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…

Michael Palin on the diary habit

Have made a decent start at documenting this wonderful weekend away. Next: sorting the photographs. 😊

Michael Palin’s recently-launched website, themichaelpalin.com, features a fun selection of new writing which I hope will be added to over time. They don’t appear to be in the form of blog entries, but have the feel of them.

In one, the avid diary-writer explains how the habit makes him feel, and encourages others to take it up:

When I’m not travelling I keep my hand in by writing up a daily diary. I like the fact that I have to take some time over it. It’s personal and doesn’t ask for replies or re-tweets. It’s only between me and myself, so I can take as little or as much time as I want. I find my daily diary entry is like doing morning exercise. The equivalent of a shot of Pilates. Something you do each morning (or each evening) that makes you feel better.

If you feel the same way as I do, then go out and buy yourself a good-looking note-book, put the year and the day’s date at the top of the page and start remembering tomorrow. It’ll be hard at first. There are so many reasons to give up, but, believe me, if you persevere, you’ll never regret it.

I have similar thoughts about my own habit.

I have kept a diary in one form or another for about thirteen years. Although it’s sometimes rather less than daily, I always feel better when there is a steady trickle of entries, and confess to feeling something akin to anxiety when I know I’ve gone a while without an update.

When you read Palin’s post, above, in full, you’ll see that he suggests writing longhand is a more involved but ultimately more rewarding process. I have mixed feelings on this – and my diary is a testament to that.

While I was at university, I tended to keep my diary in longhand. I had more time to reflect, and to write, and I took great pleasure in sitting down with a fountain pen to scratch into a ruled, spiral bound notebook.

These days I use Day One, a Mac and iOS app, and make entries on iPhone, iPad, and Mac. I find I can type fairly quickly, and I enjoy the ability to pull out the tool nearest to me and quickly tap out a few lines, knowing that the content will be added to one central collection. The added metadata on each entry – such as weather or location – is also a bonus.

Before I used Day One, I used a variety of online tools like Livejournal and DiaryLand, as well as a blog. Thanks to others more clever than me, I’ve been able to convert those entries into one format, before ultimately re-assembling them all in Day One. This gives me a database of entries – all except the handwritten notebooks – that I can search by keyword with ease, and that I know is backed up in multiple locations.

The keyword lookup isn’t something I use terribly often, but whenever I’ve felt the need, it’s been a massive reassurance to know that I could. Sometimes it’s to remind myself when I first did something, or went somewhere. Other times it’s to jog my memory in another way. Occasionally it’s been an enlightening revelation that, no, I didn’t actually write about a particular Life Event which I’ve later come to understand the importance of.

I recently went away for a beautiful long weekend to celebrate my thirtieth birthday, a wonderful treat from Megan. Knowing that we would effectively be ‘off the grid’ for a few days meant that I bought a little notebook (seen above) to record our time away. I could have written the entries locally on my iPhone, but I find that when I’m away, or travelling, then that is the time to fall back on notebook and pen. It vexes my archivist’s mind in terms of the digital/analogue split, but I’ll worry about that on a rainy day.

For now, however, I know I have the diary-writing itch, and I’ll continue to scratch it whenever I feel the need to, and in whatever format.

Volume 3 of Michael Palin’s diaries

A few months ago, when I blogged about the upcoming release of volume 3 of Michael Palin’s diaries, Travelling to Work, I had some thoughts on the kinds of stories we’d find within. I somehow missed this excellent little video preview of the diaries from the man himself:

Palin explains what sort of events will be included, from the well-known to the less so. I cannot wait!