It could turn up in someone's diary. Behind-the-scenes journals are all the rage, and now they're out before the dust has settled
ONCE upon a time, dinosaurs roamed the earth and diaries were supposed to be private. You wrote them up at night, for fun or edification, then locked them away somewhere. James Boswell, resolving to begin a daily journal in 1762, believed it could save him from indolence and spleen: "I shall set down my various sentiments and my various conduct, which will be not only useful but very agreeable. It will give me a habit of application and improve me in expression; and knowing that I am to record my trans- actions will make me more careful to do well ... In this way I shall preserve many things that would otherwise be lost in oblivion."

But Boswell wasn't altogether discreet about his diary. He mentioned it to Dr Johnson, and when Johnson said he could see no harm in keeping it, so long as a friend destroyed it once he was dead, Boswell was put out: "For my own part, I have at present such an affection for this my journal that it shocks me to think of burning it." Far from consigning it to the flames, Boswell parcelled up his journal in weekly bundles and sent it to a friend in Edinburgh - a kind of serialisation process. The manuscript was discovered in 1930 and brought out 20 years later.

These days, of course, the recipient would be a publisher, extracts would appear in a newspaper, and the lapse between composition and dissemination would be, at most, a year. Glenn Hoddle's story of England's World Cup campaign was out within weeks: the water had hardly drained from David Beckham's early bath before his manager was in the shops with the inside story, telling tales from behind the scenes. Shock was expressed at Hoddle's action. But "Keep out: Private" is a notice you don't see much any more. Nowhere's safe, least of all the dressing-room, as football players and rock stars have found out.

THIS is the age of the diary. Two of the bestselling fictions of the past decade, those featuring Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones, have been cast in diary form. Three of the bestselling non-fictions have also been diaries: those of the playwright Alan Bennett and the politicians Tony Benn and Alan Clark. All are witty and endearing, in part because they emphasise their protagonists' vulner- ability. Even their detractors would admit that, despite their spontaneous, casual-seeming form, they're artfully constructed and well written.

But being a good writer is not, it seems, an essential requirement in a diarist. Nowadays, the main qualification for the job is to have or have had a job, in some famous, preferably beleaguered institution. It does not have to be a government institution, and you don't have to be boss. PR, arts administration, journalism, even catering might be enough for you to cook up a book, with the help of a tape recorder and a good editor. The only important thing is to have been around during a time of crisis - to be able to say, "I was there."

Jobbing journals, as we might call them, to distinguish them from writerly diaries, are very hot just now. Last Sunday, a newspaper carried extracts from a diary kept by Woodrow Wyatt about his hob-nobbing with the Royal Family, who turn out to be (don't hold your breath) snobbish, racist and right-wing. During the week, there've been extracts from Mary Allen's record of her time at the Royal Opera House, an institution previously diarised in BBC2's The House. The ROH's latest casualty, Judy Grahame, director of external relations, is said to have been keeping a diary too.

Closer to home, an editor, late of this paper, allowed a Channel 4 television crew to journalise her struggles with staff and management. Another - much earlier - editor of this paper, set down his account in a book which, if not based on a diary, showed remarkable powers of recall. All of these individuals have left their institutions or, in Wyatt's case, departed this life. To lose your job or pass away seems to free the tongue, if only to be barbed. Glenn Hoddle is unusual in publishing while still in situ. If his job is now on the line, his book, as much as his management, is to blame.

To dine with monarchs, run a national team or newspaper, or be in charge of a state opera house means meeting the great and good. In older, hierarchical times, it was understood that you kept your mouth shut about such meetings, but as the political diarist "Chips" Channon once asked: "What is more dull than a discreet diary?", a sentiment echoed by Oscar Wilde, who never travelled without his own diary, since "one should always have something sensational to read in the train". If the celebrity gossip is not sensational enough, the jobbing diarist can always turn a colleague into "a character", using his foul temper, or her wondrous cleavage, to heroic effect. The makers of The House did something of this sort with their PR man Keith Cooper, hardly a name to toy with before their series went on air but a famous one thereafter.

The idea that the person sitting at the next desk might secretly be keeping a diary is alarming, but one to which we'll have to get accustomed. With published writers, the possibility of becoming "material" is well known and understood. Some friends of writers positively invite it, camping it up or furnishing anecdotes in the hope they'll make it into the next book. Offices used to be free of such risks. The only performance that mattered was how well or badly you did your job. Now you never know. Now you can never relax. As leisure merges with work, and the private with the public, there are no clear lines between what's on and off-limits. The paranoid fantasy that our every move is being recorded for someone else's soap opera is the subject of a film released last week, The Truman Show. With so many diaries and video cameras around, it does not even seem paranoid.

SIR Harold Nicolson, thinking of Samuel Pepys, said that "to be a good diarist one must have a little, snouty, sneaky mind". This is surely true. The only elevating diaries are the ones kept for self-improvement or as an aide-memoire, rather than to do down enemies - and most of these don't see the light of day. Philip Larkin asked for his to be destroyed, preferring to be remembered for his poems. But if all posterity has of you is a Who's Who entry for various posts held, a published diary begins to look attractive. However snouty or self-justifying , you can tell yourself you're nobly offering inside knowledge on the sacred offices and institutions of the day.

Enoch Powell thought that writing a diary every day was like returning to one's own vomit. This is too harsh. Narcissism may be a danger, but the best diarists look beyond their own sickly reflection to observe the social realities of the day. When the novelist Robert Harris published a diary of Tony Blair's election campaign, the result was compelling - thanks to his privileged access and beady eye, Harris brought us closer to Blair, and to New Labour, and to the making of a landslide victory, than we'd ever been before. Most other electoral diaries look feeble in comparison. I'm always grateful to the publisher who sat on my proposal for such a book, while I was following Neil Kinnock during the 1992 general election, to see how the election panned out. Luckily, for me if not for him, Kinnock lost, and I wrote something else instead. Neil, Glenys and Me would have been a turkey.

The great mistake with diaries is to suppose, as Adrian Mole puts it, that life will "seem more interesting when it is written down". It depends on who's doing the writing. Just because the Mary Allens and the Glenn Hoddles have interesting jobs doesn't make them Pepys or Boswell.