A Party Band For The Shy
Saturday 27th June 2015.
Summer in the city. My fellow males get out their shorts and flip-flops, I reach for my white linen suits and ties. The phrase ‘comfortable clothing’ is entirely subjective. I think of those women who say they always wear high heels, to the point where walking in flats would be more difficult.
* * *
Sunday 28th June 2015.
Watch some of the BBC’s impressive coverage of Glastonbury. Quite like the way Belle and Sebastian have become a party band for the shy. The singer Stuart Murdoch bounces around the vast stage, and gets people from the crowd to come up and dance with him. Very different to the time I saw them at the Union Chapel in 1997, when the band performed warily and nervously, as if scared of their own microphones.
* * *
Monday 29th June 2015.
I read Edward St Aubyn’s comic novel Lost For Words, just released in paperback. It’s an enjoyable if light satire, seemingly written by St Aubyn as a diversion into playfulness, following on from his more serious Patrick Melrose series. I’m reminded how James Hamilton-Paterson dabbled in camp comedy late into his career, and successfully so, with Cooking With Fernet Branca.
Mr St Aubyn’s tale concerns various figures involved with a high-profile British literary prize. It’s not actually called the Booker Prize in the book, but that’s obviously the main target, down to the televised ceremony in a London banqueting hall. Much of the comedy arises from the way the judging of the prize has little to do with literary merit, and everything to do with personal agendas and ego. The conceit that an unassuming cookbook by an Indian auntie is mistaken for an innovative postmodern novel may stretch credulity, but the pay-off is too irresistible for this to matter. St Aubyn himself has his own agenda, having been a Booker shortlister, and so a Booker loser, with Mother’s Milk a few years ago. So at first the novel might seem like a piece of blatant sour grapes. But any opportunity for true nastiness – like murder – is reined in, and it’s just egos that end up bruised. St Aubyn’s message is more about the arbitrary nature of arts awards per se, rather than an attack on the people who give them out.
I do have a soft spot for his elegant observations. One example is: ‘They had drifted apart, as people do when they promise to stay in touch; the ones who are going to stay in touch don’t need to promise’.
Another is allotted to an inept editor, who sinks into depression but eventually talks himself round with this thought:
We were not put on this earth to hate ourselves.
The sentence is stark, useful, and meant. I like Lost For Words for that line alone.
* * *
Tuesday 30th June 2015.
To Gordon Square for a meeting with my final year Personal Tutor, Peter Fifield, just to wind the degree course up. Then to a ‘taster’ class on the MA course I’m hoping to do, in Contemporary Literature and Culture. We look at Joyce’s Ulysses, which I still haven’t read in full. From the extracts I can tell I’ll really enjoy it if I do, as opposed to just reading it out of duty. Finnegans Wake is more off-putting.
* * *
Wednesday 1st July 2015.
The hottest day in London for nearly ten years. Many trains have to run slowly to stop the rails from buckling, so there’s lots of delays. Once the trains do arrive, the insides are like furnaces. All this, despite the expensive fares.
After much anguish, I decide against attending a friend’s birthday in Crystal Palace. One reason is it would mean over two and a half hours spent being baked alive on public transport. Another is that I’m riddled with a summer cold. I apologise and send a card, but the guilt eats away.
* * *
My dry cough is made worse by the heat. I go to Boots in Euston for a bottle of Pholcodine Linctus, a medicine so strong in its drowsy effects that it is kept behind the counter. Once taken, there must be no driving, no alcohol, and no captaining of nuclear submarines.
The pharmacist asks me a few questions before she lets me have the bottle.
‘Who advised you to buy this?’
I confess: ‘Mumsnet.’
* * *
Thursday 2nd July 2015.
I write a letter to a US reader who is curious about my living arrangements. Do I really share a shower and a W.C. with ‘strangers’? This disturbs her.
Well, yes. It’s not quite like an American boarding house, as each rented room has its own little kitchen area inside – that’s what makes them bedsits. Two of the other tenants are people I knew socially before they moved in. The other two are only strangers in the sense that neighbours are strangers. I occasionally say hello to them in the hallway, and they seem nice enough. We operate the shared washrooms on a system of karmic consideration. If you use something, like a toilet roll, you replace it. If you make a mess, you clean it up. No rotas. Somehow we manage to get along.
I have lived like this all my adult life.
* * *
Evening: A second Pilates class at Jacksons Lane. The summer heat makes it much more like hard work, and I come away drenched in sweat, but glad I went. I’m still the only man there, out of a class of about a dozen.
* * *
Friday 3rd July 2015.
I love going to cinemas when it’s hot in London. The air conditioning is usually decent, and there’s the extra friendship of the darkness, now that the sun is so unkind. No skin cream needed for cinemas.
To the Curzon Soho for The Overnight, a small-scale American comedy, about two pairs of youngish, middle-class couples who spend a night at the artier couple’s house, getting to know each other. As the night goes on, the conventionally-minded guests are increasingly worried that their hosts want to know them much more intimately. This ‘middle class swingers’ plot is always good value – I think of the film The Ice Storm, Martin Amis’s Dead Babies, Julian Barnes’s Metroland, and even episodes of sitcoms like I’m Alan Partridge. But with its broad strokes and some crude humour, The Overnight is more a straightforward comedy of manners than social comment. The chief pleasure comes from watching Jason Schwartzman play yet another creepy but charismatic character, another little man who seeks to tower over others psychologically.
In the Curzon café, a woman at the table next to me uses what I assume to be a mirror, to pluck at a lone hair on her chin. Except on looking closer I realise it’s not a compact mirror, but the reverse camera option on her iPhone.
* * *
Dinner at the 5th floor student canteen at Birkbeck, in Torrington Square. Fish and chips for £4. I like the occasional comfort of ‘fish on Friday’, the alliterative tradition of the menu, as it was at school. Today is the last day of the summer term, and so it’s the last time to get a cheap evening meal here. I eat alone on the rooftop terrace. There are plenty of students chattering nearby, but they’re all in the Birkbeck bar, on the balcony level below. Here, it’s breezy enough to make the napkins flutter.
I’m told there are still some weeks to go before I am sent a ‘transcript’: the piece of paper which officially confirms my degree. In the meantime a long Pass List, covering all of Birkbeck’s Class of 2015, will go up on the college website on the 17th July. Not so far away now.
* * *
Tags: belle and sebastian
, Edward St Aubyn
, The Overnight
Up Amongst The Gods
Saturday 19th July 2014. I am still reeling from a single sentence of a Muriel Spark story. ‘He looked as if he would murder me and he did.’
It’s from ‘The Portobello Road’ (1958). The lack of a comma before the ‘and’ is deliberate and crucial to the effect.
* * *
London is hot and humid. Some tube stations have finally managed to pump air conditioning into their ancient tunnels. Oxford Circus is one. But a few stations have natural blasts of air all year round, as a side-effect of the architecture. There is a sign at the top of the Kentish Town escalator saying ‘hold onto your hat!’ The wind rushes in as one steps off, and one feels like Marcel Marceau, struggling to walk against the breeze.
I drag out my linen ensemble every day to the point where its whiteness is visibly in question. The best place to go for reading and writing in such temperatures is the British Library, with its air conditioning, huge reading rooms, and high ceilings.
At St Pancras station next door, the branch of Foyles is in its last few weeks. After six years of profitable bookselling, they will close for good on July 31st. It is not Amazon or e-books that have defeated them, but the rent increases of the landlord. Today Foyles St Pancras has a little display of books marked ‘So Long’. One of them is their local top bestseller, The Expats by Chris Pavone. It is a thriller set among the sort of people who take the Eurostar regularly: intrigue on the Continent, characters who zip about from London to Paris.
* * *
Sunday 20th July 2014. My course choices for the fourth and final year of the BA English have been confirmed. Happily, it’s all the modules I wanted. From October till May next year I will be studying ‘Literature 1945-1979’, which is effectively British Post-War novels and poetry. The other course is ‘The American Century’, which is all types of USA literature from 1900 to the present. I’m also doing a thesis on Literary Camp, for which there are no classes. Instead, I’m left to my own self-discipline, and only have to report to a supervisor every so often. This is something which slightly scares me, but it’s about time I was let off the leash. Another little step.
The classes for the two courses will be on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, in Bloomsbury. It’s funny how a whole chunk of one’s time can be allocated away just like that. Thus I commit my life to London, and to the degree, for one more year.
* * *
Monday 21st July 2014. To 10 Upper Bank Street, one of the skyscrapers in Canary Wharf. Not the biggest one with the point, and not one of its two companions, but another slightly shorter one close by. It’s currently the world headquarters of the law firm Clifford Chance. Tonight they have let Birkbeck use their 30th floor to host their Scholar’s Evening. This is where various donors, alumni and patrons of Birkbeck meet some of the current students and discuss the importance of the college’s work. I was invited as an example of a penurious student who has benefited from such support. The invite told me there was no obligation to attend, but I am always happy to be a Birkbeck praise singer, so I go along. And besides, I do love a skyscraper.
I get out at Canary Wharf station, and explore the area. Everything is designed to within an inch of its geometric, twenty-first century life.
Next door to the skyscraper is Jubilee Park, built not on top of earth but over the roof of the tube station and shopping mall below. It is a roof garden at street level. A sign advertises a free performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this very evening.
The Clifford Chance building is straight out of a Christopher Nolan film. Outer walls of plate glass, pristine rooms of open-plan modernism, long toilets with mirrors at either end, doors that disappear into pine panels. I feel ready for my Inception fight scene.
The clean lines apply to the people too: a strict dress code of ‘as smart as possible’. Dark suits for myself and the other male students. We look like we could all be in finance, even though many of us are in history, or science, or in my case, literature.
At the lobby I am given a badge (‘Dickon Edwards – BA English’) and a plastic visitor’s pass with which to best the security barriers. Then I’m escorted into an express lift, which zooms directly to the floor in question, ears threatening to pop.
The event is in a large, open room that forms the south-west corner of the thirtieth floor. Two of its walls are floor-to-ceiling windows commanding views over the Thames and beyond, particularly Greenwich to the south and Rotherhithe to the west. I can make out the red ball at the top of Greenwich Observatory, tiny yet clear on this bright summer day.
It is not the height that makes me giddy, but the apprehension of the city as achievement. What a piece of work is a man, indeed.
There’s about 150 people here. I don’t feel it’s right to approach them by myself, but thankfully there are Birkbeck staffers on hand who physically grab me and introduce me to donors and governors. I live in a rented bedsit and worry about being able to buy new shoes. Not only do these people have enough money to not live like that, but they choose to spend some of their spare money on helping people like me study for a degree. So tonight I feel up amongst the gods.
I meet the Birkbeck Master, David Latchman, who is effectively the boss. He’ll be the one presenting me with my degree next year, all being well. I also meet Tricia King, who is the Pro-Vice-Master for Student Experience, and Hilary Fraser, who is my more immediate boss, being as she is the Executive Dean of the School of Arts. I chat to some of the donors too, many of whom were once at Birkbeck themselves. One gentleman is from the steel firm ArcelorMittal, who funded the Orbit, the twisting sculpture-cum-watchtower in the Olympic Park. I tell him how it can be seen from as far away as Highgate Hill, and that I mean to go up it sometime, when it’s open again (the Olympic park was closed after the 2012 Games). He tells me it is open again. So I make a mental note to go to the Orbit soon, and to think of its connection with Birkbeck when I do.
Speeches are given, free wine is served. In her speech, Tricia King is kind enough to mention me and even point me out. The honorary President of Birkbeck, Baroness Joan Bakewell, then comes over to me (an important detail!) and congratulates me for coming back to education, and sticking with it.
I am asked if I can cram my story into a Tweet, allowing for the dutiful hashtag. I provide the following:
Birkbeck upgrades minds. I dropped out of A-levels; am dyspraxic & dyslexic. Now doing a BA English, getting 1st class marks. #BBKScholars.
Just before I leave, I look down over Jubilee Park next door, and see that the performance of A Midsummer’s Night Dream has begun. The symbolism is irresistible. Birkbeck has enabled me to literally look at literature from a position of empowerment.
I go down to street level and watch some of the show. The production is a loose and fun version, featuring stuffed animal toys at one point. People are sitting around with picnics as the sun sets. This moment in the metropolis feels happy and peaceful, even Utopian; how a civilisation should be. A midsummer night’s urban dream.
* * *
Tuesday 22nd July 2014. To the ICA for Finding Vivian Maier. It’s a film that’s been getting a lot of attention – posters on the tube even, unusual for what is essentially a BBC4-type arts documentary. It tells the story of the amateur street photographer of the title, who despite being immensely prolific died without ever displaying her work.
The story starts with her negatives being bought in a garage sale by the young man who narrates the film. He has them printed, and is startled by the quality of the work, yet cannot find a mention of her on Google (that very modern reflex action, now part of life, and so part of movies). So begins his double campaign: to have Vivian Maier’s photographs brought to public attention, and to find out why she didn’t do this herself. The film takes in all kinds of issues, such as the connection between ‘eccentricity’ and mental health, the role of live-in nannies in families, and the strange rules some arts institutions have when defining art. One gallery tells the narrator that if a photographer didn’t print their own work, they cannot be regarded as a proper artist. He convincingly exposes the flaws in this argument, backing it up with instances of famous photographers who did have their work printed posthumously. The work is the image, not the print. Thank to this film, Vivian Maier has made her name at last. Even if she didn’t want to.
, canary wharf
, foyles st pancras
, joan bakewell
, muriel spark
, scholars evening
, vivian maier
Friday 3rd January 2014. My old problem persists: I have insomnia during most of the night, and as a result sleep straight through till noon, alarm clock and all. I know that to sleep through the morning is a cliché of student life, but for a mature student the joke is tired and old, because the student is tired and old too (and no amount of sleep ever seems to properly refresh me). It can only make one wake up in a foul mood, angry to feel time has been lost, and that the carefully prepared list of things to do must now be frantically revised to fit into whatever time remains. The next three weeks are particularly busy: a logjam of college deadlines. I have to finish an essay on Old English riddles, read Ms Austen’s Northanger Abbey, study an academic article about that, start revising for a translation test (again on Old English), write an essay on Dorian Gray, and prepare extracts from Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance. For me, just getting up in the morning is a definition of fist-pumping athletic success.
* * *
Saturday 4th January 2014. Time wasted today includes at least twenty minutes trying to get the zip on one of my boots unstuck.
One New Year’s Resolution is to favour independent cafes while they still exist. Today I’m in Bar Bruno in Wardour Street, one of the few of the 1960s kind left in Soho, and sit in the booth that Sebastian Horsley was fond of.
This month will see the closure of the Candy Bar in Soho, the lesbian hostelry which I’ve spent quite a few happy evenings in over the years – at the invite of Sapphic friends, I feel obliged to add. The overwhelming memory is not feeling unusually male in such a crowd, but feeling unusually tall.
Like the First Out café before it, the Candy Bar is the victim not of a lack of customers but of a prohibitive increase in the property’s rent. This combination of unchecked greed on the part of landlords, coupled with a lack of intervention by the authorities, is certainly not limited to London. But it does boil down to a worrying widespread shift in priorities: the pursuit of wealth for the few placed well above the pursuit of basic quality of life for everyone else. What are cities for? One definition is for hubs of variety and diversity, for spaces like the Candy Bar, where the likeminded and minorities can feel in the majority for once. The wealth of a city exists in more forms than money.
On the Internet, ‘Share this’ is a common mantra, a box to click on next to some offering of ‘content’. I want to tick such a box for London. Share this. Share this.
* * *
Sunday 5th January 2014
Today I investigate Soho’s Secret Tea Room. ‘Secret’ because one has to ask the bar staff of the Coach and Horses pub in Greek Street to gain access. This is the old stomping ground of Mr Jeffrey Bernard, and indeed forms the setting of the play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell. Today it identifies as ‘London’s First Vegetarian Pub’, serving very reasonably priced veggie roast dinners on Sundays. Mr Bernard and the old host ‘Norm’ may be long gone, but the pub’s other long-term association – with Private Eye magazine – seems to be still going strong. I have butternut squash stuffed with quinoa while being gazed upon by framed photographs of Ian Hislop, Richard Ingrams and Francis Wheen.
Best of all is the décor in the upstairs room: a style of what can only be described as Unabashed Ruined Splendour. Some of the walls are in the shame shade of green as the Colony Room, and 1940s music plays in the background, much like it does at High Tea of Highgate. What I’ve not seen before is that your pot of tea arrives with a little hourglass, so you don’t pour out your tea too soon.
A grizzled-looking man sitting in my carriage on the Northern Line home. I suppose he counts as an actual wino. Visibly drunk, shouting and singing at anyone within range. But also swigging from a full bottle of white wine.
‘How many assumptions have you made in your life, eh?’ he shouts suddenly, at no one in particular. ‘291?’
Then he starts singing ‘Cherry-oh Baby’, the 1980s hit by the band UB40. The group’s oeuvre is normally thought of as remarkably inoffensive. Not today. I presume their much bigger hit, ‘Red Red Wine’, was rejected from the addled jukebox of this man’s mind, on the grounds that it’s the wrong colour of wine. Even drunks have consistency.
Except he can’t remember any more words than ‘Cherry-oh, Cherry-oh Baby’.
‘Cherry-oh, Cherry-oh Baby…’ Pause.
No. No, that is all. That is all the UB. All the 40.
‘Cherry-oh, Cherry-oh Baby…’
And so on, as we go forth together unto Tufnell Park.
I stare away. On the curve of the carriage wall above him there’s an advert for Boots, with the slogan ‘LET’S FEEL GOOD’. Not ‘feel better’ or ‘feel well’, but ‘feel good’. That can’t be helpful. The drunk man feels good.
* * *
Monday 6th January 2014. First class in a new module today: ‘Fiction of the Romantic Age’. Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, William Beckford and so on. So Monday night is now Bonnet Night.
I watch the new episode of Sherlock, where Martin Freeman’s Watson gets married. It daringly plays up the comedy and character development at the expense of much actual crime solving. I find myself rather empathising with Cumberbatch’s Holmes in one respect: having a demonstrably decent brain (if not exactly to his extent), yet socially useless to the point of tragic weirdness. If self-aware with it. I hope.
* * *
Tuesday 7th January 2014. An email from someone who must work in the Search Engine Optimisation business. She is offering to write a free blog post for my diary site, in return for linking some of the words in her text to the website of various commercial companies. As I understand it, the power to affect the order that results come up in Google searches is now worth a lot of money: hence the whole SEO trade. The deliberate proliferation of carefully chosen words linking to such sites is what such people do all day. Illustrate that, Richard Scarry.
She writes that each link will ‘add to the value it gives your visitors.’ What rather subtracts from the value of her offer is that she has clearly not even looked at my website. Even the briefest of glances indicates that it is manifestly not a blog for other people to submit their own pieces to, never mind those pseudonymous, hidden-advert, algorithm-like pieces that clutter up the web.
At least the last time this happened, I was offered money. Someone wanted me to host a Marks and Spencer advert on the diary, forever, for a one-off fee of £60. I replied, saying that although I am indeed ready to sell my soul faster than it takes to eat one of their packs of M&S mango slices, which they insist on calling ‘Mango Madness’ to the delight of no one, I like to think I can get a better price for my soul than £60.
They didn’t reply.
Tags: bar bruno
, candy bar
, coach and horses
, first out
, SEO madness
, soho's secret tea room
Dandies In An Underworld
Friday 11th October 2013. A rainy afternoon spent in Piccadilly with Ray Frensham, fellow subject of the book I Am Dandy and author of Teach Yourself Screenwriting. He takes me for lunch at Brasserie Zedel in Sherwood Street. Once the Atlantic Bar, it’s now a rather splendid and ornate place to meet friends for a meal. Like the Wolseley, it’s actually possible to eat there relatively cheaply if one chooses carefully. You forget it’s in a basement somewhere under Regent Street – the ceiling is so high and the decor so gilded that it manages to feel downright airy.
Mr Frensham is full of entertaining anecdotes, and talks about how his romantic life became more fun after he hit 50 rather than before. The key ingredient being the sense of finally being at home in one’s skin. I certainly find that reassuring. We mooch around Hatchard’s bookshop afterwards, and take photos of each other with the dandy book. Hatchard’s has quite a few copies, filed under Fashion. I’ve since re-bleached my hair so it’s now a little less yellow. Not keen on resembling a sexually confused Eminem.
There’s also a new blog post about the book at the website for Bergdorf Goodman, the New York department store. I am featured as an example of The Dandy As Decadent, with an ‘under-worldly style’.
Mr Frensham tells me that his appearance in the book has already led to offers for modelling suits and so forth. I haven’t heard anything myself – yet. It would obviously be nice if something came of appearing in either that or in the big new diary book (A London Year).
But then, it’s just nice to be included for something I’m happy to be included for. As I think it says on the gates of the Underworld.
Tags: a london year
, brasserie zedel
, i am dandy
, ray frensham
I am appearing in two books by other people, both due out this autumn.
One is I am Dandy: The Return of the Elegant Gentleman. Published by Gestalten (Link here). Portraits of modern dandies, of which I am one, as taken by Rose Callahan. Nathaniel Adams provides a text. I’ve not seen a copy yet, but the cover looks like this:
The other is A London Year: 365 Days of City Life in Diaries, Journals and Letters, compiled by Travis Elborough and Nick Rennison. Published by Frances Lincoln (link here). My online diary is in there, along with the diaries of Samuel Pepys, Derek Jarman, and Alan Bennett.
In both cases, I’m enormously flattered to be included. It’s heartening to feel of abiding use in two fields I feel at home with: dandyism and diary writing. It’s also a reminder that I need to do more with both.
The third field I’ve felt of use to lately is academia. In mid-July, I got the results for the 2nd year of the BA in English which I’m doing at Birkbeck. I was very, very pleased to receive a First in each of the three modules that made up the year, despite my misgivings about the exams and suffering what I suppose must be Difficult Second College Year Syndrome. The novelty of being a mature student had worn off, the work became harder, and I was constantly faced with wondering if I should stick with the degree at all.
So the results remind me that despite the lack of paid work coming my way at present, I know I can at least produce written work in a particular style (in this case, academia) and deliver it on time, and that it’s objectively regarded as Of Worth. So I have that to cling to, for now. Having no money beyond the basics is always going to be frustrating, but it’s really the sum of my problems at present, and it could be much worse. I hope something turns up. I’ve no idea what, though.
In the meantime, I’m getting on with studying the texts for the next term.
Reading about rare words, I come across one which seems to sum things up for me: ‘aestivation’. It means the act of passing the summer. More particularly – when referring to animals – it means spending the summer in a state of inactivity; the summer equivalent of hibernation. In Alan Hollinghurst’s The Spell it is used to describe a character’s sex drive: ‘it seemed to have gone into a monkish kind of aestivation.’
Saturday August 24th. A rainy day in Soho. Parts of the district are still being clawed out of the earth by the diggers, as part of the endless Crossrail development. Some of the building site hoardings are used as a kind of outdoor museum, laminated boards telling the history of Soho. I find the section about The Colony Room, tucked away in the northwest corner of Soho Square, by the junction with Soho Street. I brave the rain and take a few photos. The images on the hoarding are mainly taken from Sophie Parkin’s book on the Colony (link: http://www.thecolonyroom.com/).
There’s a portrait of Sebastian Horsley, with Babette Kulik:
Taylor Parkes comments: ‘That’s London these days, isn’t it? Let all this stuff die, then set up a bloody museum in the street about how great it all used to be.’
Sebastian H certainly shared this sentiment about the Crossrail works affecting Soho, just before he died. So it’s quite amusing to see him decorating the building site like this – I like to see it as a defiant reclamation of territory.
Later, I walk around the newly expanded King’s Cross station. A regular sight there is a crowd of tourists queuing up to have their photograph taken with the half-embedded luggage trolley beneath the obliging sign for ‘Platform 9 and 3/4’. For eight pounds, a couple of enthusiastic staffers from the nearby Harry Potter souvenir shop provide each tourist with extra props – a Hogwarts scarf and an owl cage – and take the photo for them. ‘One! Two! Three! Jump! Awesome!’ And again, for the next person in the queue.
, Sebastian Horsley
Wednesday July 10th 2013: I’m descending the steps from the Tube platform at East Finchley. As I reach the bottom, I nearly collide with a bald, surly looking man coming the other way, who suddenly appears from the corridor to the left. It’s the sort of near-collision between people that would normally just result in a mutual muttering of ‘Oops! Sorry!’ Neither of us are walking particularly fast, after all.
But in fact, this man physically grabs me and holds me in place while he passes by.
I have instant recall of how he does it. Facing me square on, each of his hands take each of my elbows, firmly, confidently, turning me in a fixed object to pivot around. It’s as if he does this sort of thing all the time. I wonder now if he does.
Then he lets go in order to walk up the steps. Shocked, I turn around and glower at him – instantly regretting doing so. He’s now halfway up the stairs behind me. He glowers back but doesn’t stop – and thank goodness.
I also notice that he is wearing headphones, and wonder if that has some relevance. I am not wearing headphones, though I do often walk around in a mass of distracted thoughts, which probably amounts to the same thing.
So I think about who is in the wrong here. In my case, my fault is to (a) be in his way, and (b) to glower at him afterwards. Which is the limit of my responses to most things. He, on the other hand, has responded to (a) by physically holding me in place. And he might, let’s face it, now respond to (b) with violence.
It does happen. I particularly think of the man on the 43 bus who was stabbed to death for asking another man to stop throwing chips at his girlfriend. I do know what it’s like to be physically attacked or threatened in London for no reason whatsoever (and once wrote a song about it), so this sort of thinking isn’t as hysterical as it might sound.
I am not an Alpha Male, and so cannot Hold My Own in such confrontations. I am barely an Omega Male.
But – and this is surely as universal an instinct as glowering back at a stranger for grabbing you – I also try to make eye contact with the other passengers coming down the steps beside me. Because I want the vindication of the crowd. I want to see in their faces that (a) they saw what just happened, and (b) that they are on my side. That he was the one in the wrong.
And I get it. One man remarks ‘Bloody hell. That was a bit much!’ Another says to me ‘Are you okay, man?’
‘Yes…’ I feebly blather. ‘It was just a bit… unexpected.’
I come away feeling at first a bit upset, minor though the incident is. I think what troubles me is that it’s proof there are men who think nothing of suddenly manhandling other men.
But I was also consoled by the reactions of the other passengers. So that was proof that I didn’t deserve such treatment for absent-mindedly wandering down steps without looking where I was going. That between this man and myself, I was the more acceptable one in the eyes of society, if only for five seconds.
It’s the only interaction I have with other people all day.
[Edited to add: by an absolute coincidence, someone has just alerted me to a rare TV clip of Ian Nairn manhandling a stranger who gets in his way. I think this is one instance where such a liberty is justified, in the name of Good Television if nothing else. Starts 6 minutes in: http://youtu.be/p_uqoHZk4R4?t=6m6s]
, tube adventures
Constant hot and sunny weather in London. Gordon Square today is packed with young people in the time honoured student poses: lone figures reading paperbacks on the grass, groups of friends chatting, happy. I walk through the square in my cream linen suit & tie and feel out of place, even though I too am a student. I even have my own locker in the Birkbeck building on the square (in Virginia Woolf’s old house).
I used to get upset about constantly feeling out of place. But then I realised that for some people, their place is to feel out of place.
* * *
I visit the superb ‘Propaganda’ exhibition at the British Library. It is difficult to emerge from it without wanting to become an anarchist, frankly. The exhibition’s history of state manipulation takes in everything from Trajan’s Column to coins and stamps (asking who gets to appear on coins, and why are there people on coins in the first place), before bringing things up to date with last year’s Olympics. A video features Alistair Campbell, Tessa Jowell and Iain Dale talking about how the 2012 Games were an example of ‘country branding’. The political interpretation seems to fit both sides – there’s the Twitter comment on the Opening Ceremony by Tory MP Aidan Burley: ‘leftie multicultural crap’. Whereas the equally right wing Iain Dale thought it in fact represented ‘the best of Britain’.
Also in the video Campbell says ‘the public mood drove public opinion’, which rather recalls his ‘People’s Princess’ speech for Blair at the time of Diana’s death. That kind of language is propaganda in itself: producing phrases which seem to provide a voice for the public as a whole, while in reality they purely represent the voice of the man who wrote them.
I was reminded how this year, Andy Murray’s triumph at Wimbledon (Sunday 7th) has also been used for nationalist propaganda. His achievements as an individual are being discussed by politicians and columnists as if they were secondary to something he had no choice over – his nationality, whether as a Scot or as a Briton. Still, as an outlet for ‘country branding’, which seems to be always with us, sport is at least preferable to war.
At the exhibition, there’s an example of propaganda applied to the late Diana which was new to me. It is in a video featuring Zoe Fairbairns, feminist writer and author of the dystopian novel Benefits. I am not familiar with the book, which is from 1979, but the blurb doesn’t seem to be out of place in 2013:
“It is summer… a heat wave… tense, uneasy days in the city. There are ominous signs of political turbulence… Welfare benefits are under attack…”
Ms Fairbairns was involved in a campaign against the 1981 Royal Wedding, which she saw as promoting the ‘distasteful symbolism’ of the marriage ceremony. The campaign had its own badges. They bore the slogan ‘DON’T DO IT, DI.’
Tags: British Library
Mind The Westwood
Sunday: Mother’s Day. Chatted on the phone to Mum in Suffolk (Dad recovering from a sudden drop in his condition last week). Bought Mum a Chet Baker CD box set from HMV Piccadilly. It’s a kind of double souvenir of history: a recording of the past, purchased in a shop that will also shortly be a thing of the past. Certainly the last time one can buy a CD in Piccadilly Circus.
My brother Tom, meanwhile, has appeared in Guitar Player magazine, talking about playing with Adam Ant.
London still freezing. Spent Sunday reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved for the college course.
Discovered Somerset House’s newish East Wing cafe. It’s open late even on Sundays, provides free refills for pots of tea, has nice staff, and lots of seats. CD music playing – techno-y instrumental fare- not too annoying. Hardly anyone about today: the ice rink has gone, but the lit-up summer fountains aren’t yet in place.
Also spent time in the ICA café. In the ICA, one often sees a few obvious-looking tourists on the way back from Buckingham Palace, who just come in to use the toilets. At the moment such tourists have to walk past an enormous Juergen Teller nude photograph of Vivienne Westwood.
A sketch of me from 2003, by Jason Atomic:
Credit: Jason Atomic. http://jasonatomic.co.uk
Travis Elborough tells me that he found a passage in my diary from June 2002 which now seems to anticipate the social media saturation of 2013:
‘When I first started this diary in 1997, when the Internet was in black and white, when you could leave your wife unlocked and still get change from a fiver, online diaries were a comparative novelty. I was even something of a Minor Internet Celebrity by default. But now these things called “web logs” or “blogs” (I do hate that word) are everywhere, and everyone is crying out like at the end of Death Of A Salesman: “ATTENTION MUST BE PAID.”
‘Before the Internet, people knew full well they were simply one of billions. They just didn’t let it bother them too much. Now, they go to their computers, log on, gaze out at a sea of a billion faces and find out to their horror that the world doesn’t revolve around themselves after all. And it terrifies them.’
Mr Elborough has an intriguing new book out: London Bridge In America. There are reviews at his website: http://traviselborough.co.uk/
, college reading
, jason atomic
, somerset house
, spot the Sherlock quote
, travis elborough
Fanzines Full Of Women
I’ve written an article for the New Escapologist magazine, issue #8. It’s about the increasingly troubling nature of how to be happy when you’re a fortysomething non-conformist man (for want of a better epithet), via the Beach Boys, Stewart Lee, and Top Gear. You can order it here:
Recent outings: Saturday 8th December was spent visiting the Queer Zine Fest in Kennington. I was surprised that paper fanzines were produced at all in 2012, never mind zines with queer and feminist themes. As I discovered, there’s plenty of people making such zines, and plenty more keen to buy them: there was a healthy amount of attendees at the festival.
I wanted to buy and read pretty much all of the zines on display. Even though some of them were quite old – 90s back issues of Girlfrenzy for example – the majority of offerings were written and printed in the last year or two. So I decided to implement a rule: try and buy the latest zine on each stall, until I run out of money. My favourite is probably the Patricia Highsmith zine, Strangers In A Zine, but I also liked the concept behind Binders Full Of Women, a womens’ poetry anthology in the shape of ring binders, each with a different handmade cover. The title was a reference to a rather infamous statement made in October by the Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. I loved the contrast between this seemingly redundant format of expression – the paper fanzine – and the quotation from the world of 2012 politics.
For more on Queer Zine Fest (which will return next year), go to:
Today: am struggling under a heavy cold that I’ve had on and off for three weeks: possibly two different colds in tandem, if such a thing is possible. The work required for the college course has become particularly intense. I’ve found that as soon I’ve got to grips with the reading for one of the three concurrent modules, I’ve trespassed on the time I should have spent on the reading for the other two. The second year of a course is akin to a Difficult Second Album phase: the novelty has worn off, the freshness has gone, and one is left trying to remember how to do it – whatever ‘it’ is – all over again.
In the first year, the course felt more like a single concern that happened to be made up of three modules; now it’s like trying to juggle three demanding projects at once. And then write essays on top of that. I also have a couple of projects that are meant to be my ‘real work’ at the moment: a little book on Polari someone else has asked me to write, and a book I’ve asked myself to write. But time leaks away at the cruellest of speeds whenever one wants more of it. I find I barely have enough time to do the college course. Or at least, do it well.
Tuesday 11th December: Along with some fellow students, I attend a production of The Tempest, at the Lion And Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town. The venue is new to me, despite having lived up the road for eighteen years. It’s certainly invisible from Kentish Town High Street: one has to walk down a quiet residential road and look for a pub, then look inside the pub for a theatre. The company, Grassroots Shakespeare, gets its actors to direct themselves; there’s no single director. This means Prospero seems to be from one imagined production (Northern gangster – a kind of whispering Yorkshire De Niro), Ariel from another (loud, wacky, Batman costume, a bit Jim Carrey), while Miranda could be in a more traditional BBC Shakespeare in the early 80s, and so on. Still, it’s never dull, and when the song Full Fathom Five is followed with a rendition of Lionel Richie’s Three Times A Lady, no one is in the least bit surprised.
The Ninth Week
The college course is into the ninth week of its Difficult Second Album phase. Tonight at Gordon Square we discussed Goethe’s Sorrows Of Young Werther, and the nature of solipsism in literature. This reminded me of a philosophy joke:
Q: How many solipsists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: One. He holds it still and the whole world revolves around him.
An email asks me to elaborate on why I called London “the most complicated metropolis on earth” in an entry about the Mayoral election.
I suppose I was thinking about its organic patchwork of buildings, where the streets – in defiance of Mr Bono – are a clutter of historical names, compared to the tidily numbered grids of New York and LA. How it has medieval streets (streets older than whole countries) as the addresses of very modern tower blocks, like the Gherkin on St Mary Axe. And how it’s constantly struggling to stay a modern metropolis on top of all this history – coping with old streets not built for new traffic, trying to bring its ancient Tube and rail networks up to date with the rest of the world, all of that. There’s also the complicated social structure, with its extremes of wealth and poverty often squeezed together on the same block; the problems which gave rise to the riots in August 2011, while elsewhere in the city luxury flats are continued to be built, purely to make money rather than actually house people. These are difficult problems to solve, because it means stepping in and forcing those who have wealth, property and power to give some of it away. And there’s a big palace with a Royal Queen in it. Who is in charge, and yet isn’t in charge. It’s hard to explain why. Everything just about manages to co-exist. Just.
So I think that’s what I mean by complicated.
A new take on old history. During a lecture on Chaucer, the tutor points out that the Peasant’s Revolt isn’t called that any more. It turns out that it wasn’t all about peasants (there were rival factions of noblemen involved too), and they didn’t technically revolt. Instead, it’s now called the 1381 Rising.
That’s the trouble with learning facts: you have to check they don’t change behind your back.