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 ambition. For a writer it may be to record 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 descendants 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. The 19th century English diarist Francis Kilvert expresses 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.”
- The fragility of freedom and democracy. William Hazlitt, the best essayist England has ever produced except possibly for George Orwell, said it for all of us for all time: “Liberty is short and fleeting, a transient grace that lights upon the earth by stealth and at long intervals … But power is eternal.” There is not a day that passes when mankind is free from “the claims of barefaced power” (another Hazlitt phrase). And power has so many expert ways of recruiting public opinion on its side through force, fraud, reward or flattery that it is hard to resist in any age. Man is attracted to power and to freedom – the tug-of-war is eternal and power usually wins. “Ye are many – they are few”, Shelley said, addressing, he believed, the lovers of liberty. He was wrong. Power appeals directly to our interests, freedom appeals to our opinion. And it requires immense resolution for anyone to give up his interest to assert his opinion. A country is fortunate when it has its fair share of such resolute men and women. Only the strongest and clearest conviction can support them when they are in the losing minority in the power game. Thank god for them.
- The bedrock of marriage. You can generally recognize a good marriage, but it is hard to tie down the details. Generally it is made up of quiet, contented days succeeding one another for all the time allowed. But it need not be so. A good marriage can last through tempests. Consider the marriage of the playwright Enid Bagnold and Sir Rodwrick Jones, chief of Reuters: it was a continual tumult, each had several liaisons, yet they both considered their marriage the greatest success. On their 25th anniversary she wrote: “Oh, my beloved companion …what fun we have had … I couldn’t live without you”. Behind the curtains of their life were “the entrancing gossip of bedroom life, the crackles of spirited annoyance, the candlelit battleground, the truces, the fun, the rage, the love”. But no description or explanation can easily capture the essence of a good marriage.
I suppose one must start with what Rainer Maria Rilke said about love – that it is a greeting between two solitudes. And then gradually, beyond greeting, beyond touching, those individual solitudes become one state that is solitude no longer and never will be again. In such a state those voices that tell all men, all women, that each of us is now, and forever, alone – such voices seem merely perplexing because they do not tell the truth.
- Growing older. As one ages, two opposing inclinations contend. The first is to relax, withdraw from the hurly-burly, take a little rest before the night of the long journey. The other inclination remains so far a little stronger in me, I don’t know for how much longer. It is summed up in one of my favourite poems, Sheila Wingfield’s good poem about the Chinese Emperor, Hsuang-Tsung:
Hsuang Tsung, great emperor,
Giddy and ill and old, carried in a litter,
Saw the stars sway,
His conquests and his arguments,
And his powers, falling into fever with himself,
Pulsed their lives away.
Bow to his shade. To be at rest is but a dog
That sighs and settles: better
The unrelenting day.
- Hurt no one. There is a simple poem ‒ hardly a poem, more an articulation of the heart on paper – by the great cellist Pablo Casals which he once jotted down for the children he loved beyond even his great art.
When will we teach our children what they are?
One should say to each of them:
Do you know what you are? You are a marvel!
You are unique! In all the world there is no
Other child exactly like you! In the millions
Of years that have passed, there has never been
Another child like you!
And look at your body, what a wonder it is!
Your legs, your arms, your curving fingers, the
Way you move! You may become a Shakespeare,
A Michelangelo, a Beethoven, a Mother Teresa.
You have the capacity for anything.
Yes, you are a marvel, and when you grow up,
can you harm another who is, like you, a marvel?
No, hurt no one, bring only the joy you can!