Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Simple joys

So, we are in the mid 18th century, and after a punishing stint in India working as a physician for the East India Company our man - one Edward Ives - sets out on the long, long journey home and decides to keep a detailed diary. Not surprisingly, Ives and his companions endure appalling hardship and a series of heinous travails as they trudge slowly across the Arabian peninsula. In fact, such is the misery that at several points the members of the party look all set to lose their minds; and then this, noted in the desert outside Diarbekir:

25 July 1758
'... we saw a wild goldfinch, which settled upon a thistle close to our tent; the sight of this little, agreeable songster gave us exquisite pleasure, owing to the single consideration that birds of this kind are inhabitants of Great Britain.'
'We could not help looking upon this tuneful goldfinch, as a fellow citizen who had kindly flown thus far to bid us welcome, to raise our drooping spirits, and signify to us that we were drawing nearer to our native country, that land of liberty after which we had so long and so passionately sighed.'

How wonderful and life-affirming is that? And I'm pleased to say that Ives and all of his friends did manage to stagger home, allowing the good doctor in his declining years to work up from his journal the following publication:

A voyage from England to India, in the year 1754, and an historical narrative of the operations of the squadron and army in India, under the command of Vice-Admiral Watson and Colonel Clive, in the years 1755, 1756, 1757 ... Also a journey from Persia to England by an unusual route (London, 1773).

I can confirm that it makes modern travel writing seem pretty pallid in comparison.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Oscar's literary remains

Saw The Happy Prince the other day; a superlative performance by Rupert Everett of course, but if we didn't know it to be a true story it might be tempting to dismiss it as overwrought melodrama. But it is a true - and quite appalling - story that I confess left me rather shaken at times.

Before seeing the film, and quite coincidentally, I came across two of Oscar Wilde's calling cards in the British Library, sitting quietly (possibly unobserved up till now?) among Add MS 81733. They simply read:

        Sebastian Melmoth: Hotel de la Plage, Bernaval-sur-Mer, Dieppe

Unbearably poignant, obviously, but the chance to hold something that Oscar Wilde possessed, even something as mundane as a calling card! Not many get that chance.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

The natural history of Richmond Park

All civilised and humane persons have a love of the natural world, or at least what remains of it. Here is the eminent surgeon Sir Frederick Treves discussing the wildlife of Richmond Park in a letter dated 22 March 1918 to fellow surgeon Sir John Bland-Sutton (Royal College of Surgeons Archives, MS0287/19):

  • 'Weasles are common here and I am sorry to say my gardener killed a polecat in the garden. Hares were fairly common when I came here ten years ago [Treves lived at Thatched House Lodge near Richmond Park] but I have not turned up one for the last three or four years'.
  • 'The birds here are quite magnificent. In spite of the war the nightingale never left us.'
  • 'Few Londoners will believe that I can nearly always show a long-tailed tit on Ham Common.' 

The letter is absolutely charming, although painful to read in some ways - you have absolutely zero chance of seeing/hearing a nightingale in Richmond Park these days, let alone a hare or even a polecat! Absolutely extraordinary to think that Treves saw these things so close to central London back in 1918. That said, I regularly see long-tailed tits in my garden and I live in Stepney Green, so that's good news at least.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

The Bayeux Tapestry

Well I may as well get in on the act. It's taken a long, long time, but it looks as if we nearly got here a couple of times before:
  • MEPO 2/9484: police protection for transporting the Bayeux Tapestry - exhibition subsequently cancelled 1953
  • FO 924/1628: commemoration of the Norman Conquest - possible exhibition of Bayeux Tapestry in London 1966
Obviously it didn't work out, but we've always been worried about the Tapestry:

  • FO 371/40995/18: parliamentary question by Lady Apsley about the whereabouts of the Bayeux Tapestry, which was reported to have been removed by the Germans. In response, Sir J. Grigg answered that it was likely that the tapestry was in a store in the south of France with other objects from French National Museums July 1944.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Winston's growl

Whatever his failings as a politician (and there are far too many to list here), he's seldom out of the news, and here's my minor contribution to the myth.

Recently found in CAB 3/383/15, a note from Winston Churchill to the Minister of War Transport, dated 13 February 1943 and concluding with this startling adjuration:

  • 'Prepare then your paper, and let us go into it in the coming week.'

Churchillian or what! You can almost hear that growl of his.