Old white man of the day

From the greatest living mathematician yesterday to an old white man listed by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s greatest linguist, today. Quote.

New Zealander Harold Williams […] is said to have spoken over 58 languages fluently, as well as some of their dialects. […] This amazing polyglot was said to “read grammars as others read detective stories”. He was the foreign editor of The Times; described as the “the most brilliant foreign correspondent” his generation had known, he “knew everyone and everything … and was always at the point of greatest interest and risk.” Williams’ editorials on foreign affairs were regarded as the authoritative version. His personal qualities and his expansive knowledge, particularly of Russian affairs, led to associations with some of the most influential people of the time, from statesman, to writers such as H.G. Wells and Hugh Walpole (also born in New Zealand).

Williams was born in Auckland on 6 April, 1876. […] Like most youngsters his age, Harold wasn’t possessed by a voracious appetite for learning, but he recalled that, when he was about seven, ‘an explosion in his brain’ occurred and from that time his capacity to learn, in particular languages, grew to an extraordinary degree. He began with the study of Latin, one of the great root languages, and hungrily acquired others, almost by osmosis.

As a schoolboy, he constructed a grammar and vocabulary of the New Guinea language, Dobuan, from a copy of St Mark’s Gospel written in that language. Next, he compiled a vocabulary of the dialect of Niue Island, again from the Gospel written in that language, and was published in the Polynesian Journal. Behaving as if he were single-handedly attempting to restore the tower of Babel, Harold spent his pocket money purchasing New Testaments from an obliging Christchurch bookseller in as many languages as he could. By the end of his life he had studied the bible in twenty-six languages, including Zulu, Swahili and Hausa. Before attending Christchurch and Timaru Boys’ High Schools he had managed to teach himself Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Maori, Samoan, Tongan, Fijian and other Polynesian dialects.

In 1893 the Williams family moved to Auckland, where the teenage Harold would visit ships at the Auckland wharves so that he could converse with Polynesian and Melanesian crew members in their own tongue. He sat for his Bachelor of Arts at Auckland University, but was failed because of an inability to sufficiently master mathematics, and, on the instruction of his father, entered the Methodist Ministry at the age of 20. After appointments in St Albans, Christchurch, and Inglewood, Taranaki, he went to the Northern Wairoa district around Dargaville where there were crowds of gumdiggers of diverse nationalities. He quickly absorbed their languages and then begun to study Russian and Polish, inspired in part by an interest in the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace, Anna Karenina). […]

In June 1899 Harold wrote, “I have had rather slavonic crazes lately.” One of these crazes would eventually be the compulsion for him to leave New Zealand. In 1900, aged 23, Harold decided to “embark on a pilgrimage” determined to visit the home of Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana. With a grant of £50 to cover the voyage (from a director of the New Zealand Herald who had been informed of his talents), and no scholarships or other assistance, he set off for Europe. He went first to Berlin and by the time he arrived at Berlin University he already knew twenty languages. There, and at Munich University, he studied philology, ethnology, philosophy, history and literature. These years as a student were marked by poverty – Harold’s money from New Zealand had quickly run out – and he was forced to sell his books and the prizes he had won at school. He taught English part-time to make some money and he often had only a few hours each day to pursue his studies. There were days when he had nothing to eat, but he persevered and gained his PhD (in languages) from Munich in 1903.

Williams next undertook the study of Slavic languages and as a result became interested in Russian affairs. He toyed with becoming a University teacher, but instead entered journalism. The Times correspondent in St. Petersberg, D.D. Braham, had been expelled and was organising a news service from adjacent countries. He appointed Williams as a special correspondent to work with exiled Russian liberals in Stuttgart. The city had become the centre of organised political opposition by Russian political refugees working towards reform in their own country.

Later, Williams obtained positions with the progressive Manchester Guardian in Russia, and worked towards Anglo-Russian rapprochement as special correspondent for the Morning Post in Russia in 1911 and Turkey in 1912. By 1914 he was writing for the Daily Chronicle dispatching telegrams and feature articles from all over the Russian Empire. He was in constant pursuit of his avowed quest “to serve the great cause of liberty”. […]

His remarkable knowledge of Russia soon established him as an authority on Russian affairs. He had freely travelled into every part of the country accumulating an immense amount of knowledge about Russia – its people, history, art and politics – augmented no doubt by his acquisition of Finnish, Lettish, Estonian, Georgian and Tartar. He also acquired a grasp of Russian grammar that was better than that of most of his Russian friends. His dispatches were thus more than disinterested journalism they were the personal accounts of an observer living intimately in a society. […] End of quote.

Throughout the first world war Williams sent informative, but often ignored, reports back from various parts of Russia but, when opposition to the Bolsheviks crumbled, he escaped in a refugee ship, first to Turkey, then to Serbia, where he astounded the local Serbs by speaking their language fluently in just two days. Quote.

On his return from Russia, he taught himself Japanese, Old Irish, Tagalog, Hungarian, Czech, Coptic, Egyptian, Hittite, Albanian, Basque and Chinese. He mastered the Cunniform inscriptions and a book of 12,000 Chinese Mandarin characters.

Back in London, Williams felt underemployed and despondent. Despite the fact that he had witnessed first-hand two wars, three civil wars and revolutions, and was applauded as one of the great journalists of his age, he now found himself jobless. It seems vast knowledge of languages and societies wasn’t high on the list of post-war curriculum-vitae priorities.

In 1921 his luck changed. The editor of the Times, Wickham Steed (who himself spoke several languages), offered Williams a position as a leader writer. In May 1922, he was appointed foreign editor (or as the Times would phrase it, ‘Director of the Foreign Department’). Although his interest in Russia never waned, in this influential position he was now responsible for interpreting and passing judgement on political events all over the world for the pre-eminent newspaper of the time. As always, he was outspoken on issues that he believed were morally right, commenting on European affairs, but also those in Asia, China, the United States, Japan, India and the Commonwealth. The impetus of his leader articles always gestured towards a desire to preserve peace through the creation of European security. Aspiring towards “moral disarmament” he did much to promote and bring to a gratifying conclusion the Treaty of Locarno of December 1925. As he wrote to his father in New Zealand:

“For the first time for eleven years, the chief nations of Europe are really at peace … I am very thankful today. After all one can sometimes do a good piece of work.”

Typically, he used his knowledge as a tool of diplomacy and was able to talk to every delegate in their own language. Williams held the position of foreign editor for six years before his untimely death in 1928. He had been unwell, but was about to go to Egypt on an assignment for the Times, when he collapsed. He had blood transfusions and seemed to rally, but died on 18 November 1928.[…]

The Times, a newspaper normally careful to project an aura of objectivity through its policy of maintaining staff anonymity devoted an entire column to Williams’ obituary. End of quote.


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WH is a pale, stale, male who does not believe all the doom and gloom climate nonsense so enjoys generating CO2 that the plants need to grow by driving his MG.

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