Friday, April 5, 2019

More on Diaries

 From The Siegfried Sassoon Diaries 1923-1925:

After strolling about the Backs, I went into the Fellows' Garden at Pembroke and sat there unhappily from 6 to 7. In a newspaper shop I'd bought a vulgar postcard of two cockatoos in bed, one of them saying: "Shall we ask mother to sty with us?". This I sent to O. Sitwell, about whom i was still in an internal tantrum. [The card was  reference to Max's caricature of O. and S., with parrots on their fists saying: "Well done, Osbert" and "Well done, Sacheverell".] Contemptible bad taste on my part, of course. So I sat in the pleasant garden, tearing myself to tatters and wishing I hadn't sent the card, while enjoying the idea of paining O.S.

Then I discovered that I'd been locked in the garden, and I had to get over the twelve-foot wall by a ladder, which I found by a tool-shed. I pulled it up after me and let it down into Free School Lane, and then threw it back over the wall, to the astonishment of a passing don.

I'm very much in a diary mood right now, and I've been thinking about diaries a lot recently.

As I've mentioned before, I've been keeping a diary since June 24 2015. I began it on impulse, inspired by a section of Brideshead Revisited which very vividly describes a voyage on an ocean liner, and which made me want to capture the immediacy of my day-to-day life.

I kept my diary on a website called until late November of last year. My Penzu diary is 1.3 million words long. I eventually stopped keeping a computer diary because I became frustrated at the amount of time I spend looking at screens, and I felt the urge for a physical diary.

Since then I have used a page-a-day diary, written in longhand. I asked the secretary in my job if she had any page-a-day diaries left for 2018, since we use them a lot. It turned out she did, so I used that for the rest of the year. Then I bought two page-a-day diaries for 2019. One page is very often not enough to chronicle my day. (I knew it wouldn't be, since in the case of my 2018 diary I often had to continue an entry on the pages from before November.) 

The Penzu website lets you export your entries as a PDF. I have several copies of that PDF saved in different places. I also scan and save my paper diary entries, for fear of losing them. 

I haven't failed to chronicle a single day since I started, which gives me great satisfaction. I regret I didn't start keeping a diary as soon as I could write. (I did in fact keep several, but they are lost. None were even nearly as long as my current one.)

I keep a diary for several reasons. One is my terrible memory-- or rather, my extraordinarily selective memory. My ability to forget things is astounding. Very recently I was sitting in a kitchen where I have spent a great deal of time and someone mentioned that, some years ago, it had been divided into two rooms, but the wall had subsequently been removed. This might seem like a small thing, but it gave me quite a jolt. I knew this, but I'd completely forgotten it. My wife often tells me about things we've done together and I realize I have no memory of them-- even when . So that's part of it.

However, I don't write a diary simply to capture the things normal people would remember anyway. I write a diary to remember all the little things that any normal person would forget. I don't want these to be lost, although it's hard to explain exactly why.

For instance, I've been meeting a friend for coffee every Thursday for many years now, with a few interruptions when he has been abroad. I record the topic of our conversations. I'm intrigued by the fact that, if I did not record these at the time, there would be no way to remember them. That knowledge would become utterly unobtainable, no matter how you tried to retrieve it-- there is absolutely no way either of us would remember what we spoke about on a given day, in ordinary circumstances. What would be so awful about that? Well, nothing, perhaps. But I'm fascinated how a little bit of effort, a mere line or two, preserves something for years, perhaps decades, which would otherwise be utterly gone beyond hope of recall, in a day or two.

I also keep my diary to record my reading, thinking, emotions, and ideas. This is often material for future "public" writing.

Enough of my own diary. Right now I am interested in other peoples' diaries, as well. But it's hard to find a diarist who really suits me. I have little interest in extroverted diaries which are mostly focused upon exciting and specific events, such as a war or a government administration. I look for diaries which drawn on the whole of life, including the less obviously exciting parts. I like diaries which find a place for dreams, conversations, curious incidents, public affairs, meals, reading, introspection, the weather, and everything that goes to make up the rich tapestry of daily life.

Sassoon's is pretty good in this regard. The diaries are from the 'twenties. As a person, he seems to have been quite full of life and enthusiasm, so they are not filled with the well-bred ennui which is too typical of many writers' diaries. The balance between incident and commentary is about right-- I reckon it should be about half and half.

To close, here is another entry from Sassoon which I found particularly interesting:

What a disappointing man Elgar is! When I met him a week or two ago I told him I was sending him a copy of Recreations and mentioned that there is a reference to his Concert in the piece called "Philharmonic". To-day he writes: "Many thanks for the book. I cannot quite follow you through it all. I gather from the "Philharmonic" that you most judiciously fled from the Concerto. I am sorry you didn't like it. Yrs (scribble) E.E." I replied, "Dear Sir Edward, Let me reassure you (in case my admiration is of any value to you) that I have heard the Violin Concerto eleven times, and its beauty has moved me to an increasing degree. Why should I have sent you my book if it contained a sneer at your music? And how could I have sent it to you unless I admired your work? You surprise me. I merely wished to show my gratitude. Yours sincerely." But Elgar is always behaving like that. He is on the look out for affronts, and probably thinks that all the "younger generations" despises his music.


  1. Appropriate that cockatoos were mentioned when I read this (this morning,Saturday 5th) as it can be said, with a stretch of imagination, that Isaiah mentioned Australia in this morning's lesson in the 1962 missal(sat-lent-week4)- if you follow the Latin text you'll notice mention of 'terra australi' (Southern land).
    If I kept a diary I'd probably have mentioned cockatoos recently also. The Carnaby's cockatoos frequent the city suburbs often now and make an awful mess, especially from a certain tree, named the Cape lilac, which sprouts humanly inedible nuts this time of the year. It wouldn't matter if they DID entirely eat them, but most ends up on the ground. Which can be annoying. And it's a delicacy and/or outright addiction to them.

    1. Best comment ever! In all honesty I'm not quite sure what a cockatoo is. Like a parrot? And I'm not sure what Carnaby's is. A department store? Anyway, the comment is very much in the spirit of the post....the assorted elements of life!

  2. I don't know who Carnaby was either, but the bird (actually a subspecies,I think) was named for him (or her) and there we have it.

  3. Addendum:
    I'm reminded that the bibliometric world took interest in cockatoos a year or two ago when a 1240s Holy Roman Empire manuscript was claimed to depict one, possibly changing the history of exploration in the era. It must be said that miniature illustrations at the time were quite basic. Although a bit of squinting could make out a sulphur-crested cockatoo, I wasn't terribly convinced that it couldn't have been any other bird with a crest.
    Harder to deny the alleged kangaroo in a Psalter miniature by a 1500s Portugese nun discovered a few years ago, etched before even the early Dutch exploration.
    Given this historical background maybe Australia competing in the Eurovision isn't as odd as it seems.

  4. The comment on Elgar, no surpise, adds to the heap of other comments pointing him out as a somewhat unpopular "bore". This may be sad judgement publicly, however true, still no matter what (shyness, melancholy, fear) his works themselves remains untouchable assets of beauty. Nobody´s perfect indeed.

    Siegfried Sassoon perhaps intrinsically a man of his times, good and bad. If you admit he was a diarist writing in modern vein in the good sense, do you prefer the diary to the poetry from your standpoint here and now?

    1. Even as someone who is not fond of classical music, I like Elgar, specifically The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on Greensleeves. I didn't know of his personal reputation.

      I actually don't get the impression Sassoon was a man of his times; he seemed to have some anti-modern tendencies, preferring "old-fashioned" people. As for his poetry, in all honestly I haven't given it a fair go. I have a prejudice against the War Poets which is probably unfair.

    2. Different profiles no doubt. My guess was more that Sassoon had some tendencies that links him a lot to his own times as distinct from our own times. He might well have been a strong individual noted for unusual tendencies back then.

      I think the cautious Elgar is an interesting figure also in his own right. There are two famous biographies by music scholar Michael Kennedy if one would be in luck to have time to go into his Life besides the longingful displays of emotion. My favourites among the major works are Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis and the 1st symphony. (The Greensleves Fantasia is not by him!)

    3. To claim he was regarded "a bore" in any general or widely sense would be to strech it far too much!

    4. This particular recording is on my top five list for classical music all categories. Hope you enjoy it.

    5. Thank you. I will certainly give it a go!

    6. Thomae and Mal,

      Sorry to butt in, but I felt I ought to say that 'The Lark Ascending', the Tallis Fantasia and indeed the Greensleeves Fantasia are all by Ralph Vaughan Williams, not Elgar. All terrific music, and both tremendous English composers, but as a VW fan I feel the need to set the record straight!

      Elgar is an interesting figure, I agree. He is often portrayed as a man who felt acutely insecure about seeming an outsider, but who longed for recognition and the pinnacle of British society. Which he achieved, but perhaps never felt he did.

      I have a lot of Elgar's music left to discover, but his 'Salut d'Amour' is delightful. See also the anthem 'Ave Verum Corpus'. The Cello concerto is unforgettable, and a few years ago I came across his second symphony. Here is the funeral-march second movement:

      Had forgotten how powerful it was until listening to it again just now.

      I enjoyed the blog post, too. The extract from Sassoon's diaries was a bit of a revelation. Very interesting! What you say about the strands of time is thought-provoking, too.


    7. Are you sure about that? Only kidding...

      I'm not sure I know anything about Elgar, then. Perhaps I had better try him out. His social anxieties were quite the opposite of Sassoon's, who seemed to regret his own privileged and well-connected background. (Although not in a political way.) One entry has him lamenting a substantial legacy!

      Thanks for the kind words about the streams of time post, which was one close to my heart.