"Ring my secretary!" he said, "and she'll give you some dates!"
I made a rather tired joke about not wanting any dried fruit and, obediently, rang his office the next morning. "Well," she said, "he could do the week of 3 June! How are you placed for that?"
I had to say to her that I had absolutely no way of knowing. I have almost no control over things that are due to happen this week, let alone things that might happen in six months time.
"By 3 June," I said to her, my voice sounding a little tetchy, "I could be dead! You could be dead! He could be dead!" (She gave a little gasp at this point.) "Or abroad! Or both! We could all be abroad and dead! We could all be stretched out in some foreign morgue!"
I was warming to this theme when she cut in, patiently and quietly, with: "Just look in your diary. And see if you are free early in June! You can always change it nearer the time if it turns out not to be convenient."
By this stage my lunch with my friend was beginning to seem both frighteningly definite and horribly uncertain. It had begun to acquire the character of Schrodinger's Cat or the Akond of Swat. Where was the point in even thinking about an arrangement six months ahead unless you assumed it was going to be impossible to change?
The point, of course was simply that both of us could put it in our diaries. It was when I realised this that I told her that I hadn't got a diary for 1998. She was very sympathetic about this. She said she would call me back when I had bought one and we could talk again. She even recommended a few diaries that she thought I might like.
I said that that was very kind of her but that this year I was not proposing to buy a diary. Even if it had pictures of named women on every other page and Thoughts For the Day culled entirely from my own work, I said, I was not interested. I had only ever acquired a diary, I said, to remember who I was supposed to meet. "Ah ha!" she said, "Precisely! And ... "
Before she could say any more I heard myself snarling that I no longer wanted to meet people if I could only remember I was supposed to be meeting them by committing the fact to paper.
"Then," she said, before she put down the phone, "I suspect it is going to be a quiet year!"
I suspect so too. But I am determined to see if I can survive without one. Most appointment diaries are there to help you remember things you don't really want to do. If you wanted to do them you would have no trouble in remembering. They are also there to substantiate your fantasies of the future. Underneath the heading 7 April in my BBC Desk Diary For 1997 - just below the bit that says "Easter Law Sittings Begin" - I read the words "Poss lunch Louise?" Is there anything sadder? I can't even remember now who Louise is or was or why I wanted to have lunch with her or, indeed, whether I wanted to have lunch with her. Or to what, if anything, the lunch led. Those three words are there only because they promised control over the terrifyingly blank spaces of the year ahead. And that control can easily become a kind of tyranny. I know at least one executive who was told by his secretary, when he was trying to escape some boring and inessential meeting, "Oh, but it's in the Diary!"
Looked at the end of the year, desk diaries seem to bear no relation to one's past whatsoever. On 21 August, underneath the useful reminder that it is Princess Margaret's birthday, I read: "5pm, Spanish guy". What can this signify? Was it, perhaps the beginning of a homosexual phase so carefully repressed that I cannot remember anything about it? If it was, I was careful after that to hide the traces of it even from myself, for he does not crop up again.
The rest of the year is a horribly accurate account of why I will never be able to keep the other kind of diary. I just can't see myself working up 3 June "Window cleaner arrives (check this)" or 6 February "Do not forget Harry's drum lesson" into a crisp and entertaining journal of record a la Alan Clark.
Not, of course, that a professional fiction writer would ever dare to expose his vanities in the way that great diarists nearly always manage to do. I am going into 1998 completely and deliberately unprepared for the future, in the probably crazy hope that, if I am unready for the humdrum details of my life, I may, at least, be able to fashion stories from them.
Wallace Arnold returns next weekReuse content