Thursday, June 26, 2008

The fascination that is China

Not long after his 50th birthday, in 1974, George Bush senior went to China to take up a diplomatic position. On the way there, he began dictating a diary, and this has now been published for the first time. China seems to be a popular place for Westerners to indulge in a spot of diary writing: a few years back, the UK’s Prince Charles ended up suing a national newspaper for revealing some of his (private) China diary; five centuries ago a Korean official wrote an impressive journal about journeying across China; and, more than a millennium ago, a Japanese Buddhist monk wrote one of the very earliest of travel journals, yes, to China.

George H W Bush was Vice-President of the US from 1981 to 1989 under Ronald Reagan and then President from 1989 to 1993. Having made a fortune from oil before his 40th birthday,he turned to politics during the 1960s. In 1974, he became head of the US Liaison Office in Beijing, and, on the way out to China that year, in October, he started recording a diary. This has now been published by Princeton University Press with a slightly overblown title: The China Diary of George H. W. Bush: The Making of a Global President.

A few pages of the book are available to read on the Amazon website. In the first chapter, called Everybody in the United States Wants to Go to China, this president-to-be muses a bit. It’s 21 October 1974: ‘Am I running away from something?’; ‘Am I leaving what with inflation, incivility in the press and Watergate and all the ugliness?’; ‘Am I taking the easy way out?’ The answer I think is ‘no’, because of the intrigue and fascination that is China. I think it is an important assignment; it is what I want to do; it was what I told the President [Gerald Ford] I want to do; and all in all, in spite of the great warnings of isolation, I think it is right - at least for now.’

The publisher says Bush reveals ‘a thoughtful and pragmatic realism’, one that would ‘guide him for decades to come’. Not only does he, in this diary, formulate views on the importance of international alliances and personal diplomacy but he even describes his explorations of Beijing by bicycle, and experiences with Chinese food, language lessons, and ping-pong. Heady stuff.

Also heady stuff is this: Chinese diplomats being described as ‘appalling old waxworks’. According to the BBC, this allegedly comes from a private diary written by Prince Charles during a visit to China in 1997. In 2005, the UK’s Mail on Sunday printed extracts from the diary, and, then, when the Prince sued, lost the legal battle. According to The Guardian, the Mail on Sunday said ‘it had acted in the public interest by publishing the diaries because they contained the political beliefs of the UK’s future head of state’. Apparently, Prince Charles regularly writes journals of his official visits and then circulates around 100 copies to various relatives, friends and contacts.

Keeping a diary on a trip to China has been fashionable for centuries. Five hundred years ago, in 1488, a high-level Korean official called Choe Bu was shipwrecked on his way back to the mainland from the island of Jeju. Washed up on the coast of China, Choe Bu made his way overland to Beijing. During the journey, he kept a diary which modern historians find invaluable for its perspective on Chinese culture in the 15th century and for the information on China’s cities and regional differences. According to Wikipedia, his ‘description of cities, people, customs, cuisines, and maritime commerce along China’s Grand Canal provide insight into the daily life of China and how it differed between northern and southern China during the 15th century’.

And going back even further, a Japanese Buddhist monk, Jikaku Daishi or Ennin, travelled to China in 838 to act as a Japanese representative to the T’Ang court. He stayed for 10 years, travelling to monasteries even though Buddhists were being persecuted at the time. Among the many books he wrote is a diary of the time in China. This was translated into English by Edwin Reischauer, a US ambassador to Japan. Reischauer claimed it - Ennin’s Diary: The Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law - was one of the world’s three great travel books.

Just for the record, when George Bush senior was heading for Beijing, my own diary records that on 21 October 1974 I was not that far away, in Penang, Malaysia, visiting a snake farm: ‘I . . . bus out to the university it’s fairly modern, with a nice hilly setting in the forest-covered hills around Penang. In 1980, I learn, the main language will change to Malay. I bus a bit further out to the snake temple - a small Chinese temple which, a long time ago, became a refuge for snakes. A few are now kept on twigs inside the temple - poisonous pit vipers - hardly worth the trip except maybe to see a tourist with snakes on his head and a photographer looking happy.’ But no China diary from me, at least not yet.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The veriest drudge

Tonight (23 June) at 9pm the UK broadcaster, Channel 4, is screening the final part of its Victorian Passions documentary season. This episode is entitled Upstairs Downstairs Love, and focuses on the relationship between a trained solicitor, Arthur Munby, and a servant woman Hanna Cullwick. Apart from the cross-class nature of the relationship, two other factors make this a worthy documentary subject. Firstly, the two had a long-term and complicated sexual relationship based on their real master/servant roles; and, secondly, they both wrote about it in some detail in diaries.

Cullwick had humble origins, although, unusually, she did learn to read and write. From the age of eight, she worked as a servant in various situations. In 1854, she met Munby, a trained solicitor acting for the Ecclesiastical Commissioners Office. He had a long-standing interest in working class women, and became fascinated with Cullwick. Subsequently, she took a variety of part-time servant jobs so as to be near him in London. In 1873, they married secretly, and Cullwick went to live in Munby’s lodgings. Nevertheless she retained her maiden name, and her servant’s job, and her servant’s salary. In the early 1880s she left him, and took a position in her home county of Shropshire. However, Munby was a regular visitor until her death.

Wikipedia has entries on both Munby and Cullwick. According to the one on Cullwick, she proudly referred to herself as Munby's ‘drudge and slave’. For much of her life, she wore a leather strap around her right wrist and a locking chain around her neck, to which Munby had a key. She wrote letters almost daily to him, describing her long hours of work in great detail, and she would arrange to visit him ‘in my dirt’, showing the results of a full day of cleaning and other domestic work.

According to Wikipedia’s entry on Munby his interest in working class women led him to collect hundreds of photographs of, for example, female mine workers, kitchen maids, milkmaids, charwomen, and acrobats. These were left, along with his and Cullwick’s diaries, to Trinity College, Cambridge, but were not opened to the public until 1950, as per the terms of Munby’s will. Since then, they’ve been used extensively by researchers, especially those examining the role of women during the Victorian period.

There is good information about the diaries and a few extracts on the website of Adam Matthews Publications, which promotes a digital version of the Munby papers held by Trinity College. There is also quite a lot from the diaries in Interpreting Women’s Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives by Joy Webster Barbre much of which can be browsed at Google Books.

Finally, an interesting article by Helen Merrick in Limina, a journal of historical and cultural studies, can be found at the University of Western Australia website. Merrick refers to several Munby diary extracts of which this is one, from 19 August 1860: ‘. . . let me look on this hardworking simplicity, this humble unselfish devotion, which finds its highest expression in the doings of a sweep or a lapdog, and feel, unreservedly, what I always meant to prove - that the veriest drudge, such as she is, becomes heroic when she truly loves.’

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The suffragette times

Saturday 21 June 1908, one hundred years ago today, 200,000-300,000 supporters of the women’s suffragette movement converged on Hyde Park, London. It must have been an important event for the movement, but online I can find no first hand diary reference to it. Although there are a few suffragette diaries, which do shed some light on the movement (a bit too much perhaps), there seems to be a surprising dearth of them in general.

In her biography of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) at the time, June Purvis writes about the 21 June demonstration: ‘There were several bands and 700 banners fluttering in the breeze on this brilliantly sunny day, including a banner with the picture of the WSPU leader declaring her to be a Champion of Womanhood Famed For Deeds of Daring Rectitude’. One of the chief speakers was Mrs Pankhurst’s daughter, Christabel, who claimed the demonstration would convince the government that public opinion was on their side. Another speaker, Annie Kenney, a working-class activist from Oldham, said it showed the movement had the support of men as well as women. (There’s some great postcards reproduced on the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, website.)

That day, a century ago, sounds a genteel affair, but the suffragette movement was nothing of the sort. According to Votes for Women: The Virago Book of Suffragettes, ‘it was a bloody and dangerous war lasting several decades, won finally by sheer will and determination in 1928’. By drawing on diary extracts, as well as newspapers, letters, etc. the book’s editor, Joyce Marlow, allows the women themselves to tell the story.

An alternative view of the movement comes from the diaries of Mary Blathwayt. These have not been published but Vanessa Thorpe wrote an article for The Observer a few years ago based on Professor Martin Pugh’s examination of the diaries. The article was titled Diary reveals lesbian love trysts of suffragette leaders, and claimed that ‘the complicated sexual liaisons - involving the Pankhurst family and others at the core of the militant organisation - created rivalries that threatened discord’. Pugh believes, the article says, that Christabel was the most classically beautiful of the Pankhurst daughters and was the focus of a rash of ‘crushes’ across the movement, and that she was briefly involved with Mary Blathwayt herself, but was probably supplanted by Annie Kenney.

Many of these trysts apparently took place at the Blathwayt home, Eagle House, near Bath. There is biographical data about Mary Blathwayt in The Woman’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 by Elizabeth Crawford. And there is some information about Eagle House, and some photographs of the women, on the University of West of England website. Blaythwayt’s diary is held by the Gloucestershire Archives

On the other side of the ‘war’ were the anti-suffrage campaigners, such as Alexander MacCallum Scott. He became a Liberal MP in 1910, and during the First World War was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Winston Churchill. In the 1920s, he switched to the Labour Party. In his diaries (1909-1914), held by the University of Glasgow, he frequently discusses his activities as a member of the anti-suffrage committee in the Liberal Party. There is some useful information about MacCallum Scott and his diaries on the university’s Special Collections website.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Whitman the diarist

Walt Whitman is best known as one of America’s greatest poets, and is sometimes dubbed the father of free verse (see Wikipedia). He also kept daybooks and diaries, but there is only one specific book of his titled as a diary. It’s about a trip to Canada in 1880, and begins with an entry on 18 June.

Walt Whitman’s Diary in Canada, with Extracts from Other of His Diaries and Literary Notebooks was published by Boston, Small, Maynard in 1904 in a limited edition of 500. There is a very brief introduction by the editor, William Sloane Kennedy, who says he transcribed ‘out-door notes from the worn and time-stained fragments of paper (backs of letters, home-made note-books, etc.), on which they were originally written’. The whole work is available online thanks to Internet Archive.

Here is the book’s first entry: ‘London, Ontario, June 18, 1880. Calm and glorious roll the hours here the whole twenty-four. A perfect day (the third in succession); the sun clear; a faint, fresh, just palpable air setting in from the southwest; temperature pretty warm at midday, but moderate enough mornings and evenings. Everything growing well, especially the perennials. Never have I seen verdure grass and trees and bushery to greater advantage. All the accompaniments joyous. Cat-birds, thrushes, robins, etc., sinking. The profuse blossoms of the tigerlily (is it the tiger-lily?) mottling the lawns and gardens everywhere with their glowing orange-red. Roses everywhere, too.

A stately show of stars last night: the Scorpion erecting his head of five stars, with glittering Antares in the neck, soon stretched his whole length in the south; Arcturus hung overhead; Vega a little to the east; Aquila lower down; the constellation of the Sickle well toward setting; and the halfmoon, pensive and silvery, in the southwest.’

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Famous Brazilian diaries

Virago Press has just re-published, in the UK, the Brazilian diary of a young girl from the mid-1890s - The Diary of Helena Morley - but it retains a translation made by Elizabeth Bishop, a famous American poet, over 50 years ago. Bishop’s introduction says the diary contains scenes that are ‘odd, remote and long ago, and yet fresh, sad, funny, and eternally true’. There is another famous Brazilian diary, by Carolina Maria de Jesus, from the 1960s about life in the slums, which became one of Brazil’s best selling books.

After serving as America’s Poet Laureate in 1949-1950, Elizabeth Bishop took a trip to South America. She didn’t intend to stay more than a few weeks when visiting Brazil, but ended up living there for 15 years (during which time she won a Pulitzer Prize). Early on, friends recommended Minha Vida de Menina (translatable as My Life as a Young Girl), a diary kept by Alice Dayrell Caldeira Brant and published privately in 1942. Alice was born to a British father and Brazilian mother, and grew up in Diamantina (Minas Gerais state), once a mining town and now a Unesco World Heritage site very approximately half way between Rio and Brasilia.

Brant’s diary was translated by Bishop and then published, with the pseudonym Helena Morley, by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy in New York in 1957, and, a year later, by Victor Gollancz in London. A few of these early editions are on sale at Abebooks for as much as £150. The translated diary has been re-published several times since then, in the 1970s and in the 1990s.

An extract from Bishop’s introduction is widely quoted, not least by Virago Press: ‘The more I read the book the better I liked it. The scenes and events it described were odd, remote, and long ago, and yet fresh, sad, funny and eternally true. The longer I stayed on in Brazil the more Brazilian the book seemed, yet much of it could have happened in any small provincial town or village, and at almost any period of history - at least before the arrival of the automobile and the moving-picture theatre.’

A review by Time Magazine says the diary is ‘full of the fun, the beauty, and some of the pain of growing up in a primitive town where recently freed slaves were still living with their old masters by choice’. There are also one or two short quotes, such as this one: ‘If grandma would give me the money she spends on Masses, I’d be rich. I don't know if what I’m writing is a sin.’

There is another famous diary, which must have been written at the same time, in fact, as Bishop was living in Brazil and translating Alice’s diary. Carolina Maria de Jesus was also born in Minas Gerais state, in 1914, but by the 1950s found herself with three children (all by different fathers) living in a Sao Paolo slum. Thanks to the philanthropy of a local landowner, she had had slightly more schooling than other black girls, and perhaps for this reason was able to, or wanted to, write about her life. She did this on scraps of paper, which were later put together into notebooks. A young reporter published some extracts in a local newspaper. Subsequently, in 1960, de Jesus’s diary was published as Quarto de Despejo (Child of the Dark), and became a publishing sensation. See The Diary Junction for more details.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Rachel Corrie and (self-)deceit

More than five years ago, in March 2003, Rachel Corrie, a young American, was killed in Gaza while trying to obstruct an Israeli army bulldozer. An Israeli investigation concluded her death was an accident, but the Palestinians believe it was intentional. Now, on publication of Corrie’s diaries, an American Jewish academic, Roberta P Seid, has lambasted the exploiting of Corrie as a ‘poster child, an alleged symbol of youthful idealism, Palestinian victimization, and Israeli brutality’.

Rachel Corrie had only been in Gaza two months, working for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian movement which advocates non-violent resistance to Israel’s land occupation, when she was killed while trying to stop the destruction of Palestinian homes. The circumstances of her death remain controversial. Wikipedia gives a good summary. In essence, an official Israeli investigation concluded that, having been hidden from view, she was killed accidentally by debris falling as a result of a bulldozer’s actions. The ISM claim the bulldozer driver ran over Corrie deliberately.

In any case, during the last five years, Corrie’s death has been used widely by Palestinians and their supporters for campaigning against Israeli occupation of their lands. Many musicians have written songs about her, and she has been the subject of countless articles. In 2005, a play My Name is Rachel Corrie, composed from Corrie’s diaries and emails, opened in London. It was written by British actor Alan Rickman and journalist Katharine Viner; Rickman also directed the play. Viner wrote about the process of editing Corrie’s journals for The Guardian. She starts by quoting one entry from when Corrie was around 19 or 20, which is worth re-quoting.

‘Had a dream about falling, falling to my death off something dusty and smooth and crumbling like the cliffs in Utah,’ she writes, ‘but I kept holding on, and when each foothold or handle of rock broke I reached out as I fell and grabbed a new one. I didn't have time to think about anything - just react as if I was playing an adrenaline-filled video game. And I heard, “I can't die, I can't die,” again and again in my head.’ The same article contains other good extracts from Corrie’s diary.

Now the diaries themselves have been published, with the title Let Me Stand Alone: The Journals of Rachel Corrie, by Granta Books in the UK and WW Norton in the US. Amazon UK or Amazon US lets you have a peek inside. Although publication was a little earlier this year, Commentary magazine has just published a response to the book, by Roberta P Seid. Commentary calls itself America’s premier monthly magazine of opinion and a pivotal voice in American intellectual life, and has been a flagship of neoconservatism since the 1970s. Seid is a Jewish intellectual who is also connected to StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy organisation based in Los Angeles.

Seid’s article in Commentary is entitled The (Self-)Deceit of Rachel Corrie. She finds no facts to back up the Palestinian version of Corrie’s death and therefore criticises the way ‘the ISM and other anti-Israel activists seized upon Rachel’s death for public relations purposes’. The young American, she says, ‘instantly became their poster child, an alleged symbol of youthful idealism, Palestinian victimization, and Israeli brutality.’ She talks of the ‘Rachel Corrie industry’, and makes particular play of the fact that Corrie’s parents, who had never shown interest in the Middle East conflict, are now regulars on the international anti-Israel lecture circuit.

Corrie’s diaries, she writes in Commentary, are of interest ‘primarily because they provide insight into how a young American girl ended up in Gaza with the ISM, trying to protect terrorist operations and demonising Israel, about how anti-Israel propaganda and the ISM work, and about who or what actually killed Rachel Corrie’. She finds evidence in the diaries that Corrie was ‘ripe fodder for the ISM’, and that the organisation ‘callously recruited idealistic, naive “internationals” to break Israeli law, violate [Israeli] security zones, indoctrinate them with its peculiar version of the conflict, and to groom them as future speakers for its anti-Israel cause.’

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Lady Nijo’s confessions

‘I have continued to note down all these trifling details of my life, even though I cannot aspire to having left posterity anything worth reading.’ This might have been written by any one of a million bloggers in today’s world. In fact, it’s a translation of a diary or memoir written by Lady Nijo, a Japanese courtesan, born in 1258, exactly 750 years ago.

Nijo came from a well-connected family, but as a young girl was fostered by the Prime Minister and Lady Kitayama (who was to be a mother and grandmother to emperors). While still a teenager she was given to the emperor Gofukakusa to be his courtesan. She also took other lovers. By the age of 25 she had had four children, only one of which was fathered by Gofukakusa. Eventually, she left, or was expelled from, the palace and became a wandering Buddhist nun. (See The Diary Junction for more, or Bookrags which has an excellent biography of Nijo or Nij.)

Sometime after 1307, Nijo completed writing five books, collectively called Towazugatari (literally, ‘an unsolicited tale’). They were not rediscovered until the 1940s, by a scholar named Yamagishi Tohukei. Karen Brazell’s translation was published in English in the 1970s as The Confessions of Lady Nijo. According to Branislav L. Slantchev, on his Gotterdammerung website, the book covers about thirty years, from 1271 to 1306, and presents ‘an intimate portrait of a very human emperor, a court obsessed with nostalgia for the glorious Heian past, and the often turbulent life of a beautiful woman’.

Although not strictly a diary in the modern sense of the word, as in being written day-by-day or week-by-week, diary bibliographies often consider Nijo’s writing as one of the very earliest examples of the diary form, and academics do sometimes quote ‘Nijo’s diary’ (for example, in The Aesthetics of Discontent: Politics and Reclusion in Medieval Japanese Literature.

Other Women’s Voices has a good set of extracts from Brazell’s translation. I’ve used the last of these extracts at the head of this post, partly because it could have been written today. Here is another, longer extract, from much earlier in Nijo’s life, which does not seem so modern. Having born a son to Gofukakusa, she gave birth to a second child, by one of her lovers, and this birth had to be kept secret.

‘[Akebono] lit a lamp to look at the child, and I got a glimpse of fine black hair and eyes already opened. It was my own child, and naturally enough I thought it was adorable. As I looked on, [he] took the white gown beside me and wrapped the baby in it, cut the umbilical cord with a short sword that lay by my pillow, and taking the baby, left without a word to anyone. I did not even get a second glimpse of the child's face.

I wanted to cry out and ask why, if the baby must be taken away, I could not at least look at it again; but that would have been rash, and so I remained quiet, letting the tears on my sleeves express my feelings.

‘It will be all right. You have nothing to worry about. If it lives you'll be able to see it,’ Akebono said on his return, attempting to console me. Yet I could not forget the face I had glimpsed but once. Though it was only a girl, I was grieved to think that I did not even know where she had been taken. I also knew it would have been impossible to keep her even if I had so desired. There was nothing for me to do but wrap my sleeves around myself and sob inwardly.’

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Has Coelho revealed too much?

Paul Coelho is not an author I’ve read, or know anything about, but I'm aware of his fame and immense readership around the world. However, I have suddenly become intrigued by the man and his life. A new biography, O Mago (The Wizard), published in his home country of Brazil, is very revealing largely because Coelho allowed the biographer to read 200 volumes of personal diaries. Now, Coelho himself is wondering about the wisdom of revealing so much. On his own website, he has posted a blog asking his readers this question: ‘Should you know all about me?’

Coelho was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1947. He must have been an unruly teenager because, according to the new biography, his father put him in a mental institution where he was sedated and given electro-shock therapy. Later, after dropping out of law college, he travelled in Latin America, Europe and North Africa, and then, on returning to Brazil, wrote popular music lyrics. He was imprisoned in 1974 on allegations of subversive activities. Thereafter, he spent several more years working in the music industry.

Coelho published his first book in the early 1980s, but it didn’t sell well. In 1986, his spiritual quest, which had begun during his hippie travelling days, reached some kind of climax when he undertook the arduous pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. The Alchemist, his most famous book, was published two years later, in 1988. It is a symbolic story that urges people to follow their dreams. According to Wikipedia, Coelho has sold more than 100 million books in over 150 countries with his works being translated into 66 languages.

The publication of a revealing biography is thus likely to be of interest to many, including me (even though my own travelling was never motivated by any kind of spiritual quest). According to Marjorie Rodrigues, writing for Reuters, Fernando Morais, the author of O Mago, says it reveals the ‘wild, sometimes dark, past’ of Coelho, and has everything, ‘violence, sex, religion, rock and roll, Satanism’. These revelations come from over 200 diaries and 100 tapes compiled by Coelho earlier in his life and which were locked in a locked chest. 

Coelho planned, so the story goes, for the chest to be burned when he died. However, it seems, he offered Morais a key to unlock it if he could find the identity of the man who had tortured him (presumably in 1974) - and Morais did. Among the book’s many revelations is one about the young Coelho making a pact with the devil, and there are many others about his sex life, including homosexual affairs.

Coelho keeps up a dialogue with his readers through a website and blog. Yesterday (9 June), he posted this (in text and speaking to camera on video): ‘My biography, entitled The Wizard, has just been released in Brazil and given that I opened all my files to my biographer, some people have been horrified with my past. So here is my question to you: Should you know all about me?’ As I finish writing this, more than 80 fans have responded to the question so far, most very appreciative of Coelho’s honesty and openness. Here is one, from Jasrah, 'I will just say thanks for being on earth.'

Monday, June 9, 2008

In Slingsby’s memory

Yesterday, Sunday 8 June, was Slingsby Day, according to the Slingsbys website. It was the 350th anniversary of the death by execution of Sir Henry Slingsby, a Yorkshire landowner, a Member of Parliament, and, crucially, a Royalist. He was also a diarist.

Slingsby, made a baronet in 1638, married Barbara, daughter of Sir Thomas Belasyse. They had four children. A Protestant and a Royalist, he fought for Charles 1 against Cromwell in the civil war. Unfortunately for Slingsby, he was eventually arrested, tried as a traitor and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. The sentence, though, was commuted to simple beheading. Fortunately for us, the Slingsbys website says, Henry kept a diary during those turbulent years (and it quotes a few extracts). The website also nominates 8 June 2008 as Slingsby Day.

The Gentleman’s Magazine, available on Google Books, carries some extracts from Slingsby’s diary, though these mostly concern Redhouse, the family home on the banks of the Ouse, near York. However, the full text, with an interesting introduction, of Slingsby’s Memoirs, is available online thanks to Calderdale Council. The introduction concludes: ‘Having knelt down to the block his head was severed at a single blow. His remains were deposited in a chapel belonging to his family in the church of Knaresborough, under a large stone of black marble.’

Wikipedia and The Diary Junction both have pages on Slingsby.

More on Turkish coup diary

An intriguing story about how a diary revealed plans for two military coups in Turkey (blog 14 May) has resurfaced in the Turkish newspapers. Alper Görmü, the newspaper editor that published extracts from the diary, was taken to court but then acquitted. Now a court prosecutor, Süleyman Aydın, has appealed against the acquittal so as to allow Görmü to prove his allegations about the planned coups.

Görmü was the editor-in-chief of the Turkish newsweekly Nokta (until it closed down) which published excerpts from a diary allegedly written by a former navy commander, Özden Örnek. The excerpts gave details of how Turkey narrowly escaped two military coups in 2004. Örnek himself was one of the coup plotters. He denied having written the diary entries and claimed they had been libelously attributed to him. During the course of the legal case against Görmü, it was proven that the diaries did originate from Örnek’s computer. At the time of his acquittal, Görmü and others expressed serious concern about the fact that there was to be no investigation of the coup plotters.

Now, though, with Aydın’s appeal the allegations look set to be investigated further. Bianet quotes Aydın: ‘According to these arrangements, when there is public good in clarifying particulars of an accusation, the accused has the right to prove his/her allegations. It is clear that there is public good in proving the incident that is the subject of our case and therefore the accused has the right to prove his allegations. . .’

And Today Zaman quotes Görmü himself: ‘We wanted a chance to prove our claims. A path to proving them was blocked with my acquittal, so we were getting ready to appeal that decision. Now, with the prosecutor’s initiative as well, I’m glad to see that there is an open path to getting justice.’

Friday, June 6, 2008

Who look in stove

It is a hundred years today since the birth of Edgar Vernon Christian (6 June 1908), a British teenager who followed his dream (and possibly his love too) to a tragic death in Canada’s far north. On an expedition into the Barren Lands, along the Thelon River, Christian and two older companions died of starvation in 1927. Two years later, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found Christian’s diary in the cabin where the men had died.

The ill-fated expedition to Canada’s far north was mounted by Jack Hornby, a wealthy British aristocrat in his mid 40s, who had emigrated to Canada as a young man. He took with him two inexperienced companions. Harold Adlard, the older of the two, was a 27 year old would-be British explorer Hornby had met in Canada. The younger was Christian, Hornby’s second cousin, who he’d encountered on returning to England for his father’s funeral. Christian, it seems, begged Hornby to let him join an expedition. In the spring of 1926, the three set off to the Barren Lands (or Grounds), the vast tundra area in northern Canada, where Hornby planned to show it was possible to survive by feeding on caribou. However, it seems, Hornby’s party missed the caribou migration, and so had to spend winter without adequate food.

In 1928, the bodies of three men were discovered by prospectors in the Thelon region; a year later the Canadian police mounted an investigation. They found the cabin where the men had died. On a stove in the cabin was a note saying ‘WHO LOOK IN STOVE’, and inside the stove was Christian’s diary and a letter to his parents. The investigation, and the diary, made clear that the three men had died of starvation, first Hornby, then Adlard two weeks later, and then Christian. Christian’s last diary entry was dated 1 June 1927: ‘9 a.m. Weaker than ever. Have eaten all I can. Have food on hand but heart peatering [?] Sunshine is bright now. See if that does any good to me if I get out and bring in wood to make fire. Make preparations now.Got out, too weak and all in now. Left things late.’

Enrique Ramirez , a PhD student at Princeton University, gives a good account of the expedition on his website, and says of the diary that ‘[Christian’s] clipped, pithy style is matter-of-fact, as if he were protecting future readers from the grisly details of starvation. Death was a lonely and personal business, and he only wanted to present a bare minimum of details.’

Even more details about the tragedy and especially about the three men can be found on the Cowboy Song website, where the author (possibly Alan Miller) suggests that there was more than a hint of homosexuality in the relationship between the cousins. He suspects some of the evidence may have been suppressed or destroyed. He says, for example, that whole pages may have been torn out from the diary, and that some passages from Christian’s letters, with potential homosexual significance, were supressed in early versions of the tragic story.

I can find no extracts from Christian’s diary on the internet (apart from that quoted above). There are several books and a play, though, about the tragedy which rely heavily on the diary. In 1937, J Murray published Unflinching: A Diary of Tragic Adventure; in 1980, Oberon Press published Death in the Barren Ground; and most recently Viking, in 2001, published Cold Burial. The 1993 play Who Look in Stove by Lawrence Jeffery touches on the homosexual theme, the Cowboy Song website says.

Diaries of a saint-to-be

Some 25 years after the death of Dorothy Day, her diaries have been published in the US by Marquette University Press. Marquette says Day ‘is widely regarded as the most influential lay person in the history of American Catholicism’. A very different sort of 20th century American Catholic - Thomas Merton - also kept his diaries sealed for 25 years after his death.

Dorothy Day, Wikipedia says, was an American journalist turned social activist and devout member of the Catholic Church. She became known for her social justice campaigns in defense of the poor, forsaken, hungry and homeless. In 1933, she helped found the Catholic Worker Movement, espousing nonviolence, and hospitality for the impoverished and downtrodden. She died in 1980, and three years later was proposed for sainthood. The Vatican officially accepted her cause for canonization in 2000 when it bestowed upon her the formal title ‘Servant of God’.

Day’s diaries - sealed until 2005 - have now been edited by Robert Ellsberg and published by Marquette. They begin in 1934, in the early days of the Catholic Worker Movement, and continue through until a few days before her death. In the diaries, Marquette says, Day reflects on the changing political and economic times, from the Depression to the Vietnam War; and they describe her own personal struggles, relationships and travels. Throughout, she also continues a dialogue with God, connecting every aspect of her life with her deep spiritual devotion. Ellsberg adds, in his introduction, ‘these diaries provide a unique window on her life, and on the witness of a woman for whom, in the end, everything was a form of prayer.’

As the Thirties come to a close, Day concludes her final entry of the decade with these resolutions: ‘To pay no attention to health of body but only that of soul. To plan day on arising and evening examination of conscience. More spiritual reading . . . To waste no time. More conscientious about letters, visits, about these records. More charity.’

Here’s another entry from 1973, (thanks to the National Catholic Reporter website which has a good number of extracts): ‘June 19, 1973. We feel so powerless. We do so little, giving out soup. But at least we are facing problems daily. Hunger, homelessness, greed, loneliness. The greatest concern of the Bible is injustice, bloodshed. So we share what we have, we work for peace.’

Thomas Merton is another famous 20th century Catholic diarist. He wasn’t born in the US, but moved there as a young man and converted to Roman Catholicism. He died 40 years ago in 1968, but his writings were not released until the 1990s. Whereas Day’s commitment to the Catholic cause seemed to get stronger and stronger, Merton became more open and looked to forge a dialogue with other religions, especially Buddhism; and whereas Day focused on the hungry and homeless, Merton was strong civil rights campaigner.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Chesnut’s Civil War diary

Today, 3 June, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. Although not a diarist himself, there is much about him in the diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut, whose husband served as the President’s aide.

Davis spent four years at the United States Military Academy, and then another seven in the army. However, in 1835, after falling in love with the daughter of his colonel, he resigned from the army, and then married the daughter. Unfortunately, she died soon after, and subsequently Davis became something of a recluse. The year 1845 saw him take an elected seat in the House of Representatives and marry a second time. The following year, though, he resigned the seat so as to fight in the Mexican-American War. In 1847, he was appointed to the senate, and served there, off and on, through the 1950s until the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the start of the civil war.

In 1861, Davis was elected as President of the eleven Confederate States of America, and served in that position until the Confederate government was dissolved in 1865. Thereafter, he spent two years in prison awaiting trial for treason, but the charges were eventually dropped. According to Wikipedia’s biography, Davis’s insistence on independence, even in the face of crushing defeat, prolonged the war.

Davis himself left many letters and speeches which are available through Rice University’s website The Papers of Jefferson Davis, and there are many biographies. However, Mary Boykin Chesnut gives first hand accounts of the man in A Diary from Dixie. Her husband was part of the Confederate’s provisional congress, but he was also an aide to Davis himself. During the war, Mary accompanied her husband setting up a home wherever he went, and this often served as a meeting place for the Confederate elite.

The full text of Chesnut’s diary is available online thanks to the University of North Carolina’s library which runs a website called Documenting the American South. Here are four extracts from the diary (about the President, ‘Jeff’ Davis).

25 February 1861 - ‘Everybody means to go into the army. If Sumter is attacked, then Jeff Davis’s troubles will begin. The Judge says a military despotism would be best for us - anything to prevent a triumph of the Yankees. All right, but every man objects to any despot but himself.’

29 June 1861 - ‘[We] drove in a fine open carriage to see the Champ de Mars. It was a grand tableau out there. Mr. Davis rode a beautiful gray horse, the Arab Edwin de Leon brought him from Egypt. His worst enemy will allow that he is a consummate rider, graceful and easy in the saddle, and Mr. Chesnut, who has talked horse with his father ever since he was born, owns that Mr. Davis knows more about horses than any man he has met yet.’

10 September 1863 - ‘Then we went to the President’s, finding the family at supper. We sat on the white marble steps, and General Elzey told me exactly how things stood and of our immediate danger. Pickets were coming in. Men were spurring to and from the door as fast as they could ride, bringing and carrying messages and orders. Calmly General Elzey discoursed upon our present weakness and our chances for aid. After a while Mrs. Davis came out and embraced me silently. “It is dreadful,” I said. “The enemy is within forty miles of us - only forty!” “Who told you that tale?” said she. “They are within three miles of Richmond!” I went down on my knees like a stone. “You had better be quiet,” she said. “The President is ill. Women and children must not add to the trouble.” She asked me to stay all night, which I was thankful to do. . . Early next morning the President came down. He was still feeble and pale from illness. Custis Lee and my husband loaded their pistols, and the President drove off . . .’

18 January 1864 - ‘Our Congress is so demoralized, so confused, so depressed. They have asked the President, whom they have so hated, so insulted, so crossed and opposed and thwarted in every way, to speak to them, and advise them what to do.’