Benn is widely recognised as having been one of the top political diarists of his time, and A blaze of autumn sunshine: the last diaries, published the year before his death,completes his story. Although Benn stepped down from Parliament in 2001 he remained extremely active politically, taking part in campaigns and events throughout the period covered by this volume (2007-2013). Benn intersperses accounts of his day-to-day activities, which despite his age often included very early starts to attend different demonstrations or events around the country, with commentary on political issues at the time.
Amongst other matters Benn’s entries discuss the transition between Blair and Brown and his increasing despair with the state of the Labour Party, and on a more personal level his own declining health, though he remains upbeat throughout. Benn’s daily additions to his diary, which he had kept up for an impressive sixty-nine years, came to an end in 2009 due to illness. The final four years covered by this volume are in the form of a memoir, very briefly dealing with themes and events such as the financial crisis, the coalition government, Ed Miliband’s rise to party leadership, WikiLeaks, and the growth of UKIP.
Something that consistently comes across in Benn’s writing is his awareness of history, and his use of key ideas and movements from the past to try to influence political thought in the present. He had not lost his determination to present ambitious and potentially controversial ideas, even at this late stage in his career. His description of a speech he made at the Labour Party Conference of 2007 in front of his granddaughter and eldest son, both also active in politics, demonstrates this: “Emily and Stephen heard me speak at the Labour Representation Committee, where I tried to talk about the future, and say that we had to look ahead. ‘You know I’m always talking about the Chartists and the Suffragettes. Well, look ahead – we’ve got to have the world run by global Chartists. The UN has got to be represented in a proportion to the population of the world.’ It probably sounded as mad to them as the Chartists sounded.”
Both because of his role as a politician and as a political diarist, Benn is mentioned in History, heritage and tradition in contemporary British politics: past politics and present histories, in which Emily Robinson discusses the different ways British politicians use past events and political rhetoric to promote or dismiss current ideologies and policies. Alongside others, Benn’s significance as a politician with a focus on political history and its preservation is highlighted by Robinson: “…the political memory of all three parties is perpetuated by a relatively small number of individuals, who tend to share a concern both for the preserving of contemporary documents and participant observations, and for recovering and remembering the stories of the past – usually with an intention of ‘learning from history’…There is also a great crossover between party memoirists, diarists, biographers and historians, with Roy Jenkins, Michael Foot, Tony Benn and Winston Churchill being only the most obvious examples.” This is certainly reflected in our own collections, which include diaries, biographies, and historical works, by all of these figures.
Below you can find the full list of new books which feature on the current display:
At the moment there is unsurprisingly an abundance of newly published source material being made available from the First World War, and this is certainly reflected in our latest New Books display. We hold an excellent range of primary sources from the conflict within our military collection, with diaries and correspondence from various perspectives forming a key aspect. The breadth of coverage within these holdings has just been strengthened further with the addition of two volumes from a series of War Diaries published in association with the Imperial War Museum, offering the viewpoints of two non-combatants – an army chaplain and a nurse.
In A chaplain at Gallipoli : the Great War diaries of Kenneth Bestwe are offered a gripping account from a padre who spent time on the front lines of two of the most brutal campaigns of the war – Gallipoli and the Somme. Kenneth Best, a Cambridge graduate, was ordained in 1913 and volunteered for the military chaplaincy on the outbreak of the war in the following year, and went on to spend time in Egypt, Turkey and France. He wrote candidly on the horrors he witnessed, but still managed to inject a bit of wit into his entries. As the Gallipoli Campaign intensified in May 1915 he wrote: ”Men’s hair perceptibly turning greyer under strain. I think my hair would turn grey if I had any to turn – clippers have done their work well. Several times a day one has a narrow shave from shell or bullet.”
Best’s diaries and letters, along with an informative supplementary chapter on British Army Chaplains in the Great War more generally, really highlight the important, varied and often conflicting role that the padres had. They not only maintained the morale of soldiers through their religious duties, but also took part in rescue missions and treated the wounded. There was a huge increase in the number of chaplains serving with the British Army as the war went on, rising from 117 in 1914, to 3745 in 1918, with 172 killed by the end of the war. It is a telling indication of what Best had been through that he proclaimed himself an agnostic in later life, his faith having been shaken by his experiences.
Again offering a different perspective to that of a soldier, we have A nurse at the front : the Great War diaries of Sister Edith Appleton. Edith Appleton had qualified and worked as a nurse for several years before the war began, and was quick to sign up for the highly regarded Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service in 1914, proceeding to serve in France and Belgium. She kept a series of diaries throughout the war and right up until her demobilisation in December 1919, but unfortunately some of the original volumes are now missing, so they are not all featured in what is nonetheless an invaluable and well edited published edition. On the website where the diaries were first made available to the public, set up by descendants of Edith Appleton, you can find further material, including letters which fill in some of the gaps left by the missing volumes, photos of the remaining originals, and an index of all the names mentioned in them – www.edithappleton.org.uk.
In her writingAppleton speaks generally about her day to day duties and how she spent her free time, often in a humorous and light-hearted way, but juxtaposes this with graphic descriptions of the countless wounded soldiers she observed and treated. Editor Ruth Cowen points out that this ‘unflinching account’ is all the more surprising considering the diaries were actually addressed to Appleton’s mother. Perhaps most significant are her reports of the new types of injury and illness being experienced, both physical and psychological, that we now associate so strongly with the war. She was very interested in shellshock, such a controversial condition at the time, and also bore witness to the first victims of chlorine gas-poisoning on the Western Front. Her entry from Ypres on May 5 1915 describes these victims: “They are fearfully sad to see. The slight ones look rather like pneumonia, and the bad ones are terrible – the poor things are blue and gasping, lungs full of fluid, and not able to cough it up. Today six have died of it in one ward alone.”
This has only been a snapshot of the type of material the Library holds relating to the First World War – check back for further posts we are working on to tie in with the IHR’s Anglo-American Conference this year, The Great War at Home.
Below you can find the full list of new books which feature on the current display:
Here is the latest run-down of new additions to the library, based on our recently updated New Books display. Whereas last month’s entry focused on collected correspondence, this time I have picked out some examples of new volumes from some of the many local records societies whose publications we hold, and which cover a range of regions and areas. Our English local history collection forms a significant part of the library, and this is continually expanding largely because of the regular output of such societies.
Firstly we have the Dugdale Society and their latest publication – Coventry Priory Register. The Dugdale Society was founded in 1920 and named after Sir William Dugdale, a seventeenth century antiquary from Warwickshire. Their stated aims are ‘publishing original documents relating to the history of the County of Warwick, fostering interest in historical records and their preservation and generally encouraging the study of local history.’
Forming Volume XLVI of the Dugdale Society’s Main Record Series, Coventry Priory Register has been carefully produced from an original set of over 250 fifteenth-century folios, kept in The National Archives. It shows in great detail the extensive range of property and land owned by the priory at the time, and the rent that was received. Within the volume the Register itself is preceded by a very helpful contextual introduction from the editor, as well as a series of specially produced street plans for Coventry in 1411, which are certainly a valuable accompaniment to the original source.
Froxfield Almshouse, the subject of this latest volume, has a fascinating history going back to its foundation in the 1690s, and is in fact still open today as The Duchess of Somerset Hospital. The almshouse was originally built to ‘accommodate 30 poor widows’ on a budget of £1,700 left by Sarah duchess of Somerset in her will. This generous benefactor not only provided the initial start-up costs, but also made many other stipulations to ensure the future sustainability of the almshouse, and the care of the women living there. The resulting legacy of successful management is reflected in the minute books, which are a valuable source for studying how the almshouse was run from day to day, as well as providing the bigger picture of adaptation to change across the years.