Monday, December 29, 2008

Four cafes a night

‘The cafe routine. After work, or trying to write or paint, you come to a cafe looking for people you know. Preferably with someone, or at least with a definite rendez-vous. . . One should go to several cafes - average: four - in an evening.’ So wrote Susan Sontag in her diary, exactly 50 years ago today. A first collection of her diary entries has just been published in the US, and is set for publication in the UK in January.

Susan was born in New York City in 1933 to Jack Rosenblatt and Mildred Jacobsen, both Jewish Americans. Her father ran a fur trading business in China, where he died of tuberculosis when Susan was five. Seven years later, her mother remarried, to Nathan Sontag whose surname Susan took. She studied philosophy and literature at the University of Chicago, but also spent time at Harvard, Oxford and the Sorbonne. When only 17, she married Philip Rieff, and they had one son, David, before divorcing in 1958.

After teaching philosophy at Columbia University for a while, Sontag began to focus exclusively on writing. She produced several novels (and plays), starting with The Benefactor in 1963, and ending with The Volcano Lover in 1992 and In America in 1999. She also wrote and directed several films. However, it was as an essayist that she is probably best remembered.

Against Interpretation, published in 1966, helped establish her reputation as a ‘dark lady of American letters’ (according to the neoconservative theorist Norman Podhoretz), and in 1977, she wrote a ground-breaking essay called On Photography. Over the next two or three decades, she wrote widely on photography, as well as about novels, film, the media and illness. She was also a busy human rights activist, and served, from 1987 to 1989, as president of the American Center of PEN, the international writers’ organization. She died on 28 December 2004, four years ago yesterday.

Sontag was also a diarist, and her son, David Rieff, a writer on international issues, has been preparing the diaries for publication. A first volume published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux - Reborn: Early Diaries, 1947-1964 - came out in the US a few weeks ago (see and is due for publication by Hamish Hamilton in the UK on 1 January (see

According to the publisher’s blurb, Reborn is ‘a kaleidoscopic self-portrait of one of America’s greatest writers and intellectuals, teeming with Sontag’s voracious curiosity and appetite for life’. The Independent, previewing the book last November, says it unveils ‘an intimate portrait of her early life and her much talked-about sexuality’. And it quotes one passage from when she was still only 15: ‘I am very young, and perhaps the most disturbing aspects of my ambitions will be outgrown . . . so now I feel I have lesbian tendencies (how reluctantly I write this).’

The Independent also quoted Rieff on the difficulties he had had with publishing such frank and personal material: ‘It was a difficult decision for me to make and my reasons are that I didn’t have much choice given the fact that she chose to sell the papers to the University of California. So later, down the line, editions of it would inevitably be published, so I would rather do it myself . . . I certainly made every effort in the editing not to cut anything on the basis of my being uncomfortable with it, and not to cut anything my mother might have preferred the world not to know.’

A generous helping of Sontag’s diary extracts can be found on the New York Times website, which published an article about her diary-writing more than two years ago. It says her interest in traditional journal-keeping - with dated entries and considered sentences - was ‘episodic’. There are outbreaks of diary writing, it explains, though more typical are lists (movies seen, books to read etc.). Although sometimes in her life she traces every detail of her private life with anxious care, it adds, at other times close relationships seem hardly to have been recorded. 

Of particular note is this comment: ‘Seen in the light of her accomplishments and celebrity, Sontag’s life seems to have an admirable coherence. Her public persona was durable and unmistakably hers. But in the journals, the effort of it appears again and again: the reworking of the life and ideas, the total concentration, along with the excitement she felt when things were finally going well. She often meditates on this constant self-construction, and indeed some aspects of her life - the mixing of high and low culture, the sexual enthusiasm, the passionate intellectualism - would become, beginning in the 1960s, hallmarks of the Downtown life.’

Here are a few extracts from the diaries, starting with one written exactly 50 years ago today.

29 December 1958, Paris
‘St. Germain des Prés. Not the same as Greenwich Village, exactly. For one thing, expatriates (Americans, Italians, English, South Americans, Germans) in Paris have a different role + self-feeling than provincials (e.g. kids from Chicago, the West Coast, the South) who come to New York. No rupture of national identification, and mal-identification. Same language. One can always go home. And, anyway, the majority of Villagers are New Yorkers - internal, even municipal, expatriates.

The cafe routine. After work, or trying to write or paint, you come to a cafe looking for people you know. Preferably with someone, or at least with a definite rendez-vous. . . One should go to several cafes - average: four - in an evening.

Also, in New York (Greenwich Village) there’s the shared comedy of being Jewish. That’s missing, too, from this bohemia. Not so heimlich. In Greenwich Village, the Italians - the proletarian background against which deracinated Jews + provincials stage their intellectual and sexual virtuosity - are picturesque but pretty harmless. Here, turbulent marauding Arabs.’

31 December 1958
‘On Keeping a Journal. Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts - like a confidante who is deaf, dumb and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.

The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather - in many cases - offers an alternative to it.

There is often a contradiction between the meaning of our actions toward a person and what we say we feel toward that person in a journal. But this does not mean that what we do is shallow, and only what we confess to ourselves is deep. Confessions, I mean sincere confessions of course, can be more shallow than actions. . .

Nothing prevents me from being a writer except laziness. A good writer.

Why is writing important? Mainly, out of egotism, I suppose. Because I want to be that persona, a writer, and not because there is something I must say. Yet why not that too? With a little ego-building - such as the fait accompli this journal provides - I shall win through to the confidence that I have something to say, that should be said.

My ‘I’ is puny, cautious, too sane. Good writers are roaring egotists, even to the point of fatuity. Sane men, critics, correct them - but their sanity is parasitic on the creative fatuity of genius.’

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Right and wrong in poetry

Hanazono, the 95th emperor of Japan, began his reign 700 years ago today (according to Wikipedia’s 28 December listing). However, after only 10 years he abdicated, and focused his attention on religious and literary matters. He also wrote a diary. Although there is very little information about him or his diary in English, there are a couple of extracts from the diary online, and these demonstrate a keen interest in music and poetry.

According to Wikipedia, Tomihito-shinnō was born on 14 August 1297, and died on 2 December 1348. He was the fourth son of the 92nd Emperor Fushimi, and belonged to the Jimyōin-tō branch of the Imperial Family. He became Emperor Hanazono after the abdication of his second cousin, the Emperor Go-Nijō. His reign as emperor started exactly seven centuries ago according to Wikipedia’s event listing for this day of the year. (Of course, such exact dates from so long ago can only be tied down to the Gregorian calendar with much approximation.)

During Hanazono’s reign, both his brother and father, the retired-Emperor Fushimi, are said to have exerted influence as cloistered emperors. And the reign was marked by negotiations with another family line that claimed the throne and the Bakufu (military). An agreement to alternate the throne every 10 years between the two lines (the so-called Bumpō Agreement) was broken by Emperor Go-Daigo, Hanzono’s second cousin, who took over when Hanazono abdicated in 1318.

In 1335, Hanazono became a Buddhist monk of the Zen sect. He was considered very religious, never failing to miss prayers to the Amitabha Buddha. He was also literate, and is said to have excelled at tanka, a kind of poetry. He left behind a diary, Wikipedia says, called Hanazono Tennō Shinki (Imperial Chronicles of the Flower Garden Temple). There is very little information about this diary online and in English, but a couple of books, viewable on Googlebooks, use short extracts.

Sacred Gardens and Landscapes: Ritual and Agency by Michel Conan says this: ‘Emperor Hanazono describes in his diary an imperial progress in the fourth month of 1320; on this occasion, when the imperial party boarded two boats and played music in them under the moonlight, as the parties rowed around the lake, he observes that ‘the sounds of the wind and string instruments and the water’s voice from the waterfall filled our ears’. ’

Another quote from Hanazono Tennō Shinki can be found in Buddhas and Kami in Japan: Honji Suijaku as a Combinatory Paradigm, edited by Mark Teeuwen and Fabio Rambelli. However, it comes (slightly modified) from another book Kyogoku Tamekane: Poetry and Politics in Late Kamakura Japan by Robert N Huey.

‘Ordinary people do not understand these religious truths. Tameyo, who claims the main descent from Shunzei and Teika, has no idea of such things. They just made no impression on him. He jealously holds to the six modes of poetry and cannot see the true meaning of the art. Yet most of the world follows him, and the true Way of Poetry is gradually being abandoned . . . In recent years I have met with the holy man of Sōko and learned the tenets of religion. I have also met with Shinsō Hōnin and heard doctrines of Tendai. I have perused the Five Classics and have come to understand the doctrine of Confucianism. With this knowledge I have thought anew about the Way of Poetry. Truly the distinction between right and wrong in poetry is like that between heaven and earth.’

Friday, December 19, 2008

Emily Brontë peels apples

Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights one of the classics of British 19th century literature, died 160 years ago today aged only 30. There is no evidence that she kept a diary or journal, however she did write four diary-like pieces in collaboration with her sister Anne, and these, in fact are the only pieces of autobiographical writing that Emily left behind. All of them are freely available online - and very domestic they are too.

Emily was born on 30 July 1818 at Thornton near Bradford in Yorkshire, the fifth of six children. In 1820, the family moved to Haworth, also in Yorkshire, where Emily’s father was curate. The following year, Emily’s mother died, and her sister joined the household. The children were sent away to school at various times during their lives, but when at home they encouraged each other in imaginative games and writing. Emily worked for a while as a governess, and taught the piano. In 1842, she and two surviving sisters travelled to Brussels to improve their French, with the idea of starting a school on their return. But that plan never came to fruition. A year or two later, though, they published an edition of their poetry under pseudonyms (Ellis for Emily, Currer for Charlotte, and Acton for Anne).

In 1847, Emily published her only novel, Wuthering Heights. Although now considered a classic of English literature, Wikipedia says, it met with mixed reviews initially, ‘with many horrified by the stark depictions of mental and physical cruelty’. Oddly, Wikipedia’s entry on Wuthering Heights is much longer that the one on Emily. In September 1848, Emily caught a cold at the funeral of her brother, and this led to tuberculosis. She refused medical help and died 19 December 1848, 160 years ago today.

There are no records of Emily Brontë ever having kept a diary. However, there are four autobiographical pieces which seem to have been written as one-off diary entries. Two of them were written with her sister, Anne, in 1834 and 1837, and signed together - these are referred to as Diary Papers. And two were written by Emily on her birthdays in 1841 and 1845, and these are referred to both as Diary Papers and Birthday Papers. They can all be found online, for example at the website of the Brooklyn College English Department, and in several biographies, such as Emily Brontë by Lyn Pykett, published by Rowman & Littlefield, in 1989 (viewable at Googlebooks).

Pykett says, of the 1834 fragment, that it hardly suggests ‘the sixteen-year-old Emily is undergoing a stormy adolescence’ and instead offers ‘a sufficiently mundane impression of the daily life of the Haworth Parsonage’. Moreover, she adds, Emily’s ‘tenuous grasp of spelling and punctuation’ only adds to ‘the general impression of rather happy-go-lucky chaos’ in a ‘scene of female industry’.

Here is the 1834 Diary Paper, dated 24 November.

‘I fed Rainbow, Diamond Snowflake Jasper pheasant (alias) this morning Branwell went down to Mr. Driver’s and brought news that Sir Robert Peel was going to be invited to stand for Leeds Anne and I have been peeling apples for Charlotte to make us an apple pudding and for Aunt nuts and apples Charlotte said she made puddings perfectly and she was of a quick but limited intellect. Taby said just now Come Anne pilloputate (i.e. pill a potato) Aunt has come into the kitchen just now and said where are your feet Anne Anne answered On the floor Aunt papa opened the parlour door and gave Branwell a letter saying here Branwell read this and show it to your Aunt and Charlotte - The Gondals are discovering the interior of Gaaldine Sally Mosley is washing in the back kitchen

It is past Twelve o’clock Anne and I have not tidied ourselves, done our bedwork or done our lessons and we want to go out to play we are going to have for Dinner Boiled Beef, Turnips, potatoes and applepudding. The Kitchin is in a very untidy state Anne and I have not done our music exercise which consists of b major Taby said on my putting a pen in her face Ya pitter pottering there instead of pilling a potate I answered O Dear, O Dear, O dear I will directly with that I get up, take a knife and begin pilling (finished) pilling the potatoes papa going to walk Mr. Sunderland expected.

Anne and I say I wonder what we shall be like and what we shall be and where we shall be if all goes on well in the year 1874 - in which year I shall be in my 54th year Anne will be going in her 55th year Branwell will be going in his 58th year And Charlotte in her 59th year hoping we shall all be well at that time we close our paper’

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

1798 - year of woe

Mary Leadbeater, an Irish poet and diarist, was born 250 years ago this month. Her diary, published as The Annals of Ballitore, provides a literary but graphic account of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, as well as an incredibly moving account of the death of her own daughter - ‘so beautiful, so engaging, so beloved’ - which is reproduced below. 

Born in December 1758 (the exact date is not known), Mary Shackleton was the daughter of the schoolmaster in Ballitore, a village in County Kildare founded by the Quakers in the 1700s. She travelled to London with her father in 1784, where they paid several visits to Edmund Burke’s town house, and where she met Sir Joshua Reynolds and George Crabbe. In 1791, she married William Leadbeater, a former pupil and teacher at her father’s school, and they settled in Ballitore. More biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, The Diary Junction, and Library Ireland.

Mary Leadbeater’s first published work, Extracts and Original Anecdotes for the Improvement of Youth, appeared anonymously in 1794, but she went on to publish collections of poems and several books - Her Cottage Dialogues and The Landlord’s Friend for example - which are considered to provide insight into the domestic and communal life of rural Ireland at the time. She is best remembered, though, for her diary, which she began aged only 11, and which she continued writing until a few years before her death in 1826. Extracts from this, entitled The Annals of Ballitore, were published in the first volume of The Leadbeater Papers in 1862. The full text can be read online at Internet Archive or Googlebooks.

Her first hand account of the Irish Rebellion in 1798 is particularly harrowing. Ballitore was occupied first by yeoman and soldiers and them by insurgents. The Leadbeaters themselves narrowly escaped death, but they then suffered the death of their daughter. Here is a longish extract from the Annals, dated almost exactly 210 years ago, the last weeks of 1798, in which Mary Leadbeater writes about her daughter’s dying.

‘A general rebuilding of the ruined houses now took place, but even this work was in a great measure carried on by plunder. The stately trees of Ballitore were often missed in the morning, and we could hear at night the sound of their being felled and the creaking of the cars which took them away. Desolation threatened in various shapes - the darkness of the winter nights was illumined by the fires of the houses burnt by the insurgents, and fatal was their vengeance. One man whom they thought they had killed and had thrown into a ditch, pulling down part of the bank upon him, was not fatally injured, struggled out of his grave, ran naked to Baltinglass, and convicted his intended murderers. A large burial moved through Ballitore with a kind of indignant solemnity. It was that of a young man who had been hanged, and whose father, on his son’s being apprehended, put an end to his own life. Such were the tragedies with which we were surrounded, and with which we had grown shockingly familiar.

Thus were we circumstanced when a sore domestic calamity seemed to fill up the measure of our sufferings. We thought we had a little respite from our foes, and we were once more assembled in peace around Mary and Anne’s fireside, when our dear little Jane was trusted by me with a wax taper to go up stairs alone. The staircase was short, and her grandmother was in her own room with her attendant. I was not used to be so incautious, and the thought crossed my mind, ‘Is it safe?’ A distinct voice seemed to reply, ‘The child is so steady;’ and all recollection of her left me till I heard her shrieks. Then the truth flashed upon me, and I accused myself of having murdered my child! She had gone into another room than her grandmother’s, and had laid down the taper; it caught her clothes, and the flames were not easily extinguished. A kind of convulsion stiffened her for a moment; the burns though extensive were but skin-deep, and those around us assured us she was in no danger. Alas, we were not aware that the fright she got had stopped the circulation of the blood. 0! why were we not aware of it? Let this be remembered by others, and may no one else experience the distress caused by our error.

The dear child soon ceased to complain of pain, kissed all those about her, and was cheerful, yet all night was thirsty, wakeful, and cold, with but little pulse. In the morning her whole form and sweet countenance underwent a momentary revolution which I cannot describe. We had sent to Athy for a doctor, but he said nothing could be done. Meantime, unconscious that she was leaving us, the dear innocent got her book and her work into her bed, and repeated her little verses, spoke with her usual courtesy to all around her, and, happy in her short life, closed her eyes never more to open them, just twenty-four hours after the accident happened. We who had lost our darling child of four years old felt deeply the deprivation, and struggled hard to submit to the will of Him who gives and takes away.

My grief was aggravated by self-accusation. I beheld my little cherub lie as in a placid sleep, her bloom not quite gone. I listened to those who desired me to reflect on the many fathers of families who lay buried in ditches, slaughtered in the prime of manhood and of usefulness; and to the widow who with tears reminded me that I had still my husband! I reflected how, a brief time ago, his precious life had seemed near departing, and I strove to extract consolation from the genuine sympathy bestowed by our friends; yet I thought no sympathy reached my heart so fully as once when I raised my eyes from contemplating the lovely remains of my child, and met those of a poor neighbour woman fastened upon me in silence, large tears streaming down her cheeks, her countenance filled with the deepest concern. She was a coarse-featured, strong, rough woman, and had forborne any expression by words of what she felt.

Our Jane was borne from our sight; the grave closed upon her for ever; her little playfellows bedecked it with flowers, and wept for their lost companion, while their schoolmistress and her husband mourned as for a favourite grandchild. Even in this season of universal dismay the loss of this dear child was very generally deplored; she was so beautiful, so engaging, so beloved - not like a thing of earth. So ended the year 1798. Oh! year of woe!

That year, that eventful year, which to me began with the fulness of joy, I saw depart laden with deep and piercing sorrow. Thus trouble takes its rounds; but ‘shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord, and shall we not also receive evil?’

We were almost prepared to congratulate our precious child on her escape, and to think that her timid nature might have been terrified into imbecility, when, shortly after her death, the robbers paid us another visit, breaking in the windows in the solemn midnight, and scaring us out of our quiet slumbers to behold armed men in our very chambers. They discovered what we strove to conceal, for their search was very strict, and they took whatever suited their purposes; but withal treated us with civility and respect.’

Friday, December 12, 2008

A pope’s view of Mussolini

The diaries of Papa Giovanni XXIII (Pope John XXIII) are being published in full next week, but only in Italian. According to press reports, these show his views about Benito Mussolini wavered much over time. An edited version of his spiritual diary in English has been available for over 40 years, since just after his death in 1963; and more recently some prophetic statements, said to come from the pope’s diaries, have been quoted widely on the internet.

There is no shortage of information about Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli on the internet. Try Wikipedia, The Vatican, or Time Magazine (which carried an archive article on him dating from his inauguration as pope in 1958). He was born at Sotto il Monte, Bergamo, the fourth child in a large religious family of sharecroppers, and entered the Bergamo seminary when only 11, which is where he began to make spiritual diary notes, a practice he continued throughout his life. He was ordained in 1904 as a priest and was soon appointed secretary to the bishop of Bergamo. From 1915, Roncalli served as a military chaplain, and in 1920 was made director of the Italian organisation for the support of foreign missions. In 1925 he was ordained bishop.

Pope Pius XI brought him in to the Vatican’s diplomatic service and, thereafter, he served in Bulgaria, where he remained until 1935, Greece and Turkey (1935-1944), and France (1944-1953). During the last months of the war and after peace was achieved he aided prisoners of war and helped to normalise the ecclesiastical organisation in France. In 1953, he was created a cardinal and sent to Venice as Patriarch. Five years later, he was elected pope, and took the name John XXIII. Although his pontificate lasted only five years, he is considered to have been one of the most popular popes of modern times (due, it is said, to his personal warmth, good humour and kindness), and to have begun a new era of openness in the Roman Catholic Church.

An edited version of his spiritual diary was published in 1965 - Journal of the Soul. The Diary Junction gives links to websites with some extracts. Here is one of ten resolutions he committed to his diary in 1897 while still a teenager: ‘At table, whether speaking or eating, I will never be greedy or immoderate; I will always find an opportunity for a little mortification; as regards the drinking of wine I will be more than moderate, because in wine lies the same danger as in women: ‘Wine and women lead intelligent men astray.’

More recently, several websites have carried a number of supposed extracts from the pope’s diaries. Here is what Morgana’s Observatory says: ‘The following article has been published by various sources on the Internet, including Insight Magazine. I have not found this ‘diary’ mentioned anywhere but on the WWW. It is republished here for general interest only. Its authenticity is strongly in doubt. The dusty, leather-bound diary containing handwritten predictions was found by a Vatican cleaning woman who was sorting through boxes stacked in a seldom used storage room. . . Father DeAngelo, now 73 years old has agreed to release some of the diary entries made between February of 1959 and April of 1963. The scrawled messages reveal a frightened and excited Pontiff who decided to keep his meetings with Christ and the Madonna a secret.’ And here is one of the prophecies: 

6 March 1961
‘Just when I thought my heavenly visits were over, the Madonna comes to me once again. She seems tired of the heartache she must share with me. My heart aches to see him hurting so. The news, again foreboding. In the early 1990s there will be a period of deadly natural disasters. She says paradise will be struck by powerful winds and wails, while killer floods and violent earthquakes will shatter man’s dwellings. By the middle of the decade, regional skirmishes will develop into full-fledged conflicts. As the casualties mount, world-wide famine will strike. The devastation will be like none ever seen, especially throughout Africa where millions will perish.’

Now, though, Pope John XXIII’s diaries are being published in full (though I doubt they include the prophecies!). A grand launch is taking place next Tuesday at Oratorio del Gonfalone in Rome, presided over by some eminent doctors and professors, including Prof Valerio Onida, President of ‘Fondazione per le scienze religiose di Bologna’ which is publishing the diaries: I Diari di A.G. Roncalli - Giovanni XXIII. According to the foundation’s website, though, the ‘Edizione Nazionale’ of Roncalli’s diaries are being published in many volumes, the first of which seems to have appeared in 2004. Perhaps, therefore, the big event on Tuesday is to celebrate publication of the final volumes.

In any case, this week Times Online ran an article about the diaries being ‘published in full’. It says they confirm Roncalli regarded Mussolini, Italy’s Fascist dictator, as a man who had ‘committed errors’ but who had, nonetheless, brought Italy ‘great benefits’. The article carries several quotes, presumably translated by the article’s author, Richard Owen in Rome. (It is not clear, though, whether all these quotes come from the volumes actually being published next week.)

‘In my conscience as a priest and a Christian, I do not feel I can vote for the Fascists. Of one thing I am certain: the salvation of Italy cannot come from Mussolini, even though he may be gifted. His goals may perhaps be good and correct, but the means he uses to realise them are wicked and contrary to the Gospel.’

‘A hidden force is guiding [Mussolini] and protecting Italy.’

July 1943
‘The gravest news of the day is the withdrawal of Mussolini from power. . . The Duce’s gesture is I believe an act of wisdom which does him honour. No, I will not throw stones at him. For him too, sic transit gloria mundi. But the great good which he did for Italy remains. His withdrawal is an expiation for some of his sins. Dominus parcat illi (May the Lord have mercy on him).’

After the war, though, Owen writes, Roncalli described Mussolini’s dictatorship as an ‘immense calamity’ which had brought ‘great sorrow to the Italian people’.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The people of Pemba

Four centuries ago today, an explorer and sailor named Robert Coverte was landing on the island of Pemba, part of the Zanzibar archipelago off the east coast of Africa. A few days later, some of his crew were to be murdered there. Nevertheless, he wrote in his diary that the people of Pemba ‘seeme to bee louing and kind’.

Not much is known about Coverte, other than what can be deduced from his diary first published in 1612 with a very lengthy title (as copied from the British Library catalogue): A True and almost Incredible Report of an Englishman, that, being cast away in the good ship called the Assention in Cambaya the farthest part of the East Indies, trauelled by land through many vnknowne kingdomes, and great cities. With a particular description of all those kingdomes, cities, and people. As also a relation of their commodities and manner of traffique, and at what seasons of the yeere they are most in vse. Faithfully related. With a discouery of a great emperour called the Great Mogoll, a prince not till now known to our English nation.

An American rare book dealer, William Reese Company, is offering a copy of the second edition, published in 1614, for sale at $25,000. Its website provides what little information there is about Coverte. He and his men, it says, left Plymouth in March 1607 and were among the first Englishmen to see the Cape of Good Hope, arriving there in July 1608. Coverte eventually reached Gujarat, where his ship ran aground while approaching Surat. Not granted permission to remain in Surat, the crew departed to various destinations, but Coverte and others set out for the Moghul Court at Agra, arriving there in December 1609. They left in January 1610 and made their way back to the Levant travelling by way of Kandahar, Esfahan, and Baghdad. They reached Aleppo a year later, and then sailed to England, arriving the following April.

Here are some entries taken from a copy of Coverte’s journal privately printed in Philadelphia in 1931. It has an introduction and notes by Boies Penrose (a lawyer and politician) who said the narrative was ‘vigorous’ and ‘one of the best examples of a travel journal that the period produced.’ The following extracts date from December 1608, starting with one from exactly 400 years ago today.

‘The tenth day of December about two or three of the Clock in the morning, and the Moone shiny, we espied on a sudden low land with high trees growing by the shore side, we being not a league form the shore, so that if we had not espied the trees, we should haue thought the land to haue been a shadow of the Moone, and so might haue run ourselues on shore, and cast our selues away with ship and goods but it was Gods good prouidence thus to defend us from so great and eminent danger, whose name be blessed and praised now euermore.

This was the island of Pemba, which we tooke to be Zinzabar, untill by one of the people of the Countrey we found it to be Pemba. At the sight of this low Iland - after we plainely perceiued it, wee presently tackt about and set from the shore till day and then we tackt about againe to the shore side, and neering along the shore side for a harbour to ancor in, wee sent Pinnis in the meane time, to the shore withe the Gang onlie and master Elmore to seeke for a conuenient watering place, wee keeping our course till our Pinnis came to the shore side. Then two or three people of the Iland demanded in the Portugall language what we were, and one of our men made answer, that we were Englishmen.

Then they demanded againe what we had to doe there, in regard the King of Portugall was King of that Iland: wee replied, that wee knew not so much, neither came we thither for any euill intent whatsoeuer, but only to water, and would giue them satisfaction, for any other thing we should haue of them. Then it drew towards night, and our man came aboard and acquainted the whole Company with this their parly on shore.’

‘The 19 day our Long-boat went a shore in the morning verie early, to fill our Caske with water . . . they gaue the watchword and sounded a horne, and presently set upon our men at the watering place and slew Iohn Harrington, the boat-swaines man, and wounded Robert Buckler. Master Ellmores man very sore, with 8 or 10 seurall wounds, and had killed him, but we discharged a Musket or two, which (as it seemed) hurt some of them; for then they retired and cried out: and so (though weake and faint) he did at length recouer our boat. Also two or three more of our men by creeping, and lying close in the ditch, untill they espied our, got also safe aboard, and then counting our men, we only missed Edward Churchman, and Iohn Harrington, that was slaine: and so comming aboard, we certified the company of all our proceedings on shoare; and our surgeon dressed Robert Buckler; and after, did his best for his cure and recouery of his health. . .’

‘The twentieth day in the morning we went on shoare . . . we found Iohn Harrington dead and starke naked, whome we buried at another Iland, hard by the main Iland. . . The naturall people of the Iland Pemba, seeme to bee louing and kind: for they made signes to me and others, at our first comming, to beware of our throats cutting: which we tooke no heede or notice of, untill this their treachery put in minde thereof againe.’

Saturday, December 6, 2008

1st Duke of Albemarle

George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle, was born 400 years ago today. He was an English soldier and a key player in the restoration of Charles II. He was not a diarist (as far as I know) but Samuel Pepys mentioned him often in his diary, and called him ‘a dull fellow’. He didn’t, however, lead a dull life.

Monck was born on 6 December 1608, near Torrington in Devon, into a respectable family but one suffering from money problems. He became a soldier, fighting with the Dutch against the Spaniards from 1629 to 1638, and earned himself a reputation as a leader. He distinguished himself further by suppressing a rebellion in Ireland, before returning to England to fight for King Charles I against the Parliamentarians. He was imprisoned for two years in the Tower of London. Then, from 1646, he sided with the Parliamentarians for whom he went to Ireland to fight against the rebels there.

Subsequently, Oliver Cromwell sent him to Scotland where he fought (with Cromwell) at the important Battle of Dunbar. Monck was then made commander-in-chief in Scotland, and completed the subjugation of the country. In 1652, he was appointed one of three generals at sea fighting in the First Anglo-Dutch War. On his return, he married Anne Clarges, and went back to Scotland, to beat down a Royalist insurrection. At Cromwell’s request, he remained there as governor.

During the confusion which followed Cromwell’s death in September 1658, Monck at first supported Cromwell’s son and successor Richard, but did not oppose the overthrow of the Protectorate and the recall of the ‘Rump’ of the Long Parliament. The Rump was forcefully dissolved by General John Lambert, but Monck refused to recognise the new military regime and led an army from Scotland in early 1660 against Lambert. 

When the new Convention Parliament was elected, it quickly invited Charles II to return to England as king. For his services in contributing to a peaceful restoration of the monarchy, Monck was made Duke of Albemarle and a Knight of the Garter, and was awarded a large annual pension. He returned to sea and battle once more, in 1666 commanding the English fleet in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, but died in 1670.

Samuel Pepys, who worked for the Navy Board, was a regular visitor at the Duke’s house during 1665, for business and society. Here are a few of Pepys’s diary entries from November that year (taken from The Diary of Samuel Pepys website).

Sunday 12 November
‘. . . After dinner I by water to the Duke of Albemarle, and there had a little discourse and business with him, chiefly to receive his commands about pilotts to be got for our Hambro’ ships, going now at this time of the year convoy to the merchant ships, that have lain at great pain and charge, some three, some four months at Harwich for a convoy. They hope here the plague will be less this weeke. . .’

Tuesday 14 November
‘. . . and down I went to Greenwich to my office, and there sat busy till noon, and so home to dinner, and thence to the office again, and by and by to the Duke of Albemarle’s by water late, where I find he had remembered that I had appointed to come to him this day about money, which I excused not doing sooner; but I see, a dull fellow, as he is, do sometimes remember what another thinks he mindeth not. My business was about getting money of the East India Company; but, Lord! to see how the Duke himself magnifies himself in what he had done with the Company; and my Lord Craven what the King could have done without my Lord Duke, and a deale of stir, but most mightily what a brave fellow I am. Back by water, it raining hard, and so to the office, and stopped my going, as I intended, to the buoy of the Nore, and great reason I had to rejoice at it, for it proved the night of as great a storme as was almost ever remembered. . .’

Wednesday 22 November
‘Up, and by water to the Duke of Albemarle, and there did some little business, but most to shew myself, and mightily I am yet in his and Lord Craven’s books, and thence to the Swan and there drank and so down to the bridge, and so to the Change, where spoke with many people, and about a great deale of business, which kept me late. I heard this day that Mr. Harrington is not dead of the plague, as we believed, at which I was very glad, but most of all, to hear that the plague is come very low; that is, the whole under 1,000, and the plague 600 and odd: and great hopes of a further decrease, because of this day’s being a very exceeding hard frost, and continues freezing. . .’

Monday 27 November
‘Up, and being to go to wait on the Duke of Albemarle, who is to go out of towne to Oxford to-morrow, and I being unwilling to go by water, it being bitter cold, walked it with my landlady’s little boy Christopher to Lambeth, it being a very fine walke and calling at half the way and drank, and so to the Duke of Albemarle, who is visited by every body against his going; and mighty kind to me: and upon my desiring his grace to give me his kind word to the Duke of Yorke, if any occasion there were of speaking of me, he told me he had reason to do so; for there had been nothing done in the Navy without me. His going, I hear, is upon putting the sea business into order, and, as some say, and people of his owne family, that he is agog to go to sea himself the next year. Here I met with a letter from Sir G. Carteret, who is come to Cranborne, that he will be here this afternoon and desires me to be with him. So the Duke would have me dine with him. So it being not dinner time, I to the Swan, and there found Sarah all alone in the house. So away to the Duke of Albemarle again, and there to dinner, he most exceeding kind to me to the observation of all that are there. . .’

Friday, December 5, 2008

Sutter’s Gold Rush

One hundred and sixty years ago today, President James Knox Polk confirmed to the US Congress that there was an abundance of gold on the west coast, in California. In fact, gold had been discovered nearly a year earlier at a mill owned by Johann August Sutter, a German immigrant. Sutter’s diary provides an interesting account of those early gold rush days.

It is widely accepted that the California Gold Rush began on 24 January 1848, when the metal was discovered by James Marshall, a carpenter and sawmill operator at Sutter’s Mill, Coloma, some 130 miles northwest of San Francisco. Rumours about the gold began to spread, first being published in a West Coast newspaper in March. Later that year, in August, the New York Herald, on the East Coast, reported that there was a major gold rush.

On 5 December, 160 years ago, the gold rush became official, as it were, when President Polk wrote to congress as follows: ‘The accounts of abundance of gold are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service.’ And the news continued to spread so that eventually some 300,000 men, women, and children travelled to California - from the rest of the US in covered wagons, and from overseas by boat - often undergoing great hardships on the way. At first, the prospectors retrieved the gold from streams and riverbeds using simple techniques, such as panning, but more sophisticated production methods evolved over time.

The effects of the California Gold Rush were substantial, Wikipedia says. San Francisco grew from a hamlet to a boomtown, while roads, churches, schools and other towns were built all across the area. By 1850, California had been admitted as a state, and soon new methods of transportation, such as steamships and railroads, were being developed, as was the land for agriculture. The rest is history - today California is the richest of the United State, accounting for 13% of the US’s GDP.

There are many first hand accounts by forty-niners (the name given to those who made the journey to California in search of gold) in letters and diaries. The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco is a good place to start, as is The California Gold Country - Highway 49 Revisited. Gold Rush Saints: California Mormons and the Great Rush for Riches by Kenneth N. Owens, which can be looked at on Googlebooks, uses a lot of original diary material.

To return to Sutter, though, the mill owner. He was born in 1803 in Kandern, southwest Germany, but was schooled in Switzerland, and joined the Swiss army rising to the rank of captain. However, in 1934, he left Europe for the New World to escape creditors. After extensive travels in North America, he settled in California in 1839, then part of Mexico, where he founded New Helvetia colony near the Sacramento river. Although the discovery of gold happened on Sutter’s land, it was eventually to ruin him. His land and property were over-run and destroyed by gold diggers, and thereafter he spent many years and much money on legal battles trying to defend his ownership or in seeking compensation. He died in Washington in 1880, apparently a poor and embittered man.

Excepts from Sutter’s diary first appeared in 1878 in the San Francisco Argonaut, and were reprinted by the Grabhorn Press in 1932. Here are three from early on in 1848 (and more can be read on The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco website, which notes that the entries were probably written retrospectively).

28 January 1848
‘Marshall arrived in the evening, it was raining very heavy, but he told me he came on important business. After we was alone in a private Room he showed me the first Specimens of Gold, that is he was not certain if it was Gold or not, but he thought it might be; immediately I made the proof and found that it was Gold. I told him even that most of all is 23 Carat Gold; he wished that I should come up with him immediately, but I told him that I have to give first my orders to the people in all my factories and shops.

1 February 1948
‘Left for the Sawmill attended by a Baquero (Olimpio). Was absent 2d, 3d, 4th, & 5th. I examined myself everything and picked up a few Specimens of Gold myself in the tail race of the Sawmill; this Gold and others which Marshall and some of the other laborers gave to me (it was found while in my employ and Wages) I told them that I would a Ring got made of it soon as a Goldsmith would be here. I had a talk with my employed people all at the Sawmill. I told them that as they do know now that this Metal is Gold, I wished that they would do me the great favor and keep it secret only 6 weeks, because my large Flour Mill at Brighton would have been in Operation in such a time, which undertaking would have been a fortune to me, and unfortunately the people would not keep it secret, and so I lost on this Mill at the lowest calculation about $25,000.’

7 March 1948
‘The first party of Mormons, employed by me left for washing and digging Gold and very soon all followed, and left me only the sick and the lame behind. And at this time I could say that every body left me from the Clerk to the Cook. What for great Damages I had to suffer in my tannery which was just doing a profitable and extensive business, and the Vatts was left filled and a quantity of half finished leather was spoiled, likewise a large quantity of raw hides collected by the farmers and of my own killing. The same thing was in every branch of business which I carried on at the time. I began to harvest my wheat, while others was digging and washing Gold, but even the Indians could not be keeped longer at Work. They was impatient to run to the mine, and other Indians had informed them of the Gold and its Value; and so I had to leave more as 2/3 of my harvest in the fields.’

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The first aerial explorer

Sir George Hubert Wilkins, one of the most successful and versatile of 20th century explorers, died exactly 50 years ago today. He was not only a pioneer in aviation and aerial photography, but he was also the first person to show submarines could operate under the polar ice cap. Although there are no published editions of his diaries, two recent biographical books rely on them extensively.

Wilkins was born in 1888 in South Australia, the thirteenth (!) child of a farmer. He studied engineering at South Australian School of Mines and Industries, then followed an interest in photography and cinematography before sailing to England in 1908 to work for Gaumont Film Company. Subsequently, as a newspaper reporter and cameraman, he learned to fly and began experimenting with aerial photography. In 1912, he worked as a war correspondent in the Balkans, but in 1913 he joined an expedition to the Arctic - led by the Canadian Vilhjaalmur Stefansson - which lasted until 1916.

In the latter years of the First World War, Wilkins was appointed as an official war photographer, a job that placed him in combat areas, and which led him into taking heroic action on at least two occasions - for which he was awarded a military cross and bar. After the war, he took part in two Antarctic expeditions (one as a naturalist with Shackleton); and then took on a project for the British Museum to study the fauna and tribal life of North Australia.

By 1926, Wilkins was testing the feasibility of air exploration in unknown Arctic regions of Alaska. In 1928, he and copilot Carl Ben Eielson pioneered cross-Arctic aviation by making the first ever flight across the Arctic - from Alaska to Spitsbergen, north of Norway. The New York Times called it ‘the greatest flight in history’; and, because of it, Wilkins was knighted in the UK. Moreover, as is well noted in biographies, he met his future wife while celebrating in New York. explains that later the same year Wilkins was back in the Antarctic, with Eielson, making the first ever exploratory flight in the area on 20 December (1928). Wilkins wrote in his diary, ‘For the first time in history, new land was being discovered from the air’; and ‘We had left at 8:30 in the morning, had covered 1300 miles - nearly a thousand of it over unknown territory - and had returned in time to cover the plane with a storm hood, go to the HEKTORIA, bathe and dress and sit down at eight o’clock to dinner as usual in the comfort of the ship’s wardroom.’

Three years on, Wilkins led a failed attempt to take a submarine - one he supposedly bought for a dollar and named Nautilus - beneath the ice to the North Pole. But the old ship broke down, endangering its crew and earning Wilkins some adverse publicity. Despite the failure, however, he did show that submarines were capable of operating beneath the polar ice cap. says this was Wilkins’s last individual and private expedition, and that, thereafter, he accepted a post as manager to his friend and supporter, US millionaire Lincoln Ellsworth. During the Second World War, Wilkins worked for the US government, though he never relinquished his Australian citizenship. He died exactly 50 years ago today, on 3o November 1958.

The World Adventurer website concludes an article on Wilkins by saying this: ‘Despite his impressive list of firsts and pioneering adventures, the proudly patriotic Sir Hubert Wilkins remains sadly overlooked by a country that so reveres its heroes. In the end, it was the US who took his ashes to the North Pole aboard the submarine USS Skate on 17 March 1959.’ That said, however, there is lots of information about Wilkins on the internet: Wikipedia’s short article includes links to other resources; Hipwell International Production Services hosts a site with lots of photographs; and the Government of South Australia has a history/culture website also with photographs.

None of these latter three websites, though, has any information about the diaries Wilkins kept. In fact, a collection of his diaries are housed in the Stefansson Collection, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, some handwritten (in difficult script) and some typed. Wilkins, himself, did consider a book based on them, but never completed it. They remained unused for half a century until Stuart Jenness interpreted them for his book - The Making of an Explorer: George Hubert Wilkins and the Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913-1916 - published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2005. A review can be found on the Article Archives website.

Another book - Simon Nasht’s The Last Explorer: Hubert Wilkins, Hero of the Great Age of Polar Exploration published by Arcade Publishing in 2006 - also quotes extensively from Wilkins’s diaries. Much of it can be viewed at Googlebooks, including this quote from Wilkins’s diary about the Nautilus expedition: ‘Without exception, the others in the vessel wanted to immediately turn back; to make no further attempt to go into the ice this year. To do so would be to admit complete failure. As commander of the expedition I ordered the trials to continue . . . I am determined the vessel will go under the ice and that as many experiments as possible will be made.’

On 25 August 1931, Nasht explains in the book, Wilkins sent a dispatch, printed in the New York American and other Hearst papers (Hearst being his main sponsor), telling the world they were ‘about 350 miles from the North Pole’. It was an exaggeration by 200 miles, and, although he later corrected the claim, the mistake ‘was used against him by those who claimed the expedition was little more than a publicity stunt’.

Nevertheless, this was one extraordinary man, as says, and an official biography should list his career as ‘war correspondent, polar explorer, naturalist, geographer, climatologist, aviator, author, balloonist, war hero, reporter, secret agent, submariner and navigator’.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Isherwood giving thanks

It’s Thanksgiving Day in the United States. Exactly 50 years ago, the British-born writer, Christopher Isherwood, who had taken American citizenship by then, wrote in his diary about being thankful - thankful for being alive, having just crashed a car while drunk; and thankful for the sweetness of Don, his partner of five years, a young man all of 30 years his junior.

Isherwood was born in Cheshire, UK, the son of an army officer killed in the First World War. He studied at Cambridge, but did not take a degree. Thereafter, he earned a living as a private tutor. His first novel, All the Conspirators, was published in 1928. He spent several years teaching in Germany, a period which provided the material for his best-known novels, such as Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin. During the 1930s, Isherwood collaborated with an old school friend, W H Auden, in three verse dramas. In 1938, the two of them went to China and jointly published Journey to a War.

From 1939, Isherwood settled in California, still working as a teacher but also as a script writer for Hollywood films. The Second World War inspired him to become a pacifist, and during the conflict, he worked at a Quaker hostel with refugees from Europe. He also began to follow the religious philosophy of Vedãnta, and write tracts. Several other novels followed, although Isherwood was never prolific. In 1953, he met and fell in love with a teenager, Don Bachardy, 30 years his junior, who would become an artist, and with whom he would have a relationship for the rest of his life. From 1959 to 1966, Isherwood taught at various US universities. By the 1970s, partly because of his autobiographical novels, he had become a leading spokesman for gay rights. He died in 1986.

Isherwood’s first diary dates back to 1949, and was published by Random House: The Condor and the Cows: A South American Travel-Diary. It tells of a journey Isherwood undertook with his lover Bill Caskey, at the behest of RandoM House, during 1947 through Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. University of Minnesota Press brought out a new edition in 2003 which includes additional photographs by Caskey and a new foreword by Jeffrey Meyers. The diary is said to be ‘unsentimental, rich, and wonderfully rendered’ - see However, The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities (RALPH), finds nothing commendable about the book: Isherwood was ‘too lazy to make the most of what could have been a true adventure into the depths of South America’, and his writing was ‘by rote - I did this, I saw that’.

A first and very substantial edition (over 1,000 pages) of Isherwood’s main diaries were not published until 10 years after his death, in 1996 - Diaries: Volume One 1939-1960 - by HarperCollins and Methuen. The promotional material on says that Isherwood ‘put at least as much of his genius in his diaries as he did in his writings intended for immediate publication’, and that the diaries ‘are beautifully written, gossipy, and indispensable for anyone who cares about writing, the creative process, and gay history’. There appears to be no sign yet of a second volume.

Wikipedia and Kirjasto give short biographies of Isherwood, and The Diary Junction provides a few links to online information about, and quotes from, his diaries. But here, to coincide with Thanksgiving Day in the US, is an extract (taken from Diaries: Volume One 1939-1960) dated exactly 50 years ago today.

27 November 1958
‘What I chiefly have to give thanks for, this Thanksgiving, is that I’m still alive. The night before yesterday, bored after a long, long evening . . , and somewhat though not really drunk, I fell asleep at the wheel driving home and ran smash into a parked car. I guess I was knocked out. I remember nothing - until there was this very furious man, the owner of the parked car, yelling at me that he’d like to bash me to pulp - ‘And I’d do it too,’ he said, ‘if you hadn’t got blood on your face already.’ I had, as a matter of fact, hit the steering wheel, which was twisted up, cut myself between the eyes, bruised both eyes, maybe broken my nose, cut one knee and maybe hurt some ribs. The furious man . . . was eagerly expecting my arrest on a drunk, driving charge. But the police were very nice and sent me home in a taxi after I’d been fixed up at an emergency dressing station.

The other think to be thankful for is that Don and I have finished the rough draft of our play The Monsters, also the day before yesterday. We are cautiously starting the rewrite.

Don has hit a new high of sweetness. He is very happy about the play.’

By jingo, another barber

By strange coincidence, after yesterday’s post about Edmund Harrold, here’s another post about a diarist barber or barber diarist. This one is not a Mancunian but an American, and he lived not in the 18th century but in the 20th century. Charles Everett Ellis is in the news because a Kansas City production company, Outpost Worldwide, which is making a film based on his diaries, has recently launched a website called The Barber’s Diaries.

Ellis was born in 1887 and raised in Altamont. He took on barbering, like his father, and eventually owned his own shop. Ellis and his wife raised seven children, all of whom were also born in Altamont; but, during the Great Depression, he sent his family away to live on a farm near Alton. Ellis himself stayed in Altamont until 1933, but then moved to Chicago and Detroit for brief periods, before working again as a barber in Arizona. Eventually he was reunited with his family. He died in 1971. Today, only three of his children are still alive - Marguerite, Adrienne and Wilma.

On 22 January 1927, his 40th birthday, Elllis began writing a diary, and this is how it started: ‘Forty years old today by Jingo. Looking back over those years have brought many revelations. Youthful dreams have failed of materialization and stern realities have replaced them. Many mistakes have been made which are daily exacting their certain toll and are holding back my onward progress but with experiences gained in those years transformed into wisdom in the future I yet declare that my next forty years shall not be ineffective in service to my Maker, mankind and my own family. Many things I have to be thankful for. A happy home and family, a good business and perfect health - much to be thankful for. I am very grateful to my Maker that my faith in Him has sustained and soothed me in my trials and each day I will try to deepen that faith that in my affairs there shall be no doubts nor fears but shall labor onward and upward that my life shall be a successful one. Forty years in number are many but in one’s life filled with varied experiences they are not many but in that span one either has his plan well laid or is drifting. Mine is planned in detail and my future efforts shall be its maturity.’

Ellis left the diary to his daughter Adrienne (Ellis Reeves) but only now, 35 years later, is it attracting public attention. This is largely due to David Henderson, a former CBS News correspondent, who, having met Adrienne in 2006 and read the diary, was keen to find funding for a documentary film about Ellis. Kansas City production company, Outpost Worldwide, has taken the project on, and has even set up a special website - The Barber’s Diaries - to promote the venture. (The quote above comes from that website.)

The website explains that Ellis lived at a time when African Americans faced threats of racial cleansing across the South and Midwest: thousands were murdered, tortured and publicly executed; property was stolen; and communities eliminated overnight. For most black men, the way to survive was to remain invisible and never speak out. Ellis, nevertheless, had hopes and dreams for himself and all black Americans, and he wrote about them in his secret diary. ‘His writing,’ the website says, ‘is a celebration of life that rises above the violence and challenges of the time. His words inspire and endure to this day.’

Here are several more quotes from the diary, thanks to The Barber’s Diaries website.

‘Man is what he thinks, not what he says, reads, or hears. By persistent thinking, however, in the right away, the way of truth, you can undo any condition which exists. You can free yourself from any claims, whether of poverty, sin, in health or unhappiness.’

‘. . . I hereby set forth some resolutions which I hope to build into permanent habits within my own being.
1) Daily reading of the Bible; prayer and meditation
2) Constant seeking for wisdom and understanding
3) Development of will-power and constructive thinking
4) Effective reading with development of memory
5) Concentration upon all matters at hand
6) Infinite pains unto the smallest detail
7) To look upward and onward – never downward nor backward
8) To properly value time and perseverance
9) Promptness and decision where needed
10) To speak clearly and express accurately’

‘When things get bad, so very bad that worse they could not be, hold fast to hope, cling hard to faith, that someway out you’ll see.’

Some further information, though not much, about Ellis and his diary can be found on the Effingham Daily News website. Adrienne told the paper that her father’s diary was ‘a marvellous compendium, especially for a black man who had gone no further than high school,’ and that ‘his customers were all white, and they spoke about many things as if he wasn’t there.’ She also noted that ‘by jingo’ was one of her father’s favourite expressions and that she’d never heard anyone else say it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Did wife 2 tymes

The extraordinary diary of a barber and wigmaker, Edmund Harrold, from the early part of the 18th century, is being published for the first time in 100 years, and in more detail than ever before. While the new book has an academic rather than a popular price, the publishers have generously made the informative introduction, by the book’s editor, freely available online.

Edmund Harrold was born in 1678 in Manchester, the son of a tobacconist and the eldest of his four children. He probably lived in Manchester all his life, working as a barber, a wigmaker and a book dealer. He married four times; but his first three wives as well as six (of nine) children died before he did. Between 1712 and 1715 he wrote a diary, a poorly edited version of which was first published for the Chetham Society in 1867. Around 20 years later, John Eglington Bailey, who edited the important 16th century diaries of John Dee, was planning to produce a new version of Harrold’s diary, but this project never came to fruition.

Now, 330 years after Harrold was born, Ashgate (which publishes 700 titles a years and says it is dedicated to publishing ‘the finest academic research’) is releasing (on 28 November) The Diary of Edmund Harrold, Wigmaker of Manchester 1712-15, in a comprehensive version edited by Dr Craig Horner, of the Department of History at Manchester Metropolitan University. Apart from the diary itself (fully annotated), the book includes sample pages, the text of a lecture on the diary delivered by John Eglington Bailey in 1884, a list of comparable diaries, and an extensive introduction by Horner.

According to Ashgate, the survival of Harrold’s diary is ‘a remarkable piece of luck for historians’. Not only, it says, are such diaries for the ‘middling sort’ rare in this early 18th century period, but few provide such a candid insight into everyday concerns and troubles. It offers ‘a fascinating snapshot into the social, professional and private life of an impoverished inhabitant of Manchester during a period of profound social and economic change’.

The book costs £52 on and $100 on, but at least the publisher, Ashgate, has made Horner’s introduction freely available on its website. In that introduction, Horner says Harrold wrote the diary as ‘a means of reconciling his mortal failings’, and in doing so, intentionally or not, detailed his family life, his business interests, a passion for books, and a colourful social life, including trips to the alehouse. It provides much else besides: a picture of his courtships following the death of his second wife; an idea of the conflict he felt about whether to attend church; an eye-witness account of Manchester’s part in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715; a record of two marriages and marital sex; and an idea of his preoccupation with death and illness.

One of the most interesting aspects of the diary is certainly the information regarding Harrold’s sex life. Horner says that, for Harrold, sex within marriage was a means of containing lust, and this is illustrated by the diary entry from 2 October 1712: ‘I obs[erve] that there is a many ways to spend ones time, but ye best and most comfortable way is in reading, praying and working, for ye devills always busie wth ye idle person leading him to lust, drunkenness etc.’

Extraordinarily, Harrold noted down when he had sex (he was with his second and third wives, Sarah and Ann, during the diary period), usually employing the expression I ‘did’ or ‘enjoy’, and ‘wife’ rather than his wife’s name. Here’s an example: ‘did w[i]f[e] now tho, tis [not] hard doing tw[ice] per [day] as Ive seldom mist thro variety’. He also talked about doing it ‘old fashion’ and ‘new fashion’!

There are very few references to Harrold’s diary on the internet (presumably there will be more following the Ashgate publication), but there is one in Emily Cochayne’s book Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England, 1600-1770. Christopher Hart, writing about it for Literary Review, says the book also delves into ‘an impressive array of diaries, letters and obscure pamphlets’. Cochayne ‘turns up’, he adds, one Edmund Harrold, a Mancunian wig-maker who recorded his own sex life assiduously in his private journal, boasting one day, for instance, that he ‘did wife 2 tymes couch & bed in an hour an[d] ½ time’.

Horner’s introduction to The Diary of Edmund Harrold, Wigmaker of Manchester 1712-15 refers to further extracts from the diary. Here are three of them, respectively about his second wife dying; giving thoughts about finding a new wife; and, about the day of this third marriage (which had taken place at 8am).

December 1712
‘My wife lay adying from 11 this day, till 9 a clock on ye 18[th] in ye morn. Then she dy’d in my arms, on pillows. [Her] relations most[ly] by. She went suddenly, and was sencible till 1/4 of an hour before she dyed. I have given her workday cloth[e]s to mother Bordman, and Betty Cook our servant. Now relations thinks best to bury her at [the] meetin[g] place in Plungeon Field, so I will.’

8 March 1713
‘It is every [Chris]tians duty to mortifie their unruly passions and lusts to which ye are most prone. I’m now beginning to be unesie with my self, and begin to think of women again. I pray God, direct me to do wisely and send me a good one, or none, if it be his will I must have one.’

22 August 1713
‘I worked al[l] day till 9 at night, yn I fetched my wife from her m[aste]r, and father[-inlaw] [Joseph] Bancrofts. Came home about ½ hour past 11. Dr Redford got her to bed and me alone gave a brides possit amongst ye company in ye house.’

Friday, November 21, 2008

Lagerlöf and Speare

Coincidentally, two writers with anniversaries this week wrote semi-fictional diaries of childhood, but neither were actually diarists. In her final published work, Sweden’s Selma Lagerlöf, the first female writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature, fictionalised her own childhood; while Elizabeth George Speare, born almost exactly 50 years after Lagerlof, was inspired by the real diary of a woman captured by American indians for her first historical children’s novel.

Selma Lagerlöf was born 150 years ago, on 20 November 1958, in Värmland, Sweden, and brought up at Mårbacka, the family estate. In 1881, she moved to Stockholm and studied at a teachers’ college, before, in 1885, taking a position at a school in Landskrona. In 1890, a Swedish weekly magazine awarded her first prize in a literary competition, and the following year, her first book was published. By 1895, she was receiving sufficient financial support from the royal family and the Swedish Academy to forgo teaching and concentrate on writing. In 1909, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the first Swedish person to be so honoured, and the first woman. With the prize money, she bought back Mårbacka which had been sold on the death of her father.

More information about Lagerlöf can be found at Wikipedia, (‘Sweden’s official website’) or The Diary Junction. Although she was not a diarist as such, one of the last books she wrote (if not the last) was called The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf. Originally published in 1932, it was translated into English in 1936. But it was not, in truth, a diary she wrote as a child, rather a fictionalised recreation of such a diary. Helena Forsås-Scott, writing in Swedish Women’s Writing, 1850-1995 (viewable on Googlebooks) claimed Lagerlöf’s ‘depiction of some months in the life of a 14-year old girl suffering from a hip complaint is so convincing that many readers assumed it to be based on an existing diary’. And other references to the book say she ‘recalled her childhood with subtle artistry’.

However, Lagerlöf also wrote two other books about her childhood, sometimes referred to as the Mårbacka trilogy, Memories of My Childhood and Memories of Mårbacka. A few pages of this latter can viewed on Amazon, where there are also several glowing reviews of the book. It does also include extracts from a real diary Lagerlöf wrote as a child for a few weeks while in Stockholm (and presumably the source material for the third book in the trilogy, The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf).

By coincidence, another writer, this one American and born 100 years ago today, on 21 November 1908 - Elizabeth George - wrote a fictional childhood diary. She was brought up in Melrose, Massachusetts, but moved to Connecticut after marrying Alden Speare. They had two children, and it was only once they were at school that Elizabeth began writing books seriously. Thereafter, she won numerous awards for her fiction, and has been cited as one of America’s 100 most popular children’s authors, much of her work being mandatory reading in schools. She died in 1994.

Her very first novel, though, published in 1958 was Calico Captive. Wikipedia has a separate entry for this book which says it was inspired by the true story of Susanna Willard Johnson (1730-1810) who, along with her family and younger sister, were kidnapped in an Abenakis Indian raid on Charlestown, New Hampshire in 1754. The main events in the story, which occurred on the brink of the French and Indian War, and which are told through the eyes of Miriam, Johnson’s younger sister, were taken from Johnson’s narrative diary A Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs Johnson, first published in 1796. The original of this book can be viewed at Early Canadiana Online.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Geometry of numbers

Georgy Feodosevich Voronoy (or Voronoi), a Russian mathemetician of Ukrainian descent, died 100 years ago today, aged only 40. To celebrate his centenary, Ukraine has issued a special coin. However, there isn’t much information about him on the internet in English, but what there is, is partly derived from a diary he kept.

Voronoy studied at St Petersburg University, where he was a student of Andrey Markov, another celebrated mathemetician. In 1894, he became professor at the University of Warsaw, and in 1897 put forward a doctoral thesis on continuous fractions. He is best known for developing theories on the so-called Voronoi tessellation.

Only a small amount of information about Voronoy is available on the internet in English, and it seems to come mostly from The St. Petersburg School of Number Theory by Boris Nikolaevich Delone and Robert G. Burns, first published in Russian in 1947 (the English translation is viewable on Googlebooks). And the authors’ brief biography of him partly relies on a diary he kept.

While still at St Petersburg, he studied a particularly hard maths problem, and wrote in his diary: ‘I myself have lost hope of ever solving this problem’. And in equally self-doubting mode, he wrote: ‘The pure mathematics lectures captivate me more and more. I prefer Professor Sokhotsky’s lectures in the special course on higher algebra to all the others. . . The main thing that concerns me is whether I have enough talent.’

There is one more Voronoy diary entry quoted in The St Petersburg School of Number Theory; it’s from 1904, when he was already suffering severely from gallstones:

‘I am making great progress with the question under study [indefinite quadratic forms]; however, at the same time my health is becoming worse and worse. Yesterday I had for the first time a clear idea of the algorithm in the theory of forms I am investigating, but also suffered a strong attack of bilious colic which prevented me from working in the evening and from sleeping the whole night. I am so afraid that the results of my enduring efforts, obtained with such difficulty, will perish along with me.’

He died a few years later on 20 November 1908, but, the book’s authors say, ‘the depth and importance of [his] spacious works is such that they have had a profound influence on modern number theory. Voronoi was in fact the cofounder, along with Minkowski, of the geometry of numbers’.

This year, Wikipedia’s short article on Voronoy notes, Ukraine has released a special coin to commemorate his centenary.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Life at Jonestown

It was 30 years ago today that over 900 people died at Jonestown in Guyana, having been ordered by their cult leader Jim Jones to partake of a cyanide-laced drink. It was the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the incidents of 11 September 2001. One of those who died was Edith Roller. Her diaries, though, survived and many of them are available online.

Jonestown, Wikipedia says, was the informal name for the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, a community built in northwestern Guyana by the Peoples Temple, a cult from California led by Jim Jones. The cult moved to Jonestown in the summer of 1977, and a little more than a year later, 909 of its members died, all but two from apparent cyanide poisoning in an event termed, by Jones, as ‘revolutionary suicide’. Jones himself died of a shotgun wound to the head, probably self-inflicted. The deaths followed soon after the murder of five others by Temple members at a nearby airstrip. Those victims included Congressman Leo Ryan, the first and only Congressman murdered in the line of duty in US history, and three journalists.

Very much has been written about the cult, and the extraordinary events of that day 30 years ago. The Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University, for example, runs a website - Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple - which aims to present information about the Peoples Temple as accurately and objectively as possible. Being objective, it says, means offering as many diverse views and opinions about the Temple and the events in Jonestown as possible.

One of the most intriguing parts of the website concerns Edith Roller, a Temple member who meticulously recorded her daily activities in a diary. At the start of the diary in 1975, she was working for the international company, Bechtel, and living in downtown San Francisco, but the diaries continue through January 1978, when she was called to Jonestown, to August that year, a few months before she died (aged 63). Don Beck and Michael Bellefountaine are credited on the website for compiling, transcribing, and analysing the journals. They say the journals were found in two locations: in Temple documents collected by the FBI and released through the Freedom of Information Act; and, in the Peoples Temple Collection at the California Historical Society. However, entries for several months are still considered missing.

Bellefountaine, in particular, has written a number of interesting articles about the journals for the website, and gives an excellent overview of their content and value. Here is part of one article entitled Roller Journals Reveal Detailed, Dispassionate Look at Temple.

‘Edith offers a detailed description of Jonestown that is rarely seen: a thriving active community of over a thousand people who are well aware that their sacrifice and hard work were paying off in the very existence of the community. . . [She] offers overviews of in-depth agricultural reports as well as gardening and livestock reports. She also records the daily diet, and the daily school and work schedules. Additionally Edith takes care to mention as many people as possible: new arrivals, births, job promotions or demotions, and those being brought on the floor for praise or punishment. Because Edith made every effort to record as many names as possible, she gave valuable information about the babies being born in the community, many of whom had gone unrecorded in the official death lists which were based on the passports issued. It is also valuable information for people who know nothing of their relatives’ lives while they were living in Jonestown.’

Edith’s journal also reveals much about the Jonestown community’s darker aspects, Bellefountaine says: ‘She writes of a suicide drill, essentially a trial run for the last day. Her description of the long lines, and the vat of juice are hauntingly familiar to the pictures from November 18th. In her writing she talks about how she did not want to die, and she did not think that the juice was really poisoned. These revelations give credence to some theories that the people of Jonestown thought the last day was just another drill, and many may have initially participated because they thought it was a loyalty test. Additionally Edith gives clear voice to those who do not want to die. Though she writes that she was willing to take the potion, the drill was called off before she got to the vat. Edith makes clear that she had too much hope for the future of the collective community, for the individual children, and for herself. She gives an understanding voice to the conflict of being willing to die, but not wanting to.’

Here are two entries from Roller’s diary in 1978.

1 August 1978
‘. . . Although it was very late Jim took up another matter: Norman Ijames, after having been gone for six months, had informed the Temple he would be returning this week, he had not communicated with his wife Judy and child, had sent no money. He had been reported with another woman, some of our people had talked to him while in Miami, though he had been offered a job at the airport in Georgetown he was flying on lines that did not bring him in to Guyana. The fact that he is a pilot may have some significance with regard to his activities in view of the aerial surveillance of Jonestown by the National Enquirer plane and reports of planned mercenary attacks on us. Many members spoke of Norm’s characteristics: spoiled by his parents, cherished as the only son, avoidance of physical labor, pride in his appearance, which made it possible that he could have deserted to our enemies. Jim said that the government had told us the CIA had a plant in our membership who might come here. . .’

Sunday 20 August
‘I was up at 8.00.

Read news from the pavilion boards. For breakfast pancakes and coffee worked on journal items.

At 12.00 I worked in the African map in the pavilion. I completed the outline for all countries, though there are some loose ends to be tied up. I still have a problem in the seacoast area where Zaire and Angola join. I plan to cut out the outlines of all the countries have a game in class in which the students looking at atlas maps can pin the outlines of the separate countries on a sheet, thus learning the position of some of them. Also we will be able then to ascertain where the map is insufficiently accurate. At the same time we can get a complete list of each country.

Had a shower and shampooed my hair.

Sewed, continuing with my skirt.

Ate dinner at 5.00 and we had rice with pork, okra, french fried eggplant in a batter.

I sewed.

Mark Gosney was giving Edith Cordell trouble; she had a cold. She turned him over to Vern Gosney.

The guest was expected tomorrow and entertainment was being prepared for him in the Pavilion. Intended to go up about 8;00, people were gathering but I didn’t hear any music so assumed he had not arrived yet. Then I heard Jim in the loudspeaker. He was annoyed because people were waiting in the pavilion instead of being in the library studying the news.

I finished sewing about 9.30. I went up to the library, read as much of the news I could over the heads of the crowd. Dick Tropp and Jack Beam were explaining the backgrounds of some of the news. As the guest had not yet arrived I went home and went to bed but I didn’t sleep.

Then we received orders to come to the pavilion. I went up. I expected to find it difficult to get a seat but Jim had earlier ordered young people to get up and give their seats to seniors. A young man led me to seat in front, asking the little boy occupying it to sit on the floor with the other children. The guest, a young looking man, was seated with those assigned to talk to him at a table in the middle of the pavilion. A musical program was given.

We were dismissed at 2.00. A heavy rain fell.’

Monday, November 17, 2008

Elizabeth becomes queen

Four and a half centuries ago, on 17 November 1558, Mary Tudor died, and her half-sister Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne of England. A century before Pepys, Henry Machyn, a supplier of funeral trappings, was keeping a diary; and the text of this diary includes a fascinating entry for that particular day, 450 years ago.

Not much is known about Machyn other than that he was a supplier of furnishings to undertakers in London. His diary, held by the British Library, is primarily concerned with public events, including state visits and executions, which makes it invaluable to historians. It covers the period of the Reformation under Henry VIII and Edward VI, and the return to Catholicism under Mary. It was badly burned in a fire, and, according to modern linguists, the extant published versions are full of inaccuracies because of the idiosyncrasies of Machyn’s language. The Diary Junction provides links to various online texts.

The following entry, about the death of Mary and the succession of Elizabeth, is taken from The Diary of Henry Machyn - Citizen and Merchant-Taylor of London (1550-1563) edited by John Gough Nichols. It was published by the Camden Society in 1848, and is fully accessible on British History Online. (Two notes for reading the text below: pelere - pillory; mad mere - made merry.)

‘The xij day of November was Saterday ther was a woman sett on the pelere for sayhyng that the quen was ded, and her grace was not ded then.

The xvij day of November be-twyn v and vj in the mornyng ded quen Mare, the vj yere of here grace(’s) rayne, the wyche Jhesu have mercy on her solle! Amen.

[The same] day, be-twyne a xj and xij a’ for[noon, the lady Eliza]beth was proclamyd quen Elsabeth, quen of England, France and Yrland, and deffender of the feyth, by dyvers haroldes of armes and trumpeters, and dukes, lordcs [and knights,] the wyche was ther present, the duke of Norfoke, [the] lord tresorer, the yerle of Shrousbere, and the yerele of Bedford, and the lord mayre and the althermen, and dyver odur lordes and knyghtes.

The sam day, at after-non, all the chyrches in London dyd ryng, and at nyght dyd make bonefyres and set tabulls in the strett, and ded ett and drynke and mad mere for the newe quen Elsabeth, quen Mare(’s) syster.’

Memories of Montreal

An article in The Gazette (often called The Montreal Gazette) this weekend paid tribute to Jedediah Hubbell Dorwin, who died 125 years ago last Tuesday, ‘for the remarkable diary he kept’. Although the newspaper provides one or two extracts, unfortunately they are not dated; nor does the newspaper tell its readers where to find out more about the diary - which is a shame.

Dorwin was born in Vermont in 1792, one of five children, and settled in Montreal in 1816. The following year, he married Isabella Williamson, and they had one son (and also adopted a daughter). He worked as a trader, importing and sometimes smuggling foodstuffs. By the early 1820s, he also trading fish, and even bought his own whaler. After many years shipping commodities such as wheat, sugar and meat, he also went into the lumber business for a while. He had many other business interests, including investing and promoting rail and river transport links in the Rawdon area, around 60km north of Montreal. In his 70s, he was still very active, inventing and manufacturing barometers. 

More details of Dorwin’s life are given in a useful chronology provided by Glenn F Cartwright, a professor at McGill University. According to Cartwright, Dorwin began writing a journal in 1811, and kept it up until his death in 1883, on 11 November (125 years ago last week).

In 1881, two years before his death, according to The Gazette columnist John Kalbfleisch, The Montreal Star published a long article based on Dorwin’s recollection of the Montreal he had first seen some 65 years earlier. He wrote about how part of the city ‘was quite imposing’ and how ‘the large number of buildings, their roofs covered with tin, glittering in the sun’ was something very new to him. (Unfortunately, none of the extracts from Dorwin’s diary provided by The Gazette are dated.)

After being ferried in a dugout canoe and landing in mud, though, Dorwin realised the city was dingier than the glittering rooftops had suggested. He described how most houses had heavy iron doors and shutters, and that ‘there was little or no attempt at ornamental architecture’. He wrote: ‘The signs over the doors, where there were any, were symbolical for few of the habitants could read, and the silvered flagon or the burnished boot would be much better understood and remembered than the most flaring and most carefully gilded print.’

Dorwin noted how only a few streets were paved and ‘there were no rows of trees as now . . . for over the whole continent, from the time of the earliest settlers almost to the present, trees were a species of vegetation to be exterminated, not reared.’ And he wrote: ‘The rural system of government in so large a town was not productive of much order or regularity . . . and the roughs of the place did pretty much as they liked. But on the other hand the taxes were light.’

In 1816, when Dorwin arrived, there was a ‘citadel of sorts’ on a small hill (the only remaining part of the old city wall) ‘where cannon were fired at sunrise and at noon, and a sentry paced constantly’. Three years later, Dorwin was one of the contractors engaged to level the hill and use the earth to fill in a pond at its foot. He wrote in his diary: ‘On the side of the hill next the pond were found several coffins, some of them well preserved . . . The coroner was notified, but instead of holding a long judicial and scientific investigation, he ordered them to be tumbled into the pond with the rest of the earth. . .’

Kalbfleisch concludes his article on Dorwin by noting that The Montreal Star article was more than 11,000 words long, ‘15 times as long as this column, and the diary entries on which it’s based are longer still’. It’s an invaluable record of what Montreal looked like, he says, of who its leading citizens were, of how the people were educated and much more. Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us how to read more.