Life, the Universe, and Dandyism

Sunday 24th January 2016.

I am on something of a Gore Vidal tip, after watching Best of Enemies for the third time. Am delighted to find there’s another documentary on Netflix, United States of Amnesia, entirely about Mr Vidal’s life. I don’t always agree with his relentless cynicism – he even finds something negative to say about the election of Obama. But his wit and style is a delight. Vidal’s utterations on chat shows contain epigrams worthy of Wilde:

TV interviewer (on Vidal’s running for a Democrat candidacy in 1982): Did you like that experience? All the hand shaking?

Gore Vidal: Oh yes. I love that. I like crowds. I have depths of insincerity as yet unplumbed.

* * *

Sitting in the Barbican Cinema Café this evening, I am recognised from the I Am Dandy book. This time it’s by one of the other dandies within its pages: the pristinely moustachioed Johnny Vercoutre, there to see The Revenant (‘It’s very Boys’ Own,’ I tell him).

Getting out the dandy book at home, I see he’s on page 238. I’m on page 42, looking rather otherworldly in my chalk white suit. There’s whiteness around me too: the picture was taken in a snow-covered Parkland Walk, here in Highgate. Being a Douglas Adams fan, I can’t help feeling pleased by my page number’s association with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Here, 42 means the answer to life, the universe, and Highgate dandyism.

Which Hitchhiker’s character do I most resemble? I admit to having Marvin the Paranoid Android moments. I recently caught myself grumbling about my inability to turn a high IQ (well, 141) into a decent income, before realising that this was all too close to Marvin’s catchphrase: ‘Here I am, brain the size of a planet…’ Mustn’t be a Marvin. He moans about his health too: ‘And me with this terrible pain in all the diodes down my left side.’

Of course, Marvin’s saving grace is that his depression manifests as a form of amiability, much like Eeyore’s does in Winnie the Pooh. Huggable depressives. In the film version of Hitchhiker’s, Marvin’s voice was perfectly cast in the form of Alan Rickman, who died the other day. He was an actor I was lucky enough to see on stage in the 80s, at the Barbican in fact. Back then he played another great huggable depressive – Jacques in As You Like It.  I don’t know if a recording exists of Mr Rickman doing the ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech, but given his voice was so memorable, it’s easy to imagine it.

There’s a further Rickman connection here: one of his best films, Truly Madly Deeply, is set in Highgate. In one scene Juliet Stevenson walks out of Highgate Tube station, very close to where the I Am Dandy photo was taken.

* * *

Monday 25th January 2016.

Am finally exhausted with reading commentary pieces on David Bowie. The more original and personal pieces aside, the bandwagon is rather showing its wheels, often adding little more than affirming Bowie’s obvious worth. In some cases, the facts are not even checked (the BBC website seems to think Bowie acted in the film Cat People, instead of providing the theme song). What I’m not exhausted with is the man himself: the actual music and concert footage. I rewatch the superb BBC documentary, Five Years. Rick Wakeman is amusing about his piano part on Life on Mars, which he recreates on a keyboard for the cameras. He demonstrates the cleverness of the key changes, while admitting having not played it for decades. ‘It’s a joy to perform.’ He pauses. ‘I must go home and learn it properly.’

Shanthi S points out to me how Bowie in drag (as seen in the ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ vid) rather resembles Billie Whitelaw, she of Samuel Beckett fame. Indeed, it’s a shame Bowie never acted in a Beckett play himself: he’d have been perfect.

* * *

Thursday 28th January 2016.

MA class tonight: Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour. An environmentally-themed novel, with lots of detail about working class farm life in the Appalachians. Some Hardy-esque elements: strong female characters with Biblical names, dreaming of affairs amid the sheep-shearing. Less Hardy-like are the references to the internet and Google, though the protagonist is too poor to have her own computer, despite being a twenty-something American in 2010. There’s a wry scene in which an environmental campaigner suggests the heroine cuts down on her carbon footprint by taking fewer flights. She and her husband have yet to travel outside of the state. It’s a neat illustration of media solipsism – the way one forgets how plenty of people in the US (and indeed the UK) still have none of the technological convenience enjoyed by the majority.

I look up the latest figures for adults without internet access. It’s 11% in the UK (6 million people), 15% in the US (47 million). It’s one reason why public libraries are still essential, with their free internet terminals.

Sometimes, though, such utterly offline lives might be enviable. I watch a programme tonight on internet abuse, ‘Troll Hunters’. Various recipients of malicious Twitter messages are shown tracking down their antagonists, then confronting them in person. What’s unexpected is the way one 40-something working-class man – his face blurred – is utterly unrepentant about his behaviour. He even claims a kind of moral defence. The people he attacks, he says, like the former MP Louise Mensch, are far more powerful than he is, so they need taking down a peg or two. ‘It’s all about destroying authority… The world owes me. If they block me, I move onto someone else.’

Certainly the programme touches on one unassailable truth about the appeal of trolling. It’s about wanting to feel powerful.

* * *

Friday 29th January 2016.

Another phone call from someone claiming to be from ‘the technical department of Windows’. They want to provide remote access to my computer so they can deal with ‘hacking’. Apart from anything else, the people behind these obvious scams don’t seem to realise that Windows is a product, not a company. This one hangs up at the slightest challenge.

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