Fargh! it sticks in my vitals

Fargh! it sticks in my vitals

For five years, this has been at the bottom of my inbox:


I once worked at the reference desk at a research library, and the kind of thing that will happen to you in a job like that is you'll find yourself doing things like exploring the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection. When this fate inevitably befell me, I happened upon a document titled: "LETTER FROM JOHN CAWTE BEAGLEHOLE TO HIS MOTHER, 16TH MAY 1927." The letter begins "My Dear Mummy," but you would be mistaken to form judgments based on that. Here's an excerpt:

Your letters came this morning, two weeks & 5 days after the last one. I regret to say I was not greatly stirred by the contents — 4 out of 5 papers appearing to deal exclusively with the wedding, details of bridesmaids' frocks, church, parson's behaviour, Ern's behaviour, Frannie's behaviour, Auntie's behaviour, & so forth. However I had better simulate what fictitious interest I can, I suppose, & make one or two comments. The cake hasn't turned up yet — the bigger the piece the better of course; I am hoping a lorry will draw up at the door & disgorge in the near future. You say Auntie shone even more than usual in her efforts to overload the groaning board [buffet], but you don't give me any details — indeed, it seems that the really important things you have left out altogether.

It could have been written by Waugh, Wodehouse, or Thirkell. I was sold, and I spent many subsequent shifts at the reference desk reading more. Hence why I kept the link easily accessible in my email.

John Cawte Beaglehole, it turns out, became an historian - an expert on the disagreeable but interesting explorer James Cook. He wrote this collection of letters to his mother while traveling to and living in England for his post-graduate studies. He was 26 in 1927. He had a mouth on him.

The only people I knew on board [the ocean liner] were that ghastly Castle gang, who I discovered were also going Home on the Osterley. I decided that a good deal of my time & effort wd henceforth be given up to avoiding them; but as it happened that caused me no difficulty. Una is not so bad — I mean she's bearable, if you can get past her face; though she doesn't strike me apart from her special knack as having the intelligence of an ox; but as for the elder one — my oath! The blood congealed in my veins whenever I caught sight of her. Luckily Sydney is big enough to lose them in, & if I can get pally with a steward on board the Osterley & avoid their table all may yet be well. I'm not saying that they mayn't be a morally impeccable family, you understand, or full of good intentions & the milk of human kindness of a City Council standard of purity, pasteurised & full cream, so you needn't come back with any moral reflections; but it's their grin that knocks me out.

I wonder how many students have referenced his edition of Cook's journals and had no idea he ever said things like this:

I meant on leaving the Y.M. to stick a note in the Suggestion Box they have prominently displayed: "Don't be so mean with the butter"; but I see that all the joints are like that.

Or this:

Excitement grows out on the deck; we are sailing down very close to the shore, so that we can see the beaches and what are either people or large stones standing & gazing at us with interest. 

Or indeed this:

An Italian walked on at Fremantle in an aimless sort of way & shot himself two nights afterwards; & two or three nights ago another (a turk I think this time) hopped overboard & was just grabbed by the leg as he disappeared. The officers say they get a suicide every voyage more or less. It certainly seems a waste to shoot yourself when the whole Indian Ocean is just over the side.

As you read on, a few things become clear. First, that he is homesick. Second, that he is trying to make his mother laugh. Third, that he was born with an authorial voice. You could read just one letter and get a sense of who he is. My coworker and I are always debating whether or not it's right to take an artist's life into account; whether it's right to publish their letters or diaries; whether it's right for them to burn their papers and deprive posterity of seeing inside their process and their often undignified humanity. Generally, she's for burning and I'm against. Especially in this case, it's hard for me to read Beaglehole's letters to his mother and not be glad they exist. It isn't so much that he became someone of academic import; it isn't that his letters solve the question of the meaning of life (they don't really). It's that he's so expressive that a person across the world and eighty-five years in his future could read letters he tailored to his mother's sense of humor and laugh. His jokes are still good. His personality is still there. I think that's amazing.

I ended up feeling so connected to him and his family that when I saw this change-over...


...I thought no no no no no no and I stopped reading. There could only be one reason there are no more letters to Mummy, and because he clearly loved her so much, I couldn't bear to imagine his grief much less actually see it in his own words.

Five years later, I have only just read his first letter to his father after his mother's death - from between my fingers. It starts:

My dearest Father, I do wish to God I could say something to comfort you.

Which is where if you are human you start crying. He tells his father about an outing with Elsie, his future wife, to Surrey:

We then got on to another ridge of hills at twilight & walked for a good while through the most beautiful beech-woods I have ever seen; the air was very still & clear & we slept on heaped dry leaves from last autumn. It must have been about that time that Mummy died.

But they do not know, then, that she is dead. And then they get back home.

I came in here about ¼ to 12 & as soon as I saw the cable I think I knew what was in it. I had been afraid of getting it for 18 months, & yet I never believed it would come. It seems incredible now — I think if I really believed in its truth all the while I couldn’t exist.

. . .

I do regret some things in looking back. I know you liked my letters, both of you, but they seem such poor things now, as if I had not put my whole self into them for her; & yet I suppose I did while I was writing them, & that it was my self at fault. One letter I was going to write I suppose must remain unwritten now very largely — I always intended, when I got married, to write & tell you both, so far as I could, what your love & care & generosity & courage had meant to me; because the older I get now the more I realise what those qualities have been. I wanted, on the eve of leaving the old family (so far as I can leave it) & starting one of my own to tell you that I did realise this, & realise too that it was something I treasured very dearly, & could never repay. I think if I had come back in July & found Mummy still there, I should have told her some of this, though we are a fairly inarticulate family as such things go; but now I can only try to remember that she knew that she was surrounded by the love of all of us, however far away we were. I do not think any woman could have been better loved, however imperfectly we showed it; & I know that you anyhow gave her love as great as any in the world.

. . .

I wish I could at least be with you for these weeks & sit with you among your books in the evening, if nothing else. What it is like for you I try to realise, & I think I can to some extent; I know it is like the shattering of a world.

. . .

To think that I shall never get a letter from her again is the most incredible thing; that I shall never address one as I have been addressing them for nearly three years now the queerest.

Well, maybe these letters do shed some light on the meaning of life. There is at least one lesson to be learned: for the love of Christ, people, write letters, and save them! I mean do you want future generations to weep over your heartbreak or what? I know I do.

This blog post concludes the period that the fargh! it sticks in my vitals email remains in inbox limbo. It is time to file it. But, you know, having finally read what I had dreaded reading for such a long time, I think these letters are going to stick in my vitals for the rest of my life.

I leave you with this:


"I brought too many pyjamas and not enough books." Too right, Beaglehole. Too right.

Image: I couldn't find an image of Beaglehole that I was sure was out of copyright, so it seemed fitting instead to use one of Captain Cook's letters. This one is to the Secretary of the Admiralty, asking for supplies for HMS Endeavor.

The Beaglehole letters are archived at the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection; individual letters exerpted here are linked below:

Your letters came this morning: LETTER FROM JOHN CAWTE BEAGLEHOLE TO HIS MOTHER, 16TH MAY 1927. This letter also contains this glorious criticism: "I don't see how Daddy can reconcile himself to having the bridesmaids dressed in red; that sort of thing wouldn't be allowed in England, where a Jix & a Birkenhead guard the founts of piety & patriotism. It's a thing I wouldn't stand for myself; if they had to break with an old & noble tradition & wear other than white, why didn't they make a couple of simple one-piece frocks out of an old Union Jack? But red, geranium or not fargh! it sticks in my vitals."





My dearest father and subsequent excerpts: LETTER FROM JOHN CAWTE BEAGLEHOLE TO HIS FATHER, 31 MAY 1929


All in favor

All in favor

Things my parents did for me

Things my parents did for me