Nobody writes

Will you keep a journal in 2002? Jonathan Sale leaves it to the pros
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Samuel Pepys is a hard act to follow. He kept his diary for a good eight years, whereas most of us would-be diarists run out of steam around 14 January. Furthermore, his words were not written for publication. If he had wanted a readership wider than one, he would not have written his sentences in code.

Even in plain English, diaries seem more authentic than straight autobiographies. The emotion is not recollected in tranquillity but jotted down immediately – or so it seems. In fact, diaries may be finely crafted, to judge by the forthcoming Leaving a Trace: the art of transforming a life into stories (Little, Brown, £9.99) by Alexandra Johnson, who teaches "memoir and creative non-fiction" at Harvard.

Some diarists, such as Kenneth Tynan, Alan Clark and Joe Orton, needed no tuition in turning their lives into spectacular prose. By contrast, the trick with fictional diaries is to crank down and cruise along on the most modest of routes.

The Diary of a Nobody is hard to beat. In print (Penguin, £4.99) more than a century after it appeared in Punch, the suburban saga by George and Weedon Grossmith still feels right. Its jokes derive from the restricted horizon: for Mr Pooter, a neighbour coming round with the latest Bicycle News is a major social event.

The brothers Grossmith themselves enjoyed broad horizons – both toured in Britain and the US, George as a singer with Gilbert and Sullivan, Weedon as an actor. Yet they managed to focus on the tiny world of a man content to rest on his laurels at The Laurels, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway.

A female variation came in 1930 with E M Delafield, alias Edmee Dashwood, author of The Diary of a Provincial Lady (Virago, £8.99). Her amiable novel poked fun at laundry lists, cooks and similar middle-class matters. Here, the vicar coming round is a major social event. Again, fictional diary-writing is in the genes: in May, Virago will publish a book by her daughter, R M Dashwood, entitled, logically enough, Provincial Daughter. It features "rural obscurity" and "ghastly provincial parties" but also tentative forays into the bright lights of London, seeking fame. But not too bright: "Late nights do not suit me."

In 1937 Jan Struther launched "Mrs Miniver", a kind of Hon Mrs Nobody, as a Times series. The articles inspired a weepie of a film with Greer Garson as the upper-crust lady who became Mrs Britain-can-take-it at war. The 1939 book is republished by Virago (£7.99). Jan Struther was the pen name of Mrs Joyce Maxtone Graham, an agnostic, adulterous journalist and hymn-writer ("Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy"). Her trip to the US as Mrs Miniver allowed her to enjoy assignations with the Jewish-German refugee who became her second husband. The events of her life, more fascinating than her aspirational articles, appear in The Real Mrs Miniver (John Murray, £17.99) written by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, her granddaughter.

Vulnerable, pretentious and endearing, Adrian Mole is the opposite of aspirational. We all remember when a new acne outbreak was a major antisocial event, and in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 133/4 (Arrow, £5.99) Sue Townsend let us laugh at it. The first and best of the series, it is even funnier as a Penguin Audiobook (£8.99) read by Stephen Mangan.

Just as most of us have trouble with new ways of phrasing "got up, cleaned teeth" in week two, so fictional diarists can struggle in volume two. After Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding has trouble with the sequel, The Edge of Reason (both Picador, £6.99). Still, she sticks to the v.g. idea of beginning chapters with the latest score in weight and cigarettes.

The hero of Knocking On (John Murray, £14.99) is a modern Mr Nobody. Like the Grossmiths, Christopher Matthew has a Punch background. Unlike them, he steals from his own life, peered at through the wrong end of a telescope. Matthew himself is a successful author and broadcaster; but his hero is a columnist in the Mitcham & Tooting Times and has the graveyard shift on hospital radio.

The diary format is instantly accessible. Readers can drop in anywhere. Although the format makes for somewhat jerky reading, however finely crafted the writing, the entries give the exhilaration of splashing around in the surf rather than setting out for the long haul – which is as it should be.