Promises That Were Possibilities

Saturday 25th June 2016. I don’t take part in the Pride march, but it impacts on my day when I try to get to St James’s from Trafalgar Square. I stand in Lower Regent Street and watch a few of the floats go by. In Trafalgar Square, one of the traffic lights has been altered so that the little green figure is now two female sex symbols, linked together. The London mayor, Mr Khan, has given his explicit blessing to Pride. Given he’s a Muslim, and given the events in Orlando the other week, there’s an extra resonance of justification to the march.

That said, I wince when I see a float emblazoned in the logos of Barclays Bank. How funny that the recent film Pride, set in the 1980s, is as much about anti-capitalist politics as it is about gay rights. Now capitalism has a float in the march too. If corporations like Barclays truly gave a hoot about LGBT culture, they’d intervene to stop venues like Madam JoJo’s and The Black Cap disappearing. Still, asking a bank to deal with inequality rather summons up the cartoons of HM Bateman.

***

Am reading Edward St Aubyn’s series of novels about Patrick Melrose, the upper class anti-hero who goes from abused child to self-destructive addict. Whereas I gobbled up books one to four with impatience, I’m taking my time with the fifth and final book, At Last, in order to properly savour the prose. I’m sure this is common when reading a series of books in order, one after the other.

I’m attracted to ESA’s books not only by the aphoristic quips and Waugh-esque style, but by St Aubyn’s admission in interviews of his dyslexia. It explains why the novels are often quite short, yet heavily polished. The D-word doesn’t appear in the novels, but knowing about St Aubyn’s learning difficulty gives an extra dimension to his protagonist’s taste in books:

‘He liked slim books which he could slip into his overcoat pocket… What was the point of a book if you couldn’t carry it around with you as a theoretical defence against boredom?’ (Bad News, p. 48).

Never Mind and Bad News are the best of the first four, I think, due to the shocking abuse scene in the former, and the mixture of New York high and low life in the latter. Difficult to call Bad News a narcotic novel, though, as the heroin taking is secondary to Melrose’s self-hatred.  It’s closer to the way that Sebastian Flyte ends up as an alcoholic in Brideshead.

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I browse in the National Portrait Gallery shop and notice that they’ve put out a new postcard of Victoria Wood. It’s brand new, in fact, because on the back are the years of her birth and death. Given the surge of celebrity deaths this year, the NPG must be spoilt for choice.

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I watch a DVD of The Pleasure Garden (1953), rented from Birkbeck library. This is a curious 40 minute black and white film, which Travis Elborough mentions in his book on parks. Directed by the American poet James Broughton, it’s now a time capsule of London topography and British social values. The main location is Crystal Palace Gardens, while it still had plenty of statues.

The plot is little more than a dream-like parade of amorous goings-on in the aforementioned Gardens, with a tone pitched somewhere between Luis Bunuel, Dick Lester, and the Carry On films. Hattie Jacques is a fairy godmother, using her powers to liberate courting couples from a censorious government official, played by John Le Mesurier in Victorian undertaker garb. In one scene he apprehends a trio of skimpily-dressed young people, two men and a women, for what we assume is canoodling in the long grass. The woman tells Le Mesurier that the two men are ‘together’, which prompts him to turn to a ‘special’ section of his rule book. Though the DVD is certificate U, this film must have felt pretty risqué for British viewers in 1953. Needless to say, it did well at a French film festival.

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Sunday June 26th 2016. A quote from Iain Duncan Smith on the Andrew Marr programme, about his role in the referendum’s Leave campaign:

‘We never made any commitments. We just made a series of promises that were possibilities.’

It’s so beyond satire it hurts.

***

Tuesday, June 28th 2016. To the Barbican’s smaller screens in Beech Street for Tale of Tales, an Italian film comprising three traditional Italian fairy tales. They all take place in the same quasi-medieval world of castles and sea monsters. The cast is international (including Toby Jones, Shirley Henderson, and Salma Hayek), but the dialogue is in English. When there is any dialogue, that is. And what there is is very stilted, bordering on the badly translated. This makes it a frustrating watch, but the visuals are impressive enough. Vincent Cassell is typecast as a sex-mad king, making his entrance beneath the skirts of two women. At one point he gets up in the morning after an al fresco orgy on a beach, and knocks over a live peacock.

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Wednesday, June 29th, 2016. I go to see Martin Parr’s ‘Unseen City’ exhibition, being images documenting the ceremonies of the Square Mile. It’s in the Guildhall, one of those London galleries that the tourists never seem to know about (another is the Wallace). The permanent collection is full of 19th century masterpieces, yet I’m one of about five visitors.

Parr’s trademark style is unmistakable: hyperreal slices of British daily life, the colours turned up to the full. A lady Lord Mayor stands alone in an empty marquee, waiting to go on, weighed down by her voluminous robes and oversized hat. A golden Great Mace rests bathetically in the back seat of a taxi. I suppose the word really does have to be ‘unceremonious’. Beadles and Drapers march in their garters past a branch of Pret a Manger. The names of the ceremonies are entertaining enough: ‘Cart Marking’, ‘The Silent Ceremony’, ‘Beating the Bounds’, ‘Swan Upping’. Men in blazers stand in row boats and toast the Queen. It all still goes on.

Quite an apt exhibition to see in the wake of the EU referendum, too, given the amount of foreign newspaper cartoons about men in bowler hats doing foolish things. Bowler hats are, of course, rarely worn in the City of London these days, but as these photographs prove, there are still worn in City ceremonies.

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Friday, July 1st, 2016. There really is no escape from the referendum. Wandering through Cartwright Gardens in Bloomsbury, I stop take a look at the statue of John Cartwright, and learn from the plaque that he was a campaigner for universal suffrage and a supporter of US independence in 1776. Then, at the foot of the statue, I notice there’s a fresh bouquet of flowers, along with a handwritten paper note. It is clearly from a Leave the EU supporter:

‘23rd June 2016. Betrayed by our own representatives, we the people nevertheless voted to reclaim national sovereignty… Freedom is ours!’

***

I attend a Birkbeck end of term drinks gathering, at the Bree Louise pub near Euston station. After a few drinks, the Birkbeck table inevitably gets into an EU conversation. ‘Oh, I’m just enjoying the spectacle of it all’, I say airily, waving a hand about. The woman I’m speaking to (who I’ve not met before) is unimpressed. ‘It’s not a spectacle for ME! I’m in Labour!’

When she gets up to leave, she jabs a finger at me and says, quite sternly, ‘Join the Labour Party.’ Then she goes. I don’t say anything, but it occurs to me that the only reply is, ‘Why, are they falling apart? Oh, that’s right.’

I was being honest, though. Whether Corbyn or the Tories, it’s a spectacle all right, and one that I feel both depressed by and detached from.

***

Tuesday, July 5th, 2016. Evening: Dinner with Shanthi Sivanesan at Cozzo, Whitecross Street. It’s an unpretentious, inexpensive Italian restaurant, slightly rough at the edges, which I like. We sit out al fresco in Whitecross Street, which is narrow and virtually pedestrianised, with few cars about.

Then to the Barbican’s nuclear bunker, aka Cinema One, for Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (£5 with an NUS card on Tuesdays). Quite an apt choice, given my own current state of lassitude. Jennifer Saunders, who stars and writes the script, has admitted that she wrote it in a state of laziness. Not only did it take an age to come out, but the end result, I think it’s fair to say, has the minimum amount of ambition that could possibly be expected. The title says it all: a standard episode of the TV series Absolute Fabulous, padded out to pass as a film.

The most common plot for film versions of TV comedies has often been They Go On Holiday. So many spring to mind: Are You Being Served: The Movie, Holiday On The Buses, that Morecombe and Wise one with ‘Riviera’ in the title. The other common plots are They Run Out Of Money, and They Get Involved In A Big Crime That Moves Them To A New Location (Alan Partridge – Alpha Papa). The Ab Fab film manages to tick all these boxes: Edina and Patsy run out of money, get involved in a crime, and flee to the South of France. That really is it.

Thankfully, it’s still funny. There’s enough slapstick and topical jokes to keep the film afloat, and Joanna Lumley as Patsy is funny whenever she’s on screen full stop. She can pull a face and improve a scene a thousandfold.

Were it down to me, I’d turn it into an original musical. There’s a scene where Saffy, the prim daughter, sings karaoke at a drag queen night in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. It’s a scene that has no justification other than being a nice record of the venue, much as The Pleasure Garden is a record of the Crystal Palace Gardens. Like Madame JoJo’s was, the RVT is one of those old-style gay clubs which is struggling to avoid the oligarchs’ bulldozer. But it also suggests that the film really wanted to be a full-blown musical.

Instead we get a multitude of celebrity cameos that do little more than prove how well-connected the producers are. The rule should be that cameos need to be as good as Marshall McLuhan’s in Annie Hall. McLuhan couldn’t act, either, but he’s there for a joke, and you don’t need to know who he is to get the joke, either.  The celebrities in AbFab are little more than attempts to distract the audience from the film’s complete lack of ambition. It’s still funny enough, when it’s those two main actors playing those two characters. They could have done more, that’s all.

***

Thursday, July 6th, 2016.  With some of the Boogaloo extended family to the fringe-y Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden. One of the Boogaloo staff, Kate Goodfellow, is in the current play there, A Year From Now. It turns out she’s also the artistic director of the company, RedBellyBlack, as well as this show’s producer, choreographer, and sound editor. She tells us afterwards that she even repaired some holes in the stage floor that were left behind by the previous company, with minutes to go until the technical rehearsal.

A Year From Now is an impressive documentary piece, which uses a similar device to one of my favourite films, The Arbor. To enhance the question ‘Where do you see yourself a year from now?’, actors lip-synch to the recorded voices of real life interviewees. Unlike The Arbor, though, there’s an element of modern dance too, with the actors constantly moving about in balletic styles as they illustrate or interpret the words they’re mouthing. This use of quotations from real life to make up an entire script is, I believe, called verbatim theatre. That said, it’s more common to have the actors performing the words with their own voices, as in the case of London Road, the musical about the Ipswich murders.

The voices on audio range from an elderly couple who are glad to still be about, to a toddler who has only just learned the concept of what a ‘year’ means – played by Kate G herself. There’s also a young-ish couple who are the parents of new born babies, to a man whose parent has just died, and to a trio of hospital patients battling or recovering from serious illnesses.

It’s also quite timely, given the present sense of uncertainty overall. A year from now there’ll be a different Prime Minister, and a different US President. Some politicians have scant ideas of what they’ll be doing next week. The referendum revealed that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove had made no plans whatsoever.

In my case, I do know what I’ll be doing a year from now. Working on a 15,000 word dissertation for an MA, to be delivered in the following September. That’s all I’ve got for now, but that’s still more than Boris.

***

Afterwards: to the Groucho Club in Dean Street. At least one of the Boogaloo party is a member of the GC, so off we go. Last time I was here, which must be about ten years ago, I’m sure it was more brightly lit, and that it felt like the public areas of a luxury hotel. Today it’s more like a private members’ club, which is what it’s meant to be. There’s friendly staff who know the members’ names, dark corners to loaf in, lots of sofas next to bookcases full of coffee-table books, art on the walls (quite a few Peter Blakes). A looser, more bohemian feel than last time. It’s as if part of the Colony Room’s spirit has moved here, with the rest of it going to Vout-o-Reenee’s in Tower Hill.

Am intrigued that the Groucho smoking area is not the pavement out front, but a kitchen yard on the first floor, hemmed between the backs of old Soho buildings. I share an Uber cab back to Highgate (‘Would you like to charge your phones?’ says the driver) and am treated to the cost. I must socialise with my neighbours more often.

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A Christmas Message From DE

I shouldn’t be writing this.

This is in lieu of a proper diary this week. The diary always takes me too long to write. Rather ironically, it often stops me from doing the sort of things I need to do to have something to write about. I do want to spend some time away from the desk over Christmas, and I’m sure no one can begrudge me that. Except that I’ve now ended up writing a diary entry, by way of trying to get out of writing a diary.

I shouldn’t be writing this, because I’m finding it hard enough to do the work that really can’t be avoided, being the 5000-word MA essay with its January 4th deadline. I’m also labouring under a medley of health problems (back pain, mainly, not helped by the need to spend hours at a desk) and fatigue (not helped by the codeine for said back pain making me fall asleep at the desk).

On New Year’s Day I’ll write an entry covering the past two weeks. That should keep you happy, whoever you might be.

In the meantime, here’s a new photo. It was taken by Shanthi Sivanesan on Christmas Eve 2015, in the Dean Street Townhouse, Soho, London. Every year I try to have my photo taken with a different Christmas tree in London. This one represents my gratitude to people who have been kind to me over the years, one way or another. Not least the aforementioned Ms Sivansen, who treated me to dinner and cocktails at this venue.

I look like I’m trying to hide, which seems apt given my current state of reluctance. Procrastination is hiding.

What I’m actually trying to do in the photo is get the tree, myself, and the artwork behind me all into shot, and the angle wasn’t easy. The artwork is The Anatomy of the Beast by Neal Fox. It’s a large Gillray-esque cartoon of various Soho characters alive and dead, many of which I owe something to personally. Whether it’s by remote inspiration (Quentin Crisp and Jeffrey Bernard – both in the right-hand section that you can’t see), or kindness in person (you can make out Sebastian Horsley in the top hat, and Shane MacGowan next to him). The red hatted one is George Melly, another hero, who I briefly met once (and kissed).

DE-Xmas2015

[You can see the full artwork at Neal Fox’s website:

http://nealfox.bigcartel.com/product/the-anatomy-of-the-beast]

I’m grateful to you too, O reader, if you’ve been coming to this website for some time. This public diary is now 18 years old. It’s been excerpted in two anthologies of mixed diaries, which contain myself alongside Pepys and the like. The anthologies are called A London Year and A Traveller’s Year, the latter book emerging earlier this yearSome people have now expressed interest in a whole book of selections from this diary. Nothing is definite about such a book yet, and I still don’t have an agent, but I’m hopeful. Eighteen years of entries – there must be a book’s worth of interesting reading in there somewhere.

So: it’s been a year of ups and downs. The downs are the ongoing health problems: a whole carousel of symptoms. According to the many doctors I’ve seen, these were – and are – seemingly caused by a combination of anxiety, depression, dyspraxia and a complete reluctance to do any physical exercise.

The ups of 2015 have been very important to me though. I finally achieved my life ambition of getting a university degree. First Class Honours, BA English, after four years at Birkbeck, University of London. I won a couple of college prizes too, including one for being ‘the most promising student in English Literature’. It’s something I never thought I’d have the stamina to do. I had a lot of support from Birkbeck’s staff and disability services, and I remain grateful to them. They sorted out the various help I was eligible for, not least with keeping my time management on track. My parents encouraged me at every step. My mother still does. Without such support I’d simply have dropped out. So, my gratitude is there too.

I officially graduated in July, and attended the gown-and-mortar-board ceremony in November. I then won a bursary to do an MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture at the same place. All being well (I’m still looking for funding for books and Tube travel), that will take me through to late 2017.

So that’s where I am now. I still have a lot of problems with my innate slowness, and with frequently feeling unwell or tired. But what has really surged into view over the last month is my battle for motivation against procrastination. I had it under control throughout the BA, but of late it really has knocked me for six.

The voice of my Procrastination Demon is simply this: ‘Why bother?’  The obvious answer, that ‘you’ll be in trouble if you don’t’, hasn’t seemed to sink in, even with 9 days till the deadline – and I’m still fiddling with a first draft of only 3200 words. There, I said it. Though I have made a diagram too. And lots of notes. Too many notes. More notes than essay.

The problem is I’ve missed lots of personal deadlines for myself, and am now into the danger zone of missing The Real Deadline. And here I am, spending precious time on a blog post which isn’t even a proper diary update. I am procrastinating by writing about procrastination.

I can lay some of the blame at social media, or rather, my weakness for spending time on social media. Twitter and Facebook can do many great things, like provide a sense of contact with friends, or rally support for petitions and funding. But they can also give the dangerous impression that no one else is doing any work either, so it’s okay for you to not work too. The world will carry on without you, because it is carrying on – look, you can watch it scrolling on forever! In real time! Why bother doing anything else?

But there’s other distractions too. I’ve just watched all of Season One of Transparent. It’s very good. You keep watching not because of the plot (there isn’t one), but because of the characters, who all seem to be hiding things about themselves, often without realising it. There’s a theme with this piece, isn’t there.

Some Christmas words of wisdom, then. These are aimed at myself as much as the world.

Do not think: ‘Why do any work when I can be binge-watching a whole series of a very good drama?’

Instead, think: ‘Treats, not distractions. I can only go on Twitter or watch the rest of Transparent as a treat, according to the time remaining, after I’ve hit my quota of work for the day. Treats, not distractions.’

Also: I take inspiration from the productivity of older writers. Lately I’ve enjoyed Alan Bennett’s latest diary for 2015 (a large chunk of prose in the London Review of Books, plus his audio reading of selected entries for their website), John Julius Norwich’s 2015 Christmas Cracker (a beautifully made annual fanzine of his favourite prose, poetry and quotations), Ronald Blythe’s 2015 collection of columns, In The Artist’s Garden (only published last week), and Diana Athill’s latest memoir, Alive Alive Oh! 

Mr Bennett is 81, and talks about using a walking stick. Viscount Norwich is 86. Dr Blythe is 93. Ms Athill, who lives in a care home near me, turned 98 this week. They’ve all put out new work this year. I am a mere 44. I have my problems, but there is really no excuse.

But what else is hidden here? All these writers spend little time on the internet. JJ Norwich seems to have a Twitter account (I’ve just spent some time searching away to find this out), but hasn’t tweeted since July. Ms Athill isn’t on Twitter, though she does use a computer (her book of letters, Instead of a Book, marks the switch in her correspondence from paper to email). Blythe and Bennett are entirely computer-free, yet seem to get by fine as professional writers in the twenty-first century. Presumably the editors they work with are happy to accept photocopies of typewritten copy, in the way everyone did pre-internet.

There was once an amusing column by Tom Hodgkinson about his giving up email in order to get more done as a writer. It ended with him saying he’d had to resort to email after all, as the editor wouldn’t accept the column in any other form.

(And now I’ve thought about a Quentin Crisp anecdote, on his dictating columns by phone, to a newspaper in the 1990s. His hand was too paralysed to type.  ‘The newspaper has a women who types faster than I can speak and she gets it all down and they send a cheque’. I have just spent some time looking this anecdote up. More time gone).

And now the machine I am typing this on tells me that I’ve hit nearly 1500 words. It was meant to be a photo and a quick Christmas message. I really, really have to stop and get onto the essay. And text a friend to say I can’t come out for drinks after all. And I’ll probably have to cancel going to a birthday gathering…

(EDITED TO ADD: I have just been told that I am very much expected at the birthday! So I will go to that, then. One night out in the whole week. A treat, not a distraction. And I’m not going out for New Year’s Eve.)

But in a way this post is comforting, because it’s a reminder that as long as I get started on the essay today, and every day between now and the 4th, I should be able to clock up a decent amount of work and get it finished on time. As long as I get started. And don’t go on Twitter. Or the rest of the internet. Or watch a very good TV drama. Or do anything else.

That’s the thing about procrastination. It’s another form of productivity.


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