Talk and Self-Talk: People, Their Diaries and Me

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Conversations – I had over two thousand kilometres of them during a recent foray into the Australian bush.

For ten days my brother, my best friend and me shared a car, a tent and a track. We talked the whole time as long-separated soul-mates will do, mulling over food and fatherhood, music, the moon and more. It was our way of reaching out, of clasping hands, of arm-wrestling and twiddling our thumbs.

In the weeks leading up to the trip I’d been holding conversations of a different kind, as I gave myself a good talking-to. That’s right – I wrote in my diary.

I’ve kept a journal on and off since I was seventeen, when I started recording my doings on a daily basis, larding my jottings with pithy reports on public events and, er, the weather. Thus, on 3 January 1992, I penned this informative entry:

Overcast and rain tried hard. I had a shave first thing ‘smorning – just felt like it. Achievement: Ironed a wet shirt until it was dry (cuffs don’t count). India has clawed into the Test Match due to an Umpirical decision and luck reversal.

Thankfully I went on to lose that kind of complacency. Over time the tune of my self-talk changed, my manner becoming more managerial as I tried to get a grip on myself on the page. Hence the following entry, made at 8.55 am on Tuesday, 11 October 2005.

Yesterday I did everything I planned to do – yippee! I expect today to be much more relaxed. Apart from sending an email to Bridget and buying prunes (as you do), all my other tasks are work- and study-related.

No sour grapes there – just prunes!

That was then and this is now. In more recent times I’ve written in my diary for a deeper reason: to better understand myself. Here’s the opening of an entry I called ‘Lost Causes (cont.)’, dated 22 November 2017:

What can I write about myself that I haven’t written before? That I’m flaky? Definitely not. Anyways, after ending my last (if only it was my last!) notebook on such a positive and hopeful note, I’m here to dispel the mood and return myself to that thing I call reality. For a day or two.

I really believed I could become a nurse…

Therein lies its beauty, for a diary can be many things to many people.

We get a glimpse of this astonishing versatility in Thomas Mallon’s A Book of One’s Own – People and Their Diaries, which I’ve recently read. As Mallon reminds us, journals have been kept by all kinds of characters, infamous, famous and forgotten, from Degas, Goebbels and de Beauvoir to Byron, Trotsky and Voltaire, their motivations varying wildly.

Some are chroniclers of the everyday. Others have kept their books only in special times – over the course of a trip, or during a crisis. Some have used them to record journeys of the soul, plan the art of the future, confess the sins of the flesh, lecture the world from beyond the grave. And some of them, prisoners and invalids, have used them not so much to record lives as create them…

Diaries are clearly the cosiest kind of literary accommodation.

Of all the diarists covered in Mallon’s lively review, it’s the would-be writer, William Allingham, for whom I feel most. Allingham lived in the shadow of two great poets of his day – Tennyson and Browning – and it seems he never quite came to terms with his own lack of success, as this poem suggests:

A man who keeps a diary pays

Due toll to many tedious days;

But life becomes eventful – then

His busy hand forgets the pen.

Most books, indeed, are records less

Of fulness than of emptiness.

Sad but sometimes true, I suppose.

I finished A Book of One’s Own on my way back from the bush, in an aeroplane. Closing the book, I sat back and wondered about my own diary-writing, and how it seems to separate me from the world as much as it makes me feel connected.

And then, to my amazement, as I watched idly on, two fellow passengers took out journals and pens. Dating pages with due deliberation, they settled down to write, one a teenage girl trying to find her voice (her words kept deteriorating into doodles), the other a middle-aged man reflecting on the book he was reading.

It was an incredible coincidence and one I couldn’t wait to get down – in my diary, of course.

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