ON this day in 1664, Samuel Pepys, the doyen of diarists, watched King Charles II play tennis and was disgusted by the sycophancy of those around him.
Meanwhile, on January 4, 1902, Alma Mahler-Werfel, who was in the midst of a torrid affair with the artist Gustav Klimt, confessed to her diary, "Rapture without end." Make of that what you will. Half a decade later, Kenneth Williams, master of the double-entendre, reported, "I must be comparatively under-sexed or something for I have never particularly wanted to make physical love to anybody."
Why keep a diary? To which the response must be: why on earth not? What, you naively think, could be easier? All you need to do is write a few lines each day and – hey pronto! – you can call yourself a diarist.
It is that time of year when many of us resolve to bare our souls, unburden our emotions, offload our angst, detail our days, committing to paper thoughts that would otherwise remain unexpressed. Diaries are meant to be private but so many of them find their way into the public domain that it is natural to question what are their authors' true motives.
"I always say, keep a diary and someday it'll keep you," said the sagacious sex symbol Mae West who, by the way, failed to follow her own advice. Nowadays, however, there's no lack of takers. Indeed, in some quarters diary keeping is regarded as an alternative to saving for a pension. Politicians, in particular, appear to be keen diarists, spurred on perhaps by the example of Alan Clark, who is better remembered as a diarist than he was ever likely to be as one of Maggie Thatcher's nuttier courtiers.
It helped, of course, that Mr Clark wrote beautifully. That he also led what might euphemistically be called a "colourful" life added to his diaries' piquancy. On top of which he was politically accident prone and an unreconstructed snob who had no compunction in preferring animals over human beings (or "vermin" as he called us). Put together, these factors made him the kind of diarist we all love to hate and vice versa.
As an habitual reader and collector of diaries I am drawn more to the Clarks of the world than the assiduous record keepers, such as Tony Benn, whose diaries run on and on, like a speech by Fidel Castro. The great diarists write because they can't do otherwise, spilling beans not just about those they meet but about themselves.
The best diaries are those in which the voice of an individual comes through most clearly, undiluted by self-censorship or a desire to please. If that sounds straightforward enough then you try it. There are good reasons why most diaries are as dull as daytime TV and mainly that's because of fear. We are frightened what others will think of us, frightened, too, of who we really are.
This is not a trait that bothers true diarists who are essentially narcissists. Like bad boys who secretly want to be caught behaving abominably, diarists keep diaries because they have a desire to confess. They may try, like Pepys, who wrote his diary in code, to pretend otherwise but with a very few exceptions diarists are eager to be read, either posthumously or in their own lifetimes. For many of them it is their one claim on posterity, the sole reason why they will be remembered.
In general, Scots make poor diarists, possibly because we're too uptight. An exception was James Boswell, who was Ernie Wise to Dr Johnson's Eric Morecambe. Boswell's diary is without peer. Written in the 18th century, its sensational contents were not revealed until last century. Before that it was kept secret though we do know that his wife read some fruity entries and was not amused.
That's another reason why so few of us maintain a diary, for it can be dangerous, as Piers Morgan recently discovered. You never know who is going to read it and what the consequences will be. Nevertheless I'm determined that 2012 will be the year I finally crack it. I have a fat diary with acres of white space just waiting to be filled. And so to bed.
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