Saturday, September 24, 2016

Puppeteer extraordinary

‘I love it!. I’ve always enjoyed cars - and I enjoy being in love with my car.’ This is the famous US puppeteer, Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, not least Kermit the Frog, writing in his rather sparse journal about a brand-new Kermit-green Lotus given him by a UK TV impresario. Henson would have been 80 today had he not been struck down in his early 50s by a sudden illness - but his company, involving most of his children, continues to flourish, as do Kermit and other Muppets.

Henson was born in the US state of Mississippi, about 100km north of Jackson, on September 24, 1936, and raised as a Christian Scientist. His family moved to University Park, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., in the late 1940s. While still attending school, he began working for a television company making puppets for a children’s programme. At the University of Maryland, he began studying art but switched to home economics which allowed him to study craft and textiles. For WRC-TV, he created a five-minute puppet show, Sam and Friends, in which he introduced Muppet characters, including Kermit the Frog. Henson travelled in Europe for a while, where he was inspired by the way puppetry could be seen as an art form; and, on returning to the US, he married Jane Nebel. They would go on to have five children.

Henson stayed with WRC until 1961. The popularity of Sam and Friends meant Henson was in demand as a guest on talk shows and his puppets were in demand for commercials. In 1963, he moved with Jane to New York City where they set up Muppets Inc. Henson started experimenting with making his own films; around the same time one of his Muppets, Rowlf, began making regular appearances on a networked programme, The Jimmy Dean Show. In 1969, Henson and his team were invited to work full-time on Sesame Street, a public television programme that would soon revolutionise children’s television. Apart from creating and performing the puppets, Henson was also involved in producing the programmes. 

During the 1970s, Henson’s team expanded to provide more adult entertainment, providing sketches for the groundbreaking comedy series Saturday Night Live. But, in 1976, rebuffed by American television companies for his idea of an adult variety show in solving Muppets, he moved his team to London, where Lew Grade, at ATV, was far more enthusiastic. The resulting programme - The Muppet Show - was a huge success, ran for five series and spawned several films: The Muppet Movie was the first film to feature puppets interacting with humans in real-world locations.

In 1982, Henson founded the Jim Henson Foundation to promote and develop the art of puppetry in the United States. That same year, his non-Muppet film, The Dark Crystal, co-directed with his colleague Frank Oz, who he had first recruited as a puppet performer in 1963, was a financial and critical success. However, a few years later, the Henson-directed Labyrinth was considered a commercial failure (later, though, it became a cult classic). Henson and Jane separated but remained close, as did their children who also worked with the Muppets. Other films followed, and a TV series, The Jim Henson Hour, and Henson was on the cusp of selling his firm to The Walt Disney Company for $150m when he died suddenly in 1990 from toxic shock syndrome. Further biographical details are available from The Jim Henson Company, Wikipedia,, or ADC.

Henson was no diarist, but he did keep brief handwritten notes for much of his life in a journal book. This was published for the first time in 2012 by Chronicle Books as Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal (and some pages can previewed at Googlebooks or Amazon). In the book, the short, brief entries have been supplemented hugely with illustrations put together by Karen Falk. In a foreword, Lisa Henson, Jim Henson’s oldest child, says: ‘The great profusion of images, titles, and characters that [Falk] has used to illustrate my father’s journal is a wonderful way to capture Jim’s very busyness - his wildly creative mind.’

Henson’s diary has also been used by Brian Jay Jones in his recent biography - Jim Henson: The Biography (Virgin Books, 2013). The New York Times called it ‘an exhaustive work that is never exhausting, a credit both to Jones’s brisk style and to Henson’s exceptional life’; but it also cautioned: ‘As strong as Jones is on Henson’s career, the man himself often remains out of sight, crouched just below the frame.’ Henson’s diary is referenced many dozens of time through the book, but most quotes from it are just two or three words long - reflecting the brevity of Henson’s diary entries. Most of verbatim quotes are embedded in Jones’s text, as in “Mom passed on,” he confided in his journal’ or ‘ “Received EMMY,” Jim wrote in his journal’. There are, though, a handful of slightly longer quotes (none dated), as follows:

‘My work schedule here is extremely full, [. . .] Work days usually start when I get up and go late into the evenings - shooting days end at 8 p.m. and often I’m meeting someone for dinner - business mostly. I go to ATV virtually every day . . . weekends I drop by the editing and sound dubbing.’

‘I don’t resent the long work time - I shouldn’t - I’m the one who set my life up this way - but I love to work. It’s the thing that I get the most satisfaction out of - and probably what I do best. Not that I don’t enjoy days off - I love vacations and loafing around. But I think much of the world has the wrong idea of working - it’s one of the good things in life - the feeling of accomplishment is more real and satisfying than finishing a good meal or looking at one’s accumulated wealth.’

‘Last night, I met the Queen of England - to dah!’ [At a Royal Variety Performance.]

‘I love it!. I’ve always enjoyed cars - and I enjoy being in love with my car.’ [On a brand-new Kermit-green Lotus with a license plate reading kermit given to him by Lord Grade.]

‘I really had a delightful time working on the concept - and talking it over with Cheryl - and it all gelled during that time, so that I’m quite happy with the way it has begun taking shape.’ [About The Dark Crystal.]

‘I’m trying to create this film in a different way, hoping to get all the creative elements going on it for a while before tying things down with a script.’ [About The Dark Crystal.]

‘It’s such a wonderful challenge to try to design an entire world ... like no one has ever seen before.’ [About The Dark Crystal.]

Friday, September 23, 2016

V happy with E

‘Oh E, how can I live separated from you? What have I done to us? If I stopped caring, I should never care for anything. If I stopped fearing this, I should fear nothing again.’ This is Charles Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat born 110 years ago today, writing in his diary - which he often did - of his love for the British writer Elizabeth Bowen. They lived very separate lives, often in different countries, and were both married, yet their passionate love for each other - documented in his diary and her letters - survived more than 30 years, indeed until Bowen’s death.

Ritchie was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 23 September 1906. His father, a lawyer and 25 years older than his mother, died when he was 10. He was educated at a series of schools, at least one in England, before moving on to spend a considerable amount of time at universities in Halifax, Oxford and Harvard. While still a teenager, he had received an unexpected letter from Sir Robert Borden, then Canada’s Prime Minister and his father’s former friend. In the letter, Borden explained that he was hoping to set up a Canadian foreign service, and he suggested that Ritchie might like to consider working there. Thus, in mid-1934, Ritchie joined the Department of External Affairs. His first posting abroad came in 1936, to Washington, and then in early 1939 he was transferred to London.

According to Ritchie (in The Siren Years - see below), wartime London was a forcing ground for love and friendship, and so it proved for himself. In 1941, he met and fell in love with the writer Elizabeth Bowen. She had been married for 18 years, and was seven years older than Ritchie who had never been married. Their relationship would last more than 30 years, for the rest of Bowen’s life, surviving past the death of Bowen’s husband and through Ritchie’s own marriage (to Sylvia Smellie), though they would never spend more than a week or so together at any one time. After the war, in the mid-1950s, Ritchie was promoted to ambassador in Germany.

Subsequently, Ritchie served as Canada’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1958-1962), as ambassador in Washington (1962-1966), and as High Commissioner in London (1967-1971). On retiring he returned to Ottawa though he continued as a special adviser to the Privy Council. He also began editing his diaries for publication. He died in 1995. There is a very little detailed information about Ritchie readily available online, despite his prominence as a Canadian diplomat and diarist, but see Wikipedia, The Canadian Encyclopedia, The Independent’s obituary, or this Robert Fulford article.

The first collection of diary extracts Ritchie put together was published by Macmillan (as were all his diaries) in 1974 under the title The Siren Years: Undiplomatic Diaries, 1937-1945. See Googlebooks for a  preview and The Captive Reader for a review and extracts. An Appetite for Life: The Education of a Young Diarist, 1924-1927 followed in 1977 (see Googlebooks for a preview), as did Diplomatic Passport: More Undiplomatic Diaries, 1946-1962 in 1981, and Storm Signals: More Undiplomatic Diaries 1962-1971 in 1983. A compendium of the undiplomatic diaries was brought out in 2008 by McClellan & Steward - see Amazon. Also in 2008, Simon & Schuster published Love’s Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, Letters and Diaries, 1941-1973, as edited by Victoria Glendinning with Judith Robertson. See The Guardian for an article by Glendinning on her book.

In his foreword to The Siren Years, Ritchie explains how he came to be a diarist: ‘It was with adolescence that the diary addiction fixed its yoke on me - a yoke which in the succeeding fifty years I have never been able entirely to shake off, although there have been merciful intervals of abstinence. The habit had begun even earlier - had sprouted furtively when I was a schoolboy. Its seed was perhaps already sown when I would write on the front of school books, Charles Stewart Almon Ritchie, King’s Collegiate School, Windsor, Nova Scotia, Canada, North America, The World, The Universe, September 23rd, 1918, 3:17 p.m. - an early compulsion to fix myself in space and in time. Once given over to this mania there was no cure for it. With obstinate obsessiveness I continued to scribble away. Now the toppling piles of my old diaries are mountains of evidence against me, but I still postpone the moment to destroy them. Their writing and subsequent concealment were intentionally secretive - to have them discovered and read would have meant to be caught in the practice of “solitary vice.” ’

The following extracts from Ritchie’s diaries are all taken from Love’s Civil War except the first, which comes from The Siren Years.

28 September 1938.
‘We are now on the very edge of war. Already my feelings have changed since I last wrote. Perhaps I am already beginning to suffer from war blindness. I feel more and more part of my generation and my country and less an individual.

The war offers us no ideal worth dying for - we make no sacrifice for a noble cause. We fight with no faith in the future. It is too late to pretend (though we shall pretend) that we are defending the sanctity of international obligations or the freedom of individuals. We are fighting because we cannot go on any longer paying blackmail to a gangster. Whoever wins, we who belong to what we call “twentieth century civilization” are beaten before we start. We have had our chance since 1918 to make a more reasonable and safer world. Now we have to go and take our punishment for having missed that chance. We have willed the ends but we have not willed the means to attain those ends. That must be our epitaph.

Here in America it is “business as usual.” Tonight I have been listening to the radio for hours. It reflects the stream of normal American existence, the advertising, the baseball games, the swing music, but every few moments this stream is interrupted by a press bulletin from Europe. More mobilizations. Hitler may march before morning. These warnings from another world give Americans shivers down their spine, make them draw the curtains closer and huddle around their own fireside thanking God that they are safe from the storm outside.’

18 October 1941
‘My bed smells of her over-sweet violet scent. It is queer that she uses such an obvious scent - the perfume that goes with blondes and floating veils and sentiment . . .

I am reading The Death of the Heart in her special edition. It is an exact description of her house and of her husband. The position of the sofa in the drawing-room, the electric fire in his ‘study’ are all described exactly as they are. What is alarming is the husband is an unsparing portrait of A. I read this novel with most curious feelings as ‘a work of the imagination’; it has been destroyed for me by my knowledge of the particular circumstances. . . . She took that from here, she copied that turn of speech, that must be so-and-so, these thoughts go through my mind as I am reading. It is like eating an elaborate dish after seeing the materials of which it is made up lying about in the kitchen, or being so near the ballet that you can see the make-up.’

20 February 1947
‘V happy with E. We have spent the weekend huddled over the weak radiator and the whiskey bottle or on the enormous ‘made for love’ bed. It’s like life on board ship, we sally out on the windswept deck-like boulevards for a ‘blow’ and are glad to be back in this cabin-like flat - which more than anything else is like a suite on a luxury liner.’

16 October 1949 [Hotel de la Paix, Geneva]
‘To understand one’s own destiny, to have some framework in which to see this floating shifting mass of experience, to chart these currents, these shocks and depths and dangerous rocks, not to die without knowledge. Oh E, how can I live separated from you? What have I done to us? If I stopped caring, I should never care for anything. If I stopped fearing this, I should fear nothing again. . . In a dim way I like this feeling of being alone and taking up this monologue. I miss my wife. I want her. I am waiting for her. Yet this time of recuperation is quietly, sadly pleasant.’

9 February 1952
‘I think that part of my reaction of boredom and distaste for Spender’s book comes from being reminded by it of countless pages of similar self-absorption in my own diaries. When I first knew E, I was surprised and rather disconcerted by her lack of concern with her own ‘interesting personality’. I found it difficult to accept when she, the leading psychological novelist of the day, told me that she was not interested in people and their motives and characters. I now understand what she meant. The exercise no longer amuses me. In fact it is only from obstinacy that I write this private diary at all.’

18 August 1952
‘With me love for a woman is always linked with a need to betray that love; a compulsion which I dread and desire. But there are times when that interminable dialogue of marriage seems interminable. It gives one a feeling of pure pain to think that it must go on and on and on. I am pretty sure that I should feel that whoever I had married.’

17 June 1956
‘Sad, lonely, undemanding letter from E. The truth is that I am anaesthetized to this existence, even quite enjoy it. Someone said I look ten years younger. I am all right if I keep going - much more cheerful than this diary shows.’

11 March 1957
‘I cannot describe the state I was in yesterday (can it have been only yesterday?) when I flew back from Ireland - the hallucinatory depression, the complete undermining of all confidence, the corroding guilt and sorrow. I never expected to feel all this again. E says that it is a ‘natural’ consequence of our parting, but it went much deeper than that. . . She says she can’t bear to think of me sealed away from life. I can’t bear to think of that myself, and it is true; but if that last day is life, can I bear it? She says she feels it is some deficiency in her love which drove me to it, but isn’t it some deficiency in me? No, this strain was too great. I cannot forgive myself for my impatience, my unlovingness, my dry irritability, my inability to accept. Yet I can entirely forgive myself. I understand and must never forget that all my cut and dried plans are the amusement of a bored man and bear no relation to reality. No, it was heart-breaking. How can I bear the memory of that last morning at the Shelbourne. How can I ever forget it. Surely I can’t go on as I did before, yet I feel that is just what I will do; that the scales will form over my eyes, that merciful banality will set me off from life in my Cologne Nursing Home. Oh Elizabeth!’

The Diary Junction

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The king of Madagascar

Maurice, Count de Benyovszky, was born 270 years ago today. A gloriously romantic figure, a nobleman who fought for different countries across Europe and during the American revolution, he was also the self-declared king of Madagascar, having claimed it, at various times, for France, Austria, and American business associates. He died, killed in a skirmish with the French, when only 39; nevertheless, he left behind a journal/memoir of his colourful life.

Benyovszky (spelled in various ways) was born into a noble family on 20 September 1746 in Verbó (then within Hungary, part of the Hapsburg Emprire, now near Trnava in Slovakia). His parents died when he was 14, and two years later he began his career as an officer of the Habsburg army during the Seven Years’ War. He became involved in a legal dispute over family inheritances, which led to him fleeing the country.

In 1768 Benyovszky joined the Confederation of Bar, a Polish national movement against Russian intervention. He was captured by the Russians, interned in Kazan, and later exiled to Kamchatka, in the east of Siberia. Before long, though, he had organised a rebellion of Polish prisoners, seized weapons as well as a Russian vessel. He sailed through the northern Pacific Ocean, landing at Taiwan, Macau (where he and the rebels exchanged their vessel) and Madagascar, reaching France in mid-1772, where he learned of his promotion to general in the Polish Confederation.

Benyovszky returned to Madagascar in 1774, with French royal approval and a large number of volunteers, to establish a colony. He set about unifying local tribes, building a fortified garrison with a hospital, and even introduced a Latin script for the language. Having been appointed governor by the French king, the island’s inhabitants named him emperor. On returning to France, he was made a French general and awarded the Order of Saint Louis. He became friends with Benjamin Franklin, in Paris at the time, and the Polish nobleman and military commander, Cazimir Pulaski. However, his further proposals for Madagascar were rejected by the French, and he returned to Central Europe. There, he obtained a pardon from the Austrian Empress and Queen of Hungary, Maria Teresa, who also promoted him to the status of Count in 1778. He was empowered to take control of Madagascar in the the name of Austria, though nothing seems to have come of this.

After serving in the Austrian army during the War of the Bavarian Succession, Benyovszky followed his friend Pulaski to the American colonies and fought on the side of the revolution. Pulaski is said to have died in his arms at the siege of Savannah, after which Benyovszky returned to Austria. In 1781, he was again in North America, and, with a plan to raise a body of German troops for America, was introduced to George and Mary Washington. Although initially well received, the plan failed to materialise. Back in Europe, he approached the British government to give support for an expedition to Madagascar, which was not forthcoming. With the help of Franklin and Hyacinth de Magellan, he founded an American-British company for trading with Madagascar. In 1785, he arrived once again on the island, where he developed a trade settlement (Mauritania, named after himself). The French, though, were outraged by his alliance with the Americans; and during one attack, in May 1786, Benyovszky was killed. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Slovakopedia, Polish History, or a website managed by the Benyovszky family.

In the early 1780s, Benyovszky gave his friend Magellan four volumes of memoirs written in French. Magellan had them translated into English and they were published for the first time in 1789. A century later, at the end of the 19th century, they were published again by T. Fisher Unwin as Memoirs and Travels of Mauritius Augustus Count de Benyowsky Magnate of the Kingdoms of Hungary and Poland, one of the Chiefs of the Confederation of Poland etc. etc. with an introduction, notes and bibliography by Captain S. Pasfield Oliver. This, and earlier editions, are freely available at Internet Archive. The memoir starts with a biographical account of Benyovszky’s early life, written in the third person but nonetheless inspired by Benyovszky himself. Benyovszky’s journal/memoir commences in January 1770 and finishes in late 1776. Some of the narrative does read like a journal, with dated entries, but more often it reads like a memoir written in retrospect (e.g. ‘On the 6th, in the Straits, we joined a Spanish armed frigate, named the Pallas; and on the 16th of March, we arrived safely in France.’) The following extracts come from the Oliver edition.

15 October 1771
‘On the 15th, the associates met by my order. I informed them, that I was assured that a number among them were discontented with me; for which reason 1 thought proper to declare to them, that all those who were desirous of seeking their fortune elsewhere, were at liberty to quit me; and that as they had all received a retribution at my hands at the island of Formosa, I thought myself acquitted from them. I had scarcely made an end, before Mr. Stephanow loaded me with invectives, and charged me with an intention of depriving the company of their share of the advantages I was about to receive, from the knowledge I had acquired during the voyage; and that the moderation I had shewn at Formosa, in delivering my share of the presents of Prince Huapo, was merely a scheme to deprive them of greater advantages. He then excited the companions to throw off my authority, by assuring them that he would secure them a large fortune the instant they should determine to put my papers in his hands, and follow his party. The infamous plot of this wretch was nothing extraordinary; hut when I understood that he was supported by Sir. Wynbladth, my ancient Major, the companion of my exile, and my friend, I was incapable of setting bounds to my indignation, and could not avoid declaring, that their proceedings were highly disgraceful; and to confound them, I displayed their secret projects to the company, and justified my words by shewing Mr. Jackson’s letter, which convinced them that Messrs. Stephanow and Wynbladth, under pretence of serving the company, were desirous of securing the five thousand pounds to their own use. They were highly irritated, and threatened them; but Stephanow preserved a party of eleven, with whom he went to my lodgings; and while I remained in conversation with my friends, he seized my box, in which he supposed my papers were deposited. As soon as I heard of this outrage, I went to his chamber, followed by twenty associates; and as he refused to open the door, I broke it down. On my entrance he fired a pistol at me, which missed. In consequence of this attempt, I gave orders for seizing and keeping him in strict confinement; and as it was necessary likewise to secure Mr. Wynbladth, I went to his chamber; but he had retired into the garden, armed with a pair of pistols and a sabre. I determined to shut him in, being convinced that he could not get over the walls on account of their great height. This whole affair passed without the least alarm without, as the doors of the house were shut.’

16 October 1771
‘On the 16th, Mr. Wynbladth, fatigued by a continual rain, and perhaps urged by hunger, requested forgiveness, and surrendered himself to two companions I had appointed to watch him. Having thus made sure of these two turbulent men, I thought it proper they should be separated from the company; and they were therefore conducted to the castle by permission of the Governor: the officers of our company, being desirous of avenging themselves on the English emissaries, played them a trick, the whole effect of which fell upon a Jewish agent, who was severely flogged. Upon this wretch there were found minutes of proposals which he made to the companions, as follow:
1. That the English would pay to each associate one thousand piastres, in case they would serve the company, and put my papers in his hands.
2. That in case the associates refused to take the English party, the company would arrest them by force, in the name of the Empress of Russia, to deliver them up.
3. That the company would answer for obtaining the Empress’s pardon for them, if they would determine to make a voyage to Japan, and the Aleuthes Islands.

Such proceedings cannot attributed to men of sense. It was in my opinion a forgery, concerted between Mr. Stephanow and the Jew, to excite the associates against me.’

2 January 1772
‘On the 2d, I sold my vessel to a Portugueze merchant, for the sum of four thousand five hundred piastres, ready money, and as much on credit: the Governor reserved to himself the whole of the stores.’

14 January 1772
‘On the 14th, we quitted Macao, where the Governor saluted me with twenty-one guns, from the principal fortress; and, after a tedious passage, we arrived at last at the mouth of the Tigu; where we were very civilly received by a Mandarin, though he at first refused to permit us to go on shore: the sight of a purse of piastres, however, abated his severity; which was so much altered by this circumstance, that he offered permission for us to take lodgings in the fort.’

12 April 1772
‘On the 12th, we anchored at the Island of Madagascar, where I went on shore at Fort Dauphin. Some particulars of information I had received from the Governor of the isle of France, induced me to wish for more ample information, respecting this fine and extensive island; but unfortunately for this purpose, I could not prolong my stay.’

Thursday, September 8, 2016

A fool’s paradise of poetry

‘Heavens! what fortitude one needs, to become a decent writer. One runs madly through green thickets, enamoured of the bird-notes which last but a few moments; one stumbles, picks oneself up, and emerges into a barren waste; one ruminates miserably for a while, dragging desolate feet through the dust of dead dreams. And then, if one is lucky, one plunges into another fool’s paradise of “poetry”.’ This is Siegfried Sassoon, a British poet born 130 years ago today, writing so lyrically about the difficulties of writing poetry. Although a brave and decorated WWI soldier, he is best remembered for diaries and poems describing the true horrors of war.

Sassoon was born at Weirleigh, Kent, on 8 September 1886, and educated at Marlborough College, and Clare College, Cambridge. He was the eldest of three sons born to a wealthy Jewish father and Catholic mother. After leaving Cambridge without a degree, he spent nearly a decade doing very little, other than hunting, socialising and writing occasional verse. With the onset of war, he enlisted as a cavalry trooper in the Sussex Yeomanry, but then, in 1915, injured his arm in a riding accident. After convalescing, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 3rd Battalion (Special Reserve), Royal Welch Fusiliers, and was posted to the Western Front. He was considered a reckless soldier, but was awarded the Military Cross for rescuing a wounded man under heavy fire.

Significantly, while in France, Sassoon met Robert Graves: they encouraged each other’s love of poetry, and Graves’s more gritty style is known to have influenced Sassoon. In 1917, he was wounded and returned to England, but, by then, he had grown hostile to the realities of war and the British Army. His poetry began to reflect this change of ideas, and, with the war still raging, he published several controversial poems realistically describing life in the trenches, such as The Old Huntsman and Counter-Attack. Nevertheless, once recovered, he served further in Palestine and France, often being found inspirational by the soldiers under his command. Towards the end of the war, after a further period of convalescing, he sent his commanding officer a letter - Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration. This was relayed to the press, and read out in Parliament. Some called for Sassoon to be court-martialled, but it was decided at the highest level that he was unfit for service, and he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh to be treated for shell shock. At Craiglockhart, he met Wilfred Owen.

After the war, Sassoon lived briefly in Oxford, but then settled in Tufton Street, Westminster, from 1919. He became literary editor of the Daily Herald, a role that brought him into contact with many literary names of the day; and he, himself, became something of a literary celebrity. He spent the best part of two decades writing autobiographical or semi-autobiographical books, such as Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Siegfried’s Journey. He married Hester Gatty in 1933, and they had one son before the marriage was dissolved in the 1940s. He lived the last years of his life in relative seclusion at Heytesbury in Wiltshire, converting to Catholicism in 1957. He died in 1967. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Poetry Foundation, the Sassoon Project Blog, or the Sassoon Fellowship.

Cambridge University Library claims to hold ‘the world’s richest assemblage of Sassoon’s manuscripts and archival papers’, including a run of diaries ‘stretching from 1905-1959’. The Cambridge Digital Library has made available images of 23 of Sassoon’s journals, focusing on the war years, but spanning 1915-1932. It says of Sassoon that he was a ‘gifted diarist’ and that the journals provide ‘a fascinating resource’ of WWI literature. However, the library does not provide any transcriptions of the diary pages.

‘Unlike edited printed transcriptions,’ it says ‘the digitisations allow the viewer to form a thorough sense of the nature of the physical documents. Sassoon wrote in a small but neat and legible hand, frequently using the notebooks from both ends. His war journals were used for a wide variety of purposes: in addition to making diary entries Sassoon drafted poetry, made pencil or ink sketches, listed members of his battalion and their fates, made notes on military briefings and diagrams of trenches, listed locations and dates of times spent at or near the Front, noted quotations, and transcribed letters. The wartime notebooks were small enough to have been carried by Sassoon in the pocket of his Army tunic, and many had enclosures such as letters tucked into the outer cover or inner pouches; some bear tangible evidence of use in the trenches, from the mud on notebook MS Add.9852/1/7 to the candlewax spilled on MS Add.9852/1/9, presumably as Sassoon sat writing in his dug-out by candlelight.’

Printed transcriptions, however, are available in three volumes, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis and published by Faber and Faber between 1981 and 1985: Diaries 1915-1918, Diaries 1920-1922, and Diaries 1923-1925. Here are several extracts from the latter. (Hart-Davis notes, however, that most of the text of the third volume was taken from ‘fair copies’ Sassoon himself made of the original diaries in 1931 and 1932. It is assumed, he says, that the originals were discarded.)

28 July 1923
‘A grey, soaking morning of wind-slanted rain. I stare out at the narrow lawn and the beeches, and the occasional gigs and motors that pass the gate. E.B.
 [Edmund Blunden] is busy in his room, concocting a review of R. Graves’s new poem for The Times Literary Supplement. The wind blusters among dark green boughs from a featureless white sky. A straggling pile of flapping rooks crosses the opaque pallor, travelling into the wind.

I ought to feel satisfied. E.B. is here, backed by our four years of flawless friendship, to discuss poetry and cricket, and the last war, and the next one. Half-a-mile away T.H. [Thomas Hardy] is busy in his study, finishing the one-act play about Tristram and Iseult which he has written for the Dorchester Players (‘but I have stipulated that they mustn’t perform it in London’). He has offered to read it to us. (Florence H. says ‘Reading is not one of T.H’s strong points’.) Rain-drops fall in white streaks from the thatch of Barnes’s old Rectory. The postman has brought the mid-day post, but the letter I was waiting for has not arrived.

Tea at Max Gate. Lady Stacie there, a descendant of R. B. Sheridan - and a fashionable lady, formerly a great beauty. She gushed to T.H. about his novels at the tea-table. He shut her up by saying ‘I am not interested in my novels. I haven’t written one for more than thirty years.’ 6-7.30 in golden weather E.B. and I bicycled to Upper Bockhampton, as E.B. hadn’t yet seen T.H’s birthplace. After dinner T. E. Lawrence turned up (from the Tank Corps camp near Wool). He rang the bell, left a message with the maid that he would come to lunch tomorrow, and departed. I dashed out and caught him as he went through the gate. He looked well - a queer little figure in dark motor-overalls, his brown and grimy face framed in a fur-lined cap. He had a passenger waiting in his side-car, and only stayed a minute.’

30 January 1924
‘The last ten days have been mostly night for me. January 20 was the last day on which I ‘lunched’ before 4 p.m. Mrs Binks encourages me to carry on my routine as if the Turners weren't here, and brings me up kippers etc. at 5 p.m. (rather to the annoyance, I suspect, of Turner). But I’ve been making full use of my D.N.B. exploration impulse.

It was in October 1920 that I began to file my way out of prison by a systematic effort to form an individual vocabulary. In the last few days (particularly when I read the New Statesman proof of ‘Primitive Ritual’) I have felt as if the door is beginning to swing slowly back.

Yesterday morning, after lying awake from 4.15 to 7.15, I got up to get a drink of water in the bathroom. Watching the milkman looming at our gate in foggy twilight, Chatterton came into my thoughts, with a sense of exquisite emotion. I skipped him in the D.N.B. when I was searching for clowns, criminals, eccentrics, and forgotten poets, and knew little of his work or the details of his life. But the picture in the Tate Gallery has always appealed to me, with its glimpse of summer daybreak through the garret window, and the ‘home from the ball’ beauty of the dead boy on the bed. So I have since read about him in the D.N.B. (‘It is wonderful how the whelp has written such things’ said Dr Johnson) and cursed Horace Walpole for not sparing him twenty guineas which might have saved a second Spenser to the world; and ended by reading ‘Sweet his tongue as a throstle’s note’ in the Oxford Book of English Verse. As I went to the club ‘I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous boy’, and when I got there I searched the library for books about him.

All this excitement has ended in a sonnet and I am feeling pleased. How rarely one gets that sort of excitement about literature. (And how little authentic information there is about Chatterton.)’

11 February 1924
‘Have been reading a book about ‘Perdita’ Robinson - light historical journalese - which has made me feel the futility of the ‘epigrammatic elegies’ I’ve sweated at since January 21. Of those fifty-one pieces scarcely half-a-dozen now seem tolerable. I suppose the Chatterton sonnet is all right (I sent it to Gosse, who thought it ‘very beautiful’). But most of the fifty-one short pieces are mere trivial scribbles - a parlour game. But I suppose I have picked up some smatterings of history from the D.N.B.

Heavens! what fortitude one needs, to become a decent writer. One runs madly through green thickets, enamoured of the bird-notes which last but a few moments; one stumbles, picks oneself up, and emerges into a barren waste; one ruminates miserably for a while, dragging desolate feet through the dust of dead dreams. And then, if one is lucky, one plunges into another fool’s paradise of ‘poetry’. And at the end, perhaps, one will meet death with half-a-dozen ‘immortal’ lines scribbled on half-a-sheet of note-paper. Lucky is he who does that!’

12 February 1924
‘Went to Hammersmith with the Turners, and saw Congreve’s The Way of the World - very refreshing.’

19 February 1925
‘Ten minutes late, I was convoyed into the luncheon-room at the Marlborough Club. There I found Sir Edmund Gosse entertaining Admiral Sir William Pakenham, Walter Sickert, Philip Guedalla, and Philip Gosse. These ingredients mixed none too well, and Sir Edmund was all anxiety to set conviviality in motion. When making me known to the Admiral (rubicund, hard-bitten, genial, and unostentatious) he revived the faded glories of my fox-hunting - ‘Mr Sassoon is the only living poet of any eminence who hunts’ - whereupon (somewhat confused by the Bohemian proximity of Sickert and the Whistler tradition) I clumsily blurted out ‘I only do it to save my face!’ (an obscure utterance which implied that I have done my little best to compromise with the Philistines, but was allowed to pass without comment).

Guedalla, elegantly Semitic, with a fat pearl in his tie, was sedulous in politeness to the Admiral, but out of range of Sickert, with whom he’d fain have discussed Max Beerbohm. Philip Gosse sat silent, as though waiting to be utilised when required. Sickert talked to me in undertones. He began by congratulating me on my poem in the New Statesman a few weeks ago (‘On Reading the War Diary of a Defunct Ambassador’ - it was on the same page as an article about him). This caused me to feel that the said poem wouldn’t be well received by members of the Marlborough Club. With E.G. there, Sickert made no attempt to shine as a raconteur. He is either first or nowhere. But he told me (I forget how it cropped up) a story about a woman in Paris who was crazily wrought up about the visit of the Czar and Czarina. ‘She flung herself into the Seine. When her body was recovered, it was found that her drawers were made of the Russian flag.’ This reference to drawers seemed to make the Admiral more at his ease, and the topic was pursued in a series of anecdotes. The Admiral’s was about a critical moment in the Battle of Jutland, when his fellow-Admiral broke the tension by remarking, ‘I am told that Princess Mary wears pink flannel drawers.’ ’

The Diary Junction

Monday, September 5, 2016

10,000 houses in one flame

It is exactly 400 years since London was ravaged by the great fire of 1666. Astonishingly, two of the nation’s most important and earliest diarists - John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys - were there at the time, and writing their diaries. Here are their respective entries for the first few days of the tragedy. Evelyn’s text is taken from Volume II of William Bray’s edition of The Diary of John Evelyn (M. Walter Dunne, 1901). Pepys’s text is taken from Volume X of the Henry Wheatley edition of The Diary of Samuel Pepys (Macmillan, 1895). For more on Evelyn see A most excellent person; for more Pepys see In celebration of Pepys; and for more on the Great Fire of London see Wikipedia or The Great Fire website, or Visit London.

2 September 1666
‘This fatal night, about ten, began the deplorable fire, near Fish street, in London.’

2 September 1666
‘(Lord’s day). Some of our mayds sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast to-day, Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose and slipped on my night-gowne, and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back-side of Marke-lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off; and so went to bed again and to sleep. About seven rose again to dress myself, and there looked out at the window, and saw the fire not so much as it was and further off. So to my closett to set things to rights after yesterday’s cleaning. By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down to-night by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish-street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower, and there got up upon one of the high places, Sir J. Robinson’s little son going up with me; and there I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge; which, among other people, did trouble me for poor little Michell and our Sarah on the bridge. So down, with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it begun this morning in the King’s baker’s house in Pudding-lane, and that it hath burned St. Magnus’s Church and most part of Fish-street already. So I down to the water-side, and there got a boat and through bridge, and there saw a lamentable fire. Poor Michell’s house, as far as the Old Swan, already burned that way, and the fire running further, that in a very little time it got as far as the Steele-yard, while I was there. Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.

Having staid, and in an hour’s time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody, to my sight, endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and leave all to the fire, and having seen it get as far as the Steele-yard, and the wind mighty high and driving it into the City; and every thing, after so long a drought, proving combustible, even the very stones of churches, and among other things the poor steeple by which pretty Mrs. ___ lives, and whereof my old schoolfellow Elborough is parson, taken fire in the very top, and there burned till it fell down: I to White Hall (with a gentleman with me who desired to go off from the Tower, to see the fire, in my boat); to White Hall, and there up to the King’s closett in the Chappell, where people come about me, and I did give them an account dismayed them all, and word was carried in to the King. So I was called for, and did tell the King and Duke of Yorke what I saw, and that unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down nothing could stop the fire. They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him, and command him to spare no houses, but to pull down before the fire every way. The Duke of York bid me tell him that if he would have any more soldiers he shall; and so did my Lord Arlington afterwards, as a great secret. Here meeting with Captain Cocke, I in his coach, which he lent me, and Creed with me to Paul’s, and there walked along Watling-street, as well as I could, every creature coming away loaden with goods to save, and here and there sicke people carried away in beds. Extraordinary good goods carried in carts and on backs.

At last met my Lord Mayor in Canning-street, like a man spent, with a handkercher about his neck. To the King’s message he cried, like a fainting woman, “Lord! what can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses; but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.” That he needed no more soldiers; and that, for himself, he must go and refresh himself, having been up all night. So he left me, and I him, and walked home, seeing people all almost distracted, and no manner of means used to quench the fire. The houses, too, so very thick thereabouts, and full of matter for burning, as pitch and tarr, in Thames-street; and warehouses of oyle, and wines, and brandy, and other things. Here I saw Mr. Isaake Houblon, the handsome man, prettily dressed and dirty, at his door at Dowgate, receiving some of his brothers’ things, whose houses were on fire; and, as he says, have been removed twice already; and he doubts (as it soon proved) that they must be in a little time removed from his house also, which was a sad consideration. And to see the churches all filling with goods by people who themselves should have been quietly there at this time.

By this time it was about twelve o’clock; and so home, and there find my guests, which was Mr. Wood and his wife Barbary Sheldon, and also Mr. Moone : she mighty fine, and her husband, for aught I see, a likely man. But Mr. Moone’s design and mine, which was to look over my closett and please him with the sight thereof, which he hath long desired, was wholly disappointed; for we were in great trouble and disturbance at this fire, not knowing what to think of it. However, we had an extraordinary good dinner, and as merry as at this time we could be. While at dinner Mrs. Batelier come to enquire after Mr. Woolfe and Stanes (who, it seems, are related to them), whose houses in Fish-street are all burned, and they in a sad condition. She would not stay in the fright.

Soon as dined, I and Moone away, and walked through the City, the streets full of nothing but people and horses and carts loaden with goods, ready to run over one another, and removing goods from one burned house to another. They now removing out of Canning-streete (which received goods in the morning) into Lumbard-streete, and further; and among others I now saw my little goldsmith, Stokes, receiving some friend’s goods, whose house itself was burned the day after. We parted at Paul’s; he home, and I to Paul’s Wharf, where I had appointed a boat to attend me, and took in Mr. Carcasse and his brother, whom I met in the streete, and carried them below and above bridge to and again to see the fire, which was now got further, both below and above, and no likelihood of stopping it. Met with the King and Duke of York in their barge, and with them to Queenhithe, and there called Sir Richard Browne to them. Their order was only to pull down houses apace, and so below bridge at the water-side; but little was or could be done, the fire coming upon them so fast. Good hopes there was of stopping it at the Three Cranes above, and at Buttolph’s Wharf below bridge, if care be used; but the wind carries it into the City, so as we know not by the water-side what it do there. River full of lighters and boats taking in goods, and good goods swimming in the water, and only I observed that hardly one lighter or boat in three that had the goods of a house in, but there was a pair of Virginalls in it.

Having seen as much as I could now, I away to White Hall by appointment, and there walked to St. James’s Parke, and there met my wife and Creed and Wood and his wife, and walked to my boat; and there upon the water again, and to the fire up and down, it still encreasing, and the wind great. So near the fire as we could for smoke; and all over the Thames, with one’s face in the wind, you were almost burned with a shower of fire-drops. This is very true; so as houses were burned by these drops and flakes of fire, three or four, nay, five or six houses, one from another. When we could endure no more upon the water, we to a little ale-house on the Bankside, over against the Three Cranes, and there staid till it was dark almost, and saw the fire grow; and, as it grew darker, appeared more and more, and in corners and upon steeples, and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of an ordinary fire. Barbary and her husband away before us.

We staid till, it being darkish, we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side the bridge, and in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long: it made me weep to see it. The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once; and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruine. So home with a sad heart, and there find every body discoursing and lamenting the fire; and poor Tom Hater come with some few of his goods saved out of his house, which is burned upon Fish-streete Hill. I invited him to lie at my house, and did receive his goods, but was deceived in his lying there, the newes coming every moment of the growth of the fire; so as we were forced to begin to pack up our owne goods, and prepare for their removal; and did by moonshine (it being brave dry, and moonshine, and warm weather) carry much of my goods into the garden, and Mr. Hater and 1 did remove my money and iron chests into my cellar, as thinking that the safest place. And got my bags of gold into my office, ready to carry away, and my chief papers of accounts also there, and my tallys into a box by themselves. So great was our fear, as Sir W. Batten hath carts come out of the country to fetch away his goods this night. We did put Mr. Hater, poor man, to bed a little; but he got but very little rest, so much noise being in my house, taking down of goods.’

3 September 1666
‘I had public prayers at home. The fire continuing, after dinner, I took coach with my wife and son, and went to the Bankside in Southwark, where we beheld that dismal spectacle, the whole city in dreadful flames near the waterside; all the houses from the Bridge, all Thames street, and upward toward Cheapside, down to the Three Cranes, were now consumed; and so returned, exceedingly astonished what would become of the rest 

The fire having continued all this night (if I may call that night which was light as day for ten miles round about, after a dreadful manner), when conspiring with a fierce eastern wind in a very dry season, I went on foot to the same place; and saw the whole south part of the city burning from Cheapside to the Thames, and all along Cornhill (for it likewise kindled back against the wind as well as forward), Tower street, Fenchurch street. Gracious street, and so along to Baynard’s Castle, and was now taking hold of St. Paul’s church, to which the scaffolds contributed exceedingly. The conflagration was so universal, and the people so astonished, that, from the beginning, I know not by what despondency, or fate, they hardly stirred to quench it; so that there was nothing heard, or seen, but crying out and lamentation, running about like distracted creatures, without at all attempting to save even their goods; such a strange consternation there was upon them, so as it burned both in breadth and length, the churches, public halls, Exchange, hospitals, monuments, and ornaments; leaping after a prodigious manner, from house to house, and street to street, at great distances one from the other. For the heat, with a long set of fair and warm weather, had even ignited the air, and prepared the materials to conceive the fire, which devoured, after an incredible manner, houses, furniture, and every thing. 

Here, we saw the Thames covered with goods floating, all the barges and boats laden with what some had time and courage to save, as, on the other side, the carts, etc., carrying out to the fields, which for many miles were strewn with movables of all sorts, and tents erecting to shelter both people and what goods they could get away. Oh, the miserable and calamitous spectacle! such as haply the world had not seen since the foundation of it, nor can be outdone till the universal conflagration thereof. All the sky was of a fiery aspect, like the top of a burning oven, and the light seen above forty miles round about for many nights. God grant mine eyes may never behold the like, who now saw above 10,000 houses all in one flame! The noise and cracking and thunder of the impetuous flames, the shrieking of women and children, the hurry of people, the fall of towers, houses, and churches, was like a hideous storm; and the air all about so hot and inflamed, that at the last one was not able to approach it, so that they were forced to stand still, and let the flames burn on, which they did, for near two miles in length and one in breadth. The clouds also of smoke were dismal, and reached, upon computation, near fifty miles in length. Thus, I left it this afternoon burning, a resemblance of Sodom, or the last day. It forcibly called to my mind that passage - “non enim his habemus stabilein civitatem”; the ruins resembling the picture of Troy. London was, but is no more! Thus, I returned.’

3 September 1666
‘About four o’clock in the morning, my Lady Batten sent me a cart to carry away all my money, and plate, and best things, to Sir W. Rider’s at Bednall-greene. Which I did, riding myself in my night-gowne in the cart; and, Lord! to see how the streets and the highways are crowded with people running and riding, and getting of carts at any rate to fetch away things. I find Sir W. Rider tired with being called up all night, and receiving things from several friends. His house full of goods, and much of Sir W. Batten’s and Sir W. Pen’s. I am eased at my heart to have my treasure so well secured. Then home, with much ado to find a way, nor any sleep all this night to me nor my poor wife. But then and all this day she and I, and all my people labouring to get away the rest of our things, and did get Mr. Tooker to get me a lighter to take them in, and we did carry them (myself some) over Tower Hill, which was by this time full of people’s goods, bringing their goods thither; and down to the lighter, which lay at the next quay, above the Tower Docke. And here was my neighbour’s wife, Mrs. ___, with her pretty child, and some few of her things, which I did willingly give way to be saved with mine; but there was no passing with any thing through the postern, the crowd was so great.

The Duke of Yorke come this day by the office, and spoke to us, and did ride with his guard up and down the City to keep all quiet (he being now Generall, and having the care of all). This day, Mercer being not at home, but against her mistress’s order gone to her mother’s, and my wife going thither to speak with W. Hewer, met her there, and was angry; and her mother saying that she was not a ‘prentice girl, to ask leave every time she goes abroad, my wife with good reason was angry, and, when she came home, bid her be gone again. And so she went away, which troubled me, but yet less than it would, because of the condition we are in, fear of coming into in a little time of being less able to keepe one in her quality. At night lay down a little upon a quilt of W. Hewer’s in the office, all my owne things being packed up or gone; and after me my poor wife did the like, we having fed upon the remains of yesterday’s dinner, having no fire nor dishes, nor any opportunity of dressing any thing.’

4 September 1666
‘The burning still rages, and it is now gotten as far as the Inner Temple. All Fleet street, the Old Bailey, Ludgate hill, Warwick lane, Newgate, Paul’s chain, Watling street, now flaming, and most of it reduced to ashes; the stones of Paul’s flew like grenados, the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse, nor man, was able to tread on them, and the demolition had stopped all the passages, so that no help could be applied. The eastern wind still more impetuously driving the flames forward. Nothing but the Almighty power of God was able to stop them; for vain was the help of man.’

4 September 1666
‘Up by break of day to get away the remainder of my things; which I did by a lighter at the Iron gate: and my hands so few, that it was the afternoon before we could get them all away. Sir W. Pen and I to Tower-streete, and there met the fire burning three or four doors beyond Mr. Howell’s, whose goods, poor man, his trayes, and dishes, shovells, &c., were flung all along Tower-street in the kennels, and people working therewith from one end to the other; the fire coming on in that narrow streete, on both sides, with infinite fury. Sir W. Batten not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it in there; and I took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of. And in the evening Sir W. Pen and I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things. The Duke of Yorke was at the office this day, at Sir W. Pen’s; but I happened not to be within. This afternoon, sitting melancholy with Sir W. Pen in our garden, and thinking of the certain burning of this office, without extraordinary means, I did propose for the sending up of all our workmen from Woolwich and Deptford yards (none whereof yet appeared), and to write to Sir W. Coventry to have the Duke of Yorke’s permission to pull down houses, rather than lose this office, which would much hinder the King’s business. So Sir W. Pen he went down this night, in order to the sending them up to-morrow morning; and I wrote to Sir W. Coventry about the business, but received no answer.

This night Mrs. Turner (who, poor woman, was removing her goods all this day, good goods into the garden, and knows not how to dispose of them), and her husband supped with my wife and I at night, in the office, upon a shoulder of mutton from the cook’s, without any napkin or any thing, in a sad manner, but were merry. Only now and then walking into the garden, and saw how horridly the sky looks, all on a fire in the night, was enough to put us out of our wits; and, indeed, it was extremely dreadful, for it looks just as if it was at us, and the whole heaven on fire.

I after supper walked in the darke down to Tower-streete, and there saw it all on fire, at the Trinity House on that side, and the Dolphin Taverne on this side, which was very near us; and the fire with extraordinary vehemence. Now begins the practice of blowing up of houses in Tower-streete, those next the Tower, which at first did frighten people more than any thing; but it stopped the fire where it was done, it bringing down the houses to the ground in the same places they stood, and then it was easy to quench what little fire was in it, though it kindled nothing almost. W. Hewer this day went to see how his mother did, and comes late home, telling us how he hath been forced to remove her to Islington, her house in Pye-corner being burned; so that the fire is got so far that way, and all the Old Bayly, and was running down to Fleete-streete; and Paul’s is burned, and all Cheapside. I wrote to my father this night, but the post-house being burned, the letter could not go.’

5 September 1666 
‘It crossed toward Whitehall; but oh! the confusion there was then at that Court! It pleased his Majesty to command me, among the rest, to look after the quenching of Fetter-lane end, to preserve (if possible) that part of Holborn, while the rest of the gentlemen took their several posts, some at one part, and some at another (for now they began to bestir themselves, and not till now, who hitherto had stood as men intoxicated, with their hands across), and began to consider that nothing was likely to put a stop but the blowing up of so many houses as might make a wider gap than any had yet been made by the ordinary method of pulling them down with engines. This some stout seamen proposed early enough to have saved near the whole city, but this some tenacious and avaricious men, aldermen, etc., would not permit, because their houses must have been of the first. It was, therefore, now commended to be practiced; and my concern being particularly for the Hospital of St. Bartholomew, near Smithfield, where I had many wounded and sick men, made me the more diligent to promote it; nor was my care for the Savoy less. It now pleased God, by abating the wind, and by the industry of the people, when almost all was lost infusing a new spirit into them, that the fury of it began sensibly to abate about noon, so as it came no farther than the Temple westward, nor than the entrance of Smithfield, north: but continued all this day and night so impetuous toward Cripplegate and the Tower, as made us all despair. It also broke out again in the temple; but the courage of the multitude persisting, and many houses being blown up, such gaps and desolations were soon made, as, with the former three days’ consumption, the back fire did not so vehemently urge upon the rest as formerly. There was yet no standing near the burning and glowing ruins by near a furlong’s space. 

The coal and wood wharfs, and magazines of oil, rosin, etc. , did infinite mischief, so as the invective which a little before I had dedicated to his Majesty and published, giving warning what probably might be the issue of suffering those shops to be in the city was looked upon as a prophecy.

The poor inhabitants were dispersed about St. George’s Fields, and Moorfields, as far as Highgate, and several miles in circle, some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag, or any necessary utensils, bed or board, who from delicateness, riches, and easy accommodations in stately and well-furnished houses, were now reduced to extreme misery and poverty. 

In this calamitous condition, I returned with a sad heart to my house, blessing and adoring the distinguishing mercy of God to me and mine, who, in the midst of all this ruin, was like Lot, in my little Zoar, safe and sound.’ 

5 September 1666
‘I lay down in the office again upon W. Hewer’s quilt, being mighty weary, and sore in my feet with going till I was hardly able to stand. About two in the morning my wife calls me up and tells me of new cryes of fire, it being come to Barkeing Church, which is the bottom of our lane. I up, and finding it so, resolved presently to take her away, and did, and took my gold, which was about £2,350, W. Hewer, and Jane, down by Proundy’s boat to Woolwich; but, Lord! what a sad sight it was by moone-light to see the whole City almost on fire, that you might see it plain at Woolwich, as if you were by it. There, when I come, I find the gates shut, but no guard kept at all, which troubled me, because of discourse now begun, that there is plot in it, and that the French had done it. I got the gates open, and to Mr. Shelden’s, where I locked up my gold, and charged my wife and W. Hewer never to leave the room without one of them in it, night or day. So back again, by the way seeing my goods well in the lighters at Deptford, and watched well by people.

Home, and whereas I expected to have seen our house on fire, it being now about seven o’clock, it was not. But to the fyre, and there find greater hopes than I expected; for my confidence of finding our Office on fire was such, that I durst not ask any body how it was with us, till I come and saw it not burned. But going to the fire, I find by the blowing up of houses, and the great helpe given by the workmen out of the King’s yards, sent up by Sir W. Pen, there is a good stop given to it, as well as at Marke-lane end as ours; it having only burned the dyall of Barking Church, and part of the porch, and was there quenched. I up to the top of Barking steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw; every where great fires, oyle-cellars, and brimstone, and other things burning. I became afeard to stay there long, and therefore down again as fast as I could, the fire being spread as far as I could see it; and to Sir W. Pen’s, and there eat a piece of cold meat, having eaten nothing since Sunday, but the remains of Sunday’s dinner.

Here I met with Mr. Young and Whistler; and having removed all my things, and received good hopes that the fire at our end is stopped, they and I walked into the town, and find Fanchurch-streete, Gracious-streete, and Lumbard-streete all in dust. The Exchange a sad sight, nothing standing there, of all the statues or pillars, but Sir Thomas Gresham’s picture in the corner. Walked into Moorefields (our feet ready to burn, walking through the towne among the hot coles), and find that full of people, and poor wretches carrying their goods there, and every body keeping his goods together by themselves (and a great blessing it is to them that it is fair weather for them to keep abroad night and day); drank there, and paid twopence for a plain penny loaf. Thence homeward, having passed through Cheapside and Newgate Market, all burned, and seen Anthony Joyce’s house in fire. And took up (which I keep by me) a piece of glasse of Mercers’ Chappell in the streete, where much more was, so melted and buckled with the heat of the fire like parchment. I also did see a poor cat taken out of a hole in the chimney, joyning to the wall of the Exchange, with the hair all burned off the body, and yet alive.

So home at night, and find there good hopes of saving our office; but great endeavours of watching all night, and having men ready; and so we lodged them in the office, and had drink and bread and cheese for them. And I lay down and slept a good night about midnight, though when I rose I heard that there had been a great alarme of French and Dutch being risen, which proved nothing. But it is a strange thing to see how long this time did look since Sunday, having been always full of variety of actions, and little sleep, that it looked like a week or more, and I had forgot almost the day of the week.’

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A sensitive and nervous man

Bret Harte, an American writer best remembered for his prose, particularly short stories about the Californian gold rush, and satirical poetry, was born 180 years ago today. He kept a diary for a few short months when a young man, but biographers tend to find the diary of Annie Fields, wife of the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, who described him as a sensitive and nervous man, more useful.

Harte was born on 25 August 1836 in Albany, New York, into a family, originally Jewish immigrants. He seems to have left school at 13, and moved to California a few years later, where he worked in a variety of jobs. Having tried to make a living in the gold mining towns, he became a messenger for the Wells Fargo stagecoach company, guarding treasure boxes, before trying his hand as a teacher first then as a journalist. He reported on the 1860 killing of indigenous people at Tuluwat for San Francisco and New York newspapers. Having condemned the massacre, his own life was threatened, and he moved to San Francisco. One there, it is believed he authored an anonymous letter to the press describing widespread community approval of the massacre.

In 1860, Harte became editor of The Golden Era and set about turning it into a more literary publication; and in 1862 he married Anna Griswold. By this time, he was publishing poetry, romantic short stories about the Californian Gold Rush, as well as satirical prose. Some of his work was taken up by The Atlantic Monthly, edited by James Thomas Fields. In 1868, he became editor of the new literary magazine, Overland Monthly, which, two years later, published his poem Plain Language from Truthful James or, as it was better known, The Heathen Chinee. This narrative poem, satirising anti-Chinese sentiment, was widely republished, bringing Harte considerable fame. In search of furthering his literary career he moved to New York, and then Boston, and became contracted, at a high salary, to The Atlantic Monthly. His popularity did not last long, and by the end of 1872 the contract was over, and selling stories was becoming increasingly difficult.

Life remained tough for Harte until, in 1878, he went alone to Germany to take a position as US consul in Krefeld, and then, in 1880, in Glasgow, UK. Though he wrote to his family (Anna and four children) and continued to support them, he never returned to the US (nor did they visit them him in Europe). In 1885, he moved to London, where he continued to pursue his literary ambitions. He died in 1902. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Poem Hunter, or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Harte kept a diary for a few months in 1857-1858. Bret Harte (American Book Company, 1941) by Joseph B. Harrison quotes from it but once. Gary Scharnhorst, in Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), provides an extract from 31 December 1857: ‘Before I close this Journal containing but a small portion of last years doings let me indulge in a retrospect. I am at the commencement of this year - a teacher at a Salary of $25 per mo - last year at this time I was unemployed. Last year I thought I was in love - this year I think the same tho the object is a different one. ... I have added to my slight stock of experiences and have suffered considerable. Ah! well did the cynical Walpole say life is a comedy to those who think - a tragedy to those who feel. - I both think and feel. My life is a mixture of broad caricature and farce when I think of others, it is a melodrama when I feel for myself. In these 365 days I have again put forth a feeble essay toward fame and perhaps fortune. - I have tried literature albeit in an humble way - successfully - I have written some poetry: passable and some prose (good) which have been published. . . . Therefore I consecrate this year or as much as God may grant for my service - to honest heartfelt sincere labor and devotion to this occupation. - God help me - may I succeed.’

Axel Nissen, in his biography, Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper (University Press of Mississippi, 2000), refers to Harte’s diary more often but notes that he made his last entry on 5 March 1858. Here are two paragraphs of Nissen’s text, largely sourced on Harte’s diary.

‘Each day he would conscientiously record the day’s lessons in his diary, in addition to his own quotidian activities. One day was much like the other: school in the morning Monday through Saturday, a trip to town in the afternoon or a shooting expedition, alone or with one of the boys. During the five months Harte kept the diary, he painstakingly recorded every duck, meadowlark, teal, widgeon, and ring-necked and buttheaded plover he brought down. It was almost an obsession. Rain or shine, sick or well, he tramped out to the marshes with his gun after school, sometimes also in the morning before breakfast. On December 10, for example, he recorded that he shot a duck (“but couldn’t get him”), a teal, and a snipe, and remarked with evident satisfaction: “I am improving in my skill, and of late have made good success [one word illegible] shooting. However I must try to persevere in other things.” His hunting expeditions were an escape from the claustrophobia of living among strangers and gave him time to think. He got himself a dog. Bones, to keep him company. The diary gives us an impression of a sober, serious-minded, industrious, and critical young man - early to bed and early to rise - thoughtful and a mite restless in his country isolation.’

‘But there was also a darker side to his existence. The diary gives ample evidence of depression and even despair. Only a few days after moving in with the Liscombs, he came home from Sunday service “very blue and discontented.” A month later, on Thanksgiving, there was a dancing party in town. Everyone was there; Harte tried to dance, found he couldn’t, and was ‘‘very much annoyed.” He came home “incontinently” in the pouring rain and spent a restless night. Christmas Day was even worse. He helped Maggie prepare the meal, and they had Christmas dinner with the Martins and her in-laws. He was feeling quite melancholy by this point, and attendance at a dance in the evening only made it worse. ‘‘What the d....d am I to do with myself,” he scratched down desperately in his diary, ‘‘the simplest pleasures fail to please me - my melancholy and gloomy foreboding stick to me closer than a brother. I cannot enjoy myself rationally like others but am forced to make a gloomy spectacle of myself to gods and men.” The “thermometer of my spirits,” as he analyzed it that day, had started at 40 degrees temperate in the morning, risen to eighty by 3 P.M., fallen all the way down to zero by 9 P.M., and by 1 A.M., he was still awake and twenty below.’

All Harte’s biographers find useful information in the published diary of the wife of the editor of The Atlantic MonthlyAnnie Fields - Memories of a hostess: A chronicle of eminent friendships, drawn chiefly from the diaries of Mrs. James T. Fields by M. A. DeWolfe Howe (The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1922). Here are several extracts about Harte.

5 September 1871
‘J. went to Boston. I wrote in the pastures and walked all the morning. Coming home, after dinner, came a telegram for me to meet J. and Bret Harte at Beverly station with the pony carriage. I drove hard to catch the train, but arrived in season, glad to take up the two good boys and show them Beverly shore. [. . .] Mr. Harte had much to say of the beautiful flowers of California, roses being in bloom about his own house there every month in the year. He found the cloudless skies and continued drought of California very hard to bear. For the first time in my life I considered how terrible perpetual cloudlessness would be! He thinks there is no beauty in the mountains of California, hard, bare, snowless peaks. Neither are there trees, nor any green grass.

He is delighted with the fragrant lawns of Newport and has, I believe, put into verse a delightful ghost story which he told us. He has taken a house of some antiquity in Newport, connected with which is the story of a lady who formerly lived there and who was very fond of the odor of mignonette. The flower was always growing in her house, and after her death, at two o’clock every night, a strong odor has always been perceived passing through the house as if wafted along by the garments of a woman. One night at the appointed hour, but entirely unconnected in his thought with the story Mr. Harte had long ago heard, he was arrested in his work by a strong perfume of mignonette which appeared to sweep by him. He looked about, thinking his wife might have placed a vase of flowers in the room, but finding nothing he began to follow the odor, which seemed to flit before him. Then he recalled, for the first time, the story he had heard. He opened the door; the odor was in the hall; he opened the room where the lady died, but there was no odor there; until returning, after making a circuit of the house, he found a faint perfume as if she had passed but not stayed there also. At last, somewhat oppressed perhaps by the ghostliness of the place and hour, he went out and stood upon the porch. There his dream vanished. The sweet lawn and tree flowers were emitting an odor, as is common at the hour when dews congeal, more sweet than at any other time of day or night, and the air was redolent of sweets which might easily be construed into mignonette. The story was well told and I shall be glad to see his poem. [. . .]

Mr. Harte is a very sensitive and nervous man. He struggles against himself all the time. He sat on the piazza with J. and talked till a late hour. This morning at breakfast I found him most interesting. He talked of his early and best-loved books. It appears that at the age of nine he was a lover and reader of Montaigne. Certain writers, he says, seem to him to stand out as friends and brothers side by side in literature. Now Horace and Montaigne are so associated in his mind. Mr. Emerson, he thinks, never in the least approaches a comprehension of the character of the man. With an admiration for his great sayings, he has never guessed at the subtle springs from which they come. The pleasant acceding to both sides in politics, and other traits of like nature, gives him affinity with Hawthorne. By the way, he is a true appreciator of Hawthorne. He was moved to much merriment yesterday by remembering a passage in the notes, where he slyly remarks, “Margaret Fuller’s cows hooked the other cows.” Speaking of Dr. Bartol, he said, “What a dear old man he is! A venerable baby, nothing more.” But Harte is most kindly and tender. His wife has been very ill and has given him cause for terrible anxiety. This accounts for much left undone, but he is an oblivious man oftentimes to his surroundings - leaves things behind!!’

12 January 1872
‘Bret Harte was here at breakfast. It is curious to see his feeling with regard to society. For purely literary society, with its affectations and contempts, he has no sympathy. He has at length chosen New York as his residence, and among the Schuylers, Sherwoods, and their friends he appears to find what he enjoys. There is evidently a gene about people and life here, and provincialisms which he found would hurt him. He is very sensitive and keen, with a love and reverence for Dickens almost peculiar in this coldly critical age. Bryant he finds very cold and totally unwilling to lead the conversation, as he should do when they are together, as he justly remarks, he being so much younger - but never a word without cart and horses to fetch it. Bret Harte has a queer absent-minded way of spending his time, letting the hours slip by as if he had not altogether learned their value yet. It is a miracle to us how he lives, for he writes very little. Thus far I suppose he has had money from J. R. O. & Co., but I fancy they have done with giving out money save for a quid pro quo.’

18 September 1875
‘Bret Harte came on the 1⁄2 past 12 train. He came in good health, save a headache which ripened as the day went on; but he was bubbling over with fun, full of the most natural and unexpected sallies. He wished to know if I was acquainted with the Cochin China hen. They had one at Cohasset. They had named him Benventuro (after a certain gay Italian singer of strong self-appreciation who came formerly to America). He said this hen’s state of mind on finding a half-exploded fire-cracker and her depressed condition since its explosion was something extraordinary. His description was so vivid that I still see this hen perambulating about the house, first with pride, second with precipitation, fallen into disgrace among her fellows. He said Cohasset was not the place to live in the summer if one wanted sea-breezes. They all came straight from Chicago!! He fancied the place, thinking it an old fishing village, not unlike Yarmouth. Instead of which they prided themselves upon never having “any of your sea-smells,” and, being five miles from the doctor, could not be considered a cheerful place to live in with sick children. He said he was surprised to find J. T. F. without a sailor’s jacket and collar. The actors among whom he had been living rather overdid the business; their collars were wider, their shirts fuller, and their trousers more bulgy than those of any real sailor he had ever observed, and the manner of hitching up the trousers was entirely peculiar to themselves and to the stage. [. . .]

Harte said in speaking of Longfellow that no one had yet overpraised him. The delicate quality of humor, the exquisite fineness in the choice of words, the breadth and sweetness of his nature were something he could hardly help worshipping. One day after a dinner at Mr. Lowell’s he said, “I think I will not have a carriage to return to town. I will walk down to the Square.” “I will walk with you,” said Longfellow. When they arrived at his gate, he said, he was so beautiful that he could only think of the light and whiteness of the moon, and if he had stayed a moment longer he should have put his arms around him and made a fool of himself then and there. Whereat he said good night abruptly and turned away.

He brought his novel and play with him which are just now finished, for us to read. He has evidently enjoyed the play, and he enjoys the fame and the money they both bring him.

He is a dramatic, lovable creature with his blue silk pocket-handkerchief and red dressing slippers and his quick feelings. I could hate the man who could help loving him - or the woman either.’

Friday, August 19, 2016

The death of Lorca

The great Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca was assassinated 80 years ago today by right wing military forces at the start of the Spanish Civil War. The circumstances of his death have always been controversial, indeed Lorca’s biographer, Ian Gibson, has written an entire book on the subject. Although Lorca himself was not a diarist, in 2012 the diary of a young male lover surfaced, shedding new light on Lorca’s last days. On a personal note, my own diary reveals not only that I met Gibson several times, but how I realised that his book on the death of Lorca had played a part in inspiring me to be a writer.

Lorca was born in 1898 near Granada, Spain, into a wealthy landowning family. He was educated at Granada and Madrid universities. While studying in Madrid, he lived within the Residencia de Estudiantes, one of Spain’s first cultural centres, where he became friends with Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí among many other creative types. In 1919-1920, he wrote his first play, The Butterfly’s Evil Spell, which was not well received, and, in 1921, published his first book of poems. Collaborations with the composer Manuel de Falla and more poems followed before Lorca’s second play, Mariana Pineda, with sets designed by Dalí, opened in Barcelona in 1927, to great acclaim.

In 1929-1930, Lorca travelled to New York, where he studied English and continued writing poetry; he also visited Vermont and Cuba. Back in Madrid, the newly established Second Spanish Republic appointed him director of a student theatre company, Teatro Universitario La Barraca, charged with bringing theatre to rural areas of Spain. During the next few years he wrote his most famous plays, Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba. But, when the Spanish Civil War broke out, he was assassinated, on 19 August, by fascist supporters of General Franco - the leader who, in 1939, would win the war and rule Spain for more than 30 years. The circumstances of Lorca’s death have long been controversial, and his body was never found. Biographers continue to argue about whether it was Lorca’s left-wing political beliefs (though he had friends in both factions of the emerging civil war) or personal animosities to his homosexuality that was most to blame for his death warrant.

In the 1960s, the Irish-born Ian Gibson, a Spanish literature academic working in Britain, moved to Granada for a year to write a doctoral thesis on Lorca, but ended up publishing (in Paris) a Spanish-language book about the playwright’s death - La represión nacionalista de Granada en 1936 y la muerte de Federico García Lorca (1971). It was banned in Spain; and subsequently it was also published in English as The Death of Lorca (1973). Gibson concluded that Lorca was, indeed, shot by nationalist militia, along with others, as part of a wider campaign to eliminate left-wing radicals. Gibson, by this time domiciled near Granada, went on to publish his major, and very highly respected, two-volume Spanish biography of Lorca in 1985-1987, and then two years later, a one volume edition in English.

In 2015, the Guardian claimed that documents it had obtained (written in 1965 at the Granada police headquarters) contained ‘the first ever admission by Franco-era officials’ of their involvement in Lorca’s death. The article goes on: ‘The resulting documents suggest García Lorca was persecuted for his beliefs, describing him as a “socialist and a freemason,” about whom rumours swirled of “homosexual and abnormal practices”. After police carried out two searches on his home in Granada, he fled to a friend’s house out of fear. In August 1936, just one month after the civil war broke out, officers surrounded the house where García Lorca was hiding, while his friends tried to intervene on his behalf. García Lorca was arrested and taken by car to an area close to the place known as Fuente Grande, along with one other detainee, said the documents. He was then “executed immediately after having confessed, and was buried in that location, in a very shallow grave, in a ravine”. No details were given as to the content of his confession.’ Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, or

There is no evidence that Lorca was a diarist (see A Companion to Federico García Lorca by Federico Bonaddio, 2007, Tamesis). However, in 2012, the 91 year old Juan Ramirez de Lucas, who had been Lorca’s last lover, died leaving behind a box of mementoes including letters and a diary - instructing his family to make them public. As was widely reported at the time (see El País for example), the letters (from Lorca) and de Lucas’s diary prove that Lorca, 38 years old, and de Lucas, only 19, had been planning in the summer of 1936 to flee to Mexico. Lorca, though, insisted that de Lucas seek permission from his family - permission that was not forthcoming, his father refusing to issue the necessary papers. Had the lovers left Spain at that moment in time, Lorca would not have died so young, and who knows what literary works he might have produced.

The Telegraph, for its take on the de Lucas story, contacted Gibson, who said: ‘It’s terribly exciting to learn new material exists that may shed light on his final days’, and ‘Lorca was very promiscuous and prone to infatuation but we never definitively knew who his last lover was or why he delayed leaving.’ Gibson revealed de Lucas’s name had come up during his own research on Lorca (which had begun while Franco was still in power), but that he had refused to be interviewed. ‘One can only guess that he wanted to keep his association a secret especially during the Franco years. It wasn’t easy being gay and especially if it was a relationship with someone as famous as Lorca.’ The Telegraph article concluded with another quote from Gibson: ‘We can only hope that the papers will be made available soon.’

Unfortunately, since 2012 there has been no sign that the letters/diary might be published, as was suggested at the time. In 2014, the British theatre critic Nicholas de Jongh, when writing a play on the death of Lorca, inspired by the de Lucas find, tried to find out what had happened to his papers, but was stonewalled at every turn. The play - The Unquiet Grave of Garcia Lorca - premiered in London in October 2014 - see The Evening Standard.

On a personal note, I met Ian Gibson several times at his home in Restabal, near Granada. My friend Rosy, and her husband Andy, had bought a holiday villa in the area, but it was only after being there for a while that Rosy discovered a cousin, whom she had not previously met, living nearby - Ian Gibson - and they soon became firm friends. One winter, I visited Rosy, with my seven-year old son, Adam, and she took us to Ian’s place. It was not until I was in his house, and browsing his bookshelves that I realised Ian had played a part, some 20 years earlier, in inspiring me to become a writer. Here is my diary entry:

15 January 1995
‘Ian proved a hearty fellow and quite charming. He loved Adam and the way he’d fallen asleep in his house without disturbing anyone, and he seemed on good form the thrice I saw him - on this evening, later in the week at a party, and then on New Year’s Eve at his party. But I must recount why my meeting with him was so significant.

In the mid-1970s, after my travels and when I was living in London with Harold, I think, I saw a modern ballet at Sadlers Wells, created by Lindsay Kemp and performed by Ballet Rambert. I can remember parts of the ballet to this day. It was called Cruel Garden and it so inspired me in some way that I wrote my first ever piece of fiction (apart from the shorts in my travel diaries) and I called it Cruel Garden, although it had nothing to do with the ballet or its subject (at least I don’t think it did). The point is that the ballet Cruel Garden was based on the life of Lorca and, in part, on Ian’s book The Death of Lorca. I did not even realise I had read the book until I started delving into my memories surrounding The Cruel Garden.’