Something Where There Should Be Nothing
Late March, and for the first time I find myself looking out for new leaves on the trees. Larkin’s rare positivity: ‘Afresh, afresh, afresh’.
I recently had an email from someone organising an exhibition at Somerset House. The show is titled ‘Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and their Digital Descendents’, and will run from late May till July. I’ve given permission for them to use a quote from mine on some sort of screen, for use on just one day. They’ve chosen some entries from May and June of last year.
So the diary continues to find purchase. And yet I still resent the time and effort it requires. Perhaps because it is, occasional donations aside, unpaid work. Philip Glass on his early years, driving a taxi while being championed in the press: ‘What is success? Having an audience.’ I have to admit I still prefer the version that pays the bills. Perhaps it’s about time I look into Patreon. But anyway.
How do I write this diary again? Empty my brain onto the page, take out all the libel, the self-libel, all the resentment, and as much of the self-pity as I can wake myself up to, then polish whatever’s left. And take too long to do it.
(That’s not entirely true: much of the time is spent procrastinating.)
For this present update, so much time has gone unmarked that I will have to be concise, even fragmentary.
12 December 2016. Most of my days from here to the 23rd of January are spent on the 3rd essay for my MA at Birkbeck, as in my MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture. This essay is a fairly bold argument towards a definition of ‘textual dandyism’, via selected novels by Muriel Spark, Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson. One of the other students said that my doing Carter was a ‘typical’ choice for me, which I took to be a compliment. The postgraduate mode is, after all, meant to involve a drift from the general to the specialised. And what else is specialisation but an advanced manifestation of taste? Discuss.
Regardless, few will disagree that Ms Carter is good for sparking off ideas. One of her essays in Shaking A Leg states that anorexia is a kind of female dandyism. There’s a thousand debates right there.
13 December. Film: The Pass. Barbican. Russell Tovey as a closeted gay football star. Much commentary on the way football is, rather depressingly, the last bastion of default homophobia. Very play-like; a chamber piece. Mercifully there is no actual football in the film.
15 December. More modern masculinity. The term ends, and I go with fellow Birkbeck students and tutors to the Museum Tavern, Great Russell Street, opposite the British Museum. I think the preferred term for a group of MA students is a ‘cohort’, though for me that sounds too much like Asterix the Gaul.
There is a moment of drama in the pub, when one customer – not one of our party it must be said – hurls his empty glass against the wall behind the counter. The glass shatters spectacularly into a starburst of tiny pieces, like a firework, though no one seems to be hurt. The hubbub duly stops and everyone watches.
This glass-thrower – whose patron saint must be Robert Carlyle’s character in Trainspotting – explains at some volume that it was really, definitely, his time to be served next.
Presumably it hadn’t occurred to him that (a) he wasn’t getting served for a reason, and that (b) throwing a glass against a wall is more likely to prevent one from ever being served in that pub again. How fascinating the logic of the drunken mind.
The burlier men in the room realise that Christmas has come early. They now have the whole pub’s implied permission to grapple this fellow out onto the street, and perhaps even get a few punches in for good measure. This they do with gusto. The joy of righteous violence: it almost makes one want to take up rugby. Sadly, the police arrive in minutes.
I notice how bar fights in real life are so unlike the choreographed ones in films. There’s little actual punching; more a series of headlocks and holding. Indeed, more like actual rugby.
Afterwards I notice there’s another under-discussed element to real life fighting: embarrassment. It’s in that moment of silence when everyone realises there is a troublemaker in the room, and that someone, ideally someone large, and more ideally several large someones, will indeed have to Do Something.
I was further disappointed that a pub fight in Bloomsbury didn’t involve rolled up copies of the London Review of Books.
16 December. I visit the Heath Robinson museum in Pinner. One display has a fan letter from the WW1 trenches, suggesting a joke to Mr Heath R. Some sections of No Man’s Land, says the soldier, are so narrow that one could use a fishing rod to steal souvenirs from the enemy. Heath Robinson used the idea in a subsequent cartoon.
18 December. Tate Britain. A brilliant video installation, Wot U :-) about?, by an artist I’d not seen before, Rachel Maclean. It depicts a nightmare world where social media controls bodies. She plays all the parts in the film, but is so buried under digital effects and masks that one would never recognise her. There’s a touch of Leigh Bowery about the characters: clownish faces with brightly coloured make-up. Demented Pac-Men, and indeed Pac-Women.
20 December. Film: Uncle Howard. ICA. Documentary on an 80s NYC filmmaker whose career was abruptly shortened by AIDS. Has glimpses of an abandoned film starring Madonna.
22nd December. Mum in town. We visit the 1920s exhibition in the Fashion Museum, Bermondsey. A lot of dresses resembling pyjamas, frankly. Helps illustrate the view that the 20s were full of lightness, invention and abandon, while the 1930s were when things became buttoned down, in every sense. No distance like the recent past. Also: a bonus display of frocks from the recent Gatsby film.
24th December. Film: Paterson. Curzon Bloomsbury. After the action of Star Wars, Adam Driver fronts an inaction film. Signifiers of quiet US dramas: a small town’s name as the title. See also Manchester by the Sea. Perhaps one can blame Paris, Texas.
English place names can do the same sort of thing – from ‘Adlestrop’ to Broadchurch. But they can also produce a wry bathos, which I think is exclusively English. Peter Sellers’s ‘Balham – Gateway to the South’ in the 60s. Billy Bragg’s parody of ‘Route 66’ as ‘A13 – Trunk Road to the Sea’. ‘Wichita Lineman’ is soulful, ‘Widnes GPO Man’ less so.
25th December. Highgate. Ducks in Waterlow Park, Frozen, Doctor Who.
28th December. To the Harold Pinter Theatre with Minna Miller, for Nice Fish, a new absurdist play with Mark Rylance. Cocktails at the RA’s plush Academicians’ Room after.
31st December. New Year’s Eve in Suffolk, with Mum. We watch the Crown’s fireworks from the garden.
Wednesday 11th January 2017. Working on my PhD proposal alongside the essay. My last module of regular taught classes begins. I’ve opted for ‘The Horror, The Horror’, taught by Roger Luckhurst. Professor L knows his stuff: he’s written academic books on mummies and zombies, and edited the present Oxford World’s Classics editions of Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, and HP Lovecraft’s short stories.
One theme of the module is the idea of two sorts of ‘horror’: a more literary ‘high’ category, as in Dorian Gray, and a ‘low’, trashier version, such as Saw 3. In the case of HP Lovecraft, some works have journeyed from the ‘low’ to the ‘high’; albeit a precarious sort of ‘high’. RL tells us how hard it was to convince the gatekeepers of the OUP that Mr Lovecraft’s tentacle-based tales are worthy of inclusion alongside Chekhov, Dickens, and Austen.
Reading ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ now, I do find myself chucking aloud at some of the sillier excesses. But when considering the horror genre, Lovecraft’s influence is monumental.
We kick off with Arthur Machen’s Novel of the White Powder. Like Dorian and Jekyll, it gestures at the things a young single man might get up to, when on a night out in London. Horrors indeed.
Sunday 15 January. Watch the (possibly) last ever episode of Sherlock in the biggest room possible: the Odeon Leicester Square. Even though the episode is being transmitted on TV at the same time, and for free, the organisers know there’s enough people keen to pay £10 or so to see it on the big screen, in the company of fellow fans. The cinema has truly been reinvented as a special (British) space first, and an advertising board of Hollywood second. There are cheers when Moriarty appears to have returned from the dead. Then boos, when a caption quickly reveals it’s a flashback. I see a couple of Sherlock fans wearing deerstalkers. Both are women.
Saturday 21st January. Green Park station is crammed with people on their way to the women’s march against Mr Trump. One placard has a picture of a cat: ‘Try grabbing this pussy’. Despite the crowds making everyone’s exit from the station a much slower experience, the atmosphere is quite unlike the miserable air one feels from the crowds at rush hour. Here, there’s a fun, even joyous feel to it all.
A barista in Costa Piccadilly tells me that the big protests are always good business for him. A protest marches on its stomach.
Monday 23rd January. Delivered the dandyism essay. Then off to my PhD application interview in Gordon Square. I am offered an unconditional place on the course, but will have to spend the next few weeks revising my proposal even more. This time, it’s for the second and much harder stage of the process – the competition for funding. I’m told I’ll hear back about the result in early April.
Wednesday 25th January. To a literary event at Birkbeck: Eimear McBride interviewed by Jacqueline Rose. The hall is packed out, with people standing at the back, some sitting on the floor. Ms Rose makes it clear she regards Ms McBride as an important talent, almost in messianic terms: ‘I felt I was waiting for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’. But this means that her questions are all the more serious and worthwhile. In Joe Brooker’s write-up of the event, he points out there’s a history of such critic-and-artist double acts, going back to Ruskin and Turner. I also thought of David Sylvester and Francis Bacon. Sylvester’s interviews with Bacon are essential reading for anyone wanting to create.
Much has been made of the influence of Joyce and Beckett on McBride, but tonight she names a more recent cultural lodestone: the 1990s playwright Sarah Kane. Which makes perfect sense to me.
Saturday 28th January. Back in London. First night alone after Tom’s death. Consoled by kind staff and friends at the Boogaloo, especially David Ryder-Prangley. I’m something of a drunken mess towards the end of the night, but am grateful that there are people out there who will drop everything to help.
Tuesday 7th February. Eyes tested at Boots, Victoria Street. One test involves reading a passage of prose from a piece of laminated card. This turns out to be an extract from Brideshead Revisited.
Monday 13 February. I get the essay mark back: 74. That’s three out of three first class marks on the MA so far. One more essay to do for Easter, then the big dissertation in the summer.
Thursday 16 February. To take my mind off things, I go to the ICA to see the most talked-about drama of the moment, Manchester by the Sea. It is only as it starts that I realise it’s about the aftermath of a brother’s death. When Dad died, the book I was writing about was Fun Home. Which is about a father’s death. But that’s stories for you. Only ‘seven basic plots’ (and some insist there’s only three).
A highlight of Manchester is a moment of farce. The Casey Affleck character is driving his nephew around. At one point, when the car is parked, he mistakes the meaning of the nephew saying ‘Let’s go’ and starts to drive away. The nephew is actually opening the passenger door to get out, and nearly does himself an injury. It’s an entirely unnecessary scene in terms of the plot, but it works brilliantly within the whole structure of the film, balancing the more dramatic moments.
Monday 20th February. Reading Tobias Wolff’s Old School. Page 53:
‘Grief can only be told in form. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry. Sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo’.
Tuesday 21st February. Woolf’s diary for 13th June 1923: ‘Going to 46 (Gordon Square) continues to excite’. Same here, Virginia.
Friday 24th February. The final line in Old School is a reference to the parable of The Prodigal Son, elegantly paraphrased by Wolff:
‘Those old words, surely the most beautiful words ever written or said: “His father, when he saw him coming, ran to meet him.”’
Monday 27 February. To Seven Hills Crematorium, on the dark side of the Ipswich ring-road. Tom’s favourite guitar is propped up in front of his coffin.
Mum points out how it’s virtually three years to the day since Dad’s funeral. Same chapel. The same funeral directors, Deacon’s of Lavenham. The same celebrant, Chris Woods, at our request. It’s best to have a professional running these things, especially in the case of an unexpected death. If emotion overwhelms a speaker, the celebrant knows how to step in.
Today Mr Woods keeps up the required tone of civic dignity, even when uttering names like Fields of the Nephilim. I think of the moment in the Patrick Keiller film Robinson in Space where the narrator, Paul Schofield, has to fold his soft, 1940s vowels around the words ‘Adam Ant’. Indeed, Mr Ant is mentioned today as well, and much of his present band – Tom’s colleagues – are here in person.
Besides, I remember that this is Suffolk, home to so many goth and metal bands in itself. It’s not impossible that this room has hosted send-offs for the grandmothers of Cradle of Filth.
Boxes of tissues punctuate the hymn books in front of each pew. For some reason, perhaps an over-ordering of supplies, today’s boxes of Kleenex are packaged in a Christmas theme. I spend much of my brother’s funeral staring out a cartoon snowman. Tom would be the first to find this funny.
There’s speeches by Tom’s partner Charis and his best friend, Ewan. Ewan speaks for many when he goes off-script, sighs, looks at the coffin and says, ‘I still can’t believe it, to be honest’.
I’ve provided Chris W with memories of my own to read out, but spend the ceremony at Mum’s side in the congregation. Holly, Tom’s daughter, is at Mum’s other side. There’s a poem by Holly, a reading of Tagore’s ‘Peace My Heart’, and recorded music by Warren Zevon’s ‘Keep Me In Your Heart’, along with several tracks by Tom’s own band Spiderbites.
Then to the Ship Inn in nearby Levington for drinks and food. The pub looks over the Orwell estuary, with the container port at Felixstowe visible in the distance. Another coincidence, as I’m currently reading Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie, a recommended text for the class on horror fiction. There’s a chapter about the ‘eerie’ nature of this very part of Britain, where Fisher himself lived until his own untimely death last month (I didn’t know him, but I liked his work).
In the book, Fisher ties in the contemporary spookiness of Felixstowe’s container port with the rural desolation of the surrounding marshes, the latter used in M.R. James’s Edwardian ghost stories.
Fisher also defines the weird (as in the goings-on in HP Lovecraft) as ‘something where there should be nothing’, while the eerie (his prime example is Picnic At Hanging Rock) is ‘nothing where there should be something’.
Today I do a lot of gracious listening and a lot of thanking. I’m especially grateful to be able to pay all the bills related to Tom’s death, thanks to the memorial fund. The last few weeks have not been easy, but paying off the bills was my own moment of moving forward.
Sunday 26th February. Back to the little things. I look at a display at the London Library about damaged books. I learn a word, culaccino. The circular mark made by a wet mug or glass.
Wednesday 1st March. I start work on the horror essay. Tempted to call Clive Barker ‘Alan Hollinghurst with tentacles’. After reading The Weird and the Eerie, I realise Barker sees the weird as a queer antidote to the eerie. If the weird is ‘something where there should be nothing’, Barker puts a positive spin on this – as does Hollinghurst in The Swimming-Pool Library. Art as the ‘children’ of the childless, which often includes gay people. Barker and Hollinghurst both believe in showing things – the explicit rather than the implicit. Sometimes it’s better to be weird than to be eerie. So that’s the gist of my essay. Typically, I discover that the first major collection of academic essays on Barker is about to be published, but not until the autumn.
Tuesday 7 March. With Charis and her friends to O’Neills in Wardour Street, Soho, once The Wag Club. A private night to celebrate Tom’s life, put on by and for his friends, particularly the ones that are fellow musicians. The hosts are Andy and Joe from Spiderbites. Tom played here in the past, and indeed so did I in various bands. As it’s a private function, the bar staff treat the people in the room as employers rather than customers, and let us hang around long into the small hours.
There’s a screening of some home movie clips of Tom onstage and off, then the rest of the night is musical performances. A rotating supergroup of people from different times in Tom’s life, some playing together for the first and perhaps only time. Ewan B digs out a song he wrote with Tom when they were children; I think I’m the only person in the audience familiar with it.
Back to Charis’s hotel room at the Camden Holiday Inn afterwards, drinking to nearly 5am. The hotel has a street map in the foyer with all the rock and roll history of the area. Camden these days is Carnaby Street with tattoos.
Saturday 25 March. At 4pm I sit in the cafe in Russell Square Gardens. I have a late lunch then do some reading. For some reason, the cafe’s plastic owl is sitting on the table next to me. It’s normally outside on a pole, doing its moulded upmost to scare away pigeons. A passing stranger says that the two of us would make for a good photo. I oblige. He asks for my email address and sends the photo to me. We chat about the lack of effectiveness of the owl, given the pigeons happily invading all the tables outside. On another pole is a rubber hawk.
Photo by Phoenix Anthony Robins
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Tags: alan hollinghurst
, brideshead revisited
, clive barker
, evelyn waugh
, hp lovecraft
, mark fisher
, plastic owls
, Tom Edwards
Cool Guitar Boy
(The title is a song by Heavenly)
Tuesday 21st February 2017. I need to restart this diary. I deliberately took a break in the New Year because a couple of college tasks were getting on top of me: an MA essay and a proposal for a PhD. Then I had to revise the proposal for a PhD funding bid, so that went on even longer. But both tasks are over now. The essay won a First Class / Distinction – my third out of three so far. I’ll hear back about the funding soon.
Of the last few weeks, one event eclipses everything else. I have to get that – I want to say ‘out of the way’, but that sounds wrong. I’ve tried writing this entry so many times, then giving up. Death is hard enough to write about when the person is older and ill, as was the case with Dad three years ago. A much younger death is harder; a sudden death is harder still. Whatever I write, I will almost certainly make a mess of it. But I have to start.
Doing so on a birthday has an aptness to it. A new start.
So my younger brother Tom would have been 42 today. Born 21st February 1975. Died 25th January 2017. He was my only sibling.
This time last year, I took him for a Sunday lunch at the Crown and Two Chairmen in Soho. It was just the two of us, talking about music and TV comedy and life, passing the time, enjoying each other’s company.
He died very suddenly and very unexpectedly. He was working as a guitarist and musical director for Adam Ant’s band, and they had just begun a tour of North America. The person who called Mum from the New Jersey hospital was kind enough to wait a few hours until it was morning in the UK. Mum got the call in Suffolk soon after 7am on Thursday 26th. Then she called me. I got on the next train from Liverpool Street to Ipswich, then took a cab from the station to the village.
I spent the next two days staying with Mum, hardly leaving the house. I vetted the constant phone calls, and did my utmost to protect Mum’s nerves. I figured that a certain throttling back of the calls would be helpful: many callers simply wanted to leave a message of condolence, rather than have a conversation. So I answered the phone and tried not to pass every single call on to Mum, like a gatekeeper. As it was, some of her friends could barely speak with grief themselves.
When there were no phone calls, Mum and I just sat in the front room together, in silence.
Mum: I don’t know what to say.
Me: Well, there’s no manual.
But there was a little moment of black comedy. In the taxi on the way to Mum’s that first morning, I realised I didn’t have the cash for it – it was £30. I stopped the taxi at a service station on the bypass outside Hadleigh, the nearest town, where there was an ATM. Oone easily forgets about such rural rarities. As I came back out of the shop, I walked over to where the cab had stopped by the pumps and tugged repeatedly at the door handle. It seemed to be locked. I glanced in the windows to see that the cabbie had been replaced by a small terrified woman, who was doing a lot of head-shaking and finger-pointing. The wrong car. I seemed not to have registered the lack of a massive white ‘TAXI’ sign on the roof.
Looking around, I spotted the cab, parked further on in the forecourt. The cabbie was out of the car, waving to me. He’d moved to let others use the pumps, of course. Not that this occurred to me.
My own solipsism aside, I think there’s an element of (understandable) self-centredness with grief. Grief is the thing with blinkers.
Some thoughts about Tom.
Being a sibling is a predicament. Some are better at it than others. Like all younger siblings, Tom found himself thrust into a competition for attention, against someone who’d already had a head start. Indeed someone who might not be keen on sharing. But we shared our parents’ attention without too much conflict – I can’t recall any actual fights. When Tom was small we also shared a green metal bunk bed. I can’t recall if there were any arguments over who got which bunk; we just got on with it.
But I now realise how good Tom was at sharing. He could ascertain what other people wanted, and how strongly they felt about it, and work around that. It was a talent that not only won him many friends, but also served him well when playing in bands. Musical ability is not enough on its own. When a group splits up, it’s often due to the lack of another skill, one which Tom had in abundance: diplomacy. So in Tom’s case, a good brother made for an excellent band member.
And if music is territorial, then Tom was a skilled crosser of borders. There can surely be few guitarists who can move between playing for a daytime radio-friendly artist like Andrea Corr, and the rather more divisive Fields of the Nephilim. In fact, when Tom and I were growing up, we tended to divide up music like our bunk beds: I had the introspective indie bands, he had more outgoing acts like the Beastie Boys, Prince, and (usefully as it turned out) Adam Ant.
I have a very clear memory of Tom when he was aged about 6. It was at the Butlin’s holiday camp in Clacton in the early 80s. Like many small boys, Tom found himself dressed as a pirate at the slightest opportunity, complete with a cardboard cutlass. Butlin’s ran a children’s disco, and this included a chart hit of the time that managed to be compatible with both pirate costumes and child-friendly dance routines. It was ‘Prince Charming’ by Adam Ant. I can see Tom now, a tiny boy dressed as a pirate, throwing up his arms in perfect time, committing fully, taking it seriously.
When I think about Tom, I also have in mind the title of a recent film about the band The National. It’s really about the relationships between brothers, especially brothers who play music. The title is Mistaken for Strangers. That was often the case with Tom and me, perhaps because we had divided up our respective worlds so neatly.
But despite our differences, when I sometimes needed a guitarist for my own band Fosca, Tom would help out. We played concerts together in Sweden and Britain, and he played most of the instruments on the third Fosca album. I know the music wasn’t to his taste, but that didn’t stop him. It was the brotherly thing to do.
On the 2nd of February, Mum told me that Tom’s death had left all kinds of financial loose ends and costs to be paid, not least his funeral. It would be wrong to go into a list, but when one points out that he was a freelance concert musician paying rent on a London flat, people tend to understand.
Mum wondered if we could do the internet equivalent of passing round a hat. So I launched a fundraiser page. People had been asking us if there was anything they could do, and now we had an answer. What I especially like about the fundraiser is that it also lets people leave a little tribute message.
Online fundraising for funerals and memorials is quite a common thing to do these days. It’s a nice thing to do, too. It helps stop the salt of money worries being quite so rubbed into the wound of bereavement. People have been incredibly generous so far, and I’m very grateful. I’m especially touched to see the names of some old friends whom I thought I’d fallen out with, and would never hear from again.
It’s been a painful time, but, without intending a pun on an Adam Ant song (a 90s one I rather like), a lot of people have been rather wonderful. My thanks to them. And happy birthday, Tom.
The fundaiser is at: youcaring.com/tomedwards
3rd July 2008. Me, Mum, Dad, Tom.
Tags: Tom Edwards
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.
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, 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
Oh, Those Queasy Undergraduates
Saturday 14th February 2015. Valentine’s day. I suppose, Eeyore-like, that one silver lining of an uncoupled life is that it means fewer obligations in the calendar. Today, the occasion seeks to invade spaces far beyond its agreed diocese of coupledom. Now, it infects Tube tannoy announcements. ‘This train is for Kennington via Bank,’ goes an announcer today, before adding: ‘And it’s Valentine’s Day, so make sure you appreciate the loved ones in your life’. I spend most of the journey trying to decide if this is charming, or a threat. It’s certainly out of character: taciturn misery is what one holds dear about the London Underground.
Still, what I do like are the Quotes Of The Day that now appear on the whiteboards in station entrances. Partly because they’re handwritten, often displaying a Tube staffer’s flair for calligraphy. But also because they’re silent.
Leicester Square is dominated by a gigantic hoarding for the movie of Fifty Shades of Grey, playing at the square’s main Odeon. I walk through to Charing Cross Road, and see that one of the sex shop windows is offering Fifty Shades-themed intimate accessories, proudly labelled as official merchandise for this naughty film. I suppose it makes a change from school lunchboxes.
* * *
Sunday 15th February 2015. Over 4000 words clocked up so far on the project, not including the footnotes. Past the halfway mark.
I prefer the term ‘project’ to ‘dissertation’, though they’re technically interchangeable. ‘Dissertation’ sounds obscure, dreary, a chore. ‘Project’ sounds open, hopeful, even useful.
But I also can’t think of the word ‘dissertation’, without hearing it said by Steve Coogan’s stand-up character from early 1990s TV; the intoxicated, staggering, can-swigging Mancunian, Paul Calf. ‘Bloody STEW-dents… doing their dissss-er-TAY-shuns…paying for a bag of chips… with a cheque!’
There is nothing new in students being mocked full stop, though. ‘Undergraduate’ has long been a pejorative term off-campus. It’s often used to suggest something with pretensions of cleverness, something that is ill-thought-out and fatally jejune. Complainants to Radio 4 refer to ‘undergraduate humour’, when castigating a new sketch show. It doesn’t help that the word is similar to ‘underwhelming’, and indeed, ‘underpants’.
My favourite usage is in Virginia Woolf’s diaries for 1922, where she berates a book for being written as if ‘by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’. The book in question is Ulysses.
* * *
Tuesday 17th February 2015. With Fenella H to the Wellcome Collection in Euston, for the exhibition The Institute of Sexology. Most of the visitors are female. Plenty of men on display, of course, not least Mr Freud, and Mr Kinsey, in his statutory sexologist bow tie. In fact, I wonder if sexologists eschewed long neckties because of Mr Freud.
I’m pleased to have an assumption shattered – that an exhibition on the history of sexual research has to be very serious. I’d heard there’s a museum of erotica somewhere (Italy, I think) where sniggering gets you thrown out. But here there’s a Woody Allen clip, the discussion on ‘orgasmatrons’ from Sleeper. There’s also a witty 1980s video sketch, spoofing Clause 28, as performed by Neil Bartlett. It’s more subtle and angry than Sleeper, but it’s still very funny.
Class at Birkbeck: The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich. A tale of Native American families, with touches of magical realism and mythology. I find it lacks a sense of momentum, at least on a first read, but there’s an excellent and amusing section narrated by a dog, ‘Almost Soup’. If in doubt, send in a funny dog.
* * *
Wednesday 18th February 2015. Class at Birkbeck: The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. I had no idea it was much more than just a historical novel; that it subtly filters its Victorian melodrama through an anachronistic 1960s perspective, with clever digressions on the meaning of fiction. I especially enjoy the reference to ‘the egregious McLuhan’ when explaining why a character owns no books.
* * *
Thursday 19th February 2015. To the Curzon Soho to see Love is Strange. This is a tender-hearted drama about two older gay men in New York getting married. John Lithgow is a retired 70-something, while Alfred Molina is a fifty-something music teacher at a Catholic school. Or at least he is until news of the wedding reaches his employer. There’s an excellent moment early on when, after dismissing Mr Molina in his office, the head priest asks him to stop and pray with him before leaving. He is worried that Mr M might now lose his faith, given it has lost him his job. ‘I still regard Christ as my saviour,’ replies Molina, ‘But I don’t think I can pray with you any more.’ What’s remarkable is that there aren’t any more references to his Catholicism after this – it’s as much a matter-of-fact aspect of his life as his homosexuality. Many other films would make that the main issue of the story.
What the film is really about, though, is the present cruelty of metropolitan housing markets; arguably a far more pressing issue now, more than religion or sexuality. Without Mr Molina’s job, the newly-weds are forced to sell their flat and stay separately with New York relatives and friends, until they can find somewhere affordable. They could move out of town, but they’ve become as emotionally attached to the city as they have to each other. There’s also the suggestion – quite an honest one – that a long-standing gay couple used to the city might feel uneasy about relocating to a small town community. Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears may have been the toast of Aldeburgh, Suffolk, but would Poughkeepsie, upstate NY (to give the film’s example) be quite so tolerant? Thus Love is Strange is ultimately about the way relationships can become strained, both with beloved people and beloved places. I do wonder how it’ll play in Poughkeepsie cinemas, though.
* * *
Friday 20th February 2015. To Soho Radio in Great Windmill Street, where I’m a guest for the second time on my brother Tom’s show. I burble on about the way some rock genres have changing statuses over time. ‘Shoegazing’ was once a music press insult for a group of early 90s UK indie bands, all of whom made a dreamy, fuzzy racket with their guitars while staring intently at their footwear. Not because the shoes in question were particularly interesting, but because ‘showmanship’ was a dirty word. Even looking up through one’s fringe, to make the slightest eye contact with the audience, was tantamount to artistic death. Come the more heads-up, personality-based era of Britpop in the mid 90s, such bands found themselves out of time, and soon split up. Today, the likes of Swervedriver, Ride, and Slowdive have quietly reformed to capitalize on what seems to be a ‘shoegazing heritage’, where their records have found a sizeable new audience, particularly in the US. Like an indie version of the Quakers’ story, the Shoegazers turned an insult into an identity.
* * *
I sit and do some studying in The Old Café, on the first floor of the old Foyles building in Charing Cross Road. The café is independent, friendly, cheap, and pleasingly ramshackle, in contrast to the new Foyles café proper, which is designed to within an inch of its life. As it is, the new Foyles café is often packed, while today The Old Café is virtually empty. A new place to meet up with friends in central London, then, and proof that the bohemian side of Soho is not yet dead.
, fifty shades of grey
, love is strange
, soho radio
, the old cafe
, Tom Edwards
, wellcome collection
Animal Hospital with Eric Gill
Tuesday 1st July 2014. To the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley. I see the film Chef, starring Jon Favreau, who also writes and directs. It has a similar ambience to Fading Gigolo, in that it’s a labour of love by one unstarry-looking Hollywood type, who has asked various more starry friends to appear in back-up roles. Just as Fading Gigolo had John Turturro supported by Woody Allen, Sharon Stone and Vanessa Paradis, Chef has smaller roles filled by Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Junior. The ludicrously pretty Sofia Vergara is also in both films, playing the lumpen hero’s lover or former lover. The lead casting of Chef is rather more believable than Fading Gigolo, though. Whereas Mr Turturro seemed an implausible male escort, Mr Favreau makes an entirely convincing chef. Not least because he’s put on a fair amount of weight since he starred in Swingers – something that his own script makes jokes about.
The plot isn’t much – a top restaurant chef quits his job and runs his own sandwich van instead – but the detail is very up-to-date, particularly the depiction of the way Facebook and Twitter have become woven into lives. When a character in Chef writes a Tweet on a phone or laptop, a little input screen appears around their head. Once they click on ‘Post’, the floating screen turns into a tiny Disney-esque cartoon bird, which then flies off to do its work – or do its damage.
There isn’t much more to this film than an expression of Mr Favreau’s passion for good food, but it’s probably the happiest-feeling film I’ve seen in a long time. For all its slightness, it makes the East Finchley audience applaud at the end, and that doesn’t happen very often. The Phoenix cinema café has even changed its usual menu to match the film: it’s currently offering the same Cubanos sandwiches that Mr Favreau makes.
* * *
Wednesday 2nd July 2014. Hottest week of the year so far. Today I take advantage of the British Library’s air conditioning, skulking in the Rare Books Reading Room like the delicate object I am. I’m researching definitions of literary camp. One I’ve found – in Gary McMahon’s book Camp In Literature – contrasts camp with nineteenth century Decadence. Decadence is more about indulgence to the point of decay, while Camp blooms. Thus Dorian Gray is mainly Decadent, while Aubrey Beardsley’s art is mainly camp. His laughing fat woman on the cover of The Yellow Book is very much not heading for decay or doom. She’s taking on the wider world, and here to stay. Thus, she is camp.
* * *
Thursday 3rd July 2014. I’m standing at the bus stop in Muswell Hill, wearing a cream jacket and tie plus my near-matching new linen trousers, which I purchased cheaply from Uniqlo, on Oxford Street. At the bus stop, a woman passes me and remarks, ‘You look cool’, without stopping. I say thank you, though I do so warily, bracing myself for a mocking follow-up. I’m too used to people in London being sarcastic about my appearance. There was the woman who once blew a kiss at me from a passing car window on the Archway Road, only to shout back ‘NOT REALLY!’ as the car drove off. Or the young man at a Notting Hill bar who once chatted pleasantly to me and asked for my phone number, only to then send a series of insulting text messages after we’d parted.
I contrast this with my two trips to New York. There I also received unsolicited compliments from strangers, but ones which were clearly sincere from the off. Londoners are rather more mistrustful of each other than New Yorkers – the lack of speaking on the Tube being a good example. With guns banned, Londoners take instead to fearing words.
So when it comes to this latest surprise compliment offered to me at the Muswell Hill bus stop, my instinct is to put up my guard. But I have to assume the woman meant her compliment sincerely. I thus try my best to cover my instinctive wariness with enough outward signs of graciousness. Perform, perform, perform. All life is acting work.
* * *
Friday 4th July 2014. Rolf Harris gets five years in jail for assaults on young girls. Unlike that other children’s entertainer Jimmy Savile, who always had his rumours, Mr Harris seemed like a manifestly good man. Or rather, he did a very good impression of one. I was in the audience for the 2012 TV BAFTAs, at which he received his Fellowship award, the highest accolade one can get in British TV. It’s for a lifetime’s ‘outstanding and exceptional contribution to television’. But now I learn that the award has a condition attached. This week, BAFTA issue a single sentence as a press release:
‘The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) has made the decision to annul the BAFTA Fellowship bestowed upon Rolf Harris in 2012, following his conviction.’
So BAFTA giveth, but BAFTA can also taketh away.
I’m curious about the Orwellian effects of this. I was definitely at the 2012 ceremony, and the award was definitely given to Mr H. But today, all the articles on the BAFTA website related to Harris have been either updated to mark the annulment, or removed altogether. Any URLS which once linked to interviews with him now redirect back to the website’s front page. Such is the modern extent of disgrace – URL redirection. Today, the 2012 Fellowship is just listed on the BAFTA site as ‘n/a’.
As someone who believes in trusting the art not the artist, I’m uneasy about private disgrace being extended to undermine public achievements. But then, I suppose Rolf Harris is not, say, Eric Gill. Mr Harris’s programmes were ephemeral, not made to be repeated forever (which is now just as well), and they were very much based upon his chosen persona of someone to trust around children. Eric Gill, however, who made lasting and beautiful sculptures in public while committing bestiality (and much besides) in private, did not present Animal Hospital. Still, this news proves that to be given a BAFTA Fellowship is not just to be told ‘well done’, but also ‘behave’.
It used to be the case that whenever one spoke of meeting a TV celebrity, the follow up question was always, ‘were they nice?’
Now it might be, ‘did you have any idea?’
Evening: to the Barbican with Ms Charis and Ed, for a Neil Gaiman event. Gaiman is accompanied by the Australian FourPlay String Quartet, who use the classical quartet set up in an unusual and versatile way. There’s lots of rhythmical scraping, strumming and slapping, the cello often becomes the equivalent of a bass guitar, and the viola is sometimes played like a ukulele. The main piece of the evening is ‘The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains’, a Gaiman long-ish short story (or a ‘novelette’, as in shorter than a novella). It’s a kind of Walter Scott fantasy tale, about a Scottish dwarf from the Lowlands travelling to a cave rumoured to be filled with gold. Mr G reads this beautifully, while FourPlay perform a soundtrack and illustrations by Eddie Campbell are projected on a screen.
FourPlay also play a short set on their own, including a cover of the Doctor Who theme. And as well as the main piece, Mr Gaiman reads some shorter stories: the older one ‘The Day The Saucers Came’ plus two from his Blackberry project, A Calendar of Tales. ‘July’ is set on the 4th of July, making perfect sense to be read tonight, while ‘October’ is my favourite of the evening, about a genie whose liberator doesn’t actually want the usual three wishes.
But more unexpectedly, Neil Gaiman also sings. He gently croons a couple of arch songs, with FourPlay as his backing band. One is his own ‘I Google You’, which is the sort of thing I imagine Tom Lehrer writing now (if he hadn’t retired). Another is ‘Psycho’, which could be a Magnetic Fields ditty or possibly one by his wife, Amanda Palmer. But in fact, thanks to Google (what else), it turns out to a Leon Payne song, first recorded in 1968 by Eddie Noack. Elvis Costello has covered it too.
Afterwards: to the Phoenix pub in Cavendish Square for drinks until midnight, where I meet Tom with members of his new band, Spiderbites. Something the Edwards brothers have in common: we both shun our natural brown hair. Tom’s hair is now pink, while I’m freshly re-blonded.
Tags: aubrey beardsley
, dorian gray
, neil gaiman
, rolf harris
, Tom Edwards
Gary Kemp’s First Wok
Saturday 31st May 2014. To the New Rose pub in Essex Road for Taylor and Sam’s birthday drinks. I chat to: Ella & Kosmos, Sarah Bee, Andrew Mueller, Suzanne, Seaneen & Robert, and Richard. The New Rose is something of a rock-fan compatible bar, with used festival wristbands dangling from the ceiling. It encourages festival goers to stop by on their way home from Glastonbury or wherever, and promises them a free drink in exchange for their wristbands.
* * *
Sunday 1st June 2014. To a birthday picnic in Regent’s Park (or THE Regent’s Park as it’s officially called now), this time for Martin Wallace. Martin sends me an invite in the post – first class, too. I recognise the illustration he uses: Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose. The weather is sunny, the park teeming with picnicking people, wandering toddlers, panting dogs. I’ve known Martin on and off since – and we work this out today – 1995. It was at Erol Alkan’s indie disco, ‘Going Underground’, at Plastic People in Oxford Street. Since then he fronted the band The Boyfriends, and more recently did the very same course at Birkbeck as me: BA English. He finished it just as I was starting. We bumped into each other in the student bar on the day he had his final exam. Since then we’ve stayed in touch, and he’s given me lots of invaluable study advice, which I in turn pass on to my classmates, ‘paying it forward’, as they say. Some things haven’t changed, though: we rave about the latest Morrissey record, ‘Istanbul’.
* * *
Tuesday 3rd June 2014. To the ICA to see The Punk Singer, a film-length documentary. It’s about Kathleen Hanna, who fronted the Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill in the 1990s, and then the electronic group Le Tigre after that. The topics discussed are deserving of a much wider audience than fans of Ms Hanna’s music. For instance, there’s the various issues of women in music, not just as artistes but as audience members. It reminds me of the clichéd media image of female fans at rock festivals – a girl sitting on a boy’s shoulders in the crowd. Every year, the press coverage of Glastonbury seems to include such an image. There’s rarely any asking of why it is a cliché. No addressing of how women might have a hard time getting a decent view of the band.
But Ms Hanna was known to stop her own gigs and demand that the men get out of the way and let the women move down to the front. The gigs are now over twenty years old, yet the idea is still provocative and relevant. Everyone with the slightest interest in rock and pop music should see this film.
Here’s a quote from Ms Hanna which stayed with me:
‘When a man tells the truth, it’s the truth. But as a woman, when I go to tell the truth, I feel like I have to negotiate how I’m perceived.’
I don’t think that feeling is limited to the world of indie bands.
* * *
Wednesday 4th June 2014. I read The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller. It’s a guilty pleasure: a book about books which I read when I know I should be instead reading the very books he discusses (ie good novels). The idea behind this one is that it’s an account of finally tackling all the classics Mr Miller has lied about reading for so long: Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Middlemarch. Much of Mr Miller’s childhood and taste is close to mine: he includes his schoolboy Puffin Club bookplate, which gives me a Proustian shudder, and is a fellow admirer of Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park With George, though he goes on the defensive about liking musicals (no need; be proud!). I am even familiar with ‘I Start Counting’, a Basil Kirchin song from a Truck Records compilation, which Mr Miller uses to wake up to.
After conquering his self-prescribed list of books, he says it hasn’t necessarily made him a better person; all that’s changed is that he can say he’s read those books. And being well-read is certainly no protection against literary errors. ‘Reader, I married him’ is not a quote by Jane Austen. It’s from Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. Mr Miller has got his Janes in a twist.
* * *
Thursday 5th June 2014. Something of an Edwards family day. In the morning I am a guest on my brother Tom’s music programme for Soho Radio, which broadcasts on the internet from a café on Great Windmill Street. Tom’s remit is mainstream rock, metal, goth and punk. I wear the Sebastian Horsley suit, partly because it plays up the Soho factor, but mainly because SH was more into that sort of music than me. So in tribute to him, I play three of his favourite songs, as listed in some editions of Dandy In The Underworld: ‘C’mon and Love Me’ by Kiss, ‘Double Talkin’ Jive’ by Guns N’ Roses, and ‘Personality Crisis’ by the New York Dolls.
Here’s the other songs I play, comprising my own favourite noisy records:
– My Bloody Valentine – When You Sleep (their concerts can damage the ears, yet their records can soothe and even heal; a friend used them to recover from a mental breakdown. She could only listen to MBV. The comfort of white noise.)
– Dressy Bessy – Girl You Shout! (love the muttered ‘sorry!’ at the 2.55 mark. More records should apologise for themselves.)
– Xiu Xiu – I Luv The Valley OH! (the volume of the screamed ‘OH!’ still impresses)
– Nirvana – Sliver (my idea of heavy metal; love how the guitar noise at the beginning always comes in at the moment you least expect)
– Pale Saints – She Rides The Waves (femme sweetness in butch noise)
– David Bowie – Queen Bitch (how an influential artist is himself a praise singer of his own influences – Velvets in this case)
– Dinosaur Jr – Just Like Heaven (the most irritating ending in rock)
– Bikini Kill – Rebel Girl (which opens The Punk Singer)
– Dresden Dolls – Girl Anachronism (my idea of a favourite ‘goth’ song, I suppose)
– Pixies – Gigantic (by coincidence, Tom was going to play this anyway. We are Pixies-brothers!)
* * *
In the evening: to Carlyle’s House in Chelsea for a talk by my mother. It’s on the story of quilts and the art of quilt-making. The evening is a marriage of two worlds for me, as the event is organised by Suzette Field of the Last Tuesday Society, who have booked me as a DJ on countless occasions for the last few years. A third world is present too, in fact, as I am still wearing Sebastian Horsley’s suit.
I’ve been reading about ‘female only spaces’ on Twitter, and Mum’s event reminds me that the issue is not new in the slightest. Women have used quilt-making as a way of securing time away from men for centuries. The only men in the audience are myself and Russell Taylor, Suzette’s partner. Mum is an engaging and eloquent public speaker – indeed, she’s done this sort of thing all over the world for years. I don’t know if TED Talks have quilt makers, but if they do, they need to book my mother.
Carlyle’s House is a painstakingly preserved Victorian home, once domain to Thomas Carlyle, he of the London Library. Who to compare him to today – a public intellectual who had the great and the good to tea? A more party-giving Will Self? Clive James? Melvyn Bragg? Certainly if Carlyle were alive today, he’d definitely have his own TV chat show. It’s a reminder that a house has a third use these days, after a machine for living in and a machine for making money (at the expense of those who just want somewhere to live). It can also be a vital machine for teaching, in this case about the way we used to live.
At the talk, the National Trust custodians serve wine. But they only allow white wine, not red, and you can’t take drinks into the upstairs rooms. So I have yet to visit the upstairs rooms.
* * *
Friday 6th June 2014.
To Ronnie Scott’s for a lunchtime event about Soho and songwriting, part of the ‘Soho Create’ festival. David Hepworth interviews Gary Kemp, the songwriter of Spandau Ballet, and Tim Arnold, once of the 90s band Jocasta, and now a devoted songwriter about Soho per se. Mr Kemp says that he was the lead actor in a Children’s Film Foundation film, long before he was a pop star. I look this up afterwards – the film in question was Hide And Seek (1972).
A quote from Gary Kemp at this event: ‘I remember when I started mixing with middle class boys. It was when I saw my first wok.’
* * *
I receive two further marks from the BA English course, both of which finish off their respective modules. For my piece on Jane Austen and William Beckford, I get 77. This makes an overall grade of 76 for the ‘Romantic Age’ half-module: a First. For my essay on Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled and the film Inception I get an 80, making my overall grade for the ‘21st Century’ module also an 80. So a First there too.
I just have the last ‘Fin De Siècle’ essay to come back and that will be the whole third year graded. I know I shouldn’t judge the year until I get that last mark. But I’m very, very, very pleased about it so far.
* * *
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Tags: andy miller
, carlyle's house
, gary kemp
, lynne edwards
, martin wallace
, new rose
, Sebastian Horsley
, soho radio
, suzette field
, taylor parkes
, tim arnold
, Tom Edwards
, year of reading dangerously
Waking With Anita
I’ve written a piece in the New Escapologist, issue #8. It’s about Fun. The issue is available now: you can click here to buy it.
Christmas and New Year exploits: a lot of essay writing, or essay avoiding. But I still managed to do the following.
Christmas Day 2012: Fed the ducks in Waterlow Park once again (every year since 2001, I think). With Ms Silke once again too, though this year she’s moved. No longer in Highgate but Holloway, and she walked all the way to Highgate and back to do the duck feeding with me. We stood by the pond and drank mulled wine from a flask and ate chocolate reindeer, which looked suspiciously like Easter bunnies in a different foil wrapper. Ms S is still working at Archway Video, but it now looks likely that it’ll close for good sometime in 2013. Physical DVD libraries are struggling in the era of iPads, Netflix, TV catch-up services, iTunes and so on. A lot of Highgate customers have sensed this might be AV’s last Christmas, and have sent the shop a record number of Christmas cards this year. After we fed the ducks, Silke opened up the shop and showed me them all, including a card from Ray Davies of the Kinks. She lent me three DVDs: Cabin in the Woods (because I like Joss Whedon), Die Hard (because it’s apparently a good Christmas film), and Five Year Engagement (because I like Emily Blunt and romcoms).
Saw two of the three. Die Hard isn’t really my cup of tea, and isn’t that Christmassy really. But I’m glad I finally saw it, just in case I turned out to be an action movie fan on the sly. Alan Rickman steals the show, purring his way through the gunfire.
Cabin In The Woods: Loved its quips & sheer nerve. Much closer to Buffy (which I love). Pure Joss Whedon in tone, even though he only co-wrote it. Plays with the idea of cheating the audience out of the ending they think they want. Clever, cheeky, self-aware.
Boxing Day: Lavish meal and drinks in Crouch End courtesy Suzi Livingstone. Chatted to Anna Spivack and Suzi’s New Zealand friend Dianne. Discussion about NZ music: Headless Chickens, Chris Knox. Argument over whether Crowded House count as a New Zealand or an Australia band. ‘Well, the talented ones were from New Zealand…’
Thurs December 27th: To the Stapleton Tavern near Crouch Hill for Alex Sarll’s birthday. Dozens of people there. I ended up promising to attend the Joanne Joanne gig the next day, at least three of whom were at this gathering (Charley Stone the guitarist, Jo Bevan the singer, Other Jo whom I don’t know but who is an excellent bassist). Joanne Joanne is an all-female band who only play Duran Duran songs – but mainly their lesser known, more interesting songs. ‘Because the real Duran Duran are forced to do all the hits.’ I love that the name isn’t just a pun; there really are two Joannes in Joanne Joanne.
Friday 28th: Joanne Joanne at the Lexington: brilliant, particularly on ‘Hold Back The Rain’, ‘The Chauffeur’ and ‘Planet Earth’. Chatted to Deb Googe of MBV, who says the new My Bloody Valentine album might really, actually, really, no honestly, come back, be released in 2013. Also spoke to Kirsten, Lea Andrews, Katharine Gifford, Kevin Reinhardt, many others. Hung around with Sophia Wyeth as she DJ’d downstairs till chucking out time. Drank too much and probably annoyed people. Woke up the next day with the amnesia and paranoia of such indulgence. Realised I was sharing the bed with an old Anita Brookner novel, which I don’t remember acquiring.
Other people wake up after a drunken night out having somehow gained a traffic cone or a torn poster from a wall or indeed a person. I emerge with an old Anita Brookner novel.
It’s very good, though: Lewis Percy.
Sat 29th: DJ-d at the Coronet in the Elephant & Castle for the Last Tuesday Society. Was still very hungover from the night before, and didn’t stay long after finishing at midnight. Think they enjoyed my DJ-ing. Had a few drinks by way of hair of the dog, but resolved to take a break after this night.
Monday 31st: Met Laurence Hughes for tea at Forks, on the other side of Highgate hill. Very nice sofas, hand made mince pies, cheap pots of tea. Watched the Jools Hootenanny to see my brother Tom playing guitar with Adam Ant’s band: so very proud of him.
Tuesday 1st: Dinner with Ella Lucas in the Turkish bistro – Bistro Laz – on West Hill. Just what I needed: was going a bit mad with all the essay worry.
Since then, it’s been essay work, or feeling ill (third cold in two months, varicose vein pains), or putting off essay work then making myself even more ill when I realise how behind I am. Thankfully today was productive purely down to making myself a timetable with reasonable goals in each session, then sticking to that.
A wish for 2013? I’d like it to be the year when I finally feel like I’m ‘right’ in my life. (to which a friend said, ‘That’s how everyone feels!’) The college course is great, but it’s not meant to be my whole life. I need to do more – and I want to do more. The trick is to timetable it all. Like this: I wrote ‘9.30-10.30pm: diary catch-up’, and here it is. Seems so silly.
Have promised to lay off alcohol for a couple of months. Teetotal since December 31st and counting.
(Sorry that this is too long. Not sorry that I got it done…)
Tags: catching up
, charley stone
, DJ gigs
, drinking too much
, giving up drinking
, joanne joanne
, last tuesday society
, starting the diary after a dry spell
, Tom Edwards
, varicose tiresomeness
The Haircut That Moves Between Worlds
Preparing to go out to two soirees: a birthday gathering at the Flask in Highgate, then onto the Phoenix in Cavendish Square to DJ at How Does It Feel To Be Loved. Always a pleasure to do the latter as it means I can indulge my lesser aired taste in 60s girl group pop alongside 80s jangly guitar indie.
Thursday last was DJ-ing at the Boogaloo for Beautiful & Damned, the warm up for our slot at next month’s Latitude Festival. We put on the silent movie Pandora’s Box by way of a backdrop. Louise Brooks’s iconic bob hairdo always looks more extreme than one expects: from some angles it’s nearly a butch crop. In one scene she wears a helmet-like black hat which actually looks exactly the same as her hair. When she takes the hat off, there’s no overall difference. It’s like someone wearing two pairs of glasses.
It dawns on me that the haircut also crosses over for both of my DJ-iing incarnations this week. How Does It Feel… runs a label for latterday indiepop groups, one of which, the Pocketbooks, has a girl singer whose hair is pure Ms Brooks – or indeed the singer from Swing Out Sister, echoing the 80s echoing the 60s echoing the 20s. Some music scenes are joined at the haircut.
But never mind my own dipping into different worlds – Fosca’s Tom Edwards, my brother, is now playing guitar for none other than Edwyn Collins. He replaces Roddy Frame, with his first gig being T In The Park. Quite a leap from playing with Fields of the Nephilim. Though not such a leap, of course, from playing with Fosca.
Tom tells me much of Mr Collins’s back catalogue is more muso-y and trickier to play than you might expect from the Godfather of Indie. Even though those early recordings with Orange Juice are often out of tune and vocally wavering (in all the right ways) the guitar lines are elaborate and downright fiddly to copy. With the notable exception of the break in ‘Rip It Up’, Orange Juice’s only bona fide chart hit. Amid all the polished funk-pop production, Edwyn sings ‘And my favourite song’s entitled… ‘Boredom” before going into a replication of that Buzzcocks song’s two-note guitar solo. How many Top Of The Pops viewers got the reference at the time, heaven knows. So very sly, so very arch, so very Edwyn.
Tags: Beautiful & Damned
, edywn collins
, how does it feel to be loved
, Tom Edwards