Notable Anniversaries

On This Day in Literature
For those of you interested in literary history, January 4th is a date that should be noted in the diary as being one of particular significance, marking as it does the anniversaries of the births and deaths of some giants of world literature.

Gao Xingjian
On this day in 1940, Gao Xingjian, novelist, critic and playwright was born in Jiangxi province in eastern China.  Since fleeing his native country in 1987, Gao has lived in France, where he was granted full citizenship in 1997.

Albert Camus

January 4th is also associated with another French author, Albert Camus (who died in a car crash on this day in 1960).

Interestingly, both Camus and Gao have been associated with the philosophy of absurdism, which focuses on the inherent conflict between the human desire to find meaning in life and the impossibilty of finding any such meaning.

Other literary heavyweights who died on this day are TS Eliot (1965) and Christopher Isherwood (1986).

All of the above, with the exception of Isherwood, have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Chistopher Isherwood
TS Eliot


Animal Farm and the Plague of Doodle Bugs
On this day, August 17th, in 1945, George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, Animal Farm, was published under Orwell’s pen name, Eric Blair.

The very fact that it came to be published at all is a testament to its author’s tenacity.

While Orwell was engrossed in writing the novel, London was being pulverized by a steady stream of flying V1 bombs, known as ‘doodle bugs'. When Orwell’s flat was, er, flattened by one of the deadly doodles, the author was forced to rummage in the debris to rescue his tattered manuscript.

George Orwell
Having narrowly escaped a quick death at the hands of a German bomb, it soon became clear that the book was fated to suffer an agonizingly slow death at the hands of its potential publishers.

TS Eliot, then an editor at Faber & Faber, refused to publish the book, fearful that its anti-Russian themes would be unpopular during the Second World War. Another publisher, having originally accepted the manuscript, was persuaded to rethink his decision after a visit from a shady figure from the British Government’s Ministry of Information. (Interestingly, the agent was later revealed to be a Soviet spy.)

Finally, as the curtain fell on the Second World War and an entirely different curtain was being erected in Eastern Europe, the book finally found its audience. Where once political tensions had hindered the book’s path to publication, the climate now proved to be much more favourable. In the lead up to what was to become the Cold War, the British Establishment were no longer concerned with suppressing criticism of the Soviets. Anti-Russian sentiment, it seemed, was now the order of the day. Publishers no longer baulked at the book’s themes, and in fact, rushed to snap up the manuscript.

Animal Farm was finally published by Secker and Warburg … and was an instant success.


Mr Men Get a Makeover
“Daddy, what does a tickle look like?”
Forty years ago this week, in an effort to answer this earnest enquiry from his young son, Roger Hargreaves attempted to sketch the outline of a long-armed, smiley little man, whom he named Mr Tickle. Little did he know then that his innocuous little creation would be just the first in a long line of characters, which would become eventually become known as the now-iconic Mr Men and Little Miss series.

Despite Mr Tickle’s rather inauspicious beginnings, Hargreaves soon came to recognise the appeal of this type of simplistic character to young children, and set about creating six short children’s books which aimed to convey easily-understandable moral lessons. This collection, which included Mr Tickle, Mr Happy, Mr Greedy, Mr Nosey, Mr Sneeze and Mr Bump, proved to be an instant success, selling over a million copies in their first three years.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Hargreaves worked tirelessly to expand the series in a bid to meet the frenzied demand - which increased significantly when the BBC, recognising the animation potential in his creations, picked up the series for dramatisation. The resulting BBC cartoon show proved to be widely popular and introduced Hargreaves’s colourful characters to a whole new audience, ensuring the series’ continued success.

Adam Hargreaves
When Hargreaves died unexpectedly of a stroke in 1988, at the age of 53, his son, Adam, took over where his father left off. Adam, the inspiration for the original Mr Tickle, continued to write and illustrate an ever-growing number of Mr Men and Little Miss books, until the business was sold to a UK entertainment group, Chorion in 2004. The £28 million paid by Chorion proved to be a wise investment – the books have now been translated into over 14 languages and have sold an astonishing 120 million copies globally (an average of one every 2.5 seconds). They have also spawned an impressive merchandising business, selling everything from toys, playsets, and games to Mr Lazy Slippers and Mr Cool toilet seat covers.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Mr Tickle’s creation, Adam Hargreaves, now 47, has revamped some to the most popular characters to accurately reflect some of the changes we have seen over the past four decades. Mr Greedy now appears as 1980s investment banker, while Little Miss Chatterbox is now seen nattering into a contemporary mobile phone. However, as evidenced by the series’ enduring popularity, such updates are unnecessary – the originality and simplicity of Hargreaves’s characters will surely guarantee their continued appeal to children for many generations to come.


Vincent Van Gogh
On this day (June 27) in 1890, Vincent Van Gogh shot himself in a wheat field near the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise.  He died two days later at the age of 37.

Van Gogh's suicide was the tragic culmination of years of mental and physical illness. (It has been said that he suffered from epilesy, schizophrenia, a disorder of the inner ear, among other ailments.  He was also thought to be addicted to absinthe, the mind-bending alcoholic drink, which was also known as the Green Dragon or the Green Fairy).

The artist left behind a priceless legacy of impressionist masterpieces.  His genius, however, went unrecognised in his lifetime.  He died a pauper, having only ever sold one of his paintings, Red Vineyard in Arles.


On This Day (15th July)
1099: The city of Jerusalem surrended to the Christian Crusaders.

1606: The Dutch master, Rembrandt, was born in Leiden in the Netherlands.

1799: The Rosetta Stone (which now resides in the British Museum) was found in Egypt by soldiers in Napoleon's army.

1919: Novelist Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin.

1989: Pink Floyd, who were scheduled to play a concert in Venice, were instructed by city officials not to play at any louder than 60 decibels, to prevent any damage to surrounding buildings.

1997: Fashion designer, Gianni Versace, was shot dead on the steps of his Miami home.

2003: Roberto Bolaño, the Chilean-Spanish novelist and poet, died.


Samuel Pepys & The Great Plague
Samuel Pepys, the noted 17th century diarist, is perhaps most famous for his eyewitness accounts of the The Great Fire which swept through London in 1666.  But this was far from the only significant event recorded by him during this tumultuous period in the city's history. 

Although he kept a diary for only nine years (from 1660 to 1669, when he was forced to abandon it due to blindness), Pepys' writings have become an invalubale source of information for historians.  Aside from his accounts of the devastating Great Fire, his diaries have also provided commentaries on the Restoration, the Second Anglo-Dutch War and, of course, the Great Plague.

It was on this day, June 7th, in 1665, when Pepys made one of his first references to this terrible disease, which would go on the wreak havoc on the beleagured city.  He wrote:
“This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a read cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord Have Mercy Upon Us’ writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind . . . that I ever saw."
As the summer wore on, his accounts became ever more harrowing.  On August 12th, he wrote:
“The people die so, that it now seems they are willing to carry the dead to be buried by daylight, the nights not being long enough to do it."
Pepys continued to chronicle the progress of the plague and, as his diary entry for August 22nd suggests, in their efforts to deal with the burgeoning number of dead bodies, the authorities had not the time nor the resources to bestow on the deceased any dignity in death.
“I went on a walk to Greenwich, on my way seeing a coffin with a dead body in it, dead of plague. It lay in an open yard . . . It was carried there last night, and the parish has not told anybody to bury it. This disease makes us more cruel to one another than we are to dogs.”
Pepys' motivation for keeping such detailed records of these traumatic events is unclear.  He certainly didn't write them for posterity; having written most of his entries in code, it is clear he never intended them to be published.  One wonders what he would have made of the fact that, over 400 years later, his scribblings are regarded by many to be the definitive authority on one of the most turbulent decades in London's long and varied history.


The Death of Christopher Marlowe
Christopher Marlowe
On this day, May 30th, in 1593, the acclaimed Elizabethan playwright, poet and author, Christopher Marlowe, died in mysterious circumstances at the age of 29.

A contemporary of William Shakespeare (he was about 2 months older than the Bard), Marlowe was a prolific writer in the years leading up to his premature death. He published 5 plays, including The Jew of Malta, Tamburlaine and Dr Faustus, as well as numerous translations including a version of Ovid's Elegies.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with controversial historical figures, he has been remembered more for the puzzling aspects of his life and the unexplained circumstances of his death, than for his outstanding literary talent.

Despite lack of any definitive proof, it has often been alleged that Marlowe worked as a spy for Elizabeth I's government.  This theory has grown out of some speculation that he was close to Thomas Walsingham, first cousin of Sir Francis Walsingham, who was a member of Elizabeth's Privy Council and who had many links to espionage networks across Europe.  Whether or not Marlowe was recruited as a spy will perhaps always remain a mystery, but the circumstances surrounding his death have spawned innumerable conspiracy theories ...

On May 18th 1593, a warrant was issued by the Privy Council for Marlowe's arrest.  He was accused of having written some material that was deemed 'heretical' by the government of the day.  Upon hearing of the warrant, Marlowe duly presented himself to the Privy Council on May 20th, only to be told that the Council was not sitting on that day.  He was instructed to make daily reports of his whereabouts to the authorities until his case was heard, an obligation he fulfilled faithfully.  Until May 30th, that is, when he got involved in a bar fight over an unpaid bill, during which he was faithfully stabbed.

William Shakespeare
Perhaps the most pervasive conspiracy theory to have sprung up after Marlowe's death was with regard to the Shakespearean authorship controversy.  The has been much debate surrounding the issue of who actually wrote the works attributed to William Shakespeare, with many believing the the man from Stratford had neither the education nor the social standing to produce writings that displayed such an indepth knowledge of the workings of courts across Europe.  Proponents of the Marlovian Theory argue that Christopher Marlowe faked his own death in 1593 to escape the charges of heresy, and then went one to write under the pseudonym of William Shakespeare.  This theory is, for the most part, discounted by scholars ... but it does raise an interesting question: If Marlowe had not met with a premature death on that day in 1593, would he have gone on to produce works to rival those of William Shakespeare?  If he had lived, would he have had as profound effect on the development of the English language as his contemporary?

The mind boggles at the possibilities ...

Marlowe's signature

For more about the Shakespearean authorship controversy, read:


The Nazis Light the Fires of Hate
On this day (May 10th) in 1933, the Office for Press and Propaganda of the German Student Association committed an unforgivable crime against culture and literary heritage. In university towns and cities across Germany, the student arm of the Nazi party carried out book burning ceremonies, reducing 25,000 books deemed to be ‘un-German’ or ‘against the German spirit’ to ash. This purge of literary works was often accompanied by many rousing speeches from Nazi party officials, like this one from the Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda himself, Joseph Goebbels.

"You are doing the right thing at this midnight hour—to consign to the flames the unclean spirit of the past…. Out of these ashes the phoenix of a new age will arise…. Oh Century! Oh Science! It is a joy to be alive!"

Joseph Goebbels delivering his speech
The list of works which were deemed ‘un-German’ is lengthy. Books by Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, HG Wells, Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Charles Darwin and Marcel Proust, among many others, met a fiery end. Incidentally, German writers were not spared – works by Albert Einstein, Ludwig Renn and the 19th century Jewish-German poet Heinrich Hein, who wrote the prophetic line "Where they burn books, they will also burn people" were also committed to the flames.

Interestingly, in a much less publicized but equally significant way , the Allies were also guilty of large-scale book burning. In 1946, during the de-Nazification of Germany, millions of books and artworks by proponents of the Nazi regime were destroyed. That's not something we hear about very often, is it?


The Arrest of Oscar Wilde
On this day in 1895, Oscar Wilde was arrested after losing the libel action which he brought against the Marquess of Queensbury, the father of Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie).  It was the beginning of the end for Wilde who, after a short trial, was found guilty of gross indecency and sentenced to two years' hard labour.

When he was released in 1897, his health had badly deteriorated.  Penniless and broken, both physically and mentally, Wilde died in ignominious exile in France in 1900.  He is interred at the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery outside Paris.

Read an account of his arrest from The Times of London archive here:


Virginia Woolf
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the death of Virginia Woolf. On March 28th, 1941, at the age of 59, the writer took her own life by filling her pockets with rocks and wading into the fast-flowing River Ouse near her home in Rodwell, East Sussex. Her body was found three weeks later by children playing near the banks of the river, a long way downstream from where she died …

Virginia had struggled with bouts of severe mental illness for most of her life, and had attempted suicide on more than one occasion. She relied heavily on the support of the husband Leonard, and many believe that his love and devotion was the reason Virginia managed to survive so long against the relenting onslaught of the demons that plagued her.

In his autobiography, The Journey Not the Arrival Matters, Leonard described how the final bout of Virginia’s illness caught everyone by surprise, leaving her family and friends powerless to prevent its destructive and ultimately fatal consequences.
"For years I had been accustomed to watch for signs of danger in V's mind; and the warning symptoms had come on slowly and unmistakably; the headache, the sleeplessness, the inability to concentrate. We had learnt that a breakdown could always be avoided, if she immediately retired into a cocoon of quiescence when the symptoms showed themselves. But this time there were no warning symptoms."
Virginia, for her part, seemed to be painfully aware of the effect her illness had on the lives of those around her. Before her death, she wrote three letters: one to her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, and two to Leonard. In the last of these letters, she acknowledges the debt of gratitude she owes her husband, and expresses her desire to no longer be a burden to him. It is tender, poignant and unutterably heartbreaking … a final love letter to the one man who brought her happiness …

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that - everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.

Virginia by Vanessa Bell
And so it was: on this day in 1941, the dim lights of Virginia Woolf’s troubled life were finally extinguished. Leonard lost a wife, Vanessa lost a sister … and the world lost an irreplaceable literary talent.

To read the New York Times obituary of Virginia Woolf, click here:


DH Lawrence
Yesterday, March 2, was the anniversary of the death of the British novelist and poet, DH Lawrence. He died in 1930, at the age of 45, in a small town in the French Alps, almost penniless and utterly disillusioned with his writing career.

The official cause of death was tuberculosis. However, in the days leading up to his demise, Lawrence (who was dismissive and distrustful of the medical profession) refused to accept any diagnosis proffered by his doctors. Instead, he preferred to believe that his illness stemmed from an entirely different source – literary criticism! Lawrence was convinced that his sickness was the physical manifestation of the endless negativity, scorn and vitriol he was subjected to at the hands of his critics. Pointing to his wheezing chest, the author said to a friend,
"the hatred which my books have aroused comes back at me and gets me here ... If I get the better of if in one place it goes to another."
While his theories regarding the cause of his illnesses were undoubtedly outlandish, Lawrence was not overstating the extent of the negative reaction to his work. Despite the fact that the 1920s, with the emergence of the ‘bright young things’, witnessed a liberalisation in attitudes to sex, the literary world was unwilling to abandon its prudish and puritanical ways and unfortunately the later novels of DH Lawrence fell victim to this.

Women in Love caused an uproar when first published in 1920 due to the explicit sexual content, with one reviewer saying, Most notable, however, was the outrage which followed the 1928 publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover, another graphic sexual novel. If the risqué content was not enough to send the critics in a tail-spin, the abundance of objectionable four-letter words certainly was. Add to this the fact that the plot revolved around the story of a society lady engaging in a passionate affair with a working class man, and it is hardly surprising that the novel was banned in Britain on the grounds of its obscenity. (A heavily censored version of the book was published in the United States by AA Knopf.)
“I do not claim to be a literary critic, but I know dirt when I smell it, and here is dirt in heaps — festering, putrid heaps which smell to high Heaven."

And so it transpired that DH Lawrence was to die an ignominious death, reviled by critics and labelled a pornographer by many of his contemporaries. It would be many decades before the British literary establishment would see the error of its ways. It wasn’t until 1960, when the publisher Penguin brought the case before the courts, that the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover was lifted. It was only after this court case, which became a national cause célèbre, that Lawrence’s reputation was rehabilitated. His novel is now on nearly every must-read list, and his books have been subjected to countless television and film adaptations. At last, DH Lawrence has claimed his rightful place among the great and the good of English literature.


Painters and Poets
On this day, January 19, Edgar Allan Poe, American writer and poet, was born in 1809.

Paul Cézanne, French post-impressionist painter, was also born on this day, in 1839.


James Joyce
On this day (January 13th) 1941, James Joyce, the Irish novelist and poet, died in Zurich, Switzerland. He was three weeks shy of his 59th birthday. In what can only be described as breathtaking short-sightedness and astonishing arrogance, the Irish Government reportedly declined an offer by his wife Nora to have his body repatriated to his homeland. Consequently, he is buried in Fluntern Cemetery in Zurich.

Despite being an inveterate dipsomaniac, Joyce produced a considerable body of work in his lifetime, including A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Finnegan's Wake and the collection of short stories Dubliners. Joyce's fondness of the odd drink did nothing to stem the flow of creativity nor did it adversely affect his work ethic - he once said that he spent 20,000 hours working on Ulysses, the stream of consciousness masterpiece for which he is best remembered.

Interestingly, Joyce and fellow modernist writer Virginia Woolf, the two writers most associated with stream of consciousness narrative, share more than a talent for experimental prose - they were also born and died in the same year (1882 and 1941 respectively). Unfortunately, Woolf, who read Ulysses while writing Mrs Dalloway, did not hold Joyce's offering in very high esteem. She wrote in her diary:

"I have read 200 pages [of Ulysses] so far - not a third; & have been amused, stimulated, charmed, interested by the first 2 or 3 chapters [...] & then puzzled, bored, irritated, & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples. And Tom, great Tom [TS Eliot], thinks this is on a par with War & Peace!"
A harsh critic, indeed!