A Craze Of Pomegranates
Thursday 22nd September 2016. I read this year’s shortlist for the BBC National Short Story Award. All five stories are by women, including Hilary Mantel and Lavinia Greenlaw. Were it down to me I’d give first prize to Ms Greenlaw’s ‘The Darkest Place in England’. It’s a tale of teenage life in a part of rural England where the skies are free from light pollution, hence the title. My runner up would be Mantel’s ‘In a Right State’, about the regular characters one sees in an A&E ward.
A few days later, my choice fails to agree with the judges’, who anoint KJ Orr as winner, with Claire-Louise Bennett as runner up. Both stories are perfectly well-written, it’s just that I feel the Greenlaw and Mantel entries connected more with me. One of my criteria is to notice if a piece of writing gets me underlining a memorable phrase in pen – I always read them on paper. Out of the shortlist, it was only the Greenlaw and Mantel stories that had me reaching for my Bic Orange Fine.
Ms Bennett is getting attention as one of the new trend of Irish writers who are influenced by James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, along with Eimear McBride. The Bennett story in this shortlist is full of Beckettian monologue and thought-stream, with touches of Woolf’s ‘Mark on the Wall’ too. I read Ms McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing recently, and like the Bennett story I admired it but found myself yearning for a little skylight of exteriority. A Modernist Style Is A Hard-Going Thing.
My favourite phrase in the Mantel entry captures the hand-gel dispensers in hospitals. One joke I’ve heard about these is that they make everyone in hospitals look like they’ve just thought of a cunning plan. Ms Mantel has another comparison in her story:
‘Sombrely she hand-gels herself, like jesting Pilate’.
The Lavinia Greenlaw story goes one better, with a line spoken by one teenage girl to another, during the latter’s first visit to a night club. Not only is it memorable and witty, it also encapsulates character, place and time:
‘Remember the rules. Don’t queue in groups of more than three, ditch the lads and don’t smile’.
Sunday 25th September 2016. To Tate Britain for Painting With Light, a juxtaposition of photography and paintings from the mid 1800s up to the early 1900s. The exhibition shows the way the two mediums influenced each other, with paintings becoming more realistic and detailed, and photographs emulating the poses and subject matter of paintings. Some familiar works are here, like Wallis’s Chatterton, but this time they’re used to show their photographic spin-offs. There’s a 3D stereogram of Chatterton, where some Victorian male model has mimicked the reclining corpse of the poet. Funny how depictions of suicide now often carry a ‘trigger warning’, while the Chatteron painting and its imitative photographs are deemed perfectly family-friendly. It’s a snuff movie as a painting. But then, so is Ophelia.
Rosetti’s Proserpine is also here – the one with the woman holding a half-eating pomegranate. It’s a painting so often reproduced that it all but bounces off my vision when I look at it, like a repelled magnet. I’ve not been to the Louvre, but it’s how I imagine seeing the Mona Lisa. An image so firmly fused into one’s memory that one’s brain goes into a state of unease when encountering the real thing. Two opposite reactions struggle to take control. There’s the starstruck, selfie-grabbing reaction: ‘I can’t believe it! It’s that famous painting! And I’m here with it!’ And there’s the resentful one: ‘What a cliché this painting is! I’ve seen it so many times that it’s become bland and meaningless. It’s been killed through overexposure.’
But here Proserpine comes alive, freshened up by its position alongside photographs and illustrations of similar wistful maidens clutching pomegranates. Wilde’s House of Pomegranates is here too, and one can now see how Rickett’s illustrations for the book were a nod to the Rossetti painting and its various photographic imitations. Something about that particular fruit made it an essential prop for images of women at the time: exotic, sensual. A craze of pomegranates, in fact.
(Which sounds like Marks and Spencer’s attempts to give their packets of dried fruit silly names. ‘Mango Madness!’ ‘A Craze of Pomegranates!’).
Then to the Royal Festival Hall’s riverside café, where I witness the BBC Radio 3 pop-up studio in action. It’s a large transparent box bisected into two rooms: a control room with an outer door, and an inner sanctum of a studio. The actors Fiona Shaw and Robert Glenister are seated in the latter, performing for the public vocally, yet otherwise pretending that the crowd gawping in at them is not really there. They are reading the texts for the ‘Words and Music’ programme, as it goes out live. A pair of speakers outside the box broadcast the show at a modest volume, but for a better experience one can approach some youthful BBC staff in t-shirts, who loan out special Radio 3 wireless headphones, which only work in the café. It’s like a Radio One Roadshow for the delicate.
This is all to mark Radio 3’s 70th anniversary. When it began in 1946 as the Third Programme, a BBC statement at the time said the station was intended to be ‘new and ambitious’ and ‘evidence of national vigour’ after the war. I watch Ms Shaw exert her vigour on TS Eliot as I queue for my latte.
Wednesday 28th September 2016. To the Camden Odeon for Bridget Jones’s Baby. I’m waiting in the foyer for a female friend – name redacted for reasons which will become clear – when I realise that in a crowded foyer, I am the only male in sight. Overwhelmingly, this film seems to attract pairs of women, and youngish women at that. Mostly late twenties. Given the heroine is in her forties, and indeed much of the film is about the ups and downs of being a forty-something, it seems odd that the bulk of this audience should be of a younger stripe. Perhaps it’s a Camden thing.
The most intriguing moment occurs when the Patrick Dempsey character returns to his Glastonbury yurt after a one-night stand with Ms Jones. He turns up with a tray of coffees and croissants, only to discover that she, mortified about the liaison, has fled. It’s at this point that my particular audience emits a huge female sigh en masse – ‘aww!’ – purely at the sight of breakfast in bed. It surprises my friend, too, who is closer to Bridget J’s age. We wonder later if today’s young women crave breakfast in bed as a romantic ideal, much more so than their elders. Perhaps the rise of Tinder and the general digitisation of love has amplified the appeal of more physical treats.
Bridget Jones’s Baby turns out to be much funnier than it needs to be. After the Absolutely Fabulous movie, which really did just tick the boxes for pleasing the fans, this one makes some sharp satirical quips on social mores. Here we have the perils of search engines, the rise of hipster beards, Middle Englanders having to move with the progressive times, and most of all, the now-common experience of ‘geriatric’ mothers. ‘Geriatric’ is still the medical term, as the film points out, for a pregnant 40-something.
Our evening ends on a somewhat less fun note when we repair to the Good Mixer, now joined by my friend’s boyfriend. We enjoy a couple of drinks for about an hour, but are then suddenly confronted by the bar’s owner. Accompanied by a muscled bouncer, he pulls up a chair opposite our seats and proceeds to interrogate my friend about her behaviour on a previous occasion. She is outraged and defiant, her boyfriend is protective, the argument becomes a repetitive loop of accusations (as all arguments do) and I’m shrinking into my seat. We eventually leave to a volley of execrations shouted across the darkness of Inverness Street. I’m just relieved it didn’t come to blows.
I don’t think I’m barred – the owner apologised to me – but I wonder if this is the last time I can go to the Good Mixer. Still, other bars are available.
Thursday 29th September 2016. To Suffolk to stay with Mum. We watch the new DVD of Akenfield together. I note the scene where the Suffolk workers go on a day trip to Southwold.
Friday 30th September 2016. And fittingly enough, we go on a day trip to Southwold. We’re treated to lunch on the pier by Mum’s friend Mary Gough, who owns the whole pier as a business. She tells me about the graffiti artist responsible for the huge George Orwell mural on the wall nearest the beach end: ‘He goes by the name of Pure Evil, but he’s very nice, really.’
I have a go on one of the arcade games in Tim Hunkin’s ingenious and satirical Under The Pier Show. This game is a new addition for 2016, ‘The Housing Ladder’. The player has to stand on the rungs of an actual ladder and frantically move its side rails up and down. This makes a little figure inside the machine rise to the top of its own ladder in order to reach the goal: a home. An ‘Age Indicator’ ticks away the time: if the player doesn’t get the house by the time he’s 80, it’s game over. Several ‘villains’ pop out of doors on the way up, making the figure fall back down the ladder. The villains in this case are The Foreign Buyer, The Developer, The Buy to Let Owner, and The Second Home Buyer. I make it to the house at the age of 70. ‘Good luck with that,’ says Mum.
Then a walk into town, via the Sailors’ Reading Room, which is one of my favourite places in the world. I also browse in the Southwold Bookshop, and buy a novel that’s being promoted as a recommended reissue: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, from 1978. Fitzgerald’s inspiration was the bookshop that used to be on the other side of Southwold High Street. I visited it during our family’s regular holidays in the town since the mid-1980s.
This newer emporium is really a branch of Waterstones pretending to be an indie, at least aesthetically. All traces of company branding have been removed in order to please the locals. Almost all: the receipt informs me of my ‘Waterstones Reward Points’. I wonder if this might be the future of high streets: branches of corporate franchises pretending to be unique local businesses. Pubs already do that.
Evening: We were going to watch a DVD of Terence Davies’s Sunset Song, but I’m keen to finish the set text I’m reading, Jackie Kay’s Trumpet. At the back of the book is a new interview with Ms Kay, in which she discusses how Trumpet couldn’t be set in the internet era, because it’s so much harder to keep a secret. I think of the exposing of JT LeRoy and more recently, Elena Ferrante.
Ms Kay also discusses her influences in Scottish literature. One of the books she mentions is Sunset Song, the novel behind the film. It got me in the end.
Saturday 1st October. Off the train at Liverpool Street, and straight over to the Liverpool St branch of Wahaca, the Mexican food chain. The occasion is Tom’s one year anniversary for being sober: no mean feat if you play guitar for a living, which means regularly being in bars and licensed venues. About twenty friends turn up for this meal, all eschewing alcohol by way of tribute. It’s my first restaurant meal to be paid for via an app; the calculation of who ordered what is thus made much simpler.
Sunday 2nd October 2016. To the Royal Academy for the David Hockney show, 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life. It’s the last day, and the gallery is absolutely packed (or ‘ram-packed’, as Jeremy Corbyn would have it). The portraits are all standardised in a kind of handmade tribute to Warhol: the same size, the same chair, the same simple background of two horizontal blocks of colour, though the colours are sometimes switched. The show suggests that painted portraits take on a new meaning in the age of the selfie. But more personally, it’s a touching record of his friends. If the measure of friendship today is tapping one’s finger on the word ‘Like’, painting someone’s portrait is a ‘Like’ of true commitment; three days’ work each one. The subjects are Hockney’s friends, including Barry Humphries (very dandified, in tie and fedora), and Celia Birtwell, of Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy fame.
Tuesday 4th October 2016. A day trip to Brighton, partly because I enjoyed Southwold so much and fancied another dose of the seaside, while the weather was still warm (just about). But also because Dennis Cooper’s new film is getting a screening at the Duke of York’s Picture House, and I seem to have missed it in London.
In the afternoon I walk on the pier and write letters in the café. The seagulls seem to be more aggressive than usual, hovering close to people in number. One touches momentarily on a woman’s head. She laughs it off, but it makes me stick to walking under the pier’s canopies.
I stop off at a new café in York Place, The Yellow Book. It’s decorated in Aubrey Beardsley illustrations, and calls itself ‘Britain’s First Steampunk Bar’. The bar man has a bowler hat with goggles on the brim. There’s some contemporary art on the wall with a steampunk theme. I wonder if they’d exhibit Dad’s Captain Biplane comic art; people were always telling him it was steampunk avant la lettre.
Then to the Duke of York’s cinema. The Dennis Cooper film, Like Cattle Towards Glow is really a series of five short films, each one touching on Mr Cooper’s trademark transgressive themes: trauma and gay sexuality, the world of male escorts, obsession, the death of pretty boys (in the tradition of Chatterton), and youthful vulnerability. In some ways, Mr Cooper is a more X-rated descendent of AE Housman.
Some of the film is unsettling, some of it is surreally funny. There’s several moments of explicit sex which make Brokeback Mountain look like a Disney cartoon. But the final story is virtually U-certificate: a woman uses drones and CCTV cameras to conduct a relationship with a homeless young man (a little like the Andrew Arnold film Red Road).
After the screening there’s a Q&A with Mr Cooper, along with his director Zac Farley and a couple of academics from the nearby University of Sussex. The event is supported by two of the university’s departments: the Centre For American Studies, and the Centre For The Study Of Sexual Dissidence. I assume at first that this must be a recent groovy development, but it turns out the Centre has been going for 25 years. It’s known on campus as ‘Sex Diss’. All very Brighton. I get Mr C to sign a copy of his book of essays, Smothered By Hugs.
Thursday 6th October 2016. First class of the new college year, and the start of my sixth year as a student at Birkbeck. This term’s module for the MA is ‘Post-War to Contemporary’. Tonight is an induction class, discussing the various artistic movements since 1945.
There must be a little chaos behind the scenes, as the room is changed at 3.30pm in the afternoon, for a class that begins at 6. An email goes out , but as I don’t have a smartphone I don’t get it in time. Myself and another phone-less student are left sitting like fools in the previously-announced room at the BMA building in Tavistock Square. No indication of a change here: no sign on the door. We only realise something is wrong when 6pm comes and goes, and no one else has turned up. Thankfully I’m texted on my non-smart phone by Jassy, one of my fellow students. I rush off and make it to the new room in Torrington Square, several blocks away, and am thus 15 minutes late. I hope this isn’t the beginning of a ‘zero hours’ approach to students.
Thinking back now, it’s an indication that the world increasingly expects people to be constantly online and checking their emails. In my case though, I have to go offline and off-phone for hours at a time or I can’t concentrate. I wonder if this is a new way of being ‘difficult’.
Friday 7th October 2016. Meeting with my personal tutor, Grace Halden, in Gordon Square. I don’t finish the MA until September of next year, but I’m now starting to look into what I should do with myself after that. Grace H thinks I’m a ‘perfect’ candidate for doing a PHD. It seems to be possible to be paid a full-time salary for such a thing. I have to keep up the good marks, though. And my PHD needs to be ‘crucial to the international field’, if I’m to receive funding. This will be the tricky part. I sometimes struggle to feel I have any intrinsic worth as a human being, let alone a ‘crucial’ one.
Saturday 8th October 2016. With Tom to the Islington Screen on the Green, to see Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie. Like many people on their first trip to the venue, Tom is delighted by the sense of luxury, never mind the film. There are plush sofas, foot stools, and a bar at the back of the screening room. The staff even bring your drinks to your seat.
At one point in the Theroux film the camera glances at a cease-and-desist letter received from the Church of Scientology’s lawyers. I make out the words ‘BBC’ and ‘John Sweeney’. Mr Sweeney was the reporter whose own attempts to converse with a Scientologist a few years ago, for Panorama, left him shouting at the top of his voice.
Mr Theroux is much better suited to the job. When the Scientologists turn up with their own cameraman, who refuses to reply to Theroux’s questions, Theroux gets out his phone – a cheap little flip-up one – and holds it up to the man’s camera in response, like a crucifix in a vampire film. They both stand like this for several seconds.
It’s more silly than aggressive, and a move that I think only Louis Theroux could make. His approach is often called ‘faux-naïve’, but it’s closer to a kind of weaponised passivity. It also helps to make the film unique, given the umpteen documentaries on the subject. Even Jon Ronson, whose journalistic style and taste is close to Theroux’s, wouldn’t hold up his phone like that.
Evening: to the Rich Mix in Bethnal Green for another film documentary: Supersonic, about the band Oasis. Despite this being the film’s opening weekend, Supersonic only seems to be playing in two central London cinemas tonight. I wonder if this is to do with the way music documentaries have a much narrower appeal than documentaries about other subjects: the Theroux screening was packed. The exception was Amy, because it was more of a biography about a tragic public figure who happened to work in music. Supersonic can’t even claim to look into a pop cultural moment, as the recent Beatlemania film, Eight Days A Week did, as Oasis never quite reached that level. There were no Oasis Boots and Wigs on sale, no spin-off cartoon series and films. There were a very popular band, but ultimately just that: a band.
Rather cheekily, the film leaves out any mention of Blur or Britpop, even though it purports to tell the story of the band, up till their enormous Knebworth concerts of 1996. According to this film, no other guitar bands existed in the 1990s. No wonder so many people came to their shows: there apparently weren’t any others to go to. These days, history is rewritten by the documentary makers.
That aside, the anecdotes about the Gallagher brothers and their endless spats and scrapes are imaginatively presented here, using lots of lively animations of letters and photos. The film moves quickly, and the melodies still impress. I remember hearing ‘Supersonic’ when it came out and thinking how ingenious it was to meld the aggressive, swaggering grind of Happy Mondays (the verses) with the aching, fuzzy sweetness of Teenage Fanclub (the choruses). ‘Live Forever’ and ‘Wonderwall’ were similarly impressive; what they lacked in intellectual prowess they made up for in heartfelt drive and emotion. It’s unlikely that their lyrics will ever merit a Nobel Prize, but the film certainly illustrates what a lot of fun it must have been, to be Liam and Noel Gallagher in the 1990s.
If you enjoy this diary, please help to keep it free from adverts and clickbait by making a donation to the Diary Fund. Thank you!
, BBC National Short Story Award
, bridget jones's baby
, captain biplane
, david hockney
, dennis cooper
, good mixer
, Hilary Mantel
, Lavinia Greenlaw
, like cattle towards glow
, louis theroux
, my scientology movie
, painting with light
, royal academy
, southwold pier
, supersonic film
, tate britain
, the yellow book
, tim hunkin
, Tom Edwards
, under the pier
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
The Unserious Dog Show
Saturday 23rd August 2014. To the Phoenix cinema for Doctor Who – Deep Breath. It’s the first episode of the new series, and the first to properly feature Peter Capaldi in the title role. It’s on TV as usual, but as part of a huge publicity campaign the BBC have arranged for some cinemas to screen it at the same time. One has to pay for the cinema (about the same price as a standard cinema ticket), so it is a fascinating test of the interest in such a thing. One incentive is that there’s a couple of extra little films. First up is an amusing monologue from Strax the Sontaran, who comments on the Doctor’s various incarnations. ‘The fifth Doctor’, he says, indicating a hologram of Peter Davison, ‘had no distinguishing features whatsoever’. Then after the episode there’s a live Q & A with the main actors and the main writer, Steven Moffat. But it’s really the sense of occasion one pays for: the experience of watching the episode on a big screen in the company of Doctor Who fans.
There’s a mixture of all ages here. A small boy in the row in front of me is wearing a fez and a bow tie, a la Matt Smith. Elsewhere in the cinema, I see another fez, this time worn by a grown woman. I enjoy the episode: lots of good lines, such as ‘There’s nothing more important than my egomania!’ The plot is the usual goings-on (alien robots up to no good in Victorian London), but Capaldi himself is enough to keep one on tenterhooks for what happens next. His older Doctor is intriguing, shrewd, spiky, capricious and (so far) volatile. As I watch, my only worry is that small children won’t take to him as much as they did the boyish Doctors of recent years. But while walking out through the foyer I see a tiny girl of eight or so, having her photograph taken next to a life-size cardboard cut-out of Capaldi. She is hugging him.
* * *
Sunday 24th August 2014. To Spa Fields Park in Clerkenwell. A mini festival. A stage is up, there’s a few stalls, a bouncy castle is in one corner, and a not-entirely-serious dog show is in the tennis court (some of the dogs’ ‘tricks’ include lying down and getting up again). I’m here for two reasons: Kitty Fedorec’s birthday gathering, plus a performance by Joanne Joanne, the all-female Duran Duran tribute band. I still love that two of the band really are called Joanne. I chat to: Pete M of Talulah Gosh (and umpteen other bands), Ian Watson, Charley Stone (once a guitarist with Fosca, today in Joanne Joanne), David Barnett, and Alex S & Alex P. The event has the feel of my 90s gig-going past – I keep seeing people in the crowd whom I nearly recognise, old regulars from gigs at Upstairs at the Garage. One face I do recognise is Jim Rattail, the dedicated London gig-goer of old. He still has his long plait of hair.
* * *
Monday 25th August 2014. A Bank Holiday. There’s constant heavy rain all day, the weather unaware of its own Bank Holiday cliché. I discover that my only other pair of older but still comfortable shoes are also leaking water, a crack having developed in the sole.
On an impulse, I travel to Paddington to see if the floating bookshop there, Word on the Water, is open. It isn’t. The steps into Paddington station are covered in rainwater. In the station, revellers from the Notting Hill Carnival are mingling with backpacked-up Reading Festival refugees. Many wear all-over transparent raincoats, half poncho, half giant condom. One carnival lady slips and falls on the stairs. She’s in pastel-coloured platform heels, drenched yet defiant. Her gales of laughter are a relief; her pride more wounded than her ankle.
I end up at the Royal Festival Hall, where there’s ballroom dancing in the open space by the ground floor bar. It’s to do with the South Bank’s ‘Love’ festival. A large pinboard is nearby, covered in paper pink hearts. Each has a handwritten declaration of love. Most are to people, but one is ‘I LOVE WEST HAM’.
After my sadness over Foyles St Pancras closing, I’m pleased to find there are two branches of Foyles in the South Bank area, both of which are open late on Sundays and Bank Holidays. One is tucked under the Royal Festival Hall on the riverside, while another is in Waterloo station nearby. In the South Bank one I see the History Boys actor Dominic Cooper, being pleasant and chatty with the staff.
* * *
Tuesday 26th August 2014. To Suffolk. Train to Sudbury around noon, lunch in Bildeston with Mum, then north to the village of Bardwell to visit Mal and Kev Shepard, old family friends. Mal’s son Don is a professional jester and magician, now going by the name of Phoenix The Fool. There’s a large gold trophy of a conjuror in the living room, which he won at a magic tournament in China. I look at their vintage copy of Kathleen Hale’s picture book Orlando the Marmalade Cat – A Seaside Holiday. The seaside destination in it, ‘Owlborrow’, is based on Aldeburgh circa 1950.
The place names on the way back immediately suggest medieval scenes: Stowlangtoft. Ixworth Thorpe. And Woolpit, with its legend of the green children.
* * *
Wednesday 27th August 2014. On the tube. The man in the seat next to me suddenly says, ‘I have to ask you, what on earth are you reading?’
I tell him: Probably Nothing, by Matilda Tristram. From a glance it might look like a children’s book. In fact, it’s a very adult (as in sweary) comic book memoir. It covers Ms Tristram’s time in 2013 as a cancer patient, made all the more complicated by her being pregnant as well. I read parts of it last year when it was an ongoing black-and-white webcomic. Since then, Penguin got involved – not a publisher known for putting out comic books. So now it’s a beautiful full colour hardback. Her drawing style is an urgent and simple doodle, suggesting snatched moments of meagre yet driven energy. I like her raw honesty, her depiction of life in the artier parts of Hackney, her accounts of the tactless things others say to her, and especially her trips to Walberswick and Southwold on the Suffolk coast, places I’m familiar with too:
* * *
Thursday 28th August 2014. The shoe repair man in Muswell Hill says he can’t stretch my new Clarks, or repair my leaky sole. I come out feeling like I’ve been in a Monty Python sketch – a shoe repair shop that can’t repair any shoes. And so it goes on.
* * *
I enjoy reading the umpteen reviews of Kate Bush’s comeback gig. Referring to her simply as ‘Bush’, though, as in ‘Bush takes to the stage’ seems wrong somehow. Unlike David Bowie, her surname is not unusual enough to define her alone – there’s those pesky presidents for a start. But there’s also something about her work that makes ‘Bush’ sound wrong too, as if she demands a gesture of intimacy to properly describe her. The ‘Kate’ needs to be there.
As it is, I read the word ‘Bush’ so often today that I start humming the closing theme to Only Fools and Horses:
‘Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. No income tax, no VAT…’
* * *
Friday 28th August 2014. To the Curzon Soho to see Obvious Child. It’s a New York indie comedy-drama starring Jenny Slate, about a wise-cracking young woman’s romantic woes. It’s similar in genre to Frances Ha but closer to Knocked Up and Juno in terms of subject matter. In the latter two, the possibility of abortion was never properly addressed, at least not to the extent it might be had the stories taken place in real life. One theory I read at the time was that the jokes would just be eclipsed. Well, Obvious Child certainly dismisses that idea. It dares to treat the subject matter properly, while keeping the comedy going too – if letting it turn bittersweet and wry rather than laugh-out-loud. I also like the wordplay of the title (a reference to a Paul Simon song). It plays on the way the lead character is childlike herself, yet her choice is very much a grown up one. The film is not perfect, but it certainly makes other comedies’ moral squeamishness look, well, a bit childish.
Tags: deep breath
, doctor who
, kate bush
, matilda tristram
, obvious child
, peter capaldi
, phoenix cinema
, probably nothing
London’s Littlest Cinemas
I’ve been thinking about small cinemas. In particular the one in Southwold, which I visited a couple of summers ago. It was built in the last decade with a small amount of seats, yet rendered in a beautiful 1920s picturehouse style. This gave it a strange Legoland quality, as the real old picturehouses were huge.
Looking it up now, I discover its capacity is 68. Which isn’t all that small, really. A while ago I saw the new ‘Dorian Gray’ flick at a multiplex, and the screen turned out to have the dimensions of an average living room. This was at the Empire Leicester Square, screen number 6. Number of seats: 26.
And yet, it didn’t feel cramped or claustrophobic. In fact, the proximity of strangers in such limited number meant that any would-be chatterers or wrapper rustlers were dissuaded from the off, fearing they could be glowered at (or have their shoulders tapped) so much more easily. On top of this, I’m convinced the intimacy intensified the viewing itself, as I felt closer to being an honoured house guest rather than a visitor in an uncaring public cavern.
On the occasions I’ve reviewed films, I’ve had to go to press screenings in compact rooms, often in Soho. But despite the similar cosiness, the atmosphere there isn’t the same at all. You are in the company of professionals who are watching the film as part of their job, not because they want to escape into stories and visit other worlds in the dark. You can sense the taint of obligation in the air. Enforced fun is never the same as the fun you do for, well, fun.
No, to truly enjoy a film it must be in a room made for the purpose, amongst strangers who have paid to be there. And I’m starting to wonder if small cinemas are better than large ones.
Now, I do hate it when articles justify themselves with tenuous links to the news, such as the Cher movie about burlesque generating columns along the lines of ‘Is Burlesque Empowering Or Not, Or What, Or Whither?’ Or, in the run-up to the release of ‘Black Swan’, articles in the press every single day along the lines of ‘I Too Was In The Same Room As Some Ballet Once’.
But by sheer coincidence – honest – a tiny cinema HAS just been in the news. Nottingham’s Screen Room, which seats 21 and claims to be the smallest cinema in the world (never mind the UK), has just closed its doors. What hasn’t been made clear is where that title rests now. I was interested in a list of fun-sized London cinemas myself, but couldn’t find one. So I’ve done the research myself.
Although I’m not counting multiplex screens, I’m guessing the 26 seats of Empire 6, Leicester Square must be a contender for the smallest in the West End. Trouble is, multiplexes tend to sell tickets per film rather than per screen, and move the titles around the screens to match demand. You often don’t know what screen you’re getting until you choose the film and time.
I’m also not counting screening rooms in hotels, film clubs in non-cinema venues, private hire places or the Abcat Cine Club in King’s Cross. This being a 20-seat sex cinema that the Cinema Treasures website insists on listing as a ‘classic movie theatre’. I do, however, understand that it shows heterosexual adult films for men to have gay sex to, and that despite the arrival of the internet, it’s still going. I suppose there’s a lesson there about niche marketing.
With those exceptions noted, here’s a list of the capital’s single-screen cinemas with a capacity of under 100, as of February 2011.
LONDON’S SMALLEST CINEMAS
1. The Exhibit, Balham. 24 seats.
2. The Aubin, Shoreditch. 45 seats.
3. Shortwave, Bermondsey. 52 seats.
4. David Lean Clock Tower, Croydon. 68 seats. (Update: This may be closing.)
5. Lexi, Kensal Rise. 77 seats.
6. Electric Cinema, Notting Hill. 98 seats.
Most of these are fairly new, and I’m looking forward to trying them out. I wonder if the coming of digital projectors means that more lounge-sized independent cinemas like these are going to pop up. I do hope so.
The smallest screen in a multi-screen arthouse cinema is probably the NFT’s Studio, with 38 seats. Followed by the ICA’s Screen 2, at 45 seats.
Both screens at the Everyman Baker St are unusually small: one at 85 seats, the other at 77.
As for current contenders for the smallest cinema in Britain, there’s the Blue Walnut Cafe in Torquay (23 seats), Minicine in Leeds (26 seats), and the aforementioned Exhibit in Balham. Out of those, only the Exhibit regularly screens new-ish releases.
If I’ve missed any out, please do let me know.
The Southwold Electric Picture Palace
BBC News story: Screen Room in Nottingham closes
, london's smallest cinemas
, small cinemas
Games For Boys
In Southwold for one day before Latitude. I’m staying with Mum & Dad in the cottage they’ve rented every year for decades, their choice of week conveniently coinciding with the music festival nearby. Two things hit me most after coming straight from London: the palpably fresher air, and the almost sinister tidiness of both beach and street. Modern changes: smoothies on the tea room menu. Less modern: small boys playing football on Gun Hill, using – yes – jumpers for goalposts.
I’m wearing my new chalk-white linen suit: more Alec Guinness than Man From Del Monte.
A couple of young men chatting by a ladder stop and snigger as I walk by. The first time I came here during Latitude week, walking around Southwold High Street in my cream suit, a young man stuck his head out of a passing van and shouted, ‘Hello, Poof!’
I’ve had the same treatment on Shaftesbury Avenue, though. And indeed, in the toilets of the South Bank Centre the other day. I was there for a discussion on the future of literary magazines, hosted by Erica Wagner from the Guardian.
Two young men in shorts and backpacks were at the urinals. As I went in to check my hair in the mirror, the boys looked at me, then at each other, then one started to pretend he was having a loud orgasm, while his friend laughed. Seconds passed and his friend exited, yet the orgasm boy was still making his faux-ecstatic racket. As it was just me and him in the toilets I felt the need to say something.
‘Are you all right?’
‘Yeah, yeah. Just…. having a wee…’ He smirked feebly, zipped himself up and headed for the door without washing his hands.
Then as he left, his tone turned to a half-muttered playground retort: ‘No, are YOU all right… white suit!’
I saw them both walk off into the Centre to attend a talk on the legacy of Swinburne. Okay, no I didn’t.
Maybe I’d still get catcalls at The International Conference for Allegedly Poofy-Looking Men In White Suits. (‘Oy! White suit!’ shouts Tom Wolfe).
A Jeremy Hardy joke, not unrelated. ‘A sign on the back of a white van: ‘No tools left in this vehicle overnight. During the day they’re in the front seat.’
Also in Southwold I pass by the putting green opposite the pier, and remember Grandad took me and Tom for games there over twenty years ago. Once I actually managed to score a hole in one, though by a sheer fluke. Otherwise I was less interested in the actual putting as I was by the vintage-looking yellow score card that came with the putter and ball. Sport was baffling; stationery divine.
, white suit vs white van