Virginia Woolf beats up the waters of talk

Occasionally, a single passage from a single diary entry can floor you. This one from Virginia Woolf was quoted at Diaryfest recently and I just love it so much:

Wednesday June 13th, 1923

“…and then I went to Golders Green and sat with Mary Sheepshanks in her harden and beat up the waters of talk, as I do so courageously, so that life mayn’t be wasted.”

That turn of phrase – to beat up the waters of talk – is just so evocative and stirring! One thinks of conversing in this style, like being waist-deep in water, slapping the surface chaotically, stirring things up. One can imagine the disapproving looks on the faces of nearby bathers…

But this entry – this singular turn of phrase – isn’t the first time Woolf’s diaries have stopped me in my tracks.

From Michael Palin’s diary of 11 September 1985, he notes another of her clever observations:

“Have been dipping into V Woolf’s extraordinary diaries over the last few days and found a neat phrase – to ‘rout the drowse’. Sounds like street talk, in fact it describes what a good walk does for her creative energy. So, as I feel increasingly addled, I eventually go for a run, which routs the drowse most effectively.”

I’ve referred to this passage before somewhere. But it’s too good not to share, particularly in tandem with the other quote above. Whether beating up the waters of talk or merely routing the drowse, Woolf never fails to impress.

On a related note, I was immediately drawn to the above quote due to its mention of Golders Green, near to where I work. Indeed, the quote goes on: “the fresh breeze went brushing all the thick hedges which divide the gardens,” which immediately makes me think the passage refers to a meeting either just within Hampstead Garden Suburb or just without; hedge-lined gardens remain a prominent feature – indeed, a requirement – of most Suburb homes a century on.

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

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…