Carry On Hipster

Saturday 4th April 2015.

To Suffolk to spend three nights over Easter, guest of Mum. I have to do some college work while I’m there: revising the second draft of the dissertation, plus reading an Ian McEwan book of short stories (the creepy First Love, Last Rites). Spring flowers in the house and garden – anemones from me. Wild daffodils by the roadside, seen when driving from Stowmarket station. Egg-themed decorations on the dinner table. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed the Easter aesthetic so much. I have to remember to get an Easter brooch for next year. A tasteful rhinestone bunny, perhaps.

I seem to appreciate nature much more as I get older: flowers, blossom, birdsong. A replacement for youthful interests waning, perhaps, like my near-complete indifference to contemporary rock music. That said, I’ve been enjoying the new Monochrome Set album, Spaces Everywhere. Some superb new songs by Bid. Two dreamy ones remind me of Scarlet’s Well: Fantasy Creatures and Rain Check. I also love the catchy riff-based opening number, Iceman, which rather topically has references to voting.

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Sunday 5th April 2015.

To a house near Stansted – dinner with the Kellermans (kind family friends whom I’m just getting to know). Many cats: on the drive there are signs warning delivery vans to watch out for curious felines sneaking into their vehicles. Accidental cat abductions have been known to happen. Tom joins us for dinner. He currently has an enormously bushy beard, though he shaves it off a few days later.

I watch Carry On Forever, a three part ITV documentary on the Carry On films. Very nostalgic, with lots of moments where the actors are filmed today, returning to the locations. Pretty girls from the 60s, now elderly of course. Tempting to judge which ones have aged better than others. Very touching moment when Bernard Cribbins and Juliet Mills reunite for the first time since Carry On Jack in 1963. Making what they thought was a disposable, lowbrow film at the time, but memories are still memories.

Funny how the films were getting a bit old hat even in the late 60s. I re-watch Carry On Camping – the UK’s most popular film in 1969! I’d misremembered the finale, where the regular characters sabotage a noisy, Woodstock-style hippy rock festival in the adjoining field. Sid James dresses in a hippy costume, and ludicrously threads the revellers’ beaded necklaces together, attaching them to a tractor so that they all get dragged off in a big lasso. Pure Beano stuff.  The sentiment appalled me last time I saw the film: it seemed to be forcing the viewer into siding against youth culture. But on watching it now I realise the hippies have the last laugh after all. Barbara Windsor’s gang of finishing school girls go off with them, rather than continue to hang out with seedy old Sid James and Bernard Bresslaw. Makes rather more sense than the lasso strategy.

The broad performances and jokes still make me laugh – and I have to admit I like the social history side. Englishness on film. How we used to live, and laugh. The documentary points out how the BFI included Carry On Up The Khyber in their list of the 100 best British films. It was at no. 99, one place above The Killing Fields. I feel like re-watching the whole run now, with the exception of the late 1970s Carry Ons. No desire to revisit the underwhelming Carry On England though. Or the barely watchable Carry On Emmannuelle, with its ill-advised disco soundtrack.

* * *

Tuesday 7th April 2015.

Back to London, and straight to the London Library for more research on the essays. The dissertation is due in on April 20th, and I’m trying to get a shorter essay finished around the same time.

In the London Library’s comments book, one complaint begins ‘I have nothing against young people using the library…’ It’s one of those phrases that flag up the word ‘but’ from several miles away. In this case, the complaint is over the use of music on headphones. Carry On Up The Library.

* * *

Thursday 9th April 2015

 The general election campaign is underway. Today the news is that a UKIP candidate has been an adult film star (and I have to admit his lack of repentance is impressive, even refreshing). Meanwhile Ed Miliband has had his romantic past raked over, with the shocking revelation that he dated several different women in the years before his marriage. It doesn’t seem so far from the world of Carry On after all.

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Friday 10th April 2015.

To the Curzon Soho for While We’re Young, the new film written and directed by Noah Baumbach, of Frances Ha fame. Lots of advertising for this one, including huge screens at St Pancras station. A lot has been written about the film, but I suspect I’m the first to compare it to Carry On Camping. The main theme is, after all, an older generation’s fear of young people. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play a jaded forty-something couple whose lives are invigorated after they befriend two hipster twenty-somethings, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. But suspicions of hidden agendas soon arise, and the alliance sours. The film sags in the last half-hour, when a plot about the ethics of documentary making takes over, but it’s more than made up for in the well-observed commentary on the anxieties of ageing, and on contemporary social habits, such as a moment where all four characters interrupt their conversation to Google something on their phones. At this point, the Adam Driver character insists that they put the phones down and just ‘enjoy not knowing something, for once’.

Another good moment is Stiller telling Driver off for helping himself to his video work: ‘It’s not ‘sharing’, it’s stealing!’ I think it’s also the first film where I’ve heard the beep of an Apple gadget being plugged into a charger, as part of the general background ambience. Two musicians turn in impressive minor roles: Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys is a tired aging dad, while Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500 is a New Age shaman – a convincing one, too.

* * *

I watch a BBC4 programme about bands that break up, and bands which manage to not break up. Coldplay’s longevity is attributed to a former manager kept on as the band’s ‘creative director’. I wonder if their drummer is known as an ‘implementer of percussion solutions’.


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Gets My Vote

Saturday 12th July 2014. I watch Rebels of Oz, an excellent documentary on four Australians who influenced cultural life in Britain: Clive James, Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, and Robert Hughes. There’s some 1960s footage of Ms Greer taking on Norman Mailer at a panel event in New York. The same event appeared in another documentary the previous week, one on the New York Review of Books. Then, the focus was on Mailer versus Susan Sontag, with Greer seen smirking quietly next to him. It’s a reminder that footage can only ever tell a truth, not the truth.

Robert Hughes was known for his TV series on art, The Shock of the New. But what shocks me is that he is shown wearing a double-breasted suit jacket over blue denim jeans. I wonder if being Australian helps.

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Sunday 13th July 2014. Evidence of aging. At the Assembly House pub in Kentish Town, I pick up a leaflet for one of the events at the Forum, the venue across the road. It’s called ‘Indie Daze’, and is a day-long bill of different bands. All the performers are of a certain vintage, with their artistic zenith circa 1990. There’s The Wonder Stuff, The Popguns, The Flatmates, Jesus Jones, Power of Dreams, Darling Buds, and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. Two of them are doing that common practice of performing an old album in full: Jesus Jones are playing all of Doubt, while Power of Dreams are doing Immigrants, Emigrants and Me.

What intrigues me about this leaflet is how some of the bands have accompanying photos of them now, looking older (they must be all approaching 50 by now). But others, like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, use a photo from over two decades ago. I wonder about the reasoning: would a recent photo would be a kind of fraud, given it’s all about the songs of their youth? Or was it just a case of being unable to get new photos made in time?

I rather enjoyed the records of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin at the time, despite the polar opposite in their look to mine. They were a group of shambling, hairy and beery young blokes, and I was… well, not that. But I bought their debut album, and loved it for its vulnerably simple melodies, with a second bass guitar giving them an underrated, New Order-like sound. The Popguns, meanwhile, were much closer to my world aesthetically, on top of their fizzy and friendly guitar pop. Out of all the ‘Indie Daze’ bands, the Popguns are the only ones I still listen to.

* * *

Monday 14th July 2014. To Bildeston to see Mum. I stay over, sleeping in my childhood bedroom for the first time since Dad died. Mum offers to give me a file marked ‘Dickon’, full of school reports and other clippings, which she and Dad kept over the years. But I’m uneasy and decline. I’m uncertain enough about who I am now, let alone who I used to be. I don’t just mean that I need to get some sort of secure career going now, though I do mean that as well. Next visit, though. Little steps.

* * *

To get there, I take the Gainsborough Line train from Marks Tey to Sudbury, always a pleasure. A single track on a rural branch line, just the two carriages – though today they’re packed. The first stop, Chappel & Wakes Colne, forms part of the East Anglian Railway Museum. Vintage carriages and centuries-old waiting rooms suddenly appear either side of the modern train. After that it’s Bures, a village bisected by the Essex-Suffolk border, then it’s over the Stour river into Suffolk, and so to Sudbury.  Twenty minutes in all.

‘You missed the alpacas,’ says the old lady in the seat facing me.

* * *

Mum and I watch the DVD of the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary gala, along with the documentary that accompanies it. A highlight for me is Joan Plowright, reprising her speech from Shaw’s Saint Joan on the stage of the Old Vic, just as she did in 1963. There’s also a scene from Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce, which I didn’t realise had supplied Dad with one of his in-jokey catchphrases. An older couple have a light snack in bed before lights off. This turns out to be pilchards on toast, the only thing the husband can find in the larder. The wife is sceptical at first, then takes his offered plate and tucks in. ‘They’re quite pleasant, aren’t they?’ she says. ‘They got my vote,’ says the husband, munching away. Tonight Mum tells me that she and Dad saw a 1980s TV version of Ayckbourn’s play, and it’s this particular line that Dad seized on. After that, whenever there was a situation requiring Dad’s approval, he would often say, ‘gets my vote!’ So now I know.

* * *

Tuesday 15th July 2014. Bildeston. Mum and I visit the Museum of East Anglian Life, in nearby Stowmarket. Neither of us have seen it since its renovation in 2012. The museum is centred around Abbot’s Hall, a handsome eighteenth-century manor house, which hosts a permanent exhibition about local history. George Ewart Evans, the author of Ask The Fellows Who Cut The Hay, gets a whole room, his notebook on display a la British Library. But there’s also his big manual typewriter and his unwieldy reel-to-reel tape recorder, both making a mockery of today’s nimble devices. Writing used to be such a muscular business.

The temporary exhibition is Escape to the Country: Searching for Self-Sufficiency in the 70s. It’s a wittily designed show, with lots of beige and orange in evidence, and caption boards in that same kitschy typeface that the band Pulp used. But there are some serious themes here too. It illustrates how the Summer of Love generation wanted to embrace rural traditions as a lifestyle choice, and as a reaction against the suburban sprawl. There’s a still from The Good Life, reminding one how that popular TV sitcom was also a satire about a real social concern.

One photograph is of the residents of Old Hall in East Bergholt, a proper commune where I once stayed as a teenager. It was just like the Swedish film Together: canteen meals for twenty at a time, farm animals and allotments out the back, rooms rather than flats. And rotas on the wall, with everyone having a different job to do on different days. I remember a TV crew filming the rounding up of the livestock, and the producer telling me it was for a documentary on a brand new channel – Channel 4. So that dates my stay to the summer of 1982.

[Postscript: Rachel Stevenson writes to say that she visited Old Hall in 2013, and wrote about it in her blog. The link is: http://millionreasons.livejournal.com/2013/04/23/]

On the train journey home I make a point of looking out for the famous alpacas. And there, a little south of Sudbury and east of the railway track, is a field of the uncommon mammals in question. They resemble llamas which have shrunk in the wash.

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Wednesday 16th July 2014. To the ICA for the film Mistaken For Strangers. It’s an unusual film – a rock documentary that is really a study of two brothers. The band it depicts is the US group The National, whose work I’m not familiar with, but who seem to be a bit like the British band Elbow: a genre I call Pleasant Enough Men With Beards. In the film, the serious and sensitive singer Matt Berninger hires his jokey and more uncouth brother Tom to be a roadie on their new tour.  Tom is more interested in making a film, or drinking the rider, or disappearing with people he meets, or doing anything other than his job. And so the film he makes ends up being more about him, and his odd-couple relationship with Matt. I love the title in particular, which certainly applies to me and my brother Tom. But it also reminds me how pairs of brothers, even quite different brothers, tend to both be unconventional and artistic, rather than one being artistic and the other being more drawn to, say, finance or law.

* * *

Friday 18th July 2014. I’m listening to the new Morrissey album, World Peace Is None Of Your Business, while reading about the events in Ukraine and Gaza. Morrissey’s arch take seems grimly relevant. There’s WW1 events everywhere at the moment, with it being a hundred years since the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand. ‘The War To End All Wars’. And yet here we are, still getting out our missiles. The sickening pointlessness of the attack on flight MH17 feels different to any Cold War incident, though. It could be the incident to end all such incidents. I think. I hope.


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