Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Huns flew over Hythe

Viking, part of the Penguin group, has just published the diaries of Rodney Foster, who served in the Home Guard during the Second World War. He rose to become a major within the organisation but resigned a few months later. Such journals are very rare since Home Guard personnel were forbidden from keeping diaries. However, contrary to Penguin’s publicity that this is the first Home Guard diary ever discovered, I believe there is at least one other.

Rodney Foster was born in India in 1882 into a British army family. He was educated in England, and then entered the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in 1900. The following year he was commissioned in the British Army and was sent to India, where he served for a time on the North-west Frontier. In 1906, he joined the Survey of India and worked as a surveyor and cartographer.

Foster returned briefly to England in 1910 to marry Phyllis Blaxland, a friend of one of his sisters, and they had one daughter, Daphne. Although he rejoined the Indian Army during the First World War, rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, he stayed with the Survey of India until retiring in 1932, back in England, to Saltwood, near Hythe on the Kent coastline. In 1940 he enrolled in the Home Guard, becoming a major in 1942 with 560 men under his command, though he resigned a few months later, frustrated with the organisation around him. He died in 1962.

These few biographical details can be found in Ronnie Scott’s introduction to a new book from Viking - The Real ‘Dad’s Army’ - The War Diaries of Lt.Col. Rodney Foster. The diaries were discovered, Viking says, in an auction, and were then edited by Ronnie Scott. Also in the introduction, Scott says: ‘Rodney’s diaries offer an invaluable insight into the Home Front during the Second World War. Not only do they detail life on Hellfire Corner [a stretch of the English Channel in the Dover area heavily bombed by the Germans], they clearly depict the inception and development of the Home Guard from the point of view of a serving officer - something that, until now, had never come to light. Home Guard personnel, especially those serving in the areas most vulnerable to invasion, were forbidden from keeping diaries, in case the information in them could be of use or value to the invader. So it is all the more remarkable that such an establishment figure as Rodney should break the regulations in this way.’

Viking makes great play of the link with Dad’s Army, an ever popular BBC TV comedy series first broadcast in 1968. The Dad’s Army of the title was a bumbling Home Guard platoon, located in a fictional town on the south coast of England (i.e. somewhere in the vicinity of Foster’s Home Guard). According to Viking: ‘Writing from the village hall, abandoned barns, churches and makeshift officers’ messes, [Foster] records with a unique wit and wisdom the everyday details of family life during the war: the domestic routine dogged by air raid warnings, the antics of soldiers stationed nearby taking every chance to improve their lot, the quiet strength of a small community faced with great adversity.’ His ‘humanity and care shine through’, Viking adds, ‘proud testament to the spirit that defied the Nazis and won the war.’

Foster’s diary is indeed a substantial document and record, and the Viking book is beautifully produced with lots of illustrations by Foster himself, as well as some relevant photographs. However, Penguin is promoting the book as ‘the first Home Guard diary ever discovered’. It even goes so far as to say that this ‘fact’ has been verified by the Imperial War Museum. But is it a ‘fact’? A diary kept by Charles Graves, a journalist and Home Guard officer, during the war was published as Off the Record by Hutchinson in 1942. There is not much information about this on the internet, but see Abebooks for secondhand copies.

Here are several extracts from The War Diaries of Lt.Col. Rodney Foster.

5 November 1940
‘Frost in the morning and a fine sunny day. Huns came, passing over Folkestone, returning later with our fighters on them. At 10:30 am after a burst of firing I saw one of ours drop from the sky like a falling leaf then recover itself and stagger off to Lympne. At 11:30 am three Huns dived on the two from over Pedlinge and dropped bombs. Two fell on the Ranges, and one hit the quarters of the Quartermaster of the Small Arms School. The next hit and demolished the barricaded side of Nelson’s Bridge over the canal, spattering the small houses nearby with black canal mud, and the last fell on Hospital Hill, Sandgate, killing a Sapper from the section in Hillcrest Road. Shortly after, the rain came down. On my way up to mount the guard I saw the strafing of the French coast in retaliation for the shelling of Dover. It came down in buckets as I left the post and I was wet through. Hillcrest Road was full of lorries, some backing into the Choppings’, and there was great activity all night preparing to move the big gun. If the gun goes we ought to be able to return home. It is not pleasant having to go so far at night and sleep in a cold house.’

9 November 1940
‘A strong south-westerly gale. In morning Captain Fuller drove me up to Saltwood and I walked all over the village distributing greatcoats. About 1 o’clock, two Huns flew over Hythe and dropped (some say ten) bombs on Cheriton. The London Division leaves today and a new Division comes in. The roads everywhere were full of troops and lorries and buses and there were pom-poms [AA guns] out on the ranges, in our allotments and in Sandling guarding against dive-bombers. Alarm 6 pm to 10:30 pm. I again got soaked mounting the guard. Neville Chamberlain died today.’

7 May 1942
‘I was out of bed just after 6 am when a plane roared over our roof and there were two explosions to the west. I saw a black snub-nosed Hun fly over my head. Another flew part to the north. Then I saw a third over Seabrook Road and saw a bomb leave its rack. This fell on the Hythe cricket pitch. The first bomb cut Sandling Park House in half, the other two fell in trees. The siren sounded after it was all over! The Huns did no machine gunning. I was so interested I forgot to tell my family to go to safety.’

Postscript (30 November): Penguin has responded to my point about Foster’s diary not being the first such Home Guard diary by passing on information from Shaun Sewell, who is credited with finding the diary. Sewell says: ‘[The Graves diary] was published in 1942 and can hardly be a diary covering the entire war! I'm guessing [it] is not a day to day account of Home Guard life, perhaps a collection of entries for wartime propaganda. I think that paper was rationed in the war so publications might have been censored and very limited.’

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Xu diary melodrama

Xu Zhimo, a much celebrated Chinese poet, might have been celebrating his 80th birthday today had he not died young in a plane crash. Collections of his romantic poems and essays continue to be published, as do biographies celebrating the romance of his life. By incorporating their lives into their literature, one writer says, he and his friends elevated personal details to the level of artistic and historical importance. Even the fate of Xu’s diaries has been likened to a melodrama.

Xu was born in Haining, Zhejiang, in the far east of China, some 125 km from Shanghai. In 1915, he married Zhang Youyi, and the following year took up law studies. For a few years, he also studied economics and politics in the United States, and in Cambridge, Britain, where, it is said, he fell in love with English romantic poetry. Also in England, he fell in love with the beautiful and talented Lin Huiyin who would soon return to China and become a well-known architect and writer.

By 1922, Xu was also back in China, and had divorced from his first wife (the divorce is considered the first to take place in China). He focused his literary efforts on writing poetry and translating Western romantic forms. He also set up poetry societies, and worked as an editor and professor at several schools. In 1926, he married the third love of his life, Lu Xiaoman. Among his friends was Ling Shuhua, a writer who would have an affair with Virginia Woolf’s nephew, Julian Bell, when he was in China, and enjoy a correspondence with Woolf herself.

On his way to a lecture by Lin Huiyin, Xu died in a plane crash on 19 November 1931, aged but 34. He left behind poems, essays, novels as well as translations, and diaries. Wikipedia has a short biography. Several collections of Xu Zhimo’s work have been published in Chinese, the most recent and most comprehensive came out in 2005 - see Amazon. It was announced that ‘the most precious inclusion in the collection are two of the poet’s diaries, which had been looted by a Japanese soldier during the Japanese invasion of China in the 30s but later returned’.

A story about Xu’s diaries is included in A Thousand Miles of Dreams - the journeys of two Chinese sisters by Sasha Su-Ling Welland published by Rowman and Littlefield. The two sisters of the title are Welland’s grandmother who emigrated to the US and changed her name to Amy, and Ling Shuhua. Here is the paragraph from Welland’s book - partly available at Googlebooks - which explains the story.

‘When Ling Shuhua returned to Beijing for Xu Zhimo’s memorial, she provoked a battle over his ‘Eight Treasures Box’, which contained the diaries, letters and manuscripts he had left with her before departing for Europe in 1925. Although it had changed hands in the intervening years, Shuhua had possession of it when Zhimo died. Hu Shi planned to coordinate the publication of the poet’s selected letters, so Shuhua gave the ‘Eight Treasures Box’ to him, not knowing that he would pass it on to Xu Xhimo’s former lover Lin Huiyin to itemize the contents. On learning this, Shuhua wrote a frantic letter to Hu Shi. She feared that Lin Huiyin might destroy the diaries of Xu Zhimo’s widow Lu Xiaoman, now also in the box and full of curses for Lin. Shuhua defended her qualifications to serve as editor of Xu Zhimo’s writing. Once Lin Huiyin began her job of catologing, she discovered that Shuhua had removed two of Xu Zihmo’s diaries from the time at Cambridge when he met and fell in love with Lin. Hu Shi wrote to Shuhua, guessing that she wanted to write a biography based on the diaries, and criticized her for splitting up the poet’s effects and creating bad feeling among friends. Eventually Shuhua returned the diaries, but several pages remained missing.

The melodrama of this scramble after a box of letters and diaries shows the extent to which this generation of authors saw themselves as actors in an era of momentous change. By incorporating their lives into their literature, they elevated personal details to the level of artistic and historical importance.’

Lomonosov’s legacy

Today marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov, a remarkable Russian remembered for advances in science and achievements in poetry. He must have kept a diary because one extract is quoted widely across the internet, but I can find no source for this extract, nor any further information about his diaries.

Lomonosov was born on 19 November 1711 in the village of Denisovka (now called Lomonosovo) in the far north of Russia. Aged around 10, his father, a fisherman and shipowner, started taking him on trading missions. However, he was far more interested in books than in the sea, and, in his late teens, eventually found his way to Moscow (Encyclopædia Britannica says he went by foot, Boris Menshutkin, author of Lomonosov, Chemist Courtier, Physicist Poet, says he joined a caravan).

Once in Moscow, Lomonosov inveigled his way into the Slavonic-Greek-Latin Academy where he excelled as a student. By 1936, he had been awarded a scholarship to Saint Petersburg state university, and then he won a grant for study at the University of Marburg, in Germany.

Having married in Marburg, but unable to make a good living, Lomonosov returned to Russia in 1741. He was appointed to the physics department at the Russian Academy of Science; however, after insulting colleagues, he was held under house arrest for many months. With apologies behind him, the Academy named him professor of chemistry in 1745, and thereafter he soon established its first chemistry laboratory. A decade later he was instrumental in founding the Moscow State University.

Famously, in 1756, he tried to replicate an experiment undertaken by the English scientist Robert Boyle which had helped support the popular phlogiston theory (which postulated the existence of a fire-like element released during combustion), but concluded that the theory was false. Thus he anticipated the discoveries, 20 years later, of Antoine Lavoisier, one of the discoverers of oxygen and hydrogen, and the first to give a true explanation of combustion.

In support of Lomonosov’s claim to have anticipated Lavoisier, an extract from his diary is widely quoted, on Wikipedia and many other websites: ‘Today I made an experiment in hermetic glass vessels in order to determine whether the mass of metals increases from the action of pure heat. The experiments - of which I append the record in 13 pages - demonstrated that the famous Robert Boyle was deluded, for without access of air from outside the mass of the burnt metal remains the same.’ But nowhere on the internet can I find the source of this extract, nor any other information about Lomonosov’s diaries.

Among Lomonosov’s other scientific achievements are counted an improved design for a reflecting telescope, the first hypothesis on the existence of an atmosphere on Venus, the first recorded freezing of mercury, an explanation on the formation of icebergs, and an early understanding of, what would later turn out to be, the theory of continental drift. On the artistic side, he set up a glass factory to produce the first Russian mosaics, created a grammar that reformed the Russian literary language, and wrote poetry. He died in 1765, still only in his mid-40s. Further biographical information can be found at Russian Poetry Net, Russipedia and Wikipedia.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Livingstone’s invisible writing

A remarkable diary left behind by the famous British explorer and missionary David Livingstone has just been revealed, literally, for the first time - and published on the internet - thanks to a trans-Antlantic team of scholars and scientists. The so-called 1871 Field Diary was written in the run-up to Livingstone’s meeting with the journalist Henry Morton Stanley, and covers a horrific massacre by Arab slave traders.

David Livingstone was born in Blantyre, Scotland, in 1813. He went to work at the local mill aged only 10, which also provided some schooling. In 1836, he began studying medicine and theology in Glasgow, and then decided to become a missionary doctor. In 1840-1841, he was posted to the edge of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. In 1844, he married Mary Moffat, daughter of another missionary; they had six children, one dying in infancy.

During this first 16 year unbroken period in Africa, Livingstone undertook several expeditions north and into the continent’s interior in search of converts. In so doing, he added hugely to Western knowledge of central and southern Africa. On one of his expeditions, starting in 1853 and lasting three years, he discovered some spectacular waterfalls, which he named Victoria Falls. On arriving at the mouth of the Zambezi in 1856, he became the first European to cross the southern width of Africa.

Livingstone returned to Britain that same year, something of a national hero; and subsequently went on speaking tours. He also published his best-selling Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, before heading out to Africa again (arriving in 1858). This time he stayed for five years working on official explorations of eastern and central Africa for the British government. In 1864, though, he was ordered home by the government, dissatisfied with his work. His wife had died some two years earlier.

Back in Britain, Livingstone spoke out against the slave trade, and secured private support for another expedition to central Africa, this time searching for the Nile’s source. The expedition began in 1866 and went on for years; indeed, when nothing was heard of Livingstone for many months, the journalist and explorer, Stanley, set out to find him. And find him, he did, in November 1871, greeting him with the now-famous phrase: ‘Dr Livingstone I presume?’

Livingstone continued on his exploration but increasingly suffered ill health; and he died in May 1873. His body was shipped to England and buried in Westminster Abbey. There is plenty of information about Livingstone on the internet, at Wikipedia, Livingstone Online, Believer’s Web, and Wholesome Words which has a long list of biographies.

Livingstone was a meticulous diarist, recording his journeys in pocket books, and then writing up the journals in larger volumes. All of these survived (brought back with his body in fact) and were edited by Horace Waller and published in two volumes by John Murray in 1874 as The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa from 1865 to his Death. These books are freely available at Internet Archive.

However, for some months in 1871, Livingstone ran so short of writing supplies that he resorted to using improvised composition materials to keep up his diary habit. This so-named 1871 Field Diary was thus composed on a series of odd scraps of paper, some of which already contained pre-printed text, such as an old copy of The Standard newspaper, and was penned using an ink made from the seed of a local berry. This manuscript, though carefully preserved by the National Trust for Scotland at its David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre, was unreadable: the paper had deteriorated badly and the ink had faded.

In 2009, a research team led by Dr Adrian S Wisnicki, assistant professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and honorary research fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, began a spectral imaging project to recover the lost text. And, on 1 November 2011, announced it had succeeded. The team says the story they found, in the hitherto illegible diary, ‘offers a unique insight into Livingstone’s mind during the greatest crisis of his last expedition.’ Of particular importance, it adds, in relation to what was already known of Livingstone’s diary in 1871, is the original description of a massacre in which slave traders slaughtered hundreds of local people. Stanley’s report of this massacre to the world press, sourced at the time on what Livingstone told him, prompted the British government to close the East African slave trade.

The David Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project has now made the complete original text freely available on the internet, complete with everything you would want to know about the project, the manuscript, and more! The website is hosted by the University of California, and the project was funded by the British Academy and the US National Endowment for the Humanities.

The 1 November press release from the project team highlights one of the key aspects of its findings: ‘The massacre is one of the most important events in The Last Journals of David Livingstone (1874), edited after Livingstone’s death in 1873 by his friend Horace Waller. Until now this book was the main source for historians and biographers. However, critical and forensic analysis of the original 1871 text reveals a very different story from Waller’s heavily edited version. In particular it sheds light on a heart-stopping moment when Livingstone gazes with ‘wonder’ as three Arab slavers with guns enter the market in Nyangwe, where 1,500 people are gathered, most of them women: ‘50 yards off two guns were fired and a general flight took place - shot after shot followed on the terrified fugitives - great numbers died - It is awful - terrible, a dreadful world this,’ writes Livingstone in despair as he witnesses the massacre. ‘As I write, shot after shot falls on the fugitives on the other side [of the river] who are wailing loudly over those they know are already slain - Oh let thy kingdom come.’ ’