Riyadh: Friday 30th November 2012
This might seem like a wee bit of a cheat. I have already written in praise of the book as an old technology. Moreover, in and of itself, the diary is not actually a technology but an application for various technologies, old and new. Yet, I write here in praise of the diary because I intend to use the term diary loosely, and draw attention to its specific applications and on-going utility.
True, it may not be a technology, but the diary has served a defined and specific role in our society for centuries and is an indispensable tool, both in our everyday lived experience and as a means of accessing the thoughts of past Peoples. In modern parlance, it is ‘an App.’ It is a collection of technologies, wired together to provide a specific utilitarian and aesthetic function. It combines the calendar, the writing implement, the book, or possibly the micro-processor.
But the diary is more than that. In a very real sense it is exactly what you want it to be. It can be entirely functional, a mere record of events, or it can be a great sweeping narrative of individual and highly personal recollections, thoughts, feelings and encounters. I can have a singular, narrowly defined remit or an open-ended and shapeless reach. It is entirely up to you. But the thing about the diary is that it pulls of a neat trick. At the point of writing, it is deeply personal, individual and private. Yet once written it is an instant and lasting public record, which can inform generations long after the author has become dust. we can lock our diary’s away, we can take steps to secure them from public view, but however and wherever they are stored, they are a detailed public record, and archive and a treasure awaiting study and interpretation. From the moment the ink dry’s and the page is turned, the diary ceases to be personal. Its intimacies and peculiarities become in a sense, public property.
The teenage diary
The unique and wonderful thing about diary’s is that right now, as I write, sitting in people’s attics, in book shelves, on PC hard drives, in boxes of forgotten teenage possessions, and stored neatly in company archival rooms, are the stuff that will source tomorrow’s history books, their revelations awaiting exploration and interpretation. For now, the markings are as pure as they were originally intended.
Men and women who are alive today, will be known in 300 years purely for their angst ridden teenage melodramas; they will have grown up, married, spawned succeeding generations, grown old and passed away to be forgotten, but their works, scribbled with heartfelt emotion and hormone fuelled sincerity, will live on and be recalled by dispassionate and sympathetic people several generations younger, who will look on these words and recognise the humanity in them, and also the universality of humanity.
They will note differences too. Things which seem so important to todays teenagers will seem strange to future ears. And it is these differences in interpretation, these evolutions in what matters to generations, that will mark this work as worthy of study.
A passage of text, that merely 5 years after it was written, would embarrass the author beyond belief, will form part of a study that will entrance and enchant future generations. Those of us who fear the future, imagine that it will be a colder place, somehow dystopian, should comfort themselves with the knowledge that tenderness and understanding are universals and tomorrow’s history will be filled with tenderness for the teenage diarist, self-important business person, prurient spinster and a host of other diarist’s whose thoughts and feelings are poured out with no expectation or intention of ever being seen by another pair of eyes.
Of course some teenage diaries have genuine power and pathos marking them out as genuinely literary. Anne Frank‘s famous diary is important because it records a unique and tragic perspective on a point in history when events bottlenecked and all subsequent eras were defined. Yet it has literary merit in its own right. Anne’s hopes and dreams, her own age, her youthful preoccupations are recorded with vim and humour.
Such examples are rare but this does not preclude the importance of the teenage voice or the mistake people make in condemning their own teenage records to the fire. My teenage voice is dead and unrecorded. Yet the shadow’s of that voice, self-righteous as it is, shielding a crippling insecurity as it does, speaks to me in quiet moments, reminds me that his views were less corrupted and in an important way, more optimistic than my own. He knew less, but to condemn that is to suppose that I know enough.
Yet not all diaries are destroyed, despite our embarrassment. As our humanities evolve, some of us hold onto them. Some of them do survive to be looked upon tenderly by future generations. Why? Why do we keep diaries? And when we outgrow the thoughts we put into them, why to we continue to keep them, year after year?
Of course some people do destroy their records. Either through embarrassment or a feeling that they have outgrown a particular phase of their lives or merely because they have decided to “de-clutter” people destroy their diaries more often than they maintain them. Yet for those who keep them there is no simple answer as to their motivation. Each of our motives are subtly different.
Some have doubtless always had an eye on posterity. Indeed, I suspect that most of us do on some level, either because we feel we have something to say and the talent to say it, or because we feel on some level that they have a responsibility towards future generations. Some have a strong sense of their families history and consciously begin, continue and maintain diaries in order that their children or grand children will one day pick them up and understand the family history a little better.
Others have no such motivation or agenda. Some maintain a diary so that they might be able to look back on the thoughts of their younger selves. Some do so because they worry that they cannot remember what they did last Tuesday. Some keep a diary because they need to record what they did so that they can protect themselves litigiously. Many of us have used their diaries for all of the above, myself amongst them.
And this is important because the principal reason for beginning a diary will to a large extent, define its direction and content. Consciously or unconsciously a diary is never purely written as a stream of consciousness reflection of our thoughts at a time. Rather it is a series of letters, and like all letters, it has an intended recipient. Write two separate descriptions of the same day to your Mother and to your lover and you will write two subtly different letters.
The tone, content, level of confession, detail or gossip will all be directly reflected by the intended reader, and my own experience leads me to postulate that in most cases, even when we have not consciously thought about it we have a future reader in mind.
In my case this varies. Sometimes it is my partner, sometimes a specific friend, sometimes my nephew. Although why any of these intended readers should wish to wade though endless descriptions of what I did from day-to-day, just to chance upon something, I once thought many years ago might interest them, is beyond me.
Yet keep a diary long enough, and even the most mundane and poorly written or thought out scrawls become interesting to someone; and not merely your intimate record of your deepest hopes and fears.
The Historical Application
Not all diaries concern themselves with recording everyday thoughts, hopes and feelings. Some speak to altogether more prosaic functions. Diaries serve a multiplicity of functions and uses. There are few, if any offices around the world that do not make use of the diary in one form or another, for everyday management purposes, such as the regular settlement of accounts, attendance at meetings or as a record of events and activities. I have defined the diary loosely because part of its beauty is that it almost perfectly serves the needs of the diarist. It is, both literally and metaphorically, a blank space in which to fill out important actions, thoughts, milestones, payments or reminders. And once recorded, you can track your record against a specific day, date and time.
Historians, find them especially useful as there is nothing quite like having access to the private thoughts of a first person witness to a long ago event, for understanding something of its immediate impact and significance (or lack of such). But also because their sheer usefulness and versatility means that a historical event might be traceable through dozens of very different diarising accounts. An event, might of course be documented by a diarist, whose musings provide a partial window into a specific individuals thoughts. It might also be recorded on financial ledgers, registrar’s registers, official newspapers (yes, unwillingly, I have included these under my broad definition of what qualifies as a diary, although not without reservations) and more recently blogs or micro-blogs.
Even within these types of diary, there is greater value the more reference points you have. We know much more, for example, about 18th Century middle class attitudes to domestic life than we know about the working classes. The reason for this is that relatively few working class diary’s have survived; and it is probable that comparatively few were written in view of the low levels of literacy and limited free time the working classes were required to endure. We would know; less still were it not for the fact that records were beginning to be kept of births, deaths, marriages and incarcerations.
Clearly, using these distinctions, the term “diary”, becomes defined very broadly and the aspect of its function that allows me to view it as a specific technology or application, becomes more clearly illuminated. For what all these potential diary forms have in common is that each trace specific human activities or thoughts against time.
By the same token, this definition is problematic as it includes forms or writing which are not generally understood as diaries. A newspaper, is usually written with a very current readership in mind and while that is often extremely useful to historians, their primary function may ultimately offend some, especially of you maintain a diary for noble ends or with an eye to honestly accounting for your presence on the earth. To you I would merely say that future generations will judge for themselves the merit of your musings to history, and will cast the same impartial eye over publications which proclaim, “London Bus Found on the Moon.” It maybe gratifying to note that as the passage of time extends, between an event and its study, so the sources reviewed by the historian, assemble a more unified level of importance. Something which you recorded yesterday may never be looked at again in your life time, while people will pour over newspapers and media outlets for their take on the same subject. Yet, something which happened two hundred years ago, will be interpreted by a historian who in all probability will give similar weight to contemporary accounts, whether personal and private, or published and polemical.
By the same token, there are virtually none of us who are able to provide an unadulterated pressing of history. What a historian finds interesting is not often what we imagine he or she will. For example, a future historian might look at this post and comment on the grammar or punctuation or the style of the blog page. They might remark upon my assumptions about race or gender or class or a dozen other things, that this blog post is not intended to be about. More importantly, they will look at it in context. My Blog, intended to be highly individual and iconoclastic, will be viewed, not for the value of my insights but as part of the overall trends affecting society generally.
When Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, he wrote it intending to articulate specific arguments and prejudices. It is a consciously polemical series of works. Yet, the official translator of the English language publication introduces us to it with a long passage discussing its literary merits and what they say about its authors intellect and understanding of the texts he references. Unsurprisingly this is a profoundly critical passage, making clear that Hitler’s intellect left something to be desired.
Yet the critical point here is that ideally, a historian will have access to a wide range of diary’s from a wide range of differing sources, view points, classes, races, backgrounds and intellects. And he or she will not much care for the individual and heartfelt or the polemical aspects contained within. What will interest future historians is what they say about the overriding events of the time in which the diary was written.
The Personal Diary and why?
Of course, when we think of a diary, this is probably what we think of. And this image is crucial because it says so much about us as people. For a start, if, like me, you keep a diary, the chances are, you take yourself, or at least part of yourself extremely seriously. It is rare to find a diary written in a scruffy document. Most diarist’s will invest in something which looks the part, leather-bound with thick lined paper. They may have a special pen for the purposes of writing the diary, chosen for its neatness or easy of writing style. And, at least initially, the diary will be written in neat handwriting, the date and location underlined.
Given time, as the diarist finds his or her style, the visual aspects may become less important. Ultimately a diarist might like to create a beautiful document, but if they have something to say, it is more important to them that it is said well than that it is said neatly.
It is important to realise that while most diarist’s may well council that they have no intention of their diary ever being read by another, the mere act of placing a thought on paper, acknowledges the possibility that it will one day be read. The diarist is unlikely to write in stream of consciousness therefore. On the contrary, they will automatically mitigate and justify, consciously or subconsciously editing the text according to their individual sense of propriety or priority. In doing so the diarist is not editing randomly. He or she is asking questions about what they want to say and how they want to be read. If they discuss sex, what part of the sexual encounter do they want to discuss. It is rare for someone to record details of a sexual act simply for record, although not unheard of. It is far more common for a diarist to focus on a specific aspect of the encounter. Maybe, the act has been with a particularly beautiful person, or was particularly loving, disappointing or its timing unexpected.
I use sex as an example because the very privacy of the act for most people leads them to think carefully about the language used in describing it. But it is true to an extent of all aspects of the diary writing experience. No diary is entirely honest. Yet all speak a sort of truth.
And it is as well that we take the writing of the diary seriously. They are conscious renderings of things that happen in our lives. Even if someone genuinely decides to record their thoughts for purely personal consumption, it is a noble thing they are doing, recognising the singular nature of their experience and the sanctity of it. If we think it is irresponsibly to be callous with people’s lives or to treat our lives carelessly (and most of us do), then we should lionize the process of keeping a diary because in doing so, people are consciously celebrating the act of living, something that we are frequently too busy to do.
The Personal Diary and When?
It is an apparent fact that more diaries and journals are written during cataclysmic moments such as wars and political upheavals. Historically this is important, although it can also confound convenient historical narratives. Imagine if you will, a narrative which goes as follows:
A European Civil War Breaks out in 1914 and ends in 1945. In the middle of that war there is a long armistice. At the war’s end, two non European powers sweep into Europe and conveniently divide it among themselves until 1989. No European power wins the Great European Civil War.
Now, this narrative of the First & Second World Wars and the Cold War, has been about since the 1970’s. It is convenient and in many ways seductive for impartial historians to look at the 20th Century in this way. Marxists and Free market Capitalists, can both agree on this narrative because it appears to speak a truth which is that between 1914 and 1945, a seismic shift took place between an age of empire and an age of ideology; between a European Century and a Russo-American Century.
It may be that in time, this historical narrative becomes the standard way of understanding the last century and as such informs the start of this one. But there is a problem, which historians will overcome if they are to impose this narrative on the 20th Century.
For the fact is, that first-hand accounts of this period, simply don’t recognise the truth of this narrative, which only becomes apparent with hindsight, and then only if you prioritize come narrative truths over others. It doesn’t matter if you think in terms of newspapers, diary’s politicians speeches, or recorded archives. People’s narrative and understanding of that period simply refutes the narrative, and creates another, in which there were two utterly distinct wars, different in character and intensity, in which very different generations fought.
Look at first-hand accounts of the same war from the perspective of different protagonists and suddenly it becomes more complicated still. The experience of war from the perspective of a Russian at Stalingrad in 1942, is wholly different from that of a Highlander at sea in the North Atlantic or a Canadian at Dieppe or an Australian in Burma or a Pole at El Alamein or an Italian Prisoner of War or a Munich housewife, or a Filipina comfort girl or an Ulster land girl.
Take every single year between 1914 and 1945, and take every diary entry from every year and virtually the only thing they will share in common is that none of them will recognise the truth of the historical narrative articulated above.
Which is not to deny the truth of the narrative, which remains a simple and eloquent way of understanding the Twentieth Century in Geopolitical Terms. But the critical importance of the diary is revealed only in the context of the time it is written.
Write a diary in the year 1960, and track your daily school runs and meal choices, and it is no less valuable to the historian than a similar diary from 1943. But in the short to medium term, as the historical narratives of the century formulate around the bottlenecks of a few short, critical years and it may seem so.
It is little surprise then that people begin diary’s at the point at which their lives seem suddenly to coexist in an important era. And it is also a welcome thing. Without the diary’s of George Templeton Strong (a New York Businessman) or Mary Chestnut (a Southern Society Hostess), we would have a significantly shallower picture of the years of the American Civil War, than we do. Neither, as far as I am aware kept a diary in the years before that great conflagration.
And yet, your diary is important whenever you took it up and however trivial its contents might seem. Historians of the domestic lives of families come to understand huge amounts about the lives of people both great and humble from things as insignificant as shopping lists, or appointments with purveyors of medical treatments. Consider that so much of what we record concerns the goings on of great events. Yet most of us, even the greatest of us, spend half our lives at home.
Blogging: different skill
Of course, I don’t need to convince you dear reader. As bloggers, you already understand this. Yet I maintain a diary as well as a blog, and I bet I am not alone.
I was not readily convinced of the value of blogging. It took a while and even now, I hold reservations. As a format it has limitations, as a means of communication on a crowded world it is not necessarily suited to targeting of a desired audience. Yet blogging is extremely comforting. If I feel I have something unique or interesting to add to a given subject I can type it and tell the world. The world may not be listening, but that somehow doesn’t matter very much. For the mere act of doing so is empowering.
And blogging provides editorial freedom that other formats deny you while imposing others you may not impose upon yourself. As a private diarist, I might write intimacies or observations about acquaintances that I would never dream of uttering in a blog. That imposes an immediate, if unwritten constitution and moral rule book that does not exist in diary form. There are subjects I will never touch on Crabbitat, which I would wonder about if pen hovered over paper.
Moreover, with blogging, I become conscious of what people might want to read. With the diary, I do not. Like all diarist‘s, I have one eye on a future reader, but have the other only on what I would want to record. With blogging, my other eye divides its time between what interests me and what I think you will automatically switch off from.
Blogging too, is different in that it can be edited multiple times before you need to share it. In stark contrast, once you commit the pen to paper, it is there for life. Arguably, this means diaries are reflections of a truer self, but try telling that to the people who have to wade through my spelling errors to understand my point.
My biggest reservation about blogging is that it ultimately is not really corporeal. It requires a technology to access it, and if the author fails to keep it open, it is likely that it will be lost forever. In a hundred years time, historians will be able to pick up my diary and marvel at the short-sighted, pedantry contained within. I am not convinced they will have ready access to the ancient digital technology which allows you to read this in Anchorage, Ljubljana or Harare.
What seems a revolutionary advance in democratizing instant access to news may be illusory in the long-term. If it is, I will be glad that I kept my diary as well, for while my own thoughts are likely to be archaic to the impartial historian, he or she will draw important lessons from my musings, the significance of which would leave me utterly speechless.
We know astonishing amounts from the roles of harbour master’s records or from the archives of old companies, and their painstakingly hand written columns of transactions in and out. These apparently dry and meaningless markings denoting sums issued on food stuffs or paint or helmets, go back to the dawn of civilisation.
We can extract details of London tailors from the 1650’s or Roman Quarter Masters on Hadrian’s Wall in the Second Century AD. We can track the expansion of settlements in Mesopotamia through the rations of grain recorded on pottery carvings and measure these against our records of changes in climatic conditions traceable through pockets of air found in ancient glaciers.
The actions of one, lowly Clarke in a candle lit shop, whose life is otherwise entirely forgotten and possibly nameless survives in archives to this day. Long after all other traces of his humanity have gone, we can still see the makings his hand-made with quill and ink, might still be able to imagine his annoyance at a smudge, marvel at the faint outline of his fingerprint, caught in a line of still drying ink.
In my experience, people either respond immediately and powerfully to history or are left utterly cold by it. For those who fall into the first category, it is often moments like these that offer us such a transcendent feeling of connection to the past.
Anyone who has gone to a library and taken out a book, looked at the registrars stamp at the front and realised that you are the first person to open its pages for 40 years, will understand a similar sensation. Find an old hair, a crumb of food, or a pencil note in the margin and suddenly you are in the presence of a person who, if still alive today, may be utterly changed from the disinterested student who ate a cheese sandwich and dreamed of the girl from the butcher’s shop window while pretending to study for his finals. At that moment, even if the document has no wider value, you are closer to that person than anyone has been at any time in the last four decades.
That alone, for my money has a value that justifies the diary.
I often see journalistic musings on things like, “What makes a good political memoir.” The general consensus seems to be that what makes it really good is if the person is present at a seminal moment, but detached from it, powerless to influence it and able to look candidly at the personalities who defined it.
People point to the Alan Clarke Diaries as a case where a political memoir is capable of crossing the gap between historical record and entertainment, but one of its crucial aspects is the shamelessness of its author. He can be in turns salacious, scandalous, acute, detached, profound and rude. He makes no secret of the way he views colleagues or friends and he does so conscious of the fact that he will be published.
This sense of detachment is complimented by a sense of mischief and a desire to entertain. This sets it aside from most diaries. Most of us live public and private lives. We hold views of people we would never share in public and so, when the private world directly interfaces with the public, as it does in a diary, we often shy away from honest depiction.
What Alan Clarke was able to do was to judge that this natural prurience should not get in the way of a racy and revelatory narrative.
And he belongs to a long tradition. in this regard. Clarke was a historian of the Conservative Party as well as a member of the transformative Conservative Cabinet led by Margaret Thatcher. yet he is best remembered for his memoirs. James Boswell and Samuel Pepys are similarly recalled, and what they all have in common, is a salacious aspect to their written legacy.
Their memoirs were so popular in large part because or their sexual revelation and the delight they take in revealing their immoral indiscretions.
This matters ultimately because their motivation is entertainment first and accurate record second. It does not invalidate their historical relevance. Reading Boswell provides you a very good idea of the thinking of men of a certain class of the time. But crucially, memoir is no better a record of events than other historical documents, other diaries. Indeed, accurate accounts intended to be private, are likely to be more trustworthy than something consciously written for entertainment.
Diaries and us
This post has focussed intently on the historical importance of diaries, but few of us retain diaries purely selflessly for the purposes of historical record. Their relevance to future generations is accidental in most cases. Indeed in most cases the events we deem worthy of reporting are themselves unlikely to pass the test of even a year before they begin to look irrelevant to the wider trends in our own lives.
Yet, they remain important because they allow the author to structure in his or her head, their thoughts about a given subject or event in their lives. It allows them to vent their unspoken ire or fear or lust. It allows them a sense of confessional when sometimes there is no one with whom they can confide. Diary’s frequently stand witness to the mistakes we make in our thinking and track accurately the passage of our lives from innocence to bitterness or wisdom. As such we are frequently embraced by their revelations or trains of thought.
But such embaracement is misplaced. Diaries ultimately bear witness to different phases in our lives, and as most of us lead anonymous and insignificant or unnoticed lives, it is as well that they do. For whatever the aspects of our lives that diaries record, they do so with faithful, honest seriousness and in so doing they afford our lives the dignity and respect that they deserve.
Our epoch lacks the fundamental existential seriousness of others. It faces crises which it lacks the unity and faith in itself to resolve. Our obsessions are frequently shallow and ephemeral. Within this world most of our lives are lived out in anonymous pursuit of goals which we reject as our lives reach their close.
And yet, for most of us the tracking of our careers, the birth and raising of our children and our seminal interactions with family and friends are the substance and importance at the heart of our lives. And it is through diaries that we pay homage to the sanctity of our lives and the interactions which make them interesting and wise and beautiful.