Rehouse Your Darlings

Saturday 17th January 2015. Today’s discovery: Michael Bond’s 2001 afterword to A Bear Called Paddington (as in the first Paddington book, from 1958) includes a reference to Gertrude Stein. And he didn’t mean to write a children’s book – the stories just came out that way.

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Sunday 18th January 2015. First draft of the essay on post-war fiction done. Only 650 words over the limit. ‘Kill your darlings’ goes the adage. I still prefer my own version: ‘Write rococo, edit baroque’. By which I mean, cut out the indulgent stuff – but not if it turns out to have a kind of imposing beauty.

When cutting down a piece to fit a word count, I’ve found it’s a good idea to write a quick summary of the piece in synopsis form. Just the bare bones of what each paragraph actually does. After that, you can usually see which paragraphs should be cut and which ones should be merged together. Particularly if two paragraphs are saying the same thing.

Another tip that’s worked for me over the years is to have a separate offcuts file for each piece. You can then cut and paste the deleted sections of your piece into this separate file, and save it. That lances the ‘darlings’ feeling. The beloved paragraphs are still alive, just gone to a different home. Like kittens. Rehouse your darlings.

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Monday 19th January 2015. Wrote the second draft of the essay. Had to cut out the bits about whether it’s fair that Lucky Jim has been accused of sexism (in the character of Margaret Peel) and homophobia (in the treatment of Michel Welch). I have the same view on Amis as I do on Evelyn Waugh: the writer has some objectionable views, but the work redeems him.

The Angry Young Men of the 1950s now seem more reactionary than revolutionary. Women and gay intellectuals came in for their sneering just as much as the privileged classes. Properly angry people want to change the system, whereas the hero of Lucky Jim’s entire philosophy is that ‘nice things are better than nasty ones’. He just wants a pretty wife and a decently paid job where he feels vaguely happy – the system itself is fine. A better description for Kingsley Amis’s gang would be Resentful Young Men.

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Tuesday 20th January 2015. Birkbeck class in Gordon Square: Apocalypse Now, as in the late 70s film on the Vietnam war. Although my overall degree is in English Literature, this Tuesday course on ‘The American Century’ has a wider humanities side to it. So there’s a few films and non-fiction texts to study, alongside lots of novels. Any course that can go from Henry James to the Batman film The Dark Knight is fine with me.

As it is, I’d not seen Apocalypse Now until, well, now. The sheer organic chaos of it stays with me. Saving Private Ryan, to give an example of another big war film, has a very strict three-act structure (opening battle, quest, final battle). Despite the carnage of the Omaha beach scenes, there’s still a sense that Spielberg’s film is carefully controlled. Not so with Apocalypse Now. Copolla’s film feels more like it’s running away with itself and can’t remember who’s in charge – much like the Vietnam war itself. All the usual rules about sympathetic heroes and moral cores are completely thrown away. I don’t think I like it much, but I admire it. At its heart is the old problem, still to be solved: men resorting to violence just because they can. The horror, indeed.

Wrote the third draft of the essay.

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Wednesday 21st January 2015. Birkbeck class: A Clockwork Orange, as in the 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess. Tutor: Roger Luckhurst. He says that Burgess’s reputation is currently in a sort of dip; something that often happens to authors in the twenty years or so immediately after their death. I remember his autobiography Little Wilson And Big God coming out in 1986, and its publication being hyped as an important literary event. Right now, A Clockwork Orange remains a classic, but his umpteen other works rarely get much of a look-in. This is despite Burgess spending most of the rest of his life grumbling about how he’d written much better books. The Kubrick film was partly to blame; no film of Earthly Powers any time soon.

Learned from reading A Clockwork Orange: the bowler hat and white boiler suit costume is not in the book; that’s entirely Kubrick. The use of the invented ‘nadsat’ slang is hard going at times, and not really convincing. Young people have always used new slang, but not to the point of it resembling a full language. Just the occasional word. But I think one phrase used by real teens today has the ring of Burgess about it: ‘oh my days’.

One student in the class is Russian. She confirms that much of Burgess’s invented words are based on the Russian language, but that it still doesn’t make the book any easier to read.

I’m slightly surprised to find that one of the favourite texts with the other students has been Brideshead Revisited. Despite its world of upper-class English privilege, and its author’s snobbery, it still makes new fans from all kinds of backgrounds – my class is fairly diverse, ethnically and nationally. I think I forget that it’s not the poshness that gives Waugh’s novel its appeal as much as the well-drawn characters and the air of an addictive and blissful world, hermetically sealed from the real one. In terms of escapism, Brideshead has much in common with Game of Thrones. 

Fourth draft done.

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Thursday 22nd January 2015. Wrote the fifth draft of the essay. Still not entirely happy, so I do a sixth. More or less happy with that. Uploaded it to the college website, and that’s that. From now till May it’s all about the 7000 word thesis, plus two final essays.

* * *

After two days of articles celebrating the apparent end of The Sun’s Page 3, the newspaper brings it back. The tone of this is: ‘fooled you!’ Like boys in the playground crossing their fingers when they make promises.

Even in the 1980s Page 3 seemed like a cheesy hangover from the 1970s. The problem is that the people behind The Sun think that Page 3 is like Carry On Nurse – cheeky, populist, and harmless. In fact it’s more like Carry On Emmanuelle - anachronistic, grim, and doing no favours to anyone involved. It’s still staggering how some people cry ‘free speech’ while ignoring such obvious qualifiers as context, power structures, role models, and the way some free speech gets to shout louder than others. Despite all the debates, The Sun still sees a serious issue about gender roles as an opportunity for goading female politicians and writers.

* * *

Friday 23rd January 2015.  To the East Phoenix Finchley, to see Into The Woods, the new film version of the 1980s Sondheim musical. Starry cast: Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt (in unexpectedly fine voice), and Chris Pine off the new Star Trek films as a Mills & Boon prince. James Corden okay – but like many British comedians in American films there’s a feeling that he’s not fully allowed off the leash.

The stage show is not one of my favourite Sondheims, but I like some of the songs – ‘Agony’, ‘No One Is Alone’, ‘Children Will Listen’. I’ve also always admired the clever lyric about the cow, sung in the film by Tracey Ullman: ‘We’ve no time to sit and dither / While her withers wither with her’. The film feels a bit saggy after the first hour, but then this is often a problem with musicals that have been adapted from stage to screen. The Rocky Horror Picture Show for one. I wonder if it’s due to a lack of interval. After so much singing, even a film needs a chance to pause, get its breath back, and go to the bar.


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Day of The Sherries

Saturday 10th January 2015. Work this week: writing the first draft of an essay. Escapism in Brideshead Revisited, Day of the Triffids and Lucky Jim. Much of which is escapism through alcohol. I was aware of the scenes of unrestrained drinking in Brideshead Revisited and Lucky Jim before I came to read them, but the booziness of Day of the Triffids surprised me.

Brian Aldiss called John Wyndham’s sci-fi novels ‘cosy catastrophes’. The term caught on, but it’s ultimately unfair, given the often frightening or even disturbing events Wyndham subjects his characters to. Still, Triffids certainly has an unexpectedly large amount of scenes where the hero stops for a drink, where one would expect him to do something rather more practical. The first ‘day’ of the story effectively reads like a post-apocalyptic pub crawl. After most of humanity has been blinded, Bill Masen reacts by walking around a silent London from bar to bar, helping himself to brandies and ‘restoratives’. He ends the day in a luxury flat drinking an ‘excellent Amontillado’. The woman he rescues along the way gets ‘a small Cointreau’. Day of the Sherries, more like.

The phrase that springs to mind is the title of Bevis Hillier’s book about post-war design, ‘Austerity Binge’. All three of the novels were published in the age of austerity, the 1940s and early 50s, and all three have scenes of what would now be called binge-drinking. Given rationing went on until 1954, it’s hard to begrudge the original readers for wanting a little cosiness with their catastrophe.

Three things which found a surge of popularity in 1940s Britain, as learned today from the Hillier book: circuses, canal boats and anything with a mermaid on it.

* * *

Sunday 11th January 2015. Over Christmas, some neighbours put a note through our door, asking if we’ve seen their lost cat. Missing since Boxing Day morning, it was a beautiful, exotically long-haired creature (a Maine Coon in fact). It would install itself in regal splendour on the top of the wall across the road. The sight of it would always cheer me up on my journeys into town. No sign of it since the note. Today I pass the wall and see a scratching post put out with the bins.

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Tuesday 13th January 2015. To Birkbeck for a class on Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, her 1970s memoir of growing up as a Chinese American. Very unusual – the term ‘memoir’ doesn’t describe it properly, as it uses digressions into folktales, retellings of superstitions and family anecdotes retold in turn by relatives. Chinese whispers in every sense. The woman warrior in question turns out to be the mythical Fa Mu Lan, whom Disney turned into Mulan. We discuss Orientalism, which always reminds me of the imposing School of Oriental and Asian Studies building next door. It was founded in 1916 for the original orientalists, as in students of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Thanks to Edward Said’s 1970s book, Orientalism, never far away from any college reading list, the word ‘orientalist’ now tends to mean a pejorative distortion of such cultures, especially by the West. I’m guessing they study that next door, too. It’s no surprise to add that the O-word has also been bandied about in discussions about Charlie Hebdo magazine this week.

* * *

Wednesday 14th January 2015. Class on Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and Ted Hughes’s Crow. I manage to read both in time, though the discussion of Plath takes up the whole seminar. No time for Ted. We listen to a radio recording of ‘Daddy’: I hadn’t realised how strong, confident and even sassy Plath’s voice was. At thirty, she sounds at least ten years older, not at all like the fragile waif I had imagined. I suppose what I really mean is that she doesn’t sound like the type to kill herself. Then I realise what a meaningless comment that is.

Still, her death will always inform any talk of her work. ‘Avoid biography’ is a common tip for literary scholars, ‘except when it’s Sylvia Plath’. With her it’s definitely ‘know the biography’. Biographies plural, too. New ones seem to pop up all the time.

Someone else in the class mentions that Frieda Hughes, the daughter, is a poet herself, and that she has her own pet owl.

Hughes’s Crow couldn’t be more different from Ariel. A rewriting of creation myths, giddying surreal vistas, unsettling shape-shifting tales of gods and universes. Plath bares herself, Hughes dissolves himself. I find both works intoxicating, though in different ways.

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Thursday 15th January 2015. More essay, more hours at the British Library. John Sutherland’s Lives of the Novelists is a dangerously addictive book. A doorstopper to dip into, it gives the reader potted biographies of hundreds of writers, and manages to include all the bits one really wants: gossip, love lives, anecdotes, myths, plus a decent smattering of criticism about the actual work. Mr Sutherland has his own preferences, however: there’s as much commercial fiction as there is Literature with a capital ‘L’. Jeffrey Archer makes the cut, Angela Carter doesn’t.

Interesting how some critics think Sebastian dies in Brideshead Revisited. He doesn’t. It’s Cordelia’s detailed prediction which muddles the memory. Sebastian simply drinks himself out of the text, last seen on a hospital bed in a Tunisian monastery. Also: a common error regarding The Day Of The Triffids. The mass blindness is not caused by a meteor shower. It in fact turns out to be the accidental triggering of a secret Cold War weapons system; or at least, that’s what the narrator decides. I mention this because today I read a piece on Wyndham which names and shames other scholars for making this error. A few paragraphs later, he himself gets the name of the main character wrong. Hubris in motion.

* * *

Friday 16th January 2015. I watch a YouTube video by Mark Kermode about misleading film marketing. The American DVD cover of Pride makes no reference to any of the characters being gay. Even the activists’ banner is airbrushed out. The director is fine with this, however, saying that’s it’s important to preach to the unconverted, and get a film seen by as many people as possible. The problem with this good intention is that it might backfire, leading to simple complaints of false advertising. This is nothing new, though. In the 80s, the US poster for Prick Up Your Ears tried to play down its gay theme, by crowbarring Vanessa Redgrave’s minor character into the white-toothed image of Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina. No sign of any connection stronger than friendship. More recently, the posters for Hanif Kureishi’s Le Week-End made it look like a fluffy romcom, rather than the simmering drama it really was.

But sometimes all the advertising in the world can make no difference, misleading or not. Some people only go to see a film because they’ve been dragged there. I witnessed this when I went to see The Hobbit Part One. As the lights went down, the man next to me said to his girlfriend, ‘I’ve no idea what this is about’.


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A Question Of Misattribution

Saturday 3rd January 2015. Current work: revisions to the essay on The Great Gatsby. Slow progress. I break it up with watching the film versions, both on offer in Fopp’s DVD sales. Baz Lurhmann’s version is, for me, preferable to the Robert Redford one, if only because it manages to represent the moment where Gatsby enters the text as an unknown party guest, without Nick (and the reader) realising who’s speaking. Typically, Luhrmann turns it from a subtle, anticlimactic moment into an over-the-top dramatic entrance, but I rather like that. We glimpse diCaprio’s hands and chin amongst the party mayhem before he turns to the camera to say – as Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue skids to a cartoonish stop -‘I’m Gatsby’. Cue fireworks. The Redford version just has Gatsby summoning Nick to his room.

* * *

Archway Video library, where I worked in the mid-2000s, is now a nail bar.

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Sunday 4th January 2015. Procrastination today: reading The Observer. Large interview with Stewart Lee. It’s one where they get readers to send in questions, then top them up with ‘celebrity fan’ questions too. I always wonder what this format is meant to signify: a shoring-up of the impermeable spheres of fame and non-fame? I used to be unnerved by those ‘Evening With’ TV shows where the camera would cut to a famous face in the audience. How is the viewer meant to react to this? Be grateful? Know your place as a non-celebrity?

As it is, SL discusses his own particular strange kind of celebrity – much loved by liberal broadsheet readers, barely heard of by others. He is convinced that sometimes those who do recognise him aren’t even sure who he is: he’s signed autographs as ‘Richard Herring’, and they’ve not noticed. The Observer sub-editors then insert brackets to explain who Richard Herring is (“Lee’s former comedy partner”).

I think of the time in the mid 1990s I was recognised in Virgin Megastore by a cashier, and asked to give my autograph on a till receipt. The cold, shrugging atmosphere of this encounter left me in no doubt that the staffer wasn’t interested in my band in the slightest. He just recognised me from the music papers and felt he had to do something. Hence the half-hearted autograph. Now people demand a photo (Or, I imagine they do…).

* * *

Tuesday 6th January 2015. Evening: first class of the new term – the last ever full term, in fact. Tonight’s text: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Tutor: Anna Hartnell. It’s the sort of book I’d never usually read. Which is one of the reasons why I did the course in the first place. Malcolm X turns out to be far more complicated than I’d imagined: he changes his mind about aspects of separatism after he becomes well-known, which is something the great speakers of history are not usually thought to do. This makes him both frustrating and endearing. There’s a line towards the end of his book where he regrets never having gone to university. It makes his work a perfect set text for adult education.

* * *

I hand in the Gatsby essay after five drafts. Glad to see the back of it.

* * *

Wednesday 7th January 2015. Shocking events in Paris: a team of terrorists murder cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo magazine. All I can think of by way of a first response is that I’m glad London has a whole museum dedicated to the important tradition of cartoon art. (http://www.cartoonmuseum.org/)

* **

Evening: lecture on 1960s cultural changes by Professor Luckhurst. Then to the Camden Odeon with Shanthi S, to see Birdman. Before the film we have a drink in The Good Mixer nearby. It must be at least ten years since I was last there. In the mid 90s it was something of a well-known hang-out for the Britpop crowd. Today it’s refreshingly ungentrified – slightly rougher, if anything. All that’s different is a number of paintings on the wall of Amy Winehouse, Morrissey, Graham from Blur and so on. A little heritage, but not too much.

Birdman turns out to be fantastic. I’ve always liked films in which actors play actors, but I didn’t realise it was going to be shot in long single takes too, a la Rope (my favourite Hitchcock). The camera swoops around a Broadway theatre, backstage, onstage, the wings, and occasionally outside to the bar next door. Very witty script; Edward Norton as a pretentious stage-only actor is superb. Particularly love the scene where he’s revealed in his dressing room, lying in a full size suntan machine while reading Borges’s Labyrinths. When the lights go up I’m a little unsteady on my feet, such is the effect of the constant bird-like camerawork.

* * *

Thursday 8th January 2015. Much debate about free speech, in the wake of the Paris attacks. That Voltaire quote gets dragged out once again, though there’s no proof he said it: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. It’s one of those quotes that sound powerful in the quoting, but which haven’t quite been thought through. To disapprove of something means you must believe in something you do approve of; in which case you’re probably going to want to give your life to that first, as a matter of priority. And there’s just not enough hours in the day to defend everything you disagree with. How would that work?

Lots of cartoons involving pencils doing the rounds today, one of which is attributed to Banksy – wrongly as it turns out. I put a joke on Twitter which does a double reference:

‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to attribute it to someone more famous’ – Banksy

* * *

Friday 9th January 2015. I visit the new Blackwells bookshop at No. 50 High Holborn. It’s meant to replace the one in Charing Cross Road that closed down due to the Crossrail development. Though in the new place the builders are still doing noisy things up ladders, and the lower floor is not yet open. Otherwise, it’s airy and pleasant and a nice place to browse. I wish it well, and buy a set text to show my support (Roth’s Plot Against America).

Evening: I bump into Anne Pigalle in St Pancras – London’s Most French Woman. She’s off to the French Institute for an event about the Paris attacks. She also tells me how important Charlie Hebdo is to France; I have to admit I wasn’t much aware of it before this week.

To the Black Cap in Camden for a farewell-to-London party for Martin Wallace. MW is moving to Oxford to do a PHD, having done so well at Birkbeck. Erol Alkan is there, which is fitting because I first met MW at one of Erol’s club nights. This would be around 1995. Erol is sweet as ever. He recommends a synthy band he’s just released on his label – Ghost Culture. Also chat to Pete Gofton, once of Kenickie, now in academia and music. Once again I have to explain why I’m not making music myself – no urge to is the honest answer.

At home: read a piece by Will Self on the attacks which misattributes the ‘afflict the comfortable’ quote about satire to HL Mencken. It’s actually by Finley Peter Dunne. I suppose this all proves that free speech is, as Mr Self argues, not an uncomplicated practice. Not only must there be a level of responsibility, but some messages are always going to be louder than others. And some names are louder than others too, like Banksy and Voltaire and Mencken and indeed Will Self.

A good rule re quotations: if it’s attached to a well-known name but comes without a proper citation from their work, they probably didn’t say it.

Later: I watch a fascinating TV interview with Frances de la Tour. Such a varied career. She’s convinced, however, that when she dies, the obituary headlines will still refer to her as Miss Jones in the 1970s sitcom Rising Damp, thus ignoring her many other accomplishments in film, TV and theatre. I wonder (grimly) if this will indeed be this case, or if many outlets are more likely to do what they did when Richard Griffiths died, ie focus on her small role in the Harry Potter films. Potter conquers all.


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Happy New Year, Old Sport

Saturday 27th December 2014. In the morning: to Seven Sisters Road for the last of the cat-sitting jaunts. Parts of the UK had snow on Boxing Day. London just had heavy rain, followed by a night of gales. My windows and doors rattled at 5am, waking me up. At 10am, when I reach the cat owner’s house, I see the heavy cat flap has been shattered in two by the gale. A hasty text to the owner. She’s returning in the afternoon, so doesn’t need me to do anything, thankfully. ‘I’ll stick some cardboard over the hole when I get back’. But somehow I come away feeling bad about the broken flap, because it happened on my watch.

Laurence G sends myself and David R-P a surprise present: a box of food from Fortnum & Mason. I polish off the champagne truffles far too quickly. My favourite item is a jar of mulled wine jam. Partly because I’m partial to mulled wine as a flavour, but mainly because I know it’ll last well into the New Year.

* * *

Sunday 28th December 2014. Alan Bennett’s diary this year contains an obscure word: ‘batrachoidal’. It’s a slight neologism on Mr B’s part, as the OED only has ‘batrachoid’, meaning frog-like. He uses it to describe a man who is very much not obscure at the moment: Nigel Farage. The Times makes him their Man Of The Year. The general election in May will be very interesting.

* * *

Monday 29th December 2014. I meet with Danika H at the British Library, to take her round the Gothic exhibition. I arrive ready to burden her with my annoyance over having to wear a surgical stocking for two weeks, due to my varicose vein op. But Danika turns out to have been in an ankle cast for weeks, and is still struggling on crutches when I meet her today. So that shuts me up. The crutches haven’t stopped her coming up to London to see friends and walk around galleries, but they still make things difficult. Just before I arrive, D buys a cup of tea from the café. The awkwardness of having to pick up the cup while holding on to the crutches makes her spill the tea across her hand. It is scalding hot. The British Library staff are very helpful though, sending a first-aid lady to escort D to the toilets and help her run her hand under the cold tap. When we’re leaving, much later on, she comes back and check’s D’s okay.

It’s my third visit to the Gothic show, yet I still find things I’ve not seen before. Today it’s a recent edition of Wuthering Heights with a jacket design that deliberately mimics the Twilight books. There are few vampires in Emily Bronte, but presumably the publishers thought the general theme was close enough: gothic-tinged and overwrought romantic goings-on, then as now.

Or rather then as a few years ago, as the Twilight phenomenon is now firmly in that distant region known as the recent past. Going by the end-of-year bestseller lists this week, teens are now either buying John Green’s sensitive teen novels (especially The Fault In Our Stars) or spin-off books for the Minecraft video game (and I have no idea what that is). When it comes to the fashions of the book charts, even the undead have an expiry date.

While chatting in the café, Danika and I bond over – of all things – those star-studded and lavishly-located Agatha Christie films of the 70s and 80s. Death On The Nile and Evil Under The Sun are particular favourites. The former has Angela Lansbury, Maggie Smith and Bette Davis, all camping it up like mad. But then, what else can they do with those sort of supporting characters: flamboyant romantic novelists, waspish elderly heiresses, and mannishly-attired companions. I find out today that the film shoot required all three women to share a dressing room on the boat, which was a real paddle steamer. It’s said that this particularly irked Miss Davis, who bemoaned the post-Golden Age tendency for films to shoot on location: ‘in the old days they’d have built the Nile for you.’

* * *

The experimental radio station Resonance FM are having a Yesterday Day. They are playing nothing but cover versions of the Beatles’ song ‘Yesterday’, for 24 hours, thus making some sort of statement about it being the most covered song ever. I tune in, and last five songs before tuning out again. It’s just that song. I could probably stand 24 hours of ‘It’s All Too Much’, from Yellow Submarine. That may sound like cooler-than-thou contrarianism, but as it’s a pulsing, hypnotic song with a continuous upbeat groove, it’s far better suited to repeated plays. I know that’s missing the point, though.

Like a lot of conceptual art that demands commitment from the onlooker, I admire the idea but would rather just read the reviews. ‘No, you go ahead and watch that Warhol film of the Empire State Building without me. Tell me what happens.’

There’s a character in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan who boasts that he only reads criticism of novels rather than actual novels. ‘That way, you get an idea of what the writer was trying to do, along with an opinion you can take or leave. It saves time.’

He’s not doing a degree in literature, though.

* * *

Tuesday 30th December 2014. Struggling to write the latest essay, which is on The Great Gatsby. I can’t tell how much of my resistance to work is down to my general despond, and how much is down to the way Fitzgerald’s novel feels so over-written about. It’s hard to find an original angle. Yet I managed it okay with The Picture of Dorian Gray, and there’s no shortage of material about that.

Some statistics from a textual search of Gatsby. Gatsby’s catchphrase ‘old sport’ appears 28 times in the novel. Baz Luhrmann’s film manages to increase this to 54 times. And the name ‘Daisy Buchanan’ never appears once. The only time Daisy is mentioned along with her surname is when she is Daisy Fay, in the flashbacks. ‘Nick Carraway’ doesn’t appear as a full name either, but as he’s the narrator that’s less unusual.

* * *

Wednesday 31st December 2014. I meet Laurence Hughes for drinks in the afternoon, then see the New Year in at home and alone, while trying to work on the Gatsby essay. In fact most of my time is spent procrastinating, idly watching videos or reading some rubbish or other on the internet. No live TV or radio, though. So before I know it, it’s half past midnight, and I go to bed. I don’t even stop to hear the chimes. I think this is my most low key New Year’s Eve yet.

I probably should do something next year: go to a party or a fireworks display or somesuch. But the older I get, the more I realise how important it is to not do things against one’s will. I am getting out and seeing friends, like Laurence and Danika this week. It’s not enough, though. I’d like to spend more of 2015 with people, rather than with a screen. So that’s one resolution right there.

* * *

Thursday 1st January 2015. Spent all day on the essay. Happy New Year, old sport.

* * *

Friday 2nd January 2015. The first thing I hear in Central London in 2015, as I exit the tube, is the cry of a shopkeeper. He has a little mobile phone shop on Shaftesbury Avenue, and is offering his wares like the street-criers in Oliver! (as in ‘Who will buy this wonderful morning?’, and ‘Ripe! Strawberries, ripe!’)

This real life street cry is rather more 2015:

‘Selfie sticks! Selfie sticks!’


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Christmas Week Diary & Message 2014

Monday 22nd December 2014. Mum comes up to London, and we spend the day together. We do Somerset House Ice Rink (always as café spectators, never as skaters), then the National Gallery for Maggi Hambling’s new ‘Walls of Water’ paintings, and Peder Balke’s nineteenth century Nordic landscapes. Obligingly, one of the Balke paintings has reindeer.

Then to the NPG for Grayson Perry’s ‘Who Are You’ show. His gaudy portraits of Britishness are striking enough, but best of all is a unique self-portrait: an etching in the style of an old-fashioned map of a fortified town, ‘A Map Of Days’. We also visit the Museum of London, where there’s a mini-exhibition about Paddington Bear, tying in with the film. One of the exhibits is Michael Bond’s old portable typewriter, a 1950s Olympia Splendid 33. I point this out to Mum, because we had one exactly like it at home, originally owned by my grandmother. There was a mysterious key on the left which had four dots in a square pattern. I never did find out what it was for.

A surprise sight at the Museum of London: the 2012 Olympic cauldron, with an accompanying video of its building, lighting and extinguishing at the Games.

And to top the day off, we see Santa Claus. Or rather we glimpse the one installed in a corner of the Museum’s Victorian street, grotto-style. ‘That’s okay,’ he says to one particularly shy child.  ‘You don’t have to know what you want.’

* * *

Wednesday 24th December 2014. Most of the museums are closed today, but I find that the Cartoon Art Museum is open. Dad was a member, so I go hoping they’ll have a Christmas tree to take my photo against, thus making a perfect photo for my Christmas diary. Alas, no tree.

I visit the current exhibition anyway. This turns out to be one on Hogarth. ‘Gin Lane’ is present and correct, but I learn today that it was one half of a pair. Hogarth also drew ‘Beer Street’, the solution to the problem of gin. In contrast to ‘Gin Lane’s decrepitude and despair, ‘Beer Street’ has well-dressed workers balancing work with play, all thanks to the right kind of booze, the ‘Industry and Jollity of Wholesome English Ale’. There’s one character who appears in both scenes: the pawnbroker. In Gin Lane his premises are well-kept and prosperous – he is the only person doing well out of all the poverty and decline. But on Beer Street, his shop sign is askew, and his shop itself is a crumbling hovel. This time, it is the pawnbroker who is fending off the bailiffs.

Another Hogarth sequence in the exhibition is ‘The Four Stages Of Cruelty’. In the first picture, the protagonist is a boy torturing stray dogs in the street. By the fourth panel he has become a highwayman, a murderer, and now a hanged corpse, dissected for the benefit of medical students. Underneath the operating table, a stray dog chews on his heart.

* * *

Drifting, ghost-like, through the frantic North Londoners. Sadly, I tend to associate Christmas Eve with witnessing the desperation of the not-particularly-desperate. And not just empty supermarket shelves (panic-buying for one single day – as if it were a nuclear winter). Traffic on Archway Road is stressful on the 24th as it is, but today there’s also been a water mains leak. And so, roadworks. I do not envy the people stuck in the cliche of holiday gridlock, but I envy the Thames Water workers even less. Outside my window as I write: the distinct sound of cars using this side road as an unofficial diversion (‘I know a short cut!’). An angry velocity in the noise. I want to throw up the window and shout: ‘calm down!’

* * *

Thursday 25th December 2014. I call Mum, then go off to feed the ducks in Waterlow Park. My funny little tradition. Just me this year.

Other people’s presents. In the park, a group of men try out a miniature drone. This year’s must-have gift, say the supplements. £400 or so. This little robot helicopter in question soars up, lights flashing, far higher than seems possible. Then it pauses in the sky, menacingly, rotates on the spot (where there is no spot) and zooms off into the void. It makes a horrible, wasp-like noise throughout. I hope they take it back and exchange it for a kite.

* * *

Channel 4’s Alternative Christmas Message is this year delivered by William Pooley, the British nurse working in Sierra Leone. He survived Ebola himself, then went straight back to treating the victims in Africa. In the TV broadcast, he mentions he’s from Suffolk: Eyke, in fact, near Woodbridge. As I’m from the same part of the country, his point about the good fortune of one’s birthplace is all the more affecting.

* * *

Friday 26th December 2014. I’m looking after a couple of cats in a house off the Seven Sisters Road. At about ten in the morning, I arrive and let them out into the back garden, as per the owner’s instructions. They are barely over the threshold when they freeze in their steps. A few feet away is a large fox, its bright orange beauty all the more striking in this December sun. There’s a pause, then it nonchalantly trots off through the neighbour’s hedge. It is only later that I realise how apt this is for Boxing Day, so synonymous with fox hunts.

It’s reported today that over 250,000 people have come out on rural ‘hunt meets’, which are effectively protests against the ban. Horses, hounds, costumes, horns. Everything but the fox. I sometimes glimpsed hunts while growing up in Suffolk. They seemed so obviously out of time. Yet many still want the full-on fox killing to come back. I’m reminded of the Hogarth pictures.

* * *

The Daily Telegraph‘s website has a ‘paywall’ warning: ‘You have reached your 20 article limit for this month’. Its angry, punitive tone doesn’t make me want to subscribe one bit. Instead, it rather implies that reading Telegraph articles is an unhealthy habit, and one should try to cut down. Perhaps not the effect they intended.

* * *

CHRISTMAS MESSAGE 2014

xmas tree 2014

Given this is my last Christmas as a Birkbeck undergraduate, this year’s tree is from the main Birkbeck foyer, in Torrington Square, Bloomsbury. Taken on Christmas Eve, with the kind permission of the security guard.

It’s been a year of ups and downs, to put it mildly. My college grades went through the roof, thus bolstering my feelings of self-worth (though it’s still a struggle). It proved – if only to myself – that I was demonstrably good at something, even now, and after so long of feeling surplus to the world’s requirements.

In February my father died. I’m still coming to terms with this. But while I am, I’m grateful that I still have a mother, and a brother, who have both helped me so much this year.

One thing I’m particularly proud of is that I managed to keep this diary updated every single weekend, always adding at least 1,000 new words per week. This is the first time since the diary began (in 1997) that I’ve kept to a weekly routine. It takes me a lot of time to write, and I still don’t find it easy. I’m slow, and I don’t get paid. So I was delighted to be included in Travis Elborough’s Guardian piece on his ‘Top Ten Literary Diarists’. It is also gratifying when I receive donations from readers, proving that it’s worth doing, worth keeping free of adverts, and worth carrying on. If that includes you, thank you.

Sometimes I receive messages from readers who don’t donate but who say that they’re enjoying the diary. This is always cheering, particularly with the way social media has made public or group-shared comments the more usual interaction. A recent message said the diary was ‘like having a friend I’ve never met’. That’s exactly what I’m trying to convey, and why I don’t have a comments box. The writing needs to feel as solitary as possible. There are no browser-crashing commercials here, no videos suddenly starting up, no links to celebrity gossip stories. Hardly any links full stop. This is a quiet place. A detached place. This is somewhere else to go. This is a letter to a friend I’ve never met.

Thank you for reading in 2014. I hope you’ll continue to do so in 2015. I’ll be right here. And I wish you a very Happy Christmas and a wonderful, beautiful New Year. Here it comes. Look.


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Pictures Of Gig Tickets Sell Flats

Saturday 13th December 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 December 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.’

(Which reminds me… Rare Advert Break! If you enjoy this diary, which comes with a guaranteed lack of Kevin Bacon pop-up adverts, please make a donation to keep it, and the author, going:

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Thank you.)

* * *

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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