Pictures Of Gig Tickets Sell Flats

Saturday 13th November 2014. Browsing in Waterstones again. I pick up a book called Working On My Novel. It’s a Penguin paperback, by the conceptual artist Cory Archangel. Or rather it’s curated by him, as the entire book is a collection of tweets by other people, culled from the internet. All of them contain the phrase ‘working on my novel’, making the book essentially a printed-out Twitter search. The reader can draw their own conclusions: proof of mass procrastination, proof of hubris, proof of hope, proof of the universal urge to create.

One of the scenes in a novel I’d been tinkering with, ironically, was to feature an art gallery installation based on a live Twitter search. The searched-for phrase in this case was ‘is it just me or’. This would be displayed on screens around the gallery every time someone somewhere typed those words into Twitter (which in real life tends to be every few seconds). All these collected expressions of the fear of being unusual were then going to be converted in an energy source – powering the gallery lights, say. It was a comment on how the need to join in is both powerful and infinite. Seems too close to the Cory Archangel book now, so I’ve cut it.

‘Art isn’t easy’, goes the song in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George. But it’s even harder to make up fictional art, which doesn’t look corny or (as in this case) accidentally too close to someone else’s idea. As it is, by typing out my idea into this diary entry, I’ve scratched the itch and can ‘move on’, to quote another song from Sunday.

* * *

I walk through Kilburn. Close to Kilburn Park station, on Cambridge Avenue, there’s a new block of flats in the process of completion. At street level is the usual parade of hoardings announcing the project. Only these are unusual. The property developers have put together a display celebrating the cultural heritage of Kilburn. There’s quotes by Zadie Smith and Bradley Wiggins – locals who did well – plus a photo of a nearby blue plaque of George Orwell, who wrote Animal Farm in the area. The blue plaque photo is thus a sign commemorating another commemorative sign, which makes me feel giddy.

There’s also some blown-up reproductions of rock concert tickets, all at the National Ballroom venue, which used to be nearby. One is for the Wedding Present in November 1990 – a gig I attended myself. Another is for Sonic Youth and Mudhoney in 1989. I was there too. I remember the first band on the bill was the all-female Ut, who managed to be even louder than the headliners. Ephemera of my gig-going indie rock teens, these tickets are now used to sell something else: duplex apartments at £665,000 a piece. The developers have also added punning slogans: ‘Top of the Blocks’, ‘Now That’s What I Call Living’. Most of the flats have already been sold.

Then I see a more unofficial advert, pasted over the glossy board. It’s a handwritten paper sticker. ‘Daniela, 22’, followed by a mobile number. Another sign, of a sign.

* * *

Evening: to the Natural History Museum ice rink. I’m there to meet some fellow Birkbeck students and mark Jasmine B’s birthday, with drinks and skating. Or rather, I watch the others skate from the bar balcony, along with J. Jasmine can’t skate either, but this doesn’t stop her in the slightest – she holds the hands of others and goes round the rink with them. Colin turns out to be the son of a figure skater, and is rather more confident on the artificial ice. The sessions last 50 minutes a go. One of the others in our party complains that the rink is too busy – but even more people flood out when the next session starts. I look up at the animal-shaped gargoyles on the NHM building, even more dramatic at night. I muse that someone should really use them in a film, a la the Chrysler Building in Ghostbusters. This idle thought turns out to be satisfied a mere two days later, when I see the Paddington film. There, Hugh Bonneville scales the outside of the Museum to rescue the duffle-coated bear (or rather, his stunt double does).

J tells me about his time sleeping rough in London. There were moments of bleak comedy: while sleeping on the National Gallery steps one winter, he discovered – the hard way – that the first parts of the body to freeze are the genitals. So he had to cup his hands in that area to keep them warm. A passing woman saw this, at which he had to hastily assure her that what he was doing was not what it might appear. She gave him £10.

He also tells me of the time he was mugged at knifepoint – for his blanket. And how some hostels could be more frightening than sleeping out, because there’d be sleepers who would turn aggressive and threatening to the others when the staff’s backs were turned. Giving a sandwich is often preferable to giving money, he says, though not if – as was once the case with him – it’s a half-finished supermarket sandwich that’s been dunked in coffee. ‘To warm it up – there you go, mate.’

* * *

Sunday 14th November 2014. Today, J is not only housed but is able to buy me drinks in bars. And he books cinema tickets, though I reimburse him for mine. We go to see The Hobbit – The Battle Of The Five Armies at Tottenham Court Road Odeon (an acceptable £7.50, after student discount). Martin Freeman cuts through all the swooping special effects with his naturalistic, unshowy performance. The perfect everyman. The finishing off of Smaug the dragon upstages the rest of the film, whose battle scenes resemble The Lord Of The Rings films much more than Tolkein’s Hobbit novel. But then, Peter Jackson was asked for so many years to make The Hobbit in the same style. And now he’s done so. It may not surprise but it satisfies – and it makes me want to re-watch LOTR all over again.

Monday 15th December 2014. To the Phoenix in East Finchley, to see the Paddington movie (£5 matinee). A good balance of children and adults in the audience: not too many children to make me feel out of place, and  enough to laugh along audibly, proving the film is pleasing the right people. The trailers misled me into thinking it was another formulaic CGI spectacle, all noise and lack of charm. In fact it’s charming to the hilt, and reminds me of One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing, the 1970s Disney film, which also has Natural History Museum escapades. Paddington’s slapstick is in keeping with Michael Bond’s books: I’d forgotten how the bear always got into chaotic situations from the off. Everyone who isn’t in The Hobbit  is in it, too: Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Matt Lucas, and some of the Horrible Histories cast. Which makes perfect sense: like Horrible Histories it manages to please adults along with the children. There’s a camp joke early on when the jungle explorer is naming Paddington’s parents: ‘the female after my mother, and the male after an exotic boxer I once met in Hyde Park’. I’m the only one in the cinema who laughs at this, and that’s as it should be.

* * *

Thursday 18th December 2014. To UCL hospital in Euston for some minor surgery. Varicose veins; my right leg this time, and my first time under local anaesthetic. It’s a procedure where the dead vein is sealed shut via heating it from the inside, though they still have make cuts and ties at either end. The operation has its painful moments, but no more so than a trip to the dentists. I have to keep the leg dry and unwashed for the next seven days. This means that Christmas Day will see me unwrapping my own leg as a present.

My dislike of flannel washes leads me to purchase a rubber limb-protecting sleeve at Boots. It’s specifically designed so I can shower as usual without getting the leg wet. Unfortunately, it is only when I get home and am putting my foot into the wretched thing that I realise I’ve bought the wrong one. The box says ‘ARM’ in huge letters, yet this information was clearly lost on me. I had been forcing my toe into the thumb of a giant rubber mitten. Some days I shouldn’t be let out in public, frankly.

* * *

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Write Rococo; Edit Baroque.

Saturday 6th November 2014. I’m thinking about Jeremy Thorpe, who died on Thursday 4th. If a film were to be made about the whole bizarre Norman Scott case, a good choice for director would be Wes Anderson. Both Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel have scenes in which beloved pets are killed, needlessly so. So it was in real life with Rinka, the dog of Norman Scott. Thorpe – or at least someone high up in the Liberal Party – allegedly tried to bump Scott off. But on the fateful day the hired assassin panicked, and Scott’s dog literally took the bullet. I’ll always associate the story with three things. Firstly, Quentin Crisp’s description of the bungling hitman (a former RAF pilot) as ‘a disused airman’. Secondly, the word ‘bunnies’ used by Thorpe in a letter to Scott to describe the two of them together. And thirdly, Peter Cook’s court judge sketch at The Secret Policeman’s Ball show, which spoofed the trial. The sketch contained a memorable piece of innuendo: ‘he is a self-confessed player of the pink oboe’. This turned out to be a suggestion from Billy Connolly, who was performing at the same revue. Now Thorpe has died, perhaps the full truth will finally out. Then the strange, surreal story of shot dogs, denied sexuality and hasty cover-ups might at last make sense.

* * *

Sunday 7th November 2014. I’m reading about the popularity of Hemingway when an idle joke suggests itself: “For sale: Hemingway quote. Rather worn.”

* * *

Another quote, often wrongly attributed to Hemingway, is a writing tip: ‘write drunk, edit sober’. Hemingway certainly drank, but he only did so after he’d clocked up the day’s quota of prose. But figuratively it’s good advice: one should write freely as if without inhibitions, then edit to impose form and intention. In fact, after reading about Firbank and Beardsley and the differences between rococo and baroque – where rococo is florid, playful and intimate, and baroque is extravagant, ornate, and imposing – I’ve come up with my own advice:

Write rococo; edit baroque.

* * *

Tuesday 9th December 2014. Class at Birkbeck: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Tutor: Joe Brooker. Despite all my sarcastic jokes to myself –  ‘this’ll be a laugh’ – Plath’s novel does indeed have laugh-aloud moments. One is when the self-deluding boyfriend insists on undressing, to show the heroine ‘what a man looks like’:

Then he just stood there in front of me and I kept on staring at him. The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.

* * *

Wednesday 10th December 2014. Final class of the autumn term: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. Tutor: Grace Halden. To prepare, I read some of Amis’s letters to Larkin. They’re full of smutty jokes about what he wants to do to his female students in Swansea, fantasies which make the fictional Jim Dixon look something of a saint. How much of it he really means isn’t clear, though. That’s the trouble with reading books of letters: as they’re written for private eyes, something of the real meaning is lost on the public.

* * *

Thursday 11th December 2014. At about 7pm I pass Waterstones Gower Street and notice they’re having some sort of Christmas event. There’s free wine and nibbles, authors are dotted around the shop signing their latest books, and carol singers are belting away on the stairs, in full Dickensian costume. I wander in, gratefully accept a glass of white wine, and mooch about. Then I realise that it’s a bit rude to approach authors at book events if one isn’t going to buy anything. I’m even poorer than usual at the moment, and non-college books have to be struck from my budget until I’m more flush. But when I spot Viv Albertine perched among the Moleskines I can’t resist telling her how much I enjoyed her film Exhibition.

‘I write about it in the book,’ she says, indicating the fresh piles of her memoir, with the excellent title of Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys. I blurt out something about looking forward to read it (translation: I can’t buy it right now- sorry! ), and I stumble away sheepishly, embarrassed at my lack of a purchase. Then I spot Robin Ince and Stewart Lee and avoid them too, for the same reason (they’re signing an anthology of comic horror stories, Dead Funny). I find Travis Elborough in the basement and chat to him, knowing he won’t mind.

Still, Viv Albertine knows what it’s like to be poor. The first line of her book says so, as quoted by all the reviews: ‘Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both.’

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* * *

I get home and watch Question Time. Russell Brand and Nigel Farage are on the panel. Mr Brand accuses Mr Farage of being a ‘Pound Shop Enoch Powell’. This remark is given so much attention that within twenty-four hours there are whole articles dwelling on this single phrase, explaining just who Mr Powell was, and how he may or may not relate to UKIP. There is a sense now of single seeds of comment put about, which then flower into great forests of discussion, argument, and counter-argument, and back again. Never before in the field of human discourse were so many words triggered by so few.

Another example is the case of the Cereal Killer Café, in East London. This is a new emporium selling only bowls of cereal from around the world, much like the Cyber Candy shops with their imported sweets. A tidal wave of scorn erupted when a video emerged, featuring a Channel 4 reporter interviewing one of the shop owners. He asks why such novelty shops exist in areas like Shoreditch where there’s also extreme poverty. The young owner gets flustered and says ‘I’m stopping the interview – I don’t like your questions’.

This clip is then presented on the internet as an example of ‘hipsters’ ruining the world, blind to real life problems. Yet London has always had its novelty shops. I remember my joy as a teenager at discovering there was a place in Covent Garden which only sold Tintin-related merchandise. A whole Tintin shop! What’s far more depressing is bland franchise shops and cafes taking over London. Quirky and colourful little independent businesses are what London is for.  It’s property developers, closing down unique venues like the Buffalo Bar and Madame JoJos, who really should be hauled over the coals.

Disproportionate hatred has become a game any number can play.

* * *

Friday 12th December 2014. First essay mark of the final year: 74. This is for the short-ish one on Waugh. It’s a First, but for me it’s the lowest mark in about ten essays. Given education is a competition with oneself, this is a smack in my smug complacency. Mustn’t slacken off now.

* * *

Afternoon: I’m in the British Library when the softly-spoken, floppy-haired man at the desk next to me asks if I used to live in Bristol. ‘It’s Dickon, isn’t it?’ He turns out to be James, one of the regulars at various Bristol indie gigs and club nights, back in what must now be termed My Bristol Years (1990-4). He can’t have seen me for over twenty years.

I do remember him, and have one particularly vivid memory from a mainstream indie disco night (the Candy Club, we think). James asked the DJ to play Felt, knowing full well the answer would be no. This completely ordinary moment, ten seconds of my history, has nevertheless stuck with me down the decades. I think it’s because it was the first time I’d heard of a band called Felt, and the name intrigued me. Years later I would get to know Lawrence the Felt singer, for a brief time. I still have a letter from him praising the Orlando album.

James and I have lunch in the BL café and compare the last two decades of our lives. We two ageing indie boys. He moved into the vintage Mod scenes in London and in Europe, and missed Britpop altogether (quite a feat, really). Fearing the ‘memory test’ aspect of such meetings (which is what I imagine school reunions must be like), I am consoled when he can’t remember the same things I can’t remember either. Like the name of a windowless record shop in Clifton, where the owner would unleash lengthy anecdotes about seeing Scritti Politti in 1980, or The Specials on their first tour. Today James does literary translation work (he’s editing an anthology of literature in a rare Spanish-related tongue), and I tell him about Birkbeck. Neither of us owns the old records any more, the ones that brought us together. But we talk about them all the same.


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How To Explain Irony To Children

Saturday 29th November 2014. Late morning: I meet Mum in the basement café at Waterstones Piccadilly. We walk to the Coach and Horses in Soho for a vegetarian lunch. Tom joins us, making it an Edwards family meal, to mark what would have been Dad’s 78th birthday. Tom has a non-alcoholic brand of Becks beer, which nevertheless has the slogan ‘please drink responsibly’ on the label.

The Coach & Horses’s Private Eye­ connections have diminished since I was last here. Gone are the framed photos on the wall of Ian Hislop and Richard Ingrams. I am told this may be to do with the pub’s new vegetarian-only kitchen, which clashes with the Private Eye lot’s preference for meat. Perhaps the pub should approach Morrissey or Chrissie Hynde for patronship. I have ‘fish and chips’, the fish being fish-shaped tofu.

After lunch, we walk through Soho. Tom wants to show Mum the Soho Radio studios, where he has his own show. On the way, I hear someone call out ‘Dickon – where were you? We’ve just finished!’ It is a phrase from anyone’s nightmare – the forgotten appointment. But on this occasion it turns out to be a misunderstanding. Anne Pigalle is standing outside Madame JoJo’s in full black mourning garb, along with some similarly attired drag queens. It is a protest against the venue’s closure by way of a mock funeral. Ms Pigalle had invited me on Facebook. So she interprets my walking into Brewer Street as a late arrival to the protest. I feebly blurt out my excuse as I go by, and make sure I sign the inevitable petition when I get home.

(Link: Save Madame Jojo’s ).

* * *

Huge poster ads on the tube for Android, the operating system owned by Google. They feature lots of sinister robot creatures in different clothes, all clutching mobiles. Slogan: ‘be together, not the same’. The problem with this is that all the robots do indeed look the same – because they’re Android robots. Actually, they look like the protagonist of the early 80s ITV kids’ show Metal Mickey.

Another smartphone advert irks in its ubiquity, at least at the cinema. Once the London film fan pays for their overpriced seat and popcorn, they still have to tolerate the sight of Kevin Bacon wandering jauntily along the streets of Britain, shouting at its citizens for having ‘buffer faces’. This means the expressions people have when staring at a phone or tablet screen, waiting for the content to load up. Mr Bacon is surely in no position to mock others, his life having come to whoring himself across cinema screens like this. But there he is, so we must be forgiving. And yet the sight of Mr Bacon’s curiously wizened yet boyish countenance makes me yearn to shout out, ‘Better to have a Buffer Face than an Iggy Pop Stunt Double face.’

* * *

I finish reading Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar. It’s set in New York and Boston, but unexpectedly there’s a mention of Clacton-on-Sea. The noun ‘fitting’ is what also stands out, being something that the heroine goes into town for. At first I think this means clothes, until it transpires that this particular ‘fitting’ is given to her by a doctor. The novel then cuts to her returning home with a mysterious box. The word ‘diaphragm’ is never mentioned. Ms Plath wrote The Bell Jar in 1961, only months away from the mass availability of the Pill. In scenes like this it might as well be the nineteenth century.

* * *

Sunday 30th November 2014. I wake up late and rush off to the Tube without showering, thinking I’m late for a college appointment. As I walk down the path from Shepherd’s Hill to Highgate station, my brain suddenly realises it can’t be Monday, because I have no memory of Sunday. I am still not convinced. I’ve never trusted my mind: I don’t know where it’s been.The truth only hits home as I turn the corner in the station and see the newspapers on the station kiosk. The words Sunday Times loom out helpfully. It is like all those time travel stories where a newspaper must be found to give proof of the date.

Grateful to the newspaper for restoring my sense of reality, I buy a copy. And of course, the features are full of people whose idea of reality is rather far from mine. One article is on ‘social media party boys’. A trendy young man is concerned about turning his online popularity into real life money: ‘I think about the apocalypse a lot. Having a million Instagram followers during the apocalypse is going to be pretty useless, but having a yacht might not be.’

A TV newsreader boasts about his money, particularly how he gazumped when buying his farmhouse, ie snatched it away from someone who was ready to move in. I suppose one has to forgive.

I read a fascinating article on Singalong Frozen, which touches on the nature of camp. The Disney musical Frozen has been reissued in a format for children to sing along to, with lyrics on the screen. This is apparently the fault of the Prince Charles Cinema, which has been doing jokey film singalong events for some time, particularly The Sound of Music. Originally, as an organiser says, ‘the main audience was gay men and drunken women’. But soon children started to come too, and children don’t do camp and knowingness and irony. Children sing for themselves. When the PCC did singalong screenings of Frozen, the children were in the majority, and Disney took notice.

A quote from the article. When Rhona Cameron introduced a Sound of Music screening, she had to explain what irony was to the children present:

‘Children, irony is something you’ll understand later, when you’re disappointed in love and have to pay taxes’.

* * *

Tuesday 2nd December 2014. Evening: class at Birkbeck on Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle. Tutor: Joe Brooker. The reverse-world setting is intoxicating, full of details that only become apparent on re-reading, like the character who slips into ‘our’ world for a moment.

* * *

Wednesday 3rd December 2014. Evening: class at Birkbeck on John Wyndham’s The Day of The Triffids. Tutor: Grace Halden. Unlike the Dick book, which is more speculative fiction, Wyndham’s tale is traditional science-fiction. Though I always liked the double value of the mass blindness alongside the unkind plants. One student struggles to read beyond the first chapter, such is his dislike of science fiction (‘Can’t we do Graham Greene?’). The lower-case ‘triffids’ is a clever touch by Wyndham, indicating how the plants had quickly become part of the language. Much more sinister that way. I find the swift acceptance of the lower-case verbs ‘tweet’ and ‘google’ sinister, too, as they’re corporate brands. Invasions go on all the time, whether of land or of language. It’s just a question of anyone minding.

* * *

Friday 5th December 2014. In a discussion on disappointing Christmas crackers I find myself retelling the following tale.

One Christmas I went into Budgens Crouch End to buy a box of crackers. A huge pile of them were on sale at half price. People were buying the crackers, but they were also coming away with a broad smirk. I asked a staffer.

Me: Why are these crackers so cheap?

Her: They’re faulty.

Me: What, they don’t bang properly?

Her: No. They’ve all got the same joke.

The smirk had been the pleasure of acquiring a good anecdote.


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Reanimate Your Darlings

Saturday 22nd November 2014. I finish the first draft on the Waugh essay. Nearly a thousand words over the 1,500 word limit. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but academic writing is so painstaking. Every paragraph has to be crafted to fit a template. It has to introduce a new point, followed by an explanation of the new point, then offer up evidence in quotations. And then you have to add a little arm-wrestling with a critic on the same point, to prove you can not only look all this stuff up but that you’ve managed to think for yourself as well (something which only comes with practice).

Then there are the citations in the footnotes, which all have to be tailored to fit a particular style guide. Birkbeck’s English programme uses the one issued by MHRA. Which may sound like an unpleasant virus but is actually a little book of infallible commandments, along the lines of ‘Thou Shalt Use Full Stops In Footnotes, But Not In Bibliographies. Do Not Ask Why.’

And on top of all that, you have to abide by a word count. Which – and this is truly the bane of the student – has to include the footnotes. It’s bad enough when academic articles have long titles, but then you also have to cite the book the article is collected in, which often has a long title itself. And then you have name the book’s editors, who are often at least three people who insist on having three-word names. So the footnotes can really eat away at a word count. I always feel like Alice in the White Rabbit’s house, banging my pretty yet oversized head against the ceiling.

But then I’m bad at conciseness per se, whether it’s haikus at school or tweets today. I can’t feel at home if there’s not enough room to swing a clause.

* * *

Evening: to the BFI Southbank. I still dislike the inelegant name and think of the venue as the old NFT. But these are branded times and one must be brave. Anyway, whatever the BFI Snickers wants to call itself, I am grateful that tonight it is showing the cult 80s film Liquid Sky. I am also grateful that Ms Silke noticed it was on, remembered that it was one of my favourite films, and invited me to see it on the big screen for the first time.

I first saw Liquid Sky on VHS, in the year 1999. A copy fell into my hands when I was in a rehearsal studio in one of the less sequinned parts of Outer London. It was the sort of area that is not so much a district as a punctuation mark. Like a lot of rehearsal studios, it existed purely to stop industrial estates from being seen together in public.

This was during my role as quondam guitarist for the band Spearmint. At one particular rehearsal the singer Mr Lee gave me the video in question. I think it may have been a gift to him, or perhaps it was an impulse buy on his own part. Either way, after seeing Liquid Sky he passed the video onto me for good, with the words ‘I think this is more your sort of thing than mine’.

He was quite right. Liquid Sky is a low-budget tale of dayglo-attired and androgynous New Romantics, who spend their days taking drugs, dressing up, performing experimental poetry, and generally draping themselves around New York until the time of the next photo shoot. As is so often the case, a flying saucer arrives full of invisible aliens who feed on sexual energy. In one scene, the heroine has sex with a male model, who in turn is played by the same actress in male drag. All this occurs to a soundtrack which resembles a synthesizer being attacked by an embittered squirrel. So yes, it is very much My Sort Of Thing.

Thankfully for the BFI, it is other people’s thing as well. This screening is healthily attended: about two-thirds full. Watching it now, I note how it nearly crosses the line from trashiness into plain bad cinema in terms of  acting and production values. Yet with its startling costumes and make-up, and with its sense of not wanting to be anything but itself, it triumphs.

* * *

Afterwards Silke and I walk around the temporary Christmas Market on the South Bank. There is a miniature railway running along the riverside. Not only miniature in height, either: it barely runs a few hundred yards. I imagine it appeals to the sort of children who find vaguely moving about to be enough excitement for one day.

We buy mulled wine from a tasteful stall outside the RFH. £3.80 for a generous mug. All the really popular stalls in the market are for food: Polish sausages, fries, Dutch pancakes, pizza slices. Silke points out a stall that only sells wooden neckties. She says it’s there every year, yet she’s never seen anyone buy a tie.

* * *

Sunday 23rd November 2014. I hack away at the essay, and get it down to the required word count. I find the process less painful if I paste the deleted words into a separate Word file marked ‘Offcuts’.

* * *.

Monday 24th November 2014. Third draft of the essay. The hacking gives way to moulding and shaping. I restore one of the deleted sections from the ‘Offcuts’ file. Some other poor passage of text takes its place instead. I walk away from its pleadings. ‘You lied to me! You said I was special!’

Never mind the writing advice about ‘kill your darlings’. It’s not enough. Kill, then reanimate your darlings. Then kill other darlings to make room. It’s a bloodbath, frankly, whatever happens.

* * *

Tuesday 25th November 2014. Fourth and fifth drafts of the essay. The moulding and shaping becomes tweezing and polishing. I think it’s okay. I upload it to the college’s website, then print out a paper version and drop it into the designated essay-scoffing letterbox in Gordon Square. That’s my deadlines for the Autumn all done. From now till January, it’s all about planning, research and reading.

Class tonight: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Tutor: Joe Brooker. I have a slight argument in the class about whether the novel qualifies as a modernist text. The gist of my argument is this: no.

* * *

Wednesday 26th November 2014. Tea with Silke in a trendy Fitzrovian emporium, ‘Sharps’, in Windmill Street. A barbers shop and café. I read their price list. As well as haircuts, they offer a full shave which takes 45 minutes, at a cost of £35. My tea comes in a cup without handles.

Class tonight: The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon. Tutor: Grace Halden. Much discussion on identity, from race to nationality to accents. Funny how accents are still the acceptable home of prejudice. I once met a young academic who had a strong Essex accent. She said she was so tired of getting jokes about Essex Girls and The Only Way Is Essex, that she often introduced herself as being ‘from outside of London’.

* * *

Thursday 27th November 2014. To the Phoenix cinema for The Imitation Game. Benedict Cumberbatch brilliant as Alan Turing. That said, it’s a straightforward wartime thriller, rather than a biopic. Although there’s a little about Turing’s past as a schoolboy in frustrated love, his life as a gay man isn’t fleshed out at all.

When I was a teenage stage hand at the Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, I worked on a production of Breaking The Code, Hugh Whitemore’s play about Turing. I have a vivid memory of watching a scene from the wings, my headphones on, where two men kissed onstage. The scene was a sunny hotel room in Corfu, where the post-war Turing finds happiness with a young Greek. At one point Turing addresses the youth fondly and says, ‘Oh Nikos, Nikos from Ipsos’. This was turned into a joke at the Wolsey: ‘Oh, Nikos, Nikos from Ipswich’.

The Imitation Game is oddly closer in tone to Dirk Bogarde’s Victim from 1961. There’s a character seen briefly in a police station who has a sexual connection to Turing, but he’s not deemed important enough to speak. Instead, the film focusses on Turing’s achievements during the war. I found this frustrating, but I saw the filmmakers’ point. It’s more in the style of those old praise-singing John Mills films about war heroes, and less about tragic private lives.

* * *

Evening: A drinks do at the London Library, then I nip over to the 4th floor of Waterstones Piccadilly for a book event. This is for Tony O’Neill, promoting his latest novel, Black Neon. I’ve known Tony since 1996, when he was the keyboard player in the band Kenickie. These days he’s a noir-ish New York-based novelist in the vein (in every sense) of Burroughs, Welsh, Thompson and Bukowski. Tony turns up in red braces, dark grey shirt, and trilby hat. In the queue to get books signed, the person before me is the novelist Tom McCarthy, while behind me is the singer Marc Almond. I say hello to the photographer Lili Wilde. She reminds me how she once took my photo a block away from this shop, standing on ‘The Four Bronze Horses of Helios’ fountain at the corner of the Haymarket. This would have been as one half of Orlando, in 1995. She looks exactly the same now as she did then.

Tony O’Neill is an admirer of Sebastian Horsley, and starts Black Neon with a Horsley quote: ‘Any movie, even the worst, is better than real life’. In fact, this is Horsley paraphrasing Quentin Crisp, which he did frequently, even more so than me. That was one of the main reasons I was drawn to him. The Crisp quote occurs right at the beginning of the 1975 film The Naked Civil Servant, spoken by Crisp himself. Horsley has made it harsher, because Crisp’s exact wording is just that little bit more camp: ‘Any film, even the worst, is at least better than real life’.


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Between Bowie and Bronzino

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *.

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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


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The Last Six Months

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

bohemia

* * *

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

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

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

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


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Looking For Squlchy

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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


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The Followers Of The Small Dog And Gramophone

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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


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I Don’t Know Where To Put My Eyebrows

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Silence Of Christmas Sandwiches

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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