I let my sub lapse for two weeks and the New Yorker publishes articles on two of the most fascinating characters of the 20th century– Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen and Patrick Leigh Fermor.
I’ll take “M” first. As an excellent bio by Mark Cocker has it, he was a “soldier, scientist, and spy”. For some reason he is little known today despite his flamboyance. A good movie features a trick he played on the Turks in WW I, when he allowed a cache of deceptive documents to be stolen, but I can’t remember its name correctly! ( I keep coming up with “The Light Horse” but it’s wrong– can anyone help?)
He was a complex character who discovered one of the last large mammals (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni, the African giant forest hog), fought in wars large and small, collected hundreds of birds, intrigued in public and private life, and wrote four fascinating books based on his diaries as well as several books of ornithology. The last are splendidly- illustrated as well, sometimes eccentric in opinion, and like the diaries bring ridiculous prices today .I am lucky enough to have acquired two ornithologies and two diaries long ago. Maybe the current controversies will convince someone to re- publish at least the diaries.
The New Yorker article concentrates on the indubitable fact that he stole many of his bird study skins, a practice that has played hell with correctly establishing the ranges of many bird species in the Indian subcontinent. The author, John Seabrook, interviewed Pamela Rasmussen, co- author of the magisterial new Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide, who was involved in the nightmarish task of having to sort out which specimens were “good” and which ones stolen or hoaxed. Seabrook also accuses M of having murdered his second wife, a theory apparently espoused by the guy who made the movie “Death Wish”, who is writing a book about it.
Two friends wrote for my opinion, knowing that I am a bit of an amateur historian of Meinertzhagen and other adventurer- scholars. The following is mostly composed of my replies to them. The first part was written before I saw the article.
“As to hoaxing: Meinertzhagen did some, but most of it seemed to be in the nature of pranks, not self – aggrandizement. He had a very strange and dark and superior sense of humor, as can be ascertained by even a casual reading of any of his diaries (I have most of them, picked up thank God years ago before they became expensive).
“Chas says he is accused in the article of shooting his second wife, VERY doubtful. To me it looks like she killed herself and they tried to say it was an accident. I have not seen the article but if he shot a wife I’d think it would have been his first who he hated for years rather than his second whom he was devoted to!
“His enemies were legion even before PC. He was a Zionist when the Brit Foreign Office was Arabist (still is) and a champion of Israel who was called “The Jew” behind his back. He liked war. He — actually I think humorously– treated the great Indian ornithologist Salim Ali like a “wog” (Ali, a sane man who considered M. a friend, found it funnier than not in his autobiography). When he was sent to Germany by Churchill to see if he could get any Jews out, he was ushered into the presence of Hitler, whom everybody “heiled”. Meinertzhagen clicked his heels, saluted, and snapped “Heil Meinertzhagen!” When first introduced to T E Lawrence, who became a friend– Lawrence was wearing spotless Bedouin robes– he was alleged to have asked “Whose little dancing- girl are you?” (His own diary says he only asked “Boy or girl?)
“He was a spy and a warrior. In Seven Pillars Lawrence wrote of him: “He was logical, an idealist of the deepest and so possessed by his convictions that he was willing to harness evil to the chariot of good. He was a strategist, a geographer, and a silent, laughing, masterful man; who took as blithe a pleasure in deceiving his enemy (or his friend) in some unscrupulous jest, as in spattering the brains of a cornered mob of Germans one by one with his African knob- kerri”.
“Not a New Yorker kind of guy..
“One more. In his eighties he was seated next to a woman who did not approve of shooting. “Colonel Meinertzhagen, I suppose you are still shooting those poor little birds– boom, boom!”
“He fixed her with a steely eye. “No, madam. Boom.” “
Now, post- reading:
“Since then I have read the NYRKR thing and think I could have done a better job (!) For one thing the guy has no context for Victorian ornithology. He has not done his homework, either. I doubt he has read rather than skimmed the good bio, Cocker’s– the others are one solely concerned with his military career and one utterly idiotic one by Peter Hathaway Capstick– ’nuff said. Nor M’s Diaries– I have two of the four volumes.
“For example, he insinuates that M shot his (beloved) 2nd wife for money. But any perusal of his background would show that he was fabulously rich in his own right– family money– and that he was never in need of any kind. (Never mind that he endured a marriage to a wife he detested for years without shooting her!) But there are little annoyances too– as when he insinuates that M invented the cane gun– an extremely common naturalist’s tool from Victorian times to WW II– to poach.
“It also slights his enormous contributions to ornithology. Rasmussen, in the Ripley guide, doesn’t at all. She is exasperated, but makes it clear that he gave as much as he concealed. She says so a lot more clearly than Seabrook does.
“The hoaxing and stealing is stark raving nuts of course. I think he had a real case of collector’s mania and obsession, like some of those well- documented rare book freaks, and the opportunity to indulge it. Seabrook leaves out Rasmussen’s interesting observation in the Ripley guide that M. tended to “improve” specimens he considered poorly prepared– a purely esthetic touch, and pretty damn weird!”
The New Yorker piece does make one serious point.”If fraud was pandemic, it might damage the collection at a time when some scientists were beginning to debate the value of keeping large collections.In the same way that card catalogues in libraries were disposed of once their contents were digitally rendered so, perhaps, could specimens be removed form museums, once they had been digitally sampled and photographed— freeing up valuable space for revenue generating attaractions like planetariums“.
And for what, exactly, would the “revenue” be generated?
For more on digital vs. “real” see Matt’s recent post. Or go to the Pitt- Rivers Museum.
I don’t have much to add but for a note for gun nuts. Double Gun Journal for Summer 2000 had a piece on his bird- collecting gun. It is a Holland and Holland Royal sidelock in 28 bore. What’s more, it is made up like a miniature big- game double rifle, with the long upper tang extending to the comb of the stock, and was originally made for “ball and shot”, with rifled chokes! Unfortunately it has since been bored smooth, but still, if I had an extra 50 or $60,000 around I’d be pestering the current owner…
Next, “Paddy” Leigh Fermor…
Update: The movie is Lighthorsemen (yes, spelled that odd way). Thanks to Jonathan.