If you are a youngster reading this and thinking of keeping a private and personal diary, let me first of all give you encouragement. Well-written personal diaries can provide endless hours of entertainment decades later, especially if your writings are truly honest. There is, however, no point in writing half-truths, or missing out the embarrassing bits, or exaggerating mundane events. So, let me give you a few words of advice to avoid frustration when you, or your heirs and successors, read your diaries in years to come. In case you should wonder, in my first few diaries, before I joined the RAF, I made an entry every single day and I made every one of the mistakes I mentioned in the following paragraphs at least once.
1. Avoid the use of abbreviations, even very common ones, unless you explain them on first use, otherwise when you read the diary in later life you will have forgotten what they meant.
2. When you write about people by name, make sure you include not just their surname, which was how we schoolboys always referred to each other, but their first and second names and any nicknames, otherwise in years to come you’ll probably forget who you were writing about. That’s especially the case with girlfriends – assuming you’re a boy, and vice-versa if you’re a girl!
3. Don’t make entries such as ‘the usual trouble today’ because decades later you will have no idea what the usual trouble was. Nor is there any point in comments such as, ‘nothing much to write about today’. If there really is nothing much to write about don’t bother writing it.
4. Try to imagine what your entries will read like in times to come and make sure you flesh out details that you are likely to forget.
5. If you are going to write really personal things, and they can be the best part of any diary, do make sure you have been truly honest with yourself. If you are economical with the truth, or if you include downright untruths or exaggerations, in years to come you will not be able to remember what was true and what was made up.
6. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, do keep your diaries safe from prying eyes. Parents are not supposed to read their children’s diaries, and most will not unless invited, but do you want to take the risk?
I usually wrote my current childhood diary in bed and I used to hide it underneath my pillow – which was not the smartest place although I have no reason to suppose my parents ever read what I had written. Many of my earliest entries are now quite embarrassing, for their naïveté not for any other reason. Many are only of interest to me – and some are not even that interesting. However, you will be surprised how even the most innocuous or naïve diary jottings made many years ago, can be extremely helpful when, in years to come, you are trying to piece together your life and times.
As the years passed and I became more experienced in writing, my diary jottings became longer and more adventurous. When I was at grammar school I wrote what were probably the most interesting entries in a secret code. Sadly, I am no longer able to decode those entries – which is probably just as well. In the interests of adolescent confidentiality, and to frustrate possible parental snooping, I annotated many of the dates in my early teens with strange hieroglyphics, which were no doubt very meaningful at the time but which mean absolutely little to me over 60 years later. However, I can guess with a fair degree of certainty what the five stars alongside a date in late 1949, when I was 14 years old, mean.
Incidentally, unlike some well-known diary-writers selling their efforts in the 21st Century, I never recorded any classified material in any of my diaries. Sad but true. You might be surprised to know that over recent years I’ve had offers from several ‘writers’ who have offered to preserve my stories for posterity. I have politely declined all the offers but I have made arrangements in my Will for what is to happen to my diaries.