It is astonishing to me that a third of the year is over. It seems that just a few days ago it was last year, if you see what I mean. Why, the 20th century passed and we hardly noticed. And soon enough the world will await in wonder the coming of the 22nd century and then yet another millennium. And it will not be long before the sun consumes the earth. And not long after that, a few trillion years they say, the universe, which started as a bubble-speck, will stretch into utter and never-ending silence.
But my theme today is not of how time passes quickly and is lost forever – it is instead the more pleasant one of writing about one way that many people, ordinary as well as famous, seek to capture the present and preserve some of its passing beauty and amazements for at least a few moments longer in the greater sweep of eternity.
This way is the simple diary. I should think thousands of us at some time or another – for instance, as a new year beckons – have resolved to “keep a diary” – probably as part of some grand and comprehensive plan to organise one’s life better and achieve great things – plans, I am afraid, which very soon run aground on the dangerous shoals of everyday living. If you look back – probably with some embarrassment – at old diaries you may have kept you will find, I think, that January is quite well recorded, but by February and March the entries get sparser and poor April onwards is a blank.
This is a pity. All of us must have wished that we had written down at the time our memories of great events or even of minor, but very vivid, personal meetings and happenings – but we have not done so, and our memory of them soon sadly dims. Think what interest such entries would give us now!
How vivid and lovely and amusing some diaries are! You only have to think of Samuel Pepys, the great English 17th Century Admiralty civil servant, scholar, music lover, party-lover and diarist. He lived over three centuries ago, yet he speaks to us like an old friend next door as fresh as yesterday – about his fears and his hopes, his work and his women, his joys and his hates. Listen to one or two simple entries:
On 9th March, 1666, he is contrite about neglecting an important appointment because of a good party and he writes the following: “Music and women I cannot but give way to, whatever my business is.”
On 4th April, 1666, he is a little sour about a meal hastily prepared by his busy wife. He records it as follows: “Home, and it being washing day, dined upon cold meat.”
Sometimes, it is true, he is rather matter-of-fact about customs which we do not exactly encounter today – but he is still certainly vivid as always. On 13th October, 1660, he writes in his diary: “I went out to Charing Cross to see Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition.”
But Pepys was a great man who lived in the midst of great men and great events. You would expect his diary to be interesting. But what about Francis Kilvert, an obscure village curate, living a most ordinary life in the depths of 19th century rural England. Nothing exceptional about him – yet his diary, full of ordinary, lovely everyday things, has made him immortal.
And even much lesser, completely obscure diarists have recorded entries which catch an eye, like mine, far down the years. So I find a brief note by Nicholas Brown, ordinary attorney and coroner for the county of Northumberland, in his journal for 21st December, 1788: “Died at Alnwick, Mary Robertson, an old gingerbread dealer: children in school for so many years being great customers.” And I spend a few minutes thinking about the utterly obscure “Mary Robertsons” of my own life whom I still vividly recall though they died long ago and made no mark at all upon the world.
Why does anyone keep a diary? For a man conscientious about his career perhaps it is in order to keep a record of his mounting success and developing ambitions. For a writer it may be to record vivid notes for future use in his books. For those close to great men and great events possibly it is for history’s sake. Perhaps for some it is the desire to record something of one’s life for one’s decendants so that it does not utterly vanish down the years – no man’s life should be left a blank for his children and grandchildren.
But to me the best reason is simple and clear. Kilvert expressed it like this: “Why do I keep this voluminous diary? I can hardly tell. Partly because life appears to me such a curious and wonderful thing that it almost seems a pity that even such a humble and uneventful life as mine should pass altogether away without some record as this.”
I think that is right. No man’s life is so obscure or ordinary that it is not filled with memorable encounters and humour and strangeness and interest worth recording. At the same time, no great man’s life is so great that it is not filled with small things also worth recording. Every minute is precious – I like what was said of Bernard Berenson, the great art historian: “He loved life. When he was very old, about 90, he said to his friends: ‘I would willingly stand at street-corners, hat in hand, asking passers-by to drop their unused minutes into it.’”
A good diary entry is like throwing a stone in a pond and freezing the ripples before the surface smoothes again. I leave you with one such diary entry that I read while browsing long ago and made a note. It is by an old man called William Allingham. His name means nothing to you or me. He is in his study, he has had a hard, harassing day at work which he has fully and rather laboriously recorded in his diary. Then suddenly he writes a last sentence for the day he has spent: “In the evening walked sadly along the shore of the Solent, eastwards by Pykewell – returning, brought home a glow-worm and put it in a lily, through which it shone.”
For me that entry lights up like a poem and I see the old man now in my mind’s eye looking down in his dark study at the firefly winking amidst the lily petals and, for me, this May day in Guyana lights up with all the beauty of man’s far- imagining mind.
The year is four months done. Think of the good as well as the unpleasantness you have already known in 2014. Consider the adventures and the friendships and the sweetness one is bound to have discovered as well as the sadness and the blows of fate and irritations that also must have come. You can be sure that the rest of the year will be as full again of life’s marvellous variety. Could I suggest you find the time to record now and then something of the light and shadow that flickers over all our lives and is so soon gone again?