The Basic Pleasure Model
Saturday 13th February 2016. To the British Library for the exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song. I allow an hour but it’s still not enough. This is something I forget is often the case with the big BL shows. The gallery numbers only a few rooms yet it’s always crammed full of intriguing displays, virtually all of them demanding careful consideration. As the staff usher the visitors out at 5pm, I glance in frustration at the items I have to miss, feeling somehow punished. It’s the last week of the show, too.
What I do see are craved Adinkra stamps from Ghana, used to hand-print symbols on fabric. One stamp is a star-like symbol, meant to ward off jealousy. The full translation is: ‘Someone’s wish is to see my doom’. All that in a star.
I’m also fascinated by a letter from Laurence Sterne to his friend Ignatius Sancho, the former slave turned London writer and composer. In 1766, while Tristram Shandy was published in serial form to huge acclaim, Sancho asked Sterne if he’d consider writing something to raise awareness of slavery. Sterne replied that, by a ‘strange coincidence’, the chapter of Shandy he’d just finished included ‘a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl.’
The novelist went on to affirm his solidarity: ‘If I can weave the Tale I have wrote into the Work I’m [about]— ‘tis at the service of the afflicted—and a much greater matter; for in serious truth, it casts a sad Shade upon the World, that so great a part of it, are and have been so long bound in chains of darkness & in Chains of Misery.’
When Sterne’s correspondence was published in 1775, it aided the anti-slavery campaign and made Sancho a literary celebrity. When he died, he was the first African to receive an obituary in the British press.
* * *
Sunday 14th February 2016. Valentine’s day. I enjoy an animated GIF of an elderly William Burroughs talking to Alan Ginsberg.
Ginsberg: Do you want to be loved?
Burroughs: Oh… (lugubrious pause) Not really…
I think I’ve seen the full clip in a documentary. Burroughs goes on to add, ‘By my cats, perhaps.’ I don’t believe his not wanting to be loved, but it’s a good answer.
I also learn that February 14th 2016 is the ‘inception’ day in Blade Runner for Pris, the blonde ‘basic pleasure model’ android. As played so wonderfully by Darryl Hannah. I like to think of myself as a ‘basic pleasure model’ too.
Evening: I watch the Film BAFTAs, hosted by Stephen Fry, now pretty much the British Oscars. The Revenant triumphs, with Leo DiCaprio taking Best Actor. A mistake, in my view. His character is barely a character at all. He’s more of a generic everyman that a couple of unkind things happen to. First an unkind bear, then an unkind Tom Hardy. As far I remember, most of his performance consists of grunting, wincing and looking pained. I get enough of that on the Northern Line.
* * *
Monday 15th February 2016. Modern priorities. The big news story on the electronic board at St Pancras is that Stephen Fry has left Twitter.
Apparently, his quip at the BAFTAs about the Best Costume Design winner looking like a ‘bag lady’ produced something of an angry reaction from people on Twitter. For Mr Fry it was the last straw, and he closed down his account.
I sympathise, having just re-read Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, now reissued with an extra chapter about the book’s reception. Essentially Ronson received Twitter attacks himself, for daring to call for empathy for people like Justine Sacco. Sacco was an American PR woman who posted a joke on Twitter, intended to mock ignorance over AIDS in Africa. Instead, it lost all context (context being the first casualty of social media). By itself, the tweet ended up looking like a straightforward racist joke. Thousands of people on Twitter roasted her alive. She was sacked from her job and spent a year rebuilding her reputation. Ronson’s book about showing compassion for such cases has now been seen by some – incredibly – as a defence of white privilege. Those who attacked Ms Sacco regard her as deserving of being ‘called out’. The trouble is, as the book puts it, ‘the snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche’.
This is what seems to have happened with Stephen Fry. Lots of people thinking that, because he’s in a position of privilege, he needs to be held to account for his public remarks. The problem is, Twitter can turn well-intentioned criticism into an out-of-control, disproportionate firestorm of raw hatred. People are not to blame: it’s really the fault of the medium. A virtual reality founded on a frustration of space – 140 characters at a time – can only engender a distortion of meaning. If I were firestormed with angry messages, I’d close my account too. Life’s too short.
* * *
Thursday 18th February 2016
Evening: seminar at Birkbeck on Jonathan Lethem’s inspired novel Motherless Brooklyn, about a detective with Tourette’s syndrome. We discuss it in relation to Sontag’s book Illness as a Metaphor. One essay on the Lethem book suggests Ian McEwan’s Saturday as an example of how not to do illness as a metaphor. McEwan’s hoodlum, Baxter, has a convenient neurological condition that screams ‘metaphor for violence!’ to the reader. Lethem’s protagonist, meanwhile, is a more fleshed-out character who is fully aware where his personality ends and his condition begins.
More interesting, though, is Lethem’s referencing of pop single remixes, such as the extended 12” version of Prince’s ‘Kiss’. His Tourette’s hero, Lionel Essrog, hears the extra minutes of the Prince remix as ‘a four minute catastrophe of chopping, grunting, hissing and slapping sounds… apparently designed as a private message of confirmation to my delighted Tourette’s brain… The nearest thing in art to my condition’. It’s like a healing version of American Psycho.
* * *
Saturday 20th February 2016. The back pain persists. I go to a flat in King’s Cross to take up Ms Dorcas Pelling’s offer of massage therapy. This turns out to be a combination of reflexology, Swedish massage, deep tissue, and trigger point. Dorcas adds her voice to the conclusion of the osteopaths: muscular rather than spinal. Forty-four years of knotted tension. As I write this, I’m still very sore from the treatment. The pain of removing pain.
Tags: back pain
, British Library
, dorcas pelling
, jon ronson
, jonatham lethem
, stephen fry
The Devil Wears Car Robes
Saturday 19th September 2015.
I learn that I am affected by the Department for Work and Pensions’s ‘new rules’, and may have to get by on less than I’d thought. Much of this week is spent on the phone to their blameless staffers, resisting the urge to make comments about the whereabouts of Mr Duncan Smith’s heart. I suspect they get that a lot. They sigh down the line and use phrases such as ‘our hands are tied’. They also tell me to try the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.
This is a clever ploy, because many of the CABs are themselves on the receiving end of ‘new rules’, in the shape of government cuts. There are now fewer of them per borough, and the ones that are still going are rarely open for more than a handful of hours a week. The upshot is that I traipse over to Tottenham twice this week. There, I sit in a prefabricated bungalow located in an alleyway near Bruce Grove station, in a colourless waiting room not unlike the ones in documentaries about prisons. I have to go twice, because the first time all the appointment slots are filled up before me. The second time I go, I still have to wait two and half hours in the waiting room before finally seeing an advisor. Her advice, such as it is, is that I need to take my money woes to a more specialist office in Crouch End. And so it goes on.
I take a train from Bruce Grove into Liverpool Street, and walk around the gleaming skyscrapers of the financial district. The contrast between these looming citadels of wealth and the rundown, deprived streets of Tottenham, mere minutes away, has never been more shocking. Anyone doubting the appeal of Mr Corbyn needs to make this journey.
* * *
Sunday 20th September 2015.
Jackie Collins dies. In the papers there are a number of ‘guilty pleasure’ tributes for her novels, along with lots of photographs taken during her modelling career. Like Joan Crawford, and indeed like her own sister Joan, she managed to project a level of camp at every stage. A picture from 1956 shows a 19-year-old Jackie at an Earl’s Court motor show, posing with ‘The Goggomobil T300 – the smallest family four-seater car on the market’. She smiles at the camera while stepping out of this stunted vehicle, showing off a zebra print two-piece which matches the car’s own upholstery. A caption confirms that her clothes are indeed designed by ‘Car Robes, makers of car seat covers’. Low Camp she may have been at the time, she went on to turn this ability into a knowing and deliberate form of High Camp, and to lucrative effect too. It is what Quentin Crisp calls getting the joke on your own terms.
* * *
Monday 21st September 2015.
I am on a bus in Crouch End when a man in a corduroy suit gets on and engages me in conversation. It turns out that he knows me from the book I Am Dandy. We have a conversation about the various definitions of dandyism, and how dandyism relates to the breaking of one set of rules while adhering to another. Then he asks me for employment advice, given he sees himself as a dandy too.
I quote Crisp on the subject – try life modelling in art schools, because it fulfils a societal role while having the mild air of scandal. The other suggestion is anything involving the use of one’s own unique persona. This can include teaching, performing, lecturing, writing, or even tour guide work. As I’ve found from my own experience, a tour guide can often be dandy-like in spirit. They can tailor the facts of a gallery or museum to fit their own bespoke personality. And of course, tour guides have to perform a form of outsider’s view, because tourists and outsiders share a common border.
I was reminded of the time I was recognised in the street for being in the band Orlando. This was long after I’d left the band and was back on the dole. The person who recognised me said that he too was in a band, and did I have any advice on how to make it in the music business?
* * *
Wednesday 23rd September 2015.
The Daily Mail runs excerpts from a unkind book on David Cameron, written by Lord Ashcroft, his former friend. Chief among the revelations – or rather, allegations – are those involving debauched conduct at Oxford University during the 80s, especially an act involving an ‘intimate part of the future Prime Minister’s anatomy’ with a dead pig’s head. What interests me is the mention of Brideshead Revisited. At the time, the TV series had apparently made such an impression on Mr Cameron’s college friends that they all wanted ‘to play at being Sebastian Flyte’ and ‘live the Brideshead lifestyle’, according to the new book. The pig incident was part of this aspiration. As tributes to Evelyn Waugh go, the very public circulation of this one takes some beating, regardless of its veracity. I think Waugh himself, who so bemoaned the defeat of the Conservatives in 1945, would have been very pleased, even proud.
* * *
Thursday 24th September 2015.
Snark: a word that combines ‘snide’ and ‘remark’, often used as a default emotion on social media. But when viewed properly, snark is just a less honest kind of loneliness.
This occurs to me when I glance at the online response to the Morrissey novel, List of the Lost, which is published today. The trouble is, it’s impossible to judge the novel for its own worth, because of who the author is. The only reviews I’d really want to read are ones from a parallel world, where it was published pseudonymously.
I will read it and judge for myself as soon as I can. But then, I’m already on its side, just because so many critics rushed to savage it. From the extracts, it sounds a little like Ronald Firbank.
* * *
Facebook can sometimes feel like a memorial of gently-faded friendships. Today the site briefly crashes. I imagine it being hacked by someone who couldn’t take any more photos of weddings they had not been invited to.
* * *
Friday 25th September 2015.
To the Invisible Dot in King’s Cross, for a comedy show by Mae Martin, ‘Us’. The venue is east of Caledonian Road, in an area of King’s Cross that the big clean-up hasn’t quite reached. The Invisible Dot is small, brick-built, and single-level, with rows of skylights; probably a former workshop or garage. The stage is flanked by two toilets, which turns out to be something of a design flaw. Anyone getting up to use the toilet immediately pulls the focus of the show, and this happens towards the end of Ms Martin’s hour-long set. I wonder if her friendly persona allows it to happen, more so than it would for other performers. Her comedy style is a kind of sweet and knowing nervousness (belied by her years of experience). She also channels her physical androgyny into a form of female boyish charm, much like Tig Notaro. This cunningly means that it is impossible to heckle her when she’s on, as she never takes a ‘high status’ position – quite unusual for a comedian. Much of ‘Us’ is serious and heartfelt: themes of sexual identity, the pitfalls of bisexual dating, and the conflict of wanting to eschew labels while still attracting homophobic catcalls in public. I like Ms M a lot. So much so, that I wonder if I could ever do stand-up comedy myself. I already have the ill-advised suits. (This is not entirely a joke, though…)
* * *
I have my hair cut short into its natural brown, ready to be freshly re-bleached. It makes me realise how large my head is. I look like a camp Easter Island statue.
* * *
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Tags: brideshead revisited
, david cameron
, evelyn waugh
, i am dandy
, jackie collins
, mae martin
Cufflinks: Piercings For the Squeamish
Saturday 20th June 2015.
To the Little Baobab Bar in Lower Clapton Road, for fellow student Hester R’s birthday. It’s one of those times where I seem to only know the birthday person, and not any of their friends. But this time I surprise myself and chat happily away to whomever I’m with. I wonder if one reason for this is that no one has been to the venue before, so there’s an extra need to speak to each other and overcome the unfamiliarity. The bar is Senegalese and West African, and despite the usual décor of exposed brickwork and dangling light fittings that one finds in East London eateries, it doesn’t feel overly trendy. The mojitos are made with baobab juice: delicious and cheap (and so even easier to enjoy). Later on, a couple of musicians play in one corner: one on acoustic guitar, and one on a tall, harp-like stringed instrument. The music, presumably Senegalese, turns out to be classical, slow and soothing, almost ambient.
* * *
On the tube. A group of young people all get on at once, decked out in matching red tracksuits, green baseball caps, and big plastic sunglasses. They huddle in the aisle and reel off a series of chants together, cheerleader-style. At first I wonder if they’re part of a spontaneous people-power event, like a flash mob, or a wry protest, or an immersive film night. Eventually one of them comes over to me and hands me a card, now more subdued and sheepish as he does so. It’s for a company that provides home deliveries from shops.
This is a common London feeling: the realisation that something intriguing and unusual is just another advert.
* * *
Irritations over modern language. A common subject line on emails is ‘in case you missed it’, sometimes abbreviated to ICYMI. It’s the neediness of the phrase that irks me, as well as the way it bevels down individuality to join in with a consensus of limited catchphrases. Another is ‘a thing’, as in ‘I did a thing’ or ‘it’s for a thing’ or ‘is X a thing now’?
Perhaps one reason for my resentment of such phrases is the same as the one for my resentment over the ubiquity of beards: I don’t think I am capable of joining in. So it becomes another way of feeling that modern life is something other people do, not me.
In any case, the idea of ‘in case you missed it’ has a threatening quality, to my mind. It’s like another cliché that journalists like, when talking about something that’s reached saturation level in the media: ‘Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last month…’ The only sane response to this phrase is to become a cave-dweller at once.
In the news this week, the slang acronym FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – is added to the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Romo’ has yet to be included, twenty years on after its coinage in the UK music media, and its association with my band, Orlando. Given that all life is missing out, one way or another, I like to think that Romo has acquired a new meaning as an acronym. ROMO: Relief Of Missing Out.
* * *
I amuse myself watching a late night music documentary about Prince, spoofing it in my head with lines like ‘In 1985, Prince was accused of unabashed naughtiness… In 1986, Prince invented a new note, X, which he only ever played for extra naughtiness.’ And to the tune ‘When Doves Cry’, I find myself thinking of our new Lord Chancellor, and sing the phrase ‘When Goves Cry’.
* * *
Sunday 21st June 2015.
More thoughts of in-jokery, this time for humanities students who are also fans of Mean Girls: ‘Stop trying to make Orientalism happen, Edward. It’s not going to happen.’
On the internet, where context is the first casualty, there is now the added entertainment of watching other people not get the joke. On Twitter, there’s an account that purely caters to this curious mix of schadenfreude and scorn, @YesThatsTheJoke. But presumably it only works for the jokes that the YesThatsTheJoke person gets, too.
On The Quietus site this week, there’s a review of the new Muse album by ‘Mr Agreeable’. Mr Agreeable is a jokey fictional avatar created in a pre-web age. He first appeared in the early 90s (possibly earlier), as a regular feature in Melody Maker. The joke is that Mr Agreeable is anything but agreeable. He not so much writes as spews out a torrent of asterisk-spattered swear words, disproportionate vitriol, and downright violent imagery. His over-the-top-ness is, as they say, the joke. For aging readers of Melody Maker like me, seeing new Mr Agreeable reviews now is a nostalgic pleasure. But this being the internet, there is a comments section underneath. And in that section are lots of angry young Muse fans complaining that the review is not proper journalism. Yes, one wants to say, with deadpan resignation. Yes, that’s the joke.
How to explain to them that there was once a magazine – sorry, a ‘thing’ – called Melody Maker? More to the point, how to explain that once upon a time, columns of pure hatred were clearly meant to be read as jokes? I now realise that Mr Agreeable was a prophet of the Web. Disproportionate anger is what people do constantly now, sometimes professionally (Katie Hopkins, Jeremy Clarkson). Except that they’re not joking.
* * *
Wednesday 24th June 2015.
Put off by one job advert today, purely by its usage of exclamation marks.
Most days this week, I am wearing a white suit with seahorse cufflinks. I like to think of cufflinks as the squeamish person’s piercings.
I binge-watch the new (third) series of Orange Is The New Black. The phrase is apt, as I feel a little ill and bloated afterwards. The series is superb, though, finding new backstories for even the minor characters. There’s about thirty recurring roles, so if a plotline isn’t interesting, a better one always comes along soon enough. What I’d like to see now is Carol Morley writing and directing an episode. She’d be perfect.
* * *
Thursday 25th June 2015.
I meet Mum at St Pancras, and we have lunch at the British Library, to celebrate her birthday. The library café area finally has plenty of free seats, and in the afternoon too. All the students seem to have either taken their laptops outside into the nice weather (more chairs and tables there), or – more likely – they’ve finished their studies. Where are they all now, I wonder?
Glastonbury must be one answer. I try to balance my envy of those going to or appearing at festivals, with the consolatory thought that I also love sleeping in a room with four walls. Not to mention my love of indoor flushing toilets. As it is, going to Glastonbury purely as a punter seems increasingly redundant. These days, with the blanket media coverage, it comes to you.
Mum and I take a look at the current free exhibition in the British Library foyer. It’s one big exhibit: Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery). Marking the anniversary of the real thing – which is on show next door – this Magna Carta is a stitched version of the Wikipedia page about the Magna Carta, as it appeared on the day of the 799th anniversary, last year. Most of the text has been stitched by people in the Fine Cell Work charity, which trains convicted prisoners in needlework skills. Mum is thrilled about this: she went to a FCW talk a few months ago – given by a former convict – and found his story of finding new purpose through the art of stitching utterly fascinating. A few of the words have been stitched by public figures, such as Jarvis Cocker, whose selected words are, rather wonderfully, ‘Common People’. Somehow they got Edward Snowdon to stitch a word, too, and it’s one which sums up the essence of the project: ‘liberty’.
* * *
In a lonely mood, I overreact when I realise that I’ve been blocked by a music writer on Twitter. A second one, in fact. I have no idea why. I don’t think I’ve ever had any kind of interaction with the writer – I just want to read his work. I ask around on Twitter and find someone who assures me that blocking is what that particular writer likes to do, apparently notoriously, and often of people he either doesn’t like, or doesn’t like by association. I also find another writer who happily blocks people he doesn’t like pre-emptively, because he hates the idea of them reading his work.
So much for Forster’s ‘only connect’. I have a vision of books in a library snapping shut as a reader approaches: ‘Oh no, not you!’
I come away from this thinking that (a) I’m not as unreasonably grumpy as I think I am, not compared to others, (b) I would never block someone on Twitter unless they’d actively sent me abuse, and (c) I do hope Virginia Woolf doesn’t think I’m a twat.
* * *
Friday 26th June 2015.
I watch the third and final episode of How to be a Bohemian with Victoria Coren Mitchell. There’s a brief glimpse of one of Maggi Hambling’s paintings of Sebastian Horsley, which Ms Coren Mitchell narrates as ‘portraits of other bohemians…’
For me, this is particularly interesting. Mr H once told me how Ms M had cancelled an interview she’d intended to have with him, due to his using one of his typically provocative comments. As she said herself in her column (2 September 2007):
I rang him to suggest meeting in Belsize Park, a leafy area of north London.
‘I can’t bear Belsize Park,’ yawned Horsley. ‘It’s full of Jews.’
I have a vivid memory of actually telling Mr H off about this, as I couldn’t agree with this particular manner of épater la bourgeoisie. ‘Why do you say things you don’t really mean?’ I said. ‘Oh well…’ was his reply.
On another occasion, when Mr Horsley was reading from his autobiography and got to some general statement about sex and women, a lady in the audience shouted out ‘You chauvinist swine!’ (or words to that effect), and stormed out. Sebastian smiled sweetly after her. ‘I’ll say the reverse if it makes you come back!’
So I now wonder if Ms Coren Mitchell has forgiven Mr Horsley, by including him in her film, albeit very briefly. Or if she accepted him as a modern bohemian, in spite of her reservations, as she did for the Bloomsbury Group. Either way, it was good to see him included.
One fictional bohemian that I’m surprised wasn’t mentioned at all is Sherlock Holmes. The story that made him famous was the first of the Doyle tales which appeared in The Strand, ‘A Scandal In Bohemia’. Much of the story plays on the pun of his client being the blackmailed King of Bohemia, while Holmes is scandalised as a bohemian in terms of his bachelor lifestyle. He falls for a woman who defeats him: Irene Adler. Even the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock makes much of the main character’s bohemianism. The word might not be mentioned, but his bachelor status and sense of being an odd child-like man, among conventional adults, is certainly focused upon in the series.
* * *
And that particular bohemian lives on even more. To the Phoenix cinema for Mr Holmes. Ian McKellen plays an elderly take on the Victorian detective, set in 1947. The conceit is that in this world, Doyle’s stories exist, but they are written by Watson as pieces of popular journalism. The story switches between a 60-year-old Holmes in Baker Street, with the circumstances surrounding his last case, and a 90-something Holmes in his Sussex cottage, teaching beekeeping to a small boy, while battling against memory loss. McKellen’s performance is worth seeing alone, but there’s also lots of standard Holmes deduction scenes, tied in with poignant hints of a denied emotional life. The price of bachelorhood.
* * *
I’ve had a week of feeling very ghost-like and detached from the world. Not quite knowing which path to take next. In fact, walking around in a white suit rather makes me resemble a ghost too.
However, today I have a nice surprise. At Foyles, the staffer on the till suddenly gives me £6 off the book I’m buying, by using his staff discount.
‘Because I like your records’.
* * *
, British Library
, getting recognised
, mr holmes
, orange is the new black
, Sebastian Horsley
, sherlock holmes
, victoria coren mitchell
An @ Of One’s Own
Saturday 13th June 2015.
I walk through Waterloo Station. The whole building has been turned into an advert for the new Jurassic Park film. Looped video trailers flank the train announcement boards, while the movie’s logo dots the entire concourse floor. In the centre of the station, a tableau of fibreglass full-sized dinosaurs are caught in the act of breaking out of their container. I bristle at this assault by Hollywood on my consciousness, but then feel guilty when I see small children taking delight in posing with the daft static creatures. It’s got dinosaurs in it, so children will be happy.
I’ve not seen the film, but I’m guessing that it involves something going wrong at a dinosaur park.
* * *
Evening: I watch a nostalgic TV show marking 20 years since Britpop. It feels far too soon, but I suppose two decades ago is long enough. A whole generation ago. The funny thing is it gives me flashbacks, not of the 90s, but of a previous 90s nostalgia show from the early 2000s: I Heart the 1990s. One episode had Edwyn Collins introducing himself with the phrase, ‘Hi! I’m Edwyn “A Girl Like You” Collins!’
So a new 90s nostalgia show triggers my nostalgia for an old 90s nostalgia show.
In the same way that Wikipedia has outsourced knowing things first hand, TV’s love of editing history to suit a convenient format has replaced first hand, organic, untidy memory. I feel that many of my actual memories of the 90s have been taped over in my head, replaced with 90s nostalgia pieces.
However, one thing that the run of 90s programmes seems to omit is how OK Computer changed music in 1997, just as much as Britpop did in 1994. After that, a huge swathe of rock bands switched from trying to be Oasis to trying to be Radiohead. The blueprint was now for big, mournful, stadium-friendly rock, devoid of any sense of a generational or national identity; angsty yet tasteful. The end result was Coldplay. But perhaps the full meaning of 1997 is something to look forward to in 2017.
* * *
Sunday 14th June 2015.
I visit the club The Nitty Gritty, at the Constitution bar in Camden. The DJ is Debbie Smith, a fellow 90s rock survivor, given her stints back then in the bands Curve and Echobelly. At The Nitty Gritty though, she plays a highly enjoyable set of vintage soul, R&B and 60s girl groups, to a very cool-looking crowd of vintage-dressed, and queer-friendly customers. One woman – a staffer, I think – has a kind of immaculate rockabilly take on Amy Winehouse’s look. Camden still has a certain fizzy life to it, if you know where to go.
As I enter the bar from the Regent’s Canal towpath, Ms Smith is playing ‘Sometimes I Wish I Were A Boy’ by Lesley Gore. It’s a tune I used to have as my band Fosca’s going-onstage music. And here I am entering a room to the song once again.
* * *
Monday 15th June 2015.
More coincidences. Today I’m re-reading Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat, including the part where the narrator imagines the whole Magna Carta ceremony. It’s only afterwards that I realise today is the 800th anniversary of the signing.
Jerome’s ‘J’ subscribes to the theory that the event took place on Magna Carta Island itself, rather than on the opposite bank of the Thames, at Runnymede:
Had I been one of the Barons, I should have strongly urged upon my comrades the advisability of our getting such a slippery customer as King John on to the island, where there was less chance of surprises and tricks. (Three Men In A Boat, Chapter 12).
* * *
The Queen’s Birthday Honours this week. My favourite reason for declining an honour: ‘So aging!’ – Francis Bacon. Favourite for accepting: ‘I thought of the people it would annoy’ – Kingsley Amis.
* * *
Tuesday 16th June 2015.
I watch the second episode of How to be a Bohemian with Victoria Coren Mitchell, the BBC4 series. Pleased to see Stephen Tennant given a look-in. And lots of shots of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, inside and out, due to its previous life as a Bloomsbury Group location.
Ms Coren Mitchell manages to have her moral cake and eat it, regarding Eric Gill’s incest and bestiality. ‘I’d like to go back in time and kneecap Eric Gill’, she says at one point, in case anyone was in doubt on where she stands on sexual abuse. Still, I suppose this is 2015, and it’s the BBC, with its Gill sculptures on the outside of Broadcasting House (one of which is now surrounded by the livery of a Caffe Nero), so some obvious things still have to be said aloud.
To her credit, though, Ms CM also lets interviewees with opposing views make their case. Grayson Perry challenges her scorn of the Bloomsbury Group’s snobbery and privilege: ‘Are we awarding creative points for being poor, or for being creative?’, while Richard Coles asserts how important it is that Gill’s sculptures remain in place, not only on the BBC building, but also in Westminster Cathedral: they serve as a reminder that ‘the sinner stands at the heart of Christianity’. Trust the art, not the artist.
* * *
I never felt like those people formerly in bands who look back on their music as a weird ‘phase’. I’m even weirder now.
* * *
Wednesday 17th June 2015.
To Senate House for the London Graduate Fair. Very crowded, lots of stalls. The actual type of work seems to be quite limited. Nothing arty. No publishers of literature, no arts organisations. As far as I can tell, the main options for graduates seem to be: the warzone of corporate management, the warzone of school teaching, or, given the prominent British Army stall, actual war.
A group of uniformed soldiers have various weapons lined up on trestle tables: bazookas, grenade launchers, rifles. It’s like a Fresher’s Fair, only with fewer Pot Noodles and more guns. I last fifteen minutes, which is longer than I’d last in the army. I suppose an ability to write High First Class essays on Oscar Wilde might be handy when battling insurgents in Helmand Province, but I didn’t stay to find out.
* * *
Thursday 18th June 2015.
To Jacksons Lane Community Centre for a new experience: a class in Pilates. ‘This is not going to be pretty,’ I think. ‘Not least because I have to wear something other than a suit.’
I turn out to be the only man in a class of women, and the least experienced by far; I’ve still never stepped inside a gym. But the female tutor is very sympathetic. She comes over to me whenever I’m struggling (which is often) and never makes me feel a fool. It’s hard work, and confusing at times, as I’m trying to work out how to move parts of my body which I’m fairly sure I’ve never moved before. On top of that, I have to work out when to breathe – something I keep forgetting to do, on account of trying to keep up with the instructions. But the effect is like blowing the dust off an entire lifetime. I feel the better for it afterwards, and decide to keep it up.
As for what I wore: my baggy grey jogging bottoms (though I haven’t gone running in years). Plus my sole t-shirt. It’s a promotional shirt for an absinthe company.
* * *
Friday 19th June 2015.
I walk up Shaftesbury Avenue and see that the new Picturehouse cinema has just opened: Picturehouse Central. It’s in the shell of the old CineWorld Shaftesbury Avenue, in the northwest section of the Trocadero. Although much of the Picturehouse is still not ready (including the rooftop members bar), it is already a vast improvement on its former self. The Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue will not be missed. Tacky, windowless and claustrophobic, it always felt like part of a run-down regional 1980s shopping mall. But then, a run-down regional 1980s shopping mall was pretty much what the Trocadero had become in recent years. Central London has always been torn between an embracing of garish franchises and souvenir shops, and a love of rarer emporiums steeped in history, character, and personality. The Picturehouses may be a chain, but they’re closer to Waterstones than WH Smith. A sense of humanity, rather than raw, faceless commerce.
The new cinema’s ground floor café does look a bit like a Shoreditch eatery, with its ceiling stripped back to the bare brick and concrete, and its air ducting and dangling light fittings on conspicuously trendy display. But there’s some nice proper booths with tables – rather like those in the late New Piccadilly Café in nearby Denman Street. When my veggie sandwich arrives on a proper china plate, and not on a recycled hubcap or an on old vinyl album, I find myself warming to the place.
(There is currently a popular social media account called ‘We Want Plates’. It campaigns against the trend in arty restaurants to present their meals on anything from wooden boards to slabs of rock. I have to admit I, too, want plates).
The wall of the café is covered in a mural rendered in a naïve, David Shrigley-like doodle, on the theme of cinema. There’s scenes from cinema history, diagrams on narrative theory, and fictional examples of cinema archetypes, such as ‘Man Shouting Out Of A Prius In LA, On His Way To A Thing’. As for the actual films, there’s seven screens, including a 341-seater with Dolby Atmos, whatever that is. The type of films on offer seem to be a bit of everything: in this first week, you can choose between the arty likes of Carol Morley’s The Falling, the critically loved Girlhood and London Road, and documentaries like The Look of Silence and Dark Horse. And if you absolutely must, there’s also Jurassic World 3D.
* * *
To Senate House Library in Malet Street, where I hand back my remaining library books in time for the expiry of my BA-affiliated membership card. Another sign of the degree coming to an end.
Birkbeck’s summer term still has a couple of weeks left, so tonight I attend an open lecture in the basement of Gordon Square. It’s on the history of sexuality, by Heike Bauer, one of the tutors who marked my dissertation.
Dr Bauer quotes the building’s old resident Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own. One problem when it comes to discussing sexuality in history is that as Woolf puts it, ‘fiction is likely to contain more truth than fact’.
Dr B also quotes a more modern example of a discussion on the subject: a recent Twitter conversation between herself and various other academics, who managed to boil down their arguments into 140 characters. Less than 140, in fact, as they need characters for the hashtags and the other ‘@’ names. In 2015, a paper’s abstract (its summary) is not nearly abstract enough.
Today, Woof’s ideal of a private room is less urgent, as so many writers enjoy working in crowded cafes and libraries, or even outdoors (a common sight on social media is a photo of a sunny park, with the caption: ‘My office today!’). Now, it’s more important to have an ‘@’ sign of one’s own.
Dr B also focuses on the work of Magnus Hirschfeld, he of the 1920s Berlin Institute of Sexology, as visited by Isherwood in Christopher and His Kind. She talks about how Hirschfeld visited Cambridge sometime around 1905-7, while Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland was studying there. However, he was careful to avoid bumping into young Holland and embarrassing him, due to the shame associated with his father. The very words ‘Oscar Wilde’ were, at this time, absolutely synonymous with male homosexuality, and his reputation was yet to recover. Instead, Hirschfeld witnessed a group of students – a kind of secret Edwardian Cambridge Gay Soc- who gathered together to read ‘ The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ in a ritual of solidarity. On their shirts they wore Wilde’s prison number: C33.
I’m reminded of John Betjeman’s poem ‘Narcissus’, about his childhood. In the poem, Betjeman’s mother chastises him for bonding too much with a friend. This would have been in the early 1910s:
My Mother wouldn’t tell me why she hated
The things we did, and why they pained her so.
She said a fate far worse than death awaited
People who did the things we didn’t know,
And then she said I was her precious child,
And once there was a man called Oscar Wilde.
, bloomsbury group
, debbie smith
, eric gill
, grayson perry
, heike bauer
, jacksons lane community centre
, jerome k jerome
, john betjeman
, magna carter
, nitty gritty
, oscar wilde
, picturehouse central
, richard coles
, victoria coren mitchell
, virginia woolf
The Last Six Months
Saturday 8th November 2014. I’m putting my college deadlines into my diary when something occurs to me. Exactly six months from today, I will finish my degree. The 8th May 2015 is my last deadline. There’s no exams or timed tests this year, thanks to my careful selection of options. Instead (let’s see…) I have to research and write one 8,000 word thesis (due in April), four 2,500 word essays (two due January, two in May), a 1,500 word essay that doesn’t count towards my degree grade but which I have to do anyway (due in a few days), and a 1,000 word piece that does count towards the grade, though only a little (due in a couple of weeks).
Between now and then I also have to read about 20 further set texts for the regular class modules (ranging from slim poetry collections to fat novels). Plus there are all the books I have to consult for the thesis, the amount of which is up to me.
I wander round the British Library concourse, seeing all the hundreds of laptopped-up hordes – some of whom seem happy to sit all day on the floor if it means access to a power socket. What are they all doing? Studying? Programming? Writing content for websites? ‘You won’t believe what this dressed-up puppy did next!’
I pass them in my breaks from essays, their fingers flying. I see all the reams of words generated every day, even just Facebook posts, and I seethe with envy. I feel so slow in comparison.
I’m managing to do other things, though. This week the artist Becky Boston asks me to write a piece to go with a new artwork of hers. I get it done within three days of her asking. It’s the third or fourth commission I’ve done for her now. I’m grateful to be asked.
* * *
Tuesday 11th November 2014. To Maison Bertaux for tea with Ella Hitchcock. Good to see her again. She’s busy with her studies. I tell her I’m the same with mine. Lots of work, little money.
Then To the ICA for The Possibilities Are Endless, a film about Edwyn Collins’s life, since his devastating stroke in 2005. Like the Nick Cave film the other week, this is another example of how to do a music documentary without repeating the usual clichés. No musicians interviewed in front of – I can barely write it without feeling ill – a recording studio mixing desk. In fact The Possibilities Are Endless has more in common with Under The Skin, with its opening sounds of Edwyn’s voice struggling to form words, and its impressionistic shots of the beach by the village of Helmsdale, north east Scotland, where the Collins family has a cottage. The title is one of the few phrases Mr Collins managed to say during the initial stages of his recovery – and which he kept repeating. ‘Grace Maxwell’, the name of his wife, was another phrase. She helped him cope at every painstaking stage, and is seen acting as his literal right-hand woman, given he’s lost half of his body’s movement. She strums his guitar with one of her hands while he forms chords with his hand. In another scene she cuts his fingernails.
Ms M wrote an excellent memoir a few years ago, Falling and Laughing – The Restoration of Edwyn Collins. It covers a lot of the same ground, though ends at the point where Mr C started writing songs again. Her book ends with some simple yet powerful advice to any family affected by strokes: ‘make up your own story’.
And so this is the spirit of the film. There’s some semi-fictional sequences of a teenage boy who has a strong resemblance to Collins, flirting with a girl in a chip shop. I first took this to be an illustration of Edwyn and Grace’s youthful affection for each other. But the boy then turns out to be William Collins, their son. He steps out of the staged romcom scenes into the more conventional rehearsal room footage, and helps his father make music. The fact Mr C has written and recorded three albums since his stroke (including the film soundtrack) should be inspiration enough, not least because the new songs are as good as those he made before the stroke. One new soul-pop song, ‘Two Steps Back’ is instantly catchy, and stays with me long after the film ends. But The Possibilities Are Endless is about a lot more than music: it’s a portrait of a couple in love, coping with illness in a dignified, funny, idiosyncratic and determined way. The last line is Edwyn’s, and it sums up the film’s sense of freshness and hope: ‘let’s see what happens next’.
* * *
The Quaker café on Euston Road sells chocolate brownies from the ‘Bad Boys Bakery’. A sticker explains: ‘Made in HM Prison Brixton’.
* * *
Class today: Hemingway’s In Our Time. We are required to rewrite other works into a Hemingway style: Henry James, Scott Fitzgerald, Stein. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to do this for the English degree before. Something about Hemingway really invites parody; possibly his machismo.
* * *
Masculinity and comedy is being discussed a lot this week, with reference to Dapper Laughs, a tiresome laddish comedian. As in parodying of Hemingway, the problem seems to be one of targets: punching up or punching down. To mock Hemingway as we do (affectionately) in class is punching up – he sees himself as an alpha male. To mock women, as Dapper Laughs does in an everyman, laddish way (as opposed to a Russell Brand, dandy-Casanova way), is punching down. So this week petitions have been signed, comment pieces have circulated, protests have been made. He has now lost his ITV series, and has appeared on Newsnight to explain how he won’t be doing the ‘character’ of Dapper Laughs any more. The problem was, he wasn’t enough of a character. His form of barbaric, white-van-man style cruelty was all too real.
* * *
Wednesday 12th November 2014. Lecture in Mary Ward House on Philip Larkin’s Less Deceived. Lecturer: Roger Luckhurst. One wonders what Larkin would make of the UK today, given his more reactionary views. Would he have voted UKIP, or would he have seen them as too politically correct? One young student, Ralph, is particularly energised by the lecture, telling me how Larkin really captures the regional England sense of being left out of things, compared to London and Manchester and so on. But there’s always a ‘well, but’ moment when reading Larkin. Such as: ‘They f— you up, your Mum and Dad? Well, but… what about when they don’t?’ And yet his turn of phrase still dazzles, and so he lives on, politics or no. Without the poetry, there’d be no biographies anyway.
* * *
Thursday 13th November 2014. Sad news: the Buffalo Bar in Highbury is to close. Their final night is on New Year’s Eve. Fosca played there. I’ve DJ-d there, danced there, met new friends there, fallen over drunk there. Here’s a photo of me at the BB singing with Fosca, during a Club Bohemia night. From oh, 1897 or whenever (mid 2000s really):
* * *
The nature presenter Chris Packham appeals to Ant and Dec, hosts of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. In an open letter, he asks them to drop the rounds involving live animals, equating them to a form of bloodsport. Mr P’s language to Ant and Dec is particularly striking: he says the treatment of animals is ‘a shame that I imagine neither of you will want to take to your graves’.
On Twitter, I retweet a link to this news story. Then I get into a slight spot of trouble when some people think I’m linking to it in order to condemn Mr Packham. In fact, although I support his cause, I don’t entirely support his use of terms like ‘shame’. The problem is, Twitter is too limited for combining a full response to a story within the same tweet as the link. There’s no room for the spectrum of nuance between the binary polarities of ‘spot on!’ and ‘FFS!’ (‘for f***’s sake’). All is binary on Twitter. You can’t be a bit of both.
I get a rather good comment from Robin Ince on the matter:
‘If you’re not in at least two minds about something, you’re just not putting the effort in’.
, buffalo bar
, chris packham
, dapper laughs
, edwyn collins
, robin ince
, the possibilities are endless
Snogging At The Packed Lunch Panopticon
Friday 28th February 2014
I see the dentist about my ongoing jaw aches. He’s now convinced I am grinding my teeth in my sleep, even though there are no signs of wear. It’s the muscles that have been taking all the punishment, he thinks. But it’s also a condition triggered by anxiety. I have to admit that the problem has been clearing up as more time passes since Dad’s funeral. I never seem to take anxiety as a physical problem seriously, yet clearly it’s something I’m prone to. The dentist has ordered a bite guard, which I’ll have to wear in my sleep.
* * *
I’m reading Savage Messiah, Laura Oldfield’s Ford experimental montage of art, photography, collages and text on early 21st century London. The introduction by Mark Fisher is dated 2011, yet it’s already become a historical relic. There are references to the widespread dread of the then-forthcoming 2012 Olympics. As it turned out, many Londoners actually enjoyed the Games (often despite themselves) and now think of them fondly. Fisher also alludes to London civil disobedience of the past, such as the 1980s riots, as something very much confined to the past. This specifically dates his piece to early 2011, as there’s no doubt that the riots of later that year would have warranted a mention. Likewise the Occupy protests, with the camp outside St Paul’s.
What stands out most, however, is his mention of 2012 as the alleged end of the world, according to the Mayans. Fisher supplies this information as if it’s barely known at all. In 2014, after all the Mayan discussion during 2012 itself (and the disaster movie, 2012), the reader is rather more likely to be aware of it. In fact, it was Ms Ford who became a kind of anarcho-punk Mayan, with her drawings of riot police now steeped in pre-2011 prescience.
One can argue that all published writing is diary writing of a kind, because as time goes on the writing becomes more attached to its own moment.
* * *
Saturday 1st March 2014
I notice how mobile phones have changed architecture. The modern British Library in St Pancras was only opened in 1998, yet parts of it are already ruins of their original purpose. In the basement, there’s a row of booths designed for payphones. Today the phones are all stripped out, though the direction signs for them are still in place (a sign pointing to an empty space always unnerves me). Any Luddite soul who wants to make a call and doesn’t have a charged-up mobile is directed to St Pancras station next door, where working payphones can still be found.
Today, though, the Library’s empty phone booths have come into new use. The building’s foyer is hosting some science-based activities for toddlers (fun with soap bubbles and so on). As a result, the old phone booths have become a temporary baby buggy park. Each pushchair fits the booth space perfectly.
* * *
On a similar note, I’m curious to see that printed phone directories still exist, though only just. This week the latest Thomson’s directory arrives. Phone directories were once thought of as hefty and thick volumes, destined to be torn in two by circus strongmen. Today the Thomson’s directory is a slim A5 affair. Barely a book at all. Even I could tear it in half.
* * *
Monday 3rd March 2014
The British Library’s café, with its free Wifi and lack of piped music, is now so popular during the day that I have given up using it during my research breaks. Hundreds of people are there every weekday now, all at their laptops, filling every possible seat and table, and seemingly there all day. Many are happy to sit on the floor, typing away in the fluff and dirt. I’m happy that so many have this blissful, office-free life, while resenting that there’s no room for me. Still, other cafes are available, and I have no problem in finding a Reading Room seat to do my college research, which is really what I’m there for.
In today’s tea break I do find a mostly empty seating area, the outdoor balcony grove high up on the third floor. It’s a circular space, with a single continuous bench around the circumference, so sitting there one feels watched by everyone else. It’s a kind of panopticon for packed lunches.
Although there are plenty of places to sit down, the only other people there are a young couple, snogging away. So instantly I have to perform the self-conscious role of Embarrassed Lone Person Entering a Space Claimed By Others. I walk around trying hard not to make eye contact with them, and look out through the vines at the view over the back of St Pancras, as if to suggest that is what I have come for. But I hear their lips smacking away, and feel impossibly self-conscious. I go back inside, trying to act as I have satisfied my curiosity of the view.
If there were other lone persons there too, it would be okay – I would have reinforcements. But when a public space contains one lone person and one couple (or a group), a heightened awareness descends. Or at least, it does with me.
Back inside to the safety of the crowded café – where I can’t find a seat.
* * *
Wednesday 5th March 2014
This week I’m studying the sci-fi writer Charles Stross’s Accelerando, for my 21st Century Fiction class. Obligingly, Mr Stross is also in the news today, over something that must seem like science fiction to people of the past: a heated argument in a virtual reality space. He was one of the writers cited in a Twitter controversy, about whether or not Jonathan Ross should host the Hugo Awards for science fiction. The online fuss resulted in Ross stepping down from the job, while his wife left Twitter for good.
Mr Stross’s novel features humans uploading their minds to live in digital spaces, away from the shortcomings of the body. This is all very Utopian, but is some distance away from today. Right now there is the hybrid frustration of being able to communicate virtually, yet still being dependent on a body that keeps you apart physically. I think this must be one reason why people can get so angry so quickly on social media: they are there, yet not there. It’s hard to imagine the same degree of anger happening if the conversations were carried out in person.
I feel relieved at not being sucked into these sort of spiralling social media arguments, but I also feel strangely left out too. Even a fight is a party of a kind.
Tags: British Library
, dental pains
, laura oldfield ford
, mark fisher
, savage messiah
The Outsider Of Obituary Space
Sat 30th November 2013: My brother Tom and I visit Dad and Mum in Suffolk, for Dad’s 77th birthday. Dad needs round the clock care, but at least he’s at home and gets much of the care from nurses, who visit the house and work in shifts. When Tom and I visit, Dad is dressed, seated on the sofa and is chatty. It’s very different from our visit the month before, where he was in bed and barely able to open his eyes. That time, he said to me: ‘This is all very boring, I’m afraid’.
Dad relies on mains power for his oxygen pump, so a recent power cut due to the now-regular floods proved to be something of an ordeal. I find out afterwards that the electricity network has a priority register for people who are particularly vulnerable when the power goes down.
[Here’s the link in case anyone reading this knows someone in a similar situation]
Something that I’ve insisted Mum gets for future power cuts is a ‘corded’ phone, as in the pre-digital sort that just plugs into the landline socket. No need for batteries, chargers or any sort of power supply. It’s everything else that needs electricity: mobile chargers, answering machines, speed dial buttons, hands-free bases. Strange to think the phone evolved from not needing electricity to needing it badly.
Tom is currently playing guitar for Roddy Frame’s band. They’ve been performing all the songs from the 80s Aztec Camera album High Land Hard Rain, one of the concerts being at a sold out Drury Lane. These ‘classics albums live’ gigs are more popular than ever, though not all the bands stick strictly to the list on the back of the (inevitably reissued) CD box. I’m told that when Primal Scream performed ‘Screamadelica’ live, they mucked around with the song order, and even missed some tracks out.
Meanwhile, Monty Python have reformed for live concerts too. I suppose they could tour a set-list of all the scenes from each of their films, in the way bands do their back catalogue albums.
* * *
A notice in St Pancras library today, announcing a book of condolence for Nelson Mandela, this particular one at Camden town hall around the corner. There’s also a book at South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, where people are shown on TV queuing around the block.
Colin Wilson, the cult writer of ‘The Outsider’ and countless other books, dies on Thursday 5th, the same day as Mr Mandela. It’s reminiscent of Jeffrey Bernard going on the same day as Mother Teresa: not just the timing but the contrast. Global humanitarian bumps selfish British writer in the scrabble for obituary space. Only The Times manages to run an obituary for Mr Wilson the next day. I myself find out about his death through social media. I also find it’s best to check Twitter for things like the status of rail services and power cuts when -as there was this week – floods in Suffolk. For all my misgivings about it, Twitter is much better at supplying news than, well, the news.
Two media clichés that make me wince. ‘Tributes pour in’ (the only thing that tributes ever seem to do, with no explanation of exactly how they’ve attained this liquid form), and ‘took to Twitter’, which gives what is often a perfunctory, kneejerk act a misleading air of effort and considered choice. It’s also the alliteration that irks, giving it a unsuitable jaunty, skipping connotation. ‘He took to Twitter’. While I take to drink.
Recommended reading on Colin Wilson:
A highly naughty Guardian interview from 2004: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/may/30/biography.features1
An excellent piece on the blog Another Nickel In The Machine: http://www.nickelinthemachine.com/2010/01/hampstead-heath-and-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-author-colin-wilson/
Tags: aztec camera
, colin wilson
, monty python
, nelson mandela
, power cuts
, the outsider
Danny Boyle: A Dizzying Rascal
Last Friday evening: I watch the live stream of the Olympics Opening Ceremony, while following people’s comments on Twitter – a particularly modern pastime.
I’m not a big fan of Danny Boyle’s films at all. I find them too externally-minded, rock-video-like and glossy, even garish; I think of the petrol station exploding early on in 28 Days Later for no other reason than it made the film look more attractive to the US youth market (by Mr Boyle’s admission on the DVD commentary). This is just my own taste, mind. Mr Boyle still impresses me, the way he can take a low budget, Lottery-funded British film like Sunshine and make it look as if it cost as much as the likes of Avatar. Well, almost. He has an undeniable and unique talent for delivering visual thrills that are also value for money, and this made him the perfect choice for directing the Opening Ceremony.
Spectacle over reason is a lot less problematic for such an event. Because spectacle IS the reason. A lot of people did try to find reason in much of the proceedings, but this, I feel, was a mistake. Boyle’s own programme notes centred on the theme of building ‘Jerusalem’, after the Blake poem and song, and this is in itself a piece of culture that has often been interpreted in conflicting ways.
Using Mr Branagh to play Mr Brunel, reciting Caliban’s speech from The Tempest about ‘crying to dream again’ was also highly ambiguous. Boyle’s notes stressed the speech was used as a celebration of dreaming and of wonders per se, away from the more problematic context of their source, Caliban the deformed, vengeful slave of Prospero, who attempted to rape Miranda. But Mr Boyle took the words and the surface value of the speech and gave it his own meaning, just as he took samples from all across British culture and stitched them together into a smorgasbord of giddying, sometimes silly, yet frequently dazzling entertainment.
Some commentators judged the ceremony as subversively Left Wing (the NHS bit). Others said it was in fact a Right Wing, misty-eyed delusion for the old days (the NHS bit again). A lot of people on Twitter found a Tory MP’s negative reaction, and reacted en masse against him – to the point where his name became inextricably linked to the event, as if Mr Boyle had hired him as a performer. I think it’s very wrong to let outrage eclipse achievement, and his name has been mentioned too often already. I’d rather name people like the choreographer Akram Khan and the singer Emeli Sande, whose ‘Abide With Me’ section was my personal highlight of the show: stripped down, heartfelt, sensitive, tasteful and arty.
But that said, I still enjoyed the unabashed crowd-pleasing aspects: the Industrial Revolution’s smokestacks magically springing up from the countryside, the five glowing Olympic Rings forged, then floating, then raining down fireworks. I loved the tribute to Tim Berners-Lee, though I admit I needed the caption onscreen. Unlike a lot of USA TV stations, I know who Berners-Lee is, although I’d find it hard to place his face.
And of course, I hooted with delight at the appearance of HMQ, doing a spot of acting with a fictional character (Daniel Craig’s James Bond) before outrageously appearing to parachute into the arena. Was this fawning pro-Royal propaganda? Was it cheekily anti-Royal? Or was it just a shameless advert for this year’s new Bond film, Skyfall?
The great thing was, if you wanted to crowbar your own reading into it all, you could. And many did. But Boyle’s main intention, as far I as I could tell, was just to lay on a packed and entertaining spectacle that worked at the surface level. And what surfaces they were.
Tags: danny boyle
, opening ceremony
Like a fool, yesterday I let temptation get the better of me. I went on one of those ‘Who Unfollowed Me On Twitter’ sites. Such a Pandora’s box. I suppose the emotion behind doing so comes from the game-like nature of Twitter, which insists on associating one’s name with a total number of ‘followers’. As if to say, ‘this is your score in life’. So when you see the number going down, and you know there’s a site which tells you just who has had enough of you, Dame Insecurity takes over. And there they are. Sometimes it’s just strangers trying you out, and realising you’re not for them. But sometimes it’s people you were following back, people you thought were kindred spirits. Friends in real life, sometimes. One shouldn’t take it personally, but of course, one does.
On this occasion, I discovered I’d been not just unfollowed but ‘blocked’. Blocking is a Twitter button usually reserved – as far as I understand it – for those who have been actively spamming or abusing or otherwise pestering someone – it completely cuts off further contact either way. The person who’d blocked me was a music journalist I rather liked, whom I’d chatted to a few times in the Twittery way, enthusing about shared interests. I’d never had any kind of arguments with him, or bombarded him with unasked-for Tweets, and I hadn’t even Tweeted “at” him directly for a week or so. So now I’d instantly became steeped in Kakfa-esque paranoia – what had I said? It’s the not knowing that irks the most.
In order to stop myself going completely insane with worry, I did the other Pandora’s box thing (in for a Pandora’s penny, in for a pound) – I logged out of my own Twitter account in order to look at his public timeline. And there it was, a Tweet referring to blocking someone who had annoyed him because… they had Tweeted about their essay marks. I instantly knew, with a horrible sinking feeling, that he must have meant me.
What can I say? I’d managed to get some very good marks and was really happy about doing so, and I shared this fact on Twitter. Not directly to Mr Blocker (that’s the bit I don’t get), but generally, openly. Why? Because I like it when other people do the same – I like hearing of their successes, book deals, appearances on TV & radio, babies, marriages, running marathons, all of it. I like people to be happy! And I suppose I naively thought people on Twitter thought the same.
I guess one person’s idea of spontaneously expressing happiness is another’s person idea of a nauseating, undignified and smug boast.
But then again, perhaps my blocker didn’t realise how much it meant to me. Or perhaps he saw my Tweets while having a particularly bad day. Or perhaps he doesn’t realise that blocking is not the same as unfollowing. The element of not knowing goes further still, and it goes both ways. Oh well.
I don’t bear him the slightest ill-will, mind, because it was really my fault for going on that website in the first place. In fact, I’d like to apologise for annoying him, only I can’t, because he’s blocked me.
At least I’ve learned a couple of lessons, though. One is to never go on those ‘who unfollowed me’ sites ever again – it only ends in tears. Another is that I should restrain from Tweeting things about my college life – if it drove him to blocking me, it must have annoyed a few others too.
Besides, I have this diary for such things.
So, readers who find accounts of college work annoying or just boring might want to look away. For the next three and a bit years. Sorry.
This time last year I was approaching forty, and was wondering what the hell I should do with myself. My attempts at a sustainable career as a musician & songwriter, or a freelance writer, or a DJ, or a club promoter, or working in offices and shops and museums, had all fizzled out. Either I wasn’t good enough at them, or I just didn’t have the enthusiasm to keep at them for very long, or I just wanted to try something else. I was beginning to question if I was actually good at anything at all, to be honest.
Then a kind friend – Emily B – pointed out a journalism course for postgraduates, not realising I didn’t even have an A level to my name. I told her I wasn’t qualified, but thanks, and… wait a minute, that reminds me! A mothballed ambition at the back of my mind came alive, and I realised I really, really, really wanted to do a degree. I’d dropped out of A-levels after an unhappy episode at school, meaning I couldn’t do a degree at the time most people do them. Since then, it was always something I knew I wanted to do. I just had forgotten about it. Until now.
Such a wonderful feeling, to actually know what you want to do.
(oh, and there was that business about the fees going up if I left it any longer)
I’m not doing much else in my life at the moment – the degree is pretty much what I’m living for. Since starting the course last October my essay marks have been, in order, 69, 69, 70, 71, and 75. I’m putting the work in, and it’s paying off – I’m improving as an academic. For an English Literature degree, a First is 70 or above. I don’t find the work easy in the slightest – it’s hard and riddled with frustration, not least because I have dyspraxia (essentially meaning I’m slower and more scatterbrained than the average student), and it’s been over 20 years since I was last in formal education. So, yes, I’m quite happy about my marks. If that’s all right with the rest of the world.
As it is, I worry of the common British Twitter emotion of Default Scorn. It’s actually more exhausting than cathartic, to have to join in with collective knee-jerk umbrage about some article in the Daily Mail (don’t link to it then!), or fixating on this columnist or that columnist or whatever it is today.
(stomach still aching, getting very boring now)
P.S. A few people have now told me they do like hearing of how I’m doing at college. And yes, I know this is a very petty story, and I’m being a bit thin-skinned and over-sensitive on this. It’s just being honest. Which is what got me blocked in the first place. But this is my first awareness of being blocked on Twitter, and my first and last comment on the unhappy, if ultimately ephemeral experience. I just needed to, well, unblock my thoughts on it.
Tags: annoying people
Writing this at 1am on the morning of Monday January 9th.
I think I promised myself I’d get my college coursework out of the way before I wrote another diary entry. I’ve only just finished it – the deadline is the evening of the 9th. The feeling of getting something done on time is such a calming one. What happens at the end is not that one feels exhausted, but has energy left to spare, in the way that a runner keeps going for a few yards after they’ve hit the finish. So here I am with the diary.
Mid December: My first term at Birkbeck College ended with my first two essays back: both 69%. That’s the highest possible mark for an Upper Second, and still a pass. But it’s not a First. And I now know that I really want a First. Even if it’s the lowest possible First, ie 70%. Just one point away. Still, I have the first year to learn how to get better at this – that’s the whole point. None of the first year marks count towards the final degree, for this reason.
(69. Such a pleasant number in the bedroom, so frustrating in the classroom.)
I need to focus on the positive feedback I received, and I include it here by way of self-encouragement rather than vanity. Honest.
“You write extremely well…”
“Really well-written, compelling piece of work… Fluent and confident… perceptive… relevant and illuminating… A very impressive achievement.”
“You have valuably extended the stock of collective wisdom and knowledge.”
That last one was from a workshop I attended, in which I chipped in quite a lot about grammar and style. Shame that didn’t count towards my degree.
On Xmas Eve I saw Carol Morley’s Dreams Of A Life (superb) at the Islington Screen On The Green. They now have a bar inside the main screen room, at the back behind the stalls. I think it may even have served bowls of olives and ciabatta bread. The seats were comfortable (not tipping up) and detached, with plenty of leg room. Rather like a first class aeroplane section.
I spent Christmas Day in Highgate, phoning my parents in the morning then feeding the ducks at lunchtime in Waterlow Park, as I’ve done for some years now. I was joined for this by Ms Silke once again: mulled wine in a flask by the pond. Dinner was courtesy of my kind friend Ella Lucas, at her place in Highgate, with her friend Natascha.
Accidentally, my two Xmas Day 2011 companions (Silke and Ella) both got me the same Christmas card – an Aubrey Beardsley illustration from Le Morte d’Arthur, as printed by the V&A. I’m very happy that I’m definitely the sort of person to give Aubrey Beardsley cards to. Because I am.
I spent AbyssMas – the period between Christmas and New Year – meeting with my parents who’d come up to stay for a few days, and also catching up with friends like Laurence Hughes.
December 30th saw me DJ at the Last Tuesday Society’s New Year’s Eve Eve Ball – a particularly decadent affair even by their standards. Venue was Mass in Brixton, a huge labyrinthine old church. There were fireworks and countdowns to Midnight to welcome in… Dec 31st.
Spent the real New Year’s Eve recovering from a particularly bad hangover after the LTS ball. Steeled myself to welcome in 2012 at the Boogaloo with Ms Kirsten and her friends, but went straight home after about an hour there.
Since then I’ve been working on the college assignments – poetry by Hughes and Coleridge. Have been lurking in the London Library a lot.
Enjoyed the start of the second series of Sherlock as well as the second Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes film (seen with Dad). Bought and devoured the Fist Of Fun DVDs – Stewart Lee’s commentary being as entertaining as his footnotes for his solo book. Also enjoyed Stewart Lee’s new ‘EP’ book, for that reason.
And I’ve been spending too much time on Twitter. I’m just not the sort of person that should be on it very much, I think. Found myself getting in an argument with the fake Wendi Deng account, the one that some journalists thought was the real wife of Rupert Murdoch. I mused to the Fake Ms Deng – not thinking they’d reply – about the hoaxer’s need for validation, about the morality of appropriating someone else’s image and identity, asking them what they thought about the Gay Girl From Damascus case, and why people pretend to be other people on the internet, all that. They – whoever they were really – told me it was ‘just a bit of fun’ and I was analysing things too much. Probably right.
I stood on Highgate Hill today and thought about the London 2012 skyline: the Emirates stadium, the Shard, and now the Olympic Park sculpture by Kapoor, like a huge red figure ‘8’ on the horizon.
My college piece was about Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Kahn’. I read it on one level as a study of the (usually male) desire to build showy edifices for no good reason. I mentioned how it’s quoted in the opening of Citizen Kane, and referred to the Millenium Dome and the Shard: possibly the ultimate illustration of Coleridge’s ‘visionary fragment’, ho ho.
, christmas 2011
, last tuesday society
, starting the diary after a dry spell
, stewart lee