Prousty-Wousty

Sunday 16th October 2016. I notice a flyer on my table at the Quaker café, opposite Euston. It’s publicising an event in Oxford: ‘Lines on the Left: Poems for Jeremy Corbyn. A celebration in words and music to launch this major anthology.’ Hard to imagine a similar volume for his rivals: sonnets in praise of Theresa May, or a Festschrift for Owen Smith. At least, not outside of sarcasm.

A common critique of Mr Corbyn is that he has integrity but is unelectable. The implication is that integrity itself is impractical. I’m reminded of something Zadie Smith said about the film V For Vendetta: ‘Personal integrity is always ridiculed by adults and worshipped by adolescents, because principles are the only thing adolescents, unlike adults, really own’. (from Changing My Mind).

Mr Corbyn certainly has a fanbase among the young:  one sees red Momentum t-shirts around the University of London’s Bloomsbury campus. It’s the people in middle life that aren’t so impressed, their youthful ideals knocked out of them. Parenthood, money, and the ownership of property loom larger in the crosshairs, and compromise usually goes with them.

A small amount of integrity is nevertheless still valued over wealth alone, at least in mainstream UK politics. The huge fortune of Zac Goldsmith did not prevent him from losing the London mayoral race, when his campaign became tainted with racism. Whereas Donald Trump, frequently described as an actual racist, is still seen as electable. Over there, one has to conclude that money may not be everything, but it can be enough.

As with the poems for Corbyn, there’s been a flurry of political pop songs in the last days of the US election. The trouble is, these are not so much in celebration of Ms Clinton as in condemnation of Mr Trump. The website for the project 30 days, 30 songs – run by the novelist Dave Eggers – says it all in its ‘Note to feminists who can’t get behind Hillary’:

‘If you vote for Hillary Clinton, you accomplish two aligned goals at once: You elect the first woman president, and you prevent the election of Donald Trump.’

In other words, better the devil you know.

A subgenre of protest songs: panic songs.

***

Afternoon: to Soho to try the new vegetarian branch of Pret a Manger, on the corner of Broadwick Street and Lexington Street. It was tried out as a pop-up a few months ago, and like the Millennium Wheel has become permanent due to popular demand.

Why the bosses of Pret were cautious in the first place is beyond me. Despite the frequent reports of health risks from processed meat, or the environmental warnings about the carbon effects of cow breeding, there still seems to be this mainstream fear of going without flesh even for a single meal. But Veggie Pret is packed today.

Lots of green coloured branding over the usual red Pret logos. It’s still a novelty to see a franchise café’s cabinet of sandwiches, and not find them dominated by meat. I’m sure there’s a market for a whole chain of veggie cafes like this: it just takes the nerve of an Anita Roddick figure

***

Monday 17th October 2016. Modern life: the daily practice of clicking on a button marked ‘Not Now’.

Currently reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977), for college. What impresses, as with Beloved, are her little shifts into magical realism, like the witchy sister who seems to able to change her size. Morrison says in the introduction that it’s really a novel about men, but the section that really stands out is where the spurned girlfriend, Hagar, goes on a demented spree of beautification, raiding perfume counters and clothes shops.

***

Tuesday 18th October 2016. More things that leave me like a ranting Canute. People emailing me for a mobile number to continue a discussion. Probably naive of me, but after contact has been made via email, I don’t see why we can’t conduct the conversation that way. In email, statements can be carefully polished, details are easily copied and saved, and ambiguities can be kept to a minimum.

As well as my slight phobia with speaking on the phone, there’s a practical reason to this: I spend a lot of my time in libraries. If I took calls there, it would not end well. But there’s also the redundancy of someone switching from email to making a call, only for them to say, ‘have you got a pen?’

If a phone conversation is truly necessary, then it’s surely worth booking a phone appointment – and sticking to it. But this seems not to be taken very seriously.

Today I agree via email on a time I can be called. I then duly choose a quiet café and have the phone to hand, ready for the time in question. This designated moment passes. So do two hours after that. They still don’t call. I switch the phone off and go to the library to get on with some studies. Later I get a text message saying they were ‘trying to reach me’.

This is all about trying to book a therapist. It’s tempting to wonder if it’s in their interest to drive people mad.

A message for a memorial bench: ‘He refused to be available on a zero hours basis.’

***

Afternoon: to the British Library café to meet Rachel Stevenson. It’s been some years since we properly met for a conversation, after the end of Fosca in 2009. Today,we talk more about books than music. Except for talking about the music of our past, perhaps inevitably. Indeed, Rachel’s own blog is currently reviewing the songs that made up the John Peel Festive Fifty of 1988. [Link: http://millionreasons.livejournal.com/ ]

Evening: to the Horse Hospital in Russell Square, the kind of small, idiosyncratic venue that’s been vanishing from London in recent years. Happily, the HH persists, with its steep entrance ramp still in place, evidence that the building was indeed a hospital for horses.

Tonight is an evening headlined by the writer Geoff Nicholson, who discusses his psychogeography-inspired work, such as Bleeding London. Kirsty Allison, who I don’t think I’ve seen before, gives a charismatic poetry set which uses a projected film. At times she seems to be narrating the film, at others reacting against it. I take a copy of her fanzine, ‘Unedited’, hand stitched and hand made, though it says it was written on an iPhone.

I also enjoy a set by Alexander’s Festival Hall, the band fronted by Alex Mayor, who once produced some Fosca recordings. Very soulful in the Scritti Politti, Style Council way. One song is especially beautiful, ‘Upturned’.

In the breaks between acts I bump into Clare Wadd of Sarah Records, a nice coincidence on the day of meeting up with Rachel S. And given the evening is about psychogeography, and especially London, I remember that it was Clare who helped me move from Bristol to London in 1994, driving me and my things all the way to Highgate in her car. I tell her that Michael White’s book on Sarah, Popkiss, is now on the shelves at Birkbeck Library. Nothing to do with me; I assume it’s on a reading list for some humanities course.

Something I’ve learned is that everything creative becomes worthy of serious study in time, even the things that feel like fleeting, niche interests at the time. Though of course, Clare and Matt themselves took Sarah Records very seriously from the off. That was part of the appeal.

***

Thursday 20th October 2016. Evening: classes at Birkbeck at the Montague Room in the Anglo Educational Services building, in the southwest side of Russell Square. Like Birkbeck’s School of Arts in Gordon Square the place is a warren of knocked-through Victorian houses.

First up is a seminar with Mpalive Msiska on Philip Larkin’s The Less Deceived, at which it’s my turn to give a fifteen minute presentation. I’ve just started reading the new Alan Bennett collection of diaries, Keeping On Keeping On, published today. The first page mentions how Mr Bennett dips into Larkin for inspiration. Though in this case he thinks the poet’s tone is too ‘valedictory’: ‘the valedictory was almost Larkin’s exclusive territory’. I mention this in my Larkin presentation, pleased to bring it as up to date as possible.

What I didn’t know until I did my research was that Larkin is due to get a memorial in Westminster Abbey, with the unveiling this December. So my presentation focuses on the tale of his reputation. I think about the way public image is such a pressing matter now, from Jimmy Savile and his ilk to the people in Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The Ronson book covers the rise of ‘reputation management firms’ – companies who will make your Google results more flattering.

Accordingly I chart the tale of the public Larkin, from fashionability in the 1950s with The Movement, to the popular poet in the 1960s and 70s, to refusing the Laureateship in 1984; I’d forgotten that Ted Hughes was the second choice. Then to the posthumous publication of his letters in the 90s, and his near writing-off as a misogynistic and racist figure, whose poetry was now of diminishing relevance. Finally I cover the subtle recovery in the 2000s, with Larkin quietly topping polls again as a favourite English poet, a festival in Hull with a statue, and now the Abbey.

Mr Msiska adds that in the 90s, teaching Larkin was so controversial, tutors had to seek permission.

Afterwards: a lecture by Peter Fifield on 1960s fiction and Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat. Very hard to label the latter in terms of genre, beyond the 1960s type of postmodern play that one finds in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Though when Mr F mentions its lack of ‘rounded characters’ I wonder if Menippean satire might be a useful framework. Certainly Ms S admired the concise flippancy of Max Beerbohm, and Zuleika Dobson isn’t so far from Spark. Waugh was an admirer too: Spark’s work was one of the few things about the 1960s he did like. Mr Fifield further argues that Ian McEwan’s style is essentially a 1960s one.

I suppose a truly 2010s style might be to write a novel made up of animated gifs. Dennis Cooper is the only novelist I can think of who has done this. It may not catch on, but it’s at least a move towards acknowledging the way a lot of people interact online. They use gifs – little animated stills – of actors, often subtitled, to express their emotion for them.

I once wrote a Fosca song called ‘We See the World as Our Stunt Doubles’. Not quite the world, perhaps, but people do see gifs of Phoebe from Friends as their stunt doubles.

***

Saturday 22nd October 2016. To Vout-o-Reenee’s for ‘Azizam: A Night of Pre-Revolution Persian Glamour’. A theme of 60s and 70s Iranian exotica, scratchy scenes of belly dancing on screens, those jellied snacks which are like Turkish Delight but nicer, and lots of dressing up. Hosted by Vout’s regulars Emily and Emma. Emma is from a family of Iranian Geordies: her cousin sings a set of Persian language songs, interspersed with commentary in her Newcastle accent. The two Ems are also a couple, and tonight’s crowd includes a contingent of Iranians and gay people, and indeed both. All getting along fine in this former Catholic crypt turned into a bohemian artists’ bar. It’s events like this that are one of the things I love about London.

***

Sunday 23rd October 2016. Morrissey turns out to be pro-Brexit, going by a new interview. I feel as I do about Waugh and Larkin: I may not share their politics, but that doesn’t mean their work doesn’t speak to me. Trust the art, not the artist.

Though admittedly some artists are easier to trust than others.

***

Monday 24th October 2016. I finish The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Bought on a whim from Euston WH Smiths, before I realised the eponymous train in question is in fact a Euston one.

This is the current unstoppable bestseller novel. Published in hardback last year, it hung around the top 10 lists for the best part of eighteen months, even outdoing the ubiquitous Dan Brown. Despite the pricy and format, people didn’t stop buying it until the paperback came out, which wasn’t until May this year. I want to see the film, so it seems the time to try the book.

As with One Day a few years ago, there’s no real explanation as to why this book should do so much better than others, other than through a fortuitous synchronicity of word-of-mouth momentum. That said, both novels do share one thing: the premise of an easy to grasp concept, applied to characters who touch on everyday recognition.

So whereas One Day is broken up into the ‘one day a year’ premise, Girl on the Train has its narration broken up into digestible ‘morning’ and ‘evening’ chunks, mirroring the commuter journeys of the protagonist. Fairly early on, the perspective shifts to a second character in flashback, and then again to a third. The idea of a thriller based around witnessing an event from a window isn’t new: one thinks of Agatha Christie’s 4.50 From Paddington, or Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The fresh appeal here might be the contemporary, ordinary setting of the Euston commuter belt. Plus there’s the ‘girl’ in question’s downbeat situation: she’s divorced, living in a rented room, is overweight, and is an alcoholic who has black outs. She’s an unreliable narrator, but crucially never unrelatable.

The meaning of the train window has also changed from Christie and Hitchcock’s day: now it’s a surrogate iPad, another screen through which to scroll resentfully past the nicer lives of others.

I wince a little at the box-ticking elements for the genre, though, such as the scene where the villain delivers a speech about how they did it and why. But this is a reminder why I prefer literary fiction: it’s the genre where no boxes need ever be ticked.

***

Wednesday 26th October 2016. Write a review for The Wire, of The Infinite Mix exhibition on the Strand. I think this marks my debut as an art critic, not counting pieces for catalogues in the past.

***

Thursday 27th October 2016. Evening: Birkbeck classes. A seminar on Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, followed by a lecture by Harriet Earle on Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In preparation for the Pynchon class, I go to Senate House and leaf through a book of Remedios Varo’s surreal paintings. Pynchon refers to a real Varo painting in one scene, though her whole style is a good primer for the novel’s skewed, strange world. Post-war Bosch.

***

Friday 28th October 2016. Winter flu jab at Selfridges. It costs the same whichever chemist one uses, so one might as well be vaccinated with style.

Read a review in the LRB by Rosemary Hill, of Minoo Dinshaw’s Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman:

‘Later he claimed to have slept with people whose names began with every letter of the alphabet except Q, because the only possibility was Quentin Crisp and he couldn’t face it.’

 From the same article, a remark by Runciman’s father:

‘I put up with the rouge and the mascara and the velvet clothes, but if I ever catch him sitting down to pee, I’ll cut him off without a penny.’

***

Saturday 29th October 2016. To the Vue Piccadilly for the film of The Girl on the Train. It’s terrible. One can just about forgive the Hollywood switch from an overweight heroine to the decidedly semi-skimmed Emily Blunt, and indeed the move from England to the US. But all the twists and revelations of the book are well and truly botched. Ms Blunt does her best, but what grips on the page bores on the screen. Shame.

Still, the use of houses on the Metro-North line, running along the valley of the Hudson river, certainly makes the notion of Ms Blunt’s envy all the more convincing. A house with a major railway line at the bottom of its garden isn’t always desirable, but the Hudson Valley is one of the most picturesque areas in the US. It’s also a nice reminder of my own trip on the line a few years ago, going all the way from Poughkeepsie into Grand Central.

***

Sunday 30th October 2016. On an Evelyn Waugh binge. Lots of insights into the English Condition (never mind the human condition), but also lots of good jokes. Some prescience too. Thinking now about the line in Decline and Fall about ‘the sound of English county families baying for broken glass’, I note how it can apply to the Brexit vote.

I dip into Selina Hastings’s biography of EW, to find this about Evelyn Gardner, his first wife:

‘She read Proust, but undermined this sign of intellectual discernment by referring to him always as “Prousty-Wousty”’.

Thus She-Evelyn anticipates the rise of Russell Brand.

In June 1960 Waugh writes to apologise for some typos in a recent book:

‘I am told that printers’ readers no longer exist because clergymen are no longer unfrocked for sodomy.’

Waugh’s letters are full of entertaining jokes like this, painting a picture of a much more likeable man than the one in the published Diaries. One reason for this, as suggested by the editor, Mark Amory, may be that Waugh wrote his letters in the morning, while sober, and wrote the diary in the evening, when drunk.

I’d say that another is that letters are much more of a performance, even if it’s just for one person. Private diaries, drunken or not, get the unflattering sides: the complaints, the vanity, the pettiness, the self-pity, the resentment. Letters, meanwhile, have more of a sense of performed morality, even if it’s just a note to a local newspaper on some gossamer oversight by the council.

Letters necessitate thinking about others, even if it’s thinking ill. And as with charity, letters can tease vanity into philanthropy. The writer aligns themselves with what they think is right, and plays a Sunday Best version of selfhood.

Ideally social media should be more like letters (and postcards), but the form too often tempts its users into the less flattering indulgences of a private diary.

***

Thursday 3rd November 2016. Evening: Birkbeck classes. A seminar on Angela Carter’s Passion of New Eve, followed by a lecture by Grace Halden, on alterity in post-war science fiction. We look at Judith Merril’s ‘That Only A Mother’ – with its very 1940s fear of the Bomb – and Samuel R. Delany’s ‘Aye, and Gomorrah…’, which has a very late 60s theme of sexualities as subcultures. Needless to say, I love it, and make a note to read more Delany.

***

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The Devil Wears Car Robes

Saturday 19th September 2015.

I learn that I am affected by the Department for Work and Pensions’s ‘new rules’, and may have to get by on less than I’d thought. Much of this week is spent on the phone to their blameless staffers, resisting the urge to make comments about the whereabouts of Mr Duncan Smith’s heart. I suspect they get that a lot. They sigh down the line and use phrases such as ‘our hands are tied’. They also tell me to try the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.

This is a clever ploy, because many of the CABs are themselves on the receiving end of ‘new rules’, in the shape of government cuts. There are now fewer of them per borough, and the ones that are still going are rarely open for more than a handful of hours a week. The upshot is that I traipse over to Tottenham twice this week. There, I sit in a prefabricated bungalow located in an alleyway near Bruce Grove station, in a colourless waiting room not unlike the ones in documentaries about prisons. I have to go twice, because the first time all the appointment slots are filled up before me. The second time I go, I still have to wait two and half hours in the waiting room before finally seeing an advisor. Her advice, such as it is, is that I need to take my money woes to a more specialist office in Crouch End. And so it goes on.

I take a train from Bruce Grove into Liverpool Street, and walk around the gleaming skyscrapers of the financial district. The contrast between these looming citadels of wealth and the rundown, deprived streets of Tottenham, mere minutes away, has never been more shocking. Anyone doubting the appeal of Mr Corbyn needs to make this journey.

* * *

Sunday 20th September 2015.

Jackie Collins dies. In the papers there are a number of ‘guilty pleasure’ tributes for her novels, along with lots of photographs taken during her modelling career. Like Joan Crawford, and indeed like her own sister Joan, she managed to project a level of camp at every stage. A picture from 1956 shows a 19-year-old Jackie at an Earl’s Court motor show, posing with ‘The Goggomobil T300 – the smallest family four-seater car on the market’. She smiles at the camera while stepping out of this stunted vehicle, showing off a zebra print two-piece which matches the car’s own upholstery. A caption confirms that her clothes are indeed designed by ‘Car Robes, makers of car seat covers’. Low Camp she may have been at the time, she went on to turn this ability into a knowing and deliberate form of High Camp, and to lucrative effect too. It is what Quentin Crisp calls getting the joke on your own terms.

* * *

Monday 21st September 2015.

I am on a bus in Crouch End when a man in a corduroy suit gets on and engages me in conversation. It turns out that he knows me from the book I Am Dandy. We have a conversation about the various definitions of dandyism, and how dandyism relates to the breaking of one set of rules while adhering to another. Then he asks me for employment advice, given he sees himself as a dandy too.

I quote Crisp on the subject – try life modelling in art schools, because it fulfils a societal role while having the mild air of scandal. The other suggestion is anything involving the use of one’s own unique persona. This can include teaching, performing, lecturing, writing, or even tour guide work. As I’ve found from my own experience, a tour guide can often be dandy-like in spirit. They can tailor the facts of a gallery or museum to fit their own bespoke personality. And of course, tour guides have to perform a form of outsider’s view, because tourists and outsiders share a common border.

I was reminded of the time I was recognised in the street for being in the band Orlando. This was long after I’d left the band and was back on the dole. The person who recognised me said that he too was in a band, and did I have any advice on how to make it in the music business?

* * *

Wednesday 23rd September 2015.

The Daily Mail runs excerpts from a unkind book on David Cameron, written by Lord Ashcroft, his former friend. Chief among the revelations – or rather, allegations – are those involving debauched conduct at Oxford University during the 80s, especially an act involving an ‘intimate part of the future Prime Minister’s anatomy’ with a dead pig’s head. What interests me is the mention of Brideshead Revisited. At the time, the TV series had apparently made such an impression on Mr Cameron’s college friends that they all wanted ‘to play at being Sebastian Flyte’ and ‘live the Brideshead lifestyle’, according to the new book. The pig incident was part of this aspiration. As tributes to Evelyn Waugh go, the very public circulation of this one takes some beating, regardless of its veracity. I think Waugh himself, who so bemoaned the defeat of the Conservatives in 1945, would have been very pleased, even proud.

* * *

Thursday 24th September 2015.

Snark: a word that combines ‘snide’ and ‘remark’, often used as a default emotion on social media. But when viewed properly, snark is just a less honest kind of loneliness.

This occurs to me when I glance at the online response to the Morrissey novel, List of the Lost, which is published today. The trouble is, it’s impossible to judge the novel for its own worth, because of who the author is. The only reviews I’d really want to read are ones from a parallel world, where it was published pseudonymously.

I will read it and judge for myself as soon as I can. But then, I’m already on its side, just because so many critics rushed to savage it. From the extracts, it sounds a little like Ronald Firbank.

* * *

Facebook can sometimes feel like a memorial of gently-faded friendships. Today the site briefly crashes. I imagine it being hacked by someone who couldn’t take any more photos of weddings they had not been invited to.

* * *

Friday 25th September 2015.

To the Invisible Dot in King’s Cross, for a comedy show by Mae Martin, ‘Us’. The venue is east of Caledonian Road, in an area of King’s Cross that the big clean-up hasn’t quite reached. The Invisible Dot is small, brick-built, and single-level, with rows of skylights; probably a former workshop or garage. The stage is flanked by two toilets, which turns out to be something of a design flaw. Anyone getting up to use the toilet immediately pulls the focus of the show, and this happens towards the end of Ms Martin’s hour-long set. I wonder if her friendly persona allows it to happen, more so than it would for other performers. Her comedy style is a kind of sweet and knowing nervousness (belied by her years of experience). She also channels her physical androgyny into a form of female boyish charm, much like Tig Notaro. This cunningly means that it is impossible to heckle her when she’s on, as she never takes a ‘high status’ position – quite unusual for a comedian. Much of ‘Us’ is serious and heartfelt: themes of sexual identity, the pitfalls of bisexual dating, and the conflict of wanting to eschew labels while still attracting homophobic catcalls in public. I like Ms M a lot. So much so, that I wonder if I could ever do stand-up comedy myself. I already have the ill-advised suits. (This is not entirely a joke, though…)

* * *

I have my hair cut short into its natural brown, ready to be freshly re-bleached. It makes me realise how large my head is. I look like a camp Easter Island statue.

* * *

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Day of The Sherries

Saturday 10th January 2015. Work this week: writing the first draft of an essay. Escapism in Brideshead Revisited, Day of the Triffids and Lucky Jim. Much of which is escapism through alcohol. I was aware of the scenes of unrestrained drinking in Brideshead Revisited and Lucky Jim before I came to read them, but the booziness of Day of the Triffids surprised me.

Brian Aldiss called John Wyndham’s sci-fi novels ‘cosy catastrophes’. The term caught on, but it’s ultimately unfair, given the often frightening or even disturbing events Wyndham subjects his characters to. Still, Triffids certainly has an unexpectedly large amount of scenes where the hero stops for a drink, where one would expect him to do something rather more practical. The first ‘day’ of the story effectively reads like a post-apocalyptic pub crawl. After most of humanity has been blinded, Bill Masen reacts by walking around a silent London from bar to bar, helping himself to brandies and ‘restoratives’. He ends the day in a luxury flat drinking an ‘excellent Amontillado’. The woman he rescues along the way gets ‘a small Cointreau’. Day of the Sherries, more like.

The phrase that springs to mind is the title of Bevis Hillier’s book about post-war design, ‘Austerity Binge’. All three of the novels were published in the age of austerity, the 1940s and early 50s, and all three have scenes of what would now be called binge-drinking. Given rationing went on until 1954, it’s hard to begrudge the original readers for wanting a little cosiness with their catastrophe.

Three things which found a surge of popularity in 1940s Britain, as learned today from the Hillier book: circuses, canal boats and anything with a mermaid on it.

* * *

Sunday 11th January 2015. Over Christmas, some neighbours put a note through our door, asking if we’ve seen their lost cat. Missing since Boxing Day morning, it was a beautiful, exotically long-haired creature (a Maine Coon in fact). It would install itself in regal splendour on the top of the wall across the road. The sight of it would always cheer me up on my journeys into town. No sign of it since the note. Today I pass the wall and see a scratching post put out with the bins.

* * *

Tuesday 13th January 2015. To Birkbeck for a class on Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, her 1970s memoir of growing up as a Chinese American. Very unusual – the term ‘memoir’ doesn’t describe it properly, as it uses digressions into folktales, retellings of superstitions and family anecdotes retold in turn by relatives. Chinese whispers in every sense. The woman warrior in question turns out to be the mythical Fa Mu Lan, whom Disney turned into Mulan. We discuss Orientalism, which always reminds me of the imposing School of Oriental and Asian Studies building next door. It was founded in 1916 for the original orientalists, as in students of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Thanks to Edward Said’s 1970s book, Orientalism, never far away from any college reading list, the word ‘orientalist’ now tends to mean a pejorative distortion of such cultures, especially by the West. I’m guessing they study that next door, too. It’s no surprise to add that the O-word has also been bandied about in discussions about Charlie Hebdo magazine this week.

* * *

Wednesday 14th January 2015. Class on Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and Ted Hughes’s Crow. I manage to read both in time, though the discussion of Plath takes up the whole seminar. No time for Ted. We listen to a radio recording of ‘Daddy’: I hadn’t realised how strong, confident and even sassy Plath’s voice was. At thirty, she sounds at least ten years older, not at all like the fragile waif I had imagined. I suppose what I really mean is that she doesn’t sound like the type to kill herself. Then I realise what a meaningless comment that is.

Still, her death will always inform any talk of her work. ‘Avoid biography’ is a common tip for literary scholars, ‘except when it’s Sylvia Plath’. With her it’s definitely ‘know the biography’. Biographies plural, too. New ones seem to pop up all the time.

Someone else in the class mentions that Frieda Hughes, the daughter, is a poet herself, and that she has her own pet owl.

Hughes’s Crow couldn’t be more different from Ariel. A rewriting of creation myths, giddying surreal vistas, unsettling shape-shifting tales of gods and universes. Plath bares herself, Hughes dissolves himself. I find both works intoxicating, though in different ways.

* **

Thursday 15th January 2015. More essay, more hours at the British Library. John Sutherland’s Lives of the Novelists is a dangerously addictive book. A doorstopper to dip into, it gives the reader potted biographies of hundreds of writers, and manages to include all the bits one really wants: gossip, love lives, anecdotes, myths, plus a decent smattering of criticism about the actual work. Mr Sutherland has his own preferences, however: there’s as much commercial fiction as there is Literature with a capital ‘L’. Jeffrey Archer makes the cut, Angela Carter doesn’t.

Interesting how some critics think Sebastian dies in Brideshead Revisited. He doesn’t. It’s Cordelia’s detailed prediction which muddles the memory. Sebastian simply drinks himself out of the text, last seen on a hospital bed in a Tunisian monastery. Also: a common error regarding The Day Of The Triffids. The mass blindness is not caused by a meteor shower. It in fact turns out to be the accidental triggering of a secret Cold War weapons system; or at least, that’s what the narrator decides. I mention this because today I read a piece on Wyndham which names and shames other scholars for making this error. A few paragraphs later, he himself gets the name of the main character wrong. Hubris in motion.

* * *

Friday 16th January 2015. I watch a YouTube video by Mark Kermode about misleading film marketing. The American DVD cover of Pride makes no reference to any of the characters being gay. Even the activists’ banner is airbrushed out. The director is fine with this, however, saying that’s it’s important to preach to the unconverted, and get a film seen by as many people as possible. The problem with this good intention is that it might backfire, leading to simple complaints of false advertising. This is nothing new, though. In the 80s, the US poster for Prick Up Your Ears tried to play down its gay theme, by crowbarring Vanessa Redgrave’s minor character into the white-toothed image of Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina. No sign of any connection stronger than friendship. More recently, the posters for Hanif Kureishi’s Le Week-End made it look like a fluffy romcom, rather than the simmering drama it really was.

But sometimes all the advertising in the world can make no difference, misleading or not. Some people only go to see a film because they’ve been dragged there. I witnessed this when I went to see The Hobbit Part One. As the lights went down, the man next to me said to his girlfriend, ‘I’ve no idea what this is about’.


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Between Bowie and Bronzino

Saturday 15th November 2014. I listen to an archive radio talk by Arthur Machen, about the superiority of artists who invent over those who replicate. He cites GK Chesterton on the difference between Dickens and Trollope. With Dickens, says Chesterton, the reader knows they’ll never meet his characters in real life. With Trollope, the reader never stops meeting his characters in real life. Machen concludes that Dickens was a better writer, because he added rather than reflected. He adds an anecdote about Turner:

A friendly critic once said to Turner, ‘Your pictures are undoubtedly splendid works, but I never saw such landscapes in nature as you paint.’

‘No,’ said Turner. ‘But don’t you wish you had?’

* * *

Evening: to Elton U’s house party in Ladbroke Grove. Mostly fellow Birkbeck BA English students. No particular occasion other than getting together socially. Other guests: Jasmine B, Jon S. Elton’s place is covered in books – almost every shelf of every room. I pick one up. He not only covers the margins in handwritten notes, but the inside cover pages too. Jon turns out to have had some training as a chef. He brings his own Christmas cake, and we all wolf it down.

* * *

Sunday 16th November 2014. Working on an essay on Waugh. Can’t resist bringing in a discussion on camp. I have good reason to though: Philip Core’s A-Z of camp (The Lie That Tells The Truth) gives Evelyn Waugh his own entry, plus there’s two separate entries for Brideshead Revisited. One for the novel, one for the 1981 TV series. They are filed between ‘Bowie’ and ‘Bronzino’.

* * *.

Monday 17th November 2014. I get the new Quentin Blake advent calendar from Foyles Charing Cross. Many advent calendars are reissued every year, because the dates are non-specific (eg the National Gallery’s advent calendars). But the eighty-something QB manages to put out a brand new design. This year it’s a towering, glittery snowman in the process of decoration.

* * *

A new bad habit, related to my love of eating Christmas food early: Starbucks’s eggnog flavoured lattes. I can confirm that they are overpriced sugary filth from the devil’s own armpit, and that I’ve bought about five of them in the last week. I record this purely as an act of contrition.

As it is, I’m irritated by Starbucks’s insistence on asking for a customer’s name to put on the cup, even when it’s obvious whose drink is whose. I’ve begun to work my way through an alphabet of pseudonyms each time I go to a branch: Adam, Bob, Carl, Dave, Eustace. I do this partly because people often pull a confused expression when I say ‘Dickon’, but mainly because I resent the demand full stop. The whole point of going to a franchise café is the comfort of anonymity. Still, as Ben Elton used to say, don’t blame the staff, blame the management.

* * *

Tuesday 18th November 2014. Class tonight: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Tutor: Joe Brooker. The Southern Gothic landscape drips off the page. ‘My mother is a fish’ indeed. Difficult to read without thinking one is in muddy dungarees.

* * *

Wednesday 19th November 2014. Class: Lessing’s The Grass Is Singing, set in what was then Southern Rhodesia. Tutor: Grace Halden. Fascinating how Lessing’s publisher insisted on a rape scene to be included. And that she refused, even though it was her first book.

* * *

Thursday 20th November 2014. To the Arcola Theatre in Dalston for First Love, a stage adaptation of the Samuel Beckett story. The venue is an old converted paint factory, with its history very much on display: lots of wires drooping aesthetically across exposed brickwork. I go as the guest of Hester R, fellow student on the ‘Literature 1945-1979’ course. First Love is one of our set texts.

It turns out that the production is the whole story performed as a one-man, 80 minute monologue – quite a feat of memory. That said, Hester later tells me she went to see Gatz, the full recital of The Great Gatsby on stage (about 6 hours with breaks), and that involved one actor learning the whole Fitzgerald novel. I have enough trouble remembering my door keys.

The First Love actor is bald, wiry, performs with a thick Irish accent, and wears a modern hooded top under a business suit, though the story is from the 1940s. The only set dressing is a couple of wooden benches, though these are both propped up on their sides, giving the impression they’re about to fall over at any time (again, all very Beckett). The story does involve the use of benches, and at one point the actor nearly takes one to sit on – then puts it back.

He delivers the whole piece in a state of twitchy paranoia and nervousness, often pausing as if the words are occurring to him naturally. This interpretation suits the text, but I can’t help thinking it must also come in handy for any moments where he forgets the words. No one would know.

The enduring appeal of Beckett owes something to the way he captures the universal sense of not quite coping with being in the world. Of everything and nothing. Of anywhere and nowhere. In a way, Beckett is a kind of comfort food. The great thing about nowhere is that you always know where you are.

* * *

I stay up too late to watch the result of the Rochester by-election. Why do I bother with live election TV? ‘Anything to report?’ ‘No.’  Even more depressing is that the media found something trivial to inflate into front-page significance: the Labour MP Emily Thornberry tweeting a photo of a house covered in England flags, with a white van in the drive. Her caption was simply ‘image from Rochester’. She was soon accused of anti-regional snobbery (being a London MP), and was forced to resign her place in the Shadow Cabinet. Disgrace is so very fast these days: a mere five hours from tweet to resignation. It’s one of those Thick Of It plotlines that seem unlikely to happen in real life. Until they do.

UKIP won their second seat in Rochester. Despite all the national media coverage, 50% of the electorate didn’t bother voting. The owner of the white van was one of them.

* * *

Friday 21st November 2014. To the Museum of London with Minerva M., for the Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived exhibition. We go in the evening, for one of those late openings which include a bar and special mini-events around the galleries. Many of the big London museums do these things now – it’s all about giving people an undownloadable experience. We watch a ‘Reichenbach Fall’ sideshow in which people learn how to fall a couple of feet onto a crash mat mindfully. They first have a conversation with some sort of ‘fall instructor’, then they get up on a stage, sign their name on a whiteboard under the words ‘I Want To Fall’, then topple backwards over onto the mat, to the crowd’s applause. Some of the participants imitate Benedict Cumberbatch’s crucifixion dive from Sherlock. We also watch a suitably well-dressed demonstration of Bartitsu, Holmes’s self-defence method, and a series of very funny improvisation games, by the comedy troupe Shoot From The Hip.

The exhibition itself turns out to feature plenty of serious contextual items: rare maps, photos and paintings of 1890s London, including several Whistlers and a superb Monet. Plus an early 1800s rendering of the Reichenbach Falls by JMW Turner (he really does get everywhere). Then there’s lots of film and stage posters from the umpteen SH adaptations, and Benedict C’s actual Milford coat from Sherlock, with the red buttonhole. Conan Doyle’s original stories are given the most attention – there’s a huge lit-up mural of the Dancing Men stick figures on the outside of the museum. One wall-sized quotation is from A Study In Scarlet, where Watson makes a list of ‘Sherlock Holmes: His Limits’. They include ‘Knowledge of Literature – Nil. Philosophy – Nil. Politics – Feeble’.

I think one of the reasons for the success of the character is that from the start Doyle presented him as a brilliant man with flaws. But the flaws have to be of the right kind.

I thought of the British scientist Matt Taylor, from the news this week. He was one of the Rosetta space team who’d managed to land a robot probe on a moving comet. However, he also went on TV wearing a shirt made up of illustrations of scantily-clad women. The sort of thing that even an amateur heavy metal band might view as a bit ‘unsubtle’. In a time when science still has an image problem as a male-dominated arena, this didn’t go down at all well. Dr Taylor was forced to apologise.

I suppose the moral is: even a brilliant man’s limits must have their limits.


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The Silence Of Christmas Sandwiches

Saturday 11th October 2014. I watch the new BBC documentary about Genesis, mainly because I’m curious about their 1970s prog-rock phase. Fittingly, the documentary goes on a bit.

* * *

Monday 13th October 2014. Modern signs of the seasons. In their grab-for-lunch fridge section today, Boots are stocking their Christmas ranges. Red cardboard packaging with snowflake motifs. I note how fine I am with this sort of thing, mainly because it’s not accompanied with in-store festive music – yet. It’s only unrequested noise that really depresses. Thus I come away from Boots praising the silence of sandwiches.

I am trying out some organic remedies for anxiety. One is rubbing warm sesame oil onto the skin. I duly give it a go, and spend the rest of the day smelling like a Chinese takeaway.

* * *

Tuesday 14th October 2014. There’s a popular Internet catchphrase, ‘You had one job’. It’s often appended to photographs of badly installed doors, lavatories, and so on. Tonight I find myself saying it while watching the BBC’s live TV coverage of the Booker Prize ceremony. Within a half hour programme of comment and preamble, a technical hitch means they miss the actual announcement. Instead the camera stays on poor Andrew Motion in emergency pundit mode, forced to fill for time with comments on the various nominees. At this point, it’s not what he says that matters, it’s only that he says something. It’s not the worse BBC Booker slip-up, though. That has to be the time in the 80s when Selina Scott not only failed to recognise one of the judges, Angela Carter, she also asked her what her favourite one on the list was. ‘You’re not supposed to ask me that,’ said Ms Carter.

More recently, Howard Jacobson’s acceptance speech was cut off by the BBC News channel in mid-sentence. This was in order to go live to the trapped Chilean miners, where something was said to be happening. It wasn’t.

* * *

Tonight’s Birkbeck class (Joe Brooker teaching): Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. From 1909, yet still so fresh in its experimentation. I find some of the repetition hard going, but come to admire its dedication to new takes on form and subject matter. Stein’s layered rhythms take some getting used to, but then the same is said of David Peace now. ‘You can’t lose yourself in it’ remarks one student.

* * *

Wednesday 15th October 2014. Tonight’s class: Brideshead Revisited. Roger Luckhurst teaching. A nice contrast to the previous night. Decades later than Stein, yet such a throwback in style. And a throwback for many of Waugh’s admirers, too. Its wistful love of the aristocracy still provokes, just as it did on publication. Yet it was a hit with the book buyers of the 1940s. Professor L suggests that the popularity of the 1980s TV series may have had something to do with the gloom of Thatcherism at the time. An understandable response, just as Waugh’s novel was his understandable response to WW2.

Prof L also recounts how a fellow tutor was appalled at having to teach the book on another module. ‘You’ve reminded me who the enemy are.’

I suppose in theory I should be against it too. Yet the wit and craft of his writing sparkles and connects. Universal sentiments, despite all the elitism. Certainly Waugh himself was often snobbish and misanthropic in his interviews – but then much of the time he was something of a wind-up merchant. There’s a Paris Review piece where he insists on getting into his pyjamas and doing the interview in the hotel bed, smoking a cigar. When the interviewer asks him to comment on something by Edmund Wilson. Waugh replies, ‘Is he an American?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I don’t think what they have to say is of much interest, do you?’

* * *

Thursday 16th October 2014. In the British Library, very much a welcoming oasis for those with laptop lives, with its free wifi, pleasant atmosphere and lack of piped music. The BL has now somehow squeezed dozens of attractive new study tables into its lobby and café areas, thus freeing up more desks in the reading rooms for those who actually need to consult the BL’s books. Certainly the Rare Books Reading Room seems quieter than it has been. The new lobby tables are packed for much of the day. I look out at them: a sea of faces all lit by the glow of their respective screens. Life in 2014. Footlight faces.

I read a lecture by Shirley Jackson. It’s on the response to her short story, ‘The Lottery’, upon its publication by the New Yorker in 1948. She received hundreds of scathing letters, including one from her mother. ‘It does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?’

* * *

Friday 17th October 2014. To the East Finchley Phoenix for Effie Gray, the new Emma Thompson-scripted period drama. It’s pretty to look at, and the true story it tells is fascinating enough, but somehow it feels cold and unengaging. Maybe that’s the fault of the story in question, being the coldness of the marriage between art critic John Ruskin and nineteen-year old Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray. Ruskin was about thirty at the time, though in this film he seems much older. I wonder if this was a deliberate move to play up the age difference, because it’s certainly accentuated by a flashback scene, with Ruskin taking an even younger Effie around a museum. There’s hints of a Lewis Carroll theory here – Ruskin had known Effie since she was twelve and even wrote a fairy tale for her, The King of the Golden River. The film also begins with Effie retelling her marriage aloud as if that were a fairy tale. A few minutes in we get the expected wedding night scene, where Ruskin is appalled by his wife’s naked body. Although Emma T seems unwilling to subscribe to the theories as to which specific body parts put him off, for me the film suggests it was her whole adulthood that appalled him. The rest of the film is essentially her moping around unhappily, if immaculately in picturesque settings, particularly Venice and rural Scotland. The casting of Dakota Fanning is perfect. At times she resembles the saddest yet best dressed doll in the shop, at others like she’s just walked out of a Holman Hunt.

The film’s poster has been all over the walls of Tube stations lately. It is slightly misleading, as it juxtaposes Ms Fanning next to Millais’s masterpiece Ophelia, familiar to any visitor of the Tate Britain. This might make people think Effie was that painting’s model. Millais himself is in the film all right – as a better lover for Effie – but there’s no direct reference to the painting other than in a montage of Pre-Raphaelite hits. Perhaps a mention of its true model, Lizzie Siddall, would have been too much for the story. After all, Ms Siddall had a pretty interesting life herself – doubtless to be covered in another film sometime.

There seems to be no shortage of art biopics. Tonight’s screening comes after a trailer for Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, with Timothy Spall as the shimmery dauber. And there in the trailer is another version of John Ruskin. Sibelius is meant to have said, ‘No one ever erected a statue to a critic’. But they certainly put them into films.

Effie Gray had to fend off lawsuits from other writers, who apparently had similar ideas for adapting the tale. There’s no ending to the interest in flawed fame. In the credits, I notice that Young Effy is played by Tiger Lily Hutchence, the daughter of Paula Yates and Michael Hutchence. She must certainly know something about private lives becoming public narratives.


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In Which I Compare Myself To Imelda Marcos

Saturday 16th August 2014. My reading matter this week includes Samuel Beckett’s short stories from the 1940s, such as ‘The Expelled’ and ‘The End’. They’re all about lonely layabouts trudging the streets in existential woe. I come away wanting to look at pictures of kittens.

* * *

Currently struggling with two mundane but time-consuming problems: the procurement of new shoes and new glasses. I record these non-experiences in the hope of exorcising their hold on me.

I put off these sort of purchases as long as I can. Partly out of poverty, but also because I know purchases of need rarely satisfy me, compared to purchases of luxury (such as alcohol, cinema tickets or books).

In the cases of the glasses, the nice optician at Boots Muswell Hill tested my sight and told me it had changed slightly. She gave me a new prescription. Then it emerged that (a) they cannot put new lenses into my current frames, and (b) Boots no longer make my current frames.

I tried on the free NHS frames they had, but couldn’t find any I liked. Then I tried some of the priced ones I can just about afford (ie under £100) and settled for a pair I thought were okay. Black rimmed, Boots own brand, a bit big and cartoonish. I was aiming for Vintage Michael Caine, rather than Current Gok Wan. £95, from a half price offer.

But this mundanity expands, sucking up hours. It takes me two visits to decide on this new pair, then a third visit for collecting them after the lenses are in. And then a few days after that, I decide I don’t like the specs so much after all. They feel heavy and clunky and goggle-like. Is it the newness? A resentment of change? Or is it that I just wanted to get out of the opticians as fast as possible, knowing I had to choose something? On top of this, I’m now unconvinced my eyesight has changed – my old pair seem to correct my vison well enough.

I can barely speak for sighing. I stand on a train platform on St Pancras, holding both the old and the new pairs, switching between the two while testing my sight on the train information signs. I must look mad.

* * *

And then, later in the week, I have a similar frustration with new shoes. I try to go for years without buying a new pair. My current everyday black shoes now have holes in the top. Seconds of rain leave both feet drenched. The cobblers in Muswell Hill have told me to throw them out, but I haven’t. I can’t, yet.

I go to Clarks in Oxford Street and spend a good hour trying on sand-coloured shoes to go with my linen suits. One pair seem right: Clarks Classics, suede Jinks, priced £75. Fine, done, happy. Yet a few days later I’m in pain. The suede creases when I walk, cutting into my left foot at the base of my big toe. I’m close to limping.

The Clarks receipt says ‘full refund if unworn’. By this point, I have dragged the shoes through a mile of London grime. I spend hours trying to solve the dilemma with Scholls padded plasters, stuck on the painful areas of my foot. That in turn means time has to be spent at Boots St Pancras, peering at their complex range of foot-based products. I go back to stock up on more when I realise the pads come off in the shower. And so it goes on. Incredibly, the world turns.

I worry that I’ll never find a single pair of comfortable yet affordable shoes. And then I worry that it’s my feet that are the problem; that they’ve become vertically misshapen with age, and that this pain is just another petty ache one has to get used to. Or: perhaps I’m walking wrongly. I’ve caught myself staring at how others walk on the street (evidence of more madness). I see other people tilting their feet at a much higher angle than I do. Maybe that’s it. Have I forgotten how to walk properly? I wouldn’t put it past me.

(At this point I fear I am turning into a Samuel Beckett character. You are what you read.)

So this is what dominates my life this week, to my utter shame. The resentment of simple self-maintenance that fails to be simple. I try to dwell on more important things, but my shoes have rather gone to my head. The only response I take away from reading the news is, ‘I bet Barack Obama’s shoes fit him okay.’

Another thought. Perhaps Imelda Marcos wasn’t so greedy after all, with her palace of infinite shoes. Perhaps she just couldn’t get it right.

* * *

Sunday 18th August 2014. I’m reading Ronald Blythe’s diaries, as collected in Under A Broad Sky (Canterbury Press, 2013). He says this on the student protests of 2011:

‘It is sad to grow old and to have never rioted.’ He’s about 90.

* * *

Monday 19th August 2014. Penguin’s annotated edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four includes a letter from Evelyn Waugh to Orwell, criticising the novel in a respectful, friendly way. Waugh’s main reservation is ‘the disappearance of the Church’ in Orwell’s vision. He means Catholicism, but he implies that religion as a whole is ‘inextinguishable’ – a word that directly recalls the ending of Brideshead Revisited.

The edition also reprints Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, next to a reader’s report by the publishers, Secker & Warburg, about Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the former, Orwell lists his rules for how to write clearly, which have been much quoted ever since (‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out’). In the latter, the publisher notes ‘It is a typical Orwellism that Julia falls asleep while Winston reads part of [O’Brien’s book] to her. Women aren’t intelligent in Orwell’s world’. And that’s from his own publisher! The lesson seems to be: feel free to take Orwell’s advice on how to write, but bear in mind that he wasn’t perfect either.

* * *

Tuesday 20th August 2014. I realise my ongoing shoe discomfort is not rare. Today I’m in Humanities One of the British Library Reading Rooms, studying Larkin’s The Less Deceived. The woman at the desk next to me has taken her shoes and socks off. One bare foot rests on her other knee, in a kind of bookish yoga position.

* * *

Wednesday 21st August 2014. To the Phoenix for The Congress. It’s a giddy, strange film that mixes live action with psychedelic animation. The actress Robin Wright plays a version of herself. The story starts out as a satire on the state of Hollywood, but then shifts into full-on science fiction. It’s often hard to keep up with what’s going on: only twenty minutes after I leave the cinema do I fully understand what happens at the end. The critics have been polarised, with some using the term ‘Yellow Submarine-esque’ as an insult. In which case, count me on the side of those who would take it as a compliment. I admit The Congress is not a perfect film, but there’s so much imagination and originality on show – and so many sights no one has seen before. It goes into the Top Five of my favourite films this year, along with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Punk Singer, and Frank.

* * *

Friday 22nd August 2014. At home all day. Reading, writing, failing to write, filling out paperwork for the final college year, idly social media-ing. I leave the house just once, at about 6pm, to go to Sainsbury’s on Archway Rd. Barely a minute’s walk, and a passer-by says to me: ‘love the suit!’ The only words I hear in person all day. Well, if I must have a single comment from the world.

I suppose I really do put on a suit and tie just to buy a pint of milk. Didn’t even realise it.


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