At the end of Book Two of the Iliad, in the famous catalogue of the Greek and Trojan forces, the Carians, allies of Troy, led by their chief Nastes, are referred to as barbarophonoi, literally ‘of barbarian (i.e. non-Greek) speech’. Since barbaros (an onomatopoeic term suggesting babble, which does not occur in Homer) meant ‘one who does not speak Greek’, Homer’s compound word – the only occurrence in the Iliad of any derivative of barbaros – is pleonastic, or perhaps overemphatic or fussy (according to G.S. Kirk’s Commentary, it is also ‘surprising’, because the land of the Carians was inhabited by Mycenaean Greeks toward the end of the Bronze Age’). Not speaking Greek might signify other forms of outlandishness, including primitive habits and wild or uncivilised behaviour, and the subsequent history of the term ‘barbarian’ in various languages has been ethnocentric in a sense which tended to link civilised status with possession of the approved dominant language (first Greek, then Latin, followed by the various world-languages of later imperial hegemonies). ‘Barbarian’ and ‘barbarous’ are now typically used to suggest the savage or uncivilised without any strong consciousness of a linguistic factor, but the history of modern encounters with ‘primitive’ peoples, from 16th-century Amerindians to the various subject races of more recent colonial perspectives, shows that the barbarian has continued to be conceived as speaking a non-speech or ‘jabber’. And those who, like Montaigne, adopted the traditional ‘anti-colonialist’ or relativist counter-argument that the barbarians were less barbaric than their conquerors were fond of suggesting, in a table-turning appeal to etymology, that Amerindian languages resembled, or might have been related to, Greek.
‘Barbarian’ is thus a term fraught with nuances, crude in the intentions of its use but calling for delicate decoding, especially in translations of foreign texts of distant times and places. Richmond Lattimore, the more or less canonical translator of Homer in our time, renders barbarophonoi as ‘of the outland speech’. This has a mannered inelegance, typical of the less happy moments of this thoughtful and sensitive translator – a little stiff and academic at times, but at his best still the Finest English translator I have read. I take it that his idea was to convey some element of general outlandishness while preserving a primary linguistic emphasis, something which A.T. Murray, the Loeb translator, whose function was to provide a no-frills prose version, achieved more economically in the words ‘uncouth of speech’. The relentlessly reader-friendly translation by Robert Fitzgerald departs from the usual reading to say the Carians were led by their chief ‘in their own tongue’. Robert Fagles, whose version aims at an idiomatic directness lacking in Lattimore, without the sacrifice of poetic force which is an almost inevitable feature of the literal Loeb translations, is the only one of the four to capture both the main linguistic sense and a suggestion of larger resonances with appropriate fidelity and thrust: ‘the Carians wild with barbarous tongues’. Fagles greatly admires Pope’s 18th-century translation, and seems here to have borrowed from it: ‘with mingled Clamors, and with barb’ rous Tongues’. The first half of Pope’s line anticipates a scene, a few lines later, at the beginning of the next book, of Trojan armies emitting noisy animal cries. There, as in other places in the Iliad, they are contrasted with the quiet, disciplined Greek forces, and suggestions arise of a loud multilingual chaos, more or less literally a Babel or a collective babble. Such multilingual situations, in another ancient stereotype, are a variant form of linguistic barbarism, an incommunicable multiplicity of speech effectively redefined as non-speech.
It is the Trojans’ armies taken collectively and including their assorted allies, and not the Trojans themselves, in so far as they operate as individual protagonists, who appear in this way. For the purposes of the poem, the Trojan leaders, and perhaps all Trojans proper, are able to communicate directly with the Greeks and with each other, in some fictional common tongue which is vaguely assumed to be Greek or the special formalised version of it which functions as an official epic idiom. In isolation from the allies Trojans are not barbarians in any ordinary sense, and have been seen by some as ‘honorary Greeks’. There is a tripartite ethnocentrism, more complex than any binary arrangement of a them-and-us kind, in which Trojans are seen as adversaries of appropriate standing, equal to Greeks or only slightly below them, while a third force of allied or mercenary riff-raff is contrasted with both main contestants.
Such a pattern is found, for example, in the Histories of the Greek Polybius, writing about the Punic Mercenary War, in which the Roman and Carthaginian camps are contrasted with the rabble of mercenary troops, undisciplined, multilingual, and (such imputations often go together) capable of cannibal atrocities. (Polybius was a historical source of Flaubert’s Salammbô, which outdoes Montaigne’s reversal by seeing all parties as barbaric).
Cannibalism is a subdued theme in the Iliad, though it appears more significantly than is sometimes recognised, but the specific point about the Trojans and their allies in Books Two and Three and elsewhere is what Pope referred to as their ‘mingled Clamor’. His words anticipate in Book Two what Homer makes more explicit in the opening of Book Three, where Pope in turn ‘softens’ (his own term in another context) the impression of Homeric disorder which he had already inserted earlier, with its enhanced intimation of brutish behaviour beyond any limited conception of linguistic foreignness.
In addition to his well-justified borrowing of Pope’s ‘barbarous tongues’ in Book Two, Fagles uses the B-word a number of times in his own right. In this he also follows a habit of Pope’s, though not in the same places or to the same effect. Pope almost always uses such terms, in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, to refer to foreign (including Trojan) or outlandish places and people, though in two passages in the Iliad they are applied to a Greek: once when Idomeneus insults Little Ajax as ‘Barb’rous of Words’, and once when Hecuba denounces the ‘Barbarities’ Achilles has committed on her son Hector (a special case to which I shall return). Fagles by contrast applies the term to Achilles, not only in speeches by individual characters but in the official narrative voice, a practice which is insensitive in its cumulative as well as its local effects.
In two places in Book Twenty, Achilles is described as uttering, in the words of the Loeb translator, ‘a terrible cry’ (smerdalea iachon). Fagles translates the adjective first as ‘barbaric’ and then as ‘savage’, presumably as part of his project of playing down formulaic repetitions which would not appear natural to a modern reader. Other modern translators, including Lattimore and Fitzgerald, as well as Pope, have varied what Homer repeated, while the Loeb translator uses the same phrase in both places. None of them uses the B-word in either place. Elsewhere, in Books Twenty-Two and Twenty-Four, Fagles speaks of Achilles as ‘bursting with rage, barbaric’, or ‘like some lion/going his own barbaric way’, where the other four translators use other terms.
The last passage is one of several in the Iliad where heroes are compared to wild beasts. They embody a familiar ambivalence, especially problematic for modern readers not culturally predisposed to heroic sympathies, in which admiration of warlike ferocity competes with a recoil from cruelties considered inhuman or bestial. The ambivalence lies at the heart of all responses to heroic literature, though the exact proportions of sympathy vary from text to text as well as from passage to passage or reader to reader. It has traditionally been felt to carry a special charge with respect to Achilles. Addison’s famous comment in 1712 that Achilles was ‘Morally Vicious, and only Poetically Good’ is a simplified expression of this, trying to come to terms with the unsettling murderousness of the Homeric world by way of a distinction between the order of art and that of the life it portrays or celebrates. The manoeuvre was characteristic of a moment in the history of the European conscience when admiration of the great Classical epics as a summit of poetic endeavour was being sustained, with a faltering tenacity, in the face of a growing uneasiness over epic morality. It is the period when mock-heroic flourished, perhaps for the only time in history, as one of the great poetic forms, practised by the best writers in their most considerable works, and expressing a loyalty to epic hedged by ironic obliquity and a not wholly regretful sense that the lowered modern reality fell short of dangerous grandeurs. Within a century or less the dominant or most impressive voices would be those of forthright rejection, Blake (in a passage Fagles quotes) saying that the classics of the old culture were desolating Europe with wars, or Byron insisting that the murderousness of real wars and that of the Homeric epic were one and the same thing.
Addison seems to have regarded Achilles as a special case, more extreme than others. The hero’s ‘bestial’ side is acknowledged in Fagles’s rendering, and also in the (outstandingly helpful) introduction by Bernard Knox, who speaks of the analogy of the lion ‘going his own barbaric way’ as one in which Achilles is seen as ‘the lower extreme of Aristotle’s alternatives – a beast’. The perception is here Apollo’s, not Homer’s, and is that of a Trojan sympathiser, dwelling on the enemy’s baser nature. But the term is elsewhere used by Fagles in the poet’s own narrative, and is a questionable choice in either context. Trojans tend especially to think of Achilles as savagely cruel, and translators often seem uneasy with certain Homeric nuances on this matter. Perhaps we don’t think of savagery as a matter of nuances, and perhaps ‘savage’ would have been preferable to ‘barbaric’ in the places where Fagles uses the latter word, a comparable all-purpose counterpart in modern idiomatic usage, but clumsy in a context preoccupied with distinctions between Greeks and foreigners.
There are also occasions when Fagles uses ‘savage’ with an opposite clumsiness, as a term too general to pick up a local Homeric signal, and in a way which bears specifically on the issue of ‘barbarism’. In Book Twenty-Four the Trojan queen Hecuba expresses to Priam her hatred of Achilles for his cruel treatment of Hector, and exclaims: ‘would to god / that I could sink my teeth in his liver, eat him raw!’ A few lines earlier, she calls him ‘that savage, treacherous man’, but the word Fagles (along with other translators, including Lattimore and Fitzgerald, as well as Murray the Loeb translator) translates as ‘savage’ is omestes, ‘eater of raw flesh’. The idiomatic force of that term in Homeric Greek, like that of ‘barbaric’ in modern English, is doubtless roughly equivalent to ‘savage’, but it retains a more literal precision in a passage in which the speaker herself is about to express a wish to eat Achilles’s liver raw for having left the corpse of her son to feed ‘wild dogs’. Pope, who is strongly given to sanitising his original, effectively irons omestes out of his rendering and omits Hecuba’s wish to eat Achilles’s liver. Pope allows her to refer in general terms to the ‘Barbarities’ of Achilles, and his note to the passage cites Eustathius to the effect that Hecuba’s ‘Discourse ... is exceedingly natural’ in aggravating ‘the features of Achilles’: she draws him ‘in the fiercest Colours, like a Barbarian, and calls him omestes’.
Hecuba’s description of Achilles as omestes thus connects ironically with her own further words in the same speech, and Pope’s (not Homer’s) insistence on her calling Achilles barbaric overlooks a clear Homeric signal that it is she, not Achilles, who is the barbarian if anyone is. Her speech also connects with an earlier speech of Achilles himself in Book Twenty-Two, in response to Hector’s plea that if he dies Achilles should not leave his corpse for the dogs to devour. Achilles replies by calling Hector himself a dog, and adds that he will make no deal, that he wishes that ‘my rage, my fury would drive me now/ to hack your flesh away and eat you raw,’ that Hector’s father and mother will not be able to prevent his fate, and that he will indeed be left as food for dogs and birds of prey. The reference to raw eating reverberates from one passage to the next. It is given particular prominence in the Greek text of Book Twenty-Two, where the word for ‘raw’ (om) stands with heavy emphasis at the beginning of a line. The special point, sometimes overlooked, is that Achilles, for all his ‘savagery’, not only does not commit any such deed, but strictly neither threatens nor wishes to. His point is that his hatred is such that he wishes he could bring himself to wish such a thing, but that enraged as he is, he yet has insufficient menos and thumos (Fagles’s ‘rage’ and ‘fury’) even to have this wish.
Since the two speeches are closely parallel in their essential details, the contrast seems pointed, and seems to imply that it is foreigners, not Greeks, who are given to such (almost literally unspeakable) behaviour. Although the foreignness or ‘barbarism’ of the Trojans is a problematic issue, extending literally to the unresolved question of whether or not, unlike their more outlandish allies, they speak Greek, they clearly retain a residual taint of ‘barbarism’. That residue is especially likely to make itself felt in any radical comparison with the Greeks, a fact which highlights the inappropriateness of Fagles’s repeated use of ‘barbaric’ to describe Achilles, once in a passage preceding his speech to Hector by only thirty-odd lines. The use of the more broadly generalised ‘savage’ would have been preferable in all these cases, but the use of ‘savage’ for Hecuba’s omestes is inappropriate in an equal and opposite way, because its generality blurs the resonance of ‘raw-eating’ – a substantive part, of the Homeric effect in both passages.
The merit of Fagles’s translation over Lattimore’s is not of a more sensitive fidelity to the original but of a sharper feeling for English expression on those occasions when Lattimore’s fidelities become ungainly, as in the rendering of barbarophonoi. Another example from Book Two occurs in the scene where Odysseus beats the foul-mouthed Thersites, causing a bloody welt between his shoulders and bringing tears to his eyes. The Greek troops were dispirited, but they rejoiced in Thersites’s come-uppance, and Lattimore’s version, ‘Sorry though the men were they laughed over him happily,’ misleadingly implies that they might have been sorry for Thersites, whereas Fagles gets it right without fuss: ‘Their morale was low but the men laughed now.’ Pope elaborates Thersites’s wound and his tears in a quite unHomeric orchestration which leaves out the reference to the Greeks’ low morale.
In Kings, Christopher Logue’s rewriting of Books One and Two (a kind of sequel to his War Music, 1981, a version of Books Sixteen to Nineteen), the line is rendered: ‘And as it is with soldiers, / Sad as we were a laugh or two went up.’ Two changes stand out, which are emblematic of the character of his version. The first is the wiseacre prosiness of the opening words, which have no equivalent in Homer, and whose jumpily knowing style was already present in Logue’s earlier book. The second is ‘we’, in which the Homeric narrator becomes a participant in the action, and numbers himself among the common soldiers: a transformation evidently designed to be set against his largely non-participatory character in the original, and the Homeric tendency virtually to ignore the existence of personages lower than heroes. War Music gave the impression of an Iliad rewritten by Thersites, but both it and Kings (which includes the Iliad’s only Thersitcan episode) have an even lowlier and more anonymous narrator than that. As one of the unnamed soldiery in Kings, he offers a critique of heroic behaviour, puncturing pretensions of valour, eloquence and rank, and ‘democratising’ the epic’s range of social reference.
The issue of unnamed soldiers who got killed in battles but were left out of poems was one which exercised critics of epic poetry in the 18th century, and seems to have been closely tied to a decline in the standing of military epic and the old heroic ethos. Byron was to make much of it in Don Juan, where the account of the Siege of Ismail includes lists of common soldiers, Russians with ‘names ... of twelve consonants apiece’ and ‘several Englishmen of pith, / Sixteen call’d Thomson and nineteen named Smith’, whose deaths go unrecorded by the epic muse and who are so numerous that Byron has to leave most of them to be listed in the official necrologies.
Byron’s Don Juan is full of Homeric allusions, both loyal and jeering, and his handling of the all-but-anonymous Thomsons and Smiths has a bearing on Homer’s handling of Thersites, the only named low-class character in the Iliad (and also, as we are told in Kirk’s Commentary, the only named character in the poem who is not also given either a patronymic or a place of origin: Logue, however, repeatedly calls him Thersites of Euboea). Thersites is the main carrier in Homer of an anti-heroic perspective, and the poet’s treatment of him is adversarial and de haut en bus. But this does not seem to imply wholesale dismissal. The home-truths Thersites delivers about Agamemnon, for example, are similar to, and sometimes taken as a parody of, those which Achilles delivers in Book One, so that the discredit attaching to them may have less to do with their substance, or at least with any radical untenability, than with the character of the speaker and the subversive implications of allowing low persons to express such views. As Pope put it, Homer ‘rebuk’d the Seditious in the Person of Thersites’. The treatment of Thersites by Odysseus follows precisely the scenario spelt out a few lines earlier for dealing with low-born as distinct from lordly cowards, of the class Fitzgerald and Fagies translate as ‘common soldier’, and the Loeb translator and Lattimore as ‘man of the people’. Pope gives ‘clam’rous vile Plebeian’, anticipating the ‘mingled Clamors’ of the barbarians at the end of Book Two, in a not unusual assimilation of the lower orders to foreign savages.
Byron’s jeering has extraordinary bite. It retains a patrician aloofness from the lowly Thomsons and Smiths, but its ironic levities hardly muffle the pathos of multiple deaths on the battlefield. The persiflage surrounding the killing of ‘Tchitchitzkoff and Smith, / One of the valorous “Smiths” whom we shall miss, / Out of those nineteen who late rhymed to “pith” ’, seems to signal that the plebeian dead, though duly recorded and itemised, are a generalised mass kept at arm’s length. The pity and injustice of their fate is registered with the lordly sarcasm of one who regards the whole proceeding as low, but who isn’t going to surrender his composure by entering into the minds or doings of the soldiery, any more than Homer does. They remain, in every sense, other ranks, but it’s part of Byron’s sarcasm that their deaths are due to the bungling callousness of their leaders, the high heroes who sacrifice thousands of lives which they find it expedient to keep anonymous and unsung. The lowness imputed by his lordly accents extends especially to these heroes, and the ostensible nonchalance of his tone is partly a mimicry of their self-promoting unconcern.
An abundant war-literature recording persons who would once have belonged to the class of unsung heroes has come into existence since Byron’s time, neutralising part of his complaint. The common soldier’s point of view is well adapted to Logue’s critique of hierarchic mystification, crude privilege, and heroic disregard for other lives. But his jaunty adoption of a Thersitean perspective becomes a kind of ego-trip, basking in the insolent self-abasements of the worm’s eye view. The collective soldierly ‘we’ also projects an autobiographical presence, with self-preoccupied gesturing and accesses of information-sharing:
As in the spring of 1961
Elly and Hugo Claus and I
Smoked as we watched
The people of the town of Skopje
Stroll back and forth across their fountained square,
Safe in their murmur on our balcony,
One dusk, not long before an earthquake tipped
Themselves and their society aside.
It’s a mode that Byron also practised in Don Juan, as when he says his hero was a good swimmer, who
could, perhaps, have pass’d the Hellespont, As once (a feat on which ourselves we prided) Leander, Mr Ekenhead, and I did.
This is a genial self-disclosure which comes over without any of Logue’s portentous pathos or the sense that he and his friends are plugged into the convulsions of the cosmos. (The ‘feat’ of swimming the Hellespont is incidentally one which Byron performed in 1810, in the company of Ekenhead, a marine lieutenant, soon after reading, on location as he believed, parts of the Iliad which are the subject of Logue’s ministrations in Kings).
Logue’s self-disclosures and buttonholings are sticky with Shandean self-regard as Byron’s, with their hard-edged jokeyness, arc not. War Music, which like Kings was written for broadcasting, is full of master-of-ceremonies routines of the order of: ‘See if you can imagine how it looked.’ The hors texte jargon of film-scripts (‘Cut to Fleet’) is introduced into the body of the poem, turning impersonal technicality into a pseudo-intimate sleeve-pulling. War Music began with factitiously urgent nudging – ‘Now hear this’ – and in Kings the nudging has turned lyrical: ‘Think of the east Aegean sea by night.’ Classicists have admired Logue’s poem, down to this vacuous lyricism (‘strikingly quaint and memorable’, ‘nobility’), with an enthusiasm that says less about their freedom from professional pedantry than about their insensitiveness to their own language.
Logue is short-winded and works best in brief encapsulations. Thersites looms much larger in Kings as a whole than he does even within the circumscribed space of Homer’s Book Two. Even so, the strong glimpses of him are in short phrases, as when Nestor is made to refer to his ‘eczema words’. Coming from the wise and gentle old Greek, the words acquire an added charge of forceful exacerbated precision:
Thersites of Euboea, blustering rat;
Pe’leus’ son, Achilles;
To link them in a sentence is to lie.
This is a way of making vivid the Homeric distinction between what Thersites says about Agamemnon and what Achilles says. The distinction is one which Logue’s version is dedicated to subverting, but he correctly judged that it has to be retained at some level if the undermining of the heroic ethos is to be something more than the discrediting of a straw man. Giving the words to a respected elder, and in the genuine accents of an exasperation driven to forthright and undignified exactitudes of abuse, ensures that the alternative case is heard in strength without also being conceded by the poet. Discriminations too obvious to need explanation in Homer’s world need to be strenuously brought to light, and simultaneously neutralised, and Logue’s dramatic gifts appear at their best here.
So Nestor insists, with a bald urgency, on Agamemnon’s entitlement even to an unfair share of the spoils over which he and Achilles arc quarrelling:
Do not tell me he has enough.
I know he has enough.
But that is how he is. Requiring.
Furthermore – it is his due ...
You are part dust, part deity.
But he is king.
The flipside of this is the sarcasm of Thersites, ‘God is on Agamemnon’s side,’ and Odysseus is made to throw the sarcasm back at Thersites with a literal force: ‘God is on Agamemnon’s side’ Odysseus then, ‘turning his voice on us’ (the ‘us’ which amalgamates the soldiers and Logue’s own adopted voice), raises the issue of ‘popular’ government, a Homeric bugbear:
So keep your democratic nonsense to yourselves,
And when your betters speak to you – obey
... Or would you have Thersites as your king?
Actually, Thersites’s original sarcasm also had a literal force, God indeed is on the side of the Greek princes, and ‘we’ have no illusions as to the fact, and its malignant agency. The discredit traditionally attaching to the Homeric deities since Plato’s time is readjusted to a ‘democratic’ view of them as friends of the bosses and enemies of the people, whose opium religion is. The gods, in old-style syncretic fashion, are from time to time identified with God, but it’s an inverse or negative syncretism, not designed to exalt the gods by assimilating them to the Christian scheme, as in the Renaissance version, but to lay bare the whole divine scam. The petty wilfulnesses of Olympian behaviour as Homer portrayed it are replaced by a sanctimonious and overbearing tyrannical pomp. Zeus, ‘The one plain King, our God, the Shepherd of the Clouds’, combines the windy vacuousness of Wallace Stevens’s ‘mythy’ Jove (a ‘muttering king’, who ‘in the clouds had his inhuman birth’) with unctuously Christianised properties of God the Father (‘our Father, God’), the Good Shepherd, and such.
This celestial loucheness has worldly analogues, or, if you like, a secular arm, in Agamemnon, ‘Paramount Agamemnon, King of Kings, / Lord of both Mainland and of Island Greece’, a version of Mitterrand as Dieu. He is made in God’s image and no wonder God is on his ‘side’, a deadly collusive scam whose Christian overtones are insistently identified as the disreputable ones. God is always squalid, while ‘the gods’ may in some contexts be an honorific term:
Do not tell Agamemnon honour is
No mortal thing, but ever in creation,
Vital, free, like speed, like light,
Like silence, like the gods!
Achilles is speaking, and his scathing view of the rival chieftain isn’t at first allowed to dent the ‘lyricism’ of this tribute to heroic integrity. This is as close as Logue gets to allowing a positive celebration of that, and it is not only played off against the version ascribed to Agamemnon, but also redefined in largely unmilitary terms as a kind of lyricised vitalism. It’s a relief that Logue eventually gets round to deflating that too, or offering a lowered perspective:
‘He is so beautiful’.
‘Without him we are lost.’
The string of choric responses opens with a liturgical sarcasm, followed by mincing paeans which suggest that there is camp in the Greek camp. Compare War Music, for both ingredients:
You overreached yourself, Patroclus.
Yes, my darling.
Not only God was out that day but Lord Apollo.
It’s as though Peter Ackroyd were chronicling the capers of an order of warrior monks. Achilles bitches on about ‘Cuntstruck Agamemnon’, while the narrator refers to himself and his fellow soldiers as ‘we normals’. Gods and Trojans are similarly campy. Zeus refers to Paris as ‘my best boy, poor, pretty, Trojan Ganymede’. Andromache asks her husband Hector why Aeneas takes ‘a boy / As young as Manto in his car’. Hector replies, ‘Aeneas is my business,’ a dark hint to which Andromache responds in kind, ‘My lord, you never yet / Treated me like a woman.’
Aeneas’s ‘car’ puns on the older sense of that term, sometimes used by translators, including Fagles, for Homeric war-chariots. Earlier, the boy Manto is asked if he has killed his first Greek yet. He replies, ‘When the car stopped I shot one in the back,’ a reminder that heroic prowess has much in common with the gangster virtues – a truism familiar to Fielding’s Jonathan Wild, and mythologised in some of its campier aspects by Auden and Isherwood. There’s a sense, in some of Logue’s updatings, of trying to do to Homer what Apocalypse Now did with Heart of Darkness, down to the odd helicopter. On the other hand, when Manto is asked who was driving the car, the question is put in the form: ‘Who had the reins?’ The jokey anachronism is jokily dispelled, but not the leering intimacies of Aenean hanky-panky (Trojan love?). Other updatings, more or less apt and amusing, and sometimes a little dated, involve the style of political discourse. A priest of Aphrodite speaks to Priam like some liberal cleric opposed to star wars (‘some here would garrison the clouds / In case we are invaded from the moon’), while Hector sounds like Khrushchev (remember?): ‘I shall bury Greece.’ Perhaps the aptest updating is the description of Homeric cookery: a ‘barbecue/Of fat-wrapped thigh-cuts topped with lights’.
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