Friday, December 27, 2013

Everything is sunshining

‘At about quarter to five, after nothing but music in its dissected form, I did the only right and inevitable thing to do when the sky is singingly blue and the sun is showing up the nakedness of London and everything is sunshining and smelling of new-forgotten damp earth and crocuses - I went out.’ This is the Canadian Elizabeth Smart - born 100 years ago today - not yet 20, writing in her diary with youthful enthusiasm and literary precociousness.

Smart was born on 27 December 1913 into a privileged family in Ottawa, Canada. She was educated at private schools, and became very keen on poetry, before being sent to King’s College, London, where she studied piano. In her mid-20s, she was taken on as secretary by Margaret Watt, head of Associated Country Women of the World, and travelled extensively with her to conferences. It was during this period that she first became interested in the poet George Barker. She wrote for The Ottawa Journal for some months, and she travelled on her own, mostly in the US.

Eventually, Smart managed to arrange a meeting with Barker, with whom she launched a long-lasting affair. She returned to Canada to give birth to a daughter (by Barker), and then went to work for the British embassy in Washington. She fell pregnant again during the war, and travelled to the UK to join Barker. There she worked for the British Ministry of Defence while caring for her two children. Her best known work, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, a semi-autobiographical novel about her relationship with Barker, was published in 1945. Thanks to the negative influence of her parents, the book was banned in Canada.

Thereafter, Barker visited Smart often in London, and they had two more children, although Barker never left his wife. Smart worked as an advertisement copywriter and as a magazine editor, living in Westbourne Terrace, where her flat is said to have been a magnet for the city’s bohemians. Retiring in the mid-1960s to a cottage in Suffolk, she took up writing poetry and fiction again, and also looked after her daughter’s two children (her daughter, having become involved with drugs, died in 1982). The early 1980s saw her publish - more than three decades since her last book - a few poems and The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals, a kind of sequel to By Grand Central Station. She died soon after, in London in 1986. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, The Canadian EncyclopediaABC Bookworld, or Studies in Canadian Literature.

Two volumes of Smart’s diary were published posthumously, one in 1987 and the other in 1994, Necessary Secrets and On the Side of the Angels. Their editor, Alice Van Wart, believes ‘a remarkable personality’ emerges from the journals, ‘passionate, vibrant, extravagant, sensitive, yet subject to lethargy and self-doubt’. She says the entries were rapidly written, usually at night in bed, and ‘are the private record of the heart of a woman, a woman who never overtly rejects the standards and expectations placed upon her but quietly begins to construct her own personal values’.

The brightest, liveliest of Smart’s diary entries, in which one can sense her nascent literary talent and an interest in describing experiences of the world around her, were all written in her early diaries; later on her diaries become consumed by her difficulties, especially those in her relationship with Barker. (See also - O God George, can’t you see.)

7 March 1933
‘At about quarter to five, after nothing but music in its dissected form, I did the only right and inevitable thing to do when the sky is singingly blue and the sun is showing up the nakedness of London and everything is sunshining and smelling of new-forgotten damp earth and crocuses - I went out. [. . .]

The streets were full of tulips and narcissus and daffodils and it was spring - really. I passed by that little pool in Hyde Park by the Serpentine, cut from the bridge by bushes. A heron was standing dark and blue grey by the edge and there were sky and bushes shining in its bottom. The grass was bright green and fresh looking and on all the little hillocks purple and white and yellow crocuses are coming up.

I walked along the Serpentine - not on the bank because there were too many people there. Why do people when they go for a walk look at each other? - but up on the other side of the road - and there was a breezy wind enough to blow your hair and make you feel a little like mascots on motor cars - so I took my loose, loose hat off before the wind did. Before I came to the end, I took a new path across - on my right were two lovers walking away - he bending over and around her with his arm and head. The sparrows were making so much spring noise that I took off my gloves and scarf in spite of the brick red dress showing, and stuffed them in my purse. And then just as I thought I was alone I saw two more lovers on my left who thought they were alone. They were sitting on a seat under a gigantic trunk of a tree. [. . .]

I came out at a gate and crossed the bridge. There were boats on the water - people lazing - or working hard - and gulls flying and ducks in the water - just like summer. The wind blew my hair the right way. I forgave everybody their trespasses. I got into the gardens again and went down to the river past that mass of bushes that makes you so conscious of them and followed the water - watching the ducks and a child or two - until I came almost to Peter Pan. I had to pass a smug jealous woman sitting on a seat with some male. She tittered. Then I stepped over the low rail and walked on the grass which was quite muddy and hard to walk on in ladies’ heels. [. . .] I looked at the statue which turned out to be one by G. F. Watts called ‘Physical Energy’ - about twice life size of a huge horse. He was a god with naturally curly hair and a seductive Greek mouth. I saw that the path went in the same unbroken way - a sort of huge green path edged by huge trees on either side right up to the palace - in front of which sits the ‘Big Penny’ statue of the Good Smug Queen [Victoria]. By the time I got to the Round Pond it was quite dark and there were foreboding clouds over the palace - a shadowy purpleness more than an actual cloud - behind there was a pink light - and everywhere there was an expectancy as if something was about to be revealed - something too wonderful or too intangible.’

9 March 1933
‘On the bus [. . .] there was only one seat on top which a nondescript man was trying to camouflage. However, I was resolute and made him move over - sitting uncomfortably and precariously on the edge. Soon, the seat in front was completely empty and I moved into it - it was the very front seat. In a couple of moments a lady who had been sitting beside someone else came and sat beside me. She was not startling, but if you looked into her face it was queer and uncanny - you could see she lived in a very different world from most people. [. . .] When the conductor came up to collect the tickets she said to him in a very loud voice, “Why don’t you stop there and get some petrol. We might get on a bit quicker.” I smiled at her when she seemed to be muttering her hates to me - but I didn’t speak for fear of bringing down on my head the accusations of an insane person - though I wished I had later when she left. [. . .]

I went to the Tate Gallery on a 2 bus and was inspired and thrilled and imagitated by William Blake’s illustrations - especially the one of Dante and Virgil approaching the angel who guards the gates of Purgatory - there are mystical yellow and red lights and rays upon the water - and you can look into it and into it - and you feel a sacred feeling like the light of twilights and dreams when you were little. Strange, lost beautiful things and imaginings and forgotten inspirations.’

31 March 1933
‘We took a bus from Sloane St to the Ritz and our white gloves began to look faintly grey at the tips. We walked along to Givans and tried on the blue checked blouse which was wrong and didn’t fit. We made an exit there - and London was making an awful noise. Men drilling and buses roaring and things falling - you couldn’t hear or think. [. . .] The noise and confusion was worse and worse - and then what should have been spring sunny air was filled with gas smells and dust and tired heat and hard dirty pavement - horrible dusty gas coming out of the bowels of dirty motors and buses.

O the clashing and jarring. It never seemed so bad. We went to Lilley and Skinners and sat in a fairly comfortable seat and Mummy tried on shoes that looked awful and cost pounds. [. . .] We took a taxi and came home and then Mummy and I had a sherry in the lounge and I was a little tight but I camouflaged it and she went out to lunch. Then I reeled into the dining room and had lunch. Then I took a bus to the Ritz and walked or rather strutted in a clipped sort of way up Dover St - and my hair was unspeakable and looked untouchable in fact - I wore a hanky under my new silk hat. The girl gave me a wash and wanted to pluck my eyebrows which made me mad - why should they want to standardize even me? I am sick of this Mayfair fashionable smart - socialness - Tatler-Spectator - jealousy - boredom - toeing the mark.’

28 February 1937
‘Hampstead still has that air of concealing just around the corner, the house I read about in some old book when I was a child, a different life. I know someday I shall find that family whose smell is in the very Hampstead mists, behind the clipped hedges, under the arched doorways. Keats walking with Leigh Hunt, or the whole Sanger family sitting in the sunshine in an untidy studio making music in the middle of the afternoon.’

The Diary Junction

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Amazing Mr Smith

Most of The Diary Review articles are pegged to an anniversary or publication of a book. This one, though, very sadly, has come about because I happened to be in West Bay, Dorset, on the morning of Sunday 8 December with my family when a body was being recovered from the beach. Later that week, local newspapers reported that a man named Derek Smith had died after falling from the cliff, whether accidentally or deliberately has not yet been reported. Curiosity led me to find out more about Derek Smith - or, as he was better known publicly, The Amazing Mr Smith - and to a book of his diary extracts.

Derek Smith was born in Croydon, south of London, on 1 April 1948 (I think), and, according to his own testimony, lived within 10 miles of the place for 47 years. In the 1960s, he performed in a band called Wild Oats, whose lead singer, Viva, he married in Torquay in 1982. They had one daughter, Rosie. After Wild Oats disbanded, Derek went on to a carve a career as a solo performer, while Viva moved into acting and then sang with a folk trio, Dangerous Curves. Derek was considered a talented guitar player and played in many comedy and folk clubs. He also toured the US five times, and appeared in shows in Holland, Germany, Norway and Jordan.

Smith’s own website quotes this comment: ‘The cardboard tube double bass, the musical shoelaces, the Nutcracker played on the tu-tu xylophone, the Blue Danube on the condom harp and his 3-minute rendition of Riverdance had to be seen to be believed.’ One reviewer said that his combination of mad inventions and brilliant acoustic guitar playing made him one of the funniest and most original entertainers around. In another, he was dubbed Monty Python’s answer to John Williams. Viva died in 2009, and Derek died on 8 December 2013. A service was held at Weymouth Crematorium on 20 December. There is not much information about Smith online, though some can be found in John Fleming’s blog piece, and in a film at Vimeo
There are many tributes to Smith at The Mudcat Cafe.

In 2005, Derek Smith self-published a book entitled 25 Year Diary of An Eccentric Musician 1980-2005. It is dedicated to ‘Viva, my long-suffering wife’. Among the acknowledgements is this one: ‘Thanks especially to my friend Steve Black for suggesting I should do something like this. The conversation ran roughly as follows: “I’ve got all these diaries of funny things that have happened to me since 1979, a lot of them at gigs.” - “Why don’t you publish some of them?” - “Because they wouldn’t be of general interest unless I was really famous.” - Maybe not, but people at your gigs might like to read about some of the things that happened at others.” - “Yes, maybe, I suppose I’d better give it a go then.’

Many of the stories, Smith says in his ‘Foreword (not funny)’ are much longer that the bits reproduced in the book, and that one day he might ‘release’ the unabridged versions. ‘Perhaps the funniest part of the whole business,’ he adds, ‘is that I bothered to write any of it down in the first place.’ He estimates that there are 300,000 words in his nine diary notebooks, and that 90% of these are ‘funny things that happened to me’, and half of this 90% is gig related. The books were not intended to be a comprehensive day by day journal, he explains, and whole days or even weeks have nothing written about them, ‘presumably because nothing notably funny happened.’ Here are a few short extracts.

12 March 1981, Shoreditch College
‘Noisy, don’t know whether it was good or bad. Several enjoyed it but ‘Keith’ (black eye, allegedly only one ball) was 21 that day and drinking G&Ts out of a pint glass. He was very pissed and rather upstaged me by stripping except for a saucepan which he and a few others were wearing . . .’

15 December 1981, Half Moon, Putney
‘Bob told me about his trumpet in the boot of his Alvis. He was wearing a fur coat and was pissed when he was stopped by the Bill. They looked at his trumpet and started sniffing it (looking for drugs). Going home, I too was stopped by the Bill, this time for jumping the lights. Sarky remark by copper: ’This is why insurance premiums are so high for musicians if they do things like jump red lights.’

7 August 1987, Colchester Folk Club
‘. . . in the interval I accidentally dropped [my plastic] dog-turd out of my tail’s pocket which resounded when it hit the top of a metallic beer barrel. I reflected how nice this was in the church. I went into the gents’ and put on my tutu behind a screen such that I was able to hear the only other occupant, who was pissing and unaware of my presence, sing in falsetto and in its entirety, ‘I wanna be Bobby’s girl’. My ‘That was nice’ made him jump out of his skin.’

23 June 1989, Jongleurs
‘. . . midnight ‘open spot’. Nasty evening before but not as nasty as the gig - drunken bastards but they enjoyed yelling ‘fuck off’ etc. I was called a brave man by Arthur Smith (compere) who bought me a drink.’

13 July 1990, Deal Folk Club
‘. . . A dog barked outside at the end of the 1st verse of ‘The Seeds of Love’, so I stopped, got out one of my toy (bouncing) dogs and tried some black magic on it by stamping on it, but the dog outside carried on barking . . .’

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Consuming concentration

‘I’m wondering if perhaps there isn’t some mean between the consuming concentration I formerly directed to the keeping of the entries and the comparative laxness of attention I have devoted to the diary since the atomic bomb fell upon history.’ This is a 1947 diary entry by Arthur Crew Inman, a rich, eccentric and obsessed diarist who died half a century ago today. His diaries - all 155 of them held by Harvard University - were edited for publication in the 1980s; and, since then, they have proved a compulsive inspiration for Lorenzo DeStefano’s plays and films.

Inman was born into a very wealthy family in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1895. He studied at Haverford College, Pennsylvania, but had some kind of serious breakdown at 21. He published several volumes of poetry without any success. In 1923, he married Evelyn Yates. They moved to Boston, where Inman rented several apartments in a residential hotel. He became increasingly obsessed with his health, and had his rooms darkened and soundproofed - his
 inherited wealth allowed him full rein to indulge the hypochondria. He employed individuals to talk to him (‘talkers’), tell him about their lives, and sometimes he seduced them. He attempted suicide on several occasions, and finally succeeded with a revolver on 5 December 1863. Further biographical information is available from the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Harvard Gazette or Wikipedia.

From his mid-20s, Inman began to keep a diary, somewhat obsessively, thinking it would bring him immortality. By the time of his death, he had written 155 volumes, making it one of the longest diaries on record. According to David Herbert Donald, a Pulitzer-prize-winning historian, it is also ‘the most remarkable diary ever published by an American’. An edited version was painstakingly put together by Professor Daniel Aaron, and published in two volumes by Harvard University Press in 1985 as The Inman Diary - A Public and Private Confession. Some pages from the first of these can be browsed online at Googlebooks; as can some pages from an abridged one volume edition in 1996 called From a Darkened Room.

Most publicity about Inman’s diaries in recent years has been focused on, or through, Lorenzo DeStefano, who states this: ‘I first discovered The Inman Diary through a New York Times book review. What began as a fixation has grown into a deep exploration of the American psyche. Through Inman’s obsessive efforts to capture time I have encountered a literary milieu and aspects of American and world history I had no inkling of before. As a result I now hold exclusive dramatic rights to the Inman Diary from Harvard University Press.’ DeStefano’s projects include Camera Obscura, a play about Inman, which has also been turned into a chamber opera; a documentary, From a Darkened Room; and a film, Hypergraphia

The following extracts are taken from The Inman Diary - A Public and Private Confession.

5 September 1944
‘I am forty-nine. There is no hope in my heart that I shall ever recover from a state of limited semi-invalidism.

My day is divided somewhat as follows: The curtains in my bedroom are dropped some fifty minutes before sunrise to keep the room dark so that I may avoid headaches. Breakfast is at 6:30am, after which I wash and go back to bed unto 8:10am, when I get up. I ride at nine or ten for varying amounts, after having scanned the newspapers, listened to the news and waltzes on the radio, perhaps written in here without using my glasses, though I use them when driving. On returning home, I eat something, work, dictate, write in here. Lunch comes shortly after noon. I nap in my darkened room for a few minutes around one o’clock. Then Janice massages the soft tissue in my neck. With myself still in the dark and Evelyn or Janice on the other side of a curtain where the light is, I correct from three until shortly before six. Then I play the talking-book and the radio until 7:15pm, when Fulton Lewis’ talk ends, when I eat my supper. Thereafter, I listen to the radio, the talking-book or am read to or talked to for the evening, which extends until midnight or twelve-thirty.

My principle pleasure consists of writing in here, correcting, studying. I cannot work a tithe of the time I would wish to. I have no faith in God, the reality of progress, the predominance of good. I feel myself born under an unlucky star. I value my friends. I place more value upon money than formerly. I fear many things up to a certain point - always anticipating trouble and usually getting it. People, by and large, are very good to me, and I strive to return as I am able their affection and their efforts in my behalf. I am bitter and disillusioned with existence and wait for it to end but until it does attempt to achieve some measure of normality, to be cheerful and equable.’

24 September 1947
‘I’m wondering if perhaps there isn’t some mean between the consuming concentration I formerly directed to the keeping of the entries and the comparative laxness of attention I have devoted to the diary since the atomic bomb fell upon history. I have often thought about cooks. They plan; they work. In a trice the result of their efforts vanishes down the red lane, and if a remembrance of their culinary art remains in the mind of the one who has eaten, that is generally the apogee of reward any cook can expect. Cooks come and go, and people eat on, and very seldom in history does a name or reputation survive. Yet often the most inconspicuous and unappreciated cooks take real pleasure in their remunerative labour.

So it should be, perhaps, with the keeping of a diary. If the long record of private thoughts, emotions, experiences, observations ends by being annihilated, the mind should not dwell upon that probability but permit itself, as a traveler journeying to no destination yet enjoying the act of traveling, to enjoy the simple daily exercise.’

25 September 1947
‘Could I quite surrender to the idea that some historical and psychological value attaches itself to my efforts and believe accordingly that they were absolutely vain and trifling, I could at least be more at peace with myself, consider each entry a pleasurable venture in idle scribbling only. But I can’t, and for the simple reason that, when I come across a record such as this, I’m enraptured by it. The New York Times Book Section of week before last carries a front-page review of the journals of AndrĂ© Gide. I must read them. “My mind is becoming voluptuously impious and pagan. I must stress this tendency.” Did famous persons march across my pages, their merit might be differently weighed. Well, they don’t. Only nonillustrious persons of no consequence artistically or historically. Myself, I detest reading about the famous in memoirs and journals. Is that sour grapes?’

The Diary Junction