Saturday, February 28, 2009

The ghost of a reader

‘The journal writer, like the poet, is haunted by the ghost of a reader; but a ghost is very different from some palpable flesh-and-blood reader whom the writer imagines looking over his shoulder with his expectations, standards and demands.’ So wrote the British poet Stephen Spender, born a century ago today, in trying to explain why he had decided to publish his diaries, even though they were not written with publication in mind. The diaries themselves contain similar self-analysis (about his role as a poet for example) as well as many interesting anecdotes about other literary figures of the 20th century.

Spender was born in London, exactly 100 years ago today, to a mother of German-Jewish descent and to a liberal journalist. He was educated at University College School, Hampstead, and at Oxford where he became acquainted with other poets such as Auden, Isherwood and MacNeice. After Oxford, Spender lived in Hamburg for a while and then Berlin. From the start of the 1930s, he began to publish poetry and literary criticism, much of it flavoured by his left-wing politics. One of his poems, The Pylons, gave rise to the label Pylon Poets.

During the Spanish Civil War, Spender helped write propaganda for the Republican side; during the Second World War he worked for the National Fire Service. In the early 1950s, he published an autobiography giving an account of his relationship with the Communist Party. He went on to be editor of Encounter from 1953 to 1967, and to be involved with Index on Censorship. At times, he also lectured in the US. He was knighted in 1983 (the same year he appears to have stopped writing a diary) and he died in 1995.

More information on Spender can be found at Wikipedia; and The Diary Junction has some diary-related links. The Stephen Spender Memorial Trust, which says it aims to widen knowledge of 20th century English literature with particular focus on Spender’s circle of writers, has a biography, a bibliography and photos.

Although best remembered for being a poet, and, to some extent for literary criticism, Spender did produce other kinds of writing, travel books, a couple of plays and a handful of novels. For much of his life, he also wrote journals intermittently, often for specific purposes. These were compiled and edited into a single publication by John Goldsmith - Stephen Spender’s Journals 1939-1983 - and published by Faber and Faber in 1985. Spender, himself, however had some control over which entries were included in the volume, and provides a biographical commentary before each chapter.

In his introduction, Spender explains his journal-writing philosophy: ‘The essential of the journal for me is that I can put down whatever I like without consideration of fulfilling the expectations, or catering for the taste of, an editor or a reader. ‘But after all,’ the reader may protest, ‘here you are, publishing your journals.’ The answer to this objection is, I think, that the journal writer, like the poet, is haunted by the ghost of a reader; but a ghost is very different from some palpable flesh-and-blood reader whom the writer imagines looking over his shoulder with his expectations, standards and demands. The writer of the journal need only set down what is interesting to himself, his own truth, and much of this will conform to no standards of publication that he is aware of at the time. Much of it will, indeed, be unpublishable.’

In the 40 years and more covered by Stephen Spender’s Journals 1939-1983 there is only one entry dated 28 February, i.e. on his birthday. It’s from 1970: ‘I drove to New York and dined with Auden. My sixty-first birthday: his sixty-third was two days ago, 26 February.’ And there follows a poem which starts ‘Dined with Auden. He’d been at Milwaukee . . .’

Here, however, are two other extracts from the book, forty years apart.

20 October 1939
‘It must now be three weeks since my weekend at the Woolfs. They live in a very pleasant house at Rodmell near Lewes . . . I arrived in time for tea. After tea, we went out on to the lawn and played a game of bowls. . . Virginia and I walked about the garden talking about writing, which she said she wanted to discuss with other writers. She was pleased that I kept a journal because she said she found it was the only thing she could do, too. She thought that every day an occasion arises in which one sees things in an entirely new and different way, that these moments of transformation are one’s grasp of reality. This is the experience she tries to catch hold of in her journal.’ (NB: See The Diary Junction for more on Woolf’s diary.)

5 October 1979
‘I wrote a poem about Derwentwater. One of my best, at this moment, I think. Why do I have such resistance to writing poetry? Since when I am writing it I can become very absorbed, happy, fascinated. The resistance comes first from the sense not so much of failure as of non-recognition. I can’t really convince myself my poetry gives pleasure to anyone. I feel apologetic sending it to a friend, humiliated sending it to an editor, as though asking for a favour. Next, writing it is a test in which all one’s best qualities are brought in confrontation with all one’s incapacitiy. Next, poetry is not ‘work’. And there is always ‘work’ elbowing its way in and pushing poetry aside. . .

Being a minor poet is like being minor royalty, and no one, as a former lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret once explained to me, is happy as that.’

Friday, February 27, 2009

Mullin and leylandii

The diaries of Labour MP Chris Mullin, covering the period of New Labour from 1999 to 2007, are about to be published by Profile Books. However, substantial extracts are being serialised in the Mail on Sunday, and can be read online. While Profile Books says Mullin is ‘irreverent, wry and candid’ in the diaries, the Mail on Sunday extracts - such as those in which Mullin is most concerned about leylandii legislation - make his irreverence seem more puerile than wry.

Wikipedia offers a short biography of Mullin. Born in Chelmsford, Essex, in 1947, he read law at the University of Hull. He first campaigned (unsuccessfully) for a Labour seat when only 22, but then worked as a journalist on the television documentary World in Action, which, among other things, campaigned for the release of the so-called Birmingham Six.

By the start of the 1980s, Mullin was an active member of the Labour Party, veering towards Tony Benn’s style of politics, supporting Benn’s political positions, and editing some of his written material. Mullin himself was elected to Parliament in 1987, and has remained an MP (for Sunderland South) since then. Tony Blair appointed him to the government in 1999, as a junior minister at the DETR, under John Prescott; he has also served in ministerial positions at the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office. Since 2005, though, he has been a backbencher. He is married to a Vietnamese woman, Ngoc, and they have two children.

Last year, Mullin announced that he does not intend to fight another election - which is, presumably, why he’s now happy to make his diaries public. A View From The Foothills, about life in the New Labour government from 1999 to 2007, is due to be published by Profile Books on 2 March. The book is being billed as ‘Alan Clarke meets Yes Minister’, and Profile is quoting Mullin as saying: ‘It is said that failed politicians make the best diarists. In which case I am in with a chance.’

Here is more of the publisher’s blurb: ‘Mullin is irreverent, wry and candid. His keen sense of the ridiculous allows him to give a far clearer insight into the workings of Government than other, more overtly successful and self-important politicians. He offers humorous and incisive takes on all aspects of political life: from the build-up to Iraq, to the scandalous sums of tax-payers’ money spent on ministerial cars he didn’t want to use. His diary is a joy to read: brilliantly-observed, it will entertain and amuse far beyond the political classes.’

In advance of 2 March, extracts from the diaries are being published in the Mail on Sunday, which claims that, until now, the diaries have been ‘kept hidden from everyone but his family’. The book is available from Amazon at half the recommended retail price of £20.

Here’s a small sample of the delights in store. They come from Mullin’s first year in office, when working under John Prescott at the DETR. Personally, I think Mullin’s irreverence and/or wryness falls rather flat in some of this writing, especially when taking his effort to legislate on leylandii so self-importantly!

21 September 1999
‘At John Prescott’s office. JP, grim-faced in shirtsleeves, standing near the window. The reason for this morning’s angst is yet more interference by Downing Street in the business of the Department. Speed limits are the subject of today’s intervention.

His black mood is compounded by the fact that he has come to work this morning wearing unmatching shoes. We are permitted a brief giggle at this. Towards the end of the meeting a minion appears with a plastic bag containing an assortment of shoes.

JP has no concept of how to get the best out of people. His idea of conferring is to lie slumped in an armchair and deliver, at breakneck speed, a series of diatribes. Occasionally, he invites brief contributions from one or other of his Ministers, who are arranged around him on easy chairs. Now and then he solicits information from one of the advisers, who sit behind us on upright chairs.

Our main role is to laugh sycophantically at his jokes. This is how it must be at the court of Boris Yeltsin.’

13 October 1999
‘With Michael Meacher to discuss the dreaded leylandii hedges. After two years of faffing, the Department has produced a leaflet advising on suitable hedging for suburban gardens. ‘Where,’ Michael asks the officials, ‘does it actually say it is not a good idea to plant leylandii?’

‘Ah well, Minister, it doesn’t quite put it as boldly as that. We have to be careful of upsetting the industry.’ Pure Yes, Minister. Later, Brian Hackland - an official from No10 - calls in. Amazingly, The Man has indeed given the matter his attention.’

18 October 1999
‘Another exchange about leylandii with Hackland. ‘The climate in Downing Street is not right,’ he asserted. ‘What climate?’ I say. ‘I bet the Prime Minister hasn’t devoted more than 30 seconds of his time to the matter.’ Reluctantly Hackland disgorged two names, Jonathan Powell and Anji Hunter.

‘Hunter? Where does she fit in?’ ‘The Prime Minister values her political antennae.’

So, our entire effort is paralysed on the whim of the Prime Minister’s Special Assistant. Come back Marcia Falkender.’

Postscript: John Prescott, not to be entirely floored by Mullin’s diary revelation concerning the unmatching shoes, has retaliated (if that’s not too strong a word) with a story about Mullin in his blog, as reported by The Guardian. Prescott writes: ‘I wonder if he [Mullin] mentions in his book about the time when I was called by security to the front of the department’s building to deal with a tramp. I turned up to discover security refusing to let in a man dressed in a thick overcoat, scarf, gloves and a wooly Russian cap that covered his face and ears. I turned round to security and had to tell them: ‘That’s no tramp, that’s my junior minister - Chris Mullin.’

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

August Derleth Day

Today, 24 February, has just become August Derleth Day in the state of Wisconsin, US, thanks to a proclamation by the state governor, Jim Doyle. The proclamation was made to honour Derleth’s centenary, for he was born exactly 100 years ago. Although a versatile and prolific writer, he is most well remembered for promoting the horror stories of H P Lovecraft. He was also, though, a committed diarist, and published several volumes of diaries.

Here is the proclamation being read out today by Governor Doyle at Sauk City Park Hall (Sauk City being but a village): ‘. . . Whereas August W Derleth, a Wisconsin author born on February 24, 1909 in Sauk City, brought honor and distinction to himself, his community and his state during a lifetime spent in writing and publishing; and whereas, Derleth was educated in Sauk City beginning a writing career at age thirteen, publishing his first story in 1926; and whereas, he entered the University of Wisconsin where he continued writing, and graduated in 1930, after which he was briefly employed in an editorial position out-of-state; and . . .

Whereas, returning to Sauk City in 1931, Derleth embarked on a writing career leading to a contract with Charles Scribner’s Sons, the publication of the first of his Sac Prairie novels depicting the historical evolution of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac; the awarding of a Guggenhein Fellowship in 1938, and the ultimate publication of over 150 books ranging from history, historical novels, biography, poetry, contemporary novels, juvenilia, supernatural fiction and pastiches, marking him as the most prolific writer in Wisconsin history, and . . .

Whereas, Derleth founded Arkham House [a publishing company] . . . devoted to the works of H P Lovecraft and other writers of the macabre . . . and whereas, in 1941, Derleth was appointed literary editor of the Capital Times of Madison, a position he held until 1960, and whereas, Derleth died in 1971 at age 62, leaving behind two children, April Rose and Walden William and the many lives he touched through his works; and whereas, Derleth took continued pride in his Wisconsin roots as evidenced by his writings, his activities in lecturing on American Regional Literature and his Journals exploring the delights of rural Wisconsin,

Now, therefore, I, Jim Doyle, Governor of Wisconsin, do hereby proclaim February 24, 2009, the hundredth anniversary of August Derleth’s birth, as August Derleth Day.’

The long bibliography on Derleth’s Wikipedia page lists five published journals: Village Year: A Sac Prairie Journal (1941); Village Daybook (1947); Countryman’s Journal (1963); Wisconsin Country: A Sac Prairie Journal (1965); and Return to Walden West (1970). But John Howard, who maintains a website called Walden East with lots of information about Derleth, adds two other books with journal extracts: Walden West (1961) and Walden Pond: Homage to Thoreau (1968)

Howard says of Derleth: ‘His journal is full of variety. Even more so than in [his] novels, there is plenty of acute observation of nature: wildlife, plants, the weather and the changing seasons. And the human inhabitants of the region are put under the microscope and analysed. Comedy and tragedy is played out in equal measure, and recorded.’

An analysis of Derleth’s writing and books can be found on the Arkham House website. It says this of Countryman’s Journal: ‘Much of the entertainment results from his comic pictures of townspeople’s eccentricities, such as their colorful speech, and their dry wit. Conversely, the transience of human existence, evident in the many deaths, contrasts with nature’s survival, which he emphasizes by describing nature’s recurring seasonal changes. Derleth also reveals something about himself. He is both gregarious, which made it possible for him to learn much about others, and mildly abrasive, as shown by his running battle with one of the local priests.’

Here are two (undated) extracts from Derleth’s journal provided by the Walden East website:

‘Miss Ilsa Lahman passed: she who has always had delusions of grandeur. . . walking in her characteristic fashion, as if on eggshells, with the appearance of a slight limp: a hitch, actually. When asked what was wrong with Miss Lahman, Jo Merk replied, ‘She got that walking up and down the stairs in her medieval air castles.’ ’

‘Turning over his words in this place where, conceivably, they had taken shape for him, I was made to think of Sac Prairie, where, I suppose, I engage life in somewhat similar circumstances, allowing for a century’s advance in time. . . There are still solitary places in the woods and the marshes around Sac Prairie where, as Thoreau found it at Walden, only a railroad can be seen to remind one of civilization. . .’

Finally, John Howard also provides, on his Walden East website, an interesting article in which he traces how one small incident that happened on a train was not only recorded by Derleth in his journal, but used in his poetry and fiction as well.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

World Chief Guide

Olave Baden-Powell, a key figure in the history of the Girl Guides, was born 120 years ago today. Coincidentally, it is also the birthday of her husband, Robert Baden-Powell, who launched the whole scouting movement a century or so ago. Girl Scouts and Guides celebrate this day each year as World Thinking Day. Olave must have kept some kind of diary since there are a few extracts online. More revealing, though, is a diary entry about (not by) her doing ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’.

Olave St Clair Soames was born on 22 February 1889 - exactly 120 years ago today - and was the youngest daughter of Harold Soames, a brewery owner. In 1912, aged only 23, she married Robert Baden-Powell, then 55, having met him on a liner sailing to New York. During the early years of the First World War, Olave spent a few months in France, but mostly helped her husband with secretarial services and by driving him to meetings. From about 1916, though, she became involved in working for the Girl Guides, becoming Chief Commissioner, then Chief Guide, and then, in 1930, World Chief Guide.

In 1918, Olave and her husband moved to Pax Hill, near Farnham, Hampshire, where they lived for 20 years and brought up three children. In 1939, they went to live in Kenya, where Robert died in 1941. The following year, she returned to live in Hampton Court Palace (since Pax Hill had been taken over by the Canadian military) and stayed there after the war. Thereafter, she continued touring to promote the Scout and Guide organisations. From 1942 until her death in 1977, she is said to have travelled the world five times taken 653 flights.

Today - 22 February - is also World Thinking Day for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. It was chosen as such over 80 years ago, in 1926, precisely because of the joint birthday of Olave and Robert. This year’s theme is ‘stop the spread of AIDS, malaria and other diseases’; last year it was ‘Think about water’; and the year before it was ‘Discover your potential by taking the lead, growing friendships, and speaking out’.

A guide to archives on the history of Scouting can be found on PAXTU, the International Web Site for the History of Guiding and Scouting, and this lists many diaries left by Robert Baden-Powell. The same site has similar documents for the history of Guiding, but there is no mention of Olave’s diaries. However, there must be some, for the Olave Baden-Powell tribute website quotes a few short extracts. Here are three (exactly as they appear on the website).

‘St. George's Day., Attended Scout and Guide celebrations of freedom in Paris. Toured through Normandy with General Lafont, Chief Scout of France. Continued through Alsace and Lorraine, and on VE Day crossed into Switzerland, Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium, England, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Switzerland.’

‘West Indies, British Guiana, Cuba, Mexico, the Unites Staets, Canada and Newfoundland. Travelled 3,720 miles by sea, 6,355 miles by train, 16,610 miles by air, and 3,565 miles by road. Made 231 speeches to audiences varying in number (from 30 to 20,000, gave 62 press interviews or radio talks. Attended World Conference at Evian, France. Visited Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, and Holland.’

‘Visited Holland, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Belgium, France and Denmark and many parts of the British Isles; in a five months' tour of Africa travelled over 23,000 miles by air and visited 20 territories.’

And here is another brief entry, apparently from Olave’s diary (found on the Historical Boys’ Clothing website), just after the death of her husband in 1941: ‘He looked so sweet and perfect in death as he was in life - utterly utterly noble and good and dear and wonderful, great and faultless.’

Here, though, is a diary entry that gives a much better picture of Olave. It’s taken from the diary of the late Lorna Collins (quoted in Guiding in Australia - May 1989) and can be found on this Olave Baden-Powell tribute website.

June 1967
‘A rally had been organised for Saturday 25 June at the Perry Lakes Stadium. Girls had come from widespread country areas and there was the concern that as they assembled at the stadium, they would be very wet and very cold. So it was decided to have a warm-up activity in which everyone could join. The Chief - always greeting people: ‘How are you? How are you?’ - could see that the people were being asked to stand and they weren’t, so she got up, and of course, then every one got up and did ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’. When it was through the Chief called ‘again’ and everyone did it again. And so everyone was warm and happy and they sat down and the rally proceeded. Now the next day the Chief was to leave by plane for London. All the goodbyes had been said, all the hands shaken and all the VIPs kissed and she went up the gangway, stood at the top and waved, and of course everyone waved to her. One would think that that would be the end, but there at the doorway to the plane the Chief started ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ and those back on the ground joined in.’

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Pepys on Sir Edward Hyde

Sir Edward Hyde, historian, statesman and grandfather to two queens, was born 400 years ago today. He served in high capacity to Charles I and Charles II, and is generally thought to have written the best contemporary account of the Civil War. Although he didn’t leave behind any diaries himself, he is mentioned frequently by Samuel Pepys. One entry, for example, has Pepys telling a beautifully convoluted story about Hyde’s anger over some trees marked for felling.

Hyde was born in Dinton, Wiltshire, the sixth of nine children, on 18 February 1609 - four centuries ago today. He was educated at Oxford, and inherited the family estate after his two older brothers died. He was called to the bar in 1633, and became a Member of the Parliament in 1640. During the Civil War, he served as an adviser and then Chancellor of the Exchequer to King Charles I. However, eventually, he lost favour in a political capacity, and was put in charge of the King’s son, Prince Charles, who he escorted to exile in Jersey, arriving in 1646. He himself stayed there for two years, though the prince moved on to France.

While in Jersey, Hyde began writing History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England which today is considered to include the best contemporary account of the Civil War. (An early 18th century copy is currently on sale at Abebooks for over £12,000.)

On the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Hyde returned to England with the new king and became even closer to the royal family through the marriage of his daughter, Anne, to Charles’s brother James, the heir-presumptive - their two daughters, Mary II and Queen Anne, would both one day reign the kingdom. Hyde, or the Earl of Clarendon as he had become by then, served as Lord Chancellor from 1660 to 1667, giving his name to the Clarendon Code, which imposed restrictions on religious dissenters. In 1667, though, he lost favour with the king because of failures during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, and was forced to flee to France, where he died in 1674.

The Lord Chancellor is mentioned many times in Pepys’s diary. Here is a fairly long extract, taken from an excellent website called simply The Diary of Samuel Pepys. It tells of Pepys being blamed by Sir Edward Hyde (Earl of Clarendon, the Lord Chancellor) for having allowed his trees to be marked for cutting. Pepys seeks out the Lord Chancellor and protests, saying that he did not know his property was involved, and that he was only carrying out a decision of the Navy Board. (NB: I have added some paragraph breaks to, and ommitted a few sentences from, the full extract for ease of reading.)

Thursday 14 July 1664
‘My mind being doubtful what the business should be, I rose a little after four o’clock, and abroad. Walked to my Lord’s [Sir Edward Mountague, Earl of Sandwich and Pepys’s patron], and nobody up, but the porter rose out of bed to me so I back again to Fleete Streete, and there bought a little book of law; and thence, hearing a psalm sung, I went into St. Dunstan’s, and there heard prayers read, which, it seems, is done there every morning at six o’clock; a thing I never did do at a chappell, but the College Chappell, in all my life.

Thence to my Lord’s again, and my Lord being up, was sent for up, and he and I alone. He did begin with a most solemn profession of the same confidence in and love for me that he ever had, and then told me what a misfortune was fallen upon me and him: in me, by a displeasure which my Lord Chancellor [Sir Edward Hyde] did show to him last night against me, in the highest and most passionate manner that ever any man did speak, even to the not hearing of any thing to be said to him: but he told me, that he did say all that could be said for a man as to my faithfullnesse and duty to his Lordship, and did me the greatest right imaginable.

And what should the business be, but that I should be forward to have the trees in Clarendon Park marked and cut down, which he, it seems, hath bought of my Lord Albemarle; when, God knows! I am the most innocent man in the world in it, and did nothing of myself, nor knew of his concernment therein, but barely obeyed my Lord Treasurer’s warrant for the doing thereof. And said that I did most ungentlemanlike with him, and had justified the rogues in cutting down a tree of his; and that I had sent the veriest Fanatique [Deane - a shipbuilder] that is in England to mark them, on purpose to nose him. All which, I did assure my Lord, was most properly false, and nothing like it true; and told my Lord the whole passage. My Lord do seem most nearly affected; he is partly, I believe, for me, and partly for himself.

So he advised me to wait presently upon my Lord, and clear myself in the most perfect manner I could, with all submission and assurance that I am his creature both in this and all other things; and that I do owne that all I have, is derived through my Lord Sandwich from his Lordship. So, full of horror, I went, and found him busy in tryals of law in his great room; and it being Sitting-day, durst not stay, but went to my Lord and told him so: whereupon he directed me to take him after dinner; and so away I home, leaving my Lord mightily concerned for me. I to the office, and there sat busy all the morning. . .

. . . and I to my Lord Chancellor’s; and there coming out after dinner I accosted him, telling him that I was the unhappy Pepys that had fallen into his high displeasure, and come to desire him to give me leave to make myself better understood to his Lordship, assuring him of my duty and service. He answered me very pleasingly, that he was confident upon the score of my Lord Sandwich’s character of me, but that he had reason to think what he did, and desired me to call upon him some evening: I named to-night, and he accepted of it.

So with my heart light I to White Hall . . . thence I to the Half Moone. . . and thence to my Lord Chancellor’s, and there heard several tryals, wherein I perceive my Lord is a most able and ready man. After all done, he himself called, ‘Come, Mr. Pepys, you and I will take a turn in the garden.’ So he was led down stairs, having the goute, and there walked with me, I think, above an houre, talking most friendly, yet cunningly. I told him clearly how things were; how ignorant I was of his Lordship’s concernment in it; how I did not do nor say one word singly, but what was done was the act of the whole Board. He told me by name that he was more angry with Sir G. Carteret than with me, and also with the whole body of the Board. But thinking who it was of the Board that knew him least, he did place his fear upon me; but he finds that he is indebted to none of his friends there.

I think I did thoroughly appease him, till he thanked me for my desire and pains to satisfy him; and upon my desiring to be directed who I should of his servants advise with about this business, he told me nobody, but would be glad to hear from me himself. He told me he would not direct me in any thing, that it might not be said that the Lord Chancellor did labour to abuse the King; or (as I offered) direct the suspending the Report of the Purveyors but I see what he means, and I will make it my worke to do him service in it.

But, Lord! to see how he is incensed against poor Deane, as a fanatique rogue, and I know not what: and what he did was done in spite to his Lordship, among all his friends and tenants. He did plainly say that he would not direct me in any thing, for he would not put himself into the power of any man to say that he did so and so; but plainly told me as if he would be glad I did something. Lord! to see how we poor wretches dare not do the King good service for fear of the greatness of these men. He named Sir G. Carteret, and Sir J. Minnes, and the rest; and that he was as angry with them all as me. But it was pleasant to think that, while he was talking to me, comes into the garden Sir G. Carteret; and my Lord avoided speaking with him, and made him and many others stay expecting him, while I walked up and down above an houre, I think; and would have me walk with my hat on.

And yet, after all this, there has been so little ground for this his jealousy of me, that I am sometimes afeard that he do this only in policy to bring me to his side by scaring me; or else, which is worse, to try how faithfull I would be to the King; but I rather think the former of the two. I parted with great assurance how I acknowledged all I had to come from his Lordship; which he did not seem to refuse, but with great kindness and respect parted. So I by coach home . . . At my office late, and so home to eat something, being almost starved for want of eating my dinner to-day, and so to bed, my head being full of great and many businesses of import to me.’

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Lincoln and Fanny Seward

To mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the University of Rochester has put online a selection of diary entries written by Fanny, the daughter of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward. Among these diary entries is an eye-witness description of the attempted murder of her father by a Confederate spy and associate of the man who succeeded in assassinating Lincoln that very same day.

The twelfth of February was not only the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin (see previous article), but also of Abraham Lincoln, one of the US’s greatest presidents. He successfully led the country through the American Civil War, thus preserving the Union against the secessionist Confederates and ending slavery. But, as the war was drawing to a close, on 14 April 1865, Lincoln was assassinated - the first president, in fact, to be murdered - by John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate spy.

On the same day, and at the same time, another Confederate spy and associate of Booth, Lewis Powell, attempted to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward. This plot, however, failed. He continued to serve as Secretary of State under the next president Andrew Johnson, and to negotiate the purchase of Alaska from Russia, an act that is remembered as his greatest achievement but which was ridiculed at the time as ‘Seward’s Folly’.

Many of Seward’s papers are held by the University of Rochester’s Rare Books and Special Collections department, and these include a treasure of letters to, from and about Lincoln. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth, on 12 February, the university’s library launched an exhibit entitled Lincoln at Rochester; and, in connection with this has made available some extracts from Fanny Seward’s diaries.

Frances (or Fanny) Seward’s life was short. Having contracted typhoid when a child she suffered ill health, and died when only 22. However, as a teenager and young woman, she was already taking over social duties in Washington, because her mother preferred to stay at the family home in Auburn. She began keeping a diary at 14, and continued until a few weeks before her death.

The university’s library website has just made available both the images and the transcribed texts of Fanny’s diary from 10 days in April 1865, up to and including 14 April. The final entry, for 14 April, is long, over 4,000 words, and provides an extraordinary eye-witness account of the attempted assassination of her father. Here is a short extract.

‘. . . I remember running back, crying out ‘Where’s Father?,’ seeing the empty bed. At the side I found what I thought was a pile of bed clothes - then I knew that it was Father. As I stood my feet slipped in a great pool of blood. Father looked so ghastly I was sure he was dead, he was white & very thin with the blood that had drained from the gashes about his face & throat. Fred was in the room till after Father was placed on the bed. Margaret says she heard me scream ‘O my God! Father’s dead.’ I remember that Robinson came instantly, &: lifting him, said his heart still beat - & he, with or without aid, laid him on the bed. Notwithstanding his own injuries Robinson stood faithfully at Father’s side, on the right hand - I did not know what should be done. Robinson told me everything - about staunching the blood with cloths & water. He applied them on the right side, & I, kneeling on the bed, on the left, put them on a wound on that side of the neck. Father seemed to me almost dead, but he spoke to me, telling me to have the doors closed, & send for surgeons, & to ask to have a guard placed around the house. . .

. . . It was then that I first heard about the President, one of the gentlemen telling Mother that he was shot. As this group stood there Father related in a clear, distinct manner, his recollections of the whole scene - between each word he drew breath, as one dying might speak, & I feared the effort might cost his remaining strength. I think we gave him tea in the night - at his own request. I was in constant apprehension of some fatal turn in his symptoms . . .’

There is another set of extracts from Fanny’s diaries on the libary website - from September 1860, when Fanny was 15. These were published in the Library Bulletin for an article on Stumping for Lincoln (politicians are said to be stumping when they’re on the campaign trail). In an introduction to the extracts, Patricia C Johnson explains how Fanny came to be ‘stumping for Lincoln’ that year.

‘There was no possibility of Mrs Seward joining her husband on the trip. She was a semi-invalid who hated crowds, parties, travel and, most of all, the political limelight. She agreed, though, when Seward decided to substitute their fifteen-year-old daughter, Fanny. The motive for taking the young girl was not solely or even mainly political. Seward intended that his beloved only daughter should have a wide, liberal education and the campaign provided an opportunity for her to glimpse much of the Midwest. The parents also hoped that it would improve her health. She was a delicate child, subject especially to coughs, colds, and fevers and there was a chance that the exercise, fresh air, and change of climate would bolster her weak constitution.’

Johnson also explains that Fanny would write notes in a pocketbook diary and then transfer those notes, in an expanded form, into her main diary, but that the diary for 1860 no longer exists. Here, though, is an entry from the pocketbook diary for 6 September 1860.

'Rose rather late. Visited the State Reform School - Interesting and humane much pleased with it, State Agricultural college men deliverd adress to Father. Procession formed, Took in our carriages - it was between two and three miles long. Girls dressed as States, wideawakes etc. Paraded through city - Speaking at a public common, covered stage. Father’s lap - He began speaking stage began to give way - we off all right - he spoke - Gen Nye followed - Company dinner - Torchlight and roman candles evening were gay with the Hosmers such nice people. Mr Howard joined.’

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Darwin and his diaries

Charles Darwin, one of the greatest and most important scientists that ever lived, was born two centuries ago today. It is well known that his discoveries regarding evolution were first seeded while travelling round the world on HMS Beagle. During that journey, he wrote a detailed diary which has been published many times; but he also kept another diary throughout his life - unfortunately it’s very brief. Darwin’s wife, Emma, kept a diary too, also very brief (which seems to ignore her husband’s birthday!). All three diaries are freely available on the internet thanks to the wonderful Darwin Online website.

There is no shortage of biographical information about Darwin on the internet, at Wikipedia for example, or the BBC website. The Diary Junction gives links to etexts of his diaries, and the Natural History Museum has a whole series of Darwin-related events and exhibitions.

Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, on 12 February 1809, exactly 200 years ago today. His mother died when he was eight, and he left home at 16 to study medicine at Edinburgh University. Rejecting the medical profession, though, he went to Cambridge to prepare for Holy Orders. However, this line of work didn’t suit him either, and he accepted an invitation to serve as unpaid naturalist on a five year scientific expedition aboard the HMS Beagle.

After returning, in 1839, Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood, and in 1842, they moved to Down House at Downe in Kent, where they lived for the rest of their lives, bringing up 10 children, of whom only seven survived beyond puberty. Darwin worked at Down House, living off inherited money, reading and researching widely (including a long study on barnacles). Despite sometimes being incapacitated by illnesses, he established reputations in the fields of taxonomy, geology and the distribution of flora and fauna.

It was not until 1859, after painstaking consideration, that he finally published his famous theory on natural selection in The Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. And it took him another 12 years to publish The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. It was Darwin’s research and thought processes during the five years on board HMS Beagle that was to lead to these revolutionary theories, and, consequently, the journal he kept during that voyage has great historic and scientific importance.

Darwin wrote a book about the journey in the form of a journal which he based on his diary. This was first published in 1839 along with two further volumes written by other participants on the journey, Captain Robert Fitzroy and Captain Philip King. This three-tome publication was originally called Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle, under the command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N. from 1832 to 1836. However, it has been reproduced in various forms since then, and is often just called The Voyage of the Beagle these days.

All three of these tomes, and a bibliographical introduction to them by R. B. Freeman, are available on the excellent Darwin Online website - a one-stop source for all Darwin’s publications. These volumes also seem to be the source for an ongoing blog called Charle’s Darwin’s Beagle Diary which is publishing texts by Darwin and Fitzroy exactly 175 years after they were written; but, for some reason, the blog doesn’t give any information about itself.

Darwin Online, though, also provides the original text of Darwin’s actual Beagle diary (held by English Heritage at Down House). Here is an extract from the diary during his visit to the Galapagos Islands.

17 September 1835
‘The Beagle was moved into St Stephens harbor. We found there an American Whaler & we previously had seen two at Hoods Island. - The Bay swarmed with animals; Fish, Shark & Turtles were popping their heads up in all parts. Fishing lines were soon put overboard & great numbers of fine fish 2 & even 3 ft long were caught. This sport makes all hands very merry; loud laughter & the heavy flapping of the fish are heard on every side. - After dinner a party went on shore to try to catch Tortoises, but were unsuccessful. - These islands appear paradises for the whole family of Reptiles. Besides three kinds of Turtles, the Tortoise is so abundant; that [a] single Ship’s company here caught from 500–800 in a short time. - The black Lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large (2–3 ft) most disgusting, clumsy Lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl & seek their prey from the Sea. - Somebody calls them ‘imps of darkness’. - They assuredly well become the land they inhabit. - When on shore I proceeded to botanize & obtained 10 different flowers; but such insignificant, ugly little flowers, as would better become an Arctic, than a Tropical country. - The birds are Strangers to Man & think him as innocent as their countrymen the huge Tortoises. Little birds within 3 & four feet, quietly hopped about the Bushes & were not frightened by stones being thrown at them. Mr King killed one with his hat & I pushed off a branch with the end of my gun a large Hawk.’

Also at Darwin Online can be found what Darwin called, in his autobiography, the ‘little diary, which I have always kept’. It’s not a real diary of the Samuel Pepys or Alan Clark variety, mores the pity, but just a few notes for each year. It does, though, span the whole of his life. In a short introduction Dr John van Wyhe, the director of Darwin Online, writes:

‘In August 1838, while living in London, Charles Darwin began his ‘Journal’ or diary in a small 3 x 4 inch notebook. He made back dated records of his life from birth to that date and continued adding entries recording his work and private events until December 1881, four months before he died.’ There is also a comment on the diary by Darwin’s son, Francis: ‘It is unfortunately written with great brevity, the history of a year being compressed into a page or less, and contains little more than the dates of the principal events of his life, together with entries as to his work, and as to the duration of his more serious illnesses.’

Here is the entire entry for 1869 (including one note for 11 Feb, the day before Darwin was 60).

‘Feb. 10th Finished 5th Edit of Origin: has taken me 46 days.

Feb. 11th Sexual Selection of Mammals & Man & Preliminary Chapter on Sexual Selection (with 10 days for notes on Orchids) to June 10th when I went to North Wales.

On Augt 4 recommenced going over all chapters on Sexual Selection.

Feb. 16th - 24th to Erasmus.

June 10th started for Caerdon, Barmouth sleeping at Shrewsbury. Returned July 31st having slept at Stafford. Weak & unwell.

Novr 1st to 9th Erasmus.’

Emma, Darwin’s wife, also kept notebooks, the images of which (though not the texts) are available at the Darwin Online website. Janet Browne, in her introduction to them, points out that they ‘are not discursive journals’ but were used ‘to make notes of appointments, important family events, a seemingly endless succession of illnesses and remedies, primarily relating to her children and husband, visits to and from relatives and friends, concerts to attend, minor expenses, charitable activities and other daily memoranda’. And, in this sense, she says, ‘they constitute a vivid record of daily life in the Darwin household. Indeed, they take the reader right to the heart of family life.’

There are no entries in the diaries for 12 February 1859 or 1869 or 1879, when Darwin was 50, 60 and 70 respectively. On 12 February 1849, all Emma writes is ‘sick twice in the evening’. Here, though, are a few entries taken from the week that Darwin died, in April 1882 (I have no idea what 3 1/2 means, but I think Polly was Darwin’s dog).

17 April 1882
‘good day
a little work -
out in orch twice’

18 April 1882
Fatal attack at 12’

19 April 1882
‘3 1/2‘

20 April 1882
‘Polly died
All the sons arrived’

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Demolition Decorators

Thirty years ago today I attended the start of a trial against several members of a band of performers called the Demolition Decorators, and then wrote about the event in my diary. This seems, thus, a perfectly good excuse to revisit all my other diary entries in 1978 and 1979 concerning the DDs, as well as one five years later.

The Demolition Decorators say they were ‘an extraordinary collective of musicians and comedians’ based in London in the latter part of the 1970s. This retro-publicity can be found as part of the promotion for Don’t say baloney, a CD put together, in 2005, by Arif Usmani, one of the DD leaders, and available from various websites, including CD Baby. It also reveals that the DDs ‘chalked up 24 arrests for performing in the street, had a kamikaze suicide squad and squatted the main stage at the Bath Festival to hold a ‘people’s event’ complete with laundry service’.

The DDs called themselves ‘incidentalists’, it seems, because many performances comprised confrontations: ‘Audiences could not be neutral and many outdoor performances involved an appearance by the police. At one gig, some of the audience were so incensed, they firebombed the hall. Although very political, they were never fanatical or bitter. There was a mystical quality about them.’ They also claim to have ‘single-handedly‘ won buskers the right to play in the London Underground system.

A dozen names are listed on the credits of Don’t say baloney, but I’m certainly not one of them. My involvement with the DDs was fairly short-lived, and very non-committal. I think I found the whole thing vaguely amusing or entertaining, and failed to absorb how seriously others in the group felt about certain issues. In any case, although I did indulge in occasional and indulgent acts of performance art, they were without political focus. Moreover, I was much happier with a pen in my hand than with an audience in front of me.

Here are all the diary entries I made concerning the Demolition Decorators - they can also be found on my Pikle website. At the time, they and other alternative organisations were squatting in a Covent Garden building on Tower Street I think. The diary entries lead up to the fire, in December 1978, that started during a party and gutted the building, and to February 1979 - exactly 30 years ago - when I attended the trial of four DD members. There is also an entry from five years later, one that brings fresh enjoyment every time I read it! (BIT refers to the BIT Information Service, and IT to International Times - see Wikipedia for more information.)

2 October 1978
‘Tommy has his eyes wide open; his eyeballs roll around and up high as he tries to formulate exactly what he wants to say. George and Bill yawn. A frizzy black student expounds ideas on politics and theatre, and is supported by a hard-nosed, determined kid (from the slums?). They are here to ask for the services of the Demolition Decorators; they have patiently waited their turn on the agenda. I yawn. The Demolition Decorators’ cause for the month. We are to picket shops that sell South African goods. Yes, folks, every small tin of South African pilchards that you buy supports APARTHEID. This is what happened: these people found out their local health food shop was selling South African goods. The shop was informed that it might lose customers in future, but it didn’t listen. So they organised a small picket, and it succeeded almost immediately - all South African goods were removed from the shelves. So, now they want to organise a bigger picket, and they want the DDs to help.’

6 November 1978
‘Surely, a whole play, or a novel, could be written entitled ‘The rise and fall of the Demolition Decorators’. Another Monday meeting passed by. The group and its members are more interesting than the actual gigs they peform. Tonight, for example, we had a sharp-but-dulled-by-drugs couple from BIT who took up our time and space. They wanted to hold their tenth anniversary in our squat. The mob, our mob were patient with them. I find myself willing and practical but often defeated by the criss-cross mutterings that cut under and fly over me. I walk out into the street to collect some boxes. I am in bare feet. I return and crush them beneath my feet and feel the fire of my impatience. I tramp around avoiding eyes, the quick and supple. I catch the crossfires but have no effect on them.’

11 November 1978
‘Pete and Paul organised a gig last night, a Demolition Decorators gig. It was explosive. Beryl and the Peryls were booked to perform at 8:30, according to ‘Time Out’, but they didn’t start until 11 or finish till midnight. And the power blew, so the show’s finale only came with the help of everyone’s matches. Two bands and Ruff Theatre had also been due to play at the event, but the whole thing was a cock-up. Since this is the alternative scene, though, people are supposed to keep cool, not get mad. It was chaos - four bands and two and a half theatre groups hanging around all squabbling about the running order. Pete did keep his cool, and Paul calmly tried to organise the performers but they eventually took things into their own hands. Two of the DDs were chanting to some seventh heaven and calling it peace and prosperity.’

15 November 1978
‘The Demolition Decorators Monday meeting. Notes twang through the cold buildings from a solo electric guitar. The ex-coach seat that I sit upon is held upright by breeze blocks; others sit on bottle crates; a board covers a hole in the floor caused by the fire in the grate spreading too far. Mary wanders around, sober calm. She’s pretty tonight, hoping to do something, anything. There is a rumour that the police are going to raid us because of the wood fire, so Mary has been cleaning out the ashes. ‘Upstairs at Ronnies’ is scribbled on the wall with orange paint behind a makeshift counter. Next door Willy shows the visitors from BIT his cubbyhole, the IT office. Pages and articles and photos are still strewn across the table. The magazine was due at the printers on Friday, but one person’s perfection is cauterised by another’s ideals, and the pages get changed and cut, cut and changed. Meanwhile, revenue from advertising is awaited to pay the printing costs. Single notes still twang. A lady has been and gone with the electricity money, but a small donation from BIT has upped our finances slightly. It’s nine o’ clock, still no-one else has arrived, so the Monday meeting finally starts - and my gut rumbles.’

3 December 1978
‘Poor old IT was gutted; poor old BIT was definitely unlucky. They invited guests from everywhere, and from anywhere they came. A 10th anniversary and all that. How many bands were to come? 9 or 10, 20 or 30. It was all friends and grooves, smokers and abortion campaigners, squatters and the rest. What a shame. Poor old IT, its thousand files, its million prints, its two typewriters, its five cabinets, its three desks - who was to blame after all? Those two friends, the best of friends, too keen, too overworked, who let the paint dry, and the wallpaper dry, and then catch fire, with flames licking up the wall, up the wall, out the window, the side of the house. I hear Paul went squeak at 2am and saved a life or two, but neither an office nor a bed was saved. Malcolm stumbled in with lips that almost hold a smile. He has soft hairs on his face, a twitch in his eye, and finds a flick of the eyeball when he needs attention, and then a slight twisting of the head down and to the side before he lifts it and takes it into the direction he will speak. And he uses such gentle speech, such insistent gentleness. He talks of plans for a coffee bar. He is keen. He has ideas. But the time comes to talk of something else. Arif proposes tubal theatre. Sara jumps with glee, with her bright and ebullient cheeks, her shiny ponytails. Conversation somehow returns to the coffee bar. Duncan is an old timer - is it his eyebrows I remember? Is he osteoporotic? He certainly isn’t very tall and tends to crouch, chin tucked well into shoulders, almost tortosic (i.e. like a tortoise). He is very quiet, and can only talk in paragraphs. He’s an antique book runner, i.e. he goes to jumble sales and sells to the trade. He is not far removed from a tramp - but then are any of us I wonder. When he is asked to speak, he talks not of policies or future gigs or special nights but of his kinship with the squatters. He is too old. I interrupt to say we really don’t want to listen to such well-rehearsed trite but am beaten down, brow-beaten down by the rest who are enthroned on benches of respect for the holy papa. In any case, the conversation reverts to coffee bars.’

6 February 1979
‘Today is the trial of four defendants - Jisimi, Tony Allan, Jonathan Graham and Alan Boyd. They were arrested and charged with causing an obstruction to the highway. Court Four at the Wells St. Magistrate’s Court is a fountain of wood panelling. The judge has a built-in desk raised above the rest. The scribe and secretary sit below him, silent and powerless, seemingly content with their lot. And there, in dark seats, are the Leicester Square Four, young eccentric and fearless challengers of the law. The judge is firm and fair with a sense of humour. He makes all this clear to the court by making fun of both the police and the defendants. The young, almost adolescent, policeman and woman are tense and alert in their starched uniforms. They have prepared well and corroborated their stories. A good defence, though, would have had them both in tears. Jisimi is out to upset. He plays with his proud hair, and tells the court how he dislikes NOT being talked about. Jonathan is a goat, he prances and prattles around. His confusion is obvious. Only Tony, I feel, is on top of the situation, and is able to challenge the prosecution. The prosecution proves to be cool and generous, but the judge wins the day by, not only, keeping the court under excellent control without being condescending, by being funny without being carefree, and fair without pretentions. At 4:30, he gave the defendants a five minute lecture, advising them very strongly to get a lawyer. The case continues on 15 May.’

10 August 1984
‘I was at R’s last night, talking to a girl called Sara about my clownish past. She mentioned a house full of parties in Covent Garden, five or six years ago, so I tried the name ‘Demolition Decorators’ on her. She recognised it immediately. She said she had thought we were all magic, being only 14 at the time. I told her about the evening I mimed and clowned building of a room with rubble and rubbish, oblivious to the party going on around me, and she actually and vividly remembered me and my act. Amazing. What is more - I have to say this to someone - I remember that I impressed myself that Friday evening. It was an improvisation lasting a couple of hours and I really acted, really built a room and really possessed it, despite the party. But I felt at the time nobody had appreciated my invention, my playing, my art. And when Sara remembered me, it was as though I’d been waiting all these years for the applause I felt I deserved.’

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Mendelssohn’s honeymoon

Felix Mendelssohn, a famous German composer, was born two hundred years ago today. Although not a regular diarist, he did keep a diary for seven months jointly with his new wife after they were married. This was published for the first time about a decade ago; a few short extracts are available online.

Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany, on 3 February 1809, into a wealthy Jewish family, although his father converted to Christianity and took on the name Bartholdy. The young Mendelsshon grew up in Berlin, where the family moved when he was two, and where he was soon considered a child prodigy, performing at the piano and composing music. While still a boy he met the writer Johann Goethe who was to prove an enduring influence. Apart from music, Mendelssohn learned to sketch and to speak several languages.

By 15, Mendelssohn had composed his first symphony, and by 16 his famous string octet. Alongside composing, he also worked as a conductor, touring Europe, becoming especially loved in his native Germany and in England, where he became Queen Victoria’s favourite composer. In time, he would hold positions in Dusseldorf, Berlin and Leipzig. Among his most well-known compositions are Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, Songs without Words and the Scottish Symphony. In the last years of his life, he suffered ill health and died young in 1847 after a series of strokes.

However, ten years earlier in 1937, he married Cécile, a union that was to prove happy and to produce five children. After the wedding, and while on honeymoon, the couple kept a joint diary for seven months. The manuscript is held by the Bodleian Library, Oxford, where one of the librarians, Peter Ward Jones, is something of a specialist in Mendelssohn. His edited text of the diary was published by Clarendon Press in 1997 as The Mendelssohns on Honeymoon: 1837 Diary of Felix and Cécile Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Together with Letters to Their Families.

The publisher’s blurb says this of the book: ‘Enlivened by the couple’s private sense of humour, [the diary] begins by chronicling their seven-week honeymoon journey in the Rhineland and Black Forest, and later includes an extensive account of the composer’s visit to England in the summer that year, when he conducted and played at the Birmingham Music Festival.’ Here is a short extract, culled from, in which Mrs Mendelssohn is less than complimentary about Rhinelanders.

Wednesday 5 April 1837
‘In the morning we walked for a good half-mile along the Rhine as far as the river crossing. Misunderstandings on the way. Made plans at the boatman’s cottage. Return at three for lunch. In the afternoon Felix played the organ of an atrociously decorated church - a wretched box of whistles. Walk to the cathedral and down into the crypt, but no spring. The sacristy - the subterranean chapel with its strange pillars. In the course of the evening and well into the night endured the loathsome company of Rhinelanders who behaved little better than their large dogs.’

Monday, February 2, 2009

We saw a light ashore

Three hundred years ago today a Scottish sailor called Alexander Selkirk was rescued from a South Pacific Island, having been marooned there for four years, by an English sailor called Woodes Rogers. Selkirk’s ordeal is said to have inspired Daniel Defoe’s now famous character and book, Robinson Crusoe. Indeed, extracts from Rogers’ journal at the time he found Selkirk are included at the back of an 1801 edition of Robinson Crusoe (and this is freely available online).

Selkirk was born in 1676, the son of a shoemaker in Fife, Scotland, but soon went to sea. In 1703, he was appointed sailing master under captain Thomas Stradling on the galleon Cinque Ports, which was sailing with St. George as part of an expedition led by the explorer William Dampier. In October the following year, after an argument with Dampier, Stradling went his own way, subsequently mooring the Cinque Ports near the uninhabited archipelago of Juan Fernández (not far off the coast of Chile) for supplies and fresh water. A somewhat hotheaded Selkirk then argued with Stradling over the seaworthiness of the Cinque Ports, a dispute which ended with Selkirk being left on the island.

It would be four years and four months before he was rescued, on 2 February 1709 - exactly three centuries ago - by an expedition captained by Woodes Rogers with William Dampier among the crew. Rogers, born just a few years after Selkirk, grew up in the south of England and while still in his mid-twenties inherited a family shipping business.

In 1707, Rogers was approached by Dampier to support a privateering voyage against the Spanish. Rogers led the expedition with two frigates, the Duke and Duchess, returning after three years not only with much captured treasure but with the rescued Selkirk. Later, Selkirk joined the Royal Navy but he succombed to yellow fever in 1721. Rogers, though, was appointed Governor of the Bahamas, an area much plagued with pirates, and lived until 1732.

Wikipedia has biographies for both Rogers and Selkirk. The Scotsman has more on Selkirk. Indeed, in a review of The Man Who Was Robinson Crusoe, by Rick Wilson, The Scotsman says there may have been a journal kept by Selkirk, since this is much referred to in 19th-century accounts. However, it has never been traced. One theory is that it passed into the hands of the then Duke of Hamilton – whom Defoe would almost certainly have known. Apparently, the article adds, Selkirk’s widow, Frances, unsuccessfully petitioned the duke to return the journal.

And there is more on Rogers at the Pirate King website, which explains that Rogers account of the voyage and his rescue of Selkirk were published in 1712 as: A Cruising Voyage Round the World: First to the South-Sea, thence to the East-Indies, and Homewards by the Cape of Good Hope. Begun in 1708, and finish’d in 1711. Containing a Journal of all the Remarkable Transactions. An Account of Alexander Selkirk’s living alone Four Years and Four Months in an Island. It also explains how this account later inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe, a book which went on to become a classic of English literature.

A Cruising Voyage Round the World can be previewed at Googlebooks, and an early 20th century reprint is available at Internet Archive. However, an 1801 edition of Defoe’s fiction, The Life and Most Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, is also freely available online - at Internet Archive - and this contains an annex with the relevant text from Rogers’ journal for 1-2 February 1709, the very days that Selkirk was spotted and rescued three hundred years ago. It’s a good read, and I make no apologies for including such a long verbatim text.

‘On February 1st, 1709, we came before that island, having had a good observation the day before, and found our latitude to be 34 degrees 10 minutes south. In the afternoon, we hoisted out our pinnace; and Captain Dover, with the boat’s crew, went in her to go ashore, though we could not be less that four leagues off. As soon as the pinnace was gone, I went on board the Duchess, who admired our boat attempting going ashore at that distance from land. It was against my inclination: but, to oblige Captain Dover, I let her go: As soon as it was dark, we saw a light ashore. Our boat was then about a league off the island, and bore away for the ship as soon as she saw the lights: We put our lights aboard for the boat, though some were of opinion, the lights we saw were our boat’s lights: But, as night came on, it appeared too large for that: We fired our quarter-deck gun, and several muskets, showing lights in our mizen and fore-shrouds, that our boat might find us whilst we were in the lee of the island: About two in the morning our boat came on board, having been two hours on board the Duchess, that took them up astern of us; we were glad they got well off, because it began to blow. We were all convinces the light was on the shore, and designed to make our ships ready to engage, believing them to be French ships at anchor, and we must either fight them, or want water. All this stir and apprehension arose, as we afterwards found, from one poor naked man, who passed in our imagination, at present, for a Spanish garrison, a body of Frenchmen, or a crew of pirates. While we were under these apprehensions, we stood on the backside of the island, in order to fall in with the southerly wind, till we were past the island; and then we came back to it again, and ran close aboard the land that begins to make the north-east side.

We still continued to reason upon this matter; and it is in a manner incredible, what strange notions many of our people entertained from the sight of the fire upon the island. It served, however, to show people’s tempers and spirits; and we were able to give a tolerable guess how our men would behave, in case there really were any enemies upon the island. The flaws came heavy off the shore, and we were forced to reef our topsails when we opened the middle bay, where we expected to have found our enemy; but saw all clear, & no ships, nor in the other bay next the north-east end. These two bays are all that ships ride in, which recruit on this island; but the middle bay is by much the best. We guessed there had been ships there, but that they were gone on sight of us. We sent our yawl ashore about noon, with Captain Dover, Mr. Fry, and six men, all armed: Mean while we and the Duchess kept turning to get in, and such heavy flaws came off the land, that we were forced to let go our top sail sheet, keeping all hands to stand by our sails, for fear of the winds carrying them away: But when the flaws were gone, we had little or no wind. These flaws proceeded from the land; which is very high in the middle of the island. Our boat did not return; we sent our pinnace with the men armed, to see what was the occasion of the yawl’s stay; for we were afraid, that the Spaniards had a garrison there, and might have seized them. We put out a signal for our boat, and the Duchess showed a French ensign. Immediately our pinnace returned from the shore, and brought abundance of cry-fish, with a man clothed in goats skins, who looked wilder than the first owners of them. He had been on the island four years and four months, being left there by Captain Stradling in the Cinque-ports, his name was Alexander Selkirk, a Scotchman, who had been master of the Cinque-ports, a ship that came here last with Captain Dampier, who told me, that this was the best man in her. I immediately agreed with him to be a mate on board our ship: It was he that made the fire last night when he saw our ships, which he judged to be English. During his stay here he saw several ships pass by, but only two came in to anchors: As he went to view them; he found them to be Spaniards, and retired from them, upon which they shot at him: Had they been French, he would have submitted; but choose to risque his dying alone on the island, rather than fall into the hands of Spaniards in these parts; because he apprehended they would murder him, or make a slave of him in the mines; for he feared they would spare no stranger that might be capable of discovering the South Seas.

The Spaniards had landed, before he knew what they were; and they came so near him, that he had much ado to escape; for they not only shot at him, but pursued him to the woods, where he climbed to the top of a tree, at the foot of which they made water, and killed several goats just by, but went off again without discovering him. He told us that he was born at Largo, in the county of Fife, in Scotland, and was bred a sailor from his youth. The reason of his being left here was difference between him and his captain; which together with the ship’s being leaky, made him willing rather to stay here, than go along with him at first; but when he was at last willing to go, the captain would not receive him. He had been at the island before, to wood and water, when two of the ship’s company were left upon it for six mouths, till the Ship returned, being chased thence by two French South-sea ships. He had with him his cloaths and bedding, with a firelock, some powder, bullets and tobacco, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a bible, some practical pieces, and his mathematical instruments and books. He diverted and provided for himself as well as he could; but for the first eight months, had much ado to bear up against melancholy, and the terror of being left alone in such a desolate place. He built two huts with pimento trees, covered them with long grass, & lined them with the skins of goats, which be killed with his gun as he wanted, so long as his powder lasted, which was but a pound; and that being almost spent, he got fire by rubbing two sticks of pimento-wood together upon his knee. In the lesser hut, at some distance from the other, he dressed his victuals; and in the larger he slept; and employed himself in reading, singing psalms, and praying; so that he said. He was a better Christian, while in this solitude, than ever he was before, or than, he was afraid, he would ever be again.

At first he never ate anything till hunger constrained him, partly for grief, and partly for want of bread and salt: Nor did he go to bed, till he could watch no longer; the pimento-wood, which burnt very clear, served him both for fire and candle, and refreshed him with its fragrant smell. He might have had fish enough, but would not eat them for want of salt, because they occasioned a looseness, except crayfish which are as large as our lobsters, and very good: These he sometimes boiled, and at other times broiled, as he did his goat’s flesh, of, which he made very good broth, for they are not so rank as ours: he kept an account of 500 that he killed while there, and caught as many more, which he marked on the ear, and let go. When, his powder failed, he took them by speed of feet; for his way of living, continual exercise of walking and running cleared him of all gross humours; so that he ran with wonderful swiftness through the woods, and up the rocks and hills, as we perceived when we employed him to catch goats for us; We had a bull dog, which we lent with several of our nimblest runners, to help him in catching goats; but he distanced and tired both the dog and the men, caught the goats, and brought them to us on his back.

He told us, that his agility in pursuing a goat had once like to have cost him his life; he pursued it with so much eagerness, that he catched hold of it on the brink of a precipiece, of which he was not aware, the bushes hiding it from him; so, that he fell with the goat down the precipiece; a great height, and was to stunned and bruised with the fall, that he narrowly escaped with his life; and, when he came to his senses, found the goat dead under him: He lay there about twenty-four hours, and was scarce able to crawl to his hut, which was about a mile distant, or to stir abroad again in ten days.

He came at last to relish his meat well enough without salt or bread; and, in the season had plenty of good turreps, which had been sewed there by Captain Dampier’s men, and have now overspread some acres of ground. He had enough of good cabbage from the cabbage-trees, and seasoned his meat with the fruit of the pimento trees, which is the same as Jamaica pepper, and smells deliciously: He found also a black pepper, called Ma’azeta, which was very good to expel wind, and against gripping in the guts.

He soon wore out all his shoes and clothes by running in the woods; and at last, being forced to shift without them, his feet became so hard, that he ran everywhere without difficulty; and it was some time before he could wear shoes after we found him; for not being used to any so long, his feet swelled when he came first to wear them again.

After he had conquered his melancholy, he diverted himself sometimes with cutting his name in the trees, and the time of his being left, and continuance there. He was at first much pestered with cats and rats, that bred in great numbers, from some of each species which had got ashore from ships that put in there to wood and water: The rats gnawed his feet and cloathes whilst asleep, which obliged him to cherish the cats with his goats flesh, by which many of them became so tame, that they would lie about him in hundreds, and soon delivered him from the rats: He likewise tamed some kids; and, to divert himself would, now and then, sing and dance with them, and his cats: So that by the favour of Providence, and vigour of his youth, being now but thirty years old, he came, at last, to conquer all the inconveniencies of his solitude, and to be very easy.

When his cloathes were worn out, he made himself a coat and a cap of goat-skins, which he stiched together with little thongs of the same, that he cut with his knife, He had no other needle but a nail; and, when his knife was worn to the back, he made others, as well as he could, of some iron hoops that were left ashore, which he beat thin, and ground upon stones. Having some linnen cloth by him, he sewed him some shirts with a nail, and stiched them with the worsted of his old stockings, which he pulled out on purpose. He had his last shirt on, when we found him in the island.

At his first coming on board us, he had so much forgot his language, for want of use, that we could scarce understand him: for he seemed to speak his words by halve. We offered him a dram: but he would not touch it; having drank nothing but water since his being there; And it was sometime before he could relish our victuals. He could give us an account of no other product of the island, than what we have mentioned, except some black plums, which are very good, but hard to come at, the trees, which bear them, growing on high mountains and rocks. Pimento-trees are plenty here, and we saw some of sixty feet high and about two yards thick; and cotton-trees higher, and near four fathoms round in the stock. The climate is so good that the trees and grass are verdant all the year round. The winter lasts no longer than June and July, and is not then severe, there being only a small frost, and a little hail: but sometimes great rains. The heat of the summer is equally moderate; and there is not much thunder, or tempestuous weather of any sort. He saw no venomous or savage creature on the island, nor any sort of beasts but goats, the first of which had been put ashore here, on purpose for a breed, by Juan Fernandez, a Spaniard, who settled there with some families, till the continent of Chili began to submit to the Spaniards; which, being more profitable; tempted them to quit this island, capable however, of maintaining a good number of people, and being made so strong, that they could hot be easily dislodged from thence.’