Journals, or my life as a row of books

When I was 33 I was preparing to do something I’d never done before. I was about to share a home with someone, a lover, and it felt strange and alarming and confusing. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been anxious about it – this is something couples do all the time, sometimes even younger than 33 – but I was anxious so I did something very uncharacteristic: I started writing a journal.

I happened to be reading the diaries of Noel Coward and was inspired by his approach: he wrote in them whenever he had something to say, or something he wanted to think through or a day he especially wanted to remember, or sometimes he wrote in them just to record the texture of his life. If he skipped a day or a week or four months or a year he didn’t care: his diary wasn’t a performance or an obligation, it was just a way of attaching a sea-anchor to time, of not letting it slip by so swiftly and unconsidered. He also, I have to say, met an awful lot of famous people and names with which to conjure. “Tea with Marlene [Dietrich]”. “Cocktails with Larry [Olivier] and Viv [Leigh]”. If I had a journal, perhaps I would too.

I found a beautiful blank book at a store in Sandton City, across from my apartment on Oxford Road. It was made of handcrafted leather in quire binding: bundles of four sheets of paper folded to form eight leaves, 22 of them sewn together to make 176 lined pages. It was very expensive but I didn’t think I’d need more than one. It was for a long time the most lovely and pleasing object I possessed. It felt good in my hand, a good weight, the leather smooth and rough. It was made by L Barker CC, and their place of manufactory was a street address in Selby. It was so beautiful and strong and so obviously made to last forever that it forced me to take seriously the words I wrote in it. 

One rule of thumb with journals: the unhappier I am, the more I write in them. It took a year to fill the first one, and by that time the relationship had ended and I was moving out. It took three months to fill the second one.

Every December in the week before New Year I reread the journals to remind myself what I thought about the year while it was happening. Sometimes I go back and read journals from previous years or long ago and startle myself with things I’d forgotten: how much I could drink without dying when I was 33, for instance, or how often I have exactly the same thought and think I’m having it for the first time. Sometimes I’m embarrassed for myself and sometimes I’m proud; it’s like a geologic record of small tectonic shifts and sudden cataclysmic lurches, a real-time account of a fool learning lessons, feeling them on the skin, having to learn them and forget them again but gradually growing. The pages are a trail of breadcrumbs leading through a dark forest to now.

I’ve never lost one but once after an impromptu swim I left journal 8 beside the sea in Elba (I know it was 8 without even skimming the pages because there are still grains of fine Elba beach sand in the binding) and a stranger found it and tracked me down that evening on my ship just before it sailed. When he saw me he looked surprised and I realised he must have read some of it and I was not what he was expecting. I still don’t know if that’s a good thing or bad.

When I moved down to Cape Town from Johannesburg a few years ago I brought 25 blank journals with me, and stacked them on a glass shelf in my study. I reckoned 25 would be enough to take me though to the end of my active life. As I move onto each new book I number it in ink on the spine and carry it around till it’s full, then it takes its place on the shelf in numerical sequence and I take down the next one. They form a kind of timeline on the shelf, a visual representation of a life increasingly lived: the used journals are scuffed and stained from daily life, their spines a little crumpled, the leather darkened with use, the pages worn. I like to look at them and think what’s in them. I’m quietly proud of them. If there were a fire, they are what I would grab.

The unused ones to their right are fresh and their spines are clean and straight. The pages inside are blank and crisp; anything at all can still be written there. When I look at them I feel a real tingle of excitement and something like wonder. There’s a clear tidal line between the battered dirty completed journals and the clean ones to their right. Each year the line moves further along. The left grows longer, the right side diminishes. I’m on journal 13 now. There are 12 to go.

Times, 7 Dec 2017