Saturday 10th September 2016. Thoughts on the endurance of retro aesthetics. There is still no stylish way of being seen staring at a phone. The cover of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together essentially says, ‘doesn’t the sight of people on phones look like a terrible thing?’ For all Mr Jobs’s love of attractive design, the fact remains that the sight of using his pretty gadgets is not attractive. The screen upstages the body in a way that older instruments never did. The history of art is full of images of people reading books in wistful and attractive ways. The sight of people at screens has yet to signify anything other than ‘work’ or ‘product’. Not ‘beautiful’.
There was a recent book of Caitlin Moran’s journalism where she was pictured on the cover tapping at a typewriter. She subsequently explained that it was a prop for the photo shoot, and that she really writes on a laptop.
Old broken typewriters are now used as set dressing in cafes and shops. Old broken laptops, however, are more likely to be thrown away.
London’s red phone boxes are now rarely used to make calls. But they are still left in place and repainted. The ones on the corners of Russell Square are currently used as lockable office workstations available to hire. Another phone box nearby forms part of a coffee stall, functioning as a stock cupboard.
I’ve yet to see a red phone box converted into the most obvious solution, though: a urinal. Despite all the anecdotal evidence of this alternative use, there is still something about British sensibilities that can’t bear to have the ugly act and the beautiful box officially brought together.
There are many reasons to buy books from bookshops rather than Amazon, but one is that London bookshops are simply better for getting a book in a hurry. Today I find that the little branch of Hatchards in St Pancras can order an unstocked title at 2pm, and have it ready for me to collect by 6. No extra charge, not even a deposit. The volume in question is Evelyn Waugh’s selected essays, A Little Order.
Sunday 11th September 2016. Where the likes of Amazon do come in handy, though, is for satisfying the impulse to watch an old film. I used to rely on a physical film library, Archway Video, a few years ago, with its huge stock of titles to rent. Gone now. Tonight I use Amazon’s online rental service to rewatch Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. It still holds up, the different plot strands working in harmony, the comedy balancing out the drama. Everyone gets a tidy happy ending, though I now realise we never find out what becomes of Max Von Sydow’s sociopathic artist, one of the best characters.
Monday 12th September 2016. Tim Chipping writes to confirm something I had wondered about in a recent diary entry. It was on my failure to be the sort of young person who hung around in groups on street corners, or who sat on walls. He says this reminded him of the first time he visited me in Bristol, when we were in our early 20s. We walked into town to buy bags of chips, after which Tim ‘instinctively’ sat on a nearby wall. He says I was baffled by this, and that I insisted we go home to eat the chips.
Thinking back, I suppose I associated ‘hanging out’ on a street as a form of anti-social behaviour. But of course, to be young and to worry about such things is to be anti-social to one’s peers.
Evening: To the Heavenly Social bar in Little Portland Street, for a book launch by Travis Elborough. No slouch he: it’s barely weeks after his book about public parks. This is more of an illustrated reference work, though: Atlas of Improbable Places- A Journey to the World’s Most Unusual Corners. Each entry comes with intricate maps by Alan Horsfield, which have a satisfying, calming appeal.
In the introduction TE points out the value of unique physical locations. I’m guilty of using the term ‘Dubai-ification’, when it comes to the mania in London for building glass towers. But TE’s book reminds me that there is at least one Dubai structure that fascinates me. It’s the more horizontally-inclined Palm Jumeirah archipelago, with its artificial ‘fronds’ of reclaimed sand, each one supporting hundreds of villas. It’s the sort of idea that’s surely asking for trouble in the long term, as seen in the abandoned towns elsewhere in the same book. But I like the sheer garish nerve of it.
Other favourite entries in this Atlas are Portmeirion in Wales, of The Prisoner fame, the Euro bridges of Spijkenisse in Holland (which seem like something from a postmodern story), and the strange case of the Kingdom of Redonda. This is an uninhabitable piece of rock in the Caribbean whose ‘king’ was declared to be the sci-fi novelist MP Shiel.
Tonight at the launch there’s a colouring competition (to re-ink Mr Horsfield’s maps), made all the more difficult by the venue being a dimly-lit underground bar. ‘Colouring in the dark – it’s this year’s trend!’ says Travis E. I lurk among the likes of Joe Brooker, Tim Benton, Alex M, Harvey Williams, Anne Pigalle, Paul Kelly (on DJ-ing), Emily Bick, Debsey Wykes.
Tuesday 13th September 2016. With Shanthi and her friend Matthew to the Barbican cinema, to see the latest Woody Allen film, Café Society. An enjoyable enough romance set in 1930s LA and New York. As with much of WA’s recent fare, though, he seems keen to tell the story without letting the characters get a chance to really come alive. I wish there were more moments like the ones in Hannah and Her Sisters, where the characters are permitted to stop and pause, to gaze and yearn. Still, there are lots of sumptuous, golden visuals and plenty of historical detail, such as the casual anti-Semitism from well-intentioned characters. Kristen Stewart, who normally plays sulky contemporary girls, is cast against type as the sweet love interest. But she plays it well enough, and her inscrutability saves the film from blandness.
Wednesday 14th September 2016. In a corner of Russell Square today there’s a little marquee for the Friends of Russell Square charity. Several elderly people are manning trestle tables, selling second hand books and DVDs. There’s also a rack of postcards. When I go to take a look, I notice that many of the postcards are of Eastbourne.
Thursday 15th September 2016. To the East Finchley Phoenix for the new Beatles documentary, Eight Days A Week. As part of the trend to put exclusive content into cinemas, there’s an hour-long live broadcast beforehand, from the red carpet of the film’s premiere at Leicester Square. Except that the red carpet is a deep blue.
I never learn what the reason for this is – a reference to the song ‘Blue Jay Way’ perhaps? Or just a nice coordination with the blue of the film’s poster? Presumably no one else is curious either, as the presenters manage to fill up their endless minutes of live commentary without once deigning to enlighten the viewer. Still, it’s impressive to see not just Paul and Ringo turn up, but Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison too.
Giles Martin, son of the recently deceased George, talks about his work on the film’s soundtrack. Pleasingly, Giles’s way of speaking turns out to closely resemble his father’s. In Beatles documentaries, George Martin’s measured BBC RP accent is always an entertaining contrast to those rebellious Liverpudlian tones. It is the ability to sound like a kindly army captain in a British war film.
The new Beatles film itself is an exhilarating joy. Its director, Ron Howard, is in the business of making big-screen blockbuster entertainment, which might be why the film rattles along on a constant high: literally when Paul admits they filmed Help! between puffs of cannabis. Mr Howard’s prowess in spectacle also explains why he focuses on the band when they were at their most visual as human beings: their international tours from 1964 to 1966.
More specifically, though, Mr Howard foregrounds an element played down in the 1990s Anthology TV series: the story of their reception. While Anthology asked what it was like to be the Beatles, Eight Days A Week asks what it was like to see the Beatles live, especially if you were American. The songs were enticing enough: ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ made its own way to a US Number One before the band even crossed the Atlantic. When they did arrive, as Paul McCartney puts it, they were ‘kings’. Accordingly, the film skips through the well-told rise of the Beatles in Britain, the better to examine the awestruck viewpoint of those US fans in 1964. The Beatles arrived as fully-formed superstars, four alien-looking young men with their identical suits, boots and androgynous children’s haircuts.
The live footage is broken up by some talking head interviews, which normally irritates, but Mr Howard keeps them pithy and to the point. Whoopi Goldberg remarks on the importance of the Beatles’ ‘colourlessness’ to her self-image, in much the same way as people were discussing David Bowie earlier this year: the way pop stars help people find themselves. Eddie Izzard also makes some interesting remarks about the band’s press conferences, when they displayed the instincts of stand-up comedians.
Saturday 17th September 2016. To Viktor Wynd’s museum at 11 Mare Street for a joint private view: a selection of Leonora Carrington’s surreal art from the 1930s to the 1990s, and Paul Hazelton’s site-specific Ghosts in the Making show. Mr Hazelton specialises in little figurines and sculptures made entirely from household dust and human hair. These startlingly delicate works look soft, sandy, fragile, as if they could return to dust at any minute. One is reclining on – or possibly making love with – a lobster, that staple animal of surrealism, in an echo of Dali’s Lobster Telephone. Some of the other Hazelton works are dust globes with smaller figures somehow trapped inside, like ships in bottles.
I chat to the artist himself tonight – modest, friendly, casually-dressed – though we’re bothered by the aggressive denizens of Hackney’s streets. One is a down-at-heel bald man trying to sell £1 plastic cigarette lighters from a tray, the other is an equally grizzled woman who is trying to engage the seller in an argument at the same time. The pair of them carry on like this down the length of Mare Street, the man still offering his wares in between his attempts to placate the woman. He’s caught in a state of switching between two worlds: ‘I never said I did! Lighters for £1 mate? ’
Then to Vout-o-Reenee’s in Tower Hill for the club night The Track. Sophie Parkin shows me the new exhibition in the gallery: Chris Wilson’s Glue Ponys (sic). Mr Wilson has had quite a life: a childhood in Africa, drug addiction and prison spells in the US, now a fine art graduate of Chelsea, and an author too. The show coincides with his book of short stories. I take a look at his raw and rough canvasses: visceral figures on horses, thick, overwritten layers of paint and text, naïve angels and crude gods. Many of the works hang unframed from the ceiling like tapestries, to show how Wilson paints on both sides of the canvas.
Excellent music: some 1940s swing, some Northern Soul. I chat with Susanna, a stylish lady in her 70s who has worked as a professional lookalike for Lauren Bacall. Spend some time with Emily and Emma, a gay couple from Newcastle whom I’ve noticed before, in their immaculate 1950s hair and clothes, always ready to dance. I dance a little too.
The sign of a good time had: I miss the last normal tube. But it’s a good excuse to walk to Liverpool Street (15 mins) and catch the brand new Night Tube. In its current tentative state, with only a couple of lines open, I can get as far north as Highbury Corner. Then I have to take a night bus to Highgate.
Hardly any Saturday night rowdiness on the trains: mainly quiet conversation and dozing off. I wonder if the newness of seeing the Tube at this time of night has a psychological effect; the wariness of pioneers. When I do see someone behaving loutishly, it’s on a night bus at Archway. A young man suddenly throws up in front of the doors, mere seconds before the bus stops to let him out.
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Tags: atlas of improbable places, Cafe Society, chris wilson, glue ponys, hannah and her sisters, Heavenly Social, Leonora Carrington, Night Tube, Paul Hazelton, red phone boxes, The Beatles: Eight Days A Week, travis elborough, viktor wynd, vout-o-reenee's, woody allen