At The Miniature Railway Cafe
Thursday 25th August 2016. London in hot weather. World of Shorts. And it is mainly men who go for shorts, too. Of the couples I see out today, it’s often the case that he is in shorts, but she is in trousers.
Notes on fragile masculinity. I buy some Boots No 7 moisturiser, and go for the version ‘For Men’. I do so because the box assures me it is specially made to accommodate stubble. When I get home, I realise it differs from the version for women in a more obvious way. The distaff moisturiser comes in a glass pot, which one simply opens up and dips one’s finger into. The men’s one, however, comes in a squat black pump with a spout. One has to push down hard on the spout until the moisturiser puts in an appearance. It is the most strenuous part of my daily routine. I feel like going on Dragon’s Den and pitching a moisturiser for men like me. Working title: Sissy No 7.
At the Thameslink section of Kentish Town station, I spot a security pass left on the platform. It looks like a fairly heavy duty one, with a thick magnetic base and a photo. The owner is a trader at Goldman Sachs. I’m about to hand it to the staff at the barriers, when I remember how long it’s taken for me in the past to retrieve possessions lost on the tube. Sometimes several weeks, including a trip to that great cave of abandoned umbrellas, the Baker Street Lost Property office.
The next day, propelled by the vanity which underscores so many good turns, I Google the trader’s name and call him at the Goldman Sachs office in Fleet Street. He says he does indeed want the pass back, and as soon as possible, and is very grateful. I tell him I’ll drop it off at his reception.
This proves to be slightly harder that I’d envisioned. To paraphrase Lord of the Rings, one does not simply walk into Goldman Sachs. They are one of those international corporations who exist in such a lofty world, they do not even announce their presence on the street. You have to know whose anonymous plate glass doors those are on Fleet Street, the ones with a security guard on the outside, standing on the street, as well as two further guards on the inside. And that’s before you even get near the reception desk. Such security is highly styled, too: large young men in large black suits, topped off with those earpieces with little coiled cables vanishing into the collar. It’s fair to say that when I arrive, I am viewed with suspicion.
I state my intention to the man on the street, doing my utmost to assure him that I am not some anti-capitalist activist, despite my slightly interesting hair. I am not trying to do a Michael Moore. Or, more recently, a Russell Brand. The guard is not convinced.
‘You can’t just… drop… something off here.’
But then I tell him that my package, such as it is, is merely one of their own passes, at which he lets me through the revolving doors. Then the two other security men standing inside challenge me, and I have to start my story again.
The receptionist gets a third version of my tale. She won’t let me leave the pass with her either, and insists on picking up the phone and trying to call the trader in question, to get him to come down. This takes some minutes before she says, ‘He isn’t available’. By this point I’m getting flustered, and am determined not to go away still clutching the wretched thing. So I grab a scrap of paper from my bag, write out my contact details, and give it to her along with the pass. She takes it from me with an expression of pure reluctance, as if I’d just handed her a pair of my underpants. But she does take it, and the pass, and I leave.
I had hoped to feel a wave of sainthood from this episode, but instead I just feel vaguely punished.
Saturday 27th August 2016. Mum in town for the day. We visit the exhibition Missoni Art Colour at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey. En route to the Museum, we get a little lost navigating the endless building works between London Bridge station and Guy’s Hospital. Many hoped-for shortcuts are closed off by the ubiquitous men in hard hats.
When passing such sites, my hope is always that the construction is for the public good, rather the private greed. Yet too often one looks up past the rising number of beggars sitting on the pavement – the other worrying side of London – to see a sign for luxury apartments. The redundancy of the word ‘luxury’ presumably lost on the developers. In Highgate, council letters alerting residents to disruptive planning permissions are becoming more frequent. Invariably, these are for private basement extensions. I’m so tempted to write in the comments, ‘Please ask the owner if the phrase, ‘I have enough’ has ever troubled their consciousness.’
At the Missoni show, the centrepiece is a display of decades of Missoni clothes, on some fifty or so mannequins, arranged on the steps of a pyramid. A number of them remind me of the Redford film of The Great Gatsby; a 1970s take on the 1920s.
Around the manniquins hang a selection of Ottavio Missoni’s abstract wall hangings, which are rather like the patchwork quilts Mum specialises in. Plenty of brightly coloured zigzags and stripes on show, as per the Missoni reputation. There’s also a small collection of postwar abstract paintings, by way of illustrating the label’s influences. One canvas stands out, ‘Spatial Structure in Tension’ (1952) by Nino Di Salvatore, a harmonious pattern of intersecting geometric shapes. Brightly coloured, of course.
Unusually, the museum allows photographs to be taken, and we regret not bringing our own devices. We are the only ones not taking photos. The shop sells a tote bag with the motto, ‘I Knit So I Won’t Kill People’.
Then to the new Tate Modern extension, Switch House. The main TM building has accordingly been renamed Boiler House. Switch House dwarves the original building, and includes a viewing platform at the top, where one can look down on the Tate Members bar. And indeed, right into the flats of the neighbouring tower blocks to the south. The north view across the Thames is stunning, however, with St Paul’s directly ahead.
We finish off with the BP Portrait Award at the NPG, which is packed. The usual prominence of family members and friends as subject matter, which I always find touching. We both like Karina In Her Raincoat, by Brian Sayers, where the coat dominates the frame. It should have won.
Monday 29th August 2016. To the Museum of London for the exhibition Fire! Fire!, which marks the anniversary of the Great Fire of London. It’s an extensive and spacious display, and is very much aimed at families. Lots for children to do: flaps to lift, buttons to press, clothes to dress up in, and at the end a set of wooden building blocks on a large table, with which to rebuild the razed capital. The children I see seem particularly drawn to the blocks, which I find cheering. How I miss that childhood capacity to happily build and make things, solid things, from blocks to Lego. Resentment was reserved for tidying one’s room, or writing thank you letters, or going to bed early. Never for making things.
I suppose my creative play these days is writing. The trouble is I subscribe to the Dorothy Parker quote, only enjoying writing when it’s finished, and resenting it when I’m doing it.
Evening: to the Barbican to see the film David Brent – Life on the Road. I was such an admirer of Mr Gervais’s series The Office. I loved how it took the TV sitcom format into a new phase, playing with the trend for docu-soaps and reality TV, while updating the eternal comedic themes of delusion and embarrassment. It was also one of the few British comedies to be successfully adapted in the US. Americans do social awkwardness too, just on a wider frequency: a more open and expressive kind of cringing. And of course, they do it through a lot more episodes.
Well, sadly, the golden touch of Ricky Gervais has manifestly dimmed. This belated big screen spin-off featuring the main character from the British Office isn’t a patch on either of the two TV series. Admittedly, there’s one or two funny moments, and Gervais’s performance is still entertaining enough – I love how his jaw hangs open when he’s annoyed. But the overall impression is that the character has simply run out of mileage.
It doesn’t help that none of the other characters from The Office are here: no Tim, Dawn or Gareth, not even a cameo from Stephen Merchant. Perhaps this was a deliberate move to resist the current vogue for reuniting old cast members as if they were rock bands (Cold Feet being the latest TV series to do this). Regardless, this new film proves that The Office was a classic because of the ensemble, not just the frontman.
Wednesday 31st August 2016. Filming in Meard Street for some sort of documentary. I say a few words about dandyism in front of Sebastian Horsley’s old flat. Barima Edusei is with me, having invited me along when I bumped into him on the tube the other day. GQ and River Island are apparently involved, though I get the sense that my existence is as baffling to them as theirs is to me. Still, I use my phrase about a dandy being in ‘a subculture of one’, which I’m reasonably proud of.
Later on I’m back in the British Library reading an essay by Michael Bracewell. He uses the word ‘dandy’ to describe the singer with The Fall, Mark E Smith. Much as I admire his music, the unremarkably-dressed Mr Smith wouldn’t be in my own list of examples of dandies. Still, it shows how elastic the term can be.
Friday 2nd September 2016. Dennis Cooper has commented on the documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story. I remember that at the time the ‘hoax’ was exposed, he shrugged and said something along the lines of ‘sometimes it’s okay to be fooled’. This was very good of him, given he was one of the writers used as stepping-stones for LeRoy / Laura Albert’s rise to literary fame.
In his blog though, he’s changed his tune: ‘I really hated [Author]. It’s a totally superficial whitewash that treats Laura Albert like she’s some kind of kooky folk hero instead of as the psychopathic, destructive user that she is. I regret allowing the director to interview me for it.’ (from the P.S. section of denniscooperblog.com, entry dated 29 August 2016).
I don’t think Author is a whitewash entirely: there’s several times when Ms Albert goes on the defensive, at the cost to her credibility. Her compulsion to record all her private phone calls is hardly a loveably ‘kooky’ trait either. But I’m fascinated with the way this shows how documentaries seduce the viewer into swallowing one version of the truth, one which its own interviewees might disagree with.
The analytical rule about asking ‘who gets to speak’ should also include ‘who gets to speak, but wishes they hadn’t?’
Saturday 3rd September 2016. My 45th birthday. I have a tradition of spending my birthday going somewhere I’ve not been before. Some location I’ve always meant to visit, but never got around to. Birthdays do come around, as much as we’d like them not to. So I mollify the unpleasant reminder that one is even older, with a celebration of still being alive at all. If your eyes still work, give them new sights to look at. If your legs still work, walk to somewhere you’ve never been before. Above all, give thanks.
Today I get around to visiting Ruislip Lido. Which is really a large lake which was once a reservoir, with woodlands at one end and a beach at the other. Except the beach is more of a huge artificial sandpit doing an impersonation of a beach. The water is usually not clean enough to swim in, as indicated by a red flag outside the beach café. Children can still splash about on land, though: the beach has a large area of playground equipment, with a couple of water jets in the shape of animals.
I have breakfast in the café, then take a journey on the Ruislip Lido Railway, ‘Britain’s Longest 12 Gauge Railway’. It travels through the woods and around to the other side of the lake, ending at the Turntable Tea Room near the main road. The Tea Room has its own toy railway that whizzes around the walks. So I step off a small train to meet an even smaller one.
There’s something spooky yet attractive about cafes built to serve miniature railways: I think of the one at Dungeness, where Derek Jarman would go for fish and chips.
Afternoon: to Somerset House with Atalanta K, Debbie Smith and Soirai, for the exhibition Bjork – Digital.
The Bjork exhibition is a good example of first rate content hampered by its presentation. Visitors are herded from room to room on a timed basis, and are told to put on virtual reality headsets at each stage. All very well, except that sometimes the headsets don’t work, or they flicker on and off, or it’s not clear how to use them. Too bad if this happens, as one is soon marshaled out into the next room, and can’t come back to try again.
In one of the rooms, I stand with the VR headset on for a full minute looking at a square oblong which doesn’t seem to be doing much. It’s only then that I realise this is actually the menu screen of the software. I have to turn my head around within the digital world to see Bjork standing behind me, singing away while rendered as a glittering CGI moth goddess. I do my best to move around and enjoy the show, but am a little hampered by fears of throttling myself with the cable.
It also doesn’t help that two rooms of ‘interactive’ instruments are just sitting there, without captions or instructions of any kind. As it is, I don’t want to ‘interact’ musically with Bjork anyway. Too much like audience participation. Or Tom Sawyer and the white fence.
The best exhibits are ‘Black Lake’, where one doesn’t have to wear headsets at all. A split-screen video of the singer is projected across two opposite walls of a black room, with a surround-sound audio track encouraging you to approach different walls at different times. The other highlight is ‘Stonemilker’, where the VR world is a real Icelandic beach. You can turn fully around on the beach, and look up and down. Bjork splits into several clones of herself while dancing around you on the shingle.
Despite the Digital title of the show, the attached gift shop mainly sells Bjork’s back catalogue on vinyl. I haven’t succumbed to buying one of the new post-digital (and affordable) turntables just yet; I like the convenience of iTunes too much. But only on vinyl does one truly see that Bjork’s album sleeves are artworks in their own right.
Evening: My plans for a vegetarian meal for Team Bjork take a knock when the Coach and Horses in Greek Street closes its kitchen unexpectedly. We try Mildred’s in Lexington St, but it’s rammed full. To make things worse, it is now pouring with rain. I have my linen trousers drenched in Lexington Street when a passing car hits a puddle.
But things improve. Debbie takes a chance on Jane-Tira, a Thai street food place at 28 Brewer Street, which turns out to be perfect. Not too packed, friendly staff, delicious food. And my trousers dry quickly, barely leaving a mark. Either London rainwater is cleaner than one thinks, or my suit really is like the one in The Man In The White Suit.
Afterwards, a short spell in The Friendly Society (pleasant kitschy night spot, but too busy), then to the Curzon Soho downstairs bar for a quiet after dinner drink. It must be one of the few places in central London where one can go on a Saturday night and (a) sit down, (b) get a drink without queuing, and (c) hear oneself think. As long as it’s before 11pm.
A present from Debbie and Atalanta: Carl Wilson’s book Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. The title is after the Celine Dion album. Looks fun, and might well be useful for my MA research into taste, kitsch and camp.
Sunday 4th September 2016. To Strawberry Hill House near Twickenham, with Fenella Hitchcock. Another one of those day trips on my To Do list. The visit necessitates a train from Waterloo into Zone 5, taking thirty minutes or so. Then a short walk through some immaculately tidy suburban streets, and past St Mary’s University, which looks more like a modern upper school.
Again, I’m driven by ideas of taste. Strawberry Hill was the Georgian home of Horace Walpole, author of The Castle of Otranto, which he had remodelled into an ostentatious Gothic Revival palace. The visit comes with a pocket guide that rather neatly quotes Walpole’s own guide, but then augments his text with modern postscripts. Most of the time, the commentary is about what objects and paintings used to be there, until a grand auction in the 19th century. But the architecture and restored décor is more than enough for a visit, with cathedral-like fireplaces and ceilings, trompe l’oeil wallpaper, and best of all the crimson damask walls in the long, red and gold Gallery.
Monday 5th September 2016. I finish Nutshell, the new novel by Ian McEwan. It’s a high concept work, doubly so. Not only is it a tale told from the point of view of an unborn foetus, but the tale in question is a contemporary retelling of Hamlet. Gertrude becomes the pregnant ‘Trudy’, while bad uncle Claude becomes Claude the ruthless London property developer.
One of the archer pleasures of the book is that the foetal narrator has an impossibly educated and snobbish voice, commenting with expert knowledge on the quality of the wine he ingests in utero, via Trudy. The only jarring moment is when one passage betrays the author’s position on the issue of today’s students. The narrator views them as obsessed with fluid identities and un-fluid offensiveness, and goes into an extended rant that only makes sense if it’s the author, rather than his character:
‘A strange mood has seized the almost-educated young… They’re on the march, angry at times, but mostly needful, longing for authority’s blessing, its validation of their chosen identities… If I turn out to be white, I may identify as black… Offended, I enter a state of grace. Should inconvenient opinions hover near me, I’ll be in need of the special campus safe room… Let poverty go begging and climate change braise in hell. If my college does not validate me, I’ll press my face into the vice chancellor’s lapels and weep. Then demand his resignation… Feeling is queen. Unless she identifies as king.’
All very witty and topical. He’s entitled to his stance, of course, but I wish that Mr McEwan hadn’t come down on the side of the Grumpy Old Novelists. Too easy, too obvious. Regardless, whatever one’s position on the matter, this section demonstrably smacks of a lack of research, and that is not like Mr McEwan at all. If Nutshell was a debut novel from an unknown author, I suspect the publisher would recommend cutting this section altogether.
But that’s my only reservation. Elsewhere, I like his summation of reasons to stay alive to the end of the 21st century, viewing the world as one great gripping narrative:
‘Will its nine billion heroes scrape through without a nuclear exchange? Might Islam dip a feverish extremity in the cooling pond of reformation?’
It’s as good a message for turning 45 as any. Wanting to find out what happens next.
, david brent life on the road
, dennis cooper
, Fashion and Textile Museum
, ian mcewan
, JT LeRoy
, Missoni Art Colour
, museum of london
, ruislip lido
, somerset house
, tate modern
It’s The Most Schizophrenic Time Of The Year
Saturday 24th October 2015.
Ed Sheeran is one of the biggest rock stars of the moment, yet he seems to evince no traits of ego or megalomania whatsoever. There doesn’t seem to be a single photo of him in existence where he doesn’t look like a competition winner.
* * *
I give another tour of the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities. Some of the visitors have come for the Sebastian Horsley ‘Dandies Corner’ display, to my delight, as that’s where I feel the most knowledgeable. There’s now a single lipstick smear on the glass of the Horsley case, in the fashion of the lipstick marks on the Oscar Wilde tomb.
Sunday 25th October 2015.
Modern language. A phrase being bandied by some disability campaigners is ‘inspiration porn’’. This denotes the packaging of a personal struggle, such as in a TV programme, primarily to tug at the heartstrings, rather than raise awareness. It follows on from ‘poverty porn’, to describe shows like Benefits Street. There’ll be ‘sex porn’ next.
* * *
I read the latest Ian McEwan novel, The Children Act. Like Saturday, I wince at the author’s love of privileged protagonists with central London homes and top professional jobs – a High Court female judge in this case – and the main young character seems impossibly idealised. But his prose style still impresses: a clear and controlled flow which completely draws the reader in.
Meanwhile, Mr McEwan’s chum Martin Amis is in the Sunday Times, penning an attack on Jeremy Corbyn. The piece is meant to be scathing, but Amis uses imagery that inadvertently appeals. Because of his ‘incurious domesticity’, he says, Corbyn is like a ‘marmalade cat’. It’s like the time in the 90s when John Major said Labour and taxes went together like ‘strawberries and cream’. The negative sentiment is eclipsed by an entirely pleasant image.
* * *
Monday 26th October 2015.
MA class at Birkbeck, on Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Lecture by Hallvard Haug. The novel’s suitability becomes evident in the seminar: the more we discuss it, the more we realise it covers a rich variety of contemporary themes. Environmentalism, fundamentalism, feminism, globalisation, trauma, literary genres – it’s all there. A good, all-purpose novel.
* * *
Tuesday 27th October 2015.
Some unexpected praise this week. One is my inclusion in a list of ‘Top 5 pop lyricists of all time’, by La JohnJoseph, at the Dandy Dicks website. It’s a site that features erotica, though the article in question is clean enough: https://dandydicks.com/blog-entry/lyricism. ‘Dickon Edwards – ‘The only man living with any real right to call himself both a flaneur and a dandy’.
I also receive a lengthy email from a young man in Baltimore, who only stumbled on the blog this year: ‘Thank you for existing – You have restored my faith in so many things’.
Plus a handwritten letter from a reader on a Scottish island, who took comfort from my entry about my father. When her own mother died, she dug it out of the archives to re-read.
I’m grateful for these responses. Too often it can feel like no one’s reading, and too often I wonder if I should continue.
* * *
Wednesday 28th October 2015.
A visit to the Foundling Museum, in Brunswick Square. The museum tells the story of the Founding Hospital, which cared for abandoned children and orphans. Though it turns out that the story is more complicated than I’d thought. By the mid-19th century, the demand for admittance was so high that the Hospital had to implement a ‘petition’ system, where the mother had to prove she had been ‘seduced’, which often meant raped, or ‘abandoned’. The idea of single parent families was so shameful that many women give up their children to institutions like the FH, rather than raise them on their own. There’s a temporary exhibition, The Fallen Woman, which focuses on these women’s stories, while the permanent collection portrays the children. A sound installation by Steve Lewinson features the mothers’ petitions read out by actresses like Maxine Peake and Ruth Jones.
I really like the café’s mural, Superman Was A Foundling by Lemn Sissay. The walls are covered in statements about the foundling status of so many characters from popular culture. From Harry Potter to Snow White to Wolverine to Sophie Fevvers, as in the heroine of Angela Carter’s Nights At The Circus. Two characters are illustrated by logos between the café windows: the ‘S’ symbol of Superman, and a dragon tattoo, for Lisbeth Salander.
* * *
Thursday 29th October 2015.
I meet Ms Atalanta for a drink in the Marlborough Arms, in Bloomsbury. The pub is a favourite with students from the nearby colleges. Many students in Halloween fancy dress tonight, two days before the 31st. A party of young men are in animal ‘onesies’, while a group of girls are dressed as characters from Scooby Doo, with one as the titular dog. The pub décor is somewhat schizophrenic in its festive theme: there’s Christmas presents and a Santa Claus cut-out in one corner (with a sign, ‘Book Now For Christmas Dinner’), alongside Halloween pumpkins, skeletons and cobwebs.
We walk to King’s Cross and decide on another drink while waiting for Ms A’s train. Really, thought, it’s an excuse for me to show her The Parcel Yard pub at one end of the revamped station. This in is the former King’s Cross postal sorting office. There’s stripped wooden floors, white-painted dividing walls, old railway signs that manage to be tasteful rather than twee, and an interior covered courtyard with potted trees. Plenty of alcoves and small rooms in which to feel safe – this way, no single loutish party can dominate the whole bar. The pub is right by the Harry Potter embedded trolley, yet it doesn’t feel too tourist-heavy, or even too commuter-heavy.
* * *
Friday 30th October 2015.
To the Tottenham Court Road Odeon with Jon S, to see Spectre, the new James Bond film. I miss the jokier, almost Carry On-like aspect of the Bond films in the past. In one of the Roger Moore films, there’s a moment following a punch-up in an exotic den, where a belly dancer bemoans the loss of a diamond. ‘I’ve lost my charm!’ she wails. ‘Not from where I’m standing,’ says Moore, straightening his tie.
This sort of thing was attempted more recently with the Piers Brosnan films – where strained innuendos were exchanged with the likes of Madonna – but the tiredness of the style was showing. It made perfect sense to move on to a more gritty, realistic approach, with a suitably serious actor in charge. So enter Mr Craig. This means that the violence that would have been read as jokey in the old days (such as Sean Connery and the laser beam) is now made all too believable and unpleasant – one scene in Spectre with Craig strapped to a chair is particularly wince-inducing. I also feel Lea Seydoux’s character here, though nicely acted, is a touch too youthful for the forty-something Craig. Far more interesting are his earlier romantic scenes with Monica Bellucci, who is not only closer to his age, but has more chemistry. Otherwise, the action set-pieces are breathtaking without being banal, the globe-trotting locations dazzle, and the tailoring of the menswear is immaculate. All the male characters, even the absolute thugs, somehow manage to stop off between punch-ups to collect a fresh new ensemble, clean and pressed. The Bond world may be less jokey, but it is still steeped in wish-fulfilment.
* * *
, foundling museum
, ian mcewan
, Martin Amis
, readers responses
The Secret Of Nerve
Saturday 18th April 2015.
Revising one essay while starting the research on another. I’m rather looking forward to the time when I don’t have to think about essays (May 8th). And indeed when this diary won’t be such a strain to write, because I’ll finally manage to do other things, rather than sit and stare at books and screens quite so often. And yet I look around on Tube trains and in cafes and so much daily life is just that: people staring at books (or newspapers) and screens.
* * *
Sunday 19th April 2015.
Bump into some fellow BA English students near the main library, and relish the chance to join them for some food at Leon on Tottenham Court Road. One is doing his dissertation on Roberto Bolano. As a result he’s had to study Bolano’s novel 2666, an absolute doorstopper at over a thousand pages long. ‘It is good, though’.
* * *
Monday 20th April 2015.
In the British Library. Busy in the café areas, but I still have no trouble finding an empty desk in the Rare Books reading room. Possibly because I always use the designated pencil and paper-only area, where laptops are banned. I’m not much of a regular, but two staffers recognise me. When it comes to my turn at the issue desk, I am greeted with a cheery ‘Mr Edwards’!
* * *
Tuesday 21st April 2015.
The penultimate class for the USA culture module. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Tutor: Anna Hartnell. Classroom: G01, in the knocked-through labyrinth of 43 Gordon Square. My last class in the building, in fact. More students turn up than Anna expects – after all, it’s the time of year when students have a swamp of deadlines and revision. But a healthy amount arrive, keen perhaps, like me, to add some structure to an otherwise vague timetable. McCarthy’s subtle tricks impress: the careful elision of apostrophes for some words, but not others, the avoidance of brand names in a post-apocalyptic America, except for two mentions of Coca-Cola. I was going to watch the film version after reading the book, but I couldn’t face going through such a grim story all over again.
* * *
Wednesday 22nd April 2015.
Astonished myself by cramming in more work than usual. Finished and delivered the penultimate essay (the post-9/11 meaning of masks in The Dark Knight and In The Shadow of No Towers), finished the last set text (Toni Morrison’s Home), sent off the MA application, wrote a draft supporting statement for the bursaries, and went to the last seminar for the post-war module. Ian McEwan’s First Love Last Rites, plus a short story, ‘Running Down’, by M John Harrison. Roger Luckhurst is quite scathing about later McEwan books, but praises the earlier, creepier fiction to the hilt. He also gives the course a general summing-up, arguing that there is no such thing as a post-WW2 canon of literature. No definitive and essential authors, like Dickens or Shakespeare are for their eras. He reminds us that Brideshead Revisited is still a controversial choice: many tutors won’t touch it. And yet it’s popular with the students, and from all backgrounds too. What the naysayers of Brideshead overlook is that, despite all the snobbery and wistful idealisation, it has two of the best characters in twentieth century literature: Sebastian Flyte and Anthony Blanche. All else can be forgiven.
* * *
Friday 24th April 2015.
To the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley for The Falling, the new film by Carol Morley. I loved her very original documentaries, The Alcohol Years and Dreams of A Life, and was curious to see what she would do with a fictional narrative. As per those two earlier films this one has the theme of wary, detached and mysterious girls, out of step with the world. In The Alcohol Years the mysterious girl was Ms Morley’s own younger self – she couldn’t remember her club-going past. Dreams of A Life told the sad story of an amateur singer who died alone in a North London flat – not so far from here – and no one even noticed she was missing for years.
The Falling is inspired by real accounts of unexplained mass faintings at girls’ schools, but here it’s entwined with metaphors for budding sexuality and the defiance of adults. It’s also an impressionistic art piece, covering the inherent surrealism of the teenage condition, and depicting the way intense friendships are made all the more intense by a single-sex environment. On top of that, it’s set in the 1960s, so there’s a sense of the whole world being on the cusp of change, albeit in the background. The atmosphere of the film is oneiric, hallucinogenic, and often puzzling. I know Maisie Williams is already a star from Game of Thrones, but this film puts her striking presence to proper use – with her thick eyebrows and owlish little face, she can be at turns witchy or ordinary, but always magnetic. Florence Pugh, her blonde best friend, has a very 60s face, like a teenage Shirley Eaton.
The Falling’s aesthetic influences are clear: Picnic At Hanging Rock (especially on the film poster – vintage schoolgirls in an outdoor drawing class), If…., Heavenly Creatures, The Virgin Suicides and possibly Jonathan Miller’s 1960s Alice In Wonderland (all favourites of mine). But as the film goes on it feels a lot more personal and unique. Full of images that linger in the mind afterwards. And a strong example of that rare thing in cinema – the female gaze. Not just the director, but all the assistant directors and much of the production crew are female.
* * *
Today’s good news is that Birkbeck have offered me a place on their MA course in Contemporary Literature & Culture. Barely two days after I sent off the application, too – my referees must have been prompt. I’ve accepted, in a pencilling-in sort of way, as it’s conditional on my getting at least a 2.2 on the BA (the result due in mid-July). And then there’s the rather trickier matter of getting funding for the fees: something I’m currently working on.
But for now, it’s back to the BA for two more weeks, with an essay on Angela Carter. I’m discussing The Passion of New Eve, along with her somewhat less examined radio play on Firbank, A Self-Made Man. Always with one eye on the gap on the bookshelf. And yet my best essay was for The Picture of Dorian Gray. No shortage of writing about that! Somehow I still found something new to say.
This is something I must remember, really, for the next time I worry that a subject has been done to death. A subject, perhaps. Your own take, never. The secret is so simple. Nerve.
, carol morley
, cormac mccarthy
, ian mcewan
, the falling
, the road
The Thick Of It
Oh dear, it’s been too long since I wrote in here. I got ill, then I got better, but then I got lazy. And then I got hooked on Twitter. Twitter is a real sapper of the writing urge: you have something to say? You Tweet it. There, all done. Except it’s no good if you have something to say that you want people to actually read. It goes, it vanishes, and on top of it all, it probably needed more than 140 characters. And yet, it’s the big party where people are always at – just a click away. Hard to resist.
(you can find me there on @dickon_edwards. Nag me to write a new blog entry if you do)
Well, I’m now a degree student of English Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. It’s Week 3 of the Autumn term. As well as the proper classes on Monday and Tuesday evenings I’ve also signed up for workshops and mini-courses on Study Skills, plus training sessions for various degree-helping software packages. All of which is free, so it seemed best to take advantage.
Because of these extra classes, and my own slow progress in learning how to process textbooks quickly and efficiently, what’s really meant to be a part-time student timetable has pretty much expanded into full-time status. Just as well I don’t have very much else going on.
The plan is to turn myself into a good Part-Time Academic, then when I’m confident enough, I switch the student work to proper part-time hours and sort out the whole Earning Money part alongside it. Ideally, some sort of part-time job involving the college (they have a careers guidance department) or writing for hire, or editing. Or even teaching. I’ve done a little of helping foreign students polish up their English grammar in their essays, so that’s one possible path.
As it is, it doesn’t seem to be the best time for finding paid work right now. Even people who seek conventional work – as opposed to dizzy bohemians like me – are finding it hard.
A friend that I used to work with at the news clippings office recently remarked, ‘It’s actually good that there are people like you who aren’t trying very hard to get work. Because that means that people like me who really need the jobs – people with families and children and mortgages – can have them instead of you.’
He was half-joking. And half not-joking. But there is this acute sense of there being a dwindling amount of paid work out there, each position chased by dozens, sometimes hundreds of other people. And I know that for most conventional jobs I’m just not that one perfect candidate, the one that’s better than all the others.
Friends have told me that I have the air of an eccentric tutor as it is, so I should at least give the academia path a decent go. I do know that I definitely want a degree in English Literature. That, and to publish a novel. As ambitions go between now and the grave, that really is it. But at least that’s an improvement on recent years: two more than none at all.
Oh, and I’d also like to lose my gin-gut. Have to lay off the Sainsbury’s Flapjack Bites for a while.
The first year of the four-year course is spent in ‘foundation’ mode. This means none of the exercises and exams count towards the final degree grade. It’s a sort of training year, shaping the mind into an academic style of thinking, making your mistakes first and being allowed to make them.
In this initial year, I have to do three modules at the same time: one on the nature of reading (mainly via poetry), one on critical methods (via literary theory), and – best of all – one on London In Literature.
In my non-studying time I find myself drawn to articles on literacy and books and reading as it is – tonight’s Booker Prize announcement, for instance. I follow debates on e-books, on library closures, on book adaptations, on genre versus literary novels, on bestseller lists, all of it. So doing the English course feels like a formal justification of my own current passions. Now I’ve started a degree in the stuff, I feel in the thick of it, rather than worrying if I’m thick.
Tonight was the first seminar on the latter module: the theme of the city in Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Not a book I care for as a general reader – there’s an awful lot of deference to Mrs Dalloway, and rather too much squash playing and brain surgery for my taste – but as a literary response to London life after 9/11 (and crucially, before 7/7), it’s essential.
What’s particularly satisfying is that the Birkbeck classes are held in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, in a building where Virginia Woolf once lived (she’s very much on the reading list), and a few blocks away from the main locations in Saturday – Fitzroy Square, University Street, the BT Tower.
Even though Saturday divides readers, including McEwan fans, there’s plenty of passages that have sceptics punching the air in support of literature, if punching the air is your sort of thing:
Standing here, as immune to the cold as a marble statue, gazing towards Charlotte Street, towards a foreshortened jumble of facades, scaffolding and pitched roofs, Henry thinks the city is a success, a brilliant invention, a biological masterpiece—millions teeming around the accumulated and layered achievements of the centuries, as though around a coral reef, sleeping, working, entertaining themselves, harmonious for the most part, nearly everyone wanting it to work. And the Perownes’ own corner, a triumph of congruent proportion; the perfect square laid out by Robert Adam enclosing a perfect circle of garden—an eighteenth-century dream bathed and embraced by modernity, by street light from above, and from below by fibre-optic cables, and cool fresh water coursing down pipes, and sewage borne away in an instant of forgetting.
– Ian McEwan, ‘Saturday’ (2005), p 5
By way of a companion to Saturday, I read Nicola Barker’s Clear (2004) immediately afterwards. Both are literary novels based around real-life London events in 2003: McEwan takes the march against the Iraq war in February, while Barker takes David Blaine’s ‘Above The Below’ stunt in September.
But whereas McEwan’s novel is a studied, calm string of Modernist musings from a responsible, middle-aged brain surgeon; Clear is a skittish, fidgety, giddy account of a young, slightly pretentious GLA worker who befriends a shoe-obsessed woman at the base of the Blaine event. It’s teeming with tangents and random references to pop culture, including Ian McEwan’s Comfort Of Strangers, where a couple on holiday are drugged and tortured by two seemingly friendly strangers:
‘She just Ian McEwaned you, man, and you’re still none the wiser!’
– Nicola Barker, ‘Clear’ (2004), p 51
Aside from turning a fellow novelist into a verb, I also loved Ms Barker’s description of the GLA building:
…a huge grey-green-glass Alessi milk-jug of a structure (a tipsy fat penguin): the Greater London Authority Building…
– ‘Clear’, p 8
And I thought, does the GLA building really look like a ‘tipsy fat penguin’? Really?
Oh yes! It really does.
Not the sort of thing Mr McEwan would come up with, but it’s closer to my own askew way of thinking.
Tags: english degree
, ian mcewan
, nicola barker