For the record

Have any of you given up your New Year’s Resolution to keep a diary?

This thought occurred to me as my digital diary informed me that I have written a daily entry, without a break, for 2,480 days. But before I come over overly supercilious, a far better London blogger Diamond Geezer has written every day uninterrupted for 43 years, without gaps. But as he informs us, even he can’t beat Colonel Ernest Loftus (of Harare, Zimbabwe) who began his daily diary at the age of 12 in 1896 and was still going strong when he died at the age of 103, some 91 years later.

Kenneth William’s bowel movements

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.

My mundane diary

While my own record is as mundane as ‘walked the dog, light rain, went to the shops’, 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.

Keep it up

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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