The stu­dent shar­ing his angst is out­shone by the teen un­der ae­rial bom­bard­ment

The Herald - Arts - - Books - Rose­mary Gor­ing

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.

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