How to Sound Cultured | Book Review

HOW TO SOUND CULTURED from Thomas W. Hodgkinson and Hubert van den Bergh is a somewhat comical self help/ gift book that talks about 250 people in history that have a story, supposedly knowing these names and the stories of scandal will assist you in fitting in better in society. Kernel Fiona Fyfe reviews this 400 page comical read that released from the fine folks at Allen and Unwin Book Publishers last December. You should be able to find this in the non-fiction section of most bookstores or you can obtain it HERE. Enjoy Fi’s review…….all the best……..JK.


Hugh Bergh and Thomas Hodgkinson have written a book aimed at gentrifying and culturally educating their readers. The blurb explains in sympathetic tones that no longer will you have to feel excluded from dinner party conversation or intellectual exchanges. Once you have acquainted yourself with the myriad of cultural and historical figures in this book, instead of looking blankly at your companions or mistaking Francis Bacon for a cousin of Kevin’s, you will be well equipped to contribute intelligently in whatever salubrious circles you may find yourself in.

As the title suggests, there is an emphasis here on “sounding” cultured. Never mind that you might have just lit up a Winny Blue from the packet you keep in the sleeve of your rolled up flannelette shirt or that your car is adorned with hanging dice and a big-ass exhaust, the authors promise that even if you’re closer to bogan than Baudelaire, you’ll know your stuff.

Superficiality and frivolous comment aside, HOW TO SOUND CULTURED mostly achieves what its authors set out to do. That is to fill in the gaps of our high school or secondary study educations and rescue us from that embarrassing label of social buffoon. That’s not to say that all of the names in this book are enthralling but there’s enough scandal and interesting tit bits of historical relevance to save it from being just another list of who’s who.


How to Sound Cultured Book Cover Image


The authors have taken a mostly comical approach to the writing of HOW TO SOUND CULTURED. They have tended to meld facts with sarcasm and each entry ends by segueing into the next name. I was pleased to see that literary god Paul Auster was treated with respect despite the book’s facetious style. Alcoholism and accompanying falls from grace or general shenanigans also feature largely but then I guess this is to be expected when one is talking about artists, writers and other bohemians. While quite a number of the names will be familiar to many readers, it was the occasional odd or little-known facts that were the most interesting of all.

I wasn’t aware for example that Hitler’s favourite muso, Richard Wagner (1813-83) was credited with practically inventing modern music. Somehow it’s hard to connect his dramatic and dirgeful compositions with anything that’s made it onto the charts in the last 200 years. Similarly, it was news to me as a psychology major that psychiatrist Robert Laing (1927-89) had regarded schizophrenia as a mere theory and that he had once stripped naked to sit with a mute schizophrenic woman, also naked, as a means of therapy. When I read on and was reminded of his massive alcohol consumption, it all made more sense.

There are some brave descriptions in HOW TO SOUND CULTURED. For instance, the rather renegade reference to Ernest Hemingway’s novels (1899-1961) as mostly “hit and miss” and the claim that writer and wit Gore Vidal (1925-2012) was a “pansexual” who enjoyed “annoying the hell out of people.” The delightfully naughty exploits of many of the writers are superbly entertaining. Norman Mailer (1923-2007) is referred to as a pot-smoking boozer who famously stabbed his second wife and decked Gore Vidal. And who knew that novelist Edith Wharton was better known amongst friends as “Pussy”Jones?


Hubert Bergh and Thomas W. Hodgkinson image
Hubert Bergh and Thomas W. Hodgkinson image from Telegraph UK Website


Most of the figures in HOW TO SOUND CULTURED do not escape the high beam of the spotlight on their flaws and foibles or the skeletons in their closets. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) is criticised for designing buildings that are impractical with leaking roofs and blunt shapes. Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) is said to have seduced her female pupils and then passed them on to her long term beau, the “swivel-eyed midget Jean-Paul Sartre.” Author and women’s rights campaigner, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) is vaguely outed as a lesbian who went on to become involved with men before twice attempting suicide over one of her lovers and then ingloriously dying in childbirth.

Culture and etiquette aside, what is abundantly clear (and in a somewhat bizarre way, quite comforting), is that if history can teach us anything, it’s that the more things change the more they stay the same. Celebrities, fashionistas, philosophers, authors, activists and artists are still behaving outrageously, are still boozing, gambling, sleazing, drug taking and suiciding in the twenty first century.

For every Miley Cyrusesque wacko, history can show us an Edward Albee – the author who wrote of a man falling madly in love with a goat. For every vacuous Kardashian, there is an Oscar Wilde – a novelist married with two children who liked to consort with male prostitutes. So as you bone up on your cultural knowledge, don’t forget to revel in the mayhem, muck-raking and mental illness of it all.


3 Pops


Kernel Fiona was a criminal defence lawyer in a former life and now critiques books and writes short stories. She can’t resist spending large tracts of time in libraries, book shops and at writer’s festivals. Hopelessly in love with the written word, she told JK when applying for a writing position that “I would rather read then breathe” – I knew I had my next reviewer right then. You can catch her and her tweets at @FionaJayneFyfe1

** All images courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the publisher – credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.