For posterity, the problem is not indiscreet diarists, but discreet sources
They have been in the Sunday Times these last two weeks. As I write, the last extract is imminent. They will come out as a book soon. The late Woodrow Wyatt's diaries are a 'publishing event'. As with all such events, the done thing to say about them is that they are trivial and the author is a snob. That is what has been said about nearly all the best diarists from Pepys to Clark, and it is of course why most of us enjoy them.
The people saying the done thing are reading them too. Experience teaches that, just as the least chaste proclaim their chastity loudest, those who shout most against triviality and snobbery are the triv- ial and snobbish. There is another done thing being said about the Wyatt diaries: that people who consort with the impor- tant, especially with royalty, should not publish diaries. I should like to propose an alternative done thing.
It is that those of us who consort with diarists should do nothing to make less interesting or scandalous the diary con- cerned. When we commit an indiscretion in the presence of a known diarist, we should not then plead with him or her to keep it out. I have practised what I preach. A few years ago I committed what to me was a shattering, unpardonable, inexplicable indiscretion in the presence of Mr Alan Clark. Although the Clark diaries had already been published, that did not mean that he was not keeping their successors, and that they would not be published in due course.
The information which I imparted was extremely interesting, but that is not the point. Hardly had the words escaped my mouth than I silently cursed myself for say- ing them to, of all people, Mr Clark. The indiscretion consisted of my expressing astonishment and envy that a certain ugly man was said, on good evidence, to have enjoyed a brief liaison with a certain beauti- ful woman; of which liaison Mr Clark was unaware.
After leaving Mr Clark's company that evening, I reflected. Were this to appear in Mr Clark's diary — attributed to me — in the lifetime of the ugly man, the beautiful woman or me, it would cause squirming embarrassment to the beautiful woman and me, though not of course to the ugly man, who would enter posterity as irresistible.
To digress a little, it seems that the ugly man was successful with the beautiful woman because, as she confided to another woman who was the source of the story, he had 'made her laugh so much that in the end she gave in'. This is a common and infuriating theme in the history of love: if a man can make a woman laugh, that is half the battle. It is sheer jokeism. It discrimi- nates against those of us who, through no fault of our own, or possibly because of having been abused as children, are serious. It is also sexist. If laughter is so essential to seduction, why should the responsibility for producing it, in this feminist age, still fall on us men? Why should not women have to make us laugh? Intentionally, that is.
To return to my dilemma concerning my indiscretion, what could I do to ensure, as the phrase has it, damage limitation? I could ask Mr Clark, next time I met him, not to put it in his diary. No, that would be morally wrong. I am a lifelong consumer of all forms of historiography. Diaries are one of the historian's primary sources. I owed it to history to allow my indiscretion to reach posterity. In any case, it was just possible that Mr Clark had not taken it in. He had seemed a little distracted that evening. He would take it in all right if I returned to the subject.
Another course was casually to mention to Mr Clark that that bit of tittle-tattle I told him last time we met had turned out to be completely untrue. It was just that that ugly swine had been putting it around, per- haps even as a joke. Anyway, it was always idiotic to believe that that man could have triumphed with that woman, wasn't it? But no: such a course would ensure that, if the first indiscretion was already the subject of one diary entry, it would now be the subject of a second.
So I have remained stoically silent. Sometimes we read that another volume of the Clark diaries will be published quite soon. Sometimes we read that it will not be, because his wife Jane has put her foot down. I pray for the constant downward pressure of Mrs Clark's foot.
Still, apart from the matter of the origi- nal indiscretion, I think that, in doing noth- ing to staunch a primary source, I come out of all this rather well. Not as heroically, however, as Lord Wyatt's daughter, Petronella, comes out of the decision to publish certain passages about herself in Lord Wyatt's diaries. She must have known that they would arouse a certain amount of petit-bourgeois disapproval or mockery, what with her father's string-pulling to get her into Worcester College, and so on. Apparently, she did not know what was in the diaries, suspected that there would be plenty that could be used against her, but scorned to take any action to suppress it. So seriously are these matters taken that she has been prevented by the terms of the publisher's contract with the Sunday Times from writing about it here until serialisation ended. She will do so next week.
`Through paper-thin walls, she heard a boy and girl making love and grunting all night. She had little sleep,' writes Lord Wyatt of his daughter's brief time at Oxford. I had heard that tale about her for years, so often that when she came to The Spectator I wondered whether I should strengthen our walls, but was informed that this was out of the question because ours was a listed building. My staff are young, and of both sexes. In such a charged atmo- sphere, things can happen. I am sure I do not know the half of it. I hear nothing, but the walls are thick enough. Were they not, I would be as distracted from my studies as was the adolescent Miss Wyatt at Worces- ter College long ago.
But perhaps, like so many of the most damaging stories about the famous, it is a story which Miss Wyatt told against herself, and which went on to have a life of its own. As to the identity of the ugly man and the beautiful woman, posterity must await my own diary.