A life discarded
Chaired by James Runcie
And so the book festival begins once again. I arrived on the first day to hear Alexander Masters telling the story of 148 diaries found in a skip in Cambridge. They were originally discovered by two of his friends, whom he calls unlikely academics. One, a professor of ecology, was exploring a building site and came across a skip filled with a number of things, including a large assortment of books. Unable to get into said skip he called a more agile friend from the literature department, who managed to clamber in and extract all 148 volumes. Several years later she passed these volumes on to Masters, thinking he might find some inspiration for a book in the dense writing inside.
The diaries spanned a period from 1952 to just two weeks before they were found in the skip. All a standard A5, they ranged in colour from the plain muted colours of post war rationing to the lurid pinks and oranges of the 90s. Each one covered about six weeks and was filled with compressed writing from the first possible page right the way through to the end, often with later notes added in the margins when the writer ran out of room.
One of the first things Masters read when opening one at random was the writer expressing a hope that their diaries would never be blown up. After that intriguing start he also developed an interest in the little sketches and cartoons that dotted the pages. He became entranced in attempting to discover who this person was and what they were like. The problem with a diary is that the diarist doesn’t necessarily describe themselves in any useful manner or mention details that might explain otherwise confusing passages. There were a great many references to one particular ‘it’ that must be done, as if the writer’s life depended on this task being successful, but absolutely no explanation of what this ‘it’ might be.
It’s 5 million words in 148 books, you’ll go mad!
For a time Masters resisted investigating the diaries too deeply, figuring that he would never get through them all and would simply end up frustrated and wasting time he should be spending on other things. However, he couldn’t help picking them up occasionally and on one occasion came across a passage describing what initially appeared to be a stabbing. The diarist had described themselves stumbling around the garden before rushing inside to attempt to find the phone book and call the hospital (since it was before the convenience of 999). When the diarist’s mother came home she appeared utterly unconcerned by her child’s distress. The end of this passage made the reason for this clear. The diarist that Masters had assumed was male, was in fact a 14 year old girl writing about the arrival of her first period.
A brief worry about a man reading a young girl’s diary being creepy was quickly overshadowed by the knowledge that he had 148 volumes of writing telling him exactly how a woman thought. He continued reading and discovered a series of drawings from the set of the Richard III film that had featured Lawrence Olivier. The immediate thought on discovery of these sketches was the possibility that she might be famous. However, the more Masters read, the more he hoped she was not famous. If she was an ordinary person then he could feel a sense of equality between him and his subject. Celebrities were always watched and written about and consistently aware of that fact, whereas what he had was a completely unselfconscious body of work. Part of the appeal of the diaries came from the idea of this being a normal person, facing normal problems and Masters found himself taking comfort in the fact that she faced the same issues as him and solved them in similar ways. His original intention to actually find the writer was replaced by a desire to figure out her character and personality and extract as many clues from the writing as possible.
The writing slanted across each page and Masters knew that she wrote in bed. Struck by a wish to discover if she really was as tall as she frequently complained, Masters found himself a protractor, consulted a mathematician friend and attempted to find a formula that would take the angle at which the writing slanted giving him the length of her forearm, and eventually her height. With the formula checked by his friend and the angle measured Masters completed the calculation and received the answer that his diarist was 25 feet tall. Back to the drawing board.
There were frequent references to an ‘E’, who seemed to be the great love of the diarist’s life. However, Masters concluded that there was another love. A man referred to as Whiters, who was frequently described as bringing her far more satisfaction than E could. Eventually the identity of Whiters was solved when a scrap of paper fell out of the diary bearing the address of Whitefield House, Cambridge. Attempts to contact the owners and get permission to access the house that had clearly meant so much failed. Masters eventually found himself sneaking through a gap in a cordon to find that the house had been razed to the ground.
The mentions of E proved more informative. Having previously only known that the diarist’s name was not Mary (due to a discussion of a boy who had made a pass at her but uttered entirely the wrong name), he then came upon a section where E had been quoted, and the quote included the diarist’s name. Laura* was frequently berated by E, who appeared to be a piano teacher and former concert pianist. Masters gathered a picture of a man who had been at the start of a career but forced to flee to England when it became clear that Jewish concert pianists would not be tolerated at home, who then pinned all his hopes on making Laura everything that he could have been. Sadly Laura had neither the enthusiasm or the discipline to fulfil his dreams and his frustrations at this were taken out on her.
As the diaries continued it became clear that not only was E 50 years old when Laura was just 14, E was also female and the diaries documented a 30 year unconsummated relationship. It seems that while many 14 year olds fall in love with a lot of people, some of them a great deal older, Laura became trapped in that moment of teenage precariousness. In earlier years she seems to want her diaries seen and read so that she might have a forum in which to discuss her odd relationship with E. However, as the relationship, and subsequently the diaries, sours she seems less concerned with the possibility of an external reader. The later diaries are filled with minutiae that are boring but fascinated. The chair Runcie notes that at one point she spends 2 pages discussing her radish intake.
Oh god, I know everything!
Eventually it became clear that Laura was in fact still alive, and Masters would have to contact her if he wished to go anywhere with the book he had written over his years of investigating her words. Managing to track her down he arranged a meeting, only realising on her doorstep that he was about to tell a complete stranger that he knew all about her inner thoughts from her description of her dramatic entrance into puberty to her many thoughts on E and their relationship. Laura initially assumed he had contacted her as he was writing a biography about someone she knew but did seem very taken with the idea of his book. She even said that she did not want him to remove anything as it would not be honest. Her only objections in the whole manuscript were regarding some of the drawings that he had included. She now keeps two diaries, one for herself and one for Masters.
Initially it seems that Masters is touching on the tired stereotype of a woman being the great complex mystery a man must take pains to unravel, and his description of his discovery of both Laura and E as female flirts with being grotesquely sensationalist. However, when the rest of his work is considered it looks more like a man who is fascinated by the inner worlds of others and is desperate to find out all the ways in which they are similar or different and how that informs their choices.
*This is the name Masters gives in his book, however, it is not the diarist’s actual name as it was changed to protect her identity.