Slouching Towards Dalston

Monday 29 May 2017. After the self-pity of before, two pieces of good news. My MA essay on horror fiction came back with a distinction mark. The last assessment is the big dissertation, due in September. From the weighting system, I’ve worked out that in order to get a distinction for the whole MA, the dissertation needs to come in at a minimum of 62. So I shouldn’t need to sweat over things too much, in theory. The mark for the horror essay was especially gratifying as it came from Professor Roger Luckhurst, author of introductions for the Oxford Classics editions of Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde and HP Lovecraft: Classic Stories.

The other big news is that I have found and committed to a new rented room. It’s in a Victorian house in Dalston, close to the Rio cinema. The nearest tube is Dalston Kingsland, on the Overground line. The landlady is a friend and fellow Birkbeck graduate. She approached me directly when she heard of my forthcoming eviction, and offered me the room. So that’s one less thing to worry about. I’ll move in mid-July, which will give me time to bevel down 23 years of possessions into a nomadic minimum.

Dalston is a rather different environment to Highgate: more youthful and urban, less of a privileged bubble. I was going to say less leafy too, but I’ve just found out about the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden, a piece of disused railway line turned into a public garden. It will mean a new life of sorts, frequenting places like the Rio, Dalston Superstore, Café Oto, the Arcola Theatre, and the Burley Fisher bookshop.

The Arcola’s current production is Richard III, the only Shakespeare play with a mention of a Dickon. I took that to be an encouraging sign. Though what really swung it was the closeness to the Rio. It’s only now that I’ve realised how much I’ve always wanted to have an Art Deco cinema on my doorstep. And Dalston has that very London sense of crossing borders in time, the old constantly overlaid with the new.

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John Ruskin’s diary for 8th October 1880: ‘No time for anything here but pleasant walks and lessons’. Most of my days have been like that recently. Sitting in libraries, working on the dissertation. The British Library has the best air conditioning. When the temperature soars, as it has of late, that’s where I tend to work. Or lurk.

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Earlier activity:

Wednesday 24 May 2017. With Jon S to the Hampstead Everyman for Alien: Covenant. A spin-off of a spin-off, following on from Prometheus, which in turn was a prequel to Alien. I think. I started to stop caring towards the end, things becoming so formulaic that I didn’t even notice how they got rid of the new alien that one is meant to give a hoot about in the last fifteen minutes. It doesn’t help that the creatures’ CGI-ness somehow becomes more obvious when relayed on a spaceship monitor. At that point it looks like a harmless video game character, not the dripping, gooey creations of the 70s and 80s films that had to be built from latex and servo-motors. In the past special effects had to hide the rubber. Now they have to hide the pixels.

Still, up to this point the film is entertaining enough. Michael Fassbinder is always worth watching, and here he meets his ideal date – himself. ‘I know wheat’ is an actual line of dialogue, as is ‘I’ll do the fingering’. And there’s good news for those who think science-fiction films need more scenes of recorder lessons.

Katherine Waterston is the Tough Woman Lead this time (one remembers that Ridley Scott was also behind Thelma and Louise and G.I. Jane). Though here Ms Waterston’s short bob hairdo and permanently mournful expression make her character more child-like and sensitive-looking, which is to the film’s credit. She looks like she’d be better off playing bass in a late 80s indie band, rather than battling monsters with mouths like Rexel office staplers.

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Thursday 25 May 2017. To Somerset House (specifically the East Wing’s Indigo Rooms), for the private view of Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and Their Digital Descendants. I’d agreed to let the curators use an extract from my diary for a digital screen on the way in. The idea is a different entry from someone’s diary is shown on the screen each day. What I didn’t expect was to see my diary acknowledged more substantially, in a large timeline on a wall. The timeline tells the history of diaries from the invention of writing to the current state of the internet, with the Terminator-like rise of ‘the internet of things’. Along the way there’s Pepys, Anne Frank, and in 1997 the first entry in my own diary. The implication is that mine is thought to be the longest-running of its kind. The earliest web diary is by Carolyn L Burke, who kept hers from 1995 to 2002. She wrote in raw HTML code, as did I at first. Black letters on white.

The bulk of the exhibition manages to address the appeal of paper versus digital, but the print diaries work better emotionally. I feel a shudder when I see the artist Keith Vaughan’s diary is here. It’s a large ledger, opened to the final entry, which records his suicide in the 1970s. Judging by his handwriting, which gets more illegible by the letter, he was writing the entry as the pills took effect:

‘65 was long enough for me. It wasn’t a complete failure. I did some good work…’

Then the letters shrink to a scrawl, and stop. The upside is knowing that he was right about the ‘good work’. Twelve of his paintings are in the Tate’s collection. One of them is currently on display in the Tate Britain’s Queer British Art show.

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Sunday 28 May 2017. To the Odeon Covent Garden for Colossal with Ms Shanthi. Anne Hathaway finds her alcoholic antics in a small American town are connected with the appearance of a giant Godzilla-like monster, which is causing havoc on the other side of the world. There’s a serious message here about the effects of heavy drinking, though viewers might be put off by the lurches in tone, from social realist comedy-drama to a Transformers-like sci-fi thriller, and back again. An odd film, but I admire its nerve. It’s a little like Being John Malkovitch in that respect; difficult to imagine it was allowed to be made it all.

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Rise Of The Floating Yodas

Saturday 6th September 2014.

I spend a day in town with Mum, meeting her off the 1031 train at Liverpool Street. We manage to pack in two exhibitions and one major art installation, along with lunch (stir fried tofu for two on the terrace of the British Library’s restaurant, with hardly anyone else about). First up is the Quentin Blake show at the House of Illustration, one of the buildings in the new Granary Square development, north of King’s Cross station. Like the station itself, the development is an impressive mix of Victorian buildings tidied up and put to new use, alongside scatterings of new architecture: the astroturf steps by the canal, and the matrix of pavement fountains, with their multi-coloured lights.

We investigate the viewing platform set up opposite the square. The usual aluminium panels denoting which building is which are covered in angry comments, scrawled in black ink. Everything in sight is attacked: ‘ugly!’, ‘terrible idea!’, ‘waste of space!’, ‘waste of money!’ The anonymous writer even accuses the sign of getting its facts wrong: ‘NO! That’s on the LEFT, not the RIGHT!’ I check the skyline. The sign is perfectly correct.

I can’t help thinking this is a real-life effect of the vogue to leave angry comments under every piece of information on the internet, and as a matter of course, too. The implied message really being ‘I exist and I am lonely and I want to matter.’ Or put more simply, ‘I troll therefore I am’.

Mum, however, does like Granary Square. She daringly adds her own comment to the graffiti – though she’s careful to do so in pencil: ‘Nonsense! Think positive! Be a Polyanna, not an Eeyore!’

[On Friday the 12th I revisit the viewing platform. The sign is now wiped clean of any graffiti, and is back to normal. This is the equivalent of that most ubiquitous statement on the Guardian site: ‘This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted.’]

* * *

The Quentin Blake show includes a whole room dedicated to Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. Other Blake works on display are his pictures for Voltaire’s Candide, for David Walliams’s Boy In The Dress, and for his own wordless book, Clown. A film reveals that Mr Blake does his drawing standing up, like an architect, and that he uses a light box, not just to trace but because it ‘feels friendly’. Illustration, he says, is about choosing a single moment in a text, then living in it. ‘You own that moment for as long as you like.’

In the gallery shop, Mum impulse-buys Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton, a mad and funny picture book about a naughty dog. Though it’s aimed at the very young, the lesson of self-discipline is all-connecting. I end up getting a copy for myself. Somewhat ironically, the book is hard to resist.

* * *

I show Mum the new Hatchards at St Pancras, fast becoming one of my favourite places to browse. It’s an example of how best to lay out a small bookshop: a little bit of everything, with as much as possible displayed face out, and lots of tempting tables. The new Beano annual (for 2015) is given prominence, and with good reason. The cover shows Dennis the Menace and Gnasher in St Pancras, running to catch the Eurostar.

At the National Portrait Gallery, we take in this year’s BP Portrait contest. Teeming with people. In contrast to the Kings Cross viewing platform, the thoughts of visitors are this time solicited, in the shape of a touchscreen. You tap on the painting you think should have won. I have no idea if the results are collated somewhere, but it gives the sense of feeling like one’s opinion matters, and that’s the true spirit of the age. My favourite painting is by Clara Drummond, ‘Portrait in Blue and Gold’. A second prize would go to ‘Eddie In The Morning’, by Geoffrey Beasley, which Mum is also keen on.

We wander through a corner of Trafalgar Square. At least three things are going on at once. In the main space is the stage for a rally by The People’s March for the NHS (sample slogan: ‘NHS – Everyone’s Concern, Nobody’s Business). In the corner is a busking set by Jake Heading, a pleasant, bespectacled young singer who’s drawn quite a crowd. And a few yards away from him are the usual living statues. Recently there’s been a spate of trompe l’oeil performers in the touristy parts of the city, particularly Floating Yodas. These are people dressed as the little green Muppet-y creature from the Star Wars films, whose costume hides a seat attached to a sturdy pole, so it looks like they are levitating. As we pass, one of the Yodas takes off his rubber mask to mop his streaming brow. ‘Sweatier than it looks, living statue work is’.

* * *

We end the day at the Tower Of London, there to see the red porcelain poppies planted all around the grassy moat. A staggering sea of red. One poppy for each life lost in WW1, arranged so it looks like they’re pouring out of one of the Tower’s windows. The poppies circle the whole Tower, and hundreds of other people are here to get a good look at them too. It may be a simple symbol, but it’s a powerful and unforgettable one.

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Sunday 7th September 2014.

To the St James Theatre Studio in Victoria for a new one-man play: Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope. Written and performed by Mark Farrelly, it’s an interesting indication of where QC’s reputation might be today, fifteen years after his death. Certainly the 80s Sting hit ‘An Englishman In New York’ is heavily relied upon as a qualification. Not only is the song played in the show, but it’s alluded to three times in the limited space of the flyer. I always thought the association was unfair, given Crisp’s dislike of pop music full stop. But I should admit that I’ve never cared for the song itself, its melody and production being too bland for my liking. My apologies to Mr Sting.

Mr Farrelly is rather muscular in comparison with the two main actors who’ve played QC in the past, John Hurt (on film) and Bette Bourne (on stage). He makes me think how a young Laurence Olivier might have approached the role, because his version of Quentin seems as much critical as it is affectionate. It hints at unaddressed layers beneath the surface, perhaps even that Crisp was something of an unreliable narrator. The show is much more of a dramatisation than an impersonation. In fact, the sense of Quentin Crisp playing a part himself is accentuated halfway through, when Mr Farrelly changes clothes and wigs in full view of the audience, going from 1960s London Quentin (retelling the events of The Naked Civil Servant), to 1990s New York Celebrity Quentin (delivering his Messages Of Hope lectures, hence the title: Naked Hope).

There’s also a moment where a member of the audience is asked to get on stage and help him read his question cards, which I’m sure is something the real Crisp never did. At first this seems pure pantomime, just something fun to break up the format of a one-man show. Yet the lingering effect is to remind the audience of the way Crisp would go through the motions, always giving the same answers to questions, as if reading from a script. So Farrelly suggests there might be something not quite so inspirational about that. I disagree. I’m biased, but I think words in themselves can be a sufficient approach to the world, even if they’ve been polished and prepared and repeated so much that they might appear insincere. A good aphorism, like a good story, can retain its own self-contained freshness and sincerity, because it represents pure meaning.

* * *

Tuesday 9th September 2014.

I’m at Senate House Library, reading The Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham. At one point I realise with delight that Senate House itself plays a major part in the novel. It becomes the base camp for the London survivors, being one of the tallest landmarks in the city at the time it was written, circa 1950. I also discover that there’s a Book Bench celebrating the connection outside. It depicts triffids on Tower Bridge. The bench is tucked away amid the foliage by the front of the building, lurking there, as if ready to sting.

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Wednesday 10th September 2014.

The opening line of The Day Of The Triffids is one of the greatest in literature:

‘When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like a Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’

But after that, some lines irritate with their deep 1950s-ness. The hero’s love interest is called Josella Playton, which makes her sound like a lingerie brand. Even the 1980s BBC TV adaptation inserted a scene where she says ‘I’ve always hated the name Josella. Just call me Jo.’

One line of the novel is:

‘His companion was a good-looking, well-built girl with an occasional superficial petulance’.

What exactly does Wyndham mean by ‘well-built’? Curvy? Athletic? Double-glazed? Upholstered? Cantilevered? Or just… waterproof?

* * *

Thursday 11th September 2014.

To Highbury to visit Shanthi S. She gives me a birthday present: The Animals, a fat collection of Isherwood’s letters. Then we walk to the Dalston Rio for Two Days, One Night, a French language film starring Marion Cotillard. The BBFC certification card at the start surely crosses the line from content warning into plot spoiler: ‘Contains one scene of attempted suicide’. So all the cinemagoers are waiting for that. That aside, it’s a very straightforward Ken Loach-esque tale of a factory worker tracking down all her co-workers during one weekend, in order to convince them to vote against her redundancy on the following Monday. The dilemma is that a vote to keep her is also a vote to lose their own bonuses. I felt it was the sort of film that might become socially important as time goes on, but found it a little too straightforward to be properly engaging.


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