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.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Daughter Number One’s husband’s cat

Roz lives in a house half a furlong from a beach washed by the Indian Ocean in subtropical South Africa. In the garden, which still has trees from the original forest that stretched along the coast of KwaZulu Natal, Paul has built her a studio where she paints. Her work, increasingly on African themes, has been exhibited in Durban, London and Berlin: you can see some of it on her website.

Paul spends a lot of time "gallivanting off through the bush", as I put it in the earlier post. He is now close to getting his MSc for which his dissertation will be Implementing a Monitoring and Management System in the Imfolozi National Park. This park lies in the north east of the country close to the border with Mozambique: over the last two decades he has led many treks into the wilderness part of the park where there are no roads and into which you must carry everything that you are going to need for eating and sleeping. For the work he now does for his dissertation he travels on dirt roads on his motorbike.

The astonishing pictures at the head of this post were taken by a woman who just happened to be in her car parked by the side of the road when Paul passed her. She was just taking a photo of the big cat from the safety of her car when she saw it bound off after the motorbike: the acceleration of these creatures is faster than that of any wheeled vehicle.

Jane Ferraris was able to take other photos of what happened next. Paul had glimpsed what was happening in his rear view mirror and thought he was being pursued not by a lion but by a cheetah, which he knew had never attacked a human without provocation. The photo shows Paul looking over his shoulder to confirm that the fleet feline was indeed a cheetah. I am currently seeking to get clarification about how the story ends and, indeed, why the cheetah was pursuing Paul at all.

Paul's academic researches are, you must agree, rather more exciting than those of his father-in-law.

Monday, 16 November 2009

History, Mystery & Myth: 2

Read something about the conference at which these papers were given here.

Describing a boat race, Baroness Ouida is alleged to have written, "All rowed fast, but none so fast as Stroke". The same may be said of the papers which were contributed to this conference. For reasons of space and time, however, I am selecting just six out of sixteen about which to write in telegraphese, primarily as an aide memoire to myself about those that particularly interested me.

Rebecca Pinner (University of East Anglia):
How to Make Saints and Influence People: Biography, Myth and Memory in the Cult of St Edmund

Protagonist most mythic of all those featured in conference – all that's definite is (i) AS Chronicles of 870 ("Last year King E [of East Anglia] slain by Danes") and (ii) handful of coins – next (known, written) account c.987 (Abbo of Flury Passio Sancti Edmundi) based on report by E's ancient armour-bearer – next c.1090 (Archdeacon Hermann De Miraculis Sancti Edmundi) based on "confiding testimony of living persons" (what? after 200 years? – Ed) – next c.1150 (Geoffrey of Wells De Infantia Sancti Edmundi) based on tales told by monks associated with Bury St E – myth is the slow accretion of stories. Myth still has potency – recent campaign to replace foreign (fictitious?) St George as England's patron by native St E (but what about St Alban? not E/Anglish – Ed) – superstition about not crossing certain Norfolk bridge when going to get married.

Leo Klein: Biography or Pornography?
Concern about motives for her writing biography of UK's (almost) last public hangman, Albert Pierrepoint – conflict between her abolitionist/ liberal views and central topic which "emits the strongest of all the stinks" (R West on Nuremburg Trials) – problem about paucity of material about AP – pain at interviewing some of AP's acquaintances – inability to confront AP's "equipment" (the tools of his trade, kept under the marital bed, about which his wife never enquired) – writing about some he hanged (WW2 German spies, traitor Amery, halfwit Bentley, lover-killer Ellis) and reading last letters – current project not dissimilar (women, esp. mothers, in Broadmoor [asylum for criminally insane]).

Marek Pawlicki (Jagiellonian University, Cracow): Writing about the 'happy never-returning time': truth and manipulation in autobiography
The narrator and the protagonist – the teller of the story and who the story is about – one and the same in Autobiography? Yes, but. Time has elapsed between the incident and writing about it – the former about a child, the latter by an adult, as in Tolstoy's anecdote (in trilogy Childhood, Boyhood, Youth) of failing to be able to read out poem on babushka's Name Day – authority given to story by writing in First Person, Past Tense. Compare this with J M Coetzee's tale (Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life) of failing a Boy Scout test – written in Third Person, Present Tense – the writer thereby throws off the authority of the author. This becomes (using JMC's neologism) an autrebiography.

Kirby Joris (Université Catholique de Louvain): Gyles Brandreth's Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries (2007-): When Myth Becomes His-Story
GB has written 3 out of projected 9 whodunnits with OW the sleuth – attempt by GB to give accurate depiction of OW via fictional incidents in his life – these interposed within real incidents, e.g. visit to USA, Paris &c – narrated by third person, the real Robert Sherard (OW's friend and first biographer), writing fictionally – "I kept a journal … I was there: I was the witness" – supposed journal embargoed (c.f. last week's tutorial) for 50 years. GB claims "tried to be as accurate as possible" – yet Vol 1 starts with traditional disclaimer: "Any resemblance … purely coincidental".

Amber K. Regis (Keele University): Definitive Lives? Portraits of Vita Sackville-West
Biography's "primal scene" (as described by KH in opening address, as when the trunk in attic creakingly opened and dusty bundle of letters finally reveals The Truth) of VSW's memoirs being found in slit-open Gladstone bag in tower of ancestral Sissinghurst – prefaced by family tree of VSW m. Harold Nicolson, begets Nigel, begets Adam – each writes different (but overlapping) accounts of different aspects of VSW's (and others') relationships – 50 lesbian lovers (one Virginia Woolf [v briefly], hence overlap with Bloomsbury outpourings), yet a happy marriage, claims NN – "It's like a family of butchers, you know, butchers chop up pigs, we write books", states AN – and see his interview on - and remember the various TV shows. The story/ history/ biography becomes a palimpsest (parchment/ vellum erased and overwritten, but old text still detectable) – R Holmes' conclusion: "definitive life a Chimera". Plea from floor not to forget marginalised/ demonised Violet Trefusis.

Catalina Botez (University of Konstanz) Primo Levi's The Periodic Table or the Story of a Carbon Atom
PL distinguished chemist, Italian Jew, Auschwitz survivor, eventual suicide, wrote autobiog with chapter named after an element, starting with Argon (inert) and ending with Carbon (life prerequisite). Enchanting tale unfolded by delightful lady but (like, alas, others, esp. Chair of this session) auricular sense challenged: next time, please, microphones or pre-conference instruction to speak up.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Genesis of Bloggerel

Hic est magna lacuna

Daughter Number One’s labola

Roz Cryer, née Rosamund Mary Randall, lives with her husband Paul in KwaZulu Natal. They got married on 10 July 2004 and the final part of the ceremony, which took place in our house in Richmond, is described in the words I then spoke. I tell this story to explain why I have an interest in South African history which will manifest itself in the presentation I am having to give at our tutorial on Tuesday.

In that part of South Africa where Paul comes from, arranging a marriage is a long and complex business. In Zulu society an uncle of the would-be groom goes to an uncle of the would-be bride to start the process of finding out what the labola will be. Labola is the amount, usually payable in cows, which a groom must pay to the bride's father before a marriage can take place.

The first stage of the process is establishing what preliminary goods the bride's father wishes to receive before he reveals what Iabola he is seeking. There will be a number of things on this list of goods, but almost always it will include a phutu [maize meal porridge] pot: you can see over there the pot which has been given as part of the current proceedings.

Once the goods have been given, then the real business of horse-trading (or, rather, cow trading) begins. A delegation of uncles and brothers of the groom meet a group of uncles and brothers of the bride to learn what labola is sought. A typical labola is 11 cows: for a princess it is 19 cows.

In this case, because of the distance between Durban and Richmond, the parties agreed that negotiations would be carried out by e-mail between the principals. I accordingly let Paul know that, although Roz is not of course an actual Zulu princess, as far as I am concerned she is worth the same as one, and that Paul would therefore have to give me 19 cows in order to be allowed to marry my daughter.

The e-mail I received back frankly astounded me. Far from accepting with alacrity the hand of our Sweet Lass Of Richmond Hill, he came back with a derisory counter-offer. Firstly, Paul said that, because Roz doesn't know how to brew beer, her worth is halved to 9 cows. Then, because Roz would refuse to allow him to have more than one wife, her worth is reduced to 4 goats. Then, because Roz knows nothing about farming, her worth is reduced to a single chicken. Finally, because Roz is likely to answer him back the whole time, he feels her worth to be no more than a Kentucky Fried Chicked drumstick and a Diet Coke.

My problem at this stage of negotiations was that Paul was right on all those charges. All I could do was counter-attack. Firstly, I told Paul that, because he can't speak Zulu very well, his worth as a groom is halved. Then, he never combs his hair and only shaves once a month, it is halved again. Then, because he will be spending half his time away from the matrimonial kraal, gallivanting off through the bush, it's halved yet again. However, I concluded, as a gesture of goodwill and in no way admitting that Roz is worth an udder less than 19 cows, I was prepared to reduce the price to 17 cows.

This price was agreed, and so the ceremony which many of you have just attended was able to take place. But one thing remains to be done, and that is the payment of the labola. This is done after the father of the bride formally addresses the groom.

For seventeen kine this woman shall be thine:
Let thy brother now deliver!

[17 cut-out cardboard cows were now pulled into view by Stuart Cryer]

I accept these seventeen kine:
Now this woman is truly thine!

History, Mystery & Myth: a UEA Conference

A Bauhaus-inspired building of the University of East Anglia was the venue yesterday for a postgraduate conference for researchers in biography and related fields, enticingly entitled "History, Mystery and Myth". I arose before dawn and pointed the prow of my Renault Clio towards the rising sun: when in the spring we reluctantly parted company with our ancient RAV4, the Scarlet Whizzer, I thought a car named after the Muse of History and painted in sober academic black would be appropriate for someone considering enrolling on the Buckingham Biography course.

I arrived in Norwich in good time for the opening address by Kathryn Hughes, convenor of the University's Life Writing course. Her underlying theme is that in biographical writing the cradle-to-grave saga is in itself no longer enough, even if during the twentieth century these sagas increasingly included the crumpled sheet and the psychiatrist's couch. Readers of biography these days want more than just the facts, referring to W H Auden's sonnet "Who's Who".

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea;
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.
With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

Nor are readers looking for an unproblematic mirror of themselves or a concordance of their own lives, whatever publishers may still be thinking. They seek something which transcends "truth", whatever that may be. This something is the "myth". She gives Ann Wroe's book Pilate: the Biography of an Invented Man as one that is nine tenths about the latter and only one tenth about the former (appropriately for the man, one might add, who famously asked "What is truth?"). Others which exemplify this trend (if trend it indeed is) are Lucasta Miller's The Brontë Myth and Sarah Churchwell's The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe

She modestly does not mention her latest biography, The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton. The review of this in the Spectator talks of how "the most successful cook-book of the age has long since taken on a symbolic, even mythical status." Long after her physical death while still in her twenties Mrs Beeton was revived by the successive publishers of the many books on household management that bore her name to become the mythic embodiment of the good housewife.

Therefore increasingly the subject of the last chapter of a biography is changing. In the late nineteenth century this chapter was devoted to the death bed: the assembled grieving relatives, the last words, the mournful burial. In the early twentieth century it is increasingly devoted to the posthumous reputation.

The ensuing conference consisted of four papers, written by life-writers from Belgian, German, Polish and Slovenian as well as British universities, being presented in each of four sessions and ended with a round table discussion with four biographers. Much of this was interesting: some was fascinating and illuminating, about which I will be talking briefly at our tutorial on Tuesday.

Proceedings ended getting on for eight o'clock, by which time the reception at the campus residence into which I was booked had closed. After restrained imprecations, "Descend, O Muse!" I invoked, and my Clio bore me back to Buckingham in time for a not too belated bed.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Sixth tutorial

Presentation by DvZ
Napoleon's Diaries – which is the genuine one? These were dictated by N in final exile on St Helena to four followers (Bertrand, Gourgaut, Las Cases and Montholon) who had accompanied him into exile, then drafts corrected by N. – done as response to articles, reviews &c (e.g. one by Jomini on his conduct of Italian campaign of 1797) appearing about him which he wished to rebut – no access to his papers (back in France) – some access to books owned by officers in garrison. Vol 1 Court of 1st Empire – divorce of Josephine – Vol 2 44 'notes' – Vol 3 military history of Louis XIV's Marshal Turenne. Followers quit St H within 3 years (each publishes claiming his version the genuine one) – why didn't he write his own? – strictness of regime imposed governor Hudson Lowe. Impression that these written as "swatting flies" rather than self-justification – concentration on military matters – (virtually?) none on civil.

Presentation by MO
Edward Gibbon's Memoirs – put together by Holroyd (later Lord Sheffield) from 6 overlapping MSS. Moderately prosperous upbringing – sickly eldest of 7 siblings – only one to survive – small and moon-faced – seminal visit to Stourhead (c.f. Pliny's villa) where buildings and library fired interest in Byzantium (and Arabs, Persians, Tartars, Turks) – Magdalen Oxford aged 16 – inadequacy of narrow classical teaching for person of his bent – "port and prejudice" – conversion to RCism – sent to Lausanne to live with moderate Protestant minister – engagement to Mlle Curchod – on return to England marriage forbidden by father – "I wept like a lover but obeyed like a son" - (Mlle C m. Necker , becomes mother of Mme de Stael) – persuades father to give him Grand Tour rather than rotten borough – in Italy starts 'database' of classical inscriptions – discrepancy between journal of 1764 and seminal paragraph* at start of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (due to Religion and Barbarism?) – former points to Santa Maria d'Aracoeli on site where Sybil forecast to Augustus birth of King of the World (=JC) – vol 1 of DFRE published in 1776 (=Wealth of Nations, US Dec. Of Ind.), then vols 2-3 written in UK and vols 4-6 in Lausanne in house of friend David #, who leaves it to EG on death. His sickness – hydrocele – death after third draining.

* It was at Rome... as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.

Discussion on political autobiography,
based on Alan Clarke's Diaries

No PAB by PM until C20 – Balfour – after WSC, all – Thatcher cabinet ministers (practically) all – row over cabinet confidentiality with Richard Crossman's diaries – palaver over 50>30-year rule and personal embargoes. Clarke: arch snob – lust for (i) exclusivity (ii) women – indifferent career until late entry (aetat 45) MP – odious (AC a "S. H. one T." says widow, "but nobody quite like him") – "makes Flashman look like a gentleman" – but diaries v. readable (and good argument for tripling MPs' salaries, so that not just idle rich and political anoraks stand?). Good descriptor of Thatcher years? Other political diaries – Chips Channon, Piers Morgan, Chris Mullen, Giles Brandreth – AC/GB's recipe for successful political diary = 4 'I's: Immediate ("on the day"), Indiscrete ("name names"), Intimate ("mention that we're eating tea cakes"), Indecipherable (whatever did they mean?) – chorus of "Where's the fifth one, 'I' for Ego?"

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

A false move: reading for the bar

Warning In my post Online Autobiographies I stated my intention of using this blog to write something about my earlier life when something that happened recently reminded me about it. Today's post is about an incident or a period in my past, and not about what appears at the top of the page, On the Biography Course at the University of Buckingham. It is written so that it can be put together at the end of the course with other similar posts to be my rough-and-ready memoir: these will be of possible interest only to my kith and kin.

I had an e-mail from Vicki on Monday in which she wrote

I am having a lot of pleasure reading your blogs, loved the recent one about Jonny on the 5/11. I was grateful at his funeral for you explaining the REAL Jon to his friends in the congregation. Everyone asked me if you were a barrister... which Jon thought you would be.

This recalled to me my abortive effort in my early forties to become a barrister. Now that I sit down to try and write about it I am dismayed about how little I remember about that time. Browsing through Alan Clarke's The Last Diaries yesterday evening in preparation for today's tutorial I was comforted to read I am not alone in this. He wrote

Earlier I had done a teeny home movie on 'Eton during the war', masterminded by a boy/beak team. And was disconcerted at how thin were my memory and my recollections

I had by 1975 been running my washroom hygiene company Waterloo Services for five years and I was getting bored. I had developed the method of selling contracts for our quarterly treatments sufficiently well so that I could employ others to take over the sales function. Turnover was building up nicely and I convinced the company's reluctant chairman that I could administer the company's continued growth and read for the bar at the same time.

I got a couple of barristers (my neighbour and boon companion, SKO'M, and the cox of the college boat when we were both up at Trinity, WKT) to propose and second me for admission as a member of the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple, enrolled for a correspondence course with the College of Law at Braboeuf Manor, ate the first of my obligatory dinners and began to read Cheshire and Fifoot's Contract Law.

At this point I am going to stop. My excuse is that I need to get my things together and drive to Bicester North to take the train to London* Marylebone for our weekly tutorial, but perhaps the truth of the matter is that I find it difficult to write about such an unsuccessful episode in my life. At least I've admitted that I didn't cut the mustard as a would-be barrister. Perhaps I'll be able to come back to this later, like a dog to its vomit, and add some further words about this failed venture.

* Sutton's Law must explain why a couple of the University of Buckingham's postgraduate courses now carry out their teaching in London and not on campus, ten minutes' walk from home. Sutton's Law is named after the bank robber Willie Sutton, who reputedly replied to a reporter's inquiry as to why he robbed banks by saying "because that's where the money is." Wikipedia reports that in his ghosted autobiography Willie denies ever having said it. Who's to say?

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Remembrance Sunday

Julia and I have just observed the Two Minutes' Silence, sitting late over our breakfast. We had decided not to go to our Buckingham church of St Peter and St Paul, just three minutes walk up Bristle Hill and then right along Castle Street. She will be going on Wednesday to Friends' Meeting in Aylesbury on the actual eleventh day of the eleventh month when the armistice ending the war was signed. Then it was known as the Great War and dubbed The War To End Wars. Only after an even bloodier war was it renamed World War One.

Her father's eldest brother, Claud, was killed on the Western Front serving in the Royal Naval Division. Most unusually, none of my close relations were killed. My father joined the fledgling Friends' Ambulance Unit in 1914 but, when it appeared that there was nowhere it could usefully serve, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and in 1915 was shipped off to the Mediterranean theatre. After a while he reckoned that stitching people up to fight again was morally no different from fighting himself, which is why he joined the Royal Flying Corps in Egypt. Many young Quaker men went through the same process, reckoning that their pacifism had to be put aside because this was a Just War. I never asked him more about all this. I still wonder how much he made these changes on moral grounds rather than because he was just attracted by the life of action of a pilot.

My thoughts turned during that silence to the poem For Johnny by John Pudney, written on the back of an envelope during an air raid on London in 1941.

Do not despair
For Johnny-head-in-air;
He sleeps as sound
As Johnny underground.

Fetch out no shroud
For Johnny-in-the-cloud;
And keep your tears
For him in after years.

Better by far
For Johnny-the-bright-star,
To keep your head,
And see his children fed.

JFR aged 27: AGR aged 20

This led naturally to my thinking about my brother Johnny and how I had used this poem at the end of the address I gave at his funeral in January 1997. This eulogy is not the only thing I want to write about this splendid chap whose life was blighted by Parkinsons at an unnaturally early age. He started writing an autobiography about this which he titled with typical wit A Hole in the Head – a reference also to the trepanning operation that temporarily halted the disease's inexorable impact. I must ask Vicki whether the manuscript still exists.

John Fisk Randall 1927–1996

We are come together in this quiet country church [Motcombe, Dorset] to say farewell to Johnny, the husband of Vicki, the father of Sali, Simon and Jamie, the grandfather of Jake, Ben and Jas, the son of Harry (widely known as George) and Elsie (widely known as Katie), the brother of Pushie and me, and the relation or friend of many of us gathered here today.

Those of you who only met Johnny during the second half of his life can have little idea of what manner of man he was during the first half of it, before he was afflicted by the cruel disease from whose clutch he has now been mercifully released. Let me therefore tell such of you something about Johnny Randall in his prime.

As he was growing up he was active in all the sorts of ways that you would expect of a lively and spirited boy. His activities with Meccano were a foretaste of what he would achieve later as an engineer and a formidable tinkerer with cars. George encouraged his interest in photography, something with a natural appeal to someone who combined an artistic temperament with mechanical aptitude. This interest developed alongside his early interest in astronomy. He took this very seriously. I remember him seeking to persuade George to let him remove a portion of the roof of Sandilands, the family home, so that he could create his own observatory in the attic, and being most indignant when this (in his view, perfectly reasonable) request was turned down. Despite this setback, he became the youngest member of the Royal Astronomical Society and maintained an interest in stars in their courses throughout his life.

It was as an athlete, though, that he really made his mark. At Leighton Park, the Quaker school he went to, there was an outstanding gym teacher, known and revered by generations of Leightonians as Hoppy. He was a peppery little Welshman who exhorted us to impossible gymnastic feats. Johnny responded enthusiastically to these exhortations: although he was large in stature for a gymnast, he twice won the school gymnastics championship. I remember him and a friend, during the summer holidays, competing to see who could do the highest number of consecutive flick-flacks up and down the lawn at Sandilands.

On this same lawn I remember him batting in the nets to the bowling of a couple of local lads that George had hired to help develop his cricketing talents. They were twins: they were Alec and Eric Bedser, who went on to great heights wearing the chocolate brown caps of Surrey and the white one of England.

These scenes epitomise the memories that I have of Johnny as he was growing into young manhood and developing into a stylish and versatile athlete.

  • Put a cricket bat into his hands, and he transforms it into a willow wand wafting the ball past cover point to the boundary: Johnny captained the 1st XI at Leighton Park.
  • Tie a pair of rugger boots to his feet, and he is a vigorous, mauling wing forward: Johnny played in the 1st XV for his school and for his college.
  • Let him get hold of an oar, and he is rowing up the Cam in the power house of the King's College Rugger Boat: the crew dubbed themselves 'Poetry in Motion' which may have been some consolation for being bumped more than they bumped-but bumped, let it be said, by full-time wet-bobs.
  • Give him a racket, and he is volleying and smashing on the lawn tennis court: he played for the King's 1st VI.
  • Strap a pair of skis to his feet and he is sinuously sliding clown an alp with his skis perfectly parallel: well, pretty parallel!

In the athletic sphere, it can truly be said of Johnny that Nihil tetigit quem non ornavit: he touched nothing that he did not adorn.

This list of his athletic accomplishments should not lead us to ignore his academic achievements. He read engineering at London University and economics at Cambridge, although I am sure that Johnny would wish me to state on his behalf that he would never let his studies come between him and a party.

Johnny loved parties. Johnny was gregarious, Johnny was charming, Johnny was witty: the phrase, the life and the soul of the party, was doubtless first coined for some medieval or renaissance Johnny who would have rejoiced at seeing his worthy successor in full revel. I see several in the congregation today who partied with Johnny much more than did I – John Dalrymple, Mickie Chater, Mike Bate – and they will be able to regale you afterwards with details of some of the memorable thrashes they had together.

And Johnny loved motor cars. His first car, a 1933 Austin Seven, was too small and too slow for someone of Johnny's temperament, so he acquired a 1926 Ballot brougham. Those of us who are not car buffs won't necessarily know that Ballot was a French marque, and that its brougham was built as a kind of bourgeois Bugatti Royale, a huge high-performance tourer. But, as a brougham, it didn't quite mesh with Johnny's dashing image. So, what does he do? He converts it into a convertible. Even car unbuffs will know that a convertible is a car with an open body and a retractable roof. Well, Johnny manages the first stage of the conversion just fine: he removes the original coach work. It was the second stage that was the problem. We will never now know for sure whether the decision to dispense entirely with any form of protection against the elements was dictated by financial or aesthetic or practical considerations. But what we do know is that, when planning his first continental expedition in the Ballot, he found that the car ferry charges – which of course are based on length – were almost as much as he had paid for the beast in the first place. Lesser men would not have cut this particular Gordian knot in quite the same draconian manner. What does he do? He simply cuts the chassis in three, throws away the middle bit, welds together the bits left over and postpones sine die the retractable roof!

The expedition finally set out: 75% of its members are in this church today. The survivors will be able to tell you what it was like to travel in an open car in mid-winter to the Alps. Pushie will be able to tell you about other design features that made the expedition memorable. For a start, there was – of course – no heating. Secondly, there were no seats in the back. Thirdly, there was no boot, and – of course – no luggage rack. Johnny solves all three problems with characteristic simplicity and directness: get the girls to sit on hot water bottles, and then pile the luggage on top of them, and then – as the cherry on the cake – crown it all with the spare wheel! I leave it to you to judge how successful this solution was by citing the fact that Pushie has never since travelled to the Alps by car: once frost-bitten, one might say, twice Pu-shy.

This portrait I have painted might lead you to suppose that it was difficult for me to grow up as Johnny's younger brother, in his shadow: not so, even though I could never reach his athletic standards. It is the nature of a natural leader like Johnny – he was Head Boy at The Downs, he was a School Prefect at LP, he held Her Majesty's commission – to inspire others by example and to show that a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for? Thus it was that, in January 1952 at the Aircrew Selection Centre at RAF Hornchurch, when I was asked the question, 'Why do you want to be a pilot?', I was able to give the simple but convincing answer 'Because my father was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps and my brother is learning to fly in his University Air Squadron.'

This heralded the time in our lives when he and I worked and played a great deal together. Because he had not done his National Service before going to university, it happened that he started it shortly after I had started mine. We then started our Wings courses at virtually the same time, I being posted to RAF Dalcross (now Inverness airport) to fly twin-engined Airspeed Oxfords and Johnny to RAF Cottesmore to fly single-engined Boulton Paul Balliols.

Let me read what they wrote about Johnny in the RAF Spittlegate newsletter at that time.
Officer Cadet John Randall left us a few weeks ago to join his new unit at Cottesmore, when his long-awaited transfer to the General Duties Branch came through. Johnny was a most popular member of the course and combined a remarkable number of qualities: he was a fine sportsman, a skilled technician and an excellent speaker (unrivalled as a raconteur), as well as being the holder of two university degrees and the possessor of a very wide knowledge of varied topics. Above all he was a good companion. We miss him, and wish him the very best of luck on his new Course.

The Balliol which Johnny flew at Cottesmore was exactly the right kind of aircraft for a pilot of Johnny's temperament: it was powered by the Rolls Royce Merlin, the engine that powered the fighters that won the Battle of Britain and it was highly manoeuvrable. As a gymnast, Johnny took naturally to slow rolls, stall turns and the like and went on to win his course trophy for aerobatics. However, he was less excellent at instrument flying: he failed to get his White Instrument Rating Card at his first attempt, which led me to tell Johnny that he was a better pilot upside down than the right way up.

You can imagine the spirit of friendly rivalry that there was between us. He was brotherly enough to fly up from Rutland to Scotland to attend my passing-out parade, but this did not stop me from crowing for the next fortnight at his wingless state. His magnanimity was such, however, that he did not crow over me when I was transferred to the RAF Education Branch, while he reached operational status on a Gloster Meteor fighter squadron, in the country's front line of aerial defence. Our rivalry extended to every area of life, and sometimes reached ridiculous lengths. Thus, when I received a telegram from him in 1955 saying 'Have got engaged', I promptly proposed to my then girl-friend and telegraphed back, 'Snap!'.

Johnny went on to marry Vicki, and a life that was all too soon to be blighted by the onset of Parkinson's Disease. During his gradual but inexorable physical decline, two things struck everyone who met him.

Firstly, this athlete who had rejoiced in his physical prowess never railed against his misfortune. He was a veritable Mr Standfast. More than anyone I have ever known, he was able to meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.

Secondly, the comfort and support that his wife gave him throughout his illness is beyond any words of mine to praise. Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her ... she will do him good and not evil all the days of her life. Such a virtuous woman was, and is, Vicki.

Now Johnny is dead. For all of us who loved him and thought highly of him, this is a time of grief and yet it is also a time of relief, now that he is at last at rest. Let the verses I am about to say – written for another Johnny, another pilot, long ago-speak for all those who grieve for Johnny this day.

Do not despair / For Johnny-head-in-air: / He sleeps as sound / As Johnny under ground.
Fetch out no shroud / For Johnny-in-the-cloud; / And keep your tears / For him in after years.
Better by far / For Johnny the Bright Star / To keep your head / And see his children fed.

John Fisk Randall was, truly, Johnny the Bright Star. During his long illness he proved himself to be Mr Standfast: throughout his life he was also Mr Valiant-for-truth. So let me end this eulogy by telling of the death of Mr Valiant-for-truth at the end of The Pilgrims Progress.

He called for his friends and ... said he, I am going to my Fathers, and tho with great Difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the Trouble I have been at to arrive where I am.

My Sword, I give to him that shall succeed me in my Pilgrimage and my Courage and Skill, to him that can get it. My Marks and Scarrs I carry with me, to be a witness for me, that I have fought his Battels, who now will be my Rewarder.

When the Day that he must go hence, was come, many accompanied him to the River side, into which, as he went, he said, Death, where is thy Sting? And as he went down deeper, he said,
Grave where is thy Victory? So he passed over, and the Trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

Ave atque vale, Iohannes! Hail and farewell, Johnny!

Saturday afternoon in Oxford

I greatly appreciated getting from my fellow student RFCG an introduction to Mary Beard's blog, A Don's Life. Extracts from it have just been published in book form: here is another example of a blog metamorphosing into a book. I latched onto a point raised in a review on it in The Guardian, since it discusses a difficulty I face. Dinah Birch writes "Beard speaks of 'the husband' or 'the daughter' – turns of phrase that suggest both intimacy and distance. Blogs create a disarming illusion of personal communication, while depending on the artful construction of a voice and a point of view. … [This] resolute breeziness of her stream of opinions, calculated to produce an air of demotic informality, sometimes jars."

Indeed, indeed. I am guilty of this in the title of one of my posts, Number Two Daughter, but at least I go on immediately to name her. But I can see one very good reason why a blogger is tempted to do this: it provides immediate identification. On a blog the latest post or entry is displayed first, and is therefore the first piece that new visitors to the site will read: how will they know who Reggie (or whatever Mr Beard's first name) is, without explanation that is unnecessary to regulars? Well, actually, I think there is a way, and I'm using it now. 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.

On Saturday afternoon Julia and I went to see my old chum and new neighbour Paul in the ENT ward of the John Radcliffe in Oxford. He was in good order and looked good, if lop-sided. No wonder: they've removed a number of bits from the side of his throat leaving a long scar and a drain. Only a steel bolt was missing to complete the Frankenstein effect. The tale of the Black Pudding is, however, one like that of the Giant Rat of Sumatra for which the world is not yet prepared.

We went on to the cinema to see An Education, based on the book by Lynn Barber which is on our reading list for week eight's topic, Liberated Women. We had plenty of time before it started so we went to the bookshop next to the White Horse, the pub in which I won the university shove ha'penny championship in 1956 and about which I must one day write the droll story concerning the pub sign and Stubbs' Constitutional Charters (written, incidentally, by the bishop next door in Kettel Hall, where I had rooms when I first went up to Trinity).

Just inside the door was a pile of a new biography about Alan Clarke, whose Diaries I am reading for next week's topic, Political Autobiography. I picked a copy from the pile and resumed an ancient habit of sitting on a step-up to look through a book I had no intention of buying. I started reading the chapter on his Oxford days and, behold, a flash of gold in the stream met the prospector's eyes!

Briggs shared a flat – one of the few with telephones – in the Woodstock Road with Nicholas Ridley (later a Tory MP and Minister in Thatcher's government). Alan used to come in from time to time on the pretence of looking for Briggs, but really just so he could ring a girlfriend in New York. This did not go down well, particularly with Ridley, who bided his time, but finally got his revenge, it is said, when he was Environment Minister in the late 1980s. Legend has it that Ridley, having to decide the route of the new Channel Tunnel, instructed his officials to make sure it surfaced as close as possible to Southwood [Clarke's country seat].

Nicholas Ridley's daughter Jane runs this course. Bringing this snippet to her attention in a roundabout way is a bit like a little boy giving Teacher an apple, don't you think?