Broken Dishes

My current reading matter is the first volume of my diary, covering the years in which I was eleven and twelve. This is an instructive experience. I have recorded events that the uninitiated reader might expect, such as birthdays (‘The best birthday present I got was a trumpet from Mum and Dad. Dad insisted I try to play it. I sounded like a wounded beast’), my first day at secondary school (‘School is fun. I am in a form with the most enormous girl I have ever seen. There are other people there too, but they are squashed against the walls most of the time’) and landmarks such as cross-country races (‘Mrs B [English teacher] got glasses over Christmas. They seem to make her very bad-tempered. She was marshalling for cross-country this afternoon and didn’t seem to care at all that I did it two minutes faster than J’) and my first parties (‘we danced badly and laughed a lot’).

I also made a number of much more peculiar observations in volume one (July 11th 1991-July 24th 1992), from which we can conclude the following things about me, as both a person and a writer. Firstly, I had no sense of priority. A two-week holiday in Cornwall is summed up as follows: ‘Sick twice on the way home. M has an inflatable shark.’ Secondly, I was slightly obsessive about animals. Any encounter with a pet, for example, is always recorded with either name and colour and usually both e.g. ‘Cousin J’s rats are called Fennel and Parsley. I wonder why?’; ‘Midget is a brown pony with a white nose. He lives in a field with a big white horse called Bo’ or ‘I met a cat in a shop today. It was a tortoiseshell called Suzy’. The exact number of animals seen in the wild is also very important: ‘Today we saw eighteen grebes, sixteen deer, two ponies and thirty-three cows. Dad says there are pigs in the New Forest but we didn’t see any of those. Maybe he was making them up.’

Thirdly, and as shown in that last quotation, I show a distressing lack of trust in my parents’ attempts to curb the weirder and/or more pedantic aspects of my character.

24th Sept 1991: Had a major accident.[1] Cut foot open on Dad’s bicycle chain. There is a piece of foot missing, never to be seen again (prob. somewhere on patio). Mother says it will grow back, but I remain sceptical.

4th December 1991: Today’s advent calendar picture was a pipe and tobacco. This relates to Christmas in no way at all but Mum says I mustn’t write to the address on the back and complain as it won’t make any difference.

26th May 1992: Visited W today [Mother’s aged godmother]. She has a pond with newts in. Dad says maybe we can have a pond one day (he didn’t mention the newts, I noticed later, but much too late to bring it up without looking like I had my own agenda).

Note here the correct spelling of tricky words like ‘sceptical’, ‘tobacco’ and ‘agenda’. I put this down to my habit of learning most of my vocabulary from books. This meant that I was able to use such words correctly, and spell them correctly in written form, but often unable to pronounce them with any accuracy. My father still recalls my attempts to say ‘Neanderthal’ (a word I remember finding in The Eighteenth Emergency, in which a small boy is beaten up for writing the name of his bully on a poster showing various forms of primitive man and drawing an arrow to the Neanderthal), and which I pronounced like a phrase rather than a word (‘knee-and-earth-all’). I had the same issue with the word  ‘teetotaller’ (‘tea-toe-taller’).

Fourthly, my sexual development was something I had not quite decided to explore in writing. There seems to be a tension between the compulsion to write (of which more in a moment) and a coyness that I don’t remember and certainly haven’t felt for years. Consider the blank, uncomprehending nature of the following observation from 20th May 1992: ‘According to J, my legs go all the way up to my bum. This didn’t seem like news.’ Wonderfully, I copied many letters I received and wrote into my diary, including one that started with the following sentence: ‘Dear <literacystrumpet>, we are having fairly good weather here, it has been really whomid in recent days’. I should explain that, rather than a letter from an elderly and illiterate aunt, this is the opening line of a letter I received from a very early boyfriend. I have reproduced this in my diary with the original spelling, and then annotated it with a red pen, musing regretfully in a footnote that someone who can’t spell ‘humid’ probably isn’t right for me. The same unfortunate boy appears in the following diary entry, from 1st July 1992:

I have a boyfriend (I’m too embarrassed to write his name as it’s quite posh so I’m just going to call him X). X called on the house today and Dad shouted up the stairs ‘THERE’S A BOY TO SEE YOU!’ as if I was not only deaf but unfamiliar with the concept of boys and their ability to press doorbells. X looked utterly awful when I came downstairs, but I think that was because of Dad shouting and then hanging around as I checked in the mirror afterwards and I looked OK. X asked if I could come out for a walk, but after all that shouting Dad said I couldn’t go out because I have homework to do (this is a lie as I had just finished it, but as it was trigonometry[2] and I didn’t understand it I didn’t want to say I had done it already as then I would have had to show it to Dad [my father is a Maths teacher] and it might have been wrong from start to finish and he would have said so in front of X or told his awful joke about the squaw on the hippopotamus), so I said I didn’t mind and read my book instead.[3]

Fifthly and finally, I felt a compulsion to write that I now find almost embarrassing (1st September 1991: ‘Nothing has happened today. But it is only 10am and I am still in my pyjamas’. Note the startling lack of ambition here). This is true for days on which nothing happens; days on which plenty has happened, none of which now seems worth recording; and days on which I am too tired to write (but not too tired to write ‘I am too tired to write’). I seem to be anxious that, unless an event is recorded (and possibly prefigured, as per Beowulf), it might not have happened at all (2nd Sept 1991: ‘Mum gets back from the Isle of Wight tomorrow’; 3rd Sept 1991: ‘Mum is back from the Isle of Wight’)On Sept. 3rd, the only other item of note was a letter from a friend that I made at one of my many primary schools; while I was being educated elsewhere, we wrote each other copious, lengthy letters. We also learnt early on that we could put more or less anything as the addressee on the envelope, provided the address was correct. For some time, I addressed letters to her at ‘The lady in the green dress’, and so will continue to refer to her as such. The letter in question from The Lady in the Green Dress opened with the following non-sequitur:

Dear <literacystrumpet> How are you? I was just cleaning my room when I came across your letters and realised how long it is since I’ve written to you![4] Here is my list of Top Ten Boys

I was going to include the original list, but reading it now I realise I am still in touch with at least two of the people named and don’t wish to embarrass them. Number 5 on the list, however, reads simply ‘Pickles’. A nickname, or her way of expressing a fondness for vinegary condiments? Neither, it turned out, when I consulted the relevant passage in my book. The list of Top Ten Boys is something I have shamelessly stolen and used in my novel; in fact, reading back through this first volume of my diaries, I was struck repeatedly by incidents, people and feelings that I have used as source material. The Lady in the Green Dress, for example, appears as part of a composite character called Cath, who writes her own list of Top Ten Boys. Reading the fictionalised version (in which I have changed Pickles’s name, for reasons that I can’t recall but which I assume are to do with some kind of witness protection scheme) prompted a dim memory to flick a fin. Pickles, I now remember, was a black-and-white cocker spaniel belonging to The Lady in the Green Dress and her family.[5] Cath, who is considerably dimmer than The Lady in the Green Dress, wonders in her next paragraph ‘I’m not sure if <Pickles> really counts. What do you think?’. Our heroine Alice responds as follows: ‘No, and certainly not ahead of several actual boys’. She then attempts to soften this withering assessment with the more supportive ‘I would like to think you can do better.’ This, it seems to me, is a sentiment that can also be applied to the way in which source material can be reworked into something more structurally satisfying. This process of literary collage is similar to the feeling I have when starting a new patchwork quilt. The diaries are the metaphorical dead sheets, duvet covers, torn shirts and aged dresses, and the process of writing is the (often painful) process of tearing out seams, snipping off buttons, throwing tremendous tangled piles of useless thread and scraps onto the fire, and then patiently cutting, piecing and stitching it all into something beautiful.

[1] I am reminded of Tony Hancock exclaiming (in his own diary, I believe) ‘at last! Drama! Bill cut his finger! I bandaged it! Should I devote my life to this?’.

[2] Broken Dishes is a quilt pattern, predominately made up of tiny triangles.

[3] Poor old X must have thought I was like Senorita Nina from Argentina (‘She said that love should be impulsive, but not convulsive/And syncopation had a discouraging effect on procreation/And that she’d rather read a book and that was that’).

[4] It might have been as much as a week.

[5] How can I be so sure about the colour and the breed, you ask? Because I bloody well wrote it down in my diary as an item of earth-shattering importance the first time I went to play at the home of The Lady in the Green Dress, along with the names of all her stick insects and a list of eighteen ways in which her bedroom was better than mine, that’s how.

In praise of the handwritten word

Regular readers will recall my description of a small orange book (see Have you been eating all the big nuts again?) in which my parents noted down the food they served to an increasingly baffling range of guests in the 1970s. One can scarcely imagine a book more exciting than one recording incidents such as the first time I was sick over somebody else’s trousers (the trousers contained an unfortunate gentleman named Ian. No doubt the menu that day of cheese fondue and blackcurrant parfait cheered him up) or the universal shrug that seems to have greeted experimental puddings – and yet such a book exists. Shortly after Christmas, a parcel arrived from my brother in New Zealand, containing assorted Christmas presents. The most thrilling item[1] was a blue hard-backed book with a plain cover. This turned out to be our baby book.

I say ‘our’ because the first eight pages or so are devoted to me, followed by another six or seven pages focused on my (younger) brother. Not only had I never read this book before, I had no idea it even existed. The most striking thing is how clearly delineated our personalities were, even at a very young age. My mother writes shortly before my second birthday that ‘she is very insistent on everything being in the right place’ and notes my need to arrange my toys into lines; Father comments a few months later that I ‘decided’ to be potty trained; that I ‘accept just punishment only’ (still true); and that I have moved on from arranging toys in lines to ‘patterns, which at first glance have a meaning that only she understands’. Just after my fourth birthday, Mother writes the following: ‘She has very definite opinions and tends to defend them loudly, with no respect for person’. I wonder if one of the reasons that this could have been written yesterday with just as much truth is suggested by Father’s comment a little further down the page: ‘I like her flagrant disrespect’.

What a precious thing this book is! In two different hands and added to over a six-year period in a whole bunch of different inks, it simply could not be replaced or equalled by something electronic. Its new home is on the middle shelf of a bookcase that my father made, next to a red book containing my maternal grandmother’s diary for the year 1930 on one side and the aforementioned tiny orange dinner party book on the other. On the same shelf the literary-minded burglar might consider, for example, a selection of my own excruciating teenage diaries, which are not nearly as interesting or well-written as my grandmother’s. A typical passage from July 24th 1991 (I have written ‘WEDNESDAY’ in scary loner block capitals underneath the date, apparently incredulous that anyone could have a birthday party in the middle of the week): ‘Nothing happened all day until V’s party. We played Musical Statues. J[2] was out almost immediately and spent the rest of the game pretending to be a coffee pot mixer.[3] In other news[4] R’s tortoise has started to attack the lawnmower’. Grandmother’s diaries, by contrast, are much stronger meat. There are her views on the war (‘Russia is being beaten and we are having a very grim time in Egypt’ she writes, shortly before a paragraph about how cross she is to have put on weight recently ‘despite rationing’), a description of her broken engagement to somebody called Chris (this is mentioned in passing and is not even in the first paragraph of the entry for that day) and a touching account of the beginnings of her subsequent relationship with a penniless man nine years younger than her, who later became her husband and my grandfather.

All of these entertaining handwritten offerings are special and wonderful, but only the baby book contains evidence of a small girl who grew up to make a living correcting other people, although I’m a little disturbed by my two-year-old’s tenuous grasp of both spelling and diction:

March 24th 1982
She is very insistent on everything being in the right place … she can speak very well, invent names and situations, and tell brief stories e.g. ‘Once upon a time there was a fox, and he went to bed’. … Vocabulary is wide and always growing. Her only failings are still saying ‘tat’ and ‘tow’ for ‘cat’ and ‘cow’. She even corrects Charlie Eddy on his (correct!) pronunciation of ‘cow’.[5]


[1] Not that I am suggesting for a moment that temporary moustache tattoos, videos of Blake’s Seven and a T-shirt with Popeye on it are anything other than exciting – far from it.

[2] Friend from primary school; boyfriend for a brief but formative period a few years later, during which I remember him breaking off from his usual thoughtful and elegant letter to draw a sperm whale. The whale was never referred to or explained in the text and I therefore felt it would have been crass to mention it in my reply.

[3] This shouldn’t be a footnote in this post, strictly, but it is the only way I can think of conveying the fact that there was a footnote to the diary entry itself. I indicated this with an elaborate and oversized asterisk like a giant blue Catherine wheel. The footnote (I have drawn a monstrous box around it with a blue felt-tip to protect it from the Other Text) reads: ‘what is a coffee pot mixer? J looked at me with scorn when asked’.

[4] A phrase I learnt from television newsreaders and use on almost every page of my diaries from 1991 to about 1994, when it is displaced by the much less interesting word ‘Anyhow’.

[5] Charlie was the same age as me and came from a family of farmers. Total, total fail.