And so made significant . . .

around the world, and through the centuries

4 January

George Byron,

‘ “A sudden thought strikes me.” Let me begin a Journal once more. The last I kept was in Switzerland, in record of a tour made in the Bernese Alps, which I made to send to my sister in 1816, and I suppose that she has it still, for she wrote to me that she was pleased with It. Another, and longer, I kept in 1813-1814, which I gave to Thomas Moore in the same year.’

The pleasures of this life


Thomas Mitchell,
administrator and explorer

‘Continuing due north, we just avoided some thick scrubs, which either on the right or left would have been very difficult to penetrate. The woods opened gradually however, into a thick copse of Acacia pendula, and at the end of three miles we reached the eastern skirts of an extensive open plain, the ground gently undulating. At 4 3/4 miles, on ascending a slight eminence, we suddenly overlooked a rather deep channel, containing abundance of water in ponds, the opposite banks being the highest ground visible. The vast plains thus watered consist chiefly of a rich dark-coloured earth, to the depth of 30 or 40 feet. Unabraded fragments of trap are not uncommon in the soil of these plains, and I imagined there was a want of symmetry in the hollows and slopes as compared with features more closely connected with hills elsewhere. At 8 1/2 miles, perceiving boundless plains to the northward, I changed the direction of our route 24 degrees east of north. The plains extended westward to the horizon, and opened to our view an extensive prospect towards the north-east, into the country north of the range of Nundewar, a region apparently champaign, but including a few isolated and picturesque hills. Patches of wood were scattered over the level parts, and we hastened towards a land of such promising aspect. Water however was the great object of our search, but I had no doubt that I should find enough in a long valley before us, which descended from the range on the east. In this I was nevertheless mistaken; for although the valley was well escarped, it did not contain even the trace of a watercourse.

Crossing the ridge beyond it, to a valley still deeper, which extended under a ridge of very remarkable hills, we met with no better success; nor yet when we had followed the valley to its union with another, under a hill which I named Mount Frazer, after the botanist of that name.

No other prospect of relief from this most distressing of all privations remained to us, and the day was one of extraordinary heat, for the thermometer, which had never before been above 101 degrees on this journey, now stood at 108 degrees in the shade. The party had travelled sixteen miles, and the cattle could not be driven further with any better prospect of finding water. We therefore encamped in this valley while I explored it upwards, but found all dry and desolate. Mr. White returned late, after a most laborious but equally fruitless search northward, and we consequently passed a most disagreeable afternoon. Unable to eat, the cattle lay groaning, and the men extended on their backs watched some heavy thunderclouds which at length stretched over the sky; the very crows sat on the trees with their mouths open.

The thunder roared and the cloud broke darkly over us, but its liquid contents seemed to evaporate in the middle air. At half-past seven a strong hot wind set in from the north-east and continued during the night. Thermometer 90 degrees. I was suddenly awoke from feverish sleep by a violent shaking of my tent, and I distinctly heard the flapping of very large wings, as if some bird, perhaps an owl, had perched upon it.’

Encountering the natives


Sanford Fleming,

Again at St Peters in the forenoon, but think it as well to give it up, in the mean time, as it is not likely that I shall make a good job of it when my mind does not go along with it.’

Adieu to my youth


Louisa Alcott,

‘I shall record the events of a day as a sample of the days I spend:

Up at six, dress by gaslight, run through my ward and throw up the windows, though the men grumble and shiver; but the air is bad enough to breed a pestilence; and as no notice is taken of our frequent appeals for better ventilation, I must do what I can. Poke up the fire, add blankets, joke, coax, and command; but continue to open doors and windows as if life depended upon it. Mine does, and doubtless many another, for a more perfect pestilence-box than this house I never saw, cold, damp, dirty, full of vile odors from wounds, kitchens, wash-rooms, and stables. No competent head, male or female, to right matters, and a jumble of good, bad, and indifferent nurses, surgeons, and attendants, to complicate the chaos still more.

After this unwelcome progress through my stifling ward, I go to breakfast with what appetite I may; find the uninvitable fried beef, salt butter, husky bread, and washy coffee; listen to the clack of eight women and a dozen men, the first silly, stupid, or possessed of one idea; the last absorbed with their breakfast and themselves to a degree that is both ludicrous and provoking, for all the dishes are ordered down the table full and returned empty; the conversation is entirely among themselves, and each announces his opinion with an air of importance that frequently causes me to choke in my cup, or bolt my meals with undignified speed lest a laugh betray to these famous beings that a “chiel’s amang them takin’ notes.”

Till noon I trot, trot, giving out rations, cutting up food for helpless “boys,” washing faces, teaching my attendants how beds are made or floors are swept, dressing wounds, taking Dr F. P.’s orders (privately wishing all the time that he would be more gentle with my big babies), dusting tables, sewing bandages, keeping my tray tidy, rushing up and down after pillows, bed-linen, sponges, books, and directions, till it seems as if I would joyfully pay down all I possess for fifteen minutes’ rest. At twelve the big bell rings, and up comes dinner for the boys, who are always ready for it and never entirely satisfied. Soup, meat, potatoes, and bread is the bill of fare. Charley Thayer, the attendant, travels up and down the room serving out the rations, saving little for himself, yet always thoughtful of his mates, and patient as a woman with their helplessness. When dinner is over, some sleep, many read, and others want letters written. This I like to do, for they put in such odd things, and express their ideas so comically, I have great fun interiorally, while as grave as possible exteriorally. A few of the men word their paragraphs well and make excellent letters. John’s was the best of all I wrote. The answering of letters from friends after some one had died is the saddest and hardest duty a nurse has to do.

Supper at five sets every one to running that can run; and when that flurry is over, all settle down for the evening amusements, which consist of newspapers, gossip, the doctor’s last round, and, for such as need them, the final doses for the night. At nine the bell rings, gas is turned down, and day nurses go to bed. Night nurses go on duty, and sleep and death have the house to themselves.

My work is changed to night watching, or half night and half day, from twelve to twelve. I like it, as it leaves me time for a morning run, which is what I need to keep well; for bad air, food, and water, work and watching, are getting to be too much for me. I trot up and down the streets in all directions, sometimes to the Heights, then half way to Washington, again to the hill, over which the long trains of army wagons are constantly vanishing and ambulances appearing. That way the fighting lies, and I long to follow.

Ordered to keep my room, being threatened with pneumonia. Sharp pain in the side, cough, fever, and dizziness. A pleasant prospect for a lonely soul five hundred miles from home! Sit and sew on the boys’ clothes, write letters, sleep, and read; try to talk and keep merry, but fail decidedly, as day after day goes, and I feel no better. Dream awfully, and wake unrefreshed, think of home, and wonder if I am to die here, as Mrs R., the matron, is likely to do. Feel too miserable to care much what becomes of me. Dr S. creaks up twice a day to feel my pulse, give me doses, and ask if I am at all consumptive, or some other cheering question. Dr O. examines my lungs and looks sober. Dr J. haunts the room, coming by day and night with wood, cologne, books, and messes, like a motherly little man as he is. Nurses fussy and anxious, matron dying, and everything very gloomy. They want me to go home, but I won t yet.’

I flied the highest


Fridtjof Nansen,

‘It seems as if the twilight were increasing quite perceptibly now, but this is very possibly only imagination. I am in good spirits in spite of the fact that we are drifting south again. After all, what does it matter? Perhaps the gain to science will be as great, and, after all, I suppose this desire to reach the North Pole is only a piece of vanity. I have now a very good idea of what it must be like up there. (‘I like that!’ say you.) Our deep water here is connected with, is a part of, the deep water of the Atlantic Ocean - of this there can be no doubt. And have not I found that things go exactly as I calculated they would whenever we get a favorable wind? Have not many before us had to wait for wind? And as to vanity - that is a child’s disease, got over long ago. All calculations, with but one exception, have proved correct. We made our way along the coast of Asia, which many prophesied we should have great difficulty in doing. We were able to sail farther north than I had dared to hope for in my boldest moments, and in just the longitude I wished. We are closed in by the ice, also as I wished. The Fram has borne the ice-pressure splendidly, and allows herself to be lifted by it without so much as creaking, in spite of being more heavily loaded with coal, and drawing more water than we reckoned on when we made our calculations; and this after her certain destruction and ours was prophesied by those most experienced in such matters. I have not found the ice higher nor heavier than I expected it to be; and the comfort, warmth, and good ventilation on board are far beyond my expectations. Nothing is wanting in our equipment, and the food is quite exceptionally good. As Blessing and I agreed a few days ago, it is as good as at home; there is not a thing we long for; not even the thought of a beefsteak a la Chateaubriand, or a pork cutlet with mushrooms and a bottle of Burgundy, can make our mouths water; we simply don’t care about such things. The preparations for the expedition cost me several years of precious life; but now I do not grudge them: my object is attained. On the drifting ice we live a winter life, not only in every respect better than that of previous expeditions, but actually as if we had brought a bit of Norway, of Europe, with us. We are as well off as if we were at home. All together in one saloon, with everything in common, we are a little part of the fatherland, and daily we draw closer and closer together. In one point only have my calculations proved incorrect, but unfortunately in one of the most important. I pre-supposed a shallow Polar Sea, the geatest depth known in these regions up till now being 80 fathoms, found by the Jeannette. I reasoned that all currents would have a strong influence in the shallow Polar Sea, and that on the Asiatic side the current of the Siberian rivers would be strong enough to drive the ice a good way north. But here I already find a depth which we cannot measure with all our line, a depth of certainly 1,000 fathoms, and possibly double that. This at once upsets all faith in the operation of a current; we find either none, or an extremely slight one; my only trust now is in the winds. Columbus discovered America by means of a mistaken calculation, and even that not his own; heaven only knows where my mistake will lead us. Only I repeat once more - the Siberian driftwood on the coast of Greenland cannot lie, and the way it went we must go.’

Siberian driftwood cannot lie


Dorothy Mackellar,

‘Worked a little (“Vespers” - it won't come straight) . . . Cooked with the chafing dish - only salted almonds, but they are very successful. Tailor and dressmaker. Very hot . . . Rested in the Domain . . .’

I love a sunburnt country


Sarah Stamford,

‘Snow. Got up in the cold, dark morning and walked over the golf course to Chipstead Station to get the train to London. It was eerie in the dark, and I nearly fell over. The commuters are an odd lot. all freightfully jolly. They come in two types - thin, cold and distinguished, or round, warm and fond of a pint.

Louise is still on holiday so there wasn’t a lot for me to do today.

Gill (secretary to the Senior Education Officer) was back at work but busy, so I had lunch with Adrienne, who works for one of the officers. She comes from New York. As I am a fan of George Gershwin, I really wanted to ask her if she knew anything about him or his family, but I lost my nerve as I didn’t want to bore her or sound stupid. I think we both see each other as specimens of a type: she is a New York Jewess and I am a solid old English girl. Her earrings and clothes tickle me. It’s amazing how Americans dress - you can spot them a mile off.

For lunch we usually go over to the canteen at Broadcasting House, which is open twenty-four hours a day. The food is OK; their salads with chips are good. During the day we get tea and coffee from the BBC Club on the ground floor of the Langham: in the evenings they open up a bar in the rooms beyond, which smell of booze and cigarettes. In both places there’s always the chance of spotting a celebrity: only being so close to BH, the home of radio, you find yourself ignoring someone until he speaks and then you recognise the voice. I’ve seen John Timpson from the Today programme in the Club, also Pete Murray and David Jacobs [Radio 2 DJs], and a few months ago I saw Cliff Richard talking to someone in Portland Place outside BH.

The BBC has lots of societies staff can join, all of them free of charge. I’m thinking about the Film Club. Gill and I have already joined the chess section, which meets every Monday after work downstairs in the Langham. Several tables are laid out with boards and pieces, around which various middle-aged men. mostly with beards, sit like cats watching mouse-holes.

Gill and I have a different approach. We play our games at two or three times their speed, and wash them down with a few glasses of wine. Gill is very good at chess, and she kindly pointed out to me when I had won a game. Her husband Kaz, a Hungarian artist, came along as well, but he is of a better standard so he plays with the mouse-hole men. He has a slightly nauseating sense of humour. Still, that’s a first impression.

Back to the hostel in Francis Street, near Victoria Station. This is run by something called the Girls’ Friendly Society, which sounds alarming. The rooms are strung along the corridors like prison cells, all smelling of disinfectant and boiled vegetables. When you need to go to the bathroom, there is always the possibility you will run into a shuffling old woman with bits of last week’s breakfast down her jumper.

Each room has a cream door with its name in black paint, like Badges, Heartsease, Charles and Olivia, Peace, Hope, Suffolk Archdeaconry and my favourite, The St George and Hanover Square Bourdon lodge Committee. My room is called Robinson. It has a bed, a small wardrobe and chest and my little bookcase, and is so narrow that I can stand with my arms outstretched and touch both the side walls.’

Not a lot for me to do today


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