For all his adult life, my dad has kept a diary. The entries are brief, but it’s a diary nonetheless: the key ingredients of his day, presented without analysis or reflection, consistently, for the last sixty-odd years. Sometimes instalments can be as simple as: “Went to work, had meetings, lost at squash”, but they’ve been enough to settle family debates about, say, how long we lived in a certain house, or which year we went on that sailing holiday. As the spaces are necessarily uniform in size, the entries are no more detailed or expressive when events of a (you’d hope) greater significance occurred: the day I was born, for example, is recorded along the lines of: “Went to work, had meetings, lost at squash, wife gave birth to son.”
There’s something beautiful about a diary. Reading someone’s thoughts from years ago can be almost spooky, like a time machine. Some diarists don’t ever return to their old journals, while some do, with mixed feelings. Miles Hunt of The Wonder Stuff, a diarist prodigious enough to publish two volumes of his own, tells me a recurring realisation is “how little I appear to have learned in life” – but then, any fan of his songs will know he’s always been a sharp self-critic.
I’ve tried many times to keep a diary. But even one as simple as my father’s requires discipline: those few quiet moments at the end of each day when you’re neither stressed-out, drunk nor putting your child back to bed for the tenth time. Being a talkative sort of chap I find it hard to summarise my day in just a sentence, so usually I attempt the long-form version, where I try to explain all my gadding about in entertaining prose. This is fun – for about four days (usually January 1st - 4th). Then I miss a day. Then another. Nothing makes the heart sink like having to write those brain-thumpingly dull words, “It’s been a few days since my last entry… lots to catch up on!” Ugh. Shoot me now.
Because, let’s be honest, there usually isn’t an awful lot to write about. One of the ironies of diary-keeping is that during the really interesting times, we’re probably too busy or tired to record them properly. And yet, the great diarists have always carved out a moment to do so. Alan Clark, whose diaries (regardless of one’s opinion of his politics or personality) are fascinating and hilarious, records in meticulous detail the hectic days leading up to Thatcher’s downfall, when he must have been dashing about, gossiping and backstabbing with the rest. The answer is obvious: some sort of reward is needed. Clark must have known they’d be published eventually; on dull days, the thought that he was effectively writing a hire-purchase autobiography must have spurred him on. But other, less mercenary rewards exist. Some people find diaries help to order their thoughts, make sense of tough events, even to make decisions. The sound artist Scanner, a scarily consistent diarist (“500 words a day in a hardbound Moleskine diary since the age of 12, always in fountain pen, never a day missed even when I’m on a plane to Australia”), tells me “writing them is a step towards releasing the ‘stuff’ from the day,” adding firmly, “I’ve no intention of ever sharing them with anyone else.”
Admirable. So why can’t I do it, then? The only time I’ve successfully kept a diary was when I lived in Copenhagen for a few months in 2000, and that was because I was a) bored and b) miserable, and on balance I’d prefer not being bored and miserable to keeping a diary. The truth is: although I consider myself more disciplined and less superficial than these current times, I’m really just as fickle, attention-seeking and in need of instant gratification as anyone, and if I write anything more involved than a shopping list it’s always with the faintest feeling that one day someone else might read it, and no one’s going to want to read my diaries unless I become enormously famous, and even then it’d be years before anyone would be arsed to publish them. Oh... if only there was some kind of invention that let us record daily activities and thoughts for the public at large to view instantly.
Yup – I’m going there. In its own frivolous and slightly annoying way, I’ve actually been keeping a diary (*checks date I joined Twitter*) since February 2009. I know all that stuff about mainstream social media being old hat, and the evil empires owning all my personal information, and I’m not ecstatic about it either, but social media can be a diary too, and quite a good one. Entries can be a little oblique, for sure, but there’s a certain poetry to posts like: “Tube strike = muppets on the bus” and “Strange discovery of the day: I enjoy painting skirting boards.” Delving back, I can tell I was happy in November 2011 (“German yoghurts are awesome”) and that I was angry in April 2016 (“Piss off you Brexit twats with your Obama hashtag bullshit”). It doesn’t possess quite the user-friendly immediacy of my dad’s, but with a little detective work you can tell I was in Holland on April 28, 2013 (“Just discovered that The BFG is called De GVR here”), that I was on tour in Italy on January 28, 2015 (“I’ve been stood next to a petrol station for the last 2 hours with nothing but a 2000 year old aqueduct to look at”) and, should it be debated, I can pinpoint that 2010 is the year we held a big outdoor birthday party (“You know you’ve grown up when there’s a bouncy castle in the garden... and you’ve hired it”). Oh, there’s laughter (“My follower count goes up and down like a horny Yorkshire terrier at a ladies’ coffee morning”), there’s TMI (“Coffee always makes me want to do number 2s”), and, predictably, there’s much futile musical observation (“One day I’m going to pay a musicologist to calculate the exact distance between Neil Diamond and Richard Hawley”). All in all a fascinating experience, and every bit as entertaining as the “genuine” diary I once managed, which is mostly me complaining about having to get up at 3am to deliver Danish newspapers.
Just wait. It won’t be long until entire books are compiled from people’s tweets. Actually, this has happened already: bookseller Simon Key’s We’re Asleep Dad is based entirely on his parenting posts, and very funny it is too, but I’m hoping for A Year In The Tweets Of Boring Roadie or – if a publisher can handle the swear-count – The Collected Tweets Of John Niven. As a social document, they’ll be studying it in the year 2300 as we now study Samuel Pepys, you mark my words.