Thursday, 31 December 2009

Vicky Randall

Published on Thursday, December 31, 1998

Former Prime Minister John Major becomes a Companion of Honour in the New Year Honours list for his vital work for peace in Northern Ireland.

Leading a list of almost 1,000 members of British society, ranging from parliamentarians to shepherds, Mr Major was picked out by his successor Tony Blair for his groundwork that led the province to its historic Good Friday agreement in 1998.

Order of the British Empire - MBE

Stuart Wilson Aaron. Responsible Care manager, Chemical Industry Association. For services to Energy Efficiency in the Chemicals Industry. (Boughton Under Blean, Kent)
Jack Abbott. For services to Disabled Ex-Servicemen in Manchester. (Middleton, Greater Manchester)
* * *
Mrs June Margaret Randall. For services to the South West Wiltshire Care at Home Service. (Gillingham, Dorset)
* * *
Tim Yau. For services to the Chinese community and to Community Relations. (London, W1V)
Kai Kin Yung. For services to the National Portrait Gallery. (London, SW15)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Eleven years ago I wrote a sonnet celebrating my sister-in-law’s achievement. Today I post it to my blog to commemorate her award and to wish her and her family a very Happy New Year.

This is the day our Sovereign Lady makes known the names
Of those who've done some signal service to the state
And whom, recognizant, she wishes shortly to instate
In chivalric order, or to dub them knights and dames.

There's Major, our last P.M; top civil servants who belong
To West End clubs and manage massive Whitehall fiefs;
Air marshals, admirals – bemedalled Service chiefs –
Are on the list of those who'll soon receive another gong.

But look! Another service (Care at Home, Wilts South West)
Receives its hour's deserved attention in the public eye
And its erstwhile mainspring finds her name to lie
In this year's roll-call of Britain's greatest and its best;

And, among the Palace-bound, next Spring you'll see
June Margaret (Vicky) Randall, M.B.E !

Friday, 18 December 2009

Winter Term reading list

Topic 1: Dr Johnson and Biography
*Richard Holmes (ed): Johnson on Savage (Harper Perennial, 2005)
Richard Holmes: 'Biography: Inventing the Truth' in John Batchelor ed. The Art of Literary Biography
Richard Holmes: Dr Johnson and Mr Savage (1993)
James Boswell: Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
Richard Wendorff: The Elements of Life
James Clifford (ed): Twentieth-century Interpretations of Boswell's Life of Johnson
James Clifford (ed): Boswell's Life of Johnson: A Collection of Critical Essays
Adam Sisman: Boswell's Prodigious Task (2000)
Norma Clarke: Dr Johnson's Women (2001)
David Nokes: Samuel Johnson (2009)
Beryl Bainbridge: According to Queenie

Topic 2: Romantic Biography
Richard Holmes: Godwin on Wollstonecraft (2005)
Richard Holmes: Southey on Nelson
Rupert Christainsen: Romantic Affinities
William St Clair: The Godwins and the Shelleys

Topic 3: Victorian Biography

J.A.Froude: My Relations with Carlyle (1886) [pamphlet downloadable from Google Books]
Elinor S. Shaffer: 'Shaping Victorian Biography' in St Clair, Mapping Lives
Thomas Carlyle: On Heroes and Hero-Worship
[recommended edition, M K Goldbery (ed), University of California, 1993]
*A O J Cockshut: Truth to Life: the Art of Biography in the Nineteenth Century (1974)
Ira Nadel: Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form ch 2
L S Lockridge etc (eds): Nineteenth-Century Lives 1989
J A Froude: Thomas Carlyle (4 vols, 1882-4)
Trev Broughton: 'The Froude-Carlyle Embroilment: Married Life as a Literary Problem' Victorian Studies 1995
Trevor Broughton: Men of Letters: Writing Lives. Masculinity and Autobiography in the Victorian Period (1998)

Topic 4 : Women and Biography MORE
We will be focussing on one or more of the following three case studies:
(a) Charlotte Brontë - by Elizabeth Gaskell (1857), Lyndall Gordon (1994) and Juliet Barker (1995) – the Brontes
(b) Virginia Woolf - by Quentin Bell (1972) Hermione Lee (1996) & Louise DeSalvo (1989)
(c) Jane Austen - by Park Honan (1987 - revised 1997), David Nokes (1997) & Claire Tomalin (1997)
(d) Queen Victoria – by Lytton Strachey and Elizabeth Longford
Lyndall Gordon: 'Women's Lives: The Unmapped Country' in Batchelor ed., Art of Literary Biography
Carolyn Heilbron: Writing a Woman's Life (1988)
Victoria Glendinning: A Suppressed Cry (1995)

Topic 5: Bloomsbury and Biography
*Virginia Woolf: 'The Art of Biography' and 'The New Biography' in Collected Essays vol 4
*Lytton Strachey: Eminent Victorians (1918)
*Michael Holroyd: Lytton Strachey (1995) (especially introduction to 1995 edn)
Robert Skidelsky : Keynes vol I (1983)
Harold Nicolson: The Development of English Biography (1929)
Hermione Lee: Virginia Woolf
Ruth Hoberman: Modernizing Lives: Experiments in English Biography 1918-1939
Regina Marler: Bloomsbury Pie: The Making of the Bloomsbury Boom

Topic 6: Political/Historical Biography
Barbara Caine: Biography and History
Patrick O'Brien: 'Historical Biography' Biography, 1998
Patrick O'Brien: 'Political Biography and Pitt the Younger', History, 1998
Ben Pimlott: Frustrate Their Knavish Tricks
Robert Blake: in Homberger & Charmley, Troubled Face
T C W Blanning & D Cannadine (eds): History and Biography (1996)
Martin Gilbert: In Search Of Churchill
David Reynolds: In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War

Topic &: How to write Biography without sources
Anne Wroe: Pontius Pilate

Thursday, 17 December 2009

How my father shot himself down

Second Lieutenant Randall transferred from the Royal Army Medical Corps to the Royal Flying Corps for reasons given in my post of 14 December. This would probably have been in 1916, and probably in Egypt, where he learned to fly.

In my RAF diary there is an entry on Saturday, May 10, 1952 describing the first day of a 48 hour pass from RAF Kirton in Lindsey. My father and I set off early for a round of golf.

It is difficult to get George [the family nickname for him] talking about himself, but this morning he told me a lot about his days in the R.F.C. He told me that he made his first solo flight after five hours and that he got his 'wings' after only twenty hours. Then twenty per cent of the pupils on his course were killed, mainly because of their training on R.E.8s, flying death traps. They stalled frighteningly easily, and it was reckoned practically impossible to get out of a spin in one under a thousand feet. I would have put line-shooting past George, but he told me how he pulled out at ten feet from the deck [RAF slang for the ground], having stalled at eight hundred.

I can remember nothing of this talk on Woking golf course, other than the aircraft name, which he might have mentioned to me on other occasions. I know flying training was brief in the Great War, but this is common knowledge and I could have learnt it anywhere, not just and only from him. What a shame I did not record more of what he told me that day!

For the record, I got my wings after 12 hours on de Havilland Tiger Moths, 60 hours on de Havilland Chipmunks and 140 hours on Airspeed Oxfords. Certainly, aircraft in my day were more complex than in his day, but a ratio of ten to one in training time between me and him shows how woefully unprepared pilots then were for operational service.

There is just one other entry in my diary about my father's flying, in the entry for Sunday, April 12, 1953.

He produced photographic evidence of an incredible escape when the wing of his R.E.8 caught the top of the hangar on take-off. There wasn't much left of the flying machine, but he and his passenger climbed out with scarce a scratch.

I have some recollection of that photograph, and also of one showing him smiling as he climbs into the cockpit of his aircraft. These photos may still be lying overlooked in some shoebox or album: I’ll ask a couple of relatives to have a good look around so that with luck some personal pictures can replace what’s here.

If he finds them it may help clear up what type he was flying when he had the misfortune alluded to in the title of this piece. It seems that he was flying by himself over, presumably, the Sinai desert as part of the air support given to General "Bull" Allenby commanding the British drive into Turkish-controlled Palestine from Egypt. The aircraft was armed with a machine gun mounted on top of of the engine cowling in front of the pilot. A cunning device, the Constantinescu Gear, connected the propeller shaft to the firing mechanism which only permitted the bullet's percussion cap to be struck midway between the revolution of the propeller.

My father is flying fairly low, say at five hundred feet above the scrubby desert. He sees a beast grazing below, perhaps an antelope. He thinks he will try some target practice and points the aircraft's nose at the animal. He pulls the firing toggle and – you've guessed it, the Constantinescu Gear is on the blink. Off spins most of the prop, away scampers a startled antelope, down glides the aircraft, out clambers a disconcerted young man.

This is the kernel of the story, hallowed by family tradition. Alas, none of us thought to ask him, What were you setting out to do that day? What did you think when you saw your prop shot to firewood? Above all, how did you get back: some wandering bedou carries you on his camel, a fellow pilot sees you and picks you up, you trudge for days with no water: how?

It's too late to find out now, of course: there's nothing more to add.

My RAF diary

I started my National Service in January 1952. I chose to go into the RAF and to volunteer for flying duties, on the simple grounds that my father had been an RFC (Royal Flying Corps) pilot and my elder brother was an RAFVR (RAF Volunteer Reserve) one. I passed the tests for suitability for pilot training at RAF Hornchurch and then passed the 12 hours of "grading" (basic flying assessment) at RAF Cranwell on Tiger Moths, the venerable de Havilland biplane on which almost all wartime pilots had done their basic training.

As a cadet pilot I was now posted to Initial Training School at RAF Digby for square bashing and ground school instruction. We were informed that, after completing ITS and our basic flying course, our rank would change from AC2 (Aircraftsman Second Class) to Acting Pilot Officer and that, on successfully completing our advanced flying course, we would be commissioned as substantive Pilot Officers. We were all required to keep a diary which would be read by our flight commander and used in his ongoing assessment of our OQs (Officer Qualities). On Wednesday, March 5, this is how my diary begins.

I have only just received this note-nook, so I must endeavour to recall all the events of interest and importance that have occurred since my arrival at Digby, over a fortnight ago.

First arrivals at a station are always apt to be mortifying, especially as they always seem to coincide with a domestic night. …

I find it extraordinary reading through the diary today how very few of the incidents detailed in it I can now recall. In general terms I remember what a "domestic night" was: it was when you got boots and buttons especially shiny and when you laid out your clothes in your locker in a specified manner, shirts and underwear folded over cardboard templates to produce a symmetrical façade, ready for a barrack and kit inspection the following morning. My diary says nothing about the techniques of getting your boot caps mirror-bright and putting knife-edge creases in your uniform trousers. It's curious that these are the things I do remember, and one day I will write a post about these arts of which most people are (mercifully perhaps) unaware.

Of course it's very clear that these note-books do not constitute a diary in the generally-accepted sense, because you know that what you write is shortly to be read by somebody else, someone with considerable influence over your future. Any critical comments you do make must be of the mildest, written in a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, such as the entry on Friday, March 14.

[…] I looked at the Minutes of the S.M.C. [Station Messing Committee] and noticed that a proposal had been passed for serving 'curry'. To-day at lunch the proposal bore fruit.

I recollect that the Catering Officer, among other duties, is responsible for the training of cooks. He should inform them, therefore, that curry is not made by adding a token amount of powder to a sultana-and-meat hash. The result of this process may be palatable, but by no stretch of the imagination could it be called curry.

We were instructed that our diaries should demonstrate an awareness of what was happening in the world. As a keen young cadet I did so a lot, as on Sunday, March 30.

[…] the South African situation. It is indeed confusing, what with the racial differences, the antithesis [sic: presumably 'antipathy' intended] of the two Malans, the legal casuistry of the Premier's lawyers in attempting to justify their clearly unconstitutional action of removing the Cape Coloureds from the electoral rolls without obtaining a two-thirds majority of both Houses in joint session, and the obvious inability of Strauss, the Opposition leader, to fill successfully Smuts' place. The 'Apartheid' policy, if carried out, threatens not only native rights but also the equality of the English as perpetuated by the South Africa Act.

I am glad to see you have taken an interest in Current Affairs last week. G Cutler FG. OFF. 31-3-52

This is by no means the only reference to the South African situation in the diary. I am particularly interested in re-reading this now, in light of the reading I have done this term about Apartheid (a word which I enclosed in quotes in 1952, emphasising its newness) and about the two men who above all were responsible for its demolition.

My entire entry on Wednesday, 28 May, is devoted to the problems of writing this particular kind of diary.

The diary-writers on this camp have none of the advantages of their fellow diarists elsewhere. In the first place, the latter can be presumed to doing something each day of sufficient interest and importance that can be recorded for their own amusement. But to write with a lively pen about a monotonous daily routine is difficult at the best of times, and often is well nigh impossible. Then again, Messrs. Pepys & Evelyn wrote down shrewd and often biting comments on their acquaintances, and recorded their deepest and most intense emotions, secure in the knowledge that only they would read those lines during their lifetime. We are encouraged to write just these things, but I regard my innermost thoughts as sacred, and for them to be scanned by anyone else, sacriligious [sic]. As for recording impressions of people, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to write in a private diary a character sketch of my superiors. But a favourable description of my Flight Commander might be regarded by him as fulsome, and an unfavourable one might cause him to take offence, the very last thing anyone wants to do.

So it can be understood why I write of nothing today. And very successfully too!

I am happy to record that my writing had the desired effect of getting a tick in the appropriate box on my OQ assessment form.

A very good diary – fully up to the standard required, and enjoyable reading.
4 Jun. 52 E MH Browne, Flt. Lt.

I am less happy to record that the diary I kept for most of my advanced flying training course at RAF Dalcross from September 1952 to April 1953 went missing at the time, and it resumes only fitfully from that Easter. It would have been interesting for me to read now what I wrote then about two incidents during a Scottish winter that I remember vividly, about which I will write on another occasion.

At the moment the aspect of the diary that immediately interests me is what it tells me about my father's flying career, rather than my own. When I was home on leave he talked a little about what he did in the RFC, almost all of which I had forgotten. This is briefly recorded in the pages of the diary, which will enable me to write the preamble to the story of How My Father Shot Himself Down.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Sergeant Randall

My father wrote nothing and said little to me about his activities in the Great War. My understanding is that at its outbreak in August 1914 he was working as a clerk in the Company Secretary's office in the City of London Electric Lighting Company (CLELCO), joining it on leaving a small Quaker boarding school in the Cotswolds at the age of 16.

I remember him talking approvingly of John Braithwaite, a stockbroker, descendant of a John Braithwaite, a seventeenth century Cumbrian farmer and one of the earliest Quakers. The official history of the firm Foster & Braithwaite describes its founding after Waterloo and how later in the century it took a role akin to that of a merchant banker today in promoting new companies, especially in the burgeoning electricity supply industry. One of these companies was CLELCO, of which a Braithwaite was Chairman until nationalisation of the industry in 1948. It must have assisted the career of an ambitious young man to have the same faith as the chairman of the company.

When Great Britain went to war with Germany many young Quaker men were uncertain about what part if any they should play in it. The Society of Friends had from its outset held pacifism as one of their central tenets, but this war seemed to be different from any other. To hold back entirely and have nothing whatsoever to do with the conflict seemed to many to be an inappropriate.

Philip Baker was the most prominent young Quaker of his generation, having been President of the Union at Cambridge and a finalist in the 1500 metres in the 1912 Olympic Games. He was chosen by a group of senior Friends to propose a middle course between pacifism and belligerence; this he did in a letter published in the periodical The Friend on 21 August 1914. In it he suggested that "young men Friends should form an Ambulance Corps to go to the scene of active operations, either in Belgium or elsewhere": the full letter Is shown at the bottom of this post.

My father was one of the young men who responded to this call and I think that he joined others at a camp organised by Baker at Jordans, a Buckinghamshire village with a Quaker Meeting House where William Penn, the founder of Philadelphia "the City of Brotherly Love", is buried. It was at Jordans, half a century later, that Julia and I married each other.

It seems that there was concern that if the unit went to Belgium it would be too heavily involved with the command structure of the British army, and so it was proposed that it went to Serbia, at that time being invaded by Germany's ally Austria-Hungary. The Serbian situation was precarious, however, so this plan too had to be abandoned. Baker told the men to return home and await events.

It seems my father did not want to wait and that he therefore enlisted in the non-combatant Royal Army Medical Corps. The sole hard evidence I have of what happened next is the inscription in a full morocco-bound edition of Milton's verse on my book shelves.

Sargeant [sic] Randall
A token of appreciation of the hard and very efficient work done as section commander of J Section T Coy RAMC
J Gordon Fleming
Llandridnod Wells, May 7th 1915
Best wishes for your welfare on active service

The choice would not have been accidental. As a gift to a young man of half-formed literary tastes and austere spiritual cast of mind, a book including an epic poem which sets out to "justify the ways of God to men", by a contemporary of the proto-Quaker George Fox, was singularly appropriate. Today though, almost a century later, it is difficult for us to envisage any officer giving any NCO a book of verse before his departure on active service to Afghanistan.

Sergeant Randall did not serve on the Western Front: he was sent to the Mediterranean theatre. The photograph shows him after he had been commissioned. Sometime and somewhere out there he concluded that stitching soldiers up so that they could fight again was morally no different from fighting oneself, so he abandoned his non-combatant status and enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps.

What happened later

John Braithwaite served with the Friends' Ambulance Unit, became Chairman of the London Stock Exchange in 1949 and was dubbed Sir John Braithwaite in 1953.

Philip Baker led the first Friends' Ambulance Unit to Belgium late in 1914 and was adjutant of the Unit in Italy 1915-1918. He won a silver medal in the 1500 metres at the 1920 Olympic Games, assisted in the forming of the League of Nations, entered parliament as a Labour MP and, as Philip Noel-Baker, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1959.

Harry Randall rejoined CLELCO on demobilisation in 1919. More incidents in my father's life will be told soon. Stories in draft form are
How my father shot himself down
How my father built the Tate Modern

Friday, 11 December 2009

Sergeant Hill

On 29 November I wrote that a member of our boat syndicate had the diary of an uncle killed in the Great War which she was willing to lend me. I wrote

I've been wondering whether such a fragment could possibly be built up into a mini-biography, if there are no other papers or records about him. I believe it could, if there was sufficient of interest within the diary. It could, perhaps, be done at three levels: the campaign, within the context of the war on the Western Front as a whole; the regiment, and the training of troops; and the battle, and the death.

I have now been able to read the diary of Sergeant Hill of the 4th Waikato Squadron of the Auckland Mounted Rifles. The British army had used mounted infantry extensively in the South African War to try and deal with the elusive Boer commandos; presumably the AMR was one of the Imperial regiments raised between 1899 and 1902.

The diary is prefaced with "In the event of my being killed, I wish this diary to be sent to Mother.
Mrs. Geo. Hill, …, Opotiki, Auckland, New Zealand".

The first entry in the diary is on 10 October 1914, barely two months since the war had started: "at 3 pm … we stepped off New Zealand into the boat". The convoy of ten troop ships reach Tasmania on 21 October, where they spend a day route marching ashore, and a week later they join 28 ships carrying Australian troops in Western Australia. On 30 October "the General arrived and after having a look round us inspected the ship and was very well pleased with everything, at least he said he was". The convoy continues to Ceylon, where the troops stay a couple of days, and after a hot and sweaty voyage up the Red Sea, they reach Alexandria on 4 December.

The Sergeant is now active in training his squadron at their camp in the desert , with the occasional visit to Cairo and jaunt up the Nile. "19 January. We had our usual Regimental Training today and the General was umpire and lectured Officers and N.C.O.'s on day's work."

The General is Sir Alexander Godley, whose early army career had been spent as a polo-playing subaltern in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. The DNB describes him as a "tall, spare, publicly reserved man, […] seen by his troops as stuck up, distant, and unfeeling". His wife, a hard-hunting Irish woman, accompanies him to Egypt where she too is unpopular. Observing the troops training in the heat and sand, she is reputed to have commanded her husband: "Make them run again, Alec!"

Training continues through the first four months of 1915, then there is the first mention of an ominous name, the Dardanelles. "2 May. Apart from the usual work we had a very quiet day. I stopped in camp all day. We have been hearing today all sorts of awful news of our forces in the Dardanelles but there is nothing definite as yet." On 5 May it is confirmed that they will be going there, "without the horses". On 9 May they embark at Alexandria and on 12 May they disembark: "all the while we were landing the noise of the guns would almost deafen one."

The Dardanelles campaign was intended to knock Turkey, an ally of Germany, out of the war. This strategy was conceived by Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. The original plan was that a squadron of obsolete battleships would be able to force their way through the Dardanelles, the narrow channel between Europe and Asia, penetrate the Sea of Marmara and bombard Constantinople into submission. This attempt failed, so a parallel land campaign was launched, using Anzac (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) troops stationed in Egypt.

It is now 22 July 1915.
Owing to lack of energy and time I have not written a word here for over two months but as I have a little more time now I intend to make a start again and hope to be able to keep it up. [Summary of what has happened since May]
23 July. […] The Turks are very quiet today, hard on shooting. […]
24 July […] A very quiet day. […]
26 July […] Very quiet.
30 July […] A very quiet day, nothing doing at all. […]
2 August. Our Squadron is Injury Picquet and went up the hill. A very quiet day, but awfully hot. Lydsten to hospital.
3 August. We arrived home about 8am this morning and spent most of the day lying about. Norman and I went out for water to the Outpost about ½ mile and the heat was very severe, because having to keep to the trench all day you get no breeze. Stokes and Saxby went to hospital.
4 August. A few fatigues today but nothing to make a song about. A lot of Troops landed last night but I don't know how many.
5 August. Ordered this morning to get ready to move out to take part in the big advance. Paraded at 8:30pm and forwarded to No. 2 Outpost where we slept.

The General is meanwhile putting the finishing touches to his plans for "the big advance" to capture The Nek, an easily-defended narrow stretch of ridge on the Gallipoli peninsula which separated the Anzac troops in the south from the British troops due to be landed at Suvla Bay in the north on 6 August.

6 August. A very quiet day all getting ready for the attack at 9pm. I may not write any more of this Diary but whatever happens I hope to do my duty and trust for the best.

Picked up by Corporal E.J.Jones, 7/501, 1st Canterbury Mounted Rifles.

The Battle of the Nek became known as "Godley's abattoir". Sergeant George Hill was just one of the many New Zealanders slaughtered there.
* * *
This is a summary of something that could perhaps be developed into something bigger along the lines of the second paragraph. My initial feeling is that it could be, but that I as an Englishman am not the right person to do so. Gallipoli is so central to the national myth of both New Zealand and its sister dominion that an outsider could not do it justice. I need to discuss this, and other practical considerations, with Sue during the Christmas vac.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Quaker biography

I am on the e-mailing list of the library of Friends House, the Quaker headquarters in the Euston Road, following some brief research I did a couple of years ago on the origins of the Friends Ambulance Unit which my father had joined at the start of the Great War.

By an extraordinary chance, the two meetings described in the e-mail below take place

  • Half an hour after the end of our Tuesday tutorials
  • At a location on a bus route halfway between my professor's workplace and my daughter's house

I noted that space will be limited, so I e-mailed back to enquire whether they would object to my placing a notice of these meetings on this blog. Qui tacet consentit, so this is another of my draft posts that, with my term paper finally out of the way, I can now complete.

From: Friends House Library Newsletter []
Sent: 17 November 2009 10:14
Subject: Quaker Centre Quaker History group

Dear Friends

We would like to invite you to the first meeting of an informal Quaker history group that will meet in the Quaker Centre, Friends House, 173 Euston Road, London NW1 2BJ on Tuesday 26 January 2009 from 6.00 to 7.30.

You are invited to meet and mingle in the café of the Quaker Centre from 6pm. The Library will stay open until 6pm that day in case you want to combine extended study with attending the meeting.

At 6.30 Gil Skidmore will talk on ''Looking at 18th century Quaker networks through the life of Catherine Payton Phillips 1727-1794" followed by discussion.

Because space is limited in the Quaker Centre, it would be helpful if you could reply to this email at to let us know that you are coming. This is a free event and open to all.

We hope that this will be the first in a series of informal meetings aimed at those with an interest in Quaker history to enable sharing of knowledge and exchange of ideas. We are planning that these meetings will normally take place on the last Tuesday every month.

At the February meeting (Tuesday 23rd) Jordan Landes will be talking about "London Quakers in the Atlantic world before 1725".

We look forward to seeing you at our meeting.

Amanda Woolley, Quaker Centre Manager
Beverley Kemp, Head of Library and Archives, Library of the Society of Friends
Gil Skidmore, Independent scholar
Simon Dixon, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, Queen Mary, University of London
Peter Daniels, Freelance researcher, editor and publisher

Gil Skidmore, who is a Quaker, has spent many years researching the lives and writings of early Quakers. Her publications include Turning Inside Out: An Exploration of Spiritual Autobiography (1996), Dear Friends and Sisters: 25 Short Biographies of Quaker Women (1998), Dear Friends and Brethren: 25 Short Biographies of Quaker Men (2000), Strength in Weakness: writings by eighteenth century Quaker women (2003) and Elizabeth Fry: A Quaker Life (2005). She is clerk of Friends Historical Society and co-clerk of QUIP (Quakers Uniting in Publications) and is currently working on a biography of Catherine Payton Phillips.

Amanda Woolley
Quaker Centre Manager
020 7663 1041

Term paper submitted!

In my post Term paper on 8 November I said that I was thinking of writing the required 3,000–5,000 word autobiographical essay on How the protagonists of the dismantling of apartheid regarded each other, based on the autobiographies of F W de Klerk and Nelson Mandela.

In my post Seventh tutorial on 20 November I outlined the brief presentation I gave at our Tuesday meeting that week, as a result of which I concluded that the topic was either too big or too small for a term paper.

In my post Outline of term paper on 22 November I described the steps I proposed taking in order to write on another topic, Can a blog be used for writing your autobiography? This was the easy bit. Even though I got an extension of the deadline for submission from 29 November till 11 December, I found the going hard.

The problem was simple. Of all forms of writing about yourself, the blog is most like a diary and least like an autobiography. I finally started the paper like this:

In the play and film Educating Rita, the eponymous heroine is a bright Liverpudlian hairdresser who, on enrolling in an Open University Eng. Lit. course, is asked to 'Suggest ways in which one might deal with some of the staging difficulties in a production of Ibsen's Peer Gynt' and she succinctly writes 'Do it on the radio.'

In the cult TV series Star Trek , when new life is encountered on a strange planet, the onboard scientist turns to Captain Kirk and says in an ominous tone: 'It's life, Jim, but not as we know it.'

Were Rita to be asked 'Can a blog be used for writing your autobiography?', she would be torn between giving two equally succinct answers: 'No' and 'Yes, but not autobiography as we know it'.

The rest of this paper represents an attempt to help Rita make up her mind.

If only I'd been like Rita! Instead there followed four thousand words of regrettably rather superficial description of the relatively sparse academic writing on the topic and of the small number of blogs which I had come across and which could remotely be called autobiographical. I ended the paper not with a bang but a whimper, a confession that the attempt had failed.

This paper started with the intention of helping Rita to decide between 'No' and 'Yes, but not autobiography as we know it' as answers to the question 'Can a blog be used for writing your autobiography?' The paper has not done so. Both answers, surely, are valid.

I am, frankly, disappointed with what I handed in today, but at least it's done and at least it's caused me to think about avenues I should explore in the near future. More about this anon...


Christmas lunch: more

Twelve of us sat down to lunch, eleven women and one man. Over pudding JMJ asked me, "How do you feel, being in a minority of one?"

"Well, actually, I feel very easy about it. Some years back I used to go with Julia and a bunch of her friends to be their cook in the villas they rented. I'd sit quietly at dinner and listen agog while they discussed all sorts of things I'd no idea about. You see, with no other men present I felt absolutely no need to try and compete: I could just sit back and relax."

We went to Britanny, Andalucia, Tuscany, Provence. I saw myself as their troubadour, their majordomo, even (in my wilder flights of fancy) their cavaliere servente: the sisterhood saw me as a superannuated male Cinderella, whose place was in the kitchen.

I did get out of the kitchen quite a lot, though. In Provence the landlord of the village houses we had rented was a retired air force officer who had flown in the Patrouille de France, the French equivalent of the Red Arrows. He took me to see his microlight aircraft in a barn at the edge of a field nearby.

It had a tiny, egg-shaped fuselage with a single-seat open cockpit . This was mounted on a tricycle undercarriage and had a small two-stroke engine driving the propeller behind it. A fabric-covered triangular wing sat atop a short pylon behind the cockpit. From the wing hung an aluminium triangle, pushing and pulling which provided the sole means of manoeuvring the aircraft.

"Would you like to fly it?" he asked. The question dismayed me. I hadn't flown solo for years. They say that flying is like cycling, once you know how you don't forget, but even so … Remember, this was a Frenchman asking an Englishman, so national honour demanded that I reply "Bien sûr!", whatever may have been my not inconsiderable misgivings.

He motioned for me to get in. I did so, fitting snugly in the cockpit. "Quelle est la vitesse d'atterrissage?" There were quite a lot of other things I wanted to know, but finding out the landing speed seemed the most important at the time. He didn't reply. Instead, he gesticulated for me to get up and sit on the rear rim of the cockpit. I did so, with my bottom seemingly just inches from the propeller. Only then did I realise, with a spasm of relief, that he was getting in too: only then did I notice that there were safety harnesses for two people.

The flight was fun. Cruising in the sunshine at two thousand feet with the Provençal countryside unfolding slowly below: what's not to like? But I reckoned that it would be a bit boring after a while so that, although there's a microlight field at Finmere just down the road, cruising over soggy north Buckinghamshire doesn't cut the mustard in quite the same way.

When we were in Brittany I used to sit quite a lot in a café overlooking the little harbour at Camaret and idly read a bit write a poem about the lady painters. I'm told that this is framed and in the downstairs loo at Ar Sparfel, the house where we were staying nearby and which was owned by one of them.

The Ballad of Ar Sparfel

Upon a Breton headland bare
There stands the house called Ar Sparfel:
Full seven dames were gathered there,
To gossip and to paint pell-mell.

With brushes cleaned and dishes cleared
Then chins did wag a-main,
When above the chat was faintly heard
A tapping at the window-pane.

`What can it be?' the beldames crowed
And 'neath the casement made a gap
Through which there slid a slimy toad
A-hopping straight on Bella's lap.

Full well she knew the fairy tale,
So swift she kissed the toad herself:
Before her stood, in coat of mail,
A doughty, comely, princely elf.

`From thrall of Morgan's curse, fair dame,
Your transforming kiss has rescued me:
Now, come ye all to my father's haem
Across the deep and silvery sea.'

So with the prince the seven dames flew
Up through the shining star-filled night
And all the horns of faerie blew
A welcome fanfare of delight.

Straight within the King of Elfland's hall
Went they, their aerie journey done.
`What boon shall I grant each and all,
For bringing back my only son?'

`O puissant king,' quoth Annabel,
`To catch the hues of earth and air
And limn all forms and patterns well
In paint upon a canvas bare –

This is the quest upon which we're bound:
Yet still our daubs go oft awry
And shape and colour we confound
Despite whatever tricks we try.'

'This is a goodly boon, I ween,
And now I cast the painting spell –
Just as long as you keep clean
The dining hall of Ar Sparfel.'

As from a dream those dames awoke
And to their easels flew everyone:
Such wonders came from every stroke
As each their master-work begun.

Such colours flowed from Bronwen's brush!
Priscilla, Joseph's coat surpassed!
From Renate's palette did rainbows gush
And Julia the spectrum on her canvas cast!

Such pictures were not ever seen
By mortal eye before,
Each capturing some Breton scene
In wondrous hue and form.

Two gallant youths from Albion sailed
(Each to each was like a brother)
By the porter they were gladly hailed;
Charles the one and Caspar the other.

Eftsoons Annabel and Frances then
Their sons did welcome well:
`O well arrived, bonnie young men,
To our hall of Ar Sparfel.'

A festal banquet then was laid,
And on the table spread:
But when the final toast was made
They all went straight to bed.

With woeful heart the elfen king
Did lift the painting spell:
Artistic skill is now the only thing
Found not at Ar Sparfel.

The moral of this tale is clear:
Be certain, when you sit to sup,
It's fine to revel wïth good cheer
If you don't forget the washing-up !

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Week eight: Christmas lunch

We agreed that we would not eat out expensively at a restaurant for our last gathering of the term, but rather come bearing dishes and bottles for a convivial lunch in Jane's flat. Not only the five of us on this year’s course came but also some from earlier years and Sue Brown who, before we all tucked in, talked about the biography she has recently written about Joseph Southern.

Southern is principally known as the artist friend of Keats who looked after him during his final illness. He accompanied him on the stormy voyage in the autumn of 1820 to Italy where the poet was seeking respite from his tuberculosis. The publisher's blurb, on the Amazon page where you can buy her book, has this to say.

This biography of Joseph Severn (1793-1879), the best known but most controversial of Keats's friends, is based on a mass of newly discovered information, much of it still in private hands. Severn accompanied the dying Keats to Italy, nursed him in Rome and reported on his last weeks there in a famous series of moving letters. ... This book offers the first full assessment of his work and of his turbulent spell as British Consul in Rome from 1860 to 1871. Keats was not Severn's only famous friend. For most of his adult life Severn was at the heart of the large, lively British community in Rome welcoming amongst others Gladstone, who became his most important patron, Ruskin, Walter Scott, Wordsworth, Turner, Samuel Palmer, David Wilkie, and many more.

* H I C * E S T * M A G N A * L A C U N A *

We proceeded to eat, drink and be merry, so merry, in fact that I left behind my clipboard of notes when finally our academic revels ended. My only regret was that my diffidence stopped me from hugging RFCG, as our ways parted and she goes walkabout Down Under, to thank her for her ongoing words of encouragement about this blog of mine.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Crisis? What crisis?

Julia read my post Perilous poems in draft before I published it and ruefully remarked "You've never written me a poem!"

She forgets. On one of a pair of Georgian wine glasses in the cabinet in our front room I had this couplet inscribed about thirty years ago:

A richt guid wine, man's gleefu' for a day
But wi' a richt guid wife, for e'er and aye

"But that's frivolous! What about something serious?" As I left the table to go to my office she said to our granddaughter Izzy, newly-arrived from South Africa, "He's gone upstairs to write something!" Within moments though I came back with a poem typeset by me in Bembo, dated 25.12.98, signed AGR pro JMR scripsit and unromantically entitled The Battle of Maldon: a retrospective.

She could not recall my showing or giving it to her; I cannot recall why I wrote it; judging from the last four lines something was going badly wrong and I needed something to stiffen both our backbones. Most of the poem is a rewriting in verse of an English prose translation of the incomplete Anglo Saxon poem about the battle fought in 991 between the Englishmen of Essex and a marauding Viking host. My verse ends thus:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . Then Byrhtwold, the earl's old friend,
To raise our flagging hopes before what might be the end
With axe aloft moved towards the battle's closest press
And to us few remaining cried, Yet, as our might grows less,
Our will shall be the harder; our heart the keener,
Our valour greater: such shall be our troop's demeanour!

Ten centuries later you and I find ourselves at such a place,
But armed with knowing what our forebears did. Your grace,
Your grit, your strength – my friend, my lode-star and my bride –
Ensures our final vantage, sanctioned at this Christmastide.

But what was this place in which we find ourselves? What is the crisis? There had been some fairly serious health problems, but surely these had been overcome by then; on the business front I was continuing to try to make money from web-based language-learning software, but the losses I was incurring were not crippling; our daughters were all alright. We are both baffled.

I tell the story to demonstrate a problem of biography-writing about which I have seen nothing written in my background reading on this course: what if the interviewee can't remember? Imagine that I'm faced with an earnest young American PhD student and he shows me this document and asks me to explain its significance. Am I going to say I've forgotten, indicating I'm going gaga? Or am I going to make up something plausible? I suspect I'd do the latter.

Post script
Of course, it just could be that the dreaded Alzheimer's really is taking hold, but as long as I can remember the first name of the good doctor I'm OK. It was … It was … Alois! And I didn't even have to google it!

Perilous poems

The biography conference I went to a couple of Saturdays ago started with an address which included Auden's sonnet "Who's Who": A shilling life will give you all the facts

This took me back over half a century to the occasion of the inaugural lecture which Auden gave on becoming Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1956. That craggy, lined face which is so familiar from photographs looked even craggier in the flesh. In his smoker's voice he said some memorable things about poetry and its writing.

By singular coincidence the following Thursday the local U3A's Poetry Group was to meet, in our house, to hear about Auden from a semi-retired Eng. Lit. teacher. I contacted the teacher to suggest that the sonnet could be a perfect introduction to giving a potted biography of the poet, something that is always done at these meetings, and should be added to the list of poems on which he was going to expound. I also suggested that I contribute my recollections of his lecture and read one of the poems he cited when talking about what makes a poem. However he chose not to accept the suggestion, as his lecture was already planned, and so, like the protagonist of "The Shield of Achilles", one of the poems on his list, I chose to sulk in my tent.

My blog is of course a perfect place on which I can record my recollections and which the group members can if they wish read an outline of what I would have said at that U3A meeting. I can remember just three points Professor Auden made.

One of the elements, he surprisingly argued, that can make a poem is a list of names. He cited the Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad and the roll-call of warriors’ names in Henry V’s Agincourt speech. Another example he gave, which I remember because of my liking for Kipling, is his Mine Sweepers. The poem deals with an incident in the Great War when enemy mines are laid off the Kentish coast. Each of the three verses ends with this, or a slight variant of it:
"Sweepers – Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain."

He also talked of his ongoing lack of confidence in his Muse. Only when he was actually writing a poem, he said, could he actually say that he was a poet and of course while he was writing it he was thinking of other things. When he had finished he would wonder whether he would ever again be able to write another one. He tolerated being called a poet by other people because they wouldn't understand what he was talking about if he were to deny it and besides, it was quicker and simpler to do so.

The final point I recall was his saying that when writing about The Belovéd a poet is not actually thinking about her (or, I suppose, in his case him), but about himself. It is his feelings he is considering, not hers: she may be the cause of those feelings, but she is not the real subject of the poem.

I have just Googled [auden "inaugural lecture" oxford] and find that the lecture has been printed under the title of Making, Knowing and Judging, but sites which refer to it seem to be password-protected. It'll be interesting during the vacation to look at the transcript and see whether what I recall is correct, and what much more important insights I have totally forgotten.

That final point was not in my mind when four years later I wrote a sonnet to a young woman who had just broken off our engagement. I was still in Kano, where I had been peddling paraffin for Shell for a year and whither she had come from London to visit me. I do not remember how or why the bizarre idea emerged that for the Easter weekend three of us should go to Fort Lamy in a French colony adjacent to Nigeria; nor (happily) do I remember the events which resulted in my driving back recklessly and alone along four hundred miles of dusty laterite roads, with the accelerator of my VW pressed to the floor; nor what happened when the day after she left for England.

Nor do I remember why on earth I thought that our relationship could – or even should – be revived. I can only suppose, with the benefit of five decades of hindsight, that I was envisaging a future being spent in black Africa where single white women were scarce and unalluring.

So, the sonnet was sent, despite its limping scansion, to accompany a bouquet of Interflora's best red roses.

They were too small, too slight a thing to give,
Those roses: they fade and wither with the day
And die tomorrow, while the thorns survive
The flowers' ephemeral beauty, fresh as May.
Is this not like our lives, a Janus face
That smiles, but turns to frown, the flower, the thorn?
The one, those fleeting moments of glad grace,
The other, hurt of man, alone, forlorn.
But no: the flower lives, the thorn it dies.
The thorn is torn away to make the pyre
From which the Phoenix soon will stir, and rise
On reborn wings, with youth and strength entire.
Despite the twists our lives do run,
The ending's well, where 'tis well begun.

This flamboyant gesture led to my seeing her again when I returned to England on leave in July. I suppose that it was a combination of injured pride on my part and guilt on hers that led to us getting married in St John's Wood in September. Somewhere there is a picture of me and my Best Man standing beside the porch of the church and on the wall behind a placard exhorting passers-by to TAKE A CHANCE. At the time it did not seem like an ill omen.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Bon Viveur II and biography

The tutorial this week clashed with the AGM of the boat syndicate we belong to, so I went to the former and Julia to the latter.

The picture above shows the boat, Bon Viveur II, completed in 2006, which lives on the Canal du Midi in the spring and autumn and the Canal de Bourgogne in the summer. The syndicate comprises a dozen couples who jointly own the vessel, with each couple having the entitlement to use it for the same specified period each year: we have the first cruise of the year, in the first fortnight in April.

The annual general meeting this year was more upbeat and positive than in previous years, primarily because the boat builder and sponsor of the syndicate had finally ended his connection with it. The responsibility for ensuring that the vessel was ship-shape at the beginning of the season had not been properly established at the outset, which resulted in our misfortune last year in going on board, in the evening and at a mooring in a remote village, to find that neither the water system nor the electrics were working. But, as they say, worse things happen at sea.

The syndicate management could now organise things on a properly business-like basis and the agenda was dealt with briskly and efficiently. At lunch afterwards Sue Hill, our redoubtable Hon. Sec., knowing that I was absent because of the course I am doing, told Julia that she has the diary of a great-uncle of hers in which the last entry records his premonition that the following day he would meet his death: he did.

Sue said that she would be happy to lend the diary to me. I've been wondering whether such a fragment could possibly be built up into a mini-biography, if there are no other papers or records about him. I believe it could, if there was sufficient of interest within the diary. It could, perhaps, be done at three levels: the campaign, within the context of the war on the Western Front as a whole; the regiment, and the training of troops; and the battle, and the death.

Now, if this were something that a dutiful kinsman would like to see produced as a limited edition, using on-demand printing, for circulating to other relatives, then this is something that I could consider doing as a preliminary 20,000-word thesis since it would provide a personal example to illustrate my major thesis, The Impact of New Technology on the Creation of Biography. I'll e-mail Sue about this tomorrow.

Maybe I'm running the risk of biting off more than I can chew: but "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Reading for week seven

The Liberated Women whose autobiographies have been prescribed for this week's tutorial are Diana Athill, author of Stet, and Lorna Sage, author of Bad Blood. Much will be said about them today [i.e. Tuesday: this was started on the train to Marylebone, and only completed on Saturday] and the discussion will carry on from last week about what they were liberating themselves from and how far they succeeded in doing so. I want in this post to look at the entrepreneur in each of the books and to consider whether I shared any of his characteristics during my career.

Diana Athill worked in publishing all her life. Her particular talent lay in editing, which at its highest level involves helping an author to produce coherent, grammatical and readable text. Although she was for a long time a director of the firm she worked for, she never calls herself a publisher. That role was firmly exercised by her megalomaniac boss, the émigré Hungarian Andre Deutsch.

He started the first of his companies just after the war on a shoestring, a fifth of the amount normally reckoned the minimum to set up in publishing. Because of this, he controlled costs ferociously, from insisting that the light was switched off if there was no one in the office to cramming as many desks as he could into it and delaying moving into bigger premises until it was absolutely necessary. Employees, especially the women, were paid even less than elsewhere in the poorly-paid industry. When, after years of being a director, Diana asked for a company car, Andre tried to fob her off with a Deux Chevaux, seeking to sell it on the basis of its bohemian chic.

When he started he already had considerable sales experience and he soon perforce gained expertise in all the nitty-gritty in making books and turning them into cash. He knew best: he didn't think he knew best: he knew he knew best. One of the tasks which Diana had to undertake, one which she considered was a bore and a chore, was advertising their wares, but if an ad was placed in a paper too far away from the main text, it was Andre who would ring up and complain and ask for a better position next time.

His first make-or-break venture was publishing the UK edition of Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead. It was savaged in a preliminary review in the Sunday Times which called for a ban on publication because of its perceived obscenity: such a ban would have bankrupted the company. Andre woke Diana up, much to her annoyance, at eight thirty on Sunday morning and insisted that they write a letter to the most influential critic in the country, begging him to write a review saying that the book was not obscene, and drive round to put it through his letter box at once. "In retrospect," Diana writes, "the chief value of our outing was that it was something to do in this nerve-racking situation."

The principal male character in the first part of Lorna's story of her childhood and adolescence is her appalling grandfather, vicar of a village on the Welsh border. His daughter married Eric Stockton, son of the local coal merchant early in the war. He comes as a stranger into Lorna's life after the war, returning after rising through the ranks to become an infantry officer in Normandy and Germany. His talk, both at home and in the business he had taken over from his father, was all of discipline and efficiency: as she writes, "to Knock the Business into Shape he had to work all hours and do nearly everything himself. … This was the price he paid for a job in which he could Be His Own Boss."

These two men I understand perfectly, even though I never had to go through such gruelling times myself. A loan from my American foster-brother-in-law enabled me to start a capital-intensive phototypesetting company in 1977 after seven years of slow but steady growth of my increasingly unchallenging washroom hygiene company. The loan was repaid before over-trading resulted in the Inland Revenue bailiffs entering my composing room in 1981: but this story, and how I shared Andre's drive to action in a crisis and Eric's drive to impose order, must wait for another post.

Likewise I am reluctant at this stage to write about my besetting fault: like Andre, I think I know best. This has created problems both early in my career while I was still employed and employable and after I finally retired and moved to Buckingham. I hesitate to write more.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Autobiography through a hundred pairs of eyes

What would you do if your Significant Other terminated your relationship by e-mail?

When a middle-aged French artist was jilted electronically she turned to the Sisterhood. She asked scores of other women to examine the words of the message, each through the prism of her own expertise. The sum of this is Sophie Calle: talking to strangers, a multimedia exhibition now showing at the Whitechapel Gallery.

The focus of the exhibition is a bank of video screens, a giant one flanked by 3×3 on one side and 3×8 on the other. On each of the smaller screens is a woman soundlessly interpreting the message: read in French, English, German, Italian and Spanish; sung to the tune of a baccarole; sung as a fado; read/performed by a clown. On the larger one each of the 33 is successively displayed with sound. Around the gallery are dozens of graphical displays, with the woman's name and her speciality above each one.

Here is the message.


I have been meaning to write and reply to your last e-mail for a while. ... [ "It's not my fault", repeated a dozen different ways] ...

But it would be the worst kind of masquerade to prolong a situation now when, you know as well as I do, it has become irreparable by the standards of the very love I have for you and you have for me, a love which is now forcing me to be so frank with you, as final proof of what happened between us and will always be unique.

I would have liked things to have turned out differently.

Take care of yourself.


Here are extracts from the reactions of some of the 107 women who variously interpreted the message.


The problem starts straight away! In English we still tend to use the word "Dear" even in e-mails, or we cut the salutation right down to "hi". Putting the name by itself sounds quite curt in English. It doesn't have the same impact in French: the French tend to do this in e-mails. I've decided to leave it in the hope that it sounds serious rather than abrupt.

But it would be the worst kind of masquerade … and will always be unique.
This is another of his convoluted emotional sentences. It could be reworked any number of times but I am keen not to iron out the way he strings together clauses; it is a sign of his emotional state when he is writing, with ideas piling on top of each other.

This is not really a translator's comment but a more general one. I am intrigued by this "X". Is it a kiss, or the writer's initial? It would be so much more tender to end with a kiss ... but there is something rather presumptuous about leaving just a kiss or a simple initial at the end of such a solemn and final letter perhaps I am reading too much into this "X": it may be a simple device used by Sophie to hide the letter-writer's identity.


Ignotus vir Sophiae s.d.
The Latins named themselves at the beginning of a letter, not at the end. I have used ignotus to translate "X" being, as in Harry Potter, one whose name must not be spoken ... cuius nomen non dicendum est.

I have been meaning to write and reply to your last e-mail for a while
... nuntio electronic tuo ...
Since the word "email" obviously does not exist in classical Latin, I have adopted the translation adopted in the Lexicon Recentis Latinatis, published by the Vatican (Libraria Editoria Vaticana)

[But it would be the worst kind of masquerade … and will always be unique.]
This succession of subordinate (and often relative) clauses is in the text. I feel obliged to reproduce it, even though I don't think it is very felicitous.

[I would have liked things to have turned out differently.]
The unreality of the past, or an attenuated affirmation? I plump for the unreality.

Take care of yourself.
The Latins always ended their letters with vale (keep well). It is rather amusing that the gentleman should echo our formula of farewell. I cannot help thinking of the seal with which Rodolphe secures his letter of separation to Emma Bovary, and which bears the motto: Amor nel cor [love in the heart]


Analysis of an anonymous letter

... He is an authentic manipulator, perverse, psychologically dangerous and/or a great writer.

To be avoided at all costs.


... applicant with a convoluted form of speech.


Total assets: I will always love you

Total liabilities: I can never become your friend



Added 26 November

I have searched in vain this morning for the complete original text: it was not displayed at the Whitechapel and I have not been able to find it via Google. Curious!

Tutorial week seven

William Tillyer at work on Cape Cod
Image courtesy

We crammed an awful lot into our tutorial today in London today.

The theme was Literary Autobiography and John Drew came down to talk to us. A year ago he gave one of the public lectures arranged by the University of Buckingham on "How Charles Dickens repealed the Corn Laws", so I had a pleasant feeling of anticipation as he began, taking us through extracts illustrating the genre which he had prepared as hand-outs.

A Little Learning Evelyn Waugh, mid C20 – "Only when one has lost all curiosity about the future has one reached the age to write an autobiography" – I'm still debating whether I'm ready – there would seem to be a perilously small window of opportunity between the time of being ready and the time of being unable.

Confessions St Augustine: start chapter 6, early C4 – his primary audience is not his fellow-man, but God – introducing himself to his reader(s), how, when talking about one's childhood, but how does one distinguish between what one remembers and what one is told? – (ex sociis) written after he had renounced Manichaeism

A True Relation of my Birth, Breeding and Life Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, mid C17 – gives a justification for why she, as a (mere) woman, should be writing an autobio – has foreseen the question and has prepared the answer – plus marvellously overblown extract from a mid-Western feminist's Autogynography: Is the Subject Different? "the author with a phallic pen ... casts [woman] as the usurper"

The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau end C18 – "full-on ego trip" – in-built assumption that people are going to be interested in him begins to waver halfway through the series – its influence on the Romantics

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent Laurence Stern, mid C18 – [at this juncture, beginning to wonder whether I'd properly understood meaning of lit. autobio.] – anticipating all the difficulties the autobiographer will face – start describes not birth but 9 months earlier – hylomorphism [check sp.] where "humours" of parents at moment of conception determine character of resultant child – "a meta literary autobiography" [Manuel: ¿qué?]

The Personal History and Experience of David Copperfield Charles Dickens mid C19 – quasi-autobiographical, but actual autobiographical fragment about blacking factory &c (writ 1847, 3 yrs. before DC) not known till revealed by 1st biographer 1872 – concealment to preserve public persona of propriety – chap. 1 I was born "meandered" – no straight A to B in lit. autobio. – meander through publication of Victorian novels – the 19 monthly parts (in 20 instalments) v "three decker" (e.g. Jane Eyre) – from Preface: "how sorrowfully the pen is laid down at the end of a two-years' imaginative task" [my italics]

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Maya Angelou mid C20 – black American feminist writing – prologue only fully understandable after finishing book, the which written to disprove contention that black women can't write lit. autobio. [really?] – meander into difference between white European and black American autobio. traditions: the latter's stories hugely condensed, e.g. the Blues – starts of The Color Purple and Augustine not dissimilar

Explanation of what JD et al. mean by lit. autobio: not real autobio. by literary figure (as [logically but incorrectly] thought by Sophomore and RFCG) but autobio., whether "true" or not, written in literary manner, as opposed to by ghost. Bildungsroman v Künstlerroman [Manuel: ¿qué?]

Next, presentation on artist William Tillyer – contemporary of David Hockney and a fellow-Yorkshireman but one who had stayed close to his roots all his life – the prevalence of clouds in his works in various media in various styles throughout – meander into Linnaean classification of cloud shapes by Luke Howard early C19 and influence on e.g. Goethe – why has TH not received greater recognition? – should one be able to appreciate modern art without knowing theory and thinking behind?

Finally, canter through comments on books from last week's session on Liberated Women: Landscape for a Good Woman Carolyn Steedman and Bad Blood Lorna Sage – showing unloved/unmothered childhood - urban/rural backgrounds – working/lower middle class – significance [?] of writing in both books about (badly-cooked) food [could wider exploration of this theme be basis for doctorate? dream on, Sophomore!]

Discussed final question in prepenultimate paragraph over tapas at the bar of Moro's with Number Two Daughter [eschewing Bloggis Personae in favour of maryb technique of identifying people] – in final year at Central St Martin's – she has regular HAT (History & Theory) sessions with (like mine, much younger) tutor, and argues that with TV programmes like the current Saatchi series the polloi will, as it were, get the picture.

She encouraged me to go and see an exhibition at the Whitehall Gallery which, she said, would show me some of the video art works of the kind that she is working on, but which also touches on what I am studying.

Monday, 23 November 2009

It’s a Don’s Life: Mary Beard’s blog

Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge and has been blogging since April 2006 as one of two dozen blogs on a wide range of topics hosted by the Times Literary Supplement. A book based on her blog was published in the first week of this month, proof of the wide interest it has generated. For example, her post on 12 May this year, about whether her women-only and chapel-less college, Newnham, needed a new grace (or indeed one at all) generated 74 comments and features in both the local and national press.

Her blog, I thought, would surely have material on it relating to her life before 2006 as well as after it. I was wildly wrong. From a full scan of her posts this year and a cursory of the previous three I learned that her parents had divorced (in a post on 29 June about encouraging parents to come to degree ceremonies); that she used to suffer from nightmares about exams (in a post on 12 June about forgetting that she should be invigilating an exam); and that she had once been raped (in a post on 29 January 2007 entitled No sex please, we're drunk: rape ancient and modern

What is even more interesting is that she created links from her blog to articles she had written in The Guardian about the painful death of each of her parents and about the story of the rape incident.

Why write about such things in a newspaper and not on a blog? She suggests the answer to this in her post A blogger's life on 7 July 2006 when she discussed the pros and cons of blogging, saying of the latter "friends warned darkly about the perils of the public confessional. … And besides there was a sniff of dumbing down. What was worth saying in a mere 600 words or so?" The two newspaper articles were, indeed, respectively two and over three times as long.

Later in the same post she says "much of my life is either unbloggable or unblogworthy." The unbloggable includes all her interactions with her students who "would rightly not take it kindly if I discussed with you their exam performance, their essays or their individual career aspirations (and that forms a very big part of my day job)." The unblogworthy includes on the one hand all the minutiae of academic administration – dull to blog – and on the other all the excitement of scholarly writing – virtually impossible to blog.

On the pro side she is particularly excited by the ability to create links from her text to enable the reader immediately to see fuller text elsewhere online, making as it were dynamic footnotes. Thus I can enable my reader to go from here to her interesting remarks about the prurient nature of biographical research and from here to what she says about writing biographies of the ancients .

As a fellow blogger, but one with vastly less experience, I was interested to see how she referred to individuals. People, it seems, are only named if she has something favourable to say about them: if not, they remain anonymous. I was intrigued, though, that she occasionally does provide the reader with the means to strip the mask away. When writing Reviewing: the nastiness test she enables you to identify the bounder who vilified her and also to get the publication details of the offending review, without being in the slightest bit offensive. Her example comes for me at a fortunate time, since I am planning a post about being thwarted which I will now write without the asperity which I had considered.

So, although spending time reading A don's life today has not helped me with my term paper by getting positive evidence about making a blog into an autobiography, I have gained greatly in other ways. Thank you, Mary!

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Bloggis Personae

I had a great surprise earlier in the week looking at the Dashboard of this blog (that's the place on any blog hosted by Blogger where you can edit text before finally posting it). There, against the title Saturday afternoon in Oxford, was the glyph 1 comment. Then felt I like Robinson Crusoe marooned on his desert island when he sees a human footprint on the beach and he realises that he is not alone. Agog I looked at the post and there it was, and now, here it is.

How to refer to the family is a big problem which Dinah B didn't get right, in my view...
if you use their first names, you exclude people who don't know that (say) Zoe is your daughter…
"my husband" ( i..e the possessive) reeks of the Queen… it's
my husband and I speak
in fact I have used the definite article in conversation for years and year with friends... as in "how's the paramour?' ... so for me it feels – well – conversational…

This comment had been posted by maryb at 13:23 on 8 November 2009: Sophomore (that's me) had posted the text at 08:31 on 8 November 2009. So, Mary Beard was commenting on my comments on Dinah Birch's comments on her (Mary Beard's) blog on my blog, within five hours of my posting it there: for once, the mot juste is, truly, incredible!

Mary, Dinah and I were all considering the best way of identifying people who appear on a blog post who will be (unless they are public figures) unknown to readers coming to that blog for the first time or who are regular readers but can't remember exactly who's who.

I'm now reconsidering all this in light of maryb's comments. I suggested in the post that "If you really want to know my relationship to the lady named in the next sentence, just click on her name and go to the post which describes what it is." This is clumsy: not only are you asking somebody to go somewhere else, but then you are asking them to tease out of a fresh piece of text what the relationship is and then return to the original post. And maryb's solution has its limitations. "The husband" is just fine, because there is, one supposes, only the one husband: likewise "the daughter", which may work for her but doesn't for me, with three of the little blessings (as they all were and have since become again).

And how does one apply this principle to friends? Belle de Jour used a coded approach, naming them things like The One, N and A2, but this is because she was until very recently writing quite anonymously. I have used a similar approach with, for example, RFCG, which is decoded elsewhere as Resident Fertile Crescent Guru. I quite like the idea of identifying Paul Burns as ELH (England's Leading Hagiographer) or Tony Seaton as STH (Sage of Trolly Hall), but these quips can backfire. Maggie the RFCG, for example, was not desperately happy with the epithet of guru, which to her implies spurious mysticism rather than the sound scholarship I intended.

Therefore I am testing a new approach which was rather crudely first tried in the Bloggerel post last Sunday. In the one posted today I have put down at the bottom of it the briefest of details about people directly or indirectly mentioned in it. This is similar to what you have at the beginning of traditional editions of Shakespeare's plays, the Dramatis Personae, or People of the Drama: Duncan, King of Scotland; Malcolme and Donalbaine, his sons; Macbeth and Banquo, Generals of the King's Army. That is why I have given this post the title of Bloggis Personae.

Genesis of Bloggerel: 2

Hic est magna lacuna

Outline of term paper

I have written in Seventh tutorial that I have given up my plan to write my term paper of 3,000–5,000 words on the de Clerk–Mandela relationship because it is too big a topic. When I told Jane this after our latest tutorial she suggested that I do something which is related to the blog I started in September at the start of this course. This ties in with the dissertation I want to do at the end of the course and so I happily accepted the suggestion.

Since this term is devoted to Autobiography, the title of my paper naturally suggests itself: Can a blog be used for an autobiography?

This too is a big topic, or rather the blogosphere is so big, that at first I did not know where to begin. But, as the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles is begun with just a single step, so I have quickly drafted the following outline for the paper. This will almost certainly change significantly when I start writing but, as another of my favourite saying goes, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, which is of course not a reason to have no plan.

So, here's the plan.

What is a blog?
Like an online diary – unlike physical diary (i) read backwards (ii) designed for immediate reading by others
How to start a blog – i. choose a host (e.g. Blogger, WordPress) – ii. write something on WP (e.g. Word) – iii. select Publish, choose Draft – iv. add topic (e.g. Life Story) – v. add pic, add hyperlinks, tweak coding (optional) – publish checked and modified Draft
How reader can select what to read – i. by date – ii. by topic

What are blogs about?
Anything – general v single issue – outline of categories shown on Technorati – absence of any biog-related category

What does the literature say?
Not (seemingly) a lot – refer to Winter 2003 Journal of Biography – no (apparent) plans for anything fresh from Hawaii – Mediated Memories in the Digital Age

How to find biog-type blog needles in blogosphere haystack:
Size of blogosphere – ease of starting blog
Blog Search Engine ( yields no results for [autobiography] – in Personal category subcategories nothing likewise
Technorati search engine ( ) – Bio/Autobiography not listed as category – Living 12533 blogs – subcategories nothing likewise
Google [blogspot autobiography] – 1st 5 blogs with "Autobiography" in title not recognisable as such – explain
Google [blogs into books="blooks"(!): note defunct Blooker Prize] – e.g. Mary Beard (Cambridge don), Belle de Jour (London hooker), Julie Powell (cooking all Julia Child's recipes in a year) – also look at others

Example of process of formal publishing
Designer of VisiCalc (ur-spreadsheet) Dan Bricklin's Bricklin on Technology, from his long-running blog:
i. how to deal with changes since text first written – ii. how to deal with hyperlinks – iii. typographical process
Editing essential: how done (hard copy, files)

Process of informal publishing
Review of methods available via software for on-demand printing

(Currently-)perceived main problems
i Blogs deal with the now: how to deal with the then
ii Voice, i.e. how to refer to e.g. spouse or explain e.g. Jack
iii more

My suggested solutions to these problems
i Multitudinous Madeleine moments (but on my blog these are not involuntary but contrived)
ii Bloggis Personae (but wait for response, if any, from maryb [comment on 08/11/09])
iii more

Conclusion (answer to opening question)
Yes, but … Blog is a hunk of Carrara marble, from which you must carve your self-sculpture

Friday, 20 November 2009

Oxford Landing

After Tuesday's tutorial I took the 205 bus from Marylebone, where tutorials are now held, to City Road, close to Henny's home in Clerkenwell. I popped into the newsagent cum off licence next to the bus stop to get a bottle to accompany the promised shepherd's pie. The range of the wines on offer was small but included a couple of good Aussie brands, Hardys and Oxford Landing: I chose the latter's Shiraz.

On my desk back in Buckingham I have a 5" x 3" plaque of black bakelite, with white lettering embossed on it.

The plaque was originally on the instrument panel of an Airspeed Oxford, the plane built by the company founded by Nevil Shute, a man much more widely known as a novelist than as an aeronautical engineer. The Oxford was the twin-engined aircraft on which I did my advanced flying training at R.A.F. Dalcross (now Inverness Airport) in 1952–1953.

Click here to go to the last paragraph of this post if you are profoundly uninterested in how to land an Oxford.

Flaps are lowered when you are preparing to land your aircraft. You lower them when you are on the downwind leg of the circuit prior to turning onto your final approach and when your Oxford is flying at a speed lower than 120 miles per hour as shown on the Air Speed Indicator. This has the effect of lowering your stalling speed, the speed at which your aircraft starts falling out of the sky.

A way in which you can demonstrate to yourself the principle of flight is to find a large spoon with a hole at the top of the handle through which you loop a piece of string. Holding the string, turn on the tap on your kitchen sink and draw the spoon towards the flowing water with the concave side towards it. Common sense suggests that, if you were to swing the spoon into the water it would be pushed away by the little torrent. You will find that this is not so. The opposite thing happens: the spoon is drawn further into the torrent.

What's happening is that the water is speeding up as it flows over the convexity of the spoon and in so doing the water pressure becomes less than in the flow on either side of it so that the spoon is, as it were, sucked into the torrent. If you understand that air behaves like a liquid, but in gaseous form, and if you realise that the cross-section of the convexity of the spoon is roughly the same as the cross-section of an aircraft's wing, you will begin to see how it is that an aircraft stays airborne.

In aeronautical terminology this suction is the force called lift. The force that propels the aircraft forward, causing the air to flow over the wing is called thrust, while the one that imposes an upper limit to its speed is drag. When the upward force lift is balanced by the downward force weight, and the forward force thrust is balanced by the backward force drag, the aircraft flies at an even speed, neither ascending nor descending.

If you are flying that hypothetical aircraft and you throttle back slightly so that you reduce your thrust, then the decrease in pressure in the flow of air over the top of the wing and your lift reduces as well. The nose of the aircraft drops slightly and you lose height. You can counteract this by pulling your stick (the column between your knees which controls the ailerons on the wing and the elevators on the tailplane), thus bringing the nose up slightly. The air now has to travel slightly further, pressure is decreased, lift is increased and equilibrium is restored. There comes a point, however, beyond which you can no longer safely pull the nose up.

You will have observed how water in a stream behaves as it approaches and then enters a rapid. The flow is smooth to begin with but then as it gets even faster the current breaks up into whorls and eddies. The flow has gone, in science-speak, from laminar to turbulent. Exactly the same thing happens to air flowing over a wing. At the moment that the air current becomes turbulent, the lift generated by the decrease in pressure is suddenly lost and the aircraft falls.

This, in essence, is what happens when you make a landing in an aircraft with two wheels in front and a smaller one under the tail. As you make your approach to the runway or landing field, you start by lowering your flaps which effectively increases the wing area and thus the lift that is generated. As you slowly throttle back, so the aircraft descends; as you gradually lift your nose, so the speed drops off. If you have judged things correctly, your aircraft is very close to the ground with the wheels in front and behind parallel to the ground. At that point you throttle back completely and pull the stick back into your stomach so that the speed falls below the stalling speed and your aircraft drops out of the few inches of sky left beneath it and you feel a tiny bump and you hear a slight squeak, as the rubber on the stationary wheels suddenly begin to rotate rapidly, and you feel a moment of triumph for pulling off a perfect three-point landing.

That is the theory. In practice, this is hard to do. One of the tests we had to do in April 1953 during our final assessment before being awarded our wings was carrying out a spot landing without power, which is to say that I was expected to throttle back fully at the end of the downwind leg of the circuit and then touch the aircraft down within x yards of a spot marked on the runway.

Now, throughout all my previous assessments I had been rated just an average pilot and spot landings are hard enough at the best of times, even if you are an excellent one. Therefore I devised a devious scheme to ensure success. I determined on doing two things. One, I would not throttle back entirely at the end of the downwind leg but leave the engine ticking over slightly above idling, so that when I did throttle back (with the difference in engine noise undetectable, I hoped, to onlookers) speed and so lift would be reduced. Two, I would when I was just in front of the spot raise my flaps so that lift would be further reduced. This is what I in fact did, and it worked. The only trouble was that my approach had been slightly too high, so that when I simultaneously throttled back completely, raised the flaps and pulled the stick hard back, I was several feet above the runway and the aircraft fell to ground with a spine-jarring thud.

This story of my Oxford Landing has a happy ending, though. I did touch down sufficiently close to the spot to pass. And Mr Shute did build his aeroplanes to be sufficiently robust to survive unscathed abuse from pilots such as me.

Seventh tutorial

Jane asked me last week if I would give at the next tutorial a report on the conference on History, Mystery and Myth at the University of East Anglia which I attended on Saturday. I based this on the bullet points in my post of 16 November.

Each participant on our course is required to give a twenty minute presentation sometime during the term on an aspect of autobiography related to tutorial topics, and it was my turn on this occasion, talking on political autobiography as written by presidents of South Africa at the ending of Apartheid. I took as the title of my presentation How the protagonists of the dismantling of apartheid regarded each other.

When I first had the idea for this I reckoned that it would be interesting to chart the remarks made by Nelson Mandela about F W de Clerk in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom and by de Clerk about Mandela in his Last Trek: New Beginnings. In reality it emerged that the views of each of them were remarkably similar and followed the same trajectory of change, starting with cautious respect towards their opponent and ending with scarcely-veiled hostility, each failing to properly understand the difficulties his opponent had in keeping their allies and extremist supporters involved in the tortuous negotiations that finally resulted in the ending of apartheid.

I therefore felt that this bare narrative would not support a presentation, let alone a possible 3,000-5,000 word term paper, and so I felt that it would be useful to preface it with a brief description of how the system of apartheid came into being. How naïve can you get! As soon as you start looking at the system's origins you are plunged into the whole history of South Africa, with its ongoing clashes between the various tribes, black and white, which inhabit the region, and in particular the development of the Afrikaners' view on race. This is an immense topic. I gazed into the bottomless abyss and recoiled.

What I gave therefore was a superficial sketch of what happened between 1654, when the Dutch first settled in the Cape, and 1948, when the Afrikaner National Party won power and started the imposition of apartheid; then I briefly touched on the growing resistance to the system, and Mandela's part in that; then upon how negotiations about ending the system were finally started and eventually concluded; and finally, as an epilogue, a description of de Clerk's 70th birthday party in 2006 at which Mandela graciously acknowledged his old opponent. We should not let our reverence for Mandela blind us to what de Clerk did. They both equally deserved the Nobel Peace Prize: they are both great men.

Since two out of four of my fellow students are from South Africa, you may well imagine that there was much illuminating discussion. There was scarcely time therefore for considering the ostensible topic for the week, Liberated Women: this will therefore be carried over to next week.