The Kenneth Williams Diaries

williamsLike so many people born in the seventies I grew up on a staple diet of TV re-runs of the Carry On films. I have a distinct memory of a friend’s mum buying me a lollipop on the way home from school which was to be saved to enjoy during Carry On Screaming. Then the next day we all played at being Oddbod in the playground. Then there was the compilation show Carry on Laughing and the endless talk show appearances with Terry Wogan and Michael Parkinson. You couldn’t not know who Kenneth Williams was in the eighties. So it was a shock to everyone when his death was announced on 15th April 1988. And at some point after came the news that his last diary entry, that ended “Oh what’s the bloody point” hinted that his premature death could have been his own decision.

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Kenneth Williams Diaries

Five years after he died his diaries were published. They were bought for me as a Christmas present that year and although I dipped into them from time to time, usually when a Carry On was repeated and I wanted to know what he had written about it, I had never read them completely until this year.

My interest was piqued when I read Joe Orton’s diaries and realised they were friends. I wondered what Kenneth wrote about Joe and whether he recorded their relationship and shared meetings in the same way.

They made a really interesting read, particularly through the seventies and eighties, but were also a challenge. The elements that interested me were the everyday ordinary goings on of a reluctant celebrity and the opportunities the recording of his thoughts give you in respect of an attempt to understand him better. He was a complicated person, as most people are, contradictory; both spiteful and gushing about individuals in separate entries written just days apart, cruel and bitchy but also thoughtful and kind. Sometimes outrageously funny but also frustrating and whingy.

When I kept a diaries as a teenager it was always done with a nod to the fact that I may want to share them with friends. Now, when I read them back, I can see at times I may have exaggerated what happened, or even lied, to please the potential audience they may someday reach. So with that in mind what is interesting with Kenneth’s diaries is that he did publish parts of them when he was alive (as Back Drops in 1983), and would also read parts out to friends when they came round. So I wonder for how long what he wrote was influenced by what others may think about him. He seems significantly preoccupied by how others treated and perceived him, significantly delighted by a compliment from those he admired, so how much of what we read is actually him, and how much is him edited for others?

Then the added complexity to the diaries is the editing of Russell Davies. It’s a significant responsibility to decide what you are going to reveal to others on behalf of someone else. I’m not sure, had I been given the task, we would have ended up with the same book. Russell wrote in his introduction that towards the end he keeps the entries virtually intact, to allow us to draw our own conclusions about what happened in the end. I sort of wish he’d done the same thing with the rest of them.

There is enough tittle tattle and gossip to keep you going but they are not the easiest of reads, particularly because they were published in pre-google days so there are endless footnotes. These sometimes provide additional insight, but usually just explain who everybody is – even though we generally know the important ones with even only a passing interest in pop culture and the arts.

Still, they’re an interesting record of social attitude, celebrity, notoriety and sexuality hidden through shame that deserve their place on the bookshelf of anyone who likes to know what others think about when writing to themselves.

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Nothing much happened, but of course everything happened – Meeting Mere Pseud

MereMere Pseud has been blogging the diaries he kept as a teenager, growing up in the early eighties, since 2008. I had a chat with him about this, his dairies and the process of making your innermost thoughts available to the world.

Tell us about yourself and how you got to a place where you wanted to share your diaries with the world.

I blog under the pseudonym Mere Pseud at a blog of the same name. I’m a 53-year old Brit who lives in the Midwest, in the same little college town I’ve lived in since my mid-20s; I’d just changed jobs and become an administrator at the local university after teaching there for twenty five years—mainly American literature and literary theory. Cue identity crisis. I’m married, with a dog, a parrot, three goldfish, a mortgage and a dying station wagon. I live in the suburbs with a nice view of the western sunset skies. My daughter lives in New York City. I’m a Zen Buddhist and I play drums in a psychedelic band in Toledo, Ohio: we play a style of music I call “Bo Diddley raga.”

I’m also an obsessive diarist and notebook keeper.

The diaries in Mere Pseud cover the period 1980 to 1985, from the ages of 16 to 21. When I moved to the US, the diaries, half-a-million words spread over twenty-five hundred pages and ten 9”x7” card-bound notebooks, languished in a box under the bed in my old room at my parents’ house, wrapped in newspaper, half-forgotten. There they stayed for twenty years, while the Mere Pseud waited, biding his time.

I was going to go back home after a year, but as it so often does, life hatched its own plans; one year turned into two, then three, then five . . . women, wine, weirdness, the old, old song. The years slid by. Ten, fifteen, twenty years gone, almost like a dream. Dead lovers, heartache, endless Ohio nights and spinning days, teaching and taking classes, friends and the local music scene, dissertations and back-of-the-envelope plans, punk rock, bar-room ecstasies and marijuana mysteries. Marriage and a baby. Then separation and divorce, more heartaches and joy, winters, inexorable seasons and semesters blurring into a life, second and third selves, each grafted onto the ones that came before. Horizons of corn and houses and strip malls, golden arches silhouetted by the sun, the sky an ocean of bright and stormy clouds.

And all these years “home” was a mirage carried in the heart, a memory shaped around that secret word hoard hidden under a bed in the front bedroom in a prewar semi- in Shipley, West Yorkshire.

As often happens when you get older, I started to feel the past tugging at my sleeve. One day I asked my mother to send me the diaries. They arrived in the mailbox one–by-one, wrapped now in brown paper (I think she’d started to read them, was shocked, and thought better of it). While my daughter splashed in the local pool with her friends in the white light of a hot Ohio summer afternoon I loitered in the shade, reading the diaries again voraciously, drinking in the mouldy night smell of the paper and feeling the ribbed pen scratches beneath my fingertips, traces that transported me back across the years to a self who once lived and was now captured, like a fly in amber, a fragile yet perfect facsimile, by the very words whose approximations I’d once cursed.

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After all that time, some of the notebooks were beginning to fall apart, their flimsy cardboard spines separating from the binding, the covers flapping like broken wings; I knew I wanted to preserve them digitally, and I started the tedious task of typing them up. This process was made bearable by a whimsical decision I made to turn them into a blog.

I decided to post each entry in real time, and the events of Mere Pseud started to unspool in eerie parallel to my twenty-first century life. I posted each entry twenty-eight years to the day after it was written, and weirdly enough, June 8, 1980, the day I started my diary, and June 8, 2008, the day I started the blog, both fell on a Sunday: so it was my teenage years rose from their slumber and stumbled along beside my ‘regular’ life in the here and now, a strange haunting, an undertone to present day reality. The two times, then and now, mingled together, staining one another by their proximity.

I’m on my second cycle through the entries now, so this time the gap between the world of Mere Pseud and ours is thirty-four years. Maybe this cycle will continue endlessly, my teenage self locked forever in a closed loop in time. An eternal recurrence.

Where does the blog name Mere Pseud come from?

I called it Mere Pseud after a song (“Mere Pseud Mag. Ed.”) by the English postpunk band The Fall, whose music I love and whose songs and lyrics function a bit like a soundtrack to the diaries. The Fall’s music evokes for me the stain of a very particular place at a very particular time—the North of England in the early 1980s.

But I use ‘mere pseud’ because the phrase also evokes that almost-debilitating self-consciousness I read in those younger versions of me, wrapped up as they are with a grandiose (but sincere!) belief in the life and death importance of the rather ordinary things I experience and write about. Unintentional, pretentious hilarity. Trips to buy trousers, wondering what’s for tea while denouncing my dad as a bourgeois lackey, moments of crisis and existential dread in-between Top of the Pops and games of Scrabble. Football and Dadaism, Nietszche meets Top Shop. Hence the subtitle “teenage modernist.”

Your blog starts in 1980 when you were 16, is that when you started keeping a diary and what made you start then?

Wednesday March 24, 1971. “I got up early.” This is my first recorded diary entry and it sets the tone for what’s to come. I was three months shy of my seventh birthday. I kept that diary for a few months. I have another fragment from 1977, when I was thirteen, and then another from the second half of ’79; I can’t say what precisely it was that prompted me to start the diary that turned into Mere Pseud, but I’ve always enjoyed keeping lists and notebooks, and I suppose keeping a diary was a socially acceptable way of expressing what, as I’ve aged, has revealed itself as a compulsive, perhaps even obsessive side.

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I remember going through a phase as a child where I had to repetitively count the corners of my bedroom before I would allow myself to go to sleep. But wherever the diary keeping came from, it’s clear now that some thing was struggling to be born: perhaps some sort of self who believed  that, if he drilled down deeply enough into the grain and the texture of the everyday world, he’d find a pearl, or that the warp and weft of  an ordinary magic might reveal itself. “Here then is the pattern in my carpet” says Welsh horror writer Arthur Machen, “the sense of the eternal mysteries, the eternal beauty hidden beneath the crust of common and commonplace things; hidden and yet burning and glowing continually if you care to look with purged eyes.”

What was your life like at the time?

“A certain kind of ordinary English life” I’ve described it elsewhere. And ordinary it was, although looking back it had its weird bits. Nothing much happened, but of course everything happened; anxiety-ridden afternoons at the local secondary school, fitful fretting about the future; sidelong glances a girl who was a friend and nothing more, a slow and awkward turning towards counter currents in music, in politics, in art, in stuff I’d never been exposed to before. The excitement of books—the Beats, reading Kerouac in the bogs at school. Jazz. Post-punk. Psychedelic rock. Socialism. Anarchism. Secret escapades with friends in abandoned places, empty factories and weed strewn postindustrial car parks, derelict shops and overgrown cemeteries, while the workaday traffic rumbled by. I stood at a threshold, at many thresholds, of worlds opened up on walks, in pages, on turntables, by booze and friends. Worlds of the imagination.

And, of course, the life I lived ‘for real’ was largely chosen for me by others—by my parents, my teachers, by the deep-rooted lower middle class formation of which I was a part. It was an ordinary life.

Like millions of other postwar English kids I was shaped by the expectation that I succeed and do so in conventional, understandable terms, that I do well, be a ’success’, “pass my exams,” and so on. I did so, but I was pretty lazy. It was all fairly easy, looking back, fatally so in some respects. I was the third child, the accident, and lucky enough to grow up with a family who loved me (spoiled me in fact) and who, by the time I came along, was a bit better off than they’d been when my brothers were young. My house was filled with books, with weekend walks in the Yorkshire Dales, amid horizons I suspected were a good bit wider than those of the other kids I rubbed shoulders with at school. I remember my shock at visiting a mate’s house and discovering his family apparently owned no books. How could that be?

Something had snaked its way up the cultural and chromosomal ladder from a nineteenth-century English sensibility that prized a certain kind of bookish education of which Matthew Arnold might be proud, a sensibility that even then was under siege by the distractions of an accelerating consumer age. My maternal grandmother, whose formal education ended at fourteen when she left school to go and work in the mills, was an avid reader all her life, and in her late-seventies wrote a two-hundred page account in the notebook I’d given her one Christmas, in which she recounts her everyday life growing up poor, struggling to make ends meet as a widow during WWII. Closer to hand perhaps, the impulse to write came from my father, policeman and poet, a hopeless nostalgist and amateur historian, a day dreamer himself. On a recent visit to Yorkshire I brought back his own hand-written account of his life from the years 1929 to 1966, all twenty-four hundred pages of it. My oldest brother kept a diary too.

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I like to daydream, and I think my diary impulse was born from this. My diary-keeping spoke of a compulsive need to write my way out of a narrowly defined vision of a lifeworld bequeathed to me by parents who, bless them, at times found my emerging cultural and political imaginings a bit mystifying. I was drawn to ideas, to radical imaginings, to weird sounds on the margins. I went to see Crass, The Fall, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Psychic TV.

The Jackson Pollock-esque paint spatters on my Adidas school bag were a bit hard for my mother to understand, this the woman who grew up lugging a gas mask to school, who endured poverty and the Depression and Luftwaffe bombing raids and whose byline in my teenage years was “It’s smart to be smart.” For her, normality was a longed-for marker of security and familiarity: for me, it was something to squirm against, to resist in all the subtle, polite ways I knew how to. Once, when I was a student in college, she publicly disowned me in the street, so acutely embarrassed was she by my thrift-store overcoat, combat pants, and purple shoes.

How many years did you write your diaries for and how difficult was it to keep them going for that long?

I kept the diaries going, every day, for about four-and-a-half years. I was diligent, compulsive. Sometimes I might write just a sentence or two: other times I’d write pages and pages. But I was quite strict with myself at the beginning and wrote every day. Often, when I was doing something, I’d catch myself thinking about how I’d describe it later in my diary. Eventually, I started to miss days here and there, but even when I did so I still felt it was important to cover the events of every day, in chronological order. I don’t know why I felt such an urge to record reality as it unfolded, right under my nose, but it was definitely a real impulse, and one that remains. I was excited to discover, in graduate school and beyond, that there are sociologists, cultural theorists, psychogeographers and novelists who’ve devoted themselves to the exploration of “everyday life”: Michel de Certeau, Georges Perec, Nick Papadimitriou, etc.

By the mid- ‘eighties, I started to feel as if the cone of possibilities in the diary writing seemed to shrink a little with each passing year. I struggled with why I was writing, what it was I was hoping to “achieve.” Somehow, the thought I was just keeping a diary wasn’t enough; I suppose I wanted to be a writer, but didn’t or couldn’t fully acknowledge that to myself. I wanted the writing in the diary to be something more than it was. I fantasized about abandoning lined notebooks for ones with blank pages, to free me from what seemed like a slavish devotion to the chronological, line-by-line format of a written diary. I fantasized about adding collage or drawings, poetry or prose bits, but somehow never had to guts to leave the diary form. That’s one of the subtexts of Mere Pseud: the urge for what I’m doing in the writing of it to be something more—the desire for ‘something more’ is a subtext in the diary as a whole I suppose. I started to get a bit sick of it.

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I wasn’t a writer after all. I was just keeping a damn diary. Sometimes two weeks, or a month would go by until guilt forced me back, desperately trying to remember the backlog of everything I’d missed. Eventually I gave up altogether. What was the point anymore? University done with, I moved back home, back to those people and places I’d run away from three years before, dragged back by that claustrophobic sense of self I’d tried unsuccessfully to write my way out of, back to a grim apathetic year of no social life and aimless, unemployed, self-loathing, reinterred once more in the privet-lined family plot while friends found jobs and adventures, lives and lovers. Desperate, I made a break for it, took a train again to my college town to shack up with a friend and start over, another “joyous shot at how it ought to be” (as Philip Larkin puts it) only to go back North two days later, sheepish, hung over, two broken teeth earned on a drunken bicycle ride around a flowerbed. The original diaries petered out. The mere pseud era was over.

 How did you feel when you first began to read the diaries in adulthood?

Well it’s always embarrassing to be confronted by your younger self, especially in such intimate and painful detail! There are grating moments of self-regard, of thoughtless and casual othering bordering on racism, of sexism, of unacknowledged privilege. But I was a teenager, a (very white) boy, and it was a different age, so I suppose that’s to be expected. I’m struck by my innocence, my lack of guile, but also by my sweeping ambition, thwarted and directionless as it was. I was really searching! And as an adult with a regular meditation practice, and some sense of what what daily practice involves, I’m struck too by the spiritual dimensions of those long ago teenage struggles to make sense of impermanence, of the fact that everything’s always changing, of the suffering that arises when you try and hold onto things, onto states of mind and ways of being. I never encountered a real teacher, someone who could show me a saner way. So I redirected all those anxious feelings into the usual distractions, like booze, drugs, etc.

Why did you decide to publish your diaries and what approach have you taken?

It was a convenience really. It made the task of typing them up a bit more palatable. I decided early on to fictionalize names and places and, in a few instances, render separate people as composites. I wanted to save people who are still alive, still my friends, from the embarrassment of being confronted, perhaps unwillingly, with a version of themselves they might not want to reacquaint themselves with—in the later entries especially, there are also some flirtations with illegality, some things we did that are a bit, um unethical.

But I’ve had a lot of fun playing around with the fictional qualities of (re)creating this place that had lived so long in my memory and my imagination. This is how Easterby was born, a fictional place that was nonetheless real, lived in by characters whose dimensions cast shadows made somehow deeper by their distance from the glare of a period I’d lived through in miseries of self-consciousness and a sort of quiet desperation. Easterby, a whole map, a whole culture, grew before my eyes, a ghost-hued dream record that reads now as though its drawn from the memory of someone I sort of know.

I set the university part in Watermouth, which is a fictional seaside town novelist Malcolm Bradbury uses as the setting for his 1970s satire on British university life The History Man (Bradbury’s protagonist Howard Kirk even makes a cameo in Mere Pseud). I studied the novel and reshaped the locations of my real campus experiences to fit his imaginary geography. That was fun. I also populate the campus with figures drawn from similarly themed British novels—there’s a character in there from David Storey’s Pasmore, and one of David Lodge’s campus novels. You get the idea. I also share a residence hall corridor with Rowan Morrison who’s the bait for Edward Woodward in Robin Hardy’s 1973 folk horror cult classic The Wicker Man. She’s all grown up and a bit disturbed, a traumatized survivor, as anyone would be having come from a place like Summer Isle!

An unintended side product of the project has been the imagery I’ve create to accompany each entry. I’ve really got into these pictures; I’ve made almost a thousand by now and really enjoy making them—they’re visual analogues to the entries themselves, image-meditations on memory, the passing of time and the inter-mingling of present and past. In a weird sense, the images bring to fruition all of the unexpressed ambitions I tried to squeeze into those thirty-year old diary words. It’s as if the potential I tried to explore and express back then is finally coming to pass.

What do you think your diaries mean to those who read them?

I think there’s a familiarity there for anyone who grew up in that era, late-70s, early-80s Britain. This was the era of the Miner’s Strike, and Greenham Common, and Rock Against Racism, of Thatcher and the Falkland’s War and mass unemployment: it marks a turning point for British society, the rise of what’s been called neoliberalism. What all that rhetoric of consumer ‘choice’ masks of course are the grim contradictions of a society that’s been increasingly torn apart by inequality, austerity, by a sustained assault on the fortunes of working people and the poor.

Not that I grew up poor (although my parents did). But what Mere Pseud chronicles are the closing years of a certain post-WWII ideal of social democracy. And I think my diary entries register something of the tensions of the era, the struggles over politics and an idea that society might be organized in ways that address the common good. I’m always arguing with my Dad about politics, or fretting about the Revolutionary Communist Party, a Trotskyist group that a few of my university friends flirted with. I’m struck by the contradictory ways in which my adolescent consciousness of politics is displaced into acts of aimless consumption—of clothing, of records, of books, of posters. My sense of what’s possible is framed for me by family, friends, and the subject positions I inhabit, even as I secretly yearn for grandiose, sweeping gestures and commitments. I’m forever catching the bus into town to trail through the windswept brutalist precincts and plazas to look for something to buy, even as I’m aware of how empty and futile it all is, of how consumerism is distracting me from the important questions of the day.

 How do the people who you wrote about feel about your blog? Anything you haven’t felt brave enough to share?

The first time I posted the blog (2008-2013), a few of my friends who show up in the diary entries read along as I posted. I think they enjoyed encountering again that part of themselves they thought had been lost to time and memory.

There’s some stuff I’ve deliberately not put in there—about my sexual frustrations, stuff too mortifying to ever see the light of the day. Some things should stay secret. I also omitted a few events and commentary to spare the blushes and feeling of friends—teenage unkindnesses and the like; stuff that doesn’t need to be memorialized. And some other material that now, when I think back, is pretty close to the bone. Nothing abusive or nasty, nothing like that, but some dark, morbid unhealthy stuff that’s best left buried.

Do you have any favourite entries you want to highlight?

I’ve created audio versions of a couple of my recent favorites which you can listen to on my Soundcloud page.

The most recent entry tends to be my favorite, although I like the ones that capture a particular sense of melancholy and memory, an awareness of time passing, of life passing by. It’s a sense often evoked for me by a landscape, or a quality of light—sun stained clouds at sunset, long shadows in a field, a light-shape on the floor. Michael Bracewell, in his novel Perfect Tense, says that, for his protagonist, “The beginnings of the answer seemed to lie in that trembling patch of sunshine on the wall.” That comes close to what I mean here.

The best entries capture, well . . . it’s hard to put my finger on it precisely, but there’s a quality of drift, an everyday sort of strangeness. It’s like a sideways glimpse of something ordinary but important, that certain angle of light Bracewell talks about, a momentary arrangement, a juxtaposition noticed in passing but remembered. “The occult is not in Egypt, but in the pubs . . .—on your doorstep basically” says Mark E. Smith. It’s hard to explain, because after all, words are barely up the task. I was always trying to capture that sideways step, that slantways slide through places, spaces, and states of mind. That lamppost, those paving stones, these spoons. A neglected tuft of grass, waving in the wind, hidden in plain sight, unnoticed by a world that knows where it’s going, has places to be.

There’s a scene in Grizzly Man, Herzog’s film about Timothy Treadwell who was eaten by bears in Alaska. Treadwell has the camera set up on a tripod and he runs out of frame to make an adjustment and leaves the camera running, and the shot is just a patch of grass, waving in the wind. And the shot is held for what feels like an age. It’s just . . . there, the wind, the grass blowing, and there’s something so unspeakably mysterious about how there it is. Machen’s pattern. Does this make any sense? It’s that quality the best entries in Mere Pseud aim for—they always fall short, but they aim for it nonetheless.

What do you think of yourself when you look back at what you wrote?

I was a neurotic teenager who needed a job, a girlfriend, and a teacher.

If you could return to the early eighties and give yourself any advice, what would it be?

Lighten up! I took everything way too seriously. I think I missed out on the joys of being eighteen, nineteen, with nothing much to do. It’s shocking looking back how little I actually had to do, and I wasted vast amounts of time fretting about wasting those vast amounts of time. I worried too much about what I should have been doing instead of cultivating an awareness of what I actually was doing at a given time and place. I needed some kind of a practice to bring me out of my head and into the present moment. I suppose in one way Mere Pseud was my practice at that time. So much seemed out of my control, when really it wasn’t!

I’d also tell myself to learn a bit about discipline. And not to daydream so much!

Finally, I’ve published my diary in full in book form – is this something you would consider?

Definitely! Although I wrestle with form. How can I maintain fidelity to a 500,000-word original in a tenth of the space? I’ve also thought about other versions—a graphic novel maybe, or a stand-up performance piece. This past summer I started making audio versions of some of the entries. I post them to Soundcloud: you can find the links on the blog. That’s been fun.

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You can follow Mere Pseud on his blog, instagram, twitter and Soundcloud.