Samuel Pepys, Anne Frank, Alan Bennett, Sylvia Plath, Andy Warhol…the list of great diarists is a long and distinguished one. The name of Darragh McManus, sadly, won’t be added to this list anytime soon.
Not because I never kept a journal – au contraire, I compulsively documented my life for several years during the 1980s. But reading back over them now, the material simply isn’t very good. And despite my overweening egomania, I fail to see why anyone would want to know about my so-called life back then.
That’s the problem with adolescent diaries, I guess: they’re self-absorbed, melodramatic, whiny, indulgent and, well, a little boring for everyone else. To be honest, they’re even boring for me to read, and I’m the main character.
Here’s a fairly typical entry: “Went to bed consumed with anger, fear and anxiety.” I didn’t note precisely what series of events had induces this hellish triumvirate of negative emotions, which was threatening to spoil my night’s sleep in March 1988; it was probably nothing, or next to nothing, and the reaction was no doubt completely disproportionate.
These journals were clearly inspired by the publishing sensation which was, and remains, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. Everyone at school loved that book, and half of us had promised to emulate Adrian by keeping our own.
I did so, from late 1986 to January 1990. (The entries just end, dead, at the start of the month; no explanation is given. I’m assuming this is because the Leaving Cert was looming into view, five months down the line, and obsessing over the minutiae of each pointless Groundhog Day tends to get in the way of remembering Boyle’s Law or how to decline the French verb “to listen” in six different tenses.)
Rereading old teenage diaries is funny, and cute, sometimes intriguing, often sort of disturbing. All the memories this stuff stirs up, like murky silt at the bottom of a river-bed.
I’d never realised I still hated certain people who were horrible to me back then – but apparently I do! It was almost refreshing, in a strange way, to feel that loathing swell up again, like greeting an old pal you hadn’t seen in decades. So this is all healthy and positive, right, Doctor Freud?
In a similarly strange way, I didn’t fully recognise myself in these pages. Was I really such a narky little fecker, always fighting with everybody? (And I mean everybody: parents, siblings, best friends, girls I had a crush on, God, you name it.)
Why were parts of my diary written in such a pompous style? Why had I such a nebbish fixation with statistics? (“Went to see Romeo & Juliet at The Belltable. The actors playing Romeo and Mercutio were really tall: I’d say one was about 6ft 1, the other 6ft 2½.”)
Anyway, life in the eighties, as described in these pages, was about as grey, dreary and tedious as I remembered it. One entry describes “a great day” spent mooching around shops in Limerick – not buying anything, just mooching – with the high-point a twenty-minute joyride up and down the escalators in some unnamed store.
Another wacky adventure sees me dossing the last class in school and hitting for the bus-yard where I “shared a fag with (name redacted) and threw spuds at the wall.”
Throwing spuds at the wall! No wonder I recorded all this stuff for posterity.
Ah no, it wasn’t as bad as all that. Every Halloween, for example, seemed to find me and my chums up to some harmless, but reasonably inventive, devilment: setting a carved turnip “head”, replete with candle, on the road to freak out drivers; doing likewise with a leaf-filled bag, set in the shape of a fallen body; “borrowing” bales of hay for the bonfire; goading each other to climb down into an open crypt in the graveyard; setting off illegal, finger-endangering bangers which (name redacted) had sourced in France somewhere…
Ugh. Okay, I lied. Except for Halloween, it was as bad as all that.
Still, this stuff will be put to good use. The reason I’m rereading the diaries is as prep for a story I’m writing, which is set in the 1980s. And in the novel-memoir crossover style currently à la mode, I’ll be basically regurgitating real events, thinly disguised as fiction, to save myself the bother of having to make things up.
So good news, bullies of the past: if you were mean to me in school, I’m about to make you famous…
- First published in the Irish Independent