NrnIrnGirl1981 is back!

A few months ago you may remember meeting Bronagh McAtasney, who had kept a diary throughout 1981, capturing ups and downs in the charts, her relationships with boys and the Troubles.

She’s back tweeting daily from her account @NrnIrnGirl1981 and has done a couple of fabulous radio interviews! You can hear her talking about what prompted her to set up the Twitter account, what she thinks about the diaries when she looks back on them and what sort of reaction she’s had to sharing her teenage self online.

Click below for the the Niall Boylan Show from 9th January 2019

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Click below for the Ryan Tubridy show from 8th January 2018

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The Twitter account has just re-started so you can follow it from the beginning here and if you want to know what Bronagh said when we spoke with her in October 2017 you can find the interview here. It’s great to have her back!

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I was a silly weirdo and am glad I stayed that way: Memoirs of a Ginger– Meeting Shane McDonald

Shane Today we’re meeting Shane McDonald a civil servant from Belfast who grew up in Armagh during the 80s and 90s. Since the start of this year he’s been sharing his 23 year old diary from 1995, the year he finished his A-Levels and went to Queen’s University in Belfast. He talks all things diaries, telling us why he’s going back to the 90s, the inspiration of ‘Derry Girls’ and what might happen next.

How old were you when you started keeping a diary and what made you start?
I was 12 when I first kept a diary for any substantial amount of time – for me that was about 2 weeks! I was a first year grammar school pupil. I was an unsporty, speccie nerd. I haven’t really changed. I’d watched the TV adaptations of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books a few years previous and I suppose I identified with the character, but also liked the idea of writing something to look back on – a recording of my life I could go to at any time. It’s always been in me to do this. The family didn’t have a video camera until later than a lot of folk, so I used to record things on a wee flat tape recorder my parents had. When I was 9 I made a half hour recording of me and my friend Chris one afternoon in April and made a conscious decision then to keep it as long as possible. I still have that tape and a lot of other tapes from that time. I haven’t listened to them in years but, like diaries, they’re always there for me.

How many years did you write your diaries for and how difficult was it to keep them going for that long?
I’ve kept a diary on and off for 28 years now – more off than on. My first proper diary was from March 1992 to August the same year. It wasn’t too difficult then because most nights I wanted to get to it to write down what happened and how I was feeling. A lot of things around then were happening for the first time for me and getting it all down on paper just seemed natural. It was the same for the 1995 diary which documents a full year. In fact, for me, any diary I keep for any length of time normally documents novel or exciting life events.

What about your diary keeping now?
I still try to keep a diary but find it difficult now as many of the entries would be of working days, one quite similar to the next. When I do write entries now it’s more thoughts than events of the day, and even that can be repetitive as one of my super-powers is procrastination, so what I wrote I was going to do 5 years ago is enragingly similar to what I still have to do!

However I do think if I made the effort to get into a habit of keeping a regular diary it would have a knock on effect to my life – that is, it would get me into other new habits. I mean, how many times can I write, “Didn’t go to the gym again like I said I would…again” before I decide, “Right, I have to have something different to write in that thing tonight. I’M GOING SKYDIVING!”?

How did you feel when you first began to re-read the diaries in adulthood?
The obvious answer to that would be I cringed a lot, and of course I did, but what reading an old diary for the first time in a while mainly does for me is take me back to how things were at the time of writing. It often serves as a reminder of what I really should be doing with my life, presently. A lot of people might read their old diary entries and think, “I was a silly wee idiot dreamer.”  I know I do, but then I think, “Maybe I should be more of a silly wee idiot dreamer these days…”

I laughed at a lot of what I wrote too when I first re-read them, not just because of some of the embarrassingly twattish things I thought and said, but because sometimes I was actually funny. It’s as if some things were written by a different person. One of my favourite lines in the 1995 diary is something like, “I need to put on weight. I’m 5 foot 8 and built like a fork.”  The first time I re-read that I laughed out loud.  I didn’t remember writing it and thought, “Who is this boy?” The diary is full of things like that. Throwaway lines and comments, absurd train-of-thought scribblings, what my head, and I suppose my friends’ heads, were like at the time.

How did you get to a place where you wanted to share your diaries with the world?
When I was writing my diary in 1995, at the end of the year, I told my friend Paul I’d kept it. He thought it was pretty cool that I’d done that. I said to him I could re-write it and edit it into a book. He said, “Hmm. Dunno if there’d be much point.  I mean, who would want to read ‘Memoirs of a Ginger’?” And of course he stared at me, smirking, waiting for my reaction, then I bust out laughing with him while giving him a dead arm – protocol at the time.

I forgot about the idea of making my diary in any way public until around March 2013 when I saw an account on Twitter, @NrnIrnGirl1981 – the 1981 diary of a Northern Irish schoolgirl Bronagh. I found her diary both amusing and interesting and thought it was pretty amazing of her to publish her diary in tweet form. Then I thought that maybe I should give it a go.  But what diary? There was no WAY I was tweeting the March to August 1992 diary – too much cringe, not enough interesting. And it was already March and the 1995 one covered from January. And maybe 1995 wasn’t far enough back yet anyway – 18 years ago at that time.  So I just left it at “Some day I’ll do it.”

Then at the start of this year a show called Derry Girls started on Channel 4.  It was the best thing I’d seen on TV in a long time and it really spoke to me – not just because of where I live but because I was the same age as the characters are at the time it is set.

I was on Twitter reading comments about the show and, when I Twitter searched “Derry Girls” one of the accounts that popped up was Bronagh’s – @NrnIrnGirl1981 which reminded me of what I said I’d do “Some day”.  It was the 6th of January and I thought, Derry Girls is real hit, it’s set in the mid 90s when I was their age, so is my diary, maybe I should start tweeting it! So I did.

And what approach did you take on Twitter?
With Twitter I’m limited to 280 characters so publishing a diary in this way is one of the best exercises in editing I’ve ever had. The easy part of editing is excluding content in the diary that there’s no point in sharing – the mundane or repetitive – and there is also a lot that I won’t share because it’s too private or it may hurt or offend specific people if they happen to read it.

What kind of challenges have you faced along the way?
The difficult part is taking what I feel to be noteworthy, typing it out, then hacking it into tweetable chunks.  That is, I didn’t want to just ramble the main events of an entry onto a Word document then post them as they are using as many tweets as it took; I wanted to ramble it onto the Word document then chisel away until each tweet not only fits with the next one, but also sits well on its own, while staying faithful to the original diary. Sometimes I’d be sitting at 320 characters and think, How do you get this down to 280?  Do you REALLY need to tell people you took a shit, Shane?  It might fit nicely in “shower, shit and shave” but you’ve written that before. Repetitive.  Take it out.

How did it feel when you first let someone else read your diaries?
I’ve never actually handed anyone one of my physical diaries to read – not even my wife – but when I first started tweeting the 1995 diary I felt kind of vulnerable, almost exposed. Then as time went on and people started commenting positively I felt more secure posting. People have tweeted and private messaged me saying how much they have been entertained by my diary, how it has brought back memories of places and people. Someone has suggested publishing it as a book. At the start I thought, Is there a point to all this?  Will anyone give a shit?  But getting positive feedback keeps me going.

Sometimes I’d get no feedback for a while and I’d think, Are people getting sick of this? Then someone would @ message me or private message positively and I’d be encouraged all over again.

What really encouraged me was discovering that other people are doing the same as me in some form or other, like @1980sDiaries, and when I read the associated blog about other public diarists I thought, Wow. I thought I was relatively alone in doing this, but there seems to be a bit of a movement happening here. Maybe it’s because people are living their lives more publicly now with the internet and social media, but there are people out there like me sharing their lives, past and present, and some of them with a lot of success, so no matter what feedback or response I’m getting, I should just keep going.

Who of the people in your 1995 world have read the tweets and what do they think?
It’s given a few people I know a good chuckle. My wee brother recently remarked, “How come everything in your diary about me is accusing me of shit?” I told him it was obvious – because he was always up to shit!  People who weren’t even in my life at the time have @ messaged me, too. Things like, “I know them, they got married!” or, “I knew him, God rest him.”  It’s nice to see wee connections like that happening.

There’s a girl I’m still friends with who is mentioned quite a bit in the 1995 diary.  She says she read it all and found it “proper amusing!” That was a fucking relief – as soon as someone I’ve mentioned in it says they read it I think, “Oh, fuck, what trouble am I in?”  But so far it’s been all good. That girl still follows my Twitter diary.  I hope it still gives her a laugh.

What kind of reception have you had and how does that make you feel?
I was worried that some people may be offended by some of the things I’ve written or object to being mentioned or challenge what I’ve said about them, but I’ve encountered none of that.  Recently I mentioned an actress called Tara Lynne O’Neill who plays a main character in Derry girls.  I mentioned her because, in the summer of 1995, I went to see a production of Grease that my friend Neil was in where she played Sandy.  She private messaged me wondering who I was.  I explained, best I could, and got no reply, then a few days later she replied with “Geg!” (which is LOL in Belfast, by the way).  A few days later I then messaged her that I was in a way inspired to tweet my 1995 diary by seeing Derry Girls and she replied with “Loving yer diary mate!” so she was either being polite or has actually started reading it.

And I’m not sure how many people do actually read it – the account currently has over 2000 followers but for all I know it could have about 4 actual readers!  People do seem to like it, though.

What do you think your diaries mean to those who read them?
Hopefully whoever reads the 1995 diary on Twitter will be entertained by what someone’s life was like in the pre-Internet days.  Maybe they’ll even be taken back to their own lives at the time, or reminded of events, places and people from then.  One post I did recently got retweeted with the response, “This just hit peak 90s.” That kind of thing makes me smile.

Sarah Tipper Tweet.jpg
Anything you haven’t felt brave enough to share?
Yes.

Do you have any favourite entries you want to highlight?
One that comes to mind is the REM concert at Slane in July that year.  An amazing day and, if I hadn’t tried to get it down on paper the next day, I probably would now remember little to none of it.  Let’s just say, there was drink taken.

“Saturday 22nd July, 1995 Slane. REM.
Me, Paul K & Cormac went down to the Mall for the bus. John Duffy & Bugs there, Duff’s beard BUSTLING. David Feeney & John Hughes there, too. Onto bus. Mixed half bottle vodka with lemonade & drank some on the way. Arrived, walked around a bit & found a spot to sit. Lovely sunny day. Went into a pub & met a wee stocky man who tried to sell us drugs. Paul’d taken this strong hayfever tablet so what he drank made him sick & he kinda vomited everywhere on the way to the pub toilet. Covered his mouth & the boke kinda went in a wee spray that he managed to stem with his other sleeve. Got outside & Dave Feeney was bokin all over the street, comin out of him like a waterfall. Quite funny to watch. He was fine. Just too much beer.

Got past security man w my drink, basically gulpin it in his face. Was so blatant with it the he musta thought, “That MUST just be lemonade. He wouldn’t be cheeky or stupid enough to drink it in front of me like that. Besides, he looks about 14.” Needed a piss. Give Paul my bag & headed behind a hedge. So many people pissing so I walked on round to get space to go. Went, then ended up out at different spot to where I came in. No Paul K or Cormac. Met Darren Campbell & talked to him for a bit, then walked on round to where I thought the other 2 mighta been. No sign. Paul had my bag – nothin but sandwiches & Fanta in it, but wasn’t fair on him cartin his own bag & mine about.

Bought paira sunglasses & cap. Cap taken off me durin Luka Bloom by a DICK. Looked round at him & he went “Wha?” He maybe wanted a row. I felt like punchin him right in the fuckin nose hard as I could. No one has a hard muscly ballsack or nose, so it woulda threw him til I ran away, maybe even with my cap! Plus the blood woulda had him shittin himself. That’d teach him. Plus he’d have a nice crooked nose to remind him not to steal wee ginger boys’ caps. Plus he woulda hunted me down & kicked the shit outta me &/or killed me. I just moved on into the crowd.

Drunkenness kicked in bit too much. Don’t remember much of Belly. Sat on the ground for a bit during Sharon Shannon. Think I dozed in the sun – like a lotta people there. Met Paul Fagan & Paddy Gallagher during Spearhead. Good to see them. Familiar, homely people in a sea of strangers. Still no sign of Paul K or Cormac. Oasis were brilliant. New song Roll With It is class. REM, AMAZIN. Michael stipe is a LUNE. I hear a sober John Hughes hit a policeman & was arrested. Mad… Finished with fireworks.

On my own at the end, it was when I was wonderin how I was gonna find my bus home when I heard someone callin me. It was Paul Fagan. Lucky. He knew where to go. On bus, Paul K said he was lookin out for me all day. Main thing was, we all enjoyed the day, regardless. Cormac got tore into more cans on the way home. I slept. Got lift from Mall to Woodford w Paul K’s mum. Dozed in her car, too. Great day. Too drunk, though…”

Other highlights of the year would be my 18th birthday, the last day of A-Levels, and results night. In fact, there’s plenty going on throughout to hopefully hold interest.  It’s quite condensed – I’m fitting the (hopefully) interesting parts of page-long entries into tweet-sized chunks. I’ve tried to leave out the rubbish.  Also, in 1995, my first term of first year in Uni is coming up, so there’s going to be quite a bit of capering from now until the end of the year on the Twitter diary.

What do you think of yourself when you look back at what you wrote?
I think I was a silly weirdo and am glad I stayed that way.

How long do you think you will keep sharing them?
After 1995 I didn’t start keeping a diary again until 1998-1999.  I’m not sure I’ll share that one because it wasn’t regular and, to be fair, at that point, I was more up my own ass than I’ve ever been.

I started keeping a daily diary again in 2000 when I documented another full year. I could share that one but I’m wondering is the year 2000 still too recent. A lot has changed since then but maybe I haven’t – I’ve maybe become more settled.  And I have diaries from then up until now, but more on and off, and less content-wise as time has gone on.  I don’t know if they’d be worth sharing.  With the 1995 diary, because of what was happening in my life, I think there’s enough variety to keep people entertained.  And I am worried I might be boring people already with that one so maybe there’s no point risking tweeting later, less event filled years.

If you could return to the mid nineties and give yourself any advice, what would it be?
Don’t wait.

Which other diaries have you read and what have you liked about them?
I’ve delved into a few I’ve discovered through Twitter and the blog. I’ve found them interesting and amusing in their content but the ones I keep coming back to are @NrnIrnGirl1981 and @1980sDiaries  There is something so appealing and humorous about the tone of a miffed teenager.  Much of the time they come across as put upon and unfairly treated by parents, teachers and fellow school pupils alike, that the world is doing them an injustice and everything is “SO UNFAIR” a la Harry Enfield’s Kevin – no offense, Jamie; I can only relate too well! Uncomfortably well.  As well as that, there is their music tastes at the time, their attention to fashion, which I still don’t have, and the innocence – a lot of the two diaries are so sweet to read, and sometimes when reading I think it’s a shame Bronagh and Jamie and me had to grow up – our naivety did us no harm, after all.

What’s next for you and Shane from 1995?
I’m compiling the tweets onto Word. I don’t know why I didn’t keep them like that as I went along, but it’s easy enough to do now. Once that’s done the diary will be there, pretty much already edited – thanks to Twitter’s limited posting space.

So a version of my 1995 diary that I’m happy for everyone to read will exist in one Word document. What I plan to do then is give it a once over, tidy it up, fill it out, elaborate a bit in places – without rambling. There’ll be nothing to add to it – everything I want to share will have already been tweeted, faithful to the diary – so it will really just be making the whole thing less piecemeal.

I’ve published my diaries in full in book form – is this something you would consider?
I really don’t know if that in itself could exist as a book, though it has been suggested. If I was going to push it as far as a book, I think I’d have to do something extra with it – an idea is to have the diary as one half of a book, and the second half would be about things within the diary.

Now, believe it or not, that could be less boring than it sounds. What I mean is, with(in) entries in the diary, I could have numbers or pointers to a corresponding page in a second half of the book. For example, if in an entry I mention something about someone, or an event, or a place, or whatever, if I have more to say on it – e.g., more about an event or place, historically at the time, before or since, there will be a pointer to a page in the second half of the book about it.

So instead of just a straightforward diary, I’ll have a second half to it that could be anecdotal, historical, factual – a wee bit of Belfast/Armagh history, folklore, whatever.  I just need to make sure it’s not boring!

Maybe I’ll indulge my friend Paul with the title – ‘Memoirs of a Ginger’. Tagline, “5 feet 8 and built like a fork.”

You can follow Shane’s Twitter account here and, while we’re waiting for that memoir you can catch up with his artistry via his Facebook page here. Shane recently had an exhibition of his work in his hometown of Armagh.

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Shane, top middle with friend Neil at the bottom, older brother Terry top left and friends Mark and Marty

 

My Teenage Diary by Various Artists

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707.png I have been really looking forward to reading this ever since I found out it was going to be published. I enjoy the shows on Radio 4 as (usually) regardless of the guest they’re really good fun. I wasn’t sure what to expect but had high hopes for plenty of entries from those featured. Here’s what I thought of it:

 

6th June 2018
It was quite good today because I bought two books including the ‘My Teenage Diary’ compilation from the Radio 4 show. I started reading some and I and I think it’s going to be really good. Will give me something to review and blog about and another reason not to look for another job. People always say summer is a bad time to do that anyway.

7th June 2018
Read some more of ‘My Teenage Diary’. It has excerpts from the youthful diaries of 28 different celebrities and each is positioned by the author with their reflections and memories, of their life at the time, and the diary itself. I like this as it sets some really helpful context before you dive into their secret musings. Quite a few of them I’ve never heard of, like Sara Pascoe, but hers was brilliant “Had burger and chips for tea before remembering I was a vegetarian”.

8th June 2018
More of ‘My Teenage Diary’ on the train today. Oh my god, Sarfraz Manzoor’s is the best by far (I’ve been reading them in order but you could easily dip in and out). It just melts your heart but also makes you laugh! In the last entry he says “reflecting on this diary if I become famous I’ll probably get it published. That should earn me a bit.” Oh I wish he would! I’d buy it!! There are some absolute gems in here. Like comedy itself, some one liners that had me laughing out loud. I really loved Julia Donaldson’s as well and all about her trying to meet Mick Jagger. Those are the better ones, that are along a theme, I don’t enjoy the holiday journal type ones quite as much, the proper diaries are better.

9th June 2018
Been thinking about ‘My Teenage Diary’ and that I’ll probably give it 3 stars. A lot of the entries are too short for me and heavily edited, often a few pages taking you across a few years. I’m thinking I’m not sure it really works as a standalone, without the questions and the jokes you get from the show. But I’m going to finish this morning and see what I think…   Very cleverly it finishes with Robert Webb’s diary. I wasn’t particularly fussed about his as I’ve read ‘How Not to Be a Boy’ and I wasn’t that blown away by that. But his entries are excellent – he should have just published those instead of what he did. They’re hilarious! And maybe because of that I feel differently about the collection now. Having read the whole lot it’s left me feeling warm and amused and sentimental – and who wouldn’t want a book to make them feel that? – so I’ve decided to give it 4, I just wanted more. Would definitely buy volume two if they ever do another.

I do enjoy the youthful pomposity – Meeting Jo Boissevain

Jo in Roches Fleuris 1967
Jo in France, 1967

Today we’re meeting JO BOISSEVAIN who has been sharing her diary from 1967, and more recently 1968, since the beginning of 2017. Covering the Summer of Love, and the year she turned 17, there’s fabulous historical detail, typical teenage neurosis (which doesn’t seem to have changed at all 50 years later!) and the minutiae of life in the late sixties. Jo shares with us the journey she took to sharing her diaries and what the experience has been like to lay her teenage self open to all.

How old were you when you started keeping a diary and what made you start?
I chanced upon my mother’s diary of 1938, when her world was “topping,” “ripping” and “A1”. That Christmas I asked for a Lett’s Schoolgirl Diary. I was 12.

What was your life like at the time?
I was living with loving parents and my younger sister in a glass and wood house in Surrey. We’d go skiing at Easter and to the south of France in summer, sail at weekends, eat at French restaurants, shop at Habitat, go to the theatre and watch the BBC. Living in an obscure Surrey village with no transport I scarcely met boys, but I did enjoy my girls’ grammar; in spite of the hypochondria, I led a charmed life. In the words of a troll (who found me in the Telegraph), I was a “privileged snob”.

My diary (I now see) was my confidante, my way of handling the teenage years. It was also my way of saving the past, which was important to me (still is). I kept a daily diary from ages 12 to 25, and an intermittent diary until my late 40s. I believe a diary also helps you make sense of your life. It crystallizes your thoughts. In the early years I wrote it up every night. It was the first thing I’d save in a fire.

diary 8 march

Have you kept a diary since?
I haven’t felt the need. I now share my neuroses with the people close to me, and Instagram captures the past.

How did you feel when you first began to read the diaries in adulthood?
More interested than embarrassed. Within half an hour of re-reading my diary I enter my former life. It can be entertaining, it can also be unsettling. It’s like when you immerse yourself in a film.

How did you get to a place where you wanted to share your diaries with the world?
Thirty years ago I thought the teenage diaries would be intriguing to publish. So I edited January to April 1967. It was a laborious business in the tippex days, and I had young children to look after. I gave up. Then in 2015 I realised the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love was approaching, and the diaries were languishing in a drawer. Holly, my daughter, suggested that instead of trying to publish a book in 2017 I could publish a ‘day on date’ blog instead. About 15 months later I was ready. On 1 January 2017, 1 January 1967 went online.

What kind of challenges have you faced along the way?
Finding an audience was the challenge. I built a small following on social media, but didn’t start marketing until I had published three months of blog. I emailed every editor I could think of. The break came when a friend knew someone who knew someone who was a presenter on BBC Radio London. I was offered a 20-minute interview with Jo Good in May. It was fun! It so happened The Oldie liked it too, and in  June published a page of extracts. In August I had a spread in the Telegraph (and discovered that unwelcome troll). Gradually the audience grew.

How did it feel when you first let someone else read your diaries?
It felt good.

Who of the people in your world at that time have read them and what did they think?
A few friends read unedited extracts before I went public. They liked the 60s references – Biba, Carnaby Street, Procul Harum, the £50 holiday allowance, the Rolling Stones’ drug trial. One of them declared Ingrid a “hoot”. She thought the diary should be published in book form. Some thought it would make good radio.

What kind of reception have you had and how does that make you feel?
A post a day was scheduled throughout 2017, prepared weeks in advance, with at least two photos and /or a video. Occasionally people would leave comments. That would make my day. It still does! (I’m now posting up 1968, weekly not daily.) Google Analytics peaked after the Telegraph and stayed steady.

What do you think your diaries mean to those who read them?
Not all, but many, are people my age, happy to have memories of 1967 revived. One called the diary a “goldmine for the historian.” Some found the hypochondria hilarious (that was a surprise). Another wrote, “Thank you for an interesting read full of wit and common-sense which the world seems short of today.” That was brilliant. As for my snobbery, it was at least tinged with awareness. “I was staggered to see so many common types in Kingston today” (oh dear!) was qualified with, “sounds snobby, but it did strike me as a lot.”

Anything you haven’t felt brave enough to share?
Various remarks about various people.

Do you have any favourite entries you want to highlight?
Nothing extraordinary happened to me in 1967 apart from being asked out by a “snazz”, and meeting my hero Michel Polnareff. Now I’m more interested in the minutiae of life. Most people who love diaries are. I have favourite lines rather than favourite entries. Such as “Gerry smokes like a chimney, and is utterly vulgar.” I do enjoy the youthful pomposity: “There are millions of families living in this country below subsistence level – I’d be ashamed if I was Mr Wilson”. And “I had a dreadful prawn cocktail with tomato ketchup, and entrecote Bordelaise which was hopeless.” (I can hear my father talking.) I also like, “Last night Martha tried to get through to William Pitt, but got through to her aunt Kath instead.”

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

with Chump South France jpg
Ingrid with younger sister Chump in the South of France 1967

If you could return to the late sixties and give yourself any advice, what would it be?
The same advice I’d give myself now: ‘it may never happen’.

Which other diaries have you read and what have you liked about them?
I love James Boswell’s animated, intimate 1762 London Journal, and the quieter diaries of Barbara Pym with her ever surprising perceptions. Last year I read the recently discovered diaries of Jean Lucie Pratt, who started writing in the 1920s and continued until a few days before she died. Beautifully written and (to quote Hilary Mantel) utterly absorbing.

What’s next for you and the Diary of a Posh School Girl? Any more diaries to come?
I’m lopping away at 1968 and 1969 (the late teens) – they will be the last to see the light of day. I could never make my grown-up self public. For which my children should be grateful.

I’ve published my diaries in full in book form – is this something you would consider?
I would love to. It’s a very different reading experience from reading online. A blog diary is perfect if you like links to news reels and music, which I do. But you don’t get the flow of the story. An illustrated diary would be a dream.

Jo, France 2017
Jo in 2017

As for what life is like now, Jo is a writer based in Peckham, “I write and edit guide books for a living: I can’t resist collating information. The freelance life is lonely but I enjoy the flexibility. Three years ago I moved from Bristol – my husband is an artist so we kind of fit in. Best of all, our daughters, and young grandson, live nearby. I also love food, friends, flowers, biographies, diaries, Chrissie Hynde, Christine & the Queens, country walks, and London.” You can find her diaries here and she’s also on instagram and facebook.

 

 

 

I wait nervously every day for someone to come in and punch me – Meeting Shaun Bythell

Shaun

Today we’re meeting Shaun Bythell, owner of the largest second-hand bookshop in Scotland and author of the acclaimed Diary of a Bookseller. Published in 2017 the diary covers the period February 2014 to February 2015 and provides insights into the book selling industry and revelations regarding the shocking and puzzling behaviour of customers. Here we talk to Shaun about the process of keeping the diary, turning it into a book and what it’s been like to have it published.

You started the diary as an aide memoire to record customer interactions, what sort of diaries had you kept before?
I’d never really bothered keeping a diary, apart from a brief period in my teens which lasted about a year, and which – mercifully – I’ve lost. I’m pretty confident that it would be toe-curling reading now.

How difficult was it to write it every day?
Writing it daily was relatively easy, particularly when I was in the shop and close to the computer. It wasn’t anything like what finally went to press though, it was very skeletal in form, lacking sentence structure and very sparingly written. The first incarnation was almost unreadable. I still write it every day though, now that I’ve got into the habit.

At what point did you realise you were writing a book?
Probably near the end of the first year. I began to wonder what I was going to do with this year of anecdotes and while I didn’t set out to write a diary, it began to look increasingly as though it couldn’t be anything else. I think the diary format probably lends itself to writing about work – several of the less flattering reviews online have complained that it is boring, but work generally is – the quotidian repetition of patterns is what constitutes work for most people.

What approach did you take to sharing your diary and how did you get a publishing deal?
After a year I’d reached a point where I needed help, so I asked Jessica, my partner, what she thought I should do with it. She suggested sending it to an agent. I’m extremely fortunate – through Wigtown Book Festival – to know Jenny Brown, an extremely highly regarded literary agent, so I sent the first draft to her with a letter telling her that I wouldn’t be the least bit offended if she thought it was rubbish. I didn’t hear back from her for a few weeks, so I followed it up with an email asking if she’d received it. She replied that she had, and she loved it, but that it needed considerable work before it was ready to pitch to publishers. With her advice, and that of a publisher who was interested, I finally bashed it into the shape it is now, and Jenny found a publisher who liked it enough to take the plunge and publish it.

The Festival Bed
The Festival Bed inside the bookshop

What sort of challenges have you faced along the way?
Rewrites. I hate having to read my own work, and sadly it is unavoidable when you have to rewrite something. And I did wonder for a while that we might not find a publisher, but Jenny is an excellent agent and knew exactly who to send it to.

What kind of reception have you had and how does that make you feel?
Initially (inevitably, I suppose) there was silence. No reviews, no emails, no letters. Of course, it’s obvious now that people were reading it, but at the time I was wondering if people were even buying it. Now, I receive emails and letters most days. It’s incredibly rewarding to know that people have enjoyed it enough to let me know, and I reply to everyone who writes to me. Obviously there are also people who didn’t enjoy it too, that’s inevitable, and it’s hard to ignore negative feedback, and whatever anyone says about letting it wash over you, it’s extremely hard to read critical reviews, particularly when they’re personal. On the whole, though, I’m delighted with the response the book has had.

What do you think your book means to those who’ve read it?
I think the most vocal of the people who have read the diary has been the bookselling community, who have (with one exception) been delighted that the trials and tribulations of working in a bookshop have been given a voice. I think it’s also – from the feedback I’ve received – given those outside the bookselling community an insight into how it works, and the immense pressure it is under from forces like Amazon and eBay.

What impact has the book had on business?
So far it has been great – apart from the extra income it has generated, it has also brought people to the town and the shop, which is crucial at this time of year when the tourist footfall is almost non-existent.

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Captain

Anything you decided to take out or weren’t brave enough to share?
There were things I had to be sensitive about. One of the negative online reviews I’ve had was from a bookseller in Hay-on-Wye who concluded his rather embittered review with the sentence ‘In thirty years of second hand book dealing, the stories, customers and scandals are far far better than anything in this mildly disappointing work.’ Of course there are better scandals, but out of sensitivity to my customers (and friends) I wasn’t stupid enough to include them. Also, I occasionally changed a customer’s gender, or clothing, or the day on which they appeared if I thought they might be offended.

How did the people you wrote about feel about what you said about them?
Mostly, in the case of the customers, I don’t know them so I’ve had no feedback. My friends all seem quite happy with the way they have been portrayed. Mr Deacon, one of the regular characters, sadly died before the book came out, but I gave a copy to his daughter and she wrote to me to tell me that she was very happy with the way he was depicted. Having said that, I wait nervously every day for someone to come in and punch me.

Have any customers contacted you because they recognised themselves in the pages?
Not so far, but a few locals have recognised people I attempted to disguise.

Which favourite entries do you want to highlight?
That’s a difficult question when you’re talking about your own writing, but I suppose the two parts that I’m most happy with are in stark contrast to one another – the first is the entry about a house clearance on a farm where the people who owned the books were a childless couple, and the other is the reference for Sara Pearce, who used to work in the shop.

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Some people are bound to judge you – how has that felt?
Not pleasant. I think that sometimes people forget that you’re a human being, not just a name on the cover of a book. Fair enough, not everyone’s going to like it, but you can find a way of articulating that without sounding spiteful.

Have you got a section for diaries in the shop and what’s in it?
I do have a section for letters and diaries. There are about 200 titles in it at the moment, ranging from political diaries to soldiers’ diaries with everything in between. I recently sold a set of The Diary of Virginia Woolf, I think in six volumes, which always sells quickly and for a reasonable price.

Which other diaries have you read and what have you liked about them?
Although not strictly a diary, Any Human Heart is loosely written in diary format. The Intimate Thoughts of John Baxter, Bookseller, is also fiction in diary format and a very, very entertaining book. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a diary that wasn’t a work of fiction. I suppose what I like about diaries is that they are about the most linear form of timeline that it’s possible to have in a book.

When you’ve bought collections of books, have you ever come across personal diaries and what have you done with them?
Sadly, I have never come across a personal diary. If I did, I would probably return it to the person who sold me the books, particularly if it was their own diary. I’m a great respecter of privacy, and I wouldn’t even look at it, except to ascertain whose it was, unless – of course – it turned out to belong to Shackleton, or Mallory or someone whose diaries would be of considerable historical interest.

What’s next for you? Any more diaries to come?
I’m currently working on what I hope will be the final rewrite of the second year of the diary. I have another two years in draft form after that, making a total of four years, but I’m not sure the format can sustain that long a run, so perhaps the third and fourth years really will end up being an aide memoire for something different.

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