This Slapstick Gatecrasher

Sunday 14th August 2016. To the Constitution pub in Camden, for the club night Nitty Gritty. Tonight is also the birthday of Debbie Smith, who’s one of the club’s DJs. Atalanta is on the door, sitting at a little table as one enters the basement down a narrow staircase. I keep her company there for a while, watching others make their way gingerly down the steps too. It’s a pleasingly old building, so the stairs were probably built not so much for club goers to walk down but for minor characters from Dickens to be thrown down.

I spend a pleasant couple of hours here, even dancing a little. The Constitution’s back garden looks peacefully over the canal. As the pub is detached and a good walk from the shops and the more touristy parts of Camden, it has the air of an oasis. Local London. Dog walkers use the towpath, and dogs have been known to wander through the basement’s back door and straight onto the dancefloor. A pug-ish one appears tonight and skips around for a few seconds to a Kinks b-side (‘What’s this? What’s this?’). Thankfully the owner removes this slapstick gatecrasher before it sees the platter of birthday cake in front of the DJ booth.

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Monday 15th August 2016. I’m editing my review of the Pet Shop Boys book, Smile If You Dare. I cut a line about the possible influence of Paul Morley on the style, mainly because the writer is probably too young. My own generation of music writers essentially fell into two camps: those trying to be Paul Morley – mad, funny, rambling – and those trying to be Simon Reynolds – sober, stern, analytical. There’s a part of the Pet Shop Boys book where the appearance of a hidden track at the end of the Very CD is likened to bettering the resurrection of Christ. I would call this The Full Morley.

There is still a lot of love for the actual Mr Morley today, as his new book on David Bowie is in the Sunday Times General Hardback Top Ten. The music papers Mr Morley once wrote for have either died or become free handouts. For people to pay for a fat hardback of music journalism, and to do so in number, is not to be sniffed at. Most of the rest of the books in that chart are either Ladybird parody books or memoirs by the stars of YouTube. It’s very hard not to write something here that will sound like a rant from Ed Reardon’s Week.

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Tuesday 16th August 2016. To the Regent Street Cinema, where I’ve been invited by Heavenly Films to host a Q&A after a screening of Lawrence of Belgravia. This is Paul Kelly’s documentary about Lawrence, the surname-less frontman with the bands Felt, Denim and Go-Kart Mozart. It premiered at the London Film Festival in 2011, where I saw it myself, before getting a proper cinema release in 2012. For whatever reason, the DVD has been only been released now, and tonight’s screening acts as a DVD launch. Paul Kelly and Lawrence himself are present, ready to answer the audience’s questions, and I’m the one with the clipboard, looking like an albino Denis Norden.

I’ve interviewed people professionally for magazines before, but this is my first time as an onstage interviewer. But I go to a lot of film and book Q & A events for my own pleasure, so I more or less know how they’re done. That said, there is a craft to asking the questions, and it’s not always instinctive.  When people talk normally, they tend to monologue at each other, or switch off, or repeat themselves, or interrupt, or go off on tangents. A public interview is a performance: there needs to be a sense of putting-on.

To prepare, I read about a dozen interviews with both Mr Kelly and Lawrence, and watch my own copy of the DVD again. I also watch some old editions of the Parkinson show on YouTube, noting what makes an ‘open question’: one that will ideally guide the interviewee into making those little trips of insight and revelation.

On the night, I am asked to give a short introduction, which I do happily, standing in front of the stage. Housekeeping, flavoured with opinion. I focus on Mr Kelly’s lack of clichés: particularly no uses of studio mixing desks as backdrops to talking heads. And no talking heads, either, in fact.

The Regent Street Cinema has had a long former life as a college lecture hall. This explains the seating, raked high on a steep slope, looking down at the screen. Not unlike the set-up for IMAX screens. A dramatic history too: the Lumiere brothers showed their early movies here in 1896. The tickets for tonight state that we’re in ‘The Birthplace of British Cinema’. A plaque on the street also declares this to be where members of Pink Floyd were students. Not the young Syd Barrett, alas, which would have been apt for a film about eccentrics in music. No, the less interesting but more sensible members. That’s my wording, not the plaque’s.

Special badges are given out to every person as they enter. Sky blue buttons saying ‘Lawrence of Belgravia, Tuesday 16th August 2016’. There’s a queue on the way in. The rows fill up. A staffer whispers to me before I go on: ‘This is more people than we usually have for these things’.

I haven’t spoken to Lawrence since the late 90s. ‘Never say “Long time no see”, says Warhol somewhere. Better to act as if it were yesterday. So that’s what I do. During the Q&A he smiles a lot, which throws me. The first question from the audience: ‘You’re one of my heroes, along with my dad’.

I can’t resist using the Q&A to tell Lawrence that his music is on Lynsey Hanley’s list of songs to accompany her book on class, Respectable. Lawrence says he’s read it; a Birmingham connection. I quote the lyrics Ms H quotes from Denim’s ‘Middle of the Road’, the ones about choosing to like whatever music you listen to. Much of her book is about the importance of breaking down cultural barriers, where areas of musical taste are psychologically prescribed.

On a couple of occasions I fall into the trap of asking closed questions, because my brain is wired to come up with theories, almost by default. That’s what five years of university does to you. But then I notice what I’m doing and move on. I’ll be better at doing that next time; I’d like to do more Q & As.

Lawrence stays to sign records for fans. Stephen Pastel and Tracey Thorn are in the audience. JC Brouchard, whom Biff Bang Pow once wrote a song about, gives me a copy of his book, Felt: Ballad of the Fan. ‘Is that a book on Felt?’ asks someone behind me. One of several books, now. There’ll be a BA course in Lawrence Studies one day.

***

Friday 19th August 2016. To the ICA to see Wiener-Dog, the new Todd Solondz film. I loved Happiness, and quite enjoyed Palindromes and Storytelling, but have reservations about this new one.

One thing is that I’m not really in the mood for his signature mix of misery, misanthropy and bad taste. Another is the form: a portmanteau film of four short stories, linked by the titular sausage dog. This works for old British horror films, but not so much for contemporary US black comedies. With one narrative paraded after the other, the overall experience is of fluffy disconnection. A little weaving together of the different strands is needed, a la Pulp Fiction. Or indeed, a la Happiness.

Still, there’s plenty of funny moments, not least the surreal ‘Intermission’, where the dog is filmed as if it were the size of a house, and walks through a series of unlikely backdrops to a Champion the Wonder Horse-like song. But I don’t think anyone sets out to make an intermission the highlight of a film.

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Among The Diarists

Tuesday 8th October. To Westminster Reference Library for the launch of A London Year, edited by Nick Rennison and Travis Elborough. It’s a large, beautifully designed, greenish-blue hardback, and collects a variety of London-themed excerpts from real life diaries, arranged so that each day of the year is represented by at least one entry. The book is currently on display in every London bookshop I’ve been wandering into of late. There’s a whole table of them at Waterstones Piccadilly, right near the entrance.

I’m flattered to see my own diary is in the book, eleven excerpts of it, alongside the journals of pretty much everyone I can think of who fits the brief: Pepys, Swift, Keats, Dickens, Woolf, Van Gogh, George Eliot, Queen Victoria, John Betjeman, Tony Benn, Alan Bennett, Derek Jarman, Michael Palin, Brian Eno and Evelyn Waugh.

Clayton Littlewood is also in there, with excerpts from Dirty White Boy and Goodbye to Soho. He’s the only other diarist in the book who’s at the event, though the stars of the show are really Mr Rennison and Mr Elborough. Aside from giving permission, I had no input in the selection. So until I saw a finished copy I didn’t know which entries of mine they were going to use, or that they’d use quite so many. It’s been a pleasant surprise.

At the event, Helen Gordon reads a typically ribald 1940s entry by Joan Wyndham. Ms Gordon had a novel out with Penguin recently (Landfall), and I’m reminded that she’s a good example of a Well Dressed Contemporary Novelist, reading in Jazz Age-style pleated chiffon trousers. Also present are Bill & Alex Mayor, Ms Lettie, Tim B, Andrew Martin, Paul Kelly, Debsey Wykes, Bob Stanley (currently in the middle of promoting his own massive book, Yeah Yeah Yeah, about the history of pop), Emily Bick, and a certain actor who I think I last saw several lifetimes ago, at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Afterwards I repair with a few of the gathering to the rather cosy Tom Cribb pub in Panton Street, and stay far too late and drink far too much. Chat with Paul Kelly about the political side of his London films made with Saint Etienne (finally out on DVD as A London Trilogy) : he compares his approach with the records of The Specials – the political message is there if you look for it, but the apolitical side – the art for art’s sake side, I guess – must always come first.

london year


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What Have You Done Today, Dickon Edwards?

I’m far too good at hibernation, especially in freezing weather. Today I woke up at about 1pm, even though I’d fallen asleep at a reasonable time during the night. To my horror, the whole morning was gone. And I don’t even feel better for the extra sleep physically – I’ve found that sleeping too much makes you feel ill too – you get a kind of sickly headache. I really must make sure I get up properly tomorrow morning, however cold it is.

Managed to get some things done, however, including finally working out how to scan my article for the Sunday Express, on letter writing. The paper is too large for my A4 scanner, and it took me forever to work out how to join two image files and make a new one. As you can see, I still haven’t done it very well, but it’s readable:

It was published two months ago, but I wanted to put off mentioning it here until I was paid, which happened last week (I was told it would take that long). This was, after all, my first proper freelance paid writing job. As in paid decently.  Because my bedsit-renting outgoings are meagre compared to the average person, if I could get just two such writing gigs a month I’d be able to call myself a Working Writer – just about. Three such articles a month and I’d have an income from a job I’d actually be happy with, and could even afford to save. So I need to pitch for this sort of work more often.

Writers often talk about the day their first cheque from a publisher or newspaper arrived – that heart-lifting moment of a dream fulfilled, of a future laid out. I certainly felt very good about the article being published, particularly because they gave me a byline photo.

***

Sadly, today I had to spend £25 of my proud earnings on a transport penalty fare.

I went to the Museum Of London Docklands this evening in order to attend a screening of Paul Kelly’s films made with Saint Etienne, Finisterre and What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? This meant a rare trip on the Docklands Light Railway from Bank to West India Quay station. On the way back, I didn’t realise I had to ‘touch in’ my Oyster card at one of those voluntary scanning pads you have to look for, rather than at a barrier, which I’m used to. In fact, I found the station confusing enough as it was. I had to run up and down the same steps twice to find the right platform, as there’s two branches of the DLR going through it. The thought of touching in my Oyster card didn’t occur to me – I was too preoccupied with working out where the hell I was meant to be.

On the train there was a TFL ticket guard, to whom I presented my card with confidence. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d done something wrong. Or rather, not done something right.  He scanned my card, told me I hadn’t touched in at the station, and said that this meant I had to pay a penalty fare of £25.

I was pretty upset and angry about this. Particularly as I was clearly – visibly-  an easily confused visitor who had unwittingly made a mistake rather than a knowing fare dodger who had been caught. Fare dodgers don’t present their ticket to a guard confidently.

Plus my Oyster card history would prove I’m someone that doesn’t use the DLR regularly. Plus I’m medically forgetful these days, what with the dyspraxia diagnosis. My brain isn’t as connected up as most people’s.

But the guard’s sympathy only ran to not charging me the full £50 – and he said I was lucky he didn’t do this. I paid on the spot, not wanting to create a scene.

Still, the penalty fare slip has details of how to write an appeal letter to try and claim the money back, and that’s what I’ll do. I’ve poured so many thousands of pounds into TFL over the  years, so I do hope they can let me off for making this one very human mistake.

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Apart from that little unhappy epilogue, I otherwise had a lovely evening at the Paul Kelly screening. Mervyn Day is a portrait of the Lea Valley just before the Olympic Park bulldozers moved in, filmed in a very 1970s Children’s Film Foundation sort of way. One the best bits is the voice of an old Hackney Wick bloke saying “There should be signs for dogs”. As in for them to read.

I chatted to Paul Kelly himself on the train home. He was a witness to my run-in with the TFL guard, and very kindly stood up in my defence.

***

Some happier news. This week I had two further marks back from my BA English degree course. One was 70, the other was 71. That’s two Firsts – just. It’s proof that despite the dyspraxia, I can clearly do good work.  I feel a lot less stupid and useless. Even if I do forget to touch in my Oyster card sometimes, I can be relied upon to write a decent essay about Coleridge.


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