Saturday, November 6, 2010

The turkey we didn’t have

Tommy’s Peace, the second volume of diaries written by Thomas Cairns Livingstone, a Glasgow clerk in the first decades of the 20th century, has just been published by Mainstream Press. Though simply written and brief, the diary entries deliver a strikingly clear portrait of Tommy’s life, with wife, Agnes, often to be found in the wash house, and their son, also called Tommy, who got sick one Christmas because of ‘the turkey we didn’t have.'

Livingstone was born in Glasgow in 1882, and worked in the city as a mercantile clerk. He married Agnes, moved to the Govanhill area of Glasgow, and soon after, in 1913, began keeping a diary, not only writing daily entries, but often illustrating them with skilfully drawn cartoons. He continued with the diary habit for 20 years or so, and intermittently after that until his wife’s death in 1950. He himself died in 1964. The diaries were bought in a house clearance auction by Shaun Sewell, a trader in collectibles. He took them to the Antiques Roadshow, a TV programme during which experts comment on, and value, items brought by the public.

Gordon Wise, a literary agent with Curtis Brown, was watching the programme, according to an article in The Guardian, and noted Livingstone’s beautiful handwriting, and how the illustrations reminded him of The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, a publishing hit in the 1980s. He soon stoked up interest among publishers for the Livingstone diaries, and Harper Collins won an auction for the rights. A first volume covering the years 1913-1918 - Tommy’s War - was edited by Glasgow historian Ronnie Scott and published in 2008. Now, Mainstream Publishing has brought out a sequel, also edited by Scott, with diary entries from 1919 to 1933, and a few from 1950.

Curtis Brown says: ‘These extraordinary volumes are a gorgeously idiosyncratic record of daily life in a middle-class Glasgow household, over a period spanning shortly before the Great War to the early 1930s. . . [They] provide a priceless record of the way outside events impacted on the daily dramas of ordinary people.’

The new volume - Tommy’s Peace - begins with a preface by the diary finder/owner, Shaun Sewell. Unfortunately, this is poorly written/edited. ‘The war had finally ended’, it begins, but then focuses too much on the first and earlier volume, not least with a sentence that makes no sense at all. Then there’s this bizarre comment, ‘Thomas centred his diary upon his own son, Tommy, who proved to be well worth the ink and paper.’ Moreover, Sewell seems intent on moralising: ‘Perhaps we should all be a bit more like Thomas in these testing times.’

The book is richly illustrated with Livingstone’s sketches - such as one of Tommy looking at his new stamp album - as well as some contemporaneous photographs. Apart from many useful annotations, Scott also includes several brief essays designed to give relevant historical and cultural contexts. Although the diary entries themselves are always short and repetitive, they are often amusing, and build-up to provide a colourful and clear picture of life in the Livingstone household. Here is that household at Christmas time, 90 years ago.

16 December 1920
‘Anticipated Christmas tonight by presenting Tommy with a stamp album. I polished the room brass work. Agnes busy about the room.’

17 December 1920
‘Isa here when I got home at tea time. I was pleased to see her so far recovered. Tommy went himself to the barber today. I also went all by myself. Tommy walloped into his stamp album at night.’

20 December 1920
‘Agnes in the washing house all day, and it rained, and it rained, and it rained, and it rained, and it RAINED. Likewise, it was very cold. Not a good ‘drying day’, in washerwife talk. Unemployment getting very serious. Bread a farthing down today. Hallelujah!’

22 December 1920
‘Agnes still walloping about the room. I helped a little, a very little. Brought home a half bottle of the best. We had a small raffle in the office. I won.’

23 December 1920
‘Took a run up to the Mossmans, and on my way back dropped into Greenlodge. Isa keeping well, and at her work. Got home at 11.25 p.m. Addressed a few cards then.’

Friday, 24 December
‘Sent all our kind friends little messages of love today. This is Christmas Eve. Agnes gave me my tobacco for nothing. Isa phoned me today that Josephine’s shop had been broken into during the night and about £50 worth of goods stolen. She could not say if the place was insured. A serious loss indeed. Agnes finished the cleaning tonight. At least, I think it is finished.’

Saturday, 25 December
‘Wishing you a merry Christmas. I have a whole holiday today. Took a walk over to Greenlodge in the forenoon to see what further news there was of the burglary. Nothing fresh. Had a look in at People’s Palace on way home. Had my usual Xmas dinner, then spent the afternoon taking in Xmas presents (maybe). Our total collection: two cards. We did not go to the pantomime this Xmas.’

Sunday, 26 December
‘Went to church this morning, after my usual manner. Agnes got a touch of the cold and is a little fatigued after her labours, so she did not go out. After dinner I took a walk round the town. Tommy at Sunday School. Gave the clocks their final wind-up of the year.’

Monday, 27 December
‘We got a few more cards. We all went to the Majestic at night, seeing this is Boxing Day. Tommy troubled with a certain looseness of the bowels. It will be the turkey we didn’t have.’

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