Friday, May 30, 2008

Fake diary debacles

A couple of ambitious fake diaries have been in the news lately. A diary attributed to France’s Sun King, Louis VIX, was mistakenly used by New Zealand author Veronica Buckley as a prime source for her biography of the King’s secret wife, Françoise d’Aubigné, marquise de Maintenon. And, it is the 25th anniversary of the ‘finding’ of Hitler’s diaries, which, according to Der Spiegel, caused one of ‘the greatest media debacles of all time’. Buckley may care to take heed of the Hitler diary story, since the faker himself ended up doing quite well, whereas the writer who tried to exploit the faked manuscripts is still shunned by former colleagues.

Madame de Maintenon - The secret wife of Louis XIV is ‘a rags-to-riches tale’, publisher Bloomsbury says, revealing ‘every layer of the vibrant and shocking world that was France in the age of Louis XIV’. The author, Buckley, uses quotes from journals, purportedly by Louis XIV himself as prime source material to describe these layers. According to The Guardian, Buckley herself explained in the advance copy edition that the diaries were only found in 1997 (nearly 300 years after they were written) in ‘a packet of yellowed papers, wrapped in string and sealed with faded red wax’ hidden ‘inside a heavy old chest in a Loire valley manor house’.

Madame de Maintenon was due for publication in early May when, in mid-April, Bloomsbury received a letter from Buckley. She wrote, The Guardian again reveals, that the journal she had used as a prime source was not in fact written by the Sun King himself, but by a French historian François Bluche as recently as the late 1990s. Bloomsbury immediately postponed publication ‘to give them time to tip in pages - pulping the offending pages, in effect, and glueing in new ones’. Bloomsbury’s catalogue now promises publication on ‘16 June (subject to change)’. Although the price is advertised as £17.99, Bloomsbury’s own bookshop has £25 as the RRP, but discounted to £18.75. Bloomsbury seems in a bit of tizz.

Not half as big a tizz as caused by Konrad Kujau and Gerd Heidemann 25 years ago with the fake Hitler diaries. In April 1983, Heidemann announced to a stunned world that he had purchased, on behalf German Magazine Stern, 60 volumes of diaries actually written by Hitler. They were good enough to convince some experts leading Stern and others (The Sunday Times in the UK) to begin publishing them. Within two weeks, though, they were revealed as being ‘grotesquely superficial fakes’, written by Kujau, a notorous forger, according to a Wikipedia article.

To acknowledge the anniversary, rival German magazines have been tracing the histories of the two men. Der Spiegel, which has an English language online edition, notes that Kujau spent three years in jail for his fraud but then went on to thrive after his release as a media celebrity appearing on chat shows displaying his signature-forging skills. He died in 2000. Heidemann, though, has not thrived. He too served a prison sentence (for embezzlement having billed his magazine for more than the diaries actually cost). Now he lives alone in ‘a cramped Hamburg apartment’ with massive debts, and is shunned by former colleagues who have not forgiven him, Der Spiegel says, for ‘one of the greatest media debacles of all time’.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

British PM kidnap plot

Can you decipher the newly-released diaries of Lord Hailsham (Quintin Hogg)? The diaries, partly written in code, have already revealed that there was a student plot to kidnap Alec Douglas-Home, in 1964, when he was prime minister, and they promise to provide insights into the period when Edward Heath was prime minister. The Margaret Thatcher Foundation is appealing for help in decoding more of Hailsham’s writing.

Lord Hailsham was a UK Conservative frontbencher and cabinet minister for more than 30 years, and, for a short period in 1963, was seen as a possible leader of the party. He died in 2001, three days after his 94th birthday. Approximately 1,000 boxes of his papers are held by the Churchill Archives Centre, which recently released 450 of them - including political diaries (1970-1979) and a wartime diary (1941-1942) - for scrutiny by researchers.

Under an arrangement with the Centre, the Margaret Thatcher Foundation has been given exclusive rights to publish parts of the diary online. Some of them were written in code, adapted from an American shorthand system. The Foundation says it has successfully translated a number of the coded entries ‘with very generous help from some cryptanalysts at GCHQ working in their spare time’. The University of Cambridge - home to both the Churchill Archives Centre and the Margaret Thatcher Foundation - issued a press release (April 2008) suggesting that ‘the most astonishing revelation’ in the diaries is about a ‘massive security breach’ in April 1964 - which nearly resulted in the kidnap of Douglas-Home.

The decoded diary entry reads: ‘An odd story of the 1964 election never published. Alec (then Prime Minister) was staying with John and Priscilla Tweedsmuir - who had no room for Alec’s private bodyguard. He went to the nearest town (Aberdeen?) and John & Priscilla left Alec for a time alone in the house. Knock at the door. Door answered by PM in person. Deputation of left-wing students from Aberdeen University. Said they were going to kidnap Alec. He: “I suppose you realise if you do the Conservatives will win the election by 200 or 300.” He asked and received permission to pack a few things & was given 10 mins grace. After that they were offered and accepted beer. John & Priscilla returned and the kidnap project abandoned. The bodyguard swore Alec to secrecy as his job would have been in peril.’

Chris Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, who is helping to digitise Hailsham’s papers, said the prank ‘was one of the worst breaches of a Prime Minister’s personal security in the twentieth century.’ But, according to The Scotsman, Lady Douglas-Hamilton, the 14 year old daughter of Hailsham’s hosts, says the meeting was all rather amicable and there was no real threat.

The Foundation believes that the diaries may have ‘special significance’ in particular for what they reveal about Edward Heath’s government, since no other senior Conservative seems to have kept a diary during that period.

A large number of extracts from the diaries are available on the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website, some of them decoded and some with photos of the originals. However, there are also entries which are still untranslated, and the Foundation's website is appealing for help in decoding them.

Finally, it is worth noting that the Foundation expresses surprise at the existence of the diaries given how forcefully Hailsham condemned political diary-keeping in his memoir, A Sparrow's Flight, and how he stressed that nothing of the kind would be found in his own papers. Perhaps he saw the notes as something less than a diary, the Foundation surmises, or else maybe he intended ‘to make a bonfire of them but failed to (thankfully)’.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Wyn and Joe's special needs

Blue Sky July, a collection of intimate and heart felt diary-type musings by Nia Wyn mostly concerning her severely disabled child Joe, has been short-listed for the Wales Book of the Year. The book, first published in 2007 by Seren, has already won critical acclaim, and is due for a hard back launch in the US later this year. However, Peter Limbrick, who runs an organisation called Interconnections for those supporting children with special needs, believes the book should come with a ‘health warning’.

The book begins in the summer of 1998, when Joe is born, and finishes in 2007. On the day of the birth Wyn writes: ‘If I could keep one feeling, from the whole of my life, I’d choose this one. This time, when just to be human feels divine, and nothing is wrong.’ Within hours of the birth, though, something goes wrong, and her son is transferred to intensive care. Wyn then notes: ‘It’s the strangest time – a birth – for life to start falling apart. Just like that!’ Subsequently, Joe is diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Blue Sky July describes how Wyn battles against impossible odds to heal her son, Seren says, and also explores the impact of the tragedy on her life.

Although first published by Seren, which describes itself as Wales’ leading literary publisher, Blue Sky July has been re-issued by Penguin under the Michael Joseph imprint in the UK, and is about to receive a hard back launch in the US under the Dutton Books imprint (as Blue Sky July: A Mother's Story of Hope and Healing). It has also been serialised on BBC Radio Four in the UK, and been featured in several UK newspapers. Now, though, this ‘runaway success’ (Seren’s words) is continuing with a short-list nomination for the £10,000 Wales Book of the Year prize. Other nominees include the poet Dannie Abse (who, many years ago, was my father’s best friend!) writing about his late wife, and Tom Bullough with a novel about childhood friendship. The winner will be announced on 1 July.

There are long extracts from Blue Sky Blue on The Guardian website.

But not everyone is a fan of the book, especially Peter Limbrick, who set up Interconnections in 1995 to support all those ‘who work with babies, children and young people who have ongoing special needs for whatever reasons’. In an article on the Interconnections website, he says: ‘[This] is not a book that I would recommend to parents of children with disabilities and special needs and I would want to issue a very serious ‘health warning’ for those parents who do get hold of it.’

Limbrick lists all the many many ‘interventions’ Wyn tries for her son (a few of which include sensory rooms, muscle tapping, music therapy, a ‘second skin’, botox, and faith healing), but says the prevailing image is of ‘a circus’ - one with cash tills. There is talk of miracles in the book, he adds, but ‘the miracle might be that Joe survived the circus, unlike his parents’ relationship or his mother’s career’. ‘We have entered the 21st century’, he warns, ‘without a science of early intervention for children . . . to help families like Joe’s. Hence the clowns, the snake oil and the cash tills.’

The book is beautifully written, he admits, and nothing can detract from Wyn’s love, commitment, enterprise and energy. But his health warning comes for two reasons: ‘The book reinforces the message that parents should sacrifice all to offer their infant every treatment and therapy available (without guidance about what is worth having and what is not); and it challenges every parent (usually the mother) to strive every minute of the day and every day of the year to produce a cure for the child’s disabilities.’

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A child in the ghetto

Rutka Laskier, a 14 year old Jewish teenager, was confined with her family to the Będzin ghetto, in southern Poland, and then killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz in 1943. Her short diary, from 1943, was discovered in 2005, and printed first in Polish and then in English and Hebrew editions. A more lavish version with maps and photographs has now been published in the US, and the publishers are calling Laskier the ‘Polish Anne Frank’.

Laskier was born in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland), then a predominantly German-speaking autonomous city-state. Soon after, though, in the early 1930s, her father moved the family to Będzin, the southern Polish city where his parents had come from. During World War II, the family was eventually forced into the city’s Jewish ghetto. Subsequently, Rutka, her mother and brother were transported to Auschwitz concentration camp, where they were killed, probably in a gas chamber. Her father, however, survived the war, went to Israel, remarried, had another daughter, and died in 1982.

For three months, while still in the Będzin ghetto, Rutka wrote a diary. Her friend, Stanisława Sapińska, helped her to hide it under some floorboards; and later, when the ghetto had been cleared and Rutka had gone, Sapińska went back to recover it. She kept the book safe for over 60 years, and secret. It was only in 2005 that her family persuaded her to allow it to be published. (The story is well told on Wikipedia’s Rutka Laskier web page.)

Subsequently, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, published English and Hebrew editions. Its website has an informative article about the diary. ‘While forming a chilling human and historical document,’ it says, ‘Holocaust diaries have great documentary value for the understanding of the period from the viewpoint of those who experienced it - as an illustration of life in the ghettos, in camps or in hiding, as well as in battling Holocaust deniers.’

The New York Times has a good selection of extracts from the diary. Here is one from 6 February 1943: ‘Oh, I forgot the most important thing. I saw how a soldier tore a baby, who was only a few months old, out of its mother’s hands and bashed his head against an electric pylon. The baby’s brain splashed on the wood. The mother went crazy. I am writing this as if nothing has happened. . .’.

The new version of the diary, just published by Times Inc. Home Entertainment in collaboration with Yad Vashem, is called Rutka’s Notebook: A Voice from the Holocaust. According to Publishers Weekly it sets Laskier’s writings within a larger context: ‘Pages on the left feature her diary entries, typeset on what looks like parchment, while pages to the right feature maps, historical documents, or photographs (including several of Laskier with family members and friends), as well as historical commentary and annotations explaining obscure terminology.’

The co-publishers claim this is a ‘Polish Anne Frank’, but not everyone agrees. Canada’s Calgary Herald says ‘she is nothing of the kind’. Frank’s diary, Naomi Lakritz says in the article, ‘was richly textured with detailed descriptions of people, places, conversations and events. One could walk right in to Frank’s life; trying to catch more than a glimpse of Laskier’s family and friends is like discerning their shapes through a pane of frosted glass.’

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Steadyhand Diaries

Financial services might not be the most riveting of diary subjects, and financial services in Canada may be even less so, but Tom Bradley has done a good job in bringing the subject alive. A generous selection of his diary entries have just been published in Globe Investor Magazine, a supplement of Globe and Mail, the country’s largest circulation national newspaper.

In early 2005, Bradley resigned as president of Phillips, Hager & North (PHN), one of Canada’s largest independent investment firms. A year later he wrote in his diary: ‘I want to focus on getting a new mutual-fund company off the ground. Enough dreaming about it. We'll burn through some serious cash and I'll offend a few industry friends along the way, but if we do it right and get a little luck, we can have a real impact. Steadyhand, as I’ve called it, will sell its funds directly to the investor. Our fees will be low - no commissions or trailers. Clients will get simple, straight-ahead service. . .’

Five pages of Bradley’s diary entries - entitled ‘The Steadyhand Diaries’ - were published online by Globe Investor Magazine on 22 May. Starting in 2005, they cover three years of Bradley’s life through to early 2008, the day his old firm, PHN, announced it was selling out to Royal Bank. Along the way, he describes, with a deft touch, how many of the decisions in developing and launching Steadyhand were made (for example, ‘we just hired a CFO who’s six months pregnant. Are we nuts...or incredibly enlightened?’).

The launch of Steadyhand took place in April 2007. A week later Bradley writes, ‘the silence is deafening’, and ‘a few clients are trickling in, but I can tell the team is disappointed’, and ‘Man, it’s tough putting bums in the seats’.

And it was especially tough for Bradley too, because - according to his diary - he’d been seriously ill since the beginning of the year, and by May was on the waiting list for a liver transplant. It came in August, and by October he had officially returned to work, presumably with his steady hand back on the tiller.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The lure of birds’ eggs

The obsessive zeal with which some men - for it is almost always men - hunt down, steal, and hoard birds’ eggs is difficult to understand for most of us, especially since it is a criminal activity. However, recently a master criminal in this respect, Richard Pearson, was caught and sent to jail. A set of carefully compiled diaries helped to give some insight into his obsession. But for a literary appreciation of the lure of birds’ eggs, temptation tasted yet resisted, one should visit Barbellion’s early 20th century diaries.

Skegness Magistrates Court sentenced Pearson last April to 23 weeks in prison and ordered him to pay £1,500 in costs for illegally stealing and possessing birds’ eggs. The police prosecutor, in presenting his case, called Pearson’s hoard, discovered at the Cleethorpes family home in 2007, as an ‘Aladdin’s Cave’, according to a BBC News report. In total, police officers found more than 7,000 eggs, including many rare species, says RSPB investigator Mark Thomas on his blog, such as honey buzzard, Montagu’s harrier, red-necked phalarope, black-tailed godwit, dotterel, greenshank and red-backed shrike.

The police also found 59 dead birds in a freezer and dozens of diaries detailing where and when he had found the eggs; and they seized egg-hunting paraphernalia - a rubber dinghy, waders, climbing spikes, syringes, cameras and sat-nav systems.

At the time of his arrest, Pearson claimed he had been given the eggs by the late Colin Watson, an infamous egg collector, who had died in May 2006 after falling from a larch tree containing a sparrowhawk nest. Prior to his death, Watson had been convicted seven times for offences connected to birds’ eggs. However, Pearson’s meticulous diaries, as decoded by the RSPB investigators, gave the police all the information they needed for a successful prosecution.

Also among his possessions, Pearson had photocopies of diaries written by Watson which together with Pearson’s diaries, the Times Online says, provide ‘an insight into the minds of men who crawl up trees and down cliff faces, risking their lives in pursuit of prizes with no monetary value that can never be displayed in their homes for fear of a police raid’. The same article, using RSPB sources, explains how these men saw their exploits as comparable to secret agents, and how half the fun was in beating the police, the RSPB and the system.

The lure of bird’s eggs is not only experienced by criminal types. Just after the First World War, a young man made this entry in his diary: ‘Birds’ eggs were another electrifying factor in my youth. I can remember tramping to and fro all one warm June afternoon over a bracken-covered sandy waste, searching for a nightjar’s eggs. H—— and I quartered out the ground systematically, till presently, after two hours’ search, the hen goat-sucker flipped up at my feet and fluttered away like a big moth across the silvery bracken out of sight. Lying before me on the ground were two long, grey eggs, marbled like pebbles. I turned away from this intoxicating vision, flicking my fingers as if I had been bitten. Then I turned, approached slowly, and gloated. It was just such an effect on me as a girl’s beautiful face used to make — equally tantalising and out of reach. I stared, fingered them, put one to my lips. Then it was over. I had to leave them, and an equal thrill at goat-suckers’ eggs could never return again.’

The young man was born Bruce Frederick Cummings in 1889, but is better known today by his pen name, W N P Barbellion, because of the fame of his diary - The Journal of a Disappointed Man. It was published, with a preface by H G Wells, in 1919, only months before his death, aged but 30. The diary is freely available on the internet at Barbellionblog (many thanks to Ray Davis for the website).

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

I am a super-person

‘I want this to be remembered forever. Maybe I'll even have a follower; after all, I am a super-person, almost God.’ This is one of many disturbing diary entries made by Pekka-Eric Auvinen, a Finnish student, in the run-up to his shooting of eight people and himself at Jokela High School in November 2007. Information about the diaries has recently come to light thanks to publication of a final report by the Finnish Bureau of Investigation.

The shooting was one of the worst such incidents ever reported, and certainly the most terrible in Finland. At the time, the Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen called it a ‘great tragedy’ and said the shooting had ‘deeply undermined the sense of security in society’, according to BBC News. The facts are carefully explained in an excellent Wikipedia entry.

There are many extraordinary and indeed disturbing aspects of this tragedy, not least that Auvinen was on SSRI antidepressants (which, it is now thought, can lead to suicidal tendencies in teenagers), and that his murderous shooting spree happened just three weeks after getting a gun licence.

But also disturbing is the extent to which Auvinen’s obsession was publicly visible on the internet for a long time prior to the tragedy. The Wikipedia article gives details of a video posted to YouTube, hours before the shooting, announcing the massacre, and of other videos, posted earlier, showing an unhealthy interest in violent incidents, such as the Columbine High School massacre, the Waco Siege, and the Tokyo sarin gas attack. Auvenin even left a media package explaining his actions and his motives for the shooting. The Odd Culture website carries much of Auvinen’s own material, while The Trenchcoat Chronicals, which is fairly obsessed in its own way, has much to say about the Jokela tragedy and other school shootings.

It has now been revealed - thanks to a final report from the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation - that Auvenin also kept a diary. It shows, a Bureau press release states, that ‘Auvinen had started to plan the school shooting in March 2007 and given it the name ‘Main Strike’. The diary entries display the will and the plans of the perpetrator and their realisation as well as the possibility that the perpetrator himself could die in the incident. No traces were found in the investigation that an outsider would have read the diary.’

I don’t think the text of the diaries has been made public (at least not in English), but various extracts have made their way into news reports. WikiNews has these:
- ‘In the best case, this (attack) would create massive destruction and chaos, or even a revolution’;
- ‘In any case, I want this to be remembered forever. Maybe I'll even have a follower; after all, I am a super-person, almost God’;
- ‘kill as many of you bastards as possible’.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Chester Gillette on death row

Death Row diaries/blogs are common today and easily accessible on the internet, but such a diary from a century ago is a real find. One written by a young man called Chester Gillette, and recently unearthed by a relative, has been published in time for the 100 year anniversary of his execution.

After leaving school and doing various jobs, Gillette began working at an uncle’s factory (making skirts) in 2005. Here he met Grace Brown who, by the spring of 1906, had become pregnant. She was anxious to get married; Gillette, though, was too busy chasing other skirt. He did, however, agree to take her on a weekend trip to the Adirondacks, a pretty mountainous region in northeast New York. There they went on a boat trip, on Big Moose Lake, from which Brown never returned. Her body was recovered the next day. Gillette claimed she had drowned accidentally and he had panicked and fled. But the court decided he had clubbed her with a tennis racket and left her to drown. It sentenced him to death.

The story entered into the American psyche through Theodore Dreiser’s famous 1925 novel, An American Tragedy, and the 1951 Academy Award-winning film A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens.

Last year, a diary that Gillette kept in Auburn Prison from September 1907 to his death on 30 March 1908 was donated by Marlynn McWade-Murray to Hamilton College. The diary (and some of Gillette’s letters) had been handed down to McWade-Murray, from her father who was the son of Gillette’s sister, Hazel. In advance of the anniversary of the execution, Hamilton College published The Prison Diary and Letters of Chester Gillette, edited by Craig Brandon and Jack Sherman.

Brandon has his own website where he chronicles the finding and publishing of the diary, and where he writes in some detail about the diary. Gillette’s very last entry starts: ‘Went to bed at 12:30 and was asleep in a few minutes. I slept soundly until called at 3:45. Feel refreshed and calm. I am surprised that I can look at this matter so calmly. Had communion for the first time. I feel that I am fully prepared to go and meet Jesus.’ Indeed, it seems from the diary that on death row the young man returned to the deeply religious ways of his parents.

These days, diaries and blogs by those on Death Row, or others concerned about them, seem to be the norm - Deathwatch International, for example, has links to several. Others include Vernon, who claims to be the first death row blogger, and Rob Will who’s ‘telling the world in cyberspace what it’s REALLY  like living on Texas Death Row’.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Confidential recycling

A retired NYPD policeman has been selling his log books on eBay at $30 a lot - thanks to Susan Edelman at the New York Post for this. James Giordonello marketed his log books, Edelman says, as ‘unique NYPD memorabilia’. He claimed they contained ‘the good, the bad, and . . . oh yeah, the ugly’ sides of police work, with everyday details of a cop’s life on the street ‘from shootings to missing children’. Very properly, Edelman bought one of the books to report on its content (a typical notation reads, she says, ‘Visited 886 Home St. - padlocked.’), but could not get hold of Edelman himself for a comment. She did, though, contact NYPD which then demanded eBay stop posting Giordonello’s lots.

Is this right? Surely, recycling should be encouraged. There must be good money to be made from anything confidential, not only by cops for their logbooks, but by doctors for their notes, psychotherapists for their jottings and doodles, solicitors for their briefs, and, of course, politicians for their memo pads.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Smoking, heroin and opium

The third and final volume of The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray has just been published in the UK. The Last Cigarette, like its predecessors, is not really a book of diary entries but of reminiscences, a bit faded I would guess, like an old smoking jacket. For something a little more hard core, try The Heroin Diaries, also recently published, or The Confessions of an Opium-Eater, not so recently published but freely available on the internet.

Those who admired the first two volumes by Gray, The Daily Telegraph says, ‘will be glad to know that [The Last Cigarette] is the same mixture as before: an up-to-the-minute account of what is happening to its author here and now interlaced with autobiographical flashbacks and curmudgeonly asides.’ The reviewer, Jeremy Lewis, who loves the book (‘consistently entertaining’) reinforces my own suspicions by remarking that the book’s ‘high point describes a flight from London to Athens’ and the tale of some lost luggage. Riveting stuff.

The Guardian has a longish extract, wittily called Gray’s Anatomy. An alternative, and more informative, title might have been The First Fuck - but I suppose The Guardian is a family paper.

Extracts from the first volume, The Smoking Diaries, can be found on the Amazon website. Here’s a sample from the first page: ‘Thus am I, at sixty-five and a day. Thus he is, at sixty-five and a day, a farter, a belcher, a dribbler and a what else did I say I did, farting, belching, dribbling, oh yes, wheezing. But then as I smoke something like sixty-five cigarettes a day people are likely to continue with their inevitable “Well if you insist on getting through three packets. etc.” to which I will reply, as always - actually I can’t remember what I always reply, and how could I, when I don’t believe anyone, even my doctors, ever says anything like, “Well if you insist, etc.” In fact I’m merely reporting a conversation I have with myself, quite often, when I find myself wheezing . . .’

There’s something endearingly old-fashioned about Simon Gray, his smoking, and his diaries, But there is very little to be recommended in having a publisher, Granta, so behind the times: its website carries no information about Simon Gray or his three volumes of non-diary diaries.

Meanwhile, as I say, for something a little more hard core, try The Heroin Diaries, published by Simon & Schuster. Wikipedia gives some basic information: ‘The book is co-written by Nikki Sixx, bassist of the heavy metal bands Mötley Crüe and Sixx:A.M., and Ian Gittins. It’s a 432-page collection of diary entries written between Christmas of 1986 and Christmas of 1987, and chronicles Sixx’s wild lifestyle, drug addiction, descent into paranoia and depression, and his subsequent recovery.’

Otherwise, for a cross between Gray and Sixx, try Thomas de Quincey’s classic Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which is nearly 200 years old. The full text is available on many websites. One of the easiest to read is at The University of Adelaide Library.

Finally, it’s worth noting that there are several good titles still available for addicts or ex-addicts, such as The Last Whisky, The Last Spliff, The Last Fix - but not, I'm afraid, The Last Fuck, which is the title of a 2003 horror flick!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Diary clue to sudden death

Whose body parts are distributed between three major museums in Australia and New Zealand: the heart in the National Museum of Australia, the skin in Melbourne Museum, and the skeleton in New Zealand’s National Museum?

Phar Lap, a name which means ‘lightning’ in Thai, was a most extraordinary horse, perhaps the most famous and revered in the Australasian continent. Foaled in Timaru, New Zealand, in 1926, he was transported to Australia where he then dominated the racing scene for several years, winning more than two-thirds of all his races, including the Melbourne Cup. In 1932, he was shipped to a racecourse near Tijuana in Mexico for the Agua Caliente Handicap - where he won the largest purse ever raced for in North America - and then to a private ranch in California. But he died there suddenly and under suspicious circumstances, on 5 April. A necropsy revealed that his stomach and intestines were inflamed, and this gave rise to a strong suspicion of poisoning. American gangsters were considered to be likely suspects, since it was thought they were deeply concerned about Phar Lap’s potentially negative impact on their illegal bookmaking activities.

Over 70 years later in 2006, Australian scientists used a newly constructed synchrotron (a kind of huge and expensive electron gun or particle accelerator) to analyse hairs from Phar Lap. They concluded, according to ABC News, that the horse had been poisoned from a single large dose of arsenic. However, in another ABC News story the same day, a racing expert claimed that arsenic was often included in tonics given to horses at the time, and that 90% of horses then had arsenic in their system.

Now, a couple of years later, a new source of information has come to light - a diary kept by Phar Lap’s trainer, Harry Telford. It was bought at auction on 23 April by Museum Victoria with Australian government money. According to a ministerial press release, the diary details 30 recipes used by Phar Lap’s trainers to prepare him for races, and many ingredients in these recipes included poisonous substances such as arsenic and strychnine. All of which gives credence to the idea that he was poisoned - but not deliberately, and not by American gangsters.

To show how much Phar Lap was, and is, loved in Australia here’s a paragraph from a short memoir written by Doreen Borrow, who was born on the same day as Phar Lap. The memoir is entitled My Ride On An Ozzie Icon and is published in Illawarra Unity, the journal of the Illawarra Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History: ‘His name still conjures up all that is good and brave in people. To have a heart as big as Phar Lap, carry more weight than Phar Lap, or to go like Phar Lap remain among the highest accolades heaped upon the most supreme champions by the older generation of Australians who remember what a great galloper he was. I recall my mate Mike using one of these expressions during a family dinner. My future son-in-law, being of Italian descent asked, ‘Who’s Phar Lap?’ There was a stunned silence from all present and utter disbelief that an eighteen-year-old, born in Australia, had never heard of the great Phar Lap! It was almost enough to make us cancel the wedding!’

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The secrets of military coups

Notable Turkish diarists are few and far between. Indeed, The Diary Junction, with over 500 diarists listed from over 30 countries, does not have any on its lists. Nevertheless, a Turkish diary has been in the news recently - for no less than highlighting the ever-present possibility of a coup!

Last year, the Turkish newsweekly Nokta (which subsequently closed down) published excerpts from a diary allegedly written by a former navy commander, Özden Örnek. The excerpts gave details of how Turkey narrowly escaped two military coups in 2004. Örnek himself was one of the coup plotters. He denied having written the diary entries and claimed they had been libelously attributed to him. During the course of a legal case against Nokta’s editor-in-chief, Alper Görmü, it was proven by a group of experts that the diaries did originate from Örnek’s computer. Görmü has just been acquitted of all charges.

The English-language newspaper, Today’s Zaman, draws strong conclusions from the case: ‘This acquittal implicitly verified the claims that top-ranking commanders of the army had been involved in attempts to stage coups. However, not even a single investigation has so far been launched against the coup plotters. This incident clearly indicates that even those who attempt stage coups are very well protected. To this day, none of those who have made these attempts have been investigated, despite very clear and open evidence, let alone tried.’

Just before the end of the trial the independant policy insititute, European Stability Initiative, had come to a similar conclusion: ‘The outcome of the Nokta affair is that it is the journalists, not the potential coup plotters, who are under investigation’.

Also few and far between are military coup diarists of any nationality (but any future ones should keep their writing under close guard until ready to reveal all). There is, though, an interesting set of diaries by Petr Vologodskii, a prominent Siberian lawyer and a member of the anti-Bolshevik government, set up in Omsk, during the Russian civil war. The Hoover Institution has published them in English in two volumes - The Diaries of Petr Vasil'evich Vologodskii, 1918-1925. They give rich details of the coup that led to the formation of the opposing government. Although the books themselves are not available online, the Hoover Institution has made available an extensive (but apparently anonymous) article about them.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Politkovskaya's Russian Diary

‘[This book] should be dropped from the air in vast quantities throughout the length and breadth of Mother Russia, for all her people to read.’ So wrote Jon Snow in his introduction to A Russian Diary, by Anna Politkovskaya. First published in 2007 by Random House, just a year after her death, A Russian Diary: A Journalist's Final Account of Life, Corruption, and Death in Putin's Russia, has now been issued in paperback by Vintage. Politkovskaya was a crusading Russian journalist, most well known perhaps for her reporting from Chechnya and her strident criticisms of the Russian regime’s role in that conflict. She was also a severe critic of Putin’s presidency. In 2006, at the age of 48, she was shot dead in her apartment block lift. Russian state security officer Alexander Litvinenko accused Putin of ordering the assassination. Putin argued publicly that, in his opinion, murdering such a person would do much greater damage to the authorities than her publications ever had. Litvinenko, though, himself was murdered in London two weeks after making his accusation against Putin.

A Russian Diary is not a diary in the normal sense, but pieces of Politkovskaya’s writing put together and attached to specific dates. The book had been prepared by Politkovskaya herself and was in the process of being translated, by Arch Tait, when Politkovskaya was murdered. Wikipedia carries a detailed biography of the journalist and includes part of Jon Snow’s introduction: ‘Her murder robbed too many of us of absolutely vital sources of information and contact. Yet it may, ultimately, be seen to have at least helped prepare the way for the unmasking of the dark forces at the heart of Russia's current being. I must confess that I finished reading A Russian Diary feeling that it should be taken up and dropped from the air in vast quantities throughout the length and breadth of Mother Russia, for all her people to read.’

Thanks are due to the New York Times which has substantial extracts from the book, and an excellent review, by Andrew Meier. He is not enamoured of the translation or the editing but is much taken with Politkovskaya herself. He concludes: ‘Her writing made her more than a reporter; when she died, she was a crisis mediator and Russia’s most prominent human rights advocate. Stacks of letters — pleas for help — came daily. Politkovskaya fought for the victims — of the state, of terror and of that Russian catchall, fate. Then she joined them.’

Politkovskaya was born in the US to Soviet Ukrainian parents, both UN diplomats, but grew up in Moscow. She graduated from the Moscow State University Department of Journalism in 1980 with a thesis on the writer and poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who also led a troubled life, much affected by the Revolution. Tsvetaeva died, by committing suicide, at the age of 49, just a year older than Politkovskaya. Curiously, she was also a pseudo diarist: her book called The Demesne of the Swans is a series of political poems but written in the form of a diary.

The Diary Junction - Data and links for over 500 historical and literary diarists

Monday, May 12, 2008

Prokofiev's literary gifts

The murder of Rasputin, by coincidence, is one of many and varied incidents written about by the composer Serge Prokofiev in his diaries, the second volume of which (1915-1922) has just been published in Britain. The diaries, translated and annotated by Anthony Phillips, are getting a reasonable press. The Times calls them ‘compelling reading, and not only for musical historians’; and Phillips’ translation is described as ‘masterly’. However, the New Statesman ‘can't help but wish in places that [Phillips had] adopted a rather harsher editorial approach’ because ‘in the later diaries, the composer's lapidary prose fails to enliven interminable descriptions of parties, romantic indecisiveness and suchlike’.

The publisher, Faber&Faber, says: ‘Taken as a whole, the Diaries represent an inexhaustibly rich portrait of one of the most vibrant periods in the whole of Western art, peopled by virtually every musician and artist of note. They constitute both an indispensable and an entertaining source of reference for all scholars and lovers of Prokofiev’s music.’ Generously, the publisher’s website makes available the full text of Phillips’ introduction.

The diaries were published in Russia some time ago - see the excellent Sergey Prokofiev Foundation website. Available on this website are extensive extracts, in English, from the third volume (1923-1933, yet to be published in English) along with many photographs. There is also the text of an interview with Phillips, and comments by literary and academic figures. For example, Natalia Savkina, an associate professor of history at the Moscow Conservatory, comments on the diaries as follows: ‘I am convinced that Prokofiev's literary gift was equal to his talent as a musician. As a result, we obtain a book in which Prokofiev the writer is challenging Prokofiev the musician.’

When the first volume of Prokofiev's diaries (1907-194) were published in English in 2006 it sparked a mini-debate about whether a composer's autobiographical material was really relevant to his/her music. Oliver Kamm gave the subject a good airing, focusing on the fallacy of assuming that the works and the composer's intentions for the works were equivalent.

Rasputin's diary?

The Diary of Grigory Rasputin has just been published in Russia, according to Russia InfoCentre. Rasputin, sometimes dubbed the Mad Monk, rose to great heights in Tsarist Russia, over a hundred years ago. Little is known about his childhood, his life was controversial to say the least, and his murder in 1916 remains the subject of speculation today. According to InfoCentre, it took experts several years to decipher the text of the 102 page diary, and to recognise that it was not actually written by Rasputin himself, but on his behalf. This person, InfoCentre says, ‘tells about [Rasputin’s] calling and healing power, writes tenderly about Mama, the Empress, and scornfully about Papa, the Emperor: “Take his crown off, and you won’t distinguish him amid a dozen of people”.’

For an alternative view of this diary, see Edvard Radzinsky’s book, The Rasputin File published in 2001 by Random House. Radzinsky calls the diary a ‘ crude ideological forgery’.