Alexander Masters: A Life Discarded


I have a confession to make. I am a diarist. Crammed on my shelves I have piles of journals, the random recording of events in my life over the last thirty years. My diaries are in the vein of Bridget Jones rather than Adrian Mole, of Pepys rather than Virginia Woolf. They are about the day-to-day: dinners, holidays, family events, struggles with music teachers, occasional musings on the state of the world and politics. Once I was sitting scribbling in the family holiday house and my mother-in-law, who was quite impressed by my diligence, asked, ‘What are you writing at this very moment?’ When I read to her, ‘I hear the washing machine spin out of balance,’ she lost a great deal of respect for me. So, in general, journals are better kept to oneself. I plan to burn all except one at some time in the future. I would hate them to suffer the fate of the diaries in this book

The subtitle of Alexander Master’s book is 148 Diaries Found in a Skip. How they come into his hands is a sad and interesting tale, but in view of his previous books I don’t know that he could be relied on to let the diaries speak for themselves. He wants to make something of them.

Alexander Masters won the Guardian First Book Award for Stuart: A Life Lived Backwards, the life story of a homeless man he encountered through the work he was doing at the time. Later, Stuart suicided by jumping under a train. I also write life stories for vulnerable people, but only at their request and on the condition the story is for them and their families, not for publication. Stuart’s story had tragic material about a life of drug addiction, homelessness and abuse. Not surprising then that it became a highly successful BBC TV drama. I do wonder about the ethics of the publication of his life.

The notebooks are found by a friend of Masters, as the title says, abandoned in a skip, and passed onto him by another friend. Although intrigued, he is slow to come to terms with his haul. They are dated, but on first glance appear to have little other information about their author. He reads bits and pieces, carts the books around through several moves, speculates about the identity of the writer. He assumes (why?) the writer is male and that he is dead. He speculates about the character “Nizzy” who so often appears. He comes across an entry in which the writer talks about great outpourings of blood and imagines there has been some sort of attack or even a crime committed by, or on, the writer. Then he reads:

The bleeding stops. Nizzy comes home and turns out to be his mother. ‘Crying in that uncontrollable way I sometimes have,’ he tells her about the blood. Nizzy says he is ‘ fussing unnecessarily’.

Our mystery diarist hasn’t been stabbed, slashed his wrists or fallen out of a window into a greenhouse. He’s suffering, ‘because of my sex’.

The poor man’s got the curse.

He’s a woman.

These journals are so private. In their yearnings for greatness, in their speculation as to what form this greatness will take. Will she be an artist, a writer, or a world famous musician? She lays herself bare to the page: her crushes on various teachers, her guesses as to what sex may be like, her dislike of her sisters.

Master tries to ramp up the interest. Does he really need to employ a private detective or a graphologist to help him decipher the identity of this writer? And does he really need to get a musician to expound on Walter Gieseking’s performance of the Beethoven Pathetique? Seems like padding to me.

I was drawn to this book, because I was interested to read a completely transparent account of an everyday life. But with Masters muddying the waters I didn’t really get the opportunity. Only parts of the journals are given and only in the order he chooses to give them.

If he is to be believed, however, this writer distinguished herself in one way. She is in the Guinness Book of Records as the most prolific known diarist in history. Her journal writing amounts to 5 million words.



4 thoughts on “Alexander Masters: A Life Discarded

  1. How disheartening to commit all that time to writing in a journal and then, in the end, destroy it. I had a journal once and I only put in one entry. It was 1957 and the Russians had just launched Sputnik. That was it. On the other hand I have my mother’s diary and she writes about WW2. Her brothers (my uncles) were in the thick of it. It’s quite extraordinary.

      1. I have my mother’s diary and it is literally historical. Now if it’s about the the laundry being imbalanced in the washer – not sure about that.

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