54. The Orton Diaries 53. THE ORTON DIARIES
52.53. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Anita Loos The delectable Lorelei Lee tells her tale in her own voice, innocent and not-quite-soinnocent, after one of her many ‘gentlemen friends’ tells her she should put down her thoughts. ‘I mean I seem to be thinking practically all of the time. I mean it is my favourite recreation and sometimes I sit for hours and do not seem to do anything else but think,’ she begins. A hoot from start to finish. The plays of Joe Orton are starting to date. Anti-Establishment views that were outrageous in the Sixties have become mainstream. But his diaries still have the power to shock, largely because they are so candid about every aspect of his existence, including his breezily unsentimental sex life.
55. THE ALAN CLARK DIARIES
Not everyone liked him. ‘Anybody who went to public school will have recognised Clark as the sort of old boy who returns to his old school in some veteran vintage car to impress the smaller boys,’ wrote Auberon Waugh. There’s some truth in that, but shameless show-offs make good diarists, and Clark’s Flashman-style journals of his time as a junior minister under British PM Margaret Thatcher are both riotously unfair and hilariously indiscreet.
56. THE COMPLETE SMOKING DIARIES: SIMON GRAY
An amazing technical accomplishment, written in a sort of controlled stream-of-consciousness, these diaries are funny, iconoclastic, selfscrutinising, languid, wry and sometimes – particularly when friends die, or he learns of his own impending death – unexpectedly moving.
57. THE PILLOW BOOK OF SEI SHONAGON
Written more than 1,000 years ago, it’s by far the oldest book in my selection, but who’d have guessed it? Sei Shonagon was a court lady in 10th-century Japan. She jotted down stray lists, observations, philosophical reflections and gossip, often peppered with an irritability caused by exacting standards. It reads like a postcard from another age, written this morning.
58. THE DIARIES OF AUBERON WAUGH
Auberon Waugh’s fantasy diaries, published fortnightly in Private Eye from 1972 to 1985, remain as outrageously comical today as they ever were – perhaps even more so as the passage of time has made his grotesque facsimiles of fading figures such as Captain Mark Phillips, Edward Heath and Jimmy Goldsmith more vivid than the originals. Fundamental to his strength as a satirist was, of course, his refreshing absence of good taste.
59. THE DIARIES OF SAMUEL PEPYS
Pepys wrote his diaries for nobody’s eyes but his own. They are often cherry-picked for eyewitness accounts of the Great Fire Of London and the Great Plague, but his everyday life as a man-about-town is every bit as compelling, not least because of the breathtaking honesty with which he chronicles his own most inexcusable characteristics.
60. THE JOURNAL OF THE DE GONCOURTS
‘A ring at the door. It was Flaubert.’ The Goncourt Brothers chronicled their lives at the centre of events in literary Paris from 1851-1870. Like artists Gilbert and George, they shared a single point of view. They knew everyone who was anyone – Turgenev, Degas, Victor Hugo, Rodin, Zola – and turned gossip into an art form. One day, they have dinner with Oscar Wilde, just back from the Wild West. ‘It appears that in that part of the world theatre managers look for real criminals to play criminal parts; and when Macbeth is being put on, a contract is offered to a poisoner who has just come out of prison, and the posters read: “The part of Lady Macbeth will be taken by Mrs X (10 years’ hard labour)’.
61. KILVERT’S DIARY
Francis Kilvert was a rural vicar, mainly on the Welsh borders, around the middle of the 19th Century. He kept a diary of his daily comings and goings from 1870 until 1879, when he died at the age of 39 of peritonitis. It’s warm and kindly – you can tell what a good vicar he must have been – and, every now and then, yearningly erotic.
62. THE KENNETH WILLIAMS DIARIES
Pepys’ diaries ran to a million words, and are considered long. Kenneth Williams’s ran to more than four million, of which only a few hundred thousand have ever been published. They were his best friend, and his only real confidante. The Carry On star was a self-loathing narcissist, an unhappy but electrifying combination. His diaries – impetuous, abusive, frustrated, hilarious, rhapsodic, suicidal – teem with life, and deserve to be read long after his performances have faded.
Fundamental to his strength as a satirist was his refreshing absence of good taste
tHINKer: Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes