Saturday, 26 January 2013

Nothing much happened today

Michael Powell of Chetham’s Library in Manchester kindly wrote to tell me about the diaries they have recently acquired of the landowning Leech family of Manchester and Ashton-under-Lyne. This collection of over 200 diaries starts with Thomas Leech (1790-1863) who used diary-keeping as a way of teaching his children about family history, and ends with Pauline Leech, who died in 1994. Her more than 50 diaries begin in 1929 and include some about her time at Bletchley Park in the war (although they don’t mention codebreaking, which you weren’t even allowed to write about in a diary).

There are a couple of websites devoted to the Leech diaries:

One of the Leech diaries, supposedly kept by ‘Miss Hermione Humber’, was actually written between 1927 and 1935 by Ernest Leech. The Hermione Humber was his car and in the diary he made a complete record of all the journeys the family made in it, including speedometer readings, petrol station stops, minor bumps, services and repairs. ‘One of the things I like about diaries is the way that the writers feel the need to report boredom or ennui,’ Michael writes. ‘Looking through the Leech collection I would guess that the single most common entry is “Nothing much happened today”.’

That’s still more loquacious than the entry in Louis XVI’s diary for 14 July 1789, which comprises one word: ‘Rien’.

I think my favourite diarist at the moment is Walter Musto, who lived in East Moseley, Surrey and was a civil servant in the General Stores Department of the Crown Agents for the Colonies at Millbank. He kept a diary during the war which was published a few years ago under the title The War and Uncle Walter. Here is an example of his style, which one might call Pooterish if that were not too ungenerous a word for someone so generous in his interests:

‘Noses are queer things … Again this morning, in the train from Vauxhall, a whole row of noses obtruded themselves upon my attention. Anatomically the same, they offer the same infinite variety of form as do feet, ears, even potatoes. Without a good supply of noses, the handkerchief industry must perish – Manchester and Belfast would be on half-time. The beauty business would go into mourning, distillers would languish and barley-growing cease. Vineyards would no longer inspire the muse. Without a natural support for spectacles, the manufacturers would cease to exist.’

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

My Disappointments Diary

I don’t normally do gift ideas on this blog but I was really pleased that Asbury and Asbury sent me a Disappointments Diary for 2013:

It’s a proper, working diary but with disappointing proverbs on each page (When one door closes another one opens in your face, If at first you don’t succeed I won’t be surprised, The early worm gets caught by the bird, Forewarned is anxious and fearful, A friend is just a stranger you haven’t fallen out with), notable deaths, and space at the back for a ‘Laughable To Do List’, ‘Notes towards a dull novel’, ‘Pointless doodles’, etc.

It’s witty in a really elegant way.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

A rescue corner for the human spirit

I wrote this for the Guardian on New Year's Eve:

“We were kept awake last night by New Year Bells,” wrote Virginia Woolf in her diary for 1 January 1915, with the First World War five months old. “At first I thought they were ringing for a victory.” There is something oddly affecting about historical diary entries for the first day of January, so full of hope for a year that has long since vanished into the past, and often beginning the diary-keeping habit itself - for this was Woolf’s first entry in a diary she kept for another 26 years. In an age when social networking sites host perpetual updates on the mundane details of our lives, this unbending commitment to private writing feels heroic.

Now there is an archive to house these messages in a bottle from the past. The Great Diary Project, recently installed at the Bishopsgate Institute in the City of London, comprises Irving Finkel’s private collection of about 1500 diaries and is inviting members of the public to augment the archive by depositing their own or their relatives’ diaries in it. A curator in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum, Finkel see diaries as a “rescue corner for the human spirit” and believes that their seemingly banal subject matter will be transformed by time into significance, just as the cuneiform written on clay tablets in ancient Mesopotamia is now charged with meaning.

Finkel’s conjuring up of a future historian who might find momentousness in today’s banal entries about “changing the tax disc or mending the fence” is part of a growing awareness of the private diary as vivid historical evidence, also apparent in the work of authors such as David Kynaston, Juliet Gardiner and Virginia Nicholson. Anthologies of diaries, particularly focusing on the Second World War and the era of post-war austerity, have proliferated in recent years. Many have titles- London Was Ours, We Are At War, Our Hidden Lives, We Shall Never Surrender, Our Longest Days – which suggest that these private thoughts have somehow become repositories of our collective memory.

But to write a diary for any extended period is an exceptional and eccentric act. If historians wanted to relate a truly representative history through diaries, they would have to include the vast, forgotten majority that do not see January out. It would be an eternal winter in this alternative history, populated by a tribe of initially loquacious people who suddenly become monosyllabic and then lapse irrevocably into silence.

While I find diaries fascinating, it isn’t for what they might tell us about our national story. It is for their strangeness, the way they go off at weird, unexpected tangents that pull you up short. On 1 January 1939, an obscure civil servant called Walter Musto began keeping a diary by recording that he had slipped off his nightshirt and stood naked in his Surrey back garden, “rubbing my body and limbs until I am aglow in the cold, sweet air”. In the diary he wrote for the next 6 years, Hitler gets barely a mention. Diaries are ruled by fleeting frustrations and passing piques. “The only papers were evening ones!”complained Kenneth Williams on 1 January 1974. “It is little short of scandalous.” The diarist’s default mode is bathos. “As I reluctantly swung out of bed I noticed my feet,” wrote Alec Guinness on the first day of 1995, “never something on which I like to dwell.”

Private diaries tell us that history is made up of billions of separate consciousnesses, all swayed by their moods, caprices and animal instincts from one day to the next, and ultimately impenetrable to other human beings. My only sustained effort at the genre manages to stutter on until Tuesday 25 April before ending abruptly with the single, gnomic utterance: “Watched Goober and the Ghost Chasers and made a different tent.” God knows what historians of the future will make of that. But I am happy to bequeath my Paddington Bear Diary for 1978 to the Great Diary Project, just in case.