Thinking allowed — 11 January 2011

Many of you whose New Year’s Resolution was to keep a diary will by now have given up on this daily habit of record keeping.

Most diarists write for themselves of course, but a small number write mindful that others might read their thoughts. Some write just recording gossip, as in Kenneth William’s diaries, who would also record the time of his bowel movements for reasons best known only to him, while others record their thoughts, dreams and observations of what life was like to live at one particular point of time.

Historians depend on diaries to capture the essence of what it was to live at the point of recording that information, for example Pliny the Younger’s account of Mount Vesuvius erupting in 79AD has been invaluable to both historians and volcanologists.

In September 1939 Nella Last a middle-aged housewife living in Barrow-in-Furness began keeping a diary for mass observation, a social research organisation which began in 1937 which encouraged the recording of what they called ‘The Voice of the People’. So engaging was Nella’s record of her life during the war years and post-war years it subsequently became a best seller and was later brought to the attention of later generations when it became a television drama starring Victoria Wood.

While my own record is as mundane as ‘walked the dog, light rain, not much work today in London’, Nella’s gave us an insight for what life was like for an ordinary housewife to live through the war years. In April 1940 after listening to reports on the radio of a sea battle the simple act of drinking a glass of water conjured up a terrifying vision:

. . . I got a drink of water and tilted the glass too much, the feeling of slight choking gripped me and sent my mind over green cold water where men might be drowning as I sat so safe and warm . . .

Good diarists make the ordinary, extraordinary and probably the greatest exponent of this daily account recorded life in London during the tumultuous times of mid-17th century London. We know he started the diary on 1st January 1660 with the entry ‘Blessed be God, at the end of the last year I was in very good health, without any sense of my old pain, but upon taking of cold’, and for nearly 10 years Samuel Pepys kept an account of his life from the great events at the time to the mundane.

During the plague he notes:

And it is a wonder what will be the fashion, as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any hair for fear of the infection – that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.

Pepys confesses in having two mistresses giving a rather graphic account of his dalliances and the guilt he felt at his betraying Elizabeth his French Huguenot wife. His account of being an employer in 17th century London in which he had no fear from being accused of sexual harassment by employees for the young women servants naturally attracted the master of the household and having a go at the household maids seems to have been an established practice.

His most famous entries were of The Great Fire of London, which started in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane in the early hours of 2nd September, 1666, it burned down 80 per cent of London within the City walls and left 80,000 people homeless. But as fascinating as this account is of the drama that is unfolding before his eyes, it the small nuggets of personal information that helps us understand the Londoners who lived there at the time. Pepys’s records that night, by moonlight, he moved his money and valuables into the cellar and carried all his precious goods – his best wine and a good Parmesan cheese – into the garden and buried them.

So, if like Samuel Pepys your New Year’s Resolution was to keep a diary, keep recording, and if you should find among a deceased family members’ effects their cherished thoughts don’t throw them away, one day historians might want to know about life in 21st century London.

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(3) Readers Comments

    here is another link to Pepys diary, interesting indeed

    • Thanks – Yes I’ve already checked out that site and used it for some of my source material.

  2. History is of course fascinating and studying it, even if simply by reading some of the excellent books available, is an enjoyable pastime. For Londoners and the inhabitants of other old cities, there is the added pleasure of being able to go out and see important vestiges of the past at first hand.
    We should remember, however, that “history” is not only about the remote past. History starts now. We are living through the history of our time, even helping to make it. There will indeed come a time when future analogues of ourselves will look back to this date and wish that they could visit our world in a time machine to see how we lived. Familiarity breeds contempt and we need to step outside our familiarity from time to time and try to see how unique and unrepeatable our own age is; try, in imagination at least, to become historians visiting from the future.
    It is said that understanding the past helps us to understand the present. The inverse is also true: understanding our present gives us insights into the people and events of the past.

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