Memory can be a fickle thing, subject to all manner of flaws in storage and recollection. There seems to be little logic governing what we remember and what we forget, though to suggest that the process is entirely random would be rather an unscientific assumption. There are clear differences in people’s capacity to remember information, with some displaying quite prodigious talents in recollection. We talk of short and long-term memory, of absentmindedness, of photographic memories, of good and bad memories – so far as ability is concerned. Yet, despite our differences in capacity, all of us remember a great deal more than we give ourselves credit for.
When I was a very young child I had an overzealous desire to know everything I’d ever done and felt an innate distress at the idea of information slipping away from me. In particular, I wanted to know how many times I had done things in my short life thus far – how often I’d caught the bus, how many times I’d had a bath, how many times I’d kissed the dogs, and how many times I’d said “Mummy, I love you,” all too audibly, in the supermarket.
This feeling really began to take hold around the age of four, when I first developed a sense of having done certain things a number of times already. I had, then, an inkling of a routine stretching into the past, and some understanding of the narrative of my life to that point. It baffled me that there were things my parents mentioned or told me about, things I had apparently said or done, that I couldn’t remember. Why couldn’t I remember everything? It seemed almost as though it had never happened.
Being the owners of an effete, pedigree dachshund and a rescued stray bitsa, Jason and Lady respectively, my father used to walk the dogs every afternoon in Centennial Park with my older brother and I. On the way home from a good, long walk, we’d stop in at the Nelson Hotel in Bondi Junction, and there my father would drink a middy or two of Reschs, whilst my brother and I made do with sarsaparilla and lemonade. Often, sitting in the afternoon beer garden, I found myself thinking – how many times have we done this? It was a routine that had been established before I had sufficient language to form coherent, narrative memories, and so my recollections were hazy and impressionistic – but the park had always been there, as had the dogs. How often had I been there? How many sarsaparillas had I drunk in my short life so far?
My brother began to collect bus tickets around the age of six. Back then the driver tore a bible-paper thin ticket from a long, flat piano keyboard-like array of stubs, and the flimsy little things were excitingly colour-coded: Purple, yellow, red and green tickets, for which my father’s order was always “One and two halves,” when he took us down to the beach. How many times had I been to the beach? I’d seen photographs of myself there as a baby, something I could not independently remember. When my brother began to collect tickets, it seemed there might be some means by which to answer these questions. If one always kept one’s ticket, then there would be a ready reference point for such information. But how on earth would I record the other things? The number of times I’d eaten food? The number of times I’d worn a certain shirt, or ridden the tricycle, patted Jason and Lady? How could I possibly store and recall all this information?
Perhaps the obsession with small details derived from the relatively limited world in which I operated as a toddler. The local geography had enough detail in it to keep me preoccupied for years, but once I had the basic features down pat, I wanted to know about things more intimately. I made an ineffectual attempt at collecting bus tickets too, but soon abandoned this in the face of that all too common feeling of the younger sibling – that everything one does is, in its execution, a pale imitation of the actions of the older sibling. It never occurred to me to write anything down, but this is not surprising considering how late I came to reading and writing, initially resistant as I was to books and letters.
Despite my frustration at not being able to recall everything, as the years passed, I realised that the bigger picture was more important than the minutiae. I didn’t really need to know how many times I’d had my haircut, for it was not these things that gave life its narrative, beyond forming the flat, regular palette on which all else was presented. Rather, I wanted to recall the events that stood out as exceptional; our family trips to the Blue Mountains, my brother’s attempt to flush me down the toilet, the time the window slammed down on my mother’s fingers. It was, after all, these things around which any narrative in life seemed to gravitate, and which formed the basis of moral and ethical lessons in the household and world at large. These events all carried both a story and a moral of sorts.
Take, for example, the infamous day on which my mother angrily threw a pair of tongs out the kitchen window and hit my brother in the face, completely by accident. The “snappers” incident was often conjured up as a great milestone in our lives; it was an early, pivotal example of an error of judgement and a lesson in caution. There was the time my brother and I left our racing car towels at the bus stop. Certain that we had lost them forever, and dismissing my father’s reassurance that we would get them back, we were both amazed when my father asked in the local shop on our return home and the towels were produced from behind the counter. This story added strong impetus to life’s narrative, both chronologically, as a way point, and morally and ethically, as an example of consideration, thoughtfulness and selflessness. Perhaps more importantly, despite its less salubrious nature, there was the famous incident that occurred at the Pizza Hut restaurant in Bondi Junction, circa. 1977.
This last event stands out because it was the first example in my life of a written diary entry, of deliberately recorded information. My brother had been given a pocket appointments diary with a week to a double spread. After dining out at the Pizza Hut that night, we returned home to giggle uncontrollably for hours about what had taken place in the toilets. My brother summed this up very nicely when he sat down at his desk on our return.
“Boy fell in trough at Pizza Hut,” were the exact words he wrote in his diary that evening. And indeed, some poor lad, stretching well beyond his capacity to reach the chain, had overbalanced and fallen face-first, then down sideways, right into the pisser, with its frothy flow and yellow mints.
“Boy fell in trough at Pizza Hut,” is a line that has been quoted many times since by my brother and me, and, for a long while, it was my favourite memory. I wonder in retrospect whether this was in part because, for the first time in my life, I’d seen the clear relation between something I’d witnessed, and the written version of the events. Either way, it was an early example of how we can record and shape our memory of things with language that is both succinct and arresting. It presented a whole new range of possibilities so far as solving the problem of remembering was concerned. I still value my brother’s early chronicling of this event to be one of the key snippets of narrative non-fiction. Its total and utter insignificance historically is irrelevant and in no way detracts from its long occupation of one of the summits of the very spike and trough graph that constitutes my childhood recollections.
However much I might have been inspired by my brother’s efforts and, however keen I was to record information, I didn’t make any real attempt at keeping a diary until 1983. For Christmas the year previous, I was given a small appointments diary by my friend Marcus – he was from South Africa and the diary, appropriately, had a cheetah on the cover. It was some time before I got around to writing anything in it, and, indeed, the only time I really used it was to begin counting down the days til my birthday; a rather pointless task, it must be said. When my birthday did actually arrive, I made a note of the presents I had received, and after that, the diary fell into a drawer somewhere and was, so far as I remember, not used afterwards. It was thus not until 1986 that I truly began to keep a diary. This too was a small appointments diary with seven days to a spread, and very little room in which to write anything. All the same, inspired as I was by the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, I at least had a much clearer understanding of what a diary really could be – of the sort of information one might record, and in what style.
Still, to begin with, my diary was too small to contain any strong narratives. Invariably my efforts did not go beyond such brief entries as “Gus stayed over. Played Dungeons and Dragons. Had meatballs for dinner.” It was hardly a very exciting chronicle, yet it was a chronicle nonetheless, and once I’d begun to write the diary in earnest, every day, I didn’t look back. Indeed, from around April 1986 to the end of that year, I didn’t miss a single day and diligently filled in the admittedly small rectangle provided for each day. For Christmas that year, I received a new diary for the coming year, which was significantly larger – an A5 book with a day to a page, though with Saturday and Sunday squashed together on a single page. I didn’t hesitate to make full use of the greater space that was available to me, and from January 1 1987, I diligently wrote a full entry for each day throughout that year.
It may surprise some to hear that I have never, ever missed a day since. Indeed, from April 1986 to the present, I have recorded every single day of my life in a diary, always following the same rule – that the page must be filled completely. In 1988, I continued with an A5 diary, but this time, had a full page for each day of the weekend. Using a diary of this size was standard practice until 1998. That year I began to use a full-sized, A4 diary, and have continued to do so to the present. I always fill the entire page, and I never allow a day to go unrecorded.
Now, of course, this may seem like some impossible task, given that one can hardly expect to be in a position to sit down and write a diary entry at the end of every night. Of course, there are all too many occasions when this is not possible. Consequently, I have written the entry at a later time, sometimes as much as a week later, always, however, maintaining the fiction that it was written on the day itself. When I travel I take the big, heavy thing with me wherever I go, which, considering I have, for the last twelve years, used a mere day-pack for every trip I’ve done, means that it constitutes quite a significant part of my otherwise minimalist baggage.
There have, too, been several incidents where the diary has caused problems. On four known occasions it has fallen into the hands of others, or been read illicitly, thus causing emotional crises and much embarrassment. Despite this, I have never considered not writing my diary. I suppose that if I behave honourably there should be no cause for suspicion and no need for my partner to dip into my diary. Generally, I trust that people will be honest and trustworthy, being good enough not to read my diary. Still, I have ultimately been forgiving of those who read my diary, as my behaviour certainly warranted it. Whatever the case, the show must go on.
And so the diaries continue to accumulate. Mostly I write the entry before I go to bed, but often I am too tired, lazy, or otherwise engaged, in which case I try to do it the following morning. Either way, the process takes me roughly ten minutes and is thus subject to the mood in which I approach the task. It is also subject to my ability to remember events. Even a few days later, it can be very difficult to find anything to write about a run-of-the-mill Wednesday. Sometimes this provides a great opportunity to sum up a recent emotional situation, to flesh out an idea, or to provide an update on current affairs – yet it often hardly says a great deal about the day itself.
In many ways, this is a good thing, for the biggest limitation of my diary writing is the day-to-day format. Limited to one page, it is difficult to go very far with any narrative at all and, often feeling the need to record basic information about the day, I lack sufficient space or time to discuss emotional and personal developments. I suspect that much of my diary is extremely bland, with some very engaging passages here and there, driven and inspired by emotional investment in the content. This usually happens at exciting turning points: – during the beginning or breakdown of a relationship, when travelling, when beginning a new course of study, or a new project. It can also stem from an uplifting and exciting experience – a great gig, an excellent party, or just a desire to wax lyrical about a beautiful morning at the beach. When I approach the task with enthusiasm, I always write a much more interesting entry. The writing process also helps me to take charge of narratives in life and put the present into context. I have found this a valuable aid in coming to terms with things.
I have often asked myself what is the purpose of all this record-keeping. It is, as much as anything else, a burdensome habit that I could not possibly break for fear of the scale of regret it might bring about. I’ve made it this far, with a record of every single day of the last twenty-six years of my life, and I’m not about to stop in a hurry. I used to dip into my diary a great deal more, either to satisfy nostalgic urges, or simply to find the date of a particular incident. When I wrote volume one of my autobiography Sex with a Sunburnt Penis in 1997, I relied heavily on diaries for inspiration and enhanced recollection.
On this latter score, the diary is an invaluable tool. I have always been considered to be a reliable source of historical information in the personal lives of my friends and acquaintances, due to my ability to recall dates, times and seasons of events. I can usually narrow something down sufficiently to pinpoint where to look in my diary, when finding the exact date of a particular event is the goal, provided, of course, I actually made a record of it. For me, personally, the best thing about the diary is that it allows me access to memories I might otherwise not have, even where the diary entry itself is brief and inadequate. I can open to a random date, in a random year, read the entry, and almost invariably picture the events once again. It is rare that I cannot do so, and yet, without such a jog, would I ever have remembered that otherwise unremarkable day again?
The diary also gives me an excellent ability to examine progress in my life. Perhaps my favourite use of it is to see what I was doing on the same date a year ago, or, perhaps, five years ago. It is a rare opportunity to put life more into context. The vividness with which I can recall events with the aid of the diary entry also allows me to be nostalgic in a very pinpointed manner.
One might ask, but isn’t it better to forget sometimes? Certainly it is, and one of my biggest problems is an inability to forget things, particularly where I need to move on. My memory, particularly my emotional memory, is simply too good, and I carry things around with me for a lot longer than I ought or need to. In part, I blame my diary-writing for this. After all, writing things down is said to be a strong aid to memory, even without reference to the written information. Yet, considered in the light of my early obsession with the recording of information, my subsequent years at university studying history, including a PhD on early Medieval Italian historiography, my habit of writing autobiographical memoir, short stories, novels and poetry, my presence on several online social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus, my seemingly insatiable desire to photogaph everything and archive it, and, of course, this blog, it seems that perhaps I was cut out to be an historian after all, be it of my own life, or, for that matter, the lives of others.