Are traditional memoirs and diaries being swept away by social networking?

by Jeremy Miles

Now here’s an intriguing theory. Esteemed editor Ruth Winstone, who I vaguely know through her work on nine volumes of Tony Benn’s diaries, suggests that the end of an era is nigh, that the age of the political diary may be over. Winstone should know. She has also edited three volumes by the former Labour MP Chris Mullins. Her argument is that the instant communication of blogs and social networking has effectively replaced what used to be a reflective private activity.

Tony Benn: Photo Hattie Miles

Tony Benn: Photo Hattie Miles

I’m pleased to see that Peter Wilby, writing in The Guardian, disagrees, pointing out that political diaries tend to give a sense of history  behind the kind of scheming, plot or  knee-jerk reactions that  these days are so often the motivation/subject of politicians tweets. He has a point, but why single out political diaries? He implies that the same is not true of (mere?) memoirs. Surely it depends on the quality of both the writing and thinking as much as the actual subject matter. For example no one expects Cheryl Tweedy’s autobiography to contain an analysis of  the changing soci0-demographic structure of the North East in the wake of  the decline of the mining and shipbuilding industries but I’m guessing that the fact that she is a product of that era means that, amid the tittle-tattle and fluff, there’s something of that in there. Weightier memoirs (diaries/biographies) can contain a great deal of background and context.

As for blogs and tweets? They are by their very nature of the moment, a platform for comment, reaction, whimsical thoughts and  maybe a little brow-beating. All could  have their place in a diary but once filtered through a process of reflection, and with hindsight, can be very different indeed. My feeling is that  traditional diaries, memoirs and biographies live on while social media provides another means of communication. All are valid and all will survive in some easily recognisable form.

Ironically Tony Benn is about to publish what he says is the final volume of his diaries. A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine even contains the subtitle The Last Diaries. Well he is 87-years-old but I wonder. The old political warhorse battles on. I suspect that that blaze of Autumn sunshine mentioned in the title might turn out to be an ongoing Indian summer.

Benn recently said that he gets immensely annoyed that people  think he’s mellowed with age. He hates being regarded as a harmless old gentleman saying: “I may be old and I may be a gentleman but I’m certainly not harmless.”

Benn first made big headlines back in the early 1960s when as Lord Stansgate he renounced his peerage so that he could sit in the House of Commons. He went on to become the Labour Party’s longest serving  MP and  was a minister in both the Wilson and Callaghan cabinets.  He resigned from Parliament more than a decade ago famously announcing that he was leaving Westminster to spend more time on politics. Nearly 12 years on he hits the road again on January 11th when he takes the first of a series of  An Evening with Tony Benn shows to the Braintree Theatre in Essex. He still seems to have plenty to say and no doubt plenty to write about.

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