Letters to the Editor - August 2012
A selection of readers' correspondence with the editor, Paul Lay.
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On the basis of Andrew Lycett’s review of my Explorers of the Nile published in your May edition, Michael Walton blithely assumes (Letters, July) that whatever I might or might not have written about Speke’s and Burton’s second expedition, I had ‘misunderstood’ everything, so he’d better put me right straightaway, rather than wait till he’d read my book.
Walton thinks Speke was a ‘slipshod’ geographical observer. Burton didn’t think this before he fell out with him. When addressing the Royal Geographical Society about their expedition, Burton attributed ‘the geographical results’ to Speke and said: ‘To him fell the arduous task of delineating an exact topography, and of laying down our positions by astronomical observations – a labour to which at times even the undaunted Livingstone found himself unequal.’ Burton also described Speke using his sextant and other instruments: ‘Night after night at, the end of the burning march, he sat for hours in the chilling dews practising his lunars.’ Only after they quarrelled did Burton claim that he was ‘… not an accurate astronomical observer … [and on expeditions] was unfit for any other but a subordinate capacity’. Speke was certainly not ‘subordinate’ when, without Burton, he became the first European to reach Lake Victoria. So Burton ‘traduced’ him and Walton is wrong to say that he didn’t.
If, as Walton claims, Speke promised not to go to the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) before the ailing Burton had returned from Africa, why did Burton write to the RGS’s secretary explaining that his poor health meant that Speke would reach England first, then adding: ‘Captain Speke, however, will lay before you maps & observations, & two papers …’? Clearly because, despite Burton’s later allegations, at the time he knew that Speke would visit the RGS before him. I spent a chapter examining the mass of conflicting claims about Speke’s ‘promise’.
Walton says ‘it is almost certain that Speke did commit suicide’. Really? When his biographer and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography dismiss the idea? When his letters militate against it? When Speke’s last conversation, moments before his death, was on the subject of African missions? And, frankly, would anyone choose to kill himself by firing into his armpit as he was clambering over a wall with his gun held in a position making it impossible for him to reach the trigger with either hand?
I agree with Anthony Kelly that the Fireman Artist exhibitions of 1941 ‘helped Britain’s standing in the US’. I do not agree that the only ‘casualties’ were the18 paintings destroyed by fire in New Jersey. For Rudolf Haybrook, who had been instrumental in setting up the idea in the first place, also became a casualty.
Those men sent to accompany the exhibitions had all undergone eight months of fighting fires in the Blitz. Already tired, the schedule they faced from the time they arrived in Canada was relentless. Station Officer Ivall, for example, clearly exhausted and homesick, sent several letters back to England asking when he might be allowed to return home. He finally came back, after six months, in January 1942 even though at this stage the US had entered the war and there was more demand than ever for the visiting firemen.
Haybrook stayed on. Given his emotional and physical fragility it is surprising that he was sent at all, although he was regarded by many as being the inspiration for the show.
It would seem that Haybrook suffered from some sort of breakdown while in the US. On his return to Britain he was invalided out of the fire service. In July 1941, after Haybrook’s return to Britain, there seems to have been some stirring of conscience on the part of the London Fire Brigade because although he was no longer fit to be ‘employed normally by the National Fire Service’, they did not wish to dismiss him entirely.
There are a number of episodes which imply that Haybrook had been acting in an erratic manner while in the US and after his return. Towards the end of the war, pictures from the US exhibition began to arrive back in Britain and it was discovered that some, including paintings by Haybrook, were missing. There was a suggestion that he had either sold or given them away, but the matter could not be followed up because Haybrook had gone missing.
In October there emerged another reason to find him, since a claim was put forward by the clerk to the committee of Lloyd’s that in April 1941 one of Haybrook’s paintings, Southwark Street, December 1940, was purchased by Sir Eustace Pulbrook, chairman of Lloyd’s and presented by him to the company. Haybrook had not informed the Ministry of Information nor the Fireman Artist’s Committee of the sale. A letter was sent to Haybrook informing him of the return of some of his paintings and asking him for authority to pass the painting on to Lloyd’s. The letter was sent c/o The American Red Cross Society, who were said to know of his whereabouts, which they had been asked not to disclose. When Lloyd’s contacted the Ministry of Information in November, a Miss Dodd from the ministry’s finance division noted: ‘I cannot help feeling there is something fishy about this HAYBROOK business.’
Further efforts to trace him proved fruitless and it was finally decided that it would be a waste of time in the circumstances to try to find ‘this elusive individual’. There was, however, still a problem since, while the ministry had no doubt the painting was purchased by the chairman of Lloyd’s, it was contracted to return the paintings from the exhibition to the fireman artists concerned. On January 16th, 1946 a letter from Eustace Pulbrook read: ‘I find it difficult to understand why you refuse to let me have this picture without giving you a personal indemnity against any possible claim from the artist, but, if you will expedite the return of the picture to Lloyd’s, I am prepared to give such an undertaking.’
Dodd finally wrote to the Treasury Solicitor outlining the situation, while on January 22nd, 1946 it was agreed by the Finance Division that: ‘Since the Ministry originally received the picture in question from the artist, Mr Haybrook, I agree it is essential that Sir Eustace Pulbrook should be required to give an indemnity before the picture is handed over to Lloyd’s.’ On January 30th the Treasury solicitor provided a written undertaking to be agreed by Pulbrook and at last the picture was received and signed for by him on February 4th. Haybrook rarely painted again after the war.
Under a Shadow
Chris Millington seems curiously keen (In the Shadow of the “Dark Years”, June 2012) to convince us that Colonel de La Roque’s Croix de Feu, later the PSF, was among the French fascist groups and to refute the claim that it was ‘conservative rather than fascist and a forerunner of Gaullism’. That is presumably why his account of the organisation stops at 1940.
La Roque was transmitting military information to British Intelligence from September 1942. With other members of the PSF, he then formed his own resistance network. Arrested, together with 152 leading members of his party, by the SD in March 1943, he was deported to Germany and interned, being finally freed by the US army in May 1945. Returning to France a sick man, he was detained by the provisional authorities and died on April 28th, 1946, while still under house arrest.
In April 1961 the French Government admitted his services to the Resistance by sending his widow the medal and the carte de déporté to which he was entitled. In an accompanying letter, De Gaulle referred to La Roque’s ‘cruel deportation for acts of resistance and praised ‘his sacrifice offered to the service of France’.
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