Posted by Dom
Diaries are getting a bit of a bad press at the moment. Alastair Campbell has been forced to defend his right to publish his inside account of life in the Tony Blair era, although judging by the huge sales that the diary (The Blair Years) has been generating already, he’ll probably be laughing all the way to the bank. You can read our own take on the ethics of selling your story here.
Anyway, with diaries so much in the news at the moment, we got to thinking about our own humble additions to an art form that already encapsulates famous figures such as Samuel Pepys, Alan Clark, Anne Frank, Bridget Jones and, um Adrian Mole. My homepage colleague Ian has kept a diary for an awe-inspiring 21 years; I myself managed to keep a series of page-a-day efforts up from age seven to eighteen.
The question is: why do people keep diaries? Are they just vanity projects to convince the writer that their life is meaningful and interesting, or is there more to it than that?
From a personal point of view, I think I started writing a diary just because I had some vague idea, even at just seven years old, that I enjoyed writing. It certainly couldn’t have been because I thought my life was interesting enough to commit to paper, revolving as it did around such earth-shattering events as going to regular Cub Scouts meetings or playing cricket down the local park.
Over the years, of course, the diaries came to describe all those horrific/amazing rites of passage that pretty much every teenager in Britain goes through sooner or later. First kiss, first ‘grown up’ party, first girlfriend, first job, first relationship split-up, GCSEs, A-Levels, driving tests (a mere five of them in my case – all the best drivers pass fifth time apparently)… all described in an at times quite amazing level of detail (I had to fill a page every day, so there was a lot of padding).
Ultimately the humble diary can feel like one of the few, if any ‘friends’ you have that gets the raw, unexpurgated, no-holds-barred version of your life. The printed version of Alastair Campbell’s diaries that is in your local Waterstone’s now may be a heavily edited down, 350,000-word version of events, but there’s been serious speculation already that the full version, containing over two million words (!) may be available for public consumption at some time or other. And that will surely be more entertaining and illuminating than what’s on offer to the public at the moment. For a diary should surely detail every single high and low of a life well lived; and not skimp on facts just because they may be somewhat embarrassing to the writer.
While not wishing to compare my own ramblings to that of one of the most important men in British politics of the last decade, there are many, many moments from my past that are almost too cringeworthy to revisit. It’s hard not to read, for example, my tortured account of seeing the girl I was in love with walking down Kenilworth high street hand in hand with another boy, prompting me to go home in tears, put my head under the duvet and play Portishead’s ‘Sour Times’ on repeat for four hours, without wincing in pain. Fainting on a hot summer’s afternoon into the arms of the headmaster’s wife at school, capsizing in the River Avon while playing water polo and nearly succumbing to the dreaded Weil’s Disease (an illness caused by rat’s urine in the water, which can kill), and my numerous cock-ups as a paperboy and nervous Top Shop employee may all be things I want to forget, but such tragicomic events make you who you are today, and a diary without them isn’t even worthy of the name.
I even wrote my own weekly soap, entitled ‘Trials and Tribulations’. This ‘classic’ ran for over 200 episodes, and its surreal, badly written mixture of over-the-top drama, romance and murder in a quiet Warwickshire town would probably be of huge interest to any psychiatrists out there. Although, with the BBC on the look out for a new soap now that Neighbours is set to move to Channel 5, maybe I should just bundle all the episodes up and send them off to Broadcasting House (it would probably still make more sense than Home and Away).
People at the time who knew I wrote a diary would say that I was ‘sad’ or needed to ‘get a life’. As far as I was concerned, however, writing a day-to-day journal actually inspired me to live a more interesting existence than I may otherwise have experienced. After all, I wanted as a teenager to have enough interesting things going on in my life to write about, and although the acres of ink I used dissecting life’s highs and lows may have made me slightly more analytical than is strictly healthy, at least it meant that I was taking a keen interest in life around me, and not just sailing through my days on auto-pilot.
Maybe diaries do feed into our desire to make sense of our random, chaotic lives, or even, without getting too morbid about it, leave something tangible about us behind when we’re gone. Maybe they just feed our egos. For myself, however, I know that diaries instilled in me a love of writing from an incredibly early age, the discipline of setting yourself a task and carrying it through over an extended period of time, and even the ability, crucial as a journalist in later life, to make the most mundane days and events sound exciting and interesting (not an easy task when the most newsworthy incident in a week would often be something as fascinating as the school bus breaking down).
Although I stopped writing a diary when I hit university, reasoning that I wanted to live life rather than write about it for a while, part of me wishes I’d carried on. Some of the things that happened to me as a twenty-something, whether tragic or euphoric, should certainly have been committed to paper. As it stands, though, I have an invaluable record of 11 magical, confusing, terrifying, complicated, depressing and joyful years, and that can never be taken away.
Did you keep a diary when you were growing up, or do you still write one now? What motivates you to keep a daily account of your life? Drop us your thoughts below.