“We were kept awake last night by New Year Bells,” wrote Virginia Woolf in her diary for 1 January 1915, with the First World War five months old. “At first I thought they were ringing for a victory.” There is something oddly affecting about historical diary entries for the first day of January, so full of hope for a year that has long since vanished into the past, and often beginning the diary-keeping habit itself - for this was Woolf’s first entry in a diary she kept for another 26 years. In an age when social networking sites host perpetual updates on the mundane details of our lives, this unbending commitment to private writing feels heroic.
Now there is an archive to house these messages in a bottle from the past. The Great Diary Project, recently installed at the Bishopsgate Institute in the City of London, comprises Irving Finkel’s private collection of about 1500 diaries and is inviting members of the public to augment the archive by depositing their own or their relatives’ diaries in it. A curator in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum, Finkel see diaries as a “rescue corner for the human spirit” and believes that their seemingly banal subject matter will be transformed by time into significance, just as the cuneiform written on clay tablets in ancient Mesopotamia is now charged with meaning.
Finkel’s conjuring up of a future historian who might find momentousness in today’s banal entries about “changing the tax disc or mending the fence” is part of a growing awareness of the private diary as vivid historical evidence, also apparent in the work of authors such as David Kynaston, Juliet Gardiner and Virginia Nicholson. Anthologies of diaries, particularly focusing on the Second World War and the era of post-war austerity, have proliferated in recent years. Many have titles- London Was Ours, We Are At War, Our Hidden Lives, We Shall Never Surrender, Our Longest Days – which suggest that these private thoughts have somehow become repositories of our collective memory.
But to write a diary for any extended period is an exceptional and eccentric act. If historians wanted to relate a truly representative history through diaries, they would have to include the vast, forgotten majority that do not see January out. It would be an eternal winter in this alternative history, populated by a tribe of initially loquacious people who suddenly become monosyllabic and then lapse irrevocably into silence.
While I find diaries fascinating, it isn’t for what they might tell us about our national story. It is for their strangeness, the way they go off at weird, unexpected tangents that pull you up short. On 1 January 1939, an obscure civil servant called Walter Musto began keeping a diary by recording that he had slipped off his nightshirt and stood naked in his Surrey back garden, “rubbing my body and limbs until I am aglow in the cold, sweet air”. In the diary he wrote for the next 6 years, Hitler gets barely a mention. Diaries are ruled by fleeting frustrations and passing piques. “The only papers were evening ones!”complained Kenneth Williams on 1 January 1974. “It is little short of scandalous.” The diarist’s default mode is bathos. “As I reluctantly swung out of bed I noticed my feet,” wrote Alec Guinness on the first day of 1995, “never something on which I like to dwell.”
Private diaries tell us that history is made up of billions of separate consciousnesses, all swayed by their moods, caprices and animal instincts from one day to the next, and ultimately impenetrable to other human beings. My only sustained effort at the genre manages to stutter on until Tuesday 25 April before ending abruptly with the single, gnomic utterance: “Watched Goober and the Ghost Chasers and made a different tent.” God knows what historians of the future will make of that. But I am happy to bequeath my Paddington Bear Diary for 1978 to the Great Diary Project, just in case.