Getting Menippean With Margaret

Sunday 31st January 2016. I leaf through the Sunday Times in the Barbican Cinema Café. There’s a column by Katie Glass which typically makes me want to set fire to things. Still, the fact I read it through, and deem it worthy of comment here, suggests that to touch a reader’s nerve is still a connection of a kind. It’s called ‘trolling’ online, of course, but newspaper columnists have been doing it for decades.

Ms Glass’s subject today is her belief that going to university is a waste of time, though she’s at pains to reveal that she nevertheless holds a First in BA English. This is because of the news this week that several of the big UK firms are no longer insisting on a degree as a requirement for skilled employment. I received my own degree certificate in the post the other day, so the cliché about them not being worth the paper they’re written on rather sprang to mind.

True enough, Ms Glass goes for the cliché: ‘we know that these pieces of paper mean nothing’. Universities, she says, do not contain ‘the brightest minds’ so much as ‘those who went to the right schools and are good at passing exams’. She believes what really matters is ‘passion, commitment and hard work’. As if passing exams and delivering essays on time don’t require those things as well.

All she really learned, she says, was that ‘having an outrageous opinion could be rewarded, and later turned into a job’. Well, quite.

Being a professional wind-up merchant is now the quickest route to a media career. As long as you don’t mind being hated by strangers, you’ve got it made. There’s one young British writer who does this, Milo Yiannopoulos, who’s now starting to pop up more and more often on TV. What worries me is not so much his views as his appearance: thick bleached hair in a side parting, suits and ties, and a haughty camp voice. Someone on Twitter has already made the comparison. I suppose it’s another catcall to add to the list.

* * *

Tuesday 2nd February 2016. To the ICA for the film Youth, starring Michael Caine. It’s a very unabashed arthouse film, about an elderly composer staying at an Alpine spa hotel. The director seems content to line up a series of visually striking tableaux that may not always make sense, but which can be justified through their sheer originality. When the singer Paloma Faith pops up as a parody of herself, complete with a loud pop video sequence, it is impossible to judge where the film will go next. Paul Dano’s character soon turns up at the hotel dressed as Hitler, for no good reason, but no one is in the least surprised. It’s that sort of film.

Remote hotels are always good for a cinematic aesthetic: I think of The Shining of old, but also The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Lobster. Rachel Weisz, who is in both The Lobster and Youth, now seems to have an Arty Hotel Film career ahead of her. Mr Caine is very introspective and gentle in the composer role; he uses the same softer, middle class English accent he had in Hannah and Her Sisters.

* * *

Thursday 4th February 2016. This week’s MA seminar is on Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle. I give a short presentation on Margaret Atwood’s review for the New York Review of Books. She picks up on the significance of its names, and cites their various literary associations. For instance, the villain is called Tom, which Atwood links to both Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Tom Riddle – aka Voldermort – in the Harry Potter books. It’s difficult to think of many literary critics making such casual leaps of genre, but challenging genre always was Atwood’s bag. Like many of her own novels, The Circle can be reliably defined as science-fiction or speculative fiction, though again Ms A avoids such terms. Instead, she opts for classifying the book as an ‘entertainment’ (which to me suggests The Arabian Nights). She also puts the phrase ‘literary fiction’ within two telling inverted commas of her own, as if holding the words at arm’s length.

A term she does like, however, is ‘Menippean satire’, which she also applies to The Circle. I hadn’t come across it before. It’s a classical reference, after the Greek writer Menippus, denoting a playful, humorous satire of ideas and attitudes rather than a vicious attack on people themselves. The prime example is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Circle is more tongue-in-cheek with its ideas than with its style, though. In one scene, the heroine is summoned to a disciplinary meeting at work, solely because she had not been keeping up with her social media, and so missed the invite to a co-worker’s party. Thus Jane Austen is updated for the Facebook era.

Late evening: to the DocHouse screen in the Curzon Bloomsbury, for a French documentary on last year’s Charlie Hebdo killings, Je Suis Charlie. The original title is L’humour à mort, which I suppose could also be translated as Dead Funny. The film concentrates on the perspectives of the magazine staff, and includes archive interviews on the subject of mocking Islam, from the murdered cartoonists themselves. One staffer was protected by the office dog: she jumped on her master’s face after witnessing the head shots doled out to the cartoonists.

* * *

Friday 5th February 2016. Evening: To the plush Wallace Collection in Manchester Square, for an event called ‘Look Out’. It’s curated by the artist Sadie Lee, as part of London’s LGBTQI History Month events. The toilets have been rebranded as queer-friendly – a row of lockable cubicles. All the cubicles have a single temporary sign: a hybid Ladies / Gents figure, with half a skirt. I catch a performance by the drag queen Virgin Xtravaganza in one of the smaller galleries – the nervous attendants asking the audience to stand away from all the ornate cabinets and gilded furniture. Debbie Smith DJ’s in another room, surrounded by Boucher’s opulent paintings of scantily-clad goddesses. She plays ‘Je T’aime’, an apt soundtrack for finding French naughtiness in London. The Serge Gainsbourg record was recorded in nearby Marble Arch.

I go to the Great Gallery to watch David McAlmont’s band Fingersnap. He punctuates the songs with potted lectures on the paintings, having lately taken a degree in Art History at Birkbeck; I used to bump into him in the college corridors. Frans Hals’s Laughing Cavalier is on the wall immediately stage right. Growing up, I always thought of it as London’s Mona Lisa, such was its regular appearance in The Beano. Another much-aired masterpiece, Fragonard’s The Swing, is in a room nearby. An attendant tells me how it’s used in the Disney film Frozen. At which point, I hear a version of ‘Let It Go’, as tastefully arranged by the Jolly Pops Wind Orchestra, who are serenading the main courtyard tonight. Their repertoire also includes Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’, and Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’. It’s quite an evening.

* * *

Saturday 6th February 2016. To the Tate Modern for Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture. By a neat coincidence, a huge Calder mobile makes an appearance in The Circle. A character explains that ‘This one used to hang in the French parliament. Something like that.’ I knew about Calder’s abstract mobiles, here with their floating gongs, monochrome leaf shapes and coloured discs. What I didn’t know about was his delightful wire sculptures of faces, figures and circus acrobats, from the 1920s. The Tate hangs them so that one can enjoy their projected shadows on the wall behind. One figure is of Josephine Baker, with breasts of steel abstract spirals. She really did get about.


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Life, the Universe, and Dandyism

Sunday 24th January 2016.

I am on something of a Gore Vidal tip, after watching Best of Enemies for the third time. Am delighted to find there’s another documentary on Netflix, United States of Amnesia, entirely about Mr Vidal’s life. I don’t always agree with his relentless cynicism – he even finds something negative to say about the election of Obama. But his wit and style is a delight. Vidal’s utterations on chat shows contain epigrams worthy of Wilde:

TV interviewer (on Vidal’s running for a Democrat candidacy in 1982): Did you like that experience? All the hand shaking?

Gore Vidal: Oh yes. I love that. I like crowds. I have depths of insincerity as yet unplumbed.

* * *

Sitting in the Barbican Cinema Café this evening, I am recognised from the I Am Dandy book. This time it’s by one of the other dandies within its pages: the pristinely moustachioed Johnny Vercoutre, there to see The Revenant (‘It’s very Boys’ Own,’ I tell him).

Getting out the dandy book at home, I see he’s on page 238. I’m on page 42, looking rather otherworldly in my chalk white suit. There’s whiteness around me too: the picture was taken in a snow-covered Parkland Walk, here in Highgate. Being a Douglas Adams fan, I can’t help feeling pleased by my page number’s association with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Here, 42 means the answer to life, the universe, and Highgate dandyism.

Which Hitchhiker’s character do I most resemble? I admit to having Marvin the Paranoid Android moments. I recently caught myself grumbling about my inability to turn a high IQ (well, 141) into a decent income, before realising that this was all too close to Marvin’s catchphrase: ‘Here I am, brain the size of a planet…’ Mustn’t be a Marvin. He moans about his health too: ‘And me with this terrible pain in all the diodes down my left side.’

Of course, Marvin’s saving grace is that his depression manifests as a form of amiability, much like Eeyore’s does in Winnie the Pooh. Huggable depressives. In the film version of Hitchhiker’s, Marvin’s voice was perfectly cast in the form of Alan Rickman, who died the other day. He was an actor I was lucky enough to see on stage in the 80s, at the Barbican in fact. Back then he played another great huggable depressive – Jacques in As You Like It.  I don’t know if a recording exists of Mr Rickman doing the ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech, but given his voice was so memorable, it’s easy to imagine it.

There’s a further Rickman connection here: one of his best films, Truly Madly Deeply, is set in Highgate. In one scene Juliet Stevenson walks out of Highgate Tube station, very close to where the I Am Dandy photo was taken.

* * *

Monday 25th January 2016.

Am finally exhausted with reading commentary pieces on David Bowie. The more original and personal pieces aside, the bandwagon is rather showing its wheels, often adding little more than affirming Bowie’s obvious worth. In some cases, the facts are not even checked (the BBC website seems to think Bowie acted in the film Cat People, instead of providing the theme song). What I’m not exhausted with is the man himself: the actual music and concert footage. I rewatch the superb BBC documentary, Five Years. Rick Wakeman is amusing about his piano part on Life on Mars, which he recreates on a keyboard for the cameras. He demonstrates the cleverness of the key changes, while admitting having not played it for decades. ‘It’s a joy to perform.’ He pauses. ‘I must go home and learn it properly.’

Shanthi S points out to me how Bowie in drag (as seen in the ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ vid) rather resembles Billie Whitelaw, she of Samuel Beckett fame. Indeed, it’s a shame Bowie never acted in a Beckett play himself: he’d have been perfect.

* * *

Thursday 28th January 2016.

MA class tonight: Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour. An environmentally-themed novel, with lots of detail about working class farm life in the Appalachians. Some Hardy-esque elements: strong female characters with Biblical names, dreaming of affairs amid the sheep-shearing. Less Hardy-like are the references to the internet and Google, though the protagonist is too poor to have her own computer, despite being a twenty-something American in 2010. There’s a wry scene in which an environmental campaigner suggests the heroine cuts down on her carbon footprint by taking fewer flights. She and her husband have yet to travel outside of the state. It’s a neat illustration of media solipsism – the way one forgets how plenty of people in the US (and indeed the UK) still have none of the technological convenience enjoyed by the majority.

I look up the latest figures for adults without internet access. It’s 11% in the UK (6 million people), 15% in the US (47 million). It’s one reason why public libraries are still essential, with their free internet terminals.

Sometimes, though, such utterly offline lives might be enviable. I watch a programme tonight on internet abuse, ‘Troll Hunters’. Various recipients of malicious Twitter messages are shown tracking down their antagonists, then confronting them in person. What’s unexpected is the way one 40-something working-class man – his face blurred – is utterly unrepentant about his behaviour. He even claims a kind of moral defence. The people he attacks, he says, like the former MP Louise Mensch, are far more powerful than he is, so they need taking down a peg or two. ‘It’s all about destroying authority… The world owes me. If they block me, I move onto someone else.’

Certainly the programme touches on one unassailable truth about the appeal of trolling. It’s about wanting to feel powerful.

* * *

Friday 29th January 2016.

Another phone call from someone claiming to be from ‘the technical department of Windows’. They want to provide remote access to my computer so they can deal with ‘hacking’. Apart from anything else, the people behind these obvious scams don’t seem to realise that Windows is a product, not a company. This one hangs up at the slightest challenge.


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Spoiler Alert: Transparent Architecture

Sunday 17th January 2016.

I’m reading Dave Eggers’s The Circle. It’s a novel that sounds an Orwellian warning about the rise of Google and Facebook. Much is made about the growing desirability of ‘transparency’. This is meant figuratively, in the sense of increased accountability. But it’s also implied architecturally, in the sense of modern workplaces tending to be cathedrals of glass. Buildings where the workers can be easily seen, and so easily monitored. The price in both cases is privacy.

Today I walk past the shiny new Central St Giles development, near the east end of Denmark Street. There is now a branch of Caffe Nero there, one so entirely made of glass that I don’t know where to put my eyes as I pass by. It’s like walking past a display case of knees and hands and lattes. I’m used to seeing this in stations like St Pancras (particularly with the all-glass Starbucks there), because of the obvious security concerns. But in a central London street it feels very odd, and very fragile.

One of my favourite things about the Harry Potter books is the idea of Diagon Alley, the secret wizards’ street in London. It seemed so deliciously believable, making imaginative use of London’s reputation as an unplanned patchwork of hidden worlds. Now, with the current trend for see-through developments like Central St Giles, the nooks and crannies can only disappear. A surfeit of glass undermines a site’s potential for secrets, intrigue, and magic. Transparency is a plot spoiler.

* * *

Monday 18th January 2016.

My review of Popkiss, the book about Sarah Records, is published in the new issue (February 2016) of the music magazine The Wire. Quite happy with it: it’s full of little points I hope will pique the interest of the casual Wire reader, someone who may be unfamiliar with Sarah. The death of Bowie is a reminder that music – of any level of success – never has a fixed reach. Never one generation, never one era, never one ear.

Bowie tributes are still appearing in the press. Some journalists use the U-word – ‘us’. It means well, but it makes me wince. Who is this ‘us’? Can you really speak for the entire human race? If so, who appointed you spokesperson? I find ‘you’ equally suspicious (‘you know how it is when you’re flying to Monaco in First Class…’). Even though it seems more vain to say ‘me’, it’s more honest and precise. Better to accept that all writing is vanity of a kind.

* * *

Tuesday 19th January 2016.

I meet with Shanthi S. in the NPG, and we wander around the National Gallery next door, taking in the free exhibition on Botticini’s sublime Assumption of the Virgin. I show S my favourite painting in the gallery, Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man (1550-5, with the pink curtain). We bump into Sophie Parkin, who is sitting right in front of the painting.

Then to the ICA for The Revenant – a mere £3 each. Currently the most talked-about film in town, having become a favourite for the Oscars. For all its technical innovation, it’s really a traditional Western, albeit a snowy one. The story is a simple one of survival against the elements, followed by revenge. There’s plenty of stunning set pieces, presumably enhanced by state-of-the-art CGI graphics: the bear attack, the white-water rapids, the gutting of the horse, and the Saving Private Ryan-like opening, as Mr DiCaprio’s party are besieged by Native American tribesmen. Whether or not Mr DC is putting in an Oscar-winning performance really depends on one’s definition of acting. He certainly suffers, but his character isn’t much more than that – just a man who has a terrible time. He grunts, he gasps, he crawls. He does things that regularly has the audience saying ‘Ouch!’, and ‘Goodness, that must be painful!’ and ‘Don’t hurt, though!’

There’s been a few articles which employ the irksome trend of adding ‘porn’ as a suffix. This seems to be a way of judging any film that a critic views as indulgent. The Revenant has been described variously as ‘pain porn’, ‘torture porn’, ‘wilderness porn’, and ‘forest porn’. Certainly all those elements are present in the film, and to an intense level, but calling them a form of ‘porn’ is helpful to precisely no one. Whatever happened to discussions of catharsis?

It’s also too long. My father used to judge films on the amount of times he looked at his watch. He once told me how he didn’t do this once during Lord of the Rings Part 3 – Return of the King, despite the three hour-plus duration. ‘That’s how good it was’. I’m afraid I checked my own watch four or five times during The Revenant.  For all its focus on immersion, it really doesn’t need two and a half hours to tell such a straightforward tale.

* * *

Thursday 21st January 2016.

To Gordon Square for this week’s MA seminar. The text is Lorrie Moore’s A Gate At The Stairs. There’s several witty scenes consisting entirely of overheard dialogue between middle-class liberals, on such topics as the state of racism after 9/11. To me, these come close to Ronald Firbank, though it’s a style better known from his disciple, Evelyn Waugh. According to DJ Taylor’s new book The Prose Factory: Literary Life in Britain Since 1918 (which I’ve been leafing through), one legacy Firbank ‘bequeathed’ to fiction in the 1910s and 1920s is his ‘talking heads’ device. This is a depiction of a conversation as a long series of detached utterations, in which no speaker is named, and where there’s a sense of a satirical rhythm at play. The ‘chattering classes’ in action, then as now.

Not everyone in the seminar is enamoured of Moore’s use of humour for serious issues, though: one student even calls it ‘irritating’. This is always a risk, but it’s why I admire comedy, or comedy drama, over wholly dramatic texts. Comedy is hard to get right, but the best comedy can produce rich, lasting, soaring effects. Tragedy is closer to ground level.

In A Gate At The Stairs there’s also some scenes of violent death, and some occasionally grotesque imagery. But Moore manages to control the tone at every stage, and it’s never jarring. Knowing what happens also makes a second reading all the more rewarding: early details take on a pleasing new significance. It’s not a flawless novel, but it’s one of the best I’ve read in a long time, and it makes me want to read more of Ms Moore.

* * *


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All You Need Is Curiosity

Sunday 10th January 2016.

Sometime during the late 90s, when Orlando were on tour. A catcall from a schoolchild, in my direction: ‘Is that… David Bowie?’

(Answer: Sort of…)

Today, David Bowie dies.

I was going to start this week’s diary with an explanation of a term I used last week – ‘queer’. One reader asked what exactly I meant by this, given it’s such a slippery term. ‘Do you mean gay?’ Well, yes and no.

‘Queer’ used to be a pejorative insult for gay people, from the early 20th century up to the 1980s. Then it started to be reclaimed by gay rights activists as a positive term, particularly as a more defiant and politicised form of identity.

Today, though, I have to admit it’s more complicated. I tend to use it to mean a look or attitude that plays with conventions of gender and sexuality, but also with an anti-authoritarian air. I forget, though, that some people (particularly young people) now identify with ‘queer’ as a separate identity away from gay, hence the use of ‘Q’ in the community acronym of ‘LGBTQI’ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex).

In academia, there’s also queer studies and queer theory. These tend to denote a certain troubling of conventions in society by non-heterosexual activity, a scrutinising of what ‘normal’ means – ‘to queer’ as a verb. ‘Queer’ in this sense is a spanner in the works, a critique, a pointing at the core from the margins. It is the moment in The Wizard of Oz where the man behind the curtain is paid attention to.

All this has a direct connection to David Bowie. He is a good example of someone who was not necessarily gay but who definitely could be read as a queer icon. His lasting relationships may have been with women, and he was more or less content with his gender, but he very much put out and amplified queer signals in his work, and these were of incalculable importance. To those looking out for such signals, they were nothing less than a lifeline. Whether it was the dress he wore on the cover of The Man Who Sold The World, his use of androgynous make-up and homoerotic poses in his Ziggy Stardust phase, or his dragging up in the Boys Keep Swinging video, Bowie was queer enough.

He could be explicit about the q-word in his lyrics, too. There’s the following line from his 1993 single ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’, written for the BBC TV adaptation of the Hanif Kureishi novel. I’ve only now realised that it also nods to the Lou Reed song ‘Vicious’:

Screaming along in South London / Vicious but ready to learn / Sometimes I fear that the whole world is queer / Sometimes but always in vain

* * *

This week, the wealth of coverage of Bowie’s death provoked a couple of grumpy letters in the press. Complaining about an excess of Bowie articles in the Independent, one reader wrote, ‘Anybody under 40 probably didn’t know who he was’. Another saw little value in ‘pages of nostalgic outpourings about musicians… I suggest your editors stop trying to relive their youth.’

I find this fascinating, partly as a study of sheer solipsism, but also as a gauge of the way culture and celebrity are subjective. To whom does Bowie’s death matter, and can this be turned into a proportionate amount of news coverage? What have people heard of? What do people care about? To quote ‘Hello Spaceboy’, ‘it’s confusing these days…

Certainly, the disgruntled letters are disproved by the content of the articles. True, there’s been lots of greying nostalgia (which I have no problem with), but there’s also been tributes by young musicians and artists too. Among those who cite him as an influence are La Roux, Grimes, Janelle Monae, Florence Welch, and Desiree Akhavan, the thirty-year-old director of Appropriate Behaviour, my favourite film of last year. She says, ‘I listen to ‘Modern Love’ at least once a day. It happens to contain the secret to successful filmmaking: ‘It’s not really work / It’s just the power to charm.’”

As it is, I don’t think the media coverage has been excessive at all. At least, not compared to the last Royal Baby.

Besides, music connects directly to the emotions. So when a popular musician dies, there’s obviously going to be lots of emotional expression. Why is that hard to understand?

As for my own favourite Bowie songs, there’s the aforementioned ‘Buddha of Suburbia’, released at a time when he was considered to be artistically treading water. I remember it sounded then, as it does now, as vintage Bowie, pure and simple.

I adore Hunky Dory, particularly ‘Changes’, and ‘Queen Bitch’. I love his Plastic Soul phase, especially ‘Young Americans’. From his 80s commercial pop phase, I’m fond of ‘Modern Love’ and ‘Absolute Beginners’. I love the way the former is used in the 2012 film Frances Ha, while Greta Gerwig is running through New York (itself an homage to the 80s film Mauvais Sang).

Though I’ve never tried to explicitly resemble him aesthetically, I know there’s a subconscious influence at work. I bleach my hair. I have a dandyish, Modern Weirdo look. Ergo, I owe a debt to Bowie.

It’s also important to remember he wasn’t perfect. Despite some of the more messianic pronouncements this week, Bowie was never a sacred cow. His late 80s albums and Tin Machine records (late 80s to early 90s) were given an extremely hard time by the critics. Bowie survived as long as he did by being a first-rate manipulator of as much information as possible – as evidenced in the way he kept his illness secret. He couldn’t stop the bad reviews, but I noticed how he played down his flops in the authorised V&A David Bowie Is… show.

Something else, then: he welcomed and encouraged praise. He liked being a star, and took himself seriously as one. What’s commendable is that this is a more honest trait than the false modesty which society usually requires (Oscar Wilde was another expert, Lady Gaga is a current example). Make no mistake: most people who make art do want praise from as many people as possible. It’s not selling out or vain, it’s basic self-validation.

What isn’t in question is his cultural influence. If the message of the Beatles was ‘all you need is love’, Bowie’s was ‘all you need is curiosity’. Another line from ‘Modern Love’ springs to mind: ‘But I try…’

He tried so many different styles and looks and genres and personae, and kept trying. Why did he do all the acting roles too (some of which, again, were better than others)? Why is he there at the beginning of The Snowman, introducing a children’s cartoon? Because he liked to try things. He tried. That’s inspiring in itself. I rather liked him.

* * *

Monday 11th January 2016.

I’m reading Lorrie Moore’s A Gate At The Stairs (2009). It’s a witty post 9/11 tale of Midwest America. Some favourite lines:

‘Death would come to me – I knew this from reading British poetry’.

‘Having no dog in the race doesn’t keep people from having extremely large cats’.

* * *

Thursday 14th January 2016.

MA class tonight, on The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’m intrigued that it’s dedicated to the son McCarthy had at the age of 65, and so comes with an older parent’s fear of not being able to see their offspring reach adult life. The Road is so relentlessly bleak and grim that I can’t say I enjoy it, though I do admire it.

* * *

Friday 15th January 2016.

To the Maritime Museum in Greenwich for the exhibition Samuel Pepys – Plague, Fire, Revolution. The one exhibit it doesn’t have is Pepys’s actual diary, due to his will forbidding it from leaving his old Cambridge college. But what is does have is a richness of everything else from the era: animated presentations of the Great Fire, excerpts from the diary on touchscreens, Charles 1st’s ornate gloves from the day of his execution, a pair of green glass spectacles Pepys wore when he thought the diary was making him blind (it wasn’t), and the shorthand codebook he used to encrypt his writing. When a Victorian scholar came to decode the diaries for the first time, he spent years trying to work out the code from scratch. It’s hard to imagine how he must have felt when he finally noticed the codebook was there too, just inches away on a different shelf.

Something I have in common with Pepys, and indeed Joe Orton and Kenneth Williams: not only diarists of London, but of spells in Tangier too.

* * *

Afterwards, dinner with my brother Tom and friends. We try the new Jamie Oliver restaurant in Nelson Road. Quite pleasant, food agreeable. The restaurant has the feel of a converted warehouse: spacious, high-ceilings, exposed brickwork, plenty of room. Perhaps a little too spacious for midwinter, though, and many of the diners keep their coats on.

Modern eating. My veggie burger arrives on a wooden chopping board, with the chips in a small tin pail.

Tom’s friend E teaches photography to schoolchildren in East London. ‘It’s hard to get them to do any work. We’re trying to get the examination board to accept selfies.’ This is not meant as a joke.

Taking selfies and using social media is a form of work, though: the work one must do in order to keep one’s friends. The problem for teens is when the need to fit in eclipses the need to do well at school. The technology involved may be new, but the dilemma is eternal.


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Ekphrastically Yours

Monday 21st December 2015.

Mum comes up to London for the day, and we do our own metropolitan version of the family get-together. First: to Somerset House Ice Rink, now a favourite symbol of Christmas in twenty-first-century London, as immortalised in the opening of Love Actually. Unfortunately today it rains like mad, and the ice rink is waterlogged. But this doesn’t stop the skaters, and they carry on gliding through the puddles.

We stick around at Somerset House to have a look at the current exhibitions. I’m delighted to see there’s a Tintin show, Tintin – Herge’s Masterpiece. Every inch of the gallery walls and windows are covered in Tintin illustrations. There are detailed scale models of scenes from the books, including a dolls’ house of Marlinspike Hall.

Then to the Courtauld next door, for Soaring Flight – Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings, and Bridget Riley – Learning From Seurat. I always wonder how Ms Riley managed to create her 60s works without getting dizzy. A mere five minutes of her op-art canvases unsteadies my sense of reality. Though admittedly, that doesn’t take much.

We revisit some of the Courtauld’s permanent collection too. Paintings as old friends, world-famous masterpieces, right here by the ice rink. The Van Gogh self-portrait, Manet’s barmaid, Modigliani’s nude, Monet and Cezanne’s landscapes, Degas’s dancers.

Lunch in the top floor café of Foyle’s in Charing Cross Road, then a spot of book browsing, moving onto in Waterstone’s in Trafalgar Square. We’re impressed by their Book of the Year, The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith. It’s a beautiful children’s picture book, printed in blue cloth hardback on thick, high quality paper. Ms Bickford-Smith is a book designer by profession – her work can be seen in the Penguin English Classics range. Hers is an ornate and symmetrical  style that nods to William Morris’s woodcut designs for the Kelmscott Press, but also to Jan Pieńkowski’s more recent silhouettes. With The Fox and The Star Ms Bickford-Smith not only writes the original story, but illustrates, designs and typesets the finished object as well. Even the credits for the font and the paper stock have a touch of the exotic: ‘set in Agfa Wile 12pt/15pt, printed on Munken Pure Rough’.

Waterstones are also making a small point here about the current role of print books in a digital age. 2015 saw them withdraw Kindles from their shops, while the sales of print books rose for the first time since the rise of ebooks. Significantly, although The Fox and the Star has clearly been produced using the latest digital design and publishing programs, the end product is entirely physical; there is no ebook edition. In this sense, print is the ultimate upgrade of digital. The page is a screen that finally stops moving, and the viewer can finally relax.

Ms Bickford-Smith’s story is a simple fable for small children, about a young fox coping with the loss of his friend, the Star. But it lends itself to wider readings of grief and personal bereavement, particularly when one learns that the author was inspired by the loss of her mother at an early age.

Mum treats me to a copy. Later, I peruse the pages at home. My own reading of the tale is inevitably bound up with thoughts of Dad, and I get a little weepy.

By 4pm on this Shortest Day, it’s completely dark. We take a busy Clipper boat up the Thames to Greenwich, taking in the lights of the city. Then a further ride, this time on the Emirates Air Line cable car link, which spans the Thames from the O2 Dome in Greenwich to the Royal Victoria Dock in Newham. It turns out to be easy to just turn up and get a whole car to yourself. No queues; in fact, barely anyone on the thing at all. The moment when the car first ascends from the terminus and soars high above the water is the most heartstopping one. It swings a little in the wind, which is unnerving, but only a little.

We take the DLR and tube to Liverpool Street, where I see Mum off on the train to Suffolk.

* * *

Thursday 24th December 2015.

Adventures in youth slang. In a branch of Pret today, a young man at the table next to me says his companion, ‘I find that so jokes’. As in funny. I knew about this usage from the internet, but thought it was confined to the enclaves of cyberspace. This is the first time I’ve heard it said aloud. But it’s still yet to appear on Gardener’s Question Time, I think.

I attempt to see a film in the evening with Shanthi S, but we’re thwarted by her news website employers, who force her to work late. She has to work on Christmas Day as well, via her computer at home. The news must not rest.

All the cinemas in London seem to shut down completely on Xmas Eve after 6pm, but we have a pleasant time with cocktails and food at the Dean Street Townhouse in Soho (see previous entry).

Shanthi reminds me how in New York it’s common for people to go to the cinema on Christmas Day, often combining it with Chinese food. There’s nothing like that in London. Many pubs, restaurants and convenience stores are open, but certainly no cinemas. The transport system still shuts down completely on December 25th – the only day in the year when it does. Even in 2015, London is essentially a Christian city.

* * *

Friday 25th December 2015.

Christmas Day, spent in Highgate. Rainy, windy, cold and overcast. I phone Mum for a chat in the morning, then brave the rain to walk up to Waterlow Park, for my traditional feeding of the ducks.

The rest of the day is spent in my room, hacking away at the essay, while swigging from a large bottle of Baileys. My Christmas lunch is a microwaved carton of ‘White Christmas’ soup from the New Covent Garden Soup Co. Plus Quorn cocktail sausages. And lashings of back pain (currently seeing a GP, trying treatments).

Still, I’m grateful not to be one of the thousands in Northern England affected by devastating floods. I think about how we’re now getting close to 2019, the year that Blade Runner is meant to be set in. A film in which the future means constant heavy rain.

* * *

Saturday 26th December 2015.

I upload a diary entry that was meant to be a few words, apologising for not writing a diary entry. It ends up ballooning into 1500 words.

Evening: to the Curzon Soho, a cinema that proudly advertises itself in its window posters as a ‘Force Free Zone’. Its three screens are showing a diverse programme of films, none of which are the new Star Wars. There’s Carol, Grandma, the Peggy Guggenheim documentary, The Lobster (still), and Ice and the Sky. I plump for Grandma, a low-key indie road movie in the vein of Little Miss Sunshine and The Daytrippers.

Grandma stars Lily Tomlin as a grumpy lesbian poet (in her first leading role since 1988’s Big Business with Bette Midler!). She drives her pregnant granddaughter around various locations in order to raise the money for an abortion. It’s a simple conceit, but full of wit, poignancy and thoughtful characterisation; with jokes that rely on the audience knowing who Simone De Beauvoir is.

* * *

Monday 28th December 2015.

Evening: To Vout-O-Reenee’s for Atalanta Kernick’s birthday drinks. Lots of queer, dapper ladies, and women from the 90s London music scene. I chat to the writer Ngaire-Ruth, Debbie Smith (AK’s partner), Harris (one of the Drakes, a performance group of besuited butch women), and also to Ms Shir from Israel (which she refers to as ‘the land of blood and honey’). Plus Alex, the (straight male) drummer from the band Nightnurse. He’s now in Department S, of ‘Is Vic There’ fame. I discover that he also pops up in Shaun of the Dead, as a zombie on a daytime TV talk show. Indulge myself with the bar’s ‘Dunkin Donut’ cocktail: milk, cacao, Kahlua.

* * *

Thursday 31st December 2015.

New Year’s Eve. I stay in by myself. Again, by choice. Again, to work on the essay. I discover the true sound of NYE in residential city streets: the constant revving of pizza delivery mopeds.

In the essay, I suddenly find myself using the word ‘ekphrastically’. At which point it’s midnight, so I take a break, open the Prosecco, and watch the fireworks at the London Eye, via the internet. Far better than being surrounded by drunken people who don’t know what they’re doing. Here’s to choice, difference, and 2016.

* * *

Sunday 3rd January 2016.

I finish the essay – with a fifth draft – and deliver it online. Celebrate by watching the new Sherlock film, the Victorian one, which is superb. Also enjoy Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe, his satirical review of the year. It ends on a pessimistic note, but I take comfort from the knowledge that Mr Brooker’s style of ‘loner grumpiness’ is now a necessary fabrication. It’s quite funny that he has to keep up the image of the angry, lonely outsider shouting at the TV from his sofa, when these days he is married and has children, and indeed a successful TV career. I worry, though, about my own grumpiness. I’m heading into a new year, still without any sense of a ‘career’, still very much feeling like a outsider. And yet Ms Shanthi said to me this week, when I was apparently acting in a bar like I owned the place, ‘You’re more like Hugh Grant than you think!’

* * *

Tuesday 4th January 2016.

To the ICA cinema to see Joy, the new David O. Russell film, starring Jennifer Lawrence. As was the case with Mr Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, it also has Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro, and the same mix of quirky plot details with straightforward realism. The quirky plot in this instance being the tale of a young woman who invents a self-rinsing mop. There’s a little of Frank Capra’s ‘American inspiration’ style in this particular mix, though, and thanks to Ms Lawrence being so utterly likeable, it all works. Indeed, I come out of the cinema with a real sense of warmth. It’s also a nice companion to Carol, being another Christmas tale of a woman finding out who she really is.

* * *

Thursday 7th January 2016.

First class of the MA’s spring term. I’m now on a module that’s specifically about contemporary US fiction. This week we study Paradise (1997) by Toni Morrison. It uses elements of mystery and magical realism, much like Beloved, but with a much larger cast of characters. As a result, the reader has to do a fair amount of work just to work out what’s going on – the narrative can switch perspectives and even historical eras, halfway through a sentence.

* * *

Friday 8th January 2016.

I finish reading Diana Athill’s Alive Alive Oh! Some new words: she calls Highgate ‘a bosky place’ (leafy, wooded). As a child she wore ‘jemimas’ – overshoes of waterproofed felt. ‘Galoshes were considered sissy, whereas jemimas, although they looked much more old-womanish, were perfectly acceptable on manly feet’.

Also, she expresses the unexpected luxury of having to use a wheelchair, especially when visiting art exhibitions. ‘The crowd falls away on either side like the Red Sea, and there you are, lounging in front of the painting of your choice in perfect comfort’.

On life advice at 98: ‘Avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness’. And on her innate sense of not wanting to be a mother: ‘I remember thinking when looking at a small baby, “I’d much rather pick up a puppy.”’

* * *

I look back over the previous year’s diaries. I think I saw more films than ever – it must be close to a hundred. In which case, here’s some Favourite Things of 2015. I recommend them all.

FILMS OF 2015 (FICTION):

  1. Appropriate Behaviour
  2. Birdman
  3. Carol
  4. The Falling
  5. Inside Out
  6. The Lady In The Van
  7. London Road
  8. Mistress America
  9. White Bird In A Blizzard
  10. The Lobster

FILMS (DOCUMENTARIES):

  1. Best of Enemies (Gore Vidal)
  2. Do I Sound Gay? (campness as identity)
  3. Beyond Clueless (US high school films)
  4. My Secret World (Sarah Records)
  5. Regarding Susan Sontag

NOVELS:

  1. St Aubyn – Lost For Words
  2. DeLillo – White Noise
  3. Carter – Passion of New Eve
  4. Abrams & Dorst – S
  5. Hamid – Reluctant Fundamentalist

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A Christmas Message From DE

I shouldn’t be writing this.

This is in lieu of a proper diary this week. The diary always takes me too long to write. Rather ironically, it often stops me from doing the sort of things I need to do to have something to write about. I do want to spend some time away from the desk over Christmas, and I’m sure no one can begrudge me that. Except that I’ve now ended up writing a diary entry, by way of trying to get out of writing a diary.

I shouldn’t be writing this, because I’m finding it hard enough to do the work that really can’t be avoided, being the 5000-word MA essay with its January 4th deadline. I’m also labouring under a medley of health problems (back pain, mainly, not helped by the need to spend hours at a desk) and fatigue (not helped by the codeine for said back pain making me fall asleep at the desk).

On New Year’s Day I’ll write an entry covering the past two weeks. That should keep you happy, whoever you might be.

In the meantime, here’s a new photo. It was taken by Shanthi Sivanesan on Christmas Eve 2015, in the Dean Street Townhouse, Soho, London. Every year I try to have my photo taken with a different Christmas tree in London. This one represents my gratitude to people who have been kind to me over the years, one way or another. Not least the aforementioned Ms Sivansen, who treated me to dinner and cocktails at this venue.

I look like I’m trying to hide, which seems apt given my current state of reluctance. Procrastination is hiding.

What I’m actually trying to do in the photo is get the tree, myself, and the artwork behind me all into shot, and the angle wasn’t easy. The artwork is The Anatomy of the Beast by Neal Fox. It’s a large Gillray-esque cartoon of various Soho characters alive and dead, many of which I owe something to personally. Whether it’s by remote inspiration (Quentin Crisp and Jeffrey Bernard – both in the right-hand section that you can’t see), or kindness in person (you can make out Sebastian Horsley in the top hat, and Shane MacGowan next to him). The red hatted one is George Melly, another hero, who I briefly met once (and kissed).

DE-Xmas2015

[You can see the full artwork at Neal Fox’s website:

http://nealfox.bigcartel.com/product/the-anatomy-of-the-beast]

I’m grateful to you too, O reader, if you’ve been coming to this website for some time. This public diary is now 18 years old. It’s been excerpted in two anthologies of mixed diaries, which contain myself alongside Pepys and the like. The anthologies are called A London Year and A Traveller’s Year, the latter book emerging earlier this yearSome people have now expressed interest in a whole book of selections from this diary. Nothing is definite about such a book yet, and I still don’t have an agent, but I’m hopeful. Eighteen years of entries – there must be a book’s worth of interesting reading in there somewhere.

So: it’s been a year of ups and downs. The downs are the ongoing health problems: a whole carousel of symptoms. According to the many doctors I’ve seen, these were – and are – seemingly caused by a combination of anxiety, depression, dyspraxia and a complete reluctance to do any physical exercise.

The ups of 2015 have been very important to me though. I finally achieved my life ambition of getting a university degree. First Class Honours, BA English, after four years at Birkbeck, University of London. I won a couple of college prizes too, including one for being ‘the most promising student in English Literature’. It’s something I never thought I’d have the stamina to do. I had a lot of support from Birkbeck’s staff and disability services, and I remain grateful to them. They sorted out the various help I was eligible for, not least with keeping my time management on track. My parents encouraged me at every step. My mother still does. Without such support I’d simply have dropped out. So, my gratitude is there too.

I officially graduated in July, and attended the gown-and-mortar-board ceremony in November. I then won a bursary to do an MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture at the same place. All being well (I’m still looking for funding for books and Tube travel), that will take me through to late 2017.

So that’s where I am now. I still have a lot of problems with my innate slowness, and with frequently feeling unwell or tired. But what has really surged into view over the last month is my battle for motivation against procrastination. I had it under control throughout the BA, but of late it really has knocked me for six.

The voice of my Procrastination Demon is simply this: ‘Why bother?’  The obvious answer, that ‘you’ll be in trouble if you don’t’, hasn’t seemed to sink in, even with 9 days till the deadline – and I’m still fiddling with a first draft of only 3200 words. There, I said it. Though I have made a diagram too. And lots of notes. Too many notes. More notes than essay.

The problem is I’ve missed lots of personal deadlines for myself, and am now into the danger zone of missing The Real Deadline. And here I am, spending precious time on a blog post which isn’t even a proper diary update. I am procrastinating by writing about procrastination.

I can lay some of the blame at social media, or rather, my weakness for spending time on social media. Twitter and Facebook can do many great things, like provide a sense of contact with friends, or rally support for petitions and funding. But they can also give the dangerous impression that no one else is doing any work either, so it’s okay for you to not work too. The world will carry on without you, because it is carrying on – look, you can watch it scrolling on forever! In real time! Why bother doing anything else?

But there’s other distractions too. I’ve just watched all of Season One of Transparent. It’s very good. You keep watching not because of the plot (there isn’t one), but because of the characters, who all seem to be hiding things about themselves, often without realising it. There’s a theme with this piece, isn’t there.

Some Christmas words of wisdom, then. These are aimed at myself as much as the world.

Do not think: ‘Why do any work when I can be binge-watching a whole series of a very good drama?’

Instead, think: ‘Treats, not distractions. I can only go on Twitter or watch the rest of Transparent as a treat, according to the time remaining, after I’ve hit my quota of work for the day. Treats, not distractions.’

Also: I take inspiration from the productivity of older writers. Lately I’ve enjoyed Alan Bennett’s latest diary for 2015 (a large chunk of prose in the London Review of Books, plus his audio reading of selected entries for their website), John Julius Norwich’s 2015 Christmas Cracker (a beautifully made annual fanzine of his favourite prose, poetry and quotations), Ronald Blythe’s 2015 collection of columns, In The Artist’s Garden (only published last week), and Diana Athill’s latest memoir, Alive Alive Oh! 

Mr Bennett is 81, and talks about using a walking stick. Viscount Norwich is 86. Dr Blythe is 93. Ms Athill, who lives in a care home near me, turned 98 this week. They’ve all put out new work this year. I am a mere 44. I have my problems, but there is really no excuse.

But what else is hidden here? All these writers spend little time on the internet. JJ Norwich seems to have a Twitter account (I’ve just spent some time searching away to find this out), but hasn’t tweeted since July. Ms Athill isn’t on Twitter, though she does use a computer (her book of letters, Instead of a Book, marks the switch in her correspondence from paper to email). Blythe and Bennett are entirely computer-free, yet seem to get by fine as professional writers in the twenty-first century. Presumably the editors they work with are happy to accept photocopies of typewritten copy, in the way everyone did pre-internet.

There was once an amusing column by Tom Hodgkinson about his giving up email in order to get more done as a writer. It ended with him saying he’d had to resort to email after all, as the editor wouldn’t accept the column in any other form.

(And now I’ve thought about a Quentin Crisp anecdote, on his dictating columns by phone, to a newspaper in the 1990s. His hand was too paralysed to type.  ‘The newspaper has a women who types faster than I can speak and she gets it all down and they send a cheque’. I have just spent some time looking this anecdote up. More time gone).

And now the machine I am typing this on tells me that I’ve hit nearly 1500 words. It was meant to be a photo and a quick Christmas message. I really, really have to stop and get onto the essay. And text a friend to say I can’t come out for drinks after all. And I’ll probably have to cancel going to a birthday gathering…

(EDITED TO ADD: I have just been told that I am very much expected at the birthday! So I will go to that, then. One night out in the whole week. A treat, not a distraction. And I’m not going out for New Year’s Eve.)

But in a way this post is comforting, because it’s a reminder that as long as I get started on the essay today, and every day between now and the 4th, I should be able to clock up a decent amount of work and get it finished on time. As long as I get started. And don’t go on Twitter. Or the rest of the internet. Or watch a very good TV drama. Or do anything else.

That’s the thing about procrastination. It’s another form of productivity.


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Things Other Boys Like

Saturday 12th December 2015.

I watch the new film documentary Future Shock! – The Story of 2000AD, via iTunes’s streaming service. It’s paid and official, but it’s still a format I access with reluctance. I’d seek out a London cinema screening, but there doesn’t seem to be one.

I was an avid reader of 2000AD comic during its first ten years, though Dad initially ordered it from the village newsagent for himself. The first issue in 1977 resurrected his 1950s comic hero, Dan Dare, and came with a free Space Frisbee. Once I was old enough to share his copy, I enjoyed the highly imaginative artwork, and the witty left-leaning satire of stories like Judge Dredd. This was all instinctive, though: I was too young to really know what left-wing meant, or indeed what satire meant. As far as I was concerned they were just entertaining and exciting tales, close in tone to my beloved Tintin and Asterix, and an anecdote to American superheroes and Star Wars. I had already filed away the latter under Things Other Boys Like (and I still do).

I remember the Judge Dredd saga that naughtily used mutant versions of Ronald McDonald and the Jolly Green Giant as villains. As a result, the comic found itself on the sticky end of legal action. Watching this film, I finally discover what sort of people were behind it such childhood pleasures. Most of the comic creators interviewed are gentle and soft-spoken gentlemen of a certain vintage. One is Alan Grant, who lived in a Suffolk village and was a friend of Dad’s for a while. I visited Mr Grant myself as a teen, and remember him lending me a book on quantum theory, In Search Of Schrodinger’s Cat.

In the film, the original editor of 2000AD, Pat Mills, comes across as a veritable force of nature. Despite his years he is still full of energy, still ranting away against authority as if it were 1977. The story goes that the comic’s publishers wanted a new sci-fi weekly to cash in on the late 70s success of Star Wars. Mills, meanwhile, wanted to give Britain’s kids action-packed adventures of rebellion and anti-fascism, but had fallen foul of the censor with his previous comic, Action. For him, science fiction was a compromise. As with much sci-fi, the comic used ideas about the future to say things about the present day.

I think it took me a while to realise that Judge Dredd was a satire on fascism. Despite this, the helmet-wearing Dredd was still a character you were meant to root for, in the same way you were meant to root for vigilante anti-heroes like Dirty Harry. I stopped reading the comic in the late 80s, when it became increasingly violent – or so I thought. This documentary points out that it was always rather gory from the start. So perhaps it was me who changed. I certainly missed out on a phase in the 1990s where 2000AD apparently became so laddish, it published adverts featuring women pulling dim expressions, with the caption, ‘2000AD. She doesn’t get it. She never will.’ The editor responsible appears in the new film, and says he now regrets those adverts.

* * *

Monday 14th December 2015.

Last session for the term with my college dyspraxia mentor, Katie W, at Senate House. I admit to her that I’ve let procrastination creep into my essay schedule, though some of it is not my fault. The freelance review took longer than I thought, because I had to revise it for that particular readership. It’s useful to remember that a review for a magazine is also a negotiation, between an opinion of the material, and an idea of what the reader wants.

I wonder what’s behind my struggling with this new essay. Possibly because it’s the first essay of the MA, so it’s all new. Another theory is it’s to do with my creeping uncertainty about whether I’m doing the right thing with the MA. Yet the moment I began, I felt a surge of relief that I hadn’t taken a year out. To have left it for over a year would have been even harder. So at least that was a right decision. And yet the reluctance this week is overwhelming.

I’m not drastically behind: just a couple of days. But I need to pick up the slack over the Xmas & New Year break. The deadline is January 4th, the word count 5000. I’ve done about 3000 words this week. It’s a mess, but a mess is still a start.

In terms of research, I have a huge pile of handwritten notes, with further piles of books on the floor, and a few JSTOR e-texts on my computer. Yet the worry remains that I’ve missed some perfect book out there. How do proper writers get over the worry that they’ve missed something? Sheer ego? No: sheer deadline.

* * *

Tuesday 15th December 2015.

I’m writing a letter back to an American reader. She asks me if I have a best friend. By which she means, someone to whom I pour out the cares of a hard day, perhaps over the phone. I tell her there is no such person. One reason is that I’m naturally aloof and detached (there might some element of dyspraxia in this mix). Another is that I’m grateful to have a range of friends and acquaintances, and I like to see as many of them as I can. That is, when I’m not feeling so aloof. But it could also be that I just don’t feel confident at making phone calls, not if it’s purely for a chat (my mother being the only exception). I prefer full presence company, or messages.

* * *

Thursday 17th December 2015.

To the Viktor Wynd Museum in Hackney, to give one more guided tour. A huge amount of people – it’s remarkable how they seek it out. Quite pleased that I can update my speech on the Mervyn Peake display, with the news that a new film of Gormenghast is in the pipeline, scripted by Neil Gaiman. Barnabas, who works behind the bar, recognises the Caravaggio painting on the cover of my TLS. He turns out to be something of a Caravaggio fan, and tells me of the masterpieces he sought out in the churches of Rome. Many of them are extremely dimly lit, even allowing for the whole chiaroscuro effect.

* * *

In the evening, I sit in the Barbican Cinema Café and write out my Christmas cards. I try to cut the list down to the people I’ve felt particularly fond of or grateful to within the last year. That great phrase that used to mark the excommunication of a friend, ‘they’re no longer on my Christmas list’ – how anachronistic that now is. Many people no longer bother with cards full stop. This may be because they count their affection in pixels, or because of the pricy postage costs, or because of the waste (though it’s not as if cards are difficult to recycle). I send cards because it makes me happy: that should be reason enough.

* * *

Friday 18th December 2015.

Petulance in the newsagent. I decide not to buy one particular magazine purely because it carries a writer who unfollowed me on Twitter.

Private Eye’s Christmas issue has its usual ‘log rolling’ feature at the back. This is where they examine all the Books of the Year articles in British newspapers, and highlight how many of them appear to be the brazen returning of favours. Either that, or friends cosily scratching each other’s hardbacks. I always thought this overlooks how some friendships are often forged because of an admiration for a body of work. Still, I do enjoy the description of male Elena Ferrante fans, unfair as it is: ‘like sweaty chaps sneaking into the back of a zumba class for yummy mummies’.

* * *


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A Hundred Letters Of Note

Saturday 5th December 2015.

In Bloomsbury, I stumble upon the Boy Story exhibition by Magnus Arrevad. Very much in the tradition of Robert Mapplethorpe – a mix of queer sensuality, vulnerability, and humour. Large black and white portraits of male cabaret performers, including drag queens, singers (including Dusty Limits), and ‘boylesque’ dancers. The subjects are often caught backstage in states of undress, or half-dress. Lots of mirrors in dressing rooms, or in makeshift dressing rooms, or in toilets. In one image, a group of drag queens are discovered standing at urinals.

This is all at 5 Willoughby Street, near the British Museum.

* * *

Monday 7th December 2015.

To Birkbeck for the last class in the first term of the MA. That time already. I give a presentation on the 5000 word essay I’ve got to write over Christmas. It’s on materiality and the role of the printed book in the contemporary age. I’m especially fascinated by the reports in Paris, where copies of Hemingway’s Moveable Feast were used as funeral offerings, in street memorials to the recent attacks. It’s not just the meaning of the book itself – Hemingway’s celebration of Paris as a playground – but the fact that paper books can have this role, and e-books cannot. Like wreaths and bouquets, paper books are plant material given meaning by humans. And then they are given further meaning on top, when used symbolically like this. Books as the body, touching bodies.

* * *

Tuesday 8th December 2015.

Find myself singing ‘You Ain’t No Muslim Bruv’ to the tune of Cohen’s ‘Ain’t No Cure For Love’.

* * *

Wednesday 9th December 2015.

I am writing a review of the Sarah Records book by Michael White, Popkiss, for The Wire magazine. What stands out from that late 80s and early 90s indie scene now are the things which have vanished for good. Not the music, as that’s all on YouTube and iTunes. It’s the exchanging of letters and cassettes and fanzines – the social media of their day. A whole chapter of White’s book is devoted to the letter-writing activity of Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes, the sole staffers of the Sarah label. In addition to providing idiosyncratic typed sleeve notes to each release, being their potted memoirs or manifestos or other musings, they would send ‘surprisingly lengthy’ handwritten missives in response to mere mail order enquiries, thus bonding with their audience. In the book, Clare W says she once attempted to write a hundred letters in a day.

Also intriguing is Clare’s comment regarding one or two of the songs by Bobby Wratten, as recorded by his band The Field Mice. According to the book, these were not only autobiographical, but concerned his romantic relationship with Clare. The problem with being immortalised in song, she says, is that ‘Their truth stands, and your truth is lost’.

* * *

Thursday 9th December 2015.

Thoughts on the meaning of hype. The new Stars Wars film has reached saturation point in its coverage. There was a week in the late 80s when all three music papers – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds – accidentally had the same band on the front cover: U2. They had just become the biggest band in the world, and so their new album, Rattle and Hum, was a big event. At the same time, each publication had to present itself as something different to the others. They had to remind people that other music was available too (I remember that the late 80s Melody Maker was always a little more Goth-friendly than the NME).

On this occasion, the urgency to jump on the U2 bandwagon was so strong, all three papers inadvertently ran with the band on the cover. To make matters worse, it was U2 in their most earnest, messianic, cowboys of rock phase. Even U2 would soon find that phase of theirs irksome. Years later I remember one of the papers remarking how that hat-trick of covers was a low point. It looked too craven, too desperate.

So that’s what the media looks like this week, with Star Wars. Trying so hard to keep up the hype, it feels insincere, a denial of polyphony.  For the last few weeks I had been half-curious about going to see the new film. Now it feels redundant. It would be like going to see a Coldplay concert. If you believe in the redistribution of wealth, then you have to apply that very same principle to the billionaires of attention. So the stunt-double analogy kicks in. Other people will go, so you don’t have to. Doubtless I’ll see the film when the fuss dies down.

I think it was Darren Hayman, the singer of Hefner, who said he deliberately put off listening to the Strokes’ debut album for years, for similar reasons. Art is more enjoyable when the gallery is less crowded.

This ties in with the Sarah Records book too. No one could call Star Wars ‘my secret world’.

* * *

Friday 4th December 2015.

To the Museum of London for the exhibition The Crime Museum Uncovered. This is a selection of exhibits from the so-called Black Museum, as in the London Metropolitan Police’s private collection of criminal memorabilia, from the 1870s to the present. The collection is really intended to educate the British police’s own officers, and has never been fully open to the public before. The Museum of London has a reputation for being educational and thoughtful, and with this show they’ve taken pains to avoid sensationalism. This is no Jack The Ripper Museum, though there are exhibits on that particular case, too (mainly posters appealing for information). The exhibition is brightly lit, and the whole thing feels historical and curious rather than ghoulish. The captions give the bare facts of the crimes: who was caught doing what, with what evidence, and what happened to them as a result.

There’s a strict ban on photography, and a sign points out that the displays on murder stop after 1975, ‘to avoid causing further distress to the victims’. There are, however, a range of exhibits connected with later events, filed under riots and terrorism. The 7/7 attacks of 2005 are represented with some empty peroxide containers found in the bombers’ car, along with reconstructions of the backpacks used. There’s a burnt laptop taken from the jeep that was rammed into Glasgow Airport in 2007. Plus a suitcase packed with nails from the foiled attempt to bomb London’s Tiger Tiger club in the same month. Going back in history, there’s displays on attacks by the IRA and the Angry Brigade. And further back, an 1884 clockwork bomb, courtesy of the Fenians. London is no stranger to terrorism.

Other exhibits are on John Christie, the Great Train Robbers, and The Krays. Ronne Kray’s record card includes the line: ‘eyebrows meet over nose’. There’s a hinged folder ladder that belonged to an 1870s cat burglar. The gun used in the 1840 assassination attempt on Queen Victoria turns out to be tiny. Some of the Victorian sentences shock, of course: one courtroom illustration is of a 22-year-old woman gets 14 months hard labour – for attempting suicide.

The most startling items for me are a set of anthropometric record cards from the 1890s. These record the basic details of each prisoner, along with a photograph. It’s these mug shots that shock: they are of an extraordinary clear quality, as if taken yesterday. On top of that, perhaps because they’re dishevelled and not looking their best, the faces do not seem Victorian either. Just people like us, trapped in a different century. Looking at them, I feel a jolt of pure time travel.

The history of the death penalty in the UK is always engrossing. There’s a business card of a prison hangman, alongside a set of used Newgate Prison nooses. Until 1868, the executions were held in public. People would rent rooms overlooking the scaffold, to get the best view.

What I knew already – but it still fascinates me – is that the death penalty was technically still in place from 1969 right up to 1998, albeit only for three particular crimes. These were: ‘treason’, ‘piracy with violence’, and ‘arson of the Sovereign’s ships’.

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Dali In Wonderland

Saturday 28th November 2015.

I spend most of this week in the British Library reading rooms, researching the first essay for the MA. One of the books I order, a late 90s one on electronic literature, comes with a CD-ROM. This confuses some of the BL staff, and they have to ask amongst themselves to find out where such an ancient format can be accessed. The library’s internet computers tend to have no CD slots. Even microfilm is more popular as a resource.

* * *

Monday 30th November 2015.

Evening: MA class on Joe Sacco’s Footnotes In Gaza. It’s a bulky, large format graphic novel, investigating the slaughter of Palestinians during 1956. Quite a heated debate in the seminar, especially when it’s asked if Sacco is preaching to the converted, and can graphic novels work as a valid form of journalism? Funny how Sacco draws himself as more of a caricature than his interviewees: his glasses become blank goggles, even headlights during scenes of darkness. Thus he shows himself inside his own text, but not quite of it.

* * *

Tuesday 1st December 2015.

I’m reading Popkiss, the new book about Sarah Records by Michael White. I have a small walk-on role in the story, as part of the one-off project band, Shelley. Mr White files us under ‘Outliers’, where we are ‘the oddballs of the Sarah scene’. Given the niche appeal of this world, this must make us very outlying and odd indeed. Our EP is, he says generously, ‘one of the best’ releases on the label. However, I wince with guilt at the mention of our running up a large studio bill, incurred out of sheer slowness. Today, I know that this slowness is at least partly down to my dyspraxia, and I am legally entitled to extend my university exam time by 25%. Though I’m grateful for this adjustment, and for having the condition recognised, it never diminishes the feeling of guilt. I should be quicker.

* * *

Wednesday 2nd December 2015.

The Labour MP Hilary Benn makes a celebrated speech in the Commons, arguing in favour of military strikes against ISIS. I’m unconvinced as to its merits. He uses ‘evil’, which is religious rhetoric. And ‘fascist’. Which is Young Ones rhetoric.

* * *

Friday 4th December 2015.

Back to the British Library to take a look at the new Alice in Wonderland exhibition. Thankfully the huge queues seem confined to the weekend, and this afternoon I leisurely take my time around the display cases.  The first case tells the tale of Carroll’s original manuscript. It’s in the form of a handwritten notebook presented to Alice Liddell, the little girl he made up the story for. Alongside it are some of Carroll’s photographs of Ms Liddell and other girls, with his diary from the time recounting (in a very decorative, looping hand) the Oxford boat trip that hosted the tale-telling. Then there’s a letter in the 1920s, by the elderly Ms Liddell, recording her reluctant selling of the manuscript to an American collector. The sequence concludes with a typed note from 1946, representing the notebook’s present owner in a consortium with other US bibliophiles. They are returning it to the British government ‘in recognition of British resistance to Germany in the first years of the war’. I suppose one way of looking at this is to say, thank Hitler for Alice.

The bulk of the exhibition is a selection of the many subsequent Alice books and merchandise, taking in illustrators from Arthur Rackham to Ralph Steadman. There’s a series of 1930s advertising pamphlets by Guinness, plus sundry toys, puzzles and figurines all helping themselves to Carroll’s text. The copyright expired as early as 1907. Alice belongs to everyone.

Most of the book-based Alices on show have long blonde hair, thanks to Tenniel and Disney, though one or two replicate Alice Liddell’s dark bob. There’s also a ‘flapper Alice’ from the 1920s, and a Brownie Alice from the 30s, as in the junior girl guides. Some Alices are older than others: a post-war letter from Graham Greene to Mervyn Peake compliments Peake on being ‘the first person who has been able to illustrate the book satisfactorily since Tenniel’, only to add ‘your Alice is a little bit too much of a gamin.’ From 1902 there’s a political parody by Saki, The Westminster Alice. It’s a link kept evergreen this year when Tony Blair accused Jeremy Corbyn of creating a delusional ‘Alice in Wonderland world’ for Labour.

The Alice I am most surprised by is a version by Salvador Dali, from the 1960s. Here the Caterpillar appears in double form, a realistic rendering next to an abstract splatter of paint. Dali’s Alice, meanwhile, is an inky stick figure with a skipping rope.

Afterwards, I visit the BL’s Alice pop-up shop. It sells all manner of Carroll-themed products – chocolates, calendars, diaries – yet frustratingly, no single postcards. I now wonder if picture postcards are finally on the decline, even as cheap souvenirs of exhibitions. For some reason, they’re more likely to be available in bulky boxes of 100 at a time (eg a series of classic covers of Penguin Books).

Thankfully there’s another gallery a short walk away that does sell postcards of Alice – the Cartoon Museum in Little Russell Street. The current exhibition features Ralph Steadman, too, this time paying tribute not to Carroll but Gillray, the satirical cartoonist of the Romantic age. Here, Gillray’s prints – in startlingly fresh condition – are juxtaposed with the many pastiche cartoons in recent years. Given the tight deadlines for newspaper cartoons, a take on Gillray is always a reliable option. The most parodied image by far is Napoleon and Pitt carving up the ‘plumb-pudding’ of the world. Here, the exhibition shows how the likes of Steve Bell and Martin Rowson have updated this basic template with Blair, Cameron et al in place of the original duo. There’s also an inspired Viz cartoon strip about a Beano-esque rivalry between Gillray and Rowlandson.

I spend the evening with Fenella Hitchcock and Vadim Kosmos in Fontaine’s, an elegant Art Deco cocktail bar which somehow exists in Stoke Newington. I down some very nicely made Brandy Alexanders and find myself discussing the film work of Doug McClure, before staggering onto the Overground train home.

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Drinking Wine In Hospitals And Libraries

Saturday 21st November 2015.

I meet Tom, Charis and their friends at the British Library, to see the new Alice In Wonderland exhibition in the lobby. Or at least, we try to see the exhibition. A huge queue for it stretches across the width of the building, doubles up at the end, and appears not to be moving. A woman at the information desk tells me that interest in the exhibition has been overwhelming, and they were taken by surprise. This is the first weekend, though, after all the press coverage, and it’s open till April. So we postpone the visit for another day. How interesting, though, that a mid-Victorian children’s book can have such a hold on a twenty-first century public, and that people will queue to see old books in glass cases.

Well, people except us. Instead, we take a look at the Alice pop-up shop – also crammed – before I show them the Spice Girls Staircase in the St Pancras hotel next door. I also point out this year’s Christmas tree in St Pancras station. It’s a tottering pile of Disney soft toys, from Mickey Mouse to the heroine of Frozen. Among them is the White Rabbit from the Disney cartoon of Alice In Wonderland, which is a neat consolation. Then we go for refreshments in Drink Shop And Do, in the Caledonian Road. I suggest this crafts-based female-friendly venue, partly because most of our group is female, but mainly because I get nervous around football fans in pubs, and it’s a Saturday afternoon. There’s a pile of board games available, and I play my first ever game of Jenga.

* * *

Monday 23rd November 2015.

MA class on The Submission, by Amy Waldman. It’s a clever novel about the politics of post-terrorism grief, where the winner of a competition to design a 9/11 memorial turns out to be a Muslim, thus triggering a range of protests. The timing of this class with the Paris attacks makes the issues all the more relevant. There was an article this week about how one of ISIS’s aims is the elimination of the ‘grey zone’, as in toleration, nuance of thought, consideration of complexity, and the peaceful co-existence of different faiths. By firmly foregrounding this theme, Ms Waldman’s book works as a good memorial in itself.

* * *

Tuesday 24th November 2015.

I am in the British Library to work on my first MA essay. I’ve not been here since May, but there are a couple of staffers in the Rare Books Reading Room who still greet me with ‘Mr Edwards!’ when I go to collect my requested items. They also add that they enjoyed seeing me in the book I Am Dandy.

The Rare Books room still has 40 desks where laptops are banned. I tend to favour these, partly to keep up my longhand writing, but also because they are rarely occupied.

* * *

Wednesday 25th November 2015.

To the private view of Quentin Blake – The Hospital Drawings, at South Kensington and Chelsea Mental Health Centre. This is a clinic next to the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital on Fulham Road. Mr Blake has made specially commissioned drawings for the walls of British hospitals for ten years now, and this exhibition features a selection of these works. His productivity is all the more impressive, given he is now in his eighties. Asked to provide nineteen drawings, one for each bedroom on a mental health ward, he delivered sixty. His scribbly, sketchy style is typically colourful and lively for a sequence designed for a children’s ward – images of friendly space aliens, to help children be less fearful of doctors. But the drawings for adult clinics are more restrained. There’s dots for eyes instead of his usual googly circles, and his signature messy lines are calmed through washes of pale watercolour – greys, greens, light browns and golds. There’s still plenty of silliness, though: he illustrates therapeutic activities by having elderly people sitting in trees playing cellos or feeding mad-looking birds. One sequence has older people performing circus tricks on a senior-friendly level – a tightrope walker is mere inches from the ground.

Mr Blake himself turns up tonight to open the exhibition in person. A consultant introduces him as ‘Britain’s most famous living illustrator’, which is surely true. ‘At first I worried,’ QB says in his speech, ‘that the drawings of elderly people might be in bad taste. Then I realise I’m part of the same social group as they are, so I’m allowed.’ The last time I was in the same room as him, it was at a Puffin Club Show in the early 80s. I would have been about ten. The prints and drawings in this exhibition are all for sale, in aid of the Nightingale Project, an organisation that puts art into British hospitals. Many of the works are a mere £300 each. He is an artist of the people, in many ways.

One of my favourite lesser-known Blake works is The Bed Book, where he illustrated Sylvia Plath’s poems for children. (Link to an article about it here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/04/04/the-bed-book-sylvia-plath-quentin-blake/)

* * *

Thursday 26th November 2015.

After last night’s free wine in the corridors of a mental health clinic, I enjoy more free drinks in an unlikely space – the London Library’s Reading Room, in St James’s Square. It’s the Members’ Christmas Party, and I chat with the likes of Travis Elborough, Andrew Martin, and various fellow Library members, some of whom turn out to be fellow Birkbeck postgraduate students too. I’ve found that my seahorse brooch is perfect for getting conversations started with strangers. I rarely go up to people I don’t know, so it’s good if they have a reason to come up to me. If only to say they like the brooch.

* * *

Friday 27th November 2015.

Afternoon: I give another tour at Wynd’s Museum of Curiosities in Mare Street, some of it filmed by a lady from Time Out.

Evening: to the East Finchley Phoenix for the film Carol, directed by Todd Haynes. His last big screen affair was the experimental Bob Dylan biography, I’m Not There. After seeing Carol I realise that both films end with a shot of Cate Blanchett looking directly at the camera. Then she was in male drag as the 60s Dylan. In Carol she’s in a more conventional female role, but still with an otherworldly air. Her character is a spellbinding New York society wife during the 1950s, who draws a young shopgirl into a romance. Like many of Mr Haynes’s films, the emphasis is on outsiders coping to be themselves in an artificial world, though this is his most accessible work yet. In fact, it’s based on Patricia Highsmith’s autobiographical novel of the same name, which was notable for reaching selling nearly a million copies in the 1950s, while daring to give its gay characters a happy ending. So it’s only right the film version is aimed at a mass audience.

Despite this, Carol still has an arthouse sensibility. Every frame of this film is ravishing and balletic in its rendering of the era, much like an Edward Hopper painting. The two leads (Rooney Mara as the younger) manage to channel the mannerisms of the films from that period, with much blowing of cigarette smoke in stylish directions. Ms Blanchett has a touch of a slowed-down Katharine Hepburn (in a dreamy reprise of her actual Hepburn in The Aviator), while Ms Mara closely resembles Audrey Hepburn, albeit a more inscrutable, guarded version. Just when it can’t get any better, Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia and Sleater-Kinney turns up.

It’s only occurred to me now that the title ‘Carol’ is not just a reference to the Blanchett character, but a play on the Christmas setting of the story, and how this links to the gift-giving themes of the story. So the release date is well-chosen, too.

* * *

I leaf through the London Evening Standard. As it’s a free newspaper, I take pains to save waste and only read it after it has been discarded by someone else, usually onto the seat of a Tube carriage. A few years ago, when the ES cost 50p and had to compete with two free papers, it ran a poster campaign depicting a carriage covered with copies of its rivals. ‘No one throws away the Standard’, the poster boasted, making the connection between litter and financial worth. Today the Standard is free, and people indeed throw it away. The poster turned out to be the advertising equivalent of Neville Chamberlain’s ‘Peace For Our Time’ speech. It’s the same lesson: never make hasty claims about pieces of paper.

* * *

Tonight’s ES carries a decent interview with Sian Berry, the Green candidate for next year’s mayoral election. She turns out to be the only candidate who lives in a rented studio flat, being one room with an en-suite bathroom. I suspect that this fact alone could swing things in her favour. There may be more to London’s problems than the property crisis, but (to misquote The Smiths) not much more. Other problems – crime, poverty, the closing of small businesses, the overcrowding of transport networks – all link to the failure to do something about property prices. This week sees the closure of yet another Soho landmark, the Stockpot café in Old Compton Street.

Another property story in the paper has an element of schadenfreude, though. In Barnes, a multi-million-pound Georgian townhouse has collapsed ‘like a deck of cards’, while undergoing construction work. It had been in the process of having its basement enlarged; a fashionable move among London’s wealthy. It always seems to be the basement, and always to accommodate a range of further luxuries, in this case, ‘a cinema, gym, and wine room’.  As if there was a shortage of such things on their doorstep.

Flipping through the Standard, one gets an impression that Londoners either live in overpriced rented rooms, or that they own vast mansions which must nevertheless be remodelled, with much disruption to the neighbours, in order to be even bigger. The abiding question with all of this is: what is a city for?

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