Bonfire of the inanities

Never-sent love letters and the confidential stories of sources . . . they are among my most valued

Should writers burn their private notes and diaries in order to avoid the prurient eyes of future researchers? Jeanette Winterson's admission to an audience at the Shakespeare & Company literary festival in Paris, that she regularly destroys her documentary legacy with methodical zeal, got the head of a publishing house and me swapping horrified glances.

The theme of the festival, where Winterson and I were speakers, was biography and memoir, so it was no surprise her admission caused consternation. In an era when so much of life is recorded - credit-card purchases, emails, itemised phone bills, not to mention CCTV - why would anyone want to erase real insights?

Later that evening, I suggest to Jeanette that, instead of doing away with her very valuable archive out of fear that a future biographer would pick out only the dirty linen, she should have faith that history would bring the best to the fore: in a hundred years, people would be worrying about context and effect, not tittle-tattle. She retorted that it was her right to leave her legacy free of messy, personal elements. Only the work that she intended for public presentation should remain to be examined. She had the same rule, she said, for her house before going away - windows are cleaned, floors scrubbed and the garden weeded in case of her sudden death.

Talent spotting

Commenting recently on Amy Winehouse, Clive James said: "A gift on that scale is not possessed by its owner, but does all the possessing." This came to mind when Owen Wilson, the actor, turned up at the festival's after-party at the Shakespeare & Company bookshop. Wilson, who was hospitalised last year after a suicide attempt, arrived out of the blue. Sitting alone on a rickety chair at the back of the shop, he texted away into the ether. After an hour, he got on his motorbike and left.

Dad, you're a brick

Back in London, I took my father to Providores restaurant on Marylebone High Street for a belated Father's Day celebration. The "Palm sugar brûée with jasmine, Som Saa lime and orange sorbet, passionfruit shortbread and a Dragon Eye lychee" deserved its long-winded description. But to my embarrassment, due to lack of funds Dad had to pay for the meal. The card I made for him from a cartoon cut from the New Yorker summed up parenthood. A bemused man is standing beside a newly broken window. On the floor is a brick with a note attached. It reads: "Please take care of my brick."

Good hearing

Victory! Of a sort. I receive judgment in my legal skirmish with the Greater Manchester Police over the production of notes for the book I am writing: Leaving al-Qaeda. The high court rules that the order issued by Manchester Crown Court under the Terrorism Act 2000 is drawn too widely. I am entitled to keep my sources secret, and therefore can "redact" (or edit) my notes. However, some issues remain undecided. How much will I have to hand over? Will the police be able to proceed against me for withholding this information in the first place? In an interesting move, the three judges "invite" the police to grant me immunity from prosecution.

Burning issue

A round of interviews concluded with Eddie Mair on Radio 4's PM. He was a robust questioner and I was looking forward to a weekend away. That was when the lawyers rang to tell me I had to prepare for the worst and ready my notes and transcripts for possible handover. When the NS's Martin Bright was involved in a similar case, Judge Igor Judge ruled that his property should not be seized because "an Englishman's home is his castle". Looking at the piles of notebooks spread across my bedroom floor, I feel this gut concept of ownership - "these are mine and no one should be able to rifle through my belongings". My papers have no intrinsic value, but alongside stories from confidential sources they contain never-sent letters to ex-girlfriends; they are my precious belongings. I don't want to hand them to anyone. But if I don't comply with an order to surrender my notes, I could end up with a prison sentence. I positively envy Jeanette her freedom to set light to her journals.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug