Walking among ghosts

Paul Fussell

  • The Private Diaries of Sir H. Rider Haggard, 1914-1925 edited by D.S. Higgins
    Cassell, 299 pp, £14.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 304 30611 8

The large university library I use contains few books which the undergraduates have read virtually to pulp. One is Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, published 95 years ago. Its pages are falling out and its binding has been worn to threads and cardboard. Clearly students told off to go and read Wittgenstein and George Eliot have been spending delicious secret hours enjoying Allan Quatermain’s phlegmatic accounts of people crushed to death, impaled, dismembered and beheaded. (Anyone imagining that ‘violence’ in fiction and films is somehow modern or post-modern should re-read some Victorian male-romances of the Haggard kind. They make Death of a Princess look like The Young Visiters.)

But Haggard, who produced almost sixty romances and novels, wanted to be something more than a writer of page-turners. He wanted to serve his country in a high-minded volunteer way. ‘I believe that public service is my true line,’ he wrote. ‘All the rest are side shows.’ After King Solomon’s Mines and She had made him rich and famous, he devoted himself increasingly to agricultural reform and to service on Royal Commissions and committees of the Royal Colonial Institute. He was an Empire man and a thoroughly public person, frequenting a milieu defined by conferences, public statements, reports, clubs, societies, ceremonies, speeches, official dinners, the Athenaeum, and letters to the Times. It is largely these things that he chooses to record in these so-called private diaries. Here’s a typical day (22 August 1916):

I came to town by the early train, went to the bank where they admitted their error in my accounts and then by a bright inspiration on to the Field office where I had promised to be interviewed. After lunch I went to the committee meeting at the Royal Colonial Institute where we got through a good lot of business. I hear indirectly that the Government is doing something about appointing a board, but I do not suppose I shall be on it.

Obviously, readers whose notion of the ‘private’ has been formed by, say, the diaries of Roger Casement, or even the diaries of Evelyn Waugh, will be disappointed. There are no secrets or scandals here, nothing to raise a blush or occasion any reassessment of Haggard’s character or achievement. His diaries, all 22 volumes and two million words of them, have been known for years and have been drawn on by biographers and critics like Morton Cohen and Peter Berresford Ellis. Here the Haggard collector and enthusiast D.S. Higgins has selected about one-fortieth of the text and presented it in an edition which deserves to be called amateur. He has not indicated omissions by ellipses, the annotation is sparse, and there are too many printing errors. It is nevertheless a useful book which will appeal especially to those interested in the history and mythography of the Great War.

When war broke out Haggard was in Canada as a member of the Dominions Royal Commission, inquiring into natural resources and trade. He decided to keep a diary of public events to help him write a history of the war. This he never wrote, but he did continue the diary to his death, in 1925. His view of the war is that of an elderly patriot and rentier, a church-goer and Norfolk JP whose main work seems to have been fining violators of the wartime blackout regulations. Long before the Derby Scheme, he was an enthusiast for conscription, outraged to behold able-bodied young men lounging about London. He found the savagery of the war almost a justification of his own career in the fiction of violence:

In some ways I think the war is doing good in England. It is bringing the people ... face to face with elementary facts which hitherto it has been the fashion to ignore ... How often have I been vituperated by rose-water critics because I have written of fighting and tried to inculcate elementary lessons, such as that it is a man’s duty to defend his country, and that only those who are prepared for war can protect themselves and such as are dear to them. ‘Coarse! bloody! brutal! Uncivilised!’ such has been the talk. Well, and today have I done any harm by inoculating a certain number of the thousands who are at the front with these primary facts, even although my work has been held to be so infinitely inferior to that of Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, and others?

Public as he is, Haggard seems to occupy an intellectual and imaginative backwater (the Athenaeum?) where the poems of Sassoon never circulate and Massingham’s Nation is never found on the library table. Two years after the war, Haggard has still not heard of Sassoon. ‘I am not fortunate enough to be acquainted with the works of Siegfried Sassoon, who, from his name, I presume is a Jew of the advanced school,’ he writes, and when he does read Sassoon’s poems, he pronounces them ‘feeble and depressing rubbish’. (To the end of the war Haggard adhered to the diction of Rupert Brooke, passing the data of the trenches through filters like glorious, keen, plucky, gallant, honour and God.) In no sense was the modern for him. ‘There are two men left living in the world,’ he writes, ‘with whom I am in supreme sympathy, Theodore Roosevelt and Rudyard Kipling.’

All this might seem pretty damning and stupid, but there’s another element in Haggard’s response to the war which complicates things. That is his capacity to be worn down by the grinding tragedy of it all. His nephews were killed. His godson was killed. His publisher’s son was killed. Kipling’s son (‘Poor lad!’) was killed. As the war proceeds, Haggard’s initial complacent bellicosity yields to misery and despair, and that does him credit. And there’s something more. Although he confesses his delight in being associated with ‘well-known and public people’, at a memorial service for Kitchener, drowned on HMS Hampshire, he is annoyed by the presiding bishop’s dilating only on ‘Kitchener and his career’. Haggard by this time has learned to extend his imagination and his sympathies: ‘For my part,’ he says, ‘I could not help thinking of the six or seven hundreds of good men and true who went to doom with him. But of these we heard little or nothing.’ Four years of ghastliness bring him to a state very like sensitivity, and by 1918 he has had enough of dismembering and impaling: ‘I see a new poster on the walls to encourage the buying of War Bonds which strikes me as more horrible and in worse taste than most of them. It represents a British soldier realistically driving a bayonet into the stomach of a German, and the legend underneath is “The last blow tells,” or something of that sort. Its coarse brutality made me feel sick.’

In 1972 Colin Perry published his fascinating teenager’s diary of 1940, Boy in the Blitz, which often acutely perceived the Second World War by means of the imagery associated with the First. One notable thing about Haggard’s diaries is the way they uncannily seem to reverse this process, depicting the Blitz and blackout of his war in the terms of Colin Perry’s war a quarter-century later. It would be impossible to assign a date (or a war) to this passage:

I have walked down Piccadilly and seen some of last night’s damage. A single bomb was dropped near the Circus, opposite Swan and Edgar ’s ... The damage done is great; Swan and Edgar’s windows and those of many other establishments are wrecked ... The roadway has a huge hole in it, and is blocked, so that the buses must go round by other routes; and the whole place is thickly strewn with fragments of glass.

That is Haggard writing on 20 October 1917. His version of the London blackout is likewise indistinguishable from an account of 1940:

In walking to the Hampstead Tube at Charing Cross, ... I fell over a high curb and was lucky to escape a sprained or broken ankle. Also these wide crossings are dangerous to negotiate in the gloom. It is strange to see the great search-lights wheeling about the sky in their quest for hostile aircraft ...

And here is his unwitting version (1915) of the Home Guard’s determination to repel invasion in 1940:

Yesterday I drilled with the Ditchingham and Bungay Volunteer Defense Corps on the Common, whereof I am a platoon Commander. The spectacle was distinctly funny – that of a lot of determined old gents stumping about and doing their best to execute manoeuvres which they did not understand. However, if only rifles and ammunition are given to them, I am convinced that they and tens of thousands like them would be most useful stuff in the event of invasion. Even if one is over 40 one can still hold a gun straight enough to shoot a German and we have the advantages of knowing the country.

And there is this startling off-hand prophecy of the Nuremberg laws and the furnaces:

                                                                                                4th December 1919

Kipling, who has been lunching here today, is of opinion that we owe all our Russian troubles, and many others, to the machinations of the Jews. If ... they are as mischievous as he believes, the evil that they do is likely to recoil on their own heads, since in extremity the world has a rough way of dealing with Jews.

But if passages like these seem to understand the future, there are others that most touchingly do not. The artistic disadvantage of a diary, as opposed to a memoir, is that its beginning doesn’t know its end. But its advantage is that just this ignorance supplies ironies the more striking for being unwilled. ‘The war news seems better,’ Haggard is pleased to notice on 29 June 1916. Two days later the attack on the Somme will dash his hopes. Commenting on the extravagant public show of Princess Mary’s wedding, a fairly minor royal occasion, he speculates with terrible vulnerability (thank God he died in 1925): ‘What will happen when the Prince of Wales’s turn comes, I wonder!’

In the same way some of Haggard’s unwitting juxtapositions say much about universal social and political determinants of perception. On 15 April 1917, Haggard converses with Lord Milner, just returned from Russia, about the revolution: ‘He is not sure where the revolutionary movement will end. Undoubtedly the hatred of kings is growing, in Russia and elsewhere, and I hear that our own George R. is very anxious about the Czar and “much upset”.’ Five days later, Haggard attends in St Paul’s the ‘solemn service to Almighty God on the occasion of the entry of the United States of America into the Great War for Freedom’. George R. was of course present, and now Haggard writes: ‘I do not think that ever before I realised how small the King is. Beside the Queen, who after all is not so very large, he looked tiny and unimpressive ... To be frank, he did not look half an inch a king, notwithstanding his Field Marshal’s uniform.’

In addition, we find some unconscious but suggestive anticipations of future imaginative and literary history. One is Haggard’s registration of his excitement at the relighting of the cities once the war has ended: ‘After more than four years of an abysmal darkness with the knowledge that often enough Death was floating overhead, I feel as though I should like to pass the rest of my days in a lake of light – as though night and day I could never be satisfied with brilliance.’ There he expresses something like the lust for the sun which enticed post-war dissidents and exiles such as Aldous Huxley and Norman Douglas and D.H. Lawrence and Osbert Sitwell to the hot beaches of the Mediterranean and the ‘lakes of light’ in Northern Italy and Mexico.

But Haggard was not their kind, and with the exception of a trip to Egypt, after the war he stayed in England, attending his meetings, delivering his speeches, trying to organise a Liberty League for the repression of Bolshevism (a trusted reactionary colleague absconded with the funds), and watching everything get worse. Now he noted with upper-middle-class dismay the onset of what Kingsley Amis calls the modern ‘unchangeable crappiness’: the deterioration of the postal and telephone service, the decline of craftsmanship and the attendant rise of publicity, the vogue of strikes and slowdowns and quitting work early, confiscatory income tax and death duties, inflation, public sullenness and discourtesy, inexplicable ‘enormous crowds’ of dreadful people everywhere bent on God knows what fatuous or sinister purpose, the collapse of manners, the disappearance of porters in railway stations, ‘the triumph of expediency over principle in high places’, and the disheartening increase in umbrella thievery by members of the better clubs.

‘I am out of tune with the day,’ he writes: ‘I am a back-number.’ And even worse: ‘For me the world is largely peopled with the dead; I walk among ghosts, especially at night.’ And as he meditates on his own value, he concludes: ‘My talent may be of copper not of gold ... but I have put it to the best use I could.’ He arranged that his epitaph describe him as one ‘Who with a humble heart strove to serve his country’. I think he’d be pleased to know that he’s done so by inventing the African witch Gagool and having her crushed to death with a great rock as fully as by attending meetings and speaking at official dinners.