|OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS ACADEM|
the guardian Sat 22 November 2008
This book starts with Chaucer assaulting a friar in Fleet Street and ends with JK Rowling winning a high court injunction. The latter is less an anecdote (defined by Dr Johnson as "something yet unpublished; secret history") than an item from the Telegraph, which only highlights John Gross's dilemma. To update the old-fashioned literary anecdote he has had to broaden his criteria to include "anecdotal material". Often the modern authors (McEwan, Amis, Winterson) have penned the anecdote themselves, presumably because libel laws prevented anything meatier. There's still much to enjoy, however. After telling us about Ezra Pound seeking attention by eating tulips, for instance, Gross informs us that William Empson once ate a tulip, petal by petal, then threw up. We also encounter Pope falling asleep in front of royalty, Mr and Mrs Blake in the nude, Thomas Hardy showing EM Forster his pets' graves, and Dylan Thomas's wife shoving a drunken elbow in her ice cream at a dinner party, then turning to TS Eliot and saying, "Lick it off".