The Private Life of the Diary

By Sally Bayley

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

Thursday, 22 January 2015

John Lennon's Diary

Dear Unbounders,

Here is another extract from my book, The Private Life of the Diary: from Pepys to Tweets. 

This is from the Introduction:


Diary Nativities


January 1 Wednesday, 1969

                    Got up – went to work – came home

                    Watched telly – went to bed.


                    January 2 Thursday, 1969

                    Got up – went to work – came home

                    Watched telly – went to bed.

                             (The Lennon Diary 1969).[i]


In November 1968 John Lennon created a ‘diary for the future’ for Aspen, the self-styled ‘multimedia magazine in a box’. A facsimile of a pocket diary, Lennon’s contribution was designed to be a projection of the following year. Almost every entry was filled with the same banal report: ‘Got up – went to work – came home – Watched telly – went to bed.’ The only relief to this tedious litany comes with a holiday entry on July 14th: ‘Went to Majorca’, followed by a series of blank days and then, on July 26th, the cheeky, ‘Came back’.

Lennon’s diary is a good joke, and like the best jokes it makes a larger cultural point: that the diaries of most individuals, including and perhaps in particular, those of celebrities, are not worth the paper they’re printed on. Lennon’s message is straightforward: he has nothing to say about his life, either because his life is as dull as his diary suggests, or because he simply doesn’t want us to know anything. We suspect the latter. In either case, his response to the idea of a diary as a source of fulsome biographical revelation is contemptuous. Even pop stars have the right to be private or boring. Like a grinning gargoyle above a church door, Lennon pokes his tongue at us for daring to enter.

And yet, on some level, Lennon must believe this particular diary worthy of attention. It is, after all, nestled up alongside some pretty serious cultural contributions – an essay from Edward Lucie Smith on contemporary poetry, some drawings by David Hockney and a phonographic recording of lyrics by Yoko Ono and Lennon himself with music by John Tavener. Lennon’s diary contribution is a joke on the diary genre, but the joke depends on us taking its  cultural context seriously.

Contemptuous of ordinariness, Lennon is hardly equipped to meet the humbling precedent of the diary genre in which finding something interesting to say every day is bound to be a challenge. The diary, after all, celebrates ordinariness and embraces wholeheartedly what Lennon’s former band member Paul McCartney lyricised as ‘just another day’. So why bother recording it? Why trespass upon someone’s private life, even if he is John Lennon, with the presumption that we will find something interesting?

But Lennon is making fun at something more basic than our desire to pry. His diary is also a piece of arty profanity directed at the very notion of daily life. In Lennon’s pop-art world the unit of the day has become so dispensable, so fashionably wasteful as to be completely blank. The future is nothing more than a mechanical repetition of the past. Life has no mystery and days can never anything special or sacred. This is pop-nihilism to the hilt.

          Delivered with the shoulder-shrugging contempt of the teenage boy – inscribed in a contemptuous graffiti scrawl – Lennon’s diary is a tossed cigarette butt that has landed in a rather artistic bin. In Lennon’s conceptual universe, to be counting a day is to have already disregarded the value of the day itself. As Daniel Defoe’s most deprived of diarists, Robinson Crusoe reminds us, counting days is a rather desperate form of survival; certainly it is not living, but rather getting by. In the Twenty-First Century our sense of time is at once so precious and debased, so far removed from the sacred liturgical order of the day divided into prayers – the medieval tradition of the Book of Hours – that one day is pretty much like any other. In the twenty first century, diary keeping is an endangered species of experience: the time and space for the diary’s reflective art has been lost in our compulsion to dash through the day. And so we keep date or pocket diaries, small and reduced forms of time-keeping – the equivalent of a pocket watch or egg-timer – as a means of keeping ourselves in temporal check. While we may keep a check on our time, we think nothing of our thoughts. Lennon, of course, is making fun of our temporal sense of self-appointment: none of us is doing anything particularly important, certainly nothing sacred. What we are doing is watching time shuttle by. A diary then is also a form of elegy. Anticipating its blank pages, we mourn for what we have just had: another night, another day.

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