The Private Life of the Diary

By Sally Bayley

From Pepys to Tweets: a history of the diary as an art form

My First Diary

When I was seven years old my mother sent me abroad, alone. I carried one small canvas bag containing a camera and a diary-notebook. My instructions were clear: ‘take as many pictures as you can and write down everything you see. Switzerland is a very beautiful country and you’ll see lots of important things. Don’t waste it on rubbish. If you run out of pages, buy another notebook. Don’t skimp and keep your handwriting nice.’ My mother’s tone was unequivocal. I was being sent to Switzerland as a reporter, a documentarian. My adventure, like my diary, was not my own. I was to bring all the big events, the sights and the sounds, back home and share them among those who were less fortunate than myself. As Pooh Bear might say, it would contain Very Important Things.

From the first, my diary was never private: it belonged to my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, my brothers and cousins. My diary was communal, already-shared, already owned; it was never my friend. I could tell it nothing awkward, embarrassing, shameful or pathetic. I could not be homesick or lonely or afraid or bored. My diary forced me to be brave and heroic; to muster more grown up than I could manage. It was asking me to be extraordinary.

As the aeroplane lurched out of Gatwick, I pulled the new diary from my bag. My aunt had chosen it, as she had chosen my pen-pal and my host. Its purple satin covered was intimidating, too special and occasional. What could I possibly experience that would deserve such a thing? How could I really write anything in it? I had to edit out anything that would ‘let me down’ as my mother would say. ‘Don’t let yourself down, Sally. Make an effort’. There was something wrong about this instruction. Surely a real diary doesn’t ask its keeper to make an effort? Isn’t the whole point of a diary that it does allow you to let yourself down; to let go of the coherent and intact story, the picture-postcard version of events? My seven-year-old self wanted to scribble in it; to draw pictures of the funny people on the plane; to cry over it when I felt homesick and lonely, as I often did over the next few weeks; to paste in all the chocolate wrappers from all the chocolate bars I was given by kind Swiss aunts and uncles; to draw rude pictures of people sounding too silly, too French. None of this was going to be satisfactory for the family album or the Show-and-Tell session at school.

Over the course of four weeks I tried to impress my diary. I saved up lots of big words and big sights and I wrote them down. I tried to make everything sound like an Asterix adventure. Everyday was filled with difficult and foreign things, but I managed all of them: the Gauls, the Britons, the Romans and the Swiss. I took them all on. I ate rabbit and duck and lots of smelly cheese. I spoke my well-rehearsed French phrases and wrote down new ones. I shook everyone’s hand. I made friends with a boy called Michel in the village fromagerie. I kissed him. I watched his parents chop cheese and sausages. I watched my hosts make raclettes and fondue and homemade pasta. I even tried reading Daisy Miller in French and I wrote that down (a lie; I read it in English). I recorded a few conversations and then checked my French spelling which took several nights with a dictionary and lots of crossing-out. Who was I trying to impress and was it really working? When I went to Berne I took lots of photographs of the bears but most of them were smudgy and misty. So I tried to draw the bears and describe them but I couldn’t draw and my Berol pen kept running out and I was too tired to ask for another one (in French). I became anxious. I had promised my mother I would write up everyday and this day of all days had been A Very Important Day. I mustn’t let it slip away. Today had been Berne, the Swiss Capital. Today had been The Berne Bears.

But what happened in between all this perfectly edifying experience? Where did the real experience go, the off-record moments when my diary-self was shut off and I was just a lonely little girl in a small Swiss village staying with a family she barely knew? I remember wandering around in a large garden full of knotted trees feeling like Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden. Where did all my secrets go? Where was the lonely and scared seven-year-old girl? The girl who knew how to ask for the loo and for directions to the bus station but could never say that she was too tired to stay up another hour and listen to boring adults talk about ‘Madame Peterman’ and her house at the top of hill.

The diary I brought home from Switzerland held none of the things I remember now: eating too much chocolate under the bedcovers at night; the terrible anxiety that I might die from eating a shot rabbit; the shame of being sick over a croissant after a long car journey up hill (mountains). And the crushing loneliness of being alone all the time with adults speaking French. There was nowhere to be myself, not even in my diary. Where was the diary I dreamed of, my best friend and confidante; the soft beautiful thing I slipped under my pillow at night?’

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