How We Used To Swear

Sunday 21st February 2016. Tom’s birthday. I take him for lunch in Soho, at The Crown and Two Chairmen. Nut roast for me, fish and chips for him.  Tom’s a big Alan Partridge fan, so I’m also delighted to alert him to the new series of Mid Morning Matters, just released online (and how to view it gratis, via the ‘Now TV’ free trial). It’s pleasing that this now vintage comedy character can still be as funny as he was in the 1990s. The new series follows the classic sitcom tip of ‘less sit, more com’, where a fixed, claustrophobic location – a radio station’s studio – forces the writers to work harder at producing the jokes. Past examples of this are the Hancock episode where the characters are just sitting around at home, bored (‘Stone me, what a life’), or the similar Porridge episode (‘A Night In’). The format is even there in the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs, where the gangsters are in a café, simply bickering over trivial subjects. This set-up may be more theatre than TV or film, but can be all the better for it. I’m convinced that the full-length film Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa suffered from a need to crowbar in a cinematic, three-act story.

The new series of Mid Morning Matters still has plenty of plot; it’s just weaved into the dialogue as off-stage remarks. One detail is particularly up-to-date: at one point Partridge’s hapless co-presenter, Sidekick Simon, heads off to a job interview for a new website that ‘aggregates content’.

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Monday 22nd February 2016. To the Birkbeck offices in Gordon Square for a meeting with my MA tutor, Grace H. We discuss my last essay. She advises me to take the option to submit my own question next time, rather than choose from the list. It seems I over-did the urge to say the things I wanted to say, rather than prioritise the question’s criteria. That said, I still came away with a distinction, so it’s not like I can’t tick the boxes as well.

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Tuesday 23rd February 2016. Finishing my review of Eternal Troubadour, the new biography of Tiny Tim, for The Wire. One thing I cut for space is a reference to Bowie being called ‘the undisputed king of camp rock’ by Melody Maker in 1972, a term that ‘glam rock’ seems to have usurped. Six years earlier, the Red Bird offshoot label Blue Cat Records labelled a Tiny Tim single with the words ‘The Camp Rock Sound’.

Another favourite detail is the wording for a mid-60s poster, advertising a late-night bill that Tiny shared with Lenny Bruce: ‘Lenny Bruce Speaks For Money. Tiny Tim Sings For Love’.

Interesting to think of some novelty records as entryism. One-off curios to many, gateway drugs to some. As well as Tiny Tim’s ‘Tip-Toe Thru’ The Tulips With Me’ there’s Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’. Ms Anderson is a productive performance artist, successful across the decades, yet for a certain generation of pop fans she’s just a quirky one-hit singer. The phrase ‘best known for’ demands the taking up of one specific perspective. It can sometimes be an unfair one.


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Thursday 25th February 2016. Evening: MA class at Birkbeck. This week it’s Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I bring in Andrew O’Hagan’s review from the London Review of Books, which manages to praise Franzen’s novel while calling some of its stylistic elements ‘show-offy’, with others ‘pure millennial bullshit’. I suppose that’s one way of being balanced.

Afterwards myself, the tutor Joe Brooker, and some of the students go to the IOE student union bar for a quick drink; a much-needed bout of socialising for me. I order a small pizza and offer it around. One of the students, Serena, is Italian. ‘You do know this isn’t very good pizza, don’t you,’ she says. I reply that I hardly expect a student union bar to offer the height of gourmet food, and I’m just hungry.

Serena then suggests some Italian-approved places where one can definitely get decent pizzas. There’s the chain Franco Manca,  Il Piccolo Diavolo in Crouch Hill, and – her favourite of all – Rossella in Kentish Town.

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Saturday 27th February 2016. To a third-floor flat in a pleasant part of Bethnal Green, for the latest attempt at relieving my back pain. This time, it’s an offer from Ms Maud Young to use her bathtub, so I can try out soaking in Epsom salts. My own place only has access to a shower. I think the last time I had a bath must have been in a hotel, which would have been at least five years ago. Afterwards I top up this rare experience with another suggestion: some spray-on magnesium oil, which stings.

Two books lie by the cistern in this shared flat: Douglas Adams’s and John Lloyd’s Meaning of Liff, and Mythologies by Roland Barthes. Toilet books are an interesting genre, though probably not one I can study at postgraduate level. The Barthes is, of course, not a typical toilet book, though it does serve the function of being something one can dip into at random. Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, with its structure of random fragments, might be a similar recommendation for the more bookish lavatory.

The Meaning of Liff is a classic toilet book, though. With its dictionary-like observations on wry commonplace predicaments, it’s like a form of stand-up comedy, albeit one read sitting down. When it was first published in the 80s, it seemed just another jokey and disposable tome firmly aimed at the ‘Humour’ section of bookshops. A book to be filed alongside the Sloane Ranger’s Handbook, the Wicked Willy books, 101 Uses For A Dead Cat, and anything by Nigel Rees. Yet The Meaning of Liff has long survived the usual expiry date for such books. Perhaps the respect for Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide books helps.

I mention this because today I’m also perusing a brand new toilet book, Get in the Sea! It’s the spin-off of a popular Twitter account by the very sweary Andy Dawson (aka Mr Profanity Swan), in which the objectionable aspects of modern life are instructed to go and away, well, just get in the sea. It’s the ‘get in’ which makes it unique. The words seem an unexpectedly careful, even gentle approach to what is otherwise an angry expression of disgust. A touch of the King Canute too, which keeps the tone of the book jokey and self-deprecating, rather than actually nasty.

Predictably, some of these fashionable irritations I agree with (chuggers, poverty porn TV, Jeremy Clarkson), and some I don’t (online petitions, cereal cafes, and Benedict Cumberbatch, though I do like the idea that Cumberbatch is thought to have ‘a face like an anagram’). In one case I find myself to be someone who must get in the sea too, as I am one of the ‘people who don’t like sport’.

Despite its status as a toilet book of the moment, Get in the Sea! might be valuable in decades to come as a slice of 2016 attitudes, just as The Sloane Ranger’s Handbook must now be useful for studying the 1980s. It’s another form of How We Used To Live. And indeed, how we used to swear.

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