Saturday 10th September 2016. Thoughts on the endurance of retro aesthetics. There is still no stylish way of being seen staring at a phone. The cover of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together essentially says, ‘doesn’t the sight of people on phones look like a terrible thing?’ For all Mr Jobs’s love of attractive design, the fact remains that the sight of using his pretty gadgets is not attractive. The screen upstages the body in a way that older instruments never did. The history of art is full of images of people reading books in wistful and attractive ways. The sight of people at screens has yet to signify anything other than ‘work’ or ‘product’. Not ‘beautiful’.
There was a recent book of Caitlin Moran’s journalism where she was pictured on the cover tapping at a typewriter. She subsequently explained that it was a prop for the photo shoot, and that she really writes on a laptop.
Old broken typewriters are now used as set dressing in cafes and shops. Old broken laptops, however, are more likely to be thrown away.
London’s red phone boxes are now rarely used to make calls. But they are still left in place and repainted. The ones on the corners of Russell Square are currently used as lockable office workstations available to hire. Another phone box nearby forms part of a coffee stall, functioning as a stock cupboard.
I’ve yet to see a red phone box converted into the most obvious solution, though: a urinal. Despite all the anecdotal evidence of this alternative use, there is still something about British sensibilities that can’t bear to have the ugly act and the beautiful box officially brought together.
There are many reasons to buy books from bookshops rather than Amazon, but one is that London bookshops are simply better for getting a book in a hurry. Today I find that the little branch of Hatchards in St Pancras can order an unstocked title at 2pm, and have it ready for me to collect by 6. No extra charge, not even a deposit. The volume in question is Evelyn Waugh’s selected essays, A Little Order.
Sunday 11th September 2016. Where the likes of Amazon do come in handy, though, is for satisfying the impulse to watch an old film. I used to rely on a physical film library, Archway Video, a few years ago, with its huge stock of titles to rent. Gone now. Tonight I use Amazon’s online rental service to rewatch Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. It still holds up, the different plot strands working in harmony, the comedy balancing out the drama. Everyone gets a tidy happy ending, though I now realise we never find out what becomes of Max Von Sydow’s sociopathic artist, one of the best characters.
Monday 12th September 2016. Tim Chipping writes to confirm something I had wondered about in a recent diary entry. It was on my failure to be the sort of young person who hung around in groups on street corners, or who sat on walls. He says this reminded him of the first time he visited me in Bristol, when we were in our early 20s. We walked into town to buy bags of chips, after which Tim ‘instinctively’ sat on a nearby wall. He says I was baffled by this, and that I insisted we go home to eat the chips.
Thinking back, I suppose I associated ‘hanging out’ on a street as a form of anti-social behaviour. But of course, to be young and to worry about such things is to be anti-social to one’s peers.
Evening: To the Heavenly Social bar in Little Portland Street, for a book launch by Travis Elborough. No slouch he: it’s barely weeks after his book about public parks. This is more of an illustrated reference work, though: Atlas of Improbable Places- A Journey to the World’s Most Unusual Corners. Each entry comes with intricate maps by Alan Horsfield, which have a satisfying, calming appeal.
In the introduction TE points out the value of unique physical locations. I’m guilty of using the term ‘Dubai-ification’, when it comes to the mania in London for building glass towers. But TE’s book reminds me that there is at least one Dubai structure that fascinates me. It’s the more horizontally-inclined Palm Jumeirah archipelago, with its artificial ‘fronds’ of reclaimed sand, each one supporting hundreds of villas. It’s the sort of idea that’s surely asking for trouble in the long term, as seen in the abandoned towns elsewhere in the same book. But I like the sheer garish nerve of it.
Other favourite entries in this Atlas are Portmeirion in Wales, of The Prisoner fame, the Euro bridges of Spijkenisse in Holland (which seem like something from a postmodern story), and the strange case of the Kingdom of Redonda. This is an uninhabitable piece of rock in the Caribbean whose ‘king’ was declared to be the sci-fi novelist MP Shiel.
Tonight at the launch there’s a colouring competition (to re-ink Mr Horsfield’s maps), made all the more difficult by the venue being a dimly-lit underground bar. ‘Colouring in the dark – it’s this year’s trend!’ says Travis E. I lurk among the likes of Joe Brooker, Tim Benton, Alex M, Harvey Williams, Anne Pigalle, Paul Kelly (on DJ-ing), Emily Bick, Debsey Wykes.
Tuesday 13th September 2016. With Shanthi and her friend Matthew to the Barbican cinema, to see the latest Woody Allen film, Café Society. An enjoyable enough romance set in 1930s LA and New York. As with much of WA’s recent fare, though, he seems keen to tell the story without letting the characters get a chance to really come alive. I wish there were more moments like the ones in Hannah and Her Sisters, where the characters are permitted to stop and pause, to gaze and yearn. Still, there are lots of sumptuous, golden visuals and plenty of historical detail, such as the casual anti-Semitism from well-intentioned characters. Kristen Stewart, who normally plays sulky contemporary girls, is cast against type as the sweet love interest. But she plays it well enough, and her inscrutability saves the film from blandness.
Wednesday 14th September 2016. In a corner of Russell Square today there’s a little marquee for the Friends of Russell Square charity. Several elderly people are manning trestle tables, selling second hand books and DVDs. There’s also a rack of postcards. When I go to take a look, I notice that many of the postcards are of Eastbourne.
Thursday 15th September 2016. To the East Finchley Phoenix for the new Beatles documentary, Eight Days A Week. As part of the trend to put exclusive content into cinemas, there’s an hour-long live broadcast beforehand, from the red carpet of the film’s premiere at Leicester Square. Except that the red carpet is a deep blue.
I never learn what the reason for this is – a reference to the song ‘Blue Jay Way’ perhaps? Or just a nice coordination with the blue of the film’s poster? Presumably no one else is curious either, as the presenters manage to fill up their endless minutes of live commentary without once deigning to enlighten the viewer. Still, it’s impressive to see not just Paul and Ringo turn up, but Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison too.
Giles Martin, son of the recently deceased George, talks about his work on the film’s soundtrack. Pleasingly, Giles’s way of speaking turns out to closely resemble his father’s. In Beatles documentaries, George Martin’s measured BBC RP accent is always an entertaining contrast to those rebellious Liverpudlian tones. It is the ability to sound like a kindly army captain in a British war film.
The new Beatles film itself is an exhilarating joy. Its director, Ron Howard, is in the business of making big-screen blockbuster entertainment, which might be why the film rattles along on a constant high: literally when Paul admits they filmed Help! between puffs of cannabis. Mr Howard’s prowess in spectacle also explains why he focuses on the band when they were at their most visual as human beings: their international tours from 1964 to 1966.
More specifically, though, Mr Howard foregrounds an element played down in the 1990s Anthology TV series: the story of their reception. While Anthology asked what it was like to be the Beatles, Eight Days A Week asks what it was like to see the Beatles live, especially if you were American. The songs were enticing enough: ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ made its own way to a US Number One before the band even crossed the Atlantic. When they did arrive, as Paul McCartney puts it, they were ‘kings’. Accordingly, the film skips through the well-told rise of the Beatles in Britain, the better to examine the awestruck viewpoint of those US fans in 1964. The Beatles arrived as fully-formed superstars, four alien-looking young men with their identical suits, boots and androgynous children’s haircuts.
The live footage is broken up by some talking head interviews, which normally irritates, but Mr Howard keeps them pithy and to the point. Whoopi Goldberg remarks on the importance of the Beatles’ ‘colourlessness’ to her self-image, in much the same way as people were discussing David Bowie earlier this year: the way pop stars help people find themselves. Eddie Izzard also makes some interesting remarks about the band’s press conferences, when they displayed the instincts of stand-up comedians.
Saturday 17th September 2016. To Viktor Wynd’s museum at 11 Mare Street for a joint private view: a selection of Leonora Carrington’s surreal art from the 1930s to the 1990s, and Paul Hazelton’s site-specific Ghosts in the Making show. Mr Hazelton specialises in little figurines and sculptures made entirely from household dust and human hair. These startlingly delicate works look soft, sandy, fragile, as if they could return to dust at any minute. One is reclining on – or possibly making love with – a lobster, that staple animal of surrealism, in an echo of Dali’s Lobster Telephone. Some of the other Hazelton works are dust globes with smaller figures somehow trapped inside, like ships in bottles.
I chat to the artist himself tonight – modest, friendly, casually-dressed – though we’re bothered by the aggressive denizens of Hackney’s streets. One is a down-at-heel bald man trying to sell £1 plastic cigarette lighters from a tray, the other is an equally grizzled woman who is trying to engage the seller in an argument at the same time. The pair of them carry on like this down the length of Mare Street, the man still offering his wares in between his attempts to placate the woman. He’s caught in a state of switching between two worlds: ‘I never said I did! Lighters for £1 mate? ’
Then to Vout-o-Reenee’s in Tower Hill for the club night The Track. Sophie Parkin shows me the new exhibition in the gallery: Chris Wilson’s Glue Ponys (sic). Mr Wilson has had quite a life: a childhood in Africa, drug addiction and prison spells in the US, now a fine art graduate of Chelsea, and an author too. The show coincides with his book of short stories. I take a look at his raw and rough canvasses: visceral figures on horses, thick, overwritten layers of paint and text, naïve angels and crude gods. Many of the works hang unframed from the ceiling like tapestries, to show how Wilson paints on both sides of the canvas.
Excellent music: some 1940s swing, some Northern Soul. I chat with Susanna, a stylish lady in her 70s who has worked as a professional lookalike for Lauren Bacall. Spend some time with Emily and Emma, a gay couple from Newcastle whom I’ve noticed before, in their immaculate 1950s hair and clothes, always ready to dance. I dance a little too.
The sign of a good time had: I miss the last normal tube. But it’s a good excuse to walk to Liverpool Street (15 mins) and catch the brand new Night Tube. In its current tentative state, with only a couple of lines open, I can get as far north as Highbury Corner. Then I have to take a night bus to Highgate.
Hardly any Saturday night rowdiness on the trains: mainly quiet conversation and dozing off. I wonder if the newness of seeing the Tube at this time of night has a psychological effect; the wariness of pioneers. When I do see someone behaving loutishly, it’s on a night bus at Archway. A young man suddenly throws up in front of the doors, mere seconds before the bus stops to let him out.
If you enjoy this unique content, please help to keep it free from adverts and ‘You Won’t Believe…’ clickbait by making a donation to the Diary Fund. Thank you!
Saturday 4th June 2016. More clearing out. I find some 1970s issues of Puffin Post, the magazine of the Puffin Books children’s club. There’s accounts of events like an audience with Tove Jansson, held for children (‘Did you know I have my own island?’ These days the adult Jansson fan’s response would be ‘Yes, yes, we do.’). I have a feeling the British Library has a run of copies with gaps. Mustn’t throw any of these out without checking with them first.
O, the thin line between archiving and hoarding. Must keep some things, can’t keep everything. I find a good tip is to write down in one’s diary what one throws out, as in the more notes-based diary I keep in school exercise books.
Also jettisoned: mid-1990s address books. I glimpse a phone number for the House of Kenickie in Camden, a mews pad where all the band lived together, not unlike the Monkees. And a number for David Walliams in his pre-Little Britain days. Both would have been circa 1996, both are landlines, with mobiles still in the future – just. Even the London dialling codes are obsolete: 0171, rather than 020.
To date this further: I think the first mobile I perused was shown to me around the same time, by Sarah from Dubstar. It was in the Good Mixer, too, that ne plus ultra of Britpop locations.
Another memory from a few years earlier: an unkind news report in an early 90s music paper. David Gedge of the Wedding Present seen using – O horrors! – a mobile phone at a music festival. The caption implied that this was evidence he’d sold out. Today, in the film Green Room, the retrieval of a rock band’s iPhone triggers the whole plot.
I have my hair cut on Archway Road: £13.50, including tip. Cropped short to the roots, which seem to be darker than ever. Then I re-bleach it myself with a £5 kit, until 90 minutes are up, or when my scalp is aflame in agony. Whichever happens first.
I read Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (1979). It has so many of the things I believe in: humour, experimentation, daring, skittishness, and a sense of all things being possible. If there is a shortcoming, perhaps it is a lack of full engagement with the characters. But that’s the price of all the fragmentation and, well, all the pratting about. Or as they say in universities, all the ludic discursiveness.
David Mitchell has cited the novel as an inspiration for Cloud Atlas, except that where Calvino keeps starting new stories, Mitchell goes back and gives each of his tales an ending. The current paperback edition of Calvino makes this link, too, with a quote on the back reading Breathtakingly inventive – David Mitchell’.
Actually, this doesn’t specify which David Mitchell. To say the David Mitchell is no good. There’s nothing to stop this back cover quote being not from the literary novelist but from the one off the TV, the actor from Peep Show and Upstart Crow and panel games. Or perhaps it’s another David Mitchell, one who isn’t either of these two, but who is a Calvino fan. It’d be a very Calvino-esque move for a publisher to find such a man and quote him instead.
In the novel, Calvino’s list of books in a bookshop is honest and funny:
‘Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First’ ‘Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered’
‘Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They Come Out in Paperback’
‘Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them’.
The last category is the one that always confronts me. Indeed, it includes the other works of Calvino.
Sunday 5th June 2016. To the Lexington in Pentonville Road for a gig by Blindness, with Debbie Smith on guitar. They announce it as the band’s last show: singer Beth is moving to a different country. Debbie wears a vintage flat cap, waistcoat and matching trousers. ‘I’ve just realised what this look is called,’ says at the microphone. ‘Peaky Blindness’.
Tuesday 7th June 2016. Evening: To the ICA for The Measure of A Man. £3. A contemporary French film that fits neatly with the current celebration of Ken Loach, given it’s about a man struggling to make ends meet during unemployment. It’s also filmed in a very naturalistic style – even more so than Loach. The dialogue, which must be based on improvisation, frequently goes into bursts of repetition, where people say the same things to each other over and over again. This is the way conversations go in real life, of course, but it’s so tricky to do this on screen without boring the audience rigid. That the film manages to carry this off is, I think, partly thanks to the charisma of the main actor, who mopes around under a moustache that rather recalls a French Bernard Hill. Les Garcons Du Black Stuff. Another reason is the use of footage from supermarket security cameras, where a desperate security guard is forced to spy on other desperate people. It’s CCTV as reality TV, where poverty and spectacle collide.
Wednesday 8th June 2016. Evening: to Victoria Park in Hackney Wick. This is for the launch of Travis Elborough’s latest book, A Walk In the Park, on the history of public gardens. I get a copy, and am flattered to find myself in the thanks list at the back. It’s billed as ‘everything about parks from Gilgamesh to Gary Numan’. I check: there really is a fair bit about Gary Numan in there.
I’ve never been to Victoria Park before, and am fascinated with the two stone alcoves that can be found near the east gate, surreally plonked on the grass. They’re labelled as alcoves from the old London Bridge, which is a nice coincidence, given the bridge was the subject of TE’s last book. That said, Travis himself goes on to tell me that there’s a chance the alcoves are from the old Westminsterbridge instead.
The book launch is at the sleek and trendy Hub building in the middle of the park. It’s a warm day, and we sip wine outside, our view of the park somewhat obscured by the long fence of green hoarding that encloses the Field Day festival site. I see from the posters that the headline act will be PJ Harvey – and I suddenly remember how that was first the name of the band, rather than the singer.
Further drinks afterwards, at the People’s Park Tavern, walking into the tail end of the pub quiz. I open a door and suddenly met with an amplified voice: ‘What colour is Marge Simpson’s dress?’. Over drinks, a discussion about camp and indie music leads to the theory that Morrissey found the photos for several Smiths sleeves from the same book, Philip Core’s Camp – The Lie That Tells The Truth. Then I stagger home via Homerton, and think of the way that station lends itself to Simpsons jokes.
Friday 10th June 2016. To the Bishopsgate Institute – first visited as a child for a Puffin Club show. Today I’m here too see the display on Lady Malcolm’s Servants Ball. This was the notorious series of parties at the Royal Albert Hall in the 1920s and 30s, ostensibly intended to let servants and gentry dance in fancy dress together. Its atmosphere of rule-breaking en masse soon led it to be associated with the London gay and lesbian scene, such as it was back then. The later tickets to the balls carried a statement that gave away what had been going on: ‘No man impersonating a woman will be admitted’. It must have helped that Jeanne Malcolm, the aristocrat who hosted the events, had an official name that sounded like a cross-dressing act in itself – Lady Malcolm.
Evening: To Birkbeck Cinema in Gordon Square for an event about the science of stage magic. It includes a free screening of The Prestige, as in the Christopher Nolan Noughties thriller about Victorian magicians, which I’ve not seen till now. The film is superb. It makes the link between the masculine world of magic tricks, and Nolan’s recurring themes of male obsession and confusion. There’s one key scene where Christian Bale’s character performs his ‘Transported Man’ trick for the first time. Nolan suddenly cuts away from the climax of the trick – the ‘prestige’ section – and has the characters narrate what happened instead. It’s a disorientating device that Nolan uses in all his films, but in this case it also stops the audience guessing the big twist at the end.
There’s then a talk on the science of misdirection by an academic from Goldsmith’s. He is a practitioner of magic himself, and performs a couple of the classics: the one with the rope cut into three pieces, and the one with the three cups and three little balls. I surprise myself at being delighted by his sleight of hand. Perhaps it’s the way that stage magic allows adults to tap into a pure form of wonder, the kind not felt since childhood.
If you enjoy this exclusive content, please show your love and make a donation, via the PayPal button below. A donation to the Diary Fund helps to keep the diary free from adverts. It also helps to keep the author free from thoughts that he should give up. Thank you!
Saturday 17th May 2014. Hot and sticky in London. The British Library café is still very busy: lots of students testing each other on their revision. I’m polishing my final essay for the year, adding a few more secondary references, checking the whole essay ticks the right boxes, and then just re-reading it for grammar and general flow. I’m forcing myself to do six drafts this time, one draft per day. Whatever the mark is, at least I know I’ve put the hours in. It wasn’t so long ago that I left essays until the night before the deadline. That’s simply unthinkable now.
* * *
Sunday 18th May 2014. The Boogaloo bar now has a little den in the back yard, decked out entirely with references to the Tony Scott / Quentin Tarantino film True Romance. It’s called ‘Alabama’s’.
* * *
Tuesday 20th May 2014. To the Barbican to see the The Two Faces of January. A mere £5 for students on Tuesdays. It’s my first visit to the centre’s new Cinema Café building in Beech Street, two blocks away from the main Barbican complex. The venue consists of two cinema screens (officially the Barbican’s Cinema 2 and 3) and a large, not-too-trendy café. There’s plush high-backed chairs and sofas, and lots of tables for laptop users. And indeed, for exam revision groups, of which there’s several in evidence today: young people huddled over textbooks and ring binders.
It’s warm weather, and I watch The Two Faces Of January in Cinema 2 while wearing my cream linen suit, now getting somewhat threadbare and needing replacing. As it happens, the main character in the film, played by Viggo Mortensen, wears exactly the sort of suit I’m after. I miss whole sections of the plot due to staring at the suits. But that’s as good a reason for seeing a film as any.
It’s a very old fashioned film: a Patricia Highsmith adaptation, set in 1962 across Athens, Crete and Istanbul. The usual Highsmith elements are present and correct: morally dodgy men in sunny locations, arguments that quickly turn into violence, crime as a kind of filler for holes in masculinity, and subtexts of male-on-male obsession. The only 21st century thing about it is the warning of adult themes on the BBFC certification card, which precedes the film:
Wednesday 21st May 2014. I finish and deliver the essay, thus ending my college work for the third year. The courses I chose for this year were all essay based, with no exams whatsoever. I don’t miss exams in the slightest, but I do miss the sense of a dramatic finale that they can create.
At Birkbeck, all essays have to be delivered electronically, via a link on the college’s website. But most of the tutors still ask for a paper copy as well. The student must print one out and take it to a special post box, being a slot in the reception of the Gordon Square building. And this is the case for today’s final essay. So I do get a little sense of an ending after all – it’s the moment when my fingers let go of the envelope when I drop it into the post box. Gone. Done. Third year over.
I now have no deadlines hanging over me for the first time since December last year, and won’t have to think about new ones until October this year. So I’m looking upon the next week or so as a proper holiday. Albeit on a budget. I have no money to travel, so it has to be a holiday in my own bedsit, punctuated with the cheaper pleasures of London. This suits me fine, though. Free time can be luxury enough.
* * *
In the evening: I attend a free Birkbeck event at Waterstones bookshop, Gower Street. It’s a talk with Travis Elborough about his various non-fiction books, including A London Year. The host is Joe Brooker, one of the head tutors on my English programme. He comments how A London Year might be best read by using the index in the back to choose different themes, rather than reading it linearly from start to finish. Though he doesn’t use the term, to me this makes A London Year a good illustration of the city as hypertext. Hypertext is now woven into so many day-to-day lives that it’s easy to forget about its usage as a metaphor. It’s the navigation of a large mass of material by cutting a path through the layers, pushing through the text via a lateral dimension.
On the Web, the hypertext element is the choice of one’s own reading path by clicking on links. Likewise A London Year, when read via choices made in the index, and likewise London itself. You have to take your own forked path through the many worlds and layers of the city, in both space and in time. Piercing the palimpsest.
Perhaps my own generation might think of hypertext theory in relation to those Choose Your Own Adventure books of the 1980s. You didn’t read them from start to finish; you chose links to different sections, and so produced your own text. What, after all, is the appeal of London but as a giant game of Choose Your Own Adventure?
Thursday 22nd May 2014. Heavy rain and thunderstorms. Possibly because it’s World Goth Day and Morrissey’s birthday.
I go to Jackson’s Lane Community Centre to vote. Two elections this time. One is for the European Parliament, one for local councils. I am the only one in the polling station. On the internet and in the news it feels like everyone is interested in politics. When you actually go to vote, it feels like no one is.
* * *
In the evening I go to the Muswell Hill Odeon for The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time, one of the National Theatre’s ‘Live’ screenings. It’s my first time to such an event. For the last few years, the NT has teamed up with cinemas to screen live broadcasts of their plays at the South Bank. Or in this case, a synchronised repeat screening of a past live broadcast. It’s an inspired solution for those who like theatre but can’t make it to the NT, as there’s the theatrical sense of a shared, one-off experience to the screenings. It’s not quite like being in a theatre, but neither is it a normal trip to the cinema.
In this case, the recording of the Curious Incident play is from 2012, during its original setting at the NT’s Cottesloe space. The audience are arranged on tiers, looking down onto a stage in the round. The play uses a lot of choreography aimed at a vertical view, to such a degree that at times it’s like a scaled-down Busby Berkeley film. The stage is marked out in tiny squares like a maths exercise book, and there are so many intricate projections and lighting effects – not to mention live animals – that the technical rehearsal must have gone on for days. The recreation of the A Level Maths question from the end of the novel is quite brilliant – a seamless blend of acting, direction, animation and sheer nerve. Mum has gone to one of the screenings in Suffolk, so we discuss it over the phone afterwards.
* * *
Late night: I watch a little of the election coverage on TV. Some election-speak: ‘No overall control’. It’s one of those phrases which I feel is somehow criticising me personally. Like ‘approval needed’ at the supermarket.
I meet Ella L for tea and eclairs at Maison Bertaux, the long-running patisserie and Soho landmark. It features in Derek Jarman’s diaries from the early Nineties, andappears as itself in The Look of Love, the Steve Coogan film about Paul Raymond, which came out last year and which not enough people went to see, frankly. Maison Bertaux itself now features permanent doodling on the walls by Noel Fielding of the Mighty Boosh. On the upstairs window sill by our table is scrawled the phrase “Jane Birkin dances like a deaf woman”.
* * *
Sunday 16th March 2014.
To the Pembury Tavern in Hackney for Travis E’s birthday drinks. It must be one of the few pubs in London to not have any background music or TV screens. It’s also the first pub in the city to accept Bitcoins.
I buy a bottle of cider from the bar, and note the health warnings that have popped up on alcoholic packaging lately. The sentence ‘please drink responsibly’ is a common enough sight, but there’s also a tiny pictogram in the ‘DON’T’ style of a diagonal bar across a circle. Inside is a little silhouette of a woman with a ponytail and a baby bump, drinking from a bottle. An update of Hogarth, I suppose.
I’m currently reading George Gissing’s 1890s novel The Odd Women, about changing attitudes towards marriage in London at the time. Alcohol and pregnancy are represented there too, but Gissing is no Hogarth; he drenches both in euphemism. To indicate the pregnancy of one character, Monica, he writes: ‘With a moan she lost consciousness. Two or three women who were in the room rendered assistance. The remarks they exchanged, though expressing uncertainty and discreetly ambiguous, would have been significant to Monica.’ Thus Gissing is ‘discreetly ambiguous’ too.
* * *
Tuesday 18th March 2014.
At the Prince Charles Cinema to see Only Lovers Left Alive, a new film by Jim Jarmusch. It’s something of a contrast to the last new film I saw, Gravity (at the BFI IMAX the previous Tuesday). Gravity is all about the film as fairground experience: the director throws a series of jolly space-based obstacles at Ms Sandra Bullock until she starts saying aloud ‘Now what?’, thus pre-empting the audience’s response. The answer being, ‘Now this, Ms B – a fire on the space station! Purely because you’re in a thriller, and we need a reason to introduce Chekhov’s Fire Extinguisher. That way it can be suddenly reused in a different way later on, and the audience will not question it.’
At first I found myself wincing at these clichés of the form. Another one in Gravity is the third astronaut of the mission dying early on, because he is (a) foreign, and (b) not played by a Hollywood star. For years this sort of thing was a joke made by stand up comedians about the 1960s Star Trek – the unknown ‘guy in the red jersey’ who would always perish on alien missions.
But after a while I realise it’s missing the point to mind these archetypes in Gravity – the film is really all about the innovations of its effects. So the hoary old plot stuff is needed, to cast the visual elements into starker relief. And besides there are still a few twists – what happens to George Clooney, for one.
Gravity has been at the IMAX for months, while Only Lovers Left Alive seems to have done a Look of Love at the box office. It has big stars (Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, John Hurt) and a cultish fanbase-baiting story (rock star vampires mooch about elegantly, in present day Tangier and Detroit). Yet it seems to have been all but dismissed by the public. Perhaps it’s for the crime of being what Quentin Crisp once called ‘unabashed festival material’. It’s unashamedly slow and atmospheric, and doesn’t throw obstacles at the characters for the sake of it. They just mope about prettily between sunrises, which is all anyone can ask of them.
It’s the sort of film I can see playing on a Prince Charles Cinema bill alongside the 1980s cult vampire film The Hunger, and indeed alongside Ms Swinton’s Orlando too – more otherworldly and immortal goings on. It’s only surprising she hasn’t played a vampire before. Mr Hiddleston, meanwhile, is the spitting image of Morpheus from Mr Gaiman’s Sandman comic. And Mia Wasikowska appears too, as the sort of volatile waif that I thought only Ms Juno Temple was allowed to play (indeed, either would make a good Delerium in a Sandman film).
The listings at the Prince Charles Cinema are an entertainment in themselves. One forthcoming event is a ‘weep-along’ screening of Les Miserables, where the ticket includes free tissues.
* * *
Thursday 20th March 2014. Afternoon: I meet Mum in Primrose Hill, and walk with her through to Camden before catching a bus to Euston. We have tea in the Quaker café opposite the station.
How to tell you are entering Camden: when a young woman in a black t-shirt and multicoloured hair suddenly looms into view carrying a foil tub of fried noodles. She eats them with a wooden fork while walking along the canal. She is An Eternal Camden Figure.
A prominent sign outside Camden Market reads ‘Piercings. Tattoos. Tattoo Removals.’ The full arc of youthful remorse right there. One stall purely sells t-shirts featuring variations on the ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’ poster. Even on an overcast Thursday afternoon, there’s still plenty of punkish young people from other lands sitting on the pavement outside the World’s End, like so many have done before them. Camden Town is not so much a place as an awkward phase.
* * *
Friday 21st March 2014. I get the mark back for another essay. It’s an 80, for Ms Bechdel’s Fun Home, as part of the 21st Century module. I was in a bit of a state during its writing, due to Dad dying (an irony not lost on me given the subject matter). So I was concerned it would get a decent mark at all. I’m pleased and grateful.
And it’s very good of Kate Bush to mark my academic success by announcing her first concerts in 35 years. She has made an awful lot of people happy today. I think my favourite Kate Bush song is the ballad ‘Under The Ivy’, as championed by Sebastian Horsley. ‘A great song should ache,’ he wrote in the appendix to Dandy In The Underworld. ‘And this song does. It has an aching creative heart. Its scope spans my life.’
Saturday 28th December 2013. To Bildeston to visit Mum and Dad. Dad is pretty much the same as he was the month before: restricted to either the sofa or the bed in the living room, still relying on an oxygen mask and round-the-clock care. But he’s also still very chatty, enthusing about the latest escapist films on DVD, his Christmas presents from the family: Iron Man 3, Man of Steel. ‘I’m still that boy buying the first issue of Eagle comic’.
What he never watches is that baffling default prescription for the bedbound, the type piped into hospital wards at the request of no one sane: daytime TV. No fan of Bargain Hunt, my father.
I make myself useful by organising Dad’s DVD collection, gathering them from several scattered piles around the house into a single cabinet downstairs, then arranging them into alphabetical order. He has about 150. We wonder where best to file The Amazing Spider-Man, the recent big screen frolic starring the nervy Andrew Garfield (who really should play the young David Byrne if there’s ever a Talking Heads biopic). Should it go under ‘A’ for Amazing, or ‘S’ for Spider-Man, given that Dad also has the Tobey Maguire triptych of a few years ago? We agree on the latter. Keep all the Spider-Men in one place, and hope that Mr Maguire will not take the implication personally that he is officially… Not Amazing.
(As I type this up, a real spider dangles down from the ceiling onto my hand. It’s a thin greenish little thing, certainly not one of those False Widow spiders that the British newspapers got so aroused about last year. This one sadly has not bitten me and so I remain without a hyphenated secret identity. I have now carefully relocated the interloper to the outdoors, via the time-honoured dance of Mr Tumbler and Ms Nearest Piece of Paper. Before I go on, though, I think I should type the words ‘unmarked fifty pound notes’ and ‘Tom Daley’ in case they too need to fall from above. Nothing. )
* * *
Sunday 29th December 2013. End of year lists. My heroes of 2013: Young Ms Malala, obviously. The brave Mr Snowden too. Closer to home: Ms Jack Monroe, the food blogger turned fearless anti-poverty campaigner. And also Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP. For her involvement in the protest against fracking (for which she was arrested), for being asked to cover up her ‘Ban Page 3’ shirt in a Commons debate, and for voting ‘yes’ to the food bank investigation and ‘no’ to MPs getting a pay rise. I know I’m biased, but Russell Brand’s calling for people to not vote seems unfair on the MPs who are trying to change things for the better. Though admittedly, they’re not quite as visible as he is.
* * *
Monday 30th December 2013. Shamefully, I waste time on Twitter as a distraction from writing an essay on Anglo-Saxon poetry. Still, I hope I am redeemed when I provide the author Sarah Churchwell with a dull but useful tip about how to copy text from a Kindle e-book (you use the ‘Kindle for PC or Mac’ program, open the book within it, use the ‘search’ facility to locate the passage, then copy and paste as normal). Ms Churchwell wrote Careless People, one of my favourite books of the year, about the influences behind The Great Gatsby. She tweets back that the tip worked for her, with thanks. I know so little about computers that supplying this mundanity, and hearing it was of use, makes my day.
A second good deed on Twitter: Ms Amber, whom I slightly know from the world of dressed-up London parties, asks the Twitter world for serious definitions of ‘camp’. Ideally, not from the over-quoted Susan Sontag essay.
I offer two: ‘The lie that tells the truth’ from the title of Philip Core’s 1980s book. And ‘a charging of the tension between performance and existence’, from Gary McMahon’s 2006 book Camp in Literature.
The trouble then is that I find myself distracted from the essay with my own musings on the subject. Is Lady Gaga a ‘Queen of Camp’, for instance, as some quarters have described her? Using the McMahon definition, I’d say no. There’s no ‘charging of the tension’, no wink, no knowing smirk. For her, performance is existence. But she may become camp as she gets older, because age ups the tension. A case in point is Grace Jones: all Gaga-esque performance when she was young, now very much camp. Katy Perry, on the other hand, is camp. She has that charged quality of self-awareness, finding the line where the self meets the performance, and then exaggerating it. That’s camp.
All this comes to me when I should be thinking about translating Old English from the Exeter Book.
* * *
Tuesday 31st December 2013. I meet with Laurence Hughes, up from Oxford. Mulled wine at The Flask in Highgate Village. He thinks I should take the academic thing further, doing a Masters and so on when I graduate. He says I ‘look’ the part of an academic. Perhaps in my case it’s just the air of an inability to cope with the physical.
At home, I work on the essay, then take a Nytol sleeping tablet, put in earplugs, and sleep through the fireworks. It’s the happiest New Year’s Eve I’ve had for some time.
* * *
Wednesday 1st January 2014. I start the year by appearing in the Guardian, to my surprise and squealing delight.
Or rather, I appear on the Guardian website, as the article in question is not in the printed newspaper (I buy a copy to check). Funny how prepositions work with new technology. It’s in the paper, but on the website. Or in an article on a website. Anyway.
The article is Travis Elborough’s Top 10 Literary Diarists. Here’s the link:
Having been reminded about Elizabeth Smart’s diaries by the Travis Elborough article, I look them up at The London Library today. The first volume, Necessary Secrets, is a work of art, reading more as fully-formed literature than as a hastily jotted-down journal. It’s so close in style to her novella By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept that it deserves to be considered on the same level. Yet it’s been out of print for over twenty years. I recall how the Morrissey song ‘Late Night Maudlin Street’, from his album Viva Hate, is full of quotes from By Grand Central. No mention of Ms Smart’s influence in his Autobiography, sadly.
Tuesday 8th October. To Westminster Reference Library for the launch of A London Year, edited by Nick Rennison and Travis Elborough. It’s a large, beautifully designed, greenish-blue hardback, and collects a variety of London-themed excerpts from real life diaries, arranged so that each day of the year is represented by at least one entry. The book is currently on display in every London bookshop I’ve been wandering into of late. There’s a whole table of them at Waterstones Piccadilly, right near the entrance.
I’m flattered to see my own diary is in the book, eleven excerpts of it, alongside the journals of pretty much everyone I can think of who fits the brief: Pepys, Swift, Keats, Dickens, Woolf, Van Gogh, George Eliot, Queen Victoria, John Betjeman, Tony Benn, Alan Bennett, Derek Jarman, Michael Palin, Brian Eno and Evelyn Waugh.
Clayton Littlewood is also in there, with excerpts from Dirty White Boy and Goodbye to Soho. He’s the only other diarist in the book who’s at the event, though the stars of the show are really Mr Rennison and Mr Elborough. Aside from giving permission, I had no input in the selection. So until I saw a finished copy I didn’t know which entries of mine they were going to use, or that they’d use quite so many. It’s been a pleasant surprise.
At the event, Helen Gordon reads a typically ribald 1940s entry by Joan Wyndham. Ms Gordon had a novel out with Penguin recently (Landfall), and I’m reminded that she’s a good example of a Well Dressed Contemporary Novelist, reading in Jazz Age-style pleated chiffon trousers. Also present are Bill & Alex Mayor, Ms Lettie, Tim B, Andrew Martin, Paul Kelly, Debsey Wykes, Bob Stanley (currently in the middle of promoting his own massive book, Yeah Yeah Yeah, about the history of pop), Emily Bick, and a certain actor who I think I last saw several lifetimes ago, at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
Afterwards I repair with a few of the gathering to the rather cosy Tom Cribb pub in Panton Street, and stay far too late and drink far too much. Chat with Paul Kelly about the political side of his London films made with Saint Etienne (finally out on DVD as A London Trilogy) : he compares his approach with the records of The Specials – the political message is there if you look for it, but the apolitical side – the art for art’s sake side, I guess – must always come first.
Sunday: Mother’s Day. Chatted on the phone to Mum in Suffolk (Dad recovering from a sudden drop in his condition last week). Bought Mum a Chet Baker CD box set from HMV Piccadilly. It’s a kind of double souvenir of history: a recording of the past, purchased in a shop that will also shortly be a thing of the past. Certainly the last time one can buy a CD in Piccadilly Circus.
My brother Tom, meanwhile, has appeared in Guitar Player magazine, talking about playing with Adam Ant.
London still freezing. Spent Sunday reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved for the college course.
Discovered Somerset House’s newish East Wing cafe. It’s open late even on Sundays, provides free refills for pots of tea, has nice staff, and lots of seats. CD music playing – techno-y instrumental fare- not too annoying. Hardly anyone about today: the ice rink has gone, but the lit-up summer fountains aren’t yet in place.
Also spent time in the ICA café. In the ICA, one often sees a few obvious-looking tourists on the way back from Buckingham Palace, who just come in to use the toilets. At the moment such tourists have to walk past an enormous Juergen Teller nude photograph of Vivienne Westwood.
Travis Elborough tells me that he found a passage in my diary from June 2002 which now seems to anticipate the social media saturation of 2013:
‘When I first started this diary in 1997, when the Internet was in black and white, when you could leave your wife unlocked and still get change from a fiver, online diaries were a comparative novelty. I was even something of a Minor Internet Celebrity by default. But now these things called “web logs” or “blogs” (I do hate that word) are everywhere, and everyone is crying out like at the end of Death Of A Salesman: “ATTENTION MUST BE PAID.”
‘Before the Internet, people knew full well they were simply one of billions. They just didn’t let it bother them too much. Now, they go to their computers, log on, gaze out at a sea of a billion faces and find out to their horror that the world doesn’t revolve around themselves after all. And it terrifies them.’
Saturday 16 June. I DJ at the Last Tuesday Society shop at 11 Mare Street. The event is to mark the opening of an exhibition of Sebastian Horsley’s art, though there’s also quite a few exhibits which count as posthumous relics of his life, as in the medieval saint sense. One is his Filofax appointments diary, open at the week in which he died in 2010, now mounted in a box as if it were just as much a considered artwork as his huge paintings of crosses and sunflowers. It is art as souvenirs of a life. Which is one way of describing all art.
I wear his silver velvet suit, the one that his girlfriend Rachel Garley picked out for me. Rachel is there herself, as is Ms Manko and Jason Atomic – people I knew from my Kash Point days. A few people say hello who read my blog, which is always nice. Particularly when they buy me drinks. Someone says the suit makes me look like… (wait for it)… “David Bowie during the Serious Moonlight tour”.
Monday 18 June: one of the buttons on The Sebastian Shirt has broken, its plastic clasp split. So today I look for a replacement. In his book (and in the Tim Fountain stage play), Sebastian quips about needing covered buttons because ‘there’s nothing so rude as an uncovered button’.
It is only now that I realise just what the phrase ‘covered button’ truly means. It means that not only has the shirt been handmade, but the buttons have been handmade too, covered with the same material as the shirt. I don’t think I can cut a piece off the shirt to do this – that feels rather wrong. It is, after all, made by Turnball and Asser, shirtmakers to The Prince Of Wales.
So, seeking a replacement, I take the broken button to John Lewis. They’re not much use, as they deal only in the uncovered sort. Then to The Button Queen shop in Marylebone Lane. They are very nice but they send me away to hunt down a ribbon of matching material first. This feels too much like hard work. I like errands to be self-contained and finite, not to give birth to further errands with no end in sight.
Taylors Buttons in Cleveland Street saves the day. The business has been going for over 100 years, and the lady who runs it, Maureen Rose, has herself owned the shop for 60 years.
Ms Rose suspects correctly that I want the problem solved with zero further effort on my part. She finds some white material in a bag and makes me a replacement button on the spot. It takes her about two minutes, and she charges me £1.
Evening: to the Wheatsheaf pub in Fitzrovia, for a book event hosted by the Sohemian Society. Cathi Unsworth talks to Laura Del-Rivo about her wonderful 1961 novel of bohemian Soho life, The Furnished Room. Ms Del-Rivo describes the sense of needing to find other bohemians in her youth vividly – the sheer relief at discovering the shared houses and bars where there were people like her. These days all one needs to find people as strange as oneself is just to go on the Internet; back then, you had to move house.
Afterwards I chat with Travis Elborough in the alleyway outside. Suddenly a taxi drives through – Ms Del-Rivo and the rest of us have to stand aside – and out gets Ben Goldacre, who is a kind of Cult Author of today. He happens to be on his way to something nearby, but stops for a quick chat. It’s all Very London – different worlds of writers, different interests, but always colliding.
Another Very London moment is when I arrive before the talk and join Travis as he chats to a blond woman. I’d assumed she was some friend of his. In fact he’d arrived by himself, and has known her about five minutes; it’s just that the atmosphere is of such unabashed and open friendliness, the kind people might associate more with New York. Halfway through the event, she is sitting with us when, without a word, she gets up and leaves and is never seen again.
A line from The Furnished Room (paraphrasing), which seems Very London, 50s and now: