How many writers keep diaries? I’m guessing lots of us. I started keeping one when I was eleven. “Mrs Butler’s school,” runs the first entry, “went to Stump Cross Caverns. We went down a long flight of steps and it was quite dark. Some tunnels were borded [sic] up. It felt strange being so far below the ground. There were many stalactites.”
Not very descriptive, I think now – but although the entry is pretty laconic, I reckon I was impressed. Impressed enough to want to record it. Anyway, I’ve been going underground in fiction ever since – in ‘Troll Fell’ and ‘Troll Mill’ at least: and now I’m having another stab at it in my forthcoming book. I’m not a caver: if anything I’m rather claustrophobic, but I do find caves fascinating. Each time I write about them I head off underground to collect first-hand impressions: the most recent was a crawl down a Roman lead-mine in
Shropshire: the entrance tunnel was approximately two feet high. It was wet, stony, uncomfortable, and of course unlit; and I wasn’t at all sure I could do it. But I did. I sat in the dark with a notebook and wrote about what I could feel and smell and hear, and swore to myself that there would be no cheating this time – no writing about magical lights or mysterious phosphorescence. Unless they took candles, my characters would be in the dark.
It’s interesting (to me at least) that this fascination with caves started so long ago. I’ve kept a diary on and off ever since, and in my early twenties recorded a number of conversations with a guy I worked with, who belonged to the Cave Rescue. He was for ever being hauled out of bed at to go down pot-holes and drag out people who had got stuck. Sometimes they were alive, sometimes they most definitely weren’t. One night the team was called out to rescue an eighteen-year old girl from a university club who’d fallen down a ninety foot pitch.
“When we looked at her” (he told me) “we could see that if we moved her we were going to kill her, so we stayed with her till the medics came down with oxygen. But even then we were still going to kill her if we moved her, and she died down there about half an hour after we reached her.
“It was pretty wet. Luckily she wasn’t very big, so it was easier getting her out – you know, it’s a pretty tight passage.” He paused. “She didn’t look very good when most people saw her. When we got to her she wasn’t so bad, because the water had washed her clean.” He paused again. “It’s going to be an awful shock for her mother.”
Strong and terse: he was shaken and emotional. I felt the emotion too, but also I was trying to learn how to write dialogue. That meant that I would go home and scribble down what I remembered. I don’t think I was being callous. I’m still moved by what he said. Yet I’d have forgotten about it years ago if I hadn’t written it down.
I’ve never used it in a book. I wouldn't use anything like that directly. But there’ve been plenty of times when it’s handy to turn up an old diary and find something to jog the mind into action. Writing about weather is a good example. Me and my brother walking on the moors in the heavy winter snow of 1979:
In places the snow looked just like the surface of a clean new mushroom, white and peeling a little all over. Later, coming down the tarn road, shadows on the snow were a luminous, pale violet.
I’d never have come up with that description if I hadn’t seen it, and I’d never have remembered it if I hadn’t written it down. Nor would I easily remember how intolerant and opinionated I could be as a teenager especially when taking an interest in current affairs. The Troubles in
were the daily stuff of the news then. Ignorant and biased, I took my tone completely from my parents, and wrote stuff which, er, frankly I’m too embarrassed to quote. Suffice it to say that my school fountain pen positively spluttered with my thirteen-year old British pride… I doubt if anybody would believe it if I put it in a book. Come to think of it, are there any books about teenagers which credit them with political awareness? (Well, maybe not awareness exactly in my case, but certainly passions?) Do we tend to assume that they're only interested in one another? Northern Ireland
We all think we can remember just how it felt to be young. But a diary is there as a sort of reality check. I said and wrote some things which now seem outrageous - and I'm sure, without the diary there to prove it, I'd have edited them out of my memory.