Monday, May 31, 2010

A violent longing

Tonight (Monday 31 May), the UK’s BBC 2 television channel is broadcasting a ‘bold and passionate drama’ about Anne Lister. She was a landowner in the early 1800s, and a diarist; but what makes her story special is that she was also a lesbian who confided intimate details of her sexuality - albeit in code - to her diaries.
Lister was born in Halifax, West Yorkshire, in 1791, into a wealthy family. She seems to have discovered her homosexuality while a teenager at boarding school. Between 1809 and 1814, she was in a relationship with the wealthy heiress Isabella Norcliffe, but then she fell in love with Mariana Belcombe and continued an affair despite Mariana’s marriage to Charles Lawton. By this time, Lister’s mother had died, and Lister herself had inherited the family wealth. In 1824, she went to Paris to master French and to find a cure for venereal infection.

Thereafter, Lister took an active interest in developing schools in the Halifax area, managed her estates, and even opened coal mines on her land. In 1832, she began an affair with Ann Walker, another rich heiress, who became her companion, and with whom she travelled widely. Lister died in July 1840 in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, Georgia, and Walker spent seven months bringing her body back to England to be buried in the local churchyard. Further information is available from Calderdale Council, Wikipedia, or HerStoria magazine on the Leeds Metropolitan University website.

In the 1980s, Helena Whitbread, a historian, discovered (or rediscovered) the store of diaries (now held by Calderdale Archives part of the West Yorkshire Archives) written by Lister between 1791 and 1840, and, in particular, deciphered the substantial parts written in code. The coded parts reveal much about Lister’s active lesbian sex life, thus providing a unique record from this historical period. A first edition of the diaries - I Know my own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister - was published by Virago in 1988, and by New York University Press in 1992. A follow-up collection of extracts - No Priest but Love: The Journals of of Anne Lister - was published in 1993, also by New York University Press.

Tonight, 31 May 2010, BBC 2 is screening a much-anticipated drama - The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister - starring Maxine Peake. The BBC says it is a ‘bold and passionate drama’ about Lister, who, despite needing to keep her orientation secret from society at large, in private defied the conventions of her times by living with her female lover. It also claims she has been called ‘Britain’s first modern lesbian’. To accompany the drama, the BBC is also screening tonight a documentary, presented by Sue Perkins, called Revealing Anne Lister.

Substantial extracts from Lister’s diary can be found online in I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister, 1791-1840 at Googlebooks. Here are two. The first and longer one comes from 1822 when Lister had travelled to Wales to visit the so-called Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who lived together and may also have been lesbians. Eleanor Butler was also a diarist (see The Diary Junction), but unlike Lister, left no clear evidence of having lived the life of a ‘modern lesbian’.

13 July 1822
‘Two kisses last night, one almost immediately after the other, before we went to sleep . . . Felt better, but was so shockingly low last night I cried bitterly but smothered it so that M- scarcely knew of it. At any rate, she took no notice, wisely enough . . . M- told me of the gentlemanliness & agreeableness of Mr Powis who, it seems, might interest M more than duly had her heart no object but C-, with whom she has had no connection these four months. Not down to breakfast till 11 . . . then, perhaps luckily for us, all in a bustle & M-off at 21. We were off in 1/2 hour.

Got here, the King’s Head, New Hotel, Llangollen, patronised by Lady Eleanor Butler & Miss Ponsonby, in 44 hours . . . Beautiful drive from Chester to Wrexham. It was market day & the town seemed very busy. Beautiful drive, also, from Wrexham here but I was perhaps disappointed with the first couple of miles of the vale of Llangollen The hills naked of wood & the white limestone quarries on our left certainly not picturesque. About 3 miles from Llangollen, when Castle Dinas Bran came in sight, we were satisfiede of the beauties of the valley but the sun was setting on the castle & so dazzled our eyes we could scarce look that way. The inn, kept by Elizabeth Davies, is close to the bridge & washed by the river Dee. We are much taken with our hostess & with the place. Have had an excellent roast leg of mutton, & trout, & very fine port wine, with every possible attention . . . We sat down to dinner at 8-1/2, having previously strolled thro’ the town to Lady Eleanor Butler’s & Miss Ponsonby’s place. There is a public road close to the house, thro’ the grounds, & along this we passed & repassed standing to look at the house, cottage, which is really very pretty. A great many of the people touched their hats to us on passing & we are much struck with their universal civility. A little [girl], seeing us apparently standing to consider our way, shewed us the road to Plas Newys (Lady Eleanor Butler’s & Miss Ponsonby’s), followed & answered our several questions very civilly. A little boy then came & we gave each of them all our halfpence, 2d. each.

After dinner (the people of the house took it at 10), wrote the following note, ’To the Right Honourable Lady Eleanor Butler & Miss Ponsonby, Plasnewyd. Mrs & Miss Lister take the liberty of presenting their compliments to Lady Eleanor Butler & Miss Ponsonby, & of asking permission to see their grounds at Plas Newyd in the course of tomorrow morning. Miss Lister, at the suggestion of Mr Banks, had intended herself the honour of calling on her ladyship & Miss Ponsonby, & hopes she may be allowed to express her very great regret at hearing of her ladyship’s indisposition. King’s Head Hotel. Saturday evening. 13 July.’

The message returned was that we should see the grounds at 12 tomorrow. This will prevent our going to church, which begins at 11 & will not be over till after 1. The service is principally in Welsh except the lesson & sermon every 2nd Sunday & tomorrow is the English day. Lady Eleanor Butler has been couched. She ventured out too soon & caught cold. Her medical man . . . positively refuses her seeing anyone. Her cousin, Lady Mary Ponsonby, passed thro’ not long ago & did not see her.’

12 July 1823
‘Could not sleep last night. Dozing, hot & disturbed . . . a violent longing for a female companion came over me. Never remember feeling it so painfully before . . . It was absolute pain to me.’

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A lack of boats

‘I can hardly believe that I have succeeded in pulling the 4 divisions out of the mess we were in, with allies giving way on all flanks.’ This is Alan Brooke, one of Britain’s foremost military commanders and strategists, writing in his diary 70 years ago today in the midst of the famous May-June 1940 Dunkirk evacuation.

Alan Brooke, was born in France in 1883 into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family with a strong military background. He studied at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and then joined the British Army. He served in Ireland, India and then on the Western Front during the First World War, during which he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel.

Brooke married twice, each marriage producing one son and one daughter. His first wife, Jane Richardson who he married in 1914, died in 1925 in a car accident. He married Benita Lees in 1929. Between the wars, Brooke lectured at Camberley Military College and the Imperial Defense College. In 1937 he was given the command of Britain’s first Mobile Division and the following year he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-General and became head of the Territorial Anti-Aircraft Corps.

In August 1939, Brooke was appointed head of Southern Command; and, on the outbreak of the war, he went to France as a member of the British Expeditionary Force (commander of II Corps, which included the 3rd Division led by the then Major-General Bernard Montgomery) under the overall command of General John Gort.

When the German offensive began, Wikipedia explains, Brooke distinguished himself in the handling of the British forces in the retreat to Dunkirk: ‘In late May 1940 the Corps held the major German attack on the Ypres-Comine Canal but then found its left flank exposed by the capitulation of the Belgian army. Brooke swiftly ordered 3rd Division to switch from the Corps’ right flank to cover the gap. This was accomplished in a complicated night-time manoeuvre. Pushing more troops north to counter the threat to the embarking troops at Dunkirk from German units advancing along the coast, II Corps retreated to Dunkirk where on 29 May Brooke was ordered to return to England, leaving the Corps in Montgomery’s hands.’

Brooke returned to Britain and in July 1940 was appointed commander of the Home Forces, and then, despite disagreements with Winston Churchill about military strategy, to Chief of Imperial Staff in December 1941, effectively making him the head of the army. As the war progressed, Brooke gradually became Churchill’s most important military adviser. Indeed, when offered command of the British troops in the Middle East, in 1942, he turned the posting down because he believed it necessary to stay close to Churchill to stop him making any major military mistakes.

Later in the war, when he no longer felt the need to stay by Churchill’s side, Brooke expected to be made head of the Allied invasion of Western Europe, but the job went to the American Dwight D Eisenhower, leaving Brooke bitterly disappointed. Brooke was promoted to Field Marshal in 1944 and was created Baron Alanbrooke of Brookeborough in 1945. After retiring from the British Army he became a director of several companies, President of the Zoological Society, and Vice-President of the RSPB. He died in 1963.

Throughout the war, Brooke kept a detailed diary. Although not intended for publication, he changed his mind about this, apparently, because he felt he (and other chiefs of staff) had been given too little credit in Churchill’s memoirs. Brooke’s diaries were first edited by Arthur Bryant as a history of the war in two volumes: The Turn of the Tide published by Doubleday in 1957, and Triumph in the West by Collins in 1959. An uncensored version - War Diaries 1939-1945 - appeared in 2001 published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (edited by Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman). Much of this latter book is available for view at Googlebooks, and a few pages can be read at Amazon.

Here is part of one entry (taken from War Diaries 1939-1945) dated 70 years ago today, in the middle of the Dunkirk Evacuation.

30 May 1940
‘. . . I can hardly believe that I have succeeded in pulling the 4 divisions out of the mess we were in, with allies giving way on all flanks. Now remains the task of embarking which will be a difficult one. Went to see how embarkation was proceeding and found the whole thing at a standstill owing to a lack of boats!! Went to see Gort and got little satisfaction. Then found Sykes telephone to sec of 1st Sea Lord, returned to Gort to get him to telephone to 1st Sea Lord to press for marines, more ships and boats. Arranged for Monty to take over Corps, Anderson to replace him [3rd Division], and Horrocks to replace Anderson [11 Infantry Brigade]. Visited all Div Commanders to say goodbye. . .

Went down to beach at 7:15pm, was carried out to open boat, and with Ronnie Stanyforth and Barney Charlesworth we paddled out to the destroyer and got aboard. There I found Adam, to my great joy. We have been waiting till 10pm before starting, rather nerve wracking as the Germans are continually flying round and being shot at, and after seeing the ease with which a few bombs can sink a destroyer, it is an unpleasant feeling.

Later: We never started until 12:15am, at 3am we were brought up short with a crash. I felt certain that we had hit a mine or been torpedoed. But she remained on an even keel and after some shuffling about proceeded on slowly. I heard later from the commander that he had 3 routes to select from, one was under gun fire from the coast, one had had a submarine and mines reported in it, and the other was very shallow at low water. He chose the latter and hit the bottom, damaging a propeller slightly. Finally arrived at Dover at 7:15am. Wonderful feeling of peace after the last 3 weeks!’

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Liddell, Tyler and internment

Seventy years ago today, and barely two weeks after the formation of a coalition war government by the Liberal Party leader Winston Churchill, one of the country’s cleverest intelligence officers and an important diarist, Guy Liddell, was appealing to Churchill’s Labour Party allies in the War Cabinet for a policy of internment. According to Liddell’s diaries, Churchill was strongly in support of such a policy, largely because of the Tyler Kent case, which Liddell himself had helped resolve only days earlier.

Liddell, born in 1892, was studying music in Germany when World War I began. He returned to England and served with the Royal Field Artillery (and was awarded the Military Cross). After the war, Liddell joined Scotland Yard, and then, working as a liaison with Special Branch and the Foreign Office, he helped expose the spying activities of the All Russian Cooperative Society. In 1927, he joined MI5 where he became an expert on Soviet subversive activities within the UK; he also recruited agents, including Maxwell Knight, who became head of the unit monitoring of political subversion.

With the outbreak of World War II and the resignation of Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of a Liberal-Labour coalition on 10 May 1940, with Clement Attlee effectively as his deputy. Very quickly Vernon Kell, Director-General of MI5, was sacked, and replaced by David Petrie. In Petrie’s reorganisation, Liddell was promoted to director in charge of counter-espionage.

Within days Liddell was informed by Knight of an investigation into a spy ring, active through the Right Club, which met at Anna Wolkoff’s Russian Tea Room in South Kensington. Of particular interest was a US embassy cypher clerk, Tyler Kent, who was visiting the Tea Room regularly and who was suspected of passing secret documents to Right Club members - documents that showed the American government in favour of the US joining the war in Europe. On 18 May, Liddell negotiated with the Americans for Kent’s diplomatic immunity to be waived, and two days later Special Branch raided his flat where they found nearly 2,000 classified documents. Subsequently, Kent, and his handler Wolkoff, were successfully prosecuted.

Liddell’s career was subsequently hampered by several factors. When one of his agents, Duško Popov, came up with information suggesting the Japanese might be planning an attack on Pearl Harbor, he was sent to FBI Director J Edgar Hoover, who did not take the information seriously. Later, Liddell was criticised for not having informed the US’s Office of Naval Intelligence.

Some time later, he was expected to succeed David Petrie as chief of MI5, but rumours that he might be a double-agent had reached the Home Office, and he was given the job of Deputy Director-General instead. Subsequently, he was demoted as a result of his previous close association with Guy Burgess (who defected in 1951). Liddell died in 1958. Wikipedia and Spartacus both have a little more biographical information. Two decades later, the journalist and writer, Goronwy Rees gave a deathbed confession that he was a spy, and also that Liddell was a traitor and part of the Burgess/Philby spy ring. Documents released for public inspection since have appeared to clear Liddell of anything but naivety in choosing friends.

Guy Liddell was a pedantic diarist. He filled twelve volumes during the years of World War II, each with a separate index, and these give an extraordinary insight into the workings of the security service. They were not released for public inspection until quite recently, and they were then edited by Nigel West (pen name of Rupert Allason) and published by Routledge in 2005 in two volumes: The Guy Liddell Diaries Vol I: 1939-1942; The Guy Liddell Diaries Vol II: 1942-1945.

West says this in his introduction: ‘From amusing anecdotes to deadly serious issues of life and execution, Liddell takes us through the matters that preoccupied him while he fulfilled one of the most demanding roles in Britain’s most secret wartime world. In short, until now there has never been any authoritative insider’s account of what it was like to work in the wartime Security Service, nor any candid commentary on the counter-intelligence conflict fought by MI5 against both the Axis and the Soviets.’

The diaries are available online at the National Archives, which charges a fee. However, a large number of extracts are also available for free thanks to the controversial historian David Irving. (Wikipedia, which has a very long article on the man, notes that he is described as ‘the most skilful preacher of Holocaust denial in the world today’.) While researching Liddell’s diaries for his own books, Irvings also transcribed what, he says, seemed ‘the most important threads of information in them - i.e. those that interested me at the Cabinet level, while keeping an eye open on their ‘Himmler’ and ‘Schellenberg’ content as well. I make no apologies for omissions.’

Here is Liddell’s entry from 70 years ago today, in which he explains how he was summoned to see Atlee to discuss internment.

25 May 1940
‘The Director-General told me this morning that he had an interview with Neville Chamberlain who had questioned him on Fifth Columnists here. The Director-General told him that he was worried about Czechs and also about aliens. He then went on to see the Prime Minister. The latter was not available owing to a meeting, but Desmond Morton was there. It seems that the Prime Minister takes a strong view about the internment of all Fifth Columnists at this moment and that he has left the Home Secretary in no doubt about his views. What seems to have moved him more than anything was the Tyler Kent case.

At about 6 o’clock Stephens had a telephone message asking that he and I should go up to the Privy Council to see Clement Atlee and Arthur Greenwood. I could not understand how they had got hold of my name. Before going I rang up the Director-General to ask his permission. I told him that I proposed, if I were questioned about internment, to tell them exactly what I thought, and he agreed. Atlee and Greenwood gave me the impression that they thought there was some political intrigue or graft in the Home Office which was holding things up. I told them quite frankly that I did not think this was the case. I went over the whole ground, explained how enemy aliens had been let into this country free for a period of five years, how the War Book contained directions for their probably internment in categories immediately after the outbreak of the war and how Sir Samuel Hoare had reversed this policy early in September and substituted the tribunal system.

This has meant that the organisation of MI5 had been swamped and for the last six months had been engaged on work of relatively small importance which had largely been abortive. I said that in my view the reluctance of the Home Secretary to act came from an old-fashioned liberalism which seemed to prevail in all sections. The liberty of the subject, freedom of speech etc. were all very well in peace-time but were no use in fighting the Nazis. There seemed to be a complete failure to realise the power of the totalitarian state and the energy with which the Germans were fighting a total war. Both Greenwood and Atlee were in agreement with our views. They said that they had been charged by the Prime Minister to enquire into this matter.’

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Red Lacquer Days

‘Myself, the architect, duffle-coated, sharp-nosed, straggly-haired.’ Thus did Hugh Casson, the influential British architect and writer, describe himself in a diary written during a cultural tour behind the ‘iron curtain’, to China in the 1950s. That diary - Red Lacquer Days - was published in a limited edition of 200, but Casson returned to the diary form 25 years later when President of the Royal Academy. Today, his centenary, is the time to remember that duffle-coated, sharp-nosed architect.

Casson was born on 23 May 1910 and spent some time in Burma, where his father worked for the Indian Civil Service, before being sent home, because of the impending war, to his maternal grandparents in Kent. His uncle was the actor Sir Lewis Casson (married to Sybil Thorndyke). Hugh was sent to boarding school at Eastbourne, East Sussex, and later studied at St John’s College, Cambridge, and the Bartlett School of Architecture, London. Thereafter he taught at the Cambridge School of Architecture and practised in the firm run by his Cambridge tutor Christopher Nicholson.

During the Second World War, he served with the Air Ministry working on camouflage, and after he worked as director of architecture for the Festival of Britain, and he went into partnership with Neville Conder. Together their firm designed many projects, including university campuses, the Elephant House at London Zoo, and Cambridge University’s Sidgwick Avenue arts faculty. Casson was knighted in 1952.

Apart from his talents as an architect, Casson was considered to be an outstanding writer and speaker. He also designed sets for the theatre and opera. During his later life, he held various high-level appointments, such as provost of the Royal College of Art and President of the Royal Academy. As a friend of the British royal family, he designed the interior of the royal yacht Britannia. For a while in the 1980s, he became a television presenter, with his own show Personal Pleasures with Sir Hugh Casson. He died in 1999; and his wife, the photographer Margaret Macdonald, died three months later. A little more biographical information is available at Wikipedia, or the Sir Hugh Casson official website, or from various obituaries (The Independent, The New York Times).

Casson is not known as a diarist, but two of his short-lived diary writing episodes, a quarter of a century apart, have been published. The first in 1956 by Lion and Unicorn Press in a limited edition of 200 had silk covered boards and was called Red Lacquer Days: an illustrated journal describing a recent visit to Peking. Copies are available on Abebooks for as little as £20. The second - Hugh Casson Diary - was published by Macmillan in 1981 and described Casson’s fourth year as President of the Royal Academy. Like Red Lacquer Days, it too is liberally illustrated with line drawings and watercolours.

Here are a few extracts from Red Lacquer Days, including the start of the first and the end of the last.

14 September 1954
‘Are you the cultural delegation?’ The flight clerk at London Airport looks up from his papers. ‘Mind you, I am only guessing.’ What else indeed could we be? Culture is written all over us. . .’

[Casson then describes the other members of the delegation naming them by their profession, a geologist, a poet, a painter, a philosopher.]

‘Myself, the architect, duffle-coated, sharp-nosed, straggly-haired.’

‘None of us, I’m sure, is certain of any motive for going except that of curiosity. We are all aware that a guest - even at the house of his dearest friend - is always a prisoner and that beyond the Iron Curtain there are no bystanders - only players, and that even a decision not to play is a commitment in itself. Yet none of us hesitated to accept the invitation - who indeed would have?’

25 September - 27 September 1954
‘In lovely weather - warm sun, cold breeze, clear blue days and Mediterranean nights - the week passes crammed with sightseeing. At our request we eschew factories and clinics, mines and blast-furnaces. For us, day after day, are spread out the delights of temples and gardens, of palaces and lakes, of secret courtyards and absurd pavilions with delicious elegant names: ‘The Palace of Pleasant Sounds’, ‘The Studio of Pure Fragrance’, ‘The Hall of Last Virtue’, ‘The Pavilion for Watching the Spring’. All are beautifully kept, affectionately restored, crowded with visitors - soldiers strolling with linked fingers, old ladies tottering on misshapen feet, pale-faced Europeans hung with light-meters and scribbling in notebooks, parties of school-children in scarlet scarves.

There can be few more visually exciting experiences than to wander through the courts of the Forbidden City as though through the rooms of some vast roofless mansion. First the great approach, paved and straight, that even within living memory was lined every day at dawn by kneeling elephants who guarded the approach of Court officials and mandarins. . . Then through the Great Gateway with the court yards set about with halls of state designed for splendid ceremonials. Each hall is surrounded with smaller halls and pavilions, with terraces, bridges, staircases and ramps all in marching, rhythmic perspective. Every column, every roof, every silhouette and every colour is the same - yet all are different because each time they are viewed from a slightly different aspect or different level. Courts give way to temples, to stairways, to courts again. Everywhere roofs are golden, ceilings blue, green and gold, walls and columns blood-red. The floors inside and out are carefully paved, great marble slabs, diagonally tooled along the main pathways - elsewhere grey rectangular bricks or stones. Balustrades are of white marble, richly carved. Great bronze vessels as high as your hat stand sentinel beneath trees every branch of which has been studied and, if necessary, twisted in growth to create the required effect. Within the State rooms are set out the furniture, the silks, the bronzes and porcelains that once belonged to the Imperial Court - some beautiful, some strangely hideous - carved monkeys made out of what looks like chocolate spaghetti; cranes in coloured cloisonné; clocks let into the bellies of elephants. Owing to the risk of fire, buildings are not fitted with electric lighting, and in the scarlet twilight of these great halls the atmosphere is sinister and smells of tyranny.

But once outside in the gardens and grottoes of the surrounding parks the magic returns . . .’

‘Day after delightful day we stroll along beautifully patterned pathways past the agonised rocks and twisted cypresses of the Winter Palace where an old man, white-masked against the dust, sits silently appraising the goldfish. We descend through a dark twisted cave in the Peilhai Park to reach a canopied ferry in which we are carried across a lake to the Emperor’s fishing pavilion. We drink tea in the shade of the Temple of Heaven, eat a picnic lunch among the yet unrestored ruins of the Summer Palace, doze in the sun beside the hulk of the old iron steam yacht (a present from the Emperor of Japan to the Dowager Empress of China) that lies mildewing and desolate upon a marble quay. We watch butterflies by silent pools, and listen to magpies in the bamboo groves. We are taken to see Mr Ching Chin-yi, who, in the shade of a little pavilion, is busy engraving the Stockholm Peace Appeal upon a grain of rice. . .’

16 October
‘. . . we drop through sopping clouds into London Airport. No reception committee, no brass bands, no blandly smiling hosts, not even grudging respect for having got there and back. Great distances, strange passport stamps, exotic labels mean nothing here. The journey is over, the delegation vowing constant friendship to be cemented by regular meetings - (I’m in the [telephone] book’) - disintegrates instantly into individuality, each with his own private English life, and vanishes into London.’

Saturday, May 22, 2010

All literary discussions

The French literary writer Jules Renard died 100 years ago today. He was not well known in the English-speaking world, nor is he today, though a bitterly ironic novel based on his own childhood, Poil de Carotte, was filmed several times. His diaries have been published often in France, and were first translated into English in the 1960s, though in a much reduced form. They are full of epigrams (‘Style is to forget all styles’) and opinions about his fellow writers and artists, such as Rodin, Daudet, Goncourt.

Renard was born in Châlons-du-Mayenne, France, in 1864, but grew up mostly in Chitry-les-Mines, near Chaumont, central France. He was educated in Nevers and Paris, and served for a short time in the military. He married Marie Morneau in 1888 and they had two children. They lived mostly in Paris (although Renard retained close links with Chitry-les-Mines) where he devoted his life to literature. Although not part of the avant-garde movement, he did become a member of the Académie Goncourt, a French literary organisation founded in opposition to the traditional Académie française.

In France, Renard’s early story, L'Écornifleur, is considered to one of great novels of the 19th century. But his best known works include Poil de Carotte (Carrot Hair), a fictionalised, but bitterly ironic, account of his own childhood, and Histoires Naturelles (Natural Histories/Stories). He died, aged only 46, on 22 May 1910 - a century ago today.

Other than Wikipedia’s short entry, there is not much biographical information in English about Renard available on the internet. His chief fame in English-speaking countries has come through Poil de Carotte which was turned into a silent film in 1925 and a talkie in 1932 by Julien Duvivier, both of which are considered far better than a 1973 remake by Henri Graziani.

Renard, however, is probably remembered as much for his journals as for his novels. They were first published in several volumes by François Bernouard, Paris, starting in 1926; then by Gallimard in 1937; and then, in the 1960s, as part of the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade series. This latter edition contains nearly 1,300 pages. The French literary critic, Albert Thibaudet, named Renard’s journal alongside that of André Gide’s Si le grain ne meurt as the two autobiographical masterpieces of the 20th century.

Renard’s diary did not appear in English until 1964. The Journal of Jules Renard was edited and translated by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget, and published by George Brazilier, New York. It only only contains about 250 pages. Bogan says, in her introduction, that Renard’s journal ‘abounds in mockery of the false, the half-observed, and the grandiose’. She concludes: ‘The final impression received from the Journal is one of delicacy backed up by power - power of character and power of intellect. Again and again those moments of insight appear which can only stem from absolute honesty of perception added to complete largeness of spirit.’

Renard’s journals can be read online in French at ABU: la Bibliothèque Universelle. And a few pages from a modern edition in English are available for viewing at Here, though, are a few extracts from the original 1964 edition of The Journal of Jules Renard. The extracts are only identified by month and year (not by day); moreover it is never clear when the paragraphs in the book are continuous in the original or are not. (The quotations below are as they appear in the book, inclusive of trailing dots.)

March 1891
‘Yesterday at Daudet’s. . . Why did I leave disgusted? No doubt I had imagined Goncourt was not a man. Must the old be possessed of all the pettinesses of the young? How they worked over that poor Zola . . .

Goncourt looks like a fat, retired army man. I saw no wit in him: that will have to wait for another time. Until that second impression, all he has is the repetitiousness I find so intolerable in the works of the Goncourts . . .

A bad day, yesterday. At L’Echo de Paris they found my story Le Navet Sculpté (The Carved Turnip) too subtle; and I found our great men too coarse.

Today, went to Daudet’s, then we went to see Rodin, then Goncourt. Very unluckily, I seem to have made Goncourt dislike me. Why didn’t I blindly compliment him on his books, which I haven’t read! Cold greeting, the barest civilities, no sort of invitation, not a word from his wife concerning my wife and child. My boy, you must have properly put your foot in it. Ah, the way life steps on one’s toes! . . .

At Rodin’s, a revelation, an enchantment: The Door of Hell, and that little thing, no bigger than my hand, that is called The Eternal Idol; a man, vanquished, his arms behind his back, kisses a woman under the breasts, his lips against her skin, and the woman seems overcome with sadness. I cannot easily detach myself from that . . .

In the court, blocks of marble wait to be given life; they are strange, in their shapes, and, it would seem, in their desire to live. It is funny: I play the man who has discovered Rodin.’

March 1891
‘In Rodin’s atelier, it seemed as though my eyes suddenly burst open. Until now sculpture interested me like work done on turnips.

To write in the manner that Rodin sculpts.’

March 1891
‘Discussion between Raynaud and myself on the subject of Mallarmé. I say: ‘It is stupid.’ He says: ‘It is marvellous.’ And that resembles all literary discussions.’

March 1891
‘Balzac is perhaps the only one who had the right to write badly.’

April 1891
‘Style is to forget all styles.

Daudet in fine fettle, tells us of the embarkations of Gauguin, who would like to go to Tahiti in order to find nobody there, and who never goes. So that his best friends are finally saying to him: ‘You must leave, my dear fellow, you must leave.’

The critic is a botanist. I am a gardener.’

April 1891
‘A clean-shaven gent speaks to me interminably about my book. How insufferable I should find him if he talked about anything else!’

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A good press secretary

Hutchinson, an imprint of Random House, is to publish Alastair Campbell’s diaries ‘in full’ starting with the first of four volumes, Prelude to Power 1994-1997, in early June. A selection of Campbell’s diaries - entitled The Blair Years - was first published in 2007, and though the book sold well it didn’t seem to make many friends!

Alastair Campbell was born in Yorkshire, in 1957, the son of a vet. He was educated at City of Leicester School and Cambridge University, where he studied French and German. After a stint as sports reporter on the Tavistock Times. he became a trainee on the Plymouth-based Sunday Independent, then owned by Mirror Group Newspapers, where he met his partner Fiona Millar (with whom he now has three children). He moved to London to work for the Daily Mirror, and soon became a political correspondent. However, in 1986, he was hospitalised suffering from alcohol abuse.

Subsequently, he rebuilt his career at the Daily Mirror becoming its political editor. He advised Neil Kinnock, the leader of the Labour Party at the time, and worked closely with Robert Maxwell, the Daily Mirror’s owner. Next, he became political editor of Today, a tabloid newspaper, and was working there when John Smith died in 1994; soon after he agreed to become Blair’s spokesman (see extract below). He helped coordinate Labour’s 1997 election campaign, and, when Labour won, he was appointed the Prime Minister’s chief press secretary. In 2000 he was promoted to the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications.

In 2002-2003, Campbell became heavily embroiled in the events leading up to the Iraq war. In August 2003 during the Hutton Inquiry, he resigned, though he said his resignation had been agreed months earlier, and had nothing to do with the enquiry. Since then, he has done a variety of jobs, including helping Labour with the 2005 general election, and writing a column for The Times. He publishes a vlog and a blog on a personal website, where he also advertises his services as a ‘communicator, writer, strategist’, and as a speaker. Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia.

While working for Blair, Campbell kept a detailed diary, said to total around two million words (how DID he find the time?). Only two weeks after Blair stood down from the leadership of the Labour Party, in 2007, Hutchinson (part of Random House) published The Blair Years, being extracts chosen by Campbell from his diary. The book is said to have sold 230,000 copies. Now, only weeks after the Labour Party have lost power, and Gordon Brown has stepped down, Hutchinson is about to start publishing Campbell’s diaries ‘in full’.

The first volume, to be published on 3 June (but available from 1 June according to Amazon), is entitled The Alastair Campbell Diaries, Volume One - Prelude to Power 1994-1997. It will begin with 40 pages of ‘hitherto unpublished material recording the discussions that led to Tony Blair, rather than Gordon Brown, becoming leader of the Labour Party’. Some 75 per cent of the material in this first volume is previously unpublished, Random House says, and was prepared for publication some time ago.

Hutchinson Publishing Director Caroline Gascoigne said: ‘With elections and campaigns so fresh in people’s minds, and with so much focus on the legacy of the Blair-Brown governments, the timing of publication could not be better for us. Prelude to Power is a truly riveting read. I don’t believe there has ever been a diary quite like this from someone so close to the centre of power, and who has remained there ever since. I know that people have assumed the unpublished material is all about the Blair-Brown relationship, but it is about so much more than that.’ Further volumes are likely to be published every six months, and to be titled Power and the People, Power and Responsibility and The Pressures of Power.

Paul Routledge, of the Daily Mirror, picked up the news and made a brief comment: ‘Alastair Campbell is to publish all four volumes of his diaries of the Blair years. Unexpurgated. Expletives undeleted. **** knows who’ll buy them. Not this t*sser, as he described me in the original, edited version.’ And The Guardian, in revealing the news, reminded its readers of what it said about The Blair Years: ‘nasty, brutish and long ... the edited outpouring of an obsessive’. However, that’s an unfair editing of its own material: the very sentence actually finished with ‘. . . but its significance cannot be denied.’ And, in further fairness, The Guardian also called the book ‘compelling’, and another reviewer, David Hare, said although it was ‘unrevealing’ it was ‘fascinating at the same time’.

Here is the start of the first entry in The Blair Years.

27 July 1994
‘TB called me and asked me to go and see him in the Shadow Cabinet room. I arrived at 1:30 and into the kind of turmoil you normally associate with moving house. Boxes and crates of John Smith’s papers and possessions on the way out, TB’s on the way in, and nobody quite sure where everything should go, and all looking a bit stressed at the scale of the task. Anji Hunter and Murray Elder were in the outer office, and I got the usual greeting from both, Anji all over-the-top kisses and hugs, Murray a rather distant and wary smile. He said Tony was running a bit late. He went in to tell him I was here. A couple of minutes later John Edmonds [General Secretary of the General and Municipal Boilermakers Union] came out, and looked a bit miffed to see me. Tony’s own office was in even greater chaos than the outer office so he was working out of the Cabinet Shadow room. He turned on the full Bunsen burner smile, thanked me for all the help I’d given on his leadership acceptance/speech, and then, still standing, perched his foot on a packing case and got to the point, rather more quickly than I’d anticipated. He was going on holiday the next day, and he still had a few key jobs to sort out. He was determined to get the best if he could. He needed a really good press secretary. He wanted someone who understood politics and understood the media, including the mass-market media. They don’t grow on trees. He said it had to be somebody tough, and confident, someone who could make decisions, and stick to them. Historically the Labour Party has not been blessed with really talented people in this area of politics and political strategy but I think we can be different. Gordon is exceptional, so is Peter, so are you, and I really want you to do this job.’

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Siberian driftwood cannot lie

The great Norwegian explorer, oceanographer and international diplomat, Fridtjof Nansen, died 80 years ago today. One of his many important achievements was to envisage the possibility of, and then lead an expedition towards, the North Pole by sailing a specially-designed ship - Fram - into pack ice and letting the natural currents drift her in the ice towards the Pole. Nansen’s record of the Fram expedition, based largely on his diaries, have become a classic of the genre, and are still in print. The original two volumes, however, are freely available on the internet.

Nansen was born near Oslo in 1861 into a prosperous family. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was keen on encouraging her children toward outdoor pursuits. At school, Nansen excelled at sciences as well as at sports such as skating and skiing. In 1882, he joined a sealer for a trip of several months to Greenland. He studied zoology at the University of Oslo, starting in 1881, but also worked during the period as zoological curator at the Bergen Museum. In 1888 he enacted a plan, first envisaged after the sealer trip, to ski across Greenland’s ice cap. The key to his success in this venture, he said, was to have decided to cross from the uninhabited east to the inhabited west, so there would be no possibility of retreat.

In 1889, Nansen married the accomplished singer Eva Sars, and they were to have five children, though Eva was to die tragically young, of pneumonia in 1907. In the next few years, Nansen served as curator of the Zootomical Institute at the University of Oslo, published two books - The First Crossing of Greenland (1890) and Eskimo Life (1891) - and planned a new expedition into the Arctic, this time based on an audacious plan to reach the North Pole by building a ship that would be carried, not crushed, by the winter freezing and movement of ice in the polar sea.

The Fram (Forward in English) was sailed into the ice pack off Siberia in September 1893, and then began the expected long slow drift. However, in March 1895, after 18 months, and once it was clear that the Fram would continue to drift safely but no closer to the Pole, Nansen and one colleague, F H Johansen, left the ship for an attempt on the Pole. Using dogsleds, they travelled for 23 days, and got closer than anyone had before, but then they turned back, southwest to Franz Josef Land. There they spent the 1895-1896 winter, living in a stone hut roofed with walrus skins, and eating polar bear and walrus meat. They started south again in May, and were reunited with the crew of the Fram in August 21 at Tromsø. Wikipedia has a long and detailed article about the expedition.

Professor James S Aber of Emporia State University makes this assessment of Nansen’s methods in Arctic exploration: ‘Previous expeditions had attempted to transfer temperate European technique into a hostile environment without success. Many men and ships were destroyed, lost, or killed by such tactics. Nansen’s expeditions, on the other hand, involved small crews and carefully conceived methods based on Eskimo and Lapp techniques of survival. In all of Nansen’s exploits, not a single person, major piece of equipment, or important scientific observation was lost. No other person or exploration program, before or since, can claim such an outstanding record for success and safety under such adverse conditions.’

The Fram voyage was Nansen’s final expedition, but it was to provide him with plenty of work and a good income in the years to come. He wrote an account of the voyage based on his diaries, which was translated into English and published in two volumes already in 1897, and he compiled six volumes of scientific observations. Although, after the Fram expedition, he was given a professorship of zoology at the University of Oslo, his interests shifted towards oceanography and he was appointed professor of oceanography instead, leading to important research on the behaviour and origin of ocean currents.

Despite his passion for scientific research, Nansen found himself increasingly preoccupied with political and international issues. In 1905, he supported the independence of Norway from Sweden and, after the dissolution of the Union, served as his country’s minister to Great Britain until May 1908. During the First World War, he served as head of the Norwegian commission to the US. After the war, there were some attempts to make him prime minister, in a broad coalition against a strengthening Labour Party. But, according to Wikipedia, the rejection of this attempt to establish a Nansen government also marked Norway’s final transition into the parliamentary system.

When the League of Nations started in 1920, he was Norway’s delegate and remained so till his death. For the League, he organised the repatriating of nearly half a million prisoners of war, many of them held in Russia; and he administered its High Commission for Refugees. For the Red Cross, he directed relief aid for millions of Russians suffering in the 1921-1922 famine. He also directed major efforts by the League to solve the problem of Greek refugees and to resettle survivors of the Armenian genocide. In 1922, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He died on 13 May 1930, eighty years ago today. Apart from Wikipedia, there is plenty of biographical information about Nansen available on the internet, not least at the website of the Nobel Prize or the Fram Museum.

Nansen’s record of the Fram expedition has become something of an explorer’s classic with many editions since the original two volumes were published by Archibald Constable and Co in London and Harper & Brothers in New York in 1897. In English the book was called Farthest North with the subtitle Being the Record of a Voyage of Exploration of the Ship Fram 1893-1896 and of a Fifteen Months’ Sleigh Journey by Dr Nansen and Lieut. Johansen. There is no acknowledgement of a translator, but there are many photographs and sketches. Both volumes are freely available at Internet Archive.

Here are several consecutive entries from early in 1894. In them, Nansen not only gives a good summary of the expedition so far, but waxes lyrical about his daughter and the stars, gets all philosophical, and mulls over the idea of leaving the Fram and trying to sledge to the Pole (more than a year before he actually does so).

4 January 1894.
‘It seems as if the twilight were increasing quite perceptibly now, but this is very possibly only imagination. I am in good spirits in spite of the fact that we are drifting south again. After all, what does it matter? Perhaps the gain to science will be as great, and, after all, I suppose this desire to reach the North Pole is only a piece of vanity. I have now a very good idea of what it must be like up there. (‘I like that!’ say you.) Our deep water here is connected with, is a part of, the deep water of the Atlantic Ocean - of this there can be no doubt. And have not I found that things go exactly as I calculated they would whenever we get a favorable wind? Have not many before us had to wait for wind? And as to vanity - that is a child’s disease, got over long ago. All calculations, with but one exception, have proved correct. We made our way along the coast of Asia, which many prophesied we should have great difficulty in doing. We were able to sail farther north than I had dared to hope for in my boldest moments, and in just the longitude I wished. We are closed in by the ice, also as I wished. The Fram has borne the ice-pressure splendidly, and allows herself to be lifted by it without so much as creaking, in spite of being more heavily loaded with coal, and drawing more water than we reckoned on when we made our calculations; and this after her certain destruction and ours was prophesied by those most experienced in such matters. I have not found the ice higher nor heavier than I expected it to be; and the comfort, warmth, and good ventilation on board are far beyond my expectations. Nothing is wanting in our equipment, and the food is quite exceptionally good. As Blessing and I agreed a few days ago, it is as good as at home; there is not a thing we long for; not even the thought of a beefsteak a la Chateaubriand, or a pork cutlet with mushrooms and a bottle of Burgundy, can make our mouths water; we simply don’t care about such things. The preparations for the expedition cost me several years of precious life; but now I do not grudge them: my object is attained. On the drifting ice we live a winter life, not only in every respect better than that of previous expeditions, but actually as if we had brought a bit of Norway, of Europe, with us. We are as well off as if we were at home. All together in one saloon, with everything in common, we are a little part of the fatherland, and daily we draw closer and closer together. In one point only have my calculations proved incorrect, but unfortunately in one of the most important. I pre-supposed a shallow Polar Sea, the geatest depth known in these regions up till now being 80 fathoms, found by the Jeannette. I reasoned that all currents would have a strong influence in the shallow Polar Sea, and that on the Asiatic side the current of the Siberian rivers would be strong enough to drive the ice a good way north. But here I already find a depth which we cannot measure with all our line, a depth of certainly 1,000 fathoms, and possibly double that. This at once upsets all faith in the operation of a current; we find either none, or an extremely slight one; my only trust now is in the winds. Columbus discovered America by means of a mistaken calculation, and even that not his own; heaven only knows where my mistake will lead us. Only I repeat once more - the Siberian driftwood on the coast of Greenland cannot lie, and the way it went we must go.’

8 January 1894
‘Little Liv [Nansen’s daughter] is a year old today; it will be a fete day at home. As I was lying on the sofa reading after dinner, Peter put his head in at the door and asked me to come up and look at a strange star which had just shown itself above the horizon, shining like a beacon flame. I got quite a start when I came on deck and saw a strong red light just above the edge of the ice in the south. It twinkled and changed color; it looked just as if some one were coming carrying a lantern over the ice; I actually believe that for a moment I so far forgot our surroundings as to think that it really was some person approaching from the south. It was Venus, which we see to-day for the first time, as it has till now been beneath the horizon. It is beautiful with its red light. Curious that it should happen to come to-day. It must be Liv’s star, as Jupiter is the home star. And Liv’s birthday is a lucky day - we are on our way north again. According to observations we are certainly north of 79° north latitude. On the home day, September 6th, the favorable wind began to blow that carried us along the coast of Asia; perhaps Liv’s day has brought us into a good current, and we are making the real start for the north under her star.’

12 January 1894
‘There was pressure about 10 o’clock this morning in the opening forward, but I could see no movement when I was there a little later. I followed the opening some way to the north. It is pretty cold work walking with the thermometer at 40° F below zero, and the wind blowing with a velocitv of 16 feet per second straight in your face. But now we are certainly drifting fast to the north under Liv’s star. After all, it is not quite indifferent to me whether we are going north or south. When the drift is northward new life seems to come into me, and hope, the ever young, springs fresh and green from under the winter snow. I see the way open before me, and I see the home-coming in the distance - too great happiness to believe in.’

14 January 1894
‘Sunday again. . . Yesterday the ice was quiet, but this morning there was considerable pressure in several places. Goodness knows what is causing it just now; it is a whole week after new moon. I took a long walk to the southwest, and got right in among it. Packing began where I stood, with roars and thunders below me and on every side. I jumped, and ran like a hare, as if I had never heard such a thing before; it came so unexpectedly. The ice was curiously fiat there to the south; the farther I went the flatter it grew, with excellent sledging surface. Over such ice one could drive many miles a day.’

15 January 1894
‘There was pressure forward both this morning and towards noon, but we heard the loudest sounds from the north. Sverdrup, Mogstad, and Peter went in that direction and were stopped by a large, open channel. Peter and I afterwards walked a long distance N.N.E., past a large opening that I had skirted before Christmas. It was shining, flat ice, splendid for sledging on, always better the farther north we went. The longer I wander about and see this sort of ice in all directions, the more strongly does a plan take hold of me that I have long had in my mind. It would be possible to get with dogs and sledges over this ice to the Pole, if one left the ship for good and made one’s way back in the direction of Franz Josef Land, Spitzbergen, or the west coast of Greenland. It might almost be called an easy expedition for two men.

But it would be too hasty to go off in spring. We must first see what kind of drift the summer brings. And as I think over it, I feel doubtful if it would be right to go off and leave the others. Imagine if I came home and they did not! Yet it was to explore the unknown polar regions that I came; it was for that the Norwegian people gave their money; and surely my first duty is to do that if I can. I must give the drift plan a longer trial yet; but if it takes us in a wrong direction, then there is nothing for it but to try the other, come what may.’

16 January 1894
‘The ice is quiet to-day. Does longing stupefy one, or does it wear itself out and turn at last into stolidity? Oh that burning longing night and day were happiness! But now its fire has turned to ice. Why does home seem so far away? It is one’s all; life without it is so empty, so empty - nothing but dead emptiness. Is it the restlessness of spring that is beginning to come over one, the desire for action, for something different from this indolent, enervating life? Is the soul of man nothing but a succession of moods and feelings, shifting as incalculably as the changing winds? Perhaps my brain is over-tired; day and night my thoughts have turned on the one point, the possibility of reaching the Pole and getting home. Perhaps it is rest I need - to sleep, sleep! Am I afraid of venturing my life? No, it cannot be that. But what else, then, can be keeping me back? Perhaps a secret doubt of the practicability of the plan. My mind is confused; the whole thing has got into a tangle; I am a riddle to myself. I am worn out, and yet I do not feel any special tiredness. Is it perhaps because I sat up reading last night? Everything around is emptiness, and my brain is a blank. I look at the home pictures and am moved by them in a curious, dull way; I look into the future, and feel as if it does not much matter to me whether I get home in the autumn of this year or next. So long as I get home in the end, a year or two seem almost nothing. I have never thought this before. I have no inclination to read, nor to draw, nor to do anything else whatever. Folly! Shall I try a few pages of Schopenhauer? No, I will go to bed, though I am not sleepy. Perhaps, if the truth were known, I am longing now more than ever. The only thing that helps me is writing, trying to express myself on these pages, and then looking at myself, as it were, from the outside. Yes, man’s life is nothing but a succession of moods, half memory and half hope.’

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ricci the sinologist

Matteo Ricci, a pioneering Italian sinologist, died four hundred years ago today. He was one of the first Jesuit missionaries to be allowed into China, and never returned to Europe. He wrote several important books in Chinese and composed a now famous map of the world. However, his most important legacy, at least in the West, may be the manuscript he wrote in Italian, which was translated soon after into Latin, but not into English until more than 300 years later: China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matteo Ricci.

Matteo (or Matthew in English) Ricci was born in 1552 of a noble family in Macerata, then part of the Papal States but today a city in central Italy, 130 km east of Perugia. Aged 16, he went to Rome to study law but soon decided on joining the Jesuits. The Jesuits had only been given Papal legitimacy some 30 years earlier, but were already making a name for themselves in scientific research and with voyages to the New World.

In 1577, Ricci set out for Lisbon where he continued his studies while waiting for a ship to the East. He arrived in Goa in 1578, and stayed on the west coast of India for several years (he was ordained in Cochin in 1580) before being ordered to China in 1582. Once in the Portuguese province of Macau, Ricci started learning the Chinese language and Chinese customs - the Jesuits having recently decided on a strategy of adopting local customs.

In 1583, Ricci and Michele Ruggieri, another Jesuit priest now considered to be the first European sinologist, were given permission to settle in Zhaoqing, then the capital of Kwangtun province. Within the next few years, Ruggieri is credited with publishing the first Catholic catechism in Chinese, and Ricci is credited with producing the first edition of his Map of the Myriad Countries of the World, sometimes now called The Black Tulip of Cartography, because of its rarity, importance and exoticism. Together, Ricci and Ruggieri are also credited with compiling a Portuguese-Chinese dictionary, for which they developed a consistent system of transcribing Chinese words in the Latin alphabet.

Ruggieri returned to Italy in 1588, leaving Ricci in charge of the Jesuit mission in China. He was expelled from Zhaoqing in 1589, but relocated in Shaoguan. Further travels took him to Nanchang (1595-1598), where he became a friend of two princes of royal blood and wrote his first book in Chinese (On Friendship), and to Nanking (1599-1601) where he was engaged mostly in the study of astronomy and mathematics. In 1601, he won permission to settle in Beijing, where he remained until his death on 11 May 1610 - exactly 400 years ago today - teaching science, preaching the gospel, and writing several more books in Chinese. For further biographical information see Wikipedia, the Catholic Encyclopaedia, or Prof Joseph MacDonnell’s website at Fairfield University.

However, Ricci’s most important and enduring book, written in Italian, was based on his journals and entitled De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas suscepta ab Societate Jesu (About Christian expeditions to China undertaken by the Society of Jesus). It was expanded and translated into Latin by Nicolas Trigault, and first published in 1615. A well-referenced Wikipedia article provides good details of the book’s history. It explains that excerpts first appeared in English in Purchas his Pilgrimes in 1625, but a complete English translation of the Latin text (by the Jesuit Louis J Gallagher) was not published until 1942. It was reprinted by Random House ten years later as China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matteo Ricci.

At the time, Kenneth Roxroth, writing in The New Republic, said: ‘It is not often that a classic, previously unknown to the world at large, appears on the book market. The only other example I can think of nowadays is the publication of the Boswell manuscripts. Matteo Ricci was of course a much greater man and occupied a much more important place in history, and was at least as interesting a writer. I am inclined to agree with the publishers that this is one of the most important books they have ever issued.’ (This review can be found online at the Bureau of Public Secrets.)

A little more from that review: ‘The best sinologists were the early Jesuits, and their Latin translations of the Chinese classics are still at least the equal of anything produced in the succeeding 300 years. They completely merged themselves with the Chinese; in fact they became Chinese literati, with considerable personal influence on the Emperor. They introduced Western science and philosophy to the Orient and Chinese culture to the Occident with such success that the eighteenth century was the century of chinoiserie. Even the Chinese Communists still respect Ricci as the greatest and least predatory of the culture-bearers from the West.’

Here are two extracts from the book (although not in diary form) as found in a pdf available on the Columbia Centre for Teaching and Learning website

‘The Chinese can distinguish between their magistrates by the parasols they use as protection against the sun when they go out in public. Some of these are blue and others yellow. Sometimes for effect they will have two or three of these sunshades, but only one if their rank does not permit of more. They may also be recognized by their mode of transportation in public. The lower ranks ride on horseback, the higher are carried about on the shoulders of their servants in gestatorial chairs. The number of carriers also has significance of rank; some are only allowed four, others may have eight. There are other ways also of distinguishing the magistracy and the rank of dignity therein; by banners and pennants, chains and censer cups, and by the number of guards who give orders to make way for the passage of the dignitary. The escort itself is held in such high esteem by the public that no one would question their orders. Even in crowded city everyone gives way at the sound of their voices with a spontaneity that correspond to the rank of the approaching celebrity. . .’

‘Another remarkable fact and quite worthy of note as marking a difference from the West, is that the entire kingdom is administered by the Order of the Learned, commonly known as The Philosophers. The responsibility for the orderly management of the entire realm is wholly and completely committed to their charge and care. The army, both officers and soldiers, hold them in high respect and show them the promptest obedience and deference, and not infrequently the military are disciplined by them as a schoolboy might be punished by his master. Policies of war are formulated and military; questions are decided by the Philosophers only, and their advice and counsel has more weight with the King than that of the military leaders. In fact very few of these and only on rare occasions, are admitted to war consultations. Hence it follows that those who aspire to be cultured frown upon war and would prefer the lowest rank in the philosophical order to the highest in the military, realizing that the Philosophers far excel military leaders in the good will and the respect of the people and in opportunities of acquiring wealth.’

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Hertfordshire Pepys

Two hundred years ago today, John Carrington - a farmer and man of many talents who was also dubbed the Hertfordshire Pepys - was writing the very last entry in his diary. A few days later he would be dead.

There is very little biographical information about Carrington on the internet. He was born in 1726, and owned Bacons Farm in Bramfield, Hertfordshire. At some time in his life he was also chief constable for a number of scattered parishes, as well as a tax collector and upkeeper of the highways. Otherwise, it is also known that he was a frequent visitor of the Rose and Crown at Tewin, a pub kept by his son Jack between 1791 and 1820. He died in 1810, and, it is said, a thousand people attended his funeral.

Carrington began writing a diary in the year after his wife’s death, when he was already 71 years old, and continued until a few weeks before his death. The manuscripts are held by Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies in a collection entitled ‘Diaries of John Carrington, senior and junior farmers, of Bacons Farm, Bramfield, and associated papers, c1780-1948’.

The National Archives website explains how the diary of John Carrington senior was first published as Good Friends and Merry by W Branch Johnson, and serialised by The Welwyn Times in 1947-1948. Initially, the book was edited by Johnson on the basis of a transcript of the diaries (dating from the late 19th or early 20th century), but, when the originals were deposited in the record office, he used them to check the transcript. Subsequently, the same version was published as The Carrington Diaries, and then later, in 1969, by Hertfordshire Countryside as The Hertfordshire Pepys.

One of the original pages of Carrington’s diaries can be viewed at the Herts Memories website, as can lots of extracts (with audio).

According to Johnson, the diary was written ‘higgledy-piggledy on any scrap of paper that came to hand - auctioneer’s announcements, instructions for collecting the first income tax and taking the first census, lists of deserters from the Army and Navy, regulations to innkeepers to prevent tippling on their premises’. And he claimed that among the million documents at the Hertfordshire Records Office (at the time of writing) none ‘gives anything like so complete a picture of Hertfordshire life as seen not by the gentry but by an intelligent countryman during the long, perilous and exhausting period of the Napoleonic wars, and no other document reveals so frankly, so artlessly a Hertfordshire personality’. Old John Carrington, he concludes, ‘was in truth the Hertfordshire Pepys’.

Here are Carrington’s final diary entries (with Johnson’s commentary italicised for ease of reading), from The Hertfordshire Pepys.

‘ ‘Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Fryday at Home as Very Ill out no ware as Cannot Eate nor Drinke.’ Dr Colbeck prescribed powders and draughts.

‘Took more powders but Dont see they Do me good O Health wt is thy Value had I knowne it I would have Clippt yr Wings that you should not have flown me.’

‘Very poorly took nothing.’

‘Took no powders Eate a small piese of mutton.’

‘Took a draught this morning.’

‘At Home Very Little Better all ways Dry & no Stomak to Eate.’

‘Wednesday Ver Bad indeed with pane in my stomacke & all night no rest till Thrusdy mornign.’

‘Thursday mong 7 poll [his daughter] went to Drs & Brought a drauft for me I took it and am something Easer but cannot Eate & Drink I must not but slops am so dry.’

So his entries ran for some months, but far from continuously. Fight on he could - and did. He was at Ware paying in tax money, at St Albans on militia business, at Bramsfield vestry, at Bramfield workhouse, at quarter sessions and assizes - here, there and everywhere, even as far as London. . .

Early in 1810 ‘thank God I am better’ - but improvement was offset and morale depressed by attending (in foul weather) the funeral of more than one old boon companion. In April ‘in afternoon to Tewin sons I was desired to spend the evening their with some Friends . . . They was all Good Company til 10 Clock.’

It was his last jollification - except, of course, for the wedding feast of Mary Larman on May 7, after a week spent at some races at Kimpton, at St Albans on official business, at Hertford quarter sesssions and at Ware on tax affairs. Next day he noted the arrest for debt of the Tewin blacksmith and Jack’s prompt settlement on the smith’s behalf, and on the following day the removal of one of his old friends from Tewin to Essendon.

On May 10 ‘at home all day.’

Thus closes the diary that had faithfully, unselfconsciously and with complete revelation recorded his later life. On May 22 [1810] old John died of the stroke, brought about by severe kidney trouble, that had overtaken him ten days earlier.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Flaubert the Realist

Today is the anniversary of the death of the French author, Gustave Flaubert. A fastidious writer, he produced few books in his life, but Madame Bovary is certainly considered one of the best French novels of all time. And Flaubert himself has an important place in the history of literature as a master of Realism. Interestingly, although he only appears to have kept a diary when travelling - particularly on a journey in Egypt - some believe his travel diary writing helped turn Flaubert from the Romantic he was to the Realist he would become.

Flaubert was born in 1821, in Rouen, the son of a surgeon. As a teenager, he fell in love with an older, married woman. In 1841, he began to study law in Paris, but, on discovering he suffered from a nervous disease, he abandoned the law so as to concentrate on writing. After his father died in 1846, he moved to Croisset on the Seine near Rouen where he lived with his mother (and the daughter of his sister who had died soon after his father had done). He was to remain at Croisset for most of his life. That same year, 1846, he fell in love with the poet Louise Colet. Their affair lasted to the mid-1850s, but it was Flaubert’s only serious romantic relationship. Otherwise, he visited prostitutes (and suffered from venereal disease).

Although Flaubert wrote a couple of novels in the 1940s, it was not until after returning from a long journey to the Orient, with his friend Maxime du Camp, that he began working on Madame Bovary, a novel that would take him five years to complete. When first serialised in Revue de Paris, it was considered immoral by the government, though legal actions to that effect failed. Flaubert’s next novel, Salammbô, took four years and a trip to Carthage to complete.

A fastidious writer, always in search of stylistic perfection, Flaubert produced only two or three more works in his life. His last work, over which he obsessed for years, was published posthumously and to mixed reviews - Bouvard et Pécuchet. Nevertheless, Madame Bovary remains one of the most famous French novels of all time, and, despite being a romantic at heart, Flaubert is credited with being a master of the Realist style in literature, and influencing many later writers, such as Zola and Kafka. He died 130 years ago today, on 8 May 1880. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia and in a New Yorker review of a biography by Geoffrey Wall.

Flaubert was more of a letter writer than a diarist, but he did keep a journal on his travels, and the one he wrote while in the Orient has become a literature classic. First published in English by Bodley Head in 1972, as Flaubert in Egypt (with the subtitle A Sensibility on Tour; a Narrative drawn from Gustave Flaubert’s Travel Notes & Letters translated from the French & edited by Francis Steegmuller) it has since been republished as a Penguin Classic. A few pages can be read on the Amazon website, and even more of the book is viewable on Googlebooks.

Introducing Chapter IV of Flaubert in Egypt, in which Flaubert describes his experience of the Pyramids, Steegmuller draws attention to the idea that the ‘very act of keeping a travel diary played a role in carrying the Romantic Flaubert towards Realism.’ And to support this view, he gives a short example of Flaubert’s earlier writing, an imagined description of the pyramids. That ‘pantheistic rhapsody’, as Steegmuller calls it, starts as follows: ‘When the traveler has reached the top of the pyramid, his hands are torn and his knees are bleeding; he is surrounded by the desert and devoured by the light, and the harsh air burns his lungs; utterly exhausted and dazzled by their brilliance, he sinks down half dead on the stone, amidst the carcasses of birds come there to die. But lift your head! Look! Look! And you will see cities with domes of gold and minarets of porcelain, palaces of lava built on plinths of alabaster, marble-rimmed pools where sultanas come to bathe their bodies at the hour when the moon makes bluer the shadow of the groves and more limpid the silvery water of the fountains . . .’

And here, by contrast, is what Flaubert wrote in his diary when first seeing and experiencing the Sphinx and Pyramids for real.

7 December 1849
‘Set out at noon for the Pyramids. Maxime is mounted on a white horse that keeps jerking its head, Sassetti [a Corsican-born servant] on a small white horse, myself on a bay, Joseph [guide and interpreter] on a donkey. We pass Soliman Pasha’s gardens. Island of Roda. We cross the Nile in a small boat: while our horses are being led aboard, a corpse in its coffin is borne past us. Energy of our oarsmen: they sing, shouting out the rhythm as they bend forward and back. The sail swells full and we skim along fast.

Gizeh. Mud houses as at ‘Atfeh - palm grove. Two waterwheels, one turned by an ox and the other by a camel. Now stretching out before us in an immense plain, very green, with squares of black soil which are fields most recently plowed, the last from which the flood withdrew: they stand out like India ink on the solid green. I think of the invocation to Isis: ‘Hail, hail, black soil Egypt!’ The soil of Egypt is black. Some buffaloes are grazing, now and again a waterless muddy creek, in which our horses sink to their knees; soon we are crossing great puddles or creeks.

About half-past three we are almost on the edge of the desert, the three Pyramids looming up ahead of us. I can contain myself no longer, and dig in my spurs; my horse bursts into a gallop, splashing through the swamp. Two minutes later Maxime follows suit. Furious race. I begin to shout in spite of myself; we climb rapidly up to the Sphinx, clouds of sand swirling about us. At first our Arabs followed us, crying ‘Sphinx! Sphinx! Oh! Oh! Oh!’ It grew larger and larger, and rose out of the ground like a dog lifting itself up.

View of the Sphinx. Abu-el-Houl (Father of Terror). The sand, the Pyramids, the Sphinx, all gray and bathed in a great rosy light; the sky perfectly blue, eagles slowly wheeling and gliding around the tips of the Pyramids. We stop before the Sphinx; it fixes us with a terrifying stare; Maxime is quite pale; I am afraid of becoming giddy, and try to control my emotion. We ride off madly at full speed among the stones. We walk around the Pyramids, right at their feet. Our baggage is late in arriving; night falls. . .’

8 December 1849
‘Ascent. Up at five - the first - and wash in front of the tent in the canvas pail. We hear several jackals barking. Ascent of the Great Pyramid, the one to the right (Kheops). The stones, which at a distance of two hundred paces seem the size of paving-blocs, are in reality - the smallest of them - three feet high; generally they come up to our chests. We go up at the left hand corner (opposite the Pyramid of Khephren); the Arabs push and pull me; I am quickly exhausted, it is desperately tiring. I stop five or six times on the way up. Maxime started before me and goes fast. Finally I reach the top.

We wait a good half hour for the sunrise. The sun was rising just opposite; the whole valley of the Nile, bathed in mist, seemed to be a still white sea; and the desert behind us, with its hillocks of sand, another ocean, deep purple, its waves all petrified. But as the sun climbed behind the Arabian chain the mist was torn into great shreds of filmy gauze; the meadows, cut by canals, were like green lawns with winding borders. To sum up: three colors - immense green at my feet in the foreground; the sky pale red - worn vermilion; behind and to the right, a rolling expanse looking scorched and iridescent, with the minarets of Cairo, canges passing in the distance, clusters of palms. . .’

Monday, May 3, 2010

This cruelty too shall end

Today is the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. Anne Frank, who died aged 15 in a German concentration camp, is famous because of her diary, one of the most widely read books in the world. To mark the occasion, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands took part in a special ceremony held at the Westerkerk cathedral. She also formally opened a new room in the museum to house the diary and other manuscripts.

Anneliese Marie was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1929, but, with her family, moved to Amsterdam in 1933 to avoid persecution. When the Germans occupied the Netherlands, her family hid for two years in a secret annex located in her father’s business premises - the business’s employees helping to provide supplies. During this time, Anne wrote a diary. The family was betrayed to the Germans in 1944, and deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where Anne died of typhoid aged only 15. Her sister and mother also died in concentration camps.

The diary, which was recovered by one of the employees, was later returned to Anne’s father, the only member of the family to have survived. He published it under the title Het Achterhuis (The Annex) in 1947. A few years later, in 1952, it was translated into English and published as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Doubleday & Company in the US and Valentine Mitchell in the UK. Since then it has been the source for many other published versions and translations (as well as for films and plays) and is widely read all over the world - a Fox News article in 2007 reported that the diary had been translated into 65 languages and had sold 30 million copies.

There is a mass of information about Anne Frank and her diary on the internet. The websites of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Jewish Women’s Archive both have biographies, as does Wikipedia of course (with an additional article on the diary itself). The Diary Junction has a few links to extracts from the diary.

The Anne Frank House, a museum based in the very place where the Franks lived secretly, was officially opened on 3 May 1960 - half a century ago today. The first year saw around 9,000 visitors, but the museum now averages around one million visitors every year. A few days ago, on 28 April, some 600 invited guests attended a special ceremony in the Westerkerk cathedral to mark the anniversary. A highlight of the ceremony, according to the museum’s website, was a presentation of the Online Secret Annexe, ‘which allows people all over the world to make a virtual visit to the hiding place of Anne Frank and those who sheltered there with her’. Before the ceremony, Queen Beatrix visited the museum and opened a new ‘diary room’ where all the diaries and other manuscripts of Anne Frank will be on display for the first time.

Here are a few excerpts found on the websites of the Anne Frank Center USA and the BBC.

9 October 1942
‘Our many Jewish friends and acquaintances are being taken away in droves. The Gestapo is treating them very roughly and transporting them in cattle cars to Westerbork, the big camp in Drenthe to which they’re sending all the Jews . . . If it’s that bad in Holland, what must it be like in those faraway and uncivilized places where the Germans are sending them? We assume that most of them are being murdered. The English radio says they’re being gassed. . . Have you ever heard the term ‘hostages’? That’s the latest punishment for saboteurs. It’s the most horrible thing you can imagine. Leading citizens - innocent people - are taken prisoner to await their execution. If the Gestapo can’t find the saboteur, they simply grab five hostages and line them up against the wall. You read the announcements of their death in the paper, where they’re referred to as ‘fatal accidents’.

13 January 1943
‘At any time of night and day, poor helpless people are being dragged out of their homes. They’re allowed to take only a rucksack and a little cash with them, and even then, they are robbed of these possessions on the way. Families are torn apart; men, women, and children are separated. Children come home from school to find their parents have disappeared. Women return from shopping to find their houses sealed and their families gone. The Christians in Holland are also living in fear because their sons are being sent to Germany. Everyone is scared.’

3 February 1944
‘I’ve reached the point where I hardly care whether I live or die. The world will keep on turning without me, and I can’t do anything to change events anyway. I’ll just let matters take their course and concentrate on studying and hope that everything will be all right in the end.’

15 July 1944
‘It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. . . It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.’