Saturday 15th November 2014. I listen to an archive radio talk by Arthur Machen, about the superiority of artists who invent over those who replicate. He cites GK Chesterton on the difference between Dickens and Trollope. With Dickens, says Chesterton, the reader knows they’ll never meet his characters in real life. With Trollope, the reader never stops meeting hisÂ characters in real life. Machen concludes that Dickens was a better writer, because he added rather than reflected. He addsÂ an anecdote about Turner:
A friendly critic once said to Turner, ‘Your pictures are undoubtedly splendid works, but I never saw such landscapes in nature as you paint.’
‘No,’ said Turner. ‘But don’t you wish you had?’
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Evening: to Elton U’s house party in Ladbroke Grove. Mostly fellow Birkbeck BA English students. No particular occasion other than getting together socially. Other guests: Jasmine B, Jon S. Elton’s place is covered in books – almost every shelf of every room. I pick one up. He not only covers the margins in handwritten notes, but the inside cover pages too. Jon turns out to have had some training as a chef. He brings his own Christmas cake, and we all wolf it down.
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Sunday 16th November 2014. Working on an essay on Waugh. Can’t resist bringing in a discussion on camp. I have good reason to though: Philip Core’s A-Z of camp (The Lie That Tells The Truth) gives Evelyn Waugh his own entry, plus there’sÂ two separate entries for Brideshead Revisited. One for the novel, one for the 1981 TV series. They are filed between ‘Bowie’ and ‘Bronzino’.
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Monday 17th November 2014.Â I get the new Quentin Blake advent calendar from Foyles Charing Cross. Many advent calendars are reissued every year, because the dates are non-specific (eg the National Gallery’s advent calendars). But the eighty-something QB manages to put out a brand new design. This year it’s a towering, glittery snowman in the process of decoration.
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A new bad habit, related to my love of eating Christmas food early: Starbucks’s eggnog flavoured lattes. I can confirm that they are overpriced sugary filth from the devil’s own armpit, and that I’ve bought about five of them in the last week. I record this purely as an act of contrition.
As it is, I’m irritated by Starbucks’s insistence on asking for a customer’s name to put on the cup, even when it’s obvious whose drink is whose. I’ve begun to work my way through an alphabet of pseudonyms each time I go to a branch: Adam, Bob, Carl, Dave, Eustace. I do this partly because people often pull a confused expression when I say ‘Dickon’, but mainly because I resent the demand full stop. The whole point of going to a franchise café is the comfort of anonymity. Still, as Ben Elton used to say, don’t blame the staff, blame the management.
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Tuesday 18th November 2014. Class tonight: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Tutor: Joe Brooker. The Southern Gothic landscape drips off the page. ‘My mother is a fish’ indeed. Difficult to read without thinking one is in muddy dungarees.
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Wednesday 19th November 2014. Class: Lessing’s The Grass Is Singing, set in what was then Southern Rhodesia. Tutor: Grace Halden. Fascinating how Lessing’s publisher insisted on a rape scene to be included. And that she refused, even though it was her first book.
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Thursday 20th November 2014. To the Arcola Theatre in Dalston for First Love, a stage adaptation of the Samuel Beckett story. The venueÂ is an old converted paint factory, with its history very much on display: lots of wires drooping aesthetically across exposed brickwork. I go as the guest of Hester R, fellow student on the ‘Literature 1945-1979’ course. First Love is one of ourÂ set texts.
It turns out that the production is the whole storyÂ performed as a one-man, 80 minute monologue – quite a feat of memory. That said, Hester later tells me she went to seeÂ Gatz, the full recital of The Great Gatsby on stage (about 6 hours with breaks), and that involved one actor learning the whole Fitzgerald novel. I have enough trouble remembering my door keys.
The First Love actor is bald, wiry, performs with a thick Irish accent, and wears a modern hooded top under a business suit, though the story is from the 1940s. The only set dressing is a couple of wooden benches, though these are both propped up on their sides, giving the impression they’re about to fall over at any time (again, all very Beckett). The story does involve the use ofÂ benches, and at one point the actor nearly takes one to sit on – then puts it back.
He delivers the whole piece in a state of twitchy paranoia and nervousness, often pausing as if the words are occurring to him naturally. This interpretation suits the text, but I can’t help thinking it must alsoÂ come in handy for any moments where he forgets the words. No one would know.
The enduring appeal of Beckett owes something to the way he captures the universal sense of not quite coping with being in the world. Of everything and nothing. Of anywhere and nowhere. InÂ a way, Beckett is a kind of comfort food. The great thing about nowhere is that you always know where you are.
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I stay up too late to watch the result of the Rochester by-election. Why do I bother with live election TV? ‘Anything to report?’ ‘No.’ Â Even more depressing is that the media found something trivial to inflate into front-page significance: the Labour MP Emily Thornberry tweeting a photo of a house covered in England flags, with a white van in the drive. Her caption was simply ‘image from Rochester’. She was soon accused of anti-regional snobbery (being a London MP), and was forced to resign her place in the Shadow Cabinet. Disgrace is so very fast these days: a mere five hours from tweet to resignation. It’s one of those Thick Of It plotlines that seem unlikely to happen in real life. Until they do.
UKIP won their second seat in Rochester. Despite all the national media coverage, 50% of the electorate didn’t bother voting. The owner of the white van was one of them.
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Friday 21st November 2014. To the Museum of London with Minerva M., for the Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived exhibition. We go in the evening, for one of those late openings which include a bar and special mini-events around the galleries. Many of the big London museums do these things now – it’s all about giving people an undownloadable experience. We watch a ‘Reichenbach Fall’ sideshow in which people learn how to fall a couple of feet onto a crash mat mindfully. They first have a conversation with some sort of ‘fall instructor’, then they get up on a stage, sign their name on a whiteboard under the words ‘I Want To Fall’, then topple backwards over onto the mat, to the crowd’s applause. Some of the participants imitate Benedict Cumberbatch’s crucifixion dive from Sherlock. We also watch a suitably well-dressed demonstration of Bartitsu, Holmes’s self-defence method, and a series of very funny improvisation games, by the comedy troupe Shoot From The Hip.
The exhibition itself turns out to feature plenty of serious contextual items: rare maps, photos and paintings of 1890s London, including several Whistlers and a superb Monet. Plus an early 1800s rendering of the Reichenbach Falls by JMW Turner (he really does get everywhere). Then there’s lots of film and stage posters from the umpteen SH adaptations, and Benedict C’s actual Milford coat from Sherlock, with the red buttonhole. Conan Doyle’s original stories are given the most attention – there’s a huge lit-up mural of the Dancing Men stick figures on the outside of the museum. One wall-sized quotation is from A Study In Scarlet, where Watson makes a list of ‘Sherlock Holmes: His Limits’. They include ‘Knowledge of Literature – Nil. Philosophy – Nil. Politics – Feeble’.
I think one of the reasons for the success of the character is that from the start Doyle presented him as a brilliant man with flaws. But the flaws have to be of the right kind.
I thought of the British scientist Matt Taylor, from the news this week. He was one of the Rosetta space team who’d managed to land a robot probe on a moving comet. However, he also went on TV wearing a shirt made up of illustrations of scantily-clad women. The sort of thing that even an amateur heavy metal band might view as a bit ‘unsubtle’. In a time when science still has an image problem as a male-dominated arena, this didn’t go down at all well. Dr Taylor was forced to apologise.
I suppose the moral is: even a brilliant man’s limits must have their limits.
Tags: arthur machen, benedict cumberbatch, birkbeck, brideshead revisited, evelyn waugh, matt taylor, museum of london, rosetta probe, samuel beckett, sherlock holmes