Write Rococo; Edit Baroque.

Saturday 6th November 2014. I’m thinking about Jeremy Thorpe, who died on Thursday 4th. If a film were to be made about the whole bizarre Norman Scott case, a good choice for director would be Wes Anderson. Both Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel have scenes in which beloved pets are killed, needlessly so. So it was in real life with Rinka, the dog of Norman Scott. Thorpe – or at least someone high up in the Liberal Party – allegedly tried to bump Scott off. But on the fateful day the hired assassin panicked, and Scott’s dog literally took the bullet. I’ll always associate the story with three things. Firstly, Quentin Crisp’s description of the bungling hitman (a former RAF pilot) as ‘a disused airman’. Secondly, the word ‘bunnies’ used by Thorpe in a letter to Scott to describe the two of them together. And thirdly, Peter Cook’s court judge sketch at The Secret Policeman’s Ball show, which spoofed the trial. The sketch contained a memorable piece of innuendo: ‘he is a self-confessed player of the pink oboe’. This turned out to be a suggestion from Billy Connolly, who was performing at the same revue. Now Thorpe has died, perhaps the full truth will finally out. Then the strange, surreal story of shot dogs, denied sexuality and hasty cover-ups might at last make sense.

* * *

Sunday 7th November 2014. I’m reading about the popularity of Hemingway when an idle joke suggests itself: “For sale: Hemingway quote. Rather worn.”

* * *

Another quote, often wrongly attributed to Hemingway, is a writing tip: ‘write drunk, edit sober’. Hemingway certainly drank, but he only did so after he’d clocked up the day’s quota of prose. But figuratively it’s good advice: one should write freely as if without inhibitions, then edit to impose form and intention. In fact, after reading about Firbank and Beardsley and the differences between rococo and baroque – where rococo is florid, playful and intimate, and baroque is extravagant, ornate, and imposing – I’ve come up with my own advice:

Write rococo; edit baroque.

* * *

Tuesday 9th December 2014. Class at Birkbeck: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Tutor: Joe Brooker. Despite all my sarcastic jokes to myself –  ‘this’ll be a laugh’ – Plath’s novel does indeed have laugh-aloud moments. One is when the self-deluding boyfriend insists on undressing, to show the heroine ‘what a man looks like’:

Then he just stood there in front of me and I kept on staring at him. The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.

* * *

Wednesday 10th December 2014. Final class of the autumn term: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. Tutor: Grace Halden. To prepare, I read some of Amis’s letters to Larkin. They’re full of smutty jokes about what he wants to do to his female students in Swansea, fantasies which make the fictional Jim Dixon look something of a saint. How much of it he really means isn’t clear, though. That’s the trouble with reading books of letters: as they’re written for private eyes, something of the real meaning is lost on the public.

* * *

Thursday 11th December 2014. At about 7pm I pass Waterstones Gower Street and notice they’re having some sort of Christmas event. There’s free wine and nibbles, authors are dotted around the shop signing their latest books, and carol singers are belting away on the stairs, in full Dickensian costume. I wander in, gratefully accept a glass of white wine, and mooch about. Then I realise that it’s a bit rude to approach authors at book events if one isn’t going to buy anything. I’m even poorer than usual at the moment, and non-college books have to be struck from my budget until I’m more flush. But when I spot Viv Albertine perched among the Moleskines I can’t resist telling her how much I enjoyed her film Exhibition.

‘I write about it in the book,’ she says, indicating the fresh piles of her memoir, with the excellent title of Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys. I blurt out something about looking forward to read it (translation: I can’t buy it right now- sorry! ), and I stumble away sheepishly, embarrassed at my lack of a purchase. Then I spot Robin Ince and Stewart Lee and avoid them too, for the same reason (they’re signing an anthology of comic horror stories, Dead Funny). I find Travis Elborough in the basement and chat to him, knowing he won’t mind.

Still, Viv Albertine knows what it’s like to be poor. The first line of her book says so, as quoted by all the reviews: ‘Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both.’

(Which reminds me… Rare Advert Break! If you enjoy this diary, which comes with a guaranteed lack of Kevin Bacon pop-up adverts, please make a donation to keep it, and the author, going:

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Thank you.)

* * *

I get home and watch Question Time. Russell Brand and Nigel Farage are on the panel. Mr Brand accuses Mr Farage of being a ‘Pound Shop Enoch Powell’. This remark is given so much attention that within twenty-four hours there are whole articles dwelling on this single phrase, explaining just who Mr Powell was, and how he may or may not relate to UKIP. There is a sense now of single seeds of comment put about, which then flower into great forests of discussion, argument, and counter-argument, and back again. Never before in the field of human discourse were so many words triggered by so few.

Another example is the case of the Cereal Killer Café, in East London. This is a new emporium selling only bowls of cereal from around the world, much like the Cyber Candy shops with their imported sweets. A tidal wave of scorn erupted when a video emerged, featuring a Channel 4 reporter interviewing one of the shop owners. He asks why such novelty shops exist in areas like Shoreditch where there’s also extreme poverty. The young owner gets flustered and says ‘I’m stopping the interview – I don’t like your questions’.

This clip is then presented on the internet as an example of ‘hipsters’ ruining the world, blind to real life problems. Yet London has always had its novelty shops. I remember my joy as a teenager at discovering there was a place in Covent Garden which only sold Tintin-related merchandise. A whole Tintin shop! What’s far more depressing is bland franchise shops and cafes taking over London. Quirky and colourful little independent businesses are what London is for.  It’s property developers, closing down unique venues like the Buffalo Bar and Madame JoJos, who really should be hauled over the coals.

Disproportionate hatred has become a game any number can play.

* * *

Friday 12th December 2014. First essay mark of the final year: 74. This is for the short-ish one on Waugh. It’s a First, but for me it’s the lowest mark in about ten essays. Given education is a competition with oneself, this is a smack in my smug complacency. Mustn’t slacken off now.

* * *

Afternoon: I’m in the British Library when the softly-spoken, floppy-haired man at the desk next to me asks if I used to live in Bristol. ‘It’s Dickon, isn’t it?’ He turns out to be James, one of the regulars at various Bristol indie gigs and club nights, back in what must now be termed My Bristol Years (1990-4). He can’t have seen me for over twenty years.

I do remember him, and have one particularly vivid memory from a mainstream indie disco night (the Candy Club, we think). James asked the DJ to play Felt, knowing full well the answer would be no. This completely ordinary moment, ten seconds of my history, has nevertheless stuck with me down the decades. I think it’s because it was the first time I’d heard of a band called Felt, and the name intrigued me. Years later I would get to know Lawrence the Felt singer, for a brief time. I still have a letter from him praising the Orlando album.

James and I have lunch in the BL café and compare the last two decades of our lives. We two ageing indie boys. He moved into the vintage Mod scenes in London and in Europe, and missed Britpop altogether (quite a feat, really). Fearing the ‘memory test’ aspect of such meetings (which is what I imagine school reunions must be like), I am consoled when he can’t remember the same things I can’t remember either. Like the name of a windowless record shop in Clifton, where the owner would unleash lengthy anecdotes about seeing Scritti Politti in 1980, or The Specials on their first tour. Today James does literary translation work (he’s editing an anthology of literature in a rare Spanish-related tongue), and I tell him about Birkbeck. Neither of us owns the old records any more, the ones that brought us together. But we talk about them all the same.

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The Silence Of Christmas Sandwiches

Saturday 11th October 2014. I watch the new BBC documentary about Genesis, mainly because I’m curious about their 1970s prog-rock phase. Fittingly, the documentary goes on a bit.

* * *

Monday 13th October 2014. Modern signs of the seasons. In their grab-for-lunch fridge section today, Boots are stocking their Christmas ranges. Red cardboard packaging with snowflake motifs. I note how fine I am with this sort of thing, mainly because it’s not accompanied with in-store festive music – yet. It’s only unrequested noise that really depresses. Thus I come away from Boots praising the silence of sandwiches.

I am trying out some organic remedies for anxiety. One is rubbing warm sesame oil onto the skin. I duly give it a go, and spend the rest of the day smelling like a Chinese takeaway.

* * *

Tuesday 14th October 2014. There’s a popular Internet catchphrase, ‘You had one job’. It’s often appended to photographs of badly installed doors, lavatories, and so on. Tonight I find myself saying it while watching the BBC’s live TV coverage of the Booker Prize ceremony. Within a half hour programme of comment and preamble, a technical hitch means they miss the actual announcement. Instead the camera stays on poor Andrew Motion in emergency pundit mode, forced to fill for time with comments on the various nominees. At this point, it’s not what he says that matters, it’s only that he says something. It’s not the worse BBC Booker slip-up, though. That has to be the time in the 80s when Selina Scott not only failed to recognise one of the judges, Angela Carter, she also asked her what her favourite one on the list was. ‘You’re not supposed to ask me that,’ said Ms Carter.

More recently, Howard Jacobson’s acceptance speech was cut off by the BBC News channel in mid-sentence. This was in order to go live to the trapped Chilean miners, where something was said to be happening. It wasn’t.

* * *

Tonight’s Birkbeck class (Joe Brooker teaching): Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. From 1909, yet still so fresh in its experimentation. I find some of the repetition hard going, but come to admire its dedication to new takes on form and subject matter. Stein’s layered rhythms take some getting used to, but then the same is said of David Peace now. ‘You can’t lose yourself in it’ remarks one student.

* * *

Wednesday 15th October 2014. Tonight’s class: Brideshead Revisited. Roger Luckhurst teaching. A nice contrast to the previous night. Decades later than Stein, yet such a throwback in style. And a throwback for many of Waugh’s admirers, too. Its wistful love of the aristocracy still provokes, just as it did on publication. Yet it was a hit with the book buyers of the 1940s. Professor L suggests that the popularity of the 1980s TV series may have had something to do with the gloom of Thatcherism at the time. An understandable response, just as Waugh’s novel was his understandable response to WW2.

Prof L also recounts how a fellow tutor was appalled at having to teach the book on another module. ‘You’ve reminded me who the enemy are.’

I suppose in theory I should be against it too. Yet the wit and craft of his writing sparkles and connects. Universal sentiments, despite all the elitism. Certainly Waugh himself was often snobbish and misanthropic in his interviews – but then much of the time he was something of a wind-up merchant. There’s a Paris Review piece where he insists on getting into his pyjamas and doing the interview in the hotel bed, smoking a cigar. When the interviewer asks him to comment on something by Edmund Wilson. Waugh replies, ‘Is he an American?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I don’t think what they have to say is of much interest, do you?’

* * *

Thursday 16th October 2014. In the British Library, very much a welcoming oasis for those with laptop lives, with its free wifi, pleasant atmosphere and lack of piped music. The BL has now somehow squeezed dozens of attractive new study tables into its lobby and café areas, thus freeing up more desks in the reading rooms for those who actually need to consult the BL’s books. Certainly the Rare Books Reading Room seems quieter than it has been. The new lobby tables are packed for much of the day. I look out at them: a sea of faces all lit by the glow of their respective screens. Life in 2014. Footlight faces.

I read a lecture by Shirley Jackson. It’s on the response to her short story, ‘The Lottery’, upon its publication by the New Yorker in 1948. She received hundreds of scathing letters, including one from her mother. ‘It does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?’

* * *

Friday 17th October 2014. To the East Finchley Phoenix for Effie Gray, the new Emma Thompson-scripted period drama. It’s pretty to look at, and the true story it tells is fascinating enough, but somehow it feels cold and unengaging. Maybe that’s the fault of the story in question, being the coldness of the marriage between art critic John Ruskin and nineteen-year old Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray. Ruskin was about thirty at the time, though in this film he seems much older. I wonder if this was a deliberate move to play up the age difference, because it’s certainly accentuated by a flashback scene, with Ruskin taking an even younger Effie around a museum. There’s hints of a Lewis Carroll theory here – Ruskin had known Effie since she was twelve and even wrote a fairy tale for her, The King of the Golden River. The film also begins with Effie retelling her marriage aloud as if that were a fairy tale. A few minutes in we get the expected wedding night scene, where Ruskin is appalled by his wife’s naked body. Although Emma T seems unwilling to subscribe to the theories as to which specific body parts put him off, for me the film suggests it was her whole adulthood that appalled him. The rest of the film is essentially her moping around unhappily, if immaculately in picturesque settings, particularly Venice and rural Scotland. The casting of Dakota Fanning is perfect. At times she resembles the saddest yet best dressed doll in the shop, at others like she’s just walked out of a Holman Hunt.

The film’s poster has been all over the walls of Tube stations lately. It is slightly misleading, as it juxtaposes Ms Fanning next to Millais’s masterpiece Ophelia, familiar to any visitor of the Tate Britain. This might make people think Effie was that painting’s model. Millais himself is in the film all right – as a better lover for Effie – but there’s no direct reference to the painting other than in a montage of Pre-Raphaelite hits. Perhaps a mention of its true model, Lizzie Siddall, would have been too much for the story. After all, Ms Siddall had a pretty interesting life herself – doubtless to be covered in another film sometime.

There seems to be no shortage of art biopics. Tonight’s screening comes after a trailer for Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, with Timothy Spall as the shimmery dauber. And there in the trailer is another version of John Ruskin. Sibelius is meant to have said, ‘No one ever erected a statue to a critic’. But they certainly put them into films.

Effie Gray had to fend off lawsuits from other writers, who apparently had similar ideas for adapting the tale. There’s no ending to the interest in flawed fame. In the credits, I notice that Young Effy is played by Tiger Lily Hutchence, the daughter of Paula Yates and Michael Hutchence. She must certainly know something about private lives becoming public narratives.

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On Being A Harbinger Of Grayson Perry

Saturday 4th October 2014.

To the Conway Hall in Holborn for a spot of DJ-ing. It’s Suzette Field’s Black and White Masked Ball, inspired by Truman Capote’s 1966 party (a party which has its own Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_and_White_Ball).

There’s a strict dress code of black and white colours only. I don my chalk white suit, freshly cleaned. Ms Shanthi meets me at the event, and says I look like an advert for Daz Automatic. There’s several rooms packed with dancing, arty bands and cabaret acts, plus there’s an oversized chess game. Naked stewards walk around offering plates of food, their body paint conforming to the rules. They literally are wearing only black and white. I’m impressed that the punkish marching band Perhaps Contraption have eschewed their bespoke yellow and plum uniforms for some one-off black and white apparel. Their spiky-haired glockenspieliste and co-vocalist Felicity is in a stunning white ballgown. I play my usual mix of 1920s jazzy pop, easy listening, showtunes and anything else that fits the moment. It’s a joy watching a room full of such beautifully dressed up people dance and indeed strut to my hopeful selections.

* * *

Sunday 5th October 2014. I write a presentation script on literary camp for college, and put together Powerpoint slides to go with it. I do this at home while standing up at my desk. This is partly because I have to keep referring to books from my bookcase, but mostly because I’m restless. Not sure if lectern-style writing is better, but it certainly feels healthier. I am also a great lover of frequently getting up to pace around the desk, which is only really acceptable in the privacy of one’s home. If I tried that in a library, it would only be a matter of time before other members set fire to me.

To the ICA for Tony Benn: Last Will and Testament. It’s billed as a documentary, but is better described as a fond memorial. There’s certainly no critical voices explaining just why some newspapers called Mr Benn ‘dangerous’ or ‘evil’ or even in one case, ‘werewolf’ (?). But then, there’s no other voices full stop: this is entirely narrated by Benn himself, who took part in the film’s making before he died. Regardless of one’s political views, the film is an excellent whistle-stop through decades of British political and social change, from the 1940s till Mrs Thatcher’s funeral last year. It also uses emotive scenes from archive news footage and even from other films, such as Brassed Off (captioned as Benn’s favourite), and Network, for Ned Beatty’s speech about there being ‘no more countries, only companies’. I’m delighted by the inclusion of shots of the Sailors’ Reading Room in Southwold, along with the beach huts. The Reading Room now reminds me not just of my own regular visits there with Mum and Dad since the 80s, but also of Sebald’s Rings Of Saturn.

Tony Benn’s analogy for the old House Of Lords. ‘It’s like your dentist saying, “I’m not really qualified for this, but my dad did it.”’

* * *

Monday 6th October 2014. I finish a short story I’ve been chewing over all summer. It’s called ‘Forova, Not Found’ and features a Tube station theme bar in Tangier (which exists and which I’ve been to), a Moroccan Amy Winehouse impersonator and Wilde’s Dorian Gray. The story is a response to a piece of art by Eleanor Bedlow. I’m pleased with it. I need to write more fiction. Editing fiction is the real pleasure: watching themes emerge naturally, then nudging them into place. A form of gardening, really.

* * *

Tuesday 7th October 2014. Autumn temperatures at last. I take the cream linen suit to be cleaned for the last time this year, and slip back into my dark ensembles. It’s my version of putting the clocks back.

Back to Birkbeck for the first classes of the final year of the degree. Henry James’s ‘The Jolly Corner’ kicks off the course on US modern literature, while a lecture by Roger Luckhurst begins my Post-War UK module. This is the shape of my Tuesday and Wednesday evenings from now till next May. I also have to work on my year-long thesis, which has the working title of ‘The Satirical Usage of Camp in Twenty-First Century Fiction.’ As well as defining literary camp (via Sontag etc), I’m discussing three texts: a camp moment in Alan Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty, a camp main character in James Hamilton-Paterson’s Cooking With Fernet Branca, and a camp narrative style in Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. Fairly confident about it, as long as I can keep it academically rigorous, as they say in the classroom.

* * *

Thursday 9th October 2014

Grayson Perry is in the news for writing a provocative essay in the New Statesman. It’s about how middle-class, white straight men are still dominating UK culture, and how this needs to change. He uses the term ‘Default Man’, which he says he’s invented. In fact, I was bandying it about in my diary ten years ago. There’s evidence in this old entry from 2004 (if one scrolls down past the whining about my health): http://www.dickonedwards.com/diary/index.php/archive/this-is-dickon-edwards/

Admittedly, I only coined it in a spirit of flouncy cattiness, and certainly didn’t extend it into a sociological proposal. Still, it’s amusing to see the phrase getting such prominence all these years later.

* * *

To the British Library for its latest big exhibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. It covers everything under the G-word from Walpole’s Castle of Otranto to a set of Martin Parr photographs taken at this year’s Whitby Goth Weekend – the latter being typically vivid portraits of ways to be British. So many treasures on show. My favourites are: the manuscripts of Frankenstein and Jane Eyre, a Jan Svankmajer film on Otranto, a vintage cardboard model of Fonthill Abbey, the ‘horrid’ novels from Austen’s Northanger Abbey all lined up in their own case, a Victorian alarm clock in the shape of a skeleton riding a coffin, a ‘Dear Boss’ letter from the Ripper case, a calling card from Oscar Wilde in exile, when he was ‘Sebastian Melmoth’, manuscripts for both Clive Barker’s Hellraiser script and its source novella The Hellbound Heart, and a manuscript of Angela Carter’s ‘The Company of Wolves’, as in the original story.

I note how some works are Goth-Compatible rather than only Gothic. Kate Bush’s song ‘Wuthering Heights’ is quoted in the section on the Brontes, for instance. In terms of modern Goth-Compatible literary ficition, there’s Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. To go with the exhibition, the British Library shop sells moustache wax, razorblade cufflinks, and – inevitably – black nail varnish.

* * *

I’ve had my blond hair cut off. It’s to give my roots a chance to breathe before the next round of peroxide. So today I have dark brown, very short hair. I like to think this means I’ll get fewer than usual catcalls. I like to think I even look more normal. But I hadn’t reckoned to something else that might invite comment from those who insist on offering it – my voice.

On the tube. An older, slightly grizzled-looking man gets on, sits down, and immediately starts talking to – or more accurately, at – the man next to him and the woman opposite him. I’m standing by those perches near the door, and have my earphones in, but I can tell he’s being humoured by these suddenly besieged passengers. They smirk demurely back. At the next stop, the man he sat next to gets up and leaves. The chatty older fellow then nods to me. I take out an earphone.

He says, ‘do you want to sit next to me, now?’

‘I’m fine here, thanks,’ I say.

Except I only get two words into the sentence when he suddenly puts out his hand, pulls a 1970s limp-wristed ‘teapot’ gesture, affects the attendant effeminate voice, and shouts ‘OH! He-LLOOOO!’ And he does this to the whole carriage, rather than to me.

I burst into laughter. Central London, 2014. No different to a Suffolk playground, 1980.

There was a time when this sort of thing used to upset me. Now I think to myself, ‘Still got it!’

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Fish Of The Day

Sunday 10th August 2014. I chat with Mum over the phone. She’s busy, giving classes and talks on quilt making all over the country, most recently at the NEC. Tom has now built her a website as a kind of shop window. It’s her first ever web presence. The URL is www.lynneedwardsquilts.com.

* * *

Monday 11h August 2014. To the Boogaloo to watch Lea Andrews perform with Sadie Lee, as part of the Blue Monday gig night. An evening of seeing old friends. Charley Stone is there, Charlotte Hatherley too. This is my only socialising this week; the rest of my time is spent in the British Library in St Pancras, communing with the dead.

Currently re-reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Last read when I was a teenager. This time round I’m older than Winston Smith. I’d forgotten that he has varicose veins; something I’m rather familiar with now. The themes are more relevant than ever, as evidenced by Edward Snowden’s mention of the novel in his Alternative Christmas Message last year. Fear of state surveillance, the removal of privacy, the state control of information, the daily get together to hate something for the sake of joining in (thus anticipating Twitter), war being used to keep populations suppressed, bad entertainment doing the rest of the suppression. Orwell’s prose style surprises me with its simple, unfussy realism. Stylistically, it could be written today. The only 1940s anachronism I pick up is the usage of ‘dear’ by the two lovers.

But slang comes around too. ‘Oh my days’ sounds pure Dickens. I’ve heard it used by all kinds of young people in London now, and by some not so young people too. A friend says it derives from Caribbean patois. So I wonder if it came from the effects of the Empire before that.  I like the idea of slang being exported across lands, passing through social groups, then returning after more than a century, like the orbit of a comet.

* * *

Tuesday 12th August 2014. Robin Williams dies. It’s thought to be suicide. A lot of discussion online of depression and the eternal archetype of the sad clown. My local cinema, the Phoenix, is putting on a screening of Good Will Hunting, as a benefit for the Samaritans.

People on Twitter have taken tribute selfies, standing on tops of desks, holding up signs saying ‘O Captain My Captain’. This is a reference to a scene in Dead Poets Society, the words taken from a poem by Walt Whitman. My band Orlando did a similar tribute in 1996, for the video to ‘Don’t Kill My Rage’. We even dressed as schoolboys and filmed in a beautiful old private school. And we stood on the desks.

I can’t think of the Dead Poets motto ‘carpe diem’ now without recalling a joke from I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue:

Carpe diem: Fish of the Day.’

What a range of work Robin Williams left behind, though. Particularly given his problems. Some roles wacky (Mork and Mindy, Good Morning Vietnam), some serious (Dead Poets Society, Awakenings) some sinister (Insomnia). In theory I should have found his comedy style irritating, but the sheer speed of his invention always impressed me. Completely over the top, yes, but also completely out of the blue. Where did that ability come from? It seemed utterly unearthly – hence Mork.

His big, rubbery, Punch-like features seemed to also fit that other extreme of emotion – sentiment. There’s something very Victorian about that mix; the need to complement the uproarious with the lachrymose. Knowing that Williams was built to erupt into loud comedy made his restrained roles all the more watchable. The energy had to be channelled into reverse. He’s perfect for The World According To Garp, as the quiet centre in John Irving’s outlandish parade. I also like him as the murderous author in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, or the avuncular gay radio host in The Night Listener (based on Armistead Maupin), or the nightclub owner in The Birdcage, teaching Nathan Lane how to act more manly. In one scene they try discussing sports like heterosexual men. Or so they imagine:

WILLIAMS: (putting on manly voice) Al, you old son of a bitch! How ya doin’? How do you feel about those Dolphins today?

LANE: How do you think I felt? Bewildered! Betrayed…! (looks at Williams, wrist returns to limpness) Wrong response, right?

WILLIAMS: I’m not sure…

* * *

Wednesday 13th August 2014. London begging. On the tube today, a man gets on and promptly goes round the carriage carefully placing wrapped packets of pocket tissues (the Handy Andies type) on the empty seats next to each passenger. There’s also a piece of paper with each packet. Presumably it contains his written appeal for money, in return for the tissues, along with some detail of his circumstances. I say presumably because I don’t pick up a packet, and neither does anyone else. The British are so obsessed with taking the least embarrassing action in public as it is. Added to which, the London tube carriage is a place of non-action, of retrieving into yourself, of trying not to exist. Not the best place to ask for money.

The tissues man waits silently at one end of the carriage for no more than a minute. Then he goes round again, this time retrieving all the packets of tissues and paper notes and putting them back in his shoulder bag. He gets off at the next stop.

* * *

Thursday 14th August 2014. To the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley, for the film Lilting. It’s a low-budget piece in which Ben Whishaw acts his absolute socks off. He plays a grieving gay man trying to befriend the Chinese mother of his late partner. The added complication is that she speaks no English, she didn’t know her son was gay, and she lives in a London care home. Peter Bowles also appears (he of To The Manor Born and Only When I Laugh), playing an elderly Lothario. The film is emotionally tense, yet tender and quiet, and is clearly a labour of love. I recognise one of the locations: the canal towpath near the south end of Mare Street, in the East End.

* * *

Friday 15th August 2014. Today’s new word is ‘hoyden’. It means ‘a boisterous girl’. A dated expression, declares the Concise Oxford Dictionary. I’m introduced to it by a line in Brigid Brophy’s book Black and White: A Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (1968):

 ‘Are they female fops, these personages of Beardsley’s: female dandies: female effeminates, even? Or are they male hoydens, male tomboys, boy butches?’

The book contains some of Beardsley’s sexually explicit art from the 1890s. More grotesque than titillating, I’d have thought. Yet the British Library keeps its copy of Black and White in the Special Materials collection, the place for anything very valuable or very naughty. As the book isn’t that rare it must be Beardsley’s rudeness that qualifies. To read the library copy a while ago, I had to sit at a special desk in the Rare Books Reading Room, within view of CCTV cameras and library staff. I was not allowed to leave the book unattended, not even to go to the toilet. They might as well call the desk the Table of Shame.

Thankfully, Faber have now reprinted Black and White as part of their Faber Finds series. Today I pick up a copy from Gay’s The Word bookshop in Marchmont Street. I take it home and enjoy it behind closed doors, where the Big Brother eyes of the British Library cannot watch me.

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Under The Batter

Saturday 29th March 2014.

My main work this week is finishing an essay on Vathek and Northanger Abbey. I’m also reading Jane Eyre for the first time. I had no idea the childhood chapters would be so grim. It makes Oliver Twist look like the Mickey Mouse Club.

* * *

I have a new article published in issue 10 of New Escapologist, which is out now. The theme of the issue is ‘the absurd’. I chose to write about the Theatre of the Absurd in connection with Harold Pinter’s London. I researched it properly, too – probably too properly.The magazine can be bought from this link:


* * *

Monday 31st March 2014.

I never know the kindest way of saying ‘no’ when someone approaches me and says ‘do you remember me?’  My heart always sinks when this happens and I know I make a mess of it. My idea of hell is a school reunion. Never mind the point-scoring about careers: I dread the inquisition of ‘remember when?’

An old school friend contacted me recently. He said he always thought of me as being ‘the one who was obsessed with ISBN numbers’.  I had forgotten that little hobby entirely, though it more or less sums my teens up. So I can barely remember myself, let alone others. Too much alcohol under the bridge. Even if I do remember a shared event, my account is probably different to theirs anyway. All one can do is debrief oneself on the page when the memories do come, but always with the assumed disclaimer that events can be mis-remembered.

* * *

Some advice from others, on the dilemma of being asked, ‘Do you remember me?’

From someone I won’t name, as they regularly use this advice themselves:

‘Say “I do, but I can’t remember where from”, even when you don’t.’  

This is a sensible solution, as it forces the other person to fill in the blanks. The context is often the real problem anyway.

Martin White’s suggestion:

 ‘Just say “yes”. And walk off.’

Joking aside, I think I’ve actually done this in the past, out of sheer panic.

And from Keith TOTP:

‘Say nothing. When they go to introduce themselves shout “NO! I’m thinking”, then say nothing. Repeat until they leave.’

What I do remember is a story from Tom Baker’s memoir. A woman approaches him in a bar, smiling.

‘Tom! How are you? It’s been an age!’

He struggles to remember who she is.

‘Um… Was it Doctor Who? Touring in rep?’

Her face falls. ‘We used to be married.’ And she storms off.

* * *

Tuesday 1st April 2014.

To the Hackney Picturehouse to see Under The Skin. It’s a sold-out screening. The audience is rapt and well-behaved. Ms Scarlett Johansson plays an unkind alien, who devours the men of Scotland one by one for no very good reason. Her victims are not deep fried – perhaps that would be too easy. Instead, she seduces them in her large van, which we assume has a sticker saying ‘No Horny Scotsmen Left In This Vehicle Overnight’. She then takes them to a house of decrepit awfulness, even for Glasgow, where they disrobe and walk calmly into her fridge – a large tank of black liquid.

Now, whether this is the same alien black liquid from Prometheus we are not told. Actually we are not told very much about anything. So it’s like Prometheus in that respect as well. There does seem to be a new vogue for science fiction films that don’t fully explain themselves. The greatest example of this genre is Mr Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mr Kubrick knew exactly what to do with a mysterious black liquid. He had it frozen into a nice firm monolith, and everyone was happy. As a general rule in life, it’s better to be on solids.

The ‘alien succubus’ plot is not new. Without checking the TV Tropes website I can think of the film Species, an episode of Torchwood, and an episode of The Outer Limits. However, Under The Skin does do new things. It’s a twist on the connection between space alien-ness and the loneliness that can come to anyone – a theme that hasn’t been done this well since The Man Who Fell To Earth. There are three memorable special effects scenes, two involving skin, and one involving an eye. Half the film is Ms Johannson asking for directions in an English accent (thus resembling a one-woman Edinburgh Festival). The other half is her wandering around the landscape lost, not saying very much full stop. Deacon Blue’s ‘Real Gone Kid’ plays in a bleak kitchen, as it always must.

I can’t say I prefer the film to Sexy Beast by the same director, but I do admire its nerve.

* * *

On the Overground train from Hackney Central to Camden Road, about 11pm. Two young women on the seat opposite are kissing passionately. Both are swigging from cans of lager when they’re not swigging from each other. One has dyed blue hair, so I wonder if a screening of Blue is the Warmest Colour has gone down particularly well.

In London, I’m used to seeing pairs of gay men snogging nonchalantly on the Tube like this. But I think this is my first female couple seen frolicking in the open. They might even be newlyweds – the laws allowing gay marriage came into effect this very week. But as happy as I am for the changing times, my awkwardness around heavy petting is equal-opportunity too, and I move to a different carriage.

* * *

Wednesday 2nd April 2014

To Vogue Fabrics, 66 Stoke Newington High Street, for the launch of La JohnJoseph’s new novel, Everything Must Go (available at http://itnapress.com/titles/everything-must-go-by-la-john-joseph). The book is a surreal gender-bending black comedy about a road trip in a futuristic world. The blurb on the back cover mentions Ronald Firbank twice. It’s safe to say it’s my sort of thing.

The venue has a speakeasy feel. You have to walk down a black corridor from what looks like a residential door, then continue down some steps into a dark basement. There is a stage area at the far end, plus a DJ booth and a modest bar on the left side. No taps or fridges, just cans of lager & cider, plus bottles of spirits and mixers. A small stuffed rocking horse rests on the counter.

I catch readings by R Justin Hunt (who also serves drinks) and Bertie Marshall, one of the 70s punk scene’s Bromley Contingent.  La JJ is in lipstick and earrings, blue blouse and leopard skin skirt. He signs my copy of the novel. I’m hoping to cite it in my thesis about literary camp next year.

* * *

Thursday 3rd April 2014.

London is covered in some sort of high pollution, apparently caused by sand from the Sahara. I think of those old comic book adverts for Charles Atlas, where muscular men kick sand in people’s faces.  I think I can taste the smog at the back of my throat, but that may also be a symptom of being exposed to hysterical headlines.

I meet Danika H and her partner Cherie at the British Library café. I last saw Danika in New York at Lawrence Gullo’s wedding, nearly five years ago. Since then we’ve been exchanging aerogrammes (I think Australia’s postal service still makes them). This week she moves from Australia to the UK. I welcome her and Cherie to London, and apologise for the smog.

Even though it’s past 4pm, the BL café is swarming with people. Empty seats are like gold dust. While I’m waiting for Danika, one woman swipes a chair from my table without even asking – she does it stealthily when I’m looking away, choosing her moment. On the table is a sign: ‘Diners only until 3pm – No computers, meetings or student’ [sic].

This must be the usual peak time of the year, as the library has installed a bank of extra lockers, by the basement toilets.  ‘Just until Easter’, says the man in the cloakroom. It’s a time when classes have ended and students have to go somewhere to do work under their own steam: revision, dissertations, essays. And I’m one of that number too.

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Snogging At The Packed Lunch Panopticon

Friday 28th February 2014

I see the dentist about my ongoing jaw aches. He’s now convinced I am grinding my teeth in my sleep, even though there are no signs of wear. It’s the muscles that have been taking all the punishment, he thinks. But it’s also a condition triggered by anxiety. I have to admit that the problem has been clearing up as more time passes since Dad’s funeral. I never seem to take anxiety as a physical problem seriously, yet clearly it’s something I’m prone to. The dentist has ordered a bite guard, which I’ll have to wear in my sleep.

* * *

I’m reading Savage Messiah, Laura Oldfield’s Ford experimental montage of art, photography, collages and text on early 21st century London.  The introduction by Mark Fisher is dated 2011, yet it’s already become a historical relic. There are references to the widespread dread of the then-forthcoming 2012 Olympics. As it turned out, many Londoners actually enjoyed the Games (often despite themselves) and now think of them fondly. Fisher also alludes to London civil disobedience of the past, such as the 1980s riots, as something very much confined to the past. This specifically dates his piece to early 2011, as there’s no doubt that the riots of later that year would have warranted a mention. Likewise the Occupy protests, with the camp outside St Paul’s.

What stands out most, however, is his mention of 2012 as the alleged end of the world, according to the Mayans. Fisher supplies this information as if it’s barely known at all. In 2014, after all the Mayan discussion during 2012 itself (and the disaster movie, 2012), the reader is rather more likely to be aware of it. In fact, it was Ms Ford who became a kind of anarcho-punk Mayan, with her drawings of riot police now steeped in pre-2011 prescience.

One can argue that all published writing is diary writing of a kind, because as time goes on the writing becomes more attached to its own moment.

* * *

Saturday 1st March 2014

I notice how mobile phones have changed architecture.  The modern British Library in St Pancras was only opened in 1998, yet parts of it are already ruins of their original purpose. In the basement, there’s a row of booths designed for payphones. Today the phones are all stripped out, though the direction signs for them are still in place (a sign pointing to an empty space always unnerves me). Any Luddite soul who wants to make a call and doesn’t have a charged-up mobile is directed to St Pancras station next door, where working payphones can still be found.

Today, though, the Library’s empty phone booths have come into new use. The building’s foyer is hosting some science-based activities for toddlers (fun with soap bubbles and so on). As a result, the old phone booths have become a temporary baby buggy park. Each pushchair fits the booth space perfectly.

* * *

On a similar note, I’m curious to see that printed phone directories still exist, though only just. This week the latest Thomson’s directory arrives. Phone directories were once thought of as hefty and thick volumes, destined to be torn in two by circus strongmen. Today the Thomson’s directory is a slim A5 affair. Barely a book at all. Even I could tear it in half.

* * *

Monday 3rd March 2014

The British Library’s café, with its free Wifi and lack of piped music, is now so popular during the day that I have given up using it during my research breaks. Hundreds of people are there every weekday now, all at their laptops, filling every possible seat and table, and seemingly there all day. Many are happy to sit on the floor, typing away in the fluff and dirt. I’m happy that so many have this blissful, office-free life, while resenting that there’s no room for me. Still, other cafes are available, and I have no problem in finding a Reading Room seat to do my college research, which is really what I’m there for.

In today’s tea break I do find a mostly empty seating area, the outdoor balcony grove high up on the third floor. It’s a circular space, with a single continuous bench around the circumference, so sitting there one feels watched by everyone else. It’s a kind of panopticon for packed lunches.

Although there are plenty of places to sit down, the only other people there are a young couple, snogging away. So instantly I have to perform the self-conscious role of Embarrassed Lone Person Entering a Space Claimed By Others. I walk around trying hard not to make eye contact with them, and look out through the vines at the view over the back of St Pancras, as if to suggest that is what I have come for. But I hear their lips smacking away, and feel impossibly self-conscious. I go back inside, trying to act as I have satisfied my curiosity of the view.

If there were other lone persons there too, it would be okay – I would have reinforcements. But when a public space contains one lone person and one couple (or a group), a heightened awareness descends. Or at least, it does with me.

Back inside to the safety of the crowded café  – where I can’t find a seat.

* * *

Wednesday 5th March 2014

This week I’m studying the sci-fi writer Charles Stross’s Accelerando, for my 21st Century Fiction class. Obligingly, Mr Stross is also in the news today, over something that must seem like science fiction to people of the past: a heated argument in a virtual reality space. He was one of the writers cited in a Twitter controversy, about whether or not Jonathan Ross should host the Hugo Awards for science fiction. The online fuss resulted in Ross stepping down from the job, while his wife left Twitter for good.

Mr Stross’s novel features humans uploading their minds to live in digital spaces, away from the shortcomings of the body. This is all very Utopian, but is some distance away from today. Right now there is the hybrid frustration of being able to communicate virtually, yet still being dependent on a body that keeps you apart physically. I think this must be one reason why people can get so angry so quickly on social media: they are there, yet not there. It’s hard to imagine the same degree of anger happening if the conversations were carried out in person.

I feel relieved at not being sucked into these sort of spiralling social media arguments, but I also feel strangely left out too. Even a fight is a party of a kind.

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Country Branding

Constant hot and sunny weather in London. Gordon Square today is packed with young people in the time honoured student poses: lone figures reading paperbacks on the grass, groups of friends chatting, happy. I walk through the square in my cream linen suit & tie and feel out of place, even though I too am a student. I even have my own locker in the Birkbeck building on the square (in Virginia Woolf’s old house).

I used to get upset about constantly feeling out of place. But then I realised that for some people, their place is to feel out of place.

* * *

I visit the superb ‘Propaganda’ exhibition at the British Library. It is difficult to emerge from it without wanting to become an anarchist, frankly. The exhibition’s history of state manipulation takes in everything from Trajan’s Column to coins and stamps (asking who gets to appear on coins, and why are there people on coins in the first place), before bringing things up to date with last year’s Olympics. A video features Alistair Campbell, Tessa Jowell and Iain Dale talking about how the 2012 Games were an example of ‘country branding’. The political interpretation seems to fit both sides – there’s the Twitter comment on the Opening Ceremony by Tory MP Aidan Burley: ‘leftie multicultural crap’. Whereas the equally right wing Iain Dale thought it in fact represented ‘the best of Britain’.

Also in the video Campbell says ‘the public mood drove public opinion’, which rather recalls his ‘People’s Princess’ speech for Blair at the time of Diana’s death. That kind of language is propaganda in itself: producing phrases which seem to provide a voice for the public as a whole, while in reality they purely represent the voice of the man who wrote them.

I was reminded how this year, Andy Murray’s triumph at Wimbledon (Sunday 7th) has also been used for nationalist propaganda. His achievements as an individual are being discussed by politicians and columnists as if they were secondary to something he had no choice over – his nationality, whether as a Scot or as a Briton. Still, as an outlet for ‘country branding’, which seems to be always with us, sport is at least preferable to war.

At the exhibition, there’s an example of propaganda applied to the late Diana which was new to me. It is in a video featuring Zoe Fairbairns, feminist writer and author of the dystopian novel Benefits. I am not familiar with the book, which is from 1979, but the blurb doesn’t seem to be out of place in 2013:

“It is summer… a heat wave… tense, uneasy days in the city. There are ominous signs of political turbulence… Welfare benefits are under attack…”

Ms Fairbairns was involved in a campaign against the 1981 Royal Wedding, which she saw as promoting the ‘distasteful symbolism’ of the marriage ceremony. The campaign had its own badges. They bore the slogan ‘DON’T DO IT, DI.’

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Cafe City

Online, there’s now so much comment posing as content it’s hard not to get caught up in it all. Last week I found myself reading the comments on a Guardian column, which was itself commenting on the Daily Mail’s manufactured outrage – more comment –  over Hilary Mantel’s article in the LRB. Which was a comment on the royal family. That’s four levels of commentary, with the royals at the core.  The single quote of the Mantel piece that bears repeating is this:

“That’s what discourse about royals comes to: a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content.”

Quite. But it’s not just discourse on the royals. Today I find myself reading comment pieces on Seth MacFarlane’s hosting of the Oscars. Last night I stayed up to see the whole ceremony (redeemed by the divas – Streisand, Bassey, Adele). I watched Mr MacFarlane’s opening section, where he used misfiring jokes to illustrate the sort of jokes that would probably attract negative comments if he made them. Except he was still, technically, making them and putting them out there into the world at one of the biggest media events in the calendar. A cake and eat it situation. True to form, he attracted negative comments. But again – still in a cake-and-eat-it fashion – these media articles still quoted the bad taste jokes. Thus spreading them into the world, maintaining them, giving them longer life. And presumably such columnists got paid for doing so. It’s all getting a bit dishonest – getting pleasure from getting angry about something is not the same as just getting angry. I think that, unless it’s a source of income, one should just steer clear of this massive spiral of self-perpetuating tweeting and column writing and deliberate attraction of kneejerk responses that goes on every day. Myself most of all. I must write more about what I’m actually doing in my own life – away from the internet, that is. If only to, well, add more ‘original content’.


The internet catchprase ‘TL; DR’ (‘too long, didn’t read) should really be ‘TL;DR;SC’. Too long, didn’t read, still commented.


Winter lingers on in London, pleasing no one. Not least those who can’t afford to keep their homes heated for very long per day. So the city’s cafes are packed with those who are lucky enough not to have to work in an office, but not quite lucky enough to be able to keep their own rooms within room temperature.

Finding a seat at the British Library’s café in St Pancras has become impossible. There’s a row of armchairs in front of the King’s Library display, facing the entrance, which are built especially for laptop users, complete with little tables and power points in the arm rests. I’ve been coming to the BL for about ten years and have never ever seen a single one of these chairs going free. I wonder if it’s the same people who use them every day, who queue up outside as the building opens and rush to claim a seat as if they were deckchairs on a cruise liner (and the BL building does indeed resemble a redbrick ocean liner from some angles). I walk in, look around in frustration at the lack of places to sit, and walk out again.

I suppose I should be happy for all the people in this blissful situation. Now more than ever, London seems to be rammed full of students and researchers and academics and writers and, well, anyone whose job just involves bringing their laptop to a seat and a power socket. I don’t begrudge them their café-based, laptop-based lives; I just wish there were more seats in the BL to go around.

One main difference between franchise cafes and independent cafes is the music they play. Franchises have CDs imposed upon them by head offices. I’m convinced every branch of Caffe Nero has been playing exactly the same single compilation CD for the last year. I think Eat has the same CD too. Meanwhile independent cafes, such as greasy spoons, put on the radio. If a Starbucks ever put on the radio it would break their whole world– the whole point of a franchise is its lack of unpredictability.

The British Library café, like many state-funded museum cafes, refrains from music at all: perhaps another reason for its popularity. I wonder if unasked-for music, in this era of choice and no surprises and jukebox musicals and On Demand websites, is becoming much more objectionable as a result. I just hope the staff in franchise cafes don’t mind having to hear the same music all the time. It certainly bothers the hell out of me.

The blandness of franchises is meant to be welcoming – that’s how shopping malls are meant to work. But not in the case of HMV. Today I walk past their Trocadero branch in Piccadilly Circus, and see the ‘CLOSING DOWN SALE’ posters in its windows. It’s the last CD shop in Piccadilly to go. I take a browse among the racks, stickered with knockdown prices, but can’t find anything I want. Which is, I suppose, one reason they’re closing.

I did buy a brand new CD recently – the new My Bloody Valentine album (their first in 22 years). But as with so much New Stuff, I found out about it online, coupled with the information that the band were selling it directly from their own website. So I just clicked through and bought it. Hunting the CD down in a physical shop would seem redundant beyond belief. This is good for the band, in terms of their getting more of a cut of the price, not so good for record shops.

And yet, cheap non-digital entertainment still has its place. Twice last week, in the National Gallery café, and in Costa Piccadilly, I saw groups of teenage tourists not fiddling with their smartphones or laptops at all, but playing cards.

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The Commonplace Secret*

*title suggested by Dad

Primrose Hill has lots of fashionable looking young men wandering about with guitar cases. I wonder if they’re the latest modern rock stars, or just those who think they’re the latest modern rock stars. Being  entirely out of touch with matters Rock these days, New Rock Fame is wasted on me.

The neighbours are nice enough, though, one beautiful young couple (more unrecognised famous types?) helping Dad when he gets lost. They call up a street map on their iPhone. Dad’s never seen an iPhone before. ‘He was stroking his phone!’ he says later.

We talk about the strange social license to collar people with unfamiliar gadgets  (not many iPhones in Dad’s village). An example is those cigarette substitute devices that exhale water vapour and are allowed in bars. There must be a point where the number of times the user has to explain the gadget to strangers becomes so tiresome that they either give up nicotine for good – which is the point of the thing – or it backfires and they return to real cigarettes, anything rather than be an accidental attention seeker.

This is the burden of the Early Adopter. I get it myself when I use my Kindle on the Tube, sometimes to the point where I wish I’d brought a normal book so I could be left alone. On top of which, ads for the Kindle are all over the Tube itself, so one feels like an unpaid advertiser, as well as an unpaid beta tester.


The British Library Cafe used to be a Best Kept Secret for meeting one’s friends or just killing time: affordable refreshments, free internet, power points for laptops & phones, free jugs of water, proper air conditioning, nice clean loos, no piped music, excellent exhibitions nearby, and until recently, lots of free tables. There’s now the sense of a secret slightly over-shared. And with that, that curious mix of happiness for others, yet slight selfish sadness for oneself. At least when one can’t get a table.

Since they brought in free Wi-Fi, the cafe is so crowded that there are posters asking people to not take up a bigger table than they need. They also hint (very nicely) that table occupiers really should buy something from the cafe too. During busy periods it feels fair enough: it’s about fairness for the customers rather than mean-spiritedness by the management. If you buy a meal in a cafe, it seems only fair that you have your own table at which to eat it. The BL’s armies of all-day laptop loafers just need to bear this in mind, that’s all.

Actually, many of them already seem happy to sit on the floor and use the power points meant for vacuum cleaners.

Dad and I come here today straight after visiting another great London Secret – St John’s Lodge Gardens in Regent’s Park. Unofficially known as London’s own secret garden (and intended for quiet meditation), it has just one entrance, tucked away off the Inner Circle so that the people who go there don’t do so by passing through. They either know about first, which is good, or they’re lost, which is better.

Today, on a sunny early June afternoon , there are just two other visitors in the whole garden. One of the statues is for someone ‘Who Shared This Garden’s Secret’’. Not shared too much just yet.  I want to tell everyone I know about this garden. And not tell them, too.

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Worlds Together

Bumped into a Diary Angel today in Camden, so was instantly shamed into updating the diary.

Am housesitting in a family house in Primrose Hill, with Dad staying here for a few days too (the owner is a friend of Mum’s).

Primrose Hill is such a world away from the district next door, Camden. From the market clutter, filth and ubiquitous tattooed teens sucking fried noodles from trays, to pretty Victorian terraces, sparse traffic, low noise, spotless pavements, even spotless pigeons. Not always a happy history, though: around the block in Fitzroy Road is the flat where Sylvia Plath gassed herself. Today I found out that English Heritage wanted to put a blue plaque there, but her daughter Frieda had it moved to her previous flat in Chalcot Square, where she wrote The Bell Jar. Rightfully so, I think. Death may be more of a story than art, but it’s less of an achievement; despite what she says in ‘Lady Lazarus’.

Dad & I spent this afternoon in the new science fiction exhibition at the British Library, Out Of This World. Certainly kept him happy. For my part, I’m always fascinated with original manuscripts on display, including Ron Grainer’s pencilled score for the Doctor Who theme tune, a page from the longhand draft of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (for a while it was considered something of a spoiler to label the novel as science fiction – I presume no longer), and one for Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (his handwriting is like a school teacher’s, which makes sense). Also:  a Steampunk K9, a suggestion that the first time machine in fiction may not have been HG Wells’s, and a quiz about spot-on predictions in novels; Asimov’s pocket calculator being the most spooky. The main literary forecaster of the Internet still seems to be EM Forster in The Machine Stops.

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