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 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.


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How Big To Make The Bear

Saturday 24th January 2015. A favourite track for starting the day – and for tackling most things – is Percy Faith’s Theme From A Summer Place. It soothes with a slight smirk: a camp calmative.

* * *

Sunday 25th January 2015. Woolf’s birthday, much quotes of hers doing the rounds. Have been thinking about this one, given I’ve been reading a lot about reality and realism:

‘I haven’t that reality gift […] distrusting reality, its cheapness’. Diary, 19 June 1923.

* * *

Monday 26th January 2015. I watch the 2008 film version of Brideshead Revisited. Its two hours can’t compete with the eleven hours of the 1980s TV series, and there’s an inevitable skipping and skimming over aspects of the story which really need room to breathe. But it gives the world Ben Whishaw as Sebastian Flyte, an interpretation that makes the character vulnerable and kittenish, which in turn makes me realise how outgoing and puppyish Anthony Andrews is in the TV series. Both takes are perfectly valid: after all, critics have been arguing over the character since 1945.

The film also turns up the bisexuality aspect, moving Hayley Atwell’s Julia into scenes she wasn’t anywhere near in the novel. At one point Michael Gambon (as Lord Marchmain) faces Matthew Goode (who plays Charles Ryder), while extending his arms around Sebastian and Julia. He then says: ‘There must be many temptations for you here’. Quite.

And how apt it is now, that Ben Whishaw would go from carrying around a teddy bear, to providing the voice of Paddington. Whishaw’s teddy in Brideshead is a lot smaller than Anthony Andrews’s, though it suits his more wary performance. Perhaps that’s the first question anyone adapting Brideshead should ask themselves: how big to make the bear.

* * *

Tuesday 27th January 2015. Class on Don DeLillo’s 80s novel, White Noise. It’s my first encounter with Mr DeLillo. Very witty, without being wisecracking. Fascinating how a fear of over-consumption of information was a concern even in the 1980s. The wry scene about The Most Photographed Barn In America seems a thousand times more relevant now, in this age of the selfie-stick.

We discuss postmodernism and Thomas Pynchon. Or as he might be described, The Least Photographed Man In America.

My favourite quote from White Noise:

‘Eating is the only form of professionalism most people ever attain.’

* * *

Wednesday 28th January 2015. The Natural History Museum announces that it will remove ‘Dippy’, the diplodocus skeleton, from its main hall, having been installed there since 1979 – just before my own first visits there as a child. The choice for its replacement is fair enough, though: the huge blue whale skeleton, whose effect in the tucked-away Whale Hall has always tended to be diminished by having the 1930s plaster model of the same creature hanging alongside it. The model was later found to be biologically inaccurate, while ‘Dippy’ is only a plaster cast itself (something I didn’t know until today), so having a genuine whale skeleton as the first sight for visitors makes sense. But for me the main attraction of the Hall is really the hall itself: Waterhouse’s Romanesque architecture, with the terracotta arches and staircases, the painted ceiling panels, and the intricate animal sculptures carved into the stone.

Class at Birkbeck: Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. That this class occurs in the same week as the DeLillo is exactly the kind of coincidence that either author would relish. Both sessions include looking at the same quotes on postmodernism from Frederic Jameson. One theme of White Noise is deja vu.

* **

Thursday 29th January 2015. To the ICA for Beyond Clueless. This is a fascinating film-length essay as opposed to a documentary, made up entirely of clips from (slightly) old films, edited together and narrated over to make its points. The films under discussion are from 1994 to 2006, and are all chosen for what they have to say about American teenagers. The film’s thesis – as written by its British director, Charlie Tyne – is that Clueless marked the beginning of a new style of teenager, in the same way that John Hughes’s films (like The Breakfast Club) helped to define teenagers for the 80s. This new wave, as it were, focussed on the viciousness of power cliques, the need to conform and rebel at the same time, troubled forms of sexuality, and out-of-control instincts. Most of the choices are high school comedies and dramas (Mean Girls, The Girl Next Door, She’s All That, and the now rather shockingly titled Slap Her She’s French), but there’s also a few teen horror films (Ginger Snaps, Final Destination, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Idle Hands) art house adaptations (The Rules of Attraction), and films that have become cult classics in their own right (The Craft). They’ve all had their pop song soundtracks stripped away and replaced with a new uniform score, while the narration is by The Craft’s Fairuza Balk.

It’s more about depictions of teenage identity than it is about the films themselves, but one has the pleasure of seeing them in a fresh context. Along the way it insists that Jeepers Creepers and Eurotrip are about repressed homosexuality, while 13 Going On 30 is pernicious anti-feminist propaganda. I’m not sure I agree in all three cases, but the arguments are entertaining in themselves. To me it feels a bit like one of those Adam Curtis films, except with more footage of Freddie Prinze Jr moping about in school corridors. A slight shortcoming is that it sometimes undermines its own thesis in order to just show random montages cut to music (so exactly like Adam Curtis then, ho ho). But otherwise it’s worth seeking out. I now have an urge to re-watch Cruel Intentions.

* * *

Friday 30th January 2015.  It’s about time I recorded my gratitude to Esther Ranson, the Birkbeck School of Arts administrator. Over the past three and a half years, Ms R has not only answered my many queries about the nuts-and-bolts side of the degree course, but she has invariably done so with swiftness and in clear, calming and perfectly-written messages. Today I send her a rather meandering question about thesis word counts, which (typically) I’d been getting upset about for hours. I finally realise I should just ask Esther R about it. So I do so, and she replies within ten minutes. She gives me the precise answer I wanted, uses references to official guidelines to back it up, and makes me feel that my mind has been put at rest on the matter. I imagine she has to deal with a constant barrage of similar queries all day, both from students and staff, yet her replies never show any sign of being rushed. It’s another form of lesson.


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The Schriftstellerin’s Stick

Saturday 5th July 2014. Thinking about the event at the Barbican centre the previous evening, I recall something about the interval. Myself and Ms C had ventured off together to use the toilets, and naturally had to split up when we reached them. The event wasn’t particularly female-heavy, yet outside the ladies there was a queue of a least a dozen women. Outside the gents, no queue whatsoever.

Riddled with guilt at this oversight in what is meant to be a modern building, I offered to escort Ms S into the gents to use one of the available cubicles there. She declined, but I like to think that had she agreed none of my fellow males would have protested. At such instances of self-evident inequality, sharing the Gents with women is surely the test of a true Gentleman. And if any of the men did protest, I would have flung my arms to the air and said like any good academic, ‘But sir, all gender is performativity! Go and read your Judith Butler! But wash your hands first.’

In my case, I often feel like a fraud having to declare a gender full stop, purely in order to use the loos. My fear is that once through the door firmly marked Gents, I will be questioned on my knowledge of football, cricket, cars, sharks, beards, and Jeremy Clarkson. And I will be found wanting.

* * *

I spend the afternoon picking up books on literary camp. At Birkbeck Library I find one of Brigid Brophy’s two studies of Aubrey Beardsley, plus Moe Meyer’s The Politics and Poetics of Camp, which seems to have been a set text for a Birkbeck course in the past. The giveaway sign for this is seeing a whole batch of duplicate copies on the shelf. Then to Gay’s The Word bookshop in Marchmont Street, to ask the staff about their own suggestions. I come away with Lovetown by Michal Witkowski, an example of contemporary Polish literary camp.

In Gordon Square I look at a new piece of public art. It’s one of fifty fibreglass ‘book benches’ which have been installed around the city, and which will stay there until the Autumn. They are a project by the National Literacy Trust, called ‘Books About Town’. Each sculpture is the size of a park bench. It is shaped to resemble a book lying open on its side, then painted to illustrate a particular book. Sometimes there is a connection with the location. Gordon Square was once the address of Virginia Woolf, and this particular bench depicts Clarissa and Septimus from Mrs Dalloway. The artist is Fiona Osborne from One Red Shoe, who also painted the Dorian Gray Olympic mascot sculpture in 2012. Her Septimus has a touch of Wildean beauty about him too: the archetype of the doomed boy.

I get into a conversation with a Woolf fan, Alison, who’s come to see the sculpture along with the dozen other benches in Bloomsbury (there’s a map online). She tells me that the bench celebrating Orwell’s 1984 has already been vandalised and is away for repairs, barely a week after it was installed. For a novel that champions acts of rebellion, this rather smacks of irony.

* * *

Monday 7th July 2014. To the Hammersmith Apollo for ‘Stand Up Against Austerity’, a comedy benefit. It’s in aid of The People’s Assembly, which organises protests against the current government cuts. The evening has an old-fashioned left-wing activist feel to it, and is hosted by Kate Smurthwaite. She isn’t entirely joking when she kicks off the night with  ‘Let’s have a revolution!’ The acts are all pretty well known in the world of British stand-up: Jason Manford, Shappi Khorsandi, Francesca Martinez, Marcus Brigstocke, Jeremy Hardy, Mark Steel, Jen Brister, Stewart Lee, and Jo Brand. I’m impressed by Jason Manford: I’d always thought of him as more of a mainstream, middle-of-the-road laddish comic. But clearly his heart’s in the right place. Or in this case, the left place.

Stewart Lee opens his set with an excellent topical gag. It riffs on the most common thing people said after Rolf Harris’s conviction, while alluding to today’s rumours of a well-known Tory MP from the 1980s, who’s thought to be connected with various sexual allegations of his own. I’d better redact his name, in case.

‘I do hope [Dreary 80s Tory MP] hasn’t done anything bad. I’d hate to have my childhood memories of [Dreary 80s Tory MP] ruined.’

Mark Steel must be about as old as Jeremy Hardy – indeed I saw them both (and Jo Brand) at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1988. But where Mr Hardy jokes about the aging process, Mr Steel seems entirely unfettered by time. He has exactly the same manic energy he had in the 80s, running around the stage and spitting out his anti-UKIP rants with barely a pause for breath. I envy him for this, just as I envy him for his red velvet jacket.

On the tube home, I bump into Russell T. He’s just been to some dinner event with none other than Nigel Farage – the very man who was a butt of so many of the jokes at the Apollo. It transpires that Mr F really does like his drink, even when (as tonight) he dashes off to do a late night interview with LBC, several glasses of wine still sloshing away inside him. So all those photos of him holding a pint of beer are not just a pose after all.

* * *

Thursday 10th July 2014. In the afternoon: to the Prince Charles cinema for Bad Neighbours. It’s a broad Hollywood comedy. A thirty-ish couple with a house, proper jobs, and a new baby have their life made hell when a gaggle of noisy students move in next door. There’s some laboured gross-out humour which seems a bit old hat now, and it’s never clear who the film is meant for – former students who are settling down into parenthood, or current students who want that sort of humour now. It’s a shame, because otherwise there’s a witty enough comedy of manners tucked behind the slapstick. Rose Byrne in particular is superb as the new mother, who finds it hard to deliver the phrase ‘can you keep it down?’ in a way that won’t make her sound like a spoiler of fun. Which is, of course, impossible.

Then by way of contrast to the National Portrait Gallery, for Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision. Somewhat fewer slapstick sight gags there. I suppose this represents the person I’ve grown to become – the sort of person who goes to a Virginia Woolf exhibition – and on the day it opens, too (I couldn’t wait). It’s quite busy, with a mix of all ages and genders. There are some shocks. The first exhibit is a large photograph of Woolf’s Tavistock Square flat in ruins, after it was bombed during WW2. In amongst the debris her fireplace can be seen intact, with its Vanessa Bell decorations exposed to the open sky. Then the show works in refreshing Orlando-esque time travel: the fireplace appears again in a Vogue article from the 1920s, then it’s straight back to her childhood, and then forward again into Bloomsbury, via lots of beautiful Hogarth Press first editions. I am stopped in my tracks by a photograph of the 13-year-old Virginia, dressed in mourning for her mother.

At the other end of her life there’s the letters she left before her suicide (‘I feel certain I am going mad again…’), along with her walking stick, which she usually took everywhere. This was a message in itself. When Leonard Woolf came home and saw the stick left behind, he knew at once what had happened. Had she survived her depression she would have discovered that she’d escaped another fate too. There’s a copy of a Nazi wartime instruction book, listing the names of over two thousand British politicians and writers who were to be taken into ‘protective custody’ in the event of a German invasion. The book is open at the entry ‘Woolf, Virginia: Schriftstellerin’. Authoress.

***

Friday 11th July 2014. A journalist from Q magazine emails, asking if I’d like to be interviewed for an article about the ‘lost tribe’ of Romo. I decline politely. One reason is that I have enough trouble recollecting the specifics of the present (hence the diary), let alone those of the distant past. As it is, I spoke to a newspaper for a similar piece a few years ago, and winced at the dismissive agenda which my words were used to endorse (it was the equivalent of ‘Romo: mostly harmless’).

But my chief reason is really this. If I’m going to rake over those particular coals, I’d rather do so for a stand-alone article about Orlando, and not for another huddling of the band under the wider umbrella of Romo. I feel Orlando did good work, and it wasn’t just us who thought so at the time. We won two Singles of the Week in Melody Maker, plus we released an album which received 8 out of 10 from the NME. There’s modesty, and there’s arrogance, but then there’s also being fair to one’s achievements. Why shore up unfair narratives against your own work?


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Thoughts On Female Role Models Via The Sales of Postcards At The National Portrait Gallery, With A Nod To The Olympics

While reading Brenda Silver’s Virginia Woolf Icon a few months ago, one particular piece of information leapt out at me. At the time of the book’s writing – 1997 – Ms Woolf was the Number One selling postcard in the National Portrait Gallery shop. In 2012 this is no longer the case. The Woolf postcard is still holding its own in the postcards chart, but she has since been usurped from the top spot by a certain other British icon. You’ll have to wait a few paragraphs before I reveal who this is.

In the Silver book, the author theorises that images of Virginia Woolf are often used as a kind of instant shorthand for women as intellectuals, though not always positively. For example, she can be seen as a pin-up on the bedroom wall of the hapless Saffy in the TV sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. Saffy begins the series as a long-suffering, bookish student, appalled at the decadent brashness of her mother Edina. The set designer would have had to think about what sort of images Saffy might have on her wall, ones which a mainstream audience would have ‘got’ at once. Virginia Woolf it would have to be.

Significantly, the bestselling image in question is of Woolf aged 20, photographed in 1902 by George Beresford. This is the image that sells so well at the NPG shop, not just as a postcard, but as a print and a fridge magnet too.

And yet the girl in the image is not yet Virginia Woolf: both in a literal sense – she is the unmarried Adeline Virginia Stephen – and in the sense of Woolf the writer, the reason for why she’s in the Gallery. The girl in the photo has yet to write the books that would make her name. A more representative image of Woolf the writer, therefore, would be one when she was older, like the photograph that made the cover of Time Magazine in 1937, while she was alive:

So why do people prefer the Beresford photograph so, particularly when the NPG has older versions of Ms W available? Replying to my enquiry, the NPG’s Robert Carr-Archer wonders if some people buy the postcard because ‘it is a beautiful and romantic image of a young woman, whose identity is almost unimportant’. It’s certainly a beautiful image in its own right, but I think another reason might be that it represents potential and hope, and thus inspiration. Another reason might be that the pose itself is rather regal, as if she’s deliberately posing for a coin or a stamp, or indeed a fridge magnet.

I also like the way her striking sundial nose is accentuated by the profile pose, and by her softer and still-growing face. It’s surely refreshing to think that in this era of nose jobs, the most popular female face in the National Portrait Gallery for years was one with a large nose.

The changing types of female role models was also an abiding theme during the London Olympics. Many of the British team’s women triumphed in sports with something of a traditionally masculine image, such as cycling, rowing and boxing. Physical fitness was celebrated as something for women to properly aspire to, over and above facial perfection. When it came to the Closing Ceremony, some commentators therefore bemoaned that there was a section devoted to British fashion, where models like Kate Moss and Lily Cole paraded in gold dresses. This, the critics said, was something of a depressing step back for women, what with all the athletic successes. But this seemed unfair, I felt, particularly when Ms Cole has a Double First from Cambridge, and when the same ceremony featured the Spice Girls, Jessie J, Annie Lennox and Kate Bush (though not in person) – all female role models of very different musical styles.

So, anyway, on to the top selling postcards in the NPG today. Perhaps they say something about what people regard as an important portrait today.

Well, Virginia Woolf is now down to Number 4.

In at Number 3 is a 2009 painting of Princes William and Harry in uniform:

At Number Two is Twiggy by Ronald Traeger, from 1967.

And Number One is…

‘Mike’s Brother’ by Sam Walsh, from 1964. Better known as Paul McCartney:

According to the NPG, historical figures don’t get much of a look in these days. People tend to go for either the Tudors or post-1950s faces, with not much in between. Here, Virginia Woolf is an exception once again.

Mr Carr-Archer adds that the original 1902 print of Woolf is often not on display in the gallery, to help perserve it. This makes its popularity in the shop all the more interesting, I think.

Finally, despite being bumped down the list by a woman famous for her looks (Twiggy), it’s notable that Ms Woolf still beats postcards of Kate Moss and Lily Cole. By a nose.

TOP TEN POSTCARDS SOLD IN THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, JAN – DEC 2011

  1. Paul McCartney
  2. Twiggy
  3. William & Harry (painting by N Philipps)
  4. Virginia Woolf
  5. Lily Cole
  6. William & Harry (photo by F. Greer)
  7. Kate Moss
  8. Queen Elizabeth II (Warhol – Pink)
  9. The Rolling Stones
  10. Audrey Hepburn

(Thanks to Robert Carr-Archer at the NPG)


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