Sunday 17th January 2016.
I’m reading Dave Eggers’s The Circle. It’s a novel that sounds an Orwellian warning about the rise of Google and Facebook. Much is made about the growing desirability of ‘transparency’. This is meant figuratively, in the sense of increased accountability. But it’s also implied architecturally, in the sense of modern workplaces tending to be cathedrals of glass. Buildings where the workers can be easily seen, and so easily monitored. The price in both cases is privacy.
Today I walk past the shiny new Central St Giles development, near the east end of Denmark Street. There is now a branch of Caffe Nero there, one so entirely made of glass that I don’t know where to put my eyes as I pass by. It’s like walking past a display case of knees and hands and lattes. I’m used to seeing this in stations like St Pancras (particularly with the all-glass Starbucks there), because of the obvious security concerns. But in a central London street it feels very odd, and very fragile.
One of my favourite things about the Harry Potter books is the idea of Diagon Alley, the secret wizards’ street in London. It seemed so deliciously believable, making imaginative use ofÂ London’s reputation as an unplanned patchwork of hidden worlds. Now, with the current trend for see-through developments like Central St Giles, the nooks and crannies can onlyÂ disappear. A surfeit of glass underminesÂ a site’sÂ potential for secrets, intrigue, and magic. Transparency is a plot spoiler.
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Monday 18th January 2016.
My review of Popkiss, the book about Sarah Records, is published in the new issue (February 2016) of the music magazine The Wire. Quite happy with it: it’s full of little points I hope will pique the interest of the casual Wire reader, someone who may be unfamiliar with Sarah. The death of Bowie is a reminder that music – of any level of success – never has a fixed reach. Never one generation, never one era, never one ear.
Bowie tributes are still appearing in the press. Some journalists use the U-word – ‘us’. It means well, but it makes me wince. Who is this ‘us’? Can you really speak for the entire human race? If so, who appointed you spokesperson? I find ‘you’ equally suspicious (‘you know how it is when you’re flying to Monaco in First Classâ€¦’). Even though it seems more vain to say ‘me’, it’s more honest and precise. Better to accept that all writing is vanity of a kind.
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Tuesday 19th January 2016.
I meet with Shanthi S. in the NPG, and we wander around the National Gallery next door, taking in the free exhibition on Botticini’s sublime Assumption of the Virgin. I show S my favourite painting in the gallery, Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man (1550-5, with the pink curtain). We bump into Sophie Parkin, who is sitting right in front of the painting.
Then to the ICA for The Revenant – a mere £3 each. Currently the most talked-about film in town, having become a favourite for the Oscars. For all its technical innovation, it’s really a traditional Western, albeit a snowy one. The story is a simple one of survival against the elements, followed by revenge. There’s plenty of stunning set pieces, presumably enhanced by state-of-the-art CGI graphics: the bear attack, the white-water rapids, the gutting of the horse, and the Saving Private Ryan-like opening, as Mr DiCaprio’s party are besieged by Native American tribesmen. Whether or not Mr DC is putting in an Oscar-winning performance really depends on one’s definition of acting. He certainly suffers, but his character isn’t much more than that – just a man who has a terrible time. He grunts, he gasps, he crawls. He does things that regularly has the audience saying ‘Ouch!’, and ‘Goodness, that must be painful!’ and ‘Don’t hurt, though!’
There’s been a few articles which employ the irksome trend of adding ‘porn’ as a suffix. This seems to be a way of judging any film that a critic views as indulgent. The Revenant has been described variously as ‘pain porn’, ‘torture porn’, ‘wilderness porn’, and ‘forest porn’. Certainly all those elements are present in the film, and to an intense level, but calling them a form of ‘porn’ is helpful to precisely no one. Whatever happened to discussions of catharsis?
It’s also too long. My father used to judge films on the amount of times he looked at his watch. He once told me how he didn’t do this once during Lord of the Rings Part 3 – Return of the King, despite the three hour-plus duration. ‘That’s how good it was’. I’m afraid I checked my own watch four or five times during The Revenant. Â For all its focus on immersion, it really doesn’t need two and a half hours to tell such a straightforward tale.
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Thursday 21st January 2016.
To Gordon Square for this week’s MA seminar. The text is Lorrie Moore’s A Gate At The Stairs. There’s several witty scenes consisting entirely of overheard dialogue between middle-class liberals, on such topics as the state of racism after 9/11. To me, these come close to Ronald Firbank, though it’s a style better known from his disciple, Evelyn Waugh. According to DJ Taylor’s new book The Prose Factory: Literary Life in Britain Since 1918 (which I’ve been leafing through), one legacy Firbank ‘bequeathed’ to fiction in the 1910s and 1920s is his ‘talking heads’ device. This is a depiction of a conversation as a long series of detached utterations, in which no speaker is named, and whereÂ there’s a sense of a satirical rhythm at play. The ‘chattering classes’ in action, then as now.
Not everyone in the seminar is enamoured of Moore’s use of humour for serious issues, though: one student even calls it ‘irritating’. This is always a risk, but it’s why I admire comedy, or comedy drama, over wholly dramatic texts. Comedy is hard to get right, but the best comedy can produce rich, lasting, soaring effects. Tragedy is closer to ground level.
In A Gate At The Stairs there’s also some scenes of violent death, and some occasionally grotesque imagery. But Moore manages to control the tone at every stage, and it’s never jarring. Knowing what happens also makes a secondÂ reading all the more rewarding: early details take on a pleasing new significance. It’s not a flawless novel, but it’s one of the best I’ve read in a long time, and it makes me want to read more of Ms Moore.
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Tags: a gate at the stairs, central st giles, dave eggers, lorrie moore, ronald firbank, the circle, the revenant