The Most Important Thing You’ve Not Said
Monday 11th July 2016. I’m ashamed to have let this diary go fallow for longer than usual. There’s no excuse other than the despair brought on by general worries about money, or my lack of it, or my career, or my lack of one, or the usual anxieties over various health problems. Though I have yet to be diagnosed with anything other than that – anxiety. But there it is.
Listening to In Our Time today, I note how Melvyn Bragg gently steers his contributors to stop the discussion going off on a tangent. ‘We’re running out of time, so… what’s the most important thing you haven’t said?’
That’s such a good question to ask oneself when writing. It can apply when hitting a block, or when revising a piece for publication. What’s the most important thing you’ve not said?
In the London Library, reading an essay that argues how Muriel Spark’s style is a form of dandyism. It’s an interesting thesis, based mainly on Spark’s love of Max Beerbohm, but I’m not sure it holds up. The author soon goes on to do a general, trainspotter-y appraisal of her work, with the dandyism idea all but forgotten. Were it an essay submitted to be marked at a university, its lack of focus would prevent it from getting the highest grade, the one that indicates the work is ‘good enough to be published’. And yet here it is, published.
But of course, the real lesson is that it’s better to put out flawed work than no work at all. And that if I think I can do better (and I do), I should hurry up and put out some books of my own.
Tuesday 11th July 2016. Evidence of a high ‘Threat Level’ when I visit the Museum of London. Last time, a few months ago, I simply walked into the galleries from the street, or rather from the Barbican estate’s walkways. Today it’s like going through customs. In addition to having one’s bag searched, visitors have to take anything metal off their person and put it in a Perspex tray. Then a security guard asks you to spread your arms so he can scan your body with an electronic wand. All this, so I can use the café and toilets. Visiting the BBC’s Broadcasting House is even worse though, with my bag shoved on a conveyor belt so it can go through an x-ray machine. It’s easier to rob a bank than it is to appear on Woman’s Hour.
Reading Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. It’s a set text on my MA course, and also appears in the recent BBC poll of 100 Great British Novels, the one chosen by over 80 non-British critics, where Middlemarch came top. I’m bemused that Angela Carter’s novels are absent from that list. Not even Nights at the Circus is included, a book that kept springing to mind as I read The Passion. Winterson’s book has the same mixture of magical realism and historical fiction, the same backdrop of 80s feminism, and the same heroine with a fantastical body – or at least, a body that may or may not be fantastical. Where Carter’s Fevvers has wings, Winterson’s Villanelle has webbed feet that allow her to walk on water. The key difference is in tone, so I wonder if that’s why the international critics prefer Winterson to Carter. Carter is more baroque and mocking, perhaps even hostile, while Winterson is more wistful and romantic. I’d say Winterson is closer in spirit to Woolf’s Orlando, which is also in the BBC list. Winterson seeks a balance between the imaginative and the universal. Carter, meanwhile, has less interest in meeting the reader halfway; the reader needs to leap fully into her arms. But while Winterson ends with ‘Trust me’, Carter has ‘I fooled you!’
To the Barbican for Maggie’s Plan, a new film with Greta Gerwig. It’s yet another chatty New York comedy of manners, the kind Ms G is now synonymous with. Here she plays an academic – a bluestocking who wears actual blue stockings in one scene, as part of what can only be called Hipster Quaker Chic.
Despite its US setting, the world of Maggie’s Plan is the closest to my current life that I’ve seen in the cinema. Ethan Hawke’s arts tutor is seen reading The Paris Review in bed, or sitting in college seminars discussing the use of V For Vendetta masks in Occupy demonstrations, or getting excited about an event because ‘Zizek’s speaking!’ These are all things I’ve done myself at Birkbeck.
The Zizek joke is probably lost on most non-academics. Most people go about their lives in happy ignorance of Mr Zizek. Enrol at a university today, though, and you will never hear the end of him. Judith Butler is another campus pin-up; Fredric Jameson likewise. All industries, even those that look down on celebrity culture, have their own celebrities. I think of the phrase Anita Brookner said about great writers: ‘saints for the godless’.
Wednesday 13th July 2016. Mr Cameron leaves Downing Street, handing over the keys to the Thatcher-esque Theresa May. She in turn anoints Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. What with this and the Labour party in disarray over its leadership, British politics has never felt more unstable, even unreal. But then it’s the same in America, with the unlikely Mr Trump. He is a master of what the internet calls ‘trolling’: saying provocative things for attention. It used to be a tactic for lonely Star Trek fans trying to get attention on message boards. Now it’s a career plan for columnists and politicians.
The world is now so jaded that it can only go for the option that looks the most like sugary, knee-jerk fun. It’s more fun to either be outrageously right-wing, or to pay attention to the outrageously right-wing. Twitter makes Daily Mail readers of people who used to cross the road to avoid being seen with the newspaper. ‘Look at what this right-wing newspaper or person has said now.’ Link. Attention paid, career made.
If you don’t mind being hated by strangers, the world is at your feet.
Thursday 14th July 2016. One summer project is that I’m working on a book of my selected diary entries from 1997 to now, one that can hold up as a decent work of memoir. It would be honed down to the more useful parts, the lines of hope to the lonely and strange, along with the lines that present an alternative chronicle of London. A less heard voice, one hopes. Proposed title: Dysfunctional Dandy. I’ll put it together first, then seek out a publisher. It needs to be about the size of Woolf’s Writer’s Diary.
Friday 15th July 2016. Took an online vocabulary test. ‘Top 0.01%. You are Shakespeare!’
Saturday 16th July 2016. To the Photographer’s Gallery off Oxford Circus, to see the exhibition Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity. A proper summer is now finally upon London, with temperatures over 30 C, so air conditioned galleries like the PG become ideal places to cool off.
The dandyism show is curated by Ekow Eshun, and it’s really his idea of what the slippery d-word means. Dandyism rather than dandies: a practice rather than an identity. Eshun regards black dandyism as a form of protest and subversion, linking it with quotes by Fanon such as:
‘I grasp my narcissism with both hands and turn my back on the degradation of those who would make me a mere mechanism.’ – Black Skin, White Masks.
I bristle, however, when Eshun muddles the definition by including images of men in duos or groups. Dandyism is dependent on individuality, on standing ‘on an isolated pedestal of self’, as Ellen Moers has it in her book The Dandy. A group of young men posing in unusual clothes is not dandyism, but subculture.
Otherwise, the show impresses, cramming a wide range of history and geography into a couple of rooms. From Soweto to Mali to New York, and from the early 1900s to the present. The question of dandyism redefining masculinity is also addressed: I love Kristen-Lee Moolman’s portrait of a South African man in a flared white suit with bare shoulders, matching pearl earrings and necklace, standing defiantly in a tough-looking township.
Am smug to notice that a huge image from the set of Isaac Julien’s 1989 film Looking for Langston includes the staircase of the Midland Grand hotel in St Pancras, years before the Spice Girls used it for ‘Wannabe’. In an alcove, a display of books and albums makes valid connections between dandyism, musicians like Prince, and the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, thus bringing the show right up to date.
I bump into Stephen Eastwood, who is with his friend Caroline. Am delighted to be spotted wandering around a dandyism exhibition. There’s a moving slideshow in the foyer called ‘What Soho Wore’, consisting of images of club goers through the decades. Caroline poses in front of one of the images. It’s of her younger self in the late 90s, standing on another recognisable staircase – the red-painted one at the Ghetto club near Tottenham Court Road station. The Ghetto was demolished by the Crossrail works, so any photos of its clientele preserve the building as much as the people.
I myself have appeared in a similar set of photos on the Vice website, on 90s and early 2000s nightlife. The photographer is Adam Friedman. My one is from the club Trash.
Photo by Adam Friedman. Taken from the Vice article ‘Photos of People Looking Joyful and Unbothered in 80s and 90s Clubs’.
Someone linked to it online saying ‘Look, a young Dickon Edwards’.
I shuddered. A feeling that the game’s up. Or at least, that game’s up. But also that my history is now History, capital H. I was there. I was a camera, now I am an archive. The game now, at the age of 44, is to work out how best to mine this strata of experience, this bank of knowledge that no one under 40 has, so it can fuel a viable income.
I take a look at the other main exhibition, Terence Donovan: Speed of Light. I knew about Donovan’s reputation as a chronicler of Swinging London in the 1960s, so seeing images of a young Terence Stamp, Julie Christie and the other usual 60s faces is no surprise. What I didn’t know was that Mr Donavan was also behind that most heterosexual of 1980s pop videos, Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’. The video plays on a large screen in the gallery. Mr Palmer mimes in shirt and tie, looking the epitome of the American Psycho alpha male, while his backing ‘band’ are a group of identically-styled female fashion models, all in slicked-back hair and slinky black dresses, posing like dead-eyed mannequins, and barely able to mime to their instruments at the same time. There’s a Christmassy parody of the video in Love Actually, with Bill Nighy instead of Palmer, and the models in Santa hats.
Most fascinating of all is Donovan’s typed proposal for the ‘Addicted To Love’ concept, making it clear how the glossy and sexist world of advertising was the whole point of the video. He asks for a group of ‘models in Azzedine Alaia dresses – he produces clothes that make men become quite irrational… Hair should be slicked flat and shiny… [the models should be] repositories of sensuality… The video should be saturated in the unyielding quality that really sensational women possess… Any 20 seconds of it would be just as powerful as seeing the full video’. Which is quite true: it’s not so much a performance as a tableau.
A further 80s video by Mr Donovan plays in the exhibition, ‘Madame Butterfly’ by Malcolm McLaren. Again, Donovan parades lots of skinny, slick-haired models, though this time they’re less robotic and more sensual, sweating skimpily in a Sapphoerotic sauna, giving each other slow massages, while never, ever smiling (this is the 1980s). It reminds me of that Burne-Jones painting at the Tate, The Golden Stairs, where all the women have the same face. Female beauty – white female beauty – as a shored-up abstraction, without any troublesome trace of individuality. It makes the Terence Donovan show a rather good contrast with the black male dandyism show downstairs.
Tuesday 19th July 2016. To a basement lecture hall in Birkbeck’s Torrington Square building, for a discussion of Deleuze and psychoanalysis. I’m mainly there because, as Maggie’s Plan has it, ‘Zizek’s speaking!’ Slavoj Zizek has been officially attached to Birkbeck for some years, as International Director of the Institute of Humanities. Despite this I’ve never seen him speak after five years of being an arts student there. So tonight I fix that, and am not disappointed.
His distinctive voice arrives several seconds before the rest of him, chatting to the other people on the panel as they enter together. He is satisfyingly loud and animated, with that heavy East European accent and lateral lisp; proof that a speech impediment need be no impediment to public speaking. I take some personal comfort from this, as a lateral lisper myself. And then there’s his catchphrase, ‘And so on, and so on’. Other speakers at his events don’t stand a chance.
That said, Aaron Schuster, whose new book The Trouble With Pleasure the event is nominally about, does his best to hold his own. The discussion centres on the nature of complaining – how much pleasure is there in making a complaint? Is it ‘the motor of creation’? Sophocles’s line for Oedipus is an example of the Pure Complaint, one with no remedy – ‘It would be better to have never been born’. The talk takes in the Jewish word ‘kvetch’, the idea that all operas are based on complaints, and the dignity of prisoners in Auschwitz, when they complained about the food. I’d say that a large amount of social media is about The Complaint too, as a primary expression of basic existence. On Twitter, a common sentiment is ‘I complain therefore I am’. FFS ergo sum.
Wednesday 20th July. To the BFI Southbank, still called the National Film Theatre on some of the signposts at Waterloo. I see the newly restored print of Akenfield (1974). The film is directed by Peter Hall and adapted from the Ronald Blythe book, but it’s also, as the opening credit has it in large and proud letters, ‘made by the people of Suffolk’. The sweeping Tippett music is all the more effective when blasting out of auditorium speakers; a reminder that it’s worth going to the cinema for the sound as much as the visuals. There’s a Q&A afterwards with two of the actors, Garrow Shand and Barbara Tilney, plus the producer Rex Pyke. Mr Shand says he appeared in the film by answering an advert in the East Anglian Daily Times. It was looking for local young men who could ‘act and drive a plough’. He grew up on a farm, so the ploughing part came naturally. Akenfield’s strange, organic style manages to nod to both experimental European cinema and English community stage plays, though Ms Tilney now compares the use of non-actors to The Only Way Is Essex, ‘except in the past’.
I stick around in the BFI to see another restored old film, Burroughs: The Movie, a documentary on the Naked Lunch author from 1983. William S Burroughs’s dandyism impresses: three piece suits, hats and ties. A well-dressed corpse. He shows the camera his collection of weapons, stashed around his bedroom. A machete in a sock drawer, a pistol under the pillow. ‘You seem well prepared for a home invasion,’ says the director. ‘Well… I’m hoping there won’t ever be one,’ says Burroughs. ‘I deplore violence.’
Friday 22nd July 2016. Finish reading Miranda Sawyer’s Out of Time, her book on the mid-life crisis. I picked it up partly because of my own mid-life worries, but also because she’s roughly the same generation as me, and was a music journalist during the 1990s. She half-jokes, half-complains at one point about only being asked to appear on TV whenever there’s a discussion of Britpop or Madchester. Amusingly, though, she does begin one sentence with the words, ‘Shaun Ryder once said to me…’
She discusses how the term ‘mid-life’ was coined in the 60s and taken seriously in the 70s. Since the 80s, though, it became the butt of jokes and humour books. Indeed, one of the current bestselling books is The Ladybird Book of the Mid-Life Crisis, one of the umpteen Ladybird parodies. Why isn’t this choice of subject matter questioned, asks Ms Sawyer, and I agree with her. Why would, say, The Ladybird Book of Mental Illness be thought in bad taste, but the mid-life crisis is fair game?
Ms Sawyer suggests that as her own generation were the children of rave culture, they became the first to truly refuse to grow up, pursuing personal bliss as a priority. She says that at the height of the Ecstasy years, there was an article in a newsletter for clubbers imploring them not to quit their day jobs. The author – a rave promoter – was genuinely worried that society would fall apart.
The problem now, says Ms Sawyer, is that many of this freelance-heavy generation may be making a living, but live on much tighter budget than their forty-something counterparts in the past. Thanks to the internet killing off print, the fees in journalism are now pitiful, even for those with decades of experience. I’m a little shocked when she mentions she only has a couple of hundred pounds in her bank account, and that she can’t afford to upgrade her gardenless London flat. On top of this, she’s raising two children, the second of which she had at the age of 44 – something which is also increasingly common.
Of her advice to fellow mid-lifers, I like her tip about spending no more than two hours at a party, such as from 9.30pm to 11.30pm. No one really cares how long you’re at a party for. Just being there to say hello is enough to keep friendships fresh. Certainly fresher than only ever making contact on social media.
Tuesday 27th July 2016. I meet Charlie M in the Brill Café in Exmouth Market. The café is partly a record shop, selling new vinyl and CDs. Today it has the new Radiohead and the new Bat For Lashes. How funny to think that vinyl has become the connoisseurs’ format, and more expensive than CDs. It was the other way around in the late 80s, with CDs as the pricier, more elitist option. Some vinyl reissues are rebranded with the word ‘legacy’.
Charlie and I walk to the Victoria Miro gallery to see the Yayoi Kusama show, only to find there’s a queue some hundred-strong, stretching all the way down Wharf Road. Thankfully we agree that no art is worth that amount of queuing, not in a city so stuffed with alternatives. We head off to see the Punk 1976-78 exhibition at the British Library instead. The same space has had queues itself, for the Alice in Wonderland display late last year, but I’m confident that fewer tourists are drawn to Johnny Rotten. Music divides more than fiction, and punk rock still has a baffling or even frightening aspect, I think.
At a British Library talk on the exhibition recently, it was reported that Viv Albertine, the guitarist from the Slits, scrawled some graffiti on one of the information panels, the one that introduces the whole display. She accused the text of perpetuating punk rock as a boys’ club, and crossed off ‘Sex Pistols’, ‘the Clash’ to write in ‘X Ray Spex’, ‘Siouxsie and the Banshees’ and ‘The Slits’. She also signed these annotations. The BL has left them intact some weeks later. I suppose it helps that (a) the graffiti is in the spirit of the exhibition, and (b) Ms Albertine is a piece of Punk Rock History herself.
On another panel, Gina Birch’s name is misspelt as ‘Gina Burch’. I’m tempted to get out a pen and correct that myself. But I am not a legend of punk rock.
Wednesday 28th July 2016. To the Hampstead Everyman with Jon S, to see Star Trek Beyond. £10 with my NUS card, but it’s worth it for the luxurious sofas, each one detached from the rest of the row. No juddering sensations caused by the kicks of other customers.
The new Star Trek film is the expected parade of non-stop explosions and nick-of-time action, but there’s a handful of original visuals that make it worthwhile. Not least of these is the make-up for the swashbuckling alien woman. Her character’s skin is chalk white, with black ink-blot markings, a little like the zebra dancers in the Penguin Café Orchestra’s ballet. Despite all the advances in CGI, it’s the physical design touches like this that stick in the mind.
There’s an article by Catherine Shoard in the Guardian this week that remarks on the trend for Hollywood films to cut down on dialogue and play up the visuals, so the films can play better in foreign markets. What with Instagram and emojis, the world is become more image-based. The rising popularity of cosplay, that love of dressing up at fan conventions, has made the craft of costume and make-up just as important as computer graphics.
Much of Corbyn’s popularity might be down to the cosplay compatibility of his appearance. He is the wise old wizard of every grand narrative; a Gandalf, a Dumbledore, a Ben Kenobi. His nemesis Owen Smith, meanwhile, resembles an estate agent who seems always on the verge of delivering bad news.
Thursday 29th July 2016. Lunch with Charley S in the BBC Club, near Broadcasting House. In the evening she takes me to a screening of the JT LeRoy film, Author, in the House of Vans venue under Waterloo station. I’ve been there before, when I DJ’d at an event, but I still get lost on the way. One has to find a particular exit out of Waterloo, or risk wandering along the wrong dark tunnel for some time.
Author is the only JT LeRoy documentary that’s officially endorsed by Laura Albert, the writer behind the LeRoy pseudonym. Two other documentaries have already been made of the same story, with a fourth, a dramatization, in the pipeline. If the whole basis of the documentary form is about constructing a convincing version of the truth, then it’s no wonder why the LeRoy tale should be fertile. It is a story, after all, about how people construct the truth full stop.
I’m so fascinated with the issues raised by the film that it’s difficult for me not to go into another 5000 words of discussion. It touches on so many subjects, and resembles a whole set of fairy tales and fables. It merges The Emperor’s New Clothes with The Prince and The Pauper, and The Boy Who Cried Wolf. So I’ll bear in mind Melvyn Bragg’s line and keep to the most important things that I’ve not yet said.
I had some email dealings with JT LeRoy, in 2000, when I sought permission to quote from Sarah for the sleeve of the first Fosca album. JT kindly replied and said yes. So I’ll always grateful to him for that. The knowledge, gained a few years later, that I was not emailing a teenage transgender rent boy but a thirtysomething mother called Laura Albert, did throw me at first. But I shrugged. If it matters about the biography of the author, then the thing to do is point out autobiographical novels by transgender writers who are really transgender, such as Roz Kaveney’s Tiny Pieces of Skull.
I’m certainly sympathetic to the need to use a pseudonym. Author names are brands, handrails of truth and trust, or corrective stabilisers against prejudice. It’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. I think about how JK Rowling has done it twice, first as the androgynous ‘JK Rowling’, to market the first Harry Potter book to boys, then again with ‘Robert Galbraith’, so she could free up a different voice to write crime novels.
The difference with Ms Albert is that she created a whole backstory for JT LeRoy, presented that as truth, then hired a relative – Savannah Knoop – to play LeRoy at public events. Although Sarah may say ‘FICTION’ on the back cover, as Ms Albert says in the film, it was definitely marketed as autobiographical fiction. Marketing affects the choice to decide what to read, and the reading experience once that choice has been made.
The irony now is that Laura Albert’s name carries the taint of a literary hoaxer, however unfairly. She spends much of this film pointing out how hoaxes are intended to exploit the gullible and prove a point, while she just wanted to write and be read. The JT LeRoy persona was an accidental voice of hers, which became a necessary device to frame the reading experience, and then just got out of hand. The film goes some way to making all of this convincing. I suppose the problem for her now is that Author is being marketed with that one word she so vehemently denies – ‘hoax’. Because it makes for a better story.
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, British Library
, Burroughs the Movie
, Jeanette Winterson
, JT LeRoy
, Maggie's Plan
, Miranda Sawyer
, photographers gallery
, Slavoj Zizek
, Star Trek Beyond
, The Passion
Little Threads of Infinity
Sometimes, writing can feel like tugging at little threads of infinity. This is a simile suggested by the jacket I’m wearing today. It’s a beloved linen number of some ten summers, as a result of which the jacket is now unravelling along a number of seams. It has reached the stage where it makes my dry cleaner suck in his breath so much, I wonder if there’s a point where the sound of reluctance ends and asthma begins.
I have the same fear of an infinite unravelling whenever I sit down to write. There’s a point where the mind has no reason to stop dwelling on even the tiniest detail – one thinks of the Woolf story ‘The Mark on the Wall’. Everything is interesting, really.
But the problem with this is that I have a backlog of events from the last few weeks, which really should be at least declared, if only to paint in the parameters of my funny little life. This week’s selection of diary entries, and the next one, will therefore be more of a mopping-up. The temptation to tug on The Threads of Fact until they become The Unravelled Garments of Reflection will just have to be resisted.
Tuesday 4th May 2016. To the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury. A small gallery that nevertheless crams in two superb exhibitions: a major one about ‘The Great British Graphic Novel’, and a smaller one upstairs about the Doctor Who Target novelisations, which came out regularly in the 70s and 80s. Virtually every Doctor Who adventure was turned into one of these little books. I remember them well as a child. It was the era just before TV shows were available to buy on home video (long before DVDs). To revisit a favourite story, the fans had to read prose fiction. How strange now to think of novels as catch-up TV.
Each Target paperback had a specially commissioned cover rendered as a painting (hence the exhibition), branding the books more as imaginative explorations in their own right, rather than disposable cash-ins. They also encouraged a feeling of community, which is what merchandise and events like Comic-Con should always do. Join our club.
Thursday 5th May 2016. In the TLS I read a review by Tom Lean of Electronic Dreams, a book about 1980s computer games. One game, Deus Ex Machina, apparently featured a segment ‘in which the player has to guide a sperm to an egg in order to fertilize it. The astronomer Patrick Moore had been invited to voice the semen; he consulted his mother and, on her advice, declined.’
Sunday 8th May 2016. Afternoon: To a marquee in St James’s Square, for one of the Words in the Square events. This is a miniature literary festival, held by the London Library to mark its 175th anniversary. I attend ‘Desert Island Books’, a group discussion about favourite reads. Six authors sit on a stage and explain their choices in categories such as ‘Childhood Favourite’, ‘Biggest Influence’, ‘Guilty Pleasure’, ‘Tarnished Favourite’, and ‘Recent Favourite’. The authors are Philippa Gregory, Deborah Levy, John O’Farrell, Sara Wheeler, Nikesh Shukla and Ned Beauman. A gender note: all three men try to make the audience laugh, while the three women are more serious and wistful about the pleasures of reading. Though that’s a kind of playing to the crowd too.
Ned B’s ‘Guilty Pleasure’ is to go on Amazon and use the ‘Look Inside’ function to read the bits in crime thrillers where the killer reveals his motive. Nikesh S’s ‘Tarnished Favourite’ is a poetry anthology he contributed to in his teens. His initial excitement at having his dream realised was soon doused; the book turned out to be a scam by a vanity press.
Evening: To the Constitution in Camden for Debbie Smith’s Nitty Gritty club night. It’s such a sunny day that I walk all the way from St James’s, via the canal. At the club I meet the singer from the band Bete Noire, who I’m reliably informed have been making waves with their song, ‘Piss On Putin’.
Saturday 29th May 2016. Mum in London for the day. We visit the British Library’s big summer exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts. As usual with the BL, it’s a rich mix of the familiar (lots of rare books, a couple of First Folios present and correct), the educational (in-depth histories of early female and black actors) and the unexpected. In the latter case I’m fascinated with the details of the first overseas production, an amateur Hamlet on board a ship off the coast of Sierra Leone, as early as 1607. Shakespeare was still alive.
Also learned: King Lear was performed in a sanitised version for 150 years. This Restoration rewrite had a happy ending and omitted the character of the Fool entirely. When the full Shakespearean Lear was revived in the 1830s, the first actor to play the Fool was a woman, Priscilla Horton.
For me, the highlight is a whole room dedicated to Peter Brook’s 1970 production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. This was the radically minimalist version, staged against plain white walls, with brightly coloured costumes, trapezes and stilts. In the exhibition, all the rooms are dark except for this one, a witty recreation of Brook’s clean white box. There’s even a trapeze one can sit on, albeit firmly anchored.
Lunch at Albertini in Chalton Street, followed by a walk around Camley Street Natural Park and a quick visit to the House of Illustration. Three small exhibitions in the latter: 1920s Soviet children’s books (when animal tales were suppressed as bourgeois constructs), a permanent Quentin Blake gallery, and a display of Japanese girls’ Shojo manga comics. Am intrigued about Keiko Takemiya, who is thought to have pioneered the yaoi genre: comics about gay male love, made by women for girls.
It’s a sunny day, and we have drinks outside in Granary Square (buying them at the trendy Granary Store bar). The area is still being finished, but it’s already King’s Cross’s answer to the South Bank, the canal standing in for the Thames. As with the Royal Festival Hall, hordes of people now descend here at the weekend, and seem to just sit around all day. Alcohol on concrete, bridges over water, art galleries, and the inevitable small children playing in fountains, the kind made up of jets of water springing up from the pavement.
In fact, the Granary Square fountains seem to be more artily-minded than the South Bank ones, perhaps because St Martin’s is next door. The jets switch constantly between different patterns of varying rows and heights. On the South Bank, the jets just rise up and go down. Either way, the children seem happy. Or at least, busy. Which with children, unlike adults, is the same thing.
Tags: bete noire
, British Library
, cartoon museum
, doctor who
, house of illustration
, king's cross
, mopping up
, nitty gritty
, target books
, The London Library
The Morning Would Be A Miracle
Tuesday 19th April 2016. Still struggling with basic motivation, so I read a couple of books in the self-help vein. One is on depression, Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. Despite the title, Haig manages to avoid any sentimental irksomeness. Instead he goes in for a lot of self-deprecation, honesty, and little wry jokes. The advice isn’t so uncommon (yoga, mindfulness, breathing exercises, travel, walks in parks), but Haig’s tight prose style and lack of vanity make the book quite special.
The other is The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod, as recommended by my college mentor, Katie W. The gist of this one is to force oneself to get up earlier than useful, but in a deliberate spirit of hopefulness, with added meditation, exercise, reading and writing tasks, a sense of savouring the day, and all that. It’s probably very obvious stuff, but I’ve lately come to resent not being much of a ‘morning person’, and need all the help I can get.
I’ve found that getting on the Tube at Highgate before 7.15am makes all the difference in terms of one’s nerves. Any later than that, the madness of the rush hour starts to kick in.
I’ve been getting to Birkbeck library for its opening time, at 8.30am. There’s usually three or four other people keen to go in at this time, though not quite to the point of forming a queue. This is nothing compared to the British Library in St Pancras, which usually has a queue of at least thirty, long before opening time at 9.30. I think the ones at the front of the queue must insist on having the same desks. I’ve noticed that some foreign visitors find this hilarious, and take pictures of the queue for Twitter. ‘British people: any excuse for a queue’.
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Friday 22nd April 2016. Have reached 8071 words on the essay, with just over a week to go. So now I have to decide which 3000 words I can lose without risking the tutor comment, ‘you could have said more…’ Am fairly confident that there’s original and useful insights in there. One thing I’m particularly pleased about is that I’ve quoted a new academic book called Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction, by Lee Konstantinou. It has lots of pertinent quotes on the texts I’m using, like the way Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is structured like ‘an online social network of short stories’. The book only came out last month, but I’ve managed to borrow a copy via the London Library. I like the feeling of an essay being bang up-to-date.
* * *
Saturday 23rd April 2016. Prince and Victoria Wood die this week. Radio 4’s programme on topical statistics, More or Less, gives an interesting argument for what seems like an increase in celebrity deaths this year. They note there was a surge of ways to be famous in the 1960s, due to the rise of TV and rock music. So that generation is now starting to hit its autumn years. Well, that may apply for Bowie, but Prince and Ms Wood were still too young.
Victoria Wood was a fellow Highgate resident. I glimpsed her once in a rather apt setting, given her association with Englishness: she was sitting in High Tea of Highgate, a 1940s-style tea shop.
My favourite Wood sketches were the ‘Kitty’ monologues, as delivered by Patricia Routledge:
She said, “What do you think of Marx?” I said, “I think their pants have dropped off but you can’t fault their broccoli.”’
* * *
Sunday 24th April 2016. On my way to the ICA this morning, I duck my way through the London Marathon crowds on the Mall. Lots of police about, stalls representing charities, and several jolly teams of St John’s Ambulance volunteers. The marathon gives central London a kind of village fete atmosphere. There’s a sense of an uncommon cheeriness among strangers.
Afterwards, I’m standing at a pedestrian crossing in Trafalgar Square. One of the runners stands there too, still in his shorts and vest, but now wearing a medal on a red ribbon. He is on his way to the Tube like the rest of us. Two elderly passers-by chat to him at the lights. ‘Well done! How long?’ He holds up three fingers.
* * *
At the ICA, while the Mall is rapt to all the sporty goings-on, I spend two hours in the dark watching the film Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures. This is a new, full-length documentary about the life and work of the New York photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. I guess he’s now more or less synonymous with three things: serene black & white homoerotica, serene black & white celebrity portraiture, and for being Patti Smith’s companion in the 1970s, thanks to her recent memoir Just Kids. Ms Smith’s book was such a bestseller that I think it’s managed to rebrand Mapplethorpe as a character within the Patti Smith story. I wonder if that’s one reason behind the appearance of this new film. It’s certainly not a Patti Smith product, as, rather significantly, she’s not one of the people interviewed. As with the omission of Dave Grohl in the recent Kurt Cobain film, there does seem to be a trend in documentaries to play down or leave out key voices. I think of Ted Hughes’s widow left out of the recent film on the poet, or Amy Winehouse’s father accusing the film Amy for portraying him as a villain. The recurring lesson is that there’s no such thing as non-fiction, only perspective.
In the case of this new film, though, the documentary works as a neat compliment to Patti Smith’s book. It plays up the side of Mapplethorpe’s life that she wasn’t involved with, even while she was around. So for the 1970s, the film acknowledges Smith’s role, but dwells far more on his connection with the New York gay scene, notably his relationships with several men, many of whom appeared in his work. Then from 1980, Smith moved away from New York while Mapplethorpe’s fame rocketed. There’s testimonials from his celebrity subjects (like Debbie Harry), gallery owners, critics, studio assistants, and most notably from his younger brother Edward, with whom Mapplethorpe seems to have had a rather tense relationship, complicated by Edward’s own ambitions as a photographer.
Mapplethorpe himself comes out of the film as a great talent whose life was tragically cut short by AIDS in 1989, which we knew already. But it also suggests that he was a ruthless careerist who could let his ambition steamroll over the feelings of others. I suppose that might be an unfair impression, as Mapplethorpe isn’t around to defend himself. History is written by the ones who lived longer.
What’s unquestioned, though, like all these arts documentaries, is the objective merit of the work away from the subjective ambiguities of the life. The photographs are properly discussed in detail, from his explicit S&M images (some of which are still rather shocking), to the well-known head and shoulders shot of the two bald young men in profile, one black, one white. Both models are interviewed today, both not looking much older (the silver lining of youthful baldness). The black model is asked: was Mapplethorpe making a statement on race, by positioning the white model in front, craning his neck over the black model’s shoulder? ‘No, I just have a shorter neck.’
, birkbeck library
, British Library
, hal elrod
, just kids
, matt haig
, robert mapplethorpe
The Basic Pleasure Model
Saturday 13th February 2016. To the British Library for the exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song. I allow an hour but it’s still not enough. This is something I forget is often the case with the big BL shows. The gallery numbers only a few rooms yet it’s always crammed full of intriguing displays, virtually all of them demanding careful consideration. As the staff usher the visitors out at 5pm, I glance in frustration at the items I have to miss, feeling somehow punished. It’s the last week of the show, too.
What I do see are craved Adinkra stamps from Ghana, used to hand-print symbols on fabric. One stamp is a star-like symbol, meant to ward off jealousy. The full translation is: ‘Someone’s wish is to see my doom’. All that in a star.
I’m also fascinated by a letter from Laurence Sterne to his friend Ignatius Sancho, the former slave turned London writer and composer. In 1766, while Tristram Shandy was published in serial form to huge acclaim, Sancho asked Sterne if he’d consider writing something to raise awareness of slavery. Sterne replied that, by a ‘strange coincidence’, the chapter of Shandy he’d just finished included ‘a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl.’
The novelist went on to affirm his solidarity: ‘If I can weave the Tale I have wrote into the Work I’m [about]— ‘tis at the service of the afflicted—and a much greater matter; for in serious truth, it casts a sad Shade upon the World, that so great a part of it, are and have been so long bound in chains of darkness & in Chains of Misery.’
When Sterne’s correspondence was published in 1775, it aided the anti-slavery campaign and made Sancho a literary celebrity. When he died, he was the first African to receive an obituary in the British press.
* * *
Sunday 14th February 2016. Valentine’s day. I enjoy an animated GIF of an elderly William Burroughs talking to Alan Ginsberg.
Ginsberg: Do you want to be loved?
Burroughs: Oh… (lugubrious pause) Not really…
I think I’ve seen the full clip in a documentary. Burroughs goes on to add, ‘By my cats, perhaps.’ I don’t believe his not wanting to be loved, but it’s a good answer.
I also learn that February 14th 2016 is the ‘inception’ day in Blade Runner for Pris, the blonde ‘basic pleasure model’ android. As played so wonderfully by Darryl Hannah. I like to think of myself as a ‘basic pleasure model’ too.
Evening: I watch the Film BAFTAs, hosted by Stephen Fry, now pretty much the British Oscars. The Revenant triumphs, with Leo DiCaprio taking Best Actor. A mistake, in my view. His character is barely a character at all. He’s more of a generic everyman that a couple of unkind things happen to. First an unkind bear, then an unkind Tom Hardy. As far I remember, most of his performance consists of grunting, wincing and looking pained. I get enough of that on the Northern Line.
* * *
Monday 15th February 2016. Modern priorities. The big news story on the electronic board at St Pancras is that Stephen Fry has left Twitter.
Apparently, his quip at the BAFTAs about the Best Costume Design winner looking like a ‘bag lady’ produced something of an angry reaction from people on Twitter. For Mr Fry it was the last straw, and he closed down his account.
I sympathise, having just re-read Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, now reissued with an extra chapter about the book’s reception. Essentially Ronson received Twitter attacks himself, for daring to call for empathy for people like Justine Sacco. Sacco was an American PR woman who posted a joke on Twitter, intended to mock ignorance over AIDS in Africa. Instead, it lost all context (context being the first casualty of social media). By itself, the tweet ended up looking like a straightforward racist joke. Thousands of people on Twitter roasted her alive. She was sacked from her job and spent a year rebuilding her reputation. Ronson’s book about showing compassion for such cases has now been seen by some – incredibly – as a defence of white privilege. Those who attacked Ms Sacco regard her as deserving of being ‘called out’. The trouble is, as the book puts it, ‘the snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche’.
This is what seems to have happened with Stephen Fry. Lots of people thinking that, because he’s in a position of privilege, he needs to be held to account for his public remarks. The problem is, Twitter can turn well-intentioned criticism into an out-of-control, disproportionate firestorm of raw hatred. People are not to blame: it’s really the fault of the medium. A virtual reality founded on a frustration of space – 140 characters at a time – can only engender a distortion of meaning. If I were firestormed with angry messages, I’d close my account too. Life’s too short.
* * *
Thursday 18th February 2016
Evening: seminar at Birkbeck on Jonathan Lethem’s inspired novel Motherless Brooklyn, about a detective with Tourette’s syndrome. We discuss it in relation to Sontag’s book Illness as a Metaphor. One essay on the Lethem book suggests Ian McEwan’s Saturday as an example of how not to do illness as a metaphor. McEwan’s hoodlum, Baxter, has a convenient neurological condition that screams ‘metaphor for violence!’ to the reader. Lethem’s protagonist, meanwhile, is a more fleshed-out character who is fully aware where his personality ends and his condition begins.
More interesting, though, is Lethem’s referencing of pop single remixes, such as the extended 12” version of Prince’s ‘Kiss’. His Tourette’s hero, Lionel Essrog, hears the extra minutes of the Prince remix as ‘a four minute catastrophe of chopping, grunting, hissing and slapping sounds… apparently designed as a private message of confirmation to my delighted Tourette’s brain… The nearest thing in art to my condition’. It’s like a healing version of American Psycho.
* * *
Saturday 20th February 2016. The back pain persists. I go to a flat in King’s Cross to take up Ms Dorcas Pelling’s offer of massage therapy. This turns out to be a combination of reflexology, Swedish massage, deep tissue, and trigger point. Dorcas adds her voice to the conclusion of the osteopaths: muscular rather than spinal. Forty-four years of knotted tension. As I write this, I’m still very sore from the treatment. The pain of removing pain.
Tags: back pain
, British Library
, dorcas pelling
, jon ronson
, jonatham lethem
, stephen fry
Dali In Wonderland
Saturday 28th November 2015.
I spend most of this week in the British Library reading rooms, researching the first essay for the MA. One of the books I order, a late 90s one on electronic literature, comes with a CD-ROM. This confuses some of the BL staff, and they have to ask amongst themselves to find out where such an ancient format can be accessed. The library’s internet computers tend to have no CD slots. Even microfilm is more popular as a resource.
* * *
Monday 30th November 2015.
Evening: MA class on Joe Sacco’s Footnotes In Gaza. It’s a bulky, large format graphic novel, investigating the slaughter of Palestinians during 1956. Quite a heated debate in the seminar, especially when it’s asked if Sacco is preaching to the converted, and can graphic novels work as a valid form of journalism? Funny how Sacco draws himself as more of a caricature than his interviewees: his glasses become blank goggles, even headlights during scenes of darkness. Thus he shows himself inside his own text, but not quite of it.
* * *
Tuesday 1st December 2015.
I’m reading Popkiss, the new book about Sarah Records by Michael White. I have a small walk-on role in the story, as part of the one-off project band, Shelley. Mr White files us under ‘Outliers’, where we are ‘the oddballs of the Sarah scene’. Given the niche appeal of this world, this must make us very outlying and odd indeed. Our EP is, he says generously, ‘one of the best’ releases on the label. However, I wince with guilt at the mention of our running up a large studio bill, incurred out of sheer slowness. Today, I know that this slowness is at least partly down to my dyspraxia, and I am legally entitled to extend my university exam time by 25%. Though I’m grateful for this adjustment, and for having the condition recognised, it never diminishes the feeling of guilt. I should be quicker.
* * *
Wednesday 2nd December 2015.
The Labour MP Hilary Benn makes a celebrated speech in the Commons, arguing in favour of military strikes against ISIS. I’m unconvinced as to its merits. He uses ‘evil’, which is religious rhetoric. And ‘fascist’. Which is Young Ones rhetoric.
* * *
Friday 4th December 2015.
Back to the British Library to take a look at the new Alice in Wonderland exhibition. Thankfully the huge queues seem confined to the weekend, and this afternoon I leisurely take my time around the display cases. The first case tells the tale of Carroll’s original manuscript. It’s in the form of a handwritten notebook presented to Alice Liddell, the little girl he made up the story for. Alongside it are some of Carroll’s photographs of Ms Liddell and other girls, with his diary from the time recounting (in a very decorative, looping hand) the Oxford boat trip that hosted the tale-telling. Then there’s a letter in the 1920s, by the elderly Ms Liddell, recording her reluctant selling of the manuscript to an American collector. The sequence concludes with a typed note from 1946, representing the notebook’s present owner in a consortium with other US bibliophiles. They are returning it to the British government ‘in recognition of British resistance to Germany in the first years of the war’. I suppose one way of looking at this is to say, thank Hitler for Alice.
The bulk of the exhibition is a selection of the many subsequent Alice books and merchandise, taking in illustrators from Arthur Rackham to Ralph Steadman. There’s a series of 1930s advertising pamphlets by Guinness, plus sundry toys, puzzles and figurines all helping themselves to Carroll’s text. The copyright expired as early as 1907. Alice belongs to everyone.
Most of the book-based Alices on show have long blonde hair, thanks to Tenniel and Disney, though one or two replicate Alice Liddell’s dark bob. There’s also a ‘flapper Alice’ from the 1920s, and a Brownie Alice from the 30s, as in the junior girl guides. Some Alices are older than others: a post-war letter from Graham Greene to Mervyn Peake compliments Peake on being ‘the first person who has been able to illustrate the book satisfactorily since Tenniel’, only to add ‘your Alice is a little bit too much of a gamin.’ From 1902 there’s a political parody by Saki, The Westminster Alice. It’s a link kept evergreen this year when Tony Blair accused Jeremy Corbyn of creating a delusional ‘Alice in Wonderland world’ for Labour.
The Alice I am most surprised by is a version by Salvador Dali, from the 1960s. Here the Caterpillar appears in double form, a realistic rendering next to an abstract splatter of paint. Dali’s Alice, meanwhile, is an inky stick figure with a skipping rope.
Afterwards, I visit the BL’s Alice pop-up shop. It sells all manner of Carroll-themed products – chocolates, calendars, diaries – yet frustratingly, no single postcards. I now wonder if picture postcards are finally on the decline, even as cheap souvenirs of exhibitions. For some reason, they’re more likely to be available in bulky boxes of 100 at a time (eg a series of classic covers of Penguin Books).
Thankfully there’s another gallery a short walk away that does sell postcards of Alice – the Cartoon Museum in Little Russell Street. The current exhibition features Ralph Steadman, too, this time paying tribute not to Carroll but Gillray, the satirical cartoonist of the Romantic age. Here, Gillray’s prints – in startlingly fresh condition – are juxtaposed with the many pastiche cartoons in recent years. Given the tight deadlines for newspaper cartoons, a take on Gillray is always a reliable option. The most parodied image by far is Napoleon and Pitt carving up the ‘plumb-pudding’ of the world. Here, the exhibition shows how the likes of Steve Bell and Martin Rowson have updated this basic template with Blair, Cameron et al in place of the original duo. There’s also an inspired Viz cartoon strip about a Beano-esque rivalry between Gillray and Rowlandson.
I spend the evening with Fenella Hitchcock and Vadim Kosmos in Fontaine’s, an elegant Art Deco cocktail bar which somehow exists in Stoke Newington. I down some very nicely made Brandy Alexanders and find myself discussing the film work of Doug McClure, before staggering onto the Overground train home.
* * *
Tags: alice in wonderland
, British Library
, cartoon museum
, joe sacco
, sarah records
Cufflinks: Piercings For the Squeamish
Saturday 20th June 2015.
To the Little Baobab Bar in Lower Clapton Road, for fellow student Hester R’s birthday. It’s one of those times where I seem to only know the birthday person, and not any of their friends. But this time I surprise myself and chat happily away to whomever I’m with. I wonder if one reason for this is that no one has been to the venue before, so there’s an extra need to speak to each other and overcome the unfamiliarity. The bar is Senegalese and West African, and despite the usual décor of exposed brickwork and dangling light fittings that one finds in East London eateries, it doesn’t feel overly trendy. The mojitos are made with baobab juice: delicious and cheap (and so even easier to enjoy). Later on, a couple of musicians play in one corner: one on acoustic guitar, and one on a tall, harp-like stringed instrument. The music, presumably Senegalese, turns out to be classical, slow and soothing, almost ambient.
* * *
On the tube. A group of young people all get on at once, decked out in matching red tracksuits, green baseball caps, and big plastic sunglasses. They huddle in the aisle and reel off a series of chants together, cheerleader-style. At first I wonder if they’re part of a spontaneous people-power event, like a flash mob, or a wry protest, or an immersive film night. Eventually one of them comes over to me and hands me a card, now more subdued and sheepish as he does so. It’s for a company that provides home deliveries from shops.
This is a common London feeling: the realisation that something intriguing and unusual is just another advert.
* * *
Irritations over modern language. A common subject line on emails is ‘in case you missed it’, sometimes abbreviated to ICYMI. It’s the neediness of the phrase that irks me, as well as the way it bevels down individuality to join in with a consensus of limited catchphrases. Another is ‘a thing’, as in ‘I did a thing’ or ‘it’s for a thing’ or ‘is X a thing now’?
Perhaps one reason for my resentment of such phrases is the same as the one for my resentment over the ubiquity of beards: I don’t think I am capable of joining in. So it becomes another way of feeling that modern life is something other people do, not me.
In any case, the idea of ‘in case you missed it’ has a threatening quality, to my mind. It’s like another cliché that journalists like, when talking about something that’s reached saturation level in the media: ‘Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last month…’ The only sane response to this phrase is to become a cave-dweller at once.
In the news this week, the slang acronym FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – is added to the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Romo’ has yet to be included, twenty years on after its coinage in the UK music media, and its association with my band, Orlando. Given that all life is missing out, one way or another, I like to think that Romo has acquired a new meaning as an acronym. ROMO: Relief Of Missing Out.
* * *
I amuse myself watching a late night music documentary about Prince, spoofing it in my head with lines like ‘In 1985, Prince was accused of unabashed naughtiness… In 1986, Prince invented a new note, X, which he only ever played for extra naughtiness.’ And to the tune ‘When Doves Cry’, I find myself thinking of our new Lord Chancellor, and sing the phrase ‘When Goves Cry’.
* * *
Sunday 21st June 2015.
More thoughts of in-jokery, this time for humanities students who are also fans of Mean Girls: ‘Stop trying to make Orientalism happen, Edward. It’s not going to happen.’
On the internet, where context is the first casualty, there is now the added entertainment of watching other people not get the joke. On Twitter, there’s an account that purely caters to this curious mix of schadenfreude and scorn, @YesThatsTheJoke. But presumably it only works for the jokes that the YesThatsTheJoke person gets, too.
On The Quietus site this week, there’s a review of the new Muse album by ‘Mr Agreeable’. Mr Agreeable is a jokey fictional avatar created in a pre-web age. He first appeared in the early 90s (possibly earlier), as a regular feature in Melody Maker. The joke is that Mr Agreeable is anything but agreeable. He not so much writes as spews out a torrent of asterisk-spattered swear words, disproportionate vitriol, and downright violent imagery. His over-the-top-ness is, as they say, the joke. For aging readers of Melody Maker like me, seeing new Mr Agreeable reviews now is a nostalgic pleasure. But this being the internet, there is a comments section underneath. And in that section are lots of angry young Muse fans complaining that the review is not proper journalism. Yes, one wants to say, with deadpan resignation. Yes, that’s the joke.
How to explain to them that there was once a magazine – sorry, a ‘thing’ – called Melody Maker? More to the point, how to explain that once upon a time, columns of pure hatred were clearly meant to be read as jokes? I now realise that Mr Agreeable was a prophet of the Web. Disproportionate anger is what people do constantly now, sometimes professionally (Katie Hopkins, Jeremy Clarkson). Except that they’re not joking.
* * *
Wednesday 24th June 2015.
Put off by one job advert today, purely by its usage of exclamation marks.
Most days this week, I am wearing a white suit with seahorse cufflinks. I like to think of cufflinks as the squeamish person’s piercings.
I binge-watch the new (third) series of Orange Is The New Black. The phrase is apt, as I feel a little ill and bloated afterwards. The series is superb, though, finding new backstories for even the minor characters. There’s about thirty recurring roles, so if a plotline isn’t interesting, a better one always comes along soon enough. What I’d like to see now is Carol Morley writing and directing an episode. She’d be perfect.
* * *
Thursday 25th June 2015.
I meet Mum at St Pancras, and we have lunch at the British Library, to celebrate her birthday. The library café area finally has plenty of free seats, and in the afternoon too. All the students seem to have either taken their laptops outside into the nice weather (more chairs and tables there), or – more likely – they’ve finished their studies. Where are they all now, I wonder?
Glastonbury must be one answer. I try to balance my envy of those going to or appearing at festivals, with the consolatory thought that I also love sleeping in a room with four walls. Not to mention my love of indoor flushing toilets. As it is, going to Glastonbury purely as a punter seems increasingly redundant. These days, with the blanket media coverage, it comes to you.
Mum and I take a look at the current free exhibition in the British Library foyer. It’s one big exhibit: Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery). Marking the anniversary of the real thing – which is on show next door – this Magna Carta is a stitched version of the Wikipedia page about the Magna Carta, as it appeared on the day of the 799th anniversary, last year. Most of the text has been stitched by people in the Fine Cell Work charity, which trains convicted prisoners in needlework skills. Mum is thrilled about this: she went to a FCW talk a few months ago – given by a former convict – and found his story of finding new purpose through the art of stitching utterly fascinating. A few of the words have been stitched by public figures, such as Jarvis Cocker, whose selected words are, rather wonderfully, ‘Common People’. Somehow they got Edward Snowdon to stitch a word, too, and it’s one which sums up the essence of the project: ‘liberty’.
* * *
In a lonely mood, I overreact when I realise that I’ve been blocked by a music writer on Twitter. A second one, in fact. I have no idea why. I don’t think I’ve ever had any kind of interaction with the writer – I just want to read his work. I ask around on Twitter and find someone who assures me that blocking is what that particular writer likes to do, apparently notoriously, and often of people he either doesn’t like, or doesn’t like by association. I also find another writer who happily blocks people he doesn’t like pre-emptively, because he hates the idea of them reading his work.
So much for Forster’s ‘only connect’. I have a vision of books in a library snapping shut as a reader approaches: ‘Oh no, not you!’
I come away from this thinking that (a) I’m not as unreasonably grumpy as I think I am, not compared to others, (b) I would never block someone on Twitter unless they’d actively sent me abuse, and (c) I do hope Virginia Woolf doesn’t think I’m a twat.
* * *
Friday 26th June 2015.
I watch the third and final episode of How to be a Bohemian with Victoria Coren Mitchell. There’s a brief glimpse of one of Maggi Hambling’s paintings of Sebastian Horsley, which Ms Coren Mitchell narrates as ‘portraits of other bohemians…’
For me, this is particularly interesting. Mr H once told me how Ms M had cancelled an interview she’d intended to have with him, due to his using one of his typically provocative comments. As she said herself in her column (2 September 2007):
I rang him to suggest meeting in Belsize Park, a leafy area of north London.
‘I can’t bear Belsize Park,’ yawned Horsley. ‘It’s full of Jews.’
I have a vivid memory of actually telling Mr H off about this, as I couldn’t agree with this particular manner of épater la bourgeoisie. ‘Why do you say things you don’t really mean?’ I said. ‘Oh well…’ was his reply.
On another occasion, when Mr Horsley was reading from his autobiography and got to some general statement about sex and women, a lady in the audience shouted out ‘You chauvinist swine!’ (or words to that effect), and stormed out. Sebastian smiled sweetly after her. ‘I’ll say the reverse if it makes you come back!’
So I now wonder if Ms Coren Mitchell has forgiven Mr Horsley, by including him in her film, albeit very briefly. Or if she accepted him as a modern bohemian, in spite of her reservations, as she did for the Bloomsbury Group. Either way, it was good to see him included.
One fictional bohemian that I’m surprised wasn’t mentioned at all is Sherlock Holmes. The story that made him famous was the first of the Doyle tales which appeared in The Strand, ‘A Scandal In Bohemia’. Much of the story plays on the pun of his client being the blackmailed King of Bohemia, while Holmes is scandalised as a bohemian in terms of his bachelor lifestyle. He falls for a woman who defeats him: Irene Adler. Even the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock makes much of the main character’s bohemianism. The word might not be mentioned, but his bachelor status and sense of being an odd child-like man, among conventional adults, is certainly focused upon in the series.
* * *
And that particular bohemian lives on even more. To the Phoenix cinema for Mr Holmes. Ian McKellen plays an elderly take on the Victorian detective, set in 1947. The conceit is that in this world, Doyle’s stories exist, but they are written by Watson as pieces of popular journalism. The story switches between a 60-year-old Holmes in Baker Street, with the circumstances surrounding his last case, and a 90-something Holmes in his Sussex cottage, teaching beekeeping to a small boy, while battling against memory loss. McKellen’s performance is worth seeing alone, but there’s also lots of standard Holmes deduction scenes, tied in with poignant hints of a denied emotional life. The price of bachelorhood.
* * *
I’ve had a week of feeling very ghost-like and detached from the world. Not quite knowing which path to take next. In fact, walking around in a white suit rather makes me resemble a ghost too.
However, today I have a nice surprise. At Foyles, the staffer on the till suddenly gives me £6 off the book I’m buying, by using his staff discount.
‘Because I like your records’.
* * *
, British Library
, getting recognised
, mr holmes
, orange is the new black
, Sebastian Horsley
, sherlock holmes
, victoria coren mitchell
In The Argot Of Perversity
Saturday 31st January 2015. This week’s work: finally making a start on the first draft of my 8000 word dissertation (or ‘final year project’) about literary camp. I’ve been researching it on and off since last summer, resulting in a satisfyingly fat pile of notes to dominate my desk for the next few weeks. The project is due in on April 20th, but I have to send a 2000 word extract to the supervisor, Dr Jo Winning, by February 16th.
‘Don’t make it a survey’, she’s advised. That’s often the problem with writing about camp. So many essays do just that: from Sontag’s ‘Notes on “Camp”’ onwards, they often get drawn into making lists: this is camp, that isn’t. It’s an approach that’s not dissimilar to the current ‘listicle’ trend brought about by the website Buzzfeed: articles as lists of things rather than proper analysis. The trouble is, as the success of Buzzfeed has proved, lists are so very seductive. Something cheap and quick about them. No hard work for the reader.
I’ve found that the best single volume on the subject is Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject – A Reader, edited by Fabio Cleto. His own name sounds like a shout of camp approval (‘How fab-io, Cleto!’). This academic doorstopper includes an extract from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, now considered to be the most essential book on gender theory in the last thirty years. Frustratingly, Ms Butler omits to mention the c-word, despite discussing drag queens and taking her title from Female Trouble, the highly camp 1970s film by John Waters. Perhaps she avoids any mention of camp because it’s just such a slippery term. And as Mr Cleto says, so many critics on camp are ‘babel-like, disagreement reigning’.
Thanks to Mr Cleto I’ve confirmed what seems to be the first appearance of the word ‘camp’ in printed journalism, as opposed to dictionaries of slang. It’s in the April 1922 issue of the New Orleans literary magazine The Double Dealer, in an article by Carl Van Vechten. He uses it in championing the work of (perhaps unsurprisingly) Ronald Firbank. The article is written in camp terms itself:
‘…and such dialogue! In the argot of perversity, one would call it “camping”… Sophisticated virgins and demi-puceaux [which I think means ‘semi-virgins’] will adore these books’.
I have to use the British Library’s microfilm machines at St Pancras to look this dusty article up. You have to run a spool of black film through a clunky projector-stroke-magnifier. Sometimes one hears the phrase ‘everything’s on the internet now’. Not yet.
The first appearance of the term ‘camp’ in fiction, meanwhile, according to both Cleto and the OED, seems to be in a 1933 novel by Maurice Lincoln, Oh! Definitely! I’ve just taken a copy out from The London Library, last borrowed in 1987. A lisping butler called Dennis is described first as a ‘fairy’ and then later as acting ‘slight more “camp”’ than usual’.
* * *
Sunday 1st February 2015. The British Library’s exhibition on all things Gothic has closed. I ask the shop staff which items of tie-in merchandise sold the most. Answer: skull-themed shot glasses.
* * *
Tuesday 3rd February 2015. Morning: snow in London at last. It lasts all of four hours.
Evening: class at Birkbeck on Ellis’s American Psycho. Tutor: Anna Hartnell. When I read it last summer there were moments where I actively thought, ‘please don’t make me read the next bit’. Such is the graphic nature of the violence. But once the shock of the Psycho has faded, the American part becomes more interesting. It’s an excellent representation of the late 80s yuppie boom, the sense of capitalism out of control for good (which hasn’t let up since), and the grim nihilism of consumer culture full stop. Novels are meant to encourage empathy, but American Psycho only encourages empathy for those utterly incapable of empathy.
It’s disturbing how Patrick Bateman’s face is so popular online, as played by Christian Bale in the film version. Still, it was the same with Clockwork Orange: a critique of violence taking on a cake-and-eat-it effect. Any passionate criticism is really an act of love, because of the passion. And villains always were more fun than heroes: in the medieval Mystery Plays, everyone wanted to be the Devil.
* * *
Wednesday 4th February 2015. Class with Roger Luckhurst on Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition. More violence and general unkindness. I’m grateful for the chance to finally read AE (if it’s possible to properly ‘read’ a series of cut-up fragments and repetitive scenarios), and I admire it so much that I might well write my essay on it. Nevertheless, I now feel the need to read something fluffy, where nothing remotely unseemly happens to anyone.
* * *
Friday 6th February 2015. To the Curzon Soho to see Ex Machina (a mere £5 with NUS). A quiet, minimal sci-fi production in the mode of Moon, it concerns a newly-created robot woman kept in a remote compound, who is put through a series of interrogations by Domhnall Gleeson from Frank and About Time. There’s also the robot’s alcoholic inventor played by Oscar Isaac from The Two Faces of January. He is so good in the role, I’m convinced a scene in which he disco-dances is cut short purely to stop him stealing the film.
Thematically, it’s quite close to those recent Scarlett Johansson sci-fi flicks, which all did different takes on ‘Woman As The Other’ (Her, Under The Skin, Lucy). I also thought of Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In from a few years earlier, with another constructed woman kept as a plaything. Ex Machina suffers in comparison with the Almodovar, at least when it comes to saying daring things about gender and sexuality. The film seems to favour Oscar Isaac’s glib remark: ‘Why give a robot sexuality? Because it’s fun.’ So all the interesting philosophical talk soon gives way to a more standard cat-and-mouse thriller. Still, it’s beautiful to look at and indeed to listen to, with the cogs of the semi-transparent robot whirring delicately under her dialogue.
Tags: american psycho
, atrocity exhibition
, British Library
, ex machina
Happy New Year, Old Sport
Saturday 27th December 2014. In the morning: to Seven Sisters Road for the last of the cat-sitting jaunts. Parts of the UK had snow on Boxing Day. London just had heavy rain, followed by a night of gales. My windows and doors rattled at 5am, waking me up. At 10am, when I reach the cat owner’s house, I see the heavy cat flap has been shattered in two by the gale. A hasty text to the owner. She’s returning in the afternoon, so doesn’t need me to do anything, thankfully. ‘I’ll stick some cardboard over the hole when I get back’. But somehow I come away feeling bad about the broken flap, because it happened on my watch.
Laurence G sends myself and David R-P a surprise present: a box of food from Fortnum & Mason. I polish off the champagne truffles far too quickly. My favourite item is a jar of mulled wine jam. Partly because I’m partial to mulled wine as a flavour, but mainly because I know it’ll last well into the New Year.
* * *
Sunday 28th December 2014. Alan Bennett’s diary this year contains an obscure word: ‘batrachoidal’. It’s a slight neologism on Mr B’s part, as the OED only has ‘batrachoid’, meaning frog-like. He uses it to describe a man who is very much not obscure at the moment: Nigel Farage. The Times makes him their Man Of The Year. The general election in May will be very interesting.
* * *
Monday 29th December 2014. I meet with Danika H at the British Library, to take her round the Gothic exhibition. I arrive ready to burden her with my annoyance over having to wear a surgical stocking for two weeks, due to my varicose vein op. But Danika turns out to have been in an ankle cast for weeks, and is still struggling on crutches when I meet her today. So that shuts me up. The crutches haven’t stopped her coming up to London to see friends and walk around galleries, but they still make things difficult. Just before I arrive, D buys a cup of tea from the café. The awkwardness of having to pick up the cup while holding on to the crutches makes her spill the tea across her hand. It is scalding hot. The British Library staff are very helpful though, sending a first-aid lady to escort D to the toilets and help her run her hand under the cold tap. When we’re leaving, much later on, she comes back and check’s D’s okay.
It’s my third visit to the Gothic show, yet I still find things I’ve not seen before. Today it’s a recent edition of Wuthering Heights with a jacket design that deliberately mimics the Twilight books. There are few vampires in Emily Bronte, but presumably the publishers thought the general theme was close enough: gothic-tinged and overwrought romantic goings-on, then as now.
Or rather then as a few years ago, as the Twilight phenomenon is now firmly in that distant region known as the recent past. Going by the end-of-year bestseller lists this week, teens are now either buying John Green’s sensitive teen novels (especially The Fault In Our Stars) or spin-off books for the Minecraft video game (and I have no idea what that is). When it comes to the fashions of the book charts, even the undead have an expiry date.
While chatting in the café, Danika and I bond over – of all things – those star-studded and lavishly-located Agatha Christie films of the 70s and 80s. Death On The Nile and Evil Under The Sun are particular favourites. The former has Angela Lansbury, Maggie Smith and Bette Davis, all camping it up like mad. But then, what else can they do with those sort of supporting characters: flamboyant romantic novelists, waspish elderly heiresses, and mannishly-attired companions. I find out today that the film shoot required all three women to share a dressing room on the boat, which was a real paddle steamer. It’s said that this particularly irked Miss Davis, who bemoaned the post-Golden Age tendency for films to shoot on location: ‘in the old days they’d have built the Nile for you.’
* * *
The experimental radio station Resonance FM are having a Yesterday Day. They are playing nothing but cover versions of the Beatles’ song ‘Yesterday’, for 24 hours, thus making some sort of statement about it being the most covered song ever. I tune in, and last five songs before tuning out again. It’s just that song. I could probably stand 24 hours of ‘It’s All Too Much’, from Yellow Submarine. That may sound like cooler-than-thou contrarianism, but as it’s a pulsing, hypnotic song with a continuous upbeat groove, it’s far better suited to repeated plays. I know that’s missing the point, though.
Like a lot of conceptual art that demands commitment from the onlooker, I admire the idea but would rather just read the reviews. ‘No, you go ahead and watch that Warhol film of the Empire State Building without me. Tell me what happens.’
There’s a character in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan who boasts that he only reads criticism of novels rather than actual novels. ‘That way, you get an idea of what the writer was trying to do, along with an opinion you can take or leave. It saves time.’
He’s not doing a degree in literature, though.
* * *
Tuesday 30th December 2014. Struggling to write the latest essay, which is on The Great Gatsby. I can’t tell how much of my resistance to work is down to my general despond, and how much is down to the way Fitzgerald’s novel feels so over-written about. It’s hard to find an original angle. Yet I managed it okay with The Picture of Dorian Gray, and there’s no shortage of material about that.
Some statistics from a textual search of Gatsby. Gatsby’s catchphrase ‘old sport’ appears 28 times in the novel. Baz Luhrmann’s film manages to increase this to 54 times. And the name ‘Daisy Buchanan’ never appears once. The only time Daisy is mentioned along with her surname is when she is Daisy Fay, in the flashbacks. ‘Nick Carraway’ doesn’t appear as a full name either, but as he’s the narrator that’s less unusual.
* * *
Wednesday 31st December 2014. I meet Laurence Hughes for drinks in the afternoon, then see the New Year in at home and alone, while trying to work on the Gatsby essay. In fact most of my time is spent procrastinating, idly watching videos or reading some rubbish or other on the internet. No live TV or radio, though. So before I know it, it’s half past midnight, and I go to bed. I don’t even stop to hear the chimes. I think this is my most low key New Year’s Eve yet.
I probably should do something next year: go to a party or a fireworks display or somesuch. But the older I get, the more I realise how important it is to not do things against one’s will. I am getting out and seeing friends, like Laurence and Danika this week. It’s not enough, though. I’d like to spend more of 2015 with people, rather than with a screen. So that’s one resolution right there.
* * *
Thursday 1st January 2015. Spent all day on the essay. Happy New Year, old sport.
* * *
Friday 2nd January 2015. The first thing I hear in Central London in 2015, as I exit the tube, is the cry of a shopkeeper. He has a little mobile phone shop on Shaftesbury Avenue, and is offering his wares like the street-criers in Oliver! (as in ‘Who will buy this wonderful morning?’, and ‘Ripe! Strawberries, ripe!’)
This real life street cry is rather more 2015:
‘Selfie sticks! Selfie sticks!’
, British Library
, danika h
, death on the nile
, great gatsby
, laurence gullo
Write Rococo; Edit Baroque.
Saturday 6th November 2014. I’m thinking about Jeremy Thorpe, who died on Thursday 4th. If a film were to be made about the whole bizarre Norman Scott case, a good choice for director would be Wes Anderson. Both Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel have scenes in which beloved pets are killed, needlessly so. So it was in real life with Rinka, the dog of Norman Scott. Thorpe – or at least someone high up in the Liberal Party – allegedly tried to bump Scott off. But on the fateful day the hired assassin panicked, and Scott’s dog literally took the bullet. I’ll always associate the story with three things. Firstly, Quentin Crisp’s description of the bungling hitman (a former RAF pilot) as ‘a disused airman’. Secondly, the word ‘bunnies’ used by Thorpe in a letter to Scott to describe the two of them together. And thirdly, Peter Cook’s court judge sketch at The Secret Policeman’s Ball show, which spoofed the trial. The sketch contained a memorable piece of innuendo: ‘he is a self-confessed player of the pink oboe’. This turned out to be a suggestion from Billy Connolly, who was performing at the same revue. Now Thorpe has died, perhaps the full truth will finally out. Then the strange, surreal story of shot dogs, denied sexuality and hasty cover-ups might at last make sense.
* * *
Sunday 7th November 2014. I’m reading about the popularity of Hemingway when an idle joke suggests itself: “For sale: Hemingway quote. Rather worn.”
* * *
Another quote, often wrongly attributed to Hemingway, is a writing tip: ‘write drunk, edit sober’. Hemingway certainly drank, but he only did so after he’d clocked up the day’s quota of prose. But figuratively it’s good advice: one should write freely as if without inhibitions, then edit to impose form and intention. In fact, after reading about Firbank and Beardsley and the differences between rococo and baroque – where rococo is florid, playful and intimate, and baroque is extravagant, ornate, and imposing – I’ve come up with my own advice:
Write rococo; edit baroque.
* * *
Tuesday 9th December 2014. Class at Birkbeck: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Tutor: Joe Brooker. Despite all my sarcastic jokes to myself – ‘this’ll be a laugh’ – Plath’s novel does indeed have laugh-aloud moments. One is when the self-deluding boyfriend insists on undressing, to show the heroine ‘what a man looks like’:
Then he just stood there in front of me and I kept on staring at him. The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.
* * *
Wednesday 10th December 2014. Final class of the autumn term: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. Tutor: Grace Halden. To prepare, I read some of Amis’s letters to Larkin. They’re full of smutty jokes about what he wants to do to his female students in Swansea, fantasies which make the fictional Jim Dixon look something of a saint. How much of it he really means isn’t clear, though. That’s the trouble with reading books of letters: as they’re written for private eyes, something of the real meaning is lost on the public.
* * *
Thursday 11th December 2014. At about 7pm I pass Waterstones Gower Street and notice they’re having some sort of Christmas event. There’s free wine and nibbles, authors are dotted around the shop signing their latest books, and carol singers are belting away on the stairs, in full Dickensian costume. I wander in, gratefully accept a glass of white wine, and mooch about. Then I realise that it’s a bit rude to approach authors at book events if one isn’t going to buy anything. I’m even poorer than usual at the moment, and non-college books have to be struck from my budget until I’m more flush. But when I spot Viv Albertine perched among the Moleskines I can’t resist telling her how much I enjoyed her film Exhibition.
‘I write about it in the book,’ she says, indicating the fresh piles of her memoir, with the excellent title of Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys. I blurt out something about looking forward to read it (translation: I can’t buy it right now- sorry! ), and I stumble away sheepishly, embarrassed at my lack of a purchase. Then I spot Robin Ince and Stewart Lee and avoid them too, for the same reason (they’re signing an anthology of comic horror stories, Dead Funny). I find Travis Elborough in the basement and chat to him, knowing he won’t mind.
Still, Viv Albertine knows what it’s like to be poor. The first line of her book says so, as quoted by all the reviews: ‘Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both.’
(Which reminds me… Rare Advert Break! If you enjoy this diary, which comes with a guaranteed lack of Kevin Bacon pop-up adverts, please make a donation to keep it, and the author, going:
* * *
I get home and watch Question Time. Russell Brand and Nigel Farage are on the panel. Mr Brand accuses Mr Farage of being a ‘Pound Shop Enoch Powell’. This remark is given so much attention that within twenty-four hours there are whole articles dwelling on this single phrase, explaining just who Mr Powell was, and how he may or may not relate to UKIP. There is a sense now of single seeds of comment put about, which then flower into great forests of discussion, argument, and counter-argument, and back again. Never before in the field of human discourse were so many words triggered by so few.
Another example is the case of the Cereal Killer Café, in East London. This is a new emporium selling only bowls of cereal from around the world, much like the Cyber Candy shops with their imported sweets. A tidal wave of scorn erupted when a video emerged, featuring a Channel 4 reporter interviewing one of the shop owners. He asks why such novelty shops exist in areas like Shoreditch where there’s also extreme poverty. The young owner gets flustered and says ‘I’m stopping the interview – I don’t like your questions’.
This clip is then presented on the internet as an example of ‘hipsters’ ruining the world, blind to real life problems. Yet London has always had its novelty shops. I remember my joy as a teenager at discovering there was a place in Covent Garden which only sold Tintin-related merchandise. A whole Tintin shop! What’s far more depressing is bland franchise shops and cafes taking over London. Quirky and colourful little independent businesses are what London is for. It’s property developers, closing down unique venues like the Buffalo Bar and Madame JoJos, who really should be hauled over the coals.
Disproportionate hatred has become a game any number can play.
* * *
Friday 12th December 2014. First essay mark of the final year: 74. This is for the short-ish one on Waugh. It’s a First, but for me it’s the lowest mark in about ten essays. Given education is a competition with oneself, this is a smack in my smug complacency. Mustn’t slacken off now.
* * *
Afternoon: I’m in the British Library when the softly-spoken, floppy-haired man at the desk next to me asks if I used to live in Bristol. ‘It’s Dickon, isn’t it?’ He turns out to be James, one of the regulars at various Bristol indie gigs and club nights, back in what must now be termed My Bristol Years (1990-4). He can’t have seen me for over twenty years.
I do remember him, and have one particularly vivid memory from a mainstream indie disco night (the Candy Club, we think). James asked the DJ to play Felt, knowing full well the answer would be no. This completely ordinary moment, ten seconds of my history, has nevertheless stuck with me down the decades. I think it’s because it was the first time I’d heard of a band called Felt, and the name intrigued me. Years later I would get to know Lawrence the Felt singer, for a brief time. I still have a letter from him praising the Orlando album.
James and I have lunch in the BL café and compare the last two decades of our lives. We two ageing indie boys. He moved into the vintage Mod scenes in London and in Europe, and missed Britpop altogether (quite a feat, really). Fearing the ‘memory test’ aspect of such meetings (which is what I imagine school reunions must be like), I am consoled when he can’t remember the same things I can’t remember either. Like the name of a windowless record shop in Clifton, where the owner would unleash lengthy anecdotes about seeing Scritti Politti in 1980, or The Specials on their first tour. Today James does literary translation work (he’s editing an anthology of literature in a rare Spanish-related tongue), and I tell him about Birkbeck. Neither of us owns the old records any more, the ones that brought us together. But we talk about them all the same.
, bristol years
, British Library
, cereal killers cafe
, jeremy thorpe
, viv albertine
, writing advice
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.
Tags: booker prize
, brideshead revisited
, British Library
, effie gray
, evelyn waugh
, gertrude stein
, shirley jackson
, three lives