Diaryfest, King’s College London – 30 May 2017 – Notes from a conference on diaries

Diaries have intrigued me for years. They’re voyeuristic little windows into the soul; snapshots of a moment in time. I’ve written about diaries at length before, and the format regularly occupies my thoughts and eyeballs.

I recently attended Diaryfest, a study day hosted by King’s College, London (M’s old university) all about diaries. There was a wide range of sessions – much more wide-ranging than I’d anticipated – and I was inspired to take copious notes on most of them. Below is a re-hash of those notes, acting as much as an aide memoire to me as to provide any use to anyone else (you).

One of my main conclusions from the day was just how vague the word diary can be. When I was writing my undergraduate dissertation on diaries, I quickly realised that even the term people use for their diary/journal/etc can vary widely. And as for what people consider a diary… Well that was just too big of a concept for me back then. Too big to cover in that word count, anyway.

dear-diary-poster-1106286-9129527Diaryfest was timed to coincide with a KCL exhibition entitled Dear Diary.

As part of Diaryfest I was able to have a look around part of this exhibition and, in many ways, doing so beforehand might have helped prepare me for the study day. The multi-room exhibition – which I am eager to go back and spend more time with – very effectively shows quite how diverse the diary medium can be.

Diaries are inherently incredibly personal things. So it wasn’t surprising that a number of the items exhibited tugged at some part of me deep inside.

Diaries, in their most usual form, are about as personal as you can get. In a different way to staring down a portrait or self-portrait, you are instead reading the words of the person themselves – occupying their headspace for a brief moment. Recollecting what they have recorded, in the moment.

There’s a weird temporal shift that occurs when reading a diary entry – the entry itself was written in one particular moment, and the content can refer to another slice of time – or, indeed, a vast period of time. You turn to the entry for a particular day and instead find yourself reading the recollections of five minutes earlier, several days ago, or some series of events spanning a great chunk of the writer’s life. The entry may even attempt to conjure events yet to happen.

So it’s easy to get lost reading diaries. Lost is perhaps the wrong word – but diaries are captivating. The study of diaries can get awfully meta.

Anyway, just as I enjoy finding myself led by the hand of some diaries, I was thrilled to come away from Diaryfest with my head swimming in thoughts on what diaries are, how they can be used, and with other thoughts on writing, research, meaning, context and purpose.


Some of my favourite moments from Diaryfest surprised me.

One was the fluidity of conversation between the young women on the KCL Literary Society talking about deriving context from the choice of medium when communicating (‘official’ responses re: the journal went out as emails, whereas brief queries would be pinged over via Facebook Messenger). Their panel touched on all sorts of interesting subjects, like attitudes to online privacy and a reversion to ‘offline’ media perhaps as a rebellion against the hoovering up of users’ content in pursuit of ad revenue.

I’m not sure if it was just a particularly interesting group, or whether the nature of a panel discussion stood out against the other single-speaker sessions, but much of what they discussed resonated with me.

Special mention has to go to Alex Belsey, who is a staggeringly good storyteller. He never got lost in his own story, and the whole thing was well-structured, engaging, and clearly close to his heart. Without wishing to sound as though I’d happily listen to him recite the phone book, I did wonder if he could lend this level of authority to any area, or if it came as a natural consequence of a passion for the subject in question.

Derek Eland’s more creative-based session was also surprisingly interesting. It was one of the sessions which, for me, stretched the definition of the diary (in a helpful way), and one which I found touching and fascinating. I wouldn’t have initially grouped what Eland does with diary-writing – strangers hand-writing a moment in time to be affixed to a wall along with thousands of others. But it’s still life-writing, afterall, and his session was very welcome – not to mention fascinating and well-delivered.

Diaryfest was very well organised. While it would have been criminal not to have a sessions discussing the likes of Pepys or Kenneth Williams, it was good that there was a lot more besides. The speakers were clearly picked by a wide range of individuals (or perhaps just one with a big imagination!), and the event was all the better for it.

It was well run, too, with the sessions running smoothly despite one unfortunate cancellation and the surprising complexity of one session in particular. The catering was an unexpected bonus – this was a free event – and overall I felt incredibly lucky to be able to attend.

Events like this are as much about focussing one’s thoughts as they are about widening one’s horizons. Diaryfest was no different. I came away as enthused about diaries as I have been in a number of years, and with a whole slew of new people, things and sources to investigate along the way.

My sincere thanks to KCL’s Centre for Life-Writing Research and anyone else who was involved in putting this day together.

I will aim to discuss the Dear Diary exhibition itself in another post as it, too, deserves a lot of thought. Dear Diary runs until 7 July.



These notes were scribbled (tapped… tabbled?) on an iPad Mini resting precariously on my knee throughout the day. I went into the event thinking I’d use that for research and a notebook for notes. I went in not knowing if I’d even take notes. They are a stream of consciousness.

The notes vary in their style, length, and usefulness. This may have something to do with my reaction to the session in question (I kept detailed notes of those that mentioned lots of specific names and dates that interested me) but the reverse is also true (I would find myself captivated by a speaker before realising that it had been several minutes since I’d written anything). This is basically a metaphor for my own approach to diarykeeping.

Errors in the notes are probably my own, and should not reflect on the session’s speaker. Similarly, I may have misinterpreted or misquoted a speaker. Again, the fault probably lies with my note-taking and not the speaker.

[Square brackets] or passages in italics are my own thoughts.

Joe Moran (Liverpool John Moores University) – ‘An everyday history of diaries (with lots of entries missing)’

“Electronic ego-media” arguably another form of diary keeping

Woolf 13 June 1923 – Golders Green (“…beat up the waters of talk.”) Woolf’s diary her “dear old red covered book”. ‘Physical evidence of a life’

Sense of audience is often quite ambiguous. Blend of public and private. As evidence, diaries are “difficult and unusual”.

Walter Musto 1 January 1939 – morning routine – published in “war and uncle Walter” – refers to the war only tangentially – will go to Chessington Zoo and talk about the war via description of an enclosure

Diaries as “lyric essays” – they can just go off on one – Musto observation on people’s noses – Moran says Musto is “not that eccentric, except in the sense that we all are.”

Kenneth Williams 22 April 1984 – “…fart in a wet blancmange.” Slags off TV a lot – Moran used a lot of quotes in his Armchair Nation. Publication of Williams’ diaries shocked many of his fans as he was quite curmudgeonly – diaries are very honest, often shockingly so. Public versus private – writing diaries at the beginning or end of a day – more private times than the middle of the day when people are out interacting with others.

Diary entries defined by the form of the diary – Moran’s own example of a ‘Paddington bear’ 7-day diary – small boxes, and one shouldn’t write beyond the boxes. Moran’s diary was kept up until 4 May [from New Year], then stops. Diaries can be seen as an ‘eternal winter’ as we all start in winter before petering out later on, with no great climax or announcement.

(This talk of the form dictating the entry makes me think of my own survey for my dissertation and me encouraging diary writers – of all people! – to write as much as they like in response to survey questions, as though it were necessary to!)

Example of diary by a teenager on 20 July 1969 – details of dance social, and then a footnote about man landing on moon. Perhaps to juxtapose the personal and the larger world. Question from person asking if we do this out of a feeling of obligation. Quite common to record the day’s headline in a diary along with own news.

Diary formats: Mass Observation diaries were loose leaf and sent off by post. Victorian juvenile diaries more creative – pasting in memorabilia and ephemera, and writing sideways or in different shapes etc.

Origins of diaries as marginalia in printed Almanacs.

Margarette Lincoln (Goldsmiths, University of London) – ‘Pepys’s diaries: writing in confidence?’

Pepys collected gossip and thoughts – has the “snouty, sneaky” [snarky?] quality. Younger journal that is more well known, and the Tangier journal from his fifties. Pepys diary  initially transcribed by an impoverished scholar – transcribing the shorthand before the key to the shorthand was found a few volumes down the shelf.

Pepys seems to be jotting down facts as they happened, but “all is not as it seems.” Pepys was meticulous – what we would today call a completer finisher. He records people in his diary – the dichotomy of how people seem to be and how they really are.

Tangier journal dismissed as a travel journal and less interesting than his more famous diaries – but Pepys was writing this time with an audience in mind.

Geoff Browell (KCL Archives) – ‘From operating theatre to the theatre of operations: diaries from King’s College London Archives’ medical and military collections’

Projects including Strand Lines; Underground London. 7km of shelves, 200 years, including diaries from medical disciplines, and military diaries and papers. 300 sets of diaries in the archive. Aim25 – Archives in London and the M25 area.

UK archival thesaurus – life writing, diaries – standardised vocabulary

Alan Brooke’s diaries – written quickly and on the day, then turned into official military reports.

Scrapbooks; Hospital case notes. Science and technology archives group – STAG – first conference on space later this year.

Oral history recordings – brings its own challenges in terms of digitising.

War diaries: As a psychological release; aide memoire; self justification.

Sometimes see diaries of people (often elderly) blurring fact and fiction – before the researchers realise that a scenario is actually borrowed from fiction. Response to a qu. on this issue: The key to verifying oral histories is research and familiarity with the source and context of the subject, or simply recognising the thing being recalled before checking it.. Not an exact science.

Some medical case notes written by students include passages relating to their own lives and progress as well as the case notes themselves.

Earlier case notes quite systematic and formulaic, but later ones are fuller and contain genealogical and biographical information. Later notes include charts and photographs – extra challenges for digitising extra flaps and odd-sized inserts.

“Data desert” – preserving digital data from the past 10-15 years [This theme keeps coming up for me, with the loss of studio recordings of classic albums over this period, and in the transition from film to digital HD video with low-resolution videotape used in the meantime.]

Soldiers writing diaries and records for family – more common to keep a blog now, but diaries and blogs “very different.”

Example of a diary kept as nutritional information for a prison camp by a prisoner of war.

Diary might be written in the form of letters to a wife even when letters can’t get out (anther POW example).

Alan Brooke’s earlier diaries from India include fine sketches of animals shot and taxidermied.

Current hospital archivists are under pressure – many of them are records managers thinking more about data protection etc. than preserving historic documents.

Description of archivists as mediators – what to preserve and what to leave out – or keep private.

Joanna Norledge (British Library) – ‘One day at a time: personal diaries in the in the British Library collections.’

Holds diaries of writers, poets, actors, directors etc.

There are “as many different types of diaries as people” – many variations of format – appointments, daily entries, journals/memoirs, travel or work diaries, research projects. [One interesting Freedom of Information request I saw recently asked for the appointments diary of officials from various organisations.]

Kenneth Williams’ diary contains photographs, postcards inserted, and oddities like a chart showing his discomfort after an operation covering a month or so – wide, fold-out sheet. Very neat.

Mentions the commonplace book / diary.

Diaries – who for, and why written? Mentions Hanif Kureishi’s teenage diaries directly referring to imagined future biographers. And Kenneth Williams’ infamous threat to his friends “you’ll end up in my diary!”

To what extent does the diarist construct a version of the self?

Example of Alec Guinness’ diary – began sporadically, but from 1960s until death kept a shorter, daily diary more consistently – fluidity of the sense of self also seen in his use of his ‘birth name’ and his ‘father’s name’  – using one for life and one for acting, and an example of where the ‘stage name’ was erroneously linked to another more famous family of the same name.

Diaries donated to the British Library while people are living – BL checks on the contents to ensure no other living people are implicated. Collection policies of various departments determines what they collect. It’s usual for donors to only pass them on to the archive once they are ‘finished’ with them – tend not to want to access them again for research. Question about writers asking to view their own donations after the fact – example of Will Self – apparently this is rare but it does happen. BL is careful not to allow editing of the donated content by the author! Only pencils allowed in reading rooms, as standard.

Mia Micozzi, Rebecca Dowse, Tess McGovern and Jo Hamya (Department of English and the KCL Literary Journal’s special issue on diaries) – ‘The art of journaling’.

[The Literary Society themed the latest issue of its Literary Journal on the subject of diaries. The resulting product was quite zine-like in its look, combining blocks of text laid out sporadically, scanned paper artefacts and photographs, and some illustration. Quite unlike their usual style. The society members present on the panel described its production and some related subjects.]

Collaborative project, using Google Drive, jotting down notes from meetings – features including handwriting analysis (smaller, neater handwriting when stressed; looser in summer). Who are diaries are written for?

Considering social media as a digital descendent of the diary – people very keen to donate physical diary objects to be included in the journal, and even to start a diary for the purpose of this project.

Edited iPhone poems – featuring the initial unedited work and the complete versions. Self censorship – editing your own diary?

Tess McGovern talked about lists (shopping, to-do, etc.) as diaries – often very prosaic and honest and true – no sense of ‘dear diary…’ and reiterating the words of others. Lists are for the self – not a performance in the same way a diary might be. “Private form of social media”. Diaries are meant to be true and private and pure, but so often even to ourselves we ‘lie’ to ourselves in the form, and words chosen. It’s a constructed piece of work so is inherently a ‘lie’.

Mia Micozzi then talked about Finstagrams – private or very limited access for extremely private accounts as opposed to or in tandem with a more public profile. Self-censorship or purging of social media accounts.

Evolution of the KCL literary journal itself is a form of diary, as it represents the student body that in turn produces it. It was pointed out by an audience member that the journal’s editorial board is predominantly female – is this a reflection of the English department? Philosophy journal is apparently more male where the English department skews female, for whatever reason.

Discussion of journaling as being geared to girls – particularly in terms of diaries aimed at younger children – such as paper ones with pink designs and padlocks.

Also some discussion of the mediums used and how they are represented in the Journal – a few instances of retro formats including notebooks, Polaroids. These contrast with the the iPhone poems, although the way they are presented in the Journal itself as just text rather than screenshots, and the poems’ content, are not exactly dependent/reflective on the iPhone itself. [e.g. this feature could just as easily have featured a handwritten/typed poem in its initial and edited stages.] The editors considered showing the iPhone poems in situ [e.g. screenshots] but couldn’t due to formatting and size. Mentioned the retro look of iPhone notes apps. This led to discussion of the more deliberate nature of a more tangible medium [notebooks, film photography etc.] – perhaps the inherent cost affects the ‘weight’ of using such a medium and what is done with it.

Question from previous Journal editor in audience about how the online/cloud nature of social media (even if deemed ‘private’) changes how people might approach it. Gave the example of the burning of a diary meaning it is gone forever, but deleting an online profile, data always remains somewhere. Led to discussion including putting stickers over webcams and the origins of their generation having to ask parents’ permission to start a social media account.

One speaker thought that this return to tangible, physical media is a rebellion from online, constant data retention. Going back to owning your media. Question from chair about whether technologies and platforms created by older (baby boomer?) generation are taking advantage of (monetising?) the narcissism of the younger generation using them. Narcissism isn’t inherently generational but represents the personality of the individual.

Discussion of ‘joining in’, sheep-like, with online discourse, but to what end – leads to ‘the bubble’ and the echo chamber. Empty platitudes without any actual action.

Question from Joe Moran about the iPhone poem feature and the inclusion of punctuation and how this can change the feeling of the writing – whether diaries or poems. Editorial team mentioned the casual nature of Google Drive and Facebook messages for submissions but reverting to emails for ‘proper’ communications, and the inherent change in language. Each generation has scruples over which medium to use for which scenario.

Alex Belsey (KCL) – ‘Keith Vaughan and the art of diary’

Keith Vaughan: 1912-1977 British painter, conscientious objector, rose to fame in post war British art scene, labelled a neo-romantic.

Commenced diary at age 27 in 25 August 1939 – first entry 13 pages – laying out his reasons for being a conscientious objector as a gay man and other reasons.

Other examples of wartime diaries starting up all driven by outbreak of war.

Vaughan’s entries about relationships – written as though they are directed at the subject.

Other subjects include: Psycho-analysis, daily events and experiences, his anxiety and depression, social and political issues, art theory and his own practice, self-education in literature and philosophy.

Vaughan’s belief that there is an art to writing a diary – it should have a purpose as an art form.

“The problem of how to truly know oneself.”

Vaughan’s pacifist feelings as framed through the destruction of young male bodies and his own experience seeing, e.g. The young victim in his ambulance whom he couldn’t take his eyes off and whose injury haunted him.

19 March 1940 “threads of existence” and evolving life philosophy

Third volume is more substantial and presents it as his autobiography as well as his journal (or diary). [Belsey discussed the use of ‘diary’ or journal’.] Dated entries that contain headed sections. Tension between compartmentalised, structured argument and the more honest spontaneous writing. By trying to pull himself in opposite directions, he “reduces himself to inaction and dumbness.”

Vaughan influenced by other diary writers including Andre Glide, Stephen Spender, Eric Gill, Christopher Isherwood

1966 publication of Journal & Drawings – heavily edited and even some entries being newly written and re-attributed to earlier dates.

A decade later Vaughan deliberately added subject matter to the covers of each handwritten volume – a sort of contents page. Volumes then placed inside a wooden chest once owned by Vaughan’s estranged father – a man mentioned only twice in 38 years of diaries. Belsey emphasises how strange this choice seems when there’s no mention of its significance.

One example of Vaughan addressing his father – a deliberate address, written as such. Long diatribe. Even more surprising that he doesn’t mention him elsewhere.

Response to audience question: Vaughan didn’t show any signs of resolution or satisfaction with his diary and in fact he may have created an endless loop of setting a high bar from himself and never meeting it.

Question about diary’s length: Diary goes in fits and starts – writing when necessary. Sometimes a decade without anything, then a sudden surge when inspired or when he releases something to acclaim or mixes with influential colleagues.

Ailsa Granne (KCL) – ‘“I look at her large diary and my heart fails me”: an exploration of some aspects of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland’s diary writing practice.’

‘I’ll Stand By You’ – volume of letters.

Both women wrote diaries and read each other’s diaries. Their private writing always had an audience of at least one. They had a system of putting an embargo on their journals. [This system was not described by Granne – I wish I’d asked for more details!}

They would refer to not being able to read the other’s diary – describing such instances as a “withdrawal of intimacy.” Living their lives through paper.

Their biggest disagreement culminates in one page being torn out – this is unprecedented – and one day going unwritten about.

They shared “a lifelong alternative textual conversation.” The women chose the medium to suit the message – poetry and its religious connotations, letters with a feeling of supremacy. Warner said the journal was too sad to publish. The exclusion of the private sphere led to a war with each other.

Sally Bayley (University of Oxford) and Lucie Rictermahr – ‘The girl who would be God: Sylvia Plath and the diary as a coming of age story.’

Performance piece by Sally Bailey, drawing on Plath’s diaries, and making use of references, lyrics and movements from poetry, with the help of one singer and one performing girl, acting out some of the actions.

With Bailey holding court, breaking the fourth wall, directing and acting and cajoling the girls all the while. Quite moving and beautiful – a charming representation of Plath and the life of a teenage girl.

[Reminded me of the little column I read recently talking lovingly about teenage girls and their peculiarities in the wake of the Manchester bombing. And then again with the ladies from the Literary Society briefly touching on lives lived online.]

Some questions for Bailey on the mawkish, martyring desire to view Plath through the lens of her suicide above all else, raking through her earlier writings for ‘clues’. Bailey is resolute in her desire to ignore the suicide – it does not interest her, she says – to instead focus on the light and movement and lyricism from her poetry. [One could argue that her piece seems to freeze Plath in an aspic of her youthful energy – but it is absolutely a different – and welcome – take on the usual Plath angle.]

Derek Eland – ‘Diary Room stories, from the front line in Afghanistan to Everest.’

Eland opens saying, “we all have a story to tell,” and not everyone has a voice for theirs. [Worth noting that Eland’s presence and voice is strong and clear!]

Experience of painting Carlisle and exhibiting it for an MA on a top floor overlooking the town. Suddenly told by a visitor that he doesn’t actually know what the people in Carlisle think. In response to this, created a diary room. Took over a shop for six weeks. Four thousand post it notes. Took the notes and put them in a gallery ‘this could be Carlisle or anywhere’ – out of context, remarks were bland and could be about anywhere.

The power of handwriting in the digital age.

Eland, as artist in residence for the British forces, set up a diary room on the front line in Afghanistan, asking soldiers to write their comments on postcards. Feels that because he was there with them – getting bombed and shot at – they were on the same level and could be honest with him/the project. Example of a very honest recollection of the sounds of bombs. Eland showed photographic portraits of the “tough lads and lasses” writing entries – leaning on a knee, gun slung over a shoulder to write. The idea of the confessional, of a note written in a moment of crisis and stress.

A new project from Eland asked people with dementia, those close to them, and members of the public, for their opinions/feelings/thoughts. Different coloured cards for each category. “Don’t mention dementia.” 

More recently, Eland went to Everest base camp to explode myths of why people go there, and to give a voice to the local Nepalis and sherpas. All the usual projects and books are about the summit. Eland stayed for six weeks; set up a diary room tent. The tent provided a space to contemplate where there are no other traditional ones. Eland feels that as an artist, people will spend more time with the sorts of results he gets from these projects than on a painting he’d done of a similar area.

Some climbers and soldiers featured would shortly die – Eland has been careful to get the relevant permissions etc from family members to continue to include their contributions in exhibitions.

Some postcard writers made the summit, some didn’t – it almost doesn’t matter whether or not they did, as they were all at base camp.

Q&A: Eland invites audiences of his work to comment on postcard – these handwritten cards go on to form part of the work.

No editing of the notes. Eland tries to reassemble the walls for exhibition as they were in situ.

Qu. about censoring offensive notes – Eland sticks to the law, but tries not to exclude notes only if they may cause offence.

Qu. about whether people involved were diarists or not. A lot of the soldiers who wrote cards also kept diaries – Eland says they are often encouraged to, for coping with stress.

Meg Jenson (Kingston University) and Brian Brivati (The Stabilisation and Recovery Network) – ‘A day in their shoes: refugee diaries’

Life-writing – including poetry – and films. Learning how the brain responds to trauma. A need to express emotions – via whatever medium – to allow the brain to heal. 21 February 2017, a number of front line human rights workers were asked to make a filmed diary. They were given no instructions on how to do this. One speaker mentioned the common feeling of “compassion fatigue” – hopefully these films make that disappear.

[We then watched six excerpts of the ‘diary’ films which raised awareness of the lives of refugees in camps – most focussed on the daily lives of the refugees while one showed one of the organisations’ resources. These were on the one hand hard to watch as they tackled some extremely raw subjects such as systematic sexual abuse of women and children, but on the other they humanised the situation and made it easy to relate the activities of a family fetching some water and preparing an evening meal. The visual diary aspect was a useful example of how the genre can be applied to any number of causes to raise awareness.]