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 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

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