Sunday, March 17, 2019

Life on an ocean steamer

‘This is a very fine steamer, and the ocean is so quick - at times today, as smooth a sea as I ever saw any where - that we dont seem to realize at all that we are on a rolling billowy sea - We have pretty good times, too, and dont think much about the way time goes. There is nothing quite like life on an ocean steamer.’ This is from a short lively journal kept by Cornelia Maria Clapp, born 170 years ago today, when travelling by steamboat across the Atlantic. She was one of North America’s first women marine biologists, and is remembered for being an inspirational teacher.

Clapp was born on 17 March 1849 in Montague, Massachusetts, the oldest child of two teachers. She attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (the forerunner of today’s Mount Holyoke College) in 1871 before becoming a Latin teacher at a boarding school in Andalusia, Pennsylvania. On returning to teach at Mount Holyoke from 1872, she became increasingly focused on zoology and is credited with developing a laboratory method of instruction that was highly effective.

Clapp went on numerous field trips; and she furthered her own education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Syracuse (New York) University, where she received a Ph.D. degree in 1889 (her dissertation on toadfish was published in the Journal of Morphology), and at the University of Chicago, where she took a second doctorate in 1896. That same year, she helped Mount Holyoke (by this time a college) start a department of zoology, and in 1904 she was promoted to professor of zoology - a position she held until retiring in 1916.

Clapp was also involved, from 1888, in the work of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, particularly in the field of embryology. She was the first woman to be given a research post at the institution, and she went on to serve as librarian between 1893 and 1907 and as the first woman trustee from 1897 until 1901 and again in 1910 until her death in 1934. Although she published little during her career, she is considered to have exerted a major influence in helping women to extend scientific knowledge and opportunity through education. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Women’s Museum of California,

Donna Albino, a student of Mount Holyoke College in the 1980s, has collected a large amount of textual and pictorial information about her alma mater. Some of this has been published in a book of historic postcards, and some can be found online. Among the handwritten books she lists on her web pages is a short travel journal kept by Cornelia Clapp in 1886. It consists of just 11 entries during a voyage by steamboat from New York City to Antwerp, Belgium, accompanied by other Mount Holyoke professors and students. Albino has transcribed the text of the journal; here are two of the entries.

30 June 1886
‘The biggest thing to record to-day is the visit to the lower regions of our floating world. Stone challenged me to go down to the fires and I went. Down, down down until we came to a horrid torrid climate, where 24 fires are constantly kept going, and there is an apparatus that records each pulse beat of the engine. It now stands 369524 and it will stand when we reach Antwerp 900000 -

The machinery is beautiful & we saw & went nearly the whole length of the shaft that runs the screw way down in the lower regions - This is a very fine steamer, and the ocean is so quick - at times today, as smooth a sea as I ever saw any where - that we dont seem to realize at all that we are on a rolling billowy sea - We have pretty good times, too, and dont think much about the way time goes. There is nothing quite like life on an ocean steamer.

Alice Bartholomew sketches, and we have become acquainted with an artist on his way over to study art, who is trying his hand on sketching some members of the party. There is a regular crew of teachers on board - Vassar & Smith are well represented besides Holyoke, of course ladies predominate - We have been reading Mark Twain’s description of the German language & Kingsley’s Water Babies. [. . .]

I am at this writing perched in my (upper) berth & ready to drop off to sleep at any moment - Goodnight.’

3 July 1886
‘The sensation to-day is the visit to the Steerage - The Capt. himself accompanied us - took us into the store room at the stern, & showed us the immense wine lockers, & the place where they carry the mails & money - This steamer is capable of carrying 1500 steerage passengers, but at present there are only about 300 passengers in all on board. (- cargo in steerage going East.)

This morning is the most beautiful one yet. Not a cloud in the sky, & the air so balmy & warm that not a wrap is thought of -

We are beginning to talk of land now. Next Monday even. at 9. P.M. we are expecting to see the Lizard light. There will be a crowd on deck then I surmise.

I found Mr. Williamson knew Brayton of Indianapolis & we have been talking him up this morning. He calls him a regular Bohemian - happy-go-lucky fellow - agrees with me in his ideas of him - I have been reading in “The Ocean Wave” this morn. and the following paragraph is awfully true - “Men of the highest genius seem to be transformed as soon as they get at a distance from land in a rolling vessel. There is an inability to control the mind while at sea, a difficulty in concentrating the attention on the task of even writing in one’s diary or reading even the most trifling fiction.”

No one of the party is the least big sea sick, and we now range over this great boat from stem to stern whiling the time away -

Last evening the regular dance on deck took place - gymnastic feats - leap frog & the like - a set of young men with the banjos have taken to serenading in the passage ways -, as it is difficult to get outside the windows!

The table waiter said to day that he never saw such a passage as this before - He has had us to wait on most regularly - not more than three have lost a single meal - It is simply delightful. (I repeat it again lest I should not have put it on every sheet of paper written.)

We sight ships occasionally - a single stroke of the bell in the bow gives the signal - but none have been within speaking distance. We take an extremely southern route - thus avoiding fogs off Newfoundland, icebergs and such! and certainly we must have struck one of the dry, still times in mid ocean -

At lunch to-day Miss Stevens gave me an account of the Reception at the Sem. I had not thought to ask her about it before & she told me of her pleasure in meeting my brother & Miss Metcalf - the first intimation that I have had that these persons were present in that occasion. What prizes were taken, I heard of some by a graduate of Ag. Coll. Stone remarked the other day that he wished my brother was aboard. He seems supremely happy - Miss Bartholomew has a fine sketch of him. A Wellesley teacher has turned up now on board - such a boat of school marms! -

We have just now come upon a steamer going the same way - It is about five or six miles away, I suppose but it seems quite like having company along - No. Ger. Lloyd. One week ago this hour we set sail - left the lovely New York harbor - on that charming afternoon.

The distance in the last 24 hours has been 335 miles. We have been guessing on it & Bryan & Carter hit it right -

Miss Hooker & I are talking of fees - We shall soon have to begin to live again - spend money that means - We take quite a rent [?] on ship board - Now I must start & read German with Miss Pettee - Clara Stevens talks of going to the German cities -’

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Lofty idealism, artistic perfection

‘Midnight; I had dinner with young people; an hour in the cafe: lost time, nonsense, boredom. Is this nothing but an evening of life? I did not do more than mentally calculate the hours.’ This is a very rough (Google) translation of one extract from the diary of Sully Prudhomme, the French writer born 180 years ago. He is barely remember in the English-speaking world, yet was awarded the very first Nobel Prize for literature - for the ‘lofty idealism, artistic perfection’ of his poetry.

René François Armand (Sully) Prudhomme was born in Paris on 16 March 1839 to a shopkeeper and his wife. He attended the Lycée Bonaparte (now Lycée Condorcet) one of the oldest and most prestigious high schools in the city. He was intent on becoming an engineer but eye trouble interrupted his studies. He worked for a while in the Creusot region for the Schneider steel foundry, but then took employment in a solicitor’s office.


In 1865, Prudhomme published a first volume of poems, Stances et Poèmes (Stanzas and Poems) which was well received in literary circles, and which contains his most famous poem, Le vase brisé (The Broken Vase). Further works followed, such as La Justice (1878) and Le Bonheur (1888), all considered to be in line with Parnassism though combined with his philosophic and scientific interests. He was elected to the French Academy in 1881.

During the late 1880s, Prudhomme turned away from poetry to write essays on aesthetics and philosophy, such as L’Expression dans les beaux-arts (1884) and Réflexions sur l’art des vers (1892), and La Psychologie du Libre-Arbitre (1906). In 1901, he was awarded the very first Nobel Prize for Literature, ‘in special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect.’ Subsequently, he funded the launch of a poetry prize administered by the Société des gens de lettres. He also cofounded, in 1902, the Société des poètes français. He suffered poor health for many years, and died in 1908. Further information in English is rather thin online, but some is available at Wikipedia, the Nobel Prize website, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Some years after his death, in 1922, Alphonse Lemerre published Prudhomme’s Journal intime - lettres - pensées as edited by Camille Hémon. The book, 
freely available at Internet Archive), contains extracts from Prudhomme’s diary for the years 1862-1864 and 1868-1869. Very little of Prudhomme’s work has been translated into English, as far as I can tell, and certainly none of his diaries or letters. However, I have used Google Translate to render (rather mechanically) one extract into English, so as, at least, to give a flavour of his diary writing.

17 June 1868
‘I have recently been asked why I do not write novels or plays. I did not dare to say it. The study of philosophy has reduced to me all human affairs. The variable is indifferent to me; to create a scene, to make live this or that individual, to make him take his cane, to dress him, to make him sit, I find that pitiful, miserable. I’d rather take the essence of a passion, a pain, regardless of any adventure, and look for the rhythm, the rhythm that is its eternal and necessary accompaniment. The contingent is odious to me. It has become impossible for me to read a novel, and I do not go to the theatre because we now substitute the plot for the character. The facts do not interest me, they are only the flowering of the only essential causes.

Go tell that to a gentleman you see for the first time!

I realise with regret that I have lost the sense of comedy. I laugh much harder than before, and I am quite surprised to see my friends laughing at certain things. I took care, two or three years ago, of the essence of laughter, of the causes that provoke it, I will resume this study.

It seems to me, by rule of thumb, that there are no laughable abstractions and that a form is always engaged in the reason for laughter. Perhaps the form alone is ridiculous, perhaps it is by a disconnection with the idea. It is to be examined.

Midnight; I had dinner with young people; an hour in the cafe: lost time, nonsense, boredom. Is this nothing but an evening of life? I did not do more than mentally calculate the hours.’

Thursday, March 14, 2019

As big as the West

‘Married once again and - I swear - for the final time.’ This comes from the diary of Edward Abbey, a controversial American writer - ‘as big as the West itself’ - who died 30 years ago today. It was his fourth marriage he was writing about then, but there would be a fifth before he died in his early sixties. Extracts from his diary, like the one above, were edited and published posthumously as Confessions of a Barbarian, and much of the book can be read freely online.

Abbey’s Web, which is edited by Christer Lindh in Sweden, has a good deal of information about Abbey. He was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, in 1927, and grew up in nearby Home. After a brief military career (1945-1947) in Italy, he attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Subsequently, he studied at the University of New Mexico, with a year at Edinburgh University in Scotland. His master’s thesis at New Mexico was called Anarchism and the Morality of Violence. For 15 years and well into his 40s, he worked as a part-time ranger and fire lookout at several different national parks, providing a collection of experiences that underpinned much of his writing.

Here is an assessment of the man from the blurb of a 1993 documentary video Edward Abbey: A Voice in the Wilderness. ‘Through his novels, essays, letters and speeches, Edward Abbey consistently voiced the belief that the West was in danger of being developed to death, and that the only solution lay in the preservation of wilderness. Abbey authored twenty-one books in his lifetime, including Desert Solitaire, . . . The Brave Cowboy, and The Fool’s Progress. His comic novel The Monkey Wrench Gang helped inspire a whole generation of environmental activism. A writer in the mold of Twain and Thoreau, Abbey was a larger-than-life figure as big as the West itself.’

Larger-than-life indeed. According to Wikipedia, Abbey’s abrasiveness, opposition to anthropocentrism, and outspoken writings made him the object of much controversy. He was sometimes called the ‘desert anarchist’ for his ability to anger people of all political stripes, including environmentalists. His private life was no less full of discord. He married five times, fathering five children from three different wives, and died on 14 March 1989.

Abbey kept a diary - intermittently - from the age of 19 to a few days before his death, filling 20 volumes. They were edited by his friend David Petersen (who is also the literary editor of the Abbey estate), and published in 1994 by Little Brown as Confessions of a Barbarian - Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey 1951-1989. Most of the book is viewable at Googlebooks.

Here is the start of Petersen’s introduction: ‘Abbey began keeping a personal journal in 1946, viewing it as an important resource in his hoped-for-career as ‘a writer of creative fictions.’ He was nineteen at the time, serving as an army motorcycle cop in postwar Italy. Abbey continued the practice of writing to himself until just days before his death on March 14, 1989. The product of those four-plus decades of ‘scribbling’ (his term) was twenty cursive volumes kept in eight-by-ten and five-by-seven notebooks. Would have been twenty volumes, that is, had not the three earliest journals, documenting the years 1946 through most of 1951, been destroyed by flooding while in storage in the basement of the Abbey family home in rural Pennsylvania.’

And here are several extracts from Abbey’s journal.


3 June 1952
‘Cornwall. The way these short-skirted English women display their knobby knees and hairy shanks, you would think they thought they had something to show. You would think they thought. How’d I happen to notice? Well ... just habit.

Where am I? I’m on the north Cornish coast by the seashore near a little town called Bude, looking west, at the moment, toward America - the Promised Land.

The sea is beautiful. It’s a revelation: I’d almost forgotten how powerful and mysterious and beautiful the shore, the beach, the sun, sea and charging surf can be. Genuine surf here - big breakers three feet high and a sandy beach walled in by gray-green cliffs. Gulls and crows. Dark brown kelp sprawled wet and limp on the rocks, algae the color of pea-soup, pale blue English sky, mild English sun, wistful little English clouds floating around listlessly on the horizon. A pleasant charming setting, England at its best.

I’m all alone on the beach now. The English have all trotted off for three o’clock tea. An amazing people. If I didn’t admire them so much I could despise them far more satisfactorily.’

7 June 1952
‘Bude. The novel is shambling along - I’m in a big scene now, the murder of Jonathan’s father, but there are so many distractions and interruptions here that I can’t really get rolling - every time I think it’s about to rain, the sun comes out instead and I surrender to the overwhelming compulsion to go swimming in the surf-then when I get in at night I’m too tired to write. Damn thing is 625 pages long now and I’m not halfway finished. What a monstrous heap of rubbish! - or genius and artistry! - or both.

About three more days and I’ll be leaving Cornwall, and Britain and Europe. Will I ever come back? Who knows? I want to, of course-yet not as much as I want to explore Asia, and Australia and the Americas. But I’ll probably be back - not alone, I half-hope.

Thinking of girls, and sex and these brief parting little flying affairs of mine - I suddenly realize that I am tired and sick of simple animal love. I begin to long for something better, and more complicated, and more enduring. Every other thought or so - half-dream, vague emotion - is of her, the girl I love, the demon-possessed Jew-girl back there in the Promised Land, waiting for me.

Yet with the longing for the comradeship of a real live heart - and-brain - shared love comes the old feeling of restriction, constriction, a dragging weight. I still wonder if I am man enough for love, good enough for marriage, worthy of her. When I wonder I doubt, and doubt makes wonder. I’m still filled and bulging with adolescent urges and lurches, afraid of responsibility, afraid of hard work. But what would it be like - with her? Not this pedestrian and mediocre association, surely, but rather something grand and growing, full of beauty and creating for both of us not less but ever more freedom. Surely. . .’

8 June 1952
‘Bude. Do I occasionally long for death? Not very deeply - I’m much too interested in the investigation of the human situation, in trying to discover the root-cause of my own and others’ misery. After all. I'll die anyway, probably - no need for impatience. The final gift of life, at least, never fails us.

Again I am grateful that I have abandoned - no, it would be more accurate to say “never acquired” - Christianity, with its appalling and horrible promise of immortality which makes Heaven and Hell indistinguishable, and life a vale of dread. It’s not immortality I crave, no; never - what I want is understanding. Gladly, joyfully would I sacrifice all eternity for one bright flash of terrible and godly omniscience.

This traditional Western bawling after immortality - what is the meaning of it? Why the insane desire to perpetuate through and beyond all time the identity of the person and the personal consciousness? The Orientals know better - they have the spirit merge with the world, not buzz over it forever like a bored and boring fly.

I can hear the sea: the roaring surf, the waves, the wind.’

28 May 1959
‘ATTENTION: Aaron Paul Abbey is born today. My second son. May he, like my first, be blessed by Heaven and Earth, grow straight and strong in the joyous sunlight.

If the world of men is truly as ugly, cruel, trivial, unjust and stinking with fraud as it usually appears, and if it is really impossible to make it pleasant and decent, then there remains only one alternative for the honest man: stay home, cultivate your own garden, look to the mountains. (Withdraw! Withdraw! Withdraw!)’

10 February 1974
‘Married once again and - I swear - for the final time [This was his fourth marriage.]. If this one fails, for any reason, I shall resign myself forever to the call of solitude, wander the world with my Suzi [his daughter by his third marriage] and maybe a small friendly homely dog.

But it won’t. Renee is the right one, at last, after twenty seven years (!) of searching. Very young - eighteen now, sixteen when I met and fell in love with her - she is not only beautiful and sweet and gentle and full of love for me, but also - so to speak - unspoiled, free of all those neurotic tics and nervous fears that older women invariably reveal after the honeymoon begins to fade. Spoiled, mostly, by men of course, by mistreatment or what they imagine is mistreatment. Anyway I’ve found the one I want. And by Gawd, I’m going to keep her.’

29 May 1979
‘Visitors come and visitors go. Some sonofabitch shit on the floor of our shithouse. Swine. So I’ll have to lock that one up too.

Renee was here for a couple of days. Tells me we’re through; she’s bored with our marriage (‘lacks intensity’) and fed up with me - says I’m away too much, that I don’t talk to her when I am with her, that I’m indifferent, that I don’t love her etc. She suspects me of fooling around with other women; doesn’t trust me. Says she wants out. Wants a divorce . . .’

30 May 1979
‘So. Again. Divorce and loneliness loom ahead. Can I endure it all again? If I must, I will. One thing for sure: no more hasty or impulsive marriages for me. Me and Suzi will go it on our own for a while. . .’


This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 14 March 2009.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Why Ever Did I Want to Write

‘Why am I writing this autobiography of sorts, this collection of stories about myself, this patchwork of a life? I’m no celebrity, and I’ve done nothing of importance in or with my life (other than bring up three amazing boys), nothing that would warrant public attention, promotion or explanation. But I am a writer, and writing has been such a consistent thread running through my life and how I’ve lived it that I feel this gives me purpose in putting together a collection of autobiographical swatches, to show this interweaving of living and writing. Much of my writing has been so-called ‘life writing’, for I’ve kept a lively diary from the age of 11, but much has been other forms of writing, journalism in particular. I’ve also written novels, plays, short stories, poems, local history, psychogeography, and children’s fiction. I am not society’s idea of a ‘writer’, a published author with a portfolio of commercial or literary books behind me. No, I am my own idea of what a writer is: someone who enjoys the process of writing, the translating of thoughts and ideas into communicable language; someone for whom writing infuses their daily life; and someone whose mind and soul is affected - infected even - by how and what they write, and by the need to use words to explain, to expose, to imagine, and to play.’

These are the opening paragraphs in a new memoir, focusing on my own life from birth to my mid-30s. Just published by Pikle Publishing, I’ve called it Why Ever Did I Want to Write. Back in the 19th century, biography and autobiography was dominated by the so-called ‘Life and Letters’ approach, whereby a chronological narrative of a person’s life was patched together with a dense collection of extracts from diaries and letters. This methodology was severely criticised in the first half of the 20th century by the like of Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. Strachey wrote of Victorian biography: ‘These two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to celebrate the dead ... are as familiar as the cortège of the undertaker and wear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism.’ And Woolf wrote of it as an ‘amorphous mass’ in which ‘we go seeking disconsolately for voice or laughter, for curse or anger, for any trace that this fossil was once a living man.’ (See my essay in A Companion to Literary Biography edited by Richard Bradford at Googlebooks; also the introduction to the essay can be found here in The Diary Review.)

Why Ever Did I Want to Write can, however, be seen as a modern form of the ‘Life and Letters’ approach, in which extracts from my diaries (and to a lesser extent letters) do provide a crucial source of information (not available in any other form - especially not from my deficient memory). However, this modern form of the genre differs markedly - at least in my book - from the old in at least three ways. Firstly, rather than following a dry chronological order, the memoir is divided up into themes, some focused on people/relationships (my grandfather, mother of my first child for example), some on places (Hampstead, Brazil etc.), and others on specific topics (travelling, work, photography). Secondly, the diary extracts have been chosen not so much for factual biographical purposes, but for their colour, emotion, or movement. Thirdly - as indicated by the title - the writing is infused with modern self-analytical tendencies, a determination to understand how and why my life turned out as it did.

Here is the promotional blurb.

Many of the chapters are underpinned by entries from my diaries - not great writing, but characteristic of me all the same. Unlike those who burn/shred their childhood diaries for containing embarrassing detail or youthful journals for being impoverished in a literary sense, I’m a fan of my own diaries from every stage of my life. Generally, I consider them a reliable witness, for I have mostly tried hard to be straightforward and honest with myself - what would have been the point in leaving behind unreliable accounts of who or what I was? Obviously and self-evidently I have often – chronically, indeed - argued the case for myself when it comes to friction, disputes, arguments with the world around me. We all engage in this kind of self-justification, and without it most of us would be utterly lost psychologically. I have always claimed to myself, and occasionally to others, that the act of writing down the internal dialogues about external difficulties has helped keep me balanced. After all, I need to make what I write down in black and white sound sensible, I need my self-justifications to work in written language. It’s when they don’t work very well, and I find myself writing long convoluted explanations, that I sense myself out of sync, and, if not lying to myself, then twisting evidence.

My early diaries are desperately bare of the kind of detail that would interest me today, but nevertheless they are an invaluable source of information - through their content and the manner of the writing - as to who I was.

Which brings me to the topic of memory. For most people, their memories serve as the primary source of information about their past. Not so for me. I remember almost nothing about my pre-teenage years, and very little about my teenage years. The memories I do have are fixed stories about (or pictures of) myself: when brought to mind I cannot root around for further detail. Therefore, as I’ve long told myself and friends, my diary is my memory. A good example of this is the journal I kept for three years while travelling round the world: almost all of what I think I know about myself during that time can, in fact, be found in the journal. Over the years, I’ve had occasion to re-read it several times - typing it onto the computer, editing it for a printed copy, editing it for uploading to my website and so on. This means that if any of the travelling stories in my memory get altered (exaggerated), re-reading the diary serves to reset them.

Why Ever Did I Want to Write can be purchased as a paperback or ebook online at Amazon.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

First US balloon flight

Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a pioneer of balloon flight, died 210 years ago today. His first successful flight was made in Paris in 1784, but by 1793 he had crossed the Atlantic to make the first ever balloon flight in North America, an event witnessed by President George Washington. Blanchard published a journal of the experience - inscribed to Washington - which may have the distinction of being the briefest diary ever published.

Blanchard was born in 1753 in Les Andelys, France, the son of a skilled craftsman. He showed an early interest in inventing things, such as a firing pistol rat trap, an early velocipede, and a hydraulic system that pumped water from the Seine uphill to a chateau. In 1774, he married Victoire Lebrun, and they would have four children - though, in time, he would abandon her, and she would die in poverty.

Blanchard’s fascination with birds led him to build a flying machine with four wings with pilot-operated levers and pedals, but it didn’t work. However, when a balloon, designed by the Montgolfier brothers, was successfully demonstrated in 1783, Blanchard, too, turned to balloons. He made his first successful flight the following year. He soon moved to London, where after two flights, he and John Jeffries, an American physician, successfully flew across the Channel for the first time. The achievement was praised and rewarded by King Louis XVI.

Over the next few years, Blanchard toured Europe, demonstrating balloon flights wherever he went, and notching up first flights in many countries. In 1791, he gave a balloon performance during the coronation of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia in Prague. As well as developing his balloon expertise, Blanchard also contributed to the development of the modern parachute, invented a few years earlier by fellow Frenchman Sébastien Lenormand. Although Blanchard’s early demonstrations involved dogs, he, too, was forced to use a parachute once when his balloon ruptured in flight.

Arriving in 1793, Blanchard spent several years in North America. That year, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the capital of the United States, he demonstrated balloon flight for the first time in North America - an event witnessed by President George Washington, and, in fact, by several future presidents also. Blanchard remained in Philadelphia until 1795, and then moved to Charleston, Boston and New York, mostly giving performances of tethered balloon flights with animals. Generally, his attempts to secure funding for further manned balloon attempts were ill-fated, for lack of investment or bad luck. 


Blanchard returned to France in 1797, where he was able to raise enough interest for a dozen more balloon flights. He married his second wife, Sophie Armant, in 1804 who also became a balloonist. In early 1808, Blanchard suffered a heart attack while in his balon, and fell to the ground. He died a year later, on 7 March 1809, leaving behind many debts. Sophie continued to support herself with balloon demonstrations, but she also died in a balloon accident, in 1819. Further, information on the Blanchards is available at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia.com, Normandy Then and Now, and the SciHi Blog.

Soon after the first US flight, Blanchard published an account of the event. He inscribed this to George Washington and titled it Journal of my forty-fifth ascension, being the first performed in America, on the ninth of January, 1793. The booklet runs to only 26 pages long, and, as it concerns but a single day, it might well be considered the shortest diary every published. A reprint by William Abbatt from 1918 is freely available online at Internet Archive.

Blanchard’s preface reads as follows: ‘Having so happily succeeded in the 45th attempt of my aerial flight, in the presence of the enlightened citizens of Philadelphia, I thought I could still afford them some pleasure, by offering to them an accurate description of the operations preparatory to this ascension, and by acquainting them with my various situation during this excursion, as well as with the motives which induced me to a return, and the means I made use of to accomplish it.

I will then account for the thoughts and feelings which agitated my breast at the time of my ascension: I will display them with confidence, to those candid and feeling men whose eye traced me across the vast expanse of the aerial regions.

To such as are not unacquainted with the mechanism of the aerostat, some of these details may appear trifling and superfluous; but as I felt them, I will therefore describe them: nor do I think I should be justifiable in concealing from the curious public any part of the operations which attended so extraordinary an experiment, of which they for the first time witnessed the complete success.

And here I request the indulgence of my readers for the style of my narrative - Elegance is not what I aim at in this performance: Truth is intended as its sole ornament.’


The following is part of the text of the brief journal, though I have removed various meteorological readings for ease of reading.

9 January 1793
‘At 9 o’clock the mist dissipated, the sky was wrapt in thin clouds, pervious to the rays of the sun; wind S. W. Reaumur’s thermometer [various meteorological figures]

At ½ past 9, the sun which broke in through the clouds dissipated them in such a manner that they appeared no more than cobwebs on the irradiated atmosphere - A gentle westerly breeze [figures].

The hour fixed for my departure now drew near, and I was anxious to keep my word with a numerous people, whom repeated discharges of the artillery of the city had already forewarned of the execution of my experiment; I then disposed in order all the apparatus requisite for my observations: I adapted Reaumur’s thermometer to the center of an excellent barometer, in order to rectify, with the greatest possible exactness, the degrees of expansion or condensation which the mercury in the barometer should undergo by the changes in the temperature of the air. The altitude, as corrected at that time, [figures]

At 10 o’clock, the sky was still finer and clearer; a light breeze from the W. N. W. [figures]

Already the balloon, inflated by the inflammable gas, lifted itself from the ground, and having assumed its spherical form, was equally pressed on all the points of its concave surface. Already specifically lighter than the column of air which it had displaced, it hovered majestically in the middle of that fluid in a vertical situation, striving to break loose from the fastening which held it by its base and reluctantly kept it down. Repeated experiments have made these various circumstances so many data from which to determine the moment of my departure.

At 9 minutes after 10, the sky being clear, serene and propitious, little wind and nearly calm at the surface of the earth; [figures] I affixed to the aerostat my car, laden with ballast, meteorological instruments, and some refreshments, with which the anxiety of my friends had provided me. I hastened to take leave of the President, and of Mr. Ternan, Minister Plenipotentiary of France to the United States. I then received from the President the most flattering mark of his good will in the passport which he was pleased to deliver to me with his own hand. I never felt the value of glory so much as I did in that moment, in the presence of a Hero, whom she had constantly attended at the head of armies, and with whom she still presided over the councils of his country.

The moment of my departure was announced by the last discharge of the artillery; I then ascended my car, studied the proportions of aerial gravities, and threw out as much of my ballast as appeared necessary to leave the aerostat at liberty, and to render my ascent certain. I soon found myself possessed of every requisite; I felt myself balanced at 15 inches from the ground. This was all I wished for; I requested Messieurs Nassy and Legaux, who held the aerostat, to let it loose.
My ascent was perpendicular, and so easy that I had time to enjoy the different impressions which agitated so many sensible and interesting persons, who surrounded the scene of my departure, and to salute them with my flag, which was ornamented on one side with the armoric bearings of the United States, and on the other with the three colors, so dear to the French nation. Accustomed as I have long been to the pompous scenes of numerous assemblies, yet I could not help being surprized and astonished, when, elevated at a certain height over the city, I turned my eyes towards the immense number of people which covered the open places, the roofs of the houses, the steeples, the streets and the roads over which my flight carried me in the free space of the air. What a sight! How delicious for me to enjoy it! This people naturally serious and reflecting, whose mirth is so much more true and national, as it is not apt to give away to the transports of the moment, shewed from all parts the most unequivocal marks of astonishment and satisfaction: I, for a long time, followed their rapid motions: for a long time could I hear the cries of joy which rent the air: I thought myself carried on the vows of their hearts. I had at that instant nothing but the success of my voyage to answer for my gratitude, and the waving of my colours to express the same. At present I make it my duty to express the same in this feeble essay; may it be agreeable to the inhabitants of a city whose approbation is so glorious for me.

I still continued to rise; the calm state of the atmosphere, whereinto I had now launched, offered no kind of difficulty, and I followed the ascending motion of my aerostat with a gradual uniformity, at once easy and majestic.

I was at a perpendicular height of 200 fathoms, when I felt a somewhat stronger breeze spring up, which carried me in an easterly direction towards the Delaware: here I met a numerous and thick flock of wild pigeons: they seemed to be much frightened. Alas! it was never my intention in traversing the ethereal regions to disturb the feathered inhabitants thereof: they separated into two different parties and left a passage open for me. I soon perceived them again at a great distance from me. I ascended constantly, being carried towards the south-east by a light and pleasant breeze. At 10h. 10m. I let go my anchor, to serve as a point of observation, keeping the same course, though rather a little more to the southward.

At 10h, 19-20-21m. bearing constantly towards the S. S. E. my ascent became more rapid, owing solely to the dilatation of the inflammable gas which filled the balloon. At this moment my position was perpendicular over the middle of the Delaware, which the reflecting sunbeams painted to my eyes of a transparent white; and at the height I was then at, this river appeared to me like a ribband of the breadth of about four inches.

At 10h. 35m. being now in a much more rarified fluid, and the force of the inflammable gas having increased in proportion to its dilatation, the aerostat was soon raised to the highest elevation which it is susceptible of. I had lost nothing of my ballast consisting of four bags and an half filled with sand, containing 24lb. English weight each, together 108 lb. A little black dog, which a friend had entrusted to me, seemed to feel sick at this height; he attempted several times to get out of the car; but finding no landing-place he took the prudent part to remain quietly beside me: the whining of this little animal raised nevertheless reflections in my mind, which would have affected me very much, had not the view of the country, whose vast extent was expanded before my eyes, opened my mind to softer and more agreeable contemplations.’

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Best president Nigeria never had

Today marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of Obafemi Awolowo, a Nigerian politician some describe as the best president Nigeria never had. The son of a Yoruba farmer, he pressed himself through layers of education to become a successful lawyer, and then a powerful mover for his country’s independence, one embracing a federal structure, inclusive of all tribes and regions. Though never president, he served in various positions which allowed him to introduce much progressive social legislation. He wrote several influential political books, and some autobiographical works.

Awolowo was born on 6 March 1909 in Ikenne, some 50km northwest of Lagos, then part of British controlled Southern Nigeria. His father, a farmer, died when he was 10. He went to a local Baptist school and Wesley College in Ibadan. To support himself, he worked as a teacher, a clerk, and a newspaper reporter. He was an active trade unionist. In 1927, he enrolled at the University of London as an external student, graduating with a degree in commerce. Back in Nigeria, during the 1930s, he became increasingly involved in nationalist politics, rising to become an official in the Nigerian Youth Movement. In 1937, he married Hannah Adelana, and they had five children. In 1944, he returned to London to study law, and was called to the bar in 1946. While in the UK, he founded Egbe Omo Oduduwa to promote the culture and unity of the Yoruba people. He also published an influential book Path to Nigerian Freedom, in which he made his case for an independent Nigeria in which the interests of each ethnic nationality and region were safeguarded.

Returning to Nigeria in 1947, he set up a sucessful law practice, acting as a solicitor and advocate of the Superior Court of Nigeria. In 1949, he founded the newspaper The Tribune to help disseminate his political ideas, and the following year he cofounded a political wing of Egbe Omo Oduduwa called Action Group, and became its first president. He won the first Western Region elections in 1951 and was chosen as minister for local government structure. In 1954, he was appointed the first premier of the Western Region. It was a position in which he was able to improve education, social services and agricultural practices. He resigned his post, in 1959, to run for a seat in the Federal House of Representatives, but his Action Group party was heavily defeated in the election, leaving Awolowo as leader of the opposition.

A power struggle soon developed between Awolowo and Samuel Akintola, his Action Group deputy, who had taken over as premier of the Western Region. Ultimately, this led to the federal government suspending the Western Region’s constitution, and to Awolowo being prosecuted for treason. In 1963, he was found guilty of conspiring to overthrow the government, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Three years later, as the result of a coup and the empowerment of a military government, Awolowo was released. He became a member of the National Conciliation Committee, which attempted to mediate a rift between the federal government and the Eastern Region (inhabited predominantly by the Igbo people), but when this failed, and the region seceded as the Republic of Biafra, he backed the government. During the civil war that followed, Awolowo was federal commissioner for finance and vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council. In the mid-1970s he was chancellor of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) and Ahmadu Bello University.

In 1977, Awolowo published The Problems of Africa: The need for ideological reappraisal. And, the following year, when a 12-year ban on political activity was lifted in preparation for a return to civilian rule, he emerged as the leader of the Unity Party of Nigeria. He ran for president in 1979 and 1983 but was defeated both times by Shehu Shagari. Following yet another military coup at the end of 1983, political parties were again banned, and Awolowo retired from politics. He died in 1987 (though his wife Hannah lived to 2015, just a few months short of her 100th birthday). Further information can be found at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia BritannicaNew World Encyclopedia, the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation or Zaccheus Onumba Dibiaezue Memorial Libraries.

Apart from his political books, Awolowo left behind a couple of autobiographical works: Awo - Autobiography of Chief Obafemi Awolowo; My Early Life; Adventures in Power: Book 1 - My March Through Prison; Adventures in Power: Book 2 - Travails of Democracy. None of them seem to be available online (nor available for preview at Amazon or Googlebooks). It’s possible that the first Adventures in Power book contains a prison diary by Awolowo but I’m not sure. Two biographies, however, do make mention of diaries (described variously as personal, political or prison diaries), and both these can be previewed at Googlebooks: Chief Obafemi Awolowo: The Political Moses by Adedara S. Oduguwa (Trafford Publishing, 2012); and The Political Philosophy of Chief Obafemi Awolowo by Olayiwola Abegunrin (Lexington Books, 2015).

In his preface to the first book, Oduguwa states: ‘As readers will discover, Chief Obafemi Awolowo: The Political Moses is a book that encompasses politics, law, and the search for power, as well as incarceration, denial, and betrayal by respected members of the Action Group (AG) and the political environment of Nigeria in the 1960s. It is a book that vividly investigates a 1962 treasonable felony, bringing into focus the case hearings and its implications for the young Nigerians. [. . .] This book reminds us of how a man who dedicated the entirely of his life (as stated in his diary) to serve his fatherland was denied his ambition, and now, twenty-five years after his death remains the most celebrated Nigerian that ever lived. Even one of his contemporaries at the time attested “Awo is the best president Nigeria never had.” ’

Here is one quote he provides from Awolowo’s diary.
19 August 1959
‘I affirm that by the grace of God, the AG will win 200 seats at the federal elections, I also affirm that I Chief Awolowo will be the Prime Minister of Nigeria. In the return for this privilege, I solemnly aver and promise in the presence of God that I will strive and do my utmost best for the entire people of Nigeria irrespective of their tribe, religion, political affiliation and ensure individual freedom, human dignity and cultural progress, for Jesus says: whatever we ask for, we shall have it; I believe the AG will win 200 seats and 1 will become the prime minister of Nigeria. I affirm that by the grace of God, the AG will win 200 seats. I also affirm that I Chief Awolowo will be the prime minister of Nigeria at the conclusion of the election.

As prime minister of Nigeria, I will strive to ensure the rule of law; happiness and spiritual well being of the people of Nigeria. I therefore believe firmly that the AG will win 200 seats: I thank God for granting my desire.’

And here are two quotes provided by Olayiwola Abegunrin in his biography of 
Awolowo.

7 March 1939
‘After rain comes sunshine: after darkness comes the glorious dawn. There is no sorrow without its glorious joy: there is no joy without its admixture of sorrow. Behind the ugly terrible mask of misfortunes lies the beautiful soothing countenance of prosperity. So. tear the mask.’

2 August 1966
‘On this triumphant occasion I believe that the following decision of mine is irrevocable under all and any circumstances, namely: That I hereby solemnly and resolutely dedicate the rest of my life, even second of it, to the service of the peoples of Nigeria in particular, and of Africa in general, by promoting their welfare and happiness. So be it-Amen.’

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Trungpa’s escape from Tibet

Chögyam Trungpa, the Tibetan monk who became a renowned lay teacher of Buddhist teachings in the United States and founded the Shambhala organisation, was born 80 years ago today. When the Chinese invaded Tibet, he was no more than 20 years old. At first he went into hiding, but then took part in an heroic expedition across the Himalayas to escape into India. For a few weeks during the latter part of that journey, he kept a diary which he included in his first autobiographical work, Born in Tibet.

Trungpa was born in the Nangchen region of Tibet on 5 March 1939, and was eleventh in the line of Trungpa tülkus, of the Kagyu lineage, one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He was trained in the Kagyu tradition, receiving his degree at the same time as Thrangu Rinpoche (who would go on to become another important 
Buddhist figure in the West). Trungpa was also trained in the Nyingma tradition, the oldest of the four schools. 

In 1958, aged only 19, Trungpa’s home monastery was occupied by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, and so he spent the winter in hiding. The following year, he started out with Akong Tulku and a small group of other monastics to escape China. As they travelled, often through mountain wildernesses, others joined them swelling the group to some 300 refugees. They eventually reached the  Brahmaputra River. Under heavy gunfire, about 70 managed to cross it, but they then had to climb 19,000 feet over the Himalayas, with little food, before reaching the safety of Pema Ko. On reaching India, in early 1960, the party was flown to a refugee camp. The full story has been told by Grant McLean’s in his 2016 book From Lion’s Jaws: Chogyam Trungpa’s Epic Escape To The West.

In India, Trungpa had one son
 (who is today the head of Shambala network) with a nun he had met on the journey. He set about learning English, and by 1963 had won a scholarship to study comparative religion at St Antony’s College, Oxford University. In 1967, he and Akong were invited to take over Johnstone House Trust in Scotland to run a meditation centre, which then became Samye Ling, the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West. Around 1969, he married Diana Judith Pybus, a wealthy rebellious 16 year old, with whom he had at least one son. He also had a car accident which left him partially paralysed for the rest of his life. When Trungpa split with Akong, in 1970, the former moved to the United States. By then, he had dispensed with his monastic way of life (allowing himself to be promiscuous and drink heavily), and set course as a lay teacher. He travelled widely around North America, gaining renown for his ability to present the essence of the highest Buddhist teachings in a form readily understandable to Western students, in particular he introduced and opened up, to the West, the esoteric practices of the Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism.

Trungpa soon began to establish many meditation centres and retreats, all managed by an umbrella organisation, Vajradhatu, based in Boulder, Colorado. Also in Boulder, he found the Naropa Institute which would become the first accredited Buddhist university in North America. Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs were hired at one point to teach poetry and literature respectively. (Joni Mitchell even sang about Trungpa in Refuge of the Roads, on the Hejira album.) From 1976, he began a series of secular teachings, some of which were gathered and presented as the Shambhala Training, inspired by his vision, when younger, of the legendary Kingdom of Shambhala. His whole organisation eventually took on the Shambala name.

In 1981, Trungpa hosted a visit by the 14th Dalai Lama to Boulder. In 1983, he established Gampo Abbey, a Karma Kagyü monastery in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada; the following year, he observed a yearlong retreat in a rural community in Nova Scotia, and in 1986 he moved his home and international headquarters to Halifax. However, he was, by this time, suffering failing health; after a heart attack in 1986, he died in 1987. Further information can be found at Shambhala, Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or Stripping the Gurus.

A diary kept by Trungpa for a few weeks during his heroic escape to India was first published by George Allen & Unwin in 1966 as part of the autobiographical Born in Tibet (as told to Esmé Cramer Roberts). This has been republished several times, and can be previewed at Googlebooks. Born in Tibet is also included in the first volume of The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa, edited by Carolyn Rose Gimian, and published by Shambala in 2003. Furthermore, the diary itself can be found online at The Chronicles, ‘a repository of teachings, articles, interviews, news and podcasts pertaining to the life and teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’.

Here are several extracts (as found at The Chronicles).

‘With the morning light we started off and walked down the slope and as we turned uphill again we met the peasant husband carrying a large bag of tsampa. To our amazement he said that he and Tsepa had overtaken Akong Tulku’s elder brother in company with Dorje Tsering’s wife and three nuns and they had given him the tsampa to tide over our immediate needs. They told him how they had been captured by the Chinese near the backwater, but managed to escape from the headquarters where they were being held and had afterward joined up with some Kongpo peasants who were also escaping. The party had heard Tsepa’s gun the night before and had been so frightened that they had rushed away. It appeared that the gun had only been fired to scare a wild animal which seemed as if it might attack. Tsepa had sent the peasant husband back to us while he himself went up to the village on the mountainside to buy provisions. He sent us a message saying that we were to go to a cave below that place where the other party was waiting for us; he would join us there later with the food. We soon reached the cave and spent a very happy morning telling each other of our experiences. They told us that a group of them had crossed the river and the backwater and had tried to follow us; however, they had lost their way and after lying hidden in the long grass for a time they reached the village. When the Chinese discovered them, there was no fighting; all the refugees were taken prisoner and removed to a village which was a local Chinese headquarters, on the south side of the Brahmaputra. Their baggage was thoroughly searched; all the contents of their amulet boxes were thrown out and all religious books were immediately destroyed. Each person was privately questioned to find out if their stories tallied; they were asked where they came from and where they were going. Most of them said that they were trying to escape to India, though a few said that they were going on pilgrimage to that country. The lamas and leaders were separated from the rest and put under guard to be interrogated more closely. They were given the most menial work to do, such as cleaning out latrines. One of the lamas despaired and hanged himself, he had already escaped from one prison camp in Derge and this was the second time that he had been captured. As other prisoners were brought into the camp all our party were relieved to find that no members of our little group were among them; but when the Chinese could not trace Akong Tulku, Yak Tulku, or me among the senior prisoners, they thought we might be lurking disguised among the crowd, since they knew that we had been the leaders of the party; so the prisoners were checked again, especially the younger ones.

At night everyone was locked up together in a single room, but women and the less important men were allowed to go out into the village during the day: They were, however, called in for individual questioning from time to time. The Chinese would then tell them that now that Lhasa was liberated they could go there whenever they wished to, there would be no trouble on the roads; but of course there were more useful things to be done than wandering off on pilgrimages, which were indeed only superstition. The prisoners were even told that should they wish to go to India for this purpose, the Chinese administration were quite ready to let them out; however, such a journey would be exceedingly dangerous, for anyone might die of starvation or fall ill from the hot climate there.

When a rumor went round the camp that all the able-bodied refugees were shortly to be sent north to join labor camps on the other side of the Brahmaputra and that the senior people and those too old for work were to be sent to concentration camps, one of the nuns contrived to buy food for herself and Akong Tulku’s brother, she also obtained information about the best way to reach Doshong Pass. Dorje Tsering’s wife and two other nuns were also able to procure some food and all five managed to escape together. They stopped in a wood the first night and crossed the Doshong Pass the following day. Here they met the family from Kongpo who knew the country and were also making their escape, so they joined forces.

The Kongpo family were camping in a valley below our cave and the man came up to see me, bringing a jug of soup made of meat and barley which was much appreciated. He told me how he and his people had escaped: It had been very difficult to get out of their village as permits were only given to visit friends in the near neighborhood and when the visit was over the holder had to apply to the local authorities for permission to return to his own home. Having obtained the permits to leave his village, our friend and his family took the opposite direction toward the mountains to the south. A number of the villagers had wanted to do the same thing, but knowing the danger they would have to encounter in crossing the snowbound Doshong Pass, they had not dared to undertake the journey.

Some refugee lamas from Lower Kongpo were sheltering in the small monastery in the village above our cave. A monk came down with Tsepa to request me to conduct a devotional service for them as well as for the villagers. I was surprised to see him wearing a long dagger which looked somehow wrong for a monk. He was particularly friendly and invited us all to stay in the monastery. However, we felt that this village was too near Lower Kongpo and might not be a safe place for us so, seeing that one could not get to the monastery and back again that same afternoon, we stayed where we were in and around the cave. We had an excellent meal with some pork the villagers had supplied and made dumplings with their wheat flour which they also gave us. We tried the local dish of millet, but found this difficult to swallow.

23 January 1960
‘No one knew how we could get to India proper, for there was a waiting list for the few airplanes flying to and fro. However, we no longer felt anxious: We were free at last and were able to wander about the town at will. I was struck by the fact that people here were much gayer and more cheerful than in the Communist-controlled Tibetan towns. As we were having our midday meal, a messenger came to tell us to go down to the airport, as there was every possibility that we would get a lift that same evening. A tractor arrived with a trailer behind it, into which we all bundled. The winding road led through a valley and we came to the gate of the airport. It was built in decorative Tibetan style, surmounted by the ashoka emblem. We disembarked and waited. No one knew of any airplanes likely to arrive that day. The evening drew in and it was quite dark. A jeep came to take me to see the local district administrator; he gave me a bag of rice and a few vegetables and apologized that supplies were so scanty and the accommodation so limited. However, he was sure that the plane would come the next day. He asked me to leave my blessing in the place, that things should go well. I thanked him and presented him with a white scarf. We spent that night in the hut.’

24 January 1960
‘In the morning an official came and read out a list of our names. He told us that we would be given priority on the next plane. It arrived that morning and, since it was a transport plane, its cargo of building material was first taken off and seats screwed in afterward. There was only room for six of us: myself, my own attendant, Yak Tulku and his attendant, Tsethar, and Yunten; the rest of the party followed in a second plane that same day.

This, our first flight, was a strange new experience, skimming over cloud-covered mountains, seeing far below us the small villages and footpaths leading up to them; only by the moving shadow of the plane on the ground could we gauge how fast we were traveling.

We thought about the teaching of impermanence; this was a complete severance of all that had been Tibet and we were traveling by mechanized transport. As the moments passed, the mountain range was left behind, and the view changed to the misty space of the Indian plains stretching out in front of us.’

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

I do not quit my post here

‘The sea may be open both above and below, and even if open off-shore, may never release this ship from her present prison until every matter requisite for her extraction is fairly prepared, and nothing left but taking advantage of the first lead, I do not quit my post here.’ This is from a published narrative written by Captain Edward Belcher - born 220 years ago today - during his last and disastrous expedition to the Arctic region. In fact, despite the above sentiment, he abandoned four of his five ships, hopelessly stuck in ice (though, one subsequently drifted free on its own), and was never given another commission again. Previously, he had undertaken two successful long surveying expeditions, and had published narratives of those journeys too. While the narratives appear to be have been written in retrospect (presumably from diaries), Belcher often - especially in the account of the last expedition - resorts to using diary-type dated extracts.

Belcher was born on 27 February 1799 in Halifax, Nova Scotia (then British, now Canadian), where his father Andrew Belcher was a prominent member of the Nova Scotia Council. Aged 13, he enlisted in the British Royal Navy as a first class volunteer. In 1816, as a midshipman in HMS Superb, he took part in the Battle of Algiers; and in 1818 he was promoted to lieutenant. After 1820, he visited the United States, investigated channels near Bermuda, and served on the Nova Scotia station in the Salisbury. In 1825, for more than three years, he sailed with Captain Frederick William Beechey in the HMS Blossom on an exploration of the Pacific and Alaskan coasts. He was made commander in March 1829, and from 1830 to 1833 commanded the Aetna, surveying parts of the west and north coasts of Africa. In 1830, he married Diana Joliffe, but the marriage was soon blighted by her claims of cruelty, and legal actions that eventually led to an arranged separation.

In 1836, Belcher was given command of the Sulphur, a surveying ship (
after its captain, Beechey, was invalided home), and continued its work for the next three years along the coasts of North and South America. At the end of 1839, he received orders to return to England by way of the Western route. However, in Singapore, he was ordered back to China, and was subsequently engaged in war operations along the Canton River. In 1841, he made the first British survey of the Hong Kong harbour. After seven years, he and his ship finally returned to England in 1842, where he was knighted the following year. Thereafter, he was engaged on HMS Samarang, initially to survey the coast of China (the war having opened up the area to trade), but was diverted further east to Borneo and the Philippines, among other places, where he remained five years surveying coasts and fighting pirates.

In 1852, Belcher was given command of a large expedition (five ships led by HMS Assistance) with the aim of searching for Sir John Franklin’s expedition which had been lost in 1845 when attempting to find the Northwest Passage. Belcher spent two years scouring for signs of Franklin’s expedition, often making long trips on land by sledge, but found little evidence of what had happened to it. His own ships then also got into serious difficulty because of the winter conditions, so much so that he abandoned four of them to the ice before making it back to England in HMS North Star. (However, one of the abandoned ships, the Resolute, broke free and drifted until picked up by an American whaler. The ship was returned to the UK, where many years later some of its timbers were used to make a desk for the American president. Given as a present by Queen Victoria, the Resolute desk remains in use in the Oval Office.)

Although exonerated by the Navy for losing his ships, Belcher never received another command. However, he was made Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1867, and an admiral in 1872. He died in 1877. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required), and the Belcher Foundation (though the latter two have markedly different assessments of the man).

Belcher published three two-volume narratives describing in detail each of his major expeditions: Narrative of a Voyage Round the World (1843); Narrative of the Voyage of HMS Samarang, During the Years 1843-46 (1848), and The Last of the Arctic Voyages (1855). Most of the text in these books reads like a narrative, not a diary, but they were surely written with the help of an expedition diary, kept by Belcher or a subordinate. I can’t find any evidence of such diaries extant today, with one exception: the National Library of New Zealand holds Belcher’s private journal from his time on HMS Blossom in 1825-1827. Otherwise, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich holds the Royal Navy order books for Belcher’s expeditions.

Nevertheless, within the published ‘narratives’ there are entries that are dated and read as though they were taken directly from a diary (
much more so in the last set than in the first). The following examples are taken from the second volume of The Last of the Arctic Voyages: Being a narrative of the expedition in H.M.S. Assistance under the command of Captain Sir Edward Belcher, C.B. in search of the Sir John Franklin, during the years 1852-53-54. Both volumes (Vol 1 and Vol 2) are freely available at Internet Archive.

5 February 1854
‘The weather still remains line, but the temperature still clinging to -40°. Yesterday, under a change of wind to the northward, a point from which it seldom blows, we experienced a fall of snow, the temperature dropping, contrary to rule, as low as -50°; this was succeeded by calm and a rise to -40°.

After prayers today the bodies of our two men were interred in the same grave, with the customary solemnities. I had already deferred it some days, in the hope of milder weather; indeed, in a great measure, to enable me to officiate in my proper place; but the superstitious feelings of the crew were at work, and I thought it better to stop talking and conclude the ceremony. The service was read by Commander Richards; indeed I suffered severely from the exposure, which sent me to bed with severe rheumatism, or, what I am more inclined to believe, an attack of jaundice.

4 March 1854
‘I have not progressed towards recovery as I had anticipated; in fact, I learn that this is not a climate to trifle with. Undue exertion of the lungs (reading the service on Sunday) has thrown me back and confined me to cabin exercise. The following ideas have lately been 
impressed on me: 1. Never to pass over, as unworthy of thought, after the first year particularly, any symptoms similar to rheumatism, affection of chest or voice, discoloration, emaciation, etc., but at once meet the question by full diet, stimulated even by curries, etc. Exercise is important; injudicious exposure to severe cold should not be risked. This probably has been my fault, or possibly not quite my own, for my preaching has ever been, “not to expose the lungs unnecessarily to a lower temperature than can be avoided.” Latterly our upper deck, under the housing, has maintained a higher temperature by nineteen degrees above the external atmosphere, with a complete shelter from the slightest breeze.’

15 March 1854
‘Our ice-gauge having been raised, we content ourselves with the simple measurement of the in-shore ice, principally with the intent of discovering the approximate moment when the sea-water season terminates; or when the ice crystals, constantly pervading the sea beneath the floe, cease to attach themselves to the under surface, and thus increase the homogeneousness of the floe. Our thickness today affords sixty-five inches, = five feet five inches, and the last ten-day temperatures as under:- Max - 19.00°; min. -49.62°; mean, -34.629°; previous, -32.733°

Our last Division has been delayed to this preconceived date, in the expectation of a decided change of season; and the temperature having risen to -23°, and the wind lulled, I determined to push forward Messrs. Grove and Pim, with the ‘Dauntless’ and ‘Reward,’ on the morrow, should the weather continue propitious.’

19 March 1854
‘The breeze has failed and the temperature again fallen to -40°. We have not been visited by the old noises termed “bolt-breaking” for some time, but last night the outer ice evinced great uneasiness, and reports of heavy and repeated cracks were heard during the whole night. From the report of those sent to examine the outer ice, I gather that the exterior ice already exhibits large rents, and the fissures generally seem to indicate a probability of off-shore leads whenever the ice is relieved from off-shore pressure. To those accustomed to view these matters it will of course be apparent; but to the uninitiated it may be necessary to explain, that this dislocated state of the off-lying pack affords us better grounds for release than if we had been frozen up in smooth continuous floe of equal thickness, as the pack invariably falls asunder at the first thaw, and may either float off or be compressed into smaller space, and thus afford space for motion, the great desideratum in these cases; on the other hand, when the floe is continuous and of equal thickness, it is only disrupted by forces which would entail destruction on our insignificant vessels.

My own conviction is, that no opinion as to ultimate release can be formed on this side of Beechey Island, and then not before July or probably until the 22nd of August, notwithstanding the unprecedented open water found here on the 14th of the latter month in 1852, and that, as it appears by reports of not many hours later, was closed almost to boats.

Last year Commander Pullen, on his first journey to Cape Becher, on the 10th of April, found the ice very treacherous with many pools of water; but then we experienced many warm days during the months of February and March. But the open water above our present position and that below, or southerly to Beechey Island, are dependent on very different conditions. We know, from actual experience now, that the Polar Sea may be open and in active motion as early as the 18th of May, as noticed on that date from Britannia Cliff, and we also know that the sea was open on the 14th of July, last season, at Northumberland Sound, yet still sealed near Hamilton Island late in August. But to my mind the cause is very clear - as clear as the North Sea and British Channel flood-tides meeting at high water near Dover. North of our present position, the flood-tide sets in from the Polar Sea and brings its warmer oceanic water; southerly, the flood has to pass up Lancaster Sound, then to be deflected up this channel, and makes high water somewhere between this and Beechey Island; hence the inaction in this particular neighbourhood when the sea may be open both above and below, and even if open off-shore, may never release this ship from her present prison. But until every matter requisite for her extraction is fairly prepared, and nothing left but taking advantage of the first lead, I do not quit my post here.’

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Making of a Russian censor

‘The minister of education summoned me for a talk. I arrived at 1 o’clock. “The matter of your appointment to the Press Committee,” the minister said to me, “has taken a rather serious and delicate turn. The emperor has expressed his desire for your appointment [. . .] “Yes,” I replied, “this really puts me in an awkward position. I am prepared to undertake any kind of work which would offer at least some hope for a cause which means so much to me as learning and literature. But if this committee was created for the moral supervision of literature, as its members claim it was, there are no grounds for its existence and it doesn’t have a leg to stand on. If it is going to turn into a secret committee, it is standing on muddy ground and I don’t want to soil myself on it.” ’ This is the Ukrainian, Aleksandr Nikitenko, writing in his diary, exactly 160 years ago today, about being offered a top posting as a central committee censor - all the more remarkable an achievement since he had been born into serfdom. The diary was published in English, some 100 years after his death, as The Diary of a Russian Censor.

Nikitenko was born in Sloboda, Ukraine, in 1804 or 1805, a serf and the property of Count Nikolai Sheremetev, for whom his educated father acted as an estate manager. By 1822, he was working in Ostogozhsk scraping a living as a private tutor. In 1924, he came to the notice of several educated and influential individuals, who then helped him, first, to become a free man, to take up residence in the household of E. P. Obolensky (a future Decembrist), and to study history and philosophy at the Saint Petersburg University. In 1826, he published his first article ‘On Overcoming the Misfortunes’, and was subsequently hired as secretary by the district superintendent of education, K. M. Borozdin. In that position, he compiled a commentary for the new censorship code. He married in mid-1833.

By 1834, Nikitenko had been appointed professor of philology at the university, and in 1837, he was awarded his Doctor of Philosophy (with a dissertation ‘On Creative Power of Poetry or Poetic Genius’). From 1833 to 1848, Nikitenko was a member of the local censorship committee, and a liberal one it seems, since he was arrested on more than occasion for allowing certain literary works to be circulated. From 1853, he worked for the Ministry for People’s Education as extraordinary commissioner; and from 1859 until 1865 he served as a member of the Central Censorship Department, ardently promoting the importance of literature. Otherwise, he acted as editor for several publications, such as Sovremennik (1847-1948) and Zhurnal Ministerstva Narodnogo Prosveshcheniya (1856-1860), and Severnaya Pochta (1862). He died in 1877. A little further - though not much - biographical info can be gathered from Wikipedia, the Saint Petersburg Encyclopaedia, or H-Net. In 2001, Yale University Press published Nikitenko’s Up from Serfdom. My Childhood and Youth in Russia, 1804-1824 as translated by Helen Saltz Jacobson. Some pages of this can be read at Amazon.

A dozen of so years after Nikitenko’s death, in 1888-1992, a diary he had kept throughout his adult life was published in three volumes. An English edition, abridged, edited and translated by Jacobson, was brought out in 1975 by University of Massachusetts Press as The Diary of a Russian Censor. This can be previewed at Googlebooks. The Saint Petersburg Encyclopaedia says of the diary that it provides ‘a unique and valuable source for the study of the history of Russian society, literature and culture’. Here are two extracts, from the English translation, written as Nikitenko was reflecting on whether to accept an offer to join the central censorship department.

20 February 1859
‘The minister of education summoned me for a talk. I arrived at 1 o’clock.

“The matter of your appointment to the Press Committee,” the minister said to me, “has taken a rather serious and delicate turn. The emperor has expressed his desire for your appointment, and now I am conveying his wish to you. Count Adlerberg has informed me about it.”

“Yes,” I replied, “this really puts me in an awkward position. I am prepared to undertake any kind of work which would offer at least some hope for a cause which means so much to me as learning and literature. But if this committee was created for the moral supervision of literature, as its members claim it was, there are no grounds for its existence and it doesn’t have a leg to stand on. If it is going to turn into a secret committee, it is standing on muddy ground and I don’t want to soil myself on it.”

We talked about it for a long time and finally I promised Evgraf Petrovich that I would try my best to change this whole situation for the better.

While we were discussing this, Mukhanov arrived, and I immediately got involved in a conversation with him on this issue.

Mukhanov tried to prove to me that the committee had no reactionary intentions; that it did not have anything in common with the Committee of April 2; that the emperor was certainly not interested in creating a similar apparatus.

“Personally, Your Excellency,” I replied, “I am not worried about it becoming another Committee of April 2, because I think that’s impossible. I consider the very thought of it repugnant to the spirit of our times as well as an insult to our enlightened emperor. But I can’t hide the fact from you that the public is very prejudiced against this new committee.” ’

26 February 1859
‘All week I’ve been busy thinking about the proposal to join the committee and have been involved in discussions with them about it. I was invited to a meeting on Monday, the 23rd, where I came face to face with Count Adlerberg, Timashev and Mukhanov.

I was received very courteously, particularly by Count Adlerberg. I had made up my mind to express frankly both my convictions and my views on the committee, so they could decide for themselves whether I could participate in their affairs. They listened to me very attentively.

I told them of the public’s negative attitude toward the committee; that it considered it another April 2nd committee; that I personally considered it an impossibility today and thought their committee could not be either repressive or reactionary; that its sole function was to serve as an intermediary between literature and the emperor and to influence public opinion by getting the government’s views and aims across via the press in much the same way as literature did by bringing its ideas to the public.

They took all this very well. Then I added that if I were to sit on the committee, it would have to be with the right to vote. It was decided that I would give them a memorandum containing the gist of my remarks and that I would bring it with me on Thursday.

Today, Thursday, I read my memorandum to them in which I outlined my ideas in greater detail. Enlarging upon the thesis that literature did not nurture any revolutionary schemes, I took the position that there wasn’t the slightest reason to take repressive measures against it; that ordinary censorship measures were completely adequate; that literature couldn’t and shouldn’t be restrained by administrative measures; and that, perhaps, the committee should limit itself, according to the emperor’s wishes, to keeping a watchful eye on the mood of the public and to guiding public opinion, rather than literature, on to the right path.

I forgot to mention that, on Monday, after my discussion with the committee, I went to see the minister and told him that I was demanding voting rights. He completely supported my demand and tried to persuade me to accept the position of administrative director of the committee on that condition, since the voting right would put me in a position where I could undoubtedly be a force for good.

He also told me that, on Sunday, at the ball, he had spoken to the emperor about me and referred to me as one, who, in his opinion, could be more useful on the committee than anyone else. The emperor turned to Adlerberg and said: “Hear that, Aleksandr?” Earlier, too, while the committee was being formed, the minister had proposed my name for membership along with the names of Vyazemsky, Tyutchev, Pletnyov, and E. P. Kovalevsky (his brother).

After all this my memorandum was accepted, and tomorrow a report goes to the emperor. The die is cast. I am now embarking on a new career in public service. I shall certainly encounter difficulties - and enormous ones, too. But it would be wrong and dishonest of me to evade them, to refuse to do my part. There will be a great deal of gossip. Perhaps many will reproach me because I, with my spotless reputation, have decided to sit on a tribunal which is considered repressive. But that’s exactly the point, gentlemen. I want to stifle its appetite for repression. If I can work effectively - fine. If I can’t. I’ll leave.

In any case, I am absolutely determined to fight to the bitter end against repressive measures. But, at the same time, I am convinced that literature ought not to sever all its ties with the government and assume a hostile stance. If I am right, then it is incumbent on one of us to hold on to this tie and to assume the role, so to say, of a connecting link. I shall try to be that link.

Perhaps I shall succeed in convincing the committee that it must approach this sort of business in broad statesmanlike fashion; that it should not war with ideas, with literature, or with anything at all, because it is not a clique but a public figure; that it should not irritate people; that it has an enormous responsibility toward Russia, the emperor and posterity, and that because of this responsibility, it must not get involved in petty literary squabbles, but should look beyond all that and view literature as a social force which can do a great deal of good for society. Yes, I shall assume this new responsibility, if I am given the right to vote. Tyutchev, Goncharov, and Lyuboshchinsky warmly endorse my decision.

I think even the committee understood the purity of my intentions. Not a word was mentioned there about any kind of benefits or rewards. As far as salary is concerned, I shall be satisfied with the first figure to be named. As far as my other activities are concerned, it goes without saying that I shall have to curtail them.’

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Panic & muddleheadness

‘Think how the whole world wd be changed for me if I could get on with this novel, even though at no higher level than the present. I see that it was infinitely better to write The Beating, mediocre as that was, than to write nothing. But what’s holding me up anyway? Panic & muddleheadness. I must face up to the thing again with confident determination, with willingness instead of revulsion.’ This is from the private (and unpublished) diaries of Edward Falaise Upward, a British teacher and writer who died 10 years ago today, aged 105. He was part of the Auden generation in the 30s, producing poetry and surrealist stories, but then he lost his way, barely producing any work for decades. It was only after retiring that he produced his main work, The Spiral Ascent, an autobiographical trilogy. Soon after his death, his sister donated a lifetime’s worth of his diaries to the British Library. They document, in excruciating detail, the depths his literary and political angst.

Upward was born in 1903, in Romford, a large town now part of Greater London. His father was a doctor, and his mother a nurse. Aged 14 or so, he was sent to Repton School, where he 
published his writing in the school magazine and became a close friend of Christopher Isherwood. He moved on to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, reading history and then English. Isherwood, too, went to Cambridge, and together they created the fictional and surreal town of Mortmere, a vehicle for parodying the upper-classes. Upward’s poem Buddha won him the prestigious annual Cambridge poetry prize, the Chancellor’s Gold Medal.

On leaving Cambridge, Upward took up teaching, with posts at various schools, only settling in 1932 when employed as an English master at Alleyn’s School, Dulwich, where he remained until his retirement. In 1932, he joined the Communist Party, and took part in a delegation visiting the Soviet Union. He also visited Isherwood and Stephen Spender in Berlin. In 1936, he married Hilda Percival, a fellow teacher and Communist. They had two children. Although they remained committed to socialism, they left the Communist Party in 1948, frustrated that it was trying to appease the Labour government, and was no longer revolutionary.

Upward published his first novel, Journey to the Border (Hogarth Press) in 1938. Full of poetic prose, it describes the rebellion of a private tutor against his employer and a nightmarish state, concluding with the idea that he must join the workers’ movement. Subsequently, he found it very difficult to write anything else. In 1952-1953, he took a sabbatical from teaching in order to focus on his writing, but fell into a cycle of depression. Having concluded grotesque and fantastical fiction was inappropriate in a post-Holocaust world, he destroyed most of his Montmere stories.

By the mid-1950s, Upward was writing again, and soon after his retirement (to the Isle of Wight) in 1961, he published In the Thirties, the first part of a autobiographical trilogy, The Spiral Ascent, that would take him until 1977 to complete (with The Rotten Elements and No Home but the Struggle). It tells of a poet’s efforts to be creative and politically committed, and ends, in the third volume, with the poet finding new meaning by joining the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and being able to write again. In old age, he returned to writing short stories which were published, along with reprints of his novels, by Enitharmon Press. In 2005, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and awarded its Benson Medal. He died on 13 February 2009, aged 105, having been Britain’s oldest living author. Further information on Upward, as well as free-to-download pdfs of his books and poems can be found at the Edward Upward website. See also Wikipedia, The Guardian obituary, and The New York Times obituary.

Upward was a keen diarist, and he left behind a large number of journals (76 notebooks), many if not most full of his small cramped hand-writing. These were donated by his daughter to the British Library soon after his death in 2009. The British Library provides this description of its holdings: ‘A continuous run of journals, preoccupied in the main with Upward’s progress (and frustrations) as a writer. The journals record the planning and development of Upward’s novels in terms of plot and characterisation, and also record the psychological journey of their writing. The journals are not diaries as such, and therefore sometimes omit to record aspects of Upward’s life that diaries would usually include, but they record vividly the course of Upward’s inner life and particularly his determination to complete The Spiral Ascent.’

None of the journals have been published, even in part, although at least one biography quotes from them briefly: Edward Upward and Left-Wing Literary Culture in Britain edited by Benjamin Kohlmann (see Googlebooks). However, the 76 notebooks are available for public inspection at the British Library, and I have transcribed the following extracts from three of them. In particular, the extracts from 1952 show the extent of his encroaching depression, although, in fact, his feelings then seem to echo those he had been having for many years (as shown by the extracts below).

1 September 1936
‘In eight days I shall be thirty three. And I have not yet written a book.

A vile dog is basking in the next door garden.

I must get on with my work.

The pt is that the sp people are quite expensively dressed but their dress does suggest expense. Neither deliberately unassertive nor assertive.’

2 September 1936
‘Moments like last night that the B.L. is good make all my worries worth while. These can be rather compensative, no other satisfaction compares with such moments.

My life and my writing - what is the connection between them?

I ought to give my whole life to writing, but capitalism prevents me. Writing is the highest form of my fight, of my defiance.

Only writing whose content is anti-capitalist can be good.’

1 February 1944
‘Firewatching in the porter’s office office to-night. The rat-holed dado. String and keys and the bucket filled with damp coal dust. The coal-hole in the gothic turret. But my eye is stale. The complex telephone apparatus.

Prattle less in this book, if only to save paper. Think more.

Wd last night in the lab hut told of how he had been negotiating to buy the land on which it stands. The Co-op would not lend him the money but the Midland bank did. He is tenacious, pessimistic only in words. He got the hut against the opposition of most of his party. Now they hold the Fylde Divisional meetings there.

The substance of the sequel has I think passed the test. The problem now is the beginning.

Postage stamp the theme of the book. Imagination is needed to help action. But imagination is suspect because in the past it led away from action. But the present imagination is justified because it shows the faults of past imagination and shows the prime necessity for action.

Now don’t repeat that everywhere in this journal. It’s correct and the book must stand or fall by it.

If at the beginning he knows that imagination is needed then there’s no justification for the book.

“If only I cd use my imagination as I did in the past - but do so legitimately.”

He knows he wants to use his imagination; but he doesn’t know that he wd be justified in using it (i.e. that action needs it)?

Is that the initial position?’

15 June 1944
‘If only I cd write - then I’d put up with most things - my job for instance.

I want to write. But why? Simply because it is the only way I can justify my existence. Only when I am writing am I fully alive. Everything cd be borne if I had writing in hand which I felt was really worthwhile. And what is that constitutes worthwhileness in writing? I know it when I see it. Solidity, depth, feeling. Above all reality. But not my reality.

Something in the form of an essay, dealing not only with ideas but with places & persons. De Quincy.’

24 December 1952
‘Think how the whole world wd be changed for me if I could get on with this novel, even though at no higher level than the present. I see that it was infinitely better to write The Beating, mediocre as that was, than to write nothing. But what’s holding me up anyway? Panic & muddleheadness. I must face up to the thing again with confident determination, with willingness instead of revulsion.’

27 December 1952 [Last but one entry of ‘Journal of the Sabbatical Year’]
‘The only reason I am not in ill thoughts at present is that I’m not attempting to write the novel.

Is it worth writing something that one knows to be poor stuff? Possibly, for practice and in the tenuous hope that one day one will be able to write satisfactorily.

I’ve got to see this novel as in some way attractive, or I shall never write it? But I shall never see it as something attractive. Therefore I can only write it from a sense of duty.

There’s not one scene throughout the whole book that attracts me. Why? Because I have lost faith in the world of imagination.

I fool myself if I think that “the whole world wd be changed for me” if I could get on with the novel. Probably it wd make me feel even worse than quiescence.

What should I do? The best thing to do wd be to go on struggling, if only sanity will stand up to that. It’s the uncontrollable misery of the struggle that I fear.

Try common sense. Here I am with eight free months before me. I have started the novel for which I obtained a year’s leave of absence from teaching. The novel is, so far, poor stuff, and doesn’t look like getting any better, in fact it might well get worse. Shall I abandon it? Against such a line of action (inaction) there are several objections. 1) It’s a surrender and admission of failure. 2) What shd I do with my time? But on the other hand there are objections to continuing with the bk, the main one being that it makes me so miserable that I begin to fear for my sanity. A possible solution wd be to regard the novel as of no importance but to continue it as a daily task. But that wd be more miserable than anything.’