Fifty years a diarist: Nine million words and counting

Diary writing is principally a labour of love that oscillates wildly between duty and pleasure

For over 50 years now (1972-2022) I have been pouring out my heart and history to submissive pages in daily chronicles; decanting the minutiae of my days, in handwritten 500-word entries into volumes of hard-backed diaries. Why?

Is this my legacy to those I love, their inheritance, to help them know me better, to explain the many silences and eruptions in our shared lives? Have I become a witness to my own life? Through this early handshake with eternity, am I seeking to cheat mortality? Is this a vanity project that bids for immortality? Am I seeking admission to the pantheon of famous diarists in the worlds of history and literature: Samuel Pepys, Charles Darwin, Anne Frank, George Orwell, Jonathan Harker, Roger Casement?

Diary writing is principally a labour of love that oscillates wildly between duty and pleasure. It is a friend, a foe, a catharsis, a chore, an addiction; It acts as a memory bank, an archive, a punchbag, a library, a data centre, a hurt locker.

It is a one-man show deprived of the oxygen and energy of an audience’s reaction; it is a one-dimensional exercise, with no conversation with anyone else except myself and my demons; no feedback, no encouragement. I am performer and audience; I am writer, editor, publisher and critic too.


Contents go beyond the narratives of life and the day’s movements and moments. They often include landfill lists (my 10 favourite Byrds songs; my 10 favourite cities in Asia; my 10 most disliked bosses, etc.); sporting reports and data; anthologies of amateur verse; theses on writing about writing; book, record and film reviews.

My journeyman records span 50 years of global evolution and regression; history’s long haul through half a century’s great leaps forwards and backwards; from Woodstock to the Electric Picnic; from decimalisation to Bitcoin; from Clery’s clock assignations to internet dating; through Francis Fukuyama’s end of history and the new millennium - as a son, orphan, husband, father and grandfather, and, throughout, in my adopted roles as witness and reporter, trying to capture the mutating Zeitgeists.

In my early annals there was a lot of Ingmar Bergman, Hermann Hesse, Teilhard de Chardin, Aldous Huxley, Timothy O’Leary. A cringing assembly of names dropped (to myself!) and gathered in a pseud’s corner helping to puff out the pages with faux philosophies, in efforts to convince myself of my intellectual credentials.

But there is also a more positive tenor to the early entries written during the swashbuckling days of youth; pages bristled with optimism and buoyancy; life was for living; there were no missions impossible.

Compare the lightness of touch of this paragraph from the early seventies –

‘Things are starting to come together. I met her again today, and we talked. We share the same tastes in music – John Mayall, Bob Dylan, Incredible String Band. She is really lovely. I want to know everything about her, I want to touch every part of her. And this time, for once, get beyond the mind, heart and soul. Maybe she’ll come and watch me play on Saturday. I’ve been selected for the quarter final match against Postal Celtic. Now that my knee is recovered, I feel in top form. This will be our season. The summer job is going ok. The money is good, keeps me in pints, jeans and LPs. I feel the urge for travel. I wonder would she like to travel with me. Ye! Good times!’

With this more recent introspective, dark entry -

‘Each day dawns under an arc of sadness and hope. The past is a chaotic maelstrom of memories, regrets and successes. I am still reaching out, scanning the distant skies, seeking an alignment between ambition and fate; a reconciliation between the faltering forces of regret and desire. The restraints and rituals of ageing are a constant drain on mood and morale, the body reacting too late to the brain’s impulses and heart’s wish list; there is a begrudging conformity to clocks and calendars, a submission to convention. Earlier vibrant political hues are now tinged with sepia. No street-fighting man anymore, these feet only protest against too-tight shoes; my arthritic hands can no longer wield a placard. I tease out a reassessment of discarded religious beliefs as the pilgrimage between birth and death shortens. Where is the brave atheist now? But I still find it difficult to reconcile science and religion, to disentangle fear from reason, to meet at some halfway point for the handover of hostages.’

The diaries are mostly written in the first person, but increasingly of late, and for no discernible reason, many excerpts are written in the third person. Is this an effort to distance the writer from his output, for some kind of out of body invigilation of the self?

Entries are sometimes laced with amateur literary flourishes. There are also efforts at poetry. I once assumed a persona of Dodder-side poet, subscribing to the Romantics’ fixation with the proximity of water. All this to add a veneer of the bohemian to the scribe’s output. Uneven rhymes and lines are often thrown together like an arranged marriage; metaphors stand guilty of forced entry; sonnets struggle to reach the finishing tape of 14 lines. Haiku is easier, but I sometimes struggle to get the rhythm correct.

The diary is mostly updated daily in early morning. It is transportable and travels with me everywhere. It has been all over the world; it is its own passport. In the many hotels of my life, it has often been written at night as sleep evaded me. In times of great emotional stress: death, hospitalisation, emigration, weddings, births, etc. the updates are deferred. Shorthand notes are preferred for later transcription as I work my way through the labyrinthine processes of grief, joy or bewilderment. I always write long-hand - in a Bunteresque scrawl, a drunken fist, sometimes at peace with the page, other times raging at the obtuse blankness of the folio. There was only one deviation to computer, for a few weeks, at the beginning of 2000 when my new diary didn’t arrive in Tokyo until late in January.

Nestling inside the diary’s covers are photos of my wife, children and grandchildren; memorial cards of my parents and sister. Together, in words and pictures, they make a composite life.

I have never met another diarist, although I reckon there must be many of them. I would like to talk to them, to ask them if they also suffer from the same compulsions and cramps, the gathering neuroses. How do they deal with the defiance of the blank page and the mutual staring-out scenario, like heavyweight boxers at a weigh-in? the absent Muse; the corrugated brow while holding Heaney’s ‘squat pen.’ And I wonder if there are corresponding support associations - DD - (Daily Diarists) - where I can share a room filled with kindred tortured souls, and stand up and say: ‘My name is Tom McGrath and I am a diarist!’ and to then inhale the collective, empathetic sigh, acknowledge the understanding heads nodding in unison, to surrender in confessional nakedness - ‘bless me brothers (and sisters) for I have penned … '

Does a diary make past events and experience historical? Is the past another state? How wide is the distance, the no-man’s land, between the trenches of the past and present? Sometimes I feel like a trespasser, an intruder in my own past when I reread decades-old entries. Do happier times of old devalue or diminish the present? There is certainly no joy in remembered sadness’s.

But then the surprise, the delight, when an old friend emerges from the mist of time’s passages. Where is he/she now? Time’s frontiers dissolve and I am back again in those shared, halcyon days, forever young, defying distance and age. Old friends and places are mapped in the latitudes of our shared lives; stored in the heart’s almanacs and archives; immortalized in diaries, book bound and enwrapped.

In my study these diaries are gathered in columns on the bookshelf, a silent progression of life, curated chronologically; a Terracotta army, stationed in military formation to protect my thoughts in afterlife. I imagine the intensity of their silence at night, before finally whispering their secrets in the dark, revealing the dusted down dreams of yesteryear, the roads travelled and not travelled, all the deaths and entrances, accounts of life’s betrayals and epiphanies.

The diaries also act as my memory bank. These days I liken my failing and disorganised memory to my cluttered attic, whose rusting entrance requires increasingly more pressure to open and cede its secrets. In the recesses lie random artefacts from lives past, governed by a chaotic time line and jumbled classification of events and occasions; all the entrances and exits of people in those past lives marked by letters and photos; there are old toys and suitcases; African and Asian statues; sports trophies and newspaper cuttings of long ago glories on the football pitch and athletics track; transcripts of academic achievements; old journalistic writings; concert and museum programmes. These are the physical, tangible entities in a museum of memories, a hard drive back-up for the yellowing pages, fading ink and retreating memory.

My first diaries predate this ‘definitive 50-year collection’ and go back as far as 1968. Scribbled in school jotters – those orange-coloured fiends with a Celtic cross on the cover - they reported and reflected on my teenaged turmoil. Wanton outpourings of unrequited love and lust were expressed in DH Lawrence terms, all fraught, fanciful and other F words. Unfortunately, these written lamentations were discovered by my mother. She ‘had never seen such filth in all her life’ and condemned me to immediate house arrest.

The irony of my love life, such as it existed then, was that I had problems moving from the theoretical to the practical; from desire to its fulfilment; romantic roadblocks littered the streets of my ambition. Intent was there; the corresponding consent wasn’t.

My mother’s discovery of my Dead Sea Scrolls prompted a Scriptus interruptus for a couple of years. And then, when I was eventually inducted to love’s hall of fame, and away from the roving eyes of my mother, I continued with the documenting of life and love. However, the good old Catholic compound of guilt and shame darkened the distinction between love and lust. Al Stewart’s ‘Love Chronicles’ song came to mind many times. I was confronted by the diarist’s dilemma: how to record such trysts? Biologically? Performance? Levels of gratitude?

Now, in these days of retirement and repatriation, and particularly during the recent Covid confinement, I am often found poring over my back pages, parsing the different past(s), questioning the intersection of life and fate, wondering what value these reflections and observations could be to anyone, except the author, his family and maybe a few close friends. There is nothing of tabloid titillation within their staid covers; no universal mysteries revealed; Bob Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks’ they are not - sometimes more like porter on the pages.

This unceasing volcanic eruption of molten words and Pompeii preservation of the pages has, to date, yielded …well, do the maths. ……

Number of days recorded: 50 years x 365 days totals almost 19,000 days.

Number of words written: 50 years x 365 days x 500 words gives over 9 million words!

9,000,000 words! WHY?

Sometimes I feel I am all worded out. And yet the writing continues. I know now how Sam Beckett and Van Morrison felt. “…you must go on. I can’t go on; I will go on.”

“It was worth all the work and the hurt to get here. It’s too late to stop now!”