A diary of diaries 2017/18
FRIDAY 8 JUNE 2018
This morning I dug out my copy of Volume One of Michael Palin's diaries, 'The Python Years', before driving to Friar Park in Henley, which I'd been lucky enough to be invited to visit. When Michael Palin first visited the gardens here in October 1975, he described the amazing grottoes, caves, Japanese houses and Japanese bridges, but still I wasn't prepared for what I found: immaculate lawns, a rose garden, maples and cloud-pruned yews, lakes full of waterlilies, and the largest rockery in England.
After we'd been shown round by the head gardener, Giles, Olivia Harrison came to greet us, and told us about her late husband's lifelong love of plants, trees and gardens. George Harrison was very much a hand-on gardener, and another entry from Michael Palin's diary, talks of visiting him there in November 1978, when George had 'just come in from planting bulbs in the garden'.
THURSDAY 17 MAY
I went to St Edmund's Hall in Oxford this evening for a talk by Professor Lucy Newlyn about her book 'The Diary of a Bipolar Explorer'. Lucy Newlyn explained that the diary wasn't written up as the events happened, but retrospectively from emails, letters, and the poetry that she wrote as a way of overcoming her depression.
She had previously published two books of poetry: but when her publishers persuaded her that prose sold better than poetry, she set about turning her poetry into prose - and creating this diary.
FRIDAY 11 MAY
It's 435 years since John Dee, his family and his household made the perilous sea trip from England to the Continent, and today a correspondent of mine has referred to this in an email.
'The human story is what is of most fascination to me,' he writes. 'My heart goes out to all of them on that painful journey to Europe, cooped up on a freezing ship for a month at the worst time of year for travelling across the North Sea.' And he adds, regarding one of Dee's reasons for making the crossing: 'I worry for John Dee meeting the Emperor.'
Diaries, I think, help us to empathise like this across the centuries. That's just one of the reasons why I think they're so important.
SUNDAY 6 MAY
It's exactly seventy years since the painter and diarist Josef Herman arrived in Brussels as a refugee from Poland. Today we're in Brussels too, and I think of Josef Herman when we get lost and have to ask a policeman the way, because one of Josef Herman's first impressions of life in a non-totalitarian country was of how different the police were.
'Even when off-duty a Polish policeman breathed fire through his nostrils,' Herman wrote. 'Here the policeman actually saluted before he answered my query in a civilised leisurely manner ... For the sheer fun of it I stopped every policeman I saw just to hear his soft, polite voice, just to watch his courteous manner.'
(From 'Related Twilights: Notes from an Artist's Diary', edited by Tony Curtis, Seren, 2002.)
TUESDAY 19 DECEMBER 2017
The holiday diaries that I kept as a boy are full of little souvenirs: decorated paper napkins, for instance, and sugar wrappers that I stuck in with sellotape. Today, in the new Bodleian Treasures exhibition at the Weston Library in Oxford, I came across some century-old feathers from a carrier pigeon, attached to a page of the typewritten diary of First World War intelligence agent Richard Meinertzhagen exactly a hundred years ago, in November 1917. Meinertzhagen shot the bird ('of enemy origin', as he wrote in his diary) and discovered Morse code 'etched and scratched on the shafts of each feather' - and still visible today.
FRIDAY 13 OCTOBER
Hurrah! I have just heard back from Terry Talty, whose wonderful hand-made Ireland diary I came across in Dublin a month ago. I had tried two different email addresses for her and Steuart Bremner, with no response, and in the end I found a land address and sent a postcard. Given the hand-crafted nature of the book, it seems appropriate that the old-fashioned method did the trick where electronic ones had failed!
I am so pleased that Terry and Steurart now know how much finding their creation has meant to me - I have been showing it to anyone I think would be interested, to see how long it takes them to realise exactly what it signifies.
MONDAY 4 SEPTEMBER
In the bookshop of the National Gallery of Ireland today, Evelyn drew my attention to a book with an intriguing design on its spine rather than any writing. So I reached up and opened it at the words:
We've made this book for you:
Someone who is curious,
and is interested in art
being made now
I had a sudden sense that this might be something quite exciting, so I turned the page and read:
'Please feel free to take this book. It is not part of the museum's inventory nor property of this museum, or anyone else. It may become your property just by taking it.'
By this time I had an idea of what we were looking at - I'm a fan of the '1000 Diaries Project', after all - but it was only on digging deeper that I realised exactly what we'd found: a unique handwritten diary with hand-drawn sketches, the latest of which was done just a week ago. And the last diary entry is from just last week: 'Monday Aug 28, 2017. Not getting in to see the Vermeer, so will visit the most modern of the Irish art.' As we did too!
I did wonder at first if someone else was a more deserving recipient than me - then I thought 'No!' I'm a bookbinder, art lover and connoisseur of diaries, and I am so thrilled to have found this: so I'll reciprocate, though I'm not sure exactly how. Either way, this is the most magical thing to have happened to us in Dublin.
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, Beatrix Potter and Henry Hucks Gibbs are rare examples. And, strangely, their codes seem to share various characteristics, as if they were all in collaboration with each other - which can't be true.
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.