Friday, October 31, 2014

If I die a violent death

It is 30 years to the day since Indira Gandhi, a major figure in the National Congress Party and India’s third prime minister, was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards. There is scant evidence available online that she was a diarist, although one or two sources do refer to a diary. One of her senior aids, B. N. Tandon, kept a daily diary for nearly two years so as to document a political crisis; it reveals a rather unflattering portrait of his boss. Meanwhile, India’s recently elected Bharatiya Janata Party has chosen to downplay Gandhi’s memory on this significant anniversary of her death.

Indira Nehru was born in Allahabad in 1917. Her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, led India’s political struggle for independence from British rule, and became the first prime minister of the Dominion (and later Republic) of India. He was often away, and her mother was frequently bed-ridden. Indira was educated mostly at home, although at times also in Switzerland, before attending Viswa Bharati University in Shantiniketan, and then Oxford University. She left Oxford before completing her studies. While in Europe, she became better acquainted with Feroze Gandhi (unrelated to Mahatma Gandhi), whom she had known from Allahabad, and who was studying at the London School of Economics. They married in 1942 according to Hindu rituals, and against the wishes of Indira’s father, and had two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay.

In the 1950s, Indira Gandhi served her father unofficially as a personal assistant during his tenure as prime minister. After his death, in 1964, she was elected to the Rajya Sabha (upper house), and Lal Bahadur Shastri, who had succeeded her father as prime minister, gave her a place in his cabinet. And when he died abruptly, the Congress Party sought a docile successor, and appointed Gandhi; but she proved anything but docile, surprising her father’s old colleagues by sacking high-level officials and leading with a strong hand. She brought about great change in agricultural policy which improved the lot of her country’s poor, and, for a time, was hailed as a hero. In 1971, she intervened in the Pakistan Civil War, in support of East Pakistan, and was influential in the creation of an independent Bangladesh.

Increasingly, Gandhi ruled with an authoritarian hand, and corruption was rife within her administration. She was found guilty of a minor infraction, and then there were demands for her resignation. Gandhi responded by calling for a state of emergency which allowed her more central control, in particular of states ruled by opposition parties. In 1977, though, her popularity slumped, and the Congress Party lost an election. Subsequent efforts by opponents to bring her to trial only served to gain her more support, and in 1980 she won a landslide election. That same year, her son Sanjay, who had been serving as chief political adviser, died in a plane crash. Thereafter, Indira’s younger son, Rajiv, took over as Indira’s heir apparent. (He would become prime minister on the death of his mother, and then be assassinated himself in 1991.)

In the new term of office, Gandhi was preoccupied by efforts to resolve political problems in the state of Punjab. In an attempt to crush the secessionist movement of Sikh militants, led by Jarnail Singh Bindranwale, she ordered an assault upon the holiest Sikh shrine in Amritsar, the Golden Temple. ‘Operation Bluestar’, as it was called, in June 1984, led to the death of Bindranwale and many civilians, and caused damage to the sacred Golden Temple itself. Many Sikhs bitterly resented Gandhi for the attack, and she was assassinated by two of her own Sikh bodyguards on 31 October 1984. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, Cultural India, a New York Times obituary, a Guardian review of a modern biography, the BBC, or a Googlebooks preview of Mother India: A Political Biography of Indira Gandhi by Pranay Gupte.

I have not been able to find online any definitive information that Indira Gandhi kept a diary, but there are a couple of sources which imply that she did at different times. Pupul Jayakar, in her biography (published first by Viking, New Delhi, in 1992), quotes several entries from Gandhi’s childhood diary, (although they appear as though they might have been taken from an agenda rather than a journal). She says that 12 year old Indira was angry at being denied active participation in the freedom struggle by Congress and so set about, with vigour and determination, to form her own children’s brigade, the Vanar Sena (army of monkeys): ‘Indira’s diary, written neatly in a tiny scrap book, indicates her precise down-to-earth mind - adult in its planning and concerns, with an understanding that it is the little things that make great events possible, an astonishing state of mind for a twelve-year-old child.’

6 September 1930
‘Papu’s interview at 10:00 A.M.
Meeting of the Students’ Working Committee at 12:30
Meet Gupta about Vanar Sena’s work in different wards.
Katra Vanar Sena’s meeting at Katra Ashram at 6.00 P.M. to 9.00 P.M.
Drill and meeting of Vanar Sena & Bal Sangh at Swaraj Bhawan at 5.00 P.M.’

8 September 1930
‘Boycott week Programme for Vanar Sena.
The whole week Prbahat Pheris - 6-8 A.M.
Procession starting at Khadi Bhandar at 5:30 P.M.
Meeting at Purshottam Das Park.’

13 September 1930
‘Strike in schools on behalf of Jatindra Das
Procession and meeting.’

Jayakar quotes also from other diaries, notably the prison diary kept by Gandhi’s father Jawaharlal Nehru (more about which can be read in Sankar Ghose’s biography available to preview at Googlebooks).

Then there are also the prophetic words Gandhi wrote on the day before her death which are widely quoted on the internet, and which some sources say were culled from her diary (see Facts on File). However, an article in India Today about the memorial at her old office, 1 Safdarjung Road, states that these words were found among her private papers.

30 October 1984
‘If I die a violent death as some fear and a few are plotting, I know the violence will be in the thought and the action of the assassins and not in my dying; for no hate is dark enough to overshadow the extent of my love for my people and my country and no force strong enough to divert me from my purpose and my endeavour to take this country forward.’

Finally, it is worth noting that Bishan Narain Tandon, a senior official in Indira Gandhi’s office kept a diary for 20 months, during a period of political crisis. This diary was published in two parts, by Konark Publishers, as PMO Diary-I: Prelude to the Emergency (2002) and PMO Diary-II: The Emergency (2006). According to Konark, ‘the reader gets an accurate and fascinating glimpse into the persona of Indira Gandhi as well as her working style.’ But reviews of the diary, such as one at India Today and another at Current News, show it reveals a rather unflattering portrait of Gandhi.

Perhaps - I’ve no idea in truth - Tandon’s diary has helped undermine the memory of Gandhi. Many Indian-sourced media articles in the last few days, reporting on the 30th anniversary of her assassination, have drawn attention to how the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party), which took over government from the National Congress Party earlier this year, has been downplaying Indira Gandhi’s legacy in favour of (Sardar or Chief) Vallabhbhai Patel, who was another leader of the Congress Party, and deputy prime minister under Jawaharlal Nehru. See: India Today - Congress cries foul on Indira Gandhi being ‘sidelined’; The Times of India - [Prime Minister] Modi hails Sardar Patel, links Indira Gandhi’s death anniversary to 1984 riots; and Wall Street Journal blog - Is Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Eclipsing Indira Gandhi?.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Amply rewarded

It is 70 years since the death of Princess Beatrice, a constant companion to her mother Queen Victoria while she was alive, and a great great grandmother to the current King of Spain, Felipe VI. Beatrice did not keep a diary herself, as far as I know, but Queen Victoria was a committed diarist: very soon after Beatrice’s birth, the Queen wrote of being ‘amply rewarded’ for the ‘very long wearisome time’. Moreover, it was Beatrice who edited Queen Victoria’s journals, a huge task that took her decades to complete, and she did so faithfully to the letter of her mother’s instructions. Towards the end of her life, Beatrice also translated into English, and edited, diaries kept by her German great grandmother.

Beatrice, the fifth daughter and youngest of nine children born to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, was born at Buckingham Palace in 1857. The birth caused controversy, according to Matthew Dennison, author of The Last Princess: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria’s Youngest Daughter (see review at The Guardian website), when it was announced that Queen Victoria would seek relief from the pains of delivery through the use of chloroform - the practice being dangerous to mother and child and frowned upon by the Church of England and the medical authorities. Two weeks after the birth (on 29 April), Queen Victoria wrote in her journal (freely available online here) about her newborn:

‘Till today I have been prevented from writing in my Journal, & I resume it today with feelings of the deepest, gratitude towards an All Merciful Father in Heaven who has preserved me, & restored me almost completely to health & strength. I have felt better & stronger this time, than I have ever done before. How I also thank God for granting us such a dear, pretty girl, which I so much wished for! She came into the world at 2 o’clock on the 14th, having caused me a very long wearisome time. I was amply rewarded, & forgot all I had gone through, when I heard dearest Albert say “it is a very fine child, & a girl!” & it was as inexpressible joy to me. My beloved ones love and devotion, & the way he helped in so many little ways, was unbounded. Mrs Lilley being old, & having been so ill last year, I had an assistant monthly Nurse, Mrs Innocent to help her. Dr Lucock & Dr Snow attended me. After I had some sleep, Mama & Feodore came in for a moment to see me. Albert had to go at 4 to the Council, & wished dear Aunt Gloucester. He brought Vicky in, to wish me good night - We have to settled that the Baby should be named, Beatrice>, Victoria, Feodore>. Beatrice, is a lovely name, meaning Blessed, & was borne by 3 English Princesses. Dear Mama, Vicky & Fritz & Feodore, are to be the sponsors. - Have done remarkably well all the time. - After the first days saw all the Children, & Vicky has often been reading to me, Mama, & Feodore, also constantly coming in & out. [. . .]

Occupied in choosing various things including little caps, &c - for the dear little new born one, who is such a pretty plump, flourishing child, promising to be very like Arthur, with fine large blue eyes, marked nose, pretty little mouth & very fine skin.’

From birth, Beatrice became a favoured child of her parents. Through much of her childhood she was referred to as ‘Baby’. Queen Victoria came to rely on her increasingly, for emotional and practical support, especially after the deaths of her mother and then of Albert in 1861, and from 1871 when the last of Beatrice’s older sisters married. At times, the Queen even dictated her private journal to Beatrice. Despite her mother’s reluctance to let Beatrice go, she did, eventually, in 1885, agree to her marrying Prince Henry of Battenberg, a morganatic descendant of the Grand Ducal House of Hesse, on the condition that the couple made their home with the Queen.

Beatrice and Henry had four children between 1886 and 1891, but Henry found domestic/royal life too monotonous and yearned for more employment. The Queen made him governor of the Isle of Wight in 1889, and, in time, consented to him joining an expedition fighting in the Fourth Anglo-Ashanti war (in present day Ghana). However, he contracted Malaria, and died in 1896. Beatrice continued to serve her mother, who gave her Henry’s job as Isle of White governor, as well as apartments of her own at Kensington Palace. On the death of the Queen in 1901, Beatrice was devastated; and, thereafter, not being close to her brother, the new King Edward VII, she played less of a role in public affairs

The marriage of Beatrice’s daughter, Princess Ena, to King Alfonso XIII of Spain in 1906 caused some controversy as it entailed her converting to Catholicism, against the wishes of Edward VII. The marriage, moreover, was to transmit Beatrice’s haemophilia gene to the Spanish dynasty. Felipe IV, who succeeded to the Spanish throne in June 1914, is her great great grandson. In 1917, George V’s policy of divesting the royal family of its German associations led the family to change its name of Battenberg to Mountbatten. Beatrice died on 26 October 1944; further biographical information is available at Wikipedia, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, or The Royal Forums.

Queen Victoria left all her private journals to Beatrice, with instructions to edit or destroy any passages which appeared unsuitable for posterity. This involved her in transcribing the journals in her own hand, into 111 volumes, and destroying most of the originals. A few extracts from the diaries were published in the Queen’s lifetime - see The crown hurt me - and, in 2012, the Royal Family published 40,000 pages of the diary online as part of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations - see Victoria’s diaries online. Wikipedia has a separate entry for Queen Victoria’s diaries, although the fullest and most accurate information is on the Queen Victoria Journal website itself. Although, there are, in fact, four different versions of the journal, three of these versions only cover a few years, and it is Princess Beatrice’s 111 hand-written volumes that provide the vast bulk of what remains of Queen Victoria’s diaries. Thus, it is Beatrice who must have edited the above extract about her own birth!

Towards the end of her life Beatrice turned her hand to another ancestor’s diaries, those kept by Queen Victoria’s maternal grandmother, Augusta, duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. She translated these from the German, and they were published in 1941 by John Murray as In Napoleonic Days. Here is part of Beatrice’s own introduction to the book, and a few extracts, including the first and the last two.

‘The King having kindly given me his permission to translate for publication some extracts from my Great-Grandmother’s Diary, I hope this small effort and venture of mine may be of some interest to the public and ultimately benefit the funds of various War Charities. [. . .] Her original diary is in the family archives in Windsor Castle and, so far, the extracts from it have only been printed in German for private circulation. The curious similarity between the days of the Napoleonic wars and our own times has led me to think this Diary might appeal to some readers, interested in that period. The record is very simply told and contains many references to the Duchess’s family and the part they played in her life, but these could not be easily eliminated without spoiling the impression given by her graphic descriptions of the times in which she lived, in the Germany of that day so very different from present-day Germany.’

2 April 1806
‘The moon shines cold and bright in a cloudless sky. The mild breath of Spring has given way to cold biting east winds. It seems as if nature has allied itself with humanity to destroy all thoughts of happiness. There are nothing but storms in the atmosphere and amongst men. Poor Germany, what will thy fate yet be, given over to the caprices of a despot, who recognises no law but his own will, who sets no limit to his own lust for power, and to whom all means are justifiable to gratify this passion.

Soon to be under the yoke of an arrogant, grasping people, what future can my poor devastated country expect, she who once in olden days, defied the Roman Eagle! When the short shameful war broke out, I foresaw a dark future, but now that war has ended so disastrously my heart is filled with a nameless dread. Slowly and heavily the storm is creeping over Saxony. I wonder where I shall finish these entries and in what place I shall lay my weary head to rest, after life’s storms have passed over me?’

15 August 1806
‘At last the terrible blow has fallen which wrecks the German Constitution! Francis II has laid down the German Imperial Crown. In spite of the flaws of the old regime it surely is better than what we are going to be given in its stead. The ancient national oak, with its mouldering trunk and weather-beaten branches in which Wotan’s eagle has for 1000 years had its eyrie, cannot be expected to stem the present tide of events.’

28 September 1806
‘A false rumour last night that a French Cavalry Brigade was approaching, caused great distress in the town and deprived us of sleep. It was “much ado about nothing.” But I wonder if these disturbers of the peace may not some day unexpectedly descend on us?’

10 October 1806
‘Merciful God, what terrible times we have lived through! The grim memories of these days of bloodshed will never leave me. Already at [half past eight] my niece sent for me. Her corner room overlooked on the one side Wladbergen, through which the road from Coburg passes. On the left, shots were falling at intervals, as well as in and around the little village of Garnsdorf, at the foot of the hills, where the Prussian Jagers were posted. The ground above the forest was also being occasionally shelled. Prussien Batteries were stationed in the fields near the high road to Rudolstadt, and on the road itself, Fusiliers.

Towards 8 o’clock Prince Louis Ferdinand arrived on the scene, rapidly followed by Horse Artillery and 2 Saxon Infantry Regiments. In the distance their fine band could be heard, and lastly our brace Saxon Hussars came by, at a quick trot.

Prince Louis Ferdinand accompanied by his ADCs reviewed all the Troops, his brave, debonnaire appearance creating a general sense of confidence.

One could see the enemy coming down the hills, and hear the tramping of the Infantry and the sound of bugles. The whole scene of bloodshed lay spread out before us. The fire of Prussian Battery was incessant, but the French guns seldom came into action. Their Cavalry emerged from the forest and streamed along in a never-ending and terrifying procession.’

1 October 1821
‘I must somehow have caught a chill on my drive back from Ebersdorf, and feel very unwell. I have such pains in my limbs, that I am afraid I must be feverish.’

3 October 1821
‘I had such pains in my head and palpitations of the heart this morning that I could not help being alarmed about myself, but it passed off, and we were able to lunch in the little Casino at the foot of the old tower, the Ebersdorf family joining us.’

Sunday, October 19, 2014

N. tinkering with diaries

It is half a century since the death of Nettie Palmer, one of Australia’s most well known literary figures of the 20th century. She and her husband, Vance, were very active supporters of Australian writers, and promotors of Australian literature. In their 50s, and at their own expense, they published a diary - or more accurately an anthology in journal form - called Fourteen Years. Although initially only 500 copies were printed, the book came to be seen as a unique record of Australian culture between the wars, and has been much studied, and reprinted.

Nettie was born in Bendigo, Victoria, the niece of Henry Bournes Higgins, a leading Victorian political figure and later a federal minister and justice of the High Court of Australia. She studied education at the University of Melbourne, and literature in Germany and France. In 1908, she met Vance Palmer, and they married in London in 1914. With the outbreak of war, they returned to Australia, and campaigned against conscription.

The Palmers lived in the fishing village of Caloundra, Queensland, and had two daughters - Aileen and Helen. They focused mostly on their writing, short stories, poetry and journalism. In 1924, Nettie published an academic study of Australian literature, and, in 1931, a biography of her uncle, Higgins. In the mid-1930s, the Palmers travelled to Europe, but before returning to Australia, one of their daughters, Aileen, joined the International Brigades in Spain.

By the time of the Second World War, neither Vance nor Nettie were in the best of health, but they continued their literary endeavours. Nettie, in particular, became one of Australia’s foremost literary critics, and was a great champion of Australian literature. Aileen suffered a mental breakdown in 1948, and Vance was attacked as a communist ‘fellow traveller’ in the 1950s. Nettie died on 19 October 1964. Further biographical information is available at the Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Library of Australia, and Wikipedia.

According to Robin Lucas, who studied Nettie Palmer at the University of Melbourne, she ’was an indefatigable and life-long diary and notebook-keeper’. A fragment of an early European diary can be found on the university’s website. Information on her ‘Commonplace book’ 1907-1936 can be found at the National Library of Australia. However, Palmer herself published, in 1948, a book of diary entries, and called it Fourteen Years: extracts from a private journal. This book has become a classic of Australian literature, and was republished in 1988 by the University of Queensland Press in Nettie Palmer: Her private journal Fourteen Years, poems, reviews and literary essays (edited by Vivian Smith). This latter tome - all 550 pages of it - is freely available as a pdf at UQP’s ‘institutional digital repository’.

Also freely available online are various texts by Robin Lucas about Fourteen Years - a masters thesis and an article entitled A Fine Ruddy Mess for the La Trobe Journal. Lucas argues that, although the original book was published under the Meanjin Press imprint (based in Melbourne), it was effectively self-published with the Palmers paying the production and other costs for the initial print run of 500. She explains how the whole process involved ‘confusion and frayed tempers’, hence the title of the La Trobe article. Lucas also notes that Fourteen Years was not so much a straightforward diary, but that it was ‘compiled from a miscellany of sources: work diaries, notebooks, letters, articles and family memories’. Prior to publication, both Nettie and Vance had worked on the book since 1945.

Vivian Smith, in her introduction to Nettie Palmer, says: ‘There is no other work quite like Fourteen Years in Australian writing and it is a text that has gained increasing importance for historians and those interested in the development of Australian culture between the wars.’ She explains how Fourteen Years is ‘in part a reconstruction, and in part a highly selective reassembling of original materials’; and she then provides some extracts from Palmer’s pocket diary for 1947 to illustrate the process that had been involved in assembling the book. Here are a few of those extracts:

2 Sept 1947
‘V. let N. read through some Notes. Decided time now come to sort them out into 8 period-places (Caloimdra, Kalorama, Barcelona, Melbourne, etc.). Need folders for what material I had here by now. Each folder has at least something, some a great deal already in it.’

3 September 1947
‘V. looked through N.’s file of rejected printed articles and advised on keeping only a few. Notes already done are enough on general literary subjects: those need interweaving with more personal ones. Drew up a list of names that must be included in some way practising writers and their purposes. Must get some characteristic phrases and appearances for each from appropriate periods. V. began re-reading old family diaries V. had bought for me, 1934, fitting in with some literary notes on visitors: Pfeffer, Ravitch, Huebner. But need to follow our own writers now - it’s just a matter of sorting more than writing.’

4 September 1947
‘N. tinkering with diaries and fitting persons in like mosaic. N.B. must write some of it . . .’

8 September 1947
‘Did notes. V. says too warm, too much informed after the event, on Len Mann at Kalorama 1933. Found phrases of his in old diary. Moral: keep good diaries with people’s phrases in them.’

4 October 1947
‘N. finishing note on Masefield in Melbourne; begin one on E.T. Brown . . . . Our worst years were 1937-39, when we were entangled in politics to no avail. We knew what was coming and no one would believe us except some fanatics who believed everything in advance. We knew too many people, for insufficient reasons.’

13 October 1947
‘Grey day. V. planning to begin on London and N. sat down to it after breakfast without doing a stint of housework first, and wrote two London pieces in the morning: on Shelley Wang and Christina Stead (and her husband). Tried to do Ogden too, but got wrecked on his learning.’

Fourteen Years, Smith says, is best looked on as an anthology in journal form. It is divided into eight sections which correspond to the main places in which the Palmers lived for varying lengths of time during this period: Caloundra 1925-29; Melbourne 1929-32; Green Island 1932; Kalorama 1932-35; Paris 1935; London 1935-36; Barcelona 1936; and Melbourne 1936-39.

Here then are several extracts from Fourteen Years itself.

20 September 1925
‘Early this morning, we watched a man on a ridge behind Mrs. T.’s house lassooing the branch of a tree with a length of rope. What was he doing? Stretching a clothes-line? But why so high up, and on that slope?

Here in South Queensland, life moves lightly and intimately; you’re always looking out of doors at this sunny end of winter. From the narrow shelf of the front veranda, there’s the bush sloping towards the ocean in one direction, and towards the Passage with its wide water in another. Along the western skyline stand the unbelievable Glasshouses. Then from the back windows, you look across the open ridges to forest country. You see the casual events of your neighbours’ lives, especially when you sit at breakfast in the open sun.

You see dreamily, and often without understanding. That clothes-line? I met Mrs. T. at the end of the morning while we both waited for our mail at the lighthouse post-office. She was bubbling kindly: ‘My son-in-law from town’s just fixed a radio aerial, and the crystal set he’s brought is clear as can be. Would you come in this evening and hear it? It’s the first wireless set in Caloundra.’

This evening we went along in the moonlight. In Mrs. T.’s open lounge there must have been sixty visitors. Fishermen and their women; lighthouse-keeper and ex-keeper, wives and families. Children sucking large black humbugs solemnly. And in the place of honour, the new miracle of communication, the wireless. (The son-in-law was a self-effacing showman. At eight o’clock, and before we noticed the instrument was turned on, came heavy strokes - the Post Office clock, Sydney: ‘as if they were right in the room,’ sighed someone voluptuously). Then came a weather report: squally, we heard, as the calm moon listened in with amusement.

What next? Some ‘music’ so nondescript that people mostly relapsed into friendly talk while it lasted - as if it were real-life music. So far no statics or interference. The son-in-law muttered technicalities to the few eager youths who could lap up his learning. A speech is announced on the air: ‘it’s a lecture on Christian Science,’ says the son-in-law. For five minutes of it, everyone listens; even the children with their still-revolving jaws. It’s so wonderful to have any opinion conveyed whole, like eggs by plane from Sydney. Then people begin asking one another questions. Can everything be caught up by wireless? Could you use it like a listening telescope and direct it to a cathedral service or a trade union meeting? No? Well, who decides what you’ll have? It all comes so clear it might be important some day.

The Sydney clock struck the hour again. The children had sucked away their issue of humbugs. Time to thank Mrs T. and her son-in-law and go home. We drifted in the moonlight along the strip of rough road. There stood that other aerial mast, the lighthouse, mild winds humming in its flagpole ropes. Its light blinked regularly against the moon, that supreme mistress of communication. Long before wireless, the light was: long before the light, the moon. What was it Andrew Tripcony said yesterday, as patriarchal fisherman in these parts: ‘Th’ moon’s useful; y’ always know the tides by her. Quarterflood over the Bar at moonrise. Same at moonset.’

Will the wireless ever catch up with such established guides of mankind?’

19 March 1931
‘For a long time I’ve been paying, in casual articles and notes, my humble tribute to Edmund Wilson as the most penetrating critic in the modem literary world - the Anglo-Saxon one at any rate - and yesterday an unlooked-for response came from him in the form of a signed copy of his new book ‘Axel’s Castle.’ I’ve found it hard to keep my mind from it ever since. It has all the brilliant clarity of his occasional critiques, together with the thematic backbone you expect from a book - in this case the idea that the six writers he chooses as significant figures in the literature of today are guided, like Axel, by a will toward refusal.

The six figures are Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Gertude Stein, Proust and Paul Valéry. At first you are a little surprised at the choice of names, but Edmund Wilson shows how certain socially-minded writers before the war - Shaw, Wells, Bennett, Anatole France - have lost credit, while his half-dozen have gained by producing masterpieces in isolation, almost secretly.

These books revealed new discoveries, artistic, metaphysical, psychological; they mapped the labyrinths of the human consciousness; they made one conceive the world in a new way. What wonder then that for those who survived the war these writers should have become heroes and leaders?’

7 April 1932

‘THIS island, now we’re here, is a flat oval of jungle-covered coral sand (almost forty acres, they say) on the inner edge of the Great Reef. Not even eight feet above sea-level, it’s protected from the outer seas by an irregular circling reef that encloses a lagoon - shallow enough to wade through when the tide’s out, but deep enough to float a small fleet when the tide rushes back again through the narrow opening. There’s always five or six feet of water at the end of the long ricketty jetty that gives a berth to the Cairns launch bringing the Sunday crowd of holidaymakers - and our supplies and mail. Our camp is on the sheltered side of the island, looking toward the mainland. Sometimes at high tide the water softly laps the roots of the great trees that lean over our tent and down over the beach.

Before I came here I’d imagined the Barrier Reef as a great wall running along the line of the coast - a rampart of pure coral rising from the depths. Now, looking out from our knob on its edge, it seems a straggling assortment of honeycomb reefs in all stages of growth, varied by fragments of sunken mainland, such as the great hump of Fitzroy Island to the south. Our island is one of the coral cays that have come to maturity. It has fully emerged from the sea, collected its cover of humus, created a beautiful safe jungle in which you can lie unaware of the sea, though never fifty yards from the beach.

This gleaming little forest of vines and evergreens can seem at times even more wonderful than the coral reef itself. There’s a gentleness about it - no thorns, poisonous reptiles, stinging insects. Instead, there are the unafraid birds - tiny silver-eyes, ground-pigeons with lustrous wings of dark-green - and the bright, flickering butterflies, all seemingly sure of being in some forest fastness.’

The Diary Junction

Washed out exoticism

‘If in a hundred years we have not established contact with some other planet (but we will), or, next best, with the earth’s interior, humanity is finished.’ This dramatic prophesy was made by Henri Michaux, a Belgian-born experimental writer and artist, in a diary he kept while on a trip to Ecuador in the late 1920s. He died 30 years ago today, but is remembered as much for his books on mescaline as for his poetry and painting.

Michaux was born in Namur, Belgium, in 1899, the son of a Catholic lawyer, and raised in Brussels, being educated at a Jesuit school. He planned to join the priesthood, but, after a religious crisis, took up medicine before dropping his studies altogether in favour of a life at sea in the French merchant navy. He travelled widely in Europe, in the Americas, and in Asia. He was inspired to write by reading the poetry of Comte de Lautréamont, and attracted some attention with his poems Qui je fus (Who I was) in 1927. Through meeting artists such as Paul Klee and Max Ernst in Paris, he also took up painting and held his first one-man exhibition at the Librairie-Galerie de la Pléiade in 1937. In time, he took up residence in Paris, and became a French citizen.

In 1941, the French writer, André Gide published a study that made Michaux’s poetry popular for a while. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Michaux’s view of the human condition is bleak; his poems emphasize the impossibility of making sense of life as it impinges on the individual. Against the futility of real life, Michaux sets the richness of his imagination, and the contradictions of his surrealistic images serve as a foil to the absurdity of existence.’

Following the death of his wife in a fire in 1948, Michaux began experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs; and in the 1950s published several books dealing with his experiences of taking mescaline. His painting at this time was also affected by these experiences. A large exhibition of his works was held at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1957; and a retrospective was organised in Frankfurt/Main in 1959. In 1966, he published the autobiographical Les grandes épreuves de l’esprit et les innombrables petites, translated into English in the 1970s as The Major Ordeals of the Mind and the Countless Minor Ones (Secker and Warburg). Michaux died on 19 October 1984. Further, somewhat scanty, information can be found at Kirjasto, Wikipedia, the Poetry Foundation, the Tate, Art Directory, and Moma; and there is an interesting article on Michaux by the Mexican writer, Octavio Paz, freely available at The Guardian.

Early on in his travels, Michaux tried out the diary form on a trip to Ecuador, and this became one of his earliest published works - in 1929. It was reissued in 1968, and then translated by Robin Magowan and published in English with the title Ecuador: a travel journal. Some of this can be read freely at Googlebooks, otherwise secondhand copies can be bought for around £15 at Abebooks. Here are a couple of extracts.

22 January 1928
[After Panama] ‘The sea resolves all difficulties. It brings on few. It’s a lot like us. It lacks the earth’s hard, pulseless heart, and, be it ever so prompt to drown, we have only to take against this eventuality reasonable precautions for it to be once again our friend, quite brotherly, and understanding us perfectly.

It does not offer us these unmatched spectacles wherein the earth excels (provided we journey a few hundred miles), spectacles that make utter strangers of us, as if we were newly born and unhappy.

Who knows one sea knows the sea. Its anger, like ours. Its inner life, like ours. What is more, it does not like the earth offer in a single vista thousands of independent, different, and personal points - trees, rocks, flowers.

To the Ancients these personal points were not negligible, and it was My Lord Rock, Madam River. The professors, after the Jews and Christians, ruined all that.

Who can speak fittingly of a grove?’

1 February 1928
‘No, I have already said it elsewhere. This earth has had all the exoticism washed out of it. If in a hundred years we have not established contact with some other planet (but we will), or, next best, with the earth’s interior, humanity is finished. There is no longer a means of living, we explode, we go to war, we perpetrate evil of all sorts; we are, in a word, incapable of remaining any longer on this rind. We are in mortal pain; both from the dimensions as they now stand, and from the lack of any future dimension to which we can turn, now that our tour of the earth has been done to death. (These opinions, I know, are quite sufficient to have me looked down upon as a mind of the fourth order.) ’

‘A countryside or foreign city may be set apart as much by what it lacks as by what is uniquely its own. One explanation is this: as you can say about a work of art, ‘Oh, that’s very lovely, but it’s not alive, there are too many vital details left out’; in the same way you cannot wholeheartedly accept a new town, and if the trip there takes too little time, nothing remains and you end up exclaiming, ‘This trip passed like a dream.’ Exoticism has played a trick on us.

Despite the three weeks or so I have been here, Quito does not yet seem to me completely real, with that kind of naturalness and homogeneity a city we know well has (however varied its aspects may be to a stranger). What I miss in a foreign scene - and I am saying foreign - is never grandeur, but smallness.

Let’s examine my impressions calmly, then, and I will tell you what I miss in both Quito and its surrounding countryside. I miss pushcarts, pine trees, ants. There is not one tree (aside form the eucalyptus), not a single click of wooden wheels, no cart of any description, or cats during the day (by the way, the wheel was not invented by the Incas).’

The Diary Junction

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Autobiographical items

Dannie Abse, the Welsh doctor, poet and occasional diarist, has died aged 91. In fact, he died just two days before I finally got married - though I’ve known my new wife, Hat, for seven years, and we have two children together. I never met Abse, but there are one or two rather amazing links between him, Hat and I. He was best mates with my father, Frederic, in the 1950s, before Frederic abandoned his family to emigrate to the US. Decades later, long before I met Hat, Abse was friends with her father, Giles Gordon. Indeed, both our fathers, (Hat’s and mine) are mentioned in Abse’s first published book of ‘journals’ - journals, for him, being a collection of ‘autobiographical items’. Latterly, Abse lived in the same road as my mother, and they would walk their dogs in Childs Hill Park, and nod ‘hello’, in some faint acknowledgement of their social connection half a century earlier.

Abse was born in Cardiff, youngest of four children in a Jewish family. His father part-owned and ran cinemas. He studied medicine, briefly at the University of Wales, and then, in London, at Westminster Hospital and King’s College, becoming a specialist chest physician. During the latter part of the war he volunteered with other medical students to help, but was not sent abroad. He published his first book of poetry in the late 1940s, and in 1951, he was called up for National Service. That same year, he married Joan Mercer, a librarian at the time for the Financial Times, and an art historian. They moved to live in Hodford Road, Golder’s Green, north London, and had three children.

By this time, Abse was part of the London poetry scene, giving poetry readings, and being likened to his fellow Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, though he soon brushed off the latter’s overwrought style. A second collection of poems followed, and then his first autobiographical novel Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve (1954) brought him some early literary success. Many other poems, readings, books followed, as he managed to live life as a celebrated poet at the same time as pursuing a medical career.

In 2005, Joan was killed in a car accident, and Abse himself suffered injuries. He continued to write, and, in 2012, he accepted a CBE for services to poetry and literature, saying, at the time, that many people more left-wing than he had taken the award. He died just over two weeks ago, on 28 September. Wikipedia has a short biography, but there are also several detailed obituaries online, at The Telegraph, for example, The Guardian, the BBC and The British Council. There are several older interviews and articles by Gerald Isaaman, ex editor of the Ham and High, for Camden New Journal. And there is a Dannie Abse website, with information about his books.

My mother, Barbara Lyons, who died in 2007, also lived on Hodford Road, and would often see Abse in Childs Hill Park as they walked their dogs. I don’t think they ever talked, but they would nod a greeting as they passed, in some vague way acknowledging that they had known each other in the 1950s. Indeed, according to my father, Frederic Goldsmith, Dannie was one of his best friends in those days. They were both part of a group of musicians, artists, writers, German refugees (Frederic had arrived in London as a child in the 30s, his family escaping from Hitler’s Nazi Germany) that would meet in The Cosmo, on Finchley Road. Also part of that group was: Peter the Girl, now in her mid-90s, who was a friend of my parents, and remains a friend of mine to this day: Uncle Bondy, who took us on holiday to his primitive villa in Bandol, France, at least once: and Peter Vansittart who married my aunt, Johnnie.

Around the time Dannie was getting married, Frederic met my mother, and I was born the following year. The marriage between my parents didn’t last long - in contrast to Dannie’s which lasted a lifetime and very happily so, according to all reports. Frederic, the cad, ran off to the US, not to return for 20 years. And when he did return to London, he thought it would be funny, in an ‘old times’ sort of way, to show up at Dannie’s house in the middle of the night. But Dannie didn’t find it funny, and, effectively, rejected his old friend. Peter the Girl, out of loyalty to Frederic, never forgave Abse for that - indeed she called me the day after he died to remind me of the story. Ironically, I was out of the country when Frederic made that visit to London - ironic because every year through my childhood he had written to me saying he would come visit soon!

Fast forwarding, to the year 2007, Frederic long since dead, and my mother just gone too, I met and fell in love with Harriet Gordon (often known as Hat). Her parents, too, had died in recent years: Giles Gordon, literary agent, and Margaret Gordon, children’s book illustrator. It turned out that her father had been Dannie Abse’s agent, and friend, for many years. Hat and I moved in together, and have two children now. Along the way, we wrote to Dannie, thinking he might be intrigued by the coincidence. He wrote back, saying that is one ‘helluva coincidence’, or rather ‘a heaven of a coincidence.’

I feel justified in contributing a piece on Dannie here, to The Diary Review, because he published several books which were either compilations of diary extracts and/or were given the title ‘journals’. In fact, in his first collection of ‘journal’ pieces - Journals from the Ant-Heap (1986) - Abse mentions both my father and Hat’s father, but in very different contexts. The so-called journal entries, though, were written to order, on Gerald Isaaman’s suggestion for a column in the Ham and High (see below), and are only dated by month. Similar kinds of later autobiographical notes were put together with Journals from the Ant-Heap in a single volume called Intermittent Journals.

Here is Abse’s explanation of how he came to publish Journals from the Ant-Heap.

‘Gerald Isaaman, the editor of a local newspaper in London, the Hampstead and Highgate Express, affectionately known as the Ham and High, is a great admirer of George Orwell. In December 1983, recalling Orwell’s once lively column for Tribune entitled ‘As I Please’, he decided that, during 1984, he would like a similar series to grace the pages of the Ham and High.

George Orwell, alas, was not available. So he cast around other writers, shortlisting a number of them, no doubt alphabetically, for soon he telephoned me. I could not mimic Orwell. I could only write my own kind of prose. Gerald did not seem to mind and I agreed to offer him a fortnightly autobiographical column for one year only. He was to call my non-Orwellian ‘As I Please’ ‘ABSE’s 1984’. He proved to be an ideal editor. He only occasionally made suggestions and never changed my copy.

In March 1985 it was suggested to me that I protract my journal so that it could be published in book form. I could continue writing it, of course, as I pleased, and more importantly, when I pleased. I cannot pretend that I have not enjoyed conjugating occasional autobiographical items while I have been based in London or in South Wales. And I hope they will amuse like-minded readers. They are not private diary entries but were written, as all journalism is, as a public secret.’

Abse dedicated Journals from the Ant-Heap ‘To Margaret and Giles Gordon’ (Hat’s parents); and here is one extract from the book, in which Abse reflects on the Cosmo days, and mentions Frederic/Fred, my father - approximately 20 years before Hat and I were to meet.

March-April 1986
‘We decided to dine out to celebrate the arrival of an advance copy of my new book of poems, As the Bloody Horse. We chose to eat at The Cosmo in Swiss Cottage. Joan and I had not visited that Viennese café for years but suddenly, in nostalgic mood, we wanted to make a return journey to 1949. In the post-war years, when I was a medical student, instead of studying in my ‘digs’ in Aberdare Gardens, NW6, [. . .] I often spent an evening gossiping and arguing with other Cosmo habitués.

Because of the refugees who had come to live in small rooms scattered across Swiss Cottage, this area had become a corner of Vienna with a distinct café life. Soon, young British writers, artists, musicians and burglars, joined the refugees and found the party-going, cigarette-smoking laden atmosphere of The Cosmo congenial. Generally Joan - then Joan Mercer - and I sat in the annexe over one cup of coffee all night but there were occasions when the annexe was too full and its occupants overflowed into the large main restaurant where they had laid white linen table-cloths over the tables in order to encourage their clientele to eat something!

It was to the main restaurant that we now repaired. It had hardly changed. There was something old-fashioned about the place, something outmoded, as if the clock had stopped not so much in 1949 but in pre-war Vienna. [. . .] It was odd to gaze around the restaurant and observe not one person known to us. Where were the novelists, youthful once more, Peter Brent, Bernice Rubens, Peter Vansittart? Where the sculptor, Bill Turnbull? Would not Emanuel Litvonoff, Cherry Marshall and Rudi Nassauer come in at any minute? Was Ivor M in jail again? Were Keith Sawbridge, Fred Goldsmith and Old Bondy next door in the annexe arguing the toss? I recalled Jack Ashman, somewhat manic, and Theodore Bikel with his guitar - and the prettier faces of Penny, Noa, Betty, Jacky, Peter the Girl, Nina Shelley. I looked out of the window. Across the road where once had stood the elegant facades of fire-blitzed houses reigned instead W. H. Smith and MacDonalds.

Soon Joan and I were talking about the most remarkable ghost of The Cosmo, Elias Canetti. Canetti, some twenty years older than us, used to insist we called him Canetti, not Elias, since he did not care for his first name.  [. . .] Canetti would sit in The Cosmo regularly, often with pen in hand. When questioned on what he was writing he made it clear that it was a masterpiece. He had been working, he told us, on a book about Crowds and Power for more than a decade. When asked when he would publish it he quite seriously commented that there was plenty of time, that he did not wish to make the mistake Freud had done - contradict himself. ‘I have to be sure,’ he would say passionately. If ever a man believed he would one day receive the Nobel Prize for Literature that man was Elias Canetti. And he was right.’

After Joan’s death, Abse’s output was, understandably, focused on his grief. Apart from poems, he also published a diary - The Presence (Hutchinson, 2007) - he had kept in the year after the tragedy, and this turned out to be more of bona-fide kind of diary, kept day-by-day, than anything he had published hitherto. The blurb describes it as ‘both a record of present grief and a portrait of a marriage that lasted more than fifty years’. ‘It is an extraordinary document,’ the publisher says, ‘painful but celebratory, funny yet often tragic, bursting with joy as well as sorrow and full of a deep understanding of what it means to be human.’ Here are a few lines from the first extract.

22 September 2005
‘The past survives however much one tries to drive it down and away from one’s consciousness. It rears up provoked by something overheard or a scene, a place, an object, a tune, a scent even. It is inescapable. But I think how I must count my blessings, though it would have been better if Joan not I had been the one who had crawled out of that capsized car. She would have been much more self-sufficient. Count your blessings, son, my mother used to say. A cliché. At times of stress, clichés, family sayings, proverbs, are drawn to the mind like a magnet. I do count my blessings: at night, though I don’t sleep well, I am unable to lie on my right side now that the stress-fractures of the right thoracic cage have healed; the scar on my chin and neck are hardly visible; my left thumb, though oddly angled, is less troublesome and it is no bad thing that I’ve lost a stone in weight. Presumably the latter is due as much to my increased metabolic rate as it is to the lack of Joan’s tempting and nutritious cooking. At least I hope I haven’t developed an over-active thyroid. I take my pulse and note it is raised though not alarmingly so. Do I write all this down as an aide-mémoire for my future self?’

Finally, I turn to my own diaries, and find but one significant mention of Abse - yet another synchronous connection.

30 May 1977
‘Who is Dannie Abse? Yesterday evening my mother showed me a book of his poems, an old friend of Frederic, I was told, before I was born. A poem ‘Epithalium’ [this should be ‘Epithalamium’ - a poem for the bride on her way to the marital chamber] was pointed out - ‘Today I married my white lady in a barley field’. This evening I walk in to Pentameters because I have nothing else to do. The man himself is reading tonight. I am anxious to meet him.’

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Voyage to Lisbon

Two hundred and sixty years ago today, Henry Fielding, celebrated author and justice of the peace in London, died in Lisbon where he had journeyed in search of cures for his ailments. He was not a diarist by nature, but on the way to Lisbon, he decided to keep a journal. This was published posthumously and, apart from showing off his literary skill, it paints an ‘extraordinarily vivid picture of the tortuous slowness of 18th-century sea travel’.

Fielding was born in Somerset in 1707, into a well-connected family, but when he was three the family moved to Dorset. He was educated at Eton, leaving at 17 to take up the life of a gentleman. After an abortive elopement, and writing a play, he went to study at Leiden University, only to return to London when his father’s funds ran out. Settling in London, he became a successful playwright.

Fielding’s satirical style of writing, however, drew the wrath of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, who engineered a law - the Theatrical Licensing Act - designed to put a stop to his plays. Subsequently, Fielding gave up on the theatre, and studied law. He married Charlotte Craddock in 1734, after another elopement, and they had several children, although only one survived to adulthood (but then died at the age of 23).

Fielding’s legal practice never took off, but he also continued to write satire, contributing to journals of the time. Then, a publisher took up a novel he had written, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, and another Joseph Andrews. In 1743, Fielding published three volumes of Miscellanies, works old and new, but, disappointed with his income from sales, he gave up writing for a couple of years.  He was often crippled with gout; and Charlotte, too, fell ill, and died in 1744. Three years later, he married her former maid, Mary Daniel, who was pregnant. They had two sons that survived childhood.

Fielding was in the habit of starting up satirical magazines, and by 1748 one of these had found favour with the government - for propaganda purposes. As a consequence of being in political favour, he was appointed justice of the peace for Westminster and Middlesex, with his own courthouse and residence. Historians say he brought great dignity to the post, and, in fact, was one of the best magistrates to serve in 18th century London. It was he that formed the famous police corps, the Bow Street Runners, to deal with street crime.

In 1749, Fielding published The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, and it would be his most famous work, and become considered one of the great English novels (see The Guardian for example). Here is Encyclopaedia Britannica’s assessment: ‘With its great comic gusto, vast gallery of characters, and contrasted scenes of high and low life in London and the provinces, it has always been the most popular of his works. The reading of this work is essential both for an understanding of 18th century England and for its revelations of the generosity and charity of Fielding’s view of humanity.’

Fielding’s health continued to deteriorate, and in 1754 he set off by ship to Portugal in search of a better climate for his ailments, but he died in Lisbon two months after arriving, on 8 October. Further information is available from Wikipeda, Kirjasto, or The Dorset Page.

Fielding was not a diarist by nature, apparently, but, near the end of his life, he kept a diary during the voyage to Lisbon. This was first published, posthumously, in 1755, as The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, but has since been republished and reprinted. Various versions are freely available to read online at Internet Archive.

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘this work presents an extraordinarily vivid picture of the tortuous slowness of 18th-century sea travel, the horrors of contemporary medicine, the caprices of arbitrary power as seen in the conduct of customs officials, and, above all, [Fielding’s] indomitable courage and cheerfulness when almost completely helpless, for he could scarcely walk and had to be carried on and off ship.’ Here are several extracts, including the very last words in his diary (7 August).

28 June 1754
‘By way of prevention, therefore, I this day sent for my friend Mr. Hunter, the great surgeon and anatomist of Covent-garden; and, though my belly was not yet very full and tight, let out ten quarts of water, the young sea-surgeon attending the operation, not as a performer, but as a student.

I was now eased of the greatest apprehension which I had from the length of the passage; and I told the captain, I was become indifferent as to the time of his sailing. He expressed much satisfaction in this declaration, and at hearing from me, that I found myself, since my tapping, much lighter and better. In this, I believe, he was sincere; for he was, as we shall have occasion to observe more than once, a very good-natured man; and as he was a very brave one too, I found that the heroic constancy, with which I had born an operation that is attended with scarce any degree of pain, had not a little raised me in his esteem. That he might adhere, therefore, in the most religious and rigorous manner to his word, he ordered his ship to fall down to Gravesend on Sunday morning, and there to wait his arrival.’

30 June 1754
‘Nothing worth notice pass’d till that morning, when my poor wife, after passing a night in the utmost torments of the tooth-ach, resolved to have it drawn. I dispatched, therefore, a servant into Wapping, to bring, in haste, the best toothdrawer he could find. He soon found out a female of great eminence in the art; but when he brought her to the boat, at the water-side, they were informed that the ship was gone; for, indeed, she had set out a few minutes after his quitting her; nor did the pilot, who well knew the errand on which I had sent my servant, think fit to wait a moment for his return, or to give me any notice of his setting out.

But of all the petty bashaws, or turbulent tyrants I ever beheld, this sourfaced pilot was the worst tempered; for, during the time that he had the guidance of the ship, which was till we arrived in the Downs, he complied with no one’s desires, nor did he give a civil word, or, indeed, a civil look to any on board.

The toothdrawer, who, as I said before, was one of great eminence among her neighbours, refused to follow the ship; so that my man made himself the best of his way, and, with some difficulty, came up with us before we were got under full sail; for, after that, as we had both wind and tide with us, he would have found it impossible to overtake the ship, till she was come to an anchor at Gravesend.

The morning was fair and bright, and we had a passage thither, I think, as pleasant as can be conceived; for, take it with all its advantages, particularly the number of fine ships you are always sure of seeing by the way, there is nothing to equal it in all the rivers of the worid. The yards of Deptford and of Woolwich are noble sights; and give us a just idea of the great perfection to which we are arrived in building those floating castles, and the figure which we may always make in Europe among the other maritime powers. That of Woolwich, at least, very strongly imprinted this idea on my mind; for, there was now on the stocks there the Royal Anne, supposed to be the largest ship ever built, and which contains ten carriage guns more than had ever yet equipped a first rate. [. . .]

Besides the ships in the docks, we saw many on the water: the yachts are sights of great parade, and the. king’s body yacht is, I believe, unequalled in any country, for convenience as well as magnificence; both which are consulted in building and equipping her with the most exquisite art and workmanship.

We saw likewise several Indiamen just returned from their voyage. These are, I believe, the largest and finest vessels which are any where employed in commercial affairs. The colliers, likewise, which are very numerous, and even assemble in fleets, are ships of great bulk; and, if we descend to those used in the American, African, and European trades, and pass through those which visit our own coasts, to the small craft that ly between Chatham and the Tower, the whole forms a most pleasing object to the eye, as well as highly warming to the heart of an Englishman, who has any degree of love for his country, or can recognize any effect of the patriot in his constitution.

Lastly, the Royal Hospital of Greenwich, which presents so delightful a front to the water, and doth such honour at once to its builder and the nation, to the great skill and ingenuity of the one, and to the no less sensible gratitude of the other, very properly closes the account of this scene; which may well appear romantic to those who have not themselves seen, that, in this one instance, truth and reality are capable, perhaps, of exceeding the power of fiction. [. . .]

Sailing in the manner I have just mentioned, is a pleasure rather unknown, or unthought of, than rejected by those who have experienced it; unless, perhaps, the apprehension of danger, or sea-sickness, may be supposed, by the timorous and delicate, to make too large deductions. [. . .] This, however, was my present case; for the ease and lightness which I felt from my tapping, the gaiety of the morning, the pleasant sailing with wind and tide, and the many agreeable objects with which I was constantly entertained during the whole way, were all suppressed and overcome by the single consideration of my wife’s pain, which continued incessantly to torment her till we came to an anchor, when I dispatched a messenger in great haste, for the best reputed operator in Gravesend.

A surgeon of some eminence now appeared, who did not decline tooth-drawing, tho’ he certainly would have been offended with the appellation of tooth-drawer, no less than his brethren, the members of that venerable body, would be with that of barber, since the late separation between those long united companies, by which, if the surgeons have gained much, the barbers are supposed to have lost very little.

This able and careful person (for so I sincerely believe he is) after examining the guilty tooth, declared, that it was such a rotten shell, and so placed at the very remotest end of the upper jaw, where it was, in a manner, covered and secured by a large, fine, firm tooth, that he despaired of his power of drawing it. [. . .] I came over to his side, and assisted him in prevailing on my wife (for it was no easy matter) to resolve on keeping her tooth a little longer, and to apply to palliatives only for relief. These were opium applied to the tooth, and blisters behind the ears.’

5 August 1754
‘In the night at twelve, our ship having received previous visits from all the necessary parties, took the advantage of the tide, and having sailed up to Lisbon, cast anchor there, in a calm, and a moonshiny night, which made the passage incredibly pleasant to the women, who remained three hours enjoying it, whilst I was left to the cooler transports of enjoying their pleasures at second-hand; and yet, cooler as they may be, whoever is totally ignorant of such sensation, is, at the same time, void of all ideas of friendship.’

7 August 1754
‘Lisbon, before which we now lay at anchor, is said to be built on the same number of hills with old Rome; but these do not all appear to the water; on the contrary, one sees from thence one vast high hill and rock, with buildings arising above one another, and that in so steep and almost perpendicular a manner, that they all seem to have but one foundation.

As the houses, convents, churches, &c. are large, and all built with white stone, they look very beautiful at a distance; but as you approach nearer, and find them to want every kind of ornament, all idea of beauty vanishes at once.

While I was surveying the prospect of this city, which bears so little resemblance to any other that I have ever seen, a reflection occurred to me, that if a man was suddenly to be removed from Palmyra hither, and should take a view of no other city, in how glorious a light would the ancient architecture appear to him? and what desolation and destruction of arts and sciences would he conclude had happened between the several areas of these cities?

I had now waited full three hours upon deck, for the return of my man, whom I had sent to bespeak a good dinner (a thing which had been long unknown to me) on shore, and then to bring a Lisbon chaise with him to the sea-shore; but, it seems, the impertinence of the providore was not yet brought to a conclusion. At three o’clock, when I was from emptiness rather faint than hungry, my man returned, and told me, there was a new law lately made, that no passenger should set his foot on shore without a special order from the providore; and that he himself would have been sent to prison for disobeying it, had he not been protected as the servant of the captain. He informed me likewise, that the captain had been very industrious to get this order, but that it was then the providore’s hour of sleep, a time when no man, except the king himself, durst disturb him.

To avoid prolixity, tho’ in a part of my narrative which may be more agreeable to my reader than it was to me, the providore having at last finished his nap, dispatched this absurd matter of form, and gave me leave to come, or rather to be carried, on shore.

What it was that gave the first hint of this strange law is not easy to guess. Possibly, in the infancy of their defection, and before their government could be well established, they were willing to guard against the bare possibility of surprize, of the success of which bare possibility the Trojan horse will remain for ever on record, as a great and memorable example. Now the Portuguese have no walls to secure them, and a vessel of two or three hundred tons will contain a much larger body of troops than could be concealed in that famous machine, tho’ Virgil tells us (somewhat hyperbolically, I believe) that it was as big as a mountain.

About seven in the evening I got into a chaise on shore, and was driven through the nastiest city in the world, tho’ at the same time one of the most populous, to a kind of coffee-house, which is very pleasantly situated on the brow of a hill, about a mile from the city, and hath a very fine prospect of the river Tajo from Lisbon to the sea.

Here we regaled ourselves with a good supper, for which we were as well charged, as if the bill had been made on the Bath road, between Newbury and London.
And now we could joyfully say,  “Egressi optata Troes potiuntur arena.”
Therefore in the words of Horace,
“ -–– hic Fines chartaeque viaeque.” ’

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Kon-Tiki man

Today marks the centenary of the birth of Thor Heyerdahl, the great Norwegian adventurer who, by sailing primitive rafts and canoes, showed that ancient peoples could have made oceanic voyages, across the Pacific, and across the Atlantic. An archive of his papers, now registered of world importance by Unesco, holds some diaries, though there is no evidence of these ever having been published in their original form. Heyerdahl wrote several international bestsellers about his adventures, and these occasionally refer to the diaries.

Heyerdahl was born in Larvik, Norway, on 6 October 1914, the son of a brewer. He studied zoology and geography at the University of Oslo, but also became very interested in Polynesian culture and history. He was able to consult books and papers in the Kropelien Polynesian library, then the largest such collection in the world. In 1936, he married Liv Coucheron-Torp, and together they travelled to the island of Fatu Hiva, part of the Marquesan archipelago, in the Pacific. They remained a year studying the indigenous plants and animals, but Heyerdahl became more interested in cultural anthropology than zoology. They had two sons.

During the occupation of Norway by Nazi Germany, Heyerdahl served with the Free Norwegian Forces from 1944, in the far north province of Finnmark. After the war, he persisted with his anthropological studies, developing a theory that Polynesian people might have originated from South America, having travelled across the Pacific Ocean in pre-Columbian times.

To test his idea, Heyerdahl mounted an expedition - funded by private loans, with US army equipment, and the help of a Peruvian dockyard - which would become one of the most famous adventures of all time - the Kon-Tiki expedition. With a small team, Heyerdahl built a raft, named Kon-Tiki, out of balsa logs and other native materials with the design and know-how as recorded in illustrations by Spanish conquistadores. The trip began on 28 April 1947, and the raft sailed for 101 days, over 6,900km, before smashing into a reef at Raroia in the Tuamotu Islands - i.e. in Polynesia - on 7 August. Heyerdahl soon published a book on the experience; it became a best seller, and has been translated into many languages.

Following the Kon-Tiki success, Heyerdahl campaigned often on environmental issues, and undertook further adventures. In 1955–1956, he organised the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Rapa Nui, which uncovered much new, of scientific and popular interest. In 1969 and 1970, he twice tried to cross the Atlantic, from Morocco, in canoes built from papyrus based on Ancient Egyptian designs. The first expedition - in Ra - failed, but the second - in Ra II - made it from Morocco to Barbados, thus showing that seamen from long ago could have crossed the Atlantic using the Canary Current. He also undertook expeditions in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, as well as in Azerbaijan (searching for an ancient civilisation with links to Odin).

Heyerdahl married again in 1949, to Yvonne Dedekam-Simonsen, and they had three daughters. They divorced in 1969. Heyerdahl married a third time in 1991, to Jacqueline Beer, and they lived in Tenerife, Canary Islands, actively involved in archaeological projects. Heyerdahl died in 2002. He was given a state funeral by the Norwegian government. Indeed, he had been much honoured in his life, by state and academia, including being awarded the Grand Cross of the Royal Norwegian Order of St Olav in 1987, and the UN International Pahlavi Environment Prize. More biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, the Thor Heyerdahl Institute, National Geographic News, the Kon-Tiki Museum website, or The Telegraph. For an alternative view of some of Heyerdahl’s theories, see The Maldives Royal Family website.

Many of the Thor Heyerdahl archives are kept at the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, and were recently included in the Memory of the World Register, a Unesco initiative to safeguard the documentary heritage of humanity. According to the Register, the Thor Heyerdahl collection of documents ‘encompasses diaries, original book and article manuscripts, private letters, expedition plans, articles and newspaper clippings.’

Although I have not been able to find any evidence online of Heyerdahl’s diaries being published, there are various references to such diaries in publications by him, or about him and his expeditions. A feature published by Business Insider earlier this year includes a photograph of a page from Heyerdahl’s diary on the day the Kon-Tiki expedition found land (held by The Explorer’s Club in New York). There are other documents about the expedition available online at the Kon-Tiki Museum, though these are largely log books rather than diaries.

Heyerdahl, himself, refers to something called ‘the diary’ in The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas (first published in Norwegian in 1948, and in English in 1950, but since republished many times, most recently by Simon and Schuster in 2013, titled simply Kon-Tiki - partly available online at Googlebooks). In the book, Heyerdahl writes about the marine life they saw, and caught and ate, and then says: ‘But we did not run up against acquaintances [i.e. fish they knew the names of] only, as we lay drifting over the sea’s surface. The diary contains many entries of this type:’

11 May 1947
‘Today a huge marine animal twice came up to the surface alongside us as we sat at supper on the edge of the raft. It made a fearful splashing and disappeared. We have no idea what it was.’

6 June 1947
‘Herman saw a thick dark-coloured fish with a broad white body, thin tail, and spikes. It jumped clear of the sea on the starboard side several times.’

16 June 1947
‘Curious fish sighted on the port bow. Six feet long, maximum breadth one foot, brown, thin snout, large dorsal fin near head and a smaller one in the middle of the back, heavy sickle-shaped tail fin. Kept near surface and swam at times by wriggling its body like an eel. It dived when Hermann and I went out in the rubber dinghy with a hand harpoon. Came up later but dived again and disappeared.’

18 June 1947
‘Knut observed a snakelike creature, two to three feet long and thin, which stood straight up and down in the water below the surface and dived by wriggling down like a snake.’

There are slight references, also, to diaries kept during the Ra and Ra II expeditions, but actual extracts from such diaries are elusive, at least online. In The Kon-Tiki Man - Thor Heyerdahl by Christopher Ralling (BBC Books) which accompanied a documentary in 1990, or thereabouts, Ralling employs texts from Heyerdahl’s own books. And, indeed, the book’s blurb says it is ‘profusely illustrated with photographs’ and ‘the text includes many excerpts from Heyerdahl’s diaries and published works’.

Personally, I could find only one reference to a diary in this book, as follows: In writing about the first attempt to sail west from Morocco in a papyrus boat, Ralling says Heyerdahl and his team made ‘remarkable progress’ but ‘Thor was much more worried than he was prepared to admit. He had sent radio messages to Yvonne to send out a photographer in a motor vessel in order to take some shots of Ra at sea. In his heart, he confided to his diary and later recorded in The Ra Expeditions, he knew that this might turn into a rescue mission, for the hurricane season was beginning.’

And Rawling then quotes an extract dated 9 July and other dated extracts as though they were quotes from a diary (i.e. the date on one line, and the quotes starting on the next). Reference, however, to Heyerdahl’s original book The Ra Expeditions shows that the quotes by Ralling were actually taken from Heyerdahl’s continuous narrative (written up later, possibly from his diaries, but not actually quoting them). Here is part of that narrative for 9 July - it would be only days before he and his crew abandoned Ra to the waves (and soon after that, they would be starting work on Ra II).

‘On July 9th we had just discovered that the sea which had gone over the cabin roof had also forced its way through the lid of a cask containing almost two hundred pounds of salted meat, which soon rotted. It was during this morning inspection that an agitated Georges came to report something much worse. All the main ropes which secured the outermost papyrus roll on the windward side to the rest of Ra had been chafed through as the floor of the cabin shifted to and fro under the onslaught of the waves. Georges was pale and almost speechless, In one leap I was on the other side of the cabin with Abdullah. The boat was split in two lengthwise. The big starboard bundle, supporting one mast, was moving slowing in and out from the rest of the boat down its entire length. The roll was attached to Ra only at bow and stern. Every time the waves lifted the big papyrus roll away from the rest of the boat we stared straight down into the clear blue depths. Never had I seen the Atlantic so clear and so deep as through that cleft in our own little papyrus world. Abdullah would have turned pale, had he been able. With stoic calm, and without a tremor in his voice, Abdullah said coolly that this was the end. The ropes had worn away. The chain was broken. The rope links would unravel themselves one by one and in an hour or two the papyrus reeds would be drifting away from each other in all directions. [. . .]

Then Norman was suddenly standing beside us, glaring like a tiger about to spring.

“Let’s not give up, boys,” he said through clenched teeth.

Next moment we were all on the go. Carlo and Santiago pulled out coils of rope and measured and chopped up lengths of our thickest cordage. Georges plunged into the waves and swam crosswise under Ra with a thick rope end. Norman and I crawled all over the boat examining the chafed lashings to find out how long it would be before we fell apart. Papyrus stems were floating in our wake, singly and in sheaves. Abdullah stood with the sledge-hammer, driving in Ra’s huge sewing needle, a thin iron spike with an eye at the bottom, large enough to take a rope one quarter of an inch thick. With this needle, we were going to try to sew the ‘paper boat’ together. Yuri stood the gruelling turn at the rudder-oar alone, hour after hour. First Georges swam crosswise under the boat four times with our thickest rope, which we cinched up on deck like four big barrel hoops, in the hope of holding the bundles together so that the straddled mast would not burst open at the top. Then he ducked under the papyrus bundles to the spot where Abdullah’s big sewing needle had been pushed through. In the depths Georges had to pull the thin rope out of the needle’s eye and re-thread it a moment later when Abdullah pushed the needle down again empty in another place. In this way we got the fatal gap ‘sewn’ up again to some extent, but we had lost a lot of papyrus on the starboard side and were consequently lying harder to windward than ever before. The straddled mast was askew, but Ra was still sailing so fast that Georges had to be held on a rope. We were delighted to be able to haul him on board for the last time without his having been spiked through the head by the sharp giant needle.

Carlo apologized for the meal: spume was constantly washing into the galley chest and putting out the fire.’

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Diary briefs

Images from 35 artists’ diaries - The Smithsonian, Archives of American Art

World War I diary found under floorboards - (Sydney) Daily Telegraph

World War I diary extracts - The Oxford Times

World War I diary extracts - The Toronto Sun

Chaplain’s WWI diaries on display - Irish Times

New volume of Michael Palin diaries - Herald Scotland, The Guardian

The Last of the Hitlers - Daily Mail, The Telegraph

Everest Revealed - the diaries of Edward Norton - The History Press, The Guardian

Tolstoy’s diaries online (in Russian) - Russia beyond the headlines,

Writer’s diaries bear witness to history in China - South China Morning Post

How keeping a diary can surprise you - The New York Times

From The Hindu website!