TERRY PRONE: Dear Diary, this year I promise not to stuff you with irrelevancies

GIVEN the capacity of every mobile phone and computer to provide you with a diary application these days, you would think that diaries in the physical sense would be dying off.

Actually, they seem to be on the increase.

I was given two at Christmas. One is a posh pocket-sized leather job with my name engraved on it – the kind you turn sideways to see what awful appointment you have for next Thursday. The other is unexpectedly bound in fuchsia-coloured faux leather. “Unexpectedly” because it’s the book-sized state diary with a gilt heart on the front of it produced by the Office of Public Works, and one doesn’t tend to associate the OPW with fuchsia faux leather.

I was quite impressed with myself when I received it. A bit like the IPA diary, which makes as big a statement about the recipient, the state diary, once you get past the fuchsia faux, has the aura of having beendeveloped for the desks of serious people. The kind of serious people who need, at the flip of a page, to find the lo-call number of Government Information Services (who knew they had a lo-call number and how thoughtful of them to save us money if we need to give them a buzz), the dates of major public holidays in Hungary or the distance between Sligo and Kilkenny.

I have none of these needs, but you never know when I will be on speaking terms with GIS or have to rush from Kilkenny to Sligo.

This diary, in common with every one of its kind, is extremely intrusive. Hardly past the first page, it asks me for my blood group. Now, maybe you know your blood group off the top of your head, but as long as I have enough of the stuff and it stays inside me, that’s all I need to know about blood. It’s persistent, though, this diary. Not only does it want my blood group, it wants my blood group bilingually. Just as it – wait for it – wants my ailléirgí, fadas and all. It’s very shaming to leave the allergy section blank. To admit to being allergy-free, these days, is to confess to having a certain lack of sensitivity and a promiscuous capacity to eat anything without fear.

At least it doesn’t ask for height, weight and eye colour, as diaries used to, although the motivation was never clear. I used to think the weight was included so the following year you could thrill yourself by putting in a lower number, or mortify yourself by noting down a higher figure. What I couldn’t understand was the idea that any of us needed reminding as to our height or eye colour. Mine tend to stay pretty static.

All diaries are pessimistic by nature. They always have a slot for a name “to be notified in case of an accident”. They never have a slot for the highlights and joys of the year.

On the other hand, the state diary does contain a hymn of praise for the humble spud, dating from 1597 and including the first ever picture of a potato. Now, there’s a hold-the-front-page scoop. The accompanying text has those funny rendition of “S”, so it reads thus:

“They are vfed to be rofted in the afhes; fome when they be fo rofted, infufe them and fop them in wine.”

And you thought you laid on a good Christmas dinner? Bet you didn’t infufe your rofted potatoes and fop them in wine before serving them to your family.

My diaries always start out, as does my every year, with neat handwriting and good intentions. They always end, as does the massive 2009 volume, being held together with duct tape and filled with taunting irrelevancies. On April 6, for example, I find a list of worthy and important people (some of them found, during the year, to be somewhat less worthy, it has to be admitted, because it was that kind of year – we rofted a lot of people in 2009 and infufed precious few) with no explanation for their presence. The only thing on the same page is a terse observation that “People are getting out of the habit of paying for it”. The significance of the latter depends, as Bill Clinton would confirm, on precisely what “it” signifies.

One of the reasons the diary, by year end, has to be held together with duct tape, is that I stick pieces of paper into it, the way my mother used to stick recipes into her cookery book, constantly challenging its willing spine.

The past year differs, in this regard, from all previous years, partly because I copped on to online banking. This allows the printing out of one’s dire financial situation. Which I did, sticking the result into the diary with such frequency, it speaks to my anxieties about money in 2009.

The bank statements are interspersed with cuttings from newspapers. One announces that men gossip a hell of a lot more than women do.

Another suggests that the proliferation of creative writing courses will result in a situation where we have more writers than readers. Some are quotes confirming my own prejudices. Right in the middle of November 24 is Katherine Mansfield’s comment on EM Forster: “EM Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.”

At the top of each page is the title, author’s name, publisher and date of publication of whatever book I was reading on that day. If I go back through 20 years of diaries (and anybody who owns a poshdiary will confirm that throwing it out at the end of the year is simply not possible) I find the same painstaking annotation.

I’ve no idea why I do this, but it probably goes back to my disastrous schooldays and the never-ending need to prove to my mother that I wasn’t reading rubbish. Except, of course, that half the books listed are definitive rubbish, and all the more enjoyable for that reason.

A recent exception was one of the best reads over Christmas. Michael Jones’s The Retreat, an account of Hitler’s first defeat, in Russia, is largely based on diaries kept by soldiers of the Wermacht and of the Red Army.

As the retreat turned into a rout, a German soldier named Willy Reese recorded what he witnessed.

“There was the stink of frostbite, as men used the same bandage – pus-encrusted and stiff with scabs and rotted flesh – again and again... The bones were exposed, but with their feet wrapped in cloths and sacking, the men had to go on standing sentry duty and fighting...”

The quintessential diary, of course, belonged to Mr Pepys, who developed his own code to keep anybody other than himself reading his accounts of his varied, random and opportunistic sex life.

If Tiger Woods keeps a diary, the odds are the 2010 edition will be a lot duller, in that department, than any he’s kept up to now.


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