If there were dreams to sell,
Merry and sad to tell,
And the crier rang the bell,
What would you buy?
– T.L. Beddoes from Dream Pedlary
I’m not a big fan of novels written in diary form. I do, however, enjoy reading the real thing. I usually have to read a published work if I want to read someone’s account of their daily lives, since diaries are traditionally not a widely shared thing. (Blogs are another matter.)
So, the other night I had a lovely midnight reading fest. I say fest because I feasted on a story written 84 years ago when writing for oneself seems to have been more a genuine effort at pleasurable and reflective engagement with one’s own life than it does now. Today, with all our “reality shows” and YouTube confessionals, personal blogs and ego-based attempts at snatching fame for fame’s sake, it seems as if a lot of published material is conscious of itself – the writer thinking as much about audience as his own experience.
I’m guilty, too, I acknowledge. But, I can appreciate purity of intent immensely. This reading felt pure.
What was lovely in the story that I enjoyed in the peace and solitude of a still house at midnight was the genuineness and simplicity of the account of a man, a retired Captain H.T. Lewis, who was traveling transatlantically with his wife, Madge, onboard the the S.S. Cameronia in 1930. First of all, the captain could actually write. I mean lovely punctuation and everything; he was able to tell a story. I just wished he’d told more of it. (Captain Lewis was always referring his ‘reader’ to Madge’s copious diaries. It took me a bit of time and an obituary to find out Madge was his wife. I’d love to read her diaries.)
Here’s the Captain writing about the experience of the ship bound for Glasgow setting sail from New York:
“With little or no fuss or ceremony we were soon on board, bag and baggage; and then to the rail to see the others, especially those we left on the docks. A bag-pipe band came aboard with some man going back home – they gave him a good send off. The good old Scotch and Irish faces looked up from the dock – smiles, tears: waving, as the ship whistled goodby (three times) and moved out ever so quietly from the pier. Some hearts were just breaking on the dock, though they tried hard to smile through pent-up tears: perhaps leaving for Ireland and Scotland brought up folks back home, and, too, many were probably on board, going back, whom they would never see again.” [Captain’s underlines.]
Sometimes, after a day of fatigue and headaches, one goes to sleep and wakes in the middle of the night rested and peaceful. That’s the way it was when I had the pleasure of reading Captain Lewis’s observations and memories. In my clear frame of mind in a head no longer aching, I was receptive to his words. He brought me back in time. He wrote about the state of England after the war (showing strain and poverty) and of Germany (peace, friendliness, health). It was so interesting to get this man-on-the-street account 84 years after the fact, so different (in the account of Germany) from the bit that I remembered from school. He also took me on board the ship, which sounds like it was a big, warm, snug boat, not of the cookie-cutter variety which he sailed on back home. I remember him spending a day on that second ship and dedicating it, quietly with his wife, to diary-writing.
It’s nice to go back in time, sometimes, especially from the safe warmth of one’s comforter and pillows.
And, it seems a shame to keep the Captain’s ‘log’ all to myself. His voice should be heard, shouldn’t it? Though I was the lucky one to ‘purchase’ this diary, it shouldn’t be – and, really, it isn’t – only mine. So, at some point, when I can scan with care, I would like to put up the used sections of the diary, the part with writing and annotations and pastings of newspaper clips and typed itineraries. I don’t know if anyone will read, but it will be there, free and liberated from the closed covers of this lovely leather book.
Meanwhile, I have a few scans to illustrate…