Dear Diary, It's World Books Day . . .
It’s World Book Day! Let’s celebrate books! I love them. They are my best friends. They are all our best friends. And they are the friends that never let you down. Morning, noon and night, a book is always there, ready to keep you company. Your partner could die or run off with the postie, but your favourite book stays where you want it - on the bedside table, under your pillow, in that special spot on your favourite shelf. You can rely on a book: a book will always be your truest friend.
And call me old-fashioned, but I love a real book - a book you can hold and feel and smell, a book with pages to turn, preferable a book with endpapers . . . oh yes, I like a book that looks like a book.
I love owning books and I have thousands - many more than I will ever have time to read. I just like possessing them. I do like reading them, too, of course. I love novels. I love history books. I love biographies. And autobiographies. And diaries. Currently, I am reading the first volume of the diaries of Sir Roy Strong.
For more than half a century I have been hooked on diaries – my own and other people’s. I began to keep my own journal in 1959. I wrote my first entry on my first night at boarding school, by torchlight, underneath the blankets at the bottom of my bed. My inspiration was the diary of Samuel Pepys. I had been given a copy, ‘suitably edited’, for my eleventh birthday.
Over the years I have collected published diaries by the score – from James Woodforde’s Diary of a Country Parson (a window on the eighteenth century and a constant delight) to the 1970s Senate Diary of George Aiken (very heavy going). For many years, my favourites were the wonderfully waspish diaries of the MP and social gadfly, Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, and the good-humoured and good-hearted post-war diaries of Noel Coward.
And then, about twenty years ago, for Christmas, the actress Eileen Atkins gave me a copy of A Moment’s Liberty: The Shorter Diary of Virginia Woolf. Eileen said to me, ‘The joy of the diary is that there’s a gem on every page’ and 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.’
Woolf began her diary on 1 January 1915, when she was thirty-two, and maintained it, with few interruptions, until four days before her suicide in March 1941. It is the work of a great writer (of course), but unlike some of her novels (for me at least), it is wholly accessible: human, humane, witty and wise. The diary takes you right to the heart (and soul) of the woman – as wife, sister, daughter, neighbour, friend, employer, writer - and provides a searing (sometimes merciless, often hilarious) portrait of her circle (that infuriating Bloomsbury set) and her age. To the last, she follows Henry James’s maxim: ‘Observe perpetually.’ She never stops. Her eye is uncanny and her turn of phrase flawless.
Through a quarter of a century, we follow her ups and downs, admire her courage, feel her pain, share her prejudices. She is not so snobbish as I had expected and far funnier. Her love for her husband, Leonard, is very moving; her devotion to her craft both humbling and inspiring. With the diary, you are always there in the room with her (‘It is very quiet here, not a sound but the hiss of the gas’); in every line, you hear her voice, crackling with high intelligence. She provides gossip, intellectual rigour and the quotidian detail that is the hallmark of all the most memorable diaries. Three weeks before her death, she is struggling with the challenge of cooking haddock and sausage meat. The last line of the diary reads: ‘L is doing the rhododendrons…’
If you can, borrow Woolf’s diaries from the library or order them up from your local independent bookshop. If you fancy dipping in to mine, both Breaking the Code (my political diaries running from the fall of Thatcher to the arrival of David Cameron) and Something Sensational to Read in the Train (running from 1959 to 2000) are in print.
Must go now. I’ve got a book to write.