Sunday, August 14, 2011


Roger Hall writing in the Sunday Star Times, 7 August, 2011

Whenever I meet an MP, which isn’t often,  I usually ask if they are keeping a diary. I haven’t met one who is. But  in recent times, we’ve had extraordinary years of change, sometimes caused by Governments, sometimes despite them, and it’s a pity that no one seems to be recording them as they happen. As Michael Palin shrewdly observed in the introduction to his own, excellent Diaries 1969-1979, The Python Years: “..a daily diary differs from autobiography or memoir. It is an antidote to hindsight.”

A good diary records the wonderful world of the ordinary but also  gives a passing nod to what will become historical events.  A few weeks ago TVNZ broadcast House Wife, 49, loving re-created by Victoria Wood from the war-time diaries of Nella Last who lived in North West England.  She had been commissioned to keep a diary through Mass Observation, an organisation which  aimed to record everyday life in Britain during critical times.

Nella’s diary (published as Nella Last’s War ) tracks not only the world of food shortages, evacuation of children, the anxiety of a son going off to war, and the terror of bombing raids and nights cowering in shelters, but also her emergence from being a bullied wife who had had  a nervous breakdown, to a woman who finds her own feet through her volunteer work with the WVS.
I love diaries. Noel Coward and Harold Nicholson’s diaries record their fascinating lives, and Alan Clarke’s fabulously non-PC comments as an MP (In Power 1983-1992) which include such indiscreet references to “the filthy Belgians” and recording his affair with not only the wife of a judge but their two daughters as well (“the coven”).
Clarke is as honest as the greatest diarist of all time, Samuel Pepys—the difference being that Clarke allowed the diaries to be published in his lifetime whereas Pepys never expected them to see the light of day.
I cannot pretend to have read them all of Pepys (they are on line, by the way)  but often listen to the CD version which has Kenneth Branagh reading them.
Like Clarke, Pepys was a compulsive philanderer, usually preying on his social   inferiors such his maid, or a woman who craves a favour for her seagoing husband.  But at least he is often full of remorse.
Pepys is more engaging in the honest way he charts his upward progress, a young man on the make and on the take. Each New Year’s Eve he gleefully records his increasing monetary worth.  He notes the wonderful moment for him when the King (Charles II) not only knows who he is but asks his opinion of the workings of the British Navy.
Pepys lived through an extraordinary era in English history: restoration of the monarchy, the Plague, the Fire of London. The Plague is terrifying as each week the death toll is published; it creeps up from just a handful to  thousands.
But as always it is the mundane details that fascinate.  During the Fire of London, for safe-keeping  in the garden he buries his gold, the family silver and (italics mine) his parmesan cheese. Heaven knows what it must have cost. During the plague the driver of the coach he is in, stops and cannot go any further, and Pepys dare not help him.

I have in recent years kept a diary, but not, alas, “when the going was good”,  the giddy times for me of Glide Time and Middle Age Spread. It’s partly being at the computer most of the day (or, typewriter in those days, ) one has scarcely any more writing energy effort to produce  a few more words each night.  But I so wish I had.

There are, of course, some entertaining New Zealand diaries in print. Dennis McEldowney’s Then and There when he was managing editor of University of Auckland Press (he records going to  Glide Time but was “doubtful of its worth”, ouch ) and Full of the Warm   South when he lived in Dunedin from 1962-66.
Best of the lot is Diary of the Kirk Years by his secretary Margaret Hayward published in 1981,  seven years after his death. I read it soon after it came out and was staggered how many things I had forgotten. It still makes great reading.

So come on politicians and people in high places. Devote some time each day to recording the events.  As Mae West once said: “Keep a diary and someday it will keep you.”

 Roger Hall’s latest play, “A Short Cut to Happiness”  opens at Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre on November 18th, the same night as his new version of “Aladdin” opens at Circa Theatre, Wellington. 

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