Diary Writing: Simon Brett

Our July ’21 meeting was the first back at Boxgrove since the Covid pandemic lockdown prevented our meetings after our last one held in March 2020.

Simon Brett, our patron and the editor of The Faber Book of Diaries, regaled us with readings from  the diaries of mostly well known British  literary and historical figures.

He confessed to keeping a diary himself from the age of 9 but insisted it was very dull, mostly detailing events of the day or what he ate, rather than revealing his thoughts or feelings. He was involved in the Radio 4 series Dear Diary. His strategy in compiling the Faber book was to focus on one month at a time, through many different years from the 1700’s to the early 20th century. In his talk he touched on the writing of a drunken farmer in 1833 to more well known diarists such as Siegfried Sassoon recalling a drunken walk home (1922) and Virginia Woolf revealing her insecurities about life, 10 years before she committed suicide.

An amusing personal recollection about K. Williams interacting with a bank clerk trying to get him to admit his identity, introduced a reading from Kenneth Williams indicating suicidal thoughts, which perhaps foreshadowed the later open verdict on his death.

From his own diaries of 1981, an entry about a report in the Sussex Gazette with headline “dead ducks, ferrets blamed” was revealing about his move from London to rural Sussex – different worlds indeed.

Questions were raised such as “Are diaries written with an audience in view?”, and “why are there sometimes breaks in diaries?”  Perhaps, he suggested, this happens when the writer is “in love” or too busy to write and analyse his emotions.  Byron found relief from writing poetry by writing a journal. Similarly Walter Scott found diary writing an escape from imposed and less appealing tasks.

Boswell’s mid 18th century diaries were not discovered until the 1920’s and are noted for their frankness regarding his sexual exploits with prostitutes and dalliances with young girls from which he was “much fatigued”. Unfortunately his wife read his diaries!

Issues of loyalty, privacy and discretion were mentioned. It is maybe wiser not to write it all down as Joe Orton discovered when he was subsequently killed by his lover, K. Halliwell, after revealing his other homosexual encounters. Diarists may use codes or ciphers to maintain secrecy. Pepys sometimes put ‘naughty bits’ in a foreign language to disguise his adventures with women other than his wife.

Diary entries can be rather shocking and sad as in Mary Shelley’s 1815 record of laying eyes on her dead baby after earlier entries recounting rather mundane matters. Occasionally, diaries are censored by the author or others, as in Barbara Pym’s 1932 diary with pages torn out which may have detailed her sexual adventures. Male priorities maybe revealed by the order in which entries are made as e.g. in wine consumed being recorded before the death of the wife is mentioned.

Several questions followed on copyright, his own diary writing, the difference between journals and diaries and the origin of those words. He recommended Rose Tremaine’s diaries and confessed to being more interested in historical rather than contemporary diaries.  This was a most enjoyable and well received presentation.

Simon closed by noting what a joy it was to meet in person once again, after so many “virtual” encounters. Thank you  Simon , for getting us off to an excellent start back at Boxgrove, after the long pandemic break.

Lois Coulthart