Saturday, November 28, 2009

Echoes in the Ear

It’s one hundred and fifty years since the great American man of letters, Washington Irving, died. He was a prolific writer, and a committed diarist, keeping especially enthusiastic records of his travels - such as of the time he visited the Ear of Dionysius in Sicily.

Irving was born in 1783 in New York to Scottish-English immigrants who were such admirers of George Washington that they named their last son (of 11 children) after him. He studied law privately, but did not practice for long. After travelling in Europe in 1804-1806, he represented his family’s hardware business in England until 1818. He served as a military aide to a New York governor in 1812, and was a magazine editor.

However, Irving came early to writing, and it is for his short stories, biographies and journals that he is best remembered. His comic history of New York, by the imaginary Dietrich Knickerbocker, was published in 1809, and The Sketchbook in 1819, under the pen name, Geoffrey Crayon. The latter contained stories that were to become famous: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. By the late 1820s, Irving had gained a reputation throughout Europe and the US as a great writer and thinker.

After spending many years in Europe, he returned to New York in 1832, and established a home at Sunnyside in Tarrytown, a place which then many famous people visited over the years. He remained there for the rest of his life, apart from four years (1942-1946) when he acted as minister to Spain, often nurturing young American authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edgar Allen Poe. He died on 28 November 1859. See Wikipedia or American Naitonal Biography for more biographical information.

Many of Irving’s books are available for free download at Internet Archive, including the three volumes of his journals edited by William Trent and George Hellman and first published in 1919 by the Bibliophile Society. Lots of extracts can also be found in the three volumes of The Life and Letters of Washington Irving by his nephew Pierre M. Irving (and published by G. P. Putnam in 1883) - again see Internet Archive.

Here is the young Irving, on tour in Europe, fascinated by the Ear of Dionysius in Sicily, and playfully dressing up for a party (taken from The Life and Letters of Washington Irving).

4 February 1805
‘This morning I walked out of town to visit the celebrated Ear of Dionysius the Tyrant. I was accompanied by Dr Baker of the President, Davis, a midshipman, and Tootle, purser of the Nautilus.

The approach to the Ear is through a vast quarry, one of those from whence the stone for the edifices of ancient Syracuse was procured. The bottom of this quarry is cultivated in many places, and being entirely open overhead to the sun and sheltered on every side from the wind by high precipices, it is very fertile.

Travellers have generally been very careless in their account of the Ear. Some one originally started the observation that it was cut in the form of a human ear, and every one who has since given a description of it has followed in the same track and made the same remark. Brydone, among the rest, joins in it . . .

The Ear is a vast serpentine cavern, something in the form of the letter S reversed; its greatest width is at the bottom, from whence it narrows with an inflection to the top, something like the external shape of an ass’s ear. Its height is about eighty or ninety feet, and its length about one hundred and twenty. It is the same height and dimensions from the entrance to the extremity, where it ends abruptly. The marks of the tools are still perfectly visible on the walls of the cavern.

The rock is brought to a regular surface the whole extent, without any projection or curvatures as in the human ear. About half-way in the cavern is a small square recess or chamber cut in one side of the wall even with the ground, and at the interior extremity there appears to be a small recess at the top, but it is at present inaccessible. A poor man who lives in the neighborhood attended us with torches of straw, by which we had a very good view of the interior of the Ear. Holes are discernible near the interior end of the cave, which are made in the wall at regular distances and ascend up in an inclined direction. They are about an inch in diameter. Some of the company were of opinion that they have formerly contributed to the support of a stairs or ladder, but there is no visible place where a stairs could lead to, and the holes do not go above half the height of the cavern.

There are several parts of the Ear in which the discharge of a pistol makes a prodigious report, heightened by the echoes and reverberations of the cavern. One of the company had a fowling-piece which he discharged, and it made a noise almost equal to the discharge of artillery, though not so sharp a report. A pistol also produced a report similar to a volley of musketry. The best place to stand to hear the echoes to advantage is in the mouth of the cavern. A piece of paper torn in this place makes an echo as if some person had struck the wall violently with a stick in the back of the cave.

This singular cavern is called the Ear of Dionysius, from the purpose for which it is said to have been destined by that tyrant. Conscious of the disaffection of his subjects, and the hatred and enmity his tyrannical government had produced, he became suspicious and distrustful even of his courtiers that surrounded him. He is said to have had this cavern made for the confinement of those persons of whom he had the strongest suspicions. It was so constructed that any thing said in it, in ever so low a murmur, would be conveyed to a small aperture that opened into a little chamber where he used to station himself and listen. This chamber is still shown. It is on the outside of the Ear, just above the entrance, and communicates with the interior. Some of the officers of our navy had been in it last summer; they were lowered down to it by ropes, and mention that sounds are conveyed to it from the cavern with amazing distinctness. I wished very much to get to it, and the man who attended us brought me a cord for the purpose, but my companions protested they would not assist in lowering me down, and finally persuaded me that it was too hazardous, as the cord was small and might be chafed through in rubbing against the rock, in which case I would run a risk of being dashed to pieces. I therefore abandoned the project for the present.’

6 February 1805
‘This morning, Lieuts Murray and Gardner, and Capt Hall, of the ship President, Capt Dent of the Nautilus, and myself, set off to pay another visit to the Ear of Dionysius. We despatched beforehand a midshipman and four sailors with a spar and a couple of halyards. On arriving there, we went to the top of the precipice immediately over the mouth of the cave. Here we fastened ourselves to one of the halyards, and were lowered successively over the edge of the precipice (having previously disposed the spar along the edge of the rock so as to keep the halyard from chafing) into a small hole over the entrance of the Ear, and about fifteen feet from the summit of the precipice. The persons lowered were Murray, Hall, the midshipman, and myself, the others swearing they would not risk their necks to gratify their curiosity.

The cavern narrows as it approaches the top, until it ends in a narrow channel that runs the whole extent, and terminates in this small chamber. A passage from this hole or chamber appears to have been commenced to be cut to run into the interior of the rock, but was never carried more than ten or fifteen feet. We then began to make experiments to prove if sound was communicated from below to this spot in an extraordinary degree. Gardner fired a pistol repeatedly, but it did not appear to make a greater noise than when we were below in the mouth of the cavern. We then tried the conveyance of voices; in this we were more successful. One of the company stationed himself at the interior extremity of the Ear, and applying his mouth close to the wall, spoke to me just above a whisper. I was then stationed with my ear to the wall in the little chamber on high and about two hundred and fifty feet distant, and could hear him very distinctly. We conversed with one another in this manner for some time. We then moved to other parts of the cavern, and I could hear him with equal facility, his voice seeming to be just behind me. When, however, he applied his voice to the opposite side of the cave, it was by no means so distinct. This is easily accounted for, as one side of the channel is broken away at the mouth of the cavern, which injures the conveyance of the sound. After all, I doubt very much whether the cave was ever intended for the purpose ascribed to it. The fact is, that when more than one person speaks at a time, it creates such a confusion of sound between their voices and the echoes, that it is impossible to distinguish what they say. This we tried repeatedly, and found to be invariably the case.’

‘But,’ writes Pierre Irving about these journal entries, ‘the antiquities of Syracuse did not engage the exclusive attention of the traveller. He found a romantic interest in visiting the convents, and endeavoring to get ‘a sly peep’ at the nuns [and the] following extract from his journal shows him seeking amusement in another scene.’

10 February 1805
‘In the evening I went to a masquerade at the theatre. I had dressed myself in the character of an old physician which was the only dress I could procure, and had a vast deal of amusement among the ofificers. I spoke to them in broken English, mingling Italian and French with it, so that they thought I was a Sicilian. As I knew many anecdotes of almost all of them, I teazed them the whole evening, till at length one of them discovered me by my voice, which I happened not to disguise at the moment.’

Friday, November 27, 2009

Remembering Fanny Kemble

‘The record contained in the following pages is a picture of conditions of human existence which I hope and believe have passed away.’ So wrote the remarkable English actress and playwrite, Fanny Kemble, in a preface to her 1838 diary about the slaves she had tried to help on her American husband’s plantation some 25 years earlier. The diary, which is freely available on the internet, is considered to be an important early document describing the conditions of plantation slaves. Today is a good day to remember Fanny since she was born exactly two hundred years ago.

Fanny was born in England on 27 November 1809 into a theatrical family - both her parents were actors. She made her first appearance, when about 20, as the heroine in her father’s production of Romeo and Juliet at a theatre in Covent Garden. She proved to be an immediate success, and helped revive the theatre’s fortunes. In 1833, while on tour in the US with her father, she met Pierce Butler, a southern planter. She married him, stayed in the US, and gave up acting.

In 1836, Butler and his brother inherited their father’s Georgia plantation which owned hundreds of slaves. In 1838, Fanny (with her two children) spent four months at the plantations on Butler and St Simon’s islands. Thereafter, the family returned to Philadelphia, but the marriage broke down, and Butler denied Kemble access to her children. She returned to England and the theatre world, but then went back to the US to deal with a divorce suit. The divorce was granted in 1849. Kemble retired to Lennox, Massachusetts, and wrote several autobiographical works some of them based on the journals she had kept. For more information on Kemble, see Wikipedia, the PBS resource bank, or The New Georgia Encyclopaedia.

Kemble was an excellent diarist - a good writer and very observant - and her diaries have been published in many editions. Most recently, in 2000, Harvard University Press brought out a compilation of her writing - Fanny Kemble’s Journals - with extracts from throughout her life, starting when she was an actress and continuing to the last years of her life (she died in 1893). A few pages can be seen on the Amazon website.

Her most famous diary, though, is the one she kept for the months while living on her husband’s plantation, in which she recorded much about the slaves she saw and came in contact with. This was later circulated among abolitionists prior to the American Civil War, but was published once the war broke out - as Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 by Harper & Brothers in 1863. Although a diary in form, it was written as a series of letters, and dedicated to, her friend Elizabeth Dwight Sedgwick, a teacher in Lennox and an author. The full text is freely available at Internet Archive. Here is Kemble’s own preface, written some 25 years after the diary itself, and one extract.

‘The following diary was kept in the winter and spring of 1838-9, on an estate consisting of rice and cotton plantations in the islands at the entrance of the Altamaha on the coast of Georgia. The slaves in whom I then had an unfortunate interest were sold some years ago. The islands themselves are at present in the power of the Northern troops. The record contained in the following pages is a picture of conditions of human existence which I hope and believe have passed away. London, January 16, 1863.’

26 February 1839
‘My dearest E, I write to you to-day in great depression and distress. I have had a most painful conversation with Mr –, who has declined receiving any of the people’s petitions through me. Whether he is wearied with the number of these prayers and supplications, which he would escape but for me, as they probably would not venture to come so incessantly to him, and I, of course, feel bound to bring every one confided to me to him, or whether he has been annoyed at the number of pitiful and horrible stories of misery and oppression under the former rule of Mr K –, which have come to my knowledge since I have been here, and the grief and indignation caused, but which can not, by any means, always be done away with, though their expression may be silenced by his angry exclamations of ‘Why do you listen to such stuff?’ or ‘Why do you believe such trash? don’t you know the niggers are all d–d liars?’ etc, I do not know; but he desired me this morning to bring him no more complaints or requests of any sort, as the people had hitherto had no such advocate, and had done very well without, and I was only kept in an incessant state of excitement with all the falsehoods they ‘found they could make me believe.’ How well they have done without my advocacy, the conditions which I see with my own eyes, even more than their pitiful petitions, demonstrate; it is indeed true that the sufferings of those who come to me for redress, and, still more, the injustice done to the great majority who can not, have filled my heart with bitterness and indignation that have overflowed my lips, till, I suppose, is weary of hearing what he has never heard before, the voice of passionate expostulation and importunate pleading against wrongs that he will not even acknowledge, and for creatures whose common humanity with his own I half think he does not believe; but I must return to the North, for my condition would be almost worse than theirs condemned to hear and see so much wretchedness, not only without the means of alleviating it, but without permission even to represent it for alleviation: this is no place for me, since I was not born among slaves, and can not bear to live among them.’

Friday, November 20, 2009

Other far-off things

‘The big cosmological program I shall not live to see,’ Edwin Hubble, born 120 years ago today, told his wife, Grace, near the time of his death. The truth is, though, that not only had he lived through an era of unprecedented new astronomical understanding, but that he was the very pioneer of that understanding. Grace’s diaries are kept with the Edwin Hubble archive but none of them - as far as I know - have been published. A very few extracts can be found on the internet, but many more can be read offline - in a ‘sloppy’ and ‘pretentious’ novel called Hubble Time!

Hubble was born on 20 November 1889 in Marshfield, Missouri, though his family moved to Wheaton, Illinois, before he was a teenager. He studied maths, astronomy and philosophy at the University of Chicago and, on the basis of academic and sporting abilities (running, basketball and boxing) he was awarded one of Oxford University’s first Rhodes Scholarships. There, he completed a masters in Spanish; and on returning to the US taught the language at New Albany High School, Indiana. He longed, though, to return to science and after a year or so signed on at the Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago, to study astronomy to PhD level.

During World War I, Hubble joined the army, and quickly advanced to the rank of major. Thereafter, he took up a position at the Mount Wilson Observatory, California, with its Hooker 100-inch telescope. In the early 1920s, he found the first certain evidence of separate galaxies of dust and gas far beyond our own. He established that many such galaxies exist, and he developed the first system for their classification. Further, by the late 1920s, he had shown that these galaxies were receding from ours at velocities proportional to their distance.

Hubble is included in the Time 100 list of most important people in the 20th century. Its profile notes how Albert Einstein visited Mount Wilson to see the telescope and thank Hubble personally because his idea of the universe expanding conformed with his (Einstein’s) theory of relativity, even though other astronomers had insisted this could not be the case. Time goes on say: ‘With the greatest scientific superstar of the age paying him homage, Hubble became a popular superstar in his own right. His 1936 book on his discoveries, The Realm of the Nebulae, cemented his public reputation. Tourists and Hollywood luminaries alike would drive up the mountain to marvel at the observatory where Hubble had discovered the universe, and he and his wife Grace were embraced by the elite of California society.’

After World War II, during which he returned to the army, Hubble helped design and plan the new 200-inch Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory, some 90 miles southeast of Mount Wilson; and, in 1948, he was given the honour of being its first user. Between then and 1975, Hale was world’s largest operating telescope. Hubble died in 1953. Interestingly or not, Wikipedia’s article on the man is roughly one-fifth of the size of the article about the famous space telescope named after him!

In 1924, Hubble had married Grace Burke-Lieb, the recently widowed daughter of a well-connected Southern California millionaire. Throughout their nearly 30 years of marriage, Grace kept a diary, recording her husband’s story. There’s a catalogue of her diaries in the inventory of the Edwin Hubble papers at The Huntington Library, San Marino, California. Although I can find no trace of them ever having been published, a couple of extracts can be found on the internet. One (undated) about a visit by the Huxleys comes from Virginia Woolf and the Discourse of Science: The Aesthetics of Astronomy by Holly Henry (published by Cambridge University Press in 2003 - see Googlebooks).

‘After dinner we walked to the 100-inch - The moon and globular cluster. Then we came out into enchanting moonlight, a glow in the west, a haze of moonbeams and shadow, all the domes and towers [of the telescope observatories] washed with shining silver. Went to the 60-inch & E[dwin] trained it on the ring nebula and other far-off things. . . Matthew [Huxley’s son] said, what do you expect to find with the 200-inch, sir? and E - We hope to find something we didn’t expect. And Aldous chuckled. Outside the 60-inch Aldous said, ‘Look at the pilasters and the fluting. It is Roman, it is like the tomb of a great queen.’ And it was, under the magic of the moon.’

And another extract can be found in Dan Cloer’s short bio of Hubble at (a website designed to ‘challenge readers to examine the historical and philosophical origins of today’s issues’). ‘By September 1953,’ Cloer says, ‘[Hubble] had completed his 176th exposure at Palomar. At the end of the run, he took his wife on a quiet tour of the huge dome and the photographic vault. ‘In two years I will have determined the red-shift [from the new observations],’ Grace recorded him as saying. Her diary entry continued, ‘But the big cosmological program I shall not live to see.’ ’

And then there’s Hubble Time, a novel by Tom Bezzi, who wrote no other novels and died in 1995. The book, first published in 1987 by Mercury House (reissued in 1990 by iUniverse), is narrated by Hubble’s fictional granddaughter, Jane, and ‘explores the private lives of Edwin and Grace Hubble and their compelling legacy’. The blurb explains that the novel contains excerpts from Grace Hubble’s actual diaries as well as previously unpublished material by the Hubbles’ intimate friends such as Aldous Huxley.

But oh dear, here is a review of Hubble Time by Publishers Weekly, posted on Amazon’s website. ‘Astronomer Edwin Hubble and his wife, Grace, a stylish couple who frequented intellectual Los Angeles circles during the first half of this century, make excellent subjects for a historical novel, especially because Grace left behind numerous diaries documenting their life together. Bezzi’s first novel promises much, combining rich material with an innovative premise, but it flounders in execution. The narrative consists of journal entries written by the Hubbles’ fictional granddaughter, Jane, who interweaves excerpts from Grace’s diaries which she is reading into her own. Jane painfully introspective when contemplating her own narrow existence as a lowly copy editor at an inconsequential astronomy magazine turns blindly adulatory when examining her grandparents, reverentially recounting details such as Edwin’s preferred tobacco. Hubble’s significant contributions to his field and the roster of his illustrious friends (among them Aldous Huxley and Charlie Chaplin), however, receive inadequate attention. Jane draws fruitless emotional parallels between herself and Grace, harping ineffectually on the low self-esteem that plagues them both. She also apologizes constantly for her inferior writing abilities, and rightly so, it seems. Bezzi’s prose is sloppy and pretentious, bogging down frequently in awkward repetition and badly chosen phrases in assorted European languages.’

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Inside the ice hole

Toma┼ż Humar, an extraordinary mountaineer from Slovenia, died earlier this month while climbing Langtang Lirung in the Himalayas. Although he left behind no published diaries, has a few of his diary extracts. Here is a typical one: ‘I spend the entire day inside the ice hole to acclimatize more - I do not want to take any risk of edema. The wind is really strong reaching speeds greater than 100 km/h.’

Humar was born in Ljubljana, then part of Yugoslavia, in 1969, and started to climb seriously as a teenager, under the country’s then strict training regime. He was conscripted into the army, and sent to soldier in Kosovo, an experience he hated. He married Sergeja Jersin in 1991, and they had two children before separating. In the mid-1990s, he began a series of climbs in the Himalayas that would earn him a huge following in Slovenia as well as respect from the international climbing community. In 1999, for example, he made a now-famous solo ascent of the south wall of Dhaulagiri, considered one of the deadliest routes in the Himalayas.

However, Humar’s methods were considered hotheaded and even dangerous by some. During a solo attempt to climb Nanga Parbat in 2005, he misjudged the conditions and became trapped by avalanches and melting snow at an altitude of nearly 6,000 meters. After six days in a snow cave - much of it followed on the internet thanks to his webcam equipment - he was rescued by an heroic Pakistani army helicopter crew.

All in all, Humar completed over 1,500 ascents, Wikipedia says, and won a number of mountaineering and other awards, including the Piolet d’Or in 1996 for a climb on Ama Dablam in eastern Nepal. The Guardian, The Independant, and UK Climbing all have obituaries.

But thanks to for nine days of Humar’s diary while climbing the South Face of Annapurna in October 2007. Here are the first five of those days.

24 October 2007
‘I start out with my friend Jagat Limbu. We cross the glacier and weave our way through mixed rock and ice pillars under the main wall at 5800m. We stage our first bivy on a small ice platform at 5800 meters.’

25 October 2007
‘We remain in our bivy at 5800 meters all day due to strong winds and stomach problems. Moreover, I did not feel acclimatized. I had only climbed Tharpu Chuli (5690 m) as a warm-up peak and did not sleep higher than 5300 meters. These are insufficient altitudes to adequately acclimate for an 8000 meter peak.’

26 October 2007
‘I start climbing at 6am - no helmet, no rope, no harness - just bivy gear, some food and gas. I leave everything else with Jagat who would face the descent alone in case I did not come back. At 3pm, I start digging a hole in the ice at 7200 meters. This is my second bivy.’

27 October 2007
‘I spend the entire day inside the ice hole to acclimatize more - I do not want to take any risk of edema. The wind is really strong reaching speeds greater than 100 km/h.’

28 October 2007
The alarm goes off at 6am. I have not slept. I have just been waiting and waiting for a good moment to leave. The sky is clear. The wind is strong . . . and cold . . . I climb very light carrying just 2 liters of juice which freeze within the first hour. After two hours, I make it to the East Ridge at 7500 meters where Loretan and Joss passed in 1984. Despite very strong winds, I continue towards the East Summit. By 10am, I have crossed most of the East ridge and the summit feels close at hand. With each passing hour, the wind grows stronger. As I climb higher, ice and snow falls increase in intensity and frequency and the risk of avalanche becomes more extreme. I am standing on the East Summit at 8047 meters before 3pm. I trust God, I pray, I feel safe! Even if the weather is good I would never dare to continue to the main summit at 8091 m as God gave me the possibility to reach it already once in 1995. It was my first 8000 m, this is the only answer I have to why I chose Annapurna, it’s 20 years since alpinism became ‘my way of life’. I immediately begin my descent. The shadow of the snow cornice is growing long. I call Jagat to tell him that I am on my way back. He is really happy to hear from me. The last contact we had was at 10:00am and since then he has been praying for me. As night closes in, I reach the beginning of the East Ridge. I am very tired and it has been a long time since I have been able to eat or drink. It is completely dark and I cannot see any of my tracks. I am lost, but in my soul I know that God is with me. My headlamp is not working due to low temperatures and I have to wait in the cold and dark for the moon to rise before continuing. I reach my bivy at 7200 meters at 8:25pm. I am totally exhausted. I send this sms: ‘Blessed, in bivac. New route up to 7500m +, then my the longest journey to myself. Annapurna east 8000m + and back after 14 hours in earth time. Everything was o.k., but if is this wind 60 km/h then i drive my car slowly.’ I enter meditation and I prepare a cup of tea as I wait for dawn to come.’

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Diary briefs

The diaries of Claretta Petacci, Mussolini’s mistress, to be published - Corriere Della Sera; The Daily Mail, AFP

The Koda diaries: an Indian scandal in the making - DNA

Friday, November 13, 2009

There is no bread

The handwritten diaries of the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones have just been put on display at the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge. It is thought these diaries might represent the only independent Western verification of Stalin’s Ukrainian famine-genocide, known as the Holodomor, in the early 1930s. And Jones himself is now considered a hero in Ukraine for having brought the tragedy to the attention of those in the West. A large amount of material about Jones, including the diaries, is freely available online thanks to a lively website run by Gareth’s niece, Dr Margaret Siriol Colley, and his great nephew, Nigel Linsan Colley.
Gareth Richard Vaughan Jones was born in Barry, Wales, in 1905. His mother had been tutor to some of the grandchildren of John Hughes, a Welsh industrialist who had founded the town of Yuzovka, modern day Donetsk, in Ukraine, and it was this connection that inspired Jones’ interest in the country. He studied French at Aberystwyth University and then added German and Russian while at Trinity College. In 1930, he began work as a foreign affairs advisor to former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

In 1931, a group of American companies invited Jones to research a book on the Soviet Union, and that summer he toured there with H J Heinz II (of food company fame). Heinz then published a diary of the trip - Experiences in Russia 1931. Wikipedia’s biography of Jones suggests (but without reference) that this diary ‘probably contains the first usage of the word ‘starve’ in relation to the collectivisation of Soviet agriculture’. The diary is narrated by Heinz, but has a preface by Jones. Here is one day’s entry, taken from the Gareth Jones website.

‘Twenty-fifth Day
We were supposed to sail down the Volga yesterday and found today that we could not have done so - yesterday’s boat had not sailed yet. We got on our steamer - a side-wheeler. It was supposed to sail at 11:00am. It did - across the river, and it was nine hours later when we finally left Nijni. It was cold and rainy and there was no place to sit except on our bunks.

Jones struck up a conversation with a mechanic on the boat. ‘I am a Party man,’ the stranger said. ‘There are only four of us on board and only six candidates, and we have a crew of forty-six. On some boats, there is only one Communist. Why? Because the boatmen are mostly of peasant origin and believe in things like private property. The peasants do not like the collective farms because they do not understand. A lot think they are something foreign and not truly Russian. They are superstitious, too.’

It was difficult to get food all day, but finally by the use of some more cigarettes we got the lone waiter interested. The food was not good, although it was very expensive.

The boat was crowded in the third and fourth-class sections. Peasants with huge bundles, dirty clothes, and many babies lay around on every square inch of floor space. There must have been a thousand of them. Smell!

A doctor’s wife on the boat said to Jones: ‘Exiles? The peasants have been sent away in thousands to starve. They were exiled just because they worked hard all their lives. It’s terrible how they have treated them; they have not given them anything; no bread cards even. They sent a lot to Tashkent, where I was, and just left them on the square. The exiles did not know what to do and many starved to death.’

Although there were a fine comfortable lounge and a dining room forward, we could not get the steward to unlock them. He kept insisting that it was against orders to have them open before the boat left port. We finally wore him down with arguing and cigarettes.

So to bed, with rather grim prospects for this trip!’

In 1932, Jones returned to work for Lloyd George even helping him write some memoirs. In early 1933, he went to Germany to cover the Nazis accession to power and was in Leipzig when Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor, and flew with him to Frankfurt for a speech there. In March, he travelled to Russia and Ukraine, and on his return to Berlin issued a press release which was published by some newspapers and has since became famous. It started: ‘I walked along through villages and twelve collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, ‘There is no bread. We are dying.’ ’

Jones’ claim was denied by many in the West and by the Russian authorities who, in 1934, banned him from returning to the country. He continued to travel, though, this time in the East, but was captured by bandits in Japanese-occupied Inner Mongolia, and was murdered, some believe by Soviet agents, in August 1935 just a few days before his 30th birthday. It was only with the fall of Communism, more than half a century later, that many Ukrainians became aware of the truth of the famine, that an estimated four million people had died because of Stalin’s decision to impose farm collectivisation and then to seal the Ukrainian border to punish peasants for supposedly ‘hoarding grain’.

More than 70 years after Jones’ death, in 2006, a plaque was unveiled in his memory in the Old College at Aberystwyth University. The Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK, Ihor Kharchenko, was present and described Jones as an ‘unsung hero of Ukraine’. And two years later, Jones and Malcolm Muggeridge (who had also reported on the Ukraine famine) were posthumously awarded the Ukrainian Order of Freedom.

And today - 13 November 2009 - the Wren Library, of Trinity College, Cambridge, is opening an exhibition which includes Jones’ diaries alongside some other rare items connected to past students at Trinity College (such as Isaac Newton, AA Milne, and Ludwig Wittgenstein). The story has been widely reported in the British press today - see The Guardian.

However, it is the Gareth Jones website (put together by his relations, Dr Margaret Colley and Nigel Colley) which has the most information on the diaries (and much else about Jones’ life). It says that perhaps they represent ‘the only independent verification of arguably Stalin’s greatest atrocity’. The website provides a book-length power point presentation entitled The Gareth Jones Diaries with legible images of some of his diaries and transcriptions of those images. Here is an (undated) extract from the diaries, as transcribed by Dr Margaret Colley (with some words added by Colley, and some Russian words left out by me).

‘In the Ukraine. A little later. I crossed the border from Great Russia into the Ukraine. Everywhere I talked to peasants who walked past - they all had the same story; ‘There is no bread - we haven’t had bread for over 2 months – a lot are dying.’ The first village had no more potatoes left and the store of [beetroot] was running out. They all said ‘the cattle is dying. [Nothing to feed.] We used to feed the world now we are hungry. How can we sow when we have few horses left? How will we be able to work in the fields when we are weak from want of food? Then I caught up [with] a bearded peasant who was walking along. His feet were covered with sacking. We started talking. He spoke in Ukrainian Russian. I gave him [a] lump of bread and of cheese.

‘You could not buy that anywhere for 20 roubles. There just is no food.’ We walked along and talked; ‘Before the war this was all gold. We had horses and cows and pigs and chickens. Now we are ruined. [We are] [the living dead]. You see that field. It was all gold, but now look at the weeds. The weeds were peeping up over the snow.’

‘Before the war we could have boots and meat and butter. We were the richest country in the world for grain. We fed the world. Now they have taken all away from us. Now people steal much more. Four days ago, they stole my horse. Hooligans came. There that’s where I saw the track of the horse.’

‘A horse is better than a tractor. A tractor goes and stops, but a horse goes all the time. A tractor cannot give manure, but a horse can. How can the spring sowing be good? There is little seed and the people are too weak. We are all weak and hungry.’

‘The winter sowing was bad, and the winter ploughing [was] also bad.’ He took me along to his cottage. His daughter and three little children. Two of the smaller children were swollen. ‘If you had come before the Revolution we would have given you chicken and eggs and milk and fine bread. Now we have no bread in the house. They are killing us.’

‘People are dying of hunger.’ There was in the hut, a spindle and the daughter showed me how to make thread. The peasant showed me his shirt, which was home-made and some fine sacking which had been home-made. ‘But the Bolsheviks are crushing that. They won’t take it. They want the factory to make everything.’ The peasant then ate some very thin soup with a scrap of potato. No bread in house. The white bread [of Gareth’s] they thought was wonderful.’

Thursday, November 12, 2009

More diary briefs

Good extracts from three WWII diaries:
Robert Uhrig, aircraft engineer (Dayton Daily News);
Tom Holcomb’s life on a destroyer (The Charleston Gazette);
Anton Novak, a Canadian prisoner of war (National Post).

And a Cornish soldier’s experience of the WWI trenches - BBC

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Diary briefs

The first poppy? - found in Len Smith’s newly-published war diary - The Independent

Bruce Springsteen ‘to publish diaries’ - Digitalspy

Diaries of kids who gave up technology for 30 days - The Daily Mirror

Lieutenant Mark Evison’s journal about the harsh realities of fighting in Afghanistan - The Daily Telegraph

Monday, November 9, 2009

The fall of the Wall

The Berlin Wall came down 20 years ago today - on 9 November 1989 - at least metaphorically, if not physically. A day later, Gorbachev’s Foreign Policy Assistant Anatoly Chernyaev wrote in his diary: ‘This entire era in the history of the socialist system is over’. Two days later, Andreas Ramos would drive to Berlin from Aarhus, Denmark, and write about the playing of alpine horns and ‘flags and flags and flags’. But it would be ten more days before I myself mentioned the historic event in my own diary, and then I wrote about ‘the rush of events in Berlin’ being ‘fabulous’.

The Berlin Wall - thanks to Wikipedia for this and the next two paragraphs - was a concrete barrier erected by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that completely encircled the city of West Berlin, separating it from East Germany, including East Berlin. The Wall included guard towers placed along large concrete walls, which circumscribed a wide area that contained anti-vehicle trenches and other defenses. The separate and much longer inner German Border demarcated the border between East and West Germany. Both borders came to symbolise the Iron Curtain between Western Europe and the Eastern Bloc.

Prior to the Wall’s erection, three and a half million East Germans had avoided Eastern Bloc emigration restrictions and escaped into West Germany, many over the border between East and West Berlin. During its existence from 1961 to 1989, the Wall stopped almost all such emigration and separated the GDR from West Berlin for more than a quarter of a century. After its erection, around 5,000 people attempted to escape over the wall, with estimates of the resulting death toll varying between around 100 and 200.

During a revolutionary wave sweeping across the Eastern Bloc, which included several weeks of civil unrest, the East German government announced on 9 November 1989 - 20 years ago today - that all GDR citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin. Crowds of East Germans climbed onto and crossed the wall, joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere. Over the next few weeks, parts of the wall were chipped away by a jubilant public and by souvenir hunters; industrial equipment was later used to remove almost all of the rest. The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for German reunification, which was formally concluded on 3 October 1990.

To mark the anniversary - for 9 November 1989 is considered the day the wall fell even though technically it remained guarded for some time - here are three very different texts.

The first is a diary entry made by Anatoly Chernyaev, Mikhail Gorbachev’s Foreign Policy Assistant, on 10 November. This is available at the WBUR website. This extraordinary diary entry, the website says, from inside the Kremlin, the day after the Wall fell, documents in the form of a ‘snapshot’ reaction the revolutionary mood of one of the closest and most loyal of Gorbachev’s assistants. Chernyaev realized that this event meant ‘the end of Yalta’ and of ‘the Stalinist legacy’ in Europe, and in a striking statement, he welcomed this change, saying the key was Gorbachev’s decision not to stand in the way.

10 November 1989
‘The Berlin Wall has collapsed. This entire era in the history of the socialist system is over. . . Today we received messages about the ‘retirement’ of Deng Xiaopeng and [Bulgarian leader Todor] Zhivkov. Only our ‘best friends’ Castro, Ceaucescu, [and] Kim Il Sung are still around - people who hate our guts. But the main thing is the GDR, the Berlin Wall. For it has to do not only with ‘socialism’, but with the shift in the world balance of forces. This is the end of Yalta . . . the Stalinist legacy and ‘the defeat of Hitlerite Germany’. That is what Gorbachev has done. And he has indeed turned out to be a great leader. He has sensed the pace of history and helped history to find a natural channel.’

I would have liked to reproduce here a bonafide diary account about being in Berlin for the fall of the Wall, but I cannot find one on the internet - although there are lots of accounts by people writing retrospectively about the day(s). Here, though, is one paragraph from an account by Andreas Ramos which reads much like a diary, written at the time or very soon after. On hearing the news about the Wall, he and some friends drove from Aarhus in Denmark to Berlin, and this is what Ramos wrote.

11-12 December 1989
‘Everything was out of control. Police on horses watched. There was nothing they could do. The crowd had swollen. People were blowing long alpine horns which made a huge noise. There were fireworks, kites, flags and flags and flags, dogs, children. The wall was finally breaking. The cranes lifted slabs aside. East and West German police had traded caps. To get a better view, hundreds of people were climbing onto a shop on the West German side. We scampered up a nine foot wall. People helped each other; some lifted, others pulled. All along the building, people poured up the wall. At the Berlin Wall itself, which is 3 meters high, people had climbed up and were sitting astride. The final slab was moved away. A stream of East Germans began to pour through. People applauded and slapped their backs.’

And, finally, here is what I wrote - a long way from the action in London - about 10 days after the event, not that there’s anything special about this diary entry, other than it’s mine and it’s about the fall of the Wall.

19 November 1989
‘There appears to be no stopping the unfolding of extraordinary events on the other side of the iron curtain. Poland and Hungary are already being embraced by the West, having overhauled their political systems in the space of a very short period; they are being garlanded with loans and aid and pretty speeches from capitalist world leaders. Now East Germany has joined the throng. Almost overnight the leader fell, the government fell, and the Berlin Wall was, metaphorically speaking, knocked down.

The rush of events in Berlin were so fabulous, that almost every serious mainline radio and TV news programme decamped to that divided city. Freeing the border and allowing unfettered movement from East to West and back again, allowed literally millions of people to explore what they had only ever seen on television, allowed them to visit relatives and friends. Every interview on the subject included questions about the re-unification of Germany, even though the possibility must be many years down the road.

More than Poland and more than Hungary, East Germany’s status is that most likely to affect the emotions of those in the West. The terrible war left not only a divided nation but a divided city as a loud vivid actual symbol of the resulting Cold War. The possibility of greater integration between East and West again exists most seriously through the border of the Germanys: they speak the same language; until just a few decades ago shared the same culture; they are the same people.’

The BBC has posted a video of Douglas Hurd, the UK Foreign Secretary in November 1989, reading from his diary.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Trotsky’s indispensability

‘England is nothing but the last ward of the European madhouse, and quite possibly it will prove to be the ward for particularly violent cases.’ Ah, who else but Trotsky could have written that. It’s his birthday today, or would be if he were alive and could have lived to 130. He’s famous for his Marxist theorising, revolutionary ways, and literary ability, but not for being a diarist. Nevertheless, he did very occasionally put pen to journal, especially if cooped up somewhere. Only one diary, though, has ever been published in English, and that’s been out of print for over 30 years.

Trotsky was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein on 7 November 1879 into a Jewish family in Ukraine, then part of Russia. As a teenager, he became involved with Marxism and underground activities which led to him being arrested in 1898. He spent two years in prison, where he married fellow Marxist Aleksandra Sokolovskaya, before being tried and sent to jail in Siberia (where his two children were born). He escaped in 1902, and went to London, joining other Russian emigres, including Lenin, and became a key writer for Iskra, the official organ of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. The following year, he married Natalia Sedova.

In 1903, the Social Democrats split. While Lenin assumed leadership of the Bolshevik (minority) faction, Trotsky became a member of the Menshevik (majority) faction and developed his theory of ‘permanent revolution’. He returned to Russia during the 1905 revolution, but was arrested and sent to Siberia again. While imprisoned he wrote one of his major theoretical works - Results and Prospects. Again he escaped, and thereafter pursued his revolutionary activities while travelling in Europe and the US.

After the outbreak of revolution in Petrograd in February 1917, he made his way back to Russia. Despite the previous disagreements with Lenin, Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks and played a decisive role in the communist revolution. His first post in the new government was as foreign commissar, where he found himself negotiating peace terms with Germany. He was then made war commissar and in this capacity, built up the Red Army which prevailed against the White Russian forces in the civil war. When Lenin fell ill and died, Trotsky was outmanoeuvred by Stalin who, in 1927, threw him out of the party. By 1936, he had settled in Mexico but an assassin called Ramon Mercader, acting on Stalin’s orders, murdered him with an ice pick. Further information is readily available at Wikipedia, The British Library, and Spartacus Educational.

Trotsky never had much time for diary writing, except when he was cooped up somewhere, and this was the case in 1935, when the French government had decided to expel him, but no other country was willing to grant an entry visa. He was kept under police surveillance, without a secretary or regular mail, and not even allowed to visit Paris. Eventually he moved to Norway, where he had more freedom and less time for the diary. But, for that period in 1935, he noted down, more or less daily, various observations about politics, his companion Natalia, the fate of his family in the USSR, and so on. The notebook was found more than a decade after his death among the archives at Harvard University. It was translated by Elena Zarudnaya and published, in 1958, by the university press as Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, 1935.

The dust jacket flap says: ‘This diary of the exiled Trotsky is a powerfully evocative fragment of history and human personality. Of all the great figures of the Russian revolution Leon Trotsky touches our senses as the one who lived, and felt and died as other men. Understandably, we feel curiosity about and some sympathy for the man who was driven out as he had driven others, who wandered the world in danger forseeing assassination, and who was struck down by his enemies in his last sanctuary so close to us. This extremely personal record was written in France and Norway, it gives the day-to-day reflections of a fallen leader, of one who had wielded power and was now in an exceptional position to observe it in the hands of others. Finally, and until now unknown, there is his Testament, written in Mexico in February 1940 near the close of his life. Knowing that death was near, from illness if not from Stalin’s agents, he envisaged the form it might take, restated his defiance of Stalin and his imperishable confidence in the triumph of the People, and once more affirmed his love for Natasha, his second wife. At the end there is the discontinued and unexplained sentence, ‘In case we both die . . .’ ’

Here are a couple of snippets from the diary (found on quotation websites):

5 April 1935
‘Life is not an easy matter. . . You cannot live through it without falling into frustration and cynicism unless you have before you a great idea which raises you above personal misery, above weakness, above all kinds of perfidy and baseness.’

‘The depth and strength of a human character are defined by its moral reserves. People reveal themselves completely only when they are thrown out of the customary conditions of their life, for only then do they have to fall back on their reserves. ‘

11 April 1935
‘England is nothing but the last ward of the European madhouse, and quite possibly it will prove to be the ward for particularly violent cases.’

8 May 1935
‘Old age is the most unexpected of things that can happen to a man.’

More substantial quotes can be found in two reviews of the book, first published by Fourth International in winter 1959, one by Michael Foot and the other by Pierre Frank.

Michael Foot is much impressed with the diary. He says: ‘Trotsky himself, of course, is the foremost example of his own aphorism. He is, probably in all history, the greatest man of action who was also a very great literary genius. Everything he wrote bears the individual stamp of the man; it has a pulse and urgency which is absent from the writings of those political writers, even the most perceptive, who were only spectators. This applies to the latest Trotsky ‘discovery’, the fragments of a diary he wrote during his exile in France and Norway in 1935, even though he obviously found the diary form awkward and distasteful.’

Foot quotes Trotsky writing about a trip to Lourdes: ‘What crudeness, insolence, nastiness! A shop for miracles, a business office for trafficking in Grace. The Grotto itself makes a miserable impression. That, of course, is a psychological calculation of the clerics; not to frighten the little people away by the grandeur of their commercial enterprise; little people are afraid of shop windows that are too resplendent. At the same time they are the most faithful and profitable customers. But best of all is the papal blessing broadcast to Lourdes by - radio. The paltry miracles of the Gospels side by side with the radio-telephone! And what could be more absurd and disgusting than the union of proud technology with the sorcery of the Roman chief druid. Indeed the thinking of mankind is bogged down in its own excrement.’

And Foot finds Trotsky’s portrait of his wife Natalia (Natasha) very touching: ‘Here, in the diary, he has painted an incomparable picture of his wife, Natasha. The hunt of Trotsky’s children and his friends by Stalin is surely one of the most appalling stories of sustained barbaric revenge of which history has any record. The full brunt of the horror fell on the heart of the dignified and dauntless Natasha. Quotation would mar this immortal tribute of a man to his wife. Read it for yourself.’

Finally, Pierre Frank, in his review, which is longer and much wordier, gives a more substantial quotation, which he introduces thus: ‘Many other passages give food for thought, whether it be his regret at not having had more time to devote to philosophy, or that dream in which he was talking with Lenin. But of this diary, which was not written for publication and which was forgotten by Trotsky among his papers, it is not possible to fail to reproduce this passage, where a Marxist treats of the role of personality in history, this personality being himself, with impressive objectivity.’

Here, then, is Trotsky analysing his own indispensability sometime in 1935:

‘Rakovsky was virtually my last contact with the old revolutionary generation. After his capitulation there is nobody left. Even though my correspondence with Rakovsky stopped, for reasons of censorship, at the time of my deportation, nevertheless the image of Rakovsky has remained a symbolic link with my old comrades-in-arms. Now nobody remains. For a long time now I have not been able to satisfy my need to exchange ideas and discuss problems with someone else. I am reduced to carrying on a dialogue with the newspapers, or rather through the newspapers with facts and opinions.

And still I think that the work in which I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary nature, is the most important work of my life - more important than 1917, more important than the period of the Civil War or any other.

For the sake of clarity I would put it this way. Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October Revolution would still have taken place - on the condition that Lenin was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it from occurring - of this I have not the slightest doubt! If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I doubt whether I could have managed to overcome the resistance of the Bolshevik leaders. The struggle with ‘Trotskyism’ (i.e. with the proletarian revolution) would have commenced in May 1917, and the outcome would have been in question. But I repeat, granted the presence of Lenin the October Revolution would have been victorious anyway. The same could by and large be said of the Civil War, although in its first period, especially at the time of the fall of Simbirsk and Kazan, Lenin wavered and was beset by doubts. But this was undoubtedly a passing mood which he probably never even admitted to anyone but me.

Thus I cannot speak of the ‘indispensability’ of my work, even about the period from 1917 to 1921. But now my work is ‘indispensable’ in the full sense of the word. There is no arrogance in this claim at all. The collapse of the two Internationals has posed a problem which none of the leaders of these Internationals is at all equipped to solve. The vicissitudes of my personal fate have confronted me with this problem and armed me with important experience in dealing with it. Then is no one except me to carry out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method over the heads of the leaders of the Second and Third International. And I am in complete agreement with Lenin (or rather Turgenev) that the worst vice is to be more than 55 years old! I need at least about five more years of uninterrupted work to ensure the succession.’

Friday, November 6, 2009

Devoted to great art

‘So much in my past that I hate to evoke. Short of violence, I have been capable of every sin, every misdemeanour, every crime. With horror I think what I should have become if I lived the life of an ill-paid professor, or struggling writer, how rebellious, if I had not lived a life devoted to great art . . .’ So wrote Bernard Berenson in his very last diary entry. He was one of the 20th century’s most important historians, and he died 50 years ago today.

Berenson was born Bernhard Valvrojenski in 1865 into a Jewish family in Lithuania. Ten years later the family emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts - and became the Berensons. Bernard attended Boston University College of Liberal Arts and then Harvard University. He moved to Oxford, UK, where he met many influential people in the art world, and where he first got involved with Mary, then married to a barrister called Frank Costelloe (with whom she had two children). In time, she divorced and married Berenson, and became an art historian in her own right (see the Dictionary of Art Historians for more biographical information). Also, she had some of her diary writing published in A Self-Portrait from her Letters & Diaries, edited by Barbara Strachey and Jayne Samuels, published by W W Norton in 1983.

In Oxford, Berenson not only developed his reputation as an art historian but began associations with various art dealers. His first book, The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance, became one in a series of four studies on Italian schools mostly published in the 1890s. So famous were these books, that English historians sometimes referred to them as the four gospels. In 1900, Berenson bought a house - Villa I Tatti - in the Tuscan hills of Settignano, outside Florence, which he and Mary transformed into a centre for renaissance studies. During the First World War, he worked as a translator and negotiator in Italy, thanks to a reccommenation by his friend, the author and art writer Edith Wharton.

Between the wars, some of Berenson’s earlier writings were collected and published as The Italian Painters of the Renaissance, a book which was considered a definitive authority on the subject for much of the 20th century. For 30 years or so, he enjoyed a close relationship with Joseph Duveen, the period’s most influential art dealer. Through a secretive deal, Berenson was paid 25% of whatever price Duveen achieved for the paintings, often from the wealthiest of collectors in the US who had been attracted by Berenson’s accreditations.

During the Second World War, Berenson found himself a virtual prisoner in I Tatti, despised as an American by the Mussolini government, but also fearful that his Jewish heritage would make him a target. Mary died in 1945, by which time Berenson had become intimately involved with Nicky Mariano, his long-term assistant. Berenson himself died, aged 94, half a century ago today on 6 October 2009.

The Dictionary of Art Historians gives the best online biography of Berenson. Here is one paragraph from that biography: ‘As an historian dedicated to the object (as opposed to documentary art history, iconography, social art history, etc.), he centered the emerging discipline. Berenson’s approach focused on determining the authenticity of art works rather than constructing histories in which art was created. His thrust proved particularly useful to art dealers and collectors, with whom Berenson has been criticized for having too close a relationship. Berenson’s major books are essentially lists of authenticated paintings by Berenson with introductory essays. He never altered the text in the numerous editions of his books, confident his analysis was comprehensive, despite embarrassments such as his low assessment of Sassetta. Instead, subsequent editions featured his corrections and supplements to his lists of attributions. Haughty and extremely class-conscious, perhaps because of his modest upbringings and American heritage in a European-dominated field, Berenson cultivated feuds; his personal correspondence shows that he viewed contemporary art historians as either ‘friend’ or ‘enemies’.

There are three collections of Berenson’s diary material. The first to be published, by Simon and Schuster in 1952, was Rumor and Reflection: The Wartime Diary of the Most Celebrated Humanist and Art Historian of Our Times. Next came The Passionate Sightseer: From the Diaries 1947-1956, also published by Simon and Schuster, in 1960; and then Sunset and Twilight: From the Diaries 1947-1958, published by Harcourt, Brace & World in 1963. There’s very little information about any of these books available on the internet - I can’t, for example, find a single review.

However, there are several quotes in Ernest Samuels’ two volume biography: Bernard Berenson, The Making of a Connoisseur (1979) and Bernard Berenson, The Making of a Legend (1987) both published by Harvard University Press. Parts of both books are available to view on Googlebooks. The promotional material for the second says this: ‘Controversy swirls around Bernard Berenson today as it did in his middle years, before and between two world wars. Who was this man, this supreme connoisseur of Italian Renaissance painting? How did he support his elegant estate near Florence, his Villa I Tatti? What exactly were his relations with the art dealer Joseph Duveen? What part did his wife, Mary, play in his scholarly work and professional career? The answers are to be found in the day-to-day record of his life as he lived it - as reported at first hand in his and Mary’s letters and diaries and reflected in the countless personal and business letters they received. His is one of the most fully documented lives of this century. Ernest Samuels, having spent twenty years studying the thousands of letters and other manuscripts, presents his story in absorbing detail.’

Here is Samuels writing in The Making of a Legend about Berenson’s attraction to women in old age, with various quotations from the diaries:

‘The diary of his old age showed no slackening of his devotion to women. . . Time and again Berenson returned to the tantalizing subject. It was the charm of women that they remained ‘adolescent-minded through all ages.’ At 83, he remarked, ‘Give me an aspiring and admiring woman to crank me up for talk.’ What sentient male - of any age - would not feel the force of his admission at 85, ‘My mind when vacuous dwells a good deal on women and always with a faint erotic tinge’? He still dreamt of ‘fair women’ as the ‘wolf dreams of the lamb.’ It was only ‘in the very last few years,’ he wrote at 88, that he had ‘gradually become more and more aware of how sex dominates us . . . no matter how tucked away . . . Do we ever meet a [woman] for the first time without asking ourselves whether we would want to go to bed with her?’ . . . As a nonagenarian, Berenson recorded, ‘I still would like to caress all the young women who attract me.’

And here are a couple more quotes from Berenson’s diaries, as reproduced in The Making of a Legend, including Berenson final entry.

‘[Spain was] the only place in the world to study French art. Your thirteenth century stonecutters had all the grace of Watteau; all your churches are restored, but down there they’re pure.’

‘I am a convert not to Zionism but to the necessity of finding a place for the Jew, not only safe from the heritage of Hitler but from his own gnawing frustration and inferiority complex.

February 1958
‘I end as a myth whose saga I can hardly recognise.’

April 1958
‘So much in my past that I hate to evoke. Short of violence, I have been capable of every sin, every misdemeanour, every crime. With horror I think what I should have become if I lived the life of an ill-paid professor, or struggling writer, how rebellious, if I had not lived a life devoted to great art and the aristocratically pyramidal structure of society that it serves, or worse still if I had remained in the all but proletarian condition I lived as a Jewish immigrant lad in Boston. So I remain skeptical about my personality. It really seems to have reached its present integration in the last twenty years, with the wide and far vision I now enjoy, with tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner, expecting little and trying to be grateful for that, the serenity for which I am now admired But I keep hearing the Furies, and never forget them.’

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Britten’s firecracker crits

A new collection of Benjamin Britten’s diaries are being published today by Faber and Faber. They portray, according to the publisher, an ‘intimate self-portrait of a young boy’s journey to adulthood, and the growth of his creative genius’. More colourfully, The Guardian writes of the diaries that they reveal a young man ‘exposed to a glamorous world of metropolitan homosexuality’. But the real firecrackers in the diaries - if there are any, for today is the 5th of November - seem to come from Britten’s youthful opinions of other composers.

Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk. When only 11 he began studying with the composer Frank Bridge, and then, aged 16, entered the Royal College of Music, London. During the 1930s, he worked for the GPO Film Unit. One of his compositions for the GPO - the famous Night Mail - brought him into contact with W H Auden who wrote the words. In 1937, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge brought him international acclaim. The same year, he met the singer, Peter Pears, with whom, subsequently, he lived for the rest of his life.

With the onset of war, Britten followed Auden to the US where they composed the operetta Paul Bunyan. In 1942, he returned to the UK, and, together with Pears, toured the country giving recitals. In 1945, Britten completed Peter Grimes, a major opera set in the fishing village of Aldeburgh, Suffolk. It was a huge success, and other operas - such as The Rape of Lucretia and Billy Budd - followed.

Before the war, Britten had bought a house at Snape, near Aldeburgh, and, in 1948, Britten, Piers and Eric Crozier launched the first Aldeburgh Festival in 1948. Twenty years later, the Snape Maltings was converted to a concert hall to host the annual festival. In 1955, Britten went on a world tour, and in 1961 he conducted the first performance of his War Requiem, commissioned for the opening of Coventry Cathedral which had been damaged in the war. Britten was much feted during his life, and received many honours, including being appointed a member of the Order of Merit in 1965. See MusicWeb International, the Britten-Pears Foundation, or Wikipedia for more information.

Extracts from Britten’s diaries (and letters) were edited by Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed and first published in the early 1990s by Faber and Faber in two volumes: Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten (one volume covering the years 1923-1939 and the other 1939-1945). And both were republished together as paperbacks in 1998 - see Faber’s website (here and here) for more details. A third companion volume, covering the years 1946-1951 and containing only letters, was published in 2004.

Today, Faber is publishing a new collection of Britten’s diaries: Journeying Boy - The Diaries of the Young Benjamin Britten, 1928-1938, selected and edited by John Evans. Britten kept a daily journal for a decade, the publisher says, and ‘this intimate self-portrait of a young boy’s journey to adulthood, and the growth of his creative genius, offers us a fuller understanding of the man and the artist Britten was to become, and of the age in which he lived’.

From his arrival as a boarder at Gresham’s School and his private lessons in London with Frank Bridge, the publisher adds, to his student days at the Royal College of Music and subsequent apprenticeship in London with the GPO Film Unit, the Group Theatre and at the BBC, the book traces the progress of ‘this journeying boy through the turbulent 1930s’. Collaborations with Auden, Isherwood, MacNeice and Grierson helped define Britten as an artist, while international acclaim at home and abroad soon followed. But these were difficult times, Faber adds, not least for Britten, ‘who lost both parents within three years, and began to feel an outsider: a young man struggling with his homosexuality and with being a pacifist at a time of imminent war.’

Evan’s introduction to the first section of the book, concerning Britten’s life in Lowestoft and at Gresham’s, can be read on the Amazon website.

A review in The Guardian, by Charlotte Higgins, says the diaries reveal ‘a lonely but driven schoolboy; a young man exposed to a glamorous world of metropolitan homosexuality; and an artist of stupendous talent, with uncompromising opinions of fellow musicians.’ Some of the most entertaining material in the diaries, Higgins says, stems from Britten’s unguarded opinions of other musicians: Adrian Boult is by turns ‘slow, dull & ignorant’ and ‘suetlike’; Sir Henry Wood is ‘an absolute vandal’; Brahms First Symphony is ‘ugly and pretentious’; of Edward Elgar, he writes ‘How I wish I could like this music’; and he says of Vaughan Williams that he ‘repulses me’.

Here are a couple more snippets from the diary, filtered out of The Guardian’s review:

(Of Isherwood)
‘He is an awful dear & I am terribly tempted to make him into a father confessor.’

(Of Lennox Berkeley who, according to the editor John Evans, was besotted with Britten)
‘He is a dear & I am very, very fond of him; nevertheless, it is a comfort that we can arrange sexual matters at least to my satisfaction.’

(Of a brothel in Paris)
‘ . . . about 20 nude females, fat, hairy, unprepossessing; smelling of vile cheap scent, & walking round the room in couples to a gramophone. It is revolting.’