Page last updated at 10:30 GMT, Tuesday, 8 September 2009 11:30 UK

What makes a truly great diary?

Alan Clark

By Tom de Castella

It's 10 years since the death of Alan Clark - a politician who found distinction in his diary style, if not his career. What makes a great diary and why is the journal such a compelling way of telling a story?

Ten years ago the former Conservative MP Alan Clark died of a brain tumour aged 71. Despite being a highly regarded defence minister, he never reached cabinet rank and was most famous for his determinedly reckless or independent streak.

But it was not his political career that he will be remembered for, rather his three volumes of published diaries. Indiscreet, amusing, bitter and full of his eccentric private and home life, the diaries were compared by reviewers to those of Samuel Pepys.

Alan Clark diary extract
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As the satirist Craig Brown put it in a review: "The skill in the diaries and memoirs of most politicians lies in the delicate airbrushing out of their faults and weaknesses. Alan Clark's self-portrait, on the other hand, is defiantly warts-and-all."

For the political obsessives, the diaries opened up with breathtaking frankness the status anxiety, vicious backbiting, and fleeting moments of triumph and despair amid the general tedium of being a minister.

But in the end the politics was not the main selling point.

"There have been half a million copies sold and not all of those people would be interested in the politics," says Ion Trewin, who edited the diaries. "He becomes a friend and a real person."

Mr Clark invites us into a richly described world that is far removed from that of his readers - his struggles to pay for his half a dozen houses, including Saltwood Castle where he lived most of the year; his loving but fraught marriage to Jane, his affair with the young woman referred to only as "X", his many animal friends, the lovingly maintained vintage cars, and his unembarrassed descriptions of bodily functions.

It was part Brideshead Revisited, part the Westminster Hour, part Adrian Mole. Mr Clark wrote in the preface to his first volume: "Diaries are intensely personal - to publish them is a baring, if not a flaunting, of the ego."

Mr Trewin, whose biography of Mr Clark is published this month, believes the diary form is compelling because it throws the reader into the moment.

Knitting naratives

"It's the fact they are written as the events are taking place. It isn't the rose tinted reminiscing of a memoir. And diaries are a bit like soap operas. You've got different running stories and you cut in between them."

Sue Townsend
In a diary you can go from joy to hurt in a day or gallop through a week's worth of happenings in one entry
Sue Townsend

And one of the strengths of Mr Clark's diaries was his ability to knit these different narratives together without the need for reams of explanatory footnotes, Mr Trewin says.

Sue Townsend, the creator of what her publisher Penguin calls "Britain's best loved diarist" - Adrian Mole - was an admirer of Mr Clark's diaries, if not his politics.

"They're great - you recognise that courageous honesty he always had," she says.

Ms Townsend was the best selling novelist of the 1980s thanks to Adrian Mole so understands better than anyone how the genre works.

"A good diarist needs to be venal - they must have quite severe flaws and be wretchedly human like Alan Clark," she says. "You were horrified at his behaviour but you're laughing at the same time. You're thinking 'please don't make a speech when you're drunk…"

Adrian Mole shares some of that mix of flaws and endearing qualities.

"Mole often unconsciously reveals himself to be not a very nice person and a liar. But he is also bullied and shows himself to have an incredibly kind heart."

In her youth Ms Townsend had loved Diary of A Nobody with its "nit picking" fictional diarist, Pooter. And it was while working on youth projects with teenage boys in Leicester that the idea of Mole emerged.

Prostate or prostrate?

"There was a side to them that was very endearing. I knew they had this secret life that most adults and even their parents never saw. And while women have an outlet for their secret fears - their friends - men don't talk to each other. That's why it was the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole."

If blogging had been around during Pepys' time he wouldn't have used it - he is writing a diary for himself
Phil Gyford

Ms Townsend has kept faith with the diary form and the latest Mole instalment, The Prostrate Years, is published in November. It details the financial crisis - "when Britain fell to its knees" as she puts it - and Mole's struggle against prostate cancer.

She is still in love not just with Mole but the diary format. Mole's life allows her to reflect the zeitgeist of modern Britain, from the Iraq war to the fact that at least half the population say prostrate when they mean prostate.

And she loves the regular peaks and troughs that a diary permits.

"In normal fictional prose the author has to express a certain mood for a whole bloody chapter. But in a diary you can go from joy to hurt in a day or gallop through a week's worth of happenings in one entry. My favourite entry is 'Nothing happened today apart from a hailstorm at 3pm' - it conveys a certain mood."

While Ms Townsend is uninterested in blogging, there's a clear argument that blogs are simply the diaries de nos jours. In an uncanny echo of Mole the prominent technology writer Jeff Jarvis recently revealed on his blog,, that he had prostate cancer.

"Why am I even telling you about this?" he asked. "As I wrote in [my book], I gained tremendous benefit sharing another ailment - heart arrhythmia - here on my blog. And so I have no doubt that by sharing this, I will get useful advice and warm support (and maybe a few weeks' respite from trolls). I argue for the benefits of the public life. So I'd better live it."

So is the blog, the new diary?

Getting intimate

Phil Gyford, a web designer by trade, decided in 2002 to post an entry from Samuel Pepys' diary, online, every day. He was curious to read this canonical text but intimidated by its sheer size - it covers a period from 1660 to 1669 - so resolved to break it down into daily bite sized chunks.

Samuel Pepys and Jeff Jarvis
Confessing on a page - diarist Samuel Pepys and Jeff Jarvis

Six-and-a-half years on the project continues. "The site's probably not as popular as it was at the start because we got a lot of publicity at the beginning. But we still get about 30,000 people a month and 20 or 30 comments a day about what he's up to."

There is another three years to go and Mr Gyford is committed to accompanying Pepys to the end. He's even taken to putting a few snippets from Pepys on Twitter, giving updates about the great man would have been doing at that time.

So does Mr Gyford think that technology has replaced or improved on the old fashioned diary?

"Even if blogging had been around during Pepys' time he wouldn't have used it. He is writing a diary for himself. But if you write a blog you want people to read it at that time. And Twitter is more like having a conversation with people."

But technology is a red herring. We may progress from quill to Biro to laptop or mobile phone, but people will always be compelled to put down their most intimate thoughts in a secret diary, Mr Gyford believes.

And when that individual - be it Samuel Pepys, Anne Frank, Alan Clark, or for that matter an Adrian Mole or Bridget Jones - can capture the pain and joy of being alive within a daily journal, others are always going to be fascinated. In essence it's the chance to see inside the head of a fellow human being. And for Ion Trewin it's why Alan Clark's diaries will go on speaking to future generations:

"It's not so much to do with political history. It's one man's life and it comes back to the old idea of a rattling good yarn. He was a diary writer without parallel in modern times."

Here is a selection of your comments.

I disagree with the notion that blogs cannot be used as personal diaries. I have used the blog and made it private password protected so only I can see it. In fact, it allows me to be even more honest than I have ever been because I know that no one can "accidently pick it up and read it".
Mezoa Clarke, UK

I have been blogging on for almost five years now. Having tried and failed numerous times to keep paper diaries, I find it quite extraordinary how I manage to write in my online diary almost every day and look forward to reading the diaries of others. It's a strange old world to blog your innermost thoughts and feelings to strangers but there's no feeling like it to get all the good times and the bad out and have someone understand.
Cat, Bristol, UK

I've been keeping a diary for 18 years, having started out as a nauseating 14-year-old trying to come to terms with my emerging adult self. It's a priceless source of information and friends have asked me to type them up so they can work out when things happened, who people were and why they found themselves in regrettable situations, many of which they only half remember if at all. But there's no chance I'm giving up my exclusive access to such a vast amount of embarrassing information.
Tom, London

My parents knew Alan Clark and his wife Jane very well as we lived close by and on occasions my mother would either drop my father and Mr Clark up to Sandling railway station or would collect them off the same train when they came back together. However after he died my mother jokingly said that she had been quite sad that he had never propositioned her too.
Edward Lewis, Stelling Minnis

Oh come off it. He stood up and delivered an important speech in Parliament while drunk. He screwed around, was ill disciplined, and humiliated his wife and family - not to mention the husbands, wives and children of other families. His diaries were published, warts and all, because there was more money in it that way, and he had no scruples to hold him back. Let's not spin the story to make that laudable.
Steve, London

I've been writing a diary on and off for about 15 years. It's always been in a book and I take great pride in picking out the next notebook that will feature my (sometimes rather mundane) thoughts. I'd never get that with an online blog or journal. Handwriting my thoughts does take longer than typing, I can't let my feelings flow as quickly, so sometimes I do type out an entry and stick it in, but I prefer the long winded hand writing as I feel it's more personal and from me. My diary is for me, it's therapeutic to write things down that might be bothering or upsetting or exciting me, and it also allows me to look back on years gone past - sometimes that distant me is like a stranger, sometimes I find her funny, sometimes unbelievably whiny. Would I allow all the world to read it? Only if I had a very thick skin.
Allie, London

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