When I was writing my memoir, Chasing Ghosts, I used some of my childhood and early adulthood diaries. I was about to recycle them when I heard an interview with Dr Irving Finkel on Saturday Live about The Great Diary Project. The brainchild of Dr Finkel and Dr Polly North, the Great Diary Project was created in 2007. The archive is full of personal diaries of all descriptions and they were pleased to accept mine. Now ten years later, the Dear Diary exhibition at Somerset House showcases some of its wide-ranging collection.
My aunt used to send me and my siblings the diary of our choice each Christmas. I went from doggy diaries to horsy ones; my brother chose a motor sports diary. So I was pleased to see all manner of these themed diaries on display: from Amateur Photographer to Angling Times and of course the wonderful Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac, which was the equivalent of the bible in our house. My schoolgirl diaries reflected events during my day but some of the diaries on display record people’s special interests, such as twitching, complete with bird sightings and newspaper clippings about particular birds. When I met Dr North to donate my box she talked about one set of diaries she had just received which consisted entirely of a someone recording his daily journeys using his Freedom Pass – reflecting how important this ‘perk’ is to get us seniors out and about.
Dear Diary introduces the modern trend of lifelogging – or recording daily or weekly goals and achievements such as weight loss, exercise, books read, even meeting friends. I like the quote by Jill Walker Rettberg “Sometimes we fudge the data to make ourselves look better (even to ourselves).” Indeed – who hasn’t done this!
The exhibition doesn’t just display paper diaries. It looks at their digital descendants. There’s a section devoted to Digital Vlogs, such as Mummyvlogs, those video postings of mums talking about their daily lives.
The cover of one of my own diaries was on display in the Secrecy section. I must have been reading Adrian Mole.
Some people wanted to keep their diaries so secret they wrote in code. Anne Lister was a nineteenth century Yorkshire landowner, mountaineer and lesbian. She lived at Shibden Hall, recently featured on Channel 4’s Britain’s Gay Buildings. Her diaries featured her daily life as an industrialist and she also wrote about her relationships in a code which combined the Greek alphabet, zodiac, mathematical symbols and punctuation. I’m really looking forward to Sally Wainright’s TV series on Anne’s life which should be broadcast next year.
There were videos as well as diary displays: a moving video A Day in Their Shoes, refugee diaries in film form, and Intimacy, where diarists read diaries written by their former selves and comment.
The last room in the exhibition is appropriately Endings. Most diarists don’t know when their diaries will end but artist Keith Vaughan did. He had incurable bowel cancer and swallowed a lethal dose of barbiturates while writing his diary in 1977. “No big bang or cut wrists. 65 was long enough for me. It wasn’t a complete failure. I did some good work.”
This is truly brave. I have the utmost sympathy.
Dear Diary: a celebration of diaries and their digital descendants runs from this Wednesday until 7th July at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, London WC2R 2LS.