The Devil Wears Car Robes

Saturday 19th September 2015.

I learn that I am affected by the Department for Work and Pensions’s ‘new rules’, and may have to get by on less than I’d thought. Much of this week is spent on the phone to their blameless staffers, resisting the urge to make comments about the whereabouts of Mr Duncan Smith’s heart. I suspect they get that a lot. They sigh down the line and use phrases such as ‘our hands are tied’. They also tell me to try the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.

This is a clever ploy, because many of the CABs are themselves on the receiving end of ‘new rules’, in the shape of government cuts. There are now fewer of them per borough, and the ones that are still going are rarely open for more than a handful of hours a week. The upshot is that I traipse over to Tottenham twice this week. There, I sit in a prefabricated bungalow located in an alleyway near Bruce Grove station, in a colourless waiting room not unlike the ones in documentaries about prisons. I have to go twice, because the first time all the appointment slots are filled up before me. The second time I go, I still have to wait two and half hours in the waiting room before finally seeing an advisor. Her advice, such as it is, is that I need to take my money woes to a more specialist office in Crouch End. And so it goes on.

I take a train from Bruce Grove into Liverpool Street, and walk around the gleaming skyscrapers of the financial district. The contrast between these looming citadels of wealth and the rundown, deprived streets of Tottenham, mere minutes away, has never been more shocking. Anyone doubting the appeal of Mr Corbyn needs to make this journey.

* * *

Sunday 20th September 2015.

Jackie Collins dies. In the papers there are a number of ‘guilty pleasure’ tributes for her novels, along with lots of photographs taken during her modelling career. Like Joan Crawford, and indeed like her own sister Joan, she managed to project a level of camp at every stage. A picture from 1956 shows a 19-year-old Jackie at an Earl’s Court motor show, posing with ‘The Goggomobil T300 – the smallest family four-seater car on the market’. She smiles at the camera while stepping out of this stunted vehicle, showing off a zebra print two-piece which matches the car’s own upholstery. A caption confirms that her clothes are indeed designed by ‘Car Robes, makers of car seat covers’. Low Camp she may have been at the time, she went on to turn this ability into a knowing and deliberate form of High Camp, and to lucrative effect too. It is what Quentin Crisp calls getting the joke on your own terms.

* * *

Monday 21st September 2015.

I am on a bus in Crouch End when a man in a corduroy suit gets on and engages me in conversation. It turns out that he knows me from the book I Am Dandy. We have a conversation about the various definitions of dandyism, and how dandyism relates to the breaking of one set of rules while adhering to another. Then he asks me for employment advice, given he sees himself as a dandy too.

I quote Crisp on the subject – try life modelling in art schools, because it fulfils a societal role while having the mild air of scandal. The other suggestion is anything involving the use of one’s own unique persona. This can include teaching, performing, lecturing, writing, or even tour guide work. As I’ve found from my own experience, a tour guide can often be dandy-like in spirit. They can tailor the facts of a gallery or museum to fit their own bespoke personality. And of course, tour guides have to perform a form of outsider’s view, because tourists and outsiders share a common border.

I was reminded of the time I was recognised in the street for being in the band Orlando. This was long after I’d left the band and was back on the dole. The person who recognised me said that he too was in a band, and did I have any advice on how to make it in the music business?

* * *

Wednesday 23rd September 2015.

The Daily Mail runs excerpts from a unkind book on David Cameron, written by Lord Ashcroft, his former friend. Chief among the revelations – or rather, allegations – are those involving debauched conduct at Oxford University during the 80s, especially an act involving an ‘intimate part of the future Prime Minister’s anatomy’ with a dead pig’s head. What interests me is the mention of Brideshead Revisited. At the time, the TV series had apparently made such an impression on Mr Cameron’s college friends that they all wanted ‘to play at being Sebastian Flyte’ and ‘live the Brideshead lifestyle’, according to the new book. The pig incident was part of this aspiration. As tributes to Evelyn Waugh go, the very public circulation of this one takes some beating, regardless of its veracity. I think Waugh himself, who so bemoaned the defeat of the Conservatives in 1945, would have been very pleased, even proud.

* * *

Thursday 24th September 2015.

Snark: a word that combines ‘snide’ and ‘remark’, often used as a default emotion on social media. But when viewed properly, snark is just a less honest kind of loneliness.

This occurs to me when I glance at the online response to the Morrissey novel, List of the Lost, which is published today. The trouble is, it’s impossible to judge the novel for its own worth, because of who the author is. The only reviews I’d really want to read are ones from a parallel world, where it was published pseudonymously.

I will read it and judge for myself as soon as I can. But then, I’m already on its side, just because so many critics rushed to savage it. From the extracts, it sounds a little like Ronald Firbank.

* * *

Facebook can sometimes feel like a memorial of gently-faded friendships. Today the site briefly crashes. I imagine it being hacked by someone who couldn’t take any more photos of weddings they had not been invited to.

* * *

Friday 25th September 2015.

To the Invisible Dot in King’s Cross, for a comedy show by Mae Martin, ‘Us’. The venue is east of Caledonian Road, in an area of King’s Cross that the big clean-up hasn’t quite reached. The Invisible Dot is small, brick-built, and single-level, with rows of skylights; probably a former workshop or garage. The stage is flanked by two toilets, which turns out to be something of a design flaw. Anyone getting up to use the toilet immediately pulls the focus of the show, and this happens towards the end of Ms Martin’s hour-long set. I wonder if her friendly persona allows it to happen, more so than it would for other performers. Her comedy style is a kind of sweet and knowing nervousness (belied by her years of experience). She also channels her physical androgyny into a form of female boyish charm, much like Tig Notaro. This cunningly means that it is impossible to heckle her when she’s on, as she never takes a ‘high status’ position – quite unusual for a comedian. Much of ‘Us’ is serious and heartfelt: themes of sexual identity, the pitfalls of bisexual dating, and the conflict of wanting to eschew labels while still attracting homophobic catcalls in public. I like Ms M a lot. So much so, that I wonder if I could ever do stand-up comedy myself. I already have the ill-advised suits. (This is not entirely a joke, though…)

* * *

I have my hair cut short into its natural brown, ready to be freshly re-bleached. It makes me realise how large my head is. I look like a camp Easter Island statue.

* * *

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How Big To Make The Bear

Saturday 24th January 2015. A favourite track for starting the day – and for tackling most things – is Percy Faith’s Theme From A Summer Place. It soothes with a slight smirk: a camp calmative.

* * *

Sunday 25th January 2015. Woolf’s birthday, much quotes of hers doing the rounds. Have been thinking about this one, given I’ve been reading a lot about reality and realism:

‘I haven’t that reality gift […] distrusting reality, its cheapness’. Diary, 19 June 1923.

* * *

Monday 26th January 2015. I watch the 2008 film version of Brideshead Revisited. Its two hours can’t compete with the eleven hours of the 1980s TV series, and there’s an inevitable skipping and skimming over aspects of the story which really need room to breathe. But it gives the world Ben Whishaw as Sebastian Flyte, an interpretation that makes the character vulnerable and kittenish, which in turn makes me realise how outgoing and puppyish Anthony Andrews is in the TV series. Both takes are perfectly valid: after all, critics have been arguing over the character since 1945.

The film also turns up the bisexuality aspect, moving Hayley Atwell’s Julia into scenes she wasn’t anywhere near in the novel. At one point Michael Gambon (as Lord Marchmain) faces Matthew Goode (who plays Charles Ryder), while extending his arms around Sebastian and Julia. He then says: ‘There must be many temptations for you here’. Quite.

And how apt it is now, that Ben Whishaw would go from carrying around a teddy bear, to providing the voice of Paddington. Whishaw’s teddy in Brideshead is a lot smaller than Anthony Andrews’s, though it suits his more wary performance. Perhaps that’s the first question anyone adapting Brideshead should ask themselves: how big to make the bear.

* * *

Tuesday 27th January 2015. Class on Don DeLillo’s 80s novel, White Noise. It’s my first encounter with Mr DeLillo. Very witty, without being wisecracking. Fascinating how a fear of over-consumption of information was a concern even in the 1980s. The wry scene about The Most Photographed Barn In America seems a thousand times more relevant now, in this age of the selfie-stick.

We discuss postmodernism and Thomas Pynchon. Or as he might be described, The Least Photographed Man In America.

My favourite quote from White Noise:

‘Eating is the only form of professionalism most people ever attain.’

* * *

Wednesday 28th January 2015. The Natural History Museum announces that it will remove ‘Dippy’, the diplodocus skeleton, from its main hall, having been installed there since 1979 – just before my own first visits there as a child. The choice for its replacement is fair enough, though: the huge blue whale skeleton, whose effect in the tucked-away Whale Hall has always tended to be diminished by having the 1930s plaster model of the same creature hanging alongside it. The model was later found to be biologically inaccurate, while ‘Dippy’ is only a plaster cast itself (something I didn’t know until today), so having a genuine whale skeleton as the first sight for visitors makes sense. But for me the main attraction of the Hall is really the hall itself: Waterhouse’s Romanesque architecture, with the terracotta arches and staircases, the painted ceiling panels, and the intricate animal sculptures carved into the stone.

Class at Birkbeck: Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. That this class occurs in the same week as the DeLillo is exactly the kind of coincidence that either author would relish. Both sessions include looking at the same quotes on postmodernism from Frederic Jameson. One theme of White Noise is deja vu.

* **

Thursday 29th January 2015. To the ICA for Beyond Clueless. This is a fascinating film-length essay as opposed to a documentary, made up entirely of clips from (slightly) old films, edited together and narrated over to make its points. The films under discussion are from 1994 to 2006, and are all chosen for what they have to say about American teenagers. The film’s thesis – as written by its British director, Charlie Tyne – is that Clueless marked the beginning of a new style of teenager, in the same way that John Hughes’s films (like The Breakfast Club) helped to define teenagers for the 80s. This new wave, as it were, focussed on the viciousness of power cliques, the need to conform and rebel at the same time, troubled forms of sexuality, and out-of-control instincts. Most of the choices are high school comedies and dramas (Mean Girls, The Girl Next Door, She’s All That, and the now rather shockingly titled Slap Her She’s French), but there’s also a few teen horror films (Ginger Snaps, Final Destination, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Idle Hands) art house adaptations (The Rules of Attraction), and films that have become cult classics in their own right (The Craft). They’ve all had their pop song soundtracks stripped away and replaced with a new uniform score, while the narration is by The Craft’s Fairuza Balk.

It’s more about depictions of teenage identity than it is about the films themselves, but one has the pleasure of seeing them in a fresh context. Along the way it insists that Jeepers Creepers and Eurotrip are about repressed homosexuality, while 13 Going On 30 is pernicious anti-feminist propaganda. I’m not sure I agree in all three cases, but the arguments are entertaining in themselves. To me it feels a bit like one of those Adam Curtis films, except with more footage of Freddie Prinze Jr moping about in school corridors. A slight shortcoming is that it sometimes undermines its own thesis in order to just show random montages cut to music (so exactly like Adam Curtis then, ho ho). But otherwise it’s worth seeking out. I now have an urge to re-watch Cruel Intentions.

* * *

Friday 30th January 2015.  It’s about time I recorded my gratitude to Esther Ranson, the Birkbeck School of Arts administrator. Over the past three and a half years, Ms R has not only answered my many queries about the nuts-and-bolts side of the degree course, but she has invariably done so with swiftness and in clear, calming and perfectly-written messages. Today I send her a rather meandering question about thesis word counts, which (typically) I’d been getting upset about for hours. I finally realise I should just ask Esther R about it. So I do so, and she replies within ten minutes. She gives me the precise answer I wanted, uses references to official guidelines to back it up, and makes me feel that my mind has been put at rest on the matter. I imagine she has to deal with a constant barrage of similar queries all day, both from students and staff, yet her replies never show any sign of being rushed. It’s another form of lesson.


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Between Bowie and Bronzino

Saturday 15th November 2014. I listen to an archive radio talk by Arthur Machen, about the superiority of artists who invent over those who replicate. He cites GK Chesterton on the difference between Dickens and Trollope. With Dickens, says Chesterton, the reader knows they’ll never meet his characters in real life. With Trollope, the reader never stops meeting his characters in real life. Machen concludes that Dickens was a better writer, because he added rather than reflected. He adds an anecdote about Turner:

A friendly critic once said to Turner, ‘Your pictures are undoubtedly splendid works, but I never saw such landscapes in nature as you paint.’

‘No,’ said Turner. ‘But don’t you wish you had?’

* * *

Evening: to Elton U’s house party in Ladbroke Grove. Mostly fellow Birkbeck BA English students. No particular occasion other than getting together socially. Other guests: Jasmine B, Jon S. Elton’s place is covered in books – almost every shelf of every room. I pick one up. He not only covers the margins in handwritten notes, but the inside cover pages too. Jon turns out to have had some training as a chef. He brings his own Christmas cake, and we all wolf it down.

* * *

Sunday 16th November 2014. Working on an essay on Waugh. Can’t resist bringing in a discussion on camp. I have good reason to though: Philip Core’s A-Z of camp (The Lie That Tells The Truth) gives Evelyn Waugh his own entry, plus there’s two separate entries for Brideshead Revisited. One for the novel, one for the 1981 TV series. They are filed between ‘Bowie’ and ‘Bronzino’.

* * *.

Monday 17th November 2014. I get the new Quentin Blake advent calendar from Foyles Charing Cross. Many advent calendars are reissued every year, because the dates are non-specific (eg the National Gallery’s advent calendars). But the eighty-something QB manages to put out a brand new design. This year it’s a towering, glittery snowman in the process of decoration.

* * *

A new bad habit, related to my love of eating Christmas food early: Starbucks’s eggnog flavoured lattes. I can confirm that they are overpriced sugary filth from the devil’s own armpit, and that I’ve bought about five of them in the last week. I record this purely as an act of contrition.

As it is, I’m irritated by Starbucks’s insistence on asking for a customer’s name to put on the cup, even when it’s obvious whose drink is whose. I’ve begun to work my way through an alphabet of pseudonyms each time I go to a branch: Adam, Bob, Carl, Dave, Eustace. I do this partly because people often pull a confused expression when I say ‘Dickon’, but mainly because I resent the demand full stop. The whole point of going to a franchise café is the comfort of anonymity. Still, as Ben Elton used to say, don’t blame the staff, blame the management.

* * *

Tuesday 18th November 2014. Class tonight: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Tutor: Joe Brooker. The Southern Gothic landscape drips off the page. ‘My mother is a fish’ indeed. Difficult to read without thinking one is in muddy dungarees.

* * *

Wednesday 19th November 2014. Class: Lessing’s The Grass Is Singing, set in what was then Southern Rhodesia. Tutor: Grace Halden. Fascinating how Lessing’s publisher insisted on a rape scene to be included. And that she refused, even though it was her first book.

* * *

Thursday 20th November 2014. To the Arcola Theatre in Dalston for First Love, a stage adaptation of the Samuel Beckett story. The venue is an old converted paint factory, with its history very much on display: lots of wires drooping aesthetically across exposed brickwork. I go as the guest of Hester R, fellow student on the ‘Literature 1945-1979’ course. First Love is one of our set texts.

It turns out that the production is the whole story performed as a one-man, 80 minute monologue – quite a feat of memory. That said, Hester later tells me she went to see Gatz, the full recital of The Great Gatsby on stage (about 6 hours with breaks), and that involved one actor learning the whole Fitzgerald novel. I have enough trouble remembering my door keys.

The First Love actor is bald, wiry, performs with a thick Irish accent, and wears a modern hooded top under a business suit, though the story is from the 1940s. The only set dressing is a couple of wooden benches, though these are both propped up on their sides, giving the impression they’re about to fall over at any time (again, all very Beckett). The story does involve the use of benches, and at one point the actor nearly takes one to sit on – then puts it back.

He delivers the whole piece in a state of twitchy paranoia and nervousness, often pausing as if the words are occurring to him naturally. This interpretation suits the text, but I can’t help thinking it must also come in handy for any moments where he forgets the words. No one would know.

The enduring appeal of Beckett owes something to the way he captures the universal sense of not quite coping with being in the world. Of everything and nothing. Of anywhere and nowhere. In a way, Beckett is a kind of comfort food. The great thing about nowhere is that you always know where you are.

* * *

I stay up too late to watch the result of the Rochester by-election. Why do I bother with live election TV? ‘Anything to report?’ ‘No.’  Even more depressing is that the media found something trivial to inflate into front-page significance: the Labour MP Emily Thornberry tweeting a photo of a house covered in England flags, with a white van in the drive. Her caption was simply ‘image from Rochester’. She was soon accused of anti-regional snobbery (being a London MP), and was forced to resign her place in the Shadow Cabinet. Disgrace is so very fast these days: a mere five hours from tweet to resignation. It’s one of those Thick Of It plotlines that seem unlikely to happen in real life. Until they do.

UKIP won their second seat in Rochester. Despite all the national media coverage, 50% of the electorate didn’t bother voting. The owner of the white van was one of them.

* * *

Friday 21st November 2014. To the Museum of London with Minerva M., for the Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived exhibition. We go in the evening, for one of those late openings which include a bar and special mini-events around the galleries. Many of the big London museums do these things now – it’s all about giving people an undownloadable experience. We watch a ‘Reichenbach Fall’ sideshow in which people learn how to fall a couple of feet onto a crash mat mindfully. They first have a conversation with some sort of ‘fall instructor’, then they get up on a stage, sign their name on a whiteboard under the words ‘I Want To Fall’, then topple backwards over onto the mat, to the crowd’s applause. Some of the participants imitate Benedict Cumberbatch’s crucifixion dive from Sherlock. We also watch a suitably well-dressed demonstration of Bartitsu, Holmes’s self-defence method, and a series of very funny improvisation games, by the comedy troupe Shoot From The Hip.

The exhibition itself turns out to feature plenty of serious contextual items: rare maps, photos and paintings of 1890s London, including several Whistlers and a superb Monet. Plus an early 1800s rendering of the Reichenbach Falls by JMW Turner (he really does get everywhere). Then there’s lots of film and stage posters from the umpteen SH adaptations, and Benedict C’s actual Milford coat from Sherlock, with the red buttonhole. Conan Doyle’s original stories are given the most attention – there’s a huge lit-up mural of the Dancing Men stick figures on the outside of the museum. One wall-sized quotation is from A Study In Scarlet, where Watson makes a list of ‘Sherlock Holmes: His Limits’. They include ‘Knowledge of Literature – Nil. Philosophy – Nil. Politics – Feeble’.

I think one of the reasons for the success of the character is that from the start Doyle presented him as a brilliant man with flaws. But the flaws have to be of the right kind.

I thought of the British scientist Matt Taylor, from the news this week. He was one of the Rosetta space team who’d managed to land a robot probe on a moving comet. However, he also went on TV wearing a shirt made up of illustrations of scantily-clad women. The sort of thing that even an amateur heavy metal band might view as a bit ‘unsubtle’. In a time when science still has an image problem as a male-dominated arena, this didn’t go down at all well. Dr Taylor was forced to apologise.

I suppose the moral is: even a brilliant man’s limits must have their limits.


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The Silence Of Christmas Sandwiches

Saturday 11th October 2014. I watch the new BBC documentary about Genesis, mainly because I’m curious about their 1970s prog-rock phase. Fittingly, the documentary goes on a bit.

* * *

Monday 13th October 2014. Modern signs of the seasons. In their grab-for-lunch fridge section today, Boots are stocking their Christmas ranges. Red cardboard packaging with snowflake motifs. I note how fine I am with this sort of thing, mainly because it’s not accompanied with in-store festive music – yet. It’s only unrequested noise that really depresses. Thus I come away from Boots praising the silence of sandwiches.

I am trying out some organic remedies for anxiety. One is rubbing warm sesame oil onto the skin. I duly give it a go, and spend the rest of the day smelling like a Chinese takeaway.

* * *

Tuesday 14th October 2014. There’s a popular Internet catchphrase, ‘You had one job’. It’s often appended to photographs of badly installed doors, lavatories, and so on. Tonight I find myself saying it while watching the BBC’s live TV coverage of the Booker Prize ceremony. Within a half hour programme of comment and preamble, a technical hitch means they miss the actual announcement. Instead the camera stays on poor Andrew Motion in emergency pundit mode, forced to fill for time with comments on the various nominees. At this point, it’s not what he says that matters, it’s only that he says something. It’s not the worse BBC Booker slip-up, though. That has to be the time in the 80s when Selina Scott not only failed to recognise one of the judges, Angela Carter, she also asked her what her favourite one on the list was. ‘You’re not supposed to ask me that,’ said Ms Carter.

More recently, Howard Jacobson’s acceptance speech was cut off by the BBC News channel in mid-sentence. This was in order to go live to the trapped Chilean miners, where something was said to be happening. It wasn’t.

* * *

Tonight’s Birkbeck class (Joe Brooker teaching): Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. From 1909, yet still so fresh in its experimentation. I find some of the repetition hard going, but come to admire its dedication to new takes on form and subject matter. Stein’s layered rhythms take some getting used to, but then the same is said of David Peace now. ‘You can’t lose yourself in it’ remarks one student.

* * *

Wednesday 15th October 2014. Tonight’s class: Brideshead Revisited. Roger Luckhurst teaching. A nice contrast to the previous night. Decades later than Stein, yet such a throwback in style. And a throwback for many of Waugh’s admirers, too. Its wistful love of the aristocracy still provokes, just as it did on publication. Yet it was a hit with the book buyers of the 1940s. Professor L suggests that the popularity of the 1980s TV series may have had something to do with the gloom of Thatcherism at the time. An understandable response, just as Waugh’s novel was his understandable response to WW2.

Prof L also recounts how a fellow tutor was appalled at having to teach the book on another module. ‘You’ve reminded me who the enemy are.’

I suppose in theory I should be against it too. Yet the wit and craft of his writing sparkles and connects. Universal sentiments, despite all the elitism. Certainly Waugh himself was often snobbish and misanthropic in his interviews – but then much of the time he was something of a wind-up merchant. There’s a Paris Review piece where he insists on getting into his pyjamas and doing the interview in the hotel bed, smoking a cigar. When the interviewer asks him to comment on something by Edmund Wilson. Waugh replies, ‘Is he an American?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I don’t think what they have to say is of much interest, do you?’

* * *

Thursday 16th October 2014. In the British Library, very much a welcoming oasis for those with laptop lives, with its free wifi, pleasant atmosphere and lack of piped music. The BL has now somehow squeezed dozens of attractive new study tables into its lobby and café areas, thus freeing up more desks in the reading rooms for those who actually need to consult the BL’s books. Certainly the Rare Books Reading Room seems quieter than it has been. The new lobby tables are packed for much of the day. I look out at them: a sea of faces all lit by the glow of their respective screens. Life in 2014. Footlight faces.

I read a lecture by Shirley Jackson. It’s on the response to her short story, ‘The Lottery’, upon its publication by the New Yorker in 1948. She received hundreds of scathing letters, including one from her mother. ‘It does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?’

* * *

Friday 17th October 2014. To the East Finchley Phoenix for Effie Gray, the new Emma Thompson-scripted period drama. It’s pretty to look at, and the true story it tells is fascinating enough, but somehow it feels cold and unengaging. Maybe that’s the fault of the story in question, being the coldness of the marriage between art critic John Ruskin and nineteen-year old Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray. Ruskin was about thirty at the time, though in this film he seems much older. I wonder if this was a deliberate move to play up the age difference, because it’s certainly accentuated by a flashback scene, with Ruskin taking an even younger Effie around a museum. There’s hints of a Lewis Carroll theory here – Ruskin had known Effie since she was twelve and even wrote a fairy tale for her, The King of the Golden River. The film also begins with Effie retelling her marriage aloud as if that were a fairy tale. A few minutes in we get the expected wedding night scene, where Ruskin is appalled by his wife’s naked body. Although Emma T seems unwilling to subscribe to the theories as to which specific body parts put him off, for me the film suggests it was her whole adulthood that appalled him. The rest of the film is essentially her moping around unhappily, if immaculately in picturesque settings, particularly Venice and rural Scotland. The casting of Dakota Fanning is perfect. At times she resembles the saddest yet best dressed doll in the shop, at others like she’s just walked out of a Holman Hunt.

The film’s poster has been all over the walls of Tube stations lately. It is slightly misleading, as it juxtaposes Ms Fanning next to Millais’s masterpiece Ophelia, familiar to any visitor of the Tate Britain. This might make people think Effie was that painting’s model. Millais himself is in the film all right – as a better lover for Effie – but there’s no direct reference to the painting other than in a montage of Pre-Raphaelite hits. Perhaps a mention of its true model, Lizzie Siddall, would have been too much for the story. After all, Ms Siddall had a pretty interesting life herself – doubtless to be covered in another film sometime.

There seems to be no shortage of art biopics. Tonight’s screening comes after a trailer for Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, with Timothy Spall as the shimmery dauber. And there in the trailer is another version of John Ruskin. Sibelius is meant to have said, ‘No one ever erected a statue to a critic’. But they certainly put them into films.

Effie Gray had to fend off lawsuits from other writers, who apparently had similar ideas for adapting the tale. There’s no ending to the interest in flawed fame. In the credits, I notice that Young Effy is played by Tiger Lily Hutchence, the daughter of Paula Yates and Michael Hutchence. She must certainly know something about private lives becoming public narratives.


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A Very Big-Hearted Shrug

Saturday 2nd August 2014. Around the back of St Pancras station, I stumble upon a brand new public library. A rare thing in this era of cuts and closures. Camden Council has moved its St Pancras branch to a freshly-built building, 5 Pancras Square. There’s a leisure centre below, council offices above, the main library is up on the second floor, and there’s a pleasant café on the first floor, next to the children’s library. It’s a typical modern building: the usual open plan rooms, high ceilings, plate glass outer walls. Space, transparency, glass, geometry. I sit and watch the streets below. Goods Way to my right, Pancras Road to my left, the harsh blocks of the Eurostar terminus on one side, the greenery of Camley Street Natural Park on the other. I am the only person in the café. Peace and quiet can always be found, even in Kings Cross. ‘We’re still unpacking!’ says the librarian.

* * *

Sunday 3rd August 2014. In the British Library café, the man at the table behind me has no fewer than three devices plugged into power sockets on the wall. Two sockets by his table, one by mine. He is a mass of untidy cables. Today’s devices make life more convenient in some ways, less convenient in others. ‘Wireless’ life is still yet to be wireless enough.

Hot weather. A curly-haired man walks into the BL café wearing denim shorts that are so short, heads turn en masse. He was born to justify the adjective ‘callipygian’ – ‘possessing well-shaped buttocks’. Not necessarily to everyone’s taste, though. I once knew a woman who liked her men to be so skinny that the seat of their trousers had to hang as a sheer drop. That was her main requirement – a complete absence of buttock definition. So there needs to be a word for that too. It would be particularly useful when describing indie guitar bands.

* * *

Monday 4th August 2014. This week’s reading is Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I sit in libraries and cafes reading it, accidentally dressed like one of its characters. It’s one of those novels that comes with a defensive-yet-defiant preface, the author alluding to a second story – that of the book’s first reception. Dorian Gray has one, which Wilde disguises as a list of aphorisms. Jane Eyre as well, and Oliver Twist: ‘the girl is a prostitute’. So shocking at the time. Thus Waugh’s preface apologies for some aspects of Brideshead, while being defiant about others. In 1944, he was so convinced that England’s country houses would vanish overnight that he stuffed the novel with a wistful ‘gluttony’ for the past. In the 1960 preface, he admits to finding this aspect ‘distasteful’ and offers the novel as a ‘souvenir’ – but crucially, of his feelings during WW2. So the preface is a memory (1960) of a memory (1944) of a memory (the 20s and 30s). And here I am, recording my memory of spending some time in 2014 reading that. All is explanation, reflection, apology, and not apology.

I also can’t resist revisiting the 80s TV series (no surprises, no apologies). It too is a kind of gluttony, with its many hours of screen time, its lavish detail and locations. An early version of the box set immersive TV drama. A kind of Game of Thrones of its day. All fantasy of a kind. Anthony Andrews, Jeremy Irons, Diana Quick. How can anyone not want to leap through the screen and run off with them?

* * *

Thursday 7th August 2014. To the British Library for its big summer exhibition, Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK. There is a sign on the poster for the show encouraging ‘parental guidance for the under 16s’. The poster makes this clear, too: an excellent new Jaimie Hewlett design, featuring a depressed costumed heroine slumped against an alley wall, brandishing a hip flask. The exhibition is constantly busy, with queues for some of the displays. I spend some of my visit looking discreetly at the visitors, partly because they’re in the way of the comics, but mostly because I’m curious to see what sort of people are interested in a comics exhibition today. There’s the expected amount of solitary, loafing men (and I am one too), but they do not dominate the crowd. Instead, there’s women with punkish haircuts and summer dresses, couples, besuited business people, foreign tourists, and hipster academics who narrate everything too loudly.

The show is fascinating, and full of unexpected curiosities. There’s a rare 1940s strip written by Bob Monkhouse, featuring monsters that look suspiciously like giant penises. I’m also intrigued by a 1970s strip by William Burroughs, a rare American in this UK-themed show. But then, he always was an exile. Any exhibition that manages to include Bob Monkhouse and William S. Burroughs (and Posy Simmonds!) can only be a good thing.

I particularly enjoy the documents that form the scaffolding behind comics. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman script is more like a chatty personal letter to a friend than a set of instructions to an artist. Alan Moore’s Watchman script is heavy in detail, yet it still leaves a lot of decisions up to the artist. The inspiring lesson from all this is that there’s no fixed way to write comics.

Peppered throughout the galleries are shop window dummies dressed as Occupy protestors, all wearing spooky Guy Fawkes masks, the ones from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. The popularity of that mask is probably more down to the Noughties movie adaptation than Mr Moore’s 1980s strip, but the point is hammered home: new international activism has a connection with old British comics. Every Bonfire Night, one used to have to explain who Guy Fawkes was to visiting foreigners. Now we can say, ‘You know those masks…?’

A minor grumble. After three years of an English Lit BA, I’ve become hard-wired to always check the source of a literary quotation. So I wince when reading the following in the exhibition guide: ‘Everything in the world is about sex except sex – Oscar Wilde’. No mention of where Wilde is supposed to have said this line. I don’t think he did say it. It’s a good quote, but it sounds a bit too twentieth-century for him.

I’m reminded of a quip by Dorothy Parker, which she definitely did say. It’s in her poem sequence ‘A Pig’s-Eye View of Literature’:

If with the literate I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it

* * *

In the evening: to the ICA for the film Boyhood. An ambitious undertaking, filmed in little annual bursts over twelve years. We watch the same four actors age by one year every fifteen minutes: the boy, his older sister, their mother, and their divorced father. The actual story is very slight – nothing too dramatic happens to the boy. His mother goes through a series of bad husbands, but otherwise he has a fairly safe, middle-class Texas upbringing, taking in references to the Iraq war, the last Harry Potter books, the rise of Obama, smartphones, and eventually Facebook. What the film does pull off is an all-encompassing sense of compassion and awareness of mortality: that time passes, life passes with it, we all watch it go, so we might as well be kind to each other. It’s one big shrug, but it’s a very big-hearted shrug.


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