Spectator: The end of the paper trail

Lucy weighs up the pros and cons of digital diaries.

It was the orthodontist who clinched it, his projected treatment of Alf’s teeth forcingbme to buy a 2015 diary when I’m not yet ready—the A4 ‘week-to-view’ format, identical to every diary I’ve had for the past 13 years— and not simply on the outside.

Notes are scribbled throughout and I could, if I chose, look back to find the piano tuner who came in 2006, although, as it will probably say ‘p’ with a scribbled number, I may ring the pig breeder, the plumber or Paul. These volumes are my archive and, if their chaotic entries are as identical, year on year, as the book itself, I choose to find this reassuring instead of dull.

Zam doesn’t have a diary. He has it all on his computer, synched to his phone, which makes our ‘diary sessions’ extremely trying. I flip from page to page, waiting for him to catch up with his typ- ing. And he can’t look back. When I mention this, he shrugs, but, although my entry for this week has pretty much always said ‘half term begins’ (which it did on Friday) or ‘dentist 10am’ (which we have tomorrow), I think he’s missing the point.

I can see that this time last year I had breakfast with my friend Claire, who is an opera singer and who would have a very different set of volumes to look back on. She was, that week, performing Tosca in Basel, where she would kiss two men she’d barely met before a St Bernard would find a dead body on stage that would be removed by a skateboard. She was fitting me in between her commute via Terminal 5 and her next role, in Helsinki.

I remember that she apologised as she interrupted our catch up—she needed to keep an eye on an eBay auction in which she hoped to buy some ski boots. She put in a winning bid two seconds before the end of the auction and, jubilant in victory, assured me that the boots would fit perfectly, because she used to be a ski-boot fitter. She had, in fact, done a course in ski-boot fitting. I ponder on the journey from ski-boot fitter to centre stage… and all this from an entry that says ‘Breakfast Claire’.

‘Biographers won’t even have school reports,’ I say to Zam as I look at the half-term e-chart we’ve received. ‘What shall we do with mine?’ he replies, thinking of the large box brought by his mother and currently taking up space we don’t have, next to the box of my own. Point taken—we agree to burn them, their laugh-factor having been covered in one supper. ‘Anyway, biographers will look up e-charts on iCloud,’ he says.

But will they? When I recently went the wrong way on a London tube journey, the man at the barrier told me I’d be charged a fortune, because my oyster card would reveal that I’d spent too long getting from A to B. He could read all my movements, but only for two months, after which all the information would disappear.

My sister-in-law, as church warden, has taken to printing out the chains of relevant emails so that she has a paper file to hand on to her successor. That’s one way round it. But what about the margins? Much of the most exciting nuggets of research are revealed by the notes and words scribbled alongside the official document. At Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, Queen Victoria’s menus have all been kept and intriguing numbers appear by each course, often in fractions. They can’t relate to guests or portions and their meaning is yet to be discovered by historians.

Over the past weeks, while researching a boathouse designed in the 18th century, Will has spent a good deal of time at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, looking at letters, diaries, labourers’ accounts, inventories, original drawings and bills, all of which build up a picture of who did what when—often with conflicting accounts to be unpicked.
I’m about to start researching our house, the origins of which are very different to the building now. When we, the latest inhabitants, make our changes, we won’t leave a paper trail. Perhaps that doesn’t matter. I think it does.