Apparently diary keeping is having a resurgence. Who among us hasnât kept a diary at one time or another? Usually as a spotty adolescent cresting the hormonal wave, confiding private hopes and fears to the uncritical blank page. I know I did. I started age eleven in a pretty little blue floweredÂ journal with a lock, given to me one Christmas by an indulgent aunt. IÂ ceased some five years later when the bedside cabinet couldnât hold anymore tear-stained exercise books.
Iâd like to say I stopped when I got a life, but sadly I can still remember back that far (just) and I think that it was just creeping inertia and a sense of depressing even myself.
But my personal journals (very far) aside, diaries from Samuel Pepys to Nigel Slater (a diary with recipes, be still my beating heart) are an amazing source of information and entertainment. Even with published diaries there is that frisson of excitement which comes from reading someone’s intimate thoughts. Before you claim the moral high ground, who has not, or would not, sneakily read pages of an unguarded diary if the chance arose (‘I was just dusting the back of that locked cupboard in your bedroom when it fell out, open, honestly’). For historians and archivists, diaries are treasure troves. They provide an emotional framework to life and times whichÂ cannot be found in official reports.
One of the most interesting and far-reaching diary exercises was the Mass Observation Project. Begun in 1937 and lasting through to the 1960s, this social history experiment aimed to record all aspects of life in Britain chiefly via the words of untrained volunteers. There were also paid recorders who noted down peopleâs conversations and behaviours at work and in the street. I like to think that reading other peopleâs diaries might have been a dream job, although I have a sneaking suspicion that the universal law of talkback radio might apply to budding diarists: anyone who wants to ring in toÂ radio talkback immediately disqualify themselves from having anything sensible to say. But among toads lurks the odd prince, and this inspired project resulted in a detailed and fascinating record and some true gems. If you are interested in background to how the project came to be, look to David Hallâs Worktown about the Bolton experiment which grew into the Mass-Observation movement. Continue reading »