Rise Of The Floating Yodas
Saturday 6th September 2014.
I spend a day in town with Mum, meeting her off the 1031 train at Liverpool Street. We manage to pack in two exhibitions and one major art installation, along with lunch (stir fried tofu for two on the terrace of the British Library’s restaurant, with hardly anyone else about). First up is the Quentin Blake show at the House of Illustration, one of the buildings in the new Granary Square development, north of King’s Cross station. Like the station itself, the development is an impressive mix of Victorian buildings tidied up and put to new use, alongside scatterings of new architecture: the astroturf steps by the canal, and the matrix of pavement fountains, with their multi-coloured lights.
We investigate the viewing platform set up opposite the square. The usual aluminium panels denoting which building is which are covered in angry comments, scrawled in black ink. Everything in sight is attacked: ‘ugly!’, ‘terrible idea!’, ‘waste of space!’, ‘waste of money!’ The anonymous writer even accuses the sign of getting its facts wrong: ‘NO! That’s on the LEFT, not the RIGHT!’ I check the skyline. The sign is perfectly correct.
I can’t help thinking this is a real-life effect of the vogue to leave angry comments under every piece of information on the internet, and as a matter of course, too. The implied message really being ‘I exist and I am lonely and I want to matter.’ Or put more simply, ‘I troll therefore I am’.
Mum, however, does like Granary Square. She daringly adds her own comment to the graffiti – though she’s careful to do so in pencil: ‘Nonsense! Think positive! Be a Polyanna, not an Eeyore!’
[On Friday the 12th I revisit the viewing platform. The sign is now wiped clean of any graffiti, and is back to normal. This is the equivalent of that most ubiquitous statement on the Guardian site: ‘This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted.’]
* * *
The Quentin Blake show includes a whole room dedicated to Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. Other Blake works on display are his pictures for Voltaire’s Candide, for David Walliams’s Boy In The Dress, and for his own wordless book, Clown. A film reveals that Mr Blake does his drawing standing up, like an architect, and that he uses a light box, not just to trace but because it ‘feels friendly’. Illustration, he says, is about choosing a single moment in a text, then living in it. ‘You own that moment for as long as you like.’
In the gallery shop, Mum impulse-buys Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton, a mad and funny picture book about a naughty dog. Though it’s aimed at the very young, the lesson of self-discipline is all-connecting. I end up getting a copy for myself. Somewhat ironically, the book is hard to resist.
* * *
I show Mum the new Hatchards at St Pancras, fast becoming one of my favourite places to browse. It’s an example of how best to lay out a small bookshop: a little bit of everything, with as much as possible displayed face out, and lots of tempting tables. The new Beano annual (for 2015) is given prominence, and with good reason. The cover shows Dennis the Menace and Gnasher in St Pancras, running to catch the Eurostar.
At the National Portrait Gallery, we take in this year’s BP Portrait contest. Teeming with people. In contrast to the Kings Cross viewing platform, the thoughts of visitors are this time solicited, in the shape of a touchscreen. You tap on the painting you think should have won. I have no idea if the results are collated somewhere, but it gives the sense of feeling like one’s opinion matters, and that’s the true spirit of the age. My favourite painting is by Clara Drummond, ‘Portrait in Blue and Gold’. A second prize would go to ‘Eddie In The Morning’, by Geoffrey Beasley, which Mum is also keen on.
We wander through a corner of Trafalgar Square. At least three things are going on at once. In the main space is the stage for a rally by The People’s March for the NHS (sample slogan: ‘NHS – Everyone’s Concern, Nobody’s Business). In the corner is a busking set by Jake Heading, a pleasant, bespectacled young singer who’s drawn quite a crowd. And a few yards away from him are the usual living statues. Recently there’s been a spate of trompe l’oeil performers in the touristy parts of the city, particularly Floating Yodas. These are people dressed as the little green Muppet-y creature from the Star Wars films, whose costume hides a seat attached to a sturdy pole, so it looks like they are levitating. As we pass, one of the Yodas takes off his rubber mask to mop his streaming brow. ‘Sweatier than it looks, living statue work is’.
* * *
We end the day at the Tower Of London, there to see the red porcelain poppies planted all around the grassy moat. A staggering sea of red. One poppy for each life lost in WW1, arranged so it looks like they’re pouring out of one of the Tower’s windows. The poppies circle the whole Tower, and hundreds of other people are here to get a good look at them too. It may be a simple symbol, but it’s a powerful and unforgettable one.
* * *
Sunday 7th September 2014.
To the St James Theatre Studio in Victoria for a new one-man play: Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope. Written and performed by Mark Farrelly, it’s an interesting indication of where QC’s reputation might be today, fifteen years after his death. Certainly the 80s Sting hit ‘An Englishman In New York’ is heavily relied upon as a qualification. Not only is the song played in the show, but it’s alluded to three times in the limited space of the flyer. I always thought the association was unfair, given Crisp’s dislike of pop music full stop. But I should admit that I’ve never cared for the song itself, its melody and production being too bland for my liking. My apologies to Mr Sting.
Mr Farrelly is rather muscular in comparison with the two main actors who’ve played QC in the past, John Hurt (on film) and Bette Bourne (on stage). He makes me think how a young Laurence Olivier might have approached the role, because his version of Quentin seems as much critical as it is affectionate. It hints at unaddressed layers beneath the surface, perhaps even that Crisp was something of an unreliable narrator. The show is much more of a dramatisation than an impersonation. In fact, the sense of Quentin Crisp playing a part himself is accentuated halfway through, when Mr Farrelly changes clothes and wigs in full view of the audience, going from 1960s London Quentin (retelling the events of The Naked Civil Servant), to 1990s New York Celebrity Quentin (delivering his Messages Of Hope lectures, hence the title: Naked Hope).
There’s also a moment where a member of the audience is asked to get on stage and help him read his question cards, which I’m sure is something the real Crisp never did. At first this seems pure pantomime, just something fun to break up the format of a one-man show. Yet the lingering effect is to remind the audience of the way Crisp would go through the motions, always giving the same answers to questions, as if reading from a script. So Farrelly suggests there might be something not quite so inspirational about that. I disagree. I’m biased, but I think words in themselves can be a sufficient approach to the world, even if they’ve been polished and prepared and repeated so much that they might appear insincere. A good aphorism, like a good story, can retain its own self-contained freshness and sincerity, because it represents pure meaning.
* * *
Tuesday 9th September 2014.
I’m at Senate House Library, reading The Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham. At one point I realise with delight that Senate House itself plays a major part in the novel. It becomes the base camp for the London survivors, being one of the tallest landmarks in the city at the time it was written, circa 1950. I also discover that there’s a Book Bench celebrating the connection outside. It depicts triffids on Tower Bridge. The bench is tucked away amid the foliage by the front of the building, lurking there, as if ready to sting.
* * *
Wednesday 10th September 2014.
The opening line of The Day Of The Triffids is one of the greatest in literature:
‘When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like a Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’
But after that, some lines irritate with their deep 1950s-ness. The hero’s love interest is called Josella Playton, which makes her sound like a lingerie brand. Even the 1980s BBC TV adaptation inserted a scene where she says ‘I’ve always hated the name Josella. Just call me Jo.’
One line of the novel is:
‘His companion was a good-looking, well-built girl with an occasional superficial petulance’.
What exactly does Wyndham mean by ‘well-built’? Curvy? Athletic? Double-glazed? Upholstered? Cantilevered? Or just… waterproof?
* * *
Thursday 11th September 2014.
To Highbury to visit Shanthi S. She gives me a birthday present: The Animals, a fat collection of Isherwood’s letters. Then we walk to the Dalston Rio for Two Days, One Night, a French language film starring Marion Cotillard. The BBFC certification card at the start surely crosses the line from content warning into plot spoiler: ‘Contains one scene of attempted suicide’. So all the cinemagoers are waiting for that. That aside, it’s a very straightforward Ken Loach-esque tale of a factory worker tracking down all her co-workers during one weekend, in order to convince them to vote against her redundancy on the following Monday. The dilemma is that a vote to keep her is also a vote to lose their own bonuses. I felt it was the sort of film that might become socially important as time goes on, but found it a little too straightforward to be properly engaging.
Tags: dalston rio
, john wyndham
, marion cotillard
, mark farrelly
, naked hope
, quentin blake
, quentin crisp
, senate house
, shanthi s
, st james theatre studio
, tower of london
, two days one night
The Schriftstellerin’s Stick
Saturday 5th July 2014. Thinking about the event at the Barbican centre the previous evening, I recall something about the interval. Myself and Ms C had ventured off together to use the toilets, and naturally had to split up when we reached them. The event wasn’t particularly female-heavy, yet outside the ladies there was a queue of a least a dozen women. Outside the gents, no queue whatsoever.
Riddled with guilt at this oversight in what is meant to be a modern building, I offered to escort Ms S into the gents to use one of the available cubicles there. She declined, but I like to think that had she agreed none of my fellow males would have protested. At such instances of self-evident inequality, sharing the Gents with women is surely the test of a true Gentleman. And if any of the men did protest, I would have flung my arms to the air and said like any good academic, ‘But sir, all gender is performativity! Go and read your Judith Butler! But wash your hands first.’
In my case, I often feel like a fraud having to declare a gender full stop, purely in order to use the loos. My fear is that once through the door firmly marked Gents, I will be questioned on my knowledge of football, cricket, cars, sharks, beards, and Jeremy Clarkson. And I will be found wanting.
* * *
I spend the afternoon picking up books on literary camp. At Birkbeck Library I find one of Brigid Brophy’s two studies of Aubrey Beardsley, plus Moe Meyer’s The Politics and Poetics of Camp, which seems to have been a set text for a Birkbeck course in the past. The giveaway sign for this is seeing a whole batch of duplicate copies on the shelf. Then to Gay’s The Word bookshop in Marchmont Street, to ask the staff about their own suggestions. I come away with Lovetown by Michal Witkowski, an example of contemporary Polish literary camp.
In Gordon Square I look at a new piece of public art. It’s one of fifty fibreglass ‘book benches’ which have been installed around the city, and which will stay there until the Autumn. They are a project by the National Literacy Trust, called ‘Books About Town’. Each sculpture is the size of a park bench. It is shaped to resemble a book lying open on its side, then painted to illustrate a particular book. Sometimes there is a connection with the location. Gordon Square was once the address of Virginia Woolf, and this particular bench depicts Clarissa and Septimus from Mrs Dalloway. The artist is Fiona Osborne from One Red Shoe, who also painted the Dorian Gray Olympic mascot sculpture in 2012. Her Septimus has a touch of Wildean beauty about him too: the archetype of the doomed boy.
I get into a conversation with a Woolf fan, Alison, who’s come to see the sculpture along with the dozen other benches in Bloomsbury (there’s a map online). She tells me that the bench celebrating Orwell’s 1984 has already been vandalised and is away for repairs, barely a week after it was installed. For a novel that champions acts of rebellion, this rather smacks of irony.
* * *
Monday 7th July 2014. To the Hammersmith Apollo for ‘Stand Up Against Austerity’, a comedy benefit. It’s in aid of The People’s Assembly, which organises protests against the current government cuts. The evening has an old-fashioned left-wing activist feel to it, and is hosted by Kate Smurthwaite. She isn’t entirely joking when she kicks off the night with ‘Let’s have a revolution!’ The acts are all pretty well known in the world of British stand-up: Jason Manford, Shappi Khorsandi, Francesca Martinez, Marcus Brigstocke, Jeremy Hardy, Mark Steel, Jen Brister, Stewart Lee, and Jo Brand. I’m impressed by Jason Manford: I’d always thought of him as more of a mainstream, middle-of-the-road laddish comic. But clearly his heart’s in the right place. Or in this case, the left place.
Stewart Lee opens his set with an excellent topical gag. It riffs on the most common thing people said after Rolf Harris’s conviction, while alluding to today’s rumours of a well-known Tory MP from the 1980s, who’s thought to be connected with various sexual allegations of his own. I’d better redact his name, in case.
‘I do hope [Dreary 80s Tory MP] hasn’t done anything bad. I’d hate to have my childhood memories of [Dreary 80s Tory MP] ruined.’
Mark Steel must be about as old as Jeremy Hardy – indeed I saw them both (and Jo Brand) at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1988. But where Mr Hardy jokes about the aging process, Mr Steel seems entirely unfettered by time. He has exactly the same manic energy he had in the 80s, running around the stage and spitting out his anti-UKIP rants with barely a pause for breath. I envy him for this, just as I envy him for his red velvet jacket.
On the tube home, I bump into Russell T. He’s just been to some dinner event with none other than Nigel Farage – the very man who was a butt of so many of the jokes at the Apollo. It transpires that Mr F really does like his drink, even when (as tonight) he dashes off to do a late night interview with LBC, several glasses of wine still sloshing away inside him. So all those photos of him holding a pint of beer are not just a pose after all.
* * *
Thursday 10th July 2014. In the afternoon: to the Prince Charles cinema for Bad Neighbours. It’s a broad Hollywood comedy. A thirty-ish couple with a house, proper jobs, and a new baby have their life made hell when a gaggle of noisy students move in next door. There’s some laboured gross-out humour which seems a bit old hat now, and it’s never clear who the film is meant for – former students who are settling down into parenthood, or current students who want that sort of humour now. It’s a shame, because otherwise there’s a witty enough comedy of manners tucked behind the slapstick. Rose Byrne in particular is superb as the new mother, who finds it hard to deliver the phrase ‘can you keep it down?’ in a way that won’t make her sound like a spoiler of fun. Which is, of course, impossible.
Then by way of contrast to the National Portrait Gallery, for Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision. Somewhat fewer slapstick sight gags there. I suppose this represents the person I’ve grown to become – the sort of person who goes to a Virginia Woolf exhibition – and on the day it opens, too (I couldn’t wait). It’s quite busy, with a mix of all ages and genders. There are some shocks. The first exhibit is a large photograph of Woolf’s Tavistock Square flat in ruins, after it was bombed during WW2. In amongst the debris her fireplace can be seen intact, with its Vanessa Bell decorations exposed to the open sky. Then the show works in refreshing Orlando-esque time travel: the fireplace appears again in a Vogue article from the 1920s, then it’s straight back to her childhood, and then forward again into Bloomsbury, via lots of beautiful Hogarth Press first editions. I am stopped in my tracks by a photograph of the 13-year-old Virginia, dressed in mourning for her mother.
At the other end of her life there’s the letters she left before her suicide (‘I feel certain I am going mad again…’), along with her walking stick, which she usually took everywhere. This was a message in itself. When Leonard Woolf came home and saw the stick left behind, he knew at once what had happened. Had she survived her depression she would have discovered that she’d escaped another fate too. There’s a copy of a Nazi wartime instruction book, listing the names of over two thousand British politicians and writers who were to be taken into ‘protective custody’ in the event of a German invasion. The book is open at the entry ‘Woolf, Virginia: Schriftstellerin’. Authoress.
Friday 11th July 2014. A journalist from Q magazine emails, asking if I’d like to be interviewed for an article about the ‘lost tribe’ of Romo. I decline politely. One reason is that I have enough trouble recollecting the specifics of the present (hence the diary), let alone those of the distant past. As it is, I spoke to a newspaper for a similar piece a few years ago, and winced at the dismissive agenda which my words were used to endorse (it was the equivalent of ‘Romo: mostly harmless’).
But my chief reason is really this. If I’m going to rake over those particular coals, I’d rather do so for a stand-alone article about Orlando, and not for another huddling of the band under the wider umbrella of Romo. I feel Orlando did good work, and it wasn’t just us who thought so at the time. We won two Singles of the Week in Melody Maker, plus we released an album which received 8 out of 10 from the NME. There’s modesty, and there’s arrogance, but then there’s also being fair to one’s achievements. Why shore up unfair narratives against your own work?
Tags: bad neighbours
, books about town
, hammersmith apollo
, mark steel
, nigel farage
, stewart lee
, virginia woolf
The Best Thing About You Is That You Remind Me Of Me
Friday 9th May 2014. This week’s work: drafting the final essay for the third year. For me it’s the most difficult part of the process, the writing from scratch. Once it moves into the editing and polishing side of things I’m far more confident.
When I edit, it’s like the text has been supplied by someone else – the Dickon Edwards of a few days before. This Dickon used to get upset when Dickon The Ruthless Editor butchered his work, cutting whole paragraphs and moving them around. But now he accepts that his raw creativity must look its best for the reader. Perhaps in my case editing is like putting an awkward body into a nice suit. With a bibliography as a pocket square handkerchief.
I’ve tried to bring this latest essay right up to date by discussing The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson’s film uses a triple frame device about authors. The effect lends credibility to the surreal tale which takes up most of the film. It’s the storyteller as authority figure, which goes back to the Canterbury Tales, the Arabian Nights and the Indian Panchatantra before that.
One theory why the ancient love of stories-within-stories went out of fashion is the Renaissance’s focus upon the individual, as a unified, separate whole. What’s changed now is that people are encouraged to see themselves as splinters of a community again, albeit the virtual community of the internet. Instead of nested narratives we have networked narratives. One especially sees this on Twitter, where the urge to ‘retweet’ takes us right back to sharing tales around the campfire. Except that the campfire is now the size of the world.
* * *
To the basement of the Atlantis Bookshop, in Museum Street, for a private view. The exhibition is Stephen Harwood’s ‘Visions of England’. The paintings are landscapes in vivid and fiery oils. What’s unusual is that Harwood has not visited the places himself. Instead, they are recreations of stills taken entirely from the films of Derek Jarman, particularly The Garden (1990) and A Journey To Avebury (1971). Mr Harwood makes the connection between the Neolithic standing stones of Wiltshire and Jarman’s driftwood posts, punctuating his shingle garden at Dungeness.
The Atlantis Bookshop specialises in the occult. A poster announces that its next event is the launch of a pack of Tarot cards based on the stories of Sherlock Holmes. Fan fiction, just as Harwood’s paintings are Jarman fan fiction. But then, fan fiction is an occult practice in itself: the alchemy of transforming old magic into something new.
* * *
Saturday 10th May 2014. To the National Portrait Gallery with Mum, for the exhibition David Bailey: Stardust. The photographer as party animal. It’s a huge exhibition that takes up the entire ground floor of the NPG. Many of the photographs are blown up to beyond life-size. The one that sums Mr Bailey up is a portrait of him with Salvador Dali. Dali too liked being around celebrity and glamour as much as he did making art, but then party-going is an important art form too, if it’s the right party.
There’s also a magazine cover which puts the young Bailey next to Cecil Beaton, with quotes by each one upon the other. To his credit, Bailey is thoughtful and accurate about Beaton’s talent. Beaton just uses Bailey to talk about himself. ‘The best thing about you is that you remind me of me.’
* * *
Monday 12th May 2014. I have a phone landline in my home, but like a lot of people I mainly use it for access to the internet. If I do make the mistake of answering the phone, it’s nearly always a sales team. I realise there are services to prevent these calls, but I’ve tried them all. I still get the calls.
The person on the other end always begins their onslaught with ‘how are you today?’ It is the most depressing phrase in the English language. Not ‘how are you’, which a friend might say, but ‘how are you today’. Only the cold world of commerce adds the ‘today’.
I used to reply to this with ‘Well, Dear Heart, the ‘how’ that I am today is considerably less happy, now that I‘ve realised your sole interest in me is for my money, and not, as I was hoping, for the beauty of my eyes.’ But now I just hang up and put on the answering machine.
* * *
Tuesday 13th May 2014. To the Barbican cinema to see the film Frank. It’s my first visit to the cinema (now retitled Cinema One), though I’ve been going to the Barbican centre since a school trip in 1983. Back then, the Barbican’s brass banisters produced a loud crackle of static under one’s hands, something which provided endless pleasure for us children. We were really there to learn about the changing face of London, coupling this visit with one to the Museum of London next door. But the lesson which most remained was that statically charged banisters are a lot of fun. The banisters are now long gone. Or perhaps, long properly earthed.
The cinema screen is on floor Minus Two, on a level beneath the underground car park. As it was opened in the early 80s it makes me think of nuclear bunkers, Protect and Survive, and Threads. I wonder if it was ever on a list of places in which to take refuge during a nuclear attack. It wouldn’t be so bad, stuck down there as the bombs fell. A capacity of 280, a bar and an ice cream kiosk.
The film Frank turns out to be highly enjoyable and inventive, though the ending is incredibly sad. It’s the tale of a young Englishman – based on Jon Ronson, who co-wrote the script – who joins an eccentric American rock band, where the lead singer, Frank, constantly wears a huge papier-mâché head. There’s lots of ingenious uses of Twitter and You Tube – it’s possibly the first film that successfully depicts online life in that way. The young Englishman is played by the likeable ginger boy from About Time, while the man inside the fake head is Mr Fassbender, who has a track record of playing troubled yet charismatic men – he was Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre. The intrigue of the film is, as the ginger boy says, to work out ‘what goes on inside that head, inside that head’.
At the end, the film announces that it was inspired by the cult comedy-rock star Frank Sidebottom. It should add, ‘but only a little’. As Mr Ronson’s accompanying book Frank explains, there’s also aspects that draw on the story of Daniel Johnston. And there’s bits of Captain Beefheart and The Shaggs in there, too.
The film’s Frank is, like Johnston, a child-like Texan with mental health problems. Sidebottom, on the other hand, was a fictional character from the Manchester suburb of Timperley, played by a man who may have been devoted to his art, but who certainly didn’t live with the head always on. And Sidebottom was as much defined by his nasal Mancunian accent as he was the head.
In 1991 I witnessed Chris Sievey performing Frank Sidebottom for Marc Radcliffe’s BBC Manchester radio show. The head was nowhere in sight. Instead, there was just a brown-haired, ordinary-looking man in his thirties, speaking in a radio studio, albeit with a clip on his nose.
As it is, the real Frank Sidebottom has already appeared in a film. In Filth, James McAvoy watches an old Sidebottom TV show, then impersonates the voice for a phone prank.
* * *
Thursday 15th May 2014. I’m in the café of John Lewis, with its views across rooftops. As I wait to pay for my pot of tea, a man in a suit comes over to the cashier from the table area. He complains that none of the available tables have been cleared of their dirty cups. Moments later, he comes over again, this time asking for a wet cloth with which to clean a coffee stain on his shirt. He adds that this was their fault, as it was caused (somehow) by his trying to move the dirty plates while he was still holding his own tray. Shortly after that he comes over again, this time because his food isn’t hot enough. I look around. There are plenty of empty tables, with no dirty cups on them.
There is a moment when I wonder if he is acting for a hidden camera prank, so great is his umbrage. Or that he is doing it as part of a ‘social experiment’, which is really just a prank with a good lawyer.
When I used to watch those Jeremy Beadle TV shows, I envied the reactions of the people who were duped. Not their reactions as the prank was going on, but their reactions afterwards, the expressions of relief when all was revealed. I wondered if some people reacted more like me. Their confusion might turn not to relief but to even more confusion.
‘You don’t understand, Jeremy. I have a slippery enough grasp on reality as it is.’
Tags: atlantis bookshop
, daniel johnston
, david bailey
, fan fiction
, frank sidebottom
, john lewis
, jon ronson
, national portrait gallery
, the grand budapest hotel
, wes anderson
Friday 21st February 2014
Am starting to notice how a university degree re-wires the mind. Before I took the course, to me all non-fiction was either commercial (ie books I could understand), or academic (books I couldn’t). Now academic books are finally opening up to me, and it’s like being able to read a new language. The flipside, though, is that I started to get impatient with a lot of commercial non-fiction, wincing at their generalisations and agendas. But then I discovered that’s possible to switch reading levels, like switching between languages. One can then enjoy a commercial book on its own terms. There is a danger in calling a book ‘too light’ – such a phrase says more about the reader than the book.
Writing this down, I smile when I realise that this is more or less the plot of Educating Rita. Still, the message of Willy Russell’s play hasn’t changed: higher education doesn’t change people wholly – it gives them more options for approaching the world, which is quite different. A bigger toolbox.
Saturday 22nd February 2014
I meet with Mum in the basement café of Waterstones Piccadilly, in the old Simpsons building. It’s a rare example of a non-place being converted back into a place-place. The café used to be a Costa, but is now run by Waterstones themselves, decorating the walls with nice old book covers, rather than the corny photographs of continental bonhomie that can splatter the walls of every Costa everywhere. It may still be a franchise café, but any café which isn’t a Starbucks, Costa, Caffe Nero or Pret has a definite sense of being somewhere in particular, as opposed to nowhere in particular.
Mum and I have a vegetarian lunch at the Coach and Horses in Greek Street. At the table next to us is a group of young Japanese women using their smartphones to take photos of their afternoon tea.
Then we go on to the National Portrait Gallery. The David Bailey exhibition is sold out, so we take a look at the permanent collection instead. The unflattering painting of Kate Middleton – the one which makes her look 50 – is displayed more matter-of-factly than I’d thought, tucked within a row of other portraits and not very well-lit.
We also stumble on an engrossing mini-exhibition about Vivien Leigh. I’m reminded that even though Gone with the Wind is meant to be the most successful film in the UK ever (going by sales of cinema tickets), I have yet to get around to it myself. That and St Paul’s Cathedral: on the list of things one is assumed to have done, but which the same assumption puts one off doing.
Sunday 23rd February 2014
My anxiety over the funeral hits me so hard that I spend the entire day in bed, trying to get over excruciating stomach pains.
Monday 24th February 2014
Dad’s funeral. I brave the morning rush hour Tube in order to get to Tom’s place on time, and am staggered by the awfulness of what must be a daily experience for so many. Not only do people have to brave the train journey with strangers bodies’ pressed against them throughout, but the journey itself is delayed at each stop, due to the mass of passengers preventing the doors closing on the first go. Whatever the rewards of being a rail commuter must be (a decent salary? a house?), to me they can’t possibly be enough. A commuter friend once told me, ‘You just get used to it’. I don’t think I ever could.
So I go from the lack of respect for bodies per se, to paying respects to one particular body. Mum has insisted on no dress code, but I’m in a three-piece black suit and black tie anyway, because that’s me. I add a seahorse brooch, though, in case I’m mistaken for one of the crematorium staff.
Tom drives me to Bildeston to meet with Mum and Uncle Mike (Mum’s brother), and we all get into a hired people carrier. It’s then that I see Dad’s coffin for the first time, in the back window of the hearse in front of us.
Fittingly, it’s a cardboard coffin, looking just like one of Dad’s many boxes of comics in the loft. It also has a base made from the same sort of hardboard that Dad used, when he built scenery for Tom and myself to play with as children; rocket ships and puppet theatres. One of Mum’s homemade quilts covers the coffin, a beautiful science-fiction themed work with planets and stars. ‘I’m having that back before the actual burning,’ says Mum about the quilt. ‘It’s too nice!’
Seeing the coffin for the first time is the first of several moments when I nearly, but not quite, burst into tears.
We arrive at the crematorium at Nacton, near Ipswich. Then we get out and walk behind the pallbearers with the coffin, into the chapel. Unexpectedly, all the seats are taken: standing room only for Dad.
The Humanist host of the ceremony, Chris, does most of the reading. Then I follow with my own eulogy. At Mum’s request, it’s based on extracts from my diary, but I’ve added some of the liner notes from the Fosca album The Painted Side Of The Rocket, the album which features myself and Tom together. I wanted to make the point about creativity being something children do naturally, and which adult artists have to do on purpose. A quality of childlike unselfconsciousness – something Dad manage to manifest easily throughout his life, in both his art and his personality.
Then I read from the diary entry about Dad’s death, ‘Seeing Dad’, and I very nearly break down, twice. But only nearly.
We file out to ‘Monster Mash’, as promised. Dad’s favourite song, ‘Macho Man’ by the Village People, then follows on, with its opening line of ‘Body! Wanna feel my body, baby!’
Both are very silly records indeed for a funeral, and Dad, a fan of Joe Orton and Family Guy, knew this more than anyone else. We put little explanations about the choices – or warnings, rather – into Chris’s reading and mine, so one hopes the mourners understood.
* * *
In the courtyard outside the chapel, the mourners gather to chat. The first thing spoken to me after the service is, ‘Look! Muppet socks!’
A man in his seventies has collared me. He slips off his loafers to show off, yes, his Kermit the Frog socks. This turns out to be one of Dad’s schoolfriends from Clacton, a jokey gang raised on The Goon Show and who, like Dad, have managed to extend their in-jokes down the decades. One of them is wearing a luminous high-vis jacket: whether it’s for cycling or an outdoors day job I’m not sure, but it’s certainly a sign his own body has some years to go yet.
‘I’ll come visit you’ says one to the other as they part.
‘I don’t like threats’, says the other, deadpan.
Afterwards there’s sandwiches and tea at Chamberlin Hall, the new village hall in Bildeston. I chat with cousins I’ve not seen for decades, and some I’ve not seen full stop. Some live in Brighton, some in London, some in Sussex. There’s also people who babysat me in the village, or taught me in the local schools, and indeed the woman who helped Mum with Baby Dickon things when I was born, doing the sort of job that (I think) is now called a doula.
‘Do you remember me?’ is something I’m asked a lot. And for the most part, I do. Sometimes I don’t, and probably make a mess of pulling the right expression.
I still don’t know how I’ll be different now he’s gone. It’s still too soon.
In the evening, Tom drives me back to London.
Thursday 27th February 2014
Tom has made a little video memorial for Dad. It’s made up of photos of Dad (sometimes with me as a child), along with examples of his art. The soundtrack is an original instrumental written and performed by Tom:
, coach and horses
, dad's funeral
Thoughts On Female Role Models Via The Sales of Postcards At The National Portrait Gallery, With A Nod To The Olympics
While reading Brenda Silver’s Virginia Woolf Icon a few months ago, one particular piece of information leapt out at me. At the time of the book’s writing – 1997 – Ms Woolf was the Number One selling postcard in the National Portrait Gallery shop. In 2012 this is no longer the case. The Woolf postcard is still holding its own in the postcards chart, but she has since been usurped from the top spot by a certain other British icon. You’ll have to wait a few paragraphs before I reveal who this is.
In the Silver book, the author theorises that images of Virginia Woolf are often used as a kind of instant shorthand for women as intellectuals, though not always positively. For example, she can be seen as a pin-up on the bedroom wall of the hapless Saffy in the TV sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. Saffy begins the series as a long-suffering, bookish student, appalled at the decadent brashness of her mother Edina. The set designer would have had to think about what sort of images Saffy might have on her wall, ones which a mainstream audience would have ‘got’ at once. Virginia Woolf it would have to be.
Significantly, the bestselling image in question is of Woolf aged 20, photographed in 1902 by George Beresford. This is the image that sells so well at the NPG shop, not just as a postcard, but as a print and a fridge magnet too.
And yet the girl in the image is not yet Virginia Woolf: both in a literal sense – she is the unmarried Adeline Virginia Stephen – and in the sense of Woolf the writer, the reason for why she’s in the Gallery. The girl in the photo has yet to write the books that would make her name. A more representative image of Woolf the writer, therefore, would be one when she was older, like the photograph that made the cover of Time Magazine in 1937, while she was alive:
So why do people prefer the Beresford photograph so, particularly when the NPG has older versions of Ms W available? Replying to my enquiry, the NPG’s Robert Carr-Archer wonders if some people buy the postcard because ‘it is a beautiful and romantic image of a young woman, whose identity is almost unimportant’. It’s certainly a beautiful image in its own right, but I think another reason might be that it represents potential and hope, and thus inspiration. Another reason might be that the pose itself is rather regal, as if she’s deliberately posing for a coin or a stamp, or indeed a fridge magnet.
I also like the way her striking sundial nose is accentuated by the profile pose, and by her softer and still-growing face. It’s surely refreshing to think that in this era of nose jobs, the most popular female face in the National Portrait Gallery for years was one with a large nose.
The changing types of female role models was also an abiding theme during the London Olympics. Many of the British team’s women triumphed in sports with something of a traditionally masculine image, such as cycling, rowing and boxing. Physical fitness was celebrated as something for women to properly aspire to, over and above facial perfection. When it came to the Closing Ceremony, some commentators therefore bemoaned that there was a section devoted to British fashion, where models like Kate Moss and Lily Cole paraded in gold dresses. This, the critics said, was something of a depressing step back for women, what with all the athletic successes. But this seemed unfair, I felt, particularly when Ms Cole has a Double First from Cambridge, and when the same ceremony featured the Spice Girls, Jessie J, Annie Lennox and Kate Bush (though not in person) – all female role models of very different musical styles.
So, anyway, on to the top selling postcards in the NPG today. Perhaps they say something about what people regard as an important portrait today.
Well, Virginia Woolf is now down to Number 4.
In at Number 3 is a 2009 painting of Princes William and Harry in uniform:
At Number Two is Twiggy by Ronald Traeger, from 1967.
And Number One is…
‘Mike’s Brother’ by Sam Walsh, from 1964. Better known as Paul McCartney:
According to the NPG, historical figures don’t get much of a look in these days. People tend to go for either the Tudors or post-1950s faces, with not much in between. Here, Virginia Woolf is an exception once again.
Mr Carr-Archer adds that the original 1902 print of Woolf is often not on display in the gallery, to help perserve it. This makes its popularity in the shop all the more interesting, I think.
Finally, despite being bumped down the list by a woman famous for her looks (Twiggy), it’s notable that Ms Woolf still beats postcards of Kate Moss and Lily Cole. By a nose.
TOP TEN POSTCARDS SOLD IN THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, JAN – DEC 2011
- Paul McCartney
- William & Harry (painting by N Philipps)
- Virginia Woolf
- Lily Cole
- William & Harry (photo by F. Greer)
- Kate Moss
- Queen Elizabeth II (Warhol – Pink)
- The Rolling Stones
- Audrey Hepburn
(Thanks to Robert Carr-Archer at the NPG)
Tags: national portrait gallery
, virginia woolf