On Keeping a Diary

1702-keeping-a-diarySamuel Pepys was a Londoner with a keen eye and scratchy pen. For ten or more years, he confided in his mute friend. It was mundane stuff, no one can live a life perpetually at a hundred miles an hour. Nevertheless, his life was more interesting than most.

Each new day, someone posts a fresh page of his diary onto the internet at https://www.pepysdiary.com/. So three hundred odd years ago, Samuel noted:

Thursday 25 February 1663/64 (Did he not know which year it was?)

Up and to the office, where we sat, and thence with Mr. Coventry by coach to the glasshouse and there dined, and both before and after did my Lord Peterborough’s accounts. Thence home to the office, and there did business till called by Creed, and with him by coach (setting my wife at my brother’s) to my Lord’s, and saw the young ladies, and talked a little with them, and thence to White Hall, a while talking but doing no business, but resolved of going to meet my Lord tomorrow, having got a horse of Mr. Coventry to-day. So home, taking up my wife, and after doing something at my office home, God forgive me, disturbed in my mind out of my jealousy of my wife tomorrow when I am out of town, which is a hell to my mind, and yet without all reason. God forgive me for it, and mend me. So home, and getting my things ready for me, weary to bed.

In fact with hyperlinks, shown in bold and unthought of in Pepys’s time, the passage is even clearer. Today, there are Pepys’s followers who comment on each day’s entry tossing ideas between each other like my wife agitates the salad so that every leaf gets its fair amount of dressing.

I will never be as famous as Pepys. I did not start a diary to be famous. I started a diary because I was happy with life and wanted to remind myself of my good fortune.

That’s crap.

The entries of my first (1971) diary were scribbles: Car Key Nos. FP 730, 727; 6/1/71 ‘Pickering’ (a place in Yorkshire), then nothing to 20 April! I was clearly not an immediate enthusiast.

But slowly the entries started to appear. I was on my way like a toddler learning to walk setting down one wobbly step after another. When I flick back through the entries, they bring memories and details as clear as any photo. I had introspective moments too, but not many, perhaps I was scared someone would read them.

I used the diary for notes about money – expenses, the gas bill (why only gas?); appointments – just one or two words, but a summary of the things I felt I had to note. No elegant or incisive commentary on the people around me or the big events of the day, just things that affected me – meetings, expenses, cricket scores, hours worked, locations of work and, of course, the weather.

Unlike Pepys, most of my diary pages were blank. I was not rigorous in the maintenance and many were discarded when we moved. Would I want to look back at the minutiae of my life? Isn’t life about going forwards, and building on past experiences?

In the fifties, VS Naipaul, the great Caribbean writer wrote long letters to his father back in Trinidad when he was a student thousands of miles from home. At seventeen, he wanted to “follow no other profession but writing”. Awarded a scholarship by the Trinidadian government, he set out to attend Oxford, where he encountered a vastly different world from the one he yearned to leave behind. Grappling with depression, financial strain, loneliness, and dislocation, “Vido” bridged the distance with a faithful correspondence that began shortly before the young man’s two-week journey to England and ended soon after his father’s death four years later. Now those letters (a sort of diary really) are published and, yes, he did become a great writer. The discipline of making writing interesting started at the top of the page straight after ‘Dear Father’.

But not all diaries are factual; Bridget Jones’s Diary proved that. Perhaps, Helen Fielding was writing her own diary under the alias Bridget Jones and was able to exaggerate so many hilarious scrapes. Miramax Films and Universal Pictures saw the potential of her writing and recouped ten times their investment budget when they released the film. Perhaps, I should write to them with a proposal about Richard Baker’s diaries?

So what can we say about keeping a diary?

  • It’s hard work and requires discipline to do it every day,

  • It develops your skill as a writer because it takes careful observation (and possibly some exaggeration) to make each entry interesting to yourself,

  • It is a refuge of the titbits of your life a corner into which minutiae, which may at some time be useful, are swept,

  • It is personal to you and your feelings, if you are bold enough to commit them into black and white,

  • ‘You know what I mean,’ doesn’t cut it in a diary,

  • If you want others to see it, you can write a blog and post it on the internet!

    For the record, today’s entry (26/2/2017) reads: ‘Collette’s Birthday, Terry and Collette come to dinner.’ Mundane stuff indeed.

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