Muppet Socks

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:

http://youtu.be/PrvNFktrYpc


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Telephonic Alimony

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.

John Masters book bib cover 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.


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Mindful Silliness

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’.

http://youtu.be/zA_yyBDlA0g


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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:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/01/travis-elboroughs-top-10-literary-diarists/print

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:

http://thequietus.com/articles/14192-behold-december-quietus-comics-round-up-column

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.


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An Attempt To Go Weekly

I have finally conceded that daily diary updates are beyond me. So starting with this entry I’m going to compile a weekly thousand-word diary instead. I hope to publish a new one every Friday morning, as that makes it feel like something to look forward to. Sunday night will have to suffice for this one.

* * *

Monday 9th December 2013. The final set texts of the term are Olive Schreiner’s Story of An African Farm, Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled, and the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon. Schreiner’s novel  is a perfect example of a book I’d never pick up were it not for taking a course in literature. When I do, it moves me to tears.

* * *

Rachel Stevenson has been reviewing all the songs in John Peel’s 1991 Festive Fifty. This was the Year of Noisy Americans. I remember being in student haunts of Bristol at that time and seeing the ‘baggy’ fashions of long sleeved tops and flares give way to checked lumberjack shirts:

http://millionreasons.livejournal.com/tag/festive%20fifty%201991

In the evening I walk past the Kentish Town Forum. Despite the changing ways of consuming music, the sight of touts outside large venues still endures. It’s the same aggressive shouting at pedestrians. Only the band names being shouted come and go. Tonight it’s ‘Buy or sell tickets for Haim.’

* * *

Good to see critics agreeing with one of my favourite films of 2013: Frances Ha. In one scene, two characters discuss how to spend the evening:

‘We should go to the movies.’

‘But the movies are so expensive!’

‘Yeah, but you’re at the movies.’

* * *

Thursday 12th December 2013. On the day of my last classes for the term I receive my highest essay mark yet. It’s an 80. This is defined in the classification guidelines as a High First Class, for work that ‘may display characteristics more usually found at postgraduate level or that demonstrate the potential for publication.’ I’m rather stunned. I’m still uncertain about which direction to take this skill in order to earn a living, but at least it is proof that I can do this sort of thing well, and can do it on time, and should probably develop it further between now and the grave. The essay was on ‘technotext’ theories of materiality, with reference to Chris Ware’s comic strip story for the iPad, Touch Sensitive.

The same day sees a grading of my former work as a songwriter. The quarterly PRS statement arrives and pays me a total of £1.41. Orlando’s album Passive Soul has sold 7 copies on iTunes, while the Fosca song ‘Confused and Proud’ has been played 139 times on streaming services like Spotify and Last FM. Well, I’m pleased if the songs are being listened to at all.

* * *

Meanwhile my work as a diarist in the anthology A London Year has managed to receive some attention. Here’s a positive review, which quotes from my diary:

http://onelondonone.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/on-shelf-london-year.html

This further review calls me ‘as well-read as Samuel Johnson and Johnny Rotten but polished to a dandyish sheen’. I also have ‘a certain essential Londonness’:

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/new-anthology-diaries-explores-life-british-capita/

A few weeks ago, Kensington & Chelsea Today reviewed the book and called me ‘Dickson’ Edwards, which suggests I have some distance to go in the notability stakes. Still, it also called me ‘the youngest’ diarist in the book, which is the best possible thing you can say to anyone over, oh, 24. Here’s a pdf of the review:

http://www.chelseaspace.org/images/pdf/wilson/kct.pdf

The other 2013 book I’m in, I Am Dandy, appeared as a prop in a colour supplement article (name forgotten, possibly the Sunday Times). It was, of all things, a piece on the comedian Frank Skinner. Mr Skinner was photographed reading I Am Dandy in his underwear.

* * *
I am sent a photograph of a sign on a building. They saw it and thought of me. It says ‘Centre For Useless Splendour’.

A little Googling reveals this to be part of the Contemporary Art Research Centre at Kingston University. The artist responsible is Elizabeth Price, the Turner Prize winner who once sang in a couple of my favourite bands, Talulah Gosh and The Carousel.

* * *

Saturday 14th December 2013. Mum comes up to London for a well-earned day trip, while the hospice looks after Dad. We have mulled wine and mince pies in the Somerset House Ice Rink café, something of a pre-Christmas tradition.

Another Christmas tradition that seems to be bigger every year: adults in Santa costumes wandering noisily en masse through the streets, swigging bottles of alcohol. An expected late night activity, perhaps, but today they’re on the Strand at noon. These are often organised group events (an inflated version of pub crawls), though not quite organised enough for some of us. What irks is the implication that it’s fine to extend an office party across a whole series of public spaces.

Mum and I have lunch at St Martin’s Café in the Crypt, and on the way out I point out a couple of sights in Trafalgar Square which mark this moment: Katharina Fritsch’s blue sculpture of a cockerel on the Fourth Plinth, and the pool of floral tributes to Mandela outside South Africa House. The queue to sign the embassy’s condolence book is now small enough to fit into the lobby, but it’s still going.

We visit the Tate Britain’s newly revamped permanent collection. Mum is pleased to see the inclusion of works by Josef Herman, Edward Middleditch and Nigel Henderson, all of whom she and Dad knew in the 60s and 70s. Henderson taught Dad photography. Josef Herman, meanwhile, lent my parents a car around the time I was born. ‘A beaten up Mini’ says Mum. ‘Full of sweet wrappers.’

* * *

Saturday evening: I watch the whole series of Adam Buxton’s Bug, his TV show about music videos. By far my favourite is one he shows from 2010. It’s for the song ’70 Million’ by the French indiepop band Hold Your Horses. They dress up as recreations of paintings: Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, and so on. I love how this concept is channelled through the ragged charm of the song and the band’s visible enjoyment, playing irreverently with the paintings’ gender roles and depictions of nudity:

Video: 70 Million by Hold Your Horses

The Bug website interviews the ’70 Million’ directors, and lists all the paintings:

http://www.bugvideos.co.uk/home/l-ogre-recreate-masterpieces-for-hold-your-horses-.go


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The Outsider Of Obituary Space

Sat 30th November 2013: My brother Tom and I visit Dad and Mum in Suffolk, for Dad’s 77th birthday. Dad needs round the clock care, but at least he’s at home and gets much of the care from nurses, who visit the house and work in shifts. When Tom and I visit, Dad is dressed, seated on the sofa and is chatty. It’s very different from our visit the month before, where he was in bed and barely able to open his eyes. That time, he said to me: ‘This is all very boring, I’m afraid’.

***

Dad relies on mains power for his oxygen pump, so a recent power cut due to the now-regular floods proved to be something of an ordeal. I find out afterwards that the electricity network has a priority register for people who are particularly vulnerable when the power goes down.

[Here’s the link in case anyone reading this knows someone in a similar situation]

Something that I’ve insisted Mum gets for future power cuts is a ‘corded’ phone, as in the pre-digital sort that just plugs into the landline socket. No need for batteries, chargers or any sort of power supply. It’s everything else that needs electricity: mobile chargers, answering machines, speed dial buttons, hands-free bases. Strange to think the phone evolved from not needing electricity to needing it badly.

Tom is currently playing guitar for Roddy Frame’s band. They’ve been performing all the songs from the 80s Aztec Camera album High Land Hard Rain, one of the concerts being at a sold out Drury Lane. These ‘classics albums live’ gigs are more popular than ever, though not all the bands stick strictly to the list on the back of the (inevitably reissued) CD box. I’m told that when Primal Scream performed ‘Screamadelica’ live, they mucked around with the song order, and even missed some tracks out.

Meanwhile, Monty Python have reformed for live concerts too. I suppose they could tour a set-list of all the scenes from each of their films, in the way bands do their back catalogue albums.

* * *

A notice in St Pancras library today, announcing a book of condolence for Nelson Mandela, this particular one at Camden town hall around the corner. There’s also a book at South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, where people are shown on TV queuing around the block.

Colin Wilson, the cult writer of ‘The Outsider’ and countless other books, dies on Thursday 5th, the same day as Mr Mandela. It’s reminiscent of Jeffrey Bernard going on the same day as Mother Teresa: not just the timing but the contrast. Global humanitarian bumps selfish British writer in the scrabble for obituary space. Only The Times manages to run an obituary for Mr Wilson the next day. I myself find out about his death through social media. I also find it’s best to check Twitter for things like the status of rail services and power cuts when -as there was this week – floods in Suffolk. For all my misgivings about it, Twitter is much better at supplying news than, well, the news.

Two media clichés that make me wince. ‘Tributes pour in’ (the only thing that tributes ever seem to do, with no explanation of exactly how they’ve attained this liquid form), and ‘took to Twitter’, which gives what is often a  perfunctory, kneejerk act a misleading air of effort and considered choice. It’s also the alliteration that irks, giving it a unsuitable jaunty, skipping connotation. ‘He took to Twitter’. While I take to drink.

***

Recommended reading on Colin Wilson:

A highly naughty Guardian interview from 2004: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/may/30/biography.features1

An excellent piece on the blog Another Nickel In The Machine: http://www.nickelinthemachine.com/2010/01/hampstead-heath-and-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-author-colin-wilson/


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Alan Bennett’s Greatest Hits

Saturday May 4th: With Mum to the Duchess Theatre off Aldwych to see the new Alan Bennett memoir show, Untold Stories, featuring Alex Jennings playing Bennett. First half is Hymn, a monologue from 2001, written to accompany music performed by a live string quartet (who are quite brilliant). Second half is Cocktail Sticks, a brand new collection of dramatised reminisces about his parents, acted out by Jennings with a small cast. Much of the material is hardly ‘untold’ – the bit about finding an unused tube of cocktail sticks in his mother’s old home dates back to at least the early 80s, when he talked about it on The South Bank Show (something I found online recently). In fact the piece is like an Alan Bennett Greatest Hits gig, with lots of quotes from older work, like the line about his parents finally discovering an alcoholic drink that they like – ‘bitter lemon’. But I think he’s never dramatised this material before – it just feels like he has. And he is meant to be a playwright first and foremost, so it makes sense to finally get such lines into the context of a staged narrative.

Quentin Crisp quoted himself all the time, to the point where the answers he gave in interviews were like picking from a set of cue cards. Wilde did it too, reusing at least one quip from Dorian Gray in Importance of Being Earnest (the one about a widow’s hair turning gold with grief). If it’s a good answer, why not keep giving it? Everything is brand new to someone. Like Judith Butler says about gender, information of worth needs to be repeated or risk erasure. Records can be kept, but they still need to be read.

In fact, that’s what happened to Mrs Thatcher’s ‘the lady is not for turning’ quote, which was bandied about on her death the other week. The point of it was that it was a pun on the Christopher Fry play The Lady’s Not For Burning. But the longevity of the Thatcher quote has eclipsed mainstream awareness of the Fry play, so now it looks like Thatcher (or rather her script writer) coined the euphonious phrase from scratch. As it is, she didn’t even get the Fry reference herself. It’s clear from the way she puts the wrong emphasis on ‘not’.

It’s difficult to mourn politicians who didn’t even get the jokes they had someone else write for them.

***

In the BA English course I’m doing at Birkbeck, the proper classes for the second year have ended, and I’m now in the exam revision period; the exams are on May 20th and 22nd. One on Chaucer and Renaissance plays, one on the history of the novel. But I’m also rushing to get the last essay of the year – on the acquiring of masculinity in Middlesex and Boys Don’t Cry -finished over the next two or three days. Get it done and delivered and then… on with the revision.

I keep forgetting how irksome I find the editing part of writing. Today I finished the first draft of the essay, which came in at 4500 words. The essay word count is 3500 words. The trick with the subsequent drafts (I always force myself to do five rewrites) is to hope that the bits I cut out don’t leave the tutor writing feedback comments along the lines of ‘You needed to say more about this’. To which the answer is, ‘But I did say more! The word count wouldn’t let me…’

All finished writing is just edited highlights of what one really wanted to say.

The fear is that the real highlights are in the bits one has edited out.


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Not David Hockney

To Piccadilly to meet Mum for lunch, then we both visit the massive David Hockney exhibition of Yorkshire landscapes at the RA. The place is packed, but the paintings are so big that it doesn’t matter – one really has to stand back to properly appreciate them. His sheer productivity and variety of materials is impressive alone – oil on canvas, charcoals, crayons, watercolours, video art, as well as the much-trumpeted use of iPads and computer printing. One wall has five iPads mounted on it.

At the RA shop, the Hockney merchandise includes special iPad covers and a cigarette lighter. Given his public rants against the smoking ban, I like to think the latter was very much his idea.

There’s one surprise tucked away, with the exhibition’s multi-camera film installation. After the expected shots of country lanes and trees, there’s footage of what looks like Hockney’s studio, with assistants milling around and cute dogs fed by aloof young men draped on sofas. The studio is then cleared, and there’s a little scene of ballet dancing, with tap dancing to ‘Tea For Two’. The colourfully-dressed dancers are young and clearly professionals, and one of them is an older man – presumably the choreographer. I wonder if it’s Wayne Sleep, and later find out that, yes, it is:

Interview with Wayne Sleep about the Hockey film

It’s so good that Hockney still has this camp side, experimental yet playful, sharing territory with Derek Jarman, Gilbert & George and Warhol. What’s more unexpected is the way he can find room for an arty little ballet film alongside more profound and mainstream statements about looking at the English countryside – and that it all works.

Overheard at the Hockney, by someone on Twitter: “Isn’t it nice that they got Alan Bennett to do the audio guide?”

Then on to Cecil Sharp House to see the Hockney soundalike (and slight lookalike) himself. Despite the venue, Mr Bennett doesn’t do any folk dancing or singing, though there is a raffle halfway through the evening, sponsored of the local health centre, with the winner getting ten free pilates classes. Second prize is something called ‘gyrotonic’ classes. It’s not clear whether these classes are with Alan Bennett or not.

Even though it’s a benefit for Primrose Hill library, he doesn’t read his recent essay on libraries (there’s already a video of him doing so online). Instead does his usual ‘An Evening With…’ format of diary selections (updated to include his visit to the Occupy London camp), then a Q&A, and then the ‘mantelpiece’ speech from Enjoy. 

Someone asks him about his memories of Peter Cook’s Establishment club in the early 1960s. AB says he saw Lenny Bruce there, doing a set about taking drugs. As the druggier period of the Sixties was still to come, Bruce’s set wasn’t so much rebellious or shocking, just baffling.

 

 

 


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Violence Is A Cliche

This morning: I write a little article for Green Wedge, wondering why today’s newspapers not only choose to misrepresent the student protests with a cliched window-smashing image, but also why they all plump for the same photograph. I name nine newspapers, but later discover there’s a tenth culprit: the newly launched “i” newspaper. Ten different publications rushing to be exactly the same as each other. Or rather, the same as Sky News.

http://greenwedge.org/2010/11/11/media-hunting-pack/

***

Afternoon: To Waterloo Station with Mum, to see the stage production of The Railway Children. Manages to balance the nostalgia with touches of innovative stagecraft and Arabian Nights-style narrative dialogue.

Rather ingeniously, the show uses Waterloo’s mothballed Eurostar terminus to stage E Nesbit’s classic; last time I was here was for a Fosca trip to Paris in 2001. A real 1870s locomotive and saloon compartment are the stars; the saloon is even the same one used in the 1970 Lionel Jeffries movie. Bernard Cribbins’s part is taken by Marshall Lancaster, aka DC Chris Skelton off Life Is Mars / Ashes To Ashes. He’s rather superb – and there’s a touching photo in the lobby of he and Mr Cribbins together. Sarah Quintrell is equally spot-on in the Jenny Agutter role.

Throughout the show, Waterloo’s normal trains constantly rumble offstage, which would normally be an irritation. Instead, they enhance the show’s site-specific quality, adding to its uniqueness. Such a great idea.


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To Thine Own Patchwork Be True

A few people have asked me if my mother is aware of the major exhibition on British quilting at the V&A, which opens this week. There’s something similar on at Liberty’s too.

Well, yes, Mum is aware all right. She’s up in town to attend both, staying with Linda Seward, who spoke about quilting on Monday’s Women’s Hour.

Mum says some quilters are slightly chagrined that the V&A show includes works by Grayson Perry and Tracey Emin. These are, after all, famous artists who’ve occasionally made quilts, rather than quilters per se. It’s fair enough, though: I’m a firm believer – as is Mum – of the rubbing-off factor of galleries, and the Emin and Perry quilts can only encourage serendipity for the uninitiated. They’ll bring in people who might not otherwise have gone, and who could well leave with their minds’ own patchwork newly illuminated.

Links:
Slideshow of the V&A exhibition with audio commentary (BBC News site).

Podcast of Women’s Hour, 22.3.2010 (mp3 file)

Tues eve: Mum and I have dinner in Islington. She tells me an anecdote from me and my brother’s childhood that sums up at least one difference between us. Tom once told some playground joke to a room of other children, and everyone laughed. I apparently tried doing the same – with the same joke (I’m assuming at a different occasion, though it wouldn’t surprise me if I did it immediately afterwards). Most of them didn’t laugh, and someone left the room in tears.

Yesterday, I look on Twitter and – catching the mood of the hour – find myself trying to think of a topical gag about David Cameron’s wife becoming pregnant. Then I stop myself. Much as I love satire, if I ever managed to write something pithily hilarious about an item in the news –  a straight gag – it would feel strange, even out of character; a snivelling attempt to join the cool boys’ gang. Which just isn’t part of my patchwork.


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