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From religious reflection to mummy vlogs: diaries through the ages

Journals help their authors understand the truth of lived experience, reveals a new exhibition.

Why keep a diary? An absorbing and sometimes droll new exhibition in London surveys the history of diary-keeping, particularly over the past century, and gives sometimes contradictory answers to this question. It is a collaboration between the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College and the Great Diary Project, the latter dedicated to rescuing and archiving a growing collection of diaries. The emphasis is on “ordinary” diarists, and on the ways in which keeping a diary has been changing over recent decades.

In earlier centuries, the point of ­keeping a diary was to give a minute account of yourself to God. Diary-keeping was closely related to the growth of Protestantism. No wonder that those Protestant protagonists of 18th-century novels, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, take so readily to diaries. Self-recording signalled religious self-inspection. The purpose remained powerful even as religious devotion waned. When he recommended logging 13 virtues a day, Benjamin Franklin was attempting an ­Enlightenment version of this. When he recorded his whoring as well as his intellectual conversations, James Boswell was not only boasting, but also puzzling over his own sinful nature.

Diary-keeping was therefore a discipline. Samuel Johnson recorded his need for a diary in order “to methodise my life, to resist sloth”. But then he never did it. This exhibition shows the uninitiated how diary apps can now make that struggle with sloth much easier. Sign yourself up, and the software will weave information about your whereabouts, the weather and contemporary
events into your record. Just a few words from you can make an entry look rich.

Modern diary-writers can bring to the form some of the self-seriousness that was quite proper in an earlier, religious age. A magnificently solemn quotation from Susan Sontag adorns one of the walls. “I know I’m alone, that I’m the only reader of what I write here,” she announces – to ­herself. “. . . I feel stronger for it, stronger each time I write something down.” Among the handful of celebrity diarists whose work is on show, the actor Kenneth Williams has something of the fierce purpose of self-investigation. A few pages of his copious journals display, in his appropriately fastidious script, his social unease, his frequent ennui and his fascination with his every physical ailment.

Naturally, it is difficult to know a diary from what can be displayed (often just two open pages) in an exhibition. The samples of “ordinary” journals from the Great Diary Project do, however, show something of the weird unselectiveness that is native to the form. An entry from a 2015 volume narrating a doctor’s diagnosis of cancer sits next to the record of Andy coming over to strim the garden. Another diarist’s notice of her sister’s death gives way, in the following entry, to her trying on a new green skirt: “Looks very nice and fits well.”

One of the weirdest diaries (if that is the right word) sampled here is one Peter Fletcher’s record of all his sneezes since July 2007. Each entry describes where he was and what he was doing when he sneezed. Not very interesting, you might think (perhaps not very trustworthy: can he always be recording the circumstances before they are forgotten?). Yet Fletcher’s filmed commentary on his project is an absurdist version of what was once the religious self-discipline of diary-keeping. The point, he explains, is to cheat his own preconceptions about what is important in his life. Which is just what a true Christian was once trying to do.

There is much here in the way of “life­logging”, a new kind of personal accounting for its own sake. Historians have long made use of the diligent financial account-keeping of diarists in previous centuries; it is more
difficult to imagine that anyone will derive interest from the electronic records of sleep patterns, food consumption, exercise or internet usage that we are busy compiling.

Electronic devices make this easy, but you can see in written samples from the early 20th century how ingrained (and pleasurable?) the habit has long been. Diarists record the books they have read or the vagaries of their health, but also their dreams, or even all their phone calls. It is impossible to know if the female diarists who list the boys/men they fancy or dislike (and occasionally have kissed) are representative, but there is a sinking feeling they might be.

Expectations about what diarists should record were often inherent to the printed form. Early diary-keepers were annotators of thickly printed almanacs. Later, a would-be diarist might purchase an amateur photographer’s diary or a farmer’s diary or a musician’s diary. A sample from a Japanese Kokuyo brand diary shows pages divided into prescribed spaces for things to do, moods, promises, meals, weather – and then a small space labelled “Please use this space freely”. A thoroughly scary weight-loss diary from 2000 requires the diarist to fill in “Best thing that happened this week”, “Biggest challenge of the week”, “Favourite meal”, “One thing I learned” and “Top priority”, before coming clean on “Weight” and “Weight loss”.

Displayed here are some sharply contradictory attitudes towards the making of a record of the self. One glass case includes samples of “secret” diaries marketed to young girls. They come with their own padlocks and often with dire warnings on the cover, directed at anyone except the owner who might think to read the pages. What is the point of a diary if it is available to anyone else? Samuel Pepys famously developed his obscure code to keep his diary safe from prying eyes. So, too, in the early 19th century, did Anne Lister, at least for the parts of her personal journal covering sexual relationships with other women. In such instances the diary feels like a private witness to reality – a record that exists to confirm to the author the truth of experience.

And yet, in more recent incarnations, records that are still self-styled as “diaries” seek to publicise themselves. Carolyn Burke began putting her diary online in 1995, and here you can read her burbling with delight at the number of hits – 100,000 a week, or is it a day? – that she gets. You can watch the “mummy vlogs” that exist in order to contribute to some kind of collective archive. “It’s so lovely to have these memories to share . . .” You can share in any number of accounts of self-improvement. Yet there is a subtext. In the very last room of the exhibition, visitors are invited to write their thoughts on diary-keeping on coloured pieces of paper and stick them to the wall. Many have done so. Strikingly, these scattered reflections fail to confirm the assertions of empowerment made elsewhere. These anonymous commentators seem to equate diary-keeping with anxiety or inadequacy. “I used to write a diary because I was lonely”; “I write in my diary when things are tough and I’m feeling anxious”.

Novelists have liked to treat diaries as sensitive graphs of feeling, readers sometimes being asked to imagine shaking script, or entries blotted with tears. Yet nothing fictional can match the most distressing exhibit here, which comes at the very end. Most real diaries do not end so much as stop, but that of the artist Keith Vaughan (1912-77) did have a pre-planned conclusion. Suffering from terminal bowel cancer, he took a lethal dose of barbiturates and composed an entry as he waited for its effects to overwhelm him. Here are his final sentences. “65 was long enough for me. It wasn’t a complete failure I did some good work.” The handwriting of the last few words slips away from the lines on the ruled page. Vaughan’s commitment to his diary was as complete as any devotee’s to their religion. 

Dear Diary” is at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, King’s College London, London WC2, until 7 July

John Mullan’s books include “Anonymity: a Secret History of English Literature” (Faber & Faber) and “How Novels Work” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special

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The flirting has got extremely out of hand in the latest episode of Game of Thrones

Game of Bones, more like.

Last week, we discovered the romcom residing within Game of Thrones: this week gave us all that and more. “Eastwatch”, the fifth episode of the season, didn’t have high-octane action scenes or lengthy shots of people scheming around maps. But it did have a whole lot of character building: as old allies returned, new tensions emerged and new bonds were formed. And that, my friends, resulted in truly the best thing of all: lots and lots of good, old-fashion Westerosian flirting.

We begin with Bronn and Jaime emerging from the lake: reader, they did not die. Lying on the grass together, dripping and panting. “What the fuck were you doing back there?” Bronn says angrily about Jaime nobly risking his life in his attempt to kill Daenerys. KISS! KISS! KISS! “Listen to me, cunt,” Bronn continues. “Until I get what I’m owed, a dragon doesn’t get to kill you. You don’t get to kill you. Only I get to kill you!” Possessive much? Bronn leaves Jaime looking sadly out over the lake, contemplating the wars to come.

Meanwhile, Tyrion looks sadly over the ashes of battle, contemplating the wars to come. Daenerys and Drogon are presiding proudly over the remaining soldiers, demanding they swear fealty to their new queen. Lord Tarly and his hot son Dickon refuse, and in a vaguely horrifying call back to her father’s taste for (wild)fire, Dany has them burned alive. RIP Lord Tarly’s hot, dead son.

Dany flies Drogon back to Dragonstone, where they run into Jon Snow. Drogon and Jon’s eyes meet across an uncrowded hillside. Jon is transfixed. He gazes deeply into Drogon’s reptilian pools. He removes the glove upon his hand, that he might touch that cheek! They touch. Jon gasps. It’s steamy stuff. Then Daenerys jumps down and Jon’s attention is refocused. What a love triangle.

Dany seems moved by Jon’s connection with her enormous, dreadful son. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” She sighs. “It wasn’t the word I was thinking of,” Jon mutters, before remembering who he’s talking to. “But yes, they are. Gorgeous beasts.” It’s adorably unconvincing. They chat about her new habit of burning men alive and Jon’s past habit of taking knives to the heart. The flirting is purely restricted to the eyes but, my God, it’s there.

Until, of course, Ser Jorah Mormont turns up. Boy, this love quadrangle is heating up. Dany openly and outrageously flirts with Jorah’s new, smooth, scale-free face, calling him “an old friend”, saying things like “you look strong”. They hug for way too long. Jon scowls. I can’t wait for the scene where they fight in the fountain to the red-hot guitar chords of The Darkness!!!!

That scene arrives sooner than you’d think. After Bran has a vision of ravens flying over the White Walkers as they march on Eastwatch, he sends a raven to Jon from Winterfell. Jon finds out Arya and Bran are alive and that the White Walkers are approaching their destination. After a long debate, Dany, Jon, Tyron, Davos and Jorah all agree that the priority is to get Cersei to believe the White Walkers are real – by taking one captive and bringing it to King’s Landing. Of course, Jorah and Jon use this opportunity to dick swing in front of Dany like “No, I, The Big Man, will go beyond the Wall, because my penis is larger.” Dany absolutely loves it, doing the same facial expression she used to reserve for gazing between Daario Naharis’s naked thighs.

Even after all this, the flirting is not over for the Dragonstone club. Davos runs off to King’s Landing with Tyrion, where he discovers………. GENDRY! And, my dudes, he’s hotter than ever!! My heart truly sings. What we lost with Dickon’s death (RIP Lord Tarly’s hot, dead son) we gain twice over with the return of the sweaty, hammer-wielding bastard son of Robert Baratheon. Davos and Gendry flirt about Gendry’s love of rowing, Davos’s aging face and being fucked, hard (by Time). Mere seconds later, as they attempt to escape in their comically tiny and unstable boat, Davos flirts with some guards about their massive erections (before Gendry murders them with his larger, harder hammer). Tyrion is impressed, muttering “He’ll do!”

Gendry makes an instant impression back at Dragonstone by refusing to hide his true identity as Davos suggests immediately introducing himself as the bastard son of Robert Baratheon, asking to join the trip to the Wall, and flirting outrageously with Jon by teasing him for being short. Jon absolutely loves it. “Our fathers trusted each other, why shouldn’t we?” Gendry says, cheerfully. (Editor’s note: thanks to the political ramifications of their friendship, both Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark are dead.)

Before we leave Dragonstone we pack in three more sexually-charged conversations. Tyrion flirts with Jorah. “You may not believe it, but I’ve missed you, Mormont,” he says. “Nobody glowers like you, not even Grey Worm.” In a gesture of grand romance, he gives Mormont a coin from their past, and insists he promise to make it back from The Wall alive, in order to return it. Then Jorah and Dany exchange syrupy goodbyes, Dany grabbing Jorah’s hands and Jorah kissing hers. Jon turns up and fishes for compliments. “If I don’t return, at least you won’t have to deal with the king of the North anymore.” “I’ve grown used to him,” she replies. It looks like Jorah has won the battle – but Jon will win the war.

Outside of the steamy boudoir of Dragonstone, elsewhere in Westeros, relationships are tested. In King’s Landing, Jaime confronts Cersei about Dany’s unbeatable dragons, and Olenna’s confession that she murdered Joffrey. Tyrion meets Jaime to tell him of the White Walkers and Dany’s proposition of a truce. Cersei responds with the shocking reveal that she’s pregnant, and plans to tell the world that Jaime is the father.

In Winterfell, Arya watches Sansa placate the Northern Lords as they complain about Jon – and finds Sansa not protective enough of her brother. When Sansa tries to explain the importance of diplomacy, Arya is like “just kill em all, bitch” as she is wont to do. Sansa sounds surprisingly like her brother when she says: “I’m sure cutting off heads is very satisfying, but that’s not the way you get people to work together.” It’s the first hint we get that while Arya is very good at murdering others and surviving herself, she’s not brilliant at managing other people – a thread that continues when she falls into a trap set by Littlefinger, who, by pretending to hide a letter from Arya, leads her straight to it. It’s the letter Sansa was forced to send to Robb when she was a prisoner of Cersei – asking him to swear fealty to her beloved King Joffrey. It’s intended to poison Arya against her sister – but I don’t buy that she would be fooled so easily

In the Citadel, Sam ignores his smart girlfriend because he’s an idiot. Gilly discovers in one of the citadel’s dusty old books that Prince Rhaegar Targaryen’s marriage in Dorne (presumably to his Dornish wife, Elia Martell) was annulled and he was remarried – possibly to Lyanna Stark. We know that Jon is actually Rhaegar’s son with Lyanna Stark - if Jon was their legitimate child, that’s a key piece of the puzzle in figuring out if Jon has a claim to the Iron Throne. Sam responds by talking over her, jacking in his maester training and leaving the city with all the useful information in. Good one, ya idiot.

Finally, Jon visits the Wall where he is reunited with the Wildlings. Tormund obviously lusts after Brienne – “the big woman” – which makes Jon chuckle with delight. He discovers the Brotherhood Without Banners in the basement, and they all flirt by insulting each other repeatedly. Jon gets to do his favourite thing of reminding everyone that there real war is the one with DEATH. “We’re all on the same side,” he insists. “We’re still breathing.” It’s a great line on which to end the episode, which closes with a shot of this ragtag bunch o’ misfits striding out beyond the wall. Will this motley crew figure out a way to work together? Will they complete their quest and secure a White Walker? Or will they discover that, all along, the real prize beyond the Wall… was friendship?

But time for the real question: who was the baddest bitch on this week’s Game of Thrones?

  • Bronn calling Jaime a cunt. +11. Same.
  • Jon telling Daenerys her dragons aren’t beautiful. +9. Risky move.
  • Sam just boldly butting in to a Serious Maester convention when he’s essentially their cleaner. +19.
  • Tyrion and Varis sipping wine and reading private letters. +8 each.
  • Dany openly lusting over two men and subtly encouraging them to vie for her affection. +21. This is serious bad bitch behaviour.
  • Davos seriously suggesting that Gendry rename himself “Clovis”. What the fuck kind of weird name is Clovis?! +12.
  • Davos: “Don’t mind me, all I’ve ever done is live to a ripe old age!” +16. Why does no one ever listen to Davos!!!
  • Gilly just casually discovering some of the most crucial information for the wars to come. +21.
  • Gilly taking no shit when Sam treats her like a total fucking idiot. +17.
  • Sam, being a total twat. -71.
  • Gendry immediately running off with Davos after five seconds in his company again and no knowledge of the task at hand. +14.
  • Gendry killing people with an enormous phallic hammer. +8.
  • Gendry discarding all advice and breezily identifying himself to a potential rival for the Iron Throne. +18
  • Gendry negging the King of the North five seconds after meeting him. +12.

That means this week’s bad bitch is Gendry!!!!! The hammer-weilding, Jon-teasing king of my life. He is closely followed by Gilly, who I strongly suspect will get her day in the sun one day soon. Congrats to both.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.