Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Private Life of the Diary

My First Diary

When I was seven years old my mother sent me abroad, alone. I carried one small canvas bag with a camera and a diary-notebook. My instructions were very clear:

‘Take as many pictures as you can and write down everything you see. Switzerland is a very beautiful country and you’ll see lots of important things. Don’t waste it on rubbish. If you run out of pages, buy another notebook. Don’t skimp and keep your handwriting nice. We want to be able to read it!’

From the first, my diary was never private: it belonged to my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, my brothers and cousins.

It was never my friend. I could tell it nothing awkward, embarrassing, shameful or pathetic. I could not be homesick or lonely or afraid or bored. My diary forced me to be brave and heroic, to muster up a grown up self. Above all, my diary wanted me to be extraordinary.      

As the aeroplane lurched out of Gatwick, I pulled the new diary from my bag. Its purple satin cover was intimidating, I decided: too special and occasional. What could I possibly experience that would deserve such a special thing? How could I begin to write anything in it?

I would have to edit out anything that would ‘let me down’ as my mother would say.

‘Don’t let yourself down, Sally. Make an effort, for goodness sake!’

But surely a real diary doesn’t ask you, to make an effort? Surely a real diarist can let go of the picture-postcard version of things? My seven-year-old self wanted to scribble in my diary, to draw pictures of the funny looking people on the plane; to cry over it when I felt homesick and lonely, as I often did in the weeks ahead, to paste in all the chocolate wrappers from all the chocolate bars I was given by kind Swiss aunts and uncles; to draw rude pictures of people sounding too French for me to understand.

But, instead, over the course of the four weeks I spent in Switzerland, I tried to impress my diary. My diary was a boyfriend, my first boyfriend. I saved up lots of big words and big sights and I wrote them down. I wanted everything to sound like an Asterix adventure. Every day was filled with difficult and unfamiliar things, but I managed all of them: the Gauls, the Britons, the Romans and the Swiss. I took them all on.

I ate rabbit and duck and lots of smelly cheese. I spoke my rehearsed French phrases and wrote down new ones. I shook everyone’s hand. I made friends with a boy called Michel in the village fromagerie. I kissed him. I watched his parents chop cheese and sausages. I watched my hosts make raclettes and fondue and homemade pasta. I even tried reading Daisy Miller in French and I wrote that down (which was a lie because I read it in English).

When I went to the city of Berne I took lots of photographs of the bears but most of them were smudgy and misty. So I tried to draw the bears and then describe them but I couldn’t draw and my Berol pen kept running out. But I’d promised my mother I would write up every day and this day of all days had been A Very Important Day. I mustn’t let it slip away. Today had been Berne, the Swiss capital. Today had been The Berne Bears.

But what happened in between all this edifying experience? Where did the real experience go, the off-the-record moments when I was just a small, lost child in a Swiss village staying with a family I barely knew? Where was the lonely and scared seven-year-old girl? The girl who knew how to ask for the loo and for directions to the bus station but could never say that she was too tired to stay up another hour and listen to boring adults talk about ‘Madame Peterman’ and her house at the top of the hill.

The diary I brought home from Switzerland held none of the things I remember now: stuffing myself on chocolate under the bedcovers at night; the terrible anxiety that I might die from eating a shot rabbit; the shame of being sick over a croissant after a long car journey up mountains. And the crushing loneliness of being alone all the time with adults speaking French. There was nowhere to be myself, not even in my diary. Where was the diary I dreamed of, my best friend and confidante; the soft beautiful thing I slipped under my pillow at night?

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My attempts at keeping a diary were inauthentic: a bad performance in being adult. I had missed the point: personal diaries don’t ask us to be good grown-ups. Our diary is the ideal boyfriend, girlfriend or best friend, someone who won’t abandon us, however bad our tantrums and misbehaviour. Even Greg Heffley, the touchy teenager of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, reluctantly admits to dumping his real feelings in his diary or ‘journal’ as he insists on calling it.

True diaries contain overspill; they batten down thoughts and feelings for which, in the everyday world, there is little time and space. Diaries can bare souls and anchor lives. Emotionally speaking, they pick up the straying and splintering pieces of ourselves, those moods, atmospheres and secrets that might otherwise ruin situations and relationships. We can say to a diary what we wouldn’t dare say to anyone else. Diarising is free therapy, a place where we can project all the mess and maelstrom of our unresolved, teenage identities.

Spending Your Personal Time

Diaries are supposed to help you consider how you spend your time. In Switzerland, I was spending all my time being afraid of my diary. My diary was always calling me into account. There was no real point to it.

 Historically speaking, diaries emerge from a system of account-keeping: the public world of work and production. The father of the diary, Samuel Pepys, was a good diarist because his professional life asked him to be a good accountant. As the navy’s leading administrator and keeper of its books, diary writing was but a step away from totting up the naval accounts.

We will never know exactly why Pepys began to keep a diary, but there must have been some sense of wanting to say something about current affairs, which during Pepys’s lifetime were tumultuous: the dramatic restoration of Charles II to start with, which is where Pepys begins his diary. But there must also have been an urge to reflect upon his own, often messy, personal life – those extra-marital affairs and rows in bed with his wife.

Whatever the case, on January 1st 1660 Samuel Pepys began writing in a brown calf-bound notebook. He framed the pages with red ink, ruling margins along the edges of the pages: seven inches down, five inches across.

As Pepys demonstrates so well, the modern diary emerges from a mind set of expenditure: a system of daily account-keeping in which time and the unit of the day are the main resource. By 1660, a day had became a unit of time worth noting but also worth spending well. What would I do in my day; what did I do in my day, was now the question.

Putting Yourself Out There (Facebooking, Blogging, Tweeting)

In the 21st century, the traditional diary or journal has an online version, the blog. Facebook, Twitter and the culture of blogging emerge from a celebrity culture whose central premise is that we are all terribly interesting. Certainly worth following. Twitter gets you followers, Facebook finds you friends. In the world of social networking we are all celebrities, although only some of us really are. Stephen Fry was one of the first British celebrities to draw attention to the Twitter phenomenon, with his now notorious Twitter or ‘tweet’ update while stuck in a lift: ‘Ok. This is now mad. I am stuck in a lift on the 26th floor of Centre Point. Hell’s teeth. We could be here for hours. Arse, poo, and widdle.’

Footloose and fancy-free, twittering is for those on the move, and as Stephen Fry demonstrates, it is a good way of coping with that most frustrating of contemporary experiences: not being able to move.

Tweeting is quick, airy movement. An instant reflex, a flick-of-the-wrist approach to communication, tweeting is a sort of premature mental ejaculation.

But I might be wrong about this. I’m new to tweeting. Perhaps a tweet is a more reflective form of thinking. A friend of mine tells me that people can spend hours creating a tweet. A tweet, then, is a form of haiku in which every syllable, every one of your 140 characters counts. A tweet is not just another bit of noise floating through the cyber-universe. It is a brief meditation on the universe. On Twitter you can say something philosophical about Jeremy Corbyn finding himself without a seat on Virgin Trains; the return of socialism, or the latest terror attack. You can comment on the state of the nation and the globe. What is more, people will listen. Their attention spans won’t run out. They might even recycle what you say.

Still, I find it hard not to think of Twitter as just another form of social gossip, a quick blurt. One moment you tweet about a celebrity break-up and the next you tweet about your own. Certainly, Twitter marks the end of bounded public and private worlds. The traditionally private world, the sphere of the household, the home – Samuel Pepys in a filthy mood, in bed with his wife Elizabeth (also, no doubt in a filthy mood, her husband having given her a black eye) – has no separate form of life from the Pepys strutting about around Whitehall eager to be spotted by the King. Private forms of communication have not only engulfed our public world, they produce it.

Diaries Today

Some of us still keep pocket diaries as a means of keeping ourselves tidily within time. But since the late nineties pocket diaries have gradually turned digital, to the now almost socially ubiquitous Smartphone. These days, from my iPhone or iPad, I can keep track of my future movements and obligations through slick digitalised calendar and diary functions. In 2016 the intimate world of paper has all but disappeared. Only a few of us cling to the old-fashioned notebook or journal in which to write down our thoughts. I do so mainly as a form of indulgent nostalgia for the child I once was, flitting about the world with a pretty notebook and Berol pen, a butterfly with paper. But why do I write on paper still? Perhaps to feel something more visceral, more real.

At the university where I teach, I see my students reverting, during exam time, to the comfort of coloured pens, ornate journals and notebooks. Paper is human, and something like skin; it is reminiscent of schooldays and childhood and earlier forms of learning. Writing inside their attractive A4-sized notepads my students take comfort from close contact with paper and pen, the structure of carefully ruled lines. They carry notebooks around like close companions and friends; theirs is a private world of words carefully placed in the right place at the right time. There is something magical in their thinking.

Dr Sally Bayley is a Teaching and Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Insititute, University of Oxford and a Lecturer in English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She has written widely on visual responses to literature, including a jointly-authored study of Sylvia Plath’s relationship to the visual arts:  Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual (OUP, 2007) and a study of Plath as a cultural icon, Representing Sylvia Plath (CUP, 2011).

Sally’s recent book, The Private Life of the Diary: from Pepys to Tweets, tells the story of the diary as a coming of age story. Beginning with teenage diarists, Sally moves through significant moments of lived experience, from the teenage years when diary writing often begins, to the years of family, professional life, old age and death. The book takes the diaries of Virginia Woolf, Samuel Pepys, Sylvia Plath and others as her starting point for a discussion of the importance of private forms of writing and self-reflection as a means of securing a personal and public identity. From Pepys to Tweets assess the loss of such an acutely private form of life-writing in an age of facebooking, blogging and tweeting. She tweets @SallyBayley1

Photo by Ben White (CC0 1.0)

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Through An Artist’s Eye: Felicia Browne and the Spanish Civil War

An exhibition of paintings and poetry responding to the life and work of British artist Felicia Browne.

Through An Artist’s Eye is my most recent project in a growing body of work relating to the Spanish Civil War. It is a creative collaboration paying tribute to British artist Felicia Browne, who died in action in the early moments of the War in August 1936. Her letters and sketches – on which we draw – are held in an archive at Tate Britain, and in the private collections of the Sproule family.

Felicia is a unique figure in this conflict, being the only British female volunteer in Spain to take a combatant role. An eyewitness report by German volunteer, George Brinkmann, tells us that she was killed while on a mission to derail a fascist munitions train near Tardienta in Aragon. Her group was ambushed and outnumbered by fascists, and Felicia came under fire as she selflessly came to the aid of a wounded comrade.

My first encounter with Felicia was through an arresting self-portrait on display at Pallant House Gallery as part of the Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War exhibition in December 2014. I was also struck by her exceptionally accomplished drawings capturing street scenes and Spanish militias in the early days of the Civil War. I was intrigued but occupied with work for my EXILIO collaboration with Jonathan Moss, exhibited at Wolfson College in January 2015. In September and October 2016, my response to this extraordinary life story finds full flower with an exciting programme of events, the catalyst being the 80th anniversary of her death in Spain.

Here is the backstory:

Earlier this year, I invited Jenny Rivarola (a poet who, like me, is also the daughter of a Spanish Republican exile) to join me in developing a project dedicated to Felicia’s memory. Subsequently, I secured Arts Council funding for us to work in partnership with Tom Buchanan, Professor of Modern British and European History; Director of Studies in Modern History and Politics, OUDCE. We have also been fortunate to develop a partnership with the Instituto Cervantes, who in supporting us signal a growing shift in some quarters towards dismantling decades of suppression relating to the history of the Civil War in Spain. In contributing to the recovery of historic memory, our project gains a wider cultural significance, and we hope to reach audiences in Spain as well as the UK.

Professor Buchanan rediscovered Felicia’s drawings and letters in the early 1990s, examples of which are now held at Tate Britain. Felicia’s archive has recently been digitalised – and a short film made as part of Tate Britain’s Animating the Archives series, featuring Professor Buchanan and myself, and is entitled Felicia Browne: Unofficial War Artist.

The true inspiration for the project came to me while filming with the Tate Britain team in my Oxford studio, during an intense conversation with Rebecca Sinker (Curator of Digital Learning at Tate Britain). You can see the moment the idea seeds itself (at 4.35 mins) as I look away from the camera at the pile of vintage suitcases in my studio. At once I became acutely aware of the intersecting geographies of Felicia’s journey to Spain with that of my father to England, and I was visited by the image of my father’s footsteps across the Pyrenees at the end of the war in 1939, mirroring, or indeed overlapping with the tyre tracks of Felicia’s car journey at the very onset of the war in 1936. They had crossed in opposite directions to vastly differing destinies – one to her untimely death aged 32, and the other to his eventual safety in England aged 18.

I have cause to think of the Civil War as my cradle (a notion articulated through my 2014 film Without You I Would Not Exist), and filming with Tate Britain in my studio made me viscerally conscious that this same bloody conflict had been Felicia’s grave – rendering her life story ever more proximate to my own. So much so that they came to feel entwined (as though – however improbable – she had given her life for the eventual freedom and safety of my father and my grandparents). Astonishment at Felicia’s actions, gratitude and curiosity intermingled, and I wrestled with the challenge her short life implied. As an artist engaged in a form of war commentary myself – albeit historical – I questioned the boundaries of my engagement. Felicia made me ask myself, am I doing enough? I don’t yet have an answer. All I really know is that Jenny and I – as daughters of Republican exiles – have felt compelled to honour this remarkable British volunteer. Further, that in the case of Felicia Browne (as evinced through her letters), we find a witty, erudite and engaging personality, and that (with regard to her drawings) there is an exciting body of work to bring to public attention. She is without doubt a compelling character on so many levels.

We have a free booklet for audiences and will also be screening our project film at all our events. With talks by Professor Buchanan and poetry readings by Jenny Rivarola.

We will be seeking new venues to exhibit our work in 2017, and are available for talks, film screenings and conferences.

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Sonia Boué is a visual artist whose painting practice encompasses, assemblage, video and performance. Her work is research based and deals with themes of exile and displacement, with particular reference to family history and the Spanish Civil War. A background in Art History and Art Therapy informs her practice. Her Msc Applied Social Studies Oxon, continues to provide a useful framework for Sonia’s practice, which is concerned with the artist’s role as a catalyst for social justice. She is a Member of Common Room. She tweets at @SoniaBoue.

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The Secret Staircase: private view and talk by Michèle Roberts and Caroline Isgar

The Wolfson Arts Society & the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing invite you to a private view and talk by Michèle Roberts and Caroline Isgar, on Friday 14 October 2016 at 5.30 pm.

The Secret Staircase is an exhibition/installation comprising etchings, a woodcut block, a woodcut print, a printed text, an artist’s book, and some associated artefacts. It was originally commissioned by the Foundling Museum in London.

It is a joint project created by artist Caroline Isgar and writer Michèle Roberts, who had the original inspiration together and collaborated all the way through, discussing ideas and methods at every stage, naming and solving problems together.

The Secret Staircase explores mother-child separation, the loss and grief felt by an adult daughter as her mother goes through the process of dying, how she collects her memories of her mother and attaches them to various significant objects. The Secret Staircase performs, therefore, a kind of Life-Writing.

We took as our initial inspiration the tokens (dating back to the late eighteenth-century) at the Foundling Museum. These tokens (identifying tags, rings, plaques, coins, etc) were left with the foundlings by their mothers, who may have hoped to come and reclaim their children some day.

The Secret Staircase etchings represent experimental ideas around children’s doodles, children’s early attempts to write, children’s carvings on tables and desks. These images subsequently informed the images in the book.

The book/text takes the form of an inventory of items connected with the lost mother, such as a hairbrush or a button box, which provoke childhood memories plus reflections on the present. Underneath the daughter’s direct speech runs a series of rewritten nursery rhymes, which express all that the daughter does not dare openly say.

The book/images suggest folklore, legends and myths, with particular reference to animals, domestic artefacts, and children’s writing exercises.

Associated artefacts comprise materials relating to our work process, ranging from sketches to commemorative items to found objects.

The book/images have been printed as an unusually large-scale woodcut (1 x 3 ) metres. The form of the woodcut block itself is a table, inspired by the elm refectory table at the Foundling Museum. The foundlings sat around this table for their meals.

The book/text has been printed on a single sheet of paper of corresponding size. The narrative sequence of the text begins at the lower left-hand corner and continues in an anti-clockwise direction.

The Secret Staircase print and text can both be wall-hung for display. They can simultaneously be displayed folded into a free-standing double zigzag, on a table. They have both been folded into a limited edition artist’s book, bound in a white tablecloth formerly belonging to Monique Roberts, Michèle Roberts’s mother. Her monogram M.C. is visible. As a young woman she hemmed the cloth and embroidered it with the initials of her maiden name Monique Caulle. Before she died in December 2007 she gave the cloth to her daughter.

Paperback versions of The Secret Staircase have also been printed and are available.

Caroline Isgar & Michèle Roberts

The Exhibition runs from Sunday 2 October to Friday 21 October 2016. Open daily from 10 am to 7 pm subject to College commitments. Visitors are advised to ring the Lodge on 01865 274100 beforehand.

Speaking in Absence: Letters in the Digital Age Conference Report

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It was John Donne (1572-1631) who wrote ‘More than kisses, letters mingle souls; for thus, friends absent speak.’ In an age dominated by ‘social media’, written correspondence networks are a formidable challenge for scholars. The increasing proliferation of digital formats has seen a transformation in the way we conceptualise ‘texts’ and ‘editions’ but also a remarkable resurgence in interest in printed books. Correspondence is a particularly fascinating vehicle for examining these phenomena. Digital tools can illuminate connections and patterns difficult to see through analogue handling, while drawing attention to aspects of the original material that might be lost when reading a conventional print edition. This material experience, in the case of a personal source, is something magical and ephemeral that warrants preservation as much as the source content. The Speaking in Absence: Letters in the Digital Age Conference (21 June 2016), then, was dedicated to exploring how new technology can help critics and historians understand, interpret and engage with the letters of historical men and women (both famous and non-famous); trace networks and connections among the almost limitless texts that can be preserved and searched in archives; and what roles there are for editors and publishers of letters in a world of ‘digital correspondence’.

Held at the Weston Library and Wolfson College the conference consisted of a keynote address, panel discussions, a practical demonstration, a visual tour, research poster presentations, and a conference dinner. Generously sponsored by The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH), Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Bodleian Libraries and Balliol Interdisciplinary Institute, and further involved the participation of Oxford University Press and Blackwell’s, the conference aimed to facilitate communication between the diverse entities involved in the digitization of correspondence. Professor Christopher Ricks opened the day with his keynote address The errors of our ways when editing letters, which drew upon material from several literary biographies and poetical works. Through careful and astonishingly good analysis, Ricks provided many elucidations and inspired emendations of the correspondences under examination.

The first panel focused on projects that bring letters into a digital forum through cataloguing and editing, or the digitisation of existing editions of letters. Panelists included representatives of Electronic Enlightenment,  Darwin Correspondence Project and Cultures of Knowledge who cast an interesting light on the potential for interconnection between both the projects they themselves are involved in, and the correspondence sources they host. In addition, they explored the infrastructure surrounding these resources, and the potential they hold for further collaborative development. Next Miranda Lewis (Digital Editor, Early Modern Letters Online) discussed how bringing manuscript, print, and electronic resources together in one space not only increases access to and awareness of them, but allows disparate and connected correspondences to be cross-searched, combined, analysed and visualized. Moreover, that the collection of unprecedented quantities of metadata, and the standardization of the means of describing and processing them, is the precondition for efficient collaborative work on the development of new digital tools, new scholarly methods, and new historiographical insights in this large and central field.

The morning portion had been a success; testament was the hum of conversations between academics from a multitude of disciplines, professionals, institutional representatives and the public that filled Blackwell Hall over lunch. Afterwards the audience reconvened for a visual tour of correspondence collections in the Bodleian Libraries with Bodleian curators and a lively discussion surrounding the publishing of letters. Professor Andrew Kahn and Kelsey Rubin offered compelling Russian historical and literary case studies, while Jacqueline Norton of OUP Academic; Rupert Mann of Oxford University Press; and Kieron Smith of Blackwell’s revealed the relationships between the ‘editor’ as a critical textual scholar and the ‘editor’ who commissions or prepares an edited text for publication.

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The day’s final panel was held at Wolfson College in the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium. It boasted multiple award winning film editor Sabine Krayenbühl and photographer Zeva Oelbaum who presented their documentary film Letters from Baghdadbased on the letters of Gertrude Bell, a pioneering adventurer, diplomat, archeologist and spy; Georgina Ferry, author, dramatizations of the letters of Ada Lovelace and Dorothy Hodgkin; and Neale Rooney of Letters 1916 (Ireland’s first crowdsourcing project). Each of the projects being showcased explored letters through such varied media as radio, film, and the internet, as a means of communicating this personal material to a wider audience. Although nearing the end of the day Dr. Kathryn Eccles expertly chaired a lively and scintillating discussion about the place of letters in the digital age.

Winding down with a drinks reception postgraduates had the opportunity to display research posters covering topics as diverse as: the language of autobiographical letters sent by women in the Russian language to Soviet newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s; letter-writing in fifteenth century princely education; the use of fictional letters as a literary genre in early modern England; detecting patterns of interaction in ancient papyrus letters; and letters as a resource for biographical research. Finally, it was time for dinner and after a full program it seemed clear to all those who took part in the day that “letters have a bright future”.

This guest post was written by Michaela Crawley, DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford. For more information about the conference program and guest speakers, please visit The Digital Epistolary Network