An extract from Michael Palin’s piece on diary writing, published in Idler 80, Sept/Oct 2021
“Keep a diary, and someday it’ll keep you,” advised Mae West. A good maxim, but it really helps if you’re Mae West. It probably wouldn’t keep a country vicar for long. (Having said that, the diaries kept by the Reverend Francis Kilvert in the 1870s are among the most appealing journals I’ve ever read.)
I’ve kept a diary for over 50 years. It hasn’t entirely kept me, but it has provided me with a literary backbone to my life. A daily verbal and mental workout which I could not now do without.
The great thing about a diary is its inherent drama. It’s the only form of literature where both writer and reader approach each day without knowing what’s going to happen next. A diary entry should never be brought up to date, but left as it is, an honest unrefined account of a particular moment in time. That’s how a diary differs from autobiography or memoir. It’s an antidote to hindsight.
Diaries can be a mess. Remember, your first duty as a diarist is not to win the Booker Prize but to get your own particular day recorded. Despite years of practice, the perfect well-crafted, impeccably balanced entry has persistently eluded me. Prejudices bob to the surface, anger crackles, judgements fall over each other, huffing and puffing. Opinions and interpretations are impulsive, inconsistent and frequently contradictory. But I’m not at all sure if that matters.
A diary is a story whose plot changes daily. The disciplines of coherence and fluency should never get in the way of the haphazard intensity of personal experience.
Harold Nicholson’s diaries of the Second World War years are compelling, not just because he was an elegant, educated writer, but because of where he was and what he was doing at the time. His observations of walking through London after the Blitz are incredibly moving, but no less moving are the diaries of my Great-Uncle Harry, who couldn’t write for toffee, but using only tiny pocket notebooks and a stub of pencil, kept a daily account of fighting throughout the Gallipoli campaign.
The full version of this piece appears in Idler #80, Sept/Oct 2021
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