Books: O tempora, o mures

Written By: Lucy Glitters
Published: February 25, 2018 Last modified: February 25, 2018

Our History of the 20th Century: As Told in Diaries, Journals and Letters
compiled by Travis Elborough
Michael O’Mara £25

It was ambitious of Travis Elborough to attempt to portray, or perhaps to illuminate, an entire century through the diary entries of both well-known and relatively obscure chroniclers. The book is full of plums. Particularly interesting, perhaps, are the extracts which run counter to received wisdom. One diarist writes in June 1940 that “Churchill has determined that England shall fight on alone. This attitude, according to the press, is ridiculed in Germany. I should think so, too.”

Fascinating in a different way are the impressions of the diarists about events of my own lifetime, such as the Falklands conflict and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the inevitable way personal preoccupations intrude: “Feel bilious too – very unusual for me. Crystal Palace burnt down last night.” I think, though, that Joan Wyndham’s entry about the bombing of the Café de Paris about which, a few pages earlier, she had been enthusing (“gentle, magnetic Snakehips Johnson with his thin elegant face and joyous rhythm – the best swing band in London gone”) brings home the incongruity, as well as “the pity of war” rather well.

Some diarists are surprisingly prophetic, like Kenneth Williams on Iraq (“The usual pious rubbish about Saddam Hussein being a tyrant and a torturer. When such a leader is removed, the ensuing chaos is deplored by the same censors”). At the other extreme, there are some entertaining “Oops!” moments; who said “[Jimmy Savile] is weird, but I think he means well”?

Despite the way in which, inevitably, the format causes diarists to appear and disappear without much context (thumbnail sketches would have been useful, particularly in the case of the lesser-known ones, as would explanations of some of the rather erratically-positioned photos), some of them establish themselves as vivid personalities about whom I would like to know more: the independent-minded Gladys Langford, the censorious Mrs Henry Dudeney, the engagingly Adrian Mole-ish Brian Williams, for instance.

A great deal of research must have gone into the selection of the entries but the book itself seems to have been put together in a hurry and could have done with a thorough proof-read. Some errors, though by no means all, can be attributed to the original writers, but I cannot think that a woman in the 1940s, commenting on the New Look, would have referred to “unswept hair”. I bought Woodrow Wyatt’s diary (it cost me 3p plus post and packing) to see if he really wrote of the Wapping dispute that “the unions are sacred and reluctant to strike”; as I thought, he had written “scared”. Some annotations are odd, and slightly random, as well. Many readers will not find it necessary to have “the Grauniad” glossed “[sic]”, and Mr Elborough should definitely not have attempted to translate the Latin joke which deliberately misquotes Cicero (‘O tempora, o mures’) in the context of the influence on culture of the creator of Mickey Mouse.

The period is too long and the book too short – captions and space between the entries take up a fair proportion of the pages – to allow for themes to be followed through as much as I would have liked, or for much juxtaposition of opposing views. Still, it is an interesting book to dip into and has already sent me to the internet to see if I can find the ends of some of the stories.