Show Hide image

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

Photo: Barry Lewis / Alamy
Show Hide image

Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496