Graeme Powell

In her novel Jacob’s Room (1922), Virginia Woolf wrote: ‘For centuries the writing-desk has contained sheets fit precisely for the communication of friends. Masters of language have turned from the sheet that endures to the sheet that perishes ... and addressed themselves to the task of reaching, touching, penetrating the individual heart.’

Ch ...

In 1939 President Roosevelt nominated the poet Archibald MacLeish to be the Librarian of Congress, replacing Herbert Putnam, who had held the post since 1899. MacLeish had not previously been employed in a library. American librarians reacted to the news with outrage and disbelief, with one of their leaders claiming that he could no more think of a poet as the Librarian of Congress than as the chief engineer of a new Brooklyn Bridge. Roosevelt was unmoved by the protests and petitions, and MacLeish duly took up the position. He held it for less than five years, but in that time he achieved a major reorganisation of the Library, broadened its research and cultural roles, and made some astute staff appointments, including two of his successors.

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Arthur Wheen, a nineteen-year-old signaller in the Australian Imperial Force, sailed from Egypt to France in June 1916. A month later he wrote to one of his younger sisters in Australia recounting, in highly fanciful language, his first experience of battle. After describing his difficulties with mud and barbed wire, he told her, ‘I got out in the end though and cantered across to the German trenches where I had much better luck with their barbed wire.’ Agnes Wheen would have had no inkling that her brother had just taken part in a disastrous battle in which more than five thousand Australian soldiers were killed or wounded.

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Ernest Gowers is remembered, if at all, for the writings on the English language which he undertook towards the end of his life. In 1948, at the request of the British Treasury, he wrote a small book called Plain Words. It was intended for the use of civil servants, not all of whom appreciated it, but it attracted a far wider audience, sold in huge numbers, and has never been out of print. An expanded version, entitled The Complete Plain Words, appeared in 1954. Subsequently, the Clarendon Press asked Gowers to produce a revised edition of H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926). He laboured on the task for nine years, completing it at the age of eighty-five.

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The first official postage stamps of a British colony were produced on the small island of Mauritius. In 1847, seven years after Rowland Hill’s ‘Penny Black’, the Mauritian postmaster issued 500 orange-red one penny stamps and 500 blue twopence stamps. In size, shape and design, they are utterly conventional. Depicting Queen Victoria in profile, they lack the charm of the 1850 ‘Sydney Views’ stamps of New South Wales or the peculiarity of the 1854 ‘Inverted Swan’ of Western Australia. They are, however, inscribed ‘Post Office’, whereas all later stamps are inscribed ‘Post Paid’. They are instantly recognisable and ever since the 1860s, when philately first became respectable, they have been sought and prized by kings, schoolboys and other collectors.

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Bibliomania is a disease that has afflicted men, and occasionally women, in many walks of life. Some of the most famous cases have been extremely wealthy bachelors, like Richard Heber in England and David Scott Mitchell in Australia, whose only interest in life was collecting books and manuscripts. At the other end of the spectrum have been men who were leaders in business, the professions or politics, yet who still had the time, energy and money to amass huge collections. Sir John Ferguson in Australia, John Pierpont Morgan and Henry Huntington in America, William Gladstone in England and Sir George Grey in New Zealand fall into the latter category.

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