March 2017 re-reading:
W.N.P. Barbellion

In 1979, the year Clever Daughter Number 2 was born, I read (according to my records) 30 books, 18 of which were novels (or 19 if you count Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia). But for my re-reading in March I went for non-fiction: The Journal of a Disappointed Man, by W.N.P. Barbellion.

I remember buying this (see pic above) in the Oxfam shop opposite where I was then working, in Marylebone High Street.* What did I know of this writer? Very little, but I may have recalled some lines from the poet Christopher Middleton (it’s from number 3 of his “Five Psalms of Common Man”, reprinted in Penguin Modern Poets 4 (1963)):

W.N.P. Barbellion (pseudonymous)
March 1915
sees ‘on top of an empty omnibus
a little heap of dirty used-up bus tickets
collected by chance in the corner’

felt sick
the number of persons
the number of miles
the number of buses …

Barbellion is indeed a pseudonym: his real name was Bruce Frederick Cummings, and he lived from 1889 to 1919, suffering in his later years from what was then known as “disseminated sclerosis” (MS in modern parlance). He grew up in north Devon and kept diaries from an early age, initially recording his boyish enthusiasms for nature, from collecting birds’ eggs to examining insects and small marine creatures under a microscope. Soon he widened his diary entries to include reflections on his own life, his adolescent yearnings and frustrations and, later, his physical decline: the published journal was, his brother A.J. Cummings stated, just “a carefully selected series of extracts from twenty post-quarto volumes of manuscript” (I wonder if the whole thing survives anywhere). Despite a lack of formal scientific education and being initially obliged to follow his father into local newspaper journalism, Barbellion/Cummings was invited to apply for a vacancy at the British Museum of Natural History (what we now call the Natural History Museum, in Kensington) and moved to London at the beginning of 1912. Soon after this he seems to have started thinking about publishing a selection of what he had written and was continuing to write. He had had little luck getting his essays, on natural history and literature, placed in the magazines of the time, but eventually he got Chatto & Windus interested in the project; they published The Journal of a Disappointed Man, which runs from 1903 to October 1917, just a few months before he died.

So did I enjoy re-reading the Journal? This time I had the advantage of the 1984 Hogarth Press edition that, unlike that old Penguin, included Barbellion’s posthumously published Last Diary. Well, yes, I was hooked again; though there are overblown introspective passages, one can skip them (published diaries, after all, can be just dipped into). The diary is divided into three parts – the second and third parts are labelled “In London” (from 1912) and “Marriage” (from September 1915) – and it is the London passages, where Barbellion observes street life, writes about his museum work or embarks on tentative love affairs, that are the most interesting. Thomas Mallon, in his A Book of One’s Own: People and their Diaries (1984) says that “there is no room in Barbellion’s world for anyone but himself”, but I disagree. I could quote extensively, but here are just three passages:

In Aldgate, stopped to inspect a street stall containing popular literature – one brochure entitled Suspended for Life to indicate the terrible punishment meted out to – a League footballer. Another stall held domestic utensils with an intimation, ‘Anything on this stall lent for 1d’. [24 October 1914]

After four months’ sick leave, returned to work and London … On the Underground, I was delighted with the smooth, quiet way with which the ‘Metro’ trains glide into the Station. I had quite forgotten this. Then, when my hand began to get better … I re-enjoyed the child’s satisfaction in coaxing a button to slip into its hole: all grown-up people have forgotten how difficult and complex such operations are. [2 Feb 1917]

And this (which would merit inclusion in any anthology of literary allusions to breastfeeding):

On a ’bus the other day a woman with a baby sat opposite, the baby bawled and the woman at once began to unlace herself, exposing a large, red udder, which she swung into the baby’s face. The infant, however, continued to cry and the woman said –
‘Come on, there’s a good boy – if you don’t, I shall give it to the gentleman opposite’
Do I look ill-nourished?  [7 August 1915]

It also caught my interest that in 1916 he wrote that “my gorge rises at those fatuous journalists continually prating about this ‘Greatest War of all time’ … We ought to hush it up, not brag about it”. And that in 1919, in his Last Diary, Barbellion noted that he was reading serialised extracts from Ulysses, “an interesting development”, but that “of course, the novelists are behind the naturalists in the recording of minutiae”.

Incidentally the quote that Christopher Middleton adapted doesn’t come from the published journals; rather it’s to be found in Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains, another posthumous publication which collected some of Barbellion’s “scientific” essays as well as further essayistic diary entries omitted from the Disappointed Man journal. Some time after 1979 I managed to find a copy of that book too, in another second-hand-book shop trawl, I’m not sure when.

As for Barbellion’s aforementioned brother, A.J. Cummings, he had a distinguished journalistic career, ending as the political editor of the News Chronicle, by virtue of which he got an obituary in the New York Times (6 July 1957 if you want to look it up) and fathered the cartoonist Michael Cummings.

Meanwhile, in today’s infosphere, there are two Twitter accounts that occasionally tweet extracts from Barbellion’s journals: @wnpb and @WNP_Barbellion (“A Disappointed Man”), And a recent posting on the MS Trust website discusses Barbellion’s “literary classic” from the point of view of a present-day person with MS: https://www.mstrust.org.uk/news/views-and-comments/diarist-who-made-a-literary-classic-his-life-ms. Worth reading.

In March I also read: The Infatuations by Javier Marias (not an easy read, but it has stayed with me) and two US novels: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (good) and Noah Hawley’s The Good Father (a journalistic page-turner – which is not a bad thing, of course)


*By 1979 I had been letters editor of Radio Times for a couple of years – the nicest job I’ve had. For anyone interested, here’s a sample of the kind of pages I was responsible for, in those days: