“Before the forces which lie dormant in the pale and wistful face of a little child.” (1)

A Diary for Timothy (Humphrey Jennings, 1945) is an account of the British home front between September 1944 and March 1945, told through the device of a diary spoken to a newborn baby. The “diary”, written by E. M. Forster and narrated with confidential warmth by Michael Redgrave, must perform a number of different functions. If the traditional diary is the most personal mode of self-expression, where the (usually middle class) individual records experiences and airs thoughts and feelings they may never communicate to another living soul, then Jennings’ work is a collective journal (2), recording British experience during the war, and the thoughts and feelings of various Britons about what will happen when the war is over.

A Diary for Timothy

It soon becomes clear that Timothy is as much a fictional construct as the diary, less a living, burbling individual than a figure of The Future, the focus of a generation’s hopes and fears. The film’s final image – a fixed shot held painfully long of Timothy in his cot, alone – emphasises the gap between the innocence and vulnerability of this poor child, and the almost cruel weight of expectation that is being dumped on him. This shot feels like 50 million pairs of eyes staring at a baby, impatiently waiting for him to fulfil their dreams.

Jennings did much to humanise the propaganda film, but his greatest works before Diary London Can Take it! (co-directed with Harry Watt, 1940), Words for Battle (1941), Listen to Britain (co-directed with Jennings’ editor Stewart McAllister, 1942), Fires Were Started (I Was a Fireman, 1943) – were still propaganda, still talking to a collective audience, asserting or creating consensus values, harmonising the destruction and worse caused by German bombers into an endorsement of the British will, the Dunkirk or Blitz Spirit. The assertion of such a spirit – especially vital in an early film like London Can Take it, an unapologetic if beautiful and very moving appeal to the US public (3) – meant that these films, for all their noble intentions, could only show at best a selective truth, eliding “embarrassments” on the home front (e.g. black marketeering, heightened sexual activity) and ignoring Britain’s own aggressive imperial past (such as its invention of the concentration camp).

Jennings, of course, was well aware of such blemishes in the image of John Bull, and indeed spent much of his life writing a book about them, about “poverty, oppression… the destruction of common rights”, the prostitution of poetry, journalism and art “to cover the nakedness of oppression”, and the atomisation of society by science, technology and industry (4). Pandaemonium, still one of the underappreciated masterpieces of the 20th century, is an annotated guard-book of “Images”, excerpts of texts from the Restoration to late Victorian eras, narrating the “imaginative history of the Industrial Revolution”, the ways a wide range of people reacted or adapted psychically to the “coming of the Machine” (5). Jennings could be more outspoken politically in his writings than in his corporate-sponsored films, and his leftism was more bracingly direct than even his admirers acknowledge. So he crosscuts passages celebrating the great scientific and industrial achievements that underpinned the Empire with texts that chronicle its vast human cost – from heightened displays of power against the working class, such as the Peterloo Massacre, to more insidious effects: the expropriation of land through clearances and the destruction of the peasantry; the replacement of humans with machines and the mechanisation of workers; child labour; the growth of a surveillance society; the indifference of the ruling class to the health and living conditions of those they ruled.

As Jennings mentions in a note on the 1812 Felling Colliery Disaster, such neglect continued well into living memory, with a similar disaster in Gresford in 1934 (6). The narrator of Diary, in an early, shocking statement, compares the contemporary slums of Liverpool and Glasgow to war-devastated Holland and Poland. In films like Housing Problems (Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton, 1935), the General Post Office Documentary Film Unit (where Jennings began his film career) had shown the primitive conditions in which ordinary Britons continued to experience the greatest empire ever seen.

A Diary for Timothy

In Diary, Jennings voices the widely held fear that, after the social advances made during the war, things would go back to the bad old ways after it. Significantly, in a film directed, written and narrated by Cambridge men, punctuated with the Received English of countless BBC newscasters, and addressed to a white middle class boy living in an Oxford rectory, the spokesman for this fear is a Welsh miner. Garonwy is one of the film’s four representative men whose thoughts and experiences are narrated to Timothy as emblematic of the issues he, and the British nation he represents, will have to face in the future. A determination not to return to the past led to a landslide election victory for the Labour Party soon after Diary’s completion, giving it the mandate to enact a welfare state to ensure such conditions would never prevail again. Initially, there was a euphoria for this new age, as documented in Ken Loach’s recent elegy for state socialism, The Spirit of ’45 (2013). Curiously for a work by a left-wing artist, there is no such euphoria in Jennings’ Diary, rather an uncertainty as insistent as the hum of engine or wind that haunts its soundtrack.

Of all Jennings’ wartime films, Diary is the closest to voicing the contradictions exposed in Pandaemonium. There is something off about A Diary for Timothy. The stiff upper lip that could cope with random death and destruction during the Blitz in London Can Take it has slackened to register a pervasive sense of loss as the war ends. The disembodied voices – of the narrator, of characters’ voiceovers, of radio bulletins broadcast through startlingly framed wireless sets – counterpoint the broken, absent and dead bodies littering the real world. This is figured most ambivalently in the National Gallery scene, where Myra Hess, Jewish namesake of the former deputy Führer, plays German music to Blitz-weary Londoners in front of a huge, empty picture frame, the Old Masters having long been evacuated to salt mines (7).

Jennings’ formidable formal control seems to desert him in Diary as images are joined by abrupt, even awkward cuts. Together with moments of musical dissonance, and the repeated return amidst the polyphony of music, voice and ambient sound to a bereft silence (8), these acknowledge the film’s inability to manufacture the communal harmony through audio-visual montage that had marked an earlier work like Listen to Britain. The one unambiguous moment of cross-class, cross-regional, cross-generational unity in Diary, is the drink to “absent friends” at Christmas. Spurts of pomp – such as a Home Guard parade – are curtailed or undermined. Happy events – Tim’s journey home from hospital – are juxtaposed with tragedies – the bloody Battle of Arnhem. The creeping tracking shots without music that record a stationary train engine or a hospital ward of maimed warriors seem closer to the moody modernism of Alain Resnais than the cheerful boys’ club atmospheres that characterise Ealing and the Crown Film Unit (9). Bleak images of winter fog, lifeless trees and stagnant water haunt the mind longer than the Soviet and American victories trumpeted as evidence of spring awakening on the soundtrack; Jennings was always attuned to “the weather in the Englishman’s soul” (10). He was right to be anxious. The Spirit of ’45 records the systematic dismantling of the welfare state by successive Tory and Labour governments; the artist in Jennings clearly intuited long-term fault-lines beneath the fanfare.

Endnotes

  1. Edward Carpenter, Towards Democracy (1883), quoted in Humphrey Jennings, Pandaemonium, 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, eds. Mary-Lou Jennings and Charles Madge, Andre Deutsch, London, 1985, p. 345.
  2. Jennings was one of the founders of Mass Observation in 1937, an organisation that sought to record contemporary, “ordinary” British life by eavesdropping on conversations, soliciting diaries and reports and the like. It came into its own during the war, by which time Jennings had left. Tom Harrisson, Jennings, and Charles Madge, “Mass Observation” (1937), Humphrey Jennings: Film-maker, Painter, Poet, ed. Mary-Lou Jennings, BFI, London, p. 16.
  3. Mary-Lou Jennings (ed.), p. 25.
  4. Humphrey Jennings, Pandaemonium, p. 298; Humphrey Jennings, “To Walberswick” (1943), Humphrey Jennings: Film-maker, Painter, Poet, p. 7. The Silent Village (1943), Jennings’ memorial to the massacred of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, alludes to the English political and cultural “conquest of Wales”. Wendy Webster, “The Films: The Silent Village”, The Complete Humphrey Jennings. Vol. 2: Fires Were Started, Blu-ray Booklet, BFI, London, 2012, p. 25. Jennings also planned a 12-part series on the British Empire after the war. See Kevin Jackson, “Humphrey Jennings: The Last Years”, The Complete Humphrey Jennings. Vol. 3: A Diary for Timothy, Blu-ray Booklet, BFI, London, 2013, p. 2. See also Humphrey Jennings, “The English” (1948), Humphrey Jennings: Film-maker, Painter, Poet, pp. 42-43.
  5. Humphrey Jennings, Pandaemonium, pp. 17, xxxv. The book was begun around 1937, abandoned, restarted in 1943, and left unfinished at Jennings’ death. Humphrey Jennings: Film-maker, Painter, Poet, p. 35; Charles Madge, “Editorial Tasks and Methods”, in Humphrey Jennings, Pandemonium, p. xv.
  6. Humphrey Jennings, Pandaemonium, p. 134.
  7. This performance is edited from Jennings’ short film Myra Hess (1945).
  8. Pandaemonium quotes Henry Mayhew on Millbank Prison (1862): “The utter absence of noise struck us as being absolutely terrible. The silence seemed, after a time, almost intense enough to hear a flake of snow fall. Perfect stillness is at all times more or less awful, and hence arises a great part of the solemnity of night as well as of death.” Humphrey Jennings, Pandaemonium, p. 276.
  9. Any similarity perceived between Jennings and Resnais might be traceable to both men’s involvement with Surrealism. Jennings joined founding Surrealist André Breton on the Organising Committee of the International Surrealist Exhibition, London, 1936, and translated the poetry of his friend Paul Éluard. Humphrey Jennings: Film-maker, Painter, Poet, p. 14; Mary-Lou Jennings, “Humphrey Jennings and This Book’, in Humphrey Jennings, Pandaemonium, p. x. Resnais’ corporate documentary Le Chant du styrene (1958) was written by former Surrealist Raymond Queneau.
  10. Humphrey Jennings, Pandaemonium, p. 16.

A Diary for Timothy (1945 Britain 39 mins)

Prod Co: Crown Film Unit Prod: Basil Wright Dir, Scr: Humphrey Jennings Commentary: E. M. Forster Phot: Fred Gamage Ed: Alan Osbiston Mus: Richard Addinsell Voiceover: Michael Redgrave

About The Author

Darragh O’Donoghue is an archivist at Tate Britain, and has begun a PhD. with the Department of Art, University of Reading.