Thursday, 20 October 2011

Making a note of it

I have never been plagued by superstitious obsessions: I do not feel compelled to avoid walking on lines in the pavement, or to wash my hands more often than is necessary. But there is one completely pointless thing which I have been forcing myself to do from an early age, and that is to record my activities, however uninteresting, in a succession of diaries.

Of course this can be a salutary exercise; 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, which he started in his adolescence and has added to every day since then, and which, full of rich insights into political events over all those years, now fill a whole room. Eight volumes of them have already been published, and they will provide nutriment for biographers and historians for years to come.

Nor are my diaries in the least 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 curt lists of things I did or which were done to me. The only reason for my diaries' existence is the ridiculous feeling that somehow if I haven't recorded something then it never really happened. So I have been setting down no comments or observations or thoughts, just the bare facts.

The tone was set from the very beginning, with a few entries for the year during which I reached the age of eleven; these were along the lines of Went to library or Aunt L came to tea. Later in the year the entries became very 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? 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 the excitement I felt during that historic non-encounter.

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 carelessly filled in, sometimes illegibly, and never subsequently glanced at.

I could never bring myself to throw away the scruffy old diaries, with their rotting elastic band round each decade's volumes, for I felt I ought to 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.

Then, a year ago, I found that writing had become so difficult for me that I really couldn't keep on with the diaries. Happily I can still type quite well using a large-key keyboard, so I am typing them into something I grandly call a Journal. It continues with current entries, two or three a week, as boring as ever. I am also working laboriously backwards with some help from a daughter and a grand-daughter. I have now reached 1997; more than fifty or so of the old handwritten volumes still leer at me from their carton, awaiting transcription.

The thing that makes the labour almost worthwhile is that the Journal is in Excel so that I can search for names of people or places, or words like "lunch" or "film", to produce instant listings. With a couple of clicks I can find, for example, the titles of the thirteen films I saw in 1997. This is an illustration of the spectacular futility of the whole enterprise: about most of them I can recall nothing at all.



Grumio said...

Paradoxically, it seems to me that anyone who can achieve – with tremendous effort over a long period of time – not just a measure of futility but spectacular futility has really done something most of us would fail to manage to fall back to, even with a considerable lack of enterprise. This is no mean feat, or, alternatively, a uniquely mean feat of which you can be justly proud.

Tony said...

Aw, shucks.

Thank you, Grumio, old friend.