All my yesterdays

Elisa Segrave

Filed under: Biography

A diary is the most obsessive and least communicative of literary forms. Compulsive chronicler Elisa Segrave considers its appeal.

At thirteen, I was given a leather-bound five-year diary with a small key. On its first page I wrote: ‘I hate Mum.’ Then: ‘Saw big black cloud, thought it was going to snow, but didn’t.’ I gave up this diary quickly, and can see why. To me (particularly then, as an adolescent), the main point of writing a diary has always been that it is a secret, private activity – so this ‘official’ leather-bound diary would have defeated the purpose. I started writing real diaries at sixteen, in exercise books, while at boarding school, a convent. Some words were in code, such as the name of a girl who was my ‘crack’ or crush. (A schoolmate confessed she’d ‘cracked’ my diary’s code; I was mortified. She went on to get a First in English.) These teen diaries, started at school, were intense, serious and full of overdone self-conscious similes; I was probably trying to imitate Virginia Woolf, whose novels I admired (and still do). When I left school, I continued my diaries – at seventeen I was running wild in London with a friend with a lover twice her age who sold cannabis. When I glance at these diaries now I see my handwriting is loopy, ornate and out of control; without them, though, I might have had a breakdown. In them I constantly analysed – events, personalities, poetry – and tried to learn about life: I was always falling in love, with a blue-eyed Chilean in Madrid, a New Zealand pianist I met on the tube, with an older man who rode Lipizzaner horses in Tallahassee. This is what teenage girls do – think of Anne Frank. In late ’69 the diaries’ tone changes. I started recording conversations; I was working, in the linen room of a London hospital, then in an office in New York. In early 1970, I travelled round America on a Greyhound bus with a friend, collecting underground newspapers for a university. I had longed to go to America and once there, I documented the remarks of almost everyone I met – an ex-Vietnam soldier gone AWOL in a border town in New Mexico; the editor of Chicago’s underground newspaper the Seed; an old man on a beach in Santa Barbara, where protestors had just burned down a bank. It was a fascinating time of political change, and this interested me more than recording my own feelings.

I have kept a diary ever since: on cheap portable typewriters, then a series of laptops. My diaries describe my daily life with my friends, children, ex-husband, suitors, dog; events in literary London, weekends in Sussex, trips to Spain, Cuba and Key West. Two days after my daughter was born, I wrote of my new baby on an orange portable typewriter. My son, now 28, has Asperger’s syndrome, and there are many past entries about his wild behaviour, conferences I attended about the condition, his various teachers and special schools. (Nowadays he is more stable but I often transcribe his mobile phone texts into my diary: ‘Look, have you thought about your beriel? [sic] I do not want the worry of this…’) Recently, on the Bayswater Road, mid-morning, I saw a dead blonde girl in a short open coffin strewn with crimson carnations, her lower face criss-crossed with black tape. A small brass band was playing, and, nearby, a hearse waited. I recorded the funerals of my brother, father and mother at once. It may have made the experiences less painful, but that was not my prime motive – putting them in the diary was. I justify this on the grounds that it is part of my integrity as a diarist to put in every aspect of life, and death. I would venture to say that writing a diary gives one some sort of illusory control over chaos and tragedy. But what really drives one to keep a diary? I have read other diary-writers on this subject, and have never had a satisfactory answer. I think most of them do not really know. I am just 62, and realise that the amount of words in my diaries could make at least 30 volumes; it is unlikely now that I will write many more books, as the diaries have taken over. Why, then, have I chosen to devote myself to them? One reason, certainly, is pure joie-de-vivre: writing – when things are going well – simply for the pleasure of it. (I remember the intense bliss I felt at six, when I realised I could write stories, seemingly for ever.) In my diary I try to record the truth of what happened, though I realise that others (such as my daughter) might not agree with my version of events. The qualities I most admire in a diarist are honesty and spontaneity; one must never be afraid of looking bad or silly, even to oneself. One of my favourite diarists, who makes me laugh out loud because of her disarming honesty, humour, and high spirits, is Joan Wyndham, author of Love Lessons (about Bohemian life in Chelsea when war breaks out) and its sequel Love Is Blue (about her time as a waaf). On leave in Inverness-shire in October 1942, urban Joan is taken stalking by a handsome Scotsman …so alluring I practically fainted. For about an hour I was dragged through nettles, brambles, bogs and swarms of stinging flies. Every now and then he would fling himself flat on his stomach…Down I would have to go with him, ripping my new stockings. At one point, lying nose-tonose on the swampy ground, he gripped my arm and said: ‘God I want to rush madly to bed with you!’ I gazed ecstatically into his eyes, my mouth trembling for his kiss, but suddenly a big greeny-bronze thing like a turkey shot out of the bushes with the speed of a bullet. ‘Capercailzie!’ shouted Hamish triumphantly, dropping my arm and leaping to his feet. Duff Cooper in The Duff Cooper Diaries (1915-51, edited by his son John Julius Norwich) moves seamlessly from various mistresses to important matters of state such as the British presence in Palestine, and does not seem to mind what a shit he appears. He is not a hypocrite. He writes of one of many girlfriends: Susan Mary [Patten] writes me the loveliest letters and she loves me far more than I deserve. I love her too, very deeply and tenderly, but not as I love Caroline. I am not ‘in love’ with her, although there is nothing I wouldn’t do for her. I owe her so much. The arch-philander continues: ‘Maxine [Birley] is a new star in my firmament. She is only 26.’ Neither he nor Joan Wyndham, I believe, wrote with publication in mind, although Duff Cooper, when he left his post as British Ambassador in Paris in 1947, was relieved when his wife Diana unearthed a box of his missing diaries. He also told his nephew and publisher of his books, Rupert Hart-Davis, that he could not state categorically that he did not want posterity to read the diaries.

A diarist who did write with a conscious purpose was Victor Klemperer. Son of a Rabbi, in 1933 Victor was a professor of romance languages in Dresden. Married to an Aryan, he stayed on
in Dresden throughout the War, even surviving its bombing, and describes daily life in frightening circumstances – as a Jew he would soon lose job, house, friends, even his cat (Jews were not allowed to own pets). The diary’s details bring home the way the Nazi tyranny penetrated into every area. In October 1941, Klemperer writes of a widowed Jewish neighbour, and what is forbidden to her: turning back the coat over the Jew’s star or walking with her umbrella up, even when it has stopped raining, because then her arm covers the star. Or a packet or a bag pressed against it. (A circular from the Jewish Community has warned against it, it is severely punished.) In May 1942 he states: ‘I continue to write. This is my heroics. I want to bear witness, precise witness, until the very end.’ This is a diarist with a mission, and he has fulfilled it. Reader Bullard’s diaries record another tyranny, the Stalin era, again noting with clear eyes the telling minutiae of daily life. Bullard, from an East End background, was posted as a diplomat to Stalin’s Russia in 1930 and was curious, and hopeful, about the socialist experiment. But he cannot help but observe the injustices perpetrated on ordinary people such as Dr Bell, a British subject born in Russia who had lectured at Leningrad University but was told his lectures were contrary to Marxist economics.
19th July, 1931. Dr Bell has two jobs because ‘you can’t live on one’. He gets 165 roubles as water expert, and 125 roubles as doctor in a hospital….there are many cases of typhoid here; Dr Bell speaks of some 45 to 60 fresh cases a day but the authorities will neither publish statistics nor allow any to be published. This is the diarist almost as an investigative journalist. My favourite diaries of all are the intensely personal ones of Sofia, Tolstoy’s long-suffering wife. In these I became completely absorbed. They encompass so much and depict a world so remote from ours. She ran the household, did the accounts, transcribed his manuscripts, (including War and Peace), sewed, upholstered, brought up her children, played the piano, visited the sick…she even interceded with the Tsar, successfully, when Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata was to be suppressed. I ended up admiring this hard-working, difficult, talented woman and having great sympathy for her: ‘My husband is not my friend; he has been my passionate lover at times…but all my life I have felt lonely with him…’ This, and so much of her diary – I remember particularly the death of her little son, Vanechka, from which she never recovered – is a cry from the heart. Her husband may not have been her friend; her diaries were. There is a danger for diarists in the prospect of publication, for then they are tempted to prune and ‘improve’ their diaries, and they can end up sanitised. In December 2003 I was shocked by Peter Parker’s talk on Christopher Isherwood at the RSL. Isherwood, Parker said, had ‘doctored’ some of his diaries: not just changed them up for reasons of punctuation or clarity, but radically rewritten passages, pretending that these were the originals. To me as a diarist this was a cardinal sin. Even worse, in My Guru and His Disciple Isherwood had stated that he would be quoting from his diaries and then gone ahead to fake some entries. (Parker had access to the originals.) Even when it is honestly done, the editing of diaries seems to me very much a secondary activity. An editor may remove the dross, but a dull diarist will always be dull. Spontaneity is all-important. Certainly, there are superb editors, such as Olivier Bell (of Virginia Woolf ’s diaries) – but Bell is dealing with such rich material in the
first place. As regards blogs, Twitter and Facebook, I am a purist. These are not diaries: they invite the public in at once, so that the writing – if not self-conscious – is, in its attempt to be matey, often bland. Occasionally, a very good blog such as Kaboon by Matt Gallagher, an American soldier in Iraq, becomes a good book; but it is still unlike a diary in its desire to share and disseminate a particular experience. My own diary is my master; I am its slave. I write it many hours a day. (My daughter fantasises that I will end my life in the attic of our house in Sussex, toothless, but still tapping the diary out on my laptop). I feel there is no order in my life without it; I have to record whatever happens to me. Although this was not my original motive, I find that I do now want my diaries to be published, for they comprise my life’s work as a writer. And what better subject matter does any of us have than his or her life?

‘Blue Lady Dancing’, Elisa Segrave’s book about her mother (and her mother’s diaries), will be published by Union Books in the autumn. Her previous books drawing on her own dairies, ‘The Diary of a Breast’ and ‘Ten Men’, are published by Faber & Faber.