Monday, 16 May 2011

An unfavourable blognosis: keeping a diary.

Again, too much booze. I’ve spent far too many evenings out in a fierce round of intense socialising and carousing, with little respite. Please believe me when I say I’m not trying to show off here. Oh, all right, maybe just a little, but as always with these things there’s a price to pay and this week’s blog entry had your humble scribe spending the early hours of Saturday morning in a fragile state of cumulative hangover. I find this sensation much like I find the word ‘hangover’ itself — the more I concentrate on it, the less it seems to make sense. A weird word, is ‘hangover.’ ‘Hungover’ also doesn’t work for me, but making it into two words doesn’t read right to me either. Hang over. Nah. Hangoverish. Hangoverian. Hangoverness. Hang on, that one’s even worse — my eye is drawn to the word ‘governess’ not-so-hidden within for some reason. I am hanging over. Overhanging? Dammit, I’m hungover. Still doesn’t look right tho’. Never mind — I’m losing you, I can sense it. Let’s press on. Oh, and apologies for use of the phrase ‘your humble scribe’ earlier. Dreadful. Won’t happen again.

When I was at college I made friends with a chap called Ben. He was a tall, dark, good-looking and quietly well-spoken chap with brooding, saturnine features and an old-fashioned haircut. He had aspirations to write poetry and novels. He was sensitive and mannered. Oh, the chicks dug him and no mistake. It was a measure of his amiability that your short, chubby, hirsute correspondent here got on with this sallow Adonis as well as we did. I was a good listener in those days and I believe I was some assistance to him on a number of occasions where objective advice was needed on matters I imagine are of supreme irrelevance now — such were the concerns of students in their early twenties. That said, I never got to really know him that well and like so many fast friendships at University, we drifted apart. He was a thoroughly decent bloke and wherever you are, dear boy, I wish you all the best.

That said, though, his writing was bloody atrocious. Absolutely diabolical. I believe he felt a genuine, sincere desire to follow in some angsty, tortured tradition of Byronic proportions and heaven knows he was certainly a thoughtful and intense kind of guy. Unfortunately his work was — and I must stress I mean this in the nicest possible way — the soppiest crap I had read up to that moment by someone I knew personally in my short life, and may still hold some kind of record if ever I were to devise a precise system of measurement that quantifies supreme wankiness in prose. When a page of fervent scribbling opens with —

“Trembling, I write.”

— you know you’re in for a rarefied, unintended comic treat in the coming minutes. I remember essaying wan words of vague encouragement while experiencing an inner discomfiture reminiscent of how one feels when accepting rubbish Christmas presents off well-meaning, but unimaginative relatives. Not to mention damning with faint praise, as the saying goes.

I’m being more than a little mean, I know, and naturally you may level accusations of jealousy. Furthermore, you my want me to turn my critical eye and gob in on myself, justify my own poncily prolix paragraphic peregrinations. Precisely. Well, don’t worry, I’ve been building up to this moment — and here it comes. I had the bittersweet joy a few days ago while tidying up around my flat of coming hangdog face to dog-eared face with my Diary — and I’m going to share a little of it with you right now.

But first, a drink.

Still here? Thank you. OK, I started the first — one can hardly call it — ‘volume’ of my Diary in 1990 when I was eighteen. A word or two on the physical artefact before I get to the good stuff. Kenneth Williams, as is now well known, kept his legendary diary largely in A4-sized hardback journals, filling no more than the space allocated for each day’s entry with customary pith and waspish insight, all filed year-on-year in serried order. Sounds like the way it should be done to me. Oh dear: mine was, in every conceivable way, nothing like this in the slightest. What we have here is 50-odd pages of an A5 blank jotter with the hard cover removed and the remains bound together with Sellotape. The cover is thickened with additional tape and beneath its now dry, curling, golden-brown patina can be read the following information, listed self-importantly, in my spidery scrawl: my full name, a cartoon caricature of how I looked at the time, commencement date, birth date, precise age (18 years, 262 days), address and phone number — and then most bizarrely, my National Insurance number and an entry field, as it’d be called now, for my blood group — although I have left it blank. I remain ignorant to this day on this medical detail. But it begs the question: whom did I expect to read this, exactly? Or did I think these were the kind of stats people filled out in proper diaries? I confess I have no idea.

So, to inside: just under two years’ worth of post-adolescent piffle covered in 50 pages, scratched out with scant regard for basic journalistic practices such as keeping the lines horizontal. Maddeningly, I fail to use the same pen on each page, sometimes even changing ink in the same day’s entry if a codicil has been added. I’m sure you’ll agree that having a specific pen for the task would surely be the first order of the day were I to keep a diary now. Additionally, almost every entry is divided from the next by a hastily scribbled, diminishing curlicue, no doubt cribbed from observing the kind of flourishes Elizabeth I used on legal documents. Right. It fails to have the same sense of gravitas, event and effect when it’s drafted in a dishearteningly inconsistent series of inks and pens from one entry to the next, including, often — hilariously — felt tip. Oh, this is a classy, elegant tome, no doubts there.

Let’s get straight in. Nurse — the scalpel, please:

12th June 1990

Let me tell you about this book. It used to belong to X (name withheld) but I wash my hands of him. He is lazy, timewasting, tergiversatory, rude and common. Y (name withheld) & I ripped this book, which was his GCSE Art Diary, apart and Y gave me the blank pages. I have decided to follow June’s example & write a Diary. At the time I write this I write for myself, although as you can see I’m not being too introverted & personal. This is because I feel that in the future, maybe some 20 years time, I will let someone else read this. Until then it is PRIVATE! However, no code words, no obscurities, only a modicum of in-jokes — my awful handwriting is my only cypher! Also to preserve any racyness [sic] my life may or may not have [sic], I will only write that which is interesting or important.

Today I handed in my Art ‘A’-level paper. My artistic career is over.

11.50pm. Not quite over. Mother tells me she has news about another Art College specialising in something new — I’m not too pleased. I’m sure they’re going to piss me about again — telling me things I already know & other things I don’t need to know. It also buggers up my plans somewhat — if I can’t get into Art College I will work in a bank! Yes it is social suicide, but I have no morality that way. Career-wise, I’m purely motivated by money — in an inversely proportional effort required/salary ratio.

I know I won’t get in — I know what they’ll say. It’ll only put my future money-acquiring plans back by “X”-months. What a waste of time! Still, I’ll try it. I too may be a tergiversator, but at least I’m not a wanker.

Instant, unintended chuckles, I think you’ll agree. A big, fat dash of Olympian snobbery — some things never change. Good use of ‘tergiversatory,’ young man. Such refreshingly venal cynicism from one so young and otherwise uncorrupted too. Can’t imagine why this chap didn’t have a girlfriend.

So — what can we salvage from this moody, contradictory, insufferably arrogant and unpleasantly precocious boy? Very little, I fear, on the strength of one entry and as diaristic gambits go, it’s frankly despicable. However, I will admit that I experienced secondary reactions as I read it all back — sadness, upset, regret…the red-raw stuff of nostalgia. So much thwarted ambition, recrimination and far too many terse lines outlining romantic disappointment across these pages. It’s not all bad, though: despite my hideous teenage personality, and an endless string of failed interviews and A Levels, life does occasionally come across as a giddy social whirl — as it really should be for any 18/19-year-old, lurching from one party to another, along with rather sweet and civilised nights out with ex-school colleagues. In personal defence, there are frequent flashes of optimism, immense enthusiasm, unsinkable self-belief and an enviable ability to shrug away adversity with an insouciance I simply don’t recognise in myself 21 years later. In some ways, though, they’re the parts that make it all the sadder.

Why did I stop, you may ask? I stated why in my final entry, written a month after my 21st birthday:

28th October 1992 — 4.16pm

I have decided to end this Diary here. Murph, you know exactly what’s gone on in the meantime. If you wish it to be read, as I think you did, finish it off as memoirs — it’s kinder in the long run. Cheers.

One thing that had a positively seismic effect on my life only days before this final entry was the start of the relationship with my first girlfriend. Well, thank God for that. It was time to stop writing about life and start living it, without placing the whole in inverted commas, as it were. Besides, I realised that I was failing to keep the damn thing in a way with which I felt proud to be associated. Mindful of this, I made a slightly more successful attempt as a diarist in 1997, keeping a faithful memoir for about three years — and in proper A5, hardback, Red & Black editions to boot. In the interim I had finally read not only Kenneth Williams’ amazingly, deliciously acerbic diary, but also Joe Orton’s detailed and shockingly candid one. Suitably inspired, I resolved to write ‘proper’ entries; ones with greater awareness of prose style, some forethought, discipline and plotting, rendering them readable and forward-looking. The results are considerably better balanced and engaging — as indeed I hoped I was — and therefore a sympathetic read, but as they hail from more recent times, featuring many people I still know, and render my life then with frank, often illicit, almost pornographic detail, I shall spare the collective blushes and ire. Such a tease.

So, here we are, just over 20 years hence and it’s in my gift to ‘publish’ my diary, as I promised myself. I never conceived any kind of online format, despite being an avid fan of Douglas Adams and his ‘sub-ethanet’ even back then. How things change. How easy it is to make one’s thoughts public. Well, let me allay your fears instantly and promise you that I will not be posting up any substantial excerpts from my diary in future for the plain reason, painfully self-evident now, that it’s simply awful.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans, as John Lennon beautifully put it. I don’t believe he ever kept a diary. There may be a moral in there.


Currently listening to:
The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other (Van der Graaf Generator, 1970)
Still Life (Van der Graaf Generator, 1975)
Wingful Of Eyes: A Retrospective — ’75-’78 (Gong, a Virgin compilation, 1986)

Currently reading:
A Rural Affair (Catherine Alliott, 2011) Really — chick lit. I’m reading it for a book review. I’m still venal, so it seems.

Currently watching:
Cleopatra (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1963) The sets, the set pieces and Elizabeth Taylor — all stunningly well built.
The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001) Films I’d sooner see over reading the novel: Exhibit A.

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