Telephonic Alimony

Friday 14th February 2014. In one corner of the Euston branch of Marks and Spencer is a huge display of unsold tins of shortbread, all close to their expiry date. It’s a special edition brand, made last July to commemorate the birth of the Royal Baby. The cover design is a twee painted trio of marching little boys, one in a sailor suit, one in a Beefeater uniform, and one dressed as a Queen’s Guard, with the red tunic and black bearskin hat. I stand there in the supermarket looking at the tins and pondering this tacky monument to cash-in hubris. I wonder if the unsold tins can somehow be converted into flood defences.

I suppose they could now rename the biscuit tins in honour of Simon Cowell’s baby, as this week his happy news is getting the same manic coverage allotted to the royal infant last year – days on end of front pages. In the supermarket, I stand around gazing at the fronts of these popular newspapers, wondering just who is interested, and why I am not like them.

* * *

Saturday 15th February 2014

I stumble on an old quote by Peter Nichols, which might now be regarded as an early version of the internet saying ‘don’t feed the trolls’:

‘Never reply to a critic. It’s feeding the hand that bites you.’

* * *

Sunday 16th February 2014

I finish writing my latest essay for college. It’s on Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, about her dead father. And then I go straight on to finishing my own eulogy for Dad’s funeral.

Unlike the college essay, the eulogy lacks a word count. So I put together what I think will be okay, hoping for the best.

Thankfully there are people who do know how long such pieces should be. A few days after I email the eulogy to Mum, the man from the Humanist Society, who is conducting the ceremony, steps in, reads everyone’s intended contributions, and tells us they all need to be drastically edited down in order to fit the time slot at the crematorium.

Dad would have found this amusing, being no man of few words himself.

* * *

I watch the film BAFTAs on TV. Peter Greenaway gets a special award, some years after the British film industry had more or less turned its back on him. He’s still around, still making films that properly put the Art into Art House. Martin Freeman starred in one he made in 2007 about Rembrandt, Nightwatching, which really should have been better known.

He gets the award from Juliet Stevenson, who talks about her part in Drowning By Numbers, my favourite Greenaway movie. It was filmed around Southwold in Suffolk, and gives the local landscape a defiantly spooky yet very English ambience – the Sebald kind which was already there. Greenaway added his trademark taste for the grotesque, but didn’t have to add too much. The film has a touch of Kit Williams too, with its numbers of 1 to 100 hidden in sequence throughout the film. Its soundtrack is also Michael Nyman’s best – I remember it even appeared in NME’s Albums Of The Year list for Christmas 1988.

Monday 17th February 2014

Mum tells me how in looking for Dad’s birth certificate, she found a letter from the author John Masters, from the time in the 60s when Dad illustrated book covers for Penguin. At some point during the author-to-illustrator process, Masters noticed Dad’s Bildeston address and wrote a full, personal letter to him from New York, revealing that he’d had a romance with a woman from Bildeston in the 1930s.

This is Dad’s cover for Coromandel!, published 1967.

John Masters book bib cover 1967

Dad was also commissioned to do the cover for the first British edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, though his art wasn’t eventually used. He told me how the publisher had trusted him with the only copy of Vonnegut’s original manuscript, longhand scribblings and all. That was the way it was done, before the rise of word processing.

* * *

Tuesday 18th February 2014

In London ambassador mode, I meet up with Liam J again. This time I show them the Museum of London (which we discover needs more than 2 hours to do properly), followed by fish and chips (Liam’s first) at Bar Bruno in Wardour Street. We end up at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern for Bar Wotever, the friendly club night for trans people, androgynes and anyone of uncommon gender identity. The US writer S. Bear Bergman gives an entertaining reading of anecdotes, and I have my boots polished by Alex, a charming ‘shoe-shine boi’ (pronounced ‘boy’) in a checked shirt and bow tie, who has a proper shoe-shine stall set up in one corner. Alex takes a good fifteen to twenty minutes on my boots, applying a host of different unguents and waxes. This is bookended by the gentle rolling up and down of the ends of my trousers. It’s the closest I’ve come to having a sex life for some time.

* * *

Wednesday 19th February 2014

A teenage girl in Coventry writes, asking for permission to use my lyrics in her A-level art project. I duly give her my blessing. It’s good to know I have some sort of value,  even it’s ‘the wrong kind of worth’, as a Job Centre employee once told me.

Meanwhile, I am besieged by what people are currently encouraged to view as the ‘right’ kind of worth – unabashed corporate greed. Today I get a letter from BT demanding I pay them a fee of £40 purely so I can leave them for another phone company. It’s a kind of telephonic alimony. The main reason I’m switching providers, of course, is BT’s spontaneous displays of legalised grasping, like this one. I am just grateful we never had children.

* * *

Thursday 20th February 2014

Two new marks in from college.  The New Year essay on Old English poetry gets 77, while the January test on Old English translation also gets 77. This concludes my half module on Old English per se, giving it an overall grade of 77 in the process. A good First. Given my previous module grades have all been in the low 70s (Firsts, but only just), this either suggests I have an unexpected gift for Old English, or that I’ve more or less worked out how to tick the right boxes. The latter is more likely. I didn’t find Old English at all easy, as it requires not just hours of literary criticism but hours of translation and historical research on top. I’m slow enough with Modern English as it is.

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Don’t Touch The TV People

Some unrecorded recent activity.

27 May: I attend the BAFTA TV awards at the Royal Festival Hall. Ms Sarah D has tickets to the public gallery, and I’m curious, so I go.

The public ticket holders get to walk the red carpet on the way in, though in this instance the carpet is a red, white and blue jigsaw pattern, which as someone points out looks the opening credits to Dad’s Army after a bad drug trip. The public attendees are asked to arrive before the proper guests, and then are kept upstairs in a kind of apartheid section. There’s a separate balcony bar and stewards preventing you from going downstairs into the main stalls area, in case – shock horror – you dare to speak to the scriptwriter of The Fades. Don’t touch the TV people!

But even famous names are not necessarily famous faces. On getting his award for writing and directing This Is England ’88, Shane Meadows makes a semi-jokey comment that no one asked for his autograph on the red carpet.  It’s funny how the BAFTAs mix this British take on Oscars glamour, celebrating the celebrated, with giving the actual awards to non-famous creative types. People in the public gallery shout and scream when Sherlock‘s  Benedict Cumberbatch comes on with Doctor Who’s Matt Smith (to present the head writer of both shows, Steven Moffat, with a special award), but otherwise most of the awards are for less well known programmes like Appropriate AdultRandom, Borgen and The Fades. Then there’s awards for harrowing documentaries (like the Terry Pratchett euthanasia report), followed by ones for mindless drivel like Celebrity Juice, which baffingly beats Sherlock to the You Tube Audience Award. Still, that’s the variety of television. What makes it worthwhile is seeing what makes the televised version and what doesn’t.  Terry Pratchett and Stewart Lee in particular have their speeches cut down, and one wonders who decides such things, and what their rules are.

They give you special BAFTA chocolates, in the shape of the trophy:

photo by Paul @bitoclass on Twitter


Weekend of June 2nd: more celebrations where some people are marked out as intrinsically better than others: the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Four days of it: Saturday to Tuesday. On the one rain-free day I attend a street party across the road in Highgate Avenue, and meet some of my neighbours for the first time since I moved here. Which was eighteen years ago. The street is closed off, there’s trestle tables with drinks (I do my bit and add a bottle of wine) and there’s the ubiquitous Union Jack bunting dangling from street lamps. Small girls play hopscotch in the road, which is covered with chalk scribbles. It all looks very 1950s, till one reads some of the words the children write on the tarmac: ‘RIHANNA‘.

On the flotilla day there’s lots of people on the tube in soggy ponchos and Union Jack bowler hats, looking drenched yet perfectly happy. Some of my more republican friends find the Jubilee nauseating and in bad taste (particularly in a recession), and some even move out of the city till it’s all over. In my fence-sitting way, I inwardly support the republicans’ point, but I also recognise that plenty of people like the Jubilee events. I find myself enjoying the spectacle of the flotilla of boats (particularly the bit with the War Horse puppet on the National Theatre roof), and I love the  fireworks show at the end of the big pop concert (writing that, I sound like I’m the Queen’s age myself. I might as well be).

Where do I draw the line? I suppose it’s at the moment where someone at the street party asks me – very nicely – if I’d like a little Union Jack tattoo put on the side of my face.

No. Thank you, but no. I suppose that’s the limit of my tolerance for anything. Facial decoration.

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