At The Miniature Railway Cafe
Thursday 25th August 2016. London in hot weather. World of Shorts. And it is mainly men who go for shorts, too. Of the couples I see out today, it’s often the case that he is in shorts, but she is in trousers.
Notes on fragile masculinity. I buy some Boots No 7 moisturiser, and go for the version ‘For Men’. I do so because the box assures me it is specially made to accommodate stubble. When I get home, I realise it differs from the version for women in a more obvious way. The distaff moisturiser comes in a glass pot, which one simply opens up and dips one’s finger into. The men’s one, however, comes in a squat black pump with a spout. One has to push down hard on the spout until the moisturiser puts in an appearance. It is the most strenuous part of my daily routine. I feel like going on Dragon’s Den and pitching a moisturiser for men like me. Working title: Sissy No 7.
At the Thameslink section of Kentish Town station, I spot a security pass left on the platform. It looks like a fairly heavy duty one, with a thick magnetic base and a photo. The owner is a trader at Goldman Sachs. I’m about to hand it to the staff at the barriers, when I remember how long it’s taken for me in the past to retrieve possessions lost on the tube. Sometimes several weeks, including a trip to that great cave of abandoned umbrellas, the Baker Street Lost Property office.
The next day, propelled by the vanity which underscores so many good turns, I Google the trader’s name and call him at the Goldman Sachs office in Fleet Street. He says he does indeed want the pass back, and as soon as possible, and is very grateful. I tell him I’ll drop it off at his reception.
This proves to be slightly harder that I’d envisioned. To paraphrase Lord of the Rings, one does not simply walk into Goldman Sachs. They are one of those international corporations who exist in such a lofty world, they do not even announce their presence on the street. You have to know whose anonymous plate glass doors those are on Fleet Street, the ones with a security guard on the outside, standing on the street, as well as two further guards on the inside. And that’s before you even get near the reception desk. Such security is highly styled, too: large young men in large black suits, topped off with those earpieces with little coiled cables vanishing into the collar. It’s fair to say that when I arrive, I am viewed with suspicion.
I state my intention to the man on the street, doing my utmost to assure him that I am not some anti-capitalist activist, despite my slightly interesting hair. I am not trying to do a Michael Moore. Or, more recently, a Russell Brand. The guard is not convinced.
‘You can’t just… drop… something off here.’
But then I tell him that my package, such as it is, is merely one of their own passes, at which he lets me through the revolving doors. Then the two other security men standing inside challenge me, and I have to start my story again.
The receptionist gets a third version of my tale. She won’t let me leave the pass with her either, and insists on picking up the phone and trying to call the trader in question, to get him to come down. This takes some minutes before she says, ‘He isn’t available’. By this point I’m getting flustered, and am determined not to go away still clutching the wretched thing. So I grab a scrap of paper from my bag, write out my contact details, and give it to her along with the pass. She takes it from me with an expression of pure reluctance, as if I’d just handed her a pair of my underpants. But she does take it, and the pass, and I leave.
I had hoped to feel a wave of sainthood from this episode, but instead I just feel vaguely punished.
Saturday 27th August 2016. Mum in town for the day. We visit the exhibition Missoni Art Colour at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey. En route to the Museum, we get a little lost navigating the endless building works between London Bridge station and Guy’s Hospital. Many hoped-for shortcuts are closed off by the ubiquitous men in hard hats.
When passing such sites, my hope is always that the construction is for the public good, rather the private greed. Yet too often one looks up past the rising number of beggars sitting on the pavement – the other worrying side of London – to see a sign for luxury apartments. The redundancy of the word ‘luxury’ presumably lost on the developers. In Highgate, council letters alerting residents to disruptive planning permissions are becoming more frequent. Invariably, these are for private basement extensions. I’m so tempted to write in the comments, ‘Please ask the owner if the phrase, ‘I have enough’ has ever troubled their consciousness.’
At the Missoni show, the centrepiece is a display of decades of Missoni clothes, on some fifty or so mannequins, arranged on the steps of a pyramid. A number of them remind me of the Redford film of The Great Gatsby; a 1970s take on the 1920s.
Around the manniquins hang a selection of Ottavio Missoni’s abstract wall hangings, which are rather like the patchwork quilts Mum specialises in. Plenty of brightly coloured zigzags and stripes on show, as per the Missoni reputation. There’s also a small collection of postwar abstract paintings, by way of illustrating the label’s influences. One canvas stands out, ‘Spatial Structure in Tension’ (1952) by Nino Di Salvatore, a harmonious pattern of intersecting geometric shapes. Brightly coloured, of course.
Unusually, the museum allows photographs to be taken, and we regret not bringing our own devices. We are the only ones not taking photos. The shop sells a tote bag with the motto, ‘I Knit So I Won’t Kill People’.
Then to the new Tate Modern extension, Switch House. The main TM building has accordingly been renamed Boiler House. Switch House dwarves the original building, and includes a viewing platform at the top, where one can look down on the Tate Members bar. And indeed, right into the flats of the neighbouring tower blocks to the south. The north view across the Thames is stunning, however, with St Paul’s directly ahead.
We finish off with the BP Portrait Award at the NPG, which is packed. The usual prominence of family members and friends as subject matter, which I always find touching. We both like Karina In Her Raincoat, by Brian Sayers, where the coat dominates the frame. It should have won.
Monday 29th August 2016. To the Museum of London for the exhibition Fire! Fire!, which marks the anniversary of the Great Fire of London. It’s an extensive and spacious display, and is very much aimed at families. Lots for children to do: flaps to lift, buttons to press, clothes to dress up in, and at the end a set of wooden building blocks on a large table, with which to rebuild the razed capital. The children I see seem particularly drawn to the blocks, which I find cheering. How I miss that childhood capacity to happily build and make things, solid things, from blocks to Lego. Resentment was reserved for tidying one’s room, or writing thank you letters, or going to bed early. Never for making things.
I suppose my creative play these days is writing. The trouble is I subscribe to the Dorothy Parker quote, only enjoying writing when it’s finished, and resenting it when I’m doing it.
Evening: to the Barbican to see the film David Brent – Life on the Road. I was such an admirer of Mr Gervais’s series The Office. I loved how it took the TV sitcom format into a new phase, playing with the trend for docu-soaps and reality TV, while updating the eternal comedic themes of delusion and embarrassment. It was also one of the few British comedies to be successfully adapted in the US. Americans do social awkwardness too, just on a wider frequency: a more open and expressive kind of cringing. And of course, they do it through a lot more episodes.
Well, sadly, the golden touch of Ricky Gervais has manifestly dimmed. This belated big screen spin-off featuring the main character from the British Office isn’t a patch on either of the two TV series. Admittedly, there’s one or two funny moments, and Gervais’s performance is still entertaining enough – I love how his jaw hangs open when he’s annoyed. But the overall impression is that the character has simply run out of mileage.
It doesn’t help that none of the other characters from The Office are here: no Tim, Dawn or Gareth, not even a cameo from Stephen Merchant. Perhaps this was a deliberate move to resist the current vogue for reuniting old cast members as if they were rock bands (Cold Feet being the latest TV series to do this). Regardless, this new film proves that The Office was a classic because of the ensemble, not just the frontman.
Wednesday 31st August 2016. Filming in Meard Street for some sort of documentary. I say a few words about dandyism in front of Sebastian Horsley’s old flat. Barima Edusei is with me, having invited me along when I bumped into him on the tube the other day. GQ and River Island are apparently involved, though I get the sense that my existence is as baffling to them as theirs is to me. Still, I use my phrase about a dandy being in ‘a subculture of one’, which I’m reasonably proud of.
Later on I’m back in the British Library reading an essay by Michael Bracewell. He uses the word ‘dandy’ to describe the singer with The Fall, Mark E Smith. Much as I admire his music, the unremarkably-dressed Mr Smith wouldn’t be in my own list of examples of dandies. Still, it shows how elastic the term can be.
Friday 2nd September 2016. Dennis Cooper has commented on the documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story. I remember that at the time the ‘hoax’ was exposed, he shrugged and said something along the lines of ‘sometimes it’s okay to be fooled’. This was very good of him, given he was one of the writers used as stepping-stones for LeRoy / Laura Albert’s rise to literary fame.
In his blog though, he’s changed his tune: ‘I really hated [Author]. It’s a totally superficial whitewash that treats Laura Albert like she’s some kind of kooky folk hero instead of as the psychopathic, destructive user that she is. I regret allowing the director to interview me for it.’ (from the P.S. section of denniscooperblog.com, entry dated 29 August 2016).
I don’t think Author is a whitewash entirely: there’s several times when Ms Albert goes on the defensive, at the cost to her credibility. Her compulsion to record all her private phone calls is hardly a loveably ‘kooky’ trait either. But I’m fascinated with the way this shows how documentaries seduce the viewer into swallowing one version of the truth, one which its own interviewees might disagree with.
The analytical rule about asking ‘who gets to speak’ should also include ‘who gets to speak, but wishes they hadn’t?’
Saturday 3rd September 2016. My 45th birthday. I have a tradition of spending my birthday going somewhere I’ve not been before. Some location I’ve always meant to visit, but never got around to. Birthdays do come around, as much as we’d like them not to. So I mollify the unpleasant reminder that one is even older, with a celebration of still being alive at all. If your eyes still work, give them new sights to look at. If your legs still work, walk to somewhere you’ve never been before. Above all, give thanks.
Today I get around to visiting Ruislip Lido. Which is really a large lake which was once a reservoir, with woodlands at one end and a beach at the other. Except the beach is more of a huge artificial sandpit doing an impersonation of a beach. The water is usually not clean enough to swim in, as indicated by a red flag outside the beach café. Children can still splash about on land, though: the beach has a large area of playground equipment, with a couple of water jets in the shape of animals.
I have breakfast in the café, then take a journey on the Ruislip Lido Railway, ‘Britain’s Longest 12 Gauge Railway’. It travels through the woods and around to the other side of the lake, ending at the Turntable Tea Room near the main road. The Tea Room has its own toy railway that whizzes around the walks. So I step off a small train to meet an even smaller one.
There’s something spooky yet attractive about cafes built to serve miniature railways: I think of the one at Dungeness, where Derek Jarman would go for fish and chips.
Afternoon: to Somerset House with Atalanta K, Debbie Smith and Soirai, for the exhibition Bjork – Digital.
The Bjork exhibition is a good example of first rate content hampered by its presentation. Visitors are herded from room to room on a timed basis, and are told to put on virtual reality headsets at each stage. All very well, except that sometimes the headsets don’t work, or they flicker on and off, or it’s not clear how to use them. Too bad if this happens, as one is soon marshaled out into the next room, and can’t come back to try again.
In one of the rooms, I stand with the VR headset on for a full minute looking at a square oblong which doesn’t seem to be doing much. It’s only then that I realise this is actually the menu screen of the software. I have to turn my head around within the digital world to see Bjork standing behind me, singing away while rendered as a glittering CGI moth goddess. I do my best to move around and enjoy the show, but am a little hampered by fears of throttling myself with the cable.
It also doesn’t help that two rooms of ‘interactive’ instruments are just sitting there, without captions or instructions of any kind. As it is, I don’t want to ‘interact’ musically with Bjork anyway. Too much like audience participation. Or Tom Sawyer and the white fence.
The best exhibits are ‘Black Lake’, where one doesn’t have to wear headsets at all. A split-screen video of the singer is projected across two opposite walls of a black room, with a surround-sound audio track encouraging you to approach different walls at different times. The other highlight is ‘Stonemilker’, where the VR world is a real Icelandic beach. You can turn fully around on the beach, and look up and down. Bjork splits into several clones of herself while dancing around you on the shingle.
Despite the Digital title of the show, the attached gift shop mainly sells Bjork’s back catalogue on vinyl. I haven’t succumbed to buying one of the new post-digital (and affordable) turntables just yet; I like the convenience of iTunes too much. But only on vinyl does one truly see that Bjork’s album sleeves are artworks in their own right.
Evening: My plans for a vegetarian meal for Team Bjork take a knock when the Coach and Horses in Greek Street closes its kitchen unexpectedly. We try Mildred’s in Lexington St, but it’s rammed full. To make things worse, it is now pouring with rain. I have my linen trousers drenched in Lexington Street when a passing car hits a puddle.
But things improve. Debbie takes a chance on Jane-Tira, a Thai street food place at 28 Brewer Street, which turns out to be perfect. Not too packed, friendly staff, delicious food. And my trousers dry quickly, barely leaving a mark. Either London rainwater is cleaner than one thinks, or my suit really is like the one in The Man In The White Suit.
Afterwards, a short spell in The Friendly Society (pleasant kitschy night spot, but too busy), then to the Curzon Soho downstairs bar for a quiet after dinner drink. It must be one of the few places in central London where one can go on a Saturday night and (a) sit down, (b) get a drink without queuing, and (c) hear oneself think. As long as it’s before 11pm.
A present from Debbie and Atalanta: Carl Wilson’s book Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. The title is after the Celine Dion album. Looks fun, and might well be useful for my MA research into taste, kitsch and camp.
Sunday 4th September 2016. To Strawberry Hill House near Twickenham, with Fenella Hitchcock. Another one of those day trips on my To Do list. The visit necessitates a train from Waterloo into Zone 5, taking thirty minutes or so. Then a short walk through some immaculately tidy suburban streets, and past St Mary’s University, which looks more like a modern upper school.
Again, I’m driven by ideas of taste. Strawberry Hill was the Georgian home of Horace Walpole, author of The Castle of Otranto, which he had remodelled into an ostentatious Gothic Revival palace. The visit comes with a pocket guide that rather neatly quotes Walpole’s own guide, but then augments his text with modern postscripts. Most of the time, the commentary is about what objects and paintings used to be there, until a grand auction in the 19th century. But the architecture and restored décor is more than enough for a visit, with cathedral-like fireplaces and ceilings, trompe l’oeil wallpaper, and best of all the crimson damask walls in the long, red and gold Gallery.
Monday 5th September 2016. I finish Nutshell, the new novel by Ian McEwan. It’s a high concept work, doubly so. Not only is it a tale told from the point of view of an unborn foetus, but the tale in question is a contemporary retelling of Hamlet. Gertrude becomes the pregnant ‘Trudy’, while bad uncle Claude becomes Claude the ruthless London property developer.
One of the archer pleasures of the book is that the foetal narrator has an impossibly educated and snobbish voice, commenting with expert knowledge on the quality of the wine he ingests in utero, via Trudy. The only jarring moment is when one passage betrays the author’s position on the issue of today’s students. The narrator views them as obsessed with fluid identities and un-fluid offensiveness, and goes into an extended rant that only makes sense if it’s the author, rather than his character:
‘A strange mood has seized the almost-educated young… They’re on the march, angry at times, but mostly needful, longing for authority’s blessing, its validation of their chosen identities… If I turn out to be white, I may identify as black… Offended, I enter a state of grace. Should inconvenient opinions hover near me, I’ll be in need of the special campus safe room… Let poverty go begging and climate change braise in hell. If my college does not validate me, I’ll press my face into the vice chancellor’s lapels and weep. Then demand his resignation… Feeling is queen. Unless she identifies as king.’
All very witty and topical. He’s entitled to his stance, of course, but I wish that Mr McEwan hadn’t come down on the side of the Grumpy Old Novelists. Too easy, too obvious. Regardless, whatever one’s position on the matter, this section demonstrably smacks of a lack of research, and that is not like Mr McEwan at all. If Nutshell was a debut novel from an unknown author, I suspect the publisher would recommend cutting this section altogether.
But that’s my only reservation. Elsewhere, I like his summation of reasons to stay alive to the end of the 21st century, viewing the world as one great gripping narrative:
‘Will its nine billion heroes scrape through without a nuclear exchange? Might Islam dip a feverish extremity in the cooling pond of reformation?’
It’s as good a message for turning 45 as any. Wanting to find out what happens next.
, david brent life on the road
, dennis cooper
, Fashion and Textile Museum
, ian mcewan
, JT LeRoy
, Missoni Art Colour
, museum of london
, ruislip lido
, somerset house
, tate modern
A Hundred Letters Of Note
Saturday 5th December 2015.
In Bloomsbury, I stumble upon the Boy Story exhibition by Magnus Arrevad. Very much in the tradition of Robert Mapplethorpe – a mix of queer sensuality, vulnerability, and humour. Large black and white portraits of male cabaret performers, including drag queens, singers (including Dusty Limits), and ‘boylesque’ dancers. The subjects are often caught backstage in states of undress, or half-dress. Lots of mirrors in dressing rooms, or in makeshift dressing rooms, or in toilets. In one image, a group of drag queens are discovered standing at urinals.
This is all at 5 Willoughby Street, near the British Museum.
* * *
Monday 7th December 2015.
To Birkbeck for the last class in the first term of the MA. That time already. I give a presentation on the 5000 word essay I’ve got to write over Christmas. It’s on materiality and the role of the printed book in the contemporary age. I’m especially fascinated by the reports in Paris, where copies of Hemingway’s Moveable Feast were used as funeral offerings, in street memorials to the recent attacks. It’s not just the meaning of the book itself – Hemingway’s celebration of Paris as a playground – but the fact that paper books can have this role, and e-books cannot. Like wreaths and bouquets, paper books are plant material given meaning by humans. And then they are given further meaning on top, when used symbolically like this. Books as the body, touching bodies.
* * *
Tuesday 8th December 2015.
Find myself singing ‘You Ain’t No Muslim Bruv’ to the tune of Cohen’s ‘Ain’t No Cure For Love’.
* * *
Wednesday 9th December 2015.
I am writing a review of the Sarah Records book by Michael White, Popkiss, for The Wire magazine. What stands out from that late 80s and early 90s indie scene now are the things which have vanished for good. Not the music, as that’s all on YouTube and iTunes. It’s the exchanging of letters and cassettes and fanzines – the social media of their day. A whole chapter of White’s book is devoted to the letter-writing activity of Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes, the sole staffers of the Sarah label. In addition to providing idiosyncratic typed sleeve notes to each release, being their potted memoirs or manifestos or other musings, they would send ‘surprisingly lengthy’ handwritten missives in response to mere mail order enquiries, thus bonding with their audience. In the book, Clare W says she once attempted to write a hundred letters in a day.
Also intriguing is Clare’s comment regarding one or two of the songs by Bobby Wratten, as recorded by his band The Field Mice. According to the book, these were not only autobiographical, but concerned his romantic relationship with Clare. The problem with being immortalised in song, she says, is that ‘Their truth stands, and your truth is lost’.
* * *
Thursday 9th December 2015.
Thoughts on the meaning of hype. The new Stars Wars film has reached saturation point in its coverage. There was a week in the late 80s when all three music papers – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds – accidentally had the same band on the front cover: U2. They had just become the biggest band in the world, and so their new album, Rattle and Hum, was a big event. At the same time, each publication had to present itself as something different to the others. They had to remind people that other music was available too (I remember that the late 80s Melody Maker was always a little more Goth-friendly than the NME).
On this occasion, the urgency to jump on the U2 bandwagon was so strong, all three papers inadvertently ran with the band on the cover. To make matters worse, it was U2 in their most earnest, messianic, cowboys of rock phase. Even U2 would soon find that phase of theirs irksome. Years later I remember one of the papers remarking how that hat-trick of covers was a low point. It looked too craven, too desperate.
So that’s what the media looks like this week, with Star Wars. Trying so hard to keep up the hype, it feels insincere, a denial of polyphony. For the last few weeks I had been half-curious about going to see the new film. Now it feels redundant. It would be like going to see a Coldplay concert. If you believe in the redistribution of wealth, then you have to apply that very same principle to the billionaires of attention. So the stunt-double analogy kicks in. Other people will go, so you don’t have to. Doubtless I’ll see the film when the fuss dies down.
I think it was Darren Hayman, the singer of Hefner, who said he deliberately put off listening to the Strokes’ debut album for years, for similar reasons. Art is more enjoyable when the gallery is less crowded.
This ties in with the Sarah Records book too. No one could call Star Wars ‘my secret world’.
* * *
Friday 4th December 2015.
To the Museum of London for the exhibition The Crime Museum Uncovered. This is a selection of exhibits from the so-called Black Museum, as in the London Metropolitan Police’s private collection of criminal memorabilia, from the 1870s to the present. The collection is really intended to educate the British police’s own officers, and has never been fully open to the public before. The Museum of London has a reputation for being educational and thoughtful, and with this show they’ve taken pains to avoid sensationalism. This is no Jack The Ripper Museum, though there are exhibits on that particular case, too (mainly posters appealing for information). The exhibition is brightly lit, and the whole thing feels historical and curious rather than ghoulish. The captions give the bare facts of the crimes: who was caught doing what, with what evidence, and what happened to them as a result.
There’s a strict ban on photography, and a sign points out that the displays on murder stop after 1975, ‘to avoid causing further distress to the victims’. There are, however, a range of exhibits connected with later events, filed under riots and terrorism. The 7/7 attacks of 2005 are represented with some empty peroxide containers found in the bombers’ car, along with reconstructions of the backpacks used. There’s a burnt laptop taken from the jeep that was rammed into Glasgow Airport in 2007. Plus a suitcase packed with nails from the foiled attempt to bomb London’s Tiger Tiger club in the same month. Going back in history, there’s displays on attacks by the IRA and the Angry Brigade. And further back, an 1884 clockwork bomb, courtesy of the Fenians. London is no stranger to terrorism.
Other exhibits are on John Christie, the Great Train Robbers, and The Krays. Ronne Kray’s record card includes the line: ‘eyebrows meet over nose’. There’s a hinged folder ladder that belonged to an 1870s cat burglar. The gun used in the 1840 assassination attempt on Queen Victoria turns out to be tiny. Some of the Victorian sentences shock, of course: one courtroom illustration is of a 22-year-old woman gets 14 months hard labour – for attempting suicide.
The most startling items for me are a set of anthropometric record cards from the 1890s. These record the basic details of each prisoner, along with a photograph. It’s these mug shots that shock: they are of an extraordinary clear quality, as if taken yesterday. On top of that, perhaps because they’re dishevelled and not looking their best, the faces do not seem Victorian either. Just people like us, trapped in a different century. Looking at them, I feel a jolt of pure time travel.
The history of the death penalty in the UK is always engrossing. There’s a business card of a prison hangman, alongside a set of used Newgate Prison nooses. Until 1868, the executions were held in public. People would rent rooms overlooking the scaffold, to get the best view.
What I knew already – but it still fascinates me – is that the death penalty was technically still in place from 1969 right up to 1998, albeit only for three particular crimes. These were: ‘treason’, ‘piracy with violence’, and ‘arson of the Sovereign’s ships’.
* * *
, boy story
, Magnus Arrevad
, museum of london
, sarah records
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
Between Bowie and Bronzino
Saturday 15th November 2014. I listen to an archive radio talk by Arthur Machen, about the superiority of artists who invent over those who replicate. He cites GK Chesterton on the difference between Dickens and Trollope. With Dickens, says Chesterton, the reader knows they’ll never meet his characters in real life. With Trollope, the reader never stops meeting his characters in real life. Machen concludes that Dickens was a better writer, because he added rather than reflected. He adds an anecdote about Turner:
A friendly critic once said to Turner, ‘Your pictures are undoubtedly splendid works, but I never saw such landscapes in nature as you paint.’
‘No,’ said Turner. ‘But don’t you wish you had?’
* * *
Evening: to Elton U’s house party in Ladbroke Grove. Mostly fellow Birkbeck BA English students. No particular occasion other than getting together socially. Other guests: Jasmine B, Jon S. Elton’s place is covered in books – almost every shelf of every room. I pick one up. He not only covers the margins in handwritten notes, but the inside cover pages too. Jon turns out to have had some training as a chef. He brings his own Christmas cake, and we all wolf it down.
* * *
Sunday 16th November 2014. Working on an essay on Waugh. Can’t resist bringing in a discussion on camp. I have good reason to though: Philip Core’s A-Z of camp (The Lie That Tells The Truth) gives Evelyn Waugh his own entry, plus there’s two separate entries for Brideshead Revisited. One for the novel, one for the 1981 TV series. They are filed between ‘Bowie’ and ‘Bronzino’.
* * *.
Monday 17th November 2014. I get the new Quentin Blake advent calendar from Foyles Charing Cross. Many advent calendars are reissued every year, because the dates are non-specific (eg the National Gallery’s advent calendars). But the eighty-something QB manages to put out a brand new design. This year it’s a towering, glittery snowman in the process of decoration.
* * *
A new bad habit, related to my love of eating Christmas food early: Starbucks’s eggnog flavoured lattes. I can confirm that they are overpriced sugary filth from the devil’s own armpit, and that I’ve bought about five of them in the last week. I record this purely as an act of contrition.
As it is, I’m irritated by Starbucks’s insistence on asking for a customer’s name to put on the cup, even when it’s obvious whose drink is whose. I’ve begun to work my way through an alphabet of pseudonyms each time I go to a branch: Adam, Bob, Carl, Dave, Eustace. I do this partly because people often pull a confused expression when I say ‘Dickon’, but mainly because I resent the demand full stop. The whole point of going to a franchise café is the comfort of anonymity. Still, as Ben Elton used to say, don’t blame the staff, blame the management.
* * *
Tuesday 18th November 2014. Class tonight: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Tutor: Joe Brooker. The Southern Gothic landscape drips off the page. ‘My mother is a fish’ indeed. Difficult to read without thinking one is in muddy dungarees.
* * *
Wednesday 19th November 2014. Class: Lessing’s The Grass Is Singing, set in what was then Southern Rhodesia. Tutor: Grace Halden. Fascinating how Lessing’s publisher insisted on a rape scene to be included. And that she refused, even though it was her first book.
* * *
Thursday 20th November 2014. To the Arcola Theatre in Dalston for First Love, a stage adaptation of the Samuel Beckett story. The venue is an old converted paint factory, with its history very much on display: lots of wires drooping aesthetically across exposed brickwork. I go as the guest of Hester R, fellow student on the ‘Literature 1945-1979’ course. First Love is one of our set texts.
It turns out that the production is the whole story performed as a one-man, 80 minute monologue – quite a feat of memory. That said, Hester later tells me she went to see Gatz, the full recital of The Great Gatsby on stage (about 6 hours with breaks), and that involved one actor learning the whole Fitzgerald novel. I have enough trouble remembering my door keys.
The First Love actor is bald, wiry, performs with a thick Irish accent, and wears a modern hooded top under a business suit, though the story is from the 1940s. The only set dressing is a couple of wooden benches, though these are both propped up on their sides, giving the impression they’re about to fall over at any time (again, all very Beckett). The story does involve the use of benches, and at one point the actor nearly takes one to sit on – then puts it back.
He delivers the whole piece in a state of twitchy paranoia and nervousness, often pausing as if the words are occurring to him naturally. This interpretation suits the text, but I can’t help thinking it must also come in handy for any moments where he forgets the words. No one would know.
The enduring appeal of Beckett owes something to the way he captures the universal sense of not quite coping with being in the world. Of everything and nothing. Of anywhere and nowhere. In a way, Beckett is a kind of comfort food. The great thing about nowhere is that you always know where you are.
* * *
I stay up too late to watch the result of the Rochester by-election. Why do I bother with live election TV? ‘Anything to report?’ ‘No.’ Even more depressing is that the media found something trivial to inflate into front-page significance: the Labour MP Emily Thornberry tweeting a photo of a house covered in England flags, with a white van in the drive. Her caption was simply ‘image from Rochester’. She was soon accused of anti-regional snobbery (being a London MP), and was forced to resign her place in the Shadow Cabinet. Disgrace is so very fast these days: a mere five hours from tweet to resignation. It’s one of those Thick Of It plotlines that seem unlikely to happen in real life. Until they do.
UKIP won their second seat in Rochester. Despite all the national media coverage, 50% of the electorate didn’t bother voting. The owner of the white van was one of them.
* * *
Friday 21st November 2014. To the Museum of London with Minerva M., for the Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived exhibition. We go in the evening, for one of those late openings which include a bar and special mini-events around the galleries. Many of the big London museums do these things now – it’s all about giving people an undownloadable experience. We watch a ‘Reichenbach Fall’ sideshow in which people learn how to fall a couple of feet onto a crash mat mindfully. They first have a conversation with some sort of ‘fall instructor’, then they get up on a stage, sign their name on a whiteboard under the words ‘I Want To Fall’, then topple backwards over onto the mat, to the crowd’s applause. Some of the participants imitate Benedict Cumberbatch’s crucifixion dive from Sherlock. We also watch a suitably well-dressed demonstration of Bartitsu, Holmes’s self-defence method, and a series of very funny improvisation games, by the comedy troupe Shoot From The Hip.
The exhibition itself turns out to feature plenty of serious contextual items: rare maps, photos and paintings of 1890s London, including several Whistlers and a superb Monet. Plus an early 1800s rendering of the Reichenbach Falls by JMW Turner (he really does get everywhere). Then there’s lots of film and stage posters from the umpteen SH adaptations, and Benedict C’s actual Milford coat from Sherlock, with the red buttonhole. Conan Doyle’s original stories are given the most attention – there’s a huge lit-up mural of the Dancing Men stick figures on the outside of the museum. One wall-sized quotation is from A Study In Scarlet, where Watson makes a list of ‘Sherlock Holmes: His Limits’. They include ‘Knowledge of Literature – Nil. Philosophy – Nil. Politics – Feeble’.
I think one of the reasons for the success of the character is that from the start Doyle presented him as a brilliant man with flaws. But the flaws have to be of the right kind.
I thought of the British scientist Matt Taylor, from the news this week. He was one of the Rosetta space team who’d managed to land a robot probe on a moving comet. However, he also went on TV wearing a shirt made up of illustrations of scantily-clad women. The sort of thing that even an amateur heavy metal band might view as a bit ‘unsubtle’. In a time when science still has an image problem as a male-dominated arena, this didn’t go down at all well. Dr Taylor was forced to apologise.
I suppose the moral is: even a brilliant man’s limits must have their limits.
Tags: arthur machen
, benedict cumberbatch
, brideshead revisited
, evelyn waugh
, matt taylor
, museum of london
, rosetta probe
, samuel beckett
, sherlock holmes
Xmas Week Diary and Christmas Message 2013
Friday 20th December 2013. I am pleased to receive about two dozen cards this year, made all the more special by the high cost of postage and the dominance of the internet. Post from abroad is especially meaningful: I’m sent a beautiful pop-up one from Eileen C in New York and a pictorial Christmas aerogramme from Danika H in Australia.
Although people rarely send cards and letters today, two Christmas books this year on the subject have proved to be very popular. There’s Shaun Usher’s anthology Letters of Note and Simon Garfield’s historical account, To The Letter. The Usher book is based on his website, where the very technology that killed off the letter – the internet – has turned out to be perfect for celebrating it. I feel all the more grateful for receiving an actual letter at Christmas, from Danika, and I’ll make sure I reply in kind.
Another sign of the times this week: the gay section in Time Out magazine has been axed. It’s assumed that, like cinema listings, there’s no longer any need to turn to a paper magazine to find out about events: Facebook events pages and online listings have become the default. Gay issues, meanwhile, are more mainstream than ever, with Conservative politicians supporting campaigns for gay marriage, and campaigns against homophobia around the world (such as in Russia and Uganda) given decent coverage by the media. This week has also seen Alan Turing finally pardoned for the crime of having consensual sex with another man. His mistake was to have it in the 1950s. Actually, as my dad once told me, it was pretty much frowned on to have sex in the 1950s if you were heterosexual, too.
But the question of promoting gay culture separately in terms of identity and role models is an ongoing one. As it is, London still has its annual LGBT film festival (at the BFI) and its own gay bookshop (Gay’s The Word in Marchmont Street – hitting 35 years old next January). Coming out as gay is still a big issue – Tom Daley making the headlines of late. So Time Out’s decision does seem premature. But then, like all paper listings magazines, it’s been struggling full stop.
* * *
Saturday 21st December 2013. To Somerset House with Ella Lucas, to see the exhibition on the late British fashion editor, collector, string-puller, muse and Lady Gaga lookalike, Isabella Blow. Ingeniously, the exhibits that can’t go on mannequins, such as letters and faxes, are in white display cases which sit surreally on mannequin legs – with shoes from Ms Blow’s collection on the cases’ feet. One letter, on Harpers notepaper, is from Hamish Bowles, who is also one of the other dandies in the I Am Dandy book. He writes to Ms Blow, ‘Long for your next appearance – stepping out of a reverie by Ronald Firbank…’
Much of the exhibition is of Philip Treacy’s exotic hat and mask creations, Ms Blow being his biggest champion. One mask has a grid of jewelled Swarovski crystal nails in a black silk net, rather reminding me of the Pinhead monster in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. I check the caption, and it turns out to be a direct homage: ‘Hellraiser mask with nail detailing’. Any exhibition which references Ronald Firbank and Hellraiser is fine by me.
A word learned: ‘chopine’. A historical type of women’s platform shoe, popular in the 15th to 17th centuries. Modern versions of which are in the Blow collection. More like a platform clog, really.
One of the information panels on Ms Blow’s history begins with the phrase ‘Forced to work for a living…’
* * *
Sunday 22nd December 2013. I visit the Museum of London, and am pleased to see that its shop stocks A London Year, the diary anthology which includes me alongside Pepys and co. It’s the closest I’ve come yet to being a museum piece.
On the raised pedestrian walkway around the corner, I take a look at the ruins of the original London Wall, where the layers of medieval brickwork can be seen on top of the Roman foundations. There’s an information panel about the ruins, provided by the museum. It’s dated 1980 and has been laminated against the elements, though 33 years later the elements have won, and much of the text is now faded and illegible. The panel about the ruins is itself a ruin.
In the evening I turn a corner in Clerkenwell Green and suddenly see the Shard and St Paul’s from a distance, both lit up. From this angle they appear as if standing right next to each other, though the Thames and several districts separate them geographically. Tonight the former looks like a Christmas tree, and the latter like a bauble. I stare up from the silent street at them, thinking how London always was this constant shrug of old with new, just like the two parts to the Wall and the ruined panel. Inside the Crown Tavern, more shrugging: Wizzard’s eternal Christmas song on the pub stereo, while the first word I overhear as I enter is someone saying ‘Facebook’.
* * *
Monday 23rd December 2013.
The London Library’s last day before closing for Christmas, and the last day of its late night hours, closing at 9pm. It transpires that not enough members use the library quite that late, so in 2014 ‘late closing’ will mean 8pm instead. I sit in the historic Reading Room from 8.30pm till the end, which as expected means I am the only one there. Just me, all the books and journals, the famous soporific armchairs, the fireplace, and the Christmas tree. Utter, serene peace. I soak it in.
As soon as I leave, though: chaos. Heavy wind and rain has hit Britain, causing transport shut downs and power cuts at the worst possible time of year. Although the effect on London is relatively minor, my umbrella is a wreck before I make it out of St James’s Square. At Piccadilly Circus, where I get the tube, the clear plastic bubble over Eros has burst, scattering polystyrene chips of fake snow all over the road. Like some Biblical retribution against worshipping false gods, this idealised image of Christmas weather – pretty fake snow in a bubble – has been eclipsed by real Christmas weather – ugly, uncontained wind and rain.
* * *
Tuesday 24th December 2013.
To the Hackney Picturehouse to see a 1940s Christmas-themed film I’d not seen before, The Bishop’s Wife, in which Cary Grant plays an angel helping a troubled New York priest, played by David Niven. Despite his otherworldly role, Cary Grant is just dressed as Cary Grant, with the usual immaculate dark suit. One character is an eccentric aged scholar, an atheist who nevertheless loves the traditions of Christmas. On discovering Cary G’s celestial identity, he remarks ‘Oh, that’s annoying.’ I think that’s how I’d feel.
Even though the story centres on David Niven’s bishop, the film’s parting message about Jesus feels unusual, even jarring. Yet I remember how it works fine in The Holly and The Ivy, a British film from the early 50s, also about priests at Christmas. I think the fact that Niven’s daughter is played by ‘Zuzu’ from It’s A Wonderful Life reminds me why: American films are happy to tell Christmas stories about angels, but they usually leave out Christ himself.
It’s still an issue today. I read a piece in the Guardian this week where an American writer remarks how the British are perfectly happy to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to each other, as opposed to ‘Happy Holidays’, regardless of religion – or lack of it – of those present. It’s just tradition. But among the cards from British people I get, some are indeed saying ‘Happy Holidays’, so perhaps that’s changing.
The first time I saw the word ‘holidays’ used to mean Christmas was in a TV advert. The product was that great ambassador of the American way, Coca-Cola. That may be another reason why ‘Happy Holidays’ has yet to catch on: for some (and I include myself), it feels too American.
* * *
Wednesday 25th December 2013. I spend Christmas by myself in Highgate, once again enjoying the palpable and rare peace in the city. The changed background hum of low traffic without buses. Morning spent hungover from mixing prosecco and Baileys the night before. I chat to Mum at length on the phone.
At 1pm, I meet up with Silke R once again for my own tradition of feeding the ducks in Waterlow Park. Silke is currently staying in the flat attached to Archway Video, the film rental library on Archway Road where we both once worked. An independent family business since the 1980s, the shop stocked a huge range of films, first on VHS, then DVD, and eventually, Blu-Ray. The customers included Daniel Craig, Maureen Lipman, Ray Davies of the Kinks and Brett Anderson of Suede. This year, the shop is an empty shell, closed for good since the summer. Silke now works for Odeon, an irony given that video shops were first thought to be bringing about the death of cinema. It wasn’t cinema that killed video shops, though, but online services like Lovefilm, Netflix, and of course Amazon.
In Muswell Hill a few months ago I bumped into one of the shop’s old customers. ‘I do miss that shop,’ he said fondly. ‘Though of course I hadn’t been in for years.’ He didn’t seem to notice how one statement was related to the other.
Thursday 26th December 2013.
With the lack of traffic on Boxing Day, combined with the sense of enforced family gatherings reaching the point of strained boredom, some local teenagers play football in the street outside. I first worry about them breaking any windows, but then I realise that young people playing ball games in the road is very old indeed. All the museum photos say so.
I walk around St Pancras in the afternoon. Most of the people I see fall into two categories. There’s aimlessly wandering tourists, who seem baffled that everything is shut for a second day. A handful of them climb on the gates of the British Library to take photos of the empty piazza. The other category is football fans, because Boxing Day means sport. People in Chelsea scarves are looking particularly pleased with themselves.
Friday 27th December 2013.
CHRISTMAS MESSAGE 2013.
This year’s photograph of me with a London tree is of course a ‘selfie’, one of 2013’s Words of the Year. With thanks to the London Review Bookshop for letting me take it on their premises on Christmas Eve.
The bookshop tree represents not just my current life as a student of literature, but my increasing concern about the effect of digital culture on independence, in every sense. On a blunt commercial level, the online tax-dodging colossus that is Amazon is obviously threatening the future of independent, non-corporate shops like the LRB. Bookshops, like cinemas and libraries, are pleasant places for staff to work in and for customers to go and immerse themselves in culture, at their own pace, offline and away from the ubiquity of the computer screen. No advertising sidebars tearing your concentration to shreds. One book I bought at the LRB this year was The Circle by Dave Eggers, which paints a near-future world where Amazon and Google and social media have reduced people’s lives to a banal flatness of public algorithms and vanished privacy.
This theme also connects neatly with Channel 4’s Alternative Christmas Message by Edward Snowden, the whistleblowing fugitive of the USA security services. Mr Snowden cited another novel about a world without privacy, 1984, and said some rather powerful things:
‘A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalysed thought… And that’s a problem, because privacy matters. Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.’
The Queen’s own Christmas message also touched on the need for personal time alone, though she linked it more with prayer and meditation. Certainly a child born today in the case of baby Prince George has even less privacy than most children, but the point stands. What grabbed my attention with the Queen’s message was that she also mentioned ‘even keeping a diary’ as an example of creating a space for private reflection. Which is where I come in.
This year saw my online diary’s first emergence in book form, in the form of extracts in the anthology A London Year. Like the books about letters, it’s a celebration of individual minds reflecting in privacy. Their words are only later published when the appropriate permissions have been sought, and when an editor has done their own reflecting on what part of private writing might, as Shuan Usher puts it, be ‘deserving of a wider audience’. An amount of consideration and reflection has been applied, in other words. Although my own diary is published online first, it actually begins life as a series of far more personal notes made in my own paper notebooks. And even when published online, I try to evoke the more private nature of the printed page by the omission of one key element: no comments box.
A blog with no comments is as close to the reflective, personal and locked-off experience of the printed page as it can get. If you write online, I highly recommend it. Let comments belong on social media. Writing and reading are after all anti-social activities, and need to be. Humans are social creatures, but socialising needs to be kept apart from the production and consumption of writing. The more people can disconnect by way of balance, the better.
(I’ve now realised that Mr Usher also omits a comments box from his Letters of Note website too.)
It’s rather impractical to call for a boycott of Amazon, Google and social media now, and I wouldn’t want to. I use those things all the time myself. But my wish for 2014 is to try to resist the technology that wants us to only live through an endless scrolling of screens, that only what matters is to join the shallow noise, the unconsidered chatter, the indiscretion, the unkind photos passed around at the expense of others and the Fear of Missing Out. I wish to balance these activities with more appreciation of three beautiful ‘I’s: individualism, independence and immersion.
And I wish you a very happy what’s-left-of-Christmas, and a splendid New Year.
, dave eggers
, gay issues
, hackney picturehouse
, hamish bowles
, isabella blow
, london review bookshop
, london wall
, museum of london
, Proper Letters
, ronald firbank
, The London Library
, time out