The Artist Known As…

Tuesday 17 May 2016. To Vout-o-Reenee’s to take a photo. It’s for my entry to a Birkbeck competition, which is asking for photos on the theme of ‘London Relocated’. An idea occurred to me, so I thought I’d give it a go. I thought about the way the Vout’s club is effectively the spirit of bohemian Soho relocated, in this case a few miles east in Tower Hill. Tonight I get Sophie Parkin to pose at the bar for my hopeful little image, alongside her book on the deceased Soho club, the Colony Room. I also get my own membership card of the Colony into the shot, visible on the counter of the Vout’s bar.

Sophie tells me about the charity Little Paper Slipper, which is having a major event at Vout’s in June. This is a charity that organises therapeutic art workshops, for women affected by domestic abuse. The end result is a series of exhibitions of the eponymous slippers, each one personalised by the woman who made it. There’s about 150 of them now.  The event at Vout’s is going to be a fundraising auction, featuring shoes specially made for the charity by a group of artists, including Gavin Turk, Molly Parkin, and John Claridge.

I’m happy to help publicise the event. There’s further details at Facebook here.

There’s some fascinating photos of the workshop slippers at the charity website: www.littlepaperslipper.com/slippers.html

***

Wednesday 18 May 2016. Evening: my debut as a conceptual artist. I am given a sticker for my lapel which says: ‘Dickon Edwards – Artist’. So it must be true.

The venue is Birkbeck’s School of Arts, on the east side of Gordon Square, once home to Virginia Woolf. This week is Birkbeck’s annual Arts Week, a series of free talks and events that are open to the public. Over the cast iron railings at the main entrance are the words ‘ARTS WEEK’ rendered as huge, colourful knitted letters. I discover that this display is not, as I’d hoped, the product of an MA course in Comparative Knitting, but the handiwork of two knitting-loving administrators, Claire Adams and Catherine Catrix.

Given the building’s history, I wonder what would have happened if those fateful railings in Mrs Dalloway had been similarly wool-clad. Septimus Smith might have ended the novel in better shape. Another thought is The Muppets’ Mrs Dalloway. Starring Miss Piggy as Clarissa: ‘Moi will buy the flowers myself!’

Inside, Room 112 hosts The Contemporary: An Exhibition. This is a ‘pop-up’ show by four students of the MA Contemporary Literature and Culture course, and addresses the question: what is ‘the contemporary’? The contributors are Kathryn Butterworth (in partnership with James Watkinson), Jassey Parmar, Dylan Williams, and myself. The event is the idea of the main course tutor, Grace Halden, who thought it would be good to have the MA represented during Arts Week.

Kathryn and James’s display is a multimedia look at technology and literature: there’s large boards covered in texts, computer diagrams, a model of DNA code, and laptops playing audio and video content. Jassey’s exhibit is a series of photographs of London shop fronts, which blend different cultures and brands in unexpected ways. Twice during the evening, Dylan performs a selection of his own poetry. And I’ve contributed a social media installation titled Is It Just Me?

I had the idea some years ago. It was one of those ideas that don’t go away. So I thought I’d either put it in a story, or just keep it in reserve, in case someone asked me to contribute to an exhibition.

So one day someone did, and here I am. A debut artist.

At the event, I give out an A4 handout to explain my thinking behind the installation. I’ve uploaded it here as a PDF:

Is it Just Me – installation handout

I also leave out a sheet of my handwritten notes for the project. I like the juxtaposition of the shifting internet content on the screen, with the fixed artifact of my handwriting on paper. Private traces of the body, versus public traces of the mind.

The event turns out to be decently attended, with tutors stopping by to say kind things. It all seems to go okay, and there’s no technical hitches, thanks to the efficiency of Birkbeck’s staff. How wonderful it is to have an idea which involves cables and equipment, but not have to worry about the cables and equipment oneself.

Here’s some photos from the course’s Facebook page (most of them taken by Lee Smith, used with permission):

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And here’s a link to the Facebook page for the MA in Contemporary Lit and Culture

***

Thursday 19th May 2016. Thinking more about Prince, and about camp uses of the colour purple, I’m reminded of this anecdote from Gary McMahon’s Camp in Literature (2006, p. 144):

‘Brigid Brophy notes that [Ronald] Firbank often wrote his tales in purple ink on blue postcards, surface and colour being everything to camp. Brophy reveals that she too wrote her critical biography of the man [Prancing Novelist, 1973] in purple ink. My working copy of Brophy’s book is on loan from Manchester University’s library. At this purple confession on page 173, a university student […] has written this response in the margin:

“Are you [Brophy] really as besotted as this? If so, we don’t want to know. At least maintain a pretence at objectivity, please.”

McMahon remarks that this student represents a certain academic sensibility ‘that is always going to be exasperated and offended by camp’.

Returning to Prince, I think of a friend’s anecdote along the same lines. When this friend was growing up in the 80s, some blokish gentleman known to them – a friend or possibly a dad – took one look at a Prince record sleeve and remarked, quite out of the blue, ‘I don’t care what he sounds like. I’m not listening to anyone who dresses like that.’

***

Friday 20th May 2016. I receive the grade for my second essay on the MA. Despite my struggles with it, I am very pleased indeed to get a 76 (a mark over 70 is a Distinction, the MA equivalent of a First). The first essay got a 73. It’s a nice boost to my confidence when I needed it most, wracked as I was with Difficult Second Term Syndrome.

For the rest of the summer, I have to get on with postgraduate-y things under my own steam, such as attending open lectures and pursuing my own research. But as far as the big assessments go, the pressure is off until the autumn.


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Diamonds and Beaus

Friday 13th May 2016. Early afternoon: I’m recognised in Jermyn Street by a gentleman who says he enjoys this diary. In fact, he crosses the street to tell me this, narrowly avoiding being run down. Surely no writer can ask for higher praise than this: a reader risking their own life to pass on a good review. Perhaps it should go on the back of a book. ‘I enjoyed Dickon Edwards so much, I was nearly hospitalised’.

He adds that he was disappointed I didn’t say more about the death of Prince, given what I’d said about Bowie a few months earlier. This is a perfectly good point.

I think one reason might be that, when I was growing up, I’d always regarded Prince as one of my brother Tom’s favourites; his territory more than mine. For some reason we divided up singers and bands between us, as if they were soft toy animals. I got to cuddle New Order, the Pixies and the Smiths, Tom had the Cult, the Beastie Boys, and Prince.

But if one loves good pop songs, and believes, as I do, that pop music is at its best when used as a platform for individuality, eccentricity, and indeed dandyism, obviously one has to admire Prince.

It’s all the more apt that this request took place on Jermyn Street. The street is something of a dandy Mecca, being home to some of London’s most stylish menswear shops, to the church of St James’s Piccadilly, where Sebastian Horsley had his funeral in a red squinned coffin, and to a statue to that most influential of London dandies, Beau Brummel. It is a statue close enough to the ground to be hugged, an act which dandyish American friends of mine make a point of doing whenever they visit.

A further coincidence is that I was on my way to the London Library, a block away in St James’s Square. After parting company with the reader, I remember that I’d once found a book on dandyism in the library, one which directly compared Prince with Beau Brummell. So today I go straight into the stacks and retrieve the book in question.

The book is called Rising Star: Dandyism, Gender and Performance in the Fin de Siècle, by Rhonda K. Garelick (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998). As part of a chapter on the legacy of dandyism, Garelick reprints a 1995 Esquire cover, on which Prince pulls a definite dandyish pose. It’s from his Artist Formerly Known As phase, just after his hit, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl In The World’. His hair at this point is short, dark, combed and straightened, with a touch of the silkily feminine (even a Hugh Grant-ish schoolboy floppiness). He has a thin pencil beard that seems an extension of his cheekbones, and wears a slim pinstripe suit, buttoned down, over a white shirt with big cuffs. He sports a dark tie (collar button undone), fingers covered in rings, and leans against a silver cane.

According to Garelick, Prince’s image at this point follows in the classic nineteenth-century dandy traits. Prince ‘borrows unmistakably from the likes of Beau Brummell, Baudelaire and Jean Lorrain’. The main criteria are his aloofness, his air of contempt for convention, and his highly stylized persona. On top of that, his 1990s adoption of an unpronounceable symbol allies him with Barbey d’Aurevilly’s idea of the dandy life: one of pure surface and symbol, an influence beyond language: the dandy is ‘that which can hardly be recounted’. Certainly, changing one’s name to an actual symbol takes that aspect of dandyism to the limit. Though I’d say Prince had already put his stamp on language by that point, given his love of turning words into single letters or numbers, as in ‘I Would Die 4 U’.

The gendered aspects of Prince’s dandyism were equally fascinating. Granted, it may not have been original for a male, black, American performer to play with femininity in the rock and pop field; one thinks of Little Richard and Rick James. But Prince used his influences in order to do as Bowie did: make something new. He especially intensified the androgynous aspects of his imagery, imbuing them with that most deviant of colours – purple.

I think of that campest of pre-war dandy writers, Ronald Firbank, and his love of writing with purple ink. I also think of Brigid Brophy taking this detail of Firbank’s so much to heart, she apparently switched to using purple ink for the longhand manuscript of Prancing Novelist, her 1973 study of Firbank. The Brophy book is 600 pages long. That’s a lot of purple.

Through these deviant codes, Prince’s dandyism became an outrageous queering of heterosexuality – a machismo-troubling version of Camp Rock which he shared with such figures as Marc Bolan, Tiny Tim and Russell Brand (who isn’t even a musician, but he hasn’t let that stop him).

Garelick’s book also compares Prince’s use of female dancers and co-singers with names as Vanity, Apollonia, and Mayte, as echoing 1890s Decadent ‘tableaux’, such as ‘Aubrey Beardsley’s Salome drawings of androgynous, erotic, and nearly twin creatures’. Though in Prince’s case, says Garelick, the women were not so much twins as shadows in his wake, a ‘merging of the dandy and the danseuse’.

Certainly, any woman appearing with Prince had to become remade in his image. I never saw Prince in concert, but I was interested enough to catch his 1987 concert film Sign o’ the Times, when it hit British cinemas. For the song ‘U Got The Look’, the female role was filled by the Scottish singer Sheena Easton, who’d already had a successful career in her own right. For ‘U Got The Look’, though, she became well and truly Prince-i-fied. From her singing to her clothes to her poses, she was not so much a guest vocalist as just another interchangeable cog in the man’s machine. When in Purple Rome, you do as the Purple Roman does.

More recently, I thought of Prince when I heard the song ‘Quicksand’ by La Roux, aka Elly Jackson, a young singer who might herself be described as a dandy (the National Portrait Gallery’s shop currently has her on a postcard, wearing a very Bowie-esque mustard yellow suit). Musically, ‘Quicksand’ is clearly influenced by ‘When Doves Cry’, from the chords to the clipped 80s synths. But Ms Jackson’s singing is a very Prince-like style too: shifting across the genders from high feminine falsetto to low, growing boyish swagger. For me, that’s when art is at its best: when there’s a breaking out of prescribed roles, and the same trappings of said roles are re-used on the artist’s own terms, to communicate their individualism. And that’s also a definition of dandyism, in my book.

***

Evening: to the ICA to see Mustang, a Turkish film, set in the present day, about five teenage orphan sisters living in what seems like an idyllic picturesque setting: a hillside village near the Black Sea coast. Their mildly rebellious behaviour during the school holidays, however, sees them dramatically punished by their guardians – first with imprisonment in their own home, complete with bars on the windows, and then into forced marriage to equally reluctant young men. The film’s sensualised, slightly surreal atmosphere accentuates the idea of a close-knit group of girls disappearing into a world of their own, thus placing the film in the same tradition as Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Virgin Suicides, and last year’s The Falling.

With the added dimension of the conservative Turkish setting, though, Mustang has more complex questions about the role of arranged marriage in a changing world. The girls’ captor, their grandmother, is no fairy tale tyrant; she merely believes that, because she herself was married off straight after puberty, that’s the way it should be. Indeed, for one of the sisters, her marriage to the boy she was already seeing is shown as a good thing, if a hasty one. For the others, though, freedom comes in the form of escape to the big city – Istanbul – and to the parent they really want: a beloved schoolteacher. The real asset of the film, though, is the utterly naturalistic and convincing performances, particularly by the youngest sister.


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Spoiler Alert: Transparent Architecture

Sunday 17th January 2016.

I’m reading Dave Eggers’s The Circle. It’s a novel that sounds an Orwellian warning about the rise of Google and Facebook. Much is made about the growing desirability of ‘transparency’. This is meant figuratively, in the sense of increased accountability. But it’s also implied architecturally, in the sense of modern workplaces tending to be cathedrals of glass. Buildings where the workers can be easily seen, and so easily monitored. The price in both cases is privacy.

Today I walk past the shiny new Central St Giles development, near the east end of Denmark Street. There is now a branch of Caffe Nero there, one so entirely made of glass that I don’t know where to put my eyes as I pass by. It’s like walking past a display case of knees and hands and lattes. I’m used to seeing this in stations like St Pancras (particularly with the all-glass Starbucks there), because of the obvious security concerns. But in a central London street it feels very odd, and very fragile.

One of my favourite things about the Harry Potter books is the idea of Diagon Alley, the secret wizards’ street in London. It seemed so deliciously believable, making imaginative use of London’s reputation as an unplanned patchwork of hidden worlds. Now, with the current trend for see-through developments like Central St Giles, the nooks and crannies can only disappear. A surfeit of glass undermines a site’s potential for secrets, intrigue, and magic. Transparency is a plot spoiler.

* * *

Monday 18th January 2016.

My review of Popkiss, the book about Sarah Records, is published in the new issue (February 2016) of the music magazine The Wire. Quite happy with it: it’s full of little points I hope will pique the interest of the casual Wire reader, someone who may be unfamiliar with Sarah. The death of Bowie is a reminder that music – of any level of success – never has a fixed reach. Never one generation, never one era, never one ear.

Bowie tributes are still appearing in the press. Some journalists use the U-word – ‘us’. It means well, but it makes me wince. Who is this ‘us’? Can you really speak for the entire human race? If so, who appointed you spokesperson? I find ‘you’ equally suspicious (‘you know how it is when you’re flying to Monaco in First Class…’). Even though it seems more vain to say ‘me’, it’s more honest and precise. Better to accept that all writing is vanity of a kind.

* * *

Tuesday 19th January 2016.

I meet with Shanthi S. in the NPG, and we wander around the National Gallery next door, taking in the free exhibition on Botticini’s sublime Assumption of the Virgin. I show S my favourite painting in the gallery, Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man (1550-5, with the pink curtain). We bump into Sophie Parkin, who is sitting right in front of the painting.

Then to the ICA for The Revenant – a mere £3 each. Currently the most talked-about film in town, having become a favourite for the Oscars. For all its technical innovation, it’s really a traditional Western, albeit a snowy one. The story is a simple one of survival against the elements, followed by revenge. There’s plenty of stunning set pieces, presumably enhanced by state-of-the-art CGI graphics: the bear attack, the white-water rapids, the gutting of the horse, and the Saving Private Ryan-like opening, as Mr DiCaprio’s party are besieged by Native American tribesmen. Whether or not Mr DC is putting in an Oscar-winning performance really depends on one’s definition of acting. He certainly suffers, but his character isn’t much more than that – just a man who has a terrible time. He grunts, he gasps, he crawls. He does things that regularly has the audience saying ‘Ouch!’, and ‘Goodness, that must be painful!’ and ‘Don’t hurt, though!’

There’s been a few articles which employ the irksome trend of adding ‘porn’ as a suffix. This seems to be a way of judging any film that a critic views as indulgent. The Revenant has been described variously as ‘pain porn’, ‘torture porn’, ‘wilderness porn’, and ‘forest porn’. Certainly all those elements are present in the film, and to an intense level, but calling them a form of ‘porn’ is helpful to precisely no one. Whatever happened to discussions of catharsis?

It’s also too long. My father used to judge films on the amount of times he looked at his watch. He once told me how he didn’t do this once during Lord of the Rings Part 3 – Return of the King, despite the three hour-plus duration. ‘That’s how good it was’. I’m afraid I checked my own watch four or five times during The Revenant.  For all its focus on immersion, it really doesn’t need two and a half hours to tell such a straightforward tale.

* * *

Thursday 21st January 2016.

To Gordon Square for this week’s MA seminar. The text is Lorrie Moore’s A Gate At The Stairs. There’s several witty scenes consisting entirely of overheard dialogue between middle-class liberals, on such topics as the state of racism after 9/11. To me, these come close to Ronald Firbank, though it’s a style better known from his disciple, Evelyn Waugh. According to DJ Taylor’s new book The Prose Factory: Literary Life in Britain Since 1918 (which I’ve been leafing through), one legacy Firbank ‘bequeathed’ to fiction in the 1910s and 1920s is his ‘talking heads’ device. This is a depiction of a conversation as a long series of detached utterations, in which no speaker is named, and where there’s a sense of a satirical rhythm at play. The ‘chattering classes’ in action, then as now.

Not everyone in the seminar is enamoured of Moore’s use of humour for serious issues, though: one student even calls it ‘irritating’. This is always a risk, but it’s why I admire comedy, or comedy drama, over wholly dramatic texts. Comedy is hard to get right, but the best comedy can produce rich, lasting, soaring effects. Tragedy is closer to ground level.

In A Gate At The Stairs there’s also some scenes of violent death, and some occasionally grotesque imagery. But Moore manages to control the tone at every stage, and it’s never jarring. Knowing what happens also makes a second reading all the more rewarding: early details take on a pleasing new significance. It’s not a flawless novel, but it’s one of the best I’ve read in a long time, and it makes me want to read more of Ms Moore.

* * *


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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.

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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.


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The Charm Of The College Flick

Wednesday: Last research day spent in libraries, for the essay on gendering literature. I seem to have developed an unusually sensible inner voice for the essay process. It tells me exactly when it’s time to stop researching and start knocking the first draft into shape, while still allowing for time to do further drafts and polishing. The most important thing about this voice is that I appear to be listening to it.

Also today: I meet Charley Stone for lunch in the café in Russell Square. The café is old fashioned and non-franchise, something which is getting increasingly rare in central London. There are rumours the Olympics are going to shut down whole squares like this, making them into temporary media bases for the duration.

Charley and I chat about My Bloody Valentine, whose remastered Creation back catalogue seems to be finally coming out next week, four years late. She mentions an interview with Kevin Shields where he talks about the remastering in highly technical terms, at least for the average musician. But of course Mr Shields is no average musician:

http://www.pitchfork.com/features/interviews/8809-kevin-shields/

Evening: To the Aubin Cinema in Shoreditch – Zone 1’s smallest single-screen cinema for new releases. Very comfortable it is, too: they give you foot stalls in the front row, so you can pretty much lie down. Also present: Alex Mayor, Travis E, Emily B, John Noi.

We see Damsels In Distress, the new Whit Stillman film. I’m such a huge fan of his debut, Metropolitan, and loved The Last Days Of Disco, the last film he managed to make, which was about fifteen years ago. Damsels isn’t up there with those two, I feel, but it’s as good as Barcelona, his mid-90s film. Same uniquely old-fashioned and deliberately stagey dialogue, same bookish quips about broken hearts, but not quite enough character depth and narrative flow compared to Metropolitan and Disco. Still, I laughed a lot, which is usually a good sign for a comedy. And as films about US college students speaking in stylised retorts go, I far prefer Damsels over The Social Network. Damsels has its faults, but more than makes up for them with sheer charm. Plus there’s a glimpse of a class on Ronald Firbank, always a good thing in my book.

Mayoral election tomorrow. It is upsetting to think that thousands of Londoners might vote for a right wing Mayor once again, mistaking a buffoonishly inept but entertaining dinner party guest for a capable governor of the most complicated metropolis on earth. Still, one must remain optimistic. It’s not as if Boris Johnson will vanish from public life if he loses – he’ll be back guest presenting Have I Got News For You within days. Which is really why the celebrity-obsessed voted for him last time, after all. And where he should have stayed.


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