A diary of diaries - 2015


Today for the first time I got the same view of Shipton-under-Wychwood’s church spire that Siegfried Sassoon described in his diary a century ago: ’Written on a grey evening at 8.15 at Shipton station, with a south-west breeze blowing and the country very quiet. A long line of willows and narrow stream by the station ... Shipton spire half a mile off among dark-green trees.’ A flour mill now blocks the view from the station platform where Sassoon stood on 12 August 1916, on leave from the trenches on the Western Front – but if you cross over to the mill shop, you’ll find that the view has barely changed.



Diary entries engraved on brass plaques underneath 400-year-old hunting trophies at Ditchley House … ‘1610 August 22 Wednesday. In Henly Knap to hunt me/King James, Prince Henry found me/Cornebury Parke River to end their hunting drownd me.’ ‘1610 August 25 Saturday. From foxehole drive what could I doe being lame I fell/before the king & prince, neere Rozamond her well.’



Next to a portrait of Sir Joseph Banks at Tate Britain’s ‘Artist and Empire’ exhibition, there’s Banks’s exhortation to Britons everywhere to become ‘recorders, artists, diarists’ of the natural world. Elsewhere in the exhibition are the visual diaries kept by Olivia Frances Tonge on her travels through India in the early years of the 20th century.



I found a portrait of the diarist George James Dew (1846–1928) in the picture gallery of the Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock today. As a young man Dew was ridiculed by the ‘impudent & rude’ villagers of Lower Heyford where he lived. ‘They make remarks on seeing me so often sitting at the table in my bedroom,’ the teenaged Dew wrote on 14 July 1863. ‘One says “he’s always up there”, another “that’s his study”, another “I wonder what he wants up there always”, another “he’s been up there all day”, another “he’s writing” … It is far from pleasing.’



News of the death of Robert Craft at the age of 92 – diarist, and Igor Stravinsky’s amanuensis and surrogate son. Stravinsky didn’t keep a diary himself, but Craft’s ‘Dialogues and a Diary’ is the next best thing.



All train services to Paddington are terminating at Reading – ‘A Much-Maligned Town’, according to a book from the Two Rivers Press that I find in the museum there. The book quotes diarists such as John Byng and James Woodforde, as well as Francis de la Rochefoucauld, who visited Reading in March 1785 and declared that ‘This town abounds in inns, and I daresay that the worst would be found excellent in other parts of the country.’



The diaries of the artist Monica Rawlins (1903–90) are being dramatised on Radio 4 this week. After a long period of brooding about the past, Monica Rawlins is told by a neighbour that ‘What’s interesting is what is happening right here, right now.’ And she makes a resolution: ‘From now on, I’m writing only about the present.’



At the new Jean-Etienne Liotard exhibition at the Royal Academy, there’s a reference to the now-lost diary of Liotard’s eldest son. The mention of a lost diary is always tantalising … There always seems to be the chance that one day it’ll reappear.



At the Fine Press Book Fair in Oxford – coming across Francis van Maele’s funny and touching ‘Paper Cup Diary: Seoul, Summer 2005’ – the story of a burgeoning friendship told through a combination of beautiful poetic diary entries, and photographs of decorative paper cups gathered along the way. ‘Exit 3 ..’ it begins. ‘Still 30 minutes until I meet her .. sitting on the little red brick wall .. together we will meet the bookbinding teacher.’ Equally beautiful, at the adjoining stall, is ‘Picture Diary in Venice’ by van Maele’s partner Antic-Ham. ‘When I was taking a picture of the house across the canal, my umbrella which I put behind me flew into the water by the wind.’



One of the exhibits in the New Bodleian’s mini-exhibition devoted to Ada Lovelace – pioneer of the computer, and daughter of the poet Lord Byron – is the manuscript diary kept by Ada’s governess, Miss Lamont, in 1821. It begins: ‘Monday, May 14. Commenced giving instructions to Miss Byron. Had been with her from Saturday and observed her earnest wish to begin lessons, and her desire to have a great number of different lessons. – The first trial was in arithmetic – She adds up sums of five or six rows of figures, with accuracy.’ Ada was five years old.



I’ve just heard of the death of the art historian and broadcaster James Malpas, who came up to Magdalene College, Cambridge, at the same time as me, in October 1977 – his obituary in the Guardian says that ‘He was an occasional poet and frequent letter-writer, and kept diaries on a Pepysian scale.



In the Jardin des Plantes in Paris this afternoon, I remember suddenly that it was here in January 1847 that the painter Eugène Delacroix was inspired to resume his diary after a 15-year gap: ‘I am writing this by my fireside, feeling very glad that I stopped to buy this notebook on my way home. I am beginning it on an auspicious day. I hope that I shall long continue to keep a record of my impressions. I shall often realise the advantage of noting down my impressions in this way; they grow deeper as one recalls them.’ Delacroix was to keep a diary for the rest of his life



Two of Ernest Shepard’s pocket diaries are on display at a new exhibition at the House of Illustration in London, ‘E.H. Shepard: An Illustrator’s War’. The first diary is open at May 1916, with the entry where Shepard discovers for the first time that his regiment may be about to cross the Channel to the Western Front – ‘Go to France?’ The second diary is open at December 1918, when he has just met a wounded American serviceman in Italy (‘an awfully good sort’), and an entry is made in an unfamiliar hand: ‘Ernest M. Hemingway, 600 Kenilworth Avenue, Oak Park, Chicago – West, Illinois, Tel. 181.’



Three diary entries quoted on the temporary facade of the Banqueting House, Whitehall: John Evelyn describing Oliver Cromwell in his coffin (1658), the Restoration of Charles II (1660) and the burning down of Whitehall Palace (1698)



Looking at the beautiful art journal that Charlotte produced in 2010-11 – words and drawings, as exquisite as an illuminated medieval manuscript.



At the little museum in the Georgian dovecote in Eardisland, Herefordshire, a copy of the 1st Hereford’s First World War diary: ‘1 Sept. 1915. Quiet day. At 7.30 pm Turks opened up artillery fire on the 29 Div manning trenches at Kiretch Teppi and Jephson’s Post 135TG.’ Later, passing through Leominster, where my great grandfather was born, I think of his diaries, my grandfather’s and my father’s, and wonder if I’m genetically a slave to their routines ... Can the urge to keep a diary be transmitted through our genes?



Today’s news item about the death of the art critic Brian Sewell says that he burnt his diaries. It would have been great to know what they said about the events of November 1979 when he was sheltering his friend Anthony Blunt, who had just been unmasked as a Soviet spy. I was editing the Cambridge University student newspaper ‘Stop Press’ at the time, and somehow someone managed to get hold of Brian Sewell’s phone number and called him up. ‘I know Sir Anthony isn’t talking to the national press,’ he said, ‘but I wonder if he’d be prepared to say a word to his old university’s student paper.’ To our amazement, Brian Sewell really did go off to ask, before returning with a no.



The documentary ‘Cobain: Montage of Heck’ – which I watch on a transatlantic flight – beautifully illustrates the contradictions inherent in the act of keeping a private diary ... ‘Don’t read my diary when I’m gone,’ Kurt Cobain wrote in a note to his then girlfriend Tracy Marander. ‘When you wake up, please read my diary. Look through my things and figure me out.’



Sandwiched between L for Lydon and M for Malala, my friend Will McLellan’s book stares back at me when I come across it unexpectedly in the Biography section of the bookshop at Heathrow ... Will’s inspirational memoir ‘How I Got into Art School’ is based on the pictorial diaries that he kept in Barcelona’s notorious Modelo prison in 1972-73.



A young Italian waiter at Eat on the South Bank, telling a female customer ‘By the way, I’m a bit of a creep – whenever I see an interesting face, on the tube or on the street, I take a photo discreetly and post it on my blog ... I’ll send you a link. Many hotpots!’



One of the world’s most famous living diarists, Malala Yousafzai, in the news today because of her string of A* and A grades in her GCSEs – they’re probably more important to her right now than her Nobel Peace Prize.



Another plaque – this time a home-made one, blue-tacked to a wall at the top of the Watergate Stairs by the Thames at Mortlake: ‘John Dee’s son Arthur met with an unfortunate accident here, July 1582.’ Back home I check the reference in my own edition of John Dee’s diaries: ‘I July. Hor. 12¼. Arthur Dee fell from the top of the Watergate Stairs down to the foot from the top, and cut his forehead, on the right eyebrow.’ Dee made a point of recording all sorts of accidents in the hope that he might find a correlation between their occurrence and the positions of the planets.



Cycling in the Oxfordshire countryside today, I come across a plaque in Wootton church, commemorating the marriage of Francis Kilvert to Elizabeth Anne Rowland here in August 1879. I used to think of Kilvert as one of my favourite diarists, because of his brilliant descriptive powers, but it’s easy to see why he’s fallen out of fashion ... Re-reading his diaries on the train just now I started feeling quite sleazy, and had to put the book away.



It’s the seventieth anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and sixty years since the publication of Michihiko Hachiya’s extraordinary ‘Hiroshima Diary’, which I start re-reading to try and find a passage that highlights its importance. Hachiya was well aware of the uniqueness of his situation. ‘We had no microscope, no laboratory reagents, and no laboratory,’ he wrote, ‘but what history and clinical finding we could record might one day be important. Nowhere before in the history of the world had a people been subjected to the devastating effects of an atomic bomb.’



Composer and performer Jocelyn Pook is on BBC Radio 3, talking about her new video opera ‘Hearing Voices’. She says that ‘The inspiration for the piece started with my great aunt, who had a breakdown in the late 1930s, was incarcerated in an asylum for twenty-five years, and wrote a diary during the course of her breakdown – trying to make sense of what was happening to her.’



I like the blurb on the back of a book called book ‘101 Artists to Listen to Before You Die’, in Blackwell’s Art Bookshop in Oxford today ... ‘Here is Ricardo Cavolo’s diary. It is a diary about music. It is a journal of illustration. It is a celebration of sound in colour.’



A letter from my former teaching colleague, Katsuhiro Yasuda, in Japan: ‘Recently I have visited Fukuoka City Museum to see the exhibition titled “The World of Sakubei Yamamoto”,’ Mr Yasuda writes. Sakubei Yamamoto was a coalminer and night watchman, who ‘began drawing and painting the coal mines in order to keep his experiences in his memory ... On May 25, 2011, Sakubei’s collection of paintings and diaries was granted the world heritage status.’



Neurologist Oliver Sacks’s autobiography ‘On the Move’ is this week’s Book of the Week on Radio 4. ‘I started keeping journals when I was fourteen,’ Sacks reveals, ‘and at the last count had nearly a thousand. My journals are not written for others, but they are a special indispensable form of talking to myself.’



Suede’s keyboard player Neil Codling talking on the radio about the online music research project Harkive, which gathers stories about the music that people listen to on a particular day each year ... ‘Am I changing what I usually listen to, knowing that it’s all going in a listening diary?’ Codling asks. ‘Isn’t that the essence of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle? I’m not sure.’



Musician Marvin B. Naylor on the radio, talking about his blog ‘Diary of a busker’, which he’s been keeping since April 2011 – mainly about the people he encounters and how much they give him. Later another musician, Miles Hunt, is talking about his book ‘The Wonder Stuff Diaries ’86–’89’. ‘Writing this book has been the most difficult thing I have ever done,’ Hunt says on his website. ‘I feel that I have emerged from doing so an ever so slightly better person.’


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