Dire diary

By and large I disapprove of diaries or, to be more precise, I disapprove of the effort required to keep diaries. I have tried on a number of signal occasions during my life to record the great (or mostly ephemeral) flux of events as they washed over me day by day, and I have failed. On the third or perhaps the eighth or, best ever, on the 29th day, I have given up. The encrypting pen has fallen from my nerveless fingers, stupefied by the banal run of recorded events that scarcely merited being allowed to happen let alone being written down.

For extremely busy and prominent people, like, say, John Howard or Alexander Downer, the diary might be a luxury they cannot afford the time for. But addicted diarists, of whom, for all I know, Howard and Downer may be two, will always write something down, which is another one of the many things wrong with this form of self-expression. Imagine the swiftly scrawled entries in John Howard’s diary over the latter days of February and in early March—swiftly scrawled but still influenced by the inveterate diarist’s need to give the impression of development and evolution, and to deny, correspondingly, that one day may—and usually does—turn out to be depressingly like those before it.

24th Feb: ‘Saddam Hussein is running out of time.’

25th Feb: ‘For Saddam Hussein, time is running out.’ 26th Feb: ‘Time is what is running out for Saddam Hussein.’ 27th Feb: ‘Running out for Saddam Hussein is—TIME!’ 28th Feb: ‘Check with George to see if time still running out for SH.’ 1st March: ‘Pinch and a punch first day of the month and no returns.’
Or Alexander Downer’s equivalent quotidian notes.

24th Feb: ‘War starts in five days.’ 25th Feb: ‘War starts in four days.’ 26th Feb: ‘War starts in two days.’

7th Feb: ‘Pinch and a punch first day of the month and no returns.’ 28th Feb: ‘Shit!’

I think one of the reasons I so deeply loathe those news­paper feature pieces that purport to be a typical week in the life of some luminary, celebrity or other significant nubile or virile, is that such effusions are actually disguised diaries. But diaries of the worst kind—diaries in which life is just so packed, exciting, lovely, promising and fulfilling that it is almost impossible to contemplate it without inducing dangerous rapture.

‘Monday: Excellent jog round the Tan. Later, met Fifi for coffee at La Gabinetta before signing the Falconi deal. Coalition of the willing invaded Iraq. Or was that yesterday?’

I know I hate this stuff because I found among my archives (that is, piles of papers randomly abandoned in the cupboards, the corners and under the table of the room I call my ‘study’), the following aperçu—an anti-diary from my distant past, a tortured tirade against the deceptions of the world of ‘Dear
Diary’ and ‘That was My Week’.

‘Is there anybody left out there who still finds mouse dirt in the pantry? Who has mice that are too intellectual to be deceived by a trap and seem to thrive on virulent poisons? Who forgets to put out the rubbish two weeks running? Whose team loses after being 63 points in front at half-time? Who has noticed a slight variation in bowel routine that must surely denote cancer? Who has failed for two and a half years to organise an optometrist appointment and has as a result the largest collection of abandoned magnifiers in the Pacific basin? Who remembers to put out the rubbish in the third week only to have it disdained by the garbos because the local foraging cats have spread it a mile down the road during the night?

‘Surely there are just a few others who submit their ‘best’ kitchen knives to a sharpening steel, stropping in the approved and wristy manner, and succeed in producing edges so dull that if applied to the roast lamb they leave a broad, blunt furrow.

‘Doesn’t anybody else have a pop-up toaster with five sensitive settings, each of which burns even the coarsest bread to a black twist? That sometimes “pops up” with such anti-Newtonian fervour that it flings the incinerated wafer high in the air and drops it into the washing-up water, but at other unpredictable moments imprisons a piece of bread, regardless of its configuration, as if in a vise so that it is only ever retrievable by fishing for it with a knife—a process which blacks out the entire house if the dryer is also running?

‘Is there really nowhere else in this best of all possible worlds where Marcus Aurelius is daily invoked: “This too shall pass”? Where each pair of socks consigned to the wash metamorphoses into one sock, while the other one is transmuted through the ether by means unknown to science, and re-emerges in another room transformed into a wire coat­hanger? Is there no other household that counterposes 683 wire coathangers with five and a half dozen odd socks?’

Dear bloody diary: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. This too shall pass. And so on ... Add your own favourites.

Time is running out.

Brian Matthews is a writer and academic.



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