The long littleness of life

I’ve blogged about diaries before. When January comes around, my thoughts often turn in that direction. It’s partly because when I was ten or twelve I thought of diaries as romantic things and asked for a diary for Christmas and then kept it assiduously for weeks, months in one case, before losing interest. When we moved house in Summer 1994 and I misplaced my diary, I was delighted to have a legitimate excuse not to write in it. It was a betrayal of the diary, but also a relief. When, some time later, I wrote a relieved ‘FOUND DIARY!’ in it, I must have been shamming. I ended up writing tennis scores in it, rather than what had happened to me. Years before, I had a lined notebook in which I wrote down snooker frame scores from Ceefax. I can’t for the life of me think why, but it gave me pleasure at the time — which was probably why.

I also think of diaries because when I go home for Christmas I tend to be surrounded by Alan Bennett. Invariably I end up reading his books and listening to his diaries in an attempt to stave off cabin fever, on top of which his diaries for the past year are always published in the LRB late in December, so I read and/or listen to them as well. The 2014 offering is here.

When I think of the great diarists of modern times, I suppose my first thoughts tend to the political — Alan Clark, say, or Tony Benn. I’ve read one of the published volumes of Alan Clark’s diaries, and enjoyed his frankness — there is a moment where he admits to having drifted into an erotic reverie during a speech by Prince Charles — but I can’t imagine wishing to return to them. I suppose his proximity to the policymakers qualifies him to be a chronicler of his time, but I found myself thinking how glad I was I didn’t know the man personally. He didn’t inhabit a world I recognised or cared for, and he certainly didn’t speak for me.

Alan Bennett often seems to speak for me exactly. He is precisely the person I would be if I were Alan Bennett. He gives as much a portrait of the state of the nation as Alan Clark does — in fact, he gives a more rounded one, as he has a cultural life. Political too, and political often, but he’s as likely to write about what he’s seen in the street, or on the TV. In his diaries, as in his other writing, he has a knack for the small but telling detail, the overheard comment, the thrown away line of dialogue.

This blog has been a frequent outlet for my half-formed meditations on the vagueness and specificity of memory. Why do I remember this feeling from when I was five, or this individual moment from when I was eleven, long after all else has disappeared from my mind? Richard Linklater’s brilliant film Boyhood is selective like memory. It traces the arc of a boy’s coming of age through small incidents. Six months after seeing the film, a comic scene of the boy canvassing for the Democrats with his father and sister has stayed in my mind, the kind of thing that, if it happened to you, might just as easily leave your memory as stay there. The diary can be a stab at immortality. If you write it down, it will remain. I’ve already quoted it in another post a year ago, but this little act of kindness, set down by Bennett in November 1988, seems to me a beautiful example of the possibilities of the diary:

The train back is crowded, and at Bath a bunch of schoolboys get on, either from a prep school or from the lower forms of a public school, Monkton Combe possibly. They are talking of the football team. ‘Tim’s in the A team,’ says one, ‘but he’s only hanging on by a needle and thread.’ There is a pause. ‘Actually,’ says the other, ‘I think it’s just “thread”. You don’t have to say “needle”.’ This is said with perfect solemnity and kindness.

What are the boys up to now, I wonder.

Years before I got to know Oscar Wilde, I felt instinctively that a diary should be something sensational. That accounts for 9-year-old Gareth writing a phrase like ‘Lost Battleships against Becky the Shithead.’ I envisaged myself looking back on it in many years’ time and feeling scandalised. I don’t feel scandalised, but I am pleased to think that I was already writing with an audience in mind, even if it was only my future self. I didn’t leave the diary lying around in the hope that others would pick it up, but I would have hoped to make them laugh if they had.

Nowadays I suppose the closest thing I have to a diary is this blog, not that it’s a direct equivalent. The thing is, in case you weren’t aware, this blog is a pose. It’s not me writing, it’s the tidied-up version of me I’ve chosen to present to the world (well, the tiny fraction of the world that might stumble across this godforsaken corner of the internet). What I write is honest, but not nearly as brutally honest as it would be if I were writing solely for myself. All large-scale self-excoriation I do offline.

I write quite a lot of stuff that’s not meant for publication, even if it’s just a transcription of my internal monologue. I tell myself it’s a form of catharsis, but maybe semi-consciously I am thinking of the posthumous discovery of what I’ve written, of being thought interesting after I’m gone, morbid though that may be.

Charles Pooter’s introduction to The Diary of a Nobody:

Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see—because I do not happen to be a ‘Somebody’—why my diary should not be interesting. My only regret is that I did not commence it when I was a youth.

Something I did last year was to write a diary for the Mass Observation project. Each year, members of the public are invited to submit a diary entry for 12 May, to be kept as part of the MO archive. A selection of excerpts from the 2010 submissions may be viewed here. Why shouldn’t the diary of a nobody be as interesting as the diary of a somebody? Many of the diarists of the past still read today — Francis Kilvert, say, or Thomas Turner — were ordinary people leading ordinary lives. An ordinary life has its beauty. This is the end of Middlemarch:

… the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

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3 Responses to “The long littleness of life”

  1. blakeajax Says:

    I think I’ve already mentioned to you ‘National Service’, Richard Eyre’s diary of his time as artistic director of the National Theatre, which I read over and over as a teenager. There are tiny, wonderful notes that I still remember: Thatcher being nicknamed ‘Daggers’, short for ‘Dagenham’ (‘two stops past Barking’); a postcard from Michael Gambon about the ridiculous wrongheadedness of rules in a theatre – ‘The theatre ought to be a place where you and I can piss down the stairs, if we feel the need’… I would put Stephen Fry’s aside in ‘Moab is my Washpot’ about camp High Anglican priests referring to Holy Communion as ‘Haggers Commaggers’ in the same category. Other people’s diaries can be fascinating; I’ve never managed to keep one up myself, possibly because (at the time of writing it down) I already /know/ what I did, so it isn’t very interesting to me.

  2. blakeajax Says:

    ps The sentence ‘He is precisely the person I would be if I were Alan Bennett’ is excellent.

    • Gareth Says:

      Thank you! I’m sure it’s a rhetorical device (there must be a Latin name for it) I’ve appropriated from someone else. I must read National Service soon. On the subject of theatrical diaries I’m always meaning to give Simon Gray a go, about whom everybody raves. I like his plays, but haven’t explored further.

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