Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Humph wasn’t joking

London-based publisher JR Books Ltd has just brought out a posthumous collection of writings by Humphrey Lyttelton who died earlier this year. Lyttelton, often referred to as Humph, was a man of many talents, not least playing the trumpet, but he’s most widely known and loved for chairing the long-running radio programme I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. The newly published book includes some diary extracts, and these suggest he tired of the programme 30 years ago.

Born at Eton college in 1921 where his father was a housemaster, Lyttleton grew up to be schooled there also. He served with the Grenadier Guards in the war, attended art college, then, in 1949, joined the Daily Mail as a cartoonist. He stayed there until the mid-1950s, by which time he had become a well-known jazz musician. For 40 years, from 1967 until 2007, he presented The Best of Jazz on BBC Radio 2; and then, in 1972, he was chosen to host a new radio programme I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, or just Clue, billed as an antidote to panel games. He remained its chairman until his death last April. Wikipedia gives a useful biography of Lyttleton, but it’s quite brief, especially in comparison to the article on Clue, which is about twice as long!

JR Books, which is based in Camden and describes itself as ‘an exciting new name in book publishing’, has just published Humphrey Lyttelton’s Last Chorus: An Autobiographical Medley. Unfortunately, JR Books does not have an exciting website, and it gives no information about the book other than that it is ‘a feast for all his many fans and admirers’. There is more on Amazon, which says the book draws ‘on some of Humph’s long-lost autobiographical writings, as well a wealth of other material, including his never-before-seen private diaries, plus cartoons and photos from the family album.’

According to New Camden Journal, which ran a short story on the forthcoming book earlier this year, Jeremy Robson of JR Books described the diaries as ‘beautifully written in his own fine hand’, as ‘often very revealing’, and as ‘a work of art in themselves’. He said Humph was ‘an absolutely wonderful writer - not a comma needed changing’. The article also referred back to when Humph had died and how fans had left many bouquets of flowers outside Mornington Crescent tube station. Why? Simply because Mornington Crescent was the name of a popular panel game on Clue (and it too has its own Wikipedia entry).

The day after the book’s publication last Saturday (25 October), The Independent ran a review with the headline: Humph’s diaries reveal he tired of ‘Clue’ 30 years ago. The article says there are a series of diary entries in the book in which Lyttelton ‘bemoans the quality of the show’. It gives an example. In 1975, three years after the programme was launched, he wrote: ‘I’m not sure that this game show hasn’t finally run its course - this has been a good series with better games than before, but there have been moments when it floundered. I shan’t be sorry if it expires. I’m rather tired of people coming up and saying ‘I enjoyed your programme the other day’ and finding out they mean this bit of nonsense!’

The article also looks at a new DVD, to be released shortly, of recorded sketches from a stage show the Clue’s regular panellists had been touring since 2007. Lyttelton is seen apparently ad libbing to an audience in Salford: ‘Listen, I’ll tell you something. If I’d known at seven o’clock in the morning on the 23rd of May 1921 that I would ever live to sit on the stage in Salford reading this codswallop, I would have turned around and crawled back in.’ The audience roared with laughter, as they always did, when he was slagging off the show, or its pannellists, or muttering under his breath about how bored he was with it all. His diaries now seem to suggest he wasn’t always joking.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hughes fishing; Plath in quicksand

The British Library has just acquired a large archive of material written by Ted Hughes, the celebrated British poet who died ten years ago today. The heart of the archive is said to be manuscripts relating to Birthday Letters, a book of poems about his relationship with Sylvia Plath. However, the collection also includes personal diaries written across nearly half a century. Hughes’s diaries have never been published (as far as I can tell), but Plath’s diaries, first published nearly 30 years ago, are much admired.

Hughes, born in 1930 and christened Edward James, studied English, among other subjects, at Pembroke College, Cambridge. And it was in Cambridge that he published his first poems, and where he met the American writer, Sylvia Plath. Hughes and Plath married in 1956, and had two children before separating in 1962. The following year, Plath committed suicide. Hughes was then living with Assia Wevill, a German writer. Six years later she too committed suicide, but not before she’d killed the child she’d had with Hughes. Despite these personal traumas, Hughes went on to marry again, to become a celebrated poet and children’s writer, and to be Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998 (on 28 October). Wikipedia says that critics routinely rank him as one of the best poets of his generation.

Earlier this month, on 14 October, the British Library announced it had acquired a large archive of Hughes’ writings, at a cost of £500,000. At the heart of the archive, it says, are the manuscripts relating to Birthday Letters, Hughes’s poems about his relationship with Plath. However, it also includes personal diaries ‘which span the decades from the 1950s to the 1990s, recording daily events, accounts of dreams and reflections on his family and his past, alongside fragments of poems and writings on historical and literary figures’.

Particularly interesting, the British Library adds, are ‘the fishing journals’. In part, these are a conventional record of events, but they are interspersed with lengthy reflections inspired by specific locations such as Devon, where he lived for many years, Scotland, Alaska and Kenya. Fishing, both as physical pursuit and as metaphor, the Library explains, was supremely important in Hughes’s life and work. Unfortunately, it gives no examples of, or extracts from, the diaries. Poetry (and fishing) enthusiasts will have to wait until the end of next year, when the Library expects to open up access to the collection.

Meanwhile, though, there is always Sylvia Plath’s diary. She started writing when only 11, and continued throughout her life. Wikipedia gives some information about this, and The Diary Junction has some links to extracts. A first edition of her adult diaries were published in the early 1980s, but they were heavily edited by Hughes. During the last years of his life, though, Hughes began working on a fuller publication of the journals, and, shortly before his death, gave legal permission for the use of two journals that otherwise would have been sealed until 2013.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath were published in 2000, with roughly two-thirds new material. A review by The Guardian gives examples of what Hughes orginally edited out, and another of its articles gives extensive extracts from the diaries. Also, there’s more information about the unabridged journals at, where one can read a few pages.

Here are two extracts from 1950 (I think).
‘Today is the first of August. It is hot, steamy and wet. It is raining. I am tempted to write a poem. But I remember what it said on one rejection slip: After a heavy rainfall, poems entitled RAIN pour in from across the nation.’

‘With me, the present is forever, and forever is always shifting, flowing, melting. This second is life. And when it is gone it is dead. But you can’t start over with each new second. You have to judge by what is dead. It’s like quicksand . . . hopeless from the start. A story, a picture, can renew sensation a little, but not enough, not enough. Nothing is real except the present, and already, I feel the weight of centuries smothering me. Some girl a hundred years ago once lived as I do. And she is dead. I am the present, but I know I, too, will pass. The high moment, the burning flesh, come and are gone, continuous quicksand. And I don’t want to die.’

And here’s another from March 1956, about Hughes.
‘Please let him come, and give me the resilience & guts to make him respect me, be interested, and not to throw myself at him with loudness or hysterical yelling; calmly, gently, easy baby easy. He is probably strutting the backs among crocuses now with seven Scandinavian mistresses. And I sit, spiderlike, waiting, here, home; Penelope weaving webs of Webster, turning spindles of Tourneur. Oh, he is here; my black marauder; oh hungry hungry. I am so hungry for a big smashing creative burgeoning burdened love: I am here; I wait; and he plays on the banks of the river Cam like a casual faun.’

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A king’s phallic doodles

A popular history magazine in Sweden has just disclosed that one of the country’s kings - Charles XIII - used to draw penises in his diary, possibly to record sexual activity! His queen’s diaries, however, are much better known, for their insight into late 19th century court gossip.

Swedish magazine, Populär Historia, has published a bizarre story about a diary written by King Charles (Karl in Swedish) XIII; and a synopsis has appeared on The Local website (which provides Swedish news in English). The diaries are owned by Anders Nyström, a school headmaster, who has revealed that they contain ‘a number of previously undisclosed details, including small illustrations of the male reproductive organ’.

Charles was born in 1748, and matured into a rather weak man, easily led and often pleasure-seeking. In 1774, he entered into an arranged marriage with his 15-year-old cousin, Hedwig Elizabeth Charlotte, but the relationship was never close, and they lived most of their lives separated and having extramarital affairs. Nor did they have children. 

Charles was appointed regent in 1792 for his nephew Gustav IV, but was so ineffectual that real power passed to court advisers until Gustav was old enough to rule in his own right. Charles, himself, was eventually made king in 1809, but by then he had prematurely aged, and the French-born Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, elected crown prince during the period of Napoleonic Wars, took over governing on his arrival in Sweden in 1810. Both Charles and his wife died in 1818.

The diaries in question date from 1785, a time when Karl was 37 years old, and contain entries about his travels, military duties and experiments in alchemy (carried out in his own laboratory). They also contain small drawings of penises which, according to the reports, ‘appear to coincide with sexually productive moments in the duke’s life’. On 23 October, for example, he attended an oyster supper with his wife, and the diary entry about this was accompanied by not one but two phallic doodles.

Swedish academic Ingemar Carlsson said that the diary was ‘a completely unique source’ and that he had never heard of any remaining diary notes written in Charles’s hand from such an early period. The leather-bound volume was passed to Nyström by his mother, who received the book as a gift in the 1950s. ‘I more or less grew up with it but never thought too much about it,’ he told The Local.

Much better known, however, are the diaries of Charles’s wife, Hedwig Elizabeth Charlotte. Indeed, she is best known for her diaries, Wikipedia says, which were published in their original language of French in nine parts from 1902. An exhibition on 18th century Stockholm, which included her diaries, at Stockholm City Museum opened in October 2007, but closed recently, at the end of August. The publicity for the exhibition said her diaries had become ‘treasures’ because of their gossip about the royals - even if they were just ‘a way to kill time between balls and card games’.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rescuing the Emin Pasha

Arthur Jephson, a young adventurer and African explorer, died one hundred years ago today. He’s not well remembered, but he would be even less so if it were not for a diary he wrote while accompanying Henry Stanley on one of his expeditions in Africa. Unfortunately, the text of the diary does not appear to be available on the internet, although copies printed in the 1960s are available, at a price.

One of twelve children, Jephson was born in 1858 to the vicar of Childerditch in Essex, and Ellen, the daughter of the recorder of Norwich. He trained for the merchant navy, but then spent time in the Antrim regiment of the Royal Irish Rifles, before resigning his commission and living under the patronage of Helene, comtesse de Noailles. In 1886, a donation by the comtesse secured Jephson’s place on an expedition along the Congo, being undertaken by Henry Morton Stanley. On Jephson’s return from Africa, he published an account of the journey which was translated into French and German, and also lectured on the subject. Despite wanting to return to the continent, he never did due to ill-health. He was appointed Queen’s Messenger (one who carries important documents for the sovereign) in 1895; in 1904 he married and had one son. Four years later he died, while still relatively young, on 22 October 1908.

But it is the expedition to Africa for which Jephson is most remembered. It was organised to rescue a man invariably called Emin Pasha. A physician and explorer from Silesia, he was originally named Eduard Schnitzer, but after becoming a medical officer in the Turkish army, he adopted a Turkish mode of living with the name Mehmet Emin. He later served under General Charles Gordon in Equatoria (an Egyptian province in the upper Nile at the time, now Sudan) as a district medical officer, and then succeeded Gordon as governor. However, an Arab revolt, that started in the early 1880s, increasingly isolated him and his few troops. Nevertheless, he managed to keep lines of communication open, and his communiques to Europe eventually attracted considerable sympathy, especially after Gordon’s death in 1885.

Thus, in 1887, the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, led by Henry Morton Stanley, undertook to rescue the man by going up the Congo River and then through the Ituri Forest. Two-thirds of those who undertook the journey died. A Wikipedia article on Emin explains that Stanley did find Emin, in April 1888, but then spent a year arguing with him and his troops to leave for safer parts. During this time, both Emin and Jephson were imprisoned for some months by rebel officers, and only then was Emin finally persuaded to leave for the coast.

Jephson kept a diary during the expedition, but it wasn’t published until more than 50 years after his death, in 1969 (for the Hakluyt Society by Cambridge University Press). Its full title is The Diary of A J Mounteney Jephson: Emin Pasha Relief Expedition 1887-1889. It was edited by Dorothy Middleton, and has a preface, prologue and epilogue compiled by the editor in collaboration with Maurice Denham Jephson. As far I can tell there are no extracts available on the internet, but Abebooks has some copies for sale, starting at about £30. Wikipedia calls Jephson’s diary ‘frank, sensitive and open-hearted’.

A few more interesting details about Jephson and his diary are available at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website (for which one needs a subscription, but UK public library membership allows for free access). The diary, it says, confirms ‘in graphic detail the extent of the violence and suffering’ that accompanied the expedition. It also argues that since Jephson had had no previous experience of either tropical travel or warfare, his very survival was considered something of an accomplishment. According to the AIM25 website (which provides information on archives in the greater London area), photocopies of the original diary is held at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tales of executioners

The diaries of Britain’s last hangman - Harry Allen - are up for auction. Gruesome they maybe, but they also provide a fascinating if somewhat clinical insight into the mind of a person with one of the strangest of all professions. Around 400 years ago, another hangman - Franz Schmidt - was hard at work in Germany, executing more than 10 times as many criminals as Allen, and he too kept a diary.

The Knutsford Guardian revealed on 19 October that Harry Allen’s diary is to be auctioned by local auctioneers, Marshall’s, on 11 November, on behalf of Allen’s widow, Doris. The lot will also include tools of Allen’s trade, such as two black bow ties and a 25ft tape measure. The national press soon picked up the story. The Daily Mail, for example, ran a story on 20 October with the headline ‘Revealed: The macabre diaries of death penned by Britain’s last hangman’.

By the time Allen, born in Yorkshire in 1911, reached 30 years of age he was already working at Manchester prison as assistant executioner. Following the resignation of Albert Pierrepoint (the subject of a recent film) and the death of Steve Wade (both in 1956), Allen and another hangman, Robert Leslie Stewart, jointly became the country’s Chief Executioners. Allen performed the last execution in Northern Ireland in December 1961, and the last in Scotland in August 1963. He also performed one of the two final executions in Britain, in August 1964, when Gwynne Owen Evans was hanged in Manchester (at the same time as Stewart hanged Evans’ accomplice Peter Anthony Allen in Liverpool).

According to Wikipedia’s article on the man, Allen’s most controversial case was that of James Hanratty, hanged in 1962 for the A6 murder case. Efforts to clear Hanratty’s name continued until 2001 when DNA testing finally confirmed Hanratty’s presence at the crime scene. Allen himself died in 1992. True Crime Library has just published a first biography - Harry Allen: Britain’s Last Hangman - penned by Stewart McLaughlin who works for the prison service and had access to prison files.

The Knutsford Guardian gives a good flavour of the diary: ‘In his journal he recorded details of each prisoner’s age, weight, height and worked out how long the rope needed to be to ensure a swift death. In his earlier entries he had also recorded how he felt. Mr Allen was 29 when he witnessed his first execution on 26 November 1940 at Bedford Prison. William Cooper, 24, had been convicted at Cambridge of murdering John Harrison, an elderly farmer. The execution was, according to Mr Allen, a ‘very good and clean job’ despite Cooper’s ‘loss of courage’. ‘The culprit had to be carried to the scaffold owing to faintness,’ Mr Allen wrote in his diary.’

The Daily Mail gives more details from the diary, about how Allen was involved in the execution of five Nazi prisoners of war for murdering a fellow German soldier who had grassed on their escape plan. Of their crime Allen wrote: ‘It was a foul murder. They staged a mock trial, kicking the victim to death and dragging him by the neck to the toilet where they hung his lifeless body on a waste pipe. These five prisoners are the most callous men I have ever met so far but I blame the Nazi doctrine for that. It must be a terrible creed.’

Another hangman, Franz Schmidt, was writing about his executions in the late 1500s and early 1600s. His diaries were last put into print 80 years ago, under the title A Hangman’s Diary: Being the Authentic Journal of Master Franz Schmidt. Although Abebooks has copies for sale, I can’t find any information about the book on the internet, other than that in Wikipedia’s article.

Schmidt was executioner in Germany, in Bamberg from 1573 to 1578, and in Nuremberg from 1578 to 1617. His diary contains details of 361 executions and 345 minor punishments (floggings, ears or fingers cut off), noting for each the date, place, and method of execution, as well as the name, origin, and station in life of the condemned. In later years, the diary becomes more verbose and gives details of each criminal’s crimes.

His executions, again according to Wikipedia, were carried out by rope, sword, breaking wheel, burning, and drowning. However, the wheel was reserved for severely violent criminals, and burnings - of which there were only two - for homosexual intercourse and counterfeiting money. Drowning was prescribed for a woman committing infanticide but was regularly commuted to execution by sword, partly upon the intervention of Schmidt himself. Schmidt’s journal is considered unique as a source of social and legal history. A first printed edition appeared in 1801.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Bertrand’s diaries enmesh Sarkozy

Diaries written by a former head of the French intelligence agency, Yves Bertrand, are at the centre of scandalous allegations about President Nicolas Sarkozy. The story is particularly spicy since it was Sarkozy’s own moves against Bertrand that must have led to the diaries being seized by the police, and subsequently being leaked to the press.

On 9 October, the French political magazine, Le Point (a sort of French Time or Newsweek) published an article titled ‘The Black Books of the Republic’. It revealed, from notebooks or diaries kept by Bertrand between 1998 and 2003, a series of allegations about figures at the very top of France’s political establishment. For 12 years, until 2004, Bertrand was the head of Renseignements Généraux (RG), the intelligence service of the French police.

The Le Point revelations were widely taken up by other media, many of them focusing on the accusation that Sarkozy, while serving as interior minister, had had an affair with the wife of one of his current cabinet colleagues. However, according to Le Point, Bertrand’s diaries seem to confirm that once Sarkozy had taken over the Gaullist movement and was bidding for the Presidency, RG worked for President Jacques Chirac to undermine him. Other allegations concern former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who said he had tried to sack Bertrand (earlier than 2004) but had been prevented from doing so by Chirac.

The diaries, according to a report in The Times, are said to be ‘packed with other potentially explosive accounts of drug-taking, illicit sex, blackmail and corruption among French leaders’. Le Point said: ‘These notebooks are a terrifying journey under the skirts of the Republic,’ and added, ‘one could laugh if this exercise in underhand police work had not sometimes broken careers, thwarted democracy and sometimes destroyed lives.’

Ironically, Sarkozy himself seems to have opened up this particularly colourful show. He had Bertrand removed from RG in 2004, and then he acted against RG itself, which was finally closed down last July. Subsequently, French magistrates seized Bertrand’s diaries. I’m not sure as to why the action was taken, but most reports say it was as a direct result of allegations by Sarkozy against RG, but others say it was connected with a much wider investigation into long-term political and financial shenanigans, generally known as the Clearstream Affair (see Wikipedia for a long and detailed account of how wide and deep corruption in France seems to go).

However, it does appear that the leaking of Bertrand’s diaries to the press must have been connected in some way to their seizure by the police. Bertrand himself has said the notebooks were private and not meant to be made public or even taken as fact. He told Le Point that he had kept them for his own use, and that, although he did not write much about private lives, if he did so, it was ‘to protect members of the government’.

Following on from Le Point’s revelations, Sarkozy decided to sue Bertrand. The BBC says he is taking ‘legal action for libel and invasion of privacy’. (However, the BBC also says ‘Mr Bertrand’s agency reports to the government . . .’ - the use of the present tense implies the BBC thinks both Bertrand and his agency are still in place!) Sky News reports that the complaint has been filed with the Paris prosecutor and accuses ‘Yves Bertrand and others of invasion of privacy, malicious accusation, forgery and use of forgery and concealment’.

In a new twist this morning, various news organisations (such as The Straights Times) are running a story sourced from Agence France-Presse, in which Bertrand is quoted as saying Sarkozy’s lawsuit ‘does not stand up’. He says he is ‘the victim in this affair’ and that his notebooks were ‘stolen’. They were under ‘the protection of the justice system’, he claims, but they’ve ‘ended up in the public arena’. And a jolly good show they’re making!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Sean Lester and the League

Some diaries written by Sean Lester, one of Ireland’s most distinguished statesmen and the last Secretary General of the League of Nations, have just been donated to Dublin City University. They cover a period when he was working for the League of Nations, and his first years as its Secretary General. They will only be open to the public in five years time. However, other diaries of his, covering the same period, are held by the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) Library, and much of the text is available online.

Wikipedia gives a short biography of Lester, as does the UNOG Library website. Born in County Antrim, in 1888, he was an Ulster Protestant, but, already as a youth, turned to Irish Nationalism and joined the Gaelic League, and then the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He worked as a journalist for a number of northern papers, before moving to Dublin, where he rose to become news editor of Freeman’s Journal. After the War of Independence (ended 1921), Lester took a job in the Irish Free State government as Director of Publicity, and then, in 1923, moved to the Department of External Affairs.

In 1929, Lester was made Ireland’s permanent representative at the League of Nations in Geneva, but later was seconded to the organisation and became its High Commissoner for Danzig (a Free City, at the time, under the auspices of the League, and the scene of growing tensions between Germany and Poland) from 1933 to 1937. He was then appointed Deputy Secretary General, and, in 1940, to the top job, as Secretary General. Subsequently, he oversaw the League’s winding down and the transfer of its functions to the United Nations. On returning to Ireland, he declined to seek any permanent office; and died in 1959.

Earlier this month, Dublin City University Library announced that it had received a donation of ‘a collection’ of Lester’s diaries, covering the period 1935 to 1941. In a short statement, the university said it is ‘extremely grateful to Sean Lester’s daughters Ann and Patricia, and the Kilroy and Gageby families for this remarkable gift’, and that the documents will become publicly available after a period of five years - i.e. in 2013.

However, lots of Lester’s diary writing is already freely available on the internet, thanks to the UNOG Library, which already holds a collection of Lester material. At the heart of this collection, the Library says, is Lester’s diary written between 1935 and 1946, when he served with the League. His notes, the Library says, were inspired by ‘minor and major events, the working of the League of Nations, personalities he met, political developments, some family matters, and fishing’. A large part of the journal (1935-1941) was hand-written in note-books, the rest was typed on loose-leafs by Lester himself or his secretary, with date and place and often annotated ‘private’, or ‘secret’, or ‘confidential’.

After Lester’s death in 1959, these notes were mislaid and presumed to be lost. However, the Library explains, in 1980 an important part of his journal was found covering much of 1935-1941. It was then thought that this was all that had survived. They were, therefore, copied and bound together with some less interesting papers. Subsequently three more batches of papers turned up including the rest of his journal for 1934-1946, and all his other papers from 1929 to 1959. But even this material, the Library further explains, which was bound into a second volume, is by no means complete, even for the 1935-1941 period. Some time later, a further box of papers, covering most of Lester’s life, was found, including ‘private diary entries, general S. Lester’s notes, correspondence, press, etc.’ In fact, some of the most important papers for 1935-1941 were among them and are not therefore in the two volumes, the Library says (for instance, as regards ‘the 1936 crisis’).

The two bound volumes (as described above) were donated to the UNOG Library in 1981 by ‘Sean Lester’s daughters: Dorothy Mary Gageby, Patricia Kilroy and Ann Gorski’. And the text of these diaries, at least from 1935 to 1941, is available on the Library’s website. Here are two short extracts from nearly 70 years ago.

14 November 1938
Mother died on November 7th, just over 86 years of age. I had been with her a week before, but had returned to Geneva. She was the sweetest, the most unselfish, and most Christian soul, I have known. Her kindness and charity, unswerving faith, devotion, and love made her shine like a lamp in darkness.

16 November 1938
Following the assassination of a Secretary at the German Embassy in Paris by a frenzied Polish-Jewish youth of 17, whose parents had been maltreated, the Nazis launched a pogrom, burning synagogues and destroying houses and shops and imprisoning thousands of poor wretches. Then a fine of 1,000,000,000 marks as a levy on what is left of Jewish property, compulsory restoration of property destroyed, prior to turning it over to Aryans, expulsion from all retail trades, etc, etc. The world has been aghast - horrified once more by the monster. And one looks to see Chamberlain’s difficulties in a policy of appeasement still further increased.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tragedy in Antarctica

Sir Douglas Mawson, an Australian geologist and explorer, died 50 years ago today. But he might have expired nearly 50 years earlier - as did colleagues - during a first Australasian expedition to Antarctica. His diaries were not published until the 1980s, but they were used by Mawson himself in writing a classic account of the expedition The Home of the Blizzard, which is freely available online.

Mawson was born in Bradford, England, but his family moved to Australia when he was only two. He studied geology at the University of Sydney, and lectured in petrology. Aged 26, he joined a team headed by British explorer Ernest Shackleton which was the first to climb to the top of Mount Erebus, Antarctica’s active volcano, and the first to reach the magnetic South Pole.

Then, starting in late 1911, Mawson led the first Australasian expedition to Antarctica. Having wintered at a place they named Cape Denison, the party split up into different groups. Mawson and two companions - Lieutenant Bellgrave Ninnis and Dr Xavier Mertz - set off in November 1912 for an exploratory trek eastward. On 14 December, Ninnis, his sledge and all of the dogs fell through a snow bridge into the crevasse below. Paul Ward’s Cool Antarctica site takes up the story.

‘Mawson and Mertz rushed to the edge of the crevasse, and stared down into a deep, gaping hole. About 150 feet below on a ridge was a dog, whining, its back seemingly broken. Beneath this was only the dark open void of the crevasse. Mertz and Mawson called into the depths for over three hours. They gathered all the rope they had but still could not even reach as far as the dog. As well as the loss of their companion Ninnis, they had also lost the sledge, the six fittest dogs, most of the indispensable supplies, the tent, and most of the food and spare clothing. The remaining sledge had only 10 days of rations for the two men and nothing for the six dogs, they were 315 miles from the main base at Cape Denison.’

On the way back to base, Mertz also died (later it was diagnosed that both Mertz and Mawson had been suffering the effects of vitamin A poisoning after eating the livers of the husky dogs). Mawson did make it back to Cape Denison, in February, but he had just missed the ship - the Aurora - that had come to collect him. However, a party of six had stayed behind to look for the missing men. They tried to recall the Aurora by radio but the sea had iced up, and so all seven of them were confined to stay put until the Aurora could return the following December (1913).

While recuperating, Mawson wrote an account of the ill-fated expedition - The Home of the Blizzard - which was first published in London in 1915. A year earlier, Mawson had been knighted, and become a professor at Adelaide University. In 1929 and 1931, he headed two more voyages to the Antarctic, concentrating on oceanography and marine biology. He died on 14 October 1958

Mawson wrote various other books about Antarctica, but it wasn’t until the 1980s, I think, that his diaries were published - Mawson’s Antarctic Diaries - by Allen & Unwin, Sydney. Copies of the book are available, but they’re not cheap, starting at £50 - see Abebooks.

However, Mawson used extracts from his diaries in writing The Home of the Blizzard. The full text is available from Cool Antarctica or Project Gutenberg. More information about Mawson is available from Wikipedia, or The Diary Junction, or Australian National Dictionary of Biography.

But here is Mawson describing the day of Mertz’s death, interweaving diary entries with his commentary. The text can be found in Chapter 13 of The Home of the Blizzard - Toil and Tribulation.

‘During the evening of the 6th I made the following note in my diary: ‘A long and wearisome night. If only I could get on; but I must stop with Xavier. He does not appear to be improving and both our chances are going now.’

‘January 7 - Up at 8 A.M., it having been arranged last night that we would go on to-day at all costs, sledge-sailing, with Xavier in his bag on the sledge.’

It was a sad blow to me to find that Mertz was in a weak state and required helping in and out of his bag. He needed rest for a few hours at least before he could think of travelling.

‘I have to turn in again to kill time and also to keep warm, for I feel the cold very much now.’

‘At 10 A.M. I get up to dress Xavier and prepare food, but find him in a kind of fit.’

Coming round a few minutes later, he exchanged a few words and did not seem to realize that anything had happened.

‘Obviously we can’t go on to-day. It is a good day though the light is bad, the sun just gleaming through the clouds. This is terrible; I don't mind for myself but for others. I pray to God to help us. I cook some thick cocoa for Xavier and give him beef-tea; he is better after noon, but very low - I have to lift him up to drink.’

During the afternoon he had several more fits, then became delirious and talked incoherently until midnight, when he appeared to fall off into a peaceful slumber. So I toggled up the sleeping-bag and retired worn out into my own. After a couple of hours, having felt no movement from my companion, I stretched out an arm and found that he was stiff.

My comrade had been accepted into ‘the peace that passeth all understanding’. It was my fervent hope that he had been received where sterling qualities and a high mind reap their due reward. In his life we loved him; he was a man of character, generous and of noble parts.

For hours I lay in the bag, rolling over in my mind all that lay behind and the chance of the future. I seemed to stand alone on the wide shores of the world--and what a short step to enter the unknown future!’

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Love in Pyrghos

I am in Greece, on holiday, until the 14th. By coincidence, exactly 30 years ago this week, I was also in Greece on holiday. I’d gone to visit a friend, Marielle, who had moved to a place named Pyrghos (at least that’s how I spelled it) with friends to build and live in a large communal house. So, for a change, I thought I’d simply reproduce a few paragraphs from my own diary (more of it is available on the Pikle website).

7-14 October 1978
‘The only flies I feel are flies, and the mosquitoes are the only mosquitoes, and a firefly is too hot to hold, too red to stare at, too proud to ignore. My body moves slowly, treading along pathways that maze around the village, along pathways that become doorways, houseway entrances, entrance halls; crumbling steps lead to crumbling arches lead to crumbling walls and rooves. My foot will (I know it will) disturb the grasshopper on the path that will spread its wings and reveal to a crimson fright, a crimson flight. My eyes will dart with it (I know they will, I feel them ready) to the stone or bush the other side of where I walk.

After a night of long white love, the acute essence of morning is a kaleidoscope of pure colours and sounds. Sea and sky blue, mountains with mysterious greens. Houses old and cold stone. Birds - the twitter tunes. The sun slowly rises and melts my perception or my imagination that might have come in the night. I am a receptacle for the slight sensations that will pass. The horn of the bus, for instance, becomes a sound for to fill the oceans and the lands as far as I can see. The swaying of a tree or the wind itself diverts at least three senses from the sea-wizards that dance in my head. My forehead furrows to capture, to catch a thought, my eyelids would prefer to fall and to let each lash be caressed by the grandeur of the weathers. My love is a momentary dance of tortoises, or is.

Nudity on the rocks, more than nudity, a bareness to the waves and their impressive depths, their heights and depths, the tunnels of rocks that frighten and leave you gasping with a little sense of magnificence.

Robert Crisp is blunter and more like a child this noon-time. He was a foreign correspondent, writer, journalist. He wears shorts and a bright yellow t-shirt; a napkin is tied around his neck. He sits, placed at a table for one, in front of a television; his head bent back, eyes enthralled. His hands play with a knife, fork, chips, a glass and a bottle of retsina. Here is age and freedom and the wrinkles that were moulded, hardened and set by fear. Any trembles he shows now are in the shake of the folds in his skin, not in his voice or eyes. He is fascinated by Marielle’s group, curious. He tempts the members of the group a little with his stories, or the promise of white beard wisdom.

It is four on Monday afternoon. I know it is Monday because two days ago it was Saturday, Friedl told me, and I know it is four in the afternoon because the clock in this cafe says so (even though the post office isn’t supposed to open until five, but it seems to be open now).

I am too high, too infatuated to realise the glory of this all. My stomach still flutters when I think of Marielle walking around the corner and the smile of a thousand nights missed in our separate flights, our different travels.

Morning in Pyrghos, sun shines low under the mass of grey clouds that appear so low. Contrasting against the white stone walls of the streets. Wind is expectant in gusts. A rainstorm is probable.

I awake slowly from a night of howls by sipping coffee. Above me rises a cobbled street; below, another runs to the church, and to the side another to the plaza. From the latter, a small woman comes, dressed in a black blouse, black skirt, black slippers and carrying a bundle of firewood on her back; it is twice as large as she. Away up the central alley a younger woman carries a similar bundle, but of hay this time. The wind threatens, the vines tremble, leaves form small whirlpools on the concrete.'

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Of briars, thorns and an angel

Exactly a quarter of a millennium ago, on 7 October 1758, a Sussex shopkeeper named Thomas Turner turned to his diary to moan and groan at some length about his wife, and about domestic disquietude, and a marriage that had turned to ‘briers and thorns’. Three years later his wife was dead, and he was writing in his diary, ‘Let them whoever lost an angel, pity me.’

Thomas Turner was born in Kent in 1728, but when still a child his father took over a shop in Framfield, Sussex. Little is known of Turner’s education, but it seems he soon followed in his father’s footsteps by running a general store in East Hoathly. He married his first wife, Margaret ‘Peggy’ Slater, in 1753, but she died before reaching the age of thirty (their only child having also died, in infancy). Turner went on to marry again, and have several children, three of whom survived into adulthood.

For eleven years, starting soon after his first marriage and ending soon after the second, Turner kept a daily diary, often very trivial, but also sometimes very revealing, filling 116 memorandum books, of which 111 are extant and held by Yale University Library. Angst, guilt, depression and too much drinking are all recurring themes in the diary, as is the failure of his marriage to live up to expectations. Charles Dickens quoted from Turner’s diary in All the Year Round; and Arthur Ponsonby (author of English Diaries) says the diary ‘is an amazing production, containing, as it does, the most outspoken confessions combined with almost ridiculous penitence and pretentious moralising’.

Wikipedia and Vulpes Libris have a little information about Turner, and The Diary Junction has some links to online texts of the diary. Here is Turner, writing exactly 250 years ago, bemoaning his life, wife and marriage, with colourful reference to his ‘tumultuous breast’ and the ‘purple current in his veins’!

7 October 1758
‘Oh, how happy must that man be whose more than happy lot it is to whom an agreeable company for life doth fall, - one in whom he sees and enjoys all that this world can give; to whom he can open the inmost recesses of his soul, and receive mutual and pleasing comfort to sooth those anxious and tumultuous thoughts that must arise in the breast of any man in trade! On the contrary, - and I can speak from woful experience - how miserable must they be, where there is nothing else but matrimonial discord and domestic disquietude! How does these thoughts wrack my tumultuous breast, and chill the purple current in my veins! Oh, how are these delusive hopes and prospects of happiness before marriage turned into briers and thorns! But, as happiness is debarred me in this affair, I sincerely wish it to all those that shall ever tye the Gordian knot. Oh woman, ungrateful woman! - thou that wast the last and most compleatest of the creation, and designed by Almighty GOD for a comfort and companion to mankind, to smooth and make even the rough and uneven paths of life, art often, oh too, too often, the very bane and destroyer of our felicity! Thou not only takest away our happy ness, but givest us, in lieu thereof, trouble and vexation of spirit.’

But life with Peggy can’t have been all bad. Two years earlier, Turner had written this.

15 October 1756
‘This is the day on which I was married, and it is now three years since. Doubtless many have been the disputes which have happened between my wife and myself during the time, and many have been the afflictions which it has pleased GOD to lay upon us, and which we have justly deserved by the many anemosityes and desentions which have been continually fermented between us and our friends, from allmost the very day of our marriage; but I may now say with the holy Psalmist, ‘It is good for us that we have been afflicted;’ for, thanks be to GOD, we now begin to live happy; and I am thoroughly persuaded, if I know my own mind, that if I was single again, and at liberty to make another choice, I should do the same - I mean, make her my wife who is so now.’

And here is Turner writing on the day his wife died.

23 June 1761
‘About five o’clock in the afternoon, it pleased Almighty GOD to take from me my beloved wife, who, poor creature, has laboured under a severe tho’ lingering illness for these thirty-eight weeks, which she bore with the greatest resignation to the Divine will. In her I have lost a sincere friend, a virtuous wife, a prudent good economist in her family, and a very valuable companion. . . I have lost an invaluable blessing, a wife who, had it pleased GOD to have given her health, would have been of more real excellence to me than the greatest fortune this world can give. I may justly say, with the incomparable Mr Young, ‘Let them whoever lost an angel, pity me.’

Scandal and Chips

Henry Chips Channon died 50 years ago today. Although American-born, he became a British MP, but is mostly remembered today for his diaries, which have been dubbed ‘wonderfully indiscreet’ for their revelations about high society between the wars. Wallis Simpson, for example, was a friend, and he was privy to her secret affair with the future king. But there may be more scandalous revelations to come, if and when the original diaries are fully published or made available to the public.

The Diary Junction gives a short biographical summary for Channon. Born in Chicago, he was educated both in the US and France. He served with the American Red Cross during the First World War, and after the war returned to Europe, to study at Christ College, Oxford. He was given the nick-name Chips because he shared a house with a friend called Fish. After Oxford, Channon, who had inherited wealth, spent his time travelling and socialising. During the 1926 General Strike he became a Special Constable and promoted The British Gazette , an anti-strike newspaper.

In 1933, Channon married Honor Guinness, the eldest daughter of the second Earl of Iveagh, a previous Conservative MP, who helped his son-in-law become a Conservative MP. Channon and Honor had one child, Paul, born in 1935 (see diary extract below), but the marriage did not survive. Channon was having homosexual affairs, and Honor eventually ran off with a Czech airman. In Parliament, Channon was a supporter of Franco during the Spanish Civil War and, later, an advocate of appeasement. Neville Chamberlain appointed him parliamentary private secretary to Rab Butler, and he remained a junior minister throughout the Second World War.

Channon kept a diary all his life - said to amount to 30 volumes with over three million words - and it is for this that he is most remembered. He moved in the very highest social circles, being friends with the Duke of Kent, younger brother of King George VI, and privy to the secret affair between Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII. Irene and Alan Taylor said, in The Assasin’s Cloak, that Channon is ‘wonderfully indiscreet’. And Channon himself wrote: ‘What is more dull than a discreet diary?’ A carefully edited version of the diaries - Chips:The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon - did not appear until nearly 10 years after his death in 1967. A few extracts can be found on the Spartacus Education website, and a few pages can be viewed on Amazon’s website.

According to the will of Paul Channon, who died in 2007, full publication of the diaries is to be delayed until 2018. However, The Independent on Sunday ran a story, by Andy McSmith, in April 2007 suggesting that Chips’ grandson, Henry Channon, is considering bringing the date forward. McSmith wrote: ‘Until we have seen the full version, we cannot know what has been hidden - whether it is merely titbits about the sex lives of long forgotten socialites, or something as juicy as a royal scandal. One of the great conundrums that the diaries may answer is the nature of the friendship between Chips Channon and the Duke of Kent, younger brother of King George VI. We know that, coincidentally, they had sons born on the same day in 1935, who grew up together, but what went on between the fathers, in the privacy of a royal bedroom, is still a matter of speculation.’

And here, in one apt extract (from Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon) dated 7 October - the same day as his death 50 years ago - can be found mention of Wallis Simpson, the Duke of Kent, and his only son (born, like the Duke of Kent’s two days later, on 9 October).

7 October 1935
‘Diana Cooper rang early; she had been to the Fort last evening to dine with the Prince of Wales, who was, she said, ‘pretty and engaging’. Mrs Simpson was glittering, and dripped in new jewels and clothes.

I went to Claridges to have tea with the Nicholas’ of Greece who are here for the royal confinement. The Duchess of Kent was there in brown dress and much bejewelled, and rather large but not so large as Honor. Her curls were faultlessly done at the back. She was sweetness itself, but she has not become in the least bit English. We had many pregnancy jokes, and she asked tenderly for Honor, and said it would be ‘so amusing’ if her baby was born first, or on the same day as ours. This unlikely coincidence now seems possible. Hers is due on 16 October, and ours was on 24 September. I adore this family, and loved them when they were down on their luck; now their star is rising, especially since the Kent wedding (these damned, inefficient and all too numerous servants never fill my ink-stand). At one point the Grand-Duchess sent her daughter into the next room to fetch her spectacles and the Duchess went meekly. She has been well brought-up in an old-fashioned affectionate way.

I feel confident that my son will be born before morning.’

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

John Blow’s bad singing

John Blow, an English organist and composer, died three hundred years ago today. He taught Henry Purcell, was one of James II’s musicians, and is thought to have composed the first true English opera. There is no evidence that he kept a diary, and so I only mention him here because Pepys referred to him once - rather unflatteringly.

Blow was baptised in February 1649 (his birth date isn’t known), and was probably educated at the Magnus Song School in Nottinghamshire. In 1660, he joined the choir at Chapel Royal, under Captain Henry Cooke. By the end of the decade, he had been appointed organist at Westminister Abbey, and  had become one of the king’s musicians. He was succeeded as organist at Westminster Abbey in 1680 by one his students, Henry Purcell, who had also sung under Cooke at the Chapel Royal, but was reappointed to the post when Purcell died in 1695.

Although hardly remembered today, Blow enjoyed much success during his life. He held various important music-related positions, such as choirmaster at St Paul’s Cathedral, official composer for the Chapel Royal, and Composer in Ordinary to James II. He also composed much ceremonial music, both religious and secular. Although some credit Henry Cooke with the first English opera - The Siege of Rhodes - performed in 1656, my 15th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica says John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, written between 1680 and 1685 ‘is regarded as the first true English opera’. The New Grove (definitive encyclopaedia for music) also ‘names it as the earliest surviving English opera’.

Blow died on 1 October 1708, three hundred years ago, and was buried in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey. The Twickenham Museum has some information about the musician, presumably because he owned a house in nearby Hampton during the latter part of his life. And it is thanks to the museum’s website that I know Pepys heard a young Blow sing, unfortunately his voice had already broken.

Here is part of Pepys diary for 21 August 1667 (taken from

‘Thence by coach, took up my wife, and home and out to Mile End, and there drank, and so home, and after some little reading in my chamber, to supper and to bed. This day I sent my cozen Roger a tierce of claret, which I give him. This morning come two of Captain Cooke's boys, whose voices are broke, and are gone from the Chapel, but have extraordinary skill; and they and my boy, with his broken voice, did sing three parts; their names were Blaew and Loggings; but, notwithstanding their skill, yet to hear them sing with their broken voices, which they could not command to keep in tune, would make a man mad - so bad it was.’

Stevenson’s visit to Tuvalu

Today is Independence Day in Tuvalu. It’s also the 25th anniversary of the country’s independence from Britain. Formerly known as the Ellice Islands, Tuvalu consists of four reef islands and five atolls, and is located in the Pacific Ocean midway between Australia and Hawaii. It is one of the smallest countries, land-wise and population-wise, in the world. In 1890, not long after the country first came under British jurisdiction, Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous Scottish writer, visited the place with his wife, who kept a diary.

The ancestors of Tuvaluan people are believed to have arrived on the islands 2,000-3,000 years ago, probably from Tonga and Samoa. According to Wikipedia, eight of the country’s nine islands were inhabited, hence the name Tuvalu, which means ‘eight standing together’ in Tuvaluan. Under the leadership of chiefs, known as ‘Aliki’, traditional society continued for hundreds of years before undergoing significant changes with the arrival of European traders in the 1820s.

In the early 1860s, Peruvian slave raiders (‘blackbirders’), stole over 400 people from the Tuvaluan islands, but, later in the decade, missionaries started arriving. The British took control in the 1870s, and then administered them as a protectorate from 1892 to 1916, and as part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony from 1916 to 1974. The Ellice islanders then voted for separate British dependency status as Tuvalu, separating from the Gilbert Islands, and in 1978, took on full independence within the Commonwealth.

Tuvalu has a population of less than 10,000 about half of whom live in the capital Funafuti (which is itself made up of 33 islets); and a gross land area of only 26 sqkm (although Funafuti alone encircles a lagoon with an area 275 sqkm). According to Wikipedia again, it is the third least populated independent country in the world (with only Vatican City and Nauru having fewer inhabitants), and the fourth smallest in terms of land area (with only Vatican City, Monaco and Nauru smaller). Subsistence farming and fishing remain the primary economic activity, but the country’s main form of income is foreign aid. Being only 5 m above sealevel, it is one of the countries most endangered by the threat of rising sea levels from climate change.

In May 1890, Robert Louis Stevenson (author of such famous novels as Treasure Island and Kidnapped) visited Funafuti. Since 1887, when his father died, he and his family had been travelling around the Pacific, with extended stays in the Hawaiian islands, Tahiti and the Gilbert Islands. Their visit to Funafuti came a few weeks after leaving Sydney, on their third and final voyage around the South Seas, this one on a ship called Janet Nicol. Later the same year, Stevenson settled in Upolu, one of the Samoan islands, and stayed there till his death in 1894.

Stevenson was no mean diarist, and several of his diaries were publishing successes - Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, for example, and The Silverado Squatters. More about Stevenson, and links to etexts of these diaries can be found at The Diary Junction. But his wife, Fanny, also kept a diary, and it is thanks to her that we have a record of their visit to Funafuti - in The Cruise of the Janet Nichol in the South Seas. Parts of the book are available at Googlebooks, but Jane Resture, on her Tuvalu website, reproduces the text of Fanny’s entry regarding the visit to Funafuti, as well as adding a map and some old photos.

The Stevensons arrived at Funafuti on 27 May 1890 and left the next day. Here is part of Fanny’s diary for 27 May.

‘We expect to make Funafuti, the first of the Ellices by daybreak. At nine o'clock, there were no signs of the island. ‘Bad steering,’ growled the Captain. ‘We’ve run past it and now we have to turn around and run back.’ At about 2 we anchored in the lagoon. Two traders came aboard. One was a half-caste from some other island with elephantiasis, very bad, in both legs. The other trader (Restieaux) was described as not thin but very pallid; his face, hands, legs, and feet were without sunburn, smooth, and of a curious transparent mixture like wax. It seemed an over-exertion to raise his large heavy eyes when he spoke to us.

I asked him if he liked the island. ‘Not at all,’ he answered and went on to describe the people; he said he could not keep chickens, ducks or pigs; no one could, for their neighbours, jealous that another should have what they had not, would stone the creatures to death. The same with the planting of fruit trees; the soil was good, and there were a few breadfruits and bananas, but any attempt to grow more is frustrated. The young trees are torn up and even the old ones are occasionally broken and nearly destroyed. . .

. . . After awhile, Louis and I stroll across the island, becoming more and more amazed by what we saw. Everything that one naturally expects to find on a low island is here reversed. To begin with, the fact of the poisonous fish are outside the reef is contrary to what one has reason to expect. The soil is very rich for a low island, with ferns and many shrubs and flowering plants growing. We saw a little taro and quite a large patch, considering, of bananas. There was much marsh and green stagnant pools, and the air was heavy with a hothouse smell. The island seemed unusually wide, but when we pushed through the bushes and trees to find ourselves not on the sea beach, as we had expected, but on the margin of a large lagoon emptied of its waters almost entirely by the low tide.

I found Louis bending over a piece of the outer reef that he had broken off. From the face of both fractures innumerable worms were hanging like a sort of dreadful, thick fringe. The worm looked exactly like slender earth worms more or less bleached, though some were quite earth worm colours.’