C. M. Faure Vindicated?

One of the most interesting of the ‘Stanley Stay-outs’ was Cyril Munro Faure, who seems to have remained uninterned because his boss at the South China Morning Post told the Japanese that he wasn’t British. I don’t know if this is true: he was born in Switzerland, one of his brothers was a Swiss citizen, and at some point  the children went to live with a Scottish-born guardian, so his nationality is something I’m still looking into. Anyway, the plan was for him to join a number of other SCMP staff in looking out for the company’s interests by signing up to work for the Hongkong News, a Japanese-sponsored English-language newspaper that was published from what had been the SCMP premises. In the 1945 Stanley Roll Faure is described as a compositor, or something similar, but he also wrote a weekly column under the heading ‘Is Anything New’? The implied answer was ‘practically nothing’ as Faure attempted to demonstrate that the ancient Egyptians had taught the Greeks most of what they knew while anticipating modern science in some of its most important discoveries. He stressed that the ‘whites’ had learnt from other Asian and African peoples too, but he always came back to the Egyptians.

I gather that Faure’s basic theory is not held by most qualified academics. Martin Bernal is one who does take a similar view to Faure’s, and his book Black Athena started a vigorous and ongoing debate. But, as I say, looking on as an outsider, it seems that the majority of scholars believe Bernal exaggerates the debt of the Greeks to the Egyptian and other civilisations to their south. Nevertheless, Faure’s position is obviously tenable and academically respectable, at least in its broad outlines.

As far as I can make out, Faure was self-taught – he joined the Royal Navy at the age of 17 to take part in WWI – but his columns show a huge amount of knowledge and a probing intellect, although I thought he was going too far – much too far – when, in a couple of places, he hinted that he believed the Egyptians had provided the Chinese with the basis of their civilisation. However, a bit of Googling shows some recent support for Faure’s view:


This theorist even points to the Hyksos period (c. 1600 BCE) as the time of transmission, as does Faure. Both may be wrong, of course, and very probably are. But in future I’ll think twice before dismissing Faure’s ideas as eccentric and obviously incorrect.

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The Voyage Out

In the late nineteen twenties my father was considering a career in boxing: he’d had over 100 fights – first as a juvenile and then as an amateur – and won them all. This changed dramatically the night  he went to Old Windsor – a few miles from Windsor itself – to take on Battling Alfred, a Swindon man. Fully living up to his sobriquet, Albert knocked him out, and on the way back home Thomas told his brother (who was also his second) that he’d had a rethink of his career plans. Soon after, he started an apprenticeship with Denny’s, a Windsor baker.
When he’d completed this, he moved around the country, taking a variety of jobs to get experience.


Thomas in what looks like his baker’s coat outside the family home in Windsor

One day, probably in 1937, he saw an advert in his trade paper The British Baker for a job as bakery manager in Hong Kong – this suited him as he’d recently been made bankrupt by his partner, the cyclist and salesman  in a ‘stop me and buy one’ comestibles business. His mother, Alice, a woman of huge determination, had helped him pay off his debts and now he was ready to start again in another country and leave the bad memories behind. He altered his birth certificate to make himself two years older and arranged his references to give himself more experience. Lane, Crawford were suitably impressed and gave him the job – he was also offered a post in South Africa, but chose Hong Kong because it was further away from scenes he now wanted to forget.

On April 7th or 8th, 1938 he said goodbye to his sisters and his mother in London…


and headed for The Carthage.


It would be fair to say that he wasn’t a man given to excessive and embarrassing displays of emotion – Alice had to indicate that, under the circumstance of a parting likely to be for at least three years, a modest kiss might be in order.

Thomas had chosen to sail with P. and O., slightly more expensive and commodious than its rival, Blue Funnel. He was travelling second class, of course, but, as the letter below tells us, this didn’t mean as much as on most voyages. I guess bookings were down because of the outbreak of war between China and Japan in the summer of 1937, and the possibility of its spreading to Hong Kong: Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, the Director of Medical Services, with whose fate Thomas’s was to be intertwined, tells us that the gloomy headlines made him and his wife Hilda think twice as they were packing for the same voyage in January 1938.

One fellow-passenger on the Carthage who was definitely travelling first class (unless there was a higher category) was Lady Northcote, the Governor’s wife, who’d flown back to Britain to visit her sick mother.  During the occupation Thomas was to find himself living at even closer quarters to some of  the Colony’s most important women, including Hilda Selwyn-Clarke and Lady Mary Grayburn, the wife of the Chief Manager of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (Sir Vandeleur was the ‘Governor’s Governor’ according to some people). Thomas (and his wife Evelina) shared Bungalow D in Stanley Civilian Internment Camp with them and over 20 others.

Thomas stepped off the boat on May 11, 1938.  What he found was not the sleepy colonial backwater of legend but one of the most dynamic and exciting places in the world.


But that’s a theme for another day. Here’s the letter he wrote on his first or second day aboard ship. In the transcription below it I’ve kept his idiosyncratic capitalisation, telegraphic style and some of his punctuation:


Dear Mum

We arrived Southampton at 7 this morning. As soon as we dock (sic) the G. P. O. came on board & fit (sic) the phone up so might ring the girls up when we dock again. there is a good band on board & plenty to do plenty of food 5 course Breakfast 7 course Dinner. Bovril & soup mid mornings sea water baths & shower. everything is heated by hot air. we start Deck games on Sunday. There’s not many people on board about 60 so they do not keep us strictly 2nd. Class only for meals. As soon as we left the docks on Friday there was a dickens of a noise on the bells we had to go on the top deck for life boat drill.



‘plenty of food 5 course Breakfast 7 course Dinner’

carthage-image-3‘there is a good band on board’


Thomas was never a smoker, so not many visits here


Also not needed

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Cecil ‘Sammy’ Carr

In February 1939 my father Thomas Edgar went on an outing to Shaukiwan with some friends from Lane Crawford (he’s the balding one behind the woman):


On the back of the photo, which he sent home to his family, in Windsor, he identified the others as Jean {Miller Whyte}, Charlie and Sammy.  The next month he attended a housewarming party at ‘Sammy Carr’s’ with ‘all the fellows from the store’:


I think that makes the man sitting at he front left of the photo Sammy Carr as he’s the only one apart from my father in both photos. The (unidentified) man seated next to him looks to me Eurasian, or possibly Chinese. Tommy Waller – who was in fact with Tramways not Lane Crawford – is seated next to my father (to the  left of the photo). The two men (unidentified, but see below) on his other side look to me rather like brothers.

Who was Sammy Carr? Those who know old Hong Kong’s ex-patriate community’s love of nicknames won’t be surprised to learn that actually wasn’t his name.

Cecil Carr  was born in Buxton, Derbyshire on August, 14, 1912. [1] His father was described in the 1911 Census as  a ‘chauffeur’ working in a ‘public garage’. I don’t know if that means he drove a bus, but, in any case, this would have been a link with  Thomas, as his father Herbert was also a driver – for the army in 1911, for an Indian businessman after the war. Not many people drove professionally at this time.

At some point Cecil moved to Cheltenham where he worked for the retailers then known as John Sainsbury. His mother died  in June, 1923, and as the death was recorded in the Gloucester District he might have been caring for her.[2] In any case, on August 11, 1936 Cecil sailed to Hong Kong on the Ranpura. On the manifest his age is given as 23 and his job as ‘shop assistant’.  He was leaving John Sainsbury to work for Lane Crawford.

I can’t be sure of the address of the house where the March 1939 party took place, but the most likely location was 76, Morrison Hill Road,  where, according to the Jurors List, Mr. Carr  was living in 1941.[3]  Another Lane Crawford employee, Frederick Ivan Hall, is also listed as living at No. 76.[4] By 1941 my father had moved to live with Tommy Waller in Broadwood Road, but in 1939 he was living close by – at 82 Morrison Hill Road, an address also given to William Walter Miles, a butcher with the Dairy Farm. According to his friend Patrick Sheridan – who was to win the Military Medal for escaping from Japanese-occupied Hong Kong –  my father was living in a company flat, so I guess number 76 was too. I’m not sure if these flats really had double occupancy, but in any case Frederick Hall – who was to be executed by the Japanese on October 29, 1943 – is an obvious possibility for one of the two unidentified men sitting on the sofa.

At Lane Crawford, the most important department store in Hong Kong, Mr. Carr was known for his knack of remembering customers’ names and their likes and dislikes. [5] Outside work, like most ‘white’ (and many ‘non-white’) Hong Kong  males, he enjoyed sport: he was a keen lawn bowls player and always took an interest in Hong Kong Football Club for which he played in his early days.[6] The interest in bowls continued until the war and was  a further link with my father, as they both played for the Lane Crawford  company team, matches being reported in January, February and July 1941.

I have not been able to find any record of Mr. Carr’s activities during the Japanese attack (December 8-25, 1941); it’s most likely he was assigned to work for Food Control, whose job it was to try to make sure the entire population got fed. By this time he’d risen to the position of Grocery and Provisions manager, so this would have been a natural appointment. He almost certainly was not in the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps, because, if he’d served in uniform he would have been held during the occupation in Shamshuipo POW Camp, not Stanley Civilian Internment Camp. Before being sent to Stanley he was kept for a couple of weeks in Room 401 of the Mee Chow Hotel. Lane Crawford manager A. W. Brown and another company employee were in the same room and others in 403, so this might have been the location of some of  the Lane Crawford contingent in Food Control.[7]

It was  A. W. Brown who made the farewell presentation to Mr. Carr when he left the company in the summer of 1949. He stated that, while in Stanley, Cecil had paid so much attention to the comfort of others he found himself eventually without even a bed space.[8] Anyone familiar with conditions in the camp will understand the significance of such unselfishness. Brown’s praise for his ‘excellent work’ is all the more telling because he himself was awarded an OBE for his services in Stanley, where he ran the canteen. The only other thing I’ve been able to find out about his time in Stanley comes in a diary entry: on July 23, 1945 Barbara Anslow records that one ‘S. Carr’ attended a meeting of the tiny group of pacifists.[9] This was probably him, as he seems to have been generally known as ‘Sammy’, but I don’t know if he was a pacifist himself or just an interested observer.

Mr. Brown’s speech -which accompanied the presentation of a solid gold cigarette case – tells us that Carr played a role in restoring food supplies after the British fleet arrived on August 30, 1945, but I’ve not yet been able to find out  more about this. On December 12 he was called for repatriation on the Highland Chieftain, which was to sail about December 20.  This ship was delayed and he probably returned to the UK for recuperation leave on another vessel. On September 14, 1946 he left London to return to Hong Kong on the Otranto. He’d been living at an address in Knustford, Cheshire.

By the time he left Lane Crawford in June or July 1949 he was manager of the Food Department. He was planning a two month holiday in South Africa before returning to the UK,[10] and he set sail on August 10, 1949.[11]

Cecil Carr died in Stockport, Cheshire in October 1996. He was 84.



[1] http://person.ancestry.co.uk/tree/11293790/person/815921112/facts

[2] http://person.ancestry.co.uk/tree/11293790/person/815901701/facts

[3] http://gwulo.com/jurors-list-1941

[4] http://gwulo.com/jurors-list-1941

[5] ‘Farewell Gift’, SCMP, July 1, 1949, p. 5.

[6] ‘Farewell Gift’, SCMP, July 1, 1949, p. 5.

[7] http://www.hongkongwardiary.com/searchgarrison/nonuniformedcivilians.html

[8] ‘Farewell Gift’, SCMP, July 1, 1949, p. 5.

[9] http://gwulo.com/node/12331

[10] ‘Farewell Gift’, SCMP, July 1, 1949, p. 5.

[11] SCMP, August 11, 1949, p. 4.


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A Note on the Nutrition Research Committee (1938)

Sometime before November 10, 1938 the Hong Kong Government set up an enlarged Nutrition Research Committee.[1] Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, the socialist Director of Medical Services (DMS), who had arrived in April, was the Chairman, and to me the whole thing looks to be his handiwork. The Committee’s new functions emerged from his battle against TB, which was responsible for one death in nine in the Colony in 1937, but its remit was wider:

(Its) duty will be to ascertain the amount of malnutrition in Hong Kong and to devise measures to counter the effects and prevent the occurrence of malnutrition as far as possible.

The wily DMS never separated public health from politics: other aspects of his war on TB included improved housing and higher wages! A few of the 4,000 TB deaths in 1937 must have been Europeans – in Stanley Internment Camp, where high standards of health prevailed, a death or two was recorded. This meant that the DMS was guaranteed the support of highly health-anxious European Hong Kong in his attempt to eradicate the disease. Without suggesting for one moment there was anything hypocritical about Selwyn-Clarke’s campaign – of course he really wanted to rid Hong Kong of TB – there’s no doubt in my mind that in choosing to approach this problem ‘from various angles’ he had a political agenda too.

And this apparently apolitical committee is in itself a myth-busting development.

For a start, its members included one woman and, judging by names, two Chinese, as well as some eminent ‘Europeans’: the Chief Justice, Sir Atholl MacGregor for one, and the University contributed three professors, including Lindsay Ride (later leader of the resistance group the BAAG and Selwyn-Clarke’s sternest wartime critic), and Professor Gordon King as well as senior lecturer Geoffrey Herklots. Remember the purpose of the committee –which set up three sub-committees concerned with science, sociology and publicity – was to help the poorest of Hong Kong Chinese by establishing their nutritional deficit. I’m sure that, once it had armed Selwyn-Clarke with the facts about malnutrition he would have used them to argue for measures that would have addressed far broader problems than the greater susceptibility of the malnourished to TB.

And one passage of the Committee’s eventual report is worth quoting (Hong Kong was full of refugees fleeing the Sino-Japanese War and 13,000 – a rather trivial percentage – were in Government run camps):

An investigation into the calorie value of the diets given at the Government Refugee Camps showed that they had the following approximate values:- Men, 3,200; Women 2,600; Children seven to fourteen years old, 2000; Children under seven years, 1,300 calories. The proportions were correct, but the quantities were somewhat on the generous side.

Well, of all the mean-spirited, Scrooge-like – I bet they wouldn’t have treated ‘whites’ like that – thank goodness we have a fine historian like Gerald Horne to uncover the racist brutality of the British[2]…oh, hang on, there’s more:

It was decided it was desirable to continue giving these quantities because many refugees were undernourished on admission to the camps.


In other words, some of Hong Kong’s most eminent citizens met in a multi-racial committee set up to help the colony’s poorest residents – with almost no exceptions Chinese. They conducted careful scientific and sociological investigations, and in discussing the diets of the refugees in the camps they were responsible for, they decided to overfeed them to make up for past deprivation.

This doesn’t, of course, prove that ‘old Hong Kong’ was a paradise of race-free benevolence. But – with Horne still sometimes quoted as a reliable source[3] – it does underline the need for serious and detailed analysis of the nature of racism and anti-racism in the years leading up to the Japanese attack.

[1] Minutes., Hong Kong Legislative Council, 10 November, 1938, p. 170.

[2] Gerald Horne, Race War! The Japanese Attack on the British Empire, 2003.

[3] http://www.urbanphoto.net/blog/2016/07/25/how-hong-kong-forgot-the-battle-to-save-it/

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How studying the Hong Kong war made me a (sort of) Existentialist (2): the Resistance

In the previous post I offered an obviously very brief and simplified version of Sartre’s Existentialist philosophy under the rubric ‘How studying the Hong Kong war made me a (sort of) Existentialist’. In this post I’ll explain that statement.

Sartre 1967 crop.jpg

Sartre in 1967

By http://www.flickr.com/people/69061470@N05http://www.flickr.com/photos/government_press_office/6470403371/, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37461801

Of course, I need to stress ‘sort of’: I think it’s clear from my current vantage point (Europe in 2016) that all ‘isms’ and systematic philosophies are deeply flawed. In Sartre’s case, for example, he makes an unwarranted leap from ‘freedom’ as (he believes) a fact of consciousness to ‘freedom’ as a moral value  – it is a good thing to fully accept and use your freedom to create your own actions when his philosophy gives him no grounds on which to distinguish good from bad.

So what exactly do I find useful about Existentialism?

I spend a lot of time contemplating the actions of the Hong Kong resistance, the men and women of all races and backgrounds who fought back against the Japanese occupiers while fully realising what would happen to them if they were caught. How could they have shown such courage? I think Sartre’s Existentialism suggests part – it is only part, and it might only be a small part – of the answer.

Why did they do it?

Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, Chief Manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, and resistance agent – Code name ‘Night’

Wikipedia – The original uploader was Clithering at Chinese Wikipedia

I think that most of the resisters themselves would have accepted Jesuit Father Bourke’s comment on the banker Charles Hyde as true for them too, whether they saw their patriotism and sense of duty as directed towards Britain, China, India, America or Canada:

Mr Hyde and others thought it their patriotic duty to form a branch of the British intelligence service. (Hong Kong Public Records Office, ‘Father Bourke, ‘Release’, p. 3)

Perhaps we could offer some kind of formula: patriotism PLUS sense of duty PLUS courage PLUS opportunity PLUS hatred of the enemy = resistance? Sartre’s Existentialism stands in opposition to this and all formulae, even ones much more complex and sophisticated than that!

Early in the great masterwork of Existentialist theory he published in 1943 he wrote:

(I)t is a human act only in so far as it surpasses every explanation which we can give of it…(Being and Nothingness, translated Hazel Barnes, 35.)

Philip Mairet, the editor and translator of my edition of Existentialism And Humanism, claims that pre-Existentialist philosophers omitted ‘man, in the total, unfathomable inwardness of his being’. (Existentialism and Humanism, 7.) It’s that unfathomableness I want to take from Sartre (but for a caveat, see below).

In the case I’m discussing, the resistance, feelings of patriotism or duty surge up in consciousness in a particular way: Sartre’s image is that they are surrounded by a shell of nothingness, and what that means in practise is that they never occupy the whole of consciousness and so can’t compel it to act in a particular way. There’s always room for something else in our psyches, and that makes choice not just possible but unavoidable – I tried to explain this using the example of hunger in the previous post.

Moreover, human acts are inevitably directed towards the future, and the future cannot be determined by the past: if I breathe in, it usually implies an intention to breathe out, but I might choose to hold my breath in an attempt at suicide (Shelley has a character in his play The Cenci do away with himself in this unlikely manner!). So even after breathing in has apparently determined what happens next, the outbreath can only come from a free choice. The whole thrust of Existentialism is to deny the proverbial saying that ‘He who says A must say B‘.

So  we choose our future, out of those acts that are possible to us in the situation we find ourselves in, and when a resister contemplates an act of resistance the fear she feels does not stop her doing it nor does her courage (or whatever emotion arises from it) make her do it. She acts in a certain way because she chooses to do so

And even when I’ve chosen to become an agent of the British Army Aid Group, that choice has to be remade at every relevant moment, because in Sartre’s theory even one’s own past decisions can’t take away freedom in the present.

My past acts of resistance might well lead the person observing me to believe I’m going to make a drawing of the Japanese ship in the harbour and send it on to the BAAG in Waichow. But being human means being able to imagine otherwise – the feeling of bravery is only possible because at the very moment I feel it I’m aware of the possibility of being a coward, to tell myself that something is ‘my duty’ means that I know I might not accept it as such, and the past occasions on which I’ve opted to gather information do not exist in my mind as an inert mass forcing a mechanically-operating will to make the same decision now as I did then.

I think Sartre’s theory captures the ultimately mysterious nature of human choice. This was not necessarily his intention: he had no time for explaining things by ‘inexplicable original givens’ (Being, 560) although perhaps it was more the nature of these ‘givens’ (Freudian drives, character traits etc.) than their mystery he objected to.

But can we be content with saying that David Loie, Mateen Ansari, Charles Hyde, Ellen Field and the rest of the Hong Kong resistance committed their ‘valorous acts’ simply because they chose to do so? And that those who collaborated with the Japanese chose that course of action?

That would seem to be either nonsense, or unhelpful, or both, and Sartre himself gives the lie to it when he discusses those French people who went over to the Nazis:

(E)very nation has its underside, that fringe of failures and embittered men who were quick to profit from disasters and revolutions….(Paris Under Occupation, Kindle edition, Location 296)

In this passage Sartre acknowledges that a subjective fact (being embittered) and an objective fact (social failure) can contribute to the individual’s choice of the path of collaboration. As the post-war period went on, and he identified more and more with the socialist left, he became concerned to integrate the Marxist focus on social factors, particularly class, into his theory. In 1960, a couple of years after Gunn first published the poem discussed in the previous post, Sartre was abandoning the ‘classic’ Existentialism that inspired it. In Search for a Method (1960) he claimed to view his philosophy as an adjunct to Marxism:

It {Existentialism} is a parasitical system living on the margin of Knowledge, which at first it opposed but into which today it seeks to be integrated.

But he stresses he isn’t going to seek to ‘dissolve’ Existentialism into Marxism, his monumental Critique of Dialectical Reason – to which Search for a Method  was a preface attempted to bring the two together, with concessions on both sides. In it Sartre abandoned Gunn’s ‘solitary man’ and sought to discuss such matters of obvious concern to Marxists as ‘class being’: if, as his earlier work had claimed nobody ‘is’ a thief or a coward but has to re-make themselves as such freely at every moment without being forced by their own past decisions or their current motives (such as greed or fear) then shouldn’t we say the same about class?  But to argue that no-one ‘is’ a proletarian or a bourgeois is apparently to undermine Marxism, which insists on the objective reality independent of individual consciousness of classes and their relations (Critique of Dialectical Reason, 231 ff.)

Sartre’s answer need not detain us. It’s based on creating a new vocabulary of analysis and what in Being and Nothingness he called ‘facticity’, the existence of the unchosen objective realities (like class, nationality and gender) that constitute the possibilities of an individual but do not take away their freedom to choose.

It is indeed necessary to analyse the ‘facticity’ of the resisters and of everyone else caught up in the dark world’s fire of the occupation, but I don’t find Sartre of more than occasional use in that analysis, brilliant though his insights often are.

And I must end by pointing out that I’ve been engaging in a sleight of hand. I’ve stated that I find Existentialism useful because it points me towards the inexplicable and incomprehensible aspect of choice. I’ve developed this idea in discussing the actions of the men and women of the Hong Kong resistance. These are actions which, in a perfectly ordinary and unphilosophical sense of the word, I find it hard to understand: how could people have been so brave and have risked so much?

Tombstone of Mateen Ansari: By Cougarwalk at en.wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15495191

But Sartre intended his theory to apply to all acts, so we must accept an equally ‘unfathomable’ element in the decisions I soon expect to take when I make myself lunch, and in the very fact of my choice to eat at about noon.

The 600 plus pages of Being and Nothingness don’t seem nearly so necessary to me in an analysis of what is about to happen in my kitchen as they do in trying to understand the actions of the men and women who fought back against the Japanese.

Note: In the final part of this series I’ll explain why I think it’s useful for historians of the Hong Kong occupation to keep Paris under the Germans in their line of vision.


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How studying the Hong Kong war made me a (sort of) Existentialist (1): In the Piazza del Popolo:

Recently I fulfilled a long-standing ambition: I read aloud Thom Gunn’s ‘In Santa Maria del Popolo’ in the Piazza del Popolo, and then visited the church which houses the Caravaggio painting that is the poem’s subject. After the reading – but before the visit – I discussed the poem with the friends I had come to Rome with.

Conversion on the Way to Damascus-Caravaggio (c.1600-1).jpg

Caravaggio: Conversione di San Paulo (The Conversion on the Road to Damascus, 1601 – Wikipedia)

I had planned to visit the church before the reading and discussion, but like much else on this day – a tour under the rubric ‘From Seneca to Sartre’ – things didn’t go according to plan.

Piazza del Popolo

Questers in the Piazza del Popolo: Photo – Sue

We opened the church door a couple of minutes after 10 a.m., found a mass had just begun, and a request not to visit during services prominently displayed. We swapped round the order of events and found a suitable place in the square for a reading and discussion.

Piazza del Popolo By WolfgangM – Flickr.comOriginal photo [1], CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=352543Displaying IMG_1849.JPG

I’ll give the whole poem first and then break it down for exposition as I did on the day:

In Santa Maria del Popolo (1958)

Waiting for when the sun an hour or less

Conveniently oblique makes visible

The painting on one wall of this recess

By Caravaggio, of the Roman School,

I see how shadow in the painting brims

With a real shadow, drowning all shapes out

But a dim horse’s haunch and various limbs,

Until the very subject is in doubt.


But evening gives the act, beneath the horse

And one indifferent groom, I see him sprawl,

Foreshortened from the head, with hidden face,

Where he has fallen, Saul becoming Paul.

O wily painter, limiting the scene

From a cacophony of dusty forms

To the one convulsion, what is it you mean

In that wide gesture of the lifting arms?


No Ananias croons a mystery yet,

Casting the pain out under name of sin.

The painter saw what was, an alternate

Candor and secrecy inside the skin.

He painted, elsewhere, that firm insolent

Young whore in Venus’ clothes, those pudgy cheats,

Those sharpers; and was strangled, as things went,

For money, by one such picked off the streets.


I turn, hardly enlightened, from the chapel

To the dim interior of the church instead,

In which there kneel already several people,

Mostly old women: each head closeted

In tiny fists holds comfort as it can.

Their poor arms are too tired for more than this —

For the large gesture of solitary man,

Resisting, by embracing, nothingness.


Gunn begins in the Cerasi Chapel:

Cerasi Chapel (‘this recess’) in Santa Maria del Popolo, I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16783118

He’s there at a time when the light conditions make it impossible to properly view Caravaggio’s painting:

Waiting for when the sun an hour or less

Conveniently oblique makes visible

The painting on one wall of this recess

By Caravaggio, of the Roman School,

I see how shadow in the painting brims

With a real shadow, drowning all shapes out

But a dim horse’s haunch and various limbs,

Until the very subject is in doubt.

Of course, the way in which ‘real shadow’ mixes with Caravaggio’s famous chiaroscuro so as to make the ‘shapes’ of the horse, the groom and Paul himself impossible to discern has an obvious symbolic significance: the meaning of the painting is what’s unclear and will elude the poet until a moment of epiphany in the main body of the church. And of course ‘the meaning of life’ – the subject of the final stanza – is also rather hard to make out!

Then the light changes, and the poet gets to see the painting properly:

But evening gives the act, beneath the horse

And one indifferent groom, I see him sprawl,

Foreshortened from the head, with hidden face,

Where he has fallen, Saul becoming Paul. 

So Saul, a Jewish man who persecuted Christians, is shown in the act of becoming Paul, a Christian himself now and the key figure in spreading the new faith to the non-Jewish world. But Gunn feels that it’s Paul’s arms that Caravaggio wants us to focus on:

O wily painter, limiting the scene

From a cacophony of dusty forms

To the one convulsion, what is it you mean

In that wide gesture of the lifting arms?

Detail of The Conversion – from Lets Explore Art (https://letsexploreart.wordpress.com/2014/10/09/light-and-dark-caravaggios-paul/)

The next section of the poem speculates as to what the painter might have meant:

No Ananias croons a mystery yet,

Casting the pain out under name of sin.

Thom Gunn was an atheist and in those two lines he’s rejecting any Christian interpretation of Paul’s experience. In the Acts of the Apostles Paul is blinded by his vision but continues on to Damascus where a resident called Ananias gets a divine message to find him and heal his sight. So Gunn is saying that the painting captures a moment before Paul had accepted a (false) Christian interpretation of his experience. Caravaggio gets this right and shows us the real Paul before he was misled by Christian terms like ‘sin’:

The painter saw what was, an alternate

Candor and secrecy inside the skin.

Caravaggio, unlike the author of the Acts, is not so blinded by his faith that he can’t see ‘what was’.  His Paul, Gunn suggests, is an honest man but one  with secrets. What happens next in the poem is a bit strange: rather than elaborate on this theme, Gunn apparently goes off on a tangent and describes some other Caravaggio works and recounts a story that I think is no longer given much credence about the painter’s murder by a young man he’d picked up:

He painted, elsewhere, that firm insolent

Young whore in Venus’ clothes, those pudgy cheats,

Those sharpers; and was strangled, as things went,

For money, by one such picked off the streets. 

‘Pudgy cheats’ is a reference to a well-known painting called The Cardsharps:

Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi) - The Cardsharps - Google Art Project.jpg

Caravaggio – nAFtN9HI0FxbaQ at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23608545

I’m not sure about the ‘firm insolent/ Young whore in Venus’ clothes’ though. Caravaggio, like other artists of the time, sometimes used prostitutes as models but I haven’t been able to find a work of his that matches the description.

Anyway, the poem was first published in 1958 and Gunn is being careful. He’s hinting that Paul’s secrets are sexual ones, possibly homosexual ones. Caravaggio was most likely gay and Gunn was openly so. Born in England, he followed the path beaten by Auden and Isherwood – who we tracked a couple of years ago in Berlin – to a big American city – in his case San Francisco –  where he was much freer to live the life he wanted. But actually the idea of Paul as secretive and possibly gay does have some support: in 2 Corinthians Paul mentions a ‘thorn in my flesh’ and this has been interpreted as migraines, malaria, epilepsy, bad eyesight – all kinds of things, including homosexuality. I don’t think that’s a very popular theory these days, but Paul certainly keeps the nature of the thorn ‘secret’!

This is a good time to say that I don’t think Gunn for one moment believed that Caravaggio’s interpretation of the incident on the road to Damascus was the one that he’s offering in this poem. Caravaggio was a Christian and understood the passage in Acts as – well, as Gunn himself puts it, ‘Saul becoming Paul’,  a description of the violent birth of a Christian hero. The poem’s first stanza has told us ‘the very subject {of the painting} is in doubt’ and what Gunn gives us is his own attempt to pluck meaning out of obscurity, not to offer a historically accurate ‘reading’ of the painting.

We get Gunn’s own ‘vision’  in the tremendous concluding stanza, which to my mind is the best thing in the post-war English poets:

I turn, hardly enlightened, from the chapel 

To the dim interior of the church instead,

 In which there kneel already several people,

Mostly old women: each head closeted

 In tiny fists holds comfort as it can.

Their poor arms are too tired for more than this —

For the large gesture of solitary man,

Resisting, by embracing, nothingness.

The poet leaves the Chapel ‘hardly enlightened’, still not really understanding what the painter was trying to communicate – and there’s a pun here too as the poem is full of images of light and dark, partly as hommage to Caravaggio’s mastery of chiaroscuro. But as he re-enters the main body of the church, he sees the faithful kneeling at prayer – ‘mostly old women’, and some cradling their heads in their hands. Now he understands! Their gesture is the opposite of Paul’s; it’s an attempt by the weary and the defeated to administer a kind of self-hugging that will give them a little comfort in their misery. So what’s Paul doing flinging open his arms like that?  Not comforting himself obviously, but the key word is the one the poem ends with-  ‘nothingness’. Gunn postulates that Paul is doing two impossible and apparently contradictory things at once: how can you resist nothingness, how can you embrace it, and above all how can you do both at the same time?

Gunn's Meaning

Photo: Chrissie

To answer these questions we need to realise that ‘nothingness’ is a technical term in a form of philosophy that European intellectuals were much concerned with in the post-war period.

In 1943, in the middle of the German occupation of Paris, Jean-Paul Sartre published the first important statement of his Existentialist philosophy – Being and Nothingness. As someone pointed out, that must be the most comprehensive title of all time- it covers everything! This is a long and very difficult text and in 1946 he published L”Existentialisme est un Humanisme (‘Existentialism is a {form of} Humanism’) which in spite of its rather ponderous title is short and much easier to understand. It’s these two works that formed most of the basis of Sartre’s influence when Gunn was writing (the poem was first published in the October 1958 issue of a magazine called Poetry).

Our target word ‘nothingness’ is in the title of the first of the two books I mentioned, so what does it mean? A number of things, and I’ll offer an inevitably simplified discussion of the ones most relevant to Gunn’s re-interpretation of the Caravaggio.

Sartre starts from the position taken by some earlier philosophers who believed that consciousness must always be consciousness of something. Is that your experience? It is mine. If I now become conscious of my consciousness, as it were, I’m aware of hearing the sound of the fountain, of seeing you all, of the heat of the sun – of all kinds of sensations, thoughts and feelings. But this means that, although everything depends on it, my self has no independent existence. It is, we could say, nothing!

So what happens when I am conscious of something?

To understand this look at one of the things I might become conscious of: my boots. I can see they’re brown – and, for the boots themselves, there’s an end of it! They can’t do anything with that brownness – they will never alter, contemplate or resist their own brownness. But my consciousness is different and there is nothing that enters it in that total and unarguable way – everything that enters it comes in, as it were, with freedom at its edges – if my memory is correct, Sartre’s image is that everything in consciousness is contained in a shell of nothingness. The objects of consciousness -which of course include feelings and ideas – never fill us or force us – and when I think about doing something, I always know I can do something else. This is why Sartre claims that freedom is not something ‘added on’ to consciousness but part of its very nature:

Man does not exist first in order to be free subsequently; there is no difference between the being of man and his being-free. ((Being and Nothingness, translated Hazel Barnes, p. 25))

An example might make this clearer: let’s say I’ve not eaten for two days and my consciousness is apparently filled with an insistent and compelling hunger; I’m on my way to the fridge, where I know there to be a cheese sandwich made just the way I like it, when I hear a cry from my neighbour’s child, who’s managed to get herself stuck up the ladder and is swaying precipitously in the breeze. Neither in law nor in public opinion would I be justified in continuing my course to the fridge instead of taking the quick action that might save her life.

Sartre assumes it’s always like that, nothing enters consciousness in such a way as to deprive us of our freedom, and most of us would agree that, in the case I’ve imagined, to try to justify ignoring the child with ‘But I was really hungry – I had no choice’ is a piece of self-deceptive ‘bad faith’ – Sartre’s name for the process by which we deny our own freedom.

Let’s focus now on how we use – or rather live-  that inevitable freedom. I think Gunn’s poem is chiefly interested in acts that we might want to call moral – so where does an Existentialist morality come from?

Not from religion, as it did for Paul and Caravaggio. Sartre described his philosophy as an attempt to take atheism to its logical conclusion, and one of his explanations for why there is no ‘human nature’ is that there is no God to have a concept of it. But what about a non-religious concept of ‘human nature’ – is that any help to us in our quest for moral grounding?

Sartre has various arguments against any concept of ‘human nature’ none of which I find very convincing because I think that if there are no species-specific ‘natures’ then the theory of Evolution is meaningless – and I don’t accept the idea of Simone de Beauvoir, fine Existentialist philosopher though she was, that the nature of humanity is to have no nature. But actually I don’t believe this matters very much. People like Richard Dawkins  say that we don’t need Christianity and other moral systems because moral behaviour is built into human nature. As we’ve seen, Sartre would agree we don’t need – and can’t have – religion, but what about the idea that Darwinian evolution has given us genetically inherited moral feelings and principles?

Imagine that there’s a starving man over there in the Piazza – surely I’d feel compassion and want to do something about it? Simply because I’m human?

Well, what if I don’t? The Marquis de Sade didn’t, to put it mildly, and I think he disposed of the Enlightenment version of this cosy optimism once and for all. And, more importantly from our point of view this morning, Sartre would say that such impulses would enter my consciousness in a manner that would force me to choose what to do about them. By the way, I should note that Sartre would disapprove of an image like ‘enter my consciousness’ but I think that this straightforward way of talking about experience enables us to grasp his meaning well enough.

So I disagree with Sartre to some extent here: I do believe that as a human animal I have a particular nature – although I don’t see much evidence that universal compassion is part of it – but this never makes me act in one way rather than another, it never removes the great Existentialist imperative – ‘Choose!’


Photo: Chrissie

And that brings us to the crucial sense of ‘nothingness’ in our poem. On what basis should I make that choice?

There is no such basis, of course. Remember we are taking atheism to its extreme but inevitable conclusion so there is no God to tell us on what grounds we should make moral choices – or any choices for that matter, as Sartre tells us we are ‘abandoned to the intolerable necessity of making {ourselves} – down to the slightest detail’ ((Being and Nothingness, p.441)). Nor can there be any secular moral authority – we’ve seen that human nature even if it exists won’t do the job of providing standards or emotions to live by. So how do we know what ideals or feelings should guide our choices?

We know the answer by now: Choose!

Choose the basis on which you will choose your acts. And even when you’ve chosen, say, to base your life on compassion, or the struggle for socialism, you have to choose that over again at every moment – I’m sure you can see that Sartre’s theory of the self means that not even our own past commitments can take away our freedom in the present.

So now we can return to the last lines of the poem and see what Gunn’s doing. He’s turning Paul into an Existentialist hero who embraces, in every sense, his own freedom to be and act in any way he wants.

That Wide Gesture (2)

Photo: Chrissie

I repeat: if Gunn thought Caravaggio meant this, he was quite wrong but I very much doubt he did think that. The painting is of a man embracing his God, his Destiny perhaps – certainly not nothingness!

Sue asked a very perceptive question as we were being transferred to our hotel the other day: is Sartre a nihilist? Actually, you might well think so, and he was accused by some early critics of being nihilist. If there is no God or human nature to set moral standards, why can’t you do anything you like? Well, in Existentialism and Humanism Sartre quotes Dostoevsky who claimed that if there is no God anything is permitted – and he agrees, but without Dostoevsky’s horror at the prospect. ‘Nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies me in adopting this or that particular scale of values’, Sartre tell us somewhere in Being and Nothingness ((p. 38)).

Of course, Sartre at all stages of his career wanted people to act in certain ways, as we all do – one way he tries to get around the apparent inconsistency is to say he’s ‘recommending’ things – for example, accepting your own freedom – not saying you ‘should’ do them. I doubt that’s much more than a verbal distinction, but, although Sartre was not a nihilist in the sense of someone who calls for destructive behaviour or doesn’t care what happens to other people, he was close to being one in the sense of having abandoned the possibility of any kind of imperative morality, even or perhaps especially an Existentialist one.

Which brings me back to Gunn’s conclusion:

…the large gesture of solitary man,

Resisting, by embracing, nothingness.

Of course, the Existentialist must be ‘solitary’ – not like the women who are part of a Church – as the only person who can exercise your freedom is you, on your own with no-one who can compel or justify your decision. Paul is embracing Existentialist nothingness: he’s fully and unconditionally accepting his freedom to choose his own acts and his complete responsibility for them, abandoning all ‘somethings’ like God, human nature, the Kantian Categorical Imperative and so on. But this act of unconditional acceptance is at the same time a ‘resisting’ of nothingness in a slightly different sense of the word: refusing to submit to despair or indifference, refusing to be destroyed by the grim fate of humanity, thrown into the world whether we like it or not, and then left completely to our own devices.’We are left alone, without excuse’, Sartre tells us and this abandonment can be overwhelming, even destructive. He says that the human condition is one of anguish at our freedom and responsibility – we fear things like earthquakes, knife-wielding maniacs and tigers – and we take measures to minimise our risk of encountering them. But we can never escape from the anguish of the need to choose without any grounds on which to base our choice, an anguish made all the worse because in Sartre’s view when we choose for ourself we do so for all human beings at the same time. As we’ve seen, Sartre believes that is the very nature of the self: although when we engage in the actions we’ve chosen we can forget this anguish for a while, it’s always there waiting for us when the next decision arrives.

In the face of such permanent insecurity and un-settlement what’s the best way to avoid psychic obliteration? The best way to avoid a collapse into the despair and indifference of true nihilism? Embrace the  nothingness at the heart of humanity completely – don’t look for gods, for moral systems, for comfort or for excuses.



After some vigorous questions and comments, we went into Santa Mario del Popolo. Assuming Gunn was giving a reasonably accurate description of his experiences, there’s been an important change: the Cerasi chapel and its three masterpieces are now illuminated, although the light went off occasionally and we could get an idea of what it must have been like to view under natural conditions.

Alerted by Gunn’s poem, what jumped out at me was ‘that wide gesture of the lifted’ arms was present in all three of the paintings. The central one is Annibale Carracci’s Assumption of the Virgin, where the gesture suggests triumph at the heavenly reward offered to the virtuous.

 Annibale Carracci – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=363471

The painting we’ve been discussing is on your right, and on your left is another Caravaggio, the Crucifixion of St. Peter, in which you can see one of the victim’s arms already nailed to the soon-to-be inverted cross, so the other one is implied, and with it another version of the gesture.

Caravaggio – [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=363489

The meaning of the three paintings – from this perspective – is ‘accepting God means the possibility of great suffering but the certainty of a greater reward for those who live their lives rightly’. Pretty much the opposite of Gunn’s position.

On leaving the Cerasi Chapel, I was somewhat disappointed to see that no-one on the church benches was cradling their head in their arms.

We took the metro southwards to the Protestant Cemetery where Keats and Shelley are buried – two more ‘splendours of the firmament of time’.

At the Grave of Keats

At the Grave of Keats and his friend the painter Joseph Severn: Photo – Chrissie



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Thomas Edgar: Two Post-war Letters

My father was one of the earliest non-governmental workers to leave Stanley after the arrival of Harcourt’s fleet on August 30, 1945. On September 3 the South China Morning Post reported that the Stanley internees could expect their first half pound loaf of wheat bread that day – baked by him. There had been an intensive search for the flour by members of the Food Control organisation and I think it’s likely he was involved in that search and that he left camp on September 1 or 2nd.

In this post I transcribe two letters he sent to his family in Windsor Berkshire in October 1945. The telegram he sent telling them he was alive and free has been lost – they knew it was genuine because he signed it ‘Ooke’ his family nickname (see below). He probably wrote at least one letter in September but if so that too has been lost.

Scans of the original letters and some indication of the context of his work in September and October 1945 can be found here: https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/thomass-work-6-post-war-reconstruction/


32, Hong Kong Hotel

Hong Kong


Dear Mum & all

Well I think it is pretty well official now that I can not come home till about Christmas. Everybody is shouting for bread (we have not had bread, meat or fish since January 1944[1]) so will have to stay for a short while.[2] Glad to know everybody well have just received your Aug 23rd the first since Sept 1943. Wish Dad many happy returns on the 5th.[3] hope to be home for your birthday.[4] We are quite fit really & the navy & Australian Red Cross are doing their stuff now.

Write again soon am very busy getting bakeries into working order.


Lena & Ooke


              Lane Crawford’s


Dearest Mum & all

Very many thanks for Joyce’s[5] letter. Glad to know that everybody’s well. Congratulations on Joyce’s engagement.[6]

I put on 17 lbs. since I left Stanley. Life in Stanley was pretty grim. What really saved us from starvation were our private gardens (which produced sweet potatoes, tomatoes, vegetables etc.) and what we could buy from the black market with money we obtained through selling our engagement ring & watches. the Formosan guards used to smuggle the goods into the camp.

We don’t know when we shall be going home yet as everything is still in a horrible mess. I am still trying to have Lane Crawford’s bakery in production. I have four men from H.M.S. Resource[7] but the Japs were using our bakery as a button factory, rattan basket factory & for salt fish, so you can imagine the state of affairs. We hoe to leave here about January or February.

Mr. R. Bauder a great friend of ours might be staying in England on is way to Switzerland [8]and will call home for a few nights, hope you can look after him O.K.


Ton & Lena

[1] Mistake for 1944 – even then this is not really true as small amounts of low-quality fish continued to be sent in to Stanley.

[2] In fact Thomas and Evelina didn’t leave Hong Kong until the summer of 1946.

[3] Herbert Sidney Edgar was born on October 5, 1878.

[4] Alice Edgar was born on January 1 1888.

[5] Joyce Edgar, Thomas’s sister, was born in Windsor in the first quarter of 11920.

[6] Joyce married Ernest A. Sadler in the second quarter of 1946.

[7] A Royal Navy Repair Ship.

[8] Robert Bauder worked in the watch department of Lane Crawford. He ended the war as an Assistant Superintendent of Rosary Hill Red Cross Home. He left employment there on October 31.

HMS Resource in 1932.jpg

H.M.S. Resource in 1932 : Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33574907

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