I’m not very experienced in reading diaries, unless you include Robin Klein’s Penny Pollard works and Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series when I was a young one. But I’m fascinated by what makes someone decide (or be convinced to) publish their diaries and what makes us, the reading public, want to read them. In saying that, I didn’t read Alan Bennett’s diaries through any call of literary research; I love his writing – prose and theatre, fiction and non-fiction, TV and movie scripts – and would happily devour a collection of his shopping lists if they were offered to me. This particular doorstop had been in the pile for a very long time.
My own diaries, when I have had stabs at keeping them, have been consigned to a ritual burning after not very long, for fear that someone may actually read them one day and realise me for the pathetic creature that I am. When I mentioned this to a friend she said that she shreds hers, so I’m not alone in the feelings of shame and unease. In any case, I haven’t kept much of a diary since I was a teenager and they were all filled with ‘oh my god he is so hot’ exclamations and adolescent outrage at the ridiculousness of the world. I often still find myself outraged at the ridiculousness of the world (and find certain men hot) but I don’t feel as much of a need to record it. I try to keep a journal when travelling, and though the Canada one was completed and perhaps my best attempt at an experience-filled, ponderous expression of the electric currents pulsing through my grey matter, it may meet a similar firey end to its predecessors. We’ll see.
The opportunity to discover what lies beneath the public persona of a favourite or infamous person is too tempting to pass up for many of us. The writing of a diary is often a form of therapy (at least it is for me and I imagine it is for many others, except those meglomaniacal types who truly believe the world is just begging to read their brilliant take on life and what they like to have on their toast in the morning). Journals hold brain dumps, meandering thoughts, vague attempts at trying to explain how one feels and why; they hold secrets, confessions, un-verbalised desires, notions and prejudices. They can hold little reminders or fleeting thoughts, meaningless at the time but spun with significance later.
Mr Bennett’s collection of diaries, essays, articles and notes on his life and career kept me entertained on a 3-day train journey across North America, and warm at night in the Canadian Rockies. He is one of those authors whose books I read with a permanent smile on my face. He’s so clever and funny, so well-meaning, subtle and droll. It didn’t even matter that sometimes I had no idea who these bastions of British theatre and performance were that he was talking about, or quite get a joke about a certain part of England, or that there was a whole lot more in there about Kafka than I was expecting. Writing Home is like all of Alan Bennett’s works, wonderfully clever, insightful and entertaining, with that edge of tally-pip English. I have his second doorstop of diaries and writings in the pile, and that may just get a run over Christmas.
Oh, and for goodness sake, if you haven’t read The Uncommon Reader, bring a little joy in to your life and do so.
Canadian depository: Book exchange sideboard, Lake Louise Alpine Hostel, Alberta.