Something Where There Should Be Nothing
Late March, and for the first time I find myself looking out for new leaves on the trees. Larkin’s rare positivity: ‘Afresh, afresh, afresh’.
I recently had an email from someone organising an exhibition at Somerset House. The show is titled ‘Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and their Digital Descendents’, and will run from late May till July. I’ve given permission for them to use a quote from mine on some sort of screen, for use on just one day. They’ve chosen some entries from May and June of last year.
So the diary continues to find purchase. And yet I still resent the time and effort it requires. Perhaps because it is, occasional donations aside, unpaid work. Philip Glass on his early years, driving a taxi while being championed in the press: ‘What is success? Having an audience.’ I have to admit I still prefer the version that pays the bills. Perhaps it’s about time I look into Patreon. But anyway.
How do I write this diary again? Empty my brain onto the page, take out all the libel, the self-libel, all the resentment, and as much of the self-pity as I can wake myself up to, then polish whatever’s left. And take too long to do it.
(That’s not entirely true: much of the time is spent procrastinating.)
For this present update, so much time has gone unmarked that I will have to be concise, even fragmentary.
12 December 2016. Most of my days from here to the 23rd of January are spent on the 3rd essay for my MA at Birkbeck, as in my MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture. This essay is a fairly bold argument towards a definition of ‘textual dandyism’, via selected novels by Muriel Spark, Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson. One of the other students said that my doing Carter was a ‘typical’ choice for me, which I took to be a compliment. The postgraduate mode is, after all, meant to involve a drift from the general to the specialised. And what else is specialisation but an advanced manifestation of taste? Discuss.
Regardless, few will disagree that Ms Carter is good for sparking off ideas. One of her essays in Shaking A Leg states that anorexia is a kind of female dandyism. There’s a thousand debates right there.
13 December. Film: The Pass. Barbican. Russell Tovey as a closeted gay football star. Much commentary on the way football is, rather depressingly, the last bastion of default homophobia. Very play-like; a chamber piece. Mercifully there is no actual football in the film.
15 December. More modern masculinity. The term ends, and I go with fellow Birkbeck students and tutors to the Museum Tavern, Great Russell Street, opposite the British Museum. I think the preferred term for a group of MA students is a ‘cohort’, though for me that sounds too much like Asterix the Gaul.
There is a moment of drama in the pub, when one customer – not one of our party it must be said – hurls his empty glass against the wall behind the counter. The glass shatters spectacularly into a starburst of tiny pieces, like a firework, though no one seems to be hurt. The hubbub duly stops and everyone watches.
This glass-thrower – whose patron saint must be Robert Carlyle’s character in Trainspotting – explains at some volume that it was really, definitely, his time to be served next.
Presumably it hadn’t occurred to him that (a) he wasn’t getting served for a reason, and that (b) throwing a glass against a wall is more likely to prevent one from ever being served in that pub again. How fascinating the logic of the drunken mind.
The burlier men in the room realise that Christmas has come early. They now have the whole pub’s implied permission to grapple this fellow out onto the street, and perhaps even get a few punches in for good measure. This they do with gusto. The joy of righteous violence: it almost makes one want to take up rugby. Sadly, the police arrive in minutes.
I notice how bar fights in real life are so unlike the choreographed ones in films. There’s little actual punching; more a series of headlocks and holding. Indeed, more like actual rugby.
Afterwards I notice there’s another under-discussed element to real life fighting: embarrassment. It’s in that moment of silence when everyone realises there is a troublemaker in the room, and that someone, ideally someone large, and more ideally several large someones, will indeed have to Do Something.
I was further disappointed that a pub fight in Bloomsbury didn’t involve rolled up copies of the London Review of Books.
16 December. I visit the Heath Robinson museum in Pinner. One display has a fan letter from the WW1 trenches, suggesting a joke to Mr Heath R. Some sections of No Man’s Land, says the soldier, are so narrow that one could use a fishing rod to steal souvenirs from the enemy. Heath Robinson used the idea in a subsequent cartoon.
18 December. Tate Britain. A brilliant video installation, Wot U :-) about?, by an artist I’d not seen before, Rachel Maclean. It depicts a nightmare world where social media controls bodies. She plays all the parts in the film, but is so buried under digital effects and masks that one would never recognise her. There’s a touch of Leigh Bowery about the characters: clownish faces with brightly coloured make-up. Demented Pac-Men, and indeed Pac-Women.
20 December. Film: Uncle Howard. ICA. Documentary on an 80s NYC filmmaker whose career was abruptly shortened by AIDS. Has glimpses of an abandoned film starring Madonna.
22nd December. Mum in town. We visit the 1920s exhibition in the Fashion Museum, Bermondsey. A lot of dresses resembling pyjamas, frankly. Helps illustrate the view that the 20s were full of lightness, invention and abandon, while the 1930s were when things became buttoned down, in every sense. No distance like the recent past. Also: a bonus display of frocks from the recent Gatsby film.
24th December. Film: Paterson. Curzon Bloomsbury. After the action of Star Wars, Adam Driver fronts an inaction film. Signifiers of quiet US dramas: a small town’s name as the title. See also Manchester by the Sea. Perhaps one can blame Paris, Texas.
English place names can do the same sort of thing – from ‘Adlestrop’ to Broadchurch. But they can also produce a wry bathos, which I think is exclusively English. Peter Sellers’s ‘Balham – Gateway to the South’ in the 60s. Billy Bragg’s parody of ‘Route 66’ as ‘A13 – Trunk Road to the Sea’. ‘Wichita Lineman’ is soulful, ‘Widnes GPO Man’ less so.
25th December. Highgate. Ducks in Waterlow Park, Frozen, Doctor Who.
28th December. To the Harold Pinter Theatre with Minna Miller, for Nice Fish, a new absurdist play with Mark Rylance. Cocktails at the RA’s plush Academicians’ Room after.
31st December. New Year’s Eve in Suffolk, with Mum. We watch the Crown’s fireworks from the garden.
Wednesday 11th January 2017. Working on my PhD proposal alongside the essay. My last module of regular taught classes begins. I’ve opted for ‘The Horror, The Horror’, taught by Roger Luckhurst. Professor L knows his stuff: he’s written academic books on mummies and zombies, and edited the present Oxford World’s Classics editions of Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, and HP Lovecraft’s short stories.
One theme of the module is the idea of two sorts of ‘horror’: a more literary ‘high’ category, as in Dorian Gray, and a ‘low’, trashier version, such as Saw 3. In the case of HP Lovecraft, some works have journeyed from the ‘low’ to the ‘high’; albeit a precarious sort of ‘high’. RL tells us how hard it was to convince the gatekeepers of the OUP that Mr Lovecraft’s tentacle-based tales are worthy of inclusion alongside Chekhov, Dickens, and Austen.
Reading ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ now, I do find myself chucking aloud at some of the sillier excesses. But when considering the horror genre, Lovecraft’s influence is monumental.
We kick off with Arthur Machen’s Novel of the White Powder. Like Dorian and Jekyll, it gestures at the things a young single man might get up to, when on a night out in London. Horrors indeed.
Sunday 15 January. Watch the (possibly) last ever episode of Sherlock in the biggest room possible: the Odeon Leicester Square. Even though the episode is being transmitted on TV at the same time, and for free, the organisers know there’s enough people keen to pay £10 or so to see it on the big screen, in the company of fellow fans. The cinema has truly been reinvented as a special (British) space first, and an advertising board of Hollywood second. There are cheers when Moriarty appears to have returned from the dead. Then boos, when a caption quickly reveals it’s a flashback. I see a couple of Sherlock fans wearing deerstalkers. Both are women.
Saturday 21st January. Green Park station is crammed with people on their way to the women’s march against Mr Trump. One placard has a picture of a cat: ‘Try grabbing this pussy’. Despite the crowds making everyone’s exit from the station a much slower experience, the atmosphere is quite unlike the miserable air one feels from the crowds at rush hour. Here, there’s a fun, even joyous feel to it all.
A barista in Costa Piccadilly tells me that the big protests are always good business for him. A protest marches on its stomach.
Monday 23rd January. Delivered the dandyism essay. Then off to my PhD application interview in Gordon Square. I am offered an unconditional place on the course, but will have to spend the next few weeks revising my proposal even more. This time, it’s for the second and much harder stage of the process – the competition for funding. I’m told I’ll hear back about the result in early April.
Wednesday 25th January. To a literary event at Birkbeck: Eimear McBride interviewed by Jacqueline Rose. The hall is packed out, with people standing at the back, some sitting on the floor. Ms Rose makes it clear she regards Ms McBride as an important talent, almost in messianic terms: ‘I felt I was waiting for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’. But this means that her questions are all the more serious and worthwhile. In Joe Brooker’s write-up of the event, he points out there’s a history of such critic-and-artist double acts, going back to Ruskin and Turner. I also thought of David Sylvester and Francis Bacon. Sylvester’s interviews with Bacon are essential reading for anyone wanting to create.
Much has been made of the influence of Joyce and Beckett on McBride, but tonight she names a more recent cultural lodestone: the 1990s playwright Sarah Kane. Which makes perfect sense to me.
Saturday 28th January. Back in London. First night alone after Tom’s death. Consoled by kind staff and friends at the Boogaloo, especially David Ryder-Prangley. I’m something of a drunken mess towards the end of the night, but am grateful that there are people out there who will drop everything to help.
Tuesday 7th February. Eyes tested at Boots, Victoria Street. One test involves reading a passage of prose from a piece of laminated card. This turns out to be an extract from Brideshead Revisited.
Monday 13 February. I get the essay mark back: 74. That’s three out of three first class marks on the MA so far. One more essay to do for Easter, then the big dissertation in the summer.
Thursday 16 February. To take my mind off things, I go to the ICA to see the most talked-about drama of the moment, Manchester by the Sea. It is only as it starts that I realise it’s about the aftermath of a brother’s death. When Dad died, the book I was writing about was Fun Home. Which is about a father’s death. But that’s stories for you. Only ‘seven basic plots’ (and some insist there’s only three).
A highlight of Manchester is a moment of farce. The Casey Affleck character is driving his nephew around. At one point, when the car is parked, he mistakes the meaning of the nephew saying ‘Let’s go’ and starts to drive away. The nephew is actually opening the passenger door to get out, and nearly does himself an injury. It’s an entirely unnecessary scene in terms of the plot, but it works brilliantly within the whole structure of the film, balancing the more dramatic moments.
Monday 20th February. Reading Tobias Wolff’s Old School. Page 53:
‘Grief can only be told in form. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry. Sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo’.
Tuesday 21st February. Woolf’s diary for 13th June 1923: ‘Going to 46 (Gordon Square) continues to excite’. Same here, Virginia.
Friday 24th February. The final line in Old School is a reference to the parable of The Prodigal Son, elegantly paraphrased by Wolff:
‘Those old words, surely the most beautiful words ever written or said: “His father, when he saw him coming, ran to meet him.”’
Monday 27 February. To Seven Hills Crematorium, on the dark side of the Ipswich ring-road. Tom’s favourite guitar is propped up in front of his coffin.
Mum points out how it’s virtually three years to the day since Dad’s funeral. Same chapel. The same funeral directors, Deacon’s of Lavenham. The same celebrant, Chris Woods, at our request. It’s best to have a professional running these things, especially in the case of an unexpected death. If emotion overwhelms a speaker, the celebrant knows how to step in.
Today Mr Woods keeps up the required tone of civic dignity, even when uttering names like Fields of the Nephilim. I think of the moment in the Patrick Keiller film Robinson in Space where the narrator, Paul Schofield, has to fold his soft, 1940s vowels around the words ‘Adam Ant’. Indeed, Mr Ant is mentioned today as well, and much of his present band – Tom’s colleagues – are here in person.
Besides, I remember that this is Suffolk, home to so many goth and metal bands in itself. It’s not impossible that this room has hosted send-offs for the grandmothers of Cradle of Filth.
Boxes of tissues punctuate the hymn books in front of each pew. For some reason, perhaps an over-ordering of supplies, today’s boxes of Kleenex are packaged in a Christmas theme. I spend much of my brother’s funeral staring out a cartoon snowman. Tom would be the first to find this funny.
There’s speeches by Tom’s partner Charis and his best friend, Ewan. Ewan speaks for many when he goes off-script, sighs, looks at the coffin and says, ‘I still can’t believe it, to be honest’.
I’ve provided Chris W with memories of my own to read out, but spend the ceremony at Mum’s side in the congregation. Holly, Tom’s daughter, is at Mum’s other side. There’s a poem by Holly, a reading of Tagore’s ‘Peace My Heart’, and recorded music by Warren Zevon’s ‘Keep Me In Your Heart’, along with several tracks by Tom’s own band Spiderbites.
Then to the Ship Inn in nearby Levington for drinks and food. The pub looks over the Orwell estuary, with the container port at Felixstowe visible in the distance. Another coincidence, as I’m currently reading Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie, a recommended text for the class on horror fiction. There’s a chapter about the ‘eerie’ nature of this very part of Britain, where Fisher himself lived until his own untimely death last month (I didn’t know him, but I liked his work).
In the book, Fisher ties in the contemporary spookiness of Felixstowe’s container port with the rural desolation of the surrounding marshes, the latter used in M.R. James’s Edwardian ghost stories.
Fisher also defines the weird (as in the goings-on in HP Lovecraft) as ‘something where there should be nothing’, while the eerie (his prime example is Picnic At Hanging Rock) is ‘nothing where there should be something’.
Today I do a lot of gracious listening and a lot of thanking. I’m especially grateful to be able to pay all the bills related to Tom’s death, thanks to the memorial fund. The last few weeks have not been easy, but paying off the bills was my own moment of moving forward.
Sunday 26th February. Back to the little things. I look at a display at the London Library about damaged books. I learn a word, culaccino. The circular mark made by a wet mug or glass.
Wednesday 1st March. I start work on the horror essay. Tempted to call Clive Barker ‘Alan Hollinghurst with tentacles’. After reading The Weird and the Eerie, I realise Barker sees the weird as a queer antidote to the eerie. If the weird is ‘something where there should be nothing’, Barker puts a positive spin on this – as does Hollinghurst in The Swimming-Pool Library. Art as the ‘children’ of the childless, which often includes gay people. Barker and Hollinghurst both believe in showing things – the explicit rather than the implicit. Sometimes it’s better to be weird than to be eerie. So that’s the gist of my essay. Typically, I discover that the first major collection of academic essays on Barker is about to be published, but not until the autumn.
Tuesday 7 March. With Charis and her friends to O’Neills in Wardour Street, Soho, once The Wag Club. A private night to celebrate Tom’s life, put on by and for his friends, particularly the ones that are fellow musicians. The hosts are Andy and Joe from Spiderbites. Tom played here in the past, and indeed so did I in various bands. As it’s a private function, the bar staff treat the people in the room as employers rather than customers, and let us hang around long into the small hours.
There’s a screening of some home movie clips of Tom onstage and off, then the rest of the night is musical performances. A rotating supergroup of people from different times in Tom’s life, some playing together for the first and perhaps only time. Ewan B digs out a song he wrote with Tom when they were children; I think I’m the only person in the audience familiar with it.
Back to Charis’s hotel room at the Camden Holiday Inn afterwards, drinking to nearly 5am. The hotel has a street map in the foyer with all the rock and roll history of the area. Camden these days is Carnaby Street with tattoos.
Saturday 25 March. At 4pm I sit in the cafe in Russell Square Gardens. I have a late lunch then do some reading. For some reason, the cafe’s plastic owl is sitting on the table next to me. It’s normally outside on a pole, doing its moulded upmost to scare away pigeons. A passing stranger says that the two of us would make for a good photo. I oblige. He asks for my email address and sends the photo to me. We chat about the lack of effectiveness of the owl, given the pigeons happily invading all the tables outside. On another pole is a rubber hawk.
Photo by Phoenix Anthony Robins
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Tags: alan hollinghurst
, brideshead revisited
, clive barker
, evelyn waugh
, hp lovecraft
, mark fisher
, plastic owls
, Tom Edwards
Cool Guitar Boy
(The title is a song by Heavenly)
Tuesday 21st February 2017. I need to restart this diary. I deliberately took a break in the New Year because a couple of college tasks were getting on top of me: an MA essay and a proposal for a PhD. Then I had to revise the proposal for a PhD funding bid, so that went on even longer. But both tasks are over now. The essay won a First Class / Distinction – my third out of three so far. I’ll hear back about the funding soon.
Of the last few weeks, one event eclipses everything else. I have to get that – I want to say ‘out of the way’, but that sounds wrong. I’ve tried writing this entry so many times, then giving up. Death is hard enough to write about when the person is older and ill, as was the case with Dad three years ago. A much younger death is harder; a sudden death is harder still. Whatever I write, I will almost certainly make a mess of it. But I have to start.
Doing so on a birthday has an aptness to it. A new start.
So my younger brother Tom would have been 42 today. Born 21st February 1975. Died 25th January 2017. He was my only sibling.
This time last year, I took him for a Sunday lunch at the Crown and Two Chairmen in Soho. It was just the two of us, talking about music and TV comedy and life, passing the time, enjoying each other’s company.
He died very suddenly and very unexpectedly. He was working as a guitarist and musical director for Adam Ant’s band, and they had just begun a tour of North America. The person who called Mum from the New Jersey hospital was kind enough to wait a few hours until it was morning in the UK. Mum got the call in Suffolk soon after 7am on Thursday 26th. Then she called me. I got on the next train from Liverpool Street to Ipswich, then took a cab from the station to the village.
I spent the next two days staying with Mum, hardly leaving the house. I vetted the constant phone calls, and did my utmost to protect Mum’s nerves. I figured that a certain throttling back of the calls would be helpful: many callers simply wanted to leave a message of condolence, rather than have a conversation. So I answered the phone and tried not to pass every single call on to Mum, like a gatekeeper. As it was, some of her friends could barely speak with grief themselves.
When there were no phone calls, Mum and I just sat in the front room together, in silence.
Mum: I don’t know what to say.
Me: Well, there’s no manual.
But there was a little moment of black comedy. In the taxi on the way to Mum’s that first morning, I realised I didn’t have the cash for it – it was £30. I stopped the taxi at a service station on the bypass outside Hadleigh, the nearest town, where there was an ATM. Oone easily forgets about such rural rarities. As I came back out of the shop, I walked over to where the cab had stopped by the pumps and tugged repeatedly at the door handle. It seemed to be locked. I glanced in the windows to see that the cabbie had been replaced by a small terrified woman, who was doing a lot of head-shaking and finger-pointing. The wrong car. I seemed not to have registered the lack of a massive white ‘TAXI’ sign on the roof.
Looking around, I spotted the cab, parked further on in the forecourt. The cabbie was out of the car, waving to me. He’d moved to let others use the pumps, of course. Not that this occurred to me.
My own solipsism aside, I think there’s an element of (understandable) self-centredness with grief. Grief is the thing with blinkers.
Some thoughts about Tom.
Being a sibling is a predicament. Some are better at it than others. Like all younger siblings, Tom found himself thrust into a competition for attention, against someone who’d already had a head start. Indeed someone who might not be keen on sharing. But we shared our parents’ attention without too much conflict – I can’t recall any actual fights. When Tom was small we also shared a green metal bunk bed. I can’t recall if there were any arguments over who got which bunk; we just got on with it.
But I now realise how good Tom was at sharing. He could ascertain what other people wanted, and how strongly they felt about it, and work around that. It was a talent that not only won him many friends, but also served him well when playing in bands. Musical ability is not enough on its own. When a group splits up, it’s often due to the lack of another skill, one which Tom had in abundance: diplomacy. So in Tom’s case, a good brother made for an excellent band member.
And if music is territorial, then Tom was a skilled crosser of borders. There can surely be few guitarists who can move between playing for a daytime radio-friendly artist like Andrea Corr, and the rather more divisive Fields of the Nephilim. In fact, when Tom and I were growing up, we tended to divide up music like our bunk beds: I had the introspective indie bands, he had more outgoing acts like the Beastie Boys, Prince, and (usefully as it turned out) Adam Ant.
I have a very clear memory of Tom when he was aged about 6. It was at the Butlin’s holiday camp in Clacton in the early 80s. Like many small boys, Tom found himself dressed as a pirate at the slightest opportunity, complete with a cardboard cutlass. Butlin’s ran a children’s disco, and this included a chart hit of the time that managed to be compatible with both pirate costumes and child-friendly dance routines. It was ‘Prince Charming’ by Adam Ant. I can see Tom now, a tiny boy dressed as a pirate, throwing up his arms in perfect time, committing fully, taking it seriously.
When I think about Tom, I also have in mind the title of a recent film about the band The National. It’s really about the relationships between brothers, especially brothers who play music. The title is Mistaken for Strangers. That was often the case with Tom and me, perhaps because we had divided up our respective worlds so neatly.
But despite our differences, when I sometimes needed a guitarist for my own band Fosca, Tom would help out. We played concerts together in Sweden and Britain, and he played most of the instruments on the third Fosca album. I know the music wasn’t to his taste, but that didn’t stop him. It was the brotherly thing to do.
On the 2nd of February, Mum told me that Tom’s death had left all kinds of financial loose ends and costs to be paid, not least his funeral. It would be wrong to go into a list, but when one points out that he was a freelance concert musician paying rent on a London flat, people tend to understand.
Mum wondered if we could do the internet equivalent of passing round a hat. So I launched a fundraiser page. People had been asking us if there was anything they could do, and now we had an answer. What I especially like about the fundraiser is that it also lets people leave a little tribute message.
Online fundraising for funerals and memorials is quite a common thing to do these days. It’s a nice thing to do, too. It helps stop the salt of money worries being quite so rubbed into the wound of bereavement. People have been incredibly generous so far, and I’m very grateful. I’m especially touched to see the names of some old friends whom I thought I’d fallen out with, and would never hear from again.
It’s been a painful time, but, without intending a pun on an Adam Ant song (a 90s one I rather like), a lot of people have been rather wonderful. My thanks to them. And happy birthday, Tom.
The fundaiser is at: youcaring.com/tomedwards
3rd July 2008. Me, Mum, Dad, Tom.
Tags: Tom Edwards
DE’S New Year Message for 2017
A Christmas tree selfie from 24th December 2016. Taken in front of the Fitzrovia mural in Whitfield Gardens, near Goodge Street tube. The mural was painted in 1980 by Mick Jones and Simon Barber, and immortalises real people from the community of the time.
Abyssmas, being that yawning void between Christmas and New Year, is over. I have work to do: an MA essay and a PHD proposal. I also need to update the diary, though that will have to be paused until the more important tasks are over. In any case, the days in question have not been very noteworthy. A sample would read, ‘Tuesday: wrote a bit of the essay. Wednesday: Tried to write a bit of the essay, wasted time instead, watched TV and looked at Twitter.’
This was something of a theme for me in 2016. My energies often wilted, and procrastination set in. I worried whether I was doing the right things with my life, I worried about my ongoing lack of money, I worried about my health. Mostly, I just worried. By the end of the year, I felt I’d done very little of worth at all.
This is one of the reasons why it’s useful to keep a diary. Looking over it now, I know I did manage to achieve some things.
Though my BA degree ended in 2015, the diploma didn’t arrive until January 2016. I decided to get it framed, very cheaply, and put it on display in my room. To frame a diploma is to transform it from document to trophy. In an office, it can declare what a person is qualified to do. Rock stars hang gold discs in their toilets, a manoeuvre that plays up the rebellious reputation of their work, while at the same time indulging a degree of false modesty. In my own case, seeing the degree in my room works as a much-needed act of encouragement. It reminds me that, contrary to that inner critic, I can indeed do what I’m struggling to do. Moreover, it tells me that I’ve done it before, and often, and well.
I also need to remind myself that in 2016 I managed to write two essays for the MA, with both coming in at first class. And I tried out new things. I put on my first art installation, Is It Just Me?, in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. I hosted my first Q&A for a film event, Lawrence of Belgravia. And I wrote a number of reviews for The Wire magazine.
To review one’s past year is an act of self-control for the year ahead. So my message for the New Year is that we should think more about little acts of control.
The year 2016 is synonymous with a surge of deaths among creators. One was the novelist Anita Brookner, who turned to novel writing relatively late, after a career as an art historian. Despite her expertise with the art of others, she felt she was ‘drifting’ in her life. She took to producing fiction because, she said, she wanted ‘to control rather than be controlled’.
The great controllers one can do little about are time, age, illness and death. But celebrity is a form of control too: it shapes inputs, the things people discuss, the music they listen to, the words they read. One way of looking at the public’s emotion over celebrity deaths is to realise that people feel a need to touch someone else’s aura of control. When mourning someone we never met, we effectively say, in the nicest possible way, ‘Thank you for your control over my life’.
The electronic devices that are meant to empower us can in fact make us feel at the mercy of others. Most of the social media buzzwords of 2016 were about control, from those related to serious concepts such as ‘identity’, to the unhelpful name-calling of ‘snowflakes’ by conservatives, and ‘fascists’ by the left. The impulse to type ‘FFS’ (‘For f—‘s sake’) on Twitter, every day, about every topic, is too easy. When reacting to the control of others, more self-control is needed.
Quentin Crisp talked about thinking about our own systems of self-discipline as ‘chains of our own making’. However strict these are, he said, they will never be as onerous as ‘those placed upon us by others’.
The trouble is, the chains of others are everywhere. The moment we switch on the internet, others are doing their utmost to control our attention, our time, our actions, our spending patterns, and our beliefs. From advertising to ‘clickbait’, others want us to drift more, falling more out of our own control, and more into theirs. We must be sensitive to this, and return more to our own works. The true tribute to a dead creator is to create fresh work ourselves.
Here’s to a year of turning down the noise of others, and turning up our own.
A Happy New Year to all those who have enjoyed the diary. If you can, please help to keep it going by making a donation to the Diary Fund. Thank you!
Haircuts in the Dark
Monday 21st November 2016. To the Peltz Gallery at Gordon Square, for A Museum of Everyday Life: Cinephilia and Collecting. A fascinating display of British film fans’ archives, from long before the internet era. One collector has kept careful records on all the films he sees during the 50s, as my own father did on comics, and later videos.
The 50s records take the form of typed index cards in a detached metal drawer. I like the exotic names of old cinemas in Derby and Nottingham: ‘The Essoldo’, ‘The Cameo’. One forgets just how much re-seeing used to go on. This enthusiast paid to see The Bounty Hunter, starring Randolph Scott, on a staggering 14 separate occasions, all between 1955 and 1958. Fourteen! Do today’s fans go to see, say, Mad Max: Fury Road that much?
Another exhibit consists of little envelopes containing clipped-out single frames from reels of film. Their owner was a Brighton projectionist: I learn that clipping out frames as souvenirs was once a common ritual of the profession. Presumably it doesn’t go on any more, what with the rise digital projectors. I think also of vintage clippings of hair kept in lockets. Except that this gentleman’s attitude isn’t always positive: he annotates each clipping with potted reviews on the envelope, and many are scathing. In this way, cinema projectionists are like taxi drivers. A job with a lot of autonomy and personal space, except that other people are still telling you what to do. So the space is soon filled up with rants and opinions. For Africa Adventure he writes, ‘I detest all films in which animals are even slightly inconvenienced’. For Androcles the Lion he says, ‘I enjoyed the acting of the lion the most.’ For The Immortal Monster (1959) he writes, ‘NB: Note hysterical erotic attitude of dancer’. The synopsis on Wikipedia for this film is: ‘Academic researchers are chased by a nuclear-hot specimen of ancient Mayan blob’.
More worryingly, on the envelope for Light Up The Sky is this little detail: ‘While this film was being shown, a man was murdered in the car park a few yards from my office’.
The most impressive exhibit is a collection of index cards devoted to film actors. The Peltz gallery has managed to fill an entire wall with these lovingly kept little biographies, floor to ceiling. The effect is a kind of geek sublime. On top of the sheer number of the things, each card is written in tiny longhand biro. I envy the writer’s ability to get his writing so small, yet still legible.
From a sample card, on Mae West: ‘Plumply sexy, stylish, fruity and scandalous American entertainer who sidled along like a predatory costumed lobster’.
A news article this week reveals that 2016 has seen sales of vinyl records outstrip those of digital downloads. In fact, this is a statistic based on money spent rather than units, and vinyl is now much pricier than downloads. The popularity of streaming sites like Spotify has hit downloads, too. People are less interested in owning digital copies of albums. If it’s digital, it can stay online. The implication is that the internet is now always to hand.
Except not to hand enough. Nothing to grasp with one’s real hands. There’s currently a huge poster campaign on London transport celebrating various successful YouTubers. It’s interesting that the images in this campaign have YouTubers holding the red YouTube play button, now rendered as a physical object in their hands. This is the paradox of virtual content: it’s still made by people who inhabit bodies, and bodies need props. There are now BookTubers, YouTubers who make videos in which they review books. More often than not, they hold up hardbacks or paperbacks for the camera, rather than hold up a Kindle.
Tuesday 22nd November 2016. Spending most of my time in the British Library this week, researching the autumn term essay for the MA. Not so lonely, though: I bump into David Benson. Last saw him on stage at a BL event, in fact, performing selections from the Kenneth Williams diaries. The full bulk of them had just been acquired by the BL, on behalf of the public. I love that his impersonation, honed from umpteen performances of his KW stage show, could now be put to use at an event about archives.
Wednesday 23rd November 2016. A session with the Birkbeck counsellor. A discussion of my propensity to self-sabotage: oversleeping, procrastination, a general avoidance of things. I have the recurring fantasy of someone suddenly getting in touch with some golden offer, financial and vocational. Except I never know what form this might take.
Finish reading a book I’m reviewing for The Wire: Honk, Conk and Squacket: Fabulous and Forgotten Sound-words from a Vanished Age of Listening. It’s an encyclopaedia of obsolete words, specifically to do with sounds and music. The world of onomatopoeia is vastly diminished these days, now that the machines have become silent. But humans still associate noises with completed processes. So the cameras on phones don’t go ‘click’ – they play ‘click’. Little cover versions of obsolescence.
Mid-November for critics is the Best of the Year time. I’ve been asked to declare my favourite music of 2016, but I can only think of two new-ish albums I’ve really enjoyed.
One is Laurie Anderson’s Heart of A Dog soundtrack, which is effectively the whole film without the images. But even though the film was released in 2016, the CD came out in October 2015, so I suppose it can’t count.
This leaves the Pet Shop Boys’ Super, which I adore and have played repeatedly. I now note that Super is missing from most media outlets’ Albums of 2016, despite getting good reviews on its release. The Beyonce album seems to be the token 2016 pop album; otherwise it’s all tried and tested old rockers: Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave. Plus the last Bowie and Cohen records, the interpretation of which can’t be separated from the artists’ deaths. I had thought the Pet Shop Boys album was a welcome dash of upbeat, danceable colour and energy, amongst all the year’s gloom and morbidity. But most critics have decided that 2016 must be framed and preserved as a year of anger, darkness and despair. So perhaps Super doesn’t fit their narrative. Well, it fits my narrative.
I take no joy in being unable to name any further favourite albums. My only excuse is that I’ve just been more drawn to old music, or books, or films, or art exhibitions. It’s possibly a problem of one’s cultural inputs. I used to spend hours listening to John Peel, reading Melody Maker and flicking through the new releases in Our Price. All those things have gone now. Perhaps my problem is associating new music with vanished practices, and so need to change my habits. I feel too old to listen to Radio 1, but not old enough to listen to Radio 2.
What I have listened to is a lot of radio news, perhaps thinking that this counts as keeping in touch. But time spent on listening to news is time not spent listening to music. Vary the diet, that’s all one can do. Notice what speaks to the heart. News is hard to avoid anyway; it’ll get to you one way or another.
Tastes change behind one’s back; palates alter with age. One never knows until one tries. Am I finally ready for experimental jazz? Is anyone?
With all that in mind, my favourite things of 2016 are as follows.
Films: Heart of a Dog. Eight Days A Week (Beatles documentary). The Neon Demon. Victoria. Love and Friendship. Author (JT LeRoy documentary). Hail Caesar!
New Books: Michael White’s Popkiss. Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable. McEwan’s Nutshell. Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On. Ronald Blythe’s Stour Seasons.
Old Books: Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series. Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night A Traveller.
Art: Made You Look – Dandyism & Black Masculinity (Photographers’ Gallery). Alice in Wonderland (British Library). Shakespeare in Ten Acts (BL). Magnus Arrevad – Boy Story (5 Willoughby Street). Performing For the Camera (Tate Modern).
DVDs: Lawrence of Belgravia. Akenfield.
Gig: Fingersnaps (Wallace Collection).
Events that defined the year, as opposed to favourite things: The hostage selfie. The Brexit result (regrettably).
Thursday 24th November 2016. Evening classes at Birkbeck: Tony Harrison’s V, Jackie Kay’s Trumpet.
Friday 25th November 2016. After working at the London Library, I walk through Soho to find the whole district in blackness. A power cut has hit several blocks north of Shaftesbury Avenue, up to Broadwick Street. A sense of curious novelty and strangeness abounds, rather than fear. People switch on the torches on their phones and train them on their steps. Their faces are still obscured. I can’t quite see the people I’m passing, but they can’t see me either. I wonder if this is what Soho was like in the WW2 blackouts: those tales of furtive liberation, of kisses in the dark, and more.
On Lexington Street, some of the restaurants and bars have set out tea lights on the counters and tables. But not all emporiums keep candles for emergencies. I pass a darkened hairdresser’s and see there’s people still in there. I make out a hairdresser standing over her client, struggling to finish the job. A lit-up phone in one hand, a pair of scissors in the other.
Saturday 26th November 2016. Age comes with a trail of faded friendships. I bump into someone I used to know in the British Library café. It’s someone from the early 90s, the Sarah Records phase of my life. When this happens I always take a few seconds to fully grasp the identity of the other person, my memory usually failing me. Invariably, the other person thinks I can’t remember who they are, and the encounter quickly collapses into an awkward parting of the ways.
A few moments after they’ve gone, of course, it all comes back to me. I do know exactly who they are: I just need a few more seconds, that’s all. But it’s too late. So I come away feeling I’ve done something terribly wrong.
This is one reason why I don’t go to school reunions: I can’t see how it’ll be anything but a stream of memory tests and point scoring.
Plus, I need advance warning of my surprises. This is only partly meant as a joke. Normal people have a ‘delightfully surprised’ face, easily accessed for sudden encounters. The have the face ready for reacting to surprise gifts, or indeed for surprise offers of marriage. But I am built differently. Sudden delight does not come easy to me. My reaction to most things is utter confusion.
Andy Warhol was stopped on the street every day of his life. He says somewhere that the best thing to do is just pretend that you last saw each other yesterday, rather than twenty years ago. So you just reply that you’re on the way to the cinema, or whatever. Nonchalently, matter-of-fact. You never, ever say ‘long time no see’. That risks the answer, ‘Yes. And there’s a reason for that.’
Sunday 27th November 2016. I browse in Waterstones, Gower Street. The success of the Ladybird parodies last Christmas has meant that this year there’s an exponential proliferation. Great toppling piles of the things. Fake Famous Five satirical books, along the lines of ‘Five Go To Brexit Island’. Spoof I-Spy books. And as with the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ design a few years ago, the initial charm of the idea has given way to the less attractive symptoms of a bandwagon.
It’s too easy to think of further titles: a lazy Fighting Fantasy parody, perhaps: The Warlock of Brexit Mountain. (If this happens I will kill again).
I leaf through the music news. Some artists have their tours advertised with the promise of old hits. An exception is Kate Bush, whose new live album eschews her more obvious singles. For this she is praised. Then she mentions in an interview that she likes Theresa May. For this she is castigated. There’s a moral there about what people want from their favourite musicians, and what is allowed. Success means being cast as a character. Get the lines right.
Friday 2nd December 2016. To the Barbican art gallery for The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined. The exhibition has rather promising posters, with an androgynous blonde in a garish multi-coloured jacket, looking like a postmodern toreador. The jacket is printed with a cacophony of icons from medieval manuscripts: orbs and sceptres, medals, and so on.
So much for the poster. The exhibition itself begins well, with huge wall-mounted gold coins punctuating the rooms, each one inscribed with Adam Phillips’s pronouncements on the meaning of ‘vulgar’. The accompanying leaflet says, ‘the exhibition begins on the lower level’, but there’s no indication of irony about this statement. And that seems to be the flaw: the exhibition takes itself too seriously. To display works by Alexander McQueen surely invites comparison with the major show at the V&A recently. In which case, The Vulgar comes over as a lot less fun. It sets out to examine the history of ostentatious fashion, yet without the lighting effects and pumping music one associates with catwalks, the clothes here seem curiously cold and lifeless.
I wonder if this is the fault of the venue, as the Barbican is currently going through a phase of cool self-consciousness. It’s so aware of its hip Brutalist architecture that it can barely say anything at all. Fashion is the Botox of thought.
I think about the way The Vulgar gestures towards behaviour. What does the Barbican hold to be the opposite of vulgar? The answer is perhaps found in the centre’s poster campaign to advertise its membership scheme. One is captioned ‘for lovers’: an image of two youngish people standing on one of the walkways around the centre. He is a lightly bearded man in jeans and a blue suit jacket, she is a Zooey Deschanel lookalike, in a vintage red dress with a white lacey collar, her dark hair in a heavy fringe. They both wear glasses, though her frames are slightly oversized in the present hipster manner. I wonder how this couple met, and think of an update on the personal ad joke in Annie Hall: ‘Must like Brutalism, David Foster Wallace and sodomy’.
On a separate poster, ‘Membership for Gastronomers’, flaunts an even more fashion-conscious young man, posing in one of the Barbican eateries. His beard is worn in the full George Bernard Shaw bushiness, joined up with a ‘man bun’, being long hair rolled up and balanced tidily on the crown, like a miniature hair beret. Fenella H tells me you can now buy fake man-buns. A hip toupee. This poster boy wears a cream jacket over a multi-coloured patterned shirt, set off with a rather nice purple hankerchief in the pocket. I’d call these latter aspects dandyish, if it wasn’t for his beard, hair and blue jeans signifying ‘fashion’ rather than ‘style’. Dandies are anti-fashion and pro-style.
The dilemma for young people has always been how to stand out yet join in at the same time. And given these literal poster kids are advertising Barbican membership, the message is about belonging, getting it right. In other words, not being vulgar. In a few decades to come these posters will be useful for scholars of 2016 fashion. The trouble is, right now they serve to consolidate the Barbican’s self-image as a place of cool, and thus not the best place to host a show about vulgarity.
I think a better venue would be the V&A or Somerset House, where the fogeyish sense of crumbing empires defuses any claims to trendiness. This is why the McQueen and Blow shows worked so well in those places. Still, The Vulgar is a noble attempt nonetheless.
Monday 6th December 2016. To the panelled rooms and stone staircases of 28 Russell Square, for a one-off Birkbeck event: a lecture by David James on ‘critical solace’. His examples are McCarthy’s The Road, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Sebald’s Austerlitz. Much of his talk is heavy on the theoretical, and a lot of what he says would have gone straight over my head a few years ago, until I started hitting heavy books by dead Frenchmen. Today my brain is a little more acclimatised to such theory, though my dyspraxia means I still have the urge to put a lecturer on ‘pause’, so I can properly chew over what’s just been said.
Still, there are consolations for slowness, too. It’s well-known that obituaries are written in advance and kept on file, ready to be revised and published within minutes of their subject’s final breath. Thus in the event of a celebrity death, torrents of words and pictures appear like a magic trick, as if to defy death with a surge in production by the living. ‘Tributes pour in’, but what’s really being paid tribute to is the swift industry of the obituary editors. So for those of us who aren’t as fast at writing as others, it’s heartening to see the occasional mistake made through haste . This is a sentence from CNN’s Castro obituary this week:
Fidel Castro outlived six US presidents, [[[NOTE: change to seven if George H.W. Bush dies before Castro]]]
Then to Gordon Square for a general event about PHDs. First year PHD students answer questions for those who, like myself, are interested in doing a PHD at Birkbeck. At the event, one of the tutors explains how no one does a PHD for the money; it’s common for a funded three years to lead to a fourth unfunded ‘writing up’ year, and the student risks living on ‘bread and water’, as one tutor tonight puts it.
The deadline for applying for the main full-time PHD bursary, in time for an Autumn 2017 start, turns out to be this January. Next month. And it involves putting together a 2000 word proposal. I’m already writing a 5000 word essay for the MA. And this diary is taking me too long as it is… (I may have to put it on hold for a while, or put out a briefer version)
I know I want to go straight into a PHD once the MA is done in September, so as not to lost momentum. I also know I want to do it full-time, so I can finally treat the whole business like a proper job. With a sustainable wage (well, a modest 16k), paid for something I’m good at and actually enjoy, the self-esteem will make all the difference. The only thing is, I need to improve my working speed.
Thursday 8th December 2016. A Birkbeck class on Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Finished Thing. The Girl is a quickly-canonised thing: a debut novel from 2013, initially published by a tiny independent press, showered with awards, republished by Faber, and already a set text in universities.
Some of my fellow students say they find McBride’s experimental prose more impenetrable than the Beckett and Joyce texts which inspired it – and these are people who’ve written essays on Ulysses. My own reaction veers toward seeing it as a kind of modernist revival text. I worry if that can be read as retreating away from contemporary experience. But then, that’s the dilemma of revivalism full stop. Wanting the new to be more like the old. But the class consensus is that the novel’s a worthy accomplishment, and a gift to any discussion about the purpose of novels.
, david james
, eimear mcbride
, peltz gallery
, the vulgar
A Trickster Vote
Tuesday 8th November 2016. One of the woollen blankets in my room has a label which must date it to wartime. ‘National Price Controlled Blanket No. 620. Selling Price to Public incl. P. tax 43/10.’
I’m reading about gender when an 80s computer joke suggests itself.
‘I’m not on a gender spectrum. I’m on a gender BBC Micro. Slightly less fun; does lots of homework.’
‘And the buttons are more fun to press’ adds @celestialweasal on Twitter.
It’s true about the keyboard buttons on the ZX Spectrum. They were horrible, rubbery little things, betraying the computer’s main image as a games console rather than a creative tool. BBC Micros looked more like typewriters, and tended to be associated with schools.
Evening: I watch the US election result come in, and despair. I’m convinced there’s a large amount of voters whose sole attitude is along the lines of ‘Tee hee! What am I like?’
A trickster vote. A Dark Knight vote: ‘Some people just want to watch the world burn’
A message from T in New York:
I am somewhere between numbness and pure terror. I’m reminded of 2000 and 2004 except I was really too young then to truly understand. Not so now. In retrospect Bush looks almost like a bumbling racist grandpa that you tolerate.
The next day, he goes to his job as a teacher:
My students were crying. I cried.
A few days after this, I get an equally distressed letter from S in Pittsburgh. She wants to mark her feelings on paper, as this is history:
I remember the night Obama won in 2008… I heard a roar outside and looked out of my window to see a flood of young people pouring into the streets and racing towards the campus… So much joy. How could the same country elect Donald Trump? … If the worse should happen, on behalf of America, Dickon, I’m sorry.
It’s partly written on the back of a voting card, with the ‘I VOTED’ sticker attached.
I think about the difference in voting over here. The English don’t do ‘I VOTED’ stickers, perhaps because they have the hint of a child surviving a trip to the dentist’s (‘I AM A GOOD PATIENT’).
Then there’s that phrase one only sees on US election materials: ‘PAID FOR BY…’ It seems to jump out all the more, given the winner was a man whose chief qualification for the job was that he can just pay his way out of trouble, and into success. Mr Trump glitters, from his golden hair to his golden elevators. His voters are thought to be mostly the poor and disenfranchised. They see Midas, but forget about how the story ended.
I try to be optimistic. Perhaps this will expose the folly of present thinking. Perhaps people will finally stop regarding the super-rich as gods, and start questioning the role of wealth in the first place. There has to be a point when even Republicans accept that capitalism can go too far. Perhaps this will be it. I hope so.
Wednesday 9th November 2016. Reading Mr Trump’s messages on Twitter. On top of everything else, he is a man who uses unnecessary exclamation marks. That’s never a good sign.
Friday 11th November 2016. Leonard Cohen dies, as if by way of reaction to it all. Tributes are soon reported everywhere as ‘flooding in’, a cliché that sets my teeth on edge. Do tributes ever do anything else? It seems all the more of an insult when reporting the death of a wordsmith.
I read some of the Cohen articles, and wince at the use of ‘famously’ in all of them. It’s a natural enough word to use in conversation, but it can weaken a piece of prose. Fame is subjective, so ‘famously’ is ultimately redundant. In print, it risks the author coming across as too eager to please.
‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, though; that’s how to do it.
As it is, the only famous thing many people know about Mr Cohen is ‘Hallelujah’. Its success is really down to John Cale’s version, which in turn inspired Jeff Buckley’s take. A sparse arrangement, letting the words breathe. Cohen’s original is virtually unlistenable through its bland over-production, like many of his 80s recordings. If you cover ‘Hallelujah’, you are almost certainly improving on the original.
Tonight I walk through Trafalgar Square at night. A busker is singing ‘Hallelujah’. He’s over-emoting it – the X-Factor factor. But by the time I cross to the other side of the square, I’m close to tears.
Evening: to Vout’s for the launch of Rising 67, the long-running punkish poetry fanzine. Still an A5 paper object, still seemingly untouched by the iPhone era. Though some of the poets reading tonight use their phones to read their work. Rising is now collected as a full run in the British Library. Its editor, Tim Wells, illustrates the poems with images from old magazines, sometimes rather risqué ones. On the back of the new issue is a 1970s public information advert for syphilis. It refers to bell-bottoms.
Saturday 12th November 2016. Evening: to the Tate Modern for The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection. One way of escaping the ubiquity of photograph-taking is to visit a whole exhibition of the things: photography by visitors is banned. However, one wonders just how many selfies made into three-dimensional objects, whether mounted in a family album, or as in this case, printed and framed and hung on a rock star’s bedroom wall. In the accompanying audio guide – recommended in this instance – Sir Elton tells how he became a collector shortly after coming out of rehab in the early 1990s. A damaging habit was replaced by a healthier one: collecting innovative 1920s and 1930s prints. His tastes are for the glamorous and sensual world of Man Ray and Edward Weston, along with the homoerotic tableaux of George Platt Lynes and Carl Van Vechten. I’m surprised there’s nothing by Herbert List.
Sir Elton is also drawn to Dorothea Lange’s portraits of people in the Depression. Lange’s subjects seem ready for magazine covers, so photogenic they are, despite or perhaps because of their grim backdrops. These are still works of art as much as historical documents. The boy in ‘One of the Homeless Wandering Boys’ (1934) resembles a teenage pin up. On the audio guide Sir Elton highlights the handsomeness of Floyd Burroughs, a cotton sharecropper in Alabama.
I think about how the tube currently displays posters for the film A Street Cat Named Bob, with the titular feline alongside the good-looking actor Luke Treadaway. A latterday ‘wandering boy’. It would be useful to compare the Bob film with Ken Loach’s rather less prettified I, Daniel Blake. The same tension between raising awareness and making art.
Sir Elton admits that when he bought Man Ray’s Glass Tears (1932), it was one of the highest prices paid for a photographic print. His friends didn’t understand why he wasn’t buying the negative. Today, I look at Glass Tears and realise how it’s responsible for the entire output of Pierre and Gilles.
Tuesday 15th November 2016. Leaf through the new book of essays on Alan Hollinghurst, Writing Under the Influence. Pleased that one of them is titled ‘Ostentatiously Discreet: Bisexual Camp in The Stranger’s Child’.
Wednesday 16th November 2016. Evening: to the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley, for Alan Bennett’s Diaries Live. The evening consists of a new full-length documentary, simply titled Alan Bennett’s Diaries, followed by a live Q&A with the writer himself, held at his local library in Primrose Hill. TV and cinema have started to switch roles. The shows on Netflix are not so much broadcast as unleashed in great fistfuls of content; whole seasons at one time. To me it’s never clear how you’re meant to watch them, other that in snatched gulps of time. Meanwhile cinemas have seized more upon the idea of broadcasting, with exclusive live transmissions like this Alan Bennett event. It’s TV, but for cinemas only. The notion of ‘live’ may be compromised by the act of still looking at a screen, but the addition of a specific time in a purpose-built place makes the experience all the more special. And crucially, undownloadable.
Before the event I try to work out which is the largest London screen to host the film, amused as I am by the thought of seeing this reserved Englishman usurping the usual CGI Hollywood fare. Most of the showings seem to be in smaller screens in multiplexes. I plump for the Phoenix, with its 250-seater. It sells out. But there’s no IMAX or 3D version, alas.
The film is superb; one of the best arts documentary I’ve seen for a while. Lots of footage of his village in Yorkshire, looking almost cartoonishly picturesque. Much more about his personal life than I’d expected. Much about his lack of a computer: for a professional (and successful) writer, this still surprises. But it’s very aesthetically pleasing, of course. Writing on paper is itself original content. There’s glimpses of a something else one doesn’t see much: a box of physical wedding photos as opposed to a Facebook page of them. Bennett and his partner Rupert. The box is marked with a sticker saying ‘YES!’
The film is produced by the BBC, so will doubtless turn up in the schedules soon.
In the live Q&A, Bennett comments on Trump: ‘The best thing you can say about him is he’s unreliable. But you still don’t want an unreliable person in that job. The only reaction is fear, really.’
Thursday 17th November 2016. Classes at Birkbeck in Russell Square. A seminar on DeLillo’s White Noise, followed by a lecture on Frederic Jameson and postmodernism. What with the US election, White Noise feels the most contemporary of all the texts this term, yet it came out thirty years ago.
Friday 18th November 2016. Reading David Collard’s About A Girl, the first book-length study of an MA set text, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2013). Collard declares his position on McBride in no uncertain terms: ‘I knew after a dozen pages that I was in the company of a great writer’. I find myself bristling, as it makes me feel bad for not being quite as bowled over. It’s like going an exhibition and not being able to see the paintings properly, because the louder, more zealous fans are hogging the view. Enthusiasm, like knowledge, needs to be lightly worn.
Saturday 19th November 2016. 9.30am: to the main Birkbeck building in Torrington Square for Transitions 7, an academic symposium on comics studies. It’s the first time that I’ve attended such an event, at least all the way through. I’m told the terms ‘conference’ and ‘symposium’ are more or less interchangeable these days, though ‘symposium’ somehow sounds more attractive. There are usually ‘calls for papers’ a few months before the date, inviting people to submit essays on a particular theme. The successful applicants read out their work at panels throughout the day, usually with discussions to follow. On top of this there’s often a ‘keynote speaker’, usually a bit of a name, whose speech tends to set the tone of the whole event. I’m told that keynote speakers are more likely to be paid for their trouble, whereas the more lowly ‘papers’ people are expected to do it gratis, or even pay a fee (thoughts of Tom Sawyer again). Thankfully Transitions is free for all, and there’s even free wine at the end.
There’s usually two or three panels taking place at the same time, so one has to pick and choose, rather like a music festival. I attend a panel on US comic histories, which includes a paper by Guy Lawley on the dot matrices used in US colour comics. Later on, Mr Lawley says he recognises me: ‘We sat together at an Alan Bennett gig’. I also go to one on gender, which includes papers on Wonder Woman, non-binary characters and female supervillains. After lunch I choose a workshop on comics that touch on magical realism and mental illness – very much my sort of thing – by the author Stef Link; the workshop element being writing based rather than drawing based, thank God. Finally, I attend a panel on national identity, and watch my MA classmate Craig Thomson give his debut paper. He discusses the traditions behind the comic American Vampire.
There’s no keynote speaker, but there is a closing ‘plenary’ panel of ‘respondents’ to the day’s talks. This comprises Paul Gravett, who pretty much is UK comics studies, along with Roger Sabin and Julia Round, whose books and journals I’ve read, and Maggie Gray, a comics lecturer whose PHD thesis was on the work of Alan Moore.
Afterwards: more wine at a pub in Store Street, with some of the speakers and tutors. Some drunken arguments on my part over definitions of modernism, but then I always imagined that sort of thing was de rigueur in Bloomsbury pubs. One of the Birkbeck tutors is a young woman from South Carolina. She says her parents both voted for Trump.
‘So you voted for Hillary?’
‘God, no. I couldn’t have that on my conscience either. I spoiled my ballot’.
Tags: alan bennett
, alan bennett's diaries
, comic studies
, donald trump
, hillary clinton
Sunday 16th October 2016. I notice a flyer on my table at the Quaker café, opposite Euston. It’s publicising an event in Oxford: ‘Lines on the Left: Poems for Jeremy Corbyn. A celebration in words and music to launch this major anthology.’ Hard to imagine a similar volume for his rivals: sonnets in praise of Theresa May, or a Festschrift for Owen Smith. At least, not outside of sarcasm.
A common critique of Mr Corbyn is that he has integrity but is unelectable. The implication is that integrity itself is impractical. I’m reminded of something Zadie Smith said about the film V For Vendetta: ‘Personal integrity is always ridiculed by adults and worshipped by adolescents, because principles are the only thing adolescents, unlike adults, really own’. (from Changing My Mind).
Mr Corbyn certainly has a fanbase among the young: one sees red Momentum t-shirts around the University of London’s Bloomsbury campus. It’s the people in middle life that aren’t so impressed, their youthful ideals knocked out of them. Parenthood, money, and the ownership of property loom larger in the crosshairs, and compromise usually goes with them.
A small amount of integrity is nevertheless still valued over wealth alone, at least in mainstream UK politics. The huge fortune of Zac Goldsmith did not prevent him from losing the London mayoral race, when his campaign became tainted with racism. Whereas Donald Trump, frequently described as an actual racist, is still seen as electable. Over there, one has to conclude that money may not be everything, but it can be enough.
As with the poems for Corbyn, there’s been a flurry of political pop songs in the last days of the US election. The trouble is, these are not so much in celebration of Ms Clinton as in condemnation of Mr Trump. The website for the project 30 days, 30 songs – run by the novelist Dave Eggers – says it all in its ‘Note to feminists who can’t get behind Hillary’:
‘If you vote for Hillary Clinton, you accomplish two aligned goals at once: You elect the first woman president, and you prevent the election of Donald Trump.’
In other words, better the devil you know.
A subgenre of protest songs: panic songs.
Afternoon: to Soho to try the new vegetarian branch of Pret a Manger, on the corner of Broadwick Street and Lexington Street. It was tried out as a pop-up a few months ago, and like the Millennium Wheel has become permanent due to popular demand.
Why the bosses of Pret were cautious in the first place is beyond me. Despite the frequent reports of health risks from processed meat, or the environmental warnings about the carbon effects of cow breeding, there still seems to be this mainstream fear of going without flesh even for a single meal. But Veggie Pret is packed today.
Lots of green coloured branding over the usual red Pret logos. It’s still a novelty to see a franchise café’s cabinet of sandwiches, and not find them dominated by meat. I’m sure there’s a market for a whole chain of veggie cafes like this: it just takes the nerve of an Anita Roddick figure
Monday 17th October 2016. Modern life: the daily practice of clicking on a button marked ‘Not Now’.
Currently reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977), for college. What impresses, as with Beloved, are her little shifts into magical realism, like the witchy sister who seems to able to change her size. Morrison says in the introduction that it’s really a novel about men, but the section that really stands out is where the spurned girlfriend, Hagar, goes on a demented spree of beautification, raiding perfume counters and clothes shops.
Tuesday 18th October 2016. More things that leave me like a ranting Canute. People emailing me for a mobile number to continue a discussion. Probably naive of me, but after contact has been made via email, I don’t see why we can’t conduct the conversation that way. In email, statements can be carefully polished, details are easily copied and saved, and ambiguities can be kept to a minimum.
As well as my slight phobia with speaking on the phone, there’s a practical reason to this: I spend a lot of my time in libraries. If I took calls there, it would not end well. But there’s also the redundancy of someone switching from email to making a call, only for them to say, ‘have you got a pen?’
If a phone conversation is truly necessary, then it’s surely worth booking a phone appointment – and sticking to it. But this seems not to be taken very seriously.
Today I agree via email on a time I can be called. I then duly choose a quiet café and have the phone to hand, ready for the time in question. This designated moment passes. So do two hours after that. They still don’t call. I switch the phone off and go to the library to get on with some studies. Later I get a text message saying they were ‘trying to reach me’.
This is all about trying to book a therapist. It’s tempting to wonder if it’s in their interest to drive people mad.
A message for a memorial bench: ‘He refused to be available on a zero hours basis.’
Afternoon: to the British Library café to meet Rachel Stevenson. It’s been some years since we properly met for a conversation, after the end of Fosca in 2009. Today,we talk more about books than music. Except for talking about the music of our past, perhaps inevitably. Indeed, Rachel’s own blog is currently reviewing the songs that made up the John Peel Festive Fifty of 1988. [Link: http://millionreasons.livejournal.com/ ]
Evening: to the Horse Hospital in Russell Square, the kind of small, idiosyncratic venue that’s been vanishing from London in recent years. Happily, the HH persists, with its steep entrance ramp still in place, evidence that the building was indeed a hospital for horses.
Tonight is an evening headlined by the writer Geoff Nicholson, who discusses his psychogeography-inspired work, such as Bleeding London. Kirsty Allison, who I don’t think I’ve seen before, gives a charismatic poetry set which uses a projected film. At times she seems to be narrating the film, at others reacting against it. I take a copy of her fanzine, ‘Unedited’, hand stitched and hand made, though it says it was written on an iPhone.
I also enjoy a set by Alexander’s Festival Hall, the band fronted by Alex Mayor, who once produced some Fosca recordings. Very soulful in the Scritti Politti, Style Council way. One song is especially beautiful, ‘Upturned’.
In the breaks between acts I bump into Clare Wadd of Sarah Records, a nice coincidence on the day of meeting up with Rachel S. And given the evening is about psychogeography, and especially London, I remember that it was Clare who helped me move from Bristol to London in 1994, driving me and my things all the way to Highgate in her car. I tell her that Michael White’s book on Sarah, Popkiss, is now on the shelves at Birkbeck Library. Nothing to do with me; I assume it’s on a reading list for some humanities course.
Something I’ve learned is that everything creative becomes worthy of serious study in time, even the things that feel like fleeting, niche interests at the time. Though of course, Clare and Matt themselves took Sarah Records very seriously from the off. That was part of the appeal.
Thursday 20th October 2016. Evening: classes at Birkbeck at the Montague Room in the Anglo Educational Services building, in the southwest side of Russell Square. Like Birkbeck’s School of Arts in Gordon Square the place is a warren of knocked-through Victorian houses.
First up is a seminar with Mpalive Msiska on Philip Larkin’s The Less Deceived, at which it’s my turn to give a fifteen minute presentation. I’ve just started reading the new Alan Bennett collection of diaries, Keeping On Keeping On, published today. The first page mentions how Mr Bennett dips into Larkin for inspiration. Though in this case he thinks the poet’s tone is too ‘valedictory’: ‘the valedictory was almost Larkin’s exclusive territory’. I mention this in my Larkin presentation, pleased to bring it as up to date as possible.
What I didn’t know until I did my research was that Larkin is due to get a memorial in Westminster Abbey, with the unveiling this December. So my presentation focuses on the tale of his reputation. I think about the way public image is such a pressing matter now, from Jimmy Savile and his ilk to the people in Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The Ronson book covers the rise of ‘reputation management firms’ – companies who will make your Google results more flattering.
Accordingly I chart the tale of the public Larkin, from fashionability in the 1950s with The Movement, to the popular poet in the 1960s and 70s, to refusing the Laureateship in 1984; I’d forgotten that Ted Hughes was the second choice. Then to the posthumous publication of his letters in the 90s, and his near writing-off as a misogynistic and racist figure, whose poetry was now of diminishing relevance. Finally I cover the subtle recovery in the 2000s, with Larkin quietly topping polls again as a favourite English poet, a festival in Hull with a statue, and now the Abbey.
Mr Msiska adds that in the 90s, teaching Larkin was so controversial, tutors had to seek permission.
Afterwards: a lecture by Peter Fifield on 1960s fiction and Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat. Very hard to label the latter in terms of genre, beyond the 1960s type of postmodern play that one finds in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Though when Mr F mentions its lack of ‘rounded characters’ I wonder if Menippean satire might be a useful framework. Certainly Ms S admired the concise flippancy of Max Beerbohm, and Zuleika Dobson isn’t so far from Spark. Waugh was an admirer too: Spark’s work was one of the few things about the 1960s he did like. Mr Fifield further argues that Ian McEwan’s style is essentially a 1960s one.
I suppose a truly 2010s style might be to write a novel made up of animated gifs. Dennis Cooper is the only novelist I can think of who has done this. It may not catch on, but it’s at least a move towards acknowledging the way a lot of people interact online. They use gifs – little animated stills – of actors, often subtitled, to express their emotion for them.
I once wrote a Fosca song called ‘We See the World as Our Stunt Doubles’. Not quite the world, perhaps, but people do see gifs of Phoebe from Friends as their stunt doubles.
Saturday 22nd October 2016. To Vout-o-Reenee’s for ‘Azizam: A Night of Pre-Revolution Persian Glamour’. A theme of 60s and 70s Iranian exotica, scratchy scenes of belly dancing on screens, those jellied snacks which are like Turkish Delight but nicer, and lots of dressing up. Hosted by Vout’s regulars Emily and Emma. Emma is from a family of Iranian Geordies: her cousin sings a set of Persian language songs, interspersed with commentary in her Newcastle accent. The two Ems are also a couple, and tonight’s crowd includes a contingent of Iranians and gay people, and indeed both. All getting along fine in this former Catholic crypt turned into a bohemian artists’ bar. It’s events like this that are one of the things I love about London.
Sunday 23rd October 2016. Morrissey turns out to be pro-Brexit, going by a new interview. I feel as I do about Waugh and Larkin: I may not share their politics, but that doesn’t mean their work doesn’t speak to me. Trust the art, not the artist.
Though admittedly some artists are easier to trust than others.
Monday 24th October 2016. I finish The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Bought on a whim from Euston WH Smiths, before I realised the eponymous train in question is in fact a Euston one.
This is the current unstoppable bestseller novel. Published in hardback last year, it hung around the top 10 lists for the best part of eighteen months, even outdoing the ubiquitous Dan Brown. Despite the pricy and format, people didn’t stop buying it until the paperback came out, which wasn’t until May this year. I want to see the film, so it seems the time to try the book.
As with One Day a few years ago, there’s no real explanation as to why this book should do so much better than others, other than through a fortuitous synchronicity of word-of-mouth momentum. That said, both novels do share one thing: the premise of an easy to grasp concept, applied to characters who touch on everyday recognition.
So whereas One Day is broken up into the ‘one day a year’ premise, Girl on the Train has its narration broken up into digestible ‘morning’ and ‘evening’ chunks, mirroring the commuter journeys of the protagonist. Fairly early on, the perspective shifts to a second character in flashback, and then again to a third. The idea of a thriller based around witnessing an event from a window isn’t new: one thinks of Agatha Christie’s 4.50 From Paddington, or Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The fresh appeal here might be the contemporary, ordinary setting of the Euston commuter belt. Plus there’s the ‘girl’ in question’s downbeat situation: she’s divorced, living in a rented room, is overweight, and is an alcoholic who has black outs. She’s an unreliable narrator, but crucially never unrelatable.
The meaning of the train window has also changed from Christie and Hitchcock’s day: now it’s a surrogate iPad, another screen through which to scroll resentfully past the nicer lives of others.
I wince a little at the box-ticking elements for the genre, though, such as the scene where the villain delivers a speech about how they did it and why. But this is a reminder why I prefer literary fiction: it’s the genre where no boxes need ever be ticked.
Wednesday 26th October 2016. Write a review for The Wire, of The Infinite Mix exhibition on the Strand. I think this marks my debut as an art critic, not counting pieces for catalogues in the past.
Thursday 27th October 2016. Evening: Birkbeck classes. A seminar on Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, followed by a lecture by Harriet Earle on Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In preparation for the Pynchon class, I go to Senate House and leaf through a book of Remedios Varo’s surreal paintings. Pynchon refers to a real Varo painting in one scene, though her whole style is a good primer for the novel’s skewed, strange world. Post-war Bosch.
Friday 28th October 2016. Winter flu jab at Selfridges. It costs the same whichever chemist one uses, so one might as well be vaccinated with style.
Read a review in the LRB by Rosemary Hill, of Minoo Dinshaw’s Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman:
‘Later he claimed to have slept with people whose names began with every letter of the alphabet except Q, because the only possibility was Quentin Crisp and he couldn’t face it.’
From the same article, a remark by Runciman’s father:
‘I put up with the rouge and the mascara and the velvet clothes, but if I ever catch him sitting down to pee, I’ll cut him off without a penny.’
Saturday 29th October 2016. To the Vue Piccadilly for the film of The Girl on the Train. It’s terrible. One can just about forgive the Hollywood switch from an overweight heroine to the decidedly semi-skimmed Emily Blunt, and indeed the move from England to the US. But all the twists and revelations of the book are well and truly botched. Ms Blunt does her best, but what grips on the page bores on the screen. Shame.
Still, the use of houses on the Metro-North line, running along the valley of the Hudson river, certainly makes the notion of Ms Blunt’s envy all the more convincing. A house with a major railway line at the bottom of its garden isn’t always desirable, but the Hudson Valley is one of the most picturesque areas in the US. It’s also a nice reminder of my own trip on the line a few years ago, going all the way from Poughkeepsie into Grand Central.
Sunday 30th October 2016. On an Evelyn Waugh binge. Lots of insights into the English Condition (never mind the human condition), but also lots of good jokes. Some prescience too. Thinking now about the line in Decline and Fall about ‘the sound of English county families baying for broken glass’, I note how it can apply to the Brexit vote.
I dip into Selina Hastings’s biography of EW, to find this about Evelyn Gardner, his first wife:
‘She read Proust, but undermined this sign of intellectual discernment by referring to him always as “Prousty-Wousty”’.
Thus She-Evelyn anticipates the rise of Russell Brand.
In June 1960 Waugh writes to apologise for some typos in a recent book:
‘I am told that printers’ readers no longer exist because clergymen are no longer unfrocked for sodomy.’
Waugh’s letters are full of entertaining jokes like this, painting a picture of a much more likeable man than the one in the published Diaries. One reason for this, as suggested by the editor, Mark Amory, may be that Waugh wrote his letters in the morning, while sober, and wrote the diary in the evening, when drunk.
I’d say that another is that letters are much more of a performance, even if it’s just for one person. Private diaries, drunken or not, get the unflattering sides: the complaints, the vanity, the pettiness, the self-pity, the resentment. Letters, meanwhile, have more of a sense of performed morality, even if it’s just a note to a local newspaper on some gossamer oversight by the council.
Letters necessitate thinking about others, even if it’s thinking ill. And as with charity, letters can tease vanity into philanthropy. The writer aligns themselves with what they think is right, and plays a Sunday Best version of selfhood.
Ideally social media should be more like letters (and postcards), but the form too often tempts its users into the less flattering indulgences of a private diary.
Thursday 3rd November 2016. Evening: Birkbeck classes. A seminar on Angela Carter’s Passion of New Eve, followed by a lecture by Grace Halden, on alterity in post-war science fiction. We look at Judith Merril’s ‘That Only A Mother’ – with its very 1940s fear of the Bomb – and Samuel R. Delany’s ‘Aye, and Gomorrah…’, which has a very late 60s theme of sexualities as subcultures. Needless to say, I love it, and make a note to read more Delany.
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Tags: Angela Carter
, clare wadd
, evelyn waugh
, horse hospital
, Kirsty Allison
, michael white
, paula hawkins
, philip larkin
, quentin crisp
, Rachel Stevenson
, samuel r delany
, sarah records
, steven runciman
, the girl on the train
, the wire
A Craze Of Pomegranates
Thursday 22nd September 2016. I read this year’s shortlist for the BBC National Short Story Award. All five stories are by women, including Hilary Mantel and Lavinia Greenlaw. Were it down to me I’d give first prize to Ms Greenlaw’s ‘The Darkest Place in England’. It’s a tale of teenage life in a part of rural England where the skies are free from light pollution, hence the title. My runner up would be Mantel’s ‘In a Right State’, about the regular characters one sees in an A&E ward.
A few days later, my choice fails to agree with the judges’, who anoint KJ Orr as winner, with Claire-Louise Bennett as runner up. Both stories are perfectly well-written, it’s just that I feel the Greenlaw and Mantel entries connected more with me. One of my criteria is to notice if a piece of writing gets me underlining a memorable phrase in pen – I always read them on paper. Out of the shortlist, it was only the Greenlaw and Mantel stories that had me reaching for my Bic Orange Fine.
Ms Bennett is getting attention as one of the new trend of Irish writers who are influenced by James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, along with Eimear McBride. The Bennett story in this shortlist is full of Beckettian monologue and thought-stream, with touches of Woolf’s ‘Mark on the Wall’ too. I read Ms McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing recently, and like the Bennett story I admired it but found myself yearning for a little skylight of exteriority. A Modernist Style Is A Hard-Going Thing.
My favourite phrase in the Mantel entry captures the hand-gel dispensers in hospitals. One joke I’ve heard about these is that they make everyone in hospitals look like they’ve just thought of a cunning plan. Ms Mantel has another comparison in her story:
‘Sombrely she hand-gels herself, like jesting Pilate’.
The Lavinia Greenlaw story goes one better, with a line spoken by one teenage girl to another, during the latter’s first visit to a night club. Not only is it memorable and witty, it also encapsulates character, place and time:
‘Remember the rules. Don’t queue in groups of more than three, ditch the lads and don’t smile’.
Sunday 25th September 2016. To Tate Britain for Painting With Light, a juxtaposition of photography and paintings from the mid 1800s up to the early 1900s. The exhibition shows the way the two mediums influenced each other, with paintings becoming more realistic and detailed, and photographs emulating the poses and subject matter of paintings. Some familiar works are here, like Wallis’s Chatterton, but this time they’re used to show their photographic spin-offs. There’s a 3D stereogram of Chatterton, where some Victorian male model has mimicked the reclining corpse of the poet. Funny how depictions of suicide now often carry a ‘trigger warning’, while the Chatteron painting and its imitative photographs are deemed perfectly family-friendly. It’s a snuff movie as a painting. But then, so is Ophelia.
Rosetti’s Proserpine is also here – the one with the woman holding a half-eating pomegranate. It’s a painting so often reproduced that it all but bounces off my vision when I look at it, like a repelled magnet. I’ve not been to the Louvre, but it’s how I imagine seeing the Mona Lisa. An image so firmly fused into one’s memory that one’s brain goes into a state of unease when encountering the real thing. Two opposite reactions struggle to take control. There’s the starstruck, selfie-grabbing reaction: ‘I can’t believe it! It’s that famous painting! And I’m here with it!’ And there’s the resentful one: ‘What a cliché this painting is! I’ve seen it so many times that it’s become bland and meaningless. It’s been killed through overexposure.’
But here Proserpine comes alive, freshened up by its position alongside photographs and illustrations of similar wistful maidens clutching pomegranates. Wilde’s House of Pomegranates is here too, and one can now see how Rickett’s illustrations for the book were a nod to the Rossetti painting and its various photographic imitations. Something about that particular fruit made it an essential prop for images of women at the time: exotic, sensual. A craze of pomegranates, in fact.
(Which sounds like Marks and Spencer’s attempts to give their packets of dried fruit silly names. ‘Mango Madness!’ ‘A Craze of Pomegranates!’).
Then to the Royal Festival Hall’s riverside café, where I witness the BBC Radio 3 pop-up studio in action. It’s a large transparent box bisected into two rooms: a control room with an outer door, and an inner sanctum of a studio. The actors Fiona Shaw and Robert Glenister are seated in the latter, performing for the public vocally, yet otherwise pretending that the crowd gawping in at them is not really there. They are reading the texts for the ‘Words and Music’ programme, as it goes out live. A pair of speakers outside the box broadcast the show at a modest volume, but for a better experience one can approach some youthful BBC staff in t-shirts, who loan out special Radio 3 wireless headphones, which only work in the café. It’s like a Radio One Roadshow for the delicate.
This is all to mark Radio 3’s 70th anniversary. When it began in 1946 as the Third Programme, a BBC statement at the time said the station was intended to be ‘new and ambitious’ and ‘evidence of national vigour’ after the war. I watch Ms Shaw exert her vigour on TS Eliot as I queue for my latte.
Wednesday 28th September 2016. To the Camden Odeon for Bridget Jones’s Baby. I’m waiting in the foyer for a female friend – name redacted for reasons which will become clear – when I realise that in a crowded foyer, I am the only male in sight. Overwhelmingly, this film seems to attract pairs of women, and youngish women at that. Mostly late twenties. Given the heroine is in her forties, and indeed much of the film is about the ups and downs of being a forty-something, it seems odd that the bulk of this audience should be of a younger stripe. Perhaps it’s a Camden thing.
The most intriguing moment occurs when the Patrick Dempsey character returns to his Glastonbury yurt after a one-night stand with Ms Jones. He turns up with a tray of coffees and croissants, only to discover that she, mortified about the liaison, has fled. It’s at this point that my particular audience emits a huge female sigh en masse – ‘aww!’ – purely at the sight of breakfast in bed. It surprises my friend, too, who is closer to Bridget J’s age. We wonder later if today’s young women crave breakfast in bed as a romantic ideal, much more so than their elders. Perhaps the rise of Tinder and the general digitisation of love has amplified the appeal of more physical treats.
Bridget Jones’s Baby turns out to be much funnier than it needs to be. After the Absolutely Fabulous movie, which really did just tick the boxes for pleasing the fans, this one makes some sharp satirical quips on social mores. Here we have the perils of search engines, the rise of hipster beards, Middle Englanders having to move with the progressive times, and most of all, the now-common experience of ‘geriatric’ mothers. ‘Geriatric’ is still the medical term, as the film points out, for a pregnant 40-something.
Our evening ends on a somewhat less fun note when we repair to the Good Mixer, now joined by my friend’s boyfriend. We enjoy a couple of drinks for about an hour, but are then suddenly confronted by the bar’s owner. Accompanied by a muscled bouncer, he pulls up a chair opposite our seats and proceeds to interrogate my friend about her behaviour on a previous occasion. She is outraged and defiant, her boyfriend is protective, the argument becomes a repetitive loop of accusations (as all arguments do) and I’m shrinking into my seat. We eventually leave to a volley of execrations shouted across the darkness of Inverness Street. I’m just relieved it didn’t come to blows.
I don’t think I’m barred – the owner apologised to me – but I wonder if this is the last time I can go to the Good Mixer. Still, other bars are available.
Thursday 29th September 2016. To Suffolk to stay with Mum. We watch the new DVD of Akenfield together. I note the scene where the Suffolk workers go on a day trip to Southwold.
Friday 30th September 2016. And fittingly enough, we go on a day trip to Southwold. We’re treated to lunch on the pier by Mum’s friend Mary Gough, who owns the whole pier as a business. She tells me about the graffiti artist responsible for the huge George Orwell mural on the wall nearest the beach end: ‘He goes by the name of Pure Evil, but he’s very nice, really.’
I have a go on one of the arcade games in Tim Hunkin’s ingenious and satirical Under The Pier Show. This game is a new addition for 2016, ‘The Housing Ladder’. The player has to stand on the rungs of an actual ladder and frantically move its side rails up and down. This makes a little figure inside the machine rise to the top of its own ladder in order to reach the goal: a home. An ‘Age Indicator’ ticks away the time: if the player doesn’t get the house by the time he’s 80, it’s game over. Several ‘villains’ pop out of doors on the way up, making the figure fall back down the ladder. The villains in this case are The Foreign Buyer, The Developer, The Buy to Let Owner, and The Second Home Buyer. I make it to the house at the age of 70. ‘Good luck with that,’ says Mum.
Then a walk into town, via the Sailors’ Reading Room, which is one of my favourite places in the world. I also browse in the Southwold Bookshop, and buy a novel that’s being promoted as a recommended reissue: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, from 1978. Fitzgerald’s inspiration was the bookshop that used to be on the other side of Southwold High Street. I visited it during our family’s regular holidays in the town since the mid-1980s.
This newer emporium is really a branch of Waterstones pretending to be an indie, at least aesthetically. All traces of company branding have been removed in order to please the locals. Almost all: the receipt informs me of my ‘Waterstones Reward Points’. I wonder if this might be the future of high streets: branches of corporate franchises pretending to be unique local businesses. Pubs already do that.
Evening: We were going to watch a DVD of Terence Davies’s Sunset Song, but I’m keen to finish the set text I’m reading, Jackie Kay’s Trumpet. At the back of the book is a new interview with Ms Kay, in which she discusses how Trumpet couldn’t be set in the internet era, because it’s so much harder to keep a secret. I think of the exposing of JT LeRoy and more recently, Elena Ferrante.
Ms Kay also discusses her influences in Scottish literature. One of the books she mentions is Sunset Song, the novel behind the film. It got me in the end.
Saturday 1st October. Off the train at Liverpool Street, and straight over to the Liverpool St branch of Wahaca, the Mexican food chain. The occasion is Tom’s one year anniversary for being sober: no mean feat if you play guitar for a living, which means regularly being in bars and licensed venues. About twenty friends turn up for this meal, all eschewing alcohol by way of tribute. It’s my first restaurant meal to be paid for via an app; the calculation of who ordered what is thus made much simpler.
Sunday 2nd October 2016. To the Royal Academy for the David Hockney show, 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life. It’s the last day, and the gallery is absolutely packed (or ‘ram-packed’, as Jeremy Corbyn would have it). The portraits are all standardised in a kind of handmade tribute to Warhol: the same size, the same chair, the same simple background of two horizontal blocks of colour, though the colours are sometimes switched. The show suggests that painted portraits take on a new meaning in the age of the selfie. But more personally, it’s a touching record of his friends. If the measure of friendship today is tapping one’s finger on the word ‘Like’, painting someone’s portrait is a ‘Like’ of true commitment; three days’ work each one. The subjects are Hockney’s friends, including Barry Humphries (very dandified, in tie and fedora), and Celia Birtwell, of Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy fame.
Tuesday 4th October 2016. A day trip to Brighton, partly because I enjoyed Southwold so much and fancied another dose of the seaside, while the weather was still warm (just about). But also because Dennis Cooper’s new film is getting a screening at the Duke of York’s Picture House, and I seem to have missed it in London.
In the afternoon I walk on the pier and write letters in the café. The seagulls seem to be more aggressive than usual, hovering close to people in number. One touches momentarily on a woman’s head. She laughs it off, but it makes me stick to walking under the pier’s canopies.
I stop off at a new café in York Place, The Yellow Book. It’s decorated in Aubrey Beardsley illustrations, and calls itself ‘Britain’s First Steampunk Bar’. The bar man has a bowler hat with goggles on the brim. There’s some contemporary art on the wall with a steampunk theme. I wonder if they’d exhibit Dad’s Captain Biplane comic art; people were always telling him it was steampunk avant la lettre.
Then to the Duke of York’s cinema. The Dennis Cooper film, Like Cattle Towards Glow is really a series of five short films, each one touching on Mr Cooper’s trademark transgressive themes: trauma and gay sexuality, the world of male escorts, obsession, the death of pretty boys (in the tradition of Chatterton), and youthful vulnerability. In some ways, Mr Cooper is a more X-rated descendent of AE Housman.
Some of the film is unsettling, some of it is surreally funny. There’s several moments of explicit sex which make Brokeback Mountain look like a Disney cartoon. But the final story is virtually U-certificate: a woman uses drones and CCTV cameras to conduct a relationship with a homeless young man (a little like the Andrew Arnold film Red Road).
After the screening there’s a Q&A with Mr Cooper, along with his director Zac Farley and a couple of academics from the nearby University of Sussex. The event is supported by two of the university’s departments: the Centre For American Studies, and the Centre For The Study Of Sexual Dissidence. I assume at first that this must be a recent groovy development, but it turns out the Centre has been going for 25 years. It’s known on campus as ‘Sex Diss’. All very Brighton. I get Mr C to sign a copy of his book of essays, Smothered By Hugs.
Thursday 6th October 2016. First class of the new college year, and the start of my sixth year as a student at Birkbeck. This term’s module for the MA is ‘Post-War to Contemporary’. Tonight is an induction class, discussing the various artistic movements since 1945.
There must be a little chaos behind the scenes, as the room is changed at 3.30pm in the afternoon, for a class that begins at 6. An email goes out , but as I don’t have a smartphone I don’t get it in time. Myself and another phone-less student are left sitting like fools in the previously-announced room at the BMA building in Tavistock Square. No indication of a change here: no sign on the door. We only realise something is wrong when 6pm comes and goes, and no one else has turned up. Thankfully I’m texted on my non-smart phone by Jassy, one of my fellow students. I rush off and make it to the new room in Torrington Square, several blocks away, and am thus 15 minutes late. I hope this isn’t the beginning of a ‘zero hours’ approach to students.
Thinking back now, it’s an indication that the world increasingly expects people to be constantly online and checking their emails. In my case though, I have to go offline and off-phone for hours at a time or I can’t concentrate. I wonder if this is a new way of being ‘difficult’.
Friday 7th October 2016. Meeting with my personal tutor, Grace Halden, in Gordon Square. I don’t finish the MA until September of next year, but I’m now starting to look into what I should do with myself after that. Grace H thinks I’m a ‘perfect’ candidate for doing a PHD. It seems to be possible to be paid a full-time salary for such a thing. I have to keep up the good marks, though. And my PHD needs to be ‘crucial to the international field’, if I’m to receive funding. This will be the tricky part. I sometimes struggle to feel I have any intrinsic worth as a human being, let alone a ‘crucial’ one.
Saturday 8th October 2016. With Tom to the Islington Screen on the Green, to see Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie. Like many people on their first trip to the venue, Tom is delighted by the sense of luxury, never mind the film. There are plush sofas, foot stools, and a bar at the back of the screening room. The staff even bring your drinks to your seat.
At one point in the Theroux film the camera glances at a cease-and-desist letter received from the Church of Scientology’s lawyers. I make out the words ‘BBC’ and ‘John Sweeney’. Mr Sweeney was the reporter whose own attempts to converse with a Scientologist a few years ago, for Panorama, left him shouting at the top of his voice.
Mr Theroux is much better suited to the job. When the Scientologists turn up with their own cameraman, who refuses to reply to Theroux’s questions, Theroux gets out his phone – a cheap little flip-up one – and holds it up to the man’s camera in response, like a crucifix in a vampire film. They both stand like this for several seconds.
It’s more silly than aggressive, and a move that I think only Louis Theroux could make. His approach is often called ‘faux-naïve’, but it’s closer to a kind of weaponised passivity. It also helps to make the film unique, given the umpteen documentaries on the subject. Even Jon Ronson, whose journalistic style and taste is close to Theroux’s, wouldn’t hold up his phone like that.
Evening: to the Rich Mix in Bethnal Green for another film documentary: Supersonic, about the band Oasis. Despite this being the film’s opening weekend, Supersonic only seems to be playing in two central London cinemas tonight. I wonder if this is to do with the way music documentaries have a much narrower appeal than documentaries about other subjects: the Theroux screening was packed. The exception was Amy, because it was more of a biography about a tragic public figure who happened to work in music. Supersonic can’t even claim to look into a pop cultural moment, as the recent Beatlemania film, Eight Days A Week did, as Oasis never quite reached that level. There were no Oasis Boots and Wigs on sale, no spin-off cartoon series and films. There were a very popular band, but ultimately just that: a band.
Rather cheekily, the film leaves out any mention of Blur or Britpop, even though it purports to tell the story of the band, up till their enormous Knebworth concerts of 1996. According to this film, no other guitar bands existed in the 1990s. No wonder so many people came to their shows: there apparently weren’t any others to go to. These days, history is rewritten by the documentary makers.
That aside, the anecdotes about the Gallagher brothers and their endless spats and scrapes are imaginatively presented here, using lots of lively animations of letters and photos. The film moves quickly, and the melodies still impress. I remember hearing ‘Supersonic’ when it came out and thinking how ingenious it was to meld the aggressive, swaggering grind of Happy Mondays (the verses) with the aching, fuzzy sweetness of Teenage Fanclub (the choruses). ‘Live Forever’ and ‘Wonderwall’ were similarly impressive; what they lacked in intellectual prowess they made up for in heartfelt drive and emotion. It’s unlikely that their lyrics will ever merit a Nobel Prize, but the film certainly illustrates what a lot of fun it must have been, to be Liam and Noel Gallagher in the 1990s.
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, BBC National Short Story Award
, bridget jones's baby
, captain biplane
, david hockney
, dennis cooper
, good mixer
, Hilary Mantel
, Lavinia Greenlaw
, like cattle towards glow
, louis theroux
, my scientology movie
, painting with light
, royal academy
, southwold pier
, supersonic film
, tate britain
, the yellow book
, tim hunkin
, Tom Edwards
, under the pier
Never A Boy On A Wall
Saturday 10th September 2016. Thoughts on the endurance of retro aesthetics. There is still no stylish way of being seen staring at a phone. The cover of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together essentially says, ‘doesn’t the sight of people on phones look like a terrible thing?’ For all Mr Jobs’s love of attractive design, the fact remains that the sight of using his pretty gadgets is not attractive. The screen upstages the body in a way that older instruments never did. The history of art is full of images of people reading books in wistful and attractive ways. The sight of people at screens has yet to signify anything other than ‘work’ or ‘product’. Not ‘beautiful’.
There was a recent book of Caitlin Moran’s journalism where she was pictured on the cover tapping at a typewriter. She subsequently explained that it was a prop for the photo shoot, and that she really writes on a laptop.
Old broken typewriters are now used as set dressing in cafes and shops. Old broken laptops, however, are more likely to be thrown away.
London’s red phone boxes are now rarely used to make calls. But they are still left in place and repainted. The ones on the corners of Russell Square are currently used as lockable office workstations available to hire. Another phone box nearby forms part of a coffee stall, functioning as a stock cupboard.
I’ve yet to see a red phone box converted into the most obvious solution, though: a urinal. Despite all the anecdotal evidence of this alternative use, there is still something about British sensibilities that can’t bear to have the ugly act and the beautiful box officially brought together.
There are many reasons to buy books from bookshops rather than Amazon, but one is that London bookshops are simply better for getting a book in a hurry. Today I find that the little branch of Hatchards in St Pancras can order an unstocked title at 2pm, and have it ready for me to collect by 6. No extra charge, not even a deposit. The volume in question is Evelyn Waugh’s selected essays, A Little Order.
Sunday 11th September 2016. Where the likes of Amazon do come in handy, though, is for satisfying the impulse to watch an old film. I used to rely on a physical film library, Archway Video, a few years ago, with its huge stock of titles to rent. Gone now. Tonight I use Amazon’s online rental service to rewatch Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. It still holds up, the different plot strands working in harmony, the comedy balancing out the drama. Everyone gets a tidy happy ending, though I now realise we never find out what becomes of Max Von Sydow’s sociopathic artist, one of the best characters.
Monday 12th September 2016. Tim Chipping writes to confirm something I had wondered about in a recent diary entry. It was on my failure to be the sort of young person who hung around in groups on street corners, or who sat on walls. He says this reminded him of the first time he visited me in Bristol, when we were in our early 20s. We walked into town to buy bags of chips, after which Tim ‘instinctively’ sat on a nearby wall. He says I was baffled by this, and that I insisted we go home to eat the chips.
Thinking back, I suppose I associated ‘hanging out’ on a street as a form of anti-social behaviour. But of course, to be young and to worry about such things is to be anti-social to one’s peers.
Evening: To the Heavenly Social bar in Little Portland Street, for a book launch by Travis Elborough. No slouch he: it’s barely weeks after his book about public parks. This is more of an illustrated reference work, though: Atlas of Improbable Places- A Journey to the World’s Most Unusual Corners. Each entry comes with intricate maps by Alan Horsfield, which have a satisfying, calming appeal.
In the introduction TE points out the value of unique physical locations. I’m guilty of using the term ‘Dubai-ification’, when it comes to the mania in London for building glass towers. But TE’s book reminds me that there is at least one Dubai structure that fascinates me. It’s the more horizontally-inclined Palm Jumeirah archipelago, with its artificial ‘fronds’ of reclaimed sand, each one supporting hundreds of villas. It’s the sort of idea that’s surely asking for trouble in the long term, as seen in the abandoned towns elsewhere in the same book. But I like the sheer garish nerve of it.
Other favourite entries in this Atlas are Portmeirion in Wales, of The Prisoner fame, the Euro bridges of Spijkenisse in Holland (which seem like something from a postmodern story), and the strange case of the Kingdom of Redonda. This is an uninhabitable piece of rock in the Caribbean whose ‘king’ was declared to be the sci-fi novelist MP Shiel.
Tonight at the launch there’s a colouring competition (to re-ink Mr Horsfield’s maps), made all the more difficult by the venue being a dimly-lit underground bar. ‘Colouring in the dark – it’s this year’s trend!’ says Travis E. I lurk among the likes of Joe Brooker, Tim Benton, Alex M, Harvey Williams, Anne Pigalle, Paul Kelly (on DJ-ing), Emily Bick, Debsey Wykes.
Tuesday 13th September 2016. With Shanthi and her friend Matthew to the Barbican cinema, to see the latest Woody Allen film, Café Society. An enjoyable enough romance set in 1930s LA and New York. As with much of WA’s recent fare, though, he seems keen to tell the story without letting the characters get a chance to really come alive. I wish there were more moments like the ones in Hannah and Her Sisters, where the characters are permitted to stop and pause, to gaze and yearn. Still, there are lots of sumptuous, golden visuals and plenty of historical detail, such as the casual anti-Semitism from well-intentioned characters. Kristen Stewart, who normally plays sulky contemporary girls, is cast against type as the sweet love interest. But she plays it well enough, and her inscrutability saves the film from blandness.
Wednesday 14th September 2016. In a corner of Russell Square today there’s a little marquee for the Friends of Russell Square charity. Several elderly people are manning trestle tables, selling second hand books and DVDs. There’s also a rack of postcards. When I go to take a look, I notice that many of the postcards are of Eastbourne.
Thursday 15th September 2016. To the East Finchley Phoenix for the new Beatles documentary, Eight Days A Week. As part of the trend to put exclusive content into cinemas, there’s an hour-long live broadcast beforehand, from the red carpet of the film’s premiere at Leicester Square. Except that the red carpet is a deep blue.
I never learn what the reason for this is – a reference to the song ‘Blue Jay Way’ perhaps? Or just a nice coordination with the blue of the film’s poster? Presumably no one else is curious either, as the presenters manage to fill up their endless minutes of live commentary without once deigning to enlighten the viewer. Still, it’s impressive to see not just Paul and Ringo turn up, but Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison too.
Giles Martin, son of the recently deceased George, talks about his work on the film’s soundtrack. Pleasingly, Giles’s way of speaking turns out to closely resemble his father’s. In Beatles documentaries, George Martin’s measured BBC RP accent is always an entertaining contrast to those rebellious Liverpudlian tones. It is the ability to sound like a kindly army captain in a British war film.
The new Beatles film itself is an exhilarating joy. Its director, Ron Howard, is in the business of making big-screen blockbuster entertainment, which might be why the film rattles along on a constant high: literally when Paul admits they filmed Help! between puffs of cannabis. Mr Howard’s prowess in spectacle also explains why he focuses on the band when they were at their most visual as human beings: their international tours from 1964 to 1966.
More specifically, though, Mr Howard foregrounds an element played down in the 1990s Anthology TV series: the story of their reception. While Anthology asked what it was like to be the Beatles, Eight Days A Week asks what it was like to see the Beatles live, especially if you were American. The songs were enticing enough: ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ made its own way to a US Number One before the band even crossed the Atlantic. When they did arrive, as Paul McCartney puts it, they were ‘kings’. Accordingly, the film skips through the well-told rise of the Beatles in Britain, the better to examine the awestruck viewpoint of those US fans in 1964. The Beatles arrived as fully-formed superstars, four alien-looking young men with their identical suits, boots and androgynous children’s haircuts.
The live footage is broken up by some talking head interviews, which normally irritates, but Mr Howard keeps them pithy and to the point. Whoopi Goldberg remarks on the importance of the Beatles’ ‘colourlessness’ to her self-image, in much the same way as people were discussing David Bowie earlier this year: the way pop stars help people find themselves. Eddie Izzard also makes some interesting remarks about the band’s press conferences, when they displayed the instincts of stand-up comedians.
Saturday 17th September 2016. To Viktor Wynd’s museum at 11 Mare Street for a joint private view: a selection of Leonora Carrington’s surreal art from the 1930s to the 1990s, and Paul Hazelton’s site-specific Ghosts in the Making show. Mr Hazelton specialises in little figurines and sculptures made entirely from household dust and human hair. These startlingly delicate works look soft, sandy, fragile, as if they could return to dust at any minute. One is reclining on – or possibly making love with – a lobster, that staple animal of surrealism, in an echo of Dali’s Lobster Telephone. Some of the other Hazelton works are dust globes with smaller figures somehow trapped inside, like ships in bottles.
I chat to the artist himself tonight – modest, friendly, casually-dressed – though we’re bothered by the aggressive denizens of Hackney’s streets. One is a down-at-heel bald man trying to sell £1 plastic cigarette lighters from a tray, the other is an equally grizzled woman who is trying to engage the seller in an argument at the same time. The pair of them carry on like this down the length of Mare Street, the man still offering his wares in between his attempts to placate the woman. He’s caught in a state of switching between two worlds: ‘I never said I did! Lighters for £1 mate? ’
Then to Vout-o-Reenee’s in Tower Hill for the club night The Track. Sophie Parkin shows me the new exhibition in the gallery: Chris Wilson’s Glue Ponys (sic). Mr Wilson has had quite a life: a childhood in Africa, drug addiction and prison spells in the US, now a fine art graduate of Chelsea, and an author too. The show coincides with his book of short stories. I take a look at his raw and rough canvasses: visceral figures on horses, thick, overwritten layers of paint and text, naïve angels and crude gods. Many of the works hang unframed from the ceiling like tapestries, to show how Wilson paints on both sides of the canvas.
Excellent music: some 1940s swing, some Northern Soul. I chat with Susanna, a stylish lady in her 70s who has worked as a professional lookalike for Lauren Bacall. Spend some time with Emily and Emma, a gay couple from Newcastle whom I’ve noticed before, in their immaculate 1950s hair and clothes, always ready to dance. I dance a little too.
The sign of a good time had: I miss the last normal tube. But it’s a good excuse to walk to Liverpool Street (15 mins) and catch the brand new Night Tube. In its current tentative state, with only a couple of lines open, I can get as far north as Highbury Corner. Then I have to take a night bus to Highgate.
Hardly any Saturday night rowdiness on the trains: mainly quiet conversation and dozing off. I wonder if the newness of seeing the Tube at this time of night has a psychological effect; the wariness of pioneers. When I do see someone behaving loutishly, it’s on a night bus at Archway. A young man suddenly throws up in front of the doors, mere seconds before the bus stops to let him out.
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Tags: atlas of improbable places
, Cafe Society
, chris wilson
, glue ponys
, hannah and her sisters
, Heavenly Social
, Leonora Carrington
, Night Tube
, Paul Hazelton
, red phone boxes
, The Beatles: Eight Days A Week
, travis elborough
, viktor wynd
, woody allen
At The Miniature Railway Cafe
Thursday 25th August 2016. London in hot weather. World of Shorts. And it is mainly men who go for shorts, too. Of the couples I see out today, it’s often the case that he is in shorts, but she is in trousers.
Notes on fragile masculinity. I buy some Boots No 7 moisturiser, and go for the version ‘For Men’. I do so because the box assures me it is specially made to accommodate stubble. When I get home, I realise it differs from the version for women in a more obvious way. The distaff moisturiser comes in a glass pot, which one simply opens up and dips one’s finger into. The men’s one, however, comes in a squat black pump with a spout. One has to push down hard on the spout until the moisturiser puts in an appearance. It is the most strenuous part of my daily routine. I feel like going on Dragon’s Den and pitching a moisturiser for men like me. Working title: Sissy No 7.
At the Thameslink section of Kentish Town station, I spot a security pass left on the platform. It looks like a fairly heavy duty one, with a thick magnetic base and a photo. The owner is a trader at Goldman Sachs. I’m about to hand it to the staff at the barriers, when I remember how long it’s taken for me in the past to retrieve possessions lost on the tube. Sometimes several weeks, including a trip to that great cave of abandoned umbrellas, the Baker Street Lost Property office.
The next day, propelled by the vanity which underscores so many good turns, I Google the trader’s name and call him at the Goldman Sachs office in Fleet Street. He says he does indeed want the pass back, and as soon as possible, and is very grateful. I tell him I’ll drop it off at his reception.
This proves to be slightly harder that I’d envisioned. To paraphrase Lord of the Rings, one does not simply walk into Goldman Sachs. They are one of those international corporations who exist in such a lofty world, they do not even announce their presence on the street. You have to know whose anonymous plate glass doors those are on Fleet Street, the ones with a security guard on the outside, standing on the street, as well as two further guards on the inside. And that’s before you even get near the reception desk. Such security is highly styled, too: large young men in large black suits, topped off with those earpieces with little coiled cables vanishing into the collar. It’s fair to say that when I arrive, I am viewed with suspicion.
I state my intention to the man on the street, doing my utmost to assure him that I am not some anti-capitalist activist, despite my slightly interesting hair. I am not trying to do a Michael Moore. Or, more recently, a Russell Brand. The guard is not convinced.
‘You can’t just… drop… something off here.’
But then I tell him that my package, such as it is, is merely one of their own passes, at which he lets me through the revolving doors. Then the two other security men standing inside challenge me, and I have to start my story again.
The receptionist gets a third version of my tale. She won’t let me leave the pass with her either, and insists on picking up the phone and trying to call the trader in question, to get him to come down. This takes some minutes before she says, ‘He isn’t available’. By this point I’m getting flustered, and am determined not to go away still clutching the wretched thing. So I grab a scrap of paper from my bag, write out my contact details, and give it to her along with the pass. She takes it from me with an expression of pure reluctance, as if I’d just handed her a pair of my underpants. But she does take it, and the pass, and I leave.
I had hoped to feel a wave of sainthood from this episode, but instead I just feel vaguely punished.
Saturday 27th August 2016. Mum in town for the day. We visit the exhibition Missoni Art Colour at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey. En route to the Museum, we get a little lost navigating the endless building works between London Bridge station and Guy’s Hospital. Many hoped-for shortcuts are closed off by the ubiquitous men in hard hats.
When passing such sites, my hope is always that the construction is for the public good, rather the private greed. Yet too often one looks up past the rising number of beggars sitting on the pavement – the other worrying side of London – to see a sign for luxury apartments. The redundancy of the word ‘luxury’ presumably lost on the developers. In Highgate, council letters alerting residents to disruptive planning permissions are becoming more frequent. Invariably, these are for private basement extensions. I’m so tempted to write in the comments, ‘Please ask the owner if the phrase, ‘I have enough’ has ever troubled their consciousness.’
At the Missoni show, the centrepiece is a display of decades of Missoni clothes, on some fifty or so mannequins, arranged on the steps of a pyramid. A number of them remind me of the Redford film of The Great Gatsby; a 1970s take on the 1920s.
Around the manniquins hang a selection of Ottavio Missoni’s abstract wall hangings, which are rather like the patchwork quilts Mum specialises in. Plenty of brightly coloured zigzags and stripes on show, as per the Missoni reputation. There’s also a small collection of postwar abstract paintings, by way of illustrating the label’s influences. One canvas stands out, ‘Spatial Structure in Tension’ (1952) by Nino Di Salvatore, a harmonious pattern of intersecting geometric shapes. Brightly coloured, of course.
Unusually, the museum allows photographs to be taken, and we regret not bringing our own devices. We are the only ones not taking photos. The shop sells a tote bag with the motto, ‘I Knit So I Won’t Kill People’.
Then to the new Tate Modern extension, Switch House. The main TM building has accordingly been renamed Boiler House. Switch House dwarves the original building, and includes a viewing platform at the top, where one can look down on the Tate Members bar. And indeed, right into the flats of the neighbouring tower blocks to the south. The north view across the Thames is stunning, however, with St Paul’s directly ahead.
We finish off with the BP Portrait Award at the NPG, which is packed. The usual prominence of family members and friends as subject matter, which I always find touching. We both like Karina In Her Raincoat, by Brian Sayers, where the coat dominates the frame. It should have won.
Monday 29th August 2016. To the Museum of London for the exhibition Fire! Fire!, which marks the anniversary of the Great Fire of London. It’s an extensive and spacious display, and is very much aimed at families. Lots for children to do: flaps to lift, buttons to press, clothes to dress up in, and at the end a set of wooden building blocks on a large table, with which to rebuild the razed capital. The children I see seem particularly drawn to the blocks, which I find cheering. How I miss that childhood capacity to happily build and make things, solid things, from blocks to Lego. Resentment was reserved for tidying one’s room, or writing thank you letters, or going to bed early. Never for making things.
I suppose my creative play these days is writing. The trouble is I subscribe to the Dorothy Parker quote, only enjoying writing when it’s finished, and resenting it when I’m doing it.
Evening: to the Barbican to see the film David Brent – Life on the Road. I was such an admirer of Mr Gervais’s series The Office. I loved how it took the TV sitcom format into a new phase, playing with the trend for docu-soaps and reality TV, while updating the eternal comedic themes of delusion and embarrassment. It was also one of the few British comedies to be successfully adapted in the US. Americans do social awkwardness too, just on a wider frequency: a more open and expressive kind of cringing. And of course, they do it through a lot more episodes.
Well, sadly, the golden touch of Ricky Gervais has manifestly dimmed. This belated big screen spin-off featuring the main character from the British Office isn’t a patch on either of the two TV series. Admittedly, there’s one or two funny moments, and Gervais’s performance is still entertaining enough – I love how his jaw hangs open when he’s annoyed. But the overall impression is that the character has simply run out of mileage.
It doesn’t help that none of the other characters from The Office are here: no Tim, Dawn or Gareth, not even a cameo from Stephen Merchant. Perhaps this was a deliberate move to resist the current vogue for reuniting old cast members as if they were rock bands (Cold Feet being the latest TV series to do this). Regardless, this new film proves that The Office was a classic because of the ensemble, not just the frontman.
Wednesday 31st August 2016. Filming in Meard Street for some sort of documentary. I say a few words about dandyism in front of Sebastian Horsley’s old flat. Barima Edusei is with me, having invited me along when I bumped into him on the tube the other day. GQ and River Island are apparently involved, though I get the sense that my existence is as baffling to them as theirs is to me. Still, I use my phrase about a dandy being in ‘a subculture of one’, which I’m reasonably proud of.
Later on I’m back in the British Library reading an essay by Michael Bracewell. He uses the word ‘dandy’ to describe the singer with The Fall, Mark E Smith. Much as I admire his music, the unremarkably-dressed Mr Smith wouldn’t be in my own list of examples of dandies. Still, it shows how elastic the term can be.
Friday 2nd September 2016. Dennis Cooper has commented on the documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story. I remember that at the time the ‘hoax’ was exposed, he shrugged and said something along the lines of ‘sometimes it’s okay to be fooled’. This was very good of him, given he was one of the writers used as stepping-stones for LeRoy / Laura Albert’s rise to literary fame.
In his blog though, he’s changed his tune: ‘I really hated [Author]. It’s a totally superficial whitewash that treats Laura Albert like she’s some kind of kooky folk hero instead of as the psychopathic, destructive user that she is. I regret allowing the director to interview me for it.’ (from the P.S. section of denniscooperblog.com, entry dated 29 August 2016).
I don’t think Author is a whitewash entirely: there’s several times when Ms Albert goes on the defensive, at the cost to her credibility. Her compulsion to record all her private phone calls is hardly a loveably ‘kooky’ trait either. But I’m fascinated with the way this shows how documentaries seduce the viewer into swallowing one version of the truth, one which its own interviewees might disagree with.
The analytical rule about asking ‘who gets to speak’ should also include ‘who gets to speak, but wishes they hadn’t?’
Saturday 3rd September 2016. My 45th birthday. I have a tradition of spending my birthday going somewhere I’ve not been before. Some location I’ve always meant to visit, but never got around to. Birthdays do come around, as much as we’d like them not to. So I mollify the unpleasant reminder that one is even older, with a celebration of still being alive at all. If your eyes still work, give them new sights to look at. If your legs still work, walk to somewhere you’ve never been before. Above all, give thanks.
Today I get around to visiting Ruislip Lido. Which is really a large lake which was once a reservoir, with woodlands at one end and a beach at the other. Except the beach is more of a huge artificial sandpit doing an impersonation of a beach. The water is usually not clean enough to swim in, as indicated by a red flag outside the beach café. Children can still splash about on land, though: the beach has a large area of playground equipment, with a couple of water jets in the shape of animals.
I have breakfast in the café, then take a journey on the Ruislip Lido Railway, ‘Britain’s Longest 12 Gauge Railway’. It travels through the woods and around to the other side of the lake, ending at the Turntable Tea Room near the main road. The Tea Room has its own toy railway that whizzes around the walks. So I step off a small train to meet an even smaller one.
There’s something spooky yet attractive about cafes built to serve miniature railways: I think of the one at Dungeness, where Derek Jarman would go for fish and chips.
Afternoon: to Somerset House with Atalanta K, Debbie Smith and Soirai, for the exhibition Bjork – Digital.
The Bjork exhibition is a good example of first rate content hampered by its presentation. Visitors are herded from room to room on a timed basis, and are told to put on virtual reality headsets at each stage. All very well, except that sometimes the headsets don’t work, or they flicker on and off, or it’s not clear how to use them. Too bad if this happens, as one is soon marshaled out into the next room, and can’t come back to try again.
In one of the rooms, I stand with the VR headset on for a full minute looking at a square oblong which doesn’t seem to be doing much. It’s only then that I realise this is actually the menu screen of the software. I have to turn my head around within the digital world to see Bjork standing behind me, singing away while rendered as a glittering CGI moth goddess. I do my best to move around and enjoy the show, but am a little hampered by fears of throttling myself with the cable.
It also doesn’t help that two rooms of ‘interactive’ instruments are just sitting there, without captions or instructions of any kind. As it is, I don’t want to ‘interact’ musically with Bjork anyway. Too much like audience participation. Or Tom Sawyer and the white fence.
The best exhibits are ‘Black Lake’, where one doesn’t have to wear headsets at all. A split-screen video of the singer is projected across two opposite walls of a black room, with a surround-sound audio track encouraging you to approach different walls at different times. The other highlight is ‘Stonemilker’, where the VR world is a real Icelandic beach. You can turn fully around on the beach, and look up and down. Bjork splits into several clones of herself while dancing around you on the shingle.
Despite the Digital title of the show, the attached gift shop mainly sells Bjork’s back catalogue on vinyl. I haven’t succumbed to buying one of the new post-digital (and affordable) turntables just yet; I like the convenience of iTunes too much. But only on vinyl does one truly see that Bjork’s album sleeves are artworks in their own right.
Evening: My plans for a vegetarian meal for Team Bjork take a knock when the Coach and Horses in Greek Street closes its kitchen unexpectedly. We try Mildred’s in Lexington St, but it’s rammed full. To make things worse, it is now pouring with rain. I have my linen trousers drenched in Lexington Street when a passing car hits a puddle.
But things improve. Debbie takes a chance on Jane-Tira, a Thai street food place at 28 Brewer Street, which turns out to be perfect. Not too packed, friendly staff, delicious food. And my trousers dry quickly, barely leaving a mark. Either London rainwater is cleaner than one thinks, or my suit really is like the one in The Man In The White Suit.
Afterwards, a short spell in The Friendly Society (pleasant kitschy night spot, but too busy), then to the Curzon Soho downstairs bar for a quiet after dinner drink. It must be one of the few places in central London where one can go on a Saturday night and (a) sit down, (b) get a drink without queuing, and (c) hear oneself think. As long as it’s before 11pm.
A present from Debbie and Atalanta: Carl Wilson’s book Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. The title is after the Celine Dion album. Looks fun, and might well be useful for my MA research into taste, kitsch and camp.
Sunday 4th September 2016. To Strawberry Hill House near Twickenham, with Fenella Hitchcock. Another one of those day trips on my To Do list. The visit necessitates a train from Waterloo into Zone 5, taking thirty minutes or so. Then a short walk through some immaculately tidy suburban streets, and past St Mary’s University, which looks more like a modern upper school.
Again, I’m driven by ideas of taste. Strawberry Hill was the Georgian home of Horace Walpole, author of The Castle of Otranto, which he had remodelled into an ostentatious Gothic Revival palace. The visit comes with a pocket guide that rather neatly quotes Walpole’s own guide, but then augments his text with modern postscripts. Most of the time, the commentary is about what objects and paintings used to be there, until a grand auction in the 19th century. But the architecture and restored décor is more than enough for a visit, with cathedral-like fireplaces and ceilings, trompe l’oeil wallpaper, and best of all the crimson damask walls in the long, red and gold Gallery.
Monday 5th September 2016. I finish Nutshell, the new novel by Ian McEwan. It’s a high concept work, doubly so. Not only is it a tale told from the point of view of an unborn foetus, but the tale in question is a contemporary retelling of Hamlet. Gertrude becomes the pregnant ‘Trudy’, while bad uncle Claude becomes Claude the ruthless London property developer.
One of the archer pleasures of the book is that the foetal narrator has an impossibly educated and snobbish voice, commenting with expert knowledge on the quality of the wine he ingests in utero, via Trudy. The only jarring moment is when one passage betrays the author’s position on the issue of today’s students. The narrator views them as obsessed with fluid identities and un-fluid offensiveness, and goes into an extended rant that only makes sense if it’s the author, rather than his character:
‘A strange mood has seized the almost-educated young… They’re on the march, angry at times, but mostly needful, longing for authority’s blessing, its validation of their chosen identities… If I turn out to be white, I may identify as black… Offended, I enter a state of grace. Should inconvenient opinions hover near me, I’ll be in need of the special campus safe room… Let poverty go begging and climate change braise in hell. If my college does not validate me, I’ll press my face into the vice chancellor’s lapels and weep. Then demand his resignation… Feeling is queen. Unless she identifies as king.’
All very witty and topical. He’s entitled to his stance, of course, but I wish that Mr McEwan hadn’t come down on the side of the Grumpy Old Novelists. Too easy, too obvious. Regardless, whatever one’s position on the matter, this section demonstrably smacks of a lack of research, and that is not like Mr McEwan at all. If Nutshell was a debut novel from an unknown author, I suspect the publisher would recommend cutting this section altogether.
But that’s my only reservation. Elsewhere, I like his summation of reasons to stay alive to the end of the 21st century, viewing the world as one great gripping narrative:
‘Will its nine billion heroes scrape through without a nuclear exchange? Might Islam dip a feverish extremity in the cooling pond of reformation?’
It’s as good a message for turning 45 as any. Wanting to find out what happens next.
, david brent life on the road
, dennis cooper
, Fashion and Textile Museum
, ian mcewan
, JT LeRoy
, Missoni Art Colour
, museum of london
, ruislip lido
, somerset house
, tate modern
This Slapstick Gatecrasher
Sunday 14th August 2016. To the Constitution pub in Camden, for the club night Nitty Gritty. Tonight is also the birthday of Debbie Smith, who’s one of the club’s DJs. Atalanta is on the door, sitting at a little table as one enters the basement down a narrow staircase. I keep her company there for a while, watching others make their way gingerly down the steps too. It’s a pleasingly old building, so the stairs were probably built not so much for club goers to walk down but for minor characters from Dickens to be thrown down.
I spend a pleasant couple of hours here, even dancing a little. The Constitution’s back garden looks peacefully over the canal. As the pub is detached and a good walk from the shops and the more touristy parts of Camden, it has the air of an oasis. Local London. Dog walkers use the towpath, and dogs have been known to wander through the basement’s back door and straight onto the dancefloor. A pug-ish one appears tonight and skips around for a few seconds to a Kinks b-side (‘What’s this? What’s this?’). Thankfully the owner removes this slapstick gatecrasher before it sees the platter of birthday cake in front of the DJ booth.
Monday 15th August 2016. I’m editing my review of the Pet Shop Boys book, Smile If You Dare. I cut a line about the possible influence of Paul Morley on the style, mainly because the writer is probably too young. My own generation of music writers essentially fell into two camps: those trying to be Paul Morley – mad, funny, rambling – and those trying to be Simon Reynolds – sober, stern, analytical. There’s a part of the Pet Shop Boys book where the appearance of a hidden track at the end of the Very CD is likened to bettering the resurrection of Christ. I would call this The Full Morley.
There is still a lot of love for the actual Mr Morley today, as his new book on David Bowie is in the Sunday Times General Hardback Top Ten. The music papers Mr Morley once wrote for have either died or become free handouts. For people to pay for a fat hardback of music journalism, and to do so in number, is not to be sniffed at. Most of the rest of the books in that chart are either Ladybird parody books or memoirs by the stars of YouTube. It’s very hard not to write something here that will sound like a rant from Ed Reardon’s Week.
Tuesday 16th August 2016. To the Regent Street Cinema, where I’ve been invited by Heavenly Films to host a Q&A after a screening of Lawrence of Belgravia. This is Paul Kelly’s documentary about Lawrence, the surname-less frontman with the bands Felt, Denim and Go-Kart Mozart. It premiered at the London Film Festival in 2011, where I saw it myself, before getting a proper cinema release in 2012. For whatever reason, the DVD has been only been released now, and tonight’s screening acts as a DVD launch. Paul Kelly and Lawrence himself are present, ready to answer the audience’s questions, and I’m the one with the clipboard, looking like an albino Denis Norden.
I’ve interviewed people professionally for magazines before, but this is my first time as an onstage interviewer. But I go to a lot of film and book Q & A events for my own pleasure, so I more or less know how they’re done. That said, there is a craft to asking the questions, and it’s not always instinctive. When people talk normally, they tend to monologue at each other, or switch off, or repeat themselves, or interrupt, or go off on tangents. A public interview is a performance: there needs to be a sense of putting-on.
To prepare, I read about a dozen interviews with both Mr Kelly and Lawrence, and watch my own copy of the DVD again. I also watch some old editions of the Parkinson show on YouTube, noting what makes an ‘open question’: one that will ideally guide the interviewee into making those little trips of insight and revelation.
On the night, I am asked to give a short introduction, which I do happily, standing in front of the stage. Housekeeping, flavoured with opinion. I focus on Mr Kelly’s lack of clichés: particularly no uses of studio mixing desks as backdrops to talking heads. And no talking heads, either, in fact.
The Regent Street Cinema has had a long former life as a college lecture hall. This explains the seating, raked high on a steep slope, looking down at the screen. Not unlike the set-up for IMAX screens. A dramatic history too: the Lumiere brothers showed their early movies here in 1896. The tickets for tonight state that we’re in ‘The Birthplace of British Cinema’. A plaque on the street also declares this to be where members of Pink Floyd were students. Not the young Syd Barrett, alas, which would have been apt for a film about eccentrics in music. No, the less interesting but more sensible members. That’s my wording, not the plaque’s.
Special badges are given out to every person as they enter. Sky blue buttons saying ‘Lawrence of Belgravia, Tuesday 16th August 2016’. There’s a queue on the way in. The rows fill up. A staffer whispers to me before I go on: ‘This is more people than we usually have for these things’.
I haven’t spoken to Lawrence since the late 90s. ‘Never say “Long time no see”, says Warhol somewhere. Better to act as if it were yesterday. So that’s what I do. During the Q&A he smiles a lot, which throws me. The first question from the audience: ‘You’re one of my heroes, along with my dad’.
I can’t resist using the Q&A to tell Lawrence that his music is on Lynsey Hanley’s list of songs to accompany her book on class, Respectable. Lawrence says he’s read it; a Birmingham connection. I quote the lyrics Ms H quotes from Denim’s ‘Middle of the Road’, the ones about choosing to like whatever music you listen to. Much of her book is about the importance of breaking down cultural barriers, where areas of musical taste are psychologically prescribed.
On a couple of occasions I fall into the trap of asking closed questions, because my brain is wired to come up with theories, almost by default. That’s what five years of university does to you. But then I notice what I’m doing and move on. I’ll be better at doing that next time; I’d like to do more Q & As.
Lawrence stays to sign records for fans. Stephen Pastel and Tracey Thorn are in the audience. JC Brouchard, whom Biff Bang Pow once wrote a song about, gives me a copy of his book, Felt: Ballad of the Fan. ‘Is that a book on Felt?’ asks someone behind me. One of several books, now. There’ll be a BA course in Lawrence Studies one day.
Friday 19th August 2016. To the ICA to see Wiener-Dog, the new Todd Solondz film. I loved Happiness, and quite enjoyed Palindromes and Storytelling, but have reservations about this new one.
One thing is that I’m not really in the mood for his signature mix of misery, misanthropy and bad taste. Another is the form: a portmanteau film of four short stories, linked by the titular sausage dog. This works for old British horror films, but not so much for contemporary US black comedies. With one narrative paraded after the other, the overall experience is of fluffy disconnection. A little weaving together of the different strands is needed, a la Pulp Fiction. Or indeed, a la Happiness.
Still, there’s plenty of funny moments, not least the surreal ‘Intermission’, where the dog is filmed as if it were the size of a house, and walks through a series of unlikely backdrops to a Champion the Wonder Horse-like song. But I don’t think anyone sets out to make an intermission the highlight of a film.
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, go-kart mozart
, heavenly films
, lawrence of belgravia
, lynsey hanley
, nitty gritty
, paul kelly
, Paul Morley
, pet shop boys
, regent street cinema
, todd solondz