E Jane Dickson: Women and their diaries of self-delusion

Any woman could have told Prescott that dotting i's with circles is the true mark of the bunny boiler

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"Keep a diary," said Mae West. "And one day it will keep you." It certainly paid off for Tracey Temple, who, for a rumoured six-figure consideration, handed over personal diaries detailing her affair with John Prescott to The Mail on Sunday.

The newspaper is quick to point out that Ms Temple has been an assiduous journal-keeper since the age of 10. Had it even crossed our minds that she might have started committing her private life to paper around the time she started sleeping with a cabinet minister? Well, maybe for one cynical second it did. The style of the published diary extracts, however, forcefully supports the idea of a habit begun in adolescence.

As with all diarists, it's not what Temple says, but how she says it that tells the real story. The professional diary secretary's attention to time and place comes in handy - a tryst that starts at 6.30 in Whitehall, repairs to the Deputy Prime Ministerial flat at Admiralty House and has Temple smoothing her ruffled feathers on the 8.30 from Waterloo says nothing very flattering about Prescott's performance - but it's the awful artlessness of Temple's tone that marks her out as a woman on the edge: "Everyone commented on my black dress (low, button up the back)" she chirps. "I was pleased coz my hair looked nice as well. We all had a bizi day ..."

Prescott, we have to assume, neither knew nor cared about his lover's alarming habit of writing "coz" for "because" or "bizi" for "busy", but any woman could have warned him that this, along with dotting i's with circles and drawing smiley faces in your signature, is the true mark of the bunny boiler. It's something strongly to be discouraged in teenagers. In a woman of 43, it's pathological.

Maybe I'm the one with the problem - it's been mooted - but that "bizi" really worries me. It's not even an abbreviation for heaven's sake, so why? It's not something a diarist with an eye on posterity would leave unedited; if, on the other hand, your eye was more on a pension plan, and if, for the sake of argument, the incriminating diaries had been found by the boyfriend who is reportedly hoping to resume relations once all "the fuss" has died down, the "bizi" business might be precisely the kind of detail you need to convince the world (if, in the circs, further convincing were required) that you are authentically deranged.

I'm not without sympathy for Temple's position. I can well imagine how swiftly support was withdrawn by the Labour Party publicity machine once the content of her diaries was made known to them. Nor do I admire Prescott's part in his very own Whitehall farce. But I'm old-fashioned enough - or maybe just old enough - to think that if there is compensation going for Prescott's caddish behaviour, I'd rather it went to his wife. (The glamorous Pauline looks like she'd know exactly how to enjoy £100,000.) And I'm a little bit amazed that it should be a diary, the most slippery and subjective of documents, that should form the centrepiece of the scandal.

Temple's lucrative unbosomings contrast sharply with the diary, also published last week, of Alethea Foster, the 61-year-old podiatrist accused of stabbing her husband's mistress with a vegetable knife. The misery and uncertainty of Foster's first-person account of her marriage is palpable - "I think," she wrote, with painful punctiliousness, "that he thinks he would like me to leave him ..." It is nonetheless bizarre that Foster's private diary, no less than Temple's, should be presented either in the courts or in the media as any kind of evidence. Indeed, it seems to me that the first thing any person with something to hide (or, in the case of Temple, to expose) should do, is sit down and construct a diary to support their version of events.

A diary is, after all, no more than a story one tells oneself. The form gained popularity, post-Pepys, in the early 1700s, helped along by greater literacy, cheaper paper and a newly advanced awareness of the self. It was recommended to sobersided Protestants, appalled by the idea of confessing to a priest, as a way of unburdening oneself to God.

The pleasure of unchecked subjectivity, however, quickly went to writers' heads, and by the 19th century the diary was essentially a personal political document, a chance for writers to reorder the universe according to their lights. Even where events are verifiable, it is the voice of the diarist that shapes the reader's perception. (Imagine the facts of Alan Clark's gusty political memoirs retold in the querulous cadence of Michael Howard and you get the picture.)

In our own, post-Freudian century, the diary was claimed, increasingly, as the arena of the imagination, a kind of "safe house" for free expression. And when the mind-altering effects of love enter the equation, the bets, truth wise, are off. The leap from Anaïs Nin sharing her impressions of ecstasy ("A rainbow of colour strikes the eyelids. A foam of music falls over the ears: It's the gong of orgasm") to Tracey Temple's more matter-of-fact revelations ("He was def up for some sex. He had his hand up my skirt... " is purely qualitative. Both are, in their own way, entertaining, but as objective record, neither of them are worth a toot.

It is no accident that some of the most popular fiction in recent years (including The Independent's own Bridget Jones' Diary and the on-line diary of an anonymous London call girl) were first presented to the public as echt experience.

Yet such is our modern insistence on the primacy of emotion over reason that we insist on treating these outpourings as if they were of national importance. There's nothing we like more than a bit of "sharing" (for which read ritual humiliation). And if we're embarrassed to watch the poor patsies on Oprah or The Jerry Springer Show spilling their guts for our entertainment, we're perfectly happy to shake our heads over similar manufactured drivel in the name of political transparency. As long as we can breathe the warm fug of dirty laundry, we don't much mind if we are being sold a pup.

I do not, as it happens, think Tracey Temple is dishonest. But honesty is not the whole issue here. At least not the old kind of honesty, the kind that had more to do with probity than toe-curling first-person confession. If Tracey Temple took a leaf out of Mae West's book, can we really blame her? Her "sensational" diary neither expiates not exonerates; it proves nothing we didn't know about the ordinary mess of infidelity, nor, I suspect, does it reveal a criminal mastermind. As that other great broad Talullah Bankhead observed: "It's the good girls who keep diaries; the bad girls never have the time."

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