How To Explain Irony To Children
Saturday 29th November 2014. Late morning: I meet Mum in the basement café at Waterstones Piccadilly. We walk to the Coach and Horses in Soho for a vegetarian lunch. Tom joins us, making it an Edwards family meal, to mark what would have been Dad’s 78th birthday. Tom has a non-alcoholic brand of Becks beer, which nevertheless has the slogan ‘please drink responsibly’ on the label.
The Coach & Horses’s Private Eye connections have diminished since I was last here. Gone are the framed photos on the wall of Ian Hislop and Richard Ingrams. I am told this may be to do with the pub’s new vegetarian-only kitchen, which clashes with the Private Eye lot’s preference for meat. Perhaps the pub should approach Morrissey or Chrissie Hynde for patronship. I have ‘fish and chips’, the fish being fish-shaped tofu.
After lunch, we walk through Soho. Tom wants to show Mum the Soho Radio studios, where he has his own show. On the way, I hear someone call out ‘Dickon – where were you? We’ve just finished!’ It is a phrase from anyone’s nightmare – the forgotten appointment. But on this occasion it turns out to be a misunderstanding. Anne Pigalle is standing outside Madame JoJo’s in full black mourning garb, along with some similarly attired drag queens. It is a protest against the venue’s closure by way of a mock funeral. Ms Pigalle had invited me on Facebook. So she interprets my walking into Brewer Street as a late arrival to the protest. I feebly blurt out my excuse as I go by, and make sure I sign the inevitable petition when I get home.
(Link: Save Madame Jojo’s ).
* * *
Huge poster ads on the tube for Android, the operating system owned by Google. They feature lots of sinister robot creatures in different clothes, all clutching mobiles. Slogan: ‘be together, not the same’. The problem with this is that all the robots do indeed look the same – because they’re Android robots. Actually, they look like the protagonist of the early 80s ITV kids’ show Metal Mickey.
Another smartphone advert irks in its ubiquity, at least at the cinema. Once the London film fan pays for their overpriced seat and popcorn, they still have to tolerate the sight of Kevin Bacon wandering jauntily along the streets of Britain, shouting at its citizens for having ‘buffer faces’. This means the expressions people have when staring at a phone or tablet screen, waiting for the content to load up. Mr Bacon is surely in no position to mock others, his life having come to whoring himself across cinema screens like this. But there he is, so we must be forgiving. And yet the sight of Mr Bacon’s curiously wizened yet boyish countenance makes me yearn to shout out, ‘Better to have a Buffer Face than an Iggy Pop Stunt Double face.’
* * *
I finish reading Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar. It’s set in New York and Boston, but unexpectedly there’s a mention of Clacton-on-Sea. The noun ‘fitting’ is what also stands out, being something that the heroine goes into town for. At first I think this means clothes, until it transpires that this particular ‘fitting’ is given to her by a doctor. The novel then cuts to her returning home with a mysterious box. The word ‘diaphragm’ is never mentioned. Ms Plath wrote The Bell Jar in 1961, only months away from the mass availability of the Pill. In scenes like this it might as well be the nineteenth century.
* * *
Sunday 30th November 2014. I wake up late and rush off to the Tube without showering, thinking I’m late for a college appointment. As I walk down the path from Shepherd’s Hill to Highgate station, my brain suddenly realises it can’t be Monday, because I have no memory of Sunday. I am still not convinced. I’ve never trusted my mind: I don’t know where it’s been.The truth only hits home as I turn the corner in the station and see the newspapers on the station kiosk. The words Sunday Times loom out helpfully. It is like all those time travel stories where a newspaper must be found to give proof of the date.
Grateful to the newspaper for restoring my sense of reality, I buy a copy. And of course, the features are full of people whose idea of reality is rather far from mine. One article is on ‘social media party boys’. A trendy young man is concerned about turning his online popularity into real life money: ‘I think about the apocalypse a lot. Having a million Instagram followers during the apocalypse is going to be pretty useless, but having a yacht might not be.’
A TV newsreader boasts about his money, particularly how he gazumped when buying his farmhouse, ie snatched it away from someone who was ready to move in. I suppose one has to forgive.
I read a fascinating article on Singalong Frozen, which touches on the nature of camp. The Disney musical Frozen has been reissued in a format for children to sing along to, with lyrics on the screen. This is apparently the fault of the Prince Charles Cinema, which has been doing jokey film singalong events for some time, particularly The Sound of Music. Originally, as an organiser says, ‘the main audience was gay men and drunken women’. But soon children started to come too, and children don’t do camp and knowingness and irony. Children sing for themselves. When the PCC did singalong screenings of Frozen, the children were in the majority, and Disney took notice.
A quote from the article. When Rhona Cameron introduced a Sound of Music screening, she had to explain what irony was to the children present:
‘Children, irony is something you’ll understand later, when you’re disappointed in love and have to pay taxes’.
* * *
Tuesday 2nd December 2014. Evening: class at Birkbeck on Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle. Tutor: Joe Brooker. The reverse-world setting is intoxicating, full of details that only become apparent on re-reading, like the character who slips into ‘our’ world for a moment.
* * *
Wednesday 3rd December 2014. Evening: class at Birkbeck on John Wyndham’s The Day of The Triffids. Tutor: Grace Halden. Unlike the Dick book, which is more speculative fiction, Wyndham’s tale is traditional science-fiction. Though I always liked the double value of the mass blindness alongside the unkind plants. One student struggles to read beyond the first chapter, such is his dislike of science fiction (‘Can’t we do Graham Greene?’). The lower-case ‘triffids’ is a clever touch by Wyndham, indicating how the plants had quickly become part of the language. Much more sinister that way. I find the swift acceptance of the lower-case verbs ‘tweet’ and ‘google’ sinister, too, as they’re corporate brands. Invasions go on all the time, whether of land or of language. It’s just a question of anyone minding.
* * *
Friday 5th December 2014. In a discussion on disappointing Christmas crackers I find myself retelling the following tale.
One Christmas I went into Budgens Crouch End to buy a box of crackers. A huge pile of them were on sale at half price. People were buying the crackers, but they were also coming away with a broad smirk. I asked a staffer.
Me: Why are these crackers so cheap?
Her: They’re faulty.
Me: What, they don’t bang properly?
Her: No. They’ve all got the same joke.
The smirk had been the pleasure of acquiring a good anecdote.
, coach and horses
, john wyndham
, madame jojos
, philip k dick
, private eye
, sylvia plath
Rise Of The Floating Yodas
Saturday 6th September 2014.
I spend a day in town with Mum, meeting her off the 1031 train at Liverpool Street. We manage to pack in two exhibitions and one major art installation, along with lunch (stir fried tofu for two on the terrace of the British Library’s restaurant, with hardly anyone else about). First up is the Quentin Blake show at the House of Illustration, one of the buildings in the new Granary Square development, north of King’s Cross station. Like the station itself, the development is an impressive mix of Victorian buildings tidied up and put to new use, alongside scatterings of new architecture: the astroturf steps by the canal, and the matrix of pavement fountains, with their multi-coloured lights.
We investigate the viewing platform set up opposite the square. The usual aluminium panels denoting which building is which are covered in angry comments, scrawled in black ink. Everything in sight is attacked: ‘ugly!’, ‘terrible idea!’, ‘waste of space!’, ‘waste of money!’ The anonymous writer even accuses the sign of getting its facts wrong: ‘NO! That’s on the LEFT, not the RIGHT!’ I check the skyline. The sign is perfectly correct.
I can’t help thinking this is a real-life effect of the vogue to leave angry comments under every piece of information on the internet, and as a matter of course, too. The implied message really being ‘I exist and I am lonely and I want to matter.’ Or put more simply, ‘I troll therefore I am’.
Mum, however, does like Granary Square. She daringly adds her own comment to the graffiti – though she’s careful to do so in pencil: ‘Nonsense! Think positive! Be a Polyanna, not an Eeyore!’
[On Friday the 12th I revisit the viewing platform. The sign is now wiped clean of any graffiti, and is back to normal. This is the equivalent of that most ubiquitous statement on the Guardian site: ‘This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted.’]
* * *
The Quentin Blake show includes a whole room dedicated to Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. Other Blake works on display are his pictures for Voltaire’s Candide, for David Walliams’s Boy In The Dress, and for his own wordless book, Clown. A film reveals that Mr Blake does his drawing standing up, like an architect, and that he uses a light box, not just to trace but because it ‘feels friendly’. Illustration, he says, is about choosing a single moment in a text, then living in it. ‘You own that moment for as long as you like.’
In the gallery shop, Mum impulse-buys Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton, a mad and funny picture book about a naughty dog. Though it’s aimed at the very young, the lesson of self-discipline is all-connecting. I end up getting a copy for myself. Somewhat ironically, the book is hard to resist.
* * *
I show Mum the new Hatchards at St Pancras, fast becoming one of my favourite places to browse. It’s an example of how best to lay out a small bookshop: a little bit of everything, with as much as possible displayed face out, and lots of tempting tables. The new Beano annual (for 2015) is given prominence, and with good reason. The cover shows Dennis the Menace and Gnasher in St Pancras, running to catch the Eurostar.
At the National Portrait Gallery, we take in this year’s BP Portrait contest. Teeming with people. In contrast to the Kings Cross viewing platform, the thoughts of visitors are this time solicited, in the shape of a touchscreen. You tap on the painting you think should have won. I have no idea if the results are collated somewhere, but it gives the sense of feeling like one’s opinion matters, and that’s the true spirit of the age. My favourite painting is by Clara Drummond, ‘Portrait in Blue and Gold’. A second prize would go to ‘Eddie In The Morning’, by Geoffrey Beasley, which Mum is also keen on.
We wander through a corner of Trafalgar Square. At least three things are going on at once. In the main space is the stage for a rally by The People’s March for the NHS (sample slogan: ‘NHS – Everyone’s Concern, Nobody’s Business). In the corner is a busking set by Jake Heading, a pleasant, bespectacled young singer who’s drawn quite a crowd. And a few yards away from him are the usual living statues. Recently there’s been a spate of trompe l’oeil performers in the touristy parts of the city, particularly Floating Yodas. These are people dressed as the little green Muppet-y creature from the Star Wars films, whose costume hides a seat attached to a sturdy pole, so it looks like they are levitating. As we pass, one of the Yodas takes off his rubber mask to mop his streaming brow. ‘Sweatier than it looks, living statue work is’.
* * *
We end the day at the Tower Of London, there to see the red porcelain poppies planted all around the grassy moat. A staggering sea of red. One poppy for each life lost in WW1, arranged so it looks like they’re pouring out of one of the Tower’s windows. The poppies circle the whole Tower, and hundreds of other people are here to get a good look at them too. It may be a simple symbol, but it’s a powerful and unforgettable one.
* * *
Sunday 7th September 2014.
To the St James Theatre Studio in Victoria for a new one-man play: Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope. Written and performed by Mark Farrelly, it’s an interesting indication of where QC’s reputation might be today, fifteen years after his death. Certainly the 80s Sting hit ‘An Englishman In New York’ is heavily relied upon as a qualification. Not only is the song played in the show, but it’s alluded to three times in the limited space of the flyer. I always thought the association was unfair, given Crisp’s dislike of pop music full stop. But I should admit that I’ve never cared for the song itself, its melody and production being too bland for my liking. My apologies to Mr Sting.
Mr Farrelly is rather muscular in comparison with the two main actors who’ve played QC in the past, John Hurt (on film) and Bette Bourne (on stage). He makes me think how a young Laurence Olivier might have approached the role, because his version of Quentin seems as much critical as it is affectionate. It hints at unaddressed layers beneath the surface, perhaps even that Crisp was something of an unreliable narrator. The show is much more of a dramatisation than an impersonation. In fact, the sense of Quentin Crisp playing a part himself is accentuated halfway through, when Mr Farrelly changes clothes and wigs in full view of the audience, going from 1960s London Quentin (retelling the events of The Naked Civil Servant), to 1990s New York Celebrity Quentin (delivering his Messages Of Hope lectures, hence the title: Naked Hope).
There’s also a moment where a member of the audience is asked to get on stage and help him read his question cards, which I’m sure is something the real Crisp never did. At first this seems pure pantomime, just something fun to break up the format of a one-man show. Yet the lingering effect is to remind the audience of the way Crisp would go through the motions, always giving the same answers to questions, as if reading from a script. So Farrelly suggests there might be something not quite so inspirational about that. I disagree. I’m biased, but I think words in themselves can be a sufficient approach to the world, even if they’ve been polished and prepared and repeated so much that they might appear insincere. A good aphorism, like a good story, can retain its own self-contained freshness and sincerity, because it represents pure meaning.
* * *
Tuesday 9th September 2014.
I’m at Senate House Library, reading The Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham. At one point I realise with delight that Senate House itself plays a major part in the novel. It becomes the base camp for the London survivors, being one of the tallest landmarks in the city at the time it was written, circa 1950. I also discover that there’s a Book Bench celebrating the connection outside. It depicts triffids on Tower Bridge. The bench is tucked away amid the foliage by the front of the building, lurking there, as if ready to sting.
* * *
Wednesday 10th September 2014.
The opening line of The Day Of The Triffids is one of the greatest in literature:
‘When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like a Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’
But after that, some lines irritate with their deep 1950s-ness. The hero’s love interest is called Josella Playton, which makes her sound like a lingerie brand. Even the 1980s BBC TV adaptation inserted a scene where she says ‘I’ve always hated the name Josella. Just call me Jo.’
One line of the novel is:
‘His companion was a good-looking, well-built girl with an occasional superficial petulance’.
What exactly does Wyndham mean by ‘well-built’? Curvy? Athletic? Double-glazed? Upholstered? Cantilevered? Or just… waterproof?
* * *
Thursday 11th September 2014.
To Highbury to visit Shanthi S. She gives me a birthday present: The Animals, a fat collection of Isherwood’s letters. Then we walk to the Dalston Rio for Two Days, One Night, a French language film starring Marion Cotillard. The BBFC certification card at the start surely crosses the line from content warning into plot spoiler: ‘Contains one scene of attempted suicide’. So all the cinemagoers are waiting for that. That aside, it’s a very straightforward Ken Loach-esque tale of a factory worker tracking down all her co-workers during one weekend, in order to convince them to vote against her redundancy on the following Monday. The dilemma is that a vote to keep her is also a vote to lose their own bonuses. I felt it was the sort of film that might become socially important as time goes on, but found it a little too straightforward to be properly engaging.
Tags: dalston rio
, john wyndham
, marion cotillard
, mark farrelly
, naked hope
, quentin blake
, quentin crisp
, senate house
, shanthi s
, st james theatre studio
, tower of london
, two days one night
Fish Of The Day
Sunday 10th August 2014. I chat with Mum over the phone. She’s busy, giving classes and talks on quilt making all over the country, most recently at the NEC. Tom has now built her a website as a kind of shop window. It’s her first ever web presence. The URL is www.lynneedwardsquilts.com.
* * *
Monday 11h August 2014. To the Boogaloo to watch Lea Andrews perform with Sadie Lee, as part of the Blue Monday gig night. An evening of seeing old friends. Charley Stone is there, Charlotte Hatherley too. This is my only socialising this week; the rest of my time is spent in the British Library in St Pancras, communing with the dead.
Currently re-reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Last read when I was a teenager. This time round I’m older than Winston Smith. I’d forgotten that he has varicose veins; something I’m rather familiar with now. The themes are more relevant than ever, as evidenced by Edward Snowden’s mention of the novel in his Alternative Christmas Message last year. Fear of state surveillance, the removal of privacy, the state control of information, the daily get together to hate something for the sake of joining in (thus anticipating Twitter), war being used to keep populations suppressed, bad entertainment doing the rest of the suppression. Orwell’s prose style surprises me with its simple, unfussy realism. Stylistically, it could be written today. The only 1940s anachronism I pick up is the usage of ‘dear’ by the two lovers.
But slang comes around too. ‘Oh my days’ sounds pure Dickens. I’ve heard it used by all kinds of young people in London now, and by some not so young people too. A friend says it derives from Caribbean patois. So I wonder if it came from the effects of the Empire before that. I like the idea of slang being exported across lands, passing through social groups, then returning after more than a century, like the orbit of a comet.
* * *
Tuesday 12th August 2014. Robin Williams dies. It’s thought to be suicide. A lot of discussion online of depression and the eternal archetype of the sad clown. My local cinema, the Phoenix, is putting on a screening of Good Will Hunting, as a benefit for the Samaritans.
People on Twitter have taken tribute selfies, standing on tops of desks, holding up signs saying ‘O Captain My Captain’. This is a reference to a scene in Dead Poets Society, the words taken from a poem by Walt Whitman. My band Orlando did a similar tribute in 1996, for the video to ‘Don’t Kill My Rage’. We even dressed as schoolboys and filmed in a beautiful old private school. And we stood on the desks.
I can’t think of the Dead Poets motto ‘carpe diem’ now without recalling a joke from I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue:
‘Carpe diem: Fish of the Day.’
What a range of work Robin Williams left behind, though. Particularly given his problems. Some roles wacky (Mork and Mindy, Good Morning Vietnam), some serious (Dead Poets Society, Awakenings) some sinister (Insomnia). In theory I should have found his comedy style irritating, but the sheer speed of his invention always impressed me. Completely over the top, yes, but also completely out of the blue. Where did that ability come from? It seemed utterly unearthly – hence Mork.
His big, rubbery, Punch-like features seemed to also fit that other extreme of emotion – sentiment. There’s something very Victorian about that mix; the need to complement the uproarious with the lachrymose. Knowing that Williams was built to erupt into loud comedy made his restrained roles all the more watchable. The energy had to be channelled into reverse. He’s perfect for The World According To Garp, as the quiet centre in John Irving’s outlandish parade. I also like him as the murderous author in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, or the avuncular gay radio host in The Night Listener (based on Armistead Maupin), or the nightclub owner in The Birdcage, teaching Nathan Lane how to act more manly. In one scene they try discussing sports like heterosexual men. Or so they imagine:
WILLIAMS: (putting on manly voice) Al, you old son of a bitch! How ya doin’? How do you feel about those Dolphins today?
LANE: How do you think I felt? Bewildered! Betrayed…! (looks at Williams, wrist returns to limpness) Wrong response, right?
WILLIAMS: I’m not sure…
* * *
Wednesday 13th August 2014. London begging. On the tube today, a man gets on and promptly goes round the carriage carefully placing wrapped packets of pocket tissues (the Handy Andies type) on the empty seats next to each passenger. There’s also a piece of paper with each packet. Presumably it contains his written appeal for money, in return for the tissues, along with some detail of his circumstances. I say presumably because I don’t pick up a packet, and neither does anyone else. The British are so obsessed with taking the least embarrassing action in public as it is. Added to which, the London tube carriage is a place of non-action, of retrieving into yourself, of trying not to exist. Not the best place to ask for money.
The tissues man waits silently at one end of the carriage for no more than a minute. Then he goes round again, this time retrieving all the packets of tissues and paper notes and putting them back in his shoulder bag. He gets off at the next stop.
* * *
Thursday 14th August 2014. To the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley, for the film Lilting. It’s a low-budget piece in which Ben Whishaw acts his absolute socks off. He plays a grieving gay man trying to befriend the Chinese mother of his late partner. The added complication is that she speaks no English, she didn’t know her son was gay, and she lives in a London care home. Peter Bowles also appears (he of To The Manor Born and Only When I Laugh), playing an elderly Lothario. The film is emotionally tense, yet tender and quiet, and is clearly a labour of love. I recognise one of the locations: the canal towpath near the south end of Mare Street, in the East End.
* * *
Friday 15th August 2014. Today’s new word is ‘hoyden’. It means ‘a boisterous girl’. A dated expression, declares the Concise Oxford Dictionary. I’m introduced to it by a line in Brigid Brophy’s book Black and White: A Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (1968):
‘Are they female fops, these personages of Beardsley’s: female dandies: female effeminates, even? Or are they male hoydens, male tomboys, boy butches?’
The book contains some of Beardsley’s sexually explicit art from the 1890s. More grotesque than titillating, I’d have thought. Yet the British Library keeps its copy of Black and White in the Special Materials collection, the place for anything very valuable or very naughty. As the book isn’t that rare it must be Beardsley’s rudeness that qualifies. To read the library copy a while ago, I had to sit at a special desk in the Rare Books Reading Room, within view of CCTV cameras and library staff. I was not allowed to leave the book unattended, not even to go to the toilet. They might as well call the desk the Table of Shame.
Thankfully, Faber have now reprinted Black and White as part of their Faber Finds series. Today I pick up a copy from Gay’s The Word bookshop in Marchmont Street. I take it home and enjoy it behind closed doors, where the Big Brother eyes of the British Library cannot watch me.
Tags: aubrey beardsley
, ben whishaw
, brigid brophy
, British Library
, charley stone
, george orwell
, london beggers
, robin williams
Gets My Vote
Saturday 12th July 2014. I watch Rebels of Oz, an excellent documentary on four Australians who influenced cultural life in Britain: Clive James, Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, and Robert Hughes. There’s some 1960s footage of Ms Greer taking on Norman Mailer at a panel event in New York. The same event appeared in another documentary the previous week, one on the New York Review of Books. Then, the focus was on Mailer versus Susan Sontag, with Greer seen smirking quietly next to him. It’s a reminder that footage can only ever tell a truth, not the truth.
Robert Hughes was known for his TV series on art, The Shock of the New. But what shocks me is that he is shown wearing a double-breasted suit jacket over blue denim jeans. I wonder if being Australian helps.
* * *
Sunday 13th July 2014. Evidence of aging. At the Assembly House pub in Kentish Town, I pick up a leaflet for one of the events at the Forum, the venue across the road. It’s called ‘Indie Daze’, and is a day-long bill of different bands. All the performers are of a certain vintage, with their artistic zenith circa 1990. There’s The Wonder Stuff, The Popguns, The Flatmates, Jesus Jones, Power of Dreams, Darling Buds, and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. Two of them are doing that common practice of performing an old album in full: Jesus Jones are playing all of Doubt, while Power of Dreams are doing Immigrants, Emigrants and Me.
What intrigues me about this leaflet is how some of the bands have accompanying photos of them now, looking older (they must be all approaching 50 by now). But others, like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, use a photo from over two decades ago. I wonder about the reasoning: would a recent photo would be a kind of fraud, given it’s all about the songs of their youth? Or was it just a case of being unable to get new photos made in time?
I rather enjoyed the records of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin at the time, despite the polar opposite in their look to mine. They were a group of shambling, hairy and beery young blokes, and I was… well, not that. But I bought their debut album, and loved it for its vulnerably simple melodies, with a second bass guitar giving them an underrated, New Order-like sound. The Popguns, meanwhile, were much closer to my world aesthetically, on top of their fizzy and friendly guitar pop. Out of all the ‘Indie Daze’ bands, the Popguns are the only ones I still listen to.
* * *
Monday 14th July 2014. To Bildeston to see Mum. I stay over, sleeping in my childhood bedroom for the first time since Dad died. Mum offers to give me a file marked ‘Dickon’, full of school reports and other clippings, which she and Dad kept over the years. But I’m uneasy and decline. I’m uncertain enough about who I am now, let alone who I used to be. I don’t just mean that I need to get some sort of secure career going now, though I do mean that as well. Next visit, though. Little steps.
* * *
To get there, I take the Gainsborough Line train from Marks Tey to Sudbury, always a pleasure. A single track on a rural branch line, just the two carriages – though today they’re packed. The first stop, Chappel & Wakes Colne, forms part of the East Anglian Railway Museum. Vintage carriages and centuries-old waiting rooms suddenly appear either side of the modern train. After that it’s Bures, a village bisected by the Essex-Suffolk border, then it’s over the Stour river into Suffolk, and so to Sudbury. Twenty minutes in all.
‘You missed the alpacas,’ says the old lady in the seat facing me.
* * *
Mum and I watch the DVD of the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary gala, along with the documentary that accompanies it. A highlight for me is Joan Plowright, reprising her speech from Shaw’s Saint Joan on the stage of the Old Vic, just as she did in 1963. There’s also a scene from Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce, which I didn’t realise had supplied Dad with one of his in-jokey catchphrases. An older couple have a light snack in bed before lights off. This turns out to be pilchards on toast, the only thing the husband can find in the larder. The wife is sceptical at first, then takes his offered plate and tucks in. ‘They’re quite pleasant, aren’t they?’ she says. ‘They got my vote,’ says the husband, munching away. Tonight Mum tells me that she and Dad saw a 1980s TV version of Ayckbourn’s play, and it’s this particular line that Dad seized on. After that, whenever there was a situation requiring Dad’s approval, he would often say, ‘gets my vote!’ So now I know.
* * *
Tuesday 15th July 2014. Bildeston. Mum and I visit the Museum of East Anglian Life, in nearby Stowmarket. Neither of us have seen it since its renovation in 2012. The museum is centred around Abbot’s Hall, a handsome eighteenth-century manor house, which hosts a permanent exhibition about local history. George Ewart Evans, the author of Ask The Fellows Who Cut The Hay, gets a whole room, his notebook on display a la British Library. But there’s also his big manual typewriter and his unwieldy reel-to-reel tape recorder, both making a mockery of today’s nimble devices. Writing used to be such a muscular business.
The temporary exhibition is Escape to the Country: Searching for Self-Sufficiency in the 70s. It’s a wittily designed show, with lots of beige and orange in evidence, and caption boards in that same kitschy typeface that the band Pulp used. But there are some serious themes here too. It illustrates how the Summer of Love generation wanted to embrace rural traditions as a lifestyle choice, and as a reaction against the suburban sprawl. There’s a still from The Good Life, reminding one how that popular TV sitcom was also a satire about a real social concern.
One photograph is of the residents of Old Hall in East Bergholt, a proper commune where I once stayed as a teenager. It was just like the Swedish film Together: canteen meals for twenty at a time, farm animals and allotments out the back, rooms rather than flats. And rotas on the wall, with everyone having a different job to do on different days. I remember a TV crew filming the rounding up of the livestock, and the producer telling me it was for a documentary on a brand new channel – Channel 4. So that dates my stay to the summer of 1982.
[Postscript: Rachel Stevenson writes to say that she visited Old Hall in 2013, and wrote about it in her blog. The link is: http://millionreasons.livejournal.com/2013/04/23/]
On the train journey home I make a point of looking out for the famous alpacas. And there, a little south of Sudbury and east of the railway track, is a field of the uncommon mammals in question. They resemble llamas which have shrunk in the wash.
* * *
Wednesday 16th July 2014. To the ICA for the film Mistaken For Strangers. It’s an unusual film – a rock documentary that is really a study of two brothers. The band it depicts is the US group The National, whose work I’m not familiar with, but who seem to be a bit like the British band Elbow: a genre I call Pleasant Enough Men With Beards. In the film, the serious and sensitive singer Matt Berninger hires his jokey and more uncouth brother Tom to be a roadie on their new tour. Tom is more interested in making a film, or drinking the rider, or disappearing with people he meets, or doing anything other than his job. And so the film he makes ends up being more about him, and his odd-couple relationship with Matt. I love the title in particular, which certainly applies to me and my brother Tom. But it also reminds me how pairs of brothers, even quite different brothers, tend to both be unconventional and artistic, rather than one being artistic and the other being more drawn to, say, finance or law.
* * *
Friday 18th July 2014. I’m listening to the new Morrissey album, World Peace Is None Of Your Business, while reading about the events in Ukraine and Gaza. Morrissey’s arch take seems grimly relevant. There’s WW1 events everywhere at the moment, with it being a hundred years since the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand. ‘The War To End All Wars’. And yet here we are, still getting out our missiles. The sickening pointlessness of the attack on flight MH17 feels different to any Cold War incident, though. It could be the incident to end all such incidents. I think. I hope.
Tags: alan ayckbourn
, indie youth
, mistaken for strangers
, museum of east anglian life
, national theatre
, rebels of oz
The Best Thing About You Is That You Remind Me Of Me
Friday 9th May 2014. This week’s work: drafting the final essay for the third year. For me it’s the most difficult part of the process, the writing from scratch. Once it moves into the editing and polishing side of things I’m far more confident.
When I edit, it’s like the text has been supplied by someone else – the Dickon Edwards of a few days before. This Dickon used to get upset when Dickon The Ruthless Editor butchered his work, cutting whole paragraphs and moving them around. But now he accepts that his raw creativity must look its best for the reader. Perhaps in my case editing is like putting an awkward body into a nice suit. With a bibliography as a pocket square handkerchief.
I’ve tried to bring this latest essay right up to date by discussing The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson’s film uses a triple frame device about authors. The effect lends credibility to the surreal tale which takes up most of the film. It’s the storyteller as authority figure, which goes back to the Canterbury Tales, the Arabian Nights and the Indian Panchatantra before that.
One theory why the ancient love of stories-within-stories went out of fashion is the Renaissance’s focus upon the individual, as a unified, separate whole. What’s changed now is that people are encouraged to see themselves as splinters of a community again, albeit the virtual community of the internet. Instead of nested narratives we have networked narratives. One especially sees this on Twitter, where the urge to ‘retweet’ takes us right back to sharing tales around the campfire. Except that the campfire is now the size of the world.
* * *
To the basement of the Atlantis Bookshop, in Museum Street, for a private view. The exhibition is Stephen Harwood’s ‘Visions of England’. The paintings are landscapes in vivid and fiery oils. What’s unusual is that Harwood has not visited the places himself. Instead, they are recreations of stills taken entirely from the films of Derek Jarman, particularly The Garden (1990) and A Journey To Avebury (1971). Mr Harwood makes the connection between the Neolithic standing stones of Wiltshire and Jarman’s driftwood posts, punctuating his shingle garden at Dungeness.
The Atlantis Bookshop specialises in the occult. A poster announces that its next event is the launch of a pack of Tarot cards based on the stories of Sherlock Holmes. Fan fiction, just as Harwood’s paintings are Jarman fan fiction. But then, fan fiction is an occult practice in itself: the alchemy of transforming old magic into something new.
* * *
Saturday 10th May 2014. To the National Portrait Gallery with Mum, for the exhibition David Bailey: Stardust. The photographer as party animal. It’s a huge exhibition that takes up the entire ground floor of the NPG. Many of the photographs are blown up to beyond life-size. The one that sums Mr Bailey up is a portrait of him with Salvador Dali. Dali too liked being around celebrity and glamour as much as he did making art, but then party-going is an important art form too, if it’s the right party.
There’s also a magazine cover which puts the young Bailey next to Cecil Beaton, with quotes by each one upon the other. To his credit, Bailey is thoughtful and accurate about Beaton’s talent. Beaton just uses Bailey to talk about himself. ‘The best thing about you is that you remind me of me.’
* * *
Monday 12th May 2014. I have a phone landline in my home, but like a lot of people I mainly use it for access to the internet. If I do make the mistake of answering the phone, it’s nearly always a sales team. I realise there are services to prevent these calls, but I’ve tried them all. I still get the calls.
The person on the other end always begins their onslaught with ‘how are you today?’ It is the most depressing phrase in the English language. Not ‘how are you’, which a friend might say, but ‘how are you today’. Only the cold world of commerce adds the ‘today’.
I used to reply to this with ‘Well, Dear Heart, the ‘how’ that I am today is considerably less happy, now that I‘ve realised your sole interest in me is for my money, and not, as I was hoping, for the beauty of my eyes.’ But now I just hang up and put on the answering machine.
* * *
Tuesday 13th May 2014. To the Barbican cinema to see the film Frank. It’s my first visit to the cinema (now retitled Cinema One), though I’ve been going to the Barbican centre since a school trip in 1983. Back then, the Barbican’s brass banisters produced a loud crackle of static under one’s hands, something which provided endless pleasure for us children. We were really there to learn about the changing face of London, coupling this visit with one to the Museum of London next door. But the lesson which most remained was that statically charged banisters are a lot of fun. The banisters are now long gone. Or perhaps, long properly earthed.
The cinema screen is on floor Minus Two, on a level beneath the underground car park. As it was opened in the early 80s it makes me think of nuclear bunkers, Protect and Survive, and Threads. I wonder if it was ever on a list of places in which to take refuge during a nuclear attack. It wouldn’t be so bad, stuck down there as the bombs fell. A capacity of 280, a bar and an ice cream kiosk.
The film Frank turns out to be highly enjoyable and inventive, though the ending is incredibly sad. It’s the tale of a young Englishman – based on Jon Ronson, who co-wrote the script – who joins an eccentric American rock band, where the lead singer, Frank, constantly wears a huge papier-mâché head. There’s lots of ingenious uses of Twitter and You Tube – it’s possibly the first film that successfully depicts online life in that way. The young Englishman is played by the likeable ginger boy from About Time, while the man inside the fake head is Mr Fassbender, who has a track record of playing troubled yet charismatic men – he was Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre. The intrigue of the film is, as the ginger boy says, to work out ‘what goes on inside that head, inside that head’.
At the end, the film announces that it was inspired by the cult comedy-rock star Frank Sidebottom. It should add, ‘but only a little’. As Mr Ronson’s accompanying book Frank explains, there’s also aspects that draw on the story of Daniel Johnston. And there’s bits of Captain Beefheart and The Shaggs in there, too.
The film’s Frank is, like Johnston, a child-like Texan with mental health problems. Sidebottom, on the other hand, was a fictional character from the Manchester suburb of Timperley, played by a man who may have been devoted to his art, but who certainly didn’t live with the head always on. And Sidebottom was as much defined by his nasal Mancunian accent as he was the head.
In 1991 I witnessed Chris Sievey performing Frank Sidebottom for Marc Radcliffe’s BBC Manchester radio show. The head was nowhere in sight. Instead, there was just a brown-haired, ordinary-looking man in his thirties, speaking in a radio studio, albeit with a clip on his nose.
As it is, the real Frank Sidebottom has already appeared in a film. In Filth, James McAvoy watches an old Sidebottom TV show, then impersonates the voice for a phone prank.
* * *
Thursday 15th May 2014. I’m in the café of John Lewis, with its views across rooftops. As I wait to pay for my pot of tea, a man in a suit comes over to the cashier from the table area. He complains that none of the available tables have been cleared of their dirty cups. Moments later, he comes over again, this time asking for a wet cloth with which to clean a coffee stain on his shirt. He adds that this was their fault, as it was caused (somehow) by his trying to move the dirty plates while he was still holding his own tray. Shortly after that he comes over again, this time because his food isn’t hot enough. I look around. There are plenty of empty tables, with no dirty cups on them.
There is a moment when I wonder if he is acting for a hidden camera prank, so great is his umbrage. Or that he is doing it as part of a ‘social experiment’, which is really just a prank with a good lawyer.
When I used to watch those Jeremy Beadle TV shows, I envied the reactions of the people who were duped. Not their reactions as the prank was going on, but their reactions afterwards, the expressions of relief when all was revealed. I wondered if some people reacted more like me. Their confusion might turn not to relief but to even more confusion.
‘You don’t understand, Jeremy. I have a slippery enough grasp on reality as it is.’
Tags: atlantis bookshop
, daniel johnston
, david bailey
, fan fiction
, frank sidebottom
, john lewis
, jon ronson
, national portrait gallery
, the grand budapest hotel
, wes anderson
Animals and Men
Saturday 19th April 2014. To the Hammersmith Eventim Apollo, as it’s currently known, for a concert by Adam Ant. My brother Tom is playing guitar in Mr Ant’s backing band, as he has done for the past couple of years. Mum comes along too, making it our first family reunion in London since Dad died. Young Ms Holly also joins us, from the extended family on Tom’s side.
The Apollo is one of the largest theatre-style venues in London, and I’ve somehow never been to it until tonight. Built in the 1930s, it has a stunning Art Deco interior that has been recently refurbished. The upstairs bar looks like something from Grand Hotel: you half expect to bump into Joan Crawford as a pushy stenographer.
We have a slight panic when we get there and realise that our tickets are standing only, but Mr Ant’s crew help us to exchange them for seats in the upstairs circle (with our grateful thanks to Roy from the merchandise stall). Mum is 70, and is unlikely to be tempted to join a mosh pit. I’m 42, but increasingly prefer a seat myself.
That said, musing on the requirements of getting older is moot. Mr Ant’s main output was in the late 70s and early 80s, and many are here because they bought those records when they first came out. So they aren’t exactly spring, or even summer chickens themselves. But I look around and see a healthy amount of all ages and genders, albeit with the lion’s share in their 40s and 50s. There is indeed a mosh pit down the front – even a few people crowd surfing.
Tonight is also about one particular album: Dirk Wears White Sox, the first Adam Ant long player, which was released in 1979. Mr Ant is on top form tonight, and not only performs every song from the album in order, but goes straight into a decent amount of selections from his whole oeuvre, my favourites of the night being ‘Whip in My Valise’, ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’, and ‘Wonderful’. He performs for a straight two hours. No encores, no stopping. He even has a costume change onstage, behind a vintage screen, singing as he dresses (much as I saw Grace Jones do).
Dirk Wears White Sox is by no means a catchy album: it’s more of a cult favourite from the period just before he became a pop star. Much of the material is more experimental than post-punk: Tom confirms to me afterwards that ‘Animals and Men’ is particularly difficult to learn. It’s full of shifting, jazzy time signatures and lots of jagged stop-start moments. The more typical post-punk songs sound very Franz Ferdinand now, of course, with that familiar slurping disco beat under the spiky guitar riffs. (Or perhaps that should be ‘very 2004’, when Franz Ferdinand’s debut came out.)
The moment when ‘Cartrouble’ shifts from Part One into Part Two, and the guitars suddenly change from wiry to widescreen, is even more startling when it’s live and turned up a thousandfold, and you’re sharing the moment with a whole temple of acolytes. In the past, I’d been a little wary about the validity of ‘classic album’ run throughs like this. But tonight I realise such concerts can be a joyous celebration of music history and of being alive full stop – still being alive – for artist and audience alike. A celebration of art and life, no less.
We stick around afterwards and chat with Tom at the aftershow party (held in the circle bar). Some public faces there: Keith Lemon (who obligingly poses for a photo with Holly, who’s a fan), Bill Bailey, Mark Lamarr, Mark Moore, Kevin Rowland. Lots of dandyish, well-dressed men in suits and hats, and women in Vivienne Westwood-esque takes on punk cabaret: a few berets with little polka dot veils.
* * *
Monday 21st April 2014. The dregs of the Easter weekend. I grumpily buy a Smarties chocolate egg from Muswell Hill Sainsbury’s, mainly because they’re left overs, bumped down to 40p.
Work this week: revising the essay on Late Victorian flâneuses, for the Fin De Siecle course. Also mopping up the last set texts of the academic year, such as Lara by Bernadine Evaristo. Glad to have finally read Jane Eyre. It didn’t quite become a personal favourite, but I can see how it’s pivotal to the general span of literature. My favourite book that the degree introduced me to this year is Vathek, closely followed by Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled.
* * *
Tuesday 22nd April 2014. I see Daisies at the ICA. It’s a 1966 cult film from Czechoslovakia, as it was called then. The director died a month ago, so the ICA are showing it as a tribute. Very of its time, like The Knack mixed with Bunuel. The story is essentially this: two childlike young women muck about in various surreal settings. There’s some moments of beauty, some of silliness, and some unnerving ones too. It definitely has its own identity – sheer psychedelic abandon.
* * *
Thursday 24th April 2004. This week’s new film is The Double, seen today at the Prince Charles Cinema. Jesse Eisenberg stars, last seen as a monotonous computer expert in The Social Network. It’s directed by Richard Ayoade, who was last seen as a monotonous computer expert in The It Crowd. So Mr Eisenberg’s character this time is, well, no surprises.
But here the computers are very different, as is the whole setting: a kind of nocturnal Orwellian world where technology seems stuck at an early 1970s level, all primitive screens and chunky beige keyboards. The architecture meanwhile evokes 1960s Eastern Europe: lifts that never work, brutal underground trains, tower blocks and wastelands. The aesthetic may owe a lot to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and indeed his short Python spin-off film, The Crimson Permanent Assurance (most of the office workers are elderly men), but it has its own original stamp. Sadly the world of the film doesn’t seem to gel with the story about doppelgangers. The aesthetic upstages the plot, while the plot doesn’t know which rules it’s meant to be following. The ending is baffling, but whether it’s meant to be baffling or has just made a mess of its own logic it’s hard to tell. It’s very nearly a great film, just not quite.
* * *
I fume at an article in the Guardian about ‘Britpop casualties’. It’s based on interviews with members of UK bands from the 1990s, whose careers were not quite as successful as Blur and Oasis. The article seems less interested in music and more interested in the failure of those who dare to make it.
I’ve seen schadenfreude-laced features like this before, the gist of which is ‘don’t ever be in a band, be a music critic, that’s better’. In this latest article, there’s a sickening sense of crowing over the misfortune of the singer from Marion (drugs, near-death) and the one from Menswear (mental illness). As Wilde said, it’s the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Well, such journalists will never, ever know what it’s like to play a gig or hear their record on the radio or see the sheer bliss on the faces of people at the front row of a concert, and know that they made those people feel that happy, for that day. I saw Menswear play the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in the 1990s. They were absolute stars, and were loved as stars. They were on bedroom walls all over the world. I knew people who were absolutely, giddily besotted with Menswear. If such fans and even former band members now look back and think it was all rubbish, or that it now sounds impossibly dated, that changes nothing. Those bands added to the amount of joy in the lives of strangers. That’s as valid a life achievement as any, and should be celebrated as such.
Rock journalists who forget this have forgotten what it’s like to be a fan. To focus instead on narratives of hubris and failure does them no favours. Music writing should be more about pop, and less about tall poppy syndrome.
Tags: adam ant
, the double
Friday 21st February 2014
Am starting to notice how a university degree re-wires the mind. Before I took the course, to me all non-fiction was either commercial (ie books I could understand), or academic (books I couldn’t). Now academic books are finally opening up to me, and it’s like being able to read a new language. The flipside, though, is that I started to get impatient with a lot of commercial non-fiction, wincing at their generalisations and agendas. But then I discovered that’s possible to switch reading levels, like switching between languages. One can then enjoy a commercial book on its own terms. There is a danger in calling a book ‘too light’ – such a phrase says more about the reader than the book.
Writing this down, I smile when I realise that this is more or less the plot of Educating Rita. Still, the message of Willy Russell’s play hasn’t changed: higher education doesn’t change people wholly – it gives them more options for approaching the world, which is quite different. A bigger toolbox.
Saturday 22nd February 2014
I meet with Mum in the basement café of Waterstones Piccadilly, in the old Simpsons building. It’s a rare example of a non-place being converted back into a place-place. The café used to be a Costa, but is now run by Waterstones themselves, decorating the walls with nice old book covers, rather than the corny photographs of continental bonhomie that can splatter the walls of every Costa everywhere. It may still be a franchise café, but any café which isn’t a Starbucks, Costa, Caffe Nero or Pret has a definite sense of being somewhere in particular, as opposed to nowhere in particular.
Mum and I have a vegetarian lunch at the Coach and Horses in Greek Street. At the table next to us is a group of young Japanese women using their smartphones to take photos of their afternoon tea.
Then we go on to the National Portrait Gallery. The David Bailey exhibition is sold out, so we take a look at the permanent collection instead. The unflattering painting of Kate Middleton – the one which makes her look 50 – is displayed more matter-of-factly than I’d thought, tucked within a row of other portraits and not very well-lit.
We also stumble on an engrossing mini-exhibition about Vivien Leigh. I’m reminded that even though Gone with the Wind is meant to be the most successful film in the UK ever (going by sales of cinema tickets), I have yet to get around to it myself. That and St Paul’s Cathedral: on the list of things one is assumed to have done, but which the same assumption puts one off doing.
Sunday 23rd February 2014
My anxiety over the funeral hits me so hard that I spend the entire day in bed, trying to get over excruciating stomach pains.
Monday 24th February 2014
Dad’s funeral. I brave the morning rush hour Tube in order to get to Tom’s place on time, and am staggered by the awfulness of what must be a daily experience for so many. Not only do people have to brave the train journey with strangers bodies’ pressed against them throughout, but the journey itself is delayed at each stop, due to the mass of passengers preventing the doors closing on the first go. Whatever the rewards of being a rail commuter must be (a decent salary? a house?), to me they can’t possibly be enough. A commuter friend once told me, ‘You just get used to it’. I don’t think I ever could.
So I go from the lack of respect for bodies per se, to paying respects to one particular body. Mum has insisted on no dress code, but I’m in a three-piece black suit and black tie anyway, because that’s me. I add a seahorse brooch, though, in case I’m mistaken for one of the crematorium staff.
Tom drives me to Bildeston to meet with Mum and Uncle Mike (Mum’s brother), and we all get into a hired people carrier. It’s then that I see Dad’s coffin for the first time, in the back window of the hearse in front of us.
Fittingly, it’s a cardboard coffin, looking just like one of Dad’s many boxes of comics in the loft. It also has a base made from the same sort of hardboard that Dad used, when he built scenery for Tom and myself to play with as children; rocket ships and puppet theatres. One of Mum’s homemade quilts covers the coffin, a beautiful science-fiction themed work with planets and stars. ‘I’m having that back before the actual burning,’ says Mum about the quilt. ‘It’s too nice!’
Seeing the coffin for the first time is the first of several moments when I nearly, but not quite, burst into tears.
We arrive at the crematorium at Nacton, near Ipswich. Then we get out and walk behind the pallbearers with the coffin, into the chapel. Unexpectedly, all the seats are taken: standing room only for Dad.
The Humanist host of the ceremony, Chris, does most of the reading. Then I follow with my own eulogy. At Mum’s request, it’s based on extracts from my diary, but I’ve added some of the liner notes from the Fosca album The Painted Side Of The Rocket, the album which features myself and Tom together. I wanted to make the point about creativity being something children do naturally, and which adult artists have to do on purpose. A quality of childlike unselfconsciousness – something Dad manage to manifest easily throughout his life, in both his art and his personality.
Then I read from the diary entry about Dad’s death, ‘Seeing Dad’, and I very nearly break down, twice. But only nearly.
We file out to ‘Monster Mash’, as promised. Dad’s favourite song, ‘Macho Man’ by the Village People, then follows on, with its opening line of ‘Body! Wanna feel my body, baby!’
Both are very silly records indeed for a funeral, and Dad, a fan of Joe Orton and Family Guy, knew this more than anyone else. We put little explanations about the choices – or warnings, rather – into Chris’s reading and mine, so one hopes the mourners understood.
* * *
In the courtyard outside the chapel, the mourners gather to chat. The first thing spoken to me after the service is, ‘Look! Muppet socks!’
A man in his seventies has collared me. He slips off his loafers to show off, yes, his Kermit the Frog socks. This turns out to be one of Dad’s schoolfriends from Clacton, a jokey gang raised on The Goon Show and who, like Dad, have managed to extend their in-jokes down the decades. One of them is wearing a luminous high-vis jacket: whether it’s for cycling or an outdoors day job I’m not sure, but it’s certainly a sign his own body has some years to go yet.
‘I’ll come visit you’ says one to the other as they part.
‘I don’t like threats’, says the other, deadpan.
Afterwards there’s sandwiches and tea at Chamberlin Hall, the new village hall in Bildeston. I chat with cousins I’ve not seen for decades, and some I’ve not seen full stop. Some live in Brighton, some in London, some in Sussex. There’s also people who babysat me in the village, or taught me in the local schools, and indeed the woman who helped Mum with Baby Dickon things when I was born, doing the sort of job that (I think) is now called a doula.
‘Do you remember me?’ is something I’m asked a lot. And for the most part, I do. Sometimes I don’t, and probably make a mess of pulling the right expression.
I still don’t know how I’ll be different now he’s gone. It’s still too soon.
In the evening, Tom drives me back to London.
Thursday 27th February 2014
Tom has made a little video memorial for Dad. It’s made up of photos of Dad (sometimes with me as a child), along with examples of his art. The soundtrack is an original instrumental written and performed by Tom:
, coach and horses
, dad's funeral
Friday 14th February 2014. In one corner of the Euston branch of Marks and Spencer is a huge display of unsold tins of shortbread, all close to their expiry date. It’s a special edition brand, made last July to commemorate the birth of the Royal Baby. The cover design is a twee painted trio of marching little boys, one in a sailor suit, one in a Beefeater uniform, and one dressed as a Queen’s Guard, with the red tunic and black bearskin hat. I stand there in the supermarket looking at the tins and pondering this tacky monument to cash-in hubris. I wonder if the unsold tins can somehow be converted into flood defences.
I suppose they could now rename the biscuit tins in honour of Simon Cowell’s baby, as this week his happy news is getting the same manic coverage allotted to the royal infant last year – days on end of front pages. In the supermarket, I stand around gazing at the fronts of these popular newspapers, wondering just who is interested, and why I am not like them.
* * *
Saturday 15th February 2014
I stumble on an old quote by Peter Nichols, which might now be regarded as an early version of the internet saying ‘don’t feed the trolls’:
‘Never reply to a critic. It’s feeding the hand that bites you.’
* * *
Sunday 16th February 2014
I finish writing my latest essay for college. It’s on Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, about her dead father. And then I go straight on to finishing my own eulogy for Dad’s funeral.
Unlike the college essay, the eulogy lacks a word count. So I put together what I think will be okay, hoping for the best.
Thankfully there are people who do know how long such pieces should be. A few days after I email the eulogy to Mum, the man from the Humanist Society, who is conducting the ceremony, steps in, reads everyone’s intended contributions, and tells us they all need to be drastically edited down in order to fit the time slot at the crematorium.
Dad would have found this amusing, being no man of few words himself.
* * *
I watch the film BAFTAs on TV. Peter Greenaway gets a special award, some years after the British film industry had more or less turned its back on him. He’s still around, still making films that properly put the Art into Art House. Martin Freeman starred in one he made in 2007 about Rembrandt, Nightwatching, which really should have been better known.
He gets the award from Juliet Stevenson, who talks about her part in Drowning By Numbers, my favourite Greenaway movie. It was filmed around Southwold in Suffolk, and gives the local landscape a defiantly spooky yet very English ambience – the Sebald kind which was already there. Greenaway added his trademark taste for the grotesque, but didn’t have to add too much. The film has a touch of Kit Williams too, with its numbers of 1 to 100 hidden in sequence throughout the film. Its soundtrack is also Michael Nyman’s best – I remember it even appeared in NME’s Albums Of The Year list for Christmas 1988.
Monday 17th February 2014
Mum tells me how in looking for Dad’s birth certificate, she found a letter from the author John Masters, from the time in the 60s when Dad illustrated book covers for Penguin. At some point during the author-to-illustrator process, Masters noticed Dad’s Bildeston address and wrote a full, personal letter to him from New York, revealing that he’d had a romance with a woman from Bildeston in the 1930s.
This is Dad’s cover for Coromandel!, published 1967.
Dad was also commissioned to do the cover for the first British edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, though his art wasn’t eventually used. He told me how the publisher had trusted him with the only copy of Vonnegut’s original manuscript, longhand scribblings and all. That was the way it was done, before the rise of word processing.
* * *
Tuesday 18th February 2014
In London ambassador mode, I meet up with Liam J again. This time I show them the Museum of London (which we discover needs more than 2 hours to do properly), followed by fish and chips (Liam’s first) at Bar Bruno in Wardour Street. We end up at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern for Bar Wotever, the friendly club night for trans people, androgynes and anyone of uncommon gender identity. The US writer S. Bear Bergman gives an entertaining reading of anecdotes, and I have my boots polished by Alex, a charming ‘shoe-shine boi’ (pronounced ‘boy’) in a checked shirt and bow tie, who has a proper shoe-shine stall set up in one corner. Alex takes a good fifteen to twenty minutes on my boots, applying a host of different unguents and waxes. This is bookended by the gentle rolling up and down of the ends of my trousers. It’s the closest I’ve come to having a sex life for some time.
* * *
Wednesday 19th February 2014
A teenage girl in Coventry writes, asking for permission to use my lyrics in her A-level art project. I duly give her my blessing. It’s good to know I have some sort of value, even it’s ‘the wrong kind of worth’, as a Job Centre employee once told me.
Meanwhile, I am besieged by what people are currently encouraged to view as the ‘right’ kind of worth – unabashed corporate greed. Today I get a letter from BT demanding I pay them a fee of £40 purely so I can leave them for another phone company. It’s a kind of telephonic alimony. The main reason I’m switching providers, of course, is BT’s spontaneous displays of legalised grasping, like this one. I am just grateful we never had children.
* * *
Thursday 20th February 2014
Two new marks in from college. The New Year essay on Old English poetry gets 77, while the January test on Old English translation also gets 77. This concludes my half module on Old English per se, giving it an overall grade of 77 in the process. A good First. Given my previous module grades have all been in the low 70s (Firsts, but only just), this either suggests I have an unexpected gift for Old English, or that I’ve more or less worked out how to tick the right boxes. The latter is more likely. I didn’t find Old English at all easy, as it requires not just hours of literary criticism but hours of translation and historical research on top. I’m slow enough with Modern English as it is.
, bar wotever
, john masters
, liam j
, peter greenaway
, vauxhall tavern
Friday 7th February 2014.
I am approached by a charity street fundraiser on Tottenham Court Road. ‘No thanks,’ I say. ‘Are you sure?’ he says, following me along the pavement. I’m tempted to reply, ‘My dad’s just died, you pestering git, leave me alone’. But that would be, as they say in warfare, a disproportionate response.
Saturday 8th February 2014.
To Suffolk to visit Mum. As I get on the train to Marks Tey I recognise that the only other person in the carriage is the comedian Stewart Lee. I enjoy his work enough to know where he’s probably going – and am slightly unnerved that I know this. Earlier this week I’d read an East Anglian Daily Times interview with him online, promoting his show in Ipswich (a reminder that local news is no longer local, thanks to the Web). He told the journalist that the fact he was speaking to the newspaper at all must mean he hadn’t sold enough tickets. Typically for Mr Lee, this was both a grumpy joke and a joke about the act of daring to make that sort of grumpy joke.
Recognising someone in a train carriage requires rather different etiquette to recognising them in the street. The latter predicament always makes me think of a line from a Half Man Half Biscuit song:
‘He’s seen me / And we both realise / That we’re going to have to put into operation / That tricky manoeuvre / that is Acknowledgement Without Breaking Stride’.
It’s more complex if the person you recognise is slightly famous, and though you have chatted to them socially in the past, that had been some years ago. And in Stewart Lee’s case, that Act of Recognising Stewart Lee in Public – and his resulting irritation – is something he has put into his work. There’s one stand-up show where he reads out a long list of unkind statements from Twitter:
‘I saw that Stewart Lee on the bus,’ goes one. ‘He looked fat and depressed and fat.’
I’m too socially awkward as it is to be the one that makes the move in such scenarios, whoever the other person is, and tend to prefer people coming up to me rather than the other way round. As it is, I think to myself, he might be well in a state of mental preparation for his show, and so shouldn’t be disturbed.
Something else I always worry about is – what if something terrible has happened to the person you’ve just recognised, and now is really not the time to bother them? A parent might just have died, for instance. That happens to people. That definitely happens to people.
So I don’t approach him during the journey. When I get off at Marks Tey, though, he sees me, recognises me and says hello.
I have to add that he looked thin and reasonably happy and thin.
Travelling on the little diesel train to Sudbury along the Stour Valley, I pass a line of pylons. They are standing in several feet of flood water.
I spend the afternoon in Bildeston with Mum and my aunt Anne. There’s no traces of the medical equipment that cluttered up the living room last time I was here. The hospital bed, the noisy oxygen machine, the mask, the tubes and the commode have all been taken away by various medical services. No sentimental value attached to those. I’m grateful that they kept him alive, but grateful to see the back of them. Off to sustain someone else.
It turns out that Anne wasn’t intending to be in the village on the day that Dad died. The floods in the South-West had wrecked the train track for her journey back to St Ives, and staying with Mum a few more days was the only option. So Mum had the benefit of her company when she heard from the care home. In fact, it was Anne who took the call. A silver lining of some literal clouds.
* * *
Mum and Anne are convinced Dad’s handwriting closely resembled mine, and vice versa. But I like to think I can see evidence of both parents’ styles coming together in my own spidery hand. It’s as good a reason as any for varying my typing with my longhand writing. Every time I write with a pen, there he is.
Sunday 9th February 2014
Dad’s phrases keep coming back to me. One is ‘I have better things to do’, in response to some conversation about a national talking point. As in ‘Did you see that Benefits Street everyone’s on about?’ ‘No, I have better things to do.’ Not meaning it unkindly, but honestly. And he was usually right. It seems a mundane, even obvious piece of life advice, yet it’s one that’s so useful and so easy to ignore. Dad was a fan of silliness, but it was always intentional and purposeful silliness. Mindful Silliness, I suppose. That’s the difference.
As a habitual procrastinator I try to ask myself, ‘Is this the best thing I could be doing right now?’ Or if I’m idling full stop, I wonder ‘What’s the best thing I could be doing now?’ That the phrase comes to me in Dad’s voice helps all the more.
Wednesday 12th February 2014
I’m currently being driven crazy by some sort of facial aching, with hot-and-cold sensations around my teeth, jaw and facial muscle area. Today I see the GP, who thinks it is a flaring up of TJD (Temporomandibular Joint Disorder), which I’ve always had a touch of (my jaw clicks). This might well have been brought on the stress of the more intensive college work in January, coupled with general anxiety over my penury, and now of course, Dad’s death.
‘Do you grind your teeth in your sleep?’ she asks. I have no idea. I live alone.
Valentine’s day is close, and like many I start to think about the pros and cons of relationships. The ability of couples to detect warning signs in each other’s health is one definite advantage. Still, I have to admit I enjoy my own company, and am relieved not to have to join the ranks of all the confused-looking men in card shops this week.
Thursday 13th February 2014.
Mum has written an introduction to be read out at the funeral by the Humanist official in charge (not sure what the correct term is – certainly not priest). It explains how he was known as Bib Edwards to some, and Brian Edwards to others. He tended to prefer the more informal nickname of Bib, but answered happily to either.
My brother Tom has been balancing his helping with the funeral, with his work as a guitarist. Today he performs in Adam Ant’s band on ITV’s This Morning.
Tom must have mentioned Dad’s passing to Mr Ant, because the singer introduces ‘Ant Music’ on national television with the phrase ‘This is for Bib’.
Tags: adam ant
, stewart lee
On Camp: Gaga v Perry
Saturday 28th December 2013. To Bildeston to visit Mum and Dad. Dad is pretty much the same as he was the month before: restricted to either the sofa or the bed in the living room, still relying on an oxygen mask and round-the-clock care. But he’s also still very chatty, enthusing about the latest escapist films on DVD, his Christmas presents from the family: Iron Man 3, Man of Steel. ‘I’m still that boy buying the first issue of Eagle comic’.
What he never watches is that baffling default prescription for the bedbound, the type piped into hospital wards at the request of no one sane: daytime TV. No fan of Bargain Hunt, my father.
I make myself useful by organising Dad’s DVD collection, gathering them from several scattered piles around the house into a single cabinet downstairs, then arranging them into alphabetical order. He has about 150. We wonder where best to file The Amazing Spider-Man, the recent big screen frolic starring the nervy Andrew Garfield (who really should play the young David Byrne if there’s ever a Talking Heads biopic). Should it go under ‘A’ for Amazing, or ‘S’ for Spider-Man, given that Dad also has the Tobey Maguire triptych of a few years ago? We agree on the latter. Keep all the Spider-Men in one place, and hope that Mr Maguire will not take the implication personally that he is officially… Not Amazing.
(As I type this up, a real spider dangles down from the ceiling onto my hand. It’s a thin greenish little thing, certainly not one of those False Widow spiders that the British newspapers got so aroused about last year. This one sadly has not bitten me and so I remain without a hyphenated secret identity. I have now carefully relocated the interloper to the outdoors, via the time-honoured dance of Mr Tumbler and Ms Nearest Piece of Paper. Before I go on, though, I think I should type the words ‘unmarked fifty pound notes’ and ‘Tom Daley’ in case they too need to fall from above. Nothing. )
* * *
Sunday 29th December 2013. End of year lists. My heroes of 2013: Young Ms Malala, obviously. The brave Mr Snowden too. Closer to home: Ms Jack Monroe, the food blogger turned fearless anti-poverty campaigner. And also Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP. For her involvement in the protest against fracking (for which she was arrested), for being asked to cover up her ‘Ban Page 3′ shirt in a Commons debate, and for voting ‘yes’ to the food bank investigation and ‘no’ to MPs getting a pay rise. I know I’m biased, but Russell Brand’s calling for people to not vote seems unfair on the MPs who are trying to change things for the better. Though admittedly, they’re not quite as visible as he is.
* * *
Monday 30th December 2013. Shamefully, I waste time on Twitter as a distraction from writing an essay on Anglo-Saxon poetry. Still, I hope I am redeemed when I provide the author Sarah Churchwell with a dull but useful tip about how to copy text from a Kindle e-book (you use the ‘Kindle for PC or Mac’ program, open the book within it, use the ‘search’ facility to locate the passage, then copy and paste as normal). Ms Churchwell wrote Careless People, one of my favourite books of the year, about the influences behind The Great Gatsby. She tweets back that the tip worked for her, with thanks. I know so little about computers that supplying this mundanity, and hearing it was of use, makes my day.
A second good deed on Twitter: Ms Amber, whom I slightly know from the world of dressed-up London parties, asks the Twitter world for serious definitions of ‘camp’. Ideally, not from the over-quoted Susan Sontag essay.
I offer two: ‘The lie that tells the truth’ from the title of Philip Core’s 1980s book. And ‘a charging of the tension between performance and existence’, from Gary McMahon’s 2006 book Camp in Literature.
The trouble then is that I find myself distracted from the essay with my own musings on the subject. Is Lady Gaga a ‘Queen of Camp’, for instance, as some quarters have described her? Using the McMahon definition, I’d say no. There’s no ‘charging of the tension’, no wink, no knowing smirk. For her, performance is existence. But she may become camp as she gets older, because age ups the tension. A case in point is Grace Jones: all Gaga-esque performance when she was young, now very much camp. Katy Perry, on the other hand, is camp. She has that charged quality of self-awareness, finding the line where the self meets the performance, and then exaggerating it. That’s camp.
All this comes to me when I should be thinking about translating Old English from the Exeter Book.
* * *
Tuesday 31st December 2013. I meet with Laurence Hughes, up from Oxford. Mulled wine at The Flask in Highgate Village. He thinks I should take the academic thing further, doing a Masters and so on when I graduate. He says I ‘look’ the part of an academic. Perhaps in my case it’s just the air of an inability to cope with the physical.
At home, I work on the essay, then take a Nytol sleeping tablet, put in earplugs, and sleep through the fireworks. It’s the happiest New Year’s Eve I’ve had for some time.
* * *
Wednesday 1st January 2014. I start the year by appearing in the Guardian, to my surprise and squealing delight.
Or rather, I appear on the Guardian website, as the article in question is not in the printed newspaper (I buy a copy to check). Funny how prepositions work with new technology. It’s in the paper, but on the website. Or in an article on a website. Anyway.
The article is Travis Elborough’s Top 10 Literary Diarists. Here’s the link:
I am included along with Samuel Pepys, Alan Bennett, Elizabeth Smart and Virginia Woolf.
* * *
Thursday 2nd January 2014. A few weeks ago I reviewed a graphic novel by Oscar Zarate, The Park, for The Quietus’s comics round-up column. The book is set mostly on Hampstead Heath. Here’s the link:
Having been reminded about Elizabeth Smart’s diaries by the Travis Elborough article, I look them up at The London Library today. The first volume, Necessary Secrets, is a work of art, reading more as fully-formed literature than as a hastily jotted-down journal. It’s so close in style to her novella By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept that it deserves to be considered on the same level. Yet it’s been out of print for over twenty years. I recall how the Morrissey song ‘Late Night Maudlin Street’, from his album Viva Hate, is full of quotes from By Grand Central. No mention of Ms Smart’s influence in his Autobiography, sadly.
Tags: andrew garfield
, caroline lucas
, elizabeth smart
, katy perry
, lady gaga
, laurence hughes
, sarah churchwell
, travis elborough