Something Where There Should Be Nothing
Late March, and for the first time I find myself looking out for new leaves on the trees. Larkin’s rare positivity: ‘Afresh, afresh, afresh’.
I recently had an email from someone organising an exhibition at Somerset House. The show is titled ‘Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and their Digital Descendents’, and will run from late May till July. I’ve given permission for them to use a quote from mine on some sort of screen, for use on just one day. They’ve chosen some entries from May and June of last year.
So the diary continues to find purchase. And yet I still resent the time and effort it requires. Perhaps because it is, occasional donations aside, unpaid work. Philip Glass on his early years, driving a taxi while being championed in the press: ‘What is success? Having an audience.’ I have to admit I still prefer the version that pays the bills. Perhaps it’s about time I look into Patreon. But anyway.
How do I write this diary again? Empty my brain onto the page, take out all the libel, the self-libel, all the resentment, and as much of the self-pity as I can wake myself up to, then polish whatever’s left. And take too long to do it.
(That’s not entirely true: much of the time is spent procrastinating.)
For this present update, so much time has gone unmarked that I will have to be concise, even fragmentary.
12 December 2016. Most of my days from here to the 23rd of January are spent on the 3rd essay for my MA at Birkbeck, as in my MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture. This essay is a fairly bold argument towards a definition of ‘textual dandyism’, via selected novels by Muriel Spark, Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson. One of the other students said that my doing Carter was a ‘typical’ choice for me, which I took to be a compliment. The postgraduate mode is, after all, meant to involve a drift from the general to the specialised. And what else is specialisation but an advanced manifestation of taste? Discuss.
Regardless, few will disagree that Ms Carter is good for sparking off ideas. One of her essays in Shaking A Leg states that anorexia is a kind of female dandyism. There’s a thousand debates right there.
13 December. Film: The Pass. Barbican. Russell Tovey as a closeted gay football star. Much commentary on the way football is, rather depressingly, the last bastion of default homophobia. Very play-like; a chamber piece. Mercifully there is no actual football in the film.
15 December. More modern masculinity. The term ends, and I go with fellow Birkbeck students and tutors to the Museum Tavern, Great Russell Street, opposite the British Museum. I think the preferred term for a group of MA students is a ‘cohort’, though for me that sounds too much like Asterix the Gaul.
There is a moment of drama in the pub, when one customer – not one of our party it must be said – hurls his empty glass against the wall behind the counter. The glass shatters spectacularly into a starburst of tiny pieces, like a firework, though no one seems to be hurt. The hubbub duly stops and everyone watches.
This glass-thrower – whose patron saint must be Robert Carlyle’s character in Trainspotting – explains at some volume that it was really, definitely, his time to be served next.
Presumably it hadn’t occurred to him that (a) he wasn’t getting served for a reason, and that (b) throwing a glass against a wall is more likely to prevent one from ever being served in that pub again. How fascinating the logic of the drunken mind.
The burlier men in the room realise that Christmas has come early. They now have the whole pub’s implied permission to grapple this fellow out onto the street, and perhaps even get a few punches in for good measure. This they do with gusto. The joy of righteous violence: it almost makes one want to take up rugby. Sadly, the police arrive in minutes.
I notice how bar fights in real life are so unlike the choreographed ones in films. There’s little actual punching; more a series of headlocks and holding. Indeed, more like actual rugby.
Afterwards I notice there’s another under-discussed element to real life fighting: embarrassment. It’s in that moment of silence when everyone realises there is a troublemaker in the room, and that someone, ideally someone large, and more ideally several large someones, will indeed have to Do Something.
I was further disappointed that a pub fight in Bloomsbury didn’t involve rolled up copies of the London Review of Books.
16 December. I visit the Heath Robinson museum in Pinner. One display has a fan letter from the WW1 trenches, suggesting a joke to Mr Heath R. Some sections of No Man’s Land, says the soldier, are so narrow that one could use a fishing rod to steal souvenirs from the enemy. Heath Robinson used the idea in a subsequent cartoon.
18 December. Tate Britain. A brilliant video installation, Wot U :-) about?, by an artist I’d not seen before, Rachel Maclean. It depicts a nightmare world where social media controls bodies. She plays all the parts in the film, but is so buried under digital effects and masks that one would never recognise her. There’s a touch of Leigh Bowery about the characters: clownish faces with brightly coloured make-up. Demented Pac-Men, and indeed Pac-Women.
20 December. Film: Uncle Howard. ICA. Documentary on an 80s NYC filmmaker whose career was abruptly shortened by AIDS. Has glimpses of an abandoned film starring Madonna.
22nd December. Mum in town. We visit the 1920s exhibition in the Fashion Museum, Bermondsey. A lot of dresses resembling pyjamas, frankly. Helps illustrate the view that the 20s were full of lightness, invention and abandon, while the 1930s were when things became buttoned down, in every sense. No distance like the recent past. Also: a bonus display of frocks from the recent Gatsby film.
24th December. Film: Paterson. Curzon Bloomsbury. After the action of Star Wars, Adam Driver fronts an inaction film. Signifiers of quiet US dramas: a small town’s name as the title. See also Manchester by the Sea. Perhaps one can blame Paris, Texas.
English place names can do the same sort of thing – from ‘Adlestrop’ to Broadchurch. But they can also produce a wry bathos, which I think is exclusively English. Peter Sellers’s ‘Balham – Gateway to the South’ in the 60s. Billy Bragg’s parody of ‘Route 66’ as ‘A13 – Trunk Road to the Sea’. ‘Wichita Lineman’ is soulful, ‘Widnes GPO Man’ less so.
25th December. Highgate. Ducks in Waterlow Park, Frozen, Doctor Who.
28th December. To the Harold Pinter Theatre with Minna Miller, for Nice Fish, a new absurdist play with Mark Rylance. Cocktails at the RA’s plush Academicians’ Room after.
31st December. New Year’s Eve in Suffolk, with Mum. We watch the Crown’s fireworks from the garden.
Wednesday 11th January 2017. Working on my PhD proposal alongside the essay. My last module of regular taught classes begins. I’ve opted for ‘The Horror, The Horror’, taught by Roger Luckhurst. Professor L knows his stuff: he’s written academic books on mummies and zombies, and edited the present Oxford World’s Classics editions of Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, and HP Lovecraft’s short stories.
One theme of the module is the idea of two sorts of ‘horror’: a more literary ‘high’ category, as in Dorian Gray, and a ‘low’, trashier version, such as Saw 3. In the case of HP Lovecraft, some works have journeyed from the ‘low’ to the ‘high’; albeit a precarious sort of ‘high’. RL tells us how hard it was to convince the gatekeepers of the OUP that Mr Lovecraft’s tentacle-based tales are worthy of inclusion alongside Chekhov, Dickens, and Austen.
Reading ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ now, I do find myself chucking aloud at some of the sillier excesses. But when considering the horror genre, Lovecraft’s influence is monumental.
We kick off with Arthur Machen’s Novel of the White Powder. Like Dorian and Jekyll, it gestures at the things a young single man might get up to, when on a night out in London. Horrors indeed.
Sunday 15 January. Watch the (possibly) last ever episode of Sherlock in the biggest room possible: the Odeon Leicester Square. Even though the episode is being transmitted on TV at the same time, and for free, the organisers know there’s enough people keen to pay £10 or so to see it on the big screen, in the company of fellow fans. The cinema has truly been reinvented as a special (British) space first, and an advertising board of Hollywood second. There are cheers when Moriarty appears to have returned from the dead. Then boos, when a caption quickly reveals it’s a flashback. I see a couple of Sherlock fans wearing deerstalkers. Both are women.
Saturday 21st January. Green Park station is crammed with people on their way to the women’s march against Mr Trump. One placard has a picture of a cat: ‘Try grabbing this pussy’. Despite the crowds making everyone’s exit from the station a much slower experience, the atmosphere is quite unlike the miserable air one feels from the crowds at rush hour. Here, there’s a fun, even joyous feel to it all.
A barista in Costa Piccadilly tells me that the big protests are always good business for him. A protest marches on its stomach.
Monday 23rd January. Delivered the dandyism essay. Then off to my PhD application interview in Gordon Square. I am offered an unconditional place on the course, but will have to spend the next few weeks revising my proposal even more. This time, it’s for the second and much harder stage of the process – the competition for funding. I’m told I’ll hear back about the result in early April.
Wednesday 25th January. To a literary event at Birkbeck: Eimear McBride interviewed by Jacqueline Rose. The hall is packed out, with people standing at the back, some sitting on the floor. Ms Rose makes it clear she regards Ms McBride as an important talent, almost in messianic terms: ‘I felt I was waiting for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’. But this means that her questions are all the more serious and worthwhile. In Joe Brooker’s write-up of the event, he points out there’s a history of such critic-and-artist double acts, going back to Ruskin and Turner. I also thought of David Sylvester and Francis Bacon. Sylvester’s interviews with Bacon are essential reading for anyone wanting to create.
Much has been made of the influence of Joyce and Beckett on McBride, but tonight she names a more recent cultural lodestone: the 1990s playwright Sarah Kane. Which makes perfect sense to me.
Saturday 28th January. Back in London. First night alone after Tom’s death. Consoled by kind staff and friends at the Boogaloo, especially David Ryder-Prangley. I’m something of a drunken mess towards the end of the night, but am grateful that there are people out there who will drop everything to help.
Tuesday 7th February. Eyes tested at Boots, Victoria Street. One test involves reading a passage of prose from a piece of laminated card. This turns out to be an extract from Brideshead Revisited.
Monday 13 February. I get the essay mark back: 74. That’s three out of three first class marks on the MA so far. One more essay to do for Easter, then the big dissertation in the summer.
Thursday 16 February. To take my mind off things, I go to the ICA to see the most talked-about drama of the moment, Manchester by the Sea. It is only as it starts that I realise it’s about the aftermath of a brother’s death. When Dad died, the book I was writing about was Fun Home. Which is about a father’s death. But that’s stories for you. Only ‘seven basic plots’ (and some insist there’s only three).
A highlight of Manchester is a moment of farce. The Casey Affleck character is driving his nephew around. At one point, when the car is parked, he mistakes the meaning of the nephew saying ‘Let’s go’ and starts to drive away. The nephew is actually opening the passenger door to get out, and nearly does himself an injury. It’s an entirely unnecessary scene in terms of the plot, but it works brilliantly within the whole structure of the film, balancing the more dramatic moments.
Monday 20th February. Reading Tobias Wolff’s Old School. Page 53:
‘Grief can only be told in form. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry. Sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo’.
Tuesday 21st February. Woolf’s diary for 13th June 1923: ‘Going to 46 (Gordon Square) continues to excite’. Same here, Virginia.
Friday 24th February. The final line in Old School is a reference to the parable of The Prodigal Son, elegantly paraphrased by Wolff:
‘Those old words, surely the most beautiful words ever written or said: “His father, when he saw him coming, ran to meet him.”’
Monday 27 February. To Seven Hills Crematorium, on the dark side of the Ipswich ring-road. Tom’s favourite guitar is propped up in front of his coffin.
Mum points out how it’s virtually three years to the day since Dad’s funeral. Same chapel. The same funeral directors, Deacon’s of Lavenham. The same celebrant, Chris Woods, at our request. It’s best to have a professional running these things, especially in the case of an unexpected death. If emotion overwhelms a speaker, the celebrant knows how to step in.
Today Mr Woods keeps up the required tone of civic dignity, even when uttering names like Fields of the Nephilim. I think of the moment in the Patrick Keiller film Robinson in Space where the narrator, Paul Schofield, has to fold his soft, 1940s vowels around the words ‘Adam Ant’. Indeed, Mr Ant is mentioned today as well, and much of his present band – Tom’s colleagues – are here in person.
Besides, I remember that this is Suffolk, home to so many goth and metal bands in itself. It’s not impossible that this room has hosted send-offs for the grandmothers of Cradle of Filth.
Boxes of tissues punctuate the hymn books in front of each pew. For some reason, perhaps an over-ordering of supplies, today’s boxes of Kleenex are packaged in a Christmas theme. I spend much of my brother’s funeral staring out a cartoon snowman. Tom would be the first to find this funny.
There’s speeches by Tom’s partner Charis and his best friend, Ewan. Ewan speaks for many when he goes off-script, sighs, looks at the coffin and says, ‘I still can’t believe it, to be honest’.
I’ve provided Chris W with memories of my own to read out, but spend the ceremony at Mum’s side in the congregation. Holly, Tom’s daughter, is at Mum’s other side. There’s a poem by Holly, a reading of Tagore’s ‘Peace My Heart’, and recorded music by Warren Zevon’s ‘Keep Me In Your Heart’, along with several tracks by Tom’s own band Spiderbites.
Then to the Ship Inn in nearby Levington for drinks and food. The pub looks over the Orwell estuary, with the container port at Felixstowe visible in the distance. Another coincidence, as I’m currently reading Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie, a recommended text for the class on horror fiction. There’s a chapter about the ‘eerie’ nature of this very part of Britain, where Fisher himself lived until his own untimely death last month (I didn’t know him, but I liked his work).
In the book, Fisher ties in the contemporary spookiness of Felixstowe’s container port with the rural desolation of the surrounding marshes, the latter used in M.R. James’s Edwardian ghost stories.
Fisher also defines the weird (as in the goings-on in HP Lovecraft) as ‘something where there should be nothing’, while the eerie (his prime example is Picnic At Hanging Rock) is ‘nothing where there should be something’.
Today I do a lot of gracious listening and a lot of thanking. I’m especially grateful to be able to pay all the bills related to Tom’s death, thanks to the memorial fund. The last few weeks have not been easy, but paying off the bills was my own moment of moving forward.
Sunday 26th February. Back to the little things. I look at a display at the London Library about damaged books. I learn a word, culaccino. The circular mark made by a wet mug or glass.
Wednesday 1st March. I start work on the horror essay. Tempted to call Clive Barker ‘Alan Hollinghurst with tentacles’. After reading The Weird and the Eerie, I realise Barker sees the weird as a queer antidote to the eerie. If the weird is ‘something where there should be nothing’, Barker puts a positive spin on this – as does Hollinghurst in The Swimming-Pool Library. Art as the ‘children’ of the childless, which often includes gay people. Barker and Hollinghurst both believe in showing things – the explicit rather than the implicit. Sometimes it’s better to be weird than to be eerie. So that’s the gist of my essay. Typically, I discover that the first major collection of academic essays on Barker is about to be published, but not until the autumn.
Tuesday 7 March. With Charis and her friends to O’Neills in Wardour Street, Soho, once The Wag Club. A private night to celebrate Tom’s life, put on by and for his friends, particularly the ones that are fellow musicians. The hosts are Andy and Joe from Spiderbites. Tom played here in the past, and indeed so did I in various bands. As it’s a private function, the bar staff treat the people in the room as employers rather than customers, and let us hang around long into the small hours.
There’s a screening of some home movie clips of Tom onstage and off, then the rest of the night is musical performances. A rotating supergroup of people from different times in Tom’s life, some playing together for the first and perhaps only time. Ewan B digs out a song he wrote with Tom when they were children; I think I’m the only person in the audience familiar with it.
Back to Charis’s hotel room at the Camden Holiday Inn afterwards, drinking to nearly 5am. The hotel has a street map in the foyer with all the rock and roll history of the area. Camden these days is Carnaby Street with tattoos.
Saturday 25 March. At 4pm I sit in the cafe in Russell Square Gardens. I have a late lunch then do some reading. For some reason, the cafe’s plastic owl is sitting on the table next to me. It’s normally outside on a pole, doing its moulded upmost to scare away pigeons. A passing stranger says that the two of us would make for a good photo. I oblige. He asks for my email address and sends the photo to me. We chat about the lack of effectiveness of the owl, given the pigeons happily invading all the tables outside. On another pole is a rubber hawk.
Photo by Phoenix Anthony Robins
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Tags: alan hollinghurst
, brideshead revisited
, clive barker
, evelyn waugh
, hp lovecraft
, mark fisher
, plastic owls
, Tom Edwards
The EU Anxiety Mountain
Sunday 19th June 2016. I read an interview with Noma Dumezweni, the black actress cast as an older Hermione in the new Harry Potter play. Am intrigued to find out she was raised not so far from me, in Felixstowe, Suffolk, during the 70s and 80s. She speaks fondly of attending the Wolsey Youth Theatre in Ipswich, and being inspired by its director, Anthony ‘Dick’ Tuckey. I worked briefly with the WYT too, as a trainee stage manager during 1990. The show was an adaptation of The Odyssey, written specifically (by Mr Tuckey, I think) for a youth group. This duly meant there were lots of roles, Sirens, Greeks, mythical characters and so forth, spread across plenty of scenes. I remember Dick T being an avuncular director and a fearless leader in general (it’s no mean feat to keep out-of-school teenagers in order), but also that I was impressed by his eclectic taste in music. One of his Wolsey Theatre productions in 1989 used the debut EP by the edgy, Goth-tinged band Cranes, Self-Non-Self. It was the first time that I realised you didn’t need to be a certain kind of person to like a certain kind of music.
Afternoon: to Ladbroke Square Garden in Notting Hill, open today as part of Open Garden Squares Weekend. The garden is normally ‘communal’, meaning that the general public aren’t allowed in. The gates are normally kept locked, with the keys distributed only to the residents of the neighbouring streets. The idea is that it’s compensation for not having a large garden of one’s own. London has a couple of hundred miniature parks like this: a whole other world of semi-secret green spaces, hidden behind railings and high hedges. Perhaps the most well-known is Rosmead Gardens, a few blocks away from Ladbroke Square, which appears in the film Notting Hill. Hugh Grant tries to breaks into it at night.
I’ve come here today because I’m an admirer of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Line of Beauty, and was curious about the unnamed ‘communal gardens’ which back onto Kensington Park Gardens:
The communal gardens were as much a part of Nick’s romance of London as the house itself: big as the central park of some old European city, but private, and densely hedged on three sides with holly and shrubbery behind high Victorian railings… There were hidden places, even on the inside, … the enclosure with the sandpit and the children’s slide, where genuine uniformed nannies still met and gossiped with a faint air of truancy; and at the far end the tennis courts, whose overlapping rhythms of serves and rallies and calls lent a calming reminder of other people’s exertions to the August dusk. From end to end, just behind the houses, ran the broad gravel walk, with its emphatic camber and its metal-edged gutters where a child’s ball would come to rest… At regular intervals there were Victorian cast-iron benches, made with no thought of comfort, and between them on the grass a few people were sitting or picnicking in the warm early twilight.. At the end of the path there was the gardener’s cottage, huddled quaintly and servilely under the cream cliff of the terrace.
So today I take my paperback copy of the book and compare it with the real place. Some of Hollinghurst’s details are a little different from the real Ladbroke Square Garden: for one thing, there’s no metal gutters on the main path. Though for all I know that may be accurate in historical terms, as the novel is set in the 1980s. Otherwise, it matches the description. Once through the gate, which is today manned by some cheery locals on trestle tables, the space opens out into what might be a portion of Regent’s Park, such is its size. There’s three spacious lawn sections separated by rows of trees, with the children’s play areas and tennis court are all present and correct – though it’s quite easy to miss them, such is the winding density of the place. The gardener’s cottage is there too, and ‘quaintly huddling’ under the cliff of the proper houses sums it up.
According to the leaflet I take on the way in, Ladbroke Square Garden has over 650 families as subscribers, all of whom have to live within 100 yards of the perimeter. On top of that, they pay an annual fee of £240 to use the garden, though there’s also a ‘hardship’ rate of £75. It’s like a private members’ club, in that sense. The tennis court turns out to be a 1960s idea by the wife of Roy Jenkins, no less, while he was the Home Secretary. He lived at Kensington Park Gardens, just like the politician in The Line of Beauty.
I spend the afternoon wandering around this private paradise, basking in the rare access. I briefly bump into Cathi Unsworth, another London novelist, also playing the city explorer.
Tuesday 21st June 2016. Evening: to the Boogaloo for the first time in ages; I’d been neglecting my own local watering hole. Chat to a couple of the current youthful crew, who have various projects in the offing – digital radio stations, dance theatre pieces. There’s a chance I might be involved in something Boogaloo-shaped soon. Have too good a time and end up hungover the next day. This is the only real difference: I can’t drink as much as I used to without wiping out my usefulness for the next 24 hours. This is purely down to age, though.
Wednesday 22nd June 2016. That said, I do end up going to the IOE bar for one glass of wine after a class today. It’s very much an end of year type of class: ‘Critical Top Trumps’. Essentially a fun discussion of academic theorists based on the Top Trumps trading card game. Interestingly, there’s already a set of Theorist cards on the internet, so we discuss those. They’re from 2000, which is just long ago enough to demonstrate how theorists can go in and out of fashion. Judith Butler and Adorno are there, Zizek is not. No one in the class recognises Anthony Giddens, a British sociologist who was once an advisor to Tony Blair.
The tutor mentions the Fear Factor rating of the classic ‘Dracula’ set of TT cards, which I adored at school. The more common Trumps games were usually to do with footballers, but Kevin Keegan was no match for Dracula. I now remember that I once made my own Doctor Who cards at school, with hand-drawn illustrations, though I don’t think I actually showed them to anyone. I gave one card to the much-unloved monster The Raston Robot, from The Five Doctors.
Thursday 23rd June 2016. Afternoon: to Jackson’s Lane Community Centre on Archway Road, to vote in the EU referendum. Such a little act – a stubby pencil on a string, an ‘X’ made in one of two boxes. Leave or Remain. It takes me all of five minutes.
People will mostly vote Remain, I think. It’s the obvious choice. I stay up all night and watch the results come in. Despite all the warnings, despite Obama and Cameron and all the writers in the TLS asking people to vote Remain, the Leave vote has it. London, Scotland and parts of England (Brighton, typically) decide to Remain. But out in the shires of Middle England, a backed-up store of anger is finally released.
It’s only 52% of the votes, but it’s enough. The prime minister resigns, the pound plummets, Labour’s top MPs try to remove Corbyn (again), and attacks on immigrants soar. The triumphant politicians, Johnson and Gove, are now back-pedalling about their promises and show no signs of indicating exactly how they’re going to carry out this ‘Brexit’. It’s a very British spectacle: hypocrisy, pettiness, and a lot of muttering.
All I can think about is battling a surplus of anxiety. It’s an EU Anxiety Mountain, a stockpile of worry. The only thing to do with it, is to do good. Not that any option currently presents itself. Online petitions seem little use when the government and the opposition are both too busy pulling themselves to bits.
The world points and laughs: a New Yorker cover has Monty Python’s Silly Walks men falling off a cliff. A German cartoon also uses Monty Python. The Black Knight of Britain cuts off his own limbs. ‘A mere flesh wound!’ Still, it’s interesting that for much of the world, Britain means Monty Python. Perhaps Michael Palin should be asked to step in as an emergency prime minister.
The two biggest quotes from the campaign were from the umpteen televised debates. One was ‘I want my country back’ (a Question Time audience member), the other Michael Gove’s: ‘People in this country have had enough of experts’ (from a Sky News debate).
Mr Gove was soon questioned about his own expertise. His college degree was revealed: a 2:1 in English Literature. With my First in the same subject, I suppose I am technically more of an expert than Michael Gove.
But nevertheless, this touched on the spirit of the times: an instinctive mistrust of those in positions of power. A vote to Leave was a protest, and now the voices of the Remain camp are protesting back. Later, on the following Monday, a huge crowd of Jeremy Corbyn supporters turned out in Parliament Square, implicitly protesting against the Labour MPs who’d been protesting in turn, with their string of resignations from Corbyn’s front bench.
So much protest, so little agreement on a solution. It’s a like an ancient satire on democracy. Everyone has their say, but no one can agree, so everything breaks.
Someone on Twitter said, ‘I can’t read another word of this. Let me know how it all ends, will you?’
I hope the Anxiety Mountain can be put to good use.
Friday 24th June 2016. To the ICA for the film Remainder, if only because of the timely pun of London as a city of ‘Remain-ders’. A frustrating film: it boldly tries to adapt the ideas from Tom McCarthy’s cult novel, but like High-Rise I find it a mess of mismatched tones, confused pacing, and stilted acting. Still, it’s a noble mess, perhaps proving that the novel can’t properly be filmed, just paid tribute to (indeed one of its themes is the failure of simulation). And Tom Sturridge does have a vacant surliness that’s perfect for the protagonist.
Tags: alan hollinghurst
, cathi unsworth
, ladbroke square garden
, Noma Dumezweni
, tom mccarthy
Teases, Not Summaries
Monday 12th October 2015.
This week’s MA class is on Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty. I’d read it before earlier this year, but read it again anyway. It’s a joy to do so: the carefully-controlled wit running through every sentence. The seminar takes in ‘retromania’, via Simon Reynolds’s book and the TV series Mad Men. We’re shown a clip where Don Draper gives a speech to clients about a new home slide projector. He muses on the nature of nostalgia, how the word is based on a sense of an ache, or a form of pain, while showing snaps from his own troubled family. The scene is as good as any from literature.
* * *
Tuesday 13th October 2015.
To the Barbican Cinema 2 in Beech Street for Suffragette. The trailer for this film has played heavily in cinemas for months, so much so that at times the actual film feels like the extended 12-inch remix. Trailers should tease, not summarise. And yet all of Meryl Streep’s moments as Emmeline Pankhurst turn out to be the same as those in the trailer. It’s barely a cameo role. The posters mislead too, implying that Ms Streep is in the film as much as Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham-Carter: the image is just of the three of them, lined up against the Suffragette flag. Today at a Tube station I see a small girl jump in front of the poster, and point out Helena BC to her parents – I’m guessing because of her vampy role in the Harry Potter films. Is Suffragette for children? It has the air of an important history lesson, and bears a 12A certificate, so technically children are allowed to go and see it if accompanied by an adult (I can certainly see it used in schools). But there are one or two scenes that are certainly not for smaller children. One is the unpleasant and painful force-feeding of Carey Mulligan’s fictional heroine, in order to thwart her hunger-strike in prison. The real death of Emily Davison at the Epsom Derby is also presented as a traumatic moment (if a brief and gore-free one).
I feel the film’s script is a little eclipsed by its mission to educate. Its characters are more illustrations of issues than they are living, breathing humans in their own right. But everyone involved with the project clearly believes in it wholeheartedly. The acting and staging lifts the film out of the Worthy History Lesson field and into something more lasting. It’s designed to get people talking about feminism, the value of voting, and the morality and pitfalls of ‘deeds not words’.
* * *
Thursday 15th October 2015.
Marlon James, the new Booker Prize winner, is interviewed in the Guardian. He mentions how his first novel was rejected 78 times by publishers. One of the rejection letters included the phrase ‘not for us’. ‘Luckily for them,’ says the interviewer, ‘James can’t remember their name’. This is a common narrative in tales of literary success, the inspiring message for budding writers being that those whose job it is to spot talent frequently fail to do so, even when it is offered to them on a plate. So don’t give up. It’s an idea that has been backed up with experiments, such as the one a few years ago where one of the more obscure Booker winning novels was submitted to slush piles under a pseudonym. Inevitably, it couldn’t find a publisher. But the explanations that arose, once the true nature of the manuscript was revealed, were perfectly reasonable. Tastes change, tastes differ, and sometimes publishers really are just looking for something else. Everything is ‘not for us’ to someone. It doesn’t mean the publishers in question are fools; it just means one should look elsewhere.
* * *
I give another tour of the Viktor Wynd Museum for an attentive group. After that, to Vout-o-Reenee’s for a talk by the author Petra Mason, fresh in from Miami, on the subject of 1950s American Pin-ups. Her books are glamourous tomes in every sense: one covers the career of the striking model Bettie Page, while another celebrates Bunny Yeager, the beauty queen turned photographer, who indeed often worked with Ms Page. There’s much leopard skin in evidence, whether on bikinis or on actual live leopards, used as props. These days, one need only look to the videos of Katy Perry to see the influence. That same cartoonish sexuality – and so very American.
Ms Mason’s latest book turns to the same era’s male ‘beefcake’ photography. 100% Rare! All Natural! These are essentially muscular male nudes and near-nudes, which appeared in ‘health and fitness’ magazines – the camper side of Charles Atlas. Obscenity laws meant that the only ‘permissible interactions’ between two men in such photographs were for ‘wresting or fighting’ only. Then it was okay. What’s also interesting is that this was a pre-steroids era, so all the muscles on show have a quaint bygone aesthetic to them. They are the same kind of gym boys that Jane Russell tiptoes around in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as she sings that knowing number, ‘Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love’.
In Ms Mason’s talk, she mentions that sometimes the beefcake genre crossed the line, and many photographers found themselves in jail. ‘But prison only gave them more ideas… and more models.’
* * *
Friday 16th October 2015.
To the Imperial War Museum for the exhibition Lee Miller – A Woman’s War. Like Bunny Yeager, Ms M was another American model turned photographer. This must be the third Lee Miller show I’ve been to in ten years – she clearly remains a reliable subject for an exhibition, with her fascinating life story. The commercial modelling, the Surrealist muse work, the move into photography, and then into war photography. Here the focus is on the latter, with lots of her shots of women in wartime, in uniform, in the workplace (typists in bomb-proof basements in London), or just women caught in the day-to-day coping with it all. Fashion shoots against Blitz ruins, girls in Paris cafes, casually sipping drinks against bullet-shattered windows.
The news this week says that Kate Winslet is about to play Ms Miller in a biopic, and there’s certainly some photos of the older 1940s Miller in this new show where there’s a resemblance, particularly the mouth. The one of Miller washing in Hitler’s bathtub is present and correct, but I’m also impressed by the large amount of her personal possessions on display: her war correspondent uniforms, her portable typewriter, her camera equipment, letters to and from the Front. There’s also a rare colour photo in which she returns to a kind of War Effort Surrealism by posing nude in camouflage-coloured body make-up, under a net, while lying on a garden lawn in Highgate (The Elms, Fitzroy Park, to be precise). Apparently this was to help illustrate Roland Penrose’s wartime lectures in camouflage instruction – but it’s clearly meant to provoke more than educate. The pose is Penrose’s idea but like the Hitler bathtub photo, it’s taken by the US photographer David E. Scherman. Scherman was also Miller’s lover, a relationship that Penrose – her husband- consented to at the time.
Tags: alan hollinghurst
, imperial war museum
, lee miller
, mad men
, petra mason
Do I Sound Tough?
Saturday 21st March 2015.
I bump into Ms Hayley Campbell on the tube back to Highgate. ‘Hey neighbour!’ Her father, the comics artist Eddie Campbell – of From Hell fame – has just moved to the area. I go into local knowledge mode, and tell her about the Boogaloo and Highgate Wood, the area where the early Pink Floyd rehearsed, and the place where the second Suede album was written. I should do walking tours, really.
Hayley C now writes books about Neil Gaiman and articles for the Buzzfeed website. Buzzfeed is becoming quite a success story – from being a colourful, youthful web magazine full of ‘list-icles’ – articles based around lists – and now branching into serious news journalism, holding interviews with Prime Ministers and so forth. But their speciality is still their list-format stories, usually illustrated with animated gifs. I ask Ms H whether ‘gif’ is pronounced ‘jiff’ or ‘Giff’ at Buzzfeed. The latter. Hard G.
I finish studying Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty, for my dissertation on camp. A complete pleasure: well-crafted and concentrated prose, clever symbolism, social satire, a good sense of London locations (especially the Men’s Pond on Hampstead Heath) and moments of camp comedy tucked within the Henry James-style sobriety; hence my thesis. He writes parties so well, too – up there with Fitzgerald and Waugh. I re-watch the 2005 TV adaptation on DVD, with Dan Stevens in pre-Downton mode. It’s nicely written and acted, but I find the 80s hair and fashions are not quite garish enough – Mr Stevens just has tastefully big hair, rather than the bouffant he should have.
The other shortcoming is common to screen adaptations: the loss of the third-person narration. In the book, you have detailed access to the protagonist’s thoughts. In the TV version, all Dan S can do is stand around, looking like he’s thinking something. First person narrators transfer fine for some dramas – like Jeremy Irons talking over most of Brideshead Revisited – it’s just third person narrators that rarely work.
* * *
Sunday 22nd March 2015.
I convince myself that I can’t continue doing any work until I’ve bought a book stand, the kind that can hold a paperback open at one page. Browsing for one in Foyles and Ryman uses up most of my afternoon.
* * *
Monday 23rd March 2015.
I’ve fallen a week behind my proposed schedule for the dissertation, but find that sheer panic helps me speed up. One troublesome chapter is finished for good today – I don’t let myself stop until it is.
* * *
Tuesday 24th March 2015.
1000 words added to the dissertation. Half the chapter on Hollinghurst. Spend some time considering whether to quote the Sebastian Faulks introduction to a new edition – The Line of Beauty is now a Picador Classic, only eleven years after publication. Faulks calls it ‘a comic novel about mostly shallow people’, which isn’t quite true. Nothing comic about the final section.
* * *
Wednesday 25th March 2015.
Another 1000 words, finishing the bulk of the thing. 10,972 words and counting. Still have the conclusion and the introduction to do (one must always do those last). A small problem for a project with a maximum word count of 8800, but for me it’s a personal milestone: the first time I’ve written over 10,000 words of any one piece, ever. Quite a thrill to see the Microsoft Word odometer clock over into five figures. First of many, let’s hope.
* * *
Thursday 26th March 2015.
Morning: I write all of the conclusion and half of the introduction. I have two possible candidates for a main title, to prefix the subtitle of ‘Subversive Uses of Camp In Twenty-First Century Fiction’. One is poetic and serious – ‘The Self-Aware Surface’, one is arch and jokey – ‘A Wink and a Pair of Claws’. I ask a few friends on Facebook, then decide to go for the serious one. I compromise by keeping the ‘Wink’ title for a chapter heading. Humour can be so subjective, and probably should be avoided in analytical, academic essays (seminars can be fun, though). As it is, I’m quite proud of calling camp ‘the self-aware surface’, and want to give the phrase something of a spotlight.
Afternoon: to BFI Flare, formerly the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, at the BFI Southbank. The rebranding of the LLGFF makes sense – it was beginning to sound dusty and out-of-date, to the point where it nearly closed down a few years ago. ‘Flare’ as a word sounds less worthy, more inclusive and forward-looking: it suggests a signal being shot into the sky – ‘we exist too’.
The film I’ve chosen is Do I Sound Gay?, a personal documentary by the Brooklyn-based writer, David Thorpe. It explores his dislike of his own voice, which he thinks sounds too gay – by which he really means effeminate. He interviews his old school friends, who remind him that he picked up the voice after coming out at college. So in his case it was acquired organically, in the same way some people pick up different regional accents when they move (I’m thinking of Hugh Laurie’s current US twang in his English accent). Mr Thorpe goes in for speech therapy (without much success), and discovers one theory of ‘the gay male accent’ – that it’s based on a combination of admiring women, as learned from mothers and sisters and screen idols, and on admiring notions of aristocratic European behaviour – notions of ‘queenliness’. All to define an identity that signifies as different from the average US man.
Of course, this only applies to those to whom it applies, and Mr Thorpe is careful to include examples of gay men with ‘straight’ voices, and straight men with effeminate voices. David Sedaris and George Takei appear, both contributing thoughtful insights, and giving very honest accounts of their personal lives. It’s worth seeing the documentary for these sections alone.
I think in Britain the idea of manliness in voices is a lot less of a concern, partly because America rules the world, and so cares more about how things appear to others. But also because the US suspects the British accent for having aspects of effeminacy anyway.
In the final scene of the film, Mr Thorpe interviews a group of young gay men on a beach. He asks them if they think he sounds gay. They chorus back as one: ‘Hell, yes!’
At the time I think, ‘that’s a very American reply’. Hours later I watch the latest pre-election TV interviews. Jeremy Paxman, rude as ever, asks Ed Miliband if he’s ‘tough enough’ for the job of prime minister. ‘Hell yes, I’m tough enough!’ says Miliband. Though he does stammer it.
After the film, there’s a Q&A with the director. One audience member asks if Mr Thorpe has heard of Polari, the gay language of 40s and 50s Britain. ‘Yes I have,’ he replies. ‘Thanks to Morrissey’.
* * *
Early evening: with Anna S, Senay S and friends, to the Museum of Comedy. This is in the crypt of St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, and turns out be one largish room, plus a performance space for live comedy nights. The current exhibition is a rare early 80s photo shoot of The Comic Strip – featuring a young Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, French and Saunders and so on. The permanent collection includes Max Miller’s patchwork dressing gown, Steptoe & Son’s stuffed bear, Irene Handl’s belt in a bell jar, and a huge amount of old books, videos and vinyl records, which visitors are invited to peruse or play at their leisure.
There’s framed transcripts of classic comedy sketches on the wall, with the Python ‘Silly Walks’ skit signed by John Cleese. ‘I’ve never found Monty Python funny’, says one of our party.
I forget that even comedy that has been proven to be funny for so many, and for so long, can still be considered unfunny by someone.
And I think to myself, ‘definitely don’t go with the funny thesis title’.
* * *
Friday 27th March 2015.
First draft finished. 12,373 words. Now I have to decide which 4,000 words needn’t have been written in the first place.
Tags: alan hollinghurst
, bfi flare
, bfi southbank
, do i sound gay
, ed miliband
, museum of comedy
, the line of beauty