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.’
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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.