A Party Band For The Shy

Saturday 27th June 2015.

Summer in the city. My fellow males get out their shorts and flip-flops, I reach for my white linen suits and ties. The phrase ‘comfortable clothing’ is entirely subjective. I think of those women who say they always wear high heels, to the point where walking in flats would be more difficult.

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Sunday 28th June 2015.

Watch some of the BBC’s impressive coverage of Glastonbury. Quite like the way Belle and Sebastian have become a party band for the shy. The singer Stuart Murdoch bounces around the vast stage, and gets people from the crowd to come up and dance with him. Very different to the time I saw them at the Union Chapel in 1997, when the band performed warily and nervously, as if scared of their own microphones.

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Monday 29th June 2015.

I read Edward St Aubyn’s comic novel Lost For Words, just released in paperback. It’s an enjoyable if light satire, seemingly written by St Aubyn as a diversion into playfulness, following on from his more serious Patrick Melrose series. I’m reminded how James Hamilton-Paterson dabbled in camp comedy late into his career, and successfully so, with Cooking With Fernet Branca.

Mr St Aubyn’s tale concerns various figures involved with a high-profile British literary prize. It’s not actually called the Booker Prize in the book, but that’s obviously the main target, down to the televised ceremony in a London banqueting hall. Much of the comedy arises from the way the judging of the prize has little to do with literary merit, and everything to do with personal agendas and ego. The conceit that an unassuming cookbook by an Indian auntie is mistaken for an innovative postmodern novel may stretch credulity, but the pay-off is too irresistible for this to matter. St Aubyn himself has his own agenda, having been a Booker shortlister, and so a Booker loser, with Mother’s Milk a few years ago. So at first the novel might seem like a piece of blatant sour grapes. But any opportunity for true nastiness – like murder – is reined in, and it’s just egos that end up bruised. St Aubyn’s message is more about the arbitrary nature of arts awards per se, rather than an attack on the people who give them out.

I do have a soft spot for his elegant observations. One example is: ‘They had drifted apart, as people do when they promise to stay in touch; the ones who are going to stay in touch don’t need to promise‘.

Another is allotted to an inept editor, who sinks into depression but eventually talks himself round with this thought:

We were not put on this earth to hate ourselves.

The sentence is stark, useful, and meant. I like Lost For Words for that line alone.

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Tuesday 30th June 2015.

To Gordon Square for a meeting with my final year Personal Tutor, Peter Fifield, just to wind the degree course up. Then to a ‘taster’ class on the MA course I’m hoping to do, in Contemporary Literature and Culture. We look at Joyce’s Ulysses, which I still haven’t read in full. From the extracts I can tell I’ll really enjoy it if I do, as opposed to just reading it out of duty. Finnegans Wake is more off-putting.

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Wednesday 1st July 2015.

The hottest day in London for nearly ten years. Many trains have to run slowly to stop the rails from buckling, so there’s lots of delays. Once the trains do arrive, the insides are like furnaces. All this, despite the expensive fares.

After much anguish, I decide against attending a friend’s birthday in Crystal Palace. One reason is it would mean over two and a half hours spent being baked alive on public transport. Another is that I’m riddled with a summer cold. I apologise and send a card, but the guilt eats away.

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My dry cough is made worse by the heat. I go to Boots in Euston for a bottle of Pholcodine Linctus, a medicine so strong in its drowsy effects that it is kept behind the counter. Once taken, there must be no driving, no alcohol, and no captaining of nuclear submarines.

The pharmacist asks me a few questions before she lets me have the bottle.

‘Who advised you to buy this?’

I confess: ‘Mumsnet.’

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Thursday 2nd July 2015.

 I write a letter to a US reader who is curious about my living arrangements. Do I really share a shower and a W.C. with ‘strangers’? This disturbs her.

Well, yes. It’s not quite like an American boarding house, as each rented room has its own little kitchen area inside – that’s what makes them bedsits. Two of the other tenants are people I knew socially before they moved in. The other two are only strangers in the sense that neighbours are strangers. I occasionally say hello to them in the hallway, and they seem nice enough. We operate the shared washrooms on a system of karmic consideration. If you use something, like a toilet roll, you replace it. If you make a mess, you clean it up. No rotas. Somehow we manage to get along.

I have lived like this all my adult life.

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Evening: A second Pilates class at Jacksons Lane. The summer heat makes it much more like hard work, and I come away drenched in sweat, but glad I went. I’m still the only man there, out of a class of about a dozen.

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Friday 3rd July 2015.

I love going to cinemas when it’s hot in London. The air conditioning is usually decent, and there’s the extra friendship of the darkness, now that the sun is so unkind. No skin cream needed for cinemas.

To the Curzon Soho for The Overnight, a small-scale American comedy, about two pairs of youngish, middle-class couples who spend a night at the artier couple’s house, getting to know each other. As the night goes on, the conventionally-minded guests are increasingly worried that their hosts want to know them much more intimately. This ‘middle class swingers’ plot is always good value – I think of the film The Ice Storm, Martin Amis’s Dead Babies, Julian Barnes’s Metroland, and even episodes of sitcoms like I’m Alan Partridge. But with its broad strokes and some crude humour, The Overnight is more a straightforward comedy of manners than social comment. The chief pleasure comes from watching Jason Schwartzman play yet another creepy but charismatic character, another little man who seeks to tower over others psychologically.

In the Curzon café, a woman at the table next to me uses what I assume to be a mirror, to pluck at a lone hair on her chin. Except on looking closer I realise it’s not a compact mirror, but the reverse camera option on her iPhone.

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Dinner at the 5th floor student canteen at Birkbeck, in Torrington Square. Fish and chips for £4. I like the occasional comfort of ‘fish on Friday’, the alliterative tradition of the menu, as it was at school. Today is the last day of the summer term, and so it’s the last time to get a cheap evening meal here. I eat alone on the rooftop terrace. There are plenty of students chattering nearby, but they’re all in the Birkbeck bar, on the balcony level below. Here, it’s breezy enough to make the napkins flutter.

I’m told there are still some weeks to go before I am sent a ‘transcript’: the piece of paper which officially confirms my degree. In the meantime a long Pass List, covering all of Birkbeck’s Class of 2015, will go up on the college website on the 17th July. Not so far away now.

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