Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Diary Another Day

Virginia Woolf at Home

Dishwashing Liquid
Skimmed Milk
Pomegranate Juice
Ross Eldridge (Shopping List)

THE FIRST DIARY I EVER SET EYES ON belonged to my grandparents' landlady. This woman, Miss Emmy Gray, died in the 1960s, and I think she was probably no older than my grandparents when she passed on, sixty-something. I did not really know her, she might have known my mother and her children by sight, but I don't recall ever having conversation with her.

Miss Gray's apartment in the house next to the cottage where my grandparents lived was emptied at her death, and renovated. The contents were removed, perhaps sold, but it turned out that several boxes were stored in the basement of the house (now owned by the landlady's niece, Miss Mary Gray). I knew nothing of these boxes until a stack of notebooks turned up at our home, in my youngest sister's room. My sister made no secret of her curious find, and I think she must have very nearly boasted about it. My sister had somehow found a way into the basement of the house where my grandparents' landlady had lived, and had carted off a box that she just couldn't resist … stealing … there is no other word for it. My sister had the handwritten diaries of a lifetime left by Miss Emmy Gray.

Now, Miss Emmy Gray was a member of one of the old Bermuda families, big homes, large estates, and dwindling male heirs. She had a history, however, being part of something by birth that, by the late 1960s, was coming to an end: The white ruling class, one might say.

I looked at the notebooks, dozens and dozens of them, piled up in my sister's room (she was reading them diligently, though she was hardly a teenager) and they were not at all remarkable on the outside. My sister showed me a few open pages of neat handwritten entries. I asked her what they were about. My sister would not have appreciated any history that might have been found in the pages, but told me that Miss Gray used to say her little friend had come to stay about once a month … And meant that she was having her period. That's the only thing I know for a fact was included in the Gray Diaries. I had no interest in reading them, and never asked my sister for more information.

My sister must have been satisfied with her project eventually, the diaries vanished. She'd thrown them away. Over forty years later, I wonder what might have been lost.

Clearly, my sister was guilty of theft; a theft she told us about, she had no second thoughts about having committed it. In fact, to this day I would not trust my sister with my keys. You have been warned.

At school we had come across the Diary of Anne Frank, and I had had to read it. I did not care for it at all, finding it girlish and not being interested in knowing more, at that time, about the Nazi deportation of Jews to the Death Camps. We also had to get into the Diary of Samuel Pepys in our history lessons. He buried a cheese that he rather valued in his garden when London caught fire. That's all I remember of that famous journal.

Diaries didn't interest me, though I have always found brief quotations from, and references to, the diaries of people that interested me added to the pleasure of any biography I might be reading. I have been interested in the Bloomsbury Group for forty years now, and some of them kept diaries. More wrote letters that were eventually published, which might be personal accounts of a kind. Perhaps the most famous Bloomsberry, and diarist, was Virginia Woolf. I've never read her diaries, only excerpts. I intend to do that soon, if permitted.

Virginia Woolf notably said that nothing becomes real until one writes it down. She also said, of course, that one should not publish until one is at least thirty. I suppose that provides a safety valve if one is tempted to put one's private entries in print.

Joe Orton at Home
In the 1980s, I finally discovered diaries. That was about the time I pretty much gave up reading fiction, so that diaries and biographies (and autobiographies) kept me busy reading. I read a fair bit of documentary history, natural science and that sort of thing as well; I've not worked my way through the DNB.

Harold Nicolson's hefty diaries came my way because I was already interested in his wife, Vita Sackville-West. Nicolson was a brilliant read. People, history and politics, Nicolson seemed to know everybody.

I picked up The Orton Diaries (Joe Orton, the playwright) after seeing What the Butler Saw performed on stage. I continued reading Prick up Your Ears. What fun that was. I realised that when Kenneth Halliwell was murdering Joe Orton in their miniscule flat in Camden Town, I was wandering around London enjoying that Summer of Love. Perhaps on the very day. I must have read about it in the papers and seen the news on the telly, but it hadn't really clicked at the time. The death of Brian Epstein had made an impression. Orton was a joy, his relationship with Halliwell was doomed, his death seemed unavoidable bearing in mind their troubled relationship.

After Kenneth Williams died, his diaries finally became public. I gather he'd threatened people with them for years. I'll put you in my diary! One had heard that wisecracking Kenneth Williams, of Carry On … fame had been something of a miserable shit in real life. Real life to Kenneth was hiding in his flat, allowing few visitors, and then not permitting them, for example, to use his toilet. Kenneth couldn't bear the thought of germs, he did not like to be touched, avoided, apparently, all intimacy, though he was a chronic masturbator (noting in his diaries the Cockney rhyming slang "Had a Barclay's" frequently). Kenneth Williams was the classic sad bastard. Back in the 1960s he'd been a gay chum of Joe Orton, though hardly gay meaning happy, or chum meaning devoted in any way. Orton boasted of his outrageous sexual exploits, and I wonder if Kenneth Williams dared shake his hand!

I'm presently reading selections from the diaries of Alan Bennett. Bennett has published these in two autobiographical works, and he suggests that his diaries, as a whole, were not written, and are still not written, with an eye to publishing them before or after his death.

I kept brief diaries for twenty-five years, though hardly containing entries with well-rounded sentences and proper grammar. I also kept scrapbooks with photographs and souvenirs. All gone now. I burned the diaries, and only regret that when I try to recall the exact date of something that happened in some period I have a vague idea of. I don't know the day my father died, but think it was in March of 1996.

When I wrote a weekly column - My World and Welcome to It - for the Bermuda newspaper The Mid-Ocean News, I first thought to keep a kind of public journal going, to be a commentator on recent events. As it happened, I found myself rehashing my years growing up. My editor seemed to like dredged up memories of my schooldays. I don't have copies of any of those columns, but recently found something I wrote at that time (between five and ten years ago) and was appalled at my discovery. My style of writing horrified me: I was writing rather under the influence of bouts of mania, I think, pouring thoughts about old personal history onto the page as fast as I could. Literally: I'd leave my column not just incomplete, but usually not even begun, until the evening before I was to hand it in.

Now I blog here. And I trust it's not a diary. A diary, I think, entails writing about yourself as you pretend to be, as you are expected to be, regularly. There's no let-up, day after day trying to be the version of you that is expected. Every month, if you are Miss Gray, your little friend must come to stay. You come to expect this sort of writing of yourself, you cannot get away from it.

So, I blather on the blog. Perhaps I do get up one day and walk through the snow to the minimart to get the items on my shopping list … but I don't think I must tell you about it. That said, an honest diary might best be, simply, just one's shopping lists. There is no emotion in it; one does not trip over it. Rather, twice a week I get skimmed milk, once a week I buy bread, and occasionally some pomegranate juice. That best describes my life. I have no intention of spending eternity buried below a tombstone, having requested that my ashes be scattered in the wild somewhere, but if I was forced to, I'd like the inscription to read "Toilet Paper if on Special This Week".

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