Michael Palin has donated twenty years of his personal archive to the British Library

Michael Palin
Photo: Tony Antoniou / British Library

Just a wee while after I attended Diaryfest – which stirred many thoughts, not least of which on the subject of donations of diaries and diary-related materials to the British Library – I learn that Michael Palin (surely the patron saint of diaries by now?) has donated a section of his personal archive to the BL.

The news came to me this morning as I stirred to the Today programme. After weeks of terror- and politics-related headlines greeting my ears first thing, it was especially pleasant to hear this little piece of news.

The British Library press release explains:

The archive, which has been generously donated to the British Library by Palin, covers his literary and creative life during the years 1965-1987. It includes over 50 ‘Python Notebooks’ containing drafts, working material and personal reflections relating to Palin’s Monty Python writing. It also includes his personal diaries kept during this period, and project files comprising material relating to his film, television and literary work, including correspondence, drafts and annotated scripts relating to subsequent Python projects.

The full release is available here.

It’s interesting to note that the archive runs up till 1987 – I’m not sure from the press release if this is Michael’s choice or some sort of 30-year limitation on what the BL is allowed to hold (or make available), particular with regard to the papers of a living person. But it’s still a heck of an archive.

At the KCL-organised Diaryfest a couple of weeks ago, I saw a session from Joanna Norledge, the British Library’s lead curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. Joanna told us about archives they hold from the likes of Hanif Kureishi, Kenneth Williams and Will Self.

It was fascinating particularly to hear about donations from living donors – and whether they ever ask to view their own records. Joanna added, semi-seriously, that they are still only allowed a pencil in the reading rooms and that to edit/censor their own work would not be permitted!

I suspect that in most cases, the donor is absolutely done with the documents and wants rid of them. In Michael’s case, a chunk of this archive has already been edited and published in various forms (though, as the diaries’ introductions explain, only part of Michael’s diaries are actually published, with a lot of stuff removed for various reasons). But the donation also contains documents far beyond just his diaries.

As fond as I am of diaries in general, I am particularly fond of Michael Palin. Naturally, I just had to ask him to take part in the survey for my undergraduate dissertation on the subject of diaries a few years ago. With characteristic charm, he kindly obliged.

I think I may need to renew my reader’s pass in time for next spring…

Jerry Brotton on ‘A History of the World in Twelve Maps’ at Stony Stratford Library

On Monday evening, Lisa and I had the pleasure of attending a local talk, from the author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps (Amazon UK)

Jerry Brotton was a very interesting speaker, and it was a fascinating hour spent listening to his thoughts and theories on how maps – predominantly maps of the world – throughout history tend to reflect the beliefs and interests of their creators.

The maps featured ranged from Babylonian stone carvings through Ptolemaic renderings of the known world, right up to the present day, with some postulations on where the like of Google and Apple might be taking us with their seeming monopoly on digital maps.

The talk was held at Stony Stratford library and was well-attended – sold out, I think. There was a glass of wine waiting for everyone when they arrived and, although Lisa and I were the youngest audience members by at least half, we weren’t made to feel unwelcome at all.

Brotton’s thoughts on maps are fascinating, although they do tend towards the philosophical and ideological. My brain is a bit more boring and practical so I was left a little hungry for some talk of how maps are made, and used. To his credit, Brotton did explain that be never meant to discuss the latter.

The Q&A session that followed raised, as they usually do, an intriguing range of responses to what we’d all just heard. Questions from the audience members were often prefaced by their own long winded theories…

All in all it was an interesting talk. Brotton is great to listen to, and an entertaining speaker – which makes sense, when you learn that he is a university lecturer – and it was great to have such an event just a few minutes’ walk from home.

We’re very much enjoying living in Stony Stratford, and the local library, along with events like this one, is a big part of what we’re loving about it.

Orlando Whitfield on the London Library

Although I’ve never visited the London Library, in my time working at a public library, one of my duties was dealing with the inter-library loans. This meant that, every now and then, amongst the stuff from neighbouring counties, I would get to handle more exciting books from the likes of the prestigious Bodleian and London libraries.

One of those books was something that blew my naive little mind: it was a concordance to the works of William Shakespeare. I’d never come across such a thing before, and I was amazed at first at the size of it – roughly 60x40cm and about 20cm thick.

But it wasn’t till I came to open it and realise just what it was. It was an alphabetical list of every word (except a few common ones) Shakespeare used in his entire works. Alongside the words was a legend, providing information as to where, in which work, that word occurred.

It was, in essence, a search engine. A Shakespeare-specific search engine. A big, lovely, hardback, paper search engine.

But enough about me. On my way home from work tonight, I was reading an article on iOS app Read It Later (about which, more, in a few days). It was from the blog of literary publication the Paris Review, and it’s a captivating description of one man’s lifelong love affair with the London Library.

Some bits of Orlando Whitfield’s post that I liked:

I would get up early, eat breakfast in the square, and arrive at the library when it opened. I ate lunch in the square when the weather was good, in the members’ room when it was bad; I smoked cigarettes on the embassy steps; in the evenings, I drank at the Red Lion on Duke of York Street around the corner […] On Sundays, when the library was shut, I was listless. Days among my own books and those of my parents felt inadequate, less nourishing; I longed for Monday to arrive and for my explorations to begin again.

If you borrow an old book from the library, you may go to bed with a volume that Dickens once read by candle light in Doughty Street, or that Eliot read as he walked over the London Bridge.

The library is a place of safety for the bibliophile, and a cooling refuge for the city-heated mind.

On the spine of the book, the title and the author’s name and the date of publication were embossed in sans serif, gold letters. On the front, centered at the top of the board was a green bookplate bearing the name and address of the library. Inside, on the reverse of the front cover, were stuck some extracts from the library’s rules.

Lovely stuff. Pop over and read the rest of the blog post now, if you like: http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/02/28/the-london-library/

A tour of Chetham’s library

The other day, I and some folks from CILIP North West were treated to a tour of Chetham’s library, situated between Urbis and Manchester Cathedral. I must admit I didn’t know a great deal about Chetham’s beforehand, other than that it is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, and some other little titbits that can be summarised as it being a very old, very beautiful library.

Being a fan of such things, I jumped at the chance, even leaving a riveting lecture on organisational culture early. My lecturer decided to spend five minutes telling an anecdote about a previous job and I just happened to have to leave part way through her story. Satisfying.

The stroll I took through the city to get to the library was very enjoyable in its own right; Manchester was cold and crisp, with the late afternoon sun casting long shadows and throwing a golden hue onto whichever surfaces were tall enough to catch it. The Christmas Markets had opened that day in and around Albert Square, and it was lovely to have a quick look as I went past.

 

It reminded me that Manchester is a wonderful city at this time of year. Sure, it gets as busy and suffocating as any shopping city in the run-up to Christmas, but everything else is just very enjoyable.

I got to the library just in time to say hello, and to confirm if I could take photographs inside.

 

The tour was very entertaining and enjoyable. Our guide struck a nice balance between being informative and amusing, and never veered into boring territory. He seemed proud of the collections, and had many quips and stories pertaining to old traditions, the library’s place alongside the School of Music, and Manchester in general – as well as his mild obsession with books dealing with death.

The place oozes history. You can’t walk down a hallway or glance at shelving or sit on a chair without feeling its many centuries of age. So many of the fixtures and fittings are either original or merely very old. Indeed, very little of the library is ‘modern’, and the whole place has a very satisfying consistency in terms of decor and style. We were told, in fact, that a lot of the furniture spans many hundreds of years in styles, but it still all looks appropriate.

 

We were told many interesting things about the ‘mechanics’ of the place: for example that the books are mostly sorted in size order for reasons of practicality. One librarian attempted to get the collections sorted in Dewey order, but for a library of this kind, such an effort is futile.

 

The library is very dark inside. Old lead-lighted and stained glass windows offer an eery, pleasing light – but at levels far below that necessary for reading and writing. Indeed, even with the aid of electric light, it wasn’t hard to imagine visiting the library a century or more ago – nor to understand how in the winter months all those years ago, the library would usually close around 2pm.

 

Of interest to many was the staggering list of names of its users through the past. Karl Marx was a particular highlight, with his favourite location being easily identifiable, and that ever-present connection with the past making it so believable and alive.

A personal highlight was talk of the Leech collection, a vast archive of diaries, scrapbooks and photographs spanning a couple of hundred years of one family. There is a staggering amount of material held on this family, and it’s a wonderful resource. With my personal university project on how and why we keep diaries, I was especially fascinated to hear more about it.

It was a lovely tour and I’m glad I’ve finally been able to visit the place. It turns out you can just pop in any time, but it was especially good to be given a guided tour by someone so knowledgable and enthusiastic.

For more information on visiting Chetham’s library (and a lot more), head over to their website: http://www.chethams.org.uk/visiting.html

You can see some more of the photographs I took on my tour in this Flickr photoset.