Today we begin a new series. A few years ago bookseller Steerforth came across a remarkable diary, which he began to publish on his blog and which we now serialise, in an edited form, on The Dabbler. In this opening post, Steerforth explains how he discovered the diary and addresses the moral dilemmas raised by publishing the innermost thoughts of a real man…
Why I keep a journal is often a mystery to myself. There is an inward compulsion – some would call it egotism – that will not rest until my life is recorded. Of course, the Keeper always imagines that any journal he keeps will be of inestimable value to future generations; will be a work of intimate revelations that will declare his glory to endless decades. And that is a foolish dream hardly worth the paper he has kept it on.
An extract from the personal diaries of a local government officer called Derek.
Believe it or not, my former employers built up a successful, multi-million pound business selling books that failed to sell in charity shops; books that would otherwise be dumped on landfill sites. Occasionally we would also receive the contents of house clearances, where the owner of the books has either died or moved into an old people’s home. It can be rather depressing wading through someone’s book collection, realising that however erudite and well-read they were, this is how it ends.
One day in January 2010 we received a huge delivery of house clearance stock, stored in a large cage – the type that Hannibal Lecter was incarcerated in during the opening scenes of ‘Silence of the Lambs’. The selection of books ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. There were many historical and literary titles in immaculate condition, but also a number of bizarre books published by small presses, most of which asserted that the Earth was only a few thousand years old. One claimed to have conclusive evidence that humans and dinosaurs co-existed.
At the time, I had no idea that I was looking at Derek’s book collection.
I wish I’d had more time to peruse Derek’s library, but we were under pressure to clear the space as quickly as possible and had to make snap decisions about what to keep. Towards the bottom of the cage, someone found a box full of foolscap folders and called me over to have a look. To my amazement, there were thousands of pages of typed and handwritten A4 sheets, plus a few exercise books – a diary of someone’s entire adult life, spanning a period from the early 1950s through to the 1990s. “Chuck it?” I was asked. Horrified, I shook my head.
Later, during a quiet moment, I started to read the contents and realised that I had found something wonderful.
This is Derek in 1956:
If he looks like this in the mid-1950s, then we can assume that Derek was born at some point between 1925 and 1935.
When Derek’s diaries begin, he is in love with Brenda:
Derek marries Brenda and they have a son. They also become Mormons, and the recurring theme in the diaries is Derek’s personal battle against sin and temptation. This extract is from 1987:
I was much troubled by evil dreams last night. I tossed and turned upon my bed in a way I have not done for many years. I dreamt that I was at the office and kept calling the female staff by titles and names that were blatantly sexist and in transgression of the County Council’s instructions in this matter.
The Pooterish tone of the writing results in many examples of unintentional comedy:
On the way to Bristol this morning, Elaine Hamilton and I got to discussing her daughter’s hay fever and I suggested that susceptibility to such things could be dependent upon the density of the hairs in one’s nose. It was a novel suggestion that gave her some thought!
Eric the Barber, with his lady assistant, was sitting in his shop idle when I passed by with the hamster. He called out to me, so I went in and showed the scrap to them. Eric thought that hamsters would live amicably together in the same cage. I soon disillutioned him of that myth. I also told him that they were a great thing to have in the house if one were plagued by mice, since mice are scared beyond measure by hamsters.
Hamsters obviously play an important role in Derek’s household:
When we got back home, we said hello to Brenda, Richard and the hamster.
The Pooterish theme extends to the cast of characters: Mr Sunter and Mr Limpett, Oliver Dewsnapp, Gerald Ramsbottom, Mrs Moncrieff, Norman and Joan Farbass, Warwick Kear, Steve Fagg, Pam Bolloch, Julia Sleat and Malcolm Satchel. All real people.
But it would be so easy to save Derek’s diaries just so that I could use them as comic material, whereas the truth is that the humorous moments are only a small part of the whole. Derek comes across as a decent man, trying to live the good life according to his beliefs. He is plagued by self-doubt and his journals bear witness to the struggles of an ordinary person who is regularly plagued by extraordinary feelings:
I set my lip on fire the other morning. And on Sunday night I had a dream. I became acquainted with an attractive woman with curly hair, but undefined facial features. I was much tempted by her and took her back to a basement with rusty radiators…
But what should I do with Derek’s diaries? Simply keeping them wasn’t much better then throwing them away. These diaries were written to be read, and so I began publishing extracts on my blog. Of course I have often thought about about the ethics of publishing someone’s private papers. However, I feel quite certain that faced with a choice between seeing his life’s work pulped or having extracts published on the internet, Derek would have chosen the latter.
But rather than speculate, let’s hear from Derek himself. In 1980, he typed up his first journal from 1955, adding footnotes and this telling preface:
My early journals, and the later one some people might declare, make me squirm when I read them now. They are full of self-pity, mawkish sentiment, selfish opinions, and abysmal writing. Were it not that I truly believe that “the child is the father of the man”, in that the person I am now is a sort on omnibus composed of many pieces bought forward from that stumbling past, I would confine those journals to the fire without any compunction. But we all of us like to brood upon beginnings, seeds sown, passions formed, the foundations of character and personality, and I am no exception to that rule.
When I am going through a period of self-examination, especially my faults, I strive to trace what I find within my inner depths to original seeds. This is profitable in conveying lessons to others. Knowledge by experience is of far more value than any wisdom gained from books. So, though my journals are full of many weaknesses, perhaps there are unobserved lessons in them that will help others, particularly my posterity in the days that lie ahead.
Posterity is a word that Derek uses frequently, but it isn’t a reference to a nebulous collection of people in the future. For Derek, posterity means his descendants:
As to that posterity, I hope they will not think me the worst of their ancestors. I am arrogant; but I see my arrogance and am always quickly repentant of it. I am foolish, too. By this I mean that I have a sense of humour that often gets out of hand and manifests itself in stupid speeches and foolish remarks, many of them out of place. On occasion I also play practical jokes, many of them of a literary ilk. At the same time it is a sense of humour that has enabled me to pass through many dark places and to observe the desparate side of funny situations.
If any legend goes down to my posterity concerning the man I was, it may well be the fact that I loved to collect books, even to the detriment of the welfare of my family on occasion. At the present time I have about four thousand volumes about me; I cannot pass a bookshop without pausing to browse.
I’m glad that Derek never knew that his ‘posterity’ would one day consign his diaries and the beloved book collection to oblivion.
Over the coming weeks The Dabbler will be serialising Steerforth’s extracts from Derek’s Diary in a fortnightly column. They are hilarious, bizarre, profound and often heartbreakingly sad. Stay tuned.
Steerforth is a gentleman bookseller from East Sussex, who blogs at The Age of Uncertainty.