You Do Not Sound Like A Pleasant Person

Saturday 21st February 2015.

Late morning, at home. I receive a phone call.

Me: Hello?

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.

ME: Riiiiight…

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.’

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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.

* * *

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.


* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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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.

* * *

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’.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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In The Argot Of Perversity

Saturday 31st January 2015. This week’s work: finally making a start on the first draft of my 8000 word dissertation (or ‘final year project’) about literary camp. I’ve been researching it on and off since last summer, resulting in a satisfyingly fat pile of notes to dominate my desk for the next few weeks. The project is due in on April 20th, but I have to send a 2000 word extract to the supervisor, Dr Jo Winning, by February 16th.

‘Don’t make it a survey’, she’s advised. That’s often the problem with writing about camp. So many essays do just that: from Sontag’s ‘Notes on “Camp”’ onwards, they often get drawn into making lists: this is camp, that isn’t. It’s an approach that’s not dissimilar to the current ‘listicle’ trend brought about by the website Buzzfeed: articles as lists of things rather than proper analysis. The trouble is, as the success of Buzzfeed has proved, lists are so very seductive. Something cheap and quick about them. No hard work for the reader.

I’ve found that the best single volume on the subject is Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject – A Reader, edited by Fabio Cleto. His own name sounds like a shout of camp approval (‘How fab-io, Cleto!’). This academic doorstopper includes an extract from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, now considered to be the most essential book on gender theory in the last thirty years. Frustratingly, Ms Butler omits to mention the c-word, despite discussing drag queens and taking her title from Female Trouble, the highly camp 1970s film by John Waters. Perhaps she avoids any mention of camp because it’s just such a slippery term. And as Mr Cleto says, so many critics on camp are ‘babel-like, disagreement reigning’.

Thanks to Mr Cleto I’ve confirmed what seems to be the first appearance of the word ‘camp’ in printed journalism, as opposed to dictionaries of slang. It’s in the April 1922 issue of the New Orleans literary magazine The Double Dealer, in an article by Carl Van Vechten. He uses it in championing the work of (perhaps unsurprisingly) Ronald Firbank. The article is written in camp terms itself:

‘…and such dialogue! In the argot of perversity, one would call it “camping”… Sophisticated virgins and demi-puceaux [which I think means ‘semi-virgins’] will adore these books’.

I have to use the British Library’s microfilm machines at St Pancras to look this dusty article up. You have to run a spool of black film through a clunky projector-stroke-magnifier. Sometimes one hears the phrase ‘everything’s on the internet now’. Not yet.

The first appearance of the term ‘camp’ in fiction, meanwhile, according to both Cleto and the OED, seems to be in a 1933 novel by Maurice Lincoln, Oh! Definitely! I’ve just taken a copy out from The London Library, last borrowed in 1987. A lisping butler called Dennis is described first as a ‘fairy’ and then later as acting ‘slight more “camp”’ than usual’.

* * *

Sunday 1st February 2015. The British Library’s exhibition on all things Gothic has closed. I ask the shop staff which items of tie-in merchandise sold the most. Answer: skull-themed shot glasses.

* * *

Tuesday 3rd February 2015. Morning: snow in London at last. It lasts all of four hours.

Evening: class at Birkbeck on Ellis’s American Psycho. Tutor: Anna Hartnell. When I read it last summer there were moments where I actively thought, ‘please don’t make me read the next bit’. Such is the graphic nature of the violence. But once the shock of the Psycho has faded, the American part becomes more interesting. It’s an excellent representation of the late 80s yuppie boom, the sense of capitalism out of control for good (which hasn’t let up since), and the grim nihilism of consumer culture full stop. Novels are meant to encourage empathy, but American Psycho only encourages empathy for those utterly incapable of empathy.

It’s disturbing how Patrick Bateman’s face is so popular online, as played by Christian Bale in the film version. Still, it was the same with Clockwork Orange: a critique of violence taking on a cake-and-eat-it effect. Any passionate criticism is really an act of love, because of the passion. And villains always were more fun than heroes: in the medieval Mystery Plays, everyone wanted to be the Devil.

* * *

Wednesday 4th February 2015. Class with Roger Luckhurst on Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition. More violence and general unkindness. I’m grateful for the chance to finally read AE (if it’s possible to properly ‘read’ a series of cut-up fragments and repetitive scenarios), and I admire it so much that I might well write my essay on it. Nevertheless, I now feel the need to read something fluffy, where nothing remotely unseemly happens to anyone.

* * *

Friday 6th February 2015. To the Curzon Soho to see Ex Machina (a mere £5 with NUS). A quiet, minimal sci-fi production in the mode of Moon, it concerns a newly-created robot woman kept in a remote compound, who is put through a series of interrogations by Domhnall Gleeson from Frank and About Time. There’s also the robot’s alcoholic inventor played by Oscar Isaac from The Two Faces of January. He is so good in the role, I’m convinced a scene in which he disco-dances is cut short purely to stop him stealing the film.

Thematically, it’s quite close to those recent Scarlett Johansson sci-fi flicks, which all did different takes on ‘Woman As The Other’ (Her, Under The Skin, Lucy). I also thought of Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In from a few years earlier, with another constructed woman kept as a plaything. Ex Machina suffers in comparison with the Almodovar, at least when it comes to saying daring things about gender and sexuality. The film seems to favour Oscar Isaac’s glib remark: ‘Why give a robot sexuality? Because it’s fun.’ So all the interesting philosophical talk soon gives way to a more standard cat-and-mouse thriller. Still, it’s beautiful to look at and indeed to listen to, with the cogs of the semi-transparent robot  whirring delicately under her dialogue.

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How Big To Make The Bear

Saturday 24th January 2015. A favourite track for starting the day – and for tackling most things – is Percy Faith’s Theme From A Summer Place. It soothes with a slight smirk: a camp calmative.

* * *

Sunday 25th January 2015. Woolf’s birthday, much quotes of hers doing the rounds. Have been thinking about this one, given I’ve been reading a lot about reality and realism:

‘I haven’t that reality gift […] distrusting reality, its cheapness’. Diary, 19 June 1923.

* * *

Monday 26th January 2015. I watch the 2008 film version of Brideshead Revisited. Its two hours can’t compete with the eleven hours of the 1980s TV series, and there’s an inevitable skipping and skimming over aspects of the story which really need room to breathe. But it gives the world Ben Whishaw as Sebastian Flyte, an interpretation that makes the character vulnerable and kittenish, which in turn makes me realise how outgoing and puppyish Anthony Andrews is in the TV series. Both takes are perfectly valid: after all, critics have been arguing over the character since 1945.

The film also turns up the bisexuality aspect, moving Hayley Atwell’s Julia into scenes she wasn’t anywhere near in the novel. At one point Michael Gambon (as Lord Marchmain) faces Matthew Goode (who plays Charles Ryder), while extending his arms around Sebastian and Julia. He then says: ‘There must be many temptations for you here’. Quite.

And how apt it is now, that Ben Whishaw would go from carrying around a teddy bear, to providing the voice of Paddington. Whishaw’s teddy in Brideshead is a lot smaller than Anthony Andrews’s, though it suits his more wary performance. Perhaps that’s the first question anyone adapting Brideshead should ask themselves: how big to make the bear.

* * *

Tuesday 27th January 2015. Class on Don DeLillo’s 80s novel, White Noise. It’s my first encounter with Mr DeLillo. Very witty, without being wisecracking. Fascinating how a fear of over-consumption of information was a concern even in the 1980s. The wry scene about The Most Photographed Barn In America seems a thousand times more relevant now, in this age of the selfie-stick.

We discuss postmodernism and Thomas Pynchon. Or as he might be described, The Least Photographed Man In America.

My favourite quote from White Noise:

‘Eating is the only form of professionalism most people ever attain.’

* * *

Wednesday 28th January 2015. The Natural History Museum announces that it will remove ‘Dippy’, the diplodocus skeleton, from its main hall, having been installed there since 1979 – just before my own first visits there as a child. The choice for its replacement is fair enough, though: the huge blue whale skeleton, whose effect in the tucked-away Whale Hall has always tended to be diminished by having the 1930s plaster model of the same creature hanging alongside it. The model was later found to be biologically inaccurate, while ‘Dippy’ is only a plaster cast itself (something I didn’t know until today), so having a genuine whale skeleton as the first sight for visitors makes sense. But for me the main attraction of the Hall is really the hall itself: Waterhouse’s Romanesque architecture, with the terracotta arches and staircases, the painted ceiling panels, and the intricate animal sculptures carved into the stone.

Class at Birkbeck: Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. That this class occurs in the same week as the DeLillo is exactly the kind of coincidence that either author would relish. Both sessions include looking at the same quotes on postmodernism from Frederic Jameson. One theme of White Noise is deja vu.

* **

Thursday 29th January 2015. To the ICA for Beyond Clueless. This is a fascinating film-length essay as opposed to a documentary, made up entirely of clips from (slightly) old films, edited together and narrated over to make its points. The films under discussion are from 1994 to 2006, and are all chosen for what they have to say about American teenagers. The film’s thesis – as written by its British director, Charlie Tyne – is that Clueless marked the beginning of a new style of teenager, in the same way that John Hughes’s films (like The Breakfast Club) helped to define teenagers for the 80s. This new wave, as it were, focussed on the viciousness of power cliques, the need to conform and rebel at the same time, troubled forms of sexuality, and out-of-control instincts. Most of the choices are high school comedies and dramas (Mean Girls, The Girl Next Door, She’s All That, and the now rather shockingly titled Slap Her She’s French), but there’s also a few teen horror films (Ginger Snaps, Final Destination, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Idle Hands) art house adaptations (The Rules of Attraction), and films that have become cult classics in their own right (The Craft). They’ve all had their pop song soundtracks stripped away and replaced with a new uniform score, while the narration is by The Craft’s Fairuza Balk.

It’s more about depictions of teenage identity than it is about the films themselves, but one has the pleasure of seeing them in a fresh context. Along the way it insists that Jeepers Creepers and Eurotrip are about repressed homosexuality, while 13 Going On 30 is pernicious anti-feminist propaganda. I’m not sure I agree in all three cases, but the arguments are entertaining in themselves. To me it feels a bit like one of those Adam Curtis films, except with more footage of Freddie Prinze Jr moping about in school corridors. A slight shortcoming is that it sometimes undermines its own thesis in order to just show random montages cut to music (so exactly like Adam Curtis then, ho ho). But otherwise it’s worth seeking out. I now have an urge to re-watch Cruel Intentions.

* * *

Friday 30th January 2015.  It’s about time I recorded my gratitude to Esther Ranson, the Birkbeck School of Arts administrator. Over the past three and a half years, Ms R has not only answered my many queries about the nuts-and-bolts side of the degree course, but she has invariably done so with swiftness and in clear, calming and perfectly-written messages. Today I send her a rather meandering question about thesis word counts, which (typically) I’d been getting upset about for hours. I finally realise I should just ask Esther R about it. So I do so, and she replies within ten minutes. She gives me the precise answer I wanted, uses references to official guidelines to back it up, and makes me feel that my mind has been put at rest on the matter. I imagine she has to deal with a constant barrage of similar queries all day, both from students and staff, yet her replies never show any sign of being rushed. It’s another form of lesson.

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Rehouse Your Darlings

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

Wrote the third draft of the essay.

* * *

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

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

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

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

Fourth draft done.

* **

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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Day of The Sherries

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* **

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

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

* * *

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

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

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A Question Of Misattribution

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* **

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy New Year, Old Sport

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

This real life street cry is rather more 2015:

‘Selfie sticks! Selfie sticks!’

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Christmas Week Diary & Message 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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xmas tree 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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