Sunday 16th October 2016. I notice a flyer on my table at the Quaker café, opposite Euston. It’s publicising an event in Oxford: ‘Lines on the Left: Poems for Jeremy Corbyn. A celebration in words and music to launch this major anthology.’ Hard to imagine a similar volume for his rivals: sonnets in praise of Theresa May, or a Festschrift for Owen Smith. At least, not outside of sarcasm.
A common critique of Mr Corbyn is that he has integrity but is unelectable. The implication is that integrity itself is impractical. I’m reminded of something Zadie Smith said about the film V For Vendetta: ‘Personal integrity is always ridiculed by adults and worshipped by adolescents, because principles are the only thing adolescents, unlike adults, really own’. (from Changing My Mind).
Mr Corbyn certainly has a fanbase among the young: one sees red Momentum t-shirts around the University of London’s Bloomsbury campus. It’s the people in middle life that aren’t so impressed, their youthful ideals knocked out of them. Parenthood, money, and the ownership of property loom larger in the crosshairs, and compromise usually goes with them.
A small amount of integrity is nevertheless still valued over wealth alone, at least in mainstream UK politics. The huge fortune of Zac Goldsmith did not prevent him from losing the London mayoral race, when his campaign became tainted with racism. Whereas Donald Trump, frequently described as an actual racist, is still seen as electable. Over there, one has to conclude that money may not be everything, but it can be enough.
As with the poems for Corbyn, there’s been a flurry of political pop songs in the last days of the US election. The trouble is, these are not so much in celebration of Ms Clinton as in condemnation of Mr Trump. The website for the project 30 days, 30 songs – run by the novelist Dave Eggers – says it all in its ‘Note to feminists who can’t get behind Hillary’:
‘If you vote for Hillary Clinton, you accomplish two aligned goals at once: You elect the first woman president, and you prevent the election of Donald Trump.’
In other words, better the devil you know.
A subgenre of protest songs: panic songs.
Afternoon: to Soho to try the new vegetarian branch of Pret a Manger, on the corner of Broadwick Street and Lexington Street. It was tried out as a pop-up a few months ago, and like the Millennium Wheel has become permanent due to popular demand.
Why the bosses of Pret were cautious in the first place is beyond me. Despite the frequent reports of health risks from processed meat, or the environmental warnings about the carbon effects of cow breeding, there still seems to be this mainstream fear of going without flesh even for a single meal. But Veggie Pret is packed today.
Lots of green coloured branding over the usual red Pret logos. It’s still a novelty to see a franchise café’s cabinet of sandwiches, and not find them dominated by meat. I’m sure there’s a market for a whole chain of veggie cafes like this: it just takes the nerve of an Anita Roddick figure
Monday 17th October 2016. Modern life: the daily practice of clicking on a button marked ‘Not Now’.
Currently reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977), for college. What impresses, as with Beloved, are her little shifts into magical realism, like the witchy sister who seems to able to change her size. Morrison says in the introduction that it’s really a novel about men, but the section that really stands out is where the spurned girlfriend, Hagar, goes on a demented spree of beautification, raiding perfume counters and clothes shops.
Tuesday 18th October 2016. More things that leave me like a ranting Canute. People emailing me for a mobile number to continue a discussion. Probably naive of me, but after contact has been made via email, I don’t see why we can’t conduct the conversation that way. In email, statements can be carefully polished, details are easily copied and saved, and ambiguities can be kept to a minimum.
As well as my slight phobia with speaking on the phone, there’s a practical reason to this: I spend a lot of my time in libraries. If I took calls there, it would not end well. But there’s also the redundancy of someone switching from email to making a call, only for them to say, ‘have you got a pen?’
If a phone conversation is truly necessary, then it’s surely worth booking a phone appointment – and sticking to it. But this seems not to be taken very seriously.
Today I agree via email on a time I can be called. I then duly choose a quiet café and have the phone to hand, ready for the time in question. This designated moment passes. So do two hours after that. They still don’t call. I switch the phone off and go to the library to get on with some studies. Later I get a text message saying they were ‘trying to reach me’.
This is all about trying to book a therapist. It’s tempting to wonder if it’s in their interest to drive people mad.
A message for a memorial bench: ‘He refused to be available on a zero hours basis.’
Afternoon: to the British Library café to meet Rachel Stevenson. It’s been some years since we properly met for a conversation, after the end of Fosca in 2009. Today,we talk more about books than music. Except for talking about the music of our past, perhaps inevitably. Indeed, Rachel’s own blog is currently reviewing the songs that made up the John Peel Festive Fifty of 1988. [Link: http://millionreasons.livejournal.com/ ]
Evening: to the Horse Hospital in Russell Square, the kind of small, idiosyncratic venue that’s been vanishing from London in recent years. Happily, the HH persists, with its steep entrance ramp still in place, evidence that the building was indeed a hospital for horses.
Tonight is an evening headlined by the writer Geoff Nicholson, who discusses his psychogeography-inspired work, such as Bleeding London. Kirsty Allison, who I don’t think I’ve seen before, gives a charismatic poetry set which uses a projected film. At times she seems to be narrating the film, at others reacting against it. I take a copy of her fanzine, ‘Unedited’, hand stitched and hand made, though it says it was written on an iPhone.
I also enjoy a set by Alexander’s Festival Hall, the band fronted by Alex Mayor, who once produced some Fosca recordings. Very soulful in the Scritti Politti, Style Council way. One song is especially beautiful, ‘Upturned’.
In the breaks between acts I bump into Clare Wadd of Sarah Records, a nice coincidence on the day of meeting up with Rachel S. And given the evening is about psychogeography, and especially London, I remember that it was Clare who helped me move from Bristol to London in 1994, driving me and my things all the way to Highgate in her car. I tell her that Michael White’s book on Sarah, Popkiss, is now on the shelves at Birkbeck Library. Nothing to do with me; I assume it’s on a reading list for some humanities course.
Something I’ve learned is that everything creative becomes worthy of serious study in time, even the things that feel like fleeting, niche interests at the time. Though of course, Clare and Matt themselves took Sarah Records very seriously from the off. That was part of the appeal.
Thursday 20th October 2016. Evening: classes at Birkbeck at the Montague Room in the Anglo Educational Services building, in the southwest side of Russell Square. Like Birkbeck’s School of Arts in Gordon Square the place is a warren of knocked-through Victorian houses.
First up is a seminar with Mpalive Msiska on Philip Larkin’s The Less Deceived, at which it’s my turn to give a fifteen minute presentation. I’ve just started reading the new Alan Bennett collection of diaries, Keeping On Keeping On, published today. The first page mentions how Mr Bennett dips into Larkin for inspiration. Though in this case he thinks the poet’s tone is too ‘valedictory’: ‘the valedictory was almost Larkin’s exclusive territory’. I mention this in my Larkin presentation, pleased to bring it as up to date as possible.
What I didn’t know until I did my research was that Larkin is due to get a memorial in Westminster Abbey, with the unveiling this December. So my presentation focuses on the tale of his reputation. I think about the way public image is such a pressing matter now, from Jimmy Savile and his ilk to the people in Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The Ronson book covers the rise of ‘reputation management firms’ – companies who will make your Google results more flattering.
Accordingly I chart the tale of the public Larkin, from fashionability in the 1950s with The Movement, to the popular poet in the 1960s and 70s, to refusing the Laureateship in 1984; I’d forgotten that Ted Hughes was the second choice. Then to the posthumous publication of his letters in the 90s, and his near writing-off as a misogynistic and racist figure, whose poetry was now of diminishing relevance. Finally I cover the subtle recovery in the 2000s, with Larkin quietly topping polls again as a favourite English poet, a festival in Hull with a statue, and now the Abbey.
Mr Msiska adds that in the 90s, teaching Larkin was so controversial, tutors had to seek permission.
Afterwards: a lecture by Peter Fifield on 1960s fiction and Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat. Very hard to label the latter in terms of genre, beyond the 1960s type of postmodern play that one finds in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Though when Mr F mentions its lack of ‘rounded characters’ I wonder if Menippean satire might be a useful framework. Certainly Ms S admired the concise flippancy of Max Beerbohm, and Zuleika Dobson isn’t so far from Spark. Waugh was an admirer too: Spark’s work was one of the few things about the 1960s he did like. Mr Fifield further argues that Ian McEwan’s style is essentially a 1960s one.
I suppose a truly 2010s style might be to write a novel made up of animated gifs. Dennis Cooper is the only novelist I can think of who has done this. It may not catch on, but it’s at least a move towards acknowledging the way a lot of people interact online. They use gifs – little animated stills – of actors, often subtitled, to express their emotion for them.
I once wrote a Fosca song called ‘We See the World as Our Stunt Doubles’. Not quite the world, perhaps, but people do see gifs of Phoebe from Friends as their stunt doubles.
Saturday 22nd October 2016. To Vout-o-Reenee’s for ‘Azizam: A Night of Pre-Revolution Persian Glamour’. A theme of 60s and 70s Iranian exotica, scratchy scenes of belly dancing on screens, those jellied snacks which are like Turkish Delight but nicer, and lots of dressing up. Hosted by Vout’s regulars Emily and Emma. Emma is from a family of Iranian Geordies: her cousin sings a set of Persian language songs, interspersed with commentary in her Newcastle accent. The two Ems are also a couple, and tonight’s crowd includes a contingent of Iranians and gay people, and indeed both. All getting along fine in this former Catholic crypt turned into a bohemian artists’ bar. It’s events like this that are one of the things I love about London.
Sunday 23rd October 2016. Morrissey turns out to be pro-Brexit, going by a new interview. I feel as I do about Waugh and Larkin: I may not share their politics, but that doesn’t mean their work doesn’t speak to me. Trust the art, not the artist.
Though admittedly some artists are easier to trust than others.
Monday 24th October 2016. I finish The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Bought on a whim from Euston WH Smiths, before I realised the eponymous train in question is in fact a Euston one.
This is the current unstoppable bestseller novel. Published in hardback last year, it hung around the top 10 lists for the best part of eighteen months, even outdoing the ubiquitous Dan Brown. Despite the pricy and format, people didn’t stop buying it until the paperback came out, which wasn’t until May this year. I want to see the film, so it seems the time to try the book.
As with One Day a few years ago, there’s no real explanation as to why this book should do so much better than others, other than through a fortuitous synchronicity of word-of-mouth momentum. That said, both novels do share one thing: the premise of an easy to grasp concept, applied to characters who touch on everyday recognition.
So whereas One Day is broken up into the ‘one day a year’ premise, Girl on the Train has its narration broken up into digestible ‘morning’ and ‘evening’ chunks, mirroring the commuter journeys of the protagonist. Fairly early on, the perspective shifts to a second character in flashback, and then again to a third. The idea of a thriller based around witnessing an event from a window isn’t new: one thinks of Agatha Christie’s 4.50 From Paddington, or Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The fresh appeal here might be the contemporary, ordinary setting of the Euston commuter belt. Plus there’s the ‘girl’ in question’s downbeat situation: she’s divorced, living in a rented room, is overweight, and is an alcoholic who has black outs. She’s an unreliable narrator, but crucially never unrelatable.
The meaning of the train window has also changed from Christie and Hitchcock’s day: now it’s a surrogate iPad, another screen through which to scroll resentfully past the nicer lives of others.
I wince a little at the box-ticking elements for the genre, though, such as the scene where the villain delivers a speech about how they did it and why. But this is a reminder why I prefer literary fiction: it’s the genre where no boxes need ever be ticked.
Wednesday 26th October 2016. Write a review for The Wire, of The Infinite Mix exhibition on the Strand. I think this marks my debut as an art critic, not counting pieces for catalogues in the past.
Thursday 27th October 2016. Evening: Birkbeck classes. A seminar on Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, followed by a lecture by Harriet Earle on Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In preparation for the Pynchon class, I go to Senate House and leaf through a book of Remedios Varo’s surreal paintings. Pynchon refers to a real Varo painting in one scene, though her whole style is a good primer for the novel’s skewed, strange world. Post-war Bosch.
Friday 28th October 2016. Winter flu jab at Selfridges. It costs the same whichever chemist one uses, so one might as well be vaccinated with style.
Read a review in the LRB by Rosemary Hill, of Minoo Dinshaw’s Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman:
‘Later he claimed to have slept with people whose names began with every letter of the alphabet except Q, because the only possibility was Quentin Crisp and he couldn’t face it.’
From the same article, a remark by Runciman’s father:
‘I put up with the rouge and the mascara and the velvet clothes, but if I ever catch him sitting down to pee, I’ll cut him off without a penny.’
Saturday 29th October 2016. To the Vue Piccadilly for the film of The Girl on the Train. It’s terrible. One can just about forgive the Hollywood switch from an overweight heroine to the decidedly semi-skimmed Emily Blunt, and indeed the move from England to the US. But all the twists and revelations of the book are well and truly botched. Ms Blunt does her best, but what grips on the page bores on the screen. Shame.
Still, the use of houses on the Metro-North line, running along the valley of the Hudson river, certainly makes the notion of Ms Blunt’s envy all the more convincing. A house with a major railway line at the bottom of its garden isn’t always desirable, but the Hudson Valley is one of the most picturesque areas in the US. It’s also a nice reminder of my own trip on the line a few years ago, going all the way from Poughkeepsie into Grand Central.
Sunday 30th October 2016. On an Evelyn Waugh binge. Lots of insights into the English Condition (never mind the human condition), but also lots of good jokes. Some prescience too. Thinking now about the line in Decline and Fall about ‘the sound of English county families baying for broken glass’, I note how it can apply to the Brexit vote.
I dip into Selina Hastings’s biography of EW, to find this about Evelyn Gardner, his first wife:
‘She read Proust, but undermined this sign of intellectual discernment by referring to him always as “Prousty-Wousty”’.
Thus She-Evelyn anticipates the rise of Russell Brand.
In June 1960 Waugh writes to apologise for some typos in a recent book:
‘I am told that printers’ readers no longer exist because clergymen are no longer unfrocked for sodomy.’
Waugh’s letters are full of entertaining jokes like this, painting a picture of a much more likeable man than the one in the published Diaries. One reason for this, as suggested by the editor, Mark Amory, may be that Waugh wrote his letters in the morning, while sober, and wrote the diary in the evening, when drunk.
I’d say that another is that letters are much more of a performance, even if it’s just for one person. Private diaries, drunken or not, get the unflattering sides: the complaints, the vanity, the pettiness, the self-pity, the resentment. Letters, meanwhile, have more of a sense of performed morality, even if it’s just a note to a local newspaper on some gossamer oversight by the council.
Letters necessitate thinking about others, even if it’s thinking ill. And as with charity, letters can tease vanity into philanthropy. The writer aligns themselves with what they think is right, and plays a Sunday Best version of selfhood.
Ideally social media should be more like letters (and postcards), but the form too often tempts its users into the less flattering indulgences of a private diary.
Thursday 3rd November 2016. Evening: Birkbeck classes. A seminar on Angela Carter’s Passion of New Eve, followed by a lecture by Grace Halden, on alterity in post-war science fiction. We look at Judith Merril’s ‘That Only A Mother’ – with its very 1940s fear of the Bomb – and Samuel R. Delany’s ‘Aye, and Gomorrah…’, which has a very late 60s theme of sexualities as subcultures. Needless to say, I love it, and make a note to read more Delany.
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Tags: Angela Carter
, clare wadd
, evelyn waugh
, horse hospital
, Kirsty Allison
, michael white
, paula hawkins
, philip larkin
, quentin crisp
, Rachel Stevenson
, samuel r delany
, sarah records
, steven runciman
, the girl on the train
, the wire
Mr Brand The Security Botherer
Saturday 25th April 2015.
Reading lots of Angela Carter this week, as research for the final essay (due in on the 8th). Her collection of essays, Shaking A Leg, is a joy. ‘Alison’s Giggle’ examines the moment in the Canterbury Tales where a young wife plays a sexual prank on an unwanted suitor. She giggles in triumph (‘Tee hee! quod she’). Carter argues that this giggle is rarely heard across the next five centuries of English literature, due to it being sexually knowing. She also compares the Wife of Bath to Mae West. So I’m linking all this to her use of Ronald Firbank’s effeminate 1920s giggle in her radio play, A Self-Made Man, along with theories of the meaning of laughter.
Feminine laughter is crucial to Carter. It dominates the finale of Nights At The Circus, and features in one of her greatest lines full stop. It’s the twist moment in her take on Red Riding Hood, in ‘The Company of Wolves’:
‘The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.’
* * *
Sunday 26th April 2015.
Sometimes when I’m researching, the few Google results that come up include my own diary. I like to think this means I’m creating a useful resource: that I’ve found something Google doesn’t know, and put it online so that it does. But really, the fear is that it’s just me who is looking.
* * *
Monday 27th April 2015.
Last day of research for the essay, in the British Library. I listen to A Self-Made Man on the BL Sound Archive. A couple of years ago there was a documentary on Radio 4, Writing in Three Dimensions, entirely about Carter’s radio plays. It’s still available on the BBC’s streaming iPlayer, and also as a digital audiobook. Yet none of the actual plays themselves are available. Just the documentary telling us how good they are.
Some good news about the Dubai-ification of London this week. A pretty 1920s pub, the Carlton Tavern in Maida Vale, was demolished by the usual profit-obsessed company. Only this time they did it without telling anyone first. As a result, the council ordered the company to rebuild the pub brick-by-brick, as a facsimile. It’s thought to be the first time this has happened. I hope it starts a trend of Londoners being asked if a building should be torn down, and asked whether yet another empty glass tower should go up. Thinking the unthinkable.
* * *
Tuesday 28th April 2015.
To a lesser-known Birkbeck building at Number 30 Russell Square, for the very last class in the BA English degree. It’s for the ‘American Century’ module, on Toni Morrison’s novella Home (2012). Pretty much a mini-Beloved, and unlikely to eclipse that earlier novel’s reputation. But I like its moments of suspense, its taut and careful prose, and the usual Morrison hallmark of shining a light on America’s shadier past. The tutor, Anna Hartnell, quotes a scathing review which accuses Ms Morrison of just doing the same thing over and over again. I’ve never understood why that’s a criticism. It’s called style.
Afterwards, to the Institute of Education bar, close by, for drinks with some of the students. We chat about what we’re doing after our BA’s. Some are moving into teaching. Some are taking other courses (dressmaking, in one case). Some are just going back to their jobs, pleased to be able to spend more time with their partners and children, but armed with an extra qualification.
I’ve finally sent off my application for an MA bursary at Birkbeck. My supporting statement took three drafts, and was shown to two kindly tutors for their feedback. Have to get it right – it’s essentially a begging letter. But then, so are CVs.
* * *
Wednesday 29th April 2015.
To the Prince Charles Cinema for the Russell Brand film, The Emperor’s New Clothes. Interesting audience for the screening – casual filmgoers, but also a lot of proper activists. Older, white-bearded veterans of protests, with their slogan badges, plus younger, louder student types. Afterwards I can hear them discussing where the next Occupy protest is going to be.
The film is in the mould of those Michael Moore documentaries – lots of scenes where Mr Brand turns up with his megaphone and film crew at some glossy City lobby, demanding to speak to a naughty banker. Funnily enough, he doesn’t get to speak to the boss, and instead is left taunting some blameless security guard. This futile spectacle happens five or six times in the film – Brand doesn’t seem to learn. The rest of it is more interesting, though: interviewing those hit by government cuts, speaking to economists who point out why the erring rich are allowed to get away with it, and stark statistics about the gulf between the wages earned by cleaners, and those earned by the people who step over their hoovers. The main message is that historically, banks never used to be these self-serving monsters of unchecked growth – they were meant to be providers of services for everyone else. So they should go back to being that way. This would mean those in power bringing in new caps and regulations, even if, as one expert puts it, it’ll be like turkeys voting for Christmas (Noel Gallagher on Ed Miliband this week – ‘he’s a communist’). Perhaps this is all an obvious lesson, but when Mr Brand tells it, it does reach those who might be unaware.
Brand is funny and charismatic enough, but I can’t help thinking of Trickster myths. The Trickster – that priapic figure of tribal societies, who exists to represent disorder. Jung was convinced he represented something under the skin in everyone, and that he emerged in times of national crisis. Mr B certainly connects with that idea; the feeling that he is tapping into something primal and atavistic (I’m sure that’s one of his favourite words), so people pay attention. And in an era where attention is currency, Mr B is the richest of the super-rich. Still, he does seem to redistribute some of this attention to do good. And politicians do listen to him. This week, he interviewed the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, one-to-one – and Miliband came to Brand’s house! An audience with His Majesty The Trickster.
I renew my Prince Charles Cinema membership: only £7.50 a year, with NUS. For that, one can see brand new films, most days, for £4, and in the centre of London too. It remains one of the best cinemas in the city.
* * *
Thursday 30th April 2015.
I watch the latest leaders’ TV Q&A. All three of them – Cameron, Miliband, Clegg – have the same irritating habit of saying ‘look’ at the start of every other sentence. It’s pure Tony Blair. And that’s the whole problem – it’s 2015 and all the politicians are watching videos of Blair in 1997, and copying his mannerisms. The last landslide.
There’s a new Blur album out. More Nineties.
* * *
Friday 1st May 2015.
I finish the first draft of the essay (3000 words). The usual feeling that it’s a mess, and that the later drafts will sort it out.
Feel like treating myself, so to the Prince Charles cinema again. This time for the Kurt Cobain film, Montage of Heck. Well, if it must be a Nineties week…
It’s a curious music documentary: it expects the audience to be very familiar with the subject matter already. The music is there as a soundtrack, but that’s it. There’s hardly any details about the story of the band, what the songs might be about, why the drummers changed and so forth. Instead it’s more of an attempt to get under the skin of Cobain the man, via rare footage and home movies. There’s also some original animated segments, which I can take or leave, frankly. Some of them illustrate audio recordings, some make Cobain’s notebooks come to life. Plus there’s a few interviews with friends and family, which try to make a connection between his parents’ divorce and his problems with relating to the world – hating fame, seeking solace in drugs. As the film has been executively produced by his daughter, various people’s feelings have clearly been considered as a priority. Which is fair enough. But that’s always the way with such films. A truth. rather than the truth.
Something that dates the film. These days, family snapshots tend to be freely posted on social media, rather than hidden away on a shelf at home. Personal snaps? Taken now more than ever. But ‘rare and unseen’ like the ones in the Cobain film? Not so much. Today, people show photos of their children to millions of strangers. Everyone’s in their own documentary now.
And in my Canute-like way, today I sit in the Crypt café in St Martin in the Fields, and write a letter to Pittsburgh.
* * *
Tags: Angela Carter
, election 2015
, emperor's new clothes
, kurt cobain
, montage of heck
, russell brand
, toni morrison
St Rutger’s Day
Saturday 14th March 2015.
To the Hat and Tun pub in Farringdon, for Laura M’s birthday. Ms M and her friends favour vintage clothing, and this hired room suits them to a tee: Victorian décor, wood panelling, sofas, animal trophies on the wall, a fireplace, and it’s located deep in Oliver Twist territory, off Saffron Hill.
In the 1840s this area would have exemplified all those Dickens TV adaptations: noisy and muddy alleys, street hawkers, drunks in doorways, child prostitutes, horse dung, the poorest of the poor. Saffron Hill’s atmosphere is now closer to that of the financial district around the City: streets silent and empty, the buildings a mix of expensive flats and offices. All nightlife firmly confined to the inside of pleasant bars like this one.
At the party, there’ s lots of people in steampunk-compatible attire. A few corsets, some of them worn by men. I chat to a lady who is a practitioner of Bartitsu, the Victorian form of martial arts. It appears in the Sherlock Holmes stories. What might seem like a whimsical hobby can turn out to be very handy. She tells me how a couple of days ago, she used her skills to fend off a mugger in a rail station.
* * *
Sunday 15th March 2015.
To the ICA for the latest Gregg Araki film, White Bird In A Blizzard. Like a lot of arthouse films, it’s taken a year or so to find its way onto London screens. The young heroine is played by the likeable Shailene Woodley, who has since gone on to be something of a mainstream superstar.
I’m a big fan of Mr Araki’s work, particularly Mysterious Skin and Splendour. His last film, Kaboom!, about love among college students, slinks along prettily enough before the story turns absolutely insane in the last twenty minutes – and the world literally explodes. Don’t ask.
His trademarks tend to be tales of youthful and rebellious sexuality (often with a bisexual edge), with dream-like close-ups of faces, the framing of objects in the dead centre of the screen, and a soundtrack that favours British alternative rock. Just as Ms Sophia Coppola claimed custody of My Bloody Valentine for Lost In Translation, Mr Araki seems to have first dibs on Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins: White Bird comes with a brand new Guthrie soundtrack. On top of that there’s hit singles by Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order, the Cure, the Pet Shop Boys and the Jesus and Mary Chain. But there’s also a lesser-known Soft Cell b-side, ‘It’s A Mug’s Game’, one of my favourite 80s tracks full stop. This is an eight minutes-long upbeat synth tune, where Marc Almond rants in a half-sung, half-spoken style about the pitfalls of teenage life. It goes from gritty angst into uproarious humour: to get back at his dad, Almond’s character tells himself to ‘play your records so loud / all the ones that he especially hates /Deep Purple in Rock, Led Zeppelin II /Well, even you hate those!’
White Bird In A Blizzard concerns the disappearance of the main character’s mother, played by Eva Green in a highly mannered and campy style, almost as if she’s channelling Joan Crawford. Young Ms Woodley’s acting style, meanwhile, is pure twenty-first century naturalism, even though she’s been forced to wear Joy Division t-shirts and lie around pretending to enjoy Depeche Mode.
(This is unfair. There’s plenty of young people in 2015 who love 1980s music. La Roux, for one, whose records the BBC have insisted on restricting to the older-age station Radio 2, rather than the teen-orientated Radio 1. So she is officially a young person who makes music that is too old for her. Liking the Human League is now the equivalent of liking Bach)
So this film has two female leads speaking to each other in completely contrasting acting styles, post-war Hollywood and contemporary, while both are in an 1980s setting. I’m still not sure what this film actually is, but it’s different, and it’s art. And I like the songs.
* * *
Monday 16th March 2015.
Latest line in my thesis: ‘Masculinity isn’t for every man’.
* * *
Tuesday 17th March 2015.
St Patrick’s Day seems bigger than ever. I look in at the windows of bars in Bloomsbury. If I see a group of men wearing those spongy top hats, meant to resemble a pint of Guinness, I choose not to enter. It’s like Santa hats at Christmas. I find them stomach-churningly tacky.
I suppose these hats must be absolutely hilarious to the wearers – they certainly seem to be having a jolly time. But if people must walk around as unpaid adverts for Guinness, I’d much rather they emulated those 1980s TV adverts, the ones with Rutger Hauer. These were surreal vignettes where the Blade Runner actor would saunter around, vaguely dressed as a pint of the black stuff. White-blond hair atop a set of dark clothes, including a dashing black coat. He looked handsome, even cool. Why can’t people walk around dressed like that on St Patrick’s Day?
Class at Birkbeck: Philip Roth’s excellent Plot Against America. I had no idea about Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism in the 30s – nor Henry Ford’s.
* * *
Wednesday 18th March 2015.
Last class of the spring term at Birkbeck. Angela Carter’s Passion of New Eve, from the 70s. Still seems very bold and fresh today: freewheeling, imaginative, apocalyptic feminism. Only Margaret Atwood comes close, but she doesn’t have Carter’s giddy abandon. And, yes, nerve. Nerve is underrated.
* * *
To the Odeon Camden Town with Ms Shanthi, for a more conventional woman’s story: Still Alice. Julianne Moore is deserving of her Oscar, but then she’s experienced in the Woman Has A Terrible Time stakes. Not least in Safe. More unexpected is the performance of Kristen Stewart. She nearly steals the film as the surly, defensive daughter who turns out to be better suited to caring than the rest of the family. The Twilight films made young Ms Stewart rich enough to do whatever she wants, forever. So for her to do her best performance in a film about Alzheimer’s is a commendable use of her celebrity.
Thousands of ‘K-Stew’ fans around the world will see this film purely because she’s in it. That can only be a good thing. As Terry Pratchett pointed out, one factor in the history of incurable diseases becoming curable is the simple raising of awareness. Still Alice may be fairly ordinary as a film, but if it inspires young people to choose careers where they help the afflicted, or help to find a cure, it has value enough.
* * *
Friday 20th March 2015.
Thinking today about the way social media gives disproportionate power to throwaway remarks, I come across a follow-up to the Dorothy Parker quip about Katharine Hepburn. In the 1930s, Ms Parker was quoted as saying that Ms Hepburn ‘ran the gamut of emotions from A to… B’.
Some years later, though, she told a friend, Garson Kanin, that she regarded Ms H as a fine actress.
‘Are you saying that that ‘A to B’ quip wasn’t yours, then?’ said Kanin. ‘Or do you think she’s improved?’
‘Oh, I said it all right. You know how it is. A joke. When people expect you to say things, you say things. Isn’t that the way it is?’
Thus Dorothy Parker predicted Twitter.
(source: Garson Kanin, Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir, via the blog QuoteInvestigator.com)
Tags: Angela Carter
, dorothy parker
, gregg araki
, julianne moore
, kristen stewart
, philip roth
, still alice
, white bird in a blizzard
Betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross
“Decide to be happy” can never be said enough.
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.
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.
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!
Tags: Angela Carter
, birkbeck library
, francis thompson
, geoffrey fletcher
, locke & key
, rhodri marsden
, susannah clapp
, the london nobody knows
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.
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.
Tags: Angela Carter
, British Library
, Charlotte Mew's Joke Corner
, Coma Names
, Proper Letters
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tags: Angela Carter
, Beautiful & Damned
, Claudia Andrei
, Crimson Skye
, DJ gigs
, Green Party
, High Tea
, Martin White
, US elections