On editing Fred Grice’s diaries and journals

Colin & Gillian Clarke - authors, writers, author, writer, uk, Frederick GriceBefore his death in 1983 my father, Fred Grice had been extracting materials from his diaries (35 of them) in order to form a three-part ‘memoir’ based on his childhood, the war years, and life in Worcester from 1946 on. In 2015 my husband (Colin) and I edited and published one volume (chronologically the middle one) which concentrated solely on 2 of the war years – and we called it War’s Nomads.

The three parts of the ‘memoir’ are very different from each other. A carefully revised narrative, completed in the 1940s, formed the bulk of the text of War’s Nomads; however, among my father’s papers we had discovered additional materials. The first being a small black notebook, written under cover, that recorded events with even greater immediacy. This enabled us to intrude the occasional eye-witness report into the main account. The second was an exercise book marked  ‘Invaluable. Not to be lost’  which covered the period before embarkation and portrayed the spartan life of a lowly aircraftsman on the troopship during the voyage around Africa to the Suez Canal. By combining the three sources we created a longer, more complex narrative than the one originally envisaged by the author.

We are currently working on Worcester, the final part of the ‘memoir’. This is made up entirely of diary extracts, covering 36 years from 1946 to 1982. Editorially, this presents a completely different challenge. By comparing Fred’s own selection with the original diary entries we have discovered that he had already done a certain amount of re-writing himself. However, there are inconsistencies in his text, mostly concerning dates  and the occasional repetition. It is also evident that, although his death was unexpected, he had been unwell and at times confused in his later years.  Thus, the task of turning the manuscript into a publishable work depends on our editorial skills. We have already transcribed and cut the text: now we must write an introduction, prepare maps and add footnotes.

But we also need to address one problem. Fred’s diaries don’t just record his thoughts each day. He used them to write the first drafts of his many children’s books, which means that there are some years, notably in the 1960s and early 70s when he is making few diary entries that are relevant to our volume. Instead, page after page is filled with the next instalment of books, not all of which were accepted for publication.

We are fortunate that Fred made the initial selection of materials for ‘Worcester’ and that he polished them for publication. I had thought that, with careful reading of the diaries, we would want to make additions. In fact, the opposite is true; the selection has needed trimming, particularly towards the end when it loses momentum.

As a child I was aware that my father kept a diary. He would disappear off to his room every evening to write and have a quick cigarette, and no one was ever allowed to read what he had written. I also knew that he had, in the late 70s, begun to gather materials for a ‘memoir’.  But I had no idea until I read the diaries after his death that he hoped that I would conserve the diaries and (implicitly) see the books through the press.

Dealing with the outpourings of a parent has its drawbacks. On the one hand, you are given a privileged insight into their life, and you can glow with delight at the recording of their and your own successes. But, this is a diary, and the bad is recorded along with the good. I find it hard to read about my own failings. And at times I fear that I am taking a prurient interest in my parents’ lives.

But then I have to remind myself why Colin and I are devoting so much of our retirement to Fred’s writing, and it is because we believe that what he wrote is of historical and literary interest and is therefore worth preserving. The son of a miner, Fred grew up in impoverished circumstances just outside Durham. Grammar school provided him with a love of literature and of learning, which enabled him to avoid going down the mine and to go instead to university, become a teacher and later lecturer. But he never lost the capacity to capture with affection the voice of  ordinary people. His diary entries are interspersed with poems, anecdotes, reactions to plays seen and books read, and lyrical descriptions of the natural world, all leavened with a keen sense of humour. His interests ranged through literature, archaeology, art, landscape and latterly the diaries of the Revd Francis Kilvert.  ‘Invaluable. Not to be lost’ could well apply to Fred’s writing.

Almost all my ‘writing’ nowadays is editing –  preparing someone else’s work for publication. I transcribe, I check facts and spelling. I re-order when necessary, constantly going back to the original for verification. Crucially, I still remember most of the characters and the incidents portrayed in this volume of the memoir, which will help with footnoting and writing the introduction.

Where is my creativity? I was co-author of our Trinidad Journal, published in 2010. But now I see myself as an arranger of text – trying to find the best way of presenting materials – not unlike the skill required to make a patchwork quilt.

In 2011, when I started working on War’s Nomads, Colin was a visitor at a Max-Planck Institute, which meant that we were living in Germany. I had just lost the hearing in one ear and was nervous about going out on my own, so I was happy to sit for hours at my computer, struggling to transcribe the impenetrable handwriting of my father, who had been posted overseas when I was a baby, and who was a complete stranger to me when he returned in 1945. Having rejected him throughout much of my childhood, I felt privileged and deeply moved to have the opportunity to get to know him as a poetic young radar operator, desperately missing his wife and child, risking his life in pursuit of Rommel in the Western Desert , and yet, what irony – there was I – living happily in Goettingen, a former Nazi stronghold, surrounded by German friends as if the war had never happened.

I’m not sure about my creativity, but the pleasure derived from editing my father’s work is immense.

Gillian Grice Clarke

This piece was my contribution to a Writers’ Evening in October 2019 for alumni of Bedford College, London.