Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Diaries of a Nobody

"I have no heart for camping. I would rather be amongst my books in some cottage."

Most of the books I deal with at work are titles that have failed to sell in charity shops. That might not sound very promising, but my employers have built up a successful, multi-million pound business selling books that used to be dumped on landfill sites.

Occasionally we also receive the contents of house clearances, where the owner of the books has either died or moved into an old people's home. It can be rather depressing wading through someone's book collection, realising that however erudite and well-read they were, this is how it ends.

On Monday we received a huge delivery of house clearance stock, most of which had a religious theme. The books were mostly conventional titles about Biblical history and the Gospels, but there were a few that were more off the wall. I noticed a recurring theme of lost civilsations and in addition to the usual titles about Atlantis, there was one book that tried to prove that humans and dinosaurs co-existed. Who owned this strange collection?

The answer lay in a box at the bottom, which contained the personal diaries of a local government officer called Derek.

Why were Derek's journals sent to us? A few of his diaries from the 1950s could have been mistaken for books, but not the thick, foolscap binders from the 1980s, with their typewritten pages.

These diaries were of no use to us and were almost binned, but I couldn't bring myself to throw someone's life into a skip. I rescued the box and later, started to browse its contents.

This is Derek in 1956:

If he looks like this in the mid-1950s, then we can assume that Derek was born at some point between 1925 and 1935.

When Derek's diaries begin, he is in love with Brenda:

Derek marries Brenda and they have a son. They also become Mormons, and the recurring theme in the diaries is Derek's personal battle against sin and temptation. This extract is from 1987:

"I was much troubled by evil dreams last night. I tossed and turned upon my bed in a way I have not done for many years. I dreamt that I was at the office and kept calling the female staff by titles and names that were blatantly sexist and in transgression of the County Council's instructions in this matter."

The Pooterish tone of the writing results in many examples of unintentional hilarity:

"On the way to Bristol this morning, Elaine Hamilton and I got to discussing her daughter's hay fever and I suggested that susceptibility to such things could be dependent upon the density of the hairs in one's nose. It was a novel suggestion that gave her some thought!"


"Eric the Barber, with his lady assistant, was sitting in his shop idle when I passed by with the hamster. He called out to me, so I went in and showed the scrap to them. Eric thought that hamsters would live amicably together in the same cage. I soon disillutioned him of that myth. I also told him that they were a great thing to have in the house if one were plagued by mice, since mice are scared beyond measure by hamsters."

Hamsters obviously play an important role in Derek's household:

"When we got back home, we said hello to Brenda, Richard and the hamster."

The Pooterish theme extends to the cast of characters: Mr Sunter and Mr Limpett, Oliver Dewsnapp, Gerald Ramsbottom, Mrs Moncrieff, Norman and Joan Farbass, Warwick Kear, Steve Fagg, Pam Bolloch, Julia Sleat and Malcolm Satchel. All real people.

But it would be so easy to save Derek's diaries just so that I could use them as comic material, whereas the truth is that the humorous moments are only a small part of the whole. Derek comes across as a decent man, trying to live the good life according to his beliefs. He is plagued by self-doubt and his journals bear witness to the struggles of an ordinary person who is regularly plagued by extraordinary feelings:

"I set my lip on fire the other morning. And on Sunday night I had a dream. I became acquainted with an attractive woman with curly hair, but undefined facial features. I was much tempted by her and took her back to a basement with rusty radiators..."

And what of the diary itself? Why did Derek faithfully maintain his journal for at least forty years?

"Why I keep a journal is often a mystery to myself. There is an inward compulsion - some would call it egotism - that will not rest until my life is recorded. Of course, the Keeper always imagines that any journal he keeps will be of inestimable value to future generations; will be a work of intimate revelations that will declare his glory to endless decades. And that is a foolish dream hardly worth the paper he has kept it on. "

I don't know what to do with Derek's diaries, however I can't bring myself to throw them away. But if not now, when?


Jim Murdoch said...

Pooterish indeed. I'm not sure. If I had your job I would find the photos hard to toss but I'm not sure about a diary. Hang onto it and when you die and someone has to wade through your stuff they can decide.

I was looking at my library only last night, not just the books but the thousands of CDs and tapes (literally) and wondering what my daughter will end up doing with them. So much good stuff but much of it not to her taste. And even if she flogged it she'd get nothing for it.

Mark D said...

Brilliant. I think I'd like a job that meant I was in touch with death and all that perspective. Please sign up to Twitter, then more of us would more easily know when there's a new post.

LittleGreenFingers said...

Please don't throw them away - I am now hooked. Derek should, I feel, live on somehow. Surely there is a Radio 4 comedy drama in here - particularly with the Hamsters (who I feel should have a talking role)? Also, I'm desperate to know more about Oliver Dewsnupp, Gerald Ramsbottom and Mrs Moncrieff.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I can't help but feel sorry for this poor man. His life is now available to ridicule from strangers. Ugh. However, it does seem from the snippets you have shared almost impossible to believe that this is real and not a fictionalised Diary of Another Nobody.

*Makes mental note to destroy own diaries as soon as possible*

Steerforth said...

I did consider the ethics of publishing extracts from someone's journal and asked myself how I'd feel if someone did it to me. My diaries – particularly the earlier ones – are hideously embarrassing.

However I don’t think I’d mind as long as nobody mentioned my full name. I don’t care what happens after my death. I’d rather give someone a giggle than vanish completely.

I hope that Derek doesn’t just come across as a person to be ridiculed. I found his diaries touching and poignant. As I said, he emerges as a good man trying to do good things, but the Pooterish elements were too good not to share.

And yes, burn your diaries!

Ms Baroque said...

Don't do it, don't do it! God put you on earth to save these books, you know. You're doing wonderful work. Love it.

annajcook said...

I must echo Ms. Baroque above: please don't throw them away! As an archivist-in-training, I realize we face the tough decisions about cost for preservation vs. historical value, but I feel that a narrative personal diary such as this is just too valuable for social, cultural, political historians to destroy. If you cannot keep them, find an institution that collects such personal papers and see about donating them.

Tanya Izzard said...

Sussex University has a Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research ( - they may be interested in taking these, or know of an archive that could give them a home. If you want to get rid of them, of course.

Steerforth said...

That's a very good idea - I think Derek would approve of that.

I found three new folders today - all from the late 80s - and beyond the humorous elements, what struck me was how brutally honest he was about what it was like to be a man of a certain age and class, living in an age of changing values, with a strong religious faith that was continually tested by experience.

The more I read, the closer I feel to Derek and the idea of throwing his diaries becomes abhorent. But I don't want to keep them in a cupboard. I think the diaries deserve a wider audience.

I'll contact Sussex University. Perhaps the fact that I'm not a relative or friend will add weight to the case for preserving the diaries.

Unknown said...

What an excellent idea. Please let us know what the University says. Really, it's fortunate that you are the person who discovered them as others have so casually tossed them away.

Richard de Pesando MA(RCA) said...

I was also going to mention the modern version of Mass Observation at Sussex - these diaries are of immense value in social, academic and historical terms.

I have a very bad habit of buying up old photo albums and diaries in junk shops because I can't bear the thought of someone's life being so worthless as to be discarded and forgotten - they are all fascinating and have value. I also pick up scrapbooks because they tell you so much about people - I have one I bought locally which, I have divined, belonged to someone who seems to have been born on the wrong side of the blanket and has obsessively followed the 'better' half of their family through the 1940-60's through local newspaper articles, social pages etc, it's all amazing stuff. Many yeas ago when my mother was still alive and starting to lose her marbles, she destroyed boxes of ephemera she had kept for decades that included dozens of formal invitations to cocktail parties in New York when she was with the USAF in the 1950's - I was heartbroken, and had to remove a lot of stuff from the house in case she did it again.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Why not ask the British Library if they or any institution they know is collecting late 20th century memoirs? The man can obviously write and is engaging enough to deserve that his diaries should survive him.

It is both touching and rare to find a diarist prepared to be so honest about themselves too. Not unlike your own blog postings in that sense Steerforth.

Tanya Izzard said...

If Sussex can't help you then you might contact Irving Finkel at the British Library, who was on R4's Midweek a couple of weeks ago, talking about his embryonic plans for a national archive of diaries.

Steerforth said...

Thanks for the link. I'll try Sussex University next week - they're only just down the road.

Ali said...

I think I know at least one of the people mentioned in Derek's journals.

Steerforth said...

Please tell me more. I'm haunted by Derek. I started out thinking how funny his diaries were. Then, as I read more, I felt a growing affection and respect.

I'd love to know more about the background to Derek's life.

Ali said...

I'm afraid I've no idea who Derek himself was. I think if you write to Warwick Kear c/o the LDS Church head office in Solihull, you might have some luck, though.

Anonymous said...

Why not donate these journals to the LDS History Library? As a historian, I see these journals as PRICELESS. Don't bin them. Send them to Utah for historians like myself to use in projects that celebrate the international diversity that exsists within the church. Please email me at if you need ifnormation on where to ship everything (hoping you want to part with these for a greater cause). Derek isn't a nobody- he is a piece of history.

Steerforth said...

I'll probably end up doing that, as I expect that's what Derek would have wanted.

I certainly won't throw them away, under any circumstances.

Elder Vern Lockhart said...

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encourages members to preserve their own and Church history by keeping a journal and/or writing their personal history.
The ultimate preservation location is the archives of the Church where, along with documents created by or about the most prominent leaders of the Church, a glimpse of of the lives of those of us who are, "nobodies", at least in the eyes of the world, are saved together in perpetuity!
We would be pleased to receive Derek's journal; he has a loving Father in Heaven who knows he is not a, "nobody". The address is:
Church History Library
15 E. North Temple St.
Salt Lake City, UT 84150-1600
Attn: Elder Vern Lockhart, 2nd floor.
We are in the business of preserving history and look forward to receiving your donation of Derek's diary.
Elder Vern Lockhart
Member, Acquisitions Team
Church History Department