Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tired of the cinema

Derek Jarman, the extraordinarily inventive film-maker, was born 70 years ago today. He was a fervent campaigner for gay rights, but died in his early 50s from an AIDS-related illness. He decamped to a cottage on the shingle flats at Dungeness in the last years of his life, where he found fulfilment in gardening. Here also he kept a diary, which not only reveals his jaded relationship with film, but is full of autobiographical reflections, often wistful in tone, and passion for his garden and the wildlife he finds nearby the cottage.

Born near London on 31 January 1942, Jarman spent much his childhood at boarding schools, such as Canford in Dorest, before winning a place at Slade School of Fine Art. However, in deference to the wish of his father, by then a retired RAF officer, he put off his art studies to go to King’s College London, to take a more academic degree, in English, history, and the history of art. Thanks to the influence of Nikolaus Pevsner, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, this left Jarman with an ‘exhaustive and exhausting knowledge of London architecture’. After three years at King’s, he spent four at Slade, where he gravitated towards theatre and film studies.

In the late 1960s, Jarman found himself designing sets for West End operas but by 1970 was working on designs for films, notably Ken Russell’s The Devils. Around this time, though, he acquired a Super-8 camera which allowed him to make his own short films without the restraints of more traditional methods. From the mid-1970s, he found success with full-length, but highly individual films, such as Sebastiane, with its positive take on homosexuality, and Jubilee, sometimes dubbed the first punk film.

In the 1980s, Jarman continued to design for celebrated stage productions, but he also moved into making pop videos for, among others, Marianne Faithfull, Bryan Ferry and the Pet Shop Boys. Through much of the 1980s, Jarman struggled to finance his first conventional 35mm film - Caravaggio. Finally released in 1986, the film brought him his widest audience, partly thanks to the involvement of a television company (Channel 4). That same year, though, he was diagnosed as HIV positive, and, in keeping with his overt homosexuality and his persistent fight for gay rights, he was very open about the condition.

Jarman’s illness led him to move away from London to Prospect Cottage on the shingle flats around Dungeness, in Kent, close by the nuclear power station. Although he continued to work with frequent visits to London, his life at the cottage was dominated by nature more than art, and in particular the development of his garden. One of his last films, Blue, was as alternative or radical as his earliest work - being no more than a single shot of luminous blue with a collaged sound track of original music and Jarman’s thoughts. It was released just months before his death of an AIDS-related illness in 1994. More biographical information about Jarman is available at Senses of Cinema, the British Film Institute, The Independent or The Guardian.

After moving to Prospect Cottage, Jarman began keeping a diary. Extracts from 1989 and 1990 were first published by Century - Modern Nature: The Journals of Derek Jarman - in 1991. A second collection, covering the final years of his life, were edited by Keith Collins and published posthumously in 2000, also by Century, as Smiling in Slow Motion. The Times said the latter was ‘the life-affirming expression of an artist engaged in living to the full’.

The diaries are very readable, full of wistful recollections about his past (his parents and his youthful years in the London arts scene), as well as passion towards the garden he is planting and developing, and the wildlife he finds in the area around his cottage. But here are a couple of extracts in which he shows little enthusiasm for the world that loved him, and also one that is the last entry in Modern Nature.

22 February 1989
‘I’ve grown tired of the cinema, the preserve of ambition and folly in pursuit of illusion, or should I say delusion?

Yesterday I was subjected to a barrage of questions for nearly seven hours without a break, my head spinning like a child’s top. I fled. Back home at the flat at Charing Cross Road another enormous pile of letters blocked the door: Would I write? Judge? Give advice? Approve? Help? The phone rings till I find myself running. What happiness has this cacophony brought? And what have I achieved when Pliny’s miraculous villa can vanish with barely a ripple?’

8 March 1989
‘I have re-discovered my boredom here. The train could carry me to London - the bookshops, tea at Bertaux’, a night in a bar; but I resist.

Film had me by the tail. Once it was naively adventurous - it seemed then there were mountains to climb. So I slogged onwards and upwards, often against a gale, only to arrive exhausted, and find I had climbed a molehill from where I had a view of a few yards, not endless mountain vistas. All around the traps were set. Traps of notoriety and expectation, or collaboration and commerce, of fame and fortune.

But the films unwinding themselves in the dark seemed to bring protection. Then came the media and the intrusion. At first a welcome trickle, something new. Then a raging flood of repetition, endless questions that eroded and submerged my work, and life itself. But now I have re-discovered boredom, where I can fight ‘what next’ with nothing.

You can’t do nothing: accusations of betrayal, no articles or airtime to fill. I had foolishly wished my film to be home, to contain all the intimacies. But in order to do this I had to open to the public. At first a few genuine enthusiasts took up the offer, then coachloads arrived.’

30 March 1989
‘March 30 is my parent’s wedding anniversary, neither of whom were particularly interested in gardening. Though in our family film it might seem otherwise: my mother picking the roses, and dad pushing a large wheelbarrow jauntily along blooming herbaceous borders.

On this day nearly 50 years ago my parents posed for their wedding photo under a daffodil bell hanging in the lych gate of Holy Trinity, Northwood. The photo, with my father in his RAF uniform and my mother holding a bouquet of carnations, her veil caught in the March breeze - captured the imagination of the press. It appeared in national papers - hope at a time of encroaching darkness.

Dungeness has luminous skies: its moods can change like quicksilver. A small cloud here has the effect of a thunderstorm in the city; the days have a drama I could never conjure up on an opera stage.’

17 August 1990
‘Sunlit cool autumnal day. Writing this diary on my way to St Mary’s in a taxi that cruises down Oxford Street alongside a lovely lad on a bike. Today London is a joy.’

Monday, January 30, 2012

Diary briefs

Rapper to release diaries he wrote in jail - BBC

Gentleman’s watercolour diaries auctioned - Mail Online

The Sex Diaries Project - The Daily Beast

My Week with Marilyn - The Guardian, Wikipedia

Day Fighters in Defence of the Reich - Frontline, Amazon

Diary of a Company Man - Amazon, James S Kunen

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The gist of me

Edith Wharton, American writer of high society novels, was born a century and a half ago today. Most famous, perhaps, for writing Ethan Frome, she spent many of her early years travelling in Europe, and then chose to live in France for her last 30 years. Her diaries are not very extensive and have never been published, but the manuscripts, held by Yale and Indiana university libraries, are often consulted by Wharton scholars. Yale says one of the diaries has inscribed on the inside cover: ‘If ever I have a biographer, it is in these notes that he will find the gist of me.’

Edith Newbold Jones was born in New York City on 24 January 1862 into one of the city’s more elite families. During her first ten years, she moved with her parents and two older brothers to Europe, where they lived in France, Italy and Germany. They returned to New York in 1872, where she was tutored at home.

By the age of 16, Edith had written her first novella, and a collection of her poems had been privately printed; and by the time she was 18 her poems were being published in Atlantic Monthly. A second long European trip ended in her father’s death; and then once again in New York she married the older Edward Wharton, a wealthy banker, in 1885.

For the next two decades or so, the Whartons spent much of every year in Europe, during which time Edith’s writing progressed from short stories to novels, often concerned with the upper class society she knew best. Henry James, her main literary influence, came from the same world, and in time they became firm friends.

Wharton’s first important work of fiction, The House of Mirth, was published in 1905. By 1907, Wharton had moved to live in France where she grew to know other major writers of the age. Her most famous novels followed in the next few years, Ethan Frome, for example, and The Age of Innocence which won a Pulitzer Prize. In 1908 she began an affair with Morton Fullerton, a journalist for The Times; a few years later she and her husband divorced.

The Reader’s Companion to American History (found on Answers.com) lists the themes that dominated Wharton’s work during the sixty years of her career as: ‘the moral decay of an indolent society, the waste of treating women as decorative objects, the need for the social order to protect the values of decency, honesty, and commitment, the belief that the true dramas of history are worked out within the soul.’ More succinctly, others says her fiction was notable for its vividness, satire, irony, and wit. She died in 1937, having published more than 20 novels and novellas, nearly a dozen volumes of short stories and various non-fiction works as well. Further information is available from the Washington State University website on Wharton, and Wikipedia.

Intermittently, Wharton kept brief diaries, and although none of these have (to my knowledge) been published they have been used repeatedly by Wharton scholars. Some extracts from these diaries can be read for example in Edith Wharton’s dialogue with realism and sentimental fiction, by Hildegard Hoeller (University Press of Florida, 2000), and in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome: a reference guide by Suzanne J Fournier (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006) - both partially available to read on Googlebooks. Hermione Lee, in her 2007 biography (Chatto & Windus), draws on Wharton’s diaries, though this is not freely available online.

Wharton’s diary manuscripts appear to be split between two archives: at Lilly Library, Indiana University, and Yale University Library. The Lilly Library has diaries that ‘cover primarily 1920-1937’; however, it also has the most widely quoted of Wharton’s diaries, the one she herself dubbed ‘love diary’ of 1907-1908 in which she records the romance with Morton Fullerton.

The Yale website describes its holding as follows: ‘Personal Papers also contains Wharton’s diaries for the years 1920 and 1924-1934, though the entries are brief and very sporadic. For 1920, most of the entries are memoranda of business transactions or household accounts, but several are comments on the progress of her writings. The diary for 1924-1934, although containing only some twenty-five entries, is more substantive. Among other topics, she discusses solitude, religion, the death of friends, her illnesses, and her fear of animals, and includes several borrowed quotations and personal aphorisms (“Life is always either a tight-rope or a feather-bed. Give me the tight-rope.”). [. . .] The diary has few entries, but Wharton clearly intended it as a major comment on her life and work, for the inside cover bears the inscription, “If ever I have a biographer, it is in these notes that he will find the gist of me.” ’

Why a monastery is built

Today is the 80th anniversary of the birth of Henri Jozef Machiel Nouwen, a Dutch-born Catholic priest who worked as an author documenting his restless personal and religious quests. In one of his many books, The Genessee Diary, Nouwen describes the inner workings of his mind while living - for seven months - as a monk in a Trappist monastery. His concludes that a monastery is not built to solve problems!

Nouwen was born in Nijkerk, Holland, on 24 January 1932. He decided when young to enter the priesthood, but also studied psychology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. He was ordained as a diocesan priest in 1957. In 1964 he moved to the US to study and teach at the Menninger Clinic. He taught at the University of Notre Dame, and the Divinity Schools of Yale and Harvard. For a short while, in the 1970s, Nouwen lived and worked with Trappist monks in the Abbey of the Genesee; then, in the early 1980s, he lived with poor people in Peru.

In 1985, Nouwen joined L’Arche in Trosly, France, the first of over 100 communities founded by Jean Vanier where people with developmental disabilities lived with assistants; and then a year later he joined L’Arche Daybreak near Toronto, Canada. He was a prolific author, and published around 40 books on spiritual life. Several of these were based on his diaries, such as Inner Voice of Love, a diary written in 1978-1988 during a bout of clinical depression. He died in 1996. Further biographical information is available on the Henri Nouwen website or at Wikipedia.

The Genesee Diary is another of Nouwen’s diaries, first published by Doubleday, New York, in 1976. The following extracts are taken from a British edition published in 1995 by Darton, Longman and Todd. Nouwen explains at the start of The Genesee Diary that his desire to live for seven months in the Abbey of the Genesee (300 miles northwest of New York City) as a monk ‘was the outcome of many years of restless searching.’ He began the diary on 2 June 1974, and though he tries to (and does) write about prayer, and spirituality, and his own inner mental workings, it seems that he often finds it easier to reflect on the news, and on books - many religious - that he’s reading.

26 July 1974
‘Since I have lived in this Abbey of the Genesee, I have written many more letters than I planned to write when I came. My original idea was: no telephone, no letters, neither outgoing nor incoming, no visitors, no contact with guests - but a real retreat “alone with the Alone.” Well most of my plans are coming through except for my letter writing. Is this good or an initial sign of compromise? Maybe both. One of the experiences of silence is that many people, good old friends and good old enemies, start seeking attention. [. . .] Perhaps part of my letter writing shows that I do not want to be forgotten here, that I hope that there still are people “out there” who think of me. Maybe part of my letter writing is my newly found way of seducing people into paying attention to me here in the enclosure of the monastery. I am sure that is part of it because just as I feel happy when I drop my letters in the mailbox, so do I feel disappointed when I don’t receive much in return. Then my heroic remarks about not writing to my friends shrivel into feelings of being forgotten and left alone.’

29 July 1974
‘All the monks in the Abbey signed a petition to President Nixon asking for immediate and drastic measures to alleviate the hunger in North Africa and to prevent full-scale starvation. The petition, organized by “Bread for the World”, asks the President to share our resources with hungry people everywhere, urges an immediate increase in food aid, and stresses the importance of building a world food security system. It also says, “We are willing to eat less to feed the hungry.” I am happy that we can at least make our voices heard in this way. Maybe fasting can receive new meaning again, just in a period when Church laws on fasting have practically vanished outside the monastery.’

4 August 1974
‘This morning I kicked over a big pile of boxes with freshly washed raisins. It was a real mess. But nobody seemed upset. “That has happened before,” Brother Theodore said. Then he turned on the machine and washed them again.’

5 August 1974
‘I oiled a few thousand bread pans this morning. Noisy work but not too bad.’

7 August 1974
‘During Sext, the short communal prayer before dinner, Brother Alberic came into the church making a gesture that caused about half the monks to walk out of church as fast as they could. The others, myself included, stayed not knowing what was going on. We finished our prayers and went to the dining hall to eat. During dinner the others returned and it became clear that the straw in the field had caught fire and that a few men were needed to extinguish it. I spent the afternoon with Brother Henry at his bee-hives. This was my first encounter with the bees. Although I was well protected, one bee found its way into one of the legs of my pants. Well, he stung and died as hero.’

10 August 1974
‘Worked with John Eudes and Brian in Salt Creek collecting stones. Brian drove the pickup truck right into the creek to load it up with stones. While he was driving the loaded truck out of the water with all four wheels engaged, the truck jumped so badly that half the load rolled out again and the old rusted fender nearly broke off. We reloaded the truck, pulled the thing out of the water, and came safely home in time for a shower before Vespers.’

24 August 1974
‘Today I imagined my inner self as a place crowded with pins and needles. How could I receive anyone in my prayer when there is no real place for them to be free and relaxed? When I am still so full of preoccupations, jealousies, angry feelings, anyone who enters will get hurt. [. . .] If I could have a gentle “interiority” - a heart of flesh and not of stone, a room with some spots on which one might walk barefooted - then God and my fellow humans could meet each other there. Then the center of my heart can become the place where God can hear the prayer for my neighbours and embrace them with love.’

Finally, in his ‘Conclusion’ to the book, Nouwen says this: ‘If I were to ask about my seven months at the Abbey, “Did it work, did I solve my problems?” the simple answer would be, “It did not work, it did not solve my problems.” And I know that a year, two years, or even a lifetime as a Trappist monk would not have worked either. Because a monastery is not built to solve problems but to praise the Lord in the midst of them.’

Monday, January 16, 2012

A wretched bad writer

One hundred and seventy five years ago today, a household servant called William Tayler was complaining to his diary - started just days earlier to practice writing - about being confined indoors to help with those sick during an influenza epidemic. The next day, though, he did get out and about, and subsequently wrote in his diary of ‘a new machine for scrapeing the roads and streets’ that could do as much as seven men.

Born in 1807, Tayler grew up with many siblings on a farm in Grafton, Oxfordshire. He was the first of his family to go into gentlemen’s service, initially for a local squire, and then for a wealthy widow in London, a Mrs Prinsep who lived in Marylebone. Also in the household was the widow’s daughter (at least forty years of age, says Tayler, and therefore deserving of the title ‘old maid’), and three maidservants - he was the only manservant. Mrs Prinsep died in 1850, and William moved his employment several times thereafter, rising to butler, and eventually being able to afford to rent a whole house in Paddington.

At the beginning of 1837, Tayler decided to keep a diary, to practise his writing: ‘As I am a wretched bad writer, many of my friends have advised me to practise more, to do which I have made many attempts but allways forgot or got tired so that it was never atended to. I am now about to write a sort of journal, to note down some of the chief things that come under my observation each day. This, I hope, will induce me to make use of my pen every day a little. My account of each subject will be very short - a sort of multo in parvo - as my book is very small and my time not very large.’

And for the rest of the year, almost every day, Tayler wrote short entries. The manuscript was first edited by Dorothy Wise and published - with the title Diary of William Tayler, Footman, 1837 - by the St Marylebone Society in 1962, but has been reprinted several times since then. In her brief introduction referring to the social history of the time, Wise argues that Tayler was one of the many people being displaced from rural society and migrating to towns, particularly London.

There is very little information about Tayler online, although a chapter about him - in Useful toil: autobiographies of working people from the 1820s to the 1920s - can be read at Googlebooks. This was edited by John Burnett and published in 1974 by Allen Lane. Brighton in Diaries also has a chapter on Tayler. Here, though, are a few extracts from Dorothy Wise’s work - the first dated exactly 175 years ago today.

16 January 1837
‘The Influenza was never known to be so bad as it is now. Seven hundred poliecemen and upwards of four thousand soldiers are ill with it about London, and many large shops and manufactorys are put to great inconveniences on account of it. I am obliged to stay within to help the sick. This is what I don’t like as I like to get a run everyday when I can.’

17 January 1837
‘I took a short walk today, saw a new machine for scrapeing the roads and streets. It’s a very long kind of how, very much like an ell rake. One man draws it from one side of the street to the other, taking a whole sweep of mud with him at once, cleaning a piece a yard and a half at a time. There are two wheels, so, by pressing on the handles, he can wheel the thing back everytime he goes across the street for a hoefull. It’s considered to do as much as seven men.’

25 January 1837
‘Been to Hamstead with the carriage. It’s about six or seven miles out of London. It’s where a great many Cockneys goes to gipseying and to ride on the jackasses. It’s a very plesent place.’

10 August 1837
‘It’s Brighton Races today. Have been on the race course all the afternoon. I never felt the heat so much before in my life. There were whores and rogues in abundance and gambleing tables plenty and everything elce that is jeneraly at races. The town is very full on account of it.’

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Diary briefs

New York Diaries - Random House, The Atlantic, Amazon

Police kept Eddie Gilfoyle’s wife’s diaries hidden - BBC, Daily Mail

Edinburgh schoolgirl’s experience of war - Edinburgh Evening News

The diaries of Cornelius Van Horn - News Herald (Panama City)

Dixie Diaries by Irving Long - Richard County Daily Journal

Prisoner of war diary gets Twitter treatment - The Telegraph