The student sharing his angst is outshone by the teen under aerial bombardment
The publication of Alastair Campbell’s diaries ruffled a hencoop of feathers, as was the intention. But how much more juicy would the fallout have been had the Pepys of New Labour not bowdlerised his work?
The verdict on Campbell’s outpourings seems to be that, edited or not, they still offer an invaluable insight into the reign of Blair and his henchmen. What interests me, however, is that the diaries that grab the limelight are almost always written by those in positions of power, status or fame. With the notable exception of mass observation records from the Second World War, when the Joe and Jo Bloggses of the country were given their page in history, the nobodies of the world are almost invisible from this genre. Only with the rise of blogging has the balance begun to shift, although here a new aristocracy of chroniclers has emerged based on the titillation or dramatic value of their material. Thus the student sharing his angst at pre-exam nerves is totally outshone by the teenager under aerial bombardment in Basra, or the high-class London prostitute (or the writer pretending to be a highclass prostitute).
This is not to say that the famous, or the sensational, don’t keep good diaries. But nor does it mean that ordinary people do not keep diaries worth reading. The only thing you can be sure is that the commoners of diary-keeping are far less likely to send their work to a publisher.
I would like to set up a compulsory diary-keeping programme, in which people who have the diary itch but think their lives are dull are encouraged to keep a regular record of what they’re doing. Forty years on, I bet even these bashful scribes would recognise how interesting their experiences have been.
There is, however, a different form of memoir that offers a peephole into fascinating lives that would otherwise disappear unrecorded. This is oral history, as pioneered by the likes of Hamish Henderson, who spent much of his life on the road laden with recording equipment. Most of his work was intended to capture Scotland’s indigenous music tradition before it disappeared. In his wake came a platoon of historians keen to capture the past in the words of those who were there. The vanguard of this effort today is led by the Scottish Working People’s History Trust, which has recorded the testimonies of farm hands, dock workers and the like. The most recent addition to this archive – stored at the department for Celtic and Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University – is by Calum Ferguson, whose earlier books include an account of those who lived in Black Houses. His latest work, Lewis in the Passing (Birlinn, £14), is an utterly absorbing collation of memories from 21 fellow Lewisians, as recounted to Ferguson over a period of 20 or so years. It may be a hackneyed phrase, but I couldn’t put this book down. Just when I’d read the account by “Curro” MacLeod, who travelled the world as a whaler and merchant seaman, or George Smith, one of Stornoway’s many cobblers, my eye would be caught by another story, such as that of Maryann Martin, who signed up for service during the Second World War, thinking “overseas” probably meant Kyle of Lochalsh and ended up in Egypt and Palestine.
Stretching back to the early 1900s, from the high days of the herring industry, and the shipwreck in 1919 of the Iolaire – when over 200 returning soldiers were drowned only a few metres off the Lewis coast – through the Second World War when the island was a flurry of planes and air-service men, right up to today’s depleted but still lively community, this is a rich and absorbing series of conversations. It does honour not only to the tellers but to all those inconspicuous citizens who played their part in shaping 20th-century Scotland. Kaleidoscoping the speakers’ lives into a few pages obviously does scant justice to all they experienced, yet cumulatively these memories create a revealing, intimate and compelling patchwork history.
Without someone like Ferguson to seek out their stories, these treasures from the past would soon have been lost forever. Unless, of course, they’d all been keeping a diary.