Diaries, truth and consequences
The Oxford Writer, no 41, November 2006
IAN COTTON explains why diaries are such an important literary form . . . and why he supports the idea of an archive for unwanted diaries.
ONE OF THE FIRST DIARIES I read was that of a friend of mine, at boarding school. We shared a study. I stumbled on it by mistake (from what people tell me, this happens more often than one might think), and opened it, not realising what it was. Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw the words ‘Ian Cotton’, and then, reading on, saw them attached to the further attention-arresting phrase, ‘that bastard.’
So what did I do? Close it? Do pigs perambulate the sky? Of course I read it. And the reason (apart from my own, bastardly depravity) has something to do with what makes any diary unique. I knew I was going to read what my friend—well, schoolfellow—really thought: what he wrote, uninhibitedly, when he assumed he would be writing for his eyes alone.
As it happened, the event had a curious upshot—but more of that later. The point it illustrates, I think (to be seen, equally, in diary-writing’s more exalted, published forms) is the power of the un-self-censored word; the interest that will always lie in experience put down directly, ‘hot’, without any of the spin any writer inevitably puts on events the moment he starts thinking about his audience; and without any second-thought polishing or improvement.
A good example of this last, I think, is to be found in the work of that well-known diarist, memoirist and, of course, poet, Siegfried Sassoon. Take his 1918 poem ‘Concert party’, which is clearly based on the entry also headed ‘Concert party’ in his diary for 17 April 1918. The diary entry—which evidently came first—has a typically dream-like Sassoon vision of an audience of young soldiers (at a concert party in the Palestine desert) first as dying moths round the candle of life, as represented by the brightly lit-up show they are all watching; and then—the passage evolves—as symbolising all the dead of the war, ranked tier by tier one behind the other, fading away into the night, ‘ghosts, souls of the dead’. Yet hardly any of this survives into the poem, which is competent but unexceptional. It’s a guess, but arguably, with the passing of the diary’s spontaneity (surely encouraged by its perceived privacy), so passed inspiration. There are many such passages in Sassoon’s diaries. They bear the same relation to his later, polished work, it seems to me, as Constable’s sketches —thought by many the summit of his originality—to his finished canvases.
Yet there is more to diaries than such rough-hewn spontaneity, and more to diarists than the record of those, like Sassoon, and the serried ranks of other ‘celebrity’ diarists, who lived overtly interesting lives. Diaries are, too, the chosen literary form of those whose lives are, on the face of it, quite dull (and I’m not just talking Mr Pooter here). Hence their growing appeal as democracy—well, populism—gained pace in the 20th, and now 21st, century. Enter the work of Dr Irving Finkel of the British Museum, who describes himself as a ‘rescuer’ of unwanted diaries and collects them for what he hopes will become a national archive. It’s normal lives, he
says, that he finds most riveting: the unpretentious frankness of such diarists that can lead them, often, to true originality. And while this naturally applies to the everyday record of great events like the First World War, it is even more true, he says, of less dramatically historical lives like those of housewives in 1950s Surbiton; by just putting down, instinctively, what really matters to them, they can achieve an authority that eludes the great. So far, says Dr Finkel, he has collected over a thousand diaries dating from the 18th century up to the 1970s—and he has never read a dull one yet.
Ian Cotton is the author of The Hallelujah Revolution: The Rise of the New Christians, Little Brown, 1995 and Summer of Hope: The Power of Friendship at a Boys' Summer Camp, Simon and Schuster, 2002
Although the private, self-referential quality of the diary will always be under threat. Above all, of course, in the ‘celebrity’ diary, which will so often have been written with half an eye on publication anyway. Those of Wilfrid Blunt, for instance—another poet—survive in no less than three versions, if you throw in ‘The Blunt Papers’ and Blunt’s ‘Secret Memoirs’, both in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. For Blunt, a public figure well aware of his audience, and, simultaneously, one of history’s more remarkable Lotharios, made quite sure all the tricky stuff got excised from the public versions. Indeed most of it remains unpublished to this day—here was one man who never forgot his audience.
Another ‘celebrity’ diarist, Leo Tolstoy, fell into a different trap: commendably anxious to be honest, both he and his wife, who also kept a diary, decided early in their married life that each could read the other’s. The result, not unpredictably, was instant outrage at their mutual revelations, and then—more surreally still—each began adjusting their subsequent behaviour in the light of what they’d just read. So scarred, indeed, was Tolstoy by this experience that as late as his 82nd year, mere months before his death, he began a secret, back-up diary, the ‘Diary for myself alone’ which he hid in his boots.
And this phenomenon of diary feedback, once an audience enters the frame, is something I’ve experienced myself. As soon as I read the anti-Cotton diatribe described above I, like the Tolstoys, started adjusting my behaviour in its light—and, from that day forth, began niceing my friend unmercifully. Checking back, as I did, in his diary later (I confess this too), I found I’d rung the bell. Ian Cotton had now become ‘this great guy, really nice to me’. And so the entries went on. To this day, I swear, the schoolfellow concerned will never know what caused this turnaround. Never, that is, unless he should happen to read this.
Anyone who wants to know more about Dr Irving Finkel’s proposed National Diary Repository should contact the editor, Ed Fenton, email@example.com . The Oxford Writer would also like to hear from any members of Writers in Oxford who keep diaries.