The Lost Diary

Last week we renovated our study, and this involved moving the desk out for a while. We took the drawers out first and realised they were crammed full of stuff, just stuff, cards, notebooks, packs of paper, letters, folders… Definitely time for a clear out. It was nostalgic enough trawling through all the cards we’d been sent when our son was born (I couldn’t bear to throw them away), and brochures from the lycée where I lived and taught in France. And then we came upon the most extraordinary thing: a diary from 1993, the year we were married, and we had kept it alternately between the months of March and May. We neither of us had any recollection whatsoever of writing it.

Now when Marguerite Duras did something similar, publishing a diary she said she had found in the back of a wardrobe that she had no memory of writing, everyone coughed *publicitystunt* behind their hands. But this turns out to be unfair. I can honestly say it is possible to write a diary and forget all about it.

Naturally, we fell upon our former selves with avid curiosity. We had just become engaged and were hunting for a house to buy. I was working at Waterstones, the booksellers, whilst applying for an M.Phil and Mr Litlove had just begun shift work as a factory manager in Leicester. We were constantly in transit between our rented accommodation, our parents’ homes and the house we wanted. We were unbelievably young and untested, naïve and romantic in a way that we laughed at in our older, knowing incarnations, because it was so terribly poignant. Hope, it seems, gives you the strength to be vulnerable.

We sat over our lunch, reading bits out to each other.

‘Listen to this,’ I said to Mr Litlove. ‘”Sleep late, having strange dreams. Have my first, ‘Litlove my wife being annoying and nothing going right’ sort of dream. Is this preparing me for married life, or is it just to balance the wonderful times we are having together at the moment?”’

Mr Litlove instantly started crying out ‘Wake me up! Wake me up! I’m in the dream again!’

‘Ha, ha,’ I said, coldly. ‘How about this bit: “Didn’t get much done this afternoon. Think Litlove will be good for me in this respect.”’ I looked up at him. ‘What? What was that expression for?’

I moved onto a part of the diary I’d written, marvelling at an era when my handwriting was still legible. I’d been really nervous about the wedding, which in hindsight had been a deep anxiety about marriage and motherhood (which I presumed would be my fate) and all it entailed. I read: “The only solution is to keep busily organising as this can only reduce my worries. Mr L. thinks I’m being super-efficient when really I’m only trying to stay calm.”’

‘Nothing changes,’ commented Mr. Litlove

And in a weird way nothing had changed. Mr Litlove noted that I complained about feeling tired a lot even when I was 24. And he found several entries in which he’d looked forward to making furniture for our house. That really surprised us; it felt like the woodworking of the last few years had been a recent desire, sprung from nowhere. But then at the same time, everything had changed. We were not that couple anymore; we knew now what our future had been. There had been amazing experiences – I’d had my career at the university, we’d watched our son grow up, we were still together and in love after all that had happened. But we’d had to go through some excruciating times, too; the dark years dominated by my chronic fatigue, bitter disappointment with each other, financial worries, the unimaginable strain of early parenthood.

Adam Phillips wrote that ‘falling in love is the (sometimes necessary) prelude to a better but diminished – better because diminished – thing; a more realistic appreciation of oneself and the other person’. Never had those words struck me as more true: what reading the diary told me was how little we had known back then, about each other and about life. Now armed with hard-won knowledge, I was disillusioned in a good way. The happiness of back then had been so intense and so fragile; neither of us could believe in it. And rightly so – ordinary contentment is a smaller, harder thing, boiled down to its toughest consistency. It has no glister, but its dullness is reliably real. I wouldn’t swap it for the ecstasies of youth if you paid me.

We return to the diary every now and then, still fascinated by its alien oddness, the only proper sign of the past. It holds such poignancy for us. The last entry in it from Mr Litlove ends: ‘I feel very lucky to be me and here and now.’ And we shiver for him, almost forgetting the surprising truth, that he survived the hubris of good luck.




29 thoughts on “The Lost Diary

  1. Such a lovely post! As a veteran of a long relationship which survived that transition between the intensity of those first years – how would we ever get anything done if we felt like that all the time – to the calm contentment of maturity it made me smile. Long may it last for all of us lucky enough to have such a thing.

    • Thank you so much! It’s a funny old transition, you have to have age and experience on your side before you can properly appreciate it, I think. But I’m a poster girl for all sorts of unfashionable experiences – banality, quietness, solitude, all that sort of stuff! 🙂

  2. Such a lovely post, the words on my mind too before I read the comment above. Have you ever read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin? If you have you’ll know the part where Dr Yannis talks to his daughter about love. He knows she’s fallen in love with Corelli but she’s still supposed to be engaged to Mandras and he wants her to ask herself what she really feels. Here’s a little of what he says (I just love it and have quoted it ever since I read it):

    Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of eternal passion. That is just being ‘in love’, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Those that truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground and, when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two.

  3. You should start a journal about me now, so that when they find it long after we are gone they will see how truly awesome I was and erect appropriately reverent monuments 😉

  4. What a wonderful find! Bookman never kept a diary but I did and still do. I rarely go back and read them though you make me wonder what I wrote about when we were newly in love. Thanks for sharing!

    • Oh Stef, you should go back and have a look – and then post it! (She says, succumbing to curiosity…). It was so strange to have no memory of writing it AT ALL.

  5. This is wonderful – honest, funny and wise. The real stuff of life. There is nothing like reading your past life to give you perspective on the present.

    Thanks for posting this.


  6. What an amazing thing to find! I’ve very faithfully destroyed every diary I’ve ever kept — it’s not that I don’t believe I’ll feel the way y’all felt if I eventually find them, but I worry that they’ll get rediscovered in years when it’s too soon for me to read them and not feel embarrassed. So into the trash/campfire they all went. I’m glad y’all didn’t destroy this one — it sounds like a very lovely experience for both of you to return to it now.

    • You remind me that we also found in the drawers some of the novels I wrote when I was a teenager. Now THEY need to be consigned to the flames. Mr Litlove keeps making off with them, but I will track them down and burn them. Some archive material really needs to just go away. 🙂

  7. I once found a diary I had kept in my teenage years. I wouldn’t dare publish any of the entries from that! Cringe worthy doesn’t come anywhere near it. I definitely wouldn’t go back to being fifteen – not even for ready money.

    • I found a lot of my own entries cringeworthy too! I didn’t feel myself really inhabiting what I was living. I was trying everything out, and trying out who I was in relation to it all. Not comfortable to go back and witness!

  8. I’d be fascinated to read what I might have written back then, but I think it would make me squirm! I wish I still had the energy and all the time there seemed to be back then, but not the bafflement of those times.

    • Oh I know! I did so much socialising – I hardly recognised myself. It is an age of energy, though most of it gets wasted in pointless and futile pursuits! I so agree with you that getting shot of that old confusion and uncertainty is a wonderful thing, even if it is replaced with stuff like death and taxes. 🙂

  9. What a fascinating find! I think I’ve had several moments like the one you had realizing that the woodworking was not a new thing like you thought. There’s times that I think that I am so changed and different from who I was, only to read a journal or suddenly recall a memory that contradicts the narrative I believe about my own life.

    • I love what you say about the narrative of your life. I also find it especially enchanting when I touch the edges of the narrative and realise the constructed nature of it. It’s such a profound experience.

  10. “The hubris of good luck” … what a haunting phrase. We never recognize luck for what it is except in hindsight, do we?

    I’m glad for you and your mister that you are still happily together to read this little gem, and that your younger selves were wise enough to create it in the first place.

    • That’s what I felt when I read the diary – that we were bowled over by what was happening, but felt somehow it was our due, and that we had earned what was ours by right. Scary stuff! But I’m glad to have found it – it was certainly an eye-opener into the past.

  11. What a treasure to discover this long lost diary. How wonderful to reflect on how far you have come in your marriage and in your lives.

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