Going Flat Out, National Front and All

Ian Hamilton

  • Diaries: Into Politics by Alan Clark
    Weidenfeld, 389 pp, £20.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 297 64402 5
  • The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists edited by Irene Taylor and Alan Taylor
    Canongate, 684 pp, £25.00, November 2000, ISBN 0 86241 920 4
  • The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt. Vol. III: From Major to Blair edited by Sarah Curtis
    Macmillan, 823 pp, £25.00, November 2000, ISBN 0 03 337740 5

Do you have a friend who keeps a diary, a journal intime? If so, you’d better watch your mouth – indeed, watch everything about yourself, the way you dress, the way you eat, and what you eat, how much you drink, who pays the bill, and so on. Be careful, but be careful not to seem too careful:

Dec. 14: Lunch with IH. Shifty fucker, absurdly self-conscious. Ate next to nothing and pretended not to drink. Even so polished off two thirds of bottle. Indifferent muck, thank Christ – not that he’d know. Wants something from me, I’m convinced, but what? Fidgeted throughout. Monosyllabic when quizzed by me re. future. Seemed to know I didn’t give a toss. What is he after/up to? I’ll find out soon enough, no doubt. Perhaps the bastard keeps a diary.

Most diarists claim that their jottings are completely private, not meant for publication, embargoed for a million years, and all the rest of it. Diaries, they say, are like the friends they never had, and – people being what they are – could not expect to have. The idea is that if you have a journal to whisper to at bedtime, you reduce the temptation to speak out unguardedly, in public, during working hours. You can therefore lead a well-adjusted double life: dissembling all day and at nightfall revealing to your trusty Letts how crooked you have really been. A diary is thus like a priest, an inner priest, an inner ear: it listens but it doesn’t care. You can tell it anything, the lot, and it won’t make you feel ashamed.

Well, not tonight, not yet. There are of course high-minded diarists who contend that making a daily tally of their conduct can improve their moral health, that when they look back on what they were like in 1996, they can get a fix on how much nicer they are now. And this in turn keeps them up to the mark: they do things that won’t seem too terrible in four years’ time. Or forty. Even the most rudimentary diary can have this usefulness. ‘Did I really have lunch so often with him/her? Assuredly, I’ve travelled far since then. And, even allowing for inflation, did I really . . . ?’ And so on.

Since the diaries we get to read are usually those which have managed to be published, we tend not to believe much in the idea of a self-reckoning composed for oblivion, or for the mortal self. But the illusion of secrecy does appear to matter at the time of writing, and for a period thereafter. Diarists seem to like to fear that their disclosures may be chanced on by their most intimate companions: husbands, parents, wives – those people in their lives who think they know what’s really going on. Does this mean that diarists – like adulterers (and most diarists do seem to be adulterers) – are actually yearning to be rumbled? Well, probably; or maybe not. Who, if anyone, did Samuel Pepys think he was fooling when he wrote, in his now famously transparent code, that ‘Yo did take her, the first time in my life, sobra mi genus and did poner mi minu sub her jupes and toca su thigh’? (In a later entry, Pepys proudly records that Mrs Pepys, having learned the truth of his most recent indiscretion, is feeling pretty good. Sam has lain with her as a husband ‘more times since this falling-out than in I believe twelve months before – and with more pleasure to her then I think in all the time of our marriage before’.)

Alan Clark’s Diaries 1983-91, published a few years ago, were applauded for their beastly candour but Clark was nowhere near as winningly ingenuous as Pepys. Mrs Clark was generally pitied at the time for having to put up with such a brute but on the whole she emerged from her husband’s disclosures with her dignity intact – indeed she was at times portrayed as even more cynical and snobbish than he was. Somewhat in the Jeffrey Archer mode, Clark plays the naughty boy, and turns his wife into a parent – strict but merciful, the custodian of his best self. Since Clark’s death last year, his widow has paid tribute to his sensitive prowess as an adulterer. He caused her much pain, she has confessed, but never quite too much. Bully for him, then, so to speak.

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