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An Odd Source of Comfort

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Books that have a profound effect on your life are usually books that you read young, but I only recently discovered The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists. Nevertheless its impact has been startling. It caught me at that moment in middle age when you realize that the only thing ahead is death, but there it sits on my bedside table to provide comfort, exhilaration and much amusement.

It is, I admit, an odd source of comfort. It is very long, 688 pages, and certainly does not deal in mortality. In fact quite the opposite: it is intensely about the present. The book is divided up into the days of the year. Each day includes several extracts from among the 170 contributors. There are 1,800 or so entries, and they span the seventeenth century to almost the present day. Many of the diarists are well known. Many are not. They range from Queen Victoria to Andy Warhol, Byron to Noël Coward, from the Reverend Francis Kilvert, a nineteenth-century country parson, to Goebbels.

Some entries are complete in themselves. Others contribute to stories that unfold as the year progresses. The editors, Irene and Alan Taylor, achieve a rhythm and balance to the entries that together are a delight. Take, for example, 26 January. Charles Greville describes ‘licentious’ dancers at a Paris ball in 1837; ten years later, Eugène Delacroix leaves his Paris dinner party early, disgusted by the ‘fragile glasses – an idiotic refinement!’; 26 January 1930 finds Virginia Woolf gleefully totting up her income for the year; and on the same day in 1977, James Lees-Milne appals an old lady on a London bus when he applies lip salve. Two years later, Stephen Spender startles a group of young people by farting loudly in Covent Garden, while in 1938 Dawn Powell writes, ‘For no reason at all I hated this day as if it was a person – its wind, its insecurity, its flabbiness, its hint of an insane universe.’

All this makes com

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Books that have a profound effect on your life are usually books that you read young, but I only recently discovered The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists. Nevertheless its impact has been startling. It caught me at that moment in middle age when you realize that the only thing ahead is death, but there it sits on my bedside table to provide comfort, exhilaration and much amusement.

It is, I admit, an odd source of comfort. It is very long, 688 pages, and certainly does not deal in mortality. In fact quite the opposite: it is intensely about the present. The book is divided up into the days of the year. Each day includes several extracts from among the 170 contributors. There are 1,800 or so entries, and they span the seventeenth century to almost the present day. Many of the diarists are well known. Many are not. They range from Queen Victoria to Andy Warhol, Byron to Noël Coward, from the Reverend Francis Kilvert, a nineteenth-century country parson, to Goebbels. Some entries are complete in themselves. Others contribute to stories that unfold as the year progresses. The editors, Irene and Alan Taylor, achieve a rhythm and balance to the entries that together are a delight. Take, for example, 26 January. Charles Greville describes ‘licentious’ dancers at a Paris ball in 1837; ten years later, Eugène Delacroix leaves his Paris dinner party early, disgusted by the ‘fragile glasses – an idiotic refinement!’; 26 January 1930 finds Virginia Woolf gleefully totting up her income for the year; and on the same day in 1977, James Lees-Milne appals an old lady on a London bus when he applies lip salve. Two years later, Stephen Spender startles a group of young people by farting loudly in Covent Garden, while in 1938 Dawn Powell writes, ‘For no reason at all I hated this day as if it was a person – its wind, its insecurity, its flabbiness, its hint of an insane universe.’ All this makes compelling reading, but what made the anthology a revelation to me was what it has to say about diaries and the people who keep them, for I have kept a diary on and off since I was 10. It is something I have always done, like brushing my teeth or going to the lavatory. I have never, until now, given it much thought. I do not even reread my diaries. The early ones are mostly illegible and the rest are often boring and frequently embarrassing. So why do it? Francis Kilvert, wondering why he kept his voluminous journal, admitted, ‘I can hardly tell.’ He thought it ‘partly because life appears to me such a curious and wonderful thing’ that it seemed a pity that even ‘such a humble and uneventful life as mine’ should pass away unrecorded. He also hoped it would amuse or interest ‘some who come after me’. Here lay another revelation. Who am I writing my diary for? I had never imagined a reader. The Scottish poet, William Soutar, ill and bed-bound throughout the 1930s, wrote a month before his death that ‘the true diary’ is written by the diarist who is, ‘in the main, communing with himself, conversing openly and without pose’. The diary is therefore a ‘private confessional’. For the professional writer this makes the diary the most seductive and carefree of forms. There is no reader to entertain. The burden of structure or narrative is absent. You simply write. But many diarists grow ambiguous about that absent reader as they grow older. The first real diarist, Samuel Pepys, concealed his diary in shorthand, then had it bound in leather and deposited at Magdalene College, Cambridge – not the action of a man indifferent to a future audience. Diarists, you feel, get seduced by their own diaries. What starts off as a private indulgence takes on a more public significance as the years pass. Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon wondered in November 1936 ‘why I keep a diary at all. Is it to relieve my feelings? Console my old age? Or to dazzle my descendants?’ Fifteen years later he felt confident that his diaries would ‘see the light of day and perhaps shock or divert posterity a little’. He deposited them in the British Museum with instructions that they should not be published until fifty years after his demise. Shortly before his death, he changed his mind and began to edit them himself. As one gets older a good diary begins to overshadow more obvious achievements. It holds out the prospect of immortality not just of the name but of the very essence of the individual. Pepys’s quarrels with his wife, his lust for his maid, his enjoyment of music on a summer’s evening, his doubts, his vanities and his idiosyncrasies are not just preserved but make him leap off the page. This is what soothes and exhilarates me about The Assassin’s Cloak. It is an antidote to the oblivion of death. The hubbub of these individual voices drowns it out. Here is humanity at its most rich and compelling. So I revel in the small pleasures of Barbara Pym as she buys a peach-coloured vest in Marks & Spencer in 1934 ‘and trollies to match with insertions of lace. Disgraceful I know but I can’t help choosing my underwear with a view to being seen.’ I delight in Lord Byron’s idea of a successful day in 1821: plum pudding for dinner instead of apples; then ‘Clock strikes – going out to make love. Somewhat perilous, but not disagreeable. Memorandum – a new screen put up to-day. It is rather antique but will do with a little repair.’ While Cynthia Asquith’s vanity at the height of the First World War becomes, in retrospect, almost reassuring: ‘I am in best looks . . . Today I could really pass a great deal of time very happily just looking at myself in the glass.’ Diaries are all about self and about detail. But they are also a lesson in writing and in living. It is often not the seemingly important event or person that captivates the reader. (Jean Cocteau noted in his diary in August 1953 that ‘not a single line’ of Kafka’s diary written during the First World War refers to it – ‘a great lesson’.) Rather a diary’s charm may lie in a trivial encounter with a balloonist on a walk, the glimpse of a full moon in a London street or a spurt of unexplained joy. These are what make a good diary and, I believe, a good life, and that is why this extraordinary book is my bulwark against the future.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © Harriet Sergeant 2004


About the contributor

Harriet Sergeant kept a diary while writing about South Africa, China, Japan and the Home Office.

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