Sunday 7th February 2016. Days in a chilly city, feeling the nervous hints of climate change. Lots of freezing winter rain, but still no snow. Some confused-looking daffodils poke their heads up by the front of the house.
Mum forwards me a clipping from Country Life (issue dated 6 January 2016), as spotted by Cousin Jim. I’m mentioned in a feature by Matthew Dennison, about diaries. I’m the example of an online diarist, as opposed to a blogger. It’s flattering company to be in: not the other diarists (Woolf, Pepys et al), but the magazine. Going by the adverts, the Country Life readership consists of people who buy and sell English country houses, or who come from English country houses, or those who are just wistfully attracted to that world. I may be far from that world financially, but a part of me is drawn to it aesthetically, in my Vita Sackville-West, Brideshead-loving way. Every article ends with a little silhouette of a peacock.
The article suggests that diaries differ from blogs through the latter’s ‘anticipation of an audience, and in some instances, a commercial intent’. I’d agree with this. Diaries, even public ones, are about stepping out of the world to record an individual’s experience. ‘Blog’, meanwhile, in its original definition, is short for ‘weblog’: a log of things on the web. Early blogs discussed and shared web links. It was all about the linking. Soon the term ‘blogosphere’ appeared, and blogs were seen as units within a new internet community, a textual form of society. When comment boxes appeared in the early 2000s, these took the social aspect further. At this point I tried to join in; one of my misguided attempts to belong. I converted this diary from the raw HTML text it had been, and moved it onto the fun and shiny LiveJournal platform. People could comment on my entries, and did. I felt Part of the Gang. I was a blogger.
But I soon disliked the way comments became an expected part of the reading experience. Of course people should be free to discuss an entry, but did it have to be in the same place? For better or worse, my style doesn’t work as part of an interactive experience. It’s too stand-offish, too aloof, too wary. In this sense, I suppose I am more of a traditional diarist rather than a blogger. I try to write to step out of the noise, not to join in.
* * *
Monday 8th February 2016.
I’m reading Eternal Troubadour, an extensive new biography of Tiny Tim, the dandyish American ukulele-playing singer, whose single ‘Tip-toe Thru’ The Tulips With Me’ became a huge novelty hit in 1968. I can’t help peppering the margins with exclamation marks: such are the unexpected anecdotes and revelations. Given the wealth of recent discussion about Bowie, it’s fascinating to note that Tiny Tim was often described as ‘camp rock’, a term that was soon applied to Bowie. I’m surprised to discover that the phrase ‘glam rock’ rarely appears in a magazine special on 1972: The Year In Rock, as culled from the archives of NME and Melody Maker. Presumably it came later. In 1972, artists like Bowie, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper are all questioned about the nature of ‘camp’ in their performances. The implication is that they may not ‘mean it’ when they perform – an accusation that Bowie is happy to confirm with his Ziggy Stardust persona.
Tiny Tim, however, did indeed ‘mean it’. He couldn’t help it: he was the same offstage as well as on. According to the book, his widow thinks he had a touch of autism. This made him difficult to work with yet endearingly honest. He had long hair before the Beatles, wore make-up before Bowie, and possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of American popular song, from wax cylinders onwards. A man of childlike gestures, dandyish affectations, obsessive-compulsive behaviour, and some startling ideas about career moves, such as his late 70s attempt to appear in a porn film.
The book also states that David Bowie was ‘in the crowd’ for a Tiny Tim appearance at the London Palladium, 30th November 1969. This is a slight error: Bowie was actually on the same bill. There’s photos of them on the web standing in the same line after the show, waiting to shake hands with Princess Margaret. In one, Tiny is showing the Princess his shopping bag, which he carried everywhere, even on stage.
More camp connections: Bowie and Tiny Tim both covered Biff Rose’s ‘Fill Your Heart’, and both duetted with Bing Crosby on TV. Crosby to Tiny: ‘Boy, you could throw a Labrador through that vibrato of yours.’
* * *
Tuesday 9th February 2016.
To Printspace in Kingsland Road, a printing shop with its own gallery. It’s hosting a photography exhibition: Lost In Music, a huge collection of images from four decades of club culture, across the whole spectrum of music. I recognise some of the faces from my own past, at London clubs like Nag Nag Nag, Kash Point and Trash. Senay S has been to it the week before, and tells me I’m in it too, as seen at Trash in the early 2000s. So naturally I make the pilgrimage. But by the time I visit, the display with me in has been moved for reasons of space. There’s a lesson here about vanity, and about the past never hanging around long enough. Still, Senay took a photo when she went:
From www.lostinmusic.online/ (thanks to Senay Sargut)
* * *
Wednesday 10th February 2016.
I meet Mum at the British Library, after which we go for drinks at the Victorian Gothic bar next door, the Gilbert Scott. Mum has just been featured in her own magazine special, a supplement that comes with the current issue of Today’s Quilter. ‘Lynne Edwards MBE: 40 Years of Fabric, Quilts and Classes!’
* * *
Friday 12th February 2016. First essay back from the MA course: 73, which is a Distinction. Interesting that MA grades aren’t Firsts, Seconds or Thirds but Distinction (70 or above), Merit (60-69) or Pass (50-59). Same numbers, different names.
It’s the best mark I could have hoped for. A good start, but with room for improvement. The tutor feedback says I need to work more on engaging with theoretical works. I also seem to have (again) cut things out which I thought could be taken as read. I killed the wrong darlings. Must remember that it’s better to bash the reader over the head several times with one point, than it is to tease with a whole range. Variety is not necessarily the spice of essays.
, country life
, lost in music
, tiny tim
Saint Paul, Saint Audrey
(A fortnight’s worth of entries.)
Sunday 19th July 2015.
According to Viktor Wynd, a group of Hackney-based Christians attacked his Museum of Curiosities in Mare Street today. They threw holy water and crosses, and shouted about Satanism. It could be argued that this is a redundant gesture, given the museum already celebrates someone who was indeed crucified, albeit non-lethally: Sebastian Horsley.
* * *
The solipsism of the Sunday supplement journalist. An article in the Sunday Times today begins: ‘Summertime means one thing… beaches flooding your Instagram feed’.
I wince at the arrogance of insisting that one writer’s way of life is the default. A further implication is that this is the way the reader should live. I know I’m overreacting, and that many people these days do indeed have smartphones and Instagram accounts, and that for many, summertime must indeed mean this ‘one thing’, however depressing that sounds. But what is also true is that plenty of people do not live this way, and have no immediate plans to join in.
Good writing, even for a fluffy lifestyle article, should celebrate difference, and resist the urge to generalise. Communicating with readers should not mean bevelling down the richness of human experience to a single, banal approximation of common ground. My credo here would be: speak for yourself. Write for yourself. And let universality take care of itself.
* * *
Tuesday 21st July 2015.
Birkbeck’s website confirms the breakdown of my final year marks on the BA English course. As I’d hoped, all of them are the same as the provisional ones. This gives me a clean run of First Class module totals throughout the whole course. I only realise today that the average overall ‘weighted’ mark, the one which leads to the classification (as a First, or a 2.1 etc), is never published. It’s meant only as a guide for the college boards who approve the degree: they decide the classification according to what they think is most fair to the student, but with this unpublished score in mind. So my final grade is not a number, but a phrase – ‘First Class’. I think I like that – it’s more tidy.
* * *
Wednesday 22nd July 2015.
Another Life Event today, this one directly connected to my BA result. Getting a good degree means I am now qualified to take an MA. For much of the last year, friends and tutors have been advising me to do an MA next. A common tip was that I should also do it immediately, rather than put it off for a year, in case the academic skills go slack.
So today I enrol – online – to do an MA at Birkbeck, starting in the autumn. Part-time, 2 years, Contemporary Literature and Culture.
One big reason – and this is something that I’ve kept quiet about until now – is that I’ve managed to get a bursary to fully cover the fees.
I successfully applied for one of the limited studentships offered by Birkbeck’s School of Arts in Gordon Square. Effectively, Virginia Woolf’s old house thinks I’m worth investing in as a Master’s student. So once I won that bursary, and got a First in the BA, and won a prize for showing ‘the most promise’ as an English Literature student, I thought it’d be unwise to not go ahead and do an MA.
I don’t get a maintenance grant, alas, so it still means two more years of getting by on whatever I can eke out from the kindness of the State. I’m hoping to find part-time paid work that I can do alongside the MA. Writing work would be ideal.
The most important thing I’ve learned is that I am finally, demonstrably good at something: studying literature. People at Birkbeck not only believe I have ‘promise’ as a student, but that I’m worth sponsoring too.
So that’s my life for the next two years, or at least part of it.
* * *
Thursday 23rd July 2015.
A couple of gallery visits. First, to the National Gallery, to see a painting I’d been reading about in Clive Barker’s book of essays, The Painter, The Creature and The Father of Lies. Barker’s favourite paintings are The Raft of the Medusa, which I know well, and Carlo Crivelli’s Annunciation with Saint Emidius, which I don’t know at all. It’s in the National Gallery’s permanent collection (room 59 of the Sainsbury Wing), so today I take a look.
The picture is stunning: bright, busy, geometric, intricate, and full of details one doesn’t tend to see in Renaissance Annunciations. Barker points out how the beam of God’s Message, a ray of light running from the clouds down to Mary, isn’t subject to the laws of perspective, while everything else is rigidly organised around vanishing points. ‘The meaning is plain,’ comments Mr B. ‘The power of God’s gift upends the laws of physics. Space folds up at His command’.
The painting’s aspects which most fascinate me, however, are the ones to do with urban architecture. It was commissioned for the city of Ascoli Piceno, and it is this Renaissance Italian city that the Biblical Mary appears to have a flat in. In fact, the city appears twice: once as the backdrop to this whole scene, and again in the form of a scale model, carried by the local patron saint, Emidius. Emidius lurks outside Mary’s door while chatting merrily to the Archangel Gabriel as if this were something that happens all the time. Mary herself seems oblivious to all these goings-on, as she’s busy reading her book. There are clearly things for which even Dick Francis cannot wait.
Before I leaving, I pay my respects to my own favourite painting there, Bronzino’s Portrait of A Young Man. It’s next to his Allegory With Venus & Cupid, in which Cupid’s foot can be recognised as the one used in the credits for Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
* * *
Then next door to the National Portrait Gallery, for their big summer show Audrey Hepburn – Portraits of An Icon. Cheaper on Thursdays with an NUS card.
Someone I follow on Twitter remarked grumpily that such an exhibition was targeted purely at women. ‘What man would ever go to an Audrey Hepburn exhibition?’ I told him that I’ve known several men likely to do so, aside from myself, and heterosexual men too. But admittedly, that says more about the company I keep.
The implication was that Audrey Hepburn’s image was unusually inert and asexual for such an iconic female pin-up; that with her, it would all be about the Givenchy frocks and gamine hairdos. Her beauty was for those who swoon – and men are not meant to swoon. Well, apart from the ones I know.
Today I go along to find out for myself, mindful of a quote from Dorian Gray:
“The Academy is too large and too vulgar. Whenever I have gone there, there have been either so many people that I have not been able to see the pictures, which was dreadful, or so many pictures that I have not been able to see the people, which was worse.”
I very much enjoy going to exhibitions to see the people as much as the pictures.
The Hepburn exhibition is busy – timed entry only – and indeed the visitors inside are predominantly female. I’d say 80%. One or two gay male couples, and a few attendant husbands and boyfriends, the types who do most of the talking, and I wonder if they’re doing so here as a defence mechanism. I count just other lone man. A typical older tourist sort: grey hair, backpack, shorts. Suddenly I realise I’ve never worn a backpack in my life, and that this too may have implications for my manliness, or at least my blokeyness. I am not a Backpack Bloke.
The show is mainly photographic portraits, as expected, but there’s also Audrey H’s ballet shoes, and some 1950s magazine adverts, when she was the face of calamine lotion. I especially like: the photo of her being read to by an ageing Colette, her costume as the water sprite in the play of Ondine, and her pre-acting cover for an issue of Dancing Times, 1952.
* * *
Friday 24th July 2015.
To Suffolk to celebrate my BA with Mum. We go for a lavish meal at Suffolk’s only vegetarian pub, The Red Lion in Great Bricett, then spend the rest of a rainy day in Bildeston, watching the DVDs I’ve brought. One is Charade – to follow on my Audrey Hepburn binge. It’s a Hitchcock-esque caper from the mid 60s, complete with Cary Grant, though Hitchcock would never let the Hepburn role have such an inner life. Even though she’s a damsel in distress, she has the air of a pre-existing character who has stumbled into a thriller plot, rather than a character who is defined by the plot. Lots of clever twists and unexpected revelations. We also watch Patience, a fine documentary on Sebald’s book Rings of Saturn, and Withnail and I. As we’re celebrating my student success, I thought re-watching a student-favourite film would be apt. I first saw it when it came out in 1987, while I was still at school. Today what stands out is what good value the film is: not just a sparkling, quotable script, but plenty of slapstick set-pieces too. The scene where Withnail tries fishing with a double-barrelled shotgun instead of a rod lasts about thirty seconds. Lesser films would have dragged it out into a central scene. The ending is still terribly sad: I used to think it was the film’s only flaw. Now that I’m older, I see the need for pathos and entirely agree with it.
Also: these days I empathise less with Richard E Grant and Paul McGann, and more with the old ladies in the tea room.
* * *
Saturday 25th July 2015.
Second day in Suffolk. The sun comes out. Mum and I drive to Southwold on the coast, the family’s favourite destination. We have Adnams champagne for two, in the high-class Swan Hotel. It’s a place Mum’s never actually entered before, despite her staying in the town most summers since the 1980s. Mum says that I look at home there, in my linen suit and my aloof Londoner air. Later on, I sit and read in the Sailor’s Reading Room, one of my favourite places in England. According to The Rings of Saturn, it was a favourite of WG Sebald’s too.
* * *
Thursday 30th July 2015
Thinking more about gender ratios at exhibitions, I go to one which is surely likely to attract more men than the Audrey Hepburn. Visitors to The Jam – About The Young Idea, at Somerset House, turn out to be about 65% male. A few Fred Perry shirts, indeed a few Paul Weller lookalikes – as he is now. Greying feather cut hair, Mods till they drop. The exhibition has a refreshingly unglossy feel to it, as if it were a fan club affair, despite the huge professional poster campaign at Tube stations. On display are carefully preserved guitars, clothes, records, gig posters, fan letters, videos of concerts, and calling cards from the Woking days (‘The Jam – Rock and Roll Group – Dances, Parties, etc. Woking 64717.’). A souvenir programme comes in the format of the old inky style of music paper. Much is made of the sheer boyishness of the Jam’s appeal – how they taught huge amounts of boys how to be a boy. In this way, the exhibition has a feel of a shrine to male identity, just as the NPG one is a shrine to a certain kind of female identity, via Audrey Hepburn. After a certain point, role models take on the appeal of secular saints.
Among the music paper clippings is a Smash Hits review for the Jam’s last London concert, in 1982. The reviewer is not especially upset about the band’s demise: ‘On stage you know what to expect – one reason they’re splitting up, I suppose.’ It’s written by a journalist who will himself go on to form a pop group, sing about London, and define a way of being a boy: Neil Tennant.
Tags: audrey hepburn
, clive barker
, national gallery
, national portrait gallery
, somerset house
, the jam
, the red lion
Cufflinks: Piercings For the Squeamish
Saturday 20th June 2015.
To the Little Baobab Bar in Lower Clapton Road, for fellow student Hester R’s birthday. It’s one of those times where I seem to only know the birthday person, and not any of their friends. But this time I surprise myself and chat happily away to whomever I’m with. I wonder if one reason for this is that no one has been to the venue before, so there’s an extra need to speak to each other and overcome the unfamiliarity. The bar is Senegalese and West African, and despite the usual décor of exposed brickwork and dangling light fittings that one finds in East London eateries, it doesn’t feel overly trendy. The mojitos are made with baobab juice: delicious and cheap (and so even easier to enjoy). Later on, a couple of musicians play in one corner: one on acoustic guitar, and one on a tall, harp-like stringed instrument. The music, presumably Senegalese, turns out to be classical, slow and soothing, almost ambient.
* * *
On the tube. A group of young people all get on at once, decked out in matching red tracksuits, green baseball caps, and big plastic sunglasses. They huddle in the aisle and reel off a series of chants together, cheerleader-style. At first I wonder if they’re part of a spontaneous people-power event, like a flash mob, or a wry protest, or an immersive film night. Eventually one of them comes over to me and hands me a card, now more subdued and sheepish as he does so. It’s for a company that provides home deliveries from shops.
This is a common London feeling: the realisation that something intriguing and unusual is just another advert.
* * *
Irritations over modern language. A common subject line on emails is ‘in case you missed it’, sometimes abbreviated to ICYMI. It’s the neediness of the phrase that irks me, as well as the way it bevels down individuality to join in with a consensus of limited catchphrases. Another is ‘a thing’, as in ‘I did a thing’ or ‘it’s for a thing’ or ‘is X a thing now’?
Perhaps one reason for my resentment of such phrases is the same as the one for my resentment over the ubiquity of beards: I don’t think I am capable of joining in. So it becomes another way of feeling that modern life is something other people do, not me.
In any case, the idea of ‘in case you missed it’ has a threatening quality, to my mind. It’s like another cliché that journalists like, when talking about something that’s reached saturation level in the media: ‘Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last month…’ The only sane response to this phrase is to become a cave-dweller at once.
In the news this week, the slang acronym FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – is added to the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Romo’ has yet to be included, twenty years on after its coinage in the UK music media, and its association with my band, Orlando. Given that all life is missing out, one way or another, I like to think that Romo has acquired a new meaning as an acronym. ROMO: Relief Of Missing Out.
* * *
I amuse myself watching a late night music documentary about Prince, spoofing it in my head with lines like ‘In 1985, Prince was accused of unabashed naughtiness… In 1986, Prince invented a new note, X, which he only ever played for extra naughtiness.’ And to the tune ‘When Doves Cry’, I find myself thinking of our new Lord Chancellor, and sing the phrase ‘When Goves Cry’.
* * *
Sunday 21st June 2015.
More thoughts of in-jokery, this time for humanities students who are also fans of Mean Girls: ‘Stop trying to make Orientalism happen, Edward. It’s not going to happen.’
On the internet, where context is the first casualty, there is now the added entertainment of watching other people not get the joke. On Twitter, there’s an account that purely caters to this curious mix of schadenfreude and scorn, @YesThatsTheJoke. But presumably it only works for the jokes that the YesThatsTheJoke person gets, too.
On The Quietus site this week, there’s a review of the new Muse album by ‘Mr Agreeable’. Mr Agreeable is a jokey fictional avatar created in a pre-web age. He first appeared in the early 90s (possibly earlier), as a regular feature in Melody Maker. The joke is that Mr Agreeable is anything but agreeable. He not so much writes as spews out a torrent of asterisk-spattered swear words, disproportionate vitriol, and downright violent imagery. His over-the-top-ness is, as they say, the joke. For aging readers of Melody Maker like me, seeing new Mr Agreeable reviews now is a nostalgic pleasure. But this being the internet, there is a comments section underneath. And in that section are lots of angry young Muse fans complaining that the review is not proper journalism. Yes, one wants to say, with deadpan resignation. Yes, that’s the joke.
How to explain to them that there was once a magazine – sorry, a ‘thing’ – called Melody Maker? More to the point, how to explain that once upon a time, columns of pure hatred were clearly meant to be read as jokes? I now realise that Mr Agreeable was a prophet of the Web. Disproportionate anger is what people do constantly now, sometimes professionally (Katie Hopkins, Jeremy Clarkson). Except that they’re not joking.
* * *
Wednesday 24th June 2015.
Put off by one job advert today, purely by its usage of exclamation marks.
Most days this week, I am wearing a white suit with seahorse cufflinks. I like to think of cufflinks as the squeamish person’s piercings.
I binge-watch the new (third) series of Orange Is The New Black. The phrase is apt, as I feel a little ill and bloated afterwards. The series is superb, though, finding new backstories for even the minor characters. There’s about thirty recurring roles, so if a plotline isn’t interesting, a better one always comes along soon enough. What I’d like to see now is Carol Morley writing and directing an episode. She’d be perfect.
* * *
Thursday 25th June 2015.
I meet Mum at St Pancras, and we have lunch at the British Library, to celebrate her birthday. The library café area finally has plenty of free seats, and in the afternoon too. All the students seem to have either taken their laptops outside into the nice weather (more chairs and tables there), or – more likely – they’ve finished their studies. Where are they all now, I wonder?
Glastonbury must be one answer. I try to balance my envy of those going to or appearing at festivals, with the consolatory thought that I also love sleeping in a room with four walls. Not to mention my love of indoor flushing toilets. As it is, going to Glastonbury purely as a punter seems increasingly redundant. These days, with the blanket media coverage, it comes to you.
Mum and I take a look at the current free exhibition in the British Library foyer. It’s one big exhibit: Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery). Marking the anniversary of the real thing – which is on show next door – this Magna Carta is a stitched version of the Wikipedia page about the Magna Carta, as it appeared on the day of the 799th anniversary, last year. Most of the text has been stitched by people in the Fine Cell Work charity, which trains convicted prisoners in needlework skills. Mum is thrilled about this: she went to a FCW talk a few months ago – given by a former convict – and found his story of finding new purpose through the art of stitching utterly fascinating. A few of the words have been stitched by public figures, such as Jarvis Cocker, whose selected words are, rather wonderfully, ‘Common People’. Somehow they got Edward Snowdon to stitch a word, too, and it’s one which sums up the essence of the project: ‘liberty’.
* * *
In a lonely mood, I overreact when I realise that I’ve been blocked by a music writer on Twitter. A second one, in fact. I have no idea why. I don’t think I’ve ever had any kind of interaction with the writer – I just want to read his work. I ask around on Twitter and find someone who assures me that blocking is what that particular writer likes to do, apparently notoriously, and often of people he either doesn’t like, or doesn’t like by association. I also find another writer who happily blocks people he doesn’t like pre-emptively, because he hates the idea of them reading his work.
So much for Forster’s ‘only connect’. I have a vision of books in a library snapping shut as a reader approaches: ‘Oh no, not you!’
I come away from this thinking that (a) I’m not as unreasonably grumpy as I think I am, not compared to others, (b) I would never block someone on Twitter unless they’d actively sent me abuse, and (c) I do hope Virginia Woolf doesn’t think I’m a twat.
* * *
Friday 26th June 2015.
I watch the third and final episode of How to be a Bohemian with Victoria Coren Mitchell. There’s a brief glimpse of one of Maggi Hambling’s paintings of Sebastian Horsley, which Ms Coren Mitchell narrates as ‘portraits of other bohemians…’
For me, this is particularly interesting. Mr H once told me how Ms M had cancelled an interview she’d intended to have with him, due to his using one of his typically provocative comments. As she said herself in her column (2 September 2007):
I rang him to suggest meeting in Belsize Park, a leafy area of north London.
‘I can’t bear Belsize Park,’ yawned Horsley. ‘It’s full of Jews.’
I have a vivid memory of actually telling Mr H off about this, as I couldn’t agree with this particular manner of épater la bourgeoisie. ‘Why do you say things you don’t really mean?’ I said. ‘Oh well…’ was his reply.
On another occasion, when Mr Horsley was reading from his autobiography and got to some general statement about sex and women, a lady in the audience shouted out ‘You chauvinist swine!’ (or words to that effect), and stormed out. Sebastian smiled sweetly after her. ‘I’ll say the reverse if it makes you come back!’
So I now wonder if Ms Coren Mitchell has forgiven Mr Horsley, by including him in her film, albeit very briefly. Or if she accepted him as a modern bohemian, in spite of her reservations, as she did for the Bloomsbury Group. Either way, it was good to see him included.
One fictional bohemian that I’m surprised wasn’t mentioned at all is Sherlock Holmes. The story that made him famous was the first of the Doyle tales which appeared in The Strand, ‘A Scandal In Bohemia’. Much of the story plays on the pun of his client being the blackmailed King of Bohemia, while Holmes is scandalised as a bohemian in terms of his bachelor lifestyle. He falls for a woman who defeats him: Irene Adler. Even the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock makes much of the main character’s bohemianism. The word might not be mentioned, but his bachelor status and sense of being an odd child-like man, among conventional adults, is certainly focused upon in the series.
* * *
And that particular bohemian lives on even more. To the Phoenix cinema for Mr Holmes. Ian McKellen plays an elderly take on the Victorian detective, set in 1947. The conceit is that in this world, Doyle’s stories exist, but they are written by Watson as pieces of popular journalism. The story switches between a 60-year-old Holmes in Baker Street, with the circumstances surrounding his last case, and a 90-something Holmes in his Sussex cottage, teaching beekeeping to a small boy, while battling against memory loss. McKellen’s performance is worth seeing alone, but there’s also lots of standard Holmes deduction scenes, tied in with poignant hints of a denied emotional life. The price of bachelorhood.
* * *
I’ve had a week of feeling very ghost-like and detached from the world. Not quite knowing which path to take next. In fact, walking around in a white suit rather makes me resemble a ghost too.
However, today I have a nice surprise. At Foyles, the staffer on the till suddenly gives me £6 off the book I’m buying, by using his staff discount.
‘Because I like your records’.
* * *
, British Library
, getting recognised
, mr holmes
, orange is the new black
, Sebastian Horsley
, sherlock holmes
, victoria coren mitchell
Carry On Hipster
Saturday 4th April 2015.
To Suffolk to spend three nights over Easter, guest of Mum. I have to do some college work while I’m there: revising the second draft of the dissertation, plus reading an Ian McEwan book of short stories (the creepy First Love, Last Rites). Spring flowers in the house and garden – anemones from me. Wild daffodils by the roadside, seen when driving from Stowmarket station. Egg-themed decorations on the dinner table. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed the Easter aesthetic so much. I have to remember to get an Easter brooch for next year. A tasteful rhinestone bunny, perhaps.
I seem to appreciate nature much more as I get older: flowers, blossom, birdsong. A replacement for youthful interests waning, perhaps, like my near-complete indifference to contemporary rock music. That said, I’ve been enjoying the new Monochrome Set album, Spaces Everywhere. Some superb new songs by Bid. Two dreamy ones remind me of Scarlet’s Well: Fantasy Creatures and Rain Check. I also love the catchy riff-based opening number, Iceman, which rather topically has references to voting.
* * *
Sunday 5th April 2015.
To a house near Stansted – dinner with the Kellermans (kind family friends whom I’m just getting to know). Many cats: on the drive there are signs warning delivery vans to watch out for curious felines sneaking into their vehicles. Accidental cat abductions have been known to happen. Tom joins us for dinner. He currently has an enormously bushy beard, though he shaves it off a few days later.
I watch Carry On Forever, a three part ITV documentary on the Carry On films. Very nostalgic, with lots of moments where the actors are filmed today, returning to the locations. Pretty girls from the 60s, now elderly of course. Tempting to judge which ones have aged better than others. Very touching moment when Bernard Cribbins and Juliet Mills reunite for the first time since Carry On Jack in 1963. Making what they thought was a disposable, lowbrow film at the time, but memories are still memories.
Funny how the films were getting a bit old hat even in the late 60s. I re-watch Carry On Camping – the UK’s most popular film in 1969! I’d misremembered the finale, where the regular characters sabotage a noisy, Woodstock-style hippy rock festival in the adjoining field. Sid James dresses in a hippy costume, and ludicrously threads the revellers’ beaded necklaces together, attaching them to a tractor so that they all get dragged off in a big lasso. Pure Beano stuff. The sentiment appalled me last time I saw the film: it seemed to be forcing the viewer into siding against youth culture. But on watching it now I realise the hippies have the last laugh after all. Barbara Windsor’s gang of finishing school girls go off with them, rather than continue to hang out with seedy old Sid James and Bernard Bresslaw. Makes rather more sense than the lasso strategy.
The broad performances and jokes still make me laugh – and I have to admit I like the social history side. Englishness on film. How we used to live, and laugh. The documentary points out how the BFI included Carry On Up The Khyber in their list of the 100 best British films. It was at no. 99, one place above The Killing Fields. I feel like re-watching the whole run now, with the exception of the late 1970s Carry Ons. No desire to revisit the underwhelming Carry On England though. Or the barely watchable Carry On Emmannuelle, with its ill-advised disco soundtrack.
* * *
Tuesday 7th April 2015.
Back to London, and straight to the London Library for more research on the essays. The dissertation is due in on April 20th, and I’m trying to get a shorter essay finished around the same time.
In the London Library’s comments book, one complaint begins ‘I have nothing against young people using the library…’ It’s one of those phrases that flag up the word ‘but’ from several miles away. In this case, the complaint is over the use of music on headphones. Carry On Up The Library.
* * *
Thursday 9th April 2015
The general election campaign is underway. Today the news is that a UKIP candidate has been an adult film star (and I have to admit his lack of repentance is impressive, even refreshing). Meanwhile Ed Miliband has had his romantic past raked over, with the shocking revelation that he dated several different women in the years before his marriage. It doesn’t seem so far from the world of Carry On after all.
* * *
Friday 10th April 2015.
To the Curzon Soho for While We’re Young, the new film written and directed by Noah Baumbach, of Frances Ha fame. Lots of advertising for this one, including huge screens at St Pancras station. A lot has been written about the film, but I suspect I’m the first to compare it to Carry On Camping. The main theme is, after all, an older generation’s fear of young people. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play a jaded forty-something couple whose lives are invigorated after they befriend two hipster twenty-somethings, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. But suspicions of hidden agendas soon arise, and the alliance sours. The film sags in the last half-hour, when a plot about the ethics of documentary making takes over, but it’s more than made up for in the well-observed commentary on the anxieties of ageing, and on contemporary social habits, such as a moment where all four characters interrupt their conversation to Google something on their phones. At this point, the Adam Driver character insists that they put the phones down and just ‘enjoy not knowing something, for once’.
Another good moment is Stiller telling Driver off for helping himself to his video work: ‘It’s not ‘sharing’, it’s stealing!’ I think it’s also the first film where I’ve heard the beep of an Apple gadget being plugged into a charger, as part of the general background ambience. Two musicians turn in impressive minor roles: Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys is a tired aging dad, while Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500 is a New Age shaman – a convincing one, too.
* * *
I watch a BBC4 programme about bands that break up, and bands which manage to not break up. Coldplay’s longevity is attributed to a former manager kept on as the band’s ‘creative director’. I wonder if their drummer is known as an ‘implementer of percussion solutions’.
, carry on films
, monochrome set
, unnecessary unkindness to coldplay
, while we're young
The Universal Oop
Sunday 8th February 2015. To the Barbican Centre cinema for Shaun the Sheep: The Movie. Though its official title appears to be Shaun The Sheep – Movie. I wonder if that elision of a second ‘the’ is something to do with the film’s lack of words on the soundtrack. There is no dialogue throughout, only animal grunts, sheep baas, and human mumbling. Not quite a silent movie, but not a talkie either. A third term is needed: perhaps a ‘gruntie’ (not to be confused with Mr Turner, which is a talkie with a lot of grunts). I also thought about The Plank, the Eric Sykes slapstick film of old, where people nearly speak to each other, but not quite.
A lot of interaction among the English is a series of awkward grunts anyway. The most common sound in public buildings and on Tube trains is not ‘excuse me’, or ‘morning!’ but ‘oop!’, whenever a collision of bodies is avoided. Not the plural-sounding ‘oops’, as The Beano would have it. No, adding that final ‘s’ is an effort too far. It is the singular: ‘oop’. The Universal Oop, the true sound of British society.
One reason I chose to see this film, given it is mostly aimed at small children, was that I’d spent the previous week studying American Psycho and The Atrocity Exhibition. After that, I badly needed to see a film in which nothing remotely unpleasant happens to anyone.
It’s fair to say that Shaun the Sheep is not the work of Bret Easton Ellis. Having said that, it does have little references to Breaking Bad and Silence of the Lambs, somewhat unexpectedly. Actually, the film has a better claim to the title Silence of the Lambs full stop: it literally has lambs being silent.
Another reason for going was that the Barbican was screening it at 8.30pm on a school night. Not only at that time – that would be silly – but the fact there was a grown-up-friendly time slot indicated that I wouldn’t be the only adult there. As it turned out, all the audience were adults. Pensioners, young couples, groups of friends, and no children in sight.
For some reason I imagine the couples in the audience being fans of Belle and Sebastian. I once watched that band in the 90s, all the time standing behind a young woman who was wearing a Shaun the Sheep backpack. Indeed, the new film makes a reference to those popular backpacks too – it’s a very clever and very, dare I say it, metatextual detail.
Like many Aardman films, the animation is cosy yet state-of-the-art, the story is fast and silly, and there’s a constant parade of reliably tried-and-tested jokes alongside some inspired and even outrageous ones. Just the idea of a cockerel distracted by its iPhone is enough to win me over. Pure fun.
* * *
Wednesday 11th February 2015. I read an article by Eva Wiseman on the use of ‘quirky’ as a pejorative and patronising term. I think one problem is that the word literally contains ‘irk’. The same thing has happened to ‘winsome’, because it contains ‘wince’.
* * *
I receive the Gatsby essay back. Grade: 78. Highest one of the final year so far, higher than any marks in my first two years, and my thirteenth First in a row. Very pleased, as my marks before then had taken something of a dip. Less than three months to go.
* * *
Thursday 12th February 2015. Meet with Mum in Primrose Hill, then we go to Leighton House in Kensington for A Victorian Obsession, an exhibition of rarely displayed nineteenth-century paintings. Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s huge and decadent Roses of Heliogabalus gets a sensory chamber all to itself, where a Jo Malone scent of roses is pumped into the air.
Afterwards: a short bus ride to the Natural History Museum, for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. The gallery is darkened, with each photograph backlit on glass. So many startling images: some microscopic, some dangerous, some disturbing. Favourite photo: a flock of lime green parakeets flying over a London cemetery at dusk.
I use the newly expanded ticket hall at Tottenham Court Road tube station. Gone are the Paolozzi murals over the escalator arches. The new parts of the station are a mass of white tiled walls, high ceilings and wide corridors, unusually free of adverts (so far), and punctuated only with black Northern Line markings. New spaciousness also means new soullessness, but then it’s still unfinished: the Central Line sections are not open for another ten months. The Crossrail section, meanwhile, is still years away, and remains the reason why that corner of Soho is still at the mercy of a tangle of building sites. Something lost, something gained: the eternal London tale.
* * *
Friday 13th February 2015. With Heather Malone to the Jacksons Lane Community Centre, two blocks away from my room. The JLCC seems much the same as ever – an entirely unfranchised café, friendly staff, and a proper theatre space with raked seating. We are there to see Psychodermabrasion, a solo stage show by Matthew Floyd Jones. I’ve seen him before in the cabaret duo Frisky & Mannish, but this is rather different: an unusual musical-cum-monologue made up of film projections, multi-layered backing tracks, and live performance, on the theme of how anxiety over skin conditions can affect relationships. This show has some input from Dickie Beau, and it shares DB’s style of a live performer as a kind of reactive pawn amid carefully-sequenced recordings. Matthew FJ spends much of the show zipped up in two layers of skin suits, hiding his face. This works powerfully enough, but once the inevitable unveiling happens, the show doesn’t quite move onto another level, and it feels like it should. Still, there’s lots of originality: Dear John letters sung in a barber shop quartet style, skin suits revealed on a rack, smartphone messages presented as the voice of a nagging, amorphous God. Somewhat ironically, for a show that comments on the ubiquity of smartphones, someone in the row ahead of me is checking their email while they show is going on, as if the real life performance in front of them was just another website to flick through.
It’s good to see Heather M in person, whom I’ve not seen for years. She was in danger of becoming one of those friends whose life I only knew at one digital remove. Too easily, people one knows can become passing clouds on social media, suggesting a paraphrasing of Gatsby:
So we tap on, swipes against the current, scrolling back ceaselessly into the past…
When I meet up with friends now, it seems all the more important to hug them, or shake their hand. Not just out of affection, but as a shoring against the digital.
, Heather M
, shaun the sheep movie
Christmas Week Diary & Message 2014
Monday 22nd December 2014. Mum comes up to London, and we spend the day together. We do Somerset House Ice Rink (always as café spectators, never as skaters), then the National Gallery for Maggi Hambling’s new ‘Walls of Water’ paintings, and Peder Balke’s nineteenth century Nordic landscapes. Obligingly, one of the Balke paintings has reindeer.
Then to the NPG for Grayson Perry’s ‘Who Are You’ show. His gaudy portraits of Britishness are striking enough, but best of all is a unique self-portrait: an etching in the style of an old-fashioned map of a fortified town, ‘A Map Of Days’. We also visit the Museum of London, where there’s a mini-exhibition about Paddington Bear, tying in with the film. One of the exhibits is Michael Bond’s old portable typewriter, a 1950s Olympia Splendid 33. I point this out to Mum, because we had one exactly like it at home, originally owned by my grandmother. There was a mysterious key on the left which had four dots in a square pattern. I never did find out what it was for.
A surprise sight at the Museum of London: the 2012 Olympic cauldron, with an accompanying video of its building, lighting and extinguishing at the Games.
And to top the day off, we see Santa Claus. Or rather we glimpse the one installed in a corner of the Museum’s Victorian street, grotto-style. ‘That’s okay,’ he says to one particularly shy child. ‘You don’t have to know what you want.’
* * *
Wednesday 24th December 2014. Most of the museums are closed today, but I find that the Cartoon Art Museum is open. Dad was a member, so I go hoping they’ll have a Christmas tree to take my photo against, thus making a perfect photo for my Christmas diary. Alas, no tree.
I visit the current exhibition anyway. This turns out to be one on Hogarth. ‘Gin Lane’ is present and correct, but I learn today that it was one half of a pair. Hogarth also drew ‘Beer Street’, the solution to the problem of gin. In contrast to ‘Gin Lane’s decrepitude and despair, ‘Beer Street’ has well-dressed workers balancing work with play, all thanks to the right kind of booze, the ‘Industry and Jollity of Wholesome English Ale’. There’s one character who appears in both scenes: the pawnbroker. In Gin Lane his premises are well-kept and prosperous – he is the only person doing well out of all the poverty and decline. But on Beer Street, his shop sign is askew, and his shop itself is a crumbling hovel. This time, it is the pawnbroker who is fending off the bailiffs.
Another Hogarth sequence in the exhibition is ‘The Four Stages Of Cruelty’. In the first picture, the protagonist is a boy torturing stray dogs in the street. By the fourth panel he has become a highwayman, a murderer, and now a hanged corpse, dissected for the benefit of medical students. Underneath the operating table, a stray dog chews on his heart.
* * *
Drifting, ghost-like, through the frantic North Londoners. Sadly, I tend to associate Christmas Eve with witnessing the desperation of the not-particularly-desperate. And not just empty supermarket shelves (panic-buying for one single day – as if it were a nuclear winter). Traffic on Archway Road is stressful on the 24th as it is, but today there’s also been a water mains leak. And so, roadworks. I do not envy the people stuck in the cliche of holiday gridlock, but I envy the Thames Water workers even less. Outside my window as I write: the distinct sound of cars using this side road as an unofficial diversion (‘I know a short cut!’). An angry velocity in the noise. I want to throw up the window and shout: ‘calm down!’
* * *
Thursday 25th December 2014. I call Mum, then go off to feed the ducks in Waterlow Park. My funny little tradition. Just me this year.
Other people’s presents. In the park, a group of men try out a miniature drone. This year’s must-have gift, say the supplements. £400 or so. This little robot helicopter in question soars up, lights flashing, far higher than seems possible. Then it pauses in the sky, menacingly, rotates on the spot (where there is no spot) and zooms off into the void. It makes a horrible, wasp-like noise throughout. I hope they take it back and exchange it for a kite.
* * *
Channel 4’s Alternative Christmas Message is this year delivered by William Pooley, the British nurse working in Sierra Leone. He survived Ebola himself, then went straight back to treating the victims in Africa. In the TV broadcast, he mentions he’s from Suffolk: Eyke, in fact, near Woodbridge. As I’m from the same part of the country, his point about the good fortune of one’s birthplace is all the more affecting.
* * *
Friday 26th December 2014. I’m looking after a couple of cats in a house off the Seven Sisters Road. At about ten in the morning, I arrive and let them out into the back garden, as per the owner’s instructions. They are barely over the threshold when they freeze in their steps. A few feet away is a large fox, its bright orange beauty all the more striking in this December sun. There’s a pause, then it nonchalantly trots off through the neighbour’s hedge. It is only later that I realise how apt this is for Boxing Day, so synonymous with fox hunts.
It’s reported today that over 250,000 people have come out on rural ‘hunt meets’, which are effectively protests against the ban. Horses, hounds, costumes, horns. Everything but the fox. I sometimes glimpsed hunts while growing up in Suffolk. They seemed so obviously out of time. Yet many still want the full-on fox killing to come back. I’m reminded of the Hogarth pictures.
* * *
The Daily Telegraph‘s website has a ‘paywall’ warning: ‘You have reached your 20 article limit for this month’. Its angry, punitive tone doesn’t make me want to subscribe one bit. Instead, it rather implies that reading Telegraph articles is an unhealthy habit, and one should try to cut down. Perhaps not the effect they intended.
* * *
CHRISTMAS MESSAGE 2014
Given this is my last Christmas as a Birkbeck undergraduate, this year’s tree is from the main Birkbeck foyer, in Torrington Square, Bloomsbury. Taken on Christmas Eve, with the kind permission of the security guard.
It’s been a year of ups and downs, to put it mildly. My college grades went through the roof, thus bolstering my feelings of self-worth (though it’s still a struggle). It proved – if only to myself – that I was demonstrably good at something, even now, and after so long of feeling surplus to the world’s requirements.
In February my father died. I’m still coming to terms with this. But while I am, I’m grateful that I still have a mother, and a brother, who have both helped me so much this year.
One thing I’m particularly proud of is that I managed to keep this diary updated every single weekend, always adding at least 1,000 new words per week. This is the first time since the diary began (in 1997) that I’ve kept to a weekly routine. It takes me a lot of time to write, and I still don’t find it easy. I’m slow, and I don’t get paid. So I was delighted to be included in Travis Elborough’s Guardian piece on his ‘Top Ten Literary Diarists’. It is also gratifying when I receive donations from readers, proving that it’s worth doing, worth keeping free of adverts, and worth carrying on. If that includes you, thank you.
Sometimes I receive messages from readers who don’t donate but who say that they’re enjoying the diary. This is always cheering, particularly with the way social media has made public or group-shared comments the more usual interaction. A recent message said the diary was ‘like having a friend I’ve never met’. That’s exactly what I’m trying to convey, and why I don’t have a comments box. The writing needs to feel as solitary as possible. There are no browser-crashing commercials here, no videos suddenly starting up, no links to celebrity gossip stories. Hardly any links full stop. This is a quiet place. A detached place. This is somewhere else to go. This is a letter to a friend I’ve never met.
Thank you for reading in 2014. I hope you’ll continue to do so in 2015. I’ll be right here. And I wish you a very Happy Christmas and a wonderful, beautiful New Year. Here it comes. Look.
, cartoon art museum
, grayson perry
, maggi hambling
, museum of london
, paddington bear
, Peder Balke
, somerset house
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