Friday, March 28, 2014

George Kennan’s diaries

‘What bothers me is a total separation of personal life and intellectual life, so that when I tend to personal affairs, even to the children, the intellect stagnates.’ This is George F. Kennan, one of the most important US policy strategists of the Cold War period, writing in his diary on the cusp of resigning from diplomatic life. Kennan’s diaries - spanning an astonishing nine decades - have just been published to great acclaim, not just for their intellectual content, but for their self-critical and emotional revelations, too, which tell us much about the man himself, not just his ideas.

Kennan was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in February 1904, but his mother died soon after. He grew up close to his sisters, though not to his lawyer father or stepmother. After being schooled at St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield, he studied at Princeton University, graduating in 1925. Thereafter, he joined the newly formed Foreign Service, and, after training in Washington, was posted as a vice consul to Geneva, and then to Hamburg, before being selected to study Russian in Berlin. This led on to a posting in Latvia, and then, at the start of diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s, to Moscow. In 1931, he had married Annelise Sorensen, and they were to have four children, the first, Grace, born in 1932.

Kennan did not last a year in Moscow before suffering a breakdown, which led him back to Vienna and a sanatorium, and a considerable amount of self-analysis, partly inspired by the teachings of Sigmund Freud. A move back to Moscow followed, where Stalin’s bloody purges were under way, thence to light duties in Washington, before a return to Europe (Prague, then Berlin). After the US entered the war in December 1941, Kennan was interred for six months, and, on his release, moved to Lisbon, London, and back to Moscow. There, according to biographers, Kennan felt that his opinions were being ignored by the new president, Harry S. Truman, and he tried repeatedly to persuade policymakers to abandon plans for cooperation with the Soviet Union in favour of a sphere of influence approach in Europe and a western European federation to reduce the Soviets’ power there. In early 1946, near the end of his term in Moscow, he sent to Secretary of State James Byrnes, what would become known as the ‘long telegram’, an appeal to understand that, ‘At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.’

Returning to the US, Kennan stayed with the State Department and went to work for the National War College in Washington DC, advising and lecturing on what would soon become known as the Cold War. Around this time, he developed his political ideas subsequently known as ‘containment’. By 1948, when the US administration was intent on escalating the Cold War, Kennan advised steering clear of military action, and finding ways instead to ease tensions - he had always advocated, he said, political, not military, containment. In the negotiations over post-war Germany, he visited Hamburg, and was affected deeply by the devastation he found there, leading him, over time, to question the validity of any war.

In 1951, Kennan helped initiate talks that would lead to an armistice in Korea, and he was appointed Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Once in Moscow, though, he found the country even more regimented than before, and his own position hampered by Truman’s unwillingness to negotiate with the Soviets. Before a year had passed, Kennan had been expelled by the Soviet government for a foolish comment to the press, likening his isolation in Moscow to that he had experienced in Nazi Germany. Back in the US, he was frustrated by the Eisenhower administration but continued to be an advisor. In 1956, he was appointed as professor of historical studies at the Princeton Institute, and the following year published the Pulitzer prize-winning Russia Leaves the War. While an Eastman Professor at Oxford, the BBC invited him to deliver the 1957 Reith Lectures, his views on nuclear weapons, arousing much controversy.

John F. Kennedy appointed Kennan as US ambassador to Yugoslavia in 1961, but again Kennan soon found himself uncomfortable in a diplomatic role, frustrated at US policy and unable to stop a worsening of bilateral relations. He resigned in 1963, and subsequently spent the rest of his career as a writer and academic, an influential critic of US foreign policy. He lived to be 101, dying in 2005, by which time history was judging him kindly: The New York Times called him ‘the American diplomat who did more than any other envoy of his generation to shape United States policy during the cold war’; The Economist said he was revered as ‘America’s greatest living diplomat’ in his later years. Wikipedia has a fairly detailed biography.

Kennan kept a diary, not always all the time, but all his life, from 1916 to 2004. There are some 8,000 pages stored with his papers at the Princeton University Library. Kennan, himself, chose some extracts for publication a quarter of a century ago, in 1989, published by Pantheon, New York - Sketches from a Life. The introduction and some pages can be read at Amazon. Now, however, the full set of diaries, spanning all of Kennan’s life, have been edited by Frank Costigliola and published by W. W. Norton as The Kennan Diaries.

‘In these pages,’ the publisher states, ‘we see Kennan rambling through 1920s Europe as a college student, despairing for capitalism in the midst of the Depression, agonizing over the dilemmas of sex and marriage, becoming enchanted and then horrified by Soviet Russia, and developing into America’s foremost Soviet analyst. But it is the second half of this near-century-long record - the blossoming of Kennan the gifted author, wise counselor, and biting critic of the Vietnam and Iraq wars - that showcases this remarkable man at the height of his singular analytic and expressive powers, before giving way, heartbreakingly, to some of his most human moments, as his energy, memory, and finally his ability to write fade away.’

The Kennan Diaries has been well received in the US, but reviewers have generally acknowledged that the book is as much about Kennan the man, as about his politics. Fareed Zakaria, in The New York Times, says ‘Kennan shined a powerful light on the world beyond. But in his own land, from the beginning to his last days, he remained a bewildered guest.’ Douglas Brinkley in the Washington Post says, ‘great merits aside, “The Kennan Diaries” should come with a warning label: Beware of enough gloomy prognostications to give the book of Revelation a run for its money.’ And George Shultz, former Secretary of State, is quoted by the publisher as saying of the book: ‘An informed mind, a clarity of expression, candor in a private diary - all are present in George Kennan’s fascinating commentary on a period when the tectonic plates of the world changed. Read, enjoy, agree or disagree, and be stimulated to think.’

But I can find few reviews, to date, among the UK media, except for one by Matthew Walther in The Spectator. It’s such a wrong-headed, idiotic review, I cannot resist quoting a bit: ‘The longest, chronologically, and probably the most boring diary I have ever read. Unlike the great diarists - Greville, Nicolson, Lees-Milne - Kennan writes very little about others. His diary is a record of himself, a Domesday book of the acres and perches he has surveyed in his own head: a wide range of ambitions, complaints, masturbatory fantasies, unpublished literary criticism, amateurish verse. [. . .] Above all it is a collection of cocksure opinions.’

Kennan’s diaries are certainly not boring, they are the opposite, almost always interesting, intriguing, intelligent. Walther’s comment that Kennan writes very little about others is a dead giveaway: he, Walther, must want gossip, tittle-tattle, but Kennan, when writing for himself in the seclusion of his diary was not a name-dropper. Ideas, particularly about policy, but also about culture and society, are what excited him, drove him to put pen to paper; and beyond ideas, he was unusual in being so interested in his own feelings to the point of trying to pin them down, and fix them, as it were, in the diary pages. It is this kind of self-criticism, self analysis that lifts the diary from being simply of political interest to one that has more universal appeal, to one that has something to say about the human condition. And, as for ‘cocksure opinions’, Walther’s opinions might not matter, but as one of US’s most important foreign policy advisers, Kennan’s opinions certainly did matter, and thus are of great interest.

Costigliola has done a very fine job with The Kennan Diaries, synthesising 8,000 pages down to about 700 (leaving out much about sailing, apparently). He has kept footnotes to a minimum, provided short biographical notes for every year - astonishingly there is only one year between 1927 and 2004 (1943) lacking any diary entry - and included a useful index. Here are a few extracts, more can be read online, again, at Amazon, and at Googlebooks.

8 April 1934
‘I have always thought of literature as a type of history: the portrayal of a given class at a given time, with all its problems, its suffering and its hopes, etc. For that reason, the diplomatic corps has always defied literary approach. From that point of view, it is too insignificant, too accidental, to warrant description.

Perhaps that is all wrong. Perhaps they should be described simply as human beings, not as diplomats (so-called) of the twentieth century. If Chekhov could describe Russian small town folk with an appeal so universal that even the American reader gasps and says: “How perfectly true,” why cannot the Moscow diplomatic folk be written up the same way.’

3 September 1934
‘Here human flesh lives in one seething, intimate mass - far more so, even than in New York. It streams slowly, endlessly, in thick, full currents, along the boulevards, between the dark trees, under the gleam of the street lights; it is carried, as herded, tired animals are carried, in box-cars, in the long trains of street cars. And it is human life in the raw, human life brought down to its fundamentals - good and evil, drunk and sober, loving and quarrelling, laughing and weeping - all that human life is and does anywhere, but all much more simple and direct, and therefore stronger.

There is something unmistakably healthy in it all: not the health we strive for by the elimination of microbes and danger and physical hardship, but the health bred of the experience and survival of all these ills. Revolution, like nature, is lavish and careless. Its victims are no more to it than the thousands of seeds which are cast to the wind, in order that one tree may grow. But in its blind masterfulness, it has at least given new scope for the survival of the fittest, the nervously and physically fittest, who are by no means the most intelligent, or the freest from dirt and disease. The principle of natural selection, deprived of its beneficial operation by vaccinations and nursing homes and birth control, has been allowed to come into its own in its full ruthlessness. This is the answer to the question: how do the Russians stand it? Many of them didn’t stand it. And these whom you see on the street: they are the elite, not the elite of wealth or of power or of the spiritual virtues, but nature’s own elite, the elite of the living, as opposed to the hoi polloi of the dead!

It is this tremendous health, this earthy vitality, which attracts the over-civilised, neurotic foreigner. The fact that he himself could not stand it for six months, that it would crush him as it crushes all forms of weakness, does not dissuade him. There is something in its very cruelty which appeals to his sick fantasy. It is a form of flagellum [flagellation] perhaps, like all deliberate self-abnegation.’

24 June 1963
‘I feel that I have been dead for months. I do not even recognise my former self. This evening, strolling around town with Christopher [in Valkenburg, The Netherlands], I suddenly saw, staring me in the face from a bookshop window, my own name on a Dutch translation of Russia & The West. [. . .] I had the feeling of “Hello, stranger,” & I wondered whether the fellow who wrote that book would ever return.

What bothers me is a total separation of personal life and intellectual life, so that when I tend to personal affairs, even to the children, the intellect stagnates . . .

Have the feeling, even now, that I ought to be writing about this trip. But writing: what? About this Western Europe? I used to think there was something mysterious & wonderful about it. Today, I know there is not. I looked at this place tonight and I realised that here there could not even be a literature, because there is no nature except in parks & without nature, as a foil at least, there is no real human experience.

Why was it different in the railway age? Was it really only that I was younger?’

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Arsenal, Highbury and me

I’m not a football (soccer) fan as such, but I was brought up to support the great London club, Arsenal. My stepfather, Sasha, would take me - this was when I was a teenager - to games at Highbury fairly regularly, and my enthusiasm for ‘the beautiful game’ lasted into my early 20s, and even today, though professing no real interest, I still check Arsenal’s results, and a win adds sparkle to the rest of the day. The result from yesterday’s game (22 March 2014) - the 1,000th with Arsene Wenger as manager - was about as bad as it can get, a 6-0 loss to London rivals Chelsea.

Wenger’s 1,000th game seems as good a moment as any to trawl my diaries for some Arsenal flavour, as it were. My earliest diary entry dates from 1 January 1963, and my first mention of Arsenal is a few weeks later, in February. Most of the mentions of Arsenal in my diaries are a simple scoreline, but a few come with more colour (sometimes a bit too much - see 11 November 1967).

After decades of dwindling interest in football (apart from World Cups which I’ve always loved to watch on TV), I found myself invited to Highbury in 2004, a year or two before Arsenal’s move to the Emirates, and the visit inspired a lengthy diary entry.

23 February 1963
‘Went to the football match - Arsenal v Spurs. Spurs won 3-2. It was a very exciting game.’

17 April 1964
‘Got my Arsenal photograph from Typhoo Tea.’

22 January 1966
‘Arsenal were knocked out of the cup today. They’re useless.’

3 October 1967
‘Defended Arsenal with Mob.’

28 October 1967
‘Arsenal-Fulham. Pouring down with rain, horrible and cold. Exciting match 5-3.’

11 November 1967
‘Lunch of steak then rushed off to Arsenal along A10. Driver would not let Father pass so he said he would carve him up. Mother said don’t, then started shrieking, opened car door. At Arsenal said she couldn’t come. I rushed off [to stands, my parents had season tickets], got a good view point, great match. Mother still there. Arsenal 2 Everton 2.’

20 January 1973
‘Arsenal fluked a noble victory against Chelsea.’

12 March 1974
‘About 6:30 tubed up to Arsenal v Barcelona, 35,000, 1-3, Georgie’s testimonial, fair old game basically. Johan Cruyff really fabulous.’

7 December 2004
‘I reckon that I’ve not been to the Arsenal in 30 years, not since I was a teenager. It was busy on the train and at Highbury & Islington station but not football crowd busy. There were, though, enough supporters heading for Arsenal for us to be able to follow them. We ended up arriving on the east side of the stadium, which meant we had to walk all the way round, and through the throngs, to the other side - to Highbury Hill in fact (where the entrance to the West side is right next door to where my old friend, Angela used to live).

What’s the point of football? It’s surprising to experience how many people come to watch football. Passing through the crowds, I couldn’t help thinking again about how few people, by comparison, go to watch live theatre or music. There can be a bit of a crush outside a theatre, before and after, but it’s a miniature crowd compared to that of a football match. It’s mostly men, of course, but there are still plenty of women, often not very visible because they are togged up in warm jackets and hats similar to those worn by their men.

The Arsenal stadium, which is only a season or two from being pulled down, looks much the same as it did in the 60s I suspect. I don’t actually remember it, but it did look very familiar. There are more commercial outlets on the external facade of the stadium and around it’s perimeter, but no doubt the programme sellers and touts are similar to the ones that were there in my day. And inside, it was quite pleasing to find that much was the same: the turnstiles, the cream and red decor, the signage. It all had a 50s feel about it, and even the glitzy flat screens high up on the walls showing glimpses of other matches or interviews alongside adverts somehow only served to emphasise the period nature of the rest of the furbishings.

As my companion Carla said, one of the best moments, is when you walk up the steps into the stadium proper, and emerge at the high point to see, for the first time, the whole stadium beneath you, the gloriously green rectangular pitch, lit up brightly by the floodlights (disguising the greyness of the day) already busy with players warming up, the huge stands on all four sides, filling up quickly with supporters, the huge screens (which definitely weren’t there in the past) in the corners, showing the team line-ups and interviews. Carla’s dad’s seats are fantastic. They are fairly close to the centre of the stand, they are at the aisle end of a row (my stepfather’s seats, I seem to remember, were at the furthest end from an aisle, and were right at one edge of the stand, i.e. with a great view of corner-takers), and they are only three rows up from the front of the lowest balcony. They must be the most expensive ordinary seats in the stadium. (Later, my brother Julian said he’d heard that a season ticket for the new Arsenal stadium, entitling a holder to attend some 25 home matches, would cost in the region of £4,000 - that’s ridiculous.)

We arrived about 20 minutes early, which was fine, because I could stand at the front of the stand, watch all the activity (the women’s team came on briefly to receive an award), the action on the screens, and the stadium filling up. Meanwhile, Carla called her father, I think, and talked to some other regulars nearby. The thick glossy programme (£3) carried an article by Thierry Henry about how he was actually looking forward to the new stadium because the Highbury pitch is a small one. I never knew this, or that pitches could vary in size. For a forward, he said in the article, it’s much better to have a bigger space to move around in. The programme also contained some nostalgic photos and stories from the 1955-56 season. I noticed the programme looked just like the ones I used to collect. And then I wondered what had happened to my old Arsenal programmes (and, I found out on Sunday, that Julian still has them!).

The football was mediocre, but the experience of being there was not. I was surprised at how close we were to the action, and how live and vital it felt (as compared to television), and how good it was to be able to look at the whole pitch, and all the players, rather than just at one camera view. Also - and this is odd I suppose - I noticed how human the players were, how small and ordinary; and how prone they were to making mistakes; and how big a role chance plays in the many clashes that take place for disputed balls (whether on the ground or in the air). Arsenal, of course, were facing a team, Birmingham City, that had come looking for a tight and closed game, looking to restrict Arsenal’s movement in the hope of a goal-less draw, perhaps. For much of the first half it worked, and there was barely a shot at goal at either end. But then a fortunate, hefty punt by Pieres in the Birmingham penalty area, managed to slip by a host of legs and slide into the right hand corner of the goal. This gave Arsenal more confidence and meant Birmingham had to start looking for a goal, so the play freed up considerably.

In the second half, Henry (not playing his best because of an Achilles injury) scored two clever goals. One came because he simply judged the flight of a cross ball so much better than the defenders. He was crouched only a few metres in front of the goal, but was in exactly the right place to receive the ball arching down from a Lundberg cross. It was a defenders’ mistake, for they should certainly have caught the ball in flight much higher up. The ball simply landed on Henry’s head and was guided into the goal. The goalkeeper had also failed to see where the ball was headed. Henry’s second goal was masterful and brilliant. He picked up the ball on the left wing, and ran it fast, past a defender, into the right side of the penalty area, at quite a narrow angle, maybe 30 degrees no more. The defender was on him from behind, the goalkeeper came out to meet Henry, and probably thought there was no way he could get the ball into the net around him. But, he did. He gently guided the ball along the ground into the far corner of the net, as if there were no obstacles to his shooting at all. Arsenal won 3-0.’

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The hopes of the Left

After suffering a stroke in 2012, dear old Tony Benn - a ‘national radical treasure’ according to The Guardian, but ‘merciless towards colleagues’ according to The Spectator - died on 14 March. One of the most recognisable and idiosyncratic of British MPs over the last 50 years, he was also the most faithful and stalwart of diarists, publishing nine volumes covering very nearly three-quarters of a century.

Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn was born in London in 1925, the son and grandson of MPs. His contact with leading politicians of the day dates back to his earliest years, biographies note: he met Ramsay MacDonald, for example, when he was five, David Lloyd George when he was 12 and Mahatma Gandhi in 1931, while his father was Secretary of State for India. Benn studied at Westminster School and then at New College, Oxford, before marrying an American, Caroline Middleton DeCamp, in 1949. They had four children (one of whom, Hilary, has been an MP since 1999).

Following the Second World War Benn worked briefly as a BBC Radio producer, but was then unexpectedly selected to succeed Sir Stafford Cripps as the Labour candidate for Bristol South East, a seat he won in the 1950 election. In 1960, Benn’s father died, and he automatically inherited a peerage. Consequently, according to the law of the day, he was disbarred from sitting in the Commons, and subsequently - after a legal action - lost his seat. He then campaigned for a change in the law which resulted in the 1963 Peerage Act, and he became the first peer to renounce his title. He returned to Parliament after winning a by-election the same year.

Benn was an elected member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee from 1959 to 1994, and was Chairman of the Party in 1971-1972. Between 1964 and 1979, he served in the Wilson and Callaghan cabinets with various portfolios (technology, energy and industry). When Wilson resigned in 1979, Benn put himself forward for the party leadership, but on winning 11% of the first round ballot, he withdrew in favour of Michael Foot, who lost to Callaghan. Benn was closely associated with the trade union movement, and was a strong supporter of the miners strike in 1984-1985. In 1988, he again stood for leadership of the party, against Neil Kinnock, but lost heavily.

After 50 years in Parliament, Benn retired from the House of Commons in May 2001, so as to - he famously said - ‘devote more time to politics’. Indeed, he did become a highly vocal lobbyist against Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, but he also became something of a media celebrity and entertainer, performing a one-man show, reading his diaries on the radio, appearing at Glastonbury, and generally enjoying media life. Benn suffered a stroke in 2012, spent much of the following year in hospital; and he died on 14 March.

There is plenty of biographical information about Benn online, at Wikipedia, and in many obituaries - BBC, The Guardian. Hutchinson, Tony Benn’s publisher, but now part of Random House, has a pitifully brief author page. Although for the most part, commentators have assessed Benn in positive ways - The Guardian called him ‘a national radical treasure’, and the BBC dubbed him a ‘folk hero’ - not so Matthew Parris in The Spectator who believes that the convention to speak only good of the dead should not be applied to politicians. ‘On the whole polite to enemies outside his circle,’ Parris wrote, ‘he was merciless towards colleagues within it and often less than straightforward in his dealings with some of them.’

Benn’s most abiding legacy is likely to be his diaries, not only because they are so complete, covering half a century of Britain’s political history, but also because they are well-written, easy to read, and highly opinionated. Benn started keeping a diary as a teenager, with the first published entries dated to 1941, and more regular and detailed entries dated to 1944. It was not until 1987, however, that a first volume of his diaries was edited by Ruth Winstone, and published by Hutchinson - Out of the Wilderness: Diaries, 1963-1967. Three further volumes followed in quick succession (all published by Hutchinson and edited by Winstone): Office Without Power: Diaries 1968-1972 (1988); Against the Tide: Diaries 1973-1976 (1989); and Conflicts of Interest: Diaries 1977-1980 (1990).

The diaries were very well received, and brought Benn a wider audience and more public attention. Commenting on a 1995 collected edition, Alan Clark said: ‘The Benn Diaries, intensely personal, candid and engaging as they are, rank as an important work of historiography’ (Daily Telegraph); Peter Hennessy said: ‘Quite apart from the brio of illuminating a life almost entirely free of boredom (another rarity), the collected Benn has some critical patches of postwar history recorded hot’ (The Times); Ben Pimlott said, ‘Immensely readable and revealing’ (Sunday Times); Ruth Dudley Edwards said: ‘An archive of incalculable value’ (Independent); and the Financial Times called Benn ‘the best political diarist of our time’.

The next quarter of a century saw another five volumes, still published by Hutchinson (by then part of Random House): Conflicts Of Interest: Diaries 1977-1980 (1990); The End of an Era: Diaries 1980-1990 (1992); Years of Hope: Diaries, Letters and Papers 1940-1962 (1994); Free at Last!: Diaries 1991-2001 (2002); More Time for Politics: Diaries 2001–2007 (2007); A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine: The Last Diaries (2013). Many pages from these books can be read freely online at Googlebooks (as per the links above).

The Diary Review quoted several extracts from Benn’s diaries in a piece following the death of Margaret Thatcher last year (Thatcher gives a cuddle). Here are several more extracts, from Benn’s period in power, under Prime Ministers Wilson and Callaghan, all taken from The Benn Diaries - new single volume edition (Arrow Books, 1996).

5 March 1974
‘A week ago, I thought I might be out of Parliament altogether and now I am in the Cabinet as a Secretary of State for Industry. I feel I have to keep the hopes of the Left alive and alight. The job is enormous and the press is entirely hostile and will remain so. I have to recognise that in putting forward my proposals to the Cabinet, all will be opposed; but there are four powerful Secretaries of State on the left - myself, Michael Foot, Peter Shore and Eric Varley - and we are a formidable team.’

6 April 1974
‘I wrote a note to Anne Crossman following Dick’s death yesterday. Dick was a remarkable man, immensely intelligent and kind when he wanted to be but, of course, the teacher throughout his life - always preferring conflict, which cleared his mind. He was absolutely unreliable in the sense that he often changed his views, but he always believed what he said, which is something you can’t say of others. He was also capable of being unpleasant and my friendship with him had deteriorated sharply in recent years. At any rate, he will be remembered through his diaries, which will be the best diaries of this period ever published [see The Diary Junction]; though I hope my own, if they are ever transcribed, will also turn out to be a reasonable record.’

26 September 1975
‘The papers today reported the admission by the FBI that they had engaged in over 250 domestic burglaries for political and other purposes. There was also a report in the New York Times that the CIA was again giving money to West European socialist parties to intervene in Portugal. Just before the Executive at 10 I had a word with Bryan Stanley of the POEU [Post Office Engineering Union] and I mentioned my concern about telephone-tapping.”Oh yes,” he said, “there’s no question about it. I believe the Tories were engaged in a widespread surveillance campaign involving the telephone-tapping of activists in the trade union movements and the Labour Party, as well as the Communist Party. The aim was to prepare a general dossier and, in the run-up to an Election, blacken the character of political opponents.” ’

21 October 1975
‘The Daily Mirror ran a story under the heading, ‘Britain to become the nuclear dustbin of the world’, by a Stanley Bonnet. In fact, the man behind it was Bryn Jones from Friends of the Earth, who is the industrial correspondent on the Mirror. It was about the BNFL [British Nuclear Fuels Ltd] contract under which we would reprocess 4,000 tons of irradiated fuel from Japan and would then have the problem of disposing of the toxic waste. I decided to go on the ‘World at One’ so a chap came along to interview me. I think I put the case across and told the Department to put out a background note.’

6 December 1975
‘There was a very funny item in the Guardian this morning called ‘What Makes Tony Benn Run?’ by Martin Walker. It estimated that on my eighteen pints of tea a day for forty years, I would have drunk 29,000 gallons, used 20,000 KW hours of electricity and a ton and a quarter of tea, etc. It quoted what doctors said, what the Tea Council said; that the Jockey club would argue this was a higher rate of caffeine addiction than was permitted for racehorses.’

1 March 1976
‘Went to the House and couldn’t decide whether to vote for compulsory seat belts. I thought it was a form of tyranny that would make me look a Stalinist. But I rang Caroline and she said, “Think of the babies, the children would all want to, and lives might be saved.” So I voted in favour and it was carried by a huge majority.’

7 March 1976
‘Dinner at the Foots. There is a very strong rumour that Harold Wilson is about to retire. Nobody knows where it comes form except some funny things have evidently been happening. There is a possibility that some papers which were stolen from Harold’s desk may envelop him in some way in a scandal. Jill [Foot] is very much in favour of Harold going and I have little doubt that she, Michael and Peter would all support Denis as leader. But if Roy stood, as I think he would have to, and Denis, Jim and Tony Crosland, but Michael didn’t stand, then it would be a very curious line-up. Whether I stood would depend on whether I was nominated and by whom.’

16 March 1976
‘A day of such momentous news it is difficult to know how to start [. . .] I went to Cabinet at 11. Harold said, “Before we come to the business, I want to make a statement.” Then he read us an eight-page statement, in which he said that he had irrevocably decided that he was going to resign the premiership and would stay just long enough for the Labour Party to elect a new leader. People were stunned but in a curious way, without emotion. Harold is not a man who arouses affection in most people. [. . .]

I listened and set all the arguments down on paper. The case for standing is winning, or to win next time, to get an alternative policy across, to influence other candidates, to establish a power base. The case against is that people will say you’re frightened that you might be humiliated, attacked by the trade union leadership, massacred by the press. In the end I decided I would stand.’

27 May 1976
‘Harold Wilson’s honours list is still the big news item today. It is unsavoury, disreputable and just told the whole Wilson story in a single episode. That he should pick inadequate, buccaneering, sharp shysters for his honours was disgusting. It has always been a grubby scheme but the Establishment never reveal the grubbiness of their own peerages and honours. Still, we’ve never had anything quite like this in the Labour Party and it has caused an outcry. It will clearly help to get rid of the honours system.’

3 May 1979
‘For eleven hours Caroline and I drove around the constituency, in cold weather which turned to hail and snow. I sat on the roof of the car in a blanket with rubber overtrousers, wearing a wooly cap and anorak. It was freezing. We went round every single ward and it was terribly exhausting. [. . .]

At midnight we went to my count. The result was finally announced at 5 in the morning - scandalously inefficient. I was fed up and our Party workers were a bit depressed. To cut a long story short, the Returning Officer gave the result without inviting the candidates on to the platform. My majority went down from 9,000 to 1,890; the Liberal vote slumped and the Tories picked up the extra votes. I felt mortified, although I’m in for five more years. I made a speech outside, as dawn broke, to a crowd of supporters. I declined steadfastly to go on any of the Election post-mortem programmes. The media were utterly corrupt in this Election, trying to make it a media event.’

4 May 1979
‘A dramatic day in British politics. The most right-wing Conservative Government and Leader for fifty years; the first woman Prime Minister. I cannot absorb it all.

I have the freedom now to speak my mind, and this is probably the beginning of the most creative period of my life. I am one of the few ex-Ministers who enjoys Opposition and I intend to take full advantage of it.’

The Diary Junction

Friday, March 14, 2014

There’s nothing to eat

‘I didn’t have one cent to buy bread. So I washed three bottles and traded them to Arnaldo. He kept the bottles and gave me bread. Then I went to sell my paper. I received 65 cruzeiros. I spent 20 cruzeiros for meat. I got one kilo of ham and one kilo of sugar and spent six cruzeiros on cheese. And the money was gone.’ This is from the diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus, a poor black woman who lived in a favela, or slum, in São Paulo, Brazil. Her diary, written on scraps of paper, caused a sensation when it was first published in 1960. Today marks the centenary of her birth.

Carolina Maria de Jesus was born on 14 March 1914 (see the Portuguese Wikipedia for this date) in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, near the border with São Paulo state. Although from a poor family, she started school at the age of seven, thanks to the philanthropy of a local landowner; and, although she only received two years of formal education, this seems to have been enough to set her apart from the normal experience of poor black girls. She went to São Paulo city where she worked as a domestic servant.

On becoming pregnant with the first of three children (by different fathers), de Jesus lost her job, and ended up living in a favela. More or less at the same time, she began writing a diary on scrap paper she found, and eventually accumulated many notebooks made up from these scraps. A young reporter, Audalio Dantas, stumbled on de Jesus and her diary in 1958 and presented some extracts in a local newspaper. In 1960, they were published by Livraria Francisco Alves as Quarto de Despejo (The Rubbish Place).

More than a 1,000 people swamped the publisher’s bookshop on the first day of sales; and the first printing of 10,000 copies sold out in São Paulo within three days. In less than six months 90,000 copies had been sold in Brazil; and the book is said to have sold more than any other Brazilian book in history. Carolina was invited to speak about the favela problem on radio and television, and she gave lectures on the problem in Brazilian universities. The book has become required reading in sociology classes and the São Paulo Law University gave her the title of ‘Honorary Member’, the first person without a university education to be so honoured.

However, de Jesus did not cope well with fame, money and public attention, and, over time, she failed, or opted not, to transcend her status as a lowly, black woman. Nor, indeed, did she become an activist for the underprivileged, as some would have liked. She died in 1977. Further information is available from Wikipedia, a paper by Robert M. Levine on the Latin America Studies website, or a biography by Levine and José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy - The Life and Death of Carolina Maria de Jesus - some of which can be read online at Googlebooks.

Quarto de Despejo was first translated into English by David St. Clair and published in the US in 1962 by the New American Library as Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus; and in the UK by Souvenir Press as Beyond all Pity (reissued in 2005 as a contribution to the Make Poverty History campaign). It was also translated into many other languages. Some 20 years after her death, University of Nebraska Press published I’m going to have a little house: The Second Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus (translated by Melvin S. Arrington Jr. and Robert M. Levine); and Rutgers University Press published The Unedited Diaries of Carolina Maria de Jesus 
as edited by Levine and Meihy (Dantas having edited de Jesus’s diary heavily for the original edition).

Here are several extracts from Beyond All Pity:

15 July 1955
‘The birthday of my daughter Vera Eunice. I wanted to buy a pair of shoes for her, but the price of food keeps us from realizing our desires. Actually we are slaves to the cost of living. I found a pair of shoes in the garbage, washed them, and patched them for her to wear.

I didn’t have one cent to buy bread. So I washed three bottles and traded them to Arnaldo. He kept the bottles and gave me bread. Then I went to sell my paper. I received 65 cruzeiros. I spent 20 cruzeiros for meat. I got one kilo of ham and one kilo of sugar and spent six cruzeiros on cheese. And the money was gone.

I was ill all day. I thought I had a cold. At night my chest pained me. I started to cough. I decided not to go out at night to look for paper. I searched for my son Joao. He was at Felisberto de Carvalho Street near the market. A bus had knocked a boy into the sidewalk and a crowd gathered. Joao was in the middle of it all. I poked him a couple of times and within five minutes he was home.

I washed the children, put them to bed, then washed myself and went to bed. I waited until 11:00 for a certain someone. He didn’t come. I took an aspirin and laid down again. When I awoke the sun was sliding in space. My daughter Vera Eunice said; “Go get some water, Mother!” ’

16 July 1955
‘I got up and obeyed Vera Eunice. I went to get the water. I made coffee. I told the children that I didn’t have any bread, that they would have to drink their coffee plain and eat meat with farinha. I was feeling ill and decided to cure myself. I stuck my finger down my throat twice, vomited, and knew I was under the evil eye. The upset feeling left and I went to Senhor Manuel, carrying some cans to sell. Everything that I find in the garbage I sell. He gave me 13 cruzeiros. I kept thinking that I had to buy bread, soap, and milk for Vera Eunice. The 13 cruzeiros wouldn’t make it. I returned home, or rather to my shack, nervous and exhausted. I thought of the worrisome life that I led. Carrying paper, washing clothes for the children, staying in the street all day long. Yet I’m always lacking things, Vera doesn’t have shoes and she doesn’t like to go barefoot. For at least two years I’ve wanted to buy a meat grinder. And a sewing machine.

I came home and made lunch for the two boys. Rice, beans, and meat, and I’m going out to look for paper. I left the children, told them to play in the yard and not to go into the street, because the terrible neighbours I have won’t leave my children alone. I was feeling ill and wished I could lie down. But the poor don’t rest nor are they permitted the pleasure of relaxation. I was nervous inside, cursing my luck. I collected two sacks full of paper. Afterward I went back and gathered up some scrap metal, some cans, and some kindling wood. As I walked I thought - when I return to the favela there is going to be something new.’

2 May 1958
‘I’m not lazy. There are times when I try to keep up my diary. But then I think it’s not worth it and figure I’m wasting my time.

I’ve made a promise to myself. I want to treat people that I know with more consideration. I want to have a pleasant smile for children and the employed.

I received a summons to appear at 8pm at police station number 12. I spent the day looking for paper. At night my feet pained me so I couldn’t walk. It started to rain. I went to the station and took Jose Carlos with me. The summons was for him. Jose Carlos is nine years old.’

3 May 1958
‘I went to the market at Carlos de Campos Street looking for any old thing. I got a lot of greens. But it didn’t help much, for I’ve got no cooking fat. The children are upset because there’s nothing to eat.’

30 May 1958
‘I changed Vera’s clothes and we went out. Then I thought: I wonder if God is going to have pity on me? I wonder if I will get any money today? I wonder if God knows the favelas exist and that the favelados are hungry?

Jose Carlos came home with a bag of crackers he found in the garbage. When I saw him eating things out of the trash I thought: and if it’s poisoned? Children can’t stand hunger. The crackers were delicious. I ate them thinking of that proverb: he who enters the dance must dance. And as I was also hungry, I ate.

More new people arrived in the favela. They are shabby and walk bent over with their eyes on the ground as if doing penance for their misfortune of living in an ugly place. A place where you can’t plant one flower to breathe its perfume. To listen to the buzz of the bees or watch a hummingbird caressing the flower with his fragile beak. The only perfume that comes from the favela is from rotting mud, excrement, and whisky.

Today nobody is going to sleep because the favelados who don’t work have started to dance. Cans, frying pans, pots - everything serves to accompany the off-key singing of these night bums.’

1 July 1959
‘I am sick and tired of the favela. I told Senhor Manuel that I was going through hard times. The father of Vera is rich, he could help me a little. He asked me not to reveal his name in the diary, and I won’t. He can count on my silence. And if I was one of those scandalous blacks, and went there to his office and made a scene? “Give me some money for your child!” ’

The Diary Junction

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Operation War Diary

As part of its First World War centenary programme, the UK government’s National Archives has just made available digital copies of nearly 4,000 First World War unit diaries, adding to the 2,000 already presented online earlier this year. Apart from their intrinsic value to researchers and academics, the diaries are also being used to underpin a joint crowdsourcing project - Operation War Diary - to catalogue and tag the mass of detailed information buried within the diary pages.

In January, The National Archives announced that it had digitised a first batch of First World War unit diaries from France and Flanders, and made these available online as part of its centenary programme - First World War 100. It says these diaries contain ‘a wealth of information of far greater interest than the army could ever have predicted. . . unrivalled insight into daily events on the front line.’ Now, two months later, The National Archives had announced that a further 4,000 unit diaries have been made available, records relating to the last of the Cavalry and numbers 8-33 Infantry Divisions deployed to the Western Front.

William Spencer, author and military records specialist at The National Archives said: ‘This second batch of unit war diaries . . . show the advances in technology that made it the world’s first industrialised war with many mounted troops going into battle at first with swords on horseback and ending the war with machine guns and tanks.’

Personally, I found the website rather tricky to navigate, and I was not able to access any actual unit diaries - not without paying! The only search tool available requires the name of a regiment, battalion, brigade or division, so, if you don’t know any names, it’s not possible to just browse sample diaries. And then, if you persevere through the catalogue hierarchy, and choose a record to view, the only option appears to be to download it, at a cost. Indeed, looking back at a paragraph called ‘How do I search the records?’, I found this: ‘Searching is free, but there may be a charge to download documents.’ Hmmm, all the publicity - and there has been a lot for this project - seems a bit misleading to me.

Unlike myself, a Guardian writer has managed to mine a few nuggets. Here’s one paragraph from Richard Norton-Taylor’s article: ‘Some of the war diaries are almost swashbuckling in tone. An account of an attack by the Indian army's Mhow Cavalry Brigade, on 1 December 1917 in northern France after promised tanks had failed to arrive, records: “Lieut Broadway had already killed two Germans with the sword when he was treacherously killed by a revolver shot by a German officer who raised one hand in token of surrender keeping the other behind his back. This German officer was immediately killed by a lance thrust from a man following Lieut Broadway.” ’

The National Archives mid-March news release also announced that in the first two months of Operation War Diary - a joint project with Imperial War Museums and Zooniverse - more than 10,000 individuals across the globe had volunteered to tag names, places and other details in the diaries. It said: ‘With over 200 diaries already tagged and verified, this innovative crowdsourcing project goes one step further than traditional transcription by using the data to digitally map and analyse patterns and trends in the unit war diaries, offering new perspectives on the First World War.’

The project organisers say that data gathered through Operation War Diary will be used for three main purposes: ‘to enrich The National Archives’ catalogue descriptions for the unit war diaries; to provide evidence about the experience of named individuals in IWM’s Lives of the First World War project; to present academics with large amounts of accurate data to help them gain a better understanding of how the war was fought.’ They also promise that all of the data produced by Operation War Diary will eventually be available to everyone free of charge.