Wednesday, 16th April, 2014

At some point I’ll post properly about W.N.P Barbellion’s The Journal of a Disappointed Man (1919) and possibly Tessimond’s connection and response to reading it. However, until then, here’s just a couple of many staggering passages from it. The context is: this is the true account of an extraordinary life. Barbellion was the pen-name of Bruce Frederick Cummings. He was a naturalist, who worked at the Natural History Museum studying lice and mites. The journal follows him from the age of 13 – an active childhood studying nature and annoying farmers – onwards into adult life. In 1917 he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The journal documents with brutal honesty the process of facing the condition, and ultimately facing his fast approaching death. It is a time when countless young men were dying across Europe, but here we see death considered face on, by someone who knows what it means to die probably better than most:

                 July 5th [1917]

                 It is odd that at this time of the breaking of nations, Destiny, with her hands so full, should spare the time to pursue a non-combatant atom like me down such a labyrinthine sidetrack. It is odd to find her determined to destroy me with such tremendous thoroughness – one would have thought it sufficient merely to brush the dust off my wings. Why this deliberate, slow-moving malignity? Perhaps it is a punishment for the impudence of my desires. I wanted everything so I get nothing. I gave nothing so I receive nothing. I am not offering up my life willingly: it is being taken from me piece by piece, while I watch the pilfering with lamentable eyes.

I have tended my resignation and retire on a small gratuity.

Which sounds bleak, and is bleak, and the final section of the book I’ve found it’s only possible to get through in very small sections – but it’s not without humour too – his wife’s view that she doesn’t want to go into mourning clothes because all the war widows have vulgarised the fashion, and his anxiety that whilst he is happy for her to remarry, he’d be happier her doing so to someone that he has previously shown where the gas meter is. But this is one of many reasons why it’s an incredible book:

                October 12th [1917]

                It is winter – no autumn this year. Of an evening we sit by the fire and enjoy the beautiful sweet-smelling woodsmoke, and the open hearth with its big iron bar carrying pothook and hanger. E— knits warm garments for the Baby, and I play Chopin, César-Franck hymns, Three Blind Mice (with variations) on a mouth organ called ‘The Angels’ Choir’, and made in Germany…. You would pity me, would you? I am lonely, penniless, paralysed, and just turned twenty-eight. But I snap my fingers in your face and with equal arrogance I pity you. I pity you your smooth-running good luck and the stagnant serenity of your mind. I prefer my own torment. I am dying, but you are already a corpse. You have never really lived. Your body has never been flayed into tingling life by hopeless desire to love, to know, to act, to achieve. I do not envy you your absorption in the petty cares of a commonplace existence.

Do you think I would exchange the communion with my own heart for the toy balloons of your silly conversation? Or my curiosity for your flickering interests? Or my despair for your comfortable hope? Or my present tawdry life for yours as polished and neat as a new threepenny bit? I would not. I gather my mantle around me and I solemnly thank God that I am not as some other men are. I am only twenty-eight, but I have telescoped into those few years a tolerably long life: I have loved and married, and have a family; I have wept and enjoyed, struggled and overcome, and when the hour comes I shall be content to die.

Little Toller Books have a copy of the journal in print with an excellent introduction by Tim Dee.

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