A diary of diaries - 2016


Last week I received the sad news of the death of Ann Noble, who was the great neice of the diarist Henry Peerless, and who helped me so much with my edition of Henry Peerless's diaries ('A Brief Jolly Change'). Ann provided me with many useful photographs and a full family tree, and introduced me to her father, Robert Peerless, who was one of the last surviving people who still remembered Henry Peerless. Today I went to Kew Green for her funeral, and one thing I discovered from her son Jake's moving tribute was that she delighted in all sorts of games: something she clearly had in common with her great uncle.



I'm not aware that the painter Mick Rooney is a diarist, but in conversation with me today he mentioned three painters who are: Eugene Delacroix, Josef Herman and John Olsen. He also talked about the new James Ensor exhibition at the Royal Academy - Walter Sickert pilgrimages in Dieppe with Carel Weight - and then thanked me for 'letting me go on about art'. 'No,' I said, 'I was just thinking I ought to be writing all this down!'



It's a hundred years today since Collingwood Ingram - later to become a world-renowned horticulturist - crossed the Channel for the first time on his way to the Great War. In his diary - published by Day Books under the title 'Wings over the Western Front' - he describes the 'khaki-clad men wearing life-belts', but as always his main interest was in the birdlife: gulls over the Channel, jackdaws, rooks and blackbirds outside his billet at St-Omer. 'A party of a dozen long-tailed tits passed through the upper tracery of leafless boughs; robins, chaffinches and goldcrests were all denizens of the garden and are as friendly as in England.'



There are three manuscript diaries on display in the V&A's current exhibition 'You Say You Want a Revolution: Records and Rebels 1966-1970'. Woody Guthrie's diary is open at his entry for 27-28 March 1944, where he writes that his guitar has a sign that he painted on it saying 'This machine kills fascists'. George Harrison's diary is open at 1 April 1967 - 'Recorded Sgt. Pepper's lonely hearts club band past 2 - and there's also music fan John Marveille's diary from the Woodstock Festival, August 1969. The hastily scrawled opening entries are barely legible, so I wonder what his writing was like by the end?



On BBC Radio 4's 'Front Row' this evening there was a feature about the creator of Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren. Author Meg Rosoff described her as 'a meticulous diarist ... During the Second World War she filled notebook after notebook with newspaper clippings and personal observations on the conflict, and now these diaries have been published in English for the first time', under the title 'A World Gone Mad'. Meg Rosoff said that the diaries reveal 'this incredible compulsion to write', which pre-dates any of her fiction: 'There was something clearly that was driving her to record daily life and the life of her family and what was going on in the world, and it seemed to culminate in the writing of fiction.' And when Astrid Lindgren's daughter Karin Nyman asked Meg Rosoff who her mother was writing the diaries for, Meg Rosoff replied: 'They were for you.'



One of the items on display in the 'Punk' exhibition at the Museum of London at the moment is the pocket diary kept by former punk hairdresser Selena Quirke, detailing 'gigs, parties, teenage rows and romances'. On 10 May 1977, after a riotous Clash concert, the Evening Standard featured a photo of Selena under the headline 'We Wanna Riot'. She was thrilled. 'In papers, front pg,' she wrote. 'Millions of people phoned.'



I went to the Guildhall Art Gallery in London today, and found Robert Hooke's diary for the years 1672-83 on display there, recording thousands of site visits that Hooke made during the rebuilding work after the Great Fire of 1666. A label in the display case says that the diary was inscribed in the 'UNESCO UK Memory of the World' list for 2014, so immediately I wanted to know more, and to discover what else features in the list. I've found that it contains at least two other diaries: those of Dorothy Wordsworth (her 'Grasmere Journal'), and the diaries of Anne Lister.



There are currently at least four manuscript diaries on display in the John Ritblatt gallery of the British Library, which I visited today - by Robert Falcon Scott, the writer Hanif Kureishi, the comic actor Kenneth Williams, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart's musical diary is perhaps the most unusual: his personal record of his compositions in the last seven years of his life. On the left-hand page he entered the date and title of each work, and on the right he wrote the opening bars. Tantalisingly, there are entries for a number of compositions that have since been lost.



I understand from today's edition of BBC Radio 4's 'Broadcasting House' that David Cameron spends 20 minutes every evening dictating an audio diary into a dictaphone. I hope it's a proper diary, which talks not just about great events but also about such things as his family and what he does in his spare time - and perhaps even about how he came along to Charlbury Street Fair yesterday, where he bought a brick from me for Charlbury's new Community Centre. I don't expect that that'll end up in the autobiography that he's said to be writing - but it's the sort of thing that should be there in his diary, at least.



Was Queen Victoria the most prolific diarist in history? Yes, according to Daisy Goodwin, writer of ITV's new drama series 'Victoria', who says that during her long life she committed 62 million words to her private journals. That's 50 per cent more than the diarist recently identified by Alexander Masters in his book 'A Life Discarded', who in turn was almost twice as prolific as the official record-holder (according to 'The Guinness Book of Records'), Edward Robb Ellis.



I went to see the new film 'Ingrid Bergman in her own words' at the Phoenix in Oxford today, because I'd heard that it draws largely on the diaries - her 'Dagbok' - that the great actress kept from her childhood onwards. The film reveals not just that she was a wonderful diarist, but also that her third husband, Lars Schmidt, kept a diary too ... One of Ingrid Bergman's many home movies shows him busy writing it.



How many bands can there be that came into existence as a result of a diary? On the main stage at the Wilderness Festival tonight I saw the Crystal Fighters, who according to the programme 'were formed after singer Laure recovered a diary of her deceased reclusive grandfather's while visiting his Basque country home. Inside his notebook was the skeleton of an incomplete opera, with what would become the future band's name as its title. Intent on completing the work and honoring her grandfather's legacy, she returned to London' - and, with the help of friends, Laure 'researched and worked to finish the opera. Along the way ... the band was born.'



By chance I was in Brighton today, on Henry and Amelia Peerless's 125th wedding anniversary. Henry Peerless's diary starts with them setting off on their honeymoon: 'Under a fierce fusillade of old boots (one of which knocked the cigar out of my mouth) we jumped into a cab, which drew up to the door of 6 St Margaret's Place, Brighton.'

So I did a little Peerless pilgrimage this afternoon: to St Margaret's Place, to St Nicholas's Church (where they were married) and to the Extra Mural Cemetery, where they're buried. it was quite startling to come across their graves for the first time, and at last to be able to present the author with a copy of his book.



I've just been reminded by Royal London that it was John Dee's birthday today ... As a notice in today's papers says, 'One of the most extraordinary and enigmatic figures of Tudor England was born on this day in 1527.'



I discovered today that my former Stop Press colleague Andrew Marr is a diarist ... He kept a detailed diary in the run-up to the second Iraq War



I've just received four copies of Academia's Czech language edition of 'The Diaries of John Dee' ('Deniky Johna Deeho') - the first book of mine to be translated into another language. It's a strange feeling - but also thrilling - to see my words in a language that I can't begin to understand.



Michael Palin was on Radio 3 today, talking about the latest volume of his diaries to be published. His advice is 'Write it down. No day is ever wasted if you keep a diary.'



One of the great uses of a diary is to record firsts. The diary of a young sailor named Herbert Schueffler is a prime example of this. His manuscript diary from 1932-33 is on display in the 'Passat', the last sailing ship to be built in Germany, and which is currently moored in Travemuende on the Baltic coast, which I visited today. 'My first work on board was cleaning the pigsty,' Herbert wrote on 24 May 1932. Five days later, 'At night with a Finnish seaman, I stand for the first time at the wheel.' And on 2 July, 'The first time diving into the South Atlantic.' There are quotations from the diary all round the ship.



To the Wellcome Institute in London, to see a talk by the embroiderer - and creator of 'The Stitch Lives of London' - Rosalind Wyatt. Her most recent piece, 'A Life Restored', consists of an autobiographical poem by the mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin, which  she has stitched on to the tee shirt which he was wearing at the time of his suicide attempt in 2008. Rosalind Wyatt also showed us one of Jonny Benjamin's diaries from the same time, which she described as 'worth its weight in gold'.



Listening to Samira Ahmed on BBC Radio 4, interviewing the writer Alexander Masters. Masters's new book 'A Life Discarded' is a true story about the discovery of 148 diary volumes which had been consigned to a skip. While Masters found out a great deal about the diarist's life, he never discovered the writer's identity, and his biggest fear was that the person might turn out to be someone famous. 'Someone who's not famous is more likely to share experiences which I understand,' Alexander Masters said. And Samira Ahmed revealed that she too is a diarist - she has kept a diary for the past 30 years.



Listening to Radio 3 this evening, I discovered something new about the diaries of Robert Schumann ... After moving to Dusseldorf in 1850, the great romantic composer wrote in his diary that he believed that his new apartment was the source of his increasingly bad moods: his 'house anger', as he called it.



To the RCA Secret exhibition in Kensington today ... There are lots of references to Bowie and other musical icons, and one of the postcards on display consists of a hand-written diary entry: 'Tokyo 30.1.2016. Today I went to see the Yoko Ono exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. She was born in 1933, the same year as my grandmother. They both had to leave their homes because of war, but that's about as much as they have in common.'



Another musical diarist: the 19th century English Romantic composer William Sterndale Bennett, whose unpublished manuscript diaries were being discussed today on BBC Radio 3. His great-great-grandson Barry Sterndale Bennett described them as 'spontaneous, intimate, often very amusing, and self-deprecating' - in fact all the things that a good diary should be. Bennett was also a friend of two other musical diarists, Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, and sometimes their diary entries overlap.



I visited my mother in London today, and she gave me a diary that I started keeping when I was six years old ... I'd forgotten all about it, but I still had quite clear memories of some of the things mentioned in it - perhaps because I wrote them down all those years ago.



There's a wonderful exhibition of the work of Hungarian-born designer Tibor Reich at the Whitworth in Manchester right now ... Tibor Reich was studying in Vienna when it was overrun by the Nazis, so he headed to England and enrolled at Leeds University. One of the exhibits shows drawings from his 1937 'Diary of London and Leeds', full of architectural drawings and the faces of people he encountered on the way.

Also reading about Paul Buchler's exhibition here in 2013, and 'his series of over-written diary pages ..., one month to a page, each day further obliterating the content of the last'.



I love Eugene Delacroix the diarist perhaps more than Delacroix the artist, so it's funny to discover - at the National Gallery's new Delacroix exhibition - that it was the publication of his diaries after his death that perhaps did more than anything else 'to seal his position as a key figure in the rise of modern art'.



The Globe Theatre's outgoing artistic director Dominic Dromgoole was on Radio 4 this evening, pouring scorn on the idea that it's somehow wrong for the Globe to be a tourist attraction. 'It's nonsense! The basis that we have for understanding what the Globe would have been is a diary entry, and a sketch, from the early 17th century. The diary entry is by a Swiss, and the sketch is by a German - so 400 years ago London was a European city full of European visitors - and the Globe was built to play to those European visitors.'



Passing the statue of polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott on Waterloo Place near Buckingham Palace today, I find myself wondering if any other statue in the world has an inscription featuring a diary entry. Later I discover that it's not unique - on a statue in Christchurch, New Zealand, a diary entry was used for the inscription - but again, it's Scott's. Can there be anyone else?



Today would have been the one hundredth birthday of Holocaust survivor, actress and diarist Hana Pravda - and it's also the anniversary of her escape from the notorious Nazi Death March of January 1945. Re-reading her account (which I published in June 2000), I'm struck again by how close she came to being recaptured ... What became of the soldier who let her slip away, I wonder, and what of the family who let her hide in their house?



On a nostalgia trip, walking round the little patch of North London where I used to live and work, and noticing blue plaques commemorating Beatrice Webb, Sigmund Freud, Arnold Bennett and Benjamin Robert Haydon - socialist, psychoanalyst, storyteller and suicide - and diarists all.



The diary entry as art, in the New Ashmolean, Oxford ... Diary drawings by John Vernon Lord in his book 'Drawn to Drawing', and exquisite Chinese calligraphy in the Khoan and Michael Sullivan room: 'Sunday 27 August 1972. Professor Michael Sullivan and his wife came to visit and I asked them to stay for dinner. Szechwan clear soup and "Lion head" meatball.'



Young woman looking at diaries in the new Kikki-K shop in Covent Garden today, and telling her friends: 'She'd literally like comment on things that were in there. I'd be like, "How do you know that? You've been reading my diary!"'



At the National Portrait Gallery today, coming across Judy Cassab’s portrait of my grandfather’s former Labour Party colleague Hugh Gaitskell … I wonder if Gaitskell – himself a diarist – knew that Judy Cassab was a diarist too. I discovered her wonderful diaries when I was in Australia fifteen years ago.

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