(Apologies for the slight lateness of this week’s diary. I have had to deal with one of those Trojan viruses that get inside computers. Not by the acceptance of a wooden horse but by the promise of a video of a funny cat. Probably. So this entry is brought to you by the programs Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Scan, and AdwCleaner Adware Removal Tool.)
Friday 20th June 2014. In the evening: to Birkbeck in Gordon Square for a talk by Hari Kunzru. This is one of the advantages of choosing contemporary literature as an option in an English degree: the authors are often available to come to the college and answer questions. Even better, you can have a drink of M & S wine with them afterwards. Little chance of that happening with George Eliot.
HK talks about cosmopolitanism, as in people becoming global citizens. He suggests an alternative term, though, ‘rootlessness’. A refugee, meanwhile, can be regarded as ‘a cosmopolitan without money’. He’s not so keen on the message of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which looks for connections and harmony in a fragmented world. ‘Too resolved’, says Mr Kunzru.
(Stuart Nathan writes: ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ was also once a pejorative code term for ‘Jew’. It was intended to be subtly insulting. ‘We have no national loyalty and we infiltrate cities’. You see it in journalism from the 1890s to the 30s.’)
I’m reminded of the line in The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means’. Except now that’s what Commercial Fiction means. The good not ending happily, on the other hand, is what Literary Fiction means. This is not to say that such fiction should be depressing, though: Mr Kunzru’s own novel Transmission has scenes of laugh-aloud comedy.
I’ve just finished American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis. It’s clearly an important novel, but more than a couple of times I’ve felt like saying aloud, ‘please don’t make me read the next bit’.
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Saturday 21st June 2014. To the Whitechapel Gallery, for the Chris Marker exhibition. I’m restless here, because his masterpieces are not stills or artworks but films like La Jetée, which is projected on a huge screen. Such films really work better at a film festival rather than a gallery space. However, I like his colourful designs for travel books about different countries, each cover with a pretty girl of the relevant nationality. Marker was clearly passionate about the faces of pretty women: much like Vermeer, in fact. There’s also a room full of old monitors and TVs showing different videos on a loop, which irritates me, as it’s become something of an art gallery cliché. That said, one is a late 80s pop video I recognise, even with the sound down: ‘Getting Away With It’ by Electronic. I hadn’t realised until today that Marker was the director.
Next door is an exhibit I prefer to anything in the Marker show, perhaps because it’s more physical and site-specific. It’s Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacobs Ladder, by Kader Attia. A room-size shelving cabinet of books surrounds a smaller glass cabinet of scientific curios. At the centre, the visitor climbs a set of steps to discover an illusion of an infinite ladder, created using mirrors and fluorescent tubes. The gallery captions make no mention of Borges’s ‘Library of Babel’, but it’s a perfect illustration. I still love the simple magic of creating infinity by turning two mirrors against each other. That’s the great thing about infinity: the pleasure is endless.
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Sunday 22nd June 2014. Across the road to the Boogaloo, for a gig by Martin White’s Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra. As was the case last year, about two dozen musicians are crammed into one corner of the pub. Mr White is on the Boogaloo’s upright piano, backed with the MFMO on violins, cellos, brass, woodwind, drums, plus electric bass. Fosca’s Kate Dornan is on tuba, while the bass is played by Rhodri Marsden. The guest acts on this occasion are Chris T-T (who once gave Fosca a lift home), and the 90s band Dubstar. Or rather, singer Sarah Blackwood and guitarist Chris Wilkie playing the songs of Dubstar, specially arranged for this mini-orchestra.
I was something of a Dubstar fan in the 90s: the last time I saw them was at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 1998. Today I can’t resist writing down the songs as I recognise each one, just like I did in my music fan days: ‘The Self Same Thing’ (a superior version to that on record – they should record it), ‘Elevator Song’, ‘My Start In Wallsend’, ‘Not So Manic Now’, ‘A Northern Bride’ (a b-side), ‘Wearchest’, ‘Stars’, ‘Ghost’, ‘Disgraceful’. Afterwards I chat with Sarah and Chris, and also with the guitarist James Walbourne, here for the birthday of ‘The Rabbi’, one of the Boogaloo’s regular characters. JW turns out to be a fellow Sondheim fan.
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Monday 23rd June 2014. I bump into Ben Goldacre, he of Bad Science fame, outside Highgate tube. Ben G turns out to be a fellow Momus fan. This is how my unplanned encounters often play out: discussions of paths crossed, then of shared acquaintances and shared tastes, then realisations of coincidence. It’s probably possible to play Six Degrees Of Dickon Edwards.
A favourite word of mine is ‘anhedonic’, meaning an inability to take pleasure in things. With supreme irony, using the word gives me pleasure.
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Tuesday 24th June 2014. To the ICA to see Fruitvale Station. It’s a dramatisation of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, an unarmed man shot dead by the police in 2009, while in the Californian railway station of the title. Although this incident triggered various protests and outbreaks of rioting, it’s not so well known to Londoners, perhaps because the city has two similar incidents of its own. There’s Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian man killed at Stockwell tube in 2005, and Mark Duggan, whose shooting in Tottenham in 2011 sparked off that year’s London riots. The bulk of Fruitvale Station is just about a man going about his daily life – the point being that his killing is made all the more obscene by his sheer ordinariness.
Grant is no saint – he’s been in prison and is shown dealing drugs, albeit on a very minor scale – but he’s also shown to be a loving father and kind to strangers on the street, and even kind to stray animals. In this sense, the film is quite an innovative protest: it suggests that real people are rarely all good or all bad, and that situations are always more complicated than they seem. All this helps drive home the point that it’s probably not a good idea for the police to always carry guns. Perhaps this is obvious, but while such incidents still happen, films like this are important. If nothing else, it depicts everyday African-American suburban life, which is rare enough in cinema. And it also teaches this train-loving Londoner that the ‘BART’ is a type of connecting service on the Californian coast, similar to London’s Overground. It stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit.
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Wednesday 25th June 2014. An aphorism by Don Paterson, which hits home:
Well, critic: fair criticism. But at the end of the day, she did; you didn’t.
(from The Book of Shadows, 2004)
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Thursday 26th June 2014. The British Library’s ‘Treasures’ exhibition now has slightly different manuscripts on display. Gone is Angela Carter’s Nights At The Circus. In its place is a page from her Passion of New Eve instead. The notebooks of Beryl Bainbridge and Wendy Cope have been similarly usurped. Now there’s Hanif Kureishi’s diary, plus Olivier’s screenplay for his film of Macbeth, which was never made.
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Friday 27th June 2014. There have always been film posters on the Tube, but in the last couple of years something’s changed. The quotes of praise can now be from members of the public, often on Twitter. ‘Brilliant! – @emmasmith1978’. It’s not just popcorn films, either. On the foyer wall of the Barbican Centre are projections of Twitter praise for Fiona Shaw in the stage play The Testament of Mary. Many of these quotes could well be made up, or planted by publicists. But then, professional critics are no strangers to bias either. Regardless, the phrase ‘everyone’s a critic’ is more true now than ever.
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In Muswell Hill Sainsbury’s. A few days after England crashes out of the World Cup, there’s a rack of forlorn-looking England flag merchandise, all marked REDUCED TO CLEAR. Car flags, bunting, air fresheners, cups, plates. Prices from 9p.
Next to this is a display of more hopeful-looking pots of cream, branded with tennis balls, all set for Wimbledon. Thus the world turns.
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Saturday 28 June 2014. One feels surrounded by festivities, or at least reports of festivities. If it’s not Glastonbury or the World Cup, it’s Pride. Despite bouts of rain, the Soho streets are choked with LGBT revellers. Old Compton Street is impossible to walk through: a mass of bodies, across road and pavement alike. ‘Rather Be’ by Clean Bandit blasts out from several bars as I pass – this summer’s ubiquitous dance hit. Charing Cross Road is closed off to provide a space for ambulances. As I walk down Manette Street, two green-clad paramedics run past me with an empty stretcher.
On Charing Cross I have to squeeze past another crowd, this time not for Pride but for a protest against animal cruelty. Outside the Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant, activists are chanting: ‘Meat is murder! Stop the slaughter!’
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I’m having problems with procrastination. One tip which many books suggest is to say to yourself ‘be here now’. It’s meant to bring a wandering mind gently back to the work in hand. Only this is unhelpful to anyone who remembers the British music scene in the 1990s. ‘Be Here Now’ just make me think of the third Oasis album, that defining symbol of Britpop excess and indulgence, where all the songs were too long and too over-produced. It’s a manifestly bad piece of work. So to say ‘be here now’ as a motivational tool is to say ‘think about that bad Oasis album’. It’s not helping.
Tags: american psycho, anhedonic, ben goldacre, birkbeck, Boogaloo, chris marker, cloud atlas, dubstar, hari kunzru, kader attia, Martin White, mfmo, oasis, pride, whitechapel gallery