Artillery Row

In defence of reading diaries

We experience people at their most depressed and their most joyful; their most selfish and their most generous

I’ve just finished “The Milk of Paradise”, the twelfth and final instalment of James Lees-Milne’s magnificent diaries. The youthful popinjay has crystallised into the old fruit. In decrepitude and frailty, his love for his wife has been renewed — though a suitably elegant young man still prompts a discreet second look. This is the 90s. His friend Prince Charles has tumbled to his nadir; the government are as grey as the storm clouds gathering over the Old Ways; New Labour is ascendant. Of course, Lees-Milne is acutely aware of the sea change. But he’s pithy and sanguine and, though he sees Blair elected, dead by the New Year — long before the progressives really sank their teeth into the National Trust, a desecration I’m glad he missed.

Diaries bear the soul; social media blurs and buries it

There is nothing quite like a diary. They are a peephole into another’s soul; a voyage through a different life. It’s why reading a private diary without permission is such a violation. In a world of heavily publicised, commercialised “immersive experiences” — the worst of which has to be the interactive attraction; where you pay twenty pounds to be shouted at by some Pontins rejects — they are the ultimate immersive experience. Join playwright Joe Orton, riding high off the success of “Loot”; politician Tony Benn, as he foments the revolution from his Kensington townhouse; poet Dorothy Wordsworth, as she ambles the fields and pathways of 19th Century Cumbria. A good diary captures the full spectrum of human emotion. We experience people at their most depressed and their most joyful; their most selfish and their most generous; timorous and hubristic, often at the same time. We get to know them — but we get to know ourselves, too.

The Milk Of Paradise: Diaries, 1993-1997
by James Lees-Milne

The key, I think, is honesty. A biography should deal in facts, corroborated truths; diaries deal in perception. Memoirs are a different beast entirely — the product of a thousand half-remembered stories, anecdotes skewed by a lifetime of embellishments and retelling. The best diarists are operating in the moment, and there is often a scatological or sexual element. Comedian Kenneth Williams did a neat line in bowel movements and onanism; the Pooterish, priapic Conservative MP Alan Clark is always fussing over jaunty globes and other such delights.

Perhaps this is why the best diarists tend to be creatures of the foothills rather than the peak. If you’re a former Prime Minister or President, you’re unlikely to debase yourself with such salacious trifles — and you’re unlikely to tell the whole truth either. Diarists should operate beyond the suffocating confines of reputation management, which is why many of the best diaries are published post-posthumously. Inclusion, therefore, is both a compliment and a threat. “I’ll put you in my diary!” Kenneth Williams would shriek, knowing full well the volume wouldn’t hit the public sphere until after he was gone.

Aficionados have their favourite diarists, and their favourite entries. Samuel Pepys on the plague: “Great fears of the Sickenesse here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.” Alan Clark, forced to shoot a heron: “For a split second, he seemed simply to have absorbed the shot; then very slowly his head arched round and took refuge inside his wing, half under water. He was motionless, dead. I was already sobbing as I went back up the steps.” Lees-Milne, on the death of his beloved Alvide: “She had come straight from the hairdresser and looked so pretty. Sudden, I am sure — but what is “sudden” at the time of death? And I not there to hold her hand. These days to be my hell on Earth.” The best passages transmit the author’s unique feelings and circumstances through the page and across the decades. You don’t just read, you witness.

The old gag is the man who grandly decides to keep a diary then can’t think of anything to put in it. “My Diary, by Arnold J. Rimmer. January the first: I have decided to keep a journal of my thoughts and deeds over the coming year,” reads Lister from his shipmate’s deftly secreted opus, in the popular sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf. “A daily chart of my progress through the echelons of command, so that perhaps one day, other aspiring officers may seek enlightenment through these pages. It is my fond hope that, one day, this journal will take its place alongside Napoleon’s War Diaries and The Memories of Julius Caesar. Next entry… July the seventeenth: Auntie Maggie’s Birthday.” 

Pepys is fascinating not because his world is so different to ours, but because it’s so similar

But great diaries don’t simply chart historic events. There is much joy to be found in the details and descriptions. Pepys is fascinating not because his world is so different to ours, but because it’s so similar. The colourful coffee houses, the feckless Tories, the deadly epidemic. (Though I can live without his pickled oyster suppers. No wonder you could smell 17th century London before you could see it.) 

So what of diaries, and diarists, now? The obvious answer is that the internet, Gawd bless it, has chalked up another kill. Social media documents everything. Its users’ every thought and impulse, preserved forever. But, of course, it’s all projection. Be it sex or politics, art or religion — nobody, or at least very few, are saying what they actually think. Diaries bear the soul; social media blurs and buries it. We’ll always have the frustrated politicians’ tomes, and the actors’ and writers’. Perhaps, in the future, Youtubers and tik-tokers and blue tick twitterers will record their real feelings, too. And, surely, there will be the current denizens of our institutions — the ones who don’t agree with our cultural trajectory, but feel impotent, supplicants to it — carping nightly into their moleskins. Precisely who publishes a diary may evolve, as everything must. But there’s ample room for them yet. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover