The Line of Bottom

Monday 30th May 2016. I enjoy the new BBC film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as adapted by Russell T Davies. Maxine Peake is Titania, Matt Lucas is Bottom. Both are perfectly cast. Ms Peake already has that angular face one finds in Victorian paintings of fairies, while Mr Lucas brings cuddliness to the pompous Bottom even before he acquires the ass’s head (and then he really is cuddly, like a giant soft toy). 

It’s made with the same team as Mr Davies’s Doctor Who productions, the ones with Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant. I’d say it’s especially like the Davies mini-series just before that: the David Tennant Casanova. It’s that same feeling of a fizzy, dressed-up world operating on a line of tension, with a progressive approach at one end – deliberate anachronisms, multi-ethnic casting, gay characters – and an embracing of popular entertainment at the other. This latest take on Shakespeare went out at 8.30pm on BBC1, so it had to appeal to as many people as possible. Yet it still had Davies’s personal vision at its heart: a world where fascist flags are ripped up into party decorations, where love comes in all shapes and sizes, and everyone dances to Bernard Cribbins singing ‘It Was A Lover And His Lass’. Can’t argue with that.

For all the liberties taken with the story – such as Theseus as a fascist dictator with an iPad – it’s difficult to say it’s any more radical than an average modern stage production. Since I visited the British Library’s Shakespeare exhibition, I’ve been reading about the Peter Brook 1970 RSC Dream, with its minimalist white squash court, stilts and trapezes. Birkbeck Library has two books about that production alone: a detailed making-of account by David Selbourne, and an RSC script with all the stage directions, where one can study Brook’s decisions line-by-line. His Bottom, for instance, merely gains a red nose when transformed by Puck. If a modern production has Bottom with ass’s ears, as in the BBC one, it’s still more traditional than Brook.

In the press there was a slight fuss about the BBC Titania kissing Hippolyta. This is nothing new. I read that the current Globe production of Midsummer Night’s Dream has Helena as a gay man called Helenus, with Demetrius as his lover in denial. The Globe’s previous Dream three years ago had Puck and Oberon passionately kissing. That particular Puck was played by Matthew Tennyson, a very pretty young man who happens to be a descendent of the Tennyson. He now pops up in the BBC film as Lysander, with a pair of glasses that rather makes him resemble Harry Potter. I read that as a deliberate nod to the way Shakespeare has direct links to popular culture now. If it uses the English language, it’s connected to Shakespeare.

I’ve also just remembered that there’s a lesbian bar on the Charing Cross Road, called Titania.


I’m going through my untidy piles of old papers, with a rule of throwing out five things every day. Discarding the ephemeral is easier when you realise it gives more value to the things you keep. And yet I do like the physical evidence of a life; the proof that whatever I’ve done, I’ve lived.

Today, with my head full of thoughts of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, I find a couple of letters from Dad that reference that very play.

They’re written on the backs of his own photocopied cartoons. One has a tiny Puck flying around the shoulders of two American comic book superheroes. Or rather, two versions of the same superhero, The Flash. One is the 1940s Golden Age Flash, with the winged hat; the other is the later Silver Age incarnation, with the one-piece costume and the mask.

Puck is saying: ‘I will put a girdle around the Earth in forty minutes‘. The two Flashes reply, ‘Been there, done that!’


Dad’s other cartoon has a tiny Titania offering a rose to Mr Spock from Star Trek. Says Titania: ‘Come sit thee down upon this flowery bed / While I thy amiable cheeks do coy / And stick musk roses in thy sleek, smooth head / And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.’

Mr Spock, who of course has ‘fair large ears’, replies, ‘Fascinating!’.



Friday 3rd June 2016. I find a Dutch newspaper supplement from late 2007, where I’m the cover star. Well, that’s if the cover of a supplement counts as a cover. It’s for an article on Modern Dandies of London (I think). Me alongside Sebastian Horsley, with his two fingers up to the camera. I still live in the same room, albeit with different curtains.

dutch dandies article


More mopping-up of unpublished activity.

Friday 6th May: While people have stopped me in the street to ask me why I hadn’t written more about the death of Prince, no one has yet chided me for my complete omission of the London mayoral election. Perhaps that sums up what sort of diarist I am.

Still, it needs to be said that I did indeed vote. Voters had a second preference, so I gave my first choice to the Greens’ Sian Berry, and my second to Labour’s Sadiq Khan. Khan triumphed, his victory announced late into the night of the 6th (after an agonising delay of many hours). Ms Berry came in at an impressive third, after the Conservatives’ Zac Goldsmith. She also took up a seat on the London Assembly, thanks to the Greens doing well enough on the ‘London-wide’ polling sheets.

It’s the first election result in years where I’ve felt optimistic about the future.


Films seen recently:

Tuesday 17th May 2016: Green Room at the ICA. £3. A horror thriller with the unusual backdrop of a right-wing skinhead music scene, in contemporary rural Oregon. Rather different to the Portland liberals of that same state, as spoofed in Portlandia. But then I suppose it’s analogous to the way parts of Sussex can be rather less progressive than Brighton.

Imogen Poots’s character has one of those skinhead-scene girls’ haircuts that flatter while adding a certain toughness: long at the sides with a sharp fringe at the front (a Chelsea Fringe? a Feathercut? not sure). The boots and braces look for the men is well-researched too – straight out of 1970s Britain, but jostling here alongside iPhones and American accents. Much significance given to the colour of laces in DMs. A couple of the scenes are extremely gory. But then it is meant to be a horror film too. I suppose boxes must be ticked in plot, in the same way that the characters must tick boxes with their clothes, their taste in rock music, and with their beliefs. These days, I find discussions about belonging thrilling enough; blood and violence less so.

Friday 20th May 2016: Heart of a Dog at the ICA. £3. Laurie Anderson’s stunning film essay, ostensibly about the death of her rat terrier Lolabelle, but touching on life and death in all kinds of ways, from the passing of friends and relatives, to the changes in New York after 9/11. Her husband Lou Reed’s death (which happened during the making of the film) isn’t explicitly referred to, but he’s there briefly as an actor (playing a doctor), and as himself (in footage of the couple on a beach). He also provides the closing song, and in the very last shot he is seen holding the dog.

At one point Anderson talks about that unhappy experience that most pet owners must endure: going to the vet to hear what she calls ‘The Speech’. The one that asks the owner if the pet can be put to sleep. It reminded me how I was recently told, separately, of the deaths of two cats I used to look after in North London: Claudia Andrei’s cat Sevig, and Jenn Connor’s Vyvian. When Sevig became very frail, Claudia pushed him around the streets of Edinburgh in a shopping trolley – ‘the Sevig-mobile’. After seeing Heart of a Dog I realised how lucky I was to have the pleasure of living with these beautiful creatures, without ever having to face The Speech.

Tuesday 24th May 2016: Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, ICA. £3. A documentary on a group of artists in the late 60s and early 70s, who turned vast, desolate parts of the US into their own canvasses in the pure pursuit of Making Art. I was familiar with the Lightning Field artwork – all those lightning rods against the sky- but I hadn’t heard about works like Double Negative, where two gigantic rectangular chunks were carved out of a rocky mesa. According to the credits, some of the works begun in the 1970s are still in progress today.

Thursday 26th May 2016: Love and Friendship at the BFI. Free, courtesy of Tim Chipping, a fellow Whit Stillman fan (we went to see Barcelona together on its 1990s release). The film is followed by a Q&A with Whit Stillman, who is in typically eloquent and wry form. The film adapts Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, though there are touches of Wilde in Stillman’s script too. It’s verbose without ever being dry, and in terms of quips and jokes, it’s funnier than most modern comedies. My favourite film this year.

Friday 3rd June 2016: The Witch at the Prince Charles. £4. A tale of supernatural goings-on amongst a family of Puritan settlers, in seventeenth-century New England. Like Green Room, it blends the horror genre with more unusual aspects, in this case, gritty historical drama. The dialogue is lifted straight from the literature of the time: all ‘thy’s and ‘thee’s. As with Whit Stillman, the style only works once you realise what the director is trying to do: in this case, make a film that takes folk legends as real without question. It’s as if the film was made by seventeenth-century Puritans, as well as being about them.


A useful acronym from Atalanta K, who lost her bag after a night of carousing: ‘I had a CRAFT moment. As in: Can’t Remember A F-ing Thing.’

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Not The Conga Kind

Saturday 6th June 2015.

Still in a post-degree limbo, I find myself recalling my first encounter with the concept of academic writing. It was the 1983 book Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, the first such academic text on the TV series. No shortage of them now. One of my BA seminars on cultural nostalgia included the observation that the 50th anniversary episode, The Day of the Doctor, tapped directly into the programme’s association with generational memories. Specifically, the idea that people’s favourite Doctor was often the one they grew up with.

In 1983, I was a big enough fan to investigate any book on the show, and so picked up The Unfolding Text in a bookshop. The cover seemed fan-friendly enough: a photo of the current Doctor – Peter Davison – in front of the TARDIS. But the text inside was utterly baffling. English phrases, yet used in a way that I just couldn’t understand: ‘semiotics’ this, and ‘signified’ that. To an eleven-year-old boy, academia seemed rather, well, alien.

Today, I like to think I could finally go back to that book and understand it. Or at least, some of it.

* * *

To Smollensky’s, a restaurant in Canary Wharf, for the wedding reception of my cousin Jonathan. Mum and Tom are there, along with cousins I’ve not seen for years, like Caroline and Beth. Caroline says she saw me on that Imagine programme on blogging – and that was ten years ago. Time leaks away.

Wedding DJ music in 2015: the Jackson Five, One Direction, Beyonce, Franz Ferdinand.

At one point a conga line dances through the venue, and sweeps up most people in the room. All except the Peroxide Contingent:  myself, Tom, and Tom’s partner Ms C, who has bleached white hair, shaved at the sides. For one horrifying moment, I think I’m going to be dragged into the conga line. But a code of respectful glances passes between us. Family though we all are, everyone is different, some more than others, and that’s okay.

Whatever I am, I know I am not the conga kind.

* * *

Sunday 7th June 2015.

To a sunny Regent’s Park for Martin W’s annual birthday picnic. Martin still sends out paper invites in the post, double-sided. This year’s invite star is Edith Sitwell, her photo tinted like a Smiths sleeve.

Also present: a few Birkbeck tutors such as Joe Brooker and Caroline Edwards (no relation, but the second C.E. in one weekend), Adrian Lobb, and Lauren Laverne, whom I last saw (I think) at the last ever Kenickie concert. It seems redundant to ask Ms LL what she’s been up to since then, but I’m very pleased to see her again. Birkbeck now, Kenickie then: worlds colliding, time collapsing.

* * *

Monday 8th June 2015.

Evening: to the beautiful Brunei Gallery in Bloomsbury, for a Birkbeck panel event about jobs in the arts sector, followed by a vegetarian dinner at the Coach and Horses, courtesy of Hester R.

At the event, one man from the BBC says, ‘Golden rule for getting work: close your Facebook account at once. People check.’ He doesn’t go into detail, but I presume he means just closing down the security settings. From my experience, FB can be helpful for networking and asking for advice, as long as it’s confined to friends only.

This is a very modern dilemma though: Googling a prospective employee may give quite an unfair impression of the way a person is now, as opposed to the way they used to be. One of the new influx of MPs at the recent election was a woman young enough to have grown up with Twitter. The media and Have I Got News For You soon found a series of embarrassing tweets she’d made in her teenage years, still there, still online. Not career-destroying, but it made me think of the way the internet is like Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale: a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.

If I were an employer, the fact that a candidate had recently closed down their social media account would be more worrying than if they hadn’t.

* * *

Funny how things get uninvented. Today I have to explain to a younger person on Twitter what an internet café was. I used to frequent them in London, before the explosion in wifi and broadband, circa 2002.

I remember one man shouting in through the door of an internet cafe: ‘Why don’t you all just make a phone call?’

The phone got its own back in the end.

* * *

Tuesday 9th June 2015.

An excellent evening spent in the ornate Cafe Royal on Regent Street, attending Ian Kelly’s talk on Beau Brummell. I cheekily turn up unannounced, hoping Suzette Field will let me in – it’s one of her Curious Invitation events - and am grateful that she does. I chat with Joanne Kernan, Laura Bridgeman, Debbie Smith and their dapper pals from the besuited butch female troupe, the Drakes. A suit-lover’s Utopia, frankly.

Learned tonight: the term ‘toff’ is thought to come from ‘toffee-nosed’, after the brown stains on the noses of Regency snuff-takers. And there are references to Beau Brummell in the lyrics of at least two musicals: Annie and Gypsy.

Mr Kelly’s scoop for his 2005 biography is that he discovered Brummell died of syphilis. No one had checked the medical records until then.

* * *

Wednesday 10th June 2015.

To St Thomas’s Hospital on the south side of Westminster Bridge, visiting Heather M after an operation. Her bed has an eighth-floor riverside view, directly opposite Big Ben. It is the view that so many London-set films insist can be seen from any window. ‘Scene: London’.

* * *

Thursday 11th June 2015.

I am given a tour of the new-ish BBC Broadcasting House, courtesy of Charley Stone, Lolo Wood and Billy Reeves. It’s exactly as the sitcom W1A implies: a post-Google HQ warren of transparent walls, vertiginous light-wells, and endless meeting rooms named after popular broadcasters of old. I’m not sure the ‘Frankie Howerd’ room of W1A really exists, but I pass ones for Ludovic Kennedy and Alistair Cooke. Plus there’s huge open plan offices where channels merge into each other (I’m not sure where BBC London ends and the World Service begins). Everyone has security passes worn around the neck on red lanyard straps, which Billy accessories with a silk scarf. BBC staff in 2015 look like they’re working for one huge arts festival that never stops.

One of my Birkbeck classmates turns out to work alongside Billy. ‘How do you know Dickon?’ she asks. ‘The 90s. Bands. London.’

The BBC is stuffed with people who used to be in indie bands. The Menswear drummer, the Field Mice guitarist, the BMX Bandits singer, Kenickie’s singer, Catatonia’s singer… Billy R was the main songwriter in the band ‘Theaudience’.

Outside, I walk past a queue of fans of a band that are making music now, and whom I suppose will end up joining the BBC circa 2025: All Time Low. The fans are all teenage girls, without exception, many with coloured hair. I’ve not heard the music, but from the hair alone I’m guessing it’s more Green Day than One Direction.

The band emerges to greet the fans: more coloured hair, but also: leather jackets. The clothes, the ability of teenage girls to worship bands, both not new. What is new is that today’s fan doesn’t carry an autograph book. Now they expect a photo alongside their idol. And then they show the photo to the entire world. As a result, today’s bands have to perform a lot more gracious smiling than the bands of the past, on a level that must rival the Queen.

The BBC entrance foyer has a Dalek, again popular with the cult of the selfie. Except the Dalek doesn’t have to look gracious.

Later: home to a sobering PRS statement of next to nothing. ‘If you anticipate your earnings will exceed £81k, contact HMRC’. Fat chance. I wonder if the BBC have room for one more 90s musician?

* * *

Early evening: Still in job-seeking mode, I attend a class at Birkbeck on how to use the LinkedIn website. ‘Your profile photo must show you looking happy. But not because you are drunk’.

* * *

Evening: get a bit upset when blanked in a bar by someone I have a crush on. Brood on this while walking home – and nearly don’t see an acquaintance waving frantically to me out of friendship. Which says it all.

Must be grateful for the affection one has.

Crushes tend to be based on a version of the person that doesn’t exist. Those All Time Low fans may look like they’re going through a phase, but the type of emotion is lifelong.

* * *

Friday 12th June 2015.

A muggy day. To the East Finchley Phoenix for London Road. ‘Ipswich, England’ goes the opening caption. I know Ipswich, England all right. Born there, raised nearby, worked there, studied there, and even lived there for a short time, in 1990. I wasn’t there in 2006, though, when this film is set, when the town found itself the centre of the world’s attention. The film adapts the National Theatre’s ‘verbatim’ musical about the killing of five Ipswich sex workers, and does so brilliantly, movingly, ingeniously, wittily, and most important of all, cinematically. The scenery doesn’t quite feel like Ipswich to me – more a kind of fantasy British Anytown – but the accents are right: a mixture of rural Suffolk and Estuary English. Tom Hardy briefly pops up behind a steering wheel (again), this time as a cab driver who imposes his amateur detective theories on a hapless passenger.

Evening: To Vout-O-Reenee’s in Tower Hill for the launch of the 20th anniversary issue of the Scottish poetry journal, The Dark Horse. Guest of Sophie Parkin. I get a copy of the magazine. It’s more like a large format paperback: 200 pages, a thick spine, red and black serif type, all carefully typeset by the editor Gerry Cambridge. He clearly has as much of an eye for beautiful fonts and book layouts as he does for beautiful verse.

Of the live readings, I catch one established poet that even non-poetry fans have heard of: Wendy Cope. She reads her exclusive poems for the issue (making it a must-buy alone), alongside some of her greatest hits: the one about the corkscrew, the one about not standing a chance with AE Housman, and my favourite, indeed called ‘Favourite’, about liking a particular poet – and his poems too.

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