Some sixty-plus years ago now I was sent aged 7 (actually I turned 8 two months into my first term) to a boarding prep school in East Sussex, an experience which – after about a week of initial nightly blubbing – I grew to love and thrive upon.
Like the bulk of my contemporaries, irrespective of how gifted at games we were, I was sports-mad.
There was a six feet seven inch Northamptonshire fast bowler who played 10 Test matches for England in the early to mid-1960s called David Larter.
He once gave an interview to a magazine called The Cricketer in which, referring to his own school days, he regarded lessons as “minor interruptions between playing games” which, looking back, also summed up my attitude to them rather well.
This approach probably contributed to my lack of academic achievement and interest in reading generally.
At my prep school it manifested itself as a personal ordeal towards the end of each term when the pupils – grouped into “sections” which competed at sports (and everything else) against each other – were under the cosh from their prefects to strain to obtain every merit “star” that they could which contributed to some shield or another that was awarded at the end of each term.
With the Seagulls – my “section” – often in contention to win said gong, I was duly entered in the process of standing in a queue to stand beside the master appointed on the day sitting at a desk for the purpose of “interviewing” each boy on a book or books that he had read simply for pleasure in his spare time.
The scheme was that, if the boy could recall and recount the narrative of any given book he had claimed to have read, he might be awarded one of the aforementioned merit “stars” by the master, which would then go towards his section’s total of “stars” for the term that was the measure by which that term’s shield-winning section was determined.
Your author was immediately under a handicap in this endeavour because – apart from Wisden – to that point it could almost be 100% guaranteed that he hadn’t turned the page of a single book that term in his leisure time (mostly he’d been playing sport or roller-skating instead).
Thus it was that towards the end of each term I would endure a period of intense coaching by one of my section’s prefects on two or three books – often from either the Biggles oeuvre of W.E. Johns and/or that of the “stirring tales of Brit military heroism on the far frontiers of the Empire” of G.A. Henty – after which I would duly stand in the queue, copies of said items in my sticky hands, awaiting my turn in front of the master of the day.
Although the questions posed were hardly onerous – I think one virtually scored 50% of a “star” if one was able to identify Biggles’ job as flying aeroplanes and any book by Henty as being about military derring-so somewhere in Africa or India – the experience was decidedly uncomfortable.
Which is a long way around to me declaring here today that I have never had much truck with fiction – much preferring biographies, history, journals, memoirs and diaries.
At least with the latter one is possibly learning stuff about real lives and the human condition generally, which rarely alters much down the ages, and which therefore might be useful one day in yours.
It has been said that diary-writers “do their thing” either out of a compulsion to record, or as something to enable to recall events from their past privately at some point in the future, or as a means of “bigging up” their presence at – or contribution to – great events of their time as a form of self-aggrandisement, or even one day perhaps as a potential means to making money by publishing the contents.
For my sins – like another member of the Rust editorial team whom I believe may continue his regime to this day – I once kept a diary out of “a compulsion to record” for eighteen years. I never read it for pleasure or looked back in its pages to check anything and have never had an intention of publishing it.
If I’m being honest, I think part of my motivation for undertaking the project was the sense that – if I recorded my daily doings – I could then happily “forget” all about them (if you like, clear my brain’s hard drive of the memories, the better to be free to record new ones). Plus, if one day circumstances required that I really did need to know what happened on a particular date, theoretically I could always go back to the relevant volume of my diary and see what that was.
Recently I reclaimed it (all 54 volumes) from the bank vault where they had lain for nearly thirty years because I thought it was time that I decided what I was going to do with them.
Having since dipped into various volumes and read a few lines here and there, although I have been occasionally pleasantly surprised by the experience of reading about an incident I had long since forgotten, in general I was numbed by both the mundanity of my day-to-day life as revealed therein and the unremarkable quality of my written compositions.
As a result I have taken the view that as a body of work – beyond the fact that, echoing George Mallory’s “Because it is there” reply to an interviewer asking him why he was attempting to climb Mount Everest, it does at least exist – my diary had close to zero quality by any other yardstick.
I shall be taking it to my local municipal refuse depository today and disposing of it.