Diaries: something sensational to read in the train
I keep a diary. I do it, in part, I think because time flies by so fast that if I didn't stop to record some of what's been happening I'd forget it ever happened. I do it, too, because I'm very lucky: I meet a lot of remarkable and interesting people - often by chance - and I like to try to record the essence of the encounter. Last week, for example, I was in the Chapter House at Canterbury Cathedral and who should come up to say hello but the Archbishop of Canterbury himself. (Well, it was Canterbury Cathedral, so I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was.) I liked him. I tend to like people. (My diaries may not be spiky enough for some.) The next day, in Oxford, I met some of the world's leading oncologists - scientists and clinicians who are doing work exploring ways in which viruses may be able to cure cancer. Extraordinary people exploring ways in which the herpes virus (and the measles virus and others) may hold the key to combatting cancer. Yes, it seems there may be benefits to herpes after all! This week my chance encounters have included a charming Italian called Andrea Bonomi, scion of one of Italy's great industrial families and now a prince of private equity himself. He told me that in Italy in his grandparents' day the collecting of taxes was outsourced to private enterprise . . . Only in Italy! And last night I met General Sir Barney White Spunner, a soldier of extraordinary distinction, and a historian. He gave a gripping talk about the Battle of Waterloo in aid of a charity which helps damaged ex-service people recover through working in archaeology. You can find out more about them at www.waterloouncovered.com
Some of my own diaries are in print. Breaking the Code: Westminster Diaries 1990-2007 is about politics; Something Sensational to Read in the Train: The Diary of a Lifetime is stuff from my diary going from 1959 to 2000. People often ask me to name my favourite diaries. I don't know where to begin, because dipping in to other people's diaries is probably my favourite form of bedtime reading. Because of the anniversary of his death, I'm re-reading Kenneth Williams' diaries right now. I love Noel Coward's diaries and because I'm off to see the whole of his Tonight at 8.30 plays on Sunday at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London I'm dipping in to them again. For five "favourites" today I'll pick these. Tomorrow, I might choose a different five. You can't go wrong with any of them.
I'm off to Doncaster now. Yes, I'll be taking my diary with me. Doncaster could surprise me. You never know.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys. I have been keeping a daily diary since 1959, inspired by Pepys’ great example. For my eleventh birthday I was given a one-volume edition ‘suitably edited’ for family reading. I now have the magisterial ten-volume unexpurgated edition produced by Latham and Matthews in the 1970s and I regard Pepys – flawed and endlessly fascinating – as one of my most enduring friends.
A Moment’s Liberty: The Shorter Diary of Virginia Woolf. The actress Eileen Atkins introduced me to Woolf’s diaries saying ‘you will find a gem on every page’. She proved her point by opening the book at random and putting her finger on the entry for 18 May 1930: ‘The thing is now to live with energy and mastery, desperately. To despatch each day high handedly. So not to dawdle and dwindle, contemplating this and that. No more regrets and indecisions. That is the right way to deal with life now that I am forty-eight and to make it more and more important and vivid as one grows old.’
Arnold Bennett: The Journals. Virginia Woolf and her set were snobbish about Arnold Bennett, author of one of the great novels of the twentieth century, The Old Wives’ Tale. Hugely successful in his day, hard-working, generous, prickly, vulnerable, this is a portrait of an unjustly neglected literary giant.
Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon. From the abdication of Edward VIII to the coronation of Elizabeth II, ‘Chips’ Channon MP knew everybody and wrote about them fearlessly, maliciously and with huge style.
With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E Grant. Where American-born Channon, politician and social gadfly, is caustic and cynical, Swaziland-born actor Richard E Grant (star of Withnail and I) is teetotal, exuberant, life-enhancing and ridiculous in the best luvvie tradition.
The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith. Simply the most painfully touching comic novel ever written.