Tuesday 8th November 2016. One of the woollen blankets in my room has a label which must date it to wartime. ‘National Price Controlled Blanket No. 620. Selling Price to Public incl. P. tax 43/10.’
I’m reading about gender when an 80s computer joke suggests itself.
‘I’m not on a gender spectrum. I’m on a gender BBC Micro. Slightly less fun; does lots of homework.’
‘And the buttons are more fun to press’ adds @celestialweasal on Twitter.
It’s true about the keyboard buttons on the ZX Spectrum. They were horrible, rubbery little things, betraying the computer’s main image as a games console rather than a creative tool. BBC Micros looked more like typewriters, and tended to be associated with schools.
Evening: I watch the US election result come in, and despair. I’m convinced there’s a large amount of voters whose sole attitude is along the lines of ‘Tee hee! What am I like?’
A trickster vote. A Dark Knight vote: ‘Some people just want to watch the world burn’
A message from T in New York:
I am somewhere between numbness and pure terror. I’m reminded of 2000 and 2004 except I was really too young then to truly understand. Not so now. In retrospect Bush looks almost like a bumbling racist grandpa that you tolerate.
The next day, he goes to his job as a teacher:
My students were crying. I cried.
A few days after this, I get an equally distressed letter from S in Pittsburgh. She wants to mark her feelings on paper, as this is history:
I remember the night Obama won in 2008… I heard a roar outside and looked out of my window to see a flood of young people pouring into the streets and racing towards the campus… So much joy. How could the same country elect Donald Trump? … If the worse should happen, on behalf of America, Dickon, I’m sorry.
It’s partly written on the back of a voting card, with the ‘I VOTED’ sticker attached.
I think about the difference in voting over here. The English don’t do ‘I VOTED’ stickers, perhaps because they have the hint of a child surviving a trip to the dentist’s (‘I AM A GOOD PATIENT’).
Then there’s that phrase one only sees on US election materials: ‘PAID FOR BY…’ It seems to jump out all the more, given the winner was a man whose chief qualification for the job was that he can just pay his way out of trouble, and into success. Mr Trump glitters, from his golden hair to his golden elevators. His voters are thought to be mostly the poor and disenfranchised. They see Midas, but forget about how the story ended.
I try to be optimistic. Perhaps this will expose the folly of present thinking. Perhaps people will finally stop regarding the super-rich as gods, and start questioning the role of wealth in the first place. There has to be a point when even Republicans accept that capitalism can go too far. Perhaps this will be it. I hope so.
Wednesday 9th November 2016. Reading Mr Trump’s messages on Twitter. On top of everything else, he is a man who uses unnecessary exclamation marks. That’s never a good sign.
Friday 11th November 2016. Leonard Cohen dies, as if by way of reaction to it all. Tributes are soon reported everywhere as ‘flooding in’, a cliché that sets my teeth on edge. Do tributes ever do anything else? It seems all the more of an insult when reporting the death of a wordsmith.
I read some of the Cohen articles, and wince at the use of ‘famously’ in all of them. It’s a natural enough word to use in conversation, but it can weaken a piece of prose. Fame is subjective, so ‘famously’ is ultimately redundant. In print, it risks the author coming across as too eager to please.
‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, though; that’s how to do it.
As it is, the only famous thing many people know about Mr Cohen is ‘Hallelujah’. Its success is really down to John Cale’s version, which in turn inspired Jeff Buckley’s take. A sparse arrangement, letting the words breathe. Cohen’s original is virtually unlistenable through its bland over-production, like many of his 80s recordings. If you cover ‘Hallelujah’, you are almost certainly improving on the original.
Tonight I walk through Trafalgar Square at night. A busker is singing ‘Hallelujah’. He’s over-emoting it – the X-Factor factor. But by the time I cross to the other side of the square, I’m close to tears.
Evening: to Vout’s for the launch of Rising 67, the long-running punkish poetry fanzine. Still an A5 paper object, still seemingly untouched by the iPhone era. Though some of the poets reading tonight use their phones to read their work. Rising is now collected as a full run in the British Library. Its editor, Tim Wells, illustrates the poems with images from old magazines, sometimes rather risqué ones. On the back of the new issue is a 1970s public information advert for syphilis. It refers to bell-bottoms.
Saturday 12th November 2016. Evening: to the Tate Modern for The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection. One way of escaping the ubiquity of photograph-taking is to visit a whole exhibition of the things: photography by visitors is banned. However, one wonders just how many selfies made into three-dimensional objects, whether mounted in a family album, or as in this case, printed and framed and hung on a rock star’s bedroom wall. In the accompanying audio guide – recommended in this instance – Sir Elton tells how he became a collector shortly after coming out of rehab in the early 1990s. A damaging habit was replaced by a healthier one: collecting innovative 1920s and 1930s prints. His tastes are for the glamorous and sensual world of Man Ray and Edward Weston, along with the homoerotic tableaux of George Platt Lynes and Carl Van Vechten. I’m surprised there’s nothing by Herbert List.
Sir Elton is also drawn to Dorothea Lange’s portraits of people in the Depression. Lange’s subjects seem ready for magazine covers, so photogenic they are, despite or perhaps because of their grim backdrops. These are still works of art as much as historical documents. The boy in ‘One of the Homeless Wandering Boys’ (1934) resembles a teenage pin up. On the audio guide Sir Elton highlights the handsomeness of Floyd Burroughs, a cotton sharecropper in Alabama.
I think about how the tube currently displays posters for the film A Street Cat Named Bob, with the titular feline alongside the good-looking actor Luke Treadaway. A latterday ‘wandering boy’. It would be useful to compare the Bob film with Ken Loach’s rather less prettified I, Daniel Blake. The same tension between raising awareness and making art.
Sir Elton admits that when he bought Man Ray’s Glass Tears (1932), it was one of the highest prices paid for a photographic print. His friends didn’t understand why he wasn’t buying the negative. Today, I look at Glass Tears and realise how it’s responsible for the entire output of Pierre and Gilles.
Tuesday 15th November 2016. Leaf through the new book of essays on Alan Hollinghurst, Writing Under the Influence. Pleased that one of them is titled ‘Ostentatiously Discreet: Bisexual Camp in The Stranger’s Child’.
Wednesday 16th November 2016. Evening: to the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley, for Alan Bennett’s Diaries Live. The evening consists of a new full-length documentary, simply titled Alan Bennett’s Diaries, followed by a live Q&A with the writer himself, held at his local library in Primrose Hill. TV and cinema have started to switch roles. The shows on Netflix are not so much broadcast as unleashed in great fistfuls of content; whole seasons at one time. To me it’s never clear how you’re meant to watch them, other that in snatched gulps of time. Meanwhile cinemas have seized more upon the idea of broadcasting, with exclusive live transmissions like this Alan Bennett event. It’s TV, but for cinemas only. The notion of ‘live’ may be compromised by the act of still looking at a screen, but the addition of a specific time in a purpose-built place makes the experience all the more special. And crucially, undownloadable.
Before the event I try to work out which is the largest London screen to host the film, amused as I am by the thought of seeing this reserved Englishman usurping the usual CGI Hollywood fare. Most of the showings seem to be in smaller screens in multiplexes. I plump for the Phoenix, with its 250-seater. It sells out. But there’s no IMAX or 3D version, alas.
The film is superb; one of the best arts documentary I’ve seen for a while. Lots of footage of his village in Yorkshire, looking almost cartoonishly picturesque. Much more about his personal life than I’d expected. Much about his lack of a computer: for a professional (and successful) writer, this still surprises. But it’s very aesthetically pleasing, of course. Writing on paper is itself original content. There’s glimpses of a something else one doesn’t see much: a box of physical wedding photos as opposed to a Facebook page of them. Bennett and his partner Rupert. The box is marked with a sticker saying ‘YES!’
The film is produced by the BBC, so will doubtless turn up in the schedules soon.
In the live Q&A, Bennett comments on Trump: ‘The best thing you can say about him is he’s unreliable. But you still don’t want an unreliable person in that job. The only reaction is fear, really.’
Thursday 17th November 2016. Classes at Birkbeck in Russell Square. A seminar on DeLillo’s White Noise, followed by a lecture on Frederic Jameson and postmodernism. What with the US election, White Noise feels the most contemporary of all the texts this term, yet it came out thirty years ago.
Friday 18th November 2016. Reading David Collard’s About A Girl, the first book-length study of an MA set text, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2013). Collard declares his position on McBride in no uncertain terms: ‘I knew after a dozen pages that I was in the company of a great writer’. I find myself bristling, as it makes me feel bad for not being quite as bowled over. It’s like going an exhibition and not being able to see the paintings properly, because the louder, more zealous fans are hogging the view. Enthusiasm, like knowledge, needs to be lightly worn.
Saturday 19th November 2016. 9.30am: to the main Birkbeck building in Torrington Square for Transitions 7, an academic symposium on comics studies. It’s the first time that I’ve attended such an event, at least all the way through. I’m told the terms ‘conference’ and ‘symposium’ are more or less interchangeable these days, though ‘symposium’ somehow sounds more attractive. There are usually ‘calls for papers’ a few months before the date, inviting people to submit essays on a particular theme. The successful applicants read out their work at panels throughout the day, usually with discussions to follow. On top of this there’s often a ‘keynote speaker’, usually a bit of a name, whose speech tends to set the tone of the whole event. I’m told that keynote speakers are more likely to be paid for their trouble, whereas the more lowly ‘papers’ people are expected to do it gratis, or even pay a fee (thoughts of Tom Sawyer again). Thankfully Transitions is free for all, and there’s even free wine at the end.
There’s usually two or three panels taking place at the same time, so one has to pick and choose, rather like a music festival. I attend a panel on US comic histories, which includes a paper by Guy Lawley on the dot matrices used in US colour comics. Later on, Mr Lawley says he recognises me: ‘We sat together at an Alan Bennett gig’. I also go to one on gender, which includes papers on Wonder Woman, non-binary characters and female supervillains. After lunch I choose a workshop on comics that touch on magical realism and mental illness – very much my sort of thing – by the author Stef Link; the workshop element being writing based rather than drawing based, thank God. Finally, I attend a panel on national identity, and watch my MA classmate Craig Thomson give his debut paper. He discusses the traditions behind the comic American Vampire.
There’s no keynote speaker, but there is a closing ‘plenary’ panel of ‘respondents’ to the day’s talks. This comprises Paul Gravett, who pretty much is UK comics studies, along with Roger Sabin and Julia Round, whose books and journals I’ve read, and Maggie Gray, a comics lecturer whose PHD thesis was on the work of Alan Moore.
Afterwards: more wine at a pub in Store Street, with some of the speakers and tutors. Some drunken arguments on my part over definitions of modernism, but then I always imagined that sort of thing was de rigueur in Bloomsbury pubs. One of the Birkbeck tutors is a young woman from South Carolina. She says her parents both voted for Trump.
‘So you voted for Hillary?’
‘God, no. I couldn’t have that on my conscience either. I spoiled my ballot’.
Tags: alan bennett, alan bennett's diaries, america, birkbeck, comic studies, comics, donald trump, hillary clinton, transitions