Little Threads of Infinity

Sometimes, writing can feel like tugging at little threads of infinity. This is a simile suggested by the jacket I’m wearing today. It’s a beloved linen number of some ten summers, as a result of which the jacket is now unravelling along a number of seams. It has reached the stage where it makes my dry cleaner suck in his breath so much, I wonder if there’s a point where the sound of reluctance ends and asthma begins.

I have the same fear of an infinite unravelling whenever I sit down to write. There’s a point where the mind has no reason to stop dwelling on even the tiniest detail – one thinks of the Woolf story ‘The Mark on the Wall’. Everything is interesting, really.

But the problem with this is that I have a backlog of events from the last few weeks, which really should be at least declared, if only to paint in the parameters of my funny little life. This week’s selection of diary entries, and the next one, will therefore be more of a mopping-up. The temptation to tug on The Threads of Fact until they become The Unravelled Garments of Reflection will just have to be resisted.


Tuesday 4th May 2016. To the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury. A small gallery that nevertheless crams in two superb exhibitions: a major one about ‘The Great British Graphic Novel’, and a smaller one upstairs about the Doctor Who Target novelisations, which came out regularly in the 70s and 80s. Virtually every Doctor Who adventure was turned into one of these little books. I remember them well as a child. It was the era just before TV shows were available to buy on home video (long before DVDs). To revisit a favourite story, the fans had to read prose fiction. How strange now to think of novels as catch-up TV.

Each Target paperback had a specially commissioned cover rendered as a painting (hence the exhibition), branding the books more as imaginative explorations in their own right, rather than disposable cash-ins. They also encouraged a feeling of community, which is what merchandise and events like Comic-Con should always do. Join our club.


Thursday 5th May 2016. In the TLS I read a review by Tom Lean of Electronic Dreams, a book about 1980s computer games. One game, Deus Ex Machina, apparently featured a segment ‘in which the player has to guide a sperm to an egg in order to fertilize it. The astronomer Patrick Moore had been invited to voice the semen; he consulted his mother and, on her advice, declined.’


Sunday 8th May 2016. Afternoon: To a marquee in St James’s Square, for one of the Words in the Square events. This is a miniature literary festival, held by the London Library to mark its 175th anniversary. I attend ‘Desert Island Books’, a group discussion about favourite reads. Six authors sit on a stage and explain their choices in categories such as ‘Childhood Favourite’, ‘Biggest Influence’, ‘Guilty Pleasure’, ‘Tarnished Favourite’, and ‘Recent Favourite’. The authors are Philippa Gregory, Deborah Levy, John O’Farrell, Sara Wheeler, Nikesh Shukla and Ned Beauman. A gender note: all three men try to make the audience laugh, while the three women are more serious and wistful about the pleasures of reading. Though that’s a kind of playing to the crowd too.

Ned B’s ‘Guilty Pleasure’ is to go on Amazon and use the ‘Look Inside’ function to read the bits in crime thrillers where the killer reveals his motive. Nikesh S’s ‘Tarnished Favourite’ is a poetry anthology he contributed to in his teens. His initial excitement at having his dream realised was soon doused; the book turned out to be a scam by a vanity press.

Evening: To the Constitution in Camden for Debbie Smith’s Nitty Gritty club night. It’s such a sunny day that I walk all the way from St James’s, via the canal. At the club I meet the singer from the band Bete Noire, who I’m reliably informed have been making waves with their song, ‘Piss On Putin’.


 Saturday 29th May 2016. Mum in London for the day. We visit the British Library’s big summer exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts. As usual with the BL, it’s a rich mix of the familiar (lots of rare books, a couple of First Folios present and correct), the educational (in-depth histories of early female and black actors) and the unexpected. In the latter case I’m fascinated with the details of the first overseas production, an amateur Hamlet on board a ship off the coast of Sierra Leone, as early as 1607. Shakespeare was still alive.

Also learned: King Lear was performed in a sanitised version for 150 years. This Restoration rewrite had a happy ending and omitted the character of the Fool entirely. When the full Shakespearean Lear was revived in the 1830s, the first actor to play the Fool was a woman, Priscilla Horton.

For me, the highlight is a whole room dedicated to Peter Brook’s 1970 production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. This was the radically minimalist version, staged against plain white walls, with brightly coloured costumes, trapezes and stilts. In the exhibition, all the rooms are dark except for this one, a witty recreation of Brook’s clean white box. There’s even a trapeze one can sit on, albeit firmly anchored.

Lunch at Albertini in Chalton Street, followed by a walk around Camley Street Natural Park and a quick visit to the House of Illustration. Three small exhibitions in the latter: 1920s Soviet children’s books (when animal tales were suppressed as bourgeois constructs), a permanent Quentin Blake gallery, and a display of Japanese girls’ Shojo manga comics. Am intrigued about Keiko Takemiya, who is thought to have pioneered the yaoi genre: comics about gay male love, made by women for girls.

It’s a sunny day, and we have drinks outside in Granary Square (buying them at the trendy Granary Store bar). The area is still being finished, but it’s already King’s Cross’s answer to the South Bank, the canal standing in for the Thames. As with the Royal Festival Hall, hordes of people now descend here at the weekend, and seem to just sit around all day. Alcohol on concrete, bridges over water, art galleries, and the inevitable small children playing in fountains, the kind made up of jets of water springing up from the pavement.

In fact, the Granary Square fountains seem to be more artily-minded than the South Bank ones, perhaps because St Martin’s is next door. The jets switch constantly between different patterns of varying rows and heights. On the South Bank, the jets just rise up and go down. Either way, the children seem happy. Or at least, busy. Which with children, unlike adults, is the same thing.

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The Unserious Dog Show

Saturday 23rd August 2014. To the Phoenix cinema for Doctor Who – Deep Breath. It’s the first episode of the new series, and the first to properly feature Peter Capaldi in the title role. It’s on TV as usual, but as part of a huge publicity campaign the BBC have arranged for some cinemas to screen it at the same time. One has to pay for the cinema (about the same price as a standard cinema ticket), so it is a fascinating test of the interest in such a thing. One incentive is that there’s a couple of extra little films. First up is an amusing monologue from Strax the Sontaran, who comments on the Doctor’s various incarnations. ‘The fifth Doctor’, he says, indicating a hologram of Peter Davison, ‘had no distinguishing features whatsoever’. Then after the episode there’s a live Q & A with the main actors and the main writer, Steven Moffat. But it’s really the sense of occasion one pays for: the experience of watching the episode on a big screen in the company of Doctor Who fans.

There’s a mixture of all ages here. A small boy in the row in front of me is wearing a fez and a bow tie, a la Matt Smith. Elsewhere in the cinema, I see another fez, this time worn by a grown woman. I enjoy the episode: lots of good lines, such as ‘There’s nothing more important than my egomania!’ The plot is the usual goings-on (alien robots up to no good in Victorian London), but Capaldi himself is enough to keep one on tenterhooks for what happens next. His older Doctor is intriguing, shrewd, spiky, capricious and (so far) volatile. As I watch, my only worry is that small children won’t take to him as much as they did the boyish Doctors of recent years. But while walking out through the foyer I see a tiny girl of eight or so, having her photograph taken next to a life-size cardboard cut-out of Capaldi. She is hugging him.

* * *

Sunday 24th August 2014. To Spa Fields Park in Clerkenwell. A mini festival. A stage is up, there’s a few stalls, a bouncy castle is in one corner, and a not-entirely-serious dog show is in the tennis court (some of the dogs’ ‘tricks’ include lying down and getting up again). I’m here for two reasons: Kitty Fedorec’s birthday gathering, plus a performance by Joanne Joanne, the all-female Duran Duran tribute band. I still love that two of the band really are called Joanne. I chat to: Pete M of Talulah Gosh (and umpteen other bands), Ian Watson, Charley Stone (once a guitarist with Fosca, today in Joanne Joanne), David Barnett, and Alex S & Alex P. The event has the feel of my 90s gig-going past – I keep seeing people in the crowd whom I nearly recognise, old regulars from gigs at Upstairs at the Garage. One face I do recognise is Jim Rattail, the dedicated London gig-goer of old. He still has his long plait of hair.

* * *

Monday 25th August 2014. A Bank Holiday. There’s constant heavy rain all day, the weather unaware of its own Bank Holiday cliché. I discover that my only other pair of older but still comfortable shoes are also leaking water, a crack having developed in the sole.

On an impulse, I travel to Paddington to see if the floating bookshop there, Word on the Water, is open. It isn’t. The steps into Paddington station are covered in rainwater. In the station, revellers from the Notting Hill Carnival are mingling with backpacked-up Reading Festival refugees. Many wear all-over transparent raincoats, half poncho, half giant condom. One carnival lady slips and falls on the stairs. She’s in pastel-coloured platform heels, drenched yet defiant. Her gales of laughter are a relief; her pride more wounded than her ankle.

I end up at the Royal Festival Hall, where there’s ballroom dancing in the open space by the ground floor bar. It’s to do with the South Bank’s ‘Love’ festival. A large pinboard is nearby, covered in paper pink hearts. Each has a handwritten declaration of love. Most are to people, but one is ‘I LOVE WEST HAM’.

After my sadness over Foyles St Pancras closing, I’m pleased to find there are two branches of Foyles in the South Bank area, both of which are open late on Sundays and Bank Holidays. One is tucked under the Royal Festival Hall on the riverside, while another is in Waterloo station nearby. In the South Bank one I see the History Boys actor Dominic Cooper, being pleasant and chatty with the staff.

* * *

Tuesday 26th August 2014. To Suffolk. Train to Sudbury around noon, lunch in Bildeston with Mum, then north to the village of Bardwell to visit Mal and Kev Shepard, old family friends. Mal’s son Don is a professional jester and magician, now going by the name of Phoenix The Fool. There’s a large gold trophy of a conjuror in the living room, which he won at a magic tournament in China. I look at their vintage copy of Kathleen Hale’s picture book Orlando the Marmalade Cat – A Seaside Holiday. The seaside destination in it, ‘Owlborrow’, is based on Aldeburgh circa 1950.

The place names on the way back immediately suggest medieval scenes: Stowlangtoft. Ixworth Thorpe. And Woolpit, with its legend of the green children.

* * *

Wednesday 27th August 2014. On the tube. The man in the seat next to me suddenly says, ‘I have to ask you, what on earth are you reading?’

I tell him: Probably Nothing, by Matilda Tristram. From a glance it might look like a children’s book. In fact, it’s a very adult (as in sweary) comic book memoir. It covers Ms Tristram’s time in 2013 as a cancer patient, made all the more complicated by her being pregnant as well. I read parts of it last year when it was an ongoing black-and-white webcomic. Since then, Penguin got involved – not a publisher known for putting out comic books. So now it’s a beautiful full colour hardback. Her drawing style is an urgent and simple doodle, suggesting snatched moments of meagre yet driven energy. I like her raw honesty, her depiction of life in the artier parts of Hackney, her accounts of the tactless things others say to her, and especially her trips to Walberswick and Southwold on the Suffolk coast, places I’m familiar with too:


* * *

Thursday 28th August 2014. The shoe repair man in Muswell Hill says he can’t stretch my new Clarks, or repair my leaky sole. I come out feeling like I’ve been in a Monty Python sketch – a shoe repair shop that can’t repair any shoes. And so it goes on.

* * *

I enjoy reading the umpteen reviews of Kate Bush’s comeback gig. Referring to her simply as ‘Bush’, though, as in ‘Bush takes to the stage’ seems wrong somehow. Unlike David Bowie, her surname is not unusual enough to define her alone – there’s those pesky presidents for a start. But there’s also something about her work that makes ‘Bush’ sound wrong too, as if she demands a gesture of intimacy to properly describe her. The ‘Kate’ needs to be there.

As it is, I read the word ‘Bush’ so often today that I start humming the closing theme to Only Fools and Horses:

 ‘Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. No income tax, no VAT…’

* * *

Friday 28th August 2014. To the Curzon Soho to see Obvious Child. It’s a New York indie comedy-drama starring Jenny Slate, about a wise-cracking young woman’s romantic woes. It’s similar in genre to Frances Ha but closer to Knocked Up and Juno in terms of subject matter. In the latter two, the possibility of abortion was never properly addressed, at least not to the extent it might be had the stories taken place in real life. One theory I read at the time was that the jokes would just be eclipsed. Well, Obvious Child certainly dismisses that idea. It dares to treat the subject matter properly, while keeping the comedy going too – if letting it turn bittersweet and wry rather than laugh-out-loud. I also like the wordplay of the title (a reference to a Paul Simon song). It plays on the way the lead character is childlike herself, yet her choice is very much a grown up one. The film is not perfect, but it certainly makes other comedies’ moral squeamishness look, well, a bit childish.

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Essential Servants

Friday 24 January 2014. The day after much of the Victoria Line was closed due to ‘flooding’, it turns out what really happened was somewhat surreal. The place being flooded was an automated signal control room at Victoria station, which seems reasonable enough. Less reasonably, though, the liquid in question was not the rainwater that has dominated January (the wettest ‘since records began’, as ever) but a knee-deep tide of fast-setting concrete. Intended to seal voids created in the endless construction work, the concrete had somehow been pumped into the wrong hole. When they realised what had happened, engineers were sent to nearby supermarkets to buy bags of sugar, which, it transpires, slows down the setting process. What pleases is the unlikely image of frantic, hard-hatted men rushing into a Sainsbury’s Local and asking directions to the Silver Spoon section. Whether it had to be just white granulated, or whether Demerara, cubes, Canderel and Sweetex worked just as well, we are not told.

For the first time since I was at school, I’m reminded of the entirely unacceptable term for the type of brown sugar which isn’t Demerara: ‘moist’.

* * *

Saturday 25 January 2014. Reading Ms Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for this week’s college classes. I also watch the 1995 film version, the one with Emma Thompson. The film particularly focuses on how poor the Dashwood women have to live, once they move to the Devonshire cottage. There’s scenes where Ms Thompson is going through their shopping budget and cutting down on food, while in another one, the sisters have to huddle together in the same bed to keep warm. Like the impoverished family in The Railway Children, what baffles (and fascinates) is the one item of middle class expenditure retained above all else, including food: their servants. I suppose the equivalent now would be hanging onto mobile phones or computers. Essential servants of a kind.

Sunday 26 January 2014. A video is doing the rounds of extracts from Noel Gallagher’s audio commentary on an Oasis greatest hits DVD. Always good value in interviews, Mr Gallagher regales the purchaser with his candid dislike of the pop video form. ‘I f—ing hate videos… I hate the fact they cost a fortune. I hate the fact you’ve got to be there at 8 in the morning. I don’t like the fact that the people who’re making them think they’re making Apocalypse Now… ’ But as the songs move onto the later albums, he attacks his own music too: ‘Is this video meant to be all backwards? Pity the song isn’t too – it might sound more interesting… Maybe the motorbike is rushing to the radio station to say, “Stop! This is shit!”… Can we listen to this with the sound down? We shouldn’t have really made this album, if I’m being honest.’

The album in question at this point is Standing on the Shoulder of Giants (2000), which despite its creator’s misgivings still went to Number 1 and sold in double platinum amounts. Some regrets are the dreams of others. Though I’m hardly their sort of target market, I rather liked the first two Oasis albums, and admired the Gallaghers as public characters, bickering like a music hall act.

* * *

Monday 27 January 2014. Peter Capaldi’s new costume as Doctor Who is unveiled. It includes a red-lined Crombie coat, which is exactly what I’m wearing when I find this information out. I’ve worn them for at least 20 years. I suppose this means that even a stopped clock keeps the right Time Lord twice a day.

I had thought Crombies were mainly associated with the British Mod subculture (characters in This Is England wear them), but I’m told they were also popular with the less trumpeted Suedehead look of the 1970s. The youth on the cover of Richard Allen’s Suedehead has a Crombie:

* * *

Tuesday 28 January 2014. Reading about the Theatre of the Absurd, I realise how so many umbrella terms for art and literature are often the invention of critics with theories to throw at the world, rather than arising from the art itself. Martin Esslin is at pains to point this out himself in a later edition of his 1960s book The Theatre of the Absurd, but lurking behind this is still the sense of pride at immortality by proxy. In lieu of creating lasting art himself, a critic creates a lasting term to describe art.

Thinking about Oasis, there is, of course, the 90s umbrella term Britpop, which the music critics Stuart Maconie and John Robb have both laid claim to coining. There was also a BBC programme of 1995 called Britpop Now which had live performances by various bands thought to illustrate the word: Blur, Pulp, Menswear, Gene, Echobelly. Oddly, the very un-Britpop PJ Harvey was on it, while Oasis were left out. No critic would call PJ Harvey a Britpop artist now – and not then, either.

Terms don’t always last, though. Despite Esslin’s decision to include Harold Pinter in his 1960s book, Michael Billington’s 1990s biography of Pinter ignores the phrase ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ entirely.

Wednesday 29 January 2014. A recent New Yorker cover has a new illustration by Chris Ware. It’s of an audience at a school play, all of whom are holding up their various smartphones and tablets and are viewing the performance entirely through their respective screens. His comment on the cover is just as striking:

‘Sometimes, I’ve noticed with horror that the memories I have of things like my daughter’s birthday parties or the trips we’ve taken together are actually memories of the photographs I took, not of the events themselves.’

I’m writing an essay on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home. There’s one large panel  – a double page spread – which recreates a clandestine photograph taken by her father. It’s of the family babysitter, Roy, posing in his underwear. The babysitter was one of the young men her father, now deceased, had been having affairs with.

The panel takes on added significance as the book gets older, though, as the action of physically picking up a material, printed photograph from a storage box is itself becoming a thing of the past. Ms Bechdel draws her own hands holding the photograph at either side, with all the symbolism that implies: touching the past, touching the hidden, trying to connect and understand across the years. Had the events of Fun Home taken place now, the father’s secret snap would have to be lurking on his computer hard drive, and the resonance of the discovery would be quite different.

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The Relief Of Missing Out Revival

Further diary for Friday 13th December: I bump into Erol Alkan on the tube. I don’t see him much these days but today he’s as sweet and friendly as ever. There was a time in the mid 1990s when I would see him several times a week at various London clubs, pubs, gigs and music biz parties. I even met his parents in the house in Archway where he’d grown up. Back then he was a DJ at the more popular indie music clubs in London, like Going Underground and Trash. He then started playing in guitar groups himself (I saw his band Guernica a few times), before he concentrated on DJ-ing full time, then he got into remixing and producing, and today he is one of the country’s biggest DJs full stop.

On the tube he tells me he’s just released his debut single, after all these years: ‘A Hold on Love’. He’s en route that evening to Amsterdam for a charity DJ gig, along with the act Justice. I think I must have pulled an expression of barely concealed ignorance, because Mr A laughs and guesses (rightly) that I have no idea who they are. Later on I look them up. Wikipedia has a whole separate page titled ‘Awards and nominations received by Justice’.

I suppose I could attempt to keep up with the cultural big names one is meant to know, but it’s been years since I took a more than cursory interest in what’s on the A-list at MTV and Radio 1. The last time I was exposed to Radio 1 was about five years ago, when I had to visit the NHS sexual health clinic on Archway Road. It was their waiting room music of choice.  

There’s a fashionable acronym doing the rounds about this sort of thing: FOMO, short for Fear Of Missing Out. It’s the form of anxiety that technology has meant to have brought into people’s lives. It can be the need to constantly check updates in the personal lives of others (particular on Facebook), or the need to be up-to-date with current affairs due to its addictive overexposure (via Twitter, websites, free newspapers, screens in railway stations). People may become terrified of being the only person in the room who, say, wasn’t aware of X getting married, or of Y having children, or Z dying, or such and such a band reforming, or knowing what ‘selfie’ means. All because they missed seeing the right updates. They were looking in the wrong direction at just the wrong time, and so they Missed Out.

But missing out is nothing to be afraid of. It’s certainly nothing new. No one can watch every ‘must-see’ TV series, or investigate every vaguely celebrated new release in music, or read every shortlist of every literary award, and get the dog shampooed. So becoming anxious about missing out is nonsensical. Instead, we should cultivate our natural specialism, plough our own individual furrows of taste, and mutiny against the construction that is General Knowledge, whoever he may be.

Instead of Fear Of Missing Out, I propose we should embrace a Relief Of Missing Out. Or ROMO for short. It’s almost as if that acronym was made for me.

* * *

Tuesday 17th December 2013. Something modern that I do get anxious about is the Mid Transaction Hustle. I go to Ryman’s on Lower Regent Street to stock up on stamps for Christmas Cards. Halfway way through the transaction, the assistant suddenly asks if I want to buy batteries as well. They are on special offer, and she gestures to a pile of them cluttering up the counter in an attention-seeking way. I have to stop myself saying ‘Please understand that if I had wanted to buy batteries, I would have asked for batteries. I have just come here to buy stamps and I rarely react well to mid-transaction surprises.’

In my case I think this particular anxiety is a symptom of my dyspraxia. One thought at a time is hard enough for a mind which is already struggling to get itself in order. The Mid Transaction Hustle can throw a spanner into some already fragile works. Thankfully, at the Ryman’s counter I manage to bottle up my cognitive confusion and mumble a simple ‘No thanks’. It is, after all, not the staff’s fault.

WH Smith are the worst culprits, though. For some time now, their till staff have been forced to ask every customer if they’d like all manner of additional unhealthy items to go with their newspaper or magazine. Haribo? Toblerone? An unacceptably oversized bar of Galaxy? As a result, the counter at Smiths is often covered in an unhappy clutter of these garish packets. Even if one uses the self-service machines (an innovation particularly suited for the British dislike of talking to strangers), by the time you’re about to pay, the screen suddenly asks you if you’d like to buy a reduced packet of Haribo there.

* * *

Thursday 19 December 2013. To the Odeon Tottenham Court Road to see the new Hobbit film, with fellow student Jon S. Like Mr Jackson’s other Middle Earth outings. it’s so beautifully designed and realised that I don’t mind the requisite ho-hum fight scenes and nick-of-time action scenes, which aren’t my sort of thing. What I do enjoy is the immersive creation of a whole world. The dragon Smaug is well worth the wait, made even more potent by being plummily voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Fans of Sherlock therefore get the double pleasure of seeing the two lead actors from one successful interpretation of classic genre fiction, playing hero and villain in another adaptation of classic genre fiction. On top of that, the new Hobbit films are themselves revisits of Mr Jackson’s Lord of The Rings series. So the Smaug scenes have an acute sense of genre celebration several times over.

Good to see Lee Pace in there too. He was the lead actor in Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, one of those films that really should be better known. In The Fall, Mr Pace had an otherworldly kind of prettiness about him, so it makes perfect sense that he’s now been cast as an Elf King.

* * *

Amid all the Doctor Who 50th anniversary celebrations was a welcome repeat of a radio documentary about Target Books. This was the range of paperback novelisations of the old Doctor Who TV stories. They fulfilled several generations of fans’ needs to relive the programmes, at a time when home video and DVD was yet to come. The documentary was by Mark Gatiss, and he reminded me of the stock phrase the Target writers used to describe the way the Tom Baker Doctor dressed: ‘casual bohemian elegance’.

It is only now that I realise two things about this phrase. One, that this would have been my first introduction to the use of the word ‘bohemian’ to mean a way of dressing. As a child, I remember being confused by it (wasn’t Bohemia a country?). And two, that ‘casual bohemian elegance’ sums up the way I think I dress now.

[Mark Gatiss article on Target Books: ]

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Look Out, Here Comes Fenella Federal

Today: more researching Polari at the British Library (and more walking the 4 miles to get there).

Like all lexicons associated with criminality, Polari has many words for police. eg ‘Betty Bracelets’, ‘Hilda Handcuffs’, ‘Lily Law’, or ‘Lilies’ for short. Makes me idly wish that the term favoured by last month’s rioters, ‘The Feds’, is short for ‘Fenella Federal’.

Discovered that Polari pops up in a 1973 episode of Doctor Who, as spoken by Vorg, an intergalactic showman. Jon Pertwee plays the Doctor. Here’s the clip:

In fact, although he says he’s using ‘carnival lingo’, which would make it the 19th century Parlyaree (one of Polari’s many ingredients) the phrases he uses are more like Polari.

‘Vada the bona palone’ (get a load of this pretty lady)

‘Nanti dinarly round here, eh Jules!’ (no money round here)

It really sounds like Jules, too, as in Julian and Sandy. I’m guessing it’s a knowing Round The Horne reference for the family crowd of 1973.

I was also intrigued to learn that the 2010 arena show, Doctor Who Live, featured the son of Vorg – Vorgenson – played by Nigel Planer, getting up to similar tricks with Matt Smith’s Doctor. The writer, Gareth Roberts, confirmed to me on Twitter that he snuck a bit of Round The Horne into Vorg’s lines as a tribute.

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What I Think About When I Think About Doctor Who

Adding comments about the new episode of Doctor Who to the Internet seems highly redundant, but I did think it was wonderful. I thought Matt Smith’s Doctor felt instantly iconic, and that the programme now has that Harry Potter-ish feel about it – world-beating, while still distinctly British. Just the right balance of funny bits and magical bits and scary bits and thrilling bits.

These are hardly unique thoughts, so here’s five things – other art – that the Doctor Who story (‘The Eleventh Hour’) made me think about. Not so common connections, I hope.

1. The Tardis swimming pool being somewhere in the Tardis library. This made me think about the novel ‘The Swimming-Pool Library’. (I imagined the Doctor adding to Amy ‘It’s all gone a bit Alan Hollinghurst in there.’)


2. A huge disembodied eyeball. Three other oversized ocular orbs suggested themselves. There’s Odilon Redon’s eyeball-balloon, in his print ‘L’Oeil, comme un ballon bizarre se dirige vers l’infini’ (The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity). As used on book covers like Ian McEwan’s ‘Enduring Love’.


3. Another eyeball, this time the sky-bound one in ‘Flan’, the early 90s apocalyptic album and novel by the New York musician Stephen Tunney, aka Dogbowl.


I’m pleased to see that the novel’s just been reprinted. It’s like ‘The Road’, but with more floating eyeballs.

Document 1

4. One more giant eyeball (they’re like buses): the one behind the door in Clive Barker’s story ‘Son Of Celluloid’ (from ‘Books Of Blood’), which quotes ‘Casablanca’ at its victim: ‘Here’s looking at you, kid’. A tale of a cancerous tumour becoming sentient and doing impersonations of Hollywood movie stars in order to kill people. Outrageous, gory and really rather brilliant.

In fact, because I read too many biographies, I’ve just realised I’m sitting a few blocks away from the house where Mr Barker wrote the story – along with much of his 80s output, including the source material for ‘Hellraiser’ and ‘Candyman’- in Hillfield Avenue, Crouch End, London N8. I’m cat-sitting in nearby Middle Lane. Here’s a panel from the comic adaptation of ‘Son Of Celluloid’:


5. Finally, my favourite tale about sinister voices coming from cracks in the walls. ‘Flies On The Ceiling’, by Jaime Hernandez, from the long-running comic book ‘Love & Rockets’. After an abortion and divorce, Izzy Ruebens finds herself in a dingy rented room somewhere in Mexico. There, riddled with guilt and neuroses, the Devil speaks to her through a crack in the wall. Perfect for Easter:


An Ungrumpy Old Man

John Mortimer has died. What a life – defending the Sex Pistols’ ‘Never Mind…’ sleeve and Oz magazine’s ‘gay Jesus’ case with one hand, while writing all those Rumpole stories and plays and screenplays with the other. Someone who never fell into the easy trap of becoming a grumpy old man, his 2003 memoir, ‘Where’s There’s A Will’, about how to write and indeed how to live,  is a real inspiration.  He wrote it as a kind of last message to the world, but still managed to squeeze in five further novels between ‘Will’ and the grave. Another message, then: keep doing it till you really do drop dead.

I’m sure among the obituaries and tributes there will be those lovers of a good myth-buster (like myself) who will point out that Mr M never actually wrote the screenplay to the 80s TV version of ‘Brideshead Revisited’. It was the director and producer, Derek Grainger, who penned the adaptation, pretty much leaving the Waugh novel intact – which is why it took so many hour-long episodes. Mortimer was contracted to submit a script, so although it wasn’t used they had to keep his name on the credits.

I’m currently reading Russell T Davies’s excellent ‘The Writer’s Tale’, his epistolary account  about writing for and executively producing the present Doctor Who. As with ‘Brideshead’, he also mentions the occasional discrepancy between the names on the writing credits and those who actually supply the words. One Who story in particular, ‘Human Nature / The Family Of Blood’, is credited to Paul Cornell, adapted from his novel, though Davies says:

‘I had a whole Sunday of people saying ‘What a brilliant script. Paul is a genius.’ Which he is. But I’m thinking, if only you knew how much of that I wrote! …People know that I polish stuff, but they think that polishing means adding a gag or an epigram, not writing half the script.’

The obsession with the writer as sole auteur works fine with books, but falls apart when it comes to most TV programmes and films. The nature of the medium encourages creation by committee – Doctor Who itself was created by a BBC focus group in the early 60s, rather than by a single writer. There’s a fascinating in-house report from the period, stating why the Corporation should make science fiction drama at all- and what the point of science fiction IS. The works of Ray Bradbury are cited, demonstrating the importance of blending engaging, inspiring sci-fi ideas with sympathetic human characters.

Last Wednesday – to Barden’s Boudoir in Stoke Newington Road, to see the bands Deptford Beach Babes, Sexton Ming, Tropics Of Cancer and Rude Mechanicals. All are vastly enjoyable. Lots of bluesy madness, twangy guitars, mad scattershot drumming, brimmed hats, costumes. The Tropics of Cancer feature Ms She, who I remember once kept me company at the club Lady Luck, where she worked behind the bar.

Rude Ms singer Jo Roberts is unforgettable: cartoonish whiteface make-up, dusty grey beehive wig, vintage ballgown and bare feet. She’d be visual attraction enough, but there’s also the violinist – a transvestite in a tight skirt who occasionally plays with the bow between their legs, while the drummer is a deadpan butch android. Like the Deptford BBs, both wear sunglasses, thus straddling the line between deadpan cool and deadpan comedy – and deadpan comedy IS cool, after all.

Sunglasses onstage always work best as part of an overall costume. Dressed-down rock bands who wear shades are so tiresome. ‘Listen to me, don’t look at me’ is an attitude I’ve never understood. Why get on a stage if you don’t want to be looked at?

Barden’s Boudoir is a newish venue, and one of many signs that Stoke Newington is becoming a bigger part of the capital’s cultural life. Only thing is, the venue is too new for my liking. One complains about grotty small venues, then one complains when they’re not grotty enough. As usual, I want things both ways: I want unbattered, working equipment AND thick layers of graffiti. I enjoy my suits not smelling of other people’s stale cigarettes the day after, yet I’m suspicious of sobriety.

Chat to Vicki Churchill, who sings with the Deptford BBs. Years ago, we once signed a couple of dollar bills in a semi-drunken pact, promising to each other to get to New York before we die. Last year I made it there (thanks to Mr MacG), and it turns out that she did too, visiting the city a few months later. Pact completed. Next goal: published books. She’s beaten me to that one, though, having brought out a children’s picture book a few years ago. I think it’s about a vole.

On the overground train from Camden Road to Dalston Kingsland, I bump into Roger from the band Exile Inside. He recognises me from the time Fosca played with E.I. at the Purple Turtle in December – gosh – 2005. Turns out we both listen to BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction, both finding it a suitable substitute for John Peel’s show. In Stoke Newington Road, before we part company, he points out the Turkish restaurant where Gilbert & George usually have their evening meal. They’re not in tonight, but I don’t mind – I was glowered at by Victoria Wood in the High Tea tea rooms earlier.

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Walls Come Time-Travelling Down

So, then, Doctor Emo…

I said, Doctor EMO!

That’s better.

This young fellow, Matt Smith, has just been announced as the next Doctor Who. I’m rather pleased with that. Particularly as the programme introducing him included clips from the drama Party Games, where he was shown singing and dancing to ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ by The Style Council.

The least one can expect from a New Doctor Who is an awareness of Paul Weller’s 80s soul-pop combo, frankly. That’s the FIRST thing I look for. In… oh, everything.

Going by the young Mr Smith’s interview, I’d have picked him, too. Young in exterior, but there’s something in his eyes, his body language and style of speaking that’s not only older than his years, but otherworldly with it. More Tom Baker than David Tennant, or even Peter Davison. Multitudes under the skin. Which is what you want.

At first glance, I thought they’d gone with another choice of mine, Jamie Parker. He played Scripps, the Catholic piano-playing pupil in The History Boys, in the original stage cast and in the film. Very much another old mind in a young body, Mr Parker is facially similar to Mr Smith, though without the mad hair:

Hairdo aside, Mr Smith also reminds me of the young Trevor Howard (as does Jamie P):

And also, let’s face it, he looks a little like a singer in an alternative rock band, the type that the Melody Maker used to label ‘Intensely Intense’ in its joke pages. I’m too out of touch to be familiar with the current ‘Emo’ crop of bands, those latest takes on the Chatterton image – the attractive yet angsty young poet figure. But the frontmen of a couple of 90s bands – who shared fans with Orlando  – spring to mind. Patrick Duff from Strangelove:

And Crispin Hunt from The Longpigs:

Add a sprinkling of Helmut Berger in the 1970s Dorian Gray film. How’s this for a Doctor Who costume:

Is it Outer Space? Or just Chelsea in the early 70s?

Actually, why hasn’t anyone written a pre-Dorian Oscar Wilde / Doctor Who crossover story yet?

Wilde: I must say, you have such youthful, boyish beauty, Doctor.

The Doctor: Awfully kind of you. Actually, I’m much older than you think. I just don’t look it.

Wilde: Really? Now there’s an idea…

One thing’s for sure. The 11th Doctor will have no trouble appealing to teens and twentysomethings. They’ll either think:

‘He’s so Intensely Intense with curious hair. I want to be with him.’


‘He’s so Intensely Intense with curious hair. I AM him.’

They’ll be fine. It’s winning the hearts of the under-13s that’s important. It’s a family show, after all, not a teen show. Doctor Who should never become Skins In Space.

He needs to be friendly and kind and fun to be with, across the board. So I hope they play up the ‘funny and cool older brother’ side of him, and let the ‘sulky yet sexy poet’ aspect take care of itself.