So I’ve started. I hoicked a few items out of a banana box a while ago to start the process of going through my lifetime’s diaries. These are not the ones I am really looking for, the adolescent journals I first confided in. These are earlier, childhood diaries of family summer holidays aged 10-13, all written in the same soft back book (somewhat water-splattered) covering Ireland, Lancaster, Wales and France, 1978-1981.
They are pretty dull. In fact they are so boring I can barely be bothered to read them. ‘Today is very wet and cold. In the morning Mum, Dad and brother went shopping, while sister and me went blackberry picking.’ You get the idea. The first one, Ireland, 1978, is only 4 entries and 5 pages long. It has the feel of a school holiday project I was probably tasked with by my mother but quickly got bored with and dropped. I notice this kind of record-keeping detail of life is not what interests me about diary writing then or now.
Some of it makes me laugh. 16 August 1978, departing the overnight ferry to Ireland: ‘We were woken at 6am to get up. We washed, dressed and packed. Then we went to the car. We had to wait a bit to get out, because some stupid nit had left a lorry trailer in front of us.’ Stupid nit! I can hear my parents saying that! My sad fascination with collecting paper mementoes is becoming evident. 18 Aug 1980 in Wales: ‘Later that morning we went into Machynlleth and Mum and Dad did some shopping. I got 29 leaflets from the Tourist Information centre.’ 19 Aug: ‘I got some more leaflets at the post office and station and now I have 56.’ 20 Aug: ‘We went to the Talyllyn narrow gauge railway. I got some more leaflets and now I have 62.’ Oh dear! (The worrying thing is these 62+ leaflets might still be in one of the banana boxes in the attic…)
However I feel a fondness for my child self. I notice things I don’t remember that well – like doing more with my Dad than I remember which is nice. An adult now, and as someone who always felt a bit of a grown up in the family, I feel a new respect for my Mum and Dad – packing the Peugeot estate with themselves, three kids, usually my Grandma and Auntie too, organising and driving us from North Hertfordshire to South West Ireland, then Lancashire, Wales, France. The diaries remind me fondly of a general sense of my childhood and fun times we had as a family doing simple lovely things. 29 July 1979: ‘After some time we stopped for lunch by the River Hodder. We went paddling in the river and had a great time.’ We did have a great time. Paddling about in nature is still something I love to do: here it began.
However it is also shocking how little I remember of this. I always thought re-reading things would re-boot memories that were buried there somewhere, but I find this is not the case. Apparently we went to Lancaster Castle, the River Lune, Aberystwyth – some of which places I’ve been to several times since as an adult – but can I remember these childhood visits? No I cannot.
As I have aged I have tried to fight my paper-hoarding tendencies and make an effort to keep less as I go along, both personal and administrative. In recent years I have written less journal material, partly because I simply don’t want to as much, but also aware that the more I write, the more I will have to go through and dispose of down the line. I now have only one box of administrative papers which is not allowed to grow. Every year as a self-employed person I file away last year’s records, taking out the ones from 7 years previous for permanent disposal. There is something satisfying in this annual ritual – quickly sifting the old stuff for any paper re-useable for scrap, salvaging any plastic wallets for re-use, putting most of it in the fire bin. Weight is lifted, it is moved on and gone. At the same time in amongst the 2013/14 pile I happened upon an expenses chit from the BBC from when I was on Midweek in 2013 – a souvenir I put aside to keep. What other gems might I be tossing out without a glance? I am still torn between ‘does it matter?’ and finding it hard to let go.
In reading these diaries I notice things I remember but haven’t written down – a tantrum I threw in Lancaster when my brother refused to continue to lend me his marvellous 10 colour biro I was using to write the diary, a different colour every day. I ranted about this in this very diary but must have changed my mind and ripped out the pages because there is nothing there now, only an abrupt change of pen colour from pink to black mid-sentence. I can see too the ‘good girl’ I was trying to be in writing these, probably to please my Mum who loved words, reading and writing. I may have showed her these holiday diaries proudly or I might have taken them to school for a project. Most are written in the ‘we’ rather than the ‘I’. They are not a place of intimate confessions. I haven’t written about the times I remember my Mum being drunk on these holidays, a regular feature of my growing up. In the latter 2 years of it (1980-81, age 12-13) I have recorded such moments with a little coded symbol in the corner of a page – a wine glass with bubbles and the letters ‘MWD’ = ‘Mum was drunk’. There is something terribly sad looking at this now and it’s true my Mum’s drinking troubled me hugely when I was growing up. In later adolescent journals I wrote about it a lot and there was at least a year when I recorded daily incidents of it in this kind of shorthand coded way. Perhaps the process began here. Though I was not confiding details of such tricky moments to paper – writing the story here only as simple happy times – this does not change the more complex memories I have always had of these events.
My Mum’s drinking is something I am now at peace with. I was able to re-write the story I left adolescence with – that she had fundamentally let me down – into something else, through a lifelong process of journal writing, personal, shamanic and other therapeutic work, walking beside her in the last difficult years of her life, and simply growing up. This all came together in the written and performative work I Don’t Know What I’m Supposed To Be Doing (about my Mum) in 2015-20. In The Diary Project I am examining now the multiple relationships I have had through my life with writing (personal, creative and performative) and personal journey. Any life story can be re-written, but it can take a life time.
I am interested not only in remembering but in forgetting. Having watched my Mum go through a traumatic experience of dementia over a number of years it has occurred to me since that perhaps if we were less attached to memories in the first place there would be less distress in forgetting them. Is it important to remember everything? I find myself reaching towards a Zen ideal of being perfectly in the moment – where I am now – never mind the past. At the same time, reading these childhood diaries, remembering happy times and the best of my now gone parents has been very comforting this last week or 2. So to remember or forget?
I am still puzzling why I have kept so much of this stuff and what I hope to find tracing through it all. (One diary down, 4.99 banana boxes to go…) What can it tell me about myself or my life? Who is the reliable narrator? The child Emma who wrote it 40+ years ago, or the more mature Emma who has forgotten a lot and/or remembers something else? Am I too much fixated on the past anyway and not enough on the present and future? I feel a growing urgency to engage with what is meaningful and useful right now in this historic moment I find myself in at 53. Is this useful? Can it help?
I am also still stuck with what to do with this diary now. Having read it, shall I now chuck it? Should I transcribe it? (That’ll be a task if I do all of them, and it is very boring…) Photograph every page? (I’d still have the task of keeping digital files in some order.) Ultimately I want to edit all this down into something, but what? If I am constructing a new creative autobiography, what does this volume in particular add to it? (I’m sure no one needs to know on 18 Aug 1978 it was wet and cold in Ireland and I went blackberrying with my sister.)
So for now I am stuck with it till I’ve been through a few more and a pattern and process begin to emerge. This project is telling me something about my relationship with writing and the shifting nature or importance of memory. I am excited too at the idea of getting rid and lightening the load, not least on the rafters of my attic floor. I have visions of making ceremony down the line – a ritual fire, or pulping them with water to make new paper out of the old, creating proper clean sheets. Tearing them up, or making found poetry, or folded or artists books. Who knows? There will be one or 2 I keep for sentimental reasons, but I don’t know yet if this will be one of them. And I can’t keep them all.