Betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross

“Decide to be happy” can never be said enough.

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Things to share:

Seaneen M’s 2010 article for the Guardian, more topical than ever: ‘Benefits helped me turn my life around

Dedalus Books has a brand new website, and there’s a recent tribute to Dedalus on the Workshy Fop blog.

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London is currently hitting sub zero temperatures, and my room is too draughty to be heated effectively (plus I can’t afford to have my electric radiator on all day as it is). It’s at times like this that I’m particularly grateful for living in a city full of heated public spaces. This winter is my first as a member of Birkbeck College Library, which has warmth, plenty of comfortable desks, areas with computers, areas for pen and paper only, and best of all the opening hours are 8am to quarter to midnight every day. Even Sundays.

Today: treated myself to the latest issue of the comic Locke & Key (so ingeniously written, so beautifully drawn). Plus Susannah Clapp’s A Card From Angela Carter (a pocket-sized lovingly-designed & illustrated tribute to Carter), and Rhodri Marsden’s highly amusing (and painful) collection of Tweet-sized anecdotes, Crap Dates

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Read half of The London Nobody Knows (1962) by Geoffrey Fletcher. It inspired the 60s documentary with James Mason, as well as Finisterre, which I’m writing my first big London essay about. Didn’t realise that Fletcher was an illustrator too – about a quarter of the book is his drawings of early 60s London nooks & crannies.  Much of it is his personal hymn to the city’s Victorian remnants – music halls, gas lamps, iron lavatories – and his vocabulary is often Victorian too: “a Teutonic thought occurred to me”, “Limehouse Chinamen”, and “turning a stone, one starts a wing”.

On further research, it turns out the latter is a reference to the Francis Thompson poem ‘The Kingdom Of God’ (1913). Which is also the source of the phrase ‘many-splendoured thing':

The angels keep their ancient places;—
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry;—and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross. 

Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry,—clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!


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Coma Names

Charlotte Mew’s favourite joke, as quoted by Penelope Fitzgerald in an old copy of the London Review of Books:

A hearse driver runs over a man and kills him. A passer-by shouts, ‘Greedy!’

Ms Mew was also known as Lotti. I hadn’t realised until now the connection between the two names: Lotti being short for Charlotte. Similarly, when DJ-ing at the club Decline & Fall, one of the organisers, Beth, told me she now prefers to be called Lily. I thought this was a full name change until she pointed out that both are derivatives of Elizabeth. What with Betty, Bess, Liz and so on, it’s a pretty good value name. Dickon comes from Richard, but that surprises some people too.

The way to settle this, when people unhelpfully say ‘Oh I don’t mind, call me any of my fifteen nicknames’, is to find out people’s Coma Name. As in the name paramedics need to know when trying to bring round an unconscious patient. They haven’t got time to try all the permutations (‘Mr Edwards?’ Dick? Rick? Ricardo?’)  – they need to know the one most likely to break through in those crucial ebbing moments. Dickon is very much my Coma Name, even though Richard is on my passport. I should really attach a note there, in case I pass out while alone in a foreign land. No Richard to resuscitate here.

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The first page of the longhand draft of Angela Carter’s Nights At The Circus is on display in the British Library’s permanent ‘Treasures’ exhibition. It’s the final item in a long chronological line-up of literary artefacts, which take in Lewis Carroll’s original notebook of Alice In Wonderland, the one he gave Alice Liddell. Out of all the works on display, Ms Carter has by far the neatest handwriting: ‘clear, upright and not quite flowing’, as Susannah Clapp put it on Radio 3 recently. She was presenting a series about Author’s Postcards. I love Radio 3.

On publication in 1984, Nights At The Circus failed to win the Booker, or to even make the shortlist. Now it’s rubbing shoulders with the Magna Carta and the First Folio.

Also on display, temporarily, are a couple of letters from 1933, as part of the library’s Codex Sinaiticus Bible show. They illustrate the UK Government’s public subscription campaign to raise £100,000, in order to buy the ancient Bible from the Soviets. One letter is from a 7-year-old boy in Durham, enclosing 2/6. ‘Dear Director of the British Museum…’ The other accompanies a postal order for six shillings, from an unemployed miner in Tonypandy, Rhondda. The miner adds, in beautiful handwriting: ‘The destiny of our own Nation is certainly safe because of the place it gives to the word of God.’

These days it’d be all PayPal and online donations. I miss the world of letters. Emails in museum cases seems unlikely: there’s no such thing as The Original Email. Hearing about the late John Hughes becoming a pen pal with one of his fans in the 80s was the final straw for me. Getting messages via the Internet is not the same. So this past week I’ve written at least one Proper Letter a day, to friends and family. I feel better for it. The physical acts: the pen or pencil pushed across the paper, the folding, the stamp, the posting. It’s anchoring me to the world just that little bit more.

Douglas Adams once said at the Dawn of the Internet Age that he preferred email to letters because it was cheaper, faster, and involved less licking.

I like the licking.


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The All Pincushion Flouncing Match

Whenever I see an advert for a spectacles company, with a cheekboney lady in a power suit, hair up, and looking happy with her choice of eyewear to the point of madness, I now think of Sarah Palin. So that’s how pernicious the UK coverage of the US elections has become. Goodness knows what it must be like for Americans, if the British media alone is this saturated with comment and debate on Mr Obama, Mr McCain and their ‘running mates’, families, pets, and favourite choice of hunting rifle. Ignorance and lack of US nationality is no hindrance to comment, of course. And here I am joining in. Bait taken.

It seems odd to obsess so much over another country’s politics, even the US, when there’s more than enough to focus on over here. I just wish they’d concentrate more on, say, Caroline Lucas, who was recently elected Green Party leader. At least British newspaper readers can actually vote for her.

The general switch of focus from Mr O to Ms P seems less about ability to govern and more about appealing to people’s lust for a good story, with interesting characters. Ms Palin is a Good Character in this distant soap opera, so everyone perks up. On Radio 4’s News Quiz, mention of her name is given a sound effects burst from the Hallelujah Chorus, such is her gift to overseas satirists. If Mr O loses to Mr McC, or rather to Ms P, perhaps it’s because he’s just not funny enough, intentionally or otherwise. See also Boris Johnson.

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Sunday last: afternoon tea at High Tea in Highgate, with Ms Crimson Skye, whom I first met in the Cabaret Tent at the Latitude Festival. High Tea is a new local haunt: homemade cakes, Doris Day and Cole Porter playing on the stereo, friendly young staff with a taste for old things. Right up my street in every sense. It’s popular today: there’s the sense it’s the Last Sunny Sunday of the year, so everyone is out in the cafes and parks. All the Sunday Couples, or in my case, the Couples Of Singles.

Then a drink in St John’s Tavern, Archway, now a trendy but pleasant restaurant & bar with chunky oak tables and a selection of broadsheet supplements by the beer pumps. A world away from the dingy pub in 1993 where Orlando played their early gigs.

And then to Ms Andrei’s flat in Upper Holloway for dinner and a movie. The Magic Toyshop: a rare 80s TV film of the Angela Carter novel. Adapted by the author, so it’s full of deliciously surreal, dream-like moments which a normal TV screenwriter would have cut for fear of confusing the audience. Has a creepy puppet swan and a creepier Tom Bell.

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A Thursday past: the Boogaloo for Beautiful & Damned, with me DJ-ing there for the first time since I’d left the club night in Miss Red’s hands. Martin White and his Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra play a fantastic set (with Kate Dornan on tuba), and the bar is decked out in a Victorian Circus theme, complete with straw, bunting, an Unhelpful Fortune Teller booth, and lots of people in stick-on moustaches.

One lady is dressed up as a half-man, half-woman, with one gender on each side. I half chat her up, half-heartedly. My old neighbour and room decorator Liz also comes along and has such a nice time that she leaves a thank-you present outside my door: a little bejewelled make-up mirror, wrapped in ribbon and paper.

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A recent Friday eve – outing to an art show with various Boogaloo associates (Nat, Red, Julia, Ms Annie S, Mr Russell, The General). Venue is a dusty Victorian house in the Kings Cross Road, formerly the shop Hats Plus. The old awning is still in place, still advertising the hat shop’s now-defunct website. Even website addresses can gather dust these days. I teach the word ‘awning’ to two Swedish women.

That Saturday eve – I Dj at the Magic Theatre event, at the Art Deco Bloomsbury Ballroom. Venue is outrageously plush and ornate, and I enjoy Ms Crimson Skye’s burlesque turn on the stage. She sings the Patsy Cline song ‘Crazy’ in a Texan drawl, while stripping from a Hannibal Lecter grill mask and straitjacket, her arms tied behind her back.  There’s also a Dexy’s-esque band with a full brass section, who cover the 80s song ‘Hey You, The Rocksteady Crew’.

Late in the evening, with much wine consumed, two men dressed as what looks like giant pincushions take part in an impromptu Flouncing Competition, on the dance floor. They each spin on their plimsolls and storm off in a camp huff to the nearest exit, their huge costumes bobbing around them. I am definitely enjoying myself.


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