They wrote it this week: Sheik me, stir me, just don’t disappear at dawn
Extracts from diaries and letters written between September 7 and September 13
1943, Terezin concentration camp, Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia
[Inmates were subjected to the emotional torment of being on ever-changing “reserve lists” for transportation to death camps.] I can’t remember how many times we were assembled in the courtyard; I only know that at some point I just wanted to be on that train.
One time we were already on the way to the train. If not for Mom, we’d already be gone. On the way she turned around and saw there was no one behind us. We came back to the Schleuse, hid out for a while in the courtyard and then they let us in. Luckily we were among the first to get out of the Schleuse, because then suddenly they didn’t have enough people and they were taking anyone they could find, even right off the street.
- Helga Weiss, Czech-Jewish artist and Holocaust survivor, b. 1929.
Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss, Penguin, 2014
1925, Sevenoaks, Kent
[To her lover, Virginia Woolf] My spaniel has seven puppies. My cat has five kittens. The spaniel steals the kittens, and, carrying them very carefully in her mouth, puts them into the puppies’ basket. She then goes out for a stroll, and the cat in search of her progeny curls up in the basket and suckles the puppies. The spaniel returns, chases out the cat, curls up in the basket, and suckles the kittens. I find myself quite unable to cope with this situation. The kittens will bark and the puppies will mew, – that’s what will happen. But at present it makes a charming family party, – such a warm soft young heap.
- Vita Sackville-West, British aristocrat and writer, 1892-1962.
The Letters if Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf edited by Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell A Leaska, Hutchinson, 1984
The heaviest raid of the war on England. The first half hour was the worst – bombs and explosions and machine gun fire, but I did not think they were very near. Then a whistle which I thought might be a screaming bomb some distance away; no explosion, but a clanky rattle very near at hand. It sounded like a cup or plate or a tray falling to the ground and I looked all round the shelter and front part of the garage for it. Then I thought it might be a piece of shrapnel on the Gregorys’ roof knocking a slate off and the two falling to the ground; in a lull I opened the door to make sure it wasn’t an incendiary bomb fallen on the house. It was only in the morning that I found an incendiary bomb with its tip buried in the cement of the step just beneath my nose.
- Doreen Bates, British civil servant, 1906-1994.
Diary of a Wartime Affair by Dorren Bates, Penguin, 2017
Curious dream about meeting a marvellous Arab sheik and saying I loved him, to which he replied “Come round tomorrow afternoon and we can watch some television” in an American accent. Woke up feeling so awful that I thought of asking Patrick to send me to a hospital & getting me a psychiatrist.
- Kenneth Williams, British comedian, 1926-1988.
The Kenneth Williams Diaries edited by Russell Davies, HarperCollins, 1994
[To the Hon HS Conway. Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz had just arrived from Germany to marry King George III, whom she had never met. It was her turn for the terrible ordeal every princess at the time had to face.] When she caught the first glimpse of the Palace, she grew frightened and turned pale; the Duchess of Hamilton smiled – the Princess said, “My dear Duchess, you may laugh, you have been married twice, but it is no joke to me.” Her lips trembled as the coach stopped, but she jumped out with spirit, and has done nothing but with good-humour and cheerfulness.
- Horace Walpole, English politician and man of letters, 1717-1797 (Charlotte’s early display of common sense and adaptability bore fruit in a rarely happy royal marriage and successful queenship.)
Selected Letters of Horace Walpole edited by William Hadley, JM Dent, 1939
1894, Bucharest, Romania
[To her mother. The crown princess had been to a grand reception at Bucharest’s train station to welcome back the King and Queen of Romania from abroad. Her description gives a rare glimpse at what these royal events feel like “from the other side”.] They arrived with the same train that you did last year, of course there were masses of people. The crowd and the squash are not to be described & the smells, oh! the smells! boots, bad breath, garlic, feet, strong flowers, patchouli and poudre de riz all mixed up with the certain smell of painted ladies which certainly is a quite particular perfume, I don’t know if you know it. Naturally we are much too early, it is always the case though I do all I can to start as late as possible and there we sat at the station waiting about half and hour surrounded by everyone it is slightly trying especially in my condition [she was pregnant] and in that smell; wonderful to say that I did not feel a moment bad which really is a wonder!
- Marie, Crown Princess and future Queen of Romania, granddaughter of Queen Victoria and of Russian Emperor Alexander II, 1875-1938.
Dearest Missy: The Letters of Marie Alexandrovna Grand Duchess of Russia, Duchess of Edinburgh and of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and of her daughter Marie Crown Princess of Romania 1879-1900 edited by Diana Mandache, Rosvall Royal Books, 2011
1930, Glamis Castle, Scotland
[To Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury] Thank you so much for your most charming letter of congratulation [on the birth of Princess Margaret]. Daughter No. 2 is really very nice, and I am glad to say that she has got large blue eyes and a will of iron, which is all the equipment that a lady needs! And as long as she can disguise her will, & use her eyes, then all will be well.
- Elizabeth, Duchess of York, future queen consort of King George VI and Queen Mother, 1900-2002.
Counting One’s Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother edited by William Shawcross, MacMillan, 2012
1993, Bembridge, Isle of Wight
[Palin was filming a spiritualist meeting for a television programme.] The meeting is another first for me as I’ve never directly experienced what goes on behind the door of a spiritualist church. It’s a little disappointing. The medium is a popular, cheeky son of the Midlands, an ex-jockey who learnt he had “powers” after a serious fall which nearly ended his life. The hall is packed, not with impressionable old ladies but with impressionable people of all ages (there is one family with young daughters) and all walks of life.
Mark the medium sets about introducing people from beyond to people present. Many attempts sound unconvincing – “Venice means something to you right? … Vienna? … No, we can’t settle for that. Psychics might but we can’t (laughter). I see anemones next to you … d’you like them?” Most people try to be helpful and he himself is unfailingly bright and optimistic. Little pain seems to come through and absolutely no recrimination, only reassuring little messages about looking after the garden and eating a balanced diet.
He picks me out at one point. “I see a little boy called Brian … does the name Brian mean anything to you?”
- Michael Palin, British comedian, TV personality and star of The Life of Brian, b. 1943.
Travelling to Work: Diaries 1988-98 by Michael Palin, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2015
[To his former boyfriend, Paul Anstee. Gielgud was touring the US in Much Ado About Nothing.] My two scrambles were not very interesting. The Italian boy is too young and dewy eyed to get involved with, though he is really very handsomely proportioned and walks around the theatre naked to the waist in bright yellow tights with such a basket of kisses that it is impossible not to look rather interested. The other with the stage manager, who is an absolute dear – 35ish and glasses and a crew cut – was rather hairy and unsatisfactory and hardly likely to be repeated, I think, though no bones were broken on either side.
- John Gielgud, British actor, 1904-2000.
Gielgud’s Letters edited by Richard Mangan, Phoenix, 2005
[It was the afternoon after the 9/11 attacks.] I was asked to do a few broadcasts for local radio about it and then I went off for the Labour Action for Peace meeting in the centre of London. The incredible thing was, although they all knew what had happened, they spent about an hour discussing who’d got the leaflets for the forthcoming conference, who was doing the collection, was the pamphlet ready, had the room been booked. My mobile phone kept ringing, but I couldn’t hear anything because the meeting was in a basement, so I said to them, “Look, I’ve got to go, but don’t you think we ought to have a word about this attack?”
- Tony Benn, British Labour Party politician and left-wing activist, 1925-2014.
More Time for Politics: Tony Benn Diaries 2001-2007 edited by Ruth Winstone, Arrow Books, 2008
1904, St Petersburg, Russia
I sent for Yatsko and he came to see me this morning. I easily persuaded him to be candid. It was strange for me to hear him describe the familiar characteristics: he has never felt drawn to a woman, and has been infatuated with men several times. I did not confess to him that I knew these feelings from my own personal experience. Yatsko and I talked for a long time.
Before leaving he kissed my face and hands; I should not have allowed this, and should have pushed him away, however I was punished afterwards by vague feelings of shame and remorse. He told me that, ever since the first time we met, his soul has been filled with rapturous feelings towards me, which grow all the time. How this reminds me of my own youth.
- Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, grandson of Russian Emperor Nicholas I, poet and translator of Shakespeare, 1858-1915.
A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra - Their Own Story edited by Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, Phoenix Giant, 1997
[To her friend, Violet Hammersley. It was the height of the London Blitz.] I think that every living thing that can be got out of this hell should be – NOBODY can have the slightest idea of what it is like until they’ve experienced it. As for the screaming bombs they simply make your flesh creep but the whole thing is so fearful that they are actually only a slight added horror. The great fires everywhere the awful din which never stops & the wave after wave after wave of aeroplanes, ambulances tearing up the street & the horrible unnatural blaze of light from the searchlights all has to be experienced to be understood. Then in the morning the damage – people ring up to tell one how their houses are completely non existent, & in nearly every street you can see a sinister little piece roped off with red lights round it, or roofs blown off or suddenly every window out of a house, & lorries full of rubble & broken furniture pass incessantly. Of course the number of deaths is absolutely tiny, but everybody now sleeps in the shelters, at about 7 one sees them queueing up with thermos flasks & blankets for the night. People are beyond praise, everyone is red eyed and exhausted but you never hear a word of complaint or down heartedness it is most reassuring.
- Nancy Mitford, British writer, 1904-1973.
Love from Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford edited by Charlotte Mosley, Sceptre, 1994
Another hurricane is bearing down on Florida. This, though it pains me to say, is good news. The only hope of the Americans waking up to global warming is for them to be hit where it hurts – in a Republican swing state.
- Chris Mullin, British Labour Party politician and left-wing activist, b.1947.
A View from the Foothills: The Diaries of Chris Mullin, Profile Books, 2010