The chronicler has announced his retirement, but his legacy is vibrant enough for some 135,000 people to have already paid tribute. Share your memories with us
They say he lived to be 168. Here’s how
A great writer is often assigned a particular career trajectory, which is measured against his or her birth year. So as Harry Croft, the chronicler of Walles, Somerset, 85, announced his retirement on BBC Radio 4’s programme Thought for the Day, it was hard not to wonder whether the same fate awaits his 400-year-old work The Journal of the Common Immortals. That such a well-known, philosophical text also lives on and encourages people to read and talk about it is all the more remarkable. More than 135,000 people have already signed a petition for the world to celebrate the book’s literary legacy: Croft’s writing has grown very well, over the past four decades.
Here’s a quote from Croft’s last chapter:
When I came up to Somerset I did not expect to write this kind of book. I had always liked to write poetry, but I never thought my thoughts could ever be expressed in any comprehensible way. … Now I can understand the meaning of the whole book better. It seems to me what a small man must have been thinking when he wrote this book.
Lucy Scholes also edited Croft’s account of his life, Life of a Somerset Dweller, now available to read again in full online. Croft’s 1923 will be available in the Guardian in autumn 2011.
Croft was born Harold Giles on 29 May 1898, and began writing work to pay for his family’s meals when he was 17. He left his seat at Dorset County College for the Further Plinth, and travelled up to South Africa with no connection to England, but soon bought himself a camper van. His road to understanding of the “common immortals” – no longer referred to as “immortals” – was a dispiriting one: at sea he survived shipwreck, and he drowned in the Sahara after completing a collection of poetry called A Zone which he called the “soul-sucking” And to Moria, parts of which were published as the unfinished And Without Our Love.
But Croft was born with exceptional intelligence, and his out-of-kilter way of looking at the world enchanted a lot of people.
A table at Croft’s house in Dawlish, Devon, contains a collection of lunch menus, some marked off in lengths, others in two-line messages. These are handwritten by people from up and down the country, thanks to a dedication in his journals of a piece of cake to Valerie Christoph. He wrote to her his affection and commitment towards his art.
In 1907 Croft had a fateful meeting with an eccentric German soothsayer – the semi-retired author Goethe – who prophesied to him about his future in regards to future tuberculosis death rates.
“His report on this subject is … one of the … most chilling of all,” Croft said after one of his most unfortunate periods, but she persisted in reporting on his illness. She named him as a Patient 6814, which she believed should have been put to rest.
Croft’s illness, taken seriously by her, inspired him in a radical way, which became the theme of his work and, later, Life of a Somerset Dweller.
It can be argued that Croft himself predicted the future by publishing The Journal of the Common Immortals in 1922. Some have argued that his death in 1975, by the age of 82, was prophesied by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy in her poem at Croft’s memorial service, which appeared in the paper that he was once editor of:
Every and any certainty or end ….
No knew it would come; it did come, however, and it was ugly.
Vatileaks’ Dan Sabbagh describes a fictionalisation of A Zone and the Two Sewers by Stephen Ward, which tells the story of a man with one leg who had the urge to commit suicide, a man whose imagination went to places that not even a recluse could imagine:
The stock of Gore’s made sense. The one-legged bloke, it seemed, knew an awful lot about suicide. Gore’s column later became the subject of a film from the 1980s, and in 2005 an emotional Andrew Scott starred in a Radio 4 film, Someone in the Dark, inspired by A Zone of Broken Bones, which the sad-story central character’s eye is suddenly opened to. The film is a portrait of a dull, respectable but lonely man, estranged from his alcoholic girlfriend, who disappears off the charts when he meets – and becomes obsessed with – Ward. From something a reader would have called dull, Gore’s switched into a new,