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Diaries and Personal Histories

In parts it is almost easy to imagine that you are in England among orchards and trees and banks….Until you see Italian women banging washing against stones and putting it out to dry on the grass or stringing it across balconies. We even saw Italians living in the ruins the war has made; until you see the cactus which grows there, and the vineyards and little wooden carts drawn by bullocks or a donkey and the Italian people working in the fields, and Italian women carrying bundles on their heads as naturally as you please.’

‘…cheap, figureless ugly looking girls habited the place…The beer’s lousy, the women revolting, the band ought to be shot, and the place itself needs pulling down as it is decrepit-looking in the extreme…’(19/12/42 Malta)

Freetown, Sierra Leone

‘did not have the appearance of a town but of many clustering’s of small groups of houses and bungalows in an area thickly covered with trees and palms….The bright colourings of the vegetation were strikingly beautiful, colourings which normally I would only have expected to have see in a techni-coloured film. I associated with such vegetation lovely coloured birds, like the stuffed specimens of tropical birds seen when I was a boy in museums. It seemed natural that such surroundings would be the home of such birds.’ (p.12)

‘…an Arab dhow, the master sitting cross-legged, on cushions on the poop, smoking a hookah, and a small boy fanning him and he never looked sideways at us.  As a study of indifference it was complete. Calls and rude remarks were thrown at him from our decks, but he just carried on smoking and contemplating.’  (Freetown, Sierra Leone)

On Sunday morning we set off on a trip to a Ghrotto (sic). We went by road and off the road down to the Ghrotto, we had to walk down 285 steps, then get into a boat and sail around inside the Ghrotto. It was a grand sight to see. In the afternoon we went on another tour to a place right on top of the mountains. The King of Italy was staying there at the time. This place was also where Greta Garbo spent her honeymoon and from a terrace in the grounds you could look down at the sea 1600 feet below, while we were there we went into an old monastery. I have never seen such a beautiful place in all my life. And being it was Palm Sunday the choir sang for us, then one of the nuns gave us all a piece of Palm for good luck.’ (pp.2-5) (Italy)



 Personal histories refer to particular methods and techniques by which individuals can find their own voices, and evoke their own experiences in the context of wider social and political scales. This is of particular interest to me, and I have utilised comments made in a notably wider traumatic situation – that of war. I  have also looked at the experience of men and women going abroad for the first time, particularly in a wartime and post-war context, though for the interests  of brevity, I have kept this aspect to a minimum. However the enclosed quotations, taken from diaries and journals that I researched in the Imperial War Museum in London, do indicate some of the points made below. These provide some of the viewpoints and perspectives that I have studied over the last few years.

  • The sources of personal histories can consist of many things – diaries, journals, newspaper cuttings, letters and oral histories. One problem is how to interpret them, and how to utilise them in a wider context.  Another is the usage of visual material, ephemera, photographs, newspaper cuttings, certificates, art-works, clothing, and personal possessions such as jewellery, mementoes and souvenirs. What these indicate is how memories and recollections can pass across time and across generations: how such things can be passed on from person to person, often within a family, but sometimes move out  of  family territory and then be recalled back in such a way as to re-evoke fresh memories and views.  Through such material,  a  landscape of personal histories can be established and recognised.
  • Oral histories are another important source, but there are certain implications. One is the extent to which your sources wish to disclose their histories. They may wish you to ‘censor’ what they say , or they may wish to ‘censor’ themselves. It is crucial to have your own agenda: to be able to edit their information and views, and how you wish to interpret them. It is also crucial to respect such personal histories, since , in my experience, they can be painful and worrying. Some oral material may be extraneous to your aims: though potentially  anecdotal,parts may  be extraordinarily useful. But the act or recording, in whatever form, can be very exciting, both to the interviewer and interviewee, because it creates a voice and a personality for those involved. The act of speaking aloud allows a freedom of thought and recollection that can be invaluable. However, one has to combat what one might call the sense of ‘ordinariness” This means the feeling of the speaker or writer that they do not matter, and that they have no consequence. But everybody has a history, and their memories and recollections  provide a resource of information and knowledge appropriate to creative research and presentation.
  • To place such personal histories within wider contexts is more problematical. In the examples given, they represent a different representation of war. Boredom, heat , tension and frustration seem to reflect  a  different experience of world-wide events than those represented elsewhere. But, they often reflect revelation and wonder:  for a soldier to travel abroad at this time was a new-found excitement, despite potential danger. What such testimonies indicate is the way in which such personal histories seem to be disconnected  with the distant rumble of world-wide war: the directness of human experience as opposed to the historical perspective of global  strategies. The connections between the wide sweep of world events, and the nature of personal viewpoints and knowledge   can be diffuse, but can be used in many creative directions.



                              My uncle Frank is standing on the extreme left. This was taken in 1946.