Friday, April 19, 2013

A splendid liquid sky

One hundred and twenty years ago today died John Addington Symonds, a writer remembered largely for leaving behind literary works full of allusion to his secret homosexuality. He travelled frequently on the Continent, keeping diaries of his journeys, and in them he would often wax lyrical about his experiences. The diaries were used by his literary executor and friend, Horatio Brown, to write a biography, but were destroyed after Brown’s death.

Symonds was born in Bristol in 1840, the only son of a physician, and educated at Harrow School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate prize with a poem The Escorial. In 1862 he was elected to an open fellowship at Magdalen but his health broke down, perhaps because of rumours he was having an affair with a male student, and he travelled to Switzerland to recuperate. On returning to London in 1864, he married Janet Catherine North. During the following five years she gave birth to three daughters. However, the couple appear to have led fairly separate emotional lives, with Symonds always pursuing young men as soul mates. In the second half of the 1860s, he had further mental problems, and travelled to the Continent again.

In 1867, Symonds moved to Bristol, where he did some lecturing. It is only in the 1870s, that he began to publish significant volumes, many on poetry, such as An Introduction to the Study of Dante and Studies of the Greek Poets. In 1875, Catherine gave birth to their fourth daughter. Symonds major work, Renaissance in Italy, was published in several volumes, starting in the early 1880s. He also wrote a book called A Problem in Greek Ethics which is today given the title Male Love, as well as biographies of Shelley, Jonson and Michelangelo. He died on 19 April 1893. Further information is available from Wikipedia, NNDBRictor Norton’s web pages, or the Dictionary for Art Historians.

Symonds also kept diaries and wrote memoirs, all of which he handed to his literary executor, Horatio Brown. Subsequently, Brown wrote a biography of Symonds - John Addington Symonds, a biography published first by J. C. Nimmo in 1895, readily available at Internet Archive - using many extracts from the diaries. After Brown’s death, though, the diaries were destroyed. Here are several of those extracts, as culled from Brown’s biography, the first few from 1861, when Symonds was still a young man and travelling with his father, and the last from over a quarter of a century later.

27 January 1861
‘Breakfasted with L. Stanley, and had an amusing party. Met Owen - old Balliol man, returned from Bombay College - Wordsworth, Green, Jackson, Ford, Wright, White, Bethel. Talked about “Essays and Reviews,” and the storm brewing for them; about Jowett’s parentage - Ford knows his mother and sister slightly, they live at Torquay; then of De Quincey, without some allusion to whom I hardly remember any intellectual Oxford breakfast go off; then about historic portraits - Wycliffe’s at Balliol, Chaucer’s from an old illumination, Dante’s in the Arundel Society’s publications. Sat on till 11.15. I went and wrote a long letter to papa about myself.’

16 June 1861, Macon
‘We left at five for Geneva, where I now am. The journey from Amberieu to Belle Garde was extremely fine. It winds through a pass cut by the Rhone, between Jura and some other mountains. After breaking fast we drove out to see Geneva. First we went to the cathedral, a small and symmetrical building of most interesting transition Romanesque. It has curious specimens of the use of round and pointed arch in combination, and borrows more from Roman models in the capitals than any I have seen. There is the pulpit, beneath whose sounding-board Calvin, Knox, and Beza preached. We sat in Calvin’s chair. The church is perfectly bare, and Protestant. It was more injured in five weeks of French occupation, when 10,000 men garrisoned Geneva and made it a hospital, than in its three centuries of Protestantism. A little Roman Catholic glass is still left in the windows of the apse.

17 June 1861, Hotel de L’Union, Chamonix
‘We started at seven this morning in a carriage and two horses. The journey has been one of uninterrupted beauty. The natural splendour of the country was heightened by the massy clouds which kept ever changing from peak to peak, altering the effect of light and shade, and making the distance clear and brilliant. The wild flowers are innumerable, orchids, rhododendrons, columbines, saxifrage, salvias, vetches, pinks. We broke the journey at Bonneville, where we had breakfast. Up to this point the road was comparatively tame, though behind us rose the Jura, and in front the Alps were shadowy. But at Bonneville is the very port of the Mont Blanc Alps, and of this stands sentinel the great green Mole. From Bonneville to St. Martin, the valley of the Arve is narrow, one series of vast precipices cut by rivulets and pine-clad hills on either side. At St. Martin we first saw Mont Blanc, swathed in clouds, which slowly rose and left the monarch nearly bare. He did not seem quite so huge as I expected. The amphitheatre of mountains from the bridge over the Arve is splendid; especially that corner where stands the Aiguille de Varens. Here we learned that a bridge on the road to Chamonix had been swept away by a torrent, and that no carriages could pass. However, they telegraphed for carriages to meet us on the other side of the temporary plank bridge, and we set off, through avenues of apple-trees bordering gardens of wild flowers, beneath the park-like swellings of the hills, among whose walnut-bowered hollows slept innumerable chalets. Soon the ascent began, every turn discovering some great snowpeak or green mountain furrowed with the winter streams. At the bridge we found a one-mule carriage, and continued our journey, Mont Blanc growing on us momently. As we came into the Valley of Chamonix the highest peak was very clear, and all along the bold sharp crags swaddled in clouds, and glorified by the far setting sun, were gorgeous in their brilliancy and colours. We arrived at 7.30, and got two high rooms with a good [vi]ew of the mountains.’

18 June 1861
‘About nine, M. A. Balmat, Professor James Forbes’s guide, to whom papa has an introduction, arrived. He is a pleasant, intelligent man, of about fifty, who, when he had read the Professor’s letter, greeted us warmly. He no longer acts as professional guide, but volunteered to take us about for the sake of our friendship with Mr. Forbes. Balmat is a curious instance of a man refined by the society of great and philosophic men. Having begun life as a guide, he is now the respected friend and guest of Forbes, Hooker, Murchison, and many others. Indeed, he is intimate with all the savants of Europe. We were surprised at the ease with which he spoke to us, and to the commonest people. The same bonhomie pervaded his address to both; but in the one he never fell into familiarity, nor in the other did he lose dignity. Having got alpenstocks, we set off walking to the Glacier des Boissons, which we crossed. I enjoyed picking my way among the crevasses. The glare was just what I expected, but it produced a curious effect of making the pine hills seem quite black and sombre, adding to their majesty. It is hard to estimate the height of these mountains, and this is the one disappointing thing about them. They do not displace as much sky as the summer thunderclouds, nor can we fancy that two Ben Nevises might be piled one on the top of the other below snow level (which is at the foot of the Aiguilles). However, the higher you get the more you can estimate the height above. Mont Blanc is himself so far retired that he appears small, while atmospheric differences, the want of an Alpine standard, and the size of the pine trees all tend to confuse English eyes, and lessen both height and distance. Balmat told me just the contrary of himself. In Wales and Scotland he always made mistakes, thinking, with his Alpine standard, the heights and distances much greater. He allowed some time to ascend Arthur’s Seat, and found himself immediately at the top of it.’

21 June 1861
‘We set off this morning at seven for the Flégère. Papa and I rode mules - stupid beasts, that stopped at every bush and rivulet to eat and drink. Balmat was charming through the day. He is a perfect gentleman in manners and feeling, nor is there the least affectation or parvenuism about him. When I compare him with [some] specimens of English travellers, I blush for my countrymen. Here is a guide of Chamonix, the son of a guide (who would not allow him to go to school or to learn the geology for which he has always had a passion, for fear he might leave Chamonix), whose manners are better, sentiments more delicate, knowledge more extensive, views more enlightened, than most of these soi-disant gentlemen and educated men. It is a great pity that his father would not allow him to study when young, for he might have become one of the first geologists of Europe, such fine opportunities for discovery do these mountains afford, and such an advantage his skill and intrepidity have given him. Though a mountaineer, he never brags, and is always considerate for weaker brethren like papa and me. I like very much to see him walking before our mules with his green spectacles, and old brown wideawake upon his grizzled hair, nodding kindly to the old men and women, joking with the guides, and smiling at the little children. He is patriarch of the valley, and nothing can be done without the advice of M. Balmat. After an ascent of two hours we arrived at at La Flégère, and saw before us the whole Mont Blanc range. For the first time we appreciated the height of the king himself. Now he towered above all the peaks. The names of most of the aiguilles and glaciers I knew. Balmat told us the rest in order. The Aiguille de Charmoz is still my favourite, guarding the entrance to the Mer de Glace. Here papa read ‘Come down, maid,’ from the  Princess. It was appropriate, for never were mountains better described than in that idyll.’

16 July 1862
‘The people of Milan are very unquiet to-night. They have been excited by a speech of Garibaldi, in which he denounced Napoleon, called him ‘traditore,’ ‘mosso da libidine,’ ‘capo di briganti, di assassini.’ The Milanese hate the French, and are beginning to weary of the Sardinian government, and because they have to pay heavier taxes they regret the Austrians. This promulgation of Garibaldi has roused them against France and Sardinia, and made them furious for a Republic. To-night they propose a demonstration; all the soldiers - cavalry, infantry, and National Guard - are in readiness to suppress it. While I was writing, a confused murmur reached our ears. We got up and ran to our window, which looks both up and down the street. Instantly we perceived that a large band of men, with lighted torches, were rapidly advancing up the street. A crowd formed in front of them. We saw men behind and at the sides. The bright red torches swayed about, burning and smoking with a glare upon the houses crowded with faces. Something seemed to interrupt their progress. A great noise arose, and the crowd increased. It was picturesque to see them toss their flambeaux up and down to make them shine, and in the distance each man looked like a shape of flame. Eschmann came up and told us that this was one of four divisions of the demonstration; 400 of another had been taken prisoners, and these were surrounded with soldiers. The soldiers forced them to break up, the crowd dropped away, and so ended the émeute. I often wondered what a demonstration meant. This is a pretty and picturesque specimen.’

12 April 1889
‘After some days of indecision, Catherine and I left Davos this morning for Sus by the Flégère. It was misty, yet I thought with the promise of a fine day in it. A large post and four passengers, and six luggage sledges, with only four drivers to all the ten horses. We were in the conductor’s sledge. Up to the Hospiz things went well, and the heat was absolutely awful. It burned more than I ever felt it burn, except upon the névé of a glacier in midsummer. A splendid liquid sky, full of the spring, seeming to portend storm. The road to Sus combines all the dangers of an Alpine road - avalanches, upsettings, falling stones; and they were all imminent to-day. When the first four sledges plunged into the great gallery I felt comparatively safe, but the rest did not arrive. After about ten minutes a fifth horse came plunging down the dark passage over the ice, with a pack-sledge and no driver. When he reached our train, he kept whinnying, neighing, and looking back as though to tell us that something had happened. We waited another five minutes, and still the rest did not arrive. The conductor had sent the chief postillion back. He could not leave the five horses alone in the tunnel - yet he was now anxious. Accordingly, I proposed to run back and see what had happened. The tunnel was pitch dark and as slippery as glass. It took me some time to slip along with my gouties on. When I emerged into the blaze of sunlight and snow, I saw nothing at first; then met Herr Lendi of Davos Dorfli walking to me. One of the sledges (with a driver) had been upset. The two passengers, a man and woman, and the postillion, had all been flung over a wall on to snow and rocks, and had fallen and rolled about fifty feet down the steep place. The woman was badly cut about the head; the young man, a Swiss, had sprained his hand; the postillion was all right.

‘Fortunately,’ added Lendi, ‘the horses and sledges remained above the wall, else they would all have been smashed together.’ I saw the girl, dazed and faint, and the place where she had fallen; then ran back to tell the conductor. But it was bad going in that tunnel with my gutta-percha shoes, and soon I heard the rest of the sledges come thundering into the pitch dark passage. I tried to keep close to a wall, and in moving shufflingly onward as fast as I could go, fell once heavily upon the rock and ice, bruising my right arm and loins. I did not think much of it at the time, being eager to get to my own sledge before the rest of the train arrived.

I ought to mention the curious optical phenomenon in this black gallery - black because fallen avalanches had stuffed up all its apertures with snow. On entering it, with eyes dazzled by the brilliance of the outer day, any object which caught a reflex of light from behind looked as green as emerald or sun-illuminated lake-water. In the middle there was no colour, nothing but night. Toward the end, when light again caught icicles and snow-heaps from the furthermost opening, these points shone bright crimson, as though a score of red Bengal lights had been lighted far ahead.

We reached Sus without further accidents. There, while I was talking to Herr Patt, I found that I had lost a ring from my watch-chain, to which was hung these objects - 1, funeral gold ring of John Symonds, my great-grandfather; 2, alliance ring of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother Sykes, two clasped hands opening, one heart inside; 8, a ring belonging to Admiral Sykes, with the name of his friend Captain Gathorne; 4, my father’s guard-ring; 5, my seal ring of bloodstone engraved with the crests of Symonds and Sykes; 6, my gondolier’s ring engraved with the arms of Symonds; 7, a Napoleon Rep. Fr. 1848; 8, a cow-bell given me by Patt.’

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Thatcher gives a cuddle

Margaret Thatcher, one of Britain’s greatest 20th century prime ministers, has died aged 87. Undefeated through three general elections, she was revered across the nation by many and loathed by many others; internationally, though, she was a giant of her time, admired from Washington D.C. to Moscow. There is no evidence to date of Thatcher of being a diarist, but she is a major figure in the diaries of other political figures. Tony Benn and Alan Clark, at opposite ends of the political spectrum, were both dazzled by Thatcher, albeit in different ways; and Edwina Currie, well, she was a fan too, and when having to step down from her ministerial position was offered no less than a ‘cuddle’ by the Iron Lady.

Margaret Roberts was born in 1925, in Grantham, the daughter of a grocer, who was mayor of the town for some years. She went to a local school, becoming head girl in her last year, before entering Somerville College, Oxford, to study chemistry. There she became president of the university’s Conservative Association. She took a job as a research chemist in Colchester; but, through friends, successfully applied to be an election candidate for the Dartford Conservative Association in Kent. She failed to take Dartford from Labour in the 1950 and 1951 general elections, though attracted attention as the youngest and only female candidate. She married Denis Thatcher in 1951, and they had two children.

After qualifying as a barrister in 1953, Margaret Thatcher found a safe Conservative seat, and was elected an MP for Finchley in 1959. In 1961, Harold Macmillan promoted her to the front bench as a Parliamentary Undersecretary, and, after the 1964 election, she became the Opposition’s spokeswoman on Housing and Land, in which position she advocated a policy of allowing tenants to buy their council houses. In his administration, Edward Heath appointed Thatcher to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Education and Science. After the Conservatives lost power in 1974, Heath was unexpectedly replaced by Thatcher as leader, largely thanks to the support of the 1922 Committee.

Thatcher led the Conservatives back to power in 1979, and then won two more elections, in 1983 and 1987. She is remembered for, among other major developments, reforming the trades unions; the restructuring of the British economy, including privatisation of state-run companies; the Falklands War; the Anglo-Irish agreement; her firm Cold War stance with Ronald Reagan that eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall (it was a Soviet journalist that first called her the Iron Lady); signing the UK up to the Single European Market; the Council house right-to-buy scheme; and the Community Charge (also known as the poll tax).

In November 1990, during several days of high political drama, the Conservative Party tore itself apart in removing Thatcher as its leader, and then tried put itself back together with John Major as leader and prime minister. Thatcher returned to the back benches, until the next election, in 1992, when she retired from politics. Thereafter, she wrote two volumes of memoirs, took up a few appointments, and gave speeches, only occasionally giving her thoughts publicly on world affairs. In recent years, she suffered ill health, including dementia, and rarely attended public events. She died on 8 October 2013 at the Ritz Hotel where she had been staying since Christmas. The internet is currently awash with information about Thatcher, with almost every political personality and many others offering memories or opinions - see the BBC, The Guardian or Wikipedia.

However, as far as I know, no other media story is offering a diary angle, so here is a collection of extracts about Thatcher from famous diarists: from Tony Benn, on the left wing of the Labour Party; from Alan Clark on the right of the Conservative Party; and from Edwina Currie, one of the very few female politicians of the era who has published a diary. I have also appended a very short extract from my own diary: though I don’t now quite understand what I meant, it seems prescient with regard to how some would see Thatcher in future years.

From The Benn Diaries (Arrow Books, 1996):

15 May 1979
‘State Opening of Parliament. [ . . .] Mrs Thatcher made a most impassioned speech, from notes, except for one passage about Rhodesia which had been typed up no doubt on the insistence of the FO - the most rumbustious, rampaging, right-wing speech that I’ve heard from the government Front Bench in the whole of my life. Afterwards I saw Ted Heath and told him, “I’ve never heard a speech like that in all my years in Parliament.” He said, “Neither have I.” [. . .]

I said I had some sympathy with Thatcher - with her dislike of the wishy-washy centre of British politics. He gave me such a frosty look that I daresay I had touched a raw nerve.’

20 November 1990
‘To the House, and went into the Committee Corridor because I wanted to see what was happening in the first ballot for the Tory leadership - Michael Heseltine versus Margaret Thatcher. It is quite a historic event. By secret ballot, Tory MPs have the power to remove as Leader of their party a Prime Minister who has been elected three times by the British people. [. . .]

The Labour Party is of course keen to keep Thatcher, and Kinnock has put down a motion of censure against her, for Thursday, to try to consolidate Tory support around her. It is a disgrace that in eight years this is the first motion of censure against the government.’

21 November 1990
‘Mrs Thatcher arrived back from France. The rumour going round at the moment is that the men in grey suits went to see her to say, “Time to go.” [. . .]

In terms of stamina and persistence, you have to admit Margaret Thatcher is an extraordinary woman. She came out of Number 10 saying, “I fight on. I fight to win.” [. . .]

When Paddy Ashdown got up and said that the Paris Treaty was one of the great moments of the twilight of her premiership, she replied, “As for twilight, people should remember that there is a 24-hour clock”, which was a smashing answer. Kinnock tried to be statesmanlike but couldn’t manage it.’

22 November 1990
‘I was in the middle of an interview about the war in the Gulf for ‘Dispatches’ on Channel 4 when my secretary burst in to say Margaret Thatcher has resigned. Absolutely dazzling news, and it was quite impossible to keep my mind on the interview after that. So people have been to her and told her that she can’t win. She called the Cabinet together this morning and told them. But the motion of censure is still taking place this afternoon.

To the House, which was in turmoil. We had the censure debate, and Kinnock’s speech was flamboyant and insubstantial. When he was cross-examined about the European currency he simply couldn’t answer. Thatcher was brilliant. She always has her ideology to fall back on; she rolled off statistics, looked happy and joked.’

From Alan Clark - A Life in His Own Words (Phoenix, 2010)

28 April 1977
‘Had interview yesterday with Margaret Thatcher for first time. She sat, china-blue. Almost too text-book sincere. No intimacy. The half-finished sentences, the implied assumption, that mixture of Don, Colonel-of-the-Regiment, ‘Library’, which one gets from almost every other member of the Shadow - Pym, Willie, Gilmour - even the lower rank like Paul Channon and William Clark - totally absent

26 February 1980 [In the cafeteria in the House of Commons, after Thatcher had been interviewed by Robin Day for Panorama.]
‘But goodness, she is so beautiful; made up to the nines of course, for the television programme, but still quite bewitching, as Eva Peron must have been. I could not take my eyes off her and after a bit she, quite properly, would not look me in the face and I detached myself from the group with the excuse that I was going up to heckle Michael Foot who was doing the winding-up for Labour.’

21 November 1990
I was greeted with the news that there had been an announcement. “I fight, and I fight to win.” God alive! [. . .]

I passed her outer door and said to Peter that I must have a minute or so. He looked anxious, almost rattled, which he never does normally. [. . .]

I went down the stairs and rejoined the group outside her door. After a bit Peter said, “I can just fit you in now - but only for a split second, mind.”

She looked calm, almost beautiful. “Ah, Alan . . .”
“You’re in a jam.”
“I know that.”
“They’re telling you not to stand, aren’t they?”
“I’m going to stand. I have issued a statement.”
“That’s wonderful. That’s heroic. But the Party will let you down.”
“I am a fighter.”
“Fight, then. Fight right to the end, a third ballot if you need to. But you lose.”
There was quite a little pause.
“It’d be so terrible if Michael won. He would undo everything I have fought for.”
“But what a way to go! Unbeaten in three elections, never rejected by the people. Brought down by nonentities!”
“But Michael . . . as Prime Minister.”
“Who the fuck’s Michael? No one. Nothing. He won’t last six months. I doubt if he’d even win the Election. Your place in history is towering. . . ‘
Outside, people were doing that maddening trick of opening and shutting the door, at shorter and shorter intervals.
“Alan, it’s been so good of you to come in and see me . . .”
Afterwards I felt empty. And cross. I had failed, but I didn’t really know what I wanted, except for her still to be Prime Minister, and it wasn’t going to work out.

From Edwina Currie Diaries 1987-1992
(Little, Brown, 2002). The first of these extracts is about a meeting with Thatcher at which she was accepting Currie’s resignation over her controversial remarks about salmonella in British eggs.

21 December 1988
‘We went across to the Chief Whip’s office, round the back of Number 12, and cleared texts with David Waddingham and Bernard Ingham. I didn’t realise I could help write the PM’s letter [. . .] In I went; we ritualistically glanced at each other’s letters, then talked for half an hour. [. . .] Anyway I had been fine till the end of the interview and indeed have not felt very upset since - but then she gave me a cuddle and it creased me for a minute, and when I told her how I felt she said, “That is because we are friends”, and that was that. Out the back way, and whisked off to Ray’s [her husband] office.’

25 November 1990
‘Now the legend starts - the godhead Margaret. Her performance at Prime Minister’s Questions and in the No Confidence debate on Thursday afternoon was sheer magic. Out with a bang, not a whimper. It brought tears to the eyes of even those who wanted her out. Magnificent is the only word.’

Finally here is a very brief extract from my own diary: the first mention of Thatcher in my diaries. I’d been away from the UK for nearly three years and was travelling in Chile, then ruled by the dictator Augusto Pinochet.

29 September 1976
‘My thoughts are of home, going home, and how beautiful Chile is - with English pubs it could be paradise - you’d have to change government and put Margaret Thatcher in charge.’