Saturday, September 26, 2020

A short, passionate infatuation

’That morning I bought my first lacquer box (on Petrovka). It had been several days now that, as often happens with me, I had been concentrating exclusively on one thing as I made my way through the streets: it was lacquer boxes in this particular case. A short, passionate infatuation. I would like to buy three of them - but am not entirely sure how to allot the two acquired in the meantime. That day I bought the box with the two girls sitting by a samovar. It is quite beautiful - even though it has none of that pure black which is often the most beautiful thing about such lacquerwork.’ This is from a short diary kept by Walter Benjamin, considered one of the most important cultural philosophers of the 20th century, during a visit to Moscow in the mid-1920s. He committed suicide 80 years ago today while trying to flees the Nazi, and it’s only since his death that many of his works have been published to much acclaim.

Benjamin was born in Berlin in 1892 into a wealthy family of assimilated Ashkenazi Jews. He was educated at Kaiser Friedrich School in Charlottenburg, though he spent a couple of years, because of ill-health, at a boarding school in the Thuringian countryside. He studied philosophy at the universities of Berlin, Freiburg, Munich (where he met Rainer Maria Rilke and Gershom Scholem), and then Bern where he met Ernst Bloch. He also met and married Dora Sophie Pollak (née Kellner) with whom he had one son. 

In 1919, Benjamin was awarded his Ph.D. (translated title: The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism). Subsequently, he was unable to support himself and family so he returned to Berlin to live with his parents. Here he became socially acquainted with Leo Strauss, a figure he would admire for the rest of his life. In 1921 he published the essay Kritik der Gewalt (Critique of Violence). His attempts to submit another professional dissertation to the University of Frankfurt were not successful, but he published it in 1928 under the title Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of the German Tragic Drama).

During the 1920s, Benjamin worked as a literary critic, essayist, and translator. In the mid-1920s, he journeyed to Moscow, to visit Asja Lascis (a Latvian Bolshevik whom he had first met in Capri in 1924), with whom he had fallen in love. Following the rise of Nazism, he relocated to Paris in 1933, where he continued to write for literary journals. When Paris succumbed to Nazi occupation, he fled toward Spain hoping to make onward passage to America. Having reached the border town of Portbou he was mistakenly advised that he would be turned over to the Gestapo. In despair, he took his own life, on 26 September 1940. The posthumous publication of his prolific output significantly increased his reputation in the later 20th century. Das Passagenwerk (The Arcades Project), for example, helped set the foundations of what became known as critical and cultural theory; and Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) is considered to have been an incisive analysis of the social importance of photography. Further information is available at Wikipedia, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

During his winter trip to Moscow in 1926-1927, Benjamin kept a detailed daily diary. This was not published in English until 1986, first by MIT Press in Issue 35 of October, and then, under the title Moscow Diary, by Harvard University Press (edited by Gary Smith and translated by Richard Sieburth). Some pages can be previewed at Googlebooks. The publisher states: ‘Benjamin’s diary is, on one level, the account of his masochistic love affair with this elusive - and rather unsympathetic - object of desire. On another level, it is the story of a failed romance with the Russian Revolution; for Benjamin had journeyed to Russia not only to inform himself firsthand about Soviet society, but also to arrive at an eventual decision about joining the Communist Party. Benjamin’s diary paints the dilemma of a writer seduced by the promises of the Revolution yet unwilling to blinker himself to its human and institutional failings.’

Here are three extracts from Benjamin’s Moscow Diary.

10 January 1927
‘An extremely disagreeable argument with Reich took place this morning. He had decided to take me up on my proposal to read him my report on the debate at Meyerhold’s. I no longer had any desire to do so, but went ahead anyway with an instinctive reluctance. Given the previous conversations about my contributions to the Literarische Welt, nothing good could certainly come of it. So I read the thing quickly. But I was positioned so poorly on my chair, looking straight into the light, that this alone would have been enough for me to predict his reaction. Reich listened with a tense impassiveness, and when I had finished, limited himself to a few words. The tone in which he said them immediately touched off a quarrel that was all the more irresoluble because its actual grounds could no longer be mentioned. In the middle of the exchange there was a knock at the door - Asja appeared. She left again soon thereafter. While she was present I said very little: I worked at my translation. In a terrible frame of mind I went over to Basseches’s to dictate some letters and an article. I find the secretary most agreeable, if somewhat ladylike. When I learned that she wanted to go back to Berlin, I gave her my card. I was not keen about running into Reich at lunch, so I bought myself some food and ate in my room. On my way over to Asja’s I stopped for some coffee, and later, going back home after the visit, I had some more. Asja was feeling quite ill, got tired right away; I left her alone so she could get some sleep. But there were a few minutes during which we were alone in the room (or during which she acted as though we were). It was at that point that she said that when I again came to Moscow and she was well, I wouldn’t have to wander around on my own so much. But if she didn’t get well here, then she would come to Berlin; I would have to give her a corner of my room with a folding screen, and she would follow treatment with German doctors. I spent the evening alone at home. Reich arrived late and had a number of things to recount. But following the morning’s incident, at least this much was clear to me: I could no longer count on Reich for whatever concerned my stay here, and if it could not be profitably organized without him, then the only reasonable thing to do would be to leave.’

11 January 1927
‘Asja again needs to get some injections. She wanted to go to the clinic today and it had been earlier arranged that she would stop by and fetch me so I could accompany her there by sleigh. But she didn’t come by until around noon. They had already given her the injection at the sanatorium. She was as a result in a somewhat agitated state and when we were alone in the corridor (both she and I had telephone calls to make), she clung to my arm in a momentary access of her former boldness. Reich had taken up his position in the room and was making no signs of leaving. So that even though Asja had finally come to my room in the morning once again, it was totally pointless. I put off leaving for a number of minutes, but to no avail. She announced that she didn’t want to accompany me. I therefore left her alone with Reich, went to Petrovka (but still was unable to obtain my passport) and then to the Museum of Painting. After this little episode, my mind was finally made up to fix the date of my departure, which in any case was rapidly approaching. There was not much to see in the museum. I learned later that Larionov and Goncharova were big names. Their stuff is worthless. Just like most of the things hanging in the three rooms, they seem to be massively influenced by Parisian and Berlin painting of the same period, which they copy without skill. Around noon I spent hours in the Office of Culture waiting to get tickets for the Maly Theater for Basseches, his woman friend, and myself. But since they were unable to inform the theater by telephone at the same time, our passes were not accepted that evening. Basseches had come without his friend. I would have liked to have gone to the cinema with him, but he wanted to eat and so I accompanied him to the Savoy. It is a far more modest establishment than the Bolshaia Moskovskaia. I was also fairly bored with him. He is incapable of talking about anything other than his most private affairs; and when he does, it is with a visible awareness of how well-informed he is and how superbly capable he is of imparting this information to others. He continued to leaf through and read around in the Rote Fahne. I accompanied him in the car for a stretch and then went straight home, where I did some more translating. That morning I bought my first lacquer box (on Petrovka). It had been several days now that, as often happens with me, I had been concentrating exclusively on one thing as I made my way through the streets: it was lacquer boxes in this particular case. A short, passionate infatuation. I would like to buy three of them - but am not entirely sure how to allot the two acquired in the meantime. That day I bought the box with the two girls sitting by a samovar. It is quite beautiful - even though it has none of that pure black which is often the most beautiful thing about such lacquerwork.’

22 January 1927
‘I had not yet washed but was sitting at my table writing when Reich arrived. It was a morning on which I was even less inclined to be sociable than usual. I barely allowed myself to be distracted from my work. But when I was about to leave around twelve-thirty and Reich asked me where I was off to, I discovered that he too was going to the children’s theater to which Asja had invited me. The sum total of my preferential treatment thus turned out to be a futile half hour wait at the entrance that previous day. Nonetheless I went on ahead to get something warm to drink in my usual cafe. But the cafes were also dosed that day, and this, too, is part of the remont policy. So I slowly made my way down Tverskaia to the theater. Reich arrived later, and then Asja with Manya. Since we had now become a foursome, I lost interest in the thing. I couldn’t stay to the end anyway because I had to meet Schick at three-thirty. Nor did I make any effort to take a seat beside Asja; instead I sat between Reich and Manya. Asja asked Reich to translate the dialogue for me. The play seemed to be about the creation of a cannery and appeared to have a strong chauvinistic bias against England. I left during the intermission. At which point Asja even offered me the seat next to hers as an inducement to stay, but I didn’t want to arrive late or, even more important, turn up exhausted for my appointment with Schick. He himself was not quite ready. In the bus he spoke of his Paris days, how Gide had once visited him, etc. The visit with Muskin was well worth it. Although I only saw one truly important children’s book, a Swiss children’s calendar of 1837, a thin little volume with three very beautiful color plates, I nevertheless looked through so many Russian children’s books that I was able to get an idea of what their illustrations were like. The great majority of them are copies of German models. The illustrations in many of the books were printed by German lithography shops. Many German books were imitated. The Russian editions of Struwwelpeter that I saw there were quite coarse and ugly. Muskin placed slips of paper in various books on which he noted down my comments. He directs the children’s book division of the state publishing house. He showed me some samples of his work. They included books for which he himself had written the text. I explained to him the broad outlines of my documentary project on “Fantasy.” He didn’t seem to understand much of what I was saying and on the whole made a rather mediocre impression on me. His library was in lamentable shape. There was not enough room to set up the books properly, so they were strewn every which way on shelves in the hallway. There was a fairly rich assortment of food on the tea table and without any prodding I ate a great deal, since I had eaten neither lunch nor dinner that day. We stayed for about two and a half hours. Before I left he presented me with two books he had published and which I silently promised to give to Daga. Spent the evening back home working on the Rilke and the diary. But - as is the case at this very moment - with such poor writing materials that nothing comes to mind.’

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Diary briefs

Inside Francis Bacon - Thames & Hudson, The Guardian

Pranab Mukherjee’s diary habit - Times of India

Secret WWI diary of Kiwi - Penguin, Stuff

Mladic’s war diary made art - Balkan Insight

The POW diaries of Dr. Frank Murray - The Belfast Doctor, Irish Central

Dr. Zha’s Diary of fighting Covid-19 - CGTN, China Daily

Jane Birkin’s diaries published - Orion Books, The Guardian

Emmeline B. Wells’s diaries published online - Church Historian’s Press, Deseret News

Marian Anderson’s diaries digitised - Smithsonian, Penn Libraries

WWI diaries auctioned - Hansons Auctions, Daily Mail

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Eliasson the go-between

Happy 80th birthday Jan Kenneth Eliasson. A Swedish diplomat and politician, he served as ambassador to the US, and as Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations under Ban Ki-moon. His remarkable track record as an international mediator has been widely recognised, and was, in fact, the focus of a 2001 biography, The Go-Between: Jan Eliasson and the Styles of Mediation. The book, which starts with a preface by Kofi Annan, includes a number of references to, and quotes from, Eliasson’s personal diaries.

Eliasson was born on 17 September 1940 into a working-class family in Gothenburg, Sweden. As a gifted student, he was selected to take part in a student exchange programme with the US in 1957 (where he briefly met the future President, Senator John F. Kennedy, at a Democratic party fundraiser). In 1962, he graduated from the Swedish Naval Academy and became an officer in the Swedish Royal Navy. By 1965, he had completed a master’s degree in economics and passed the entrance exam for the Swedish diplomatic corps. He returned to the US as First Secretary in Sweden’s embassy during the early 1970s. In 1980, he opened Sweden’s first embassy in the newly renamed state of Zimbabwe. From 1982 to 1983, he acted as Diplomatic Advisor to the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. He was Director General for Political Affairs in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs from 1983 to 1987 (during which period he took part in a UN mission, mediating in the Iran–Iraq War), and from 1988 to 1992 he acted as Sweden’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York (where he also served as the Secretary-General’s Personal Representative on Iran/Iraq).

During the 1990s, Eliasson, in his capacity as Chair of the United Nations General Assembly’s (UNGA) committee working on emergency relief, was one of the driving forces behind the formation of the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs in 1992, becoming its first Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs. As such, he mediated crises in Myanmar and Sudan. After leaving the UN, he worked as mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). From 1994 to 1999, he was Swedish State Secretary for Foreign Affairs; and from 2000 to 2005 he was Sweden’s Ambassador to the US. 

In 2005, Eliasson was unanimously elected President of the United Nations General Assembly, for its sixtieth session, a position he held for a year. Thereafter, he served again, briefly, in the government as Minister for Foreign Affairs, until his party lost the 2006 election. From 2006 until 2008, he acted for Kofi Annan as a special envoy to Darfur, Sudan. In 2012, he was appointed Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a post he held until 2016. In 2017, he was appointed by the Swedish Government as governing board chair of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. He is married to Kerstin Eliasson, former Swedish State Secretary for Education and Science, and they have three children. He has authored many books and articles and is a frequent lecturer on foreign policy and diplomacy. Since 1988, he has been a visiting lecturer on mediation, conflict resolution and UN reform at Uppsala University. Further information is available from Wikipedia and Nordics Info.

In 2010, the United States Institute of Peace published a book - entitled The Go-Between: Jan Eliasson and the Styles of Mediation - written by Isak Svensson and Peter Wallensteen, with a preface by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The book can be previewed at Amazon or Googlebooks. In their introduction, the authors say: ‘We have been fortunate enough to discuss these mediation cases with Ambassador Eliasson. [. . .] We have also had access to Mr. Eliasson’s personal diaries from these mediation experiences. Such quotes have a reference to the date they are recorded in the diary. Interviews and diary entries are translated from Swedish by the authors.’ It may be some time before Eliasson’s diaries are published if ever, but, thanks to Svensson and Wallensteen, here are four short extracts.

3-4 March 1994
‘This is almost unbelievable. Here I am in a rundown guesthouse with windows demolished by the recent bombings in tiny, mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh, which finds itself in the middle of a bloody war over its own existence and future. I have almost never felt the unique power and mechanisms of hatred and violence as clearly.’

9 April 1994
‘There is competition and power ambitions at the heart of this.... The parties clearly feel pushed around and need us - possibly to play one negotiator against another.’

20 September 1994
‘My most recent visit took place three years ago in mid-September, together with Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar. His main objective was to free the hostages captured in Lebanon. . . Even today, I still have difficulties in accepting “the deal" - the guilt of Iraq . . . in return for assistance in the Bekaa Valley.’ 

23 September 1994
‘If I do not have the confidence of the Russians. I need to consider whether I should terminate my own role, or Sweden’s role, as a mediator in this mission. However, first we need to know whether CSCE is ready to give a substantial contribution to the security of the region. If not, we should probably leave. To give our blessings to a solution that the parties do not want should not be a Swedish concern.’

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Mencken’s disagreeable character

Henry Louis Mencken, one of the most famous and controversial US journalists of the early 20th century, was born 140 years ago today. Largely self-taught as a writer, his editorials and opinion pieces for The Baltimore Sun brought him early fame. A diary he kept from the age of 50 was sealed for 25 years after his death but, on being published in the late 1980s, revealed ‘disagreeable aspects’ to his character, notably racist and anti-semitic views.

Mencken was born on 12 September 1880 into a German-American family in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of a cigar factory owner. He attended private school, and Baltimore Polytechnic, and then, rather than go to college, he joined the staff at his father’s factory, where he worked for three years. When his father died, and the factory was taken over by his uncle, Mencken left to pursue a career in journalism. He became a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1899, and, in 1906, joined the staff of The Baltimore Sun (where he would work at intervals through the rest of his life). He soon made a name for himself writing editorials and opinion pieces. From 1914 to 1923, he coedited (with George Jean Nathan) The Smart Set, a satirical magazine influential in the growth of American literature, and from 1924 he edited American Mercury (a magazine he had also founded with Nathan).

In 1930, after a seven year courtship, Mencken married Sara Haardt, a German-American professor of English and an author 18 years his junior. Unfortunately, she died in 1935 of meningitis, leaving Mencken grief-stricken. During the Great Depression, Mencken opposed the New Deal, which cost him popularity, as did his open contempt for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and reservations regarding US participation in World War II. Apart from journalism, Mencken wrote widely. He is perhaps best known for his monumental study, The American Language, ranked as one of the top 100 influential books in the US. He also wrote on religion, ethics, politics, literature, women, and even baby care; and he published three popular volumes of reminiscences.

Encyclopaedia Britannica has this assessment: ‘Mencken was probably the most influential American literary critic in the 1920s, and he often used his criticism as a point of departure to jab at various American social and cultural weaknesses. His reviews and miscellaneous essays filled six volumes aptly titled Prejudices (1919-27). In literature he fought against what he regarded as fraudulently successful writers and worked for the recognition of such outstanding newcomers as Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. He jeered at American sham, pretension, provincialism, and prudery, and he ridiculed the nation’s organized religion, business, and middle class.’ He died in 1956. Further information is also available at Wikipedia and the Mencken House website.

Mencken began to keep a diary from 1930, but, for several years after his wife’s death, he rarely made any entries. It was only from the early 1940s that he started keeping it again on a regular and systematic basis. On his death, at his request, the diary - some 2,000 pages of typescript - was sealed for 25 years in the vaults of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library. It was not until 1989 that Alfred A. Knopf published The Diary of H. L. Mencken as edited by Charles A. Fecher (republished by Vintage in 2012). ‘Here, full scale,’ according to the publisher, ‘is Mencken the unique observer and disturber of American society. And here too is Mencken the human being of wildly contradictory impulses: the skeptic who was prey to small superstitions, the dare-all warrior who was a hopeless hypochondriac, the loving husband and generous friend who was, alas, a bigot. Mencken emerges from these pages unretouched - in all the often outrageous gadfly vitality that made him, at his brilliant best, so important to the intellectual fabric of American life.’

Not only a bigot, in fact, but a racist and anti-semite - see the Los Angeles Times or The Paris Review. When interviewed about his book (see C-Span), Fecher acknowledged that some people might be ‘shocked and surprised’ by the ‘disagreeable aspects’ to Mencken’s character revealed in the diary, but those who had previously known his work would surely not have been so surprised. (The book’s publication led the National Press Club to question whether it wanted to change the name of its library - hitherto the H. L. Mencken Memorial Library. Fecher argued, in the same interview, that it should not be changed given that Mencken was ‘probably the greatest American journalist’. Nevertheless, in 1990 the library was renamed the Eric Friedheim Journalism Library.) The published diary can be borrowed digitally (briefly) at Internet Archive. Here are several extracts.

6 November 1930
‘When I got to New York yesterday afternoon from West Chester, Pa., I found a message from a Swedish news agency, saying that Sinclair Lewis had been given the Nobel Prize. It was splendid news to me, for it was very bad news for all the professors. The Swedes rubbed it in by saying that, after “Babbitt,” they were chiefly impressed by “Elmer Gantry.” This book, which is dedicated to me, aroused all the pedagogues and patriots at home, and got very few good notices.

In the evening I was at the Philip Goodmans’, and they discovered that Lewis and his wife, Dorothy Thompson were in town. We called upon them at their hotel in 50th street at 11 p.m. Lewis, when we got to the hotel, was in his dressing-gown. There was a bottle of whiskey on the table, but he was fairly sober. When the Associated Press called him up with the news he thought it was a joke. Convinced at last, and asked what he had to say, he said, “Another great wet Democratic victory!” The A.P. did not send this out. He and his wife are going to Stockholm in a few weeks. After that they plan to go to Russia.

Lewis, of course, made a great mistake in not refusing the Nobel Prize, as he some time ago refused (at my suggestion) the Pulitzer Prize. If I had got to him in time I’d have tried to induce him to do so. But by the time Goodman and I arrived it was all over. Dorothy was all aglow. She would have fought my proposal, and no doubt beaten me. She married a novelist somewhat in decay, and far gone in liquor - and now finds herself the wife of a Nobel prizeman, with a triumphal tour to Sweden ahead of her.

Nathan told me today that Ralph Barton, the comic artist, lately attempted suicide by poison. He has been in a low state for months, and has done very little work. Nathan says he moans for his third wife, now married to Eugene O’Neill, and has proposed to her that she leave O’Neill and return to him. She naturally refuses. O’Neill is now rich and has a country place in France.’

11 November 1938.
‘H. R. Knickerbocker, foreign correspondent for Hearst, was in Baltimore last night delivering a lecture. I met him later, and for the first time. His appearance rather astonished me. He was born in Texas and is the son of a Protestant preacher, but he looks decidedly Jewish. He has the reddish hair of a blond Jew, along with the faint freckles and pinkish eyes.

He told me that he was well acquainted with Hitler, and used to see him relatively frequently in the days before Hitler came to power. At that time there were rumors that Hitler’s iron cross was bogus, and Knickerbocker one day ventured to ask him about it. Hitler said that he had got it in the following manner:

During the war he was a dispatch rider, and one day he was sent across a part of the front that was a kind of No Man’s Land. The Germans assumed that there were no Frenchmen in it, but when he had got half way across Hitler heard French voices and on investigation found that there were a number of Frenchmen in a dugout. Hitler approached the only entrance and barked several loud orders, hoping to convince the men within that a considerable German party was above. The trick worked, and in a few minutes Hitler had the Frenchmen coming out one by one, their hands in the air. He was armed only with a pistol, but inasmuch as they came out wholly unarmed, he was able to line them up and march them back to the German lines. It was for this exploit that he received the iron cross.

Knickerbocker said that the story was told to him in the presence of an English correspondent. When it was finished Hitler said politely: “If these Frenchmen had been either Englishmen or Americans the chances are that I’d not be here.”

Knickerbocker said that Hitler in his private relations is a very amiable fellow, and has a considerable sense of humor. But whenever he gets on public matters he begins to orate. Knickerbocker said that he’ll start in an ordinary tone of voice and that in a few minutes he’ll be howling like a stump speaker, with his arms sawing the air.

Knickerbocker is also acquainted with Mussolini. He told me that Mussolini hates Hitler violently, and will undoubtedly walk out on him at the first chance.’

16 October 1941
‘I spent a couple of hours at Schellhase’s last night with Sinclair Lewis. He is in Baltimore to put on a play called “Good Neighbor,” by Jack Levin, a 26-year-old Baltimore advertising agent. I dropped in at Ford’s to pick him up, and found him back stage in the midst of a group of actors who seemed to be mainly Yiddish. He introduced me to several of them, but I didn’t catch their names.

Lewis is on the water-wagon, and during our sitting drank nothing but iced coffee. Toward the end of the evening he asked for a plate of chocolate ice cream. After we had been at Schellhase’s for an hour or more his girl showed up. She is a young Jewess rejoicing in the name of Marcella Powers, and has a part in “Good Neighbor.” She turned out to be a completely hollow creature - somewhat good-looking, but apparently quite without intelligence. Lewis told me in her presence that he had been hanging up with her for more than a year.

Before she саmе in he said that he had left Dorothy Thompson finally a year or so ago. He said that life with her had become completely impossible. She is a born fanatic and spends all of her days in howling and ranting against the wickedness of the world. Lewis told me that this oratory finally wore him down to such a point that he had to flee.

He looks almost ghastly. His face is the dead white of a scar, and he is thin and wizened. He told me that he had a new novel under way, but said that he was in some doubt that he’d ever finish it. Its principal character is a large scale do-gooder - a former college president who sits on innumerable committees and is active in every good cause. Such an idiot, in his palmy days, would have been nuts for him, but I begin to doubt, as he apparently doubts himself, that he will be able to swing the job now. Obviously, he is in a state of mental collapse, not to mention physical decay. Long-continued drink and two wives of the utmost obnoxiousness have pretty well finished him. He seemed to be immensely delighted when I told him that both Cabell and Hergesheimer had told me at different times that they regard “Babbitt” as the best novel ever written in America.’

25 August 1943.
‘I went to Washington today to see Col. Livingston Watrous of the Army, deputy director of the Special Service Division. This division is in charge of all indoctrination work, and publishes a great variety of bulletins, papers, pamphlets and books for the soldiers. I was interested especially in its series of pamphlets on the countries that American troops are now quartered in, most of them containing sections on the local languages. Those for Australia, New Zealand, Northern Ireland and Great Britain contain vocabularies of words differing in American and English. Watrous received me very politely, showed me many of the documents his men are preparing, and introduced me to some of his subordinates. He has very large quarters and a staff running to hundreds of officers and civilians. On his desk was a copy of “Heliogabalus.” He told me that he often re-read it, and asked me to autograph it, which I did.

His office is in the famous Pentagon Building at Arlington, which I saw for the first time. After the taxicab comes into sight of it there is a good mile of weaving through the maze of roads which surround it. The track doubles back on itself several times. Once inside, the visitor has to present himself at a reception desk, where very polite girls hear his business. Mine telephoned to Watrous, and then informed me that a guide would be sent down to show me to his office. She warned me that it might take the guide 15 minutes to get to the reception desk. Within ten minutes a young colored girl showed up, and I followed her along half a mile of corridors. I had been given a badge at the reception desk and had to show it when I entered the building proper. On my return I had to show it again, and also a pass that Watrous had given me, covering the pamphlets his secretary had wrapped up for me.

The Pentagon Building is so huge that it is downright comic. Also, it is extraordinarily ugly. It cost, so I have heard, more than $100,000,000, and houses nearly 100,000 jobholders. The surrounding grounds, broken up by the winding roads, are even more hideous than the building.’

3 May 1945.
‘It is a curious fact, but nevertheless a fact, that my piano technic seems to improve with age. I never practise, and seldom touch a piano save at the Saturday Night Club; in fact, the one in the house has not been opened for years. Nevertheless, I find it possible to play things today that would have stumped me a dozen years ago. Even my left hand is gaining more or less facility. In theory, the reverse should be the case, for my sight is naturally not quite as quick as it used to be, and my congenital incapacity for manual operations grows worse instead of better in other directions. But when it comes to playing second piano I am definitely better than I used to be.’

5 May 1945
‘Last night I finished reading the two volumes of the Diaries, Reminiscences and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson, brought out in London in 1869, with Thomas Sadler as editor, and reprinted “from advance sheets,” by Fields, Osgood & Company of Boston the year following. So far as I know, it has never been reprinted since. I had heard of it for many years, but never came to looking into it until a few weeks ago, when I asked George Pfeffer, the old book dealer, if he had it, and he dug up a copy from his cellar. This copy was inscribed “Margaret J. Preston, 1870,” and had probably been in stock since before I was born, for Pfeffer’s predecessor, Smith, set up business in the 70’s. It turned out to be immensely interesting stuff. Robinson was a nonentity, but he had the faculty of scraping acquaintance with famous men, and with some of them he became very intimate. His recollections of Goethe, Schiller, the Schellings, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lamb and other eminentissimos of the early Nineteenth Century tell little about them that is unobtainable from other sources, but there are human touches that are very charming. Robinson was one of the first, if not actually the first Englishman to be educated in Germany, and his pictures of life at Jena, Weimar and Frankfurt in 1800 and thereafter are illuminating and instructive. He remained a violent Germanophile until his death at 92 in 1867. I am very fond of such books. They make capital reading for the hour or so between going to bed and falling asleep. I can’t recall ever falling asleep in fifty years, save on a few occasions when I was ill or much in my cups, without reading at least half an hour. The theory that the practise is damaging to the eyes seems to me to be buncombe. My eyes, despite some sclerotic changes, are perfectly good at 65. I not only read in bed every night; I also do nearly all my daylight reading lying down. I believe fully in the Chinese maxim that it is foolish to do anything standing up that can be done sitting, or anything sitting that can be done stretched out.’

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

For a few cattle

One hundred and twenty years ago today, a young Tasmanian soldier, John Hutton Bisdee, serving in the Boer War, risked his life to carry an officer out of danger, and thus became the first Tasmanian to be awarded a Victoria Cross. His diaries, along with other Bisdee family papers, are held at the Archives Office of Tasmania, and contain a vivid account of the day he became a hero.

John Hutton Bisdee was born in 1869 at Hutton Park, Melton Mowbray, Tasmania. He was schooled in Hobart, and then worked on his father’s property until 1900, when he enlisted in the 1st Tasmanian Imperial Bushmen’s Contingent to serve in the South African War.

Soon after arriving in the Transvaal, Bisdee was one of an advanced scouting party ambushed. Six out of the party of eight were hit, and the horse of one of the wounded officers broke away and bolted. Still under fire, and in an exposed position, Bisdee dismounted, lifted the wounded officer onto his own horse so as to carry him out of danger. This action led to him being the first Tasmanian awarded the Victoria Cross.

Subsequently, Bisdee had a lung infection and was invalided home; but after recovering he returned to the war in March 1901, this time with a commission as a lieutenant in the 2nd Tasmanian Imperial Bushmen’s Contingent and served until the end of the war. He later served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the First World War, during which he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, and was Mentioned in Despatches. He died in early 1930. There is a little more information available at Wikipedia, and Archives of Tasmania

A significant collection of papers once belonging to the Bisdee family - John Hutton Bisdee’s grandfather first sailed to the Antipodes in 1820 - are now held by the Archives Office of Tasmania. These include a journal written by the grandfather during his voyage, and three diaries written by Bisdee between 1898 and 1901, mostly during the Boer War. Bisdee’s diary is quoted extensively in Tasmanians in the Transvaal War by John Bufton (1905), freely available at Internet Archive (and the source of the following extracts).

1 September 1900
‘Warned last night that we should be called at 2 a.m. to repeat the day before’s movement, but this was countermanded during the night. I expect Boers were lying in ambush for us. Twenty of us sent on patrol in the afternoon under Captain Brooke and Lieutenant Wylly to secure some cattle. Had a terrible experience, which I shall never forget. We were led through a narrow neck into a veritable death trap. I cannot understand how the officers did not realise the danger. This neck led into a sort of basin with steep rocky hills rising in front. They opened fire on our five advance guardmen at short range, and then upon all of us, and how we got away at all is most wonderful. As it was we had four wounded, Wylly slightly, and Sergeant G. Shaw and Willoughby and Corporal Brown rather worse, and J. S. Brown very seriously, and the guide also severely wounded. The two latter fell into the hands of the Boers, and we fear they are in a critical state. The others are being attended to by the ambulance. The bullets came round us as thick as hail, and exploded with loud report as they struck. Captain Brooke was unhorsed. I gave him mine, running alongside myself, as he also received a slight wound in the leg. Corporal Brown’s horse was shot, and Wylly gave him his horse, as he was wounded badly in the foot. Groom then picked up Wylly on his horse, and we rode for our lives. Two men, Clark and Blackaby lost their horses (Clark gave his to Willoughby), but managed to evade the Boers, and arrived in camp late. Walter’s horse was shot, and he, stopping with J. S. Brown, was captured by the Boers, who let him go to report upon Brown’s case, and send an ambulance in. Altogether it has been a terrible experience, and seems so utterly foolhardy to go into such a place without scouts well out in front and good supports behind. All for the sake of a few cattle!

5 September 1900
‘Rest to-day. Prepared for Boers, but they kept in check and driven back by our friends, the guns.’

8 September 1900
‘Marched till 1 o’clock this morning, then had a rest for three hours, when we were sent off again patrolling after some Boers supposed to be in the vicinity. Some of our men came across two of them and gave them a hot time, but they got away, leaving bandoliers and meat bag. We stopped most of the afternoon at Saltpan, a large salt factory close by a salt lake, which lay in a deep basin. It looked like a lake frozen over. Started again at 5.30, and marched on to Waterval, which we reached at about midnight, very tired.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 1 September 2010.