Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Writing it down

I have never been plagued by superstitious compulsions: I do not feel compelled to walk on (or to avoid walking on) lines in the pavement, or to wash my hands more often than is necessary. But there is one thing which I have forced myself to do from an early age, and that is to record my life in a diary.

Of course this can be an admirable thing; what the great diarists wrote is fascinating to us all, and any diaries, however inept or fragmentary, can be helpful to biographers and historians, or at the very least interesting to the families or descendants of the writer. However, mine are not a bit like Tony Benn's, started in his adolescence and added to every day since then, which, full of rich insights into political events over all those years, now fill a whole room and have been distilled into many volumes of biography and autobiography. Nor are they like Boswell's, featuring crisp descriptions of amusing incidents, such as his note on 13th April 1763 which begins: Did meet with a monstrous big whore in the Strand...

No, mine are never going to do me or anyone else any good, consisting as they do merely of bald lists of things I did or which were done to me. The only reason for my diaries' existence is my ridiculous feeling that somehow if I haven't recorded something then it never really happened. So I set down no comments or observations or thoughts, just the facts.

The tone was set from the very beginning, with a few entries in the year when I reached the age of eleven along the lines of Went to library or Aunt L came to tea. During the following year the entries became more and more sparse and after the entry for 4th May, which was Forget what did, there was a long gap.

Eventually the regular notes resumed their onward march of relentless triviality, but even in later years the entries were hardly more interesting, still with a flat, uninformative style which gave very little away. Day in Brighton with Charles R and Rosemary, for example. Why? Did we have a good time? Who were these people, anyway? No-one reading the diaries today, not even I, would be able to answer these questions, or would ever bother to ask them, and posterity certainly won't be interested.

Later on, of course, I did have some moderately interesting experiences in slightly exotic places, but reading my curt notes on them doesn't really bring them back to me: Almost spoke to Duke Ellington at Bangkok Airport is perfectly accurate but doesn't conjure up my feelings of excitement at the time.

A few years ago I found that I was being reminded of the pointlessness of this mammoth effort every time I came across the box containing the collection of diaries of all sizes and colours, every one laboriously filled in, sometimes illegibly, and never subsequently glanced at. This was depressing, so as I was practising Visual Basic at the time I spent a few weekends making a database and then copying six hundred or so of the least insignificant entries into it. It was designed so that it could be filtered to extract various subsets such as Births/Marriages/Deaths, Travel, Employment, Moves and so on. This meant that I could throw away the scruffy old diaries, which I had often wanted to do but never dared, and still have all the facts at my fingertips if I suddenly needed to know when my uncle Horace had died or in which year it was that I fell off a narrowboat into the Oxford Canal.

I still keep this up and I suppose it's still pretty pointless, but after submitting to this obsession for a lifetime I can't just drop the whole thing, can I ?

No comments: