A diary of diaries - 2017
TUESDAY 1 AUGUST
I went to the British Museum today to meet Dr Irving Finkel. He is very excited about a coded diary which one of his 'trusty recruits' discovered in a skip, and which he has managed to decipher. The diarist, Allan W. Cliffe, was a friend of Elizabeth Barrett (later Browning), whose own diary for 1831 contains many cross-references to their circle of acquaintances.
Today Irving remarked on how few coded diaries there are ... Anne Lister's
WEDNESDAY 5 JULY
To Somerset House for their exhibition 'Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and their Digital Descendants'. I should have guessed that the Great Diary Project would be behind it - in fact I think I even recognised some of the exhibits from Dr Irving Finkel's core collection, and I half expected to come across some of the diaries kept by my grandfather and uncle, which my mother donated to the archive.
Sometimes I find exhibitions and books about diaries a bit predictable, but there was a great deal here that was new to me ... The idea of cuneiform tablets, with their information on the sun, moon and stars, as the precursor to modern appointments diaries, which still include information on lunar and solar movements - the fact that the word 'diary' in English only dates back to 1581 - and the idea of most diaries being 'paratactic', i.e. giving equal weight to a whole range of diverse subjects, regardless of how important they really are. My favourite such example comes from the diary of Pauline Baynes, illustrator of the Narnia books, who wrote after meeting the author for the first time: 'Met C.S. Lewis. Came home. Made rock cakes.'
SATURDAY 3 JUNE
There was a bookbinders' end-of-term party this afternoon, and our host David brought up the subject of ordinary people's diaries ... 'How many years have to elapse,' he asked, 'before the diaries of ordinary people become interesting?' It turned out that he has several decades' worth of his late aunt's diaries.
One of the other guests inevitably raised the question of what one does with old diaries, so I took the opportunity to mention Irving Finkel and the Great Diary Project. I was pleased to discover how many people there happened to know about Irving and his amazing work.
TUESDAY 18 APRIL
I went to the British Museum today to see their new display 'Moving stories: three journeys', which tells the universal story of the migration of peoples in a very personal way. One of the central exhibits is a sketchbook entitled 'Ali's Boat Diary I', by the Iraqi artist Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, 'which tells the story of a young boy wishing to escape the horrors of present-day Iraq'.
I find it interesting that galleries and museums are at the forefront of a strong and new reaction against the mainstream media's hostility towards innocent people fleeing war zones in the Middle East and elsewhere. At the Ben Uri Gallery in north London, for instance, which I visited a couple of weeks ago, the first thing I came across was a bold statement declaring: 'Within the space of two short years the political climate and media opinion influencing it has changed in the free world ... Museums are one of the few public institutions that can stand proud for principles based on truth and fact ... In response to the world we live in, Ben Uri has reassessed its exhibiton programme over the coming years and committed to a series of exhibitions surveying the contribution and input of refugees and immigrants to 20th and 21st century British art.'
It's an amazing legacy - and an inspiring way of looking forward.
SATURDAY 4 MARCH
I discovered the work of the painter Ray Atkins at the Reading Museum today - and also discovered that he's a diarist. Alongside many of the paintings on display are observations he made in his notebook at the time. On 1 September 1969, for instance, while working on his painting 'The quarry, Playhatch, No. 1', he wrote: 'Art must be timless. Sometimes one's worst side says what one has done is old-fashioned - just because it has nothing to do with the art that is in fashion. It's mad! Just because it can exist and say what it has to say at any time. It has nothing to do with 1969. What it has to do with is the first of September and Ray Atkins and a quarry at Playhatch.'
WEDNESDAY 15 FEBRUARY
To Oxford to meet Mike Webb, author of 'From Downing Street to the Trenches', which draws heavily on diaries from the time of the Great War. Afterwards I took the opportunity to ses the new 'Volcanoes' exhibition in the Weston Library, where several manuscript diaries are on display, including Mary Godwin's diary from 1816 - 'the year without a summer'.
It's now known that that year's dreadful weather was caused by the largest volcanic eruption of the last 500 years: the volcano Tambora in Indonesia. Its effects were felt as far away as the shores of Lake Geneva, where Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin were kept indoors for days on end by the wet dreary weather, and where 'to amuse themselves they wrote ghost stories, and Mary started the work which would become her gothic masterpiece "Frankenstein".'
WEDNESDAY 25 JANUARY
Today would have been Virginia Woolf’s 135th birthday, and on BBC Radio 3 today I heard mezzo-soprano Alice Coote and accompanist Julius Drake performing music from Dominick Argento’s opera ‘A Music of One’s Own: From the Diary of Virginia Woolf’. The libretto consists entirely of words taken from Virginia Woolf’s personal writings, and the opera ends with a setting of a diary entry from March 1941, just before she committed suicide.
And this is an issue that has been much on my mind today, following some heartbreaking news from Australia this morning. RIP Jamie, you sweet-natured, gentle boy – gone from us far too soon.