Gahan’s Diary, 1924: The heirloom nobody wants. Photo: © Annette Laing 2021
Gahan’s Diary, 1924, is a very, very rare book indeed. Only 200 copies were ever printed.
And it just so happens that I own one of them. From our native Scotland, my copy of Gahan’s Diary and I have traveled the world. My Dad inherited it, and it emigrated with him to England. He gave it to me, and I have taken it on a 34 year tour of the US, without even once showing it off to friends, until now. It’s my secret treasure, and it lives with me in Wisconsin.
I am surprised to learn that a copy of Gahan’s Diary sold at auction just last year.
For £50. Which, at today’s exchange rate is $70.83.
I am shocked. Only 200 copies were ever printed.
I cannot believe anyone would pay that much for it.
Gahan’s Diary may be the most boring book in the English language. My Dad, who probably acquired it because nobody else in the family wanted it, loved to remind us of how very, very dull it is, crying “Gas [light] out and into bed!”, Gahan’s favorite sign-off at the end of every entry. He would read it aloud, and I laughed at the utter awfulness of it.
So Who Was the Gahan of Gahan’s Diary?
James (Jim) Gahan was a painter, decorator, and antiques dealer in Dundee, Scotland, my hometown.
If you are British, you know that Dundee is Scotland’s least respected city, the butt of so, so many jokes. If you are an American, and Dundee sounds familiar, maybe you’re a fan of The Snipesville Chronicles. Dundee was one of the major settings for A Different Day, A Different Destiny, where I hope I helped you see the horrors and joys of the 19th century city.
James Gahan is not what you would call a prominent person in any history, even Dundee’s.
Yet he self-published his diary, which must have cost him a pretty penny, and gave away 200 copies to his family and friends, who surely deserved better.
My copy is one of these. He inscribed it to the lucky new owner:
I have no idea who Mrs. Jean Laing was. Every Scottish family has multiple Auntie Jeans or Jeannies, same thing, and this Auntie Jean didn’t turn up in the family history I won’t bore you with. I don’t think my Dad knew, either. If I ever find out, I’ll add an update, if you let me know you care, which I don’t blame you for if you don’t. Photo: © Annette Laing, 2021
Here is the author, in a drawing by his brother.
James Gahan by George Wilkie Gahan Photo: © Annette Laing, 2021
Quite honestly, James Gahan looks exactly like I would expect. He has a hangdog look. He looks like the sort of person whom people get stuck talking with at parties, while making desperate attempts to get away. If you’re a fan of the BBC comedy Father Ted, I think you will agree James Gahan looks a lot like Father Stone, Ireland’s most boring priest. Not a coincidence, surely?
How Bad Can Gahan’s Diary Actually Be?
I wondered that, too. As I emerged as a social and cultural historian (okay, so my field was early America, but hey) I was drawn to revisit Gahan’s Diary. It can’t be that bad, I said. It’s surely got some merit as a primary source of an ordinary man’s life.
Here’s a typical entry:
Photo: © Annette Laing, 2021
It not only can be this bad, it IS this bad. As my Dad would say, slamming Gahan’s Diary shut with a laugh, “Gas out and into bed.”
I gave up a long time ago trying to turn Gahan’s Diary into a fantastic new find in Scottish social history.
But maybe I was too hasty in judging him? Nah. He’s a boring lower middle-class man in a town full of brilliant, mostly working-class wits. Dundee was long dismissed by hip travel guide Lonely Planet as not worth visiting. And then they actually visited it. Then they reported breathlessly that Dundonians (the people of Dundee) are
among the friendliest, most welcoming and entertaining people you'll meet . . .
Aye, well, I suppose it wis inevitable oor secret would get oot: We’re warm, we’re welcoming, and, above all, we’re hilarious!
Except James Gahan.
James Gahan’s More Interesting Brother
Ya know, if we look at Gahan’s Diary not as autobiography, but as a glimpse into his brother’s life, it’s actually a bit more interesting. George Wilkie Gahan was a well-known Scottish artist. His paintings are today housed in McManus Galleries in Dundee.
And here is George Wilkie Gahan’s self-portrait from the book. I mean, who would you rather sit next to at a dinner, him or Jim? No contest, if you ask me:
George Wilkie Gahan, Self-Portrait. Photo: © Annette Laing, 2021
Those of you superfans who follow Non-Boring History closely may now wonder if the Gahan brothers are my relatives. Not to my knowledge. That said, I can only repeat that Scotland is a bit inbred. By “a bit inbred” I mean it is a pleasant surprise to me that I don’t have a third eyeball in the center of my forehead.
Unfortunately, if George Wilkie Gahan was leading a fabulous life, we don’t see it in his recorded encounters with his brother. They lived separately, while working together in the shop, dealing both in antiques and interior design, and having unbelievably boring conversations of few words.
Can We Make James Gahan Interesting?
We can try. I didn’t have promising material to work with in A Postcard from the Edge of Disaster, either, but I set about showing you its historical significance. I have pledged that, as a trained academic historian, I am committed in Non-Boring History to serving up material in American and British history that you didn’t learn in high school, but not pointless trivia (the stuff of too many alleged history sites, alas.)
So, just as in Postcard, I accept the challenge! That’s because, honestly, and unlike with Postcard, I have already realized what the significance is. But let me lead you through my process, as part of my commitment to transparency, showing you how historians think. Now, can you give me a few more minutes to see if I can convince you?
First off, let’s take a look at the context of Gahan’s book.
Dundee in 1924: Jim Gahan’s World
James Gahan himself is not a wealthy man. He lives, in a flat or (more likely) a room. But his landlady waits on him, even sometimes brings him breakfast in bed. And he can afford to self-publish and give away his book. He’s doing fine in 1924.
Well before 1924, his wife Annabella, who came from the picturesque town of Oban in the Scottish Highlands, had died. They didn’t have kids, but nephews and nieces are in the picture.
In 1924, James Gahan owns his two businesses (established 1888) at 57, Hilltown, right across the street from the buildings in this photo:
56-64 Hilltown, Dundee, early 1930s. In 1924, Charles Ward’s shoe repair was already in this spot. Gahan’s painting and decorating shop was across the street at 57 Hilltown, with the antiques business address given as 57b, so possibly it was in the back, or else next door. James lived nearby at 5, Dallfield Terrace, which, like his business and the buildings above, has long since been demolished. Demolition in the name of urban renewal happened a lot in 20th century Dundee, and, yes, city council corruption was involved. And apparently some things haven’t changed. Photo ©Dundee City Archives.
Dundee and Poverty
Photo ©Dundee City Archives.
Dundee and desperate poverty have gone hand in hand for at least two centuries. This view is of tenements round the back of the businesses in the photo above. A rabbit warren of slums hid behind the passageway you see between the businesses.
James Gahan and Diversity
James Gahan lives in a Scottish city whose diversity in 1924 might surprise you. Thanks to the Dundee City Directory of 1923 (like a phone book but before most people had phones) we learn that Gahan’s business neighbors are a diverse bunch: They include Italians, like G. Vettraino, a confectioner, who likely sells ice cream and candy, and T. Alzapidi, who owns a restaurant (he is Italian, but I suspect the restaurant is not, since Italian food has not yet caught on among Scots in 1924 like it will later). Gahan’s neighbors also include a Jewish hardware merchant called Jacob Rosen, and Gahan often records encounters with Jewish antiques dealers. He also mentions his enjoyment of an antisemitic joke (this sort of casual antisemitism, which makes us wince, but in which he doesn’t single out Jews for outright hatred, would have been typical of the period). Gahan himself is at least partly of Irish origin, but while I bet his ancestors were Catholics, he is a Protestant, judging from his references to the “minister” (not priest) at church. This puts him on the more powerful side of the Protestant/Catholic divide in Scotland. Yes, the same divide as in Ireland, only with less violence. Mostly.
I don’t dismiss Gahan as a total bigot. He certainly has many kind words to say of the immigrants he meets. Here are two examples, starting with two French nuns, Sisters of Mercy, who came into the antique shop to buy a calligraphy brush:
Photo: © Annette Laing, 2021
“All are trying to get to heaven in their own way.”
That’s a remarkably tolerant view, although not so surprising in Dundee, where a lot of native white Dundonians today volunteer with a Muslim charity called Taught by Muhammad. This is a city, then as now, you might assume is divided by religion, ethnicity, and class, and it was and is. But this is where Laing trots out her standard warning that, tempting though it is to blast everyone with our 2021 cancel guns (pew! pew!) we’re much closer to the truth when we allow ourselves to see evidence of nuance, of subtlety.
In 1924, Catholic Irish immigrants tend to be very poor, in large part because of anti-immigrant discrimination. Immediately after his story about the nuns, Gahan writes of talking about religion with one of his customers, an Irish Roman Catholic. They use Dundee’s streets as a metaphor for the relative merits of their faiths. “Now we’ll imagine,” says the customer, indicating the steep street that was and is the Hilltown, “that Heaven is at the top of the Hill.
I am going straight up. You go down the hill, and along Victoria Road then up the Dens, now that is a very long way to take.”
“That is so,” said I [Gahan], “Mr. ______, but I am fleeter of the foot than you, so I’ll beat you!”
“Ha ha ha! Ho ho ho!” [said the customer] Sure, you’re an awful bhoy!”
And look at that! Jim Gahan made his customer laugh, like a good Dundee man. We can’t hear the conversation, or the accents, and Gahan always records himself speaking in standard English. Which, honestly, given that nobody else was, I find very hard to believe.
James Gahan, Observer of His Corner of Everyday Dundee
But maybe I am thinking about Jim Gahan all wrong. That’s what I realized when I sat down to write about him. When Lonely Planet described Dundonians as entertaining, they don’t mention our joyous wit. Which James Gahan mostly lacked.
What makes Gahan’s Diary an excruciating read is, first, that Gahan himself really wasn’t terribly exciting, which I think you will agree with me is the case, and second, that he insisted on recording every last thing, from lighting his pipe, and what he ate for breakfast, to the very tedious conversations he had with his brother, his landlady, his relations, and his customers.
But that, friends, is what I came to realize is the significance of Gahan’s Diary. These apparently mundane conversations, that small talk, that Jim Gahan records, is the key to understanding working-class and lower middle-class life in Scotland. Most historians, even now, are from solidly middle-class backgrounds. I’ve heard American historians faux-disparage themselves as “bourgie” (short for bourgeois, the French term for middle class) as if this is a bad thing, having a good education and at least some luxuries that make life worth living. They seem unaware that only middle-class (and upper-class) Americans tend to use this term.
And they are so, so very clueless about the rest of us. I once suggested to a posh American colleague that living in a rented row/terraced house next door to a non-respectable working class family who did things like kick a soccer ball constantly against the adjoining wall, wasn’t exactly a pleasure. She looked at me, all smug. “No, that was just class anxiety,” she said confidently. “You were afraid you would become like them.”
Well, isn’t that special. And to think my ten year old self just assumed I was sick and tired of the sound of that bloody football. That’s me told.
Another thing they don’t get? The comfort, the joys of mundane conversation. There’s a ritual to it, as many of you guys know. In the South, it might be:
“Hey, how are you?”
“Doin’ fine! How’s yer momma and them?”
In Scotland, there used to be singing and there still is telling stories. Stories sometimes just fill the silence and the time, and sometimes make us laugh so hard we cry. Jim Gahan was more a “fill the silence and the time” guy. He was rather like May Harrower Murray, my great-granny’s cousin, a retired factory worker who had an encyclopedic knowledge of actors off the telly. If you wanted to know who played the third Dalek on the left on Doctor Who, May was your woman. “Aye, yon would be . . .”
I gave May’s name to a character in One Way or Another. I think she would have loved this, although probably would be disappointed nobody has yet made a version of it for the television.
At a time when Scots dialect is disappearing, leaving the accents but less and less of the lovely language and grammar, Jim Gahan records for us the state of the language in 1924, transcribing the Dundonian dialect of the time:
Photo: © Annette Laing, 2021
I can hear it in my head. If you want to hear me say all that, then ye’ll hae tae tak me tae Dundee, whaur eh’m far mair likely tae soond convincingly like that in the richt company than right now, when I’m all self-conscious, and fall back on my posh English.
Whole conversations. Written down by an ordinary man, a participant. As an early Americanist, I would do a little happy dance when I found such a thing as this. So thanks, Jim Gahan. That’s fantastic.
What Did Jim Gahan Think of Himself?
James Gahan wanted to be entertaining, as most Scots do. But he never thought anybody would pay money to read his diary. That’s why he printed two hundred copies to give away. That middle-class American character Ledyard Frink, who you may recall I wrote about in Margaret and Ledyard Go West, 1850 had far more confidence than James Gahan. Jim was an ordinary fella who wanted to leave behind a bit of himself for folk to remember him by, and he had no pretensions to literary excellence, as he explained.
Aye, when all’s said and done, Jim Gahan, ye didnae dae sae bad. Thanks for all the laughs, and for the record you left behind, your wee corner of the Hilltown in Dundee, in 1924.
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