Early on New Year's Day, I fired off a short Tweet linking to a new blog containing just 81 words and began some kind of resolution to a maddening 13-year writing quest. Such is the modern way.
The blog – www.olivesdiary1914.com – contains the first entry in a diary written by a 16-year-old English girl called Olive Higgins. She was the much-loved and only daughter of an eminent hotelier called Thomas Higgins, who founded The Hydro ‘health hotel’ in Margate in 1904. It was frequented by the great and the good of high society for many years.
On 2 January 1914, Olive set off with her new diary to Paris to study at a leading school on the Left Bank. Tragically, eight weeks later she became gravely ill and died. There was considerable drama in her last days, with a doctor to the British Royal Family trying to save her.
Olive’s diary was given to me in what seemed providential circumstances in March 2001. Inside the diary were two immaculately preserved newspaper cuttings, one announcing Olive’s death, and the other giving a detailed report of her heavily attended funeral.
The cuttings revealed an incredible coincidence: Olive was buried in a cemetery in the same South London street where I was born, and the same cemetery I used to stare at in bemusement as a boy years later when my grandfather moved into a flat overlooking the gravestones. That startling connection galvanised an obsession to write about Olive’s long-forgotten life.
I abandoned my journalism career for many years to research and write a book about her story. Two extended stays in Paris ensued and lengthy manuscripts, in varying genres, were produced with due angst, in the requisite garret-style seclusion. It's not as much fun as you might hope.
Somewhere in the many boxes of my material on this story, I have an envelope with a few rejection letters from publishers about that first book. I can’t claim to have dozens because, once I got a few, I began re-working the book entirely, and so the process began again. I even wrote a half-decent film script. Half being the operative word.
Ceremoniously, every New Year I have opened a new Desktop Folder with the title ‘Olive’s Diary’ plus the new date. This year is no different. As recently as last year, I had discussions with my literary agent and a book editor or two about my latest take on Olive’s story, but a publishing deal is as far away as ever. Put simply, I have prolifically written myself into knots, whilst going in circles in a dead end.
Then, a few weeks ago, it suddenly struck me that the 100th anniversary of Olive’s diary would arrive in 2014. If ever there was a time for something to be published it was now. Or never.
I opened Olive a Twitter account, as you do, for the ghost in your life, then built the blog. And now, in real time a century on, her words will echo again, just as they were written, without any interjections from me.
Her diary only lasts 42 days and contains little more than 5,000 words, but there is a frozen, timeless beauty in any diary and in just a few sentences Olive takes you to Paris with her during what were to be the last throes of La Belle Epoque.
There will be countless commemorations this year for the events of 1914. Many will contain diaries and stories of heartbreaking loss and heroism. In comparison, the death of Olive Higgins may well pale into insignificance. Yet, her story still moves me deeply. It has been a benevolent haunting in my life. Maybe her diary will touch you, too.
Read Olive’s Diary at www.olivesdiary1914.com or follow on Twitter at @olivesdiary1914.
Rob McGibbon is a freelance journalist who writes the weekly interview column The Definite Article for the Daily Mail. Follow Rob on Twitter @robmcgibbon.