Sunday 16th October 2016. I notice a flyer on my table at the Quaker café, opposite Euston. It’s publicising an event in Oxford: ‘Lines on the Left: Poems for Jeremy Corbyn. A celebration in words and music to launch this major anthology.’ Hard to imagine a similar volume for his rivals: sonnets in praise of Theresa May, or a Festschrift for Owen Smith. At least, not outside of sarcasm.
A common critique of Mr Corbyn is that he has integrity but is unelectable. The implication is that integrity itself is impractical. I’m reminded of something Zadie Smith said about the film V For Vendetta: ‘Personal integrity is always ridiculed by adults and worshipped by adolescents, because principles are the only thing adolescents, unlike adults, really own’. (from Changing My Mind).
Mr Corbyn certainly has a fanbase among the young: one sees red Momentum t-shirts around the University of London’s Bloomsbury campus. It’s the people in middle life that aren’t so impressed, their youthful ideals knocked out of them. Parenthood, money, and the ownership of property loom larger in the crosshairs, and compromise usually goes with them.
A small amount of integrity is nevertheless still valued over wealth alone, at least in mainstream UK politics. The huge fortune of Zac Goldsmith did not prevent him from losing the London mayoral race, when his campaign became tainted with racism. Whereas Donald Trump, frequently described as an actual racist, is still seen as electable. Over there, one has to conclude that money may not be everything, but it can be enough.
As with the poems for Corbyn, there’s been a flurry of political pop songs in the last days of the US election. The trouble is, these are not so much in celebration of Ms Clinton as in condemnation of Mr Trump. The website for the project 30 days, 30 songs – run by the novelist Dave Eggers – says it all in its ‘Note to feminists who can’t get behind Hillary’:
‘If you vote for Hillary Clinton, you accomplish two aligned goals at once: You elect the first woman president, and you prevent the election of Donald Trump.’
In other words, better the devil you know.
A subgenre of protest songs: panic songs.
Afternoon: to Soho to try the new vegetarian branch of Pret a Manger, on the corner of Broadwick Street and Lexington Street. It was tried out as a pop-up a few months ago, and like the Millennium Wheel has become permanent due to popular demand.
Why the bosses of Pret were cautious in the first place is beyond me. Despite the frequent reports of health risks from processed meat, or the environmental warnings about the carbon effects of cow breeding, there still seems to be this mainstream fear of going without flesh even for a single meal. But Veggie Pret is packed today.
Lots of green coloured branding over the usual red Pret logos. It’s still a novelty to see a franchise café’s cabinet of sandwiches, and not find them dominated by meat. I’m sure there’s a market for a whole chain of veggie cafes like this: it just takes the nerve of an Anita Roddick figure
Monday 17th October 2016. Modern life: the daily practice of clicking on a button marked ‘Not Now’.
Currently reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977), for college. What impresses, as with Beloved, are her little shifts into magical realism, like the witchy sister who seems to able to change her size. Morrison says in the introduction that it’s really a novel about men, but the section that really stands out is where the spurned girlfriend, Hagar, goes on a demented spree of beautification, raiding perfume counters and clothes shops.
Tuesday 18th October 2016. More things that leave me like a ranting Canute. People emailing me for a mobile number to continue a discussion. Probably naive of me, but after contact has been made via email, I don’t see why we can’t conduct the conversation that way. In email, statements can be carefully polished, details are easily copied and saved, and ambiguities can be kept to a minimum.
As well as my slight phobia with speaking on the phone, there’s a practical reason to this: I spend a lot of my time in libraries. If I took calls there, it would not end well. But there’s also the redundancy of someone switching from email to making a call, only for them to say, ‘have you got a pen?’
If a phone conversation is truly necessary, then it’s surely worth booking a phone appointment – and sticking to it. But this seems not to be taken very seriously.
Today I agree via email on a time I can be called. I then duly choose a quiet café and have the phone to hand, ready for the time in question. This designated moment passes. So do two hours after that. They still don’t call. I switch the phone off and go to the library to get on with some studies. Later I get a text message saying they were ‘trying to reach me’.
This is all about trying to book a therapist. It’s tempting to wonder if it’s in their interest to drive people mad.
A message for a memorial bench: ‘He refused to be available on a zero hours basis.’
Afternoon: to the British Library café to meet Rachel Stevenson. It’s been some years since we properly met for a conversation, after the end of Fosca in 2009. Today,we talk more about books than music. Except for talking about the music of our past, perhaps inevitably. Indeed, Rachel’s own blog is currently reviewing the songs that made up the John Peel Festive Fifty of 1988. [Link: http://millionreasons.livejournal.com/ ]
Evening: to the Horse Hospital in Russell Square, the kind of small, idiosyncratic venue that’s been vanishing from London in recent years. Happily, the HH persists, with its steep entrance ramp still in place, evidence that the building was indeed a hospital for horses.
Tonight is an evening headlined by the writer Geoff Nicholson, who discusses his psychogeography-inspired work, such as Bleeding London. Kirsty Allison, who I don’t think I’ve seen before, gives a charismatic poetry set which uses a projected film. At times she seems to be narrating the film, at others reacting against it. I take a copy of her fanzine, ‘Unedited’, hand stitched and hand made, though it says it was written on an iPhone.
I also enjoy a set by Alexander’s Festival Hall, the band fronted by Alex Mayor, who once produced some Fosca recordings. Very soulful in the Scritti Politti, Style Council way. One song is especially beautiful, ‘Upturned’.
In the breaks between acts I bump into Clare Wadd of Sarah Records, a nice coincidence on the day of meeting up with Rachel S. And given the evening is about psychogeography, and especially London, I remember that it was Clare who helped me move from Bristol to London in 1994, driving me and my things all the way to Highgate in her car. I tell her that Michael White’s book on Sarah, Popkiss, is now on the shelves at Birkbeck Library. Nothing to do with me; I assume it’s on a reading list for some humanities course.
Something I’ve learned is that everything creative becomes worthy of serious study in time, even the things that feel like fleeting, niche interests at the time. Though of course, Clare and Matt themselves took Sarah Records very seriously from the off. That was part of the appeal.
Thursday 20th October 2016. Evening: classes at Birkbeck at the Montague Room in the Anglo Educational Services building, in the southwest side of Russell Square. Like Birkbeck’s School of Arts in Gordon Square the place is a warren of knocked-through Victorian houses.
First up is a seminar with Mpalive Msiska on Philip Larkin’s The Less Deceived, at which it’s my turn to give a fifteen minute presentation. I’ve just started reading the new Alan Bennett collection of diaries, Keeping On Keeping On, published today. The first page mentions how Mr Bennett dips into Larkin for inspiration. Though in this case he thinks the poet’s tone is too ‘valedictory’: ‘the valedictory was almost Larkin’s exclusive territory’. I mention this in my Larkin presentation, pleased to bring it as up to date as possible.
What I didn’t know until I did my research was that Larkin is due to get a memorial in Westminster Abbey, with the unveiling this December. So my presentation focuses on the tale of his reputation. I think about the way public image is such a pressing matter now, from Jimmy Savile and his ilk to the people in Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The Ronson book covers the rise of ‘reputation management firms’ – companies who will make your Google results more flattering.
Accordingly I chart the tale of the public Larkin, from fashionability in the 1950s with The Movement, to the popular poet in the 1960s and 70s, to refusing the Laureateship in 1984; I’d forgotten that Ted Hughes was the second choice. Then to the posthumous publication of his letters in the 90s, and his near writing-off as a misogynistic and racist figure, whose poetry was now of diminishing relevance. Finally I cover the subtle recovery in the 2000s, with Larkin quietly topping polls again as a favourite English poet, a festival in Hull with a statue, and now the Abbey.
Mr Msiska adds that in the 90s, teaching Larkin was so controversial, tutors had to seek permission.
Afterwards: a lecture by Peter Fifield on 1960s fiction and Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat. Very hard to label the latter in terms of genre, beyond the 1960s type of postmodern play that one finds in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Though when Mr F mentions its lack of ‘rounded characters’ I wonder if Menippean satire might be a useful framework. Certainly Ms S admired the concise flippancy of Max Beerbohm, and Zuleika Dobson isn’t so far from Spark. Waugh was an admirer too: Spark’s work was one of the few things about the 1960s he did like. Mr Fifield further argues that Ian McEwan’s style is essentially a 1960s one.
I suppose a truly 2010s style might be to write a novel made up of animated gifs. Dennis Cooper is the only novelist I can think of who has done this. It may not catch on, but it’s at least a move towards acknowledging the way a lot of people interact online. They use gifs – little animated stills – of actors, often subtitled, to express their emotion for them.
I once wrote a Fosca song called ‘We See the World as Our Stunt Doubles’. Not quite the world, perhaps, but people do see gifs of Phoebe from Friends as their stunt doubles.
Saturday 22nd October 2016. To Vout-o-Reenee’s for ‘Azizam: A Night of Pre-Revolution Persian Glamour’. A theme of 60s and 70s Iranian exotica, scratchy scenes of belly dancing on screens, those jellied snacks which are like Turkish Delight but nicer, and lots of dressing up. Hosted by Vout’s regulars Emily and Emma. Emma is from a family of Iranian Geordies: her cousin sings a set of Persian language songs, interspersed with commentary in her Newcastle accent. The two Ems are also a couple, and tonight’s crowd includes a contingent of Iranians and gay people, and indeed both. All getting along fine in this former Catholic crypt turned into a bohemian artists’ bar. It’s events like this that are one of the things I love about London.
Sunday 23rd October 2016. Morrissey turns out to be pro-Brexit, going by a new interview. I feel as I do about Waugh and Larkin: I may not share their politics, but that doesn’t mean their work doesn’t speak to me. Trust the art, not the artist.
Though admittedly some artists are easier to trust than others.
Monday 24th October 2016. I finish The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Bought on a whim from Euston WH Smiths, before I realised the eponymous train in question is in fact a Euston one.
This is the current unstoppable bestseller novel. Published in hardback last year, it hung around the top 10 lists for the best part of eighteen months, even outdoing the ubiquitous Dan Brown. Despite the pricy and format, people didn’t stop buying it until the paperback came out, which wasn’t until May this year. I want to see the film, so it seems the time to try the book.
As with One Day a few years ago, there’s no real explanation as to why this book should do so much better than others, other than through a fortuitous synchronicity of word-of-mouth momentum. That said, both novels do share one thing: the premise of an easy to grasp concept, applied to characters who touch on everyday recognition.
So whereas One Day is broken up into the ‘one day a year’ premise, Girl on the Train has its narration broken up into digestible ‘morning’ and ‘evening’ chunks, mirroring the commuter journeys of the protagonist. Fairly early on, the perspective shifts to a second character in flashback, and then again to a third. The idea of a thriller based around witnessing an event from a window isn’t new: one thinks of Agatha Christie’s 4.50 From Paddington, or Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The fresh appeal here might be the contemporary, ordinary setting of the Euston commuter belt. Plus there’s the ‘girl’ in question’s downbeat situation: she’s divorced, living in a rented room, is overweight, and is an alcoholic who has black outs. She’s an unreliable narrator, but crucially never unrelatable.
The meaning of the train window has also changed from Christie and Hitchcock’s day: now it’s a surrogate iPad, another screen through which to scroll resentfully past the nicer lives of others.
I wince a little at the box-ticking elements for the genre, though, such as the scene where the villain delivers a speech about how they did it and why. But this is a reminder why I prefer literary fiction: it’s the genre where no boxes need ever be ticked.
Wednesday 26th October 2016. Write a review for The Wire, of The Infinite Mix exhibition on the Strand. I think this marks my debut as an art critic, not counting pieces for catalogues in the past.
Thursday 27th October 2016. Evening: Birkbeck classes. A seminar on Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, followed by a lecture by Harriet Earle on Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In preparation for the Pynchon class, I go to Senate House and leaf through a book of Remedios Varo’s surreal paintings. Pynchon refers to a real Varo painting in one scene, though her whole style is a good primer for the novel’s skewed, strange world. Post-war Bosch.
Friday 28th October 2016. Winter flu jab at Selfridges. It costs the same whichever chemist one uses, so one might as well be vaccinated with style.
Read a review in the LRB by Rosemary Hill, of Minoo Dinshaw’s Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman:
‘Later he claimed to have slept with people whose names began with every letter of the alphabet except Q, because the only possibility was Quentin Crisp and he couldn’t face it.’
From the same article, a remark by Runciman’s father:
‘I put up with the rouge and the mascara and the velvet clothes, but if I ever catch him sitting down to pee, I’ll cut him off without a penny.’
Saturday 29th October 2016. To the Vue Piccadilly for the film of The Girl on the Train. It’s terrible. One can just about forgive the Hollywood switch from an overweight heroine to the decidedly semi-skimmed Emily Blunt, and indeed the move from England to the US. But all the twists and revelations of the book are well and truly botched. Ms Blunt does her best, but what grips on the page bores on the screen. Shame.
Still, the use of houses on the Metro-North line, running along the valley of the Hudson river, certainly makes the notion of Ms Blunt’s envy all the more convincing. A house with a major railway line at the bottom of its garden isn’t always desirable, but the Hudson Valley is one of the most picturesque areas in the US. It’s also a nice reminder of my own trip on the line a few years ago, going all the way from Poughkeepsie into Grand Central.
Sunday 30th October 2016. On an Evelyn Waugh binge. Lots of insights into the English Condition (never mind the human condition), but also lots of good jokes. Some prescience too. Thinking now about the line in Decline and Fall about ‘the sound of English county families baying for broken glass’, I note how it can apply to the Brexit vote.
I dip into Selina Hastings’s biography of EW, to find this about Evelyn Gardner, his first wife:
‘She read Proust, but undermined this sign of intellectual discernment by referring to him always as “Prousty-Wousty”’.
Thus She-Evelyn anticipates the rise of Russell Brand.
In June 1960 Waugh writes to apologise for some typos in a recent book:
‘I am told that printers’ readers no longer exist because clergymen are no longer unfrocked for sodomy.’
Waugh’s letters are full of entertaining jokes like this, painting a picture of a much more likeable man than the one in the published Diaries. One reason for this, as suggested by the editor, Mark Amory, may be that Waugh wrote his letters in the morning, while sober, and wrote the diary in the evening, when drunk.
I’d say that another is that letters are much more of a performance, even if it’s just for one person. Private diaries, drunken or not, get the unflattering sides: the complaints, the vanity, the pettiness, the self-pity, the resentment. Letters, meanwhile, have more of a sense of performed morality, even if it’s just a note to a local newspaper on some gossamer oversight by the council.
Letters necessitate thinking about others, even if it’s thinking ill. And as with charity, letters can tease vanity into philanthropy. The writer aligns themselves with what they think is right, and plays a Sunday Best version of selfhood.
Ideally social media should be more like letters (and postcards), but the form too often tempts its users into the less flattering indulgences of a private diary.
Thursday 3rd November 2016. Evening: Birkbeck classes. A seminar on Angela Carter’s Passion of New Eve, followed by a lecture by Grace Halden, on alterity in post-war science fiction. We look at Judith Merril’s ‘That Only A Mother’ – with its very 1940s fear of the Bomb – and Samuel R. Delany’s ‘Aye, and Gomorrah…’, which has a very late 60s theme of sexualities as subcultures. Needless to say, I love it, and make a note to read more Delany.
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Tags: Angela Carter
, clare wadd
, evelyn waugh
, horse hospital
, Kirsty Allison
, michael white
, paula hawkins
, philip larkin
, quentin crisp
, Rachel Stevenson
, samuel r delany
, sarah records
, steven runciman
, the girl on the train
, the wire
A Hundred Letters Of Note
Saturday 5th December 2015.
In Bloomsbury, I stumble upon the Boy Story exhibition by Magnus Arrevad. Very much in the tradition of Robert Mapplethorpe – a mix of queer sensuality, vulnerability, and humour. Large black and white portraits of male cabaret performers, including drag queens, singers (including Dusty Limits), and ‘boylesque’ dancers. The subjects are often caught backstage in states of undress, or half-dress. Lots of mirrors in dressing rooms, or in makeshift dressing rooms, or in toilets. In one image, a group of drag queens are discovered standing at urinals.
This is all at 5 Willoughby Street, near the British Museum.
* * *
Monday 7th December 2015.
To Birkbeck for the last class in the first term of the MA. That time already. I give a presentation on the 5000 word essay I’ve got to write over Christmas. It’s on materiality and the role of the printed book in the contemporary age. I’m especially fascinated by the reports in Paris, where copies of Hemingway’s Moveable Feast were used as funeral offerings, in street memorials to the recent attacks. It’s not just the meaning of the book itself – Hemingway’s celebration of Paris as a playground – but the fact that paper books can have this role, and e-books cannot. Like wreaths and bouquets, paper books are plant material given meaning by humans. And then they are given further meaning on top, when used symbolically like this. Books as the body, touching bodies.
* * *
Tuesday 8th December 2015.
Find myself singing ‘You Ain’t No Muslim Bruv’ to the tune of Cohen’s ‘Ain’t No Cure For Love’.
* * *
Wednesday 9th December 2015.
I am writing a review of the Sarah Records book by Michael White, Popkiss, for The Wire magazine. What stands out from that late 80s and early 90s indie scene now are the things which have vanished for good. Not the music, as that’s all on YouTube and iTunes. It’s the exchanging of letters and cassettes and fanzines – the social media of their day. A whole chapter of White’s book is devoted to the letter-writing activity of Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes, the sole staffers of the Sarah label. In addition to providing idiosyncratic typed sleeve notes to each release, being their potted memoirs or manifestos or other musings, they would send ‘surprisingly lengthy’ handwritten missives in response to mere mail order enquiries, thus bonding with their audience. In the book, Clare W says she once attempted to write a hundred letters in a day.
Also intriguing is Clare’s comment regarding one or two of the songs by Bobby Wratten, as recorded by his band The Field Mice. According to the book, these were not only autobiographical, but concerned his romantic relationship with Clare. The problem with being immortalised in song, she says, is that ‘Their truth stands, and your truth is lost’.
* * *
Thursday 9th December 2015.
Thoughts on the meaning of hype. The new Stars Wars film has reached saturation point in its coverage. There was a week in the late 80s when all three music papers – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds – accidentally had the same band on the front cover: U2. They had just become the biggest band in the world, and so their new album, Rattle and Hum, was a big event. At the same time, each publication had to present itself as something different to the others. They had to remind people that other music was available too (I remember that the late 80s Melody Maker was always a little more Goth-friendly than the NME).
On this occasion, the urgency to jump on the U2 bandwagon was so strong, all three papers inadvertently ran with the band on the cover. To make matters worse, it was U2 in their most earnest, messianic, cowboys of rock phase. Even U2 would soon find that phase of theirs irksome. Years later I remember one of the papers remarking how that hat-trick of covers was a low point. It looked too craven, too desperate.
So that’s what the media looks like this week, with Star Wars. Trying so hard to keep up the hype, it feels insincere, a denial of polyphony. For the last few weeks I had been half-curious about going to see the new film. Now it feels redundant. It would be like going to see a Coldplay concert. If you believe in the redistribution of wealth, then you have to apply that very same principle to the billionaires of attention. So the stunt-double analogy kicks in. Other people will go, so you don’t have to. Doubtless I’ll see the film when the fuss dies down.
I think it was Darren Hayman, the singer of Hefner, who said he deliberately put off listening to the Strokes’ debut album for years, for similar reasons. Art is more enjoyable when the gallery is less crowded.
This ties in with the Sarah Records book too. No one could call Star Wars ‘my secret world’.
* * *
Friday 4th December 2015.
To the Museum of London for the exhibition The Crime Museum Uncovered. This is a selection of exhibits from the so-called Black Museum, as in the London Metropolitan Police’s private collection of criminal memorabilia, from the 1870s to the present. The collection is really intended to educate the British police’s own officers, and has never been fully open to the public before. The Museum of London has a reputation for being educational and thoughtful, and with this show they’ve taken pains to avoid sensationalism. This is no Jack The Ripper Museum, though there are exhibits on that particular case, too (mainly posters appealing for information). The exhibition is brightly lit, and the whole thing feels historical and curious rather than ghoulish. The captions give the bare facts of the crimes: who was caught doing what, with what evidence, and what happened to them as a result.
There’s a strict ban on photography, and a sign points out that the displays on murder stop after 1975, ‘to avoid causing further distress to the victims’. There are, however, a range of exhibits connected with later events, filed under riots and terrorism. The 7/7 attacks of 2005 are represented with some empty peroxide containers found in the bombers’ car, along with reconstructions of the backpacks used. There’s a burnt laptop taken from the jeep that was rammed into Glasgow Airport in 2007. Plus a suitcase packed with nails from the foiled attempt to bomb London’s Tiger Tiger club in the same month. Going back in history, there’s displays on attacks by the IRA and the Angry Brigade. And further back, an 1884 clockwork bomb, courtesy of the Fenians. London is no stranger to terrorism.
Other exhibits are on John Christie, the Great Train Robbers, and The Krays. Ronne Kray’s record card includes the line: ‘eyebrows meet over nose’. There’s a hinged folder ladder that belonged to an 1870s cat burglar. The gun used in the 1840 assassination attempt on Queen Victoria turns out to be tiny. Some of the Victorian sentences shock, of course: one courtroom illustration is of a 22-year-old woman gets 14 months hard labour – for attempting suicide.
The most startling items for me are a set of anthropometric record cards from the 1890s. These record the basic details of each prisoner, along with a photograph. It’s these mug shots that shock: they are of an extraordinary clear quality, as if taken yesterday. On top of that, perhaps because they’re dishevelled and not looking their best, the faces do not seem Victorian either. Just people like us, trapped in a different century. Looking at them, I feel a jolt of pure time travel.
The history of the death penalty in the UK is always engrossing. There’s a business card of a prison hangman, alongside a set of used Newgate Prison nooses. Until 1868, the executions were held in public. People would rent rooms overlooking the scaffold, to get the best view.
What I knew already – but it still fascinates me – is that the death penalty was technically still in place from 1969 right up to 1998, albeit only for three particular crimes. These were: ‘treason’, ‘piracy with violence’, and ‘arson of the Sovereign’s ships’.
* * *
, boy story
, Magnus Arrevad
, museum of london
, sarah records
Dali In Wonderland
Saturday 28th November 2015.
I spend most of this week in the British Library reading rooms, researching the first essay for the MA. One of the books I order, a late 90s one on electronic literature, comes with a CD-ROM. This confuses some of the BL staff, and they have to ask amongst themselves to find out where such an ancient format can be accessed. The library’s internet computers tend to have no CD slots. Even microfilm is more popular as a resource.
* * *
Monday 30th November 2015.
Evening: MA class on Joe Sacco’s Footnotes In Gaza. It’s a bulky, large format graphic novel, investigating the slaughter of Palestinians during 1956. Quite a heated debate in the seminar, especially when it’s asked if Sacco is preaching to the converted, and can graphic novels work as a valid form of journalism? Funny how Sacco draws himself as more of a caricature than his interviewees: his glasses become blank goggles, even headlights during scenes of darkness. Thus he shows himself inside his own text, but not quite of it.
* * *
Tuesday 1st December 2015.
I’m reading Popkiss, the new book about Sarah Records by Michael White. I have a small walk-on role in the story, as part of the one-off project band, Shelley. Mr White files us under ‘Outliers’, where we are ‘the oddballs of the Sarah scene’. Given the niche appeal of this world, this must make us very outlying and odd indeed. Our EP is, he says generously, ‘one of the best’ releases on the label. However, I wince with guilt at the mention of our running up a large studio bill, incurred out of sheer slowness. Today, I know that this slowness is at least partly down to my dyspraxia, and I am legally entitled to extend my university exam time by 25%. Though I’m grateful for this adjustment, and for having the condition recognised, it never diminishes the feeling of guilt. I should be quicker.
* * *
Wednesday 2nd December 2015.
The Labour MP Hilary Benn makes a celebrated speech in the Commons, arguing in favour of military strikes against ISIS. I’m unconvinced as to its merits. He uses ‘evil’, which is religious rhetoric. And ‘fascist’. Which is Young Ones rhetoric.
* * *
Friday 4th December 2015.
Back to the British Library to take a look at the new Alice in Wonderland exhibition. Thankfully the huge queues seem confined to the weekend, and this afternoon I leisurely take my time around the display cases. The first case tells the tale of Carroll’s original manuscript. It’s in the form of a handwritten notebook presented to Alice Liddell, the little girl he made up the story for. Alongside it are some of Carroll’s photographs of Ms Liddell and other girls, with his diary from the time recounting (in a very decorative, looping hand) the Oxford boat trip that hosted the tale-telling. Then there’s a letter in the 1920s, by the elderly Ms Liddell, recording her reluctant selling of the manuscript to an American collector. The sequence concludes with a typed note from 1946, representing the notebook’s present owner in a consortium with other US bibliophiles. They are returning it to the British government ‘in recognition of British resistance to Germany in the first years of the war’. I suppose one way of looking at this is to say, thank Hitler for Alice.
The bulk of the exhibition is a selection of the many subsequent Alice books and merchandise, taking in illustrators from Arthur Rackham to Ralph Steadman. There’s a series of 1930s advertising pamphlets by Guinness, plus sundry toys, puzzles and figurines all helping themselves to Carroll’s text. The copyright expired as early as 1907. Alice belongs to everyone.
Most of the book-based Alices on show have long blonde hair, thanks to Tenniel and Disney, though one or two replicate Alice Liddell’s dark bob. There’s also a ‘flapper Alice’ from the 1920s, and a Brownie Alice from the 30s, as in the junior girl guides. Some Alices are older than others: a post-war letter from Graham Greene to Mervyn Peake compliments Peake on being ‘the first person who has been able to illustrate the book satisfactorily since Tenniel’, only to add ‘your Alice is a little bit too much of a gamin.’ From 1902 there’s a political parody by Saki, The Westminster Alice. It’s a link kept evergreen this year when Tony Blair accused Jeremy Corbyn of creating a delusional ‘Alice in Wonderland world’ for Labour.
The Alice I am most surprised by is a version by Salvador Dali, from the 1960s. Here the Caterpillar appears in double form, a realistic rendering next to an abstract splatter of paint. Dali’s Alice, meanwhile, is an inky stick figure with a skipping rope.
Afterwards, I visit the BL’s Alice pop-up shop. It sells all manner of Carroll-themed products – chocolates, calendars, diaries – yet frustratingly, no single postcards. I now wonder if picture postcards are finally on the decline, even as cheap souvenirs of exhibitions. For some reason, they’re more likely to be available in bulky boxes of 100 at a time (eg a series of classic covers of Penguin Books).
Thankfully there’s another gallery a short walk away that does sell postcards of Alice – the Cartoon Museum in Little Russell Street. The current exhibition features Ralph Steadman, too, this time paying tribute not to Carroll but Gillray, the satirical cartoonist of the Romantic age. Here, Gillray’s prints – in startlingly fresh condition – are juxtaposed with the many pastiche cartoons in recent years. Given the tight deadlines for newspaper cartoons, a take on Gillray is always a reliable option. The most parodied image by far is Napoleon and Pitt carving up the ‘plumb-pudding’ of the world. Here, the exhibition shows how the likes of Steve Bell and Martin Rowson have updated this basic template with Blair, Cameron et al in place of the original duo. There’s also an inspired Viz cartoon strip about a Beano-esque rivalry between Gillray and Rowlandson.
I spend the evening with Fenella Hitchcock and Vadim Kosmos in Fontaine’s, an elegant Art Deco cocktail bar which somehow exists in Stoke Newington. I down some very nicely made Brandy Alexanders and find myself discussing the film work of Doug McClure, before staggering onto the Overground train home.
* * *
Tags: alice in wonderland
, British Library
, cartoon museum
, joe sacco
, sarah records
Notes On Twee
Sunday 12th April 2015.
To the Hackney Picturehouse for the screening of My Secret World, a film-length documentary about Sarah Records. It’s directed by Lucy Hawkins, and she’s invited me to DJ at the event. Shanthi S has agreed to accompany me, which makes things easier. I still have a searing awkwardness about going to chatty gatherings by myself. But as it turns out, I end up speaking to Tim Chipping and Clare Wadd in the cinema’s café before I see Shanthi, who’s at a table in the corner, wearing sunglasses indoors (‘a heavy night’). A happy reunion: the first time I’ve seen Matt and Clare for some time, as well as Tim Chipping. Travis Elborough there too.
After the film there’s a Q&A with the label co-runners, Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes, hosted by Pete Paphides. Then I install myself in the DJ booth of the venue’s Attic bar, playing only tracks released by Sarah.
So many documentaries about now. In the future, everyone who isn’t famous for fifteen minutes – or as in the case of the Field Mice, those who do their utmost not to be famous -will have an independent documentary made about them instead.
One good thing about premiere screenings of music documentaries, though, is that they can take the awkwardness off band reunions. One is really gathered to celebrate, or least discuss, a New Thing: a film.
Which turns out to be enjoyable, heartfelt and very nicely made. Lots of talking heads – band members and fans. Fans who started their own bands, like one fellow from The Drums. Lots of inspired use of graphics, making the record sleeves turn into their Bristol locations. And a good sense of the way Sarah represented a certain aesthetic – a kind of poetic wariness of the world, a subcultural Refusal (to quote Dick Hebdige), that risked being mistaken for simple shyness, and indeed was often dismissed with the pejorative of ‘tweeness’ (though I quite like that word). It’s an aesthetic perhaps best summed up in the Field Mice song, ‘Sensitive’.
The Field Mice singer Bobby Wratten is the voice most absent from the film (there’s always one – I hear Dave Grohl is frustratingly absent from the new Kurt Cobain doc), but then the mission to cover every band released on the label means that even the more popular bands’ stories get only a small amount of time. One must tell a story, because it’s impossible to tell the story. No such thing.
The film is about love, ultimately. The love of Matt and Clare, and their love of music. The film is often about their time together: how they met (at a Julian Cope gig), how fanzines brought them together, how Sarah Records was their ‘child’, and how the releases sometimes carried little oblique accounts of their relationship. Though they split up around the time the label stopped, they’re clearly both still friends, and are even happy to help promote the film together.
Tim C has a good anecdote in the film about the way the label actually told him off for not writing them enough letters. And I’m there in the film too, very briefly, in archive footage of our band Shelley (a version of Orlando), miming guitar while Tim C sings, in the old Top of the Pops studio. A whole other story why that happened. I’m just glad that I’m wearing a suit.
Afterwards I chat to some nice people from the ‘Doc ‘N Roll’ organisation, who put on the film. They tell me there’s a new Picturehouse opening soon, in the old Cineworld at the Trocadero, by Piccadilly Circus. ‘Picturehouse Central’. Any cinema chain that puts on a Sarah Records film has its heart in the right place.
Here’s what I played in the DJ set, though not in this order. I thought I had more than enough Field Mice songs, but Jonathan from Trembling Blue Stars demanded I played ‘Missing The Moon’ too. I let him plug in his iPod and play it himself. Such was his ardour.
The Field Mice: Sensitive, If You Need Someone, Let’s Kiss and Make Up, Coach Station Reunion, You’re Kidding Aren’t You, This Love Is Not Wrong, Emma’s House, When Morning Comes To Town.
The Orchids: Caveman, What Will We Do Next, The Sadness of Sex (Part 1), Bemused, Confused and Bedraggled, How Does That Feel
Heavenly: Our Love Is Heavenly, Three Star Compartment, Sperm Meets Egg So What, C Is The Heavenly Option, Atta Girl
Blueboy: Cosmopolitan, Imipramine, The Joy Of Living, Popkiss, Sea Horses
Even As We Speak: Swimming Song, Drown
Brighter: Ocean Sky, Never Ever, Killjoy
St. Christopher: And I Wonder, The Thrill Of The New
The Wake: Carbrain, Crush The Flowers
Action Painting: These Things Happen
Another Sunny Day: You Should All Be Murdered
The Sea Urchins: Pristine Christine
* * *
Monday 13th April 2015.
The rest of this week is the last leg of the dissertation. Sitting in libraries and cafes, revising drafts 3, 4, 5. Emailing some drafts to kind friends, who detect all the typos I missed. I also get to a point where I have too many notes to fit into the text. Again, it’s like the Sarah Records film: impossible to cover everything. And never finished, but abandoned.
* * *
Thursday 16th April 2015
It’s getting to the point where I’m revising my dissertation while waiting at the traffic lights on Euston Road. Pen on folded print out, as if I’m doing a crossword.
* * *
Friday 17th April 2015.
Some more detail on a typical day this week.
Morning: I sit in the Barbican Cinema Café and revise the dissertation with a Bic Orange Fine pen, one last time in this case. Sixth draft. Around me, people with beards have meetings about podcasts.
Walk around London Wall by way of a break. Like so much in the City, it’s a mixture of cranes, hoardings, a few startling old buildings that have managed to escape the wrecking ball (listed, I’m guessing), and umpteen Dubai-like towers of glass that seem to be springing up at a worrying rate. Meanwhile, barely a week goes by without news of another historic venue closing. The Black Cap in Camden shut down this week. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is hanging on for dear life. Oh, Londinium.
Then to Birkbeck Library in Torrington Square, to type up the revisions. Even though I have a laptop, I prefer to use the college computers, or even one of the few remaining internet cafes (like the one in Marchmont Street today). Less to carry, less to lose, less to worry about. And I am not of the backpack persuasion.
I take a seat next to a student I slightly know, who’s in the same year. He’s flustered with the logjam of work that happens around this time, as are most students. ‘Wish I’d not left it till the last minute’. We have a whispered chat. ‘What’s the quickest time you’ve written an essay in?’
I finish typing the revisions, then upload the dissertation to the college’s online system, ‘Turnitin’ (ah, modern life!). Then I print out two copies, as required, and take them across the road. I get them bound in the secret branch of Ryman’s that lurks in the basement of Waterstones, Gower Street. A friendly woman with a heavy cold gives them a ‘comb’ style of binding, while I wait. Thirty-eight A4 pages, with copious footnotes. I was still agonising over every page reference on the last draft. Just how do they want me to use ‘Ibid’, again? Style guides have such niggling rules: capitalise this, except when you don’t. Full stops here, but not here.
A sunny day, bluebells out in Gordon Square. Not quite warm enough to sit on the grass, but the students do so anyway. I go into the School of Arts lobby and drop the two copies of the dissertation through the designated letter box. There. Done. Something I’ve been working on since last summer, finally finished. Will it show?
But there’s no time to rest. On with the next essay. Two of those to go before May 8th. Still, they’re only 2500 words each.
Now working on the penultimate essay. For the first time I’ve written the introduction before finishing the main text, because I can somehow see the whole shape of the thing at once. Perhaps it’s lit up by the light at the end of the tunnel.
, hackney picturehouse
, my secret world
, sarah records
So Said Aunt P
Where’d you learn to kiss that way?
I don’t know from where that came
I won’t talk about it no more
‘Dickon Edwards’ is bad Swahili for ‘Connector Of Many Worlds’. Well, all right, it isn’t. But I do like it when little bits of worlds come together.
At the Upstate New York wedding, one of Fyodor and Kevin’s shared in-jokes was to express cartoon desire by bending their knees and rubbing their upper legs, while emitting a ‘Phwoar!’ sound at each other. This was a reference to Vic Reeves on the TV panel game Shooting Stars, invariably made to the pretty female contestant seated on his right (and he’s still doing it in the new series). That this very British, very surreally British TV reference should travel across the Atlantic and take root in the banter of a young Russian emigre AND his Ecuadorian Brooklyn school friend surprised and delighted me no end.
One wedding guest I was overjoyed to meet was Ms Patricia Charbonneau. She is a Crossover Cult Icon, having played Cay in the 1985 movie Desert Hearts, something of a cult classic, not least for students of queer cinema. It was one of the first films with a lesbian theme which didn’t get bogged down with hand-wringing self-pity, or the inevitable tragic death of one or more of the deviants involved, implying otherness equals doom (archetypes which persist in the more recent yet comparatively old-fashioned Boys Don’t Cry and Brokeback Mountain).
No, Ms Charbonneau’s character represented the heart-stopping joy of romance as escape, lesbianism or no; how love can be a gateway to further adventures – enhanced when they’re adventures together. A happy ending, in other words. Sorry if that’s too much of a ‘spoiler’. The film has been out for nearly 25 years.
(‘He comes back to life after three days on the cross.’ ‘Oh, you’ve ruined it for me now!’)
The film also inspired the 1990 Field Mice song, ‘So Said Kay’. Often regarded as one of the best songs by the cult British indie group, and indeed by any band on the cult British indie label Sarah Records. The opening line became the title of the main Field Mice anthology, Where’d You Learn To Kiss That Way?
Ms Charbonneau is the aunt of Lawrence, one of the grooms. When I heard who she was – a couple of years ago when I was getting to know Lawrence in London – I got him to send her a CD of the Field Mice song. She’d not heard it before. All muses should be made aware of the works they inspire. I was happy to act as Muse Connector Incarnate.
For the wedding, she wore a dress once worn by Joan Crawford, taken from the MGM lot. It just gets better.
When I got back to London, I attended a party in Peckham, hosted by two ladies married to each other, Ms Lesley and Ms Caroline. When I mentioned I’d met Patricia Charbonneau, they rubbed their legs at each other and said ‘Phwoar!’
Ms Lesley went on to say she once took her former husband, another Mr Edwards in fact, to the cinema to see Desert Hearts when it came out. More than once. ‘I was hoping he’d get the message…’
How many connections do you want, Dear Reader?
I kissed her, of course. And doesn’t my garland look like a string of lights?
She reached in and placed a string of lights
Around this heart of mine
Link: The Field Mice – So Said Kay
Link: Desert Hearts – Trailer
Tags: desert hearts
, field mice
, new york
, Patricia Charbonneau
, sarah records