Wednesday, August 31, 2022

The King went from his castle

Henry V, one the great warrior kings in medieval England, died exactly six centuries ago today. He is honoured especially for his military successes in France culminating in the famous victory at the Battle of Agincourt. There exists a diary-like account of the Battle -  amazingly so, since it must vie to be one of the very earliest of extant European diaries. Written in Latin by an anonymous priest, it was  translated into English for a 19th century history of Henry V’s expedition into France.

Henry was the eldest son of Henry, earl of Derby (afterward Henry IV), by Mary de Bohun. On his father’s exile in 1398, Richard II took the boy into his own charge, and knighted him in 1399. He was well educated, grew up fond of music and reading and became the first English king who could both read and write with ease in the vernacular tongue. When his father became king, Henry was created earl of Chester, duke of Cornwall, and prince of Wales, and soon afterward, duke of Aquitaine and Lancaster. From October 1400 the administration of Wales was conducted in his name, and in 1403 he took over actual command of the war against the Welsh rebels, a struggle that absorbed much of his time until 1408. 

Henry succeeded his father in March 1413. In the early years of his reign he was threatened by various rebels and conspiracies but suppressed them ruthlessly. However, his main ambition was towards France. Not content with lands ceded by the French at the Treaty of Calais in 1360, he laid claim to Normandy, Touraine, Maine, and to parts of France that had never been in English hands. Negotiations with the French and their King Charles, initiated during the reign of Richard II, were finally broken off in June 1415, but Henry was far advanced in his preparations for war.

Henry’s first campaigns in 1415 brought the capture of Harfleur and the great victory of Agincourt, triumphs which brought him much power in the European arena. The following year he was visited by the Holy Roman emperor Sigismund, with whom he made a treaty of alliance at Canterbury. The cooperation of these two rulers led directly to the ending of the papal schism through the election of Martin V in 1417. Using sieges, Henry gradually conquered of Normandy; and Rouen, the capital of northern France, fell in early 1419. Other successes followed, and, in 1420, Henry was recognised as heir to the French throne and regent of France; he was married to Catherine, the daughter of Charles VI. His triumphs were short-lived, though, as his health grew worse, and he died of camp fever at the château of Vincennes on 31 August 1422.  Henry VI, just 9 months old, became King. Further information is available at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica,, or The Royal Family.

An anonymous priest, it seems, accompanied Henry on his expedition to France and at the Battle of Agincourt; and he left behind a diary-like record written in Latin. This was translated into English to become the centrepiece of a History of the Battle of Agincourt and of the Expedition of Henry the Fifth into France in 1415 by Sir Harris Nicolas (published by Johnson & Co., 1832). The book itself can be freely downloaded from Internet Archive. However, it was also reviewed in the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research (Vol 12, No. 46, summer 1933) by Sir James Edmonds. 

Edmonds titles his piece An Early War Diary - indeed, if the text is considered a diary it is one of the very earliest written in Europe to have survived - see The Diary Junction. He explains that the book has a narrative ‘deduced from such contemporary statements as were consistent with each other and with truth’. ‘The gem of the book,’ though, he adds, ‘is the translation of a diary, written in Latin, of an anonymous Priest who accompanied the expedition and was, he expressly states, present at Agincourt, where “I write this, sitting on horse-back among the baggage in the rear of the battle”. It is a first-class military record of the campaign, better kept than many diaries of 1914-1918.’ The translated diary covers the period from 7 August 1415, when Henry V embarked from Porchester, until 25 October, the day of the battle. Here are the opening passages of the text, and a section from a month or so later.

‘On Wednesday, the 7th of August, the King went from his Castle of Porchester in a small vessel to the sea, and embarking on board his ship called ‘The Trinity,’ between the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth, he immediately ordered that the sail should be set, to signify his readiness to depart; and at the same time to serve as a signal to the fleet, which was dispersed among the sea ports, to hasten the more speedily to him. And when, on the following day, being Sunday, almost all had arrived, he set sail with a favorable wind. There were about fifteen hundred vessels, including about a hundred which were left behind. After having passed the Isle of Wight, swans were seen swimming in the midst of the fleet, which in the opinion of all, were said to be happy auspices of the undertaking. On the next day, being Tuesday, about the fifth hour after noon, the King entered the mouth of the Seine, which passes to the sea from Paris, through Rouen and Harfleur, and anchored before a place called Kidecaus, about three miles from Harfleur, where he proposed landing: and immediately a banner was displayed as a signal for the captains to attend a council; and they having assembled in council, he issued an order throughout the fleet that no one, under pain of death should land before him, but that the next morning they should be prepared to accompany him. This was done lest the ardour of the English should cause them, without consulting danger, to land before it was proper, disperse in search of plunder, and leave the landing of the King too much exposed. And when the following day dawned, that is on Wednesday, the vigil of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, the sun shining, and the morning beautiful, between the hours of six and seven, the noble Knight, Sir John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon the King’s cousin, having been sent by his desire before day-break, in the stillness of the night, with certain horsemen as scouts to explore the country and place, the King, with the greater part of his army, landed in small vessels, boats, and skiffs, and immediately took up a position on the hill nearest Harfleur, having on the one side, on the declivity of the valley, a coppice wood towards the river Seine, and on the other enclosed farms and orchards, in order to rest himself and the army, until the remainder of the people, the horses, and other necessaries should be brought from the ships. [. . .]’

‘[On 17th of September], a conference was held with the aforesaid Lord de Gaucourt, who acted as captain, and with the more powerful leaders, whether it were the determination of the inhabitants, still remembering the penalties of Deuteronomy, to surrender the town, without suffering farther rigour of death or war. But the King, seeing his terms despised, and that they could not be overcome by the distress occasioned by a mild mode of attack, determined to proceed with more rigour against a people whose obstinacy, neither alluring kindness, nor destructive severity could soften.

Towards night, therefore, he caused proclamation by trumpet to be made in the midst of the squadrons, that all the mariners, as well as others who were on the stations assigned them by their captains, should be prepared on the morrow to storm and mount the walls, which had been rendered by the shot of our guns more convenient and safe for the purpose, and much more unfit for the enemy to make resistance, or even to protect themselves from destruction. Towards night he began to assail them more than usual with stones, that he might prevent them from sleeping, and thereby render them on the morrow more easy to conquer. But God himself, propitious and merciful to his people, sparing the effusion of blood which probably would have been shed in storming the walls, turned away from us the sword, and struck terror into our enemies, who were probably broken-hearted on account of the loss of the said bulwark, and hearing they were so suddenly to be assaulted and stormed; and also at the penalties of the law of Deuteronomy, if a fortified town be recovered from them while making resistance; and perplexed and harassed by the stones, and almost despairing of being rescued by the French, which they had expected long beyond the promised time. On that night they entered into a treaty with the King, that if he would deign to defer the assault, and would refrain from harassing and oppressing them with stones, they would surrender to him the town, and themselves, and their property, if the French King, or the Dauphin, his first-born, being informed, should not raise the siege and deliver them by force of arms, within the first hour after noon on the Sunday following.’

Monday, August 29, 2022

As if I were flying

’For the first time I have broken out from the cage which encloses me, and opened a shutter to the outside world. I have touched things which I hoped were there but I have never dared to show. I am so happy for this picture. It is as if I were flying. I feel no chains. I can fly higher and higher because the bars of my cage are broken.’ This is Ingrid Bergman, the great Swedish actress, who died 40 years ago today. She lived a colourful and international life, starring in many now classic and iconic films. Although there are no published editions of any diaries (at least not in English), several of the many biographies written about her do contain a few brief extracts, such as the undated one above.

Bergman was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1915. Her German mother died when Ingrid was just 3, and her father raised her, taking many photographs of his daughter, and encouraging her to pose. He died when she was 12, and she was left to the care first of an unmarried aunt who died within months and then the family of another relation. She earned a scholarship to the state-sponsored Royal Dramatic Theatre School (as Greta Garbo had done some years earlier) but left long before her three-year study period had concluded to take up professional work for a Swedish film studio. She played small roles in several films but was soon starring in others, not least Intermezzo, created for her by director Gustaf Molander. In 1937, when still only 21, she married a dentist, Petter Lindström. They had one daughter, but eventually divorced.

In 1939, Bergman starred in a Hollywood version of Intermezzo which brought her international fame, as well as in such now-iconic movies as Casablanca, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Gaslight (for which she won an Academy Award for best actress). In the mid-40s, she starred in two films directed by Alfred Hitchcock - Spellbound and Notorious. During the filming of Stromboli, released in 1950, Bergman began a love affair with the Italian director Roberto Rossellini. They had a child out of wedlock (she had not yet managed to finalise her divorce from Molander and marry Rossellini), which caused a scandal in Hollywood and prompted her to stay in Europe. 

However, by 1956, Bergman was back in the US, making Anastasia for which she won a second Academy Award for best actress. She won one further Academy Award in 1974 for best supporting actress in Murder on the Orient Express. In 1978, she starred in Autumn Sonata, directed by her countryman and namesake, Ingmar Bergman (who, confusingly, was married to another Ingrid, his fifth wife) - see A dishcloth round my soul. Having suffered from cancer for some eight years, Bergman died on 29 August 1982, her 67th birthday.

Wikipedia has these assessments of her life: ‘Biographer Donald Spoto said she was “arguably the most international star in the history of entertainment”. [. . .] Hollywood saw her as a unique actress who was completely natural in style, and without need for make-up. Film critic James Agee wrote that she “not only bears a startling resemblance to an imaginable human being; she really knows how to act, in a blend of poetic grace with quiet realism”. Film historian David Thomson, said she “always strove to be a ‘true’ woman and many filmgoers identified with her.” [. . .] According to her daughter, Isabella Rossellini, her mother had a deep sense of freedom and independence. . . “She was able to integrate so many cultures . . . she is not even American but she is totally part of American culture like she is totally part of the Swedish, Italian, French, European film making.” ’ Further information is also available at Encyclopaedia Britannica,, or IMDB.

There are many published biographies of Bergman, and some of them make tantalising but brief mention of diaries she must have kept at different times in her life. Charlotte Chandler, for example, in Ingrid Bergman, A Personal Biography (Simon & Schuster, 2007) refers to a childhood diary in these two passages:

‘Ingrid was fourteen when Uncle Gunnar gave her a handsome leather-bound diary with a metal lock, which had her name embossed on it so there could be no mistake as to whom it belonged. For a number of years it remained her closest confidant. She called it “Dear Book.” “Uncle Gunnar told me if I wrote down my thoughts, I would have a record of them which would, years later, surprise me. I learned that even the next day, I might be surprised by what was important to me the night before. I had put down thoughts I didn’t even know I was thinking. The act of having written them down, then of seeing them written down, usually placed it in my memory, forever. I could tell my diary all of my hopes and dreams and feelings. I never had to tell my dreams to anyone because I could tell my diary. I never felt the need to lock it. No one in my family would ever have looked in it.” ’

‘Over the years,’ Chandler goes on to write, ‘Ingrid and her diary had grown apart. She gradually confided less of her innermost feelings than she had done in Stockholm and in her first years in Hollywood. As she had more exciting events to tell her diary, she told it less. She no longer took time at night to pour her heart into “Dear Book.” She found herself not taking time and not making time. One day, Ingrid looked at her diary and was shocked to find she had been writing words, not feelings, abbreviated thoughts, and she had been “guarded, careful.” “I was no longer open. My diary must have been bored by me. Had I changed? Somehow, I no longer felt the same bond with my diary. It wasn’t that I told lies to my diary. That would have been really terrible. It was more that I was evasive. What you don’t tell is a lie, too.” ’

Spoto - author of Notorious : the life of Ingrid Bergman (HarperCollins, 1997) - gives a couple of verbatim quotes from her youthful diary.

‘For the very first time people asked for my autograph. [The crew] all praise me, and I must keep my head with all these compliments. I only wish I had been really good in every scene. In the rehearsals I think it is good, but then there is a take and somehow it is not the same. One thing that made me happy was that Sten Undgren, the actor who plays my clergyman lover, believes our love scenes are so passionate that possibly they will not get past the censor.’

1935 (her first premiere at the Skandia Theater was forthcoming)
‘I am insecure and secure at the same time, I am unsure about all the publicity there has been. I hope the public will think I can live up to it. What would Mama and Papa have said if they could see me here in my loneliness? I long to be able to creep into someone’s arms to find protection and comfort and love.’

In Ingrid Bergman - The Life, Career and Public Image (McFarland & Co, 2012), David Smit says: ‘In her diary, Bergman is practically ecstatic about her experience on the film: “You can’t get everything on a platter, you have to pay for everything. I paid with Rage in Heaven for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I would have paid anything for this picture.” She goes on to claim that she has never been happier, that she will never get a better part, a better director, a better leading man, and a better cameraman. With these people she can give herself over entirely to her work.’ And he quotes an entry from her diary (also available in other biographies:

January-March 1941
‘For the first time I have broken out from the cage which encloses me, and opened a shutter to the outside world. I have touched things which I hoped were there but I have never dared to show. I am so happy for this picture. It is as if I were flying. I feel no chains. I can fly higher and higher because the bars of my cage are broken.’

Finally, there is Bergman’s own book: Ingrid Bergman: My Story written with Alan Burgess (Thorndike Press, 1980). Bergman’s diary is mentioned half a dozen times, mostly in regard to her time on the film Stromboli, but the only actual quotes provided are no more than single words. 

Monday, August 15, 2022

Gandhi and the cat

‘Bapu has been observing the behaviour of the cats. His letter to the Ashram today is devoted to that subject. The cat’s concentration in observing the lizard was perhaps not noticed by our sages, or else they would have suggested that we must concentrate on God in the same manner. Yesterday a lizard was coming near the cat, which began to shake its tail, but then it turned back and went away in the opposite direction. The cat began to cry as if asking it to be good enough to enter its own mouth and not to go away like that. Englishmen who honestly believe that India should continue to be a British possession remind me of this cat. The cat is their prototype, not the snake.’ 

This is from the extraordinary diary of Mahadev Desai, who died 60 years ago today. For most of his adult life, Desai was Gandhi’s personal secretary and most trusted confidante, and through that time he kept a detailed diary which is, today, considered a valuable chronicle of the major events in Gandhi’s life and in Indian independence movement.Desai was born into a Brahmin family in 1892 in the village of Saras in Gujarat. His father was a teacher, and his mother died when he was seven. Aged 13, he was married to Durgabehn. He went to Surat High School and the Elphinstone College; after graduating in law, he took a position as an inspector at the central co-operative bank in Mumbai. He first met Gandhi in 1915 and joined his ashram two years later. In 1919, when the colonial government arrested Gandhi in Punjab, he named Desai his heir. Desai often found himself arrested and in prison alongside Gandhi.

Desai remained Gandhi’s personal secretary and closest associate for 25 years, serving him in many different ways. Apart from transcribing Gandhi’s words and drafting his letters, Desai also served as his interpreter, travel manager, interlocutor and, when necessary, cook. Far more learned than his master, he tutored him on sociology, literature, and history, and much else besides. Desai often disputed with Gandhi on matters of principle and politics, sometimes changing his mind. Desai wrote a number of books (some in English), many of them about Gandhi, while others were historical. He was also an editor of various publications, and contributed to the mainstream Indian press. He was arrested on the morning of 9 August 1942 and  interred with Gandhi at the Aga Khan Palace, but a heart attack killed him six days later on 15 August. Further information is available online at Wikipedia and the MK Gandhi website,

Throughout his time with Gandhi (or Bapu as he was known), Desai kept a detailed and daily diary focused largely on Gandhi (see also Gandhi’s London diary). This was eventually published in 22 volumes, as edited by Narhari Parikh (volumes I-VI) and Chandulal Bhagubhai Dalal (VII-XXII). It is considered a valuable chronicle of the major events in Gandhi’s life and in the Indian independence movement. The English version is freely available online at Internet Archive or the Gandhi Heritage Portal.

In the 1950s, Valji Govindji Desai translated and edited further portions of the diary. Here is part of his introduction to the first volume: ‘The importance of this volume lies in that we have here before us for the first time a very full account of Gandhiji’s life in prison. He was no less active there than outside. Only his activity took a different direction. Thus we find him looking after other prisoners like a father, prosecuting studies for which he had no time outside, performing dietetic experiments, spinning in spite of pain now in the right hand and then in the left, observing the stars, taking his morning and evening walks and carrying on an extensive correspondence with members of the Sabarmati Ashram and others.

Then again we have a unique pen-picture of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in various moods, rendering personal service to Gandhiji like a mother ministering to her child, undertaking unusual studies, displaying his skill with the hands, and relieving the monotony of prison life with flashes of sardonic humour.

Last but not the least, we are in the company of Mahadev Desai, humble and self-effacing, always discontented with his own achievement, reading books and analysing them for us, making study of ‘crusted characters’ whom he happened to meet, initiating discussions with Gandhiji on a variety of subjects and placing them on record for our benefit.’

Here are several extracts from that volume.

9 May 1932
‘Bapu had asked me to write something to be sent to the Ashram. I therefore wrote five scenes of a play which I had projected in Nasik prison. But Bapu remarked that such things could not be sent from jail. The authorities would not allow them to pass, but if they did, they would make themselves liable to censure. The play might be written out in jail and printed after I was released.

Bapu has been observing the behaviour of the cats. His letter to the Ashram today is devoted to that subject. The cat’s concentration in observing the lizard was perhaps not noticed by our sages, or else they would have suggested that we must concentrate on God in the same manner. Yesterday a lizard was coming near the cat, which began to shake its tail, but then it turned back and went away in the opposite direction. The cat began to cry as if asking it to be good enough to enter its own mouth and not to go away like that. Englishmen who honestly believe that India should continue to be a British possession remind me of this cat. The cat is their prototype, not the snake.’

21 May 1932
‘The riots in Bombay are subsiding. On Saturday none was murdered, but about 25 persons were wounded. Dahyabhai and Manibehn interviewed the Sardar and said that in Bombay too Government had asked the people to seek Congress protection. Thus Bapu’s intuition was correct.

In the evening we talked about the communal riots. The Sardar said, “It is not a straight fight. If people are stabbed in the back and women are injured in the chawls by Muslims disguised as Khadi-clad Congressmen, what is to be done and what is the advice to be given to the citizens of Bombay?” Bapu replied he had pointed out the way: Fight it out or die without offering resistance. The Sardar asked how Hindus could fight it out, as they were not capable of doing what the Muslims did. Bapu remarked that was not so. All were capable of doing what they did, as for instance in Kanpur. “Dr. Munje says Hindus should fight Muslims with the same weapons and the same methods. I think he is a brave man; he speaks out his mind without any reservations. But I hold that Hindus are incapable of fighting the Muslims with the latter’s weapons, as it is not in their nature. Therefore we must die unresistingly. The ahimsa observed at present is practical ahimsa and cannot make any impression on Muslims.” I said, “If big parties face and fight each other, we can imagine one party to be ready to follow the advice of dying without offering resistance. But what can be done about stray cases of murder and loot?” Bapu replied, “My advice would be the same even in such cases. But it is no good as no one is ready to accept it. This is a pointer to my own weakness. My ahimsa is not as it should be spontaneously effective. And yet it is a pity that people seek my advice. The poor things are on the horns of a dilemma. They would be able to find a way out for themselves if I were not alive. My presence is an obstruction for them, and such being the case, fasting is my only resource. If I had been a free man and in Bombay, I might have already employed that weapon.” I remarked that it was then a good thing that Bapu was behind prison bars. Bapu agreed and observed that if they had been free men, they would have been unable to do anything useful. I said I would not wonder if there was now open civil war. Bapu reminded us that civil war had actually broken out before as for instance at Kohat. And in England he had pocketed any number of insults from the Muslims and drunk many a bitter draught uncomplainingly.

To Raihana Tyebji Bapu wrote a letter, hoping all members of the family had derived benefit from the visit to Abu. Did Abbas Saheb read anything? Abu must have given him back the vigour of youth. But the madness in Bombay had damped their spirits. Bapu could not for the life of him understand, how one man could fight another in the sacred name of religion. But he must restrain his mind as well as pen. It was poison that he had been drinking now from day to day.’

14 June 1932
‘Bapu takes lemon squash with soda twice a day, at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Lemons are dearer in summer. Therefore Bapu suggested the use of tamarind instead, as there are many tamarind trees in jail. But the Sardar rejected the suggestion, as tamarind water was supposed to be bad for the bones and to cause rheumatism. Bapu said, “But Jamnalalji is taking tamarind.” The Sardar replied, “It will not do him harm, as it cannot penetrate deep enough to reach his bones.” Bapu said he himself too had taken a lot of tamarind. The Sardar said that was when he had a splendid digestion as a young man. It would not suit him now in his old age.

Doyle, the Inspector General of Prisons, saw Bapu in connection with the question of giving writing materials to C class prisoners. He was extremely courteous. He shook hands with all of us and said to Bapu, “I could not come earlier as I was very busy. Your request is reasonable and I will give the necessary instructions to Major Bhandari. But please do not ask for general orders. The facility should certainly be granted to all who can make a good use of it.” Turning to the Sardar he said, “I am arranging to transfer good women prisoners from Belgam to Yeravda as suggested by your daughter. Please tell her not to be anxious about them.” I formed a very good opinion of him, but the jailer violently disagreed: “He has certainly acceded to Bapu’s every request, but the experience of subordinates like myself is of a different kind.”

Doyle said he acted on the principle that in jail they would not take the conduct of a prisoner outside jail into account. Thus a turbulent murderer would be placed on a par with gentler prisoners. Perhaps that is the right thing to do. The treatment a convict is to receive in jail must depend upon his conduct inside jail and not upon the nature of his crime. And still there is discrimination typified by the black and yellow caps given to some prisoners.

After reading Birla’s forthcoming book on Indian currency Bapu remarked: “The big theft is not theft, the big robbery is not robbery and murder on a colossal scale is righteous warfare. Not being satisfied with draining away the country’s wealth, Britishers manipulated the currency for their own selfish purposes, depleted the reserves. No country in the world was bled white like this. Mahmud of Ghazni’s looting expeditions were limited in number, and the property plundered by the Moghuls remained in the country after all. But robbery by the British in India is unique.” ’

27 June 1932
‘Today’s spinning tired me out. Either the slivers are not good enough for 50s or perhaps I have not still attained the requisite skill. My speed is low, and the thread breaks off and on, so that I take nearly 5 hours to spin 840 yards, not to talk of the physical fatigue it entails. This is no good. I said to Bapu I was down and out. Bapu suggested that I must now spin only one-half of what I spun before. Narandas writes that Keshu spins equally fine yarn at the rate of 350 rounds an hour. How far behind him I am! Yoga means skill in action, says the Gita (II, 50) but I am as far from such skill as ever. I have been carding for a long time but I am unable to produce fine slivers, and if I spin fine yarn, my speed amounts to zero.’

La Foce is liberated

Today marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of the celebrated English biographer, Iris Origo. She spent most of her life in Italy; there she married, and there, with her husband, she developed a ramshackle farming estate at La Foce, in Tuscany. Famously, during the Second World War, the estate took in refugee children and sheltered escaping prisoners. Her diary of that time has become a classic of war literature.

Iris Margaret Cutting was born on 15 August 1902 in England, the child of an Anglo-Irish mother and a rich American father. She was educated privately in Florence, Italy, and, with inherited wealth, spent much time in her youth travelling. She married an Italian nobleman, Antonio Origo, and together they developed a rundown farming estate, La Foce, some 150km north of Rome. They had one son who died young of meningitis, and two daughters.

In the 1930s, Origo turned to writing, publishing biographies of the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi and Cola di Rienzo, a fourteenth century Roman politician. During the war, the family stayed at La Foce where they secretly took in refugee children and helped escaping Allied prisoners. After the war, the Origos lived in both Rome and La Foce, and Iris continued writing biographies and autobiographical books. She was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1976, and died in 1988. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, The Florentine and The Guardian.

Origo’s first published autobiographical work was a diary she kept during the war - War in Val d’Orcia (Jonathan Cape, 1947, but reissued several times since then, most recently by Pushkin Press). The book’s publicity material says: ‘In a corner of Tuscany, one woman - born in England, married to an Italian- kept a record of daily life in a country at war. Iris Origo’s compellingly powerful diary, War in Val d’Orcia, is the spare and vivid account of what happened when a peaceful farming valley became a battleground.’ Some pages can be previewed online at Googlebooks.

 9 June 1943
‘At four am in the Clinica Quisisana, my second daughter, Donata, is born. During the long night before her birth I heard from the room, through my own pain, the groans for morphia of a young airman whose leg had been amputated.’

10 June 1943
‘The third anniversary of Italy’s entry into the war. No celebrations. A rumour had spread that there were to be air-raids all over Italy, and all day many mothers have kept their children at home. Nothing, however, occurred until six pm, when a few enemy planes flew over the town - and a few more during the night. The air-raid warnings in the hospital (even though nothing happens) are rather uncomfortable, owing to one’s enforced immobility and the jumpiness of some of the patients.’

24 January 1944
‘The German officer turns up: a parachutist, covered with medals of both this war and the last, in which he served as a volunteer at the age of sixteen. He inspects the Castellucio, is unfortunately delighted with it, and a notice, stating that the castle has been requisitioned, is placed on the door. Mercifully, our own house is not required - as yet. In the afternoon we walk up to Pietraporciana - a lonely farm on the hill-top at the top of our property - to see if we could take all the children there, if we are turned out. There would be thirty-six of us.’

26 January 1944
‘Spend the day sorting furniture and books to be hidden in outlying farms. Schwester Marie, the babies’ charming Swiss nurse, who was to have returned home at this time, decides to stay on with us and see us through, in view of the possibility of our being arrested and the children left alone. Our relief is very great, but she may soon be completely cut off from her home.’

29 June 1944
[. . .] The Germans have gone. [Later] Not only have they gone, but the Allies are here! The first good news came to Antonio, who (while standing beside one of the Germans who are still left in town) was hurriedly summoned by a partisan: some English soldiers, he said, were looking for him. He accordingly hurried down into a wheatfield, and there found a small patrol, headed by a subaltern in the Scots Guards, who had actually come from La Foce. He wanted information as to the number of Germans who are still in town, the lie of the land, the bridges that had been blown up, and so on, all of which Antonio gave him, and in return, he gave us fairly good news of La Foce. The house has only been hit in two or three places, and though the damage inside is considerable, it is not irremediable. All this conversation took place hurriedly, hidden in the wheat, with sentries posted, and just as it was over, a pretty peasant-girl came up with a basket on her head, on her way to town. What next? She said she would hold her tongue, but it seemed safer for the soldiers to take her off with them for a few hours, to which indeed she agreed very willingly. The plan is for the regiment to occupy the town this afternoon. Meanwhile, we are having some German shelling for a change, and Palazzo Ricci and some other buildings have been hit. La Foce has had the honour of being mentioned in the midday bulletin as ‘liberated’ - together with Pienza and Montalcino. But we can hardly listen to the news now: we want to see with our own eyes. Every minute, now, the Allies may arrive!

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 15 August 2012.

Friday, August 5, 2022

Brighton Rock & Helter Skelter

Four decades ago I took part in a Brighton festival workshop on the famous novel Brighton Rock. It was an interesting experience, if a little disappointing. The workshop included entry to a short story competition with a £50 prize, and I duly entered. Exactly forty years ago today, I received notification that I’d won the competition and the £50 - it remains the only literary prize I’ve ever won. But, at the time, I was convinced - as my diary reveals - that I had been the only entrant. Many years later, after that particular diary entry had been published in my book Brighton in Diaries, one of the organisers of the competition emailed me to confirm that I had NOT been the only entrant - so I put that into my diary too. Here is the story of that prize - in three extracts from my diary

4 May 1992
‘Friday saw the opening of the Brighton festival with a splendid procession of children and their school-made dragons. For the whole of Saturday, I’d signed up for a Brighton Rock workshop but I had little idea what it would be like. I dutifully arrived on the Palace Pier a little before 10 and took a couple of pictures - the light was astonishingly bright and clear and the pier furbishings were looking as spanking new and clean as I’ve seen them; they must have had a coat of paint within the last few weeks and the glass in the windows had been spotlessly cleaned. The photos were similar to those I took ten years ago.

At 10 exactly, I approached the tiny group of people in the centre of the pavement at the entrance to the pier. The literature event organiser was there holding a wad of tickets; there was a large well-built man of around 50 introduced to me as Tony Masters who I didn’t know from Adam; otherwise there were two other punters like me - Jake, a dead ringer in character and pretensions for my old flatmate Andy, and Bob. Masters, who turned out to be quite a well known and prolific writer, never really recovered from the fact that so few people had signed up. I don’t know how many he was expecting - originally they had planned on a dozen or so but then thought a group of 4-6 would be better - but the organiser had twenty tickets or more. 

We removed to a banquet suite in the Albion Hotel where Tony talked a while about his working methods, about Brighton Rock (he had known Graham Greene) and about what we were going to do during the day - i.e. a walk in the morning and writing session in the afternoon. It turned out that Bob had never read the book Brighton Rock (he hadn’t even made an effort - I’ve been devouring it in the last few days, even though I read it a year ago) and had never penned a word of fiction in his life; while Jake who found it almost impossible to stop talking, never strayed from his favourite subject of films. However deprecatingly I might talk about these characters, there is no doubt in my mind that they added as much if not more to the day than I did.

I suppose I too was disappointed that the turnout was so small and that I was down on the level of an unemployed fantasist student and a computer programmer giving air to a slight whim. The walk was certainly a disappointment - we walked up and down the pier, passed the Forte’s cafe on the corner directly opposite the pier which was the setting for Snow’s. Tony insisted it would have been more sleazy in the time Greene researched the book but I thought otherwise - Rose says she couldn’t get another job as good and I suspect it was quite posh then, even more so than now. Tony said the same thing about the pier and the Albion hotel (where Greene stayed when in Brighton) but again I would have thought the pier would have been quite rich in those days given the amount of visitors it used to get. Our resident writer seemed determined to impose the sense of sleaze and squalidness that exudes out of the whole book on all the locations. We then walked up to Nelson Place which is where Pinkie grew up and where Rose’s parents live. Tony seemed to insist he could really feel “a sense of place” (the title of the workshop) in this location but I didn’t get anything from it all. 

For a while we sat in the pub Dr Brighton’s which in the book and formerly was the Star and Garter where Ida was often found. I suppose I knew Brighton too well already. There are dozens of locations around the city which have real character and feeling but, the pier apart, we didn’t go near any of them. After a short break for lunch we retired to the same room in the hotel. It became clear that Tony has a lot of experience of such workshops - he has worked a lot in schools it seems and written a lot for children - and was determined to maintain a highly positive attitude and wring something out of us. We had five minutes to write down the bone of an idea based on any inspiration we had had on the walk; then we were given a bit less than an hour to actually write up the idea.

Apart from general thoughts about the gaudiness of the attractions on the pier and the similarity perhaps with Brighton itself in some respects, three pictures on the pier had struck me: the sight of a lanky youth, standing silent and motionless staring at a video machine; a small boy who refused to walk over the slats of the pier because he could see water below and chose instead to walk along the boards laid down for pushchairs; and the colour of the sea - a translucent turquoise which seemed to have a light source of its own - as spotted between the slats when walking through a covered part of the pier.

Pressed into creating a story line and taking my cue from a simple example put forward by Tony himself, I turned the youth into a rather lonely character yet to leave home, addicted to the video machines, his only pleasure, and on the edge of making an important decision in his life. I have him watching the small boy choose the safe path over the boards and seeing himself. A group of lively youngsters enter the amusement arcade and stand near the youth. He starts thinking about how he has never met people like this and so on. I was surprised how much I actually wrote in the short space of time but I suppose that’s my experience as a journalist showing through. Although Tony insisted that one should enclose one’s characters into a finished plot and allow them room, I had sewn up my plot before I began writing. Tony said all one needs is to be able to see four or five scenes ahead (have a narrative thrust) and then one can write. Well, I couldn’t do this, I had already found the end to my story viz: the group of lively youngsters tease the youth and eventually nag him to come along with them for a bit. The first thing they do is go up the helter skelter. The youth, tied up in the imaginary world of the video games, has never actually been on any of the fairground rides and he is frightened sick of going to the top of the helter skelter and sliding down round virtually over the sea. Moreover, he has to spend his last coin of the day. The story finishes as he begins his slide down - a symbol really that he must begin his real life.

Pretty crass eh! Well, what can one do in 45 minutes. Jake wrote three sentences in Tom Wolfe style about a film star (Cher-like) who has come to Brighton to film a few scenes but falls over on the pier and is going to have an affair with a young street-wise lad. Bob also wrote just a few words about a tailor’s shop he’d seen. They were highly descriptive and emotive even and promised well.

We talked for an hour or so about these attempts. Jake found my writing Kafkaesque, Bob liked it and Tony explained that I wrote rather economically without much description, that I didn’t waste words. He said whereas from Bob’s contribution he could touch the scene, with mine he got a strong visual sense. I don’t think he made any judgement as to whether it was any good or not, nor can I think of anything he said that might actually help me write the story better. Oh yes, he said I was very observant.

 The cost of the workshop also includes the chance to send in a story (max 3,000 words) to the organisers who will then award a £50 price as well as provide some constructive criticism. I shall certainly take advantage of that offer. If just three people turn up at the second of the two workshops and every participant sends in a story, I would still have a 15% chance of winning the prize!

 I have to say that I liked Tony and found myself very much on his wavelength - I could tell in advance what pictures he might point out (at one point he was saying that one was unlikely to meet a Pinkie character these days but just at that moment two punks passed us in the street and we both acknowledged the irony of that) - and I could agree with much of what he said about other writers and films. At over 50, he has been a writer for thirty years he said, and is clearly much in demand, for films and television, and also pushes out a lot of books. I suppose if I were ever to be a writer, I would want to have as varied a portfolio as this man.’

5 August 1992
‘ “I am delighted,” Adrian Slack, organiser of the literature part of the Brighton Festival, writes, “to inform you that you have won first prize in the short story competition. I enclose a cheque for £50”. Well, well, well. My first ever literature success. Well, it would be if I wasn’t reasonably sure that I was probably the only entrant. Shame I didn’t get second and third prize as well. The story - Helter Skelter - was supposed to be read by several judges and a critique provided, that might have been more useful than the £50 prize.’

3 January 2014
‘Here we are three days into the new year. I’ve just received this message: “Hello Paul, Thoroughly enjoyed Brighton in Diaries and feel it was a brilliant idea well-executed. That was my opinion long before reaching Chapter 26. Loved your memory of Woodvale 1977 and then Brighton Festival Events! I’ve not thought of the Brighton Rock writing workshop & competition in many years and laughed at/with your snapshot of Tony’s disappointment. Adrian had hired me to show Tony around the landscape of the novel, but from your comments re Snow’s location, etc. it seems Tony did not take on my ideas. I disagree with everyone who tries to lather Brighton solely with the sleaze and squalidness brush. As the third judge in the writing competition, I can confirm you were not the sole entrant, but have absolutely no memory of whether Adrian required us to write a critique of the entries. With good wishes for a Happy New Year, Maire McQueeney’. I googled her to find she’s involved with literary stuff round Brighton, and probably lives round the corner in Warleigh Road. A few years ago, Hat and I did a walking tour around this area led by a woman who lived in Warleigh Road, and it may well be her.’