Sunday 16th October 2016. I notice a flyer on my table at the Quaker café, opposite Euston. It’s publicising an event in Oxford: ‘Lines on the Left: Poems for Jeremy Corbyn. A celebration in words and music to launch this major anthology.’ Hard to imagine a similar volume for his rivals: sonnets in praise of Theresa May, or a Festschrift for Owen Smith. At least, not outside of sarcasm.
A common critique of Mr Corbyn is that he has integrity but is unelectable. The implication is that integrity itself is impractical. I’m reminded of something Zadie Smith said about the film V For Vendetta: ‘Personal integrity is always ridiculed by adults and worshipped by adolescents, because principles are the only thing adolescents, unlike adults, really own’. (from Changing My Mind).
Mr Corbyn certainly has a fanbase among the young: one sees red Momentum t-shirts around the University of London’s Bloomsbury campus. It’s the people in middle life that aren’t so impressed, their youthful ideals knocked out of them. Parenthood, money, and the ownership of property loom larger in the crosshairs, and compromise usually goes with them.
A small amount of integrity is nevertheless still valued over wealth alone, at least in mainstream UK politics. The huge fortune of Zac Goldsmith did not prevent him from losing the London mayoral race, when his campaign became tainted with racism. Whereas Donald Trump, frequently described as an actual racist, is still seen as electable. Over there, one has to conclude that money may not be everything, but it can be enough.
As with the poems for Corbyn, there’s been a flurry of political pop songs in the last days of the US election. The trouble is, these are not so much in celebration of Ms Clinton as in condemnation of Mr Trump. The website for the project 30 days, 30 songs – run by the novelist Dave Eggers – says it all in its ‘Note to feminists who can’t get behind Hillary’:
‘If you vote for Hillary Clinton, you accomplish two aligned goals at once: You elect the first woman president, and you prevent the election of Donald Trump.’
In other words, better the devil you know.
A subgenre of protest songs: panic songs.
Afternoon: to Soho to try the new vegetarian branch of Pret a Manger, on the corner of Broadwick Street and Lexington Street. It was tried out as a pop-up a few months ago, and like the Millennium Wheel has become permanent due to popular demand.
Why the bosses of Pret were cautious in the first place is beyond me. Despite the frequent reports of health risks from processed meat, or the environmental warnings about the carbon effects of cow breeding, there still seems to be this mainstream fear of going without flesh even for a single meal. But Veggie Pret is packed today.
Lots of green coloured branding over the usual red Pret logos. It’s still a novelty to see a franchise café’s cabinet of sandwiches, and not find them dominated by meat. I’m sure there’s a market for a whole chain of veggie cafes like this: it just takes the nerve of an Anita Roddick figure
Monday 17th October 2016. Modern life: the daily practice of clicking on a button marked ‘Not Now’.
Currently reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977), for college. What impresses, as with Beloved, are her little shifts into magical realism, like the witchy sister who seems to able to change her size. Morrison says in the introduction that it’s really a novel about men, but the section that really stands out is where the spurned girlfriend, Hagar, goes on a demented spree of beautification, raiding perfume counters and clothes shops.
Tuesday 18th October 2016. More things that leave me like a ranting Canute. People emailing me for a mobile number to continue a discussion. Probably naive of me, but after contact has been made via email, I don’t see why we can’t conduct the conversation that way. In email, statements can be carefully polished, details are easily copied and saved, and ambiguities can be kept to a minimum.
As well as my slight phobia with speaking on the phone, there’s a practical reason to this: I spend a lot of my time in libraries. If I took calls there, it would not end well. But there’s also the redundancy of someone switching from email to making a call, only for them to say, ‘have you got a pen?’
If a phone conversation is truly necessary, then it’s surely worth booking a phone appointment – and sticking to it. But this seems not to be taken very seriously.
Today I agree via email on a time I can be called. I then duly choose a quiet café and have the phone to hand, ready for the time in question. This designated moment passes. So do two hours after that. They still don’t call. I switch the phone off and go to the library to get on with some studies. Later I get a text message saying they were ‘trying to reach me’.
This is all about trying to book a therapist. It’s tempting to wonder if it’s in their interest to drive people mad.
A message for a memorial bench: ‘He refused to be available on a zero hours basis.’
Afternoon: to the British Library café to meet Rachel Stevenson. It’s been some years since we properly met for a conversation, after the end of Fosca in 2009. Today,we talk more about books than music. Except for talking about the music of our past, perhaps inevitably. Indeed, Rachel’s own blog is currently reviewing the songs that made up the John Peel Festive Fifty of 1988. [Link: http://millionreasons.livejournal.com/ ]
Evening: to the Horse Hospital in Russell Square, the kind of small, idiosyncratic venue that’s been vanishing from London in recent years. Happily, the HH persists, with its steep entrance ramp still in place, evidence that the building was indeed a hospital for horses.
Tonight is an evening headlined by the writer Geoff Nicholson, who discusses his psychogeography-inspired work, such as Bleeding London. Kirsty Allison, who I don’t think I’ve seen before, gives a charismatic poetry set which uses a projected film. At times she seems to be narrating the film, at others reacting against it. I take a copy of her fanzine, ‘Unedited’, hand stitched and hand made, though it says it was written on an iPhone.
I also enjoy a set by Alexander’s Festival Hall, the band fronted by Alex Mayor, who once produced some Fosca recordings. Very soulful in the Scritti Politti, Style Council way. One song is especially beautiful, ‘Upturned’.
In the breaks between acts I bump into Clare Wadd of Sarah Records, a nice coincidence on the day of meeting up with Rachel S. And given the evening is about psychogeography, and especially London, I remember that it was Clare who helped me move from Bristol to London in 1994, driving me and my things all the way to Highgate in her car. I tell her that Michael White’s book on Sarah, Popkiss, is now on the shelves at Birkbeck Library. Nothing to do with me; I assume it’s on a reading list for some humanities course.
Something I’ve learned is that everything creative becomes worthy of serious study in time, even the things that feel like fleeting, niche interests at the time. Though of course, Clare and Matt themselves took Sarah Records very seriously from the off. That was part of the appeal.
Thursday 20th October 2016. Evening: classes at Birkbeck at the Montague Room in the Anglo Educational Services building, in the southwest side of Russell Square. Like Birkbeck’s School of Arts in Gordon Square the place is a warren of knocked-through Victorian houses.
First up is a seminar with Mpalive Msiska on Philip Larkin’s The Less Deceived, at which it’s my turn to give a fifteen minute presentation. I’ve just started reading the new Alan Bennett collection of diaries, Keeping On Keeping On, published today. The first page mentions how Mr Bennett dips into Larkin for inspiration. Though in this case he thinks the poet’s tone is too ‘valedictory’: ‘the valedictory was almost Larkin’s exclusive territory’. I mention this in my Larkin presentation, pleased to bring it as up to date as possible.
What I didn’t know until I did my research was that Larkin is due to get a memorial in Westminster Abbey, with the unveiling this December. So my presentation focuses on the tale of his reputation. I think about the way public image is such a pressing matter now, from Jimmy Savile and his ilk to the people in Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The Ronson book covers the rise of ‘reputation management firms’ – companies who will make your Google results more flattering.
Accordingly I chart the tale of the public Larkin, from fashionability in the 1950s with The Movement, to the popular poet in the 1960s and 70s, to refusing the Laureateship in 1984; I’d forgotten that Ted Hughes was the second choice. Then to the posthumous publication of his letters in the 90s, and his near writing-off as a misogynistic and racist figure, whose poetry was now of diminishing relevance. Finally I cover the subtle recovery in the 2000s, with Larkin quietly topping polls again as a favourite English poet, a festival in Hull with a statue, and now the Abbey.
Mr Msiska adds that in the 90s, teaching Larkin was so controversial, tutors had to seek permission.
Afterwards: a lecture by Peter Fifield on 1960s fiction and Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat. Very hard to label the latter in terms of genre, beyond the 1960s type of postmodern play that one finds in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Though when Mr F mentions its lack of ‘rounded characters’ I wonder if Menippean satire might be a useful framework. Certainly Ms S admired the concise flippancy of Max Beerbohm, and Zuleika Dobson isn’t so far from Spark. Waugh was an admirer too: Spark’s work was one of the few things about the 1960s he did like. Mr Fifield further argues that Ian McEwan’s style is essentially a 1960s one.
I suppose a truly 2010s style might be to write a novel made up of animated gifs. Dennis Cooper is the only novelist I can think of who has done this. It may not catch on, but it’s at least a move towards acknowledging the way a lot of people interact online. They use gifs – little animated stills – of actors, often subtitled, to express their emotion for them.
I once wrote a Fosca song called ‘We See the World as Our Stunt Doubles’. Not quite the world, perhaps, but people do see gifs of Phoebe from Friends as their stunt doubles.
Saturday 22nd October 2016. To Vout-o-Reenee’s for ‘Azizam: A Night of Pre-Revolution Persian Glamour’. A theme of 60s and 70s Iranian exotica, scratchy scenes of belly dancing on screens, those jellied snacks which are like Turkish Delight but nicer, and lots of dressing up. Hosted by Vout’s regulars Emily and Emma. Emma is from a family of Iranian Geordies: her cousin sings a set of Persian language songs, interspersed with commentary in her Newcastle accent. The two Ems are also a couple, and tonight’s crowd includes a contingent of Iranians and gay people, and indeed both. All getting along fine in this former Catholic crypt turned into a bohemian artists’ bar. It’s events like this that are one of the things I love about London.
Sunday 23rd October 2016. Morrissey turns out to be pro-Brexit, going by a new interview. I feel as I do about Waugh and Larkin: I may not share their politics, but that doesn’t mean their work doesn’t speak to me. Trust the art, not the artist.
Though admittedly some artists are easier to trust than others.
Monday 24th October 2016. I finish The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Bought on a whim from Euston WH Smiths, before I realised the eponymous train in question is in fact a Euston one.
This is the current unstoppable bestseller novel. Published in hardback last year, it hung around the top 10 lists for the best part of eighteen months, even outdoing the ubiquitous Dan Brown. Despite the pricy and format, people didn’t stop buying it until the paperback came out, which wasn’t until May this year. I want to see the film, so it seems the time to try the book.
As with One Day a few years ago, there’s no real explanation as to why this book should do so much better than others, other than through a fortuitous synchronicity of word-of-mouth momentum. That said, both novels do share one thing: the premise of an easy to grasp concept, applied to characters who touch on everyday recognition.
So whereas One Day is broken up into the ‘one day a year’ premise, Girl on the Train has its narration broken up into digestible ‘morning’ and ‘evening’ chunks, mirroring the commuter journeys of the protagonist. Fairly early on, the perspective shifts to a second character in flashback, and then again to a third. The idea of a thriller based around witnessing an event from a window isn’t new: one thinks of Agatha Christie’s 4.50 From Paddington, or Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The fresh appeal here might be the contemporary, ordinary setting of the Euston commuter belt. Plus there’s the ‘girl’ in question’s downbeat situation: she’s divorced, living in a rented room, is overweight, and is an alcoholic who has black outs. She’s an unreliable narrator, but crucially never unrelatable.
The meaning of the train window has also changed from Christie and Hitchcock’s day: now it’s a surrogate iPad, another screen through which to scroll resentfully past the nicer lives of others.
I wince a little at the box-ticking elements for the genre, though, such as the scene where the villain delivers a speech about how they did it and why. But this is a reminder why I prefer literary fiction: it’s the genre where no boxes need ever be ticked.
Wednesday 26th October 2016. Write a review for The Wire, of The Infinite Mix exhibition on the Strand. I think this marks my debut as an art critic, not counting pieces for catalogues in the past.
Thursday 27th October 2016. Evening: Birkbeck classes. A seminar on Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, followed by a lecture by Harriet Earle on Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In preparation for the Pynchon class, I go to Senate House and leaf through a book of Remedios Varo’s surreal paintings. Pynchon refers to a real Varo painting in one scene, though her whole style is a good primer for the novel’s skewed, strange world. Post-war Bosch.
Friday 28th October 2016. Winter flu jab at Selfridges. It costs the same whichever chemist one uses, so one might as well be vaccinated with style.
Read a review in the LRB by Rosemary Hill, of Minoo Dinshaw’s Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman:
‘Later he claimed to have slept with people whose names began with every letter of the alphabet except Q, because the only possibility was Quentin Crisp and he couldn’t face it.’
From the same article, a remark by Runciman’s father:
‘I put up with the rouge and the mascara and the velvet clothes, but if I ever catch him sitting down to pee, I’ll cut him off without a penny.’
Saturday 29th October 2016. To the Vue Piccadilly for the film of The Girl on the Train. It’s terrible. One can just about forgive the Hollywood switch from an overweight heroine to the decidedly semi-skimmed Emily Blunt, and indeed the move from England to the US. But all the twists and revelations of the book are well and truly botched. Ms Blunt does her best, but what grips on the page bores on the screen. Shame.
Still, the use of houses on the Metro-North line, running along the valley of the Hudson river, certainly makes the notion of Ms Blunt’s envy all the more convincing. A house with a major railway line at the bottom of its garden isn’t always desirable, but the Hudson Valley is one of the most picturesque areas in the US. It’s also a nice reminder of my own trip on the line a few years ago, going all the way from Poughkeepsie into Grand Central.
Sunday 30th October 2016. On an Evelyn Waugh binge. Lots of insights into the English Condition (never mind the human condition), but also lots of good jokes. Some prescience too. Thinking now about the line in Decline and Fall about ‘the sound of English county families baying for broken glass’, I note how it can apply to the Brexit vote.
I dip into Selina Hastings’s biography of EW, to find this about Evelyn Gardner, his first wife:
‘She read Proust, but undermined this sign of intellectual discernment by referring to him always as “Prousty-Wousty”’.
Thus She-Evelyn anticipates the rise of Russell Brand.
In June 1960 Waugh writes to apologise for some typos in a recent book:
‘I am told that printers’ readers no longer exist because clergymen are no longer unfrocked for sodomy.’
Waugh’s letters are full of entertaining jokes like this, painting a picture of a much more likeable man than the one in the published Diaries. One reason for this, as suggested by the editor, Mark Amory, may be that Waugh wrote his letters in the morning, while sober, and wrote the diary in the evening, when drunk.
I’d say that another is that letters are much more of a performance, even if it’s just for one person. Private diaries, drunken or not, get the unflattering sides: the complaints, the vanity, the pettiness, the self-pity, the resentment. Letters, meanwhile, have more of a sense of performed morality, even if it’s just a note to a local newspaper on some gossamer oversight by the council.
Letters necessitate thinking about others, even if it’s thinking ill. And as with charity, letters can tease vanity into philanthropy. The writer aligns themselves with what they think is right, and plays a Sunday Best version of selfhood.
Ideally social media should be more like letters (and postcards), but the form too often tempts its users into the less flattering indulgences of a private diary.
Thursday 3rd November 2016. Evening: Birkbeck classes. A seminar on Angela Carter’s Passion of New Eve, followed by a lecture by Grace Halden, on alterity in post-war science fiction. We look at Judith Merril’s ‘That Only A Mother’ – with its very 1940s fear of the Bomb – and Samuel R. Delany’s ‘Aye, and Gomorrah…’, which has a very late 60s theme of sexualities as subcultures. Needless to say, I love it, and make a note to read more Delany.
If you enjoy this diary, please help to keep it going by making a donation to the Diary Fund. Thank you!
Tags: Angela Carter
, clare wadd
, evelyn waugh
, horse hospital
, Kirsty Allison
, michael white
, paula hawkins
, philip larkin
, quentin crisp
, Rachel Stevenson
, samuel r delany
, sarah records
, steven runciman
, the girl on the train
, the wire
Never A Boy On A Wall
Saturday 10th September 2016. Thoughts on the endurance of retro aesthetics. There is still no stylish way of being seen staring at a phone. The cover of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together essentially says, ‘doesn’t the sight of people on phones look like a terrible thing?’ For all Mr Jobs’s love of attractive design, the fact remains that the sight of using his pretty gadgets is not attractive. The screen upstages the body in a way that older instruments never did. The history of art is full of images of people reading books in wistful and attractive ways. The sight of people at screens has yet to signify anything other than ‘work’ or ‘product’. Not ‘beautiful’.
There was a recent book of Caitlin Moran’s journalism where she was pictured on the cover tapping at a typewriter. She subsequently explained that it was a prop for the photo shoot, and that she really writes on a laptop.
Old broken typewriters are now used as set dressing in cafes and shops. Old broken laptops, however, are more likely to be thrown away.
London’s red phone boxes are now rarely used to make calls. But they are still left in place and repainted. The ones on the corners of Russell Square are currently used as lockable office workstations available to hire. Another phone box nearby forms part of a coffee stall, functioning as a stock cupboard.
I’ve yet to see a red phone box converted into the most obvious solution, though: a urinal. Despite all the anecdotal evidence of this alternative use, there is still something about British sensibilities that can’t bear to have the ugly act and the beautiful box officially brought together.
There are many reasons to buy books from bookshops rather than Amazon, but one is that London bookshops are simply better for getting a book in a hurry. Today I find that the little branch of Hatchards in St Pancras can order an unstocked title at 2pm, and have it ready for me to collect by 6. No extra charge, not even a deposit. The volume in question is Evelyn Waugh’s selected essays, A Little Order.
Sunday 11th September 2016. Where the likes of Amazon do come in handy, though, is for satisfying the impulse to watch an old film. I used to rely on a physical film library, Archway Video, a few years ago, with its huge stock of titles to rent. Gone now. Tonight I use Amazon’s online rental service to rewatch Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. It still holds up, the different plot strands working in harmony, the comedy balancing out the drama. Everyone gets a tidy happy ending, though I now realise we never find out what becomes of Max Von Sydow’s sociopathic artist, one of the best characters.
Monday 12th September 2016. Tim Chipping writes to confirm something I had wondered about in a recent diary entry. It was on my failure to be the sort of young person who hung around in groups on street corners, or who sat on walls. He says this reminded him of the first time he visited me in Bristol, when we were in our early 20s. We walked into town to buy bags of chips, after which Tim ‘instinctively’ sat on a nearby wall. He says I was baffled by this, and that I insisted we go home to eat the chips.
Thinking back, I suppose I associated ‘hanging out’ on a street as a form of anti-social behaviour. But of course, to be young and to worry about such things is to be anti-social to one’s peers.
Evening: To the Heavenly Social bar in Little Portland Street, for a book launch by Travis Elborough. No slouch he: it’s barely weeks after his book about public parks. This is more of an illustrated reference work, though: Atlas of Improbable Places- A Journey to the World’s Most Unusual Corners. Each entry comes with intricate maps by Alan Horsfield, which have a satisfying, calming appeal.
In the introduction TE points out the value of unique physical locations. I’m guilty of using the term ‘Dubai-ification’, when it comes to the mania in London for building glass towers. But TE’s book reminds me that there is at least one Dubai structure that fascinates me. It’s the more horizontally-inclined Palm Jumeirah archipelago, with its artificial ‘fronds’ of reclaimed sand, each one supporting hundreds of villas. It’s the sort of idea that’s surely asking for trouble in the long term, as seen in the abandoned towns elsewhere in the same book. But I like the sheer garish nerve of it.
Other favourite entries in this Atlas are Portmeirion in Wales, of The Prisoner fame, the Euro bridges of Spijkenisse in Holland (which seem like something from a postmodern story), and the strange case of the Kingdom of Redonda. This is an uninhabitable piece of rock in the Caribbean whose ‘king’ was declared to be the sci-fi novelist MP Shiel.
Tonight at the launch there’s a colouring competition (to re-ink Mr Horsfield’s maps), made all the more difficult by the venue being a dimly-lit underground bar. ‘Colouring in the dark – it’s this year’s trend!’ says Travis E. I lurk among the likes of Joe Brooker, Tim Benton, Alex M, Harvey Williams, Anne Pigalle, Paul Kelly (on DJ-ing), Emily Bick, Debsey Wykes.
Tuesday 13th September 2016. With Shanthi and her friend Matthew to the Barbican cinema, to see the latest Woody Allen film, Café Society. An enjoyable enough romance set in 1930s LA and New York. As with much of WA’s recent fare, though, he seems keen to tell the story without letting the characters get a chance to really come alive. I wish there were more moments like the ones in Hannah and Her Sisters, where the characters are permitted to stop and pause, to gaze and yearn. Still, there are lots of sumptuous, golden visuals and plenty of historical detail, such as the casual anti-Semitism from well-intentioned characters. Kristen Stewart, who normally plays sulky contemporary girls, is cast against type as the sweet love interest. But she plays it well enough, and her inscrutability saves the film from blandness.
Wednesday 14th September 2016. In a corner of Russell Square today there’s a little marquee for the Friends of Russell Square charity. Several elderly people are manning trestle tables, selling second hand books and DVDs. There’s also a rack of postcards. When I go to take a look, I notice that many of the postcards are of Eastbourne.
Thursday 15th September 2016. To the East Finchley Phoenix for the new Beatles documentary, Eight Days A Week. As part of the trend to put exclusive content into cinemas, there’s an hour-long live broadcast beforehand, from the red carpet of the film’s premiere at Leicester Square. Except that the red carpet is a deep blue.
I never learn what the reason for this is – a reference to the song ‘Blue Jay Way’ perhaps? Or just a nice coordination with the blue of the film’s poster? Presumably no one else is curious either, as the presenters manage to fill up their endless minutes of live commentary without once deigning to enlighten the viewer. Still, it’s impressive to see not just Paul and Ringo turn up, but Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison too.
Giles Martin, son of the recently deceased George, talks about his work on the film’s soundtrack. Pleasingly, Giles’s way of speaking turns out to closely resemble his father’s. In Beatles documentaries, George Martin’s measured BBC RP accent is always an entertaining contrast to those rebellious Liverpudlian tones. It is the ability to sound like a kindly army captain in a British war film.
The new Beatles film itself is an exhilarating joy. Its director, Ron Howard, is in the business of making big-screen blockbuster entertainment, which might be why the film rattles along on a constant high: literally when Paul admits they filmed Help! between puffs of cannabis. Mr Howard’s prowess in spectacle also explains why he focuses on the band when they were at their most visual as human beings: their international tours from 1964 to 1966.
More specifically, though, Mr Howard foregrounds an element played down in the 1990s Anthology TV series: the story of their reception. While Anthology asked what it was like to be the Beatles, Eight Days A Week asks what it was like to see the Beatles live, especially if you were American. The songs were enticing enough: ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ made its own way to a US Number One before the band even crossed the Atlantic. When they did arrive, as Paul McCartney puts it, they were ‘kings’. Accordingly, the film skips through the well-told rise of the Beatles in Britain, the better to examine the awestruck viewpoint of those US fans in 1964. The Beatles arrived as fully-formed superstars, four alien-looking young men with their identical suits, boots and androgynous children’s haircuts.
The live footage is broken up by some talking head interviews, which normally irritates, but Mr Howard keeps them pithy and to the point. Whoopi Goldberg remarks on the importance of the Beatles’ ‘colourlessness’ to her self-image, in much the same way as people were discussing David Bowie earlier this year: the way pop stars help people find themselves. Eddie Izzard also makes some interesting remarks about the band’s press conferences, when they displayed the instincts of stand-up comedians.
Saturday 17th September 2016. To Viktor Wynd’s museum at 11 Mare Street for a joint private view: a selection of Leonora Carrington’s surreal art from the 1930s to the 1990s, and Paul Hazelton’s site-specific Ghosts in the Making show. Mr Hazelton specialises in little figurines and sculptures made entirely from household dust and human hair. These startlingly delicate works look soft, sandy, fragile, as if they could return to dust at any minute. One is reclining on – or possibly making love with – a lobster, that staple animal of surrealism, in an echo of Dali’s Lobster Telephone. Some of the other Hazelton works are dust globes with smaller figures somehow trapped inside, like ships in bottles.
I chat to the artist himself tonight – modest, friendly, casually-dressed – though we’re bothered by the aggressive denizens of Hackney’s streets. One is a down-at-heel bald man trying to sell £1 plastic cigarette lighters from a tray, the other is an equally grizzled woman who is trying to engage the seller in an argument at the same time. The pair of them carry on like this down the length of Mare Street, the man still offering his wares in between his attempts to placate the woman. He’s caught in a state of switching between two worlds: ‘I never said I did! Lighters for £1 mate? ’
Then to Vout-o-Reenee’s in Tower Hill for the club night The Track. Sophie Parkin shows me the new exhibition in the gallery: Chris Wilson’s Glue Ponys (sic). Mr Wilson has had quite a life: a childhood in Africa, drug addiction and prison spells in the US, now a fine art graduate of Chelsea, and an author too. The show coincides with his book of short stories. I take a look at his raw and rough canvasses: visceral figures on horses, thick, overwritten layers of paint and text, naïve angels and crude gods. Many of the works hang unframed from the ceiling like tapestries, to show how Wilson paints on both sides of the canvas.
Excellent music: some 1940s swing, some Northern Soul. I chat with Susanna, a stylish lady in her 70s who has worked as a professional lookalike for Lauren Bacall. Spend some time with Emily and Emma, a gay couple from Newcastle whom I’ve noticed before, in their immaculate 1950s hair and clothes, always ready to dance. I dance a little too.
The sign of a good time had: I miss the last normal tube. But it’s a good excuse to walk to Liverpool Street (15 mins) and catch the brand new Night Tube. In its current tentative state, with only a couple of lines open, I can get as far north as Highbury Corner. Then I have to take a night bus to Highgate.
Hardly any Saturday night rowdiness on the trains: mainly quiet conversation and dozing off. I wonder if the newness of seeing the Tube at this time of night has a psychological effect; the wariness of pioneers. When I do see someone behaving loutishly, it’s on a night bus at Archway. A young man suddenly throws up in front of the doors, mere seconds before the bus stops to let him out.
If you enjoy this unique content, please help to keep it free from adverts and ‘You Won’t Believe…’ clickbait by making a donation to the Diary Fund. Thank you!
Tags: atlas of improbable places
, Cafe Society
, chris wilson
, glue ponys
, hannah and her sisters
, Heavenly Social
, Leonora Carrington
, Night Tube
, Paul Hazelton
, red phone boxes
, The Beatles: Eight Days A Week
, travis elborough
, viktor wynd
, woody allen
Saturday 30th July 2016. To a garden in Clapham for Heather M’s housewarming party. It’s one of those occasions where I only seem to know the host, reminding me how bad I am at fitting into social circles. But I enjoy chatting with the others there – a funny, friendly gang. There’s a curious plastic box on a short pole in one of Heather’s flower beds. After placing our bets as to what it might be, Heather explains it’s to repel local cats from using her garden as a latrine. From time to time the box emits an ultrasonic hum. Cats apparently take an extremely dim view of the sound. Presumably even those felines who are partial to experimental music.
Coming back on the train from Clapham, I am surrounded by people in wedding clothes, or in the case of hen nights, pre-wedding clothes. Tiara-ed up bridesmaids, lads in hired suits falling over each other by the station barriers, group outings in specially made t-shirts. The height of the wedding season. All the reports about weddings being too expensive, or about young people preferring to be married to the naughtier parts of the internet, seem exaggerated, at least looking around today. Though I’m not exactly an expert, squeezing past all these glimpses of love lives at Victoria station, then traipsing home to my unshared bed.
Sunday 31st July 2016. I’m going through old CDRs of music, throwing them out, wondering just how much music a person ever needs to own. It’s not the same with books. Anthony Powell had it right: books do furnish a room. CDRs, being inelegant and at the mercy of the march of technology, clutter it up.
I read Anita Brookner’s A Start In Life. Penguin have gone Brookner mad since her death, and reissued about a dozen of her umpteen novels as rather beautiful new paperbacks. They look a little like the record sleeves for The Smiths: vintage twentieth-century stock photos in black and white. The exception is the new edition of Hotel Du Lac, which has a colour photo of a summery mountain road, dominated by a clear blue sky. The special treatment is, I suppose, because it was the only one to win the Booker Prize.
With its tale of a quiet, bookish girl at the mercy of a childish and slovenly mother, A Start In Life often reads like Absolutely Fabulous from the point of view of the daughter. The opening line, often quoted, is still the best part: ‘Dr Weiss, at forty, knew her life had been ruined by literature.’
Tuesday 2nd August 2016. Bump into Roz Kaveney in Bar Italia, Soho, and spend a pleasant hour chatting. Some discussion of the Bowie Prom the other night, where various singers covered the songs of the late David B. I think a problem with tribute concerts is that one has to like the singers as well as the songs. On top of that, when it comes to covering Bowie, the man’s image eclipses the material. Bowie’s own versions of his songs are always going to be the most interesting, because it’s Bowie. Still, I admit I have a soft spot for Nirvana’s take on ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. And indeed, for Barbra Streisand’s entirely unasked-for ‘Life on Mars’.
Thursday 4th August 2016. I’m reading Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable, her new book on the psychological effects of the British class system – ‘the wall in the mind’ as she calls it. It draws heavily on her experiences growing up on a vast Midlands council estate, and takes its tonal cue from Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy. What I most like about it is Ms Hanley’s unabashed digressions into her love of pop music and indie bands, seamlessly linking them with her wider discussions of statistics. There’s a section on her life as a member of the Pet Shop Boys fanclub in the late 80s. I’m currently reviewing a new book about the PSBs for The Wire, written by someone not even born until 1988 – a ‘millenial’ I think the term is. It’s interesting to compare the way the different generations write about 80s music; millennials will never know how hard it was to access music that spoke to them, pre-internet. It meant late night BBC Radio 1, or the music papers, or nothing. And then it meant journeying off to a decent record shop. Fandom was harder won.
At one point in the book Ms Hanley recounts a moment where her personal diary was discovered at school by her classmates, only to leave them baffled. It was covered in quotes from the Pet Shop Boys’ book, Annually. This sort of experience is, of course, now vanishing, as the personal jotter of today is more likely to be Tumblr. Teenagers may still feel isolated at school, but once they get online they can at least find a community to suit them. The use of pop music – and pop radio – as a sole access to another world is over.
Ms Hanley views the PSBs’ hits as a kind of entryist portal into a ‘secret language of taste and class’. The Pet Shop Boys were not only ‘The Smiths you can dance to’, as the critics’ tag went. Given daytime radio’s dislike of The Smiths, the PSBs were also The Smiths you could actually be exposed to. It was an era, says Ms H, ‘when it was possible to be sophisticated without apologizing for it’.
She goes on to talk about Momus, in fact, whose music she found through the Annie Nightingale show on Radio 1. A playlist made to accompany Respectable (kindly forwarded to me by the publicist, Emma Bal) includes the PSBs, Momus, and Denim’s ‘Middle of the Road’. Ms H likes that Lawrence is from Water Orton, close to where she grew up on the Chelmsley Wood estate, and that he keeps his accent for singing. I’m conducting a Q&A event next week with Lawrence himself, for a screening of Lawrence of Belgravia, so I shall try to mention this.
Having had my interest in the Pet Shop Boys renewed, I’ve also been investigating their fan club magazine Literally, which Ms Hanley must have received as a teenager, and which is still going today. It’s always been in the same A5 print-only format, and has never been issued in an electronic version. How fascinating that a group as electronic as the Pet Shop Boys also believes in print-only media. That said, I do wish they’d reissue the Chris Heath biographies on Kindle.
I get hold of an issue from 2014, which captures the duo on a US tour. The PSBs now have a strict rule about never letting fans take their photo with them. Autographs, yes, photos, no. Saying no to a selfie is, I suppose, the new way of being sophisticated.
Evening: to Vout-o-reenee’s for the private view of a members’ group show. The club has its own art gallery, and many of the members are working artists. So the current show is a pleasingly eclectic experience which nevertheless holds together, thanks to some careful juxtapositions. There’s paintings, sculpture, electronic light displays, and some sort of conceptual work based around a fake blue plaque for Ralph Steadman. I’m a bit baffled by the latter.
Atalanta K’s artwork is a huge painting of two thin greyhound-like dogs, Borzois I think (Atalanta writes: ‘They’re actually Sloughis‘), posed vertically against a black background in the medieval heraldic style.
I also enjoy a painting of an anguished male face, in a pastiche of Francis Bacon’s ‘Screaming Pope’ style. The title is ‘Ceci n’est pas une pape’, or whatever the French is for ‘this is not a Pope’; thus punning on Magritte’s pipe. It takes a while to dawn on me that the figure is Ian Paisley.
Tuesday 9th August 2016. To the Curzon Soho for The Neon Demon. I go to a late showing, after 9pm, which suits the film perfectly. Ostensibly a tale of struggling fashion models in LA, it quickly moves into a parade of stagey surrealism, eroticism, bizarre hallucinatory scenes, necrophilia, and finally violent horror. The idea that the fashion world is a form of cannibalism, where young bodies are ‘fresh meat’, is first taken figuratively, and then literally.
The film has had some of the most scathing reviews of the year, so it does rather force the viewer to take a binary side, for or against. In which case I’m on the ‘for’ side, as to write it off is overlook the manifestly superb visuals. Lots of pink-saturated tableaux of the models, whose beauty is so abstracted that it makes me think of the Terence Donovan video for Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Madame Butterfly’, currently on show in the Photographers’ Gallery. It also fits with the recent revival in unrepentant surrealism, as seen in The Lobster, Black Swan and Under the Skin, though mercifully it doesn’t have the latter’s scenes of people moping about aimlessly for minutes on end. I get enough of that at home.
But also it reminds me of Liquid Sky, the bizarre early 80s New Romantic film about models and aliens in New York. This is mainly because The Neon Demon has a very early 80s-like soundtrack, all pulsating synths and ominous drum machines.
What clinches the film as a work of worth is that it’s the first time in years I’ve seen strangers in a central London cinema turn to each other after the lights go up, and start up conversations about the film. That alone makes The Neon Demon special. ‘I think everyone should see it,’ says one woman to me. But not everyone can take gruesome imagery, however beautifully shot.
Wednesday 10th August 2016. In the British Library or London Library at the moment, working on the review of the Pet Shop Boys book. There’s not many people about, which is nice, probably because of the fine weather, holidays, and the Edinburgh festival going on.
I’m using my old-school Neo2 word processor, which keeps me offline. Today I spend far too much time fiddling with the opening sentence of the review; always a mistake. You need to press on with the bulk of any piece, and then rework the beginning and ending after that. Today, thinking about Neil Tennant’s changing hairline on the Pet Shop Boys’ record sleeves, a joke suggests itself:
‘I’m not balding. My hair’s just gone post-imperial.’
Thursday 11th August 2016. I’m in WH Smith’s in St Pancras, looking for the right colour clipboard to co-ordinate with my summer suits. I regard WH Smiths as a sort of non-binary option for stationery shops. It’s there for those times when one feels neither feminine enough for Paperchase, nor butch enough for Ryman.
I pass some young people sitting on a wall outside Birkbeck. They notice me, laugh and shout out:
‘Haha! His hair’s the same colour as his suit!’
I want to turn around and say, ‘Yes, dear heart. It’s called coordination. You wouldn’t understand.’
Something I don’t miss about being young: having to hang about in groups like that. On corners, or sitting on walls. But I’m not sure I ever did that when I was their age, anyway.
Friday 12th August 2016. Early morning. I write this sitting in Spreads café on Pall Mall. A bedraggled, worn-out looking old woman is sitting near me, surround by bags, and trying not to fall aleep. She is dressed entirely in clothes from souvenir shops, topped off with a Union Jack beanie hat. Her t-shirt is an ‘I Heart London’ one. If she were a character in a drama about homelessness or immigration, the makers would be criticised for clunky symbolism. But that’s what she’s wearing.
A man at another café table is on his phone, telling off a colleague:
‘We’re not singing from the same hymn sheet, that’s the problem.’
There is a pause.
‘Okay, fair enough. We are both singing from the same hymn sheet. But you’re miming.’
Tags: anita brookner
, lawrence of belgravia
, lynsey hanley
, pet shop boys
, the neon demon
The Artist Known As…
Tuesday 17 May 2016. To Vout-o-Reenee’s to take a photo. It’s for my entry to a Birkbeck competition, which is asking for photos on the theme of ‘London Relocated’. An idea occurred to me, so I thought I’d give it a go. I thought about the way the Vout’s club is effectively the spirit of bohemian Soho relocated, in this case a few miles east in Tower Hill. Tonight I get Sophie Parkin to pose at the bar for my hopeful little image, alongside her book on the deceased Soho club, the Colony Room. I also get my own membership card of the Colony into the shot, visible on the counter of the Vout’s bar.
Sophie tells me about the charity Little Paper Slipper, which is having a major event at Vout’s in June. This is a charity that organises therapeutic art workshops, for women affected by domestic abuse. The end result is a series of exhibitions of the eponymous slippers, each one personalised by the woman who made it. There’s about 150 of them now. The event at Vout’s is going to be a fundraising auction, featuring shoes specially made for the charity by a group of artists, including Gavin Turk, Molly Parkin, and John Claridge.
I’m happy to help publicise the event. There’s further details at Facebook here.
There’s some fascinating photos of the workshop slippers at the charity website: www.littlepaperslipper.com/slippers.html
Wednesday 18 May 2016. Evening: my debut as a conceptual artist. I am given a sticker for my lapel which says: ‘Dickon Edwards – Artist’. So it must be true.
The venue is Birkbeck’s School of Arts, on the east side of Gordon Square, once home to Virginia Woolf. This week is Birkbeck’s annual Arts Week, a series of free talks and events that are open to the public. Over the cast iron railings at the main entrance are the words ‘ARTS WEEK’ rendered as huge, colourful knitted letters. I discover that this display is not, as I’d hoped, the product of an MA course in Comparative Knitting, but the handiwork of two knitting-loving administrators, Claire Adams and Catherine Catrix.
Given the building’s history, I wonder what would have happened if those fateful railings in Mrs Dalloway had been similarly wool-clad. Septimus Smith might have ended the novel in better shape. Another thought is The Muppets’ Mrs Dalloway. Starring Miss Piggy as Clarissa: ‘Moi will buy the flowers myself!’
Inside, Room 112 hosts The Contemporary: An Exhibition. This is a ‘pop-up’ show by four students of the MA Contemporary Literature and Culture course, and addresses the question: what is ‘the contemporary’? The contributors are Kathryn Butterworth (in partnership with James Watkinson), Jassey Parmar, Dylan Williams, and myself. The event is the idea of the main course tutor, Grace Halden, who thought it would be good to have the MA represented during Arts Week.
Kathryn and James’s display is a multimedia look at technology and literature: there’s large boards covered in texts, computer diagrams, a model of DNA code, and laptops playing audio and video content. Jassey’s exhibit is a series of photographs of London shop fronts, which blend different cultures and brands in unexpected ways. Twice during the evening, Dylan performs a selection of his own poetry. And I’ve contributed a social media installation titled Is It Just Me?
I had the idea some years ago. It was one of those ideas that don’t go away. So I thought I’d either put it in a story, or just keep it in reserve, in case someone asked me to contribute to an exhibition.
So one day someone did, and here I am. A debut artist.
At the event, I give out an A4 handout to explain my thinking behind the installation. I’ve uploaded it here as a PDF:
Is it Just Me – installation handout
I also leave out a sheet of my handwritten notes for the project. I like the juxtaposition of the shifting internet content on the screen, with the fixed artifact of my handwriting on paper. Private traces of the body, versus public traces of the mind.
The event turns out to be decently attended, with tutors stopping by to say kind things. It all seems to go okay, and there’s no technical hitches, thanks to the efficiency of Birkbeck’s staff. How wonderful it is to have an idea which involves cables and equipment, but not have to worry about the cables and equipment oneself.
Here’s some photos from the course’s Facebook page (most of them taken by Lee Smith, used with permission):
And here’s a link to the Facebook page for the MA in Contemporary Lit and Culture
Thursday 19th May 2016. Thinking more about Prince, and about camp uses of the colour purple, I’m reminded of this anecdote from Gary McMahon’s Camp in Literature (2006, p. 144):
‘Brigid Brophy notes that [Ronald] Firbank often wrote his tales in purple ink on blue postcards, surface and colour being everything to camp. Brophy reveals that she too wrote her critical biography of the man [Prancing Novelist, 1973] in purple ink. My working copy of Brophy’s book is on loan from Manchester University’s library. At this purple confession on page 173, a university student […] has written this response in the margin:
“Are you [Brophy] really as besotted as this? If so, we don’t want to know. At least maintain a pretence at objectivity, please.”
McMahon remarks that this student represents a certain academic sensibility ‘that is always going to be exasperated and offended by camp’.
Returning to Prince, I think of a friend’s anecdote along the same lines. When this friend was growing up in the 80s, some blokish gentleman known to them – a friend or possibly a dad – took one look at a Prince record sleeve and remarked, quite out of the blue, ‘I don’t care what he sounds like. I’m not listening to anyone who dresses like that.’
Friday 20th May 2016. I receive the grade for my second essay on the MA. Despite my struggles with it, I am very pleased indeed to get a 76 (a mark over 70 is a Distinction, the MA equivalent of a First). The first essay got a 73. It’s a nice boost to my confidence when I needed it most, wracked as I was with Difficult Second Term Syndrome.
For the rest of the summer, I have to get on with postgraduate-y things under my own steam, such as attending open lectures and pursuing my own research. But as far as the big assessments go, the pressure is off until the autumn.
, birkbeck arts week
, brigid brophy
, colony room
, little paper slipper
, ronald firbank
, sophie parkin
The Age Of Skeuomorphs
Friday 1st April 2016. April Fool’s Day seems increasingly redundant in this digitally-driven world of ever-uncertain contexts. Everyday life now relies on consulting the shifting facts of Wikipedia, or checking for the blue-ticked ‘verified accounts’ on Twitter. On social media one is used to seeing the phrase ‘genuine question’. This implies that any default question is not in the least bit genuine. Or indeed, that nothing is genuine full stop, if it’s online.
I think the turning point was a few years ago, with the case of the man arrested for making a joke on Twitter, the one about blowing up Robin Hood Airport. Someone then suggested that all future Tweets should come with the warning ‘may be a joke’. A genuine suggestion. I think.
But April Fool’s Day still goes on. The enforced jollity must be disheartening for any workers forced to smile at the unfunny pranks of management. It’s similar to the way New Year’s Eve parties can be no fun at all, not if there’s no option to opt out. I hear of some wag referring to April Fool’s Day as ‘W—ers Christmas’.
Still, today I quite enjoy Foyles’s elaborate YouTube gag, announcing a new cost-cutting measure: their first holographic sales assistant. In the video, which has the sort of special effects that were once quite expensive, but which now probably cost nothing, they jokily reassure people that they still need human staffers, as the hologram can’t pick up any books.
Holographic staffers are already a reality in some places. There’s one in King’s Cross station by one of the escalators, though it’s technically more of a projection, the screen being a flat, human-sized cut-out. This poor flickering soul is charged with telling people to grip the handrail. After five seconds it warns them again, and then again. It looks like a punishment for holograms: an eternal loop of banality.
* * *
I watch a newspaper review programme on one of the news channels. The Independent is no longer available in print, but it does continue to exist as a digital daily edition. This is a fixed document, best read on iPads, that is a separate entity to its ever-changing website. My head starts to reel with the implications of something that is ‘fixed’ like print, yet still virtual.
In this way, it still has a ‘front page’, so it can still appear on the review programme alongside all the other newspapers’ covers. But this disturbs me a little. Where is the ‘front’ of a digital document? A PDF or a Word document has a Page One, but a ‘front page’ implies it has three dimensions. In this manner, a digital object imitates an obsolete physical one. The term for this is a favourite word of mine: a ‘skeuomorph’ – a retained design that no longer fulfils the original purpose. Like the fake sound of a camera shutter used on a smartphone. We are in an era of enhanced simulation – which is again why April Fool’s Day feels redundant. With all the skeuomorphs, reality is skewed enough.
* * *
To the Barbican’s art gallery for Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. A fascinating and extensive display of social history from the 1930s to the present. Cartier-Bresson is among the names I recognise. Like many overseas visitors, he seems especially fascinated with the crowds that turn out for royal celebrations: Jubilees, Royal Weddings and so on. It’s something which I forget other countries often associate with the UK.
Also on display is Bruce Davidson, whose ‘Girl Holding Kitten’ from 1960 is now fairly well-known. The juxtaposition of vulnerability: the tiny kitten with its owner, a wide-eyed waif with a sleeping bag, caught on a wet London street.
What strikes me here is the way a photograph can capture objects and places that were already out of date at the time, making a kind of a double historicity. One example is an empty greasy spoon café in Peckham, which looks very 1950s to me, but is in fact from the 1980s. Another is a sign at a railway station: ‘All Season Tickets To Be Shewn’. This archaic spelling for ‘shown’ was apparently in use in public signage as late as 1962.
I wonder what an equivalent sign might be today. It might be the ‘Six Items Or Fewer’ signs at some supermarkets. Though grammatically correct, ‘fewer’ sounds increasingly clunky in some sentences, compared to ‘less’. Certainly in that one.
* * *
Saturday 2nd April 2016. To Vout-O-Reenee’s in Tower Hill, for Debbie Smith’s excellent club night, Nitty Gritty. Cocktails, vintage 60s soul and girl groups, dancing. A proper bohemian London ‘safe space’, the Nitty Gritty regulars (more women than men) mixing with the Vout’s Colony Room-style regulars. I sit with Fenella H, Vadim K and Lily, chat to members of Joanne Joanne, and get pleasingly drunk.
* * *
Tuesday 5th April 2016. To the ICA for the film version of JG Ballard’s High-Rise (£3). The film already has a reputation as being rather divisive, with reports of some people walking out, while others have called it an instant classic. Certainly, I find the heavy use of montages off-putting. At one point Jeremy Irons’s architect says that the problem with the failing tower block is not that he left things out, but that he put too much into it. Which rather sums up the film. It starts well, with Tom Hiddleston moving in and getting to meet the residents, but then gets increasingly messy and confusing. I suppose I wanted it to be more O Lucky Man and less Britannia Hospital. As in the latter, there’s some gory business with body parts that seems less of a clever metaphor for society and more just straightforward gore. However, I can’t fault the 70s aesthetics, from the clothes to the hairdos to the Brutalist architecture (Belfast posing as London, I think), which do a superb job of creating an alternative 1970s version of futuristic life. Particularly the horse in the penthouse garden.
* * *
, nitty gritty
Be Your Own Cosplay
Saturday 17th October 2015.
I watch a new Ted Hughes documentary made by the BBC, Stronger Than Death. Unusually for a TV documentary, there’s no celebrity presenters trampling their own uncalled-for views all over the material. Instead the film lets the poems, the archive footage and the interviewees do all the talking. There’s still omissions and bias, of course: Jonathan Bate appears, and it’s clearly timed to coincide with his major new Hughes biography.
Despite having 90 minutes to play with Hughes’s life, a lot of time is given to the shadow of Sylvia Plath. There’s a recital of a US feminist’s poem which openly dreams of Hughes’s murder, as revenge for Plath’s suicide. This is at the expense of even mentioning The Iron Man or Meet My Folks (both of which delighted me as a child). Hughes’s widow Carol is also noticeably absent – perhaps because she’s appeared in the news headlines lately, complaining about ‘damaging and offensive claims’ in Mr Bate’s book. Instead, one of TH’s extra-marital flings speaks about the poem she apparently inspired, with clear pride.
It’s tempting to say a lot of this is unfairly intrusive or even gossipy, but as Simon Armitage says early on in the film, Ted Hughes is one literary figure where the biography really is essential when considering the work. For my own part, I find myself reaching for my copy of Emma Tennant’s memoir Burnt Diaries, to look up her own contributions to the Tales of Ted. There’s much about Ms Tennant’s own affair with the poet in the 70s, but most memorably for me is the anecdote about his encounter with a mentally ill poet. This man had stalked Hughes for months and had even threatened him with a knife. Finally confronted by the man on a London street, Hughes shoves him into the passenger seat of his car, binds him with the seatbelt, and grabs a sheet of plain A4 paper from his satchel. Then he gets out his penknife, shouts, ‘Look at this!’ to the stalker, and slices the paper diagonally in two.
According to Ms Tennant, who witnessed all this from the back seat of the car, the stalker sat there looking at the paper, ‘as if a living creature had been sacrificed before his eyes – or his soul had been cut in two.’ He was then let out of the car and shambled off into the city. ‘He won’t trouble us again,’ said Hughes.
Bate’s new biography includes this story, and adds that the stalker in question may have been Henry Fainlight, troubled brother of Ruth, though he thinks the anecdote is ‘probably exaggerated in order to dramatise Ted’s quasi-occult powers.’ But Hughes was steeped in ideas of mythology himself, and what else is gossip but a form of mythology? From Leda and the Swan to Kim Kardashian, it’s all tale-telling of a kind.
* * *
Wednesday 21st October 2015.
To the Tate Britain for the big Barbara Hepworth exhibition, Sculpture for a Modern World. It’s labelled as the first major Hepworth show for nearly 50 years. Perhaps the long gap is because people are used to Ms Hepworth’s work being part of the landscape – literally, given her association with outdoors art. This large-scale indoor exhibition brings out the ambient, calming side of her sculptures: a world of humane and peaceful geometry. One room recreates a 1960s outdoor installation in the Netherlands, the Rietveld Pavilion. The pavilion’s concrete walls have been transplanted inside the Tate’s galleries, to show Hepworth’s works in the intended context, though without the grass and sky. I see more visitors sitting and sketching the exhibits than usual. Perhaps there’s something about Hepworth’s sculptures that particularly invites sketching. Carving away at the paper, joining in.
* * *
Thursday 22nd October 2015.
I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of The Flood. A satisfying sequel to Oryx and Crake, focussing on two women caught up in a post-apocalyptic world, where a ‘waterless flood’ – a global pandemic plague – has destroyed most of humanity. A pull-quote for the cover praises the novel for being ‘as pacy as a thriller’. This is a very telling statement on the way genre is viewed by the British literary scene: it implies that literary novels aren’t meant to be pacy, and thrillers aren’t meant to be read. But it’s also accurate for The Year of the Flood: the book uses short chapters, cliffhangers, parallel viewpoints, and flashbacks. All are devices of thrillers. I wolf through its 500 pages in three days.
* * *
Friday 23rd October 2015.
To the ICA cinema for The Lobster. A surreal black comedy, in the Absurdist tradition – shades of Ionesco and Bunuel. It’s by a Greek writer and director, but is filmed in English, and has an impressive cross-European cast (including Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, Olivia Colman, Lea Seydoux). The dialogue has a stilted, almost robotic feel, as if translated by a computer program, but this is clearly part of the whole deadpan aesthetic. The plot concerns an alternative world where single people are forced to find a compatible partner in a month, while imprisoned in a rural hotel. If they fail, they are surgically transformed into an animal of their choice. Mr Farrell escapes one such hotel, only to find that the woods-dwelling ‘loners’ he joins have brutal rules of their own. It’s a very strange film indeed, but like the best Absurdist plays, the comedy balances out the alienation.
Then to Vout-o-Reenee’s to prop up the bar with Debbie Smith. I also bump into Hazel Barkworth, a friend I’ve not seen for years. We discuss how we’ve solidified our own looks – my blond hair and suits, her bob hair and black dresses. ‘Be your own cosplay’ is our decree. (cosplay being short for ‘costume play’, the practice of dressing up as a genre character).
Tonight the venue is hosting the launch of two new poetry pamphlets (I think ‘chapbooks’ is the proper term). Both are published by Annexe Magazine: Susie Campbell’s The Frock Enquiry and JT Welsch’s The Ruin. The former uses historical research into the plight of early 20th century British female workers, a kind of Suffragette in poetry form. Mr Welsch’s work is inspired by a visit to the ruined ancient temples of Tunisia, and makes some nice comments about the way Star Wars fans now make a similarly holy pilgrimage to this area, due to the landscape’s role as a Star Wars location. Certainly, the latest Star Wars sequel is generating anticipation on a level of religious rapture, and it’s not even out for another two months.
I also take a look at the latest exhibition in the venue’s Stash Gallery, Wilma Johnson’s Cat Amongst The Dogs. Ms Johnson lost her life’s work of paintings in a house fire last June, so this show represents something of a rebirth of her creative spirit. Some forty or fifty canvasses are here – not bad for four months. The theme is a playful and colourful celebration of film icons and pets, with a touch of the mythic about both. There’s also a little of a Pop Art Frida Kahlo in the mix. There’s Garbos and Hepburns and Taylors amongst marmalade cats and borzois. Perhaps proving the point about the British love of pets, about half the paintings have already been sold – and the cat paintings are going more than the dog paintings. Tonight, I chat to the artist and discover that she’s staying at her mother’s house in Highgate, which turns out to be the house opposite mine. We share an obvious cab home.
* * *
Tags: annexe magazine
, barbara hepworth
, margaret atwood
, tate britain
, ted hughes
, the lobster
, wilma johnson
Teases, Not Summaries
Monday 12th October 2015.
This week’s MA class is on Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty. I’d read it before earlier this year, but read it again anyway. It’s a joy to do so: the carefully-controlled wit running through every sentence. The seminar takes in ‘retromania’, via Simon Reynolds’s book and the TV series Mad Men. We’re shown a clip where Don Draper gives a speech to clients about a new home slide projector. He muses on the nature of nostalgia, how the word is based on a sense of an ache, or a form of pain, while showing snaps from his own troubled family. The scene is as good as any from literature.
* * *
Tuesday 13th October 2015.
To the Barbican Cinema 2 in Beech Street for Suffragette. The trailer for this film has played heavily in cinemas for months, so much so that at times the actual film feels like the extended 12-inch remix. Trailers should tease, not summarise. And yet all of Meryl Streep’s moments as Emmeline Pankhurst turn out to be the same as those in the trailer. It’s barely a cameo role. The posters mislead too, implying that Ms Streep is in the film as much as Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham-Carter: the image is just of the three of them, lined up against the Suffragette flag. Today at a Tube station I see a small girl jump in front of the poster, and point out Helena BC to her parents – I’m guessing because of her vampy role in the Harry Potter films. Is Suffragette for children? It has the air of an important history lesson, and bears a 12A certificate, so technically children are allowed to go and see it if accompanied by an adult (I can certainly see it used in schools). But there are one or two scenes that are certainly not for smaller children. One is the unpleasant and painful force-feeding of Carey Mulligan’s fictional heroine, in order to thwart her hunger-strike in prison. The real death of Emily Davison at the Epsom Derby is also presented as a traumatic moment (if a brief and gore-free one).
I feel the film’s script is a little eclipsed by its mission to educate. Its characters are more illustrations of issues than they are living, breathing humans in their own right. But everyone involved with the project clearly believes in it wholeheartedly. The acting and staging lifts the film out of the Worthy History Lesson field and into something more lasting. It’s designed to get people talking about feminism, the value of voting, and the morality and pitfalls of ‘deeds not words’.
* * *
Thursday 15th October 2015.
Marlon James, the new Booker Prize winner, is interviewed in the Guardian. He mentions how his first novel was rejected 78 times by publishers. One of the rejection letters included the phrase ‘not for us’. ‘Luckily for them,’ says the interviewer, ‘James can’t remember their name’. This is a common narrative in tales of literary success, the inspiring message for budding writers being that those whose job it is to spot talent frequently fail to do so, even when it is offered to them on a plate. So don’t give up. It’s an idea that has been backed up with experiments, such as the one a few years ago where one of the more obscure Booker winning novels was submitted to slush piles under a pseudonym. Inevitably, it couldn’t find a publisher. But the explanations that arose, once the true nature of the manuscript was revealed, were perfectly reasonable. Tastes change, tastes differ, and sometimes publishers really are just looking for something else. Everything is ‘not for us’ to someone. It doesn’t mean the publishers in question are fools; it just means one should look elsewhere.
* * *
I give another tour of the Viktor Wynd Museum for an attentive group. After that, to Vout-o-Reenee’s for a talk by the author Petra Mason, fresh in from Miami, on the subject of 1950s American Pin-ups. Her books are glamourous tomes in every sense: one covers the career of the striking model Bettie Page, while another celebrates Bunny Yeager, the beauty queen turned photographer, who indeed often worked with Ms Page. There’s much leopard skin in evidence, whether on bikinis or on actual live leopards, used as props. These days, one need only look to the videos of Katy Perry to see the influence. That same cartoonish sexuality – and so very American.
Ms Mason’s latest book turns to the same era’s male ‘beefcake’ photography. 100% Rare! All Natural! These are essentially muscular male nudes and near-nudes, which appeared in ‘health and fitness’ magazines – the camper side of Charles Atlas. Obscenity laws meant that the only ‘permissible interactions’ between two men in such photographs were for ‘wresting or fighting’ only. Then it was okay. What’s also interesting is that this was a pre-steroids era, so all the muscles on show have a quaint bygone aesthetic to them. They are the same kind of gym boys that Jane Russell tiptoes around in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as she sings that knowing number, ‘Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love’.
In Ms Mason’s talk, she mentions that sometimes the beefcake genre crossed the line, and many photographers found themselves in jail. ‘But prison only gave them more ideas… and more models.’
* * *
Friday 16th October 2015.
To the Imperial War Museum for the exhibition Lee Miller – A Woman’s War. Like Bunny Yeager, Ms M was another American model turned photographer. This must be the third Lee Miller show I’ve been to in ten years – she clearly remains a reliable subject for an exhibition, with her fascinating life story. The commercial modelling, the Surrealist muse work, the move into photography, and then into war photography. Here the focus is on the latter, with lots of her shots of women in wartime, in uniform, in the workplace (typists in bomb-proof basements in London), or just women caught in the day-to-day coping with it all. Fashion shoots against Blitz ruins, girls in Paris cafes, casually sipping drinks against bullet-shattered windows.
The news this week says that Kate Winslet is about to play Ms Miller in a biopic, and there’s certainly some photos of the older 1940s Miller in this new show where there’s a resemblance, particularly the mouth. The one of Miller washing in Hitler’s bathtub is present and correct, but I’m also impressed by the large amount of her personal possessions on display: her war correspondent uniforms, her portable typewriter, her camera equipment, letters to and from the Front. There’s also a rare colour photo in which she returns to a kind of War Effort Surrealism by posing nude in camouflage-coloured body make-up, under a net, while lying on a garden lawn in Highgate (The Elms, Fitzroy Park, to be precise). Apparently this was to help illustrate Roland Penrose’s wartime lectures in camouflage instruction – but it’s clearly meant to provoke more than educate. The pose is Penrose’s idea but like the Hitler bathtub photo, it’s taken by the US photographer David E. Scherman. Scherman was also Miller’s lover, a relationship that Penrose – her husband- consented to at the time.
Tags: alan hollinghurst
, imperial war museum
, lee miller
, mad men
, petra mason
‘What A Personality!’
Saturday 3rd October 2015.
Evening: to the Silver Bullet rock venue in Finsbury Park. I’m here to see Debbie Smith’s band Blindness, playing as part of a benefit for women’s charities, ‘Loud Women’. Entrance is donation only, and there’s a raffle and a table of home-made cakes. Let it not be said that noisy bands cannot provide a good cake stall. Blindness have a textured, gothic and moody sound, a bit like Garbage and Curve (the latter being another of Ms Smith’s groups). I also catch the band on before them, Argonaut, who sound like a classic post-punk indie group with female vocals – a touch of the Raincoats, perhaps.
What is rather more up-to-date is a machine in an alcove at back of the venue: a Bitcoin ATM. I try asking people how exactly Bitcoin works (other than being a ‘virtual currency’), but no one around me seems to be in the know. My gut feeling is that it’s the money version of Esperanto: a nice idea but no, really, you go first, I’ll wait and see. As it is, tonight the futuristic Bitcoin machine is out of order.
(As I write this, my internet broadband has also broken down. Douglas Adams: ‘technology is the name we give to things that don’t work’).
Still, a trio of young men come into the venue at one point, purely to use the ATM, and leave disappointed. And near to the Bitcoin ATM is a poster advertising the services of ‘London’s first Bitcoin-accepting professional photographer’.
Raffle prizes at this gig include CDs donated by the bands (I win an Argonaut CD), and books such as Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, and a collection of Anais Nin’s erotica. I chat with Dawn H, Deb from Linus and Scarlet’s Well (and from Fosca at one point), and Jen Denitto, also of umpteen bands. It’s good to see such faces again.
* * *
Sunday 4th October 2015.
I’m reading some academic texts for the first MA class. The ideas are stimulating enough, but my brain seems to be resisting the dense and sometimes convoluted style of the authors. These are sentences that need a run-up from a distance; sentences that still refuse to give up their meaning after running one’s eyes over them for a fifth time. And there is the anxiety that there is still another fifty pages of this impenetrable stuff to go, and it’s late on a Sunday night, and I’m still not sure I’ve grasped the basic argument. But as I lack the excuse of the novice, the only excuse I can offer is the analogy of starting a car on a frosty morning. I feel I need a few seminars to properly warm up.
What I also suspect is going on, though, is a question of taste. After steeping myself in literary prose for four years, I find myself automatically thinking about style, even for a text where all that matters is content.
In the Sunday Times bestseller list is a rare appearance of a graphic novel, Username: Evie. In fact, it’s the fastest selling graphic novel in the UK full stop. This turns out to be written by Joe Sugg, one of the young stars of YouTube. His sister is an even bigger star, Zoella. Spin-off books by celebrities are nothing new. What is new is the DIY type of fame that has emerged with video bloggers, where the stars cultivate an audience on the internet directly, without having to go through a more traditional showbiz system of agents, magazines, TV shows and so on.
Recently, Mr Sugg’s sister came under fire for using a ghostwriter for her novel, which also broke all kinds of records. A famous person using a ghostwriter is again nothing new – one thinks of Katie Price’s novels. But what fascinated me in the case of Zoella was that she said she had to hire a ghostwriter because books take a lot of time to write. As a YouTuber she was already busy making videos (sometimes on a daily basis), on top of having to write all the comments and tweets that are necessary for sustaining internet stardom. In effect she was too busy being creative online, to be creative offline. Her brother has similarly confessed to using a more experienced co-writer on his graphic novel.
I suppose a positive spin on this is that it shows how an invention as ancient as the book can have a role in ultra-modern, digitally-steeped young lives. The blogging fame is not enough: a tactile product is needed too.
* * *
Monday 5th October 2015.
First proper MA seminar, for the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. The class room is familiar from the BA (Room 124 of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, in Gordon Square), as is the tutor (Anna Hartnell). I also recognise a couple of my fellow students from the BA course. But what’s changed is the atmosphere. There’s a much higher ratio of academically articulate students than there was for the BA. It’s very clear that this is a class of not just students, but high-achieving graduates. To use a suitably contemporary phrase, for an MA on contemporary culture, I have to ‘up my game’.
* * *
Tuesday 6th October 2015.
The winner of the BBC National Short Story Award is announced. Jonathan Buckley wins with ‘Briar Road’; Mark Haddon gets the runner-up with ‘Bunny’. My own choices were quite different: I favoured Hilary Mantel’s ‘Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’, with Jeremy Page’s ‘Do it Now, Jump the Table’ as second. I really am baffled by the judges’ choices this time. I wonder if it’s to do with Ms Mantel and Mr Page daring to employ elements of humour, and the judges mistaking humour for relative lightness. I think the opposite: humour adds depth.
* * *
Wednesday 7th October 2015
I give another tour of the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, this time to a visiting party of foreign tourists. I’m wearing the Horsley suit once more, and have freshly bleached my hair. One of the tourists comes up to me, looks me up and down and says, ‘Wow! What a… personality!’
The photographer Philip Woolway is taking photographs for a feature on the museum. He asks me to pose for a shot of the cocktail bar.
Then to the crypt café of St Martin-In-The Fields, near Trafalgar Square, to meet up with my friend Maud Young. Maud is one of the people I sometimes exchange letters and postcards with. This time we see if we can actually arrange a meeting purely via postcards, without recourse to the internet or phones. It takes three or four cards, but we manage it, and here we are today. I wonder, out of all the thousands of meetings set up in London today, if ours is the only one organised via postcard. If nothing else, it has lasting anecdotal value.
Then to the basement of Stanfords Travel Bookshop, in Long Acre, Covent Garden, for the launch of A Traveller’s Year. This is a new anthology of diary entries on the theme of travel, edited by Travis Elborough and Nick Rennison. There are extracts from my blog in there, covering trips to Brighton, Tangier, Bruges, New York, Sweden and The Hague, and then one on taking forever to get from Harwich back to London, on a day of replacement rail services. It’s a reminder how a lot of travel is carried out in a spirit of undiluted irritation, and even murderous rage. As anyone who has tried to take a train in Britain on a Sunday will tell you, sometimes travel narrows the mind. I read the Brighton extract read aloud tonight, for the crowd. Also say hello to Emily Bick, Andrew Martin, Cathi Unsworth, Karen McLeod, and Guy Sangster Adams.
Then off for drinks at the French House in Soho, where we’re joined by Shanthi S and her friend Helen, finishing with a late meal at Café Boheme on Old Compton Street. At which point I am visibly wilting and dash off to catch a late tube home.
* * *
Thursday 8th October 2015.
Something of a hangover, thanks to the large amounts of free drink at three different locations on Wednesday (the Wynd museum bar, the book launch, the French House).
Despite this I stagger off to a private view all the same, this time at the Stash Gallery, in Vout-O-Reenee’s. The show is called ‘held’, by Jane Fradgley, and comprises many black and white photographs of Victorian straitjackets, spookily shot again black backgrounds for a ghostly effect. The collar label of one is clearly identified as ‘Bethlem Hospital’. If it were not for the sinister straps at the end of the sleeves, some of the garments look quite pretty.
* * *
Friday 9th October 2015.
To the East Finchley Phoenix to see the new film version of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. It’s a gritty and intense rendition, dominated by outdoor locations. Lots of battle scenes, smoke, mud, and (naturally) blood. Some nice medieval make-up and costumes, when they’re not covered in mud. There’s a number of interesting choices taken with the text, though the cutting of the ‘toil and trouble’ speech by the witches is quite common these days, particularly as the supernatural details are thought to be added by Thomas Middleton. What is original in this film is visions of dead children as justification for the whole plot – either visions of Macbeth’s own offspring, or boy soldiers whom he feels responsible for. The dagger he sees before him is actually held by a ghostly boy, while Lady M’s ‘damned spot’ is not a vision of indelible blood on her hands, but spots of disease (or possibly burns) on the face of a dead child.
On leaving the cinema, I overhear a group of middle-aged women in front of me. ‘I think we’ll choose something cheerier next time’, says one. As if they were expecting Macbeth to be a light-hearted romp.
* * *
Tags: a traveller's year
, Jane Fradgley
, Silver Bullet
, stash gallery
, viktor wynd museum
Saturday 5th September 2015.
Viktor Wynd hires me to give a couple of guided tours in his Museum of Curiosities, in Mare St. The museum is so packed with objects that I have to be selective with what I talk about. As it is, I feel more confident in focussing on its ‘Dandy Corner’, my specialist subject. It has a handful of exhibits on the unholy trinity of Sebastian Horsley, Stephen Tennant and Quentin Crisp. I do the tours wearing SH’s silver suit, as a bonus for the visitors. Though perhaps I overestimate their interest in the history of dandyism. When I ask for questions, I get: ‘Where’s the shrunken heads?’
I’m given free cocktails by the museum bar. My favourite is a ‘Gone With The Wynd’ – absinthe, Chambord, raspberries, egg white. The late Mr H also has a cocktail, the ‘Sebastian Speedball’ – bourbon, pineapple and lime juice. There’s postcards for sale of SH during his crucifixion, plus one of a painting by Leonora Carrington. Tessa Farmer’s ‘evil fairy’ sculptures leave me in awe, such is their miniature intricacy. And humour, too, in the way they interact with the other exhibits. Two of her skeletal fairies hover around the Horsley suit, unleashing a vial of clothes moths.
* * *
Monday 7th September 2015.
Heather M is a volunteer at the V&A. Today she takes me as her guest on an in-house tour of Blythe House, near the Olympia centre in Kensington. This is the museum’s archive and storage depot for its theatre and performance collection. The building is an endless Victorian warren of towering, tottering shelves, costumes on rails, bookcases, and the largest amount of filing boxes I’ve seen in one room. What springs to mind is the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. When the tour stops, I randomly lean out at a shelf and pick up a box to see what it contains. The correspondence of Paul Schofield.
In the archive reading room are two of the cardboard cut-outs used in the photoshoot for Peter Blake’s Sgt Pepper sleeve. Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allen Poe. I touch the Wilde cut-out, and feel almost giddy with history.
* * *
Tuesday 8th September 2015.
With Shanthi S to see Ricki and the Flash, where Meryl Streep plays an aging rock singer. The plot – about her reconciliation with estranged relatives – is very slight, but it all comes together pleasingly enough. A touch of Richard Curtis idealism in the finale. The film’s real highlights are its concert scenes, along with its refreshing depiction of an equally-matched older couple, who clearly have a youthful sexual chemistry – the energetic Streep with the boyish Rick Springfield. Both are 66. The same age as Jeremy Corbyn.
* * *
Thursday 10th September 2015.
I enjoy the Buzzfeed website, even though it’s clearly targeted at people younger than me. Today I idly start doing a quiz that is meant to guess your age. ‘Pick the phone you most loved as a kid’. It occurs to me that I have never once felt love for a phone.
* * *
I read Taylor Parkes’s article on attending a Jeremy Corbyn event, for The Quietus. He notes that the average age of the Corbyn fans is ‘probably fifty, but there are almost no fifty-year-olds. Mostly, it’s the under-30s and the over-60s.’ I wonder if this is because many of those aged between 30 and 60 tend to channel their political energies onto the internet, shouting with their fingers on discussion threads. Whenever I make the mistake of glancing at the comments under an article, I am amazed that so many people spend so much of their lives hammering out so many unasked-for words. And to what end?
A great number of internet comments can be paraphrased as the same comment: ‘I am lonely’.
* * *
Friday 11th September 2015.
Evening: to Vout-O-Reenee’s in Tower Hill for the launch of Liggers & Dreamers. It’s a new novella by Josie Demuth, published by Thin Man Press. The book is an entertaining depiction of a group of people who constantly gate-crash swanky parties and private views. The actress Jenny Runacre reads an extract, and later there’s a set of stunning, Bowie-esque piano songs by Bryn Phillips (who really should be putting records out). I chat to Debbie Smith and Mikey Georgeson (he of David Devant).
Manage to read the novella during the day. Some of the ruses of Ms Demuth’s characters remind me of my own attempts to get into rock aftershows in the past. Particularly the one where a single spare stick-on backstage pass can be carried back out by a second person, and used to get a group of people past a bouncer one-by-one, with much surreptitious unsticking and re-sticking going on. I suspect the rise of wristbands has made this less common.
Ms Demith’s novella also makes some thoughtful points, amid lots of broad satire, in-jokes and slapstick. One is that a party freeloader might think of themselves self-righteously, as if redressing the unfairness of the world. They might view their efforts as tantamount to being a canape-scoffing Robin Hood, however misguidedly (I thought of the woman caught on camera during the 2011 London riots, who said she was looting a small chemist’s ‘to get our taxes back’). Another is that some freeloaders might add to the atmosphere of an event, and so they ‘pay’ their way in that sense. There’s a scene where a gallery has managed to ban freeloaders so effectively that the only people at their openings are those who can afford to buy the paintings, ie wealthy bankers. As a result the events become uniform, perfunctory, and dull, and so the ban is soon lifted. For me, this is an optimistic take on what might happen with the current pricing-out of Londoners as a whole.
Though not just yet. The local newspaper regularly covers long-running independent shops which are having to close down, due to escalations in rent. This week it’s the second-hand bookshop Ripping Yarns in Archway Road, owned by Celia Mitchell since the 1970s (when it was named after the Michael Palin and Terry Jones TV series). ‘It’s like a death in the family,’ Ms Mitchell says in the paper. She’s talking about her own life, but the phrase applies to Highgate too.
, bryn phillips
, debbie smith
, jenny runacre
, jeremy corbyn again
, josie demuth
, liggers & dreamers
, mikey georgeson
, ricki and the flash
, ripping yarns bookshop
, Sebastian Horsley
, thin man press
, viktor wynd
A Bohemian Birthday
Tuesday 1st September 2015
To the ICA for a Carol Morley event. This comprises a launch of her new autobiographical novel, 7 Miles Out, along with a rare screening of her film from 2000, The Alcohol Years. I saw it on Channel 4 around that time (I think), and have looked out for Ms M’s name ever since. Her latest, The Falling, remains my favourite film of 2015. As is often the case, rewatching The Alcohol Years with an audience, and on a big screen, enhances the whole experience. The funny bits become much more funny, the shocking bits much more shocking.
At the ICA I bump into Debbie Smith and Atalanta Kernick, and spend the rest of the night with them, drinking. I also meet Ms Morley herself. When the ICA kicks us out at 11pm, we all head off in taxis to Sophie Parkin’s members’ bar, Vout-O-Reenee’s, in Tower Hill. It’s my suggestion, but to my delight it is seconded by one of Ms M’s friends, who produces a Vout’s calling card. So I end up having a perfect evening, drinking with lots of different people I admire, all brought together in a place where people know me, and where the spirit of the Colony Room is kept alive. Despite the inevitable gaps in my memory of this boozy night, what I do remember is being happy.
* * *
Thursday 3rd September 2015.
My 44th birthday. ‘Hope you gets lots of presents and cards’ says an automated email newsletter, for a product I can’t remember buying. Lots of cards and presents? Well, I do get some, from my closer relatives and from a couple of friends. But it’s Facebook messages that I’m more likely to receive in an amount that can be described as ‘lots’. The best part of a hundred, this time. Despite such messages requiring a few seconds’ keystrokes, not everyone on FB does it for every one of their contacts (myself included). So it’s still a gesture of niceness, of being thought of, and I’m touched.
I spend much of the day with my usual solitary exploration of new stuff. A birthday is a celebration of a still-working body, so one must mark it by giving still-working eyes new sights, and still-working legs new places.
This year, I finally tick off St Paul’s Cathedral. A Londoner who’s never gone inside St Paul’s is like a New Yorker who’s never been inside the Statue of Liberty: there’s plenty of them, but they don’t quite know why. For years they put off the visiting of a local treasure, feeling its fame with tourists somehow makes it harder to go. It’s like that definition of a literary classic: a book which everyone assumes you’ve read.
St Paul’s hasn’t got Westminster Abbey’s monopoly on dead kings and queens and poets, but it is much better looking. Commissioned from Wren as the first big Protestant cathedral since the split from Catholicism, it is nevertheless as giddily Baroque as Anglicanism gets. Soaring, elegant arches, golden circular mosaics and domes within domes. I love how the main blue dome is actually on top of a second dome, to get the building as tall as possible. I climb the umpteen steps to the Whispering Gallery, which frightens me with its narrow walkway, so high above the floor. Oddly, I find the external Stone Gallery much more calming, even though it’s higher up and exposed to the elements. The walkway is wide, and well-protected, and the view is unusual for being that rare thing: a London skyline without St Paul’s.
In the crypt are the big military graves and memorials: Nelson, Wellington, Churchill. But there’s plenty of artists and musicians too: the tombs of Parry and Sullivan, and a cenotaph to Blake. I’m in the crypt when I look down and realise I am walking over the bones of JMW Turner, lying next to Reynolds, Millais, and Holman Hunt.
* * *
Then to a beach in Vauxhall, to see some brand new art. Most of today’s newspapers have the same shocking photograph on the cover: the body of a Syrian migrant boy, washed up onto a Turkish beach. There have been calls for humanity and compassion across the board, even from the newspapers that tend to rail against migrants, like the Mail. Some are saying this might mark a tipping-point, towards an era where human life is finally valued above economic and political concerns. Well, that would be nice.
I wonder how much the setting of the beach contributes to the power of the image. The beach has always been a vivid symbol of change, of humanity stepping forward – or backward. On Vauxhall Beach today (on the south bank, a little downriver of Vauxhall Bridge) is a piece of public art by Jason deCaires Taylor. Titled ‘The Rising Tide’, it’s an ingenious warning about climate change, which uses the natural tide of the Thames to make its point. The artwork comprises four life-size sculptures of apocalyptic horse riders, two men and two children. The horses’ heads are surreally replaced with the lozenge-shaped metal heads of oil pumps. The mens’ horses are ‘grazing’ from the sand (presumably helping themselves to oil), while the children’s horses are yet to feed. All four figures have their eyes closed. When the tide is high, the sculptures are fully submerged. The artwork is only meant to be here for a month, but judging by the crowds around the sculptures today (at low tide, that is), it has all the makings of a public art hit.
* * *
After that, to a third new sight: the Heights Bar in Langham Place, next to BBC Broadcasting House. I read about the venue in the book Mindful London, which recommends it for moments of quiet contemplation of the city. It’s airy, friendly, and has lots of space, with large soundproofed windows looking out 15 storeys above Oxford Street. A certain secret knowledge is required: you have to walk into the lobby of the Saint George’s Hotel, then take the lift. Unlike many rooftop bars and restaurants in the city, Heights is reasonably affordable (even for me), and needs no advance booking. Not even if you’re on your own.
By this point, it’s early evening. After a day of solitary contemplation on turning 44, I suddenly feel the need for birthday company. Unfortunately I have made no plans whatsoever. It seems unfair to expect friends to suddenly drop what they’re doing and join me, birthday or no – that would be the friendship equivalent of zero hours contracts. But I try anyway, texting a few friends in case they’re available. Charley S happens to work at the BBC publicity department next door. Though she’s visibly drained by a busy day at work (it’s New Doctor Who Day today), she kindly joins me for a while, before heading off for an early night.
Then I decide to get on a tube to Tower Hill, and impose myself on Vout-O-Reenee’s once again. I enter to a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ by Ms Parkin and the regulars. Later on, Debbie Smith turns up and buys me champagne, this time accompanied by Beth, the singer from her current band Blindness. There’s another surprise when Ms Parkin suddenly presents me with a freshly-baked chocolate cake, hot from the Vout’s oven, and complete with a candle. I think it’s the first time I’ve had to blow out candles on a cake since I was about 9.
* * *
On waiting for a Night Bus home, I am laughed at by a group of young students. They are chatting as they approach, then suddenly pause as they pass, then burst into spluttering mockery as they walk on.
Today I’m wearing a birthday present, in fact: a brand new made-to-measure linen suit, being a gift from my mother. The tailor I saw at A Suit That Fits, in Glasshouse Street, had convinced me to have the jacket tapered around the chest, rather than my usual preference of a loose (and indeed louche) bagginess. While it’s not quite Zoot Suit territory, this extra definition in the cut must enhance my ability to stand out, for better or worse. On the Tube earlier, I had a couple of ‘nice suit mate’ comments. I suppose these catcalls may well be sarcastic, but at least they weren’t accompanied with group laughter. That’s the aspect that never feels nice, especially when walking alone.
So I struggle with twisting this ending to an otherwise pleasing day into some sort of positive conclusion to turning 44. I could look at it as confirmation of My Role in Society. Someone has to be Visibly Weird, so all the Confidently Normal people can feel good about themselves. (You’re welcome, society!)
But no, that’s an angry reaction. It’s better to just view all mockery as a compliment to one’s individuality. Indeed, much of the attention is because I am simply out in public by myself, and they are nearly always in groups. If I can receive the same sort of reactions that I’ve had since being a teenager, I have demonstrably still ‘got it’, whatever that may be. It’s proof that I exist, and it’s nice to exist. In other words, happy birthday.
Tags: a suit that fits
, carol morley
, debbie smith
, heights bar
, jason decaires taylor
, my birthday
, sophie parkin
, st paul's cathedral