Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Scott’s wild goose chase

Half a  century ago today, Peter Scott, a naturalist and well-known BBC presenter in his day, was in Romania, starting out on the latest of his ornithological expeditions, this one a wild goose chase. On many of these expeditions, Scott kept colourfully written and illustrated diaries, and these were edited into three volumes and published in the 1980s. The thrill of finding and observing thousands of Red-breasted Geese, for example, spills out of his diary from that trip to Romania in 1969.

Scott was born in London in 1909, the only child of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott and sculptor Kathleen Bruce, but was only two years old when his father died. He studied natural sciences and then history of art at Trinity College, Cambridge. He took up painting, among many other pursuits, and had his first exhibition in 1933; and, in 1936, he represented Britain in sailing at the Berlin Olympic Games. During the war he served in the Royal Navy, commanding the First Squadron of Steam Gun Boats, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery.

In 1942, Scott married the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, and they had one daughter, before divorcing in 1951. Later, Scott married Philippa Talbot-Ponsonby, and they also had one daughter. After failing to get elected, as a Conservative candidate, in the 1945 general election, he founded the Severn Wildfowl Trust (now the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust), and began a series of international ornithological expeditions which led to several books richly illustrated with his own drawings. He also became a very well known television personality thanks to his natural history series on the BBC - Look - which ran from 1955 to 1981.

Wikipedia has further biographical information about Scott, including: that he was one of the founders of the World Wide Fund for Nature, and designed its panda logo; that his pioneering work in conservation contributed greatly to the shift in policy of the International Whaling Commission and signing of the Antarctic Treaty; and that he is remembered for giving the scientific name of Nessiteras rhombopteryx to the Loch Ness Monster. The Latin name, Wikipedia, adds was based on the Ancient Greek for ‘the wonder of Ness with the diamond shaped fin’, but it was later pointed out to be an anagram of ‘Monster hoax by Sir Peter S’!

Scott’s Travel Diaries of a Naturalist were published in three volumes by Collins during the 1980s, each one edited by Miranda Weston-Smith and lavishly illustrated with Scott’s drawings and photographs. There is surprisingly little information about the volumes online, although a review can be read at the New Scientist website. 

Volume two covers trips from Hawaii to Israel and California to Siberia. But also Romania, where Scott was 40 years ago today, on a wild goose chase. Here are some entries from that diary.

11 December 1969
‘. . . The night in the cottage of an archaeologist was pretty cheerless and very cold. I couldn’t get my feet warm and was wearing all available clothes including my quilted jacket. Rens Visser called us at 6 and after bread and cheese and a cup of sweet tea we drove a dozen miles to a point on the main road where a Red-breasted Goose flight line had been observed crossing it by Kuyken in November and by Visser more recently.

It was blowing an icy gale with poor visibility when we stopped on a high ridge. At 7:15 in grey dawn light the first bunch of geese came over; with binoculars it was possible to count 9 small silhouettes of Redbreasts among 23 Whitefronts. The next lot of 18 had 5 Redbreasts - but all were silhouettes in black against a dark grey sky.

A few whitefronts landed in a large ploughed field below us, and fed across it at high speed. As it grew lighter the visibility became steadily worse and rain and see mist set in. we retraced our steps and turned down towards Sinoie, there to find Whitefronts in a green field of sprouting wheat which stretched away into the fog. We walked out towards the field, recording a probable 500 geese. . .’

12 December 1969
What a day of days! Tom and I were up at 5. . . We motored to Sinoie, meeting a torrential rain storm, so that the turning down from the main road was a raging milky river. The middle of the road was still mostly above water but the ditches on either side were rising . . .

At 7:15 the flight began. The geese came in great masses about 1.5 to 2km to the north of the road and went down in two principal places, one just over the hill and the other just below a communal tractor and farm machinery station on the hill beyond. The geese made a dark patch on the green of the sprouting wheat in the middle of the field of perhaps 500 acres. Could Whitefronts sit so thick? Such sounds as we could hear gave no conclusive indication of the species though we felt that some at least must be Red-breasted Geese, Branta ruficollis. The weather seemed to be improving with the light. By the end of the flight we thought that between 6 and 7 thousand geese had settled in about three places. None was less than half a mile from us. To give the weather time to improve we moved, when the flight was over, down into the village of Sinoie. We bought a water bottle to supply the little squeegee which cleaned our car windows - the most essential feature for goose-watching and goose-finding in these parts.

Then we returned to the geese. . . There was nothing for it but a long muddy walk . . . So, as we walked up the hill, we bore right through the standing maize stalks, into dead ground. Heavy rain was approaching, and we sat on some stooks for a while to let it pass. Then we plodded on through the maize. We came upon the fresh tracks of a wild boar which had run out of the maize ahead of us. Presently we swung left towards the ridge and towards the geese, and came almost at once to the edge of a sand quarry. We jumped into it and walked across. It offered shelter from the now continuous rain under its upwind overhanging cliff. We moved to the edge overlooking the geese, and it was from this point that our most valuable observations were made. Already there were Whitefronts within 100 yards of us in the maize stubble. These were constantly being joined by Redbreasts. . . Then came the business of assessing their numbers . . . the same total was reached 3 times over. It was between 3,800 and 4,000 Red-breasted Geese. . . The total experience of all this was so absorbingly exciting that we scarcely noticed the continuous rain. . . we had been with the Redbreasts since dawn - a magical morning, especially when I recall my pre-war Redbreast hunts to Hungary, Romania, Iraq and Persia in the 1930s. . .

It was in every way a superbly eventful day.’

15 December
‘. . . Except for the rain soaked view from the sand pit this was the closest we had been to Redbreasts on the ground. Their chestnut breasts shone in the sun. It was an exquisite finale for my wild goose chase for the time soon came for the return journey to Constanta to put me on the train for Bucharest. . .

. . . In 4 days with the Redbreasts I shall never forget the unparalleled thrill of discovering that we had thousands of them in front of us on Friday [12 December]; I shall never forget their closeness to us from the sand pit. Nor shall I forget the skeins of them high overhead on Sunday night. The tight bunch of them in the maize on Sunday morning was memorable too, but the Lunca flock were perhaps the most beautiful of all in the sunlight this afternoon. . .’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 11 December 2009.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Beaver skins and beef fat

’The present they brought was a package of beaver skins and about 100 lbs. of beef fat. I gave them in return one sack of corn and sixteen fathoms of tobacco. ‘My children,’ I said, ‘I will tell you tomorrow what are our Father’s orders to me regarding you, and shall let you know his will.’ They uttered a great shout of joy and retired.’ This is from the journal of Pierre La Vérendrye, a French-Canadian soldier, fur trader and explorer who died 270 years ago today. He and his sons undertook several expeditions attempting to find a route to the western coast of Canada, and in doing so established an important line of trading posts.

Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye, to give him his full name, was born in 1685 in Trois-Rivières, New France (now in Quebec), the youngest son of René Gaultier de Varennes, who came to Canada as a soldier in 1665, and Marie, the daughter of Pierre Boucher, the first governor of Trois-Rivières. The Gaultier family were minor nobility from the Anjou area of France with Varennes and La Vérendrye being two of their estates. 

Pierre was educated in a Jesuit seminary in Quebec. Aged 12, he received a cadet’s commission in the French marines in Canada, seeing plenty of action in the so-called Queen Anne’s War between the French and English colonists. At age 22, he enlisted in the French army, and fought in Flanders during the War of the Spanish Succession. He was seriously wounded at the Battle of Malplaquet, was paroled as a prisoner of war, and returned to Canada. In 1712, he married Marie-Anne Dandonneau du Sablé (they would have six children) and set up as a farmer and fur trader along the Saint Lawrence.

In 1726, La Vérendrye decided to join his brother Jacques-René who was commandant of posts along the north shore of Lake Superior in 1726; two years later he succeeded him as commandant. With permission from the French authorities, he was given a three year monopoly on the fur trade of the area. He formed a partnership with other merchants, and. during the 1730s, developed a series of trading posts from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg promoting the fur trade. At the same time, with i
nformation gathered from indigenous peoples, he was exploring further and further west in the hope of finding a route through to the coast. In 1738, he reached the Mandan Indian villages on the Missouri River in present North Dakota. In 1742, he sent two of his sons to push beyond the Missouri, and it is possible they penetrated Nebraska, Montana, and Wyoming and saw, but did not cross, the Rocky Mountains.

Ultimately, La Vérendrye was severely criticised by the French authorities for failing to find the western sea. He was also blamed for the deaths of one of his sons, a nephew, and a Roman Catholic priest at the hands of hostile native Americans. After four explorations to the west, he resigned and returned to New France and his established business interests. Nevertheless, in time, he pressed the French for yet another opportunity to explore to the west. Permission was finally granted, and he had started planning a trip along the Saskatchewan River when he died, on 5 December 1749. Shortly before his death, he was awarded the Order of Saint Louis. Further information is available from The Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Canadian Museum of History, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.

La Vérendrye kept some kind of journal or notebooks on his expeditions, although many of these appear to have been lost. The surviving documents were edited by Lawrence J. Burpee and published by The Champlain Society (Toronto) in 1927 as Journals and Letters of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes de la Vérendrye and his sons. With correspondence between the Governors of Canada and the French Court, touching the search for the Western Sea. The contents listing contains a long list of senders/recipients of letters, but there are six or seven items called ‘Journal’ or ‘Report of La Vérendrye’. The text of the letters and journals is provided in both French and English on split pages. Here is one long extract from La Vérendrye’s journal covering the period May to December 1733.

‘On May 27, 1733, I despatched the Sieur de la Jemeraye, my nephew and second in command, from fort St. Charles, situated to the south of the Lake of the Woods at the mouth of a river discharging therein, to go and report to the Marquis de Beauharnois as to the discoveries we had already made and the two forts we had constructed, the first called fort St. Pierre on Rainy lake, otherwise called Tecamamiouen, the second fort St. Charles, for the purpose of enabling ourselves to execute the orders with which he has honoured us, and to present to him a map of the new countries discovered and of the nations inhabiting them.

The Marquis de Beauharnois is aware that the Sioux and Saulteurs, his children, have been carrying on war from time immemorial against the Monsoni and the Cristinaux or Cree, and even against the Assiniboin (two tribes against three). On both sides they are continually forming war parties to invade one another’s territory, as will be seen further on in this Journal, a state of things which is gradually destroying them, hinders their hunting, and does very considerable harm to the commerce of Canada.

The Monsoni and the Cree having planned to march against the Saulteur of the Point and the Sioux, they divided themselves into two bands. The Monsoni, to the number of three hundred warriors and over, who formed the first band and who were to attack the Saulteurs, arrived on the 15th June at fort St. Charles.

At first they concealed their intention from me for fear I should oppose it, and asked me for powder, ball and tobacco that they might go against the Mascoutens Poüanes; but one of their chiefs having told me the real facts, I got all the chiefs together and gave them a collar in the name of our Father who forbade them to make war on his children the Saulteurs; and I said to them that, if they were obedient to his word, I would give them everything they asked.

They received the collar and promised to obey, submitting themselves to their Father’s will, but, in order to protect their lands from hostile parties, they asked me to go to the St. Pierre river and join the Cree in the prairies, they having given their word to do so. The latter arrived the next day to the number of five hundred, intending to march against the French Sioux; but all their plans came to naught in the same council, and all submitted. I was consequently obliged to give them all they asked, powder, bullets, guns, butcher’s knives, daggers, gun-flints, awls, tobacco, etc., of which I have kept a list.

The 300 Monsoni, having gone up the river St. Pierre again as far as a fork where they were to leave their canoes to go into the prairies, met three men, Saulteur and Sioux, scouts of a party of one hundred. The Monsoni fired on them and killed one whose scalp they took. The two others were lucky enough to escape, and the 300 came back to complain to me, saying that the Saulteur and the Sioux were continuing to kill them and did not heed the word of their Father. I gave them some tobacco, and expressed the joy I felt that they had not fired on the 100 men, saying that I knew by that they were the true children of our Father. They returned highly pleased to their families.

The 500 Cree after twenty days’ march in the prairies came within sight of the smoke of the village which they wished to attack at sunrise (they always take the sun as witness of their valour), when their rearguard was attacked by 30 Sioux who had crossed their track and who took them for Assiniboin not on the war-path. The assailants killed four, when the whole party came on them.

The Sioux, surprised at the number of the enemy, took flight, abandoning a portion of their arms in order to reach an isolated wood in the midst of the prairie, where the fight went on until nightfall, the Cree in the open like brave men the Sioux hiding behind trees. They lost twelve men without counting the wounded.

Night having brought the combat to a close, the Cree chief called out ‘Who is it that is killing us?’ The Sioux replied ‘The French Sioux,’ to which the Cree rejoined ‘We are French Cree. Why are you killing us? We are brothers and children of the same Father.’ When day came excuses were made on both sides, and to mark their repentance they matachâ the dead of both parties and left them without burial, but with their arms and outfits, after which they withdrew.

On the 18th of July the Cree arrived at fort St. Charles after ten days’ march, greatly afflicted at the loss of their four men, amongst whom was the son of their great chief. They had five men wounded and they were obliged to cover their dead. It may be remarked that when they return home, especially after an expedition, they walk day and night.

On the 20th a Monsoni, having discovered on the river St. Pierre twenty Saulteur and Sioux who were seeking to make an attack, came and notified me, complaining that these two tribes were always seeking to kill them, and that I was holding them [the Monsoni] back; whereupon I sent word to all the neighbouring savages to be on the watch and gave them a supply of powder, ball and tobacco.

On the 10th of August three of our canoes arrived here laden with merchandise, having left here on the 27th of May laden with packages [of skins] for Kaministikwia. They met no one, but saw tracks of several men.

On the 29th of August 150 canoes, with two or three men in each, Cree and Monsoni, arrived laden with meats, moose and beef fat, bear oil and wild oats, the men begging me to have pity on them and give them goods on credit, which was granted them after consultation among those interested.

On the 8th of September I sent off my son with six men to go to fort St. Pierre to await the canoes from Montreal for the furnishing of the forts. The first four canoes arrived on the 28th of September, and the remaining two on the 2nd of October with all the Monsoni whom they had met. My son left with Marin Urtebise all that he required for wintering with twelve Frenchmen, gave him the written authority which he had received from me in accordance with what was decided on in the consultation referred to above, and brought to fort St. Charles the rest of the men and canoes, arriving on the 12th of October.

The heavy rains of the spring, which had been incessant and had done great harm to the wild oats on which we were counting, put us in a difficult position as we had not enough provisions to last the winter. I bethought me to send ten men to the other side of the lake, which is 26 leagues wide, with tools for building themselves a shelter at the mouth of a river running in from the north-north-east, and with nets for fishing. They caught that autumn more than 4000 big whitefish, not to speak of trout, sturgeon and other fish in the course of the winter, and returned to fort St. Charles on the 2nd of May, 1734, after the ice had melted. They thus lived by hunting and fishing at no expense.

The rain that had done us harm in the spring troubled us again in the month of September. It rained so heavily from the 6th to the 14th of September that for a long time the water of the lake was so discoloured that the savages, of whom there were a great many at our fort, could not see to spear the sturgeon, and had nothing to eat. In this extreme need of theirs I made over to them the field of Indian corn which I had sown in the spring, and which was not yet entirely ripe. Our hired men also got what they could out of it. The savages thanked me greatly for the relief I had thus afforded them. The sowing of a bushel of peas after we had been eating them green for a long time gave us ten bushels, which I had sown the following spring with some Indian corn. I had by entreaty induced two families of savages to sow corn, and I hope that the comfort they derived from it will lead others to follow their example. They will be better off and we less bothered.

Note, that it does not rain as often here as in Canada, and that these rains are unusual according to the report of the savages.

From the 16th of September up to Christmas we have had the most beautiful weather imaginable. Frost set in about the 15th of November, it froze at night, but there was bright sunshine during the day and no wind. Still the ice took on the lake on the 22nd of November, which caused 100 savages, men and women, who were on the other side of the lake to bring us meat and peltries. All the savages had great hunting up to Christmas, there being no snow.

On the 28th of December four chiefs, two Assiniboin and two Cree, arrived in the evening after the gates were closed. Two Monsoni who came from fort St. Pierre arrived at the same time. I had the gates opened for them to learn the object of their journey.

The first four said that they came on behalf of six chiefs of the two tribes to ask me if I would receive them as children of our Father; they were only half a day’s journey from the fort, and they begged me, if I granted their request, to send them some Indian corn and some tobacco as a mark of my goodwill.

On the morning of the 29th I retained the two Cree and sent my son with the two Assiniboin and two Frenchmen to assure them of my friendship and take them a sack of corn and some tobacco. After six hours they found them encamped to the number of 60 Assiniboin, 30 of their wives, and 10 Cree, awaiting my reply. As soon as they saw my son, of whose approach they were informed by one of the chiefs who had gone ahead, they uttered loud shouts of joy, and received him to the sound of three discharges of their guns and a flight of arrows, as all were not provided with guns.

The two Monsoni gave me a letter from Marin Urtebise and told me that three hundred men ready to start out against the Sioux and the Saulteur were singing the war song; the letter said the same thing and added that they would not listen to anything. On the same day, the 29th, I sent back the two Monsoni with a collar and some tobacco to stop the 300 men until my arrival at fort St. Pierre, saying that I would leave in fifteen days, and that I wanted to go and sing the war song with them, although the season was the most severe of the year. My object in reality was to arrest the blow.

The same day as the gates were closing two Assiniboin arrived, sent by some chiefs to tell me not to be impatient as my son would arrive with them the next day at noon. 
On the 30th at two o’clock in the afternoon, the Assiniboin and Cree appeared and fired three volleys on perceiving the flag; the twenty Frenchmen whom I had, being under arms, replied; and the six chiefs, conducted by my son, entered the fort. I sent to mark their encampment; no business was talked that day; it was passed in mutual compliments, and I had them served with provisions and tobacco.

The Council was held on the 31st. The nephew of a chief spoke in the Cree language in the name of his whole tribe, which consists of seven villages, the smallest of which numbers a hundred cabins and the largest eight or nine hundred. He begged me to receive them all into the number of the children of our Father, to have pity on them and their families, that they were in a general condition of destitution, lacking axes, knives, kettles, guns, etc., that they hoped to get all these things from me if I would let them come to my fort. The present they brought was a package of beaver skins and about 100 lbs. of beef fat. I gave them in return one sack of corn and sixteen fathoms of tobacco. ‘My children,’ I said, ‘I will tell you to-morrow what are our Father’s orders to me regarding you, and shall let you know his will.’ They uttered a great shout of joy and retired.’

Sunday, December 1, 2019

A hell of a night

Charles Graves, brother to the famous poet and novelist Robert, was born 120 years ago today. He was a Fleet Street reporter and columnist who wrote vividly for his newspaper from the streets of London during the Second World War. He was also a member of the Home Guard and, against official orders, he kept personal diaries. He published these in four volumes, and - although largely forgotten about today - these are in fact among the most informative, interesting and lively first hand reports of the war in London. Here’s a taster: ‘There was the roar of enemy bombers, the sound of machine-guns, the screaming of the wind as the Fighters dived after the bombers. The moon was blood red. It was a hell of a night.’ When not reporting on the latest bomb damage, he might be found in the morning with the Home Guard pretending to be a German parachutist landing in Regent’s Park’, watching cricket at Lords in the afternoon, and then dining at the Dorchester, Savoy or Ritz.

Graves was born in London on 1 December 1899, son of the Anglo-Irish poet and songwriter Alfred Perceval Graves. Alfred, himself the son of Charles Graves, bishop of Limerick and mathematician, had five children with his first wife Jane; and, after she died, he had five with his second wife Amalie von Ranke, including Charles and Robert who would become famous, notably for The White Goddess, about poetry and myths. In his autobiography, Goodbye To All That, Robert claimed the family’s pedigree dated back to the Norman Conquest, with one ancestor giving his name to Graves’ Disease.

Charles was educated at Charterhouse, and on reaching 18 in 1918, he joined the Royal Fusiliers but was still in training when the Armistice came. He studied at St John’s College, Oxford University, and then joined the staff of the Evening News as a reporter. Soon he was also the paper’s theatre critic, a line of work that enabled him to engage with London’s high society. He moved on, to the Sunday Express, where he worked variously as columnist, news editor and feature writer. In 1927, he switched again, this time to be a columnist again on the Daily Mail.

Graves’ gossipy autobiography, The Bad Old Days (Faber and Faber, 1951), reveals a great fondness for society in these years between the wars, and especially attending dances; but then, in 1929, ‘after nearly five years and a couple of hundred proposals (it may have been more because I have lost count)’ he finally persuaded Peggy Leigh to marry him. Also in the autobiography, Graves reveals how he felt the need to supplement his income now that he was married, which led to the idea of collecting his Daily Mail columns into a book. After failing to persuade G. B. Shaw to write a preface, he turned to P. G. Wodehouse an old family friend.

During the war, Graves continued to write a column and to socialise as much as he could - he was out at restaurants and the theatre whenever possible. But he also was an active participant in the Home Guard, and wrote and read propaganda scripts for the BBC. In addition, he spent time at RAF bases and with RAF personnel so as to write novels - such as The Thin Blue Line and The Avengers - promoting the armed services.

Before the war, Graves had begun to write travel-type books about Continental watering places for the rich, Switzerland and the French Riviera, and he took this up again after the war. He also wrote books on London, such as Champagne and Chandeliers about the Café de Paris, None but the Rich about the gambling cabal called The Greek Syndicate, and Leather Armchairs, a guide to the clubs of London. Under her pen name of Jane Gordon, Graves’ wife published the autobiographical Married to Charles in 1950. She died in the early 1960s, and Graves married Vivien Winch in 1966. The couple lived in her house on Guernsey. They then moved to Barbados, which is where Graves died in 1971. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, and Geni.

Among Graves’ many books are four diaries from the war years, all published by Hutchinson. The first two of these - Off the Record and Londoner’s Life - came out in 1942; and two more - Great Days and Pride of the Morning - in 1944-1945. These diaries are of particular interest because they include much detail about Graves’ Home Guard activities. Personal writing about the Home Guard was specifically made illegal (for security reasons), but Graves simply comments on this restriction coming into force with ‘Tut-tut and flutters’. In 2011, Viking published a book called The Real ‘Dad’s Army’ - The War Diaries of Lt.Col. Rodney Foster with great fanfare claiming it was the first such Home Guard diary to be published - see Huns flew over Hythe). But the long-since forgotten books by Charles Graves’s should claim that distinction.

In his introduction to Off the Record, Graves’ says this: ‘Timing the publication of a War Diary is a very tricky business. If you wait too long it becomes stale. If you bring it out too soon it is certain to be heavily censored. I prefer the deep blue sea of blue pencilling to the devil of staleness. When the diary began in November 1940 I had every intention of withholding publication until the war was over, but circumstances have dictated otherwise. This has automatically meant a censorship imposed by myself on the manuscript even before it went to the official censors. [. . .] I would like to point out that, with the exception of 400 words, nothing that appears in Off The Record has appeared in print beforehand. It is really the private diary of the public diarist. [. . .] Looking over the manuscript, I realize that I ought to have paid much more attention to the extraordinary change in domestic life caused by the war.’
19 November 1940
‘As I lay in bed it occurred to me that the Londoner’s ears are now accustomed to distinguish immediately sixteen different noises caused by the blitz. These are the 4.5s, the 3.7s, the Bofors, machine-guns, 1,000-lb bombs, 500-lb bombs, 250-lb bombs, incendiaries, shell-caps, enemy aircraft hit in the sky and ditto crashing on land, the two lots of sirens, time-bombs, air-raid and wardens’ whistles.’

30 December 1940
‘London is a city on its feet, but not out on its feet. In fact, it’s on its toes. This meant, however, that I had to walk all the way to Leicester Square before I was lucky enough to get a taxi to take me home. The queues for the Holborn Tube Station extended along Kingsway as far as Bush House. At every normal bus stop there were crowds of people waiting for omnibuses that were never going to appear. I should have thought the police might have told them.’

2 January 1941
‘Walked to the office, though it was bitterly cold, by way of the Embankment. The Temple has certainly caught it again, and there was a continuous sound of broken glass being swept from the pavement and knocked-down windows. [. . .] Lunched at the Press Club, where I was told that the crater near Piccadilly Circus has caused nine people to fall and break some limb during the past three nights. It is high time that Marylebone and Westminster improved their system of lighting where the road is blocked and bomb craters have been formed.’

31 January 1941
‘Then began a journey to London. This actually took four hours, and there were no taxis or omnibuses at Liverpool Street. The Underground being the only possible form of transport, I had a first-class view of the extraordinary subterranean life lived by so many Londoners at night. People were dotted everywhere except on the actual moving staircase. But there was a pleasant antiseptic smell and everything was clean and orderly. Some of the stations have already got bunks. Some of the people slept despite the rushing sound of the Underground trains. My own compartment was full of Scottish troops, seeing London for the first time. Their eyes positively goggled at the scenes on each station as they passed.’

9 March 1941
‘Paraded after six weeks’ absence with the Home Guard; secured my actual stripes from the Quartermaster’s Stores, after we were dismissed. Went to look at the Café de Paris [near Leicester Square]. The corpses are all out and there is very little show. Poor Poulsen. He always thought he was the luckiest man in the world, and behaved as such. Only the other night he was telling me that the Café de Paris was a complete escape from the war. Having been built as a replica of the Palm Court of the Lusitania, I always expected it to catch the blitz sooner or later.’ [80 people including Martin Poulsen, the proprietor, died when a bomb hit the day before. Graves wrote a newspaper column about Poulsen and the café, which he transcribed into his diary.]

10 March 1941
‘The Café de Paris still looks absurdly untouched. Poor Poulsen had fooled everybody into thinking that it had four proper floors above it [and hence had not been closed for safety reasons]. It hadn’t, and the bomb burst literally on the dance floor.’

11 March 1941
‘Home Guard parade with a lecture [. . .] about the tommy-gun. It seems quite fool-proof, and I have applied to be tommy-gun expert in my platoon.’

10 May 1941
‘Went down to play golf at Royal Wimbledon. [. . .] returned at 12pm, twenty minutes after the blitz began. In half an hour it was quite sensational. We were on fire. I ran into the street shouting the news and asked for assistance. A gunner subaltern from next door dashed in. Eleanor, in the meantime, had thrown some sand at the fire-bomb, which promptly exploded. I dashed up with the stirrup-pump, while the officer stuck the nozzle into the pail. We were in the dark. I couldn’t see what was happening but realized that something was wrong. I pumped away wildly and then said: “Don’t be a bloody fool. Bring the pail up and squirt the water on the bomb.” In a few minutes we had got it sufficiently under control to enable me to put an inverted pail on it. So that was that. We had previously had a fire-bomb on the doorstep and put it out with sandbags. The wardens’ whistles blew again and another twenty or thirty incendiaries came down in the street, as well as on one house two doors away from me and one three doors away.

The first caught fire immediately, and a fire-brigade crew that happened to be passing was diverted by us to it. We ran out and put out the bombs in the street and then hurried to the house three doors away on the right with stirrup-pump and pails of water. After twenty minutes this was dealt with, but as we were standing on the corner we suddenly heard a bomb coming straight at us. We threw ourselves on the ground as it burst forty yards away. Lumps of masonry came crashing down all around us. Altogether most unpleasant. This bomb landed on a house, trapping three people. But they were rescued within an hour, bent but not dead.

By this time a complete block was on fire eighty yards away, towards Portman Square, and there were some other fires about, but three fire-engines were on the job within 200 yards of me. I particularly admired the fireman on the top of a ladder with the bombs falling all round. But I suppose he thought he might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb.

Druce’s was on fire about 600 yards away. Clouds of smoke billowed across the street in the high breeze. There was the roar of enemy bombers, the sound of machine-guns, the screaming of the wind as the Fighters dived after the bombers. The moon was blood red. It was a hell of a night.’

11 May 1941
‘Today it was possible to get a slight preliminary idea of the damage. Druce’s has been completely burnt out. The House of Commons got a direct hit. Goodness knows where they are going to sit in future. The House of Lords was hit, so was Westminster Abbey. One of the chief rubber-necking points was Serjeant’s Inn, off Fleet Street, which is still on fire, though completely destroyed already. No omnibuses run past the Aldwych. There is gas all round the Daily Mail from burst mains, so everyone will have foul headaches tonight. I saw a man injured at the corner of Bouverie Street when a manhole blew up and out just as he was passing. Lunched at the Savoy. For the first time in the history of the Savoy we had our vegetables served à la Lyons, already placed on the dish.’

15 May 1941
‘Albany Street Barracks [near Regent’s Park] at 7:30am, where I found six corporals of the Guards and Sergeant Kirk. [. . .] The first thing we did was detonate our hand-grenades. [. . .] We next proceeded to the range from the throwing-pit and I was allowed to fire several rounds with a Lee-Enfield, lying, sitting, kneeling and standing. After that came the Bren gun [and] the anti-tank rifle. [. . .] Driving back in the truck we stopped at a pub, had a few pints each, and then lunched off bully-beef and cold cabbage in the sergeants’ mess. [. . .] Dined at home and then took Peggy to the Dorchester.’

7 June 1941
‘Went to Lord’s, where the Eton Ramblers played the Forty Club. Four ex-Test captains were performing, but the scoring was very low. This is because bowlers get back to form much sooner than batsmen. [. . .] Went on parade and took a tommy-gun course at Wormwood Scrubs. Sergeant Kirk was there and told us to fire a foot below the bull’s-eye. [. . .] I now learn that I am to be battalion bombing instructor unless I take care.’

8 June 1941
‘Another Home Guard parade. My mob were supposed to be German parachutists landing in Regent’s Park. The rest of the local Home Guard was supposed to contain us. Instead of that we contained them. It was all very wet. I hear that there is to be an ACI forbidding anyone in the Home Guard writing about the Home Guard in future. Tut-tut and flutters.’

15 June 1941
‘Called at 7:30am for 8:15 Home Guard exercise. A variegated show, either hanging around Baker Street or running madly through mews near Gloucester Place. At least we are unselfconscious as we dive down areas. All over by 1pm.’

5 July 1941
‘Went on Home Guard parade, where we were photographed, and then took part in a new scheme for defending Regent’s Park from parachutists. Was informed that I am now second-in-command of the new headquarters platoon, and that we will have flame-throwers, Molotovs, hand-grenades, tommy-guns, anti-tank rifles and sticky bombs. In fact, we have them already. The men were delighted at the new order whereby they can now take their rifles home with them. This is to save time in the event of being called out for an invasion.’

6 July 1941
‘The moon was almost full, London looked lovely, and a distant barrage balloon was silhouetted against the moon like Hitler’s moustache.’

20 July 1941
‘Took a slow train back to London, arriving late for lunch. Changed into uniform and hurried off to Hampstead Heath, where a demonstration by the Royal Tanks Corps was being provided. An officer with a loud-speaker described to everyone present - hundreds of civilians, perhaps Quislings among them, in addition to the 3,000 Home Guards - all the best ways of destroying our latest Valentine tank. Actually it seems it takes a tank to kill a tank, but still . . . Today is the great V day. You see Vs on walls and posters, even chalked inside restaurants.’

24 August 1941
‘Home Guard parade, in which once again the Headquarters Section acted as Germans, but without all our fire-crackers, which was rather dull.’

This material for this article has been taken from a chapter on Graves in the unpublished book London in Diaries.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Pulsing like a python

‘I have just finished my modest airline nosh when Ali plops down beside me. He has short sleeves and his enormous bicep rests near mine with the vein in it pulsing like a python.’ This snippet about the boxer Muhammad Ali is from the gossipy and entertaining diaries of Irish writer and historian Ulick O’Connor who died three months ago.

O’Connor was born in 1928 in Rathgar, County Dublin, to the dean of the Royal College of Surgeons and his wife. He attended Catholic secondary school in Galway and Dublin counties, before studying law and philosophy at University College Dublin. He was keen on sports, especially boxing, rugby and cricket, and was an active member of the Literary and Historical Society. He went on to attend Loyola University, New Orleans, and was called to the Irish bar in 1951. Although he practised in Dublin until 1970, he increasingly turned to writing - biography, poetry, history and literary criticism - for his day job. He was a regular contributor on sport to various newspapers, but also published a regular poetry column.

O’Connor is best known for his  biographies of Oliver St. John Gogarty and Brendan Behan, for his studies of the early 20th-century Irish troubles and the Irish Literary Revival, and for several plays. He became something of a personality, appearing on radio and television as an outspoken commentator on social, cultural and political issues. He never married (see the Irish Mirror on incorrect rumours that he was gay), and lived to the age of 91. Further information is available at Wikipedia, The Irish Times or Ricorso.

O’Connor was a keen and interesting diarist. He decided to keep a diary, he said, so as ‘to keep an eye on myself and so as not to let material that might be useful to me as a writer be erased from memory’. His agent eventually suggested to John Murray that some extracts be published in book form. The Ulick O’Connor Diaries 1970-1981: a cavalier Irishman (with a foreword by Richard Ingrams) came out in 2001.

According to the publisher, O’Connor evokes ‘the streets and bars of Dublin with their now legendary characters, the world of the Abbey Theatre and that of the Gate Theatre’; he ‘recreates the atmosphere and talk of the Anglo-Irish country houses [. . .], where he often stayed as a guest of the Guinnesses and the Longfords’; and he ‘reveals the secret part he played as a go-between for the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch’. Furthermore, the diaries show him to be an inveterate traveller: ‘In New York he makes friends with Viva, the star of Andy Warhol’s infamous Blue Movie, he talks to Robert Kennedy and witnesses the anti-Vietnam protests and the growth of the Civil Rights movement. In London he appears on Wogan, in Tangiers he dines with Alec Waugh and Paul Bowles, and in Stockholm he plays a practical joke on Edna O’Brien that unhappily misfires. Ulick O’Connor’s diaries are funny and entertaining, gossipy and a good read.’ Here are several extracts, including the first.

3 January 1970
‘Peter Sellers, the film actor, at dinner, at Aileen [the Hon. Mrs Brinsley] Plunket’s, Lutterellstown Castle. Seems down after his separation from Britt Ekland. Tears stream down his cheeks.

‘Knife in my heart, excuse me if I cry.’

I suggest that all men cry for the lost belief in the goodness of womanhood. Lolita. He tells me that when Britt ran out of money, he went back to her.

‘I didn’t kick her when she was down.’

When I told him he looked in good shape he said he worked out in the gym every day with weights. Was this wise since he had had heart surgery? He said not only was it safe but it actually improved his condition. He had always been interested in sport anyway. He talked of his uncle Brian Sellers, Captain of Yorkshire and England Selector, who he said used to take him to matches when he was a small boy. I was surprised at this because I always assumed Peter was a Bow Bells boy. Not so. I am touched by his affection for Uncle Brian and put a note about the relationship in my Sunday Mirror column. Later I receive an angry note from Brian Sellers denying he is related to ‘that bloody little cockney’. How extraordinary to invent a sporting pedigree on the spur of the moment.’

23 November 1972
‘To Dublin Airport to see Jack Lynch off. He’s addressing the Oxford Union on the motion ‘That this House would favour Irish Unity.’ Hugh McCann, Secretary to the Department of Foreign Affairs, is on the tarmac when the Taoiseach gets on the steps to enter the plane. Lynch shakes my hand warmly and ignores McCann who is left with his paw ‘all bright and glittering in the smokeless air’. This is authentic Jackspeak.’

7 May 1973
‘To Washington to interview Teddy Kennedy. Arranged by John Hume through a Kennedy aide, Carey Parker. Washington in early summer is beautiful. Lush green trees lining the drives. Spectacular after New York, where in Central Park still the bare branches anatomize the sky.

Kennedy himself is well versed in Northern Ireland. He corrects me when I give the wrong number of internees in Long Kesh: ‘Around 2,000, I think.’ (I checked, he was right.)

He is on top of his brief. Would that his English counterparts were the same. I tell him I was on the Kennedy election plane on Bobby’s last jaunt, just before he died. He showed me a picture of Bobby in his Harvard football kit.

‘Great little guy wasn’t he.’

He looked wistful for a while. He has had two brothers cut down in their prime who, when he was a baby, used to affectionately toss him between them like a football, two handsome Micks with a dash and brightness that were specially theirs - all gone.’

14 April 1974
‘Flying back to New York from Chicago where I had gone to promote Irish Liberation on the Kupcinett Show, I pass a truly enormous black man in first class as I board. He is sitting with another black.

‘Hi,’ says Muhammad Ali, ‘How’s it going?’

I met Ali a number of times in the late Sixties and also covered his fight in Dublin in 1970 against Al Blue Lewis when we had become well acquainted over three weeks.

‘Come down and see you later,’ Ali said.

I have just finished my modest airline nosh when Ali plops down beside me. He has short sleeves and his enormous bicep rests near mine with the vein in it pulsing like a python.

‘I’d like to show you some poems.’

This is the guy that put Sonny Liston away in round two so I listen. To my credit, I don’t nod acquiescently but try to remain detached. Fortunately, two lines come up which I can approve:

The same road that connects two souls together
When stretched becomes a path to God.

I nod and he doesn’t stop for half an hour. His face is unlined, miraculously free from the damage that boxers can acquire. Of course, in the ring he bobs like a bamboo and it is almost impossible to land a clean punch on him. His ears are close to his head, neat and well formed. When he straightens up you can see his trousers stretched tightly over gigantic thighs, each more than two feet in circumference. I asked him was he never afraid he’d get shot when he was a Vietnam protester and had his title taken away from him because he wouldn’t join the army.

‘A true Muslim doesn’t fear, neither does he grieve. I was happier than I had ever been then in my little car, riding round the States. I never sold out. I was no Uncle Tom.’

He goes back to his chum. I don’t see him again till I am getting off the plane. He introduces me to the man he is with.

‘This is Kid Gavilan.’

I am impressed. Kid Gavilan is the inventor of the bolo punch and one of the great all-time world middleweight champions. Ali says he’ll give me a ride into town in his chauffeur-driven limousine. He sits in front while he puts me in the back of the car with the Kid who starts to sing for me, in Spanish, bits of a musical he is composing about the boxing ring. He says he was down and out recently in Alabama when Ali saw him at a petrol station where he was working and took him on board for a month’s holiday. As we roll into Manhattan, the Kid is singing away at his own songs, while Ali’s well shaped head rolls from side to side in the front seat. Out for the count.’

28 May 1974
‘Horrors on horror’s head accumulate. Hear at four o'clock that the Northern Ireland Assembly has been dissolved. Faulkner has resigned as Chief Executive. It seems the bullies have won. I go down to the Dail to see Jack Lynch. Meet Eugene Timmons TD in the hall. He seems to accept the news with equanimity. Then I see David Andrews. He does not seem as downcast as he should be (I wonder has he something up his sleeve?). Brian Lenihan passes us with a cheery smile. Then I go into the Dail chamber. Afterwards I meet Jack Lynch. Exhausted. He looks like an old man, shrunk. He puts off our meeting until Thursday. I go to discuss what’s happened with George Colley (former Minister for Finance). He says we were closer to trouble in 1969. I point out that then the British Army were regarded as peacekeepers by the Nationalists, now this is not so. Therefore the situation is significantly worse. Rory Brugha TD who is also with us remarks that the British will always suit themselves. George Colley says he thinks the real danger is unilateral declaration of independence by the Unionists. I suggest that we should consider sending in the Irish Army as a protective force with a view to getting the UN to come in at a later stage. The general feeling is that the Irish Army should have gone into Northern Ireland in 1969 after Lynch had said that the South would not ‘stand idly by’ when the Nationalist population in Northern Ireland were being attacked and burned out of their homes. If they had gone across the border at Derry then to protect civilians they could have remained in situ and refused to evacuate until the UN came in with a peacekeeping force.

My thinking. The British will now get very tough with the Unionists. They may cut Harland & Wolff’s subsidy and that of other industrial jewels in the British Crown.’

Monday, November 25, 2019

Happy with Signor

‘We have been two months a half married & never been away from each other for half an hour. I used to think I could not be happy unless I was much alone every day. Here I am never happy unless with Signor.’ This is Mary Watts, newly married to the English painter George Frederic Watts, who she called Signor, writing in a diary that he suggested she keep. There was a wide age range between them - Watts was fast approaching 70 - but their marriage was happy, and Mary herself went on to become an artist of some renown. Her diaries, not published until recently, provide much information into life with Watt’s but also invaluable insights into her own achievements.

Mary Seton Fraser Tytler was born in Bombay, India, on 25 November 1849, the daughter of East India Company employees. Her mother died soon after, and so she was sent to Scotland and raised by grandparents. Early in 1870, she began to study art in Dresden but later the same year enrolled at the South Kensington School of Art. It was also the year she first met the painter G. F. Watts, who became her unofficial tutor. During 1872 and 1873, she studied sculpture at the Slade School of Art, though she became known as a portrait painter, associated with Julia Margaret Cameron and the Freshwater community. She worked some of the time for the Home Arts and Industries Association, an organisation which aimed to revive traditional rural crafts, and she ran classes in clay modelling.

In 1886, Mary and Watts married despite a 33 year difference in their ages (he was 69). The couple adopted an orphan, Lilian, who would eventually inherit their estate. Mary continued to play a leading role in the Home Arts and Industries Association and from the 1890s taught pottery to large numbers of local people in the village of Compton where the couple had built a country residence called Limnerslease. She went on to establish the commercially successful Potters’ Arts Guild and designed an award-winning range of garden pottery. She designed, built, and maintained the Watts Mortuary Chapel in Compton; and had built and maintained the Watts Gallery for the preservation of her husband’s work. She was a pioneer of the Celtic revival, in carpets, book-bindings, metalwork, and textiles for Liberty & Co. being based on her earlier designs at the Watts Chapel. Later in life, she wrote The Word in the Pattern and completed a three-volume biography of her husband, Annals of an Artist’s Life. She died in 1938. Further information is available from the Watts Gallery, Wikipedia, National Portrait Gallery, Mapping Sculpture, Artistic Miscellany, and David Hill’s paper on Mary Watts and the Chapel.

On marrying Watts, Mary became an avid diarist and filled many volumes - each known affectionately as ‘Fatima’ - with musings on art and society as well as with the details of her day-to-day life with a celebrated artist. However, it took until 2016 for these diaries to be made public, partly because her handwriting was so difficult to read. Edited by Desna Greenhow and published by Lund Humphries in association with the Watts Gallery, The Diary of Mary Watts 1887-1904: Victorian progressive and artistic visionary also includes detailed annotations, an introductory essay and short intros for each year of diary entries. According to the publisher, the ‘book chronicles life in the artistic, literary and political circles of the time, while also providing invaluable insights into Mary’s own achievements - most notably her management of the building and decorating of her unique Watts Cemetery Chapel.’

In her introduction, Greenhow notes: ‘Watts suggested, in the first few weeks of their marriage, that [Mary] should write a diary, chronicling their daily life together. It turned out to be a cementing element in their relationship, and a fascinating document in its own right. Most importantly, Mary wrote it for herself, not anticipating sharing it with the world or with anyone else. This is clear by the tiny, difficult handwriting, and its voluminous nature. It has not been completely transcribed until now, more than a hundred years after it was written.‘Signor’, as Watts was nicknamed, never tried to read it, and so it remained a narrative by Mary with herself, about their relationship and on the joint lives they led.’ A review of the book can be read in Life Writing. Here are several extracts.

26 January 1887
‘When I looked for my dear one’s hands this morning, I found them both crossed upon his breast. I said ‘Don’t do that, Signor’ & he, ‘I often lie so’. ‘Oh, don’t’ I said ‘it is too much like “Well done, thou good & faithful servant.” ’ When I next touched his cheek it was wet with quiet tears.

My dear one has painted & sketched some figures, such nice, great lines he sees in all these people. I feel as if I was blind in comparison to him. I am trying to read in the new book he has opened to me.’

4 February 1887
‘We have been two months a half married & never been away from each other for half an hour. I used to think I could not be happy unless I was much alone every day. Here I am never happy unless with Signor.

‘Are you really not longing to be alone?’ he asked me, ‘not finding drawbacks? Ah, just as you expected, & yet you expected a very great deal. You make your own happiness out of what I have to give you, which is nothing.’ ’

7 February 1887
‘Drew some hasty lines of drapery. Signor begs me to do it as often as possible.

‘The eye gets as it were in tune with the law of form & line, & by constant study, even hasty notes, the mind acquires that knowledge of the natural law, which is necessary for the ideal.’ ’

26 April 1887
‘He began, because his hand was wearied by idleness, a sketch in oil, of me. Painted straight off, in four colours, on single prime canvas with white, light red, burnt & raw umber, a lovely flesh colour. It was all drawn in burnt umber, which is a very good useful colour but must be used carefully, transparently, over light ground or else it darkens & becomes very heavy. Talking of painting with varnish, Signor says that it must be used with the white ground & again with the colour.’

26 October 1887
‘We went to pay a visit to Burne Jones, he & she, & we sat together in their little drawing room & did not go to the studio. They have Michelangelo’s Night & Morning, which Signor does not care for. Mr Burne Jones stood up for them. Signor thinks M.A. the greatest of all artists, but his sculpture by no means on a level with the painting. He thinks he was prevented by the obstinacy of his material from dashing in his thoughts (his wax sketches as fine as can be). From there we went to Holman Hunt & saw his very impressive picture of the Flight into Egypt, with all its strange ugliness of surface, flesh made of a hard stable material reflecting every sort of colour, wh. makes a most unlovely impression. The dignity & moral influence of his work always surprises me.’

26 April 1891
‘Sir Frederic, our first & faithful visitor. He & Signor had much to say about mediums. Macbeth & Fildes have been using Petroleum, Fildes the common kitchen stuff & Macbeth the rectified, prepared by a man in Great Queen Street, where their colours are ground with it. Signor has long used Rock oil, prepared by Bell in Oxford Street, & a small quantity of Linseed oil, to prevent its too rapid evaporation. Millais they think uses Spike oil, & Sir F., rectified spirits of turpentine. Sir Fred, is sorry & angry with Mr Richmond for having abstained two years from going near the Academy, at this time of friendly meeting. It is a pity that men who think that they regard art from a more serious point of view than seventy members, should not feel bound to go & mix their light with the lamp, & try to support Sir Frederic, who said today, wearily, that it was no sinecure.’

20 November 1891
‘Our 6th wedding day, & we began to keep it at one a.m. when Signor spoke to me, & I told him it was the morning of the 20th. Half waking, we blessed each other, but later, after I had been up some time at my writing table, he came out with my cup of hot drinking water, & stood smiling at me with a sort of supreme & sudden consciousness of my happiness with him, & said ‘Well, are you pretty happy?’ I had to tell him that he was too stuck up & full of pride, & that I was on the contrary a very miserable woman! On the breakfast table were two books & a dear letter from Choons with hers & Edward’s blessing.

He & Mrs Guild worked silently side by side from luncheon time till half past four, forgetting each other, till she, poor thing, over-tired, was overcome by an access of fear, & mistrust of Agnew’s promises, & Signor was disturbed, & not able to comfort her.’

2 November 1891
‘Ethel & I left the workers in the studio alone all morning, & when luncheon time came we found they had been on each others’ nerves. Mrs Guild could not come to luncheon, being in tears, Signor not being able to refrain from urging her not to lose her clear edges, & she in her highly nervous state having wept at his saying it makes the difference between refinement or vulgarity in work’.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

He is a very great man

‘[Lloyd George] returned from his interview with Hitler in great form, very delighted with his talk and obviously very much struck with Hitler. ‘He is a very great man,’ said L.G. ‘ “Führer” is the proper name for him, for he is a born leader, yes, and statesman.’ This is from the private diary of Albert James Sylvester, born 130 years ago today, who was David Lloyd George’s personal assistant for many years, not least organising many trips in Britain and overseas - as here to Germany in 1936. After Lloyd George’s death, Sylvester drew on his own diary for a biography of the Liberal statesman, but it was only with publication of the diary itself, some two decades later, that the full extent of Sylvester’s revelations about Lloyd George, albeit in his declining years, emerged.

Sylvester was born on 24 November 1889 in Harlaston, Staffordshire. When his father lost his independence as a tenant farmer, the family moved to Burton-on-Trent where he became a brewery farm worker. Albert left school at 14 to become a brewery clerk, but worked hard at night classes to perfect his shorthand and typing. He moved to London, aged 20, where he competed successfully in fast shorthand and typing competitions becoming a member of the British international fast typewriting team. In 1912-1913, he travelled to India and Burma as assistant reporter for the Royal Commission on the Public Services. He set up as a freelance shorthand-writer in Chancery Lane, but with the onset of war he was brought into the Admiralty on a temporary assignment. Soon after, he was employed by Maurice Hankey, a senior civil servant (see Dreadful meetings), after a while becoming his private secretary.

Sylvester was Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence, 1914–1921, Secretary of the War Cabinet and the Cabinet, 1916–1921, Secretary of the Imperial War Cabinet, 1917, and British Secretary to the Paris Peace Conference, 1919. He served as private secretary, briefly, to three successive Prime Ministers, 1921-1923, but thereafter ran Lloyd George’s private London office (which, at its peak, had a staff of 20) until his death. Apart from other duties, Sylvester coordinated many of Lloyd George’s overseas visits (to Brazil, Europe, Morocco) and tours of Britain. After Lloyd George’s death, Sylvester was employed by Lord Beaverbrook from 1945 until 1948, and spent a further year as unpaid assistant to the Liberal Party leader, Clement Davies. In 1949, he retired from political life, and moved to a farm at Corsham, Wiltshire, where he served as Justice of the Peace. In old age, he worked extensively on an autobiography, but the project was never completed. He died just a few weeks short of his 100th birthday in 1989. A little further information is available online at The National Library of Wales and Wikipedia.

Sylvester was an inveterate note keeper, but only an intermittent diarist, at least until 1931: from then on, though, he kept (
in shorthand for reasons of speed and privacy) a more or less continuous diary which, never meant for publication, is remarkably frank. After Lloyd George’s death, Sylvester used it for writing his book The Real Lloyd George (1947). Despite the title, he omitted some personal material and toned down other revelations. He was spurred to publish the diary itself after Lloyd George’s second wife, Frances, brought out, in 1967, an autobiography which he, Sylvester, felt was over-romanticised. Life with Lloyd George: The Diary of A. J. Sylvester 1931-45 was edited by Colin Cross and published by Macmillan 1975. A short review can be read in The American Historical Review.

Here are several extracts from Sylvester’s diary as published by Macmillan.

22 July 1935
‘I have spent a very busy weekend on a memorandum by L.G. in answer to the Government, to be issued to the Press today. He phoned me at 7.30 a.m. giving me additions, one of which was: ‘Most of their document is taken up, not with an examination of my scheme, but with a torchlight procession of their own achievements in every sphere of activity.’

At 11.15 a.m. I accompanied L.G. to the large committee room at the House of Commons, where there was a big gathering of journalists, to whom I distributed the relevant documents. For the next hour, he reeled off answers to the questions which poured in on him. Afterwards I lunched with L.G., Dick and Gwilym at the Harcourt Room at the House. L.G. said as he was leaving the meeting one of the lobby correspondents had come up and said: ‘Would you mind telling me what is the lotion you use which keeps you so fit?’ L.G. said: ‘I answered John Power.’ (Sir Henry Fildes has just brought him a bottle of John Power Irish whiskey for him to try.)

4 September 1936
‘Each morning at 7.30, I go in to see L.G. and later help him to dress. He repeated this morning that he was astonished to find that Tom Jones had changed so much. He did not like him sticking up for the rebels in Spain.

Lord Dawson, T.J. and I talked in the drawing-room. Lord Dawson said he had been very much impressed by Ribbentrop. Anyone more unlike an ambassador he had never seen. If he spoke like he had last night, even to the extent of 50 per cent, he would not be a success. Lord Dawson was amused by the way Ribbentrop had said that he and his wife were not married according to the Church. Ribbentrop had said that rather warily, wondering how the company would take it. He had felt his way and sought to put himself right by saying he had mentioned the matter to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

LG. returned at noon from a talk with Ribbentrop. He said that Ribbentrop wanted to go too far. He wanted to organise a great anti-Bolshevik front. We would not join that. We would not have anyone make a wanton attack on Germany, or France or anyone else.
The whole of our party lunched with Ribbentrop and his wife in the Grand Hotel. In addition there were several high officials from the Foreign Office in Berlin. L.G. said he could not understand why the Germans had signed the Armistice. That had certainly been a mistake on their part. Ribbentrop said that Hitler would not have signed it. During coffee L.G. talked about the war with terrific energy until I thought, at 3 p.m. it was high time he broke up the party and had a rest before seeing Hitler. But he would not do so and still went on, despite the fact that at 4 p.m. he was due for one of the greatest interviews of his life. Yet, if I had asked him for a little instruction, he would have said that I was working him to death.

L.G. returned from his interview with Hitler in great form, very delighted with his talk and obviously very much struck with Hitler. ‘He is a very great man,’ said L.G. ‘ “Führer” is the proper name for him, for he is a born leader, yes, and statesman.’ He said that Hitler was not in favour of rearmament or conscription. They did not make him popular with his own people. He favoured productive measures, such as roads, in which he was very interested, and improved agriculture. What had struck L.G. very much was that Hitler had been much more enthusiastic when talking about these latter things. ‘We talked about everything,’ said L.G., ‘including Spain. I talked with great bluntness and frankness and the Führer liked it.’

J produced a whiskey and water for L.G., and when he had taken this Lord Dawson said to him: ‘If you want to get full benefit of that, go and rest for half an hour’, which he did.

The whole of our party dined with the Ribbentrops and their entourage. Ribbentrop asked L.G. about Winston. L.G. replied that he was a rhetorician and not an orator. He thought only of how a phrase sounded and not how it might move or influence crowds. The question for every Prime Minister was whether Winston was more dangerous inside or outside the Cabinet.’

29 September 1936
‘I have been sizing up a row which has suddenly developed between L.G. and Frances. Yesterday morning he packed his bags and came up from Churt alone in the car. Frances has been on the telephone a number of times to me, and I am trying to straighten it out.’

24 November 1939
‘My fiftieth birthday today. God help me and mine. In looking back across half a century, help me, God, to see the mistakes and my follies, and in the future help me to trust in Thee more and give me health and strength, wisdom and determination to achieve something worth while for my fellow men, as well as for myself and to Thy honour. Help me to be effective.’

12 December 1940
‘This afternoon, while the House was in session at Church House, I got news that Lord Lothian had died. I immediately put through a priority telephone call to L.G. and spoke to him personally at Criccieth. He was flabbergasted. He said: ‘I feel as if a shell had fallen at my feet and numbed me. I am glad I saw him. I do not think I noted anything particular about him: he had not quite the vitality which he had. You know how vital he was.’ 

I said: ‘You know that already your name is being mentioned as his successor.’ 'Ah,’ he said, ‘that would involve a great physical strain.’

I am completely tired of L.G.’s mucking about. The man is doing nothing for his country, and he is just living amongst the clouds, quarrelling with everybody. He has just quarrelled with Willie the gardener at Brynawelon. Willie just went into the kitchen and wrote out his resignation, and sent it upstairs to Dame Margaret. When she asked him to reconsider his decision, he refused. It all arose out of the heating-pipes not been sufficiently warm, according to L.G. Dyer told me that he cursed Willie in Welsh. Workmen were working downstairs in the air-raid shelter and heard it. They were chapel people and had no idea that L.G. could swear and were very shocked. That has gone the round of Criccieth. L.G.’s stock has gone down since he has been living here . .  .’

Friday, November 22, 2019

Gide’s self-scrutiny

Today marks the 150th anniversary of André Gide’s birth. A Nobel Prize winner, and one of France’s great writers, Gide was also an avid diarist. His diaries are promoted as containing notes about his own compositions, ‘aesthetic appreciations, philosophic reflections, sustained literary criticism’, details of his personal life, and comments on the events of the day, from the Dreyfus case (see History unmasks all secrets) to the German occupation. Gide’s translator, Justin O’Brien, says he had a habit of ‘spiritual self-scrutiny’, and Gide himself wrote about how his friend Paul Valéry thought him entangled in ‘pietism and sentimentality’.

Gide was born in Paris on 22 November 1869, but was brought up in Normandy, where he was tutored at home, and where he was often ill. His father was a Paris University professor of law who died when André was only 11, and his uncle was a political economist. During 1893-94, he travelled in north Africa, meeting Oscar Wilde in Algiers, and began trying to accept his own homosexuality. He also had a fall and was gravely ill.

In 1895, after his mother’s death, Gide married his cousin Madeleine Rondeaux but the marriage was never consummated. Although homosexual, Gide did have a daughter, Catherine, in 1923, with Maria Van Rysselberghe. In 1896, he became mayor of a commune in Normandy, and later he was also a juror in Rouen.

Gide’s Fruits of the Earth appeared in 1897 and was to become one of his most popular works, influencing later writers, such as Camus and Sartre. In it, he preached a doctrine of active hedonism. In later novels, though, he was more careful to examine the problems of individual freedom and responsibility from different points of view. In 1909, Gide helped found the influential literary magazine The New French Review, which published many of his essays.

From the mid-1920s, Gide began to work for social reforms, demanding more humane conditions for criminals for example. Between 1925 and 1927, he travelled with his friend Marc Allegret, to the Congo; and, from 1942 until the end of the Second World War, he lived in North Africa. His fame grew in the 1940s, and in 1947 he was awarded the Nobel Prize. See Encyclopaedia Britannica or Wikipedia for further biographical information.

Gide wrote a diary most of his life, and the famous French publisher Gallimard was already publishing collections of the journals in French by the late 1930s. A four volume set translated into English and annotated by Justin O’Brien was published in the late 1940s and early 1950s by Secker & Warburg, London, and Alfred Knopf, New York. Some 50 years later, the University of Illinois Press  republished these editions in paperback (translated from the French and with an introduction and notes by Justin O'Brien) - all of which are available to preview at Googlebooks: Journals: 1889-1913; Journals: 1914-1927; Journals: 1928-1939; Journals: 1939-1949.

Here is the publisher’s promotional blurb: ‘Beginning with a single entry for the year 1889, when he was twenty, and continuing intermittently but indefatigably through his life, the Journals of André Gide constitute an enlightening, moving, and endlessly fascinating chronicle of creative energy and conviction. Astutely and thoroughly annotated by Justin O’Brien in consultation with Gide himself, this translation is the definitive edition of Gide’s complete journals. The complete journals, representing sixty years of a varied life, testify to a disciplined intelligence in a constantly maturing thought. These pages contain aesthetic appreciations, philosophic reflections, sustained literary criticism, notes for the composition of his works, details of his personal life and spiritual conflicts, accounts of his extensive travels, and comments on the political and social events of the day, from the Dreyfus case to the German occupation. Gide records his progress as a writer and a reader as well as his contacts and conversations with the bright lights of contemporary Europe, from Paul Valéry, . . . Auguste Rodin to Marcel Proust . . . Devoid of affectation, alternately overtaken by depression and animated by a sense of urgency and hunger for literature and beauty, Gide read voraciously, corresponded voluminously, and thought profoundly, always questioning and doubting in search of the unadulterated truth. ‘The only drama that really interests me and that I should always be willing to depict anew,’ he wrote, ‘is the debate of the individual with whatever keeps him from being authentic, with whatever is opposed to his integrity, to his integration. Most often the obstacle is within him. And all the rest is merely accidental.’ ’

Otherwise, there is surprisingly little information about Gide’s diaries freely available online, at least that I can find. There’s one interesting article by the esteemed Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk published by Social Research in 2004 (summary available here); and another, by O’Brien on Gide’s Fictional Technique (summary available here), which suggests a link between Gide’s diary writing and his fiction. Here is the relevant paragraph:

‘The use of direct narration and especially of the diary form has obvious advantages and disadvantages. Its appearance in so many of André Gide’s works - even in [Les Faux-Monnayeurs (The Counterfeiters)] he will have a novelist character commenting on events in his own diary - suggests that the journal is Gide’s form par excellence and that his imaginative works might almost be considered to be extracted from his own Journals. It would be more just to say that the habit of spiritual self-scrutiny contracted during his pious childhood and reinforced by the fairly regular keeping of his own diary has caused him to make his characters indulge in the same practice.’

And, finally, here are several extracts from Gide’s diary.

3 January 1892
‘Shall I always torment myself thus and will my mind never, O Lord, come to rest in any certainty? Like an invalid turning over in his bed in search of sleep, I am restless from morning till night, and at night my anxiety awakens me.

I am anxious to know what I shall be; I do not even know what I want to be, but I do know that I must choose. I should like to progress on safe and sure roads that lead only to the point where I have decided to go. But I don’t know; I don’t know what I ought to want. I am aware of a thousand possibilities in me, but I cannot resign myself to want to be only one of them. And every moment, at every word I write, at each gesture I make, I am terrified at the thought that this is one more ineradicable feature of my physiognomy becoming fixed: a hesitant, impersonal physiognomy, an amorphous physiognomy, since I have not been capable of choosing and tracing its contours confidently.

O Lord, permit me to want only one thing and to want it constantly.

A man’s life is his image. At the hour of death we shall be reflected in the past, and, leaning over the mirror of our acts, our souls will recognize what we are. Our whole life is spent in sketching an ineradicable portrait of ourselves. The terrible thing is that we don’t know this; we do not think of beautifying ourselves. We think of it in speaking of ourselves; we flatter ourselves; but later our terrible portrait will not flatter us. We recount our lives and lie to ourselves, but our life will not lie; it will recount our soul, which will stand before God in its usual posture.

This can therefore be said, which strikes me as a kind of reverse sincerity (on the part of the artist): Rather than recounting his life as he has lived it, he must live his life as he will recount it. In other words, the portrait of him formed by his life must identify itself with the ideal portrait he desires. And, in still simpler terms, he must be as he wishes to be.’

30 July 1928
‘At times it seems to me, alas! that I have passed the best time for writing. I feel painfully in arrears with myself. And if you wish me to say: in arrears with God, I don’t mind doing so, all the same. This simply means that I sometimes fear having waited too long, that I fear not only lacking time, but also fervor and that unsubdued exigence of thought that urges it to manifest itself. You resign yourself to silence, and nothing is more to be feared from old age than a sort of taciturn resignation. Even of those we most admire and know best, who can claim that we know the best and that they were permitted to say what mattered most to them? Just when one would like to speak, voice fails one and, when it returns, one expresses but memories of thoughts. Montaigne’s strength comes from the fact that he always writes on the spur of the moment, and that his great lack of confidence in his memory, which he believes to be bad, dissuades him from putting off anything that comes to mind with a view to a more skillful and better- ordered presentation. I have always counted too much on the future and had recourse to too much rhetoric.’

27 September 1929
‘Reread, before giving them to be typed, some notebooks of my prewar journal. What interests me most in them today is finding, over so long a period of time and so late, moral constraint and effort. How long I had to struggle! What dull steppes I have crossed!

I have rather well (and very happily) noted down certain conversations with Claudel. I send a copy of them to Groethuysen, with whom, just yesterday, I spoke at great length about Claudel. The latter is going to found and edit a review, it appears: a Thoinist and orthodox review, which will print only the purest representatives of Catholic literature of today. There will remain, for the N.R.F., only the free-thinking elements. After which people will be surprised that it seems tendentious! . . .

I felt extraordinarily well yesterday, cheerful, and fit for work. Had forgotten my age. This is just what I had gone to the baths for.
But I let myself slip into smoking too much.

The ugliness, the vulgarity of the people in the metro covers me with gloom. Oh, to go back among the Negroes! . . .

Hardly did a thing all day worth mentioning. Sat dazed before the pile of copies of Un Esprit non prévenu, which I received four days ago already and which I ought to send out. Courage fails me in the face of the dedications to write.’

28 October 1929
‘In bed since Friday evening. A sort of colonial diarrhea; that is, bleeding. Starvation diet. A few griping pains, but bearable after all. Impression of a crossing (with possible shipwreck), having broken off all connections with the outer world, or at least with society. An excellent excuse for refusing invitations and failing to receive any but a few intimate friends. No worry about going out even to get my meals. A very long and unbroken succession of hours, of undifferentiated hours. I hardly dare confess how delighted I am, for fear of seeming affected. The conventional is the only thing that never looks like ‘pose’. I shall finally be able to finish Der Zauberberg! [The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann].

But before getting back to it; for I am still a bit too weak for that effort (in two days I have lost almost a quart of blood and eaten nothing since Friday morning), I am reading Maxime by Duvernois - much less good than Edgar and a few others - then launch into Le Soulier de Satin [The Satin Slipper by Paul Claudel].

Yesterday a visit from [Paul] Valéry. He repeats to me the fact that, for many years now, he has written only on order and urged on by a need for money.

‘That is to say that, for some time, you have written nothing for your own pleasure?’

‘For my own pleasure?’ he continues. ‘But my pleasure consists precisely in writing nothing. I should have done something other than writing, for my own pleasure. No, no; I have never written anything, and I never write anything, save under compulsion, forced to, and cursing against it.’

He tells me with admiration (or at least with an astonishment full of consideration) about Dr de Martel, who has just saved his wife; about the tremendous amount of work that he succeeds in getting through every day and about the sort of pleasure, of intoxication even, that he can get from a successful operation and even from the mere fact of operating.

‘It is also the intoxication of abnegation,’ I say. At this word abnegation Valéry pricks up his ears, leaps very amusingly from his chair to my bedside, runs to the hall doorm, and, leaning out, shouts:

‘Bring some ice! Boy, bring some ice! The patient is raving . . . He is ‘abnegating’!’

At many a point in the conversation I am aware that he thinks me quite entangled in pietism and sentimentality.’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 22 November 2009.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Happy birthday Suez Canal

‘The scene before us was full of life and animation. Down at our feet a very Babel was at work - men loading the animals from the deep pits in which they were toiling, to a wild accompaniment of sounds, in which the moaning roars of the camel and the braying of donkeys rose above the cries of the workmen.’ This is William Howard Russell, a well-known journalist of the day, describing the Suez Canal under construction. He was travelling with the Prince and Princess of Wales on their tour to the Middle East to see the Canal, and kept a diary of the journey. The Canal would open officially a few months after their visit, on 17 November 1869, 150 years ago today.

The Suez Canal, which extends 100 miles (163 km) from Port Said to the Gulf of Suez, connects the Red Sea with the eastern Mediterranean Sea, thus allowing vessels to sail directly between the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean. It was built by the French-owned Suez Canal Co, and completed in 1869 after a decade of construction. Its completion was a cause for considerable celebration: in Port Said there was a firework extravaganza and a ball attended by 6,000 people, including many heads of state. Two convoys of ships started from its southern and northern points and met at Ismailia, half way along the canal, and the partying is said to have continued for weeks.

Because of external debts, the British government purchased the shares owned by Egyptian interests in 1875, although France retained a majority interest. Under the terms of an international convention signed in 1888, the canal was opened to vessels of all nations without discrimination, in peace and war. But Britain, which considered the Canal vital to the maintenance of its maritime power and colonial interests, won the right (through the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936) to maintain a defensive force along the canal zone.

This situation lasted until 1954, when demands by Egyptian nationalists led to a new agreement under which British troops would be withdrawn over a seven year period. Only two of those years passed before Egypt nationalised the Canal, and set up the Suez Canal Authority to run it. The seizure by Egypt led to Britain, France and Israel occupying the canal zone, and preparing a plan to invade the rest of the country. The Suez Crisis, as it is now known, was eventually resolved through the United Nations, which mandated its first peace-keeping force to ensure access to the canal. It was closed again in 1967, as a result of the Six-Day War, and remained inoperative until 1975.

The Suez Canal Authority today says the canal is one of the most heavily used shipping lanes, and one of the most important waterways in the world; and tolls paid by vessels ‘represent an important source of income for the Egyptian government’. The Authority’s website provides a lot of useful information about the canal today, as well as a good outline of its history.

For a first hand report of the Canal’s opening, it is worth visiting The Engineer’s website, and its archive copy of the magazine dating from 1869 wherein is a long dispatch by ‘a special correspondent’. There is, however, an interesting diary from that year, kept by a journalist, William Howard Russell, who travelled with the Prince and Princess of Wales (the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) on a tour to the Middle East specifically to inspect the Suez Canal.

Russell, born in 1820, was an Irish reporter with The Times. His dispatches by the newly-invented telegraph from the Crimea are considered to be among the first ‘live’ war reports, and are even thought by some to have prompted the resignation of the British government (by revealing the lacklustre nature of the British forces). In the 1869 General Election, Russell ran unsuccessfully as a Conservative candidate for the borough of Chelsea. He did not retire, though, as a war correspondent until 1882, when he founded the Army and Navy Gazette. He was knighted in 1895, and died in 1907.

A short description of the royal tour is contained in The life of Sir William Howard Russell by John Black Atkins, published in 1911, and available at Internet Archive. Here is the relevant passage: ‘At the beginning of 1869 [Russell] had the honour of being invited to join the Prince and Princess of Wales in their tour in Egypt and the Near East. The Duke of Sutherland, Russell and others joined the Ariadne which was specially fitted out as a Royal yacht, at Trieste. Russell did not take part in the whole of the Prince’s journey up the Nile, but rejoined the Royal party about the middle of March at Cairo. Re-starting after a week in Cairo, the Prince and his friends were shown the Suez Canal by Lesseps. At that time the works were incomplete, but the Prince opened the sluices which filled the basin of the Bitter Lakes. From Alexandria the journey was continued in the Ariadne to Constantinople, and so on to Sebastopol. Only some 6,000 persons were living in the town which before the Crimean War had contained over 60,000. It may be imagined how Russell drew upon his memories to retell for the Prince and Princess the stories of the Alma, Balaclava, and Inkerman, and to reconstruct the terror and the pity of the plateau. From the Black Sea the Ariadne steamed to Brindisi by way of Athens and Corfu.

And here are some passages from Russell’s diary of that journey, taken from A Diary in the East, During the Tour of the Prince and Princess of Wales, published by Routledge in that same year, 1869. Originals of the book can be found on Abebooks, costing upwards of £50, but it is also freely available to view and download at Internet Archive (in two volumes).

25 March 1869
‘The Royal party started at 9am, and ran down by rail to the pier, where the works of the Canal Company are being carried forward - a large dock, 420 feet long, being already completed. They went on board an English tug, and steamed round the Mole and as far up the Canal as they could. M de Lesseps, M Borel, and M La Pousse, who were of the party, explained the object of the principal works. The party returned in the tug at 10.30 to the Hotel to breakfast. At 11.30 they left and entered the special train for Ismailia; guards of honour turned out, military bands playing, salutes fired, and all Egyptian and European officials attending their Royal Highnesses to the carriages at the station.

The train arrived at Chalouf in about half-an-hour, where all alighted, and crossing the Sweetwater Canal on a ferry-platform, proceeded along the banks of the Maritime Canal for about two miles, the Princess and Mrs Grey in a pony-carriage with M de Lesseps, the rest on horses.

There is a deep cutting here, in which camels, asses, mules, and men are busily engaged removing the sand and debris. The Timsah lake and the other finished sections do not strike one so forcibly as the aspect of the uncompleted labours of the workmen. The parts of the Canal already fit for traffic have not very much to attract one in the way of sight-seeing. Labour shuns the work it has done; but here we can inspect the nature of the task which was set for those who grappled with the undertaking at the beginning.

The inspection lasted an hour; then the party continued the journey in the train, and at 1pm got out by the banks of the old Sweetwater Canal, where two small steam launches were waiting. They went on to Serapeum, where they were met on landing by Mme Charles de Lesseps, Mme and Mdlle Guichard, Mme Borel, Mdlle Voisin, M Lavalley, and others. They walked through the little town which is springing up here, to the Maritime Canal, where they embarked in steam launches, and started for the Great Dam, through the sluices of which the Mediterranean is being let into the Bitter Lakes.

The scene before us was full of life and animation. Down at our feet a very Babel was at work - men loading the animals from the deep pits in which they were toiling, to a wild accompaniment of sounds, in which the moaning roars of the camel and the braying of donkeys rose above the cries of the workmen. The asses, poor little brutes, go in strings up and down the cutting at a quick step. The camel, on the contrary, paces up and down the declivities with immense gravity and aplomb. The ass stands whilst the Arabs are filling the sacks on his back. The camel kneels. The engineers calculate that a camel will carry one-fifth of a cubic metre of sand, and that he is only able to do the work of two asses, pompous and pretentious as he is.

Having inspected the Dam and the vast space to be inundated, some of the sluices were raised, to let in the water, which rushed rapidly into the bed of the Bitter Lakes; and the party having enjoyed the sight embarked, proceeded by the Canal to Lake Timsah (which they entered at 5.15pm), and reached Ismailia by 6 o’clock. At the landing-place there was a triumphal arch erected, and a crowd of all the colonists and troops lining the road. The Prince and Princess got into basket-carriages with large flat wheels and four horses - the rest of the party on horseback - and were escorted through the principal thoroughfares by a respectful cavalcade.

If the Suez Canal never produced any greater result, such an extraordinary city would be a remarkable development. Every one who takes the smallest interest in what is going on outside the limits of these islands, knows something about the general plan of the Suez Canal, but without a personal visit it is impossible to conceive how wonderful this little city really is. On the borders of the newly-created Lake, there lie stretched out magazines, storehouses, cafes, restaurants, boulevards, church, cemetery, set in a border of bright verdure fresh and blooming. The limits are sand and rock, the veritable Desert itself. Wood can be worked by Egyptian carpenters and French designers into pretty and fanciful outsides, and the necessity of procuring as much air as possible, and of keeping out sunshine and dust, conspire to the production of such fantastic contrivances in architecture, that, on the whole, the chalets are like nothing that I have ever seen. And then the gardens, where there are growing in their newly-found homes the banana, the orange, the cactus, and tropical plants in great abundance, form a charming ornament, and contribute to the light and graceful aspect of the town. Indeed, the houses on the Esplanade, facing the Sweetwater Canal, and looking out upon Lake Timsah and the water front, put one in mind of an exquisite bit of scenery on the stage, or one of those elaborate toys, in detached pieces, got up by cunning workmen for the amusement of the children of the great. The city has all the Desert around it to expatiate upon, and no one can say to what extent it may reach. On the map, its well-defined lines, with broad squares and streets, stretching out into mathematical points, which have no parts, look almost too grandiose. All of this - the town, the people who inhabit it, the trees, the grass - depend on one work - the Sweetwater Canal. Dry up that, and they wither and die. . .’

26 March 1869
‘. . . The Suez Canal is not made. There is a considerable amount of work still to be done. But the conception of M de Lesseps is raised out of the limbo of possibilities. The project for the junction of two seas is already in a condition to admit of a probability that the remaining part, being the easier portion, will be completed by the 11th of October.* The commercial success can only be determined by the experience of a term of years after the canal has been opened. No opinion can be safely offered on the point. If the route be conducive to the interests of commerce, no national jealousies or private interests can prevent its stream flowing through the canal at a great profit to the shareholders. The freight which the Company proposes to charge is at the rate of 10f a ton transit duty on all actual cargo, excluding provisions for the crew, dead weight, stores, &c; and the sum saved on a voyage to the East Indies would be equivalent to the total insurance on the ship, without counting the time saved, cost of the crew in food and wages, and wear and tear of material. It may be said, and with some truth, that it is too early for any speculation until the canal is open; but it is not too early to remark how complete has been the failure of sinister prophecies. . .’  * The footnote reads: ‘The opening, as the world knows, is now fixed for 17th November.’

Happy birthday Suez Canal!

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 17 November 2009.