I have never been able to keep a diary. There have been several attempts. It goes quite well the first day, the second day I’m really getting into my stride, and then the third day I abandon it for ever. I’m much better at keeping lists – mainly of things I’m reading or plan to read. For a while I kept a list of famous people I’d met; though of course it was really a list of famous people I’d seen. Against my better judgment, I did count people I’d seen as part of a crowd or from a seat in a stadium – how else to get Prince and Beyoncé and The Rock on there? But what I was actually interested in was contingency: the way that grand, remote, protected lives, purring along on their own tracks, could suddenly and accidentally cut across mine. Ideal encounters would be as close to non-events as possible: essentially without meaning, over and done with in less than a minute. I’d started to keep the list after reading a passage in Havelock Ellis’s autobiography. Ellis was a medical student in Westminster in the early 1880s, and remembered glimpsing ‘many notable personages’:
I passed Gladstone walking along Whitehall, vigorous, alert, well-set, even in old-age; Parnell near the same spot … the blind Fawcett being led across Westminster Bridge. On the other side of the bridge [nearer Lambeth Palace] I once met Archbishop Benson … I had earlier seen his predecessor a few yards further away, the grave, statesmanlike Tait, stopping outside Westminster Bridge station to read the newspaper placards; and on the platform of that station I once saw the dark-eyed Huxley waiting for the train.
Gladstone! Walking down the street! Not talking, or writing, or speechifying, or expounding on obscure subjects, or glugging champagne, or chopping down trees, or shooting off his own finger, or taking tea with prostitutes, or fixing someone with an eagle-eyed glare. Just walking down the street. On the way to something. In between things. (Am I alone in thinking it would be much more exciting, in some fantasy scenario, to spy Dickens getting into a cab, or Virginia Woolf coming out of the loo, than to sit down to dinner with either?) When I read Ellis I happened to be working in Westminster myself, in Parliament, and it seemed a nice idea to keep track of the people I saw. The list I made while I was there (it was 2014) doesn’t seem very interesting now: it abounds with Ballses and Coopers and Danny Alexanders (there was also Hugh Grant). But at some point I started adding in the famous people I’d seen already. In 2013 I was at 10 Downing Street for a reception – I’d written something for the history section of the website, heady days – and, unfêted at the edge of the room, gazed out of a window onto the garden. There I saw Samantha Cameron and the Cameron children playing with a baby deer on the lawn. A baby deer. I still don’t understand this. What was it doing there? It had, and has retained in my memory, the quality of a hallucination, though it has also come to serve as my own private symbol for the hypocrisy of austerity.
One morning around the same time, I was at King’s Cross, waiting to board a train to Cambridge. We were held up at the top of the platform for about 15 minutes. No explanation was given. Sniffer dogs were charging about. ‘Drugs bust,’ the person next to me said knowledgeably. Finally, we were let through and started streaming past the first lot of carriages, which were dim and locked. In one of the windows I noticed something shiny winking at me – foil for a crack pipe? – so I paused to take a closer look. There was someone sitting in the nearest seat. It was the queen, separated from me by a few inches and a pane of glass. We locked eyes for a vital moment: if my dead grandfather had been unwrapping a pork pie in there I couldn’t have been more surprised. When we got to Cambridge I stood and looked down the platform to confirm I wasn’t mad and there she was, stepping off the train into the waiting boredom of dignitaries. She was public again, in walkabout mode. But I knew we had seen into each other’s souls.
I’m just as interested, now, in the same sort of encounter, but the other way round: those moments when an insignificant figure materialises in the path of an eminence, like a moth beating against a bulb, briefly altering the light. In 1832, Carlyle reviewed John Wilson Croker’s new edition of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, and emphasised, as Hermione Lee has noted, how biography, by recording ‘many a little Reality’, can make the reader see the world as it existed around the central figure, its depths and contours suggested by his or her ramifying contacts and associations. He gave as an example the prostitute Boswell recorded as having approached Johnson one night on the Strand, to whose importuning Johnson had replied: ‘No, no, my girl, it won’t do.’ From here Carlyle took flight into hysterical sympathy:
That unhappy Outcast, with her sins and woes, her lawless desires, too complex mischances, her wailings and her riotings, has departed utterly; alas! her siren finery has got all besmutched, ground, generations since, into dust and smoke; of her degraded body, and whole miserable earthly existence, all is away … seen but for the twinkling of an eye, [she] passes on into the utter Darkness.
Max Beerbohm, in a perfect essay from 1918, took this notion further and in a more felicitous direction. He selected another instance from the Life, when Johnson and Boswell are weighing the merits of notable clergymen in the hour before dinner at Mrs Thrale’s:
Boswell: What I want to know is, what sermons afford the best specimen of English pulpit eloquence.
Johnson: We have no sermons addressed to the passions, that are good for anything; if you mean that kind of eloquence.
A Clergyman, whose name I do not recollect: Were not Dodd’s sermons addressed to the passions?
Johnson: They were nothing, Sir, be they addressed to what they may.
‘Bang!’ Beerbohm writes, ‘and the rabbit that had popped from its burrow was no more.’ He continues:
Why hadn’t Boswell told us there was a clergyman present? … I suppose the clergyman was left to take us unawares because just so did he take the company … This unfortunate clergyman may have had something in him, but I judge that he lacked the gift of seeming as if he had. That deficiency, however, does not account for the horrid fate that befell him … To any one in Holy Orders [Johnson] habitually listened with a grace and charming deference … What drew the blasting flash must have been not the question itself, but the manner in which it was asked … Say the words aloud: ‘Were not Dodd’s sermons addressed to the passions?’ They are words which, if you have any dramatic and histrionic sense, cannot be said except in a high, thin voice.
He goes on:
I see him as he sits there … He sits on the edge of a chair in the background. He has colourless eyes, fixed earnestly, and a face almost as pale as the clerical bands beneath his somewhat receding chin. His forehead is high and narrow, his hair mouse-coloured. His hands are clasped tight before him, the knuckles standing out sharply … He has no positive intention of speaking. Very much, nevertheless, is he wishing in the back of his mind that he could say something – something whereat the great Doctor would turn on him and say, after a pause for thought, ‘Why, yes, Sir. That is most justly observed’ or ‘Sir, this has never occurred to me. I thank you’ – thereby fixing the observer forever high in the esteem of all. And now in a flash the chance presents itself. ‘We have,’ shouts Johnson, ‘no sermons addressed to the passions, that are good for anything.’ I see the curate’s frame quiver with sudden impulse, and his mouth fly open, and – no, I can’t bear it, I shut my eyes and ears. But audible, even so, is something shrill, followed by something thunderous.
I’ve been thinking about all this – one thought coming across another and setting off its little reaction – because I’ve been reading Ivy and Stevie (1971), a collection of two interviews, one with Ivy Compton-Burnett and one with Stevie Smith, recorded and transcribed by Kay Dick in 1963 and 1970 respectively and published after the writers’ deaths. I’ve called them interviews, but actually they are conversations with friends: Dick knew both women well and the transcripts are loose, easy, off-kilter. They are, in fact, encounters – small openings onto the living past, like Boswell’s – and it is their atmosphere of unstudied immediacy, the fact that they are unlike newspaper or radio interviews or biographical treatments, that makes them so enjoyable to read.
At one point in her chat with Compton-Burnett, Dick says: ‘You’re not concerned, are you, about what people do, so much as with what they think about what they’re doing?’
ICB: Well, people in civilised life don’t do much, do they?
KD: People in your books do rather.
ICB: … I think there are a good many more deeds done than some people know. You’ve done a deed haven’t you?
KD: Yes. Have you done a deed?
ICB: No, I haven’t. I haven’t been at all deedy. Not at all.
KD: Are you sure you haven’t?
ICB: Yes, quite sure I haven’t.
(We learn from a footnote that the ‘deed’ of Dick’s that Compton-Burnett refers to was a suicide attempt.) Only at a couple of points does Compton-Burnett sound like one of her mercilessly attentive, linguistically minded characters. Dick asks her what she takes ‘wise’ to mean, and she replies that it’s a matter of seeing things as they are – she expects most intelligent people are capable of it.
KD: You’re wise beyond that point, aren’t you, sometimes?
ICB: I daresay a good many people might feel that about themselves.
KD: Not with reason.
ICB: Then without reason.
Smith is livelier, funnier, more peculiar. ‘I’m straightforward but I’m not simple,’ she says at one point. She is terrifically eloquent on the subject of death (she was 68 at the time, and died only a few months later, of an as yet undiagnosed brain tumour):
SS: I love life. I adore it, but only because I keep myself well on the edge. I wouldn’t commit myself to anything. I can always get out if I want to … I love death, I think it’s the most exciting thing. As one gets older one gets into this – well, it’s like a race, before you get to the waterfall, when you feel the water slowly getting quicker and quicker, and you can’t get out, and all you want to do is get to the waterfall and over the edge …
KD: But you wouldn’t like to be dead, would you?
SS: Yes, I think it must be marvellous. Well, it might be something rather nice. I don’t know. It’s either something or nothing. I just feel optimistic. I don’t know why.
Of course, one consequence of reading the book is that you start to wonder about the moth beating against these bright lights: Kay Dick. There isn’t very much to go on, without reading a few more of her books, of which there are a number: novels, anthologies, some more conversations, a study of Pierrot. Her Wikipedia page is sparse; there’s a short and somewhat spiteful Guardian obituary. In Ivy and Stevie she mentions a time in the 1940s when she and Smith were in the habit of lunching together. It was her turn to pay and they couldn’t agree on a restaurant, so they ate on opposite sides of the same Soho street and Smith sent the bill across. So, there she is, but still I am wondering about her. What was that suicide attempt? When was it? How did she recover? The ‘deed’ flashes and goes out, rather like Beerbohm’s clergyman.
I think, by the way, that I have always failed to keep a diary because I am frightened of disappearing down into my own consciousness. And yet I love it when small intruding moments from life are trapped and held on the page. Smith told Dick that ‘walking through the woods the other day, I saw a huge dog-fox leap up from the bracken, twist in the air, and the sun catching its fur, and, as it turned, it was as red as the bracken, the bracken was as red as the fox.’ I opened up the diary I began in August last year – there are the two obligatory entries – and found this, which I’d totally forgotten:
Funny thing happened this morning. Was walking to the station; on the other side of the road, see curtains open on top floor of a house – flash of naked male torso. Interested, I watch as whoever it is moves into the next room along and draws the curtains in there, to reveal himself as a middle-aged man in Y-fronts. Worst thing was, he waved at me.
What did the fox do next? Does that man still wear his Y-fronts at the window?