Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Annapurna story - unexpurgated

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the first time that man reached the summit of Annapurna, Nepal, and the first time, in fact, that any mountain over 8,000 metres had been ascended to its summit. The summit was achieved by Maurice Herzog, the leader of the French expedition, and Louis Lachenal. Herzog went on to write a best-selling account of the climb and was much feted, while Lachenal died a few years later in a skiing accident. A diary and notes kept by Lachenal on the expedition were published soon after his death, but in a much edited form, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that an unexpurgated publication of Lachenal’s records revealed a number of disturbing aspects about the Annapurna expedition.

In 1950, tor the first time in over a century, the Nepalese government granted permission for a French mountaineering expedition to climb Annapurna, at 8,091 metres (26,545 ft), the highest peak in the Annapurna Massif. On 3 June, Herzog and Lachenal reached the summit, though it was only with much help from their team that they were able to return alive, both suffering severe injuries from frostbite. Wikipedia has a detailed account of the expedition - here is a short extract from its description of the final push to the summit (after the sherpas had decided to descend).

‘Not understanding that being at high altitude without additional oxygen induces apathy, in a severe gale the climbers spent the night without eating anything or sleeping, and in the morning they did not bother lighting their stove to make hot drinks. At 06:00 it was no longer snowing and they ascended farther. Finding that their boots were proving to be inadequately insulated, Lachenal, fearing losing his feet to frostbite, contemplated going down. He asked Herzog what he would do if he did turn back and Herzog replied that he would go on up alone. Lachenal decided to continue on with Herzog. A last couloir let them to the summit which they reached at 14:00 on 3 June 1950. Herzog estimated the height as 8,075 metres (26,493 ft) - his altimeter read 8,500 metres (27,900 ft). They had climbed the highest summit ever reached, the first eight-thousander, on their first attempt on a mountain that had never before been explored. Herzog, writing in his characteristically idealistic way, was ecstatic: “Never have I felt happiness like this, so intense and pure.” On the other hand, Lachenal only felt “a painful sense of emptiness”.

Lachenal was anxious to go down as soon as possible but he obliged Herzog by photographing his leader holding the Tricolour on the summit and then a pennant from Kléber, his sponsoring employer. After about an hour on the summit, not waiting for Herzog in his euphoric state to load another roll of film, Lachenal set off back down at a furious pace. Herzog, swallowing the last of his food - from a nearly empty tube of condensed milk - threw the tube down on the summit as that was the only memorial he could leave and he trailed behind Lachenal into a gathering storm.’

Leaving the mountain proved very difficult with monsoon rains arriving; both climbers lost fingers and or toes to frostbite. The expedition, however, was deemed a great success in France, with the famous magazine Paris Match printing a special edition on the climb. A photograph of Herzog, taken by Lachenal (though mistakenly not credited to him), holding a tricolour flag at the summit, graced the cover - and would become an iconic image. Herzog was kept in hospital for the best part of a year where he dictated his book, Annapurna, premier 8000, which sold over 11 million copies worldwide to become the best selling mountaineering book in history. He became the first international mountaineering celebrity after George Mallory, and went on to be a successful politician.

Lachenal, however, died of a skiing accident in 1955. Before his death, he had been preparing his own book about the expedition, based on a diary and notes he had kept, as well as a commentary which was already in typescript form. These were inherited by Lachenal’s son, Jean-Claude. However, being friendly with Herzog’s family, he allowed his father’s project to be guided by Maurice Herzog’s brother, Gérard. The resulting book - Carnets du Vertige (1956) - had been purged and edited to remove several important and serious criticisms of the expedition and Herzog himself. It would be another 40 years - during Lachenal was largely forgotten - before his diary, notes and commentary were finally published in an unexpurgated form - Carnets du Certige (1996). This, and Herzog’s subsequent attempt to rebuff Lachenal’s version of events, caused a ‘storm of revisionism’ in the French press (according to Wikipedia again). For more details on this extraordinary episode in mountaineering history, see Sue Harper in Alpine Journal, Paul Webster in The Guardian, or True Summit: What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent on Annapurna by David Roberts (Simon and Schuster, 2013 - some pages can be previewed at Googlebooks).

The latter is the source for the following extracts (which include translated examples from Lachenal’s diary).

‘[. . .] On June 10, Lachenal complained to his diary: “I have to ask for everything several times and wait forever before receiving it. Even the food - I must literally yell to get someone to bring me any. Everybody, sahibs and Sherpas alike, out of a natural attraction to the leader, fusses around Momo, who in my opinion knows how to make the most of it. All this might seem bad will on my part, certainly I probably shouldn't write it, but if not, will it be remembered afterward?” ’


‘Lachenal’s diary methodically records the daily tribulations. On June 12, “Momo was awakened by the need to piss, so I had to help him get it done.” The day before, “The descent for me was extremely painful, although a bit numbed by morphine.” On the 12th, Lachenal took the dressings off his feet to look at the damage. “They have a lot of swelling. I have to hold them vertical, exposed to the air, until the swelling almost disappears”

On June 14, Lachenal and Herzog got involved in a “violent polemic,” after disagreeing whether to camp at a notch in the ridge or, as Lachenal and Rébuffat desired, descend farther. Herzog’s wish prevailed. Lachenal's congenital impatience could not drive the stricken party’s retreat any faster than a halting plod. In one moment, he could take pity on the Sherpa carrying him on his back; in the next, he was fed up with everyone around him.

On the dangerous traverse to the pass on the south ridge of the Nilgiris, a laden porter slipped and fell to his death. Annapurna fails to note this tragedy, which only Lachenal’s diary documents.

With time heavy on his hands, Lachenal wrote lengthier entries in his diary than he had earlier, when he had still been caught up in the daily tasks of the expedition. Fully a third of the diary is given over to the retreat, and those passages abound in vivid detail. In 1956, however, Lucien Devies and Gérard Herzog condensed thirty-four days’ worth of entries into a scant two and a half undated pages in the published Carnets du Vertige. Those cobbled-together extracts disproportionately emphasize Lachenal’s occasional happy remarks, as when he notices a beautiful countryside or rejoices at receiving letters from his wife brought by couriers from distant outposts. Virtually all evidence of conflict, disgust, despair - or for that matter, morphine - has been expunged.’


‘Meanwhile, the down-to-earth Lachenal cursed the delay in Lété. All his frustration and suffering are packed into an extraordinary sentence he wrote in his diary on June 20.

“My feet give me a lot of trouble and I have truly had enough of this, of the noise of the Kali [Gandaki, the river the caravan followed], always the same, of listening constantly to people around me talking in a shrill language that I don’t understand, of suffering, of being dirty, of being hot, of being injected by idiots, of not sleeping, of not being able to move around, of being surrounded by no one who is kind to me, of passing whole days alone on my stretcher with at best one Sherpa as companion, with no sahibs, knowing full well that nothing will get done, not even ordinary tasks, without my having to ask many times and then to wait a long, long time.” ’

Life as a guerilla warrior

‘While I was asleep the men cut the trees to make clearance to establish our first camp. They picked up a place adjacent to a clear spring where they established two houses, one long, for themselves, and adjacent to it a special one. smaller, for my residence . For the roofs and walls they used black or green heavy and thick plastic tissues which come very handy, in the old time our fathers had to work several days just to make roofs for their guerilla camps out of cut grass. In two days we have functional houses in the midst of the forests complete with running water! We named this Camp Panton Weng. So I begin my new life as a guerilla warrior - picking up a long family tradition! ’ This is Hasan di Tiro, the self-appointed leader of a movement to bring independence to Aceh (in northern Sumatra), writing in the diary he kept during his active years as a rebel. He lived in exile for much of his later life, but had returned to Aceh not long before his death, 10 years ago today.

Hasan Bin Leube Muhammad (later known as Hasan di Tiro) was born in the village of Tiro, in Aceh (historically also known as Acheh), north of Sumatra (then part of the Dutch East Indies) in 1925. His great grandfather, Tengku Cik di Tiro, was an Indonesian national hero killed fighting the Dutch in 1891. He received a good education, and by the age of 20 was a socialist youth leader, identifying Aceh’s history with the Indonesian national struggle. He continued his studies in Yogyakarta (Java), where he authored two political books, and then in the US. There, he worked part time for the Indonesian Mission to the United Nations. But, while a student in New York in 1953, he declared himself ‘foreign minister’ of the rebellious Darul Islam movement (a group fighting for the establishment of an Islamic state in Indonesia). He was stripped of his Indonesian citizenship, arrested by the US authorities as an illegal alien, and imprisoned on Ellis Island. The Darul Islam rebellion in Aceh ended with a peace deal in 1962, Aceh receiving some nominal autonomy.

Di Tiro re-appeared in Aceh in 1974, where, after some personal disappointments (family and work), he began organising a separatist movement using his old Darul Islam contacts. On 4 December 1976, he launched the Aceh Sumatra National Liberation Front, better known as the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM). Its goal was total independence of Aceh from Indonesia, reflecting its pre-colonial history as an independent state; its principal military activities involved guerrilla attacks against Indonesian soldiers and police. After an attack in 1977 in which an American was killed and two other foreigners injured, di Tiro was hunted down. After being shot in the leg, he fled to Malaysia. From 1980, he lived in Sweden, and gained Swedish citizenship. After the devastating tsunami that hit Aceh in 2004, GAM and the Indonesian government signed a peace treaty giving Aceh expanded autonomy. In 2008, after 30 years of exile, di Tiro returned to Aceh. On 2 June 2010 he regained his Indonesian citizenship - a day later he died. A little further information is available online at Wikipedia.

During the height of his guerrilla activities as leader of GAM, from September 1976 to March 1979, di Tiro kept a diary. It was published by GAM in 1984 as The Price of Freedom: The unfinished diary of Tengku Hasan di Tiro. Here are a few paragraphs from a review of the book, published in late 1984, as found in Crescent International.

‘Hardly any books - sympathetic to the Achehnese cause- exist on the stark realities of this bloody war that has raged at regular intervals. The sacrifice in blood and seat of the declaration of independence of Sumatra on December 4, 1976 by the National Liberation Front (NLF). Members of the Darul Islam movement in Sumatra had regrouped under the leadership of Tengku Hasan di Tiro to fight the neo-colonial Indonesians in order to set up an Islamic State. [ . . .]

The diary of NLF President Hasan di Tiro gives a vivid account of the war fought in the snake and leech infested jungle and mountainous terrain. He moved through the entire region with a small force to declare the independence of Acheh Sumatra as an Islamic State. The date was selected for its symbolic importance. The Dutch had killed the last head of the Independent State on December 4, 1911. [ . . .]

Needless to say that this diary is a unique record as few, if any, Islamic fighters have written down their memoirs for posterity. It is not only inspiring for the Achehnese but also for other Muslims. Those who read it will realize that liberation from secular forces is not needed in Acheh alone but in other Muslim States as well. [ . . .] This intimate record with its profound observations transports the reader into the jungles of Acheh Sumatra and makes Hasan di Tiro’s struggle every Muslim’s struggle.

The full text of the diary is available (in English) at the ICIT Digital Library website for a small charge. However, a generous preview of the book is also freely available. Here are three extracts.

28 October 1976
‘On Thursday, October 28, 1976. at 2 PM. I boarded the boat that will take me to Acheh Sumatra from a mainland port of Asia with a dozen crew and about 15 guards. The boat is a 250 tonner, just a comfortable size to cross the Malacca Straits. The weather has been rough in the Andaman Sea for the last two weeks as the monsoon season is due to begin, but we are lucky to have a break of a fair weather just at the beginning of that day. As we begin sailing Southward we have a spectacular view of the mountain ranges and the green hilly islands emerging from the sea. When the sky is cloudy, the sea water here looked emerald green, and when the sky is blue, the water is also blue. When the nightfall, the dark tropical sky are strewn with countless bright stars, big and small, and as it was the beginning of the lunar month, the crescent has also appeared just above the horizon surrounded by other twinkling stars. The view is breathtakingly dramatic and peaceful. It is the calm before the storm. The purpose of my voyage has nothing to do with my surroundings. It is the antithesis of all appearances.

Many thoughts cross my mind. I think of Ceasar ’s crossing of the Rubicon that led to the civil war in Rome. My Rubicon is vastly larger and my crossing will not result in a civil war but in a national unity and in a war of national liberation to free my people from foreign domination, from the yoke of Javanese colonialism. I thought of Ceasar ’s landing in Spain, in Lerida. where he conquered the country in 40 days. But Ceasar had a legion with him. I have nothing. I come back alone - unarmed. I have no instrument of power. I brought only a message: that of national salvation and survival of the people of Acheh Sumatra as a Nation, and a reputation of a Tiro-man. No one inside the country knew of my coming or the implication of it. I face the Javanese Indonesian colonialist troops, half-a-million men strong, equipped with most modem weapons, experienced in guerilla-warfare, and had just massacred 2-million people who dared to oppose it. Yes. here I come. There is no turning back.

I thought of Napoleon ’s landing from Egypt under a vastly different circumstance. And of his landing at the Gulf of Juan from Elba. This last one must have been the most spectacular feat of personal history. I thought of Fidel Castro ’s landing in Cuba with his two-hundred comrades. I search for precedence, for guidance. I found none. Because I must face the fact that I come alone: without friend, without amis - none of my guards will be landing with me, - and without foreign backing: I do not come home to replace one colonialism with another. And yet my mission is to save my people from oblivion, to free my country from foreign domination which means to wage war of national liberation: in short to redeem the past and to justify the future of the Achehnese as a nation. Obviously the odds against me are overwhelming. But that did not stop me. I must do what I have to do.

I thought of what H. J. Schmidt had written about my family history in his book. Mareahaussee in Atjeh, published long ago that no matter what was the odd against him, a Tengku di Tiro would stand up and fight like a hero. A Tengku di Tiro will not accept defeat: he deems only two things acceptable for him: either victory, or else death. These are men, who in the free choice between life and death, would choose the latter. The last surviving Tengku di Tiro will die in the battlefield, and sooner or later will be followed by another, and another. This is going to be the last scene of every Act of a continuing Achehnese Drama that by now can no longer be played in any other way. The poignancy of this historical precedence and its relevancy to my present situation - I being the latter of the di Tiro, and the next chapter of Achehnese History is self-evident. And yet I did not do what I am doing in order to keep a record, but I did what came naturally to me. what I felt I must do. ’

31 October 1976
‘After about three hours march in the dark, we make a short rest in the village of Langgien, South of the town of Teupin Raya. Although tired, I have a sensational feeling being able to walk again on my own land, the land of my birth, after 25 years unable to set my foot on it, because the Javanese occupiers of my country would not allow me to return. I can never consent to asking foreigners permission for me to come back to my own land. After a rest of one-half hour, we proceed again toward the South, the mountain region. We begin climbing hills and descending them. Because there was rain during the day, the paths are very slippery. I fall flat on my back several times. By the time of day break we still have not reach our destination. After twice crossing the Pante Radja river, we finally reach our destination, the forest of Panton Weng, at about 7 A. M. This is a traditional guerilla hide-out, both during the war against the Dutch and during the last resistance against the Javanese Indonesians. The terrain is so hilly and covered with incredibly thick forests. One cannot see through within 15 meters, and there are many small brooks criss-crossing the forests. Everyone is so exhausted and in need to lie down. But there is no place to lie down unless one makes a clearing on the forest floor first. So the men begin to cut some trees to clear the ground just enough to lay a mat for me to lie down. In no time I fall asleep. For the first time on my own homeland in twenty-five years.

While I was asleep the men cut the trees to make clearance to establish our first camp. They picked up a place adjacent to a clear spring where they established two houses, one long, for themselves, and adjacent to it a special one. smaller, for my residence . For the roofs and walls they used black or green heavy and thick plastic tissues which come very handy, in the old time our fathers had to work several days just to make roofs for their guerilla camps out of cut grass. In two days we have functional houses in the midst of the forests complete with running water! We named this Camp Panton Weng. So I begin my new life as a guerilla warrior - picking up a long family tradition! ’

30 November 1976
‘In the morning of November 30, 1976. we leave the camp of Panton Weng for Tiro, taking Southwestern direction. The order of the march is as follow: first the Pawang party (the guides), then the advanced security guards, then my party, then the rear guards. We march single file. Even then it is difficult to avoid entanglement with forest shrubs and occasional rattan traps. Cutting of any trees, even a leaf is strictly forbidden as that can leave traces for the enemy to follow. We march in silence. This is the first long march through the forest that we have taken since my retum. Even the Pawangs are a bit hesitant in leading the way after they had not been in this part of the forests for so many years. One does not go here for pleasure. It turned out that it takes us four days of exhausting march to arrive to our new place in the mountains of Tiro. For me it was my first taste of what is more to come. It is to be the trial of body and soul.

During the march like that we are forced to sleep on the ground. We would stop marching at about 5 PM in order to be able to use the remaining day light hours to prepare for the night since fire is not to be used at night, for security reason. The men have to clear the ground over which a plastic tissue would be laid to prevent any seepage of water from below. Then a blanket would be laid down over the plastic tissue. If there is no rain, nothing further need to be done for one night stay. If there is rain then a make-shift roof must be contrived. Those who are in charge of cooking are the ones who have to work hardest, especially on rainy days when it is hardest to light the fire. But it is astonishing to see that my men, being mountain people, most of them, know exactly what trees they can light up without having to pick up the dry ones. So they have no problem starting the fire even in the rain. They know how to start the fire with a freshly cut green trees! I have read Dutch military reports during their war against us that when they came to the mountains to engage our guerillas, they had to go hungry for days in the rainy seasons because they did not know how to start the fire without using dry firewoods!

The hardest thing to do during the march when you have to climb high mountains is the carrying of rice and other food supply. You can never carry enough food sufficient for a long time. You have to break the journey for a new supply along the way. Usually our men see to it that everyone help each other and do their equal shares for hard works.

It took us four days to reach Tiro. On the third day we thought we had gotten lost and had arrived in Geumpang instead! In fact we did not get lost but everyone simply had no familiarity with the terrains anymore, even the Pawangs. It was a mistake because we did not take Pawang Baka with us whose territory this is. That every one agreed.

During this trip I had my first unforgettable hardship. It was when we were descending a very steep hill with the path all covered by slippery mud of such depth that it sometime reached up to my knees that I had to take my boots off, only to discover that the mud was infested with rattan thorns, two inches long on the average and the sharpness of which surpassed those of the roses. I had my bare feet plunged into several of these thorns. I thought the enemy must have planted them there. That was when I recalled with great nostalgia my many pleasant walks on Fifth Avenue. I really said to myself What am I doing here? It was at 2 AM and raining and we are all soaking wet, and exhausted. During these descends, Geutjhik Uma had to hold on my shoulders blades from behind in order to prevent me from falling forward down hill. ’

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Happier days must be coming

‘Once awake everyone starts louse-hunting.
At eight the gong sounds for the morning meal.
Come on, let’s go and our stomachs try to fill:
After such long misery happier days must be coming.’
This is just one of many poems written by the great Vietnamese revolutionary and politician Ho Chi Minh - born 130 years ago today - while incarcerated by the Chinese for a year or so in the early 1940s. The short undated poems were published in English as Prison Diary even though they bear no resemblance to the kind of texts normally found in literary, historical or political journals. Ho’s manuscript which contains these poems is listed by the Vietnam National Museum of History as a ‘national treasure’.

Ho (originally Nguyen That Thanh) was born on 19 May 1890 in Hoang Tru in central Vietnam, or French Indo-China as it was then known. His father worked at the imperial court but was dismissed for criticising the French colonial power. After being educated locally, Ho and his brother attended a Franco-Vietnamese academy in the city of Hué. Ho left before graduating and worked briefly as a schoolteacher before making his way to Saigon and taking a job as cook on a French vessel heading for Marseilles. From there, he began two years of travelling. He settled in London, but during the war he moved to Paris where he became a founding member of the French Communist Party. He became very involved with anti-colonial activities, and he authored a petition demanding the end of the French colonial exploitation of Vietnam (which he attempted to present to the world powers at the Versailles Peace Conference).

In 1923, Ho visited Moscow for training at Comintern, an organisation created by Lenin to foment worldwide revolution. There he became acquainted with Trotsky, Stalin and Bukhari. Two years later, he was in China with Mikhail Borodin, organising a revolutionary movement - Thanh Nien - among Vietnamese exiles. This soon established links with other nationalist and revolutionary groups inside Vietnam. In 1930, he founded the Indo-Chinese Communist Party, spending much of that decade in the Soviet Union and China. After the Japanese invasion of Indo-China in 1941, Ho returned to his home country. He founded the Viet Minh, a communist-dominated independence movement, to fight the Japanese. He adopted the name Ho Chi Minh, meaning ‘Bringer of Light’. In August 1942, he was arrested in southern China as a suspected spy, and shuffled between various prisons for a little over a year before he was allowed to return to Vietnam.

At the end of WW2, Viet Minh announced Vietnamese independence. When France refused to relinquish its colony, war broke out. After eight years of hostilities, the French were pressed into peace talks in Geneva which, ultimately, split Vietnam into a communist north and non-communist south. Ho became president of North Vietnam, and was determined to reunite Vietnam under communist rule, supporting and financing insurgents in 
American-backed South Vietnam. The communist insurgents became known as the Viet Cong, and formed the National Liberation Front. Ho began suffering from ill health and withdrew from active leadership. By 1965, the Americans had launched a full-scale military campaign against the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Ho died in 1969, and when the communists finally took the South Vietnamese capital Saigon in 1975, they renamed it Ho Chi Minh City in his honour. Further information is available at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, BBC, or this timeline.

There is no evidence that Ho Chi Minh left behind any diaries; nevertheless two years after his death, The Foreign Language Publishing House in Hanoi brought out a book by Ho translated into English (by Dang The Binh) called Prison Diary. It is not a diary by any normal sense of the word - there are no dated entries, for example - rather it is a collection of poems written during his year long imprisonment by the Chinese in 1942-1943. The book can be read online at Internet Archive or Banned Thought. Ho’s manuscript is held by the Vietnam National Museum of History in Hanoi, and is rated number 10 on a list of ‘national treasures’.

Steve Bradbury has made a more modern translation of the poems, published by Tinfish Press in 2004 as Poems from the Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh. Bradbury writes about the process of translating Ho’s poems in Issue 61 of Translation Review. He says: ‘If The Prison Diary is not a great work of literature, it is most certainly an important (albeit neglected) contribution to the 20th-century poetry of witness, and this by virtue not only of its content but also of its form.’

The following extracts are taken from the earliest translation.

In jail veteran inmates greet the newcomer;
High above white clouds are chasing black ones away.
In the sky both white clouds and black freely have gone their way;
On earth a free man is to stay a prisoner.’

Every morning the sun, emerging o'er the wall,
Beams on the gate, but the gate is not yet open.
Inside the prison lingers a gloomy pall,
But we know outside the sun has risen.

Once awake everyone starts louse-hunting.
At eight the gong sounds for the morning meal.
Come on, let’s go and our stomachs try to fill:
After such long misery happier days must be coming.’

The meal over, the sun sinks below the western horizon.
From all corners rise folk tune and popular ditty:
Suddenly this dismal, gloomy Zingsi prison
Is turned into a little music academy.’

On this side of the bars, the husband.
Outside stands the wife.
So close, only inches distant;
Yet as heaven from earth apart.
What their mouths cannot let know
Their eyes try to impart.
Before a word is said, tears flow:
Truly their plight rends your heart.’

Monday, May 18, 2020

A boiling cauldron

‘This is nothing like I had ever seen. It was much worse than any photographs of the face of the moon. It looked like a boiling cauldron, because large icebergs the size of houses from the glaciers on the mountain were buried underneath hot ash and lava. The icebergs were melting and the surface of the ash was caving in.’  This is President Jimmy Carter writing in his diary about a visit to the aftermath of the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruptions - the most disastrous such eruptions in US history. The volcanic activity had started two months earlier and culminated in a destructive earthquake on 18 May 1980 - 40 years ago today. Although Carter had always declined requests to publish his diary record of the visit to Mount St. Helens, he agreed, finally, to let journalist Jim Erickson include it in his just-published book: Memories of Mount St. Helens.

Mount St. Helens was formed about 275,000 years ago and has been the most active volcano in the Cascade Range, northwest US, during the Holocene (roughly the last 12,000 years of Earth’s history). Historical eruptions in the 19th century were witnessed by early settlers. Prior to 1980, the mountain had the shape of a conical, youthful volcano sometimes referred to as the Mount Fuji of America. But on 27 March 1980 and thereafter, it suffered a series of volcanic explosions, culminating on 18 May with a major explosive eruption. The upper 400 m of the summit was removed by a huge debris avalanche, leaving a horseshoe-shaped crater now partially filled by a lava dome and a glacier.

Some 57 people as well as thousands of animals were killed directly, hundreds of square miles were reduced to wasteland, and damage was calculated at over $1 billion - it was the most disastrous volcanic eruption in US history. Subsequently, the US Forest Service took over control of the area, which has been preserved, in an unaltered state, as the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, USGS, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Four days after the catastrophic event, President Jimmy Carter visited the site, and he wrote about the visit at some lengthy in his diary. Since then, and over the decades, he refused repeated requests to publish his account. Only now - forty years after the eruption - has he made the unedited diary entry public. Here is journalist Jim Erikson - who said the eruption was the biggest story he ever covered - explaining how access to Carter’s diary entry inspired him to complete a book about the volcano:

‘In January 2019, I began reading clips of my stories from the Tacoma News Tribune, as well as other volcano articles from the Oregonian and the Columbian, the only newspapers I had access to during the weeks I spent in Vancouver, Washington, with geologists. In February I wrote a letter to President Carter in Plains, Georgia, including a copy of my story about his visit to the volcano to establish my credibility. My request was for his memories. After a month and a half, Carter did respond, giving me permission to use his diary entry for the day of his 1980 visit. I was elated. It inspired me to contact all the other people I interviewed for my book. I collected photos to augment the book and was pleased when The History Press accepted my proposal.’

Memories of Mount St. Helens was published by The History Press in March 2020; some pages can be previewed at Googlebooks. Here is the publisher’s blurb: ‘In the spring of 1980, Mount St. Helens awoke from a century-long slumber with a series of dramatic changes. Most threatening was a bulge on the side of the snowy peak, pushing steadily outward. Near Spirit Lake, local resident Harry Truman refused to leave his lodge, even as scientists like David Johnston warned about potential destruction. On May 18, the mountain finally blew, enveloping whole communities in ash and smoke. Mudflows destroyed bridges, houses and highways, and fifty-seven people, including Truman and Johnston, lost their lives. Today, the mountain is quiet. Plants and animals have returned and hiking trails have been rebuilt, but the scars remain. Join author and journalist Jim Erickson as he recounts the unforgettable saga of the Mount St. Helens eruption.’

And here is Carter’s diary entry. (In fact, an edited version of this diary entry appears in Carter’s own published work: White House Diary - see Googlebooks. Also, see the online version of Carter’s ‘Presidential Daily Diary’ for 22 May 1980 here.)

22 May 1980
‘In the morning, about 5:30, we ran 3 miles or so. And then took helicopters. Went down the Columbia River to the Kelso area where the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers dump into the Columbia. The surge of ash carried by the rivers had clogged up the Columbia ship channel from a depth of 40 feet down to only 12 feet. We are moving hopper dredges in there as quickly as possible to get the channel opened up because a number of ships are trapped in the Portland harbor and need to get a load of cargo out.

We then went up to Toutle Valley in the helicopter - first seeing large quantities of white-looking ash. And in the narrow river valley, we eventually began to see where the blast had directly burned the trees. Fifteen miles from the volcano, the trees had been burnt instantaneously with power at least equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear explosion. The blast that followed in a few minutes had leveled every tree in an area of 150 square miles. One cubic mile off the side of the mountain had been pulverized, most of it into ash the consistency of face powder. Less than one micron in particle size. This ash had flowed down the mountain, carrying large chunks of ice, and also large rocks and molten lava.

Spirit Lake, the head of the Toutle River, was filled with 400 feet of ash and lava. The level of it had been raised 150 to 200 feet. And there was a dam 12 miles long below the lake.

This is nothing like I had ever seen. It was much worse than any photographs of the face of the moon. It looked like a boiling cauldron, because large icebergs the size of houses from the glaciers on the mountain were buried underneath hot ash and lava. The icebergs were melting and the surface of the ash was caving in.

The steam from the melting ice was rising. There were a few fires visible, but there was nothing much left to burn.

Eighty-five or 90 people were either dead or missing, including, unfortunately, some geologists who were handling the seismograph stations and instruments to assess the mountain’s volcanic activity before it erupted.

The top 1,200 feet of the mountain was missing.

We couldn’t get all the way to the mountain because of heavy steam and cloud formations. When the helicopter pilot decided to turn around, he didn’t get any argument from me.

After a press conference [in Portland], we went to Spokane. Although they only had about a half-inch deposit of ash, being 250 miles away their airport was closed [it remained so for twenty-two days] because this extremely fine powder couldn’t be controlled and was suspended in the air. 

At other places around Yakima and Ritzville the ash was as deep as 4 or 5 inches, and they’re still not able to shovel their way out through this fine powder which has a specific gravity of about 2.7. It is non-toxic, and will ultimately be incorporated into the soil or on the bottom of lakes and streams, or carried out to sea.

Frank Press [Carter’s science advisor] says this is by far the biggest natural explosion ever recorded in North America in the last 4,000 years.

Only because the volcano was very closely monitored, was the loss of life restricted. And, of course, it is in an isolated area, as well.

My inclination is not to clean up anything we don’t have to, that’s not directly effecting human life, but to let nature take its course in the valley region and around the mountain, which has a completely different geological configuration now.’

Friday, May 15, 2020

Barricading the gaol

’There is a great deal of excitement in the Town, and the Gaol Authorities fearing violence have barricaded and strengthened the Entrance, as well as made a door as close to the Court as possible by which to take the prisoners too [sic] and from Trial. I remarked that people might break doors to get out, but that I hardly thought they would break them to get into the prison.’ This is from the personal diaries of John Buckley Castieau, a colonial prison official born 190 years ago today. The edited diaries are freely available online thanks to the National Library of Australia, and are considered a ‘vital record of daily life in Melbourne during its years as one of the Empire’s leading cities’.

Very little is known about Castieau’s background. He was born on 15 May 1830 in Gosport, Hampshire, England, the son of John B. Castieau of Portsmouth and Emma née Whitcombe. With a reasonable education behind him, he emigrated to Australia in 1852, accompanied by two sisters, their parents having, perhaps, separated. Soon after arriving, he secured a position as turnkey at Melbourne Gaol. Almost immediately, he was promoted to senior turnkey then, within two years, promoted again to gaoler at the Eastern Gaol; another two years later he was governor of Beechworth Gaol (some 200km northeast of Melbourne). While at Beechworth, he was an official witness to the hanging of Ned Kelly - see Wikipedia. He married Mary Moore (who he called Polly) in 1858, and they had six children. After more than a decade, Castieau returned to Melbourne, in 1869, to serve as governor of the Melbourne Gaol; and, in 1881, he was appointed Inspector-General of Penal Establishments. He retired in 1884, partly because the authorities were dissatisfied with his performance, and partly because of ill-health. He died in 1885.

Throughout his career in the colonial prison service, Castieau kept a detailed diary. This was edited by Mark Finnane and published by the National Library of Australia (which holds the Castieau manuscripts) in 2004 as The Difficulties of My Position: The diaries of Prison Governor John Buckley Castieau, 1855-1884. The full work is freely available online at the Library’s website (and is the only online source I can find with biographical information on Castieau). A review of the book is available here.

In his introduction, Finnane says: ‘What makes Castieau exceptional in the historical record is what he left behind him - a collection of diaries that cover (intermittently) three decades of his life as prison warder, governor and inspector-general; his years as a young lad in the wild early days of the newly-separated colony; his hypochondria; his feelings as a Victorian husband and father with a capacity for ironic reflection on the relations of the sexes; and his experiences as an urban clubman who read and conversed with some of the leading figures in Victorian cultural life of the 1870s. The diaries are, above all, a vital record of daily life in Melbourne during its years as one of the Empire’s leading cities. As a rich domestic and professional daily record, they demand attention beside other personal insights into colonial life, such as those of the police functionary and clubman Frederick Standish, or even of the more literary Annie Baxter Dawbin.’ 

Here are several examples from Castieau’s diaries as found in Finanne’s book.

16 January 1855
‘Purchased this Diary for which I paid 10/- and considered reasonable, it being but 50 per cent over the Home cost.

Went to the Main Gaol to hear tidings of the State Prisoners, charged with Treason in taking up arms against the Government at Balaarat. The Judge remanded them for 10 days, stating that being charged with High Treason, they were entitled to that term of clear notice with copies of their indictments from the opening of the Sessions. Mr Ireland the Counsel for the Defence, stated he was prepared to proceed at once, but the Chief Justice preferred granting the priviledge allowed by the Law.

This conduct seems evidently to betray an inclination on the part of the Governt. to let the matter gradually drop, and in my opinion the men will not be tried at all.

There is a great deal of excitement in the Town, and the Gaol Authorities fearing violence have barricaded and strengthened the Entrance, as well as made a door as close to the Court as possible by which to take the prisoners too [sic] and from Trial. I remarked that people might break doors to get out, but that I hardly thought they would break them to get into the prison.

The Visiting Magistrate inspected the Gaol today. I wrote a letter to my sister at Geelong, enclosing one from our Father to her.’

17 March 1855
‘This was the last day of the Races, and I began early in the morning to feel much inclined to go. At length after preparing for contingencies, I tossed a Coin in the air declaring it it tell Head uppermost I would go if Tail I’d stay at home. It came down head so away I went to the Bull and Mouth, jumped into an omnibus that was about starting, and found myself on the course before the first advertised race came off. Mr Sub Inspector Smith kindly passed me on to the Grand Stand, where I of course got a good view, and although the horses were not the fastest, yet the riders evidently rode to win, and consequently made the matches somewhat exciting. Mr G.V. Brooke & Miss Cathcart with some of the Town Company were quietly starring in a corner of the Stand. I bet a sovereign during the day, but fortune frowned and I had to pay it.

Coming home I met a girl who I saw once at Dr Stillman’s. I made an appointment to go with her to the Concert Room in the evening. I met her at eight o clock. To our disgust we met the doctor at the Concert. He had come into town along with Newby, though very much against his ordinary custom. Made the best of a bad job and eventually I saw the damsel part of the way home, made another appointment. Felt very excited last evening, and chatted away to several women till I believe the Doctor thought me a great rake. However I got him and Newby to come home with me and take a nobbler or two before they made way for Richmond.’

14 November 1855
‘Went to the main Gaol with some ordinary business papers. Dr Youl called at my Gaol while I was absent. Went to the Railway Station to see Fox, arranged with him for rehearsal at the Station in the evening.

Received a lunatic from Sandhurst. Went with Neild to look over a collection of old books that had been purchased by one of his friends, bought two volumes of Elegant Extracts, a French Dictionary, Bacon’s Essays & two odd volumes tor 7/6.

Attended Rehearsal in the evening made a great deal of noise, but read the Play throughout. Got home about a quarter to eleven o clock.

Dr Webster paid ordinary visit to the Gaol. The lunatics have been very troublesome during the day.’

8 December 1856
‘Nethercott my Head Turnkey complained to me of having been annoyed by an ex-prisoner on Sunday. Nethercott had been to the Woolshed & was returning home when he called at the Alliance Hotel for a drink. Healey a man who some time since was in Gaol for 14 days, there accused him of tyranny & bullied him before several other people, inviting him to fight & daring him to come again down the Creek.
Nethercott is a very respectable man and one who simply complies with the Orders he receives from me. He is very sober & would not I am sure molest or say a disrespectful word to any person unless first insulted. I therefore advised him to summon Healey & he accordingly did so.

Tis a most annoying thing for a Government Officer to have to receive insult when he knows he has merely performed his duty. The cry of ‘Joe’ seems puerile and beyond being cared for by a man of sense but yet as it is intended to insult & annoy, none but the most callous can hear it without getting out of temper or feeling humiliated.’

20 May 1857
‘Somewhere about this time I dined at the Star with Martin, Hall, one or two others and Truwhitt a solicitor.

An argument arose relative to the power of constables & the necessity of individuals yielding themselves without resistance to their Authority when acting upon Warrant.

Truwhitt maintained that if a man were innocent he need not yield to any Warrant and that if in resisting being taken into custody such person were to Kill the Constable the law would hold him not accountable for the Constable’s death.

I said under such circumstances the person resisting a Warrant would if he killed the Constable be guilty of Murder as every man is bound to yield himself to the laws of his Country and that if a Warrant were granted the Constable would be simply performing his duty when executing it and therefore his person would be protected by the law, the question of Innocence or Guilt of the Crime charged in the Warrant having nothing to do with the Case.

The Argument produced a Bet. Truwhitt backed his opinion by betting £5 he was right. I accepted the Bet and the subject was to be decided by Mr Mayne the Barrister. I won and after considerable quibbling was paid.’

1 January 1859
‘The Beechworth Races took place. I attended two of the days and made several bets all of which I lost; one evening I played at Loo and with that Game and the Races together expended eleven pounds.

Patrick Hamilton, Coulen and a Comic Singer of the name of Pierce have been giving Concerts at the Eldorado. I went to several of them.

The Wesleyans gave a Fancy Bazaar in aid of the funds for building their chapel. I went and met a rather nice girl who was acting as Post-Mistress. She is now engaged to Le Mair and I have been introduced to her by him.

I get along very well with most people but find it a very difficult matter to save any money. I however intend to try in future to do so.

The Beechworth Garrick Club is established. I am Vice President, we find however great difficulty in getting the Members to take sufficient personal interest to keep it together.

Yesterday December 30th 1858, I took an important step in my life’s journey, that step was getting married. I was attracted at the Church of England Bazaar held about six weeks since by the many charms and eminent business capabilities of Miss Moore. We kept a Lottery together, & flirted to an extent that brought us into notoriety. Polly got very much talked about & her name severely handled, however we continued to be very much together & when the Bazaar was over, took plenty of walks, had the usual sweets lovers indulge in & innumerable quarrels. At length however we made up our minds to be man & wife. This was on Sunday December 26th; that same night we agreed to be married on the 30th.’

15 May 1870
‘Weather fine this morning though wet under foot. This is my Birthday I am forty years old now & must begin to think myself fast sliding into the middle aged man & losing the right to be considered a young one. As soon as I awoke Polly wished me many Happy Returns & sealed her wish with what I am sure was a good honest kiss, as soon as I got down stairs the youngsters all rushed & overpowered me with their congratulations. Took Harry Sissy & Dotty to church. In the afternoon Polly was about taking the children to see Mrs Smith, the girls however insisted on my taking them out as it was my Birthday so thinking to give them a treat I consented to go with Polly & Five of the youngsters to Sandridge. Godfrey was very rowdy & it was with difficulty he could be kept at all right, he shouted the whole way to Sandridge. When we got there, the Fare was 2/3. The Cabman rather a cheeky fellow said ‘I’ll toss you 2/6 or 2/-’. I laughing said ‘all right’. This raised the dander of Mrs C & she got very much out of temper & the pleasure of the afternoon was lost. I got sulky & so we dragged along disgusted with ourselves & everything around.’

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Florence’s lost diaries

Today marks the bicentenary of the birth one of Britain’s greatest heroines - Florence Nightingale, the Lady of the Lamp. She was also a lady of the diary, at least as a young woman. A few years back, one of her journals turned up, anonymously by post, to Claydon House, where Nightingale frequently stayed; and one of Florence’s biographers, Hugh Small, believes there are several more lost journals waiting to be discovered.

Nightingale was born on 12 May 1820, in Florence and named after the city, to an upper class British family. As a young woman, she shocked her family by spurning offers of marriage in order to become a nurse (which she believed God had called her to do), though her studies were initially blocked by her parents. While in Rome in 1847, she met and became friends with the British politician Sydney Herbert, who would later be instrumental in her career. In 1850, she entered an institution in Kaiserswerth, Germany, to train, and three years later was appointed superintendent of the Insitution for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in London.

The following year, in 1854 during the Crimea War, Nightingale was put in charge of nursing in military hospitals at Scutari, Turkey. There she set about starting to deal with appalling conditions of crowding, insanitation, and lack of basic necessities, as well as the hostility of local doctors. Not immediately, but within a year, she had managed to significantly reduce the death rates, though this may have been largely due to a Sanitary Commission, she had called for from Britain, which flushed out the sewers and improved the ventilation.

During her time at Scutari, she made three trips to the Crimea itself, was dangerously ill for a while, and was eventually given jurisdiction over all the army military hospitals. A report in The Times about her work led to the nickname ‘Lady of the Lamp’. However, even today there is still controversy over whether her theories as to the causes of the high death rates at the time were correct.

On her return to England in 1856, Nightingale campaigned for, and achieved, a Royal Commission on the Health of the Army. By this time she believed most soldiers in hospital were killed by poor living conditions, and was a strong advocate of improved sanitary living conditions. While still in Turkey, public interest in her work had led to the launch of a public fund which, by 1860, had sufficient funds to help Nightingale set up a training school for nurses at St Thomas’ Hospital (now part of King’s College, London). Around this time, she also wrote and published, Notes on Nursing, which sold well to the profession and to the public, and is now considered a classic introduction to nursing.

From 1857 onwards, Nightingale was intermittently bedridden and suffered from depression, though she continued to campaign for social reform, introducing trained nurses into workhouses, for example, and pioneering work in the field of hospital planning. In 1883, she was awarded the Royal Red Cross by Queen Victoria, and in 1907, she was the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit. She died in 1910. For more biographical information see Wikipedia, the Florence Nightingale Museum (in London) website, or the Victorian Web.

Twenty years ago, a diary written by Florence Nightingale suddenly turned up - anonymously in the post - at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire - see the BBC report. This is now a National Trust museum, but is where her sister lived having married into the Verney family, the owners of the house, and where Florence herself often stayed. The diary had details of her eight-month journey across Egypt, France, Greece, Italy and Austria, ending in Berlin in 1850, but contained only mundane details. More interesting diary details had already been published in Florence Nightingale in Egypt and Greece: Her Diary and “Visions” (State University of New York Press, 1997). The author, Michael Calabria, provides extensive notes and interpretations of the relatively sparse material. Some of this book is viewable at Googlebooks.

Hugh Small, author of Florence Nightingale, Avenging Angel, runs a website with many learned articles on the heroine. Earlier this year he published one on her diaries. It lists those of her papers which could be considered diary-like: a ‘commonplace book’ from 1836 with only facts and figures from her studies; a set of private notes on personal matters, dated between 1845 and 1860; the diary (as above) transcribed by Michael Calabria; a set of letters and travel descriptions for her family which formed the basis of Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile; and the 1850 diary sent to Claydon in 2000.

However, Small then says: ‘If you were to judge from the above, you would conclude that Nightingale did not often keep a diary during her first 34 years. But there is very strong evidence that the above list covers only a small fraction of the diaries that she left behind at her death.’ He points to a 1931 biography by Ida O’Malley - Florence Nightingale 1820-1856, A Study of her Life down to the End of the Crimean War - the full text can be consulted at Internet Archive.

O’Malley refers to several diary sources that have not been quoted directly by any writer since: an autobiographical text in French by Florence as a child in 1828-1830; journals for the following periods 1828-1831, 1837-1839, 1849-1850; and notes, fragments of diaries etc from 1845 onwards. And, according to Small’s analysis, the whereabouts of these papers is unknown. He concludes his article: ‘So keep your eyes open. We can only hope that in some neglected storeroom or attic there will one day be found a bundle of notebooks tied with ribbon, the little volume on top being a lined exercise book with pages 8½ inches high by 7 inches wide covered with large childish script: La Vie de Florence Rossignol, Première Volume.

Here are a few entries from the diary (as found in Ida O’Malley's biography).

22 January 1850
‘Sat long in the cold moonlight watching our approach to Philae and preparing myself for it. Moonlight walk on the island. Sitting on Philae by the temple of Isis, with the roar of the cataract, I thought I should see Him. His shadow in the moonlight in the Propylaeum.

26 January 1850
‘Yesterday I spoilt it all with dreaming. Disappointed with myself and the effect of Egypt on me. Rome was better.’

27 January 1850
‘Took my crucifix up before breakfast to lay it in the sacred dust of the chamber of Osiris.’

27-28 Janaury 1850
‘Farewell moonlight walk. All night with my head out of the window learning every line of the temples under the palms by heart. Sailed before sunrise.’

22 February 1850
‘Luxor before breakfast. Long morning by myself at old Kourna. Sat on the steps of the portico, moving with the shadow of the sun, and looking at the (to me) priceless view. God spoke to me again.’

7 March 1850
‘God called me in the morning, and asked me would I do good for Him alone without the reputation?’

12 March 1850
‘Very sleepy . . . Stood at the door of the boat looking out upon the stars and the tall mast in the still night against the sky (we were at anchor - they were all asleep and I could not go to bed) and tried to think only of God’s will, and that everything is desirable and undesirable only as He is in it or not in it - only as it brings us nearer or farther from Him.’

This article is a revised version of one first published on 13 August 2010 on the 100th anniversary of her death.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Victory in Europe Day

Today is the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, or VE Day, marking the end of the Second World War in Europe. The act of military surrender was signed by Germany on 7 May 1945, and the following day, 8 May, was declared a holiday. More than a million people spilled out onto the streets in the UK, crowds filling parts of central London. See the BBC, Wikipedia, The Royal British Legion, World War II Today for more about VE Day and past celebrations. The planned programme of events for the 75th anniversary has, of course, been decimated thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic - but see the official website, the BBC and inews for advice on relevant broadcasts and how to celebrate in lock down.

To remember VE Day first hand, as it were, here are several diary entries written on the day.

Tony Simmonds, teenager, Brighton
8 May 1945
‘VICTORY IN EUROPE DAY - I was at work - when I came back from lunch at 2 pm I found everyone in a hustle and bustle. The Manager said we were going to get out by 3.30. We did. Even then we had time to rush out to hear Churchill’s speech at 3 o’clock and a fine speech it was too.

We all knew something would happen in the evening and it did. It came right up to my fullest expectations. I just can’t describe the scene. I was alone most of the time and spent almost five hours around the Clock Tower. People just went mad - dancing, singing, chanting, shouting - the crowd just surged this way and that - The Academy, the Odeon and the Regent were all floodlit for the first time in almost six years - fire crackers, flares and even pre-war ‘jumpers’ were thrown about the streets - even into busses - all policemen ‘had their eyes shut’.

I left at just after 11 pm leaving behind me a riot going on outside the Regent - where a drunken sailor was protesting against a charge of 10/6d for a dance in the Regent Dance Hall. What a day - I shall never forget it for the rest of my life.

Our house is decorated up - four flags - a shield and red, white & blue streamers. Even Mrs Guild next door has her standard flying. As for the town itself - well I never knew there were so many flags manufactured. My bike has a big rosette and streamers on its handlebars.’

Source: Brighton in Diaries by Paul K Lyons (History Press, 2011); also the My Brighton and Hove website.


Joan Strange, young woman, Worthing
8 May 1945
‘It’s come at last. I woke up at 7 am to hear the sound of Mother wrestling with the flags (rather moth-eaten and patched, relics of Queen Victoria’s jubilee!). But we weren’t the first in the road after all as we were when Mussolini was captured in July 1943. The weather’s been good for the first of the two VE holidays. It’s been a queer sort of day, the highlights being the Prime Minister’s short broadcast at 3pm and the King’s at 9 pm. . . Hostilities cease officially at one minute past midnight tonight when it’s hoped that any fighting against the Russians will cease. Mother and I listened in to the thrilling broadcasts on the European victory. There were services in all churches and cinemas at 12 pm today.’

Source: Despatches from the Home Front, The War Diaries of Joan Strange 1939-1945 (Monarch Publications, 1989).


Vera Brittain, writer, London
8 May 1945
‘Felt disinclined to hear a “Victory” service so went to the little meeting of the London Mission at Kingsway Hall to hear Donald Soper give a really inspiring address on thanksgiving, penitence and dedication. After lunch again went back to Whitehall determined to end this War near Westminster as I ended the last. Flags now everywhere; ‘planes flying over crowds; bells ringing; mounted policemen moving back a throng which grew immense between 2.0 & 3.0; yet sense of anti-climax persisted in contrast with spontaneity of Armistice Day 1918; it was all so formal & “arranged”.

Ar 3.0 Churchill’s voice duly announced the end of the War & after silence the crowds cheered. Typically he ended with the words “Advance Britannia!” & introduced no phrase of constructive hope for a better society which renounces war. Caught a glimpse of him standing in his car as he went from Downing St. to the H. of Commons surrounded by cheering crowds, waving his hat, with the usual cigar & self-satisfied expression.

Walked half the way home for tea with Mother, thinking how strange it was that, though this time I have kept (so far) all my private world which last time I had totally lost, not one of them is here, & again I experience the end of a European war half-exasperated & half-saddened by the triviality of her preoccupations in contrast to the immensity of world events.

Dined at Rembrandt with J. von R., talked to her till past 11 p.m., when we walked to Sloane Avenue & looked at partially flood-lit buildings & a display of searchlights half-obscured by a cloudy sky; saw it from the roof of the flat. Left her at S. Kensington station & walked home with the War officially (at 1 minute past midnight) as well as actually over in Europe. Bonfires in St Luke’s Churchyard & elsewhere; Chelsea Town Hall floodlit; people in streets, but everything orderly & controlled.’

Source: Wartime Chronicle - Vera Brittain’s Diary 1939-1945 (Victor Gollancz, 1989). See also The Diary Junction.


Naomi Mitchison, writer, London
8 May 1945
‘Then we went off to Piccadilly Circus [. . .]. We had lunch at the Café [Royal) at 12.45. It wasn’t very full or decorated, nor did the people look special in any way. But when we got out there was quite a crowd. The children had wanted to go to the Zoo but Pic Circ seemed better, so we wandered along slowly, looking on. A number of other people were doing the same thing, in fact almost everyone was tired and wanting to look rather than do. They were sitting when possible, lots of them on the steps of St Martin’s. Most people were wearing bright coloured clothes, lots of them red white and blue in some form (I was wearing my kilt and blouse, much too hot, as I found). Most women had lipstick and a kind of put on smile but all but the very young looked very tired when they stopped actually smiling. [. . .]

Dick wanted to book a place at the Ivy but it was shut; we tried to get ballet tickets but there was none. We walked down to the Temple where a few people were happily resting on the benches in the gardens. It was amazing how the half blitzed trees had sprouted again. [. . .] After dinner we walked back down to Pic Circ again. There were a lot more drunks and broken bottles than earlier, and a few people crying or having hysterics or collapsing, and a lot of ambulances. But still most people were looking on; there was a man doing antics on one of the roofs but he didn’t fall off. People were sitting all along the pavements, no general dancing. We wandered round, looking for a pub, as Jack was longing for a beer. My feet were getting very sore indeed so that I could hardly think of anything else. I was also very tired after my journey. Americans (and perhaps others but one always blames the poor Yanks!) were throwing crackers which weren’t altogether popular. Jack and I always jumped. [. . .]

In The Doves there was nobody we knew. People were singing but (just like everywhere else) with the minimum of tune. I think mostly There’ll always be an England and Roll out the Barrel . . . Val came in just before midnight and we went on the roof and looked at the searchlights whirling round and reflected beautifully in the river. Then we listened to the midnight news and went to bed.’

Source: Among you taking notes . . . The Wartime Diary of Naomi Mitchison 1939-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1986). See also The Diary Junction and The Diary Review - Ordinary people.


Frances Partridge, writer, Newbury
8 May 1945
‘At three o’clock Churchill delivered the promised announcement. Afterwards we drove to Newbury to get the other Inkpen [village west of Newbury] children from school. Every cottage had a few flags hung out, and in most of them a dummy-like figure of an old person could be seen at an upper window. Near Newbury we had a narrow escape from a drunken lorry-driver veering from side to side of the road - he made the V-sign as we passed. Bicyclists were hurrying in to Newbury dressed in their best; little girls wore satin blouses and red, white and blue bows in their hair.’

Source: A Pacifist’s War - Diaries 1939-1945 (Phoenix, 1999). See also The Diary Junction.

This article is a revised version of one first published 5 years ago on 8 May 2015.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Tchaikovsky’s poison

‘It is said that to abuse oneself with alcoholic drink is harmful. I readily agree with that. But nevertheless, I, a sick person, full of neuroses, absolutely cannot do without the poison . . .’ So confided the great Russian composer, Tchaikovsky, born 180 years ago today, to his diary. Although the diaries are full of references to his drinking, they reveal nothing about his inclination towards homosexuality; they do, though, provide lots of comment on other musicians and on writers: he was a great fan of Tolstoy, and admired the composers Beethoven and Mozart, but considered Brahms a ‘scoundrel’.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on 7 May 1840 in the Ural Mountains near the metal works where his father worked. He started piano lessons at five, and, while at the School of Jurisprudence, between 1850 and 1859, he helped in a choir. Although he began his career at the Ministry of Justice, he did not stay long there, preferring to enter the St Petersburg Conservatory, where he worked under Anton Rubinstein and Nikolai Zaremba. Later, he taught at the new Moscow Conservatory. Although his First Symphony was given a good reception in 1868, a year later his first opera, The Voyevoda, flopped. Subsequent works were largely successful.

In the mid-1870s, he found a patron in Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow, and this allowed him to give up teaching. Though they never met, the two corresponded for over 13 years. In an attempt to deal with growing concerns about his sexuality, Tchaikovsky married an admirer in 1877. But the marriage failed almost immediately, and he plunged into an emotional crisis and an attempted suicide. His brother, also a homosexual, took him back to St Petersburg. Thereafter, as he travelled widely across Europe, and, once, to the US, his fame as a conductor and composer grew. Although it was said he died of cholera, some researchers suggest he may have committed suicide out of fear that his affair with a Russian nobleman would be exposed. More biographical information is available online at the Tchaikovsky Research website, Wikipedia, or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Tchaikovsky kept a diary during the latter years of his life, and this was first translated (by Wladimir Lakond) and published (by W. W. Norton, New York) in 1945. However, nearly half a century earlier, G. Richards in London published Tchaikovsky - His life and works, with extracts from his writings, and the diary of his tour abroad in 1888. This latter book is freely available online at Internet Archive, but the 1888 ‘diary’ reads as though it were written as a memoir not a diary. See The Diary Junction for some links to online extracts of Tchaikovsky’s diary.

Academics have, naturally, examined the diaries very closely, not least in search of some clues concerning the composer’s sexuality. In his book Musical Musings Petr Beckmann has a chapter on How Homosexual Was Tchaikovsky?, and this is available online at Fort Freedom. Beckmann notes, first of all, that the musicologist E. Yoffe believes there is nothing in Tchaikovsky’s ‘voluminous correspondence (5,000 letters) or in his eleven diaries (1873, 1884, 1886-1891) that refers directly to his alleged homosexuality’.

Beckmann explains that Tchaikovsky’s diaries often contain brief, even one-word entries (‘A walk. Newspapers. Whist. Supper at home.’) and very frequently contain statements about his inclination to drink: ‘I drank a good deal’; ‘Drunkenness’; ‘Felt bad from drunkenness’; ‘Drunkenness at the [railroad] station’; ‘Drunkenness during intermission [at the opera]’. However, Beckmann then goes on to discuss some ambiguous entries in the diaries where Tchaikovsky writes of unspecified ‘inclinations’.

Beckmann concludes as follows: ‘I know only of two places in Tchaikovsky’s diaries and correspondence where he expresses disgust at himself for some behavior or habit whose nature he does not indicate. Homosexuality is a distinct possibility, though I have given reasons why that appears unlikely, or at least no more likely than his (documented) addiction to alcohol or an (entirely speculative) addiction to drugs. Should homosexuality prove nevertheless correct, it would be but an additional symptom in a high-strung over-sensitive man who was emotionally severely maladjusted, or even disturbed.’

As for the diaries themselves, the excellent Tchaikovsky Research website provides comprehensive information on all the surviving manuscripts and fragments. It also has available many extracts, newly translated into English. The main diary index provides a portal to view extracts from April-June 1884 and February-April 1886, but other extracts in English can be found when viewing the results of searches on individual topics, such as other composers.

20 February 1886
‘Bright, frosty, but spring is near, - the snow was melting in the sunshine, and during the day it was just as warm in the gallery as in the room. After tea I went to the school, but a mass was in progress (somebody’s funeral service) and there were no lessons. I wrote with success. After dinner I walked to the river via Praslovo (but skirting it to avoid the urchins). During tea I read Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”. I like it very much, and yet I’m not a Shakespearist. I worked splendidly in the evening. After supper I fussed over my choice of Mozart for the suite, playing them through until 11.30. Aleksey sorted out all my letters today. Photographs.’

13 July 1886
‘When I made the acquaintance of L N Tolstoi I was overcome by fear and a sense of awkwardness in front of him. It seemed to me that this supreme student of human nature would, with one glance, be able to penetrate into all the recesses of my soul. In his presence, so I thought, there was no longer any way of successfully concealing all the rubbish which I have at the bottom of my soul and just showing myself from the bright side. If he is kind (and that he must be, of course), I said to myself, then he will tactfully and gently, like a doctor investigating a wound who knows all the places that hurt, avoid touching and irritating these, but in this way he will also make me feel that nothing is hidden from him; if, on the other hand, he is not particularly compassionate, he will stick his finger straight into the sorest spot. I was terribly afraid of either of these situations. However, neither the one nor the other actually occurred. In his writings the most profound student of human nature, he turned out to be a simple, sound, and sincere person in his treatment of other people, and he revealed very little of that all-knowingness which I had been afraid of. He did not avoid touching [these sore spots], but neither did he seek to cause deliberate pain. It was clear that he by no means saw in me an object for his investigations; rather, he simply wanted to chat with me about music - something that he was interested in at the time. Amongst other things, he liked to reject Beethoven and openly expressed doubts as to his genius. Now that is a trait which is not at all characteristic of a great man, since bringing down to the level of one's ignorance a genius who has been recognized as such by all, is typical of narrow-minded people.

Perhaps never in my life has my composer’s pride been so flattered and moved as when L N Tolstoi, sitting beside me and listening to the Andante from my First Quartet, burst into tears.’

11 July 1886
‘It is said that to abuse oneself with alcoholic drink is harmful. I readily agree with that. But nevertheless, I, a sick person, full of neuroses, absolutely cannot do without the poison against which Mr Miklukho-Maklai [a Russian anthropologist] protests. A person with such a strange name is extremely happy that he does not know the delights of vodka and other alcoholic drinks. But how unjust it is to judge others by yourself and to prohibit to others that which you yourself do nor like. Now I, for example. am drunk every night, and cannot do without it. What should I do then . . .’ (This extract can be found on the Fort Freedom website.)

2 October 1886
‘Probably after my death people will be interested to know what my musical passions and prejudices were, especially since I rarely expressed these in conversation.

I shall make a small start now and eventually, when I get to those composers who lived at the same time as me, I will also discuss their personalities.

I’ll start with Beethoven, whom it is customary to praise unconditionally - indeed, one is supposed to cringe before him as before God. And so, what does Beethoven mean to me?

I bow before the greatness of some of his works, but I do not love Beethoven. My attitude towards him reminds me of how I felt as a child with regard to God, Lord of Sabaoth. I felt (and even now my feelings have not changed) a sense of amazement before Him, but at the same time also fear. He created heaven and earth, just as He created me, but still, even though I cringe before Him, there is no love. Christ, on the contrary, awakens precisely and exclusively feelings of love. Yes, He was God, but at the same time a man. He suffered like us. We are sorry for Him, we love in Him His ideal human side. And if Beethoven occupies in my heart a place analogous to God, Lord of Sabaoth, then Mozart I love as a musical Christ. Besides, he lived almost like Christ did. I think there is nothing sacrilegious in such a comparison. Mozart was a being so angelical and child-like in his purity, his music is so full of unattainably divine beauty, that if there is someone whom one can mention with the same breath as Christ, then it is he.

Speaking about Beethoven, I have stumbled across Mozart. It is my profound conviction that Mozart is the highest, the culminating point which beauty has reached in the sphere of music. Nobody has made me cry and thrill with joy, sensing my proximity to something that we call the ideal, in the way that he has.

Beethoven also caused me to shudder. But it was rather out of something akin to fear and painful anguish.’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 7 May 2020.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

My unjust condemnation

‘I was with General Lafayette, invited by him to discuss reconciliation with Bolívar. I explained to him the origin and the development of our enmity, the persecution I suffered, the outrages, and my unjust condemnation; I told him that Bolívar was vindictive and proud, and that in my current disgrace I should not neither abate myself nor humiliate myself, and that with these principles he could use me as much as seem convenient and opportune to him.’ This is from a diary kept by Francisco de Paula Santander, one of the founders of Columbia who died 180 years ago today, after being exiled to Europe. His diaries have only been published in Spanish, but a few extracts in English can be found online in Revista Brasileira de História.

Santander was born in the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Granada, not far from the Venezuelan border, in 1792 to a cocoa farmer and his wife, both descendants of Spanish aristocracy. He studied law, but was attracted by the growing movement for independence. By the age of 18, he had taken up a military career with the federalists. He was promoted rapidly, and was at the front line during several defining battles in the war for independence from the Spanish colonies. He fought under Simón Bolívar for many years, being made a general when only 24. Unhappy with his role, though, he resigned within a few months. In 1821, after the Constitution of Cúcuta (the founding document and constitution for Gran Colombia) was proclaimed, 
Bolívar was elected president, and Santander vice president; Santander, though, was placed in charge of the government while Bolívar headed to Venezuela to propose a wider union of territories.

As acting president, Santander sent trade missions around the world and managed to persuade Great Britain and the US to recognise Gran Colombia as a state. The new nation, though, was in a turbulent economic state, having endured a prolonged state of war. In time, a rift in ideology developed between Santander and Bolívar  especially over their views on the future of Gran Colombia - Santander seeing its future as a separate country, and Bolívar wanting to create a unified South American state. In 1828, Bolívar declared himself dictator and abolished the vice-president position, effectively cutting Santander off from all political power and influence. Just weeks later, Santander was arrested for an assassination attempt on Bolívar. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. Bolívar pardoned him, but forced him into exile. Two years later, Gran Colombia was dissolved, and Bolívar died soon after (aged 47).

Santander returned from exile to New Granada in 1832, having learned much from his time in Europe. Under a new constitution, he was selected to be president, a post he then held until 1836. That same year, he married Sixta Pontón, and they had three children. As president, he ordered the execution of several Spanish officers in captivity and reinstated many of the doctrines that had been overturned by Bolívar  More specifically, he advanced public education, and signed a final peace treaty with Spain. He died in 1840, like Bolívar at the aged of 47. Further information is available from Wikipedia, New World Encyclopedia, and Totally History.

During his exile in Europe Santander kept a diary, eight notebooks in all, but these were only revealed for the first time in 1948 by the National Museum of Colombia. The diaries were then published, in 1963, with the sponsorship of the Colombian Banco de la República as Diario del general Francisco de Paula Santander en Europa y los EE. UU., 1829-1932. A review of this, in English, can be read at the Hispanic American Historical Review website.

Subsequently, in 1989, the Biblioteca de la Presidencia de la Republica in Bogotá published a two volume edition: Santander en Europa: Diario de viaje, 1829-1830. There is no English edition of Santander’s diaries. However, in 2013, the periodical, Revista Brasileira de História, published an essay, in English, by Libertad Borges Bittencourt on Santander’s diary: To write, to tell, to keep: the diary of Santander in European exile (1829-1832). And this is freely available online at Scielo. Here are a few extracts as found in Bittencourt’s essay.

‘7 November 1829
‘Today it is one year since Urdaneta [president of Gran Columbia 1830-1831] pronounced my death sentence, violating all the rights and laws of justice.’

6 May 1830
‘I was with General Lafayette, invited by him to discuss reconciliation with Bolívar. I explained to him the origin and the development of our enmity, the persecution I suffered, the outrages, and my unjust condemnation; I told him that Bolívar was vindictive and proud, and that in my current disgrace I should not neither abate myself nor humiliate myself, and that with these principles he could use me as much as seem convenient and opportune to him.’

7 May 1830
‘they were talking with me about the projected reconciliation with Bolívar. I told them decidedly that on my part the reconciliation could be made under the following conditions: 1) that the political regime in Colombia would be republican and partially federative; 2) that General Bolívar, in good faith, would agree to this and govern without privileging any parties and in conformance with the law; 3) that all the outrages and persecutions I suffered would be remedied. On the other hand, I cannot commit myself to anything, because that would mean humiliation and debasement, unworthy of me and prejudicial to the welfare of my homeland.’

26 June 1830
‘There I heard of Bolívar’s new farce in Bogotá in April and read some public documents from Bogotá. In summary there was a movement in Casanare in favor of the Venezuela pronouncement, for which reason the principal neighbors of Popayán sent a petition to Congress, dated 29 March, stating that it was necessary to cede to the nature of things and the impulse of public opinion, forming a confederation to prevent war with Venezuela, which the Granadines did not want to do this because the Venezuelans should not be considered, according to the principles of public law, as factions, since a large dissident part of a state which had the means to support their decisions could not be treated like this. They conclude by asking for the convocation of a Granadine congress and the adoption of a federal regime which is desired on a daily basis by people with an imperious need. Another document signed by General Obando in Bogotá expresses equal feeling and talks of the effervescence in the capital. Based on all of this the provisional government of Bogotá (D. Caycedo, Osorio, Márquez and Herrán), or instigated by Bolívar, who saw that the opinion was decided in favor of the Venezuela pronunciation and the federation, sent a message to the Congress on 15 April inviting it to dissolve and to meet in a new convention in New Granada. This produced a great altercation in Congress when García Del Rio and De Francisco called the provisional government revolutionary and traitors. Nevertheless, the ministers of England, Brazil, and the United States had sent a note to the government, without the interest of intervening in domestic affairs and without being able to appreciate the reasons for the message of the government to Congress, declaring that any secession of Colombian territory would impose on them the duty to withdraw, taking their functions to be finished and that any treaties with Colombia on the part of their respective governments would be considered invalid. This scandalous note produced its effect: the Council declared that it would preserve national integrity and the Council of State proclaimed Bolívar as president, with the debates in the Chamber being suspended. Bolívar returned to his mandate.

27 August 1830
‘To my answer that I was no longer one, because my country was an independent state and called Colombia, they asked me several questions about our army, the way of fighting war, and, particularly about Bolívar; I sought to be moderate about the political conduct of our Liberator and praised his military conduct; the officer answered that irrespective of what I had said there were important men in Colombia who were opposed to the political conduct of Bolívar, which to him seemed doubtful whether or not they were without ambition. My answer was reduced to saying that in effect he had personal enemies and enemies of his political principles, and that time would say with justice which was right. The officer named Sucre as being opposed to Bolívar and, not remembering my name, said these precise words: “There is another general who was president of Colombia when Bolívar was in Peru who they say demonstrated great talent and many services, and who positioned himself completely against the ideas of Bolívar, as he supported the laws of his country.” This praise made me flush, but I did not reveal myself. However, my servant, in a stop to change horses shortly afterwards, revealed who I was, and the officer paid me many flattering compliments.’

16 September 1831
‘I was presented to the king in his palace of Neuilly by Count Saint Maurice; I went with a complete military uniform, and the king, the queen, and Mme. Adelaida, the king’s sister, asked me different question about the geography of Colombia and its political situation. The king told me that we should not fear any attack from Spain, for which it would be necessary to form a government that would inspire confidence in Europe and maintain public order.’