At the end of last year I returned to England after two years working in West Africa. In my bedroom at my parents’ house in Cambridge I encountered my old diaries. They sat in that ancient space alongside a photograph of my intake at Sandhurst in the year I spent in the army before university, and a first edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom that my father once gave me. I was twenty-seven and uncertain of what I wanted to do with my life; I hoped reading my written record might give some better idea.
Reading the diaries in public garnered me strange looks on the London Underground. When a woman inquired I emphasized that that the handwriting was my own; I was not perusing another’s journal without permission. The process took about two months.
My oldest journal is a 1992–93 “mid-year” diary manufactured by a firm called Dataday. After a four-year hiatus, a series of page-a-days produced variously by Collins, Dataday, and WH Smith begins in 1996 and runs until 2002. Next come exercise books, one sheathed in a tan leather cover inset with porcupine needles, and a tranche of Moleskines. The final shift in format begins three volumes from the end of the archive. The books become larger; eight by eleven inches. They are bound in quarter leather and the covers are marbled. The first bears in gilt script Simon Akam and سيمون أكم , which is a rough transliteration of my name is Arabic. New York 2008 appears further down. In short, a slightly embarrassing trajectory of increasing literary pretension.
I first kept a diary in the summer of 1992, when I was six years old. I imagine it was a school project, a record-of-your-holiday-please, which in our familial case was to Brittany in northern France. My writing at this stage is wholly descriptive.
Thursday 16 July 1992
at school in the morning I did a jigsaw and in the afternoon I palys [sic] with clever sticks and after school I went canoeing with P palyed [sic]
The real, day-to-day effort starts four years later, at ten.
Monday 1 January 1996
I still can’t get to grips with the fact that ’95 has ended, it went so fast. T. H. … came round and rattled on about his Christmas presents, we showed him the end of the The spy who loved me and he piped down, probably scared stiff. In the afternoon Daddy and I fitted my bike computer, the black tape wound around the front forke [sic] to secure the wire gave the bike a mean look. We watched the worst Bond movie I’ve ever seen, On her Majasty’s [sic] secrat [sic] service.
I do not know why my diary began when it did, in the dead time of New Year before the Christmas decorations came down. Whatever its inception, that daily diary persists, with periods of greater and lesser enthusiasm, for seventy-eight months. It peters out entirely in the summer of 2002, when I have just turned seventeen. The last, rather embarrassing entry is scrawled as follows:
Friday July 26 2002
Pulled [British slang for made out with] F. H. in a punt [flat-bottomed boat propelled with a pole] on the way to Grantchester. [Photogenic village outside Cambridge, once haunt of poet Rupert Brooke]
End of [women] drought. Also met St. Mary’s [private catholic girls school] girl on boat: fit [British slang for attractive] phone number. Don’t for the life of me know her phone number.
Good to get it done.
Will pursue: obviously worthwhile to fancy [British slang for find attractive] anything that fancies me back will follow up. Good starting block. F. Fit.
However, at the point of daily cessation a new format appears: the travel journal. The first dates from a school expedition to Kenya when I was seventeen. The next, outwardly bound in leather, covers a return to that same East African country two years later, in the summer between leaving the army and going to Oxford. The first Moleskines detail an expedition to the Alps and a summer spent in Nairobi in 2006 as an intern at the BBC bureau.
The daily diary resumes, in Moleskine initially, in September 2007. I had finished my degree and removed myself to Egypt to learn Arabic and attempt to make myself a journalist. That resurrected effort persists to the present, six years on.
As it turned out I stayed in the Middle East less than a year, when a scholarship sent me to America. However, in stationery terms, the shadow of Egypt is long. I had come to realize Moleskines were irredeemably cliché. In Cairo I discovered a bookbinders called Abdel Zaher, deep in the old city. They worked with leather and gilt and their products were beautiful. My first purchase came with me to the U.S. that summer (hence New York 2008 in tooled gold) and went on to chronicle the seventeen months I spent in that city.
Another, brought by a then-girlfriend still in Cairo, served me through spells in Istanbul and Berlin and into a new job in West Africa, before filling up in the middle of last year. With some difficulty, I ordered a new diary from Abdel Zaher. The Arab Spring decimated Egypt’s tourist trade and I suspect things have been hard for the boys down on al-Sheikh Mohamed Abdu Street. They do not speak much English and their ordering Web site is erratic, but their books are beautiful and extraordinary value. I would therefore recommend all aspirant diarists to order from them. In bulk.
For me, the keeping of diaries is a gendered act. Mine began as a boy’s diaries and became that of a man. For little girls, it seems, diary keeping is expected at some point. The setting will probably be a volume with an ornamental padlock of doubtful robustness. While a girl’s diary’s contents may be sacrosanct, the fact of keeping the diary itself does not have to be. For boys, in my experience, matters are rather different. In the early stages of the private English boys’ school to which I was removed at eleven, nine months after I started my daily diary, to be ousted as a diarist would have ranked in potential social disasters only marginally below the ultimate sin of exhibition as a practicing homosexual. The same broad-based pejorative statement used to clarify any behavior that went beyond rigidly policed norms would be deployed:
“That’s fucking gay.”
The early stages of my diary are in consequence full of occasions when I sign off for a few days, announcing that I will not be able to take the volume with me on the upcoming scout camp, sleepover, prep school hockey festival, etc.
Thursday March 25 1999
Tomorrow at 4:30am I leave for Val d’Isere [French ski resort where school ski trip was headed]. I’m well looking forward to it—it’ll be cool.
We’re (NATO) are attacking Serbia for being out of order over Kosovo—it’s air strike diplomacy—I reckon the late nineties will be famed for it.
If you don’t do what we say—we send Tomahawk Cruise missiles at your country.
I’ve gotta get up around 3:30am tomorrow and it’s 9:32pm at the moment, so I’ll say goodbye for the next week!
In this as other things, the reality of my teenage self does not jive with my adult perception thereof. In my year 2000 diary I am fourteen going on fifteen. In retrospect much of this volume is excruciatingly embarrassingly, thoroughly teenaged, and not all how I remember myself. After working my way through with clenched teeth I thought of a passage in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited.
Here is Waugh.
It is easy, retrospectively, to endow one’s youth with a false precocity or a false innocence; to tamper with the dates marking one’s stature on the edge of the door. I should like to think—indeed I sometimes do think—that I decorated those rooms with Morris stuffs and Arundel prints… But this was not the truth. On my first afternoon I proudly hung a reproduction of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers over the fire and set up a screen, painted by Roger Fry with a Provencal landscape … My books were meagre and commonplace… and my earliest friends fitted well into this background.
And here is me.
Wednesday January 26 2000
I think in future I’ll have to stop mixing alcohol and C, ’cos I always, or at least last Saturday, start coming onto her drunkenly. Which I usually hear about in jeering tones from L, much later on, which always makes me feel shit, as I still kinda kid myself that she might just fancy me. She’s with C and that’s not going to change.
I’ve gotta get over her, and I’ve never been out with her, or anyone, I reckon I don’t really fancy her, my subconscious is just cling clinging on to the nearest bit of … female flesh. I fancy the image of her in my mind and I’ve gotta get over her!
A true version of what the Germans called Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a compound noun meaning “coming to terms with the past,” begins with us looking unblinking at the inside front cover of my 2001 diary. Here I have written the final line from “Imogen,” a poem by tub-thumping Victorian scribe Sir Henry Newbolt, in honor of a girl of that name I was futilely pursuing.
And there’s Imogen, Imogen dancing still.
In retrospect I am rather pleased with that, though it is a slight misquotation (“Imogen dancing, dancing still” is the original) and the meter is consequently all wrong. However, to claim that particle of the past I must acknowledge that the Newbolt line is not the only thing written on the inside front cover. Further up appears the following:
If I gave a fuck about a bitch I’d always be broke
I’d never have no motherfuckin endo to smoke.
Thirteen years on I can proffer no adequate reason for the presence of these lines—drawn inaccurately from Snoop Dogg’s 1993 album Doggystyle—in my diary. I can make up rationalizations; my fifteen-year-old’s dissatisfaction with single-sex education or a lusting after Technicolor U.S. popular culture as an antidote to the gray provincialism of my British childhood, but they are all questionable. The important matter is simply to acknowledge that the hand that wrote those Snoop Dogg lyrics is still attached to my right arm. The book may embarrass me now, but I am glad I never threw it away.
My diary is not a wholly genuine artifact. For a while, the prose is frequently corrupted by the conflation of personal correspondence with the day’s entry. On numerous occasions my diary contains drafts of missives, in particular to lovers. The most galling example of this contamination comes from March 2009. I was living in New York, age twenty-three, and had secured an assignment to write about ski mountaineering in Idaho. While my American contemporaries at journalism school were publicly boasting about how much work they had to do over spring break in a manner wholly alien to my entire understanding of how you should behave toward organized education—louche and untroubled, with icy British sangfroid—I flew west.
Idaho allowed me to visit the final stomping ground of Hemingway, a writer with whom I was then fascinated. I also decided that the record of the trip—transcribed of course onto high-grade paper subsequently—would function as a missive to a girl I met at university. After a brief, albeit intense, dalliance she had shelved me in favor of the scion of a major Anglo-Irish industrial fortune. Even three years on I was struggling to assimilate this development.
Monday 18 March 2009
Bench Hut, 7500”, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho, USA
… someone killed in an avalanche here last week—guides nervous. Off the lakeshore smothered and invisible, through forest again to timberline—exhaustion, another lake, up at 8600”, frozen solid. Waited out on the ice with one of our party of three …
… I’m glad to hear from you L—I am sorry if you have been feeling worried. I finish at Columbia in May, then it looks like I’m going to go to Istanbul for an internship with Reuters—old loathsomeness of journalism. Finished manuscript in West London [an attempt at fiction], rescue me. Interview last week—London, Financial Times, horror at site [sic] of cubicles, gave unconvincing answers. Flew back from JFK no checked luggage, was going to call you for a rendez-vous and then no time space—frantic 36 hours in England. Remember our drink last summer, remember walk at end of Oxford, Port Meadow, in the moonlight, seems so long ago, another world. Magdalen [college at Oxford], Deer and Pooh Sticks once.
Over with J [girlfriend]. Amicable. Extensive topless photograph collection to be nobly retired rather than prepared for worldwide Internet distribution. Spluttered and died, DC, January, [Obama’s] inauguration, 6 million people and a city of loneliness.
Other girl here, last week, Upper East Side, rich, drink, distant—mass transit—on Sunday back from JFK to flat, eschewed the subway in favor of blonde driven convertible …
Thursday 19 March 2009
Fishhook Yurt, 6800ft, Sawtooth Range, 1745 [hrs]
Luncheon, New York 3, 4 weeks ago, 21st floor of Yale Club—award won, mother here in rare lipstick and pride, gave speech, on the piece I wrote that won it—gallivanting in the Western desert, unmarked minefields and Bedu with ruined eyes—tawdry heroism to them—no mention of the reality of that time—awfulness, awfulness—letter to you in airmail envelope to St Hilda’s [college in Oxford]—ill considered perhaps. Better now, thank god, even with J gone.
… You, November, Columbia chill, long coat on the steps of Lowe Library, blonde in the night, dinner and room. Your words, do you remember? Post-script to Oxford preamble? Similar last week—woman from long ago, woman now, not then, 14, girl next door, seven doors down, elfin, thinking man’s pin-up—never kissed her. Here, to see a friend, walk in central park, light splintering off the skyscrapers—post script to youth—glamorous New York.
… Fire still roaring, cast iron stove. Enough writing for one afternoon-night.
That, I think you will agree, is quite flash prose. Witness the careful mix of self-aggrandizement and demonstrable involvement with other women, the high-profile journalistic assignments commingled with an ostensible loathing of journalism.
The project was unsuccessful. Some years later the recipient married her scion-inamorata. I wish them every happiness. But I am glad too that my diary reminds me of how I felt in a former time.
Simon Akam is a British writer. His work has appeared in publications including the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement, The Economist, and The New Republic. His Web site is www.simonakam.com and he tweets @simonakam.