Sunday, November 30, 2008

The first aerial explorer

Sir George Hubert Wilkins, one of the most successful and versatile of 20th century explorers, died exactly 50 years ago today. He was not only a pioneer in aviation and aerial photography, but he was also the first person to show submarines could operate under the polar ice cap. Although there are no published editions of his diaries, two recent biographical books rely on them extensively.

Wilkins was born in 1888 in South Australia, the thirteenth (!) child of a farmer. He studied engineering at South Australian School of Mines and Industries, then followed an interest in photography and cinematography before sailing to England in 1908 to work for Gaumont Film Company. Subsequently, as a newspaper reporter and cameraman, he learned to fly and began experimenting with aerial photography. In 1912, he worked as a war correspondent in the Balkans, but in 1913 he joined an expedition to the Arctic - led by the Canadian Vilhjaalmur Stefansson - which lasted until 1916.

In the latter years of the First World War, Wilkins was appointed as an official war photographer, a job that placed him in combat areas, and which led him into taking heroic action on at least two occasions - for which he was awarded a military cross and bar. After the war, he took part in two Antarctic expeditions (one as a naturalist with Shackleton); and then took on a project for the British Museum to study the fauna and tribal life of North Australia.

By 1926, Wilkins was testing the feasibility of air exploration in unknown Arctic regions of Alaska. In 1928, he and copilot Carl Ben Eielson pioneered cross-Arctic aviation by making the first ever flight across the Arctic - from Alaska to Spitsbergen, north of Norway. The New York Times called it ‘the greatest flight in history’; and, because of it, Wilkins was knighted in the UK. Moreover, as is well noted in biographies, he met his future wife while celebrating in New York. explains that later the same year Wilkins was back in the Antarctic, with Eielson, making the first ever exploratory flight in the area on 20 December (1928). Wilkins wrote in his diary, ‘For the first time in history, new land was being discovered from the air’; and ‘We had left at 8:30 in the morning, had covered 1300 miles - nearly a thousand of it over unknown territory - and had returned in time to cover the plane with a storm hood, go to the HEKTORIA, bathe and dress and sit down at eight o’clock to dinner as usual in the comfort of the ship’s wardroom.’

Three years on, Wilkins led a failed attempt to take a submarine - one he supposedly bought for a dollar and named Nautilus - beneath the ice to the North Pole. But the old ship broke down, endangering its crew and earning Wilkins some adverse publicity. Despite the failure, however, he did show that submarines were capable of operating beneath the polar ice cap. says this was Wilkins’s last individual and private expedition, and that, thereafter, he accepted a post as manager to his friend and supporter, US millionaire Lincoln Ellsworth. During the Second World War, Wilkins worked for the US government, though he never relinquished his Australian citizenship. He died exactly 50 years ago today, on 3o November 1958.

The World Adventurer website concludes an article on Wilkins by saying this: ‘Despite his impressive list of firsts and pioneering adventures, the proudly patriotic Sir Hubert Wilkins remains sadly overlooked by a country that so reveres its heroes. In the end, it was the US who took his ashes to the North Pole aboard the submarine USS Skate on 17 March 1959.’ That said, however, there is lots of information about Wilkins on the internet: Wikipedia’s article includes links to other resources; Hipwell International Production Services hosts a site with lots of photographs; and the Government of South Australia has a history/culture website also with photographs.

None of these latter three websites, though, has any information about the diaries Wilkins kept. In fact, a collection of his diaries are housed in the Stefansson Collection, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, some handwritten (in difficult script) and some typed. Wilkins, himself, did consider a book based on them, but never completed it. They remained unused for half a century until Stuart Jenness interpreted them for his book - The Making of an Explorer: George Hubert Wilkins and the Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913-1916 - published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2005.

Another book - Simon Nasht’s The Last Explorer: Hubert Wilkins, Hero of the Great Age of Polar Exploration published by Arcade Publishing in 2006 - also quotes extensively from Wilkins’s diaries. Much of it can be viewed at Googlebooks, including this quote from Wilkins’s diary about the Nautilus expedition: ‘Without exception, the others in the vessel wanted to immediately turn back; to make no further attempt to go into the ice this year. To do so would be to admit complete failure. As commander of the expedition I ordered the trials to continue . . . I am determined the vessel will go under the ice and that as many experiments as possible will be made.’

On 25 August 1931, Nasht explains in the book, Wilkins sent a dispatch, printed in the New York American and other Hearst papers (Hearst being his main sponsor), telling the world they were ‘about 350 miles from the North Pole’. It was an exaggeration by 200 miles, and, although he later corrected the claim, the mistake ‘was used against him by those who claimed the expedition was little more than a publicity stunt’.

Nevertheless, this was one extraordinary man, as says, and an official biography should list his career as ‘war correspondent, polar explorer, naturalist, geographer, climatologist, aviator, author, balloonist, war hero, reporter, secret agent, submariner and navigator’.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Isherwood giving thanks

It’s Thanksgiving Day in the United States. Exactly 50 years ago, the British-born writer, Christopher Isherwood, who had taken American citizenship by then, wrote in his diary about being thankful - thankful for being alive, having just crashed a car while drunk; and thankful for the sweetness of Don, his partner of five years, a young man all of 30 years his junior.

Isherwood was born in Cheshire, UK, the son of an army officer killed in the First World War. He studied at Cambridge, but did not take a degree. Thereafter, he earned a living as a private tutor. His first novel, All the Conspirators, was published in 1928. He spent several years teaching in Germany, a period which provided the material for his best-known novels, such as Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin. During the 1930s, Isherwood collaborated with an old school friend, W H Auden, in three verse dramas. In 1938, the two of them went to China and jointly published Journey to a War.

From 1939, Isherwood settled in California, still working as a teacher but also as a script writer for Hollywood films. The Second World War inspired him to become a pacifist, and during the conflict, he worked at a Quaker hostel with refugees from Europe. He also began to follow the religious philosophy of Vedãnta, and write tracts. Several other novels followed, although Isherwood was never prolific. In 1953, he met and fell in love with a teenager, Don Bachardy, 30 years his junior, who would become an artist, and with whom he would have a relationship for the rest of his life. From 1959 to 1966, Isherwood taught at various US universities. By the 1970s, partly because of his autobiographical novels, he had become a leading spokesman for gay rights. He died in 1986.

Isherwood’s first diary dates back to 1949, and was published by Random House: The Condor and the Cows: A South American Travel-Diary. It tells of a journey Isherwood undertook with his lover Bill Caskey, at the behest of RandoM House, during 1947 through Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. University of Minnesota Press brought out a new edition in 2003 which includes additional photographs by Caskey and a new foreword by Jeffrey Meyers. The diary is said to be ‘unsentimental, rich, and wonderfully rendered’ - see However, The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities (RALPH), finds nothing commendable about the book: Isherwood was ‘too lazy to make the most of what could have been a true adventure into the depths of South America’, and his writing was ‘by rote - I did this, I saw that’.

A first and very substantial edition (over 1,000 pages) of Isherwood’s main diaries were not published until 10 years after his death, in 1996 - Diaries: Volume One 1939-1960 - by HarperCollins and Methuen. The promotional material on says that Isherwood ‘put at least as much of his genius in his diaries as he did in his writings intended for immediate publication’, and that the diaries ‘are beautifully written, gossipy, and indispensable for anyone who cares about writing, the creative process, and gay history’. There appears to be no sign yet of a second volume.

Wikipedia and the Christopher Isherwood Foundation website provide biographies of Isherwood, and The Diary Junction gives a few links to online information about, and quotes from, his diaries. But here, to coincide with Thanksgiving Day in the US, is an extract (taken from Diaries: Volume One 1939-1960) dated exactly 50 years ago today.

27 November 1958
‘What I chiefly have to give thanks for, this Thanksgiving, is that I’m still alive. The night before yesterday, bored after a long, long evening . . , and somewhat though not really drunk, I fell asleep at the wheel driving home and ran smash into a parked car. I guess I was knocked out. I remember nothing - until there was this very furious man, the owner of the parked car, yelling at me that he’d like to bash me to pulp - ‘And I’d do it too,’ he said, ‘if you hadn’t got blood on your face already.’ I had, as a matter of fact, hit the steering wheel, which was twisted up, cut myself between the eyes, bruised both eyes, maybe broken my nose, cut one knee and maybe hurt some ribs. The furious man . . . was eagerly expecting my arrest on a drunk, driving charge. But the police were very nice and sent me home in a taxi after I’d been fixed up at an emergency dressing station.

The other think to be thankful for is that Don and I have finished the rough draft of our play The Monsters, also the day before yesterday. We are cautiously starting the rewrite.
Don has hit a new high of sweetness. He is very happy about the play.’

By jingo, another barber

By strange coincidence, after yesterday’s post about Edmund Harrold, here’s another post about a diarist barber or barber diarist. This one is not a Mancunian but an American, and he lived not in the 18th century but in the 20th century. Charles Everett Ellis is in the news because a Kansas City production company, Outpost Worldwide, which is making a film based on his diaries, has recently launched a website called The Barber’s Diaries.

Ellis was born in 1887 and raised in Altamont. He took on barbering, like his father, and eventually owned his own shop. Ellis and his wife raised seven children, all of whom were also born in Altamont; but, during the Great Depression, he sent his family away to live on a farm near Alton. Ellis himself stayed in Altamont until 1933, but then moved to Chicago and Detroit for brief periods, before working again as a barber in Arizona. Eventually he was reunited with his family. He died in 1971. Today, only three of his children are still alive - Marguerite, Adrienne and Wilma.

On 22 January 1927, his 40th birthday, Elllis began writing a diary, and this is how it started: ‘Forty years old today by Jingo. Looking back over those years have brought many revelations. Youthful dreams have failed of materialization and stern realities have replaced them. Many mistakes have been made which are daily exacting their certain toll and are holding back my onward progress but with experiences gained in those years transformed into wisdom in the future I yet declare that my next forty years shall not be ineffective in service to my Maker, mankind and my own family. Many things I have to be thankful for. A happy home and family, a good business and perfect health - much to be thankful for. I am very grateful to my Maker that my faith in Him has sustained and soothed me in my trials and each day I will try to deepen that faith that in my affairs there shall be no doubts nor fears but shall labor onward and upward that my life shall be a successful one. Forty years in number are many but in one’s life filled with varied experiences they are not many but in that span one either has his plan well laid or is drifting. Mine is planned in detail and my future efforts shall be its maturity.’

Ellis left the diary to his daughter Adrienne (Ellis Reeves) but only now, 35 years later, is it attracting public attention. This is largely due to David Henderson, a former CBS News correspondent, who, having met Adrienne in 2006 and read the diary, was keen to find funding for a documentary film about Ellis. Kansas City production company, Outpost Worldwide, has taken the project on, and has even set up a special website - The Barber’s Diaries - to promote the venture. (The quote above comes from that website.)

The website explains that Ellis lived at a time when African Americans faced threats of racial cleansing across the South and Midwest: thousands were murdered, tortured and publicly executed; property was stolen; and communities eliminated overnight. For most black men, the way to survive was to remain invisible and never speak out. Ellis, nevertheless, had hopes and dreams for himself and all black Americans, and he wrote about them in his secret diary. ‘His writing,’ the website says, ‘is a celebration of life that rises above the violence and challenges of the time. His words inspire and endure to this day.’

Here are several more quotes from the diary, thanks to The Barber’s Diaries website.

‘Man is what he thinks, not what he says, reads, or hears. By persistent thinking, however, in the right away, the way of truth, you can undo any condition which exists. You can free yourself from any claims, whether of poverty, sin, in health or unhappiness.’

‘. . . I hereby set forth some resolutions which I hope to build into permanent habits within my own being.
1) Daily reading of the Bible; prayer and meditation
2) Constant seeking for wisdom and understanding
3) Development of will-power and constructive thinking
4) Effective reading with development of memory
5) Concentration upon all matters at hand
6) Infinite pains unto the smallest detail
7) To look upward and onward – never downward nor backward
8) To properly value time and perseverance
9) Promptness and decision where needed
10) To speak clearly and express accurately’

‘When things get bad, so very bad that worse they could not be, hold fast to hope, cling hard to faith, that someway out you’ll see.’

Some further information, though not much, about Ellis and his diary can be found on the Effingham Daily News website. Adrienne told the paper that her father’s diary was ‘a marvellous compendium, especially for a black man who had gone no further than high school,’ and that ‘his customers were all white, and they spoke about many things as if he wasn’t there.’ She also noted that ‘by jingo’ was one of her father’s favourite expressions and that she’d never heard anyone else say it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Did wife 2 tymes

The extraordinary diary of a barber and wigmaker, Edmund Harrold, from the early part of the 18th century, is being published for the first time in 100 years, and in more detail than ever before. While the new book has an academic rather than a popular price, the publishers have generously made the informative introduction, by the book’s editor, freely available online.

Edmund Harrold was born in 1678 in Manchester, the son of a tobacconist and the eldest of his four children. He probably lived in Manchester all his life, working as a barber, a wigmaker and a book dealer. He married four times; but his first three wives as well as six (of nine) children died before he did. Between 1712 and 1715 he wrote a diary, a poorly edited version of which was first published for the Chetham Society in 1867. Around 20 years later, John Eglington Bailey, who edited the important 16th century diaries of John Dee, was planning to produce a new version of Harrold’s diary, but this project never came to fruition.

Now, 330 years after Harrold was born, Ashgate (which publishes 700 titles a years and says it is dedicated to publishing ‘the finest academic research’) is releasing (on 28 November) The Diary of Edmund Harrold, Wigmaker of Manchester 1712-15, in a comprehensive version edited by Dr Craig Horner, of the Department of History at Manchester Metropolitan University. Apart from the diary itself (fully annotated), the book includes sample pages, the text of a lecture on the diary delivered by John Eglington Bailey in 1884, a list of comparable diaries, and an extensive introduction by Horner.

According to Ashgate, the survival of Harrold’s diary is ‘a remarkable piece of luck for historians’. Not only, it says, are such diaries for the ‘middling sort’ rare in this early 18th century period, but few provide such a candid insight into everyday concerns and troubles. It offers ‘a fascinating snapshot into the social, professional and private life of an impoverished inhabitant of Manchester during a period of profound social and economic change’.

The book costs £52 on and $100 on, but at least the publisher, Ashgate, has made Horner’s introduction freely available on its website. In that introduction, Horner says Harrold wrote the diary as ‘a means of reconciling his mortal failings’, and in doing so, intentionally or not, detailed his family life, his business interests, a passion for books, and a colourful social life, including trips to the alehouse. It provides much else besides: a picture of his courtships following the death of his second wife; an idea of the conflict he felt about whether to attend church; an eye-witness account of Manchester’s part in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715; a record of two marriages and marital sex; and an idea of his preoccupation with death and illness.

One of the most interesting aspects of the diary is certainly the information regarding Harrold’s sex life. Horner says that, for Harrold, sex within marriage was a means of containing lust, and this is illustrated by the diary entry from 2 October 1712: ‘I obs[erve] that there is a many ways to spend ones time, but ye best and most comfortable way is in reading, praying and working, for ye devills always busie wth ye idle person leading him to lust, drunkenness etc.’

Extraordinarily, Harrold noted down when he had sex (he was with his second and third wives, Sarah and Ann, during the diary period), usually employing the expression I ‘did’ or ‘enjoy’, and ‘wife’ rather than his wife’s name. Here’s an example: ‘did w[i]f[e] now tho, tis [not] hard doing tw[ice] per [day] as Ive seldom mist thro variety’. He also talked about doing it ‘old fashion’ and ‘new fashion’!

There are very few references to Harrold’s diary on the internet (presumably there will be more following the Ashgate publication), but there is one in Emily Cochayne’s book Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England, 1600-1770. Christopher Hart, writing about it for Literary Review, says the book also delves into ‘an impressive array of diaries, letters and obscure pamphlets’. Cochayne ‘turns up’, he adds, one Edmund Harrold, a Mancunian wig-maker who recorded his own sex life assiduously in his private journal, boasting one day, for instance, that he ‘did wife 2 tymes couch & bed in an hour an[d] ½ time’.

Horner’s introduction to The Diary of Edmund Harrold, Wigmaker of Manchester 1712-15 refers to further extracts from the diary. Here are three of them, respectively about his second wife dying; giving thoughts about finding a new wife; and, about the day of this third marriage (which had taken place at 8am).

December 1712
‘My wife lay adying from 11 this day, till 9 a clock on ye 18[th] in ye morn. Then she dy’d in my arms, on pillows. [Her] relations most[ly] by. She went suddenly, and was sencible till 1/4 of an hour before she dyed. I have given her workday cloth[e]s to mother Bordman, and Betty Cook our servant. Now relations thinks best to bury her at [the] meetin[g] place in Plungeon Field, so I will.’

8 March 1713
‘It is every [Chris]tians duty to mortifie their unruly passions and lusts to which ye are most prone. I’m now beginning to be unesie with my self, and begin to think of women again. I pray God, direct me to do wisely and send me a good one, or none, if it be his will I must have one.’

22 August 1713
‘I worked al[l] day till 9 at night, yn I fetched my wife from her m[aste]r, and father[-inlaw] [Joseph] Bancrofts. Came home about ½ hour past 11. Dr Redford got her to bed and me alone gave a brides possit amongst ye company in ye house.’

Friday, November 21, 2008

Lagerlöf and Speare

Coincidentally, two writers with anniversaries this week wrote semi-fictional diaries of childhood, but neither were actually diarists. In her final published work, Sweden’s Selma Lagerlöf, the first female writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature, fictionalised her own childhood; while Elizabeth George Speare, born almost exactly 50 years after Lagerlof, was inspired by the real diary of a woman captured by American indians for her first historical children’s novel.

Selma Lagerlöf was born 150 years ago, on 20 November 1958, in Värmland, Sweden, and brought up at Mårbacka, the family estate. In 1881, she moved to Stockholm and studied at a teachers’ college, before, in 1885, taking a position at a school in Landskrona. In 1890, a Swedish weekly magazine awarded her first prize in a literary competition, and the following year, her first book was published. By 1895, she was receiving sufficient financial support from the royal family and the Swedish Academy to forgo teaching and concentrate on writing. In 1909, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the first Swedish person to be so honoured, and the first woman. With the prize money, she bought back Mårbacka which had been sold on the death of her father.

More information about Lagerlöf can be found at Wikipedia, Nobel Prize website or The Diary Junction. Although she was not a diarist as such, one of the last books she wrote (if not the last) was called The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf. Originally published in 1932, it was translated into English in 1936. But it was not, in truth, a diary she wrote as a child, rather a fictionalised recreation of such a diary. Helena Forsås-Scott, writing in Swedish Women’s Writing, 1850-1995 (viewable on Googlebooks) claimed Lagerlöf’s ‘depiction of some months in the life of a 14-year old girl suffering from a hip complaint is so convincing that many readers assumed it to be based on an existing diary’. And other references to the book say she ‘recalled her childhood with subtle artistry’.

However, Lagerlöf also wrote two other books about her childhood, sometimes referred to as the Mårbacka trilogy, Memories of My Childhood and Memories of Mårbacka. A few pages of this latter can viewed on Amazon, where there are also several glowing reviews of the book. It does also include extracts from a real diary Lagerlöf wrote as a child for a few weeks while in Stockholm (and presumably the source material for the third book in the trilogy, The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf).

By coincidence, another writer, this one American and born 100 years ago today, on 21 November 1908 - Elizabeth George - wrote a fictional childhood diary. She was brought up in Melrose, Massachusetts, but moved to Connecticut after marrying Alden Speare. They had two children, and it was only once they were at school that Elizabeth began writing books seriously. Thereafter, she won numerous awards for her fiction, and has been cited as one of America’s 100 most popular children’s authors, much of her work being mandatory reading in schools. She died in 1994.

Her very first novel, though, published in 1958 was Calico Captive. Wikipedia has a separate entry for this book which says it was inspired by the true story of Susanna Willard Johnson (1730-1810) who, along with her family and younger sister, were kidnapped in an Abenakis Indian raid on Charlestown, New Hampshire in 1754. The main events in the story, which occurred on the brink of the French and Indian War, and which are told through the eyes of Miriam, Johnson’s younger sister, were taken from Johnson’s narrative diary A Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs Johnson, first published in 1796. The original of this book can be viewed at Early Canadiana Online.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Elizabeth becomes queen

Four and a half centuries ago, on 17 November 1558, Mary Tudor died, and her half-sister Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne of England. A century before Pepys, Henry Machyn, a supplier of funeral trappings, was keeping a diary; and the text of this diary includes a fascinating entry for that particular day, 450 years ago.

Not much is known about Machyn other than that he was a supplier of furnishings to undertakers in London. His diary, held by the British Library, is primarily concerned with public events, including state visits and executions, which makes it invaluable to historians. It covers the period of the Reformation under Henry VIII and Edward VI, and the return to Catholicism under Mary. It was badly burned in a fire, and, according to modern linguists, the extant published versions are full of inaccuracies because of the idiosyncrasies of Machyn’s language. The Diary Junction provides links to various online texts.

The following entry, about the death of Mary and the succession of Elizabeth, is taken from The Diary of Henry Machyn - Citizen and Merchant-Taylor of London (1550-1563) edited by John Gough Nichols. It was published by the Camden Society in 1848, and is fully accessible on British History Online. (Two notes for reading the text below: pelere - pillory; mad mere - made merry.)

‘The xij day of November was Saterday ther was a woman sett on the pelere for sayhyng that the quen was ded, and her grace was not ded then.

The xvij day of November be-twyn v and vj in the mornyng ded quen Mare, the vj yere of here grace(’s) rayne, the wyche Jhesu have mercy on her solle! Amen.

[The same] day, be-twyne a xj and xij a’ for[noon, the lady Eliza]beth was proclamyd quen Elsabeth, quen of England, France and Yrland, and deffender of the feyth, by dyvers haroldes of armes and trumpeters, and dukes, lordcs [and knights,] the wyche was ther present, the duke of Norfoke, [the] lord tresorer, the yerle of Shrousbere, and the yerele of Bedford, and the lord mayre and the althermen, and dyver odur lordes and knyghtes.

The sam day, at after-non, all the chyrches in London dyd ryng, and at nyght dyd make bonefyres and set tabulls in the strett, and ded ett and drynke and mad mere for the newe quen Elsabeth, quen Mare(’s) syster.’

Memories of Montreal

An article in The Gazette (often called The Montreal Gazette) this weekend paid tribute to Jedediah Hubbell Dorwin, who died 125 years ago last Tuesday, ‘for the remarkable diary he kept’. Although the newspaper provides one or two extracts, unfortunately they are not dated; nor does the newspaper tell its readers where to find out more about the diary - which is a shame.

Dorwin was born in Vermont in 1792, one of five children, and settled in Montreal in 1816. The following year, he married Isabella Williamson, and they had one son (and also adopted a daughter). He worked as a trader, importing and sometimes smuggling foodstuffs. By the early 1820s, he also trading fish, and even bought his own whaler. After many years shipping commodities such as wheat, sugar and meat, he also went into the lumber business for a while. He had many other business interests, including investing and promoting rail and river transport links in the Rawdon area, around 60km north of Montreal. In his 70s, he was still very active, inventing and manufacturing barometers.

More details of Dorwin’s life are given in a useful chronology provided by Glenn F Cartwright, a professor at McGill University. According to Cartwright, Dorwin began writing a journal in 1811, and kept it up until his death in 1883, on 11 November (125 years ago last week). [NB: See Dictionary of Canadian Biography  - added 2018.]

In 1881, two years before his death, according to The Gazette columnist John Kalbfleisch, The Montreal Star published a long article based on Dorwin’s recollection of the Montreal he had first seen some 65 years earlier. He wrote about how part of the city ‘was quite imposing’ and how ‘the large number of buildings, their roofs covered with tin, glittering in the sun’ was something very new to him. (Unfortunately, none of the extracts from Dorwin’s diary provided by The Gazette are dated.)

After being ferried in a dugout canoe and landing in mud, though, Dorwin realised the city was dingier than the glittering rooftops had suggested. He described how most houses had heavy iron doors and shutters, and that ‘there was little or no attempt at ornamental architecture’. He wrote: ‘The signs over the doors, where there were any, were symbolical for few of the habitants could read, and the silvered flagon or the burnished boot would be much better understood and remembered than the most flaring and most carefully gilded print.’

Dorwin noted how only a few streets were paved and ‘there were no rows of trees as now . . . for over the whole continent, from the time of the earliest settlers almost to the present, trees were a species of vegetation to be exterminated, not reared.’ And he wrote: ‘The rural system of government in so large a town was not productive of much order or regularity . . . and the roughs of the place did pretty much as they liked. But on the other hand the taxes were light.’

In 1816, when Dorwin arrived, there was a ‘citadel of sorts’ on a small hill (the only remaining part of the old city wall) ‘where cannon were fired at sunrise and at noon, and a sentry paced constantly’. Three years later, Dorwin was one of the contractors engaged to level the hill and use the earth to fill in a pond at its foot. He wrote in his diary: ‘On the side of the hill next the pond were found several coffins, some of them well preserved . . . The coroner was notified, but instead of holding a long judicial and scientific investigation, he ordered them to be tumbled into the pond with the rest of the earth. . .’

Kalbfleisch concludes his article on Dorwin by noting that The Montreal Star article was more than 11,000 words long, ‘15 times as long as this column, and the diary entries on which it’s based are longer still’. It’s an invaluable record of what Montreal looked like, he says, of who its leading citizens were, of how the people were educated and much more. Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us how to read more.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

High drama in Cambodia

General Hok Lundy, Cambodia’s notorious police chief and an ally of the country’s prime minister Hun Sen, has just died in a helicopter crash. The circumstances of the crash may be suspicious, but then much about Hok Lundy was suspicious. Of many outstanding accusations against him, one is that he ordered the killing of Piseth Pilika, a famous dancer and actress, who had recently finished an adulterous affair with Hun Sen. Pilika kept a diary, and this shows, astonishingly, that at the time of her murder, she considered Hok Lundy a friend. Other evidence suggests that, in fact, she had had an affair with him earlier and that he had introduced her to Hun Sen!

Hok Lundy died on 9 November when his helicopter crashed on the way to Svay Rieng, his home province. The deputy commander of the Cambodian infantry, Sok Saem, and two pilots also died. Because Hok Lundy had many enemies there has been widespread speculation that the crash might not have been an accident, and the government has promised a full investigation.

Hok Lundy’s death has not been widely reported in the British or American press. However, The Guardian website does have an obituary. This states that Hok Lundy first rose to prominence as governor of Phnom Penh in 1990 (although Wikipedia says he was governor of Svay Rieng province). In 1994, Hun Sen appointed him national police chief, reporting directly to him (not to his nominal boss, the interior minister). Then, in 1997, after a bloody power struggle between partners in the coalition government, Hok Lundy played a significant role in capturing and executing royalist generals.

The Guardian obituary goes on to explain that Hok Lundy was also responsible in 2003 for allowing anti-Thai protestors to run riot in the capital, attacking Thai-owned properties, and for then persuading Hun Sen to sack the capital’s popular governor as a scapegoat. ‘That Hun Sen sided with his police chief was no surprise,’ it says, ‘as Hok Lundy had already married his daughter off to one of Hun Sen’s sons’.

One of the most heinous crimes to which Hok Lundy was linked was the murder of the Cambodian dancer and actress, Piseth Pilika. Born in 1965, both her parents died during the Khmer Rouge regime, and she was brought up by an uncle. Her aunt was a teacher at the University of Fine Arts and encouraged her to study traditional Cambodian dance there. As she became an increasingly popular performer, so she moved into acting, and starred in a successful movie Sromorl Anthakal (Shadow of Darkness). But in July 1999, she was gunned down in the street, and died a week later. Some 10,000 people filed past her body at the University, one of the largest such ceremonies in modern Cambodian history.

Reports of her shooting, death and funeral in Cambodia Daily, an English-language newspaper, can be found on the website. At the time, there were rumours that the killing might have been ordered by ‘the jealous wife’ of a ‘high-level government official’. The rumours soon hardened to name the official as no less a person than the prime minister Hun Sen, and that it was his wife, Bun Rany, who may have hired the hitmen to kill Pilika. Further twists to this story were subsequently uncovered by revelations in Pilika’s own diary, and through information given to the French news magazine L’Express by Heng Pov, a former Phnom Penh police commissioner.

Pilika’s diary is available online, also at - in Khmer. However, her very last entry has been translated into English. It identifies Hun Sen as her lover, Bun Rany as her enemy, and Hok Lundy as a friend.

10 May 1999
‘Mr Hok Lundy, Director-General of the National Police, had asked me to go to meet with him because he had something to tell me. He sent two bodyguards to fetch me. I asked my younger sister to accompany and we went together. I was at the same time afraid and happy because I thought there might be a message for me from Sen. I met with Hok Lundy at Kien Svay, at a restaurant situated in a quiet place. He told me to go and hide somewhere for a while because Mrs Bun Rany Hun Sen was very angry against me and was plotting to kill me. I was very afraid but tried not to show my feeling. I gritted my teeth but could not repress tears. I had not imagined somebody would fool me so terribly. I am so disappointed because I have never sold my body to Samdech Hun Sen. We loved each other like husband and wife, so I thought. I realise how naive I have been in believing his words. I have never been fooled like that. This is my first lesson, I have learnt to know about deceitful people. I don’t know whether they would spare my life or sentence me to death because they rule over the country. Only God can help me. My only response to and shield against them are goodness and righteousness.’

In October 1999, L’Express published other extracts from Pilika’s diary (available on the KI Media website) chronicling her secret relationship with the prime minister (although initially she did not even write his name in the diary). Here are three entries:

‘Late at night, . . . called me over the phone. I was very happy, at the same time apprehended and overjoyed, I could barely talk. Then nothing. Next, he called me again. This time, I only felt the joy because he thought about me; his words were worthy of respect and love . . . Our first rendez-vous took place on August 18, 1998, at 8:00 o’clock, in the house behind the Botum pagoda. I decided to ask for divorce, because I thought that I could not remain married, even if the new one would abandon me. . . My relation with . . . became very close.’

‘My relations with Samdech Hun Sen are excellent. . . On January 31, 1999, slightly before 10:00 PM, he came to the new house I just bought in Takhmao. Then he visited me again at night. . . His words were so tender, I did not dare believe it . . .’

‘When his wife learnt about relation, and after we stopped talking to each other over the phone, my heart broke. . . On Sunday, April 11, 1999, Samdech Hun Sen called me one last time. He asked me not to see him again, and to deny that anything ever happened between us . . . I could not forget him, I remained prostrated for hours. . . wrote poems which came from the bottom of my soul, I cried every day, and my heart was filled with bitterness.’

Years later, in 2006, L’Express published a startling interview (reproduced in English on Asia Finest Discussion Forum) with Heng Pov, a former police commissioner and an advisor to Hun Sen, who had taken refuge in France. He claimed that the government was responsible for many killings over the previous ten years, including that of Pilika. As a result of the revelations, the Asian Human Rights Commission put out a statement which provides a useful summary of the claims. This is what it said with regard to ‘the shooting of screen idol Piseth Pilika on 6 July 1999, which led to her death’:

‘Piseth Pilika is widely known to have had an affair with Hun Sen. Heng Pov claims that Hok Lundy had had an affair with her first and then introduced her to Hun Sen, whose wife blamed Hok Lundy for matchmaking her husband with the actress. He says that Hok Lundy made amends by promising to ‘separate’ Piseth Pilika from Hun Sen, and that the killer was one of Hok Lundy’s bodyguards.’

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On Armistice Day 1918

It’s the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War, Armistice Day. Many soldiers kept diaries during the war, and many of them are available online. Here, to celebrate the day, are a few randomly-chosen verbatim diary entries found online, all dated 11 November 1918 (except the last, which is dated 12 November).

General Douglas Haig, British Commander in Chief, at Cambrai, France
‘Fine day but cold and dull.’ His entry also mentions the poor state of the German army and his meeting with the Prince of Wales and various allied commanders and foreign dignitaries.

Robert Lindsay Mackay, 11th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, in Calais
‘Mobs rushing singing through the streets of [Calais] at night. News of Armistice confirmed - Thank God! I set off again for the battalion, but stopped en route to give me a chance of finding the grave of my friend, John McIntosh, a gunner, killed at Neuve Chappelle. Found gun pits. No graves nearby.’

Thomas Fredrick Littler, Royal Engineers, in hospital at Wimereux, France
‘We had news in hospital that the enemy had pleaded for an armistice and that terms had been handed to him, which he accepted as armistice terms, and he is thoroughly beaten, it is a day of rejoicing and everybody seems happy and glad, bands are playing outside and guns firing salutes, but I feel too ill to take much interest in it.’

William Dalton Lycett, with Anzac troops in Plymouth
‘Up at 7 a.m. shaved and had breakfast then got pass and went to Devonport Military Hospital to see dentist. On the way in buzzers, whistles on our ships all started blowing, terrific noise at 9.10 a.m. It was the news come through of signing of Armistice terms by Fritz, great excitement. Saw dentist and had tooth filled and away by 11 a.m. Stayed in Devonport for little while then went on to Plymouth, called in restaurant for dinner and was given glass of port wine and had dinner free. The place a seething mass of people all gone mad. Caught 10.30 p.m. tram and in bed 11 p.m.’

John Bruce Cairnie of the King’s African Rifles in Tanganyika
‘Armistice signed at 11a.m. this morning: the news reached us at 5p.m. C.O. announced it on parade. I can’t realize it, that the war is finished, probably because we are so far from everything. Had dinner outside, with C.O. etc. Sounds of revelry all over the camp, altho’ I don’t think the askaris know what has happened, except in a vague way.’

General Lionel Dunsterville, a British general, in India
‘Susanna and Miss Key arrived from Murree by the early morning train and brought with them the wonderful news of: P E A C E AT LAST! and this GREATEST WAR is over. We are so accustomed to war in this fifth year that we can hardly believe the news. Meantime I have been more or less forgiven and am to have command of a new Brigade at Agra - but I do not believe now that the war is over that they will ever want any new Brigades. Susanna and Miss Key are staying with the Bomfords and we go over there also in a few days. We celebrated Peace at the Club with a Champagne dinner party with the Rennies.’

Bashkirtseff’s inward fire

Marie Bashkirtseff, a precocious writer and artist, died 150 years ago today (probably) in Paris. Her most important legacy is a collection of remarkable diaries, out of which her personality - vivacious, self-obsessed, ambitious - shines so brightly they are still re-translated and reprinted regularly. They also show her to have been an early advocate for women’s rights.

Bashkirtseff was born in Ukraine in 1858. As a young girl she travelled widely in Europe with her mother, before settling in Nice, and then Paris, where she studied painting at the Académie Julian, one of the few establishments that took on female students. In just a few years she produced a large number of paintings, among the most famous of which are The Meeting (a portrait of slum children) and In the Studio (a portrait of fellow artists at work). But, in October 1884, aged only 25, she died of tuberculosis.

Bashkirtseff is also considered to have been an early feminist. This is partly because of the way she pushed herself into the art world, then dominated by men; and partly because of several articles she wrote under the name Pauline Oriel for a feminist newspaper, La Citoyenne. However it is her diary that provides most evidence for the way she struggled against the gender stereotypes of the age. This was published in France only three years after her death, and in England and the US in 1890. It caused a sensation. An article in the New York Times in 1900 (available online) begins as follows.

‘Most of our readers are probably familiar with the Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff - that published diary of a young Russian woman which a dozen years ago was the talk of all Europe and America. Sensitive people were shocked at the freedom with which the girl’s soul was apparently laid bare. Cynics scoffed at her vanity, her egotism, and her conceit. Psychologists found in her a unique specimen for examination. Sentimentalists went raving over her strange cravings for the realisation of a sublime passion, which sometimes took the form of an ideal love and sometimes that of great fame. Men like Gladstone and Charles Eliot Norton, the statesman and the art critic, were among the first to recognise that Miss Bashkirtseff had been a most remarkable young woman. They saw revealed in the journal, as part of herself, a never-ending, never-satiated struggle against the commonplace, the inartistic, and the dwarfing provincialism that is too often mistaken for repose and dignity.’

This particular article goes on to explain how Marie’s mother censored the original diaries for publication, and to give some examples of ‘suppressed extracts’. A few days later, the New York Times published a further article about Marie, from a literary correspondent in London, William L Alden. He, it seems, did some research among those with whom Marie had studied at Académie Julian. She had great talent, and unlimited ambition, he says, but was ‘decidedly unpleasant’ in her attitude towards fellow students, and was even called an ‘hysterical minx’. Twenty years later, a further article in the New York Times records the death of Marie’s mother, and the finding of another diary in an old casket, and provides yet more extracts.

Bashkirtseff began writing her diary as a young teenager, and continued until 11 days before her death. There are over 106 notebooks. José H. Mito, in Argentina, who maintains a website lovingly devoted to her, gives a good history of the diaries and their publication (as well as much else besides). He says the complete manuscript was only discovered in 1964, in the French National Library, and that much had been left out of the earlier editions. Between 1991 and 2001, a complete version of the diaries were published in French in nine volumes and more than 3,000 pages. New editions of the diaries keep appearing in English also. One of the most successful in recent years was I Am the Most Interesting Book of All: The Diary of Marie Bashkirtseff. This was published by Chronicle Books in 1997 as a first volume, but there’s been no sign of a second volume (as far as I know).

The earliest editions of Bashkirtseff’s diary fell out of copyright many years ago, and some are available online - see The Diary Junction for links to these. Here, though, are some short samples from the diary, starting with a preface written by Bashkirtseff herself (they may, however, read very differently from modern translations).

‘Of what use were pretense or affectation? Yes, it is evident that I have the desire, if not the hope, of living upon this earth by any means in my power. If I do not die young I hope to live as a great artist; but if I die young, I intend to have my journal, which cannot fail to be interesting, published. Perhaps this idea of publication has already detracted from, if not destroyed, the chief merit that such a work may be said to possess? But, no! for in the first place I had written for a long time without any thought of being read, and then it is precisely because I hope to be read that I am altogether sincere. If this book is not the exact, the absolute, the strict truth, it has no raison d’etre. Not only do I always write what I think, but I have not even dreamed, for a single instant, of disguising anything that was to my disadvantage, or that might make me appear ridiculous. Besides, I think myself too admirable for censure.’

20 November 1878
‘I looked all of a sudden so beautiful, after I had taken my bath this evening, that I spent fully twenty minutes admiring myself in the glass. I am sure no one could have seen me without admiration; my complexion was absolutely dazzling, but soft and delicate, with a faint rose tint in the cheeks; to indicate force of character there was nothing but the lips and the eyes and eyebrows. Do not, I beg of you, think me blinded by vanity: when I do not look pretty I can see it very well; and this is the first time that I have looked pretty in a long while. Painting absorbs everything. What is odious to think of is that all this must one day fade, shrivel up, and perish!’

25 June 1884
‘I have just been reading my journal for the years 1875, 1876, and 1877. I find it full of vague aspirations toward some unknown goal. My evenings were spent in wild and despairing attempts to find some outlet for my powers. Should I go to Italy? Remain in Paris? Marry? Paint? What should I strive to become? If I went to Italy, I should no longer be in Paris, and my desire was to be everywhere at once. What a waste of energy was there?

If I had been born a man, I would have conquered Europe. As I was born a woman, I exhausted my energy in tirades against fate, and in eccentricities. There are moments when one believes one’s-self capable of all things. ‘If I only had the time,’ I wrote, ‘I would be a sculptor, a writer, a musician!’

I am consumed by an inward fire, but death is the inevitable end of all things, whether I indulge in these vain longings or not. But if I am nothing, why these dreams of fame, since the time I was first able to think? Why these wild longings after a greatness that presented itself then to my imagination under the form of riches and honors? Why, since I was first able to think, since the time when I was four years old, have I had longings, vague but intense, for glory, for grandeur, for splendor?’

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The deeper you delve

Jacques Piccard, a pioneer of deep-sea exploration, has just died. Forty years ago he took part in an extraordinary experiment, a voyage on a submarine that was allowed to drift without power along the Gulf Stream for four weeks. A diary of that journey can be read online, as can Piccard’s own diary-like entries in a New York Times article.

Piccard, who died on 1 November, was a Swiss hydronaut and oceanographer of some repute. There is plenty of biographical information about him on the internet: Wikipedia has a good article; there is an excellent obituary by Marcus Williamson on The Independent website; and Jacques’ son, Bertrand Piccard, maintains a website with family information.

Jacques, born in 1922, came from a family of scientists, his father being a physicist, and his father’s twin a chemist, both of whom were also high-altitude balloonists. While Jacques was growing up, his father’s interests turned away from the sky and towards the sea, and in particular adapting the pressurised cockpit he had developed for ballooning for use in deep sea diving. Although Jacques studied and then taught economics for a while, he was soon working by his father’s side to build bathyscaphes (deep-sea diving submersibles).

With financial help from the US Navy, they built Trieste, the vessel in which Jacques and Lt. Don Walsh of the US Navy descended to the floor of Challenger Deep, in the Mariana Trench, seven miles beneath the surface of the Western Pacific. That historic dive, the deepest ever undertaken, took place in January 1960, and, so far, has not been bettered.

After his father’s death, Jacques continued the family work but focused on mesoscaphes - submersibles for medium depths. One of these was the Auguste Piccard, the first ever passenger submarine, which carried over 30,000 tourists to the depths of Lake Geneva during the 1964 Swiss National Exhibition.

The second was the Ben Franklin, also known as Grumman/Piccard PX-15, which was used for what SeaWiFS calls ‘the longest privately-sponsored undersea experiement of its kind’. There is much information about this submersible on Nasa’s SeaWiFS website. (SeaWiFS aims ‘to provide quantitative data on global ocean bio-optical properties to the earth science community’, and is part of Nasa’s Earth Science Enterprise.)

On 14 July 1969, the Ben Franklin slipped beneath the surface of the Atlantic off the coast of Palm Beach, Florida, the website says, its mission: ‘to investigate the secrets of the Gulf Stream as it drifted northward at depths of 600-2,000 feet; to learn the effects on man of a long-duration, closed-environment stressful voyage; to demonstrate the engineering-operational concepts of longterm submersible operation; and to conduct other scientific oceanographic studies.’ The experiment ended after more than 30 days and 1,444 nautical miles when the Ben Franklin and its crew of six surfaced some 300 miles south of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 14 August 1969.

On the same website, can be found ‘a very condensed’ version of the captain’s log (a diary in fact), with a peculiarly absorbing text by Captain Don Kazimir and delightful drawings by Erwin Aebersold. Here are three entries:

14 July 1969
‘At 1025 hours the ‘Ready for Sea’ checkout was completed. It was hoped the BEN FRANKLIN could leave port quietly with little fanfare; however, quite a crowd was on hand. The BEN FRANKLIN got underway at 1043 hours and passed the sea buoy at 1123 hours . . . At 2030 hours, the hatch was secured with the crew aboard. ‘Rig for Dive’ was completed . . . The boat descended smoothly - dribbled shot occasionally to slow descent. Trim good, no propulsion needed. At 2150 hours, we bottomed in 510 meters of water . . .’

16 July 1969
‘We were drifting nicely at 200 meters. . . F. Busby, D. Kazimir, C. May, and J. Piccard have slight colds. The cabin temperature got up to a comfortable 66 °F. C. May checked iodine concentration in the number 1 and 2 fresh water tanks and found no iodine - cannot understand why, the concentration should be 6 ppm. The same for tanks 3 and 4. C. May was having difficulty with the bunk counters and some sleep monitoring caps. The number 1 hot water tank was cooling down fast since the vacuum was lost - will shift tanks soon. Good luck message was sent to Apollo 11 astronauts.’

3 August 1969
‘Approximately 120 miles east of Cape Hatteras; we drifted at shallow depths. Our drift speed has increased to close to 3 knots. J. Piccard caught a salp in the plankton sampler.’

Days after the historic voyage was completed, Piccard wrote a long feature for the New York Times based on his own diary-like entries. Here are a few.

16 July 1969
‘All during the night the Franklin has drifted slowly at about 600 feet. Nothing has been moved to adjust her stability. Everything is fine, we are at a point 69 miles southeast of Cape Kennedy. We send a message to the Apollo 11 crew, a few hours before they leave for the moon. At 9:32, we hear - indirectly by way of radio and underwater telephone - the countdown and departure of the most fantastic expedition ever undertaken by man.’

19 July 1969
‘. . . The assault occurred at 6:09, at 252 meters down. As a matter of fact, it was really an attack; short, precise. The swordfish was about five or six feet long. Another one was waiting for him at the limit of our visibility. The combatant rushed forward and apparently tried to hit our porthole, missing it by a few inches. Then he circled around for several minutes close to the boat. Content that his domination of this portion of his realm was not threatened, he joined his friend and left, never to be seen again.’

20 July 1969
‘There is no weekend underwater. The watches succeed the watches. The work has to be done as usual. A Bible is on board. During the day we wait with impatience for the news of the moon landing. The message arrives finally at 4:20 pm and it is short and precise without any comments. ‘Two Americans have landed on the moon.’ So that is all we are to learn about the most beautiful, technical achievement ever made by mankind. Save for some 800 million Chinese and Albanians, we are the only people on earth not to have witnessed this historic event on our television screens. We must wait to enjoy the moment vicariously. Tonight I saw at my porthole a big salp, a sea creature perhaps 10 inches long and two to three inches in diameter. I could see it swimming, ejecting water from within itself to propel itself in circles through the water.’

And to conclude the article, Piccard wrote this: ‘The Gulf Stream has been deeply studied and a few secrets have been uncovered. But it will probably always shield the majority of its mysteries from man. This is the law of universal science. The deeper you delve into it, the more you realise that it is endless, limitless, infinite.’

Barbin the hermaphrodite

It is Intersex Solidarity Day, thanks to Herculine Barbin born and designated a female 170 years ago today. She died tragically before reaching 30, having changed her gender to male and her name to Abel some years earlier. She left a diary, though, describing her short life which has been widely used by academics studying gender issues. In the 1970s and 1980s, Michel Foucault, a French intellectual, brought Barbin’s story to a wider audience, and it then became the inspiration for a Pullitzer Prize winning novel.

Barbin was born on 8 November 1838 in Saint-Jean-d’Angély, France, 100km or so southwest of Poitiers, and officially registered as female. She spent her childhood in a Catholic orphanage and then in a convent. In her late teens she studied to be a teacher, and then took up a teaching post. There she fell in love with another teacher, who was also the daughter of the headmistress. Subsequently, a doctor found her to have a masculine body, with a very small penis and testicles. In 1860, Barbin’s civil status was switched to male, and she changed her name to Abel.

At the time, newspapers carried reports of Barbin’s sexual reclassification, and branded her one of the preternatural monsters of the age. Eight years later, before she was 30 in early 1868, she committed suicide in the Theatre de l’Odeon, a seedy Parisian area, leaving behind only a manuscript diary. Medical History gives a few more details. The doctor who reported her death, also rescued the diary and gave it to Auguste Ambroise Tardieu, a medical scientist. He published some verbatim excerpts in a French academic journal. Thereafter, Barbin regularly appeared as a subject in medical and legal literature. She also inspired fictional works as early as the 1890s.

More recently, in the 1970s, Barbin’s story found a modern popular audience with the publication of Herculine Barbin (Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth Century French Hermaphrodite) by Michel Foucault, who found the text in the French Department of Public Hygiene (although RE-discovered might be a more accurate word to use in the title!). Foucoult was a well-known French philosopher, intellectual and historian, author of The History of Sexuality, who died in 1984. Foucoult’s book on Barbin, translated into English by Richard McDougall, has three parts - the memoir or diary itself; a commentary, medical notes, press reports etc; and a story based on Barbin’s life.

Here is a translation of what Le Monde had to say about the book in July 1978: ‘Herculine Barbin can be savored like a libertine novel. The ingenousness of Herculine, the passionate yet equivocal tenderness which thrusts her into the arms, even into the beds, of her companions, gives these pages a charm strangely erotic . . . Michel Foucault has a genius for bringing to light texts and reviving destinies outside the ordinary.’ 

And here is some of Amazon’s promotional text ‘With an eye for the sensual bloom of young schoolgirls, and the torrid style of the romantic novels of her day, Herculine Barbin tells the story of her life as a hermaphrodite. Herculine was designated female at birth. A pious girl in a Catholic orphanage, a bewildered adolescent enchanted by the ripening bodies of her classmates, a passionate lover of another schoolmistress, she is suddenly reclassified as a man. Alone and desolate, he commits suicide at the age of thirty in a miserable attic in Paris.’

Barbin’s birthday today is celebrated by Organisation Intersex International, as Intersex Solidarity Day. It calls on ‘all human rights organizations, feminist allies, academics and gender specialists, as well as other groups and individuals interested in intersex human rights’ to show their solidarity by organizing workshops, lectures, discussions on several specified topics - one of these is ‘the sexism implicit within the binary construct of sex and gender’, and another is 'the life of Herculine Barbin’.

More popularly, Barbin’s life inspired the American Jeffrey Eugenides to write Middlesex, a novel that won the Pullitzer Prize in 2003. Interviewed by Mick Brown for Irish Independent, Ireland’s largest selling daily newspaper, Eugenides said Barbin’s memoir is less promising than it sounds: ‘She’s not a very good writer. She never talks about what her body is like, what she feels, what her sexual relations are like, and she’s very melodramatic.’ Nevertheless, he told Brown, reading it led to the idea of writing his own story about a hermaphrodite.

It seems there are no substantial extracts of Barbin’s diary anywhere online, but Amazon has a few pages viewable, and a few academic works available through Googlebooks, refer to or quote from it. Here is one sample of Barbin’s writing, taken from Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity, by Margaret A McLaren.

‘At that age when a woman’s graces unfold, I had neither that free and easy bearing nor the well-round limbs that reveal youth in full bloom. My complexion with its sickly pallor denoted a condition of chronic ill health. My features had a certain hardness that one could not help noticing. My upper lip and a part of my cheeks were covered by a light down that increased as the days passed. Understandably, this peculiariaty often drew me to joking remarks that I tried to avoid by making frequent use of scissors in place of a razor. As was bound to happen, I only succeeded in making it even thicker and more noticeable still. My body was literally covered with it, and so unlike my companions. As for my figure it remained ridiculously thin. That all struck the eye, as I realised everyday.’

Friday, November 7, 2008

Deneuve on location

A book of film diaries written by Catherine Deneuve, the celebrated French actress, has just been re-published - with a very long title, longer indeed than the previous edition, which itself was much longer than the original! One of the earlier editions - viewable on Googlebooks - was dubbed by The Observer as ‘marvellously opaque’, but an Amazon reviewer said it was ‘very short and rather boring’. My Inner French Girl, though, thinks Deneuve’s writing is ‘stark, beautiful, metaphoric’.

According to and, Pegasus is publishing - today in the UK, tomorrow in the US - a book of diaries written by Catherine Deneuve, each one written while she was on location filming. The new publication has a long, name-dropping title: The Private Diaries of Catherine Deneuve: My Life Behind the Camera with Luis Bunuel, Francois Truffaut, Roman Polanski, and Lars von Trier. Amazon says it is a ‘fascinating collection of seven previously upublished diaries’.

But, in fact, the book seems to be a re-publishing of Close Up And Personal issued by Orion in 2006 (the first English version), as well as of The Private Diaries of Catherine Deneuve: Close Up and Personal, by Pegasus Books in 2007. (Intriguingly, the titles are getting longer and longer every time it’s published!) While there IS a trace of the 2006 version on Orion’s website, there is NO trace of the 2007 book, or the new one, on the Pegasus website. All very bizarre.

Deneuve, born in 1943, became famous through her portrayal of beautiful ice maidens for directors such as Roman Polanski (Repulsion, 1965) and Luis Buñuel (Belle de Jour, 1967). After more than 40 years in the business, and 100 films, she’s still working (see IMDB). A Cesar award winner twice, she has also been nominated for both an Oscar and an Academy award. She has two children - a son (born in 1963) from her relationship with Roger Vadim, and a daughter (born in 1972) from her relationship with Marcello Mastroianni. A marriage to the photographer David Bailey lasted from 1965 to 1972.

In the book, Deneuve charts the shooting of films such The April Fools (1968), co-starring Jack Lemmon; Tristana (1969), directed by Bunuel; Indochine (1991); and Lars von Trier’s acclaimed Dancer in the Dark (1999), co-starring Bjork. There is also the text of an interview with the director Pascal Bonitzer.

Few reviews of the earlier editions appear to be available online. A short quote from The Observer is widely quoted: ‘Marvelously opaque diaries of the great French cineaste’ (but I can’t find the original). Freelance journalist, Marjorie R Asturias, who writes a blog called My Inner French Girl, loved the book. She says: ‘Not to knock Deneuve, but who would have guessed that aside from her ethereal beauty and formidable acting talent, she also possesses a sharp, poetic writing ability? Her prose is stark, beautiful, metaphoric, but not florid.’ A couple of reviewers on Amazon, however, found the book boring. One said ‘even her entries about filming with Buñuel are dry and rather boring’; and the other called the book ‘short and rather boring’.

Judge for yourself. Much of the book is available to read on Googlebooks, including the interview with Bonitzer, with whom she talks a little about the diaries themselves: ‘[They] are a thing apart. To start with, they’re very disjointed, in that I wrote some of them a long time ago, and, apart from one, all on foreign shoots, on films where I wasn’t overly busy, or surrounded by too many people. I wrote them mostly in the evenings, unless we had to film early the next morning, or during lunch breaks. . . I have to say it [writing diaries] began with a lonely, rather difficult time. Going to film abroad, so far from home, and knowing I was so eagerly awaited, because according to the papers, the Americans saw me as the most beautiful actress around . . . I tried not to think about it, but it was a lot of pressure.’

And here is one short diary extract from that early time in her career (while filming Tristana in 1969).

Monday 8 November
‘Difficult start today. . . I’m so aware of Buñuel’s irritation and impatience with the slightest setback that I become completely paralysed. Even though this shot shouldn’t be difficult, I can’t seem to break it down. He settles for three takes. Grim lunch at La Venta de los Aires, I feel like crying. When a shot goes badly, I feel like a useless subject. Totally useless, because my dialogue is of no interest to him, he’s not even listening. This will be a proper Spanish film, I’ll be dubbed, which I sometimes find hard to accept. One shot this afternoon, a bit better. My first really bad day.’

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Washington’s domestic felicity

Americans are voting today for a new president, the 44th in the history of the United States. About 220 years ago, in the few days before becoming the country’s first President, George Washington, was writing in his diary about having to ‘bid adieu’ to domestic felicity. He was also anxious regarding his ability to fulfil the country’s expectations of him. Although Washington kept a diary almost all his life, most of the writing is dull, a simple record, he himself noted, of ‘where & how my time is spent’.

Washington was born into a Virginia planter’s family in Westmoreland County. While still young he worked as a land surveyor, but during the French and Indian war he was commissioned as a lieutenant-colonel. In 1755, he became commander-in-chief of the Virginia forces. From 1759, the year he married the widow Martha Dandridge, to the outbreak of the American Revolution, he returned to agriculture, developing his Mount Vernon estate that had been inherited from a half brother. He also served in the Virginia House of Burgesses and as a justice of the peace.

In 1775, Washington was elected as commander-in-chief of all the forces, and over the next eight years successfully fought the British. Having resigned in 1783, he retired again to Mount Vernon, but public life was never far away. He presided at a federal convention in Philadelphia in 1787, and two years later was chosen to be President under the new constitution. He was re-elected in 1792 and served until 1797, but declined a third term, and died just two weeks before the end of the century.

Remarkably, given Washington’s importance in the history of the US, he wrote a diary from the age of 16 until the day before he died. Every word has been published, with extensive notes, in The Diaries of George Washington, edited by Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig (University Press of Virginia, 1979), and all six volumes are available online at The Library of Congress American Memory website. The same website also carries photographic images of the handwritten pages.

The beginning of the editors’ introduction is worth quoting: ‘The diaries of George Washington are not those of a literary diarist in the conventional sense. No one holding the long-prevailing view of Washington as pragmatic and lusterless, a self-made farmer and soldier-statesman, would expect him to commit to paper the kind of personal testament that we associate with notable diarists. Even when familiarity modifies our view of the man, and we find him warmer and more intense than we knew, given to wry humor and sometimes towering rage - even then we do not find in these pages what we have come to expect of a diary.’

‘But let us not be unfair to a man who had his own definition of a diary: ‘Where & How my Time is Spent.’ The phrase runs the whole record through. He accounts for his time because, like his lands, his time is a usable resource. It can be tallied and its usefulness appraised. Perhaps it was more than mere convenience that caused Washington to set down his earliest diary entries in interleaved copies of an almanac, for an almanac, too, is an accounting of time.’

A little further on the editors quote John C. Fitzpatrick, who first compiled the diaries, from a letter written in 1924: ‘Now that I have read every word of these Diaries, from the earliest to the last one, it is impossible to consider them in any other light than that of a most marvelous record. It is absolutely impossible for anyone to arrive at a true understanding or comprehension of George Washington without reading this Diary record.’

The introduction also provides useful information on the history of the diary manuscripts. It seems likely, the editors say, that Washington kept a diary during his presidential years (1789-1797), but very few have survived, which is ‘particulary vexing to historians’. More specifically, it is known that he kept diaries in the spring and summer of 1789, but that they have ‘disappeared’. Only two entries for this period survive, and they are among the most interesting to be found anywhere in his diaries, not least because he expresses such self-doubts. Both entries are in the two weeks prior to his inauguration as President on 30 April.

16 April 1789
‘About ten o’clock I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity; and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York in company, with Mr. Thompson, and colonel Humphries, with the best dispositions to render service to my country in obedience to its call, but with less hope of answering its expectations.’

23 April 1789
‘The display of boats which attended and joined us on this occasion, some with vocal and some with instrumental music on board; the decorations of the ships, the roar of cannon, and the loud acclamations of the people which rent the skies, as I passed along the wharves, filled my mind with sensations as painful (considering the reverse of this scene, which may be the case after all my labors to do good) as they are pleasing.’

Here is a more typical example of Washington’s diary, from exactly 220 years today.

4 November 1788
‘Thermometer at 58 in the Morning - 75 at Noon and 72 at Night. Morning clear, calm and very pleasant - as the weather continued to be thro’ the day. Mr. Herbert & his Lady, Mr. Potts & his Lady, Mr. Ludwell Lee & his Lady, and Miss Nancy Craik came here to dinner and returned afterwards.’

And here are the last three entries Washington wrote in his diary.

11 December 1799
‘But little wind and Raining. Mer. 44 in the Morning and 38 at Night. About 9 oclock the Wind shifted to No. Wt. & it ceased raining but contd. Cloudy. Lord Fairfax, his Son Thos. and daughter - Mrs. Warner Washington & son Whiting - and Mr. Jno. Herbert dined here & returned after dinner.’

12 December 1799
‘Morning Cloudy - Wind at No. Et. & Mer. 33. A large circle round the Moon last Night. About 1 oclock it began to snow - soon after to Hail and then turned to a settled cold Rain. Mer. 28 at Night.’

13 December 1799
‘Morning Snowing & abt. 3 Inches deep. Wind at No. Et. & Mer. at 30. Contg. Snowing till 1 Oclock and abt. 4 it became perfectly clear. Wind in the same place but not hard. Mer. 28 at Night.’

On 12 December, according to the editors’ diary notes, in the midst of that day’s severe weather, Washington rode out to supervise winter activities on the land, but he got cold and wet. The next day, despite a sore throat, he was outside again marking trees to be cut. On 14 December, he was attended by three doctors, and received various treatments, but died that evening in his bed at Mount Vernon.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Raining death on earth

‘It is raining Death on earth,’ Hélène Berr, a French literary student, wrote in her journal 65 years ago today. Like Anne Frank, Berr was deported by the Nazis, suffered from typhus, and died in spring 1945 at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. However, the two girls’ diaries bear little similarity.

Hélène Berr, born in 1921, was the daughter of a prominent Jewish family, and was an English student at the Sorbonne. She began writing a journal in 1942 while Paris was occupied by the Nazis, and continued to fill its pages for two years until she and her parents were arrested and deported to Auschwitz. Her parents died within six months, but Hélène was then forced to march to Bergen-Belsen, where she contracted typhus and died in April 1945 (only weeks after the death of the more famous war-time diarist, Anne Frank, and just days before the camp would be liberated).

Before being deported from Paris, Hélène entrusted the diary to the family’s cook, who then passed it on to an uncle, who gave it to her fiancé. Subsequently, it was kept as a family keepsake for more than half a century. Only in 2002 was the diary first shown to the public. And, earlier this year, it was published in France by Éditions Tallandier - to great acclaim. An English version has just been brought out in the UK by Quercus Publishing, and is about to be released in the US by Weinstein Books which says Berr was ‘a stunningly talented writer’, and her account of war-time Paris is ‘profoundly affecting and devastatingly lucid’.

Various reviews of Berr’s journal - such as that at or Spiegel Online - have pointed out the differences between it and the one written by Anne Frank. While Frank’s diary deals with life in hiding in Amsterdam, Berr’s account describes her enjoyment of life at the Sorbonne, walking in the Parisian sunshine, and the romance with her boyfriend. But the journal does get darker. On 8 June 1942, for example, the first time she has to wear a yellow star, she writes: ‘I held my head high and looked people so straight in the eye they turned away. . . But it’s hard.’

There are a few, though not many, extracts from Berr’s journal available online. The first few pages of the book can be read at has a few quotes, such as this one, from a few weeks before the Gestapo took her away: ‘To think that if I am arrested this evening (which I have been expecting for ages now), in a week’s time I’ll be in Upper Silesia, maybe dead, and my whole life, with the infinity I sense within me, will be snuffed out . . .’ It also quotes an entry from 1 November 1943 - exactly 65 years ago today - ‘It is raining Death on earth’. Weinstein Books quotes her very last entry, ‘Horror, Horror, Horror’, which, it adds, is ‘a poignant but heartbreaking echo of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’.

Slightly more substantial extracts are available thanks to the International Herald Tribune which published, last January, several quotes translated by Associated Press from the French edition. Here are two of them.

10 October 1943

‘I have a duty to accomplish by writing because people must know. Each hour of the day the painful experience is repeated, that of noticing that others don’t know, that they don’t even imagine the suffering of others and the evil that some inflict on others.’

30 October 1943
‘Place de la Concorde, I passed so many Germans! with women, and despite my wish for impartiality, despite my ideal . . . I was swept by a wave not of hate, because I don’t know hate, but of revolt, nausea, disdain. These men, without knowing it, took the joie de vivre from all Europe . . . And in this moment of disgust there was no consideration of my special case, I didn’t think of persecutions.’

See also Civilisation no longer exists about Abel J Herzberg author of Between Two Streams - A Diary from Bergen-Belsen; and The Diary Junction’s data pages for both Herzberg and Anne Frank.