The editing and publishing of diaries is a rather specialised field. They’re not quite straight history, as no detailed references and sources are required (though the pre-publication legal reads can be somewhat hair-raising), and they’re not quite memoir, as they’re in the moment, not looking back with the benefit of hindsight. And there tends to be a lot of dross to weed out.
Early on in my career, I had the privilege of working closely with the late, great publishing aficionado Ion Trewin, who published diaries by, among others, General Haig, Sir Harold Nicolson, ‘Chips’ Channon, Duff Cooper, Sir Michael Palin and, most famously, Alan Clark. Through him, I got a front-row seat and learned how to turn, say, a filing cabinet full of noteboooks covering multiple decades, in Michael Palin’s case, into something that a reader can enjoy. A well placed footnote, for example, is a thing of beauty.
But what makes for a good diary for publication? The Adrian Moles and Charles Pooters of this world aside, diaries of nobodies are rarely of any interest. And yet those truly at the centre of power are unfailingly dull. The best are by those who are well connected but possibly on the fringes, such as Duff Cooper, Harold Nicolson, Alan Clark and now Sasha Swire. They must be brilliant, engaging and able to write well, but maybe somewhat thwarted and unfulfilled. And nothing sharpens the pen like ego without sufficient outlet.
Some diarists, of course, do genuinely write for their own amusement or as an exercise. Michael Palin is a good example of this. He’s kept diaries since his early twenties and it’s now an automatic reflex. I suspect it began as a writing exercise, as, above all his achievements as a performer and presenter, he is a writer, working alongside Terry Jones all those years crafting sketches for The Frost Report and then for Monty Python. For the unfailingly lovely Palin, writing a diary is Pilates of the pen. But, for many, their motives are maybe less pure, and I would argue a good diarist, from a publication point of view, needs an excess of what Graham Greene referred to as that ‘splinter of ice’ in their soul.
If you’ve read any of Alan Clark’s three volumes of diaries, I’m sure you can well imagine him returning home to his castle and cracking his knuckles before settling down to drip his often gleefully funny poison about parliamentary colleagues on to the page or boasting lasciviously about his latest conquests. That’s the other thing about good diarists – they’re generally extremely entertaining company, as Swire clearly is; the type of person you want to sit next to at dinner, but more than a little untrustworthy or unreliable, even if you count them among your dearest friends. Yet they’re also often the type of people others confide in or are serial philanderers with plenty of secrets of their own. As Oscar Wilde put it: “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.” The writing of a diary is risk-taking behaviour and they know it.
I find it fascinating also how so many of the best diarists are to the right of centre politically. Is there a connection between a certain high Tory sense of entitlement and committing one’s musings to the page? Or is it just coincidence and it’s a quality common to all political types? Many are aghast at Swire’s perceived betrayal of the Cameroonian inner circle, but how is that different to the far greater betrayals that have played out across the front pages between Cameron and Gove and Osborne and Johnson? Is betrayal not the lingua franca of the halls of power? All political careers, by definition, end in failure and often ignominy. To my mind, Swire gets extra points for timing it so well and making such an enormous splash.
Once, politicians and those of their circle waited until old age to publish, or did so posthumously, but in this Kardashian era, I wouldn’t wager publication doing Swire any particular long-term damage. Notoriety has long had more cachet than old-school integrity, after all, and arguably has been deployed to immense personal benefit by many in power today.
As it happens, I know two extremely well connected historians who keep diaries, and while I suspect neither would allow them to be published in their lifetimes, I often wonder what scandalous confidences and observations have been entrusted to their pages. One has invested in a rather expensive safe for the storage of his, so the mind boggles. Heading home after a dinner or a party where I have crossed paths with one or both, I sometimes speculate about whether I’ve ever merited a mention. Momentarily, I’ll hope I have – that some witticism I’ve uttered will outlive me – but then good sense returns and I take comfort from my status as a relative nonentity who any future editor with sense would cut.