Monday, February 10, 2020

The mud of Dakar Bay

Alex Comfort, a scientist and the famed author of the sex manual The Joy of Sex, was born a century ago today. In fact, he wrote many books, scientific and political, as well as fiction and poetry; but his very first published work was a diary kept during a six week voyage, with his father, to Senegal and Argentina.

Alexander Comfort was an only child born in London 10 February 1920. He was home educated to begin with and then at Highgate School. Aged around 15, he lost four fingers of his left hand while trying to manufacture fireworks in his garden. He studied medicine at Trinity College, Cambridge, qualifying in 1944. By then, he had married Ruth Harris (with whom he would have one son), and he had already written several works of fiction and poetry. He went to work for London Hospital and later became a lecturer in physiology at the hospital’s medical college. He earned further qualifications at University College (a PhD in 1950 and a DSc in 1963).

Comfort was a conscientious objector during World War II, and he became an active member of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He wrote many a political pamphlet for Peace News and PPU, and exchanged public letters with George Orwell defending pacifism. In 1961, he was imprisoned for a month, with Bertrand Russell and other leading members of the Committee of 100, for refusing to be bound over not to continue organising protests.

During the 1950 and 1960s, Comfort focused his science work on studying the biology of ageing, and popularised the subject by publishing several books. In the early 1970s, he was highly successful in popularising another subject: The Joy of Sex (1972) brought him international fame, as well as wealth. He divorced his wife soon after it came out, and took up with Jane Henderson, his long-term mistress. The much-admired illustrations in The Joy of Sex were based on photographs taken by the two of them. That same year, they relocated to California, US, where they then married.

Comfort joined the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, an unconventional think tank, but he also took up academic appointments at Stanford University (1974-1983), the University of California at Irvine (1976-1978), and at the Neuropsychiatric Institute in Los Angeles (1980-1991). He also worked at Brentwood Veterans’ Hospital in Los Angeles (1978-1981) as a geriatric psychiatrist, and as a consultant at Ventura County Hospital, California (1981-1891). In California, Alex and Jane became involved with a swingers community, the Sandstone Retreat. 

By the mid-1980s, Comfort and his second wife had returned to live mostly in England, though Comfort maintained his professional connections with the US. Jane died in the early 1990s, while Alex suffered several strokes, leaving him wheelchair bound. He died in 2000. Further details are available from Wikipedia, Libcom, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, or from a chapter on Comfort in Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow by David Goodway (see Googlebooks).

There is no evidence that Comfort was a diarist by nature, but the very first book he published, aged 18, was a journal of a six week voyage he took with his father by ship through the South Atlantic, stopping in Senegal and Argentina.  The Silver River - Being the Diary of a Schoolboy in the South Atlantic, 1936, was published by Chapman & Hall in 1938. Although there are dated entries in the narrative, much of the time they read more like a memoir than a bona fide diary. However, the diary does demonstrate Comfort’s precocious literary ability - he was only 16 at the time of writing it. Here are several extracts.

30 September 1936
‘To-day, the 30th of September, I sacrificed any reputation for sanity which I may have had among my Greek hosts by collecting at some pains all the mud brought up by the anchor and passing it through a fine wire sieve into a tin can. The mud of Dakar Bay is crammed with shells: descriptions of those to be found there were published by the indefatigable naturalist, Adanson, in 1757, and later by a specializing conchologist, Dautzenberg. It is not my place to bore the reader with a catalogue of empty whelk shells, but for such as are interested I have placed at the end of the book a short list of my collection, which adds a few names to Dautzenberg’s careful catalogue. It is perhaps worth a page to put this list on record.

The skipper had filled the larder. He purchased the entire supply of fish existing in Dakar, to the extent of one hundred and forty kilos, and during the coaling all hands sat among the black dust gutting the fish and littering the deck with their intestines, while the cook fried the remains in batter and preserved them in herbs, vinegar and salt. On the first day they were excellent. On the second day they were hard. On the third day they could usefully have been used for building. On subsequent days - and we had fish every day till we passed Ushant - they were unspeakable. I have no idea where the cook can have stowed his fish. They seemed endless, and we who had to eat them were glad of the other additions to our larder which had come on board. There were hibiscus pods - one of the most tasty vegetables I know: there were also the more truly Greek melisdanas or egg-plant (Solanum melongena) which are wholly unlike the French aubergine variety. They are oval, purple fruit, which the Greeks boil, fry in slices, and otherwise maltreat until they produce a mass of orange pulp, brown hides and pertinaceous pips, tasting of unripe tomato and smelling strongly of nightshade, datura, and the other noxious members of the same family. I will stick to the edible hibiscus pod. It surpasses all known greens save spinach. But I have only to hear the name melisdana to smell pickles and hear the water outside and Niko grumbling in the alley-way.’

3 October 1936
‘At six o’clock on the morning of October the 3rd we passed between Tenerife and Gran Canaria We had entered the South Atlantic by the back door and we came out by the front. The skipper had been nervous of the passage: the civil war in Spain had been in progress for some months, and a battle had been fought at the Canary Islands the previous week. But we had no cause to be apprehensive. To our right lay the irregular shape of Gran Canaria, grey and mist-capped, but beginning to assume a gradual oriole of gold as the sun rose behind it. To port was Tenerife, its peak shrouded in a curtain of cloud, and its scoriaceous slopes sinking into a nebulous transparency of scented foliage. Between the two was the strait, blue and rippling, with islands and towers of mist which passed and repassed on its surface. Nobody ever fought a battle here; we were the discoverers of an archipelago. I sat in pyjamas on the fore-hatch, wondering what group of islands our shiploads of tourists had mistaken for the Hesperides. A long finger of sunlight passed suddenly over the peaks of Gran Canaria, above our masts, and fell upon the curtain of mist. The vapour eddied, divided, and lifted as if it had been rung up. Under it lay the perfect cone of Tenerife, its summit of rose-tinted sugar, its sides falling in ridges and hummocks to grey and olive. The first ray of light a lifted the heavens off Atlas’s shoulders, and there he stood, crested and supreme, while the fiery red orange of the [s]un rose and silhouetted in its disc the cairn surmounting a jagged peak on the farther island. Then the glow faded, and the curtain fell once more. A long column of smoke rose from the far corner of Tenerife, where Santa Cruz lies in its bay.’

9 October 1936
‘In the afternoon of October the 9th we passed Ushant. The weather abated, and the waters began to depart from the face of the earth. With their going a silence settled upon the ship - broken only by the dismal “thump . . . swish . . . drip” as a wave came over - and remained undispelled even by the sight of the cook shaving bull’s trotters for the night’s soup with a safety razor. The last carcase swung idly on the bridge, which was now clear of most of its vegetables. There had been a day in the voyage, before we passed Finisterre, when the midday peace of the ship was shattered by a most terrible racket on the lower bridge. A hoarse shouting and a persistent swishing noise were blended with a wild yelling, and the observer, peering cautiously round the end of the captain’s quarters, could see the little man, a malacca cane fully a metre long in his hand, dashing about in pursuit of one of the little dogs, walloping wildly at everything within reach, and hitting chairs, table, sides of beef, and himself, but never under any circumstances his victim. Madame and the daughter stood wringing their hands and trying to arrest their lord and master’s progress as he thundered about, demolishing lifebelts and cucumbers, while the dog, more frightened than hurt, yelled as if the whole crew was cutting its throat.’

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