Saturday 13th December 2014. Browsing in Waterstones again. I pick up a book called Working On My Novel. It’s a Penguin paperback, by the conceptual artist Cory Archangel. Or rather it’s curated by him, as the entire book is a collection of tweets by other people, culled from the internet. All of them contain the phrase ‘working on my novel’, making the book essentially a printed-out Twitter search. The reader can draw their own conclusions: proof of mass procrastination, proof of hubris, proof of hope, proof of the universal urge to create.
One of the scenes in a novel I’d been tinkering with, ironically, was to feature an art gallery installation based on a live Twitter search. The searched-for phrase in this case was ‘is it just me or’. This would be displayed on screens around the gallery every time someone somewhere typed those words into Twitter (which in real life tends to be every few seconds). All these collected expressions of the fear of being unusual were then going to be converted in an energy source – powering the gallery lights, say. It was a comment on how the need to join in is both powerful and infinite. Seems too close to the Cory Archangel book now, so I’ve cut it.
‘Art isn’t easy’, goes the song in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George. But it’s even harder to make up fictional art, which doesn’t look corny or (as in this case) accidentally too close to someone else’s idea. As it is, by typing out my idea into this diary entry, I’ve scratched the itch and can ‘move on’, to quote another song from Sunday.
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I walk through Kilburn. Close to Kilburn Park station, on Cambridge Avenue, there’s a new block of flats in the process of completion. At street level is the usual parade of hoardings announcing the project. Only these are unusual. The property developers have put together a display celebrating the cultural heritage of Kilburn. There’s quotes by Zadie Smith and Bradley Wiggins – locals who did well – plus a photo of a nearby blue plaque of George Orwell, who wrote Animal Farm in the area. The blue plaque photo is thus a sign commemorating another commemorative sign, which makes me feel giddy.
There’s also some blown-up reproductions of rock concert tickets, all atÂ the National Ballroom venue, which used to be nearby. One is for the Wedding Present in November 1990 – a gig I attended myself. Another is for Sonic Youth and Mudhoney in 1989. I was there too. I remember the first band on the bill was the all-female Ut, who managed to be even louder than the headliners. Ephemera of my gig-going indie rock teens, these tickets are now used to sell something else: duplex apartments at £665,000 a piece. The developers have also added punning slogans: ‘Top of the Blocks’, ‘Now That’s What I Call Living’. Most of the flats have already been sold.
Then I see a more unofficial advert, pasted over the glossy board. It’s a handwritten paper sticker. ‘Daniela, 22’, followed by a mobile number. Another sign, of a sign.
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Evening: to the Natural History Museum ice rink. I’m there to meet some fellow Birkbeck students and mark Jasmine B’s birthday, with drinks and skating. Or rather, I watch the others skate from the bar balcony, along with J. Jasmine can’t skate either, but this doesn’t stop her in the slightest – she holds the hands of others and goes round the rink with them. Colin turns out to be the son of a figure skater, and is rather more confident on the artificial ice. The sessions last 50 minutes a go. One of the others in our party complains that the rink is too busy – but even more people flood out when the next session starts. I look up at the animal-shaped gargoyles on the NHM building, even more dramatic at night. I muse that someone should really use them in a film, a la the Chrysler Building in Ghostbusters. This idle thought turns out to be satisfied a mere two days later, when I see the Paddington film. There, Hugh Bonneville scales the outside of the Museum to rescue the duffle-coated bear (or rather, his stunt double does).
J tells me about his time sleeping rough in London. There were moments of bleak comedy: while sleeping on the National Gallery steps one winter, he discovered – the hard way – that the first parts of the body to freeze are the genitals. So he had to cup his hands in that area to keep them warm. A passing woman saw this, at which he had to hastily assure her that what he was doing was not what it might appear. She gave him £10.
He also tells me of the time he was mugged at knifepoint – for his blanket. And how some hostels could be more frightening than sleeping out, because there’d be sleepers who would turn aggressive and threatening to the others when the staff’s backs were turned. Giving a sandwich is often preferable to giving money, he says, though not if – as was once the case with him – it’s a half-finished supermarket sandwich that’s been dunked in coffee. ‘To warm it up – there you go, mate.’
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Sunday 14th December 2014. Today, J is not only housed but is able to buy me drinks in bars. And he books cinema tickets, though I reimburse him for mine. We go to see The Hobbit – The Battle Of The Five Armies at Tottenham Court Road Odeon (an acceptable £7.50, after student discount). Martin Freeman cuts through all the swooping special effects with his naturalistic, unshowy performance. The perfect everyman. The finishing off of Smaug the dragon upstages the rest of the film, whose battle scenes resemble The Lord Of The Rings films much more than Tolkein’s Hobbit novel. But then, Peter Jackson was asked for so many years to make The Hobbit in the same style. And now he’s done so. It may not surprise but it satisfies – and it makes me want to re-watch LOTR all over again.
Monday 15th December 2014. To the Phoenix in East Finchley, to see the Paddington movie (£5 matinee). A good balance of children and adults in the audience: not too many children to make me feel out of place, and Â enough to laugh along audibly, proving the film is pleasing the right people. The trailers misled me into thinking it was another formulaic CGI spectacle, all noise and lack of charm. In fact it’s charming to the hilt, and reminds me of One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing, the 1970sÂ Disney film, which also hasÂ Natural History Museum escapades.Â Paddington’sÂ slapstick is in keeping with Michael Bond’s books: I’d forgotten how the bear always got into chaotic situations from the off. Everyone who isn’t in The Hobbit Â is in it, too: Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Matt Lucas, and some of the Horrible Histories cast. Which makes perfect sense: like Horrible Histories it manages to please adults along with the children. There’s a camp joke early on when the jungle explorer is naming Paddington’s parents: ‘the female after my mother, and the male after an exotic boxer I once met in Hyde Park’. I’m the only one in the cinema who laughs at this, and that’s as it should be.
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Thursday 18th December 2014. To UCL hospital in Euston for some minor surgery. Varicose veins; my right leg this time, and my first time under local anaesthetic. It’s a procedure where the dead vein is sealed shut via heating it from the inside, though they still have make cuts and ties at either end. The operation has itsÂ painful moments, but no more so than a trip to the dentists. I have to keep the leg dry and unwashed for the next seven days. This means that Christmas Day will see me unwrapping my own leg as a present.
My dislike of flannel washes leads me to purchase a rubber limb-protecting sleeve at Boots. It’s specifically designed so I can shower as usual without getting the leg wet. Unfortunately, it is only when I get home and am putting my foot into the wretched thing that I realise I’ve bought the wrong one. The box says ‘ARM’ in huge letters, yet this information was clearly lost on me. I had been forcing my toe into the thumb of a giant rubber mitten. Some days I shouldn’t be let out in public, frankly.
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Tags: birkbeck, hobbit films, kilburn park, novel writing, paddington bear, UCLH, varicose tiresomeness, wedding present