Wednesday, August 13, 2014
"...being a notebook-er myself..."
When not out making the most of the summery weather I've been immersed in Michael Palin's Halfway to Hollywood Diaries 1980-1988 (St. Martin's Press 2011), and, having just finished it, am now commencing some biting of the nails until the next installment is published, a month from now. Whatever shall I do until then? Reading about the gently famous has been such a pleasure, and I'm looking forward to continuing to do so.
As in his earlier volume (see previous post), Palin reminds me immediately, via the introduction, exactly why I enjoy reading other people's diaries (pp.xxii-xiii):
"If this were a history, or an autobiography written in the future looking back, I feel sure the temptation would be to impose order and reason and logic on this period of my life, to detect themes and trends that led in one direction, in other words to make sense of it all.
But diaries don't allow such luxuries. The events of everyday life are by their nature unpredictable, not at all at ease with the order that we crave as we grow older. Meaning changes, slips, adjusts, evolves. Narrative exists only in its most basic sense.
Which is why I like diaries. The map may be constantly changing, the steering wheel may be spinning all over the place, but diaries are the sound of an engine running, day in and day out."
Other people's diaries also offer relief from the relentlessness of one's own life. It becomes easy to set aside any personal worries and become immersed in the daily details of someone else's. Especially when said daily details are so engrossing. He has tea with Alan Bennett. He films alongside Maggie Smith. He begins reading Proust (and never mentions him again, leaving me to speculate about what surely must be one of the main purposes of a diary - the mention that you are beginning to read Proust...?). He rides in John Cleese's Bentley. He and his mother give the opening monologue together for an episode of Saturday Night Live. His sister dies by her own hand. He has an unexpected visitor - George Harrison - and "...the house is in a dreadful mess." (p.579 - isn't that always the way...) He sits at his desk and writes writes writes. And goes running. And reads a lot. And performs, films, travels, worries, exults, lives his life. While coming across as impossibly endearing. Specific examples of such:
"Tried to write a startlingly new and original, brilliantly funny and thought-provoking piece for Python. Did this by staring out of the window, playing with paper clips and shutting my eyes for long periods. (p.17)
"The eternal dream. By a pool, with a book, somewhere hot." (Kenya, 1983, caption to photo opposite p.136)
"...I no longer feel the burning urge to write another film. I want to go to Rangoon." (p.276)
"I could never spend money this way. Not that I wouldn't want to, but I just wouldn't know how to. I would have panicked long ago." (p.386, upon seeing a fellow Python's house renovation, in progress)
"The flow seems so easy that I worry it will all be junk when I put it together, but it's a wonderful feeling, wanting to write." (p.483)
"To the new Waterstone's in Hampstead. Wonderful. A New York-style bookstore within walking distance of my house!" (p.536, interesting to hear that the British, if I may so generalize, love the big bookstore idea, while Americans - us, or just me? - daydream about small English bookshops... but Palin wrote this in 1987, and as we now know, everything would soon change!)
"Lists of things to do lie accusingly on the desk." (p.587)
This post is becoming far too wordy but I will just mention one more bit, written while Palin was transcribing his ancestor Edward Palin's diaries (p.541):
"Perhaps because I know so few people have ever seen these notes, perhaps because I feel close to the spirit of them, being a notebook-er myself, the words seem very direct, the communication immediate, as if he'd been in Ragaz only last week and, what's more, that I'd been with him."
That made-up word, notebook-er, made me smile. I thought of my thirty (thirty!) filled moleskine notebooks upstairs in the book room - I've been remarkably consistent of late, filling three a year for the past ten years - sitting alongside my college art journals and childhood diaries. I too am a notebook-er, and perhaps that's really why I'm so comfortable with, and comforted by, reading the diaries of others. That, and the immediacy Palin mentions. The you-are-there feeling. That sense that you and the other are not far apart at all, it seems, as we write and read along together, throughout our lives.
So, add Halfway to Hollywood to your list, if you have one, of Serious Books by Funny Guys. Near the top of mine is Born Standing Up by Steve Martin (Scribner 2007), and now Michael Palin's diaries are right up there too. I finished reading today, over clam chowder and cornbread for lunch. I was supposed to have visitors this morning but they cancelled unexpectedly, leaving me in that most delightful of states - with a very clean house, no other plans, some light rain falling, and an unfinished book. Heaven.