A new year. A new beginning. A time of resolutions and promises to be made then casually broken. A time of hope. A time for a new venture. Perhaps crack open the diary you got for Christmas and write down the events of your first month in this brand new year.
But what to write?
Well, that’s up to you. But to lead by example let’s have a look at some of the diary entries from the great and the good.
Actor Kenneth Williams (1926-1988) kept a diary throughout his life. From teenage years up to the night of his death. His diary is a good example of how to mix personal thoughts with anecdote and current events.
Thursday, 1 January 
Louie [Kenneth’s Mother] & I watched Zhivago on TV in the evening and it was extraordinary to see so much expense and time taken over such tedious rubbish. If there was one close-up of Omar Sharif looking dewy-eyed there was two: he looked about as Russian as my arse.
Friday, 28 February 
I walked to Berman’s [the costumiers] and in Stanhope Street they were drilling the road and I noticed the blond man handling the pneumatic was v. handsome … then his friend alongside saw me & called out ‘Hallo Ken! You’re looking well!’ and they both chorused greetings to me. I loved it & simpered my ‘Thank you very much’ like a schoolboy receiving unexpected praise. O! I do adore these kind of men. God sent that incident to me, in compensation for the insult in public on Wednesday. We saw on TV news the account of a bad accident at Moorgate … about 30 people dead. One of the firemen spoke to a cameraman and he was so utterly absorbed in doing his job, but finding time to say ‘They’ve got a lot of courage down there…’ about the victims, that it made me cry.
Monday, 19 April [1971 — During filming of Carry On At Your Convenience]
Pinewood [Film Studios] – everyone expressing their derision at my smoking again. Gerald [Thomas–the director] said the next one is Carry On Matron — it seems the hospital jokes are unending. Felt quite buoyant on the set today. I notice that whenever I’m volatile etc. Sid James gets really irritated!! He doesn’t like it when he’s alongside someone who is getting the attention in an amusing way: as an entertainer himself he’s talentless & resents it in others — but as a man he is kind and generous, albeit a philistine.
Wednesday, 14 May 
TV was the usual crap but easily the worst programme was dreadful compilation of Carry On excerpts. Sid James looked as bad as his acting. The scripts were schoolboy scatology…the most depressing sort of would-be funny rubbish. News was mostly about Elections. I will be glad when it’s all over.
Poet and novelist Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)also kept a journal through her life. Plath wrote personal observations, thoughts on writing and life, with details of her life. In her entry for November 13th 1949, Plath explains her reasons for keeping a journal.
As of today I have decided to keep a diary again – just a place where I can write my thoughts and opinions when I have a moment. Somehow I have to keep and hold the rapture of being seventeen. Every day is so precious I feel infinitely sad at the thought of all this time melting farther and farther away from me as I grow older. Now, now is the perfect time of my life.
In reflecting back upon these last sixteen years, I can see tragedies and happiness, all relative – all unimportant now – fit only to smile upon a bit mistily.
I still do not know myself. Perhaps I never will. But I feel free – unbound by responsibility, I still can come up to my own private room, with my drawings hanging on the walls…and pictures pinned up over my bureau. It is a room suited to me – tailored, uncluttered and peaceful…I love the quiet lines of the furniture, the two bookcases filled with poetry books and fairy tales saved from childhood.
At the present moment I am very happy, sitting at my desk, looking out at the bare trees around the house across the street… Always want to be an observer. I want to be affected by life deeply, but never so blinded that I cannot see my share of existence in a wry, humorous light and mock myself as I mock others.
The playwright Joe Orton (1933-1967) kept a diary from December 1966 until his untimely death, at the hands of his partner Kenneth Halliwell, in August 1967. Orton’s diaries detail the production of his plays, his day-to-day life, and his sexual exploits. It was allegedly his promiscuous lifestyle that caused Halliwell to kill Orton. In this extract, Orton visits Paul McCartney to discuss his writing a film for the Beatles. The screenplay Up Against It featured a group of anarchist who assassinate the Prime Minister, have various sexual adventures, and end up married to the same woman. Orton’s script was returned without comment.
Arrived in Belgravia at ten minutes to eight having caught a 19 bus which dropped me at Hyde Park Corner. I found Chapel Street easily. I didn’t want to get there too early so I walked around for a while and came back through a nearby mews. When I got back to the house it was eight o’clock. I rang the bell and an old man opened the door. He seemed surprised to see me. ‘Is this Brian Epstein’s house?’ I said. ‘Yes, sir,’ he said, and led me into the hall. I suddenly realised that the man was the butler. I’ve never seen one before. He took my coat and I went to the lavatory. When I came out he’d gone. There was nobody about. I wandered around a large dining-room which was laid for dinner. And then I got to feel strange. The house appeared to be empty. So I went upstairs to the first floor. I heard music, only I couldn’t decide where it came from. So I went up a further flight of stairs. I found myself in a bedroom. I came down again and found the butler. He took me into a room and said in a loud voice, ‘Mr Orton’. Everybody looked up and stood to their feet. I was introduced to one or two people. And Paul McCartney. He was just as the photographs. Only he’d grown moustache. His hair was shorter too. He was playing the latest Beatles recording, ‘Penny Lane’. I liked it very much. Then he played the other side — Strawberry something. I didn’t like this as much. We talked intermittently. Before we went out to dinner we’d agreed to throw out the idea of setting the film in the thirties. We went down to dinner. The crusted old retainer–looking too much like a butler to be good casting–busied himself in the corner. ‘The only thing I get from the theatre,’ Paul M. said, ‘is a sore arse.’ He said Loot was the only play he hadn’t wanted to leave before the end. ‘I’d’ve liked a bit more,’ he said. We talked of the theatre. I said compared with the pop scene the theatre was square. ‘The theatre started going downhill when Queen Victoria knighted [the actor-manager] Henry Irving,’ I said. ‘Too fucking respectable.’ We talked of drugs, of mushrooms which give hallucinations–like LSD. ‘The drug not the money,’ I said. We talked of tattoos. And, after one or two veiled references, marijuana. I said I’d smoked it in Morocco. The atmosphere relaxed a little. Dinner ended and we went upstairs again. We watched a programme on TV. It had phrases in it like ‘the in-crowd’ and ‘swinging London’. There was a little scratching at the door. I thought it was the old retainer, but someone got up to open the door and five very young and very pretty boys trooped in. I rather hoped this was the evening’s entertainments. It wasn’t, though. It was a pop group called The Easybeats. I’d seen them on TV. I liked them very much then. In a way they were better (or prettier) offstage than on. After a while Paul McCartney said said ‘Let’s go upstairs’. So he and I and Peter Brown went upstairs to a room also fitted with a TV … A French photographer arrived with two beautiful youths and a girl. He’d taken a set of new photographs of The Beatles. They wanted one to use on the record sleeve. Excellent photograph. And the four Beatles look different with their moustaches. Like anarchists in the early years of the century. After a while we went downstairs. The Easybeats still there. The girl went away. I talked to the leading Easybeat. Feeling like an Edwardian masher with a Gaiety Girl. And then I came over tired and decided to go home. I had a last word with Paul M. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’d like to do the film. There’s only one thing we’ve got to fix up.’ ‘You mean the bread?’ ‘Yes.’ We smiled and parted. I got a cab home. It was pissing down.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was another celebrated writer who produced 26-volumes of diaries between 1915 and 1941. Woolf gave as much to her journals as she did to her novels. Her diaries are filled with astute observations, tips on writing, emotional highs and lows, her thoughts on various subjects, giving the reader an incredible insight into the mind of such a brilliant writer.
Friday 1 January .
To start this diary rightly, it should begin on the last hour of the old year, when, at breakfast, I received a letter from Mrs Hallett. She said that she had had to dismiss Lily [Woolf’s former parlourmaid] at a moments notice, owing to her misbehaviour. We [Virginia and Leonard Woolf] naturally supposed that a certain kind of misbehaviour was meant; a married gardener, I hazarded. Our speculations made us both uncomfortable all day. Now this morning I hear from Lily herself. She writes, very calmly, that she left because Mrs Hallett was ‘insulting’ to her; having been given a day & nights holiday, she came back at 8.30 A.M. ‘not early enough’. What is the truth? This, I guess: Mrs H. is old angry woman, meticulous, indeed as we knew tyrannical, about her servants; & Lily honestly meant no wrong. But I have written for particulars–another lady wanting a character at once.
Monday 11th November .
Twenty-five minutes ago the guns went off, announcing peace. A siren hooted on the river. They are hooting still. A few people ran back to look out of windows. A very cloudy still day, the smoke toppling over heavily towards the east; and that too wearing for a moment a look of something floating, waving, drooping. So far neither bells nor flags, but the wailing of sirens and intermittent guns.
Friday 15th November .
Peace is rapidly dissolving into the light of common day. You can go to London without meeting more than two drunk soldiers; only an occasional crowd blocks the street. But mentally the change is marked too. Instead of feeling that the whole people, willing or not, were concentrated on a single point, one feels now that the whole bunch has burst asunder and flown off with the utmost vigour in different directions. We are once more a nation of individuals.
The actor Richard Burton (1925-1984) diaries revealed a man of culture and intellect who was besotted with Elizabeth Taylor. She was his “life … bound together. Hoop-steeled.” So deeply smitten was Burton, he found it difficult to imagine a life without Taylor.
Wednesday 23rd: Poor Teddy Kennedy’s in the headlines. The Kennedy family are, of course, notorious satyrs. I was amazed when Bobby K took Margot Fonteyn off into a back bedroom at Pierre Salinger’s house. I know, too, that when Jack Kennedy was running for President and stayed with Frank Sinatra at Palm Springs, that the place was like a whore-house, with Jack as chief customer. Christ, the chances those fellers took.
Saturday 26th: [Elizabeth Taylor’s daughter] Liza wants to see all the films that E [Elizabeth Taylor] and I have done. We explained that a vast percentage were rubbish. I guessed that about ten out of 80 would bear re-examination. But we are, for a minute or two, at the absolute zenith of our ragged professions.
Wednesday 30th: I knew there was something wrong yesterday. I could feel it in my primitive Welsh bones.
E had gone into surgery for her piles, and the first word I had was from her doctor, who made it blatantly clear that my baby child had nearly kicked it.
Some doctor-idiot had allowed the ‘shot’ to leak into her blood stream and the fools were standing by with heart shots etc. in case she started to die, which they feared she was actually doing.
I’m still nightmared. What could life possibly be without her? Where would I go? What would I do? Everybody else pales by comparison. It’s no use picking up a mini-skirted chick of 18 — she wouldn’t last a week, if that.
I’d die, I suppose, a greatly accelerated death. Anyway, she’s all right. Bastards.
Thursday 31st: It’s a cool, grey dawn and E and I have just had a quarrel about who knows what.
Canadian artist Emily Carr (1871-1945) is best known for her landscape paintings and her several books and diaries. She travelled across parts of Canada documenting the people and their lives. In her diaries, Carr often interrogated what she should paint.
Friday 17th January 
Over and over one must ask oneself the question, “What do I want to express? What is the thought behind the saying? What is my ideal, what my objective? What? Why? Why? What?” The subject means little. The arrangement, the design, colour, shape, depth, light, space, mood, movement, balance, not one or all of these fills the bill. There is something additional, a breath that draws your breath into its breathing, a heartbeat that pounds on yours, a recognition of the oneness of all things. When you look at your own hand you are not conscious of feeling it (unless it hurts), yet it is all intimately connected up with us. Our life is passing through it. When you really think about your hand you begin to realize its connection, to sense the hum of your own being passing through it. When we look at a piece of the universe we should feel the same.
Artist Keith Haring (1958-1990) kept a diary from 1977 until 1989 just a few months before his death. Haring used his journals to investigate theories about art, philosophy, sexuality, and politics. As he became more successful the entries focussed on his day-to-day activities of creating art across the world and running a business.
October 14, 1978
The physical reality of the world as we know it is motion. Motion itself = movement. Change. If there is any repetition it is not identical repetition because (at least) time has passed and there is an element of change.
No two human beings ever experience two sensations, experiences, feelings, or thoughts identically. Everything changes, everything is always different. All of these variables merging, interacting, destroying each other, building new forms, ideas, “realities,” mean that human experience is one of constant change and, as we label it, “growth.”
My source of amazement comes from the fact that most living human beings build their lives around the belief that these differences, changes, don’t exist. They choose to ignore these things and attempt to program or control their own existence. They make schedules, long-term commitments, set up a system of time and become controlled by their system of controls.
People don’t want to know they change.
Unless they feel it is an improvement, and then they are all for “change,” and will go t great lengths to “make changes” or contrive situations or force a change that is unnatural.
October 3, 1987
I’m back on the train. What a fucking day! Twenty-four hours seemed like a week. Pierre picked me up at the train station [in Lausanne] and we went directly to lunch with Mrs. Rivolta of the gallery and her 16-year-old, Francis.
This was the same fancy little restaurant that mistook [the artist] Jean Tinguely for the repairman of the lift when he arrived in coveralls. I was wearing my “safe sex” sweatshirt prominently displaying the cartoon “Willie.” Needless to say, heads turned.
Charlotte Forten (1837-1914) was an anti-slavery activist, writer, poet, teacher and the first published African-American diarist.
May 25, 1854.
Did not intend to write this evening, but have just heard of something that is worth recording;—something which must ever rouse in the mind of every true friend of liberty and humanity, feelings of the deepest indignation and sorrow.
Another fugitive from bondage has been arrested; a poor man, who for two short months has trod the soil and breathed the air of the “Old Bay State,” was arrested like a criminal in the streets of her capital, and is now kept strictly guarded,—a double police force is required, the military are in readiness; and all this done to prevent a man, whom God has created in his own image, from regaining that freedom with which, he, in common with every human being, is endowed. I can only hope and pray most earnestly that Boston will not again disgrace herself by sending him back to a bondage worse than death; or rather that she will redeem herself from the disgrace which his arrest alone has brought upon her. . . .
May 26, 1854.
Had a conversation with Miss Shepard about slavery; she is, as I thought, thoroughly opposed to it, but does not agree with me in thinking that the churches and ministers are generally supporters of the infamous system; I believe it firmly. Mr. Barnes, one of the most prominent of the Philadelphia clergy, who does not profess to be an abolitionist, has declared his belief that ‘the American church is the bulwark of slavery.’ Words cannot express all that I feel; all that is felt by the friends of Freedom, when thinking of this great obstacle to the removal of slavery from our land. Alas! that it should be so.—I was much disappointed in not seeing the eclipse, which, it was expected would be the most entire that has taken place for years; but the weather was rainy, and the sky obscured by clouds; so after spending half the afternoon on the roof of the house in eager expectation, I saw nothing; heard since that the sun made his appearance for a minute or two, but I was not fortunate enough to catch even that momentary glimpse of him. . . .
If these diarist don’t inspire you to keep a diary or at least a journal, then why not look out other diaries by Jean Cocteau, Anais Nin, Alan Clarke, Andy Warhol, and of course, Samuel Pepys.
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