A Trickster Vote
Tuesday 8th November 2016. One of the woollen blankets in my room has a label which must date it to wartime. ‘National Price Controlled Blanket No. 620. Selling Price to Public incl. P. tax 43/10.’
I’m reading about gender when an 80s computer joke suggests itself.
‘I’m not on a gender spectrum. I’m on a gender BBC Micro. Slightly less fun; does lots of homework.’
‘And the buttons are more fun to press’ adds @celestialweasal on Twitter.
It’s true about the keyboard buttons on the ZX Spectrum. They were horrible, rubbery little things, betraying the computer’s main image as a games console rather than a creative tool. BBC Micros looked more like typewriters, and tended to be associated with schools.
Evening: I watch the US election result come in, and despair. I’m convinced there’s a large amount of voters whose sole attitude is along the lines of ‘Tee hee! What am I like?’
A trickster vote. A Dark Knight vote: ‘Some people just want to watch the world burn’
A message from T in New York:
I am somewhere between numbness and pure terror. I’m reminded of 2000 and 2004 except I was really too young then to truly understand. Not so now. In retrospect Bush looks almost like a bumbling racist grandpa that you tolerate.
The next day, he goes to his job as a teacher:
My students were crying. I cried.
A few days after this, I get an equally distressed letter from S in Pittsburgh. She wants to mark her feelings on paper, as this is history:
I remember the night Obama won in 2008… I heard a roar outside and looked out of my window to see a flood of young people pouring into the streets and racing towards the campus… So much joy. How could the same country elect Donald Trump? … If the worse should happen, on behalf of America, Dickon, I’m sorry.
It’s partly written on the back of a voting card, with the ‘I VOTED’ sticker attached.
I think about the difference in voting over here. The English don’t do ‘I VOTED’ stickers, perhaps because they have the hint of a child surviving a trip to the dentist’s (‘I AM A GOOD PATIENT’).
Then there’s that phrase one only sees on US election materials: ‘PAID FOR BY…’ It seems to jump out all the more, given the winner was a man whose chief qualification for the job was that he can just pay his way out of trouble, and into success. Mr Trump glitters, from his golden hair to his golden elevators. His voters are thought to be mostly the poor and disenfranchised. They see Midas, but forget about how the story ended.
I try to be optimistic. Perhaps this will expose the folly of present thinking. Perhaps people will finally stop regarding the super-rich as gods, and start questioning the role of wealth in the first place. There has to be a point when even Republicans accept that capitalism can go too far. Perhaps this will be it. I hope so.
Wednesday 9th November 2016. Reading Mr Trump’s messages on Twitter. On top of everything else, he is a man who uses unnecessary exclamation marks. That’s never a good sign.
Friday 11th November 2016. Leonard Cohen dies, as if by way of reaction to it all. Tributes are soon reported everywhere as ‘flooding in’, a cliché that sets my teeth on edge. Do tributes ever do anything else? It seems all the more of an insult when reporting the death of a wordsmith.
I read some of the Cohen articles, and wince at the use of ‘famously’ in all of them. It’s a natural enough word to use in conversation, but it can weaken a piece of prose. Fame is subjective, so ‘famously’ is ultimately redundant. In print, it risks the author coming across as too eager to please.
‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, though; that’s how to do it.
As it is, the only famous thing many people know about Mr Cohen is ‘Hallelujah’. Its success is really down to John Cale’s version, which in turn inspired Jeff Buckley’s take. A sparse arrangement, letting the words breathe. Cohen’s original is virtually unlistenable through its bland over-production, like many of his 80s recordings. If you cover ‘Hallelujah’, you are almost certainly improving on the original.
Tonight I walk through Trafalgar Square at night. A busker is singing ‘Hallelujah’. He’s over-emoting it – the X-Factor factor. But by the time I cross to the other side of the square, I’m close to tears.
Evening: to Vout’s for the launch of Rising 67, the long-running punkish poetry fanzine. Still an A5 paper object, still seemingly untouched by the iPhone era. Though some of the poets reading tonight use their phones to read their work. Rising is now collected as a full run in the British Library. Its editor, Tim Wells, illustrates the poems with images from old magazines, sometimes rather risqué ones. On the back of the new issue is a 1970s public information advert for syphilis. It refers to bell-bottoms.
Saturday 12th November 2016. Evening: to the Tate Modern for The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection. One way of escaping the ubiquity of photograph-taking is to visit a whole exhibition of the things: photography by visitors is banned. However, one wonders just how many selfies made into three-dimensional objects, whether mounted in a family album, or as in this case, printed and framed and hung on a rock star’s bedroom wall. In the accompanying audio guide – recommended in this instance – Sir Elton tells how he became a collector shortly after coming out of rehab in the early 1990s. A damaging habit was replaced by a healthier one: collecting innovative 1920s and 1930s prints. His tastes are for the glamorous and sensual world of Man Ray and Edward Weston, along with the homoerotic tableaux of George Platt Lynes and Carl Van Vechten. I’m surprised there’s nothing by Herbert List.
Sir Elton is also drawn to Dorothea Lange’s portraits of people in the Depression. Lange’s subjects seem ready for magazine covers, so photogenic they are, despite or perhaps because of their grim backdrops. These are still works of art as much as historical documents. The boy in ‘One of the Homeless Wandering Boys’ (1934) resembles a teenage pin up. On the audio guide Sir Elton highlights the handsomeness of Floyd Burroughs, a cotton sharecropper in Alabama.
I think about how the tube currently displays posters for the film A Street Cat Named Bob, with the titular feline alongside the good-looking actor Luke Treadaway. A latterday ‘wandering boy’. It would be useful to compare the Bob film with Ken Loach’s rather less prettified I, Daniel Blake. The same tension between raising awareness and making art.
Sir Elton admits that when he bought Man Ray’s Glass Tears (1932), it was one of the highest prices paid for a photographic print. His friends didn’t understand why he wasn’t buying the negative. Today, I look at Glass Tears and realise how it’s responsible for the entire output of Pierre and Gilles.
Tuesday 15th November 2016. Leaf through the new book of essays on Alan Hollinghurst, Writing Under the Influence. Pleased that one of them is titled ‘Ostentatiously Discreet: Bisexual Camp in The Stranger’s Child’.
Wednesday 16th November 2016. Evening: to the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley, for Alan Bennett’s Diaries Live. The evening consists of a new full-length documentary, simply titled Alan Bennett’s Diaries, followed by a live Q&A with the writer himself, held at his local library in Primrose Hill. TV and cinema have started to switch roles. The shows on Netflix are not so much broadcast as unleashed in great fistfuls of content; whole seasons at one time. To me it’s never clear how you’re meant to watch them, other that in snatched gulps of time. Meanwhile cinemas have seized more upon the idea of broadcasting, with exclusive live transmissions like this Alan Bennett event. It’s TV, but for cinemas only. The notion of ‘live’ may be compromised by the act of still looking at a screen, but the addition of a specific time in a purpose-built place makes the experience all the more special. And crucially, undownloadable.
Before the event I try to work out which is the largest London screen to host the film, amused as I am by the thought of seeing this reserved Englishman usurping the usual CGI Hollywood fare. Most of the showings seem to be in smaller screens in multiplexes. I plump for the Phoenix, with its 250-seater. It sells out. But there’s no IMAX or 3D version, alas.
The film is superb; one of the best arts documentary I’ve seen for a while. Lots of footage of his village in Yorkshire, looking almost cartoonishly picturesque. Much more about his personal life than I’d expected. Much about his lack of a computer: for a professional (and successful) writer, this still surprises. But it’s very aesthetically pleasing, of course. Writing on paper is itself original content. There’s glimpses of a something else one doesn’t see much: a box of physical wedding photos as opposed to a Facebook page of them. Bennett and his partner Rupert. The box is marked with a sticker saying ‘YES!’
The film is produced by the BBC, so will doubtless turn up in the schedules soon.
In the live Q&A, Bennett comments on Trump: ‘The best thing you can say about him is he’s unreliable. But you still don’t want an unreliable person in that job. The only reaction is fear, really.’
Thursday 17th November 2016. Classes at Birkbeck in Russell Square. A seminar on DeLillo’s White Noise, followed by a lecture on Frederic Jameson and postmodernism. What with the US election, White Noise feels the most contemporary of all the texts this term, yet it came out thirty years ago.
Friday 18th November 2016. Reading David Collard’s About A Girl, the first book-length study of an MA set text, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2013). Collard declares his position on McBride in no uncertain terms: ‘I knew after a dozen pages that I was in the company of a great writer’. I find myself bristling, as it makes me feel bad for not being quite as bowled over. It’s like going an exhibition and not being able to see the paintings properly, because the louder, more zealous fans are hogging the view. Enthusiasm, like knowledge, needs to be lightly worn.
Saturday 19th November 2016. 9.30am: to the main Birkbeck building in Torrington Square for Transitions 7, an academic symposium on comics studies. It’s the first time that I’ve attended such an event, at least all the way through. I’m told the terms ‘conference’ and ‘symposium’ are more or less interchangeable these days, though ‘symposium’ somehow sounds more attractive. There are usually ‘calls for papers’ a few months before the date, inviting people to submit essays on a particular theme. The successful applicants read out their work at panels throughout the day, usually with discussions to follow. On top of this there’s often a ‘keynote speaker’, usually a bit of a name, whose speech tends to set the tone of the whole event. I’m told that keynote speakers are more likely to be paid for their trouble, whereas the more lowly ‘papers’ people are expected to do it gratis, or even pay a fee (thoughts of Tom Sawyer again). Thankfully Transitions is free for all, and there’s even free wine at the end.
There’s usually two or three panels taking place at the same time, so one has to pick and choose, rather like a music festival. I attend a panel on US comic histories, which includes a paper by Guy Lawley on the dot matrices used in US colour comics. Later on, Mr Lawley says he recognises me: ‘We sat together at an Alan Bennett gig’. I also go to one on gender, which includes papers on Wonder Woman, non-binary characters and female supervillains. After lunch I choose a workshop on comics that touch on magical realism and mental illness – very much my sort of thing – by the author Stef Link; the workshop element being writing based rather than drawing based, thank God. Finally, I attend a panel on national identity, and watch my MA classmate Craig Thomson give his debut paper. He discusses the traditions behind the comic American Vampire.
There’s no keynote speaker, but there is a closing ‘plenary’ panel of ‘respondents’ to the day’s talks. This comprises Paul Gravett, who pretty much is UK comics studies, along with Roger Sabin and Julia Round, whose books and journals I’ve read, and Maggie Gray, a comics lecturer whose PHD thesis was on the work of Alan Moore.
Afterwards: more wine at a pub in Store Street, with some of the speakers and tutors. Some drunken arguments on my part over definitions of modernism, but then I always imagined that sort of thing was de rigueur in Bloomsbury pubs. One of the Birkbeck tutors is a young woman from South Carolina. She says her parents both voted for Trump.
‘So you voted for Hillary?’
‘God, no. I couldn’t have that on my conscience either. I spoiled my ballot’.
Tags: alan bennett
, alan bennett's diaries
, comic studies
, donald trump
, hillary clinton
Thoughts On The Sentimental Uses Of Animals, And Subsequent Mockery
Saturday 14th November 2015.
Last night, after seeing The Lady In The Van at the East Finchley Phoenix, I couldn’t resist getting straight on the tube to Camden Town in order to look at the other star of the film: Number 23 Gloucester Crescent, NW1. The fake blue plaque for Miss Shepherd that appears in the film’s finale has gone. In Alan Bennett’s 2014 diaries (now published in a tie-in book about the film), he hopes the prop plaque would be left up, ‘as it may enhance the value of the property’. Mr B has since moved out for good, and on this night when a film about the house is opening in cinemas across the country, Number 23 is subdued, dark and silent.
I touch the spot on the gate post where Maggie Smith spills her yellow paint – now cleaned up – and walk back. The house is on the corner of Inverness Street, with the Good Mixer pub about thirty seconds’ walk away. About four years after Miss Shepherd’s death in 1989, the pub became the favourite drinking den of London’s Britpop bands. Given the lady in the van was so opposed to the ‘din’ of neighbours’ children playing their recorders, it’s hard to think how she’d have copied with the guitarist from Blur.
(Indeed, there’s a new film out about that era of London too – Kill Your Friends.)
One triumph of The Lady In The Van is that it captures the way English people can wrap themselves into complex emotional knots of awkwardness, guilt, etiquette and embarrassment, when it comes to helping the homeless. In one scene, Roger Allam’s character begrudgingly opens a jam jar for Miss Shepherd, while taking care to see no one in the street is looking. It’s Englishness in a nutshell.
* * *
Sunday 15th November 2015.
On Twitter, the Sky News presenter Kay Burley reports on the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Among her postings is a photograph of an elderly Labrador, sitting in a Paris street, simply looking at the camera. Ms Burley adds the caption ‘Sadness in his eyes’. This photo is soon roundly criticised, mocked and parodied by countless Twitterers. At the very least, the question is raised as to whether anthropomorphic judgements of canine emotion are quite the priority for frontline reportage.
It’s a moment that now feels like a regular stage in the breaking down of tragedy. First, there is the initial shock of the news. Then there is a dominant wave of concern and sympathy. But after that – two days in or so – one section of the crowd begins to overdo their public sentiment. And another section of the crowd, eager to cheer itself up, begins to wince and smirk.
In 1997, with the death of Princess Diana, there were huge amounts of floral tributes left at the gates of Kensington Palace. Among these were a fair number of children’s toys. Not just soft toy animals, but Star Wars figurines. I distinctly remember going to the gates myself and seeing a dangling Stormtrooper doll. Presumably the toys were to do with children wanting to give up a favourite possession, but it all seemed very odd. A few years later, Stewart Lee performed a whole routine mocking such tributes, imagining grown adults rushing out to buy stuffed ET dolls. ‘It’s what she would have wanted.’
Come July 2005, with the London bombs, the mocking of anthropomorphic tributes became an internet sport. There was a spate of ‘crying bulldog’ photos posted on LiveJournal with the caption ‘London Hurts’. Initially these were perfectly sincere. But soon the parodies popped up, each bulldog and each badly Photoshopped teardrop getting more and more silly.
The point is that this form of mockery is never really malicious. No one really begrudges anyone’s feelings. Not even the feelings of dog-loving Sky News reporters. It’s all humans being human, expressing themselves healthily and without violence, and so evoking the anti-terrorist spirit at its purest. Indeed, the magazine Charlie Hebdo responded to this week’s events with a cover of a man drinking champagne, while riddled with bullet holes. To some, appalling taste; to others, defiantly funny, perhaps even touching. When it comes to what is and isn’t an appropriate response, vive le difference.
* * *
Tuesday 17th November 2015.
To the Curzon Bloomsbury for the film Steve Jobs, about Mr Apple. It’s one of those films from the sub-genre of Overtly Blunt Titles, along with Twister, We Bought A Zoo, and of course, Snakes On A Plane. (‘What’s it about?’ ‘Well…’). The tale has already been told – there was an Ashton Kutcher biopic two years ago. But this time it’s told with bolder artistic strokes, perhaps in an attempt to evoke the aesthetic obsessions of the man. Danny Boyle directs, being Mr Spectacle, and Aaron Sorkin provides the script, being Mr Dialogue For Ambitious Americans. The film is play-like, with three distinct acts, each one taking place at the launches of Mr Jobs’s pretty machines.
There’s a fascinating 1960s clip of Arthur C Clarke used right at the beginning, where he predicts the rise of domestic computers. Then we’re straight into Mr Fassbender as the 1984 Jobs, shouting at people to get the Macintosh launched without a hitch. Various figures from his life turn up in the corridors and dressing rooms, in the Sorkin-esque walking-and-talking way. It’s a unique stylistic conceit, yet at times it still hits the same notes as any corny biopic (like Jobs pointing at a cassette Walkman and saying there should be a way of carrying around hundreds of songs). But Mr Sorkin gets away with it with his sheer speed of ideas.
The only problem, perhaps indicated by the film’s lack of success in the US, is that despite all the talent involved, Steve Jobs’s real life is still not that interesting. A clever man makes some pretty machines and makes a lot of money very early on. He’s a bit of an ‘asshole’ to others, but hey, he gave us the pretty machines, so that’s okay. At first there is a slightly interesting problem with his daughter, but it’s more or less sorted out by the middle act. His ‘worst night of his life’ is when he is sacked from Apple for not making quite as many millions as planned. When one character tells him ‘You’re gonna get killed!’, this really means: ‘your new computer won’t sell all that much’. It’s not exactly Saving Private Ryan.
Mr J ends up quoting Dylan, wearing roll-neck Beatles jumpers and round John Lennon glasses. Perhaps that’s the problem. A computer star is not a rock star. ‘I’m poorly made’, he says towards the end. This is not the admission of a flawed hero, but the admission that he’s not the hero after all. The star quality is all in the machines, and not in the man.
Tags: alan bennett
, camden town
, paris attacks
, steve jobs
, the lady in the van
The Excaliber Handbrake
Saturday 7th November 2015.
To the Goya exhibition at the National Gallery. Purely portraits of Spanish nobility, plus a few self-portraits. His subjects display unusually informal expressions for the late 1700s and early 1800s: cagey, jokey, rougish, sensual. The fleshy-faced young Goya looks not unlike the comedian Matt Berry, particularly in the portrait where he wears a top hat customised with burning candles around the rim, to provide more light on the canvas. His vanity is shameless: one duchess points to the words ‘Only Goya’ in the sand by her feet.
A small delight: the Moomins Shop in Covent Garden sells Moomin-branded glasses cleaning cloths.
* * *
Sunday 8th November 2015.
The large Waterstones student-friendly bookshop in Gower Street has booted out the rather cramped Costa café in the basement, and installed an airy new in-house café of its own, on the ground floor. Better still, the café is called Dillons, in memory of the bookshop that occupied the building in the 80s and 90s (which I can just about remember). Dillons is also nicely immortalised in the first page of Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, as Nick Guest gazes at a window display, soon after the 1983 election.
* * *
Wednesday 11th November 2015.
Evening: with Ms Shanthi to the Leicester Square Odeon, to see Legend. This is the new film about the Kray Twins, both played here by Tom Hardy. For Reggie he plays up his beauty, all quiff and pouts and open jackets – possibly the best looking Mr H has ever been. The more psychotic Ronnie is from Hardy’s repertoire of grotesques (like Bane and Bronson): horn rim glasses, slicked down hair, hunching, growling, grunting. The film’s highlights are when the traits are swapped between the brothers: when Ronnie is suddenly gentle, and Reggie is suddenly unstable. The special effect of the dual roles threatens to upstage the film at times, making it more of a gimmick (one thinks of those Eddie Murphy films where he insists on playing six characters). There’s also a few scenes where the film is trying very hard to be a British Scorsese – a Goodfellas or Casino – with its tracking shots of gangster bars as the main characters walk around the room, chatting with everyone they meet. But Hardy is riveting enough.
Shanthi also takes me to an old-fashioned Soho bar, which I think I’ve never been to before. It’s the New Evaristo Club, or ‘Trisha’s’, at 57 Greek Street. Private members’, apparently, but tonight the staff seem to be okay with our just swanning in politely and buying glasses of wine (£4 each). The club is the longest-running in Soho, now that the Colony has gone. It is steeped in 1950s character, with dim green lighting, round café tables with tablecloths, and old photos on the wall of Sinatra and Italian boxers. Three trendy young men with beards and backpacks come in, take one look at the décor, and promptly walk out again. It is too Old London for them.
Shanthi takes a photo:
Something rare for London happens: the barmaid comes over and tops up our glasses for free. ‘Shame to waste the bottle,’ she says. I need to come back.
* * *
iPhones with shattered screens are the new ripped jeans.
* * *
Friday 13th November 2015.
To the East Finchley Phoenix for The Lady in the Van, the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s memoir. It’s fair to say the film is pure, distilled Bennett. It’s directed by Nick Hytner, AB’s main stage collaborator since the 90s, and it’s also something of a History Boys cast reunion, with all eight ‘boys’ and all three teachers from the original stage production (not counting the late Richard Griffiths) popping up in little roles. Plus it brings together Maggie Smith, reprising her performance as the titular lady from the 90s stage version, with Alex Jennings’s take on Bennett himself, a role he’d performed in the play Cocktail Sticks. But the World Of Bennett preservation goes further, as the story’s location – his former home in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town – is shot in situ. His old house is played by his old house. And there’s even a glimpse of Jennings as Bennett as the character Graham in A Chip in the Sugar, one of the Talking Heads monologues. At one point, Roger Allam’s cynical neighbour says that the monologue is really ‘all about him, as usual’, and so it proves with this new film. Despite the subject ostensibly being Miss Shepherd, the eccentric elderly woman who lived in Bennett’s front yard for fifteen years, the film is ultimately more about Bennett scrutinising his own life and work together. As soon as it’s clear that Mr Jennings is surreally playing two Alan Bennetts – the writer and the man – the film becomes more Brechtian than realistic, and the use of the History Boys cast works more as a reference than an indulgence.
While watching, I realised that, what with Legend I’d accidentally gone to see two films this week where both were set in late twentieth-century London, both were based on true stories, and both featured a lead actor playing dual roles. But whereas Tom Hardy’s doubling as the Krays has to work as if they’re played by real twins, Jennings’s two Alan Bennetts serve as a reminder that the film is a playful fantasy based on truth. Dame Maggie’s superb performance then works against this fantasy, putting the handbrake on Bennett’s constant flow of quips, aphorisms and literary quotations. When Miss Shepherd moves her van into the yard for the first time, she puts on the handbrake with such force that it becomes like Excaliber in Arthur’s stone, unable to be moved by any other hand. Years later, the vehicle has to be lifted out via a crane. This is a nice touch of symbolism, given the way Miss Shepherd becomes a fixture in Bennett’s life, to the point where he feels almost married to her.
* * *
Both The Lady in the Van and Legend are romances of the city. They celebrate London as a place to form an identity. But this quality is not, of course, exclusive. As I type up this week’s diary, news comes through of the sickening attacks in Paris. The people who have died were civilians in concert halls and theatres, people using Paris to just be themselves. I take some comfort from the Fred Rogers quote about reacting to distressing events: ‘look for the helpers’.
* * *
Tags: alan bennett
, national gallery
, new evaristo club
, the lady in the van
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
Alan Bennett’s Greatest Hits
Saturday May 4th: With Mum to the Duchess Theatre off Aldwych to see the new Alan Bennett memoir show, Untold Stories, featuring Alex Jennings playing Bennett. First half is Hymn, a monologue from 2001, written to accompany music performed by a live string quartet (who are quite brilliant). Second half is Cocktail Sticks, a brand new collection of dramatised reminisces about his parents, acted out by Jennings with a small cast. Much of the material is hardly ‘untold’ – the bit about finding an unused tube of cocktail sticks in his mother’s old home dates back to at least the early 80s, when he talked about it on The South Bank Show (something I found online recently). In fact the piece is like an Alan Bennett Greatest Hits gig, with lots of quotes from older work, like the line about his parents finally discovering an alcoholic drink that they like – ‘bitter lemon’. But I think he’s never dramatised this material before – it just feels like he has. And he is meant to be a playwright first and foremost, so it makes sense to finally get such lines into the context of a staged narrative.
Quentin Crisp quoted himself all the time, to the point where the answers he gave in interviews were like picking from a set of cue cards. Wilde did it too, reusing at least one quip from Dorian Gray in Importance of Being Earnest (the one about a widow’s hair turning gold with grief). If it’s a good answer, why not keep giving it? Everything is brand new to someone. Like Judith Butler says about gender, information of worth needs to be repeated or risk erasure. Records can be kept, but they still need to be read.
In fact, that’s what happened to Mrs Thatcher’s ‘the lady is not for turning’ quote, which was bandied about on her death the other week. The point of it was that it was a pun on the Christopher Fry play The Lady’s Not For Burning. But the longevity of the Thatcher quote has eclipsed mainstream awareness of the Fry play, so now it looks like Thatcher (or rather her script writer) coined the euphonious phrase from scratch. As it is, she didn’t even get the Fry reference herself. It’s clear from the way she puts the wrong emphasis on ‘not’.
It’s difficult to mourn politicians who didn’t even get the jokes they had someone else write for them.
In the BA English course I’m doing at Birkbeck, the proper classes for the second year have ended, and I’m now in the exam revision period; the exams are on May 20th and 22nd. One on Chaucer and Renaissance plays, one on the history of the novel. But I’m also rushing to get the last essay of the year – on the acquiring of masculinity in Middlesex and Boys Don’t Cry -finished over the next two or three days. Get it done and delivered and then… on with the revision.
I keep forgetting how irksome I find the editing part of writing. Today I finished the first draft of the essay, which came in at 4500 words. The essay word count is 3500 words. The trick with the subsequent drafts (I always force myself to do five rewrites) is to hope that the bits I cut out don’t leave the tutor writing feedback comments along the lines of ‘You needed to say more about this’. To which the answer is, ‘But I did say more! The word count wouldn’t let me…’
All finished writing is just edited highlights of what one really wanted to say.
The fear is that the real highlights are in the bits one has edited out.
Tags: alan bennett
Not David Hockney
To Piccadilly to meet Mum for lunch, then we both visit the massive David Hockney exhibition of Yorkshire landscapes at the RA. The place is packed, but the paintings are so big that it doesn’t matter – one really has to stand back to properly appreciate them. His sheer productivity and variety of materials is impressive alone – oil on canvas, charcoals, crayons, watercolours, video art, as well as the much-trumpeted use of iPads and computer printing. One wall has five iPads mounted on it.
At the RA shop, the Hockney merchandise includes special iPad covers and a cigarette lighter. Given his public rants against the smoking ban, I like to think the latter was very much his idea.
There’s one surprise tucked away, with the exhibition’s multi-camera film installation. After the expected shots of country lanes and trees, there’s footage of what looks like Hockney’s studio, with assistants milling around and cute dogs fed by aloof young men draped on sofas. The studio is then cleared, and there’s a little scene of ballet dancing, with tap dancing to ‘Tea For Two’. The colourfully-dressed dancers are young and clearly professionals, and one of them is an older man – presumably the choreographer. I wonder if it’s Wayne Sleep, and later find out that, yes, it is:
Interview with Wayne Sleep about the Hockey film
It’s so good that Hockney still has this camp side, experimental yet playful, sharing territory with Derek Jarman, Gilbert & George and Warhol. What’s more unexpected is the way he can find room for an arty little ballet film alongside more profound and mainstream statements about looking at the English countryside – and that it all works.
Overheard at the Hockney, by someone on Twitter: “Isn’t it nice that they got Alan Bennett to do the audio guide?”
Then on to Cecil Sharp House to see the Hockney soundalike (and slight lookalike) himself. Despite the venue, Mr Bennett doesn’t do any folk dancing or singing, though there is a raffle halfway through the evening, sponsored of the local health centre, with the winner getting ten free pilates classes. Second prize is something called ‘gyrotonic’ classes. It’s not clear whether these classes are with Alan Bennett or not.
Even though it’s a benefit for Primrose Hill library, he doesn’t read his recent essay on libraries (there’s already a video of him doing so online). Instead does his usual ‘An Evening With…’ format of diary selections (updated to include his visit to the Occupy London camp), then a Q&A, and then the ‘mantelpiece’ speech from Enjoy.
Someone asks him about his memories of Peter Cook’s Establishment club in the early 1960s. AB says he saw Lenny Bruce there, doing a set about taking drugs. As the druggier period of the Sixties was still to come, Bruce’s set wasn’t so much rebellious or shocking, just baffling.
Tags: alan bennett
, david hockney
, lenny bruce
At college, I’m constantly having to stop myself over-researching, getting swamped by the flood of books and articles there are on each essay subject. For the literary theory module, I’m thinking of choosing the question on ‘how is literature gendered‘. And of course there’s just no end to the amount of materials one can consult – from Virginia Woolf through to Judith Butler and all points in between. I often stand in the college library and stare at the many shelves full of books about Woolf alone, and just think: there’s so much work that’s been done. Other people are so productive. I compare this to feeling too tired when I wake, to feeling too tired when I get back from class. It seems so wrong to feel tired full stop when made aware of the work of others – such a sin not to spend every waking moment making new stuff.
Watched a BBC documentary on David Hockney’s new show, which I’m going to later this week. His constant trying out of new ideas and new technology is inspiring – painting with an iPad, experimenting with multi-camera films. He even builds a doll’s house model of the Royal Academy in order to hang his latest show.
Another old timer, Woody Allen, quietly won the best Original Screenplay Oscar this week, for Midnight In Paris. Again, he just carries on doing new work, one film every year, and sometimes it’s not so great and sometimes it wins an Oscar.
In music, I was thinking one prolific grafter who just carries on would have to be Mark E Smith, with The Fall. But I’ve just realised that even his 29 albums are nothing compared to Billy Childish’s various incarnations – 140 albums and counting.
There’s so much to read, to watch, to see. In London, more so. The sheer choice of culture, versus the limited time and energy one has to spend on it, makes one weigh up all kinds of variables when deciding what to do with one’s consumption time. Isn’t it about time I had a go at Proust? But I still haven’t seen The Artist!
(What is it I like again? Everything! No – nothing! Oh, I always get those two confused…)
I actually find myself pleased when some live attractions turn out to be unavailable or just too expensive. Concerts, for instance. It seems the more people expect music to be free on the internet, the more they crave the physical experience of concerts, perhaps in a kind of analogue off-set. And once they feel the urge to go to an event, they have to work out how much they’re prepared to pay for it.
There’s been a documentary and ensuing furore about the way ticket agencies rip-off customers with ludicrously elevated prices. Here’s an interesting blog post on the subject:
It made me wonder if some people were really prepared to pay over £600 to see Pulp. The Viagogo agency seems to think so.
In my case, I was lucky enough to see Pulp several times in the 90s, along with Blur, Oasis, Suede, MBV, and the Pixies. But the box-ticking aspect aside, my urge to go to big concerts has dwindled regardless. Because I’m usually by myself, I find it hard to connect with the crowd experience. I’m too acutely aware of being by myself, or being my age, wondering if this night out was a good idea after all, or I just can’t stop thinking about the act of being in the audience, and what that means. Either that, or my taste has just changed (it’s probably more to do with that).
But there are still things I want to go to. One event I was quite excited to hear about this week was of Alan Bennett doing a talk at Cecil Sharp House. I managed to get a ticket online before they sold out.
Ticket price: £10. Plus 50p postage. And it includes a glass of wine.
Admittedly, the evening will be less of a visual spectacle than, say, a Take That gig. And with rather fewer dance routines. Though one never knows.
Tags: alan bennett