And so made significant . . .

around the world, and through the centuries

15 January

1871
Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff,
politician

‘Went over from High Elms with Lubbock, Huxley and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to call on Darwin, whom Lowe had never seen since they met as quite young men, on two neighbouring reading parties forty years ago. We stayed as long as it was safe, for a very little too much talking brings on an attack of the violent sickness which has been the bane of the great philosopher’s life. As we returned, Huxley expressed the opinion, which was probably correct, that no man now living had done so much to give a new direction to the human mind. “Ah,” said Lowe, “you think him the top-sawyer of these times.” “ Yes,” said the other.’

Good-natured books

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1900
Arthur Hamilton Baynes,
priest

‘English letters for next Saturday’s mail had to be despatched this morning! You would think we were in the remote parts of the Transvaal, instead of being little more than twenty-five miles from the railway at Frere. But I suppose with the roads blocked by transport, and the stoppages at the different camps en route, they have to take time by the forelock.

Colonel Byng of the South African Light Infantry went out with two guns of the artillery, with a view to catching Boers on the road between Colenso and this; we heard later on that though he did not succeed in intercepting wagons, etc., he arrived in the nick of time to extricate a patrol of Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry from a perilous position. . . .

Meanwhile General Lyttelton and his staff made an expedition to the two hills called Zwartzkop, and I went with them. We started about 11, with two guides. We had to ride round the top of the ridge before descending into the intervening valley, then crossed the plain and began the ascent of the opposite hill. It is lovely country. The hills are covered with thick brush, of semi-tropical character, to be found on our own river valleys as distinguished from the higher hillsides.

About halfway up we left our horses with the orderlies, and climbed the rest, which was steep, on foot. Then we took elaborate surveys of the position as it appeared from there. First to the east, towards the part of the river where Byng was on the look out for the Boers. Of course we could not see him, as he would keep under cover, and might be a good way off. At that part the hills come nearer to the river, and are steep, so that the road is forced nearer to the bank. There is a drift there, with a road leading to it; it is just possible that we might make an attempt there. Then we looked out to the north, and searched the hills for Boer intrenchments with glasses. There is less need of them there, however, for on the right the hills are steep and rocky. Then we looked towards the hills to the north-west, where the road from Potgieter’s Drift crosses the hills, to see if the guns on the hills commanded the back of some small kopjes just across the river; seeing them in profile here, we could judge better than from our camp. A spice of excitement was added here, as we saw just below us, at the foot of the hill, on our side of the river, a lot of cattle herded together, with some ponies, and our guides said that these must be Boers; and if they were, they might have a try to cut off our return to camp. However, we saw nothing of them when we descended the hill. We called at the Kaffir kraal at the foot and bought some chickens, and then returned by another road. Colonel Byng was to have come to dinner, but had not returned from his expedition.’

On the look out for Boers

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1902
Miguel de Unamuno,
writer and philosopher

‘Today, the 15th of January, 1902, in the middle of reading Holtzmann’s Leben Jesu, p. 102, I again take up this diary.’

Our Father

Always the Father, always engendering the Ideal in us. I, projected to infinity, and you, who are projected to infinity, meet. Our lives, parallel in infinity, meet, and my infinite I is your I, the collective I, the Universe I, the Universe made person, and it is God. And I, am I not my father? Am I not my son?

Thy will be done

Go and wash and see

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1941
Beatrice Webb,
economist and social reformer

‘We have had a shock. In the devastating German raid on London on 29 December all our books, bound and unbound - seven thousand volumes - were destroyed. At first I was downcast, but Sidney was more philosophical [. . .]. When in the six o’clock BBC news we are told that five million books had been swept away, I was consoled by the feeling ‘we are all in it’, and had no reason to feel specially injured.’

Webbs on the web

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1943
George Adamson,
conservationist

‘The Ballys and Hales started back for Garissa by lorry. Sorry the Bs have gone, they were good company on the safari. She is an exceptionally good walker and does not mind hardship and would make a wonderful companion for a man like myself. As they drove off her eyes literally looked into my soul.’

A life of Joy and lions

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1963
Cees Nooteboom,
writer

‘West Berlin. You drive down Kurfürstendamm, which is bedecked with high, white lights, to the corroded, mutilated Gedächtniskirche, and then onwards. To your surprise, you see that the West has its own ruins: magnificent, hollowed-out monuments and empty windows with no rooms behind them, chunks of fossilised war, bricked-up doors that no smiling father will ever pass through again, off for a walk with Werner the dog. The only crossing point for non-German, non-military personnel is in Friedrichstraße, but we end up at the Brandenburger Tor by mistake. Snow and moonlight. Nothing on the frozen square in front of the gate: no people, no cars. Along the edge of that space, the black columns topped by the quadriga, the triumphal chariot. Four horses race along, pulling a winged figure that holds aloft a wreath, towards the east. Beneath, a quarter of the height of the columns, the blunt teeth of the Wall. A West German policeman signals that we are not allowed to drive on. So we stay where we are and watch things not happening. Two Russian tanks stand up high on huge pedestals, a reminder of 1945. We see two Russian sentries, shadows amidst the marble.

Friedrichstraße is not far from here. The same checks as at Helmstedt: documents, pieces of paper, money being counted, barriers, a classic copperplate engraving through which we move, remaining as human as possible. Two low walls have been erected across the road so that a driver would have to perform a dramatic swerve if he wanted to get through quickly. When all the German boxes have been ticked, we are allowed through, and the city continues, the way cities do after walls: the same, yet different. It is probably just me being oversensitive, but it smells different here, and everything looks browner. [. . .]

Not much traffic. Lots of neon signs. Is it a disappointment? Would I have liked it to be more dramatic? And why do I think I have any right to expect something? Two motionless soldiers stand guard in front of a monument. At Alexanderplatz, a steam train passes over a viaduct, but otherwise there is nothing to report - the occasional sign with words that look rather unread, slogans talking to themselves.’

Nooteboom in Berlin 1963

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1995
Paul K. Lyons,
writer

‘Ian proved a hearty fellow and quite charming. He loved Adam and the way he’d fallen asleep in his house without disturbing anyone, and he seemed on good form the thrice I saw him - on this evening, later in the week at a party, and then on New Year’s Eve at his party. But I must recount why my meeting with him was so significant.

In the mid-1970s, after my travels and when I was living in London with Harold, I think, I saw a modern ballet at Sadlers Wells, created by Lindsay Kemp and performed by Ballet Rambert. I can remember parts of the ballet to this day. It was called Cruel Garden and it so inspired me in some way that I wrote my first ever piece of fiction (apart from the shorts in my travel diaries) and I called it Cruel Garden, although it had nothing to do with the ballet or its subject (at least I don’t think it did). The point is that the ballet Cruel Garden was based on the life of Lorca and, in part, on Ian’s book The Death of Lorca. I did not even realise I had read the book until I started delving into my memories surrounding The Cruel Garden.’

The death of Lorca

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1997
Alan Bennett,
writer

‘Trying to put my forty-year old letters in order, I come across a diary for 1956-9. It’s depressing to read as very little of of it is factual and most of it to do with my slightly sickening obsession with, coupled with a lack of insight into, my own character. It’s full of embarrassing resolutions about future conduct and exhortations to myself to do better. Love is treated very obliquely, passing fancies thought of as echoes of some Grand Passion.

My first inclination is to put it in the bin, though I probably won’t. I can see why writers do, though, fearful that these commonplace beginnings might infect what comes after with their banality. In this sense Orton (and to some extent Larkin) are exceptional, Orton’s early diaries written with the same peculiar slant on the world as his mature writing.

1957 was the year I should have come down from Oxford but didn’t and one thing I think reading this tosh is that if I hadn’t got a First (the circumstances undescribed in the diary) I would never have picked myself up to do much except possibly teach badly. It was the fairly spurious self-confidence I got from this fluke result, plus the breathing space it gave, that enabled me to go on doing silly turns, being funny and thus eventually to write.’

A place for my asides

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2009
Kim Dae-jung,
politician

‘The question in life is not how long you lived. It is whether you lived for people who are suffering and are faced with hardship.’

Believing in history

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In general, these diary extracts are quoted as given in the published (book or online) source referred to in the reference articles. Each extract may be all, a large part of, or a small part of the complete entry for that day. I have tried to indicate where text has been removed from within a quote by the use of trailing dots in square bracket.

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Any author, publisher or other copyright holder who takes the view that I am unacceptably breaching their copyright please let me know. I have tried to remain sensitive to copyright rules (using far fewer quotes, for example, when a book, by an author still alive, remains in print and popular), but it is not practical for me to seek authorisation for every quote and article, since I maintain these websites without any funding or advertis-ing. I take the view that publicity for the source books is a quid pro quo for my use of the extracts, but I am more than happy to remove the extracts if asked.

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The Diary Junction is one of those wonderful privately maintained public resources for which the Internet is justly celebrated: a database of information about celebrated and obscure diaries[over 500] from all historical periods, with referrals to the dates the diaries cover, where the originals are held and bibliographic information on published versions.’ Laura Miller, Salon

The Diary Review, hosted by Blogger, publishes magazine-style articles on diaries and diarists, usually several every week. The blog has been publishing for over five years, and is the secondary source for the diary extracts in this online anthology.