Monday 21st November 2016. To the Peltz Gallery at Gordon Square, for A Museum of Everyday Life: Cinephilia and Collecting. A fascinating display of British film fans’ archives, from long before the internet era. One collector has kept careful records on all the films he sees during the 50s, as my own father did on comics, and later videos.
The 50s records take the form of typed index cards in a detached metal drawer. I like the exotic names of old cinemas in Derby and Nottingham: ‘The Essoldo’, ‘The Cameo’. One forgets just how much re-seeing used to go on. This enthusiast paid to see The Bounty Hunter, starring Randolph Scott, on a staggering 14 separate occasions, all between 1955 and 1958. Fourteen! Do today’s fans go to see, say, Mad Max: Fury Road that much?
Another exhibit consists of little envelopes containing clipped-out single frames from reels of film. Their owner was a Brighton projectionist: I learn that clipping out frames as souvenirs was once a common ritual of the profession. Presumably it doesn’t go on any more, what with the rise digital projectors. I think also of vintage clippings of hair kept in lockets. Except that this gentleman’s attitude isn’t always positive: he annotates each clipping with potted reviews on the envelope, and many are scathing. In this way, cinema projectionists are like taxi drivers. A job with a lot of autonomy and personal space, except that other people are still telling you what to do. So the space is soon filled up with rants and opinions. For Africa Adventure he writes, ‘I detest all films in which animals are even slightly inconvenienced’. For Androcles the Lion he says, ‘I enjoyed the acting of the lion the most.’ For The Immortal Monster (1959) he writes, ‘NB: Note hysterical erotic attitude of dancer’. The synopsis on Wikipedia for this film is: ‘Academic researchers are chased by a nuclear-hot specimen of ancient Mayan blob’.
More worryingly, on the envelope for Light Up The Sky is this little detail: ‘While this film was being shown, a man was murdered in the car park a few yards from my office’.
The most impressive exhibit is a collection of index cards devoted to film actors. The Peltz gallery has managed to fill an entire wall with these lovingly kept little biographies, floor to ceiling. The effect is a kind of geek sublime. On top of the sheer number of the things, each card is written in tiny longhand biro. I envy the writer’s ability to get his writing so small, yet still legible.
From a sample card, on Mae West: ‘Plumply sexy, stylish, fruity and scandalous American entertainer who sidled along like a predatory costumed lobster’.
A news article this week reveals that 2016 has seen sales of vinyl records outstrip those of digital downloads. In fact, this is a statistic based on money spent rather than units, and vinyl is now much pricier than downloads. The popularity of streaming sites like Spotify has hit downloads, too. People are less interested in owning digital copies of albums. If it’s digital, it can stay online. The implication is that the internet is now always to hand.
Except not to hand enough. Nothing to grasp with one’s real hands. There’s currently a huge poster campaign on London transport celebrating various successful YouTubers. It’s interesting that the images in this campaign have YouTubers holding the red YouTube play button, now rendered as a physical object in their hands. This is the paradox of virtual content: it’s still made by people who inhabit bodies, and bodies need props. There are now BookTubers, YouTubers who make videos in which they review books. More often than not, they hold up hardbacks or paperbacks for the camera, rather than hold up a Kindle.
Tuesday 22nd November 2016. Spending most of my time in the British Library this week, researching the autumn term essay for the MA. Not so lonely, though: I bump into David Benson. Last saw him on stage at a BL event, in fact, performing selections from the Kenneth Williams diaries. The full bulk of them had just been acquired by the BL, on behalf of the public. I love that his impersonation, honed from umpteen performances of his KW stage show, could now be put to use at an event about archives.
Wednesday 23rd November 2016. A session with the Birkbeck counsellor. A discussion of my propensity to self-sabotage: oversleeping, procrastination, a general avoidance of things. I have the recurring fantasy of someone suddenly getting in touch with some golden offer, financial and vocational. Except I never know what form this might take.
Finish reading a book I’m reviewing for The Wire: Honk, Conk and Squacket: Fabulous and Forgotten Sound-words from a Vanished Age of Listening. It’s an encyclopaedia of obsolete words, specifically to do with sounds and music. The world of onomatopoeia is vastly diminished these days, now that the machines have become silent. But humans still associate noises with completed processes. So the cameras on phones don’t go ‘click’ – they play ‘click’. Little cover versions of obsolescence.
Mid-November for critics is the Best of the Year time. I’ve been asked to declare my favourite music of 2016, but I can only think of two new-ish albums I’ve really enjoyed.
One is Laurie Anderson’s Heart of A Dog soundtrack, which is effectively the whole film without the images. But even though the film was released in 2016, the CD came out in October 2015, so I suppose it can’t count.
This leaves the Pet Shop Boys’ Super, which I adore and have played repeatedly. I now note that Super is missing from most media outlets’ Albums of 2016, despite getting good reviews on its release. The Beyonce album seems to be the token 2016 pop album; otherwise it’s all tried and tested old rockers: Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave. Plus the last Bowie and Cohen records, the interpretation of which can’t be separated from the artists’ deaths. I had thought the Pet Shop Boys album was a welcome dash of upbeat, danceable colour and energy, amongst all the year’s gloom and morbidity. But most critics have decided that 2016 must be framed and preserved as a year of anger, darkness and despair. So perhaps Super doesn’t fit their narrative. Well, it fits my narrative.
I take no joy in being unable to name any further favourite albums. My only excuse is that I’ve just been more drawn to old music, or books, or films, or art exhibitions. It’s possibly a problem of one’s cultural inputs. I used to spend hours listening to John Peel, reading Melody Maker and flicking through the new releases in Our Price. All those things have gone now. Perhaps my problem is associating new music with vanished practices, and so need to change my habits. I feel too old to listen to Radio 1, but not old enough to listen to Radio 2.
What I have listened to is a lot of radio news, perhaps thinking that this counts as keeping in touch. But time spent on listening to news is time not spent listening to music. Vary the diet, that’s all one can do. Notice what speaks to the heart. News is hard to avoid anyway; it’ll get to you one way or another.
Tastes change behind one’s back; palates alter with age. One never knows until one tries. Am I finally ready for experimental jazz? Is anyone?
With all that in mind, my favourite things of 2016 are as follows.
Films: Heart of a Dog. Eight Days A Week (Beatles documentary). The Neon Demon. Victoria. Love and Friendship. Author (JT LeRoy documentary). Hail Caesar!
New Books: Michael White’s Popkiss. Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable. McEwan’s Nutshell. Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On. Ronald Blythe’s Stour Seasons.
Old Books: Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series. Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night A Traveller.
Art: Made You Look – Dandyism & Black Masculinity (Photographers’ Gallery). Alice in Wonderland (British Library). Shakespeare in Ten Acts (BL). Magnus Arrevad – Boy Story (5 Willoughby Street). Performing For the Camera (Tate Modern).
DVDs: Lawrence of Belgravia. Akenfield.
Gig: Fingersnaps (Wallace Collection).
Events that defined the year, as opposed to favourite things: The hostage selfie. The Brexit result (regrettably).
Thursday 24th November 2016. Evening classes at Birkbeck: Tony Harrison’s V, Jackie Kay’s Trumpet.
Friday 25th November 2016. After working at the London Library, I walk through Soho to find the whole district in blackness. A power cut has hit several blocks north of Shaftesbury Avenue, up to Broadwick Street. A sense of curious novelty and strangeness abounds, rather than fear. People switch on the torches on their phones and train them on their steps. Their faces are still obscured. I can’t quite see the people I’m passing, but they can’t see me either. I wonder if this is what Soho was like in the WW2 blackouts: those tales of furtive liberation, of kisses in the dark, and more.
On Lexington Street, some of the restaurants and bars have set out tea lights on the counters and tables. But not all emporiums keep candles for emergencies. I pass a darkened hairdresser’s and see there’s people still in there. I make out a hairdresser standing over her client, struggling to finish the job. A lit-up phone in one hand, a pair of scissors in the other.
Saturday 26th November 2016. Age comes with a trail of faded friendships. I bump into someone I used to know in the British Library café. It’s someone from the early 90s, the Sarah Records phase of my life. When this happens I always take a few seconds to fully grasp the identity of the other person, my memory usually failing me. Invariably, the other person thinks I can’t remember who they are, and the encounter quickly collapses into an awkward parting of the ways.
A few moments after they’ve gone, of course, it all comes back to me. I do know exactly who they are: I just need a few more seconds, that’s all. But it’s too late. So I come away feeling I’ve done something terribly wrong.
This is one reason why I don’t go to school reunions: I can’t see how it’ll be anything but a stream of memory tests and point scoring.
Plus, I need advance warning of my surprises. This is only partly meant as a joke. Normal people have a ‘delightfully surprised’ face, easily accessed for sudden encounters. The have the face ready for reacting to surprise gifts, or indeed for surprise offers of marriage. But I am built differently. Sudden delight does not come easy to me. My reaction to most things is utter confusion.
Andy Warhol was stopped on the street every day of his life. He says somewhere that the best thing to do is just pretend that you last saw each other yesterday, rather than twenty years ago. So you just reply that you’re on the way to the cinema, or whatever. Nonchalently, matter-of-fact. You never, ever say ‘long time no see’. That risks the answer, ‘Yes. And there’s a reason for that.’
Sunday 27th November 2016. I browse in Waterstones, Gower Street. The success of the Ladybird parodies last Christmas has meant that this year there’s an exponential proliferation. Great toppling piles of the things. Fake Famous Five satirical books, along the lines of ‘Five Go To Brexit Island’. Spoof I-Spy books. And as with the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ design a few years ago, the initial charm of the idea has given way to the less attractive symptoms of a bandwagon.
It’s too easy to think of further titles: a lazy Fighting Fantasy parody, perhaps: The Warlock of Brexit Mountain. (If this happens I will kill again).
I leaf through the music news. Some artists have their tours advertised with the promise of old hits. An exception is Kate Bush, whose new live album eschews her more obvious singles. For this she is praised. Then she mentions in an interview that she likes Theresa May. For this she is castigated. There’s a moral there about what people want from their favourite musicians, and what is allowed. Success means being cast as a character. Get the lines right.
Friday 2nd December 2016. To the Barbican art gallery for The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined. The exhibition has rather promising posters, with an androgynous blonde in a garish multi-coloured jacket, looking like a postmodern toreador. The jacket is printed with a cacophony of icons from medieval manuscripts: orbs and sceptres, medals, and so on.
So much for the poster. The exhibition itself begins well, with huge wall-mounted gold coins punctuating the rooms, each one inscribed with Adam Phillips’s pronouncements on the meaning of ‘vulgar’. The accompanying leaflet says, ‘the exhibition begins on the lower level’, but there’s no indication of irony about this statement. And that seems to be the flaw: the exhibition takes itself too seriously. To display works by Alexander McQueen surely invites comparison with the major show at the V&A recently. In which case, The Vulgar comes over as a lot less fun. It sets out to examine the history of ostentatious fashion, yet without the lighting effects and pumping music one associates with catwalks, the clothes here seem curiously cold and lifeless.
I wonder if this is the fault of the venue, as the Barbican is currently going through a phase of cool self-consciousness. It’s so aware of its hip Brutalist architecture that it can barely say anything at all. Fashion is the Botox of thought.
I think about the way The Vulgar gestures towards behaviour. What does the Barbican hold to be the opposite of vulgar? The answer is perhaps found in the centre’s poster campaign to advertise its membership scheme. One is captioned ‘for lovers’: an image of two youngish people standing on one of the walkways around the centre. He is a lightly bearded man in jeans and a blue suit jacket, she is a Zooey Deschanel lookalike, in a vintage red dress with a white lacey collar, her dark hair in a heavy fringe. They both wear glasses, though her frames are slightly oversized in the present hipster manner. I wonder how this couple met, and think of an update on the personal ad joke in Annie Hall: ‘Must like Brutalism, David Foster Wallace and sodomy’.
On a separate poster, ‘Membership for Gastronomers’, flaunts an even more fashion-conscious young man, posing in one of the Barbican eateries. His beard is worn in the full George Bernard Shaw bushiness, joined up with a ‘man bun’, being long hair rolled up and balanced tidily on the crown, like a miniature hair beret. Fenella H tells me you can now buy fake man-buns. A hip toupee. This poster boy wears a cream jacket over a multi-coloured patterned shirt, set off with a rather nice purple hankerchief in the pocket. I’d call these latter aspects dandyish, if it wasn’t for his beard, hair and blue jeans signifying ‘fashion’ rather than ‘style’. Dandies are anti-fashion and pro-style.
The dilemma for young people has always been how to stand out yet join in at the same time. And given these literal poster kids are advertising Barbican membership, the message is about belonging, getting it right. In other words, not being vulgar. In a few decades to come these posters will be useful for scholars of 2016 fashion. The trouble is, right now they serve to consolidate the Barbican’s self-image as a place of cool, and thus not the best place to host a show about vulgarity.
I think a better venue would be the V&A or Somerset House, where the fogeyish sense of crumbing empires defuses any claims to trendiness. This is why the McQueen and Blow shows worked so well in those places. Still, The Vulgar is a noble attempt nonetheless.
Monday 6th December 2016. To the panelled rooms and stone staircases of 28 Russell Square, for a one-off Birkbeck event: a lecture by David James on ‘critical solace’. His examples are McCarthy’s The Road, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Sebald’s Austerlitz. Much of his talk is heavy on the theoretical, and a lot of what he says would have gone straight over my head a few years ago, until I started hitting heavy books by dead Frenchmen. Today my brain is a little more acclimatised to such theory, though my dyspraxia means I still have the urge to put a lecturer on ‘pause’, so I can properly chew over what’s just been said.
Still, there are consolations for slowness, too. It’s well-known that obituaries are written in advance and kept on file, ready to be revised and published within minutes of their subject’s final breath. Thus in the event of a celebrity death, torrents of words and pictures appear like a magic trick, as if to defy death with a surge in production by the living. ‘Tributes pour in’, but what’s really being paid tribute to is the swift industry of the obituary editors. So for those of us who aren’t as fast at writing as others, it’s heartening to see the occasional mistake made through haste . This is a sentence from CNN’s Castro obituary this week:
Fidel Castro outlived six US presidents, [[[NOTE: change to seven if George H.W. Bush dies before Castro]]]
Then to Gordon Square for a general event about PHDs. First year PHD students answer questions for those who, like myself, are interested in doing a PHD at Birkbeck. At the event, one of the tutors explains how no one does a PHD for the money; it’s common for a funded three years to lead to a fourth unfunded ‘writing up’ year, and the student risks living on ‘bread and water’, as one tutor tonight puts it.
The deadline for applying for the main full-time PHD bursary, in time for an Autumn 2017 start, turns out to be this January. Next month. And it involves putting together a 2000 word proposal. I’m already writing a 5000 word essay for the MA. And this diary is taking me too long as it is… (I may have to put it on hold for a while, or put out a briefer version)
I know I want to go straight into a PHD once the MA is done in September, so as not to lost momentum. I also know I want to do it full-time, so I can finally treat the whole business like a proper job. With a sustainable wage (well, a modest 16k), paid for something I’m good at and actually enjoy, the self-esteem will make all the difference. The only thing is, I need to improve my working speed.
Thursday 8th December 2016. A Birkbeck class on Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Finished Thing. The Girl is a quickly-canonised thing: a debut novel from 2013, initially published by a tiny independent press, showered with awards, republished by Faber, and already a set text in universities.
Some of my fellow students say they find McBride’s experimental prose more impenetrable than the Beckett and Joyce texts which inspired it – and these are people who’ve written essays on Ulysses. My own reaction veers toward seeing it as a kind of modernist revival text. I worry if that can be read as retreating away from contemporary experience. But then, that’s the dilemma of revivalism full stop. Wanting the new to be more like the old. But the class consensus is that the novel’s a worthy accomplishment, and a gift to any discussion about the purpose of novels.
Tags: barbican, birkbeck, david james, eimear mcbride, peltz gallery, phd, soho, the vulgar