And so made significant . . .

around the world, and through the centuries

4 May

James Boswell,

‘My curiosity to see the melancholy spectacle of the executions was so strong that I could not resist it, although I was sensible that I would suffer much from it. In my younger years I had read in the Lives of the Convicts so much about Tyburn that I had a sort of horrid eagerness to be there. [. . .] I got upon a scaffold very near the fatal tree, so that [I] could clearly see all the dismal scene. There was a most prodigious crowd of spectators. I was most terribly shocked, and thrown into a very deep melancholy.’

Young Boswell in London


Thomas De Quincey,

‘Read 99 pages of “Accusg Spirit; - walked into the lanes; - met a fellow who counterfeited drunkenness or lunacy or idiocy; - I say counterfeited, because I am well convinced he was some vile outcast of society - a pest and disgrace to humanity. I was just on the point of hittg him a dab on his disgustg face when a gentleman (coming up) alarmed him and saved me trouble.’

My imagination flies


Joseph Wolff,

‘Several Jews called on me, and asked for New Testaments, tracts, and Bibles. I gave them the books gratis. They read them in the streets, but the Jews from Barbary took them out of their hands, and burnt a great many. Armenian and Greek priests called on me to-day, and desired to purchase Greek, Arabic, and Armenian Bibles and Testaments, but I was not able to comply with their wish; I therefore wrote again to John Barker, Esq. in Aleppo, and to Peter Lee, Esq. in Alexandria, to send me Bibles, Testaments, and tracts.’

Read the Word of God


Henry Pelham-Clinton,

‘Attended the House of Lords on the Unitarian Marriage Bill. I had a great mind to say something but my courage failed me . . . I should be sorry to appear ridiculous - my great evil, is my almost total want of memory . . . all is chaos, blank and confusion.’

My courage failed


Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff,

‘Gladstone’s great speech on the Taxation of Endowed Charities, which I think, on the whole, the most remarkable I ever heard him make.’

Good-natured books


Eliza Frances Andrew,

‘I am in such a state of excitement that I can do nothing but spend my time, like the Athenians of old, in either hearing or telling some new thing. I sat under the cedar trees by the street gate nearly all the morning, with Metta and Cousin Liza, watching the stream of human life flow by, and keeping guard over the horses of some soldier friends that had left them grazing on the lawn. Father and Cora went to call on the President [the Confederate President - Jefferson Davis], and in spite of his prejudice against everybody and everything connected with secession, father says his manner was so calm and dignified that he could not help admiring the man. Crowds of people flocked to see him, and nearly all were melted to tears. Gen. Elzey pretended to have dust in his eyes and Mrs Elzey blubbered outright, exclaiming all the while, in her impulsive way: “Oh, I am such a fool to be crying, but I can’t help it!” When she was telling me about it afterwards, she said she could not stay in the room with him yesterday evening, because she couldn’t help crying, and she was ashamed for the people who called to see her looking so ugly, with her eyes and nose red. She says that at night, after the crowd left, there was a private meeting in his room, where Reagan and Mallory and other high officials were present, and again early in the morning there were other confabulations before they all scattered and went their ways - and this, I suppose, is the end of the Confederacy. Then she made me laugh by telling some ludicrous things that happened while the crowd was calling. . . It is strange how closely interwoven tragedy and comedy are in life.

The people of the village sent so many good things for the President to eat, that an ogre couldn’t have devoured them all, and he left many little delicacies, besides giving away a number of his personal effects, to people who had been kind to him. He requested that one package be sent to mother, which, if it ever comes, must be kept as an heirloom in the family. I don’t suppose he knows what strong Unionists father and mother have always been, but for all that I am sure they would be as ready to help him now, if they could, as the hottest rebel among us. I was not ashamed of father’s being a Union man when his was the down-trodden, persecuted party; but now, when our country is down-trodden, the Union means something very different from what it did four years ago. It is a great grief and mortification to me that he sticks to that wicked old tyranny still, but he is a Southerner and a gentleman, in spite of his politics, and at any rate nobody can accuse him of self-interest, for he has sacrificed as much in the war as any other private citizen I know, except those whose children have been killed. His sons, all but little Marshall, have been in the army since the very first gun - in fact, Garnett was the first man to volunteer from the county, and it is through the mercy of God and not of his beloved Union that they have come back alive. Then, he has lost not only his negroes, like everybody else, but his land, too.

The President left town about ten o’clock, with a single companion, his unruly cavalry escort having gone on before. He travels sometimes with them, sometimes before, sometimes behind, never permitting his precise location to be known. Generals Bragg and Breckinridge are in the village, with a host of minor celebrities. Gen. Breckinridge is called the handsomest man in the Confederate army, and Bragg might well be called the ugliest. I saw him at Mrs Vickers’s, where he is staying, and he looks like an old porcupine. I never was a special admirer of his, though it would be a good thing if some of his stringent views about discipline could be put into effect just now - if discipline were possible among men without a leader, without a country, without a hope. The army is practically disbanded, and citizens, as well as soldiers, thoroughly demoralized. It has gotten to be pretty much a game of grab with us all; every man for himself and the Devil (or the Yankees, which amounts to the same thing) take the hindmost. Nearly all government teams have been seized and driven out of town by irresponsibile parties - indeed, there seems to be nobody responsible for anything any longer. Gen. Elzey’s two ambulances were taken last night, so that Capt. Palfrey and Capt. Swett are left in the lurch, and will have to make their way home by boat and rail, or afoot, as best they can.

Large numbers of cavalry passed through town during the day. A solid, unbroken stream of them poured past our street gate for two hours, many of them leading extra horses. They raised such clouds of dust that it looked as if a yellow fog had settled over our grove. Duke’s division threatened to plunder the treasury, so that Gen. Breckinridge had to open it and pay them a small part of their stipend in specie. Others put in a claim too, and some deserving men got a few dollars. Capt. Smith and Mr Hallam called in the afternoon, and the latter showed me ninety dollars in gold, which is all that he has received for four years of service. I don’t see what better could be done with the money than to pay it all out to the soldiers of the Confederacy before the Yankees gobble it up.’

Their negro troops


Louis David Riel,

‘The Spirit of God made me see two fighting men; they were walking down from Prince Albert. There was something big in front of them. I don’t know what it is. But I can tell you that it’s nothing good. The two men are not together. One is coming behind the other. They are not going very fast. The purpose of their mission is evil. They are trying to cause a great deal of trouble and confusion. But they are not achieving the goal they have in mind.

Evening of May 4. I see the troops coming, they are on foot. I see them in the aspens on the slope this side of Baptiste Vandale’s farm.

I see a pure white horse bearing a rider. The white colour of the horse flashes in the sun. The rider is leaving the road, he wants to get into the open.

I saw a big grass snake striking at the stake.’

Canada’s rebel hero


Kenneth Williams,
actor and writer

‘We went to see DR ZHIVAGO - the Robert Bolt screenplay - directed by David (dreary) Lean. Starring Omar Sharif. This may be the Great Russian Novel, but it’s a pain in the arse as a film. Then same old faults with Lean:m- pretentious shots that mean NOTHING, and a story that is almost without any really interesting & dramatic momnets. Everyone has LONG PROFOUND looks at each other - they frequently cry on meetings, or seeing people shot or something. But the fact is that no film should be boring, and this one is.

With the exception of ROD STEIGER’s performance. When he was on, it really came to life. I’m astonished on reflection, to find that his scenes are still clear in my mind, tho’ most of the others have vanished entirely. Him pacing up and down in the house during the attempted suicide - him in the restaurant when the workers go by singing - him being shot, and his stoical reaction at the Ball - his asking the girl to leave and falling down the stairs - all the sugar etc. It all stays clearly in the mind. Vivid. V. good actor.’

Carry on carping


Tony Benn,

‘A dramatic day in British politics. The most right-wing Conservative Government and Leader for fifty years; the first woman Prime Minister. I cannot absorb it all.

I have the freedom now to speak my mind, and this is probably the beginning of the most creative period of my life. I am one of the few ex-Ministers who enjoys Opposition and I intend to take full advantage of it.’

The hopes of the Left


Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr.,

‘Last night heavy air attacks struck Yomitan field and the fleet. Eight men were killed in a Hospital. Our CP and the field were shelled again. In the south the Japs tried to envelop both our flanks in barges and penetrate the center at the same time during the night that the air attacks came (about midnight). Each attacking force was a Bn. Naval gunfire sank the eastern Bn, the center was stopped but the western group got ashore opposite the 1st Mardiv. About 200 in one group were killed but part of another group got inland with about 80 Jap infiltrators that are still at large.

After breakfast I had a staff meeting and gave out decision regarding the capture of neighboring islands for radar stations to control planes. Adm. Turner is impatient about this, so the 2nd Mardiv will have to be used if speed is important.

Spent the day at Ie Shima. Thomas (Iscom) recovering from pneumonia. Interviewed his staff to see how I could help their project. They predict readiness of field for fighter group; May 12. Adm. Spruance sent staff officers to find out date. Our land based planes shot down 45 Jap planes today. I sent congratulatory message to Mulcahy - my third.’

The battle for Okinawa


Bernard Donoughue,

‘I awoke shortly after eight o'clock, having had less than three hours' sleep. The children buzzed in and out of my bedroom, on their way to school. I could hear excited discussions about what would happen ‘now Daddy has got the sack’. Stephen, aged nine, was clearly delighted, saying that now that I would be at home in the day I could cook his lunch and he ‘would not have to stay to school dinner’, which is one of the main burdens of his always fastidious life.’

Donoughue’s Downing Street play


Paul K. Lyons,

‘Friday saw the opening of the Brighton festival with a splendid procession of children and their school-made dragons. For the whole of Saturday, I’d signed up for a Brighton Rock workshop but I had little idea what it would be like. I dutifully arrived on the Palace Pier a little before 10 and took a couple of pictures - the light was astonishingly bright and clear and the pier furbishings were looking as spanking new and clean as I’ve seen them; they must have had a coat of paint within the last few weeks and the glass in the windows had been spotlessly cleaned. The photos were similar to those I took ten years ago.

At 10 exactly, I approached the tiny group of people in the centre of the pavement at the entrance to the pier. The literature event organiser was there holding a wad of tickets; there was a large well-built man of around 50 introduced to me as Tony Masters who I didn’t know from Adam; otherwise there were two other punters like me - Jake, a dead ringer in character and pretensions for my old flatmate Andy, and Bob. Masters, who turned out to be quite a well known and prolific writer, never really recovered from the fact that so few people had signed up. I don’t know how many he was expecting - originally they had planned on a dozen or so but then thought a group of 4-6 would be better - but the organiser had twenty tickets or more.

We removed to a banquet suite in the Albion Hotel where Tony talked a while about his working methods, about Brighton Rock (he had known Graham Greene) and about what we were going to do during the day - i.e. a walk in the morning and writing session in the afternoon. It turned out that Bob had never read the book Brighton Rock (he hadn’t even made an effort - I’ve been devouring it in the last few days, even though I read it a year ago) and had never penned a word of fiction in his life; while Jake who found it almost impossible to stop talking, never strayed from his favourite subject of films. However deprecatingly I might talk about these characters, there is no doubt in my mind that they added as much if not more to the day than I did.

I suppose I too was disappointed that the turnout was so small and that I was down on the level of an unemployed fantasist student and a computer programmer giving air to a slight whim. The walk was certainly a disappointment - we walked up and down the pier, passed the Forte’s cafe on the corner directly opposite the pier which was the setting for Snow’s. Tony insisted it would have been more sleazy in the time Greene researched the book but I thought otherwise - Rose says she couldn’t get another job as good and I suspect it was quite posh then, even more so than now. Tony said the same thing about the pier and the Albion hotel (where Greene stayed when in Brighton) but again I would have thought the pier would have been quite rich in those days given the amount of visitors it used to get. Our resident writer seemed determined to impose the sense of sleaze and squalidness that exudes out of the whole book on all the locations. We then walked up to Nelson Place which is where Pinkie grew up and where Rose’s parents live. Tony seemed to insist he could really feel “a sense of place” (the title of the workshop) in this location but I didn’t get anything from it all.

For a while we sat in the pub Dr Brighton’s which in the book and formerly was the Star and Garter where Ida was often found. I suppose I knew Brighton too well already. There are dozens of locations around the city which have real character and feeling but, the pier apart, we didn’t go near any of them. After a short break for lunch we retired to the same room in the hotel. It became clear that Tony has a lot of experience of such workshops - he has worked a lot in schools it seems and written a lot for children - and was determined to maintain a highly positive attitude and wring something out of us. We had five minutes to write down the bone of an idea based on any inspiration we had had on the walk; then we were given a bit less than an hour to actually write up the idea.

Apart from general thoughts about the gaudiness of the attractions on the pier and the similarity perhaps with Brighton itself in some respects, three pictures on the pier had struck me: the sight of a lanky youth, standing silent and motionless staring at a video machine; a small boy who refused to walk over the slats of the pier because he could see water below and chose instead to walk along the boards laid down for pushchairs; and the colour of the sea - a translucent turquoise which seemed to have a light source of its own - as spotted between the slats when walking through a covered part of the pier.

Pressed into creating a story line and taking my cue from a simple example put forward by Tony himself, I turned the youth into a rather lonely character yet to leave home, addicted to the video machines, his only pleasure, and on the edge of making an important decision in his life. I have him watching the small boy choose the safe path over the boards and seeing himself. A group of lively youngsters enter the amusement arcade and stand near the youth. He starts thinking about how he has never met people like this and so on. I was surprised how much I actually wrote in the short space of time but I suppose that’s my experience as a journalist showing through. Although Tony insisted that one should enclose one’s characters into a finished plot and allow them room, I had sewn up my plot before I began writing. Tony said all one needs is to be able to see four or five scenes ahead (have a narrative thrust) and then one can write. Well, I couldn’t do this, I had already found the end to my story viz: the group of lively youngsters tease the youth and eventually nag him to come along with them for a bit. The first thing they do is go up the helter skelter. The youth, tied up in the imaginary world of the video games, has never actually been on any of the fairground rides and he is frightened sick of going to the top of the helter skelter and sliding down round virtually over the sea. Moreover, he has to spend his last coin of the day. The story finishes as he begins his slide down - a symbol really that he must begin his real life.

Pretty crass eh! Well, what can one do in 45 minutes. Jake wrote three sentences in Tom Wolfe style about a film star (Cher-like) who has come to Brighton to film a few scenes but falls over on the pier and is going to have an affair with a young street-wise lad. Bob also wrote just a few words about a tailor’s shop he’d seen. They were highly descriptive and emotive even and promised well.

We talked for an hour or so about these attempts. Jake found my writing Kafkaesque, Bob liked it and Tony explained that I wrote rather economically without much description, that I didn’t waste words. He said whereas from Bob’s contribution he could touch the scene, with mine he got a strong visual sense. I don’t think he made any judgement as to whether it was any good or not, nor can I think of anything he said that might actually help me write the story better. Oh yes, he said I was very observant.

The cost of the workshop also includes the chance to send in a story (max 3,000 words) to the organisers who will then award a £50 price as well as provide some constructive criticism. I shall certainly take advantage of that offer. If just three people turn up at the second of the two workshops and every participant sends in a story, I would still have a 15% chance of winning the prize!

I have to say that I liked Tony and found myself very much on his wavelength - I could tell in advance what pictures he might point out (at one point he was saying that one was unlikely to meet a Pinkie character these days but just at that moment two punks passed us in the street and we both acknowledged the irony of that) - and I could agree with much of what he said about other writers and films. At over 50, he has been a writer for thirty years he said, and is clearly much in demand, for films and television, and also pushes out a lot of books. I suppose if I were ever to be a writer, I would want to have as varied a portfolio as this man.’

Brighton Rock & Helter Skelter


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And so made significant . . .
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Notes and Cautions
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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