Notes On Twee
Sunday 12th April 2015.
To the Hackney Picturehouse for the screening of My Secret World, a film-length documentary about Sarah Records. It’s directed by Lucy Hawkins, and she’s invited me to DJ at the event. Shanthi S has agreed to accompany me, which makes things easier. I still have a searing awkwardness about going to chatty gatherings by myself. But as it turns out, I end up speaking to Tim Chipping and Clare Wadd in the cinema’s café before I see Shanthi, who’s at a table in the corner, wearing sunglasses indoors (‘a heavy night’). A happy reunion: the first time I’ve seen Matt and Clare for some time, as well as Tim Chipping. Travis Elborough there too.
After the film there’s a Q&A with the label co-runners, Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes, hosted by Pete Paphides. Then I install myself in the DJ booth of the venue’s Attic bar, playing only tracks released by Sarah.
So many documentaries about now. In the future, everyone who isn’t famous for fifteen minutes – or as in the case of the Field Mice, those who do their utmost not to be famous -will have an independent documentary made about them instead.
One good thing about premiere screenings of music documentaries, though, is that they can take the awkwardness off band reunions. One is really gathered to celebrate, or least discuss, a New Thing: a film.
Which turns out to be enjoyable, heartfelt and very nicely made. Lots of talking heads – band members and fans. Fans who started their own bands, like one fellow from The Drums. Lots of inspired use of graphics, making the record sleeves turn into their Bristol locations. And a good sense of the way Sarah represented a certain aesthetic – a kind of poetic wariness of the world, a subcultural Refusal (to quote Dick Hebdige), that risked being mistaken for simple shyness, and indeed was often dismissed with the pejorative of ‘tweeness’ (though I quite like that word). It’s an aesthetic perhaps best summed up in the Field Mice song, ‘Sensitive’.
The Field Mice singer Bobby Wratten is the voice most absent from the film (there’s always one – I hear Dave Grohl is frustratingly absent from the new Kurt Cobain doc), but then the mission to cover every band released on the label means that even the more popular bands’ stories get only a small amount of time. One must tell a story, because it’s impossible to tell the story. No such thing.
The film is about love, ultimately. The love of Matt and Clare, and their love of music. The film is often about their time together: how they met (at a Julian Cope gig), how fanzines brought them together, how Sarah Records was their ‘child’, and how the releases sometimes carried little oblique accounts of their relationship. Though they split up around the time the label stopped, they’re clearly both still friends, and are even happy to help promote the film together.
Tim C has a good anecdote in the film about the way the label actually told him off for not writing them enough letters. And I’m there in the film too, very briefly, in archive footage of our band Shelley (a version of Orlando), miming guitar while Tim C sings, in the old Top of the Pops studio. A whole other story why that happened. I’m just glad that I’m wearing a suit.
Afterwards I chat to some nice people from the ‘Doc ‘N Roll’ organisation, who put on the film. They tell me there’s a new Picturehouse opening soon, in the old Cineworld at the Trocadero, by Piccadilly Circus. ‘Picturehouse Central’. Any cinema chain that puts on a Sarah Records film has its heart in the right place.
Here’s what I played in the DJ set, though not in this order. I thought I had more than enough Field Mice songs, but Jonathan from Trembling Blue Stars demanded I played ‘Missing The Moon’ too. I let him plug in his iPod and play it himself. Such was his ardour.
The Field Mice: Sensitive, If You Need Someone, Let’s Kiss and Make Up, Coach Station Reunion, You’re Kidding Aren’t You, This Love Is Not Wrong, Emma’s House, When Morning Comes To Town.
The Orchids: Caveman, What Will We Do Next, The Sadness of Sex (Part 1), Bemused, Confused and Bedraggled, How Does That Feel
Heavenly: Our Love Is Heavenly, Three Star Compartment, Sperm Meets Egg So What, C Is The Heavenly Option, Atta Girl
Blueboy: Cosmopolitan, Imipramine, The Joy Of Living, Popkiss, Sea Horses
Even As We Speak: Swimming Song, Drown
Brighter: Ocean Sky, Never Ever, Killjoy
St. Christopher: And I Wonder, The Thrill Of The New
The Wake: Carbrain, Crush The Flowers
Action Painting: These Things Happen
Another Sunny Day: You Should All Be Murdered
The Sea Urchins: Pristine Christine
* * *
Monday 13th April 2015.
The rest of this week is the last leg of the dissertation. Sitting in libraries and cafes, revising drafts 3, 4, 5. Emailing some drafts to kind friends, who detect all the typos I missed. I also get to a point where I have too many notes to fit into the text. Again, it’s like the Sarah Records film: impossible to cover everything. And never finished, but abandoned.
* * *
Thursday 16th April 2015
It’s getting to the point where I’m revising my dissertation while waiting at the traffic lights on Euston Road. Pen on folded print out, as if I’m doing a crossword.
* * *
Friday 17th April 2015.
Some more detail on a typical day this week.
Morning: I sit in the Barbican Cinema Café and revise the dissertation with a Bic Orange Fine pen, one last time in this case. Sixth draft. Around me, people with beards have meetings about podcasts.
Walk around London Wall by way of a break. Like so much in the City, it’s a mixture of cranes, hoardings, a few startling old buildings that have managed to escape the wrecking ball (listed, I’m guessing), and umpteen Dubai-like towers of glass that seem to be springing up at a worrying rate. Meanwhile, barely a week goes by without news of another historic venue closing. The Black Cap in Camden shut down this week. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is hanging on for dear life. Oh, Londinium.
Then to Birkbeck Library in Torrington Square, to type up the revisions. Even though I have a laptop, I prefer to use the college computers, or even one of the few remaining internet cafes (like the one in Marchmont Street today). Less to carry, less to lose, less to worry about. And I am not of the backpack persuasion.
I take a seat next to a student I slightly know, who’s in the same year. He’s flustered with the logjam of work that happens around this time, as are most students. ‘Wish I’d not left it till the last minute’. We have a whispered chat. ‘What’s the quickest time you’ve written an essay in?’
I finish typing the revisions, then upload the dissertation to the college’s online system, ‘Turnitin’ (ah, modern life!). Then I print out two copies, as required, and take them across the road. I get them bound in the secret branch of Ryman’s that lurks in the basement of Waterstones, Gower Street. A friendly woman with a heavy cold gives them a ‘comb’ style of binding, while I wait. Thirty-eight A4 pages, with copious footnotes. I was still agonising over every page reference on the last draft. Just how do they want me to use ‘Ibid’, again? Style guides have such niggling rules: capitalise this, except when you don’t. Full stops here, but not here.
A sunny day, bluebells out in Gordon Square. Not quite warm enough to sit on the grass, but the students do so anyway. I go into the School of Arts lobby and drop the two copies of the dissertation through the designated letter box. There. Done. Something I’ve been working on since last summer, finally finished. Will it show?
But there’s no time to rest. On with the next essay. Two of those to go before May 8th. Still, they’re only 2500 words each.
Now working on the penultimate essay. For the first time I’ve written the introduction before finishing the main text, because I can somehow see the whole shape of the thing at once. Perhaps it’s lit up by the light at the end of the tunnel.
, hackney picturehouse
, my secret world
, sarah records
Carry On Hipster
Saturday 4th April 2015.
To Suffolk to spend three nights over Easter, guest of Mum. I have to do some college work while I’m there: revising the second draft of the dissertation, plus reading an Ian McEwan book of short stories (the creepy First Love, Last Rites). Spring flowers in the house and garden – anemones from me. Wild daffodils by the roadside, seen when driving from Stowmarket station. Egg-themed decorations on the dinner table. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed the Easter aesthetic so much. I have to remember to get an Easter brooch for next year. A tasteful rhinestone bunny, perhaps.
I seem to appreciate nature much more as I get older: flowers, blossom, birdsong. A replacement for youthful interests waning, perhaps, like my near-complete indifference to contemporary rock music. That said, I’ve been enjoying the new Monochrome Set album, Spaces Everywhere. Some superb new songs by Bid. Two dreamy ones remind me of Scarlet’s Well: Fantasy Creatures and Rain Check. I also love the catchy riff-based opening number, Iceman, which rather topically has references to voting.
* * *
Sunday 5th April 2015.
To a house near Stansted – dinner with the Kellermans (kind family friends whom I’m just getting to know). Many cats: on the drive there are signs warning delivery vans to watch out for curious felines sneaking into their vehicles. Accidental cat abductions have been known to happen. Tom joins us for dinner. He currently has an enormously bushy beard, though he shaves it off a few days later.
I watch Carry On Forever, a three part ITV documentary on the Carry On films. Very nostalgic, with lots of moments where the actors are filmed today, returning to the locations. Pretty girls from the 60s, now elderly of course. Tempting to judge which ones have aged better than others. Very touching moment when Bernard Cribbins and Juliet Mills reunite for the first time since Carry On Jack in 1963. Making what they thought was a disposable, lowbrow film at the time, but memories are still memories.
Funny how the films were getting a bit old hat even in the late 60s. I re-watch Carry On Camping – the UK’s most popular film in 1969! I’d misremembered the finale, where the regular characters sabotage a noisy, Woodstock-style hippy rock festival in the adjoining field. Sid James dresses in a hippy costume, and ludicrously threads the revellers’ beaded necklaces together, attaching them to a tractor so that they all get dragged off in a big lasso. Pure Beano stuff. The sentiment appalled me last time I saw the film: it seemed to be forcing the viewer into siding against youth culture. But on watching it now I realise the hippies have the last laugh after all. Barbara Windsor’s gang of finishing school girls go off with them, rather than continue to hang out with seedy old Sid James and Bernard Bresslaw. Makes rather more sense than the lasso strategy.
The broad performances and jokes still make me laugh – and I have to admit I like the social history side. Englishness on film. How we used to live, and laugh. The documentary points out how the BFI included Carry On Up The Khyber in their list of the 100 best British films. It was at no. 99, one place above The Killing Fields. I feel like re-watching the whole run now, with the exception of the late 1970s Carry Ons. No desire to revisit the underwhelming Carry On England though. Or the barely watchable Carry On Emmannuelle, with its ill-advised disco soundtrack.
* * *
Tuesday 7th April 2015.
Back to London, and straight to the London Library for more research on the essays. The dissertation is due in on April 20th, and I’m trying to get a shorter essay finished around the same time.
In the London Library’s comments book, one complaint begins ‘I have nothing against young people using the library…’ It’s one of those phrases that flag up the word ‘but’ from several miles away. In this case, the complaint is over the use of music on headphones. Carry On Up The Library.
* * *
Thursday 9th April 2015
The general election campaign is underway. Today the news is that a UKIP candidate has been an adult film star (and I have to admit his lack of repentance is impressive, even refreshing). Meanwhile Ed Miliband has had his romantic past raked over, with the shocking revelation that he dated several different women in the years before his marriage. It doesn’t seem so far from the world of Carry On after all.
* * *
Friday 10th April 2015.
To the Curzon Soho for While We’re Young, the new film written and directed by Noah Baumbach, of Frances Ha fame. Lots of advertising for this one, including huge screens at St Pancras station. A lot has been written about the film, but I suspect I’m the first to compare it to Carry On Camping. The main theme is, after all, an older generation’s fear of young people. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play a jaded forty-something couple whose lives are invigorated after they befriend two hipster twenty-somethings, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. But suspicions of hidden agendas soon arise, and the alliance sours. The film sags in the last half-hour, when a plot about the ethics of documentary making takes over, but it’s more than made up for in the well-observed commentary on the anxieties of ageing, and on contemporary social habits, such as a moment where all four characters interrupt their conversation to Google something on their phones. At this point, the Adam Driver character insists that they put the phones down and just ‘enjoy not knowing something, for once’.
Another good moment is Stiller telling Driver off for helping himself to his video work: ‘It’s not ‘sharing’, it’s stealing!’ I think it’s also the first film where I’ve heard the beep of an Apple gadget being plugged into a charger, as part of the general background ambience. Two musicians turn in impressive minor roles: Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys is a tired aging dad, while Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500 is a New Age shaman – a convincing one, too.
* * *
I watch a BBC4 programme about bands that break up, and bands which manage to not break up. Coldplay’s longevity is attributed to a former manager kept on as the band’s ‘creative director’. I wonder if their drummer is known as an ‘implementer of percussion solutions’.
, carry on films
, monochrome set
, unnecessary unkindness to coldplay
, while we're young
Holy Late Capitalist Allegory, Batman!
Saturday 28th March 2015.
I finish Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Despite its stark, Hemingway-esque language, I can’t find myself as gripped by the story as the praise of the cover promises. I think it’s because I never was a fan of post-apocalyptic survival stories – or survival stories full stop. Robinson Crusoe repelled my interest up until the hero finally saw The Footprint (a scene mirrored in The Road). For all my love of being alone, I still need the knowledge that society is out there, burbling on reassuringly.
Two police officers hand out leaflets outside Highgate tube station. There’s been a spate of mobile phone thefts around the station exit. The thieves’ modus operandi is to drive up on mopeds, mount the pavement, and pluck a phone out from someone’s hands, before they realise what’s happened. So the police leaflet urges people to watch out for mopeds driving on the pavement. This would be a noticeable sight enough, I’d have thought. But no: the hypnotic effect of phones really does blind people to their environs. Heads in the clouds. Or rather, heads in the Cloud.
* * *
Sunday 29th March 2015.
Afternoon: to the BFI Southbank with Ella H, for another film in the Flare festival: Regarding Susan Sontag. For once, it’s a tribute that’s not approved by the subject or their relatives. Even though Ms Sontag’s son and sister appear, it’s clear that the director’s own agenda has priority. As it is, the sister admits that SS ‘was never honest with me all her life’. There’s no new interview from Annie Leibovitz, her last long-term companion. Instead, the film uses lots of archive footage and readings from her works, including the recent diaries. Its theme is more biographical than critical, so it feels at times gossipy, and at others frustratingly cagey; but then that was rather the fault of the subject. There’s no attempt to either completely praise or condemn Sontag: the film just wants people to regard her, as the title suggests. Make up your own mind. One old girlfriend tells outrageously filthy and possibly unreliable anecdotes. A bow-tied critic says ‘Do you really need to ask the author of ‘Notes on “Camp”’ to come out?
In fact, coming out is demonstrably still news in 2015. This week has seen newspaper stories about Ruby Tandoh, the 22-year-old former contestant of The Great British Bake Off, coming out as a queer woman (in her words). What’s interesting to me is that (a) she prefers ‘queer’ to ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’, and (b) that she recently wrote an article about camp as a form of personal empowerment, as inspired by Molly Ringwald’s prom dress in Pretty in Pink. She quotes Susan Sontag’s 50-year-old essay.
* * *
Tuesday 31st March 2015.
Evening: to the Tottenham Court Road Odeon with fellow Birkbeck student Jon S, to see Get Hard. Jon’s suggestion. He suspects it’s not exactly My Sort Of Film, but I’m happy to give it a go. It turns out to be an undemanding, broader-than-broad Hollywood comedy. It stars Will Ferrell as a pampered businessman, who has to prepare for time in jail. Kevin Hart plays his car wash manager, who teaches Ferrell how to, as it were, ‘get hard’, so he’ll survive. The film seems to be trying to ape those rich-white-versus-poor-black comedies from the 80s, like Trading Places. Except it’s now 2015, and the places have done a fair amount of their own trading. Things have changed.
It is safe to say that this film is not going to usurp Citizen Kane from the canon of peerless art. The plot is risible, the jokes are obvious, tired, insulting, and the whole thing is doubtlessly offensive to many. But I find the tone intriguing – it uses racial and gay stereotypes for many of the jokes, then goes to pains to paint the characters as anti-racist and anti-homophobic. Interestingly, the one type of prejudice which it uses for comedy, but doesn’t apologise for, is sexism. Perhaps this is due to the in-built ‘male gaze’ of the Hollywood machine. As some female critics have pointed out, even the Oscar-winning Birdman gets away with sexism, in the guise of defining its male anti-heroes.
Still, the force of the performances – especially the manic Mr Hart – carry it along. There’s enough decent jokes to get the Tottenham Court Road Odeon’s mixture of students and tourists laughing loudly for much of it. Although it’s not nearly as witty as Appropriate Behaviour, I enjoy being in a room of laughing popcorn-guzzling strangers, as opposed to a silent room of arthouse fans, the kind who regard laughter as uncool.
* * *
Thursday 2nd April 2015.
Morning: to the V&A with Heather M, for the exhibition Alexander McQueen – Savage Beauty. It’s somewhat more than a collection of fashionable frocks. The late Mr McQueen was a pure artist, without a doubt, but also a very popular one – a kind of rock star designer. He managed to convert oddness and incongruity into mass-market glamour (see also Lady Gaga). In this exhibition, his short life’s productivity and range of invention leaves one dizzy, particularly in the room that becomes a gigantic Cabinet of Curiosities, with compartments spiralling upwards until the exhibits are out of sight. There’s screens, lighting effects, theatricality, lots of nods to animals and horror films, a room in mock-catacomb décor, and spooky mannequins with gimp masks and horns. It’s at turns beautiful, bizarre, frightening, and, like a lot of posthumous celebrations, life-enhancing.
Heather M is a member of the V&A, which means we can take tea in the member’s café. This is tucked away in the glassware gallery on the fourth floor. I never get tired of the way one has to access it behind a mirrored door.
* * *
Afternoon: at the London Library and British Library, researching my essay on American post-9/11 anxieties. I read some essays on capitalist symbolism in the 2008 Batman film The Dark Knight. It can be argued that Heath Ledger’s Joker is zero-hours capitalism taken to an extreme: he kills off his own henchmen as soon as they’ve completed their task in hand. Then he sets fire to all the money they’ve helped him steal, in a huge, blazing pyre of dollar bills.
Other essays read the film as an allegory for the War On Terrorism, but I prefer the capitalism-allowed-to-go-mad reading. I suddenly thought of Shelley’s apocalyptic poem The Mask of Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo massacre of 16 August 1819. An old, old story: a political protest leads to government violence upon crowds, with the result that new laws are rushed in to tackle the scapegoat of ‘anarchists’. Shelley’s point is that the government are the real ‘masked’ anarchists.
So I’ve decided to link this to mask imagery in 9/11 texts, such as in the aforementioned Batman film, in Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel In The Shadow of No Towers, and in Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalists. I’m also bringing in Native American ‘trickster’ mythology and a story by Henry James that describes the first NYC skyscrapers as having ‘sinister masks’ (in his American Scene of 1907, James really hates skyscrapers). Today I find a quote by Ralph Ellison on identity – ‘America is a land of masking jokers’. You can imagine how smug I felt after that.
* * *
Evening: to the Queen’s Head in Acton Street, Kings Cross. A birthday gathering for Ms Shanthi S. My anxiety levels are over the top already, what with the ever-approaching deadlines for college. Tonight there’s the double worry of having to arrive to join a group by oneself – I always feel a torrent of awkwardness when I do that – made worse by realising the birthday table is full up. But after an interval of getting in the way of the ladies loos, eventually the table is moved to allow more space for chairs. I squeeze in, have a glass of rosé, and calm down.
One of Ms S’s friends at the table is Bill Drummond. He was one of the men behind the 90s hit band The KLF, who went on to did Situationist-style art-pranks with all the money they made. One such project was the simple burning of a million pounds in cash, and filming themselves doing so.
I don’t manage to speak to Mr Drummond. It seems rude to go up to him purely to ask one question, the one which immediately occurs: did he see the cash-burning scene in The Dark Knight and think, ‘been there, done that’?
Mr D is speaking to a man who apparently is an advisor to the Labour Party’s business spokesman. Jokes about the burning of cash write themselves.
Tags: alexander mcqueen
, bfi flare
, bill drummond
, get hard
, regarding susan sontag
, ruby tandoh
, the dark knight
Do I Sound Tough?
Saturday 21st March 2015.
I bump into Ms Hayley Campbell on the tube back to Highgate. ‘Hey neighbour!’ Her father, the comics artist Eddie Campbell – of From Hell fame – has just moved to the area. I go into local knowledge mode, and tell her about the Boogaloo and Highgate Wood, the area where the early Pink Floyd rehearsed, and the place where the second Suede album was written. I should do walking tours, really.
Hayley C now writes books about Neil Gaiman and articles for the Buzzfeed website. Buzzfeed is becoming quite a success story – from being a colourful, youthful web magazine full of ‘list-icles’ – articles based around lists – and now branching into serious news journalism, holding interviews with Prime Ministers and so forth. But their speciality is still their list-format stories, usually illustrated with animated gifs. I ask Ms H whether ‘gif’ is pronounced ‘jiff’ or ‘Giff’ at Buzzfeed. The latter. Hard G.
I finish studying Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty, for my dissertation on camp. A complete pleasure: well-crafted and concentrated prose, clever symbolism, social satire, a good sense of London locations (especially the Men’s Pond on Hampstead Heath) and moments of camp comedy tucked within the Henry James-style sobriety; hence my thesis. He writes parties so well, too – up there with Fitzgerald and Waugh. I re-watch the 2005 TV adaptation on DVD, with Dan Stevens in pre-Downton mode. It’s nicely written and acted, but I find the 80s hair and fashions are not quite garish enough – Mr Stevens just has tastefully big hair, rather than the bouffant he should have.
The other shortcoming is common to screen adaptations: the loss of the third-person narration. In the book, you have detailed access to the protagonist’s thoughts. In the TV version, all Dan S can do is stand around, looking like he’s thinking something. First person narrators transfer fine for some dramas – like Jeremy Irons talking over most of Brideshead Revisited – it’s just third person narrators that rarely work.
* * *
Sunday 22nd March 2015.
I convince myself that I can’t continue doing any work until I’ve bought a book stand, the kind that can hold a paperback open at one page. Browsing for one in Foyles and Ryman uses up most of my afternoon.
* * *
Monday 23rd March 2015.
I’ve fallen a week behind my proposed schedule for the dissertation, but find that sheer panic helps me speed up. One troublesome chapter is finished for good today – I don’t let myself stop until it is.
* * *
Tuesday 24th March 2015.
1000 words added to the dissertation. Half the chapter on Hollinghurst. Spend some time considering whether to quote the Sebastian Faulks introduction to a new edition – The Line of Beauty is now a Picador Classic, only eleven years after publication. Faulks calls it ‘a comic novel about mostly shallow people’, which isn’t quite true. Nothing comic about the final section.
* * *
Wednesday 25th March 2015.
Another 1000 words, finishing the bulk of the thing. 10,972 words and counting. Still have the conclusion and the introduction to do (one must always do those last). A small problem for a project with a maximum word count of 8800, but for me it’s a personal milestone: the first time I’ve written over 10,000 words of any one piece, ever. Quite a thrill to see the Microsoft Word odometer clock over into five figures. First of many, let’s hope.
* * *
Thursday 26th March 2015.
Morning: I write all of the conclusion and half of the introduction. I have two possible candidates for a main title, to prefix the subtitle of ‘Subversive Uses of Camp In Twenty-First Century Fiction’. One is poetic and serious – ‘The Self-Aware Surface’, one is arch and jokey – ‘A Wink and a Pair of Claws’. I ask a few friends on Facebook, then decide to go for the serious one. I compromise by keeping the ‘Wink’ title for a chapter heading. Humour can be so subjective, and probably should be avoided in analytical, academic essays (seminars can be fun, though). As it is, I’m quite proud of calling camp ‘the self-aware surface’, and want to give the phrase something of a spotlight.
Afternoon: to BFI Flare, formerly the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, at the BFI Southbank. The rebranding of the LLGFF makes sense – it was beginning to sound dusty and out-of-date, to the point where it nearly closed down a few years ago. ‘Flare’ as a word sounds less worthy, more inclusive and forward-looking: it suggests a signal being shot into the sky – ‘we exist too’.
The film I’ve chosen is Do I Sound Gay?, a personal documentary by the Brooklyn-based writer, David Thorpe. It explores his dislike of his own voice, which he thinks sounds too gay – by which he really means effeminate. He interviews his old school friends, who remind him that he picked up the voice after coming out at college. So in his case it was acquired organically, in the same way some people pick up different regional accents when they move (I’m thinking of Hugh Laurie’s current US twang in his English accent). Mr Thorpe goes in for speech therapy (without much success), and discovers one theory of ‘the gay male accent’ – that it’s based on a combination of admiring women, as learned from mothers and sisters and screen idols, and on admiring notions of aristocratic European behaviour – notions of ‘queenliness’. All to define an identity that signifies as different from the average US man.
Of course, this only applies to those to whom it applies, and Mr Thorpe is careful to include examples of gay men with ‘straight’ voices, and straight men with effeminate voices. David Sedaris and George Takei appear, both contributing thoughtful insights, and giving very honest accounts of their personal lives. It’s worth seeing the documentary for these sections alone.
I think in Britain the idea of manliness in voices is a lot less of a concern, partly because America rules the world, and so cares more about how things appear to others. But also because the US suspects the British accent for having aspects of effeminacy anyway.
In the final scene of the film, Mr Thorpe interviews a group of young gay men on a beach. He asks them if they think he sounds gay. They chorus back as one: ‘Hell, yes!’
At the time I think, ‘that’s a very American reply’. Hours later I watch the latest pre-election TV interviews. Jeremy Paxman, rude as ever, asks Ed Miliband if he’s ‘tough enough’ for the job of prime minister. ‘Hell yes, I’m tough enough!’ says Miliband. Though he does stammer it.
After the film, there’s a Q&A with the director. One audience member asks if Mr Thorpe has heard of Polari, the gay language of 40s and 50s Britain. ‘Yes I have,’ he replies. ‘Thanks to Morrissey’.
* * *
Early evening: with Anna S, Senay S and friends, to the Museum of Comedy. This is in the crypt of St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, and turns out be one largish room, plus a performance space for live comedy nights. The current exhibition is a rare early 80s photo shoot of The Comic Strip – featuring a young Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, French and Saunders and so on. The permanent collection includes Max Miller’s patchwork dressing gown, Steptoe & Son’s stuffed bear, Irene Handl’s belt in a bell jar, and a huge amount of old books, videos and vinyl records, which visitors are invited to peruse or play at their leisure.
There’s framed transcripts of classic comedy sketches on the wall, with the Python ‘Silly Walks’ skit signed by John Cleese. ‘I’ve never found Monty Python funny’, says one of our party.
I forget that even comedy that has been proven to be funny for so many, and for so long, can still be considered unfunny by someone.
And I think to myself, ‘definitely don’t go with the funny thesis title’.
* * *
Friday 27th March 2015.
First draft finished. 12,373 words. Now I have to decide which 4,000 words needn’t have been written in the first place.
Tags: alan hollinghurst
, bfi flare
, bfi southbank
, do i sound gay
, ed miliband
, museum of comedy
, the line of beauty
St Rutger’s Day
Saturday 14th March 2015.
To the Hat and Tun pub in Farringdon, for Laura M’s birthday. Ms M and her friends favour vintage clothing, and this hired room suits them to a tee: Victorian décor, wood panelling, sofas, animal trophies on the wall, a fireplace, and it’s located deep in Oliver Twist territory, off Saffron Hill.
In the 1840s this area would have exemplified all those Dickens TV adaptations: noisy and muddy alleys, street hawkers, drunks in doorways, child prostitutes, horse dung, the poorest of the poor. Saffron Hill’s atmosphere is now closer to that of the financial district around the City: streets silent and empty, the buildings a mix of expensive flats and offices. All nightlife firmly confined to the inside of pleasant bars like this one.
At the party, there’ s lots of people in steampunk-compatible attire. A few corsets, some of them worn by men. I chat to a lady who is a practitioner of Bartitsu, the Victorian form of martial arts. It appears in the Sherlock Holmes stories. What might seem like a whimsical hobby can turn out to be very handy. She tells me how a couple of days ago, she used her skills to fend off a mugger in a rail station.
* * *
Sunday 15th March 2015.
To the ICA for the latest Gregg Araki film, White Bird In A Blizzard. Like a lot of arthouse films, it’s taken a year or so to find its way onto London screens. The young heroine is played by the likeable Shailene Woodley, who has since gone on to be something of a mainstream superstar.
I’m a big fan of Mr Araki’s work, particularly Mysterious Skin and Splendour. His last film, Kaboom!, about love among college students, slinks along prettily enough before the story turns absolutely insane in the last twenty minutes – and the world literally explodes. Don’t ask.
His trademarks tend to be tales of youthful and rebellious sexuality (often with a bisexual edge), with dream-like close-ups of faces, the framing of objects in the dead centre of the screen, and a soundtrack that favours British alternative rock. Just as Ms Sophia Coppola claimed custody of My Bloody Valentine for Lost In Translation, Mr Araki seems to have first dibs on Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins: White Bird comes with a brand new Guthrie soundtrack. On top of that there’s hit singles by Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order, the Cure, the Pet Shop Boys and the Jesus and Mary Chain. But there’s also a lesser-known Soft Cell b-side, ‘It’s A Mug’s Game’, one of my favourite 80s tracks full stop. This is an eight minutes-long upbeat synth tune, where Marc Almond rants in a half-sung, half-spoken style about the pitfalls of teenage life. It goes from gritty angst into uproarious humour: to get back at his dad, Almond’s character tells himself to ‘play your records so loud / all the ones that he especially hates /Deep Purple in Rock, Led Zeppelin II /Well, even you hate those!’
White Bird In A Blizzard concerns the disappearance of the main character’s mother, played by Eva Green in a highly mannered and campy style, almost as if she’s channelling Joan Crawford. Young Ms Woodley’s acting style, meanwhile, is pure twenty-first century naturalism, even though she’s been forced to wear Joy Division t-shirts and lie around pretending to enjoy Depeche Mode.
(This is unfair. There’s plenty of young people in 2015 who love 1980s music. La Roux, for one, whose records the BBC have insisted on restricting to the older-age station Radio 2, rather than the teen-orientated Radio 1. So she is officially a young person who makes music that is too old for her. Liking the Human League is now the equivalent of liking Bach)
So this film has two female leads speaking to each other in completely contrasting acting styles, post-war Hollywood and contemporary, while both are in an 1980s setting. I’m still not sure what this film actually is, but it’s different, and it’s art. And I like the songs.
* * *
Monday 16th March 2015.
Latest line in my thesis: ‘Masculinity isn’t for every man’.
* * *
Tuesday 17th March 2015.
St Patrick’s Day seems bigger than ever. I look in at the windows of bars in Bloomsbury. If I see a group of men wearing those spongy top hats, meant to resemble a pint of Guinness, I choose not to enter. It’s like Santa hats at Christmas. I find them stomach-churningly tacky.
I suppose these hats must be absolutely hilarious to the wearers – they certainly seem to be having a jolly time. But if people must walk around as unpaid adverts for Guinness, I’d much rather they emulated those 1980s TV adverts, the ones with Rutger Hauer. These were surreal vignettes where the Blade Runner actor would saunter around, vaguely dressed as a pint of the black stuff. White-blond hair atop a set of dark clothes, including a dashing black coat. He looked handsome, even cool. Why can’t people walk around dressed like that on St Patrick’s Day?
Class at Birkbeck: Philip Roth’s excellent Plot Against America. I had no idea about Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism in the 30s – nor Henry Ford’s.
* * *
Wednesday 18th March 2015.
Last class of the spring term at Birkbeck. Angela Carter’s Passion of New Eve, from the 70s. Still seems very bold and fresh today: freewheeling, imaginative, apocalyptic feminism. Only Margaret Atwood comes close, but she doesn’t have Carter’s giddy abandon. And, yes, nerve. Nerve is underrated.
* * *
To the Odeon Camden Town with Ms Shanthi, for a more conventional woman’s story: Still Alice. Julianne Moore is deserving of her Oscar, but then she’s experienced in the Woman Has A Terrible Time stakes. Not least in Safe. More unexpected is the performance of Kristen Stewart. She nearly steals the film as the surly, defensive daughter who turns out to be better suited to caring than the rest of the family. The Twilight films made young Ms Stewart rich enough to do whatever she wants, forever. So for her to do her best performance in a film about Alzheimer’s is a commendable use of her celebrity.
Thousands of ‘K-Stew’ fans around the world will see this film purely because she’s in it. That can only be a good thing. As Terry Pratchett pointed out, one factor in the history of incurable diseases becoming curable is the simple raising of awareness. Still Alice may be fairly ordinary as a film, but if it inspires young people to choose careers where they help the afflicted, or help to find a cure, it has value enough.
* * *
Friday 20th March 2015.
Thinking today about the way social media gives disproportionate power to throwaway remarks, I come across a follow-up to the Dorothy Parker quip about Katharine Hepburn. In the 1930s, Ms Parker was quoted as saying that Ms Hepburn ‘ran the gamut of emotions from A to… B’.
Some years later, though, she told a friend, Garson Kanin, that she regarded Ms H as a fine actress.
‘Are you saying that that ‘A to B’ quip wasn’t yours, then?’ said Kanin. ‘Or do you think she’s improved?’
‘Oh, I said it all right. You know how it is. A joke. When people expect you to say things, you say things. Isn’t that the way it is?’
Thus Dorothy Parker predicted Twitter.
(source: Garson Kanin, Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir, via the blog QuoteInvestigator.com)
Tags: Angela Carter
, dorothy parker
, gregg araki
, julianne moore
, kristen stewart
, philip roth
, still alice
, white bird in a blizzard
The American Way Of Shame
Saturday 7th March 2015.
An article in the Guardian profiles Ed Miliband on the campaign trail. With his second-class train travel and his unexpected love of snooker, he finally comes across a real person, even likeable, rather than as a collection of learned PR tactics. Though that too is a PR tactic. It’s like Hollywood giving Debbie Reynolds the image of the girl next door. As the old joke goes, the secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
Meanwhile the Green Party leader, Natalie Bennett, has reached a higher plateau of public visibility. A professional look-a-likes company has added a Natalie B impersonator to its books. Success of a kind.
* * *
Monday 9th March 2015.
In the evening: to Birkbeck’s Keynes Library for an event about postgraduate courses.
The difference between BAs and MAs is reflected in the racks of leaflets available in the Gordon Square lobby. The BA leaflets are A4 and bright pink, suggesting the courses are cute, childlike, even huggy. The leaflets for the MA courses, meanwhile, are A5 and battleship grey. It implies they’re all about increased concentration, seriousness, no waste, no mucking about.
What throws me for six is that tonight I find out that applications for MA bursaries, as in grants to fund a Master’s this autumn, have to be in by the end of April. Which means applying for the course itself earlier than that.
So much of my week is spent worrying about MAs, which I was hoping I wouldn’t have to do until the summer. The funding alone seems to be a complete minefield: it’s not helped by ‘part-fee waiver’ bursaries, which don’t actually tell you the sum you are applying for. As with so much of modern life now, getting paid at all is meant to be a delightful surprise.
Many bursaries seem to be outrageously narrow in their requirements: ‘Applicable only for students from Tanzania, with a first class degree, who are looking to do an MA in Postal Museum Management. In Hull. Must love dogs.’
* * *
Tuesday 10th March 2015.
Still worrying about what to do with myself after the degree. I ask some friends. Some say it’s better to go straight into an MA, others recommend taking a year off. Some think I should get a job alongside it, to cover the inevitable shortfall in funding. Though no one has said what job.
Still, they pretty much all agree that academia is something I should pursue in the long run. It is, after all, the one thing in my recent life where I’ve actually been a success (if an unpaid one).
The question now is: which MA course, which institution, and when? This autumn, or defer to the year after that? And should I stay in London or look further afield?
My answer today is, pathetically, I don’t know. My mind is too full of the dissertation and the remaining BA essays to think about anything else. I’ve spent a few cursory hours looking courses up, but nothing yet takes my interest.
However, I have at least applied to do a Birkbeck MA that does leap out at me: Contemporary Literature and Culture. Whatever happens, it’ll be good to have that set up as an option for this autumn. I don’t have to formally commit until then.
* * *
Tonight I start to fill out the huge online MA application form. It’s one of those with Mandatory Asterisks of Doom, where the page won’t let you proceed until you enter something in a box. This one wants me to upload my GCSE certificates, as they are still my most recent formal qualifications. The BA’s not done yet, and I never took A-levels.
I never feel that a set of dusty acronyms acquired decades ago have any bearing on a much-changed person today. I’m not even the same person I was at the beginning of this sentence, frankly. And that’s not flimsiness, that’s evolution. No, really.
* * *
Wednesday 11th March 2015.
Reading Jon Ronson’s latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. A fascinating and copiously-researched work, which asks if social media has brought about an atavistic return to public executions, if figurative ones. Certainly, there’s been an almost daily occurrence of stories in the UK news, where someone has had to apologise for something they said on the internet. But many of the people in this book aren’t politicians or public figures, merely members of the public who were crucified online after posting ill-advised tweets.
I think it’s significant that the majority of Mr R’s subjects are American. Americans do shame so much bigger and better than the British. The way the people in the book react when speaking to Mr R is often acutely emotional and over-the-top: a touch of the Hollywoods. One talks about his shame being ‘radioactive’ – that it might be catching. He is called ‘tainted’ by other Americans.
The British, meanwhile, are far more circumspect with their shame. They secretly think it’s shameful to be British at all.
I wonder if the book’s long list of acknowledgments is Jon R’s safeguard against not falling into the trap of two of his subjects: journalists caught fabricating the truth in their work. I’m reminded of the case of Johann Hari, the crusading Independent journalist who was found to have made up quotes, and was soon shamed out of his job, albeit in a quieter, British way.
But Jon Ronson’s style is very different to Hari’s: he questions his own reactions at every stage, and keeps the tone (mostly) compassionate, rather than judgemental. If anything is being shamed in his book, it’s not people, but the internet.
* * *
Thursday 12th March 2015.
Tea at the Wolseley with Lawrence Gullo and Fyodor Pavlov, visiting from NYC. Also present: the cabaret artiste Vicky Butterfly and my rock musician neighbour, David R-P. Fyodor is Russian, and gives David and myself a huge bag of Russian sweets. Some are chocolates, some are wafers, some are mini versions of Penguin biscuits, and some are boiled sweets.
The sweet wrappers have Cyrillic script alongside different baffling images: swans, masquerade masks, scary doll-like children in headscarves, and lobsters.
Haven’t been to the ornate Wolseley in years. Delighted to see that their straightforward Cream Tea is still affordable, at £10.75 for a plate of scones, jam and cream, and a pot of tea, with refills. Cheap classiness – very me.
The discussion turns to aging. Learned today: Crispin Gray, the guitarist of the early 90s band Daisy Chainsaw, and currently in The Dogbones, is a descendant of the Victorian poet John Gray. As in the rumoured inspiration for Wilde’s Dorian. Fittingly, Crispin doesn’t seem to have aged since 1991.
* * *
Friday 13th March 2015.
I fear I am developing a brioche habit.
, fyodor pavlov
, jon ronson
, Lawrence Gullo
The Baileys Defence
Sunday 1st March 2015.
Living in London, one gets a regular stream of takeaway menus put through the letterbox. Today’s is unusual. A menu for Monsoon, an Indian takeaway in Tufnell Park. It comes with two quotes of endorsement by none other than Ed Miliband. No mention of bacon sandwiches.
* * *
Monday 2nd March 2015.
Alan Bennett reads a provocative mini-essay for Radio 4, on the subject of English hypocrisy. What’s most striking is that he ends it saying, ‘before you stampede for the Basildon Bond or rather skitter for the Twitter I must say that I don’t exempt myself from these strictures.’
That Alan Bennett – Alan Bennett! – is aware of Twitter means the world really has changed. I hope he doesn’t get his own account: it wouldn’t suit him at all. Though there are other veteran writers whose absence from Twitter is a blessing to the nervous systems of all. Martin Amis would not fare well.
* * *
Wednesday 4th March 2015.
In the post today are a couple of contributor copies of A London Year, the anthology of diary entries about the capital. After previously existing as a giant door-stopper of a hardback, it’s now been turned into a rather cute and compact paperback (out March 19th). The potted biographies of each contributor have been elided to save space, but I rather like that.
If I really have to explain who I am, I like ‘diarist’, if only because it’s the one thing I’ve kept doing for the longest time. ‘Mature student’ isn’t an identity, though it’s what I am technically up to at the moment. ‘DJ’ isn’t something I do very often, while ‘indie band songwriter and musician’ is who I used to be. One silver lining of Orlando and Fosca not being hugely successful is that I don’t have to feel defined by them. Music divides as much as it attracts. I like to feel that an admirer of this diary doesn’t need to be a fan of those records – indeed they might well enjoy the diary and detest the music – or just not be interested in those styles of music. One of the great things about prose is that the reader can bring their own soundtrack.
And now I’m thinking of Anthony Burgess, forever grumbling that the world never let his classical music career get off the ground, so he had to take up prose. And then his grumbling further, that people would only remember him for A Clockwork Orange. And then only because it inspired someone else’s film. ‘Best known for’ is a phrase that curdles the stomach.
Ideally, one would just put out the material and let the reader decide how to receive it. Except that’s impractical: one needs filters and signposts.
* * *
Thursday 5th March 2015.
I re-watch Imagine Me & You, a 2005 Richard Curtis-y British romcom about a newly-wed young woman in Primrose Hill falling for a lesbian florist. It seemed very sugary and fluffy and forgettable at the time, but lately I’ve seen it praised by various female film fans on Twitter. Possibly because it stars Lena Headey, who went on to gain something of a following in Game of Thrones. So I look at it again.
I discover that it is so Richard Curtis that it even does his thing of combining unexpectedly explicit sexuality with middle-class English politeness. There’s a scene where two men are caught cottaging on Hampstead Heath, and apologise as if they’re both played by Hugh Grant. They emerge chastely from the bushes, sheepishly doing up their pristine jeans: ‘Sorry!’ ‘Terribly sorry!’ It’s all so idealised, and yet because the actors give it their best, it works. Darren Boyd as the funny best friend gets all the laughs, while Primrose Hill has never look prettier. A lesbian Love Actually, then: sickly for some, sweet for others, plus a nice use of London locations.
* * *
Friday 6th March 2015.
To the Hackney Picturehouse to see Appropriate Behaviour. Given the film concerns the angsty wonderings of an arty young woman in Brooklyn, my choice of venue feels like appropriate behaviour too. Hackney today is, after all, not so dissimilar to that New York district, with its mixture of roughness and fashionability, where club nights often take place in former warehouses, all aluminium ducting and exposed brickwork. In keeping with the East London obsession for new takes on the old, all the seats in the Picturehouse’s Lounge Screen resemble analysts’ couches, built in a permanent recline. So one watches the film while virtually lying down. At first I worry this will prove to be awkward, even painful, but the couches are so deeply cushioned that it turns out to be an entirely comfortable experience. I just have to be careful not to spill my drink on myself.
The main actress, Desiree Akhavan, also wrote and directed the film, giving it a strong sense of 70s Woody Allen: a personal take on New York, via one person’s love life. But where Annie Hall featured Jewish male heterosexual angst, Appropriate Behaviour has Iranian female bisexual angst. And like Love Is Strange, also currently in cinemas, same-sex relations are portrayed as less of an obstacle to happiness per se: what’s more of a problem is the harshness of the property market. So once again there’s several scenes of people boxing up their possessions and moving in with new neighbours. If such scenes are becoming a cliché for city-based romances, it’s because they’re all too true to life.
Bisexuality as an identity does still seem under-represented. It might be argued that to be bisexual now is more unconventional than being gay, because of the way it questions the role of gender. And yet it’s nothing new in cinema: the 1971 film Sunday Bloody Sunday featured a bisexual young man in London sharing his life with an older man (Peter Finch) as well as a woman (Glenda Jackson). But what complicates Ms Akhavan’s situation is her cultural background: she reminds the audience, chillingly, that Iran is one of the many countries where same-sex relations are still grounds for capital punishment.
Appropriate Behaviour is ultimately a very funny and sharply-written film, and although at the moment it’s being boxed up – like the character’s possessions – as part of a wave of angsty-female urban relationship dramas (along with Frances Ha, The Obvious Child, and anything to do with Lena Dunham), I think it could well become a classic. Certainly, any film that features music by Electrelane, and Leslie Feinberg’s book Stone Butch Blues, is okay by me.
* * *
In the foyer outside, a strange man suddenly hands me four mini-bar bottles of Baileys Irish Cream. He is standing behind a table on which are hundreds of similar bottles. It’s part of some promotion for Baileys, apparently. I suppose the company are trying to suggest that the drink might not be just for Christmas, but also for, well, watching a bisexual Iranian comedy on a Friday afternoon in March.
I was going to make a joke here about the way alcoholic drinks are gendered. The way Baileys is thought of a ‘female’ drink, and how my own taste for drinks tends to favour the less butch options. A few years ago I went through a slightly intense Bacardi Breezer phase, but we won’t go into that.
Still, there is a serious side to the image of Baileys, which happens to tie in with one of the themes in Appropriate Behaviour. Last year, a human rights lawyer in Cameroon, where homosexuality is illegal, revealed how men there were being jailed for displaying signs of effeminacy in public.
From the Independent, 12 September 2014: ‘In one instance, a client of Mr Togue’s was convicted for his feminine mannerisms and drinking Baileys Irish Cream – a choice which the judge felt was a woman’s drink.’
So as I sit here, swigging my free miniature bottles of Baileys, I like to think I am making a protest against the homophobic laws of Cameroon. Yes, that’s what it is.
Tags: a london year
, alan bennett
, appropriate behaviour
, Baileys Irish Cream
, imagine me & you
You Do Not Sound Like A Pleasant Person
Saturday 21st February 2015.
Late morning, at home. I receive a phone call.
Him: (pause, heavy foreign accent) Hello sir. I am from Microsoft. Your computer has been identified as vulnerable to hackers, so we are phoning to help you solve the problem.
Him: Now can I ask you, what make is your computer?
Me: (wary pause) How do I know this isn’t a scam call?
Him: (sudden anger) How do I know you’re not a scam call? You do not sound like a pleasant person.
Me: Which one of us is going to hang up first?
Me: What are you wearing?
Him: I am going to call the police.
Me: You’re calling the police?
Him: Wait half an hour. You will receive a call.
Me: I’m going to be arrested over the phone?
Him: (Hangs up).
(I do, in fact, wait by the phone for half an hour. But it doesn’t ring. Men!)
After a quick Google, I discover that the ‘Microsoft Phone Scam’ is quite common. Which makes my caller’s ease with which he gave up and broke character all the more strange.
‘Are you a scam?’ must surely be a frequently asked question for a scammer. Yet it completely threw him. All he could do was blurt out whatever piqued gibberish came into his head. No Best Actress award for him.
I wonder if one gets the scammers one deserves.
* * *
Evening: to the Barrowboy & Banker pub in London Bridge, for my brother Tom’s 40th birthday drinks. We stay till closing time at 11pm. As we huddle outside, a drunken young man among the other drinkers comes over, suddenly fascinated with my appearance. ‘When did you dye your hair?’ he asks. Not ‘why’, ‘when’. As with the scam caller, I do seem to bring out nonsensical responses in strange men.
I offer him some minimum-risk answers, but he won’t leave me alone. He fires off comment after comment about my blondness. There is clearly a menacing and intimidating side to his ‘banter’, of course. So I’m relieved when Ewan, Tom’s friend, who is much braver than me, suddenly jumps in and thrusts his hairless pate into the young man’s face. ‘OR!’ Ewan shouts, ‘You could be BALD!’ And the lad is frightened off.
The realisation that at the age of 43 I can attract the same sort of Alpha-Lad attention that I had when I was a teenager, leads me to two responses.
I can either think: ‘I am doomed to always be one of the Not-We.’
Or I can think: ‘Still got it.’
* * *
Monday 23rd February 2015.
‘I enjoy reading on paper and screen equally, but I do cherish the way print doesn’t suddenly open up mid-page, to try and sell you a Volvo.’
This is an idle thought I had after reading an article about print versus e-books. Today I put it on Twitter, thinking it to be a mildly entertaining point. Within hours it becomes my most popular Tweet to date. By Friday it receives 602 Retweets (as in people passing the tweet on through their own accounts), and 453 Faves (people marking that they like it). Although this is by no means ‘viral’, for me it is something new. To send a quip into the world and see it take purchase in the minds of hundreds of strangers is an undoubtedly pleasing experience. While I realise that all it takes to be Big On Twitter is to circulate photographs of inadvertently amusing kittens (or as this week proves, ambiguously coloured dresses), I am nevertheless buoyed up by this spike of mass connection. There may be hope for me yet.
* * *
Another scam today. This time, a paper letter in the mail. First class postage too – they must have a budget. This one’s known as the ‘SmartStamp Inheritance Scam’, and has been going for years. The letter spins some tale of a relative dying in China and leaving me – just me! – all their money. No address or phone number, not even an official letterhead; just an email address. I reply: ‘Dear Sir, how wonderful that you have found my long lost relative! You’re not one of those naughty scams, are you? China indeed! The last I heard of Great Uncle Charles, he was convalescing at ‘Dun Twerking’, Power Bottom, Wilts. What are you wearing?’ No reply yet.
* * *
Tuesday 24th February 2015.
Class at Birkbeck: Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama, as part of the ‘American Century’ course (mostly literature, but with a few humanities texts like this one). More defensive prefaces. This time Obama adds a 2004 introduction, pointing out how he wrote the book in the mid-90s, when he was a law teacher. Certainly his admittance to taking drugs at college is not the sort of thing a budding President is meant to publish, and his refusal to censor that section does him credit. It’s well written, though his ventriloquism of other people is a device I’m not keen on – it suggests a perfect memory of dialogues heard decades ago. This particularly falls down when he inserts ‘bleeding’ into the utterances of an English passenger, whom he meets on a plane. A touch of the Dick Van Dykes, there. Still, his drive to find the good in complex situations seems heartfelt enough. I also enjoy his details of growing up in Hawaii, finding them just as interesting as his pilgrimage to Kenya.
* * *
Wednesday 25th February 2015.
Have written 5058 words for the 8000 word project, not including the footnotes. On schedule so far.
Birkbeck class: a lecture by Roger Luckhurst on 1970s culture. When I get home, I’m fired up enough to re-watch the Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and The Fury. What shocks the most is the footage of uncollected rubbish piled up in the streets, and the attendant dead rats. I also realise that I now know where one of the enraged council busybodies in the archive footage gets his insults from. In an interview he refers to the Sex Pistols as ‘a band that would be enormously improved by death’. This is, in fact, a direct steal from a Saki short story, ‘The Feast of Nemesis’ (1914). Actually, given his often daring content, Saki was a kind of Edwardian punk rocker too.
* * *
Thursday 26th February 2015.
Two pieces of good news from Birkbeck. I have my last meeting with my project supervisor, Jo Winning. She’s read my draft so far and is happy with it. Very much relieved to hear this. I’d cranked up the theory side of it since our last meeting, and was worried that I was just adding theory for the sake of it. Theory has to power the work, rather than sit on top of it like an afterthought.
In the cooking up of essays, theory must always be the spice, and never the garnish.
The other news is that I receive the grade for my essay about post-war resentment in Waugh, Wyndham and Amis. A mark of 80: my fifth High First Class. It’s also worth 50% of that particular module. So after a slightly shaky start to the final year, I’m feeling a lot more confident once again.
* * *
Evening: to the ICA for Citizenfour, which won the Oscar this week for Best Feature-Length Documentary. It’s the background story of Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing against the NSA, which emerged during the summer of 2013. The most chilling moment is not the revelations about governments spying on their populaces. It’s when Snowden becomes the big news story worldwide, and he is shown watching this news, while in his Hong Kong hotel room. In fictional films this is something of a cliché: a character turns on the news, and the story they hear has direct relevance to the plot. But this is real. Snowden is also a fascinating figure to watch: completely calm, articulate, careful with his words, and searingly aware of how serious it all is.
* * *
Friday 27th February 2015.
To the Prince Charles Cinema to see another Oscar winner: the Polish film Ida, which took the Best Foreign Language Film this week. Made in the tradition of 60s European arthouse: black and white, square ratio, yet the credits include ‘digital effects’. Presumably the highly subtle sort. The story is frustrating – not quite enough information as to what’s happening, characters speaking in detached, brief, unreal ways. But the photography is stunning – one can imagine the film being pored over by students for years to come. The main actress’s face has a unique air of cinematic stillness one sees so rarely – Tilda Swinton has it, as does the lead in The Colour of Pomegranates. A kind of serene remoteness.
I walk through Leicester Square. One of the megaphone-wielding street preachers is quick off the mark with his topicality, adapting today’s internet talking point, about an ambiguously coloured dress. On his placard is written: ‘What colours do you see on this dress? White and gold, or black and blue? The answer is JESUS.’
, sex pistols
Oh, Those Queasy Undergraduates
Saturday 14th February 2015. Valentine’s day. I suppose, Eeyore-like, that one silver lining of an uncoupled life is that it means fewer obligations in the calendar. Today, the occasion seeks to invade spaces far beyond its agreed diocese of coupledom. Now, it infects Tube tannoy announcements. ‘This train is for Kennington via Bank,’ goes an announcer today, before adding: ‘And it’s Valentine’s Day, so make sure you appreciate the loved ones in your life’. I spend most of the journey trying to decide if this is charming, or a threat. It’s certainly out of character: taciturn misery is what one holds dear about the London Underground.
Still, what I do like are the Quotes Of The Day that now appear on the whiteboards in station entrances. Partly because they’re handwritten, often displaying a Tube staffer’s flair for calligraphy. But also because they’re silent.
Leicester Square is dominated by a gigantic hoarding for the movie of Fifty Shades of Grey, playing at the square’s main Odeon. I walk through to Charing Cross Road, and see that one of the sex shop windows is offering Fifty Shades-themed intimate accessories, proudly labelled as official merchandise for this naughty film. I suppose it makes a change from school lunchboxes.
* * *
Sunday 15th February 2015. Over 4000 words clocked up so far on the project, not including the footnotes. Past the halfway mark.
I prefer the term ‘project’ to ‘dissertation’, though they’re technically interchangeable. ‘Dissertation’ sounds obscure, dreary, a chore. ‘Project’ sounds open, hopeful, even useful.
But I also can’t think of the word ‘dissertation’, without hearing it said by Steve Coogan’s stand-up character from early 1990s TV; the intoxicated, staggering, can-swigging Mancunian, Paul Calf. ‘Bloody STEW-dents… doing their dissss-er-TAY-shuns…paying for a bag of chips… with a cheque!’
There is nothing new in students being mocked full stop, though. ‘Undergraduate’ has long been a pejorative term off-campus. It’s often used to suggest something with pretensions of cleverness, something that is ill-thought-out and fatally jejune. Complainants to Radio 4 refer to ‘undergraduate humour’, when castigating a new sketch show. It doesn’t help that the word is similar to ‘underwhelming’, and indeed, ‘underpants’.
My favourite usage is in Virginia Woolf’s diaries for 1922, where she berates a book for being written as if ‘by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’. The book in question is Ulysses.
* * *
Tuesday 17th February 2015. With Fenella H to the Wellcome Collection in Euston, for the exhibition The Institute of Sexology. Most of the visitors are female. Plenty of men on display, of course, not least Mr Freud, and Mr Kinsey, in his statutory sexologist bow tie. In fact, I wonder if sexologists eschewed long neckties because of Mr Freud.
I’m pleased to have an assumption shattered – that an exhibition on the history of sexual research has to be very serious. I’d heard there’s a museum of erotica somewhere (Italy, I think) where sniggering gets you thrown out. But here there’s a Woody Allen clip, the discussion on ‘orgasmatrons’ from Sleeper. There’s also a witty 1980s video sketch, spoofing Clause 28, as performed by Neil Bartlett. It’s more subtle and angry than Sleeper, but it’s still very funny.
Class at Birkbeck: The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich. A tale of Native American families, with touches of magical realism and mythology. I find it lacks a sense of momentum, at least on a first read, but there’s an excellent and amusing section narrated by a dog, ‘Almost Soup’. If in doubt, send in a funny dog.
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Wednesday 18th February 2015. Class at Birkbeck: The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. I had no idea it was much more than just a historical novel; that it subtly filters its Victorian melodrama through an anachronistic 1960s perspective, with clever digressions on the meaning of fiction. I especially enjoy the reference to ‘the egregious McLuhan’ when explaining why a character owns no books.
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Thursday 19th February 2015. To the Curzon Soho to see Love is Strange. This is a tender-hearted drama about two older gay men in New York getting married. John Lithgow is a retired 70-something, while Alfred Molina is a fifty-something music teacher at a Catholic school. Or at least he is until news of the wedding reaches his employer. There’s an excellent moment early on when, after dismissing Mr Molina in his office, the head priest asks him to stop and pray with him before leaving. He is worried that Mr M might now lose his faith, given it has lost him his job. ‘I still regard Christ as my saviour,’ replies Molina, ‘But I don’t think I can pray with you any more.’ What’s remarkable is that there aren’t any more references to his Catholicism after this – it’s as much a matter-of-fact aspect of his life as his homosexuality. Many other films would make that the main issue of the story.
What the film is really about, though, is the present cruelty of metropolitan housing markets; arguably a far more pressing issue now, more than religion or sexuality. Without Mr Molina’s job, the newly-weds are forced to sell their flat and stay separately with New York relatives and friends, until they can find somewhere affordable. They could move out of town, but they’ve become as emotionally attached to the city as they have to each other. There’s also the suggestion – quite an honest one – that a long-standing gay couple used to the city might feel uneasy about relocating to a small town community. Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears may have been the toast of Aldeburgh, Suffolk, but would Poughkeepsie, upstate NY (to give the film’s example) be quite so tolerant? Thus Love is Strange is ultimately about the way relationships can become strained, both with beloved people and beloved places. I do wonder how it’ll play in Poughkeepsie cinemas, though.
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Friday 20th February 2015. To Soho Radio in Great Windmill Street, where I’m a guest for the second time on my brother Tom’s show. I burble on about the way some rock genres have changing statuses over time. ‘Shoegazing’ was once a music press insult for a group of early 90s UK indie bands, all of whom made a dreamy, fuzzy racket with their guitars while staring intently at their footwear. Not because the shoes in question were particularly interesting, but because ‘showmanship’ was a dirty word. Even looking up through one’s fringe, to make the slightest eye contact with the audience, was tantamount to artistic death. Come the more heads-up, personality-based era of Britpop in the mid 90s, such bands found themselves out of time, and soon split up. Today, the likes of Swervedriver, Ride, and Slowdive have quietly reformed to capitalize on what seems to be a ‘shoegazing heritage’, where their records have found a sizeable new audience, particularly in the US. Like an indie version of the Quakers’ story, the Shoegazers turned an insult into an identity.
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I sit and do some studying in The Old Café, on the first floor of the old Foyles building in Charing Cross Road. The café is independent, friendly, cheap, and pleasingly ramshackle, in contrast to the new Foyles café proper, which is designed to within an inch of its life. As it is, the new Foyles café is often packed, while today The Old Café is virtually empty. A new place to meet up with friends in central London, then, and proof that the bohemian side of Soho is not yet dead.
, fifty shades of grey
, love is strange
, soho radio
, the old cafe
, Tom Edwards
, wellcome collection
The Universal Oop
Sunday 8th February 2015. To the Barbican Centre cinema for Shaun the Sheep: The Movie. Though its official title appears to be Shaun The Sheep – Movie. I wonder if that elision of a second ‘the’ is something to do with the film’s lack of words on the soundtrack. There is no dialogue throughout, only animal grunts, sheep baas, and human mumbling. Not quite a silent movie, but not a talkie either. A third term is needed: perhaps a ‘gruntie’ (not to be confused with Mr Turner, which is a talkie with a lot of grunts). I also thought about The Plank, the Eric Sykes slapstick film of old, where people nearly speak to each other, but not quite.
A lot of interaction among the English is a series of awkward grunts anyway. The most common sound in public buildings and on Tube trains is not ‘excuse me’, or ‘morning!’ but ‘oop!’, whenever a collision of bodies is avoided. Not the plural-sounding ‘oops’, as The Beano would have it. No, adding that final ‘s’ is an effort too far. It is the singular: ‘oop’. The Universal Oop, the true sound of British society.
One reason I chose to see this film, given it is mostly aimed at small children, was that I’d spent the previous week studying American Psycho and The Atrocity Exhibition. After that, I badly needed to see a film in which nothing remotely unpleasant happens to anyone.
It’s fair to say that Shaun the Sheep is not the work of Bret Easton Ellis. Having said that, it does have little references to Breaking Bad and Silence of the Lambs, somewhat unexpectedly. Actually, the film has a better claim to the title Silence of the Lambs full stop: it literally has lambs being silent.
Another reason for going was that the Barbican was screening it at 8.30pm on a school night. Not only at that time – that would be silly – but the fact there was a grown-up-friendly time slot indicated that I wouldn’t be the only adult there. As it turned out, all the audience were adults. Pensioners, young couples, groups of friends, and no children in sight.
For some reason I imagine the couples in the audience being fans of Belle and Sebastian. I once watched that band in the 90s, all the time standing behind a young woman who was wearing a Shaun the Sheep backpack. Indeed, the new film makes a reference to those popular backpacks too – it’s a very clever and very, dare I say it, metatextual detail.
Like many Aardman films, the animation is cosy yet state-of-the-art, the story is fast and silly, and there’s a constant parade of reliably tried-and-tested jokes alongside some inspired and even outrageous ones. Just the idea of a cockerel distracted by its iPhone is enough to win me over. Pure fun.
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Wednesday 11th February 2015. I read an article by Eva Wiseman on the use of ‘quirky’ as a pejorative and patronising term. I think one problem is that the word literally contains ‘irk’. The same thing has happened to ‘winsome’, because it contains ‘wince’.
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I receive the Gatsby essay back. Grade: 78. Highest one of the final year so far, higher than any marks in my first two years, and my thirteenth First in a row. Very pleased, as my marks before then had taken something of a dip. Less than three months to go.
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Thursday 12th February 2015. Meet with Mum in Primrose Hill, then we go to Leighton House in Kensington for A Victorian Obsession, an exhibition of rarely displayed nineteenth-century paintings. Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s huge and decadent Roses of Heliogabalus gets a sensory chamber all to itself, where a Jo Malone scent of roses is pumped into the air.
Afterwards: a short bus ride to the Natural History Museum, for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. The gallery is darkened, with each photograph backlit on glass. So many startling images: some microscopic, some dangerous, some disturbing. Favourite photo: a flock of lime green parakeets flying over a London cemetery at dusk.
I use the newly expanded ticket hall at Tottenham Court Road tube station. Gone are the Paolozzi murals over the escalator arches. The new parts of the station are a mass of white tiled walls, high ceilings and wide corridors, unusually free of adverts (so far), and punctuated only with black Northern Line markings. New spaciousness also means new soullessness, but then it’s still unfinished: the Central Line sections are not open for another ten months. The Crossrail section, meanwhile, is still years away, and remains the reason why that corner of Soho is still at the mercy of a tangle of building sites. Something lost, something gained: the eternal London tale.
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Friday 13th February 2015. With Heather Malone to the Jacksons Lane Community Centre, two blocks away from my room. The JLCC seems much the same as ever – an entirely unfranchised café, friendly staff, and a proper theatre space with raked seating. We are there to see Psychodermabrasion, a solo stage show by Matthew Floyd Jones. I’ve seen him before in the cabaret duo Frisky & Mannish, but this is rather different: an unusual musical-cum-monologue made up of film projections, multi-layered backing tracks, and live performance, on the theme of how anxiety over skin conditions can affect relationships. This show has some input from Dickie Beau, and it shares DB’s style of a live performer as a kind of reactive pawn amid carefully-sequenced recordings. Matthew FJ spends much of the show zipped up in two layers of skin suits, hiding his face. This works powerfully enough, but once the inevitable unveiling happens, the show doesn’t quite move onto another level, and it feels like it should. Still, there’s lots of originality: Dear John letters sung in a barber shop quartet style, skin suits revealed on a rack, smartphone messages presented as the voice of a nagging, amorphous God. Somewhat ironically, for a show that comments on the ubiquity of smartphones, someone in the row ahead of me is checking their email while they show is going on, as if the real life performance in front of them was just another website to flick through.
It’s good to see Heather M in person, whom I’ve not seen for years. She was in danger of becoming one of those friends whose life I only knew at one digital remove. Too easily, people one knows can become passing clouds on social media, suggesting a paraphrasing of Gatsby:
So we tap on, swipes against the current, scrolling back ceaselessly into the past…
When I meet up with friends now, it seems all the more important to hug them, or shake their hand. Not just out of affection, but as a shoring against the digital.
, Heather M
, shaun the sheep movie