‘Painting is just another way of keeping a diary’ (Pablo Picasso). ‘Keeping a diary is just another way of painting’ (Pascal Obispo).
In July 2014, I published a public diary in order to provide ‘an insight into my activities, challenges, discomforts, and discoveries as an academic and a creative practitioner’ (John Harvey, [website]/’Blog’). Every other diary that I’ve kept is private.
The first private diary was begun on January 1, 1971. My Lett’s Schoolboy Diary contained the equivalent of a condensed Pears Cyclopaedia (Not ‘encyclopedia’, mind you, but ‘cyclopedia’. That archaism gave the edition an air of patrician authority and antiquity). The diary included maps of the world and photographs of famous contemporary people, landmarks, achievements, and inventions:
There were short essays on the moon landing (which had taken place two years earlier), ‘Computers’ (when they were large glorified calculating machine used only in industry and banks), how to display Airfix models, and ‘Spare Parts for the Patient: a Topical Look at Transplant Surgery’. (Christian Barnard had undertaken the first successful heart transplant in 1967.) These were interspersed with explanations, pictures, and conversion tables related to ‘The British Decimal Currency’ (introduced that year) and as many pages of ‘French Irregular Verbs’, perhaps in the expectation that Great Britain would someday join the Common Market (or The European Economic Community as it was subsequently rebranded), which it did in 1975. The diary also promoted the right ‘Books to Read’ as prescribed by Thomas Joy FRSA, author of The Right Way to Run a Library (I read neither the books nor his list), and a table of ‘Notable Events in British History’, which began with Caesar’s visit to England in 55-54 BC and was followed by the BIRTH OF JESUS CHRIST (in capitals).
The diary proper, which I sustained only until January 17, reveals a 12-year old grammar school pupil who was disenfranchised from education, constitutionally lazy, suffering from borderline dyslexia (for which there was no test available, as far as I can recall), and grieving the end of one school holiday while counting down the days until the next. In respect to every other department of my life, the diary is singularly unrevealing:
A decade later, I revived the habit. The first dairy of this period – ‘The Red Ledger’ — was begun in June 1982, the year after I’d graduated from art school. I kept up the account in book form, on and off, until 2011, and returned to it again in 2014 using a web-based medium:
The practice was always abandoned when the writing became routine, stale, self-regarding, and unprofitable. It was always restored either in anticipation of significant developments in my life ahead, or in recognition that I needed to give myself ‘a good talking to’, as my gran used to say, or in order to work through personal and professional issues that I could not begin to understand, let alone resolve, other than through words:
The consequence of being an inconstant diarists is that I have very little memory of the years that were missed and a thorough recollection of those that I wrote up, made all the more indelible by repeated re-reading (which I do on a regular basis). The diary is, in this sense, both an external memory and an aid memoire. It also reveals patterns of behaviour, the recurrence of issues and problems, the arc of major events in my life, and (very seldom) the steady progress towards self-realization. Such things are not self-evident at the time of writing. They are discernible only with hindsight and maturity.
The diary as book has its drawbacks. Words alone are not enough for me. I experience things and embody memories in images, objects, and sounds too. However, there’s a limit to how many pictures, cinema tickets, receipts, and such like one can collage onto its pages before the book refuses to close properly. A web-based dairy facilitates the incorporation of photographs of people, things, places, and events, as well as of links to external sound and video files and relevant sites and sources cited in the text. There’s also the opportunity to revisit and edit the text and its para-mediums afterwards. (No doubt even the suggestion of revisionism contravenes an unwritten precept about diary writing, namely that it should be composed on the day and no other. (I’m not a purist. But neither do I alter the facts.)
John Harvey: Diary applies and extends techniques of textual-visual narrative that were developed in my original web-based diary, which is private. (Enough said!). The second diary grew out of a realization that there was a dimension in its predecessor that could ‘speak its name’ without embarrassment, and which might be of some interest to someone other than myself. The awareness of a potential audience changed the tone of my writing from one that was internal, analytical, and self-reflective only to another, which is aphoristic, deductive, and pedagogical also. (Once a teacher … .) The photographs, like the verbal descriptions of actions, thoughts, events, and encounters, are often mundane, routine, and straightforwardly denotative – like life. Occasionally, words and images are surprising, instructive, and illuminating – just like life:
In respect to its intermediality, the web-based diary is not unlike my Letts Schoolboys Diary. Both serve not only as a means to record a life but also as an index to a wider network of activities and ideas, and of the times in which it has been lived.