The Private Life of the Diary

By Sally Bayley

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

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Diary-Survival: Endings

Dear Unbounders, 

Greetings! During the final edits for my book I'm experimenting with endings. My book now has a memoir-thread running through it. I tell the story of my own diary as a coming-of-age story, a story of survival. 

This is one version of an ending.

With v. best wishes



Orkney, August 1985

         My family was too large to go on holiday. Family holidays are for a mum, a dad, two children and perhaps a dog. Babies can go on holiday if they sleep a lot. I can’t remember exactly how many babies there were in my family by the summer of 1985.  Babies were being born all the time.

         In August 1985, (my birthday month) my family took a trip to the Orkney Islands. Orkney, if you don’t know, is at the furthest tip of Scotland, facing north. And you don’t have to call it ‘the Orkney Islands’ or ‘the Orkneys’ as my aunt did. People who come from Orkney are called Orcadians, and so I thought that logically ‘Orkney’ should be called ‘Orcadia’. ‘Orcadia’ was the word I wrote in my diary from that holiday. ‘Orcadia’ was title I wrote at the top of the first page. ‘Orcadia’ was the name of the small marine-blue book I stowed away inside my clothes. ‘Orcadia’ was where I was going.

 Orcadia looks over towards Scandinavia, which means Norway and Sweden and then maybe Iceland. By the time you got to Orcadia you are only 575 miles away from Norway, going right and then up.  Orcadia is the end of the world. The sky and the sea are the same steely-grey; the sky and the sea are the same thing: the sea is the sky and the sky is the sea.

I wrote that in my diary because it frightened me. I was used to the sea being blue-green and the sky being mostly white. At home there was the pale yellow sand, the blue-green sea, the white sky with grey tufts and some flecks of blue. Everything was clear and distinct. Here, in Orcadia, although there was wind blowing all the time, it was hard to breathe because the wind was so fierce and hard.  It punched you, punched you in the stomach and sent you towards the sea and sky.

There was no way out between the end of the sea and the start of the sky. I kept looking for the end of the sea but I couldn’t see it. I wanted to see a seam, an edge, a ridge. ‘Where is the end of the sea?’ I asked my diary. ‘How can you tell where you’re going here? How do the Orcadian children live without sun? It is always grey. How do they go swimming in the sea?’


         Going to the Orkneys meant a big hullaboloo. This is what my grandmother said. It meant 16 people on a train and then a plane, a tiny little plane that took us from mainland Scotland over the grey sea. My aunt wouldn’t take the boat, and in any case we would have sunk it, all those people with all their stuff, the hull bumping and scraping along the sea floor.

We took a lot to Orcadia: our cat and rabbit, my grandmother, my 4 brothers, my 7 cousins and 1 baby. Then my mum and aunt and their friend Angie. Angie was there to help carry all the stuff. I carried a small suitcase for my brother, Daniel, and me and I stuffed it with treasures.  I hid things on the bottom of my suit case incase it fell into the sea. I thought that if I put things on the very bottom then no one would see them even if they drowned. So I wrapped my diary inside the pocket of my blue jump suit, my electric blue jumpsuit that turned me into a blue spark in all the videos my aunt took of us. I put my blue jumpsuit at the bottom of my suitcase and it looked like the sea floor.


When I think of our holiday to Orcadia I always see the dark shadow of a video camera; the endless filming of us blowing about near low sea-walls; gaggles of small children being silly in front of the camera; my brothers and cousins saying as many rude things as possible without my aunt hearing; small boys burping and arm-farting and sticking their fingers in their mouths like lollipops and giggling, endlessly giggling. They got away with it because the wind was on their side, because the wind was blowing their words into the sea.  

That holiday was when I began to disappear. I’m in almost none of the footage my aunt brought back: the hours and hours of wind and sky and stone walls; my mother walking around the edge of low fields outside our motel walking Washington the cat on a lead; my mother with her hair nudged to one side; and my aunt patrolling the edges of the frame in a mottled purple dress. ‘Off-lavender’, she called it; the colour of grey meeting purple after the purple has almost all run out; the colour of sagging eyelids on dead people.

 Years later when I played a snatch of those films to my brother, Daniel, I find that I’m barely there.  I flicker on and off the screen like a blue ghost.  I don’t look at the camera. I don’t turn my head the way they want me.  I won’t look their way. It is August 1985 and I’m a 12 year old girl desperately looking for solitude, looking for somewhere to hide from the sea and sky, the heavy grey clouds, the low-lying atmosphere, the relentless gaze of the camera-eye.

Those films make my brother cry so we stop them. Now they lie under my bed gathering dust. When I lie down on the floor sideways I see my mother’s long thin handwriting reaching upwards, her thin calligraphy marking out the dates of each videotape, her blue ornate handwriting running along the length of glossy plastic spines and I wonder how it is that my mother’s handwriting has survived.

She must have used a special pen, a waterproof pen. My mother was very good at knowing which pens to use on which surface. She knew the difference between a permanent and an impermanent mark. She knew which would wash away and which would stay.  


In Orcadia I disappeared. I vanished inside the sea and sky. In the end, I think it was the sky that took me. I lay on the ground outside our motel with my diary pressed beneath me to stop it blowing away.  I lay outside there for days looking up at the grey sky getting nearer and nearer.

On either side I could hear the sound of children, other children, not my relatives, but children speaking strange, slurring words. Children with orange hair and strange words in their mouth came near me but I turned away. I wanted to write in my diary; I didn’t want to say hello. I was here on holiday; why wouldn’t they leave me alone? I didn’t want to be an Orcadian. I couldn’t be an Orcadian. I didn’t understand a word they said, I didn’t want to know anymore children; there were already too many children following me around. When they asked me to come and play with them I said ‘no’. I’d never done that before. I wrote ‘no’ in my diary. ‘No, no, no.’


         One day my mum came outside to tell me that we were going to Skara Brae.  Skara Brae is why we had come here, why we were staying in a motel at the edge of the world. Skara Brae was the beginning of everything, the place where women first began. My aunt didn’t seem to care about the men. We had come to Skara Brae to find the bodies of our ancestors. They were all women.

But my aunt’s tapes are all that is left of that holiday; there is nothing else, and the story on tape is this: in front of the low stone walls, the flat, wide sheep with indifferent stares, in front of the the bumpy hillocks running down to the sea, always there are 4 or 5 or 6 skinny little boys, aged 6 or 7 or 8; skinny boys dressed in combat trousers and drainpipe jeans topped with Arun jumpers. Pale little worms rising up from the ground, little boys ‘playing the fool’, as my mother always said of them, against a background of sober history; a landscape of deep, quiet ritual. Little boys jumping up and down on green mounds, on top of hours and hours of  sorting of utensils and whittling away at wood; hours and hours of rubbing and chaffing and winding and wrapping and digging, pummelling and pulling at, scoring and boring small threads of tough plant tendrils through narrow slits in wood. Little boys stamping and leaping on top of women’s hands, women’s fingers, women’s skin fastening themselves to wooden utensils, women’s hands tying utensils to string, string torn from berry plants, string knitted from thick grasses, string that hung their beads from their necks before one day a large wind whipped up a foul temper and sent the sea over the top of the low-stone walls and washed all the women away.


         I don’t have my diary from that time anymore, but I wish, I most bitterly wish that I did. I would like to have known if I could spell Skara Brae, aged 12, nearly 13. Did I spell it ‘Skara Bray’ or ‘Scara Bray’?  I can hear my aunt saying those words. They were her words. When she said Skara Brae it sounded like an old dead donkey. But Skara Brae was a Neolithic (could I spell that aged 12?) dwelling, an ancient settlement, a ring of stone houses with sitting rooms and living rooms and bedrooms, with small shelves for storing wooden toys.

Skara Brae looked like the farmyard set with stone-walls we played with back home. Little grass patches sat on top of the stone all sorted into neat boxes. Inside the stone boxes sat more stones where people sat.  People at Skara Brae were all women, so my aunt said, women who left their beads behind. Or at least one did. The only evidence of human life left behind on Skara Brae was a set of beads.  I wondered if the women of Skara Brae used their beads to count the days, and whether they counted forwards or backwards.


In 1972, the year I was born, archeologists dug up a handle made from willow and a rope made from crowberries. I had no idea how a rope could be made from berries, but my grandmother explained that it was the plant that made the rope. I wish I had found a piece of rope from Skara Brae but I don’t think we were allowed to touch much. The only ropes were the ones keeping children out, like sheep from their pens. If we strayed too close to the small stone boxes sheep dogs were set on us. 

I walked around the desolate stone boxes covered with grass and felt as though I were inside a tomb. This is what it must feel like after you’re dead and buried, I thought; to have the sky pressing down overhead and the sea so far from view that you could no longer hear it. I walked along the edge of the stone walls and realized that the wind had disappeared; the wind had stopped. Behind the stone walls everything was still. Nothing moved. Nobody breathed.

I wanted something I could hold, something I could take away from me, something I could put in my diary.  I looked down at the ground for a souvenir and saw only small grey stones. Stones were everywhere; there were too many stones. I wanted to press a dark crowberry between the white pages, to feel something alive between my fingers. I wanted to make something, squash and push and press like the women of Skara Brae. I wanted to crush out the colour and store it away. Crowberries, I thought, must look like the beady eyes of the crow: dark and mysterious and cruel. I wanted to be frightened when I opened up the pages of my diary, after I got back home. I wanted something to peer at, something to bring back this place to life, something to bring me back to life after the holiday was over.  

But I found nothing on the ground at Skara Brae, and when I looked up I only saw my aunt with her camera pointing towards me, her dark beady eye swallowing me up.  I saw only the small black box of the video camera moving silently across the grey sea. I felt for my diary in the breast pocket of my blue jumpsuit but my pocket was empty. Behind that pocket there was nothing but bones.






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Phi Stewart
 Phi Stewart says:

"That holiday was when I began to disappear" - and even the diary disappeared - very moving! But is that how you want your book to end? Could it not be with your reappearance?

posted 14th August 2015

Sally Bayley
 Sally Bayley says:

Dear Philip, the book is the afterlife, surely! This is a book about the relationship between life and art. Sometimes one disappears and the other lives on. In this case it is life, I think, in the form of the book. Many writers left journals behind. But sometimes all that is left behind are memories of the life lived. You tend to see the negative and the sad, Philip. I see the positive: my book! My book is what has come out of lost diaries: a fascination with that craft. Many of us were taken, I'm sure, on preposterous holidays as children. My family took the preposterous to a higher level, as with most things fuelled by wobbly facts turned into sure and certain conviction. I had the richest childhood because it was so preposterous.

posted 15th August 2015

Phi Stewart
 Phi Stewart says:

I think we agree. I too hope to live on in my books - all of them positive - which for various reasons can't be published in my lifetime. What is sad is the present state of the Middle East - and of the world - but my memories are of happier times in the 1960s and 70s, when Egypt and Algeria were full of hope, and when the whole world seemed to be becoming more prosperous and more equal. Anyway, I'm looking forward to your book.

posted 15th August 2015

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