Modernist Cosplay

Saturday 22nd August 2015

My over-sensitivity to traffic noise is put to a new test. This week, gas works at the junction between Archway Road and Southwood Lane have meant that my quiet little avenue is soaking up some of the traffic from the A1. Today I learn that diverted traffic has a special sound all of its own. It’s not just an increased volume of vehicles: it’s an increased volume of newly angry vehicles. As they turn into the avenue, the drivers hit the accelerator and take out their frustration on the residents, just because they can. It is the motorist equivalent of flouncing out of a room and slamming the door.

* * *

Tuesday 25th August 2015

Days of rain and bad temper. I am beginning to discover how much of the financial help I’d received as an undergraduate isn’t available to postgraduates. MA students are expected to just have reserves of money. Today I have the confirmation that my discounted Tube travelcard cannot be extended for the MA. I put down the phone, seething, as the clouds burst over the city.

I brood on this an hour later, having trudged through the rain onto a Tube train. Then I learn something else: that my only summer shoes go into aquaplane mode if they so much as look at a raindrop. They also have the ability to retain a lethal amount of water on the soles. I learn this hard, as in the hardness of a tube station platform. I step off the train, and immediately slip over. Fully and bodily, the impact of the platform easily eclipsed by the impact of the watching tourists. I feel their eyes far more than the ground, and it is my dignity that really suffers. By Charing Cross Station I Fell On My Arse.

Miraculously, my white suit remains unsullied. A passing passenger checks I’m okay, as I scrabble to stand up. ‘Take it easy, man’.

* * *

Writing this up days later, I feel the need to apologise to the blameless escalator at Charing Cross. I’m ashamed to say that I suddenly thumped it – once, but as hard as possible – as I made my ascension from the platform. I was still reeling from the fall, but of course there was more to be angry about. It had really been the worry over money, as much as the rain, and the shoes. The punch was my version of the motorists diverted from Archway Road, with their little angry bouts of needless noise.

* * *

Wednesday 26th August 2015.

I’m reading Clive James’s new book of literary essays, Latest Readings. Given Mr J’s terminal illness, and its very public nature, it must have been tempting to call the collection Last Readings. But as Mr J himself has commented, with the dark humour suggested by the title of his book of poems (also just published), Sentenced To Life, medicine has developed to the point where a terminal diagnosis can still mean another five years. In which time, Mr J has had the condolence of the career-boosting attention of death, while still being alive to enjoy it. And he is no Harper Lee: there’s no shunning of the press. Despite being housebound, he still gives interviews and poetry readings for visiting media. Perhaps one reason is that he disliked the way an actor read his poem ‘Japanese Maple’ on the radio. ‘I tuned in on the web to listen,’ he says. ‘And I felt that I had been tied to a chair and beaten up by Basil Rathbone.’

Latest Readings is an account of the prose works he has consumed since falling ill (he’s already covered poetry in Poetry Notebook). The one work that ‘cured’ his fear of lacking enough energy for prose was Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which is over a thousand pages. Then he found himself devouring Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey yarns, the novel sequences of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, and large swathes of Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad. His rediscovery of Conrad became an unexpected compulsion: ‘Time felt precious and I would have preferred to spend less of it with him, but he wouldn’t let me go.’ He also sings the praises of Game Of Thrones on DVD, while assuring the reader that he has not become an all-embracing saint either: Dan Brown’s novels are still of ‘semi-mental merit’, and the Carry On films remain ‘brain dead’. I can’t agree with the latter, though I have to admit it applies to Carry On Emmanuelle.

In the book’s last essay, ‘Coda’, Mr James links his reading of a new Florence Nightingale biography to his experiences of the nurses at Addenbrooke’s hospital, in Cambridge. On a night nurse who had to clean up his burst urinary tract, he notes how she herself ‘had a deformed body, with limbs all the wrong lengths. Life could never have been easy for her. But now she was making the end of life easier for me. […] I can only hope that the sum total of my writings has been as useful to the world as her kindness, but I doubt that this is so’. He dedicates the book to the hospital.

Books may indeed be little use when it comes to cleaning up urinary tracts (the absorbing properties of paper aside), but I like the way Latest Readings proves that sickbed reading can not only be a comfort, but a process of discovery.

When Dad was in the hospice in Ipswich, I found myself intrigued by the communal bookcase, noting which authors were deemed hospice-friendly. The most common names on the shelves were Agatha Christie, PG Wodehouse, and Terry Pratchett.

Tonight happens to be the release of Pratchett’s last Discworld novel, The Shepherd’s Crown. There’s news reports of a midnight launch at Waterstones Piccadilly, with photos of adult fans dressed up in wizard costumes (the practice is now called ‘cosplay’ – costume play). On Twitter I see a certain amount of sneering at this. And yet, how is this any different from the James Joyce fans who wear straw boaters when they go on ‘Bloomsday’ walks?

One Pratchett fan is interviewed. She says that her father found comfort in the Discworld books, while on his own terminal sickbed.

Terms like ‘award-winning’, ‘longlisted’ and ‘acclaimed’ are really all steps to the same thing; the one thing all writers want, whatever their genre or literary standing. They just want to be read. As Philip Glass says somewhere, to have an audience is success enough.

* * *

Thursday 27th August 2015.

I find a college jobs advert with a sentence in urgent capitals: ‘DUE TO THE HIGH NUMBER OF APPLICATIONS WE EXPECT TO RECEIVE FOR THIS POST, THERE WILL BE A CAP OF 100 APPLICANTS.’ It’s for a part-time library shelver.

* * *

To the Curzon Bloomsbury, and its documentary-only screen for The Wolfpack. This is a frustrating film on an intriguing subject. Six teenage brothers have been confined by their father to their New York apartment, for most of their life. They have been schooled at home by their mother, who has some kind of license and arrangement with the authorities to do so. In lieu of contact with the outside the world, the boys become avid DVD buffs, recreating scenes from Reservoir Dogs and The Dark Knight with the use of props made from cereal boxes.

Despite the appeal of such an unusual scenario, and the poignancy of letting these isolated boys tell their tale to a mass audience, I felt the film needed more voices. I wanted to hear from the social services, the police, the neighbours, even a narration from the off-camera director. It’s exactly the kind of film where a Q&A with the director feels necessary.

* * *

Friday 28th August 2015.

To the Curzon Victoria for Gemma Bovery. After my frustration with the true story of The Wolfpack, I thought I might be more satisfied with some straight-ahead fiction. Particularly as it was an adaptation of a graphic novel I’d enjoyed, Posy Simmonds’s 1999 book. I hoped it’d be as fun as the film of Tamara Drewe, the other graphic novel by Ms Simmonds. I also liked the symmetry of Gemma Arterton starring in both films, and I liked the way she was already called Gemma for this new one.

Or so I thought. The film turns out to be a lifeless bore. It omits all of Ms Simmonds’s wry humour and social satire, as if they were mere distractions from the plot. The film is French-made, so I wonder if Ms S’s style of comedy was just too English to be translated. Whatever the reason, what is left is a rather dull tale of English people in Normandy.

When I get home, I dig out the original graphic novel. As I thought, it’s packed with everything the film lacks: ingenuity, originality, wit. I love the French baker’s narration, the English husband’s matching of crossword anagrams to his ex-wife’s demands (‘”parent” is an anagram of “entrap”!’). I love the influence of Vanessa Bell on Gemma’s decorations for her farmhouse, the English ex-pat neighbours installing of red telephone boxes by their swimming pool (‘one for a shower, one for a changing cabin’), Gemma’s resentment that ‘all French women seem to have brand new handbags’, and her comment that her husband’s children ‘can recite the names of pizzas but not a single wild flower’. All this is missing from the film, every word of it, and I miss it madly.

The most revealing omission of all, though, is Gemma’s quip that her husband’s beret makes him look ‘like someone in a Stella Artois ad’. The film Gemma Bovery is exactly that. A misty, pretty idea of rural Frenchness, and not much more. I worry that far more people will see the limp film than will read the sparkling graphic novel. If so, it’s a real dommage.


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Typewriters Do Furnish A Cafe

Saturday 15th August 2015

Thinking about what to do on my 44th birthday, which is on 3rd Sept. My usual rule is to go somewhere I’ve not been before. Somewhere affordable, though. Still can’t afford to go abroad (and it’s been 6 years now). I get excited when I realise that the former NatWest Tower, in the City, has a bar at the top, and that I think it’s called Tower 44.  But when I check, I find out that it’s actually called Tower 42, is rather pricey (at least for me), and that they don’t take bookings for parties of one.

* * *

Currently reading Mindful London, by Tessa Watt. Some useful advice on finding quiet spaces, practicing mindfulness in the city, and dealing with over-sensitivity to traffic noise (a current problem of mine). Thje trick is to imagine yourself acting like a microphone, simple hearing the distracting sounds rather than thinking about them. Seems so simple, but for me it takes an enormous amount of effort. I’m still working on it. Some days I just feel besieged by irritations. ‘What fresh hell is this?’ – Dorothy Parker’s response to the phone ringing.

* * *

Current work: the Birkbeck summer course, ‘Step Up To PG Arts’. A lot of reading and academic exercises, all to help me warm up to doing the MA. I’m also going to one-off workshops on the separate ‘Get Ahead’ programme.

* * *

Wednesday 19th August 2015.

To the Keynes Library in Gordon Square, to deliver a short PowerPoint presentation, as part of the ‘Step Up to PG Arts’ course. .

I talk about the Alan Moore & Oscar Zarate graphic short story from 1996, ‘I Keep Coming Back’. It takes me long enough just to scan the pages into PowerPoint. I also make things harder for myself by linking it to a recent news story, about the controversial new museum in Cable Street. The museum reportedly applied for planning permission on the grounds that it was to be an archive of women’s history in the East End. When it opened, it was simply The Jack The Ripper Museum. Lots of protests, and the controversy is still ongoing. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to it. I should really take a look myself.

Moore typically stuffs his story with references to other books, like Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor, and Iain Sinclair’s 1994 book Radon Daughters. The latter is particularly subtle: just a mention of an ‘author friend’ of Moore’s who has recently written about a one-legged protagonist. I feel disproportionately pleased about working out he means Radon Daughters. So much so, I can’t cut it out of the presentation, even though I know I need to. As a result I end up rushing through the slides, when I really should be pausing and reflecting. Still, it’s all good practice for the next time. Always more to do, always more to say.

* * *

Friday 21st August 2015.

I do some reading in the pleasant, anti-corporate café in the Quakers’ Friends House on Euston Road. I like how a centre for a religion based around silent meditation is on one of the most traffic-clogged roads in London. The café gives discounts for Birkbeck students, as the college rents some of its rooms for classes.

Then to Haggerston station on the Overground. Like a lot of the new-ish Overground stations (this one was opened in 2010), it’s airy and high-ceilinged. Filling one wall in the ticket hall is a trompe l’oeil mural by Tod Hanson. Titled The Elliptical Switchback, it’s based around a huge red and silver magnetic compass set within concentric circles. The design pays tribute to Edmond Halley, of comet fame, who was born nearby. It’s a reminder that Halley did rather more than just map the stars: he also invented magnetic compasses, put forth the idea of the Earth having a hollow structure (hence the concentric shells), devised weather charts, designed diving bells, translated Arabic, and commanded the first British scientific voyages around the world. So he’s something of a Haggerston hero.

From there, I walk west along Regent’s Canal. A bright and sunny day, not too hot. I take a look at The Proud Archivist, a new arts venue right on the towpath. It’s fashionable-looking but friendly. I note Richard Herring is doing some comedy previews here. There’s also an intriguing ‘Library’ with a wall of bookshelves, where the books are shelved according to the colour of their spines. Anthony Powell’s title Books Do Furnish A Room has never been more true. I’m reminded how another common decorative element in London cafés is old manual typewriters. Even the Caffé Nero outside BBC Broadcasting House has several on view. These spidery old machines now exist as a kind of visual punctuation between the lattes. They sit on their shelves and glower dustily at their upstart successor – the laptop.

Today the Proud Archivist is full of people in wedding dress. I wander into the main room, and catch the best man giving a speech by the DJ booth. I am not challenged, and wonder if it’s because of the way I dress. One of the cat-calls I have had on the street is, after all, ‘OY MATE – WHERE’S THE WEDDING? Har! Har!’  For a moment I compare my situation with the Owen Wilson film, The Wedding Crashers. Then I realise I am not Owen Wilson, not even slightly, and leave.

* * *

I walk further west to Whitmore Road, a quiet street between residential tower blocks, to visit an even newer café: The Trew Era, owned by Russell Brand. It was opened in March as part of Mr B’s social enterprise schemes. It’s also connected with his campaign to prevent the residents of the adjoining New Era estate from being evicted by greedy landlords. The cafe is small, but there’s a garden section in the back, and a pleasant set of seats al fresco out front. The staff are apparently recovering drug addicts, on the abstinence-based programmes that Mr B champions. All non-corporate brands in the chiller, as might be expected: Thirsty Planet bottled water, rather than Evian. I have a home-made iced latte in a jam jar. A slogan on the wall says ‘“To live will be an awfully big adventure” – Peter Pan’.

* * *

I walk further west along the canal. There’s signs along the towpath that say ‘Priority to Pedestrians – Share The Space, Slow Your Pace’. To little effect. Most of the cyclists I pass this evening – and I should mention it is rush hour – just pedal aggressively at full speed and ring their bells at walkers like myself, firmly implying that they have priority instead.

I turn off the canal at Noel Road in Islington, take a moment to look at the Joe Orton plaque, enjoy a light vegan dinner at the Candid Café (a rare wifi-free cafe), then go to the Vue cinema to see the new Pixar film, Inside Out.

I learn today that it’s better not to see family films in the afternoon, in case the screening turns out to be one of the many ‘kids clubs’ screenings, where lone adults are not admitted. This is fair enough, except that the special nature of these screenings often doesn’t show up in the general cinema listings. So it’s better to go to an evening showing, and as late as possible. The Vue Islington audience, at 7.45pm, are mostly adults.

Inside Out is another Pixar triumph, up there with Monsters Inc. It’s based on a simple enough idea – the inside of a little girl’s head becomes a factory run by anthropomorphised emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. But this is fully explored to a dazzling, hilarious & moving extent. It’s frequently sophisticated and original on a level far above most mainstream cinema (childrens’ or not), and is clearly influenced by some proper research into child psychology. Yet I’m sure small children can still enjoy it as a tale of cartoon characters having slapstick adventure. Just the opening sequence of Joy being ‘born’ and becoming self-aware, inside the darkness of a baby’s mind, is a breathtaking moment. The extra short film, Lava, is a little tear-jerking masterpiece, too.


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Core Values

Saturday 8th August 2015

Tired of my increasing sagginess, I start to make a concerted effort to live more healthily. Without resorting to the gym, that is. One measure is to clock up 10,000 steps worth of walking in the city every day. I record them by using the pedometer function on my pleasingly out-of-date iPod Nano (2011 vintage). I wince when I do so, however, as it means tapping a little red Nike symbol, presumably because of some Satanic corporate deal with Apple. It remains the only part of my life ever to have been invaded by the omnipresent multinational tick. ‘Just do it’, their adverts insist. I want to reply, ‘Just leave it with me and I’ll consider it.’

* * *

Sunday 9th August 2015.

I’m also trying the NHS diet plan: cutting calories to the recommended men’s limit of 1900 a day, until good habits kick in. I find that I can easily achieve this if I cut out two things: bread, and utter filth. By which I mean the sadly delicious oat cookies that Sainsbury’s do in £1 paper bags. Up till now, I’d been hoovering them up like Elvis, wondering why my suits were getting tighter. By the end of this week, though, I walk past the cookies in the supermarket with the brisk confidence of a divorcee, shunning their raisin stares.

My new love: low calorie popcorn.

* * *

Monday 10th August 2015.

On a walk around the Barbican, I discover that the Moorgate branch of HMV has quietly shut down. The only London branches left now are Oxford Street, Fopp in Cambridge Circus, and Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush. Mooching around Covent Garden later, I note how one entertainment store that seems to be thriving is Forbidden Planet, with its endless shelves of Doctor Who toys and Marvel comic spin-offs. Sci-fi and comic conventions seem bigger than ever. I wonder if it’s to do with the way cult entertainment plays upon the need to belong, in an era where identity can be up for grabs. At Forbidden Planet, you are not just buying something, you are buying into something. It’s there, too, in the explosion of literary festivals. Congregations of belonging, of praise (‘acclaimed’ ‘award-winning’), of sacred texts, of finding one’s tribe. ‘I am here because I am the sort of person that comes here’.

And yet some ages still take more traditional pleasures. In Forbidden Planet, a couple of small children seem to be ignoring all the superhero toys and dolls, and instead are gleefully chasing each other in and out of the silver bannisters, again and again.

* * *

Tuesday 11th August 2015.

My first High First Class mark at Birkbeck was for an essay in December 2013, written on ‘Touch Sensitive’, an iPad-only comic by Chris Ware, published in 2011. I’ve still never owned an iPad: Senate House Library rents them out to students for free.

One quote I used in my essay was from a 2012 New Statesman interview with Mr Ware, in which he glumly pronounced his comic to be a one-off venture into the digital world. One reason, he said, was that he felt uneasy about charging people for something that had no physical presence (a rather alarming view now). Another was that he regarded his printed works as still readable in years to come, whereas a piece of bespoke iPad software is at the mercy of its compatible devices and host apps, which tend to be upgraded and replaced. He gave ‘Touch Sensitive’ a five year lifespan, maximum.

Today I discover that the McSweeney’s publishing house has withdrawn its iPad app, which exclusively hosted Ware’s comic. He was right after all.

More lessons versus digital versus paper. I find out that Amazon won’t let me read my purchased Kindle ebooks on more than five devices or reading programs (this has come from upgrading to Windows 10). I have to uninstall one device first. Kindle books ultimately remain Amazon property, even when paid for. So digital book buying is more a form of renting.

* * *

Wednesday 12th August 2015.

I leave the house to buy milk, not wearing a tie. Later, I feel very ashamed about this omission, and resolve to never let it happen again. I think I blame the ubiquity of Jeremy Corbyn. (It’s since been pointed out to me that Mr Corbyn does wear a tie. Sometimes)

* * *

To the East Finchley Phoenix for Diary of A Teenage Girl. An acutely personal coming-of-age drama, set in 1970s California, and starring Bel Powley, the young English actress who played the teenage Princess Margaret so well in A Royal Night Out. More teenage recklessness here, this time with an impeccable American accent. Lots of 70s beiges and browns. The story focusses on the protagonist’s on-off affair with her mother’s boyfriend, amid the messiness of her wider sexual curiosity. It peters out narratively towards the end, but that may just be part of its honesty. Nice use of animations in a Robert Crumb ‘comix’ style, based on the character’s notebook drawings.

* * *

Thursday 13th August 2015.

Many corporate job descriptions aimed at English graduates appear to be steeped in exactly the kind of mangled language that students of prose are taught to avoid. Today I come across the following sentence in a recruitment newsletter:

You will show a commitment to the team, protecting the company’s brand and market reputation through demonstrating the following core values; Trust, Smart, Fresh, Diverse, Energy, Value, Green and Results.”

If I know anything at all, it is this: I could never work for a company that mistakes adjectives for nouns.

* * *

Friday 14th August 2015.

To the Curzon Bloomsbury for Mistress America, the new film by Noah Baumbach. More middle class New Yorkers exchanging quips about life, love, angst, age and culture.  This one is co-written with its star,  Greta Gerwig, so it’s closer to Frances Ha than While We’re Young. I loved Frances Ha enough to watch it twice at the cinema. I revelled in Ms G’s charming character, and her realisation that – as in Withnail & I – a refusal to grow up is unfair on those around you who do want to grow up. Plus I liked its use of an early 80s British pop song for no reason other than it worked – in this case, Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’.

In Mistress America, the inexplicable 80s pop song is OMD’s ‘Souvenir’. And just as OMD may not be as artistically interesting as Mr Bowie, but are still pleasant enough, the new film pales in comparison to Frances Ha, but still has much to applaud. The dialogue is written so densely that it often feels more like a recital of a script than the spontaneous product of characters’ thoughts. But whereas Whit Stillman’s Damsels In Distress (also starring Ms Gerwig) took this idea to an extreme, Mistress America allows moments of realism and humanity to break through. Ms G’s character here is much more self-aware than Frances Ha, and I like how the narrative shifts between two main characters: the thirty-year-old girl about town Gerwig, and the 18-year-old nervous college student Tracy, whose tale begins the film.

At times, it’s hard to actually keep up as a viewer, such is the rapid fire of the well-crafted retorts. I especially like the response when Tracy is accused of putting Gerwig’s character into a short story:

‘But you did the same. You used a joke of mine in one of your tweets!’

And it was my least favourited tweet ever!’

Modern love indeed.

* * *


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Dress Like Jazz

Saturday 1st August 2015

An article in the Guardian about writers who spent their early years on the dole. The potted narratives range from jokey (Geoff Dyer) to political (Alan Warner) to ones showing off about their overcoming of hardship, like the Monty Python sketch about the four Yorkshiremen. All the writers end their tales with the information that they have a new book out. Except for one, which notes they are now a university chancellor. The British capacity for point-scoring knows no bounds.

Another common showing-off tale told by successful writers is ‘When growing up, I read all the books in the school library’.

This rather begs the response, ‘except for the one on modesty’.

* * *

Sunday 2nd August 2015.

Three of the bestselling books in the Sunday Times list are by authors described as ‘YouTube sensations’. They are all youthful; such is the connection between age and technology. Once, the standard older person’s joke was that they had no idea how to programme their VCR. Now, no one knows what a VCR is, much less how to programme it. Instead, older people have no idea how to record a YouTube blog. That is what young people are for. But it works both ways: it’s been reported that some of the YouTube spin-off books have been written by professional ghostwriters, who tend to be a bit older.

* * *

Monday 3rd August 2015.

An email from the MHRA. They thank me for pointing out a small typo in their style guide, which is used to instruct college students on the proper way to format their essays. The typo was for the wrong kind of numeral when referencing books in a series. This will now be corrected in the next edition.

Thus begins my seismic effect on academia.

* * *

To the East Finchley Phoenix for Best of Enemies, a superb documentary about the 1968 US TV debates between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley Junior. Buckley, the right-wing founder of National Review magazine and advisor to Ronald Reagan, is all flashing teeth and glaring eyes. Vidal, meanwhile, is a mass of elegant flounces, pursed lips and pre-honed putdowns. The late Christopher Hitchens appears as a talking head- very much a Gore Vidal fanboy. Much is made of the way public discourse has changed since; that the coming of multiple TV channels and the internet means that there is no sense of a national ‘village square’ platform any more. Comment is not only free, it is everywhere, and it is customised. We choose the pundits we feel comfortable with, to feel secure in our own beliefs. Or we choose to consult the ones we know we disagree with – Katie Hopkins, say – for exactly the same reason. On Twitter, minor disagreements can lead to sudden anger, unfollowing, and blocking. There is no nuance, and no two-mindedness. The format doesn’t allow it.

That said, I think the film overestimates the nature of the Buckley/Vidal debates too. Despite the men’s intellectualism, these discussions on the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions quickly turn into personal attacks, just as they do on social media today. In one heated moment, Vidal calls Buckley a ‘crypto-Nazi’ for his support of police violence. Buckley immediately goes one further (and so loses the argument): ‘Now look, you queer. Don’t you call me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.’ It is a moment that both men are forced to revisit for the rest of their lives, whether in subsequent interviews, or in their memoirs.

Best of Enemies is essential viewing for anyone interested in the art of having an opinion. At the Phoenix cinema tonight, the audience applauded at the end.

The best thing about the film is that it asks questions as much as it entertains. One is: can nuanced debate exist on a medium that has a huge reach, but which suffers frustrations of time (or on Twitter, frustrations of space)? Right at the end, there’s a clip of Buckley on a chat show.

Interviewer: We’ve got ten seconds left. Can you sum up?

Buckley: No.

(cut to black)

* * *

Tuesday 4th August 2015.

More post-BA celebration. This time, Ella H treats me to pink champagne at the ornate Oscar Wilde bar in the Café Royal, followed by dinner in the all-vegetarian Coach & Horses pub, Soho. A bit of luxury, chased down with a bit of Bohemianism. It’s a perfect evening.

* * *

Wednesday 5th August 2015.

There’s Jeremy Corbyn posters all over the IOE student union bar, off Russell Square. Here at least, he seems to be the student favourite for the new Labour party leader. I wish him well, but I do wish he’d wear a tie.

* * *

Thursday 6th August 2015.

 I’m on the fourth of six units of the Birkbeck ‘Step Up’ summer module, aimed at students preparing to do an MA. It mostly involves logging onto a website and reading through various resources. One shortcoming is that some of the materials on non-Birkbeck websites have been deleted since the course was written. I click on a YouTube link only to see the standard error message for missing content: ‘this video does not exist’. With my head expecting some short film about cultural analysis, my response is to ponder this statement’s existentialist implications. If a video ‘does not exist’, did it ever exist in the first place? Or is it like an updated caption for a Magritte painting: ‘Ce n’est pas une vidéo’?

Often a video can be taken down purely because it includes a copyrighted song, however briefly. The burning down of the ancient library at Alexandria is nothing compared to the havoc wrought online by the employees of Universal Music.

* * *

Friday 7th August 2015.

To the Curzon Mayfair for Iris, a documentary by the late Grey Gardens director, Albert Maysles, about the ninety-something New York fashion collector, Iris Apfel. Unlike the psychological and tensely Gothic atmosphere of Grey Gardens, this film is lighter fare. It’s essentially a straightforward and even cosy profile, almost like a magazine article. Despite her advanced years, Ms Apfel is a busy professional who is careful to protect her ‘brand’, and the film seems to be complicit in this. Still, spending an hour and a half in Ms Apfel’s colourful and funny company is entertaining enough.

I knew nothing about her before the film. Apparently her fame only came recently, when the Met staged an exhibition of her collection of clothes and accessories. Up till then she was just known as an eccentrically-dressed interior decorator, albeit one with big name clients, including the White House. Her trademark look is a shock of short white hair, a pair of enormous round spectacles, almost like binoculars, and a clattering mass of chunky, multi-coloured necklaces and bangles. At times it’s a wonder she can stand up. Dressing for her, she says, is ‘like jazz’. She also quotes something she was told as a young woman, by a fashion retailer: ‘You’re not pretty and you’ll never be pretty. But it doesn’t matter, because you’ve got something more important. You’ve got style.’

In addition to her double-decker wardrobes, Iris Apfel’s home is crammed full of baroque furniture and kitsch toys. There’s a stuffed rabbit whose ears spring up to the sound of a Hanna-Barbera ‘boing’. A huge ostrich statue in the corner turns out to be a bar (‘His wing lifts up and he’s full of booze’). A Kermit the Frog doll is draped, drunkenly, around the ostrich’s neck.

One of my favourite comments in the film comes from behind the camera. Maysles is filming the 100th birthday party of Iris’s husband, Carl. On turning the big hundred, Carl comments to the camera, ‘I’m not sure what to do for an encore.’ Maysles is in his late 80s himself. He replies off-screen, ‘The way I see it, you’ve come this far, so you might as well keep going.’

* * *


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Saint Paul, Saint Audrey

(A fortnight’s worth of entries.)

Sunday 19th July 2015.

According to Viktor Wynd, a group of Hackney-based Christians attacked his Museum of Curiosities in Mare Street today. They threw holy water and crosses, and shouted about Satanism. It could be argued that this is a redundant gesture, given the museum already celebrates someone who was indeed crucified, albeit non-lethally: Sebastian Horsley.

* * *

The solipsism of the Sunday supplement journalist. An article in the Sunday Times today begins: ‘Summertime means one thing… beaches flooding your Instagram feed’.

I wince at the arrogance of insisting that one writer’s way of life is the default. A further implication is that this is the way the reader should live. I know I’m overreacting, and that many people these days do indeed have smartphones and Instagram accounts, and that for many, summertime must indeed mean this ‘one thing’, however depressing that sounds. But what is also true is that plenty of people do not live this way, and have no immediate plans to join in.

Good writing, even for a fluffy lifestyle article, should celebrate difference, and resist the urge to generalise. Communicating with readers should not mean bevelling down the richness of human experience to a single, banal approximation of common ground. My credo here would be: speak for yourself. Write for yourself. And let universality take care of itself.

* * *

Tuesday 21st July 2015.

Birkbeck’s website confirms the breakdown of my final year marks on the BA English course. As I’d hoped, all of them are the same as the provisional ones. This gives me a clean run of First Class module totals throughout the whole course. I only realise today that the average overall ‘weighted’ mark, the one which leads to the classification (as a First, or a 2.1 etc), is never published. It’s meant only as a guide for the college boards who approve the degree: they decide the classification according to what they think is most fair to the student, but with this unpublished score in mind. So my final grade is not a number, but a phrase – ‘First Class’. I think I like that – it’s more tidy.

* * *

Wednesday 22nd July 2015.

Another Life Event today, this one directly connected to my BA result. Getting a good degree means I am now qualified to take an MA. For much of the last year, friends and tutors have been advising me to do an MA next. A common tip was that I should also do it immediately, rather than put it off for a year, in case the academic skills go slack.

So today I enrol – online – to do an MA at Birkbeck, starting in the autumn. Part-time, 2 years, Contemporary Literature and Culture.

One big reason – and this is something that I’ve kept quiet about until now – is that I’ve managed to get a bursary to fully cover the fees.

I successfully applied for one of the limited studentships offered by Birkbeck’s School of Arts in Gordon Square. Effectively, Virginia Woolf’s old house thinks I’m worth investing in as a Master’s student. So once I won that bursary, and got a First in the BA, and won a prize for showing ‘the most promise’ as an English Literature student, I thought it’d be unwise to not go ahead and do an MA.

I don’t get a maintenance grant, alas, so it still means two more years of getting by on whatever I can eke out from the kindness of the State. I’m hoping to find part-time paid work that I can do alongside the MA. Writing work would be ideal.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that I am finally, demonstrably good at something: studying literature. People at Birkbeck not only believe I have ‘promise’ as a student, but that I’m worth sponsoring too.

So that’s my life for the next two years, or at least part of it.

* * *

Thursday 23rd July 2015.

A couple of gallery visits. First, to the National Gallery, to see a painting I’d been reading about in Clive Barker’s book of essays, The Painter, The Creature and The Father of Lies. Barker’s favourite paintings are The Raft of the Medusa, which I know well, and Carlo Crivelli’s Annunciation with Saint Emidius, which I don’t know at all. It’s in the National Gallery’s permanent collection (room 59 of the Sainsbury Wing), so today I take a look.

The picture is stunning: bright, busy, geometric, intricate, and full of details one doesn’t tend to see in Renaissance Annunciations. Barker points out how the beam of God’s Message, a ray of light running from the clouds down to Mary, isn’t subject to the laws of perspective, while everything else is rigidly organised around vanishing points. ‘The meaning is plain,’ comments Mr B. ‘The power of God’s gift upends the laws of physics. Space folds up at His command’.

The painting’s aspects which most fascinate me, however, are the ones to do with urban architecture. It was commissioned for the city of Ascoli Piceno, and it is this Renaissance Italian city that the Biblical Mary appears to have a flat in. In fact, the city appears twice: once as the backdrop to this whole scene, and again in the form of a scale model, carried by the local patron saint, Emidius. Emidius lurks outside Mary’s door while chatting merrily to the Archangel Gabriel as if this were something that happens all the time. Mary herself seems oblivious to all these goings-on, as she’s busy reading her book. There are clearly things for which even Dick Francis cannot wait.

Before I leaving, I pay my respects to my own favourite painting there, Bronzino’s Portrait of A Young Man. It’s next to his Allegory With Venus & Cupid, in which Cupid’s foot can be recognised as the one used in the credits for Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

* * *

Then next door to the National Portrait Gallery, for their big summer show Audrey HepburnPortraits of An Icon. Cheaper on Thursdays with an NUS card.

Someone I follow on Twitter remarked grumpily that such an exhibition was targeted purely at women. ‘What man would ever go to an Audrey Hepburn exhibition?’ I told him that I’ve known several men likely to do so, aside from myself, and heterosexual men too. But admittedly, that says more about the company I keep.

The implication was that Audrey Hepburn’s image was unusually inert and asexual for such an iconic female pin-up; that with her, it would all be about the Givenchy frocks and gamine hairdos. Her beauty was for those who swoon – and men are not meant to swoon. Well, apart from the ones I know.

Today I go along to find out for myself, mindful of a quote from Dorian Gray:

“The Academy is too large and too vulgar. Whenever I have gone there, there have been either so many people that I have not been able to see the pictures, which was dreadful, or so many pictures that I have not been able to see the people, which was worse.”

I very much enjoy going to exhibitions to see the people as much as the pictures.

The Hepburn exhibition is busy – timed entry only – and indeed the visitors inside are predominantly female. I’d say 80%. One or two gay male couples, and a few attendant husbands and boyfriends, the types who do most of the talking, and I wonder if they’re doing so here as a defence mechanism. I count just other lone man. A typical older tourist sort: grey hair, backpack, shorts. Suddenly I realise I’ve never worn a backpack in my life, and that this too may have implications for my manliness, or at least my blokeyness. I am not a Backpack Bloke.

The show is mainly photographic portraits, as expected, but there’s also Audrey H’s ballet shoes, and some 1950s magazine adverts, when she was the face of calamine lotion. I especially like: the photo of her being read to by an ageing Colette, her costume as the water sprite in the play of Ondine, and her pre-acting cover for an issue of Dancing Times, 1952.

* * *

Friday 24th July 2015.

To Suffolk to celebrate my BA with Mum. We go for a lavish meal at Suffolk’s only vegetarian pub, The Red Lion in Great Bricett, then spend the rest of a rainy day in Bildeston, watching the DVDs I’ve brought.  One is Charade – to follow on my Audrey Hepburn binge. It’s a Hitchcock-esque caper from the mid 60s, complete with Cary Grant, though Hitchcock would never let the Hepburn role have such an inner life. Even though she’s a damsel in distress, she has the air of a pre-existing character who has stumbled into a thriller plot, rather than a character who is defined by the plot. Lots of clever twists and unexpected revelations. We also watch Patience, a fine documentary on Sebald’s book Rings of Saturn, and Withnail and I. As we’re celebrating my student success, I thought re-watching a student-favourite film would be apt. I first saw it when it came out in 1987, while I was still at school. Today what stands out is what good value the film is: not just a sparkling, quotable script, but plenty of slapstick set-pieces too. The scene where Withnail tries fishing with a double-barrelled shotgun instead of a rod lasts about thirty seconds. Lesser films would have dragged it out into a central scene. The ending is still terribly sad: I used to think it was the film’s only flaw. Now that I’m older, I see the need for pathos and entirely agree with it.

Also: these days I empathise less with Richard E Grant and Paul McGann, and more with the old ladies in the tea room.

* * *

Saturday 25th July 2015.

Second day in Suffolk. The sun comes out. Mum and I drive to Southwold on the coast, the family’s favourite destination. We have Adnams champagne for two, in the high-class Swan Hotel. It’s a place Mum’s never actually entered before, despite her staying in the town most summers since the 1980s. Mum says that I look at home there, in my linen suit and my aloof Londoner air. Later on, I sit and read in the Sailor’s Reading Room, one of my favourite places in England. According to The Rings of Saturn, it was a favourite of WG Sebald’s too.

* * *

Thursday 30th July 2015

Thinking more about gender ratios at exhibitions, I go to one which is surely likely to attract more men than the Audrey Hepburn. Visitors to The Jam – About The Young Idea, at Somerset House, turn out to be about 65% male. A few Fred Perry shirts, indeed a few Paul Weller lookalikes – as he is now. Greying feather cut hair, Mods till they drop. The exhibition has a refreshingly unglossy feel to it, as if it were a fan club affair, despite the huge professional poster campaign at Tube stations. On display are carefully preserved guitars, clothes, records, gig posters, fan letters, videos of concerts, and calling cards from the Woking days (‘The Jam – Rock and Roll Group – Dances, Parties, etc. Woking 64717.’). A souvenir programme comes in the format of the old inky style of music paper. Much is made of the sheer boyishness of the Jam’s appeal – how they taught huge amounts of boys how to be a boy. In this way, the exhibition has a feel of a shrine to male identity, just as the NPG one is a shrine to a certain kind of female identity, via Audrey Hepburn. After a certain point, role models take on the appeal of secular saints.

Among the music paper clippings is a Smash Hits review for the Jam’s last London concert, in 1982. The reviewer is not especially upset about the band’s demise: ‘On stage you know what to expect – one reason they’re splitting up, I suppose.’ It’s written by a journalist who will himself go on to form a pop group, sing about London, and define a way of being a boy: Neil Tennant.


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More Carrot Cake Than Popcorn

Sunday 12th July 2015.

Reading Francesca Martinez’s memoir, What the F*** Is Normal? She writes wittily about the difficulties of not only living with cerebral palsy, but living with the way others react around her. Comedy programmes have decided against adding her to their panels, apparently because her slow, slurring way of speaking makes people ‘nervous’. To understand a voice like hers is just a question of adjusting registers, like understanding an unfamiliar accent. Her book’s main message is that if disabled people are sufficiently included in every aspect of society, ‘normal’ will be redefined as something that applies either to everyone, or to no one.

* * *

Monday 13th July 2015.

I’m doing the Birkbeck ‘Step Up To An Arts MA’ summer course, which mainly involves downloading texts from the college website and working at home. One section about learning how to structure critical arguments includes watching a video of a Monty Python sketch – the one about paying to have an argument. Amongst all the silliness is a perfectly serious definition of an argument, as said by Michael Palin’s character: ‘an argument is a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition’. Interesting to think that even though John Cleese went on to make proper light-hearted training films, there was an educational element to the comedy he’d already made. ‘Undergraduate humour’ is a pejorative term often thrown at the Python or Footlights style of comedy. Indeed it was once flung at Palin and Cleese in person, during the notorious TV discussion of Life of Brian. But here’s an example of Python used as postgraduate humour, whatever that may be. Comedy that’s still clever, but more elegantly thoughtful, perhaps.

* * *

Errand for the day: picking up a box of pills in my neighbour Phil’s flat, and delivering it to a sound man’s letter box in Hornsey. He can then pass it on to Phil on tour in Europe. No need to involve the postal service. On the way I walk through Ducketts Common, near Turnpike Lane station, where grey-faced men in grey hooded tracksuits sit glumly on benches and swig from cans. Wood Green is not an unsafe part of London, but it is not a particularly happy one either. As the film Dreams of a Life shows, it’s a district where people can just die in their homes, with no one to check up on them. So this errand reminds me how glad I am that I know at least some of my neighbours, and that I can help them out.

* * *

Tuesday 14th July 2015.

I spend some time reading in The Smithfield Café, a tiny but cheeringly old fashioned working man’s café in Long Lane, opposite the market. Tea at 60p.

* * *

Wednesday 15th July 2015.

Ticking off another little emporium I’d always been meaning to investigate: the Huntley bar, on the corner of Gower Place and Gower Street. It’s part of the UCL student union facilities, though they seem okay with me using it (and I think my University of London membership covers it anyway). One has to walk through the modern canteen on Gower Street to get inside. Nice traditional pub décor, pumps on the counter, booths and more seats upstairs. All converted from one of the creaky Victorian houses in the area, the kind I imagine that the poet Amy Levy once lived in. Glass of wine £2.50, packet of peanuts 30p. London is not always overpriced.

* * *

Thursday 16th July 2015.

 I decide to splash out on a new Pay As You Go mobile phone. My current one is about ten years old and starting to fall apart. It’s so old, I can’t find it listed on the phone recycling lists. Today, the O2 shop on Tottenham Court Road sells me a cute little Nokia for £9.99, though not without their valiant attempts to tempt me with something fancier. When I insist on the Nokia, they ask me, ‘Is it for a music festival?’

* * *

Friday 17th July 2015.

To a brand new local cinema: the Everyman Muswell Hill. It’s essentially the same building as the Odeon – a listed one, I think – now bought up and given a repaint. The Everyman chain’s pricy nibbles and wine-bar décor have replaced the Odeon’s unpretentious but unlovely blue livery, along with its suspect hot dogs and sullen plastic beakers of Coke.

What’s ironic is that a chain calling itself Everyman has associations with middle class exclusivity. Some local pundit has called the Everyman’s arrival ‘the final stage in gentrification’ for Muswell Hill, though financially there’s little difference for the customer. In terms of tickets and food prices the Odeon chain really isn’t that much cheaper than the Everymans. I have to admit I prefer Everyman to the current Odeon style aesthetically. And if pressed, I do favour the arthouse. I was always more carrot cake than popcorn. In the end, though, I just go wherever there’s films.

This evening I watch the restored (1998) version of Orson Welles’s 1950s crime thriller A Touch of Evil. It’s been given a cinema re-release in the wake of the new documentary on Welles, Magician.

A Touch of Evil is one of those much-referred to classic films that I always feel I’ve seen in the past, but somehow haven’t. The film’s opening is the part that people tend to go on about: a single night-time crane shot that follows a time bomb placed in the boot of a car. As the car drives off, the camera lifts and swoops around the whole neighbourhood to follow it, as the ticking gets louder.

The story itself is pure pulp noir: all the characters are stereotypes and grotesques one way or another. Welles’s obese cop has the kind of startling pudgy make-up that doesn’t look like make-up at all.  Charlton Heston’s dark skin for his Mexican character might have made some modern audiences feel unconvinced if not uneasy, but it works fine for the film’s style. Even Janet Leigh is a grotesque of sorts: the whiter-than-white damsel in distress. Meanwhile, the actor playing the demented motel manager is so outrageously over the top, he threatens to break the film.

With its expressionistic close-ups and moody use of Mexican border locations (which makes me think of No Country For Old Men), the film is an extraordinary world spun around a standard crime plot. Just when I think it can’t get any better, Marlene Dietrich appears. Her gypsy madam role is minor, but she gets the last line. And what a line: ‘He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?’

* * *

A life event. Today I am officially notified by Birkbeck about my degree, via their website. As of now, I have graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in English, with First Class honours.

I also received the BA English course’s John Hay Lobben Prize, which is awarded to a student who is ‘judged to have shown the greatest promise in English Literature’. This is formally announced at the graduation ceremony in November, but I’m allowed to tell the world now.

I’ve never had a degree before. I think this is my greatest feeling of achievement since hearing Fosca played on John Peel.

* * *


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Beautiful Art For The Lonely

Saturday 4th July 2015.

Noon: tea at High Tea of Highgate with Ella H. The place has changed a little since it changed hands. Gone is the vintage 1940s and 50s music, and the VE-day bunting. Gone is the painted clock on the wall. It’s now a bit more generic, but then again it might still be finding its feet. This must always be a problem when taking over a café. The dilemma is between pleasing the old regulars (like myself), while bringing in the new owner’s taste.

Afternoon: Hot and sunny, so I fancy hiding in a cinema. To the East Finchley Phoenix for Magician, a new documentary on Orson Welles (£5). Much is made of the way Citizen Kane became his life’s early peak, never again to be matched, and looks at how much of this was down to his reputation, as someone difficult to work with. The ever-fattening Welles is seen on umpteen chat shows down the years, forever recounting tales of people asking him if he’d ever done anything else after Kane. The film also makes a case for raising the reputations of Chimes Of Midnight, The Trial, and A Touch of Evil, all of which I’ve yet to see.

* * *

Sunday 5th July 2015.

To the Roundhouse in Camden for a gig by the Jesus and Mary Chain. Specifically, it’s a live performance of their debut album, Psychocandy, from 1985. I’m invited by my neighbour Phil King, who is the JAMC bass player, and I take the artist K Tregaskin, who says she knows all the drum parts to the album by heart. Before I go out, I listen to Psychocandy in preparation, and find myself still shocked by the sheer extremity of white noise enveloping all the songs. And to have this raggedness appear on a major label too (the same label as my band Orlando,– Blanco Y Negro, part of Warners). Psychocandy still sounds like a train accident, one where the collapsing metal has somehow managed to turn its own terrifying noise into an approximation of sweet, twangy guitar rock songs.

The band play a half-hour set of other material first (including ‘April Skies’, a stunning ‘Some Candy Talking, ‘Reverence’, and the riot-teasing ‘Upside Down’). Then after a short break they unleashing all fourteen songs from Psychocandy, with no encores. The youthful surliness is still intact. Jim Reid’s preying-mantis body language is still there; he’s still the reluctant frontman, still apparently annoyed to exist. ‘I wanna die on a sunny day’ he sings. Well, not yet.

What’s astounding is how perfectly they replicate the Psychocandy feedback noise. It’s a very specific, mid-80s type of feedback, which the guitarist William Reid seems to have carefully set up for the relevant songs. At several moments I feel the urge to reach out my hands as if to touch this thick wall of sound that fills the Roundhouse, this former Victorian railway shed. And it is a proper wall of sound, with all the connotations of Phil Spector. The opening drum pattern of Be My Baby, is used three times on Psychocandy, not least in ‘Just Like Honey’, the song that many people know from the end of Lost In Translation, as Bill Murray drives off. Here, Miki from the 90s band Lush supplies the female vocal. More shifts in time.

Aferwards, K and I install ourselves in one of the red booths in the Roundhouse bar, and we chat about the ‘land grab’ side of music fandom. How these ‘vintage album in its entirety’ gigs demonstrate the way rock music has created a territory to belong to, and how these gigs can show such territory being passed down from generation to generation. It’s nostalgia for elders, of course, but it’s also raw primary joy for the younger fans, who are fresh to the songs. They’re the ones down the front at these shows, doing much of the jumping around.

I bump into Ms Shanthi in the bar. ‘One of Birdland is here. He’s not got blond hair anymore.’

Then we wander Camden around midnight, drunk on theories of indie rock history (as well as just drunk). I end up putting my hands on the wall of The Falcon, the pub venue where so many indie bands once played, now turned into a couple of residential flats. History, memory, territory, ghosts colliding. Giddy on palimpsests.

It’s too easy to assume one’s own generation is the default. Beautiful art for the lonely does not belong to one era. We must remember this, and pass it on.

* * *

Monday 6th July 2015.

I am embarrassed to read how men drinking rosé wine – as I do – is now considered fashionable. A term is coined by a magazine: ‘brosé’.

* * *

Wednesday 8th July 2015.

To Birkbeck for the first seminar in a free ‘summer camp’ module, ‘Step Up: Arts’, aimed at would-be MA arts students. We have to watch a documentary on Vivian Maier in preparation. I’d already seen Finding Vivian Maier, the cinema film, but this one is a BBC Imagine take on Maier. It covers much the same story, except that it turns out Ms Maier’s photographs were discovered by a trio of different collectors, and not just the youngish man who presents himself as the hero of Finding Vivian Maier. Deliciously, Alan Yentob says at one point that the missing collector declined to be interviewed, ‘because he’s making his own film’. It’s a reminder that there’s no such thing as the truth, only a truth.

* * *

A tube strike starts up in the evening. My Northern Line dodge is to take a network rail train from St Pancras to Kentish Town, then a 214 bus to Highgate Village, where it terminates. As this bus only has a few stops left to go, it is less likely to be full up. While I wait, various 134 buses pass by, all rammed with people, all not stopping.

* * *

Thursday 9th July 2015.

 The tube strike continues. Thankfully I have nothing to do in town that I can’t postpone, so I spend the day in Highgate. In the evening I walk to East Finchley (20 minutes) to see Amy at the Phoenix cinema (£5). I hadn’t realised the aptness of this: Amy Winehouse lived in East Finchley in her teens, before she moved to Camden Square. The Phoenix used to be her local cinema. Indeed, Amy includes a beautiful aerial shot of East Finchley rooftops.

The film is terribly sad, needless to say. I come away thinking Ms Winehouse should have taken the Kate Bush path: escaping the trappings of fame by becoming a recluse, somewhere far from the reach of photographers. But then again, she loved London so much. Tony Bennett appears – she records a stunning duet with him, and he endorses her as not just a talented singer, but a classic jazz singer in the traditional style. Commenting on her death, he says ‘If I’d known, I’d have told her: slow down. Life teaches you how to live it, if you live it long enough.’

Like the Orson Welles and Vivian Maier films I’ve seen this week, Amy feels that it won’t be the last word. All three lives are essentially the same story: a person with a burning talent, but a talent that is compromised. And in each case, the reasons behind the frustration are not fully explainable. Questions still remain. There is always more to say, and so more documentaries to make.

* * *

Friday 10th July 2015.

Another hot day. I try to attend Joanna Walsh’s event at the BookArtBookshop in Old Street, but I can’t physically get inside the bookshop, such is the crowd inside. I understand the event is to launch a story about failing to find a certain book. Perhaps I should write a story about failing to get into a Joanna Walsh event.

Old Street on a Friday evening is more packed than ever, though the crowds don’t seem as overtly trendy-looking as they used to be. Just Londoners full stop. I look for a cash machine. On the corner of Pitfield Street I pass a new Sainsbury’s with an ATM, but it has a queue of some fifteen people. I walk two blocks further, to City Road, and find a trio of ATMs there, all free to use.

Quite why people still queue at cash machines in London is beyond me. There must be some sort of phone app by now, to locate the nearest machines, and yet few seem to use it. Is it the herd instinct? Or the madness of crowds?

I did once go up to a long ATM queue and tell the people at the back where to find another one nearby. They just looked at me strangely. Admittedly, I get that a lot.

I remark about this on Twitter, and am told that people are subconsciously attracted to standing behind someone using an ATM. To them, a machine without a queue signifies there’s something wrong with it. And I thought I was pessimistic.


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A Party Band For The Shy

Saturday 27th June 2015.

Summer in the city. My fellow males get out their shorts and flip-flops, I reach for my white linen suits and ties. The phrase ‘comfortable clothing’ is entirely subjective. I think of those women who say they always wear high heels, to the point where walking in flats would be more difficult.

* * *

Sunday 28th June 2015.

Watch some of the BBC’s impressive coverage of Glastonbury. Quite like the way Belle and Sebastian have become a party band for the shy. The singer Stuart Murdoch bounces around the vast stage, and gets people from the crowd to come up and dance with him. Very different to the time I saw them at the Union Chapel in 1997, when the band performed warily and nervously, as if scared of their own microphones.

* * *

Monday 29th June 2015.

I read Edward St Aubyn’s comic novel Lost For Words, just released in paperback. It’s an enjoyable if light satire, seemingly written by St Aubyn as a diversion into playfulness, following on from his more serious Patrick Melrose series. I’m reminded how James Hamilton-Paterson dabbled in camp comedy late into his career, and successfully so, with Cooking With Fernet Branca.

Mr St Aubyn’s tale concerns various figures involved with a high-profile British literary prize. It’s not actually called the Booker Prize in the book, but that’s obviously the main target, down to the televised ceremony in a London banqueting hall. Much of the comedy arises from the way the judging of the prize has little to do with literary merit, and everything to do with personal agendas and ego. The conceit that an unassuming cookbook by an Indian auntie is mistaken for an innovative postmodern novel may stretch credulity, but the pay-off is too irresistible for this to matter. St Aubyn himself has his own agenda, having been a Booker shortlister, and so a Booker loser, with Mother’s Milk a few years ago. So at first the novel might seem like a piece of blatant sour grapes. But any opportunity for true nastiness – like murder – is reined in, and it’s just egos that end up bruised. St Aubyn’s message is more about the arbitrary nature of arts awards per se, rather than an attack on the people who give them out.

I do have a soft spot for his elegant observations. One example is: ‘They had drifted apart, as people do when they promise to stay in touch; the ones who are going to stay in touch don’t need to promise’.

Another is allotted to an inept editor, who sinks into depression but eventually talks himself round with this thought:

We were not put on this earth to hate ourselves.

The sentence is stark, useful, and meant. I like Lost For Words for that line alone.

* * *

Tuesday 30th June 2015.

To Gordon Square for a meeting with my final year Personal Tutor, Peter Fifield, just to wind the degree course up. Then to a ‘taster’ class on the MA course I’m hoping to do, in Contemporary Literature and Culture. We look at Joyce’s Ulysses, which I still haven’t read in full. From the extracts I can tell I’ll really enjoy it if I do, as opposed to just reading it out of duty. Finnegans Wake is more off-putting.

* * *

Wednesday 1st July 2015.

The hottest day in London for nearly ten years. Many trains have to run slowly to stop the rails from buckling, so there’s lots of delays. Once the trains do arrive, the insides are like furnaces. All this, despite the expensive fares.

After much anguish, I decide against attending a friend’s birthday in Crystal Palace. One reason is it would mean over two and a half hours spent being baked alive on public transport. Another is that I’m riddled with a summer cold. I apologise and send a card, but the guilt eats away.

* * *

My dry cough is made worse by the heat. I go to Boots in Euston for a bottle of Pholcodine Linctus, a medicine so strong in its drowsy effects that it is kept behind the counter. Once taken, there must be no driving, no alcohol, and no captaining of nuclear submarines.

The pharmacist asks me a few questions before she lets me have the bottle.

‘Who advised you to buy this?’

I confess: ‘Mumsnet.’

* * *

Thursday 2nd July 2015.

 I write a letter to a US reader who is curious about my living arrangements. Do I really share a shower and a W.C. with ‘strangers’? This disturbs her.

Well, yes. It’s not quite like an American boarding house, as each rented room has its own little kitchen area inside – that’s what makes them bedsits. Two of the other tenants are people I knew socially before they moved in. The other two are only strangers in the sense that neighbours are strangers. I occasionally say hello to them in the hallway, and they seem nice enough. We operate the shared washrooms on a system of karmic consideration. If you use something, like a toilet roll, you replace it. If you make a mess, you clean it up. No rotas. Somehow we manage to get along.

I have lived like this all my adult life.

* * *

Evening: A second Pilates class at Jacksons Lane. The summer heat makes it much more like hard work, and I come away drenched in sweat, but glad I went. I’m still the only man there, out of a class of about a dozen.

* * *

Friday 3rd July 2015.

I love going to cinemas when it’s hot in London. The air conditioning is usually decent, and there’s the extra friendship of the darkness, now that the sun is so unkind. No skin cream needed for cinemas.

To the Curzon Soho for The Overnight, a small-scale American comedy, about two pairs of youngish, middle-class couples who spend a night at the artier couple’s house, getting to know each other. As the night goes on, the conventionally-minded guests are increasingly worried that their hosts want to know them much more intimately. This ‘middle class swingers’ plot is always good value – I think of the film The Ice Storm, Martin Amis’s Dead Babies, Julian Barnes’s Metroland, and even episodes of sitcoms like I’m Alan Partridge. But with its broad strokes and some crude humour, The Overnight is more a straightforward comedy of manners than social comment. The chief pleasure comes from watching Jason Schwartzman play yet another creepy but charismatic character, another little man who seeks to tower over others psychologically.

In the Curzon café, a woman at the table next to me uses what I assume to be a mirror, to pluck at a lone hair on her chin. Except on looking closer I realise it’s not a compact mirror, but the reverse camera option on her iPhone.

* * *

Dinner at the 5th floor student canteen at Birkbeck, in Torrington Square. Fish and chips for £4. I like the occasional comfort of ‘fish on Friday’, the alliterative tradition of the menu, as it was at school. Today is the last day of the summer term, and so it’s the last time to get a cheap evening meal here. I eat alone on the rooftop terrace. There are plenty of students chattering nearby, but they’re all in the Birkbeck bar, on the balcony level below. Here, it’s breezy enough to make the napkins flutter.

I’m told there are still some weeks to go before I am sent a ‘transcript’: the piece of paper which officially confirms my degree. In the meantime a long Pass List, covering all of Birkbeck’s Class of 2015, will go up on the college website on the 17th July. Not so far away now.

* * *


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Cufflinks: Piercings For the Squeamish

Saturday 20th June 2015.

To the Little Baobab Bar in Lower Clapton Road, for fellow student Hester R’s birthday. It’s one of those times where I seem to only know the birthday person, and not any of their friends. But this time I surprise myself and chat happily away to whomever I’m with. I wonder if one reason for this is that no one has been to the venue before, so there’s an extra need to speak to each other and overcome the unfamiliarity.  The bar is Senegalese and West African, and despite the usual décor of exposed brickwork and dangling light fittings that one finds in East London eateries, it doesn’t feel overly trendy. The mojitos are made with baobab juice: delicious and cheap (and so even easier to enjoy). Later on, a couple of musicians play in one corner: one on acoustic guitar, and one on a tall, harp-like stringed instrument. The music, presumably Senegalese, turns out to be classical, slow and soothing, almost ambient.

* * *

On the tube. A group of young people all get on at once, decked out in matching red tracksuits, green baseball caps, and big plastic sunglasses. They huddle in the aisle and reel off a series of chants together, cheerleader-style. At first I wonder if they’re part of a spontaneous people-power event, like a flash mob, or a wry protest, or an immersive film night. Eventually one of them comes over to me and hands me a card, now more subdued and sheepish as he does so. It’s for a company that provides home deliveries from shops.

This is a common London feeling: the realisation that something intriguing and unusual is just another advert.

* * *

Irritations over modern language. A common subject line on emails is ‘in case you missed it’, sometimes abbreviated to ICYMI. It’s the neediness of the phrase that irks me, as well as the way it bevels down individuality to join in with a consensus of limited catchphrases. Another is ‘a thing’, as in ‘I did a thing’ or ‘it’s for a thing’ or ‘is X a thing now’?

Perhaps one reason for my resentment of such phrases is the same as the one for my resentment over the ubiquity of beards: I don’t think I am capable of joining in. So it becomes another way of feeling that modern life is something other people do, not me.

In any case, the idea of ‘in case you missed it’ has a threatening quality, to my mind. It’s like another cliché that journalists like, when talking about something that’s reached saturation level in the media: ‘Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last month…’ The only sane response to this phrase is to become a cave-dweller at once.

In the news this week, the slang acronym FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – is added to the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Romo’ has yet to be included, twenty years on after its coinage in the UK music media, and its association with my band, Orlando. Given that all life is missing out, one way or another, I like to think that Romo has acquired a new meaning as an acronym. ROMO: Relief Of Missing Out.

* * *

I amuse myself watching a late night music documentary about Prince, spoofing it in my head with lines like ‘In 1985, Prince was accused of unabashed naughtiness… In 1986, Prince invented a new note, X, which he only ever played for extra naughtiness.’ And to the tune ‘When Doves Cry’, I find myself thinking of our new Lord Chancellor, and sing the phrase ‘When Goves Cry’.

* * *

Sunday 21st June 2015.

More thoughts of in-jokery, this time for humanities students who are also fans of Mean Girls: ‘Stop trying to make Orientalism happen, Edward. It’s not going to happen.’

On the internet, where context is the first casualty, there is now the added entertainment of watching other people not get the joke. On Twitter, there’s an account that purely caters to this curious mix of schadenfreude and scorn, @YesThatsTheJoke. But presumably it only works for the jokes that the YesThatsTheJoke person gets, too.

On The Quietus site this week, there’s a review of the new Muse album by ‘Mr Agreeable’. Mr Agreeable is a jokey fictional avatar created in a pre-web age. He first appeared in the early 90s (possibly earlier), as a regular feature in Melody Maker. The joke is that Mr Agreeable is anything but agreeable. He not so much writes as spews out a torrent of asterisk-spattered swear words, disproportionate vitriol, and downright violent imagery. His over-the-top-ness is, as they say, the joke. For aging readers of Melody Maker like me, seeing new Mr Agreeable reviews now is a nostalgic pleasure. But this being the internet, there is a comments section underneath. And in that section are lots of angry young Muse fans complaining that the review is not proper journalism. Yes, one wants to say, with deadpan resignation. Yes, that’s the joke.

How to explain to them that there was once a magazine – sorry, a ‘thing’ – called Melody Maker? More to the point, how to explain that once upon a time, columns of pure hatred were clearly meant to be read as jokes? I now realise that Mr Agreeable was a prophet of the Web. Disproportionate anger is what people do constantly now, sometimes professionally (Katie Hopkins, Jeremy Clarkson). Except that they’re not joking.

* * *

Wednesday 24th June 2015.

Put off by one job advert today, purely by its usage of exclamation marks.

Most days this week, I am wearing a white suit with seahorse cufflinks. I like to think of cufflinks as the squeamish person’s piercings.

I binge-watch the new (third) series of Orange Is The New Black. The phrase is apt, as I feel a little ill and bloated afterwards. The series is superb, though, finding new backstories for even the minor characters. There’s about thirty recurring roles, so if a plotline isn’t interesting, a better one always comes along soon enough. What I’d like to see now is Carol Morley writing and directing an episode. She’d be perfect.

* * *

Thursday 25th June 2015.

I meet Mum at St Pancras, and we have lunch at the British Library, to celebrate her birthday. The library café area finally has plenty of free seats, and in the afternoon too. All the students seem to have either taken their laptops outside into the nice weather (more chairs and tables there), or – more likely – they’ve finished their studies. Where are they all now, I wonder?

Glastonbury must be one answer. I try to balance my envy of those going to or appearing at festivals, with the consolatory thought that I also love sleeping in a room with four walls. Not to mention my love of indoor flushing toilets. As it is, going to Glastonbury purely as a punter seems increasingly redundant. These days, with the blanket media coverage, it comes to you.

Mum and I take a look at the current free exhibition in the British Library foyer. It’s one big exhibit: Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery). Marking the anniversary of the real thing – which is on show next door – this Magna Carta is a stitched version of the Wikipedia page about the Magna Carta, as it appeared on the day of the 799th anniversary, last year. Most of the text has been stitched by people in the Fine Cell Work charity, which trains convicted prisoners in needlework skills. Mum is thrilled about this: she went to a FCW talk a few months ago – given by a former convict – and found his story of finding new purpose through the art of stitching utterly fascinating. A few of the words have been stitched by public figures, such as Jarvis Cocker, whose selected words are, rather wonderfully, ‘Common People’. Somehow they got Edward Snowdon to stitch a word, too, and it’s one which sums up the essence of the project: ‘liberty’.

* * *

In a lonely mood, I overreact when I realise that I’ve been blocked by a music writer on Twitter. A second one, in fact. I have no idea why. I don’t think I’ve ever had any kind of interaction with the writer – I just want to read his work. I ask around on Twitter and find someone who assures me that blocking is what that particular writer likes to do, apparently notoriously, and often of people he either doesn’t like, or doesn’t like by association. I also find another writer who happily blocks people he doesn’t like pre-emptively, because he hates the idea of them reading his work.

So much for Forster’s ‘only connect’. I have a vision of books in a library snapping shut as a reader approaches: ‘Oh no, not you!’

I come away from this thinking that (a) I’m not as unreasonably grumpy as I think I am, not compared to others, (b) I would never block someone on Twitter unless they’d actively sent me abuse, and (c) I do hope Virginia Woolf doesn’t think I’m a twat.

* * *

Friday 26th June 2015.

I watch the third and final episode of How to be a Bohemian with Victoria Coren Mitchell. There’s a brief glimpse of one of Maggi Hambling’s paintings of Sebastian Horsley, which Ms Coren Mitchell narrates as ‘portraits of other bohemians…’

For me, this is particularly interesting. Mr H once told me how Ms M had cancelled an interview she’d intended to have with him, due to his using one of his typically provocative comments. As she said herself in her column (2 September 2007):

I rang him to suggest meeting in Belsize Park, a leafy area of north London.

‘I can’t bear Belsize Park,’ yawned Horsley. ‘It’s full of Jews.’

I have a vivid memory of actually telling Mr H off about this, as I couldn’t agree with this particular manner of épater la bourgeoisie. ‘Why do you say things you don’t really mean?’  I said. ‘Oh well…’ was his reply.

On another occasion, when Mr Horsley was reading from his autobiography and got to some general statement about sex and women, a lady in the audience shouted out ‘You chauvinist swine!’ (or words to that effect), and stormed out. Sebastian smiled sweetly after her. ‘I’ll say the reverse if it makes you come back!’

So I now wonder if Ms Coren Mitchell has forgiven Mr Horsley, by including him in her film, albeit very briefly. Or if she accepted him as a modern bohemian, in spite of her reservations, as she did for the Bloomsbury Group. Either way, it was good to see him included.

One fictional bohemian that I’m surprised wasn’t mentioned at all is Sherlock Holmes. The story that made him famous was the first of the Doyle tales which appeared in The Strand, ‘A Scandal In Bohemia’. Much of the story plays on the pun of his client being the blackmailed King of Bohemia, while Holmes is scandalised as a bohemian in terms of his bachelor lifestyle. He falls for a woman who defeats him: Irene Adler. Even the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock makes much of the main character’s bohemianism. The word might not be mentioned, but his bachelor status and sense of being an odd child-like man, among conventional adults, is certainly focused upon in the series.

* * *

And that particular bohemian lives on even more. To the Phoenix cinema for Mr Holmes. Ian McKellen plays an elderly take on the Victorian detective,  set in 1947. The conceit is that in this world, Doyle’s stories exist, but they are written by Watson as pieces of popular journalism. The story switches between a 60-year-old Holmes in Baker Street, with the circumstances surrounding his last case, and a 90-something Holmes in his Sussex cottage, teaching beekeeping to a small boy, while battling against memory loss. McKellen’s performance is worth seeing alone, but there’s also lots of standard Holmes deduction scenes, tied in with poignant hints of a denied emotional life. The price of bachelorhood.

* * *

I’ve had a week of feeling very ghost-like and detached from the world. Not quite knowing which path to take next. In fact, walking around in a white suit rather makes me resemble a ghost too.

However, today I have a nice surprise. At Foyles, the staffer on the till suddenly gives me £6 off the book I’m buying, by using his staff discount.

‘Because I like your records’.

* * *


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An @ Of One’s Own

Saturday 13th June 2015.

I walk through Waterloo Station. The whole building has been turned into an advert for the new Jurassic Park film. Looped video trailers flank the train announcement boards, while the movie’s logo dots the entire concourse floor. In the centre of the station, a tableau of fibreglass full-sized dinosaurs are caught in the act of breaking out of their container. I bristle at this assault by Hollywood on my consciousness, but then feel guilty when I see small children taking delight in posing with the daft static creatures. It’s got dinosaurs in it, so children will be happy.

I’ve not seen the film, but I’m guessing that it involves something going wrong at a dinosaur park.

* * *

Evening: I watch a nostalgic TV show marking 20 years since Britpop. It feels far too soon, but I suppose two decades ago is long enough. A whole generation ago. The funny thing is it gives me flashbacks, not of the 90s, but of a previous 90s nostalgia show from the early 2000s: I Heart the 1990s. One episode had Edwyn Collins introducing himself with the phrase, ‘Hi! I’m Edwyn “A Girl Like You” Collins!’

So a new 90s nostalgia show triggers my nostalgia for an old 90s nostalgia show.

In the same way that Wikipedia has outsourced knowing things first hand, TV’s love of editing history to suit a convenient format has replaced first hand, organic, untidy memory. I feel that many of my actual memories of the 90s have been taped over in my head, replaced with 90s nostalgia pieces.

However, one thing that the run of 90s programmes seems to omit is how OK Computer changed music in 1997, just as much as Britpop did in 1994. After that, a huge swathe of rock bands switched from trying to be Oasis to trying to be Radiohead. The blueprint was now for big, mournful, stadium-friendly rock, devoid of any sense of a generational or national identity; angsty yet tasteful. The end result was Coldplay. But perhaps the full meaning of 1997 is something to look forward to in 2017.

* * *

Sunday 14th June 2015.

I visit the club The Nitty Gritty, at the Constitution bar in Camden. The DJ is Debbie Smith, a fellow 90s rock survivor, given her stints back then in the bands Curve and Echobelly. At The Nitty Gritty though, she plays a highly enjoyable set of vintage soul, R&B and 60s girl groups, to a very cool-looking crowd of vintage-dressed, and queer-friendly customers. One woman – a staffer, I think – has a kind of immaculate rockabilly take on Amy Winehouse’s look. Camden still has a certain fizzy life to it, if you know where to go.

As I enter the bar from the Regent’s Canal towpath, Ms Smith is playing ‘Sometimes I Wish I Were A Boy’ by Lesley Gore. It’s a tune I used to have as my band Fosca’s going-onstage music. And here I am entering a room to the song once again.

* * *

Monday 15th June 2015.

More coincidences. Today I’m re-reading Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat, including the part where the narrator imagines the whole Magna Carta ceremony. It’s only afterwards that I realise today is the 800th anniversary of the signing.

Jerome’s ‘J’ subscribes to the theory that the event took place on Magna Carta Island itself, rather than on the opposite bank of the Thames, at Runnymede:

Had I been one of the Barons, I should have strongly urged upon my comrades the advisability of our getting such a slippery customer as King John on to the island, where there was less chance of surprises and tricks. (Three Men In A Boat, Chapter 12).

* * *

The Queen’s Birthday Honours this week. My favourite reason for declining an honour: ‘So aging!’ – Francis Bacon. Favourite for accepting: ‘I thought of the people it would annoy’ – Kingsley Amis.

* * *

Tuesday 16th June 2015.

I watch the second episode of How to be a Bohemian with Victoria Coren Mitchell, the BBC4 series. Pleased to see Stephen Tennant given a look-in. And lots of shots of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, inside and out, due to its previous life as a Bloomsbury Group location.

Ms Coren Mitchell manages to have her moral cake and eat it, regarding Eric Gill’s incest and bestiality. ‘I’d like to go back in time and kneecap Eric Gill’, she says at one point, in case anyone was in doubt on where she stands on sexual abuse. Still, I suppose this is 2015, and it’s the BBC, with its Gill sculptures on the outside of Broadcasting House (one of which is now surrounded by the livery of a Caffe Nero), so some obvious things still have to be said aloud.

To her credit, though, Ms CM also lets interviewees with opposing views make their case. Grayson Perry challenges her scorn of the Bloomsbury Group’s snobbery and privilege: ‘Are we awarding creative points for being poor, or for being creative?’, while Richard Coles asserts how important it is that Gill’s sculptures remain in place, not only on the BBC building, but also in Westminster Cathedral: they serve as a reminder that ‘the sinner stands at the heart of Christianity’. Trust the art, not the artist.

* * *

I never felt like those people formerly in bands who look back on their music as a weird ‘phase’. I’m even weirder now.

* * *

Wednesday 17th June 2015.

To Senate House for the London Graduate Fair. Very crowded, lots of stalls. The actual type of work seems to be quite limited. Nothing arty. No publishers of literature, no arts organisations. As far as I can tell, the main options for graduates seem to be: the warzone of corporate management, the warzone of school teaching, or, given the prominent British Army stall, actual war.

A group of uniformed soldiers have various weapons lined up on trestle tables: bazookas, grenade launchers, rifles. It’s like a Fresher’s Fair, only with fewer Pot Noodles and more guns. I last fifteen minutes, which is longer than I’d last in the army. I suppose an ability to write High First Class essays on Oscar Wilde might be handy when battling insurgents in Helmand Province, but I didn’t stay to find out.

* * *

Thursday 18th June 2015.

To Jacksons Lane Community Centre for a new experience: a class in Pilates. ‘This is not going to be pretty,’ I think. ‘Not least because I have to wear something other than a suit.’

I turn out to be the only man in a class of women, and the least experienced by far; I’ve still never stepped inside a gym. But the female tutor is very sympathetic. She comes over to me whenever I’m struggling (which is often) and never makes me feel a fool. It’s hard work, and confusing at times, as I’m trying to work out how to move parts of my body which I’m fairly sure I’ve never moved before. On top of that, I have to work out when to breathe – something I keep forgetting to do, on account of trying to keep up with the instructions. But the effect is like blowing the dust off an entire lifetime. I feel the better for it afterwards, and decide to keep it up.

As for what I wore: my baggy grey jogging bottoms (though I haven’t gone running in years). Plus my sole t-shirt. It’s a promotional shirt for an absinthe company.

* * *

Friday 19th June 2015.

I walk up Shaftesbury Avenue and see that the new Picturehouse cinema has just opened: Picturehouse Central. It’s in the shell of the old CineWorld Shaftesbury Avenue, in the northwest section of the Trocadero. Although much of the Picturehouse is still not ready (including the rooftop members bar), it is already a vast improvement on its former self. The Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue will not be missed. Tacky, windowless and claustrophobic, it always felt like part of a run-down regional 1980s shopping mall. But then, a run-down regional 1980s shopping mall was pretty much what the Trocadero had become in recent years. Central London has always been torn between an embracing of garish franchises and souvenir shops, and a love of rarer emporiums steeped in history, character, and personality. The Picturehouses may be a chain, but they’re closer to Waterstones than WH Smith. A sense of humanity, rather than raw, faceless commerce.

The new cinema’s ground floor café does look a bit like a Shoreditch eatery, with its ceiling stripped back to the bare brick and concrete, and its air ducting and dangling light fittings on conspicuously trendy display. But there’s some nice proper booths with tables – rather like those in the late New Piccadilly Café in nearby Denman Street. When my veggie sandwich arrives on a proper china plate, and not on a recycled hubcap or an on old vinyl album, I find myself warming to the place.

(There is currently a popular social media account called ‘We Want Plates’. It campaigns against the trend in arty restaurants to present their meals on anything from wooden boards to slabs of rock. I have to admit I, too, want plates).

The wall of the café is covered in a mural rendered in a naïve, David Shrigley-like doodle, on the theme of cinema. There’s scenes from cinema history, diagrams on narrative theory, and fictional examples of cinema archetypes, such as ‘Man Shouting Out Of A Prius In LA, On His Way To A Thing’. As for the actual films, there’s seven screens, including a 341-seater with Dolby Atmos, whatever that is. The type of films on offer seem to be a bit of everything: in this first week, you can choose between the arty likes of Carol Morley’s The Falling, the critically loved Girlhood and London Road, and documentaries like The Look of Silence and Dark Horse. And if you absolutely must, there’s also Jurassic World 3D.

* * *

To Senate House Library in Malet Street, where I hand back my remaining library books in time for the expiry of my BA-affiliated membership card. Another sign of the degree coming to an end.

Birkbeck’s summer term still has a couple of weeks left, so tonight I attend an open lecture in the basement of Gordon Square. It’s on the history of sexuality, by Heike Bauer, one of the tutors who marked my dissertation.

Dr Bauer quotes the building’s old resident Virginia Woolf, in Room of One’s Own. One problem when it comes to discussing sexuality in history is that as Woolf puts it, ‘fiction is likely to contain more truth than fact’.

Dr B also quotes a more modern example of a discussion on the subject: a recent Twitter conversation between herself and various other academics, who managed to boil down their arguments into 140 characters. Less than 140, in fact, as they need characters for the hashtags and the other ‘@’ names. In 2015, a paper’s abstract (its summary) is not nearly abstract enough.

Today, Woof’s ideal of a private room is less urgent, as so many writers enjoy working in crowded cafes and libraries, or even outdoors (a common sight on social media is a photo of a sunny park, with the caption: ‘My office today!’). Now, it’s more important to have an ‘@’ sign of one’s own.

Dr B also focuses on the work of Magnus Hirschfeld, he of the 1920s Berlin Institute of Sexology, as visited by Isherwood in Christopher and His Kind. She talks about how Hirschfeld visited Cambridge sometime around 1905-7, while Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland was studying there. However, he was careful to avoid bumping into young Holland and embarrassing him, due to the shame associated with his father. The very words ‘Oscar Wilde’ were, at this time, absolutely synonymous with male homosexuality, and his reputation was yet to recover. Instead, Hirschfeld witnessed a group of students – a kind of secret Edwardian Cambridge Gay Soc- who gathered together to read ‘ The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ in a ritual of solidarity. On their shirts they wore Wilde’s prison number: C33.

I’m reminded of John Betjeman’s poem ‘Narcissus’, about his childhood. In the poem, Betjeman’s mother chastises him for bonding too much with a friend. This would have been in the early 1910s:

My Mother wouldn’t tell me why she hated
The things we did, and why they pained her so.
She said a fate far worse than death awaited
People who did the things we didn’t know,
And then she said I was her precious child,
And once there was a man called Oscar Wilde.


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