Between Bowie and Bronzino

Saturday 15th November 2014. I listen to an archive radio talk by Arthur Machen, about the superiority of artists who invent over those who replicate. He cites GK Chesterton on the difference between Dickens and Trollope. With Dickens, says Chesterton, the reader knows they’ll never meet his characters in real life. With Trollope, the reader never stops meeting his characters in real life. Machen concludes that Dickens was a better writer, because he added rather than reflected. He adds an anecdote about Turner:

A friendly critic once said to Turner, ‘Your pictures are undoubtedly splendid works, but I never saw such landscapes in nature as you paint.’

‘No,’ said Turner. ‘But don’t you wish you had?’

* * *

Evening: to Elton U’s house party in Ladbroke Grove. Mostly fellow Birkbeck BA English students. No particular occasion other than getting together socially. Other guests: Jasmine B, Jon S. Elton’s place is covered in books – almost every shelf of every room. I pick one up. He not only covers the margins in handwritten notes, but the inside cover pages too. Jon turns out to have had some training as a chef. He brings his own Christmas cake, and we all wolf it down.

* * *

Sunday 16th November 2014. Working on an essay on Waugh. Can’t resist bringing in a discussion on camp. I have good reason to though: Philip Core’s A-Z of camp (The Lie That Tells The Truth) gives Evelyn Waugh his own entry, plus there’s two separate entries for Brideshead Revisited. One for the novel, one for the 1981 TV series. They are filed between ‘Bowie’ and ‘Bronzino’.

* * *.

Monday 17th November 2014. I get the new Quentin Blake advent calendar from Foyles Charing Cross. Many advent calendars are reissued every year, because the dates are non-specific (eg the National Gallery’s advent calendars). But the eighty-something QB manages to put out a brand new design. This year it’s a towering, glittery snowman in the process of decoration.

* * *

A new bad habit, related to my love of eating Christmas food early: Starbucks’s eggnog flavoured lattes. I can confirm that they are overpriced sugary filth from the devil’s own armpit, and that I’ve bought about five of them in the last week. I record this purely as an act of contrition.

As it is, I’m irritated by Starbucks’s insistence on asking for a customer’s name to put on the cup, even when it’s obvious whose drink is whose. I’ve begun to work my way through an alphabet of pseudonyms each time I go to a branch: Adam, Bob, Carl, Dave, Eustace. I do this partly because people often pull a confused expression when I say ‘Dickon’, but mainly because I resent the demand full stop. The whole point of going to a franchise café is the comfort of anonymity. Still, as Ben Elton used to say, don’t blame the staff, blame the management.

* * *

Tuesday 18th November 2014. Class tonight: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Tutor: Joe Brooker. The Southern Gothic landscape drips off the page. ‘My mother is a fish’ indeed. Difficult to read without thinking one is in muddy dungarees.

* * *

Wednesday 19th November 2014. Class: Lessing’s The Grass Is Singing, set in what was then Southern Rhodesia. Tutor: Grace Halden. Fascinating how Lessing’s publisher insisted on a rape scene to be included. And that she refused, even though it was her first book.

* * *

Thursday 20th November 2014. To the Arcola Theatre in Dalston for First Love, a stage adaptation of the Samuel Beckett story. The venue is an old converted paint factory, with its history very much on display: lots of wires drooping aesthetically across exposed brickwork. I go as the guest of Hester R, fellow student on the ‘Literature 1945-1979’ course. First Love is one of our set texts.

It turns out that the production is the whole story performed as a one-man, 80 minute monologue – quite a feat of memory. That said, Hester later tells me she went to see Gatz, the full recital of The Great Gatsby on stage (about 6 hours with breaks), and that involved one actor learning the whole Fitzgerald novel. I have enough trouble remembering my door keys.

The First Love actor is bald, wiry, performs with a thick Irish accent, and wears a modern hooded top under a business suit, though the story is from the 1940s. The only set dressing is a couple of wooden benches, though these are both propped up on their sides, giving the impression they’re about to fall over at any time (again, all very Beckett). The story does involve the use of benches, and at one point the actor nearly takes one to sit on – then puts it back.

He delivers the whole piece in a state of twitchy paranoia and nervousness, often pausing as if the words are occurring to him naturally. This interpretation suits the text, but I can’t help thinking it must also come in handy for any moments where he forgets the words. No one would know.

The enduring appeal of Beckett owes something to the way he captures the universal sense of not quite coping with being in the world. Of everything and nothing. Of anywhere and nowhere. In a way, Beckett is a kind of comfort food. The great thing about nowhere is that you always know where you are.

* * *

I stay up too late to watch the result of the Rochester by-election. Why do I bother with live election TV? ‘Anything to report?’ ‘No.’  Even more depressing is that the media found something trivial to inflate into front-page significance: the Labour MP Emily Thornberry tweeting a photo of a house covered in England flags, with a white van in the drive. Her caption was simply ‘image from Rochester’. She was soon accused of anti-regional snobbery (being a London MP), and was forced to resign her place in the Shadow Cabinet. Disgrace is so very fast these days: a mere five hours from tweet to resignation. It’s one of those Thick Of It plotlines that seem unlikely to happen in real life. Until they do.

UKIP won their second seat in Rochester. Despite all the national media coverage, 50% of the electorate didn’t bother voting. The owner of the white van was one of them.

* * *

Friday 21st November 2014. To the Museum of London with Minerva M., for the Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived exhibition. We go in the evening, for one of those late openings which include a bar and special mini-events around the galleries. Many of the big London museums do these things now – it’s all about giving people an undownloadable experience. We watch a ‘Reichenbach Fall’ sideshow in which people learn how to fall a couple of feet onto a crash mat mindfully. They first have a conversation with some sort of ‘fall instructor’, then they get up on a stage, sign their name on a whiteboard under the words ‘I Want To Fall’, then topple backwards over onto the mat, to the crowd’s applause. Some of the participants imitate Benedict Cumberbatch’s crucifixion dive from Sherlock. We also watch a suitably well-dressed demonstration of Bartitsu, Holmes’s self-defence method, and a series of very funny improvisation games, by the comedy troupe Shoot From The Hip.

The exhibition itself turns out to feature plenty of serious contextual items: rare maps, photos and paintings of 1890s London, including several Whistlers and a superb Monet. Plus an early 1800s rendering of the Reichenbach Falls by JMW Turner (he really does get everywhere). Then there’s lots of film and stage posters from the umpteen SH adaptations, and Benedict C’s actual Milford coat from Sherlock, with the red buttonhole. Conan Doyle’s original stories are given the most attention – there’s a huge lit-up mural of the Dancing Men stick figures on the outside of the museum. One wall-sized quotation is from A Study In Scarlet, where Watson makes a list of ‘Sherlock Holmes: His Limits’. They include ‘Knowledge of Literature – Nil. Philosophy – Nil. Politics – Feeble’.

I think one of the reasons for the success of the character is that from the start Doyle presented him as a brilliant man with flaws. But the flaws have to be of the right kind.

I thought of the British scientist Matt Taylor, from the news this week. He was one of the Rosetta space team who’d managed to land a robot probe on a moving comet. However, he also went on TV wearing a shirt made up of illustrations of scantily-clad women. The sort of thing that even an amateur heavy metal band might view as a bit ‘unsubtle’. In a time when science still has an image problem as a male-dominated arena, this didn’t go down at all well. Dr Taylor was forced to apologise.

I suppose the moral is: even a brilliant man’s limits must have their limits.


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The Last Six Months

Saturday 8th November 2014. I’m putting my college deadlines into my diary when something occurs to me. Exactly six months from today, I will finish my degree. The 8th May 2015 is my last deadline. There’s no exams or timed tests this year, thanks to my careful selection of options. Instead (let’s see…) I have to research and write one 8,000 word thesis (due in April), four 2,500 word essays (two due January, two in May), a 1,500 word essay that doesn’t count towards my degree grade but which I have to do anyway (due in a few days), and a 1,000 word piece that does count towards the grade, though only a little (due in a couple of weeks).

Between now and then I also have to read about 20 further set texts for the regular class modules (ranging from slim poetry collections to fat novels). Plus there are all the books I have to consult for the thesis, the amount of which is up to me.

I wander round the British Library concourse, seeing all the hundreds of laptopped-up hordes – some of whom seem happy to sit all day on the floor if it means access to a power socket. What are they all doing? Studying? Programming? Writing content for websites? ‘You won’t believe what this dressed-up puppy did next!’

I pass them in my breaks from essays, their fingers flying. I see all the reams of words generated every day, even just Facebook posts, and I seethe with envy. I feel so slow in comparison.

I’m managing to do other things, though. This week the artist Becky Boston asks me to write a piece to go with a new artwork of hers. I get it done within three days of her asking. It’s the third or fourth commission I’ve done for her now. I’m grateful to be asked.

* * *

Tuesday 11th November 2014. To Maison Bertaux for tea with Ella Hitchcock. Good to see her again. She’s busy with her studies. I tell her I’m the same with mine. Lots of work, little money.

Then To the ICA for The Possibilities Are Endless, a film about Edwyn Collins’s life, since his devastating stroke in 2005. Like the Nick Cave film the other week, this is another example of how to do a music documentary without repeating the usual clichés. No musicians interviewed in front of – I can barely write it without feeling ill – a recording studio mixing desk. In fact The Possibilities Are Endless has more in common with Under The Skin, with its opening sounds of Edwyn’s voice struggling to form words, and its impressionistic shots of the beach by the village of Helmsdale, north east Scotland, where the Collins family has a cottage. The title is one of the few phrases Mr Collins managed to say during the initial stages of his recovery – and which he kept repeating. ‘Grace Maxwell’, the name of his wife, was another phrase. She helped him cope at every painstaking stage, and is seen acting as his literal right-hand woman, given he’s lost half of his body’s movement. She strums his guitar with one of her hands while he forms chords with his hand. In another scene she cuts his fingernails.

Ms M wrote an excellent memoir a few years ago, Falling and Laughing – The Restoration of Edwyn Collins. It covers a lot of the same ground, though ends at the point where Mr C started writing songs again. Her book ends with some simple yet powerful advice to any family affected by strokes: ‘make up your own story’.

And so this is the spirit of the film. There’s some semi-fictional sequences of a teenage boy who has a strong resemblance to Collins, flirting with a girl in a chip shop. I first took this to be an illustration of Edwyn and Grace’s youthful affection for each other. But the boy then turns out to be William Collins, their son. He steps out of the staged romcom scenes into the more conventional rehearsal room footage, and helps his father make music. The fact Mr C has written and recorded three albums since his stroke (including the film soundtrack) should be inspiration enough, not least because the new songs are as good as those he made before the stroke. One new soul-pop song, ‘Two Steps Back’ is instantly catchy, and stays with me long after the film ends. But The Possibilities Are Endless is about a lot more than music: it’s a portrait of a couple in love, coping with illness in a dignified, funny, idiosyncratic and determined way. The last line is Edwyn’s, and it sums up the film’s sense of freshness and hope: ‘let’s see what happens next’.

* * *

The Quaker café on Euston Road sells chocolate brownies from the ‘Bad Boys Bakery’. A sticker explains: ‘Made in HM Prison Brixton’.

* * *

Class today: Hemingway’s In Our Time. We are required to rewrite other works into a Hemingway style: Henry James, Scott Fitzgerald, Stein. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to do this for the English degree before. Something about Hemingway really invites parody; possibly his machismo.

* * *

Masculinity and comedy is being discussed a lot this week, with reference to Dapper Laughs, a tiresome laddish comedian. As in parodying of Hemingway, the problem seems to be one of targets: punching up or punching down. To mock Hemingway as we do (affectionately) in class is punching up – he sees himself as an alpha male. To mock women, as Dapper Laughs does in an everyman, laddish way (as opposed to a Russell Brand, dandy-Casanova way), is punching down. So this week petitions have been signed, comment pieces have circulated, protests have been made. He has now lost his ITV series, and has appeared on Newsnight to explain how he won’t be doing the ‘character’ of Dapper Laughs any more. The problem was, he wasn’t enough of a character. His form of barbaric, white-van-man style cruelty was all too real.

* * *

Wednesday 12th November 2014. Lecture in Mary Ward House on Philip Larkin’s Less Deceived. Lecturer: Roger Luckhurst. One wonders what Larkin would make of the UK today, given his more reactionary views. Would he have voted UKIP, or would he have seen them as too politically correct? One young student, Ralph, is particularly energised by the lecture, telling me how Larkin really captures the regional England sense of being left out of things, compared to London and Manchester and so on. But there’s always a ‘well, but’ moment when reading Larkin. Such as: ‘They f— you up, your Mum and Dad? Well, but… what about when they don’t?’ And yet his turn of phrase still dazzles, and so he lives on, politics or no.  Without the poetry, there’d be no biographies anyway.

* * *

Thursday 13th November 2014. Sad news: the Buffalo Bar in Highbury is to close. Their final night is on New Year’s Eve. Fosca played there. I’ve DJ-d there, danced there, met new friends there, fallen over drunk there. Here’s a photo of me at the BB singing with Fosca, during a Club Bohemia night. From oh, 1897 or whenever (mid 2000s really):

bohemia

* * *

The nature presenter Chris Packham appeals to Ant and Dec, hosts of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. In an open letter, he asks them to drop the rounds involving live animals, equating them to a form of bloodsport. Mr P’s language to Ant and Dec is particularly striking: he says the treatment of animals is ‘a shame that I imagine neither of you will want to take to your graves’.

On Twitter, I retweet a link to this news story. Then I get into a slight spot of trouble when some people think I’m linking to it in order to condemn Mr Packham. In fact, although I support his cause, I don’t entirely support his use of terms like ‘shame’. The problem is, Twitter is too limited for combining a full response to a story within the same tweet as the link. There’s no room for the spectrum of nuance between the binary polarities of ‘spot on!’ and ‘FFS!’ (‘for f***’s sake’). All is binary on Twitter. You can’t be a bit of both.

I get a rather good comment from Robin Ince on the matter:

‘If you’re not in at least two minds about something, you’re just not putting the effort in’.


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Looking For Squlchy

Saturday 1st November 2014. I enjoy the latest Doctor Who, in which the Master comes back as Missy, a kind of evil Mary Poppins. She’s played with scene-stealing relish by Michelle Gomez. It must be a lot of fun being her.

* * *

Sunday 2nd November 2014. While writing an essay about Ernest Hemingway, I find myself getting obsessed with the made-up word ‘squlchy’. It appears in some US editions of his book In Our Time, yet is corrected to ‘squelchy’ in all the UK ones. I spend hours of this week poring over this tiny matter, seeing if any critics have commented on it (only a couple – one thinks it’s intentional, the other thinks it’s a typo that should have been corrected). I call up different editions in the British Library to trace the differences. Then I try to see if Hemingway ever insisted on keeping the invented spelling (my results: he doesn’t seem to have cared either way, while a later ‘definitive’ US edition uses the corrected spelling). After all this I decide that my findings are irrelevant to the essay in hand. So I cut them out.

I do this sort of thing a lot. I suppose it’s called a research wormhole.

* * *

Monday 3rd November2014. I find out that a favourite TV series of my childhood is now on YouTube. It’s the 1979 BBC adaptation of E Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle. Seeing it now, and comparing it to, say, the trailers for the new Paddington Bear film – I realise just how slow and quiet children’s entertainment used to be. Almost Pinteresque. Very little incidental music, and certainly none of the roller-coaster editing one is used to now. The new CGI Paddington film has a noisy, nick-of-time chase sequence, just like the new Hobbit films.

* * *

Tuesday 4th November 2014. An intriguing article in the New Statesman by Daniel Glaser, a scientist who was on the Booker panel this year. He chose to read all the novels on paper rather than on an iPad or a Kindle, because ‘your encoding of memory is richer if it’s multi-sensory’.

Evening: to the function room of the Lamb pub in Lamb’s Conduit Street, Bloomsbury, for a literary salon. More an informal get-together of literary types, really. I’m invited by Thom Cuell, and bump into a couple of others I know. James Ward is there, once someone I knew from Fosca and Baxendale gigs, now the author of Adventures in Stationery. He has grown a beard.

It’s nice to meet new people, particularly bookish ones. But I still feel so awkward about introducing myself – I feel I have to pitch a version of myself.  I’ve done all kinds of things – which ones to say? Thom introduces me as a singer – and I haven’t done that for years. I have enough trouble explaining my existence to myself, let alone to strangers.

* * *

Wednesday 5th November 2014. A current fashion for young men is to grow as bushy a beard as possible. There are some truly striking examples in the library today: their faces a mass of billowing hair clouds, as if offsetting the weight of their backpacks. The hair on top of their head, meanwhile, is immaculately short, shaven at the sides and slicked down. Bearded striplings. Or better yet: beardlings.

* * *

Thursday 6th November 2014. I go on Twitter and very nearly find myself joining in with the talking points of the day. Remembrance Day poppies is one hot topic, while the new John Lewis Christmas advert is another. But then an immense feeling of pointlessness overwhelms me, and I decide against it.

The impulse to comment on a topical subject is often just loneliness, really. One problem of wanting to belong is that you can join the crowd only to vanish within it.

* * *

To the Leicester Square Odeon Studios for The Riot Club. The cinema is really a hive of small screens built into the cavities and corridors to one side of the Leicester Square Odeon. The Studios even lack their own entrance: you have to walk through a branch of Costa coffee instead. Quite where the Costa part ends and the Odeon part begins is unclear – it’s just a typically anonymous, franchise non-place, one ubiquitous brand blurring depressingly into another. I’m only here because it’s the only cinema showing the film I’m after. Aptly enough, The Riot Club is a critique of the way Britain is at the mercy of a few powerful names. The club of the title is a thinly-disguised version of the Bullingdon Club, the notorious society for wealthy Oxford students, which once included David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson.

Most of the film takes place during one of their dinners, with shorter scenes acting as a prelude and an aftermath. The dinner is such an unusually extended scene that I soon realise I am watching an adaptation of a stage play (called Posh, it turns out). This is where the film doesn’t quite work – it’s tonally torn between its original form and the new one. As it is, these days plays are being filmed on stage to be shown in cinemas directly – and the Billy Elliot musical’s screening outsold all the proper films earlier this year. The Riot Club either needs to stay on stage or needs to be filmed like If…. An allegorical, deliberately unreal treatment.

There’s a moment where one character delivers a State Of The Nation Speech, about how it’s the true way of the British to be trodden on by their betters. This sort of thing is perfect for the stage, but is utterly unbelievable in a realistic film. Still, it’s a triumph aesthetically, if only because it rounds up so many beautiful young actors in one place (including Freddie Fox and Ben Schnetzer from Pride, and Douglas Booth from Great Expectations).

* * *

Friday 7th November 2014. Two launches in East London. First to 11 Mare Street for the Viktor Wynd Museum Of Curiosities. The museum isn’t officially open yet, but tonight it hosts a launch for Mr W’s book on the art of collecting, Viktor Wynd’s Cabinet of Wonders. In the museum is a Dandies’ Corner, featuring Sebastian Horsley’s red sequinned suit, lots of Stephen Tennant art, and a sketch of the young Quentin Crisp by Mervyn Peake. Upstairs there’s a range of beautiful Leonora Carrington sketches and paintings. At the other end of the scale: a box of Russell Brand’s pubic hair, or so the label claims. (More info at: http://www.thelasttuesdaysociety.org)

Then I hop on the 394 bus to go the Mercer Chance gallery, Hoxton Street. This is the launch for Parallel Evolution, the debut CD by the ambient music group Shadow Biosphere, aka Lesley Malone and Caroline Jago. It’s a spooky, space-inspired soundscape reminiscent of the Under The Skin soundtrack. I can also imagine it being on Radio 3’s Late Junction. Highly recommended. (More info at http://theshadowbiosphere.wordpress.com/)


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The Followers Of The Small Dog And Gramophone

Saturday 25th October 2014. I come home to find a hole in my wall. The house I live in is having its brickwork repointed, and the force of the builders’ chisels has pushed a whole brick right through onto my floor. A pile of broken plaster and brick lies behind my fridge. I clear it up and inform the landlady. Thankfully there’s a fresh new brick to replace the one that crumbled through, so I’m not exposed to the elements. I sigh heavily: the repairing of the damage is something new to organise my nervous little life around.

Still, in a city one is always at the mercy of builders, one way or another. Particularly around the Crossrail works in Soho. In the land of the upgrade, the fluorescent tabarded man is king.

* * *

Sunday 26th October 2014. Reading Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Radical American Gothic, with black comedy thrown in. Its short chapters and shifting voices would still be pretty experimental now. ‘My mother is a fish’ indeed.

* * *

Tuesday 28th October 2014. The class at Birkbeck tonight is on The Great Gatsby. The optician’s spectacle-shaped billboard in the Valley of Ashes reminds me how I can feel disturbed by abandoned adverts. There’s a few window-sized ones for HMV in an alley near the Piccadilly Trocadero. Arrows direct people to that particular branch, or rather to the space where it used to be. The HMV shop itself has been closed for some time now, yet these adverts remain. Like the floating spectacles in Gatsby, I imagine them outlasting everything around them in an apocalyptic wasteland. A future society then forms around these sacred images, their arrows of promise and hope taking on new meaning. The Followers Of The Small Dog And Gramophone.

Abandoned adverts do seem worse than stopped clocks. It’s the horror of unexpected stasis where one takes change for granted.

I’m similarly spooked out in Piccadilly Station nearby, where there’s a bank of empty alcoves labelled ‘Public Telephones’. More signs pointing to nothing. And yet, opposite the alcoves is an element of stasis that I do like: ‘The World Time Today’ clock. Installed in the 1920s, it’s still there and still working, with its strip of timezones moving endlessly across a now anachronistic map of the world. ‘Queen Maud Land’ in Antarctica is highlighted as a major territory. So now this clock has outlasted the station’s public telephones. It’s like it’s won a very long staring contest.

* * *

Wednesday 29th October 2014. Birkbeck class at Gordon Square: Beckett’s Four Novellas. I’m initially taken aback by the language, given the text dates from the 1940s – particularly the point where the readers are called c***s (‘Oh Mr Beckett! You do know how to woo an audience!’). But then I realise Beckett first published them in French, and only in Paris too. English editions didn’t emerge until the late 1960s. From Wilde’s exile right up to Lady Chatterley, not counting wartime, Paris was the place to be really free.

* * *

Thursday 30th October 2014. I’m in the British Library, bumping into Birkbeck tutors, researching for an essay on Hemingway. Today I come across a volume of the Fitzgerald / Hemingway annual that reproduces Scott and Zelda’s marriage certificate. I read about how Gertrude Stein returned a draft of Hemingway’s story ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ with the comment ‘remarks are not literature’. He’d originally ended the tale with a self-reflexive discussion on writing per se, in a style that might today be called metafictional. But Stein’s feedback led to him cutting the section out. Instead it became one of Hemingway’s first great examples of his signature style: an apparently simple tale of activity, yet laced with symbolism and deeper implications. But really, Ms Stein: ‘remarks are not literature’ indeed. So much for Borges.

Brigid Brophy is not at all keen on Hemingway. In her essay collection Baroque-‘n- Roll is a scathing parody: ‘He pretended that tormenting and killing animals who are no threat to you was a brave and somehow a mystic thing to do.’ In case it isn’t clear whether this applies to his fishing stories, the book also has a 1980s piece where she champions the C.A.A. – the Campaign for the Abolition of Angling.

* * *

Friday 31st October 2014. To the East Finchley Phoenix for the new Mike Leigh film, Mr Turner. Timothy Spall’s Turner is mesmerising: bestial, even porcine. He growls and grunts and (in one particularly emotional scene) howls his way across the screen, through landscape after landlady. I think of Charles Laughton’s Rembrandt. Spall is up there with him, filling out the film as much as he does the man. I’m an enormous admirer of Mr Leigh’s last nineteenth-century film, the Gilbert & Sullivan biopic, Topsy-Turvy. Mr Turner is much sparser, quieter and more tragic, but it’s the same loose and naturalistic approach to period drama. This is still very rare – a more conventional film like the recent Effie Gray suffers by comparison, particularly as it depicts some of the same people (Ruskin, Ruskin’s parents, and Effie herself all pop up in Mr Turner). In the Leigh film the dialogue is actually allowed to breathe. People pause, or say nothing at all, or sound hesitant when they do speak. Despite the attention to historical syntax, the words still sound like they’ve risen spontaneously from thought – ie, the way people speak normally. And in the case of Spall’s Turner, words are often served better by grunts.

Two and a half hours long, yet it never bores once. A completely immersive and fully realised world. Most evocative of all are the scenes at Margate harbour – the detail is so vivid that one can almost smell the piles of rotting fish. No need for 3D there.

It’s Halloween, and the Phoenix cinema café is selling toffee apples. People take them in to eat while watching Mr Turner. At the time I think this is a suitably Victorian England foodstuff for the screening. But afterwards I look them up to discover they were in fact invented in twentieth-century America. Originally called ‘candy apples’.

‘Candy’, to mean sweets, is one Americanism that is still resisted in the UK, but otherwise Halloween seems bigger than ever. In St Pancras today I see a woman sitting behind an information desk, dressed in a full witch costume. Her leaflets about railway engineering works are weighed down with a small plastic pumpkin.


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I Don’t Know Where To Put My Eyebrows

Saturday 18th October 2014. To Hornchurch in darkest Outer London, virtually in Essex. It’s for my first ever MRI brain scan (which, I hasten to record, results in an all-clear). The NHS provides the scan free, as long as I don’t mind travelling for an hour and half to get to the only clinic that can fit me in. I discover with some delight that one of the trains I take is an adorable little single-track shuttle, going from Romford to Upminster and back. At Romford, the platform for the branch line is hidden away, out of sight of the rest of the station. I alight at the only stop along the way, Emerson Park.

In the clinic waiting room, I sit next to an elderly Essex couple. Their conversation is an endless stream of complaints about public services, peppered liberally with f-words.  ‘Paint your face black, you get everything.’

The scan only takes fifteen minutes. I give the operators a CD of my own choice, which surprises them. Usually they give patients some in-clinic muzak. As a result of my intervention they put the CD on at deafening volume, and I’m too nervous about being wheeled into the big white cylinder to realise this, until it’s too late. Never mind. It’s a privilege to be deafened by John Betjeman’s Late Flowering Love.

* * *

I pass through Friends House on Euston Road, the large building of bookable rooms, run by the Quakers. They now have digital display screens in the corridors which carry world news headlines. I suppose even the serenely peaceful need to be in touch. The rest of the board announces today’s room bookings: the Sunflower Healing Trust and the All England Netball Association.

* * *

Tuesday 21st October 2014. Tonight’s class at Birkbeck: In the American Grain by Walter Carlos Williams. Tutor: Joe Brooker. A curious 1920s medley of poetic essays about American history, each one written in a different voice. Difficult to get to grips with (due to the variety), but intriguing nonetheless.

* * *

Wednesday 22nd October 2014. Tonight’s class: Nineteen Eighty-Four by Orwell. Tutor: Roger Luckhurst. Hadn’t realised the symbolic significance of the paperweight, and how its meaning keeps shifting. The novel is always more complex and more layered than I realise, despite the clear, simple prose. On the latest edition of QI, Stephen Fry admitted he’d never read it. In fact, the show said it’s a book that people particularly lie about having read. Can’t think why: it’s not particularly long or difficult.

* * *

Meet with Ms Shanthi for drinks at the Cork & Bottle in Bear Street, off Leicester Square. A friendly little underground wine bar: very Old Soho. Then she takes me to the inexpensive yet ornate and Gatsby-esque Brasserie Zedel in Piccadilly for dinner. It’s been such a while since I’ve done anything vaguely sociable that I feel physically improved by the whole experience. I end up calling Ms S a veritable panacea. ‘I’m a what? I’m a Panatella?’

* * *

Friday 24th October 2014. To the Prince Charles cinema to see 20,000 Days On Earth, a curious quasi-documentary about Nick Cave. I may not be a fan of his Australian Gothicky-bluesy rock music but I do admire him for being such a sui generis artiste. I also am impressed with the way he’s kept his distinctive look and artistic style – and indeed, his rail-thin physique – so intact for so very long. The film’s title is from his observation of how many days he’s been alive. I can’t resist dividing 20,000 by 365 – it works out at 55 years.

I had heard that the film was as much about his adopted home of Brighton as it was about him. As it turns out, it is still rather more of a Nick Cave documentary, but there’s plenty of distinctive Sussex topography on show. Not least a scene where Mr C drives along the coast to have dinner with Warren Ellis, his main co-writer in the band. Mr Cave is seen parking his car outside one particularly recognizable location: the white coastguard cottages in Cuckmere Haven, in front of the Seven Sisters cliffs. These have appeared in countless tourist guides, postcards, jigsaw puzzles and indeed other films. In Atonement, James McAvoy and Keira Knightley end up there. 20,000 Days On Earth would thus have the viewer believe that this is the home of Nick Cave’s guitarist. It’s not very likely, though, and afterwards I can’t resist looking up where Mr Ellis really resides (Paris).  But given the whole film is full of staged scenes and artificial conceits, my reading of the scene is that it’s a nod to the way documentaries meddle with the facts to get the best looking results for the camera. If you’re going to pass off a hired location as someone’s home, you may as well think big. The staged effect also casts the truly real sections (live performances at concerts and in the studio) into more vivid relief.

I think one reason why I still don’t ‘get’ Nick Cave is that he takes his art very seriously, yet suddenly sings lyrics that namecheck Miley Cyrus and the Higgs bosun particle. I don’t know where to put my eyebrows. The Cave oeuvre operates on a very particular frequency – one has to buy fully into his world, or not at all. Hence his enduring status as a cult artist, rather than a mainstream one. And yet in the film he tells Kylie Minogue how he envies her being a waxwork at Madame Tussauds. Or is that a wry joke? I can’t tell.

* * *

I watch a YouTube interview by Mark Kermode. He asks a woman from the BBFC about their issuing of warnings for the start of films in UK cinemas. These take the form of a short sentence explaining why they’ve given a film a particular certificate.  More recently, however, these warnings have crossed into the realms of plot spoilers, such as ‘contains one scene of a suicide attempt’ for Two Days One Night. When I saw this film’s warning at the Dalston Rio, many of the audience tutted and sighed, appalled at such blunt specificity. When the suicide scene popped up, myself and my friends looked to each other and whispered, ‘Ah, here’s that thing we were told to watch out for, then.’ The immersive effect was completely ruined. I thought of the disastrous scheme which Channel 4 tried out in the 80s, where they indicated a film’s sexual content by adding a little red triangle in the corner. It didn’t last long.

Now, according to the Mark Kermode video, the BBFC have listened to people’s complaints. They are going to keep any spoiler-style warnings restricted to their website, so those who need to check for such things can do so individually. This makes sense. It’s the unasked-for placing at the start of the film that’s really the problem.

This is not to play down the importance of ‘trigger warnings’, however. I know now – thanks to Twitter – that to be ‘triggered’ by content is not the same as just being upset. A triggered reaction is associated more with post-traumatic stress disorder. Detailed depictions of domestic assault, sexual abuse or suicide – when unexpected – have now been known to trigger physical reactions in some people, just as strobe lighting can cause problems for those with epilepsy. So the BBFC’s dilemma is understandable.

I can think of some films where a full tally of triggering and upsetting content would never fit into a single warning full stop. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, for one. I saw it twice when it came out. At both screenings, people got up and walked out – and at the same scene. It involved a wooden spoon, a person, and a lot of blood. But by that point there had been so many similar scenes that this may have been the last straw.


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The Silence Of Christmas Sandwiches

Saturday 11th October 2014. I watch the new BBC documentary about Genesis, mainly because I’m curious about their 1970s prog-rock phase. Fittingly, the documentary goes on a bit.

* * *

Monday 13th October 2014. Modern signs of the seasons. In their grab-for-lunch fridge section today, Boots are stocking their Christmas ranges. Red cardboard packaging with snowflake motifs. I note how fine I am with this sort of thing, mainly because it’s not accompanied with in-store festive music – yet. It’s only unrequested noise that really depresses. Thus I come away from Boots praising the silence of sandwiches.

I am trying out some organic remedies for anxiety. One is rubbing warm sesame oil onto the skin. I duly give it a go, and spend the rest of the day smelling like a Chinese takeaway.

* * *

Tuesday 14th October 2014. There’s a popular Internet catchphrase, ‘You had one job’. It’s often appended to photographs of badly installed doors, lavatories, and so on. Tonight I find myself saying it while watching the BBC’s live TV coverage of the Booker Prize ceremony. Within a half hour programme of comment and preamble, a technical hitch means they miss the actual announcement. Instead the camera stays on poor Andrew Motion in emergency pundit mode, forced to fill for time with comments on the various nominees. At this point, it’s not what he says that matters, it’s only that he says something. It’s not the worse BBC Booker slip-up, though. That has to be the time in the 80s when Selina Scott not only failed to recognise one of the judges, Angela Carter, she also asked her what her favourite one on the list was. ‘You’re not supposed to ask me that,’ said Ms Carter.

More recently, Howard Jacobson’s acceptance speech was cut off by the BBC News channel in mid-sentence. This was in order to go live to the trapped Chilean miners, where something was said to be happening. It wasn’t.

* * *

Tonight’s Birkbeck class (Joe Brooker teaching): Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. From 1909, yet still so fresh in its experimentation. I find some of the repetition hard going, but come to admire its dedication to new takes on form and subject matter. Stein’s layered rhythms take some getting used to, but then the same is said of David Peace now. ‘You can’t lose yourself in it’ remarks one student.

* * *

Wednesday 15th October 2014. Tonight’s class: Brideshead Revisited. Roger Luckhurst teaching. A nice contrast to the previous night. Decades later than Stein, yet such a throwback in style. And a throwback for many of Waugh’s admirers, too. Its wistful love of the aristocracy still provokes, just as it did on publication. Yet it was a hit with the book buyers of the 1940s. Professor L suggests that the popularity of the 1980s TV series may have had something to do with the gloom of Thatcherism at the time. An understandable response, just as Waugh’s novel was his understandable response to WW2.

Prof L also recounts how a fellow tutor was appalled at having to teach the book on another module. ‘You’ve reminded me who the enemy are.’

I suppose in theory I should be against it too. Yet the wit and craft of his writing sparkles and connects. Universal sentiments, despite all the elitism. Certainly Waugh himself was often snobbish and misanthropic in his interviews – but then much of the time he was something of a wind-up merchant. There’s a Paris Review piece where he insists on getting into his pyjamas and doing the interview in the hotel bed, smoking a cigar. When the interviewer asks him to comment on something by Edmund Wilson. Waugh replies, ‘Is he an American?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I don’t think what they have to say is of much interest, do you?’

* * *

Thursday 16th October 2014. In the British Library, very much a welcoming oasis for those with laptop lives, with its free wifi, pleasant atmosphere and lack of piped music. The BL has now somehow squeezed dozens of attractive new study tables into its lobby and café areas, thus freeing up more desks in the reading rooms for those who actually need to consult the BL’s books. Certainly the Rare Books Reading Room seems quieter than it has been. The new lobby tables are packed for much of the day. I look out at them: a sea of faces all lit by the glow of their respective screens. Life in 2014. Footlight faces.

I read a lecture by Shirley Jackson. It’s on the response to her short story, ‘The Lottery’, upon its publication by the New Yorker in 1948. She received hundreds of scathing letters, including one from her mother. ‘It does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?’

* * *

Friday 17th October 2014. To the East Finchley Phoenix for Effie Gray, the new Emma Thompson-scripted period drama. It’s pretty to look at, and the true story it tells is fascinating enough, but somehow it feels cold and unengaging. Maybe that’s the fault of the story in question, being the coldness of the marriage between art critic John Ruskin and nineteen-year old Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray. Ruskin was about thirty at the time, though in this film he seems much older. I wonder if this was a deliberate move to play up the age difference, because it’s certainly accentuated by a flashback scene, with Ruskin taking an even younger Effie around a museum. There’s hints of a Lewis Carroll theory here – Ruskin had known Effie since she was twelve and even wrote a fairy tale for her, The King of the Golden River. The film also begins with Effie retelling her marriage aloud as if that were a fairy tale. A few minutes in we get the expected wedding night scene, where Ruskin is appalled by his wife’s naked body. Although Emma T seems unwilling to subscribe to the theories as to which specific body parts put him off, for me the film suggests it was her whole adulthood that appalled him. The rest of the film is essentially her moping around unhappily, if immaculately in picturesque settings, particularly Venice and rural Scotland. The casting of Dakota Fanning is perfect. At times she resembles the saddest yet best dressed doll in the shop, at others like she’s just walked out of a Holman Hunt.

The film’s poster has been all over the walls of Tube stations lately. It is slightly misleading, as it juxtaposes Ms Fanning next to Millais’s masterpiece Ophelia, familiar to any visitor of the Tate Britain. This might make people think Effie was that painting’s model. Millais himself is in the film all right – as a better lover for Effie – but there’s no direct reference to the painting other than in a montage of Pre-Raphaelite hits. Perhaps a mention of its true model, Lizzie Siddall, would have been too much for the story. After all, Ms Siddall had a pretty interesting life herself – doubtless to be covered in another film sometime.

There seems to be no shortage of art biopics. Tonight’s screening comes after a trailer for Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, with Timothy Spall as the shimmery dauber. And there in the trailer is another version of John Ruskin. Sibelius is meant to have said, ‘No one ever erected a statue to a critic’. But they certainly put them into films.

Effie Gray had to fend off lawsuits from other writers, who apparently had similar ideas for adapting the tale. There’s no ending to the interest in flawed fame. In the credits, I notice that Young Effy is played by Tiger Lily Hutchence, the daughter of Paula Yates and Michael Hutchence. She must certainly know something about private lives becoming public narratives.


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On Being A Harbinger Of Grayson Perry

Saturday 4th October 2014.

To the Conway Hall in Holborn for a spot of DJ-ing. It’s Suzette Field’s Black and White Masked Ball, inspired by Truman Capote’s 1966 party (a party which has its own Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_and_White_Ball).

There’s a strict dress code of black and white colours only. I don my chalk white suit, freshly cleaned. Ms Shanthi meets me at the event, and says I look like an advert for Daz Automatic. There’s several rooms packed with dancing, arty bands and cabaret acts, plus there’s an oversized chess game. Naked stewards walk around offering plates of food, their body paint conforming to the rules. They literally are wearing only black and white. I’m impressed that the punkish marching band Perhaps Contraption have eschewed their bespoke yellow and plum uniforms for some one-off black and white apparel. Their spiky-haired glockenspieliste and co-vocalist Felicity is in a stunning white ballgown. I play my usual mix of 1920s jazzy pop, easy listening, showtunes and anything else that fits the moment. It’s a joy watching a room full of such beautifully dressed up people dance and indeed strut to my hopeful selections.

* * *

Sunday 5th October 2014. I write a presentation script on literary camp for college, and put together Powerpoint slides to go with it. I do this at home while standing up at my desk. This is partly because I have to keep referring to books from my bookcase, but mostly because I’m restless. Not sure if lectern-style writing is better, but it certainly feels healthier. I am also a great lover of frequently getting up to pace around the desk, which is only really acceptable in the privacy of one’s home. If I tried that in a library, it would only be a matter of time before other members set fire to me.

To the ICA for Tony Benn: Last Will and Testament. It’s billed as a documentary, but is better described as a fond memorial. There’s certainly no critical voices explaining just why some newspapers called Mr Benn ‘dangerous’ or ‘evil’ or even in one case, ‘werewolf’ (?). But then, there’s no other voices full stop: this is entirely narrated by Benn himself, who took part in the film’s making before he died. Regardless of one’s political views, the film is an excellent whistle-stop through decades of British political and social change, from the 1940s till Mrs Thatcher’s funeral last year. It also uses emotive scenes from archive news footage and even from other films, such as Brassed Off (captioned as Benn’s favourite), and Network, for Ned Beatty’s speech about there being ‘no more countries, only companies’. I’m delighted by the inclusion of shots of the Sailors’ Reading Room in Southwold, along with the beach huts. The Reading Room now reminds me not just of my own regular visits there with Mum and Dad since the 80s, but also of Sebald’s Rings Of Saturn.

Tony Benn’s analogy for the old House Of Lords. ‘It’s like your dentist saying, “I’m not really qualified for this, but my dad did it.”’

* * *

Monday 6th October 2014. I finish a short story I’ve been chewing over all summer. It’s called ‘Forova, Not Found’ and features a Tube station theme bar in Tangier (which exists and which I’ve been to), a Moroccan Amy Winehouse impersonator and Wilde’s Dorian Gray. The story is a response to a piece of art by Eleanor Bedlow. I’m pleased with it. I need to write more fiction. Editing fiction is the real pleasure: watching themes emerge naturally, then nudging them into place. A form of gardening, really.

* * *

Tuesday 7th October 2014. Autumn temperatures at last. I take the cream linen suit to be cleaned for the last time this year, and slip back into my dark ensembles. It’s my version of putting the clocks back.

Back to Birkbeck for the first classes of the final year of the degree. Henry James’s ‘The Jolly Corner’ kicks off the course on US modern literature, while a lecture by Roger Luckhurst begins my Post-War UK module. This is the shape of my Tuesday and Wednesday evenings from now till next May. I also have to work on my year-long thesis, which has the working title of ‘The Satirical Usage of Camp in Twenty-First Century Fiction.’ As well as defining literary camp (via Sontag etc), I’m discussing three texts: a camp moment in Alan Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty, a camp main character in James Hamilton-Paterson’s Cooking With Fernet Branca, and a camp narrative style in Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. Fairly confident about it, as long as I can keep it academically rigorous, as they say in the classroom.

* * *

Thursday 9th October 2014

Grayson Perry is in the news for writing a provocative essay in the New Statesman. It’s about how middle-class, white straight men are still dominating UK culture, and how this needs to change. He uses the term ‘Default Man’, which he says he’s invented. In fact, I was bandying it about in my diary ten years ago. There’s evidence in this old entry from 2004 (if one scrolls down past the whining about my health): http://www.dickonedwards.com/diary/index.php/archive/this-is-dickon-edwards/

Admittedly, I only coined it in a spirit of flouncy cattiness, and certainly didn’t extend it into a sociological proposal. Still, it’s amusing to see the phrase getting such prominence all these years later.

* * *

To the British Library for its latest big exhibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. It covers everything under the G-word from Walpole’s Castle of Otranto to a set of Martin Parr photographs taken at this year’s Whitby Goth Weekend – the latter being typically vivid portraits of ways to be British. So many treasures on show. My favourites are: the manuscripts of Frankenstein and Jane Eyre, a Jan Svankmajer film on Otranto, a vintage cardboard model of Fonthill Abbey, the ‘horrid’ novels from Austen’s Northanger Abbey all lined up in their own case, a Victorian alarm clock in the shape of a skeleton riding a coffin, a ‘Dear Boss’ letter from the Ripper case, a calling card from Oscar Wilde in exile, when he was ‘Sebastian Melmoth’, manuscripts for both Clive Barker’s Hellraiser script and its source novella The Hellbound Heart, and a manuscript of Angela Carter’s ‘The Company of Wolves’, as in the original story.

I note how some works are Goth-Compatible rather than only Gothic. Kate Bush’s song ‘Wuthering Heights’ is quoted in the section on the Brontes, for instance. In terms of modern Goth-Compatible literary ficition, there’s Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. To go with the exhibition, the British Library shop sells moustache wax, razorblade cufflinks, and – inevitably – black nail varnish.

* * *

I’ve had my blond hair cut off. It’s to give my roots a chance to breathe before the next round of peroxide. So today I have dark brown, very short hair. I like to think this means I’ll get fewer than usual catcalls. I like to think I even look more normal. But I hadn’t reckoned to something else that might invite comment from those who insist on offering it – my voice.

On the tube. An older, slightly grizzled-looking man gets on, sits down, and immediately starts talking to – or more accurately, at – the man next to him and the woman opposite him. I’m standing by those perches near the door, and have my earphones in, but I can tell he’s being humoured by these suddenly besieged passengers. They smirk demurely back. At the next stop, the man he sat next to gets up and leaves. The chatty older fellow then nods to me. I take out an earphone.

He says, ‘do you want to sit next to me, now?’

‘I’m fine here, thanks,’ I say.

Except I only get two words into the sentence when he suddenly puts out his hand, pulls a 1970s limp-wristed ‘teapot’ gesture, affects the attendant effeminate voice, and shouts ‘OH! He-LLOOOO!’ And he does this to the whole carriage, rather than to me.

I burst into laughter. Central London, 2014. No different to a Suffolk playground, 1980.

There was a time when this sort of thing used to upset me. Now I think to myself, ‘Still got it!’


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You Stay, You Paint

Saturday 27th September 2014. A day trip to Charleston Farmhouse, in Sussex. I’d been meaning to go for ages, given I spend so much time mooching around the Bloomsbury Set’s city haunts in actual Bloomsbury. Charleston was ostensibly the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant from 1916, but in practice it became the whole group’s countryside retreat. I’m fond of two particular facts about its story. One is that it was discovered by Virginia and Leonard Woolf while they were walking across the Sussex Downs. The other is that a farmhouse was a practical choice as much as a romantic one. Duncan Grant and David Garnett were conscientious objectors in WW1, so they needed to be in jobs that could exempt them from fighting. It was a choice between mining or farming.

This week Charleston plays host to the Small Wonder literary festival, ‘The Short Story Festival’ as it bills itself. Seven days of events connected with the short story form. Despite being out of the way and focussing on a type of fiction that rarely sells many books, the festival is very busy. Slightly more women than men. There are free shuttle buses to Lewes station, but most people seem to come by car. I’m here to attend one particular event: a discussion on the BBC National Short Story Award. It features two of the judges, Di Speirs and Philip Gwyn Jones, along with two of the shortlisted writers, who turn out to be Lionel Shriver and Tessa Hadley. Although I wasn’t so keen on her story, I’m captivated by Ms Shriver’s performance today when she airs an excerpt. She pauses in the all right places, and looks up at the crowd at all the right times – and so steely-eyed, too. Tessa H makes the observation that there isn’t a UK equivalent of the New Yorker, ie a newsstand-style magazine that regularly includes literary short stories. It’s true. I wonder why.

Small Wonder is entirely contained in two barns next to the house. One is for the actual events, while the other manages to house the box office, bar, bookshop and lounge area. The other barns are still in use as part of a working farm. I only discover this when Ms Shriver is briefly interrupted by loud mooing.

The Charleston house itself can only be visited by going on a guided tour, so that’s what I do while I’m there. It is such a unique attraction. Site-specific art is everywhere. Every possible surface has been painted, not just by Grant or one of the Bells, but by anyone who was staying in the house at the time. You stay, you paint. Walls, bathtubs, bed-boards, even box files are decorated. And that’s before you get to the paintings. One Vanessa Bell canvas is titled ’46 Gordon Square’. It is a view any student at Birkbeck School of Arts is familiar with: the east side of the square as seen from one of the windows. Charleston’s walled garden is full of colourful flower beds, mosaic pavements, tidy ponds and elegant statuary, my favourite being Quentin Bell’s ‘Levitating Lady’.

Earlier, I’d glimpsed some modern levitation, from the window of the train into Lewes. A paraglider over the Downs, their dot of a chair suspended against the green hills. At Charleston, I ask one of the other visitors about the difference between hang gliding and paragliding. ‘Hang gliding is where you hang. Paragliding is where you have a nice sit down.’

The merchandise at Charleston’s shop includes Virginia Woolf mouse-mats, along with cotton stockings of the sort worn by V & V. You too can have legs like Virginia’s.

* * *

Sunday 28th September 2014. Occasionally I like to battle through the Sunday Times in paper form, though I feel guilty about the amount of waste it entails. A certain amount of gutting is always necessary too: out goes the Sports supplement, out goes Travel and Property. Worlds not meant for the likes of me. Sunday papers have their own bubble of affluence. Despite all the coverage of writers going unpaid, here is a Wilbur Smith interview where he says his novels earn him more than one million pounds a year (‘an average year for me’). I wince at an instance of my least favourite word, ‘famously’. Today it’s ‘Ed Sheeran’s famously arduous work rate’.

I peruse the Bestseller lists. Always fascinating to see what people are buying to read, though they still don’t allow for e-book sales. Ian Rankin is at Number One. Lee Child and Ken Follett shifting suitably butch amounts of their hardbacks. Jeffrey Archer still sells by the truckload. The biggest novel of the year so far is a title for teens (or Young Adults, rather): The Fault In Our Stars.

Kate Mosse has a novel out called The Taxidermist’s Daughter. It has the same title as my favourite entry in this year’s BBC NSSA, by Francesca Rhydderch. I suppose you wait ages for a story about a taxidermist’s daughter, then two come along at once.

* * *

The immortality of innuendo. I walk through Covent Garden. A juggler is entertaining a large crowd. I only hear one line of his routine: ‘I’m now going to ask this beautiful lady to hold my balls.’ He must have said it a thousand times before, and indeed it must have been said by a thousand jugglers before him. But the crowd laughs, and I smirk as I pass through.

* * *

Monday 29th September 2014. Term begins. All the BA English students have a one-off ‘induction lecture’, this year by Isabel Davis. It’s on the medieval Apocalypse, by way of Chaucer. We’re not expected to be tested on the lecture. It’s more a kind of warm-up, helping the students get used to going to lectures on literature again, and indeed helping them find their way around the labyrinth of the School of Arts. I still end up getting lost, and it’s my fourth year.

Afterwards: drinks in the Keynes Library upstairs. Pleasingly, the room has some Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant paintings of scenes at Charleston, views which I’ve now been to see in person. What with seeing a painting of a Gordon Square room hanging at Charleston, I feel like I’ve returned from the other side of a mirror.

* * *

Tuesday 30th September 2014. The NSSA winner is announced on the BBC’s Front Row programme. Lionel Shriver wins, with Zadie Smith second. Ms Smith was my second choice too, so I’m half happy. I suspect the Shriver won because of the way it compresses a whole life, rather than dips into an episode. I still think ‘The Taxidermist’s Daughter’ did more with the form, though.

* * *

Wednesday 1st October 2014. To the Crouch End Arthouse for Stephen Fry Live: More Fool Me. Like Charleston, I combine an event with a visit to a place on the To Do list. Crouch End is fairly near me, but it’s still a 25 minute walk – and only a walk, so I tend to favour the East Finchley Phoenix as my local cinema. The Arthouse is the former Music Palace on Tottenham Lane – I once attended a wedding party there. Before then it was a Salvation Army Hall. Now it’s been cut up into a lively warren of little rooms, including a foyer-cum-bar (which sales tiramisu ice cream), a main cinema room (tonight showing Pride), and a live space which doubles as a second screening room. The latter is where the Stephen Fry show is shown. Watching a live show in a cinema is no longer a novelty, but I think this is the first time a live book launch has been broadcast in the same way.

It turns out to be simple enough: Stephen Fry, on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall, talking for 90 minutes about his latest memoir, More Fool Me. No Q & A, no interviewer, no slide show. Apart from a section where he reads from the book at a lectern, Mr Fry paces the stage without a script. He unleashes a seamless flow of anecdotes, memories, quotations, musings on his beliefs, a few QI-style facts, and a crash course in how to do different accents (my favourite being the Australian Heartburn accent – a constant – gulp – stifling – gulp – of a burp). He really is a perfect raconteur, in the old fashioned sense.

* * *

Friday 3rd October 2014. Incredibly, a literary short story collection is in WH Smith’s Top 10 today. It’s Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Two grand dames for the price of one.

Still hot and sunny. Still plenty of flip-flops in the city.


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A Pop-Up War

Saturday 20th September 2014.

The last week of the summer holiday at last. This year’s new students are moving into Bloomsbury. Torrington Square is packed with food marquees serving hordes of eager young things. For them it’s the week of Fresher’s events, halls of residence, tours of the campus, induction parties, and queues to register for library cards at Senate House. On display are vivid experiments with dyes and beards, despite the changing fashions. Always the girls with oddly coloured hair lying on grass, lost in books. Always the flamingo-legged boys running in packs and shouting ‘OY!’ to each other, looking to belong. Oh, the eternal ‘OY!’. The trees and the college blocks shrug and watch over them all, welcoming. Continuity. Life. And yes, peace. One must never underestimate that.

* * *

Sunday 21st September 2014.

I’m reading a lot of short stories this week, particularly the five in the shortlist for this year’s BBC National Short Story Award.

Of these, Lionel Shriver’s ‘Kilifi Creek’ has some interesting musings on near-death experiences, coupled with another selfish and unlikeable protagonist (as per We Need To Talk About Kevin). Rose Tremain’s ‘The American Lover’ is a straightforward affair tale, though still a moving one. Tessa Hadley’s ‘Bad Dreams’ is more a scene than a story, though I like the idea of dreaming that a book has a secret chapter. If I were judging, I’d give second prize to Zadie Smith’s ‘Miss Adele Amidst The Corsets’, for its camp title, its gender exploration, and its acknowledgement of the modern world (it mentions Obama, apps and ‘googling’ in the lower case). First prize would go to Francesca Rhydderch’s ‘The Taxidermist’s Daughter’, which manages to bring in poetic details about the art of taxidermy, plenty of witty symbolism, a touch of modernist narration, and an inspired text-within-the-text moment. And it’s a proper story too, rather than a scene or an encounter or a musing. The winner is announced on Radio 4, the evening of Tuesday 30th. If the Shriver or the Tremain wins, I will be cross. I suppose this is my form of World Cup.

Other stories I read this week: Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ (an impulse buy, as Penguin Classics have put out a 99p stand-alone edition), Jean Cocteau’s only short story ‘The Phantom of Marseilles’, Angela Carter’s ‘Reflections’ and ‘Puss In Boots’, and Ronald Firbank’s ‘A Tragedy In Green’. ‘The Lottery’ is still as shocking as ever – I suppose these days it can lend itself to interpretations of religious fundamentalism. I like Cocteau’s story of a beautiful cross-dressing criminal, though I prefer the monologue version he wrote for Edith Piaf. In the 80s, Judi Dench performed an English translation on the radio, which I find in Oberon Books’s Thirteen Monologues.

The Carter tales still dazzle. ‘Reflections’ is startling and ambitious, ‘Puss In Boots’ is an outrageous and entertaining romp. Firbank’s early story, meanwhile, is a curious hybrid of his novel style with a touch of Saki-esque twisted fantasy. AS Byatt includes it in The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, one of my favourite anthologies.

* * *

Monday 22nd September 2014. I’m browsing in Paperchase, Tottenham Court Road. This year’s Christmas cards are out. One design has a London skyline, with the usual snow picked out in glitter. Present and correct is St Pauls, the Tower of London, and Big Ben. But there’s also the Gherkin, the Millennium Wheel, and – surely making its debut on a Christmas card – the Shard.

* * *

Tuesday 23rd September 2014.

I try an experiment in reading. I time myself reading books on Kindle, versus the paperback versions. The result: I read a book faster, and I take more in, if it’s on paper.

Amazon has just announced a new range of Kindles this week. All of them are heavier than the 2011 model I have now. Given one central attraction of ebook readers is to save weight when travelling (especially on holiday), this seems a disastrous move. No need for me to upgrade, then.

I still do not own a tablet device or a smartphone. I still buy and send postcards.

* * *

Wednesday 24th September 2014.

To the new Selfridges cinema for Magic in the Moonlight, the latest Woody Allen. The cinema is run by the Everyman chain. It’s been advertised as the first in the world to operate inside a department store, though when I ask the staff (who are very charming), it turns out it’s only a six month ‘pop-up shop’, ie intentionally temporary. This is one of those worrying new phrases which hint at an ever more uncertain and insubstantial world. Another is ‘zero hour contract’. Regardless, I rather like this pop-up cinema, with its little Hollywood canopy and red carpet at its entrance, all enclosed within the store’s basement. Inside there’s a bar and a lounge, though one has to go out into the main store for the toilets. In the screening room there’s 60 seats in the ‘boutique cinema’ style – a mix of sofas and armchairs with scatter cushions, little tables for drinks and popcorn, and a couple of spherical 1960s den seats at the back.

Magic in the Moonlight certainly suits this cinema in aesthetic terms. It’s set in an idealised, nostalgic 1920s world, nodding to a little of Scott Fitzgerald and a lot of Agatha Christie. Cue shots of pretty locations in the south of France, pretty people who are all pretty rich, pretty vintage cars and clothes, and the requisite Charleston dances. Colin Firth grumbles his way through the film as a sceptical stage magician, investigating a young woman’s seemingly genuine powers of clairvoyance. The girl in question is Emma Stone, an ethereal and doll-like actress with the kind of saucer-sized eyes reminiscent of the young Mia Farrow – no surprises there. Like many of the recent Allen films, there’s a strangely stilted feel to the dialogue and direction, as if he is just eager to get the script shot then move on. But the mystery of Ms Stone’s powers is enough to keep me interested. That and the visuals.

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Thursday 25th September 2014.

Jason Orange leaves Take That. What I always admired about him is that after the first splitting up, he enrolled at a college and continued his education. English A-Level, too. The other four never went beyond GCSEs. That said, I admit this says rather more about me than it does about them. And it’s a sign of what I particularly believe in today, ie that a return to education is a good idea de facto. Whoever you are.

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Friday 26th September 2014.

The majority of MPs support the UK’s bombing of Iraq yet again, this time against Islamic State. 43 MPs oppose the motion, including the Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas. ‘I know that when I stand up and oppose the Government’s motion, I am representing the views of many,’ she writes on the GP website. I may not be in her constituency, but on this issue she represents mine. I know the IS situation needs a solution. But a pop-up war, like a pop-up shop, can only add more uncertainty to the world.


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Propaganda For Compassion

Saturday 13th September 2014. To the Phoenix cinema for Pride. This evening screening is nearly sold out; such is the film’s reputation. It’s been sold as the must-see British film of the moment, and promises something to please everyone. It’s very funny and moving, and that’s just Dominic West’s perm.

Despite the theme of gay activism, the film is very much aimed at the mainstream. I think of Quentin Crisp in the 1970s, grateful that The Naked Civil Servant was a TV film, because a big screen version would, he said, have only been seen by gay men, ‘plus liberals wishing to be seen going into and coming out of the cinema’. Times have changed, and gay people are now more regarded – at least in Britain – as people who happen to be gay, and are finally allowed to have other aspects to their lives as well. So it’s fairer to regard Pride as part of the same genre as Brassed Off, Billy Elliot, The Full Monty and especially Made In Dagenham: gritty tales of British social struggles sweetened with broad laughs and big emotional moments. Pride retells a number of true events from 1984, when a group of gay activists from London got involved in supporting the striking miners in Wales.

The requisite 1980s clothes, hair and pop music are all in place: lots of quiffs, little hats, and blue jeans with turn-ups at the bottom. In fact, looking at young people in London today, that particular trouser statement is starting to, well, turn up again. It’s also heartening to see the Gay’s The Word bookshop in Bloomsbury having a key role in the film – I only hope that people who enjoy Pride realise that the shop is still going strong today.

Inevitably some historical facts are played with: entirely fictional characters interact with those based on real people, while my pedantic side winces at the use of the AIDS ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ TV adverts for a scene set in 1984. They didn’t appear till two years later. But when the big emotional moments come, and the music swells on cue, the sense of earning the right to such manipulation is overwhelming. It’s hard to disagree with propaganda, if all that’s being preached is the need for basic compassion.

And there’s nothing like the sound of a packed audience laughing together at funny lines in a film. As the credits go up, this audience applauds.

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Monday 15th September 2014. Advice for writers from Kipling: ‘Drift, wait, and obey.’

* * *

I feel increasingly non-everyman. I wince at non-fiction writing that uses ‘we’ and ‘you’, passing off the writer as some sort of default point of view. I wouldn’t dream of such an assumption. Which is why I can’t do that kind of work.

I don’t write to join in. I write to make sense of my own thoughts, then publish them in the hope they make a connection with the mind of a reader.  I can’t speak for my generation, my class, my gender, my country, my race, my historical era, or even for writers.

From this somewhat self-sabotaging stance, the hope is that what I write might be unique.  The fear is that it might be irrelevant.

* * *

Thursday 18th September 2014. What happiness means. I am sitting on the floor in a corner of a large library (Senate House today), pulling out several books at once and leafing through them on the spot, rather than taking them to a desk. Some are quite old (today it’s a 1950s four volume edition of The Arabian Nights).  No one is bothering me. I am not in anyone’s way. There are no screens or phones about. I think about the people who have turned these pages since the 50s, and those who have walked this floor since the 30s. The silence hangs and comforts.

* * *

Friday 19th September 2014. I wake to the news that the people of Scotland have voted a firm No to independence. I think this is a shame. A Yes result would at least have blown the cobwebs off so many centuries-old situations and systems, and that would have been no bad thing. Still, Mr Cameron has promised all kinds of new governing powers to the Scots by way of a thank you, and the referendum has triggered the start of an ongoing discourse over what nationhood means. What I found particularly uplifting was the huge turnout for voters up in Scotland, particularly amongst the young. I do hope this is the start of a new trend: more people using their vote. Perhaps even Russell Brand – who advocates non-voting – might admit he is wrong about something. That would be a new dawn indeed.

* * *

It’s a warm and sunny day, possibly the dying gasp of summer. Still a few flip-flop wearers about. I go to Camden to see the new Amy Winehouse statue. On the way, I stop off in Camden Square to see the older, more unofficial memorial: the decorated trees near her old house. Fresh messages and little gifts are still tied to the trunks, just as they’ve been since she died three years ago. One offering is a silver eyelash curler. A girl from Paris has included photos of herself in her laminated letter, dated a few weeks ago: her hair and make-up clearly emulating Ms Winehouse’s. ‘Amy Winehouse We Love You’ is scrawled over a nearby council sign, battling with the printed phrase ‘Clean Up After Your Dog’. As I walk on, I realise I’ve trodden in some dog shit.

It takes me fifteen minutes to walk to Camden Town proper. Here people from all over the world can be seen united in a single activity: eating cheap noodles from tinfoil tubs. The generations come and go, but Camden’s t-shirt stalls are clocks to consult for the pop culture of the day. Today I spot a t-shirt for Breaking Bad.

I find the Winehouse statue in Staples Market. It’s on a semi-circular sunken dais behind the Proud Camden building. This dais in turn juts over the lower ground level, so the statue looks like she’s performing onstage. The figure is close to the ground rather than on a plinth, and as she is more or less life-size she has a Madame Tussaud’s quality. More tourist attraction than memorial. You can put your arm around her, should you wish. In fact, I’m guessing this is the intention. And yet the tourists I see around me today seem hesitant to get too near. They take photos, but do not include themselves in the shot. I wonder if this is because it’s so new (installed September 14th), or if they feel too self-conscious, what with it being so conspicuous and public. Still, there’s some tidy bouquets at her feet, and with a letter of love from someone in Barcelona. The stature is grey except for a red rose in her beehive hairdo. The rose turns out to be real; it’s up to others to replace it. She would have been 31 this week.


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