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A bit of an oddity for this blog, but as this is framed and on the wall by my desk it seemed wrong not to discuss this piece of history. I only have one page, a complete book would be well beyond my means so this is my only example of an incunable; that is a book printed up to the year 1500. The Latin term incunabula is translatable as cradle so is appropriate to relate to works from the birth of printing. Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press, started in 1450 in Mainz, Germany, and in 1452 he completed work on his most famous production, what is now known the world over as the Gutenberg Bible. Nowadays we think of printing as mass production, and in a way for its time this was the case however just 180 copies of the bible were printed by Gutenberg so each book printed in this period would only have had tiny numbers produced. This is printing but not as we know it.

In Britain printing didn’t arrive until William Caxton set up his printing press in 1476 at Westminster, initially intending to print his own translations of books. He had started printing in Bruges, Belgium having learnt how to do it in Cologne, but came back to England in order to meet demand for his books. His first title ultimately became his most famous however and he will be forever associated with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

According to the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue; maintained by the British Library; in the first 50 years of printing just under thirty thousand different editions of various titles were printed in 18 different countries in a total of 282 printing towns. The ISTC as it is known is an attempt to catalogue every known incunabula, it is almost complete and makes a fantastic reference database for this period. My page is from Super sapientiam Salomonis, a commentary on the books of the Wisdom of Solomon by Robertus Holkot. It was printed by Heinrich Gran in 1494 in the town of Hagenau, which was in Germany then but is now part of France. According to the ISTC there are 104 copies of the book held in institutions around the world, one of which has been scanned and made available on the internet. My page can therefore be seen here in the copy of the complete work held in Munich via the MDZ (Das Münchener DigitalisierungsZentrum) an archive started in 1997 and which provides an unrivalled collection especially of early works in a digital form.

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One immediate difference can be seen between my page and the digital copy and that is in the red letter h in the top left. This is because this page has been rubricated, that is the red letter has been hand written by a scribe who would have been employed specifically to add red letters to printed texts as indeed they would have done to handwritten manuscripts before the introduction of the printing press. These specialists were responsible for the beautiful initial lettering in medieval texts and their skill lasted for several decades after printing took over, hand embellishing the basic printed works which could only be in a single colour and it does mean that every copy is different. Rubrication is from the Latin rubico which means ‘to colour red’ and the red letter used to indicate something special gave us the phrase ‘a red letter day’ which is a date of particular importance as these days would be marked on the ecclesiastical calendar in red rather the usual black.

I bought my page from a small shop in the world’s first book town, Hay On Wye, roughly 20 years ago. Back then there was a shop that specialised in ancient bibles and other old books and they just had a few loose pages from different incunabula for sale. Sadly the shop no longer exists but I’m very pleased I bought this as an example of printing history, it is after all 524 years old and one of the oldest man made objects I possess. The paper isn’t actually as grey as it appears in the photographs. The page is framed and behind glass so I couldn’t use flash because all I would have got would be glare off the glass. The true colour is much closer to the digital image from Munich.


Apothecary Melchior

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The Apothecary Melchior series by Indrek Hargla is pretty well unknown in the UK but very popular in his native Estonia. He is probably best known there for his fantasy and ‘alternative history’ stories but Melchior is Hargla’s foray into medieval crime making him the closest Estonian equivalent of Ellis Peters here in the UK with her Brother Cadfael tales. The Melchior novels are set in the capital, Tallinn, in the early 1400’s as the city was going through a massive building programme, with the city walls mostly constructed along with some of the significant buildings but others parts are clearly still being worked on including the main square.

Although there are now six novels in the series only two have so far been translated into English and are published by Peter Owen however as can be seen from the covers these don’t look like part of a series. It seems an odd choice by the publisher to make them look so unlike and they are also translated by different people.

  • … and the Mystery of St. Olaf’s Church – Original title Apteeker Melchior ja Oleviste mõistatus published 2010 – translated in 2015 by Adam Cullen
  • … and the Ghost of Rataskaevu Street – Original title Apteeker Melchior ja Rataskaevu viirastus published 2010 – translated in 2016 by Christopher Moseley

I was first introduced to the books by my Estonian friend who gave me the second book for my birthday last year, it had to be book two as she couldn’t find a translation of the first one in Estonia. One of the problems I have found with translations from Estonian is their variable quality; so whilst I enjoy the books I have read in translation, quite often I find myself having to reread sections to be sure I have understood what is being said. This was not a problem with The Ghost of Rataskaevu Street, I sat and read it quite quickly, especially on the one day when out in the Estonian countryside there was just torrential rain so getting out and enjoying the area was not possible. Unfortunately the translation of The Mystery of St. Olaf’s Church is not as good so this may explain the change of translator for the second novel. The book is still perfectly readable but the flow of the narrative seems forced at times and I’m inclined to blame the translator rather than the author here as Hargla had been writing for many years before these books and they both came out in the same year so it’s not a case of the original authorship style changing.  My friend also loves the series and I doubt she would have if she had started with this one.

Melchior is in the classic tradition of the amateur sleuth who finds himself drawn into mysteries and providing assistance to the city authorities and through him we learn about the power conflicts in the city as the Teutonic knights in their castle are slowly losing control to the expanding city council along with the rivalries between the various religious bodies that still held enormous influence at the time. Whilst reading it, the first book appears to be misnamed for a long time, as very little appears to happen at St Olaf’s and it is only at the conclusion that the church’s role in the story is explained. At the start the book seems like a simple mystery as to who murdered one of the knights in the castle itself. Melchior gets involved due to his specialist knowledge as an apothecary making him one of the few scientifically trained people in the city and he sees it initially as a way of currying favour with the city fathers who need the murder solving quickly to keep the knights happy. In turn he looks for their assistance in opening the main city pharmacy which would catapult him up the social standings in Tallinn. The book is set in 1409, thirteen years before such a pharmacy was actually opened in the city so we know he isn’t going to get anywhere with that plan soon. Without giving any of the plot away, the story moves around the city introducing each of the power brokers in the place and ultimately reaches a denouement at St Olaf’s at the other end of Pikk, one of the longest streets in Tallinn.

The Ghost of Rataskaevu Street starts out much closer to home for Melchoir as this is where his home and small shop are situated. The tale is darker than the first book with rivalries between senior families leading to some pretty horrific situations for some of the protagonists, it is also more character driven than the first. We see a greater strata of the city’s population from the highest nobles of the Merchant Guilds to shop and bar keepers, sailors, servants and serfs. The Guilds are now getting more powerful, as would be the case all over Europe at this time but especially in the Hanseatic League which included Estonia and whose merchants controlled large parts of international trade in Northern Europe. By 1419 which is when this book is set they had recently built a guild house in the centre of the city and this alongside the City Hall was where power was slowly drifting away from the knights in their castle on Toompea Hill. The families involved in the story are senior guild members and this makes solving the crimes more difficult as Melchior must be very careful not to annoy the very people he is investigating.

One of the joys of reading the books after visiting Tallinn is that most of the places mentioned are still standing and the city looks much as it did 700 years ago, except obviously a lot cleaner that it would have been at the time.

A general view of the city from the castle on Toompea

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The Long Leg gateway, entrance to the castle seen from the end of Rataskaevu Street

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St Olaf’s church on Pikk

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The Guild Hall

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and finally the Apothecary in the main square that Melchior so wants to found. As said above this opened in 1422 and it is now the oldest still working pharmacy in the world.

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Seek out the Melchior stories, I hope that Peter Owen will get round to the others soon.

According to a chart in the i newspaper last week Estonian’s spend more time on average reading books than any other nation in Europe and Estonian authors certainly produce a wide range of work which I will be dipping into again in future blogs.

Under Milk Wood – Dylan Thomas

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Yesterday was International Dylan Thomas day and marked the anniversary of the first ever performance of the great Welsh poet’s final work; Under Milk Wood. This show on 14th May 1953 was also the only time Thomas was recorded on stage giving any sort of performance of the work and sadly he was to die before the classic BBC recording starring Richard Burton was broadcast on the 25th January 1954. I have the vinyl recording of that original performance and it is playing now as I type this with Thomas’s distinctive voice taking four parts, that of 1st voice, Reverend Eli Jenkins, 2nd drowned and 5th drowned. The rest of the cast are Dion Allen, Allen F Collins, Roy Poole, Sada Thompson and Nancy Wickwire and between them they play the remaining 50 parts.

The recording was more accidental than intentional, there was a recording scheduled for 1954 with Caedmon but Thomas’s death prevented that happening. However somebody left a tape recorder at the front of the stage with the microphone probably nearer to Thomas than the other cast members mainly for their own use to record the first performance. As a single microphone on a device intended for amateur recordings it does remarkably well in picking up not only all the actors but also the audience and has left us with  a remarkable historical record. Caedmon therefore used this for their release of Under Milk Wood. The New York audience clearly didn’t know what to expect from this Welsh poet and you can hear them gradually realise that it is intentionally funny and the way the actors bounce partial sentences between themselves gives a delightful rhythm to the blank verse.

Under Milkwood is subtitled ‘A Play for Voices’ which sounds an odd description until you realise that it was intended to be a radio play for the BBC so there are no stage directions, it was always intended to be read by the cast not acted.

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My printed copy is the 1972 Folio Society first edition of the work and, as usual for Folio, it is a lovely edition. It restores the text back to the original broadcast script with some extra lines which he left out originally, probably due to running time, added as an appendix. Although Thomas did deliver the script to the BBC he was still fiddling with it up to his death as he gave various readings in an attempt to earn enough money to pay off his debts, specifically a large back payment owed for income tax. So the typescripts are full of corrections and amendments and he never did come to what he regarded as a satisfactory conclusion to the piece, which had always been rushed as he only finished the ending included on the album minutes before they started the performance and kept changing this at subsequent performances.  As Douglas Cleverdon (the BBC producer of the 1954 broadcast version) notes in his introduction to the Folio edition.

Two stage readings of Under Milk Wood were scheduled for 24 and 25 October at the Kaufmann Auditorium, New York. Under a mixture of alcohol, sleeping pills and cortisone drugs, Dylan was already in a near state of collapse. He managed to write another page for the closing sequence of the script; to take part on the two readings, and to edit a shortened version for publication in the American magazine Mademoiselle. On 5 November he was taken to hospital in a coma, and died four days later.

If he had survived the play would undoubtedly have been further amended, on the back of one page of the manuscript is a section entitled “More Stuff for Actors to Say” and there are parts of the Caedmon recording that were subsequently removed so it was definitely still a work in progress at least as far as Thomas was concerned even after he had submitted the ‘final version’ to the BBC.

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One final thing that should be mentioned is the setting of the play in a small Welsh village of Llareggub. This has the advantage of looking like a Welsh place name without being one, you don’t get a double g in Welsh. However anyone looking closely at the name and especially if you spell it backwards will see that here is another joke by Dylan Thomas. For this reason early editions of the script spell the village differently and even the Caedmon recording uses Lareggub when referring to the place in the notes. The fantasy author Terry Pratchett paid homage to Dylan Thomas when he named the equivalent of Wales on the Discworld Llamedos.

You can hear the first part of the performance I’m listening to on youtube here  It starts with Thomas as First Voice setting the scene.

Moomins: The Comic Strip

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Tove Jansson wrote her first Moomin book ‘The Moomins and the Great Flood’ (original Swedish title Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen) during WWII and it was published in 1945, Småtrollen translates as small troll. By the second book ‘Comet in Moominland’ (1946) the original Swedish title has Mumintrollet rather than Småtrollen and the Moomins had truly arrived. Interestingly those of us reading the Moomin stories in English didn’t get the first book until 2005 as a 60th anniversary limited edition which is a distinctly odd way to have it’s first English translation.

My younger brother read the Moomins in the early 1970’s as a child but they somehow passed me by, I remember the covers of his books but I don’t think I ever opened them. The first time I really became aware of the Moomins was when I lived in Stockholm whilst subcontracting on IT systems for Swedish company Dagab in the mid 1990’s. By then in Scandinavia you could hardly turn a corner in a shopping area without encountering the familiar white characters and a recent visit showed that the interest is even greater now.

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My interest was taken by the comic strip versions rather than the books, these were originally written and illustrated by Tove from 1954 for the Evening News in the UK and this gave them a huge following. By 1957 however workload from what Tove regarded as her ‘real’ career as an artist meant that she got her younger brother Lars involved and from 1960 he took over as sole writer and artist until the strip finally ended in 1975. Despite not really being a fan of comic strips or graphic novels I love the simple drawings and the tightness of script imposed by the comic strip format to the Moomin tales and if anything I prefer the work by Lars to Tove as there is more humour although the drawings are not as precise. Suggesting this however is probably heresy to true ‘Moominites’. The first strip was published on 20th September 1954, but before that the Evening News ran teaser panels for a week such as the one at the top of this blog.

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Since 2006 Canadian publisher Drawn and Quarterly had been issuing collections of the cartoon strips at the rate of roughly one a year, although volume 10 came out in August 2015 and nothing since. Emails and attempts to contact the company via their facebook page regarding further volumes have been ignored. After all they have still only reached 1964 of what was described as ‘The Complete Lars Jansson Comic Strip’ and there would still need to be 8 to 10 (difficult to tell how they would choose to split the cartoons into the books) more volumes to complete the set. It is important at this point to emphasise that the comic strip stories are not retelling the nine books by Tove, what we have here is 73 more Moomin tales, 14 of which are by Tove, 7 by the brother and sister in combination and 52 by Lars, so there are 32 Moomin stories written after 1964 that are not currently in print and therefore not available to purchase and read.

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Although I have tagged this essay as “children’s books” and certainly they can be, and are, read by children it is easy to forget how dark a lot of the subject matters covered are, not just in the books but also in the comic strips. From the very first comic strip story where it becomes clear that Moomintroll believes himself to be an orphan and is being put upon by lots of other characters taking advantage of his good nature it is clear that this is not just a simple tale for children. After the end of the series of strips making up ‘Moomin and the Brigands’ he finds his parents when they rescue him whilst he is trying to drown himself to get away from the hordes of people making his life miserable that have eventually driven him from his own home.

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Charles Sutton from Associated Newspapers recognised the more adult possibilities in one of his letters to Tove before the strips were finally commissioned and it is clear that she took this advice to heart when she signed the contract for 7 years worth of cartoons.

It has come to my mind, that your “Moomin” family could make an interesting comic strip, which would not necessarily be aimed at children. It is obvious that the Moomin family appeals to children, but we think these wonderful creatures could be used in comic strip form to satirise our so-called civilised lifestyle.

The Moomin cartoon feature film ‘Moomins on the Riviera’ released in 2014 was based on the third comic strip tale written and illustrated by Tove in 1955, rather than one of her books. This meant that the story was new to most of the people who saw it, as the books are far better known, even though the comic strips were syndicated widely through Europe. In line with the less childlike cartoons Moominpappa at one point has a terrible hangover and Moomintroll himself becomes extremely jealous of Snorkmaiden’s admirers and is not impressed by her tiny bikini which actually looks very daring despite the fact that normally, like Moomintroll, she doesn’t wear any clothes at all. You can see the trailer for the film here.

As an example of Lars Jansson’s work the cartoon below shows Moominpappa being as selfless as ever and willing to put himself out for the good of the family…

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This story has him become totally obsessed with the television and it controls his life (along with all the family as they have to do what he sees as correct according to the adverts) for a while until he finally is brought back to reality.

Hopefully Drawn and Quarterly will eventually start issuing the books again, but until then at least we have access to 10 volumes covering 41 tales. As an aside to this blog, there was a fascinating documentary about the life and work of Tove Jansson which includes an interview with Lars and also his daughter Sophia, who now controls the vast Moomin empire, made by the BBC in 2013. At the time of writing this blog it is still available on youtube.

Conrad’s Congo

In 1890 naturalised Briton, although Polish born, Captain Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski left England to take command of the steamship Roi des Belges on the River Congo. He had gained his Master of the British Merchant Marine certificate four years earlier and had had a previous command of a ship called the Otago but this was to be his most significant position, at least as far as it’s mark on his later life. He had begun his maritime career back in 1875 as a trainee seaman on the barque Mont Blanc and had worked his way up the ranks on various vessels over the following years and hoped this would be a stepping stone to command of larger ships but it wasn’t to be. Amongst the possessions he took with him for an expected 3 years away in the Congo was a manuscript for a novel he was working on and it was this, along with the ill health that followed his African adventure that largely kept his away from future seagoing, would make the name of Joseph Conrad. ‘Almayer’s Folly’ was published in 1895, 15 months after he left his final marine post and a stream of novels and stories were to follow including the novella ‘Heart of Darkness’ based on his time in the Congo and published in 1899.

Although I will refer to Heart of Darkness several times during this essay, the book that has prompted me to write is ‘Conrad’s Congo’ published by the Folio Society in 2013 which gathers for the first time in one volume letters and diaries by Conrad relating to his ill-fated trip, along with the short story ‘An Outpost of Progress’ which also draws on his time in Congo. The book is bound in cloth blocked with a design by Neil Gower of the Roi des Belges steaming along the Congo. At 256 pages it is more than twice the length of Heart of Darkness and includes some fascinating contemporary photographs.

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The Congo at the time was being run a private fiefdom by King Leopold II of Belgium and the astonishing cruelty against and exploitation of the people there was without parallel even amongst other colonies. It only started to be reigned in after the report into what was happening there by Roger Casement became public and eventually the Belgian government stripped Leopold of his autocratic control. It is estimated that of Congo’s 20 million population in 1880 this was roughly halved by 1920 mainly from famine and disease as all able bodied people were forced to work collecting ivory, rubber or other commodities to enrich Leopold meaning there was nobody to hunt, fish or plant crops. Part of Casement’s report is included as an appendix to the book and makes disturbing reading even though I already knew some of the background.

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The cover of the Penguin Popular Classics edition  of Heart of Darkness was chosen by somebody who wanted a dark jungle view but managed to select not only the wrong country but even the wrong continent as the painting is a detail from Hunter in Brazilian Jungle by Marrin J Heade, so the plants growing are completely wrong for Africa.

Conrad’s Congo starts off with a series of letters initially with Albert Thys, deputy director of the Belgian Company of the Upper Congo as he tries to get a job with them then moves on to letters to his distant cousin (although referred to as uncle in the letters) Aleksander Poradowski then living in Belgium and when he dies soon after this correspondence starts the letters continue to his widow Marguerite (written to as aunt) and it is she that helps get him the captaincy he is looking for. In Heart of Darkness this is fictionalised in the tale told by Marlow (a thinly disguised Conrad) in which he says

“I am sorry to own I began to worry them. This was already a fresh departure for me. I was not used to get things that way, you know. I always went my own road and on my own legs where I had a mind to go. I wouldn’t have believed it of myself; but, then–you see–I felt somehow I must get there by hook or by crook. So I worried them. The men said ‘My dear fellow,’ and did nothing. Then–would you believe it?–I tried the women. I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work–to get a job. Heavens! Well, you see, the notion drove me. I had an aunt, a dear enthusiastic soul. She wrote: ‘It will be delightful. I am ready to do anything, anything for you. It is a glorious idea. I know the wife of a very high personage in the Administration, and also a man who has lots of influence with,’ etc. She was determined to make no end of fuss to get me appointed skipper of a river steamboat, if such was my fancy.

Six months after approaching Thys, Conrad had his job and his letters to his ‘aunt’ continue through his voyage to the Congo talking about the trip but also his first impression of colonial Africa as he works his way along to coast encountering French ships. The letters hint at a growing romantic link between the two as the tone becomes more playful such as might be written between two lovers separated by distance. On arrival at Matadi he finds that the Roi des Belges is 200 miles away and there is no way to get there up the river due to the rapids between the coast and the station where the ship awaits him so Conrad is forced to walk to his boat and this is covered in ‘The Congo Diary’ which makes up the next section of the book. It is in this short work where he meets Roger Casement and we first read of the casual cruelty inflicted on the natives and hints as to the fate of the majority of the colonialists.

On the road today passed a skeleton tied up to a post. Also white man’s grave – no name. Heap of stones in the form of a cross.

The short Congo Diary is immediately followed with ‘The Up-river book’ which covers his first trip on the Roi des Belges and is largely technical notes presumably to assist him in future trips such as this part of the entry for the 3rd August 1890.

Always keep the high mountain ahead crossing over to the left bank. To port of highest mount a low black point. Opposite a long island stretching across. The shore is wooded –

As you approach the shore the black point and the island close in together – No danger – steering close to the mainland between the island and the grassy sandbank, towards the high mount.

There are also numerous sketch maps of sections of the river which are also included in the Folio edition. The endpapers of this book have maps for both The Congo Diary and The Up-river Book so that you can follow the journeys.

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Unlike in Heart of Darkness where Marlow on having walked to his boat just as Conrad did, the Roi des Belges was clearly ready to sail as they set off a couple of days after he arrived. In the story Marlow found his ship had sunk a few days earlier so was obliged to spend many months getting it out of the water and repaired before they could do anything. The enforced break affords Conrad the chance to set up his plot for the rest of the story and also to make various observations about the conditions the natives are under. In reality he was off from Kinshasa to Stanley Falls almost immediately. This section of the Folio book is frankly not very readable and in truth was not intended to be so as it is really just notes on the route to avoid the numerous sandbanks and rocky snags that litter the river. Conrad’s sketch maps are interesting with their dotted lines indicating the correct path between islands especially the long section dealing with the clearly complicated Lulanga river passage, this takes 7 maps and several pages of notes to get through so it must have had a justified reputation for difficulty in navigation.

At the end of The Up-river book we are back to a small section of correspondence as letters have caught up with Conrad at Stanley Falls. One of these is highly significant as the letter to Marguerite includes the first mention that he has been very ill with dysentery as well as fever (malaria) and that there is a mutual dislike between him and the manager of the station he is based at so there is little hope of any advancement in his career. It is quite clear from the letter that the manager of the station that Marlow finds himself at is modelled on the real Monsieur Delcommune. This is how Marlow describes him..

He was commonplace in complexion, in features, in manners, and in voice. He was of middle size and of ordinary build. His eyes, of the usual blue, were perhaps remarkably cold, and he certainly could make his glance fall on one as trenchant and heavy as an axe. But even at these times the rest of his person seemed to disclaim the intention. Otherwise there was only an indefinable, faint expression of his lips, something stealthy–a smile–not a smile–I remember it, but I can’t explain. It was unconscious, this smile was, though just after he had said something it got intensified for an instant. It came at the end of his speeches like a seal applied on the words to make the meaning of the commonest phrase appear absolutely inscrutable. He was a common trader, from his youth up employed in these parts–nothing more. He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust–just uneasiness–nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a… a… faculty can be. He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. That was evident in such things as the deplorable state of the station. He had no learning, and no intelligence.

The last letter in this section is to the publisher Thomas Fisher Unwin who was acting as Conrad’s literary agent and mentions the short story ‘An Outpost of Progress’ based on his experience at the station which makes up the next section of the Folio volume.

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Conrad would be invalided out of the Congo by the end of 1890 to the relief not only to himself but also to Delcommune who wanted rid of him, and never recovered his health. Malaria is one of those persistent diseases that keeps flaring back up and it would afflict him several times back in England. The remainder of the Folio book is letters he sent long after his return, including 3 to Roger Casement at the end of 1903 just before the Casement report was published in February 1904, along with extracts from articles he wrote, followed by 2 appendices. The first of these is a series of five short testaments about Conrad written by people who met him including John Galsworthy and Bertrand Russell and then finally the extracts from Casement’s report that was mentioned earlier.

All in all a fascinating book which gives an insight into the creation of Heart of Darkness and which even if you have never read the novella provides an overview of the awful situation in the Congo under Belgian control and it should be recommended if only for the historical record.