Diaries are no longer simply handy calendars but survival kits, writes Jonathan Sale
Worried about crashing in an aircraft over enemy territory? Car windscreen misting up? Your only hope of making it through 1996 is a copy of the tiny SAS Survival Diary (pounds 4.99, Collins) slipped into the pocket of your flak jacket. Don't go anywhere, it advises, without a candle: "Can be eaten in emergency". Lying down on your back signifies to low- flying aircraft that you "need medical assistance" (and not, as you might think, "undertaker required").

In my local stationer's there is no MI5 Diary containing Stella Rimington's birthday with instructions on phone-tapping. But practically every interest, hobby and sexual orientation can be found, wrapped round the basic space for filling in details about lunch in the 366 days ahead (1996 is a leap year). Once, all you got were a few bread-and-butter details about quarter days (whatever they are) and, for the benefit of werewolves, the dates of the full moons. The precise times of high water at London Bridge were always given in case readers were tacking up the Thames in three-masted schooners.

Today, there are diaries dedicated to anything from Asterix to Woman & Home: the Pooh Diary, the Student's Diary, the Student's Pooh Diary, the Absolutely Fabulous Diary, the Book of Little Hugs Diary, the Beer Drinker's Diary, the Pony Club Diary and the Time Out Diary with emergency lesbian phonelines. The secretive can invest in a lockable five-year diary. The electronic organiser has not wiped out paper and pencil.

Only the really strong of stomach, however, will be able to face Lesley Anne Ivory's Cats Diary (pounds 5.50, Ebury Press). The eponymous Lesley Anne is a pussycat portraitist and includes examples of her feline daubs: facing 16 September, for example, is "Splodge on Peruvian Rug". (NB: Splodge is a kitten, not a description of the artist's style. Pass the litter tray, quickly.)

There is a bumper day on 15 September in Top Ten School Diary (pounds 5.99, Brundish Books) since it is listed as both Battle of Britain Day and the birthday of Michael Dorge, Crash Test Dummies drummer. But I felt like asking for my money back. Half my money, to be precise: the 12-month diary starts in July - last July. Still, it contains a handy list of Saturn's moons, the only point at which it coincides with the Red Dwarf Log (pounds 6.99, Heinemann). This lavish diary is a spin-off from the television series about the spaceship doomed to wander the galaxy equipped only with a few egos and "1,167 spare toilet roll covers in the shape of little flamenco dancers". Any member of the cast up on a rape charge has plenty of space to fill in the trial dates.

The same price brings a glittering Cosmopolitan Diary (Letts, pounds 5.49), with full details on finding your local assertiveness trainer, aromatherapist or Sex Addicts Anonymous group. The "distances by road" section is useful for a Penzance woman who meets a handsome Inverness Lothario: it's 1,167 miles, so forget it. What if he owns a performance car and Performance Car Diary (pounds 5.25, Letts), which contains notes on "hot shifts", "variable valve timing" and "double apex bends"? Forget it even more.

When Charles Letts started his company exactly two centuries ago, he unaccountably omitted to bring out A Question of Sport Diary for pounds 5.25. His descendants - there is still a token Mr Letts in the company - have made up for that omission with a sporting diary that includes a few quizzes to keep you going in the intervals between programmes. To make it easy for you: the Mystery Personality on page 16 is Glenn Hoddle and the answer to question 4 on page 6 is "Corbiere ridden by Ben de Haan", but you'd have got it right anyway.

Turning to a more literary theme, the Just William Diary (pounds 6.99, Macmillan) is a magnificent production with colour and black-and-white illustrations by Thomas Henry of Richmal Crompton's delinquent creation, and too good for children. Keep it in your own satchel, or, in case of emergencies, down the back of your trousers. Its only fault is that the list of phone numbers to be filled in at the front, such as "Doctor" and "Dentist", fails to include an entry for "Probation Officer".

Richmal Crompton died in 1969. You can find her under 11 January in Waterstone's Desk Diary (pounds 14.99), which features a bookish nugget every day. Pepys, for example, began his diary on 1 January 1660. On that day in 1919, JD Salinger was born. This fact, practically the last known about the reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye, is one of the daily notes from the Waterstone Pocket Diary (pounds 5.99), which is not to be confused with Waterstone's Fantastic Journeys Diary (pounds 5.99). This features a writing competition for children. Entries in by 31 March (Palm Sunday, end of financial year, start of British Summer Time, public holiday in Norway and birth of Gogol in 1809).

As for aircraft crashes, a handy tip from the SAS Diary is to sprint to the tail, which is statistically safer. For that misted-over car windscreen, the recommendation is to rub it with a raw onion, which you can then eat, with the candle for afters. Have a good lunch in 1996.

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