Len Clark’s war diary – review


Len Clark was a young Londoner in 1939. When Europe lost all reason and lurched into war in September he had drifted into the pacifist camp. He debated the rights and wrongs of war, took long walks in the countryside and listened to his gramophone for solace.

I love diaries. Diaries and letters offer the most immediate records of events and times, unmediated by editing and written in a haste that brings its own honesty. I rank them above letters, as historical records, because they are often written with no reader in mind, and with no expectation of being read.

This diary of Len as a young Londoner is no exception, kept through the autumn and winter of 1939, typewritten on flimsy paper. It reminded me, as we live through a decision to leave the European union, that events unfold in jerks and shudders, that life has none of the smooth, seamless movement history will give it, and no visible end point.

Russia turned on Poland. Hitler made a final peace offer. The future hung in a balance. No one knew how the war might end or what personal the best personal response to war might be.

Len continued to observe it all in his diary. He worked at the London County Council. He went to concerts and meetings, listened to debates, and recorded the news as it happened.

He was at times at odds with his friends and colleagues because of his pacifism. On 1 September he noted that he had argued for almost an hour with a friend who was due to be called up.

That night the blackout was a sombre business he recalled, “and we went to bed with uncommonly troubled minds.” Two days later his country was at war, and western Europe had lost its reason.

Len escaped the big city at weekends, and wandered in the countryside, as his love of the outdoors and youth hostels developed. Through youth hostels, like many of his generation, he had discovered the countryside and companionship. He continued his voluntary work of running a group, recruiting members.

He and a friend went looking for a church in the wrong place, bought and tried to eat sausages that were off, and found a purpose for a gas mask, carrying blackberries. He described everyday life around him as the war built.

His diary ends abruptly, for no known reason, in January 1940, but was, with equal luck, kept for nearly 80 years. After the war, Len went on to become involved with the National Trust, the Campaign for National Parks and the Open Spaces Society. His diary shows the quiet determination he brought to those organisations and the battle to open and preserve the countryside.

He passed his 100th birthday last year, celebrated with friends and family when he planted a tree on the National Trust’s Polesden Lacy estate in Surrey to mark the occasion.

His diary has been produced as a book with a raw self published quality which suits the subject and it authenticity. His is an authentic, and personal view of his times, and the city where he lived.

The diary is available thanks to Len’s son, Alastair, and Anna McGuire, who retyped the original pages of the half forgotten diary, and added the footnotes, and images.

You can get a copy of “We went to bed with uncommonly troubled minds”, 86 pages privately published, from Lulu.com, price £2.52 +VAT.

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