Cufflinks: Piercings For the Squeamish

Saturday 20th June 2015.

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

Sunday 21st June 2015.

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

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

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

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

* * *

Wednesday 24th June 2015.

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

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

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

* * *

Thursday 25th June 2015.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

Friday 26th June 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

‘Because I like your records’.

* * *


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An @ Of One’s Own

Saturday 13th June 2015.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

Sunday 14th June 2015.

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

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

* * *

Monday 15th June 2015.

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

Tuesday 16th June 2015.

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

Wednesday 17th June 2015.

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

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

* * *

Thursday 18th June 2015.

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

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

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

* * *

Friday 19th June 2015.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Not The Conga Kind

Saturday 6th June 2015.

Still in a post-degree limbo, I find myself recalling my first encounter with the concept of academic writing. It was the 1983 book Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, the first such academic text on the TV series. No shortage of them now. One of my BA seminars on cultural nostalgia included the observation that the 50th anniversary episode, The Day of the Doctor, tapped directly into the programme’s association with generational memories. Specifically, the idea that people’s favourite Doctor was often the one they grew up with.

In 1983, I was a big enough fan to investigate any book on the show, and so picked up The Unfolding Text in a bookshop. The cover seemed fan-friendly enough: a photo of the current Doctor – Peter Davison – in front of the TARDIS. But the text inside was utterly baffling. English phrases, yet used in a way that I just couldn’t understand: ‘semiotics’ this, and ‘signified’ that. To an eleven-year-old boy, academia seemed rather, well, alien.

Today, I like to think I could finally go back to that book and understand it. Or at least, some of it.

* * *

To Smollensky’s, a restaurant in Canary Wharf, for the wedding reception of my cousin Jonathan. Mum and Tom are there, along with cousins I’ve not seen for years, like Caroline and Beth. Caroline says she saw me on that Imagine programme on blogging – and that was ten years ago. Time leaks away.

Wedding DJ music in 2015: the Jackson Five, One Direction, Beyonce, Franz Ferdinand.

At one point a conga line dances through the venue, and sweeps up most people in the room. All except the Peroxide Contingent:  myself, Tom, and Tom’s partner Ms C, who has bleached white hair, shaved at the sides. For one horrifying moment, I think I’m going to be dragged into the conga line. But a code of respectful glances passes between us. Family though we all are, everyone is different, some more than others, and that’s okay.

Whatever I am, I know I am not the conga kind.

* * *

Sunday 7th June 2015.

To a sunny Regent’s Park for Martin W’s annual birthday picnic. Martin still sends out paper invites in the post, double-sided. This year’s invite star is Edith Sitwell, her photo tinted like a Smiths sleeve.

Also present: a few Birkbeck tutors such as Joe Brooker and Caroline Edwards (no relation, but the second C.E. in one weekend), Adrian Lobb, and Lauren Laverne, whom I last saw (I think) at the last ever Kenickie concert. It seems redundant to ask Ms LL what she’s been up to since then, but I’m very pleased to see her again. Birkbeck now, Kenickie then: worlds colliding, time collapsing.

* * *

Monday 8th June 2015.

Evening: to the beautiful Brunei Gallery in Bloomsbury, for a Birkbeck panel event about jobs in the arts sector, followed by a vegetarian dinner at the Coach and Horses, courtesy of Hester R.

At the event, one man from the BBC says, ‘Golden rule for getting work: close your Facebook account at once. People check.’ He doesn’t go into detail, but I presume he means just closing down the security settings. From my experience, FB can be helpful for networking and asking for advice, as long as it’s confined to friends only.

This is a very modern dilemma though: Googling a prospective employee may give quite an unfair impression of the way a person is now, as opposed to the way they used to be. One of the new influx of MPs at the recent election was a woman young enough to have grown up with Twitter. The media and Have I Got News For You soon found a series of embarrassing tweets she’d made in her teenage years, still there, still online. Not career-destroying, but it made me think of the way the internet is like Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale: a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.

If I were an employer, the fact that a candidate had recently closed down their social media account would be more worrying than if they hadn’t.

* * *

Funny how things get uninvented. Today I have to explain to a younger person on Twitter what an internet café was. I used to frequent them in London, before the explosion in wifi and broadband, circa 2002.

I remember one man shouting in through the door of an internet cafe: ‘Why don’t you all just make a phone call?’

The phone got its own back in the end.

* * *

Tuesday 9th June 2015.

An excellent evening spent in the ornate Cafe Royal on Regent Street, attending Ian Kelly’s talk on Beau Brummell. I cheekily turn up unannounced, hoping Suzette Field will let me in – it’s one of her Curious Invitation events – and am grateful that she does. I chat with Joanne Kernan, Laura Bridgeman, Debbie Smith and their dapper pals from the besuited butch female troupe, the Drakes. A suit-lover’s Utopia, frankly.

Learned tonight: the term ‘toff’ is thought to come from ‘toffee-nosed’, after the brown stains on the noses of Regency snuff-takers. And there are references to Beau Brummell in the lyrics of at least two musicals: Annie and Gypsy.

Mr Kelly’s scoop for his 2005 biography is that he discovered Brummell died of syphilis. No one had checked the medical records until then.

* * *

Wednesday 10th June 2015.

To St Thomas’s Hospital on the south side of Westminster Bridge, visiting Heather M after an operation. Her bed has an eighth-floor riverside view, directly opposite Big Ben. It is the view that so many London-set films insist can be seen from any window. ‘Scene: London’.

* * *

Thursday 11th June 2015.

I am given a tour of the new-ish BBC Broadcasting House, courtesy of Charley Stone, Lolo Wood and Billy Reeves. It’s exactly as the sitcom W1A implies: a post-Google HQ warren of transparent walls, vertiginous light-wells, and endless meeting rooms named after popular broadcasters of old. I’m not sure the ‘Frankie Howerd’ room of W1A really exists, but I pass ones for Ludovic Kennedy and Alistair Cooke. Plus there’s huge open plan offices where channels merge into each other (I’m not sure where BBC London ends and the World Service begins). Everyone has security passes worn around the neck on red lanyard straps, which Billy accessories with a silk scarf. BBC staff in 2015 look like they’re working for one huge arts festival that never stops.

One of my Birkbeck classmates turns out to work alongside Billy. ‘How do you know Dickon?’ she asks. ‘The 90s. Bands. London.’

The BBC is stuffed with people who used to be in indie bands. The Menswear drummer, the Field Mice guitarist, the BMX Bandits singer, Kenickie’s singer, Catatonia’s singer… Billy R was the main songwriter in the band ‘Theaudience’.

Outside, I walk past a queue of fans of a band that are making music now, and whom I suppose will end up joining the BBC circa 2025: All Time Low. The fans are all teenage girls, without exception, many with coloured hair. I’ve not heard the music, but from the hair alone I’m guessing it’s more Green Day than One Direction.

The band emerges to greet the fans: more coloured hair, but also: leather jackets. The clothes, the ability of teenage girls to worship bands, both not new. What is new is that today’s fan doesn’t carry an autograph book. Now they expect a photo alongside their idol. And then they show the photo to the entire world. As a result, today’s bands have to perform a lot more gracious smiling than the bands of the past, on a level that must rival the Queen.

The BBC entrance foyer has a Dalek, again popular with the cult of the selfie. Except the Dalek doesn’t have to look gracious.

Later: home to a sobering PRS statement of next to nothing. ‘If you anticipate your earnings will exceed £81k, contact HMRC’. Fat chance. I wonder if the BBC have room for one more 90s musician?

* * *

Early evening: Still in job-seeking mode, I attend a class at Birkbeck on how to use the LinkedIn website. ‘Your profile photo must show you looking happy. But not because you are drunk’.

* * *

Evening: get a bit upset when blanked in a bar by someone I have a crush on. Brood on this while walking home – and nearly don’t see an acquaintance waving frantically to me out of friendship. Which says it all.

Must be grateful for the affection one has.

Crushes tend to be based on a version of the person that doesn’t exist. Those All Time Low fans may look like they’re going through a phase, but the type of emotion is lifelong.

* * *

Friday 12th June 2015.

A muggy day. To the East Finchley Phoenix for London Road. ‘Ipswich, England’ goes the opening caption. I know Ipswich, England all right. Born there, raised nearby, worked there, studied there, and even lived there for a short time, in 1990. I wasn’t there in 2006, though, when this film is set, when the town found itself the centre of the world’s attention. The film adapts the National Theatre’s ‘verbatim’ musical about the killing of five Ipswich sex workers, and does so brilliantly, movingly, ingeniously, wittily, and most important of all, cinematically. The scenery doesn’t quite feel like Ipswich to me – more a kind of fantasy British Anytown – but the accents are right: a mixture of rural Suffolk and Estuary English. Tom Hardy briefly pops up behind a steering wheel (again), this time as a cab driver who imposes his amateur detective theories on a hapless passenger.

Evening: To Vout-O-Reenee’s in Tower Hill for the launch of the 20th anniversary issue of the Scottish poetry journal, The Dark Horse. Guest of Sophie Parkin. I get a copy of the magazine. It’s more like a large format paperback: 200 pages, a thick spine, red and black serif type, all carefully typeset by the editor Gerry Cambridge. He clearly has as much of an eye for beautiful fonts and book layouts as he does for beautiful verse.

Of the live readings, I catch one established poet that even non-poetry fans have heard of: Wendy Cope. She reads her exclusive poems for the issue (making it a must-buy alone), alongside some of her greatest hits: the one about the corkscrew, the one about not standing a chance with AE Housman, and my favourite, indeed called ‘Favourite’, about liking a particular poet – and his poems too.


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Department of Applied Peroxide

Saturday 30th May 2015.

To the countryside near Bishop’s Stortford, for a family gathering. The weather is still not summery enough, and despite a marquee in the garden, I lurk indoors in the kitchen. The FA Cup plays on a TV, for the indulgence of a lone football fan at the party. Later, on the Northern Line tube home, I see a trio of small boys decked out in what I take to be some sort of gaudy scout uniform. Either that or it’s a Harry Potter fancy dress party outfit: jumpers and scarves in striped bright yellow and blue. It is only later that I realise these are the away colours for Arsenal.

All dress is fancy dress, if the onlooker doesn’t get the memo.

* * *

Sunday 31st May 2015.

With Ella H for the afternoon. Tea and welsh rarebit at the travel-sized branch of Fortnums in St Pancras (a perfect hangover cure). Then across through the newly cleaned up area north of King’s Cross. We pass a glossy new building on the left, whose empty ground floor uses spooky neon displays and oddly-posed mannequins to announce its commercial availability. People are standing around and taking photos of the mannequins, unsure if this is an art installation or a glorified ‘To Let’ sign. It seems to be both.

Then to the House of Illustration gallery, for Mac Conner: A New York Life. The gallery is barely a year old, and has to be sought out behind the new St Martin’s college, rather than dropped into out of impulse. Last time I was here it was for Quentin Blake’s work for children. Mac Conner’s oeuvre in the 1950s was very much intended for adults: gouache paintings made to strict commission, by the Mad Men of the era. Those sharp-suited barons of public taste. There’s the inevitable adverts that have now acquired a tinge of comic hindsight, extolling the glamour of smoking and atomic energy. But many images are scenes from fiction, intended to accompany pulp-ish short stories and serialisations of novels. All the men in these dramatic, Hitchcockian scenes are square-jawed cads and rogues, while all the women are imaginary sisters of Audrey Hepburn or Doris Day. Their expressions are troubled, but their clothes are immaculate. Mac Conner himself is shown on a video, interviewed last year. He is still drawing at the age of 101.

We end up in the ornate Gilbert Scott bar, with its distinctive portico on Euston Road, and attack slightly too many glasses of rosé.

* * *

Monday 1st June 2015.

Evening: a drinks gathering at the Euston Flyer for fellow student (now turned student union worker) Miriam, and other friends – Charley, Jo, Sarah H, all not seen in months. It all gets very silly and giggly. The Flyer is opposite the British Library, a touch anonymous but not too touristy. And unusually for a pub near a London station, it has plenty of seats.

* * *

Tuesday 2nd June 2015.

Life among rented rooms. My neighbour David R-P knocks on my door in the morning. En route to the shower, he has locked himself out of his room, due to the fickle whims of Yale locks. Now he is stranded in the limbo of the shared hallway, equipped only with his pyjamas and towel. In films – most recently Birdman – this predicament is ripe for farce. But in real life it just means a combination of sheepishness and phone calls. The upshot is that I spend a pleasant couple of hours inviting David in for coffee, letting him use my internet and phone, and waiting for help to arrive. A spare key is located by the landlady, and all is well before lunchtime. I record this to disprove two common assumptions about London: that neighbours never help each other, and that landlords do not care about their tenants’ welfare.

* * *

In the evening: to Senate House for a special Birkbeck lecture by Marina Warner. It’s this year’s William Matthews lecture, funded by a bequest from the eponymous professor’s estate. I discover that Professor Matthews not only started out as a Birkbeck student (getting his BA, MA and PHD there in the 20s and 30s), but he also edited collections of diaries, including the definitive edition of Samuel Pepys.

Marina W’s talk centres on the UK’s ‘provincial’ tendency to shy away from world fiction in translation – ashamedly so, compared to other European countries. She talks about having recently judged the Booker International Prize, the winner being Hungary’s László Krasznahorkai, and champions his work in this talk. She also cites a quote by Joe Sacco that I like: ‘fiction allows a writer to connect the dots, while journalists often place the dots down without connecting them.’ (from an interview in the New Yorker, 14 November 2013).

David R-P unexpectedly turns up at the event’s wine reception afterwards: he and his companion, Nicoletta Wylde, are fellow fans of Ms Warner. An academic-looking man comes over to chat, curious about our appearance. DRP’s hair is bottle blond like mine, albeit much longer, while Nicoletta’s hair is a vivid Gothic Blue. ‘What is all this?’ he says, gesturing at us. ‘Department of Applied Peroxide’, I reply.

I chat to a few of my Birkbeck tutors, including Roger Luckhurst, about how Senate House turns up in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Day of the Triffids, and the Christian Bale Batman films. Even the ventilation ducts have an Art Deco labyrinth design, not unlike the striking logo for Christopher Nolan’s film company, Syncopy.

After this, David and Nicoletta accompany me over to Gordon Square, so I can pick up my latest essay result before we look for somewhere to eat. Fittingly, the essay is for my piece on Angela Carter, a favourite subject of Marina Warner. The mark is 75: a good First. Points off for not fully explaining who Ronald Firbank was, apparently (poor old Firbank…).

We repair to Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes around the corner for pizza and prosecco. (Would Virginia Woolf have approved? She did like cricket…) There’s a section of American diner-style booths, cordoned off in a separate glass section, so all the pool-playing and bowling can’t be heard. It’s pleasingly empty, too.

* * *

Wednesday 3rd June 2015.

A current cliché in online discourse is the phrase ‘to be fair’. It is so common that it has its own acronym: ‘tbf’. I find myself wincing at it, in the same way I wince at ‘famously’.

A joke suggests itself: “I have lightened my hair. To be fair.”

* * *

Evening: To Gordon Square yet again, this time for the English Department’s ‘end of studies’ party in the Keynes Library. I chat to a mixture of familiar and new faces, and we carry on the chat into the Birkbeck bar proper, over in Torrington Square. It’s becoming a week of heavy socialising, not to say over-indulgence. Unusual for me, but after so much putting aside of fun things into order to meet deadlines, I’m letting myself off the leash a little.

* * *

 Thursday 4th June 2015.

I get the dissertation back, the one on 21st century literary camp. The mark is 70: a First, if only just. I’m pleased and grateful. I have to admit that dissertations are a new form of assessment for me, and the subject matter IS notoriously slippery – possibly even controversial. I had the temerity to invent a new term for it: ‘campism’ – to denote a deliberate use of camp in order to produce a subversive effect. So I was somewhat stepping into untested waters. Or, given it was about camp, untested John Waters.

Am also pleased with the comments, given that they’re the last word from the whole four-year course: ‘A confident and sophisticated piece of work… insightful, careful, nuanced critical textual analysis… compelling, excellent work, and a fitting conclusion to your degree’.

And that’s all the final year provisional marks back. I now have to wait till mid-July to have them finalised, by various mysterious ‘external boards’. I like to think they meet in darkened crypts with flaming torches. Only then do I get the degree.

***

I go to see A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, at the ICA. It’s a moody, slow, black and white tale of an Iranian skateboarding vampire. She uses her Islamic chador like bat wings. The film is stylistically original, but very demanding in its slowness. I prefer Only Lovers Left Alive in the Arty Vampire Film stakes (vampire puns do seem hard to avoid).

* * *

Friday 5th June 2015.

One more film this week: Listen Up Philip, at the Phoenix in East Finchley. A screen in the cinema café now displays a photo of Benedict Cumberbatch, along with his statement on becoming a patron, championing the cause of independent cinemas and so on.

Listen Up Philip isn’t a very likeable film, with its self-obsessed novelist character (Jason Schwartzman) moving out of the New York flat he shares with Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men again). He goes off to ‘find himself’ by staying at a summer house owned by another self-obsessed novelist, if a more fun one (Jonathan Pryce). There’s a god-like voice-over narrator, which I think is meant to make the film feel like a novel in itself. But in fact, it just doesn’t work – it pushes the audience away from any proper connection with the story. Ms Moss’s lesser character is more interesting and sympathetic, to the point where I wanted to see two hours about her instead. To carry on the novel simile, the film feels like an early draft that has accidentally been printed up, Franzen-like, as a proper edition.

Curiously, both A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and Listen Up Philip have long scenes involving the comforting appeal of cats. Perhaps the internet is to blame.

Both are also set in surreally indistinct time periods: some sort of pre-digital past, where people only listen to music on vinyl. It’s as if one has to go to the cinema now to remind oneself of a world where people didn’t worship pocket devices. We go to watch a big screen, in order to escape all the little ones.


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Aphorisms For Ghosts

Saturday 23rd May 2015.

I feel I’m in a kind of limbo: I very nearly have a new qualification, but until late July it’s stuck on pause. As a result, there’s moments this week where the uncertainty of my future hits me hard.

I update my CV. This takes forever. Last time I went over my CV with a careers officer, she put virtually my entire life into the section marked ‘Other’. That says it all.

Still, as she told me at the time, ‘It’s not a life of inconsistent choices. It’s a PORTFOLIO CAREER!’

Perusing job vacancies makes me feel like Raymond Briggs’s Gentleman Jim. Most of the ads resemble little jargon-steeped walls of impenetrability, peppered with unexplained acronyms. Many career positions, whatever they are, seem to involve a complete lack of verbs.

But in contrast to Briggs’s uneducated Jim, it’s education that has skewed my reading. By studying literature, I’ve become overly sensitive to prose.

More aphoristic thoughts occur:

A CV is a haunted house. It is the home of the ghosts of one’s former lives. Some can jump out and surprise you.

In which case:

A CV should come with trigger warnings for its own author.

And:

All work is acting work. The trick is not to be miscast.

* * *

Mum is in town today. We visit three exhibitions, and fit in lunch at Food For Thought in Covent Garden, which is about to close down.

Two shows are at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green: The Alice Look, and Small Stories: At Home In A Doll’s House.

The former is a mini-exhibition. There’s editions of the books throughout the years, concentrating on the way Alice’s imagery has permeated culture and fashion ever since. A mannequin wears a full ‘Lolita’ outfit, the kind currently popular in Japan. It’s Alice as a subcultural aesthetic: inspired by Carroll, manga, and (presumably) Nabokov, but claimed by young women for themselves.

There’s 1960s fashion posters, too, bringing Aubrey Beardsley into the equation. Mixing Tenniel’s Alice illustrations with Beardsley would have been pretty shocking in the 1890s, but by the 1960s, it’s all Victoriana, all up for grabs. Literally in the case of Carroll & Tenniel’s copyrights –both in the public domain before Disney could lock them away. Alice remains the people’s weird princess.

Her changing appearance is highlighted, starting with the eponymous hairband, only added by Tenniel for the second book, Through The Looking Glass. A 1920s cover is redrawn for a 1940s reissue. Her hairdo goes from a 20s bob to a 40s wave. Her dress alters accordingly. But the animals around Alice stay the same.

Perhaps this is one reason for the aesthetic popularity of animals: they never follow fashion (though there are those horses that look like they’re wearing flares). Dogs are the only real exception, with the fashions in breeds. So it makes sense that the only animal in Alice who doesn’t speak and  join in with the other animals is the often-forgotten Puppy, which Alice encounters early on.

If literature is all about asking ‘Who gets to speak?’, children’s literature is about asking ‘Which animals don’t get to speak?’

* * *

The Small Stories exhibition is much larger, and pulls off an inspired double-theme: it uses doll’s houses over the years to illustrate changes in real life housing, as much as changes in favourite toys.

Then to the National Portrait Gallery, for its current blockbuster: Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends. More Victorians: adults and children, some rendered stately and formal, some touching and heartfelt. The actorly-looking young man with the goatee and red robe, as used on all the posters, turns out to be Dr Pozzi, a pioneering gynaecologist.

Highlights for me are two portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson. Not because of who he is but because they’re like candid snapshots, catching the wiry Stevenson pacing the room in mid-rant, or sitting awkwardly in a chair while addressing the viewer.

The Sargent show costs £14.50, while the two Museum of Childhood exhibitions are free. I know it shouldn’t make a difference, but I do find free exhibitions less stressful to walk around. With the big shows, one is at the mercy of timed entry, and there’s the sense of wanting to tick off everything, in order to get value for money (‘Done that room. How many more? Is this one famous? Where’s the caption?’).

Free shows have more of a sense of serendipity, because one can drift in and out, and so be more surprised.

* * *

Sunday 24th May 2015.

I walk through Trafalgar Square to find it rammed with shouting football fans – red-shirted supporters of Middlesbrough. Loud and visible, though not violent or frightening, they climb the stone lions and sing the ‘O-lay, O-lay’ song, which I suppose is now a kind of folk anthem. I find out later they’re in town to cheer on the important play-off at Wembley the next day, for a place in the Premier league. Despite all the fans’ efforts, it is the other team that triumphs: Norwich.

I find myself envying the way so many men find it so easy to belong. It’s also fascinating that football in 2015 hasn’t been upgraded (except in the ticket prices): it’s the same game, with the same songs, and the same way of showing the world that you like it.

Billy Reeves, who knows about football, tells me that Middlesbrough are ‘stoical’, while Norwich are ‘flamboyant’.

* * *

Wednesday 27th May 2015.

To the Vue cinema for Moomins on the Riviera, a French-Finnish cartoon film. It’s unusually old fashioned, playing on a series of 1950s jokes about film stars, bohemian artists, and glamourous lifestyles. A celebrity dog character, ‘Audrey Glamour’, is clearly meant to be Audrey Hepburn.

The film uses a hand-drawn animated style that faithfully reproduces the hippo-like Tove Jansson characters. So faithfully in fact, that I’m not sure the whole thing really works as a modern children’s film. Compared to the latest Paddington film, say, it’s gentle, slow, slight, and downright glacial in its pacing. Perhaps it’s one for children who find Shaun The Sheep a bit too stressful. But it’s nevertheless charming.

There’s also a London connection with the story. It derives not from Ms Jansson’s illustrated books, but from her Moomin comic strip, which was directly commissioned by the London newspaper, the Evening News – now defunct. According to the biography Tove Jansson – Work and Love, the newspaper signed her up to produce a daily strip for seven years – something she regretted when it hit year six. But it gave her her first regular wage, and with syndication it gave the Moomins their global fame. Significantly, Moomins on the Riviera is taken from the first year of the newspaper strip, when Jansson was still enjoying it.

Moomintroll himself is voiced by Russell Tovey, a pleasing parallel to Ben Whishaw’s Paddington: both exponents of modern British boyishness. Plus I like how Russell Tovey’s surname is nearly the correct pronunciation of Jansson’s first name (‘too-verr’).

* * *

 Thursday 28th May 2015.

The first of the final marks comes back – 78. A First. This is for the last essay of the ‘American Century’ module, on US culture, 1900-2012. By my calculations, this gives the whole module a total of 77 (and a First). Two more marks to come. I’m especially anxious over the dissertation. But there’s nothing I can do – it’s so silly.

* * *

Friday 22nd May 2015.

I visit the secret oasis of surreal beauty that is Sophie Parkin’s Vout-O-Reenee’s bar, tucked away down some crypt steps, at 30 Prescot Street, Tower Hill. A private members’ bar, it carries on the spirit of the Colony Room, while adding a touch of the Bloomsbury Group’s Charleston. Every wall and floor is covered in hand-painted art. There’s a room decked out as a tribute to Monet, while the entrance hall has candelabra held in human hands, a la Cocteau’s Belle et La Bete.

The adjoining Stash Gallery is open to the public for exhibitions, and tonight is the private view of Ms Parkin’s show Sophie’s Choice. It comprises her own work alongside selections from her collection. Landscapes by her mother Molly, a watercolour by a young Cecil Beaton, and a couple of  works that may or may not be by Francis Bacon (the dispute is very Colony Room). I love Sophie’s own work: vivid and colourful Frida Kahlo-like self-portraits, often with a kind of New Romantic Madonna & Child theme (she was one of the original Blitz Kids in the early 80s). Her daughter, Carson, runs the bar. The whole place has the feel of defiant Old Soho Bohemia. And as it’s not in Soho, it also feels like an expat watering hole, like Dean’s Bar in Tangier. (Actually, Sophie Parkin once wrote a children’s book about Tangier: Bazaar Nights and Camel Bites).

In Moomins on the Riviera there’s a moustachioed character who’s obsessed with bohemian artists. He’d love it here.

* * *


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Cuckold’s Point, Crossrail Place

Saturday 16th May 2015.

Still enjoying my freedom after finishing the degree, while trying not to spend money in doing so. I’m tidying up at home, filing notes in lever-arch folders, then putting the folders away in cupboards. I wonder if I still need to keep quite so many handouts on revising for exams, but keep hold of them anyway. For now. I also make a series of trips this week, to empty my locker in Gordon Square, getting rid of my old set texts.

My copy of Malcolm X’s Autobiography is now in the hands of a young barista, who works in a café on Bedford Way. While paying for my americano, I idly mention I am on my way to Oxfam, and indicate my bag of paperbacks. The barista asks if he could have first dibs. He is delighted to get Malcolm, though he turns his nose up at The Bell Jar.

* * *

Sunday 17th May 2015.

I visit somewhere in London I’d been meaning to go since reading Eastward Ho!, the Jacobean comedy. There’s a scene set at Cuckold’s Point in Rotherhithe, opposite the Isle of Dogs. In the play, Slitgut, a butcher’s apprentice, has to renew the pair of ox horns which sit on the top of a pole there, thus giving the Point its name. One story goes that King John was caught in flagrante with a miller’s wife, and hastily offered the husband the land to one side of the Point, by way of apology. Hence the cuckold’s horns. The tale seems fairly apocryphal, though as transactions over sex scandals go, it’s hardly the strangest.

I take the tube to Canada Water, then a C10 bus to Pageant Steps, the nearest stop to the Point. The wharf is now built-up and lined with a series of pretty, Toytown-esque modern flats in red and cream brickwork. A new stone obelisk marks a break in the estates, with no markings at all. A monument to clean architectural blankness, perhaps. The Thames Path here is a public walkway, though it’s annoyingly broken up by private sections every now and then. There’s a set of old wooden steps leading down to the beach. The tide’s in when I visit, so the water breaks against the steps noisily. I stand and look out over the wall. A sunny, quiet Sunday. Canary Wharf’s monied towers blink warily at me from the other side.

I doubt that the steps are the ones that appear in the eighteenth century painting by Samuel Scott, A Morning, With A View of Cuckold’s Point. But this is Cuckold’s Point all right. The noise of the waves would make it a good spot to record a radio play version of Eastward Ho!

I stop for a drink at the Blacksmiths Arms nearby, a pleasant South London family pub. Then on through the Hilton Docklands Riverside hotel, exploring its covered walkway across the old dry dock. Then I catch the shuttle boat to Canary Wharf (£2.50, ten minutes).

I’m here to see a new part of the Isle of Dogs development that’s just been opened: Crossrail Place. It’s not even on many of the local signs, or even on Google Maps, which still has it down as ‘North Dock’.

As the name suggests, Crossrail Place is built over what will eventually be the Crossrail station for Canary Wharf.  To get there, I walk through the Adams Plaza Bridge, a geometric covered walkway. The main attraction is a long roof garden, designed by Norman Foster, which has an even more futuristic feel than the bridge, albeit one imagined in 1970s films, such as Silent Running and Logan’s Run. There’s a hood-like tesselated roof, with some of its sections open to the air. The plants are chosen to represent the Docklands history of global imports: Japanese maples and magnolias, tea trees, gum trees, lots of ferns.

I visit the new Everyman Canary Wharf cinema, tucked away several floors below, deep inside this latest castle of Lord Foster. A blue-haired woman there recognises me from my sole visit to the Everyman Selfridges screen. That pop-up screen, she tells me, has now been transplanted to this one; scatter cushions and all. ‘It isn’t a pop-up this time. This is indefinite.’

I think about the meaning of Crossrail Place as a name. Something that’s definitely there, named after something that’s not there, not yet. The backwards chronology, of being named after something from the future.

Then I descend into the Canary Wharf underground shopping malls, looking for a way out. Overlit, nearly empty, most of the shops closed on this Sunday evening. I get lost. ‘Ground’, I realise, is not necessarily the ground: the promenade levels linked to the tube stations are underground, so they have minus numbers. When looking for the way out, minus is a plus.

On the third time of repeating my steps, I start to go a little crazy. I look at a shopping map and count up the franchises. The winner is Pret A Manger, with five branches. I have visions of a labyrinth of endless underground Prets, all closed, and me locked in with them. It triggers an existential panic. Pret A L’Etranger! No Exit!

Eventually, I find my way to one of the DLR stations, and take its ghost train up and round and out of there. It’s the words of the blue-haired girl that stay with me: ‘This is indefinite’.

* * *

Tuesday 19th May 2015.

Back to Birkbeck in Bloomsbury, for one of their free Arts Week events. The novelist Deborah Levy gives a talk, ostensibly for the MA Creative Writing students, but it’s opened up to the public. As a result, it’s been moved to one of the larger lecture halls in Torrington Square. Literary events do seem to be bigger than ever. (I wonder if I could give talks on diary writing?)

Ms Levy wears a black velvet dress and speaks beautifully and generously. Her writing covers more genres than I thought: fiction, poetry and scripts for animated films. She begins with a Ballard quote:

‘I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways […] I believe in the beauty of all women, in the treachery of their imaginations, so close to my heart’.

The latter line, about the female imagination as treacherous, is Ms Levy’s favourite. (I prefer the bit about charming motorways).

She talks about the changes in writing technologies; how her first novel, Beautiful Mutants (1987) was written using a typewriter and carbon paper. Now she has a range of Macs. The internet has changed the focus on research: it makes us ‘amateur experts in anything’, she says. But she warns that ‘staring at a screen is not staring at the world’. The first line of Swimming Home was inspired by Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

Ms L spent two years reading Freud ‘solidly’, and recommends everyone reads his case studies. Reading Freud for her was ‘like taking acid’.

* * *

Thursday 21st May 2015.

To the Barbican Screen One, for the new Mad Max film, Fury Road. I’m not at all keen on noisy action films, but the word of mouth on this one was intriguing. It’s the highly-wrought aesthetics and design that are its main appeal. They produce a fully realised world, with a very Australian feeling of a sun-scorched, marginalised take on the usual post-apocalyptic frolics (the Brisbane-born director, George Miller, also did the original Max Max films). It’s also reminiscent of the Duran Duran video for ‘Wild Boys’, of Heavy Metal the magazine, heavy metal the music (not least Iron Maiden album sleeves), and of the comic 2000AD in the 1980s, possibly because Brendan McCarthy (a veteran 2000AD writer) is involved. Despite this piling up of 80s influences, it overcomes any nostalgia by adding a very 2015 tone of pro-disabled & pro-feminist anger. Charlize Theron’s one-armed, crop-haired renegade carries the film’s main mission, while the male leads are either noble grunts who get drawn in (Tom Hardy’s Max) or white-skinned lost boys desperate for approval (Nicholas Hoult). I loved it for the same reason as I loved Mr Lurhmann’s Great Gatsby 3D: sheer, consummate design talent.

* * *

Friday 22nd May 2015.

Fashion blogger Danielle Bernstein is profiled in Harper’s Bazaar about the money she earns. She’s 22 and has a million followers on her Instagram account, ‘WeWoreWhat’. She commands ‘from $5,000 – to $15,000’ every time she posts a sponsored photo of some ensemble. Asked about her annual income, she says ‘it’s in the mid-six figures.’

While I wish Ms Bernstein well, it’s hard not to feel depressed how this reflects on my own situation. I’m technically a blogger of some 18 years experience now – most of Ms Bernstein’s lifetime. But I’ve so far failed to command even a minimum wage from it.

Still, I admit it’s not quite the same. I don’t really ‘blog’, I write a diary. I don’t do regular sponsored posts (though if a menswear firm wanted to sponsor me, I might make an exception). I don’t carry pop-up adverts, out of aesthetic choice. I also don’t do Instagram, being more of a wordsmith.

But the key difference is that she’s good at social media, and I feel relatively anti-social. The adage used to be that life was ‘not a popularity contest’, that the socially awkward kids, the quiet kids, the misfits, the bookish types, all had as much to offer as the popular kids, the jocks and the cheerleaders.

Today, social media has changed all that. It validates the cheerleader mentality as a lifelong ideal. Your value as a person is down to your amount of followers, rather than who they might be. The geek has not inherited the world: he’s just used the internet to become a new form of jock. The ‘core’ geeks – the quieter, the less financially driven, the weirder creative types, and anyone who doesn’t see mass popularity as an end – are in danger of being more marginalised than ever.

Still, I have also had some cheering news. A publisher wants to include some of my diary entries in a new anthology – a different one to A London Year. And this time they can afford to pay me. Not a life-changing amount. But it is the first time I’ve been paid in cash to contribute to a book. So I hope for more of that sort of thing.

It’s taken me most of my life to accept that I’ll never be among the cheerleaders. But I also know that I’m not as alone as I thought. And this is why I go on.

* * *


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Story of The Hair

Saturday 9th May 2015.

A laid-back week of reading in cafes, or tidying up at home. ‘Cut thistles in May / They’ll grow in a day’, goes the gardening rhyme. No gardener I, not even of pot plants. Instead I prune my books, lest they march across the floor.

Lots of taking back of library books, and donating to charity shops. A certain elation now, over being able to read what I want, without the guilt of thinking I should be spending such time on a set text. But there’s also a kind of grieving, of not being able to comprehend how the course is finally over.

* * *

Monday 11th May 2015.

4pm: To Maison Bertaux in Soho for tea with Laurence Hughes. New paintings by Noel Fielding on the walls. Laurence reminds me how Derek Jarman was a regular here: he visited Jarman in his Charing Cross flat.

I rather like how this chat turns out to be my first social occasion after the election, given that LH is a UKIP member, and I’m a Green. We politely agree to disagree over matters political, but otherwise get on fine. As it is, we can grumble in unison over the unfairness of the voting system, when millions of votes can only result in a single MP.

Today I remind myself how many of my favourite writers were not exactly tuned into my political wavelength. Evelyn Waugh for starters. A man who in his novels could write so perceptively and beautifully about the business of being human full stop, while in his diary he made remarks like: ‘It is impudent and exorbitant to demand truth from the lower classes’ (Waugh: Diaries, July 1961, p. 784).

Similarly, I’ll always remember how during my candidacy in the 2006 Haringey Council elections, the people who were friendliest to me at the count, after the Greens, were the local Tories. All anyone ever wants to know about anyone is ‘were they nice?

* * *

Wednesday 13th May 2015.

A day trip to Brighton. £19 day return, a noon train from Victoria, the sea appearing in under an hour. I feel smug about the timing: the sunniest day all week. Some men on the pier are going bare-chested, in that time-honoured, overly optimistic, utterly English way. I revisit the Pavilion for tea on the balcony, this time learning from the staff that the Banqueting Hall was once used for a film dream sequence. It’s in the Barbra Streisand musical, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970). I find it on YouTube (one must search for the song ‘Love With All The Trimmings’). Given that the Pavilion is often held up as an example of camp avant la lettre, and that the building inspired Aubrey Beardsley, who in turn inspired a whole universe of camp, it’s fair to say that the Streisand scene attains a level of campness that soars off the scale. Even more so: her costume is designed by Cecil Beaton.

* * *

Thursday 14th May 2015.

To the new Maggi Hambling exhibition at Somerset House: War Requiem & Aftermath. A couple of sound installations, one using Britten’s War Requiem, one using ambient sea noises. Most of it is on the theme of war and ruins, but there’s also a posthumous portrait of Sebastian Horsley, which I’d not seen before. SH’s face is a mass of morbid, octopoid black swirls, in the typical Hambling style. Actually, my hair is very Hambling-esque at the moment. I’ve left cutting it for so long that it’s turned into a thick hedge of curved lines, without quite becoming curly. It never grows down, only out.

* * *

Friday 15th May 2015.

The Boston bomber gets the death sentence. He is 21.

For all its faults, today I feel glad to live in a country that has fully abolished capital punishment, in all circumstances.

* * *

To the Curzon Bloomsbury cinema in the Brunswick Centre, formerly the Renoir. A sign in the shopping centre nearby still points to it as the Renoir. This triggers a phobia of mine: signs that point to things that no longer exist. A hint of reality breaking down. Bloomsbury has a shaky relationship with time as it is: every other building is entirely held together by blue plaques.

In music news this week: Jarvis Cocker and the other members of Pulp unveil a plaque to mark the site of their first gig. Cocker gives a witty reply to the inevitable query as to the next Pulp reunion: ‘I think plaques are the way forward for Pulp now.’ The heritage explosion certainly mirrors the endless need for commenting online: primary content must be secured, anchored, celebrated, pored over. No end of anniversaries.

And so: no end of documentaries either. I’m here to investigate the new Bertha DocHouse inside the Curzon Bloomsbury, billed as London’s first documentary-only cinema. It’s one of several small screens inside the same underground complex, so I’m not sure it counts as a ‘cinema’ in itself. However, the screen is given its own little entrance lounge, Minotaur-like, deep within the labyrinth of the Curzon. This is two floors down, past three bars, and along several corridors, all of which are refurbished in a kind of Brutalist Deco style: part 1960s (to acknowledge the Brunswick Centre), and part 1920s Metropolis, with dark spaces punctuated by elegantly shaped pools of light,  with signs in Deco lettering.

The new documentary I see on the DocHouse screen is Lambert and Stamp. It’s about Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, who managed The Who during the band’s 1960s and early 70s heyday. In the archive footage, Chris Stamp is a shockingly pretty young man – a proper ‘Ace Face’ Mod, with an immaculate feathercut hairdo and a range of sharp suits. Much is made of the way he looked more like a rock star than the band he managed. When Terence Stamp turns out to be his brother, it all makes sense. The Epstein-esque Lambert – very gay and posh – is long dead, so Stamp – very straight and working class – does most of the talking in the film. He seems to have had a life of falling into things accidentally. He thought he’d be a documentary filmmaker himself – The Who were originally taken on in order to appear in some sort of film about the London music scene. But the band took over, and the film was never made. By the time a film was made – Tommy – Pete Townsend feared the managers had enough control, so it went to Ken Russell. Eventually it all ends in drug addiction, and the band sue Stamp and Lambert for mismanagement, though Stamp is at pains to point out that the Who owned Shepperton Studios thanks to them, so they can’t have been that bad. I later discover that Chris Stamp died in 2012. It’s proof that these independent documentaries can really take a while to come out.

Also learned: when the High Numbers changed their name to The Who (‘the High Numbers sounded too… Bingo‘), one name they considered was The Hair.

* * *

Evening: to the Birkbeck student union bar, for a drinks gathering among my fellow English BA finalists. The bar is on the fourth floor of the main college building, in Torrington Square. We stand outside, on the bar’s rooftop terrace.

Some years ago, when the smoking ban came in, the idea of there being non-smoking areas outdoors was laughed at. Not anymore. Despite being in the open air, and high above street level, half the rooftop terrace is designated for non-smoking, while the other half is for smoking. A security guard gets into a loud and embarrassing argument with one of our party. It turns out that our friend has accidentally dared to smoke slightly over the border between these two sections of unfettered breeze. It’s only now that we learn that an object, mounted on a nearby wall, is meant to mark the dividing line: ‘You’re standing on the wrong side of the satellite dish!’

* * *


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The National Masochism

Saturday 2nd May 2015.

A break from the essay writing, to attend a pre-wedding party in Peckham Rye. I was at Caroline & Lesley’s civil partnership a few years ago, and now they’re doing the upgrade to a proper marriage. The apple tree blossom is out in their garden, though the weather is too chilly to stay outside long. There’s a buffet of all vegetarian food, including what looks (and tastes) like salami, but is obviously some kind of meat-free substitute. Carnivores would never know. There was a scandal a year or two ago where horse meat was found to be in supermarket beef burgers. The implication was that it was the wrong kind of cruelty. I wonder what the reaction would be if a range of burgers was discovered to contain a vegetarian substitute.

* * *

Sunday 3rd May 2015.

Into the editing of the last essay, on Angela Carter. I take a break to read through the Sunday Times. A column by Rod Liddle on wolf-whistling has the headline ‘A whistle is far from harmless in the company of wolves’. Ms Carter gets everywhere.

Evening: I see Far From The Madding Crowd at the East Finchley Phoenix. A new adaptation with Carey Mulligan. She is perfect for the main role: capable and independent, yet still child-like enough for Michael Sheen’s character to go on about wanting ‘to protect’ her. The Gabriel Oak actor – a specially-imported Belgian, like the chocolates – is similarly well-cast: lunging around the scenery, brawny in just the wrong way, like an American footballer who needs no padding. The film feels properly cinematic: Thomas Hardy better suits film rather than TV serialisations. The viewer needs to feel cut off from the world, to feel the isolation of the Wessex characters. A TV serial would feel too much like one could come and go. Film – if seen in a cinema – is still a medium that forces the narrative into one, unavoidable burst. The cinemagoer is a volunteer captive. As a character in the film says, ‘Imagine having choice!’

* * *

Monday 4th May 2015.

I spend the bank holiday working on the third draft of the Carter essay.

* * *

Tuesday 5th May 2015.

Fourth draft of the essay. In the Barbican Cinema Café, I am the only person not staring at a laptop. The man at the table to my left is in the process of buying a house. He has a huge stack of paperwork and makes umpteen phone calls. I can see on his laptop what the house looks like – several bedrooms, Ealing. £999,000. An incomprehensible life, for me. But then, it’s currently beyond the reach of many who do comprehend it.

* * *

I read an article in the TLS on two memoirs by bass players. One book is by Kim Gordon, of Sonic Youth. The other is by Stuart David, of Belle and Sebastian. The reviewer refers to Sonic Youth as ‘the New York band’, while B&S are ‘a gently eccentric Glaswegian band’. It’s the choice of the indefinite article that fascinates me. The assumption that the average TLS reader has heard of one band, but not the other. These days, the need to second-guess your reader’s knowledge is more redundant than ever. If your reader has not heard of something, you can assume they have heard of Google.

* * *

Wednesday 6th May 2015.

Fifth draft. Poring over the MHRA style guide. Today it’s for the correct rules on using em-dashes in bibliographies. When listing several sources by the same author, you’re meant to put in a long dash rather than repeat the author’s name. The MHRA guide says this should be a ‘2-em’ dash, as in a double length dash, while other guides say it needs to be a triple-length dash. So I spend far too long checking the length of my dashes.

I know this is all trainspotting stuff, yet I’m terrified of getting it wrong. I worry there are markers out there who make Lynn Truss look laid-back.

* * *

Thursday 7th May 2015.

I vote Green at Jackson’s Lane Community Centre, opposite Highgate tube station. Still the stubby little pencil, still the bit of string. Still the bits of paper to post in boxes. In 2015. It’s a kind of comforting Ludditism.

Then into Bloomsbury for Birkbeck’s library, for the final draft of the essay. I panic while typing up the last revisions, suddenly seeing paragraphs that can be improved, or so I think. It’s the feeling that it’s all coming to an end that’s really to blame. It feels like reaching the edge of a cliff.

I get to a point where I’m clearly fiddling with the essay for the sake of it, rather than actually doing any good. After two hours of this, I force myself to let go, and upload the essay to the college website. Then I spend another half an hour checking and re-checking that it’s definitely uploaded. All this time spent – I wonder if it shows in the work.

Then I email a copy to myself, and print one out, which has to be deposited in the slot in Gordon Square. No feeling of ceremony as I’d hoped – I’m too anxious. Unable to believe it’s over.

It’s not really over till I get the grade, though. By early June I’ll receive provisional marks for the last three assessments, including the dissertation. Then in mid-July I’ll have the finalised marks, along with the actual degree grade.

Until then, I can take a bit of a break and reflect on the course.

Most of all, I’m proud that I made every single deadline over the four years. And that I stuck with it till the end. Not bad for someone with a history of giving up.

* * *

By way of a treat, I go to the ICA cinema in the Mall, for the absurdist Swedish film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. It’s essentially a series of slow, surreal tableaux, where a single shot can last for fifteen minutes. Some moments are funny, some nightmarish. Lots of subtle white face make-up, recalling Samuel Beckett on clowns. There’s a vague plot involving two travelling salesmen trying to sell practical jokes from a suitcase. Otherwise it’s more like a dark sketch show – part Monty Python, part Eugene Ionesco. I love the scene where a young king from the 18th century invades a modern bar, along with his entire army, some of whom are on horseback.

* * *

Friday 8th May 2015.

The election feels like a bout of national masochism, with no safe word. I think Mr Miliband really meant ‘Hell? Yes.’

* * *

In the end, everyone got it wrong. Even the people who organise the Queen, as she apparently had to be quickly transported to Buck House in time for Cameron’s audience.

It was assumed that today would be devoted to cross-party deals and negotiations for another coalition. Instead, just like in 1992, the Tories secured an outright win. Even David Cameron was surprised.

As with previous Tory wins, I’m mindful of the scene in Patrick Keiller’s London (1994), where Paul Schofield’s fictional narrator witnesses the 1992 victory by John Major. Keiller suddenly breaks into a splenetic rant, if a beautifully phrased one. The words seem more apposite than ever:

It seemed there was no longer anything a Conservative government could do to cause it to be voted out of office […] There were, said Robinson, no mitigating circumstances. [… ] The middle class in England had continued to vote Conservative because, in their miserable hearts, they still believed that it was in their interest to do so. Robinson began to consider what the result would mean for him. His flat would continue to deteriorate, and his rent increase. […] He would drink more and less well, he would be ill more often, he would die sooner. For the old, or anyone with children, it would be much worse.’

One silver lining is that there’s more fans of Keiller’s film out there than I previously thought. Today, the YouTube clip of this scene is being passed around on Twitter (https://youtu.be/v84byeueCBI). It was actually me who edited and uploaded the clip. I did so back in 2008, on the day that Boris Johnson got in as mayor. It’s rather gratifying to see the clip take on a modest life of its own. I also like that it remains the only video on my YouTube channel. I have to succumb to ‘vlogging’.

Other results: the Lib Dems lost a shocking amount of votes, UKIP were reduced to their Clacton seat, the Greens increased their majority in Brighton but didn’t gain any more MPs. Nigel Farage, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg all resigned – and all suspiciously quickly, before the election had properly finished. In the past an election defeat was not necessarily reason enough to quit – Kinnock certainly hung on through a few.

I hope the replacements for Miliband and Clegg will try to be themselves a little more, and be like Mr Blair a little less.

* * *

In the evening: a celebration of a less controversial victory – VE Day. It’s the 70th anniversary today. I go the Phoenix in East Finchley for a specially-timed preview screening of A Royal Night Out. The film is a loose retelling of the story that on VE day, the teenage princesses Elizabeth and Margaret went out incognito in London, and joined in with the revelries.

The Phoenix cinema has turned the screening into a 1945-themed event. The building has reverted to its 40s name, The Rex, the staff are in vintage costume, there’s Union Jack bunting, facsimile ration books on the cafe tables, Glen Miller on the hi-fi, and braised beef stew on the menu.

The film itself is suitably jolly and nostalgic. A little slight perhaps, but no less well made than The Young Victoria, a few years ago. The production design is impressive, particularly when the action moves to Trafalgar Square – so many costumed extras, in a location that’s so hard to close for filming. Parts of the story are a little unlikely, and there’s a lot of blatant homage to Roman Holiday, with a princess enjoying a short, chaste spell of romance with a commoner. But the young actresses playing the princesses ‘Lizzy’, and ‘Mags’, as they call themselves, really carry the whole thing off. It’s a sweet film, and eschews any purely royalist messages to make one about the importance of common humanity. One can only hope that’s something the new government thinks about.


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Mr Brand The Security Botherer

Saturday 25th April 2015.

Reading lots of Angela Carter this week, as research for the final essay (due in on the 8th). Her collection of essays, Shaking A Leg, is a joy. ‘Alison’s Giggle’ examines the moment in the Canterbury Tales where a young wife plays a sexual prank on an unwanted suitor. She giggles in triumph (‘Tee hee! quod she’). Carter argues that this giggle is rarely heard across the next five centuries of English literature, due to it being sexually knowing. She also compares the Wife of Bath to Mae West. So I’m linking all this to her use of Ronald Firbank’s effeminate 1920s giggle in her radio play, A Self-Made Man, along with theories of the meaning of laughter.

Feminine laughter is crucial to Carter. It dominates the finale of Nights At The Circus, and features in one of her greatest lines full stop. It’s the twist moment in her take on Red Riding Hood, in ‘The Company of Wolves’:

‘The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.’

* * *

Sunday 26th April 2015.

Sometimes when I’m researching, the few Google results that come up include my own diary. I like to think this means I’m creating a useful resource: that I’ve found something Google doesn’t know, and put it online so that it does. But really, the fear is that it’s just me who is looking.

* * *

Monday 27th April 2015.

Last day of research for the essay, in the British Library. I listen to A Self-Made Man on the BL Sound Archive. A couple of years ago there was a documentary on Radio 4, Writing in Three Dimensions, entirely about Carter’s radio plays. It’s still available on the BBC’s streaming iPlayer, and also as a digital audiobook. Yet none of the actual plays themselves are available. Just the documentary telling us how good they are.

***

Some good news about the Dubai-ification of London this week. A pretty 1920s pub, the Carlton Tavern in Maida Vale, was demolished by the usual profit-obsessed company. Only this time they did it without telling anyone first. As a result, the council ordered the company to rebuild the pub brick-by-brick, as a facsimile. It’s thought to be the first time this has happened. I hope it starts a trend of Londoners being asked if a building should be torn down, and asked whether yet another empty glass tower should go up. Thinking the unthinkable.

* * *

Tuesday 28th April 2015.

To a lesser-known Birkbeck building at Number 30 Russell Square, for the very last class in the BA English degree. It’s for the ‘American Century’ module, on Toni Morrison’s novella Home (2012). Pretty much a mini-Beloved, and unlikely to eclipse that earlier novel’s reputation. But I like its moments of suspense, its taut and careful prose, and the usual Morrison hallmark of shining a light on America’s shadier past. The tutor, Anna Hartnell, quotes a scathing review which accuses Ms Morrison of just doing the same thing over and over again. I’ve never understood why that’s a criticism. It’s called style.

Afterwards, to the Institute of Education bar, close by, for drinks with some of the students. We chat about what we’re doing after our BA’s. Some are moving into teaching. Some are taking other courses (dressmaking, in one case). Some are just going back to their jobs, pleased to be able to spend more time with their partners and children, but armed with an extra qualification.

I’ve finally sent off my application for an MA bursary at Birkbeck. My supporting statement took three drafts, and was shown to two kindly tutors for their feedback. Have to get it right – it’s essentially a begging letter. But then, so are CVs.

* * *

Wednesday 29th April 2015.

To the Prince Charles Cinema for the Russell Brand film, The Emperor’s New Clothes. Interesting audience for the screening – casual filmgoers, but also a lot of proper activists. Older, white-bearded veterans of protests, with their slogan badges, plus younger, louder student types. Afterwards I can hear them discussing where the next Occupy protest is going to be.

The film is in the mould of those Michael Moore documentaries – lots of scenes where Mr Brand turns up with his megaphone and film crew at some glossy City lobby, demanding to speak to a naughty banker. Funnily enough, he doesn’t get to speak to the boss, and instead is left taunting some blameless security guard. This futile spectacle happens five or six times in the film – Brand doesn’t seem to learn.  The rest of it is more interesting, though: interviewing those hit by government cuts, speaking to economists who point out why the erring rich are allowed to get away with it, and stark statistics about the gulf between the wages earned by cleaners, and those earned by the people who step over their hoovers. The main message is that historically, banks never used to be these self-serving monsters of unchecked growth – they were meant to be providers of services for everyone else. So they should go back to being that way. This would mean those in power bringing in new caps and regulations, even if, as one expert puts it, it’ll be like turkeys voting for Christmas (Noel Gallagher on Ed Miliband this week – ‘he’s a communist’). Perhaps this is all an obvious lesson, but when Mr Brand tells it, it does reach those who might be unaware.

Brand is funny and charismatic enough, but I can’t help thinking of Trickster myths. The Trickster – that priapic figure of tribal societies, who exists to represent disorder. Jung was convinced he represented something under the skin in everyone, and that he emerged in times of national crisis. Mr B certainly connects with that idea; the feeling that he is tapping into something primal and atavistic (I’m sure that’s one of his favourite words), so people pay attention. And in an era where attention is currency, Mr B is the richest of the super-rich. Still, he does seem to redistribute some of this attention to do good. And politicians do listen to him. This week, he interviewed the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, one-to-one – and Miliband came to Brand’s house! An audience with His Majesty The Trickster.

I renew my Prince Charles Cinema membership: only £7.50 a year, with NUS. For that, one can see brand new films, most days, for £4, and in the centre of London too. It remains one of the best cinemas in the city.

* * *

Thursday 30th April 2015.

I watch the latest leaders’ TV Q&A. All three of them – Cameron, Miliband, Clegg – have the same irritating habit of saying ‘look’ at the start of every other sentence. It’s pure Tony Blair. And that’s the whole problem – it’s 2015 and all the politicians are watching videos of Blair in 1997, and copying his mannerisms. The last landslide.

There’s a new Blur album out. More Nineties.

* * *

Friday 1st May 2015.

I finish the first draft of the essay (3000 words). The usual feeling that it’s a mess, and that the later drafts will sort it out.

Feel like treating myself, so to the Prince Charles cinema again. This time for the Kurt Cobain film, Montage of Heck. Well, if it must be a Nineties week…

It’s a curious music documentary: it expects the audience to be very familiar with the subject matter already. The music is there as a soundtrack, but that’s it. There’s hardly any details about the story of the band, what the songs might be about, why the drummers changed and so forth. Instead it’s more of an attempt to get under the skin of Cobain the man, via rare footage and home movies. There’s also some original animated segments, which I can take or leave, frankly. Some of them illustrate audio recordings, some make Cobain’s notebooks come to life. Plus there’s a few interviews with friends and family, which try to make a connection between his parents’ divorce and his problems with relating to the world – hating fame, seeking solace in drugs. As the film has been executively produced by his daughter, various people’s feelings have clearly been considered as a priority. Which is fair enough. But that’s always the way with such films. A truth. rather than the truth.

Something that dates the film. These days, family snapshots tend to be freely posted on social media, rather than hidden away on a shelf at home. Personal snaps? Taken now more than ever. But ‘rare and unseen’ like the ones in the Cobain film? Not so much. Today, people show photos of their children to millions of strangers. Everyone’s in their own documentary now.

And in my Canute-like way, today I sit in the Crypt café in St Martin in the Fields, and write a letter to Pittsburgh.

* * *


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The Secret Of Nerve

Saturday 18th April 2015.

Revising one essay while starting the research on another. I’m rather looking forward to the time when I don’t have to think about essays (May 8th). And indeed when this diary won’t be such a strain to write, because I’ll finally manage to do other things, rather than sit and stare at books and screens quite so often. And yet I look around on Tube trains and in cafes and so much daily life is just that: people staring at books (or newspapers) and screens.

* * *

Sunday 19th April 2015.

Bump into some fellow BA English students near the main library, and relish the chance to join them for some food at Leon on Tottenham Court Road. One is doing his dissertation on Roberto Bolano. As a result he’s had to study Bolano’s novel 2666, an absolute doorstopper at over a thousand pages long. ‘It is good, though’.

* * *

Monday 20th April 2015.

In the British Library. Busy in the café areas, but I still have no trouble finding an empty desk in the Rare Books reading room. Possibly because I always use the designated pencil and paper-only area, where laptops are banned. I’m not much of a regular, but two staffers recognise me. When it comes to my turn at the issue desk, I am greeted with a cheery ‘Mr Edwards’!

* * *

Tuesday 21st April 2015.

The penultimate class for the USA culture module. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Tutor: Anna Hartnell. Classroom: G01, in the knocked-through labyrinth of 43 Gordon Square. My last class in the building, in fact. More students turn up than Anna expects – after all, it’s the time of year when students have a swamp of deadlines and revision. But a healthy amount arrive, keen perhaps, like me, to add some structure to an otherwise vague timetable. McCarthy’s subtle tricks impress: the careful elision of apostrophes for some words, but not others, the avoidance of brand names in a post-apocalyptic America, except for two mentions of Coca-Cola. I was going to watch the film version after reading the book, but I couldn’t face going through such a grim story all over again.

* * *

Wednesday 22nd April 2015.

Astonished myself by cramming in more work than usual. Finished and delivered the penultimate essay (the post-9/11 meaning of masks in The Dark Knight and In The Shadow of No Towers), finished the last set text (Toni Morrison’s Home), sent off the MA application, wrote a draft supporting statement for the bursaries, and went to the last seminar for the post-war module. Ian McEwan’s First Love Last Rites, plus a short story, ‘Running Down’, by M John Harrison. Roger Luckhurst is quite scathing about later McEwan books, but praises the earlier, creepier fiction to the hilt. He also gives the course a general summing-up, arguing that there is no such thing as a post-WW2 canon of literature. No definitive and essential authors, like Dickens or Shakespeare are for their eras. He reminds us that Brideshead Revisited is still a controversial choice: many tutors won’t touch it. And yet it’s popular with the students, and from all backgrounds too. What the naysayers of Brideshead overlook is that, despite all the snobbery and wistful idealisation, it has two of the best characters in twentieth century literature: Sebastian Flyte and Anthony Blanche. All else can be forgiven.

* * *

Friday 24th April 2015.

To the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley for The Falling, the new film by Carol Morley. I loved her very original documentaries, The Alcohol Years and Dreams of A Life, and was curious to see what she would do with a fictional narrative. As per those two earlier films this one has the theme of wary, detached and mysterious girls, out of step with the world. In The Alcohol Years the mysterious girl was Ms Morley’s own younger self – she couldn’t remember her club-going past. Dreams of A Life told the sad story of an amateur singer who died alone in a North London flat – not so far from here – and no one even noticed she was missing for years.

The Falling is inspired by real accounts of unexplained mass faintings at girls’ schools, but here it’s entwined with metaphors for budding sexuality and the defiance of adults. It’s also an impressionistic art piece, covering the inherent surrealism of the teenage condition, and depicting the way intense friendships are made all the more intense by a single-sex environment. On top of that, it’s set in the 1960s, so there’s a sense of the whole world being on the cusp of change, albeit in the background. The atmosphere of the film is oneiric, hallucinogenic, and often puzzling. I know Maisie Williams is already a star from Game of Thrones, but this film puts her striking presence to proper use – with her thick eyebrows and owlish little face, she can be at turns witchy or ordinary, but always magnetic. Florence Pugh, her blonde best friend, has a very 60s face, like a teenage Shirley Eaton.

The Falling’s aesthetic influences are clear: Picnic At Hanging Rock (especially on the film poster – vintage schoolgirls in an outdoor drawing class), If…., Heavenly Creatures, The Virgin Suicides and possibly Jonathan Miller’s 1960s Alice In Wonderland (all favourites of mine). But as the film goes on it feels a lot more personal and unique. Full of images that linger in the mind afterwards. And a strong example of that rare thing in cinema – the female gaze. Not just the director, but all the assistant directors and much of the production crew are female.

* * *

Today’s good news is that Birkbeck have offered me a place on their MA course in Contemporary Literature & Culture. Barely two days after I sent off the application, too – my referees must have been prompt. I’ve accepted, in a pencilling-in sort of way, as it’s conditional on my getting at least a 2.2 on the BA (the result due in mid-July). And then there’s the rather trickier matter of getting funding for the fees: something I’m currently working on.

But for now, it’s back to the BA for two more weeks, with an essay on Angela Carter. I’m discussing The Passion of New Eve, along with her somewhat less examined radio play on Firbank, A Self-Made Man. Always with one eye on the gap on the bookshelf. And yet my best essay was for The Picture of Dorian Gray. No shortage of writing about that! Somehow I still found something new to say.

This is something I must remember, really, for the next time I worry that a subject has been done to death. A subject, perhaps. Your own take, never. The secret is so simple. Nerve.


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