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


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?