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
, absolutely fabulous the movie
, bree louise
, Edward St Aubyn
, eu referendum
, groucho club
, john cartwright
, kate goodfellow
, martin parr
, pride 2016
, Shanthi Sivanesan
, tale of tales
, tristan bates theatre
Fish Of The Day
Sunday 10th August 2014. I chat with Mum over the phone. She’s busy, giving classes and talks on quilt making all over the country, most recently at the NEC. Tom has now built her a website as a kind of shop window. It’s her first ever web presence. The URL is www.lynneedwardsquilts.com.
* * *
Monday 11h August 2014. To the Boogaloo to watch Lea Andrews perform with Sadie Lee, as part of the Blue Monday gig night. An evening of seeing old friends. Charley Stone is there, Charlotte Hatherley too. This is my only socialising this week; the rest of my time is spent in the British Library in St Pancras, communing with the dead.
Currently re-reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Last read when I was a teenager. This time round I’m older than Winston Smith. I’d forgotten that he has varicose veins; something I’m rather familiar with now. The themes are more relevant than ever, as evidenced by Edward Snowden’s mention of the novel in his Alternative Christmas Message last year. Fear of state surveillance, the removal of privacy, the state control of information, the daily get together to hate something for the sake of joining in (thus anticipating Twitter), war being used to keep populations suppressed, bad entertainment doing the rest of the suppression. Orwell’s prose style surprises me with its simple, unfussy realism. Stylistically, it could be written today. The only 1940s anachronism I pick up is the usage of ‘dear’ by the two lovers.
But slang comes around too. ‘Oh my days’ sounds pure Dickens. I’ve heard it used by all kinds of young people in London now, and by some not so young people too. A friend says it derives from Caribbean patois. So I wonder if it came from the effects of the Empire before that. I like the idea of slang being exported across lands, passing through social groups, then returning after more than a century, like the orbit of a comet.
* * *
Tuesday 12th August 2014. Robin Williams dies. It’s thought to be suicide. A lot of discussion online of depression and the eternal archetype of the sad clown. My local cinema, the Phoenix, is putting on a screening of Good Will Hunting, as a benefit for the Samaritans.
People on Twitter have taken tribute selfies, standing on tops of desks, holding up signs saying ‘O Captain My Captain’. This is a reference to a scene in Dead Poets Society, the words taken from a poem by Walt Whitman. My band Orlando did a similar tribute in 1996, for the video to ‘Don’t Kill My Rage’. We even dressed as schoolboys and filmed in a beautiful old private school. And we stood on the desks.
I can’t think of the Dead Poets motto ‘carpe diem’ now without recalling a joke from I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue:
‘Carpe diem: Fish of the Day.’
What a range of work Robin Williams left behind, though. Particularly given his problems. Some roles wacky (Mork and Mindy, Good Morning Vietnam), some serious (Dead Poets Society, Awakenings) some sinister (Insomnia). In theory I should have found his comedy style irritating, but the sheer speed of his invention always impressed me. Completely over the top, yes, but also completely out of the blue. Where did that ability come from? It seemed utterly unearthly – hence Mork.
His big, rubbery, Punch-like features seemed to also fit that other extreme of emotion – sentiment. There’s something very Victorian about that mix; the need to complement the uproarious with the lachrymose. Knowing that Williams was built to erupt into loud comedy made his restrained roles all the more watchable. The energy had to be channelled into reverse. He’s perfect for The World According To Garp, as the quiet centre in John Irving’s outlandish parade. I also like him as the murderous author in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, or the avuncular gay radio host in The Night Listener (based on Armistead Maupin), or the nightclub owner in The Birdcage, teaching Nathan Lane how to act more manly. In one scene they try discussing sports like heterosexual men. Or so they imagine:
WILLIAMS: (putting on manly voice) Al, you old son of a bitch! How ya doin’? How do you feel about those Dolphins today?
LANE: How do you think I felt? Bewildered! Betrayed…! (looks at Williams, wrist returns to limpness) Wrong response, right?
WILLIAMS: I’m not sure…
* * *
Wednesday 13th August 2014. London begging. On the tube today, a man gets on and promptly goes round the carriage carefully placing wrapped packets of pocket tissues (the Handy Andies type) on the empty seats next to each passenger. There’s also a piece of paper with each packet. Presumably it contains his written appeal for money, in return for the tissues, along with some detail of his circumstances. I say presumably because I don’t pick up a packet, and neither does anyone else. The British are so obsessed with taking the least embarrassing action in public as it is. Added to which, the London tube carriage is a place of non-action, of retrieving into yourself, of trying not to exist. Not the best place to ask for money.
The tissues man waits silently at one end of the carriage for no more than a minute. Then he goes round again, this time retrieving all the packets of tissues and paper notes and putting them back in his shoulder bag. He gets off at the next stop.
* * *
Thursday 14th August 2014. To the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley, for the film Lilting. It’s a low-budget piece in which Ben Whishaw acts his absolute socks off. He plays a grieving gay man trying to befriend the Chinese mother of his late partner. The added complication is that she speaks no English, she didn’t know her son was gay, and she lives in a London care home. Peter Bowles also appears (he of To The Manor Born and Only When I Laugh), playing an elderly Lothario. The film is emotionally tense, yet tender and quiet, and is clearly a labour of love. I recognise one of the locations: the canal towpath near the south end of Mare Street, in the East End.
* * *
Friday 15th August 2014. Today’s new word is ‘hoyden’. It means ‘a boisterous girl’. A dated expression, declares the Concise Oxford Dictionary. I’m introduced to it by a line in Brigid Brophy’s book Black and White: A Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (1968):
‘Are they female fops, these personages of Beardsley’s: female dandies: female effeminates, even? Or are they male hoydens, male tomboys, boy butches?’
The book contains some of Beardsley’s sexually explicit art from the 1890s. More grotesque than titillating, I’d have thought. Yet the British Library keeps its copy of Black and White in the Special Materials collection, the place for anything very valuable or very naughty. As the book isn’t that rare it must be Beardsley’s rudeness that qualifies. To read the library copy a while ago, I had to sit at a special desk in the Rare Books Reading Room, within view of CCTV cameras and library staff. I was not allowed to leave the book unattended, not even to go to the toilet. They might as well call the desk the Table of Shame.
Thankfully, Faber have now reprinted Black and White as part of their Faber Finds series. Today I pick up a copy from Gay’s The Word bookshop in Marchmont Street. I take it home and enjoy it behind closed doors, where the Big Brother eyes of the British Library cannot watch me.
Tags: aubrey beardsley
, ben whishaw
, brigid brophy
, British Library
, charley stone
, george orwell
, london beggers
, robin williams
Be Somewhere Else Now
(Apologies for the slight lateness of this week’s diary. I have had to deal with one of those Trojan viruses that get inside computers. Not by the acceptance of a wooden horse but by the promise of a video of a funny cat. Probably. So this entry is brought to you by the programs Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Scan, and AdwCleaner Adware Removal Tool.)
Friday 20th June 2014. In the evening: to Birkbeck in Gordon Square for a talk by Hari Kunzru. This is one of the advantages of choosing contemporary literature as an option in an English degree: the authors are often available to come to the college and answer questions. Even better, you can have a drink of M & S wine with them afterwards. Little chance of that happening with George Eliot.
HK talks about cosmopolitanism, as in people becoming global citizens. He suggests an alternative term, though, ‘rootlessness’. A refugee, meanwhile, can be regarded as ‘a cosmopolitan without money’. He’s not so keen on the message of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which looks for connections and harmony in a fragmented world. ‘Too resolved’, says Mr Kunzru.
(Stuart Nathan writes: ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ was also once a pejorative code term for ‘Jew’. It was intended to be subtly insulting. ‘We have no national loyalty and we infiltrate cities’. You see it in journalism from the 1890s to the 30s.’)
I’m reminded of the line in The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means’. Except now that’s what Commercial Fiction means. The good not ending happily, on the other hand, is what Literary Fiction means. This is not to say that such fiction should be depressing, though: Mr Kunzru’s own novel Transmission has scenes of laugh-aloud comedy.
I’ve just finished American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis. It’s clearly an important novel, but more than a couple of times I’ve felt like saying aloud, ‘please don’t make me read the next bit’.
* * *
Saturday 21st June 2014. To the Whitechapel Gallery, for the Chris Marker exhibition. I’m restless here, because his masterpieces are not stills or artworks but films like La Jetée, which is projected on a huge screen. Such films really work better at a film festival rather than a gallery space. However, I like his colourful designs for travel books about different countries, each cover with a pretty girl of the relevant nationality. Marker was clearly passionate about the faces of pretty women: much like Vermeer, in fact. There’s also a room full of old monitors and TVs showing different videos on a loop, which irritates me, as it’s become something of an art gallery cliché. That said, one is a late 80s pop video I recognise, even with the sound down: ‘Getting Away With It’ by Electronic. I hadn’t realised until today that Marker was the director.
Next door is an exhibit I prefer to anything in the Marker show, perhaps because it’s more physical and site-specific. It’s Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacobs Ladder, by Kader Attia. A room-size shelving cabinet of books surrounds a smaller glass cabinet of scientific curios. At the centre, the visitor climbs a set of steps to discover an illusion of an infinite ladder, created using mirrors and fluorescent tubes. The gallery captions make no mention of Borges’s ‘Library of Babel’, but it’s a perfect illustration. I still love the simple magic of creating infinity by turning two mirrors against each other. That’s the great thing about infinity: the pleasure is endless.
* * *
Sunday 22nd June 2014. Across the road to the Boogaloo, for a gig by Martin White’s Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra. As was the case last year, about two dozen musicians are crammed into one corner of the pub. Mr White is on the Boogaloo’s upright piano, backed with the MFMO on violins, cellos, brass, woodwind, drums, plus electric bass. Fosca’s Kate Dornan is on tuba, while the bass is played by Rhodri Marsden. The guest acts on this occasion are Chris T-T (who once gave Fosca a lift home), and the 90s band Dubstar. Or rather, singer Sarah Blackwood and guitarist Chris Wilkie playing the songs of Dubstar, specially arranged for this mini-orchestra.
I was something of a Dubstar fan in the 90s: the last time I saw them was at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 1998. Today I can’t resist writing down the songs as I recognise each one, just like I did in my music fan days: ‘The Self Same Thing’ (a superior version to that on record – they should record it), ‘Elevator Song’, ‘My Start In Wallsend’, ‘Not So Manic Now’, ‘A Northern Bride’ (a b-side), ‘Wearchest’, ‘Stars’, ‘Ghost’, ‘Disgraceful’. Afterwards I chat with Sarah and Chris, and also with the guitarist James Walbourne, here for the birthday of ‘The Rabbi’, one of the Boogaloo’s regular characters. JW turns out to be a fellow Sondheim fan.
* * *
Monday 23rd June 2014. I bump into Ben Goldacre, he of Bad Science fame, outside Highgate tube. Ben G turns out to be a fellow Momus fan. This is how my unplanned encounters often play out: discussions of paths crossed, then of shared acquaintances and shared tastes, then realisations of coincidence. It’s probably possible to play Six Degrees Of Dickon Edwards.
A favourite word of mine is ‘anhedonic’, meaning an inability to take pleasure in things. With supreme irony, using the word gives me pleasure.
* * *
Tuesday 24th June 2014. To the ICA to see Fruitvale Station. It’s a dramatisation of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, an unarmed man shot dead by the police in 2009, while in the Californian railway station of the title. Although this incident triggered various protests and outbreaks of rioting, it’s not so well known to Londoners, perhaps because the city has two similar incidents of its own. There’s Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian man killed at Stockwell tube in 2005, and Mark Duggan, whose shooting in Tottenham in 2011 sparked off that year’s London riots. The bulk of Fruitvale Station is just about a man going about his daily life – the point being that his killing is made all the more obscene by his sheer ordinariness.
Grant is no saint – he’s been in prison and is shown dealing drugs, albeit on a very minor scale – but he’s also shown to be a loving father and kind to strangers on the street, and even kind to stray animals. In this sense, the film is quite an innovative protest: it suggests that real people are rarely all good or all bad, and that situations are always more complicated than they seem. All this helps drive home the point that it’s probably not a good idea for the police to always carry guns. Perhaps this is obvious, but while such incidents still happen, films like this are important. If nothing else, it depicts everyday African-American suburban life, which is rare enough in cinema. And it also teaches this train-loving Londoner that the ‘BART’ is a type of connecting service on the Californian coast, similar to London’s Overground. It stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit.
* * *
Wednesday 25th June 2014. An aphorism by Don Paterson, which hits home:
Well, critic: fair criticism. But at the end of the day, she did; you didn’t.
(from The Book of Shadows, 2004)
* * *
Thursday 26th June 2014. The British Library’s ‘Treasures’ exhibition now has slightly different manuscripts on display. Gone is Angela Carter’s Nights At The Circus. In its place is a page from her Passion of New Eve instead. The notebooks of Beryl Bainbridge and Wendy Cope have been similarly usurped. Now there’s Hanif Kureishi’s diary, plus Olivier’s screenplay for his film of Macbeth, which was never made.
* * *
Friday 27th June 2014. There have always been film posters on the Tube, but in the last couple of years something’s changed. The quotes of praise can now be from members of the public, often on Twitter. ‘Brilliant! – @emmasmith1978’. It’s not just popcorn films, either. On the foyer wall of the Barbican Centre are projections of Twitter praise for Fiona Shaw in the stage play The Testament of Mary. Many of these quotes could well be made up, or planted by publicists. But then, professional critics are no strangers to bias either. Regardless, the phrase ‘everyone’s a critic’ is more true now than ever.
* * *
In Muswell Hill Sainsbury’s. A few days after England crashes out of the World Cup, there’s a rack of forlorn-looking England flag merchandise, all marked REDUCED TO CLEAR. Car flags, bunting, air fresheners, cups, plates. Prices from 9p.
Next to this is a display of more hopeful-looking pots of cream, branded with tennis balls, all set for Wimbledon. Thus the world turns.
* * *
Saturday 28 June 2014. One feels surrounded by festivities, or at least reports of festivities. If it’s not Glastonbury or the World Cup, it’s Pride. Despite bouts of rain, the Soho streets are choked with LGBT revellers. Old Compton Street is impossible to walk through: a mass of bodies, across road and pavement alike. ‘Rather Be’ by Clean Bandit blasts out from several bars as I pass – this summer’s ubiquitous dance hit. Charing Cross Road is closed off to provide a space for ambulances. As I walk down Manette Street, two green-clad paramedics run past me with an empty stretcher.
On Charing Cross I have to squeeze past another crowd, this time not for Pride but for a protest against animal cruelty. Outside the Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant, activists are chanting: ‘Meat is murder! Stop the slaughter!’
* * *
I’m having problems with procrastination. One tip which many books suggest is to say to yourself ‘be here now’. It’s meant to bring a wandering mind gently back to the work in hand. Only this is unhelpful to anyone who remembers the British music scene in the 1990s. ‘Be Here Now’ just make me think of the third Oasis album, that defining symbol of Britpop excess and indulgence, where all the songs were too long and too over-produced. It’s a manifestly bad piece of work. So to say ‘be here now’ as a motivational tool is to say ‘think about that bad Oasis album’. It’s not helping.
Tags: american psycho
, ben goldacre
, chris marker
, cloud atlas
, hari kunzru
, kader attia
, Martin White
, whitechapel gallery
Choose Your Own Adventure
Saturday 17th May 2014. Hot and sticky in London. The British Library café is still very busy: lots of students testing each other on their revision. I’m polishing my final essay for the year, adding a few more secondary references, checking the whole essay ticks the right boxes, and then just re-reading it for grammar and general flow. I’m forcing myself to do six drafts this time, one draft per day. Whatever the mark is, at least I know I’ve put the hours in. It wasn’t so long ago that I left essays until the night before the deadline. That’s simply unthinkable now.
* * *
Sunday 18th May 2014. The Boogaloo bar now has a little den in the back yard, decked out entirely with references to the Tony Scott / Quentin Tarantino film True Romance. It’s called ‘Alabama’s’.
* * *
Tuesday 20th May 2014. To the Barbican to see the The Two Faces of January. A mere £5 for students on Tuesdays. It’s my first visit to the centre’s new Cinema Café building in Beech Street, two blocks away from the main Barbican complex. The venue consists of two cinema screens (officially the Barbican’s Cinema 2 and 3) and a large, not-too-trendy café. There’s plush high-backed chairs and sofas, and lots of tables for laptop users. And indeed, for exam revision groups, of which there’s several in evidence today: young people huddled over textbooks and ring binders.
It’s warm weather, and I watch The Two Faces Of January in Cinema 2 while wearing my cream linen suit, now getting somewhat threadbare and needing replacing. As it happens, the main character in the film, played by Viggo Mortensen, wears exactly the sort of suit I’m after. I miss whole sections of the plot due to staring at the suits. But that’s as good a reason for seeing a film as any.
It’s a very old fashioned film: a Patricia Highsmith adaptation, set in 1962 across Athens, Crete and Istanbul. The usual Highsmith elements are present and correct: morally dodgy men in sunny locations, arguments that quickly turn into violence, crime as a kind of filler for holes in masculinity, and subtexts of male-on-male obsession. The only 21st century thing about it is the warning of adult themes on the BBFC certification card, which precedes the film:
12A: Contains infrequent strong language, moderate violence & scenes of smoking.
* * *
Wednesday 21st May 2014. I finish and deliver the essay, thus ending my college work for the third year. The courses I chose for this year were all essay based, with no exams whatsoever. I don’t miss exams in the slightest, but I do miss the sense of a dramatic finale that they can create.
At Birkbeck, all essays have to be delivered electronically, via a link on the college’s website. But most of the tutors still ask for a paper copy as well. The student must print one out and take it to a special post box, being a slot in the reception of the Gordon Square building. And this is the case for today’s final essay. So I do get a little sense of an ending after all – it’s the moment when my fingers let go of the envelope when I drop it into the post box. Gone. Done. Third year over.
I now have no deadlines hanging over me for the first time since December last year, and won’t have to think about new ones until October this year. So I’m looking upon the next week or so as a proper holiday. Albeit on a budget. I have no money to travel, so it has to be a holiday in my own bedsit, punctuated with the cheaper pleasures of London. This suits me fine, though. Free time can be luxury enough.
* * *
In the evening: I attend a free Birkbeck event at Waterstones bookshop, Gower Street. It’s a talk with Travis Elborough about his various non-fiction books, including A London Year. The host is Joe Brooker, one of the head tutors on my English programme. He comments how A London Year might be best read by using the index in the back to choose different themes, rather than reading it linearly from start to finish. Though he doesn’t use the term, to me this makes A London Year a good illustration of the city as hypertext. Hypertext is now woven into so many day-to-day lives that it’s easy to forget about its usage as a metaphor. It’s the navigation of a large mass of material by cutting a path through the layers, pushing through the text via a lateral dimension.
On the Web, the hypertext element is the choice of one’s own reading path by clicking on links. Likewise A London Year, when read via choices made in the index, and likewise London itself. You have to take your own forked path through the many worlds and layers of the city, in both space and in time. Piercing the palimpsest.
Perhaps my own generation might think of hypertext theory in relation to those Choose Your Own Adventure books of the 1980s. You didn’t read them from start to finish; you chose links to different sections, and so produced your own text. What, after all, is the appeal of London but as a giant game of Choose Your Own Adventure?
Thursday 22nd May 2014. Heavy rain and thunderstorms. Possibly because it’s World Goth Day and Morrissey’s birthday.
I go to Jackson’s Lane Community Centre to vote. Two elections this time. One is for the European Parliament, one for local councils. I am the only one in the polling station. On the internet and in the news it feels like everyone is interested in politics. When you actually go to vote, it feels like no one is.
* * *
In the evening I go to the Muswell Hill Odeon for The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time, one of the National Theatre’s ‘Live’ screenings. It’s my first time to such an event. For the last few years, the NT has teamed up with cinemas to screen live broadcasts of their plays at the South Bank. Or in this case, a synchronised repeat screening of a past live broadcast. It’s an inspired solution for those who like theatre but can’t make it to the NT, as there’s the theatrical sense of a shared, one-off experience to the screenings. It’s not quite like being in a theatre, but neither is it a normal trip to the cinema.
In this case, the recording of the Curious Incident play is from 2012, during its original setting at the NT’s Cottesloe space. The audience are arranged on tiers, looking down onto a stage in the round. The play uses a lot of choreography aimed at a vertical view, to such a degree that at times it’s like a scaled-down Busby Berkeley film. The stage is marked out in tiny squares like a maths exercise book, and there are so many intricate projections and lighting effects – not to mention live animals – that the technical rehearsal must have gone on for days. The recreation of the A Level Maths question from the end of the novel is quite brilliant – a seamless blend of acting, direction, animation and sheer nerve. Mum has gone to one of the screenings in Suffolk, so we discuss it over the phone afterwards.
* * *
Late night: I watch a little of the election coverage on TV. Some election-speak: ‘No overall control’. It’s one of those phrases which I feel is somehow criticising me personally. Like ‘approval needed’ at the supermarket.
Tags: a london year
, curious incident of the dog in the night-time
, linen suits
, NT live
, the two faces of january
, travis elborough
, true romance
Saturday 5th April 2014.
I finish the essay on Austen and Beckford, and start researching one on the Fin De Siecle. This one is about the female flaneur of 1890s London (the flaneuse), and whether such a person could exist on the same terms as a male stroller. In the Sherlock Holmes story ‘A Scandal In Bohemia’, Irene Adler uses a male disguise to turn the tables on Holmes and Watson. After being followed for most of the story, she stalks them right back, and defeats them. But it’s significant that Irene Adler calls her male clothes her ‘walking clothes’.
The poet Amy Levy had a different solution to exploring the fin-de-siecle streets: her ‘Ballad of the Omnibus’ claims the view from the top deck of a bus as her own. It’s also interesting she chooses the bus over the steam-powered underground train, not just because of the view but because the Tube – then as now – encouraged its passengers to gaze at each other. As a result, the bus provided more freedom from objectification than the Tube.
It’s certainly an issue this week, anyway, with discussions in the press over the ethics of the Facebook group ‘Women Who Eat on the Tube’. It’s a club where women are photographed without their consent, having their lunch on the Underground. The fact the group was set up by a man didn’t help his unconvincing defence on Radio 4’s Today programme, where he called it ‘a field study’. Monday coming sees a protest event in London called ‘Women Who Eat Wherever The F*** They Want’. So here’s to the ladies who lunch.
What might change now is the use of smartphone cameras to belittle people. In the same way that the Highway Code came along years after people were driving cars, codes of conduct for smartphone ‘stranger-shaming’ (as it’s called) will probably be required before long. The anger over Women Who Eat On Tubes might the beginning of this.
* * *
Monday 7th April 2014.
To the BFI IMAX to see Derek Jarman’s Blue, the 1993 film. It features a single frame of blue set to an impressionistic soundscape of Jarman’s diaries and poetry, mostly on the subject of his deteriorating health through AIDS, particularly his bouts of blindness. Back in 1993, Blue was something of a broadcasting event: Channel 4 screened the film without a single advert break, as part of a ‘simulcast’ with BBC Radio 3 FM, so people could get the full benefit of the stereo effects. This was before TVs came with stereo sound. It’s difficult to think of Channel 4 working with Radio 3 again, at least not on such an uncompromising arthouse film project.
The IMAX event is introduced by Jarman’s partner Keith Collins, who now has incredibly long hair, while Simon Fisher Turner, its main composer, mentions that at the time of the Blue TV broadcast, he only had a black and white set. So for him it was Grey.
I’m slightly disappointed that the full height of the IMAX screen isn’t used, but I suppose that would have meant a special reformatting. But the sound is perfect, and the whole event feels properly immersive, so that’s the main thing. Momus and the Durutti Column are also on the soundtrack, and it’s not often you hear their music in an IMAX cinema.
One of the final lines in Blue is ‘No one will remember our work / Our life will pass like the traces of a cloud’. For all the sadness of the subject matter, the uplifting message is that Jarman’s work is now more popular than ever. There was a book of his sketchbooks last year, a book of poetry out this year, plus the major BFI season, which ends with this IMAX screening. And there’s more to come. I bump into Charlie M in the foyer. She’s involved with another new Jarman book, this time about his Super 8 films.
* * *
Tuesday 8th April 2014.
To the ICA cinema for a new experimental film, Visitors. It’s by the Koyaanisqatsi director Godfrey Reggio, and like that earlier work it consists of a parade of images without dialogue, set to a foreboding Philip Glass soundtrack. Whereas the 1980s film had speed-ed up cityscapes in colour (much imitated in TV adverts ever since), Visitors is in black and white, in slow-motion, and is made up mostly of close ups of human faces against a black backdrop. There’s also some disembodied hands, seagulls, tower blocks against clouds, a lunar landscape, and a gorilla. But its main triumph is the use of black and white in digital high definition, which I’ve not seen before. It gives the faces a kind of spooky, polished, almost metallic texture. Even the gorilla.
At one point the projector breaks while the sound continues. We sit in the darkness for a good ten minutes before anyone realises it’s not intentional. I quite enjoy the moments when something goes wrong in a film screening. It means you can play Which Audience Member Is Going To Get Up And Do Something (A tall man in a white t-shirt nearest the back, in this case).
* * *
Wednesday 9th April 2014.
Mr O’Boyle, the owner of the Boogaloo bar on Archway Road, shows me how the venue has been redecorated. The red colour scheme has been changed to a greyish-green. On the wall near the bar there’s now a framed photo of myself with Shane MacGowan. It’s from our trip to Tangier in 2007. We’re sitting at a table in the El Minzah hotel, with me in a white suit, trying to look like Paul Bowles.
When I returned to the Minzah in 2009, I saw that a copy of the same photograph had been put up above the wine bar. What particularly pleased me was that it was next to one of Rock Hudson in the 1970s. Hence my expression in this photograph (taken in Tangier, 2009, by Ms Crimson Skye):
* * *
Friday 12th April 2014.
Sue Townsend dies. Creator of Adrian Mole, the greatest diarist in fiction, and as a fictional character up there with the best in any medium full stop. According to the appendix of a reissued edition, the first two Adrian Mole books were the number one and number two bestselling British novels of the 1980s.
She had an unfair reputation that she was somehow past her best after that, partly because Mole was so associated with the 1980s, but also because the idea of him getting older couldn’t compete as a concept: self-deluding teenage boys are funny, self-deluding men less so. But when you read the later books this proves to not be true: he just became more like Mr Pooter or Alan Partridge (and indeed the Partridge ‘memoir’ I Partridge owes a lot to Adrian Mole’s adult diaries).
I enjoyed the way the aging Mole updated his definition of being an ‘intellectual’ from understanding most of what Malcolm Muggeridge said on TV, to understanding most of what Will Self said on TV. And The Prostrate Years manages to be funny about chemotherapy – by no means an easy thing to do.
There’s a quote I remember from The Wilderness Years, when Mole is in his early twenties. It has a painfully familiar ring to it:
‘I have thrown my condom away. It had exceeded its Best Before date.’
Tags: adrian mole
, derek jarman
, irene adler
, shane macgowan
, sue townsend
Tuesday April 12th: Ms Kirsten calls me out of the blue and takes me to lunch at Cafe Rouge, Highgate. A schoolteacher, she used to live in Crouch End, but has since relocated to Cheshunt, just north of London. She’s bought a house there and is now trying for a baby with her girlfriend, with help from a clinic. Not quite IVF, but it’s something similar, with similar initials.
Ms K misses London and is a little worried how her new neighbours will accept a lesbian, mixed-ethnicity family: Cheshunt is not quite the groovy California of the film The Kids Are All Right. I forget how easy it is for a dyed-in-the-hair Londoner such as me to take the city’s tolerance for granted. Though I know I quip about being stuffed into a Wicker Hermaphrodite the moment I step outside the M25.
Wednesday 13th. A grim joke: my job advisor is losing her job. This is the NHS Working For Health service, which provides job-seeking support for people with mental health problems (in my case, depression). Like a lot of public services at the moment, the whole department is being closed down.
It’s very hard not to get enraged about this, in a country with more millionaires than ever, which can still find the money to keep one controversial foreign war going (Afghanistan) while starting a new one (Libya) without a second thought. Brent Council this week pushed through its plans to axe half its libraries. I do wonder if there’s going to be some great change coming. Perhaps not an actual revolution, but one does yearn for a shake-up of the way things are. It’s certainly hard to watch Messrs Cameron & Clegg piling on their unctuous insincerity every time they appear on television, without dreaming up scenes from the life of Robespierre.
Wednesday evening: Another memorable Boogaloo night. It’s the wake of John and June Parkhouse. An older gentlemen, John was the regular at the bar since it opened in 2002, and he was a regular for a long time before that, when it was known as The Shepherds.
(Note to some websites: John was a regular, not the owner of The Shepherds – I just confirmed this with the Boogaloo. I can just about remember the old owner myself, and his enormous dog).
Every evening at about half past ten, John would very quietly and very slowly walk in and take his seat at the bar, regardless of whatever loose decadence and noise was going on that night (such as Libertines secret gigs). I remember he was kind enough to sign my nomination papers when I ran for council election in 2006.
John’s wife June died two days after he did, and apparently they left behind little in the way of family or funds. But there are different kinds of family: tonight the Boogalo staff return the favour with a memorial and benefit night for John and June.
The host and DJ is Crouch End’s own Simon Pegg, who knew John from the Shepherds days. The special guest performer is his friend Chris Martin from Coldplay, who’s come all the way from New York just for this.
Mr Martin performs a few solo acoustic numbers. One (‘Green Eyes’) has Mr Pegg on harmonica. Another is a brand new song – called ‘Wedding Bells’, I think. He also plays the Oasis number ‘Wonderwall’, after a request from a woman in the audience. It’s not clear if she was joking or not: I rather like the idea of going to a secret gig by Mr Coldplay and asking him NOT to play a Coldplay song. But he says to her, ‘I’ll do it if you join me,’ and they sing the Oasis hit together.
Though I’ve never been a great fan of Coldplay’s music (mainly through its sheer ubiquity), Mr Martin is perfectly sweet and funny, while Mr Pegg is a rather good harmonica player. And a top DJ to boot – he spins ‘Duel’ by Propaganda along with lots of 80s pop.
I also say hello to Matt McGinn, the Coldplay roadie who’s set up an army of acoustic guitars for Mr Martin to choose from (CM makes a joke about his false modesty). I last saw Mr McGinn when he was the roadie for Kenickie, and my band Orlando toured with them.
James Walbourne’s here too, playing a set with his own group The Walbourne Bros. He’s the dazzlingly good guitarist who’s been in several Boogaloo house bands over the years, as well as the Pretenders and Edwyn Collins’s band; the latter alongside my brother.
At least one of Ant and Dec are at the gig, though no more than two.
I chat to another regular about my decision to do a degree at Birkbeck College. He tells me that before it was The Shepherds, The Boogaloo was originally known as… The Birkbeck Tavern. All these years I’ve been going to the pub, and I only find that out now. Maybe it’s a sign…
, chris martin
, job hunting
, simon pegg
Those SEO Gold Mine Blues
I have something of a recurring headache, which I think is part of a sinus-y head cold, but that’s still no excuse for going for days without writing. If I’m going to start a degree in the Autumn, I have to nip this particular bad habit in the bud, or else it’ll be a waste of everyone’s time.
I’ve written an article about the history of the Bohemian Bedsit for the New Escapologist Magazine, issue #5. Did lots of Proper Research, so hopefully readers will come away All The Better. It can be purchased at http://newescapologist.co.uk/shop/
I’ve also been invited to give a 15 minute talk at The Camden School Of Enlightenment on May 10th. My contribution is called A Field Guide To Fetishes. I’ll be discussing the strange and wonderful words given to lesser-known naughty inclinations, such as tripsolagnia, the sensation of arousal from having one’s hair shampooed. The event is free. More information at http://www.csofe.co.uk/
Money! I am contacted out of the blue by someone who does ‘SEO’ advert placing. As in Search Engine Optimisation. It’s a phrase that currently crops up all the time in job ads: the skill of getting a company’s website ranking high in Google searches. My diary has a certain value in the SEO stakes purely by lasting so long. If you start a blog in 1997, by 2011 there’ll be so many links to it scattered around the Web, your Google ranking will be high by default. It’s one reason why searching on Google for ‘Dickon’ will get this diary first, ahead of anything to do with The Secret Garden or that Dickon out of the Tindersticks who does music for Oscar-nominated films. Like some grizzled prospector of the Wild West, I sit here on top of my SEO gold mine, awaiting offers.
First up this month is an offer from a business card company. They want me to add the phrase ‘business card’ to one of my more popular diary entries, and link this ‘search term’ to their website forever. In return, they pay me twice my weekly rent. I do it. As it is, I use the company already, so no moral dilemmas there. It’s hardly Iggy Pop and his irksome car insurance puppet.
If you’re reading this and can help me exploit this accidental asset, please do get in touch. I rather like the idea of this diary finally earning me a living.
Today: I sit in a St Pancras cafe and write a letter on headed notepaper snaffled from the Oxford And Cambridge Club. It has an unmarked entrance on Pall Mall, and is where my kind friend Minerva Miller took me for lunch last Friday. Such a beautiful place. No mobile phones allowed, high ceilings, ornate lounges and dining rooms, billiard rooms, squash courts, plush sofas everywhere, phones with which to order a gin and tonic, newspapers and magazines, green baize tables, chess boards, and library rooms with high-backed armchairs to fall asleep in. One room is decked out in more feminine decor: champagne gold & emerald green, alongside rooms in the more traditional gentlemen’s club colours, burgundy and brown, the rooms of scenes from Yes Minister.
Last Thursday night, March 17th: I look after the house and hound of Linda Seward. The house is in Primrose Hill, stuffed with books and art and no TV, while the dog is Rhum, a 15-year-old Border Terrier who’s a little hard of hearing. Rhum is pictured here by Ms Seward:
Saturday 19th March: I meet up with La John Joseph, who has a new pop persona, Alexander. We visit the Robert Mapplethope exhibition, as curated by the Scissor Sisters, then walk through Soho to have tea at Fernandez & Wells in Beak Street. JJ and his bright red raincoat get him stopped twice to have his picture taken by those ‘street style’ photographers that lurk on every Soho corner. They’re not interested in me. I wonder if I’m starting to look more normal.
Also today: I stop off at the Boogaloo and meet Mr Jupiter John, who says kind things about my diary, buys me drinks and gives me cash to become a Diary Angel. At the bar I meet Ms Kate McGann, actress and cousin of those various McGann acting brothers. She’s just appeared on the TV dating show Take Me Out. The same edition included Ms Marysia Kay, actress and actual witch, who starred in a pop video for my website host Rhodri Marsden, which I also popped up in. I say all this to point out what a connection-fest the Boogaloo is.
Elizabeth Taylor dies. I dig out my CD of Elizabeth Taylor In London (played in the Boogaloo when I DJ’d there). It’s the soundtrack to her 1963 American TV special, where she’s filmed swanning around the capital’s landmarks in various Dior ensembles, all to a swooning John Barry score. Occasionally she stops to recite London texts, chosen herself. They include Wordsworth’s Westminster Bridge, Queen Elizabeth I’s Speech to the Troops at Tilbury, and Churchill’s VE speech to the crowds in May 1945:
You have been attacked by a monstrous enemy but you never flinched or wavered. No one ever asked for peace because London was suffering. London, like a great rhinoceros, a great hippopotamus saying “Let them do their worst. London can take it.”
London could take anything.
, La John Joseph
, Oxford And Cambridge Club
, SEO hustling