In diaries, there is life*

Last week, sorting through the junk in the loft, I found my old diaries. Not all of them: the earliest are marooned under the floorboards in the bathroom of the house I grew up in after my father nailed down the loose board I accessed my hidey-hole through and I was too embarrassed, in my ten-year old way, to tell him what he’d imprisoned down there. Of the rest, parts are thankfully illegible, some pages – oh, the dramatic shame of it – appear to be tear-stained and almost the whole lot makes me cringe. The egotism of being fifteen (They [my parents] haven’t said so but I am the problem in this house….), the scorching certainty of a nineteen year-old that this one boy is the only boy in the world for her (I’ll never meet anyone like him again. This was my chance and I’ve seen him walk away in the arms of another girl….), the terror of being twenty-two and leaving university for a job in a city I didn’t want to be in (The noise, the people, the people, the noise! Is this it for ever? How did I come to this?) and then, more happily, a whole series of travel diaries. Glancing through them takes me back to my first African safari, much of it done in an ex-WWII army lorry, my first trip to India, only two days after 9/11, and to many different places in Europe – some of which I was lucky enough to visit as a result of a very enjoyable job in the city that my twenty-two year-old self had hated so much. I was eight when I started my diary, inspired by a child’s version of Anne Frank’s diary. Hers is still one of my favourites – not just because of the literary brilliance her words hint at (what a wordsmith she could have become!) but more because of the zestful way she lived – and recorded – life. But there are other diaries too. There are literary giants: Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Samuel Pepys and Alan Bennet (these are in no particular order apart from the one in which the names occurred to me); and then there are those where the individual’s relative lack of fame makes the literary dialogue between the private self and the page no less valuable. Two in particular occur to me. The first is Olive’s Diary, written by a 16 year-old English girl at school in Paris in 1914. Recovered and serialised on the web by a journalist, Rob McGibbon, who’d been given the diary some years earlier, it tells the story, in her own words, of the last six weeks of her life. Tucked into its final pages are newspaper cuttings announcing her sudden death. In some ways, it is the tragedy of another young life cut so awfully short that provides the pathos but, in another, it is her joyous descriptions of Paris and her homesickness that make it so effortless to identify with her. The reader could be her…. she could be the reader; those experiences that all of us share to some degree or other evoke a tenderness and a sympathy that is not easily forgotten. The second is the Red Leather Diary, a seventy-five year old diary rescued from a one-way trip to a New York dump by Lily Koppel, a young journalist. The author, Florence Wolfson, proved still to be alive and, together, the two women used the diary to produce an enchanting memoir of life as lived by a privileged young woman in 1930s Manhattan. Much of the joy and fascination in the book comes from Florence Wolfson’s own reactions to meeting her younger self. The literary and artistic aspirations she’d held were, by and large, unmet despite the promise the diary suggested (she’s acquainted and, in some cases, has affairs with soon-to-be-famous poets, authors and actresses) but the sense of a life lived is undimmed. And that has to be one of the chief standard bearers, flag waving wildly in the wind, for diary-writing. We – that is, any of us who choose to do so, whether literary giants or not – write diaries to prove to ourselves that we were here, that we lived and loved in the best way we knew how. *Original quotation: In chaos, there is fertility –  Anaïs Nin.

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One thought on “In diaries, there is life*

  1. Oh Louise, I really enjoyed this post – I wish I’d kept a diary and I love the thought of your childhood ones hidden away under a floorboard like a time capsule, waiting for someone to discover in the future! I’m also going to look for those two diaries you detailed here, they both sound like fascinating reads. x

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