Monday, May 26, 2014

How the other half lives

Today marks the centenary of the death of Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant who shocked New York society in the late 1880s with his reportage on the city’s slums. He is particularly remembered for being the first person in the US to use photography - especially with newly developed flash techniques - to capture conditions in slum tenements. His 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, is considered a pioneering work of photojournalism, i.e. in its use of photographic evidence to press for social reform. The book attracted the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, then serving as president of the New York Board of Police Commissioners, and led to the two becoming friends. Although not a committed diarist, Riis did keep pocket books at times, and he left behind at least two, both of which are held by New York Public Library. Although their contents have not been published, two recent biographies have made use of them.

Riis was born in Ribe, Denmark, in 1849, into a large family headed by his father, a school teacher. He became apprenticed as a carpenter, but in 1870, having been disappointed in love, and frustrated by local job opportunities, he emigrated to the United States. Life for Riis as an immigrant was tough. He moved around from place to place, often without money, looking for work. For a while, he achieved some stability jobbing as a carpenter among the Scandinavian communities in Western Philadelphia. He also had a successful turn as a salesman selling flatirons and fluting irons, but then found himself cheated out of his savings. Eventually, he chanced on a trainee position for the New York News Association which led to him being made editor of a weekly newspaper.

In 1876, Riis lost his job; and he went back to Denmark where he married his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth, before returning to New York. They would have three children. Riis tried out several jobs before being offered a position as police reporter on the New York Tribune, work which took him into the most crime-ridden and impoverished streets of the city, particularly the infamous Mulberry Bend area. He became appalled by the abject living conditions, those which he saw around him, and which he himself had experienced. He worked at the Tribune until 1888, reporting often on the slum conditions; and although, subsequently, he took a position with the Evening Sun, he soon left journalism to become more of a full-time campaigner for social reform, to improve the lives of the poor.

As a police reporter, Riis had started to use camera images, taken by himself or by others under his supervision, to prove the truth of his words, to provide incontrovertible evidence of the existence of, for example, vagrant children, squalid housing and the disgraceful conditions in the tenements. But in the late 1880s, he began to experiment with the use of flashlight powder - a technique that was still very much in its infancy - which allowed him to take pictures of the interiors of shoddy housing, and of extreme poverty. These photographs shocked the New York middle and upper classes.

In 1890, Riis wrote the first and most influential of his published works: How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. This consisted of 25 chapters of reportage based on his own personal investigation, and 40 plates, 17 of which were direct halftone reproductions of photographs - which, despite their poor quality, proved more persuasive than any illustrations that had gone before. How the Other Half Lives has its own Wikipedia page, and the full text and photographs are widely available online, at Internet Archive, Bartleby and Authentic History.

Naomi Rosenblum, in her impressive tome A World History of Photography, explains Riis’s importance: ‘Before 1890, tracts on social problems in the United States had been largely religious in nature, stressing “redemption of the erring and sinful.” Such works usually were illustrated with engravings that at times acknowledged a photographic source and at others gave the artistic imagination free reign. After the appearance of How The Other Half Lives, however, photographic “evidence” became the rule for publications dealing with social problems even though the texts might still consider poverty to be the result of moral inadequacy rather than economic laws.’

Riis retired from journalism to devote, in fact, the rest of his life to raising awareness about New York City’s slums. His book brought him to the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, who served as president of the New York Board of Police Commissioners from 1895 to 1897, before becoming Governor Of New York State, and then President of the US. Roosevelt befriended Riis and, reportedly, went with Riis on some of his late-night adventures into the slums.

Riis continued to write books and articles, and he lectured extensively. In 1901 he published an autobiography, The Making of an American - which is freely available at Internet Archive. Elizabeth died in 1905; and Riis married again. With his second wife, Mary Phillips, he moved to a farm in Barre, Massachusetts in 1911. Riis himself died on 26 May 1914. Further information is available at Wikipedia or Harvard University Library. To see Riis’s photographs go to the Museum Syndicate or MOMA websites.

The New York Public Library holds an extensive archive of Riis’s papers, which, it says, includes diaries that ‘cover Riis’s early years in the U.S. as well as his later business and personal affairs’. It gives further details, as follows: ‘Riis’s pocket diaries (2 volumes) for the years 1871-1875 were written almost exclusively in Danish and document his early years in the United States and his search for employment. One English entry in August of 1875 records Riis’s purchase of the South Brooklyn News for six hundred dollars. Six memorandum books kept by Riis in 1882-1902 include research notes, lecture schedules, business and personal expenses, and travel notes from a trip to England in 1893.’

Although Riis’s two pocket diaries are available to read on microfilm at the New York Public Library, none of his diary texts have been published. However, there are a couple of modern biographies of Riis which refer to, and quote from, these diaries. In 2007, New Press, New York, published Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York by Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom. For reviews, see H-Net, Picturing US History, or University of Chicagao Press.

A slightly earlier biography in Danish by Tom Buk-Swienty was first published in Denmark in 2005. This was then translated into English by Tom’s wife Annette Buk-Swienty for publication in the US by W W Norton in 2007 as The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America. For informative reviews of this book see Barnes and Noble, Kirkus, and Robert Siegel’s article on the NPR website.

In the latter, Siegel says: ‘Buk-Swienty studied Riis’ diaries and says he found the moment when the Danish carpenter, not yet a reporter, became an American, mentally. He says it happened when Riis learned that the girl back home, the one he had been pining for, had gotten engaged to a Danish military hero. “He was shocked,” Buk-Swienty says. “That came for him as a total surprise, and his world, you could say, went dark for a few days.” Riis wrote about his sorrow in Danish, but a few days later, he began to write his diary in English. “It’s very remarkable,” Buk-Swienty says. “You can see that something is changing in this man.”

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Master of Trinity College

William Whewell - scientist, philiosopher, college administrator, a polymath - was born 220 years ago today. He defied his humble origins, to become prominent in various fields, and to become Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, a position he held for 25 years. He is largely forgotten today, in the sense that there’s no modern biography. There is, though, an early biographical work, which makes extensive use of Whewell’s letters, and, more occasionally, of his diaries. One extensive diary quoted in the biography describes a visit to Trinity by the Duke of Wellington.

Whewell was born on 24 May 1794, the eldest child in what would become a large family. His father, a carpenter, wanted him to apprentice to the trade, but William proved academically bright, and came to the attention of Revd Joseph Rowley, head of Lancaster Grammar School, who allowed him to study for free. Later, he won a part-scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1812. Following, perhaps, after his mother who had published poems, he won the Chancellor’s prize for an epic poem he wrote entitled Boadicea.

Whewell did well at Trinity, excelling at mathematics; and, having been considered something of a rustic or ill-mannered, he significantly improved his social status. He was appointed as a mathematics lecturer and assistant tutor in 1818, and the following year was one of the founder members of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. By this time, his interests had extended beyond mathematics, towards science in general (indeed he is credited with coining the word ‘scientist’ in 1833) and philosophy. In 1828, he was elected to the Chair of Mineralogy.

In subsequent years, Whewell wrote a number of important papers on the subject of tides, and on the principles of education. In 1838 he was elected to the Knightbridge Chair of Moral Philosophy - before which he wrote History of the Inductive Sciences, and after which he wrote its sequel The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences.

In 1841, thanks to the election of the Conservative Robert Peel as Prime Minister, Whewell was appointed - over his more senior colleague, Adam Sedgwick who would have been favoured by a Whig government - as Master of Trinity College. A little earlier the same year, he had married Cordelia Marshall. They had no children, and after Cordelia died in 1855, he married again, to Everina Frances, widow of Sir Gilbert Affleck in 1858.

Much of Whewell’s early years as Master were taken up by revising the college statutes; and, as Master the largest college, he had much influence across the university. He also served twice as vice-chancellor. Although considered a reformer in his youth, he is remembered as a reactionary Master, sternly defending the autonomy of the colleges and the type of liberal education he espoused in Of a Liberal Education in General, with particular reference to the leading studies in the University of Cambridge (1845). He preached his last sermon in Trinity College chapel in February 1866, and died later the same year, after a fall from a horse. There is plenty of information about Whewell online, at Wikipedia, Cambridge University’s Janus website, University of St Andrews MacTutor website, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and Victorian Web.

Richard Yeo, summarising Whewell’s reputation in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required), says: ‘At the time of his death Whewell was known as a great master of Trinity and a man of enormous intellectual power and learning. Within the scientific community throughout Europe he was recognized for his research on the tides, his contributions to conceptual debates and terminology, and for his unrivalled knowledge of the history of the sciences. Although some aspects of his philosophy of science were criticized, Whewell’s work set an example for the critical study of the nature of science and, since the 1970s, the historical inquiry on which he claimed to base his philosophy of science has been more warmly appreciated. He combined this study of the physical sciences with publications on education, moral philosophy, and other subjects in a manner that astonished his contemporaries. He did this at a time when intellectual activity was becoming more specialized - a phenomenon that Whewell recognized in his own philosophy of knowledge. Today we are able to see that his achievement was one of the last of its kind.’

The Trinity College archive of Whewell’s papers lists ‘diaries 1817-1853’, but the online summary contains no further details. As far as I can tell, none of these diaries have ever been published. However, Mrs Stair-Douglas (also known as Janet Mary Douglas), having been asked to do so by Whewell’s sister, Mrs Newton, put together a biography of Whewell, largely based on his letters. This was published in 1881 by C Kegan & Co as The Life and Selections from the Correspondence of William Whewell, D. D. late master of Trinity College, Cambridge. Occasionally, the book (freely available at Internet Archive) makes references to, and provides extracts from, Whewell’s diaries.

For example, Stair-Douglas writes: ‘The pocket-books of this year [1829] contain a brief pencil diary, and also a number of notes and memoranda, chiefly mineralogical and architectural, made during the tour in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, upon which Mr. Whewell started on July 4. [. . .]

The diary shows that Mr. Whewell habitually talked to all his fellow-travellers and extracted from them all the information he could. Sometimes a servant girl going to place tells him about wages; or a Belgian laments the high duty upon distillation, which shuts up all the smaller stills; or an ex-Franciscan or Benedictine monk tells him how the convent land was farmed, the wages of the lay brethren, &c. He always offered a seat in his hired carriage to any intelligent person travelling in the same direction. At Spires he notes that he fell in with a Frenchman who had been quarrelling with the Douane on occasion of his bringing from Baden a musical instrument with keys, the notes of which are produced as in the wind harmonica, and adds: “The difficulty of getting on with a German in conversation strikes one more on meeting a Frenchman. The German answers all your questions with the most sincere goodwill, but there you stick - you never set him ” [. . .]

After visiting the source of the Danube in Prince Flirstenburg’s grounds, he mentions his arrival at “the edge of the great basin of Switzerland - a most glorious prospect. The Lake of Constance spread out on the left, the cloudy and uncertain Alps in the distance, and in the midst of the scene six grand castled eminences scattered over a space of five or six miles. The summits bold, and rising abruptly from the more level land, and the ruins one more picturesque than another. If the snowy Alps are seen from hence, as I am told is the case in clear weather, I cannot imagine a more magnificent view. I hope for a fine morning to-morrow and then!”

The entry next morning unfortunately is: “August 7 - Wretchedly bad weather”; however, after quarrelling with tailor and shoemaker, he adds: “Off to Schaffhausen - went immediately to the fall. It is grand in all aspects, but standing in the gallery, all the surrounding objects confused by the blinding spray and a sort of eternity of waters hurrying past and filling the eye, one can scarce believe that the solid universe is not drifting away with immeasurable violence. They have managed also that the water leaps at you, and only seems just to fall short by a foot.” ’

After Whewell’s appointment as Master at Trinity, Stair-Douglas writes that one of the first visitors to the Master’s Lodge, was Mr. Salvin, an architect. He had been summoned because a former college student - one Beresford Hope - had donated money for the college to restore an oriel and mullioned windows removed from the building under previous alterations. She gives the following diary entries concerning this project (which would leave Whewell’s living rooms uninhabitable for most of the year).

19 January 1842
‘Mr. Salvin, architect, arrived, and under his direction and in his presence we made attempts to discover traces of the oriel which formerly existed as part of the front of the Lodge. We found the foundation of the wall of the oriel immediately below the surface of the ground. The plan was semicircular, the diameter of the semicircle 13 feet and 7 inches, exactly opposite to the oriel which exists towards the garden. By examination of the upper storey of the Lodge it appeared that there are no lodging-rooms over Henry VIII’s drawing-room, but only a blank garret, to which there is no access except through the windows.’

16 August 1842
‘We returned to the lodge and stayed one night, the workmen being then employed in the restoration of the front, in pursuance of Mr. Hope’s undertaking to bear the expense of the restoration of the windows and oriel. In the interval I had corresponded with Mr. Hope and had finally learnt that 1,000l. had been placed to the credit of the College at the banker’s to meet the expense.’

17 September 1842
‘We returned to College. The windows of the front were entirely without glass, the rooms without furniture, and the wall was removed from top to bottom where the oriel was to be. The house full of workmen.’

Stair-Douglas goes on to say that Whewell’s journal was kept with considerable regularity at this time. In it, ‘we find mention of very frequent meetings of the Master and Seniors to deliberate upon the revision of the College statutes. These statutes, which the governing body of the College had bound themselves to respect, to preserve intact and to carry into effect, had, from the changes which centuries had brought about in national habits, and many other circumstances, come into such discrepancy with actual, and often with any possible, practice as to occasion very serious difficulties. The Master and other College officers found themselves frequently compelled to choose between deliberately neglecting and modifying that which they had sworn to execute, or attempting to put in operation rules which had become totally useless and inapplicable. The difficulty was a very serious one, and one from which there was no escape.’

26 April 1842
‘Went to London to visit my wife’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Marshall, 41 Upper Grosvenor Street. I took with me to London the Draft of the College Statutes as revised by the Seniority, at the various preceding sittings. I reported to the Home Secretary, Sir J. Graham, that this revision was in progress, explained to him the general principles on which it had proceeded, and pointed out the few instances in which the privileges of the Crown were concerned, viz. (1.) Visitatorial power, (2.) Power of giving leave of absence, (3.) Power of appointing ten paupers. He informed me that he should lay the draft before the Attorney and Solicitor-General, and at a subsequent interview agreed to do so, while it was still unconfirmed by the Seniors. I also saw the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General, who agreed to consider the unconfirmed draft; and I explained to them that the College did not expect or wish that they should suggest anything except what concerned the prerogatives of the Crown or the course of Law. For the purpose of consideration, I had two transcripts of the revised Statutes made, for which I paid 11l. 6s. I left one of these and a printed copy of the Statutes with Sir James Graham.’

Finally, here is a long extract from Whewell’s diary concerning a visit by the Duke of Wellington - Leader of the House of Lords in Peel’s government at the time - to Cambridge University.

4 July 1842
‘The Duke of Wellington arrived; his carriage stopped at the Great Gate and then proceeded to St. John’s, where he went to attend the Duke of Northumberland’s levee. He then walked with me to Trinity Lodge, and the Fellows were presented to him by me. He then went again to St. John’s Lodge, and accompanied the Duke of Northumberland to the Senate House. After his return to this Lodge he came into the dining-room, and then he conversed a good deal.

With reference to the news of the Queen having been shot at by Bean, which arrived this morning, he spoke of an attempt made to shoot him at Paris. He had previous information that he was to be shot at. The man tried in vain to find an opportunity in the streets. The Duke had said before the event that the assassin must inevitably make the attempt at his own house. So it turned out. The man placed himself behind a watch-box and fired as the Duke entered his own Porte cochère.

The postilion saw him raise his arm, and urged his horses to a gallop, so that the Duke thought he had knocked down one of the sentries in driving in. I asked him why he had done so, and he told me that a man had fired a pistol at me from a place close by. Mr. M (Mr. Milnes?) reminded the Duke that Napoleon left the man a legacy. “Yes” he said, “Napoleon left him 10,000 francs for trying to rid the world of an aristocrat.”

I spoke of the attempt made to kill the King of Portugal in the last century. “Yes,” he said, “that was under the Marquis de Pombal’s administration. It was one of the circumstances which led to the expulsion of the Jesuits. That event was an evil to Spain and Portugal. It ruined the education of the upper orders. They are now men of no education, no moral and religious education. You never find a well educated nobleman in Spain. Consequently they are regarded with no respect by those of lower rank, and are a worthless set. Nothing can save a country but a moral and religious education of its upper classes.”

He spoke much of the Afghan war. He had always disbelieved the accounts, he said, of the abandonment of Ghuznee. He never could believe that a person put in a command so important could be so destitute of resources as the accounts represented him. “I never could believe that such an officer could say that he was obliged to surrender for want of water, when he was snowed up. I never could believe that he could say that he had left the soldiers’ bayonets in the citadel. There is no more convenient way of disposing of a bayonet than at the end of the musket or in the scabbard by the soldier’s side.”

Speaking further of India, he said, “You have there the blessing of a free press; in that country, in a country quite unfitted for such a thing. You might as well try a free press on the quarter-deck of a man of war.”

Passing the picture of Perceval, he said he was a good debater and always spoke well when he had had previously to explain a measure to a meeting of his friends.

When the Duke had been in this Lodge a few minutes, he wished me to return to St. John’s Lodge, where the Duke of Northumberland was. I tried to detain him by representing that the Chancellor could not possibly go to the Senate House for some time, and that we should see him, and could join him when he passed the College gate. But he was not to be detained, so we walked together. As we went he said, “I came to do honour to the Duke of Northumberland, and I must be on the spot for that purpose. Nothing like being on the spot.”

When he had stayed at the Lodge some time after his return from the Senate House, conversing as above, I proposed to him to go to Magdalen College, where the Master had collected a party of distinguished visitors in the Lodge garden, with a band of music. We went there by the back of the Colleges and through Northampton Street. When we arrived near the gate the Duke asked who was the master of Magdalen, and when I told him Mr. Neville Grenville, he said “Oh, I know him, he officiates sometimes at the Chapel Royal. I usually go to the Chapel Royal. Sometimes I am there alone with the reader. ” Then aside, “Dearly beloved Roger.”

The Duke of Wellington went from Magdalen Gardens with the Bishop of London, and returned to Emmanuel to the Vice-Chancellor’s dinner. Here he stayed but a little while and went away before dinner, having determined to sleep at Hatfield. So far as I know he had no dinner till he got there, which must have been near eleven o’clock at night.

I left the dinner at the Vice-Chancellor’s early and came home to receive a few friends at the Lodge.’

Saturday, May 17, 2014

This violent typewriter

Happy 70th birthday Jimmy Boyle, the famous Scottish criminal-turned-artist who now lives in France and Morocco. Although he found fame and success as a sculptor, Boyle has also authored several popular books, including a diary of his time in prison. ‘Publishing the diary,’ he wrote, ‘seemed the best way of telling the story, since it is a record of my thoughts and reactions to each day, not judged with hindsight and distorted through time.’

Boyle grew up in Glasgow and, apparently, followed in his criminal father’s footsteps. He became a member of a dangerous gang, and developed a reputation as Scotland’s most violent man. By the age of 23 he was in prison, having been sentenced to life for murdering another gangland figure. While in a special unit at Barlinnie prison, he learned to sculpt, and he also wrote an autobiography - A Sense of Freedom - published by Canongate in 1977.

On being released in 1982, he went to live in Edinburgh where he married his psychotherapist in Barlinnie, Sarah Trevelyan. They have two children. He also became involved with social work, helping young offenders and drug addicts. He left Britain in the 1990s to live in France, ostensibly to escape media attention. Later, in 2007, he married his second wife, actress Kate Fenwick, and they now spend much time in Morroco. Boyle’s sculptures still command very high prices on the art market (see The Daily Record, for example). There is not much biographical information about Boyle readily available on the internet, other than at Wikipedia and the BBC, and from a few newspaper articles about his property deals in Morocco (see The Guardian).

In 1984, Canongate published a second autobiographical work by Boyle - The Pain of Confinement - this one based on the diaries he kept while in the special unit at Barlinnie prison. He explains his reason for publishing these diaries in the last paragraph of the book’s introduction: ‘I began to keep a detailed diary of what was going on in the Unit. In the process I took copious notes of daily events. Publishing the diary seemed the best way of telling the story, since it is a record of my thoughts and reactions to each day, not judged with hindsight and distorted through time. All of this has shaped my past and present experiences into a vision of what the penal system should be.’

16 June 1975
‘I didn’t get to sleep till after 3am. Thoughts were flashing in my mind about my position here. There is no doubt that I am going through a crisis point with myself. Freedom is a balanced diet of the mental and physical, and though mentally I feel I’m as free as I’ll ever be, the fact is that I am physically restricted. This is a telling factor in my present problems. I went out a few times last year and some this year for physiotherapy after my operation. I thought that because I had played my part in acting responsibly it would be an on-going thing. I was wrong.

I spent the whole day from early morning till late afternoon working on the piece of stone in the yard. Every hit of the hammer on the chisel was full of violence; so much so that I lost count of all time. I was so absorbed in my thoughts and the piece before me. Tired and worn I went to bed at 4pm and lay till this evening.’

17 June 1975
‘This morning I awoke fresh and feeling much better.

Received a letter from Paul Overy, The Times art critic, saying he stumbled over my exhibition by accident and what a find he said. He has put a short piece in The Times and it is a good review. I was pleased.’

5 July 1976
‘There is no doubt about it, these bastards are trying to destroy me mentally. Blows come in psychological form, ripping through my defences, tearing me apart internally. In the face of this new, but very effective game of destruction I cry like a child. Shattered! No injuries are apparent. What is going on, why?

Retaliation is called for. This violent typewriter shouts bloody anger. Punching holes in the fucking enemy with each tap of the key. Fingers filled with fire and vengeance as they press each lettered key - hatehatehatehatehate. Fuckers causing mental anguish. I HATE YOU.

They would like to see it. Oh God, they would like to see it. If I were to strike out and hit one of them. ‘See!’ they would shout. ‘Look, the bastard is an animal.’ All would turn to me and point. ‘Animal, Animal,’ they would cry.

What the fucking hell am I doing sitting suppressing all this natural anger and keeping it under the surface? Does this make me any more civilised? I’m supposed to sit here like some vegetable with a mandarin smile accepting it all.’

31 October 1982
‘The last day! How can I possibly trust it to be? Every morning for the past 15 years I’ve wakened to these surroundings. This morning is no different except for the underlying feeling of excitement.

I am gaining first-hand experience of the process of freedom. Inside I am aware that many things are going on. There is a part that wants to be joyous about it all but another seemingly stronger part stopping this as something may go wrong at the last minute. This is a sort of ‘defence mechanism’ that has taken me through less joyful experiences. If I were to go over the top with good feeling and it went wrong then I would be devastated. Recovery would be very difficult. What could go wrong now? I have experienced enough to know that prison authorities are capable of anything. I distrust them considerably. [. . .]

I am aware that there is massive media interest in my release. So, immediately I’ll be on stage. For the first time I’ll be free to speak to them. These past years they have followed my life and I haven’t been able to say anything. The gag will be off.’

1 November 1982
‘I was taken to the gate where I waited for Sarah. These were the longest minutes of all. The gate officer said Mr Hills had called to say he was coming in. I stood on edge. Mr Hills drove in the gate. He didn’t look at me. He didn’t speak. Sarah arrived. Mr Hills gave the signal and the duty officer opened the gate. I stepped over to Freedom.’

The Diary Junction

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Diary briefs

Diaries of Major Frederick Tubb VC - Australian War Memorial, ABC Canberra

Bob Carr’s ‘indiscreet’ diary revelations - Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian

Lieutenant Lyell Swann’s WW1 diaries - Herald Sun

Diary of Anzac soldier, Private Donkin - Caboolture News

WWI diaries of Scottish nurse - Scotland Now

Queen Victoria’s diaries on display (see also here) - BBC, Daily Mail

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Rhinoceros, who are you?

‘I, Dali, deep in a constant introspection and a meticulous analysis of my smallest thoughts, have just discovered that, without realising it, I have painted nothing but rhinoceros horns all my life.’ This is from Diary of a Genius by Salvador Dalí, the Spanish artist, famous for his surrealist paintings and eccentric looks/behaviour. Today marks the 110th anniversary of his birth.

Dalí was born in Figueres, northeast Spain, on 11 May 1904, the son of a well-known notary. He showed artistic talent from an early age, and went to study at the Royal Academy in Madrid, although he was expelled twice and never took his final exams. However, he did become friends with the great Spanish dramatist and poet, Federico García Lorca, and the film-maker Luis Buñuel, with whom he collaborated on several avant-garde projects.

In 1928, Dalí moved to Paris where he met Picasso and Miro, and, in particular, André Breton, with whom he formed a group of surrealists. Some of his most famous surrealist works date from this period - The Spectre of Sex Appeal and The Persistence of Memory for example. Also in Paris, in 1929, he met Helena Diakonova, known as Gala, a Russian immigrant who would become his model, partner and business manager.

During the Second World War, Dalí and Gala lived in the US, with Dalí not only painting but contributing to other artistic fields, such as cinema, theatre and ballet. He became something of a darling in high society, and famous men and women commissioned him to paint their portraits. While in the US, he wrote The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. In 1948, the couple returned to Europe, spending time either at their residence in Port Lligat, Spain, or in Paris.

In the post war period, Dalí became more interested in history and science, and these subjects formed the themes of many of his later works such as Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. During the 1970s, he created and inaugurated the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, which houses a large collection of his works. He died in 1989. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, or a New York Times review of the definitive biography - The Shameful Life of Salvador Dalí - by Ian Gibson.

Dalí was not much of a bona fide diarist. A fragment of a diary survives from his adolescence. This was privately printed by Stratford Press in a limited edition for the Reynolds Morse Foundation in 1962, and entitled A Dalí Journal: Impressions and Private Memories of Salvador Dalí - January, 1920. The ‘Salvador Dalí Book Collector’, who runs a blog on Dalí books, is underwhelmed: ‘Here, we find a rather pedestrian Dalí whose time is spent at school, hanging with friends, flirting with girls . . . just an average teenage boy.’

Much later, however, Dalí employed the diary form for what became the second volume of his autobiography. This was first published in France in 1963 as Journal d’un génie, then translated into English by Richard Howard for publication by Doubleday in the US and Hutchinson in the UK as Diary of a Genius. The French writer Michel Déon helped Dalí prepare this book, and provided a forward and notes, also translated by Howard for the first English edition.

‘Dali’, says Déon in his forward, ‘has jotted down helter-skelter his thoughts, his torments as a painter thirsting for perfection, his love for his wife, the story of his extraordinary encounters, his ideas about aesthetics, morality. philosophy, biology. [. . .] This diary is a monument erected by Salvador Dali to his own glory. It is entirely lacking in modesty, it has, on the other hand, a burning sincerity. The author lays bare his secrets with brazen insolence, unbridled humour, sparkling extravagance.’ Here are a few extracts.

15 July 1952
‘Once more I thank Sigmund Freud and proclaim louder than ever his great truths. I, Dali, deep in a constant introspection and a meticulous analysis of my smallest thoughts, have just discovered that, without realising it, I have painted nothing but rhinoceros horns all my life. At the age of ten, a grasshopper-child, I already said my prayers on all fours before a table made of rhinoceros horn. Yes, to me it was already a rhinoceros! I take another look at my paintings and I am stupefied with the amount of rhinoceros my work contains. Even my famous bread [1945 painting] is already a rhino horn, delicately resting in a basket. Now I understand my enthusiasm the day Arturo Lopez presented me with my famous rhinoceros-horn walking stick. As soon as I became its owner, it produced in me a completely irrational illusion. I attached myself to it with an incredible fetishism, amounting to obsession, to such an extent that I once struck a barber in New York, when by mistake he almost broke it by lowering too quickly the revolving chair on which I had gently put it down. Furiously, I struck at his shoulder hard with my stick to punish him, but of course I immediately gave him a very big tip so that he would not get angry. Rhinoceros, rhinoceros, who are you?’

18 July 1952
‘Even though my Assumption is making substantial and glorious progress, it frightens me to see that already it is the 18th of July. Every day time flies faster, and though I live from one ten minutes to the next, savouring them one by one and transforming the quarters of an hour into battles won, into feats and spiritual victories, all of which are equally memorable, the weeks run by and I struggle to cling with an even more vital completeness to each fragment of my precious and beloved time.

Suddenly Rosita comes in with breakfast and brings me a piece of news that throws me into a joyous ecstasy. Tomorrow will be the 19th of July, and that is the date on which Monsieur and Madame arrived from Paris last year. I give an hysterical yell: “So, I haven’t arrived yet! I haven’t arrived. Not before tomorrow will I come to Port Ligat. This time last year, I hadn’t even started my Christ! And now before I’ve so much as come here, my Assumption is almost on its feet, pointing to heaven!”

I run straight to my studio and work till I am ready to drop, cheating and taking advantage of not being there yet so as to have as much as possible already done at the moment of my arrival. All Port Ligat has heard that I am yet there, and in the evening, when I come down for supper, little Juan calls out, as gay as can be: “Señor Dali is coming tomorrow night! Señor Dali is coming tomorrow night!”

And Gala looks at me with an expression of protective love which so far only Leonardo has been able to paint, and it so happens that the fifth centenary of Leonardo’s birth is tomorrow.

In spite of all my stratagem to savour the last moments of my absence with an intoxicating intensity, here I am, finally home in Port Ligat. And so happy!’

1 May 1953
‘I spent the winter in New York as usual, enjoying enormous success in everything I did. We have been in Port Ligat a month, and today, on the same date as last year, I decide to resume my diary. I inaugurate the Dalinian May the first by working frenetically, as I am urged to do by a sweet creative anguish. My moustache has never been so long. My entire body is encased in my clothing. Only my moustache shows.’

The Diary Junction

Friday, May 9, 2014

A place for asides

Happy 80th birthday Alan Bennett. One of Britain’s best loved writers, Bennett is particularly well known for his plays, and for his voice, with its Northern twang, narrating many a radio programme and audio release, often for children. His very popular autobiographical books, including his diaries, are full of comical anecdotes, winsome memories of childhood, and sometimes biting comment on modern life and public figures. Bennett himself has described his diary as a place for asides, but, also in interviews has said he uses his diaries as ‘joke books’.

Alan Bennet was born in Leeds on 9 May 1934, the son of a butcher. He studied at Exeter College, Oxford, where he became involved with comedy in the Oxford Revue, and from where he graduated with a first in history. He served with the Joint Services School for Linguists at Cambridge and Bodmin, and then, in the early 1960s, returned to Oxford University to teach.

As early as 1960, Bennett had starred in and co-authored the satirical review Beyond the Fringe with Dudley Moore, Peter Cooke and Jonathan Miller at the Edinburgh Festival. Subsequently, he began to contribute to BBC comedies and then to write plays. It was not until the late 1970s though, with his series of six plays for London Weekend Television, that he became a British television ‘name’. Many plays for television and the stage followed, before, in 1988, he achieved widespread popularity with the TV drama Talking Heads, and, in 1991, great critical acclaim for the stage play The Madness of George III. This latter was adapted into a successful film, as was another of Bennett’s plays - The History Boys.

Alongside his writing for the stage and television, Bennett has also become a much-loved Northern ‘voice’, through his narration - for BBC radio and audio books - of his own works and of classics, especially children’s novels, such as Winnie the Pooh, Wind in the Willows and Peter Pan. He has won many awards, and is considered by some to be one of Britain’s best living writers. He has never married but is in a civil partnership with Rupert Thomas. 
More information about Bennett’s life and works can be found at Wikipedia, the British Council, the British Film Institute, The Guardian, and The Telegraph (‘I use [my diaries] as joke books’). For a more critical appraisal of the man, see The Daily Mail (‘a sneering, subversive attitude in much of his work’) or The Independent (‘That nice Alan Bennett takes the gloves off for Tory politicians’).

Bennett’s autobiographical writing has also reached a wide audience. He first began publishing an annual selection of extracts from his diary in the London Review of Books - and continues to do so to the present day, see 1996, 2013, 2014 for example. In 1994, Faber and Faber, published Bennett’s Writing Home, which it says, ‘brings together his diaries for 1980-1995, with reminiscences and reviews, the diary he kept during the production of his very first play, Forty Years On, which starred John Gielgud’. Part of this book can be freely read online at Googlebooks. A decade later, in 2005, Faber brought out a second volume of autobiographical writing, Untold Stories, this time including Bennett’s diaries from 1996-2004 - also available to preview at Googlebooks.

Here is Bennet’s brief introduction to the diary section in Untold Stories: ‘Every Christmas or New Year I publish extracts from my diary of the preceding year in the London Review of Books. On a personal level these published diaries are pretty uninformative, not to say cagey, but they do give some indication of what work I was doing and where it took me, though more often than not nowadays this is no further than from the armchair to the desk.

Diaries lengthen the days. To read back over a year when nothing much seems to have happened is often to be nicely surprised, though I note how in earlier diaries much more of what I wrote down had to do with what I did whereas lately the entries are more often occasioned by what I’ve read or seen on television. I should get out more if only for the diary’s sake.

A diary is undoubtedly a comfort. I feel better for having written it down, however hard the experience. I never enjoy, though, having to record set pieces and prefer to pick at incidents rather than try for a comprehensive account. As I’ve noted before, my diary is often best when written in the intervals of other writing; it’s a turning away, a place for asides. What I do always dislike is not having written anything for a while and then finding I have to catch up.’

And here are a few extracts.

9 May 1996
‘Vanity: my sixty-second birthday. Someone behind me in M&S says: ‘Are you all right, young man? I look round.’

27 June 1996
‘Chichester. Talking to Maggie Smith about the number of grey heads in the audience for Talking Heads, I compare them with a field of dandelion clocks. She says that she’s read or been told that the Warwickshire folk name for these was ‘chimney-sweeps’ so that Shakespeare’s “Golden lads and girls must,/ As chimney-sweepers, come to dust” is thus explained. I had always taken chimney-sweepers to be a straightforward antithesis, poor and dirty boys and girls the opposite of clean and bronzed ones. This, of course, doesn’t bear close examination, though what probably planted it in my mind was a nightmare I used regularly to have as a child in which a chimney-sweep or coalman rampaged through our spotless house. I look up chimney-sweeps in Geoffrey Grigson’s The Englishman’s Flora (shamefully out of print) and find that, the flowers being black and dusty, chimney-sweep and chimney-sweeper are Warwickshire slang for the plantain, particularly the ribwort, and that these were used to bind up sheaves of hay; children, whether golden or otherwise, used to play a game not unlike conkers with the flowers on their long stems, in the course of which, presumably, the flowers disintegrated, or came to dust.’

15 January 1997
‘Trying to put my forty-year old letters in order, I come across a diary for 1956-9. It’s depressing to read as very little of of it is factual and most of it to do with my slightly sickening obsession with, coupled with a lack of insight into, my own character. It’s full of embarrassing resolutions about future conduct and exhortations to myself to do better. Love is treated very obliquely, passing fancies thought of as echoes of some Grand Passion.

My first inclination is to put it in the bin, though I probably won’t. I can see why writers do, though, fearful that these commonplace beginnings might infect what comes after with their banality. In this sense Orton (and to some extent Larkin) are exceptional, Orton’s early diaries written with the same peculiar slant on the world as his mature writing.

1957 was the year I should have come down from Oxford but didn’t and one thing I think reading this tosh is that if I hadn’t got a First (the circumstances undescribed in the diary) I would never have picked myself up to do much except possibly teach badly. It was the fairly spurious self-confidence I got from this fluke result, plus the breathing space it gave, that enabled me to go on doing silly turns, being funny and thus eventually to write.’

The Diary Junction