Octavia Sheepshanks: Week 5

OCTAVIA is back, and this week, she talks about the diary she’s kept since the age of 6.

afterlife age childhood Clive Wearing columnists David Eagleman diary memory Octavia Sheepshanks self

As I write this, I am very jittery. I keep looking around in an agitated sort of way, and can’t seem to relax. But today I have consumed no coffee.

My frantic state is solely due to the fact that I haven’t written in my diary for nearly three weeks. With each new day that passes undocumented, I feel increasingly stressed. I regard my diary as similar to a really boring essay, the minimum word count of which increases with every day you put it off. You may be asking why I write one at all. And this, readers, is the question I have been trying to answer for myself this week.

It’s not just that I’m stressed when I haven’t had time to write it – I genuinely detest writing it. I’m not even happy when I’ve finally caught up on events and am up to date (or only in the way that you are contented if you’ve needed the loo for ages and you finally get the chance to go.) In fact, if I’ve had a particularly dull day at home, I am genuinely pleased that I won’t have to write anything in my diary as a result.

So why do I do it? Well, my mother and grandmother also write one, and so did my great-grandfather, which does make it feel rather special. And I’ve effectively recorded my whole life on paper from the age of 6, so it would be a shame to stop now. But I think the real reason goes a bit deeper.

You need only spend a moment thinking about what it would be like to forget everything, and you realise how vital your memories are. This clip of Clive Wearing, the man with the worst case of short-term memory loss ever recorded, illuminates this:

I would also recommend Christopher Nolan’s Memento; Inception pales in comparison.

As a result of my diary, I have a whole selection of memories that I would otherwise have forgotten. And, humiliating as it is to flick through what I wrote between the ages of 12 and, well, 19, it’s hilarious too. Here is a personal highlight from 16th August 2000:

‘Today I sqirted some soap in my eye and I cannot rememer anything else because I had to shut my eyes and scream.’ [sic]

It’s strange that our need to record memories on camera is threatening to take over our lives, but that keeping a diary to this extent is pretty rare. And although I make it sound time-consuming, it’s only bad when I don’t write it; five minutes a day is pretty easy if you keep your diary by your bed.

In David Eagleman’s book ‘Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives’, Eagleman considers forty possible ways in which an afterlife could exist. Each story bestows you with a new way of thinking about how we live now. And paradoxically, the more you read, the more undesirable the concept of any sort of afterlife begins to seem.

One of my favourite stories in the collection, ‘Prism’, envisages an afterlife in which everyone is present in all their ages at once. The different yous have less in common with each other than you’d imagine, and drift apart, only convening occasionally in meetings which resemble awkward family reunions.

It is then that the complex identity of the person you were on Earth becomes clear. The earthly you is utterly lost, unpreserved in the afterlife. You were all those ages, the yous conclude sadly, and you were none.

Even if you only write a page in your diary every now and again, I cannot recommend it enough. The trials and tribulations of an extra chore in your life are outweighed threefold by the incredible and bizarre feeling of experiencing a snapshot of yourself from the past.