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Diarists & History


In most of the tributes to the former Cabinet minister and lifelong left-wing campaigner Tony Benn, much has been made of his legacy: his political goals, many have argued, were frustrated (the queen remains on our postage stamps, and he never became leader or deputy leader of his party); but, as the Guardian’s obituary pointed out, his memory – and influence – will linger through his writings:

“In the end, his reputation will be significantly greater than the sum of his achievements because of the vast archive he accumulated and the quality of his diaries. He was like Samuel Pepys – someone who described an age without ever having shaped it – and is remembered for his words rather than his deeds, and by many for his personal kindness and generosity with time and conversation.”

It’s no coincidence that Benn picked Pepys’s Diary as one of his six favourite books in an article for the Express late last year. “It is his eye for detail and the description of the everyday life – the river transport, the food, the clothes, the servants’ speech – which bring the Diaries to life,” Benn said, and, of course, it is this detail – this narrative not just of events but of cultural milieu – which make diaries so important to historians.

Thus Benn’s diaries will provide him a place in twentieth century history above and beyond his political career. We focus a good deal on source skills with our undergraduates, and I vividly recall some of them poring over Benn’s thoughts on the Profumo Scandal recently. This wasn’t precisely in my own comfort zone of seventeenth-century diarists, but the mix of personal reflection, high-stakes gossip and intellectual substance seemed somehow familiar regardless.

Thursday, 28 March
Had a long talk to Dick about the Profumo-Keeler scandal. He said that Dr Stephen Ward, the Harley Street osteopath procurer, ran a sort of brothel on the Astor estate at Cliveden. Profumo lied in his statement to the Commons and Wilson is putting a note of what happened to Macmillan with a warning that it will be raised if something isn’t done about Profumo. I’m not in favour of private life scandals being used politically but it certainly makes the Government look pretty hypocritical.

Sometimes, a historical figure earns their place in a textbook as much for what he wrote as for what he did.

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