I’ve been keeping a journal for nearly 60 years. There are piles of the damn things in archives and covered with shoeboxes on high closet shelves. I’ve never looked back at one word in them. Being a vain sinner, I’ve entertained the fantasy that others would but, as it seems I’m not going to be remembered as a national treasure, I must conclude the journals have served their purpose. This was to get me to write things down. The physical act of transcription forced me to place half-formed thoughts upon the paper, making them concrete; a delusion, or obsession became a fact, and, as such, could be addressed as independent of my mental processes — that is, as other than the vapourings of a madman.
Nancy Mitford loved diaries. Her biography of Madame de Pompadour is based largely on diaries written by many, at Versailles. How wonderfully full of dish. The Marquise would sit over her tea, reading the Versailles mail to Louis. The letters sent between its inhabitants were all opened and censored by the King’s police and passed along for his entertainment. Mitford points out that a particular delight of the exercise was the knowledge that the writers knew for a certainty that their letters would be read. I am reminded of a war story of an old acquaintance. Bill Jordan, who died in 1997, had been a Marine sniper in the second world war, then a shining light of our Border Patrol. He’d been in more stand-up gunfights than any man on Earth. I recommend his book No Second Place Winner. He was part of a squad sent to New York City to surveille some malefactors. One day he was called by his supervisor to the apartment of an old lady who’d complained about the agents’ behaviour. She was outraged because the men across the airshaft were walking around half — and sometimes wholly — undressed. The supervisor looked through her windows up at the agents’ apartment, and said the high angle could not allow her to see into the other rooms at all. Yes, she said, but just stand on the toilet and then tell me what you see.
Mark Twain skewers the idea of the diary in The Innocents Abroad. A young ocean traveller vows to keep a daily journal. His first entries are enthused descriptions full of the wonder of the ship: the weather, the birds and fishes, and so on. By the second week his entries are down to three sentences about the weather; by the third reduced to the notation ‘ditto’, and, after ten days of ditto, the journal ceases.
I’ve never understood the criticism of an author on the grounds that he had read widely but with no set pattern. What interesting person has adopted such a pattern? In Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, Uncle Matthew said he had never read a novel but White Fang. A good choice.
The death of the West continues. My operations are limited to reading and, occasionally, jotting something down. I’ve reread all my favourite 20th-century storytellers, John le Carré, Patrick O’Brian, George V. Higgins, and the interwar British marvellous odd-ducks, A.J. Cronin, J.B. Priestley, James Hilton, Nevil Shute, C.S. Forester. And I’ve returned to Trollope and Thackeray, and the 19th-century boss-hog of the ripping yarn: Sir Walter Scott. I recently discovered George Gissing, the great misanthrope of the Victorian Age. New Grub Street, The Odd Woman and The Nether World are as dreich as anyone could want. But my admiration faded as the morning mist when I read his last published work, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903). This is an old man’s journal, its beauty marred only by its identity as a bunch of trash. I will give Gissing this, however: his observations of Victorian authors are worth reading. E.g: ‘I wonder whether it be really true, as I have more than once suggested, that the publication of Anthony Trollope’s autobiography in some degree accounts for the neglect into which his works fell after his death.’
How did actors come to inhabit our soapboxes, in preference to dentists or plumbers? The answer is the publicity department. Legit stage actors were once shills for soap or motorcars, but they were not invited to hold forth. Their modern connection to causes is as factitious as their previous link to toothpaste. (What movie star ever used any of the downmarket products they flogged?) But the causes sounded posh to the stars, and they put their names at the top of various petitions: wildlife preservation, anti-vivisection and other inarguably worthwhile propositions. But there were many players and only so many causes. The paucity of issues led to the discovery of hatred (presented as outrage), and its incitement to riot. Many actors turned righteous, which is to say vicious. And why not? The star, whose likeness once sold foot powder, has progressed through selling good causes, then political right-thinking, and, now, into flogging hatred. Of what? Of the free, varied and therefore maddening society which elevated him.
The artist was not exempted from the toil of the fields in order to improve society, but to amuse it. Period. Samuel Gompers (1850-1924) founded the American Federation of Labor. He did manual labour, rolling cigars in a room with 50 others. It occurred to him that if each worker contributed 2 per cent of his wage they could pay one of themselves to sit and read to them through the workday. That’s all the artist does.
In age we turn to diaries and their like: essentially, the sharing of thoughts with a notional other (‘oneself’, or The Future, or An Interested Public). But this is equal to actors telling us how to live, as if Gompers got down from his high stool after reading all day (for who else would have been the chosen one?) and asked the workers to stay, saying: ‘Lemme explain to you what I was doing here.’
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