Wednesday 26 October 2016

Liam Collins: Dear diary... the dying art that gives honest insight into our lives

After coming across a discarded diary in a skip, Liam Collins wonders if he will ever know how the story ends

Published 03/01/2016 | 02:30

PUTTING PEN TO PAPER: Liam Collins with the discarded diary he found in a local skip. Photo: Gerry Mooney
PUTTING PEN TO PAPER: Liam Collins with the discarded diary he found in a local skip. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Last Friday morning a select few were closing the book on 2015. 'The few' are those who still keep a diary. Many of us have a diary to record meetings, appointments and the general trivia of our lives. But for others a diary is a way of recording the moments they cherish - from the mundane to the extraordinary - moments that are soon lost in the mists of time and failing memory.

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For others they are a form of therapy.

That is why I always believe in reading other people's diaries.

Sometimes you find them in a stolen moment, someone leaves the room and the diary is open on the table and after scanning the pages you realise suddenly you have found the real person, not the façade.

Take this private diary entry from August 29, 2013:

"Sometimes I exhaust myself. I really do - my arrogance, my incompetence; it all accumulates, stopping me up like some malignant clot in my blood. There is just so much about 'me' that I cannot stand.

"If I don't have enough confidence then I have too much, and confidence that is far from justified at that. Really, where did I pick up the ridiculous notion that I'm a 'somebody'?

"From whose stable did I steal this high horse and how will I ever return it?

"In a word, I'm insufferable."

We live in a time when virtually everybody appears to unburden themselves on social media, but you don't get breathtaking self-analysis like that on Facebook or Twitter.

My 19-year-old daughter claims that when she stepped off a plane after her 'post-Leaving' holiday in Magaluf she had over 2,000 messages on Instagram. But all of them were inconsequential, trivialities and banalities that she had missed while she was away.

But a real diary is not like the stuff of social media, it is old fashioned in both scope and breadth, a look at how people really live their lives.

The writer Ulick O'Connor is probably one of the few published Irish diarists. His Diaries 1970-1981 provide a fascinating insight into artistic life in Dublin during a period that is now largely forgotten, even by those of us who lived through it.

But Ulick wrote it down, preserved for posterity.

Take December 27, 1970:

"Down for lunch at Furness - Pierce Synott's place, Co Kildare - Jacobean. No one staying except Elizabeth Longford.

"After lunch Lady Rosse comes in. Fantastically pretty. A coquette. Lovely eyes. . . Elizabeth Longford says she works when she can. Her life has been opened up by a car crash. She feels she is more human after it. A doctor's daughter. Once asked (her) father if he made love before doing a cataract operation. (I didn't manage to get his reply out of her.)"

But back to the fascinating diary of the introspective young women referred to earlier.

A bit of a skip hunter, I discovered it totally by accident, a mysterious leather-bound volume nestling among a box of bad books that had been thrown out when summer arrived at a university residence and the students scattered.

It is one thing to be 'insufferable' about yourself in private, but why discard your inner-most thoughts for someone like me to flick through, slightly horrified but fascinated at the same time. Like watching a 'car crash' interview on television or those occasional searing stories on the internet when someone is honest and millions of others (or does it just seem like that) set out to make their lives unbearable.

Surely, highly educated as the writer is, she should have been aware that it was probable someone would pick it up and find it fascinating, or does that matter any more in this world of total self revelation?

Of course maybe this tortured soul, who wrote her name on the inside cover of the discarded diary, wants to be discovered - like Ulick O'Connor, or Andy Warhol, she too has the material for a book, only she doesn't yet know it.

"I may have found some kind of direction in school but in here where it counts, inside my head - God. I'm not any more mature or dignified than I was five years ago. How long a wait does it take to find something even remotely like contentment? A lifetime? Two? Perhaps I'm not insane. Perhaps I never was. Perhaps this entire time I've been working myself into a frenzy just to ensure I never run out of things to feel cut up about on the inside. Maybe the reasons I'm so imbalanced is simply that I tried so hard to be just that - I suppose it's some small justification for what I've done to myself - this mess I've made of my own mind."

The same evening as I typed these words I asked my wife for some bit of self-revelation that she had found on Facebook. The best she could come up with was a posting by someone who said: "Did you know that two or three glasses of wine a day could reduce your risk of . . . giving a sh*t."

The painter Andy Warhol also kept extensive diaries, all 1021 pages of which were published in a fat paperback. His entry for January 9, 1986, picked at random goes:

"Worked all afternoon. Left at 5.00 to go uptown to Sabrina Guinness's birthday party at Ann Ronson's 15-room apartment at the San Remo on Central Park West - she's married to Mick Jones of Foreigner . . . and there was a black girl there who was one of those over-bubbly girls that I can't stand . . . and I guess Michael Douglas likes black girls because he said, 'Listen sweetheart, give me your number before you leave,' and when he got up to do something he told her, 'I'll be right back.'"

Many others from Samuel Pepys to the actor Kenneth Williams, to the Fine Gael politician Gemma Hussey, have kept diaries.

Sometimes it seems as vacuous as the stuff you see on the social networks, other times it reads like a record of real life.

My 'stolen' diary ends with an end-of-year reflection by the tortured author on the subject of her relationship with her mother.

"No matter how terrible I've been, no matter how badly I've treated her, she always marches back, resolute, with a kiss goodnight that says 'I'm the bigger person and you know it.' She leave me feeling dead inside, because she's so human all of the time and I'm just a wreck. She can still feel things - real emotions - when all I can feel is anger. And I'm angry with her - with everyone - so often that the emotion has dulled...

"It has taken 13 years, but I think that I finally understood why my parents could never have had a life together - because staying with somebody who makes you feel like a corpse is just crippling. I love my mother, but we just can't get along any more. This feeling - this nothing - it is not good enough."

How does the story end? I don't know. For some reason the writer decided to discard her innermost thoughts in the skip and start 2014 without committing them to paper. Or maybe she has.

But like an interrupted conversation I'll just never get to know the end, if indeed there is one.

Diaries are like that.

Sunday Independent

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