We at Jot 101 are fascinated by MS diaries. It’s a wonderful day when we find one kept by someone famous, but sometimes it’s the journals of anonymous marrow growers and dahlia fanciers living in the leafy suburbs that can be windows into past lives. Such a diarist was the man who acquired a thick T.J.& J. Smith Dataday diary, possibly as a gift from his ‘ lady wife’ at Christmas in 1956, and began filling in the entries, starting with the 1stJanuary 1957.
As far as we can see, the name of the diarist doesn’t appear anywhere in the volume—why should it? Back in those days it wasn’t deemed necessary for the owner to fill in personal details. And anyway, if the volume was lost and someone known to the diarist found it, compromising or embarrassing entries in it might take some explaining! We do, however, know something about the man himself which would probably identify him to anyone in his community who might discover the diary. That he was married to Madge (sometimes shortened to ‘M’) , worked in the City or in Whitehall (possibly at the Treasury) , lived in south-east London, where he was both a diligent DIY-er, and an very enthusiastic member of the Bexleyheath Chrysanthemum Society, is easily determined. Almost every other entry concerns either his garden activities or his home improvements. His daily grind in the City is rarely, if ever, mentioned, and most entries on central London relate to shopping trips or entertainment. Here was a man who, like so many others, endured a sometimes ‘unpleasant‘ job for the sake of his weekends at home.
But weekends weren’t always devoted to creating a garden. There were also urgent redecorating ‘chores ‘ to be done. On Saturday 12thJanuary we are told that after cleaning the ceiling of the stairwell he spent ‘ rest of afternoon and all the evening until 10.30 (!) rubbing down the three landing doors with’ wet & dry’ paper’. Luckily Madge was around to share these chores, and afterwards to do the ironing. Much of Sunday was devoted to completing similar chores in time for the visit of ‘Tom & Audrey & Sylvia ‘for tea. The evening’s entertainment is not the TV, but ‘ gramophone, slide show & a Grimms fairy Tale for Sylvia.’ This evening entertainment seems to be typical for our gardener and his wife, who don’t appear to own a TV set, but frequently listen to gramophone records ( he is particularly partial to Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven ) and the ‘ wireless’, or read books instead. He is also keen on playing Canasta late into the evening.
Our gardener turns out to be a workaholic. During the Easter holiday period he spends most of the time either redecorating the kitchen with ‘Valspar ‘ and ‘Pammastic’ or potting chrysanthemums and other plants. When the work on the kitchen is completed the couple treat themselves to some ‘ wallop’, that is to say, some fizzy soft drink. After more strenuous work on Sunday ( no mention of attending church throughout the diary) the evening is spent talking and reading. After yet more strenuous work in the garden on Easter Monday morning the couple cycle to Bexley and spend a few hours admiring the wonderful gardens at Hall Place—which just happened to be a favourite resort of my own family when we lived at Joyden’s Wood from 1954 to 1963. I would have been five at the time.
There is a revealing entry for Monday 29thApril. It turns out that this keen gardener and house decorator may have been a bit of a culture vulture. In the afternoon he visits the ‘Picasso Exhibition’. This would have been an Arts Council exhibition at the Tate of works taken from the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum. Six paintings by Picasso were included in this show. However, the diary does not record what he thought of the paintings. Perhaps he had no views worth recording and had gone out of curiosity to discover what this Picasso fellow was all about. Certainly there is no strong evidence that he took an interest in the contemporary arts. As a music lover he was buying solid middle of the road fare, such as La Boheme and ‘L’Italiana in Algeri’, rather than recordings of Stravinsky, Britten or Tippett. Moreover, the next art exhibition after Picasso was the ‘LCC Open Art Show’ in which there was ‘much poor, some good’.
To be continued…