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

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,, 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!

Bookcision: Export/Download Your Kindle Highlights

When highlights are created on any Kindle device, they are synced up to Amazon’s cloud. These are then visible at, but there is no reason to believe that Amazon will continue to provide this service forever, and our ability to work with text in that hosted browser-based environment is limited.

We wanted a way cleanly to download our highlights onto our local computers, so we created a bookmarklet that permits one to excise highlights from the book’s page.

via Bookcision: Export/Download Your Kindle Highlights.

In the interests of, well, tinkering with little tools made by smart people on The Internet, I decided to export my highlights from a book I read recently.

I mentioned yesterday how I’ve been enjoying highlighting interesting passages from Michael Palin’s diaries on my Kindle. This, being from a large book, is now quite a long list of highlights – usually a reference to a project of his, a place he visited that rang a bell, or just a particularly sweet or poignant observation.


More concise is my collection of highlights from Leigh Alexander‘s recent book, Breathing Machine. Leigh is a videogames journalist, and after reading a few of her pieces on Animal Crossing and some other stuff, I found that she’d recently released a short collection of memoirs recalling her childhood, adolescence, and the holding hand that videogames and the Internet provided her throughout.

Basically, if you’re a human being of a certain age (late twenties, early thirties?), and you grew up with computers and the burgeoning web, you’ll probably get a kick out of Leigh’s book. You can actually listen to Leigh reading an excerpt of her book via Soundcloud if you like – I recommend it. It’s always good to hear an author read their own words when they’re autobiographical.

I’ve used the above Bookcision tool to export my highlights of Leigh’s book, which can be found below. I’m not too sure what use these highlights may serve to anyone who isn’t, say, me, but I figured I’d try out the tool anyway. Out of context highlights might not even make much sense, but the lines tickled or interested me for whatever reason. Enjoy:

Breathing Machine, A Memoir of Computers

by Leigh Alexander, Thought Catalog

The first time I ever heard and remembered Beethoven’s Ode To Joy was at the start screen of one of these games, blaring at me from the tinny speakers. I’m not ever going to forget that.
LOCATION: 20224 – 20424

It was the broken games I truly loved. They all had weird version numbers (1.1.3?), and were stamped all over with the aliases of dejected bedroom weirdoes asking you to mail in five dollars, sometimes plaintively, sometimes cynically.
LOCATION: 20738 – 20973

The more legitimate games had copy protection: they shipped with special red plastic lenses, or code wheels, or guidebooks with letter puzzles, and you needed them to unlock the software. This felt like its own kind of mystery-work
LOCATION: 22744 – 22975

I watched it all happen: grinding plastic teeth, the pages still gleaming with black spit.
LOCATION: 24969 – 25059

I pulled a map of Manhattan out of my grandmother’s National Geographic magazine, and pasted it on the wall of my playroom. I printed out screenshots from Hotel Caper, and made pretend dossiers of the villains I would chase down once I arrived there.
LOCATION: 25523 – 25780

The marketing to kids around video games had begun to take a distinct turn, then: glossy magazines full of bright laser grids, skateboards, spiked hair. Raaaadical. We believed in the neon-nineties vision of the future, where we were basically just about to get hoverboards and become heroes.
LOCATION: 25905 – 26204

It was in our plans, our notes, our basement boxes full of junked motherboards. The plans felt real.
LOCATION: 26786 – 26886

My dad let me have a hand-me-down Powerbook laptop when I was eleven or twelve. The thing I remember most about this machine (besides its role in keeping my innermost thoughts, my diary, across years of secret and now-defunct Word docs), is how when I stroked its screen with my fingertip, a bright prismatic comet would appear, a temporary wound opening up and leaving a fading, smoky contrail in its place.
LOCATION: 28323 – 28745

its role in keeping my innermost thoughts, my diary, across years of secret and now-defunct Word docs),
LOCATION: 28471 – 28574

things I didn’t really understand: viruses, made by impossibly-distant master architects.
LOCATION: 30218 – 30321

I quietly fell in love with the cloistered and quickly-obsolescing Powerbook, disconnected and safe.
LOCATION: 30636 – 30736

I loved experimenting with it. I could make those robot-voices say anything I wanted, without fear of reprisal, which was new.
LOCATION: 31182 – 31308

Many of the adventure games of my childhood knew that your average person, wrestling with an invisible system, would eventually type vulgar words, and so contained provisions to chide you if you cursed. The strangely-pitched robot voices had no such reservations.
LOCATION: 31309 – 31572

I found a primitive old program somewhere on the Powerbook called America Online. An early version, maybe even the first one. I knew it was for getting to the Internet, though I didn’t know exactly how, what. I was dimly aware it needed some kind of connection to something else, and that I couldn’t just load the program from where I would be bundled with my machine in bed. This did not, of course, stop me from trying. I believed in magic, of course, and wasn’t technology as mysterious as fantasy? The stuff of sprawling paperback novels where the veils between worlds blurred, and you could become a hero in a strange land just by accidentally touching something, by being in the right place at the right time, by knowing the right word to open a previously-unseen door. I’d breathlessly load the America Online program on my monolithic Powerbook, in the dark of my room. Three pictures would pop up on a loading screen: a skeleton key, a logo, and… a globe, maybe? I can’t remember. In my memory they become coarse alien buttons, indigo unreality. I know for sure there was a vein of lightning that moved from one icon to the next, always stopping before reaching the final third. ERROR. I knew. I knew something was missing, but I continued to try regardless. I knew the difference between the real and the imagined and chose to ignore it. What if I pressed something at exactly the right time? What if I found a hidden panel of some kind on the hardware itself, like the time I found a terrifying reset-knob within a pinhole on the Powerbook’s back, pressed it with a paperclip and evinced a dissonant chiming song that I’d never hear again? What if I held my breath, what if I counted, kept my eyes shut. What if I prayed. Nothing worked. Because I had no connection, that image of a key struck by digital lightning would always be where my adventure would end.
LOCATION: 33352 – 35399

before reaching the final third. ERROR. I knew. I knew something was missing, but I continued to try regardless. I knew the difference between the real and the imagined and chose to ignore it. What if I pressed something at exactly the right time? What if I found a hidden panel of some kind on the hardware itself, like the time I found a terrifying reset-knob within a pinhole on the Powerbook’s back, pressed it with a paperclip and evinced a dissonant chiming song that I’d never hear again? What if I held my breath, what if I counted, kept my eyes shut. What if I prayed. Nothing worked. Because I had no connection, that image of a key struck by digital lightning would always be where my adventure would end.
LOCATION: 34602 – 35399

Dialing modem. A sequence of guttural, choking shrieks, a hiccup, a pause, some single eye in the hardware fluttering as if it contained an insect. Shrill chirps, a nebulous staticky monster croaking to get out. Just when you think it’s done, it screams again.
LOCATION: 35808 – 36089

I’d be crouched by the modem in the dark. It’d be late. It’s not that I wasn’t supposed to be awake. I was 13 years old, and no one could really tell me when to go to bed. I’d started nurturing the spark of an idea in my casing that no one, really, ought to tell me anything, anymore.
LOCATION: 36917 – 37236

The first time I was allowed to use Internet newsgroups, it was like suddenly noticing it was dark enough to see stars. All at once, a startling array of possibilities seemed to erupt in front of me.
LOCATION: 37719 – 37918

Flee back into late-night, then, my little hands strangling a shrieking and green-eyed modem-animal, smothering it with blankets and pillows so that no one would hear it and send me back to bed. It connects. The part that was missing when I was younger is now present,
LOCATION: 40029 – 40304

At the crux of my adolescence I was I could never-ever forget it, the secret name that let me interlope among Usenet boards like rec.arts.poetry,, and rec.arts.sailormoon.
LOCATION: 40883 – 41156

Stand in front of the fridge, a monolith that sighs in your face. Engage the microwave. Eat too much, guiltily, standing up, half in and half out of cabinets, ravenous teenage appetite knitted tightly with the pains of all kinds of growth. Meticulously leave no sign of your presence; erase your data, no debt to be accountable for later. Run up the stairs, two at a time.
LOCATION: 42657 – 43029

The modem screams and howls as always, but there’s no one to hear it right now. There’s just you, watching the tiny rectangular window that promises you a connection is being made. Dialing, establishing, testing, whatever the phases, you hold your breath.
LOCATION: 43225 – 43494

You opened your little Eudora mailbox and prayed for something to be there. You usually had one piece of mail. Sometimes two. On a good day there would be three, and you’d meditate with anticipation upon the black bar that stuttered along, telling you about download progress. 1 of 3. 2 of 3. 3 of 3.
LOCATION: 43562 – 43869

A trawl through Google Groups’ uncomfortably long-lived archives while researching this book reveals that young Delilah took the title of with an excess of seriousness and chastised everyone involved.
LOCATION: 44235 – 44464

Through the rec.arts.poetry board I met an older man, 30 or 31 years old, if memory serves. At the time, such an age seemed incredibly old, such as to give me pause. Nonetheless I chose — nobly, I felt at the time — to overlook such mortifying superficialities and pursue what felt like a romantic correspondence with this fellow poet, who was so old. Surely a fellowship in Internet poetry was more important than anything else.
LOCATION: 45672 – 46142

I had a little reservation, though — what if my new Internet boyfriend was, like, old like my Dad? At fourteen, thirty-something seemed like practically my Dad’s age! What if, I wondered, he had gray hair? Surely his body wasn’t the smooth, abstracted elfin landscape of my dolls and my fantasy comics; at his age, surely there were paternal ruffs of hair and flesh. Maybe even a beard.
LOCATION: 46683 – 47117

Eventually the fellow poet and I began to escalate into arguing about something. I can’t remember why, and I can’t remember what it is I said, only that he chastised me for being immature, and I replied something to the effect of, “well, of course I am, I’m only fucking 14.” To his credit, he was mortified, apologized profusely, said something like he “meant no disrespect,” a sentiment that confused me at the time. He said he’d thought I was “at least in college,” and as I distinctly recall, he wrote, “me and my middle-aged ass.” Well, I thought, and now you know, and everything is all right and we can go back to saying sweet things to one another, and a little note from you in my Eudora Mail inbox after school. But the fellow poet stopped replying.
LOCATION: 48237 – 49127

Several months later, Old Guy surfaced on the poetry newsgroup again, presenting something I read distinctly as a whimsical love poem. It referred to his “whiskers” (aha, I thought, I was right about the horrible old beard), and contained the phrase “hop all over your back.” I read the poem closely to see if it might be about me, Delilah, but no evidence presented itself.
LOCATION: 49666 – 50068

I liked the college student better, anyway. Recently I had the sudden whim to Google the first and last name of the romantic poet, which I still remember. I found the very grey-bearded author of a lot of pro-life books with web copy focused on “taking responsibility for the sex act.” It can’t be the same man. It just can’t. I also Googled the college student. Now he’s a music journalist. Wicked.
LOCATION: 50457 – 50930

When is the last time you said “www” out loud, ‘double-yew double-yew double-yew-dot.’ Unironically. World Wide Web. The phrase is so quintessential to the lexicon of the modern West that it’s funny to go hey, wait, let’s pin that down — World Wide Web. Some spider-kin network that spreads around the entire world. How far did the Internet’s fuzzy-legged arachnotendrils reach when I was 14? 16? Not the whole world. Not even every house I knew in suburbia had the Internet, at first. That phrase, that innocently-spoken World Wide! was a promise of potential, not reality.
LOCATION: 51334 – 52039

And the early Web was a simulacrum of reality, a dim Western fantasy of virtual space cobbled together from chunky, artifacted graphics. You browsed the web with Netscape Navigator, like a starship captain (modern browsers still bear the rust taste of frontier spirit, with names like Explorer, Safari). Primitive chat lobbies were called things like The Meeting Room, the Lobby, the Cafe, as if you were always, always entering a real place, there to meet real people.
LOCATION: 52060 – 52529

Sign my guestbook, they begged. Guestbooks. Little virtual visitor’s logs. At one time it seemed almost every website had one. Now, none of them do.
LOCATION: 53516 – 53671

Exploring these spaces was half luck, half skill. You found the sites you wanted by ambient clicking, a zen-like pilgrimage through forum signatures and sidebars. Or you could use primitive search engines, of which there were many: Lycos. Metacrawler, dominated by a graphic of a giant hairy spider, Dogpile, Excite, Infoseek, Alta Vista.
LOCATION: 53692 – 54030

Each service would return a different sequence of results than another, and so you would visit all of them in sequence, type in what you wanted to find, never able to expect the same recommendations.
LOCATION: 54051 – 54250

before I realized it was pronounced GEO CITIES, like cities of the globe, and not Geocities as in rhymes with curiosities.
LOCATION: 54896 – 55028

(Uniform Resource Locator, and if that isn’t a Holodeck-era acronym I don’t know what is)
LOCATION: 55251 – 55354

You can remember the first truly horrific image you ever saw online, can’t you?
LOCATION: 63156 – 63242

A man wincing, his face pinched and deformed, seeming to warp against the barrel of an executing gun. A woman spread out in a bathtub, gripping her stockinged thighs, a fount of amber bile arcing as vivid as carved stone from one of her orifices to another. Thirty seconds of a .avi file — a naked woman on all fours blinking doe-like from a dark hotel bed. No, wait, a young girl. Younger than young. Oh, my god. Sick. Sick.
LOCATION: 63263 – 63695

Did you seek it out, the sensation of the bottom dropping out from your guts, the wondering is it real and can they really and who the fuck? Did you stumble into it entirely by accident, or through the sin of completely unguarded curiosity?
LOCATION: 63716 – 63977

Just a picture of me, smoking, late teens, fully clothed, was pornography to someone. My socks were worth money. This is what I had learned about men and sex from the Internet by the time I had graduated high school.
LOCATION: 76339 – 76555

Internet boyfriends and girlfriends, intimacy with the convenience of distance, intimacy that never has to be challenged by the responsibilities of reality.
LOCATION: 79691 – 79847

I wrote other students’ papers for them in exchange for baggies of weed, and spent what felt like an interminable length my life on a quaint campus, in a tiny room, online, all the time.
LOCATION: 80595 – 80788

In the gaps between playtimes, you could occasionally glimpse all our comparatively-powerless, childlike lives: Old enough to drink, but still living with our parents, or with someone who acted as parent. I knew far too many teenagers getting money and gifts from adults they knew online, via arrangements that seemed passionately dysfunctional and dark and beyond my ken.
LOCATION: 84669 – 85041

By the new millennium our idea of wizardry had little to do with capes and wands, and everything to do with black leather, wearable tech, and the glamour of lightning-fast fingers weaving spells across glass and light, or the kind of cascading ASCII sigils, green-glowing on black, that I remembered from my childhood devotionals to the Apple ][e computer.
LOCATION: 87551 – 87907

The first computer-centric kids’ cartoon I can remember was ReBoot, which started airing when I was adolescent, featuring the stunning innovation of CGI animation, the first show of its kind. People “went in the game,” became characters, lived humanoid lives inside of mainframes.
LOCATION: 88239 – 88540

The first thing people make in an online world, when they can make anything, is a house. In Second Life’s heyday, West Coast millennial dream homes sprouted all over the place like mushrooms: Seaside modern architecture with swimming pools, glass fronts, arcing ferns, natural wood. In a place where any ideal can be built, a depressing aspirational median emerges. Inside the house, all users put a chair. Why, Yee poses, do virtual worlds need chairs if virtual bodies never need to sit down?
LOCATION: 98671 – 99172