Site of the Week: Oscar Kirk’s Diary

London's docks

Oscar Kirk was born and raised in Poplar, East London, close to the substantial complex known as the West and East India Docks. A few days before the end of the First World War, Oscar, then just 14, got a job at the docks, and started to write a diary of his everyday experiences.

His entries from the first half of 1919 survive, and the Museum of London Docklands has started publishing them daily on this web site. The diary is remarkable for its detailed record of seemingly ordinary events, from the purchase of a paintbrush to watching a diver plunge into a drydock to retrieve a spade. A typical entry from Friday 3rd January reads,

Pay day. 17/- . 2pm
I bought 3 comics and a maxim-gun. “Chuckles, Merry & Bright, and The Jester.
Had some fried potatoes for my supper.
Mother and Marjorie went to the Hippodrome to see “Smiles*”.
I bought some boot-polish.
Weather: Wind SW. Fresh at times. Raining. Late Mild.

It’s so minimal and mundane it’s almost poetic, but it’s quickly becoming quietly gripping. Already poignant themes are starting to suggest themselves, especially in the contrast between the regulated working life of Oscar (who by today’s standards is still a child) and the world of adventure he seems to dream of. He records the death of Captain Leefe Robinson, the first war pilot to shoot down a zeppelin, and the reading list he included with the diary includes such exotic titles as The Elixir of Life, To Arms!, and Under Sealed Orders. Somehow, you can’t help but wonder if a part of Oscar might feel he missed out on the derring-do of the war. It’s all speculation, of course, as I’m sure it will remain. I don’t see Oscar getting all One Tree Hill on us any time soon, but this, I think, will be the fun of it. Over the coming months I’m looking forward to trying to piece a larger picture together from these bare fragments.

Congratlulations should go to the Museum of London Docklands for a refreshing project that sets an example for how museums can use technology to bring their archives to a wider audience, without feeling gimmicky. You can also keep up with Oscar’s entries on twitter, though the tweets reduce his spare writing even further. The effect of reading it in twitter form is like buying a mobile phone for an elderly relative, who despite having hated the things all their lives suddenly, through a mixture of gratitude and loneliness, begins to use it obsessively, bombarding you by text with every detail of their day-to-day lives, necessarily abbreviated by their arthritic difficulties with working the keypad.

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