Last week we set students on our MA in Modern British Studies the following task: Using some of the fantastic diaries in the Cadbury Research Library, write 500 words about a nineteenth or twentieth century diary. Before this we encouraged students to immerse themselves in the work of Carolyn Steedman to reflect on the relationship between lives and stories, on subjectivity and self-fashioning, and how to read material not just for its content – as a source of knowledge about the past – but as a way of understanding the relationship between lives and stories, and the ways in which individuals made sense of the world and the place in it.
Over the next few days we have decided to share their findings. Kicking us off is Jacob Fredrickson on the Diary of William Prince Telfer. Should you like, you can follow Jacob on Twitter @jacobTfred. Click on our ‘Study with Us’ page for more information on the MA.
Beneath all the apparent sophistication and cynicism of his work there always lay concealed this longing for ‘a beautiful strangeness’.
Dixon Scott – Review of The Works of Stanley Houghton in the Manchester Guardian, 2nd July 1914, p. 7.
Shall have to be more concise in this diary. It requires too much time at present.
The diary of William Prince Telfer, Monday 20th July 1914.
William Telfer spent 1914 writing. Daily his pen would help shape the flow of sugar that poured through S & W Beresford wholesale Grocers, as part of its journey into the imperial diets of the people of Manchester. Amidst hasty glances towards the young male colleagues who so intrigued him, Telfer would scratch a tiny imprint into the global story of an imperial capitalist system about to implode in the face of total war.
That is about as much as I can say about the work that took up so much of Telfer’s time. When he was not writing at work, he was often writing at home, into the diary that is now open beside me. Finding as much quiet as he could in the small house he shared with his parents, three brothers and a lodger, Telfer transcribed his daily life, often in the style of the books he would borrow from, or the newspapers he would read at, the Manchester Athenaeum. I have his borrower ticket too – number 3037 – carefully placed on the front page of his scrap-book.
Reading and writing meant a lot to Telfer, but not the ordinary writing of the clerk’s office. That was demoted to a vague sentence, one I’ve learnt to skip almost unconsciously, “B. All day”. Rather the writing that Telfer cherished was the literary agility of George Bernard Shaw, the journalistic bombast of G.W Russell, or the “beautiful strangeness” of Manchester playwright Stanley Houghton. Telfer’s experience of 1914 was infused with the literature he read and the news he consumed, the archival trace of which brings this literally to view, newspaper cuttings overlapping with delicate handwriting – annotations draw me to future writing projects influenced by his favourite writers.
“When I write ‘Tales of Manchester’ I shall not do much attending to names”. I don’t know if Telfer ever completed, or even started ‘Tales of Manchester’, I – we – lose track of his thoughts by September 1914, his archival presence recedes into sign-posts of future events – military service, marriage, death, all of which inflected with the callous anonymity of institutional records. ‘Tales of Manchester’ remains a distant dream, literary futures that shape the non-literary present of Telfer’s 1914.
The literary road not taken perhaps matter for the biographer. However, I am not a biographer. The literary pretensions of Telfer, his love of reading, his dreams of living by his pen, order the thoughts and feelings that make it into his diary, and by extension shape the ways in which Telfer saw the world that he lived in at this particular historical moment.
That is not to say that he always saw the world like this. The heavy, violent ink blots censoring sentence after sentence, indicate the presence of another Telfer who returns to alter the shape and meaning of this diary. The self-censorship that appears highlights the temporal disjuncture of the diary. Past, present and future Telfers jump out at me, vying for my affection, in the hope that I – the historian – will present their version of William Telfer.
Predictably, I was drawn to these blotches first. The inevitable step for the arrogant historian who seeks to uncover a hidden, an inaccessible past. In doing so I ignored the pages upon pages of daily life that Telfer had left – his walks, incessant, around Chorlton-on-Medlock and Moss Side, his almost daily trips to the scout hut, ‘The Wigwam’ – too old to scout, Telfer found solace in the homo-social world of the Old Scout Association – his familial arguments, his strained friendships, his strange and contradictory opinions on politics, war and social change. All this receded and blurred as my attention – my excitement – was towards that which I couldn’t see.
However, the more I read, the more the blotches turned my attention to what was still there, hidden in plain sight. Telfer seemed to admire the male form, especially young male bodies. A cutting from July of boys enjoying the sun by jumping in the canal is accompanied with the caption, “I would like to have seen them”. As young Clerks enter Telfer’s office, the diary stops and takes three or four lines to describe the boy stood before us.
It is here where the blotches appear startlingly, and the boys vanish into unwritten desires now lost. These blotches present a visible indication of past desires that Telfer doesn’t want me to see. I could try and name these, but the boundaries between admiration and attraction are so blurred as to highlight the very fiction of the categories between bonds of friendship and something more sexual. Indeed, I don’t think 1914 Telfer had any conception of a coherent difference between friendship and attraction, something older Telfer imposes onto the diary through his nervous editing.
However, Telfer does invest heavily into his friendships, and I don’t think I impose too much to say that this often boils over into infatuation. During the summer of 1914, Telfer grew fond of George Maude, whose small thumbnail picture is carefully placed into July’s entries. I couldn’t help but feel for Telfer as he walks back and forth down the street where he thinks Maude is, the description of the walls inflected with Telfer’s frustration and unrequited feelings;
to get a glimpse of the back
windows of 36. It was futile
I only saw black, dirty
ugly squalid walls.
I wanted to grab hold of Telfer’s hand, feeling I was stood with him on the bottom step towards the basement of Beresford’s, where he catches a glimpse of Maude, “swaying”, “grappling” and “panting” with another young clerk. But the sympathy I felt I know comes from me, not from the diary. I am reminded of my own unrequited feelings, gut wrenching moments at parties and nightclubs of seeing someone else, in the words of Telfer, “struggling” in the spot where I want to be.
Telfer’s diary never states these feelings, I am inferring from his walks, his glances, his attention to detail in recounting the incident in the basement urinal. But as I do I am also investing myself into these moments. As I recount them here, the basement blurs into the nightclub, the walk to spot Maude overlaps with my own ‘accidental’ strolls. Without naming these desires, I am left to infer, a project where I am on show as much as Telfer. Telfer’s own ossified desires remain unintelligible, a “beautiful strangeness”, not absent yet not quite readable.