History Book Reviews

Tommy’s War – Thomas Cairns Livingstone

The literary world abounds with the diaries of statesmen, (so called) “celebrities”, politicians, and key historical figures. What are much less common are the diaries of the ordinary man in the street. Whether this is due to a lack of literacy or the simple fact that families might not find Uncle Herbert’s musings particularly significant and therefore dispose of the diaries (although this is certainly not the case in this instance), it’s unclear. What is clear is that very few survive the test of time. For one reason or another, Che Guevara or George Orwell’s diaries are simply more likely to capture the imagination than the average man’s. Or are they?

The story behind the diaries of Thomas Cairns Livingstone is a fascinating one in itself. Discovered by Shaun Sewell (a local antiques dealer) in a shoebox at an auction house in Northumberland in 2005, the diaries that make up “Tommy’s War” were part of a collection spanning over 20 years. Perhaps not quite realising just what he had bought, Sewell quickly became “utterly absorbed by the lost life stories spilling out from the pages of hand-written words and pictures.”

Two years later, in 2007, the diaries were featured on the BBC’s Antique Roadshow, and it was here that the Thomas Cairns Livingstone’s thoughts and feelings turned a significant corner in their journey from one man’s private journal to an internationally published social history.

The period “Tommy’s War” covers is merely a slice of this man’s life, but a slice that encompasses one of the most significant conflicts in world history – World War 1.

And no doubt the emotions he experienced, along with the situations he found himself in were common throughout the nation – and this is what makes it such a compelling insight into the social history of the time. Unless your relatives were particularly affluent, the likelihood is that they would have met the same challenges in daily life as Thomas Cairns Livingstone. From decorating the house, to the fear of being called up, the stress of his wife’s (almost constant) illness and the daily frustrations of work, it’s all here, beautifully presented by HarperCollins.

Thomas’ diaries are not merely descriptions of every aspect of his life; each page was annotated at the bottom by the information of that day’s losses and gains in the war. The level of detail in which he describes his life is a testimony to his profession as a mercantile clerk. When this level of detail is combined with some of the superb cartoon illustrations (which in themselves tell their own fascinating story), one almost has the feeling of holding history in one’s own hands.

Jonny Mardling

Jonny Mardling

Jonny Mardling is the Editor of The History Herald. He has a keen interest in Second World War and Cold War history, and with a great grandfather who was killed during the Battle of the Somme, he also has a fascination with First World War history.

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