Brian Eno’s diary: A very strange time indeed

Brian Eno’s wonderful 1995 diaries A Year with Swollen Appendices (finally back in print) offer an endless wealth of wit and inspiring ideas, and a fascinating snapshot of a past world that is both recent and long, long gone.

Brian Eno’s A Year with Swollen Appendices is a book that almost feels like a friend to me – a fascinating and much smarter friend, and one that is endlessly, dependably inspirational. I have turned to this book’s, this friend’s, words so many times over the years. My copy of this long out-of-print tome (bought in 1997) is now so dog-eared that I have for years feared its disintegration. I was therefore delighted to learn that it’s back in print as of this week. I was more than happy to purchase a copy of the new edition.*

My week beats your year

Here’s what I wrote about A Year with Swollen Appendices in my post on seven books that mean the world to me:

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“My week beats your year”, Lou Reed once said. Brian Eno goes one better. Just a day in the life and mind of Brian Eno beats pretty much anybody’s day, week or year. A Year With Swollen Appendices is easily the book I reread or casually dip into more than any other. It presents Eno’s complete diary entries for 1995, augmented with copious additional material (which constitute the titular “swollen appendices”). It gives you direct access to the boundless curiosity and creativity of Eno’s mind. His outlook can change your own perception of what is possible in this world. This book is a fount of inspiration. The dog-eared nature of my copy reflects how often I consult it.

Just above Eno’s book in this picture is a London zone 1 to 4 travelcard, which has long been my bookmark for this tome. It’s dated 17 May 1997 (a Saturday, Google informs me), which I think must have been the day I bought my copy. Was there really a time when you could travel around England’s capital for a whole day for just £3.60?

Something from a very strange time indeed

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Revisiting this book in 2020, the joyous inspiration and boundless creativity of Eno’s thoughts and worldview shine through undimmed. Every page abounds with morsels of genius, including some ideas that seem to have filtered out of the book into the wider discourse, almost becoming this book’s ‘greatest hits’ (his exploration of the idea that “‘culture’ is everything we don’t have to do”, his concept of “scenius” – defined as  “the intelligence and intuition of a whole cultural scene”**).

Over the years, I’ve taken great joy in dipping into the pages of Eno’s diary and seeing what treasures and marvels appear before me. This could be through opening the book at random, or reading what Eno wrote on this day in his history of 1995. An uncanny and serendipitous example of this: I’m writing this post on the morning of Saturday 21 November 2020. Exactly 25 years ago today, in his diary entry for Tuesday 21 November 1995, Eno revisits the No New York album***, and considers how life and the world had changed in the 17 years since its initial release in 1978:

“Jon Savage sent me over No New York, which I’d asked him if he could find for me. Good old boy, he did. It looks now nostalgically exciting – like something from a very strange time indeed (does it always seem that the past was a very strange time, with people experimenting with their lives?).”

Yes would be my answer to this question, as proven by the picture of the world in 1995 that Eno was painting when he posed it. Besides the riches of his ideas, Eno’s book also immerses us in a world that is not that long ago, but is gone and never to return. Revisited during the ravages of 2020, the world as it was in 1995 can at times appear “a very strange time indeed”.****

In his introduction to the new edition, the Brian Eno of 2020 considers how the world has changed in the quarter-century since the diary was written, including a focus on the preponderance of new words that have entered everyday discourse since then. He argues that not only has the popular vocabulary changed and evolved, but the very nature of communication in 2020 would in all likelihood be unrecognisable to a time traveller from 1995. Eno says:

“This era has been called post-truth because language is increasingly intended to be instrumental – that is, intended to bring about an effect – rather than accurate. There’s a difference between shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre that is actually on fire as opposed to doing so in one that isn’t. Increasingly the role of the media – particularly in England, Australia and America; the Murdoch constellation – has become to trigger volatile public response by shouting ‘Fire’ almost all the time. When it’s all about clickbait – grabbing attention – it turns out you don’t actually need much news. Just a flood of red flags will do the job.”

A lifelong friend

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Looking back on the diary, Eno notes that a number of subjects that are now of critical importance to the world didn’t receive even a mention:

“Completely missing from the diary is any mention of climate change, populism, pandemics or China, just to mention a few of the things that occupy a lot of our thoughts now.”

No shame in this, of course. Diaries describe life as it is lived on the day, in the moment.*****

The only shame in this book – for the reader, if not for Eno – comes when you reach the final entry (Sunday 31 December 1995, of course). The author looks forward to having fulfilled his New Year’s resolution to keep a diary for the entirety of the year:

“Tomorrow I can go to sleep without having to write this diary.”

With those words, this book’s door directly into Eno’s mind is closed on us. But I am so thankful that this book exists. It will always be with us.

A Year with Swollen Appendices feels like a friend to me. I look forward to being able to turn to this friend’s wise and imaginative words over the next 25 years and beyond. Gentle reader, I highly recommend investing in a copy, and allowing A Year with Swollen Appendices into your life. I sincerely hope that you will make a lifelong friend here, too.

FOOTNOTES

* This new edition is highly welcome. Everyone should have a chance to read this book. At the time of writing, the original 1996 edition is going for between £40 and £272 on Amazon marketplace! No book should be priced out of the market in this way.

** The passage on the concept of “scenius” from Eno’s letter to Dave Stewart are reproduced here.

*** No New York was Eno’s compilation of music from four bands in New York’s No Wave scene. Read more about it here. The album can be heard on YouTube:

**** Leafing through Eno’s book again, I have to wonder: Could there be a more 1995 experience than the entry for Tuesday 3 October 1995, in which Eno watches the televised verdict in the of OJ Simpson trial while on the phone (almost unquestionably a landline in those days before the dominance of cellular telephony) to David Bowie? Oddly this is not the only reminder of the popular fascination with the OJ Simpson trial that I have come across in recent days. In his new book Inside Story , Martin Amis writes about his late friend Christopher Hitchens’s possibly contentious belief that the level of attention accorded to OJ Simpson in the mid-1990s was a product of a “great lull” in major global events. For Hitchens, Amis writes:

“The twelve-year hiatus – beginning on November 9, 1989, with the abdication of Communism – the great lull, the vacuum of apparent enemylessness (during which America could cosily devote a year to Monica Lewinsky and another year to OJ Simpson), came to an end on September 11, 2001.”

***** This puts me in mind of the words of another great diarist, Alan Clark, from the introduction to his first collected volume of diaries (Diaries: In Power 1982-1992):

“Diaries are intensely personal. They are not written to throw light on events in the past, or retrospectively to justify the actions of the author. They are exactly as they were recorded on the day; sometimes even the hour, or the minute, of the particular epis  ode or sensation. During the whole of this period, nearly eight years, I was a Minister in three successive Tory administrations. […] But on re-reading the entries I am struck by how small a proportion – less than half – is actually devoted to the various themes that dominated political life over the period.”

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