Friday 20 April 2007

Dear Diary...

I don't know about you, but I always feel in some sort of quandry when reading someone else's diaries. I mean published ones, of course - I would never commit such a violation as to read a friend's diary or journal... but why do we make the distinction here? Because the author is dead? Because they are a stranger? Because they are famous? Hmm... You see, the difficult thing is, I love reading diaries of people - and letters, especially if a book has the correspondence between both, er, correspondents. For some in this ilk, look out for the letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham; or Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill. You see, there I go already, recommending things I'm not *quite* sure I feel comfortable reading.

I've kept a journal since 2001 - they are all spread out in that picture up there. Now, I would hate, hate, hate for anyone to read them - and I imagine anyone else would hate, hate, hate to be put through the experience. I was 15 when I started writing them, remember. I love this quotation from Richmal Crompton's novel 'The Gypsy's Baby', she even got the name right: "Simon was at the age when he imagined that everyone around him took an intense and generally malevolent interest in his doings." Well, that was me, I daresay.

So why am I content to read the diaries of, say, Virginia Woolf? Partly because they're brilliant pieces of writing, but what IS it that makes the diaires of lesser beings so interesting? Just curiosity? A couple of years ago an Oxfam worker discovered the diary of Ilene Powell, from 1925, and published it (see pic). It was incredibly mundane, with tiny scraps of entries - about two days' output for a regular, angsty teenager. So why was it so interesting?

Well, all of this soul-searching had to be followed with some sort of book recommendation, didn't it? Having questioned the practice of reading diaries, I am going to flag up The Assassin's Cloak (not to be confused with Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, as I did for a while). For every day of the year, the editors have selected entries from 'the world's greatest diarists'. All the invasive fun of diary-reading, plus the excitement of serendipity, as you see that Pepys was eating an egg on the same day as Vita Sackville-West centuries later. Ok, I made that one up - but there are all sorts of interesting comparisons. The usual suspects, such as Pepys, are featured - but all periods are covered, and The Provincial Lady even gets a look-in. The only dull ones are those from self-important politicians and/or celebrities, publishing their own highly-edited diaries, citing how many famous people they have met. I'm a few weeks behind, but this is an ideal day-by-day companion, but also good to flick through. For instance, on my birthday Maurice Collis was listening to Lady Astor talk about Stalin; Anthony Powell was assuring Frank Longford that he wasn't used in A Dance To The Music of Time; Jean Cocteau was musing upon the lure of the radio.

I suppose blogging is the new diary-writing - though they should retain their very different approaches. Unless you fancy a list of famous people I have met...

Oh yes... any recommendations?
Hypocrite, me!?


  1. So often it is the very mundanity that is engaging, particularly where we 'know' the diarist otherwise, or where we are interested in the period detail of their lives.
    Letters and diaries so often juxtapose the 'big' and the 'small', i.e. the major, turning-point events, and the insignificant, everyday ones. E.g. Winston Churchill writing to Clemmie at the very end of the war and describing events of extraordinary importance, then going on to say "One big goldfish was retrieved from the bottom of the pool at Chartwell. All the rest have been stolen or else eaten by an otter. I have put Scotland yard on the work of finding the thief...."

  2. Diaries are, for me, things which tell you what you should have been doing if only you had found your diary in time to do it!


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