I first started writing a journal twenty years ago when I was writing my first novel. At the beginning it was more of a writer’s notebook in which I jotted down ideas, scraps of conversations overheard on trains, anything that might one day end up in a story. Then it broadened out, particularly after the arrival of our daughter, when I wanted to record the things I knew I’d forget about life with a small child and the joys and challenges of motherhood. Some of that ended up in Stage Fright and Footfall, two of my Cassandra James mysteries, including for instance the time when, distracted by a furious toddler, I drove off with my handbag on the roof of my car.
I have two notebooks on the go at any one time, one for writing up at home and one for my handbag. At first I used whatever came to hand, and then I settled into using a black, hardback Moleskine notebook at home, and the most recent handbag notebook is a Leuchtturm1917, recommended by my writer friend Sue Hepworth. I am going to stick with those, because they have pages at the front for listing contents, which is something that I wish I had for my other notebooks. I am now on notebook 27 and there is an awful lot to trawl through if I want to find something and can’t quite remember where it is.
I don’t write in my journal every day – far from it. It is best to write it outside the house – sitting in a cafe, for instance. Not entirely sure why, but it is something to do with stepping aside from ordinary preoccupations for a while. It has to be hand-written. There is something about putting pen to paper that aids reflection.
I often refer to them. One example: I recently wrote a short story set near Cambridge during a heatwave. I wanted something to convey a sense of that. In one of my earliest notebooks I found a description of a farm lorry laden with hay bales lumbering along a road in the Fens: ‘Specks and stalks of chaff eddied behind it like sparks in the draught of a bonfire.’ That was just what I needed. Whenever I start a new novel or want an idea for a short story, it’s an invaluable resource.
My husband, the architectural historian and critic, Peter Blundell Jones, died in August 2016. It all happened very fast. I didn’t think to ask him where he wanted his archive to go and he didn’t leave any instructions in his will. It is an important body of material. In the course of his career Peter had interviewed leading architects all over Europe, taken millions of photographs, and kept all the research material for the books he had written. After a lot of thought and consultation with the children, I decided it should go to the University of Sheffield. The School of Architecture had been his academic home for the last twenty-two years of his life and it was where he had consolidated his reputation. He was happy there and was loved and respected. I felt confident that this was the right place.
It was, however, just the beginning of my job as Peter’s literary executor. Over the last year I have been preparing his archive for transfer to the university and that has been no small task. It wasn’t just that there was a huge amount of material – Peter kept EVERYTHING – but it was completely unfiltered. His correspondence was particularly problematic as it was ordered simply in chronological order, the personal mingling with the professional. Peter kept almost every scrap of correspondence, however trivial. One of the first letters in a box that I opened at random was from my lovely late mother-in-law thanking us for cooking Christmas dinner. I had to go through everything, picking out letters too personal to go into the archive, right back to the 1960s, years and years before I met him. I have had through my hands virtually every letter that Peter ever received. He often kept copies of letters that he sent, so sometimes I saw the other side of the correspondence, too. I began to feel like someone in a story by Borges, living someone’s life by proxy, going further and further into the past, almost overwhelmed by the deluge of information.
I have finished now. Forty-eight boxes are waiting to go to the university when lockdown ends. It has been poignant – heart-breakingly so at times – but it has also been wonderful to relive our years together. I have a sense of the whole of Peter’s life and can see how rich and rewarding it was. As for me, my task has been a labour of love, and also a way of grieving.