“A nice day in general; just enjoying myself. No particular thoughts, except perhaps I’d like to change my life.”
In 2001, two friends of mine, Professor Richard Grove and Dr Dido Davies, were mucking around in a building site when they discovered armfuls of notebooks scattered across the rubble in a skip. Some of the volumes had royal emblems stamped on the front. Others were military-issue journals. Dido clambered in and picked one up. It broke apart like chocolate. Inside the rotted pages were filled with handwriting.
It was a diary. All the 148 books in the skip were diaries. The 15,000 pages covered half a century, from 1952 to just before the writer’s death in 2001.
People don’t include obvious identifiers in diaries: what they’re called or where their home is or what sex they are. They are simply ‘I’, who lives.
And then dies, and gets dumped in a skip.
(Hope my diaries aren’t blown up before people can read them – they have immortal value.)
Richard and Dido gave the books to me.
A Life Discarded is a biography of the diarist. It is a biography that begins with the biographer not knowing whom he is writing about.
As with my first book (Stuart:A Life Backwards) A Life Discarded is structured and paced like a murder mystery but, instead of an unidentified body, the corpse is one of the strangest collections of diaries ever to be discovered.
If the Guinness Book of World Records is correct, it is also the longest diary known to history.
That’s all I can say, because there’s a serious difficulty with my murder mystery approach: if I say any more about the book, I’ll ruin its twists and surprises.
All I can add is that my five-year hunt to track down the author began with a stabbing, required the help of Britain’s leading detective, a forensic graphologist and a pianist, and ended with a twist that I can hardly believe even now.
And one other clue, which I probably shouldn’t give away, but I will: the person who wrote this startling, outrageous, intimate, tragic, often very funny journal was not famous. He or she was much more interesting – they were a person we might have passed in the street on any day of the week.
Somebody like us.
A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip is out today!
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