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At one point when I was haunting the second-hand bookshops I sought out volumes by their size. I had got it into my head that there was something particularly attractive about an earlier type of pocketbook, that is, a book you could easily carry around in your pocket. More often than not they were hardback, which marked them out from their modern equivalents, and occasionally, if fortune smiled, they would still have a dust-wrapper. The Thinker’s Library was one series, boasting titles such as Wells’s A Short History of the World and Mill’s On Liberty and fitting – just – into a jacket pocket for reading on the tube or train; and another was To-day and To-morrow, a set of similar pint-sized tomes with the additional appeal of being bound in plum-coloured boards.

It was in the course of pursuing members of the To-day and Tomorrow series that I happened upon the intriguingly titled – and subtitled – and authored – Lars Porsena or the Future of Swearing, by Robert Graves.

Lars Porsena of Clusium,
By the nine Gods he swore

was the reference (from Macaulay’s Horatius at the Bridge). The future of swearing, what a wonderful subject. I looked forward to learning more: since the book was blessedly short, at 94 pages, 22 lines a page and only 6 words a line, finishing it wouldn’t require many train journeys. And not only to learning but also to an hour or possibly two of literary pleasure. I had read Goodbye to All That, Graves’s great memoir of his service in the First World War, and knew how well he could write. I recalled, too, from that other book a passage on the ordinary soldiers’ wearisome use of a four-letter expletive still so current today. Graves should certainly have interesting things to say on the subject.

And the book is still a good read. Graves is sharp, witty, with a mischievous sense of humour. It is fair to say that the second half has stood the t

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About the contributor

Anthony Wells spent half a lifetime working for the BBC Monitoring Service and the Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library and now divides what remains between freelance writing and running a small business.

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