Conversations: Author, Diarist, Blogger – Paul Lyons

Conversations with Paul Lyons; Author, Diarist, Blogger

Paul Lyons runs a couple of the most comprehensive sites on journals/diaries. He is also the author of ‘Brighton in Diaries‘, a collection of some of the best diary excerpts on the British seaside town, and ‘Brighton and Hove, Then and Now‘, a review of how both towns have changed over the past century. The books have been published by The History Press.

Born in Hampstead, London, in the early-50s, after graduating from Cardiff University, he decided to travel the world. This was before any “Rough Guides” and you pretty much mapped your own trails. His journey took him overland across Asia, a short while in Australia (including living through Cyclone Tracy which destroyed Darwin), a year in New Zealand, and a year in South America. When he finally returned to England, he dabbled in alternative theater and market research before settling down to a career in journalism, partly because he thought it would help him become a better writer. He nearly didn’t make it through the probation period with the chemical industry magazine that gave him his first writing job because, he says, he had no idea how to be a reporter. In time, he moved on to writing about the oil industry and also being a stringer in Brazil for a couple of years. After about 15 years of writing about European energy policies and politics, he finally turned to writing the kinds of books he really wanted to.

His two web-based projects, ‘The Diary Junction‘ and ‘The Diary Review‘, have been freely available online for a few years now. Collectively, there are 500+ entries online, covering at least 500+ diarists. While both sites are maintained as labors of love, Lyons is also leveraging some of his efforts into other book collections, including a novel.

This conversation occurred over several emails.

Paul, let’s start with your personal interest in diary-writing. When did you first start the practice? We’ve explored the beginnings of journal/diary writing here and I’m always curious about how other diarists get the “bug”, if you will.

My desire to write came early, but didn’t have anything to do with my background. My father, Fred, who I hardly knew and certainly didn’t admire, did write two crime novels when a young man, but he never published again. My step-grandmother, Vera Caspary, was a famous American writer, but I didn’t even meet her until writing was already a part of how I defined myself, or at least how I hoped to define myself. And there’s no point in looking to my schooling for any inspiration since I failed English at O-level, and my teachers didn’t even think it was worth me going on to university (where, in fact, I studied maths and physics, two subjects which needed zero writing ability). Nor is it worth glancing at my friends, since I don’t recall knowing anyone who wrote, at least not when I was in my early, mid-20s.

No, if I had to explain why I took on this passion to write, I would probably draw on three successive factors. Aged 11, I was given a five-year diary. There was a page for every date, and five slots on each page for different years. I wrote regularly in bouts, but then skipped months and years. The book is quite full, but has entries from a dozen different years, right up until 1974, which is when I started traveling and writing a diary more consistently. By 1976, when traveling in South America, I was composing, for my diary, very short fictional stories, often inspired by characters and events around me. Once re-settled in London, I tried my hand at more sustained prose, some of it stream of consciousness stuff.

So, there was the five year diary, the short stories inspired by traveling and wanting to be more creative in the way I kept my diary, and then, thirdly, somewhere along the way, I made an intellectual decision: of all the art forms, I decided, writing was the most interesting, useful and challenging. And I certainly didn’t want to set myself any minor challenge.

For me, too, the personal diary-writing from an early age sort of intertwined with my attempts at fiction-writing in my early teens too.

Now for some background on the projects. What drew you to archiving and writing about the journals/diaries of others? A particular inspiration or interest?

‘The Diary Junction‘, which is an online database of information about literary and historical diarists, was imagined and then created for an offbeat reason. Around ten years ago, I wrote an ambitious, long novel which I judged the best thing I’d ever written, and indeed the best thing I ever would write. I couldn’t find an agent, so I decided I had to try and market it myself. I set up a publishing company, had the book printed, etc. etc. and I created a website to help market the novel. But then – this was still relatively early days for publishers on the internet – I soon realized how difficult it was to get anyone to visit the website, so it was never going to be any use as a marketing tool as it was. How could I improve traffic to my website, I asked myself. I needed useful content, I decided. Also, it’s true to say, I was much intrigued with the internet and its potential, and was very keen to find my own project to exploit this potential.

After much deliberation I opted for ‘The Diary Junction‘ idea. It appealed to me hugely for various reasons. Having been a diary-writer my life-long, I’d always had a special interest in diaries. But, more importantly, I found it very interesting that the texts of old and out-of-copyright books, and especially diaries, were increasingly being made freely available online. So, the key, for me, was to provide, for every diarist, a list of links to web pages where full texts of, or, at least, extracts from, the diaries could be read freely and without too much advertising. I also thought it might be useful content to provide links to the archives holding original diary manuscripts.

Lovely. I spent some time in Brighton during my University years in England, so I’m really looking forward to getting into your book and these diarists who I haven’t read before. Your own diary excerpts on Brighton are rather poetic, if you don’t mind my saying so.

How about the other completed book, ‘London in Diaries’? That has to be a fascinating collection because of so much writing by Londoners over the centuries. Who are your favorite diarists there? Pepys, you mentioned earlier.

While researching/writing ‘London in Diaries’, I found several diarists not much remembered today but whose diaries, I think, are great. Here are extracts from the ‘London in Diaries’ introduction to four of them – Benjamin Haydon, Thomas Cobden-Sanderson, Arnold Bennett, and Michael MacDonagh.

. . . Benjamin Haydon, like Boswell before him, was a man who needed female company, and saw London as a city of opportunities: ‘I felt this morning an almost irresistible inclination to go down to Greenwich and have [a] delicious tumble with the Girls over the hills.’ He was a painter with a significant talent, but his allegiance to 18th century trends, especially historical subjects, meant he was swimming against the Romantic tide, one which would make household names of William Blake and J. M. W. Turner. Chronic financial difficulties compounded his artistic frustrations, and he rarely managed to live within his means, especially after he had married and had children. His story is a sad one, but his characterful diary – initially published in five volumes – is superb because it not only tells us much about the man, but also gives picturesque insights into city life, whether the art and literary scene, or the trials of a day out with his family. . . .

. . . Cobden-Sanderson was very much a socialist, in keeping with the ideology of Morris’s Arts and Crafts Movement. Indeed, his wife was imprisoned as a suffragette at one time. Yet his diary, perhaps, reveals him as more of a spiritual than a political man.

. . . Not so another socialist, the Northern writer Arnold Bennett. Both Cobden-Sanderson and Bennett take us into the 20th century, but Bennett’s diary is far punchier, richer in detail about what’s happening in the streets of London. ‘Never since I first came to London,’ he writes in 1897, ‘has the West End been so crowded with sightseers, so congested by the business of pleasure.’ Though his novels, full of gritty realism, had gone out of fashion by the 1920s his literary journalism was much sought after, and his diaries by that time were full of famous London names. . .

. . . Michael MacDonagh, by contrast, kept a diary that was almost entirely about the war and the effect it was having on London and its people. MacDonagh was a journalist with The Times, and thus writing publicly about London news, yet his diary is a far more personal testimony to, what he called, ‘the drama of the life of the greatest civil community of the world in its direct relation to the Great War’. Not only is MacDonagh present for important political events, in Parliament or at the Lord Mayor’s banquet for example, but he is out tramping the street every day reporting faithfully in his diary what he sees, hears and feels. At the war’s end, he was in Parliament Square: ‘I had heard Big Ben proclaim War’ and after four years of silence, ‘I was now to hear him welcoming Peace.’

One of the questions that many diary anthologists and, indeed, biographers, often ponder and/or comment on relates to who diaries are ultimately written for. What are your thoughts on this, given your extensive research and writing on diarists?

Diary texts, in particular, are different from any other kind of writing in that they are – often, though not always – an unadulterated window into the past: the writer is not trying to communicate with a reader, he is not polishing his reality, he is simply recording it.

Yes, of course, many a diarist had publication in mind. In times past, sea captains’ and explorers’ journals, politician’s parliamentary journals, religious leaders and friends writing journal-letters for their families or loved ones. 20th century onwards, it has become far more common for authors and politicians, especially, to be fully aware of potential publication possibilities.

But no other kind of writing offers, at least, the possibility of being composed in the moment, without any or much reflection, without conscious polishing, and it is this which is so precious. Here’s a couple of quotes from the introduction to London in Diaries:

Of all the literary resources available to understand and, perhaps peer into, this astonishing city, its past and the lives of its people, none are as fresh or vital as diaries. Unique among historical and cultural records, they give a more immediate – in the moment – description of the city and commentary on its happenings than an autobiography or memoir. . . Another difference between diaries and other textual resources is that, though literary types are more likely to have kept diaries, literary talent has never been a fixed prerequisite for diary writing, nor either for preservation of diaries.

Even those diarists who know or hope they are writing for publication one day are. still, in the moment, writing to themselves, about themselves, and, very often, do so in more unguarded, more revealing ways than they might do in a letter or autobiography. Nin is a great example, it almost doesn’t matter how much she exaggerated or made up, she dances for us on every page. Alan Clark (British politician) is another example, as is Virginia Woolf. There’s a great quote in ‘Brighton in Diaries’ from Woolf’s diaries:

Then at Fuller’s. A fat, smart woman, in red hunting cap, pearls, check skirt, consuming rich cakes. Her shabby dependent also stuffing. . . Where does the money come to feed these fat white slugs? Brighton a love-corner for slugs. The powdered the pampered the mildly improper.

This says so much more about Woolf than it does about Brighton even if she expected others to read her words.

These days, its fashionable to speculate how social media has replaced all kinds of writing. So, there’s a lot of chatter about how email, Twitter and Facebook have replaced letters (yet, we seem to have a revival of sorts going on). And, of course, people say that the personal blog has replaced diaries/journals. Do you agree with this? I’ve been blogging/writing online since 2008 but I still maintain a daily diary, longhand. And, my personal diary-writing is very different from my online writing – it’s more “in the moment” and uncensored, as you just said.

That said, you’ve been writing your diaries electronically and transcribing your earlier diaries online for some years now. Do you see the handwritten, physical form disappearing eventually?

These are questions I’m always mulling at the back of my mind, I suppose.

I’ll start by telling you about my shift from hand-writing to typing. I love my hand-written diaries. I have over 50, and they are my most treasured possessions, in the sense that if there were one of those dinner-party-question fires, I’d save my diaries before any other objects I own. But, around the end of the 1980s, the advantages of writing my diary on a computer became too strong to resist: 1) I type quicker than I write; 2) I type better than I write (changing and reforming sentences so fluidly – whereas, with hand-writing I would often complete a sentence with an ugly construction rather than cross out words I’d started the sentence with); 3) I don’t have to type up the hand-written entries at a later date.

By this time, my life had become much more sedentary, stable, routine, than hitherto, and so the single aspect of hand-writing a diary that I loved (still love) – i.e. being able to take the book with you and write anywhere (cafe, mountain top, bus station, beach etc.) – was only really relevant when I was traveling or on holiday. So, mostly, I do still hand-write journals when away from home, and I continue to add these diary-books to my online collection.

I started transcribing my diaries from the earliest days of personal computers. Initially, this was just because I wanted them to be more readable, and accessible, but it wasn’t long before the ability to search and find text became a very powerful reason to have them all digitized. My diaries are my memories, and I use them all the time – it’s so much easier to access those memories now that my diaries are searchable.

[Aside: Here’s one example of how accessing diary memories led to discovering two quite extraordinary coincidences linking Hattie, my wife, who is also a writer, and myself. We only met seven or so years ago. Both our fathers, though they never knew each other, were best friends with the same man (the poet Dannie Abse) at different times in his life. And, my diary shows that on the day Hattie was being born, I was in a library less than a mile away borrowing a gramophone recording of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – Hattie was given the middle name of Miranda from The Tempest!]

I think blogs are very different from diaries and there will always be people keeping many and varied kinds of both. Bloggers want an audience, friends, family, others interested in their own interests etc. I think the ability to blog has tapped into a human need or potential which wasn’t there before. Some people who, in the past, might have kept a diary have undoubtedly become bloggers, but this doesn’t mean to say they are writing the same kind of thing they might have written if they had gone the diary way. One might say, also, that blogging has raised the profile of the idea of diary-keeping in general which may have led to an increase in people writing personal private diaries – whether in hand-written books or through blogging software by keeping the pages private.

I have thought, sometimes, of writing a personal blog, but I get stuck as soon as I try and think about what I’d write, and who I’d be writing for. I’ve spent 40 years writing a diary to myself, for myself, I’ve got no interest in trying to edit my thoughts about myself, about my life, friends, interests, to tailor them for an audience. It doesn’t make any sense to me.

If you then ask, why have I put my diaries online – that’s a very different matter. The diary is there, it’s already written – I’m not broadcasting live, as it were, editing myself for public consumption, no, I’m making available what I wrote, thought about etc at some time in the past, to myself and for myself.

Yes, I’m with you. I find diaries and blogs to be entirely different forms of writing – even if the blog happens to be a personal one. It’s the whole aspect of writing for oneself vs writing for an audience, like you said. For me, the diary-writing practice is a way to explore for coherence and causality in my life. And, since you’re a Durrell fan, let me quote from his Justine. What he says about being attentive enough – I think diary-writing helps us do that.

Somewhere in the heart of experience there is an order and a coherence which might surprise us, if we were attentive enough, loving enough, or patient enough. Will there be time?

How do you reconcile your online diary-writing with the long-hand travel/holiday diary-writing? I’m curious because this is one of the reasons why I haven’t gone digital yet.

A while ago, I ran into this problem with holiday/traveling diaries: in the moment, on a hill-top, I’d want to write about NOW, what I saw, felt, was thinking etc., but then, later, in a more reflective mode, I’d want to record what I’d done the day or days before, and so the narrative would become confused – all chronology would be lost. Thus, I developed a technique (that’s a big word for it!) of writing, what I call ‘al vivo’, and I’d use a different color pen from normal. ‘Al vivo’ is my favorite kind of diary writing – watching a fisherman unload his boat, describing a town square . . .

Here, I decided to do a word search through my diaries for ‘al vivo’, and found the earliest time I’d used it – 2001 – it’s a fairly unguarded piece from my diary, but I thought you’d like – I haven’t altered a word from what I wrote then:

Apropos of exactly what I can’t remember – I think Adam [my son] was asking me about why I write a diary, and then hit on this question as a kind of way of helping me answer it: “If you had a few hours spare, Dad, assuming you knew you were going to die in a few hours time, and you had a spare hour you died, would you spend it writing in your journal?” After some explanation, I said yes, I probably would.

I told him, as I’m sure I have before, that my journal-writing has become a complex part of who I am, and that I can identify several different reasons for it. One important reason (and this is why I have encouraged him to do the same), I said, is that it helps me to sort out things about life in my head. In order to write things down, it’s necessary to arrive at some clarity of thought, and this can be an extremely useful process. It can often force a kind of objectivity. It helps one argue a case through, and perhaps see the flaws. It helps concretize what one might like or not like about a film, a person, an event, a plan, a wallpaper . . .

Secondly, I said, I love to read my diaries, probably more than anything else, and this pleasure has certainly fed through into one reason why I keep writing. In particular, a journal entry written al vivo (where did that expression come from? I seem to have just made it up out of ‘vivo’ for lively and the tonal sense of ‘al dente’  – to write one’s diary ‘al vivo’, in other words, to write with the taste of the experience of what one is writing about still fresh in the mind, still full of flavor, color, sound and feeling) is one that can serve particularly well to bring back a memory that might not otherwise be recoverable.

Thirdly, my journal provides a record of my life, which, I think, is actually valuable. It is certainly valuable to me – it serves as my memory – and it may be valuable to my son one day, or to his children. But, more than that, I think my diaries, with the right editor and publisher, could be publishable (see the aside below). And, for this reason, I probably would want to write something on my death bed. I even suggested, as a kind distant hypothesis, that he might find, later in his life, that he is a writer, has contacts with publishers and agents, and he might find some means to use/publish part of my diaries. But, I insisted, it would always need a lot of work to wade through so much material.

[Aside: About 15 years ago, my diaries were selected by a production company commissioned by BBC Radio Four to make several programs on diaries called “Messages to Myself”. I spent a lot of time selecting extracts, a producer came to my home and interviewed me for several hours, and the program was put together. However, at the last hurdle, the program on my diaries – one of seven made – was omitted from the six-program series. The producer told me that, though she loved my diaries, her boss had said the program didn’t have a strong enough single theme.]