Book of the Week: Our History of the 20th Century

27 Nov|Travis Elborough

Britain faced unprecedented changes and upheaval over the course of the twentieth century. Our History of the Twentieth Century, expertly compiled by Travis Elborough, explores these changes through the diaries and journals of those who lived through it, offering a deeply personal, unusual and often entertaining insight into modern British history.  

“What is a diary as a rule? A document useful to the person who keeps it, dull to the contemporary who reads it, invaluable to the student, centuries afterwards, who treasures it!” Ellen Terry, My Life Story  (1908)

It is now nearly two decades since the millennial celebrations served as the send-off to the twentieth century in the collective popular imagination.

The preceding one hundred years had seen the world’s bloodiest ever wars and most horrific acts of violence – alongside some of the greatest advances in science, technology, global communication, navigation, documentation, medicine and civil and legal rights. The Britain of 1900 was a place still mostly powered by steam and horse. Its maps were tinged pink with the territories of the Empire. The Britain of 1999 was at one, just about, with the hyperlink and the information superhighway. Its economy was grateful for the pink pound. The journey from the Britain ruled by Queen Victoria to the one guided by a still (then) immensely popular Tony Blair is what this anthology sets out to chart. It presents a chronological survey of the nation from 1900 to 1999. This is constructed not from official documents or press reports but from accounts left in diaries and journals or the odd letter – the voices of people speaking to the turns in their fate, and their country’s, as they occurred.

For me, the appeal of reading diaries has always been their immediacy and intimacy. That unique sense of being addressed directly, and sometimes extremely candidly, by someone from an age other than our own is intensely seductive.

There are moments when what they say might be strange, revolting, even alienating. But in my experience more frequently the distances melt away and common humanity is reaffirmed, and empathy with our forebears enhanced.

The aim of this book is simply to try to supply a flavour of these years in the words of those who were born, lived and died in those times, who suffered its lows, relished its highs and enjoyed its possibilities as well as resented its limitations.

Some of the contributors in these pages are figures of state or men and women of some importance in the world of art, literature or politics. The advantage of drawing on material from the great and the good is that they often offer a front-row seat on some of the most momentous incidents of the recent past, providing pen portraits of the significant figures in their orbit.

Ordinary people, though, are no less likely to be affected by national and international events, or to meet people of note as they go about their days. And at times, the very fact that they experience big events though the prism of their daily lives, or at the remove of conversations and news reports, makes their accounts all the more compelling. The diaries, journals and letters left by the obscure, the unsung and the entirely unknown provide a vital and fascinating portrait of how life is actually lived, offering, as they do, a window on what the man or woman on the street really made of the stuff of history at the time.

By assembling a range of differing voices, and by shifting between the epoch-making and the personal or domestic, this book hopes to offer a richly impressionist picture of the last century – an experience for the reader that is perhaps closest to eaves- dropping as anything else.

A century, and especially the twentieth century, offers millions of things worthy of inclusion. Inevitably some notable events are absent and some obscure ones present. Likewise, while as wide a range of writers and views as possible were sought, some points of view are missing. Diaries are often kept for brief and intense periods and in response to particular circumstances. For this reason, there are occasions when the voices of one or two diarists come to dominate particular years, while more of a polyphony is sustained elsewhere.

With over a hundred diarists spread over a hundred years, here is twentieth-century Britain firsthand and in all its idiosyncrasies. It is another country, where they certainly did thing differently, and one well worth a visit.

Join Travis Elborough and Idler agony aunt Virginia Ironside at the Sohemian Society this Wednesday for ‘Down and Out with the Diarists’. Tickets available here. You also can visit Travis Elborough’s website here. His book Our History of the Twentieth Century (Chambers, Oct 2017) is on sale now. Buy a copy here.