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)


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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!


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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.

***

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.

***

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.


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