Sir John Franklin’s Lost Diary

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On September 9, 2014, Parks Canada discovered the remains of the HMS Erebus, explorer Sir John Franklin’s remarkably newsworthy flagship. Among the artifacts retrieved from the ship was a Fortnum & Mason jar labelled “Sweets.” The jar did not contain any sweets, but rather a diary written by Sir John himself — a diary that solves at least part of the so-called Franklin mystery. What follows is that diary’s final entries:

FranklinApril 30, 1847. Ship lies groaning & straining in the ice off King William Island. On a whim, I brought out my maps of Arctic Canada, only to discover that the Admiralty had provided me with maps of Polynesia — an unfortunate error.

May 2, 1847. Sore gums & loose teeth indicate that many of the crew have scurvy, so I spoke out against this nefarious French disease & initiated tango lessons and likewise bench pressing of the ship’s spittoons to ward it off.

May 3, 1847. Ship still mired in the ice. The bosun, in the midst of a tango maneuver, fell overboard, went through the ice, & was promptly torn to shreds by a school of man-eating isobars. Bloody Arctic!

May 5, 1847. Dreamt Lady Jane came for a visit & asked, “Sir John, why are you late to supper?” “I’m looking for the Northwest Passage, dear,” I told her. “But you can’t eat the Northwest Passage, can you?” she replied ominously, then vanished.

May 8, 1847. Lost three men today, one to scurvy, another to terminal gingivitis, & yet another to ennui. To make matters worse, the steward told me, in his inimitable fashion, “we ain’t got no more elevenses for you, sir.” How can I captain this expedition without my elevenses?

May 11, 1847. The cook extremely upset over our empty larders. Says there isn’t even any solder left inside our food tins. “Hang in there, old chap,” I told him, but the roar of the wind in the ship’s rigging garbled my words, & he tried to hang himself. At least the men are still obeying my orders.

May 12, 1847. Dense fog. We can’t even see the ship’s prow, much less a possible shortcut to the Orient.

May 14, 1847. We’re totally out of crumpets, so I had to feed Cedric [Cedric was Franklin’s pet toucan] a few forlorn scraps of hardtack. Not surprisingly, he squawked in protest.

May 15, 1847. Took bearings & discovered that, instead of corpulent, I am now merely portly. Remarkable that I can now ascend the mast-head as well as descend from it.

May 17, 1847. Men shivering almost constantly, & their beards are hung with icicles, as the Admiralty somehow has seen fit to supply us with tuxedos & cummerbunds rather than parkas. Wrote a letter of protest to the First Lord, then such was my hunger that I proceeded to eat it.

May 27, 1847. Several Savages [Eskimoes] with prognathous jaws visited the ship today. They brought us a batch of pemmican eggs. Alas, all rotten. Must have been laid before the great pemmican migration south. In return, we gave each of the Savages a tuxedo & cummerbund.

May 29, 1847. More misfortune — one of the crew, doubtless a petty officer, has eaten poor Cedric! I said to Fitzjames [Franklin’s second-in-command], “Find the bounder responsible for this & give him a taste of the cat.” “Sorry, sir,” Fitzjames told me, “but we’ve already eaten the ship’s cat.”

May 31, 1847. Lieutenant Orme, a clean-shaven fellow except for his clump of grizzled whiskers, broke into my cabin & consumed the contents of my chamber pot, then began singing “Rule, Brittania.” I put him in the section of the sick bay reserved for nutters.

June 5, 1847. Weary of being mired in ice, we abandoned ship & began making our way to Back’s Fish River, thence, we hope, to England’s green & pleasant land. The men carried me in a sedan chair. Two days into our journey, I realized I’d forgotten my robe & slippers, so we marched back to the ship.

June 8, 1847. Abandoned the ship a second time. Curiously, my sedan chair seems to have disappeared, & I’m now being manhauled in a sledge filled with towels, kettles, sail-maker’s palms, porcelain cups, bedding, checkerboards, our portative organ, longboats, etc.

June 9, 1847. Met a group of Savages & asked them using signs for the route to Back’s Fish River. They fled in terror when Fitzjames produced a loud blast of flatulence. “Sorry, sir,” he said, “but starvation seems not to agree with me.”

June 10, 1847. Longboats abandoned owing to the terrestrial aspect of the land.

June 12, 1847. Dr. Goodsir, our surgeon, tried to enliven things by asking us which vegetable the Admirably forbade us to take on board the Erebus. Answer: Leeks! Only Goodsir himself laughed at this feeble joke, & as he did, several of his teeth loosened in his gums, then fell into the snow.

June 13, 1847. What a nuisance! I seem to have left my monogrammed cutlery & all my medals on the Erebus, so we had no choice but to march back to the ship, which was now a sorry sight — both the fore & aft decks were covered with a thick coat of scurvy.

June 14, 1847. A blizzard has kept us on the ship, so I began working on a talk to be given tomorrow at tea-time. Key sentences include: Eat your boots, men. They’re quite tasty. Give me a nice fresh boot over steak-and-kidney pie any day. [On an earlier expedition, Franklin had been compelled to eat his boots]

June 15, 1847. Hallo, what’s this? Fitzjames has barged into my cabin without a knock. “Sir John,” he says, brandishing his cutlass, “the men & I have made an important decision. The cabin boy is lean & emaciated, while you…”

Here the diary necessarily breaks off, but the percipient reader will have no trouble ascertaining why Franklin’s remains have never been found.

Bibliodeath

Bibliodeath, by Andrei CodrescuPoet, NPR commentator, novelist, literary magazine editor, travel writer, English professor, polyglot, gentleman farmer, and raconteur Andrei Codrescu is a veritable heterogenius whose remarkable new book Bibliodeath takes the reader on an autobiographical journey through the notebooks, typewriters, and computers on which he’s scribbled, pounded, and tapped during the last 50 years. In response to the book, I engaged my old pal Andrei in the conversation that follows.

L: I have to admit, Andrei, that I’m still reeling from the pyrotechnics to which you put your adopted language in Bibliodeath. Why do you think certain European writers — Nabokov, Conrad, and (don’t blush!) you, for example — write a better, more felicitous English than most native-born writers of English?

A: We don’t write better English. We just write slow and breathless English. If you have to think about every word, you travel to its origins, swing through its meanings, and surface with that word subjected to something like cosmic agitation. Or more simply put, we get our writing chops from reading, so we see before we hear. We die in one language, only to be reborn in another. It’s the dying and coming back that makes us so fascinating to anyone who isn’t us. And I’m not blushing: I like my work. I like Nabokov’s even more.

L: In Bibliodeath, you celebrate the evolution of the printed word from notebook to book to (sorry for the obscenity!) cybertext. Can you offer any words of solace to writers like yours truly who see their careers frustrated as a result of the contemporary cyber mania?

A: I think our careers are going down the drain because we’re getting older and are allergic to working for free. When I was young, I did (almost) everything for $100. In the mid 90s, I had a streak of luck and the nerve to ask for real bucks. Amazingly, I got my chutzpah stamped. We’ve also come to the end of the cult of writing and the worship of the writer. Other media have caught up. Some movies are so good that it seems a sin to rehash them in words. On the internet, everybody has an opinion, so the job of “opinion-maker” has gone the way of shoe-cobbling and watch repair (or watches, for that matter). We are fallen gods, and sore as hell because it happened so fast, and we fell so hard. Nobody’s afraid of Virginia Woolf anymore, damn it!

L: We are getting older, it’s true, but elders like us were once regarded as fonts of wisdom. Now we’re flung by the wayside like so much chattel. Unless we happen to write teen-oriented zombie novels. I don’t think the other media have caught up. In the United States of Amnesia, the lowest common denominator rules, so other media have dumbed everything down. With the internet, even a right wing Bible thumper with an IQ of -35 has a voice. As for movies, 99% of them are products, nothing more. Products with pretty faces.

A: I think you’re an ageist, Millman. You prefer literature because it’s older than movies. Rear Window and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator are as good as anything by Steinbeck or Faulkner. But, yes, we’re becoming very good at forgetting, which puts us safely in the arms of the military-industrial-entertainment-cyber complex, a comfortable place in which to fuck up Mother Nature and to be transported to the Bardo of the clueless (where the teen zombies live). On the other hand, we have many good writers of children’s and young adult books. Perhaps those who write such things get back their child-brains from the adult exo-skeleton of received facts. Being infantilized in this way is not so bad for a writer. Personally, I’d rather write something as good as The Lorax at this point in my life than something as hopeless as Beckett’s Molloy. I say this: humor the young, give them no cash, and steal your grandchildren with charming stories.

L: Today’s Boston Globe reviewed the following movies: Wake in Fright, Keep the Lights On, Seven Psychopaths, Sinister, and Girl Model, but there was not a single book review… not even a review of Bibliodeath. Sic semper gloria mundi! I confess I haven’t read The Lorax, but I do like the not necessarily scientific idea of Horton, a male elephant, hatching a bird’s egg… and not crushing it. Which brings me to my last question: it sounds like you’re writing a kid’s book. I know you’re living on a farm in Arkansas, but by “kid” I mean human, not goat progeny.

A: You’re right. I’m writing a kid’s book because I recently read Dr. Seuss’ Yertle the Turtle 6 times to my 3 year old grand-daughter Raya, and if I had stayed any longer where she lives, I would have had to have read it to her 120 times more. Who would want to read Ulysses 6 times? Out loud, for chrissakes! But the reason I want to write a book that is not only read and reread many times over is that Yertle the Turtle is a work of genius: at once simple and profound, and a story about justice that a “grown-up” might take 5 years to write. I think I might be old enough now to try something like this. I once met Theodore Geissel (Dr. Seuss) at a party in Old Metairie, Louisiana: he was an elegant tall man, shy and self-contained. It’s too late for “tall,” but maybe I can try the others. Who needs the Boston Globe when you’ve got the ear of an insatiably curious 3 year old?