion. It’s an extraordinary achievement for a Victorian gentleman, raised on the classics (at Marlborough and Oxford) and subjected to endless Imperial rhetoric on Britain as the New Rome. He contrasts the Gothic folk society with the Roman Empire, always to Rome’s disadvantage: on the one hand, the organic Gothic society, with its democracy of governance and manners, and its symbiosis of art and crafts; on the other hand, the authoritarian, war-mongering, slave-society of Rome, with a commodified art for the leisured few. Needless to say, the Goths win.
My new favourite is Island, the collected twenty short stories of Alistair MacLeod, all set in the Gaelic-speaking communities of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, where he grew up, where he returned to write every summer, and where he was buried last year. These are not heart-warming stories of an idyllic rural childhood, adorable animals and golden sunsets. They are unflinching accounts of hard lives in the fishing boats and the mines, of the divisions in families caused by education, emigration and economics. But there’s a wonderful, spare lyricism about the stories (MacLeod spoke each sentence aloud as he wrote it): they are short, graceful and simply told; adjectives are rare but always evocative – he made every word count. Like Thomas Hardy, MacLeod has memorialised a people in a landscape.