Something to write home about
Every year, at about this time, I suffer from an overwhelming urge to start a diary. My study is littered with previous attempts. Some of these journals contain but a single entry and the most complete takes the reader no further than early March. They probably reveal as much about my finances—smythson in good years, W. H. Smith in bad— as my life.
However, I take real pleasure from reading what my 22-yearold self felt as I anticipated the birth of my first son; how, during a particularly mild winter, we had a New year’s Day picnic lunch on the beach; of a storm that left us without power for a week; or of a conversation with my father shortly before his death, when he came as close as he was able to saying that he loved me.
We are all intrigued by the idea of diaries and, at some point in our lives, most of us try our hand at keeping one. It is liberating to write about events, experiences and emotions without having to worry about (a) anyone else’s feelings or (b) our spelling and grammar. A diary is honest, intimate and revealing, which doubtless goes a long way towards explaining our enthusiasm for reading other people’s.
Mae West quipped: ‘Keep a diary and someday it’ll keep you.’ This is true even if you aren’t famous. I often turn to what bits of journal I have when writer’s block strikes. Also, diary entries have helped me to win arguments, if not friends. ‘That wasn’t what you said on February 4, 1981,’ I recently reminded my brother, a day after a dreadful row (it took me the intervening period to look the reference up).
It can be satisfying, too, to discover that we feature in other people’s diaries. My father was thrilled when, in 1975, the Sunday Times rang up to tell him he had been mentioned several times in richard Crossman’s diaries (the inspiration for Yes Minister) and wondered if he had a photograph of both of them together.
True, he was less pleased with the photograph’s caption the following weekend, which (more or less) read: ‘Dinner with Peter Self. He droned on again about garden cities.’
At any rate, I have on my desk a beautiful, leather-bound, blank notebook and there are no prizes for guessing what my New year’s resolution is.
INCIDENTALLY, it is the Babylonians who are to blame for all this resolution stuff. At the beginning of every year, they promised their gods that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts. The ancient romans made similar pledges in January, medieval knights took the ‘peacock vow’ after Christmas to reaffirm their commitment to chivalry and, from the 16th century onwards, Christians have celebrated the New year with watchnight services, during which they contemplate past mistakes and pledge to do better in the future.
Although a devout churchgoer, my grandmother was not above a bit of paganism and her first act of the New year was generally to send my grandfather around to the neighbours with a lump of coal, some bread, a shilling and a sprig of greenery, which were supposed to ensure heat, food, wealth and a long life to the recipients. Hansel, the idea of New year gifts that bring luck, has not completely died out in this part of the world. I take wine rather than coal, but I follow my grandfather’s example every New year.
Every New year, as Ogden Nash pointed out, is the direct descendant of a long line of proven criminals. Given the news at the moment, it’s difficult to be entirely optimistic about what the months ahead hold for us. When I’m in need of comfort, I find a walk generally does the trick. At school, we learnt Hardy’s The Darkling Thrush, written during the final days of December 1899, when ‘Winter’s dregs made desolate/the weakening eye of day’ and ‘every spirit upon earth/seemed fervourless’.
Suddenly, an ‘aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small’ begins to sing: ‘There trembled through/ His happy good-night air/some blessed Hope, whereof he knew/ And I was unaware.’ I mention this because, to my immense joy, every evening this week, as I tramped home through the gloaming, I have been greeted by the melodious song of a mistle thrush.
They’re so named because of their penchant for mistletoe berries, although the one I can hear appears to have taken over a holly bush. I’m happy to report that, although they’re loud (their fluted whistles can be heard more than a mile away), their morals are irreproachable. The mistle thrush is monogamous and mates for life. Indeed, according to Siegfried Sassoon, they hear ‘the cry of God in everything’. Their diaries would probably make dull reading.
‘Keep a diary and someday it will keep you