It’s been months since I’ve posted anything here, due partly to the summer sun keeping me outside, and partly to the temporary breakdown of my home computer. Now that summer is over and the nights are drawing in, and my computer is fixed, I’ll be spending more time at the old desk in my cosy study (not a family heirloom this one, but a mahogany memento of my time in the library at Birkbeck College in the 1990s). London enjoyed a rare golden summer this year, and one particularly sunny Sunday I found myself with an equally rare free day. It was 31st August, the anniversary of my Dad’s death, and the day after my parents’ wedding anniversary. So it seemed a good excuse to cycle over to Barnes to visit their memorial bench by the pond, and spend some time remembering and reflecting on my parents, Jim and Eleanor. I took with me some of their old diaries to browse through as I sat there in the sun, watching a family of swans glide about the dappled water: a cob and hen, bonded for life, with their 3 cygnets. I decided to start with their diaries for 1951, the year they met. These are engagement diaries, not detailed records of their lives and feelings, but even the brief references to events and people yield much of fascination for me. At the start of the year, of course, they do not know each other, although they seem to have similar interests as they both attend political meetings, plays and films; both attend plays at the Old Vic theatre, including Electra which my Mum sees there on 24th March – as it happens I am going to see the same play at the Old Vic this very week myself! They also visit Covent Garden Opera House, where they both see Carmen, but on different days. This latter came as a surprise in my Dad’s case as he was never a classical music fan, but he appears to be dating a woman named Trudy. Trudy? This is the first time I have heard of a Trudy and I wonder if she was the mysterious woman for whom he first moved to London. The address section at the back of the diary lists a Trudy Goldman of 24 Hillcrest Gardens, but I am none the wiser. I don’t know what happened to Trudy as the events of this significant year unfold.
At the start of the year Dad is living in Sudbourne Road in Brixton, and the rent for his “digs” has just risen by 5 shillings to £2 pounds 5 a week. Sudbourne Road is just a few streets away from where I live now. On 7th January he “sold 5 DW [Daily Worker] in Bonham Road new flats” – I know those flats well, in fact I viewed one when looking to buy my first flat and met the elderly lady who had lived there since it was first built as council flats. She had bought her home from the council but was forced to sell it to pay for her move to sheltered accommodation. I wonder if she or someone in her household bought a paper from my Dad that day?
On 24th February, Dad makes the fateful move to Barnes. I find it quite poignant that my Dad moved from Brixton to settle in Barnes, while I made the reverse move, leaving our home in Barnes for Brixton, where I eventually settled. I always knew that my parents first met at a Communist Party meeting, and there it is, on my Dad’s 38th birthday, 3rd April. He has written “Don’s place, Discussion to form YCL [Young Communist League], Baronsmead” and, presumably later, he has added “(El)”. She has written “YCL” and there is an “x” by the date.Over the course of April my Dad continues to see Trudy, often at the “British-Polish club”, but also attends the same local Party meetings as my Mum. On the 16th May he writes “YCL, Class origins. Eleanor.” The next day he has written the one dramatic word: “Sacked”; the following day, “Retaken, with apologies.” For a Communist and trade unionist at the height of the Cold War such an experience was not uncommon, as his diary goes on to witness. On May 19th he has written “La Traviata, Eleanor; south bank.” Was this their first date? On May 25th he attends “YCL social, 27 Beverley Rd,”, adding: “El.” Then just “El” on the 29th. On the 30th, he “Phoned Tr.” This is the last reference to Trudy in Dad’s diary, so you can imagine the content of that phone call. Over next few weeks Jim and Eleanor meet often, noting each others’ names on the same days in their diaries. They attend political meetings as well as going to the theatre (including Unity Theatre), cinema, and the Festival of Britain. They take romantic walks along the river at Barnes and around Barnes Common, Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common. It seems Jim is as resolute in his personal as his political commitment, as he swiftly makes up his mind about “El”. On 11th June, he writes : “YCL, signatures, 7.30 Frank’s, El. Asked.” On the same day, Mum, who was a shorthand typist and stenographer, has written: “Jim” and some indecipherable shorthand. She evidently takes some persuasion. I remember her telling me, after Dad had died, that she had not accepted his marriage proposal at first, thinking herself unworthy. Coming from a “broken home” – scandalous then – she believed she could never make a good wife and mother. Dad thought otherwise and persisted with his suit until, on 14th July, he writes simply “El. No Resting Place. Burmese restaurant. Accepted.” Mum’s entry also mentions the film, but the rest of her notes on this memorable day are in tiny shorthand, and lost to me. My future parents are now engaged, and the rest of the year reads like a frantic whirl of activity as their lives change forever.
Between asking and being accepted, my watchmaker Dad has lost his job again, and goes to various jewellers seeking a new position. By the time of their engagement he has been engaged by Watches of Switzerland. On July 19th, the couple enjoy that most romantic of experiences, A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regents Park Open Air Theatre. Dad begins to spend evenings with Eleanor and her mother at their flat at 42 Carmichael Court, playing Mahjong and no doubt charming my Hebridean grandmother with his gentle Glasgow humour. On 28th July Eleanor and her mother board a train for Glasgow and a tour of Scotland. This was probably planned before she met my Dad, in which case it is quite a coincidence. Dad sees them off on the train and writes to her every day, as she does to him; he notes when a card or letter arrives from “El.” (I have those letters which will no doubt feature on this blog one day). Mum records the trip in her diary:
July 28th Day train to Glasgow, Gt Western Hotel, Kelvin Drive 29th Loch Katrine, Trossachs, Lochs Long & Lomond. Spellbinding. Braes of Balquhidder.
30th To Oban via Ardrishaig, Loch Fyne, Station Hotel – luxury. Jean. [her cousin Kenneth‘s wife Jean came from Oban].
31st Bullaculish, Glen Etive, Loch Etive. Just too amazing for words.
August 1st Mull, Tobermory, Iona, Staffa. Glorious sail.
2nd Inverness, fine city. Queensgate Hotel.
3rd Gairloch, Loch Maree, Loch Ness.
4-5th Ballater, Torrens Hotel
8th Edinburgh to Glasgow. Met Jim’s people.
9th Spent day with Stewarts, Glasgow.
10th Morning, [shorthand], Burns country.
11th Bought ring.
12th Night train from Glasgow.
On 7th August Dad has travelled up to join them; he writes:
8th El in Glasgow. Allison St & P/shaws Rd. El 7.30 Gt Western Hotel. At home, then Riccarton St.
Allison Street and Pollokshaws Road were the streets he lived in as a child.
10th El Glasgow/Ayr & Burns country.
11th Glasgow, ring, Muir & Nicol, dep £5.
12th 9.25 train from Central Stn El & Mother.
13th London Euston 7am, El breakfast Euston Rd.
On 18th August the ring is paid for: “To M. & Nicol, from bank, £20”, and on the 19th: “El, Richmond Park & Ham. Rainy. Ring given.” On 31st, she responds with a gift to him: “El watch present at 42″.
On 8th September they attend the wedding of Dad’s best friend, Peter Mathew, to Joan, and the two couples begin house hunting in earnest: they are to buy a house together and convert it into 2 flats. They view various properties around the area in Putney, Sheen and Wandsworth; on 20th October Dad writes “Barnes house, very good.” On the same day Mum has written the address of the house: 17 Laurel Road, my childhood home (later to be re-numbered 21 when new houses were built opposite). She notes another event on that day which carries significance for me: “Opening of new library”. That would be Castelnau library in which I had a Saturday job in the 1970s – my first library post! On October 22nd they offer £3,500 for the Laurel Road house, but they are outbidden. They must have really loved it though, as they offer £3,675 on 12th November, and on 28th Mum has written “Confirmation Laurel Road ours.” On 5th December they get a chimney sweep in, and Dad moves out of his digs and into the “small bedroom” (the room that would later be mine. I remember tales of him setting up camp there as the builders worked to convert the attic and install a downstairs bathroom, making the house big enough for 2 families. He would cook his breakfast without getting out of bed, by means of a frying pan and Primus stove). He and my Mum go shopping to kit out their future home with furniture, bedding and kitchenware; “blankets and sheets” are bought at Gamages, egg cookers and a pressure cooker in Richmond – although the latter apparently arrives in 3 separate deliveries, the valve and lid some days after the initial purchase. My Mum used that pressure cooker throughout her life, and the “elec. cooker” bought on 15th December lasted until the 1970s. Dad stays in London that Christmas, eating dinner “at 42” with his fiance and future mother-in-law.
I doubt these diaries will be of interest to anyone but me and my family, but I find it fascinating to see the early days of my parents’ relationship develop in these brief notes. I have also kept all of my old appointment diaries and they are full of similar entries for political meetings and demonstrations, films, and plays (though there are more live gigs and band names than any other form of entertainment, and no engagement!) It’s a habit I have finally transferred to digital format – my phone calendar – this year, and I wonder if I will still keep a record of all my activities in this way, or even if it matters. Either way, I’m very glad to have my parents’ old diaries to browse through, and to sneak a glimpse of the young and passionate people they were, before they were my parents.