A Craze Of Pomegranates
Thursday 22nd September 2016. I read this year’s shortlist for the BBC National Short Story Award. All five stories are by women, including Hilary Mantel and Lavinia Greenlaw. Were it down to me I’d give first prize to Ms Greenlaw’s ‘The Darkest Place in England’. It’s a tale of teenage life in a part of rural England where the skies are free from light pollution, hence the title. My runner up would be Mantel’s ‘In a Right State’, about the regular characters one sees in an A&E ward.
A few days later, my choice fails to agree with the judges’, who anoint KJ Orr as winner, with Claire-Louise Bennett as runner up. Both stories are perfectly well-written, it’s just that I feel the Greenlaw and Mantel entries connected more with me. One of my criteria is to notice if a piece of writing gets me underlining a memorable phrase in pen – I always read them on paper. Out of the shortlist, it was only the Greenlaw and Mantel stories that had me reaching for my Bic Orange Fine.
Ms Bennett is getting attention as one of the new trend of Irish writers who are influenced by James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, along with Eimear McBride. The Bennett story in this shortlist is full of Beckettian monologue and thought-stream, with touches of Woolf’s ‘Mark on the Wall’ too. I read Ms McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing recently, and like the Bennett story I admired it but found myself yearning for a little skylight of exteriority. A Modernist Style Is A Hard-Going Thing.
My favourite phrase in the Mantel entry captures the hand-gel dispensers in hospitals. One joke I’ve heard about these is that they make everyone in hospitals look like they’ve just thought of a cunning plan. Ms Mantel has another comparison in her story:
‘Sombrely she hand-gels herself, like jesting Pilate’.
The Lavinia Greenlaw story goes one better, with a line spoken by one teenage girl to another, during the latter’s first visit to a night club. Not only is it memorable and witty, it also encapsulates character, place and time:
‘Remember the rules. Don’t queue in groups of more than three, ditch the lads and don’t smile’.
Sunday 25th September 2016. To Tate Britain for Painting With Light, a juxtaposition of photography and paintings from the mid 1800s up to the early 1900s. The exhibition shows the way the two mediums influenced each other, with paintings becoming more realistic and detailed, and photographs emulating the poses and subject matter of paintings. Some familiar works are here, like Wallis’s Chatterton, but this time they’re used to show their photographic spin-offs. There’s a 3D stereogram of Chatterton, where some Victorian male model has mimicked the reclining corpse of the poet. Funny how depictions of suicide now often carry a ‘trigger warning’, while the Chatteron painting and its imitative photographs are deemed perfectly family-friendly. It’s a snuff movie as a painting. But then, so is Ophelia.
Rosetti’s Proserpine is also here – the one with the woman holding a half-eating pomegranate. It’s a painting so often reproduced that it all but bounces off my vision when I look at it, like a repelled magnet. I’ve not been to the Louvre, but it’s how I imagine seeing the Mona Lisa. An image so firmly fused into one’s memory that one’s brain goes into a state of unease when encountering the real thing. Two opposite reactions struggle to take control. There’s the starstruck, selfie-grabbing reaction: ‘I can’t believe it! It’s that famous painting! And I’m here with it!’ And there’s the resentful one: ‘What a cliché this painting is! I’ve seen it so many times that it’s become bland and meaningless. It’s been killed through overexposure.’
But here Proserpine comes alive, freshened up by its position alongside photographs and illustrations of similar wistful maidens clutching pomegranates. Wilde’s House of Pomegranates is here too, and one can now see how Rickett’s illustrations for the book were a nod to the Rossetti painting and its various photographic imitations. Something about that particular fruit made it an essential prop for images of women at the time: exotic, sensual. A craze of pomegranates, in fact.
(Which sounds like Marks and Spencer’s attempts to give their packets of dried fruit silly names. ‘Mango Madness!’ ‘A Craze of Pomegranates!’).
Then to the Royal Festival Hall’s riverside café, where I witness the BBC Radio 3 pop-up studio in action. It’s a large transparent box bisected into two rooms: a control room with an outer door, and an inner sanctum of a studio. The actors Fiona Shaw and Robert Glenister are seated in the latter, performing for the public vocally, yet otherwise pretending that the crowd gawping in at them is not really there. They are reading the texts for the ‘Words and Music’ programme, as it goes out live. A pair of speakers outside the box broadcast the show at a modest volume, but for a better experience one can approach some youthful BBC staff in t-shirts, who loan out special Radio 3 wireless headphones, which only work in the café. It’s like a Radio One Roadshow for the delicate.
This is all to mark Radio 3’s 70th anniversary. When it began in 1946 as the Third Programme, a BBC statement at the time said the station was intended to be ‘new and ambitious’ and ‘evidence of national vigour’ after the war. I watch Ms Shaw exert her vigour on TS Eliot as I queue for my latte.
Wednesday 28th September 2016. To the Camden Odeon for Bridget Jones’s Baby. I’m waiting in the foyer for a female friend – name redacted for reasons which will become clear – when I realise that in a crowded foyer, I am the only male in sight. Overwhelmingly, this film seems to attract pairs of women, and youngish women at that. Mostly late twenties. Given the heroine is in her forties, and indeed much of the film is about the ups and downs of being a forty-something, it seems odd that the bulk of this audience should be of a younger stripe. Perhaps it’s a Camden thing.
The most intriguing moment occurs when the Patrick Dempsey character returns to his Glastonbury yurt after a one-night stand with Ms Jones. He turns up with a tray of coffees and croissants, only to discover that she, mortified about the liaison, has fled. It’s at this point that my particular audience emits a huge female sigh en masse – ‘aww!’ – purely at the sight of breakfast in bed. It surprises my friend, too, who is closer to Bridget J’s age. We wonder later if today’s young women crave breakfast in bed as a romantic ideal, much more so than their elders. Perhaps the rise of Tinder and the general digitisation of love has amplified the appeal of more physical treats.
Bridget Jones’s Baby turns out to be much funnier than it needs to be. After the Absolutely Fabulous movie, which really did just tick the boxes for pleasing the fans, this one makes some sharp satirical quips on social mores. Here we have the perils of search engines, the rise of hipster beards, Middle Englanders having to move with the progressive times, and most of all, the now-common experience of ‘geriatric’ mothers. ‘Geriatric’ is still the medical term, as the film points out, for a pregnant 40-something.
Our evening ends on a somewhat less fun note when we repair to the Good Mixer, now joined by my friend’s boyfriend. We enjoy a couple of drinks for about an hour, but are then suddenly confronted by the bar’s owner. Accompanied by a muscled bouncer, he pulls up a chair opposite our seats and proceeds to interrogate my friend about her behaviour on a previous occasion. She is outraged and defiant, her boyfriend is protective, the argument becomes a repetitive loop of accusations (as all arguments do) and I’m shrinking into my seat. We eventually leave to a volley of execrations shouted across the darkness of Inverness Street. I’m just relieved it didn’t come to blows.
I don’t think I’m barred – the owner apologised to me – but I wonder if this is the last time I can go to the Good Mixer. Still, other bars are available.
Thursday 29th September 2016. To Suffolk to stay with Mum. We watch the new DVD of Akenfield together. I note the scene where the Suffolk workers go on a day trip to Southwold.
Friday 30th September 2016. And fittingly enough, we go on a day trip to Southwold. We’re treated to lunch on the pier by Mum’s friend Mary Gough, who owns the whole pier as a business. She tells me about the graffiti artist responsible for the huge George Orwell mural on the wall nearest the beach end: ‘He goes by the name of Pure Evil, but he’s very nice, really.’
I have a go on one of the arcade games in Tim Hunkin’s ingenious and satirical Under The Pier Show. This game is a new addition for 2016, ‘The Housing Ladder’. The player has to stand on the rungs of an actual ladder and frantically move its side rails up and down. This makes a little figure inside the machine rise to the top of its own ladder in order to reach the goal: a home. An ‘Age Indicator’ ticks away the time: if the player doesn’t get the house by the time he’s 80, it’s game over. Several ‘villains’ pop out of doors on the way up, making the figure fall back down the ladder. The villains in this case are The Foreign Buyer, The Developer, The Buy to Let Owner, and The Second Home Buyer. I make it to the house at the age of 70. ‘Good luck with that,’ says Mum.
Then a walk into town, via the Sailors’ Reading Room, which is one of my favourite places in the world. I also browse in the Southwold Bookshop, and buy a novel that’s being promoted as a recommended reissue: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, from 1978. Fitzgerald’s inspiration was the bookshop that used to be on the other side of Southwold High Street. I visited it during our family’s regular holidays in the town since the mid-1980s.
This newer emporium is really a branch of Waterstones pretending to be an indie, at least aesthetically. All traces of company branding have been removed in order to please the locals. Almost all: the receipt informs me of my ‘Waterstones Reward Points’. I wonder if this might be the future of high streets: branches of corporate franchises pretending to be unique local businesses. Pubs already do that.
Evening: We were going to watch a DVD of Terence Davies’s Sunset Song, but I’m keen to finish the set text I’m reading, Jackie Kay’s Trumpet. At the back of the book is a new interview with Ms Kay, in which she discusses how Trumpet couldn’t be set in the internet era, because it’s so much harder to keep a secret. I think of the exposing of JT LeRoy and more recently, Elena Ferrante.
Ms Kay also discusses her influences in Scottish literature. One of the books she mentions is Sunset Song, the novel behind the film. It got me in the end.
Saturday 1st October. Off the train at Liverpool Street, and straight over to the Liverpool St branch of Wahaca, the Mexican food chain. The occasion is Tom’s one year anniversary for being sober: no mean feat if you play guitar for a living, which means regularly being in bars and licensed venues. About twenty friends turn up for this meal, all eschewing alcohol by way of tribute. It’s my first restaurant meal to be paid for via an app; the calculation of who ordered what is thus made much simpler.
Sunday 2nd October 2016. To the Royal Academy for the David Hockney show, 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life. It’s the last day, and the gallery is absolutely packed (or ‘ram-packed’, as Jeremy Corbyn would have it). The portraits are all standardised in a kind of handmade tribute to Warhol: the same size, the same chair, the same simple background of two horizontal blocks of colour, though the colours are sometimes switched. The show suggests that painted portraits take on a new meaning in the age of the selfie. But more personally, it’s a touching record of his friends. If the measure of friendship today is tapping one’s finger on the word ‘Like’, painting someone’s portrait is a ‘Like’ of true commitment; three days’ work each one. The subjects are Hockney’s friends, including Barry Humphries (very dandified, in tie and fedora), and Celia Birtwell, of Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy fame.
Tuesday 4th October 2016. A day trip to Brighton, partly because I enjoyed Southwold so much and fancied another dose of the seaside, while the weather was still warm (just about). But also because Dennis Cooper’s new film is getting a screening at the Duke of York’s Picture House, and I seem to have missed it in London.
In the afternoon I walk on the pier and write letters in the café. The seagulls seem to be more aggressive than usual, hovering close to people in number. One touches momentarily on a woman’s head. She laughs it off, but it makes me stick to walking under the pier’s canopies.
I stop off at a new café in York Place, The Yellow Book. It’s decorated in Aubrey Beardsley illustrations, and calls itself ‘Britain’s First Steampunk Bar’. The bar man has a bowler hat with goggles on the brim. There’s some contemporary art on the wall with a steampunk theme. I wonder if they’d exhibit Dad’s Captain Biplane comic art; people were always telling him it was steampunk avant la lettre.
Then to the Duke of York’s cinema. The Dennis Cooper film, Like Cattle Towards Glow is really a series of five short films, each one touching on Mr Cooper’s trademark transgressive themes: trauma and gay sexuality, the world of male escorts, obsession, the death of pretty boys (in the tradition of Chatterton), and youthful vulnerability. In some ways, Mr Cooper is a more X-rated descendent of AE Housman.
Some of the film is unsettling, some of it is surreally funny. There’s several moments of explicit sex which make Brokeback Mountain look like a Disney cartoon. But the final story is virtually U-certificate: a woman uses drones and CCTV cameras to conduct a relationship with a homeless young man (a little like the Andrew Arnold film Red Road).
After the screening there’s a Q&A with Mr Cooper, along with his director Zac Farley and a couple of academics from the nearby University of Sussex. The event is supported by two of the university’s departments: the Centre For American Studies, and the Centre For The Study Of Sexual Dissidence. I assume at first that this must be a recent groovy development, but it turns out the Centre has been going for 25 years. It’s known on campus as ‘Sex Diss’. All very Brighton. I get Mr C to sign a copy of his book of essays, Smothered By Hugs.
Thursday 6th October 2016. First class of the new college year, and the start of my sixth year as a student at Birkbeck. This term’s module for the MA is ‘Post-War to Contemporary’. Tonight is an induction class, discussing the various artistic movements since 1945.
There must be a little chaos behind the scenes, as the room is changed at 3.30pm in the afternoon, for a class that begins at 6. An email goes out , but as I don’t have a smartphone I don’t get it in time. Myself and another phone-less student are left sitting like fools in the previously-announced room at the BMA building in Tavistock Square. No indication of a change here: no sign on the door. We only realise something is wrong when 6pm comes and goes, and no one else has turned up. Thankfully I’m texted on my non-smart phone by Jassy, one of my fellow students. I rush off and make it to the new room in Torrington Square, several blocks away, and am thus 15 minutes late. I hope this isn’t the beginning of a ‘zero hours’ approach to students.
Thinking back now, it’s an indication that the world increasingly expects people to be constantly online and checking their emails. In my case though, I have to go offline and off-phone for hours at a time or I can’t concentrate. I wonder if this is a new way of being ‘difficult’.
Friday 7th October 2016. Meeting with my personal tutor, Grace Halden, in Gordon Square. I don’t finish the MA until September of next year, but I’m now starting to look into what I should do with myself after that. Grace H thinks I’m a ‘perfect’ candidate for doing a PHD. It seems to be possible to be paid a full-time salary for such a thing. I have to keep up the good marks, though. And my PHD needs to be ‘crucial to the international field’, if I’m to receive funding. This will be the tricky part. I sometimes struggle to feel I have any intrinsic worth as a human being, let alone a ‘crucial’ one.
Saturday 8th October 2016. With Tom to the Islington Screen on the Green, to see Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie. Like many people on their first trip to the venue, Tom is delighted by the sense of luxury, never mind the film. There are plush sofas, foot stools, and a bar at the back of the screening room. The staff even bring your drinks to your seat.
At one point in the Theroux film the camera glances at a cease-and-desist letter received from the Church of Scientology’s lawyers. I make out the words ‘BBC’ and ‘John Sweeney’. Mr Sweeney was the reporter whose own attempts to converse with a Scientologist a few years ago, for Panorama, left him shouting at the top of his voice.
Mr Theroux is much better suited to the job. When the Scientologists turn up with their own cameraman, who refuses to reply to Theroux’s questions, Theroux gets out his phone – a cheap little flip-up one – and holds it up to the man’s camera in response, like a crucifix in a vampire film. They both stand like this for several seconds.
It’s more silly than aggressive, and a move that I think only Louis Theroux could make. His approach is often called ‘faux-naïve’, but it’s closer to a kind of weaponised passivity. It also helps to make the film unique, given the umpteen documentaries on the subject. Even Jon Ronson, whose journalistic style and taste is close to Theroux’s, wouldn’t hold up his phone like that.
Evening: to the Rich Mix in Bethnal Green for another film documentary: Supersonic, about the band Oasis. Despite this being the film’s opening weekend, Supersonic only seems to be playing in two central London cinemas tonight. I wonder if this is to do with the way music documentaries have a much narrower appeal than documentaries about other subjects: the Theroux screening was packed. The exception was Amy, because it was more of a biography about a tragic public figure who happened to work in music. Supersonic can’t even claim to look into a pop cultural moment, as the recent Beatlemania film, Eight Days A Week did, as Oasis never quite reached that level. There were no Oasis Boots and Wigs on sale, no spin-off cartoon series and films. There were a very popular band, but ultimately just that: a band.
Rather cheekily, the film leaves out any mention of Blur or Britpop, even though it purports to tell the story of the band, up till their enormous Knebworth concerts of 1996. According to this film, no other guitar bands existed in the 1990s. No wonder so many people came to their shows: there apparently weren’t any others to go to. These days, history is rewritten by the documentary makers.
That aside, the anecdotes about the Gallagher brothers and their endless spats and scrapes are imaginatively presented here, using lots of lively animations of letters and photos. The film moves quickly, and the melodies still impress. I remember hearing ‘Supersonic’ when it came out and thinking how ingenious it was to meld the aggressive, swaggering grind of Happy Mondays (the verses) with the aching, fuzzy sweetness of Teenage Fanclub (the choruses). ‘Live Forever’ and ‘Wonderwall’ were similarly impressive; what they lacked in intellectual prowess they made up for in heartfelt drive and emotion. It’s unlikely that their lyrics will ever merit a Nobel Prize, but the film certainly illustrates what a lot of fun it must have been, to be Liam and Noel Gallagher in the 1990s.
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, BBC National Short Story Award
, bridget jones's baby
, captain biplane
, david hockney
, dennis cooper
, good mixer
, Hilary Mantel
, Lavinia Greenlaw
, like cattle towards glow
, louis theroux
, my scientology movie
, painting with light
, royal academy
, southwold pier
, supersonic film
, tate britain
, the yellow book
, tim hunkin
, Tom Edwards
, under the pier
Pogonophobia, Twinned With Geminiphobia
Saturday 26th September 2015.
Much discussion in the media – and on social media – about the attack on the Cereal Killer Café in Brick Lane, by anti-gentrification protesters. Since it opened last year, this harmless novelty café that purely serves bowls of cereal has received a baffling amount of ire. Usually the criticism is based on the fact that the cafe serves cereal for several pounds more than it would cost to buy in a supermarket, as would be the case with food in any café. This is such a mind-scorchingly obvious point, yet there’s something about the café that has led to it being held up as a symbol – nay, the symbol – of The Trouble With London Hipsters. In recent years, East London has seen a surge in fashionable emporiums aimed at the affluent young, but with little of this wealth reaching the poverty-stricken communities who have lived there for generations. When the cereal café opened, the owners were forced to justify their very existence to the press. This is despite London having always been a city for quirky concept shops – I’m rather a fan of the Tintin and Moomin shops in Covent Garden, and the Cybercandy shops, with their imported sweets.
It would have been far more logical to throw accusations of gentrification at East London estate agents, landlords, and the corporate coffee franchises that speckle the streets. But as with the David Cameron pig story last week, the man-bites-dog angle wins out. Tonight’s anti-gentrification protests did indeed attack estate agents too, but once the cereal café – an independent business – was splattered with paint, and had the word ‘scum’ scrawled on their windows, a lot of public sympathy for the protest was lost.
A few days later, some of the protesters complained of biased reporting. They stressed that the café attack was collateral damage, rather than a prime target. It seems the revolution will not only be televised, it will be unfairly edited.
I wonder, though, if the attention on the café also borders on a form of phobia. ‘Hate crime’ is too much, but there is certainly a disproportionate level of hatred being thrown about. This week, the café owners, two young-ish brothers from Belfast, are ludicrously called ‘the most hated men in London’ by the Evening Standard. Perhaps some of this is to do with their having not only the current hipster look of bushy beards and swept-back hair, but also being identical twins. To be a fashionable-looking man is yearning to be a twin too – a twin of thousands. So the brothers are twins twice over, which must add to the resentment.
For years, a common question in games like Trivial Pursuit was ‘what is pogonophobia a fear of?’ Answer: beards. Writing this entry, I learn the word for an irrational fear of identical twins: geminiphobia. This must be an instance where both words can legitimately be used.
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Monday 28th September 2015.
First class of the MA. A gentle introduction to the course, in a Birkbeck building in the north-west corner of Russell Square, which I’ve not been in before. Seems to be a converted townhouse. Spiral stars (like the ones in Somerset House), moulded patterns on high ceilings. Then a group trip to a pub. This turns out to be the aptly-named Perseverance, in Lamb’s Conduit Street. A pleasant and quiet little bar, the kind one wants to keep a secret.
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I read the shortlisted entries for this year’s BBC National Short Story Award, as I’ve done most years. Comma Press publishes them in an attractive little paperback, brought out in time for the announcement of the winner, which will be next Tuesday.
All five are well-written enough and do what they set out to do, though this year there’s nothing as truly ambitious as, say, a story by Jorge Luis Borges, or as stylistically bold as something by Angela Carter.
I admire the straightforward style of Mark Haddon’s ‘Bunny’, about a lonely and chronically obese man, though I’m disheartened by the grim ending. I wonder if Mr H thinks that, as his name is synonymous with the feel-good resolution of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, he could use this new tale to play against that expectation. It’s also a reminder of the joke about the difference between commercial and literary fiction. Commercial fiction pleases with happy endings, literary fiction pleases with miserable endings.
Of the others on the shortlist, Jonathan Buckley’s ‘Briar Road’ demands a certain amount of re-reading to fill in the blanks. It’s one interpretation of that popular piece of creative writing advice: ‘show, don’t tell’. In this case I rather prefer Mr Vonnegut’s maxim: ‘pity the reader’.
Frances Leviston’s ‘Broderie Anglaise’, meanwhile, has a touch of Woolf about it, with its relatives using domestic tasks to take up power positions. It’s well-crafted, but doesn’t quite come alive for me.
My choice of runner-up would be Jeremy Page’s ‘Do it Now, Jump the Table’. A young man negotiates the awkwardness of staying with his girlfriend’s parents, who like to be naked around their house. There’s a similar scene in David Nicholls’s Starter For Ten, and one in The League Of Gentlemen TV series. But Mr Page properly explores the implications of this awkwardness, bringing in pathos and character depth alongside the humour.
But my favourite is Hilary Mantel’s ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’. I realise Ms Mantel does not need the extra acclaim, and the collection that includes this tale has already been a bestseller (a feat indeed for a book of short stories). But if it were down to me she would still win. Her story thrills, amuses, shocks and grips from start to end, and shares the confidence and precision of a sniper, appropriately enough. One line particularly stays with me, describing the walk of the doomed Baroness: ‘High heels on the mossy path. Tippy-tap. Toddle on.’
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Thursday 1st October 2015
My first ever visit to an osteopath, at the Highgate Holistic Clinic on Archway Road. I come away feeling better twice over. Once for the treatment of my back’s muscular tension, then again for not making a comment about the osteopath’s name, Ms Payne.
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Friday 2nd October 2015.
To the ICA to see By Our Selves (£3), directed by Andrew Kotting. I enjoyed his last film, Swandown, and this is a similarly experimental documentary based around a journey in contemporary England, again with a lot of Iain Sinclair and a little of Alan Moore. No Stewart Lee this time, though the comedian appears in the thank-you credits.
The subject matter is the nineteenth-century poet John Clare, and specifically Clare’s four-day walk across Middle England in 1841, from a mental asylum in Epping Forest to his home near Peterborough. Clare is personified by the actor Toby Jones (looking like a dishevelled Samuel Beckett character), while his father Freddie Jones also appears (now in his late 80s). Jones Senior once played Clare in a 1970 BBC film, and can still recite some of the poems by heart. He shares the narration with Iain Sinclair, the latter stalking Jones Junior while wearing a Wicker Man-esque goat mask.
There’s lots of dream-like sequences merging Clare’s work and English folk costumes with 2014 props and landscapes. One of the discussions speculates on Clare’s initials, J.C. – did they give him a messianic complex? Do all people with those initials have a sense of self-importance? (Jeremy Clarkson? Jeremy Corbyn?). Am surprised that Ronald Blythe isn’t involved with the film – he constantly champions Clare in his Word From Wormingford diaries.
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Then to Gordon Square for the launch party of the Open Library of Humanities digital platform. This is a major project built by two Birkbeck lecturers, Caroline Edwards and Martin Eve, involving the publishing of academic humanities journals in an ‘open-access’ space online, so everyone can read the articles without having to pay, subscribe or be a member of an institution. The OLH is also a ‘megajournal’, a charity, and a community space, as well as a non-profit publisher. Tonight in Gordon Square there are speeches, wine, and a special OLH launch cake, courtesy of Bea’s of Bloomsbury. I have ‘open access’ to that too (delicious).
Tags: alan moore
, andrew kotting
, BBC National Short Story Award
, by our selves
, cereal killer cafe
, iain sinclair
, open library of humanities
You Stay, You Paint
Saturday 27th September 2014. A day trip to Charleston Farmhouse, in Sussex. I’d been meaning to go for ages, given I spend so much time mooching around the Bloomsbury Set’s city haunts in actual Bloomsbury. Charleston was ostensibly the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant from 1916, but in practice it became the whole group’s countryside retreat. I’m fond of two particular facts about its story. One is that it was discovered by Virginia and Leonard Woolf while they were walking across the Sussex Downs. The other is that a farmhouse was a practical choice as much as a romantic one. Duncan Grant and David Garnett were conscientious objectors in WW1, so they needed to be in jobs that could exempt them from fighting. It was a choice between mining or farming.
This week Charleston plays host to the Small Wonder literary festival, ‘The Short Story Festival’ as it bills itself. Seven days of events connected with the short story form. Despite being out of the way and focussing on a type of fiction that rarely sells many books, the festival is very busy. Slightly more women than men. There are free shuttle buses to Lewes station, but most people seem to come by car. I’m here to attend one particular event: a discussion on the BBC National Short Story Award. It features two of the judges, Di Speirs and Philip Gwyn Jones, along with two of the shortlisted writers, who turn out to be Lionel Shriver and Tessa Hadley. Although I wasn’t so keen on her story, I’m captivated by Ms Shriver’s performance today when she airs an excerpt. She pauses in the all right places, and looks up at the crowd at all the right times – and so steely-eyed, too. Tessa H makes the observation that there isn’t a UK equivalent of the New Yorker, ie a newsstand-style magazine that regularly includes literary short stories. It’s true. I wonder why.
Small Wonder is entirely contained in two barns next to the house. One is for the actual events, while the other manages to house the box office, bar, bookshop and lounge area. The other barns are still in use as part of a working farm. I only discover this when Ms Shriver is briefly interrupted by loud mooing.
The Charleston house itself can only be visited by going on a guided tour, so that’s what I do while I’m there. It is such a unique attraction. Site-specific art is everywhere. Every possible surface has been painted, not just by Grant or one of the Bells, but by anyone who was staying in the house at the time. You stay, you paint. Walls, bathtubs, bed-boards, even box files are decorated. And that’s before you get to the paintings. One Vanessa Bell canvas is titled ’46 Gordon Square’. It is a view any student at Birkbeck School of Arts is familiar with: the east side of the square as seen from one of the windows. Charleston’s walled garden is full of colourful flower beds, mosaic pavements, tidy ponds and elegant statuary, my favourite being Quentin Bell’s ‘Levitating Lady’.
Earlier, I’d glimpsed some modern levitation, from the window of the train into Lewes. A paraglider over the Downs, their dot of a chair suspended against the green hills. At Charleston, I ask one of the other visitors about the difference between hang gliding and paragliding. ‘Hang gliding is where you hang. Paragliding is where you have a nice sit down.’
The merchandise at Charleston’s shop includes Virginia Woolf mouse-mats, along with cotton stockings of the sort worn by V & V. You too can have legs like Virginia’s.
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Sunday 28th September 2014. Occasionally I like to battle through the Sunday Times in paper form, though I feel guilty about the amount of waste it entails. A certain amount of gutting is always necessary too: out goes the Sports supplement, out goes Travel and Property. Worlds not meant for the likes of me. Sunday papers have their own bubble of affluence. Despite all the coverage of writers going unpaid, here is a Wilbur Smith interview where he says his novels earn him more than one million pounds a year (‘an average year for me’). I wince at an instance of my least favourite word, ‘famously’. Today it’s ‘Ed Sheeran’s famously arduous work rate’.
I peruse the Bestseller lists. Always fascinating to see what people are buying to read, though they still don’t allow for e-book sales. Ian Rankin is at Number One. Lee Child and Ken Follett shifting suitably butch amounts of their hardbacks. Jeffrey Archer still sells by the truckload. The biggest novel of the year so far is a title for teens (or Young Adults, rather): The Fault In Our Stars.
Kate Mosse has a novel out called The Taxidermist’s Daughter. It has the same title as my favourite entry in this year’s BBC NSSA, by Francesca Rhydderch. I suppose you wait ages for a story about a taxidermist’s daughter, then two come along at once.
* * *
The immortality of innuendo. I walk through Covent Garden. A juggler is entertaining a large crowd. I only hear one line of his routine: ‘I’m now going to ask this beautiful lady to hold my balls.’ He must have said it a thousand times before, and indeed it must have been said by a thousand jugglers before him. But the crowd laughs, and I smirk as I pass through.
* * *
Monday 29th September 2014. Term begins. All the BA English students have a one-off ‘induction lecture’, this year by Isabel Davis. It’s on the medieval Apocalypse, by way of Chaucer. We’re not expected to be tested on the lecture. It’s more a kind of warm-up, helping the students get used to going to lectures on literature again, and indeed helping them find their way around the labyrinth of the School of Arts. I still end up getting lost, and it’s my fourth year.
Afterwards: drinks in the Keynes Library upstairs. Pleasingly, the room has some Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant paintings of scenes at Charleston, views which I’ve now been to see in person. What with seeing a painting of a Gordon Square room hanging at Charleston, I feel like I’ve returned from the other side of a mirror.
* * *
Tuesday 30th September 2014. The NSSA winner is announced on the BBC’s Front Row programme. Lionel Shriver wins, with Zadie Smith second. Ms Smith was my second choice too, so I’m half happy. I suspect the Shriver won because of the way it compresses a whole life, rather than dips into an episode. I still think ‘The Taxidermist’s Daughter’ did more with the form, though.
* * *
Wednesday 1st October 2014. To the Crouch End Arthouse for Stephen Fry Live: More Fool Me. Like Charleston, I combine an event with a visit to a place on the To Do list. Crouch End is fairly near me, but it’s still a 25 minute walk – and only a walk, so I tend to favour the East Finchley Phoenix as my local cinema. The Arthouse is the former Music Palace on Tottenham Lane – I once attended a wedding party there. Before then it was a Salvation Army Hall. Now it’s been cut up into a lively warren of little rooms, including a foyer-cum-bar (which sales tiramisu ice cream), a main cinema room (tonight showing Pride), and a live space which doubles as a second screening room. The latter is where the Stephen Fry show is shown. Watching a live show in a cinema is no longer a novelty, but I think this is the first time a live book launch has been broadcast in the same way.
It turns out to be simple enough: Stephen Fry, on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall, talking for 90 minutes about his latest memoir, More Fool Me. No Q & A, no interviewer, no slide show. Apart from a section where he reads from the book at a lectern, Mr Fry paces the stage without a script. He unleashes a seamless flow of anecdotes, memories, quotations, musings on his beliefs, a few QI-style facts, and a crash course in how to do different accents (my favourite being the Australian Heartburn accent – a constant – gulp – stifling – gulp – of a burp). He really is a perfect raconteur, in the old fashioned sense.
* * *
Friday 3rd October 2014. Incredibly, a literary short story collection is in WH Smith’s Top 10 today. It’s Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Two grand dames for the price of one.
Still hot and sunny. Still plenty of flip-flops in the city.
Tags: arthouse crouch end
, bbc na
, BBC National Short Story Award
, bloomsbury group
, Francesca Rhydderch
, lionel shriver
, stephen fry
, zadie smith
A Pop-Up War
Saturday 20th September 2014.
The last week of the summer holiday at last. This year’s new students are moving into Bloomsbury. Torrington Square is packed with food marquees serving hordes of eager young things. For them it’s the week of Fresher’s events, halls of residence, tours of the campus, induction parties, and queues to register for library cards at Senate House. On display are vivid experiments with dyes and beards, despite the changing fashions. Always the girls with oddly coloured hair lying on grass, lost in books. Always the flamingo-legged boys running in packs and shouting ‘OY!’ to each other, looking to belong. Oh, the eternal ‘OY!’. The trees and the college blocks shrug and watch over them all, welcoming. Continuity. Life. And yes, peace. One must never underestimate that.
* * *
Sunday 21st September 2014.
I’m reading a lot of short stories this week, particularly the five in the shortlist for this year’s BBC National Short Story Award.
Of these, Lionel Shriver’s ‘Kilifi Creek’ has some interesting musings on near-death experiences, coupled with another selfish and unlikeable protagonist (as per We Need To Talk About Kevin). Rose Tremain’s ‘The American Lover’ is a straightforward affair tale, though still a moving one. Tessa Hadley’s ‘Bad Dreams’ is more a scene than a story, though I like the idea of dreaming that a book has a secret chapter. If I were judging, I’d give second prize to Zadie Smith’s ‘Miss Adele Amidst The Corsets’, for its camp title, its gender exploration, and its acknowledgement of the modern world (it mentions Obama, apps and ‘googling’ in the lower case). First prize would go to Francesca Rhydderch’s ‘The Taxidermist’s Daughter’, which manages to bring in poetic details about the art of taxidermy, plenty of witty symbolism, a touch of modernist narration, and an inspired text-within-the-text moment. And it’s a proper story too, rather than a scene or an encounter or a musing. The winner is announced on Radio 4, the evening of Tuesday 30th. If the Shriver or the Tremain wins, I will be cross. I suppose this is my form of World Cup.
Other stories I read this week: Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ (an impulse buy, as Penguin Classics have put out a 99p stand-alone edition), Jean Cocteau’s only short story ‘The Phantom of Marseilles’, Angela Carter’s ‘Reflections’ and ‘Puss In Boots’, and Ronald Firbank’s ‘A Tragedy In Green’. ‘The Lottery’ is still as shocking as ever – I suppose these days it can lend itself to interpretations of religious fundamentalism. I like Cocteau’s story of a beautiful cross-dressing criminal, though I prefer the monologue version he wrote for Edith Piaf. In the 80s, Judi Dench performed an English translation on the radio, which I find in Oberon Books’s Thirteen Monologues.
The Carter tales still dazzle. ‘Reflections’ is startling and ambitious, ‘Puss In Boots’ is an outrageous and entertaining romp. Firbank’s early story, meanwhile, is a curious hybrid of his novel style with a touch of Saki-esque twisted fantasy. AS Byatt includes it in The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, one of my favourite anthologies.
* * *
Monday 22nd September 2014. I’m browsing in Paperchase, Tottenham Court Road. This year’s Christmas cards are out. One design has a London skyline, with the usual snow picked out in glitter. Present and correct is St Pauls, the Tower of London, and Big Ben. But there’s also the Gherkin, the Millennium Wheel, and – surely making its debut on a Christmas card – the Shard.
* * *
Tuesday 23rd September 2014.
I try an experiment in reading. I time myself reading books on Kindle, versus the paperback versions. The result: I read a book faster, and I take more in, if it’s on paper.
Amazon has just announced a new range of Kindles this week. All of them are heavier than the 2011 model I have now. Given one central attraction of ebook readers is to save weight when travelling (especially on holiday), this seems a disastrous move. No need for me to upgrade, then.
I still do not own a tablet device or a smartphone. I still buy and send postcards.
* * *
Wednesday 24th September 2014.
To the new Selfridges cinema for Magic in the Moonlight, the latest Woody Allen. The cinema is run by the Everyman chain. It’s been advertised as the first in the world to operate inside a department store, though when I ask the staff (who are very charming), it turns out it’s only a six month ‘pop-up shop’, ie intentionally temporary. This is one of those worrying new phrases which hint at an ever more uncertain and insubstantial world. Another is ‘zero hour contract’. Regardless, I rather like this pop-up cinema, with its little Hollywood canopy and red carpet at its entrance, all enclosed within the store’s basement. Inside there’s a bar and a lounge, though one has to go out into the main store for the toilets. In the screening room there’s 60 seats in the ‘boutique cinema’ style – a mix of sofas and armchairs with scatter cushions, little tables for drinks and popcorn, and a couple of spherical 1960s den seats at the back.
Magic in the Moonlight certainly suits this cinema in aesthetic terms. It’s set in an idealised, nostalgic 1920s world, nodding to a little of Scott Fitzgerald and a lot of Agatha Christie. Cue shots of pretty locations in the south of France, pretty people who are all pretty rich, pretty vintage cars and clothes, and the requisite Charleston dances. Colin Firth grumbles his way through the film as a sceptical stage magician, investigating a young woman’s seemingly genuine powers of clairvoyance. The girl in question is Emma Stone, an ethereal and doll-like actress with the kind of saucer-sized eyes reminiscent of the young Mia Farrow – no surprises there. Like many of the recent Allen films, there’s a strangely stilted feel to the dialogue and direction, as if he is just eager to get the script shot then move on. But the mystery of Ms Stone’s powers is enough to keep me interested. That and the visuals.
* * *
Thursday 25th September 2014.
Jason Orange leaves Take That. What I always admired about him is that after the first splitting up, he enrolled at a college and continued his education. English A-Level, too. The other four never went beyond GCSEs. That said, I admit this says rather more about me than it does about them. And it’s a sign of what I particularly believe in today, ie that a return to education is a good idea de facto. Whoever you are.
* * *
Friday 26th September 2014.
The majority of MPs support the UK’s bombing of Iraq yet again, this time against Islamic State. 43 MPs oppose the motion, including the Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas. ‘I know that when I stand up and oppose the Government’s motion, I am representing the views of many,’ she writes on the GP website. I may not be in her constituency, but on this issue she represents mine. I know the IS situation needs a solution. But a pop-up war, like a pop-up shop, can only add more uncertainty to the world.
Tags: BBC National Short Story Award
, caroline lucas
, Francesca Rhydderch
, Green Party
, jason orange
, magic in the moonlight
, selfridges cinema
, woody allen