Drinking Wine In Hospitals And Libraries

Saturday 21st November 2015.

I meet Tom, Charis and their friends at the British Library, to see the new Alice In Wonderland exhibition in the lobby. Or at least, we try to see the exhibition. A huge queue for it stretches across the width of the building, doubles up at the end, and appears not to be moving. A woman at the information desk tells me that interest in the exhibition has been overwhelming, and they were taken by surprise. This is the first weekend, though, after all the press coverage, and it’s open till April. So we postpone the visit for another day. How interesting, though, that a mid-Victorian children’s book can have such a hold on a twenty-first century public, and that people will queue to see old books in glass cases.

Well, people except us. Instead, we take a look at the Alice pop-up shop – also crammed – before I show them the Spice Girls Staircase in the St Pancras hotel next door. I also point out this year’s Christmas tree in St Pancras station. It’s a tottering pile of Disney soft toys, from Mickey Mouse to the heroine of Frozen. Among them is the White Rabbit from the Disney cartoon of Alice In Wonderland, which is a neat consolation. Then we go for refreshments in Drink Shop And Do, in the Caledonian Road. I suggest this crafts-based female-friendly venue, partly because most of our group is female, but mainly because I get nervous around football fans in pubs, and it’s a Saturday afternoon. There’s a pile of board games available, and I play my first ever game of Jenga.

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Monday 23rd November 2015.

MA class on The Submission, by Amy Waldman. It’s a clever novel about the politics of post-terrorism grief, where the winner of a competition to design a 9/11 memorial turns out to be a Muslim, thus triggering a range of protests. The timing of this class with the Paris attacks makes the issues all the more relevant. There was an article this week about how one of ISIS’s aims is the elimination of the ‘grey zone’, as in toleration, nuance of thought, consideration of complexity, and the peaceful co-existence of different faiths. By firmly foregrounding this theme, Ms Waldman’s book works as a good memorial in itself.

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Tuesday 24th November 2015.

I am in the British Library to work on my first MA essay. I’ve not been here since May, but there are a couple of staffers in the Rare Books Reading Room who still greet me with ‘Mr Edwards!’ when I go to collect my requested items. They also add that they enjoyed seeing me in the book I Am Dandy.

The Rare Books room still has 40 desks where laptops are banned. I tend to favour these, partly to keep up my longhand writing, but also because they are rarely occupied.

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Wednesday 25th November 2015.

To the private view of Quentin Blake – The Hospital Drawings, at South Kensington and Chelsea Mental Health Centre. This is a clinic next to the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital on Fulham Road. Mr Blake has made specially commissioned drawings for the walls of British hospitals for ten years now, and this exhibition features a selection of these works. His productivity is all the more impressive, given he is now in his eighties. Asked to provide nineteen drawings, one for each bedroom on a mental health ward, he delivered sixty. His scribbly, sketchy style is typically colourful and lively for a sequence designed for a children’s ward – images of friendly space aliens, to help children be less fearful of doctors. But the drawings for adult clinics are more restrained. There’s dots for eyes instead of his usual googly circles, and his signature messy lines are calmed through washes of pale watercolour – greys, greens, light browns and golds. There’s still plenty of silliness, though: he illustrates therapeutic activities by having elderly people sitting in trees playing cellos or feeding mad-looking birds. One sequence has older people performing circus tricks on a senior-friendly level – a tightrope walker is mere inches from the ground.

Mr Blake himself turns up tonight to open the exhibition in person. A consultant introduces him as ‘Britain’s most famous living illustrator’, which is surely true. ‘At first I worried,’ QB says in his speech, ‘that the drawings of elderly people might be in bad taste. Then I realise I’m part of the same social group as they are, so I’m allowed.’ The last time I was in the same room as him, it was at a Puffin Club Show in the early 80s. I would have been about ten. The prints and drawings in this exhibition are all for sale, in aid of the Nightingale Project, an organisation that puts art into British hospitals. Many of the works are a mere £300 each. He is an artist of the people, in many ways.

One of my favourite lesser-known Blake works is The Bed Book, where he illustrated Sylvia Plath’s poems for children. (Link to an article about it here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/04/04/the-bed-book-sylvia-plath-quentin-blake/)

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Thursday 26th November 2015.

After last night’s free wine in the corridors of a mental health clinic, I enjoy more free drinks in an unlikely space – the London Library’s Reading Room, in St James’s Square. It’s the Members’ Christmas Party, and I chat with the likes of Travis Elborough, Andrew Martin, and various fellow Library members, some of whom turn out to be fellow Birkbeck postgraduate students too. I’ve found that my seahorse brooch is perfect for getting conversations started with strangers. I rarely go up to people I don’t know, so it’s good if they have a reason to come up to me. If only to say they like the brooch.

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Friday 27th November 2015.

Afternoon: I give another tour at Wynd’s Museum of Curiosities in Mare Street, some of it filmed by a lady from Time Out.

Evening: to the East Finchley Phoenix for the film Carol, directed by Todd Haynes. His last big screen affair was the experimental Bob Dylan biography, I’m Not There. After seeing Carol I realise that both films end with a shot of Cate Blanchett looking directly at the camera. Then she was in male drag as the 60s Dylan. In Carol she’s in a more conventional female role, but still with an otherworldly air. Her character is a spellbinding New York society wife during the 1950s, who draws a young shopgirl into a romance. Like many of Mr Haynes’s films, the emphasis is on outsiders coping to be themselves in an artificial world, though this is his most accessible work yet. In fact, it’s based on Patricia Highsmith’s autobiographical novel of the same name, which was notable for reaching selling nearly a million copies in the 1950s, while daring to give its gay characters a happy ending. So it’s only right the film version is aimed at a mass audience.

Despite this, Carol still has an arthouse sensibility. Every frame of this film is ravishing and balletic in its rendering of the era, much like an Edward Hopper painting. The two leads (Rooney Mara as the younger) manage to channel the mannerisms of the films from that period, with much blowing of cigarette smoke in stylish directions. Ms Blanchett has a touch of a slowed-down Katharine Hepburn (in a dreamy reprise of her actual Hepburn in The Aviator), while Ms Mara closely resembles Audrey Hepburn, albeit a more inscrutable, guarded version. Just when it can’t get any better, Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia and Sleater-Kinney turns up.

It’s only occurred to me now that the title ‘Carol’ is not just a reference to the Blanchett character, but a play on the Christmas setting of the story, and how this links to the gift-giving themes of the story. So the release date is well-chosen, too.

* * *

I leaf through the London Evening Standard. As it’s a free newspaper, I take pains to save waste and only read it after it has been discarded by someone else, usually onto the seat of a Tube carriage. A few years ago, when the ES cost 50p and had to compete with two free papers, it ran a poster campaign depicting a carriage covered with copies of its rivals. ‘No one throws away the Standard’, the poster boasted, making the connection between litter and financial worth. Today the Standard is free, and people indeed throw it away. The poster turned out to be the advertising equivalent of Neville Chamberlain’s ‘Peace For Our Time’ speech. It’s the same lesson: never make hasty claims about pieces of paper.

* * *

Tonight’s ES carries a decent interview with Sian Berry, the Green candidate for next year’s mayoral election. She turns out to be the only candidate who lives in a rented studio flat, being one room with an en-suite bathroom. I suspect that this fact alone could swing things in her favour. There may be more to London’s problems than the property crisis, but (to misquote The Smiths) not much more. Other problems – crime, poverty, the closing of small businesses, the overcrowding of transport networks – all link to the failure to do something about property prices. This week sees the closure of yet another Soho landmark, the Stockpot café in Old Compton Street.

Another property story in the paper has an element of schadenfreude, though. In Barnes, a multi-million-pound Georgian townhouse has collapsed ‘like a deck of cards’, while undergoing construction work. It had been in the process of having its basement enlarged; a fashionable move among London’s wealthy. It always seems to be the basement, and always to accommodate a range of further luxuries, in this case, ‘a cinema, gym, and wine room’.  As if there was a shortage of such things on their doorstep.

Flipping through the Standard, one gets an impression that Londoners either live in overpriced rented rooms, or that they own vast mansions which must nevertheless be remodelled, with much disruption to the neighbours, in order to be even bigger. The abiding question with all of this is: what is a city for?

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No Need For Singlets

Thurs afternoon: Meet Rachel Stevenson in St James’s, so she can borrow a rare novel from the London Library via my card. The book she’s after is ‘Rain On The Pavements’ by Roland Camberton, a first edition from 1951. It’s London-based, and eponymously enough we get caught up in one of the current sporadic showers while walking to the Tube. I also take Ms S on a tour of the Library, something I love doing ever since I found out members are allowed to bring in visitors.

In the members’ suggestions book, someone has remarked that the British Library now has a summer dress code, and that the LL should follow suit.

‘It may be hot but there is no need for singlets (sic), shorts, and all that goes with them.’

The Library’s reply on the page opposite is ‘We prefer to trust the general sense of forbearance of members.’

While walking through Waterstones Piccadilly, Rachel notices that the in-store music is one of Keith Girdler’s later jazzy bands – Beaumont or Arabesque. I check later on – it’s actually ‘Chadwick’ by Blueboy, from their last album on Shinkansen. In Waterstones, it’s followed by the Cocteau Twins’ ‘Blue Bell Knoll’. We take guesses at which staffer on the tills must be the resident indie kid.

Perhaps the band name triggers something on my inner London To Do list, because walking back through Leicester Square, I impulsively decide to finally visit the Jean Cocteau mural in the French Catholic church, Notre Dame De France. The church is next to the Prince Charles cinema in Leicester Place, mere steps away from the noise and chaos of the square: those eternal Bob Marley caricature pavement artists and the seemingly daily red carpet movie premieres (security barriers and crowds tonight assembling for the new Tarantino with Brad Pitt).

But then, Cocteau was a film star too. According to the church guide, when he painted the mural in situ over a single week in 1959 he was so famous that the church had to set up anti-paparazzi scaffolding so he could work in peace. The mural’s in a side chapel and comprises a gaggle of figures from the Crucifixion and Ascension, all rendered in that unmistakable naive line style.

The artist even gives himself a cameo:

Quite why an original Cocteau mural remains relegated to ‘Secret London’ guidebooks is beyond me. More people really should see it, along with the striking altar tapestry by Robert De Chaunac, where the Virgin resembles a Disney princess:

By of contrast to all this Franco-Catholic colour and noise, I stop off to catch the evening Quaker meeting at the Friends’ House in Euston. No murals or tapestries there, needless to say. Just a modern meeting room with chairs arranged in a circle. In fact, given the building is a warren of similar rooms available to hire, I have to double check to make sure I’ve not stepped into Alcoholics Anonymous.


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