Valerie Lester, Clarence's biographer, writes this wonderful year-end letter which I think all those interested in Clarence Bicknell and the upcoming biography would want to read.
As usual at this time of year, I give thanks for my great circle of friends, and I send you warmest wishes for Christmas and great happiness in the New Year.
My year has been much taken up with writing the Clarence Bicknell biography — wonderfully interesting work. Having Team Bicknell help me with the research, and my cousins Marcus and Susie Bicknell egging me on, I have not been condemned to the lonely life of the average biographer (myself included, in the past). I’m having a grand time.
In September, Bodoni interfered with the Bicknell flow when I had to give five talks about Bodoni in the space of two weeks, in places as various as the Caxton Club in Chicago, the rare book division at Columbia, and the Library of Congress. There’s a webcast of the talk at the Library of Congress if you happen to have a free hour, when the weather outside is frightful, to listen to my droning . . .
My family is thriving. My daughter Alison, her husband Andy, and their dog Jasper moved from Singapore to England in June, since when Alison has been sewing jackets for Jasper. After spending his life in Singapore, he’s feels the cold. Here he is, color-coordinated with Andy.
Alison’s kids are both in New York, Kiri finishing at NYU and Linus on a gap year, working on his music and an internship with Vice Media, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. Alison's new book, Yuki Means Happiness, is coming out in England in the summer, and she has another in the works.
My son Toby is a freelance editor with tons of work. He also teaches an editing course at Boston college. His wife Catherine still works at the Harvard Law School, which in my unbiased opinion, is lucky to have her. Emma, their eldest, has taken well to Cornell, while Kate and Sage lead busy lives in Belmont. Here’s Sage showing off her tonsils, with her sisters on either side of her, and Kiri with her boyfriend Daniel in the back row.
That’s enough of family matters . . . Now let’s get back to Clarence Bicknell. (I’m nothing if not obsessive.) Last Saturday I went to a choral concert whose central theme was the animals we associate with Christmas, the donkey being chief among them. I was delighted about this since donkeys were already much on my mind because of the frequency with which they show up in Clarence Bicknell’s diary of his Cooks’ tour to Egypt, written and illustrated between 4 December 1889 and 30 January 1890.
Apart from the steamer in which he traveled up the Nile, donkeys were the principal means of transport. Here he describes his first ride of the trip:
“At 9 with a dragoman we all started on donkeys, such strong good little donkeys! But mine set off galloping, I couldn’t stop him, my stirrup broke and I thought every moment I would be pitched over his head or tumble off, but I clung on like grim death and survived.”
He had better luck on the donkey he rode to Karnak:
“We started for Karnak along an excellent road, and on truly noble donkeys. I felt as safe on mine as on a granite sphinx; he never stumbled, walked at a marvelous pace, was No. 11 and called George Washington.”
Even on Christmas day, the last day in Cairo before the group embarked for the voyage up the Nile, Clarence rode a donkey: "After a grand Xmas luncheon beginning with mince pies, we all took donkeys & went out to our favourite tombs of the Khalifs & across the desert to the Red mountains, which we ascended for the magnificent view; the day was simply perfect, with the clouds casting deep purple shadows over the sand, the city bathed in light. A long Xmas dinner finished up the day, and nearly finished us up also.”
What has struck me most forcibly about Clarence in reading his diary is his open mind towards the religions of others. Originally an Anglo-Catholic priest, he began to question his faith, and eventually turned away from organized religion, even as he maintained a great interest in the varieties of religious experience. Here he reflects on the coming New Year:
"It is the last day of the year. May the cold winds go with it, & the new year bring us pleasanter weather. Yes, and to others as well as ourselves many other & better things. The last day of the year brings many thoughts with it, and more than ever here one keeps wondering over the story of the byegone years & centuries & ages, & thinking of the lives of the early Egyptian architects & sculptors & painters, suddenly coming out the the unknown, with all their developed powers & then of the Israelites in Egypt, and many another race who sailed he Nile & lived on its banks. And then the suppression by force of the religion of the country by Christian emperors, and the desert peoples with the monks & ascetics, soon to be swept away by Islam. What changes have taken place here in those 6000 years & now one rushes quickly by in a steamer & passes ruined cities and empty caves, and abandoned churches & decaying mosques & wonders what will come next? A better religion? Who can say?”
How wonderfully apt his words are today! I join with Clarence in wishing you all “pleasanter weather” in a world where tolerance and compassion can regain their foothold.
Peace and love to you all.
from Valerie Lester
writing from Hingham, MA., near Boston, USA