Ingrid has quite a privileged upbringing as part of a loving family with Mum, Dad and 11 year old sister Chump. They’re having a swimming pool built, and have a tennis court, taking frequent trips on their boat. They have plenty of holidays in Europe, trips to the fashion shops of London, the theatre and parties. This is all recorded in such detail that, whilst perhaps not typical of the times, it’s really fascinating. It’s also recorded with great humility and at no point do you feel Ingrid takes what she has for granted.
I don’t want to give too much away but, attending an all-girls school, boys, or the lack of them, become a real obsession “We kept bumping into those horrible mods, and also this lair of six creepish creeps!”. And it’s hilarious how a fleeting exchange with a German lad while on a skiing holiday becomes the missed opportunity of a lifetime according to Ingrid!
Perhaps unusually she’s obsessed with French pop stars, it being a diary there’s no explanation for this, but she listens to French radio a lot and ends up ringing up hotels in London to see if her idols have made a reservation. One of my favourite entries is Saturday July 15 “THE POLNAREFF PILGRIMAGE”
We fell completely in love with the hotel, it was such a peaceful and friendly little place. Before we left we touched the door knobs of rooms 1, 2 and 3 and took in all the details – the “thick flowered carpet” they describe in S.L.C. is red with fern patterns. We were in such a swoon the rest of the day we didn’t look where we were going, even crossing the roads. In a Polnareff vacuum, we managed to find our way back.
There’s also tons of historical social detail including what they ate at meals and in restaurants, how much things cost, what was on TV and what they thought of it. There’s detail on the lessons they had at school and O levels, as well as critique on current affairs and social changes which are fascinating. Here’s an example on the legalisation of marijuana – a debate as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.
For radio enthusiasts there’s a lot about Johnnie Walker and Radio Caroline (while the opening of radio one gets the briefest mention).
As a child of the eighties the sixties are something I hear about as the place where it all started. Being able to read a teenager’s first hand account is a gift. The rise of the mini skirt, the popularity of the Monkees, the good and bad in the charts and on Top of the Pops. It’s all there and documented without inhibition.
I get the impression the diaries are quite heavily edited which I find a bit disappointing, because I want it all, but what is there is absolute gold. Read it – you won’t be disappointed and it’s definitely worthy of publishing in book form. And we simply must bring back the word snaz!
The latest (kind of) diary I’ve read is How Not To Be a Boy by Robert Webb. Really is a memoir but it includes some extracts from the diaries he kept as a teenager. I wish there had been more, he clearly relied on them quite heavily to remind himself what he was like and what had been happening in his life, and they were funny. Anyway, here’s my review from Amazon:
This came recommended to me by someone who’d listened to the audio book version and knows I’m “into diaries”. I had quite high hopes for it; I’d heard him be entertaining on Rufus Hound’s ‘My Teenage Diary’ radio show and I thought the premise of the book was interesting, the title alluding to an alternative approach to a bloke finding his way in life.
However, and I hate that there’s a however, it didn’t really work for me.
As an essay on gender stereotypes, set against his own experiences, it had some success, as did the autobiographical elements, but when merged together it was a bit jarring and meandering at times.
Also his style flitted from straight narrative, to journalistic research, to poetic prose. It meant that I was confused at times; why was the room wet? Oh, right, he was crying… It just didn’t sit well in the overall context. Also although the autobiographical elements are generally in chronological order they weren’t always and, as this is predominantly about his youth, I was unclear about what experiences happened when which was distracting.
Before reading this I didn’t know anything about Robert Webb, other than he was part of ‘Mitchell and…’ and danced brilliantly to Flashdance for Comic Relief, and now I know a whole lot more. And I’m glad I do, and I’m glad I read it, although it didn’t rock my world. It would have been much better if the essay on gender stereotyping was not combined with biography. On their own they could have been something insightful and special. Together they were not.
I feel like I’ve been quite hard on it in the review, as I did enjoy it, I just felt it could have been more than it was. I’m currently reading The Diary of a Bookseller and it’s utterly amazing. Will, or course, be reviewing it soon!
Today we’re meeting Natasha Holme, an obsessive diary writer, who published the diaries she kept between 1983 and 1991 as the critically acclaimed Lesbian Crush trilogy: Lesbian Crushes at School, Lesbian Crushes and Bulimia, Lesbian Crushes in France.
Tell us about yourself
I’m an obsessive diary writer. The obsession started in my early teens as I was discovering my lesbian sexuality. This threw me into turmoil then. I started recording my infatuation for a young female French teacher with whom I fell in love at first sight at the age of twelve. I am comfortable with my sexuality now, but the diary-writing obsession remains into my late forties.
How old were you when you started keeping a diary and what was your life like at the time?
I was 13 and at a fee-paying school in the early 1980s. My parents were middle-class, my father a strict Christian. Being a lesbian was not the done thing.
How many years did you write your diaries for and how difficult was it to keep them going for that long?
The entries became longer and longer until I was writing thousands of words per day. By the time I was twenty-three, I couldn’t keep up. I had such a backlog to write, that my diary-writing fell by the wayside for a few years. I initially found this deeply distressing, but later I very much appreciated being relieved of the burden. It became spasmodic for several years. Then, in January 2008, I quit my job in order to follow my life aims (including writing and publishing three of my diaries). I was fascinated by where this process would lead, so I’ve been 100% back on the diary-writing ever since.
How did you feel when you first began to read the diaries in adulthood?
I loved them, and was so utterly chuffed with myself for having taken the trouble to record my life in such detail.
How did you get to a place where you wanted to share your diaries with the world?
When I was nineteen, in 1989, I met a young woman my own age. We fell into a romantic relationship which neither of us could handle. When it ended, I wrote as if writing to her. Perhaps it was then that I started thinking of my diaries as something to share. By 1991 I was dreaming of getting published one day.
What kind of challenges have you faced along the way?
It’s taken me several years to re-read, edit, hone into something comprehensible, eight years of diaries (from 1983 to 1991). Designing the book covers, building two marketing websites, writing blog posts, etc. has been an enormous amount of work. But I’ll be smiling on my death bed.
How did it feel when you first let someone else read your diaries?
Fortunately, the first two people who read my bulimic diary (the first one I published) fed back to me that they found it excellent, definitely publishable, and that they couldn’t put it down. One said that she was rushing home every evening to get back to it. So, I felt elated–and encouraged to proceed with publication.
Who of the people in your world at that time have read it and what did they think?
Absolutely no-one! I use a pseudonym. None of my family or anyone that I knew back then know anything about it.
What kind of reception have you had and how does that make you feel?
I used to be hypersensitive to the book reviews I received–as if they would make or break my life. I’ve had everything from a reader telling me she’s read Lesbian Crushes and Bulimia: A Diary on How I Acquired my Eating Disorder three times and recommends it to everyone she meets, to a reader saying that the same book is every bit as awful as the title suggests. I find bad responses amusing now and tend to re-tweet a scathing review for fun.
What do you think your diaries mean to those who read them?
Lesbian Crushes and Bulimia is the diary that has really struck chords with some people. Although it’s so much easier to be lesbian now than it was in the eighties, it can still be a burden to grow up with for some. When young women are prone to eating disorders anyway, issues with one’s sexuality can be a factor in provoking that. So, I’ve had a number of young women write to me and thank me for publishing something that they can identify with so strongly.
Anything you haven’t felt brave enough to share?
The letter I wrote to my French teacher, with whom I was in love for seven years. The way I behaved when I had to leave school and so could no longer see (um … stalk) her through the school corridors anymore, was disgraceful and humiliating. But I drew the line at sharing the letter.
Do you have any favourite entries you want to highlight?
Here’s a couple of my favourite entries from my teenage diary (Lesbian Crushes at School: A Diary on Growing Up Gay in the Eighties), the first when I had just turned fifteen, the second when I was nineteen:
Friday 19th October 1984, Home
TODAY was different. At the end of assembly Miss Tennyson asked the Lower Fifth Spanish group to stay behind. We had been accused of writing on the Upper Thirds’ desks in room 19.
Miss Tennyson said, “I don’t expect you to write ‘fuck off’ on desks, or ‘fucking, sodding bitch,’ or suggest that any member of staff is sexually … strange.”
We couldn’t believe it and we were trying not to burst.
She said, “‘Fuck’ isn’t a word you should use for something that is supposed to be a beautiful experience.” That was lovely. I nearly fainted. I haven’t heard anyone speak so plainly. Especially Miss Tennyson.
“Do you know what the word ‘sodding’ means? Hands up if it’s just a swear word to you?” (Everyone puts their hands up) “Does anyone know what it means?” (No hands) “Then I presume you use it out of ignorance. It is the most repulsive word and I cannot believe you’d use it if you did know the meaning. I suggest you look it up in the dictionary.”
I did. It took me ages to find out. It was under ‘sodomy.’ She wasn’t joking. It’s disgusting.
Mr. McKay was a quarter of an hour late for Spanish, sticking up for us, arguing with Miss Tennyson. He assured us that no-one was going to get detention. According to evidence, it couldn’t have been us who had written on the desks. He told us that someone had also written ‘Mr. McKay is a something something.’ He was lovely about it. He didn’t even show being upset. But he added, “I’m not.” And we all cracked.
I had a talk with Mr. McKay after school for ten minutes about Spanish and French. He knew everything about me, that I’d got grade 1 in French and German. He said I was obviously a linguist, that he was really pleased when he saw my “well-known name” on the list for Spanish. I owe everything to Miss Williams. I think she’s great.
Right, now I’ve got to tell you some of the comments people made about what Miss Tennyson said:
Lee: “How the hell does she know?”
Sara: “What does she know about it?”
Didn’t see who: “We’ve had more beautiful experiences than her.”
Thursday 18th May 1989, University
Graffiti in the library: ‘It really turns me on to see dogs shitting. It makes me want to screw their dirty bums.’
Can you believe that? That’s so disgusting. I love it.
What do you think of yourself when you look back at what you wrote?
I feel just slightly remorseful, as I was far more whacky, interesting, adventurous, irresponsible, self-destructive than I am today. What I gained in self-respect and self-awareness, I lost in character.
If you could return to the late eighties/early nineties and give yourself any advice, what would it be?
Good grief. Impossible. I was such an opinionated idiot that I wouldn’t have listened to a word of advice.
Any of you who have hung around here for even a short while will know that I’m fascinated with the intimacies of other people’s diaries. Therefore I am sure you’ll understand how excited I was to discover another writer who has published their teenage diaries!
This time we’re concerned with growing up gay, and coming to terms with sexual identity, as the eighties turned into the nineties. Natasha Holme has published three books which essentially cover 1988/1989 (although this does include some briefer entries from 1983-1987), 1989/1990 and 1990/1991. I bought all three volumes without hesitation (well, after a quick read of the reviews so I was sure they were what I hoped). Here’s what I wrote about volume one on Amazon….
I was overjoyed when I found this whilst scrolling through the returns from an Amazon search for “diaries” in books. A quick look at the reviews confirmed my hopes – these are the genuine diaries kept by a teenage lesbian in the eighties!
The book takes us on a journey through Natasha’s O-Level results, 6th Form and finally her reluctant first year at University. The earlier entries are quite sporadic and brief, jumping days at a time, but by the end we get to hear what Natasha was up to most days.
I’m assuming the reason for this is that the entries are, in the main, relevant only to her on-going and developing crushes on friends and teachers. The central focus of her attention/obsession is her French teacher the peerless Miss Williams. Initially Natasha tries to manipulate the situation just so she will be taught by Miss Williams again, but by the time Natasha is at University (the same one Miss Williams went to of course) things take a quite different turn. What Natasha does can be quite shocking and potentially disturbing, particularly if you’re Miss Williams, but it’s also in turns harmless and highly amusing!
There are entries that genuinely made me laugh out loud (it was worth the price just for December 3rd, 1988 alone!!) and others that made me sigh and feel sad. Yet from reading the pages of her diary I came to love Natasha for her bravery, her attitude, her honesty, her wit and her silliness.
My only criticism is that there wasn’t more! I wanted the unedited version, particularly of the years 1983 – 1986, but I’m greedy like that! At least I’ve got the next two books to look forward to!
I was also reminded of Rhona Cameron and her book 1979 and wonder if that in some way inspired Natasha? Either way, they’re brilliant. I’m on to the second book now, can’t put it down but don’t want it to end either!
This week we’re meeting Sarah Shaw whose wonderful book Secret Diary of a 1970s Secretary is the year long diary she kept in 1971. It chronicles 365 days of her time as a junior secretary at the BBC’s School Broadcasting Council (SBC), a year in which they made a sex education programme, she turned 20 and fell in love with Frank…
Your diary begins in 1971 – what made you start a diary then? I was living in a girls’ hostel in London and didn’t go out a lot, so I thought it might be a good way to occupy myself in the dull evenings. I suspect I thought it might be fun to read again when I was older.
What was your life like at the time?
I enjoyed living in London during the week, going to work and meeting friends; I was less happy about not having a boyfriend, going home at weekends to my parents and being bored. There was always a feeling that somewhere else a great party was happening to which, inexplicably, I hadn’t been invited! Perhaps that’s usual at that age. So I read a lot, listened to music of all sorts, played the guitar and wrote songs. I waited for interesting things to happen.
You wrote every day – how hard was it to keep it going?
Not very. I think a few entries were written a day later. Some entries run on to pages that I took out of a notebook and stuck in. The diary was my confidential friend that year because there was a lot I had to keep secret.
Have you kept a diary since?
I threw out my diary for 1972, which is a pity because it might have been useful. From 73-75 I kept a journal in which I jotted down odd things that happened but it isn’t very interesting. Since then, no.
In the book you talk about discovering the diary again and having an urge to transcribe it. How did you feel when you read the diary again in adulthood?
I was surprised I couldn’t put it down, even though I knew what happened in the end! I could remember where I was and what happened that year, but once I began reading the diary all sorts of sights, sounds, smells, odd moments came back very vividly. I realised the diary recorded a lot of events differently from how I had remembered them since.
What made you decide to publish your diary and what approach did you take?
I typed it all into the computer and sent the file to friends who appear in the diary and with whom I am still in touch. Gill Bazovsky, who now teaches English Literature at Swansea Uni , wrote to me and said Did I want to do something with it, like turn it into a novel? I said no, because that would be too much like hard work. But her interest did encourage me to edit the diary for self-publication.
I decided the key thing was that the diary had to be readable. I took out the repetitive bits and people who only appeared once and didn’t add anything much to what was going on. I linked some of the note-form jottings into sentences so that they were easier to read, and added material where I could remember clearly about an important moment. Then I read it all through out loud, which is a good way to identify anything that is awkward to read. I self-published it on Lulu.com and from there it took off, eventually finding its way to Little, Brown.
What challenges did you face along the way?
There were several decisions I had to take when I edited the diary:
Was Frank Browne still alive? (No)
Was my husband ok about it? (Yes)
Did he (husband) think there was anything unpleasant about the story of Frank and me, i.e. from a male point of view? (No)
Did I want what happened between Frank and me to be made public? (Yes, after some thought. It happened a long time ago and it was such an extraordinary story, one which only my friend Gill and my stepmother had known about. Also, I suspect that it’s more common than people think.)
Should I leave any of it out? (Decided to keep everything in because if I started changing bits my thoughts and actions wouldn’t make sense.)
Should I use pseudonyms? (Yes, except for myself, Frank and friends who had agreed to their real names being used; also one or two who slipped through but were not particularly important to the diary.)
The publication process with Little, Brown went very smoothly. I was afraid they might want me to change bits, but their editor was very helpful and supportive and we made a few amendments, mostly the more explanatory bits in brackets.
What kind of reception have you had?
Astonishing! Some readers enjoy the social history aspect, either because they remember the early 1970s themselves or because they are interested to know what it was like ‘in the old days’!; some readers are interested in the story of Frank and me. To begin with I had very positive comments from friends, which was welcome of course, but it was when enthusiastic messages arrived from readers whom I had never met that I realised the book had a much wider appeal. I’m so grateful to those readers because it made me feel more confident when the offer from Little, Brown was made.
Val, Pam & Gill outside BH 1972
Who of the people in your world at that time have read it and what did they think?
Gill: ‘It immediately conjured up our time at the SBC very vividly. Obviously I paid attention to the bits that concerned Kaz! Your friendship (!) with Frank makes fascinating reading – it was a particularly special time for you, I think. It certainly took me back some 44+ years!’
Penny: ‘I couldn’t put it down. Your self-effacing, humorous writing style carried it along with brio..’
Valerie: ‘Am now reading the diary closely to see if you have offended me – it is good writing I think (in my humble opinion. However I have read a lot of books, more than I should; avoiding the housework!)’
Mr Chaplin (SBC Education Officer mentioned 4th November): ‘I really did enjoy the different perspective of the support workers’ view of SBC proceedings. It must have been really mystifying for secretaries to understand what the precise contribution was that the BBC was making to education. I thought the book captured the feverish mood that pervaded as a result of the sex education broadcasts of the time. We had to deal with a tidal wave of vitriol from Mrs Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers and Listeners Association.
I did not use the manned lifts very often at the Langham but I do remember Frank, although I did not know his name then. Frank was an affable Irishman much given to cheery asides, especially when obvious management-types were not on board. I certainly never imagined he had such interesting rest periods. The other manual lift operator was a much more Eeyore-like individual who thought life was constantly against him and was rather reluctant to have anyone in his lift.
Thank you for writing a book which so perfectly captures the era and recalls good friends and eccentrics now sadly no longer with us.’
Anything you didn’t feel brave enough to share? No. (But would I tell you if there was?)
What do you think your diary has meant to those who have read it?
Hard for me to say. I think you have to read the reviews. It seems to have evoked memories for a lot of people, I hope that’s good.
How does that make you feel?
Delighted, grateful, amazed.
What do you think of yourself when you look back at what you wrote? Like most diarists I recognise myself, but as a different person to who I am now. (If I hadn’t changed after 40-odd years there would be something wrong!) I wish I had understood more of what my parents were going through, and that I had done more to help them. Also, I should have taken Zelda more seriously on the Isle of Wight. Apart from that, I think I did OK.
Some people are bound to judge you, Frank and the relationship you had – how has that felt?
I discussed this with several friends before I self-published the book, and one pointed out that no one was badly hurt by it, so I should go ahead and publish.
It’s up to each reader to make up her/his own mind about that relationship. I never expected everyone would react in the same way, or necessarily like the book. Like many other women I have had nasty experiences of unwanted attentions; Frank was nothing like that, he was very considerate.
Our relationship is very much seen through the eyes of an inexperienced 19-year-old who is completely fascinated by this Irishman, she’s never met anyone like him before. As I edited the book I began to wonder if I were his age and with his kind of life, and I’d met a young girl who thought I was wonderful, what would I have done? How would I have behaved?
If you could go back to 1971 and give yourself some advice what would it be?
Scrambled eggs don’t go with Ryvita!
What’s next for you and the secret diary of a 1970s secretary?
I’m currently working on a book about secretaries in the 1970s. There is the possibility of a film/TV version of the Secret Diary, which is a very exciting prospect but there’s a way to go with that.
I read a review that talked about a TV version, what do you think of that idea?
It would be an extraordinary consequence to finding an old diary in a loft!
Sarah in Dorset, July 1971
Secret Diary of a 1970s Secretary is published in paperback by Little, Brown and is available in all good book stores. You can find my review of it here.