Rowland Strong’s Nice of times terrible

One of my great pleasures on holiday is reading books of no conceivable use whatsoever, just interest, and as a source the London Library is perfect for the purpose. So thus it is that I come to be sitting on my hotel balcony in Beaulieu-sur-Mer (just down the road from Nice), having just finished the original copy from the library’s copy of Rowland Strong’s The Diary of an English Resident in France During Twenty-two Weeks of War Time (which you can also read online). That’s the First World War, and the first weeks of it. Probably keenly in demand in the library of 1916 when it was purchased – although only borrowed eight times in the past decade.

Strong it seems was a jobbing correspondent (there’s a piece of his from the New York Times online), and I’d say this source is being kind when it suggests he “seems to have been a fervent anti-Semite”, given some of the passages in The Diary. Of course it isn’t fair to judge a man of 1916 by the standards of today, but it seems to me that even by his day’s standards he must have been a pretty virulent racist, as well as of course being highly classist and misogynist. (He writes after the bombing of Reims cathedral: “The only other people fiendish and barbarous enough to have conceived and set the example of such an abominable act of vandalism, within recent times, are the British suffragettes.” p. 170 – a lovely example of the kind of hostility they must have engendered in this sort of “gentleman”.)

He also suffers from a “spies under the bed mania” and I had to laugh at the bit where he’s advised that he should take a story to the Daily Mail when no one else will print it – nothing changed there then.

You can, perhaps forgive him an anti-German prejudice, as in this passage (and as someone who’s tried to read Kant in translation I have some sympathy on this score), but he’s just as bad about other races:

“Both of these French naval officers were admirers of, and had an intimate acquaintance with English art and books, to a far greater extent than I have ever found among Germans with all their boasted ‘kultur’. And with all of it a lightnes of touch, a lambent humour, a sprightly wit, which, as compared with the long-winded, wranglesome conversation of the intellectual German, is as light to darkness.” (p. 22)

But there’s still a pathos in reading this account – written just down the road from where I am now, in one of the buildings probably still standing there, a pathos that comes from the fact that Strong doesn’t know what happens next – or indeed often what is happening at the time. In a casual aside he notes that men coming back from the front note the guns are very loud – you can imagine some poor mentally battered soldier telling this tale, and the bluff Englishman playing it down. Which is not to say that he’s totally unrealistic; he writes on August 10 (1914) from Nice: “There is an idea gaining ground here that Germany is already suing for peace, on account of food difficulties. I fear this is still a little premature.” (p. 41)

Then, as he briefly crosses the Channel, he sees two huge troopships heading for France:
“…their sides lined and their decks packed with British troops, making one great curved patch of oakum-coloured khaki. They cheered, and we cheered them back. … a stentorian voice in the ranks roared out: ‘We’ll die hearty’.” (p. 120)

He’s in Paris in late October and notes that: “The French pretty generally wear full mourning for their dead relations killed “on the field of honour”, so that the dressmakers have notices in their windows calling attention to the promptitude with which mourning can be delivered; and most of the cheaper jewellers’ shops are plentifully stocked with brooches and pins and other trinkets made of black beads, bog oak and jet.” ((p. 209)

He starts to grasp that this is a war that is going to change “everything” – although his sense of direction is entirely out. “…the new movement in painting, which must inevitably result from the war, will be backwards in the direction of classicism. All the hybrid forms of impressionism and futurism, which have recently been poising the springs of art in Europe, were of German origin, or made possible by German encouragement.” He quotes a French barrister, who lost the Henriette Caillaux case, as saying “that in future politics will not be allowed to influence the decisions of juries, or the attitudes of judges”.

Strong is informative about the press of the period – it seems photographers were definitely “players”, while to their own minds at least the correspondents were “gentlemen”. He writes of seeing in a Paris cafe “evidently Englishmen … had the appearance and manners of the estwhile London bus-conductor – that same cheeky-leery pushfulness … They are the only workers for the Press who have got anywhere near the firing line of either the British or French armies, and this is mainly, or rather entirely, due to the fact that they speak no foreign language, and not even their own. .. Tired of trying to explain things to them, the French generally allow them to do much as they please.” (p. 139)

He’s also curiously from another age that seems far, far distant. “To my surprise I ascertained from the British Consul [again in Nice] that my passport, dated 1884, is no longer valid. No passport may be more than five years old. … He thought that I might have difficulty geting into Paris, and very kindly went out of his way to draw out the passport so that I could leave to-night.” (p. 107)

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