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HISTORY AS IT WAS BEING MADE

Events, Dear Boy, Events: A Political Diary of Britain from Woolf to Campbell
Edited by Ruth Winstone, Profile, £25

Britons of a particular class and background are enthusiastic writers of diaries and keepers of private papers. The lineage goes back to Samuel Pepys perhaps. In the 20th century, Harold Nicolson (1886-1968, diplomat, politician, writer, socialite and husband of Vita Sackville West) everyday, before breakfast, typed out his recollections of the previous day and then filed it away. These were published as his diaries by his son Nigel. These diaries form an extraordinarily rich documentation of a particular part of British history. There were others like Nicolson who kept diaries, maybe not always with the latter’s discipline, but nonetheless these diaries are very valuable.

In this book, Ruth Winstone demonstrates how valuable these diaries actually are. She succeeds in recreating the period, 1921 to 2010, through extracts from the diaries of various people, ranging from Virginia Woolf to Alan Clarke and Tony Wedgewood-Benn. The result is a marvellous and a rather unique glimpse of history as it was being made. The extracts offer comments on incidents as well as records of anecdotes and of course anecdotes and gossip galore. The extracts are divided into chapters; most of these cover decades except for chapters three and four which cover the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. Each of the chapters has a brief introduction where the main events and the principal diarists are presented by the editor. The latter also adds, where necessary, short but essential annotations as footnotes.

To begin with the delightfully trivial. We read in one extract from the diaries of John Rae, the headmaster of Westminster School — the entry is dated Thursday, 27 October 1977 — that he dined as a guest of the Pooh Trustees. A.A. Milne had been a scholar at the school between the wars. The dinner is an occasion that brings together “good fare and whimsy.’’ As an example of the latter, he writes, “A worn teddy bear is on the centre of the table and in his speech, the chairman of the trustees addresses the bear as ‘Pooh’.”

To give one example of the gossipy aspect of the extracts. Roy Strong, the director first of the National Portrait Gallery and then of the Victoria and Albert Museum, writes on Wednesday, 4 November, 1981, after his first meeting with Princess Diana (then the princess of Wales): “How can I describe her?… I would categorize her as Eliza Doolittle at the embassy ball… [Her accent is] not an upper-class drawl at all but rather tuneless and, dare I say it, a bit common, as though it were the fashion to learn to talk down. That is what I meant by Eliza at the ball.’’ Again on Thursday, 24 May 1984, he records that Princess Michael of Kent, who he says is “wildly indiscreet’’, remarked on the “catastrophe of the princess of Wales’’ and said, “being rude to servants is the lowest thing you can do and she does it.’’

The Second World War, if these extracts are anything to go by, began ominously not because Britain was on the back foot in the war but because Charles Wilson (Lord Moran), who had been appointed the doctor for Winston Churchill after he became prime minister, discovered that the PM had no intentions of listening to any medical advice. Churchill, Wilson records Friday, 24 May, 1940, believed that he suffered from dyspepsia and breathing exercises would cure this. Striking a note of desperation, the doctor wrote in his diary, “I do not like the job and I do not think the arrangement can last.’’ But by December 1941, after America’s entry into the war, Wilson noted that “a younger man has taken [the] place’’ of a Churchill who “was carrying the weight of the world and [I] wondered how long he could go on like that and what could be done about it.’’

A different kind of observer remarked on how the balances of forces within the British Empire had altered because of the war. Malcolm Muggeridge wrote on Monday, 30 March 1942, “I considered with much quiet mirth, Sir Stafford Cripps, the British Government’s Special Envoy to India, and Gandhi closeted together; sympathy entirely with, and money on, Gandhi. He knows the game; after Halifax [Lord Irwin in India] as Viceroy, Cripps will be easy money. The British raj then [in 1931] was still powerful enough to induce Gandhi to visit Halifax. Now Cripps visits Gandhi.’’

Vignettes like these, which get lost in the great narratives that dominate much of history writing, throw a different light on history and the concerns of people as they watched events unfold. Many familiar figures flit in and out of the pages of this book which is a compelling read. One reason for its attractiveness is that some of the extracts are outrageously frank. Witness Oona King, a member of the House of Commons early in this century, “George W. Bush is President…. The leader of the free world is a moron.’’