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This fascinating anthology tracks the 20th century through diaries, journals and letters, though mainly diaries.

At its best, it opens up secret peep-holes on to some of the key events of the century, and allows us to see them from unexpected angles. People tell them to each other, and then forget them with the passing of the days.

So it is as well to realise that the Left-wing intellectual Beatrice Webb’s first impression of the young Winston Churchill in 1903 was of a ‘restless, self-regarding personality’ with a ‘lack of moral and intellectual refinement’.

On the other hand, in 1922 she came away with a very favourable impression of the future Fascist leader Oswald Mosley.

But the account of her funeral by the hugely successful novelist Arnold Bennett tells a different story.

‘The people were not, on the whole, deeply moved, whatever journalists may say, but rather serene and cheerful,’ he noted.

Jokes and rumours, hopes and fears: these intangibles would evaporate into thin air were it not for the diarists jotting them down.

Aptly enough, Elborough begins his lively compilation with Queen Victoria writing in her diary on January 1, 1900.

‘I begin today a new year & a new century, full of anxiety & fear of what may be before us.’ In some ways, this sets the mood for her fellow diarists throughout the ensuing century.

But the account of her funeral by the hugely successful novelist Arnold Bennett tells a different story In 1978, Michael Palin confides to his diary his worries about Mc Donald’s, which has just come to Britain.


‘A thought struck me as I left – the bags in which you are given food at Mc Donald’s are almost identical in texture, shape and size with the vomit bags tucked in the seat pockets of aircraft.’Many of these worries are still with us today.These jokes are lost to historians, and therefore to history.


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