Saturday, 17 January 2009
In my Christmas stocking one year there was a copy of Dr Sam Johnson's Journal of a holiday he spent in North Wales in 1774; and an electronic organiser, a press button diary.
Difficult to imagine any more eloquent symbols of dramatic change.
To use the electronic diary - so far as I can understand the instructions - I have to limit entries to sixteen characters; generous for the cast of a play; less than adequate to tell the story of a day in the life of........
True, in the history of diary writing there have been some notable one-liners.
In 1725 a country doctor called Claver Morris wrote: "Busied in mulling red wine and the funeral of my dear wife.”
The antiquarian Elias Ashmole in 1681: “I took early in the morning a good dose of elixir and hung three spiders round my neck and they drove my ague away. Deo gratias.”
Gratias, indeed. And to the novelist Arnold Bennet for this: London. Palace Theatre. Pavlova dancing the dying swan. A feather falls from her costume. Two silent Englishmen. One says, ‘Moulting’. That is all they say.”
Dr Johnson had no such limitations, either of space or vocabulary. How pleasant it must have been for him to sit before a roaring fire on a day such as this and turn to this entry: “We would have staid in Conway if we could have found entertainment, for we were afraid of passing Penmaenmawr mountain, over which lay on our way to Bangor, but by bright day....."
Happily the party found that a new way had been made. Johnson recalled it: "A wall secures the precipice, which is deep and dreadful. The wall is here and there broken by mischievous wantonness. The side of the mountain seems to have a surface of loose stones, which every accident may crumble Our thoughts of danger now being past the rest of our journey was very pleasant.”
More than my electronic diary could memorise.
There was a rime when I filled in the Cash Summary conscientiously every year until I discovered, as I do every year, that the cost of living was making further living financially non-viable.
My favourite diaries are those written by the gentle Francis Kilvert, who was curate of Clyro, a still peaceful hamlet across the river from Hay-on-Wye. One entry read as follows: "Miss Child told me of the adventures of the wood owl, Ruth, which she took home from here last year. She and her sister, stranded in London at night, went to the London Bridge Hotel with little money and no luggage except for the owl in a basket. The owl hooted all night in spite of their putting it up the chimney, before the looking glass and under the bedclothes. AND in a circle of lighted candles which they hoped it would mistake for the sun. The owl went on hooting, upset the basket, got out and flew round the room. The chambermaid, almost frightened to death, dared not come inside the room. Miss Child asked the waiter to get some mice for Ruth, but none could be got."
My friend John Julius Norwich frequently includes strange diary entries in his commonplace selection book "A Christmas Cracker" which he sends to his legion of friends every year.
I treasure an entry from the diaries of the great naturalist Gilbert White of Selbourne. Also about Owls.
"…most owls seem to hoot exactly in B Flat, according to several pitch-pipes used in tuning harpsichords, and as strictly at concert pitch."
We recipients of the Christmas Cracker spend our year looking out eagerly for items in our reading which we send off to John Julius in the hope they will be included in his collection. Twice I was fortunate enough to be one of the chosen. Difficult to explain the pride with which I say that.
The entry about owls brought this observation from Professor Howard Evans of Fort Collins, Colorado: "Even the simple wing sounds of midges and mosquitoes play a role in bringing the sexes together. In this case it is the female who attracts the male by the hum of her wings; a fact quickly appreciated by singers who hit a G in the vicinity of a swarm and end up with a mouthful of male mosquitoes."
Inevitably the Christmas Crackers contain occasional entries from Kilvert, including this one from the 10th February 1873: "My mother says that at Dursley in Gloucestershire when ladies and gentlemen used to go out to dinner together on dark nights, the gentlemen pulled out the tails of their shirts and walked before the ladies to show the way and light the ladies. These were called Durlsey Lanterns."
That entry is important not only for its charm but because it contains, I believe, one of the secrets of Kilvert. As we read it we can see those Dursley roads, unlit, unused and so dark the night is almost palpable.
"Mrs Nott told me that Louie of the Cloggi was staying in Presteigne with her aunt Miss Sylvester, the woman frog. This extraordinary being is partly a woman and partly a frog. Her head and face, her eyes and mouth are those of a frog, and she has a frog’s legs and feet. She cannot walk but she hops. She wears very long dresses to cover and conceal her feet which are shod with something like a cow's hoof. She never goes out except to the Primitive Methodist Chapel…
“Mrs Nott said she has seen this person's frog feet and had seen her in Presteigne hopping to and from chapel exactly like a frog. The story about this unfortunate woman is as follows. Shortly before she was born a woman came begging to her mother's door with two or three little children. Her mother was angry and ordered the woman away with her children saying ‘Get away with your young frogs.’ The child she was expecting was born partly in the form of a frog as a punishment and a curse upon her..."
Curate Kilvert was, naturally, a prey to ghosts.
"When I went to bed last night I fancied that something ran in at my bedroom door after me from the gallery. It seemed to be a skeleton. It ran with a dancing step and I thought it aimed a blow at me from behind. This was shortly before midnight."
A ghost almost as strange as that most famous phantom of all; the one that materialised on the road in the 17th century before a friend of John Evelyn.
"When it was asked, ‘are you a good spirit or a bad spirit?" it disappeared with a most melodious twang."
Evelyn was a minor official of the Restoration but his diary has made him into a major historical figure. It was discovered by accident 200 years after his death in an old clothes basket at his home.
Kilvert had great gifts as a writer. His account of how he fell in love with Daisy Thomas, a girl above him in rank and wealth, when he had only a sovereign in his pocket; and the kindly way in which her father let him know he was not a suitable match always moves me. It is one of the great love stories.
The actress Mrs Sarah Siddons was a great beauty and the toast of fashionable Georgian Society. In 1802 she toured North Wales. Her companion Patty Wilkinson kept a diary. In it she wrote:
“We left Conwy next morning and e’re long crossed Penman Maur where, like other travellers, we alighted from our carriages to look from a bridge that commands the fullest view of the sublime landscape with all its rocks and water. A lady within hearing of us was in such ecstasies that she exclaimed, ‘This awful scenery makes me feel as if I were only a worm, or a grain of dust, on the face of the earth.’ Mrs Siddons turned round and said, "I feel very differently’."
Diary addicts, if they are not careful, overdose on Pepys. I find him an unattractive man, which I suppose is a sort of heresy. I feel his honesty is the unconscious honesty of the totally insensitive. But I always chuckle over this entry for December 5 1660:
“And so home and find all well. Only, myself somewhat vexed at my wife's
neglect in leaving of her scarfe, waistcoat and night dressings in the coach today that brought us from Westminster. Though I confess she did give them to me to look after - yet it was her fault not to see that I did take them out of the coach."
I was delighted to find that I am not alone in my distaste for Pepys. The diplomat Harold Nicholson wrote: "To my mind Pepys is a mean little man. Salacious in a grubby way; even in his peculations there is no magnificence...It is some relief to reflect that to be a good diarist one must have a little, snouty sneaky mind.”
I am not sure that is true. But what I do find comforting about diaries is the evidence which abounds in them that social evils change only in name. The Lager Lout had his counterpart nearly two hundred years ago.
Thomas Hearne was an indefatigable diarist. His ran to 147 volumes. In 1712 he wrote:
“A certain barbarous sect of people arose lately in London who distinguish themselves by the name of Mohocks. There are great numbers of them and their custom is to make themselves drunk and in the nighttime to go about the streets in great droves and to abuse after a most inhumane manner all persons they meet by beating down their noses, pricking the fleshy part of their bodies with their swords, not sparing even women whom they usually set upon their heads and commit such indecencies towards them as are not to be mentioned.”
Life hardly seems worth worrying about. From Lord Byron's journal, this famous entry: "When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation), sleep, eating and swilling, buttoning and unbuttoning, how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a dormouse."
And in the end what does it all matter?
When, in his own golden phrase, time was beginning to goose Noel Coward, he made a last entry in his diary. It was this:
"With my usual watchful eye on posterity, I can only suggest to any wretched future biographer that he gets my engagement book and from that fills in anything he can find and good luck to him. Personally I have neither the will nor the strength to attempt the task.”