The Line of Bottom
Monday 30th May 2016. I enjoy the new BBC film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as adapted by Russell T Davies. Maxine Peake is Titania, Matt Lucas is Bottom. Both are perfectly cast. Ms Peake already has that angular face one finds in Victorian paintings of fairies, while Mr Lucas brings cuddliness to the pompous Bottom even before he acquires the ass’s head (and then he really is cuddly, like a giant soft toy).
It’s made with the same team as Mr Davies’s Doctor Who productions, the ones with Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant. I’d say it’s especially like the Davies mini-series just before that: the David Tennant Casanova. It’s that same feeling of a fizzy, dressed-up world operating on a line of tension, with a progressive approach at one end – deliberate anachronisms, multi-ethnic casting, gay characters – and an embracing of popular entertainment at the other. This latest take on Shakespeare went out at 8.30pm on BBC1, so it had to appeal to as many people as possible. Yet it still had Davies’s personal vision at its heart: a world where fascist flags are ripped up into party decorations, where love comes in all shapes and sizes, and everyone dances to Bernard Cribbins singing ‘It Was A Lover And His Lass’. Can’t argue with that.
For all the liberties taken with the story – such as Theseus as a fascist dictator with an iPad – it’s difficult to say it’s any more radical than an average modern stage production. Since I visited the British Library’s Shakespeare exhibition, I’ve been reading about the Peter Brook 1970 RSC Dream, with its minimalist white squash court, stilts and trapezes. Birkbeck Library has two books about that production alone: a detailed making-of account by David Selbourne, and an RSC script with all the stage directions, where one can study Brook’s decisions line-by-line. His Bottom, for instance, merely gains a red nose when transformed by Puck. If a modern production has Bottom with ass’s ears, as in the BBC one, it’s still more traditional than Brook.
In the press there was a slight fuss about the BBC Titania kissing Hippolyta. This is nothing new. I read that the current Globe production of Midsummer Night’s Dream has Helena as a gay man called Helenus, with Demetrius as his lover in denial. The Globe’s previous Dream three years ago had Puck and Oberon passionately kissing. That particular Puck was played by Matthew Tennyson, a very pretty young man who happens to be a descendent of the Tennyson. He now pops up in the BBC film as Lysander, with a pair of glasses that rather makes him resemble Harry Potter. I read that as a deliberate nod to the way Shakespeare has direct links to popular culture now. If it uses the English language, it’s connected to Shakespeare.
I’ve also just remembered that there’s a lesbian bar on the Charing Cross Road, called Titania.
I’m going through my untidy piles of old papers, with a rule of throwing out five things every day. Discarding the ephemeral is easier when you realise it gives more value to the things you keep. And yet I do like the physical evidence of a life; the proof that whatever I’ve done, I’ve lived.
Today, with my head full of thoughts of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, I find a couple of letters from Dad that reference that very play.
They’re written on the backs of his own photocopied cartoons. One has a tiny Puck flying around the shoulders of two American comic book superheroes. Or rather, two versions of the same superhero, The Flash. One is the 1940s Golden Age Flash, with the winged hat; the other is the later Silver Age incarnation, with the one-piece costume and the mask.
Puck is saying: ‘I will put a girdle around the Earth in forty minutes‘. The two Flashes reply, ‘Been there, done that!’
Dad’s other cartoon has a tiny Titania offering a rose to Mr Spock from Star Trek. Says Titania: ‘Come sit thee down upon this flowery bed / While I thy amiable cheeks do coy / And stick musk roses in thy sleek, smooth head / And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.’
Mr Spock, who of course has ‘fair large ears’, replies, ‘Fascinating!’.
Friday 3rd June 2016. I find a Dutch newspaper supplement from late 2007, where I’m the cover star. Well, that’s if the cover of a supplement counts as a cover. It’s for an article on Modern Dandies of London (I think). Me alongside Sebastian Horsley, with his two fingers up to the camera. I still live in the same room, albeit with different curtains.
More mopping-up of unpublished activity.
Friday 6th May: While people have stopped me in the street to ask me why I hadn’t written more about the death of Prince, no one has yet chided me for my complete omission of the London mayoral election. Perhaps that sums up what sort of diarist I am.
Still, it needs to be said that I did indeed vote. Voters had a second preference, so I gave my first choice to the Greens’ Sian Berry, and my second to Labour’s Sadiq Khan. Khan triumphed, his victory announced late into the night of the 6th (after an agonising delay of many hours). Ms Berry came in at an impressive third, after the Conservatives’ Zac Goldsmith. She also took up a seat on the London Assembly, thanks to the Greens doing well enough on the ‘London-wide’ polling sheets.
It’s the first election result in years where I’ve felt optimistic about the future.
Films seen recently:
Tuesday 17th May 2016: Green Room at the ICA. £3. A horror thriller with the unusual backdrop of a right-wing skinhead music scene, in contemporary rural Oregon. Rather different to the Portland liberals of that same state, as spoofed in Portlandia. But then I suppose it’s analogous to the way parts of Sussex can be rather less progressive than Brighton.
Imogen Poots’s character has one of those skinhead-scene girls’ haircuts that flatter while adding a certain toughness: long at the sides with a sharp fringe at the front (a Chelsea Fringe? a Feathercut? not sure). The boots and braces look for the men is well-researched too – straight out of 1970s Britain, but jostling here alongside iPhones and American accents. Much significance given to the colour of laces in DMs. A couple of the scenes are extremely gory. But then it is meant to be a horror film too. I suppose boxes must be ticked in plot, in the same way that the characters must tick boxes with their clothes, their taste in rock music, and with their beliefs. These days, I find discussions about belonging thrilling enough; blood and violence less so.
Friday 20th May 2016: Heart of a Dog at the ICA. £3. Laurie Anderson’s stunning film essay, ostensibly about the death of her rat terrier Lolabelle, but touching on life and death in all kinds of ways, from the passing of friends and relatives, to the changes in New York after 9/11. Her husband Lou Reed’s death (which happened during the making of the film) isn’t explicitly referred to, but he’s there briefly as an actor (playing a doctor), and as himself (in footage of the couple on a beach). He also provides the closing song, and in the very last shot he is seen holding the dog.
At one point Anderson talks about that unhappy experience that most pet owners must endure: going to the vet to hear what she calls ‘The Speech’. The one that asks the owner if the pet can be put to sleep. It reminded me how I was recently told, separately, of the deaths of two cats I used to look after in North London: Claudia Andrei’s cat Sevig, and Jenn Connor’s Vyvian. When Sevig became very frail, Claudia pushed him around the streets of Edinburgh in a shopping trolley – ‘the Sevig-mobile’. After seeing Heart of a Dog I realised how lucky I was to have the pleasure of living with these beautiful creatures, without ever having to face The Speech.
Tuesday 24th May 2016: Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, ICA. £3. A documentary on a group of artists in the late 60s and early 70s, who turned vast, desolate parts of the US into their own canvasses in the pure pursuit of Making Art. I was familiar with the Lightning Field artwork – all those lightning rods against the sky- but I hadn’t heard about works like Double Negative, where two gigantic rectangular chunks were carved out of a rocky mesa. According to the credits, some of the works begun in the 1970s are still in progress today.
Thursday 26th May 2016: Love and Friendship at the BFI. Free, courtesy of Tim Chipping, a fellow Whit Stillman fan (we went to see Barcelona together on its 1990s release). The film is followed by a Q&A with Whit Stillman, who is in typically eloquent and wry form. The film adapts Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, though there are touches of Wilde in Stillman’s script too. It’s verbose without ever being dry, and in terms of quips and jokes, it’s funnier than most modern comedies. My favourite film this year.
Friday 3rd June 2016: The Witch at the Prince Charles. £4. A tale of supernatural goings-on amongst a family of Puritan settlers, in seventeenth-century New England. Like Green Room, it blends the horror genre with more unusual aspects, in this case, gritty historical drama. The dialogue is lifted straight from the literature of the time: all ‘thy’s and ‘thee’s. As with Whit Stillman, the style only works once you realise what the director is trying to do: in this case, make a film that takes folk legends as real without question. It’s as if the film was made by seventeenth-century Puritans, as well as being about them.
A useful acronym from Atalanta K, who lost her bag after a night of carousing: ‘I had a CRAFT moment. As in: Can’t Remember A F-ing Thing.’
Tags: a midsummer's night dream
, Claudia Andrei
, green room
, heart of a dog
, jenn connor
, laurie anderson
, love and friendship
, Prince charles cinema
, Sebastian Horsley
, the witch
, whit stillman
How To Explain Irony To Children
Saturday 29th November 2014. Late morning: I meet Mum in the basement café at Waterstones Piccadilly. We walk to the Coach and Horses in Soho for a vegetarian lunch. Tom joins us, making it an Edwards family meal, to mark what would have been Dad’s 78th birthday. Tom has a non-alcoholic brand of Becks beer, which nevertheless has the slogan ‘please drink responsibly’ on the label.
The Coach & Horses’s Private Eye connections have diminished since I was last here. Gone are the framed photos on the wall of Ian Hislop and Richard Ingrams. I am told this may be to do with the pub’s new vegetarian-only kitchen, which clashes with the Private Eye lot’s preference for meat. Perhaps the pub should approach Morrissey or Chrissie Hynde for patronship. I have ‘fish and chips’, the fish being fish-shaped tofu.
After lunch, we walk through Soho. Tom wants to show Mum the Soho Radio studios, where he has his own show. On the way, I hear someone call out ‘Dickon – where were you? We’ve just finished!’ It is a phrase from anyone’s nightmare – the forgotten appointment. But on this occasion it turns out to be a misunderstanding. Anne Pigalle is standing outside Madame JoJo’s in full black mourning garb, along with some similarly attired drag queens. It is a protest against the venue’s closure by way of a mock funeral. Ms Pigalle had invited me on Facebook. So she interprets my walking into Brewer Street as a late arrival to the protest. I feebly blurt out my excuse as I go by, and make sure I sign the inevitable petition when I get home.
(Link: Save Madame Jojo’s ).
* * *
Huge poster ads on the tube for Android, the operating system owned by Google. They feature lots of sinister robot creatures in different clothes, all clutching mobiles. Slogan: ‘be together, not the same’. The problem with this is that all the robots do indeed look the same – because they’re Android robots. Actually, they look like the protagonist of the early 80s ITV kids’ show Metal Mickey.
Another smartphone advert irks in its ubiquity, at least at the cinema. Once the London film fan pays for their overpriced seat and popcorn, they still have to tolerate the sight of Kevin Bacon wandering jauntily along the streets of Britain, shouting at its citizens for having ‘buffer faces’. This means the expressions people have when staring at a phone or tablet screen, waiting for the content to load up. Mr Bacon is surely in no position to mock others, his life having come to whoring himself across cinema screens like this. But there he is, so we must be forgiving. And yet the sight of Mr Bacon’s curiously wizened yet boyish countenance makes me yearn to shout out, ‘Better to have a Buffer Face than an Iggy Pop Stunt Double face.’
* * *
I finish reading Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar. It’s set in New York and Boston, but unexpectedly there’s a mention of Clacton-on-Sea. The noun ‘fitting’ is what also stands out, being something that the heroine goes into town for. At first I think this means clothes, until it transpires that this particular ‘fitting’ is given to her by a doctor. The novel then cuts to her returning home with a mysterious box. The word ‘diaphragm’ is never mentioned. Ms Plath wrote The Bell Jar in 1961, only months away from the mass availability of the Pill. In scenes like this it might as well be the nineteenth century.
* * *
Sunday 30th November 2014. I wake up late and rush off to the Tube without showering, thinking I’m late for a college appointment. As I walk down the path from Shepherd’s Hill to Highgate station, my brain suddenly realises it can’t be Monday, because I have no memory of Sunday. I am still not convinced. I’ve never trusted my mind: I don’t know where it’s been.The truth only hits home as I turn the corner in the station and see the newspapers on the station kiosk. The words Sunday Times loom out helpfully. It is like all those time travel stories where a newspaper must be found to give proof of the date.
Grateful to the newspaper for restoring my sense of reality, I buy a copy. And of course, the features are full of people whose idea of reality is rather far from mine. One article is on ‘social media party boys’. A trendy young man is concerned about turning his online popularity into real life money: ‘I think about the apocalypse a lot. Having a million Instagram followers during the apocalypse is going to be pretty useless, but having a yacht might not be.’
A TV newsreader boasts about his money, particularly how he gazumped when buying his farmhouse, ie snatched it away from someone who was ready to move in. I suppose one has to forgive.
I read a fascinating article on Singalong Frozen, which touches on the nature of camp. The Disney musical Frozen has been reissued in a format for children to sing along to, with lyrics on the screen. This is apparently the fault of the Prince Charles Cinema, which has been doing jokey film singalong events for some time, particularly The Sound of Music. Originally, as an organiser says, ‘the main audience was gay men and drunken women’. But soon children started to come too, and children don’t do camp and knowingness and irony. Children sing for themselves. When the PCC did singalong screenings of Frozen, the children were in the majority, and Disney took notice.
A quote from the article. When Rhona Cameron introduced a Sound of Music screening, she had to explain what irony was to the children present:
‘Children, irony is something you’ll understand later, when you’re disappointed in love and have to pay taxes’.
* * *
Tuesday 2nd December 2014. Evening: class at Birkbeck on Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle. Tutor: Joe Brooker. The reverse-world setting is intoxicating, full of details that only become apparent on re-reading, like the character who slips into ‘our’ world for a moment.
* * *
Wednesday 3rd December 2014. Evening: class at Birkbeck on John Wyndham’s The Day of The Triffids. Tutor: Grace Halden. Unlike the Dick book, which is more speculative fiction, Wyndham’s tale is traditional science-fiction. Though I always liked the double value of the mass blindness alongside the unkind plants. One student struggles to read beyond the first chapter, such is his dislike of science fiction (‘Can’t we do Graham Greene?’). The lower-case ‘triffids’ is a clever touch by Wyndham, indicating how the plants had quickly become part of the language. Much more sinister that way. I find the swift acceptance of the lower-case verbs ‘tweet’ and ‘google’ sinister, too, as they’re corporate brands. Invasions go on all the time, whether of land or of language. It’s just a question of anyone minding.
* * *
Friday 5th December 2014. In a discussion on disappointing Christmas crackers I find myself retelling the following tale.
One Christmas I went into Budgens Crouch End to buy a box of crackers. A huge pile of them were on sale at half price. People were buying the crackers, but they were also coming away with a broad smirk. I asked a staffer.
Me: Why are these crackers so cheap?
Her: They’re faulty.
Me: What, they don’t bang properly?
Her: No. They’ve all got the same joke.
The smirk had been the pleasure of acquiring a good anecdote.
, coach and horses
, john wyndham
, madame jojos
, philip k dick
, private eye
, sylvia plath
Gets My Vote
Saturday 12th July 2014. I watch Rebels of Oz, an excellent documentary on four Australians who influenced cultural life in Britain: Clive James, Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, and Robert Hughes. There’s some 1960s footage of Ms Greer taking on Norman Mailer at a panel event in New York. The same event appeared in another documentary the previous week, one on the New York Review of Books. Then, the focus was on Mailer versus Susan Sontag, with Greer seen smirking quietly next to him. It’s a reminder that footage can only ever tell a truth, not the truth.
Robert Hughes was known for his TV series on art, The Shock of the New. But what shocks me is that he is shown wearing a double-breasted suit jacket over blue denim jeans. I wonder if being Australian helps.
* * *
Sunday 13th July 2014. Evidence of aging. At the Assembly House pub in Kentish Town, I pick up a leaflet for one of the events at the Forum, the venue across the road. It’s called ‘Indie Daze’, and is a day-long bill of different bands. All the performers are of a certain vintage, with their artistic zenith circa 1990. There’s The Wonder Stuff, The Popguns, The Flatmates, Jesus Jones, Power of Dreams, Darling Buds, and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. Two of them are doing that common practice of performing an old album in full: Jesus Jones are playing all of Doubt, while Power of Dreams are doing Immigrants, Emigrants and Me.
What intrigues me about this leaflet is how some of the bands have accompanying photos of them now, looking older (they must be all approaching 50 by now). But others, like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, use a photo from over two decades ago. I wonder about the reasoning: would a recent photo would be a kind of fraud, given it’s all about the songs of their youth? Or was it just a case of being unable to get new photos made in time?
I rather enjoyed the records of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin at the time, despite the polar opposite in their look to mine. They were a group of shambling, hairy and beery young blokes, and I was… well, not that. But I bought their debut album, and loved it for its vulnerably simple melodies, with a second bass guitar giving them an underrated, New Order-like sound. The Popguns, meanwhile, were much closer to my world aesthetically, on top of their fizzy and friendly guitar pop. Out of all the ‘Indie Daze’ bands, the Popguns are the only ones I still listen to.
* * *
Monday 14th July 2014. To Bildeston to see Mum. I stay over, sleeping in my childhood bedroom for the first time since Dad died. Mum offers to give me a file marked ‘Dickon’, full of school reports and other clippings, which she and Dad kept over the years. But I’m uneasy and decline. I’m uncertain enough about who I am now, let alone who I used to be. I don’t just mean that I need to get some sort of secure career going now, though I do mean that as well. Next visit, though. Little steps.
* * *
To get there, I take the Gainsborough Line train from Marks Tey to Sudbury, always a pleasure. A single track on a rural branch line, just the two carriages – though today they’re packed. The first stop, Chappel & Wakes Colne, forms part of the East Anglian Railway Museum. Vintage carriages and centuries-old waiting rooms suddenly appear either side of the modern train. After that it’s Bures, a village bisected by the Essex-Suffolk border, then it’s over the Stour river into Suffolk, and so to Sudbury. Twenty minutes in all.
‘You missed the alpacas,’ says the old lady in the seat facing me.
* * *
Mum and I watch the DVD of the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary gala, along with the documentary that accompanies it. A highlight for me is Joan Plowright, reprising her speech from Shaw’s Saint Joan on the stage of the Old Vic, just as she did in 1963. There’s also a scene from Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce, which I didn’t realise had supplied Dad with one of his in-jokey catchphrases. An older couple have a light snack in bed before lights off. This turns out to be pilchards on toast, the only thing the husband can find in the larder. The wife is sceptical at first, then takes his offered plate and tucks in. ‘They’re quite pleasant, aren’t they?’ she says. ‘They got my vote,’ says the husband, munching away. Tonight Mum tells me that she and Dad saw a 1980s TV version of Ayckbourn’s play, and it’s this particular line that Dad seized on. After that, whenever there was a situation requiring Dad’s approval, he would often say, ‘gets my vote!’ So now I know.
* * *
Tuesday 15th July 2014. Bildeston. Mum and I visit the Museum of East Anglian Life, in nearby Stowmarket. Neither of us have seen it since its renovation in 2012. The museum is centred around Abbot’s Hall, a handsome eighteenth-century manor house, which hosts a permanent exhibition about local history. George Ewart Evans, the author of Ask The Fellows Who Cut The Hay, gets a whole room, his notebook on display a la British Library. But there’s also his big manual typewriter and his unwieldy reel-to-reel tape recorder, both making a mockery of today’s nimble devices. Writing used to be such a muscular business.
The temporary exhibition is Escape to the Country: Searching for Self-Sufficiency in the 70s. It’s a wittily designed show, with lots of beige and orange in evidence, and caption boards in that same kitschy typeface that the band Pulp used. But there are some serious themes here too. It illustrates how the Summer of Love generation wanted to embrace rural traditions as a lifestyle choice, and as a reaction against the suburban sprawl. There’s a still from The Good Life, reminding one how that popular TV sitcom was also a satire about a real social concern.
One photograph is of the residents of Old Hall in East Bergholt, a proper commune where I once stayed as a teenager. It was just like the Swedish film Together: canteen meals for twenty at a time, farm animals and allotments out the back, rooms rather than flats. And rotas on the wall, with everyone having a different job to do on different days. I remember a TV crew filming the rounding up of the livestock, and the producer telling me it was for a documentary on a brand new channel – Channel 4. So that dates my stay to the summer of 1982.
[Postscript: Rachel Stevenson writes to say that she visited Old Hall in 2013, and wrote about it in her blog. The link is: http://millionreasons.livejournal.com/2013/04/23/]
On the train journey home I make a point of looking out for the famous alpacas. And there, a little south of Sudbury and east of the railway track, is a field of the uncommon mammals in question. They resemble llamas which have shrunk in the wash.
* * *
Wednesday 16th July 2014. To the ICA for the film Mistaken For Strangers. It’s an unusual film – a rock documentary that is really a study of two brothers. The band it depicts is the US group The National, whose work I’m not familiar with, but who seem to be a bit like the British band Elbow: a genre I call Pleasant Enough Men With Beards. In the film, the serious and sensitive singer Matt Berninger hires his jokey and more uncouth brother Tom to be a roadie on their new tour. Tom is more interested in making a film, or drinking the rider, or disappearing with people he meets, or doing anything other than his job. And so the film he makes ends up being more about him, and his odd-couple relationship with Matt. I love the title in particular, which certainly applies to me and my brother Tom. But it also reminds me how pairs of brothers, even quite different brothers, tend to both be unconventional and artistic, rather than one being artistic and the other being more drawn to, say, finance or law.
* * *
Friday 18th July 2014. I’m listening to the new Morrissey album, World Peace Is None Of Your Business, while reading about the events in Ukraine and Gaza. Morrissey’s arch take seems grimly relevant. There’s WW1 events everywhere at the moment, with it being a hundred years since the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand. ‘The War To End All Wars’. And yet here we are, still getting out our missiles. The sickening pointlessness of the attack on flight MH17 feels different to any Cold War incident, though. It could be the incident to end all such incidents. I think. I hope.
Tags: alan ayckbourn
, indie youth
, mistaken for strangers
, museum of east anglian life
, national theatre
, rebels of oz
Full Course Thinking
Saturday 14th June 2014. A line from Woolf’s diary rings true at the moment:
‘What a born melancholiac I am… The only way I keep afloat is by working.’
I do have work to be getting on with – reading set texts for next year, starting on the final year thesis. But now there are no external deadlines to shape my time. I have to admit that this week has seen me struggling to not fall back into thoughts of despondency. On top of which, there’s all the football.
For lonely souls who do not care for football, there are in fact two types of loneliness. The usual kind, and the additional kind that comes with the World Cup. But defeated by the tournament’s ubiquity this week, I decide to try and join in for one night only. I watch England v Italy in my Highgate room. Or rather, I half-watch it on one computer window (as I have no television), while opening another window for Twitter. In the latter I post my baffled thoughts and read the live Tweets of others.
Fairly soon, I find the comments on Twitter are infinitely more interesting than the game. When there are goals, I miss them. So it is clearer than ever that my heart is not meant for football, and I must learn not to force my heart where it does not want to go. I certainly don’t begrudge something that brings happiness to so many others. Though in the case of the England fans, the happiness seems to quickly turn into masochism (indeed, England are knocked out of the cup during the first round).
The players this year are forced to wear dayglo coloured shoes, due to some sort of sponsorship deal. Sometimes a player wears a deliberately mismatching pair. This is meant to be a fashion statement, but instead it makes the sweaty millionaire in question look like a primary school child on his first day, still learning how to get dressed. In my case, the shoes just remind me that I need to stock up on highlighter pens.
As it is, I’m not really cut out for Twitter commentary either. What one is really meant to do is set up the home computer screen so a social media window is visible alongside everything else. Yet I can’t do this – I prefer switching between full screen windows, using the ALT and TAB keys. Perhaps this says something about the way my dyspraxic brain works. One thing at a time. Full course thinking only, rather than a buffet.
* * *
Sunday 15th June 2014. Father’s Day, the first since Dad died. I am reading about the fire at the Glasgow School of Art, where the Charles Rennie Mackintosh library was destroyed. A line from a Laurie Anderson track comes to me. It’s about her father, but it applies to my feelings about Dad as well:
When my father died it was like a whole library had burned down.
(from ‘World Without End’, on the 1994 album Bright Red)
I find a photograph of Dad standing in front of his Warholian collection of kitschy found objects. He displayed them in the living room using an old Post Office sorting cabinet, mounted on the wall. The names of the postal areas were still visible on the pigeon holes. The photo is from December 2009.
* * *
In Hyde Park, I accidentally find myself surrounded by a dog show. It’s a muggy day, and I’ve decided to walk around the perimeter of the Serpentine by way of exercise. The dog show is in the grassy area on the north bank known as The Cockpit, where the Rolling Stones had their 1969 concert. There’s a series of tents and stalls selling dog-based wares, plus a couple of enclosures in the middle for canine parades and sports. One sport is Flyball, where the dogs jump over a series of little hurdles to collect a tennis ball from a box. The dogs do the actual sport very well, though they are less proficient at lining up quietly next to each other while awaiting their turn. The queue for Flyball is a mass of angry barking.
A sign by one stall: ‘Where Your Dog Would Choose To Shop’.
Another: ‘DNA Testing For Dogs’. This turns out to be a way of discerning the mix of breeds in a mongrel, rather than a doggy version of The Jeremy Kyle Show (which I would definitely watch).
The dog show is called, inevitably, ‘Hyde Bark’.
I walk from the Cockpit up to Victoria Gate, to try and see the Victorian pet cemetery there. It turns out that the cemetery is closed to the public, and is now part of the private garden attached to Victoria Lodge. An email to the Royal Parks reveals that one can book an appointment to visit the cemetery, but only at the cost of £60 an hour, for a party of six or less. And that’s assuming the residents approve the visit.
As it is, it’s possible to see a few of the hundred or so pint-sized gravestones from the Bayswater Road, if one peers through the hedge hard enough. Of the dead pet names I can make out, Spot seems to be very popular, followed by Rex. The words ‘dear’ and ‘little’ are everywhere: ‘In Loving Memory of Dear Old Spot’, ‘Dear Little Dick’, ‘Muffin, aged 15 years’, ‘Sweet Kitty Rose, Inseparable Companion for 11 and a Half Years’, ‘Dear Little Sally, Very Lovable Little Yorkshire of Florence C. Vary of Westminster’.
* * *
Tuesday 17th June 2014. To the ICA to see The Man Whose Mind Exploded. It’s a documentary about Drako Zarhazar, an elderly and eccentric man living in Brighton. His unconventional appearance – tattoos, shaved head, piercings, cloak, a moustache coloured by black poster paint – is accompanied by severe retrograde amnesia, the consequence of two road accidents. He can remember being a dancer and a model for Salvador Dali, but he cannot remember what’s been said to him a couple of hours ago. The title alludes to the way his mind has ‘exploded’ across his council flat. Drako’s rooms are packed with home-made mobiles, as in paper ones that dangle on strings from the ceiling. There’s memos and ‘to do’ messages, along with photos from his own past. But the far more attention-grabbing ones are the expressions of that other, more resilient part of the mind that exists beyond memory – sexuality. Whether attached or unattached to handsome male bodies, or aroused or unaroused, images of men’s dangly bits dangle everywhere.
George Melly once said that the waning of his sexuality with old age was like being unchained from a madman. In Drako’s case, his accidents have already left him unchained from memory, so his sexual urges have instead become something to cling to, like a guide dog of naughtiness. One scene that gets the ICA audience laughing is the reaction of a teenage plumber’s apprentice to Drako’s décorations. It’s a twist on the storyline of old porn films: a plumber comes to install a new fridge. Only this is real life, and the plumber’s mate looks utterly terrified.
Drako himself appears nude towards the start of the film, sitting on Brighton beach and discussing his tattoos. As the opening credits roll, the director Toby Amies appears from behind the camera, revealing that he too is nude. This scene means that The Man Whose Mind Exploded has something in common with Monty Python’s Life of Brian. They are both films where the director’s bare bottom makes a cameo appearance.
* * *
Wednesday 18th June 2014. I walk through Jermyn Street. The metal studs on the wide stone window sills outside Tesco, intended (they say) to discourage the loitering of aggressive drunks, have now been removed, following a public outcry. This started with the circulation online of a photo of similar studs, installed outside a block of flats in Lambeth. They were referred to as ‘anti-homeless spikes’, and were used as evidence of London’s architecture hitting a new low.
This was despite that (a) they’re not sharp enough to be spikes, and (b) such studs have existed in London since the 1990s. But somehow there was something man-bites-dog about the issue, because the Lambeth photo went viral. The Jermyn Street studs quickly became highlighted too, then newspapers got involved, and then politicians got involved. Our beloved Mayor issued a public condemnation of the studs, though he did so while ordering some anti-riot water cannon in the same week.
The latest Big Issue cover reads ‘Still angry at the anti-homeless spikes? Buy this magazine.’ I buy my copy from the vendor outside Euston station (older man, weathered face, Scots accent). There are rows of studs there too, on the ledge of the Number One Euston office block. The Big Issue article explains how the tackling of homelessness is rather more complicated than just removing a few studs here and there. More money needs to be put into shelters, and more housing full stop needs to be made available to those in need, as opposed to those out to make money.
Still, the studs at Lambeth and Jermyn Street will not be missed. As I pass the Tesco window sills today I see office workers and tourists sitting where the studs used to be, quietly eating their lunch.
* * *
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, hyde park
, hyde park pet cemetery
, laurie anderson
, studs not spikes
, the big issue
, the man whose mind exploded
, toby amies
, world cup 2014
Friday 21st February 2014
Am starting to notice how a university degree re-wires the mind. Before I took the course, to me all non-fiction was either commercial (ie books I could understand), or academic (books I couldn’t). Now academic books are finally opening up to me, and it’s like being able to read a new language. The flipside, though, is that I started to get impatient with a lot of commercial non-fiction, wincing at their generalisations and agendas. But then I discovered that’s possible to switch reading levels, like switching between languages. One can then enjoy a commercial book on its own terms. There is a danger in calling a book ‘too light’ – such a phrase says more about the reader than the book.
Writing this down, I smile when I realise that this is more or less the plot of Educating Rita. Still, the message of Willy Russell’s play hasn’t changed: higher education doesn’t change people wholly – it gives them more options for approaching the world, which is quite different. A bigger toolbox.
Saturday 22nd February 2014
I meet with Mum in the basement café of Waterstones Piccadilly, in the old Simpsons building. It’s a rare example of a non-place being converted back into a place-place. The café used to be a Costa, but is now run by Waterstones themselves, decorating the walls with nice old book covers, rather than the corny photographs of continental bonhomie that can splatter the walls of every Costa everywhere. It may still be a franchise café, but any café which isn’t a Starbucks, Costa, Caffe Nero or Pret has a definite sense of being somewhere in particular, as opposed to nowhere in particular.
Mum and I have a vegetarian lunch at the Coach and Horses in Greek Street. At the table next to us is a group of young Japanese women using their smartphones to take photos of their afternoon tea.
Then we go on to the National Portrait Gallery. The David Bailey exhibition is sold out, so we take a look at the permanent collection instead. The unflattering painting of Kate Middleton – the one which makes her look 50 – is displayed more matter-of-factly than I’d thought, tucked within a row of other portraits and not very well-lit.
We also stumble on an engrossing mini-exhibition about Vivien Leigh. I’m reminded that even though Gone with the Wind is meant to be the most successful film in the UK ever (going by sales of cinema tickets), I have yet to get around to it myself. That and St Paul’s Cathedral: on the list of things one is assumed to have done, but which the same assumption puts one off doing.
Sunday 23rd February 2014
My anxiety over the funeral hits me so hard that I spend the entire day in bed, trying to get over excruciating stomach pains.
Monday 24th February 2014
Dad’s funeral. I brave the morning rush hour Tube in order to get to Tom’s place on time, and am staggered by the awfulness of what must be a daily experience for so many. Not only do people have to brave the train journey with strangers bodies’ pressed against them throughout, but the journey itself is delayed at each stop, due to the mass of passengers preventing the doors closing on the first go. Whatever the rewards of being a rail commuter must be (a decent salary? a house?), to me they can’t possibly be enough. A commuter friend once told me, ‘You just get used to it’. I don’t think I ever could.
So I go from the lack of respect for bodies per se, to paying respects to one particular body. Mum has insisted on no dress code, but I’m in a three-piece black suit and black tie anyway, because that’s me. I add a seahorse brooch, though, in case I’m mistaken for one of the crematorium staff.
Tom drives me to Bildeston to meet with Mum and Uncle Mike (Mum’s brother), and we all get into a hired people carrier. It’s then that I see Dad’s coffin for the first time, in the back window of the hearse in front of us.
Fittingly, it’s a cardboard coffin, looking just like one of Dad’s many boxes of comics in the loft. It also has a base made from the same sort of hardboard that Dad used, when he built scenery for Tom and myself to play with as children; rocket ships and puppet theatres. One of Mum’s homemade quilts covers the coffin, a beautiful science-fiction themed work with planets and stars. ‘I’m having that back before the actual burning,’ says Mum about the quilt. ‘It’s too nice!’
Seeing the coffin for the first time is the first of several moments when I nearly, but not quite, burst into tears.
We arrive at the crematorium at Nacton, near Ipswich. Then we get out and walk behind the pallbearers with the coffin, into the chapel. Unexpectedly, all the seats are taken: standing room only for Dad.
The Humanist host of the ceremony, Chris, does most of the reading. Then I follow with my own eulogy. At Mum’s request, it’s based on extracts from my diary, but I’ve added some of the liner notes from the Fosca album The Painted Side Of The Rocket, the album which features myself and Tom together. I wanted to make the point about creativity being something children do naturally, and which adult artists have to do on purpose. A quality of childlike unselfconsciousness – something Dad manage to manifest easily throughout his life, in both his art and his personality.
Then I read from the diary entry about Dad’s death, ‘Seeing Dad’, and I very nearly break down, twice. But only nearly.
We file out to ‘Monster Mash’, as promised. Dad’s favourite song, ‘Macho Man’ by the Village People, then follows on, with its opening line of ‘Body! Wanna feel my body, baby!’
Both are very silly records indeed for a funeral, and Dad, a fan of Joe Orton and Family Guy, knew this more than anyone else. We put little explanations about the choices – or warnings, rather – into Chris’s reading and mine, so one hopes the mourners understood.
* * *
In the courtyard outside the chapel, the mourners gather to chat. The first thing spoken to me after the service is, ‘Look! Muppet socks!’
A man in his seventies has collared me. He slips off his loafers to show off, yes, his Kermit the Frog socks. This turns out to be one of Dad’s schoolfriends from Clacton, a jokey gang raised on The Goon Show and who, like Dad, have managed to extend their in-jokes down the decades. One of them is wearing a luminous high-vis jacket: whether it’s for cycling or an outdoors day job I’m not sure, but it’s certainly a sign his own body has some years to go yet.
‘I’ll come visit you’ says one to the other as they part.
‘I don’t like threats’, says the other, deadpan.
Afterwards there’s sandwiches and tea at Chamberlin Hall, the new village hall in Bildeston. I chat with cousins I’ve not seen for decades, and some I’ve not seen full stop. Some live in Brighton, some in London, some in Sussex. There’s also people who babysat me in the village, or taught me in the local schools, and indeed the woman who helped Mum with Baby Dickon things when I was born, doing the sort of job that (I think) is now called a doula.
‘Do you remember me?’ is something I’m asked a lot. And for the most part, I do. Sometimes I don’t, and probably make a mess of pulling the right expression.
I still don’t know how I’ll be different now he’s gone. It’s still too soon.
In the evening, Tom drives me back to London.
Thursday 27th February 2014
Tom has made a little video memorial for Dad. It’s made up of photos of Dad (sometimes with me as a child), along with examples of his art. The soundtrack is an original instrumental written and performed by Tom:
, coach and horses
, dad's funeral
Friday 14th February 2014. In one corner of the Euston branch of Marks and Spencer is a huge display of unsold tins of shortbread, all close to their expiry date. It’s a special edition brand, made last July to commemorate the birth of the Royal Baby. The cover design is a twee painted trio of marching little boys, one in a sailor suit, one in a Beefeater uniform, and one dressed as a Queen’s Guard, with the red tunic and black bearskin hat. I stand there in the supermarket looking at the tins and pondering this tacky monument to cash-in hubris. I wonder if the unsold tins can somehow be converted into flood defences.
I suppose they could now rename the biscuit tins in honour of Simon Cowell’s baby, as this week his happy news is getting the same manic coverage allotted to the royal infant last year – days on end of front pages. In the supermarket, I stand around gazing at the fronts of these popular newspapers, wondering just who is interested, and why I am not like them.
* * *
Saturday 15th February 2014
I stumble on an old quote by Peter Nichols, which might now be regarded as an early version of the internet saying ‘don’t feed the trolls’:
‘Never reply to a critic. It’s feeding the hand that bites you.’
* * *
Sunday 16th February 2014
I finish writing my latest essay for college. It’s on Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, about her dead father. And then I go straight on to finishing my own eulogy for Dad’s funeral.
Unlike the college essay, the eulogy lacks a word count. So I put together what I think will be okay, hoping for the best.
Thankfully there are people who do know how long such pieces should be. A few days after I email the eulogy to Mum, the man from the Humanist Society, who is conducting the ceremony, steps in, reads everyone’s intended contributions, and tells us they all need to be drastically edited down in order to fit the time slot at the crematorium.
Dad would have found this amusing, being no man of few words himself.
* * *
I watch the film BAFTAs on TV. Peter Greenaway gets a special award, some years after the British film industry had more or less turned its back on him. He’s still around, still making films that properly put the Art into Art House. Martin Freeman starred in one he made in 2007 about Rembrandt, Nightwatching, which really should have been better known.
He gets the award from Juliet Stevenson, who talks about her part in Drowning By Numbers, my favourite Greenaway movie. It was filmed around Southwold in Suffolk, and gives the local landscape a defiantly spooky yet very English ambience – the Sebald kind which was already there. Greenaway added his trademark taste for the grotesque, but didn’t have to add too much. The film has a touch of Kit Williams too, with its numbers of 1 to 100 hidden in sequence throughout the film. Its soundtrack is also Michael Nyman’s best – I remember it even appeared in NME’s Albums Of The Year list for Christmas 1988.
Monday 17th February 2014
Mum tells me how in looking for Dad’s birth certificate, she found a letter from the author John Masters, from the time in the 60s when Dad illustrated book covers for Penguin. At some point during the author-to-illustrator process, Masters noticed Dad’s Bildeston address and wrote a full, personal letter to him from New York, revealing that he’d had a romance with a woman from Bildeston in the 1930s.
This is Dad’s cover for Coromandel!, published 1967.
Dad was also commissioned to do the cover for the first British edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, though his art wasn’t eventually used. He told me how the publisher had trusted him with the only copy of Vonnegut’s original manuscript, longhand scribblings and all. That was the way it was done, before the rise of word processing.
* * *
Tuesday 18th February 2014
In London ambassador mode, I meet up with Liam J again. This time I show them the Museum of London (which we discover needs more than 2 hours to do properly), followed by fish and chips (Liam’s first) at Bar Bruno in Wardour Street. We end up at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern for Bar Wotever, the friendly club night for trans people, androgynes and anyone of uncommon gender identity. The US writer S. Bear Bergman gives an entertaining reading of anecdotes, and I have my boots polished by Alex, a charming ‘shoe-shine boi’ (pronounced ‘boy’) in a checked shirt and bow tie, who has a proper shoe-shine stall set up in one corner. Alex takes a good fifteen to twenty minutes on my boots, applying a host of different unguents and waxes. This is bookended by the gentle rolling up and down of the ends of my trousers. It’s the closest I’ve come to having a sex life for some time.
* * *
Wednesday 19th February 2014
A teenage girl in Coventry writes, asking for permission to use my lyrics in her A-level art project. I duly give her my blessing. It’s good to know I have some sort of value, even it’s ‘the wrong kind of worth’, as a Job Centre employee once told me.
Meanwhile, I am besieged by what people are currently encouraged to view as the ‘right’ kind of worth – unabashed corporate greed. Today I get a letter from BT demanding I pay them a fee of £40 purely so I can leave them for another phone company. It’s a kind of telephonic alimony. The main reason I’m switching providers, of course, is BT’s spontaneous displays of legalised grasping, like this one. I am just grateful we never had children.
* * *
Thursday 20th February 2014
Two new marks in from college. The New Year essay on Old English poetry gets 77, while the January test on Old English translation also gets 77. This concludes my half module on Old English per se, giving it an overall grade of 77 in the process. A good First. Given my previous module grades have all been in the low 70s (Firsts, but only just), this either suggests I have an unexpected gift for Old English, or that I’ve more or less worked out how to tick the right boxes. The latter is more likely. I didn’t find Old English at all easy, as it requires not just hours of literary criticism but hours of translation and historical research on top. I’m slow enough with Modern English as it is.
, bar wotever
, john masters
, liam j
, peter greenaway
, vauxhall tavern
Friday 7th February 2014.
I am approached by a charity street fundraiser on Tottenham Court Road. ‘No thanks,’ I say. ‘Are you sure?’ he says, following me along the pavement. I’m tempted to reply, ‘My dad’s just died, you pestering git, leave me alone’. But that would be, as they say in warfare, a disproportionate response.
Saturday 8th February 2014.
To Suffolk to visit Mum. As I get on the train to Marks Tey I recognise that the only other person in the carriage is the comedian Stewart Lee. I enjoy his work enough to know where he’s probably going – and am slightly unnerved that I know this. Earlier this week I’d read an East Anglian Daily Times interview with him online, promoting his show in Ipswich (a reminder that local news is no longer local, thanks to the Web). He told the journalist that the fact he was speaking to the newspaper at all must mean he hadn’t sold enough tickets. Typically for Mr Lee, this was both a grumpy joke and a joke about the act of daring to make that sort of grumpy joke.
Recognising someone in a train carriage requires rather different etiquette to recognising them in the street. The latter predicament always makes me think of a line from a Half Man Half Biscuit song:
‘He’s seen me / And we both realise / That we’re going to have to put into operation / That tricky manoeuvre / that is Acknowledgement Without Breaking Stride’.
It’s more complex if the person you recognise is slightly famous, and though you have chatted to them socially in the past, that had been some years ago. And in Stewart Lee’s case, that Act of Recognising Stewart Lee in Public – and his resulting irritation – is something he has put into his work. There’s one stand-up show where he reads out a long list of unkind statements from Twitter:
‘I saw that Stewart Lee on the bus,’ goes one. ‘He looked fat and depressed and fat.’
I’m too socially awkward as it is to be the one that makes the move in such scenarios, whoever the other person is, and tend to prefer people coming up to me rather than the other way round. As it is, I think to myself, he might be well in a state of mental preparation for his show, and so shouldn’t be disturbed.
Something else I always worry about is – what if something terrible has happened to the person you’ve just recognised, and now is really not the time to bother them? A parent might just have died, for instance. That happens to people. That definitely happens to people.
So I don’t approach him during the journey. When I get off at Marks Tey, though, he sees me, recognises me and says hello.
I have to add that he looked thin and reasonably happy and thin.
Travelling on the little diesel train to Sudbury along the Stour Valley, I pass a line of pylons. They are standing in several feet of flood water.
I spend the afternoon in Bildeston with Mum and my aunt Anne. There’s no traces of the medical equipment that cluttered up the living room last time I was here. The hospital bed, the noisy oxygen machine, the mask, the tubes and the commode have all been taken away by various medical services. No sentimental value attached to those. I’m grateful that they kept him alive, but grateful to see the back of them. Off to sustain someone else.
It turns out that Anne wasn’t intending to be in the village on the day that Dad died. The floods in the South-West had wrecked the train track for her journey back to St Ives, and staying with Mum a few more days was the only option. So Mum had the benefit of her company when she heard from the care home. In fact, it was Anne who took the call. A silver lining of some literal clouds.
* * *
Mum and Anne are convinced Dad’s handwriting closely resembled mine, and vice versa. But I like to think I can see evidence of both parents’ styles coming together in my own spidery hand. It’s as good a reason as any for varying my typing with my longhand writing. Every time I write with a pen, there he is.
Sunday 9th February 2014
Dad’s phrases keep coming back to me. One is ‘I have better things to do’, in response to some conversation about a national talking point. As in ‘Did you see that Benefits Street everyone’s on about?’ ‘No, I have better things to do.’ Not meaning it unkindly, but honestly. And he was usually right. It seems a mundane, even obvious piece of life advice, yet it’s one that’s so useful and so easy to ignore. Dad was a fan of silliness, but it was always intentional and purposeful silliness. Mindful Silliness, I suppose. That’s the difference.
As a habitual procrastinator I try to ask myself, ‘Is this the best thing I could be doing right now?’ Or if I’m idling full stop, I wonder ‘What’s the best thing I could be doing now?’ That the phrase comes to me in Dad’s voice helps all the more.
Wednesday 12th February 2014
I’m currently being driven crazy by some sort of facial aching, with hot-and-cold sensations around my teeth, jaw and facial muscle area. Today I see the GP, who thinks it is a flaring up of TJD (Temporomandibular Joint Disorder), which I’ve always had a touch of (my jaw clicks). This might well have been brought on the stress of the more intensive college work in January, coupled with general anxiety over my penury, and now of course, Dad’s death.
‘Do you grind your teeth in your sleep?’ she asks. I have no idea. I live alone.
Valentine’s day is close, and like many I start to think about the pros and cons of relationships. The ability of couples to detect warning signs in each other’s health is one definite advantage. Still, I have to admit I enjoy my own company, and am relieved not to have to join the ranks of all the confused-looking men in card shops this week.
Thursday 13th February 2014.
Mum has written an introduction to be read out at the funeral by the Humanist official in charge (not sure what the correct term is – certainly not priest). It explains how he was known as Bib Edwards to some, and Brian Edwards to others. He tended to prefer the more informal nickname of Bib, but answered happily to either.
My brother Tom has been balancing his helping with the funeral, with his work as a guitarist. Today he performs in Adam Ant’s band on ITV’s This Morning.
Tom must have mentioned Dad’s passing to Mr Ant, because the singer introduces ‘Ant Music’ on national television with the phrase ‘This is for Bib’.
Tags: adam ant
, stewart lee
Thursday 6th February 2014.
At 9.20am Mum phones me to say that Dad died in his sleep, at about 8 this morning, very suddenly. He was 77 years old.
(This isn’t going to be a very cohesive diary entry. ‘What’s new?’ says the reader.)
In mid-January the pulmonary fibrosis had eaten his body away – as opposed to him – to the point where he needed live-in, round-the-clock nurses. There was no other option for Dad but to finally move out of the home in Bildeston, Suffolk where he had lived since the late 1960s, the house I grew up in. Thankfully the care home that took him in, Laxfield House, was one the family knew well and liked. It had looked after my Grandad 10 years earlier. Dad had his own room, which he could personalise. He had a Marvel Comics calendar, and a huge TV with a DVD player with which to watch his voluminous collection of films – never daytime TV. That helped.
(What Virginia Woolf said about a room of one’s own applies to everyone full stop, male or female, whether they’re writers or not.)
He was there for exactly two weeks. On Wednesday night Dad was visited by Mum and Auntie Anne, Dad’s sister. He wasn’t in any pain, just utterly exhausted, and he was as talkative as he could manage. Mum says the last thing he said before they left was ‘I have to go to bed now… ’. This made them laugh. He’d been bedbound for months and had meant to say ‘sleep’, of course. But like many last or last-ish words, the phrase now acquires a strange, significant poignancy.
After Mum phoned, I had a good cry. Then a good think. Then another good cry. Then I felt a bit better and went into town and got on with the work for my current essay, as best I could. The text I’m writing about is Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, about the death of a father. So that didn’t help. But then virtually all literature is about death in one way or another.
It’s already a miserable day in London. Rain hammers down, and there’s a tube strike. I walk through Islington, close to the cinema where Dad and I went the last time he visited the city. We saw the second Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Junior – right up Dad’s street. Unabashed blockbuster entertainment, with a sense of comic book escapism. But he’d also seek out and champion lesser known imaginative films, like Mr Nobody with Jared Leto. I’ve still not seen it yet (sorry, Dad).
* * *
In 1971, in a hospital waiting room in Ipswich, waiting for me to be born, Dad reads Philip K Dick’s The Unteleported Man.
* * *
Dad wasn’t a Londoner by birth, but he moved here when he was at art school. It was London where he met my mother. When they dated – ‘courted’ I think is more accurate for the time – Mum and Dad used to meet by the stone lions at the back of the British Museum.
In the 60s, he worked in Newman’s art bookshop in Charing Cross Road and bought his clothes from the trendy boutique ‘I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet’. I think he had a cape.
Members of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band came in to the shop on a regular basis. He knew John Gorman off The Scaffold and Tiswas. He knew Paddy O’Hagan off Pipkins, and saw him play the Meat Loaf part in the very first stage production of The Rocky Horror Show.
* * *
“I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.” – from Moby-Dick, Dad’s favourite novel.
I’ll miss his silliness. His jokes, his whistling, and his too-loud laugh. I’ll miss the way I could hear him laughing aloud to himself in his studio in the attic, because he’d just remembered something funny in his head. It could have been a bit from a Laurel and Hardy film, or it could have been something a school friend said to him in 1950. Whatever the funny thing was, it wasn’t there, but it didn’t need to be there. Dad still saw it.
Dad wanted the main song at his funeral to be ‘The Monster Mash’ by Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett. I’m hoping that will happen. His favourite song ever was ‘Macho Man’ by the Village People. I’m hoping that can be played at his funeral too. There’s no way I can type that without smiling, and Dad knew it. Knows it. The tenses are hard to get used to, this soon.
He made beautiful playthings out of wood for me and Tom when we were small: puppet theatres, soldier forts, painted rocket ships you could pretend to be inside. He made comic strip adventures featuring his own superhero character, Captain Bi-Plane, who lived in a world of airships and gears and gloves and goggles, some decades before people called such things steampunk. People who have seen the strip recently call it steampunk, of course.
He also had a thing about dodos. In 2010, at my request, he drew a dodo dressed as Matt Smith’s Doctor Who.
A long time ago, when I was about five, Dad made three children’s books about dodos, with Mum writing the words. He put me into one of them, The Dodo Is a Solitary Bird (Tadworth: World’s Work, 1977).
I posed for his drawings and became the character of ‘The Boy’.
This copy of the book has been annotated by Dad, using post-it notes. I’ll miss his handwriting too.
I was thinking of putting a ‘real’ photo of Dad here, but today I’m upset at the unfairness of his body collapsing, while his mind was still sharp.
Another quote from Moby-Dick:
Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me.
And besides, I worry that if I showed you a photo of Dad, you wouldn’t see the Dad I’m thinking about today (I’ll confess I’ve been reading Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida today, on the meaning on photographs, and how he refuses to show the reader the one photo of his mother in which he can truly ‘see’ her).
I’d much rather show you Dad through his artwork. In the top Dodo Tree House on this page from The Dodo Is A Solitary Bird is the studio of the artist Draw A. Dodo. It’s a version of Dad’s real studio in the attic of the house I grew up in. The child-me character, ‘The Boy’ is poking his head through a trap door.
Dad’s Post-It annotation reads:
This refers to the infant Dickon’s tendency to push up the loft trap-door and enter when I was trying to meet a deadline! (Note Hitchcock-type self portrait on wall)
And there’s Dad. A tiny drawn self-portrait, on the wall of a dodo’s studio, tucked away in the world of a children’s book. A little mirror, in a larger mirror of the studio he worked in. Where he’ll always be drawing, and always laughing too loud at something only he could see.
On Camp: Gaga v Perry
Saturday 28th December 2013. To Bildeston to visit Mum and Dad. Dad is pretty much the same as he was the month before: restricted to either the sofa or the bed in the living room, still relying on an oxygen mask and round-the-clock care. But he’s also still very chatty, enthusing about the latest escapist films on DVD, his Christmas presents from the family: Iron Man 3, Man of Steel. ‘I’m still that boy buying the first issue of Eagle comic’.
What he never watches is that baffling default prescription for the bedbound, the type piped into hospital wards at the request of no one sane: daytime TV. No fan of Bargain Hunt, my father.
I make myself useful by organising Dad’s DVD collection, gathering them from several scattered piles around the house into a single cabinet downstairs, then arranging them into alphabetical order. He has about 150. We wonder where best to file The Amazing Spider-Man, the recent big screen frolic starring the nervy Andrew Garfield (who really should play the young David Byrne if there’s ever a Talking Heads biopic). Should it go under ‘A’ for Amazing, or ‘S’ for Spider-Man, given that Dad also has the Tobey Maguire triptych of a few years ago? We agree on the latter. Keep all the Spider-Men in one place, and hope that Mr Maguire will not take the implication personally that he is officially… Not Amazing.
(As I type this up, a real spider dangles down from the ceiling onto my hand. It’s a thin greenish little thing, certainly not one of those False Widow spiders that the British newspapers got so aroused about last year. This one sadly has not bitten me and so I remain without a hyphenated secret identity. I have now carefully relocated the interloper to the outdoors, via the time-honoured dance of Mr Tumbler and Ms Nearest Piece of Paper. Before I go on, though, I think I should type the words ‘unmarked fifty pound notes’ and ‘Tom Daley’ in case they too need to fall from above. Nothing. )
* * *
Sunday 29th December 2013. End of year lists. My heroes of 2013: Young Ms Malala, obviously. The brave Mr Snowden too. Closer to home: Ms Jack Monroe, the food blogger turned fearless anti-poverty campaigner. And also Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP. For her involvement in the protest against fracking (for which she was arrested), for being asked to cover up her ‘Ban Page 3’ shirt in a Commons debate, and for voting ‘yes’ to the food bank investigation and ‘no’ to MPs getting a pay rise. I know I’m biased, but Russell Brand’s calling for people to not vote seems unfair on the MPs who are trying to change things for the better. Though admittedly, they’re not quite as visible as he is.
* * *
Monday 30th December 2013. Shamefully, I waste time on Twitter as a distraction from writing an essay on Anglo-Saxon poetry. Still, I hope I am redeemed when I provide the author Sarah Churchwell with a dull but useful tip about how to copy text from a Kindle e-book (you use the ‘Kindle for PC or Mac’ program, open the book within it, use the ‘search’ facility to locate the passage, then copy and paste as normal). Ms Churchwell wrote Careless People, one of my favourite books of the year, about the influences behind The Great Gatsby. She tweets back that the tip worked for her, with thanks. I know so little about computers that supplying this mundanity, and hearing it was of use, makes my day.
A second good deed on Twitter: Ms Amber, whom I slightly know from the world of dressed-up London parties, asks the Twitter world for serious definitions of ‘camp’. Ideally, not from the over-quoted Susan Sontag essay.
I offer two: ‘The lie that tells the truth’ from the title of Philip Core’s 1980s book. And ‘a charging of the tension between performance and existence’, from Gary McMahon’s 2006 book Camp in Literature.
The trouble then is that I find myself distracted from the essay with my own musings on the subject. Is Lady Gaga a ‘Queen of Camp’, for instance, as some quarters have described her? Using the McMahon definition, I’d say no. There’s no ‘charging of the tension’, no wink, no knowing smirk. For her, performance is existence. But she may become camp as she gets older, because age ups the tension. A case in point is Grace Jones: all Gaga-esque performance when she was young, now very much camp. Katy Perry, on the other hand, is camp. She has that charged quality of self-awareness, finding the line where the self meets the performance, and then exaggerating it. That’s camp.
All this comes to me when I should be thinking about translating Old English from the Exeter Book.
* * *
Tuesday 31st December 2013. I meet with Laurence Hughes, up from Oxford. Mulled wine at The Flask in Highgate Village. He thinks I should take the academic thing further, doing a Masters and so on when I graduate. He says I ‘look’ the part of an academic. Perhaps in my case it’s just the air of an inability to cope with the physical.
At home, I work on the essay, then take a Nytol sleeping tablet, put in earplugs, and sleep through the fireworks. It’s the happiest New Year’s Eve I’ve had for some time.
* * *
Wednesday 1st January 2014. I start the year by appearing in the Guardian, to my surprise and squealing delight.
Or rather, I appear on the Guardian website, as the article in question is not in the printed newspaper (I buy a copy to check). Funny how prepositions work with new technology. It’s in the paper, but on the website. Or in an article on a website. Anyway.
The article is Travis Elborough’s Top 10 Literary Diarists. Here’s the link:
I am included along with Samuel Pepys, Alan Bennett, Elizabeth Smart and Virginia Woolf.
* * *
Thursday 2nd January 2014. A few weeks ago I reviewed a graphic novel by Oscar Zarate, The Park, for The Quietus’s comics round-up column. The book is set mostly on Hampstead Heath. Here’s the link:
Having been reminded about Elizabeth Smart’s diaries by the Travis Elborough article, I look them up at The London Library today. The first volume, Necessary Secrets, is a work of art, reading more as fully-formed literature than as a hastily jotted-down journal. It’s so close in style to her novella By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept that it deserves to be considered on the same level. Yet it’s been out of print for over twenty years. I recall how the Morrissey song ‘Late Night Maudlin Street’, from his album Viva Hate, is full of quotes from By Grand Central. No mention of Ms Smart’s influence in his Autobiography, sadly.
Tags: andrew garfield
, caroline lucas
, elizabeth smart
, katy perry
, lady gaga
, laurence hughes
, sarah churchwell
, travis elborough
The Outsider Of Obituary Space
Sat 30th November 2013: My brother Tom and I visit Dad and Mum in Suffolk, for Dad’s 77th birthday. Dad needs round the clock care, but at least he’s at home and gets much of the care from nurses, who visit the house and work in shifts. When Tom and I visit, Dad is dressed, seated on the sofa and is chatty. It’s very different from our visit the month before, where he was in bed and barely able to open his eyes. That time, he said to me: ‘This is all very boring, I’m afraid’.
Dad relies on mains power for his oxygen pump, so a recent power cut due to the now-regular floods proved to be something of an ordeal. I find out afterwards that the electricity network has a priority register for people who are particularly vulnerable when the power goes down.
[Here’s the link in case anyone reading this knows someone in a similar situation]
Something that I’ve insisted Mum gets for future power cuts is a ‘corded’ phone, as in the pre-digital sort that just plugs into the landline socket. No need for batteries, chargers or any sort of power supply. It’s everything else that needs electricity: mobile chargers, answering machines, speed dial buttons, hands-free bases. Strange to think the phone evolved from not needing electricity to needing it badly.
Tom is currently playing guitar for Roddy Frame’s band. They’ve been performing all the songs from the 80s Aztec Camera album High Land Hard Rain, one of the concerts being at a sold out Drury Lane. These ‘classics albums live’ gigs are more popular than ever, though not all the bands stick strictly to the list on the back of the (inevitably reissued) CD box. I’m told that when Primal Scream performed ‘Screamadelica’ live, they mucked around with the song order, and even missed some tracks out.
Meanwhile, Monty Python have reformed for live concerts too. I suppose they could tour a set-list of all the scenes from each of their films, in the way bands do their back catalogue albums.
* * *
A notice in St Pancras library today, announcing a book of condolence for Nelson Mandela, this particular one at Camden town hall around the corner. There’s also a book at South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, where people are shown on TV queuing around the block.
Colin Wilson, the cult writer of ‘The Outsider’ and countless other books, dies on Thursday 5th, the same day as Mr Mandela. It’s reminiscent of Jeffrey Bernard going on the same day as Mother Teresa: not just the timing but the contrast. Global humanitarian bumps selfish British writer in the scrabble for obituary space. Only The Times manages to run an obituary for Mr Wilson the next day. I myself find out about his death through social media. I also find it’s best to check Twitter for things like the status of rail services and power cuts when -as there was this week – floods in Suffolk. For all my misgivings about it, Twitter is much better at supplying news than, well, the news.
Two media clichés that make me wince. ‘Tributes pour in’ (the only thing that tributes ever seem to do, with no explanation of exactly how they’ve attained this liquid form), and ‘took to Twitter’, which gives what is often a perfunctory, kneejerk act a misleading air of effort and considered choice. It’s also the alliteration that irks, giving it a unsuitable jaunty, skipping connotation. ‘He took to Twitter’. While I take to drink.
Recommended reading on Colin Wilson:
A highly naughty Guardian interview from 2004: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/may/30/biography.features1
An excellent piece on the blog Another Nickel In The Machine: http://www.nickelinthemachine.com/2010/01/hampstead-heath-and-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-author-colin-wilson/
Tags: aztec camera
, colin wilson
, monty python
, nelson mandela
, power cuts
, the outsider