- The Secret Annexe: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest War Diarists
The Secret Annexe is a kind of lucky dip. It consists of extracts from some two hundred diarists, published in English, from the seventeenth century to the present. Translations are allowed, but are not favoured. A select few are made to work very hard, especially if they are on the side of the angels (Anne Frank, Victor Klemperer, Primo Levi). Anglo-American authors predominate, therefore, in a widely-gathered company ranging from Davy Crockett to Eleanor Coppola, Iris Origo to George Orwell. Many wars are represented, but not all. There is a heavy weighting towards the twentieth century; inevitably, perhaps, the First and Second World Wars receive most attention. The British bulk large—it sometimes seems as if they had more diarists on the ground than armoured divisions—contributing much of the most acute observation, chilling, droll, poignant, or downright eccentric. "The necessary supply of heroes must be maintained at all costs" (Siegfried Sassoon, 24 February 1917, quoting Sir Edward Carson). "The Marines have [End Page 276] sent me a long questionnaire asking among other things if I am a chronic bedwetter. It seems that I am to get a commission there" (Evelyn Waugh, 22 November 1939). "I made a potato and leek soup for supper—then went fire watching. It was a beautiful evening. On the bridge I saw a girl warden (rather plain) being kissed by a Doughboy (a hidey-ho, a sweet and lo, a come and go boy). Lucky pigs I thought" (Barbara Pym, 14 April 1943). "Mrs Thatcher announces the surrender of Port Stanley in well-modulated tones. Film follows of the funeral of the commandos killed at Goose Green, the simple service and the youth of the wounded unbearable. A pilot of one of the Harriers talks about the effectiveness of the Sidewinder missiles. 'A bit of an eye-opener' is how he puts it. A bit of an eye-closer too. Not English I feel now. This is just where I happen to have been put down. No country. No party. No Church. No voice" (Alan Bennett, 15 June 1982).
The selection is not always as discriminating. Too many entries are trivial, disconnected, recondite, or simply uninteresting. The editors hope to provide a composite portrait of war. Neither the selection nor the organization is equal to the task. The entries are arranged day by day throughout the year—a factitious year—such that August 5, for example, contains fragments from that day in 1901 (David Miller), 1914 (Beatrice Webb and André Gide), 1940 (Count Ciano), 1942 (Weary Dunlop), and 1945 ("Chips" Channon). This is not so much a portrait as a grab-bag. Disorientation outbids delectation.
The Secret Annexe does not set out to be a work of scholarship. There is a brief and highly coloured introduction, and potted biographies of the diarists, but the diary entries themselves float free of any context. No mention is made of the editors or the translators of the editions used. No credit is given for editorial borrowings from those works. Frustrated readers may turn to Witness to War (Doubleday, 2004), edited by Richard J. Aldrich, to see what can be done with an anthology of war diarists by a scholar with a keen eye for the unconsidered trifle.
Nottingham, United Kingdom