Among the attractions of diaries are the glimpses they give of the minutiae of daily life which - as is particularly the case in the 20th century - all the time undergo changes that accumulate to set a marked distance between ourselves and our predecessors. Sixty years is long enough even for those who were alive at the time to look back with some astonishment on the ordinary arrangements of the day. Consider W.J. Turner - admittedly a new and uncertain driver - driving to Warminster in second gear and not unnaturally 'arriving with the engine red-hot', which did not prevent his loyal wife asserting that 'Walter is a splendid driver already.' Consider Sassoon himself, at the time only slightly instructed in the art of managing his new car, colliding with 'a dog-cart going at full speed' and immediately recording that 'increasing confidence makes me genuinely enjoy the car'; and being equally unperturbed the following day when he 'knocked a bicyclist on to the pavement in Maidenhead but didn't damage him at all'. Even after some experience he 'failed to slow down on a steep hill and ran into a flock of sheep, killing one and knocking the shepherd over. He was a lanky, red-haired barbarian with a weak face and watery blue eyes.' The shepherd must have been weak, for he apparently accepted £2.10s. without further demur. Carefree days? Perhaps not, but days at any rate in which drivers' relationships with the rest of the world and with their vehicles - not to say the vehicles themselves - were somewhat different. Unless one is knowledgeable about such technological history, one may be surprised, too, to find that Sassoon's car did 50 miles to the gallon. Of somewhat wider historical interest is the fact - which everyone knows in general but which it is more difficult to imagine concretely - that one could then quite unremarkably drive from door to door in Central London and park one's car outside one's club.
LRB 18 April 1985 | PDF Download