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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > January 2017 > Pepys on the couch

Pepys on the couch

Every diarist turns a page at new year, which is when the Restoration’s chronicler started. He’s remembered for what he saw, but he unwittingly preserved the disturbing things he felt

S itting on the porch of a New England hotel in 1979, I told my dad I was bored. He took a big slurp of his third gin martini that evening and said: “Write a diary.” So I did. I still do.

On 1st January, we diarists all over the world will open a deliciously blank book and begin chatting to our old— perhaps our only—friend: the page. We’ll be communing with our future selves, who will one day look back fondly on these words. Those of us with grandiose fantasies might feel we are addressing some awe-stricken future audience, admiring of our wit, perspicacity and wisdom. Not me—my younger sister has instructions to incinerate my diaries immediately on my death (Grace, they’re in the attic).

Some of you will be sane enough not to need a papery friend/ shrink/accountant, but you might nonetheless be the kind of voyeur who will start 2017 absorbed in someone else’s diary— magazine editor Alexandra Shulman’s Inside Vogue: A Diary of My 100th Year is out in time for Christmas… For readers, diaries have obvious appeal as the thinking person’s reality television— a glimpse into the minute details of someone else’s life. Just as the ash of Pompeii preserved the details of daily life in the late Roman Empire, so diaries preserve the intimacy and the mundanity of the writer’s moment—and none better than those of my diary idol Samuel Pepys.

Pepys is famous for his epic descriptions of the Plague and the Great Fire of London and for what the editor Robert Latham describes as his “talent for living.” The diaries are full of food and drink (including a surprising new drink from China, called tea), scientific discovery, dancing, singing, travel and sex. Pepys often depicts himself as an absurd character—whose wig catches fire at an event, who is desperate for the loo at the coronation, who wakes terrified in the night thinking his pillow is a ghost, and who buries a whole Parmesan to save it from the fire.

Here he is on New Year’s Eve 1662: “…and thence into the room where the ball was to be, crammed with fine ladies, the greatest of the Court. By and by comes the King and Queen… and they danced the Bransle. After that, the King led a lady a single Coranto and then the rest of the lords, one after another, other ladies very noble it was, and great pleasure to see… Having staid here as long as I thought fit, to my infinite content, it being the greatest pleasure I could wish now to see at Court, I went out… Thus ends this year with great mirth to me and my wife.”

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s January issue: Adam Tooze and Francis Fukuyama examine the “American Century.” Tooze says that the 1917 opened the door to the future because the US seized the chance to lead, rather than for the Russian Revolution. Fukuyama says that the US has fallen from its perch, a change embodied by the election of Donald Trump. Anna Blundy puts Samuel Pepys on the couch and uses his diaries to psychoanalyse the Restoration’s chronicler. Also in this issue: Chris Bickerton examines the rise of populist parties across Europe, Peter Tatchell and Malcolm Rifkind debate whether the Uk should stop pretending Trump’s US can be its best friend, Philip Collins reviews a collection of Brexit books and DJ Taylor examines Alan Bennett’s diaries.
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