The parable of the Englishman | Borja López Cotelo

I remember my brief stay in the St. James College, in Maypole Green, Essex. In the evenings of rain, to chop of the drops against the sill was sounding as the second-hand of a clock that seemed to go increasingly slowly, while a green and gray landscape was filtering across the ogival window. I, often, was losing the time searching carefully in his library for some manuscript; as me had confessed the dean Brown, the great Chesterton had spent there long seasons chatting on theology and paradoxes with his great-grandfather.

G. K. Chesterton

I never found there any track of the writer, but between the thousands – ¿ or were they million? – of books accumulated in his racks I discovered something maybe more extraordinary: the diary of Hiram Mallord Sinclair, the seventh duke of Connaught. I me stumbled over him without claiming it, while it was allowing that my sight should stroll around between the pages of an original edition of Milton’s lost paradise. Sinclair’s memories were drawing a particular personage: iconoclast, educated, refined in his tastes1, bold in his companies and tenacious in his intentions. It lived, as it parts with his writings, as a respectable aristocrat dedicated to the administration of his fortune until in the summer of 1824, to the age of 47 years and without explicit motive, it left the safety of his castle to dedicate his life to an uncertain intention: the search of the most ancient grafiti of the world.

Maybe there exists between the English aristocracy a tradition of extravagancy capable of granting legitimacy to companies of this kind; probably there was in Hiram Sinclair’s baggage both snobbery and curiosity, so many will to fool the ladies in a light conversation as to reveal the arcane ones of the art, so much I wish of impressing gentlemen of potentadas families as of throwing light on ancient human behaviors. Be since it will be, when it rose to the ship that had to move it from Bristol up to Naples, Sinclair was conscious of that ‘ nothing neither in his life, or in that of the rest of the men, it would return to be equal’2.

Naples about 1850, photographed for J. Dunlop

The ship arrived at port on September 19, day of San Genaro. Boisterous, dark, arrogant and protected for the extraodinary Vesuvius, the city did not pay attention the noble Englishman:

‘The peoples were crowding before the front page of the immense cathedral: there, they assure, licúa San Genaro’s blood. The air was smelling to all the spices of East and the shouts were filling the squares. There was perceived a collective ecstasy, a paroxysm that me was turning out to be foreign; I decided then to approach the tiny one put near to the port. I called with insistence and had to wait a few seconds. Since he supposed, it was a question of a discreet opium den’.

The following paragraphs are illegible. Sinclair, inclined to the experimentation and the relaxed morality, seemed to have found in the city partenopea the mold of his shoe:

‘I do not remember accurately what has brought me hitherto. But only a good reason will make me return’, he was writing eight days after his arrival to Naples.

The following pages seem to have be started, and the clumsy calligraphy of the preserved paragraphs impedes the reconstruction of the statement. In following well-known, written one week later, it is possible to read:

‘Schiaffino has spoken to me today of a city buried by the lava of the Vesuvius in remote times. The walls of his buildings preserve the most ancient drawings and numerous annotations, undecipherable hieroglyphs. The next week I will divide towards there to see them with my own eyes’.

For the first time, this day of autumn of 1824, Hiram Sinclair heard speaking about the unlucky city of Pompeii; actually, few ones knew her then beyond the Kingdom of Naples. Seven days later, when it saw the vestiges for the first time, he wrote:

‘It is not a question of ruins, but of an arrested instant. Here there is the grand of Rome, the temples and villas, but also the huts and brothels. The dirty and perverse thing is perceived in intimate conviviality by that one that us has been a legacy for the classic sources. All this, the good and evil, the explicit thing and the secret thing, the brilliance and the latent ignominy in every city, in every life, buried under the lava one day anyone’.

And it continues, between the relief and the excitation:

‘The hieroglyphs to which Schiaffino was referring are, actually, inscriptions in Latin. Hundreds. Thousands. It would not be able need how many. Some of them gather classic appointments – there Virgil and Ovidio were!-, others look like a politicians’ mere propaganda. The third group, the most numerous, it is composed by obscene phrases written on the walls of the prostíbulos: prostitutes’ rates, allusions to sexual attributes, insults to former concubines3. In occasions, scrawls of questionable virtuosity illustrate the proclamations. This one there must be been the city of the lust, the refuge of the mixed up ones4. The walls testify it. The drawings must have been realized more than twenty centuries behind: my trip seems to have come to his end ‘.

Grafitis preserved in the city of Pompeii

With these words it might have concluded Hiram Sinclair’s periplus. But someone, maybe to his return to Naples, maybe in some another opium den that undoubtedly he visited during his long trip on returning to England, spoke to him about a particular personage, Joseph Kyselak:

‘An Austro-Hungarian young person who has record habitually his name in all the corners of the Empire’ – it annotates-. ‘A man who maybe shares my worries’, writes (or, probably, he begs).

You upset four weeks later, Sinclair managed to meet in Vienna Kyselak. It was a December 2, 1824, in the famous coffee Sacher:

‘It is a question of a bland boy. He has confessed to me that the habit of recording his name in the walls of singular buildings began as a bet of youth. Later, his interest for climbing the most remote mountains of the Empire made him think that also there it had to figure his surname’. 

The Englishman seems to be, in these paragraphs, deeply disappointed.

‘It is not any more than a little child’ – he is sorry-, ‘and so much his way of speaking as his gestures they denote a neat education. I do not believe it capablly of attacking a risky company. Maybe do not be any more than a charlatan’.

Nevertheless, these words had been corrected of his diary; probably because, for Sinclair’s surprise, when this Viennese of refined ways had moved away, it discovered on the table of dark wood that fleetingly seven carefully carved letters had shared: Kyselak5.

Engraving representing Joseph Kyselak
Kyselak’s Tag in the Schwarzenbergpark of Vienna

As it is deduced of his diaries, Hiram Sinclair decided then to return to London. The trip had touched to his end. But on the same night, in the cafeteria of the Imperial hotel, it knew the Field marshall Otto Gerstner, ‘ a man of formidable stature, populated beard and tiny blue eyes’. It was he who spoke to him about a few remote grafitis, placed in the north end of Europe:

‘In Alta’s region, in Norway, up to where an expedition financed by the Emperor took it. Gerstner assures that the seen in Pompeii will turn pale in my memory after contemplating the marvels recorded in the rock by the first men of the North’.

It seems, nevertheless, that Sinclair’s economic resources began to become exhausted. He doubted between returning to England to attend to his financial obligations or to culminate his exploit7. Public inspector to yes same, decided to start finally the most difficult way: it sold his personal effects and went to Norway, alternating long treks and distances astride, being protected from the cold by the Astrakán’s only coat that it could rescue of his baggage.

Pictograms preserved in Alta’s region, Norway

This way, on June 14, 1825, Hiram Mallord Sinclair came to Alta’s fiord, after having crossed Finnmarksvidda’s barren plateau and miles of inscrutable forests hamsunianos. From this point, the diary seems to mix already without blush reality and fiction. It turns into a set of unconnected notes brings over of different scenes and prominent figures with whom – according to his statement – it ran up on the chill Scandinavian coast: he speaks about Knut, a sailor of Narvik who had freighted three expeditions with the only end of giving death to the kraken; he mentions also Ole, ‘a fisherman of more than seven feet of stature pulled down before the threat of the Malström’, and to Sigurd, a learned man who years before had had under his guardianship in Copenhagen a boy called Søren Kierkegaard. It refers finally to Ingrid Håkonsdatter, a peasant who was assuring to know the prehistoric drawings described by Gerstner that night, in the luxurious Imperial coffee of Vienna.

‘Ingrid affirms that the grafitis are situated in Hjemmeluft’s bay, to two local miles where I will happen the night’-he was writing Sinclair – ‘Tomorrow will be last day of my trip’.

Pictograms preserved in Alta’s region, Norway

With these words he concludes the diary. Probably there is some another missed notebook; maybe Sinclair managed to see Alta’s pictograms and astonished before his discovery to return later to Great Britain, to recover his fortune and to there be gained a reputation of bold traveler, of eager explorer and admired gentleman. But it is possible also that it was freezing to death and depletion on the same night, dam of the deliriums in Europa’s limit, watched over a peasant under the tenuous light of a candlestick7.

Borja López Cotelo. Doctor architect

A Coruña. may 2012


1.It they seem to indicate some passages of his autobiography, in which – recalling trips of youth – he weights the exquisite flavor of the caviar of the Volga or the delicate tact of you them sedate of Damascus.

2.The exact appointment preserved in the first one of his diaries, is: ‘I Knew on having divided that this decision – since any other one – would do that nothing neither in my life, or in that of the rest of the men, it would turn to be equal’. These words bring inevitably to the memory those of Borges: ‘there is no act that is not a coronation of an infinite series of reasons and spring of an infinite series of effects’.

3. Nowadays, great part of these grafitis Inscriptionum Latinarum is inventoried in the fourth volume of the Corpus. So much the political and philosophical references as erotic and annoying they were carefully studied during the decades later to Hiram Sinclair’s trip. In Pompeii they have been more than 20.000 grafitis, dated before August, 79 A.D (date of the eruption of the Vesuvius).

4. The inscriptions to which Sinclair refers are legible still today in the walls pompeyanas. In the main it is a question of political texts (Trebium Valiente(m) et Gaviun Rufum viros bon(os), that is to say ‘Vote for Trebio Valiente and Merry Rufo. They are good men’), sexual (Suspirium puellarum Celadus thraex, that is to say ‘ Celadus the Tracio makes sigh to the girls ‘, inscription gathered in the C.I.L. IV, 4397) and appointments of classic authors like Ovidio or Virgil.

5. A similar anecdote is attributed to Kyselak during his sight by the Austro-Hungarian emperor Francisco I, who had called it to palace to demand from him that it was stopping from his pretension recording his name in all the singular buildings of Vienna.

6. The dilemma consumed great part of the second volume of his diary. For two weeks, Hiram Sinclair annotated feverishly all his doubts and desires, in the most personal passages of his work. There remains also an inventory of goods, in which those that were sold turn out to be carefully corrected.

7. Be since it will be, the extraordinary set of Alta’s cave paintings was not discovered officially up to the autumn of 1972, hundred fifty years after Sinclair’s expedition. Dated between 4.200 A.C. and 500 A.C., the petroglifos represent so much human as animal figures, primitive crafts and rituals chamanísticos.

Borja López Cotelo

Borja López Cotelo, arquitecto por la ETSAC desde 2007, y doctor por la UdC desde 2013.

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