Thursday 22nd September 2016. I read this year’s shortlist for the BBC National Short Story Award. All five stories are by women, including Hilary Mantel and Lavinia Greenlaw. Were it down to me I’d give first prize to Ms Greenlaw’s ‘The Darkest Place in England’. It’s a tale of teenage life in a part of rural England where the skies are free from light pollution, hence the title. My runner up would be Mantel’s ‘In a Right State’, about the regular characters one sees in an A&E ward.
A few days later, my choice fails to agree with the judges’, who anoint KJ Orr as winner, with Claire-Louise Bennett as runner up. Both stories are perfectly well-written, it’s just that I feel the Greenlaw and Mantel entries connected more with me. One of my criteria is to notice if a piece of writing gets me underlining a memorable phrase in pen – I always read them on paper. Out of the shortlist, it was only the Greenlaw and Mantel stories that had me reaching for my Bic Orange Fine.
Ms Bennett is getting attention as one of the new trend of Irish writers who are influenced by James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, along with Eimear McBride. The Bennett story in this shortlist is full of Beckettian monologue and thought-stream, with touches of Woolf’s ‘Mark on the Wall’ too. I read Ms McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing recently, and like the Bennett story I admired it but found myself yearning for a little skylight of exteriority. A Modernist Style Is A Hard-Going Thing.
My favourite phrase in the Mantel entry captures the hand-gel dispensers in hospitals. One joke I’ve heard about these is that they make everyone in hospitals look like they’ve just thought of a cunning plan. Ms Mantel has another comparison in her story:
‘Sombrely she hand-gels herself, like jesting Pilate’.
The Lavinia Greenlaw story goes one better, with a line spoken by one teenage girl to another, during the latter’s first visit to a night club. Not only is it memorable and witty, it also encapsulates character, place and time:
‘Remember the rules. Don’t queue in groups of more than three, ditch the lads and don’t smile’.
Sunday 25th September 2016. To Tate Britain for Painting With Light, a juxtaposition of photography and paintings from the mid 1800s up to the early 1900s. The exhibition shows the way the two mediums influenced each other, with paintings becoming more realistic and detailed, and photographs emulating the poses and subject matter of paintings. Some familiar works are here, like Wallis’s Chatterton, but this time they’re used to show their photographic spin-offs. There’s a 3D stereogram of Chatterton, where some Victorian male model has mimicked the reclining corpse of the poet. Funny how depictions of suicide now often carry a ‘trigger warning’, while the Chatteron painting and its imitative photographs are deemed perfectly family-friendly. It’s a snuff movie as a painting. But then, so is Ophelia.
Rosetti’s Proserpine is also here – the one with the woman holding a half-eating pomegranate. It’s a painting so often reproduced that it all but bounces off my vision when I look at it, like a repelled magnet. I’ve not been to the Louvre, but it’s how I imagine seeing the Mona Lisa. An image so firmly fused into one’s memory that one’s brain goes into a state of unease when encountering the real thing. Two opposite reactions struggle to take control. There’s the starstruck, selfie-grabbing reaction: ‘I can’t believe it! It’s that famous painting! And I’m here with it!’ And there’s the resentful one: ‘What a cliché this painting is! I’ve seen it so many times that it’s become bland and meaningless. It’s been killed through overexposure.’
But here Proserpine comes alive, freshened up by its position alongside photographs and illustrations of similar wistful maidens clutching pomegranates. Wilde’s House of Pomegranates is here too, and one can now see how Rickett’s illustrations for the book were a nod to the Rossetti painting and its various photographic imitations. Something about that particular fruit made it an essential prop for images of women at the time: exotic, sensual. A craze of pomegranates, in fact.
(Which sounds like Marks and Spencer’s attempts to give their packets of dried fruit silly names. ‘Mango Madness!’ ‘A Craze of Pomegranates!’).
Then to the Royal Festival Hall’s riverside café, where I witness the BBC Radio 3 pop-up studio in action. It’s a large transparent box bisected into two rooms: a control room with an outer door, and an inner sanctum of a studio. The actors Fiona Shaw and Robert Glenister are seated in the latter, performing for the public vocally, yet otherwise pretending that the crowd gawping in at them is not really there. They are reading the texts for the ‘Words and Music’ programme, as it goes out live. A pair of speakers outside the box broadcast the show at a modest volume, but for a better experience one can approach some youthful BBC staff in t-shirts, who loan out special Radio 3 wireless headphones, which only work in the café. It’s like a Radio One Roadshow for the delicate.
This is all to mark Radio 3’s 70th anniversary. When it began in 1946 as the Third Programme, a BBC statement at the time said the station was intended to be ‘new and ambitious’ and ‘evidence of national vigour’ after the war. I watch Ms Shaw exert her vigour on TS Eliot as I queue for my latte.
Wednesday 28th September 2016. To the Camden Odeon for Bridget Jones’s Baby. I’m waiting in the foyer for a female friend – name redacted for reasons which will become clear – when I realise that in a crowded foyer, I am the only male in sight. Overwhelmingly, this film seems to attract pairs of women, and youngish women at that. Mostly late twenties. Given the heroine is in her forties, and indeed much of the film is about the ups and downs of being a forty-something, it seems odd that the bulk of this audience should be of a younger stripe. Perhaps it’s a Camden thing.
The most intriguing moment occurs when the Patrick Dempsey character returns to his Glastonbury yurt after a one-night stand with Ms Jones. He turns up with a tray of coffees and croissants, only to discover that she, mortified about the liaison, has fled. It’s at this point that my particular audience emits a huge female sigh en masse – ‘aww!’ – purely at the sight of breakfast in bed. It surprises my friend, too, who is closer to Bridget J’s age. We wonder later if today’s young women crave breakfast in bed as a romantic ideal, much more so than their elders. Perhaps the rise of Tinder and the general digitisation of love has amplified the appeal of more physical treats.
Bridget Jones’s Baby turns out to be much funnier than it needs to be. After the Absolutely Fabulous movie, which really did just tick the boxes for pleasing the fans, this one makes some sharp satirical quips on social mores. Here we have the perils of search engines, the rise of hipster beards, Middle Englanders having to move with the progressive times, and most of all, the now-common experience of ‘geriatric’ mothers. ‘Geriatric’ is still the medical term, as the film points out, for a pregnant 40-something.
Our evening ends on a somewhat less fun note when we repair to the Good Mixer, now joined by my friend’s boyfriend. We enjoy a couple of drinks for about an hour, but are then suddenly confronted by the bar’s owner. Accompanied by a muscled bouncer, he pulls up a chair opposite our seats and proceeds to interrogate my friend about her behaviour on a previous occasion. She is outraged and defiant, her boyfriend is protective, the argument becomes a repetitive loop of accusations (as all arguments do) and I’m shrinking into my seat. We eventually leave to a volley of execrations shouted across the darkness of Inverness Street. I’m just relieved it didn’t come to blows.
I don’t think I’m barred – the owner apologised to me – but I wonder if this is the last time I can go to the Good Mixer. Still, other bars are available.
Thursday 29th September 2016. To Suffolk to stay with Mum. We watch the new DVD of Akenfield together. I note the scene where the Suffolk workers go on a day trip to Southwold.
Friday 30th September 2016. And fittingly enough, we go on a day trip to Southwold. We’re treated to lunch on the pier by Mum’s friend Mary Gough, who owns the whole pier as a business. She tells me about the graffiti artist responsible for the huge George Orwell mural on the wall nearest the beach end: ‘He goes by the name of Pure Evil, but he’s very nice, really.’
I have a go on one of the arcade games in Tim Hunkin’s ingenious and satirical Under The Pier Show. This game is a new addition for 2016, ‘The Housing Ladder’. The player has to stand on the rungs of an actual ladder and frantically move its side rails up and down. This makes a little figure inside the machine rise to the top of its own ladder in order to reach the goal: a home. An ‘Age Indicator’ ticks away the time: if the player doesn’t get the house by the time he’s 80, it’s game over. Several ‘villains’ pop out of doors on the way up, making the figure fall back down the ladder. The villains in this case are The Foreign Buyer, The Developer, The Buy to Let Owner, and The Second Home Buyer. I make it to the house at the age of 70. ‘Good luck with that,’ says Mum.
Then a walk into town, via the Sailors’ Reading Room, which is one of my favourite places in the world. I also browse in the Southwold Bookshop, and buy a novel that’s being promoted as a recommended reissue: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, from 1978. Fitzgerald’s inspiration was the bookshop that used to be on the other side of Southwold High Street. I visited it during our family’s regular holidays in the town since the mid-1980s.
This newer emporium is really a branch of Waterstones pretending to be an indie, at least aesthetically. All traces of company branding have been removed in order to please the locals. Almost all: the receipt informs me of my ‘Waterstones Reward Points’. I wonder if this might be the future of high streets: branches of corporate franchises pretending to be unique local businesses. Pubs already do that.
Evening: We were going to watch a DVD of Terence Davies’s Sunset Song, but I’m keen to finish the set text I’m reading, Jackie Kay’s Trumpet. At the back of the book is a new interview with Ms Kay, in which she discusses how Trumpet couldn’t be set in the internet era, because it’s so much harder to keep a secret. I think of the exposing of JT LeRoy and more recently, Elena Ferrante.
Ms Kay also discusses her influences in Scottish literature. One of the books she mentions is Sunset Song, the novel behind the film. It got me in the end.
Saturday 1st October. Off the train at Liverpool Street, and straight over to the Liverpool St branch of Wahaca, the Mexican food chain. The occasion is Tom’s one year anniversary for being sober: no mean feat if you play guitar for a living, which means regularly being in bars and licensed venues. About twenty friends turn up for this meal, all eschewing alcohol by way of tribute. It’s my first restaurant meal to be paid for via an app; the calculation of who ordered what is thus made much simpler.
Sunday 2nd October 2016. To the Royal Academy for the David Hockney show, 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life. It’s the last day, and the gallery is absolutely packed (or ‘ram-packed’, as Jeremy Corbyn would have it). The portraits are all standardised in a kind of handmade tribute to Warhol: the same size, the same chair, the same simple background of two horizontal blocks of colour, though the colours are sometimes switched. The show suggests that painted portraits take on a new meaning in the age of the selfie. But more personally, it’s a touching record of his friends. If the measure of friendship today is tapping one’s finger on the word ‘Like’, painting someone’s portrait is a ‘Like’ of true commitment; three days’ work each one. The subjects are Hockney’s friends, including Barry Humphries (very dandified, in tie and fedora), and Celia Birtwell, of Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy fame.
Tuesday 4th October 2016. A day trip to Brighton, partly because I enjoyed Southwold so much and fancied another dose of the seaside, while the weather was still warm (just about). But also because Dennis Cooper’s new film is getting a screening at the Duke of York’s Picture House, and I seem to have missed it in London.
In the afternoon I walk on the pier and write letters in the café. The seagulls seem to be more aggressive than usual, hovering close to people in number. One touches momentarily on a woman’s head. She laughs it off, but it makes me stick to walking under the pier’s canopies.
I stop off at a new café in York Place, The Yellow Book. It’s decorated in Aubrey Beardsley illustrations, and calls itself ‘Britain’s First Steampunk Bar’. The bar man has a bowler hat with goggles on the brim. There’s some contemporary art on the wall with a steampunk theme. I wonder if they’d exhibit Dad’s Captain Biplane comic art; people were always telling him it was steampunk avant la lettre.
Then to the Duke of York’s cinema. The Dennis Cooper film, Like Cattle Towards Glow is really a series of five short films, each one touching on Mr Cooper’s trademark transgressive themes: trauma and gay sexuality, the world of male escorts, obsession, the death of pretty boys (in the tradition of Chatterton), and youthful vulnerability. In some ways, Mr Cooper is a more X-rated descendent of AE Housman.
Some of the film is unsettling, some of it is surreally funny. There’s several moments of explicit sex which make Brokeback Mountain look like a Disney cartoon. But the final story is virtually U-certificate: a woman uses drones and CCTV cameras to conduct a relationship with a homeless young man (a little like the Andrew Arnold film Red Road).
After the screening there’s a Q&A with Mr Cooper, along with his director Zac Farley and a couple of academics from the nearby University of Sussex. The event is supported by two of the university’s departments: the Centre For American Studies, and the Centre For The Study Of Sexual Dissidence. I assume at first that this must be a recent groovy development, but it turns out the Centre has been going for 25 years. It’s known on campus as ‘Sex Diss’. All very Brighton. I get Mr C to sign a copy of his book of essays, Smothered By Hugs.
Thursday 6th October 2016. First class of the new college year, and the start of my sixth year as a student at Birkbeck. This term’s module for the MA is ‘Post-War to Contemporary’. Tonight is an induction class, discussing the various artistic movements since 1945.
There must be a little chaos behind the scenes, as the room is changed at 3.30pm in the afternoon, for a class that begins at 6. An email goes out , but as I don’t have a smartphone I don’t get it in time. Myself and another phone-less student are left sitting like fools in the previously-announced room at the BMA building in Tavistock Square. No indication of a change here: no sign on the door. We only realise something is wrong when 6pm comes and goes, and no one else has turned up. Thankfully I’m texted on my non-smart phone by Jassy, one of my fellow students. I rush off and make it to the new room in Torrington Square, several blocks away, and am thus 15 minutes late. I hope this isn’t the beginning of a ‘zero hours’ approach to students.
Thinking back now, it’s an indication that the world increasingly expects people to be constantly online and checking their emails. In my case though, I have to go offline and off-phone for hours at a time or I can’t concentrate. I wonder if this is a new way of being ‘difficult’.
Friday 7th October 2016. Meeting with my personal tutor, Grace Halden, in Gordon Square. I don’t finish the MA until September of next year, but I’m now starting to look into what I should do with myself after that. Grace H thinks I’m a ‘perfect’ candidate for doing a PHD. It seems to be possible to be paid a full-time salary for such a thing. I have to keep up the good marks, though. And my PHD needs to be ‘crucial to the international field’, if I’m to receive funding. This will be the tricky part. I sometimes struggle to feel I have any intrinsic worth as a human being, let alone a ‘crucial’ one.
Saturday 8th October 2016. With Tom to the Islington Screen on the Green, to see Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie. Like many people on their first trip to the venue, Tom is delighted by the sense of luxury, never mind the film. There are plush sofas, foot stools, and a bar at the back of the screening room. The staff even bring your drinks to your seat.
At one point in the Theroux film the camera glances at a cease-and-desist letter received from the Church of Scientology’s lawyers. I make out the words ‘BBC’ and ‘John Sweeney’. Mr Sweeney was the reporter whose own attempts to converse with a Scientologist a few years ago, for Panorama, left him shouting at the top of his voice.
Mr Theroux is much better suited to the job. When the Scientologists turn up with their own cameraman, who refuses to reply to Theroux’s questions, Theroux gets out his phone – a cheap little flip-up one – and holds it up to the man’s camera in response, like a crucifix in a vampire film. They both stand like this for several seconds.
It’s more silly than aggressive, and a move that I think only Louis Theroux could make. His approach is often called ‘faux-naïve’, but it’s closer to a kind of weaponised passivity. It also helps to make the film unique, given the umpteen documentaries on the subject. Even Jon Ronson, whose journalistic style and taste is close to Theroux’s, wouldn’t hold up his phone like that.
Evening: to the Rich Mix in Bethnal Green for another film documentary: Supersonic, about the band Oasis. Despite this being the film’s opening weekend, Supersonic only seems to be playing in two central London cinemas tonight. I wonder if this is to do with the way music documentaries have a much narrower appeal than documentaries about other subjects: the Theroux screening was packed. The exception was Amy, because it was more of a biography about a tragic public figure who happened to work in music. Supersonic can’t even claim to look into a pop cultural moment, as the recent Beatlemania film, Eight Days A Week did, as Oasis never quite reached that level. There were no Oasis Boots and Wigs on sale, no spin-off cartoon series and films. There were a very popular band, but ultimately just that: a band.
Rather cheekily, the film leaves out any mention of Blur or Britpop, even though it purports to tell the story of the band, up till their enormous Knebworth concerts of 1996. According to this film, no other guitar bands existed in the 1990s. No wonder so many people came to their shows: there apparently weren’t any others to go to. These days, history is rewritten by the documentary makers.
That aside, the anecdotes about the Gallagher brothers and their endless spats and scrapes are imaginatively presented here, using lots of lively animations of letters and photos. The film moves quickly, and the melodies still impress. I remember hearing ‘Supersonic’ when it came out and thinking how ingenious it was to meld the aggressive, swaggering grind of Happy Mondays (the verses) with the aching, fuzzy sweetness of Teenage Fanclub (the choruses). ‘Live Forever’ and ‘Wonderwall’ were similarly impressive; what they lacked in intellectual prowess they made up for in heartfelt drive and emotion. It’s unlikely that their lyrics will ever merit a Nobel Prize, but the film certainly illustrates what a lot of fun it must have been, to be Liam and Noel Gallagher in the 1990s.
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Tags: Akenfield, BBC National Short Story Award, birkbeck, bridget jones's baby, brighton, captain biplane, david hockney, dennis cooper, good mixer, Hilary Mantel, Lavinia Greenlaw, like cattle towards glow, louis theroux, ma, mum, my scientology movie, oasis, painting with light, phd, royal academy, southwold, southwold pier, supersonic film, tate britain, the yellow book, tim hunkin, Tom Edwards, trumpet, under the pier