The Diary Habit by A. A. Milne

A newspaper has been lamenting the decay of the diary-keeping habit, with the natural result that several correspondents have written to say that they have kept diaries all their lives. No doubt all these diaries now contain the entry, “Wrote to the Daily —- to deny the assertion that the diary-keeping habit is on the wane.” Of such little things are diaries made.

I suppose this is the reason why diaries are so rarely kept nowadays–that nothing ever happens to anybody. A diary would be worth writing up if it could be written like this:–

MONDAY.–“Another exciting day. Shot a couple of hooligans on my way to business and was forced to give my card to the police. On arriving at the office was surprised to find the building on fire, but was just in time to rescue the confidential treaty between England and Switzerland. Had this been discovered by the public, war would infallibly have resulted. Went out to lunch and saw a runaway elephant in the Strand. Thought little of it at the time, but mentioned it to my wife in the evening. She agreed that it was worth recording.”

TUESDAY.–“Letter from solicitor informing me that I have come into œ1,000,000 through the will of an Australian gold-digger named Tomkins. On referring to my diary I find that I saved his life two years ago by plunging into the Serpentine. This is very gratifying. Was late at the office as I had to look in at the Palace on the way, in order to get knighted, but managed to get a good deal of work done before I was interrupted by a madman with a razor, who demanded œ100. Shot him after a desperate struggle. Tea at an ABC, where I met the Duke of —. Fell into the Thames on my way home, but swam ashore without difficulty.”

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Alas! we cannot do this. Our diaries are very prosaic, very dull indeed. They read like this:–

Monday.–“Felt inclined to stay in bed this morning and send an excuse to the office, but was all right after a bath and breakfast. Worked till 1.30 and had lunch. Afterwards worked till five, and had my hair cut on the way home. After dinner read A Man’s Passion, by Theodora Popgood. Rotten. Went to bed at eleven.”

Tuesday.–“Had a letter from Jane. Did some good work in the morning, and at lunch met Henry, who asked me to play golf with him on Saturday. Told him I was playing with Peter, but said I would like a game with him on the Saturday after. However, it turned out he was playing with William then, so we couldn’t fix anything up. Bought a pair of shoes on my way home, but think they will be too tight. The man says, though, that they will stretch.”

Wednesday.–“Played dominoes at lunch and won fivepence.”

If this sort of diary is now falling into decay, the world is not losing much. But at least it is a harmless pleasure to some to enter up their day’s doings each evening, and in years to come it may just possibly be of interest to the diarist to know that it was on Monday, 27th April, that he had his hair cut. Again, if in the future any question arose as to the exact date of Henry’s decease, we should find in this diary proof that anyhow he was alive as late as Tuesday, 28th April. That might, though it probably won’t, be of great importance. But there is another sort of diary which can never be of any importance at all. I make no apology for giving a third selection of extracts.

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Monday.–“Rose at nine and came down to find a letter from Mary. How little we know our true friends! Beneath the mask of outward affection there may lurk unknown to us the serpent’s tooth of jealousy. Mary writes that she can make nothing for my stall at the bazaar as she has her own stall to provide for. Ate my breakfast mechanically, my thoughts being far away. What, after all, is life? Meditated deeply on the inner cosmos till lunch- time. Afterwards I lay down for an hour and composed my mind. I was angry this morning with Mary. Ah, how petty! Shall I never be free from the bonds of my own nature? Is the better self within me never to rise to the sublime heights of selflessness of which it is capable? Rose at four and wrote to Mary, forgiving her. This has been a wonderful day for the spirit.”

Yes; I suspect that a good many diaries record adventures of the mind and soul for lack of stirring adventures to the body. If they cannot say, “Attacked by a lion in Bond Street to-day,” they can at least say, “Attacked by doubt in St. Paul’s Cathedral.” Most people will prefer, in the absence of the lion, to say nothing, or nothing more important than “Attacked by the hairdresser with a hard brush”; but there are others who must get pen to paper somehow, and who find that only in regard to their emotions have they anything unique to say.

But, of course, there is ever within the breasts of all diarists the hope that their diaries may some day be revealed to the world. They may be discovered by some future generation, amazed at the simple doings of the twentieth century, or their publication may be demanded by the next generation, eager to know the inner life of the great man just dead. Best of all, they may be made public by the writers themselves in their autobiographies.

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Yes; the diarist must always have his eye on a possible autobiography. “I remember,” he will write in that great work, having forgotten all about it, “I distinctly remember”–and here he will refer to his diary–“meeting X. at lunch one Sunday and saying to him …”

What he said will not be of much importance, but it will show you what a wonderful memory the distinguished author retains in his old age.

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