Monday, April 11, 2016

Gouty old gentlemen

‘The hippos were delightful. They seemed so aristocratic, like gouty old gentlemen, puffing and blowing and yawning, as though everything bored them.’ This is from the diary of Richard Harding Davis - the colourful American journalist-adventurer who died a century ago today. He was a prolific writer, turning his experiences and travels - often instigated by his work as a war correspondent - into books of stories, whether fiction or non-fiction. Only a few short diary fragments written by Davis have ever been published - thanks to a biography by his brother - and several of these concern the hunting of hippos!

Davis was born in 1864 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Both his parents were journalists, though his mother achieved some fame as a novelist also. He studied at Lehigh University, where his uncle was a professor, and he contributed short stories to the student magazine, The Lehigh Burr, eventually becoming its editor. His first published book was a collection of these stories The Adventures of My Freshman. In 1885, he transferred to Johns Hopkins University. After university, he worked on various Philadelphia newspapers, before moving to New York and The Evening Sun. Increasingly, he became noticed for writing on controversial and high profile subjects, as well as for his Van Bibber stories of city life. In addition, he was writing short stories for other publications. In 1890, he switched jobs, to become managing editor of Harper’s Weekly.

During the 1890s, Davis was publishing two or three books every year, some were collections of his travel and journalistic writing - like The Rulers of the Mediterranean and Three Gringos in Central America and Venezuela - while others were collections of his short fiction. He also turned, increasingly, to war reporting, making a name for himself following the Spanish-American War, with the 1st US Volunteer Cavalry, better known as the Rough Riders (second in command, one Theodore Roosevelt, later US president). He went on to cover the Second Boer War, becoming one of the world’s best known war correspondents. By then he was writing for the New York Herald, the New York Times and Scribner’s Magazine.

Davis reported on the Russo-Japanese War, and on the Salonika Front in the First World War (being arrested as a spy briefly by the Germans). A large number of his articles can be read at the Historic Journalism website, which, incidentally, says of him, ‘The well-traveled and photogenic Richard Harding Davis represented all that was edgy and glamorous about that new breed of American journalist: foreign correspondent. Fearlessly tramping by rail, road and horseback to the front lines of the “Great War”. He continued writing a great many books - most of these can be found online, freely available, at Internet Archive. His 1897 novel Soldiers of Fortune was turned into a play and, later on in the 1910s, to two films. He also wrote more than a score of plays, Including Ranson’s Folly, The Dictator, and Miss Civilization. In 1899, he had married Cecil Clark, but they divorced in 1912, and he then married Bessie McCoy, an actress, with whom he had one child. Davis died on 11 April 1916. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, The Spanish American War website, PBS, or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Another biographical source is Adventures and Letters of Richard Harding Davis, a book written by his brother Charles Belmont Davis and published originally by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1917. Although there are no details in the biography about any diaries Richard Davis might have kept during his life, Charles does include half a dozen or so extracts from a diary his brother kept in 1907. Here are several of them.

24 January 1907
‘Last day in London. Margaret Frazer offered me gun from a Captain Jenkins of Nigeria. Instead bought Winchester repeating, hoping, if need it, get one coast. Lunched Savoy - Lynch, Mrs. Lynch, her sister-very beautiful girl. In afternoon Sam Sothern and Margaret came in to say “Good bye.” Dined at Anthony Hope’s-Barrie and Mrs. Barrie and Jim Whigham. Mrs. Barrie looking very well, Barrie not so well. As silent as ever, only talked once during dinner when he told us about the first of his series of cricket matches between authors and artists. Did not have eleven authors, so going along road picked up utter strangers one a soldier in front of embracing two girls. Said he would come if girls came too - all put in brake. Mrs. Barrie said the Llewellen Davis’ were the originals for the Darlings and their children in Peter Pan. They played a strange game of billiards suggested by Barrie who won as no one else knew the rules and they claimed he invented them to suit his case. Sat up until three writing and packing. The dinner was best have had this trip in London.’

22 February 1907
‘Spent about the worst night of my life. No mattress, no pillow. Not space enough for my own cot. Every insect in the world ate me. After a bath and coffee felt better. It rained heavily until three P. M. Read Pendennis, and loved it. The picture of life at Clavering and Fairoaks, and Dr. Portman and Foker are wonderful. I do not know when I have enjoyed and admired a work so much. For some reason it is all entirely new again. I will read them all now in turn. After rain cleared took my slaves and went after “supplies.” Met a King. I thought he was a witch doctor, and the boys said he was a dancing man. All his suite, wives and subjects followed, singing a song that made your flesh creep. At Hatton and Cookson’s bought “plenty chop” for “boys” who were much pleased. Also a sparklet bottle, some whiskey and two pints of champagne at 7 francs the pint. Blush to own it was demi Sec. Also bacon, jam, milk, envelopes, a pillow. Saw some ivory State had seized and returned. 15 Kilo’s. Some taken from Gomez across street not returned until he gave up half. No reason given Taylor agent H. & C. why returned Apparently when called will come down on the ivory question. Cuthbert Malet, coffee planter, came call on me. Only Englishman still in Service State. Had much to say which did not want printed until he out of country which will be in month or two. Anstrossi has given me side of cabin where there is room for my cot, so expect to sleep.’

27 February 1907
‘Saw two hippos. Thought Anstrossi said they were buffalo. So was glad when I found out what they were. I did not want to go home without having seen only two dead ones. In a few minutes I saw two more. Anstrossi fired at them but I did not, as thought it not the game when one could not recover them. Before noon saw six in a bunch - and then what I thought was a spit of rock with a hippo lying on the end of it, turned out to be fifteen hippos in a line! Burnham has told he had seen eleven in the Volta in one day. Before one o’clock, I had seen twenty-six, and, later in the day Anstrossi fired at another, and shot a hole in the awning. That made twenty-seven in one day. Also some monkeys. The hippos were delightful. They seemed so aristocratic, like gouty old gentlemen, puffing and blowing and yawning, as though everything bored them.’

28 February 1907
‘When just going up for coffee, saw what was so big, looking at it against horizon, thought it must be an elephant. Was a young hippo. Captain Jensen brought boat within eighty yards of him, and both Anstrossi and I fired, apparently knocking him off his legs, for he rolled on his side as though his back was broken. I missed him the second shot, which struck the water just in front of him. The other three shots caught him in the head, in the mouth and ear. He lay quite still, and the boys rushed out a gang plank and surrounded him singing and shouting and cutting his tail to make him bleed and weaken him. They don’t die for an hour but he seemed dead enough, so I went to my cabin to re-load my gun and my camera. In three minutes I came out, and found the hippo still quiet. Then he began to toss his head and I shot him again, to put him out of pain. In return for which he rolled over into the water and got away. I was mad. Later saw four more. Just at sunset while taking bath another was seen on shore. We got within sixty yards of him and all of us missed him or at least did not hurt him. He then trotted for the river with his head up and again I must have missed, although at one place he was but fifty yards away, when he entered the water, a hundred. I stepped it off later in the sand. I followed him up and hit him or some one of us hit him and he stood up on his hind legs. But he put back to land for the third time. Captain said wait until moon came out. But though we hunted up to our waists saw none. One came quite close at dinner. Seven on the day.’

22 April 1907
‘A blackmailer named H_ called, with photos of atrocities and letters and films. He wanted 30 Pounds for the lot. I gave him 3 Pounds for three photos. One letter he showed me signed Bullinger, an Englishman, said he had put the fear of God in their hearts by sticking up the chiefs head on a pole, and saying, “Now, make rubber, or you will look like that.” Went to lunch with Pearson but it was the wrong day, and so missed getting a free feed. Thinking he would turn up, I ordered a most expensive lunch. I paid for it. Evening went Patience, which liked immensely and then Duchess of Sutherland’s party to Premiers. Saw Churchill and each explained his share of the Real Soldiers row.’

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