The Baileys Defence
Sunday 1st March 2015.
Living in London, one gets a regular stream of takeaway menus put through the letterbox. Today’s is unusual. A menu for Monsoon, an Indian takeaway in Tufnell Park. It comes with two quotes of endorsement by none other than Ed Miliband. No mention of bacon sandwiches.
* * *
Monday 2nd March 2015.
Alan Bennett reads a provocative mini-essay for Radio 4, on the subject of English hypocrisy. What’s most striking is that he ends it saying, ‘before you stampede for the Basildon Bond or rather skitter for the Twitter I must say that I don’t exempt myself from these strictures.’
That Alan Bennett – Alan Bennett! – is aware of Twitter means the world really has changed. I hope he doesn’t get his own account: it wouldn’t suit him at all. Though there are other veteran writers whose absence from Twitter is a blessing to the nervous systems of all. Martin Amis would not fare well.
* * *
Wednesday 4th March 2015.
In the post today are a couple of contributor copies of A London Year, the anthology of diary entries about the capital. After previously existing as a giant door-stopper of a hardback, it’s now been turned into a rather cute and compact paperback (out March 19th). The potted biographies of each contributor have been elided to save space, but I rather like that.
If I really have to explain who I am, I like ‘diarist’, if only because it’s the one thing I’ve kept doing for the longest time. ‘Mature student’ isn’t an identity, though it’s what I am technically up to at the moment. ‘DJ’ isn’t something I do very often, while ‘indie band songwriter and musician’ is who I used to be. One silver lining of Orlando and Fosca not being hugely successful is that I don’t have to feel defined by them. Music divides as much as it attracts. I like to feel that an admirer of this diary doesn’t need to be a fan of those records – indeed they might well enjoy the diary and detest the music – or just not be interested in those styles of music. One of the great things about prose is that the reader can bring their own soundtrack.
And now I’m thinking of Anthony Burgess, forever grumbling that the world never let his classical music career get off the ground, so he had to take up prose. And then his grumbling further, that people would only remember him for A Clockwork Orange. And then only because it inspired someone else’s film. ‘Best known for’ is a phrase that curdles the stomach.
Ideally, one would just put out the material and let the reader decide how to receive it. Except that’s impractical: one needs filters and signposts.
* * *
Thursday 5th March 2015.
I re-watch Imagine Me & You, a 2005 Richard Curtis-y British romcom about a newly-wed young woman in Primrose Hill falling for a lesbian florist. It seemed very sugary and fluffy and forgettable at the time, but lately I’ve seen it praised by various female film fans on Twitter. Possibly because it stars Lena Headey, who went on to gain something of a following in Game of Thrones. So I look at it again.
I discover that it is so Richard Curtis that it even does his thing of combining unexpectedly explicit sexuality with middle-class English politeness. There’s a scene where two men are caught cottaging on Hampstead Heath, and apologise as if they’re both played by Hugh Grant. They emerge chastely from the bushes, sheepishly doing up their pristine jeans: ‘Sorry!’ ‘Terribly sorry!’ It’s all so idealised, and yet because the actors give it their best, it works. Darren Boyd as the funny best friend gets all the laughs, while Primrose Hill has never look prettier. A lesbian Love Actually, then: sickly for some, sweet for others, plus a nice use of London locations.
* * *
Friday 6th March 2015.
To the Hackney Picturehouse to see Appropriate Behaviour. Given the film concerns the angsty wonderings of an arty young woman in Brooklyn, my choice of venue feels like appropriate behaviour too. Hackney today is, after all, not so dissimilar to that New York district, with its mixture of roughness and fashionability, where club nights often take place in former warehouses, all aluminium ducting and exposed brickwork. In keeping with the East London obsession for new takes on the old, all the seats in the Picturehouse’s Lounge Screen resemble analysts’ couches, built in a permanent recline. So one watches the film while virtually lying down. At first I worry this will prove to be awkward, even painful, but the couches are so deeply cushioned that it turns out to be an entirely comfortable experience. I just have to be careful not to spill my drink on myself.
The main actress, Desiree Akhavan, also wrote and directed the film, giving it a strong sense of 70s Woody Allen: a personal take on New York, via one person’s love life. But where Annie Hall featured Jewish male heterosexual angst, Appropriate Behaviour has Iranian female bisexual angst. And like Love Is Strange, also currently in cinemas, same-sex relations are portrayed as less of an obstacle to happiness per se: what’s more of a problem is the harshness of the property market. So once again there’s several scenes of people boxing up their possessions and moving in with new neighbours. If such scenes are becoming a cliché for city-based romances, it’s because they’re all too true to life.
Bisexuality as an identity does still seem under-represented. It might be argued that to be bisexual now is more unconventional than being gay, because of the way it questions the role of gender. And yet it’s nothing new in cinema: the 1971 film Sunday Bloody Sunday featured a bisexual young man in London sharing his life with an older man (Peter Finch) as well as a woman (Glenda Jackson). But what complicates Ms Akhavan’s situation is her cultural background: she reminds the audience, chillingly, that Iran is one of the many countries where same-sex relations are still grounds for capital punishment.
Appropriate Behaviour is ultimately a very funny and sharply-written film, and although at the moment it’s being boxed up – like the character’s possessions – as part of a wave of angsty-female urban relationship dramas (along with Frances Ha, The Obvious Child, and anything to do with Lena Dunham), I think it could well become a classic. Certainly, any film that features music by Electrelane, and Leslie Feinberg’s book Stone Butch Blues, is okay by me.
* * *
In the foyer outside, a strange man suddenly hands me four mini-bar bottles of Baileys Irish Cream. He is standing behind a table on which are hundreds of similar bottles. It’s part of some promotion for Baileys, apparently. I suppose the company are trying to suggest that the drink might not be just for Christmas, but also for, well, watching a bisexual Iranian comedy on a Friday afternoon in March.
I was going to make a joke here about the way alcoholic drinks are gendered. The way Baileys is thought of a ‘female’ drink, and how my own taste for drinks tends to favour the less butch options. A few years ago I went through a slightly intense Bacardi Breezer phase, but we won’t go into that.
Still, there is a serious side to the image of Baileys, which happens to tie in with one of the themes in Appropriate Behaviour. Last year, a human rights lawyer in Cameroon, where homosexuality is illegal, revealed how men there were being jailed for displaying signs of effeminacy in public.
From the Independent, 12 September 2014: ‘In one instance, a client of Mr Togue’s was convicted for his feminine mannerisms and drinking Baileys Irish Cream – a choice which the judge felt was a woman’s drink.’
So as I sit here, swigging my free miniature bottles of Baileys, I like to think I am making a protest against the homophobic laws of Cameroon. Yes, that’s what it is.
Tags: a london year
, alan bennett
, appropriate behaviour
, Baileys Irish Cream
, imagine me & you
Choose Your Own Adventure
Saturday 17th May 2014. Hot and sticky in London. The British Library café is still very busy: lots of students testing each other on their revision. I’m polishing my final essay for the year, adding a few more secondary references, checking the whole essay ticks the right boxes, and then just re-reading it for grammar and general flow. I’m forcing myself to do six drafts this time, one draft per day. Whatever the mark is, at least I know I’ve put the hours in. It wasn’t so long ago that I left essays until the night before the deadline. That’s simply unthinkable now.
* * *
Sunday 18th May 2014. The Boogaloo bar now has a little den in the back yard, decked out entirely with references to the Tony Scott / Quentin Tarantino film True Romance. It’s called ‘Alabama’s’.
* * *
Tuesday 20th May 2014. To the Barbican to see the The Two Faces of January. A mere £5 for students on Tuesdays. It’s my first visit to the centre’s new Cinema Café building in Beech Street, two blocks away from the main Barbican complex. The venue consists of two cinema screens (officially the Barbican’s Cinema 2 and 3) and a large, not-too-trendy café. There’s plush high-backed chairs and sofas, and lots of tables for laptop users. And indeed, for exam revision groups, of which there’s several in evidence today: young people huddled over textbooks and ring binders.
It’s warm weather, and I watch The Two Faces Of January in Cinema 2 while wearing my cream linen suit, now getting somewhat threadbare and needing replacing. As it happens, the main character in the film, played by Viggo Mortensen, wears exactly the sort of suit I’m after. I miss whole sections of the plot due to staring at the suits. But that’s as good a reason for seeing a film as any.
It’s a very old fashioned film: a Patricia Highsmith adaptation, set in 1962 across Athens, Crete and Istanbul. The usual Highsmith elements are present and correct: morally dodgy men in sunny locations, arguments that quickly turn into violence, crime as a kind of filler for holes in masculinity, and subtexts of male-on-male obsession. The only 21st century thing about it is the warning of adult themes on the BBFC certification card, which precedes the film:
12A: Contains infrequent strong language, moderate violence & scenes of smoking.
* * *
Wednesday 21st May 2014. I finish and deliver the essay, thus ending my college work for the third year. The courses I chose for this year were all essay based, with no exams whatsoever. I don’t miss exams in the slightest, but I do miss the sense of a dramatic finale that they can create.
At Birkbeck, all essays have to be delivered electronically, via a link on the college’s website. But most of the tutors still ask for a paper copy as well. The student must print one out and take it to a special post box, being a slot in the reception of the Gordon Square building. And this is the case for today’s final essay. So I do get a little sense of an ending after all – it’s the moment when my fingers let go of the envelope when I drop it into the post box. Gone. Done. Third year over.
I now have no deadlines hanging over me for the first time since December last year, and won’t have to think about new ones until October this year. So I’m looking upon the next week or so as a proper holiday. Albeit on a budget. I have no money to travel, so it has to be a holiday in my own bedsit, punctuated with the cheaper pleasures of London. This suits me fine, though. Free time can be luxury enough.
* * *
In the evening: I attend a free Birkbeck event at Waterstones bookshop, Gower Street. It’s a talk with Travis Elborough about his various non-fiction books, including A London Year. The host is Joe Brooker, one of the head tutors on my English programme. He comments how A London Year might be best read by using the index in the back to choose different themes, rather than reading it linearly from start to finish. Though he doesn’t use the term, to me this makes A London Year a good illustration of the city as hypertext. Hypertext is now woven into so many day-to-day lives that it’s easy to forget about its usage as a metaphor. It’s the navigation of a large mass of material by cutting a path through the layers, pushing through the text via a lateral dimension.
On the Web, the hypertext element is the choice of one’s own reading path by clicking on links. Likewise A London Year, when read via choices made in the index, and likewise London itself. You have to take your own forked path through the many worlds and layers of the city, in both space and in time. Piercing the palimpsest.
Perhaps my own generation might think of hypertext theory in relation to those Choose Your Own Adventure books of the 1980s. You didn’t read them from start to finish; you chose links to different sections, and so produced your own text. What, after all, is the appeal of London but as a giant game of Choose Your Own Adventure?
Thursday 22nd May 2014. Heavy rain and thunderstorms. Possibly because it’s World Goth Day and Morrissey’s birthday.
I go to Jackson’s Lane Community Centre to vote. Two elections this time. One is for the European Parliament, one for local councils. I am the only one in the polling station. On the internet and in the news it feels like everyone is interested in politics. When you actually go to vote, it feels like no one is.
* * *
In the evening I go to the Muswell Hill Odeon for The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time, one of the National Theatre’s ‘Live’ screenings. It’s my first time to such an event. For the last few years, the NT has teamed up with cinemas to screen live broadcasts of their plays at the South Bank. Or in this case, a synchronised repeat screening of a past live broadcast. It’s an inspired solution for those who like theatre but can’t make it to the NT, as there’s the theatrical sense of a shared, one-off experience to the screenings. It’s not quite like being in a theatre, but neither is it a normal trip to the cinema.
In this case, the recording of the Curious Incident play is from 2012, during its original setting at the NT’s Cottesloe space. The audience are arranged on tiers, looking down onto a stage in the round. The play uses a lot of choreography aimed at a vertical view, to such a degree that at times it’s like a scaled-down Busby Berkeley film. The stage is marked out in tiny squares like a maths exercise book, and there are so many intricate projections and lighting effects – not to mention live animals – that the technical rehearsal must have gone on for days. The recreation of the A Level Maths question from the end of the novel is quite brilliant – a seamless blend of acting, direction, animation and sheer nerve. Mum has gone to one of the screenings in Suffolk, so we discuss it over the phone afterwards.
* * *
Late night: I watch a little of the election coverage on TV. Some election-speak: ‘No overall control’. It’s one of those phrases which I feel is somehow criticising me personally. Like ‘approval needed’ at the supermarket.
Tags: a london year
, curious incident of the dog in the night-time
, linen suits
, NT live
, the two faces of january
, travis elborough
, true romance
An Attempt To Go Weekly
I have finally conceded that daily diary updates are beyond me. So starting with this entry I’m going to compile a weekly thousand-word diary instead. I hope to publish a new one every Friday morning, as that makes it feel like something to look forward to. Sunday night will have to suffice for this one.
* * *
Monday 9th December 2013. The final set texts of the term are Olive Schreiner’s Story of An African Farm, Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled, and the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon. Schreiner’s novel is a perfect example of a book I’d never pick up were it not for taking a course in literature. When I do, it moves me to tears.
* * *
Rachel Stevenson has been reviewing all the songs in John Peel’s 1991 Festive Fifty. This was the Year of Noisy Americans. I remember being in student haunts of Bristol at that time and seeing the ‘baggy’ fashions of long sleeved tops and flares give way to checked lumberjack shirts:
In the evening I walk past the Kentish Town Forum. Despite the changing ways of consuming music, the sight of touts outside large venues still endures. It’s the same aggressive shouting at pedestrians. Only the band names being shouted come and go. Tonight it’s ‘Buy or sell tickets for Haim.’
* * *
Good to see critics agreeing with one of my favourite films of 2013: Frances Ha. In one scene, two characters discuss how to spend the evening:
‘We should go to the movies.’
‘But the movies are so expensive!’
‘Yeah, but you’re at the movies.’
* * *
Thursday 12th December 2013. On the day of my last classes for the term I receive my highest essay mark yet. It’s an 80. This is defined in the classification guidelines as a High First Class, for work that ‘may display characteristics more usually found at postgraduate level or that demonstrate the potential for publication.’ I’m rather stunned. I’m still uncertain about which direction to take this skill in order to earn a living, but at least it is proof that I can do this sort of thing well, and can do it on time, and should probably develop it further between now and the grave. The essay was on ‘technotext’ theories of materiality, with reference to Chris Ware’s comic strip story for the iPad, Touch Sensitive.
The same day sees a grading of my former work as a songwriter. The quarterly PRS statement arrives and pays me a total of £1.41. Orlando’s album Passive Soul has sold 7 copies on iTunes, while the Fosca song ‘Confused and Proud’ has been played 139 times on streaming services like Spotify and Last FM. Well, I’m pleased if the songs are being listened to at all.
* * *
Meanwhile my work as a diarist in the anthology A London Year has managed to receive some attention. Here’s a positive review, which quotes from my diary:
This further review calls me ‘as well-read as Samuel Johnson and Johnny Rotten but polished to a dandyish sheen’. I also have ‘a certain essential Londonness’:
A few weeks ago, Kensington & Chelsea Today reviewed the book and called me ‘Dickson’ Edwards, which suggests I have some distance to go in the notability stakes. Still, it also called me ‘the youngest’ diarist in the book, which is the best possible thing you can say to anyone over, oh, 24. Here’s a pdf of the review:
The other 2013 book I’m in, I Am Dandy, appeared as a prop in a colour supplement article (name forgotten, possibly the Sunday Times). It was, of all things, a piece on the comedian Frank Skinner. Mr Skinner was photographed reading I Am Dandy in his underwear.
* * *
I am sent a photograph of a sign on a building. They saw it and thought of me. It says ‘Centre For Useless Splendour’.
A little Googling reveals this to be part of the Contemporary Art Research Centre at Kingston University. The artist responsible is Elizabeth Price, the Turner Prize winner who once sang in a couple of my favourite bands, Talulah Gosh and The Carousel.
* * *
Saturday 14th December 2013. Mum comes up to London for a well-earned day trip, while the hospice looks after Dad. We have mulled wine and mince pies in the Somerset House Ice Rink café, something of a pre-Christmas tradition.
Another Christmas tradition that seems to be bigger every year: adults in Santa costumes wandering noisily en masse through the streets, swigging bottles of alcohol. An expected late night activity, perhaps, but today they’re on the Strand at noon. These are often organised group events (an inflated version of pub crawls), though not quite organised enough for some of us. What irks is the implication that it’s fine to extend an office party across a whole series of public spaces.
Mum and I have lunch at St Martin’s Café in the Crypt, and on the way out I point out a couple of sights in Trafalgar Square which mark this moment: Katharina Fritsch’s blue sculpture of a cockerel on the Fourth Plinth, and the pool of floral tributes to Mandela outside South Africa House. The queue to sign the embassy’s condolence book is now small enough to fit into the lobby, but it’s still going.
We visit the Tate Britain’s newly revamped permanent collection. Mum is pleased to see the inclusion of works by Josef Herman, Edward Middleditch and Nigel Henderson, all of whom she and Dad knew in the 60s and 70s. Henderson taught Dad photography. Josef Herman, meanwhile, lent my parents a car around the time I was born. ‘A beaten up Mini’ says Mum. ‘Full of sweet wrappers.’
* * *
Saturday evening: I watch the whole series of Adam Buxton’s Bug, his TV show about music videos. By far my favourite is one he shows from 2010. It’s for the song ’70 Million’ by the French indiepop band Hold Your Horses. They dress up as recreations of paintings: Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, and so on. I love how this concept is channelled through the ragged charm of the song and the band’s visible enjoyment, playing irreverently with the paintings’ gender roles and depictions of nudity:
Video: 70 Million by Hold Your Horses
The Bug website interviews the ’70 Million’ directors, and lists all the paintings:
Tags: 70 million
, a london year
, chris ware
, frances ha
, i am dandy
, Rachel Stevenson
, somerset house
, tate britain
Dandies In An Underworld
Friday 11th October 2013. A rainy afternoon spent in Piccadilly with Ray Frensham, fellow subject of the book I Am Dandy and author of Teach Yourself Screenwriting. He takes me for lunch at Brasserie Zedel in Sherwood Street. Once the Atlantic Bar, it’s now a rather splendid and ornate place to meet friends for a meal. Like the Wolseley, it’s actually possible to eat there relatively cheaply if one chooses carefully. You forget it’s in a basement somewhere under Regent Street – the ceiling is so high and the decor so gilded that it manages to feel downright airy.
Mr Frensham is full of entertaining anecdotes, and talks about how his romantic life became more fun after he hit 50 rather than before. The key ingredient being the sense of finally being at home in one’s skin. I certainly find that reassuring. We mooch around Hatchard’s bookshop afterwards, and take photos of each other with the dandy book. Hatchard’s has quite a few copies, filed under Fashion. I’ve since re-bleached my hair so it’s now a little less yellow. Not keen on resembling a sexually confused Eminem.
There’s also a new blog post about the book at the website for Bergdorf Goodman, the New York department store. I am featured as an example of The Dandy As Decadent, with an ‘under-worldly style’.
Mr Frensham tells me that his appearance in the book has already led to offers for modelling suits and so forth. I haven’t heard anything myself – yet. It would obviously be nice if something came of appearing in either that or in the big new diary book (A London Year).
But then, it’s just nice to be included for something I’m happy to be included for. As I think it says on the gates of the Underworld.
Tags: a london year
, brasserie zedel
, i am dandy
, ray frensham
Among The Diarists
Tuesday 8th October. To Westminster Reference Library for the launch of A London Year, edited by Nick Rennison and Travis Elborough. It’s a large, beautifully designed, greenish-blue hardback, and collects a variety of London-themed excerpts from real life diaries, arranged so that each day of the year is represented by at least one entry. The book is currently on display in every London bookshop I’ve been wandering into of late. There’s a whole table of them at Waterstones Piccadilly, right near the entrance.
I’m flattered to see my own diary is in the book, eleven excerpts of it, alongside the journals of pretty much everyone I can think of who fits the brief: Pepys, Swift, Keats, Dickens, Woolf, Van Gogh, George Eliot, Queen Victoria, John Betjeman, Tony Benn, Alan Bennett, Derek Jarman, Michael Palin, Brian Eno and Evelyn Waugh.
Clayton Littlewood is also in there, with excerpts from Dirty White Boy and Goodbye to Soho. He’s the only other diarist in the book who’s at the event, though the stars of the show are really Mr Rennison and Mr Elborough. Aside from giving permission, I had no input in the selection. So until I saw a finished copy I didn’t know which entries of mine they were going to use, or that they’d use quite so many. It’s been a pleasant surprise.
At the event, Helen Gordon reads a typically ribald 1940s entry by Joan Wyndham. Ms Gordon had a novel out with Penguin recently (Landfall), and I’m reminded that she’s a good example of a Well Dressed Contemporary Novelist, reading in Jazz Age-style pleated chiffon trousers. Also present are Bill & Alex Mayor, Ms Lettie, Tim B, Andrew Martin, Paul Kelly, Debsey Wykes, Bob Stanley (currently in the middle of promoting his own massive book, Yeah Yeah Yeah, about the history of pop), Emily Bick, and a certain actor who I think I last saw several lifetimes ago, at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
Afterwards I repair with a few of the gathering to the rather cosy Tom Cribb pub in Panton Street, and stay far too late and drink far too much. Chat with Paul Kelly about the political side of his London films made with Saint Etienne (finally out on DVD as A London Trilogy) : he compares his approach with the records of The Specials – the political message is there if you look for it, but the apolitical side – the art for art’s sake side, I guess – must always come first.
Tags: a london year
, paul kelly
, travis elborough