When as a boy I read Our Mutual Friend, I was much struck by the character of Silas Wegg, “a literary man,” as Nicodemus Boffin, his proud employer, put it, “with a wooden leg.” It seemed to me then that all of Dickens’s genius was in the italicization of the word “with,” for by that simple expedient he exposed the joyous absurdity of supposing an incompatibility between the practice of literature and a prosthetic lower limb: the kind of absurdity to which Mankind is much given. A literary man with a wooden leg is completely different from a literary man with a wooden leg. The wooden leg in the latter case is an additional accomplishment.
I don’t know why, but the character of Silas Wegg suddenly came into my mind recently in the Poetry Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, which claims to be, and I’m sure actually is, the largest second-hand bookshop devoted to poetry in the British Isles (I know of no other). I regard the owners of such specialist bookshops as the unsung heroes of our culture, for surely neither wealth nor fame can have been their aim in life; they are self-consciously the guardians and conservators of our heritage.