A HIDDEN TREASURE by Tania Lisboa & Ivan Hewett

Here at LED we’re used to gleaning our ‘musical experiences’ in modest numbers, wherever we can find them; a diary entry here, a letter there. However one recently discovered source promises to yield ‘experiences’ in fairly big numbers. This is the Great Diary Project, now housed at the Bishopsgate Institute.

The Institute is a little-known treasure right in the heart of City of London, located in a beautiful late-Victorian building which contains a library, a concert hall and several meeting rooms. The quirky building, with its mix of Romanesque and Byzantine motifs and odd little roof turrets goes perfectly with the sturdy independence of the Institute. True to its original mission, Bishopsgate offers public lectures and short courses in a huge variety of topics, and some of these have become quite prestigious. For example the Gresham Professorship of Music, which is quite a sought-after position, entails delivering a series of lectures at the Institute.

Bishopsgate was set up to improve the culture and education of people living and working in the City, though these days it’s lawyers, bankers and retired people who take the courses, rather than the clerks and tradesmen that made up the Institute’s classes in its early days. The recently-restored Reference Library houses an amazing collection of material, which is particularly strong on working-class history. If you want to know the ins and outs of trade union history, or what songs the garment workers of the East End sang while on strike in the 1930s, the Institute is the place to go.

All very fascinating, but what has this to do with LED? Well, among Bishopsgate’s collections are some diaries, which are a key source for LED. Just recently this aspect of the collection has been vastly augmented through the acquisition of the Great Diary Project. This was originally the creation of Irving Finkel, Assistant Keeper in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum. Years ago he bought a 19th century diary in 76 leather-bound volumes, to save them from ending up in a skip. Finkel is a collector by nature, and this casual purchase immediately sparked a new obsession. Pretty soon, every inch of spare space at his office at the BM was covered in boxes of diaries.

Finkel loves the insight these diaries offer onto the tiny details of society – how people spend their leisure, how they think about their neighbours, the fashions they wear. He rightly describes diaries as a treasure which grows more and more valuable over time, as they give a window onto a world that grows ever more distant. Which is why he floated the idea of a National Diary Repository, in the hope that an institution would take the burgeoning collection off his hands.

Fortunately the Bishopsgate Institute stepped in, in 2012. This was the ideal location, as it already possessed some diaries, and the Institute’s wide collections in social history made it a natural fit. And so one man’s hobby became The Great Diary Project (GDP), with its own storage space on shelves in a temperature-controlled basement, a proper code of conduct for the public dissemination of the diaries (an essential for such an essentially private medium) and its own staff, shared with the Institute itself.

Finkel’s collection continues to grow. The GDP solicits donations of diaries of all shapes and sizes, from a few scraps of paper in a folder describing a holiday to big multi-volume donations covering a period of decades. So far it contains around 2000 diaries, and more arrive every month. Only a fraction of these have been catalogued, but these few dozen entries are encouraging, in terms of source material for LED. The contents are listed in some detail, and most of these make at least some mention of music. We’ve started the process of combing through these diaries, with the aid of one or two volunteers. We’ve found quite a few ‘experiences’ already- though of course we’re not at liberty to post them onto LED until we have permission of the author, or the author’s family or estate.

The kinds of experiences range from listening to music on a ship’s radio to attending top-flight concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, in the glittery era of Horowitz and Frank Sinatra. There’s a collection of adorable diaries written by a girl from the age of 18 to 22 years, who attends lots of pop concerts and then pores her heart out over once-famous pop bands such the Weezers.

Another interesting source we’ve turned up is a modest pamphlet-sized diary, containing reminisences of an English family’s somewhat strained two-week holiday in the Irish Free State in the 1930s, when the War of Independence was still a recent memory. One thing it reveals is the variety of uses people found in those days for the humble gramophone. Every day it was an invaluable aid to picnics, boat-trips and flirtation. Let’s hope the owners allow us to quote from it.

Tania Lisboa & Ivan Hewett