Why do people write diaries?   Are they truthful?   Are they worth reading?

I read once some learned person’s views (sorry, he was too much of an expert to have mere opinions like the rest of us – he wrote Explanations.)
So, the reasons he offered were a) diarists write because they are lonely;  b) because they have had a difficult childhood, and c) because they do not have a strong sense of personal identity.

Bowing before the Professor’s superior wisdom, I acknowledge that these might all be reasons why diaries are written.    However, as a lifelong diarist, I do not think they are the principal reason why I write them.   Although in some senses I was isolated in my childhhood – my parents did not pursue a normal social life and I can distinctly remember each time we had visitors to the house as it was so rare an event;  bringing other children home to our house was unthinkable – yet for all that, I craved solitude.   I don’t think I’ve ever been ‘lonely ‘ – I’m with Smilla (Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by                            )
) in that my spirits rise at the prospect of a few hours alone.     I’ve never had any problems in finding companions, female or male;  and in my childhood there was always Eugene who was a fine and lovely brother.    As must be quite clear to any reader, I have a very strong sense of identity.   I suppose some people would categorise our childhood as ‘difficult’ but I was not unhappy.     Whose childhood is a golden odyssey of delight anyway?   I recently saw the film, The King’s Speech about King George VI, and if it was historically accurate, his childhood was utter misery compared with ours and he was a future king  of England.       So, plenty of people have difficult childhoods but few of them go on to be diarists (or kings, for that matter.)

I write a diary because I enjoy the writing.   I’ve always been interested in words.   I can remember repeating to myself the phrase ‘Suez Canal’ and savouring the exotic unfamiliarity of the word ‘Suez’.    For me, the writing is part of the thinking process.   There is a sense that things haven’t completely happened to me until I write them in my diary.   Also you have to decide, to conclude, to think about what happened and that clarifies your opinion and indeed commits it to your memory banks.   It also sharpens your powers of observation, because you flag things that occur, to enter in your diary.

Although I have always written diaries, I periodically destroyed them, and I hold them now since 1980.

I find the actual process of writing my diary a pleasure, and even though when travelling I write a hand written version, on my return I fall on my desk and computer as if into the arms of an old friend.

Are diaries worth reading as an historical record?   Well, they are of course a primary source.   The witness of the younger Pliny of the volcanic explosion at  Pompei – how they rowed for their lives into the bay ‘pursued by a horrible cloud’, or Samuel Pepys account of the Fire of London shine out for us cross the centuries  as a vivid and contemporary witness.   Otherwise relatively dull people can be briefly illuminated by powerful emotions – as with John Evelyn on the death of their son: ‘Now is all joy and pleasure ended for us in this world’.

Often the diary gives an unwitting testimony.   It is necessarily limited because you look only through the eyes of the writer, who records what is important to her but may entirely overlook important matters that do not interest or concern her.    (Reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries – so marvellous in their use of metaphor – one would hardly be aware that the first world war was taking place.)    The monstrous selfishness of Queen Victoria (and that in a sanitised version edited by some dutiful daughter with nothing better to do) is quite staggering to contemplate and her diary is in my view an
unwitting testament for the case against the monarchy.

Are they truthful?    I would think that most people would write what they understand to be the truth – at that moment – in their diary.     But while truth is not relative, people’s perceptions are, and reading Peter Mandelson’s account of his time in office, he describes himself as a calm, reasonable, thoughtful, considerate fellow.    Other people describe him as having hissy fits, slamming doors, threatening others, devious, cunning, manipulative, self-serving.   You have to form your own opinion.      So, the reader has to use discernment.

But at least their diaries were readable.   In spite of repeated attempts, I’ve never been able to read Richard Crossman’s diary beyond page 40.    On the other hand, you haven’t to allow yourself as a reader to be beguiled by someone’s wayward charm – such as the entertaining and engaging – but not entirely admirable – Alan Clark.

Then there is the fact that the diary is ‘of the moment’.   I don’t correct mine on principle.  But if some of my remarks written in irritation were extrapolated, they would not give my considered opinion on that matter.   In fact if you read the diaries, you can see opinion gradually being formed into something more reasonable ad detached.    Then of course two people may view the same event quite differently, though neither is ‘wrong’.   I notice my account of an event in our childhood is always more ‘upbeat’ than Eugene’s.   He tends to view things in a more detached socio-economic-cultural style.   His eye for beauty and love of wild things is expressed through his photography.     As for what we write about our childhood, the facts are more or less the same.   He is not incorrect.   I tend to concentrate on what I think and feel with blithe indifference to the wider  implications.   I am sure his view would be of more value to historians.

I think to write a long term diary, like Victoria, you require Vanity and Ego.   Even though you don’t intend to publish them and hardly ever re-read them, on some level you think your thoughts are worth recording.   It is a demanding undertaking to which you devote time and energy every day.   The physical diaries have to be ordered and cared for.

Although personally I almost never re-read my diaries, I do not think it is true to say that the diarist is not aware of some possible, eventual audience out there somewhere (possibly in the future when your nasty comments on people, all the more lethal because true, will be of no concern of yours.)   So,
though the diarist may appear to be revealing, that is not to say they are revealing the whole of themselves.   People quite often say to me, ‘You always know where you are with you…’ and I think, No, not really…   I almost never reveal the whole of my thoughts, and there are matters of significance to me which never appear in my diaries at all.     I have often thought that I could never take the American oath of allegiance (supposing one should want to), which I
believe includes the words, ‘without mental reservation’.   I ALWAYS have mental reservations.   Re-reading the diaries prior to storing them, there are slightly uncomfortable passages where, with hindsight, you can see that you were becoming aware, at some level, of developments which you had not yet acknowledged consciously.      In retrospect it’s all clarion clear, you wonder why it took you so long to understand it.   This makes rather alarming reading, as if pages were filling themselves up in your diary but you hadn’t written them.

So, why do people write diaries?  For many reasons.   Are they truthful?   Possibly, in part.     Are they worth reading?   Depends on the writer and the reader.



I watched a Horizon programme recently on the nature of reality.    It was a surreal experience.

A babel of learned professors.    They looked like the kind of person Ian McEwan described in Solar as frequently thinking that topics of conversation were ‘beneath their intellect.’      I’ve often thought topics were very boring, but previously it hadn’t occurred to me that this was because they were ‘beneath my intellect’.   I must try this thought next time, see if it lightens the moment of tedium.    You can imagine:   So I don’t know whether it would be better
to take the car and pay for the parking, or take the train and walk from the station, or maybe there’s a bus…   what do you think?    Reply:   Actually this question is below the level of my intellect…

The distinguished scientists   showed an experiment where a beam of light is shone through a hole.   It leaves a shadow.     Then they shone the beam of  light through two holes.    It cast 3 shadows.   No reasonable explanation could be found for this.   While they were examining this phenomenon, the light decided it didn’t want to be examined, so it reverted to just casting two shadows.   (I’m not making this up.)   (No pussycats here.)

I began to wonder if this programme was a spoof to see if you were paying attention.     But the eminent professors were all deadly serious.    From the light experiment they conflated a whole extravaganza of suppositions including that there existed in some unreachable dimension somewhere else, immeasurable alternative realities to our own.   For this vaunting extrapolation there was no proof whatsoever.   None at all.

I reflected how the body scientific generally sneers at religious dogma, such as the virgin Birth, Christ risen from the dead, etc.   What difference is there between the unprovable religious theory (leap of faith required) and the unprovable scientific theory (leap of faith required.)    Does man have an irresistible compulsion to believe in something – anything – outside himself?   Do philosophers never get fed up hanging about all day wrestling with unlikely scenarios, (ABOVE the level of their intellect) and have a sudden urge to do something practical, like chopping wood or scrubbing floors?

The programme concluded that Reality was ‘a continuing conversation with the universe’.     I thought, No, it isn’t.   Reality is what you know to be true, and can prove (or at any rate, it cannot be disproved.)     But there are unsatisfactory elements within that statement.   (I’ve read too much philosophy.)   What is truth, as someone famously asked, and there was no  answer.

I consulted the Ministry of Practical Sense and Doing Things.    You have to pick your moment to question the Minister.    He’s irascible and down to earth and doesn’t believe in wasting time on pointless speculations.   He is however the master of the prompt and pithy sound-bite.   His definition of the nature of reality?   Something you can poke.



The process by which a child acquires speech is an amazing one.   Some children learn with ease and others with difficulty, but the speed or otherwise with which they learn does not seem to reflect in any way on their ultimate accomplishment.

Different members of our family through the generations have been slow speakers, yet all of those ‘talk’ for a living now.   Family legend has it that Eugene said nothing for so long that our mother was becoming worried, and that the first thing he said was, I saw a motorbike and sidecar.   (My 7 year old self heard him say that, and couldn’t see why our mother was making such a big thing of it.   I could have said it any day of the week had I known it was a statement of such importance.)    Rory spoke quickly enough but he didn’t pwonounce his Ls or Rs pwopery.    Since clearly it was going to be a problem going through life with a Jonathan Ross impediment when your name contains 3 Rs, I concentrated on this first and we solved that difficulty quite easily..   This still left the deviant L, and I used every encouragement and device I could think of, with no effect whatsoever.   Eventually I lost patience and said I wasn’t going to bother about it any more, he could say it how he liked, but I would give him £1 when he could say, Lionel licked a lemon lollipop.   (He had it by nightfall.)

The beautiful Erin seems to find speech easy.   At three years old she has an extensive vocabulary and makes very few grammatical errors.   You can hear her, if she cannot make herself understood, put the question again in a different form of words.   But even I, doting grandmother though I am (well, mostly) was stopped in my tracks by her observing: “I think we should put our shoes on now, otherwise we will not be ready to go out when Grandpa comes.”

Otherwise?   Good Lord, I thought.  She is already in the habit of giving me an encouraging nod or pat if I say something which strikes her as sensible, and commenting by way of encouragement, Very good, Grandma.   Otherwise, indeed.    I had better pay attention here, OTHERWISE a three year old will shortly be correcting my grammar and pointing out I’ve misplaced the apostrophe.




Following our return from a visit to Scotland, I’ve had the opportunity to take another look at contemporary Scottish politics.

I have long observed and appreciated the cunning and long sighted strategy of Alex Salmond, First Minister for Scotland and Leader of the Scottish National Party.   Apart from all his other qualities, he has a deadly wit, and I really enjoyed his dismissal of George Osborne after the latter’s ill-advised holiday on some oligarch’s yacht in the company of Peter Mandelson.    “If George wishes” he began with deceptive amiability, “to be mistaken for a man of the people, then it might be preferable not to accept hospitality from a Russian oligarch – but certainly he should avoid doing so in the company of Peter Mandelson, who greatly outclasses him in his mastery of the black art of politics’.      We all laughed and Osborne for once could not come up with a smart reply, but I thought Salmond himself was no mean practitioner of the black art.

Salmond is what my brother would refer to as a ‘gradualist’ inching the Scottish people along by gentle degree to whatever his eventual goal happens to be.     With Salmond being so clever and so devious, you can never be entirely sure.

He has a well thought out approach to the monarchy and professes to wish to retain the Queen as Head of State.    But when you see him in her presence and you watch his body language – though I am quite sure he is scrupulously polite and correct –   I’m not so sure she can rely on him.   He describes the Queen as ‘a very astute lady’, so no doubt she has the measure of him.

I had not realised until recently that IF Salmond’s goal is genuinely independence, then not only does he need a Scottish majority vote in favour; the English would also have to vote.    I suspect he’s pursuing a two pronged strategy – giving the Scots things they – indeed everybody – would want – free prescriptions, free care for the elderly, no tolls on bridges, free education for everybody but the English, to please the Scottish voter; and using these same policies to annoy the English so that when it comes to the vote, the English say, Go then; we’re better off without you.   I do find it very funny when he says, England should not worry about having to go it alone;  they’ll manage fine;    but he is being deliberately insulting, though he can’t be charged with this intent.

I saw him on a recent Question Time, surrounded by Secretaries of State for Scotland past and present.    In comparison with him all the Secretaries of State  look like school boys in short trousers and cap, apart from Malcolm Rifkind, who however looks extremely cautious.     They were urging him to hold a referendum now (believing he would lose.)    He doesn’t intend to hold it now because he similarly isn’t confident of victory (yet).     But they should be careful what they ask for.    There is a perverse quality about the Scottish voters, who might just say Yes out of spite and malice and because they are expected to say No.

I would guess – but it is many years since I lived in Scotland – that the majority of Scots – provided they would suffer no personal loss – would prefer greater independence from England, even if that falls short of a complete secession from the Union.    But one wonders whether Salmond’s silvery eloquence and guile are not enticing them along a path whose ultimate destination is undisclosed;  or if not undisclosed, whose potential gains and losses are difficult to calculate.     When the Labour party brought forward devolved government for ‘the provinces’ it did not foresee that this would help, rather than reverse, the cause of nationalism.

The Scots are a shrewd and canny people.   The Queen herself said, at the re-opening of the Scottish Parliament that she had confidence in the judgement of the Scottish people, and who would be so bold as to disagree with her?   However, the Scots should make quite sure that they are not like the children of Hamlyn, blindly following the Pied Piper through that briefly opened door in the hill, from which no-one could ever return.