Caught by the River

The Journal Of A Disappointed Man

3rd November 2010

The ever-interesting independent publisher, Little Toller Books, have three new titles on the shelves this week. In the literary equivalent of crate digging, Little Toller dust off fantastic examples of out of print books on nature and rural life and reintroduce them to the public with new introductions by very well chosen contemporary writers. Here’s the first review, the others follow next week.

The Journal Of A Disappointed Man by WNP Barbellion (Little Toller Books, 286 pages, £10)
reviewed by Roy Wilkinson.

Sometimes suggesting Sir Peter Scott collaborating with the Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards, The Journal Of A Disappointed Man is one of the most remarkable books in the history of nature-themed non-fiction.

Written by a young man from Devon with the real name of Bruce Cummings, the book was first published in 1919. Taking the form of a series of diary extracts, it begins with a solemn entry from the then 13-year-old author: “Am writing an essay on the life-history of insects and have abandoned the idea of writing on ‘How Cats Spend Their Time.’” Thereafter, prose of astonishing carpe-diem intensity alights on various wildlife matters, from the discovery of a woodpecker’s nest to the “extraordinary asymmetry of the syrinx” in a Shelduck. But, with casual audacity, Cummings reaches far beyond sunlit reverie in the woods and wetlands. Love, war, literature and a west London funfair – “from the Mountain Railway to the Wiggle Woggle to the ‘Witching Waves” – are all addressed. The Scott/Edwards tandem is maybe a throwaway comparison – a blending of passionate nature observation and feverish, existential self-analysis. However, even a Sir Peter/Richey tag-team falls short of the wonder and oddity of this book.

Cummings died from multiple sclerosis in 1919, at the age of 31. He was grimly aware of the pain and paralysis that were increasingly disabling him, but he only discovered the identity of his illness three years before it killed him. For the reader, aware of the writer’s condition, this only increases the feel of last-good-day-of-the-year bittersweet. Meanwhile, the chronology moves from prodigious, self-taught dissections of leeches and eels to a dreamed-off but unfulfilling job at London’s Natural History Museum. The author dies with his wider literary ambitions unrealised – despite The Journal being published before his death, to acclaim and with a preface by HG Wells. Cummings also left behind a young wife and daughter. Here was epically felt disappointment. Cummings’ pen name was derived from a chain of sweetshops and the initials of his chosen three all-time failures: Kaiser Wilhelm, Nero and Pilate.

This new edition of Cummings’ book is lovingly produced in discerning retro-modern style – with the type laid out more expansively than in my old Penguin edition and with a fascinating new introduction from Tim Dee, the author of the 2009 birdwatching memoir The Running Sky. It’s also timely on a personal level. My father, now 86, read The Journal in his youth and has been fervently recommending it for years, decades. I’d finally got round to picking it up this year and found it easily exceeded even Dad’s shrill fanfares. Cummings’ teenage nature escapades are recorded with hysterical charm: “On reviewing the past egg-season, I find in all I have discovered 232 nests belonging to 44 species. I only hope I shall be as successful with the beetle season.” But, beyond this and the startling, lost-in-nature poeticism, The Journal’s high-wire angst and erudite near stream-of-consciousness perhaps place it in continuum with the voices of doubt and estrangement that would lead us through the modern era into the rock epoch: Kafka, Camus, Dylan, The Velvet Underground. Maybe, for my father’s generation, The Journal Of A Disappointed Man carried something of the fatalistic brilliance of a Nick Drake or Joy Division – “the young men, the weight on their shoulders”. But with an added dimension – impassioned exposition on how best to dissect a Corncrake.

The Journal Of A Disappointed Man is now on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £10