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.