Surprised by Joy

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It’s always strange to think how easily you might not have met that someone: a bus that arrived on time, or a last drink at the bar, and it might all have been quite different. Our meetings with books can be equally subject to fluke. I was in the queue at Barter Books in Alnwick, a clutch of holiday reading under my arm, when for no reason at all I picked up a green Virago paperback: The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner.

The name rang only muffled bells, but through some chance the pages opened on a bit about Yeovil in Somerset, the town in which I failed to grow up. The book went into the bag with the rest. And thank goodness it did: there are books that become an essential part of your life; that travel on with you; that you know you will never exhaust. For me, this is one – and one that I nearly missed.

Of course, that the book exists at all is itself a sort of fluke. As anyone with the diary habit knows, a journal begins by accident and is best carried on by not really thinking about it much. In 1927 Sylvia Townsend Warner was given a smart notebook by a friend; a day out prompted a few hesitant jottings and, before she knew it, she was off. Warner had acquired a habit that would last – with a few significant gaps – until her death some fifty years later. The result is quite simply a miracle. For wit, candour and brilliance of style, the diary can have few rivals; and in its later broodings on love and mortality it becomes (surely) one of the most moving of all human documents.

Wisely, Sylvia never stopped to ask herself why she wrote, or for whom (questions that have stymied many a diarist). However, there is a clue in one of her earliest novels, where a character remarks feelingly that ‘one does not admire things enough: and worst of all one allows whole days to slip by without once pausing to see an object, any object, exactly as it is’. It is this energized intentness – this willingness to mar

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