Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Notes to myself

‘I will be what I will be - and I am now what I am. Here is where I will devote my energy. My power is with me, not with tomorrow.’ So wrote Hugh Prather, who has just died, in his so-called diary, published as Notes to Myself some 40 years ago. The book, which has now sold over 5 million copies, is said to have inspired many to keep similar diaries.

Prather was born in early 1938 in Dallas, Texas, into a fairly oddball family - his father married four times, and his mother three times, providing him with a host of disfunctional step-parents, including one who was a murderer, and another who was an embezzler! Prather studied English at Southern Methodist University before doing some graduate work in psychology at University of Texas.

After his first marriage ended in divorce (with one child), Prather married, in 1965, Gayle Halligan with whom he had two further children. When, as Prather says, the flower children lost their way, and the ideal that all people should be allowed to do their own thing ‘deteriorated into angry, judgemental riots’, he and Gayle took a job on a ranch in Colorado, where Prather cleaned out Beaver dams and Gayle cleaned cabins.

Having been an aspiring poet and writer for several years, there, on the ranch, he decided to collect together the notes from what he called his diary - existential musings - and send them off to a small publisher. It was a life-changing decision. Real People Press, a husband and wife team that had only published three other books, decided to gamble on Prather’s journal calling it Notes to Myself. It soon became a word-of-mouth success, and before long The New York Times was calling Prather ‘an American Khalil Gibran’. Bantam published a 20th anniversary edition in 1990, which is still in print, and the book has to date sold over 5 million copies.

Thereafter, Prather wrote many other, what are now called, self-help books, often collaborating with his wife: The Little Book of Letting Go, How to Live in the World and Still Be Happy, I Will Never Leave You: How Couples Can Achieve The Power Of Lasting Love, and so on. The couple also ran relationship seminars, and did relationship counselling. For a while they ran The Dispensable Church, in Santa Fe, combining elements of various religions; and later Prather became a lay minister for a United Methodist church. Prather died on 15 November, in a hot tub and from a heart attack, according to his wife.

There is not very much biographical information on the internet about Prather: Wikipedia’s article is all too brief, but The New York Times has an informative obituary (as do other US newspaper). He is not much remembered in the UK, where no newspaper seems to have afforded him an obituary.

Notes to Myself has been labelled a diary or journal, and may well have inspired many to keep diaries. The Washington Post says ‘thousands of people became diarists and started examining their own lives after Mr Prather’s public introspection’. However, it is clearly not a diary in the usual sense of the word, there are no dates attached to any of the entries, nor are any of the entries at all about Prather’s daily life, instead they are all aphoristic (to borrow the descriptive adjective from The New York Times).

Brief extracts from Notes to Myself and other Prather books can be found on quotation websites, such as Famous Quotes and Authors.

‘Another day to listen and love and walk and glory. I am here for another day. I think of those who aren’t.’

‘When I get to where I can enjoy just lying on the rug picking up lint balls, I will no longer be too ambitious.’

‘I'm holding this cat in my arms so it can sleep, and what more is there.’

However, some of Notes to Myself can be browsed at Googlebooks.

Prather says, in his introduction to the 20th anniversary edition: ‘Notes to Myself is the journal of a young man whose personality is yet unformed and whose approach is yet untested. I was plagued with questions of career, sexual expression, feelings of inadequacy, and especially a longing to know oneness with Gayle and all others. . . Notes to Myself was essentially a stack of yellow sheets (which I called my diary) where I went to sort things out, where I put down my pains and problems, and my very deep longing to break through to some truth.’

Here are two further extracts from the book.

‘My prayer is: I will be what I will be, I will do what I will do.

All I want to do, need to to, is stay in rhythm with myself. All I want is to do what I do and not try to do what I don’t do. Just do what I do. Just keep pace with myself. Just be what I will be.

I will be what I will be - and I am now what I am. Here is where I will devote my energy. My power is with me, not with tomorrow. I will work in rhythm with myself, not what what I “should” be. And to work in rhythm with myself I must stay deeply connected to myself. Tomorrow is shallow, but today is as deep as truth.

God revealed his name to Moses, and it was I AM WHAT I AM.’


‘There is a part of me that wants to write, a part that wants to theorize, a part that wants to sculpt, a part that wants to teach. . . To force myself into a single role, to decide to be just one thing in life, would kill off large parts of me.

My career will form behind me. All I can do is let this day come to me in peace. All I can do is take the step before me now, and not fear repeating an effort or making a new one.’

Saturday, November 20, 2010

I have been indolent

‘This is the second day when I have been indolent and failed to carry out all that I had set myself. Why so? I do not know. However, I must not despair: I will force myself to be active.’ This is the great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, who died a century ago today. Though best known for his novels, such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he was a diarist of some distinction too. His earliest diary entries reveal a very self-analytical man, intent on pressing himself to be productive, and chastising himself when failing in his endeavours - even, for example, about the very act of writing a diary.

Tolstoy was born at Yasnya Polyana, in Tula Province, Russia, in 1828. The youngest of four sons, he was orphaned at the age of nine and subsequently brought up by one aunt and then another, both of whom lived in high society. He was educated by tutors, and then at Kazan University, although he dropped out to join his brother in the army. He served as a second lieutenant during the Crimean War, and the experience led not only to the publication of his Sevastapol Sketches but to a lifelong belief in pacifism.

After leaving the army in 1856, Tolstoy spent some time in St Petersburg, where he became increasingly interested in education. He also travelled to Europe, visiting schools in France and Germany for example. And then, on his return to Yasnya Polyana, he set up a progressive school for peasant children. In 1862, he married Sofia Andreyevna Bers who was only 18. Subsequently, Tolstoy seems to have given up his educational activities to concentrate on family life (he had a very large family) and his writing.

Tostoy’s great novels - War and Peace and Anna Karenina - were written in the 1860s and 1870s respectively. In 1876, Tolstoy underwent a spiritual conversion; and issues of social reform then underpinned his later plays and novels. The conversion also affected the way of his life. He dressed in homespun clothes, ate only vegetables, renounced alcohol and tobacco, and did manual work. He became increasingly difficult and unhappy, and, in the last days of his life, left home in the middle of winter in search of a simpler life, only to die at a railway station - 100 years ago today on 20 November 1910. Further biographical information can be found at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Wikipedia or Encyclopedia.com. The Diary Junction has various diary-related links.

Diaries were a way of life for Tolstoy, and indeed for his family. Jay Parini, writing recently for The Guardian, about a new edition of Sofia Tolstoy’s diaries, makes this modern analogy: ‘For Leo Tolstoy and his extended household, diaries were an early version of Facebook. Everyone had his or her own page, and most people were fanatical recorders of their own feelings. The great man himself kept voluminous diaries, making entries almost to the day of his death. His doctor, his secretary, his disciples, his children, and - most of all - his wife also kept journals. Of these, the greatest diarist of them all was Sofia, the Countess Tolstoy.’ Indeed, Parini makes a very similar comment for The Times, in an article about his novel, The Last Station, based on Tolstoy’s last days and sourced from the family’s diaries, and how it was finally released as a film earlier this year.

A first and early collection of Tolstoy’s diary entries - The Diaries of Leo Tolstoy - Youth 1847-1852 were translated by C J Hogarth and A Sirnis and published by J M Dent (London) and E P Dutton (New York) in 1917. And, in the same year, Knopf (New York) published The Journal of Leo Tolstoi (1895-1899). It was not until the 1980s, that Athlone Press published a more definitive edition in two volumes - Tolstoy’s Diaries - edited and translated by R F Christian. The first volume covered the years 1847-1894, and volume two the years 1895-1910. They have recently been re-issued by Faber Finds.

Here, though, are several extracts from the very beginning of the early diaries, when Tolstoy was still in his young 20s. (In the extracts about his planning for the following day, the dates seem to be a bit mixed up, but the sense of his intent is clear, as is his disappointment at being so indolent.)

June 14th, 1850, Yasnaya Polyana.‘Again I betake myself to my diary - again, and with fresh ardour and a fresh purpose. But for the what-th time ? I do not remember. Nevertheless, even if I cast it aside again, a diary will be a pleasant occupation, and agreeable in the re-reading, even as are former diaries.

So many thoughts enter my head, and some of them appear very remarkable; they need but to be scrutinized to issue as nonsense. A few, however, are sensible, and it is for their sake that a diary is required, since a diary enables one to judge of oneself.

Also the fact that I find it necessary to determine my occupations beforehand renders a diary additionally indispensable. Indeed, I should like to acquire a habit of predetermining my form of life not merely for a day, but for a year, several years, the whole of the rest of my existence. This, however, will be too difficult for me, almost impossible. Nevertheless I will make the attempt - at first for a day in advance, then for two. In fact, as many days as I may remain loyal to my resolutions, for so many days will I plan beforehand.

By resolutions I mean, not moral rules independent of time and place, rules which never change and which I compile separately, but resolutions temporal and local, rules as to where and for how long I will abide, and when and wherewithal I will employ myself.

There may arise occasions when these resolutions may need to be altered; but if so, I will permit myself to make deviations only in accordance with rule, and, on all such occasions, explain their causes in this diary.

For June 15th. From 9 to 10, bathing and a walk; from 10 to 12, music; from 6 to 8, letters; from 8 to 10, estate affairs and office.

At times the three years past which I have spent so loosely seem to me engaging, poetical, and, to a certain extent, useful: wherefore I will try frankly, and in as much detail as possible, to recall and record them. This will constitute a third purpose for a diary.’

15 June 1850
‘Yesterday I carried out all that I had set myself.

For June 15th. From 4.30 to 6, out in the fields, estate affairs, and bathing; from 6 to 8, continuation of my diary; from 8 to 10, a method of music; from 10 to 12, the piano; from 12 to 6, luncheon, a rest, and dinner; from 6 to 8, rules and reading; from 8 to 10, a bath and estate affairs.’

16 June 1850
‘Yesterday I carried out badly what I had set myself; but why I will explain later. For June 16th. From 5.30 to 7, to bathe and be afield; 7-10, the diary; 10-12, play; 12-6, luncheon, a rest and dinner; 6-8, write on music; from 8 to 10, estate management.

For June 16th. From 5.30 to 7, to bathe and be afield; 7-10, the diary; 10-12, play; 12-6, luncheon, a rest and dinner; 6-8, write on music; from 8 to 10, estate management.’

17 June 1850
‘Rising at 8 o’clock, I did nothing until 10. From 10 to 12 I read and posted my diary; from 12 to 6 I had luncheon and a rest - then reflected on music, and dined; 6-8, music; 8-10, estate affairs. This is the second day when I have been indolent and failed to carry out all that I had set myself. Why so? I do not know. However, I must not despair: I will force myself to be active. Yesterday, in addition to leaving undone what I had set myself, I betrayed my rule.

I have noticed that when I am in an apathetic frame of mind a philosophical work never fails to rouse me to activity. At the moment I am reading Montesquieu. I think that I grow indolent because I have undertaken too much, and keep feeling that I cannot advance from one occupation to another so long as the first one be undone. Yet, not to excuse myself on the score of having omitted to frame a system, I will enter in my diary a few general rules, with a few relating to music and estate management. One of my general rules: That which one has set oneself to do, one should not relinquish on the ground of absence of mindlor distraction, hut, on the contrary, take in hand for the sake of appearances. Thoughts will then result. For example, if one shall have planned to write out rules, one should take one’s notebook, sit down to the table, and not rise thence till one has both begun and finished one’s task.’

8 December 1850
‘Moscow. I kept this diary only for five days. Now it is five months since last I took it into my hands!

However, let me try to remember what I have done meanwhile, and why I evidently wearied of my then pursuits. During the past period a quiet life in the country has wrought in me a great revolution : my old follies, my old need to interest myself in affairs, have shed their fruit, and I have ceased to frame castles in Spain, and plans which no human capacity could execute. Above all - and it is a conviction most favourable to me - stands the fact that I no longer place reliance upon my own judgment alone, I no longer despise the forms generally accepted of mankind. There was a time when everything ordinary seemed to me unworthy of my notice : whereas now I accept as good and true but few convictions which I have not seen applied and practised by many. It is strange that I should have despised that which constitutes man’s greatest asset, his power of comprehending the convictions of others, and observing in practical execution those convictions! And it is strange that I should have given rein to my judgment without in the least verifying or applying that judgment! In a word, and to put it very simply, I have now come to my senses, I am grown a little older.’

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Very beautiful things

Eric Gill, one of the great British artist-craftsmen of the 20th century, died 70 years ago today. Much revered in his lifetime and afterwards, his reputation took a dive in the late 1980s when Fiona MacCarthy published her biography, Eric Gill. In this, she established - largely because of access to his private diaries - that despite his religious devotion, he had lived a very perverse family and sexual life, one that would have seen him in prison in today’s society. The revelations sparked a controversy, which hasn’t yet abated, over whether an artist’s private life should affect the assessment of his/her art. MacCarthy herself believes the controversy has left Gill’s artistic reputation strengthened, but a hard-line Catholic website, which has made some of the diary quotes, used by MacCarthy, available online, calls Gill a ‘filthy creature’.
Gill was born in 1882 in Brighton, Sussex, and studied at Chichester Technical and Art School. In 1900, he moved to London to train as an architect but took evening classes in stone masonry and calligraphy, and eventually gave up his architectural training to become a calligrapher and monumental mason. In 1904, he married Ethel Hester Moore (later called Mary), and three years later they moved to the village of Ditchling a few miles north of Brighton. By 1909, he had turned to figure sculpting, and his first public success came in 1911 with a one-man exhibition of stone carvings in Chelsea. His work was admired by the critic Arthur Clutton-Brock, and was included by Roger Fry in his Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition.

In 1913, Gill and his wife converted to Catholicism, and moved two miles north to Ditchling Common where their property had outbuildings and farming land. Gill became intent on a more basic life, producing food, making clothes, and educating his daughters at home. Other Catholic craft workers were attracted to the place, which evolved into, according to one resident, ‘a fascinating sort of communal early Christianity’. In this period, Gill, together with Hilary Pepler, a writer and poet, founded the St Dominic’s Press, for which Gill not only contributed lettering and wood engravings but also wrote articles on religion and its relationship to the workman and to art.

From 1924, he contributed engravings to the Golden Cockerel Press, producing beautiful handmade limited editions of classic works, which brought him international fame. The same year, he moved his family and several followers to a former Benedictine monastery at Capel-y-ffin in Wales, and set up new workshops. The most influential of Gill’s commissions at Capel-y-ffin, says Fiona MacCarthy in her article for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB), came from the Monotype Corporation. The typefaces designed by Gill for Monotype - Perpetua, Gill Sans-serif, and Solus - remain ‘his greatest achievement’, she says; and Gill Sans-serif can be considered ‘the first truly modern typeface’ which had a lasting impact on 20th century European type design.

Tired of Capel-y-ffin, Gill moved once again, in 1928, this time to Pigotts near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, where he set up new ventures including a printing press. In the years to follow he also worked on large-scale commissions, for the new London Electric Railway headquarters, for the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London, and the League of Nations building in Geneva. He also designed the background to the first George VI definitive stamp series for the Post Office.

Gill was made a Royal Designer for Industry, the highest British award for designers, by the Royal Society of Arts; and he was a founder-member of the newly established Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry. He died from lung cancer (he had been an inveterate smoker) on 17 November 1940. Further information can be found from Wikipedia, Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft or The National Archives.

Gill’s towering reputation as an artist - he has been called ‘perhaps the greatest English artist-craftsman of the twentieth century’ - took a blow in 1989, when Faber & Faber published Fiona MacCarthy’s biography, Eric Gill. What MacCarthy did, which no earlier biographer had done, was to take a closer look at Gill’s personal life without avoiding the difficult area of sex. She established - thanks to Gill’s unpublished diaries held at the University of California - that he had a voracious sexual appetite, and that despite being happily married most of the time to Mary, he had been a persistent adulterer, had committed incest with his underage daughters, and with his sister, and that he had even experimented sexually with animals.

Since these revelations, there has been an ongoing debate over the implications for the man as an artist, see a BBC article from 2007, entitled Can the art of a paedophile be celebrated? MacCarthy herself can often be found writing on the subject, but her conclusion (see Written in stone, The Guardian, 2006) is this: ‘What is striking is that once the immediate commotion over Gill’s sexual aberrations had died down, there was a new surge of interest in his work.’ And this is what she concludes in the DNB article: ‘After the initial shock, especially within the Roman Catholic community, as Gill’s history of adulteries, incest, and experimental connection with his dog became public knowledge in the late 1980s, the consequent reassessment of his life and art left his artistic reputation strengthened. Gill emerged as one of the twentieth century’s strangest and most original controversialists, a sometimes infuriating, always arresting spokesman for man’s continuing need of God in an increasingly materialistic civilization, and for intellectual vigour in an age of encroaching triviality.’

A very different view is taken by Tradition In Action, a hard-line Catholic website which says it works for ‘a restoration of Christian civilization, adapted to contemporary historical circumstances’. Patrick Odou has written on Gill for the website with academic precision. He has double-checked all MacCarthy’s diary quotes (and made them available online adding dates, in some cases, which do not appear in the printed biography) and concludes: ‘Now, after studying Eric Gill, I see that Catholics are also being advised to stomach the terrible morals of a pornographic and blasphemous author. It is incomprehensible that any Catholic would suggest lending an ear to such a filthy creature.’

Away from the controversy over Gill’s sex life, there is some more information about his diaries online at a website for St Wilfrid’s Church, Bognor Regis. A page is devoted to Gill and the stone carvings he did for another Bognor church, St John’s Church, demolished in the early 1970s. Peter Green and John Hawkins, authors of the article, explain how they confirmed Gill’s work on the church by laboriously trawling through the copies of his diaries kept at the Tate Gallery Archive in London.

In her biography, MacCarthy describes how Gill began keeping a diary, aged 15 just a few months after enrolling at art school, and how the first entries set a pattern for the rest of his life: ‘They are tight, straightforward, almost obsessively methodical records of events, details of expenditure, itemizations of work done and to be charged for. They are almost wholly factual. Few views, no flights of fancy.’ She draws on direct or indirect quotes from Gill’s diaries more than a score of times, but it is the references to his sexual activity that really stand out. MacCarthy notes, for example, how Gill’s own need for, or at least his enjoyment of, two women on the premises, sometimes both in the same day or night, ‘comes over graphically in his diary entries with their sexual sign language: one x for Mary, xx for May.’
Here are some of the entries quoted by MacCarthy in Eric Gill (though, a few of the dates have been sourced from the Tradition In Action website).

18 August 1922
‘Began drawing of fucking for Fr. J.O’C [Father John O’Connor, MacCarthy explains, was a parish priest, a mentor for Gill and Peplar, who was always a good confidant for Gill. He once said, she writes, ‘Gill saw things and persons in the nude, and it was a tendency he shared.]

23 August 1922
‘Finished fucking drawings and diagrams for Fr. O’C.’

30 November 1925
‘Bath after supper and dancing (nude). R & M fucked one another, after, M. holding me the while.’

22 June 1927
‘A man’s penis and balls are very beautiful things and the power to see this beauty is not confined to the opposite sex. The shape of the head of a man’s erect penis is very excellent in the mouth. There is no doubt about this. I have often wondered - now I know.’

1 November 1929
‘Bath and slept with Gladys [Gill’s sister].’

8 December 1929
‘Expt. with dog in eve’

13 December 1929
‘Bath. Continued experiment with dog after and discovered that a dog will join with a man.’

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Storm of Steel

The First World War diaries of Ernst Jünger, a German soldier who became a revered literary figure, have just been published for the first time. The diaries are of historical significance because they were the source material for Jünger’s first book - Storm of Steel - which became famous as a right-wing tract in favour of war, much favoured by the Nazis, even though he himself did not support Hitler’s regime. Throughout his long life - he lived to be 102 - he refused to allow the original diaries to be made public.

Jünger was born in Heidelberg in 1895 to a middle class family, the son of a pharmacist. He was brought up in Hannover; but, when still a teenager, he ran away to join the French Foreign Legion, and served briefly in North Africa. During World War I he joined the Imperial German Army on the Western Front, where he distinguished himself: he was awarded an Iron Cross, and then Prussia’s highest military decoration, the Pour le Mérite (Blue Max).

Soon after the end of the war, Jünger self-published In Stahlgewittern (Storm of Steel) which argued that Germany’s tribulations in the war were a prelude to rebirth and victory. Thereafter, he studied philosophy and natural sciences at the universities of Leipzig and Naples and became a well-known entomologist. In 1925, he married Gretha von Jeinsen and they had two children. In the 1920s, Jünger continued to publish right-wing ideas, though it was largely thanks to In Stahlgewittern that he became something of a hero to the Nazis. Nevertheless, he remained ambivalent towards the fascist regime, not criticising it, but not joining the National Socialists either. Moreover, he refused important academic appointments offered him following the Nazi Party’s ascension to power.

Jünger lived in Berlin from 1927 until 1933, when the Gestapo searched his house. In 1939, he published Auf den Marmorklippen (On the Marble Cliffs) an allegory critical of the situation in Hitler’s Germany. During the Second World War, he served as army captain, and was assigned an administrative position in Paris. Though not directly connected with the plot by fellow officers to kill Hitler, he is considered to have been an inspiration to the Prussian anti-Nazi conservatives in the German army who carried out the plot.

After the war, Jünger was banned from publishing in Germany for several years by the British occupying forces - for not resisting the Nazi regime enough. He was, however, rehabilitated by the 1950s, and went on to become a towering figure of German literature, producing innovative fiction such as Gläserne Bienen (The Glass Bees), a forerunner of the magical realism style. The publisher Klett first issued his collected works in ten volumes in 1965.

Jünger lived to be over 100 years old, and died in 1998. Further biographical information is widely available, from Wikipedia, and Spartacus Educational, for example, as well as from obituaries online at The Independent and The New York Times.

In the 1940s, according to Wikipedia, Jünger published various volumes of his diaries. His early time in France is described in the diary Gärten und Straßen (Gardens and Streets); and his diaries from 1939 to 1949 were published under the title Strahlungen (Reflections). In 1993, the Journal of European Studies published A Certain Idea of France: Ernst Junger’s Paris Diaries 1941-44 by Richard Griffiths.

However, it is Jünger’s diaries written during the First World War which are the most famous. This is because his first book, the famous Storm of Steel is based on those diaries. The original English version - translated by Basil Creighton and published in 1929 by Chatto & Windus - was subtitled ‘from the diary of a German Storm-Troop officer on the Western Front’. Jünger, throughout his life, however, refused to make public those diaries, and it is only very recently that his widow, Liselotte Lohrer (who has since died), gave permission for them to be published.

Dr John King who did his doctoral thesis on the German writer, looked carefully at the diaries. King says this, for example: ‘Jünger used the diaries to support two different public personae. On the one hand, he used them to guarantee the authenticity of his war books. But, faced with the increased critical interest in his work after 1945, Jünger adamantly refused to allow access to them.’

Now, though, the original First World War diaries have been published, in Germany as Kriegstagebuch 1914-1918, and will be published next year in English as War Diary - 1914-1918. Meanwhile, the German magazine Der Spiegel has just made a few extracts from the new book available on its English-language website. ‘I am not aware of any comparable diary, either in German, French or English, that describes the war in such detail and over such a long period,’ Jünger’s biographer Helmuth Kiesel, who arranged its transcription and publication, told Der Spiegel. ‘All other diaries are usually far shorter and span just a few weeks or months.’ Here are a few of extracts from Der Spiegel.

1 July 1916
Monchy, near Arras: ‘In the morning I went to the village church where the dead were kept. Today there were 39 simple wooden boxes and large pools of blood had seeped from almost every one of them, it was a horrifying sight in the emptied church.’

26 August 1916
Guillemont, Somme region, northeastern France: ‘In front of my hole lies an Englishman who fell there yesterday. He is fat and bloated and has his full pack on and is covered in thousands of steel blue flies.’

28 August 1916
‘This area was meadows and forests and cornfields just a short time ago. There’s nothing left of it, nothing at all. Literally not a blade of grass, not a tiny blade. Every millimeter of earth has been churned up and churned again, the trees uprooted and torn apart and ground to sludge. The houses shot to pieces, the bricks crushed into powder. The railway tracks turned into spirals, hills flattened, everything turned to desert. And everything full of corpses who have been turned over a hundred times. Whole lines of soldiers are lying in front of the positions, our passages are filled with corpses lying over each other in layers.’

3 September 1916
‘I have witnessed much in this greatest war but the goal of my war experience, the storming attack and the clash of infantry, has been denied me so far (. . .) Let this wound heal and let me get back out, my nerves haven’t had enough yet!’

22 March 1918
‘. . . there was a bang and he fell covered in blood with a shot to the head. He collapsed into his corner of the trench and remained there with his head against the wall of the trench, in a crouching position. His snoring death rattle came at lengthening intervals until it stopped altogether. During the final twitches he passed water. I crouched next to him and registered these events impassively.’

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In this dirty war

‘They screamed and shouted, begging us not to kill them because they had family and kids back home. So what? As if, by contrast, we’d come from an orphanage into this shithole. We executed them all.’ This is one extract of several written by a Russian special forces officer active in the war against Chechnya and very recently published by The Sunday Times. Although the newspaper is now a pay-to-view website, several other organisations, not least The New York Times, have picked up the story, and made some of the extracts freely available online.

According to WaYNaKH online, an English-language Chechen website, the war in Chechnya has been ‘one of the world’s most brutal conflicts’. The Russians, it claims, abducted, tortured and executed suspected militants in extra-judicial killings - brazenly violating Russian and international law. Up to 200,000 Chechen people mostly civilians, it says, are thought to have died in the two periods of Russian occupation, the first of which began in 1994; and at least 5,000 Chechens simply disappeared. These wars were hidden from view, it adds, with access being severely restricted, especially on the Russian side where the most controversial, dangerous and secret work was carried out by the Spetsnaz - Russia’s elite special-forces units.

Indeed, The New York Times (NYT) accepts that Chechnya has seen some of the most severe forms of political violence of our time (but on both sides), much of which has been documented by human-rights investigators and a small number of journalists (one of these, Anna Politkovskaya, who kept a diary, was murdered in 2006). However, the NYT amplifies, accounts of participants have been few and far between. All the more valuable and extraordinary, then, is this new first-hand diary account published by The Sunday Times magazine on 31 October.

The diary extracts, penned by a senior Spetsnaz officer at the height of the Second Chechen War, in the years 2000-2004, appeared first in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Mark Franchetti, The Sunday Times’ Moscow correspondent since 1997, then translated the text into English for his article entitled, The War in Chechnya: Diary of a Killer. The NYT says the diary ‘offers a front-line account of characteristic forms of Russian-Chechen campaigns - roundups, torture, extrajudicial executions of detained rebels and the almost casual killing of civilians who happen to be in the way. It also captures some of the frantic energy and sorrow of firefights. . . The result is a portrait of confused dehumanization, of both relishing in fighting and agonizing over the results.’

Here are two extracts quoted by The New York Times:

‘We got hit from two sides crossing a settlement. Our commander told us to move faster, but we got hit anyway. We moved on, taking cover behind a row of houses, and could hear a firefight just ahead. Suddenly, my eye caught some shadows, one behind a window, the other at the entrance of a basement. I lobbed a hand grenade into the cellar, and sprayed the window with machine gun fire. When we walked up to check on the outcome we found two bodies, an old man and woman. Bad luck.’

‘Counterintelligence got wind of a group of female suicide bombers. We stormed their safe house and nabbed three women. One was in her forties, the others were young – one barely 15. They were drugged and kept smiling at us. The three were interrogated back at the base. At first, the elder, a recruiter of shahidkas [female suicide bombers], wouldn’t talk. That changed when she was roughed up and given electric shocks. They were then executed and their bodies blown up to get rid of the evidence. So in the end they got what they’d craved.’

More about the diary can be found at WaYNaKH.com websites. Here are several more quotes, as found on the WaYNaKH website:

‘Off to the scene of a firefight and a powerful blast. An APC had run over an improvised explosive device (IED). Five guys died and four were wounded. We went to look at the dead, laid out on a helicopter landing pad, in silence. The war has become much fiercer. We used to see the enemy and knew who we were firing at. Now, we wait to be shot at.’

‘All around us is treachery. And in this dirty war, of course, it’s the blood of ordinary soldiers, not that of the politicians who started it, that is spilt. They’re even scamming us out of our warzone wages [the bonuses troops are paid for time in battle]. Yet we keep carrying out these stupid orders, and keep coming back for more tours of duty. Each of us has his own reasons.’

‘We were sent to retrieve a heavy machinegun a detained Chechen had left behind during a firefight. We couldn’t find it. Enraged, I beat him up. He fell to his knees and cried, saying he couldn’t remember where he’d thrown the weapon. We tied him to the APC with a rope and dragged him around.’

‘I often think of the future. How much more suffering awaits us? How long can we go on for? What for? Maybe I should think of my own life, start living for my family, my children, my wife, who deserves a memorial for all the pain I’ve put her through. I’m 31. Maybe it’s time to unwind.’

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The turkey we didn’t have

Tommy’s Peace, the second volume of diaries written by Thomas Cairns Livingstone, a Glasgow clerk in the first decades of the 20th century, has just been published by Mainstream Press. Though simply written and brief, the diary entries deliver a strikingly clear portrait of Tommy’s life, with wife, Agnes, often to be found in the wash house, and their son, also called Tommy, who got sick one Christmas because of ‘the turkey we didn’t have.'

Livingstone was born in Glasgow in 1882, and worked in the city as a mercantile clerk. He married Agnes, moved to the Govanhill area of Glasgow, and soon after, in 1913, began keeping a diary, not only writing daily entries, but often illustrating them with skilfully drawn cartoons. He continued with the diary habit for 20 years or so, and intermittently after that until his wife’s death in 1950. He himself died in 1964. The diaries were bought in a house clearance auction by Shaun Sewell, a trader in collectibles. He took them to the Antiques Roadshow, a TV programme during which experts comment on, and value, items brought by the public.

Gordon Wise, a literary agent with Curtis Brown, was watching the programme, according to an article in The Guardian, and noted Livingstone’s beautiful handwriting, and how the illustrations reminded him of The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, a publishing hit in the 1980s. He soon stoked up interest among publishers for the Livingstone diaries, and Harper Collins won an auction for the rights. A first volume covering the years 1913-1918 - Tommy’s War - was edited by Glasgow historian Ronnie Scott and published in 2008. Now, Mainstream Publishing has brought out a sequel, also edited by Scott, with diary entries from 1919 to 1933, and a few from 1950.

Curtis Brown says: ‘Alongside engaging, warm-hearted recollections of everyday life with his wide circle of family, neighbours and friends, Thomas documents everything from the lingering effects of the war and post-war politics to cultural and social aspects of the era, including the rise of cinema and radio, the standard of dentists and opticians before the NHS, the partition of Ireland, the General Strike, the division of domestic labour, Clyde coastal holidays and the expansion of Glasgow. Yet, above all, Thomas affectionately chronicles family life with his hard-working wife, Agnes, and writes with pride of his clever young son, Tommy.’

The new volume - Tommy’s Peace - begins with a preface by the diary finder/owner, Shaun Sewell. Unfortunately, this is poorly written/edited. ‘The war had finally ended’, it begins, but then focuses too much on the first and earlier volume, not least with a sentence that makes no sense at all. Then there’s this bizarre comment, ‘Thomas centred his diary upon his own son, Tommy, who proved to be well worth the ink and paper.’ Moreover, Sewell seems intent on moralising: ‘Perhaps we should all be a bit more like Thomas in these testing times.’

The book is richly illustrated with Livingstone’s sketches - such as one of Tommy looking at his new stamp album - as well as some contemporaneous photographs. Apart from many useful annotations, Scott also includes several brief essays designed to give relevant historical and cultural contexts. Although the diary entries themselves are always short and repetitive, they are often amusing, and build-up to provide a colourful and clear picture of life in the Livingstone household. Here is that household at Christmas time, 90 years ago.

16 December 1920
‘Anticipated Christmas tonight by presenting Tommy with a stamp album. I polished the room brass work. Agnes busy about the room.’

17 December 1920
‘Isa here when I got home at tea time. I was pleased to see her so far recovered. Tommy went himself to the barber today. I also went all by myself. Tommy walloped into his stamp album at night.’

20 December 1920
‘Agnes in the washing house all day, and it rained, and it rained, and it rained, and it rained, and it RAINED. Likewise, it was very cold. Not a good ‘drying day’, in washerwife talk. Unemployment getting very serious. Bread a farthing down today. Hallelujah!’

22 December 1920
‘Agnes still walloping about the room. I helped a little, a very little. Brought home a half bottle of the best. We had a small raffle in the office. I won.’

23 December 1920
‘Took a run up to the Mossmans, and on my way back dropped into Greenlodge. Isa keeping well, and at her work. Got home at 11.25 p.m. Addressed a few cards then.’

24 December 1920
‘Sent all our kind friends little messages of love today. This is Christmas Eve. Agnes gave me my tobacco for nothing. Isa phoned me today that Josephine’s shop had been broken into during the night and about £50 worth of goods stolen. She could not say if the place was insured. A serious loss indeed. Agnes finished the cleaning tonight. At least, I think it is finished.’

25 December 1920
‘Wishing you a merry Christmas. I have a whole holiday today. Took a walk over to Greenlodge in the forenoon to see what further news there was of the burglary. Nothing fresh. Had a look in at People’s Palace on way home. Had my usual Xmas dinner, then spent the afternoon taking in Xmas presents (maybe). Our total collection: two cards. We did not go to the pantomime this Xmas.’

26 December 1920
‘Went to church this morning, after my usual manner. Agnes got a touch of the cold and is a little fatigued after her labours, so she did not go out. After dinner I took a walk round the town. Tommy at Sunday School. Gave the clocks their final wind-up of the year.’

27 December 1920
‘We got a few more cards. We all went to the Majestic at night, seeing this is Boxing Day. Tommy troubled with a certain looseness of the bowels. It will be the turkey we didn’t have.’

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

GBS dines out

It’s sixty years to the day since the death of the great Irish playwright and social commentator, George Bernard Shaw, often called just GBS. He was a prolific and famous writer in his day, a celebrity in fact, and remains the only person to have been awarded a Nobel Prize (for Literature) and an Oscar (for the screen adaptation of his play Pygmalion). For a decade or so, when a young man, Shaw kept diaries, though they were lost for many years, and not published until the 1980s. A few extracts - that focus on his vegetarianism, and on the poet Shelley, a vegetarian hero of his - can be found online.

Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856, the son of a civil servant. He had a haphazard education, but remained in Dublin after his mother had moved to London, and worked in an estate office. However, in 1876, he too moved to London to join his mother’s household, which provided him with enough money to live without working while he tried to become a writer. He wrote novels, which weren’t published, and ghosted a music column, before becoming more successful with his journalism, especially for Pall Mall Gazette. By the early 1880s, he had become a committed socialist, and was a charter member of the Fabian Society, formed to promote socialism, and a founder member of the London School of Economics.

Influenced by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, whose realist theatre shocked Victorian society, Shaw turned his attention to plays, the first of which were produced in the 1890s, plays such as Mrs Warren’s Profession, Arms and the Man and Candida. By the end of the decade, he had established himself as a leading playwright. He had also married, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, an Irish heiress and fellow Fabian. In 1906 they moved into a house, now called Shaw’s Corner, in Ayot St Lawrence, a small village in Hertfordshire, where they lived for the rest of their lives.

Many significant plays followed in the period before the First World War - including Major Barbara, The Doctor’s Dilemma, and Pygmalion - usually dealing with political, social or moral issues and almost always full of comedy and or verbal wit. And after the war, Shaw’s status as a playwright continued to grow with plays such as Heartbreak House, Back to Methuselah, and The Apple Cart. In 1925 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature; and in 1939 he won an Academy Award for adapting Pygmalion for a 1938 film screenplay directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard.

Although some of his later plays were overwrought with discussion and argument to the detriment of the drama, he remained a household name and public figure through to his 90s and his death on 2 November 1950 - sixty years ago today. For more biographical information see Wikipedia, British Library or the Nobel Prize or Spartacus Educational websites.

Between 1885 and 1897, Shaw kept a journal writing about his day-to-day life in brief and in a style of shorthand. However, these diaries were lost in his lifetime, and only resurfaced after the war in a bombed warehouse. Then, in the years before his death, they were partially transcribed by his long-time secretary, Blanche Patch. Thereafter, others were involved in the same task until Stanley Weintraub, one of the leading scholars on Shaw, completed, what Penn State University Press described as, the ‘definitive transcription of the Shavian shorthand, complete to the last ha’penny noted’. This was published by PSU Press in the mid-1980s, in two volumes with extensive annotations by Weintraub, as Bernard Shaw - The Diaries.

In the diaries, according to the PSU Press blurb: ‘We not only meet Shaw striving daily to make something of himself; we also encounter the people on the fringes as well as within the vortex of radical politics in late Victorian England. . . We also learn what it costs to buy a newspaper, get a haircut, ride the Underground [etc. and] about Shaw’s bedtimes (accompanied and unaccompanied), mealtimes (hasty and vegetarian, with only breakfasts at home), and his crowded life of conflicting appointments and activities often so overlapping as to cause him to miss many of them.’

An extensive collection of very brief (and doubly annotated!) extracts from the diaries can be found on the website of the International Vegetarian Union (IVU), which says this: ‘There were almost daily references to restaurants visited, showing that Shaw seems to have had no problem finding vegetarian food in London, where there were dozens of vegetarian restaurants - his only real problems were in Germany and Italy. He made very frequent visits to several vegetarian restaurants, detailed below, and to many other restaurants and cafes of varying quality, but never any mention of any problems with them.’

Here are a few extracts, which either focus on vegetarianism or on Shaw’s love of Shelley, who was also vegetarian. The first extract is as found on the IVU website (i.e with lots of annotations, some from the book, and some additional ones). The others are also from the IVU website, but without many of the annotations.

19 July 1885
‘Sunday. Joynes’s at Tilford. (9.5 train from Waterloo. - With the Salt’s and Joynes at Tilford. Bathed, tricycled, walked, played, sang and back at Waterloo at 21.45. (Henry Stephens Salt, ex-master of Eton, socialist, vegetarian, founder of the Humanitarian League, biographer of Thoreau [though most of that came a lot later] His attractive but lesbian wife Catherine, a sister of James Leigh Joynes, acted as occasional unpaid secretary for Shaw and enjoyed playing pianoforte duets with him on the Salt grand on his visits to Tilford.) [this is the first mention of Salt in the diaries, but it implies that they already knew each other well.]

6 July 1886
‘Cocoa etc. at Orange Grove’

10 February 1888
‘I unexpectedly made a row by objecting to a smoking concert.’ [Most vegetarians were anti-tobacco.]

6 November 1888
‘When I got to Birmingham I went to a vegetarian restaurant in Paradise St. and dined.’

13 March 1889
‘Read a paper on ‘Shelley’s Politics’ to the Shelley Society, at University College. . . worked all afternoon at the Shelley lecture. There were only half a dozen people there.’

10 January 1891
‘. . . we dined at the Porridge Bowl together.’

27 January 1891
‘. . . had tea together at the Aerated Bread Shop at the corner of Parliament Square.’

10 February 1892
‘Was commissioned by the Shelley Committee to take a hand in business of getting a cast for the performance of The Cenci.’ [This was to be a private performance of the Shelley play about incest which had been banned from public showing.]

6 August 1892
‘Worked so hard at the article on Shelley for The Albermarle in the train that I felt quite sick during the last 15 minutes of the journey.’

1 July 1893
‘Art and Literature Dinner at the Mansion House. Left the Mansion House with Norman, with whom I walked to Blackfriars. I could not eat; my feelings as a musician and vegetarian were too much for me; and save for some two or three pounds of ice pudding I came away empty.’