A Point of View: The art of the diary

Anne Frank, Samuel Pepys, Alan Clark
Image caption Great diarists have provided fascinating insights to the multitude

The work of diarists gives both fascinating insight and a flavour of the times, says Joan Bakewell in A Point of View.

Some time now my friend Laurence will open a new page in a new diary and begin recording his year.

He will write for over an hour each day, clocking up some 2000 words.

"You get used to it," he says. But then he is a writer by trade. He began writing with a pen in school exercise books, moved to a typewriter in the late 60s and to a computer in the 80s.

His diaries now run to 200 volumes, are leather-bound and take up reams of shelf space. Why does he do it? Why do they all do it? And why do the rest of us give it a go only for the entries to peter out somewhere in late January?

"Oh to set sail for anywhere whatever? Why and how did I allow myself to be so long held in check during my youth? At the moment I feel more desires in me that can be satisfied in the time that remains."

Thus the French writer Andre Gide wrote in his diary on the last day of 1929. He had 21 more years to live.

He won the Nobel Prize for literature and was a powerful influence on the writers who followed him. How good it is to come close to his true personality, to sense how his mind worked and his ideas formed.

Most diarists write primarily for themselves of course. But few of them are unmindful that others might be interested, not only for gossipy reasons but as a record of what life was like as lived at one particular moment.

History depends on diaries for the real smell of the times.

In September 1939, Nella Last, a middle-aged housewife living in Barrow began keeping a diary for Mass Observation, a social research organisation begun in 1937 to record what they called "the voice of the people".

It started the nation writing.

Nella's is one of the most engaging and sustained of these records - subsequently a publishing bestseller and a television drama starring Victoria Wood.

The diaries are about ordinary things, so ordinary that most of us would not think them worth recording, and tempting to dismiss them as dull. Far from it.

Nella Last makes the ordinary, extraordinary. Here she is in April 1940: "I felt so nervy and jumpy after tea I could not settle. I kept tuning the wireless to see if there was a news bulletin anywhere in English and wondering if our sailors were winning in the reported sea battle."

She goes on: "I got a drink of water and tilted the glass too much. The feeling of slight chokiness gripped me and sent my mind over green cold water where men might be drowning as I sat so safe and warm."

Complex motives

It is as vivid as any novel and we know it's totally authentic. Her voice and character come shining through, through her modest domestic troubles, a curmudgeonly husband and various squabbles with the local branch of the Women's Voluntary Service.

She wrote for nearly 30 years, some two million words - one of the finest accounts of what it was like to live as a civilian through WWII.

She wrote initially because someone asked her to, but it became for her that regular satisfying routine of the dedicated diarist.

Image caption Tweeting and Facebooking are the records of choice for many

Others have more complex motives - self-justification, remorse, or the freedom to confide in a phantom friend how hard the world is treating them.

Cosima Wagner - daughter of Liszt and wife of Richard Wagner - kept fulsome diaries, destined to record for posterity the life of the man she worshipped and for whom she had left her first husband Hans von Bulow and their two children.

Here is the dedication of her diaries to them: "You shall know every hour of my life so that one day you will come to see me as I am, for if I die young others will be able to tell you very little about me, and if I live long I shall probably only wish to remain silent."

This then is the record for the family - a day-to-day account of what living with a genius is like. With someone so temperamental and dogmatic as Wagner things don't always run smoothly.

Here she is on New Year's Eve 1873: "Great annoyance from the report in the newspaper that Brahms is receiving the Order of Maximilian at the same time as Richard... Richard wishes to send it back but calms down eventually."

There's no doubt that the diaries of people in public life - if they are observant and honest - can be far more enlightening than self-serving memoirs written later.

Tony Benn's record of politics in the late 20th century is good because he notices so well, and is so attuned to the machinations of political life. More recently, Chris Mullins has charted with waspish delight and plenty of despair what it was like serving in the lower ranks of Tony Blair's government.

But perhaps what we relish most is indiscretion. And Tory minister Alan Clark takes the prize. We learn what a casual and relaxed philanderer he was and find him even eyeing Mrs Thatcher with inappropriate attention.

Prevailing attitudes

He may have told us plenty about government procurement policy, for which he was at one time responsible, but what I remember is that he fancied Mrs Thatcher's ankles.

All diaries reveal the prevailing attitudes of the times in which they were written. How can they do otherwise?

Nella Last's easy assumption that it was a wife's duty to have a meal on the table for her husband, at the same time each day, strikes today's two-job families as totally unrealistic.

Many diaries of the first half of the 20th Century reveal a casual anti-Semitism that is truly shocking. So too are references to those with obvious mental handicap. The tone is often one of pity but not of generosity. Here's the evidence, if we need reminding, that some things have changed quite radically and for the better.

Perhaps Virginia Woolf, whose own diaries are exhilaratingly wonderful, sums up best what a diary should be.

"What sort of diary should mine be," she writes. "Something loose knit but not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk or capacious hold-all in which one flings a mess of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back after a year or two and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced."

So there it is - the diary as a form of words - as casual or formal as you choose, where you can confess your most intimate secrets, let fly at ex-lovers and difficult neighbours, chart your career's ups and downs, where you can celebrate favourite moments in landscape, say, or music.

A place to try out a poem you might be too shy to share with another, or experiment with ideas about which you aren't yet sure. The diary is as great and open a form of writing as exists, and the New Year and the virgin copies are with us. Perhaps this time we'll get beyond the end of January.

And as the year turns and we make new resolutions to be tidier, more punctual, more generous, less bad tempered, there is another resolve we can make.

There's a risky moment in the lives of every family when someone moves house, downsizes or simply dies. In the scrimmage that goes with such upsetting of routines, there's the risk that piles of old papers and tattered records simply get junked without thought.

And diaries may go too. Yet these could prove the treasure trove of historians, offering the telling detail of an era that has passed - mundane matters like what things once cost.

Antonia Fraser told me that the cost of couture clothes has stayed relatively steady over the years. How else would we know unless someone had noticed? Or Kenneth Williams with the details of how radio shows were once produced, and the early days of television.

There is scarcely a volume of diaries sitting on a library shelf or huddled away among family archives that doesn't repay reading. In the time of e-mails and laptops we are already lacking the long discursive letters that people once sent. Let's hope that diaries don't go the same way.