Friday, 30 December 2016

Severed; A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found - Frances Larson (Granta books, £9.99)

I have always thought of myself as more than averagely morbid, as you might expect from the author of a cemetery blog, but Frances Larson’s ‘Severed’ made me think that I’m not, perhaps, as morbid as I had fondly imagined myself to be. For one thing I had never given much thought to the cultural significance of severed heads. And secondly, unlike 30 million American adults, I have never watched, or even felt the inclination to watch, an on-line video of an Isis execution. Larson reveals that a survey conducted 5 months after the execution by beheading of US engineer Nick Berg in May 2004 found that 24% of all American adult internet users had watched on-line videos of his death, posted by his executioners, in May and June that year. “The Berg beheading footage remained the most popular internet search in the United States for a week,” Larson tells us, and “the second most popular throughout the month of May, runner up only to ‘American Idol’”. Until I googled ‘beheading’, looking for some tasteful 18th century etching or engravings of an execution to illustrate this post with, I had not realised how popular Isis executions were on the web. I was shocked to see hundreds of images of orange jump suited victims kneeling before their scimitar wielding executioners, or artfully posed, post decapitation, with severed head resting in the small of the back of the now headless torso. Seeing still images was bad enough, I am far too squeamish to want to witness the suffering and death of a fellow human being.

Oxford based anthropologist Frances Larson has written other books on the history of the Pitt Rivers Museum and of pioneering medic Henry Wellcome.  ‘Severed’ , her third book, is an excellently written account of the various causes of heads getting sliced off at the neck covering, as you would expect, executions and dissections, but also containing fascinating chapters on shrunken heads, trophy heads, framed heads and potent heads. Her prologue is an account of the peripatetic fate of Oliver Cromwell’s dead head but her most interesting chapter is on the lively late colonial trade in shrunken heads many of which turn out to be fakes produced by indigenous craftsman to supply the lucrative trade in trophy heads generated by western travellers, colonisers and tourists. “Of the ten shrunken heads on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum, two are sloth heads, two are howler monkey heads, and of the six remaining human heads, three are ‘fakes’, made for sale,” Larson says, which “tell of the nameless dead, the impoverished and outcast who, after their deaths, became the victims of an international trade in exotic collectibles that had little to do with the indigenous beliefs of the inhabitants of the Amazon jungle.”

Larson also deals with the taking of trophy heads in war, discussing in detail documented examples during the second world war of American’s taking Japanese skulls as souvenirs or using them as decorations on their jeeps or other vehicles including the famous Life Magazine picture of the week from May 1944 showing Natalie Nickerson, a Phoenix war worker, in the act of writing to her boyfriend serving in the far east, thanking him for the present of a Japanese soldier’s skull which she contemplates as she writes. The photo caused no outcry in the States but was greeted with horror in Japan. Trophy skulls were not taken by US soldiers in the European campaign. These examples, along with the Isis videos, shatter any illusions we have of moral progress over the last few hundred years. Beheadings and guillotining are not relics of a past that we have left behind us, scratch the surface of the average modern suburban American or European and a member of the mob that eagerly turned out at Tyburn on execution day is easy to see. Larson’s book is highly recommended.   

Life magazines picture of the week in May 1944 caused outrage in Japan 

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Spying in the free world; Moura Budberg (1892-1974) Chiswick New Cemetery

Moura's grave in Chiswick New Cemetery

In her final years Moura Budberg lived in a ‘large rambling flat’ in the Cromwell Road according to Michael Blakemore, who visited her at the request of Sir Laurence Olivier,  ‘attended by a female servant, also Russian…and equally cranky… Moura had on a long dress, by no means new, but appropriate to a countess, and her grey hair, its colour improved by the application of some silvery liquid was swept on top of her head. A tiny metallic trickle ran down the side of her face.’ According to other sources she was swollen and arthritic, kept a half bottle of vodka in her handbag, passed her time making small bets on horse races at Ladbrokes or watching Pinky and Perky on television and, as she was perpetually short of money, shoplifting (for which she was arrested at least once). The former beauty still craved company and in his memoirs Alan Ross recalls that her ‘entertaining, helped along by various Russian acolytes, was now much reduced but invitations were peremptory. Any excuses… were brushed aside as if of no account. “Just come in for a little moment,” she would wheedle in her husky voice, which remained distinctive and seductive long after all other physical charms had fled and she had become heavily square in shape.’ Another acquaintance, William Shier, tells us that two or three years before she died she was beginning to sort ‘through piles of material from cardboard boxes that littered the living and dining rooms of her house in Cromwell Road after she had given in to the pleas of her friends to write her memoirs.’  The much requested memoir was never written, ‘the work seemed sometimes to bore and exhaust her and she would telephone urging me to come over for tea and vodka.’ In 1974 Moura moved to Italy to live in the sun, with her son, but died a few months later. Her body was shipped back to England and after a funeral ceremony at the Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile at Emperors Gate (just off the Cromwell Road, close to Moura’s old flat) she was buried at the uninspiring Chiswick New Cemetery in a small patch of other Orthodox burials.  

The 'heavily square' Moura in old age at her Cromwell Road flat
The unwritten memoirs would have been fascinating, though not necessarily completely accurate; Moura was a great embellisher and an outright liar if it suited her. She lived an extraordinary life (she always said that her life was more interesting than she was) but was not, as the New York Times had it in her obituary, at ‘the center of London's literary and social life for nearly four decades’ she certainly knew a lot of famous or celebrated people.   As her headstone testifies she was born Marie Zakrevskaia in 1892, her father, Ignaty Platonovitch Zakrevsky, was a well heeled upper‐class Russian senator who owned land in the Ukraine. He encouraged his clever daughter to learn English, Italian, German and French, and at 18 married her off to an Estonian Count, Johann von Benckendorff.  A couple of years later her husband was killed in on his estate in Estonia, shot by one of his own peasants, a sign of the times. Moura was not heartbroken; she had been working in the Russian embassy in Berlin where she had met the dashing Englishman who became the love of her life; R H Bruce Lockhart.  The handsome Lockhart was a diplomat, sportsman, and author but less publicly was also deeply involved in espionage. He was in Eastern Europe keeping a close eye on the progress of the Russian Revolution. When Moura’s husband died he followed her to Moscow. The pair were both arrested and Lockhart was accused of spying and plotting to assassinate Lenin and incarcerated in the Lubyanka.  Incredibly Moura managed to engineer both her own and Lockhart’s release, possibly by allowing a senior Cheka official and later chief of the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda, to seduce and recruit her as a Bolshevik agent.

A younger, more seductive, Moura photographed with two of her lovers, HG Wells and Maxim Gorky
Once released from prison Lockhart returned to the UK and the 20 year old Moura, whom he had no doubt tried to recruit to be a British agent, went to work for the writer Maxim Gorky as his secretary, probably at the instigation of Yagoda and the Cheka.  It was probably also with the urging of the Cheka that she became Gorky’s mistress. She lived with the writer first in the USSR and then in semi exile in Italy until 1932 when he returned to the Soviet Union at the personal invitation of Stalin (who probably had him assassinated 1936). Whilst with Gorky Moura had also started an affair with HG Wells when he visited the USSR in 1920 and the affair continued when she moved to London in 1933. She later told Wells that she had started sleeping with him at the request of the Cheka.
In London Moura managed, courtesy of Wells, to insinuate herself into the heart of the literary and political establishments. Graham Greene dubbed her Moura Bedbug in honour of her free and easy attitude to sexual morality.  She worked as a translator and a production adviser on the stage and screen, was Alexander Korda’s PA, and mixed freely in society but always under the scrutiny of MI5 who were convinced that she was a Russian spy. Many believed that she was a double agent passing information between NKVD and MI6; she was a friend of Guy Burgess. Long before he was outed as a Soviet mole by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 she was telling people that Anthony Blunt was a card carrying member of the Communist Party. When one of her friends, Klop Ustinov (spy and father of Peter Ustinov) said “I only know about him that he looks after the King’s pictures”, Moura retorted “Such things only happen in England”.
The inscription on Moura's grave

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

"Franz Kafka was my lover"; Dora Diamant (1898-1952) United Synagogue Cemetery, Marlow Road, East Ham

In the bed directly opposite me a woman lies dying. An older woman. She’s whimpering incessantly, trying to say something.  The nurses are trying to understand what she says. Earlier on she cried. She lay quite still and the tears flowed from her closed eyes down her face. A beautiful woman, fairly plump, cheeks a little pink, maybe she has a fever. What does she think? Does she know she is dying? She seems to be conscious. Then she certainly knows it. It is simply not something one cannot overlook. I was not as far gone a few weeks ago, but still I knew exactly how things looked....She is an Englishwoman so at least she is dying in her homeland. .......(Later, when the nurses had moved screens around the dying woman’s bed) I think it is the end over there. It is difficult to think about anything else. Now and then one hears laughter from the other end of the ward. On the whole most are quiet, not depressed, although they too think of nothing else it seems.
Dora Diamant, Plaistow Hospital April 1951

At 53 Dora Diamant was hardly old but she knew she was dying. She had been diagnosed with chronic nephritis, a condition which eventually causes kidney failure and for which there was no known cure. The disease could have killed her at any time; the only suggestion her doctors had to prolong her life was bed rest and a strict diet with restricted salt and protein. Even then they couldn’t tell her if she had years, months or just weeks to live. She was almost frantic with worry about her seventeen year old daughter, a beautiful but unworldly child who had spent most of her sheltered childhood in hospitals and boarding schools and was so shy that she could barely bring herself to speak to strangers. How would she cope with life without her mother to look after her?  Her other preoccupation were her memories of her first lover, Franz Kafka. Death would erase them unless she committed them to paper.  On March 4 1951 in black ink , she wrote across the front cover of a bright red Silvine school exercise book ‘To be given to Max Brod’. On the inside cover she wrote her address ‘Ward Pasteur 1, Plaistow Hospital, E15’ (Dora lived in Finchley and so can be excused not knowing Plaistow Hospital was in E13 not E15).  In the blank pages of the exercise book she took herself back to the summer of 1923 and the seaside town of Graal-Müritz on the Baltic coast, the place where as a 25 year old volunteer at the Berlin Jewish People’s holiday camp for refugee children, she had met and fallen in love with Kafka. 

A young Dora Diamant, a photo taken in Berlin in the late 1920's
Dora Diamant was born on 04 March 1898 in Pabianice near Lodz in central Poland. When she was 14 her mother died and her father Herschel remarried and moved the family to Bedzin in Silesia, near the German Border, a town where he thrived as a manufacturer of garters and suspenders. Although he was a successful, factory owning business man, Herschel was a pious Hassid, a follower of the Rebbe of Ger, R. Isaac Meir and his successors. Herschel was a learned man, he spoke Polish and German as well as Yiddish and Hebrew and his house was full of books in all four languages. Unlike their sons, who received only religious instruction, the daughters of Hassidim were often allowed a secular education (considered fit only to be wasted on girls) and so it was with Dora. When the teenage Dora became rebellious and refused to marry, Herschel sent her away to Krakow to study to be a kindergarten teacher.  But even Krakow was too provincial for her and without her father’s permission she ran away to Berlin. Hershel recited Kaddish, the ritual prayer of mourning, for his daughter and henceforth treated her as though she were dead.

In 1923 Dora volunteered to work for a Jewish charity which ran a holiday home for refugee children at Graal-Müritz in Mecklenburg on the Baltic coast. One of the other volunteers invited the almost unknown writer Franz Kafka, who was staying at the resort with his sister and her two children, to a Sabbath dinner at the camp. Dora had already glimpsed Kafka two days earlier, though at the time she was not aware of who he was. She had seen a family on the beach, the handsome father, as she assumed he was, sitting with his wife on covered beach chairs, indulgently watching the two children playing in the sand. On the night Kafka came to dinner Dora was in the kitchen cleaning and gutting fish, stripping off their scales and removing their heads as well as their bloody entrails. She recognised immediately the man from the beach when he stopped to talk to her; “such tender hands and such bloody work they do,” were Kafka’s idea of small talk. Dora soon learnt that the moody young writer (he remained eternally young, even at the age of 40 which was how old he was when Dora met him) was not in fact married and was staying in Graal-Müritz for three weeks with his sister. Kafka returned to the camp everyday mainly it seems to see Dora and very quickly passion blossomed between them in this unlikely setting. Dora later remembered the highlights “Franz helping peel potatoes in the kitchen. The night on the pier. On the bench in the Müritz woods.” Astonishingly in those three weeks (given his chronic indecisiveness particularly in relation to women) Franz came to a decision to leave his father’s house in Prague and move in with Dora in Berlin. Perhaps Kafka’s new found determination was given spurs by the knowledge that his tuberculosis was worsening and that he might not have long to live.

Kafka in his 20's - 15 years before he met Dora
By September 1923 Kafka was in Berlin living in a small flat with Dora and working on the stories that he would soon publish as “The Hunger Artist”. It was a short lived idyll as Kafka grew increasingly sick over the winter of 1923/24. By the spring of 1924 he was forced to return home to Prague leaving Dora, temporarily, behind in Berlin. She joined him in Prague in April and accompanied him to Dr Hoffman’s sanatorium at Kierling near Vienna. Only an open topped car could be found for the journey and soon after they set off driving rain set in. Dora devotedly stood over Kafka for almost the entire 330 kilometre trip holding an umbrella to try and keep him dry. She remained in Kierling, visiting him every day until he died on the 3rd of June. She wasn’t with him at his death, Kafka’s friend Robert Klopstock having sent her away on an errand so that she didn’t have to witness the writer’s final agonies. TB had made Kafka’s throat so painful and swollen that he could not swallow. Ironically, given that he was working on correcting the proofs of “The Hunger Artist”, he probably died of starvation.

Kafka famously left explicit instructions that all his unpublished manuscripts were to be destroyed after his death – he was confident that the few copies of his books that had been sold would find oblivion unaided – and even more famously his best friend and executor, Max Brod, after some agonised deliberation, not only ignored the instruction to burn Kafka’s papers but went on to publish many of them including all three of his novels. Dora was well aware of Kafka’s wishes – she had helped him burn manuscripts while he was alive and had promised him that she would do the same to the cache of notebooks and correspondence he left with her. Like Brod she couldn’t bring herself to obliterate Kafka’s last traces but unlike him she did not feel these should be shared with the rest of the world. Brod knew she had many of Kafka’s final manuscripts but she lied to him and told him that she had done what the writer had requested and destroyed them. Brod believed her. For ten years the Kafka notebooks went with Dora wherever she went. In 1933 they were with her when the Gestapo raided her apartment; the notebooks were confiscated and never seen again.

After Kafka’s death Dora’s life was swept into the maelstrom that was mittel European politics in the 20’s and 30’s. Back in Berlin, whilst working in the Yiddish theatre, she became a committed Zionist and found herself drawn into radical politics. In 1932 she married the editor of Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the communist party’s daily newspaper, Lutz Lask and two years gave birth to their daughter Franziska Marianne (not only did Dora name her daughter after Kafka, she brought her up to refer to him as her ‘other father’). As Nazi control over Germany grew Lask fled to the Soviet Union where Dora joined him in 1936. A year later Lask was arrested during the Stalinist purges and sent to exile in Siberia. Dora lived with her mother in law in Yalta until the summer of 1939 when she fled to England as a refugee, arriving shortly before Germany invaded Poland in September. During the war she was detained for over a year as an enemy alien in the Port Erin Detention Camp on the Isle of Man. When she was released in 1942 she and Marianne returned to London where they lived in a cramped flat in Broadhurst Gardens, West Hampstead NW6 apart from a short spell in Glenloch Road, Belsize Park when a bomb damaged Broadhurst Gardens. After the war she dedicated herself to fighting the losing battle of preserving Eastern European Yiddish culture alive in Whitechapel and was a founder member of the group, The Friends of Yiddish with the poet Abraham Stencl.

Plaistow Hospital where Dora died in 1952
Dora died of kidney failure in Plaistow Hospital in August 1952. She was buried in the East Ham Jewish Cemetery in Marlow Road on August 18, an unseasonably wet and cold day according to Marthe Robert, Kafka’s French translator, who was one of the few people who attended the ceremony. “Dreadful storms threatened England that day,” she later recalled, “black silhouettes sank in puddles up to their ankles under icy cloud bursts. One could only move forward by pulling hard on each leg to tear the feet away from the mud. The rain had only faces to batter in this treeless and naked field, nothing but faces already dripping wet, nothing but this face, next to me, streaked with black from the dripping head-covering made of newspaper, handed out at the cemetery door to serve as a hat. No writers or journalists attended her funeral. The news had not reached them; only those with whom Dora had worked, played and sang were now crying openly under the rain in the big East End Jewish Cemetery.” Jewish custom dictates that no memorial can be placed over a grave for at least a year; in Dora’s case it took 47, her headstone was only erected in 1999 by a group of family descendents living in Israel none of whom had known Dora personally. The inscription on her gravestone, “who knows Dora knows what love means”, is a quotation from a letter written by Kafka’s friend Robert Klopstock after the writers death, in which he described the devotion shown by Dora to the dying writer. After her mother’s death, and despite the best effort of Dora’s friends (who included George and Marianne Steiner) Marianne became increasingly withdrawn and strange, eventually developing full blown schizophrenia. In the worst crises of her illness, paranoid and distrustful of everyone, she shunned other people including her mother’s friends who tried to help her. She died alone in 1982, her badly decomposed body found by the police in her flat after neighbours complained of the smell.  

For more details of Dora's life see Kathi Diamant "Kafka's Last Love."