My interest in this book was piqued when it was the chief topic of episode 110 of the Backlisted podcast. When I spotted an out-of-print Little Toller edition in the Oxfam shop in Skipton, with Tim Dee’s name also on the cover, I knew I had to buy it. It turned out to be something of a masterpiece.
W.N.P. Barbellion was the deliberately pompous pen-name of Bruce Frederick Cummings, who spent much of his tragically short working-life at the London Natural History museum during the First World War. He would have preferred to work on birds, but was assigned to lice and related pests. This was by no means the first or last of Barbellion’s documented disappointments.
The Journal beings with Barbellion as a schoolboy exploring the natural history around his native Barnstable in Devon. Following in his soon-to-be-deceased father’s footsteps, he was, for a time, a reporter on a local newspaper, before finally managing to secure a position at the Natural History branch of the British Museum (now, the Natural History Museum).
The journal records Barbellion’s scandalous thoughts and observations about culture, religion, the war, his ambitions, his friends and colleagues, and the women who catch his eye. It is moving and funny in equal measure, with Barbellion painting himself as a somewhat disreputable figure with an over-inflated opinion of himself.
“Legginess is bad enough in a woman, but bandy legginess is impossible,” he opines on 10th June 1910, going in to observe: “Some old people on reaching a certain age go on living out of habit—a bad habit too.”
Barbellion eventually becomes plagued by intermittent bouts of ill-health. Although his doctor conceals the nature of his illness, multiple sclerosis, from him, his belief that his time is short becomes a running theme in the Journal, the final section of which covers his brief married life and rapid decline as the disease takes hold.
Despite the gloomy subject-matter, this book was an absolute joy, reminding me more than once of the wonderfully morose and opinionated letters of Philip Larkin.
As I say, a masterpiece.
Although the Little Toller edition I read is out of print, it is still available as an ebook. Other editions are available via the links below.