Something Where There Should Be Nothing
Late March, and for the first time I find myself looking out for new leaves on the trees. Larkin’s rare positivity: ‘Afresh, afresh, afresh’.
I recently had an email from someone organising an exhibition at Somerset House. The show is titled ‘Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and their Digital Descendents’, and will run from late May till July. I’ve given permission for them to use a quote from mine on some sort of screen, for use on just one day. They’ve chosen some entries from May and June of last year.
So the diary continues to find purchase. And yet I still resent the time and effort it requires. Perhaps because it is, occasional donations aside, unpaid work. Philip Glass on his early years, driving a taxi while being championed in the press: ‘What is success? Having an audience.’ I have to admit I still prefer the version that pays the bills. Perhaps it’s about time I look into Patreon. But anyway.
How do I write this diary again? Empty my brain onto the page, take out all the libel, the self-libel, all the resentment, and as much of the self-pity as I can wake myself up to, then polish whatever’s left. And take too long to do it.
(That’s not entirely true: much of the time is spent procrastinating.)
For this present update, so much time has gone unmarked that I will have to be concise, even fragmentary.
12 December 2016. Most of my days from here to the 23rd of January are spent on the 3rd essay for my MA at Birkbeck, as in my MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture. This essay is a fairly bold argument towards a definition of ‘textual dandyism’, via selected novels by Muriel Spark, Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson. One of the other students said that my doing Carter was a ‘typical’ choice for me, which I took to be a compliment. The postgraduate mode is, after all, meant to involve a drift from the general to the specialised. And what else is specialisation but an advanced manifestation of taste? Discuss.
Regardless, few will disagree that Ms Carter is good for sparking off ideas. One of her essays in Shaking A Leg states that anorexia is a kind of female dandyism. There’s a thousand debates right there.
13 December. Film: The Pass. Barbican. Russell Tovey as a closeted gay football star. Much commentary on the way football is, rather depressingly, the last bastion of default homophobia. Very play-like; a chamber piece. Mercifully there is no actual football in the film.
15 December. More modern masculinity. The term ends, and I go with fellow Birkbeck students and tutors to the Museum Tavern, Great Russell Street, opposite the British Museum. I think the preferred term for a group of MA students is a ‘cohort’, though for me that sounds too much like Asterix the Gaul.
There is a moment of drama in the pub, when one customer – not one of our party it must be said – hurls his empty glass against the wall behind the counter. The glass shatters spectacularly into a starburst of tiny pieces, like a firework, though no one seems to be hurt. The hubbub duly stops and everyone watches.
This glass-thrower – whose patron saint must be Robert Carlyle’s character in Trainspotting – explains at some volume that it was really, definitely, his time to be served next.
Presumably it hadn’t occurred to him that (a) he wasn’t getting served for a reason, and that (b) throwing a glass against a wall is more likely to prevent one from ever being served in that pub again. How fascinating the logic of the drunken mind.
The burlier men in the room realise that Christmas has come early. They now have the whole pub’s implied permission to grapple this fellow out onto the street, and perhaps even get a few punches in for good measure. This they do with gusto. The joy of righteous violence: it almost makes one want to take up rugby. Sadly, the police arrive in minutes.
I notice how bar fights in real life are so unlike the choreographed ones in films. There’s little actual punching; more a series of headlocks and holding. Indeed, more like actual rugby.
Afterwards I notice there’s another under-discussed element to real life fighting: embarrassment. It’s in that moment of silence when everyone realises there is a troublemaker in the room, and that someone, ideally someone large, and more ideally several large someones, will indeed have to Do Something.
I was further disappointed that a pub fight in Bloomsbury didn’t involve rolled up copies of the London Review of Books.
16 December. I visit the Heath Robinson museum in Pinner. One display has a fan letter from the WW1 trenches, suggesting a joke to Mr Heath R. Some sections of No Man’s Land, says the soldier, are so narrow that one could use a fishing rod to steal souvenirs from the enemy. Heath Robinson used the idea in a subsequent cartoon.
18 December. Tate Britain. A brilliant video installation, Wot U :-) about?, by an artist I’d not seen before, Rachel Maclean. It depicts a nightmare world where social media controls bodies. She plays all the parts in the film, but is so buried under digital effects and masks that one would never recognise her. There’s a touch of Leigh Bowery about the characters: clownish faces with brightly coloured make-up. Demented Pac-Men, and indeed Pac-Women.
20 December. Film: Uncle Howard. ICA. Documentary on an 80s NYC filmmaker whose career was abruptly shortened by AIDS. Has glimpses of an abandoned film starring Madonna.
22nd December. Mum in town. We visit the 1920s exhibition in the Fashion Museum, Bermondsey. A lot of dresses resembling pyjamas, frankly. Helps illustrate the view that the 20s were full of lightness, invention and abandon, while the 1930s were when things became buttoned down, in every sense. No distance like the recent past. Also: a bonus display of frocks from the recent Gatsby film.
24th December. Film: Paterson. Curzon Bloomsbury. After the action of Star Wars, Adam Driver fronts an inaction film. Signifiers of quiet US dramas: a small town’s name as the title. See also Manchester by the Sea. Perhaps one can blame Paris, Texas.
English place names can do the same sort of thing – from ‘Adlestrop’ to Broadchurch. But they can also produce a wry bathos, which I think is exclusively English. Peter Sellers’s ‘Balham – Gateway to the South’ in the 60s. Billy Bragg’s parody of ‘Route 66’ as ‘A13 – Trunk Road to the Sea’. ‘Wichita Lineman’ is soulful, ‘Widnes GPO Man’ less so.
25th December. Highgate. Ducks in Waterlow Park, Frozen, Doctor Who.
28th December. To the Harold Pinter Theatre with Minna Miller, for Nice Fish, a new absurdist play with Mark Rylance. Cocktails at the RA’s plush Academicians’ Room after.
31st December. New Year’s Eve in Suffolk, with Mum. We watch the Crown’s fireworks from the garden.
Wednesday 11th January 2017. Working on my PhD proposal alongside the essay. My last module of regular taught classes begins. I’ve opted for ‘The Horror, The Horror’, taught by Roger Luckhurst. Professor L knows his stuff: he’s written academic books on mummies and zombies, and edited the present Oxford World’s Classics editions of Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, and HP Lovecraft’s short stories.
One theme of the module is the idea of two sorts of ‘horror’: a more literary ‘high’ category, as in Dorian Gray, and a ‘low’, trashier version, such as Saw 3. In the case of HP Lovecraft, some works have journeyed from the ‘low’ to the ‘high’; albeit a precarious sort of ‘high’. RL tells us how hard it was to convince the gatekeepers of the OUP that Mr Lovecraft’s tentacle-based tales are worthy of inclusion alongside Chekhov, Dickens, and Austen.
Reading ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ now, I do find myself chucking aloud at some of the sillier excesses. But when considering the horror genre, Lovecraft’s influence is monumental.
We kick off with Arthur Machen’s Novel of the White Powder. Like Dorian and Jekyll, it gestures at the things a young single man might get up to, when on a night out in London. Horrors indeed.
Sunday 15 January. Watch the (possibly) last ever episode of Sherlock in the biggest room possible: the Odeon Leicester Square. Even though the episode is being transmitted on TV at the same time, and for free, the organisers know there’s enough people keen to pay £10 or so to see it on the big screen, in the company of fellow fans. The cinema has truly been reinvented as a special (British) space first, and an advertising board of Hollywood second. There are cheers when Moriarty appears to have returned from the dead. Then boos, when a caption quickly reveals it’s a flashback. I see a couple of Sherlock fans wearing deerstalkers. Both are women.
Saturday 21st January. Green Park station is crammed with people on their way to the women’s march against Mr Trump. One placard has a picture of a cat: ‘Try grabbing this pussy’. Despite the crowds making everyone’s exit from the station a much slower experience, the atmosphere is quite unlike the miserable air one feels from the crowds at rush hour. Here, there’s a fun, even joyous feel to it all.
A barista in Costa Piccadilly tells me that the big protests are always good business for him. A protest marches on its stomach.
Monday 23rd January. Delivered the dandyism essay. Then off to my PhD application interview in Gordon Square. I am offered an unconditional place on the course, but will have to spend the next few weeks revising my proposal even more. This time, it’s for the second and much harder stage of the process – the competition for funding. I’m told I’ll hear back about the result in early April.
Wednesday 25th January. To a literary event at Birkbeck: Eimear McBride interviewed by Jacqueline Rose. The hall is packed out, with people standing at the back, some sitting on the floor. Ms Rose makes it clear she regards Ms McBride as an important talent, almost in messianic terms: ‘I felt I was waiting for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’. But this means that her questions are all the more serious and worthwhile. In Joe Brooker’s write-up of the event, he points out there’s a history of such critic-and-artist double acts, going back to Ruskin and Turner. I also thought of David Sylvester and Francis Bacon. Sylvester’s interviews with Bacon are essential reading for anyone wanting to create.
Much has been made of the influence of Joyce and Beckett on McBride, but tonight she names a more recent cultural lodestone: the 1990s playwright Sarah Kane. Which makes perfect sense to me.
Saturday 28th January. Back in London. First night alone after Tom’s death. Consoled by kind staff and friends at the Boogaloo, especially David Ryder-Prangley. I’m something of a drunken mess towards the end of the night, but am grateful that there are people out there who will drop everything to help.
Tuesday 7th February. Eyes tested at Boots, Victoria Street. One test involves reading a passage of prose from a piece of laminated card. This turns out to be an extract from Brideshead Revisited.
Monday 13 February. I get the essay mark back: 74. That’s three out of three first class marks on the MA so far. One more essay to do for Easter, then the big dissertation in the summer.
Thursday 16 February. To take my mind off things, I go to the ICA to see the most talked-about drama of the moment, Manchester by the Sea. It is only as it starts that I realise it’s about the aftermath of a brother’s death. When Dad died, the book I was writing about was Fun Home. Which is about a father’s death. But that’s stories for you. Only ‘seven basic plots’ (and some insist there’s only three).
A highlight of Manchester is a moment of farce. The Casey Affleck character is driving his nephew around. At one point, when the car is parked, he mistakes the meaning of the nephew saying ‘Let’s go’ and starts to drive away. The nephew is actually opening the passenger door to get out, and nearly does himself an injury. It’s an entirely unnecessary scene in terms of the plot, but it works brilliantly within the whole structure of the film, balancing the more dramatic moments.
Monday 20th February. Reading Tobias Wolff’s Old School. Page 53:
‘Grief can only be told in form. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry. Sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo’.
Tuesday 21st February. Woolf’s diary for 13th June 1923: ‘Going to 46 (Gordon Square) continues to excite’. Same here, Virginia.
Friday 24th February. The final line in Old School is a reference to the parable of The Prodigal Son, elegantly paraphrased by Wolff:
‘Those old words, surely the most beautiful words ever written or said: “His father, when he saw him coming, ran to meet him.”’
Monday 27 February. To Seven Hills Crematorium, on the dark side of the Ipswich ring-road. Tom’s favourite guitar is propped up in front of his coffin.
Mum points out how it’s virtually three years to the day since Dad’s funeral. Same chapel. The same funeral directors, Deacon’s of Lavenham. The same celebrant, Chris Woods, at our request. It’s best to have a professional running these things, especially in the case of an unexpected death. If emotion overwhelms a speaker, the celebrant knows how to step in.
Today Mr Woods keeps up the required tone of civic dignity, even when uttering names like Fields of the Nephilim. I think of the moment in the Patrick Keiller film Robinson in Space where the narrator, Paul Schofield, has to fold his soft, 1940s vowels around the words ‘Adam Ant’. Indeed, Mr Ant is mentioned today as well, and much of his present band – Tom’s colleagues – are here in person.
Besides, I remember that this is Suffolk, home to so many goth and metal bands in itself. It’s not impossible that this room has hosted send-offs for the grandmothers of Cradle of Filth.
Boxes of tissues punctuate the hymn books in front of each pew. For some reason, perhaps an over-ordering of supplies, today’s boxes of Kleenex are packaged in a Christmas theme. I spend much of my brother’s funeral staring out a cartoon snowman. Tom would be the first to find this funny.
There’s speeches by Tom’s partner Charis and his best friend, Ewan. Ewan speaks for many when he goes off-script, sighs, looks at the coffin and says, ‘I still can’t believe it, to be honest’.
I’ve provided Chris W with memories of my own to read out, but spend the ceremony at Mum’s side in the congregation. Holly, Tom’s daughter, is at Mum’s other side. There’s a poem by Holly, a reading of Tagore’s ‘Peace My Heart’, and recorded music by Warren Zevon’s ‘Keep Me In Your Heart’, along with several tracks by Tom’s own band Spiderbites.
Then to the Ship Inn in nearby Levington for drinks and food. The pub looks over the Orwell estuary, with the container port at Felixstowe visible in the distance. Another coincidence, as I’m currently reading Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie, a recommended text for the class on horror fiction. There’s a chapter about the ‘eerie’ nature of this very part of Britain, where Fisher himself lived until his own untimely death last month (I didn’t know him, but I liked his work).
In the book, Fisher ties in the contemporary spookiness of Felixstowe’s container port with the rural desolation of the surrounding marshes, the latter used in M.R. James’s Edwardian ghost stories.
Fisher also defines the weird (as in the goings-on in HP Lovecraft) as ‘something where there should be nothing’, while the eerie (his prime example is Picnic At Hanging Rock) is ‘nothing where there should be something’.
Today I do a lot of gracious listening and a lot of thanking. I’m especially grateful to be able to pay all the bills related to Tom’s death, thanks to the memorial fund. The last few weeks have not been easy, but paying off the bills was my own moment of moving forward.
Sunday 26th February. Back to the little things. I look at a display at the London Library about damaged books. I learn a word, culaccino. The circular mark made by a wet mug or glass.
Wednesday 1st March. I start work on the horror essay. Tempted to call Clive Barker ‘Alan Hollinghurst with tentacles’. After reading The Weird and the Eerie, I realise Barker sees the weird as a queer antidote to the eerie. If the weird is ‘something where there should be nothing’, Barker puts a positive spin on this – as does Hollinghurst in The Swimming-Pool Library. Art as the ‘children’ of the childless, which often includes gay people. Barker and Hollinghurst both believe in showing things – the explicit rather than the implicit. Sometimes it’s better to be weird than to be eerie. So that’s the gist of my essay. Typically, I discover that the first major collection of academic essays on Barker is about to be published, but not until the autumn.
Tuesday 7 March. With Charis and her friends to O’Neills in Wardour Street, Soho, once The Wag Club. A private night to celebrate Tom’s life, put on by and for his friends, particularly the ones that are fellow musicians. The hosts are Andy and Joe from Spiderbites. Tom played here in the past, and indeed so did I in various bands. As it’s a private function, the bar staff treat the people in the room as employers rather than customers, and let us hang around long into the small hours.
There’s a screening of some home movie clips of Tom onstage and off, then the rest of the night is musical performances. A rotating supergroup of people from different times in Tom’s life, some playing together for the first and perhaps only time. Ewan B digs out a song he wrote with Tom when they were children; I think I’m the only person in the audience familiar with it.
Back to Charis’s hotel room at the Camden Holiday Inn afterwards, drinking to nearly 5am. The hotel has a street map in the foyer with all the rock and roll history of the area. Camden these days is Carnaby Street with tattoos.
Saturday 25 March. At 4pm I sit in the cafe in Russell Square Gardens. I have a late lunch then do some reading. For some reason, the cafe’s plastic owl is sitting on the table next to me. It’s normally outside on a pole, doing its moulded upmost to scare away pigeons. A passing stranger says that the two of us would make for a good photo. I oblige. He asks for my email address and sends the photo to me. We chat about the lack of effectiveness of the owl, given the pigeons happily invading all the tables outside. On another pole is a rubber hawk.
Photo by Phoenix Anthony Robins
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Tags: alan hollinghurst
, brideshead revisited
, clive barker
, evelyn waugh
, hp lovecraft
, mark fisher
, plastic owls
, Tom Edwards
Haircuts in the Dark
Monday 21st November 2016. To the Peltz Gallery at Gordon Square, for A Museum of Everyday Life: Cinephilia and Collecting. A fascinating display of British film fans’ archives, from long before the internet era. One collector has kept careful records on all the films he sees during the 50s, as my own father did on comics, and later videos.
The 50s records take the form of typed index cards in a detached metal drawer. I like the exotic names of old cinemas in Derby and Nottingham: ‘The Essoldo’, ‘The Cameo’. One forgets just how much re-seeing used to go on. This enthusiast paid to see The Bounty Hunter, starring Randolph Scott, on a staggering 14 separate occasions, all between 1955 and 1958. Fourteen! Do today’s fans go to see, say, Mad Max: Fury Road that much?
Another exhibit consists of little envelopes containing clipped-out single frames from reels of film. Their owner was a Brighton projectionist: I learn that clipping out frames as souvenirs was once a common ritual of the profession. Presumably it doesn’t go on any more, what with the rise digital projectors. I think also of vintage clippings of hair kept in lockets. Except that this gentleman’s attitude isn’t always positive: he annotates each clipping with potted reviews on the envelope, and many are scathing. In this way, cinema projectionists are like taxi drivers. A job with a lot of autonomy and personal space, except that other people are still telling you what to do. So the space is soon filled up with rants and opinions. For Africa Adventure he writes, ‘I detest all films in which animals are even slightly inconvenienced’. For Androcles the Lion he says, ‘I enjoyed the acting of the lion the most.’ For The Immortal Monster (1959) he writes, ‘NB: Note hysterical erotic attitude of dancer’. The synopsis on Wikipedia for this film is: ‘Academic researchers are chased by a nuclear-hot specimen of ancient Mayan blob’.
More worryingly, on the envelope for Light Up The Sky is this little detail: ‘While this film was being shown, a man was murdered in the car park a few yards from my office’.
The most impressive exhibit is a collection of index cards devoted to film actors. The Peltz gallery has managed to fill an entire wall with these lovingly kept little biographies, floor to ceiling. The effect is a kind of geek sublime. On top of the sheer number of the things, each card is written in tiny longhand biro. I envy the writer’s ability to get his writing so small, yet still legible.
From a sample card, on Mae West: ‘Plumply sexy, stylish, fruity and scandalous American entertainer who sidled along like a predatory costumed lobster’.
A news article this week reveals that 2016 has seen sales of vinyl records outstrip those of digital downloads. In fact, this is a statistic based on money spent rather than units, and vinyl is now much pricier than downloads. The popularity of streaming sites like Spotify has hit downloads, too. People are less interested in owning digital copies of albums. If it’s digital, it can stay online. The implication is that the internet is now always to hand.
Except not to hand enough. Nothing to grasp with one’s real hands. There’s currently a huge poster campaign on London transport celebrating various successful YouTubers. It’s interesting that the images in this campaign have YouTubers holding the red YouTube play button, now rendered as a physical object in their hands. This is the paradox of virtual content: it’s still made by people who inhabit bodies, and bodies need props. There are now BookTubers, YouTubers who make videos in which they review books. More often than not, they hold up hardbacks or paperbacks for the camera, rather than hold up a Kindle.
Tuesday 22nd November 2016. Spending most of my time in the British Library this week, researching the autumn term essay for the MA. Not so lonely, though: I bump into David Benson. Last saw him on stage at a BL event, in fact, performing selections from the Kenneth Williams diaries. The full bulk of them had just been acquired by the BL, on behalf of the public. I love that his impersonation, honed from umpteen performances of his KW stage show, could now be put to use at an event about archives.
Wednesday 23rd November 2016. A session with the Birkbeck counsellor. A discussion of my propensity to self-sabotage: oversleeping, procrastination, a general avoidance of things. I have the recurring fantasy of someone suddenly getting in touch with some golden offer, financial and vocational. Except I never know what form this might take.
Finish reading a book I’m reviewing for The Wire: Honk, Conk and Squacket: Fabulous and Forgotten Sound-words from a Vanished Age of Listening. It’s an encyclopaedia of obsolete words, specifically to do with sounds and music. The world of onomatopoeia is vastly diminished these days, now that the machines have become silent. But humans still associate noises with completed processes. So the cameras on phones don’t go ‘click’ – they play ‘click’. Little cover versions of obsolescence.
Mid-November for critics is the Best of the Year time. I’ve been asked to declare my favourite music of 2016, but I can only think of two new-ish albums I’ve really enjoyed.
One is Laurie Anderson’s Heart of A Dog soundtrack, which is effectively the whole film without the images. But even though the film was released in 2016, the CD came out in October 2015, so I suppose it can’t count.
This leaves the Pet Shop Boys’ Super, which I adore and have played repeatedly. I now note that Super is missing from most media outlets’ Albums of 2016, despite getting good reviews on its release. The Beyonce album seems to be the token 2016 pop album; otherwise it’s all tried and tested old rockers: Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave. Plus the last Bowie and Cohen records, the interpretation of which can’t be separated from the artists’ deaths. I had thought the Pet Shop Boys album was a welcome dash of upbeat, danceable colour and energy, amongst all the year’s gloom and morbidity. But most critics have decided that 2016 must be framed and preserved as a year of anger, darkness and despair. So perhaps Super doesn’t fit their narrative. Well, it fits my narrative.
I take no joy in being unable to name any further favourite albums. My only excuse is that I’ve just been more drawn to old music, or books, or films, or art exhibitions. It’s possibly a problem of one’s cultural inputs. I used to spend hours listening to John Peel, reading Melody Maker and flicking through the new releases in Our Price. All those things have gone now. Perhaps my problem is associating new music with vanished practices, and so need to change my habits. I feel too old to listen to Radio 1, but not old enough to listen to Radio 2.
What I have listened to is a lot of radio news, perhaps thinking that this counts as keeping in touch. But time spent on listening to news is time not spent listening to music. Vary the diet, that’s all one can do. Notice what speaks to the heart. News is hard to avoid anyway; it’ll get to you one way or another.
Tastes change behind one’s back; palates alter with age. One never knows until one tries. Am I finally ready for experimental jazz? Is anyone?
With all that in mind, my favourite things of 2016 are as follows.
Films: Heart of a Dog. Eight Days A Week (Beatles documentary). The Neon Demon. Victoria. Love and Friendship. Author (JT LeRoy documentary). Hail Caesar!
New Books: Michael White’s Popkiss. Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable. McEwan’s Nutshell. Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On. Ronald Blythe’s Stour Seasons.
Old Books: Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series. Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night A Traveller.
Art: Made You Look – Dandyism & Black Masculinity (Photographers’ Gallery). Alice in Wonderland (British Library). Shakespeare in Ten Acts (BL). Magnus Arrevad – Boy Story (5 Willoughby Street). Performing For the Camera (Tate Modern).
DVDs: Lawrence of Belgravia. Akenfield.
Gig: Fingersnaps (Wallace Collection).
Events that defined the year, as opposed to favourite things: The hostage selfie. The Brexit result (regrettably).
Thursday 24th November 2016. Evening classes at Birkbeck: Tony Harrison’s V, Jackie Kay’s Trumpet.
Friday 25th November 2016. After working at the London Library, I walk through Soho to find the whole district in blackness. A power cut has hit several blocks north of Shaftesbury Avenue, up to Broadwick Street. A sense of curious novelty and strangeness abounds, rather than fear. People switch on the torches on their phones and train them on their steps. Their faces are still obscured. I can’t quite see the people I’m passing, but they can’t see me either. I wonder if this is what Soho was like in the WW2 blackouts: those tales of furtive liberation, of kisses in the dark, and more.
On Lexington Street, some of the restaurants and bars have set out tea lights on the counters and tables. But not all emporiums keep candles for emergencies. I pass a darkened hairdresser’s and see there’s people still in there. I make out a hairdresser standing over her client, struggling to finish the job. A lit-up phone in one hand, a pair of scissors in the other.
Saturday 26th November 2016. Age comes with a trail of faded friendships. I bump into someone I used to know in the British Library café. It’s someone from the early 90s, the Sarah Records phase of my life. When this happens I always take a few seconds to fully grasp the identity of the other person, my memory usually failing me. Invariably, the other person thinks I can’t remember who they are, and the encounter quickly collapses into an awkward parting of the ways.
A few moments after they’ve gone, of course, it all comes back to me. I do know exactly who they are: I just need a few more seconds, that’s all. But it’s too late. So I come away feeling I’ve done something terribly wrong.
This is one reason why I don’t go to school reunions: I can’t see how it’ll be anything but a stream of memory tests and point scoring.
Plus, I need advance warning of my surprises. This is only partly meant as a joke. Normal people have a ‘delightfully surprised’ face, easily accessed for sudden encounters. The have the face ready for reacting to surprise gifts, or indeed for surprise offers of marriage. But I am built differently. Sudden delight does not come easy to me. My reaction to most things is utter confusion.
Andy Warhol was stopped on the street every day of his life. He says somewhere that the best thing to do is just pretend that you last saw each other yesterday, rather than twenty years ago. So you just reply that you’re on the way to the cinema, or whatever. Nonchalently, matter-of-fact. You never, ever say ‘long time no see’. That risks the answer, ‘Yes. And there’s a reason for that.’
Sunday 27th November 2016. I browse in Waterstones, Gower Street. The success of the Ladybird parodies last Christmas has meant that this year there’s an exponential proliferation. Great toppling piles of the things. Fake Famous Five satirical books, along the lines of ‘Five Go To Brexit Island’. Spoof I-Spy books. And as with the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ design a few years ago, the initial charm of the idea has given way to the less attractive symptoms of a bandwagon.
It’s too easy to think of further titles: a lazy Fighting Fantasy parody, perhaps: The Warlock of Brexit Mountain. (If this happens I will kill again).
I leaf through the music news. Some artists have their tours advertised with the promise of old hits. An exception is Kate Bush, whose new live album eschews her more obvious singles. For this she is praised. Then she mentions in an interview that she likes Theresa May. For this she is castigated. There’s a moral there about what people want from their favourite musicians, and what is allowed. Success means being cast as a character. Get the lines right.
Friday 2nd December 2016. To the Barbican art gallery for The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined. The exhibition has rather promising posters, with an androgynous blonde in a garish multi-coloured jacket, looking like a postmodern toreador. The jacket is printed with a cacophony of icons from medieval manuscripts: orbs and sceptres, medals, and so on.
So much for the poster. The exhibition itself begins well, with huge wall-mounted gold coins punctuating the rooms, each one inscribed with Adam Phillips’s pronouncements on the meaning of ‘vulgar’. The accompanying leaflet says, ‘the exhibition begins on the lower level’, but there’s no indication of irony about this statement. And that seems to be the flaw: the exhibition takes itself too seriously. To display works by Alexander McQueen surely invites comparison with the major show at the V&A recently. In which case, The Vulgar comes over as a lot less fun. It sets out to examine the history of ostentatious fashion, yet without the lighting effects and pumping music one associates with catwalks, the clothes here seem curiously cold and lifeless.
I wonder if this is the fault of the venue, as the Barbican is currently going through a phase of cool self-consciousness. It’s so aware of its hip Brutalist architecture that it can barely say anything at all. Fashion is the Botox of thought.
I think about the way The Vulgar gestures towards behaviour. What does the Barbican hold to be the opposite of vulgar? The answer is perhaps found in the centre’s poster campaign to advertise its membership scheme. One is captioned ‘for lovers’: an image of two youngish people standing on one of the walkways around the centre. He is a lightly bearded man in jeans and a blue suit jacket, she is a Zooey Deschanel lookalike, in a vintage red dress with a white lacey collar, her dark hair in a heavy fringe. They both wear glasses, though her frames are slightly oversized in the present hipster manner. I wonder how this couple met, and think of an update on the personal ad joke in Annie Hall: ‘Must like Brutalism, David Foster Wallace and sodomy’.
On a separate poster, ‘Membership for Gastronomers’, flaunts an even more fashion-conscious young man, posing in one of the Barbican eateries. His beard is worn in the full George Bernard Shaw bushiness, joined up with a ‘man bun’, being long hair rolled up and balanced tidily on the crown, like a miniature hair beret. Fenella H tells me you can now buy fake man-buns. A hip toupee. This poster boy wears a cream jacket over a multi-coloured patterned shirt, set off with a rather nice purple hankerchief in the pocket. I’d call these latter aspects dandyish, if it wasn’t for his beard, hair and blue jeans signifying ‘fashion’ rather than ‘style’. Dandies are anti-fashion and pro-style.
The dilemma for young people has always been how to stand out yet join in at the same time. And given these literal poster kids are advertising Barbican membership, the message is about belonging, getting it right. In other words, not being vulgar. In a few decades to come these posters will be useful for scholars of 2016 fashion. The trouble is, right now they serve to consolidate the Barbican’s self-image as a place of cool, and thus not the best place to host a show about vulgarity.
I think a better venue would be the V&A or Somerset House, where the fogeyish sense of crumbing empires defuses any claims to trendiness. This is why the McQueen and Blow shows worked so well in those places. Still, The Vulgar is a noble attempt nonetheless.
Monday 6th December 2016. To the panelled rooms and stone staircases of 28 Russell Square, for a one-off Birkbeck event: a lecture by David James on ‘critical solace’. His examples are McCarthy’s The Road, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Sebald’s Austerlitz. Much of his talk is heavy on the theoretical, and a lot of what he says would have gone straight over my head a few years ago, until I started hitting heavy books by dead Frenchmen. Today my brain is a little more acclimatised to such theory, though my dyspraxia means I still have the urge to put a lecturer on ‘pause’, so I can properly chew over what’s just been said.
Still, there are consolations for slowness, too. It’s well-known that obituaries are written in advance and kept on file, ready to be revised and published within minutes of their subject’s final breath. Thus in the event of a celebrity death, torrents of words and pictures appear like a magic trick, as if to defy death with a surge in production by the living. ‘Tributes pour in’, but what’s really being paid tribute to is the swift industry of the obituary editors. So for those of us who aren’t as fast at writing as others, it’s heartening to see the occasional mistake made through haste . This is a sentence from CNN’s Castro obituary this week:
Fidel Castro outlived six US presidents, [[[NOTE: change to seven if George H.W. Bush dies before Castro]]]
Then to Gordon Square for a general event about PHDs. First year PHD students answer questions for those who, like myself, are interested in doing a PHD at Birkbeck. At the event, one of the tutors explains how no one does a PHD for the money; it’s common for a funded three years to lead to a fourth unfunded ‘writing up’ year, and the student risks living on ‘bread and water’, as one tutor tonight puts it.
The deadline for applying for the main full-time PHD bursary, in time for an Autumn 2017 start, turns out to be this January. Next month. And it involves putting together a 2000 word proposal. I’m already writing a 5000 word essay for the MA. And this diary is taking me too long as it is… (I may have to put it on hold for a while, or put out a briefer version)
I know I want to go straight into a PHD once the MA is done in September, so as not to lost momentum. I also know I want to do it full-time, so I can finally treat the whole business like a proper job. With a sustainable wage (well, a modest 16k), paid for something I’m good at and actually enjoy, the self-esteem will make all the difference. The only thing is, I need to improve my working speed.
Thursday 8th December 2016. A Birkbeck class on Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Finished Thing. The Girl is a quickly-canonised thing: a debut novel from 2013, initially published by a tiny independent press, showered with awards, republished by Faber, and already a set text in universities.
Some of my fellow students say they find McBride’s experimental prose more impenetrable than the Beckett and Joyce texts which inspired it – and these are people who’ve written essays on Ulysses. My own reaction veers toward seeing it as a kind of modernist revival text. I worry if that can be read as retreating away from contemporary experience. But then, that’s the dilemma of revivalism full stop. Wanting the new to be more like the old. But the class consensus is that the novel’s a worthy accomplishment, and a gift to any discussion about the purpose of novels.
, david james
, eimear mcbride
, peltz gallery
, the vulgar
A Trickster Vote
Tuesday 8th November 2016. One of the woollen blankets in my room has a label which must date it to wartime. ‘National Price Controlled Blanket No. 620. Selling Price to Public incl. P. tax 43/10.’
I’m reading about gender when an 80s computer joke suggests itself.
‘I’m not on a gender spectrum. I’m on a gender BBC Micro. Slightly less fun; does lots of homework.’
‘And the buttons are more fun to press’ adds @celestialweasal on Twitter.
It’s true about the keyboard buttons on the ZX Spectrum. They were horrible, rubbery little things, betraying the computer’s main image as a games console rather than a creative tool. BBC Micros looked more like typewriters, and tended to be associated with schools.
Evening: I watch the US election result come in, and despair. I’m convinced there’s a large amount of voters whose sole attitude is along the lines of ‘Tee hee! What am I like?’
A trickster vote. A Dark Knight vote: ‘Some people just want to watch the world burn’
A message from T in New York:
I am somewhere between numbness and pure terror. I’m reminded of 2000 and 2004 except I was really too young then to truly understand. Not so now. In retrospect Bush looks almost like a bumbling racist grandpa that you tolerate.
The next day, he goes to his job as a teacher:
My students were crying. I cried.
A few days after this, I get an equally distressed letter from S in Pittsburgh. She wants to mark her feelings on paper, as this is history:
I remember the night Obama won in 2008… I heard a roar outside and looked out of my window to see a flood of young people pouring into the streets and racing towards the campus… So much joy. How could the same country elect Donald Trump? … If the worse should happen, on behalf of America, Dickon, I’m sorry.
It’s partly written on the back of a voting card, with the ‘I VOTED’ sticker attached.
I think about the difference in voting over here. The English don’t do ‘I VOTED’ stickers, perhaps because they have the hint of a child surviving a trip to the dentist’s (‘I AM A GOOD PATIENT’).
Then there’s that phrase one only sees on US election materials: ‘PAID FOR BY…’ It seems to jump out all the more, given the winner was a man whose chief qualification for the job was that he can just pay his way out of trouble, and into success. Mr Trump glitters, from his golden hair to his golden elevators. His voters are thought to be mostly the poor and disenfranchised. They see Midas, but forget about how the story ended.
I try to be optimistic. Perhaps this will expose the folly of present thinking. Perhaps people will finally stop regarding the super-rich as gods, and start questioning the role of wealth in the first place. There has to be a point when even Republicans accept that capitalism can go too far. Perhaps this will be it. I hope so.
Wednesday 9th November 2016. Reading Mr Trump’s messages on Twitter. On top of everything else, he is a man who uses unnecessary exclamation marks. That’s never a good sign.
Friday 11th November 2016. Leonard Cohen dies, as if by way of reaction to it all. Tributes are soon reported everywhere as ‘flooding in’, a cliché that sets my teeth on edge. Do tributes ever do anything else? It seems all the more of an insult when reporting the death of a wordsmith.
I read some of the Cohen articles, and wince at the use of ‘famously’ in all of them. It’s a natural enough word to use in conversation, but it can weaken a piece of prose. Fame is subjective, so ‘famously’ is ultimately redundant. In print, it risks the author coming across as too eager to please.
‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, though; that’s how to do it.
As it is, the only famous thing many people know about Mr Cohen is ‘Hallelujah’. Its success is really down to John Cale’s version, which in turn inspired Jeff Buckley’s take. A sparse arrangement, letting the words breathe. Cohen’s original is virtually unlistenable through its bland over-production, like many of his 80s recordings. If you cover ‘Hallelujah’, you are almost certainly improving on the original.
Tonight I walk through Trafalgar Square at night. A busker is singing ‘Hallelujah’. He’s over-emoting it – the X-Factor factor. But by the time I cross to the other side of the square, I’m close to tears.
Evening: to Vout’s for the launch of Rising 67, the long-running punkish poetry fanzine. Still an A5 paper object, still seemingly untouched by the iPhone era. Though some of the poets reading tonight use their phones to read their work. Rising is now collected as a full run in the British Library. Its editor, Tim Wells, illustrates the poems with images from old magazines, sometimes rather risqué ones. On the back of the new issue is a 1970s public information advert for syphilis. It refers to bell-bottoms.
Saturday 12th November 2016. Evening: to the Tate Modern for The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection. One way of escaping the ubiquity of photograph-taking is to visit a whole exhibition of the things: photography by visitors is banned. However, one wonders just how many selfies made into three-dimensional objects, whether mounted in a family album, or as in this case, printed and framed and hung on a rock star’s bedroom wall. In the accompanying audio guide – recommended in this instance – Sir Elton tells how he became a collector shortly after coming out of rehab in the early 1990s. A damaging habit was replaced by a healthier one: collecting innovative 1920s and 1930s prints. His tastes are for the glamorous and sensual world of Man Ray and Edward Weston, along with the homoerotic tableaux of George Platt Lynes and Carl Van Vechten. I’m surprised there’s nothing by Herbert List.
Sir Elton is also drawn to Dorothea Lange’s portraits of people in the Depression. Lange’s subjects seem ready for magazine covers, so photogenic they are, despite or perhaps because of their grim backdrops. These are still works of art as much as historical documents. The boy in ‘One of the Homeless Wandering Boys’ (1934) resembles a teenage pin up. On the audio guide Sir Elton highlights the handsomeness of Floyd Burroughs, a cotton sharecropper in Alabama.
I think about how the tube currently displays posters for the film A Street Cat Named Bob, with the titular feline alongside the good-looking actor Luke Treadaway. A latterday ‘wandering boy’. It would be useful to compare the Bob film with Ken Loach’s rather less prettified I, Daniel Blake. The same tension between raising awareness and making art.
Sir Elton admits that when he bought Man Ray’s Glass Tears (1932), it was one of the highest prices paid for a photographic print. His friends didn’t understand why he wasn’t buying the negative. Today, I look at Glass Tears and realise how it’s responsible for the entire output of Pierre and Gilles.
Tuesday 15th November 2016. Leaf through the new book of essays on Alan Hollinghurst, Writing Under the Influence. Pleased that one of them is titled ‘Ostentatiously Discreet: Bisexual Camp in The Stranger’s Child’.
Wednesday 16th November 2016. Evening: to the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley, for Alan Bennett’s Diaries Live. The evening consists of a new full-length documentary, simply titled Alan Bennett’s Diaries, followed by a live Q&A with the writer himself, held at his local library in Primrose Hill. TV and cinema have started to switch roles. The shows on Netflix are not so much broadcast as unleashed in great fistfuls of content; whole seasons at one time. To me it’s never clear how you’re meant to watch them, other that in snatched gulps of time. Meanwhile cinemas have seized more upon the idea of broadcasting, with exclusive live transmissions like this Alan Bennett event. It’s TV, but for cinemas only. The notion of ‘live’ may be compromised by the act of still looking at a screen, but the addition of a specific time in a purpose-built place makes the experience all the more special. And crucially, undownloadable.
Before the event I try to work out which is the largest London screen to host the film, amused as I am by the thought of seeing this reserved Englishman usurping the usual CGI Hollywood fare. Most of the showings seem to be in smaller screens in multiplexes. I plump for the Phoenix, with its 250-seater. It sells out. But there’s no IMAX or 3D version, alas.
The film is superb; one of the best arts documentary I’ve seen for a while. Lots of footage of his village in Yorkshire, looking almost cartoonishly picturesque. Much more about his personal life than I’d expected. Much about his lack of a computer: for a professional (and successful) writer, this still surprises. But it’s very aesthetically pleasing, of course. Writing on paper is itself original content. There’s glimpses of a something else one doesn’t see much: a box of physical wedding photos as opposed to a Facebook page of them. Bennett and his partner Rupert. The box is marked with a sticker saying ‘YES!’
The film is produced by the BBC, so will doubtless turn up in the schedules soon.
In the live Q&A, Bennett comments on Trump: ‘The best thing you can say about him is he’s unreliable. But you still don’t want an unreliable person in that job. The only reaction is fear, really.’
Thursday 17th November 2016. Classes at Birkbeck in Russell Square. A seminar on DeLillo’s White Noise, followed by a lecture on Frederic Jameson and postmodernism. What with the US election, White Noise feels the most contemporary of all the texts this term, yet it came out thirty years ago.
Friday 18th November 2016. Reading David Collard’s About A Girl, the first book-length study of an MA set text, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2013). Collard declares his position on McBride in no uncertain terms: ‘I knew after a dozen pages that I was in the company of a great writer’. I find myself bristling, as it makes me feel bad for not being quite as bowled over. It’s like going an exhibition and not being able to see the paintings properly, because the louder, more zealous fans are hogging the view. Enthusiasm, like knowledge, needs to be lightly worn.
Saturday 19th November 2016. 9.30am: to the main Birkbeck building in Torrington Square for Transitions 7, an academic symposium on comics studies. It’s the first time that I’ve attended such an event, at least all the way through. I’m told the terms ‘conference’ and ‘symposium’ are more or less interchangeable these days, though ‘symposium’ somehow sounds more attractive. There are usually ‘calls for papers’ a few months before the date, inviting people to submit essays on a particular theme. The successful applicants read out their work at panels throughout the day, usually with discussions to follow. On top of this there’s often a ‘keynote speaker’, usually a bit of a name, whose speech tends to set the tone of the whole event. I’m told that keynote speakers are more likely to be paid for their trouble, whereas the more lowly ‘papers’ people are expected to do it gratis, or even pay a fee (thoughts of Tom Sawyer again). Thankfully Transitions is free for all, and there’s even free wine at the end.
There’s usually two or three panels taking place at the same time, so one has to pick and choose, rather like a music festival. I attend a panel on US comic histories, which includes a paper by Guy Lawley on the dot matrices used in US colour comics. Later on, Mr Lawley says he recognises me: ‘We sat together at an Alan Bennett gig’. I also go to one on gender, which includes papers on Wonder Woman, non-binary characters and female supervillains. After lunch I choose a workshop on comics that touch on magical realism and mental illness – very much my sort of thing – by the author Stef Link; the workshop element being writing based rather than drawing based, thank God. Finally, I attend a panel on national identity, and watch my MA classmate Craig Thomson give his debut paper. He discusses the traditions behind the comic American Vampire.
There’s no keynote speaker, but there is a closing ‘plenary’ panel of ‘respondents’ to the day’s talks. This comprises Paul Gravett, who pretty much is UK comics studies, along with Roger Sabin and Julia Round, whose books and journals I’ve read, and Maggie Gray, a comics lecturer whose PHD thesis was on the work of Alan Moore.
Afterwards: more wine at a pub in Store Street, with some of the speakers and tutors. Some drunken arguments on my part over definitions of modernism, but then I always imagined that sort of thing was de rigueur in Bloomsbury pubs. One of the Birkbeck tutors is a young woman from South Carolina. She says her parents both voted for Trump.
‘So you voted for Hillary?’
‘God, no. I couldn’t have that on my conscience either. I spoiled my ballot’.
Tags: alan bennett
, alan bennett's diaries
, comic studies
, donald trump
, hillary clinton
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
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
The Most Important Thing You’ve Not Said
Monday 11th July 2016. I’m ashamed to have let this diary go fallow for longer than usual. There’s no excuse other than the despair brought on by general worries about money, or my lack of it, or my career, or my lack of one, or the usual anxieties over various health problems. Though I have yet to be diagnosed with anything other than that – anxiety. But there it is.
Listening to In Our Time today, I note how Melvyn Bragg gently steers his contributors to stop the discussion going off on a tangent. ‘We’re running out of time, so… what’s the most important thing you haven’t said?’
That’s such a good question to ask oneself when writing. It can apply when hitting a block, or when revising a piece for publication. What’s the most important thing you’ve not said?
In the London Library, reading an essay that argues how Muriel Spark’s style is a form of dandyism. It’s an interesting thesis, based mainly on Spark’s love of Max Beerbohm, but I’m not sure it holds up. The author soon goes on to do a general, trainspotter-y appraisal of her work, with the dandyism idea all but forgotten. Were it an essay submitted to be marked at a university, its lack of focus would prevent it from getting the highest grade, the one that indicates the work is ‘good enough to be published’. And yet here it is, published.
But of course, the real lesson is that it’s better to put out flawed work than no work at all. And that if I think I can do better (and I do), I should hurry up and put out some books of my own.
Tuesday 11th July 2016. Evidence of a high ‘Threat Level’ when I visit the Museum of London. Last time, a few months ago, I simply walked into the galleries from the street, or rather from the Barbican estate’s walkways. Today it’s like going through customs. In addition to having one’s bag searched, visitors have to take anything metal off their person and put it in a Perspex tray. Then a security guard asks you to spread your arms so he can scan your body with an electronic wand. All this, so I can use the café and toilets. Visiting the BBC’s Broadcasting House is even worse though, with my bag shoved on a conveyor belt so it can go through an x-ray machine. It’s easier to rob a bank than it is to appear on Woman’s Hour.
Reading Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. It’s a set text on my MA course, and also appears in the recent BBC poll of 100 Great British Novels, the one chosen by over 80 non-British critics, where Middlemarch came top. I’m bemused that Angela Carter’s novels are absent from that list. Not even Nights at the Circus is included, a book that kept springing to mind as I read The Passion. Winterson’s book has the same mixture of magical realism and historical fiction, the same backdrop of 80s feminism, and the same heroine with a fantastical body – or at least, a body that may or may not be fantastical. Where Carter’s Fevvers has wings, Winterson’s Villanelle has webbed feet that allow her to walk on water. The key difference is in tone, so I wonder if that’s why the international critics prefer Winterson to Carter. Carter is more baroque and mocking, perhaps even hostile, while Winterson is more wistful and romantic. I’d say Winterson is closer in spirit to Woolf’s Orlando, which is also in the BBC list. Winterson seeks a balance between the imaginative and the universal. Carter, meanwhile, has less interest in meeting the reader halfway; the reader needs to leap fully into her arms. But while Winterson ends with ‘Trust me’, Carter has ‘I fooled you!’
To the Barbican for Maggie’s Plan, a new film with Greta Gerwig. It’s yet another chatty New York comedy of manners, the kind Ms G is now synonymous with. Here she plays an academic – a bluestocking who wears actual blue stockings in one scene, as part of what can only be called Hipster Quaker Chic.
Despite its US setting, the world of Maggie’s Plan is the closest to my current life that I’ve seen in the cinema. Ethan Hawke’s arts tutor is seen reading The Paris Review in bed, or sitting in college seminars discussing the use of V For Vendetta masks in Occupy demonstrations, or getting excited about an event because ‘Zizek’s speaking!’ These are all things I’ve done myself at Birkbeck.
The Zizek joke is probably lost on most non-academics. Most people go about their lives in happy ignorance of Mr Zizek. Enrol at a university today, though, and you will never hear the end of him. Judith Butler is another campus pin-up; Fredric Jameson likewise. All industries, even those that look down on celebrity culture, have their own celebrities. I think of the phrase Anita Brookner said about great writers: ‘saints for the godless’.
Wednesday 13th July 2016. Mr Cameron leaves Downing Street, handing over the keys to the Thatcher-esque Theresa May. She in turn anoints Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. What with this and the Labour party in disarray over its leadership, British politics has never felt more unstable, even unreal. But then it’s the same in America, with the unlikely Mr Trump. He is a master of what the internet calls ‘trolling’: saying provocative things for attention. It used to be a tactic for lonely Star Trek fans trying to get attention on message boards. Now it’s a career plan for columnists and politicians.
The world is now so jaded that it can only go for the option that looks the most like sugary, knee-jerk fun. It’s more fun to either be outrageously right-wing, or to pay attention to the outrageously right-wing. Twitter makes Daily Mail readers of people who used to cross the road to avoid being seen with the newspaper. ‘Look at what this right-wing newspaper or person has said now.’ Link. Attention paid, career made.
If you don’t mind being hated by strangers, the world is at your feet.
Thursday 14th July 2016. One summer project is that I’m working on a book of my selected diary entries from 1997 to now, one that can hold up as a decent work of memoir. It would be honed down to the more useful parts, the lines of hope to the lonely and strange, along with the lines that present an alternative chronicle of London. A less heard voice, one hopes. Proposed title: Dysfunctional Dandy. I’ll put it together first, then seek out a publisher. It needs to be about the size of Woolf’s Writer’s Diary.
Friday 15th July 2016. Took an online vocabulary test. ‘Top 0.01%. You are Shakespeare!’
Saturday 16th July 2016. To the Photographer’s Gallery off Oxford Circus, to see the exhibition Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity. A proper summer is now finally upon London, with temperatures over 30 C, so air conditioned galleries like the PG become ideal places to cool off.
The dandyism show is curated by Ekow Eshun, and it’s really his idea of what the slippery d-word means. Dandyism rather than dandies: a practice rather than an identity. Eshun regards black dandyism as a form of protest and subversion, linking it with quotes by Fanon such as:
‘I grasp my narcissism with both hands and turn my back on the degradation of those who would make me a mere mechanism.’ – Black Skin, White Masks.
I bristle, however, when Eshun muddles the definition by including images of men in duos or groups. Dandyism is dependent on individuality, on standing ‘on an isolated pedestal of self’, as Ellen Moers has it in her book The Dandy. A group of young men posing in unusual clothes is not dandyism, but subculture.
Otherwise, the show impresses, cramming a wide range of history and geography into a couple of rooms. From Soweto to Mali to New York, and from the early 1900s to the present. The question of dandyism redefining masculinity is also addressed: I love Kristen-Lee Moolman’s portrait of a South African man in a flared white suit with bare shoulders, matching pearl earrings and necklace, standing defiantly in a tough-looking township.
Am smug to notice that a huge image from the set of Isaac Julien’s 1989 film Looking for Langston includes the staircase of the Midland Grand hotel in St Pancras, years before the Spice Girls used it for ‘Wannabe’. In an alcove, a display of books and albums makes valid connections between dandyism, musicians like Prince, and the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, thus bringing the show right up to date.
I bump into Stephen Eastwood, who is with his friend Caroline. Am delighted to be spotted wandering around a dandyism exhibition. There’s a moving slideshow in the foyer called ‘What Soho Wore’, consisting of images of club goers through the decades. Caroline poses in front of one of the images. It’s of her younger self in the late 90s, standing on another recognisable staircase – the red-painted one at the Ghetto club near Tottenham Court Road station. The Ghetto was demolished by the Crossrail works, so any photos of its clientele preserve the building as much as the people.
I myself have appeared in a similar set of photos on the Vice website, on 90s and early 2000s nightlife. The photographer is Adam Friedman. My one is from the club Trash.
Photo by Adam Friedman. Taken from the Vice article ‘Photos of People Looking Joyful and Unbothered in 80s and 90s Clubs’.
Someone linked to it online saying ‘Look, a young Dickon Edwards’.
I shuddered. A feeling that the game’s up. Or at least, that game’s up. But also that my history is now History, capital H. I was there. I was a camera, now I am an archive. The game now, at the age of 44, is to work out how best to mine this strata of experience, this bank of knowledge that no one under 40 has, so it can fuel a viable income.
I take a look at the other main exhibition, Terence Donovan: Speed of Light. I knew about Donovan’s reputation as a chronicler of Swinging London in the 1960s, so seeing images of a young Terence Stamp, Julie Christie and the other usual 60s faces is no surprise. What I didn’t know was that Mr Donavan was also behind that most heterosexual of 1980s pop videos, Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’. The video plays on a large screen in the gallery. Mr Palmer mimes in shirt and tie, looking the epitome of the American Psycho alpha male, while his backing ‘band’ are a group of identically-styled female fashion models, all in slicked-back hair and slinky black dresses, posing like dead-eyed mannequins, and barely able to mime to their instruments at the same time. There’s a Christmassy parody of the video in Love Actually, with Bill Nighy instead of Palmer, and the models in Santa hats.
Most fascinating of all is Donovan’s typed proposal for the ‘Addicted To Love’ concept, making it clear how the glossy and sexist world of advertising was the whole point of the video. He asks for a group of ‘models in Azzedine Alaia dresses – he produces clothes that make men become quite irrational… Hair should be slicked flat and shiny… [the models should be] repositories of sensuality… The video should be saturated in the unyielding quality that really sensational women possess… Any 20 seconds of it would be just as powerful as seeing the full video’. Which is quite true: it’s not so much a performance as a tableau.
A further 80s video by Mr Donovan plays in the exhibition, ‘Madame Butterfly’ by Malcolm McLaren. Again, Donovan parades lots of skinny, slick-haired models, though this time they’re less robotic and more sensual, sweating skimpily in a Sapphoerotic sauna, giving each other slow massages, while never, ever smiling (this is the 1980s). It reminds me of that Burne-Jones painting at the Tate, The Golden Stairs, where all the women have the same face. Female beauty – white female beauty – as a shored-up abstraction, without any troublesome trace of individuality. It makes the Terence Donovan show a rather good contrast with the black male dandyism show downstairs.
Tuesday 19th July 2016. To a basement lecture hall in Birkbeck’s Torrington Square building, for a discussion of Deleuze and psychoanalysis. I’m mainly there because, as Maggie’s Plan has it, ‘Zizek’s speaking!’ Slavoj Zizek has been officially attached to Birkbeck for some years, as International Director of the Institute of Humanities. Despite this I’ve never seen him speak after five years of being an arts student there. So tonight I fix that, and am not disappointed.
His distinctive voice arrives several seconds before the rest of him, chatting to the other people on the panel as they enter together. He is satisfyingly loud and animated, with that heavy East European accent and lateral lisp; proof that a speech impediment need be no impediment to public speaking. I take some personal comfort from this, as a lateral lisper myself. And then there’s his catchphrase, ‘And so on, and so on’. Other speakers at his events don’t stand a chance.
That said, Aaron Schuster, whose new book The Trouble With Pleasure the event is nominally about, does his best to hold his own. The discussion centres on the nature of complaining – how much pleasure is there in making a complaint? Is it ‘the motor of creation’? Sophocles’s line for Oedipus is an example of the Pure Complaint, one with no remedy – ‘It would be better to have never been born’. The talk takes in the Jewish word ‘kvetch’, the idea that all operas are based on complaints, and the dignity of prisoners in Auschwitz, when they complained about the food. I’d say that a large amount of social media is about The Complaint too, as a primary expression of basic existence. On Twitter, a common sentiment is ‘I complain therefore I am’. FFS ergo sum.
Wednesday 20th July. To the BFI Southbank, still called the National Film Theatre on some of the signposts at Waterloo. I see the newly restored print of Akenfield (1974). The film is directed by Peter Hall and adapted from the Ronald Blythe book, but it’s also, as the opening credit has it in large and proud letters, ‘made by the people of Suffolk’. The sweeping Tippett music is all the more effective when blasting out of auditorium speakers; a reminder that it’s worth going to the cinema for the sound as much as the visuals. There’s a Q&A afterwards with two of the actors, Garrow Shand and Barbara Tilney, plus the producer Rex Pyke. Mr Shand says he appeared in the film by answering an advert in the East Anglian Daily Times. It was looking for local young men who could ‘act and drive a plough’. He grew up on a farm, so the ploughing part came naturally. Akenfield’s strange, organic style manages to nod to both experimental European cinema and English community stage plays, though Ms Tilney now compares the use of non-actors to The Only Way Is Essex, ‘except in the past’.
I stick around in the BFI to see another restored old film, Burroughs: The Movie, a documentary on the Naked Lunch author from 1983. William S Burroughs’s dandyism impresses: three piece suits, hats and ties. A well-dressed corpse. He shows the camera his collection of weapons, stashed around his bedroom. A machete in a sock drawer, a pistol under the pillow. ‘You seem well prepared for a home invasion,’ says the director. ‘Well… I’m hoping there won’t ever be one,’ says Burroughs. ‘I deplore violence.’
Friday 22nd July 2016. Finish reading Miranda Sawyer’s Out of Time, her book on the mid-life crisis. I picked it up partly because of my own mid-life worries, but also because she’s roughly the same generation as me, and was a music journalist during the 1990s. She half-jokes, half-complains at one point about only being asked to appear on TV whenever there’s a discussion of Britpop or Madchester. Amusingly, though, she does begin one sentence with the words, ‘Shaun Ryder once said to me…’
She discusses how the term ‘mid-life’ was coined in the 60s and taken seriously in the 70s. Since the 80s, though, it became the butt of jokes and humour books. Indeed, one of the current bestselling books is The Ladybird Book of the Mid-Life Crisis, one of the umpteen Ladybird parodies. Why isn’t this choice of subject matter questioned, asks Ms Sawyer, and I agree with her. Why would, say, The Ladybird Book of Mental Illness be thought in bad taste, but the mid-life crisis is fair game?
Ms Sawyer suggests that as her own generation were the children of rave culture, they became the first to truly refuse to grow up, pursuing personal bliss as a priority. She says that at the height of the Ecstasy years, there was an article in a newsletter for clubbers imploring them not to quit their day jobs. The author – a rave promoter – was genuinely worried that society would fall apart.
The problem now, says Ms Sawyer, is that many of this freelance-heavy generation may be making a living, but live on much tighter budget than their forty-something counterparts in the past. Thanks to the internet killing off print, the fees in journalism are now pitiful, even for those with decades of experience. I’m a little shocked when she mentions she only has a couple of hundred pounds in her bank account, and that she can’t afford to upgrade her gardenless London flat. On top of this, she’s raising two children, the second of which she had at the age of 44 – something which is also increasingly common.
Of her advice to fellow mid-lifers, I like her tip about spending no more than two hours at a party, such as from 9.30pm to 11.30pm. No one really cares how long you’re at a party for. Just being there to say hello is enough to keep friendships fresh. Certainly fresher than only ever making contact on social media.
Tuesday 27th July 2016. I meet Charlie M in the Brill Café in Exmouth Market. The café is partly a record shop, selling new vinyl and CDs. Today it has the new Radiohead and the new Bat For Lashes. How funny to think that vinyl has become the connoisseurs’ format, and more expensive than CDs. It was the other way around in the late 80s, with CDs as the pricier, more elitist option. Some vinyl reissues are rebranded with the word ‘legacy’.
Charlie and I walk to the Victoria Miro gallery to see the Yayoi Kusama show, only to find there’s a queue some hundred-strong, stretching all the way down Wharf Road. Thankfully we agree that no art is worth that amount of queuing, not in a city so stuffed with alternatives. We head off to see the Punk 1976-78 exhibition at the British Library instead. The same space has had queues itself, for the Alice in Wonderland display late last year, but I’m confident that fewer tourists are drawn to Johnny Rotten. Music divides more than fiction, and punk rock still has a baffling or even frightening aspect, I think.
At a British Library talk on the exhibition recently, it was reported that Viv Albertine, the guitarist from the Slits, scrawled some graffiti on one of the information panels, the one that introduces the whole display. She accused the text of perpetuating punk rock as a boys’ club, and crossed off ‘Sex Pistols’, ‘the Clash’ to write in ‘X Ray Spex’, ‘Siouxsie and the Banshees’ and ‘The Slits’. She also signed these annotations. The BL has left them intact some weeks later. I suppose it helps that (a) the graffiti is in the spirit of the exhibition, and (b) Ms Albertine is a piece of Punk Rock History herself.
On another panel, Gina Birch’s name is misspelt as ‘Gina Burch’. I’m tempted to get out a pen and correct that myself. But I am not a legend of punk rock.
Wednesday 28th July 2016. To the Hampstead Everyman with Jon S, to see Star Trek Beyond. £10 with my NUS card, but it’s worth it for the luxurious sofas, each one detached from the rest of the row. No juddering sensations caused by the kicks of other customers.
The new Star Trek film is the expected parade of non-stop explosions and nick-of-time action, but there’s a handful of original visuals that make it worthwhile. Not least of these is the make-up for the swashbuckling alien woman. Her character’s skin is chalk white, with black ink-blot markings, a little like the zebra dancers in the Penguin Café Orchestra’s ballet. Despite all the advances in CGI, it’s the physical design touches like this that stick in the mind.
There’s an article by Catherine Shoard in the Guardian this week that remarks on the trend for Hollywood films to cut down on dialogue and play up the visuals, so the films can play better in foreign markets. What with Instagram and emojis, the world is become more image-based. The rising popularity of cosplay, that love of dressing up at fan conventions, has made the craft of costume and make-up just as important as computer graphics.
Much of Corbyn’s popularity might be down to the cosplay compatibility of his appearance. He is the wise old wizard of every grand narrative; a Gandalf, a Dumbledore, a Ben Kenobi. His nemesis Owen Smith, meanwhile, resembles an estate agent who seems always on the verge of delivering bad news.
Thursday 29th July 2016. Lunch with Charley S in the BBC Club, near Broadcasting House. In the evening she takes me to a screening of the JT LeRoy film, Author, in the House of Vans venue under Waterloo station. I’ve been there before, when I DJ’d at an event, but I still get lost on the way. One has to find a particular exit out of Waterloo, or risk wandering along the wrong dark tunnel for some time.
Author is the only JT LeRoy documentary that’s officially endorsed by Laura Albert, the writer behind the LeRoy pseudonym. Two other documentaries have already been made of the same story, with a fourth, a dramatization, in the pipeline. If the whole basis of the documentary form is about constructing a convincing version of the truth, then it’s no wonder why the LeRoy tale should be fertile. It is a story, after all, about how people construct the truth full stop.
I’m so fascinated with the issues raised by the film that it’s difficult for me not to go into another 5000 words of discussion. It touches on so many subjects, and resembles a whole set of fairy tales and fables. It merges The Emperor’s New Clothes with The Prince and The Pauper, and The Boy Who Cried Wolf. So I’ll bear in mind Melvyn Bragg’s line and keep to the most important things that I’ve not yet said.
I had some email dealings with JT LeRoy, in 2000, when I sought permission to quote from Sarah for the sleeve of the first Fosca album. JT kindly replied and said yes. So I’ll always grateful to him for that. The knowledge, gained a few years later, that I was not emailing a teenage transgender rent boy but a thirtysomething mother called Laura Albert, did throw me at first. But I shrugged. If it matters about the biography of the author, then the thing to do is point out autobiographical novels by transgender writers who are really transgender, such as Roz Kaveney’s Tiny Pieces of Skull.
I’m certainly sympathetic to the need to use a pseudonym. Author names are brands, handrails of truth and trust, or corrective stabilisers against prejudice. It’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. I think about how JK Rowling has done it twice, first as the androgynous ‘JK Rowling’, to market the first Harry Potter book to boys, then again with ‘Robert Galbraith’, so she could free up a different voice to write crime novels.
The difference with Ms Albert is that she created a whole backstory for JT LeRoy, presented that as truth, then hired a relative – Savannah Knoop – to play LeRoy at public events. Although Sarah may say ‘FICTION’ on the back cover, as Ms Albert says in the film, it was definitely marketed as autobiographical fiction. Marketing affects the choice to decide what to read, and the reading experience once that choice has been made.
The irony now is that Laura Albert’s name carries the taint of a literary hoaxer, however unfairly. She spends much of this film pointing out how hoaxes are intended to exploit the gullible and prove a point, while she just wanted to write and be read. The JT LeRoy persona was an accidental voice of hers, which became a necessary device to frame the reading experience, and then just got out of hand. The film goes some way to making all of this convincing. I suppose the problem for her now is that Author is being marketed with that one word she so vehemently denies – ‘hoax’. Because it makes for a better story.
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Promises That Were Possibilities
Saturday 25th June 2016. I don’t take part in the Pride march, but it impacts on my day when I try to get to St James’s from Trafalgar Square. I stand in Lower Regent Street and watch a few of the floats go by. In Trafalgar Square, one of the traffic lights has been altered so that the little green figure is now two female sex symbols, linked together. The London mayor, Mr Khan, has given his explicit blessing to Pride. Given he’s a Muslim, and given the events in Orlando the other week, there’s an extra resonance of justification to the march.
That said, I wince when I see a float emblazoned in the logos of Barclays Bank. How funny that the recent film Pride, set in the 1980s, is as much about anti-capitalist politics as it is about gay rights. Now capitalism has a float in the march too. If corporations like Barclays truly gave a hoot about LGBT culture, they’d intervene to stop venues like Madam JoJo’s and The Black Cap disappearing. Still, asking a bank to deal with inequality rather summons up the cartoons of HM Bateman.
Am reading Edward St Aubyn’s series of novels about Patrick Melrose, the upper class anti-hero who goes from abused child to self-destructive addict. Whereas I gobbled up books one to four with impatience, I’m taking my time with the fifth and final book, At Last, in order to properly savour the prose. I’m sure this is common when reading a series of books in order, one after the other.
I’m attracted to ESA’s books not only by the aphoristic quips and Waugh-esque style, but by St Aubyn’s admission in interviews of his dyslexia. It explains why the novels are often quite short, yet heavily polished. The D-word doesn’t appear in the novels, but knowing about St Aubyn’s learning difficulty gives an extra dimension to his protagonist’s taste in books:
‘He liked slim books which he could slip into his overcoat pocket… What was the point of a book if you couldn’t carry it around with you as a theoretical defence against boredom?’ (Bad News, p. 48).
Never Mind and Bad News are the best of the first four, I think, due to the shocking abuse scene in the former, and the mixture of New York high and low life in the latter. Difficult to call Bad News a narcotic novel, though, as the heroin taking is secondary to Melrose’s self-hatred. It’s closer to the way that Sebastian Flyte ends up as an alcoholic in Brideshead.
I browse in the National Portrait Gallery shop and notice that they’ve put out a new postcard of Victoria Wood. It’s brand new, in fact, because on the back are the years of her birth and death. Given the surge of celebrity deaths this year, the NPG must be spoilt for choice.
I watch a DVD of The Pleasure Garden (1953), rented from Birkbeck library. This is a curious 40 minute black and white film, which Travis Elborough mentions in his book on parks. Directed by the American poet James Broughton, it’s now a time capsule of London topography and British social values. The main location is Crystal Palace Gardens, while it still had plenty of statues.
The plot is little more than a dream-like parade of amorous goings-on in the aforementioned Gardens, with a tone pitched somewhere between Luis Bunuel, Dick Lester, and the Carry On films. Hattie Jacques is a fairy godmother, using her powers to liberate courting couples from a censorious government official, played by John Le Mesurier in Victorian undertaker garb. In one scene he apprehends a trio of skimpily-dressed young people, two men and a women, for what we assume is canoodling in the long grass. The woman tells Le Mesurier that the two men are ‘together’, which prompts him to turn to a ‘special’ section of his rule book. Though the DVD is certificate U, this film must have felt pretty risqué for British viewers in 1953. Needless to say, it did well at a French film festival.
Sunday June 26th 2016. A quote from Iain Duncan Smith on the Andrew Marr programme, about his role in the referendum’s Leave campaign:
‘We never made any commitments. We just made a series of promises that were possibilities.’
It’s so beyond satire it hurts.
Tuesday, June 28th 2016. To the Barbican’s smaller screens in Beech Street for Tale of Tales, an Italian film comprising three traditional Italian fairy tales. They all take place in the same quasi-medieval world of castles and sea monsters. The cast is international (including Toby Jones, Shirley Henderson, and Salma Hayek), but the dialogue is in English. When there is any dialogue, that is. And what there is is very stilted, bordering on the badly translated. This makes it a frustrating watch, but the visuals are impressive enough. Vincent Cassell is typecast as a sex-mad king, making his entrance beneath the skirts of two women. At one point he gets up in the morning after an al fresco orgy on a beach, and knocks over a live peacock.
Wednesday, June 29th, 2016. I go to see Martin Parr’s ‘Unseen City’ exhibition, being images documenting the ceremonies of the Square Mile. It’s in the Guildhall, one of those London galleries that the tourists never seem to know about (another is the Wallace). The permanent collection is full of 19th century masterpieces, yet I’m one of about five visitors.
Parr’s trademark style is unmistakable: hyperreal slices of British daily life, the colours turned up to the full. A lady Lord Mayor stands alone in an empty marquee, waiting to go on, weighed down by her voluminous robes and oversized hat. A golden Great Mace rests bathetically in the back seat of a taxi. I suppose the word really does have to be ‘unceremonious’. Beadles and Drapers march in their garters past a branch of Pret a Manger. The names of the ceremonies are entertaining enough: ‘Cart Marking’, ‘The Silent Ceremony’, ‘Beating the Bounds’, ‘Swan Upping’. Men in blazers stand in row boats and toast the Queen. It all still goes on.
Quite an apt exhibition to see in the wake of the EU referendum, too, given the amount of foreign newspaper cartoons about men in bowler hats doing foolish things. Bowler hats are, of course, rarely worn in the City of London these days, but as these photographs prove, there are still worn in City ceremonies.
Friday, July 1st, 2016. There really is no escape from the referendum. Wandering through Cartwright Gardens in Bloomsbury, I stop take a look at the statue of John Cartwright, and learn from the plaque that he was a campaigner for universal suffrage and a supporter of US independence in 1776. Then, at the foot of the statue, I notice there’s a fresh bouquet of flowers, along with a handwritten paper note. It is clearly from a Leave the EU supporter:
‘23rd June 2016. Betrayed by our own representatives, we the people nevertheless voted to reclaim national sovereignty… Freedom is ours!’
I attend a Birkbeck end of term drinks gathering, at the Bree Louise pub near Euston station. After a few drinks, the Birkbeck table inevitably gets into an EU conversation. ‘Oh, I’m just enjoying the spectacle of it all’, I say airily, waving a hand about. The woman I’m speaking to (who I’ve not met before) is unimpressed. ‘It’s not a spectacle for ME! I’m in Labour!’
When she gets up to leave, she jabs a finger at me and says, quite sternly, ‘Join the Labour Party.’ Then she goes. I don’t say anything, but it occurs to me that the only reply is, ‘Why, are they falling apart? Oh, that’s right.’
I was being honest, though. Whether Corbyn or the Tories, it’s a spectacle all right, and one that I feel both depressed by and detached from.
Tuesday, July 5th, 2016. Evening: Dinner with Shanthi Sivanesan at Cozzo, Whitecross Street. It’s an unpretentious, inexpensive Italian restaurant, slightly rough at the edges, which I like. We sit out al fresco in Whitecross Street, which is narrow and virtually pedestrianised, with few cars about.
Then to the Barbican’s nuclear bunker, aka Cinema One, for Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (£5 with an NUS card on Tuesdays). Quite an apt choice, given my own current state of lassitude. Jennifer Saunders, who stars and writes the script, has admitted that she wrote it in a state of laziness. Not only did it take an age to come out, but the end result, I think it’s fair to say, has the minimum amount of ambition that could possibly be expected. The title says it all: a standard episode of the TV series Absolute Fabulous, padded out to pass as a film.
The most common plot for film versions of TV comedies has often been They Go On Holiday. So many spring to mind: Are You Being Served: The Movie, Holiday On The Buses, that Morecombe and Wise one with ‘Riviera’ in the title. The other common plots are They Run Out Of Money, and They Get Involved In A Big Crime That Moves Them To A New Location (Alan Partridge – Alpha Papa). The Ab Fab film manages to tick all these boxes: Edina and Patsy run out of money, get involved in a crime, and flee to the South of France. That really is it.
Thankfully, it’s still funny. There’s enough slapstick and topical jokes to keep the film afloat, and Joanna Lumley as Patsy is funny whenever she’s on screen full stop. She can pull a face and improve a scene a thousandfold.
Were it down to me, I’d turn it into an original musical. There’s a scene where Saffy, the prim daughter, sings karaoke at a drag queen night in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. It’s a scene that has no justification other than being a nice record of the venue, much as The Pleasure Garden is a record of the Crystal Palace Gardens. Like Madame JoJo’s was, the RVT is one of those old-style gay clubs which is struggling to avoid the oligarchs’ bulldozer. But it also suggests that the film really wanted to be a full-blown musical.
Instead we get a multitude of celebrity cameos that do little more than prove how well-connected the producers are. The rule should be that cameos need to be as good as Marshall McLuhan’s in Annie Hall. McLuhan couldn’t act, either, but he’s there for a joke, and you don’t need to know who he is to get the joke, either. The celebrities in AbFab are little more than attempts to distract the audience from the film’s complete lack of ambition. It’s still funny enough, when it’s those two main actors playing those two characters. They could have done more, that’s all.
Thursday, July 6th, 2016. With some of the Boogaloo extended family to the fringe-y Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden. One of the Boogaloo staff, Kate Goodfellow, is in the current play there, A Year From Now. It turns out she’s also the artistic director of the company, RedBellyBlack, as well as this show’s producer, choreographer, and sound editor. She tells us afterwards that she even repaired some holes in the stage floor that were left behind by the previous company, with minutes to go until the technical rehearsal.
A Year From Now is an impressive documentary piece, which uses a similar device to one of my favourite films, The Arbor. To enhance the question ‘Where do you see yourself a year from now?’, actors lip-synch to the recorded voices of real life interviewees. Unlike The Arbor, though, there’s an element of modern dance too, with the actors constantly moving about in balletic styles as they illustrate or interpret the words they’re mouthing. This use of quotations from real life to make up an entire script is, I believe, called verbatim theatre. That said, it’s more common to have the actors performing the words with their own voices, as in the case of London Road, the musical about the Ipswich murders.
The voices on audio range from an elderly couple who are glad to still be about, to a toddler who has only just learned the concept of what a ‘year’ means – played by Kate G herself. There’s also a young-ish couple who are the parents of new born babies, to a man whose parent has just died, and to a trio of hospital patients battling or recovering from serious illnesses.
It’s also quite timely, given the present sense of uncertainty overall. A year from now there’ll be a different Prime Minister, and a different US President. Some politicians have scant ideas of what they’ll be doing next week. The referendum revealed that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove had made no plans whatsoever.
In my case, I do know what I’ll be doing a year from now. Working on a 15,000 word dissertation for an MA, to be delivered in the following September. That’s all I’ve got for now, but that’s still more than Boris.
Afterwards: to the Groucho Club in Dean Street. At least one of the Boogaloo party is a member of the GC, so off we go. Last time I was here, which must be about ten years ago, I’m sure it was more brightly lit, and that it felt like the public areas of a luxury hotel. Today it’s more like a private members’ club, which is what it’s meant to be. There’s friendly staff who know the members’ names, dark corners to loaf in, lots of sofas next to bookcases full of coffee-table books, art on the walls (quite a few Peter Blakes). A looser, more bohemian feel than last time. It’s as if part of the Colony Room’s spirit has moved here, with the rest of it going to Vout-o-Reenee’s in Tower Hill.
Am intrigued that the Groucho smoking area is not the pavement out front, but a kitchen yard on the first floor, hemmed between the backs of old Soho buildings. I share an Uber cab back to Highgate (‘Would you like to charge your phones?’ says the driver) and am treated to the cost. I must socialise with my neighbours more often.
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Tags: a year from now
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The EU Anxiety Mountain
Sunday 19th June 2016. I read an interview with Noma Dumezweni, the black actress cast as an older Hermione in the new Harry Potter play. Am intrigued to find out she was raised not so far from me, in Felixstowe, Suffolk, during the 70s and 80s. She speaks fondly of attending the Wolsey Youth Theatre in Ipswich, and being inspired by its director, Anthony ‘Dick’ Tuckey. I worked briefly with the WYT too, as a trainee stage manager during 1990. The show was an adaptation of The Odyssey, written specifically (by Mr Tuckey, I think) for a youth group. This duly meant there were lots of roles, Sirens, Greeks, mythical characters and so forth, spread across plenty of scenes. I remember Dick T being an avuncular director and a fearless leader in general (it’s no mean feat to keep out-of-school teenagers in order), but also that I was impressed by his eclectic taste in music. One of his Wolsey Theatre productions in 1989 used the debut EP by the edgy, Goth-tinged band Cranes, Self-Non-Self. It was the first time that I realised you didn’t need to be a certain kind of person to like a certain kind of music.
Afternoon: to Ladbroke Square Garden in Notting Hill, open today as part of Open Garden Squares Weekend. The garden is normally ‘communal’, meaning that the general public aren’t allowed in. The gates are normally kept locked, with the keys distributed only to the residents of the neighbouring streets. The idea is that it’s compensation for not having a large garden of one’s own. London has a couple of hundred miniature parks like this: a whole other world of semi-secret green spaces, hidden behind railings and high hedges. Perhaps the most well-known is Rosmead Gardens, a few blocks away from Ladbroke Square, which appears in the film Notting Hill. Hugh Grant tries to breaks into it at night.
I’ve come here today because I’m an admirer of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Line of Beauty, and was curious about the unnamed ‘communal gardens’ which back onto Kensington Park Gardens:
The communal gardens were as much a part of Nick’s romance of London as the house itself: big as the central park of some old European city, but private, and densely hedged on three sides with holly and shrubbery behind high Victorian railings… There were hidden places, even on the inside, … the enclosure with the sandpit and the children’s slide, where genuine uniformed nannies still met and gossiped with a faint air of truancy; and at the far end the tennis courts, whose overlapping rhythms of serves and rallies and calls lent a calming reminder of other people’s exertions to the August dusk. From end to end, just behind the houses, ran the broad gravel walk, with its emphatic camber and its metal-edged gutters where a child’s ball would come to rest… At regular intervals there were Victorian cast-iron benches, made with no thought of comfort, and between them on the grass a few people were sitting or picnicking in the warm early twilight.. At the end of the path there was the gardener’s cottage, huddled quaintly and servilely under the cream cliff of the terrace.
So today I take my paperback copy of the book and compare it with the real place. Some of Hollinghurst’s details are a little different from the real Ladbroke Square Garden: for one thing, there’s no metal gutters on the main path. Though for all I know that may be accurate in historical terms, as the novel is set in the 1980s. Otherwise, it matches the description. Once through the gate, which is today manned by some cheery locals on trestle tables, the space opens out into what might be a portion of Regent’s Park, such is its size. There’s three spacious lawn sections separated by rows of trees, with the children’s play areas and tennis court are all present and correct – though it’s quite easy to miss them, such is the winding density of the place. The gardener’s cottage is there too, and ‘quaintly huddling’ under the cliff of the proper houses sums it up.
According to the leaflet I take on the way in, Ladbroke Square Garden has over 650 families as subscribers, all of whom have to live within 100 yards of the perimeter. On top of that, they pay an annual fee of £240 to use the garden, though there’s also a ‘hardship’ rate of £75. It’s like a private members’ club, in that sense. The tennis court turns out to be a 1960s idea by the wife of Roy Jenkins, no less, while he was the Home Secretary. He lived at Kensington Park Gardens, just like the politician in The Line of Beauty.
I spend the afternoon wandering around this private paradise, basking in the rare access. I briefly bump into Cathi Unsworth, another London novelist, also playing the city explorer.
Tuesday 21st June 2016. Evening: to the Boogaloo for the first time in ages; I’d been neglecting my own local watering hole. Chat to a couple of the current youthful crew, who have various projects in the offing – digital radio stations, dance theatre pieces. There’s a chance I might be involved in something Boogaloo-shaped soon. Have too good a time and end up hungover the next day. This is the only real difference: I can’t drink as much as I used to without wiping out my usefulness for the next 24 hours. This is purely down to age, though.
Wednesday 22nd June 2016. That said, I do end up going to the IOE bar for one glass of wine after a class today. It’s very much an end of year type of class: ‘Critical Top Trumps’. Essentially a fun discussion of academic theorists based on the Top Trumps trading card game. Interestingly, there’s already a set of Theorist cards on the internet, so we discuss those. They’re from 2000, which is just long ago enough to demonstrate how theorists can go in and out of fashion. Judith Butler and Adorno are there, Zizek is not. No one in the class recognises Anthony Giddens, a British sociologist who was once an advisor to Tony Blair.
The tutor mentions the Fear Factor rating of the classic ‘Dracula’ set of TT cards, which I adored at school. The more common Trumps games were usually to do with footballers, but Kevin Keegan was no match for Dracula. I now remember that I once made my own Doctor Who cards at school, with hand-drawn illustrations, though I don’t think I actually showed them to anyone. I gave one card to the much-unloved monster The Raston Robot, from The Five Doctors.
Thursday 23rd June 2016. Afternoon: to Jackson’s Lane Community Centre on Archway Road, to vote in the EU referendum. Such a little act – a stubby pencil on a string, an ‘X’ made in one of two boxes. Leave or Remain. It takes me all of five minutes.
People will mostly vote Remain, I think. It’s the obvious choice. I stay up all night and watch the results come in. Despite all the warnings, despite Obama and Cameron and all the writers in the TLS asking people to vote Remain, the Leave vote has it. London, Scotland and parts of England (Brighton, typically) decide to Remain. But out in the shires of Middle England, a backed-up store of anger is finally released.
It’s only 52% of the votes, but it’s enough. The prime minister resigns, the pound plummets, Labour’s top MPs try to remove Corbyn (again), and attacks on immigrants soar. The triumphant politicians, Johnson and Gove, are now back-pedalling about their promises and show no signs of indicating exactly how they’re going to carry out this ‘Brexit’. It’s a very British spectacle: hypocrisy, pettiness, and a lot of muttering.
All I can think about is battling a surplus of anxiety. It’s an EU Anxiety Mountain, a stockpile of worry. The only thing to do with it, is to do good. Not that any option currently presents itself. Online petitions seem little use when the government and the opposition are both too busy pulling themselves to bits.
The world points and laughs: a New Yorker cover has Monty Python’s Silly Walks men falling off a cliff. A German cartoon also uses Monty Python. The Black Knight of Britain cuts off his own limbs. ‘A mere flesh wound!’ Still, it’s interesting that for much of the world, Britain means Monty Python. Perhaps Michael Palin should be asked to step in as an emergency prime minister.
The two biggest quotes from the campaign were from the umpteen televised debates. One was ‘I want my country back’ (a Question Time audience member), the other Michael Gove’s: ‘People in this country have had enough of experts’ (from a Sky News debate).
Mr Gove was soon questioned about his own expertise. His college degree was revealed: a 2:1 in English Literature. With my First in the same subject, I suppose I am technically more of an expert than Michael Gove.
But nevertheless, this touched on the spirit of the times: an instinctive mistrust of those in positions of power. A vote to Leave was a protest, and now the voices of the Remain camp are protesting back. Later, on the following Monday, a huge crowd of Jeremy Corbyn supporters turned out in Parliament Square, implicitly protesting against the Labour MPs who’d been protesting in turn, with their string of resignations from Corbyn’s front bench.
So much protest, so little agreement on a solution. It’s a like an ancient satire on democracy. Everyone has their say, but no one can agree, so everything breaks.
Someone on Twitter said, ‘I can’t read another word of this. Let me know how it all ends, will you?’
I hope the Anxiety Mountain can be put to good use.
Friday 24th June 2016. To the ICA for the film Remainder, if only because of the timely pun of London as a city of ‘Remain-ders’. A frustrating film: it boldly tries to adapt the ideas from Tom McCarthy’s cult novel, but like High-Rise I find it a mess of mismatched tones, confused pacing, and stilted acting. Still, it’s a noble mess, perhaps proving that the novel can’t properly be filmed, just paid tribute to (indeed one of its themes is the failure of simulation). And Tom Sturridge does have a vacant surliness that’s perfect for the protagonist.
Tags: alan hollinghurst
, cathi unsworth
, ladbroke square garden
, Noma Dumezweni
, tom mccarthy
He Believes In Beauty
A full week of activity, so much so that I have to stop myself going to new things in order to write about the old ones. Never mind a life/work balance; the trouble with diary writing is that it necessitates a life/writing balance.
Saturday 11th June 2016. The Tube stations are full of posters for summer festivals. I glance across the long lists of band names and logos, recognising one or two. Are they still going? Have they reformed now?
In my twenties I saw as many rock bands as possible. I once hitchhiked to see The Blue Aeroplanes – and slept on a strange man’s floor. Now rock festivals are something other people go to.
How much of action is taste, and how much is it wanting to belong? And why does this change? I ask myself this as I sit on the tube from Highgate to Balham today, at 9am. I am 44 years old and have paid £10 for a ticket to a literary discussion, one on walking in the city. It takes place at 10 o’clock in the morning in a large pub in South London. I was alerted to the talk by a kind staffer at the London Library, who knew it was what I’d been researching lately – flânerie, all that.
I suppose this is the sort of person I am now. Literary festivals in the morning. Book launches in the evening. I rather like them. There might be a little drama over getting microphones to work (‘Can you hear me okay?’ ‘Yes!’, ‘No!’), but that’s usually the sum limit of irritation. That, and the occasional audience member during the Q&A, the kind of who mistakes the word ‘question’ for a five minute recital of their own thesis.
I go to these bookish events quite happily, safe in the knowledge that there will be no trying to sleep in a tent while people kick a football about at 4am. No queuing to use a latrine. No trying to see past a too-tall man in a jester hat (though perhaps they have those at George R R Martin signings, I don’t know). No moshing down the front, not even for AS Byatt.
What literary festivals do have in common with their rock and pop counterparts is that there now seems to be more of them than ever. Perhaps one reason is that the word ‘tickets’ has acquired a whole new aura, thanks to the internet. It’s easy to get hold of a Kate Bush album. Kate Bush tickets, less so. ‘Tickets’ means something live, something limited in number, something that can sell out, something fixed by time and place, something special. Tickets are proof of the real, anchors of promise, glimpses of satisfaction. As opposed to the empty calories of swiping a screen for hours, and hoping that counts as a life well lived. Tickets are more of a life.
The Balham Literary Festival takes place at The Bedford pub, near the tube station. This may sound modest, but the venue turns out to have a warren of large-ish function rooms upstairs, and there’s several events going on simultaneously. I’m impressed that there are a good 40 or so people in the audience. On top of that, there’s a healthy absence of commercialism. Of the three speakers, only Matthew Beaumont has a book out. Lauren Elkin’s book on the flaneuse, the female walker (which I really want to read and had hoped to pick up), isn’t yet published. Anna-Louise Milne’s book is only available in French. So I come away impressed that these sort of events really do exist for the sheer joy of ideas.
Afternoon: a late lunch at Orsini in Thurloe Place, then across the road to the V&A with Heather Malone. We see the big glamorous exhibition on the history of underwear, Undressed. There’s a remarkable photo of George Bernard Shaw modelling long johns, prancing happily on a beach. Heather takes my photo by the sea shell in the foyer, a prop to publicise the Botticelli show. I think of the Bjork song, ‘Venus As A Boy’.
Monday 13th June 2016. Like many I’m reeling from the news about Orlando, Florida, where a man gunned down the clientele of a gay club. Fifty dead, more wounded. On social media, people post photos of men kissing, in solidarity. There’s a mass gathering in Old Compton Street, which I’d go to had I not a ticket to see another talk, this time at the British Library in St Pancras.
Still, this event concerns gay life in a way – it’s a discussion of the acquisition of Kenneth Williams’s diaries by the BL. One of the speakers is a BL curator, and she describes the fifty years’ worth of diaries as important to gay social history. Lots of genuine Polari in the earlier diaries, before the slang went public in Round the Horne.
David Benson performs selections from the unpublished diaries in his KW voice (and wears the suit from his one man KW show). He has the crowd in stitches. Nicholas Parsons (now 92) recounts memories of Just A Minute and singles out the performance in a Hancock’s Half Hour episode, ‘the one about the test pilot’ (The Diary). NP is convinced that the manic public persona and the depressive diarist were both the ‘real’ KW, caught at different times. Williams himself is quoted as saying, ‘My moods are up and down like a whore’s drawers’.
The curator explains that it will be a while before the later diaries are scanned and made available on the BL’s public website. They have to censor anything that libels the living.
Tuesday 14th June 2016. Afternoon: to The Hub gallery in Haddon Street, for a small but quite wonderful exhibition of David Bowie photographs. The street, off Regent’s Street, is the one on the sleeve of the Ziggy Stardust album, and there’s a fair amount of Ziggy-related photos inside, from his early 70s concerts at the Rainbow Theatre, in Finsbury Park.
One photo shoot is from 1989, where an older Bowie returns to the Rainbow Theatre, to promote a greatest hits tour. He stands in front of a montage of his old album sleeves, one hand across his mouth, the other on the mouth of one of the younger Bowies behind him, the long-haired androgyne of Hunky Dory. According to the caption, this is because the Rainbow had become a shelter for the homeless, and Bowie was responding to one of the homeless men who were standing about, watching the photo shoot and firing off questions. ‘Who’s that girl on that cover, there?’ said the man, indicating Hunky Dory. Bowie replied, ‘It’s a girl I used to know’.
My favourite photo is one from 1983, in a Tokyo restaurant. Bowie sits and chats with friends. He’s in his Let’s Dance mode, with bleached yellow hair, three-piece charcoal suit and a tie. Offstage, off duty, yet posing immaculately.
There’s several song lyrics stencilled on the gallery walls. I buy the catalogue (£5, for a cancer charity), and show it to Atalanta later on. She points out how one set of lyrics, from ‘Heroes’, now takes on a new meaning, in the days after the Orlando massacre:
I can remember standing by the wall
And the guns shot above our heads
And we kissed as though nothing could fall
Evening: to the Twentieth Century Theatre in Westbourne Grove, for a set of live performances to celebrate John Lee Bird’s exhibition, ‘Before Encore 6’. Mr Bird’s ‘Before Encore’ project has been going for about ten years. It comprises portraits of real people rendered as minimalist line drawings, against backgrounds of bright, single colours. I’d say the style lies halfway between Warhol’s screen prints and Julian Opie’s Miffy-like abstractions of human faces. The project also has a specific aim: to document figures from London’s alternative club scenes. These can be musicians, artists, poets, DJs, or just people seen at those clubs.
Tonight, the new portraits have been blown up into large canvasses and hung around the walls of the venue, a beautiful Victorian theatre. A further half a dozen portraits are dangling onstage as backdrops to the live acts. The subjects include veterans like Genesis P. Orridge and the Divine David Hoyle, established names like Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu, and newer faces like the singer with Bête Noire, David M Hargreaves. Bête Noire perform tonight, and I see them for the first time. Mr Hargreaves throws himself about and takes off his clothes, as I’m told he tends to do. What I didn’t expect is that the band is not an arty cabaret act but a serious guitar group, with a sound that wouldn’t be out of place at Glastonbury – they’re reminiscent of Interpol, or possibly The Strokes. I also enjoy readings by a couple of poets, Nathan Evans and Mark Walton. Mr Walton gives me a copy of his book, Frostbitten.
I spend much of my time there chatting with Atalanta K. On the way back to Notting Hill tube, we stop at Kensington Park Gardens, the street where Alan Hollinghurst set The Line of Beauty. I ask her to take my photo against No. 47, the last house in the street. In the novel the main location is given as Number 48, but this doesn’t seem to exist. Hence my compromise. I suppose it’s my version of those Harry Potter fans who pose by the platform in King’s Cross.
Wednesday 15th June 2016. Evening: to Birkbeck in Gordon Square for an MA class. The dissertations due for this autumn are presented by each student. Mine isn’t due till the autumn of next year, so for me this is a way of seeing what the other students are up to, and what sort of subject matter is considered suitable. Of the four students presenting, two are both doing Samuel Beckett, interestingly. One is on narrative technique in Malone Dies, the other is on the use of technology in Krapp’s Last Tape and Embers. The other dissertations are on the experimental poet Maggie O’Sullivan, and underground female comic creators, such as Phoebe Gloeckner. I knew about Gloeckner’s life from the recent film Diary of A Teenage Girl. Drinks in the Birkbeck bar afterwards, on the rooftop in Torrington Square.
Thursday 16th June 2016. Evening: to Waterstones Piccadilly for another bookish event. This one is for the independent Peter Owen Publishers, to mark their 65th anniversary (1951-2016). Peter Owen himself died only a few weeks ago. I had expected tonight to be about him, and about the history of the publishers, but it turns out to be a series of short talks about their latest releases. Still, these are diverse enough. One book by Tom Smith, One For My Baby, is partly a cocktail recipe book and partly a biography of Frank Sinatra. He mixes free cocktails for everyone who turns up. Another book is a novel about the painter Richard Dadd, by Miranda Miller. Evelyn Farr talks about her investigative history into Marie-Antoinette’s letters. Erin Pizzey – a living saint of a woman going by her anecdotes – has a memoir about her setting up a refuge for battered women, in 1970s Chiswick (‘You can be addicted to an abusive relationship, as if it were a drug. And you’ve got to go cold turkey.’)
The author I feel closest to in terms of shared interests is Jeremy Reed, who’s brought out a history of Piccadilly rent boys. Instead of discussing the book, however, he performs his poetry, swaggering from foot to foot in a black beret, pinstripe jacket, and black polka dot shirt. Sebastian Horsley and Marc Almond are namechecked. One poem celebrates Brydges Place, the tiny street off St Martin’s Lane that is barely wide enough to count as an alley.
Friday 17th June 2016. My review of the film Lawrence of Belgravia, now on DVD, appears in The Wire magazine, issue dated July 2016.
Saturday 18th June 2016. Afternoon. To the Prince Charles for the film Where to Invade Next, the new documentary by Michael Moore. I go out of a kind of film fan loyalty, remembering how Moore’s films Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 ushered in the current golden age of documentaries made for cinemas. I think Louis Theroux equally owes his career to appearing in segments for Moore’s 90s TV shows. Where to Invade Next is more positive than angry. It presents the benefits of different social initiatives adopted by different countries, and suggests that the US should adopt them too. Hence the ‘invading’ concept, to steal the ideas. As with Moore’s past work, there’s a lot of skewing the facts to fit an agenda, but MM is still a unique and funny film-maker, with pertinent points to make.
Tags: atalanta k
, balham literary festival
, David Benson
, david bowie
, Heather M
, jeremy reed
, john lee bird
, kenneth williams
, lawrence of belgravia
, michael moore
, peter owen publishers
, the bedford
, where to invade next
Italo Calvino Prats About
Saturday 4th June 2016. More clearing out. I find some 1970s issues of Puffin Post, the magazine of the Puffin Books children’s club. There’s accounts of events like an audience with Tove Jansson, held for children (‘Did you know I have my own island?’ These days the adult Jansson fan’s response would be ‘Yes, yes, we do.’). I have a feeling the British Library has a run of copies with gaps. Mustn’t throw any of these out without checking with them first.
O, the thin line between archiving and hoarding. Must keep some things, can’t keep everything. I find a good tip is to write down in one’s diary what one throws out, as in the more notes-based diary I keep in school exercise books.
Also jettisoned: mid-1990s address books. I glimpse a phone number for the House of Kenickie in Camden, a mews pad where all the band lived together, not unlike the Monkees. And a number for David Walliams in his pre-Little Britain days. Both would have been circa 1996, both are landlines, with mobiles still in the future – just. Even the London dialling codes are obsolete: 0171, rather than 020.
To date this further: I think the first mobile I perused was shown to me around the same time, by Sarah from Dubstar. It was in the Good Mixer, too, that ne plus ultra of Britpop locations.
Another memory from a few years earlier: an unkind news report in an early 90s music paper. David Gedge of the Wedding Present seen using – O horrors! – a mobile phone at a music festival. The caption implied that this was evidence he’d sold out. Today, in the film Green Room, the retrieval of a rock band’s iPhone triggers the whole plot.
I have my hair cut on Archway Road: £13.50, including tip. Cropped short to the roots, which seem to be darker than ever. Then I re-bleach it myself with a £5 kit, until 90 minutes are up, or when my scalp is aflame in agony. Whichever happens first.
I read Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (1979). It has so many of the things I believe in: humour, experimentation, daring, skittishness, and a sense of all things being possible. If there is a shortcoming, perhaps it is a lack of full engagement with the characters. But that’s the price of all the fragmentation and, well, all the pratting about. Or as they say in universities, all the ludic discursiveness.
David Mitchell has cited the novel as an inspiration for Cloud Atlas, except that where Calvino keeps starting new stories, Mitchell goes back and gives each of his tales an ending. The current paperback edition of Calvino makes this link, too, with a quote on the back reading Breathtakingly inventive – David Mitchell’.
Actually, this doesn’t specify which David Mitchell. To say the David Mitchell is no good. There’s nothing to stop this back cover quote being not from the literary novelist but from the one off the TV, the actor from Peep Show and Upstart Crow and panel games. Or perhaps it’s another David Mitchell, one who isn’t either of these two, but who is a Calvino fan. It’d be a very Calvino-esque move for a publisher to find such a man and quote him instead.
In the novel, Calvino’s list of books in a bookshop is honest and funny:
‘Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First’
‘Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered’
‘Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They Come Out in Paperback’
‘Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them’.
The last category is the one that always confronts me. Indeed, it includes the other works of Calvino.
Sunday 5th June 2016. To the Lexington in Pentonville Road for a gig by Blindness, with Debbie Smith on guitar. They announce it as the band’s last show: singer Beth is moving to a different country. Debbie wears a vintage flat cap, waistcoat and matching trousers. ‘I’ve just realised what this look is called,’ says at the microphone. ‘Peaky Blindness’.
Tuesday 7th June 2016. Evening: To the ICA for The Measure of A Man. £3. A contemporary French film that fits neatly with the current celebration of Ken Loach, given it’s about a man struggling to make ends meet during unemployment. It’s also filmed in a very naturalistic style – even more so than Loach. The dialogue, which must be based on improvisation, frequently goes into bursts of repetition, where people say the same things to each other over and over again. This is the way conversations go in real life, of course, but it’s so tricky to do this on screen without boring the audience rigid. That the film manages to carry this off is, I think, partly thanks to the charisma of the main actor, who mopes around under a moustache that rather recalls a French Bernard Hill. Les Garcons Du Black Stuff. Another reason is the use of footage from supermarket security cameras, where a desperate security guard is forced to spy on other desperate people. It’s CCTV as reality TV, where poverty and spectacle collide.
Wednesday 8th June 2016. Evening: to Victoria Park in Hackney Wick. This is for the launch of Travis Elborough’s latest book, A Walk In the Park, on the history of public gardens. I get a copy, and am flattered to find myself in the thanks list at the back. It’s billed as ‘everything about parks from Gilgamesh to Gary Numan’. I check: there really is a fair bit about Gary Numan in there.
I’ve never been to Victoria Park before, and am fascinated with the two stone alcoves that can be found near the east gate, surreally plonked on the grass. They’re labelled as alcoves from the old London Bridge, which is a nice coincidence, given the bridge was the subject of TE’s last book. That said, Travis himself goes on to tell me that there’s a chance the alcoves are from the old Westminster bridge instead.
The book launch is at the sleek and trendy Hub building in the middle of the park. It’s a warm day, and we sip wine outside, our view of the park somewhat obscured by the long fence of green hoarding that encloses the Field Day festival site. I see from the posters that the headline act will be PJ Harvey – and I suddenly remember how that was first the name of the band, rather than the singer.
Further drinks afterwards, at the People’s Park Tavern, walking into the tail end of the pub quiz. I open a door and suddenly met with an amplified voice: ‘What colour is Marge Simpson’s dress?’. Over drinks, a discussion about camp and indie music leads to the theory that Morrissey found the photos for several Smiths sleeves from the same book, Philip Core’s Camp – The Lie That Tells The Truth. Then I stagger home via Homerton, and think of the way that station lends itself to Simpsons jokes.
Friday 10th June 2016. To the Bishopsgate Institute – first visited as a child for a Puffin Club show. Today I’m here too see the display on Lady Malcolm’s Servants Ball. This was the notorious series of parties at the Royal Albert Hall in the 1920s and 30s, ostensibly intended to let servants and gentry dance in fancy dress together. Its atmosphere of rule-breaking en masse soon led it to be associated with the London gay and lesbian scene, such as it was back then. The later tickets to the balls carried a statement that gave away what had been going on: ‘No man impersonating a woman will be admitted’. It must have helped that Jeanne Malcolm, the aristocrat who hosted the events, had an official name that sounded like a cross-dressing act in itself – Lady Malcolm.
Evening: To Birkbeck Cinema in Gordon Square for an event about the science of stage magic. It includes a free screening of The Prestige, as in the Christopher Nolan Noughties thriller about Victorian magicians, which I’ve not seen till now. The film is superb. It makes the link between the masculine world of magic tricks, and Nolan’s recurring themes of male obsession and confusion. There’s one key scene where Christian Bale’s character performs his ‘Transported Man’ trick for the first time. Nolan suddenly cuts away from the climax of the trick – the ‘prestige’ section – and has the characters narrate what happened instead. It’s a disorientating device that Nolan uses in all his films, but in this case it also stops the audience guessing the big twist at the end.
There’s then a talk on the science of misdirection by an academic from Goldsmith’s. He is a practitioner of magic himself, and performs a couple of the classics: the one with the rope cut into three pieces, and the one with the three cups and three little balls. I surprise myself at being delighted by his sleight of hand. Perhaps it’s the way that stage magic allows adults to tap into a pure form of wonder, the kind not felt since childhood.
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, christopher nolan
, david mitchell
, italo calvino
, lady malcolm's servants ball
, puffin post
, the measure of a man
, the prestige
, travis elborough