Friday, October 8, 2021

My hero / WNP Barbellion by William Atkins

WNP Barbellion. Illustration by John Nash.

My hero: WNP Barbellion by William Atkins

Sickly from a young age, Barbellion was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was 26. His Journal of a Disappointed Man records his spirited, furious fight with the disease

Friday 1 August 2014



came across WNP Barbellion's The Journal of a Disappointed Man in a charity shop 10 years ago. It was the title that attracted me first, then that euphonious surname (a pen-name, it turned out), and finally the opening entry, written when he was 15: "Am writing an essay on the life-history of insects and have abandoned for the time being the idea of writing on 'How Cats Spend their Time'."

He was born Bruce Frederick Cummings in Barnstaple in 1889, his boyhood fascination with the natural world cultivated by egg-collecting and jam-jar fishing forays along the Taw estuary. Sickly from a young age, Barbellion was finally diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was 26. It is his dying that dominates the journal's adult entries. But while MS curtailed a promising career as an entomologist, The Journal of a Disappointed Man records its author's refusal, even as he lay immobilised, to be undone in spirit by the disease racking his body.

It sat unread on my bookshelves until a couple of years ago, during my annual book purge. Today its pages are crowded with underlinings, encirclings and marginal exclamations. It's a furious, sometimes ecstatic, volatile little book. Even as he is dying, Barbellion allows himself few consolations, dissecting the pretentions of literary London as mercilessly as he describes his own body's gradual ruination ("millions of bacteria are gnawing away at my precious spinal cord"). Always he returns to the natural world that did not cease to galvanise him.

The journal ends in 1917, some 14 years after it was begun: "Barbellion died on December 31." In fact, even as he was correcting the proofs, he was working on a follow-up volume. For some readers this artful distortion, when it came to light, cast suspicion on the entire project. His defence was characteristically imperious: "no man dare remain alive after writing such a book." Two years after the journal's lauded publication, in any case, his death became an uneditable fact. He was 30. "There!" he wrote. "That's me. You may like it or lump it."

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