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…

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-posterDiaryfest 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.]

Volume 3 of Michael Palin’s Diaries – Travelling to Work – Out this September

Travelling to Work: Diaries 1988-1998

TRAVELLING TO WORK is the third volume of Michael Palin’s widely acclaimed diaries. After the Python years and a decade of filming, writing and acting, Palin’s career takes an unexpected direction into travel, which will shape his working life for the next twenty-five years.

Read on: Michael Palin – Travelling to Work – Orion Publishing Group

I love Michael Palin, and I love diaries. So you can imagine that I love Michael Palin’s diaries. In fact, this combination led me to asking the great man to participate in the research for my final year project for my Information Management degree. Palin, along with many other friends and associates, kindly took the time to answer a series of questions relating to their diary-keeping habits.

Having read the first two volumes of Michael Palin’s diaries, I’m eagerly awaiting the third. In fact, I’m currently on my second read-through of the second volume. The hardback editions are beautiful, weighty tomes that look lovely on my bookshelf – but they’re also a little bit hefty for stuffing in an overnight bag and so on. Fortunately, the Kindle editions are nicely put together, and allow me to highlight passages which are particularly funny, poignant, or otherwise of note.

The transition from volume 2 to volume 3 is particularly interesting, as the cross-over point is a real cliff-hanger: Palin is about to embark on the first of his celebrated travel film journeys – Around The World in 80 Days.

I was intrigued when I started thinking about this – I am often intrigued by quite mundane things – as there are companion books for all of Palin’s journeys, and they come in the form of a diary. They’re a fascinating insight into the trips, with extra information and a host of photographs to complement the films themselves.

But from the looks of volume 3’s subtitle, 1988-1998, it sounds like Palin kept a private diary in addition to the notes that ended up being released as companion books. Fabulous! Indeed, the title of the volume itself, Travelling to Work, really points to the consistent theme for the decade covered within.

Volume 3 of his diaries is published in hardback and ebook editions on September 11 this year. I’ve recently hit January 1988 on my latest run-through of volume 2, so I think I’ll re-read the Around The World in 80 Days book next to tide me over.

‘Publish’ from Day One


Day One now allows users to publish specific diary entries via a new service called… Publish.

For me, a diary is a private place to jot down thoughts and details of my life, Publish has a USP in each published entry having a solo, semi-private existence which can be shared only to those people with the URL. It’s not strictly private, of course, but for sharing a kind of semi-private post to a small set of friends or family, it could be a pretty decent tool.

Although there are infinite platforms for writers to use to publish their words online, one neat feature of Publish is kind of a lack of a feature: posts exist in isolation, and aren’t aggregated or listed like on a blog. Posts can be created and shared and they live in their own space. This may give Publish the unique factor it needs to stand apart from – and not against – blogging platforms, because that’s not really what it’s trying to emulate.

I mentioned how the idea of publishing a diary entry, for me, goes against the point of keeping a private diary. But the feature is being built-in to Day One (initially on iPhone only, with iPad and Mac support coming later), and is just there as a value-add to those who would like to make use of it. For those who don’t want to use it, the feature will just be there, lurking in the background.

Day One is a simple app with an increasingly complex set of features. One of its strongest *is* its simplicity and the way that although a complex subset of features is available and easy to use, they don’t get in the way of using the app for its main purpose.

The Way I Journal: finding inspiration in Day One

I bloody love diaries.

Journals, diaries, thought books, whatever they're called, I find them fascinating. I find the process of using one very satisfying and reassuring and, what's more, I find I am very interested in how other people use them, too.

A few years ago, grasping for a final year project for my Information Management degree, I decided to study how and why people keep diaries, with a brief nod to the differences between doing so on paper and digitally. I was most interested in what made people start keeping a diary, and what made people keep on keeping a diary.

But that's all another story which I still haven't gotten round to blogging about.

For now, I wanted to draw attention to a blog post from the makers of Day One, a fabulous diary app for iOS and Mac OS X. I've been using Day One for a couple of years now, and it is my chosen method for not just keeping a diary, but maintaining one, too.

Tulio Jarocki seems to have gone from being a Day One enthusiast to a Day One community employee – and I must say I'm a little bit jealous of that. But luckily he's been doing great work, pulling together inspiration and looking at why people keep a journal. And the latest incarnation of this effort can be found in an interview with tech blogger Shawn Blanc, which is well worth a read, if you're into this sort of thing.

In reading the interview, two things struck me:

  • It asks a lot of questions which are similar to those I asked in the survey which formed the bulk of the research for my final year project.
  • I love answering questions like this, and would like to be interviewed for this project.


Who are you and what do you do?

I'm Paul Capewell, and I work in the library of a large transport infrastructure organisation, giving my customers the information they need to do their jobs, as well as doing fun stuff with archive material.

When and why did you start journaling?

I started writing down the things I was doing when I was about 15 – initially, I think, as an excuse to play with HTML. But I also really seemed to enjoy knowing I was noting down the things I did and the places I went. I very quickly realised how good it was to know I could quickly reflect on an event with some key details to help jog my memory.

Did some specific event make you start journaling? Was it something you set out to do for the rest of your life?

Not really, although being able to type stuff into a computer helped, so it went hand-in-hand with using a computer every evening (after six pm, when dial-up was cheaper!). I don't think I ever intended for it to be a permanent habit; it just sort of became one.

Looking back, I can't think of where the inspiration would have come from – although the 'weblogs' of others on the web at that time would be the closest.

What is your journaling routine?

Nowadays I try to take five minutes (or thirty) at the start or end of the day to write a brief overview of the day's events. I very occasionally make a brief entry throughout the day if the mood takes me, but mostly it's a start- or end-of-the-day routine.

Do you focus on longform writing or capturing small memories of life?

Mostly long form – although not all that long form. Just, concise. For example, the whole day in a few hundred words, rather than just a thought or random episode. Sometimes the whole day in a couple of thousand words – but rarely.

Do you have a favorite spot you like to journal from?

I do really prefer to be sat at a table or desk to write my diary. Something about feeling more comfortable, and I feel compelled to write more words. That said, I'm just as happy to hunch over my iPhone and thumb a couple of hundred words in on my lunch break, or sit up in bed with my iPad.

What was your first entry in Day One?

00:02, Saturday, 11 February 2012

Downloaded Day One to try out. I've been lazy in keeping a diary lately and I'm interested in trying to make the process as frictionless as possible. I will miss pen and paper though, of course.

You mentioned previously that you journal both digitally with Day One and physically with notebooks. Why do you still keep a paper journal?

Sorry for stealing your question, Shawn. But on this subject, I kept a paper diary for a few years while I was at uni. It was partly because it was the first time in years that I had a desk to call my own, and finding great, tactile joy in a fountain pen and a ruled, spiral bound notebook.

But mostly it was because I had the time to indulge in the habit, so I could write pages and pages. It also helped me focus – being away from a computer to concentrate purely on squirting my brain out onto the paper via the nib of a pen.

How many entries do you have in your journal?

4,336 – from January 2002 to present day.

Four thousand, three hundred and thirty-six. Oh.

Much like Shawn, I've been using Day One for a year or two, but on top of this, I actually imported the entries from previous digital diaries into it as well (LiveJournal, Diaryland, and my own hand-coded HTML pages) – although I've never 'imported' handwritten entries into it, whether via transcribing or scanning.

What is your favorite or most-used feature in Day One?

Beyond the always-there-ness of the app, whichever device I have near me, it's probably the metadata that gets added without me even needing to think about it – the current weather and location. (On newer devices, it also sucks in movement data from the dedicated chip. I look forward to upgrading to an iPhone 5C.)

Ironically, even though Day One automatically records it, I do still very often make a note of the weather*, but it's really neat to have the 'correct' weather added too.

* This is probably one of my favourite elements when reading the diaries of others. I just love when diarists stop to make a brief note of the current weather conditions. It's often a lot more related to the related entry than maybe they realise. It also helps to set the scene. On that note, this is one of the best little anthologies of diary entries around – it's just annoying that it's not currently published as an ebook.

Do you write mostly on the iPhone, iPad, or the Mac?

Pretty much an equal split between the three, although after a recent restoring of my iPhone, I didn't bother reinstalling the Day One app as that's the least fun method of input (and the installation takes quite a long time as I have so many entries in it).

Now that I've recently set up my desk again, I'm back to using the Mac app more, which I enjoy. But the iPad is my most-used method of entry.

Do you follow any journal organization rules?

Not really, although I am a creature of habit and so my entries all tend to kind of read the same. I'd hate to run a predictive text bot through my entire diary; it would definitely be able to create a pretty faithful fabrication of a real entry.

Do you tag your entries?

No. This is one feature of Day One I've never bothered using, actually. The fact that it's fully text searchable by default kind of makes this an unnecessary feature for me, although I can see the potential of creating sub-diaries (like a food/dream/holiday journal) and exporting only those entries. It's something I'd like to use for a specific purpose, and I like that it's there.

It's these kind of subtle, thoughtful additional features added by the Day One team that I like – rarely 'too much', never intrusive, and just there when you need them.

Have you ever relied on Day One for something unexpected, or used it to recall details about a specific event or date?

Quite often, actually. Whether it's looking up when I did a specific thing, or the first time I mentioned a friend/book/project, I do this every few weeks. The fact that I have however many hundreds of thousands of words instantly text-searchable in my pocket is mind-boggling, terrifying, and incredibly reassuring.