On ending without end, a diary thought

On ending without end, a diary thought

Working on the 67 years of Forbes diary, as we have been doing for the last many weeks now in order to construct a database of summarised and transcribed entries for every year and every entry in every year, has been a very immersive experience. It is difficult not to feel that the activities of the Forbes and the to-ing and fro-ing of workers on their farm estate, Athole, and the celebrations and tribulations of these African peasant farmers, all of whom I know by name and read about their lives unfolding, are about as real as the material world in which these diary pages are being read and turned into ‘a database’. The ploughing and hoeing and the counts of hamels and weights of wool, not to mention the illicit poaching of buck by local Boer farmers and occasional eruptions of events elsewhere like wars and strikes and rebellions, the illnesses and deaths of neighbouring farmers, the local first appearances of telephones and motor cars, are fascinating and engrossing.

Standing back from this detail and its day-on-day unfolding, something interesting about time and sequence starts to come into view.

In thinking about this, two books come to mind. ‘World without End or Beginning’ is a chapter title in Frank Kermode’s very influential The Sense of an Ending. And The Sense of an Ending is the title of an equally influential Booker Prize-winning novel by Julian Barnes. In a nutshell and ignoring subtleties and alternative interpretations, Kermode’s literary theory/criticism is concerned with how endings are accomplished in different forms of writing and are neatly imposed on things that are actually characterised by flux and untidiness; and Barnes’ novel, deliberately drawing on the earlier Kermode book, is about the gaps between memory and occurrence because endings do not happen in a sharply delineated ‘the end’ way, and events in his novel feature among other things a diary and a letter, things produced ‘then’ which return and problematise ‘now’.

So why and how do the Forbes diary, and these ideas about the accomplishment of ends out of the untidiness of lives, come together? Well, it occurs because in a sense they do not come together in critical and theoretical writing about diaries, although they do in this actual diary.

In spite of some distinguished theorising about endings and diaries by Philip Lejeune and others, actual diaries in the South African context of ordinary folk who write diaries, do not have an ‘ending’ in the Kermode sense, for there is no drawing things together or preparing for the cessation of entries. Mark Elliot Pringle’s diary, kept from 1911 to 1960, simply stops. The Joseph Stirk journal, written from 1848 to 1854, just stops. Thomas Groom’s diaries from 1870 to 1902 just stop. The various Parkinson family diaries kept over different periods from the late 19th through to the middle 20th century, simply stop. And in the Forbes case, the successive day-on-day of this diary traverses a 67 year period from 1850 to the first few months of 1918, with the last diary simply stopping with the sense that there probably was another volume or volumes no longer extant. Kate Forbes had sent away for a 1918 diary but which had not yet arrived, so she continued writing anyway using spare pages at the back and then the front of the 1917 diary. The last four entries that are extant are:

February 18th 1918 Monday
Dave left for Sheepmoor the oxen ran away again last night got the at the Crystal Koppies Kopoy & family left but something went wrong with the motor so they took the oxen on they were a long time at the spruit There were storms alround some showers here

Temp 70 – 58 – 10 – S E
Rain 0.03


February 19th 1918 Tuesday
Have a bad cold don’t know what is going on

Temp 69 – 58 – 10 – S E


February 20th 1918 Wednesday
Dave returned yesterday afternoon after trucking the oxen, he says there was a big storm up on Bankop way when he got to the Umbaama it was just crossable by putting a long reins on the mules & the Kafirs on this side to pull them through & prevent them going down stream. One of the oxen got lame at Musingwania & had to be left Mr Jordaan sent a note to say the Sheepmoor people rung him up to send us ?over 1 ox jumped out of the truck somewhere on the berg I think ?maurrust and asks us to send & look for it but Dave says if it is alright it will come home or it may be hurt & die in some out of the way place so no use sending Dave found a leak in the ?race of the dip he cant find any in the dip itself he mended it.

Temp 74 – 58 – 10 – Calm Rain
Small Cogwheel for mowing machine M 635 (goes on ?driving rod)


February 21st 1918 Thursday
Temp – 70 – 60 – 10 – S –
Rain 1.66

[Diary, Forbes Collection, National Archives of South Africa, Pretoria, WWW database transcriptions]

Did the 1918 diary finely turn up from Durban months late?? Was there some other reason why no further entries were recorded? Was there another separate volume or volumes that have been lost to time? Impossible to tell.

However, one thing is sure. In spite of the distinguished theorising, diary-entries are all about ending. Ending is in fact an overwhelming characteristic of the form, of ‘the diary’ as such. Every entry has its ending; every entry has another entry following. Until …  Rain 1.66 … it just stops.

Putting on one side the more focused earlier Forbes volumes, and just considering those written from 1902 to February 1918, these 16 year-diaries on average have 360 or so entries, and so approximately 5800 in total. There are 5800 beginnings to entries, and the entries themselves – but there are also 5800 endings to be reckoned with as well. The sense of ever-recurrent ending is part and parcel of the entries for any diary kept over successive days. It is something that occurs on a day-by-day basis, one after the other after the other. There is no sense of dealing with impending death as part of the human condition that Kermode is concerned with theorising in relation to the writing of endings. There is no sense that the end of a diary can also be the end of a life and which hangs over how diary-writers deal with coming to conclusion, as in Lejeune’s discussion.

More like Barnes’s account, ending in the Forbes and other diaries mentioned above is more ordinary, more humdrum, more quotidian in the sense of being a part of things, and repeatedly and successively and sequentially so. The end of the day comes when the writer has done with writing what they want to record. And this is usually ‘record’ in the literal sense of the word, in them writing in a pared-down form the main activities and occurrences in a way seen as providing a factually mimetic account. And the end of the day comes repeatedly and repeatedly and repeatedly, in the Forbes case some 5800 times, and when taking into account the more fragmentary earlier diaries written from 1850 to 1901, then more than 10000 times.

These endings are everywhere and always present, for this is what diary-writing is all about. It is in essence a form of writing concerned with bringing the day to some kind of ending, drawing it to a close, but with close not bringing closure.

Last updated:  29 August 2019