The Spare Apostle

Wednesday 17 May 2017. Once again, a life-changing event occurs in the gap between diary updates, one which eclipses everything else that happened. It’s like that science demonstration where a heavy ball is placed in the centre of a black rubber sheet. The sheet is meant to represent space, and everything else around the heavy ball bends and distorts around it. Something to do with how black holes work, I think. I wasn’t really paying attention.

On Friday, 12th May, after 23 years of renting the same room in Highgate, I was made homeless.

There had been a sighting of a proper omen on the way home. Actual entrails. Around 7pm I left Birkbeck library in Torrington Square, walked past SOAS and through Russell Square. When passing the students loafing outside SOAS, I always look out for Russell Brand, currently the college’s best known pupil. I wouldn’t be surprised if he thinks the neighbouring square is named after him.

At Russell Square tube station, I took the lift to the platforms. When the doors opened at platform level I had to step over a small red mess on the floor. On looking closer, I saw it was a trampled tube mouse.

In a lifetime of using the London Underground, this was the first time I’ve ever seen a mouse come a cropper of the system’s endless human stampede. Tube mice are usually very good at sensing movement, fleeing at top speed into holes in the walls that never quite seem large enough. But perhaps the areas by the overcrowded lifts at Russell Square are a special case. The hordes of visitors from the British Museum ignore all the Smart Tourist advice about travelling via Holborn, where there’s more space and escalators. Instead they pack Russell Square’s ancient and put-upon lifts to the brim, with their backpacks and wheeled suitcases and push chairs and coach parties from all four corners of the globe. When coming back via the lifts, the exodus is too much, it seems, for tube mice. As if the Elgin Marbles weren’t controversial enough.

On seeing the dead mouse, I thought of entrails, sacrifices, and omens. When I got home to Highgate half an hour later, and saw in the shared hallway that each tenant had been given a sealed envelope from the owners, I feared the worst.

It transpires that my landlady, the daughter of the original owner who died two years ago, has been hit with a huge inheritance tax bill for the house. Despite her mother’s wish to keep the house going for the sake of the tenants – her family are that rare thing in London, landlords who care more about humans than money – the tax people have given her no option but to throw the tenants out and sell the building. We haven’t been given a firm date yet, but it’s likely to be ‘around the end of July’.

Of course, I’m still dealing with the shockwaves of Tom’s death. I would indulge the superstitious and melodramatic side of myself (rarely far from the surface) and say these things always come in threes. That would then license my fear that something else life-altering is lurking around the corner. But in fact, something else happened before that.

In early April my application for a PhD scholarship at Birkbeck was declined. That’s the money which effectively pays people a modest but sustainable wage (£16k) for doing a PhD full-time. This year, Birkbeck’s School of Arts only had 12 of them to give out. After much revising of my proposal I sent it off. A few weeks later I was told I had failed to get a scholarship, though I had made ‘the final fifteen’. Like a spare apostle. (‘Did you know Jesus?’ ‘No, but I made the final fifteen.’)

However, I was offered a small ‘studentship’ bursary, which pays for the fees only, and have since been advised that these are not give out lightly either. It would mean I’d have to do the PhD part-time, and live on very little. Or try to do paid work at the same time, despite my slowness. So that’s what I’m looking at doing when the MA ends in September. Until then, I will spend the summer doing the MA dissertation, while also trying to find somewhere to live, on top of working out how best to fit 23 years of possessions into a couple of minicab rides. And as I write this, my back pain has suddenly flared up out of nowhere, the one that turned out to be stress-related. I hope something good comes out of all this, because I’m rather fed up with 2017 being quite such a challenging year.

Quentin Crisp lasted 40 years in his Chelsea bedsit. I was rather hoping to beat his record. But never mind. I’m not him. I just hope I can find a new landlord who, like Mr Crisp’s and mine, look kindly upon those ‘of a different stripe’, as he put it.

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Full Course Thinking

Saturday 14th June 2014. A line from Woolf’s diary rings true at the moment:

‘What a born melancholiac I am… The only way I keep afloat is by working.’

I do have work to be getting on with – reading set texts for next year, starting on the final year thesis. But now there are no external deadlines to shape my time. I have to admit that this week has seen me struggling to not fall back into thoughts of despondency. On top of which, there’s all the football.

For lonely souls who do not care for football, there are in fact two types of loneliness. The usual kind, and the additional kind that comes with the World Cup. But defeated by the tournament’s ubiquity this week, I decide to try and join in for one night only. I watch England v Italy in my Highgate room. Or rather, I half-watch it on one computer window (as I have no television), while opening another window for Twitter. In the latter I post my baffled thoughts and read the live Tweets of others.

Fairly soon, I find the comments on Twitter are infinitely more interesting than the game. When there are goals, I miss them. So it is clearer than ever that my heart is not meant for football, and I must learn not to force my heart where it does not want to go. I certainly don’t begrudge something that brings happiness to so many others. Though in the case of the England fans, the happiness seems to quickly turn into masochism (indeed, England are knocked out of the cup during the first round).

The players this year are forced to wear dayglo coloured shoes, due to some sort of sponsorship deal. Sometimes a player wears a deliberately mismatching pair. This is meant to be a fashion statement, but instead it makes the sweaty millionaire in question look like a primary school child on his first day, still learning how to get dressed. In my case, the shoes just remind me that I need to stock up on highlighter pens.

As it is, I’m not really cut out for Twitter commentary either. What one is really meant to do is set up the home computer screen so a social media window is visible alongside everything else. Yet I can’t do this – I prefer switching between full screen windows, using the ALT and TAB keys. Perhaps this says something about the way my dyspraxic brain works. One thing at a time. Full course thinking only, rather than a buffet.

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Sunday 15th June 2014. Father’s Day, the first since Dad died. I am reading about the fire at the Glasgow School of Art, where the Charles Rennie Mackintosh library was destroyed. A line from a Laurie Anderson track comes to me. It’s about her father, but it applies to my feelings about Dad as well:

When my father died it was like a whole library had burned down.

(from ‘World Without End’, on the 1994 album Bright Red)

I find a photograph of Dad standing in front of his Warholian collection of kitschy found objects. He displayed them in the living room using an old Post Office sorting cabinet, mounted on the wall. The names of the postal areas were still visible on the pigeon holes. The photo is from December 2009.

Brian Bib Edwards 08 08 14 c

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In Hyde Park, I accidentally find myself surrounded by a dog show. It’s a muggy day, and I’ve decided to walk around the perimeter of the Serpentine by way of exercise. The dog show is in the grassy area on the north bank known as The Cockpit, where the Rolling Stones had their 1969 concert. There’s a series of tents and stalls selling dog-based wares, plus a couple of enclosures in the middle for canine parades and sports. One sport is Flyball, where the dogs jump over a series of little hurdles to collect a tennis ball from a box. The dogs do the actual sport very well, though they are less proficient at lining up quietly next to each other while awaiting their turn. The queue for Flyball is a mass of angry barking.

A sign by one stall: ‘Where Your Dog Would Choose To Shop’.

Another: ‘DNA Testing For Dogs’. This turns out to be a way of discerning the mix of breeds in a mongrel, rather than a doggy version of The Jeremy Kyle Show (which I would definitely watch).

The dog show is called, inevitably, ‘Hyde Bark’.

I walk from the Cockpit up to Victoria Gate, to try and see the Victorian pet cemetery there. It turns out that the cemetery is closed to the public, and is now part of the private garden attached to Victoria Lodge. An email to the Royal Parks reveals that one can book an appointment to visit the cemetery, but only at the cost of £60 an hour, for a party of six or less. And that’s assuming the residents approve the visit.

As it is, it’s possible to see a few of the hundred or so pint-sized gravestones from the Bayswater Road, if one peers through the hedge hard enough. Of the dead pet names I can make out, Spot seems to be very popular, followed by Rex. The words ‘dear’ and ‘little’ are everywhere: ‘In Loving Memory of Dear Old Spot’, ‘Dear Little Dick’, ‘Muffin, aged 15 years’, ‘Sweet Kitty Rose, Inseparable Companion for 11 and a Half Years’, ‘Dear Little Sally, Very Lovable Little Yorkshire of Florence C. Vary of Westminster’.

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Tuesday 17th June 2014. To the ICA to see The Man Whose Mind Exploded. It’s a documentary about Drako Zarhazar, an elderly and eccentric man living in Brighton. His unconventional appearance – tattoos, shaved head, piercings, cloak, a moustache coloured by black poster paint – is accompanied by severe retrograde amnesia, the consequence of two road accidents. He can remember being a dancer and a model for Salvador Dali, but he cannot remember what’s been said to him a couple of hours ago. The title alludes to the way his mind has ‘exploded’ across his council flat. Drako’s rooms are packed with home-made mobiles, as in paper ones that dangle on strings from the ceiling. There’s memos and ‘to do’ messages, along with photos from his own past. But the far more attention-grabbing ones are the expressions of that other, more resilient part of the mind that exists beyond memory – sexuality. Whether attached or unattached to handsome male bodies, or aroused or unaroused, images of men’s dangly bits dangle everywhere.

George Melly once said that the waning of his sexuality with old age was like being unchained from a madman. In Drako’s case, his accidents have already left him unchained from memory, so his sexual urges have instead become something to cling to, like a guide dog of naughtiness. One scene that gets the ICA audience laughing is the reaction of a teenage plumber’s apprentice to Drako’s décorations. It’s a twist on the storyline of old porn films: a plumber comes to install a new fridge. Only this is real life, and the plumber’s mate looks utterly terrified.

Drako himself appears nude towards the start of the film, sitting on Brighton beach and discussing his tattoos. As the opening credits roll, the director Toby Amies appears from behind the camera, revealing that he too is nude. This scene means that The Man Whose Mind Exploded has something in common with Monty Python’s Life of Brian. They are both films where the director’s bare bottom makes a cameo appearance.

* * *

Wednesday 18th June 2014. I walk through Jermyn Street. The metal studs on the wide stone window sills outside Tesco, intended (they say) to discourage the loitering of aggressive drunks, have now been removed, following a public outcry. This started with the circulation online of a photo of similar studs, installed outside a block of flats in Lambeth. They were referred to as ‘anti-homeless spikes’, and were used as evidence of London’s architecture hitting a new low.

This was despite that (a) they’re not sharp enough to be spikes, and (b) such studs have existed in London since the 1990s. But somehow there was something man-bites-dog about the issue, because the Lambeth photo went viral. The Jermyn Street studs quickly became highlighted too, then newspapers got involved, and then politicians got involved. Our beloved Mayor issued a public condemnation of the studs, though he did so while ordering some anti-riot water cannon in the same week.

The latest Big Issue cover reads ‘Still angry at the anti-homeless spikes? Buy this magazine.’ I buy my copy from the vendor outside Euston station (older man, weathered face, Scots accent). There are rows of studs there too, on the ledge of the Number One Euston office block. The Big Issue article explains how the tackling of homelessness is rather more complicated than just removing a few studs here and there. More money needs to be put into shelters, and more housing full stop needs to be made available to those in need, as opposed to those out to make money.

Still, the studs at Lambeth and Jermyn Street will not be  missed. As I pass the Tesco window sills today I see office workers and tourists sitting where the studs used to be, quietly eating their lunch.

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