The other day, poking around in the loft, I stumbled on a remarkable diary – a real-life snapshot of what now seems a very distant past. It’s an account of a cycling tour of scenic Scotland by two women in their mid-twenties in July 1943. One of them was my mother; the other was one of her closest friends. I’d seen it when I was young, but re-reading it in the present day was like discovering it all over again.
They’d had it typed so that they could send it to loved ones away at war, and my family’s copy was given cardboard covers, which probably helped to preserve it. And what a revelation it is! We tend to see the second world war through the prism of black and white photographs, bombing and devastation, battles and retreats, successes and disaster. This is another view. The grind of war is there in the background, but the diary shows that for brief moments it was still possible for the lucky few to escape.
Cast of characters
What is most striking about the diary is its freshness and immediacy. Its two voices are united in recollection of something which to them was a real achievement. They’d cycled nearly 300 miles over some extremely challenging terrain, and clearly loved every minute of it. The grandeur of the Scottish landscape shines out, but equally striking are the many different characters they encountered along the way. “You really do live, and you meet all sorts of people,” my mother wrote afterwards. “You see the country so much better than when you’re motoring.”
They never intended the diary to be seen by the wider world, but it reads almost like a series of sketches for some long-forgotten film – perhaps a cross between Powell & Pressburger and an Ealing comedy.
The text is scattered with period slang that now seems quaint, and is infused with an acceptance of wartime experiences that seem alien to us, but had become part of daily life back then – frequent encounters with soldiers of various nationalities, the sight of military convoys (yes, even in the highlands), and amphibious aircraft on the river Tay.
Beyond all that, it’s an accessible, everyday account of two people operating outside their normal comfort zone, yet apparently never doubting their ability to accomplish what they’d taken on. Maybe their maturity was borne of the rigours of life in wartime Britain. Whatever the source, they convey an air of quiet confidence that rings out across the decades.
Does it add up to anything more than a curiosity? I’d like to think so – which is why I’ve decided to do something my mother could never have dreamed of; I’ve put the whole thing on my web site. It’s intriguing and engaging, and brings to life a largely forgotten aspect of social life during the second world war. If you take a look, I hope you’ll see why I was so entranced by it.
Click here to go to the first page of the diary section.