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.’