And so made significant . . .

around the world, and through the centuries

21 December

1809
Mirza Abul Hassan Khan,
diplomat

‘This morning I went out with my friends in the carriage to see the sights of London. Splendid houses line both sides of the street. They all look alike; the name of the owner is painted on each door. I saw no humble dwellings, only fine houses of four storeys. The first storey is built of stone and the other three of brick and stucco. The ceilings are decorated with gold and azure; and the walls are covered with designs of wild beasts and birds, divs and peris [names in Persian mythology for demons and fairies]. The windows are glazed with matching panes. Stables and carriage-houses are conveniently placed behind each house.

When we reached the centre of the city, a bridge of massive stones [Westminster Bridge] came into view which spans a river like the one at Baghdad. Words fail to describe it! After crossing the bridge, we came to a street with shops built to the requirements of the various trades. Outside the shops there are signs. If anyone wants to buy something, the shopkeeper opens the door for him; and then the customer, without bargaining, makes his selection, pays for it and returns to his carriage. Because of the cold weather, as well as for fear of thieves, drunkards and madmen, shop doors are kept shut, except to allow customers to enter. Both sides of the market street are closed off by nicely carved balustrades to prevent horse-riders from crossing on to the pedestrian pavement.

Above the entrance to each house, large round glass lanterns are suspended from iron hooks. One man is responsible for cleaning the glass of the lamps; another looks after the wick and the oil; and at sunset a third comes with a ladder and sparking torch - in the twinkling of an eye the lamps are lit. The owners of the house pay the lamplighters a monthly wage which enables them to live comfortably. It is truly amazing that in winter it is so dark in this city that the sun is invisible and lamps must be lighted day and night. Indeed, the eye is dazzled and no one need carry a hand-lantern even when going out in the evening.

Every man, whether of high or low estate, wears a watch in his waistcoat pocket; and everything he does - eating or drinking, or keeping appointments - is regulated by time. Factories (and bakeries) and livery stables all have fixed hours of work which are strictly adhered to; and each one has a large clock fixed to the wall which strikes the hours.

Servants do not disturb their masters’ privacy until summoned.

These are only a very few of the customs of the inhabitants of London. They are recorded here because it is my hope that this journal will prove to be a useful guide for future ambassadors.’

I was utterly amazed!

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1884
James Hannington,
priest

‘I am not going to say very much about Jerusalem, Jerusalem society, or Jerusalem work. The prophets always found that they got stoned when they sojourned there. Had I found that things had been made pleasant and comfortable for me, I might have been led seriously to consider whether I was not one of the false prophets, and whether my mission was not rather for ill than for good; but in the midst of the party distractions, we found shelter in the dear Preparandi School under Wilson’s wing. Perhaps if the baby - but never mind. We found ourselves revelling in a hundred recollections of the past, and had much to say about the present - and future, too, all unknown. I had but a light Sunday, preaching at the Jews’ Church in the morning and the C.M.S. in the afternoon, being present at the Jews’ Church again in the evening. Saddened by the sight of the tombs of the three bishops; - but why should I be sad? Charmed to an intense degree by a stroll down the valley of Hinnom and Jehoshaphat, past the beautiful tombs of Zechariah, James, and Absolom; and I still think, of all spots within and without the city, this is the one that charms me most - viz., to stand opposite these tombs, gazing across the Brook Kedron, on the Mount of Olives. And near the same spot to grub amongst the ash-heaps that fill the valley of Hinnom, and secure little treasures of ancient pottery, was my most delightful employment. My good friends, when we had spare time, would ask me, “Where will you go? What do you want to see?” My answer invariably would be, “The ash-heaps!” They were exceedingly cruel to me, for it was very seldom I was allowed the treat; there was almost always on such occasions some particular sight I must see.’

The bishop in Buganda

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1918
Robert Laird Borden,
politician

‘Fine in morning. Early at office. Several callers. Jones came with draft tlgm as to purchase of 800,000 standards of lumber by British Govt and I approved of sending it to White. Dafoe came with draft tlgm. as to naval matters which I also approved. It gave particulars of my action on behalf of Dominions last summer. Hankey brought for my consideration draft of minutes of last Imp. War Cabinet and I gave him suggestions as to revision. [. . .] Worked at documents for Cabinets on Monday and Tuesday, especially Smuts interesting paper on League of Nations. Walked 4 to 5:30. In evening went to Wyndham’s Theatre to see “The Law Divine”; very interesting and remarkably well acted.’

Russian cavalry and jams

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1930
Reader Bullard,
diplomat

‘The bag brought a pair of new skates which I have had screwed on to a pair of old boots. I went on the ice for the first time since 1914 (at Erzerum). I only fell over twice, but I can’t recover the one simple trick I had learned - the outside edge on the right foot.

The Chef de Protocol of the Diplomatic Corps is one Florinsky. It is said that his father was shot by the Reds and he never raised a finger. Asked how he could work with Bolsheviks after this, Florinsky is said to have asked if one’s father was run over by a tram should one cease to ride on trams?

A few evenings ago I went up to talk to Pott, and thinking that I might overlap his dessert I put a slab of chocolate (with almonds and raisins) into my pocket. I found Walker there and two Russian ballet- dancers. Pott and Walker danced with them to the sound of a gramophone, but I’m not sure that I wasn’t the feature of the evening, for I produced my chocolate, and the girls fell on it like dogs on a bone.

Last night Walker gave a party and invited the two ballet girls. The two girls greeted me with cries of ‘the chocolate grandpa!’ so if I had had any illusions about my value to the party they would have been dispelled.’

Inside Stalin’s Russia

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1956
Allen Ginsberg,
writer

‘Strange faces in the subway - the minute I sat down I realized I had power to see them straight in the eye and dig the eternal moment’s mask - as they ride by dreaming rocked in the dark with neon on their faces.

The 59th St. stop - recollecting Burroughs and Lucien, Columbus Circle, IRT Station, the dark pavement and endless outpouring of students and ballet dancers and musicians and fairies on this platform, waiting in their youth for life to begin - while I come back here dead (for the fourth time), disconnected. The new IRT B’way train - brighter and shinier - futuristic 1930s air conditioning aluminum big flowers growing out of the roof - parkay tile floors, glassy lights, shining steel poles to hold on to, even the people seem cleaner and richer - and the seats so nice and soft, red cushions.

A man with a notebook in front of me making notes for an ad. My own rusty (gaudy) book.

Beside me a fat well-dressed little kid bow tie, bright Jewish eyes, ass-length salt and pepper jacket - he don’t work on nothing, just lies in bed and eats ham in the morning. And gets up to ride the subway showing off all afternoon, at nite he goes back to supper and eats huge pork chops with lots of greasy potatoes and peas.

Approaching 116 St. Columbia Stop.’

Thoughts, epiphanies, poems

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1988
Edwina Currie,
politician

‘We went across to the Chief Whip’s office, round the back of Number 12, and cleared texts with David Waddingham and Bernard Ingham. I didn’t realise I could help write the PM’s letter [. . .] In I went; we ritualistically glanced at each other’s letters, then talked for half an hour. [. . .] Anyway I had been fine till the end of the interview and indeed have not felt very upset since - but then she gave me a cuddle and it creased me for a minute, and when I told her how I felt she said, “That is because we are friends”, and that was that. Out the back way, and whisked off to Ray’s [her husband] office.’

Thatcher gives a cuddle

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1997
Peter Maxwell Davies,
composer

‘A procession of icebergs, mysterious and deeply awe-inspiring. Of course it is we who are moving faster, but in calmer waters one has the illusion of a stately mannequin parade, as the model’s outlines modulate, revealing new and secret shapes and colours. Contours suddenly glow with an irridescent blue of an unimaginable intensity: this is the best exhibition of abstract sculpture I ever saw. All that one has read of fractals and the Mandelbrot set floods the brain, perhaps as some kind of bulwark against the wonder, which I quietly admit is overwhelming, even transcendental. Some icebergs pick up and maintain the upward surge of wave motion: some repeat and develop the forms of clouds: others, seen against a backdrop of snow-covered cliffs and hills, take up the forms and energies characteristic of these, while the best combine all of these features with a capricious dynamism that constantly modifies and transforms as we pass. A whale, travelling at a furious fifteen knots, faster than the ship, briefly surfaces, its back confirming a neighbouring iceberg’s. Another iceberg suddenly appears as a gigantic swan. Another reveals a Norman arch, fifty foot high, with ice packed above this for another hundred feet - a broken-off fragment of a medieval abbey.

Sometimes I find mealtime conversation quite baffling - top scientists talk shop, their jargon bristling with acronyms. They are very patient when I enquire about their particular speciality and any possible future practical application.’

The longest whisper ever

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In general, these diary extracts are quoted as given in the published (book or online) source referred to in the reference articles. Each extract may be all, a large part of, or a small part of the complete entry for that day. I have tried to indicate where text has been removed from within a quote by the use of trailing dots in square bracket.

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