How a fear of death promoted a visual celebration of life

The Chambers’ Book Of Days by Robert Chambers (1802-1871) is an interesting volume. It consists of matters connected to the church calendar which would have punctuated the year and was written in the 19th century. Festivals and Saints Days for example would have been included alongside observations regarding seasonal change, deep superstitions, stories and observances connected with time and tides, poetry and song. What interests me most is the final category: ‘curious, fugitive and inedited pieces’ . As 2010 was a watershed for me, I had reached the age when my father had died prematurely in 1987 , I decided that if I should also go early I would keep a Book of Days for as long as I had left. I do have a somewhat fatalistic nature it has to be said.


The first trauma was to decide what kind of book I was going to use as a base and after much deliberation I chose a Moleskin day to a page diary which was just large enough to add bits and pieces without looking too daunting, in addition it was portable and had a flap at the back to stick more bits and pieces inside. Although I have to say, by the time December 31st rolled around, the spine was broken and it looked so fat I have to hold it together with elastic bands. I imagine it weighs twice what it did as new.

It’s strange, although I keep a daily journal and always have the same style of diary at hand   I have not continued the exercise so religiously and I often wonder why. Looking through it now, the images transport me exactly to places and times and I remember just about everything, conversations, coffees, flowers, autumn leaves pressed, text messages, pubs, clubs  and hand written messages.

So, January 1st of my significant birthday year began with a picture lifted from The Guardian newspaper entitled London Sky, 1 January 2010. It’s an article about the blue moon which ended the first decade of the 21st century; I felt it was an auspicious beginning.  On January 5th there is a neatly cut Google map outlining News International offices where I spent the day stuffing envelopes for charity. On the 8th is a poem entitled Snow by Louis MacNeice, on the 12th is a cutting entitled ‘Mrs Robinson’ syndrome, about women of a certain age who take much younger lovers. This was carefully cut out and stuck in. Hmnn, I was obviously in need of some encouragement.

In fact throughout January there are postcards from Portugal, cuttings about how the Romans had mastered the art of swearing, apparently they felt swear words allowed a speaker to cut straight to the chase, alongside a black and white photo from the 1930s which looked just like a school friend and even now I can see her aged 7. At the end of January I met Paula Rego and so a portrait associated with the Foundling Museum in London graces January 27th and only a couple of days ago I drove past her museum in Sintra, Portugal.

By February, culture was in full swing, and a ticket stub for an exhibition at Museum of London, Docklands, entitled London, Sugar, Slavery, comes first then The British Museum for a night of Mexican poetry, a quick trip to Science Oxford, a journey north to Manchester to give a poetry workshop and a drink in the ancient Cittie of Yorke pub in High Holborn. There followed another stub for Seamus Heaney at King’s Place, a blind date  at Betjeman’s statue in Kings Cross St Pancras station (which ended badly) and a debate entitled, ‘This country can no longer afford to subsidise the arts. There was obviously a theme developing there!

By March I’d received a postcard from the University of Virginia, and a pencil which bore the inscription: ’I cannot live without books’. By the end of the month I had seen Henry Moore’s sculptures at Tate Britain, won a £50 amazon voucher, opened the door to a massive flower arrangement on Valentine’s day and read and noted the quote by Anatole France: ‘To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan but also believe.’

By March I stuck Visitor’s parking permits to commemorate a special person’s visits; there is an advert for a poetry tutorial I did which totally destroyed my confidence in my verse novel and I ceased writing. The tutor said, ‘I hate verse novels, if I want to read this story I would choose to read it in prose.’ That was a bad day. By March 31st, anniversary of my wedding in 1984, I had engaged a personal trainer, obviously I was getting serious about being middle aged. I managed to diet and exercise into a dress that had not fitted for years, by the time I could wear it I no longer liked the style!

In April a diagram of the National is there to show I backed the winner, ‘Don’t Push It.’ And a ticket stub from Sadler’s Wells for Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna opera: lousy. There’s a sticker for Marks & Spencer Red Plums which I ate with two female friends who are poets, translators and amazing people and we sat under trees in Hyde Park on a sunny day. I also stuck in the label for my bottle of Arsenal Water as I went to the match. On the 2st of May there are some dried tiny yellow roses nicked from Chambers just by Cleopatra’s Needle, Temple and a belated Christmas Card from a close friend who had forgotten to send it in December!

 A trip to the holiday inn in Southampton (don’t ask), gig tickets to the Deftones, then a request to review some poetry from PN Review, which I did. A plea, which is rain spattered not to be clamped for illegal parking is stuck in on May 24th. Later in May, on my birthday there is a folded A4  ‘reserved’ seat notice for The Graham Norton show. June 5th an amazing night at the Tower Bridge Hotel. Shall I say, we were amazing! There are maps, postcards, napkins with words written, horoscopes and tiny pictures of meals eaten, tube stations visited, train tickets used.

I spent the summer broadcasting on EKR, reignited a passion that was supposed to be dead and received a bombshell, which even now I cannot admit.

October 9th I saw the film, ‘Made in Dagenham’,October 29th has 10 small pictures and this is the reminder of that day: Philip Larkin letters to Monica I bought and read first thing, red leaves symbolising Autumn, an open tin of Quality Street, a new mobile phone with endless text messages, a First Capital Connect train to Finsbury Park, egg and chips, a five pound note, an exercising figure, my flat and Larkin at bedtime. Later there is a Map of Rye which I visited with a school friend I have known since 1971 and then on Friday 26th November there is this: Dear Guest, respecting your desire for privacy and comfort we provide evening turndown service..etc. London Hilton Park Lane.

This is followed by another card bearing the room number 1003 and something began which is yet to end or blossom. Christmas is strangely silent, because it really was, but on the 30th there was a trip to the Haymarket to see The Rivals and on December 31st this: ‘Well, got through it, a memorable year in so many ways: romantically, economically, culturally and for opportunities given, taken and squandered. No return to Portugal and roots go further down in the UK. My writing has been spare, my creative aspirations slight – this must change. But I have produced an extraordinary document I hope will be kept forever. Maybe in the future someone might find it and it may shed light on the life of a specific woman living in North London during 2010.

Keeping that Book of Days was a wonderful thing to do and looking back over it now I am transported and feel as if I re-lived the whole year and it was just like viewing a film having pressed ‘fast forward’. I recommend it as a writing technique to anyone as it certainly allows you to focus on detail, some of it so seemingly inconsequential but so vivid…which is the point!

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