Tony Earnshaw: The art of keeping a diary

David Niven kept detailed diaries.
David Niven kept detailed diaries.
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Earlier this year I had cause to revisit a diary I kept in 1987.

There was nothing of great import within it, just the musings of a somewhat immature 21-year-old as he contemplated leaving college and getting a job.

I was reminded of it, and those faraway days, as I reacquainted myself with the life and times of David Niven, one of cinema’s great raconteurs, via a biography rescued from a second-hand bookstall. Niven’s was a remarkable life by any estimation. A charmed life, too, as he rubbed shoulders with the Oliviers, the Bogarts, the Astaires and others from that halcyon time known as “the golden age” of Hollywood.

And, of course, Niven could tell a tale that, even in the repetition, got better, funnier or more ribald. Few of us can hope to rival the likes of Niven and books such as The Moon’s a Balloon, which is so frequently hilarious that I once almost pranged my car: I was laughing as I listened to Niven read it on CD. Yet each and every one of us has a story to tell. We might not move in the same circles as David Niven and co but a diary is a useful aide-memoire and a personal keepsake from history.

I’ve always been a sucker for annotated or edited diaries. Think Kenneth Williams, John Osborne, Richard Burton and Michael Palin and you have an indication of the folk whose lifetimes line my bookshelves. So when I resurrected my diary a few years back it was with the notion of chronicling the more interesting things that occur in Earnshaw World. I also found myself being wildly opinionated about anything and everything. Of course anyone and everyone does that on social media these days, but that’s sometimes how taking a stance on something lands the writer in hot water. I avoid that by venting in private.

Being a journalist means meeting all manner of people, and sometimes it’s the unexpected, unscripted moments that linger in the memory. Sometimes they can’t be aired publicly. Cue the diary entry. It’s all about posterity and context – putting something down to jog the memory or to record a moment that just might be of interest to others in years to come. I have some funny stories in my repertoire. They involve family, friends and – yes – famous folk. I’ve been lucky in that regard. The cast list includes Roger Moore, Keith Barron, Bruce Forsyth, Robert Hardy, Barry Norman, Tim Pigott-Smith and John Hurt, all of whom passed away in 2017. I’m not even close to David Niven, who shared his contemporaries’ world. But the point is that this stuff should be written down. By all of us. Before we forget.