thefilthycomma #25 | | DJS

thefilthycomma #25

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 <literacywhore>, 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’ correctly 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 trigonometry2 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 my friend K (she’s now a proper grown-up vet and probably hasn’t written a letter in years), which opened with the following non-sequitur: ‘I was just cleaning my room when I came across your letters and realised how long it is since I’ve written to you! 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 K's 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. K, 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 K's family4. Cath, who is considerably dimmer than K, 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 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 K’s house, 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.

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