At The Miniature Railway Cafe
Thursday 25th August 2016. London in hot weather. World of Shorts. And it is mainly men who go for shorts, too. Of the couples I see out today, it’s often the case that he is in shorts, but she is in trousers.
Notes on fragile masculinity. I buy some Boots No 7 moisturiser, and go for the version ‘For Men’. I do so because the box assures me it is specially made to accommodate stubble. When I get home, I realise it differs from the version for women in a more obvious way. The distaff moisturiser comes in a glass pot, which one simply opens up and dips one’s finger into. The men’s one, however, comes in a squat black pump with a spout. One has to push down hard on the spout until the moisturiser puts in an appearance. It is the most strenuous part of my daily routine. I feel like going on Dragon’s Den and pitching a moisturiser for men like me. Working title: Sissy No 7.
At the Thameslink section of Kentish Town station, I spot a security pass left on the platform. It looks like a fairly heavy duty one, with a thick magnetic base and a photo. The owner is a trader at Goldman Sachs. I’m about to hand it to the staff at the barriers, when I remember how long it’s taken for me in the past to retrieve possessions lost on the tube. Sometimes several weeks, including a trip to that great cave of abandoned umbrellas, the Baker Street Lost Property office.
The next day, propelled by the vanity which underscores so many good turns, I Google the trader’s name and call him at the Goldman Sachs office in Fleet Street. He says he does indeed want the pass back, and as soon as possible, and is very grateful. I tell him I’ll drop it off at his reception.
This proves to be slightly harder that I’d envisioned. To paraphrase Lord of the Rings, one does not simply walk into Goldman Sachs. They are one of those international corporations who exist in such a lofty world, they do not even announce their presence on the street. You have to know whose anonymous plate glass doors those are on Fleet Street, the ones with a security guard on the outside, standing on the street, as well as two further guards on the inside. And that’s before you even get near the reception desk. Such security is highly styled, too: large young men in large black suits, topped off with those earpieces with little coiled cables vanishing into the collar. It’s fair to say that when I arrive, I am viewed with suspicion.
I state my intention to the man on the street, doing my utmost to assure him that I am not some anti-capitalist activist, despite my slightly interesting hair. I am not trying to do a Michael Moore. Or, more recently, a Russell Brand. The guard is not convinced.
‘You can’t just… drop… something off here.’
But then I tell him that my package, such as it is, is merely one of their own passes, at which he lets me through the revolving doors. Then the two other security men standing inside challenge me, and I have to start my story again.
The receptionist gets a third version of my tale. She won’t let me leave the pass with her either, and insists on picking up the phone and trying to call the trader in question, to get him to come down. This takes some minutes before she says, ‘He isn’t available’. By this point I’m getting flustered, and am determined not to go away still clutching the wretched thing. So I grab a scrap of paper from my bag, write out my contact details, and give it to her along with the pass. She takes it from me with an expression of pure reluctance, as if I’d just handed her a pair of my underpants. But she does take it, and the pass, and I leave.
I had hoped to feel a wave of sainthood from this episode, but instead I just feel vaguely punished.
Saturday 27th August 2016. Mum in town for the day. We visit the exhibition Missoni Art Colour at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey. En route to the Museum, we get a little lost navigating the endless building works between London Bridge station and Guy’s Hospital. Many hoped-for shortcuts are closed off by the ubiquitous men in hard hats.
When passing such sites, my hope is always that the construction is for the public good, rather the private greed. Yet too often one looks up past the rising number of beggars sitting on the pavement – the other worrying side of London – to see a sign for luxury apartments. The redundancy of the word ‘luxury’ presumably lost on the developers. In Highgate, council letters alerting residents to disruptive planning permissions are becoming more frequent. Invariably, these are for private basement extensions. I’m so tempted to write in the comments, ‘Please ask the owner if the phrase, ‘I have enough’ has ever troubled their consciousness.’
At the Missoni show, the centrepiece is a display of decades of Missoni clothes, on some fifty or so mannequins, arranged on the steps of a pyramid. A number of them remind me of the Redford film of The Great Gatsby; a 1970s take on the 1920s.
Around the manniquins hang a selection of Ottavio Missoni’s abstract wall hangings, which are rather like the patchwork quilts Mum specialises in. Plenty of brightly coloured zigzags and stripes on show, as per the Missoni reputation. There’s also a small collection of postwar abstract paintings, by way of illustrating the label’s influences. One canvas stands out, ‘Spatial Structure in Tension’ (1952) by Nino Di Salvatore, a harmonious pattern of intersecting geometric shapes. Brightly coloured, of course.
Unusually, the museum allows photographs to be taken, and we regret not bringing our own devices. We are the only ones not taking photos. The shop sells a tote bag with the motto, ‘I Knit So I Won’t Kill People’.
Then to the new Tate Modern extension, Switch House. The main TM building has accordingly been renamed Boiler House. Switch House dwarves the original building, and includes a viewing platform at the top, where one can look down on the Tate Members bar. And indeed, right into the flats of the neighbouring tower blocks to the south. The north view across the Thames is stunning, however, with St Paul’s directly ahead.
We finish off with the BP Portrait Award at the NPG, which is packed. The usual prominence of family members and friends as subject matter, which I always find touching. We both like Karina In Her Raincoat, by Brian Sayers, where the coat dominates the frame. It should have won.
Monday 29th August 2016. To the Museum of London for the exhibition Fire! Fire!, which marks the anniversary of the Great Fire of London. It’s an extensive and spacious display, and is very much aimed at families. Lots for children to do: flaps to lift, buttons to press, clothes to dress up in, and at the end a set of wooden building blocks on a large table, with which to rebuild the razed capital. The children I see seem particularly drawn to the blocks, which I find cheering. How I miss that childhood capacity to happily build and make things, solid things, from blocks to Lego. Resentment was reserved for tidying one’s room, or writing thank you letters, or going to bed early. Never for making things.
I suppose my creative play these days is writing. The trouble is I subscribe to the Dorothy Parker quote, only enjoying writing when it’s finished, and resenting it when I’m doing it.
Evening: to the Barbican to see the film David Brent – Life on the Road. I was such an admirer of Mr Gervais’s series The Office. I loved how it took the TV sitcom format into a new phase, playing with the trend for docu-soaps and reality TV, while updating the eternal comedic themes of delusion and embarrassment. It was also one of the few British comedies to be successfully adapted in the US. Americans do social awkwardness too, just on a wider frequency: a more open and expressive kind of cringing. And of course, they do it through a lot more episodes.
Well, sadly, the golden touch of Ricky Gervais has manifestly dimmed. This belated big screen spin-off featuring the main character from the British Office isn’t a patch on either of the two TV series. Admittedly, there’s one or two funny moments, and Gervais’s performance is still entertaining enough – I love how his jaw hangs open when he’s annoyed. But the overall impression is that the character has simply run out of mileage.
It doesn’t help that none of the other characters from The Office are here: no Tim, Dawn or Gareth, not even a cameo from Stephen Merchant. Perhaps this was a deliberate move to resist the current vogue for reuniting old cast members as if they were rock bands (Cold Feet being the latest TV series to do this). Regardless, this new film proves that The Office was a classic because of the ensemble, not just the frontman.
Wednesday 31st August 2016. Filming in Meard Street for some sort of documentary. I say a few words about dandyism in front of Sebastian Horsley’s old flat. Barima Edusei is with me, having invited me along when I bumped into him on the tube the other day. GQ and River Island are apparently involved, though I get the sense that my existence is as baffling to them as theirs is to me. Still, I use my phrase about a dandy being in ‘a subculture of one’, which I’m reasonably proud of.
Later on I’m back in the British Library reading an essay by Michael Bracewell. He uses the word ‘dandy’ to describe the singer with The Fall, Mark E Smith. Much as I admire his music, the unremarkably-dressed Mr Smith wouldn’t be in my own list of examples of dandies. Still, it shows how elastic the term can be.
Friday 2nd September 2016. Dennis Cooper has commented on the documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story. I remember that at the time the ‘hoax’ was exposed, he shrugged and said something along the lines of ‘sometimes it’s okay to be fooled’. This was very good of him, given he was one of the writers used as stepping-stones for LeRoy / Laura Albert’s rise to literary fame.
In his blog though, he’s changed his tune: ‘I really hated [Author]. It’s a totally superficial whitewash that treats Laura Albert like she’s some kind of kooky folk hero instead of as the psychopathic, destructive user that she is. I regret allowing the director to interview me for it.’ (from the P.S. section of denniscooperblog.com, entry dated 29 August 2016).
I don’t think Author is a whitewash entirely: there’s several times when Ms Albert goes on the defensive, at the cost to her credibility. Her compulsion to record all her private phone calls is hardly a loveably ‘kooky’ trait either. But I’m fascinated with the way this shows how documentaries seduce the viewer into swallowing one version of the truth, one which its own interviewees might disagree with.
The analytical rule about asking ‘who gets to speak’ should also include ‘who gets to speak, but wishes they hadn’t?’
Saturday 3rd September 2016. My 45th birthday. I have a tradition of spending my birthday going somewhere I’ve not been before. Some location I’ve always meant to visit, but never got around to. Birthdays do come around, as much as we’d like them not to. So I mollify the unpleasant reminder that one is even older, with a celebration of still being alive at all. If your eyes still work, give them new sights to look at. If your legs still work, walk to somewhere you’ve never been before. Above all, give thanks.
Today I get around to visiting Ruislip Lido. Which is really a large lake which was once a reservoir, with woodlands at one end and a beach at the other. Except the beach is more of a huge artificial sandpit doing an impersonation of a beach. The water is usually not clean enough to swim in, as indicated by a red flag outside the beach café. Children can still splash about on land, though: the beach has a large area of playground equipment, with a couple of water jets in the shape of animals.
I have breakfast in the café, then take a journey on the Ruislip Lido Railway, ‘Britain’s Longest 12 Gauge Railway’. It travels through the woods and around to the other side of the lake, ending at the Turntable Tea Room near the main road. The Tea Room has its own toy railway that whizzes around the walks. So I step off a small train to meet an even smaller one.
There’s something spooky yet attractive about cafes built to serve miniature railways: I think of the one at Dungeness, where Derek Jarman would go for fish and chips.
Afternoon: to Somerset House with Atalanta K, Debbie Smith and Soirai, for the exhibition Bjork – Digital.
The Bjork exhibition is a good example of first rate content hampered by its presentation. Visitors are herded from room to room on a timed basis, and are told to put on virtual reality headsets at each stage. All very well, except that sometimes the headsets don’t work, or they flicker on and off, or it’s not clear how to use them. Too bad if this happens, as one is soon marshaled out into the next room, and can’t come back to try again.
In one of the rooms, I stand with the VR headset on for a full minute looking at a square oblong which doesn’t seem to be doing much. It’s only then that I realise this is actually the menu screen of the software. I have to turn my head around within the digital world to see Bjork standing behind me, singing away while rendered as a glittering CGI moth goddess. I do my best to move around and enjoy the show, but am a little hampered by fears of throttling myself with the cable.
It also doesn’t help that two rooms of ‘interactive’ instruments are just sitting there, without captions or instructions of any kind. As it is, I don’t want to ‘interact’ musically with Bjork anyway. Too much like audience participation. Or Tom Sawyer and the white fence.
The best exhibits are ‘Black Lake’, where one doesn’t have to wear headsets at all. A split-screen video of the singer is projected across two opposite walls of a black room, with a surround-sound audio track encouraging you to approach different walls at different times. The other highlight is ‘Stonemilker’, where the VR world is a real Icelandic beach. You can turn fully around on the beach, and look up and down. Bjork splits into several clones of herself while dancing around you on the shingle.
Despite the Digital title of the show, the attached gift shop mainly sells Bjork’s back catalogue on vinyl. I haven’t succumbed to buying one of the new post-digital (and affordable) turntables just yet; I like the convenience of iTunes too much. But only on vinyl does one truly see that Bjork’s album sleeves are artworks in their own right.
Evening: My plans for a vegetarian meal for Team Bjork take a knock when the Coach and Horses in Greek Street closes its kitchen unexpectedly. We try Mildred’s in Lexington St, but it’s rammed full. To make things worse, it is now pouring with rain. I have my linen trousers drenched in Lexington Street when a passing car hits a puddle.
But things improve. Debbie takes a chance on Jane-Tira, a Thai street food place at 28 Brewer Street, which turns out to be perfect. Not too packed, friendly staff, delicious food. And my trousers dry quickly, barely leaving a mark. Either London rainwater is cleaner than one thinks, or my suit really is like the one in The Man In The White Suit.
Afterwards, a short spell in The Friendly Society (pleasant kitschy night spot, but too busy), then to the Curzon Soho downstairs bar for a quiet after dinner drink. It must be one of the few places in central London where one can go on a Saturday night and (a) sit down, (b) get a drink without queuing, and (c) hear oneself think. As long as it’s before 11pm.
A present from Debbie and Atalanta: Carl Wilson’s book Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. The title is after the Celine Dion album. Looks fun, and might well be useful for my MA research into taste, kitsch and camp.
Sunday 4th September 2016. To Strawberry Hill House near Twickenham, with Fenella Hitchcock. Another one of those day trips on my To Do list. The visit necessitates a train from Waterloo into Zone 5, taking thirty minutes or so. Then a short walk through some immaculately tidy suburban streets, and past St Mary’s University, which looks more like a modern upper school.
Again, I’m driven by ideas of taste. Strawberry Hill was the Georgian home of Horace Walpole, author of The Castle of Otranto, which he had remodelled into an ostentatious Gothic Revival palace. The visit comes with a pocket guide that rather neatly quotes Walpole’s own guide, but then augments his text with modern postscripts. Most of the time, the commentary is about what objects and paintings used to be there, until a grand auction in the 19th century. But the architecture and restored décor is more than enough for a visit, with cathedral-like fireplaces and ceilings, trompe l’oeil wallpaper, and best of all the crimson damask walls in the long, red and gold Gallery.
Monday 5th September 2016. I finish Nutshell, the new novel by Ian McEwan. It’s a high concept work, doubly so. Not only is it a tale told from the point of view of an unborn foetus, but the tale in question is a contemporary retelling of Hamlet. Gertrude becomes the pregnant ‘Trudy’, while bad uncle Claude becomes Claude the ruthless London property developer.
One of the archer pleasures of the book is that the foetal narrator has an impossibly educated and snobbish voice, commenting with expert knowledge on the quality of the wine he ingests in utero, via Trudy. The only jarring moment is when one passage betrays the author’s position on the issue of today’s students. The narrator views them as obsessed with fluid identities and un-fluid offensiveness, and goes into an extended rant that only makes sense if it’s the author, rather than his character:
‘A strange mood has seized the almost-educated young… They’re on the march, angry at times, but mostly needful, longing for authority’s blessing, its validation of their chosen identities… If I turn out to be white, I may identify as black… Offended, I enter a state of grace. Should inconvenient opinions hover near me, I’ll be in need of the special campus safe room… Let poverty go begging and climate change braise in hell. If my college does not validate me, I’ll press my face into the vice chancellor’s lapels and weep. Then demand his resignation… Feeling is queen. Unless she identifies as king.’
All very witty and topical. He’s entitled to his stance, of course, but I wish that Mr McEwan hadn’t come down on the side of the Grumpy Old Novelists. Too easy, too obvious. Regardless, whatever one’s position on the matter, this section demonstrably smacks of a lack of research, and that is not like Mr McEwan at all. If Nutshell was a debut novel from an unknown author, I suspect the publisher would recommend cutting this section altogether.
But that’s my only reservation. Elsewhere, I like his summation of reasons to stay alive to the end of the 21st century, viewing the world as one great gripping narrative:
‘Will its nine billion heroes scrape through without a nuclear exchange? Might Islam dip a feverish extremity in the cooling pond of reformation?’
It’s as good a message for turning 45 as any. Wanting to find out what happens next.
, david brent life on the road
, dennis cooper
, Fashion and Textile Museum
, ian mcewan
, JT LeRoy
, Missoni Art Colour
, museum of london
, ruislip lido
, somerset house
, tate modern
Saint Paul, Saint Audrey
(A fortnight’s worth of entries.)
Sunday 19th July 2015.
According to Viktor Wynd, a group of Hackney-based Christians attacked his Museum of Curiosities in Mare Street today. They threw holy water and crosses, and shouted about Satanism. It could be argued that this is a redundant gesture, given the museum already celebrates someone who was indeed crucified, albeit non-lethally: Sebastian Horsley.
* * *
The solipsism of the Sunday supplement journalist. An article in the Sunday Times today begins: ‘Summertime means one thing… beaches flooding your Instagram feed’.
I wince at the arrogance of insisting that one writer’s way of life is the default. A further implication is that this is the way the reader should live. I know I’m overreacting, and that many people these days do indeed have smartphones and Instagram accounts, and that for many, summertime must indeed mean this ‘one thing’, however depressing that sounds. But what is also true is that plenty of people do not live this way, and have no immediate plans to join in.
Good writing, even for a fluffy lifestyle article, should celebrate difference, and resist the urge to generalise. Communicating with readers should not mean bevelling down the richness of human experience to a single, banal approximation of common ground. My credo here would be: speak for yourself. Write for yourself. And let universality take care of itself.
* * *
Tuesday 21st July 2015.
Birkbeck’s website confirms the breakdown of my final year marks on the BA English course. As I’d hoped, all of them are the same as the provisional ones. This gives me a clean run of First Class module totals throughout the whole course. I only realise today that the average overall ‘weighted’ mark, the one which leads to the classification (as a First, or a 2.1 etc), is never published. It’s meant only as a guide for the college boards who approve the degree: they decide the classification according to what they think is most fair to the student, but with this unpublished score in mind. So my final grade is not a number, but a phrase – ‘First Class’. I think I like that – it’s more tidy.
* * *
Wednesday 22nd July 2015.
Another Life Event today, this one directly connected to my BA result. Getting a good degree means I am now qualified to take an MA. For much of the last year, friends and tutors have been advising me to do an MA next. A common tip was that I should also do it immediately, rather than put it off for a year, in case the academic skills go slack.
So today I enrol – online – to do an MA at Birkbeck, starting in the autumn. Part-time, 2 years, Contemporary Literature and Culture.
One big reason – and this is something that I’ve kept quiet about until now – is that I’ve managed to get a bursary to fully cover the fees.
I successfully applied for one of the limited studentships offered by Birkbeck’s School of Arts in Gordon Square. Effectively, Virginia Woolf’s old house thinks I’m worth investing in as a Master’s student. So once I won that bursary, and got a First in the BA, and won a prize for showing ‘the most promise’ as an English Literature student, I thought it’d be unwise to not go ahead and do an MA.
I don’t get a maintenance grant, alas, so it still means two more years of getting by on whatever I can eke out from the kindness of the State. I’m hoping to find part-time paid work that I can do alongside the MA. Writing work would be ideal.
The most important thing I’ve learned is that I am finally, demonstrably good at something: studying literature. People at Birkbeck not only believe I have ‘promise’ as a student, but that I’m worth sponsoring too.
So that’s my life for the next two years, or at least part of it.
* * *
Thursday 23rd July 2015.
A couple of gallery visits. First, to the National Gallery, to see a painting I’d been reading about in Clive Barker’s book of essays, The Painter, The Creature and The Father of Lies. Barker’s favourite paintings are The Raft of the Medusa, which I know well, and Carlo Crivelli’s Annunciation with Saint Emidius, which I don’t know at all. It’s in the National Gallery’s permanent collection (room 59 of the Sainsbury Wing), so today I take a look.
The picture is stunning: bright, busy, geometric, intricate, and full of details one doesn’t tend to see in Renaissance Annunciations. Barker points out how the beam of God’s Message, a ray of light running from the clouds down to Mary, isn’t subject to the laws of perspective, while everything else is rigidly organised around vanishing points. ‘The meaning is plain,’ comments Mr B. ‘The power of God’s gift upends the laws of physics. Space folds up at His command’.
The painting’s aspects which most fascinate me, however, are the ones to do with urban architecture. It was commissioned for the city of Ascoli Piceno, and it is this Renaissance Italian city that the Biblical Mary appears to have a flat in. In fact, the city appears twice: once as the backdrop to this whole scene, and again in the form of a scale model, carried by the local patron saint, Emidius. Emidius lurks outside Mary’s door while chatting merrily to the Archangel Gabriel as if this were something that happens all the time. Mary herself seems oblivious to all these goings-on, as she’s busy reading her book. There are clearly things for which even Dick Francis cannot wait.
Before I leaving, I pay my respects to my own favourite painting there, Bronzino’s Portrait of A Young Man. It’s next to his Allegory With Venus & Cupid, in which Cupid’s foot can be recognised as the one used in the credits for Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
* * *
Then next door to the National Portrait Gallery, for their big summer show Audrey Hepburn – Portraits of An Icon. Cheaper on Thursdays with an NUS card.
Someone I follow on Twitter remarked grumpily that such an exhibition was targeted purely at women. ‘What man would ever go to an Audrey Hepburn exhibition?’ I told him that I’ve known several men likely to do so, aside from myself, and heterosexual men too. But admittedly, that says more about the company I keep.
The implication was that Audrey Hepburn’s image was unusually inert and asexual for such an iconic female pin-up; that with her, it would all be about the Givenchy frocks and gamine hairdos. Her beauty was for those who swoon – and men are not meant to swoon. Well, apart from the ones I know.
Today I go along to find out for myself, mindful of a quote from Dorian Gray:
“The Academy is too large and too vulgar. Whenever I have gone there, there have been either so many people that I have not been able to see the pictures, which was dreadful, or so many pictures that I have not been able to see the people, which was worse.”
I very much enjoy going to exhibitions to see the people as much as the pictures.
The Hepburn exhibition is busy – timed entry only – and indeed the visitors inside are predominantly female. I’d say 80%. One or two gay male couples, and a few attendant husbands and boyfriends, the types who do most of the talking, and I wonder if they’re doing so here as a defence mechanism. I count just other lone man. A typical older tourist sort: grey hair, backpack, shorts. Suddenly I realise I’ve never worn a backpack in my life, and that this too may have implications for my manliness, or at least my blokeyness. I am not a Backpack Bloke.
The show is mainly photographic portraits, as expected, but there’s also Audrey H’s ballet shoes, and some 1950s magazine adverts, when she was the face of calamine lotion. I especially like: the photo of her being read to by an ageing Colette, her costume as the water sprite in the play of Ondine, and her pre-acting cover for an issue of Dancing Times, 1952.
* * *
Friday 24th July 2015.
To Suffolk to celebrate my BA with Mum. We go for a lavish meal at Suffolk’s only vegetarian pub, The Red Lion in Great Bricett, then spend the rest of a rainy day in Bildeston, watching the DVDs I’ve brought. One is Charade – to follow on my Audrey Hepburn binge. It’s a Hitchcock-esque caper from the mid 60s, complete with Cary Grant, though Hitchcock would never let the Hepburn role have such an inner life. Even though she’s a damsel in distress, she has the air of a pre-existing character who has stumbled into a thriller plot, rather than a character who is defined by the plot. Lots of clever twists and unexpected revelations. We also watch Patience, a fine documentary on Sebald’s book Rings of Saturn, and Withnail and I. As we’re celebrating my student success, I thought re-watching a student-favourite film would be apt. I first saw it when it came out in 1987, while I was still at school. Today what stands out is what good value the film is: not just a sparkling, quotable script, but plenty of slapstick set-pieces too. The scene where Withnail tries fishing with a double-barrelled shotgun instead of a rod lasts about thirty seconds. Lesser films would have dragged it out into a central scene. The ending is still terribly sad: I used to think it was the film’s only flaw. Now that I’m older, I see the need for pathos and entirely agree with it.
Also: these days I empathise less with Richard E Grant and Paul McGann, and more with the old ladies in the tea room.
* * *
Saturday 25th July 2015.
Second day in Suffolk. The sun comes out. Mum and I drive to Southwold on the coast, the family’s favourite destination. We have Adnams champagne for two, in the high-class Swan Hotel. It’s a place Mum’s never actually entered before, despite her staying in the town most summers since the 1980s. Mum says that I look at home there, in my linen suit and my aloof Londoner air. Later on, I sit and read in the Sailor’s Reading Room, one of my favourite places in England. According to The Rings of Saturn, it was a favourite of WG Sebald’s too.
* * *
Thursday 30th July 2015
Thinking more about gender ratios at exhibitions, I go to one which is surely likely to attract more men than the Audrey Hepburn. Visitors to The Jam – About The Young Idea, at Somerset House, turn out to be about 65% male. A few Fred Perry shirts, indeed a few Paul Weller lookalikes – as he is now. Greying feather cut hair, Mods till they drop. The exhibition has a refreshingly unglossy feel to it, as if it were a fan club affair, despite the huge professional poster campaign at Tube stations. On display are carefully preserved guitars, clothes, records, gig posters, fan letters, videos of concerts, and calling cards from the Woking days (‘The Jam – Rock and Roll Group – Dances, Parties, etc. Woking 64717.’). A souvenir programme comes in the format of the old inky style of music paper. Much is made of the sheer boyishness of the Jam’s appeal – how they taught huge amounts of boys how to be a boy. In this way, the exhibition has a feel of a shrine to male identity, just as the NPG one is a shrine to a certain kind of female identity, via Audrey Hepburn. After a certain point, role models take on the appeal of secular saints.
Among the music paper clippings is a Smash Hits review for the Jam’s last London concert, in 1982. The reviewer is not especially upset about the band’s demise: ‘On stage you know what to expect – one reason they’re splitting up, I suppose.’ It’s written by a journalist who will himself go on to form a pop group, sing about London, and define a way of being a boy: Neil Tennant.
Tags: audrey hepburn
, clive barker
, national gallery
, national portrait gallery
, somerset house
, the jam
, the red lion
Christmas Week Diary & Message 2014
Monday 22nd December 2014. Mum comes up to London, and we spend the day together. We do Somerset House Ice Rink (always as café spectators, never as skaters), then the National Gallery for Maggi Hambling’s new ‘Walls of Water’ paintings, and Peder Balke’s nineteenth century Nordic landscapes. Obligingly, one of the Balke paintings has reindeer.
Then to the NPG for Grayson Perry’s ‘Who Are You’ show. His gaudy portraits of Britishness are striking enough, but best of all is a unique self-portrait: an etching in the style of an old-fashioned map of a fortified town, ‘A Map Of Days’. We also visit the Museum of London, where there’s a mini-exhibition about Paddington Bear, tying in with the film. One of the exhibits is Michael Bond’s old portable typewriter, a 1950s Olympia Splendid 33. I point this out to Mum, because we had one exactly like it at home, originally owned by my grandmother. There was a mysterious key on the left which had four dots in a square pattern. I never did find out what it was for.
A surprise sight at the Museum of London: the 2012 Olympic cauldron, with an accompanying video of its building, lighting and extinguishing at the Games.
And to top the day off, we see Santa Claus. Or rather we glimpse the one installed in a corner of the Museum’s Victorian street, grotto-style. ‘That’s okay,’ he says to one particularly shy child. ‘You don’t have to know what you want.’
* * *
Wednesday 24th December 2014. Most of the museums are closed today, but I find that the Cartoon Art Museum is open. Dad was a member, so I go hoping they’ll have a Christmas tree to take my photo against, thus making a perfect photo for my Christmas diary. Alas, no tree.
I visit the current exhibition anyway. This turns out to be one on Hogarth. ‘Gin Lane’ is present and correct, but I learn today that it was one half of a pair. Hogarth also drew ‘Beer Street’, the solution to the problem of gin. In contrast to ‘Gin Lane’s decrepitude and despair, ‘Beer Street’ has well-dressed workers balancing work with play, all thanks to the right kind of booze, the ‘Industry and Jollity of Wholesome English Ale’. There’s one character who appears in both scenes: the pawnbroker. In Gin Lane his premises are well-kept and prosperous – he is the only person doing well out of all the poverty and decline. But on Beer Street, his shop sign is askew, and his shop itself is a crumbling hovel. This time, it is the pawnbroker who is fending off the bailiffs.
Another Hogarth sequence in the exhibition is ‘The Four Stages Of Cruelty’. In the first picture, the protagonist is a boy torturing stray dogs in the street. By the fourth panel he has become a highwayman, a murderer, and now a hanged corpse, dissected for the benefit of medical students. Underneath the operating table, a stray dog chews on his heart.
* * *
Drifting, ghost-like, through the frantic North Londoners. Sadly, I tend to associate Christmas Eve with witnessing the desperation of the not-particularly-desperate. And not just empty supermarket shelves (panic-buying for one single day – as if it were a nuclear winter). Traffic on Archway Road is stressful on the 24th as it is, but today there’s also been a water mains leak. And so, roadworks. I do not envy the people stuck in the cliche of holiday gridlock, but I envy the Thames Water workers even less. Outside my window as I write: the distinct sound of cars using this side road as an unofficial diversion (‘I know a short cut!’). An angry velocity in the noise. I want to throw up the window and shout: ‘calm down!’
* * *
Thursday 25th December 2014. I call Mum, then go off to feed the ducks in Waterlow Park. My funny little tradition. Just me this year.
Other people’s presents. In the park, a group of men try out a miniature drone. This year’s must-have gift, say the supplements. £400 or so. This little robot helicopter in question soars up, lights flashing, far higher than seems possible. Then it pauses in the sky, menacingly, rotates on the spot (where there is no spot) and zooms off into the void. It makes a horrible, wasp-like noise throughout. I hope they take it back and exchange it for a kite.
* * *
Channel 4’s Alternative Christmas Message is this year delivered by William Pooley, the British nurse working in Sierra Leone. He survived Ebola himself, then went straight back to treating the victims in Africa. In the TV broadcast, he mentions he’s from Suffolk: Eyke, in fact, near Woodbridge. As I’m from the same part of the country, his point about the good fortune of one’s birthplace is all the more affecting.
* * *
Friday 26th December 2014. I’m looking after a couple of cats in a house off the Seven Sisters Road. At about ten in the morning, I arrive and let them out into the back garden, as per the owner’s instructions. They are barely over the threshold when they freeze in their steps. A few feet away is a large fox, its bright orange beauty all the more striking in this December sun. There’s a pause, then it nonchalantly trots off through the neighbour’s hedge. It is only later that I realise how apt this is for Boxing Day, so synonymous with fox hunts.
It’s reported today that over 250,000 people have come out on rural ‘hunt meets’, which are effectively protests against the ban. Horses, hounds, costumes, horns. Everything but the fox. I sometimes glimpsed hunts while growing up in Suffolk. They seemed so obviously out of time. Yet many still want the full-on fox killing to come back. I’m reminded of the Hogarth pictures.
* * *
The Daily Telegraph‘s website has a ‘paywall’ warning: ‘You have reached your 20 article limit for this month’. Its angry, punitive tone doesn’t make me want to subscribe one bit. Instead, it rather implies that reading Telegraph articles is an unhealthy habit, and one should try to cut down. Perhaps not the effect they intended.
* * *
CHRISTMAS MESSAGE 2014
Given this is my last Christmas as a Birkbeck undergraduate, this year’s tree is from the main Birkbeck foyer, in Torrington Square, Bloomsbury. Taken on Christmas Eve, with the kind permission of the security guard.
It’s been a year of ups and downs, to put it mildly. My college grades went through the roof, thus bolstering my feelings of self-worth (though it’s still a struggle). It proved – if only to myself – that I was demonstrably good at something, even now, and after so long of feeling surplus to the world’s requirements.
In February my father died. I’m still coming to terms with this. But while I am, I’m grateful that I still have a mother, and a brother, who have both helped me so much this year.
One thing I’m particularly proud of is that I managed to keep this diary updated every single weekend, always adding at least 1,000 new words per week. This is the first time since the diary began (in 1997) that I’ve kept to a weekly routine. It takes me a lot of time to write, and I still don’t find it easy. I’m slow, and I don’t get paid. So I was delighted to be included in Travis Elborough’s Guardian piece on his ‘Top Ten Literary Diarists’. It is also gratifying when I receive donations from readers, proving that it’s worth doing, worth keeping free of adverts, and worth carrying on. If that includes you, thank you.
Sometimes I receive messages from readers who don’t donate but who say that they’re enjoying the diary. This is always cheering, particularly with the way social media has made public or group-shared comments the more usual interaction. A recent message said the diary was ‘like having a friend I’ve never met’. That’s exactly what I’m trying to convey, and why I don’t have a comments box. The writing needs to feel as solitary as possible. There are no browser-crashing commercials here, no videos suddenly starting up, no links to celebrity gossip stories. Hardly any links full stop. This is a quiet place. A detached place. This is somewhere else to go. This is a letter to a friend I’ve never met.
Thank you for reading in 2014. I hope you’ll continue to do so in 2015. I’ll be right here. And I wish you a very Happy Christmas and a wonderful, beautiful New Year. Here it comes. Look.
, cartoon art museum
, grayson perry
, maggi hambling
, museum of london
, paddington bear
, Peder Balke
, somerset house
An Attempt To Go Weekly
I have finally conceded that daily diary updates are beyond me. So starting with this entry I’m going to compile a weekly thousand-word diary instead. I hope to publish a new one every Friday morning, as that makes it feel like something to look forward to. Sunday night will have to suffice for this one.
* * *
Monday 9th December 2013. The final set texts of the term are Olive Schreiner’s Story of An African Farm, Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled, and the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon. Schreiner’s novel is a perfect example of a book I’d never pick up were it not for taking a course in literature. When I do, it moves me to tears.
* * *
Rachel Stevenson has been reviewing all the songs in John Peel’s 1991 Festive Fifty. This was the Year of Noisy Americans. I remember being in student haunts of Bristol at that time and seeing the ‘baggy’ fashions of long sleeved tops and flares give way to checked lumberjack shirts:
In the evening I walk past the Kentish Town Forum. Despite the changing ways of consuming music, the sight of touts outside large venues still endures. It’s the same aggressive shouting at pedestrians. Only the band names being shouted come and go. Tonight it’s ‘Buy or sell tickets for Haim.’
* * *
Good to see critics agreeing with one of my favourite films of 2013: Frances Ha. In one scene, two characters discuss how to spend the evening:
‘We should go to the movies.’
‘But the movies are so expensive!’
‘Yeah, but you’re at the movies.’
* * *
Thursday 12th December 2013. On the day of my last classes for the term I receive my highest essay mark yet. It’s an 80. This is defined in the classification guidelines as a High First Class, for work that ‘may display characteristics more usually found at postgraduate level or that demonstrate the potential for publication.’ I’m rather stunned. I’m still uncertain about which direction to take this skill in order to earn a living, but at least it is proof that I can do this sort of thing well, and can do it on time, and should probably develop it further between now and the grave. The essay was on ‘technotext’ theories of materiality, with reference to Chris Ware’s comic strip story for the iPad, Touch Sensitive.
The same day sees a grading of my former work as a songwriter. The quarterly PRS statement arrives and pays me a total of £1.41. Orlando’s album Passive Soul has sold 7 copies on iTunes, while the Fosca song ‘Confused and Proud’ has been played 139 times on streaming services like Spotify and Last FM. Well, I’m pleased if the songs are being listened to at all.
* * *
Meanwhile my work as a diarist in the anthology A London Year has managed to receive some attention. Here’s a positive review, which quotes from my diary:
This further review calls me ‘as well-read as Samuel Johnson and Johnny Rotten but polished to a dandyish sheen’. I also have ‘a certain essential Londonness’:
A few weeks ago, Kensington & Chelsea Today reviewed the book and called me ‘Dickson’ Edwards, which suggests I have some distance to go in the notability stakes. Still, it also called me ‘the youngest’ diarist in the book, which is the best possible thing you can say to anyone over, oh, 24. Here’s a pdf of the review:
The other 2013 book I’m in, I Am Dandy, appeared as a prop in a colour supplement article (name forgotten, possibly the Sunday Times). It was, of all things, a piece on the comedian Frank Skinner. Mr Skinner was photographed reading I Am Dandy in his underwear.
* * *
I am sent a photograph of a sign on a building. They saw it and thought of me. It says ‘Centre For Useless Splendour’.
A little Googling reveals this to be part of the Contemporary Art Research Centre at Kingston University. The artist responsible is Elizabeth Price, the Turner Prize winner who once sang in a couple of my favourite bands, Talulah Gosh and The Carousel.
* * *
Saturday 14th December 2013. Mum comes up to London for a well-earned day trip, while the hospice looks after Dad. We have mulled wine and mince pies in the Somerset House Ice Rink café, something of a pre-Christmas tradition.
Another Christmas tradition that seems to be bigger every year: adults in Santa costumes wandering noisily en masse through the streets, swigging bottles of alcohol. An expected late night activity, perhaps, but today they’re on the Strand at noon. These are often organised group events (an inflated version of pub crawls), though not quite organised enough for some of us. What irks is the implication that it’s fine to extend an office party across a whole series of public spaces.
Mum and I have lunch at St Martin’s Café in the Crypt, and on the way out I point out a couple of sights in Trafalgar Square which mark this moment: Katharina Fritsch’s blue sculpture of a cockerel on the Fourth Plinth, and the pool of floral tributes to Mandela outside South Africa House. The queue to sign the embassy’s condolence book is now small enough to fit into the lobby, but it’s still going.
We visit the Tate Britain’s newly revamped permanent collection. Mum is pleased to see the inclusion of works by Josef Herman, Edward Middleditch and Nigel Henderson, all of whom she and Dad knew in the 60s and 70s. Henderson taught Dad photography. Josef Herman, meanwhile, lent my parents a car around the time I was born. ‘A beaten up Mini’ says Mum. ‘Full of sweet wrappers.’
* * *
Saturday evening: I watch the whole series of Adam Buxton’s Bug, his TV show about music videos. By far my favourite is one he shows from 2010. It’s for the song ’70 Million’ by the French indiepop band Hold Your Horses. They dress up as recreations of paintings: Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, and so on. I love how this concept is channelled through the ragged charm of the song and the band’s visible enjoyment, playing irreverently with the paintings’ gender roles and depictions of nudity:
Video: 70 Million by Hold Your Horses
The Bug website interviews the ’70 Million’ directors, and lists all the paintings:
Tags: 70 million
, a london year
, chris ware
, frances ha
, i am dandy
, Rachel Stevenson
, somerset house
, tate britain
Mind The Westwood
Sunday: Mother’s Day. Chatted on the phone to Mum in Suffolk (Dad recovering from a sudden drop in his condition last week). Bought Mum a Chet Baker CD box set from HMV Piccadilly. It’s a kind of double souvenir of history: a recording of the past, purchased in a shop that will also shortly be a thing of the past. Certainly the last time one can buy a CD in Piccadilly Circus.
My brother Tom, meanwhile, has appeared in Guitar Player magazine, talking about playing with Adam Ant.
London still freezing. Spent Sunday reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved for the college course.
Discovered Somerset House’s newish East Wing cafe. It’s open late even on Sundays, provides free refills for pots of tea, has nice staff, and lots of seats. CD music playing – techno-y instrumental fare- not too annoying. Hardly anyone about today: the ice rink has gone, but the lit-up summer fountains aren’t yet in place.
Also spent time in the ICA café. In the ICA, one often sees a few obvious-looking tourists on the way back from Buckingham Palace, who just come in to use the toilets. At the moment such tourists have to walk past an enormous Juergen Teller nude photograph of Vivienne Westwood.
A sketch of me from 2003, by Jason Atomic:
Credit: Jason Atomic. http://jasonatomic.co.uk
Travis Elborough tells me that he found a passage in my diary from June 2002 which now seems to anticipate the social media saturation of 2013:
‘When I first started this diary in 1997, when the Internet was in black and white, when you could leave your wife unlocked and still get change from a fiver, online diaries were a comparative novelty. I was even something of a Minor Internet Celebrity by default. But now these things called “web logs” or “blogs” (I do hate that word) are everywhere, and everyone is crying out like at the end of Death Of A Salesman: “ATTENTION MUST BE PAID.”
‘Before the Internet, people knew full well they were simply one of billions. They just didn’t let it bother them too much. Now, they go to their computers, log on, gaze out at a sea of a billion faces and find out to their horror that the world doesn’t revolve around themselves after all. And it terrifies them.’
Mr Elborough has an intriguing new book out: London Bridge In America. There are reviews at his website: http://traviselborough.co.uk/
, college reading
, jason atomic
, somerset house
, spot the Sherlock quote
, travis elborough
The Back Seat Exhibition Captioner
A few days into the New Year: with Dad to Somerset House Ice Rink. A favourite spot at this time of year, though we always go as spectators in the cafe, never as skaters.
We also drop into the Norman Parkinson exhibition, A Very British Glamour. Stunning photos of ladies from vintage fashion mags. But Parkinson also had a thing for combining beauty with humour, often putting his models in unexpected poses and locations.
In one early 50s shot, his wife and muse Wanda, looking immaculate in a cashmere twin-set, sits in a rural working man’s pub, seemingly playing shove ha’penny with a flat-capped old regular. An unlikely story.
Another, The Young Look In The Theatre (1953), depicts a gaggle of up and coming stage actresses of the day. I love all the different types of outfits, hinting at what the actresses think of their own real life personae. Some casual, some up-to-the-minute fashionable, some timeless and classic, some girlish, some noble, some vampish, some womanly, some motherly.
(Clicking on the photo takes you to a much larger version on the Christie’s website, with a click-and-zoom facility)
The exhibition doesn’t list who’s who, frustratingly. So I get on the Net and find out for myself.
Top row (upside down, the old wag): Norman Parkinson himself.
Middle row (on the bars, left to right): Virginia McKenna, Elizabeth Henson, Patricia McCarron, Josephine Griffin.
Bottom row (standing, left to right): Hazel Penwarden, Zena Walker, Yvonne Furneaux, Jill Bennett, Patricia Owens, Ruth Trouncer.
I also love one Vogue portrait of Enid Boutling, model and wife of the film director Roy. Captioned ‘Impertinence (1950)‘, she’s wearing a dandyish suit with a cropped hair, a stand-offish glare, and – shock horror – is smoking a cigarette without a holder. Regarded as very daring at the time, at least for Vogue.
Another favourite is of Audrey Hepburn with a baby donkey. Parkinson clearly punning on the ‘what an adorable creature’ response.
, normal parkinson
, somerset house