The Supreme Diarist?

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At 20, mad about the theatre but living as far from Shaftesbury Avenue as you could get without tumbling into the Atlantic, I knew all about the latest productions in the West End. Moreover, I could have told you about Noël Coward’s 1924 triumph with The Vortex, John Gielgud’s 1935 shot at Romeo, and Olivier’s 1944 stage triumph as Richard III.

This was courtesy of James Agate. Though he had died in 1947 I had many of his books of collected theatre criticism, from Buzz Buzz (1914) through Brief Chronicles (1943) to the wonderful evocation of musicals and light comedies, Immoment Toys (1945). It was some time, however, before I came across Ego, his diary, the first volume of which came out in 1932. In the first entry, he says that he started writing it ‘because there seem to be a lot of things I want to say that other writers put into novels and accepted essayists into essays. Because it will be a relief to set down just what I do actually think, and in the first words to hand, instead of pondering what I ought to think and worrying about the words in which to express the hammered-out thought.’ Rebecca West claimed that she would ‘keep these journals as I keep the Goncourt Journals, as records of their time more truly historical than history’, while in an obituary broadcast Alistair Cooke called Agate ‘the supreme diarist’.

Agate’s is a diary in the widest possible meaning of the word. He naturally records his daily activities, but he also sometimes includes letters he has written to the press and to his friends – and their replies. Very occasionally there will be a terse line, ‘Dined with John [Gielgud], [Laurence] Olivier and Emlyn [Williams]’ – but that will usually be followed by four pages of their conversation and followed up by the letters they exchanged next day carrying further the arguments they had had – about a play or an actor or a concert.

But first thin

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About the contributor

Derek Parker has one autograph note from James Agate, who offered in the Daily Express to comment on readers’ writing. Aged 15, Parker sent in a short story. Agate wrote: ‘Save your pennies and buy a decent typewriter – I can’t read the stuff.’

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