Here’s a title from my picks for 2021 I nominated in a post at the start of the year (I’m doing extremely well with these having so far read 80%). Back then it was provisionally titled “Diary Of A Suburban Lady” with an acknowledged E.M Delafield’s “Diary Of A Provincial Lady” as its inspiration.
It’s now got a snappier title and the Delafield connection would not be apparent to most readers. What we have here is a year in the life of a harassed mum of two presented in a diary form.
I always enjoy reading diaries. In fiction they can make a quick read, which is a good thing when humour is the key goal. It’s a day-to-day battle of juggling child-care arrangements, balancing work-load between the spouses (husband Richard not doing as well as he thinks here), negotiating the school run and drop-offs and bringing up placid 7 year old Thomas and precocious set-to-rule-the-world five year old Evie.
Thematically, there are parallels with the BBC TV Comedy “Motherland” which I love, especially with the parent outsiders having to fit in with the expectations of those in the PTA. As the year progresses the characters form stronger identities and I felt sorry leaving them at the end of the year. It is on occasions laugh out loud funny but a good level of smile-along humour is maintained throughout.
Lucy Mangan, columnist and TV reviewer from “The Guardian” made my end of year Top 10 last time out with her sublime non-fiction account of her childhood reading habits, “Bookworm“, (I included it here within my Essential 100 Books thread), making number 3 in my 2018 Books Of The Year, so I obviously had very high expectations. It is a very commercial work, written in a genre where fans will be loyal and supportive, it feels fresh and contemporary, so it’s a shrewd move which could sell very well indeed. I’m aware I’m not the intended audience for this book but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It would make an excellent Christmas present for those too busy coping with family life to spend time browsing in Waterstones, or for those now with the strength to look back on how they coped as well as those contemplating raising a family.
Are We Having Fun Yet will be published by Souvenir Press on 14th October 2021. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.
Kate Summerscale is responsible for the true crime classic “The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher” (2008) in which she took a case from 1860 and provided us with a leisurely trawl through all the facts and relevant documents in a highly readable, engrossing style. I was just as impressed by 2016’s “The Wicked Boy” which featured an 1895 crime involving a thirteen year old. I was aware at the time that I had skipped reading this work which arrived between the crime studies but I have now put that right.
This is, on the surface, more sedate than the lurid crimes I’ve enjoyed Summerscale re-exploring. Subtitled “The Private Diary Of A Victorian Lady” this is the true tale of an 1858 divorce which got much press attention at the time. It took place in the very early days following the 1857 Divorce Act which feasibly made it easier for married couples to go their separate ways. This, of course, being the Victorian era means the odds are stacked very much against the woman who faces complete loss of reputation should adultery be proved.
Enter Mrs Isabella Robinson. The author cleverly splits the background, much of which come from Robinson’s diaries from the court proceedings which bases its evidence almost exclusively from the same diaries and weaves a tale of infatuation and illicit romance. Whilst living in Edinburgh, Isabella, trapped in a fairly loveless marriage to a husband who cares more for her money meets Henry Lane, a younger married man. Their children strike up a friendship and this is used as a pretext for home visits, excursions and longer holidays. Isabella becomes besotted with Lane over a period of years during which time he becomes a doctor and opens a health spa to which prominent Victorians, including Charles Darwin, become regular patients. Mrs Robinson, as can be guessed from the subtitle uses her diary to confess her affair. This is discovered by her husband (under Victorian law it is his property anyway) and legal proceedings ensue. Was Isabella Robinson recording actual events or letting her imagination run away with her?
There’s a lot at stake here and Summerscale has carried out extensive research both of the details of the case and the context, which pretty much fits into what we now acknowledge as the double standards of Victorian society.
It has all been done very well and once again is very readable but on this occasion the case lacks the punch of those in her other books I’ve read so did not create such a strong impression. As an example of a thoroughly researched study into Victorian life it is highly illuminating.
Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace was first published by Bloomsbury in 2012
Alan Bennett’s autobiographical and diary collections are no strangers to my end of year Top 3’s with his earlier volume of TV plays “Objects Of Affection” (1982) also being one of my favourite books the year I read it (2005).
Perhaps Britain’s best-loved and most recognised living playwright whose work also encompasses the extraordinary screenplay adaptation based on the biography of Joe Orton “Prick Up Your Ears” perhaps in decades to come Bennett will be best remembered for his occasional sizeable publications of a mixture of diaries and other writings which have really established him at the top of best seller lists and are highly critically acclaimed. This is the third such collection following “Writing Home” (1994) – my 3rd best read of 1996 and “Untold Stories” (2005) my 2nd best read of 2006.
I was put off from buying this in hardback because of its size, waited for the paperback and bought it in the first few days after publication, put it on the shelf and forgot about it until I decided last week it was the perfect coming-to-the-end-of-lockdown (hopefully!) reading treat. It fitted the bill and is every much as enjoyable as the preceding volumes.
Diary-wise this encompasses the years 2005-2015 and inevitably reflects the slowing down of a man in his 70’s/80’s (although I’m sure Alan Bennett would be the first to say he was never exactly speedy). Here we get a lovely domestic life in London, regular trips to Yorkshire and the professional demands which continue to push him more to the forefront than he would naturally want to be. There is the filming of “The Lady In The Van” (which, to be honest, I didn’t love) and “The History Boys” (which I thought was a much better film) which is contained in its own separate diary found after the main one. There is also his work on his Benjamin Britten/WH Auden themed play “The Habit Of Art” which I don’t know much about probably because the subject matter does not appeal.
More than the professional it is the domestic side of life which I find most enthralling here. There’s always the feeling, perhaps more than anybody in his field, that we, the readers, know Alan Bennett and are comfortable in his company. I am sure this must infuriate this private man as much as it fascinates him. Of course, the vast majority of us will live our lives having never met him, it is the quality and style of his writing that fools us into thinking otherwise.
The diaries are definitely the star turn here (lots of eating of sandwiches and visits to old churches) but the collection of other writings once again flesh out what we know about him. Whereas his diaries are never going to be as showy or as unputdownable as the diary superstars (the posthumous collections of Noel Coward, Joe Orton and Kenneth Williams immediately springing to mind) they illuminate the man and go a long way to explaining why Alan Bennett is a British national treasure.
Keeping On Keeping On was published by Faber & Faber in 2016. I read the 2017 paperback edition.
….And it very probably will. This book certainly had me squirming (Top Tip: it’s not the best book to read during your lunch break!). I haven’t read anything before with so much bodily fluids sloshing around (Top Tip 2: you might not want to read this it if you are pregnant). Adam Kay has written one of the best-selling non-fiction paperbacks of the year and at long last it seems to be dawning on people what being an NHS doctor in a hospital is actually like.
Kay wrote diaries which span over six years (2004-10) from the very first day of his appointment as a House Officer, enthusiastic but terrified, to an incident which eventually led him to hanging up his stethoscope as a Senior Registrar. It is an extraordinary and ultimately chilling catalogue. Since giving up the medical profession Kay has turned to comedy and it was obviously his ability to pick out the funny side of his work that kept him (more or less) sane. Long hours, patient demands, inserted foreign objects, inexplicable IT systems, patient misunderstandings, long hours, fractious home lives caused by long hours, medical misunderstanding, oh, did I mention the long hours are all present here. Kay’s decision to focus on obstetrics and gynaecology provides many fraught moments, quite a lot of those body fluids, and will make for difficult reading at times for the squeamish.
But apart from this his account serves as a testament to just how bloody marvellous people who choose to work in the NHS are. In recent years (and remember Kay left 7 or 8 years ago, I don’t things have got any better) the government has seen fit to try and squeeze the NHS into a corset of implausible targets, an over-emphasis on accountability, uninformed choice and poor funding so that it is only through the sheer dedication of its workers that it survives.
The expectations of people to continually deliver their best in life and death situations after incredibly long shifts and with little back-up support or care for them as individuals can only bring about stress, trauma, an exodus out of the service and in alarming statistics suicide in order to escape the never ending responsibility in an increasing litigious society.
Anyone who starts to have a flicker of hesitancy when they hear a government minister or certain sections of the press claim a medic’s life is a cushy one should be forced to read this book. And did I mention it is also very funny….
This Is Going To Hurt was published in the UK by Picador in 2017
I love Channel 4’s “Googlebox” and always enjoy the contributions of Giles and Mary (or Nutty and Nutty as they call each other) from their thatched Wiltshire cottage. I wasn’t absolutely convinced I needed to read a book written by them, fearing that it might be a cash-in for the Christmas market with little merit which would vanish after the present-buying was over, but someone whose opinion I valued recommended it and I thought I’d give it a go. I was pleased I did.
Giles and Mary have become recognisable enough for French and Saunders to parody them in undoubtedly the most successful sections of their most recent show with Dawn playing Giles with the right level of Alan Bennett-ness and Jennifer as Mary becoming gradually absorbed by the fabric of her armchair.
Not Giles and Mary
We’ve taken to this couple because they seem to know each other so well. We can sense the long-suffering of Mary towards Giles’ ability to wind her up, often with a twinkle in his eye with her keen to put him back on the right track. In a preamble they say that Gogglebox has saved their 30 year marriage as all that TV watching has got them to sit down together and communicate as well as giving us all a chance to see how frustrating Giles can be! Both having a background in writing and creating they agreed to the diary format of this book as it offered the chance to produce (in Giles’ words “anecdotal accounts of the various hurdles life and marriage throws up at a couple in a bid to try and see what, in the dread words of the politicians lessons can be learned”. For Mary, someone who admits to recording their disagreements and typing up a transcript, this format would also seem to be ideal.
Much of this is based on the problems of Giles – a procrastinating artist “stranded in the Seventies”, a fledgling eco-warrior and keen gardener who relishes opportunities to be annoying and Mary’s constant busyness, rooting around to locate lost objects and attempting to fit too much into each day whose ideal times of her married life have been when she has had a live-in assistant to act as buffer between her and her husband.
It is these differences between them that work so well. It’s consistently amusing, occasionally laugh-out loud funny and interspersed with illustrations from Giles which adds to the text. I’m hoping and believing here that we are getting the real Giles and Mary and not some representation dreamt up in a marketing office. Much of the joy is in recognising our own traits in this couple’s interactions with one another. I think most of us would come off as a combination of Giles and Mary and would certainly appreciate each of their frustrations with one another. It provides a good, plausible picture of a long-term relationship in action. I don’t think you even need to be familiar with them to enjoy this book as the whole thing feels like we have been invited into their world and it is fun spending time with them.
The Diary Of Two Nobodies was published by Virgin in 2017
I have just spent 21 years in the company of one man. Are you in prison? I hear you cry. No! For the last few weeks I have been reading this 1000+ page volume of diaries, beginning when Isherwood emigrated to the USA with W H Auden in 1939 and finishing with his 56th birthday in 1960. Isherwood was a consummate and dedicated diarist, skills learnt from his mother. There are lapses and inconsistencies of diary-keeping, inevitably, over the years (including a significant gap between 1945-7 where his personal and professional life went slightly off the rails) but generally speaking he made an entry 2-3 times a week. The early wartime diaries he edited himself, preparing them for publication but it is Katherine Bucknell’s task to sort out the rest and provide the introduction. Isherwood made the job relatively easy for the editor. Throughout the diaries there is no code used, very few corrections and hardly even crossings out. His skill with language was such that he was able to express exactly what he wanted to say at first go, even though he painstakingly edited and rewrote his novels and other writings.
One of the most fascinating aspects of reading the diaries is the way in which Isherwood tended to use them as to keep himself on the straight and narrow, he regularly admonishes himself over neglecting work and other duties and uses these entries to clarify his thoughts. (It is interesting that the period where he felt he deviated from the “straight and narrow” was the 18 months or so he gave up diary writing).
I do love reading diaries. I like the feel of the passage of time as well as getting a view into something which wasn’t intended for publication. I like the immediacy of reading about events as they happen, I like the name-dropping and I love the way the diaries show the writer in true human form, which is often constant moaning and grumbles about health. For me, Isherwood joins the list of other great diarists (and moaners) that I have read: Samuel Pepys, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton, Kenneth Williams and Joe Orton. I have noticed that this is a very male list – I’ll have to do something about that. Recommended female diarists – anyone? It is also, apart from Pepys, a homosexual list – men who found themselves outsiders from the establishment they attempted to embrace because of their sexuality and attitudes towards it at the time they were writing and probably were more likely to feel the need to record their observations in what often was, a double life.
Isherwood was writing at much the same time as Coward and Beaton and the same names do tend to crop up in each of their diaries. (Did Laurence Olivier do any work?) Isherwood befriended Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, John Gieguld, Charles Laughton and many other notables of their time. The Editor provides a thorough Glossary which helps put more detail to the names recorded
But this is not just a Hollywood record (Isherwood worked as a screenwriter from time to time). In fact, the War Years diaries have a very different feel as Isherwood opts for a spiritual life. He is introduced to Vedanta, a form of Hindu philosophy, he undergoes training by a Swami, lives in a religious commune and contemplates becoming a monk. He also finds work in a German refugee environment (before these diaries he lived in Berlin which provided the setting for his most famous works) run by Quakers. This was perhaps the slowest section. I got bogged down with him recording the minutiae of those he lived and worked with during this time, the religious and philosophical debates, often with friends Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley which led later on to the use of mescaline to enhance their spiritual experiences.
The wartime anxiety of being away from home is clearly conveyed and the ongoing guilt about not participating (although he was a pacifist). After the war there are the lost years. Things settle down considerably when he meets 18 year old Don Bachardy (with an age gap that we would still today feel unsettling).
This relationship is often tempestuous as Don regularly feels he is not being taken seriously by Isherwood’s friends but they never give up on one another. Bachardy becomes his life-long partner and provides the stabilising influence which keeps Isherwood working.
Still together in later years
There is a second volume of these diaries sitting on my shelf but the intensity of reading this lengthy work means I will need to give it a while before I tackle them. These document the Sixties where artist Bachardy will become more established and Isherwood still has one of his most significant works to produce. I also have a three book novel set I purchased from “The Book People”. I have read some Isherwood a long time ago and only have a very dim memory of his work so I will look forward to reading them.
“I’m horrified to find, as I look at these diaries of twenty-five years ago or more, that I don’t remember who the people were. Bill and Tony were constantly in and out. We went to La Jolia – or something, I haven’t the bluest idea who they were!” (Christopher Isherwood)
Diaries: Volume 1 – 1939-1960 was published by Methuen in 1996
For many years the work of Noel Coward passed me by. I remember being impressed by the film version of “Calvacade” and I went to see a sparkling theatrical revamp of “Design For Living” starring Rupert Graves and Marcus D’Amico without really taking on board how much Coward had been left in the revamp. I had a vague awareness of some of his songs but I probably knew him best for cameo roles in films made at the end of his career such as “The Italian Job” and “Bunny Lake Is Missing” (which scared the living daylights out of me when I saw it on television when I was young). This all changed when I read his diaries and after that I found myself reading his autobiography, his plays and works about some of the myriad of characters I read about in his diaries in rapid succession. I had the book sitting on my shelves for some time and it wasn’t with a huge amount of enthusiasm that I began to read it. I am sure that I had read somewhere that his diaries were largely more of a record of engagements than anything else. To an extent, this was the case, but I was soon drawn in to Coward’s social whirl of places visited, plays seen, films watched and dinners, parties and soirees experienced from 1945 to a few years before his death in 1973. This is not a mere list, you do get some sense of Coward the artist, dashing off plays at a rate knots, confident in them becoming a “smash hit”.
Here is a man whose confidence as a National Treasure shines through. He is an inveterate name dropper (well, if you can’t drop names in your own diaries where can you?). It is some life and if we don’t get to see the real person as clearly as we do in other great showbiz diaries, for example, Kenneth Williams and Joe Orton, there are more than a few glimpses in his incredibily detailed accounts. He had the knack of being able to fit so much and so many people into a short space of time it can be quite an exhausting read.
Here is just a randomly selected day to illustrate the point – Tuesday 11th December 1951.
“Stayed in bed feeling pretty exhausted. Rewrote the lyrics of ‘Old Records’ for Mary and me to do at the Café on 13th January. Boy Browning came for a drink.
Dined at Clarence House with the Edinburghs. Sat on Queen Mary’s right and she was perfectly enchanting- in more than full possession of all her faculties and did not miss a trick. She is a very great old lady. The rest of the party were Dickie, Edwina and Pamela (the Mountbattens); Princess Alice and Lord Athlone; Lady Constance Milne-Gaskell, who is a dear; and two gents whose names elude me. After dinner in the private cinema we saw “High Treason”. I did not let on I had seen it before because Princess Elizabeth seemed to think it was a new picture.
The Duchess of Kent was at the Café and has promised to come on the thirteenth. Had a drink with her, then with the Dockers and lastly with Mary Spears.”
It was a hard life!! And this was on a day that Coward felt exhausted! If, like me, you could cope with years worth of entries like this then this is a book for you.
The Noel Coward Diaries was published by Weidenfield and Nicholson in 1982. I read the 1998 paperback edition published by Phoenix.