The Joy of Pepys

Twitter is much maligned by those who don’t use it, and I’d be the first to admit that it has several million downsides, but every now and again you come across something truly wonderful which makes it worthwhile putting up with the dross. Here’s an example. Some time ago, a nameless genius came up with the idea of tweeting excerpts from the Diaries of Samuel Pepys.  Those of you on Twitter can follow Samuel Pepys by clicking here:

For those of you not familiar with Twitter, its main characteristic is that messages posted on it (“tweets”) are limited to 140 characters. To outsiders this seems to imply that all tweets are banal and pointless, but this is far from the case. The strict length limit forces a form of creativity that is both rare and wonderful. The stroke of genius in this case was to realize that the Pepys Diaries could be tweeted in chunks of the right size, in a manner that almost suggests they were designed for the purpose!

Pepys was a high-ranking naval administrator and Member of Parliament so he had detailed knowledge of the momentous political events of his period. He’s currently tweeting from May 1660 (near the start of the diaries), giving a vivid insight into the background to the Restoration of the Monarchy. Parliament should be recalled in a few days time, on May 8th…

Here is a selection of recent examples:

But it’s not just the fascinating political context that makes these tweets so interesting. They also give glimpses of everyday life in the 17th Century. Pepys was in poor health for much of his life, for example, and there are frequent references to various physicians and their quack remedies. He also manages to conjure up in just a few words the extraordinary atmosphere and energy of the London of the period, along with some of its excesses (especially drinking and fornication).

Following Pepys’ Twitter feed opens a window into 17th Century England, and what comes through it is both refreshing and illuminating. The reason I find this particularly delightful is something that I’ve blogged about before, so won’t repeat at length. I was a very late developer from an education point of view until I was helped with my reading and arithmetic by a wonderful old lady who lived next door. She encouraged me to read and, after a big struggle, I eventually got the hang of it. After a time I had caught up with the rest of the class in School and eventually managed to read just about every book the School had to offer, including the Diaries of Samuel Pepys which were for some reason on the shelves in Class 2 and which I was allowed to borrow. I don’t think anyone had read them before so nobody, including the teachers, knew how rude they were in places. The Restoration period was generally rather bawdy, and Pepys’ Diaries reflect that.

I had no idea at that time, of course, that less than ten years later I would be studying at Magdalene College, Cambridge, site of the Pepys Library where the orignal diaries are kept as well as the rest of Pepys’ own collection of rare books and music.

7 Responses to “The Joy of Pepys”

  1. Martin Says:

    Of course, if you prefer reading it in blog form, go to for an RSS feed. The blog has been running for a number of years; it got to the end a couple of years ago and has now started again.

    • telescoper Says:

      The period covered by the diaries is 1660-1669, so the twitter stream is very near the start. Here’s to the next 9 years!

  2. I’m still avoiding Twitter. Is there any advantage in following the Pepys tweets as opposed to just reading the books themselves?

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, you get a few snippets per day on your phone rather than having to sit down with a big book…

      • On my phone? I do own up to owning a mobile, but it is a Nokia 3310 from 2002 or so. It has the equivalent of a VT100 (but with fewer rows and columns) as the display.

        I read paper magazines on the train. I haven’t thought seriously about ebooks yet because it is not clear in which way the standard will go. History has shown a) that this is unpredictable and b) that the best system doesn’t win out. Do you even remember what the long-term competition to BluRay was called?

        As for the intertubes, I spend enough of my time following RSS feeds in a browser as it is, and like to do it on a large screen.

        To paraphrase Don Knuth, Twitter might be good if you want to stay on top of things, but I want to get to the bottom of things.

        I actually have half a dozen or so Nokia 3310 and 3330 phones. When one stops working, I just move the SIM card to another one. This phone is small enough to fit into a jeans pocket comfortably, does all I need and yet doesn’t have the bells and whistles I don’t need. It has the best menu I have seen on a mobile phone; even Nokia models from just a year or so later are different and worse. (It gets by with just 3 buttons and the most common response is always on the main button.)

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        I seem to recall Peter commenting once that my mobile ‘phone looked like the latest, most up-to-date model.

        That was about 12 years ago. I haven’t changed it since.

  3. It’s not as poetic, and I’m not sure of the source material used, but does a similar thing for WW2.

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