Natalie Haynes: Read Richard Burton's diaries and weep for the advent of email

Notebook

Share
Related Topics

I'm never entirely sure what the difference is between a movie actor and a movie star, but I think the ability to render the phrase, "Broadsword calling Danny Boy" the most explosive words in the English language, even for just a couple of hours, might define it. Richard Burton was a movie star in every sense: from the weak strongman, Mark Antony, through to the screen-munching menace he brought to O'Brien in 1984.

And now his diaries, which number some 450,000 words, kept from the age of 14 to his death, are to be published. I love diaries and letters – writings that are often unconsidered and unedited – because they seem to reveal the writer's true character in a way that studied interview responses, especially when filtered through a journalist's pen, often don't.

Even authors who know the value of their diaries for future reading can't help but write things they wouldn't if publication were imminent. Nancy Mitford was a woman who knew the financial potency of her brand, but her personal letters – especially from later in her life, as she battled uncomplainingly with the pain of Hodgkins lymphoma – are intensely sincere. The wit of her public writings remains, but the ironic distance is replaced by a real woman, experiencing real pleasure and pain.

I can't wait to read Burton's diaries, especially since the excerpts are extraordinary. He describes Elizabeth Taylor as "shy and witty, she is nobody's fool, she is a brilliant actress, she is beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography": all undeniably true (even if the latter seems less flattering in hindsight). He worries about his weight and his drinking, yet he seems no less exotic for worrying about the prosaic.

I suspect diary-keepers are an endangered breed nowadays, like pandas with pens. How many of us still write letters when whacking an email over to someone is so much more immediate? And how many people commit their deepest thoughts, hopes and fears to a journal rather than to Twitter or Facebook? Other than politicians planning a swift post-retirement buck, obviously.

We live in a time where it is easier to know the hidden shallows of everyone on the big or small screen than to close our eyes and ears and retain a little mystery.

And while I'm a fan of social media for their very instant banality – future historians won't be short of material to illustrate how we lived, that's for sure – I will miss the publication of private letters and diaries.

The effort of writing longhand, the knowledge that the work will remain private until after the death of the author, creates a freedom and depth that is entirely missing from the soundbites of tweets.

My big, simple railways solution

So the Virgin trains that speed past my window every day will soon be no more. Richard Branson has hinted that Virgin may not apply for more train franchises, arguing that bids aren't won by companies that can achieve the targets they promise, but by the company which promises unrealistic profits, only to disappear in a puff of tax-payer-costing smoke a couple of years down the line.

In other words, even the private companies making money out of the system think it sucks. So here's my suggestion: one big company runs all the trains and tracks. No one bids for anything, shareholders invest elsewhere, and ticket prices go down. Could we call it something that sounds big and national? British Rail, maybe?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: pours or pores, pulverised, ‘in preference for’ and lists

Guy Keleny
Ed Miliband created a crisis of confidence about himself within Labour when he forgot to mention the deficit in his party conference speech  

The political parties aren't all the same – which means 2015 will be a 'big-choice' election

Andrew Grice
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015
Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall