Almost without fail, I bash out a daily diary entry on a loose sheet of A4 then shove it in an old ringbinder. Glued on the inside cover of this ringbinder is a yellowing newspaper clipping. It’s a column by the late Nigel Nicolson, written around the time of the New Year, offering Sunday Telegraph readers some useful rules, from a lifelong diarist, about how one should go about keeping a diary.
Write first thing in the morning when the mind is fresh, he says. Be truthful, he says. Don’t feel obliged to write daily: write only when you feel that you have something to say. Write your diary in code or hide it. And never, ever, mention train times, minor illnesses or the weather. As an example of how uninteresting an entry about the weather can be, he quotes an entry from the diary of King George V: ‘It rained today, harder than yesterday. I hope it will not rain tomorrow.’ (‘This,’ admonishes Mr Nicolson, ‘is not what diaries are for.’) His rules are based on the assumption that most diaries are written to be read by other people. ‘However much the diarist may deny it, he is writing for someone other than himself,’ he says. ‘Unconsciously, all diarists write for posterity.’ Therefore, Mr Nicolson seems to be saying, it is the duty of the diarist to bear in mind posterity’s threshold of boredom.
But when I sat down to read my diary after banging away at it for a year, I realised what a colossal bore I am. There was no escaping it. Though conscientiously written with the idea of keeping a few of my descendants entertained, when read retrospectively in one sitting like a novel the diary was a pathetic litany of childish complaint laced with trite observation enlivened only by platitude. I’ve always half-suspected I was a bore: now I had it in writing. Some of the entries weren’t even strictly truthful.
But irrefutable evidence that as a daily diarist I was nothing more than a sort of depressed, mendacious Mr Pooter was liberating. Acknowledging that I could never be anything other than small-minded, I came out from under Mr Nicolson’s prescriptive shadow and started to be myself. From then on, I no longer saw my diary as a valuable historical or family document, notable for its vivacity and flashes of wit, but simply a ready reminder of what happened and what the hangover was like the next day. And between these simple facts I was now free to lard in my complaints or bang on about the weather to my heart’s content. Since then I haven’t looked back.
So here, from last year’s jeremiad, is a bumper selection. ‘This wind and rain is incessant’ — 25 Nov. ‘Awful weather again. Drove to Lidl’s. Bought tinned grapefruit segments. Still torrential rain when I came out’ — 2 Sept. ‘Rain. Rain. Rain. Rereading Chekhov. Also reading Reading Chekhov’ — 20 July. ‘Will it ever stop raining? On Wednesday it will be one month since I had a drink, a cigarette or sex. Usual story. I feel sane, fit, strong, centred, bored out of my skull and permanently angry. Walked to Padstow and back. Saw a tornado’ — 10 Jan.
I did quite a bit of sewing and mending in 2009. ‘Sewed buttons on coat’ — 5 May. ‘Tried for half an hour to thread needle to turn up new trousers. Failed. Threw trousers in bin’ — 10 Sept. And I was stopped by the police three times for motoring offences, I see, which is very disappointing, as 2009 was the first year ever in which I have been going about more or less completely legally. My gym attendance was good — 140 times — though all the positive results have been undone, and more, by one mad, nihilistic two-week binge in the run-up to Christmas. The first of two Aids tests, however, proved negative. Overall, my main complaint was of boredom and lack of sex. 10 April: ‘My life is effectively over. I do nothing. I go nowhere. I see nobody. I speak to nobody. I might as well be dead.’ Then there is a long gap, the longest gap, in the diary of three weeks, and then on 6 May I wrote: ‘Drove across Australia. Very dry.’
These days I consult Mr Nicolson’s piece only to make sure I am doing the exact opposite of what he suggested. I write in my diary at any old time of the day or night. I distort the truth if it makes me feel better. I make myself write every day. I leave the ringbinder lying around for anyone to read. I celebrate my boringness by writing about the weather, train times and minor illnesses. Literature it ain’t. But it’s me.