The Unserious Dog Show
Saturday 23rd August 2014. To the Phoenix cinema for Doctor Who – Deep Breath. It’s the first episode of the new series, and the first to properly feature Peter Capaldi in the title role. It’s on TV as usual, but as part of a huge publicity campaign the BBC have arranged for some cinemas to screen it at the same time. One has to pay for the cinema (about the same price as a standard cinema ticket), so it is a fascinating test of the interest in such a thing. One incentive is that there’s a couple of extra little films. First up is an amusing monologue from Strax the Sontaran, who comments on the Doctor’s various incarnations. ‘The fifth Doctor’, he says, indicating a hologram of Peter Davison, ‘had no distinguishing features whatsoever’. Then after the episode there’s a live Q & A with the main actors and the main writer, Steven Moffat. But it’s really the sense of occasion one pays for: the experience of watching the episode on a big screen in the company of Doctor Who fans.
There’s a mixture of all ages here. A small boy in the row in front of me is wearing a fez and a bow tie, a la Matt Smith. Elsewhere in the cinema, I see another fez, this time worn by a grown woman. I enjoy the episode: lots of good lines, such as ‘There’s nothing more important than my egomania!’ The plot is the usual goings-on (alien robots up to no good in Victorian London), but Capaldi himself is enough to keep one on tenterhooks for what happens next. His older Doctor is intriguing, shrewd, spiky, capricious and (so far) volatile. As I watch, my only worry is that small children won’t take to him as much as they did the boyish Doctors of recent years. But while walking out through the foyer I see a tiny girl of eight or so, having her photograph taken next to a life-size cardboard cut-out of Capaldi. She is hugging him.
* * *
Sunday 24th August 2014. To Spa Fields Park in Clerkenwell. A mini festival. A stage is up, there’s a few stalls, a bouncy castle is in one corner, and a not-entirely-serious dog show is in the tennis court (some of the dogs’ ‘tricks’ include lying down and getting up again). I’m here for two reasons: Kitty Fedorec’s birthday gathering, plus a performance by Joanne Joanne, the all-female Duran Duran tribute band. I still love that two of the band really are called Joanne. I chat to: Pete M of Talulah Gosh (and umpteen other bands), Ian Watson, Charley Stone (once a guitarist with Fosca, today in Joanne Joanne), David Barnett, and Alex S & Alex P. The event has the feel of my 90s gig-going past – I keep seeing people in the crowd whom I nearly recognise, old regulars from gigs at Upstairs at the Garage. One face I do recognise is Jim Rattail, the dedicated London gig-goer of old. He still has his long plait of hair.
* * *
Monday 25th August 2014. A Bank Holiday. There’s constant heavy rain all day, the weather unaware of its own Bank Holiday cliché. I discover that my only other pair of older but still comfortable shoes are also leaking water, a crack having developed in the sole.
On an impulse, I travel to Paddington to see if the floating bookshop there, Word on the Water, is open. It isn’t. The steps into Paddington station are covered in rainwater. In the station, revellers from the Notting Hill Carnival are mingling with backpacked-up Reading Festival refugees. Many wear all-over transparent raincoats, half poncho, half giant condom. One carnival lady slips and falls on the stairs. She’s in pastel-coloured platform heels, drenched yet defiant. Her gales of laughter are a relief; her pride more wounded than her ankle.
I end up at the Royal Festival Hall, where there’s ballroom dancing in the open space by the ground floor bar. It’s to do with the South Bank’s ‘Love’ festival. A large pinboard is nearby, covered in paper pink hearts. Each has a handwritten declaration of love. Most are to people, but one is ‘I LOVE WEST HAM’.
After my sadness over Foyles St Pancras closing, I’m pleased to find there are two branches of Foyles in the South Bank area, both of which are open late on Sundays and Bank Holidays. One is tucked under the Royal Festival Hall on the riverside, while another is in Waterloo station nearby. In the South Bank one I see the History Boys actor Dominic Cooper, being pleasant and chatty with the staff.
* * *
Tuesday 26th August 2014. To Suffolk. Train to Sudbury around noon, lunch in Bildeston with Mum, then north to the village of Bardwell to visit Mal and Kev Shepard, old family friends. Mal’s son Don is a professional jester and magician, now going by the name of Phoenix The Fool. There’s a large gold trophy of a conjuror in the living room, which he won at a magic tournament in China. I look at their vintage copy of Kathleen Hale’s picture book Orlando the Marmalade Cat – A Seaside Holiday. The seaside destination in it, ‘Owlborrow’, is based on Aldeburgh circa 1950.
The place names on the way back immediately suggest medieval scenes: Stowlangtoft. Ixworth Thorpe. And Woolpit, with its legend of the green children.
* * *
Wednesday 27th August 2014. On the tube. The man in the seat next to me suddenly says, ‘I have to ask you, what on earth are you reading?’
I tell him: Probably Nothing, by Matilda Tristram. From a glance it might look like a children’s book. In fact, it’s a very adult (as in sweary) comic book memoir. It covers Ms Tristram’s time in 2013 as a cancer patient, made all the more complicated by her being pregnant as well. I read parts of it last year when it was an ongoing black-and-white webcomic. Since then, Penguin got involved – not a publisher known for putting out comic books. So now it’s a beautiful full colour hardback. Her drawing style is an urgent and simple doodle, suggesting snatched moments of meagre yet driven energy. I like her raw honesty, her depiction of life in the artier parts of Hackney, her accounts of the tactless things others say to her, and especially her trips to Walberswick and Southwold on the Suffolk coast, places I’m familiar with too:
* * *
Thursday 28th August 2014. The shoe repair man in Muswell Hill says he can’t stretch my new Clarks, or repair my leaky sole. I come out feeling like I’ve been in a Monty Python sketch – a shoe repair shop that can’t repair any shoes. And so it goes on.
* * *
I enjoy reading the umpteen reviews of Kate Bush’s comeback gig. Referring to her simply as ‘Bush’, though, as in ‘Bush takes to the stage’ seems wrong somehow. Unlike David Bowie, her surname is not unusual enough to define her alone – there’s those pesky presidents for a start. But there’s also something about her work that makes ‘Bush’ sound wrong too, as if she demands a gesture of intimacy to properly describe her. The ‘Kate’ needs to be there.
As it is, I read the word ‘Bush’ so often today that I start humming the closing theme to Only Fools and Horses:
‘Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. No income tax, no VAT…’
* * *
Friday 28th August 2014. To the Curzon Soho to see Obvious Child. It’s a New York indie comedy-drama starring Jenny Slate, about a wise-cracking young woman’s romantic woes. It’s similar in genre to Frances Ha but closer to Knocked Up and Juno in terms of subject matter. In the latter two, the possibility of abortion was never properly addressed, at least not to the extent it might be had the stories taken place in real life. One theory I read at the time was that the jokes would just be eclipsed. Well, Obvious Child certainly dismisses that idea. It dares to treat the subject matter properly, while keeping the comedy going too – if letting it turn bittersweet and wry rather than laugh-out-loud. I also like the wordplay of the title (a reference to a Paul Simon song). It plays on the way the lead character is childlike herself, yet her choice is very much a grown up one. The film is not perfect, but it certainly makes other comedies’ moral squeamishness look, well, a bit childish.
Tags: deep breath
, doctor who
, kate bush
, matilda tristram
, obvious child
, peter capaldi
, phoenix cinema
, probably nothing
In Which I Compare Myself To Imelda Marcos
Saturday 16th August 2014. My reading matter this week includes Samuel Beckett’s short stories from the 1940s, such as ‘The Expelled’ and ‘The End’. They’re all about lonely layabouts trudging the streets in existential woe. I come away wanting to look at pictures of kittens.
* * *
Currently struggling with two mundane but time-consuming problems: the procurement of new shoes and new glasses. I record these non-experiences in the hope of exorcising their hold on me.
I put off these sort of purchases as long as I can. Partly out of poverty, but also because I know purchases of need rarely satisfy me, compared to purchases of luxury (such as alcohol, cinema tickets or books).
In the cases of the glasses, the nice optician at Boots Muswell Hill tested my sight and told me it had changed slightly. She gave me a new prescription. Then it emerged that (a) they cannot put new lenses into my current frames, and (b) Boots no longer make my current frames.
I tried on the free NHS frames they had, but couldn’t find any I liked. Then I tried some of the priced ones I can just about afford (ie under £100) and settled for a pair I thought were okay. Black rimmed, Boots own brand, a bit big and cartoonish. I was aiming for Vintage Michael Caine, rather than Current Gok Wan. £95, from a half price offer.
But this mundanity expands, sucking up hours. It takes me two visits to decide on this new pair, then a third visit for collecting them after the lenses are in. And then a few days after that, I decide I don’t like the specs so much after all. They feel heavy and clunky and goggle-like. Is it the newness? A resentment of change? Or is it that I just wanted to get out of the opticians as fast as possible, knowing I had to choose something? On top of this, I’m now unconvinced my eyesight has changed – my old pair seem to correct my vison well enough.
I can barely speak for sighing. I stand on a train platform on St Pancras, holding both the old and the new pairs, switching between the two while testing my sight on the train information signs. I must look mad.
* * *
And then, later in the week, I have a similar frustration with new shoes. I try to go for years without buying a new pair. My current everyday black shoes now have holes in the top. Seconds of rain leave both feet drenched. The cobblers in Muswell Hill have told me to throw them out, but I haven’t. I can’t, yet.
I go to Clarks in Oxford Street and spend a good hour trying on sand-coloured shoes to go with my linen suits. One pair seem right: Clarks Classics, suede Jinks, priced £75. Fine, done, happy. Yet a few days later I’m in pain. The suede creases when I walk, cutting into my left foot at the base of my big toe. I’m close to limping.
The Clarks receipt says ‘full refund if unworn’. By this point, I have dragged the shoes through a mile of London grime. I spend hours trying to solve the dilemma with Scholls padded plasters, stuck on the painful areas of my foot. That in turn means time has to be spent at Boots St Pancras, peering at their complex range of foot-based products. I go back to stock up on more when I realise the pads come off in the shower. And so it goes on. Incredibly, the world turns.
I worry that I’ll never find a single pair of comfortable yet affordable shoes. And then I worry that it’s my feet that are the problem; that they’ve become vertically misshapen with age, and that this pain is just another petty ache one has to get used to. Or: perhaps I’m walking wrongly. I’ve caught myself staring at how others walk on the street (evidence of more madness). I see other people tilting their feet at a much higher angle than I do. Maybe that’s it. Have I forgotten how to walk properly? I wouldn’t put it past me.
(At this point I fear I am turning into a Samuel Beckett character. You are what you read.)
So this is what dominates my life this week, to my utter shame. The resentment of simple self-maintenance that fails to be simple. I try to dwell on more important things, but my shoes have rather gone to my head. The only response I take away from reading the news is, ‘I bet Barack Obama’s shoes fit him okay.’
Another thought. Perhaps Imelda Marcos wasn’t so greedy after all, with her palace of infinite shoes. Perhaps she just couldn’t get it right.
* * *
Sunday 18th August 2014. I’m reading Ronald Blythe’s diaries, as collected in Under A Broad Sky (Canterbury Press, 2013). He says this on the student protests of 2011:
‘It is sad to grow old and to have never rioted.’ He’s about 90.
* * *
Monday 19th August 2014. Penguin’s annotated edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four includes a letter from Evelyn Waugh to Orwell, criticising the novel in a respectful, friendly way. Waugh’s main reservation is ‘the disappearance of the Church’ in Orwell’s vision. He means Catholicism, but he implies that religion as a whole is ‘inextinguishable’ – a word that directly recalls the ending of Brideshead Revisited.
The edition also reprints Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, next to a reader’s report by the publishers, Secker & Warburg, about Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the former, Orwell lists his rules for how to write clearly, which have been much quoted ever since (‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out’). In the latter, the publisher notes ‘It is a typical Orwellism that Julia falls asleep while Winston reads part of [O’Brien’s book] to her. Women aren’t intelligent in Orwell’s world’. And that’s from his own publisher! The lesson seems to be: feel free to take Orwell’s advice on how to write, but bear in mind that he wasn’t perfect either.
* * *
Tuesday 20th August 2014. I realise my ongoing shoe discomfort is not rare. Today I’m in Humanities One of the British Library Reading Rooms, studying Larkin’s The Less Deceived. The woman at the desk next to me has taken her shoes and socks off. One bare foot rests on her other knee, in a kind of bookish yoga position.
* * *
Wednesday 21st August 2014. To the Phoenix for The Congress. It’s a giddy, strange film that mixes live action with psychedelic animation. The actress Robin Wright plays a version of herself. The story starts out as a satire on the state of Hollywood, but then shifts into full-on science fiction. It’s often hard to keep up with what’s going on: only twenty minutes after I leave the cinema do I fully understand what happens at the end. The critics have been polarised, with some using the term ‘Yellow Submarine-esque’ as an insult. In which case, count me on the side of those who would take it as a compliment. I admit The Congress is not a perfect film, but there’s so much imagination and originality on show – and so many sights no one has seen before. It goes into the Top Five of my favourite films this year, along with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Punk Singer, and Frank.
* * *
Friday 22nd August 2014. At home all day. Reading, writing, failing to write, filling out paperwork for the final college year, idly social media-ing. I leave the house just once, at about 6pm, to go to Sainsbury’s on Archway Rd. Barely a minute’s walk, and a passer-by says to me: ‘love the suit!’ The only words I hear in person all day. Well, if I must have a single comment from the world.
I suppose I really do put on a suit and tie just to buy a pint of milk. Didn’t even realise it.
, evelyn waugh
, george orwell
, imelda marcos
, philip larkin
, ronald blythe
, samuel beckett
, suit wearing
, the congress
Fish Of The Day
Sunday 10th August 2014. I chat with Mum over the phone. She’s busy, giving classes and talks on quilt making all over the country, most recently at the NEC. Tom has now built her a website as a kind of shop window. It’s her first ever web presence. The URL is www.lynneedwardsquilts.com.
* * *
Monday 11h August 2014. To the Boogaloo to watch Lea Andrews perform with Sadie Lee, as part of the Blue Monday gig night. An evening of seeing old friends. Charley Stone is there, Charlotte Hatherley too. This is my only socialising this week; the rest of my time is spent in the British Library in St Pancras, communing with the dead.
Currently re-reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Last read when I was a teenager. This time round I’m older than Winston Smith. I’d forgotten that he has varicose veins; something I’m rather familiar with now. The themes are more relevant than ever, as evidenced by Edward Snowden’s mention of the novel in his Alternative Christmas Message last year. Fear of state surveillance, the removal of privacy, the state control of information, the daily get together to hate something for the sake of joining in (thus anticipating Twitter), war being used to keep populations suppressed, bad entertainment doing the rest of the suppression. Orwell’s prose style surprises me with its simple, unfussy realism. Stylistically, it could be written today. The only 1940s anachronism I pick up is the usage of ‘dear’ by the two lovers.
But slang comes around too. ‘Oh my days’ sounds pure Dickens. I’ve heard it used by all kinds of young people in London now, and by some not so young people too. A friend says it derives from Caribbean patois. So I wonder if it came from the effects of the Empire before that. I like the idea of slang being exported across lands, passing through social groups, then returning after more than a century, like the orbit of a comet.
* * *
Tuesday 12th August 2014. Robin Williams dies. It’s thought to be suicide. A lot of discussion online of depression and the eternal archetype of the sad clown. My local cinema, the Phoenix, is putting on a screening of Good Will Hunting, as a benefit for the Samaritans.
People on Twitter have taken tribute selfies, standing on tops of desks, holding up signs saying ‘O Captain My Captain’. This is a reference to a scene in Dead Poets Society, the words taken from a poem by Walt Whitman. My band Orlando did a similar tribute in 1996, for the video to ‘Don’t Kill My Rage’. We even dressed as schoolboys and filmed in a beautiful old private school. And we stood on the desks.
I can’t think of the Dead Poets motto ‘carpe diem’ now without recalling a joke from I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue:
‘Carpe diem: Fish of the Day.’
What a range of work Robin Williams left behind, though. Particularly given his problems. Some roles wacky (Mork and Mindy, Good Morning Vietnam), some serious (Dead Poets Society, Awakenings) some sinister (Insomnia). In theory I should have found his comedy style irritating, but the sheer speed of his invention always impressed me. Completely over the top, yes, but also completely out of the blue. Where did that ability come from? It seemed utterly unearthly – hence Mork.
His big, rubbery, Punch-like features seemed to also fit that other extreme of emotion – sentiment. There’s something very Victorian about that mix; the need to complement the uproarious with the lachrymose. Knowing that Williams was built to erupt into loud comedy made his restrained roles all the more watchable. The energy had to be channelled into reverse. He’s perfect for The World According To Garp, as the quiet centre in John Irving’s outlandish parade. I also like him as the murderous author in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, or the avuncular gay radio host in The Night Listener (based on Armistead Maupin), or the nightclub owner in The Birdcage, teaching Nathan Lane how to act more manly. In one scene they try discussing sports like heterosexual men. Or so they imagine:
WILLIAMS: (putting on manly voice) Al, you old son of a bitch! How ya doin’? How do you feel about those Dolphins today?
LANE: How do you think I felt? Bewildered! Betrayed…! (looks at Williams, wrist returns to limpness) Wrong response, right?
WILLIAMS: I’m not sure…
* * *
Wednesday 13th August 2014. London begging. On the tube today, a man gets on and promptly goes round the carriage carefully placing wrapped packets of pocket tissues (the Handy Andies type) on the empty seats next to each passenger. There’s also a piece of paper with each packet. Presumably it contains his written appeal for money, in return for the tissues, along with some detail of his circumstances. I say presumably because I don’t pick up a packet, and neither does anyone else. The British are so obsessed with taking the least embarrassing action in public as it is. Added to which, the London tube carriage is a place of non-action, of retrieving into yourself, of trying not to exist. Not the best place to ask for money.
The tissues man waits silently at one end of the carriage for no more than a minute. Then he goes round again, this time retrieving all the packets of tissues and paper notes and putting them back in his shoulder bag. He gets off at the next stop.
* * *
Thursday 14th August 2014. To the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley, for the film Lilting. It’s a low-budget piece in which Ben Whishaw acts his absolute socks off. He plays a grieving gay man trying to befriend the Chinese mother of his late partner. The added complication is that she speaks no English, she didn’t know her son was gay, and she lives in a London care home. Peter Bowles also appears (he of To The Manor Born and Only When I Laugh), playing an elderly Lothario. The film is emotionally tense, yet tender and quiet, and is clearly a labour of love. I recognise one of the locations: the canal towpath near the south end of Mare Street, in the East End.
* * *
Friday 15th August 2014. Today’s new word is ‘hoyden’. It means ‘a boisterous girl’. A dated expression, declares the Concise Oxford Dictionary. I’m introduced to it by a line in Brigid Brophy’s book Black and White: A Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (1968):
‘Are they female fops, these personages of Beardsley’s: female dandies: female effeminates, even? Or are they male hoydens, male tomboys, boy butches?’
The book contains some of Beardsley’s sexually explicit art from the 1890s. More grotesque than titillating, I’d have thought. Yet the British Library keeps its copy of Black and White in the Special Materials collection, the place for anything very valuable or very naughty. As the book isn’t that rare it must be Beardsley’s rudeness that qualifies. To read the library copy a while ago, I had to sit at a special desk in the Rare Books Reading Room, within view of CCTV cameras and library staff. I was not allowed to leave the book unattended, not even to go to the toilet. They might as well call the desk the Table of Shame.
Thankfully, Faber have now reprinted Black and White as part of their Faber Finds series. Today I pick up a copy from Gay’s The Word bookshop in Marchmont Street. I take it home and enjoy it behind closed doors, where the Big Brother eyes of the British Library cannot watch me.
Tags: aubrey beardsley
, ben whishaw
, brigid brophy
, British Library
, charley stone
, george orwell
, london beggers
, robin williams
A Very Big-Hearted Shrug
Saturday 2nd August 2014. Around the back of St Pancras station, I stumble upon a brand new public library. A rare thing in this era of cuts and closures. Camden Council has moved its St Pancras branch to a freshly-built building, 5 Pancras Square. There’s a leisure centre below, council offices above, the main library is up on the second floor, and there’s a pleasant café on the first floor, next to the children’s library. It’s a typical modern building: the usual open plan rooms, high ceilings, plate glass outer walls. Space, transparency, glass, geometry. I sit and watch the streets below. Goods Way to my right, Pancras Road to my left, the harsh blocks of the Eurostar terminus on one side, the greenery of Camley Street Natural Park on the other. I am the only person in the café. Peace and quiet can always be found, even in Kings Cross. ‘We’re still unpacking!’ says the librarian.
* * *
Sunday 3rd August 2014. In the British Library café, the man at the table behind me has no fewer than three devices plugged into power sockets on the wall. Two sockets by his table, one by mine. He is a mass of untidy cables. Today’s devices make life more convenient in some ways, less convenient in others. ‘Wireless’ life is still yet to be wireless enough.
Hot weather. A curly-haired man walks into the BL café wearing denim shorts that are so short, heads turn en masse. He was born to justify the adjective ‘callipygian’ – ‘possessing well-shaped buttocks’. Not necessarily to everyone’s taste, though. I once knew a woman who liked her men to be so skinny that the seat of their trousers had to hang as a sheer drop. That was her main requirement – a complete absence of buttock definition. So there needs to be a word for that too. It would be particularly useful when describing indie guitar bands.
* * *
Monday 4th August 2014. This week’s reading is Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I sit in libraries and cafes reading it, accidentally dressed like one of its characters. It’s one of those novels that comes with a defensive-yet-defiant preface, the author alluding to a second story – that of the book’s first reception. Dorian Gray has one, which Wilde disguises as a list of aphorisms. Jane Eyre as well, and Oliver Twist: ‘the girl is a prostitute’. So shocking at the time. Thus Waugh’s preface apologies for some aspects of Brideshead, while being defiant about others. In 1944, he was so convinced that England’s country houses would vanish overnight that he stuffed the novel with a wistful ‘gluttony’ for the past. In the 1960 preface, he admits to finding this aspect ‘distasteful’ and offers the novel as a ‘souvenir’ – but crucially, of his feelings during WW2. So the preface is a memory (1960) of a memory (1944) of a memory (the 20s and 30s). And here I am, recording my memory of spending some time in 2014 reading that. All is explanation, reflection, apology, and not apology.
I also can’t resist revisiting the 80s TV series (no surprises, no apologies). It too is a kind of gluttony, with its many hours of screen time, its lavish detail and locations. An early version of the box set immersive TV drama. A kind of Game of Thrones of its day. All fantasy of a kind. Anthony Andrews, Jeremy Irons, Diana Quick. How can anyone not want to leap through the screen and run off with them?
* * *
Thursday 7th August 2014. To the British Library for its big summer exhibition, Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK. There is a sign on the poster for the show encouraging ‘parental guidance for the under 16s’. The poster makes this clear, too: an excellent new Jaimie Hewlett design, featuring a depressed costumed heroine slumped against an alley wall, brandishing a hip flask. The exhibition is constantly busy, with queues for some of the displays. I spend some of my visit looking discreetly at the visitors, partly because they’re in the way of the comics, but mostly because I’m curious to see what sort of people are interested in a comics exhibition today. There’s the expected amount of solitary, loafing men (and I am one too), but they do not dominate the crowd. Instead, there’s women with punkish haircuts and summer dresses, couples, besuited business people, foreign tourists, and hipster academics who narrate everything too loudly.
The show is fascinating, and full of unexpected curiosities. There’s a rare 1940s strip written by Bob Monkhouse, featuring monsters that look suspiciously like giant penises. I’m also intrigued by a 1970s strip by William Burroughs, a rare American in this UK-themed show. But then, he always was an exile. Any exhibition that manages to include Bob Monkhouse and William S. Burroughs (and Posy Simmonds!) can only be a good thing.
I particularly enjoy the documents that form the scaffolding behind comics. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman script is more like a chatty personal letter to a friend than a set of instructions to an artist. Alan Moore’s Watchman script is heavy in detail, yet it still leaves a lot of decisions up to the artist. The inspiring lesson from all this is that there’s no fixed way to write comics.
Peppered throughout the galleries are shop window dummies dressed as Occupy protestors, all wearing spooky Guy Fawkes masks, the ones from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. The popularity of that mask is probably more down to the Noughties movie adaptation than Mr Moore’s 1980s strip, but the point is hammered home: new international activism has a connection with old British comics. Every Bonfire Night, one used to have to explain who Guy Fawkes was to visiting foreigners. Now we can say, ‘You know those masks…?’
A minor grumble. After three years of an English Lit BA, I’ve become hard-wired to always check the source of a literary quotation. So I wince when reading the following in the exhibition guide: ‘Everything in the world is about sex except sex – Oscar Wilde’. No mention of where Wilde is supposed to have said this line. I don’t think he did say it. It’s a good quote, but it sounds a bit too twentieth-century for him.
I’m reminded of a quip by Dorothy Parker, which she definitely did say. It’s in her poem sequence ‘A Pig’s-Eye View of Literature’:
If with the literate I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it
* * *
In the evening: to the ICA for the film Boyhood. An ambitious undertaking, filmed in little annual bursts over twelve years. We watch the same four actors age by one year every fifteen minutes: the boy, his older sister, their mother, and their divorced father. The actual story is very slight – nothing too dramatic happens to the boy. His mother goes through a series of bad husbands, but otherwise he has a fairly safe, middle-class Texas upbringing, taking in references to the Iraq war, the last Harry Potter books, the rise of Obama, smartphones, and eventually Facebook. What the film does pull off is an all-encompassing sense of compassion and awareness of mortality: that time passes, life passes with it, we all watch it go, so we might as well be kind to each other. It’s one big shrug, but it’s a very big-hearted shrug.
, brideshead revisited
, comics unmasked
, st pancras library
Saturday 26th July 2014. I’m reading Orwell to the Present by John Brannigan, published in 2003. In the section on novels about London, Brannigan discusses The Satanic Verses. To his credit, there is no mention of the infamous fatwa. Instead, he concentrates on the way the book presents London as a ‘constantly shape-shifting liquid city of the imagination’. By omitting any reference to the controversy, I suppose he thinks that a book’s reputation can be shape-shifting too. That most terrifying phrase in the English language: ‘best known for’.
To High Tea in Highgate High Street, now run by the daughter of Jon Snow, from the TV news (an irrelevant detail which I nevertheless find interesting, if only because I quite like Mr Snow). I meet up with my neighbours David Ryder-Prangley and Philip King, and we swap anecdotes about playing in bands. Phil is the bassist in the Jesus & Mary Chain, who are about to tour with one of those ‘classic album in full’ shows, this one being Psychocandy.
There is, of course, much more to music than playing it. The look of a musician must be right for the band, and some groups are more sensitive to cliché than others. Phil tells me about a guitarist who was once fired from a band for doing ‘the indie knee bend’ pose on stage. Similarly, my own band Fosca had a stipulation when borrowing amps: anything except a Marshall. A Marshall was deemed far too Rock with a capital ‘R’. These things matter.
* * *
Sunday 27th July 2014. Tea at the Museum of London with Ella H. There’s a huge poster announcing a forthcoming exhibition on Sherlock Holmes. I’m sure that will do well. There really seems to be no limit to the mileage of Doyle’s character. I recently made a joke about pitching a series to HBO called Sherlock Christ. But the comparison isn’t so silly – the character has a following that borders on the religious. And he is, after all, no stranger to resurrection.
After this we walk along the Thames to the Black Friar pub for a few glasses of prosecco (which turn out to be inexpensive, so doubly enjoyable). The pub’s Art Nouveau décor is always worth the trip: bronze relief murals from 1909, all of cartoonish friars. Betjeman campaigned to save the pub from demolition, and it certainly looks like a survivor when you approach it. It’s one of those ancient pubs that resemble a disembodied corner, with the rest of the old street long since pruned away.
Across the road is the redeveloped Blackfriars station, now extended across the railway bridge so that the platforms are high above the water. When alighting at Blackfriars, one can choose whether to exit on the north or south bank of the Thames. This gives the station a disorientating sense of the liminal: to disembark is to step off in the middle of London, yet not on London land.
Evening: to the Boogaloo for a gig by Bid and Alice from Scarlet’s Well, backed by Martin White and his Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra. Kate Dornan is also in the MFMO, while drummer Jen Denitto is watching with me in the audience, so it’s a near reunion of the 2004 SW line-up. The orchestral arrangement serves the songs beautifully, complete with jazzy trumpet solos. Still a fan, I note the set list: ‘The Dream Spider of the Laughing Horse’, ‘The Return of the Hesperus’, ‘Sweetmeat’, ‘Blubberhouses’, ‘The Vampire’s Song’, ‘Street of a Thousand Fools’, ‘Luminous Creatures’, ‘Purples Rushes’, ‘Mr Mystery’s Mother’. For me, this is a concert of utter joy. I just wish more people knew about the SW albums. Arch, whimsical and exotic, they’re not so far from the records of the Divine Comedy. Afterwards, I chat to Jessica Griffin from the Would-Be-Goods and Lester Square from the Monochrome Set.
* * *
Monday 28th July 2014. To Greenwich Picturehouse for a screening of the Globe’s enchanting Tempest. Roger Allam as an understated, sensitive Prospero; Colin Morgan – the young Merlin from BBC TV – as an aloof and intense Ariel. This is quite common now: cinemas showing specially-made films of stage shows. The films are always very well done, to the point where I can’t work out where the cameras must be placed. The Globe’s audience in the film is all ages, though the audience for this cinema screening – at noon on a Monday – is very much on the older side. I must be the only person there under fifty.
Afterwards I wander around Greenwich to look at some of the Books About Town book benches. I quickly discover a flaw in this pursuit: the benches often have someone sitting on them, thus obscuring the artwork. Still, I find an unoccupied one tucked away in the grounds of St Alfege Church. Although it’s celebrating The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, the bench actually depicts its artist Andrea Joseph as a teenager, lying in a cluttered bedroom and reading the Adrian Mole book. It’s also up to date: the book cover in the artwork is labelled ‘Sue Townsend, 1946-2014’.
* * *
Tuesday 29th July 2014. I’m at the outpatient clinic in UCLH to have my veins looked at. While I’m standing at the reception desk, arranging the next appointment, a woman is standing there to one side. She is talking loudly on her mobile phone (ignoring all the signs forbidding such activity). I’m in the middle of speaking to the receptionist when she suddenly says to the person on the phone, ‘Hold on, there’s a man here in a white suit.’ Then she interrupts my conversation with the receptionist.
WOMAN: (to me) Hey, I have to say… (she grabs my arm)... You look immaculate.
ME: Um, thank you. (to receptionist) So, six weeks from now is -
WOMAN: (to me) No, you look like… (to the phone) What’s that film we saw, with the man in the white suit?
ME: The Man In The White Suit, perhaps?
WOMAN: No, no. Hold on! Shhh! (she listens to the phone. Myself and the receptionist, and indeed all of the packed waiting room, are holding on. This is the world of the loud person on the phone. We only live in it).
WOMAN: The Two Faces of January. That’s it.
ME: Ah, yes. I’ve seen that. Thank you. Very kind.
And I go back to arranging my appointment, now feeling somewhat more self-conscious. Somehow, I come away thinking that this sort of thing is all my fault.
* * *
Thursday 31st July 2014. To the Curzon Soho for the documentary I Am Divine. It’s about the life of the fleshy Baltimore drag queen turned cult actor Glenn Milstead, better known simply as Divine. As expected, a lot of it focusses on his parts in the John Waters films, such as Pink Flamingos and Hairspray. But it also covers his 80s pop career with Stock Aiken and Waterman, with hits such as ‘You Think You’re A Man’, and ‘I’m So Beautiful’. What I didn’t know is how much he grew tired of the Divine drag character. Instead, he wanted to move on and play different male characters in films and TV. The tragedy is that he died just before getting exactly that sort of work: a male role on the sitcom Married With Children.
In the evening: to a party at an arty house in Waterloo. It’s for Phoebe B, who is leaving London to live in Berlin. When I get there, I’m hit with the acute awkwardness of realising that the only person I know at the party is the host. I always seem to do this: befriending just one person, and never managing to connect with the rest of their social circle (I wonder why that is… don’t answer that). The upshot of this is that I once again spend an awful lot of the party standing around by myself.
I’m uneasy about introducing myself to a stranger. At least at the Birkbeck evening I had an actual name badge summing my relevant role up: ‘Dickon Edwards – BA English’. That made life easier. Perhaps we should all wear such badges, all the time. At least then no one would ever have to remember each other’s name.
After an hour or so of this sort of paranoid anxiety – and a few drinks – I do manage to start conversations with people who don’t walk away in horror. One is a lady who tells me about the ancient ponds on Hampstead Heath being under threat. She urges me to sign an online petition, and later I do.
[The petition is here:
I also meet someone who wrote about me in their fanzine, and someone who follows me on Twitter. So my awkwardness is eventually dispelled after all. I make a mental note to remember that there is an easy solution to this sort of thing: always take a friend to a party, as you would a bottle of wine. Both are a form of safety net.
* * *
Friday 1st August 2014. I watch the documentary Tulisa: The Price of Fame. It should really be titled The Price of Buying Tabloids, as the whole source of Ms T’s courtroom ordeal is a sting by The Sun on Sunday. The message seems to be, yet again, that tabloid newspapers demonstrably make people’s lives a misery. And still people buy them.
Tags: blackfriars station
, books about town
, hampstead heath
, i am divine
, not knowing what to do with myself
, scarlet's well
, sherlock christ
, the black friar pub
, what I bring to the party
Up Amongst The Gods
Saturday 19th July 2014. I am still reeling from a single sentence of a Muriel Spark story. ‘He looked as if he would murder me and he did.’
It’s from ‘The Portobello Road’ (1958). The lack of a comma before the ‘and’ is deliberate and crucial to the effect.
* * *
London is hot and humid. Some tube stations have finally managed to pump air conditioning into their ancient tunnels. Oxford Circus is one. But a few stations have natural blasts of air all year round, as a side-effect of the architecture. There is a sign at the top of the Kentish Town escalator saying ‘hold onto your hat!’ The wind rushes in as one steps off, and one feels like Marcel Marceau, struggling to walk against the breeze.
I drag out my linen ensemble every day to the point where its whiteness is visibly in question. The best place to go for reading and writing in such temperatures is the British Library, with its air conditioning, huge reading rooms, and high ceilings.
At St Pancras station next door, the branch of Foyles is in its last few weeks. After six years of profitable bookselling, they will close for good on July 31st. It is not Amazon or e-books that have defeated them, but the rent increases of the landlord. Today Foyles St Pancras has a little display of books marked ‘So Long’. One of them is their local top bestseller, The Expats by Chris Pavone. It is a thriller set among the sort of people who take the Eurostar regularly: intrigue on the Continent, characters who zip about from London to Paris.
* * *
Sunday 20th July 2014. My course choices for the fourth and final year of the BA English have been confirmed. Happily, it’s all the modules I wanted. From October till May next year I will be studying ‘Literature 1945-1979’, which is effectively British Post-War novels and poetry. The other course is ‘The American Century’, which is all types of USA literature from 1900 to the present. I’m also doing a thesis on Literary Camp, for which there are no classes. Instead, I’m left to my own self-discipline, and only have to report to a supervisor every so often. This is something which slightly scares me, but it’s about time I was let off the leash. Another little step.
The classes for the two courses will be on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, in Bloomsbury. It’s funny how a whole chunk of one’s time can be allocated away just like that. Thus I commit my life to London, and to the degree, for one more year.
* * *
Monday 21st July 2014. To 10 Upper Bank Street, one of the skyscrapers in Canary Wharf. Not the biggest one with the point, and not one of its two companions, but another slightly shorter one close by. It’s currently the world headquarters of the law firm Clifford Chance. Tonight they have let Birkbeck use their 30th floor to host their Scholar’s Evening. This is where various donors, alumni and patrons of Birkbeck meet some of the current students and discuss the importance of the college’s work. I was invited as an example of a penurious student who has benefited from such support. The invite told me there was no obligation to attend, but I am always happy to be a Birkbeck praise singer, so I go along. And besides, I do love a skyscraper.
I get out at Canary Wharf station, and explore the area. Everything is designed to within an inch of its geometric, twenty-first century life.
Next door to the skyscraper is Jubilee Park, built not on top of earth but over the roof of the tube station and shopping mall below. It is a roof garden at street level. A sign advertises a free performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this very evening.
The Clifford Chance building is straight out of a Christopher Nolan film. Outer walls of plate glass, pristine rooms of open-plan modernism, long toilets with mirrors at either end, doors that disappear into pine panels. I feel ready for my Inception fight scene.
The clean lines apply to the people too: a strict dress code of ‘as smart as possible’. Dark suits for myself and the other male students. We look like we could all be in finance, even though many of us are in history, or science, or in my case, literature.
At the lobby I am given a badge (‘Dickon Edwards – BA English’) and a plastic visitor’s pass with which to best the security barriers. Then I’m escorted into an express lift, which zooms directly to the floor in question, ears threatening to pop.
The event is in a large, open room that forms the south-west corner of the thirtieth floor. Two of its walls are floor-to-ceiling windows commanding views over the Thames and beyond, particularly Greenwich to the south and Rotherhithe to the west. I can make out the red ball at the top of Greenwich Observatory, tiny yet clear on this bright summer day.
It is not the height that makes me giddy, but the apprehension of the city as achievement. What a piece of work is a man, indeed.
There’s about 150 people here. I don’t feel it’s right to approach them by myself, but thankfully there are Birkbeck staffers on hand who physically grab me and introduce me to donors and governors. I live in a rented bedsit and worry about being able to buy new shoes. Not only do these people have enough money to not live like that, but they choose to spend some of their spare money on helping people like me study for a degree. So tonight I feel up amongst the gods.
I meet the Birkbeck Master, David Latchman, who is effectively the boss. He’ll be the one presenting me with my degree next year, all being well. I also meet Tricia King, who is the Pro-Vice-Master for Student Experience, and Hilary Fraser, who is my more immediate boss, being as she is the Executive Dean of the School of Arts. I chat to some of the donors too, many of whom were once at Birkbeck themselves. One gentleman is from the steel firm ArcelorMittal, who funded the Orbit, the twisting sculpture-cum-watchtower in the Olympic Park. I tell him how it can be seen from as far away as Highgate Hill, and that I mean to go up it sometime, when it’s open again (the Olympic park was closed after the 2012 Games). He tells me it is open again. So I make a mental note to go to the Orbit soon, and to think of its connection with Birkbeck when I do.
Speeches are given, free wine is served. In her speech, Tricia King is kind enough to mention me and even point me out. The honorary President of Birkbeck, Baroness Joan Bakewell, then comes over to me (an important detail!) and congratulates me for coming back to education, and sticking with it.
I am asked if I can cram my story into a Tweet, allowing for the dutiful hashtag. I provide the following:
Birkbeck upgrades minds. I dropped out of A-levels; am dyspraxic & dyslexic. Now doing a BA English, getting 1st class marks. #BBKScholars.
Just before I leave, I look down over Jubilee Park next door, and see that the performance of A Midsummer’s Night Dream has begun. The symbolism is irresistible. Birkbeck has enabled me to literally look at literature from a position of empowerment.
I go down to street level and watch some of the show. The production is a loose and fun version, featuring stuffed animal toys at one point. People are sitting around with picnics as the sun sets. This moment in the metropolis feels happy and peaceful, even Utopian; how a civilisation should be. A midsummer night’s urban dream.
* * *
Tuesday 22nd July 2014. To the ICA for Finding Vivian Maier. It’s a film that’s been getting a lot of attention – posters on the tube even, unusual for what is essentially a BBC4-type arts documentary. It tells the story of the amateur street photographer of the title, who despite being immensely prolific died without ever displaying her work.
The story starts with her negatives being bought in a garage sale by the young man who narrates the film. He has them printed, and is startled by the quality of the work, yet cannot find a mention of her on Google (that very modern reflex action, now part of life, and so part of movies). So begins his double campaign: to have Vivian Maier’s photographs brought to public attention, and to find out why she didn’t do this herself. The film takes in all kinds of issues, such as the connection between ‘eccentricity’ and mental health, the role of live-in nannies in families, and the strange rules some arts institutions have when defining art. One gallery tells the narrator that if a photographer didn’t print their own work, they cannot be regarded as a proper artist. He convincingly exposes the flaws in this argument, backing it up with instances of famous photographers who did have their work printed posthumously. The work is the image, not the print. Thank to this film, Vivian Maier has made her name at last. Even if she didn’t want to.
, canary wharf
, foyles st pancras
, joan bakewell
, muriel spark
, scholars evening
, vivian maier
Gets My Vote
Saturday 12th July 2014. I watch Rebels of Oz, an excellent documentary on four Australians who influenced cultural life in Britain: Clive James, Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, and Robert Hughes. There’s some 1960s footage of Ms Greer taking on Norman Mailer at a panel event in New York. The same event appeared in another documentary the previous week, one on the New York Review of Books. Then, the focus was on Mailer versus Susan Sontag, with Greer seen smirking quietly next to him. It’s a reminder that footage can only ever tell a truth, not the truth.
Robert Hughes was known for his TV series on art, The Shock of the New. But what shocks me is that he is shown wearing a double-breasted suit jacket over blue denim jeans. I wonder if being Australian helps.
* * *
Sunday 13th July 2014. Evidence of aging. At the Assembly House pub in Kentish Town, I pick up a leaflet for one of the events at the Forum, the venue across the road. It’s called ‘Indie Daze’, and is a day-long bill of different bands. All the performers are of a certain vintage, with their artistic zenith circa 1990. There’s The Wonder Stuff, The Popguns, The Flatmates, Jesus Jones, Power of Dreams, Darling Buds, and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. Two of them are doing that common practice of performing an old album in full: Jesus Jones are playing all of Doubt, while Power of Dreams are doing Immigrants, Emigrants and Me.
What intrigues me about this leaflet is how some of the bands have accompanying photos of them now, looking older (they must be all approaching 50 by now). But others, like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, use a photo from over two decades ago. I wonder about the reasoning: would a recent photo would be a kind of fraud, given it’s all about the songs of their youth? Or was it just a case of being unable to get new photos made in time?
I rather enjoyed the records of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin at the time, despite the polar opposite in their look to mine. They were a group of shambling, hairy and beery young blokes, and I was… well, not that. But I bought their debut album, and loved it for its vulnerably simple melodies, with a second bass guitar giving them an underrated, New Order-like sound. The Popguns, meanwhile, were much closer to my world aesthetically, on top of their fizzy and friendly guitar pop. Out of all the ‘Indie Daze’ bands, the Popguns are the only ones I still listen to.
* * *
Monday 14th July 2014. To Bildeston to see Mum. I stay over, sleeping in my childhood bedroom for the first time since Dad died. Mum offers to give me a file marked ‘Dickon’, full of school reports and other clippings, which she and Dad kept over the years. But I’m uneasy and decline. I’m uncertain enough about who I am now, let alone who I used to be. I don’t just mean that I need to get some sort of secure career going now, though I do mean that as well. Next visit, though. Little steps.
* * *
To get there, I take the Gainsborough Line train from Marks Tey to Sudbury, always a pleasure. A single track on a rural branch line, just the two carriages – though today they’re packed. The first stop, Chappel & Wakes Colne, forms part of the East Anglian Railway Museum. Vintage carriages and centuries-old waiting rooms suddenly appear either side of the modern train. After that it’s Bures, a village bisected by the Essex-Suffolk border, then it’s over the Stour river into Suffolk, and so to Sudbury. Twenty minutes in all.
‘You missed the alpacas,’ says the old lady in the seat facing me.
* * *
Mum and I watch the DVD of the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary gala, along with the documentary that accompanies it. A highlight for me is Joan Plowright, reprising her speech from Shaw’s Saint Joan on the stage of the Old Vic, just as she did in 1963. There’s also a scene from Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce, which I didn’t realise had supplied Dad with one of his in-jokey catchphrases. An older couple have a light snack in bed before lights off. This turns out to be pilchards on toast, the only thing the husband can find in the larder. The wife is sceptical at first, then takes his offered plate and tucks in. ‘They’re quite pleasant, aren’t they?’ she says. ‘They got my vote,’ says the husband, munching away. Tonight Mum tells me that she and Dad saw a 1980s TV version of Ayckbourn’s play, and it’s this particular line that Dad seized on. After that, whenever there was a situation requiring Dad’s approval, he would often say, ‘gets my vote!’ So now I know.
* * *
Tuesday 15th July 2014. Bildeston. Mum and I visit the Museum of East Anglian Life, in nearby Stowmarket. Neither of us have seen it since its renovation in 2012. The museum is centred around Abbot’s Hall, a handsome eighteenth-century manor house, which hosts a permanent exhibition about local history. George Ewart Evans, the author of Ask The Fellows Who Cut The Hay, gets a whole room, his notebook on display a la British Library. But there’s also his big manual typewriter and his unwieldy reel-to-reel tape recorder, both making a mockery of today’s nimble devices. Writing used to be such a muscular business.
The temporary exhibition is Escape to the Country: Searching for Self-Sufficiency in the 70s. It’s a wittily designed show, with lots of beige and orange in evidence, and caption boards in that same kitschy typeface that the band Pulp used. But there are some serious themes here too. It illustrates how the Summer of Love generation wanted to embrace rural traditions as a lifestyle choice, and as a reaction against the suburban sprawl. There’s a still from The Good Life, reminding one how that popular TV sitcom was also a satire about a real social concern.
One photograph is of the residents of Old Hall in East Bergholt, a proper commune where I once stayed as a teenager. It was just like the Swedish film Together: canteen meals for twenty at a time, farm animals and allotments out the back, rooms rather than flats. And rotas on the wall, with everyone having a different job to do on different days. I remember a TV crew filming the rounding up of the livestock, and the producer telling me it was for a documentary on a brand new channel – Channel 4. So that dates my stay to the summer of 1982.
[Postscript: Rachel Stevenson writes to say that she visited Old Hall in 2013, and wrote about it in her blog. The link is: http://millionreasons.livejournal.com/2013/04/23/]
On the train journey home I make a point of looking out for the famous alpacas. And there, a little south of Sudbury and east of the railway track, is a field of the uncommon mammals in question. They resemble llamas which have shrunk in the wash.
* * *
Wednesday 16th July 2014. To the ICA for the film Mistaken For Strangers. It’s an unusual film – a rock documentary that is really a study of two brothers. The band it depicts is the US group The National, whose work I’m not familiar with, but who seem to be a bit like the British band Elbow: a genre I call Pleasant Enough Men With Beards. In the film, the serious and sensitive singer Matt Berninger hires his jokey and more uncouth brother Tom to be a roadie on their new tour. Tom is more interested in making a film, or drinking the rider, or disappearing with people he meets, or doing anything other than his job. And so the film he makes ends up being more about him, and his odd-couple relationship with Matt. I love the title in particular, which certainly applies to me and my brother Tom. But it also reminds me how pairs of brothers, even quite different brothers, tend to both be unconventional and artistic, rather than one being artistic and the other being more drawn to, say, finance or law.
* * *
Friday 18th July 2014. I’m listening to the new Morrissey album, World Peace Is None Of Your Business, while reading about the events in Ukraine and Gaza. Morrissey’s arch take seems grimly relevant. There’s WW1 events everywhere at the moment, with it being a hundred years since the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand. ‘The War To End All Wars’. And yet here we are, still getting out our missiles. The sickening pointlessness of the attack on flight MH17 feels different to any Cold War incident, though. It could be the incident to end all such incidents. I think. I hope.
Tags: alan ayckbourn
, indie youth
, mistaken for strangers
, museum of east anglian life
, national theatre
, rebels of oz
The Schriftstellerin’s Stick
Saturday 5th July 2014. Thinking about the event at the Barbican centre the previous evening, I recall something about the interval. Myself and Ms C had ventured off together to use the toilets, and naturally had to split up when we reached them. The event wasn’t particularly female-heavy, yet outside the ladies there was a queue of a least a dozen women. Outside the gents, no queue whatsoever.
Riddled with guilt at this oversight in what is meant to be a modern building, I offered to escort Ms S into the gents to use one of the available cubicles there. She declined, but I like to think that had she agreed none of my fellow males would have protested. At such instances of self-evident inequality, sharing the Gents with women is surely the test of a true Gentleman. And if any of the men did protest, I would have flung my arms to the air and said like any good academic, ‘But sir, all gender is performativity! Go and read your Judith Butler! But wash your hands first.’
In my case, I often feel like a fraud having to declare a gender full stop, purely in order to use the loos. My fear is that once through the door firmly marked Gents, I will be questioned on my knowledge of football, cricket, cars, sharks, beards, and Jeremy Clarkson. And I will be found wanting.
* * *
I spend the afternoon picking up books on literary camp. At Birkbeck Library I find one of Brigid Brophy’s two studies of Aubrey Beardsley, plus Moe Meyer’s The Politics and Poetics of Camp, which seems to have been a set text for a Birkbeck course in the past. The giveaway sign for this is seeing a whole batch of duplicate copies on the shelf. Then to Gay’s The Word bookshop in Marchmont Street, to ask the staff about their own suggestions. I come away with Lovetown by Michal Witkowski, an example of contemporary Polish literary camp.
In Gordon Square I look at a new piece of public art. It’s one of fifty fibreglass ‘book benches’ which have been installed around the city, and which will stay there until the Autumn. They are a project by the National Literacy Trust, called ‘Books About Town’. Each sculpture is the size of a park bench. It is shaped to resemble a book lying open on its side, then painted to illustrate a particular book. Sometimes there is a connection with the location. Gordon Square was once the address of Virginia Woolf, and this particular bench depicts Clarissa and Septimus from Mrs Dalloway. The artist is Fiona Osborne from One Red Shoe, who also painted the Dorian Gray Olympic mascot sculpture in 2012. Her Septimus has a touch of Wildean beauty about him too: the archetype of the doomed boy.
I get into a conversation with a Woolf fan, Alison, who’s come to see the sculpture along with the dozen other benches in Bloomsbury (there’s a map online). She tells me that the bench celebrating Orwell’s 1984 has already been vandalised and is away for repairs, barely a week after it was installed. For a novel that champions acts of rebellion, this rather smacks of irony.
* * *
Monday 7th July 2014. To the Hammersmith Apollo for ‘Stand Up Against Austerity’, a comedy benefit. It’s in aid of The People’s Assembly, which organises protests against the current government cuts. The evening has an old-fashioned left-wing activist feel to it, and is hosted by Kate Smurthwaite. She isn’t entirely joking when she kicks off the night with ‘Let’s have a revolution!’ The acts are all pretty well known in the world of British stand-up: Jason Manford, Shappi Khorsandi, Francesca Martinez, Marcus Brigstocke, Jeremy Hardy, Mark Steel, Jen Brister, Stewart Lee, and Jo Brand. I’m impressed by Jason Manford: I’d always thought of him as more of a mainstream, middle-of-the-road laddish comic. But clearly his heart’s in the right place. Or in this case, the left place.
Stewart Lee opens his set with an excellent topical gag. It riffs on the most common thing people said after Rolf Harris’s conviction, while alluding to today’s rumours of a well-known Tory MP from the 1980s, who’s thought to be connected with various sexual allegations of his own. I’d better redact his name, in case.
‘I do hope [Dreary 80s Tory MP] hasn’t done anything bad. I’d hate to have my childhood memories of [Dreary 80s Tory MP] ruined.’
Mark Steel must be about as old as Jeremy Hardy – indeed I saw them both (and Jo Brand) at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1988. But where Mr Hardy jokes about the aging process, Mr Steel seems entirely unfettered by time. He has exactly the same manic energy he had in the 80s, running around the stage and spitting out his anti-UKIP rants with barely a pause for breath. I envy him for this, just as I envy him for his red velvet jacket.
On the tube home, I bump into Russell T. He’s just been to some dinner event with none other than Nigel Farage – the very man who was a butt of so many of the jokes at the Apollo. It transpires that Mr F really does like his drink, even when (as tonight) he dashes off to do a late night interview with LBC, several glasses of wine still sloshing away inside him. So all those photos of him holding a pint of beer are not just a pose after all.
* * *
Thursday 10th July 2014. In the afternoon: to the Prince Charles cinema for Bad Neighbours. It’s a broad Hollywood comedy. A thirty-ish couple with a house, proper jobs, and a new baby have their life made hell when a gaggle of noisy students move in next door. There’s some laboured gross-out humour which seems a bit old hat now, and it’s never clear who the film is meant for – former students who are settling down into parenthood, or current students who want that sort of humour now. It’s a shame, because otherwise there’s a witty enough comedy of manners tucked behind the slapstick. Rose Byrne in particular is superb as the new mother, who finds it hard to deliver the phrase ‘can you keep it down?’ in a way that won’t make her sound like a spoiler of fun. Which is, of course, impossible.
Then by way of contrast to the National Portrait Gallery, for Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision. Somewhat fewer slapstick sight gags there. I suppose this represents the person I’ve grown to become – the sort of person who goes to a Virginia Woolf exhibition – and on the day it opens, too (I couldn’t wait). It’s quite busy, with a mix of all ages and genders. There are some shocks. The first exhibit is a large photograph of Woolf’s Tavistock Square flat in ruins, after it was bombed during WW2. In amongst the debris her fireplace can be seen intact, with its Vanessa Bell decorations exposed to the open sky. Then the show works in refreshing Orlando-esque time travel: the fireplace appears again in a Vogue article from the 1920s, then it’s straight back to her childhood, and then forward again into Bloomsbury, via lots of beautiful Hogarth Press first editions. I am stopped in my tracks by a photograph of the 13-year-old Virginia, dressed in mourning for her mother.
At the other end of her life there’s the letters she left before her suicide (‘I feel certain I am going mad again…’), along with her walking stick, which she usually took everywhere. This was a message in itself. When Leonard Woolf came home and saw the stick left behind, he knew at once what had happened. Had she survived her depression she would have discovered that she’d escaped another fate too. There’s a copy of a Nazi wartime instruction book, listing the names of over two thousand British politicians and writers who were to be taken into ‘protective custody’ in the event of a German invasion. The book is open at the entry ‘Woolf, Virginia: Schriftstellerin’. Authoress.
Friday 11th July 2014. A journalist from Q magazine emails, asking if I’d like to be interviewed for an article about the ‘lost tribe’ of Romo. I decline politely. One reason is that I have enough trouble recollecting the specifics of the present (hence the diary), let alone those of the distant past. As it is, I spoke to a newspaper for a similar piece a few years ago, and winced at the dismissive agenda which my words were used to endorse (it was the equivalent of ‘Romo: mostly harmless’).
But my chief reason is really this. If I’m going to rake over those particular coals, I’d rather do so for a stand-alone article about Orlando, and not for another huddling of the band under the wider umbrella of Romo. I feel Orlando did good work, and it wasn’t just us who thought so at the time. We won two Singles of the Week in Melody Maker, plus we released an album which received 8 out of 10 from the NME. There’s modesty, and there’s arrogance, but then there’s also being fair to one’s achievements. Why shore up unfair narratives against your own work?
Tags: bad neighbours
, books about town
, hammersmith apollo
, mark steel
, nigel farage
, stewart lee
, virginia woolf
Animal Hospital with Eric Gill
Tuesday 1st July 2014. To the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley. I see the film Chef, starring Jon Favreau, who also writes and directs. It has a similar ambience to Fading Gigolo, in that it’s a labour of love by one unstarry-looking Hollywood type, who has asked various more starry friends to appear in back-up roles. Just as Fading Gigolo had John Turturro supported by Woody Allen, Sharon Stone and Vanessa Paradis, Chef has smaller roles filled by Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Junior. The ludicrously pretty Sofia Vergara is also in both films, playing the lumpen hero’s lover or former lover. The lead casting of Chef is rather more believable than Fading Gigolo, though. Whereas Mr Turturro seemed an implausible male escort, Mr Favreau makes an entirely convincing chef. Not least because he’s put on a fair amount of weight since he starred in Swingers – something that his own script makes jokes about.
The plot isn’t much – a top restaurant chef quits his job and runs his own sandwich van instead – but the detail is very up-to-date, particularly the depiction of the way Facebook and Twitter have become woven into lives. When a character in Chef writes a Tweet on a phone or laptop, a little input screen appears around their head. Once they click on ‘Post’, the floating screen turns into a tiny Disney-esque cartoon bird, which then flies off to do its work – or do its damage.
There isn’t much more to this film than an expression of Mr Favreau’s passion for good food, but it’s probably the happiest-feeling film I’ve seen in a long time. For all its slightness, it makes the East Finchley audience applaud at the end, and that doesn’t happen very often. The Phoenix cinema café has even changed its usual menu to match the film: it’s currently offering the same Cubanos sandwiches that Mr Favreau makes.
* * *
Wednesday 2nd July 2014. Hottest week of the year so far. Today I take advantage of the British Library’s air conditioning, skulking in the Rare Books Reading Room like the delicate object I am. I’m researching definitions of literary camp. One I’ve found – in Gary McMahon’s book Camp In Literature – contrasts camp with nineteenth century Decadence. Decadence is more about indulgence to the point of decay, while Camp blooms. Thus Dorian Gray is mainly Decadent, while Aubrey Beardsley’s art is mainly camp. His laughing fat woman on the cover of The Yellow Book is very much not heading for decay or doom. She’s taking on the wider world, and here to stay. Thus, she is camp.
* * *
Thursday 3rd July 2014. I’m standing at the bus stop in Muswell Hill, wearing a cream jacket and tie plus my near-matching new linen trousers, which I purchased cheaply from Uniqlo, on Oxford Street. At the bus stop, a woman passes me and remarks, ‘You look cool’, without stopping. I say thank you, though I do so warily, bracing myself for a mocking follow-up. I’m too used to people in London being sarcastic about my appearance. There was the woman who once blew a kiss at me from a passing car window on the Archway Road, only to shout back ‘NOT REALLY!’ as the car drove off. Or the young man at a Notting Hill bar who once chatted pleasantly to me and asked for my phone number, only to then send a series of insulting text messages after we’d parted.
I contrast this with my two trips to New York. There I also received unsolicited compliments from strangers, but ones which were clearly sincere from the off. Londoners are rather more mistrustful of each other than New Yorkers – the lack of speaking on the Tube being a good example. With guns banned, Londoners take instead to fearing words.
So when it comes to this latest surprise compliment offered to me at the Muswell Hill bus stop, my instinct is to put up my guard. But I have to assume the woman meant her compliment sincerely. I thus try my best to cover my instinctive wariness with enough outward signs of graciousness. Perform, perform, perform. All life is acting work.
* * *
Friday 4th July 2014. Rolf Harris gets five years in jail for assaults on young girls. Unlike that other children’s entertainer Jimmy Savile, who always had his rumours, Mr Harris seemed like a manifestly good man. Or rather, he did a very good impression of one. I was in the audience for the 2012 TV BAFTAs, at which he received his Fellowship award, the highest accolade one can get in British TV. It’s for a lifetime’s ‘outstanding and exceptional contribution to television’. But now I learn that the award has a condition attached. This week, BAFTA issue a single sentence as a press release:
‘The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) has made the decision to annul the BAFTA Fellowship bestowed upon Rolf Harris in 2012, following his conviction.’
So BAFTA giveth, but BAFTA can also taketh away.
I’m curious about the Orwellian effects of this. I was definitely at the 2012 ceremony, and the award was definitely given to Mr H. But today, all the articles on the BAFTA website related to Harris have been either updated to mark the annulment, or removed altogether. Any URLS which once linked to interviews with him now redirect back to the website’s front page. Such is the modern extent of disgrace – URL redirection. Today, the 2012 Fellowship is just listed on the BAFTA site as ‘n/a’.
As someone who believes in trusting the art not the artist, I’m uneasy about private disgrace being extended to undermine public achievements. But then, I suppose Rolf Harris is not, say, Eric Gill. Mr Harris’s programmes were ephemeral, not made to be repeated forever (which is now just as well), and they were very much based upon his chosen persona of someone to trust around children. Eric Gill, however, who made lasting and beautiful sculptures in public while committing bestiality (and much besides) in private, did not present Animal Hospital. Still, this news proves that to be given a BAFTA Fellowship is not just to be told ‘well done’, but also ‘behave’.
It used to be the case that whenever one spoke of meeting a TV celebrity, the follow up question was always, ‘were they nice?’
Now it might be, ‘did you have any idea?’
Evening: to the Barbican with Ms Charis and Ed, for a Neil Gaiman event. Gaiman is accompanied by the Australian FourPlay String Quartet, who use the classical quartet set up in an unusual and versatile way. There’s lots of rhythmical scraping, strumming and slapping, the cello often becomes the equivalent of a bass guitar, and the viola is sometimes played like a ukulele. The main piece of the evening is ‘The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains’, a Gaiman long-ish short story (or a ‘novelette’, as in shorter than a novella). It’s a kind of Walter Scott fantasy tale, about a Scottish dwarf from the Lowlands travelling to a cave rumoured to be filled with gold. Mr G reads this beautifully, while FourPlay perform a soundtrack and illustrations by Eddie Campbell are projected on a screen.
FourPlay also play a short set on their own, including a cover of the Doctor Who theme. And as well as the main piece, Mr Gaiman reads some shorter stories: the older one ‘The Day The Saucers Came’ plus two from his Blackberry project, A Calendar of Tales. ‘July’ is set on the 4th of July, making perfect sense to be read tonight, while ‘October’ is my favourite of the evening, about a genie whose liberator doesn’t actually want the usual three wishes.
But more unexpectedly, Neil Gaiman also sings. He gently croons a couple of arch songs, with FourPlay as his backing band. One is his own ‘I Google You’, which is the sort of thing I imagine Tom Lehrer writing now (if he hadn’t retired). Another is ‘Psycho’, which could be a Magnetic Fields ditty or possibly one by his wife, Amanda Palmer. But in fact, thanks to Google (what else), it turns out to a Leon Payne song, first recorded in 1968 by Eddie Noack. Elvis Costello has covered it too.
Afterwards: to the Phoenix pub in Cavendish Square for drinks until midnight, where I meet Tom with members of his new band, Spiderbites. Something the Edwards brothers have in common: we both shun our natural brown hair. Tom’s hair is now pink, while I’m freshly re-blonded.
Tags: aubrey beardsley
, dorian gray
, neil gaiman
, rolf harris
, Tom Edwards
Be Somewhere Else Now
(Apologies for the slight lateness of this week’s diary. I have had to deal with one of those Trojan viruses that get inside computers. Not by the acceptance of a wooden horse but by the promise of a video of a funny cat. Probably. So this entry is brought to you by the programs Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Scan, and AdwCleaner Adware Removal Tool.)
Friday 20th June 2014. In the evening: to Birkbeck in Gordon Square for a talk by Hari Kunzru. This is one of the advantages of choosing contemporary literature as an option in an English degree: the authors are often available to come to the college and answer questions. Even better, you can have a drink of M & S wine with them afterwards. Little chance of that happening with George Eliot.
HK talks about cosmopolitanism, as in people becoming global citizens. He suggests an alternative term, though, ‘rootlessness’. A refugee, meanwhile, can be regarded as ‘a cosmopolitan without money’. He’s not so keen on the message of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which looks for connections and harmony in a fragmented world. ‘Too resolved’, says Mr Kunzru.
(Stuart Nathan writes: ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ was also once a pejorative code term for ‘Jew’. It was intended to be subtly insulting. ‘We have no national loyalty and we infiltrate cities’. You see it in journalism from the 1890s to the 30s.’)
I’m reminded of the line in The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means’. Except now that’s what Commercial Fiction means. The good not ending happily, on the other hand, is what Literary Fiction means. This is not to say that such fiction should be depressing, though: Mr Kunzru’s own novel Transmission has scenes of laugh-aloud comedy.
I’ve just finished American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis. It’s clearly an important novel, but more than a couple of times I’ve felt like saying aloud, ‘please don’t make me read the next bit’.
* * *
Saturday 21st June 2014. To the Whitechapel Gallery, for the Chris Marker exhibition. I’m restless here, because his masterpieces are not stills or artworks but films like La Jetée, which is projected on a huge screen. Such films really work better at a film festival rather than a gallery space. However, I like his colourful designs for travel books about different countries, each cover with a pretty girl of the relevant nationality. Marker was clearly passionate about the faces of pretty women: much like Vermeer, in fact. There’s also a room full of old monitors and TVs showing different videos on a loop, which irritates me, as it’s become something of an art gallery cliché. That said, one is a late 80s pop video I recognise, even with the sound down: ‘Getting Away With It’ by Electronic. I hadn’t realised until today that Marker was the director.
Next door is an exhibit I prefer to anything in the Marker show, perhaps because it’s more physical and site-specific. It’s Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacobs Ladder, by Kader Attia. A room-size shelving cabinet of books surrounds a smaller glass cabinet of scientific curios. At the centre, the visitor climbs a set of steps to discover an illusion of an infinite ladder, created using mirrors and fluorescent tubes. The gallery captions make no mention of Borges’s ‘Library of Babel’, but it’s a perfect illustration. I still love the simple magic of creating infinity by turning two mirrors against each other. That’s the great thing about infinity: the pleasure is endless.
* * *
Sunday 22nd June 2014. Across the road to the Boogaloo, for a gig by Martin White’s Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra. As was the case last year, about two dozen musicians are crammed into one corner of the pub. Mr White is on the Boogaloo’s upright piano, backed with the MFMO on violins, cellos, brass, woodwind, drums, plus electric bass. Fosca’s Kate Dornan is on tuba, while the bass is played by Rhodri Marsden. The guest acts on this occasion are Chris T-T (who once gave Fosca a lift home), and the 90s band Dubstar. Or rather, singer Sarah Blackwood and guitarist Chris Wilkie playing the songs of Dubstar, specially arranged for this mini-orchestra.
I was something of a Dubstar fan in the 90s: the last time I saw them was at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 1998. Today I can’t resist writing down the songs as I recognise each one, just like I did in my music fan days: ‘The Self Same Thing’ (a superior version to that on record – they should record it), ‘Elevator Song’, ‘My Start In Wallsend’, ‘Not So Manic Now’, ‘A Northern Bride’ (a b-side), ‘Wearchest’, ‘Stars’, ‘Ghost’, ‘Disgraceful’. Afterwards I chat with Sarah and Chris, and also with the guitarist James Walbourne, here for the birthday of ‘The Rabbi’, one of the Boogaloo’s regular characters. JW turns out to be a fellow Sondheim fan.
* * *
Monday 23rd June 2014. I bump into Ben Goldacre, he of Bad Science fame, outside Highgate tube. Ben G turns out to be a fellow Momus fan. This is how my unplanned encounters often play out: discussions of paths crossed, then of shared acquaintances and shared tastes, then realisations of coincidence. It’s probably possible to play Six Degrees Of Dickon Edwards.
A favourite word of mine is ‘anhedonic’, meaning an inability to take pleasure in things. With supreme irony, using the word gives me pleasure.
* * *
Tuesday 24th June 2014. To the ICA to see Fruitvale Station. It’s a dramatisation of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, an unarmed man shot dead by the police in 2009, while in the Californian railway station of the title. Although this incident triggered various protests and outbreaks of rioting, it’s not so well known to Londoners, perhaps because the city has two similar incidents of its own. There’s Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian man killed at Stockwell tube in 2005, and Mark Duggan, whose shooting in Tottenham in 2011 sparked off that year’s London riots. The bulk of Fruitvale Station is just about a man going about his daily life – the point being that his killing is made all the more obscene by his sheer ordinariness.
Grant is no saint – he’s been in prison and is shown dealing drugs, albeit on a very minor scale – but he’s also shown to be a loving father and kind to strangers on the street, and even kind to stray animals. In this sense, the film is quite an innovative protest: it suggests that real people are rarely all good or all bad, and that situations are always more complicated than they seem. All this helps drive home the point that it’s probably not a good idea for the police to always carry guns. Perhaps this is obvious, but while such incidents still happen, films like this are important. If nothing else, it depicts everyday African-American suburban life, which is rare enough in cinema. And it also teaches this train-loving Londoner that the ‘BART’ is a type of connecting service on the Californian coast, similar to London’s Overground. It stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit.
* * *
Wednesday 25th June 2014. An aphorism by Don Paterson, which hits home:
Well, critic: fair criticism. But at the end of the day, she did; you didn’t.
(from The Book of Shadows, 2004)
* * *
Thursday 26th June 2014. The British Library’s ‘Treasures’ exhibition now has slightly different manuscripts on display. Gone is Angela Carter’s Nights At The Circus. In its place is a page from her Passion of New Eve instead. The notebooks of Beryl Bainbridge and Wendy Cope have been similarly usurped. Now there’s Hanif Kureishi’s diary, plus Olivier’s screenplay for his film of Macbeth, which was never made.
* * *
Friday 27th June 2014. There have always been film posters on the Tube, but in the last couple of years something’s changed. The quotes of praise can now be from members of the public, often on Twitter. ‘Brilliant! – @emmasmith1978’. It’s not just popcorn films, either. On the foyer wall of the Barbican Centre are projections of Twitter praise for Fiona Shaw in the stage play The Testament of Mary. Many of these quotes could well be made up, or planted by publicists. But then, professional critics are no strangers to bias either. Regardless, the phrase ‘everyone’s a critic’ is more true now than ever.
* * *
In Muswell Hill Sainsbury’s. A few days after England crashes out of the World Cup, there’s a rack of forlorn-looking England flag merchandise, all marked REDUCED TO CLEAR. Car flags, bunting, air fresheners, cups, plates. Prices from 9p.
Next to this is a display of more hopeful-looking pots of cream, branded with tennis balls, all set for Wimbledon. Thus the world turns.
* * *
Saturday 28 June 2014. One feels surrounded by festivities, or at least reports of festivities. If it’s not Glastonbury or the World Cup, it’s Pride. Despite bouts of rain, the Soho streets are choked with LGBT revellers. Old Compton Street is impossible to walk through: a mass of bodies, across road and pavement alike. ‘Rather Be’ by Clean Bandit blasts out from several bars as I pass – this summer’s ubiquitous dance hit. Charing Cross Road is closed off to provide a space for ambulances. As I walk down Manette Street, two green-clad paramedics run past me with an empty stretcher.
On Charing Cross I have to squeeze past another crowd, this time not for Pride but for a protest against animal cruelty. Outside the Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant, activists are chanting: ‘Meat is murder! Stop the slaughter!’
* * *
I’m having problems with procrastination. One tip which many books suggest is to say to yourself ‘be here now’. It’s meant to bring a wandering mind gently back to the work in hand. Only this is unhelpful to anyone who remembers the British music scene in the 1990s. ‘Be Here Now’ just make me think of the third Oasis album, that defining symbol of Britpop excess and indulgence, where all the songs were too long and too over-produced. It’s a manifestly bad piece of work. So to say ‘be here now’ as a motivational tool is to say ‘think about that bad Oasis album’. It’s not helping.
Tags: american psycho
, ben goldacre
, chris marker
, cloud atlas
, hari kunzru
, kader attia
, Martin White
, whitechapel gallery