Wednesday, October 22, 2008

From the Shelves of the Paco Library



I am an avid reader of letters and diaries (published, of course ), but certainly among the most amusing I have come across are the completely fictional writings in Maurice Baring’s Lost Diaries and Dead Letters. The book is a collection of imaginary epistles and chronicles attributed to various famous people in history and literature (or to more humble folk who find themselves in the company of the great); Christopher Columbus, the young George Washington, Sherlock Holmes, Sir Walter Raleigh, and many others are represented here, and Baring does a fine job, generally focusing on some personality trait or specific incident for which the character is renowned, and turning it to comic advantage. [Note: Maurice Baring was an English writer who led a varied life, serving as an officer in the Royal Flying Corps in WWI, a journalist, novelist and essayist. He traveled extensively in Russia and wrote an excellent personal memoir - The Puppet Show of Memory - and was a close friend of Chesterton and Belloc (more on Baring here].

Here’s a snippet from the private log of Christopher Columbus:

October 11. - Saw a light on starboard bow, but am not quite certain that it wasn’t a star.

October 12. - Roderigo saw the land at two in the morning. The King promised a reward of 10,000 Maravedises to whoever saw land first. Clearly this reward is mine, as the light I saw on Thursday night was not a star. Explained this to Roderigo, who lost his temper, and said that if he didn’t get the reward he would turn Mahommedan. The land is, of course, the coast of China. I always said it was somewhere around here.

Stood in to make land. Anchored with the best bower in eleven fathoms, soft clay. Hoisted Spanish flag; took possession of the country, which seems to be India, not China, after all. Call it West India or Hispaniola. Natives talk in a drawling sing-song, chew tobacco and gum, and drink Manzanilla and Vermouth mixed, icing the drink. This is a very gratifying mixture. It is called Cola de gallo. They have a round game of cards with counters, called chips, in which you pretend to have better cards than you do hold in reality. Played and lost. Natives very sharp.”

Sherlock Holmes gives us a peek at his diary of unsuccessful cases:

January 10. - A man called just as Watson and I were having breakfast. He didn’t give his name. He asked if I knew who he was. I said, ‘Beyond seeing that you are unmarried, that you have traveled up this morning from Sussex, that you have served in the French Army, that you write for reviews, and are especially interested in battles of the Middle ages, that you give lectures, that you are a Roman Catholic, and that you have been to Japan, I don’t know who you are.’

The man replied that he was unmarried, but that he lived in Manchester, that he had never been to Sussex or Japan, that he had never written a line in his life, that he had never served in any army save the English Territorial force, that so far from being a Roman Catholic he was a Freemason, and that he was by trade an electrical engineer – I suspected him of lying.”

Finally, Sir Walter Raleigh, in a letter to his Aunt Katherine appealing for money in order to buy new clothes, reveals the details of the famous cloak episode:

“When the Queen approached this spot, not because it was in any way damper or more muddy than the rest of the pathway, along which she had walked with the greatest unconcern, but because she wished to call the attention of Burleigh and others to the neat trimmings of her dainty shoes, she halted, and first she coughed, and sighed; and then she swore, and spat, as is her so charming habit, and cried, ‘Ods Bodikins, how can I avoid the filing of my, Byrlady! feet?’ I at once pressed forward, and taking off my cloak, being careful to hold the lining downwards, so that the inferior texture should escape the notice of the courtiers, made as though I would fling it on to the ground, so as to spread a carpet and a footcloth for her feet; I naturally waited for her to cry out against the ruining of so fair and so costly a cloak; but no, instead she cried out: ‘Here is a footcloth that indeed pleaseth me, Ods Bodikins!’ and other words to that effect, and out of an excess of coquetry she expressed her Royal wish to tread rather on the lining than on the exterior; I was constrained, therefore, to spread the cloak before her, with the plush downwards and the lining showing, but at the same time I grasped her Royal hand firmly, and led her over the dangerous spot rapidly, and no sooner had she crossed it, than I seized the cloak, and flinging it once more swiftly over my shoulders, I said to the Court: ‘This floorcloth is now Royal, and therefore for her Majesty alone’…the cloak is, needless to say, ruined for ever.”

This is a clever book filled with subtle and witty observations which, ironically, may in fact give us a truer view of the thinking and personalities of many of the great folk of history, and clearer insights into the minds of some of the prominent authors of fiction, than a mere recitation of dry facts.

1 comment:

bruce said...

Sort of reminds me of a woman a decade ago who claimed to contact souls of dead musicians and transcribe new pieces from them. A new John Lennon song, a new Beethoven piece. Nothing earth-shattering of course, but surprisingly recognisable.