Pride & Prejudice & Superheroes

Monday: meet Dad as he returns from the Caption convention in Oxford. Because his train gets into Paddington, I do what all Londoners should do at that station when meeting out-of-towners. I show him the statue of Paddington Bear. Along with the character’s merchandise stall, covered in books, soft toys and toddler-sized duffel coats.

We go to the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury, only to discover it’s closed on Mondays. I get a sense of deja vu from this time last year, when I was in New York and traipsed across most of Central Park in order to visit the Met. It was a Monday, and the Met – despite being the size of a football stadium – was closed that day.

I’m off to New York again this Thursday coming, for seven days. This time, I’ll ensure my museum stints avoid the first day of the working week.

***

In Gosh Comics, I pick up Issue 5 of Pride & Prejudice. It’s not a parody or homage but an entirely straight – and beautifully drawn – comic strip adaptation of the Jane Austen book. What really delights me is that it’s published by Marvel as a proper serialised A5 colour comic, and that it’s displayed alongside the latest issue of Spider-Man, X-Men, the Hulk and so on. So a novel that famously enticed readers despite a lack of any real heroes or villains is now translated into the one medium most accustomed to them. The Austen effect still triumphs: the staff at Gosh tell me it’s been flying off the shelf.

***

Walking along Royal College Street today, I pass a couple of elderly Irish men sitting outside a pub. As I approach, one calls out at me.

‘Walk straight!’

And then, after I’ve passed by:

‘Can I shag you?’

In the evening I recount this to Ms L, who works behind the bar at the Boogaloo. I do so hoping she’ll be amused. In fact, she takes a physical step back and stares at me, unnerved.

I’m reminded of Ms D telling me about someone she met recently.

‘This person asked me, “Do you know Dickon Edwards? I’m his nemesis.” And they weren’t smiling.’

I found this incredibly funny. But Ms D was appalled, verging on upset.

‘I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone’s nemesis before,’ she said. ‘I wondered if I should call the police.’

(‘Are you Jesus?’ I had at Latitude from two young men in the woods, when I was walking around in my white suit. ‘I forgive you,’ I shouted back.)

I suppose I do attract a certain… oddness from some people – as opposed to odd people per se  – from time to time. But they soon tire of me: I’m too busy stalking myself inside my own head, trying to nail my thoughts down, preoccupied with controlling my own madness, never mind anyone else’s.  There’s always an angle, a tilt, which part of me is at and which the rest is not; and it’s never by the same degree for more than a moment. So this predicament is a two-way barrier, for better or worse. I’ve said it before, but one ambition of mine is to have a syndrome named after me.

To act weirdly around an already weird person isn’t stalking, after all: it’s tautology.


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The Reverse Leonard Cohen

‘You’ll have trouble keeping that suit clean!’ laughs the 537th person today.  Yet when I take off my jacket and neckscarf and pretend to be normal, I find myself envying some other besuited dandyish guy walking about.

I just like to look like myself. Only problem is, to most people I am not myself, I am ‘Oy! Suit!’ until further notice. Roll on further notice.

***

Latitude is more eclectic than ever: this year’s bill includes Mew, Squeeze (the two following each other), Patrick Wolf, and Chas And Dave.  Not Patrick Wolf AND Chas and Dave. But I would never rule out such a team-up here.

A group of 11-year-old boys passes me. A plump, posh one – clearly the leader – suddenly shouts  ‘Hands up who wants to see Spiritualized?’

***

My Friday is very much a day of bits. Bits of acts watched, bits of bands heard. The way sound carries from the various PAs, it’s possible to stand in the woods some distance from the main stage, and hear a kind of organic remix. I can make out the Pet Shop Boys, sounding half underwater, with Bat For Lashes over the top, plus the occasional angry burst of existential swearing from the Poetry Arena. As the wind changes, the mix changes.

Today, I don’t see a single act from start to finish. It starts with me sticking my head inside the Literary Tent for a few minutes to catch Shappi Khorsandi, the Iranian-born comedienne who is currently everywhere. She’s reading from her book, ‘A Beginners Guide To Acting English’, specifically a conversation held at cross purposes with a taxi driver. The cabbie assumes that because she is a lone woman doing two ‘pub gigs’ in one night, she must be a stripper. When he asks her, ‘What do your parents think about your job?’ the daughter of an exiled Iranian satirist replies innocently, ‘Oh, my dad doesn’t mind at all. In fact, he does something similar himself…’

John Joseph B says hello, and I catch a bit of his show in the Cabaret Arena, called I Happen To Like New York. It’s a cross-dressing, picaresque monologue in the vein of Hedwig And The Angry Inch. As it’s more of a scripted story than a cabaret turn, one really needs to see the whole thing from start to finish, and I feel a bit guilty when I pop in about halfway through.

The latest score from the Ashes (or Test Match, or whatever it is), is displayed on a special hand-made board outside the festival’s Supermarket Tent. Years ago, one would assume the person doing the updating would have had a portable radio. These days they could be getting the score from their iPhone. But the score board is still hand-affixed numbers on bits of card, and that’s what pleases me.

I catch a little bit of Lykke Li (though miss her actual song ‘A Little Bit’). By this point I have Fickle Festival Goer syndrome, deliberately wanting a brilliant artist’s next song to be less than brilliant, so it’s okay for me to go and get my jacket from the yurt, or get a drink, or go for a pee, or whatever. Her opening number is heart-stoppingly wonderful, and I am happy. Her second song is just okay, so I am happier still. It means I can get my jacket.

FFG syndrome applies even more to established acts, as nostalgia enters the equation. When the Pretenders are on, you don’t want to be in the toilets for ‘Brass In Pocket’, so the more recent stuff has the Time For A Pee feel. But it can work the other way around. For some, dusty old hits might feel overfamiliar, even stale, and thus toilet-break bound. Going through the motions in every sense. Tracks from poor-selling recent albums may sound fresher live, performed with more gusto.

It depends what people want from their concerts, and what the artists think they might want. Cosy old destinations, or trips to unknown territory? It’s odd how people prefer new material to come from younger acts only (when everything is new), with the exception of Seasick Steve. He’s the Right Kind Of Old.

In my case, I flinch when bands reform just to play the old stuff, if I’ve already seen them first time around. My Bloody Valentine and the Pixies – whom I both saw circa 1990 – are back, but with no new albums. Take That can come back with new hits which eclipse their old stuff, so why can’t MBV and the Pixies?

Every other friend of mine has been raving about the concerts by the reformed Blur. As much as I like a few Blur singles, I can’t get over the sense of Pavlov’s jukebox – a conditioning for nostalgia. It’s as Philip Larkin described his later appearances when his poetry was drying up – ‘pretending to be myself’.

Is the appeal of the Pixies playing ‘Doolittle’ live any different to the appeal of ‘Mamma Mia’? And is there a Pixies musical yet?

There’s hypocrisy here, though: last year I watched the Buzzcocks run through all their old hits, and utterly loved every minute.  So there goes my own argument.

***

Never quite a nostalgia act themselves (I think they’ve resisted the ‘classic album in full’ gigs), the Pet Shop Boys typically pull out all the visual design stops, transforming a standard rock festival stage into their own Devo-meets-Gilbert & George installation. The theme of this one is cubes, squares, boxes and pixels, with a backdrop of white cubes as a projection screen, somewhat recalling Pink Floyd’s The Wall, of all things. Both Boys start off in blocky, Lego-like costumes with gauze cubes over their heads, accompanied by two robot-mannequin dancers whose cube heads revolve in sync. I notice how the older Neil Tennant gets, the higher and sweeter and more nasally-androgynous are his vocals. It’s like Leonard Cohen in reverse.

Despite all the synchronised videos, backing tracks of umpteen synth parts and programmed drums, the only aspect which feels unreal is Mr Tennant swaying slightly on his legs, or indeed moving about at all. Anything other than deadpan stillness seems too much like Rock. Which would never do.

The PSBs do a medley blending ‘Can You Forgive Her’ with a newer track in the same 6/8 time signature. This really does test my ‘old v new’ feelings. ‘Can You Forgive Her’ is one of my favourite songs by anyone ever. By playing snatches of it alongside bits of an unfamiliar new song, I feel frustrated. Medleys are not trying something new: they’re  non-commital dips, unsatisfying gestures, the musical equivalent of a DJ playing the start of a record for it to morph into a bootleg ‘mash-up’ with something else. Which might please the head (‘how clever!’), but rarely the heart (‘Aw… my favourite song. Where’s the rest of it?’)

On the recordings of Noel Coward’s 1950s supper-club performances, his medleys are outrageously cheeky: 20 seconds of one hit, followed by 15 seconds of another and so on. Just enough for the audience to recognise the song and to do that irksome thing of clapping to show they know what it is:

‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington (CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP)…. Someday I’ll find yooooooo (CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP)… Mad dogs and Englishmen go out – (CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP).’

Ultimately I’ll always want a whole song over any messing about with it. It feels okay to wander about a festival, sampling little bits of different acts, but not okay for the acts to do the same thing to their own material.

***
I meet up with Charley Stone and company (including Charlotte Hatherley) in one of the open-air Obelisk Arena’s raked seating sections. Combined with the huge video screens either side of the main stage, magnifying the performance with lots of  camera angles, it’s far and away the most comfortable audience option. At least, if like me you’re getting to that stage when you crave A Nice Sit Down, and can’t sit on the ground. My days of standing with the packed crowds Down The Front and braving the constant shoving are over. The only problem with the Obelisk Arena seats is being exposed to the elements, but it’s easily solved with an umbrella-cum-parosol.

[Update Sat morning: A strong wind turns the umbrella inside out and splits its spokes irretrievably. I did wonder why it was so cheap. Duration of brolly ownership: less than 24 hours.]

Charlotte H is playing twice this year, as guitarist for Bat For Lashes and as a solo act. Charley and I go to watch her with ‘The Lashes’, headlining in the Uncut Arena. It’s the largest marquee, with standing room only. The options are either standing at the back if you like a little space, though with a severely obscured view, or going further forward into the crowd and suffering the constant pushing and shoving. I remember how I used to deliberately follow bands with limited fanbases but brilliant records, so I’d never have to worry about this happening.  The Garage or New Cross Venue was my limit for standing-only gigs (or The Luminaire today).

Although I’m pleased that BFL’s brand of unbashed artiness and love of dressing-up (the singer enters in a big gold cape) is so popular, after two songs I am nearly kicked in the face by a child sitting on their dad’s shoulders. I read far too much symbolism into this.

By half past ten I’m in bed, utterly exhausted.


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A Yurt Of One’s Own

At Latitude, typing this in my rented mini-yurt. What bliss to have the space, the head room for standing up, and the hut-like sturdiness of the bamboo frame. Plus a perfectly comfortable fitted carpet; no need for an air bed. The ‘tent hotel’ field has extra security and the nicest showers I’ve seen to date.

Yurtpics:

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Space to stand, to hang up one’s suits and shirts…

Note the little girls’ umbrella in the first pic. It was all the festival market had left in the way of rain protection, apart from thoseponcho things which are not really me. Walking about with a little girls’ brolly rather gives onlookers even more reason to point at giggle at me as I pass (or maybe call the police), but compared to being drenched in one of the sudden showers and lightning storms which have hit this year’s Latitude so far, it’s by far the lesser of two humiliations. Were I an enterprising sort, I’d rush to the nearest town, buy up all the cheap umbrellas I could find, and sell them at the festival for twice the price. Brolly and wellington boot stalls at Glastonbury must make an absolute fortune.

I had brought my own, thinking how prepared I was, only to leave it in the wings of the Film & Music Arena while I was DJ-ing. After we finished the set, the umbrella had vanished. I managed to get about 1 minute’s mileage out of it, walking from our dressing cabin to the stage during last night’s storm.

(Update: I’ve just found a different stall which sells proper man-sized brollies, and inexpensively too. It even matches my silk scarf. Third umbrella owned in two days.)

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Miss Red outside our dressing room. Cigarettes ‘n’ alcohol ‘n’ ukelele.

So, last night: Miss Red and I DJ in the Film & Music Arena. Five sets throughout the evening, including an hour at the start (accompanying excerpts of ‘Pandora’s Box’ on screens to the side of the stage) and 90 minutes at the end, when we turn the place into a nightclub:

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One happy dancing Film and Music Arena, Thursday night 1AM

We also play mini-sets in between the live acts: the ‘live silent movies’ show called ‘1927’, Patti Plinko, Smoke Fairies and Camille O’Sullivan, just the kind of acts I’d go to see anyway.

I provide several bunches of chrisanthemums bought in Southwold market earlier that day – Red’s idea. They’re perfect for dancing with, throwing about, wheeling around one’s head (to ‘Panic’ by the Puppini Sisters), and triumphantly tossing into the crowd at the end of selected songs.

Bump into Edwyn Collins and Grace Maxwell in the backstage area just before we go on. Tom is playing guitar for him, so that’s my handy reason for going up and saying hello. Tom apparently told them, ‘You’ll definitely notice my brother when you see him.’ Although Mr Collins isn’t singing at Latitude, Ms Maxwell is appearing in the Literary Tent to talk about her book on his recovery, which bears the perfect title: Falling and Laughing.

Photo by Grace M:

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Now it’s Friday afternoon, and as ever I’m missing lots of acts I’d wanted to see. Last nights exuberance, not to mention consumption of the generous rider the festival laid on, has rather left me wanting to do little but lie in this lovely, airy yurt and recover from my various aches and pains (tired feet, hangover, friction rash from lots of walking in hot weather – made worse by wearing a suit). I know I should investigate a few acts, but fun is such hard work.

I get the kid-in-a-sweet-shop feeling so often these days. Overwhelmed with so much choice, I find myself doing nothing at all. It happens in libraries and book shops, when deciding what to pick, unable to decide and leaving with nothing, or choosing something then wishing I’d gone for the other thing afterwards. But it’s so silly – all life is missing out. One thing at a time means nothing else at one time. I suppose I want someone to just tell me, ‘Do this today. Read this. Watch this act. It’ll definitely the best possible choice.’ I can sometimes get high on sheer indecision.

But then, the one thing I was most excited about doing Latitude this year was renting A Yurt Of One’s Own. So it  isn’t really such a waste. I’m enjoying the private space, somewhere to go which isn’t just somewhere to sleep (which was the only thing I could do in the little tent last year).

I find myself scanning the Latitude programme photos and going by unfair rules. I say no to watching any rock act in checked shirts, or any photos of four gruff blokes in coats on a windswept beach looking into the middle distance (which is meant to say ‘hey, we’re a broadsheet compatible rock band’), or any comedian who pulls that wide-eyed, eyebrows aloft, mugging expression (indicating ‘hey, I’m a comedian’).

Ah well, off into the festival, to miss things I wanted to catch, but hopefully catch things I didn’t know I’d like.

Walking through the woods between the Guest Area and the lake, my white suit gets a comment from two passing young men (that eternal formula):

‘Excuse me, are you Jesus?’

An ant has just crawled inside the keys of this laptop.


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Games For Boys

In Southwold for one day before Latitude. I’m staying with Mum & Dad in the cottage they’ve rented every year for decades, their choice of week conveniently coinciding with the music festival nearby. Two things hit me most after coming straight from London: the palpably fresher air, and the almost sinister tidiness of both beach and street. Modern changes: smoothies on the tea room menu. Less modern: small boys playing football on Gun Hill, using – yes – jumpers for goalposts.

I’m wearing my new chalk-white linen suit: more Alec Guinness than Man From Del Monte.

A couple of young men chatting by a ladder stop and snigger as I walk by. The first time I came here during Latitude week, walking around Southwold High Street in my cream suit, a young man stuck his head out of a passing van and shouted, ‘Hello, Poof!’

I’ve had the same treatment on Shaftesbury Avenue, though. And indeed, in the toilets of the South Bank Centre the other day. I was there for a discussion on the future of literary magazines, hosted by Erica Wagner from the Guardian.

Two young men in shorts and backpacks were at the urinals. As I went in to check my hair in the mirror, the boys looked at me, then at each other, then one started to pretend he was having a loud orgasm, while his friend laughed. Seconds passed and his friend exited, yet the orgasm boy was still making his faux-ecstatic racket. As it was just me and him in the toilets I felt the need to say something.

‘Are you all right?’

He stopped.

‘Yeah, yeah. Just…. having a wee…’ He smirked feebly, zipped himself up and headed for the door without washing his hands.

Then as he left, his tone turned to a half-muttered playground retort: ‘No, are YOU all right… white suit!’

I saw them both walk off into the Centre to attend a talk on the legacy of Swinburne. Okay, no I didn’t.

Maybe I’d still get catcalls at The International Conference for Allegedly Poofy-Looking Men In White Suits. (‘Oy! White suit!’ shouts Tom Wolfe).

***
A Jeremy Hardy joke, not unrelated. ‘A sign on the back of a white van: ‘No tools left in this vehicle overnight. During the day they’re in the front seat.’

***

Also in Southwold I pass by the putting green opposite the pier, and remember Grandad took me and Tom for games there over twenty years ago. Once I actually managed to score a hole in one, though by a sheer fluke. Otherwise I was less interested in the actual putting as I was by the vintage-looking yellow score card that came with the putter and ball.  Sport was baffling; stationery divine.


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Dickon-Baiting Is So Last Season

Recent outings? Well, there was the Last Fosca Show on Sat 13th. Islington Bar Academy, as part of the club night Feeling Gloomy. Line up is myself, Rachel, Charley, Tom and Kate. Three guitars, which means I can concentrate more on my singing, such as it is. Excellent professional sound, as it’s a modern purpose-built venue. No style in the shopping centre location, perhaps, but sometimes a hitch-free sound is preferable to a battered PA in a more historic venue.

Downstairs at about 7pm is some kind of under-18s hip hop event. There’s lots of audibly excited dressed-up teenage girls in a queue snaking around the other side of the building. I’d like to say they point or shout out things when I have to squeeze past them on the stairs to get to the soundcheck, but in fact they just go quiet and pull their friends out of the way to let me pass. So I feel rightly shamed by my own paranoia and preconceptions.

In fact, I’ve found this happening a lot lately – having to walk past loud teens on street corners I brace myself for cat calls or worse, only to find they just go quiet, look at their shoes, and politely wait for me to pass. I wonder what has changed – me, or teenagers.

The only Dickon-baiting incident of late has been on my journey to the night shift job on a Saturday evening. It’s arguably the most jarring aspect of the job, soberly commuting to work while surrounded by much less sober people on their Saturday night out. But I’m suited at being the odd one out, after all.

At about 9.15pm at Camden Town tube one recent Saturday, I pass two small party girls who must be about 19, and who have clearly started drinking early. They’re shrieking and falling about with their friends as I walk past them from the corridor onto the platform, hoping not to catch their eye but still curious to see who is making all the noise. And of course the moment I glance at them is the moment one of them sees me.

I try to act ‘invisible’ (hah!), keeping my head down and walking right to the other end of the platform to sit down on the farthest possible seat on the farthest possible bench. But without looking back, I know they’re following me. Here we go again.

I dive into my bag and pull out that ubiquitous cloak of invisibility – the i-Pod. The ‘I’m Not Really Here, Don’t Touch Me’ Pod. Some people use their music players as a social shield. A kind of cowardly retreat and ‘f— off’ statement to one’s fellow man at the same time, particularly if the volume is loud enough. Music as an alibi.

Never worked for me, though. I’m sitting on the far bench, eyes to the floor, iPod in place (though I’m not listening to anything). And I know the two drunken teen girls have sat down next to me. They’ve even left their larger party of friends to come over to me. What DO they want? They’re smiling at me and elbowing each other. I’m the shared joke.

There’s no escape. I take out the iPod earphones and sigh. And I surprise myself with what I say.

‘What do you want with me?’

Said with a smile, mind. A slightly worrying smile.

Never done this before. It’s come from somewhere. Maybe just pure tiredness after all the years of strangers Coming Over to me to helpfully tell me what I look like, or who I look like, when all I want to do is get to where I’m going without incident. Maybe it’s actual anger about feeling At The Mercy Of Others. The notion that I’m a funny little walk-on part of other people’s evening’s entertainment, rather than the other way around. Which I don’t mind, actually.

But there are times when I’m feeling fragile, when I’m trying to psych myself up for going to work, and the thought of having to play the Funny Blond Man On The Tube Platform We Saw Tonight for the 756th time isn’t always something I feel up to doing. Is that bad of me?

‘What do you want with me?’

It surprises me more than they can know, but it does the trick, and they find themselves wrong-footed from the off, alcohol or not. They blurt out a few questions about why I look the way I do, and where I’m going, but the power balance of the encounter is now in question. And they go back to their friends.

Yet I feel a little guilty about daring to question them back, for the sinister utteration, because it’s out of character for me. I never like to ruin anyone’s fun. Even if it’s at my expense. It’s just that sometimes even lifelong figures of street ridicule need a sick note.


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