Italo Calvino Prats About
Saturday 4th June 2016. More clearing out. I find some 1970s issues of Puffin Post, the magazine of the Puffin Books children’s club. There’s accounts of events like an audience with Tove Jansson, held for children (‘Did you know I have my own island?’ These days the adult Jansson fan’s response would be ‘Yes, yes, we do.’). I have a feeling the British Library has a run of copies with gaps. Mustn’t throw any of these out without checking with them first.
O, the thin line between archiving and hoarding. Must keep some things, can’t keep everything. I find a good tip is to write down in one’s diary what one throws out, as in the more notes-based diary I keep in school exercise books.
Also jettisoned: mid-1990s address books. I glimpse a phone number for the House of Kenickie in Camden, a mews pad where all the band lived together, not unlike the Monkees. And a number for David Walliams in his pre-Little Britain days. Both would have been circa 1996, both are landlines, with mobiles still in the future – just. Even the London dialling codes are obsolete: 0171, rather than 020.
To date this further: I think the first mobile I perused was shown to me around the same time, by Sarah from Dubstar. It was in the Good Mixer, too, that ne plus ultra of Britpop locations.
Another memory from a few years earlier: an unkind news report in an early 90s music paper. David Gedge of the Wedding Present seen using – O horrors! – a mobile phone at a music festival. The caption implied that this was evidence he’d sold out. Today, in the film Green Room, the retrieval of a rock band’s iPhone triggers the whole plot.
I have my hair cut on Archway Road: £13.50, including tip. Cropped short to the roots, which seem to be darker than ever. Then I re-bleach it myself with a £5 kit, until 90 minutes are up, or when my scalp is aflame in agony. Whichever happens first.
I read Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (1979). It has so many of the things I believe in: humour, experimentation, daring, skittishness, and a sense of all things being possible. If there is a shortcoming, perhaps it is a lack of full engagement with the characters. But that’s the price of all the fragmentation and, well, all the pratting about. Or as they say in universities, all the ludic discursiveness.
David Mitchell has cited the novel as an inspiration for Cloud Atlas, except that where Calvino keeps starting new stories, Mitchell goes back and gives each of his tales an ending. The current paperback edition of Calvino makes this link, too, with a quote on the back reading Breathtakingly inventive – David Mitchell’.
Actually, this doesn’t specify which David Mitchell. To say the David Mitchell is no good. There’s nothing to stop this back cover quote being not from the literary novelist but from the one off the TV, the actor from Peep Show and Upstart Crow and panel games. Or perhaps it’s another David Mitchell, one who isn’t either of these two, but who is a Calvino fan. It’d be a very Calvino-esque move for a publisher to find such a man and quote him instead.
In the novel, Calvino’s list of books in a bookshop is honest and funny:
‘Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First’
‘Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered’
‘Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They Come Out in Paperback’
‘Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them’.
The last category is the one that always confronts me. Indeed, it includes the other works of Calvino.
Sunday 5th June 2016. To the Lexington in Pentonville Road for a gig by Blindness, with Debbie Smith on guitar. They announce it as the band’s last show: singer Beth is moving to a different country. Debbie wears a vintage flat cap, waistcoat and matching trousers. ‘I’ve just realised what this look is called,’ says at the microphone. ‘Peaky Blindness’.
Tuesday 7th June 2016. Evening: To the ICA for The Measure of A Man. £3. A contemporary French film that fits neatly with the current celebration of Ken Loach, given it’s about a man struggling to make ends meet during unemployment. It’s also filmed in a very naturalistic style – even more so than Loach. The dialogue, which must be based on improvisation, frequently goes into bursts of repetition, where people say the same things to each other over and over again. This is the way conversations go in real life, of course, but it’s so tricky to do this on screen without boring the audience rigid. That the film manages to carry this off is, I think, partly thanks to the charisma of the main actor, who mopes around under a moustache that rather recalls a French Bernard Hill. Les Garcons Du Black Stuff. Another reason is the use of footage from supermarket security cameras, where a desperate security guard is forced to spy on other desperate people. It’s CCTV as reality TV, where poverty and spectacle collide.
Wednesday 8th June 2016. Evening: to Victoria Park in Hackney Wick. This is for the launch of Travis Elborough’s latest book, A Walk In the Park, on the history of public gardens. I get a copy, and am flattered to find myself in the thanks list at the back. It’s billed as ‘everything about parks from Gilgamesh to Gary Numan’. I check: there really is a fair bit about Gary Numan in there.
I’ve never been to Victoria Park before, and am fascinated with the two stone alcoves that can be found near the east gate, surreally plonked on the grass. They’re labelled as alcoves from the old London Bridge, which is a nice coincidence, given the bridge was the subject of TE’s last book. That said, Travis himself goes on to tell me that there’s a chance the alcoves are from the old Westminster bridge instead.
The book launch is at the sleek and trendy Hub building in the middle of the park. It’s a warm day, and we sip wine outside, our view of the park somewhat obscured by the long fence of green hoarding that encloses the Field Day festival site. I see from the posters that the headline act will be PJ Harvey – and I suddenly remember how that was first the name of the band, rather than the singer.
Further drinks afterwards, at the People’s Park Tavern, walking into the tail end of the pub quiz. I open a door and suddenly met with an amplified voice: ‘What colour is Marge Simpson’s dress?’. Over drinks, a discussion about camp and indie music leads to the theory that Morrissey found the photos for several Smiths sleeves from the same book, Philip Core’s Camp – The Lie That Tells The Truth. Then I stagger home via Homerton, and think of the way that station lends itself to Simpsons jokes.
Friday 10th June 2016. To the Bishopsgate Institute – first visited as a child for a Puffin Club show. Today I’m here too see the display on Lady Malcolm’s Servants Ball. This was the notorious series of parties at the Royal Albert Hall in the 1920s and 30s, ostensibly intended to let servants and gentry dance in fancy dress together. Its atmosphere of rule-breaking en masse soon led it to be associated with the London gay and lesbian scene, such as it was back then. The later tickets to the balls carried a statement that gave away what had been going on: ‘No man impersonating a woman will be admitted’. It must have helped that Jeanne Malcolm, the aristocrat who hosted the events, had an official name that sounded like a cross-dressing act in itself – Lady Malcolm.
Evening: To Birkbeck Cinema in Gordon Square for an event about the science of stage magic. It includes a free screening of The Prestige, as in the Christopher Nolan Noughties thriller about Victorian magicians, which I’ve not seen till now. The film is superb. It makes the link between the masculine world of magic tricks, and Nolan’s recurring themes of male obsession and confusion. There’s one key scene where Christian Bale’s character performs his ‘Transported Man’ trick for the first time. Nolan suddenly cuts away from the climax of the trick – the ‘prestige’ section – and has the characters narrate what happened instead. It’s a disorientating device that Nolan uses in all his films, but in this case it also stops the audience guessing the big twist at the end.
There’s then a talk on the science of misdirection by an academic from Goldsmith’s. He is a practitioner of magic himself, and performs a couple of the classics: the one with the rope cut into three pieces, and the one with the three cups and three little balls. I surprise myself at being delighted by his sleight of hand. Perhaps it’s the way that stage magic allows adults to tap into a pure form of wonder, the kind not felt since childhood.
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, christopher nolan
, david mitchell
, italo calvino
, lady malcolm's servants ball
, puffin post
, the measure of a man
, the prestige
, travis elborough
The Line of Bottom
Monday 30th May 2016. I enjoy the new BBC film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as adapted by Russell T Davies. Maxine Peake is Titania, Matt Lucas is Bottom. Both are perfectly cast. Ms Peake already has that angular face one finds in Victorian paintings of fairies, while Mr Lucas brings cuddliness to the pompous Bottom even before he acquires the ass’s head (and then he really is cuddly, like a giant soft toy).
It’s made with the same team as Mr Davies’s Doctor Who productions, the ones with Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant. I’d say it’s especially like the Davies mini-series just before that: the David Tennant Casanova. It’s that same feeling of a fizzy, dressed-up world operating on a line of tension, with a progressive approach at one end – deliberate anachronisms, multi-ethnic casting, gay characters – and an embracing of popular entertainment at the other. This latest take on Shakespeare went out at 8.30pm on BBC1, so it had to appeal to as many people as possible. Yet it still had Davies’s personal vision at its heart: a world where fascist flags are ripped up into party decorations, where love comes in all shapes and sizes, and everyone dances to Bernard Cribbins singing ‘It Was A Lover And His Lass’. Can’t argue with that.
For all the liberties taken with the story – such as Theseus as a fascist dictator with an iPad – it’s difficult to say it’s any more radical than an average modern stage production. Since I visited the British Library’s Shakespeare exhibition, I’ve been reading about the Peter Brook 1970 RSC Dream, with its minimalist white squash court, stilts and trapezes. Birkbeck Library has two books about that production alone: a detailed making-of account by David Selbourne, and an RSC script with all the stage directions, where one can study Brook’s decisions line-by-line. His Bottom, for instance, merely gains a red nose when transformed by Puck. If a modern production has Bottom with ass’s ears, as in the BBC one, it’s still more traditional than Brook.
In the press there was a slight fuss about the BBC Titania kissing Hippolyta. This is nothing new. I read that the current Globe production of Midsummer Night’s Dream has Helena as a gay man called Helenus, with Demetrius as his lover in denial. The Globe’s previous Dream three years ago had Puck and Oberon passionately kissing. That particular Puck was played by Matthew Tennyson, a very pretty young man who happens to be a descendent of the Tennyson. He now pops up in the BBC film as Lysander, with a pair of glasses that rather makes him resemble Harry Potter. I read that as a deliberate nod to the way Shakespeare has direct links to popular culture now. If it uses the English language, it’s connected to Shakespeare.
I’ve also just remembered that there’s a lesbian bar on the Charing Cross Road, called Titania.
I’m going through my untidy piles of old papers, with a rule of throwing out five things every day. Discarding the ephemeral is easier when you realise it gives more value to the things you keep. And yet I do like the physical evidence of a life; the proof that whatever I’ve done, I’ve lived.
Today, with my head full of thoughts of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, I find a couple of letters from Dad that reference that very play.
They’re written on the backs of his own photocopied cartoons. One has a tiny Puck flying around the shoulders of two American comic book superheroes. Or rather, two versions of the same superhero, The Flash. One is the 1940s Golden Age Flash, with the winged hat; the other is the later Silver Age incarnation, with the one-piece costume and the mask.
Puck is saying: ‘I will put a girdle around the Earth in forty minutes‘. The two Flashes reply, ‘Been there, done that!’
Dad’s other cartoon has a tiny Titania offering a rose to Mr Spock from Star Trek. Says Titania: ‘Come sit thee down upon this flowery bed / While I thy amiable cheeks do coy / And stick musk roses in thy sleek, smooth head / And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.’
Mr Spock, who of course has ‘fair large ears’, replies, ‘Fascinating!’.
Friday 3rd June 2016. I find a Dutch newspaper supplement from late 2007, where I’m the cover star. Well, that’s if the cover of a supplement counts as a cover. It’s for an article on Modern Dandies of London (I think). Me alongside Sebastian Horsley, with his two fingers up to the camera. I still live in the same room, albeit with different curtains.
More mopping-up of unpublished activity.
Friday 6th May: While people have stopped me in the street to ask me why I hadn’t written more about the death of Prince, no one has yet chided me for my complete omission of the London mayoral election. Perhaps that sums up what sort of diarist I am.
Still, it needs to be said that I did indeed vote. Voters had a second preference, so I gave my first choice to the Greens’ Sian Berry, and my second to Labour’s Sadiq Khan. Khan triumphed, his victory announced late into the night of the 6th (after an agonising delay of many hours). Ms Berry came in at an impressive third, after the Conservatives’ Zac Goldsmith. She also took up a seat on the London Assembly, thanks to the Greens doing well enough on the ‘London-wide’ polling sheets.
It’s the first election result in years where I’ve felt optimistic about the future.
Films seen recently:
Tuesday 17th May 2016: Green Room at the ICA. £3. A horror thriller with the unusual backdrop of a right-wing skinhead music scene, in contemporary rural Oregon. Rather different to the Portland liberals of that same state, as spoofed in Portlandia. But then I suppose it’s analogous to the way parts of Sussex can be rather less progressive than Brighton.
Imogen Poots’s character has one of those skinhead-scene girls’ haircuts that flatter while adding a certain toughness: long at the sides with a sharp fringe at the front (a Chelsea Fringe? a Feathercut? not sure). The boots and braces look for the men is well-researched too – straight out of 1970s Britain, but jostling here alongside iPhones and American accents. Much significance given to the colour of laces in DMs. A couple of the scenes are extremely gory. But then it is meant to be a horror film too. I suppose boxes must be ticked in plot, in the same way that the characters must tick boxes with their clothes, their taste in rock music, and with their beliefs. These days, I find discussions about belonging thrilling enough; blood and violence less so.
Friday 20th May 2016: Heart of a Dog at the ICA. £3. Laurie Anderson’s stunning film essay, ostensibly about the death of her rat terrier Lolabelle, but touching on life and death in all kinds of ways, from the passing of friends and relatives, to the changes in New York after 9/11. Her husband Lou Reed’s death (which happened during the making of the film) isn’t explicitly referred to, but he’s there briefly as an actor (playing a doctor), and as himself (in footage of the couple on a beach). He also provides the closing song, and in the very last shot he is seen holding the dog.
At one point Anderson talks about that unhappy experience that most pet owners must endure: going to the vet to hear what she calls ‘The Speech’. The one that asks the owner if the pet can be put to sleep. It reminded me how I was recently told, separately, of the deaths of two cats I used to look after in North London: Claudia Andrei’s cat Sevig, and Jenn Connor’s Vyvian. When Sevig became very frail, Claudia pushed him around the streets of Edinburgh in a shopping trolley – ‘the Sevig-mobile’. After seeing Heart of a Dog I realised how lucky I was to have the pleasure of living with these beautiful creatures, without ever having to face The Speech.
Tuesday 24th May 2016: Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, ICA. £3. A documentary on a group of artists in the late 60s and early 70s, who turned vast, desolate parts of the US into their own canvasses in the pure pursuit of Making Art. I was familiar with the Lightning Field artwork – all those lightning rods against the sky- but I hadn’t heard about works like Double Negative, where two gigantic rectangular chunks were carved out of a rocky mesa. According to the credits, some of the works begun in the 1970s are still in progress today.
Thursday 26th May 2016: Love and Friendship at the BFI. Free, courtesy of Tim Chipping, a fellow Whit Stillman fan (we went to see Barcelona together on its 1990s release). The film is followed by a Q&A with Whit Stillman, who is in typically eloquent and wry form. The film adapts Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, though there are touches of Wilde in Stillman’s script too. It’s verbose without ever being dry, and in terms of quips and jokes, it’s funnier than most modern comedies. My favourite film this year.
Friday 3rd June 2016: The Witch at the Prince Charles. £4. A tale of supernatural goings-on amongst a family of Puritan settlers, in seventeenth-century New England. Like Green Room, it blends the horror genre with more unusual aspects, in this case, gritty historical drama. The dialogue is lifted straight from the literature of the time: all ‘thy’s and ‘thee’s. As with Whit Stillman, the style only works once you realise what the director is trying to do: in this case, make a film that takes folk legends as real without question. It’s as if the film was made by seventeenth-century Puritans, as well as being about them.
A useful acronym from Atalanta K, who lost her bag after a night of carousing: ‘I had a CRAFT moment. As in: Can’t Remember A F-ing Thing.’
Tags: a midsummer's night dream
, Claudia Andrei
, green room
, heart of a dog
, jenn connor
, laurie anderson
, love and friendship
, Prince charles cinema
, Sebastian Horsley
, the witch
, whit stillman
Diamonds and Beaus
Friday 13th May 2016. Early afternoon: I’m recognised in Jermyn Street by a gentleman who says he enjoys this diary. In fact, he crosses the street to tell me this, narrowly avoiding being run down. Surely no writer can ask for higher praise than this: a reader risking their own life to pass on a good review. Perhaps it should go on the back of a book. ‘I enjoyed Dickon Edwards so much, I was nearly hospitalised’.
He adds that he was disappointed I didn’t say more about the death of Prince, given what I’d said about Bowie a few months earlier. This is a perfectly good point.
I think one reason might be that, when I was growing up, I’d always regarded Prince as one of my brother Tom’s favourites; his territory more than mine. For some reason we divided up singers and bands between us, as if they were soft toy animals. I got to cuddle New Order, the Pixies and the Smiths, Tom had the Cult, the Beastie Boys, and Prince.
But if one loves good pop songs, and believes, as I do, that pop music is at its best when used as a platform for individuality, eccentricity, and indeed dandyism, obviously one has to admire Prince.
It’s all the more apt that this request took place on Jermyn Street. The street is something of a dandy Mecca, being home to some of London’s most stylish menswear shops, to the church of St James’s Piccadilly, where Sebastian Horsley had his funeral in a red squinned coffin, and to a statue to that most influential of London dandies, Beau Brummel. It is a statue close enough to the ground to be hugged, an act which dandyish American friends of mine make a point of doing whenever they visit.
A further coincidence is that I was on my way to the London Library, a block away in St James’s Square. After parting company with the reader, I remember that I’d once found a book on dandyism in the library, one which directly compared Prince with Beau Brummell. So today I go straight into the stacks and retrieve the book in question.
The book is called Rising Star: Dandyism, Gender and Performance in the Fin de Siècle, by Rhonda K. Garelick (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998). As part of a chapter on the legacy of dandyism, Garelick reprints a 1995 Esquire cover, on which Prince pulls a definite dandyish pose. It’s from his Artist Formerly Known As phase, just after his hit, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl In The World’. His hair at this point is short, dark, combed and straightened, with a touch of the silkily feminine (even a Hugh Grant-ish schoolboy floppiness). He has a thin pencil beard that seems an extension of his cheekbones, and wears a slim pinstripe suit, buttoned down, over a white shirt with big cuffs. He sports a dark tie (collar button undone), fingers covered in rings, and leans against a silver cane.
According to Garelick, Prince’s image at this point follows in the classic nineteenth-century dandy traits. Prince ‘borrows unmistakably from the likes of Beau Brummell, Baudelaire and Jean Lorrain’. The main criteria are his aloofness, his air of contempt for convention, and his highly stylized persona. On top of that, his 1990s adoption of an unpronounceable symbol allies him with Barbey d’Aurevilly’s idea of the dandy life: one of pure surface and symbol, an influence beyond language: the dandy is ‘that which can hardly be recounted’. Certainly, changing one’s name to an actual symbol takes that aspect of dandyism to the limit. Though I’d say Prince had already put his stamp on language by that point, given his love of turning words into single letters or numbers, as in ‘I Would Die 4 U’.
The gendered aspects of Prince’s dandyism were equally fascinating. Granted, it may not have been original for a male, black, American performer to play with femininity in the rock and pop field; one thinks of Little Richard and Rick James. But Prince used his influences in order to do as Bowie did: make something new. He especially intensified the androgynous aspects of his imagery, imbuing them with that most deviant of colours – purple.
I think of that campest of pre-war dandy writers, Ronald Firbank, and his love of writing with purple ink. I also think of Brigid Brophy taking this detail of Firbank’s so much to heart, she apparently switched to using purple ink for the longhand manuscript of Prancing Novelist, her 1973 study of Firbank. The Brophy book is 600 pages long. That’s a lot of purple.
Through these deviant codes, Prince’s dandyism became an outrageous queering of heterosexuality – a machismo-troubling version of Camp Rock which he shared with such figures as Marc Bolan, Tiny Tim and Russell Brand (who isn’t even a musician, but he hasn’t let that stop him).
Garelick’s book also compares Prince’s use of female dancers and co-singers with names as Vanity, Apollonia, and Mayte, as echoing 1890s Decadent ‘tableaux’, such as ‘Aubrey Beardsley’s Salome drawings of androgynous, erotic, and nearly twin creatures’. Though in Prince’s case, says Garelick, the women were not so much twins as shadows in his wake, a ‘merging of the dandy and the danseuse’.
Certainly, any woman appearing with Prince had to become remade in his image. I never saw Prince in concert, but I was interested enough to catch his 1987 concert film Sign o’ the Times, when it hit British cinemas. For the song ‘U Got The Look’, the female role was filled by the Scottish singer Sheena Easton, who’d already had a successful career in her own right. For ‘U Got The Look’, though, she became well and truly Prince-i-fied. From her singing to her clothes to her poses, she was not so much a guest vocalist as just another interchangeable cog in the man’s machine. When in Purple Rome, you do as the Purple Roman does.
More recently, I thought of Prince when I heard the song ‘Quicksand’ by La Roux, aka Elly Jackson, a young singer who might herself be described as a dandy (the National Portrait Gallery’s shop currently has her on a postcard, wearing a very Bowie-esque mustard yellow suit). Musically, ‘Quicksand’ is clearly influenced by ‘When Doves Cry’, from the chords to the clipped 80s synths. But Ms Jackson’s singing is a very Prince-like style too: shifting across the genders from high feminine falsetto to low, growing boyish swagger. For me, that’s when art is at its best: when there’s a breaking out of prescribed roles, and the same trappings of said roles are re-used on the artist’s own terms, to communicate their individualism. And that’s also a definition of dandyism, in my book.
Evening: to the ICA to see Mustang, a Turkish film, set in the present day, about five teenage orphan sisters living in what seems like an idyllic picturesque setting: a hillside village near the Black Sea coast. Their mildly rebellious behaviour during the school holidays, however, sees them dramatically punished by their guardians – first with imprisonment in their own home, complete with bars on the windows, and then into forced marriage to equally reluctant young men. The film’s sensualised, slightly surreal atmosphere accentuates the idea of a close-knit group of girls disappearing into a world of their own, thus placing the film in the same tradition as Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Virgin Suicides, and last year’s The Falling.
With the added dimension of the conservative Turkish setting, though, Mustang has more complex questions about the role of arranged marriage in a changing world. The girls’ captor, their grandmother, is no fairy tale tyrant; she merely believes that, because she herself was married off straight after puberty, that’s the way it should be. Indeed, for one of the sisters, her marriage to the boy she was already seeing is shown as a good thing, if a hasty one. For the others, though, freedom comes in the form of escape to the big city – Istanbul – and to the parent they really want: a beloved schoolteacher. The real asset of the film, though, is the utterly naturalistic and convincing performances, particularly by the youngest sister.
Tags: brigid brophy
, jermyn street
, la roux
, ronald firbank
, The London Library
The Morning Would Be A Miracle
Tuesday 19th April 2016. Still struggling with basic motivation, so I read a couple of books in the self-help vein. One is on depression, Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. Despite the title, Haig manages to avoid any sentimental irksomeness. Instead he goes in for a lot of self-deprecation, honesty, and little wry jokes. The advice isn’t so uncommon (yoga, mindfulness, breathing exercises, travel, walks in parks), but Haig’s tight prose style and lack of vanity make the book quite special.
The other is The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod, as recommended by my college mentor, Katie W. The gist of this one is to force oneself to get up earlier than useful, but in a deliberate spirit of hopefulness, with added meditation, exercise, reading and writing tasks, a sense of savouring the day, and all that. It’s probably very obvious stuff, but I’ve lately come to resent not being much of a ‘morning person’, and need all the help I can get.
I’ve found that getting on the Tube at Highgate before 7.15am makes all the difference in terms of one’s nerves. Any later than that, the madness of the rush hour starts to kick in.
I’ve been getting to Birkbeck library for its opening time, at 8.30am. There’s usually three or four other people keen to go in at this time, though not quite to the point of forming a queue. This is nothing compared to the British Library in St Pancras, which usually has a queue of at least thirty, long before opening time at 9.30. I think the ones at the front of the queue must insist on having the same desks. I’ve noticed that some foreign visitors find this hilarious, and take pictures of the queue for Twitter. ‘British people: any excuse for a queue’.
* * *
Friday 22nd April 2016. Have reached 8071 words on the essay, with just over a week to go. So now I have to decide which 3000 words I can lose without risking the tutor comment, ‘you could have said more…’ Am fairly confident that there’s original and useful insights in there. One thing I’m particularly pleased about is that I’ve quoted a new academic book called Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction, by Lee Konstantinou. It has lots of pertinent quotes on the texts I’m using, like the way Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is structured like ‘an online social network of short stories’. The book only came out last month, but I’ve managed to borrow a copy via the London Library. I like the feeling of an essay being bang up-to-date.
* * *
Saturday 23rd April 2016. Prince and Victoria Wood die this week. Radio 4’s programme on topical statistics, More or Less, gives an interesting argument for what seems like an increase in celebrity deaths this year. They note there was a surge of ways to be famous in the 1960s, due to the rise of TV and rock music. So that generation is now starting to hit its autumn years. Well, that may apply for Bowie, but Prince and Ms Wood were still too young.
Victoria Wood was a fellow Highgate resident. I glimpsed her once in a rather apt setting, given her association with Englishness: she was sitting in High Tea of Highgate, a 1940s-style tea shop.
My favourite Wood sketches were the ‘Kitty’ monologues, as delivered by Patricia Routledge:
She said, “What do you think of Marx?” I said, “I think their pants have dropped off but you can’t fault their broccoli.”’
* * *
Sunday 24th April 2016. On my way to the ICA this morning, I duck my way through the London Marathon crowds on the Mall. Lots of police about, stalls representing charities, and several jolly teams of St John’s Ambulance volunteers. The marathon gives central London a kind of village fete atmosphere. There’s a sense of an uncommon cheeriness among strangers.
Afterwards, I’m standing at a pedestrian crossing in Trafalgar Square. One of the runners stands there too, still in his shorts and vest, but now wearing a medal on a red ribbon. He is on his way to the Tube like the rest of us. Two elderly passers-by chat to him at the lights. ‘Well done! How long?’ He holds up three fingers.
* * *
At the ICA, while the Mall is rapt to all the sporty goings-on, I spend two hours in the dark watching the film Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures. This is a new, full-length documentary about the life and work of the New York photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. I guess he’s now more or less synonymous with three things: serene black & white homoerotica, serene black & white celebrity portraiture, and for being Patti Smith’s companion in the 1970s, thanks to her recent memoir Just Kids. Ms Smith’s book was such a bestseller that I think it’s managed to rebrand Mapplethorpe as a character within the Patti Smith story. I wonder if that’s one reason behind the appearance of this new film. It’s certainly not a Patti Smith product, as, rather significantly, she’s not one of the people interviewed. As with the omission of Dave Grohl in the recent Kurt Cobain film, there does seem to be a trend in documentaries to play down or leave out key voices. I think of Ted Hughes’s widow left out of the recent film on the poet, or Amy Winehouse’s father accusing the film Amy for portraying him as a villain. The recurring lesson is that there’s no such thing as non-fiction, only perspective.
In the case of this new film, though, the documentary works as a neat compliment to Patti Smith’s book. It plays up the side of Mapplethorpe’s life that she wasn’t involved with, even while she was around. So for the 1970s, the film acknowledges Smith’s role, but dwells far more on his connection with the New York gay scene, notably his relationships with several men, many of whom appeared in his work. Then from 1980, Smith moved away from New York while Mapplethorpe’s fame rocketed. There’s testimonials from his celebrity subjects (like Debbie Harry), gallery owners, critics, studio assistants, and most notably from his younger brother Edward, with whom Mapplethorpe seems to have had a rather tense relationship, complicated by Edward’s own ambitions as a photographer.
Mapplethorpe himself comes out of the film as a great talent whose life was tragically cut short by AIDS in 1989, which we knew already. But it also suggests that he was a ruthless careerist who could let his ambition steamroll over the feelings of others. I suppose that might be an unfair impression, as Mapplethorpe isn’t around to defend himself. History is written by the ones who lived longer.
What’s unquestioned, though, like all these arts documentaries, is the objective merit of the work away from the subjective ambiguities of the life. The photographs are properly discussed in detail, from his explicit S&M images (some of which are still rather shocking), to the well-known head and shoulders shot of the two bald young men in profile, one black, one white. Both models are interviewed today, both not looking much older (the silver lining of youthful baldness). The black model is asked: was Mapplethorpe making a statement on race, by positioning the white model in front, craning his neck over the black model’s shoulder? ‘No, I just have a shorter neck.’
, birkbeck library
, British Library
, hal elrod
, just kids
, matt haig
, robert mapplethorpe
The Age Of Skeuomorphs
Friday 1st April 2016. April Fool’s Day seems increasingly redundant in this digitally-driven world of ever-uncertain contexts. Everyday life now relies on consulting the shifting facts of Wikipedia, or checking for the blue-ticked ‘verified accounts’ on Twitter. On social media one is used to seeing the phrase ‘genuine question’. This implies that any default question is not in the least bit genuine. Or indeed, that nothing is genuine full stop, if it’s online.
I think the turning point was a few years ago, with the case of the man arrested for making a joke on Twitter, the one about blowing up Robin Hood Airport. Someone then suggested that all future Tweets should come with the warning ‘may be a joke’. A genuine suggestion. I think.
But April Fool’s Day still goes on. The enforced jollity must be disheartening for any workers forced to smile at the unfunny pranks of management. It’s similar to the way New Year’s Eve parties can be no fun at all, not if there’s no option to opt out. I hear of some wag referring to April Fool’s Day as ‘W—ers Christmas’.
Still, today I quite enjoy Foyles’s elaborate YouTube gag, announcing a new cost-cutting measure: their first holographic sales assistant. In the video, which has the sort of special effects that were once quite expensive, but which now probably cost nothing, they jokily reassure people that they still need human staffers, as the hologram can’t pick up any books.
Holographic staffers are already a reality in some places. There’s one in King’s Cross station by one of the escalators, though it’s technically more of a projection, the screen being a flat, human-sized cut-out. This poor flickering soul is charged with telling people to grip the handrail. After five seconds it warns them again, and then again. It looks like a punishment for holograms: an eternal loop of banality.
* * *
I watch a newspaper review programme on one of the news channels. The Independent is no longer available in print, but it does continue to exist as a digital daily edition. This is a fixed document, best read on iPads, that is a separate entity to its ever-changing website. My head starts to reel with the implications of something that is ‘fixed’ like print, yet still virtual.
In this way, it still has a ‘front page’, so it can still appear on the review programme alongside all the other newspapers’ covers. But this disturbs me a little. Where is the ‘front’ of a digital document? A PDF or a Word document has a Page One, but a ‘front page’ implies it has three dimensions. In this manner, a digital object imitates an obsolete physical one. The term for this is a favourite word of mine: a ‘skeuomorph’ – a retained design that no longer fulfils the original purpose. Like the fake sound of a camera shutter used on a smartphone. We are in an era of enhanced simulation – which is again why April Fool’s Day feels redundant. With all the skeuomorphs, reality is skewed enough.
* * *
To the Barbican’s art gallery for Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. A fascinating and extensive display of social history from the 1930s to the present. Cartier-Bresson is among the names I recognise. Like many overseas visitors, he seems especially fascinated with the crowds that turn out for royal celebrations: Jubilees, Royal Weddings and so on. It’s something which I forget other countries often associate with the UK.
Also on display is Bruce Davidson, whose ‘Girl Holding Kitten’ from 1960 is now fairly well-known. The juxtaposition of vulnerability: the tiny kitten with its owner, a wide-eyed waif with a sleeping bag, caught on a wet London street.
What strikes me here is the way a photograph can capture objects and places that were already out of date at the time, making a kind of a double historicity. One example is an empty greasy spoon café in Peckham, which looks very 1950s to me, but is in fact from the 1980s. Another is a sign at a railway station: ‘All Season Tickets To Be Shewn’. This archaic spelling for ‘shown’ was apparently in use in public signage as late as 1962.
I wonder what an equivalent sign might be today. It might be the ‘Six Items Or Fewer’ signs at some supermarkets. Though grammatically correct, ‘fewer’ sounds increasingly clunky in some sentences, compared to ‘less’. Certainly in that one.
* * *
Saturday 2nd April 2016. To Vout-O-Reenee’s in Tower Hill, for Debbie Smith’s excellent club night, Nitty Gritty. Cocktails, vintage 60s soul and girl groups, dancing. A proper bohemian London ‘safe space’, the Nitty Gritty regulars (more women than men) mixing with the Vout’s Colony Room-style regulars. I sit with Fenella H, Vadim K and Lily, chat to members of Joanne Joanne, and get pleasingly drunk.
* * *
Tuesday 5th April 2016. To the ICA for the film version of JG Ballard’s High-Rise (£3). The film already has a reputation as being rather divisive, with reports of some people walking out, while others have called it an instant classic. Certainly, I find the heavy use of montages off-putting. At one point Jeremy Irons’s architect says that the problem with the failing tower block is not that he left things out, but that he put too much into it. Which rather sums up the film. It starts well, with Tom Hiddleston moving in and getting to meet the residents, but then gets increasingly messy and confusing. I suppose I wanted it to be more O Lucky Man and less Britannia Hospital. As in the latter, there’s some gory business with body parts that seems less of a clever metaphor for society and more just straightforward gore. However, I can’t fault the 70s aesthetics, from the clothes to the hairdos to the Brutalist architecture (Belfast posing as London, I think), which do a superb job of creating an alternative 1970s version of futuristic life. Particularly the horse in the penthouse garden.
* * *
, nitty gritty
The WiFi in the Hall
Saturday 26th March 2016. A sign of the times. In the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, there are three public lavatories. Male, female, and a door marked ‘All Gender Toilet. Anyone can use this toilet regardless of gender identity or expression’.
* * *
Sunday 27th March 2016. The spring term is over. Current work: a second 5000 word essay, deadline of 2nd May. Reluctance overwhelms me, and I spend much of this week either working too slowly or not working at all. My diary is similarly affected (apologies for its lateness). It’s at times like this that I’m jealous of anyone who gets any work done at all.
I wonder about the psychology behind my problem. I can hardly put it down to lack of experience or lack of ability, what with my previous marks and my prize from Birkbeck last year, the one for showing ‘the most promise in English Literature’. But then I think about Cyril Connolly’s quip: ‘whom the Gods wish to destroy they first call promising’.
Interesting to think about Connolly now. A well-known public intellectual in his lifetime, being the mid-twentieth century, but not so much read today. Perhaps his work is too of its time. I once remarked on this in a bookshop, to a middle-aged woman at the till. She looked at Connolly’s bald, ogre-like face on the cover of Enemies of Promise. ‘Well, it doesn’t help that he was no oil painting. I’d rather spend time with Billy Connolly’.
He became synonymous with one particular excuse for a lack of productivity: ‘the pram in the hall’. But while parenthood is obviously demanding, there’s no shortage of people who’ve managed to get other things done too. Indeed, for many writers and artists parenthood actually fuels their career, as it gives them an enhanced sense of purpose. For some, it might be a lack of a pram in the hall that can lead to apathy: there might be less of a feeling that the world truly needs them.
A far greater ‘enemy of promise’ these days is surely the internet. If Connolly were around today, perhaps he’d be less worried about the pram in the hall and more about the WiFi in the hall. Indeed, there’s been reports of a new trend where people deliberately go without broadband connections at home, in order to get more done. Phones are enough. Never mind the current desirable pastime of ‘Netflix and chill’. There’s now the temptation to Netflix and Procrastinate.
Connolly was full of great lines, though. ‘It is better to write for yourself and have no public than to write for the public and have no self’. Again, it’s a sentiment that begs questions of ‘what about…’. I think of Pepys’s coded diary. He was writing for a public too, just not the public of his own life. All writing for the self is still public writing. Today, social media has blurred the distinction completely.
I also love Connolly’s description of his wartime magazine Horizon closing down, when the office was cleared out: ‘Only contributions continued inexorably to be delivered, like a suicide’s milk.’
* * *
Wednesday 30th March 2016. Ben Innes, a British hostage on the hijacked Egypt Air plane, uses his phone to have his picture taken alongside his captor. The hijacker, who is bespectacled and unusually frail-looking for a terrorist, stands with a neutral expression, his belt of explosives in clear view (which will later turn out to be fake). His expression is one of vague confusion. Innes, meanwhile, who is big and young and resembles a rugby player on a package holiday, pulls a broad ‘Hello Mum!’ grin.
The photo is soon everywhere in the media. It is a gift to contemporary cultural discussion, touching on such themes as terrorism, appropriate behaviour, selfie culture, the ‘banter’ of modern lads (something other men do, I believe, not me), the tradition of British pluck in the face of adversity abroad, and perhaps most British of all, pedantry. Though the photo is soon known as ‘that hostage selfie’, people rush to point out that it’s not technically a ‘selfie’ at all, because the photograph is taken by a third party (an obliging stewardess).
I think of Lee Miller’s photograph of herself in Hitler’s bath tub, taken during the Allies’ liberation of Germany in 1945. That too was taken by a third party, but it was Miller’s idea. Her name is thus the one more associated with the image. So I would call that, like the Ben Innes photo, a ‘selfie’, because of the person instigating the image, the pose, and the self-presentation.
Selfies are about control. One resentment against terrorism is the double unfairness for the victims. Their life stories are not just brutally interrupted, but eclipsed within wider narratives. Footnotes in bigger tales. Innes’s photo turned this aspect around, rewriting the event in his favour. The captured hijacker, now awaiting trial, is being referred to as the ‘selfie hijacker’. In the eyes of the media – the reality that most matters to society – he has become a hijacker, hijacked.
If I were Innes, I’d tell the world that the ‘selfie’ was part of an art project, and contact the Tate Modern at once. But Innes is no Lee Miller: as soon the news cameras came for him at the airport, he put his hand over the lens and talked about the need to get back to his normal life. Though, rather wonderfully, his day job is in health and safety.
* * *
Thursday 31st March 2016. To the ICA to see Anomalisa, the stop-motion animated film by Charlie Kaufman. Very much not for children, with a sex scene that would be considered unusually realistic were it not made of clay. The main character has David Thewlis’s British accent, but most of the other characters have the same adult male American voice, including all the women and children.
This only really hits me in the scene where the Thewlis character is on the phone to his wife, and the wife puts the child on the line. There’s no change in the speaker. When Thewlis eventually meets the Lisa of the title, she is his world’s ‘anomaly’, with a normal female voice. She alone connects with him. The film doesn’t quite open its ideas up fully, in the way that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind did, but like much of CK’s work, it’s funny and original, and stays with me for days.
* * *
, cyril connolly
, fitzwilliam museum
Be Your Own Cosplay
Saturday 17th October 2015.
I watch a new Ted Hughes documentary made by the BBC, Stronger Than Death. Unusually for a TV documentary, there’s no celebrity presenters trampling their own uncalled-for views all over the material. Instead the film lets the poems, the archive footage and the interviewees do all the talking. There’s still omissions and bias, of course: Jonathan Bate appears, and it’s clearly timed to coincide with his major new Hughes biography.
Despite having 90 minutes to play with Hughes’s life, a lot of time is given to the shadow of Sylvia Plath. There’s a recital of a US feminist’s poem which openly dreams of Hughes’s murder, as revenge for Plath’s suicide. This is at the expense of even mentioning The Iron Man or Meet My Folks (both of which delighted me as a child). Hughes’s widow Carol is also noticeably absent – perhaps because she’s appeared in the news headlines lately, complaining about ‘damaging and offensive claims’ in Mr Bate’s book. Instead, one of TH’s extra-marital flings speaks about the poem she apparently inspired, with clear pride.
It’s tempting to say a lot of this is unfairly intrusive or even gossipy, but as Simon Armitage says early on in the film, Ted Hughes is one literary figure where the biography really is essential when considering the work. For my own part, I find myself reaching for my copy of Emma Tennant’s memoir Burnt Diaries, to look up her own contributions to the Tales of Ted. There’s much about Ms Tennant’s own affair with the poet in the 70s, but most memorably for me is the anecdote about his encounter with a mentally ill poet. This man had stalked Hughes for months and had even threatened him with a knife. Finally confronted by the man on a London street, Hughes shoves him into the passenger seat of his car, binds him with the seatbelt, and grabs a sheet of plain A4 paper from his satchel. Then he gets out his penknife, shouts, ‘Look at this!’ to the stalker, and slices the paper diagonally in two.
According to Ms Tennant, who witnessed all this from the back seat of the car, the stalker sat there looking at the paper, ‘as if a living creature had been sacrificed before his eyes – or his soul had been cut in two.’ He was then let out of the car and shambled off into the city. ‘He won’t trouble us again,’ said Hughes.
Bate’s new biography includes this story, and adds that the stalker in question may have been Henry Fainlight, troubled brother of Ruth, though he thinks the anecdote is ‘probably exaggerated in order to dramatise Ted’s quasi-occult powers.’ But Hughes was steeped in ideas of mythology himself, and what else is gossip but a form of mythology? From Leda and the Swan to Kim Kardashian, it’s all tale-telling of a kind.
* * *
Wednesday 21st October 2015.
To the Tate Britain for the big Barbara Hepworth exhibition, Sculpture for a Modern World. It’s labelled as the first major Hepworth show for nearly 50 years. Perhaps the long gap is because people are used to Ms Hepworth’s work being part of the landscape – literally, given her association with outdoors art. This large-scale indoor exhibition brings out the ambient, calming side of her sculptures: a world of humane and peaceful geometry. One room recreates a 1960s outdoor installation in the Netherlands, the Rietveld Pavilion. The pavilion’s concrete walls have been transplanted inside the Tate’s galleries, to show Hepworth’s works in the intended context, though without the grass and sky. I see more visitors sitting and sketching the exhibits than usual. Perhaps there’s something about Hepworth’s sculptures that particularly invites sketching. Carving away at the paper, joining in.
* * *
Thursday 22nd October 2015.
I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of The Flood. A satisfying sequel to Oryx and Crake, focussing on two women caught up in a post-apocalyptic world, where a ‘waterless flood’ – a global pandemic plague – has destroyed most of humanity. A pull-quote for the cover praises the novel for being ‘as pacy as a thriller’. This is a very telling statement on the way genre is viewed by the British literary scene: it implies that literary novels aren’t meant to be pacy, and thrillers aren’t meant to be read. But it’s also accurate for The Year of the Flood: the book uses short chapters, cliffhangers, parallel viewpoints, and flashbacks. All are devices of thrillers. I wolf through its 500 pages in three days.
* * *
Friday 23rd October 2015.
To the ICA cinema for The Lobster. A surreal black comedy, in the Absurdist tradition – shades of Ionesco and Bunuel. It’s by a Greek writer and director, but is filmed in English, and has an impressive cross-European cast (including Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, Olivia Colman, Lea Seydoux). The dialogue has a stilted, almost robotic feel, as if translated by a computer program, but this is clearly part of the whole deadpan aesthetic. The plot concerns an alternative world where single people are forced to find a compatible partner in a month, while imprisoned in a rural hotel. If they fail, they are surgically transformed into an animal of their choice. Mr Farrell escapes one such hotel, only to find that the woods-dwelling ‘loners’ he joins have brutal rules of their own. It’s a very strange film indeed, but like the best Absurdist plays, the comedy balances out the alienation.
Then to Vout-o-Reenee’s to prop up the bar with Debbie Smith. I also bump into Hazel Barkworth, a friend I’ve not seen for years. We discuss how we’ve solidified our own looks – my blond hair and suits, her bob hair and black dresses. ‘Be your own cosplay’ is our decree. (cosplay being short for ‘costume play’, the practice of dressing up as a genre character).
Tonight the venue is hosting the launch of two new poetry pamphlets (I think ‘chapbooks’ is the proper term). Both are published by Annexe Magazine: Susie Campbell’s The Frock Enquiry and JT Welsch’s The Ruin. The former uses historical research into the plight of early 20th century British female workers, a kind of Suffragette in poetry form. Mr Welsch’s work is inspired by a visit to the ruined ancient temples of Tunisia, and makes some nice comments about the way Star Wars fans now make a similarly holy pilgrimage to this area, due to the landscape’s role as a Star Wars location. Certainly, the latest Star Wars sequel is generating anticipation on a level of religious rapture, and it’s not even out for another two months.
I also take a look at the latest exhibition in the venue’s Stash Gallery, Wilma Johnson’s Cat Amongst The Dogs. Ms Johnson lost her life’s work of paintings in a house fire last June, so this show represents something of a rebirth of her creative spirit. Some forty or fifty canvasses are here – not bad for four months. The theme is a playful and colourful celebration of film icons and pets, with a touch of the mythic about both. There’s also a little of a Pop Art Frida Kahlo in the mix. There’s Garbos and Hepburns and Taylors amongst marmalade cats and borzois. Perhaps proving the point about the British love of pets, about half the paintings have already been sold – and the cat paintings are going more than the dog paintings. Tonight, I chat to the artist and discover that she’s staying at her mother’s house in Highgate, which turns out to be the house opposite mine. We share an obvious cab home.
* * *
Tags: annexe magazine
, barbara hepworth
, margaret atwood
, tate britain
, ted hughes
, the lobster
, wilma johnson
Dough Balls With Virginia
Saturday 12th September 2015.
Jeremy Corbyn is voted leader of the Labour party. For much of the weekend his critics call him ‘unelectable’, an odd thing to say of someone who has just won an election. So much is said about this man this week, much of it hysterical. Not nearly enough is said about how he is just that rare thing: a MP that people like.
The 1997 style of Labour, with its focus upon slickness, spin and presentation, seems to be over for good. A rougher, ‘grass roots’ Labour is popular once again. If nothing else, I hope this means MPs will at last stop copying Mr Blair’s strange. Staccato. Way. Of Speaking. When. Making. Speeches.
* * *
I wander into town, and drift into the ICA to find that there’s a small-press fair on. Phoebe Blatton is running a stall for Coelacanth Press. She’s put out a new issue of Strangers In A Zine, her fun little Patricia Highsmith fanzine. This issue is a ‘Carol Film Special’, to celebrate the new film with Cate Blanchett (out in the UK in November). In the zine, PB relates an anecdote from a few years ago, where she met a film distributor on a plane, enthused to him about Highsmith’s novel Carol, and mentioned that, given he made Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes would be perfect for directing a film of Carol. The distributor told her he happened to be a good friend of Haynes’s, and would ‘pass the message on’. PB is not certain that she was inadvertently the seed of the new film, but it’s a nice tale, and indeed a very Highsmithian one: a fateful encounter between two strangers.
* * *
Tuesday 15th September 2015.
To Lauderdale House in Highgate Village. It’s a venue mentioned by one noted diarist – Pepys – and the setting tonight for a talk by another: Michael Palin, currently promoting his third volume of journals. The event is a charity fundraiser organised by the Mayor of Camden Council, a rather assertive, motherly woman who makes sure everyone stays behind afterwards to listen to the support act – a saxophone recital by a 16-year-old Camden schoolboy.
Lots of other mayoral types in the audience. They tend to be ordinary looking people of a certain age, often former councillors, who just happen to be walking around in heavy, clunking ceremonial jewellery.
Mr Palin is a delight, of course. He gives what is clearly his honed ‘Evening With…’ talk. A good hour or so of anecdotes, something to please everyone, and a Q&A at the end. Tales from the formation of Monty Python, tales from the controversy around Life Of Brian – with a nice link from the mayors in the room to the story about how the actress playing Brian’s girlfriend in the film is now the Mayor of Aberystwyth. And that, with delicious irony, the Welsh town was one of the places that banned the film in 1979. Once she was in power, she made sure she lifted the ban. Then there’s tales from his travel programmes, tales about diary-keeping, some pleasingly rude quips (including one about how he hates being called nice), and some poetry: Cavafy, Wordsworth, Hilaire Belloc, and Spike Milligan. A perfect public speaker, really, and a good example of a Not-Grumpy Old Man.
* * *
Wednesday 16th September 2015.
Meet Hester R for a drink at the IOE bar, followed by a meal at the Pizza Express on Euston Road, the one that’s directly opposite the British Library. Artworks based on writers on the walls: Orwell, Kakfa, Woolf. It’s the place to go if you know someone who likes Mrs Dalloway and dough balls. There’s a display of books, all face out, on a trendy shelving unit near our table. I’m not sure if they’re for sale or to read or just to make the restaurant more bookish. One in my eyeline is about the history of stealth warfare, ‘From Ancient Greece To The SAS’. The book next to that is a memoir by Maureen Lipman. I try not to make too much of this.
Hester has a voucher of some sort. I always suspect everyone who goes to Pizza Express has A Voucher Of Some Sort.
* * *
Thursday 17th September 2015.
I visit the Ripping Yarns bookshop on Archway Road. It’s my last time before this treasure trove of a second-hand shop closes its Highgate premises for good. The business is going to continue trading online, at the house of the owner Celia, with occasional events and ‘open days’ planned. But the Archway Road shop will be gone.
Some symmetry. Today, people in the shop are talking about Mr Corbyn, just as they are doing so everywhere in London (this week I overhear the word ‘Corbyn’ in every café, bus and tube). On my first ever visit to Ripping Yarns, not long after I’d moved to Highgate, I heard an earnest conversation about the then Labour leader, John Smith, how he had suddenly died that day, and how he was ‘the best Prime Minister we never had’ (Gore Vidal: ‘Death is a good career move’). The date of my first visit to Ripping Yarns is thus easy to work out: May 12th, 1994.
I walk out from today’s visit with a 1961 Penguin Classic copy of Firbank’s Valmouth. It’s the edition that appears in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library, with its Augustus John cover and what Hollinghurst calls the ‘faint smell of lost time’ about its pages. Jen Campbell is working there today. She points me out to Celia. ‘Would you believe this man is 44?’ Her book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops was inspired by the clientele of Ripping Yarns, who could indeed be eccentric. On my way out, I see a hunched man browsing through a box of paperbacks. He is in his bare feet.
* * *
To the House of Illustration in King’s Cross, for the exhibition on Ladybird Books. Lots of colourful paintings of rosy-cheeked, healthy and smiling children in a post-war Utopian vision of Britain. Peter and Jane and their impeccably polished ball are the stars, but there’s also the series of ‘Well-Loved Tales’: ‘Cinderella’, ‘Puss In Boots’, and the slightly less loved tale ‘The Big Pancake’.
I realise how interesting it is that ‘well-loved’ has been eclipsed by ‘much-loved’ in common speech. The changing fashions in adjectives say as much about a society as the changing fashions in clothes.
The main thing I learn from the exhibition is how these popular pocket-sized children’s books were born from a ingenious bit of wartime economising. A whole Ladybird book of 56 pages was designed so it could be cut from a single sheet of paper – the largest size that could be printed in the presses of 1940. All the books were priced at half a crown each – and remained at that price until decimalization in 1971.
I find the title of one Ladybird book, ‘Some Great Men And Women (1972)’ disproportionately amusing. I think it’s the pedantic implication of the modifier ‘some’; as if a simple ‘Great Men And Women’ was deemed too imperial for the softer, long-haired world of 1972.
I buy a postcard in the gallery shop. A young staffer seems amazed when I confirm that I am going to send it without an envelope. ‘With the message on the outside? But surely other people can read it?’
I tell her about the history of sending postcards – the text messages of times outworn. It really does seem to be new to her. But I wish now that I’d told her about the Postcrossing website, where the practice of sending postcards is very much alive and well. (https://www.postcrossing.com/)
* * *
Friday 18th September 2015.
Afternoon: to the V&A for tea in the Members’ Room, courtesy of Heather M. Ms M tells me about her experiences of dating websites. She prefers men to be at least her own height – ‘it’s to do with being hugged’. Judging by her encounters, it seems a lot of men lie about their height in their profiles. This seems a highly optimistic move, as if they hope that, by the time it comes to meeting in person, their shortness will be somehow… overlooked. But Heather says it’s sometimes necessary for a woman to adjust the truth too. ‘A woman aged 41 or 42 has to put ‘40’, to attract people her own age. If she puts ‘41’, all she gets are men over 70’.
After tea, we wander around the V&A, and I am quite taken with an interactive installation called Mise-en-abyme. It’s a series of shaped transparent arches across one of the museum’s walkways, each arch narrower than the one before. The phrase itself is one of my favourites in literary criticism, where it means a recursive framing of stories within stories. I’ve seen the phrase used for everything from The Canterbury Tales to Inception.
Evening: I watch the latest Woody Allen film, Irrational Man, at the Barbican’s Cinema Café. There’s a very good film to be made of this story, but this film isn’t it. Like so many late Allens, it’s oddly stilted and over-narrated when it should be brooding and organic. I find myself fantasising about being able to edit the script and improve the film, fix it. Still, the story has some fine twists, and the cast are superb. It’s so good to see Parker Posey, now aging into a sharp, Katherine Hepburn-like persona, while Emma Stone is the young generation’s Mia Farrow (and Allen’s camera adores her). Joaquin Phoenix, meanwhile, is perfect for the sort of character who plays with a loaded revolver at parties.
* * *
Ian Hislop speaking on Radio 4 today, re Jeremy Corbyn: ‘It’s a measure of how much current capitalism has failed that Dave Spart [Private Eye’s joke socialist character] is back and seems to be making sense’.
* * *
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Tags: coelacanth press
, irrational man
, jeremy corbyn
, ladybird books
, michael palin
, patricia highsmith
, phoebe blatton
, pizza express euston road
, ripping yarns
A Bohemian Birthday
Tuesday 1st September 2015
To the ICA for a Carol Morley event. This comprises a launch of her new autobiographical novel, 7 Miles Out, along with a rare screening of her film from 2000, The Alcohol Years. I saw it on Channel 4 around that time (I think), and have looked out for Ms M’s name ever since. Her latest, The Falling, remains my favourite film of 2015. As is often the case, rewatching The Alcohol Years with an audience, and on a big screen, enhances the whole experience. The funny bits become much more funny, the shocking bits much more shocking.
At the ICA I bump into Debbie Smith and Atalanta Kernick, and spend the rest of the night with them, drinking. I also meet Ms Morley herself. When the ICA kicks us out at 11pm, we all head off in taxis to Sophie Parkin’s members’ bar, Vout-O-Reenee’s, in Tower Hill. It’s my suggestion, but to my delight it is seconded by one of Ms M’s friends, who produces a Vout’s calling card. So I end up having a perfect evening, drinking with lots of different people I admire, all brought together in a place where people know me, and where the spirit of the Colony Room is kept alive. Despite the inevitable gaps in my memory of this boozy night, what I do remember is being happy.
* * *
Thursday 3rd September 2015.
My 44th birthday. ‘Hope you gets lots of presents and cards’ says an automated email newsletter, for a product I can’t remember buying. Lots of cards and presents? Well, I do get some, from my closer relatives and from a couple of friends. But it’s Facebook messages that I’m more likely to receive in an amount that can be described as ‘lots’. The best part of a hundred, this time. Despite such messages requiring a few seconds’ keystrokes, not everyone on FB does it for every one of their contacts (myself included). So it’s still a gesture of niceness, of being thought of, and I’m touched.
I spend much of the day with my usual solitary exploration of new stuff. A birthday is a celebration of a still-working body, so one must mark it by giving still-working eyes new sights, and still-working legs new places.
This year, I finally tick off St Paul’s Cathedral. A Londoner who’s never gone inside St Paul’s is like a New Yorker who’s never been inside the Statue of Liberty: there’s plenty of them, but they don’t quite know why. For years they put off the visiting of a local treasure, feeling its fame with tourists somehow makes it harder to go. It’s like that definition of a literary classic: a book which everyone assumes you’ve read.
St Paul’s hasn’t got Westminster Abbey’s monopoly on dead kings and queens and poets, but it is much better looking. Commissioned from Wren as the first big Protestant cathedral since the split from Catholicism, it is nevertheless as giddily Baroque as Anglicanism gets. Soaring, elegant arches, golden circular mosaics and domes within domes. I love how the main blue dome is actually on top of a second dome, to get the building as tall as possible. I climb the umpteen steps to the Whispering Gallery, which frightens me with its narrow walkway, so high above the floor. Oddly, I find the external Stone Gallery much more calming, even though it’s higher up and exposed to the elements. The walkway is wide, and well-protected, and the view is unusual for being that rare thing: a London skyline without St Paul’s.
In the crypt are the big military graves and memorials: Nelson, Wellington, Churchill. But there’s plenty of artists and musicians too: the tombs of Parry and Sullivan, and a cenotaph to Blake. I’m in the crypt when I look down and realise I am walking over the bones of JMW Turner, lying next to Reynolds, Millais, and Holman Hunt.
* * *
Then to a beach in Vauxhall, to see some brand new art. Most of today’s newspapers have the same shocking photograph on the cover: the body of a Syrian migrant boy, washed up onto a Turkish beach. There have been calls for humanity and compassion across the board, even from the newspapers that tend to rail against migrants, like the Mail. Some are saying this might mark a tipping-point, towards an era where human life is finally valued above economic and political concerns. Well, that would be nice.
I wonder how much the setting of the beach contributes to the power of the image. The beach has always been a vivid symbol of change, of humanity stepping forward – or backward. On Vauxhall Beach today (on the south bank, a little downriver of Vauxhall Bridge) is a piece of public art by Jason deCaires Taylor. Titled ‘The Rising Tide’, it’s an ingenious warning about climate change, which uses the natural tide of the Thames to make its point. The artwork comprises four life-size sculptures of apocalyptic horse riders, two men and two children. The horses’ heads are surreally replaced with the lozenge-shaped metal heads of oil pumps. The mens’ horses are ‘grazing’ from the sand (presumably helping themselves to oil), while the children’s horses are yet to feed. All four figures have their eyes closed. When the tide is high, the sculptures are fully submerged. The artwork is only meant to be here for a month, but judging by the crowds around the sculptures today (at low tide, that is), it has all the makings of a public art hit.
* * *
After that, to a third new sight: the Heights Bar in Langham Place, next to BBC Broadcasting House. I read about the venue in the book Mindful London, which recommends it for moments of quiet contemplation of the city. It’s airy, friendly, and has lots of space, with large soundproofed windows looking out 15 storeys above Oxford Street. A certain secret knowledge is required: you have to walk into the lobby of the Saint George’s Hotel, then take the lift. Unlike many rooftop bars and restaurants in the city, Heights is reasonably affordable (even for me), and needs no advance booking. Not even if you’re on your own.
By this point, it’s early evening. After a day of solitary contemplation on turning 44, I suddenly feel the need for birthday company. Unfortunately I have made no plans whatsoever. It seems unfair to expect friends to suddenly drop what they’re doing and join me, birthday or no – that would be the friendship equivalent of zero hours contracts. But I try anyway, texting a few friends in case they’re available. Charley S happens to work at the BBC publicity department next door. Though she’s visibly drained by a busy day at work (it’s New Doctor Who Day today), she kindly joins me for a while, before heading off for an early night.
Then I decide to get on a tube to Tower Hill, and impose myself on Vout-O-Reenee’s once again. I enter to a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ by Ms Parkin and the regulars. Later on, Debbie Smith turns up and buys me champagne, this time accompanied by Beth, the singer from her current band Blindness. There’s another surprise when Ms Parkin suddenly presents me with a freshly-baked chocolate cake, hot from the Vout’s oven, and complete with a candle. I think it’s the first time I’ve had to blow out candles on a cake since I was about 9.
* * *
On waiting for a Night Bus home, I am laughed at by a group of young students. They are chatting as they approach, then suddenly pause as they pass, then burst into spluttering mockery as they walk on.
Today I’m wearing a birthday present, in fact: a brand new made-to-measure linen suit, being a gift from my mother. The tailor I saw at A Suit That Fits, in Glasshouse Street, had convinced me to have the jacket tapered around the chest, rather than my usual preference of a loose (and indeed louche) bagginess. While it’s not quite Zoot Suit territory, this extra definition in the cut must enhance my ability to stand out, for better or worse. On the Tube earlier, I had a couple of ‘nice suit mate’ comments. I suppose these catcalls may well be sarcastic, but at least they weren’t accompanied with group laughter. That’s the aspect that never feels nice, especially when walking alone.
So I struggle with twisting this ending to an otherwise pleasing day into some sort of positive conclusion to turning 44. I could look at it as confirmation of My Role in Society. Someone has to be Visibly Weird, so all the Confidently Normal people can feel good about themselves. (You’re welcome, society!)
But no, that’s an angry reaction. It’s better to just view all mockery as a compliment to one’s individuality. Indeed, much of the attention is because I am simply out in public by myself, and they are nearly always in groups. If I can receive the same sort of reactions that I’ve had since being a teenager, I have demonstrably still ‘got it’, whatever that may be. It’s proof that I exist, and it’s nice to exist. In other words, happy birthday.
Tags: a suit that fits
, carol morley
, debbie smith
, heights bar
, jason decaires taylor
, my birthday
, sophie parkin
, st paul's cathedral
A Noted Woman Of Noise
Friday 23rd May 2014. The results of the local elections are in. My ward’s three seats (Highgate ward, in Haringey) all went to the Lib Dems, just as they’ve done for decades. But it’s a more impressive feat this time, given the party’s current lack of popularity nationally. A post-election map of Haringey usually has a block of red to the east (for Labour, where the wards are poorer, such as Tottenham), with a block of yellow to the west (for the Liberals, where the wards are wealthier, such as Crouch End and Highgate).
Today the block of red is still in place, but the block of yellow is covered in grey. The western wards’ council seats have been split between different parties. Only one ward has remained yellow: my own Highgate.
So low is the Lib Dems’ popularity nationally that their leader, the aspartame-like Mr Clegg, is fighting off calls to resign. But around my street, they could set fire to kittens. They’d still get on the council.
(That said, in the 2012 mayoral election, my ward chose the Tories’ Boris Johnson over the Lib Dems’ Brian Paddick. The unconvincing Mr Paddick must have been a loyalty too far.)
Am more pleased by the result a few blocks away, in the other Highgate ward; the bit of Highgate that falls under the boundary of Camden Council. Camden’s only Green Party seat is there, now retained by Sian Berry. The three Lib Dem candidates all came last. It’s a very London feeling: the reverse of anything only a few streets away.
* * *
I’m walking through the reception of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, Gordon Square, when one of the porters calls out, ‘Thanks for the mention in your diary!’ This is Bernie, who retrieved my lost sheet of essay notes the other week. ‘I don’t know where you find the time to write it,’ he adds. I blurt out something about it being a hobby. Like indoor rock climbing, only more strenuous.
* * *
Saturday 24th May 2014. I’m reading All She Wanted (1996) by Aphrodite Jones, lent to me by Becky Boston. It’s a ‘true crime’ book about the Brandon Teena case, the story which was then turned into the Hilary Swank film, Boys Don’t Cry. According to Ms Jones, there’s no evidence that the name ‘Brandon Teena’ was properly adopted by Brandon himself, despite its usage in the film, and in Ms Swank’s Oscar acceptance speech, and indeed on Wikipedia today.
What is definite is that at the time of his murder, Brandon was living as just that, ‘Brandon’. He tried to avoid referring to the ‘Teena’ on his official ID whenever possible, sometimes pronouncing it as the more male-sounding ‘Tenna’, but only when questioned. So my feeling now is that it might be more respectful to refer to him as ‘T.R. Brandon’, or as the one-word name of ‘Brandon’, a la Morrissey. Still, ‘Brandon Teena’ at least signifies maleness, and that’s the main thing.
* * *
Sunday 25th May 2014. I stay up and watch the European Parliament election results come in. The UK map turns UKIP purple. It’s the first national election for about a century where the triumphant party is neither Conservative nor Labour. This is meant to signify an ‘earthquake’ in British politics, but in fact 65% of the electorate didn’t use their vote at all. It’s a landslide for indifference.
In order to feel less depressed, I tell myself the purple bits on the election maps are really a victory for Barney The Purple Dinosaur. The children’s TV character, who just wants to hug everyone.
Still, the Greens have added a third MEP to their two. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, only just hang onto to one.
* * *
Tuesday 27th May 2014. To the ICA to see the film Exhibition (£3). The screening is packed. This is rather apt, as it’s such an ICA-compatible film that it even has a scene set in the ICA cinema. In a dream sequence, Ms Albertine is seen attending a Q&A there, in which she is both onstage being interviewed, and in the audience watching herself. If there’s an award for Most Arthouse Film Moment In An Arthouse Film, that has to be a strong contender.
Exhibition, as the name suggests, is an arthouse film about actual artists and their actual house. The musician Viv Albertine plays a Cindy Sherman type, all performance and props and use of her body, while Liam Gillick (an artist in real life) plays her live-in partner, who does something unfathomable involving computers. Tom Hiddleston also pops up briefly as an estate agent, in a film that couldn’t be further from The Avengers and the Thor films if it tried.
Apart from the ICA scene, the main location is the couple’s modernist-style Kensington home, one with sliding panel walls, plate glass windows and polished wooden floors, the kind that forces visitors to take their shoes off on entering. For the most part, the film is the house: a minimal story in minimalist architecture. The soundtrack delights in ambient noises – footsteps on floors, doors opening and closing somewhere out of view, making the house into a speaking character.
The irony about Ms Albertine’s character is that her art may be about exhibiting her body, but she herself is withdrawn and non-communicative. Before the film begins, there’s a trailer for a documentary about Kathleen Hanna, the American punk singer. The trailer is stuffed full of women’s noise and women’s voices. Viv Albertine is a punk rock woman too, being the guitarist in The Slits. Yet you’d never know it from her performance in Exhibition. A noted woman of noise, steeped so entirely in silence.
* * *
Wednesday 28th May 2014. I sit in the Barbican centre, reading. Opposite me is a group of young students playing about, possibly drama students on a trip. More girls than boys. They must be over twenty years younger than me, but I recognise certain types that existed when I was their age, and which presumably will always exist. There’s the class clown – stealing girls’ bags and running around with them (‘Kevin!’). After that he sits down and plays that slapping game with one of the girls. It’s the game with the hands pressed together as if in prayer, daring the other to move first (what was that? did I ever do it?). Another girl is doing kung-fu kicks in the air. Two more slide down the bannisters.
Then there’s the class Casanova, a confident boy with perfect stubble who seems to be holding a girl on each knee. And the class Ophelia, a hippyish girl who sits on the ground far too quickly – despite the filthy carpet and the perfectly good spare seats. There’s also a butch girl in a black t-shirt and Trilby hat, marching about purposefully with a hand-rolled cigarette in her lips, looking for somewhere to smoke.
Then I notice them staring at me staring at them, and I move. To use their slang, observational diarists are the worst.
* * *
I am invited by Shanthi S to the Genesis cinema in Whitechapel, there to see Fading Gigolo. The cinema is so cheap – £3.50 for a new mainstream film on Mondays and Wednesdays. So we use the money saved to have an equally cheap meal at a Chinese restaurant, a few doors along the Mile End Road. Shanthi brings her friend Rosie, who runs a vintage clothes stall. She loved Under The Skin, not least because, like Scarlett Johansson, she too is a woman who drives a large van around. Full of vintage clothes, rather than naked Scotsmen, though.
Fading Gigolo is written and directed by John Turturro, who stars in it alongside Woody Allen. The story is very unlikely – Mr Turturro is an escort for various glamorous women – and it doesn’t quite hold its funny bits together with its more serious bits – Vanessa Paradis as a widow, whose depression is healed by Mr Turtorro. But the funny bits are very funny indeed, most of them given to Mr Allen.
* * *
Thursday 29th May 2014. To the Birkbeck student bar in Torrington Square, for end-of-year drinks with some fellow students: Elton, Finola, Ralph, Tim, Kerensa. The bar’s on the fourth floor, and we go outside onto the open-air terrace. Though the sun’s out, we have to use several piles of napkins to mop up the rainwater from the chairs. I seem to be the only English student present to not have done the Milton module, which the others all rave about. Three years as a literature student, and I still am no closer to feeling well-read. Always more to read. Always more to feel behind about.
* * *
Friday 30th May 2014. I finish reading Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. The passages on drink and hangovers are superb, as are the sudden fantasies of violence against those who irritate. But it’s not quite the comedic experience I was hoping for. Perhaps because I have little sympathy with a teacher who hates teaching – I feel more for the students whom he lets down. And yet I’m keen to read more Amis, for the prose style and the wit, if not for the cruel characters.
I also want to know more about Michel, Professor Welch’s effeminate writer son with ‘long pale hair’, who only appears right at the end. In the introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, David Lodge comes close to apologising for Amis’s treatment of women, saying the character of Margaret would effectively have her own story told by the next generation of female authors. But I want to read Michel Welch’s story too.
, birkbeck bar
, brandon teena
, fading gigolo
, lucky jim
, viv albertine