If you've been stranded by the winter weather or the (in)activity of Railtrack in the past week, how those dull hours could have been changed by the company of people like Andy Warhol, Chips Channon, Alan Bennett, Evelyn Waugh and Virginia Woolf. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, there is nothing like a diary if you want something sensational to read in the train.
But what about writing one? For most of us, it begins with a New Year's resolution - "must start a diary" - but by the first Sunday of 2001 how many will still be at it? There will be no shortage of excuses. I know, I have used them all myself. The trouble is, as Gyles Brandreth - like Tony Benn, a serious diarist since the age of nine - has recorded: "Diary writing calls for commitment, discipline and stamina." Brandreth writes his for an hour every day before going to bed - even, he insists, if he gets home at 3am. Is it a drug? Anais Nin confessed that "every evening I wanted my diary as one wants opium". For those of us wanting to enjoy the vicarious pleasures of other people's lives, a diary written by someone else can be just as addictive.
For some writers it needn't be a daily chore. Until he became a politician, Alan Clark, now with two volumes of bestselling published diaries to his credit, usually wrote only once a week, often at his home at Saltwood Castle. He would retire to the Great Hall, sit in the study created by his father, Kenneth Clark, and even if nothing much had happened he would record a day in the life of Saltwood. The contents were "sometimes lacking in charity; often trivial; occasionally lewd; cloyingly sentimental, repetitious, whingeing and imperfectly formed", he wrote. "But they are real diaries."
But what is a real diary? It isn't simply a matter of mastering the mechanics of composition. The essential ingredient is the desire to set down one's thoughts or describe a day's events. If you are wondering why, then you are probably never going to keep a diary. It is a solitary occupation, often used, as the novelist Simon Brett has remarked, "to colour reality or to vent spleen. It can be a bald record of facts or a Gothic monument of prose. It can chart the conquests of a libertine or the seesawing emotions of a depressive."
Diaries are by their nature introspective. Not only do diarists recount what happened to them, what they observed, what they heard, they also muse on events, reflect on how they feel, on their hopes and ambitions and so on. A diary can be enormously comforting as a vehicle for confiding one's most private thoughts; no longer does one have to live alone with them.
But do we really keep diaries just for ourselves? Unlike letters, which are written to be read by at least one other, you may begin keeping a diary as a confessional or apologia, never to be opened within sight of another living soul. You would be in good company. To ensure secrecy Samuel Pepys, perhaps the greatest diarist of them all, used shorthand, which took centuries after his death to crack. Alan Clark deliberately wrote his in what he called "a crabbed hand" so that if a volume was picked up by a stranger it would, he hoped, prove indecipherable.
To most diarists publication is not a realistic option but you never know who might eventually read your confidences. Two rural parsons who probably never dreamt of the possibility were made famous by posthumous publication. The Reverends Woodforde and Kilvert left magnificent and justly celebrated records of, respectively, 18th and 19th-century life in Norfolk and Radnorshire. Would they have consented to publication in their lifetime? What revelations might they have preferred to keep private? And would they have been so frank if they had known? It is an important point. If you wish your most secret thoughts forever to remain secret, make sure to leave strict instructions in your will.
Why do …