200 years of diaries review

200 Years of Diaries, Life’s Documents Chronicled from 1800-2000.

Sanctioned intrusion into a stranger’s private thoughts is a rare occurrence. This was the experience offered on Saturday afternoon by selected readings from 200 Years of Diaries, Life’s Documents Chronicled at Orkney Archive, Kirkwall Library.

The work of deciphering the diaries had begun several days earlier when local individuals Gill and Mark Tennant, Cary Welling, Pam Beasant, Beth Banerjee-Richards, Lynn Johnson, Alison Miller and myself were invited to look over the diaries in preparation for sharing with each other. It was a privileged opportunity to read through the handwritten notes, memories, appointment reminders and miscellany contained in the hundreds of personal diaries now on display.

The exhibition, curated by Dylan Jonas Stone is unique in its breadth, chronicling the everyday life of individuals from different countries and backgrounds, of different ages and personal circumstances. Dylan’s previous projects include an exhibition at the Ruth Phaneuf Fine Arts Museum, New York of 100 Years of Programmes, Receipts, Diaries and Invoices. This new exhibition supported by the Orkney Archive is an extension of his interest in collecting and ordering items from everyday life. A selection of Orcadian diaries are also on display during the exhibition.

The readings on Saturday afternoon were taken from diaries written between 1889 and 1977. Some were poignant, others funny, entires could be cryptic or confusing, others detailed events and experiences that are still recognisable today – preparations for the school May fair, reviews from outings to the cinema, the exasperation and affection for friends and relatives.

Some readers chose to share entries whose dates had a significant meaning to themselves, but often none in particular to the diarist; the moment of one persons birth was also the moment of a cocktail party somewhere in America.

Some entries were prosaic, like from the young diarist Biddy Ferguson writing in 1925, ‘We had science. It wasn’t very nice at all.’ Others were poetic, such as one from Gunner Astle writing at the Hoxa battery on South Ronaldsay, 1917 who deftly describes the ‘omens of approaching spring.’

Gradually, the interior world of the diarist is revealed, their day to day routines and concerns. Certainly the informality of the handwriting suggests that these diaries were never meant to be read by anyone. They were private. Perhaps there are things in the diaries that are secret. Who knows what these little books could tell us if they were searched through diligently. There is also quite a lot about the weather.

Along with their daily entries the diaries reveal many personal details: hat and glove size, height and weight, and the phone numbers and addresses of friends. The books themselves provide a glimpse into history – The Motorcar Motorists Organisation Diary, The Girl Guides Diary, complete with photograph of Baden Powell.

Anyone who ever catches themselves wondering what strangers are thinking will enjoy lingering over this collection. These little books are windows into life and time.

The exhibition runs until the 17th July in both Kirkwall and Stromness Libraries. Further details can be found on the Orkney Archive Facebook page and more information about Dylan Jonas Stone can be found at http://dylanjonasstone.com.

Gabrielle Barnby


Gabrielle Barnby