Thursday, February 28, 2013

No good barber in Italy

Michel de Montaigne, the great 16th century French essayist and philosopher, was born 480 years ago today. His essays on any number of topics - from sleep to smells and from cannibals to cruelty - remain in print to this day, and a new biography, by Sarah Bakewell, even credits him with inventing the idea of writing about oneself. For a short while in the 1580s, he travelled beyond the French borders, often seeking out spas in search of relief for his kidney stones. He kept a fine journal of his journeys, often full of detail about the cures he found, and several translations are freely available online.

Montaigne was born in Chãteau de Montaigne, near Bordeaux, in southwest France, on 28 February 1533. His father was a soldier and a lawyer, and his mother came from a Spanish Jewish family converted to protestantism. He studied at Collège de Guyenne in Bordeaux, and then trained for the law in Bordeaux and Toulouse. He worked at the Court des Aides of Périgueaux, and then in 1557 was appointed to the Bordeaux Parliament. From 1561 to 1563 he served at the court of Charles IX. In 1565, he married Françoise de la Chassaigne. They had one daughter that survived infancy.

After his father died in 1568, Montaigne moved to the family Chãteau. There he wrote the many essays - on numerous topics including sadness, idleness, the education of children, sleep, smells, the greatness of Rome - which, subsequently, brought him fame. From 1578, he suffered from kidney stones which led him in search of cures in Switzerland, Germany and Italy. In 1581, while at La Villa, in Italy, Montaigne found out he had been elected mayor of Bordeaux. He returned to the city, and served in that post for four years. In 1588 he accompanied Henry III to Rouen. He died in 1592. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or Adam Thorpe’s review of Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

Montaigne was no regular diarist, but he did keep a journal during his travels of 1580 and 1581 - across France to Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy - and this often appears with his essays as part of a set of ‘complete works’. The most modern translation of the journal was made by Donald M. Frame in The Complete Works of Montaigne published by Stanford University Press in the US in 1957, and Hamish Hamilton in the UK in 1958.

Frame says, in his ‘notes on the travel journal’, that Montaigne’s journal has a curious history. Part of it was dictated in French to a secretary, and part of it was written by Montaigne in French and Italian. The manuscripts lay buried in a chest at the Chãteau for two centuries before being discovered by a historian in 1770. This led to it being published soon after in five editions during the mid-1770s; thereafter, though, the original manuscripts vanished during the Revolution. All subsequent editions and translations, thus, rely on the French printed editions from the 1770s which, according to Frame, ‘offer only many variants but also a good many apparent misplacements and misreadings’. Nevertheless, more modern editions in French and Italian, Frame adds, are helpful for their geographical amendments or conjectural emendations.

The Journal, Frame explains, has been translated into English three times, by William Hazlitt (1842), W. G. Waters (1903) and E. J. Trechmann (1929), though he only rates the latter as any good. All three of these translations are available freely online, the first two at Internet Archive, and the latter at the Hathi Trust Digital Library. The following extracts are taken from Frame’s The Complete Works of Montaigne. (The journal reads more as a narrative than a diary in that the dates are incorporated into the text, and I have left the extracts thus.)

‘Monday early we left there. And along the road, without dismounting, after stopping a while to visit the villa of the bishop, who was there (and were made much of by his men, and invited to stay there to dinner), we came to dine at the baths of La Villa, fifteen miles. I received a warm welcome and greetings from all those people. In truth it seemed that I had come back to my own home. I went back to the same room I had the first time, at the price of twenty crowns a month, and on the same conditions.

Tuesday August 15th I went to the bath early and stayed there a little less than an hour. I again found it rather cold than otherwise. It did not start me sweating at all. I arrived at these baths not only healthy, but I may further say in all-round good spirits. After bathing, I passed some cloudy urine; and in the evening, after walking a good bit over alpine and not at all easy roads, I passed some that was quite bloody; and in bed I felt something indefinably wrong with the kidneys.

On the 16th I continued the bathing, and I went to the women’s bath, where I had not yet been, in order to be separate and alone. I found it too hot, either because it was really so or indeed because my pores, being opened from the bathing of the day before, had made me get hot easily. At all events I stayed there an hour at most and sweated moderately. My urine was natural; no gravel at all. After dinner my urine again came turbid and red, and at sunset it was bloody.

On the 17th I found this same bath more temperate. I sweated very little. The urine rather turbid, with a little gravel; my colour a sort of yellow pallor.

On the 18th I stayed two hours in the aforesaid bath. I felt I know not what heaviness in the kidneys. My bowels were reasonably loose. From the very first day I felt full of wind, and my bowels rumbling. I can easily believe that this effect is characteristic of these waters, because the other time I bathed I clearly perceived that they brought on the flatulence this way.

On the 19th I went to the bath a little later to give way to a lady of Lucca who wanted to bathe, and did bathe, before me; for this rule is observed, and reasonably so, that the ladies may enjoy their own bath when they please. I again stayed there for two hours. There came over me a little heaviness in my head, which had been in the best of condition for several days. My urine was still turbid, but in different ways, and it carried off a lot of gravel. I also noticed some commotion in the kidneys. And if my feelings are correct, these baths can do much in that particular; and not only do they dilate and open up the passages and conduits, but furthermore they drive out the matter, dissipated and scatter it. I voided the gravel that seemed really to be stones broken up into pieces.

In the night I felt in the left-side the beginning of a very violent and painful colic, which tore me for a good while and yet did not run its ordinary course; it did not reach the belly and the groin, and ended in a way that made me believe it was wind. [. . .]

On the 27th after dinner I was cruelly tormented by a very acute toothache, so that I sent for the doctor, who, when he had come and considered everything, and especially that my pain had left me in his presence, judged that this defluxion had no body unless a very subtle one, and that it was wind and flatulence that mounted from the stomach to the head and, mingling with a little humor, gave me that discomfort. This indeed seemed to me very likely, considering that I had suffered similar accidents in other parts of the body.

On Monday, August 28th, at dawn, I went to drink at Bernabo’s spring and drank seven pounds four ounces of the water, at twelve ounces to the pound. It made my bowels move once. I voided a little less than half of it before dinner. I clearly felt that it sent vapors to my head and made it heavy. [. . .]

On Thursday, September 7th, in the morning I was an hour in the big bath. This same morning they delivered into my hands, by way of Rome, letters from Monsieur de Tausin, written in Bordeaux on August 2nd, by which he advised me that the day before, by general consent, I had been made mayor of that city; and he urged me to accept this charge for the love of my country.

On Sunday, September 10th, I bathed for an hour in the morning in the women’s bath; and since it was a bit warm, I sweated some. After dinner I went alone on horseback to see some other places in the neighbourhood, and a little villa called Granajolo, which stands on top of one of the highest mountains in these parts. As I passed over these heights, they seemed to me the most beautiful, fertile, and pleasant inhabited slopes that could possibly be seen.

Talking with the natives, I asked one very elderly man whether they used our baths, and he replied that it worked out with them as it did with the people who live near Our Lady of Loreto; that those people rarely go there on a pilgrimage, and that there is little use of the baths except for the benefit of foreigners and those who live far away. He said he was very sorry about one thing, that for a number of years he had observed that the baths did more harm than good to those who used them [. . .].

Monday, September 11th, in the morning, I voided a good quantity of gravel, most of it looking like millet, solid, red on the surface and grey inside.

On September 12th, 1581, we left the baths of La Villa early in the morning and came to dine at Lucca, fourteen miles. These days they were beginning to gather the grapes. The Feast of the Holy Cross is one of the principal ones in this city; and for a week around it freedom is given to anyone who wants it and who has been banished on account of a civil debt, to return in security to his house, to give him opportunity to attend to his devotions.

I have not found in Italy a single good barber to shave my beard and cut my hair.’

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Reichstag on fire

Eighty years ago today, the Reichstag building in Berlin, which had housed the German Diet since its opening in 1894, suffered a major arson attack. The newly-elected German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, blamed a Communist Party conspiracy and quickly won support for emergency measures to restrict civil liberties, thus allowing him to make mass arrests. The Reichstag fire is considered an early and important turning point in the Nazi story. Widely available is the diary entry for that day by Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Public Enlightenment. Also, though, US historian John L. Heineman has made available online two diary texts. One of these is by a young writer who reports on his father’s cynicism regarding the Nazi’s response to the fire; and the other is by a young housewife, married to a Jew, who is clearly being so affected by the Nazi propaganda that she is frightened of the communists and even believes the US and Britain should send money to help Germany fight Bolshevism.

The Reichstag building opened in 1894 to house the Imperial Diet, and it did so until 27 February 1933 when it was severely damaged in a fire started by Marinus van der Lubbe, a young and mentally handicapped Dutchman who also was a communist. Thereafter, the building was rarely used, except for propaganda purposes; and then it was further damaged during Second World War air raids. A reconstruction took place in the first half of the 1960s, but with West Germany’s capital in Bonn, there was little use for the building. However, in October 1990, it was the site chosen for the official German reunification ceremony. The following year, Germany decided to shift its capital back to Berlin, and this led to a high profile project to rebuild the Reichstag. It was opened in 1999, with the Bundestag convening officially for the first time on 19 April. According to the Reichstag’s Wikipedia entry, the building is now the second most visited attraction in Germany, not least because of the huge glass dome that was erected on the roof as a gesture to the original 1894 cupola.

The 1933 Reichstag fire remains a much studied historical event, partly because it proved so pivotal in the Nazi’s fortunes, and partly because no definitive version of the events leading to the fire has yet been arrived at. On the night of the fire, police found van der Lubbe in the building, and his communist sympathies were quickly established. Adolf Hitler, who had only come to power four weeks earlier, used the arson attack to pressure President Paul von Hindenburg for emergency measures to tackle the communist threat. The following day a decree was passed ‘for the protection of the people and state’ which dispensed with all constitutional protection of political, personal and property rights. Encyclopædia Britannica says this was the day Hitler’s dictatorship began. Communists were very quickly rounded up, even those sitting in parliament, thus allowing the Nazis to take their seats and establish a parliamentary dominance.

The following autumn, van der Lubbe and others (indicted for their roles in the communist plot to burn down the Reichstag) were tried in Leipzig before judges from the old German Imperial High Court. Only van der Lubbe was found guilty, and subsequently beheaded by guillotine; others, though not found guilty, were expelled to the Soviet Union. Hitler, angered by the trial’s outcome, established a new forum for treason (and other offences), the People’s Court, which would hand down many death sentences in the years to come.

To this day, historians continue to debate over the events of that night. Many argue that van der Lubbe was part of an elaborate plot not by communists but by the Nazis, to give them an excuse to crack down on civil liberties in general and the communists in particular, and this theory, in various guises, was favoured for many years. However, nowadays, there seems to be more of a consensus towards the idea that, after all, that responsibility for the fire rests with van der Lubbe alone. There is a wealth of information online about the fire: Wikipedia has a good summary of the main facts; the World Socialist Web Site has a review of a book providing ‘authoritative evidence’ on the Nazi involvement; and, for a more detailed account, try Fritz Tobias’s The Reichstag Fire with an introduction by A. J. P. Taylor at the WN Library website.

Online, I have found references to three diarists who wrote an entry on/about that day. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda genius, kept a detailed diary, although the entry about that day is rather short. It can be found on the Mae Brussel website, or at Googlebooks in William L. Shirer’s book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (Simon and Schuster, 1960) which makes extensive use of Goebbels’ diaries. More information on these diaries can be found from The Diary Junction or Wikipedia.

Here is Goebbel’s diary extract in Shirer’s narrative: ‘On the evening of February 27, four of the most powerful men in Germany were gathered at two separate dinners in Berlin. In the exclusive Herrenklub in the Vosstrasse, Vice-Chancellor von Papen was entertaining President Hindenburg. Out at Goebbels’ home, Chancellor Hitler had arrived to dine en famille. According to Goebbels, they were relaxing, playing music on the gramophone and telling stories. “Suddenly,” he recounted later in his diary, “a telephone call from Dr. Hanfstaengl: ‘The Reichstag is on fire!’ I am sure he is telling a tall tale and decline even to mention it to the Fuehrer.” ’

Much quoted also is this entry from Goebbels’ diary dated a few weeks earlier, 31 January 1933, the day after Hitler was named Chancellor: ‘In a conference with the Fuehrer we lay down the line for the fight against the Red terror. For the moment we shall abstain from direct countermeasures. The Bolshevik attempt at revolution must first burst into flame. At the proper moment we shall strike.’

John L. Heineman, Professor Emeritus retired from Boston College, maintains many web pages full of historical information, including one on the Nazi seizure of power. This includes extracts from the diaries of two young Germans: Erich Ebermayer, a novelist and playwright, and Frau Luise Solmitz, a housewife and former elementary school teacher married to an ex-pilot and decorated war hero, who was Jewish.

27 February 1933 (Ebermayer)

‘Suddenly at the beginning of the midnight news report, the radio announcer’s voice in great excitement proclaims: “The Reichstag Building is burning.” Every conversation in the small café ceases. We learn that the Reichstag in Berlin was today set afire by the Communists. The whole building is engulfed in flames. The dome threatens to collapse. One of the arsonists is already arrested; he is a young Dutch communist named van der Lubbe. We are all dumbfounded. How can anyone understand this insane act, shortly before the elections, shortly before the voting which Goebbels has so carefully prepared and called the “Day of the Awakening Volk.” What could have driven the communists to such a heroic act of despair! Didn’t they know that the Nazis would gladly welcome such an event?M accompanied me to the house....  My father was still working at his desk. I bring him the news. He was silent a few seconds, and then announced in his finest Bavarian dialect?: “Course, they’ve set it themselves....” But the arrested communist? Can they simply invent him?” From his fifty years of experience as a prosecuting attorney, my father smiles.’

28 February 1933 (Ebermayer)
‘In violation of the rights of parliamentary immunity, all Communist Reichstag members are arrested. All Communist Party functionaries are arrested. So too are the leaders of the Social Democratic Party. Why? Does the government assume that they stand behind the setting of the fire? Will the government claim that the Socialists encouraged and incited the arsonist? But no, it appears that we must stop trying to find rational arguments. The Revolution creates its own legalities.... Now for the first time since last night, the Revolution has truly begun.’

February 1933 (Solmitz)
‘The Communists have set the Reichstag on fire, a horrible fire, which has been deliberately started in various places in the building. The thoughts and hopes of most Germans is completely concentrating upon Hitler; his reputation soars to the stars; he is the savior for an evil and saddened German world.... When we ask people of every rank and educational background “Who are you voting for?”, [the answer] is always the same: “Why we’re voting for the same as everyone else, list #1, only Hitler.”  And a few cases, like us, are hesitating between #1 and #5 [DNVP]. …  An ordinary looking young man walked by, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, but all by himself singing in a booming voice a Nazi song. Franz said “It sounded like he was praying. It’s becoming a religion.” ’

1 March 1933 (Solmitz)
‘I telephones.... She never had any use for Hitler. I asked how her house was voting? She was almost insulted: “Why Hitler, naturally! No one else can even be considered. We must support his cause with all means!” This conversation decided me ... for all those who once would never even consider him are now voting for the man who has long been the only one who has really excited me politically, because without any formal program he wants exactly that which I want, and which Germany, also without any program, wants....

The government has issued a statement [on the Reichstag Fire].... Göring, speaking like an old, experienced official, reports in a dry yet completely serious fashion the horrible murderous plans of the Communists who have withdrawn into their stronghold of Hamburg. He began with the account of the raid on the Karl Liebknecht House, where the police found a complete system of subterranean passages and attic chambers.... Hundreds of implicating documents were uncovered: hostages to be taken from bourgeois families, wives and children of police officers to be used as shields, destruction of all cultural monuments just as in Russia palaces, museums, churches. They were to begin with the Reichstag. Twenty-eight different fires set there. The entire Communist leadership [in Germany] arrested. Thälmann has fled to Copenhagen. The Communists had intended to send armed groups of Reds into the villages to murder and burn, and then when the cities had been stripped of police, the terror would break out in the large municipalities: poison, boiling water, any implement from the most refined to the most primitive, would be turned into a weapon. It reads like a cops and robber story were it not for the fact that we have the case of Russia, which has experienced all the asiatic torture and orgy, which a German mind, even when sick, is incapable of devising, and, when healthy, is unable to believe.

If Italy, America, and England were clever, they would send us money right away, in order to fight Bolshevism. For our destruction will be their destruction! Göring says that he has not lost his nerve, and he won’t lose it. I hope the voters won’t lose their nerve and stay away from the polling booths out of fear. For truly the streets are today a battle field!’

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

O God George, can’t you see

Today marks the centenary of the birth of George Barker, one of the 20th century’s most Bohemian and charismatic of British poets. Though championed by T. S. Eliot, and loved by women - he had 15 children with four different partners - he is less well remembered than his contemporary, the similarly roguish Dylan Thomas. Scant evidence exists of Barker having been a diarist, though, Robert Fraser, uses a few diary notes in his 2002 biography, The Chameleon Poet. More interesting are the many references to Barker in the diaries of Elizabeth Smart, who wooed him, won him occasionally, had four children with him, but spent most of her life resenting his absence.

Barker was born in Loughton, Essex, on 26 February 1913, and raised by his Irish mother and English father in Battersea, London. Having left school at an early age, he soon found he wanted to pursue a career in writing. Encouraged by an elder sister, he sent the text of a recent journal to John Middleton Murry, editor of The Adelphi, who then gave him reviewing work and an introduction to other literary figures of the time. Aged just 20, Barker published his first book of poetry - Thirty Preliminary Poems - with Parton Press. The same year, he married his childhood sweetheart Jessica Woodward, and they moved to a cottage in Worth Matravers, Dorset. They would have three children together.

Barker soon came to the attention of T. S. Eliot at the publishers Faber and Faber, who supported him with advice and money, and published his next collections of poetry, Poems (1935) and Calamiterror (1937). Eliiot also helped him to get a position in Japan, in 1939, as Professor of English Literature at Tohoku University. But he hated the job, even his inaugural lecture went wrong, when his notes ran out with an hour still to go (see diary entry below). He then travelled to the United States, where he began a liaison with a Canadian writer, Elizabeth Smart, who had been pursuing him for a while. In 1943, Barker returned to England, leaving his wife and her children in New York, and joined Smart who had relocated to the Cotswolds. In 1945, Smart published her now famous autobiographical novel - By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept - about her affair with Barker. In 1950, Barker responded with The Dead Seagull, describing his view of the affair.

By the 1950s, Barker was living in London with the film-maker Betty Cass, and spending some weekends with Smart, though Smart, in fact, spent much of her life filled with resentment towards Barker. By the end of the decade, Barker was living in Rome with yet another woman, Dede Farrelly, who would bear him children (three sons). In 1963, he met the young Scottish writer Elizabeth Langlands with whom he lived in Norfolk, and with whom he had five more children. He continued to produce books of poetry every few years, and to teach occasional semesters in the US. His Collected Poems were edited by Robert Fraser and published in 1987 by Faber and Faber. He died in 1991. Further information is available from Wikipedia, London Grip, The Guardian and Richard Warren’s blog. Also worth reading is Christopher Barker’s article in The Observer about his parents.

Barker does not seem to have left behind a diary of any significance, but there are a few mentions, and even an occasional quote, from Barker’s ‘journal’ or ‘diary’ in Fraser’s biography, The Chameleon Poet, published by Jonathan Cape in 2002. Unfortunately, Fraser does not provide any source for Barker’s diary, and the references to it peter out in the early 1940s. The University of Victoria library, in British Columbia, Canada, which has a significant archive of Barker’s literary remains, lists a ‘Manuscript Diary for 1968’: ‘Not a busy year, with probably less than 1,000 words of entries. Covers somewhat stained, as usual with Barker’s books.’ Otherwise, Fraser’s biography relies heavily on Barker’s letters, and, to a lesser extent, on the published diaries of Elizabeth Smart: Necessary Secrets (Grafton, 1991) and On the Side of the Angels (HarperCollins, 1994). For more on Smart’s diaries see The Diary Junction; her own centenary will be later this year, on 27 December.

Here are two extracts from Barker’s diary as found in The Chameleon Poet, the first about his inaugural lecture in Japan, and the second about Elizabeth Smart. They are followed by several about Barker from Smart’s published diaries.

6 February 1940 (Barker)
‘So I began to improvise a speech on the inveterate incomprehensibility of poetry - this is true anyhow - until, in the middle,, my mind fused and I went blank and knew that I would just walk out if nothing happened to stop me - so I held my heart, apologized for palpitation, drank some more water and saw the double line of absolutely negative faces and went on talking nonsense for an hour.’

22 July 1941 (Barker)
‘The grammar of glorification is demonstrated at the flick of her head in the candlelight and at her smile the foundation of vocal admiration collapses in the magnificat. Mythology, in a poverty of raiment, cannot clothe her and god almighty on his throne of grace serves only to adorn the ring on her little finger. O my Canadian!’

14 May 1944 (Smart)
‘In the evening we walked to Longborough, and I had 1½ pints of cider and was nicely drunk. On the way home I dashed into the prickles because George made a tit-for-tat remark about dedicating his book [. . .]. I lay among the prickles along the hedge and wanted to cease. When I got home, George was having supper and reading. He got into bed, and neither of us said anything, except George who made a few caustic remarks. But when I got into bed we made love.’

16 May 1944 (Smart)
‘George went off on his bicycle to go to . . . to catch the train to London. Georgina [born 1941] cried brokenheartedly. She’s consoling herself with ‘George’s going to bring me a present’. After he had gone she stamped her feet and screamed.’

28 June - 4 July 1944 (Smart)
‘All those days George sulking and hating me [. . .]. Nothing will ever be right until he wants more children, not necessarily per se, but necessarily and because of the nature of love. I know I know I know he’s only trying to keep the situation OPEN for Jessica so his misinterpretations, (I mean lies) will work out. O hell. O Heaven. O horror and he expects me to take this merely marking time and call it love and be willing. Of course I can’t really write in this book because he reads it and takes offence throwing up continually the fact that I wrote, “I am going to leave George.” I know that I am not a wise woman, or I could wait wisely, or say nothing and never want to see his letters or know to whom he writes or what he does in London or how he feels about J. But it is four years ago today since we met, and it is still as messy, if not messier than ever. The trouble is, for me, that there is always hope, i.e. either J. is a wonderful woman, in which case a terrible solution might be possible, or she is not, and he might eventually realize it. As for me, I feel myself getting less and less wonderful, and I shall certainly not be able to make any more noble omissions, or stand any more chicaneries, or sit back while he stands on his head to get back to devotions. If only, even for this limited period, he were really given to me and loving me without always (wondering!) whether he’ll be able to camouflage what he’s doing.’

26 April 1945 (Smart)
‘It is unbearable loving George. I always knew he (wouldn’t) couldn’t come and yet I always expect him and sit in that insane fever of anticipation no matter how I keep telling myself his coming is out of the question. What can I possibly do? I really can’t bear it. It gets worse, not better. He won’t let me leave him, yet he won’t stay with me. he won’t settle my difficulties, and yet he won’t let me try and settle them for myself. I love him desperately, but he continually ruins my hopes that we are going to lead a happy married life together. I always believe that this time it will really happen and there is never anything but the same disappointments and frustrations. He never comes when he says he will. He always stays away two or three times as long as he says he will. He always vanishes and lets me sit waiting for him in my best clothes, relishing the hour to come. O God George, can’t you see that I can’t bear this life of continual frustration and solitude? Suddenly one day I will crack, snap, break in two and BE GONE.’

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Chuck ’em

Thirty years ago today, half my life give or take a few months, I bought a four bedroom house, in Kilburn. Until then, I had been living in a short-life housing association flat in Iverson Road, a few streets away, so this was quite a step up into the grown-up world. Here is my diary entry for that day.

Wednesday 16 February 1983
‘Completion Day. The nervous lanky solicitor kept ringing me up all morning to clarify the position of the keys. She’s on her way to Kilburn as though Kilburn were north of Newcastle. 13 Aldershot Road, NW6. Keep it simple. Like it simple. Never was a house owner before.

A nervous sort of tension has kept me high and arrogant for days with little peace of mind to sit and write. The new house has kept me more preoccupied than the thought of the new job at McGraw-Hill.

I pack slowly in an effort to sift my jumble of belongings. There is little of value and little of quality from one end of them to the other, from scalfs to furniture, from cutlery to enlarger. Despite a tingling excitement about the new house, I am also acutely aware that it will be full of the same possessions. Books are a bind. They fill endless boxes and make them heavy. Why do I keep such books, old Penguins, hard back copies of Dickens, compilations of 50s photographs, Time Life books on the sea and the like. And trousers. What do I do with those baggy flares that swallow up the carpet as well as my feet? Will they ever come back into fashion? Chuck ’em. And those new trousers with a waist too tight for my stomach line. Do I keep old jumpers with holes in to work on the car. Chuck ’em, Chuck ’em not, Chuck ’em . . .’

Friday, February 15, 2013

Thomas Crosfield’s diary

Thomas Crosfield was buried three and a half centuries ago today. Born and bred in the Lake District, he became an Oxford university man for most of his life, and lived through the turbulent civil war period. He is only remembered today because of his diary - not published until 1935 - which is full of detail about university life, in particular under the chancellorship of William Laud, who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury.

Crosfield was born in Kendal, Westmorland (now Cumbria) in 1602, the son of a scrivener who later became mayor of Kendal. He was educated locally, and then at Queen’s College, Oxford, which made him a fellow in 1627. By then, he had already begun to preach in nearby parishes. In 1638, he became vicar of the Queen’s College living at Godshill, Isle of Wight, but this was sequestered by parliament in 1644. He may, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required), have been vicar of Windermere, Westmorland, for a few months in 1644-1645.

Crosfield married Helen Wyvill in 1645, and the couple had two sons and three daughters. In 1648, Crosfield obtained the rectory of Chale, Isle of Wight, and in 1649 became rector of Spennithorne (50 miles east of Kendal on the other side of the Pennines) in the Wyvills’ gift, after his father-in-law’s death. He died in early 1663, and was buried at Spennithorne church on 15 February. 

There is very little information about Crosfield available on the web, and most of what we do know comes from a diary he kept intermittently - from 1626 to 1640 and then again in the mid-1650s - published in 1935 by Oxford University Press. Secondhand copies of The Diary of Thomas Crosfield are available for about £10 from Abebooks. Some references to Crosfield’s diary can be found in The Mathematicians’ Apprenticeship: Science, Universities and Society in England, 1560-1640 by Mordechai Feingold and published in 1984 by Cambridge University Press (which can be read at Googlebooks).

The most accessible online information about the diary comes from the ONDB: ‘The main run of Crosfield’s manuscript diary, Queen’s College MS 390, stretches, with gaps, from January 1626 to January 1640. There are also accounts of conversations between provost and fellows, or among the fellows, from 1632 to 1638, and analyses of books. Much of the diary proper and some other portions, but by no means all that is of significance, was edited in 1935 by F. S. Boas. The text, in English and Latin, with some passages in idiosyncratic French, throws light on collegiate and university life in a period which included William Laud’s chancellorship. [Laud, also a diarist, went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633 to 1645]. Christopher Potter, provost from 1626 to 1646, who favoured the diarist, comes to life in table-talk, theological views, disciplinary measures, careful husbanding of resources, and efforts to beautify the chapel. [. . .] 

He was interested in town politics and assizes, and particularly in theatrical performances. A keen observer of national and international events, he frequently summarized ‘currantos’ and letters. His diary offers incidental evidence for the study of French, Hebrew, Arabic, mathematics, and astronomy; the royal visit to Oxford in August 1636 is also described. [. . .] Diary entries recommence in February 1653 and run until February 1654, replete with concern about money and litigation, debts and tithes, but also touching on Quakers. They suggest that Crosfield had come to accept Cromwell.’

Monday, February 11, 2013

I noticed my feet

The British Library has acquired Sir Alec Guinness’s personal archive, including over 100 volumes of diaries. Guinness did publish two books of diaries, when he was alive, but they only concerned a few years in the 1990s. The large number of diaries, to be opened up for public scrutiny in 2014, are likely to be much in demand, if media interest in the Library’s new acquisition is anything to go by.

Guinness was born in London in 1914 to Agnes Cuff. Though the identity of his father was never confirmed, a Scottish banker, Andrew Geddes, paid for his private education. Guinness went to work in advertising but then switched to the theatre, making his stage debut in 1934 as an extra at the King’s Theatre. In 1937, he joined John Gielgud’s acting company and appeared in many theatre classics. A year later he married Merula Salaman, and they had one son. During the war, he served in the Royal Navy, first as a seaman then as an officer with various commands in the Mediterranean area.

Although Guinness returned to the stage after the war, he also became increasingly involved with films, starring in many of the Ealing comedies, such as Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers and The Man in the White Suit. In 1954, he converted to Roman Catholicism. Guinness remained a star in the late 1950s and 1960s thanks to films such as Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai (for which the British Academy awarded him a best actor award). He was knighted in 1959.

In the 1970s, Guinness seemed to have more success in television, particularly in the role of George Smiley in several serialisations of John le Carré novels. And then, in the late 1970s and 1980s, he won over a new generation of fans by appearing in the Star Wars movies. He died in 2000. For more biographical information see Wikipedia,  the British Film Institute, or any number of obituary notices (The Guardian, The Telegraph, The New York Times, BBC).

In the last decade of his life, Guinness revealed himself to be an entertaining diarist, first, in 1996, with My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor, with a preface by John le Carré; and then, in 1999, with A Positively Final Appearance: A Journal 1996-1998. Both books were first published by Hamish Hamilton.

Now, it has been announced, Guinness left behind a lot more than two published diaries. The British Library made this announcement on 7 February: ‘The British Library has acquired the personal archive of Oscar-winning actor Sir Alec Guinness. The archive, which charts Guinness’s career from the late 1930s to his death in 2000, includes more than 900 of his letters to family and friends and over 100 volumes of diaries, and was purchased with generous support from The Friends of the British Library. [. . .] Cataloguing is due to take place over the next year and the Library anticipates that the archive will be open for research in 2014.’

The press release goes on to say: ‘These papers, which will be publicly available for the first time, offer an intimate account of Alec Guinness’s life, detailing his wartime responsibilities and his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1956, as well as his successful career on stage and screen. Highlights include [. . .] a diary entry following the death of Laurence Olivier in which Guinness reflects on Olivier’s acting technique and contribution to the stage, and Guinness’s account of his premonition of death the day before his boat went down in a freak storm during World War II.’ The archive, reportedly, cost the British Library some £320,000.

Of various stories (The Independent, The Times, BBC) in the media about the British Library’s purchase - largely focusing on Guinness’s opinion of other knights of the stage -  The Guardian reveals most about the diaries.

They often have, The Guardian says, ‘a slightly Pooterish tone, with careful notes about the weather, his blood pressure and his finances. In 1983 he buys sweaters as presents for his son and grandson, “Italian and handsome but fiendish prices, £170 and £125”. Both diaries and letters reveal him as deeply superstitious. Also in 1983, soon after learning of the death of [Ralph] Richardson, he was putting on “a very heavy grey overcoat” and felt somebody invisible help him on with it. “I felt a shiver of fright, made the sign of the cross and then laughed . . . I laughed I believe because I thought it was the sort of thing Ralph might have done.” ’

The BBC gives this extract, dating from 12 July 1989, the day after death of Sir Laurence Olivier: ‘His “I defy you, stars” in Romeo was memorable. And so was his Poor naked wretches etc in Lear. But his famous howl in Oedipus I thought just tiresome. [. . .] He knew every trick of the trade and used every one, including, when he made his first entrance the lights coming up a few points and going down again when he left. [. . .] He was always very conscious of the audience - and his own powers over them. I’m not sure he was an artist but he was total actor - a giant among actors.’

Here, meanwhile, are two published extracts, including the first that appears in My Name Escapes Me.

1 January 1995
‘Through a chink in the bedroom curtains my unenthusiastic eye caught an early-morning glimpse of the New Year: it looked battleship grey. As I reluctantly swung out of bed I noticed my feet - never something on which I like to dwell. They appeared to be crumbling, sandstone monuments, the soles criss-crossed with ancient, indecipherable runes, which probably hold the secrets of eighty years of living and partly living - of happiness and fears, of distresses, of rather embarrassing successes and expected failures. I drew open the curtains and found the sky was in fact cloudless blue and the tops of the trees promised sunlight. It was all very different exactly fifty-one years ago when I was wrecked in a hurricane in the Adriatic, chucked around by thirty-foot waves and a wind of 120 m.p.h. I never liked New Year’s Day anyway; it has too often felt like a day of foreboding.

No resolutions have been made. Experience has taught me they barely survive a week. But I have made a few negative wishes for other people. I never wish to see again any reproduction of Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Also I am anxious about that elderly lady lying on her face at the bottom of her stairs, clutching the accident alarm which is meant to alert her neighbours. She has been prostrate there for about two years and still no one has come to her aid. And I long for twelve months when no politician will used the word ‘clear’ to describe what is manifestly muddy or incomprehensible. Would all BBC (and other) announcers please read and inwardly digest Robert Burchfield’s The Spoken Word? It is slim, pocketable, authoritative and, after all, a BBC publication by a great lexicographer.

A sudden little blizzard made us too apprehensive to drive the couple of miles to Mass in the evening, so I threw a log on the fire and mixed a lethal cocktail called, I believe, the Claridge. (Half and half gin and French vermouth, with a good dash of Cointreau and apricot brandy.) That kept our eyes, slightly unfocused, on the TV production of Cold Comfort Farm.’

6 March 1996
‘Memories of Brighton crowded in on me as we drove home, from visits as a schoolboy to appearances at the Theatre Royal in later life; from doing the officer training course (for RNVR) at HMS King Alfred at the far edge of Hove (it now looks like some sort of leisure complex) to weekends during the fifties at the Royal Crescent Hotel at the eastern end of Brighton front. [. . .] What I liked most about Brighton as a boy was the little electric railway which ran from near the Palace Pier to Black Rock and had a section of its line, all too short for my money, running out over the sea. When the sea was a bit rough this was a thrill; when it was really rough the cissy little train didn’t function. I must have spent many happy, if lonely, hours to’ing and fro’ing. Not absolutely lonely. I have always found the sea, in whatever mood it was in, good and sufficient company.’