I haven’t been writing any kind of ‘coronavirus diary’ but I’m glad that some people are. It’s important to keep a record of how it feels to live through such an extraordinary event – like the Mass Observation diaries during and after the Second World War, which are being revived for our times. From my mother’s schoolgirl diaries, I get a strong sense of what it was like being in London during the Blitz.
For many years I wrote an occasional diary of my thoughts and feelings, rather than of external events, but I haven’t done so for a long time now. The last time I kept any regular account was after my husband Michael Donaghy died in 2004 – it was a terrible and confusing time, and I knew that I would not remember clearly how it felt later on, as even at the time it was hard to pin down the ever-changing emotional landscape.
I started it in a brand new notebook, which I originally titled the Book of Unacceptable Feelings. In it, I wanted to be completely honest, day by day, about how things truly felt – not how I was expected (or expecting) to feel, or how various ‘psychologies of grieving’ laid out that it should proceed. I didn’t intend for it to be read by anyone else, except perhaps hoping that one day it might serve as an account for my son, who was eight at the time, of what it had been like when his father died.
That diary eventually became a book about grief, and about my relationship with Michael, called The Great Below. The book in turn gave birth to this blog, which has now become a place to put down my reflections as I write a new and different book, the one about my mother. Different – but also a book about memory, about loss, about love and its challenges.
I used to write a lot of letters – we all did. It was the main way that friends and family who were separated stayed in communication, before the internet and cheap telephone calls. In particular, I wrote long letters home when, in my late teens and twenties, I was travelling around the world or living abroad for periods of time, in France and the USA. In these I freely poured out my feelings, experiences, relationships, philosophical and political musings, and observations of the places I visited, using them in much the same way as a diary.
My mother – always the hoarder – kept every single one of my letters home, sometimes making multiple copies. She apparently used to read out passages or pass them on to friends and family, hopefully leaving out some of the more personal details. So I still have all of those letters, and my mother also somehow managed to retrieve all the letters she had written to me, which I am now using as material for my book.
When my parents were moving out of our family home and I had to retrieve all my stuff from their loft, I remember sitting down and systematically throwing away all the letters I had kept over the years from friends and family. At the time, I thought that it would have been more interesting to see my own part of the correspondence. Now I rather wish I had kept some of those testaments of friendship, the kind of which we no longer send each other. Like many things in our youth, letter-writing seemed something that would go on forever.
In one of my mother’s letters to me, she urged me to start writing in my diary again because “The memory is much more frail for feelings and detail than you ever think it will be at the time. The essence has a habit of paling.” And yet her letters to me, written by hand without corrections or edits; by turns absorbing, funny, prosaic, perceptive, rambling ; all signed and sealed with love – these strongly conjure the essence of her, and of our relationship.
I had to look out a couple of my own letters this week, to check the details of something my mother had referred to in hers. They are up in my loft, awaiting re-reading. But I resisted diving too deeply into that particular Pandora’s box right now, because I knew it would swallow me up for the duration; it’s a journey into the past which I’ll save for another day – or maybe never.