With Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer listed as two of Carolyn Miller’s favourite authors, I thought I would be in for a treat with her first published Regency novel, The Elusive Miss Ellison – and… More
Finding one diary discarded in a skip would be a dream come true for me – let alone 148 of them.
However, as biographer Alexander Masters discovers, working out what to do with them next is no easy matter.
I quite often find myself on eBay wondering whether bidding on tatty journals written in scrawling, often-illegible handwriting by people unknown is a good use of my limited funds.
I’ve never “won” one (yet). It seems a lot of other people are willing to pay far more than I have available for the honour of owning a little slice of someone else’s life.
I’m not sure what it is I think I’m going to find within their pages.
Maybe it’s because I wrote a journal consistently from the age of 18 until I was about 26 and then sporadically afterwards.
Perhaps there is an affinity with people who put pen to paper (so rare these days) to record their thoughts.
Or maybe I’m just nosy?
I know, though, that if I had found “148 tattered and mould-covered notebooks” lying among “broken bricks in a skip on a building site in Cambridge” I would have felt like I’d hit the jackpot.
They were initially discovered by two of his friends. Unsure what to do with them, they handed the three boxes of books over to Masters, the award-winning author of Stuart: A Life Backwards and Simon: The Genius In My Basement, with the idea that he could write about them.
The anonymous diaries begin in 1952 and end half a century later, which, as we learn, is a few weeks before they were thrown out.
When I heard about this book, I was incredibly excited and thrilled to get my hands on it.
I’ll admit to daydreaming about where I would start if they had suddenly fallen into my lap – and I think that’s where I went wrong.
Here’s the synopsis.
A Life Discarded is a biographical detective story. In 2001, 148 tattered and mould-covered notebooks were discovered lying among broken bricks in a skip on a building site in Cambridge.
Tens of thousands of pages were filled to the edges with urgent handwriting. They were a small part of an intimate, anonymous diary, starting in 1952 and ending half a century later, a few weeks before the books were thrown out.
Over five years, the award-winning biographer Alexander Masters uncovers the identity and real history of their author, with an astounding final revelation.
A Life Discarded is a true, shocking, poignant, often hilarious story of an ordinary life.
The author of the diaries, known only as ‘I’, is the tragicomic patron saint of everyone who feels their life should have been more successful.
Part thrilling detective story, part love story, part social history, A Life Discarded is also an account of two writers’ obsessions: of ‘I’s need to record every second of life and of Masters’ pursuit of this mysterious yet universal diarist.
My first instinct would be to discover who they belong to but, for Masters, it almost felt as if finding the identity of ‘I’ would somehow ruin it for him.
The book follows his rather twisty-turny route towards that conclusion, including consulting a private detective and a graphologist – which, though interesting, felt like padding to me.
There are excerpts from the diaries (and Masters’ attempts to make sense of them and his own life) together with drawings and photographs.
By all accounts, ‘I’ lives what I would consider a normal life, never fully realising the potential they clearly see in themselves, which makes the diaries all the more fascinating.
Intertwined with the main story are other threads about his two friends, which, though poignant, again feel like they take the focus away from the diaries.
I’m not saying the book isn’t a good read, it is.
Chapters often end with the punch of a new discovery (I’m not going to give any away), which makes it impossible to put down.
From my point of view, I just found it a bit frustrating.
My rating: Three and a half stars.
With thanks for Fourth Estate (via NetGalley) for the ARC in return for an honest review.
The hum of a small plane engine overhead followed by lots of brightly coloured parachutes slowly floating to the ground were a regular feature of my childhood – and I was often inspired to leap off a garden chair with a sheet tied to me in an attempt to fly.
Ipswich Airport has since closed (the last plane left in 1998) and the site has been developed for housing. I still find it strange thinking that planes used to take off and land where so many people now live. The area has been designed with the environment in mind so there are bike/pedestrian paths, a bus link to the town centre and several green spaces. I have no idea what it’s like to live there but it feels very different to the surrounding estates where I grew up (and where Freya and I returned at the start of the week).
Another nice thing about Ravenswood is the number of public “art” pieces dotted around the site. The one above is called Green Wind. It’s by Diane Maclean, a sculptor and environmental artist. The wings are made of stainless steel and stand between 7 and 10 metres tall (up to 32ft).
I was quite a way from the sculpture but a child running caught my attention. I initially thought I’d missed the shot because by the time I had my camera out s/he was gone but then they ran back (yay!). It’s not a great quality photo (the light was awful) but something about it appeals to me – probably the nostalgia element as at one point it looked like the child was pretending to fly.
To see what other people have been photographing for My Sunday Photo please click the link below.
The first few days of half-term have been spent wandering down memory lane – at least for me.
Freya and I swapped Norfolk for neighbouring Suffolk and returned to my parents’ house in Ipswich.
Not only did they have a load of boxes for me to sort out from their loft, which last saw the light of day 20-odd years ago, but we also took a tour of some of my favourite childhood haunts.
First on the list was Christchurch Mansion, a museum and art gallery, often said to be the “jewel in the crown” of historic Ipswich.
The red-brick Tudor building, which is in the middle of the town, has been a favourite of mine since I was small, particularly the nursery rooms, which feature ornate dolls’ houses and all sorts of Victorian toys and games. I used to get very cross when we had to visit all the other rooms, as interesting as they are, before eventually working our way upstairs.
The mansion sits in a beautiful park, which was the site of the Holy Trinity Priory in the 12th century. Following Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, the land was bought by Paul Withipoll, a London merchant. It was his son, Edmund, who started building the mansion in 1547.
It has had different owners who have added and changed bits over the years. In 1894 it was bought by a property syndicate and they sold parcels of land for housing. Thankfully in 1895 the mansion was presented to the town and it has been maintained as a museum since 1896.
What can you see?
Not only are there period rooms to explore and all sorts of artefacts to admire but Christchurch Mansion is also home to works by Suffolk artists including the “biggest collection of Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable paintings outside of London”.
Is it expensive to visit?
Here’s the thing, it’s still free to visit, which we found hard to believe (we made a donation instead). We spent a happy hour following Freya as she explored the rooms, aided by very friendly and informative guides. There is also a shop and a tea room.
See here for opening times and other info.
What was in the loft?
I found some of my own rather random artefacts in the loft. I wonder what is on those films?
Do you enjoy revisiting childhood haunts?