Hunter Davies and the diary of a somebody
Journalist and author tells Gerald Isaaman how he came across his wife Margaret Forster’s adolescent diaries in a drawer after her death
04 January, 2018 — By Gerald Isaaman
Margaret Forster in 1955
DIARIES have their own fascination, truly a life of their own. And the more so if they have been written over decades since childhood, tucked away in a drawer and not discovered until after a death.
That is what confronted journalist and author Hunter Davies at his home in Boscastle Road, Dartmouth Park, after his wife, Margaret Forster, celebrated novelist, biographer, critic and campaigner a year after she succumbed to cancer in February, 2016, aged 77.
He also found 60 pages of an unfinished novel – it would have been her 27th – adding: “I eventually put it away safely, then I opened her two top drawers – and found one million words. These were her diaries, which I had never read.
“They start with three schoolgirl diaries, one when she was 11 in 1949, then at the ages of 14 and 16. From 1973 until not long before she died she wrote a massive diary for a year every five years, filling a whole page every day, all in her immaculate handwriting, each diary coming to about 100,000 words.”
They were not, he points out, a total secret, as both he and their three children, Caitlin, Flora and Jake, knew the diaries existed, Margaret insisting that her jottings comprised domestic “family trivia”.
But flicking through them Hunter soon realised they were much more significant than that.
“They were also about her struggles trying to fit in her work, observations and thoughts about our relations, neighbours and friends, the world outside, about herself and me.”
Now we too can share in Margaret Forster’s intimate early life. That is thanks to Hunter organising the pocket book-sized publication of his then future wife’s diary as an ordinary 15-year-old schoolgirl while growing up on a sink council estate in her native Carlisle.
And alongside the poignant personal pictures of Margaret, her parents and lively school girl friends in postwar 1954, we rediscover in daily detail the lost world of someone growing up with determination and ambition to succeed, a meticulous account, as with her books, that never refuses a challenge.
And that ranges from doing the chores at home, gorging on strawberries and cream, dreadful plane crashes in the headlines, royalty, boring teachers and school exams, reading Virginia Woolf, going to the theatre and seeking jeans for her much envied 34-24-34 figure.
She finds physics and Latin dull – “I loath Caesar and his blooming battles,” young Margaret insists and when it comes to fellow pupils moans: “Jennifer S. had her lipstick on tonight – it didn’t look bad but I loath that muck & stuff. Mary Wills and Jennifer B had high heels on and looked dreadful… Give me socks, flat heels, no make up and teenage clothes any day!”
And “Parliament”, we discover, was a schoolgirl slang word for having a menstrual period.
Few of us deny our working-class roots. Indeed, it is the working class who have fought for justice and reform in society, in the same way they fought and died disgusting deaths in two World Wars to protect the flag-holders of privilege and profit. As in 1945, a Labour government went on to create the NHS and the welfare state.
No wonder Margaret Forster became a tireless campaigner for good causes after she went on to win an open scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, an event that made the front page of the Cumberland News.
As Hunter suggests in his moving introduction: “Her 1954 diary is part social history, and part character study. You can see her personality and opinions developing. She herself does not appear aware of this, and would have scoffed at the very suggestion, dismissing such people as soft, but by the end of the year her fellow pupils and some of the teachers do seem to be rather in awe of her.
“At the age of 16, she is showing clear signs of being clever and talented, a young woman with a mind of her own.”
Margaret received early fame for her novel Georgy Girl, written when she and Hunter had their first Hampstead home together in the Vale of Health, a triumph that unfortunately over-shadowed to much of her subsequent work.
Our gifted girl’s guide to growing up is an inspiration to others together with her refusal to be seduced by the decadent world of celebrity as she so bravely battled against cancer, all her work in scrupulous handwriting as she refused the lure of the typewriter and the dominance of technology.
Some of us have been here before, those at least born before the outbreak of the 1939 conflict with Germany and endured rationing, sweets in particular, as we sought and fought for a better life and can share Margaret’s adolescent emotions and desires.
So too can others now that Hunter has deposited Margaret’s 1954 diary and the earlier two, along with the scripts of all her books plus other papers in the British Library, and her later diaries will follow.
“It means anyone can go and look at the diaries, if just to admire the handwriting,” Hunter announces. “Goodness, wasn’t high school handwriting excellent in those far-off days…?”
• Diary of an Ordinary Schoolgirl. By Margaret Forster, Chatto and Windus, £10.99
Oh, how I miss her…
Hunter Davies and Margaret Forster
HUNTER Davies, who has written his own memoir that covers the death of his wife after 55 years of marriage, pined for her return at Christmas.
“I have so much to tell her, some of it soppy. How I miss her,” he says. “I was moaning about putting on weight and she said: ‘Stop it. You could lose it so easily – just give up all that wine.’ ‘No chance,’ I said.
“Since she died, I have doubled my intake, drinking for her as well as myself, a bottle a day at least, and yet, and yet, I have lost a stone. So I would just like to tell her: ‘You woz wrong, pet. Ha ha.’”
As he hopes to hire someone to cook for him, Hunter’s New Year wishes include: “No more celebrity cooks. Why do we not have celebrity plumbers or celebrity binmen? I just can’t see what is so special about chefs.
And he could do with a live-in computer expert. “The only time I ever shout and scream and get bad tempered is when I press the wrong key and stupid stuff appears on the screen which I can’t get rid of,” he explains. “I have all the gear, oh yes – a smartphone, Mac computer, new Apple laptop – but do I understand them? Do I heckers…”
• A Life in the Day. By Hunter Davies, Simon and Schuster, £16.99