Propaganda For Compassion

Saturday 13th September 2014. To the Phoenix cinema for Pride. This evening screening is nearly sold out; such is the film’s reputation. It’s been sold as the must-see British film of the moment, and promises something to please everyone. It’s very funny and moving, and that’s just Dominic West’s perm.

Despite the theme of gay activism, the film is very much aimed at the mainstream. I think of Quentin Crisp in the 1970s, grateful that The Naked Civil Servant was a TV film, because a big screen version would, he said, have only been seen by gay men, ‘plus liberals wishing to be seen going into and coming out of the cinema’. Times have changed, and gay people are now more regarded – at least in Britain – as people who happen to be gay, and are finally allowed to have other aspects to their lives as well. So it’s fairer to regard Pride as part of the same genre as Brassed Off, Billy Elliot, The Full Monty and especially Made In Dagenham: gritty tales of British social struggles sweetened with broad laughs and big emotional moments. Pride retells a number of true events from 1984, when a group of gay activists from London got involved in supporting the striking miners in Wales.

The requisite 1980s clothes, hair and pop music are all in place: lots of quiffs, little hats, and blue jeans with turn-ups at the bottom. In fact, looking at young people in London today, that particular trouser statement is starting to, well, turn up again. It’s also heartening to see the Gay’s The Word bookshop in Bloomsbury having a key role in the film – I only hope that people who enjoy Pride realise that the shop is still going strong today.

Inevitably some historical facts are played with: entirely fictional characters interact with those based on real people, while my pedantic side winces at the use of the AIDS ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ TV adverts for a scene set in 1984. They didn’t appear till two years later. But when the big emotional moments come, and the music swells on cue, the sense of earning the right to such manipulation is overwhelming. It’s hard to disagree with propaganda, if all that’s being preached is the need for basic compassion.

And there’s nothing like the sound of a packed audience laughing together at funny lines in a film. As the credits go up, this audience applauds.

* * *

Monday 15th September 2014. Advice for writers from Kipling: ‘Drift, wait, and obey.’

* * *

I feel increasingly non-everyman. I wince at non-fiction writing that uses ‘we’ and ‘you’, passing off the writer as some sort of default point of view. I wouldn’t dream of such an assumption. Which is why I can’t do that kind of work.

I don’t write to join in. I write to make sense of my own thoughts, then publish them in the hope they make a connection with the mind of a reader.  I can’t speak for my generation, my class, my gender, my country, my race, my historical era, or even for writers.

From this somewhat self-sabotaging stance, the hope is that what I write might be unique.  The fear is that it might be irrelevant.

* * *

Thursday 18th September 2014. What happiness means. I am sitting on the floor in a corner of a large library (Senate House today), pulling out several books at once and leafing through them on the spot, rather than taking them to a desk. Some are quite old (today it’s a 1950s four volume edition of The Arabian Nights).  No one is bothering me. I am not in anyone’s way. There are no screens or phones about. I think about the people who have turned these pages since the 50s, and those who have walked this floor since the 30s. The silence hangs and comforts.

* * *

Friday 19th September 2014. I wake to the news that the people of Scotland have voted a firm No to independence. I think this is a shame. A Yes result would at least have blown the cobwebs off so many centuries-old situations and systems, and that would have been no bad thing. Still, Mr Cameron has promised all kinds of new governing powers to the Scots by way of a thank you, and the referendum has triggered the start of an ongoing discourse over what nationhood means. What I found particularly uplifting was the huge turnout for voters up in Scotland, particularly amongst the young. I do hope this is the start of a new trend: more people using their vote. Perhaps even Russell Brand – who advocates non-voting – might admit he is wrong about something. That would be a new dawn indeed.

* * *

It’s a warm and sunny day, possibly the dying gasp of summer. Still a few flip-flop wearers about. I go to Camden to see the new Amy Winehouse statue. On the way, I stop off in Camden Square to see the older, more unofficial memorial: the decorated trees near her old house. Fresh messages and little gifts are still tied to the trunks, just as they’ve been since she died three years ago. One offering is a silver eyelash curler. A girl from Paris has included photos of herself in her laminated letter, dated a few weeks ago: her hair and make-up clearly emulating Ms Winehouse’s. ‘Amy Winehouse We Love You’ is scrawled over a nearby council sign, battling with the printed phrase ‘Clean Up After Your Dog’. As I walk on, I realise I’ve trodden in some dog shit.

It takes me fifteen minutes to walk to Camden Town proper. Here people from all over the world can be seen united in a single activity: eating cheap noodles from tinfoil tubs. The generations come and go, but Camden’s t-shirt stalls are clocks to consult for the pop culture of the day. Today I spot a t-shirt for Breaking Bad.

I find the Winehouse statue in Staples Market. It’s on a semi-circular sunken dais behind the Proud Camden building. This dais in turn juts over the lower ground level, so the statue looks like she’s performing onstage. The figure is close to the ground rather than on a plinth, and as she is more or less life-size she has a Madame Tussaud’s quality. More tourist attraction than memorial. You can put your arm around her, should you wish. In fact, I’m guessing this is the intention. And yet the tourists I see around me today seem hesitant to get too near. They take photos, but do not include themselves in the shot. I wonder if this is because it’s so new (installed September 14th), or if they feel too self-conscious, what with it being so conspicuous and public. Still, there’s some tidy bouquets at her feet, and with a letter of love from someone in Barcelona. The stature is grey except for a red rose in her beehive hairdo. The rose turns out to be real; it’s up to others to replace it. She would have been 31 this week.


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Joining The Ministry Of Truth

Saw this cartoon (thanks to Minerva Miller):

Good joke, though obviously it doesn’t bear much examination – the little girl is able to read the books ON the device. A library card is not much use as an object until you go to the library.

As before, I think it’s so wrong to view these things as competing with each other, or like mp3s versus vinyl. Better to think that when it comes to ways of accessing books, the more the merrier.

To this end, as well as being an avid Kindle user, I’ve just acquired my seventh London library card. It’s for the University of London’s Senate House, which caters for all the UOL colleges, Birkbeck included. Birkbeck’s own library is well-stocked, but I’ve already found that its limited copies of textbooks tend to get snapped up by the other students on my course if I’m not fast enough, even the reference copies. One option is to buy them, of course, but many of these doorstoppers cost upwards of £25 a time. Even if you resell them to other students when you’ve finished with them (via Amazon Marketplace, say) you still have to find the money upfront. And besides, it feels wasteful.

So I’m milking every possible library option. I’m currently a member of:

Haringey Libraries (public lending)
Islington Libraries (public lending)
Camden Libraries (public lending)
The British Library (public reference)
The London Library (private subscription, via their grant system)
Birkbeck Library (academic)
Senate House Library (academic)

Plus I’m getting a free SCONUL Access card, which lets me use a further 23 academic libraries in London.

So if I still can’t get hold of a book now, I know it won’t be for want of trying.

Getting a Senate House card has also been an ambition for years as a lover of beautiful buildings and libraries, ever since I was first shown it in the early 90s. This was while walking around Bloomsbury with Keith Girdler, the singer with Blueboy. He pointed out the way the building suddenly leered out at you with its gorgeous, Art Deco Orwellian majesty (literally Orwellian too – Senate House inspired the Ministry of Truth in 1984). He also told me it was a university library, so we couldn’t go inside.

Keith died of cancer a few years ago, not much older than me. I’d like to show him my new library card and say: thanks. Got there eventually, Keith.


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