Keeping a diary

Visiting recently, my 15-year old granddaughters were amazed that I had been keeping a diary practically all my life – at least since the age of 13, and I am now over 70.

They were even more amazed that I still have things to write about. But life goes on, I told them, however old you are.

One granddaughter said she had kept a diary for a few weeks when she was 13, but has not returned to it since. I urged her to start it up again as if nothing else, it will provide fascinating reading for her in later life.

For instance, I said, I can look in my diary and discover how I felt when waiting for my GCE level results – the forerunners of GCSE – to come out in 1960: 'I have taken GCE and do not expect to pass in all subjects, especially science and perhaps geography.' And later: 'I HAVE passed GCE in all the subjects I took so that nightmare is over. I passed reasonably well in all of them, too. But Suzanne (a friend) has failed miserably in 4 subjects and only passed 2. Never mind – she simply never got down to any revision. I blame Suzanne 30%, her parents 70% for having the television on all the time.'

But in the main, my teenage diaries are full of boys, boys, boys. In July 1960, aged 16, I record that I am going out with one Ray Cattmull, 'who owns two cars – a Morris Minor and a Ford Zephyr. I like Ray A GREAT DEAL. But in love? Non!'

In September of the same year I make an inventory of all the boys I have been out with so far but write: 'I am not in love with any of the above-mentioned boys, or ever shall be. Ambitions yet to be realised: marry a millionaire (or rich man); learn to fly; pass A level GCE; become a successful writer.'

I continue: 'I am now in 6th form; no maths, no science, no nothing I don't like. No slogging. No John Lamb, who is too awful to write about. No Colin Croot. No tyrants. No more Mr Brown to nag at me for being half a minute late for registration.'

And for those who think that body image concerns are new, I write in 1961: 'I must lose some weight, I really must.' Looking back at photos, I was not remotely overweight at that age, but we all aspired to look like Dior fashion models – some chance!

If ever I want to meet myself as a teenager, as a university student, as a young wife and mother, a career woman, I only have to look back at my many volumes of diaries – there must be more than a million words altogether – and there it all is, the plain unvarnished truth. All the raw emotions, the passing fancies, are recorded, however embarrassing or painful they may be to read back. When scribbling in a diary there is no time to put a gloss on what happened, or to edit or censor your thoughts.

And that is the charm.

Personal diaries eventually provide a slice of social history and what is more, they record the life that only you have lived. As such, they are individual and unique as they are your story and nobody else's.

But why keep a diary at all when the chances are that, unless you are particularly famous, nobody but you will ever read it? Who but you will be interested in your exam results in 50 years' time?

To me, that's not the point. Keeping a diary allows you to clarify your thoughts and also to have new thoughts and insights. It also often enables you to move forward, get things off your chest. You can tell your diary things you would never reveal to another living soul.

And you never know, they may even provide absorbing reading for others, if they are ever published. Even politicians' diaries are interesting, as they give a snapshot of what was happening at the time; history's first draft, if you like. But to be authentic, diaries have to be written at the time of the events; a 'diary' compiled many years later won' has the same impact or appeal as it is never so candid.

Very often, the diaries of famous people are more interesting and revealing than their other published works. The diaries of Virginia Woolf, for instance, which record among other things, her almighty tussles with her servants, were best sellers.

Although Virginia Woolf dashed off her many horrendous quarrels with her live-in cook Nelly Boxall in odd moments in her diary, these interchanges now provide a unique record of the servant-mistress relationship, long since vanished. Most grand ladies did not think their servants were important enough to write about, but for Virginia, nothing was too trivial to be noted down.

Historian Antonia Fraser's memoirs, My History, were published a few years ago and she said that if she hadn't kept all her childhood and teenage pocket diaries, she would not have been able to write them. The late Bloomsburyite Frances Partridge is best known for her diaries, although they were never originally intended for publication.

And what about Anne Frank's teenage diary, recording her incarceration in the 'Secret Annexe' during the second world war?

My granddaughters ask: but isn't keeping a diary a bore? Well yes up to a point, but even brief entries such as 'Aunt Jo here for weekend worse luck' will bring back memories. And in these days when so much communication is ephemeral, liable to disappear in a jiffy, diary-keeping has become more important than ever, as it will be just about the only personal record to remain permanent.

In a few years, it may be impossible to access emails, Facebook or Twitter posts and if your computer crashes, they could be gone forever anyway. Already people are starting to bemoan the fact they have no photo albums any more, as all their family pictures are stored on the computer.

It's not just the content, but the handwriting itself which is an integral part of keeping a diary, as that alone tells you so much about the person. Diaries of course have to be handwritten – that is part of their point.

Although in my case Mae West's famous dictum: 'Keep a diary and one day it will keep you' has not yet come true, it might one day.. And even if my diaries only provide a few hours of amusement for my descendants, keeping them will still have been worth it.