Tommy's War

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 October, 2009, 12:00am

Tommy's War
by Thomas Livingstone
HarperPress HK$185

Thomas Livingstone was neither Pepys nor Pooter, but falls somewhere between the two. His diaries - unearthed at an auction four years ago - start in 1913 and cover the years of the first world war through the eyes of a mercantile clerk living in Glasgow, written in elegant copperplate and illustrated with idiosyncratic cartoons.

Livingstone gets up, goes to work, provides for his wife Agnes and son, 'Wee' Tommy, and keeps an eye on the hostilities as far away from the recruiting office as is decent for a patriotic Scotsman in time of war. Apart from this, nothing really happens - and here is the delight of Tommy's War.

It's a fly-on-the-wall portrait of a simple family and their simple lives, played out against the background of one of the most tumultuous conflicts ever to engulf the world.

A typical week as recorded by Livingstone notes the arrival of a new hall clock; Wee Tommy's recovery from chicken pox celebrated with a new slate; a former colleague dropping by for a chat - telephones being a rarity then; and a wry comment that the war is costing Britain GBP1 million a day. The presence of Glaswegian soldiers at the front is noted with pride and the arrival of women in the workplace, such as the tartan-clad tram conductresses, with amazement.

Much of the pleasure of Tommy's War is owing to a sharp and lively editorial eye and corresponding design. Many of the entries are facsimiles of the diary's pages, including Livingstone's drawings. A selection of photographs of the war and of Glasgow at the time is also included, and essays by editor Ronnie Scott provide context.

The diaries are a snapshot of a way of life that has long vanished. Livingstone was better off than a manual labourer and wore a suit and bowler hat to work, but he was still beholden to landlord, shopkeeper and utility companies, whose bills pared away his modest income. He filled his scant leisure time with ordinary pleasures: walking, listening to bands playing in parks, socialising with relations, playing the piano and occasional trips to the cinema.

Agnes, who was frequently ill and thus 'given a bottle' by the doctor, laboured with cooking and washing - all done by hand. And Wee Tommy - who was also bed-ridden regularly - had little to distract him outside school hours apart from the company of his family.

The Livingstones, it seems, were content with their lot, and if not well endowed materially took a great deal of pleasure in each other.

Livingstone continued his diaries into the 1930s and a second volume is due to be published soon. He added a postscript on February 27, 1950, when Agnes 'my darling wife and sweetheart' died: 'At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, I will remember her.'

And now posterity will remember Thomas Livingstone and his happy brood.