Some­thing to write home about

Country Life Every Week - - My Week - Jonathan Self

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.