Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Civilisation no longer exists

Abel J Herzberg, a Dutch lawyer in Amsterdam, was arrested by the Nazis in 1943 and, by January 1944, was incarcerated in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He survived there 15 months before release, and for the latter half of that time, he kept a detailed diary, which has been described as ‘unusually probing, sensitive, and eloquent’. This diary - Between Two Streams - A Diary from Bergen-Belsen - is being republished today in paperback form.

I B Tauris, a London-based publisher specialising in the Middle East and the Islamic World, first published Between Two Streams - A Diary from Bergen-Belsen, an English translation of Herzberg’s diary, in 1997. However, it was originally published in a Dutch journal nearly 50 years earlier in 1950; but parts are also included in Bergen-Belsen from 1943 to 1945, a book translated into English in the 1980s - see Abebooks.

Although Herzberg was sent to Bergen-Belsen in January 1944, his diary doesn’t begin until 14 August; and it finishes on 10 April 1945. According to I B Taurus, the diary chronicles ‘the horrific reality of daily existence in the camp’, and Herzberg only survived (rather than being gassed) in the camp because he was one of a small number of ‘privileged’ Jews who were held for possible use in exchanges with Allied-held German civilians. A website on Bergen-Belsen gives more details. It says that Herzberg was on a list of 272 Jews selected in April 1944 to go to Palestine, but that at the last minute, 50 names were crossed off the list and he was sent back to the camp.

Herzberg went on, after the war, to write many books on a wide variety of subjects, receiving numerous honours and prizes, including the Dutch prize for literature in 1974. After he died, in 1989, a translater called Jack Santcross produced an English edition of the diary, which was then published in hardback by I B Taurus in 1997. Santcross himself was a small part of Herzberg’s story, in that as a boy of only nine, he was transported on the same trains that took Herzberg both to and away from Bergen-Belsen!

The 1997 hardback publication of Between Two Streams was favourably reviewed. Kirkus, quoted by Amazon.com, said this: ‘An unusually probing, sensitive, and eloquent diary of incarceration at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. . . As a result of their unique status, these ‘special’ prisoners escaped the fate of others, who were worked to death or immediately killed. But life was not much easier: Seventy percent of the prisoners in Herzberg's section perished form malnutrition, disease, or torture. It is because Herzberg lived to see so much, and because of his passion for justice and his basic decency, that this book towers over many more gruesome death-camp memoirs.’

Dr S D Stein wrote a longer review for H-Net calling the diary ‘very powerful and illuminating’. He says Herzberg’s work possesses ‘a sense of immediacy’ that other diaries don’t, because ‘[he] writes about actions as they happen!’. Stein also notes that Herzberg, realising that the quality of his diary would suffer if he revised it after his liberation, refrained from making any alterations, ‘the reader, therefore, learns what goes on in the mind of a concentration camp prisoner as he endures his manifold hardships and as he witnesses atrocities inflicted upon other inmates’.

The Diary Junction has a biographical summary for Herzberg. It also has links to some extracts from his diary - here are a couple.

14 August 1944
‘Hut 13 is being punished. During roll-call, they had not stood orderly and still. Once again roll-call had lasted one and a half hours because someone miscounted in hut 28. Apparently hut 13 had got tired. Now they must stand in the cold, because it is chilly today . . .’
‘. . . Here civilisation no longer exists and consequently no sophistication either. As for eating, all I have to say is: there is hunger one side of our body, namely the inside, and fodder on the outside. Now the problem is: how to make the fodder reach the stomach. That is all. You have a fodder dish which is brown. It is a little impractical for a snout, else it could easily be used for pigs. You have a spoon, why? Because if you slurped from the your fodder dish you might make a mess, and that would be a pity.’

15 August 1944
‘The prisoners have erected the tent camp. Our men have carried straw. And last night and this morning a transport of women and children moved into these ten to twelve tents. Who are they? All this takes place right next to our camp section. We can see them. And nonetheless nobody knows anything - we are isolated from one another that strictly. All sorts of rumours are circulating, and most of them boil down to: fugitives from Poland and East Prussia. So we know at least one thing for certain: it is a sign of dissolution. And further: we are not going to get out of here anymore. We have to wait for the chaos. Will we one day have to swap places with these women and be housed in the tents? Those who love indulging in gloomy prophecies believe that. But it strengthens our power of resistance.’

Monday, September 29, 2008

Nelson’s diary, and left hand

It’s Horatio Nelson’s birthday. One of Britain’s greatest heroes was born 250 years ago today on 29 September 1758. He is not famed for his diary-keeping, although there is a published diary, dating from the very last weeks of his life, the original of which is said to have had an odour ‘faintly suggestive of spicy exhalations from tar and hemp and timber’. A typed version is freely available online; but, more interesting is the diary of Elizabeth Fremantle who was at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife - where Nelson lost his right arm.

Horatio Nelson, born exactly a quarter of a millennium ago, was famous for his role in the Napoleonic Wars, most notably at the Battle of Trafalgar, a decisive British victory, during which he lost his life - on 21 October 1805. By 16, he had already travelled the world with the Royal Navy; and by 21, he was one of its youngest captains. He was famed for inspiring loyalty in his crew and for his innovative strategies in battle at sea - he fought in more than 120 engagements. For more biographical information about Nelson on the internet, try Wikipedia, or the BBC, or the Royal Navy.

Nelson did keep diaries, it seems, but - with one exception - they have never been published as such. The exception is the diary he kept in the very last weeks of his life. This was published in 1917 as Nelson’s Last Diary. It covers only a few weeks, from 13 September to 21 October in 1805, but also contains an introduction and notes by Gilbert Hudson. It’s freely available, in various versions, at the Internet Archive. While the diary itself is not that interesting (unless you’re a naval historian), Hudson’s description of it is very appealing.

‘It measures about seven inches by four-and-a-half, and contains twenty leaves now numbered as forty pages all of them except the first, and the last five, being written on both sides entirely by Nelson’s own left hand, interleaved with blotting-paper, and bound in limp leather covers of a deep red shade. Nothing but a slight crinkling of these covers remains to show that the book lay during many years rolled up with the Will and other papers, without distinction of place or treatment. The fact that they have been protected, like thousands of other interesting records, from the deleterious handling of idle curiosity, speaks well for those official regulations which the general public is always ready enough to condemn as arbitrary and unreasonable.

Had the Diary been lodged in scrupulous custody at an earlier date, it might have retained its original number of leaves, whereof two, unfortunately, have long been missing. But the mutilation is not visible except on careful scrutiny, and the book now appears only a little more soiled and worn than when it lay in Nelson’s escritoire, unhurt amid the perilous tumult of Trafalgar.

The time-mellowed pages have a peculiar odour of a much more agreeable pungency than the usual mustiness of ancient records, and more than faintly suggestive of spicy exhalations from tar and hemp and timber. Whether this arises indeed from some old permeation of nautical atmosphere and circumstance, or merely from certain fragrant qualities of the paper and binding, or by chance from any process of fumigation or embalmment, or from what other cause so ever, it deserves at least brief mention if only for the sake of sentiment.’

The diary itself contains only brief entries, here is one which I’ve chosen simply because it’s from the same date as today - 29 September (1805): ‘Fine weather. Gave out the necessary orders for the Fleet. Sent Euryalus to watch the Enemy with the Hydra off Cadiz.’ There’s a small photograph of the diary in a BBC News article dating from 2005 and the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.

Otherwise, one has to google hard on the web to find evidence of Nelson’s diaries. For example, the National Archives has a long listing for Nelson, but does not include reference to any diaries. However, Robert Southey, in his biography - The Life of Nelson (available on the Painted Ships website) - does refer to Nelson’s diaries. And these, it seems, came from an 1809 biography by Clarke and McArthur. However, there are extracts, of what Nelson called his ‘private diary’, in the various volumes of The Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson (downloadable from Internet Archive).

Here is Southey using Nelson’s diary. It is June 1805, just a few months before Trafalgar: ‘Nelson’s diary at this time denotes his great anxiety and his perpetual and all-observing vigilance. ‘June 21. Midnight, nearly calm, saw three planks, which I think came from the French fleet. Very miserable, which is very foolish.’ On the 17th of July he came in sight of Cape St. Vincent, and steered for Gibraltar. ‘June 18th,’ his diary says, ’Cape Spartel in sight, but no French fleet, nor any information about them. How sorrowful this makes me! but I cannot help myself.’ The next day he anchored at Gibraltar; and on the 20th, says, ‘I went on shore for the first time since June 16, 1803; and from having my foot out of the VICTORY two years, wanting ten days.’ ’

But others around Nelson were keeping diaries, and one of the most intriguing and interesting is that by Elizabeth Fremantle. She was one of five Wynne sisters, three of whom kept journals, These were edited by a descendant and published in several volumes in the 1930s - as The Wynne Diaries - by a Fremantle descendant. Subsequently, they were further edited into a single volume. The Diary Junction has some information and links, as does the Dukes of Buckingham website.

Of interest, though, is that Elizabeth (or Betsey) Wynne married one of Nelson’s captains, Thomas Fremantle (later a vice-admiral), and was onboard with him during various sea battles, not least the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797, where Nelson lost his arm. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has a painting by Richard Westall of the moment, accompanied by a good summary of events:

‘Nelson was ordered to take possession of the town and harbour of Santa Cruz in Tenerife, where Spanish treasure ships were reported to be lying. He immediately set sail with three ships of the line, three frigates, and a cutter and was joined by a fourth frigate and a bomb vessel en route. After several failed attempts Nelson decided upon a direct assault on Santa Cruz by night, aiming for the central castle of San Cristobal where the Spanish general staff were based. Nelson commanded the attack, leading one of six divisions of boats . . . However, the initial boat-landings went wrong when many of them were swept off course and the element of surprise was lost. During his attempt to land Nelson was about to disembark when he was hit just above the right elbow by a musket or similar ball fired as grapeshot, which shattered the bone and joint. The arm was amputated aboard the Theseus that night. The attack ground to a halt, the British force landed at the harbour negotiating a truce with the Spanish Governor under which they returned to their ships. The Spanish also offered hospital facilities for the wounded and to sell the squadron provisions.’

Although a bit short of punctuation at times, extracts from Elizabeth Fremantle’s diary (a 1982 edition of The Wyne Diaries) give a marvellous on-the-spot account of what it was like to be there - even if the author is understandably more concerned about her husband’s wounds than Nelson’s arm! They also suggest Betsey may have received one of the first notes Nelson wrote with his left hand.

Thursday 25 July
‘The troops landed at two oclock this morning. There was much firing in the Town, but from the ships it seemed as if the English had made themselves masters of it, Great was our mistake, this proved to be a shocking, unfortunate night Fremantle returned at 4 this morning wounded in the arm, he was shot through the right arm the moment he had landed, came off in the first boat, and stayed on board the Zealous till day light, where he wound was dressed. Thank God as the ball only went through the flesh he will not lose an arm he managed it so well that I was not frightened, but I was not a little distressed and miserably when I heard what it was, and indeed he was in great pain and suffered cruelly all day but it was fortunate that he did get wounded at first, God knows if ever I should have seen again had he stayed on short. It was dreadful, poor Captain Bowen killed on the spot, The Admiral was wounded as he was getting out of the Boat and most unfortunately lost his arm. The fox Cutter was lost and poor old Gibson drowned Captain Thompson is likewise wounded. All the rest remained on shore very few people returned to the ships in the morning. As they threatened to burn the Town they had their own terms and were sent off . . .

This is the most melancholy event, I can’t help thinking of poor Captain Bowens losing his life just at the end of the war in which he had been so fortunate. At the moment he was continually talking of the happy life he should lead when he returned home. . . .

Fremantle was in great pain all day but I hope he will soon get well.’

Wednesday 26 July
‘Fremantle had a very good night’s rest he has no fever at all, his wound was dressed at twelve oclock and Fleming says it looks very well. It is a wonder how nothing but the flesh was hurt as two musquet balls went through the arm, about 15 of our men are wounded and two dead we are lucky as the other Frigates lost about 20 men a piece and some of the line of battle ships a hundred. The Admiral is coming on very well, he wrote me a line with his left hand.’

Friday, September 26, 2008

Diary twist to Möbius strip

August Möbius, an important German mathematician, died 140 years ago today. Most students who have studied maths will recognise his name, largely because, at some stage in their education, they will have come across a Möbius strip - a twisted ring of paper that can be cut, as if by magic, into another ring twice as large. Historians know that Möbius discovered this ‘strip’ as early as 1858, 150 years ago, only because of an entry in his diary.

Möbius’s mother was descended from Martin Luther and his father, who died when Möbius was only three, was a dancing teacher. He studied mathematics, astronomy and physics at Leipzig University, then more astronomy at Göttingen with Johann Friedrich Gauss, and more maths in Halle under Johann Pfaff. By 1816, he was back in Leipzig having been appointed chair of astronomy and higher mechanics. He didn’t achieve a full professorship until 1844, but at the same time was also involved in building and running the Leipzig Observatory. Thanks to the MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, hosted by the University of St Andrews in Scotland, for providing this biographical information.

Although Möbius published works on astronomy, his most important contributions came in the field of mathematics. His publications, not always original, were thought to be effective and clear, MacTutor says. His biographer Richard Baltzer wrote about him as follows: ‘The inspirations for his research he found mostly in the rich well of his own original mind. His intuition, the problems he set himself, and the solutions that he found, all exhibit something extraordinarily ingenious, something original in an uncontrived way. He worked without hurrying, quietly on his own. His work remained almost locked away until everything had been put into its proper place. Without rushing, without pomposity and without arrogance, he waited until the fruits of his mind matured. Only after such a wait did he publish his perfected works . . .’

One of the areas studied by Möbius was the polyhedron, and how to define it. Even today, 150 years later, this remains an area of study. Wikipedia says a polyhedron (plural polyhedra or polyhedrons) is often defined as a geometric object with flat faces and straight edges, but that this definition is ‘not very precise, and to a modern mathematician is quite unsatisfactory’. In a book dedicated entirely to polyhedra, and imaginatively called Polyhedra, its author Peter R Cromwell discusses Möbius’s contribution to the subject. In 1865, Cromwell says, Möbius answered the question ‘What is a polyhedron?’ in a paper, ‘the same one in which he described his famous one-side strip.’

In a footnote, however, Cromwell adds the following: ‘From entries in his diary, we know that he had discovered the ‘Mobius strip’ as early as 1858. J B Listing also discovered it independently around the same time.’ (Listing was another German mathematician who wrote an important treatise on topology.) For much more on the Möbius strip see Wikipedia’s extensive article.

But, for simple instructions on how to make one, see this support site for school teachers hosted by Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. It provides a very short introduction: ‘August Ferdinand Möbius was born in Germany at the end of the 1700s (300 years ago). He worked in mathematics and astronomy at several German universities. In 1858 he wrote in his diary about a strip of paper with a ‘twist’. It is a circle of paper with a half-turn in it, and it can do things a regular circle strip of paper cannot.’ (Möbius would have been proud of the maths - the end of the 1700s being 200 not 300 years ago!)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

I thought I was out of the woods

John Churton Collins, a writer and literary critic at the turn of the last century, died 100 years ago in mysterious circumstances. However, the last few pages of his diary - available online thanks to the New York Times archive - point to a near-suicidal depression. In a particularly poignant entry five days before his death, Churton Collins writes: ‘Last night I was so calm and contented when I went to bed I thought I was out of the woods.’

Publication of this article was planned for the 100th anniversary of Churton Collin’s death - which, according to Wikipedia, took place on 25 September 1908. But, while researching the story, it soon became clear that, in fact, he died 10 days earlier on 15 September 1908. So this article is ten days late. I mention it only because the 25 September death date can be found all over the internet, and is a prime example of how the nature of the internet, which is mostly marvellous, can lead to the extensive propagation of mis-information (but I don’t wish to suggest I’m any less guilty of this than the next web-man.)

The 1911 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica gives a short biographical summary for Churton Collins. Born in 1848 in Gloucestershire, he graduated from Oxford in 1872, and embarked on a writing career. Books on Joshua Reynolds, Bolingbroke, Voltaire and Swift followed, as well as many literary reviews. In 1904, he became professor of English literature at Birmingham University. And on 15 September 1908, it says, ‘he was found dead in a ditch near Lowestoft, at which place he had been staying with a doctor for the benefit of his health’. (Wikipedia uses almost the exact same text, but with 25 September instead of 15 September!) The circumstances necessitated the holding of an inquest, and the verdict was ‘accidental death’.

In an article on the death of Churton Collins, dated 22 September 1908, the New York Times (which, very usefully, has scanned and put online so many of its archived articles) said he was ‘esteemed as one of the sanest recent critics of literature’; it described him as ‘an old-fashioned, hard-hitting critic’ and as having sound, if somewhat prejudiced, views but a mind that was ‘well balanced’.

Two days earlier, on 20 September 1908, the New York Times had run a news story about the death, calling it ‘a remarkable pathological case’. It said Churton Collins had suffered for several years from fits of depression, probably caused by overwork, and it quoted extracts from the last pages in his diary (which had been cabled to New York by the paper’s London correspondent). It also noted that he had written a Voltaire quotation (ironic in the circumstances) on the inside cover of the diary: ‘Apres tout c’est un monde passable’.

Here are most of the diary entries published by the New York Times on 20 September 1908.

26 August: I am at Dr Daniel’s, at Oulton Road [Lowestoft], having had for nearly a month one of the worst attacks of depression I ever experienced. It began in London, got worse at Cardiff, and reached its climax at Oxford. The doctor insisted I must leave at once, and it was arranged I should come here, where I have been better, but am still suffering terribly at times. I can trace the cause of the attack to great stress of work and its sudden cessation. This undoubtedly set it up. My agony at times has been intolerable. . .
27 August: Much better; then came a reaction for the worse. I am now in the extreme of misery and depression.
28 August: Complete collapse again - intense depression
29-30 August: Wretched time, with occasional alternations, but nothing lasting. I can sleep well, God be thanked, and then wake up depressed.
31 August: Fearful depression, sensation that I was worn out mentally, fearfully sleepy. What will become of my children if I get worse?
2 September: I am now in a dead, dull suicidal misery.
3 September: Very good news - rest from awful depression. Then came on a terribly acute attack.
4 September: Woke up as usual without depression, but it soon began.
5 September: Miserable depression till about 7, when the cloud lifted and I got peace and began to think contentedly about future work.
6 September: Terrible in the morning; better as day advanced.
7 September: Very mixed day.
10 September: Last night I was so calm and contented when I went to bed I thought I was out of the woods. I felt perfectly well; but, alas, morning came and I had a terrible relapse into utter depression. Better after breakfast. Now, sitting on the porch at 12 o’clock, I feel calm.
No date: I have been through an awful time. My nerves are completely shattered. I have taken a drug this morning to get a good sleep and appease my agony.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A bit of Balkan history

Today is the 100th anniversary of the independent state of Bulgaria (according to the old style Julian calendar) which is as good an excuse as any to mention the controversial Bulgarian - or possibly Macedonian - intellectual, Krste Misirkov, who was much involved in defining an identity of Macedonians. He died in 1926, but an important diary of his was found just two years ago in a Bulgarian antique shop, and has been much in the Balkan news.

The Republic of Bulgaria forms part of the Balkans in south-eastern Europe, bordering five other countries: Romania, Serbia, Greece, Turkey and the Republic of Macedonia. But the idea of Bulgaria goes back a long way. There was a Bulgarian empire that started in the 7th century and survived over three hundred years; and a second empire that lasted from the 12th century to the 14th. The next five hundred years Bulgarians lived under the rule of the Ottoman empire. In the 1870s, though, Russia went to war against Turkey, and this led to Bulgaria becoming a principality in 1878. Thirty years later, on 22 September 1908 (old style calendar - see Wikipedia for an explanation), it declared itself an independent nation.

But the Balkan area was then (and became so again much later in the 20th century after the collapse of Yugoslavia) a cauldron of peoples vying for identity and nationality, and Bulgaria’s independence was just one element in the region’s complex picture. Another element was the neighbouring region of Macedonia, which can trace its history much further back than Bulgaria, and which was also grumbling about Ottoman rule and wanting some autonomy. It didn’t achieve any. After the First World War, it became part of Serbia, and then, after the Second World War, part of Yugoslavia.

Nearly 100 years later, there is once again a country called Macedonia, but so strong are the feelings about the Macedonian identity that a dispute with Greece over the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ has meant that, pending a solution to the dispute, this new republic is still referred to in international negotiations as FYROM, or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Very much alive at the time of Bulgaria’s independence and Macedonia’s grumblings was Krste Misirkov, an intellectual, writer and philologist. He was born in 1874 in Pella, now in the Greek region of Macedonia, and died in Sofia in 1926. His 1903 book On The Macedonian Matters - which, among things, set down principals for a Macedonian literary language - was considered a kind of rallying cry by Macedonian intellectuals struggling for independence. A full text in English is available at Macedoniafaq.

Largely because of this book, some Macedonian historians have dubbed Misirkov as the father of the contemporary Macedonian nation. Also on the basis of this book, they’ve claimed he was Macedonian, rather than Bulgarian, an assertion that has been difficult to reject definitively since he himself made conflicting claims about his nationality. Macedonian News still calls him ‘the founder of the Macedonian national history, literary language and orthography’.

Astonishingly, a 380 page diary written by Misirkov in Russian and dating from 1913 was found recently - 80 years after his death - in a Bulgarian antique shop. The diary, which has been authenticated by both Bulgarian and Macedonian experts, sheds new light on Misirkov and his beliefs. In particular, it shows that he thought of himself as a ‘Macedonian Bulgarian’. 

An article on Macedoniablogs (in English, but with delightful spelling!) gives an interesting analysis of Macedonian history at the time, with reference to Misirkov. It also quotes a review of the newly-found diary by Prof Dr Vlado Popovski, cited in Vreme newspaper: ‘[Misirkov] presents Bulgaria as martyr, who has undertaken the biggest burden from the war with the Turkish empire, it is a country that sacrificially heads to the realisation of its national ideal for the unification of the Bulgarian lands, in which apart from Thrace, Misirkov includes also Macedonia. In the context, he presents a range of statements with which he justifies the Bulgarian interests in Macedonia and calls the Macedonians Macedonian Bulgarians. Accusing Russia of unfaithfulness and coarse nationalism . . . Misirkov recommends to it [i.e. Russia] at least to call for autonomy of Macedonia as a transition solution to unification with Bulgaria.’

In other words, the simple truth seems to be that Misirkov supported the idea of a Macedonian identity in order to work towards an autonomous region, but only so that it would then be easier for it to unify with Bulgaria.

According to Sofia News Agency Novinite earlier this year, the State Archive of the Republic of Macedonia and Bulgaria’s State Archives Agency will soon be publishing the diary in both languages (translated from the original Russian).

Friday, September 19, 2008

Waltari’s Dark Angel

Mika Waltari, one of Finland’s most widely known and translated writers, was born a hundred years ago today. He became best known for his historical novels, but he was a prolific and adaptable writer, turning his pen to many different forms. He is not, however, known as a diarist. Nevertheless, it seems that he did once keep a travel diary, and that it provides an interesting insight into how he did research for his historical fiction. Of particular interest is the way he tracked down the 15th century diary of Nicolo Barbaro, which tells of the fall of Constantinople, and how he then used it as a source for one of his best known novels, The Dark Angel, written in diary form.

Waltari was born on 19 September 1908 into a religious family, but lost his father at the age of 5. He studied philosophy and literature at university, and became a prominent figure in the Finnish literary movement known as Tulenkantajat (the Flame-bearers), which sought to open up Finnish literature to the rest of Europe. His first novel, Suuri Illusioni (Grand Illusion), published in 1928, depicted, according to WSOY (Finland’s leading publisher), the lost generation following the first world war - ‘à la Fitzgerald’. It proved an early success.

Both Wikipedia and Kirjasto provide biographical summaries, the former more succinct than the latter. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Waltari worked hectically as a journalist and reviewer, and travelled widely in Europe. He also continued writing books, in many different genres, poetry, horror, crime and even scripting popular cartoons, and authoring a guidebook for aspiring writers. During the war years, he wrote propaganda for the government, and soon after published his first historical novel, The Egyptian, which became an international bestseller. He wrote seven more historical novels, placed in different ancient cultures, among which The Dark Angel, set during the fall of Constantinople in 1453, is considered one of his best.

By happy coincidental chance (for this blog), Waltari - not a diary-keeper by habit - did once keep a diary, a travel diary, published in 1948, when he was researching The Dark Angel. The Finnish author Panu Rajala, who is currently working on a biography of Waltari, says this travel diary is the ‘best introduction to Waltari’s working methods’ - something the National Library of Finland asked him to write about for their 2008 bulletin.

The last two paragraphs are worth reproducing verbatim for Rajala, in using the author’s own diary, explains how the famous diary written by Niccolo Barbaro inspires Waltari to use the diary form for his next novel.

‘On this trip to Venice or the next, Waltari ascends the steps to the National Library of St. Mark along the Piazzetta opposite the old Doge’s Palace. He has read a printed version of the diary written by Niccolo Barbaro, a participant in the battle, describing the Siege of Constantinople, but now he wants to see the original manuscript in its original decorative leather binding. He reads the 67-page diary, hand-written in the calligraphic script of its time, in which a young Venetian patriot describes the tragic phases of the siege. An unknown commentator’s marginal annotations in red ink provide Waltari with his most cogent insights. This is just what Waltari has maintained - of greater importance to the author are often the footnotes and minor details, not always the broad strokes. When Niccolo Barbaro accuses the Genovians of embezzlement, written on the page is ‘Angelo Zacaria, Greek embezzler for the Turks’.

Johannes Angelos is born and begins to grow as the novel’s main character. Simultaneously the form of the future novel - a diary - is found. Waltari is already in a rush to his destination, Istanbul.’

There is not much biographical information about Barbaro himself on the internet, but The Diary Junction gives a little, and also provides links to online texts of his diary. A near full version can be found here.

At the end of his description of the last day of the siege, Barbaro writes: ‘The fighting lasted from dawn until noon, and while the massacre went on in the city, everyone was killed; but after that time they were all taken prisoner. Our Bailo, Jeruolemo Minoto, had his head cut off by order of the Sultan; and this was the end of the capture of Constantinople, which took place in the year one thousand four hundred and fifty-three, on the twenty-ninth of May, which was a Tuesday.’

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Donoughue’s Downing Street play

A second volume of Bernard Donoughue’s Downing Street diaries is published today. As an adviser to Harold Wilson and then James Callaghan, Donoughue was well placed to record the decline and final collapse of ‘old’ Labour and the emergence of Margaret Thatcher and her campaign to dismantle trade union power and public sector dominance. Peter Hennessy, a professor of contemporary history, says the book is best seen as a play - ‘a drama tingeing into tragedy and often laced with farce’.

Jonathan Cape, part of Random House, has just published Downing Street Diary Volume Two: With James Callaghan in No 10, by Bernard (and Baron) Donoughue. The first volume, published in 2005, starts in 1974, when he was invited by Harold Wilson first to help fight the General Election, and then to found and run the policy unit (the ‘kitchen cabinet’) at No 10. This second volume covers the three years, 1976-1979, when Donoughue was Senior Policy Advisor to James Callaghan.

Donoughue was educated at grammar school, and then at Lincoln and Nuffield Colleges, Oxford. He worked for The Economist and the Political and Economic Planning Institute before joining the staff of the London School for Economics in 1963. From 1974 to 1979, he worked at Number 10, and then went back to journalism for a few years. From the early 1980s, though, he was involved in the private sector, employed in the banking and investment sector, apart from a short spell in the late 1990s when he served as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. His professional activities have also included positions with an orchestra and a racecourse.

Random House says, of the first volume, that Donoughue’s diary, kept every day, provides ‘an extraordinarily intimate portrait of Harold Wilson, struggling to hold the Labour Party together, drinking heavily, increasingly paranoid about ‘plots’ and the press, and apparently in thrall to Marcia Williams’. In this new second volume, Donoughue records the prime minister and government becoming paralysed as the ‘Winter of Discontent’ begins to bite and politics takes to the streets. ‘As Labour drifted to inevitable defeat in the 1979 election,’ Random House says, ‘we see Callaghan fighting honourably’ and ‘from the smoke of battle there emerges a striking new leader: Margaret Thatcher.’ The diaries describe vividly, it adds, ‘both the decline and final collapse of ‘old’ Labour and how Mrs Thatcher took the opportunity to launch her crusade to dismantle trade union power and much of the British public sector’.

The Guardian provides some good extracts. Here are several.

Tuesday 14 June 1977: ‘I worked in the office in the morning. Lunch with Robin Butler at his club. Great pleasure to see him again. He told me one little story. While at No 10 there arrived on his desk a large brown envelope addressed personally to H Wilson, and forwarded from Lord North Street. He opened it and it was a current account sheet from the offshore Swiss bank which went broke with an illegal deposit in it for Wilson. Robin just resealed it and passed it on.’

Friday 24 February 1978: ‘My view is that we must establish an image of [Margaret] Thatcher [then the leader of the opposition] as a dangerous woman who will divide our society and create trouble. We are doing this now over immigration. Instead of ducking this issue, as many have advised, I have pressed the PM to take it head-on and attack her for inciting racial hatred - and so causing violence on the streets. We will not win any votes on the immigration issue this way: Thatcher will gain a lot on that in the short run. But I hope that in the long run we can broaden it out to her disadvantage. So we shall show that she is abrasive and divisive on industrial relations, confronting the trade unions. And on Scottish devolution. And on social security casualties - ‘scroungers etc’. And on the unemployed - attacking redundancy payments. . . ’

Friday 4 May 1979: ‘I awoke shortly after eight o'clock, having had less than three hours' sleep. The children buzzed in and out of my bedroom, on their way to school. I could hear excited discussions about what would happen ‘now Daddy has got the sack’. Stephen, aged nine, was clearly delighted, saying that now that I would be at home in the day I could cook his lunch and he ‘would not have to stay to school dinner’, which is one of the main burdens of his always fastidious life.’

Peter Hennessy, now a Professor of Contemporary British History, but who was a contemporary of Donoughue’s and a political journalist in the 1970s, has reviewed the new volume for The Times Literary Supplement. His long article starts as follows: ‘In the bigger picture of UK politics since 1945, Bernard Donoughue’s Downing Street Diary is best seen as a play - a drama tingeing into tragedy and often laced with farce - with the Labour Left and the Conservative Right lurking in the wings, itching to prevail when old Labourism issues its last gasp and collapses into the arms of waiting historians, ready to pronounce the obsequies of the post-war consensus. . . Donoughue’s is a very good play - gripping, filled with personalities and acute observations, punctuated by moments of frustration verging on fury - for the author is quite a hater, especially when crossed.'

Hennessy also uses some extracts from the diaries, including one about himself! He says: ‘First, I must declare an interest. Donoughue outs our clandestine relationship during that era of tightly drawn official secrecy . . . : ‘15th–17 November 1976: Ridiculous that we [special advisers] are always suspected of leaking to the press. In fact I do occasionally talk with three old friends in newspapers without giving anything secret away – one on the Sunday Times (Harold Evans), one on The Times (Peter Hennessy) and one on the Financial Times (Joe Rogaly). Each tells me that most of their frequent leaks of secret information comes from regular civil servants.’ ’

Monday, September 15, 2008

Base ball and cricket records

A very early - possibly the earliest - reference to baseball has been found in an English diary, written by William Bray, thus supporting the idea that, in fact, the quintessentially American game began in England and not on the other side of the Atlantic. Another English William who wrote a diary, but lived a century later, William Allingham, was, for a number years, the field manager for the Pre-Raphaelite Baseball Club - bizarre, but true in the imaginary world of the Cosmic Baseball Association. And going back a century before Bray, other diaries provide evidence on the history of that quintessentially English game, cricket.

Last week, the Surrey Advertiser Group broke the news that a diary written by William Bray in the 1750s contained possibly the earliest ever reference to the game of baseball. The diary was found last year by local historian, Tricia St John Barry, and authenticated by Julian Pooley, manager of the Surrey History Centre in Woking (where Bray’s later diaries are held). Associated Press picked up the story and added some details, including the text of the relevant entry which is from Easter Monday 31 March 1755. It reads: ‘Went to Stoke Ch. This morning. After Dinner Went to Miss Jeale’s to play at Base Ball with her, the 3 Miss Whiteheads, Miss Billinghurst, Miss Molly Flutter, Mr. Chandler, Mr. Ford & H. Parsons & Jelly. Drank Tea and stayed till 8.’

The sequence of events that led to the Surrey Advertiser story is worth acknowledging. The body that runs baseball in the US, Major League Baseball (MLB) was researching and filming in England for a documentary called Base Ball Discovered. The BBC ran an item about MLP’s project which St John Barry saw; she then contacted MLB to tell them about her discovery in Bray’s diary. Subsequently, MLB contacted Pooley, an expert on Bray, to verify that the 1754-1755 diary was genuine.

According to Associated Press’s story, the Bray reference is about 50 years earlier than the, hitherto, first known reference to baseball, and it had long been thought that baseball was ‘an American invention, with roots in the British games of rounders and cricket’. Apparently, there are earlier references to baseball, but only in fictional books; and the game is mentioned in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, written in 1798 but not published until late 1817. The first recorded competitive baseball game took place in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1846 between the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York and the New York Nine, and the first professional team was playing by the end of the 1860s.

William Bray was born in Surrey in 1736, but educated at Rugby before being articled to a lawyer in Guildford. Over time, he became solicitor to many county families, but also was steward of Surrey manors, treasurer of charities and an indefatigable antiquary. He worked with Owen Manning in compiling notes for a history of Surrey, but, after Manning’s death, took over the responsibility for writing and publishing The History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey, a definitive work in three volumes. He transcribed and published the diaries of Sir John Evelyn, one of Britain’s most famous diarists. Moreover, Bray kept a diary himself, some texts of which are readily available on the internet - see The Diary Junction for links.

Also, see The Diary Junction for information about another diarist called William - William Allingham. Born in Ireland, he lived about one hundred years later than Bray, through much of the 19th century and was a celebrated poet connected with the Pre-Raphaelite movement of painters, such as Rossetti and Millais. Unlike Bray, very little of Allingham’s diaries can be found on the internet. What can be found is thanks to baseball! When the Pre-Raphaelite Baseball Club joined the Cosmic Baseball Association in 1997 they ‘tapped Allingham to be their field manager’. He then compiled ‘a very decent 180-144 won-loss record’ in the two seasons the team played in the Cosmic Underleague. The Cosmic Baseball Association describes itself as ‘a baseball league of the imagination’, but it is also an online source for Allingham’s diary entries!

What baseball is to Americans, cricket is to the English, but cricket was already considered a major sport - according to Wikipedia - by the end of the 17th century, i.e. at least 50 years before Bray’s first and solitary mention of baseball. Some of the evidence for the origins of cricket also comes from diaries. Henry Teonge, for example, a priest who decided to join the navy as a chaplain, wrote a lively diary, which is available online at Googlebooks.

Here is his diary entry from 6 May 1676 when he was staying in Aleppo (now part of Syria): ‘This morning early (as is the custom all summer long) at least forty of the English, with his worship the consul, rode out of the city about four miles to the Green Plat, a fine valley by a riverside, to recreate themselves where a princely tent was pitched; and we had several pastimes and sports as duck-hunting, fishing, shooting, handball, cricket, scrofilo, etc; and then a noble dinner brought thither, with great plenty of all sorts of wines, punch, and lemonades; and at 6 we return all home in good order, but soundly tired and weary.’

One hundred years later, in the 1770s, John Baker, another Surrey diarist, is writing about cricket in much more detail. Thanks to David Underdown and the Cricinfo website for a colourful article about Baker and his diaries. Here one paragraph from the artice: ‘Besides these virtually professional matches, Baker also watched a good deal of local cricket in Sussex. His disgust at Hambledon’s poor performance at Sevenoaks was typical of him. He was just as unforgiving of shoddy play in local games. ‘Poor doings on both sides’, he grumbled when Horsham played Warnham in 1776. But Horsham had a strong team: in 1773 he watched them return from a victory over East Grinstead, ‘in procession a cheval’. There was a good crowd too for Horsham versus Reigate, including one of the local noblemen, Lord Irwin, who ‘got out of his coach and stood with the crowd’. No doubt Reigate’s ‘Shock’ White was a big draw. A couple of years earlier he had gone in against Hambledon with a bat wider than the wicket, thus leading to a rapid change in the Laws.’

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Beautiful men were dead

The Great Northern War, fought between Sweden and Russia for control of the Baltic Sea, reached a turning point 300 years ago today, when the King of Sweden, Charles XII, stopped marching his troops towards Moscow. A Swedish history blogger - whose name I can only divine as TB - has published an interesting article about the war, one which includes several excruciating extracts from diaries written by those involved.

The Great Northern War was fought largely between Russia and Sweden for supremacy in the Baltic Sea, although various other powers were involved at different times. Denmark-Norway and Saxony-Poland, for example, were both involved with Russia in launching the initial attacks on Sweden in 1700. The conflict ended two decades later, in 1721, with Sweden ceding territories (including Estonia) to Russia.

Wikipedia’s list of events for 11 September includes this: 1708 - ‘Charles XII of Sweden stops his march to conquer Moscow outside Smolensk, marking the turning point in the Great Northern War. The army is defeated nine months later in the Battle of Poltava, and the Swedish empire is no longer a major power.’ Charles XII was a skilled military leader, winning several battles early on in the conflict, but his political abilities were lacking, especially when it came to making peace. Upon the outbreak of the Great Northern War, Voltaire is said to have quoted Charles XII as saying: ‘I have resolved never to start an unjust war but never to end a legitimate one except by defeating my enemies.’

A Swedish blogger - who goes by the initials TB - seems fascinated by the Karolinska Army, so named because it was made up of men, Karoliners, who served under Karl XI and Karl XII (Charles XI and Charles XII). An excellent article of his on the army’s involvement in the Great Northern War includes many verbatim extracts from letters and diaries. But, he warns, he’s copied the letters and diaries ‘down to the exact word and wording . . . so, if it sounds strange, it’s because they talked and wrote differently than we do now.’

In 1706, according to TB, the Swedish army finally got want they wanted, a decisive battle against Saxony-Poland at Fraustadt. He quotes from the diary of dragoon corporal, Joachim Lyth, to explain what happened after the battle was won: ‘His excellence General Rehnskiöld gave order to form a square with dragoons, cavalry, and infantry, in which all the Russians that had been taken prisoner had to stand in. Roughly 500 souls, who soon with no mercy were shot or stabbed to death, they fell over each other like sheeps in slaughter.’ Having defeated Saxony-Poland, TB says, only Russia was left, and so in the autumn of 1707, the Swedish Karoliner main army, 44,500 strong, started marching toward Moscow to end the war.

However, the army never made it to Moscow, TB explains, because of lack of food. When still 400 km away, it turned round, and started to march south towards Ukraine looking for supplies. That winter was exceptionally cold. On 23 December, the army reached the village of Petrovka, and while some found shelter, others were obliged to sleep outside. TB’s article then gives an extract from Erik Larsson’s diary: ‘It was so cold that the oxen at our supply-wagon fell dead to the ground. The birds who tried to fly fell dead from the skies. Yes many will remember this day if he survives.’

And then there’s this about the next day (24 December) from the diary of Cavalry Major, Nils GyllenStierna: ‘The road was filled in the morning with men who had frozen to death, with them lay horses, oxen, and other animals. Supply and sick-wagons stood still because their drivers had died by the cold they were still sitting like they were waiting for orders. Now many beautiful men were dead.’

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

I won’t write any more

Cesare Pavese was born a hundred years ago today, on 9 September 1908. He is considered one of Italy’s most important writers, but he was also one of the saddest. The protagonists in his novels were often loners, managing only superficial relationships, and, in his own life, love always disappointed him. He died while still young, in his 40s, by committing suicide, something he had discussed in his diary for years.

Although Pavese was an important and successful writer, it seems he never found happiness in his private life. There is not a great deal about him on the internet in English, even the Wikipedia article is awkwardly written and brief (relative to his importance - the Italian Wikipedia article is much longer). The Diary Junction provides a short biographical summary.

Pavese was born in the village of Santo Stefano between Turin and the Alps. He studied literature at university, and graduated in 1930 with a thesis on Walt Whitman. Subsequently, he wrote essays on American literature and translated literary texts into Italian. His mother died in 1931, and he went to live with his sister Maria and her family, also in Turin. While the fascists were becoming stronger by the day, Pavese fell in love with Tina Pizzardo, a Communist teacher and activist. In 1935, the police found some incriminating letters (which Tina had received, at Pavese's house, from a collaborator). He was arrested, jailed briefly, and then exiled to Calabria for three years. Tina, meanwhile, left him and married someone else.

On returning to Turin after the war, and finding some of his friends dead, Pavese joined the Communist Party and became more politically active. But it was literature that remained his first love. His novels won several prestigious prizes, and he is well regarded for his poetry. In 1950, Pavese fell in love again, with a young American actress, Constance Dawling, to whom he dedicated his last novel ‘The Moon and the Bonfires’, but she left him too. In August the same year, he killed himself in a hotel room.

A biography in English on an Italian website - www.saporidilanga.com - concludes as follows: ‘Worn, tired, but perfectly lucid, he suicides in a room of the hotel Roma in Turin by swallowing a strong dose of [barbiturates]. It is on 27th August 1950. Only an annotation is left on the first page of his book ‘Dialoghi con Leucò’ [Dialogues with Leucò], which was on the bedside of the room: ‘I forgive all and to you all I ask for me is forgiveness . . .’. He was only 42 years old.’

Pavese’s diaries have been published in English - The Burning Brand: Diaries 1935-1950, for example, and This Business of Living. Time has a good review of the former: ‘It is a haunting book, at once a cry of anguish, a case history, and a series of thoughtful notes on the art of fiction.’ And RL on Babelguides says this about the latter: ‘A diary of such a great writer, a writer with such a fierce connection with life, is an unfathomably rich work that one can enter again and again always finding more. It also shows that a diary can be a very complex work of art, one that uses a very basic narrative logic, the march of time itself. Within that straightforward structure anything can happen as the connections between entries are made only by the mental structure of the diary’s author, and with the passage of time.’

Here are a few extracts from Pavese’s diaries (some showing his preoccupation with the idea of suicide).

5 May 1936
‘Living is like working out a long addition sum, and if you make a mistake in the first two totals you will never find the right answer. It means involving oneself in a complicated chain of circumstances.’

19 January 1938
‘Life is pain and the enjoyment of love is an anesthetic.’

29 September 1938
‘I shall have to stop priding myself on being unable to find pleasure in the things ordinary men enjoy - high days and holidays; the fun of being one in a crowd; family affection and so on. What I am really incapable of is enjoying out-of-the-ordinary pleasures - solitude and a sense of mastery, and if I am not very good at sharing the sentiments of the average man it is because my artless assumption that I was capable of something better has rusted my natural reactions, which used to be perfectly normal. In general we feel rather pleased with ourselves when we do not enjoy common pleasures, believing this means that we are ‘capable of better things’. But incapacity in the one case does not presuppose capacity in the other. A man who is incapable of writing nonsense may be equally incapable of writing something pleasing.

We hate the thing we fear, the thing we know may be true and may have a certain affinity with ourselves, for each man hates himself. The most interesting, the most fertile qualities in every man are those he most hates in himself and in others, for hatred includes every other feeling - love, envy, ignorance, mystery, the urge to know and to possess. It is hate that causes suffering. To overcome hatred is to take a step towards self-knowledge, self-mastery, self-justification, and consequently towards an end of suffering. When we suffer, it is always our own fault.’

30 Oct 1940
‘Suffering is by no means a privilege, a sign of nobility, a reminder of God. Suffering is a fierce, bestial thing, commonplace, uncalled for, natural as air. It is intangible; no one can grasp it or fight against it; it dwells in time - is the same thing as time; if it comes in fits and starts, that is only so as to leave the sufferer more defenseless during the moments that follow, those long moments when one relives the last bout of torture and waits for the next.’

1 Jan 1950
‘At great periods you have always felt, deep within you, the temptation to commit suicide. You gave yourself to it; breached your own defenses. You were a child. The idea of suicide was a protest against life; by dying, you would escape this longing for death.’

25 March 1950
‘One does not kill oneself for love of a woman, but because love - any love- reveals us in our nakedness, our misery, our vulnerability, our nothingness.’

Pavese’s very last diary entry reads: ‘All this is sick. Not words. An act. I won’t write any more.’

Friday, September 5, 2008

Home and Hume

He died 200 years ago, did John Home. He is a largely forgotten poet and playwright from the 18th century, but one who, having initially struggled to get his plays performed as much as aspiring writers do today, eventually succeeded in winning over the great theatre impresario, David Garrick. Home was not a committed diarist, as far as we know, but he did keep a journal for a few days, while accompanying, another famous 18th century David - David Hume - during the last journey of his life, and the text can be found online.

Wikipedia provides a good short biography of John Home. Born at Leith, near Edinburgh, in 1722, he studied divinity at the University of Edinburgh, and became licensed by the presbytery of Edinburgh in 1745. The same year, he joined as a volunteer against Bonnie Prince Charlie, and was taken prisoner, later escaping from Doune castle in Perthshire. Subsequently, in 1747, he became a minister in the parish of Athelstaneford.

That same year, Home completed his first play play - Agis: a tragedy - and took it to London, to show David Garrick, the most famous actor/writer/manager of his age. He rejected the work. Five years later, Home went back to London taking another play - Douglas - and this too was rejected by Garrick. Nevertheless, with support from friends, Home managed to get Douglas produced in Edinburgh, in 1756 - to great acclaim. (See the James Boswell website for more about this performance.)

A few months later, and following the Edinburgh success, Home returned to London with Douglas where it was shown at Covent Garden. David Hume, a leading Scottish philosopher and historian of the time, said that Home possessed ‘the true theatric genius of Shakespeare and Otway, refined from the unhappy barbarism of the one and licentiousness of the other’.

Unfortunately, the church did not approve of Douglas, and Home decided to leave the ministry. Instead, he wrote other plays, such as The Siege of Aquileia (Garrick playing a leading role), The Fatal Discovery, Alonzo, and Alfred. He also worked as private secretary to John Stuart (3rd Earl of Bute), then secretary of state, and was later tutor to the Prince of Wales. He also took up soldiering in his 50s (1778), joining a regiment formed by the Duke of Buccleugh, but had to retire after an injury. He died two hundred years ago, on 5 September 1808.

A three volume collection of his writing - The Works of John Home Esq - with substantial biographical information, was put together by Henry Mackenzie in 1822, and published by Archibald Constable. The full text is available online at Googlebooks. Included in the book, is the text of a short diary written by Home during a journey he took with his friend David Hume, in 1776. The same text is also available in Early Responses to Hume’s Life and Reputation, edited by James Fieser and published by Continuum International Publishing Group in 1999.

Hume was already suffering from a terminal illness when he left Edinburgh in April 1776 for London with his servant Colin, hoping that the journey would improve his health. At Morpeth, in the north of England, he ran into Adam Smith and Home, who had been travelling to Edinburgh to visit him. Smith carried on to Edinburgh, but Home turned round, and accompanied Hume on his trip to London and then to Bath.

Unlike Home, Hume is well-remembered today. He is considered an important figure in Western philosophy, and in the history of the Scottish Enlightenment, for being the first great philosopher of the modern era to carve out a thoroughly naturalistic philosophy, i.e. one focusing more on human reason, and rejecting the idea that human minds are but miniature versions of the divine mind. He also spent 15 years writing a definitive (at the time) history of Great Britain in six volumes, which was a best seller in its day. He died in August 1776, just a couple of months after the journey recorded by Home. Here are a couple of extracts from Home’s diary of that journey.

24 April 1776
‘[Hume] still maintains, that the national debt must be the ruin of Britain; and laments that the two most civilised nations, the English and French, should be on the decline; and the barbarians, the Goths and Vandals of Germany and Russia, should be rising in power and renown . . .’

28 April 1776
‘Mr Hume told me, that he had bought a piece of ground; and when I seemed surprised that I had never heard of it, he said it was in the New Church-yard, on the Calton Hill, for a burying-place; that he meant to have a small monument erected, not to exceed in expence one hundred pounds; that the inscription should be ‘DAVID HUME’. I desired him to change the discourse. He did so; but seemed surprised at my uneasiness which he said was very nonsensical. I think he is gaining ground; but he laughs at me, and says it is impossible; that the year (76), sooner or later, he takes his departure. He is willing to go Bath, to travel during the summer through England, and return to Scotland to die at home; but that Sir John Pringle, and the whole faculty, would find it very difficult to boat him, (formerly an unusual phrase in Scotland for going abroad, that is, out of the island, for health) This day we travelled by his desire three stages, and arrived with great east at Grantham.’

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Pepys, fire and Parmesan cheese

I’ve been writing three or four articles a week since starting The Diary Junction Blog in May, but I haven’t once mentioned the greatest diarist of all, Samuel Pepys. The text of his diaries are freely available online (see The Diary Junction page on Pepys for links). Here is part of the entry for 4 September, 342 years ago, the day of the great fire of London, in 1666.

‘. . . to Tower [Street], and there met the fire burning three or four doors beyond Mr. Howell’s, whose goods, poor man, his trayes, and dishes, shovells . . . were flung all along Tower [Street] in the kennels, and people working therewith from one end to the other; the fire coming on in that narrow streete, on both sides, with infinite fury. Sir W. Batten not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it in there; and I took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of. And in the evening Sir W. Pen and I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things. . .

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

Now begins the practice of blowing up of houses in Tower [Street], those next the Tower, which at first did frighten people more than anything, but it stopped the fire where it was done, it bringing down the houses to the ground in the same places they stood, and then it was easy to quench what little fire was in it, though it kindled nothing almost.’

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Victorian government insider

Edward Walter Hamilton, or Eddy as he was always known, died one hundred years ago today. He was considered a pillar of the establishment, serving as a private secretary to William Gladstone during his second term as Prime Minister, and subsequently, as one of the country’s top civil servants, in the Treasury. He also wrote a diary which is said to give an excellent insight into the workings of government and its administration in the late Victorian period. Recently, Hamilton’s diaries provided a revelation as to why the government of the day took so long to bestow a knighthood on the great actor Henry Irving.

Hamilton was born in 1847, the eldest son of the bishop of Salisbury, Walter Kerr Hamilton, and Isabel Elizabeth, daughter of the dean of Salisbury. He studied at Eton and Oxford, and graduated with a music degree. Thanks to a friendship between his father and William Gladstone, Hamilton became a junior clerk at the Treasury in 1870, a department to which he would be attached for the rest of his life - apart from several years as private secretary to Gladstone himself. In spite of his close links with Gladstone and with Lord Rosebery, a close friend since their Eton days, Hamilton was a trusted adviser to a succession of Unionist as well as Liberal chancellors. Hamilton was made a knight in 1994, and reached the most senior position in the Treasury - financial secretary - in 1902.

Starting in the spring of 1880, when Hamilton joined the Downing Street staff, he kept a diary, detailing much of the political activity around him. He only stopped in 1906, because of ill-health. There are fifty-four volumes, all held by the British Library. According to an article by James Munson in Contemporary Review (reproduced by findarticles.com), the diaries give ‘an excellent insight into the actual working of late Victorian government and administration’. Indeed, Hamilton’s knowledge of these matters was so considerable. Munson adds, that he was asked to provide instruction on the British Constitution to the future King, George V. It is worth noting that Hamilton himself used to contribute to Contemporary Review - a magazine founded in 1866 ‘to promote intelligent and independent opinion about the great issues’ of the day - under the pseudonym Nemo.

Throughout the diary, according to Munson, Hamilton records intriguing political gossip gained during his frequent visits to Rosebery’s houses, and he reveals how he hoped Rosebery would carry on the progressive splendours of Victorian Liberalism. However, the diary also documents how Hamilton slowly became more and more disenchanted with the direction of government, his feelings ‘made all the more bitter by his personal devotion to Rosebery’. Moreover, the diary provides some ‘fascinating glimpses of Queen Victoria and King Edward’s relations with the Treasury’.

The diaries were published for the first time in 1972, by Clarendon Press (Oxford University Press), in two volumes: Diary of Sir Edward Walter Hamilton (covering the period 1880-1885). In 1992, Hull University Press published The Diary of Sir Edward Walter Hamilton 1885-1906. Both editions were edited by Dudley W R Bahlman, and are available secondhand from sellers such as Amazon.

There are not, however, any substantial extracts of Hamilton’s diaries to be found online (none that I can find any way). There are a couple of brief ones in a short biography of Hamilton, by Bahlman, for Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) (which requires a log in, but is accessible via public library membership). Hamilton, it says, was aware of the qualities that suited him well to be a private secretary and Treasury official - such as diligence, accuracy, tact, and an ability to write clear summaries of complex questions - but that he did not have unusual powers of intellect. He wrote in his diary, on 28 April 1891, ‘the reason why I am clear is that I must explain things clearly in order to make them intelligible to myself’.

Recently, Hamilton’s diary has been the source of a revelation about the great Victorian actor Henry Irving. John H B Irving, the actor’s great grandson, and one of the patrons of the Henry Irving Society (formed in 1996), has published several articles on the Society’s website about his search for some missing letters. Incidental to that search, John writes about Henry’s knighthood. In 1883, there was a ‘fiasco’, he says, when Gladstone ‘had inadvertently offered Henry Irving a knighthood only later to find that this offer had been vetoed by his aristocratic cabinet on the grounds that Irving had left his wife and had a questionable relationship with his leading lady’. Subsequently, it seems, Irving agreed to pretend the offer was unacceptable to him, and all relevant government documents were altered to support the ‘refusal’ scenario. ‘All, that is’, says John Irving, ‘except one’ - i.e. Hamilton. He wrote in his diary on 27 June 1883, ‘. . The idea of knighthood for Irving abandoned. Lord Granville and others threw cold water on it.’ (John Irving credits Professor John Pick who spotted the information and wrote a paper on the affair.) It was to be another 12 years before Irving became the first ever actor to be knighted.

According to the ODNB biography, Hamilton began to experience increasingly severe symptoms of vascular disease in 1889. In 1890, he consulted the famous French physician Jean-Martin Charcot, who, according to his diary (7 Dec 1890), diagnosed him as having ‘clodification of the arteries of the leg’. Hamilton died at the Hotel Metropole, Brighton, on 2 September 1908.