Core Values

Saturday 8th August 2015

Tired of my increasing sagginess, I start to make a concerted effort to live more healthily. Without resorting to the gym, that is. One measure is to clock up 10,000 steps worth of walking in the city every day. I record them by using the pedometer function on my pleasingly out-of-date iPod Nano (2011 vintage). I wince when I do so, however, as it means tapping a little red Nike symbol, presumably because of some Satanic corporate deal with Apple. It remains the only part of my life ever to have been invaded by the omnipresent multinational tick. ‘Just do it’, their adverts insist. I want to reply, ‘Just leave it with me and I’ll consider it.’

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Sunday 9th August 2015.

I’m also trying the NHS diet plan: cutting calories to the recommended men’s limit of 1900 a day, until good habits kick in. I find that I can easily achieve this if I cut out two things: bread, and utter filth. By which I mean the sadly delicious oat cookies that Sainsbury’s do in £1 paper bags. Up till now, I’d been hoovering them up like Elvis, wondering why my suits were getting tighter. By the end of this week, though, I walk past the cookies in the supermarket with the brisk confidence of a divorcee, shunning their raisin stares.

My new love: low calorie popcorn.

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Monday 10th August 2015.

On a walk around the Barbican, I discover that the Moorgate branch of HMV has quietly shut down. The only London branches left now are Oxford Street, Fopp in Cambridge Circus, and Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush. Mooching around Covent Garden later, I note how one entertainment store that seems to be thriving is Forbidden Planet, with its endless shelves of Doctor Who toys and Marvel comic spin-offs. Sci-fi and comic conventions seem bigger than ever. I wonder if it’s to do with the way cult entertainment plays upon the need to belong, in an era where identity can be up for grabs. At Forbidden Planet, you are not just buying something, you are buying into something. It’s there, too, in the explosion of literary festivals. Congregations of belonging, of praise (‘acclaimed’ ‘award-winning’), of sacred texts, of finding one’s tribe. ‘I am here because I am the sort of person that comes here’.

And yet some ages still take more traditional pleasures. In Forbidden Planet, a couple of small children seem to be ignoring all the superhero toys and dolls, and instead are gleefully chasing each other in and out of the silver bannisters, again and again.

* * *

Tuesday 11th August 2015.

My first High First Class mark at Birkbeck was for an essay in December 2013, written on ‘Touch Sensitive’, an iPad-only comic by Chris Ware, published in 2011. I’ve still never owned an iPad: Senate House Library rents them out to students for free.

One quote I used in my essay was from a 2012 New Statesman interview with Mr Ware, in which he glumly pronounced his comic to be a one-off venture into the digital world. One reason, he said, was that he felt uneasy about charging people for something that had no physical presence (a rather alarming view now). Another was that he regarded his printed works as still readable in years to come, whereas a piece of bespoke iPad software is at the mercy of its compatible devices and host apps, which tend to be upgraded and replaced. He gave ‘Touch Sensitive’ a five year lifespan, maximum.

Today I discover that the McSweeney’s publishing house has withdrawn its iPad app, which exclusively hosted Ware’s comic. He was right after all.

More lessons versus digital versus paper. I find out that Amazon won’t let me read my purchased Kindle ebooks on more than five devices or reading programs (this has come from upgrading to Windows 10). I have to uninstall one device first. Kindle books ultimately remain Amazon property, even when paid for. So digital book buying is more a form of renting.

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Wednesday 12th August 2015.

I leave the house to buy milk, not wearing a tie. Later, I feel very ashamed about this omission, and resolve to never let it happen again. I think I blame the ubiquity of Jeremy Corbyn. (It’s since been pointed out to me that Mr Corbyn does wear a tie. Sometimes)

* * *

To the East Finchley Phoenix for Diary of A Teenage Girl. An acutely personal coming-of-age drama, set in 1970s California, and starring Bel Powley, the young English actress who played the teenage Princess Margaret so well in A Royal Night Out. More teenage recklessness here, this time with an impeccable American accent. Lots of 70s beiges and browns. The story focusses on the protagonist’s on-off affair with her mother’s boyfriend, amid the messiness of her wider sexual curiosity. It peters out narratively towards the end, but that may just be part of its honesty. Nice use of animations in a Robert Crumb ‘comix’ style, based on the character’s notebook drawings.

* * *

Thursday 13th August 2015.

Many corporate job descriptions aimed at English graduates appear to be steeped in exactly the kind of mangled language that students of prose are taught to avoid. Today I come across the following sentence in a recruitment newsletter:

You will show a commitment to the team, protecting the company’s brand and market reputation through demonstrating the following core values; Trust, Smart, Fresh, Diverse, Energy, Value, Green and Results.”

If I know anything at all, it is this: I could never work for a company that mistakes adjectives for nouns.

* * *

Friday 14th August 2015.

To the Curzon Bloomsbury for Mistress America, the new film by Noah Baumbach. More middle class New Yorkers exchanging quips about life, love, angst, age and culture.  This one is co-written with its star,  Greta Gerwig, so it’s closer to Frances Ha than While We’re Young. I loved Frances Ha enough to watch it twice at the cinema. I revelled in Ms G’s charming character, and her realisation that – as in Withnail & I – a refusal to grow up is unfair on those around you who do want to grow up. Plus I liked its use of an early 80s British pop song for no reason other than it worked – in this case, Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’.

In Mistress America, the inexplicable 80s pop song is OMD’s ‘Souvenir’. And just as OMD may not be as artistically interesting as Mr Bowie, but are still pleasant enough, the new film pales in comparison to Frances Ha, but still has much to applaud. The dialogue is written so densely that it often feels more like a recital of a script than the spontaneous product of characters’ thoughts. But whereas Whit Stillman’s Damsels In Distress (also starring Ms Gerwig) took this idea to an extreme, Mistress America allows moments of realism and humanity to break through. Ms G’s character here is much more self-aware than Frances Ha, and I like how the narrative shifts between two main characters: the thirty-year-old girl about town Gerwig, and the 18-year-old nervous college student Tracy, whose tale begins the film.

At times, it’s hard to actually keep up as a viewer, such is the rapid fire of the well-crafted retorts. I especially like the response when Tracy is accused of putting Gerwig’s character into a short story:

‘But you did the same. You used a joke of mine in one of your tweets!’

And it was my least favourited tweet ever!’

Modern love indeed.

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Essential Servants

Friday 24 January 2014. The day after much of the Victoria Line was closed due to ‘flooding’, it turns out what really happened was somewhat surreal. The place being flooded was an automated signal control room at Victoria station, which seems reasonable enough. Less reasonably, though, the liquid in question was not the rainwater that has dominated January (the wettest ‘since records began’, as ever) but a knee-deep tide of fast-setting concrete. Intended to seal voids created in the endless construction work, the concrete had somehow been pumped into the wrong hole. When they realised what had happened, engineers were sent to nearby supermarkets to buy bags of sugar, which, it transpires, slows down the setting process. What pleases is the unlikely image of frantic, hard-hatted men rushing into a Sainsbury’s Local and asking directions to the Silver Spoon section. Whether it had to be just white granulated, or whether Demerara, cubes, Canderel and Sweetex worked just as well, we are not told.

For the first time since I was at school, I’m reminded of the entirely unacceptable term for the type of brown sugar which isn’t Demerara: ‘moist’.

* * *

Saturday 25 January 2014. Reading Ms Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for this week’s college classes. I also watch the 1995 film version, the one with Emma Thompson. The film particularly focuses on how poor the Dashwood women have to live, once they move to the Devonshire cottage. There’s scenes where Ms Thompson is going through their shopping budget and cutting down on food, while in another one, the sisters have to huddle together in the same bed to keep warm. Like the impoverished family in The Railway Children, what baffles (and fascinates) is the one item of middle class expenditure retained above all else, including food: their servants. I suppose the equivalent now would be hanging onto mobile phones or computers. Essential servants of a kind.

Sunday 26 January 2014. A video is doing the rounds of extracts from Noel Gallagher’s audio commentary on an Oasis greatest hits DVD. Always good value in interviews, Mr Gallagher regales the purchaser with his candid dislike of the pop video form. ‘I f—ing hate videos… I hate the fact they cost a fortune. I hate the fact you’ve got to be there at 8 in the morning. I don’t like the fact that the people who’re making them think they’re making Apocalypse Now… ‘ But as the songs move onto the later albums, he attacks his own music too: ‘Is this video meant to be all backwards? Pity the song isn’t too – it might sound more interesting… Maybe the motorbike is rushing to the radio station to say, ‘Stop! This is shit!’… Can we listen to this with the sound down? We shouldn’t have really made this album, if I’m being honest.’

The album in question at this point is Standing on the Shoulder of Giants (2000), which despite its creator’s misgivings still went to Number 1 and sold in double platinum amounts. Some regrets are the dreams of others. Though I’m hardly their sort of target market, I rather liked the first two Oasis albums, and admired the Gallaghers as public characters, bickering like a music hall act.

* * *

Monday 27 January 2014. Peter Capaldi’s new costume as Doctor Who is unveiled. It includes a red-lined Crombie coat, which is exactly what I’m wearing when I find this information out. I’ve worn them for at least 20 years. I suppose this means that even a stopped clock keeps the right Time Lord twice a day.

I had thought Crombies were mainly associated with the British Mod subculture (characters in This Is England wear them), but I’m told they were also popular with the less trumpeted Suedehead look of the 1970s. The youth on the cover of Richard Allen’s Suedehead has a Crombie:

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Tuesday 28 January 2014. Reading about the Theatre of the Absurd, I realise how so many umbrella terms for art and literature are often the invention of critics with theories to throw at the world, rather than arising from the art itself. Martin Esslin is at pains to point this out himself in a later edition of his 1960s book The Theatre of the Absurd, but lurking behind this is still the sense of pride at immortality by proxy. In lieu of creating lasting art himself, a critic creates a lasting term to describe art.

Thinking about Oasis, there is, of course, the 90s umbrella term Britpop, which the music critics Stuart Maconie and John Robb have both laid claim to coining. There was also a BBC programme of 1995 called Britpop Now which had live performances by various bands thought to illustrate the word: Blur, Pulp, Menswear, Gene, Echobelly. Oddly, the very un-Britpop PJ Harvey was on it, while Oasis were left out. No critic would call PJ Harvey a Britpop artist now – and not then, either.

Terms don’t always last, though. Despite Esslin’s decision to include Harold Pinter in his 1960s book, Michael Billington’s 1990s biography of Pinter ignores the phrase ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ entirely.

Wednesday 29 January 2014. A recent New Yorker cover has a new illustration by Chris Ware. It’s of an audience at a school play, all of whom are holding up their various smartphones and tablets and are viewing the performance entirely through their respective screens. His comment on the cover is just as striking:

‘Sometimes, I’ve noticed with horror that the memories I have of things like my daughter’s birthday parties or the trips we’ve taken together are actually memories of the photographs I took, not of the events themselves.’

I’m writing an essay on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home. There’s one large panel  – a double page spread – which recreates a clandestine photograph taken by her father. It’s of the family babysitter, Roy, posing in his underwear. The babysitter was one of the young men her father, now deceased, had been having affairs with.

The panel takes on added significance as the book gets older, though, as the action of physically picking up a material, printed photograph from a storage box is itself becoming a thing of the past. Ms Bechdel draws her own hands holding the photograph at either side, with all the symbolism that implies: touching the past, touching the hidden, trying to connect and understand across the years. Had the events of Fun Home taken place now, the father’s secret snap would have to be lurking on his computer hard drive, and the resonance of the discovery would be quite different.

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An Attempt To Go Weekly

I have finally conceded that daily diary updates are beyond me. So starting with this entry I’m going to compile a weekly thousand-word diary instead. I hope to publish a new one every Friday morning, as that makes it feel like something to look forward to. Sunday night will have to suffice for this one.

* * *

Monday 9th December 2013. The final set texts of the term are Olive Schreiner’s Story of An African Farm, Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled, and the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon. Schreiner’s novel  is a perfect example of a book I’d never pick up were it not for taking a course in literature. When I do, it moves me to tears.

* * *

Rachel Stevenson has been reviewing all the songs in John Peel’s 1991 Festive Fifty. This was the Year of Noisy Americans. I remember being in student haunts of Bristol at that time and seeing the ‘baggy’ fashions of long sleeved tops and flares give way to checked lumberjack shirts:

In the evening I walk past the Kentish Town Forum. Despite the changing ways of consuming music, the sight of touts outside large venues still endures. It’s the same aggressive shouting at pedestrians. Only the band names being shouted come and go. Tonight it’s ‘Buy or sell tickets for Haim.’

* * *

Good to see critics agreeing with one of my favourite films of 2013: Frances Ha. In one scene, two characters discuss how to spend the evening:

‘We should go to the movies.’

‘But the movies are so expensive!’

‘Yeah, but you’re at the movies.’

* * *

Thursday 12th December 2013. On the day of my last classes for the term I receive my highest essay mark yet. It’s an 80. This is defined in the classification guidelines as a High First Class, for work that ‘may display characteristics more usually found at postgraduate level or that demonstrate the potential for publication.’ I’m rather stunned. I’m still uncertain about which direction to take this skill in order to earn a living, but at least it is proof that I can do this sort of thing well, and can do it on time, and should probably develop it further between now and the grave. The essay was on ‘technotext’ theories of materiality, with reference to Chris Ware’s comic strip story for the iPad, Touch Sensitive.

The same day sees a grading of my former work as a songwriter. The quarterly PRS statement arrives and pays me a total of £1.41. Orlando’s album Passive Soul has sold 7 copies on iTunes, while the Fosca song ‘Confused and Proud’ has been played 139 times on streaming services like Spotify and Last FM. Well, I’m pleased if the songs are being listened to at all.

* * *

Meanwhile my work as a diarist in the anthology A London Year has managed to receive some attention. Here’s a positive review, which quotes from my diary:

This further review calls me ‘as well-read as Samuel Johnson and Johnny Rotten but polished to a dandyish sheen’. I also have ‘a certain essential Londonness’:

A few weeks ago, Kensington & Chelsea Today reviewed the book and called me ‘Dickson’ Edwards, which suggests I have some distance to go in the notability stakes. Still, it also called me ‘the youngest’ diarist in the book, which is the best possible thing you can say to anyone over, oh, 24. Here’s a pdf of the review:

The other 2013 book I’m in, I Am Dandy, appeared as a prop in a colour supplement article (name forgotten, possibly the Sunday Times). It was, of all things, a piece on the comedian Frank Skinner. Mr Skinner was photographed reading I Am Dandy in his underwear.

* * *
I am sent a photograph of a sign on a building. They saw it and thought of me. It says ‘Centre For Useless Splendour’.

A little Googling reveals this to be part of the Contemporary Art Research Centre at Kingston University. The artist responsible is Elizabeth Price, the Turner Prize winner who once sang in a couple of my favourite bands, Talulah Gosh and The Carousel.

* * *

Saturday 14th December 2013. Mum comes up to London for a well-earned day trip, while the hospice looks after Dad. We have mulled wine and mince pies in the Somerset House Ice Rink café, something of a pre-Christmas tradition.

Another Christmas tradition that seems to be bigger every year: adults in Santa costumes wandering noisily en masse through the streets, swigging bottles of alcohol. An expected late night activity, perhaps, but today they’re on the Strand at noon. These are often organised group events (an inflated version of pub crawls), though not quite organised enough for some of us. What irks is the implication that it’s fine to extend an office party across a whole series of public spaces.

Mum and I have lunch at St Martin’s Café in the Crypt, and on the way out I point out a couple of sights in Trafalgar Square which mark this moment: Katharina Fritsch’s blue sculpture of a cockerel on the Fourth Plinth, and the pool of floral tributes to Mandela outside South Africa House. The queue to sign the embassy’s condolence book is now small enough to fit into the lobby, but it’s still going.

We visit the Tate Britain’s newly revamped permanent collection. Mum is pleased to see the inclusion of works by Josef Herman, Edward Middleditch and Nigel Henderson, all of whom she and Dad knew in the 60s and 70s. Henderson taught Dad photography. Josef Herman, meanwhile, lent my parents a car around the time I was born. ‘A beaten up Mini’ says Mum. ‘Full of sweet wrappers.’

* * *

Saturday evening: I watch the whole series of Adam Buxton’s Bug, his TV show about music videos. By far my favourite is one he shows from 2010. It’s for the song ’70 Million’ by the French indiepop band Hold Your Horses. They dress up as recreations of paintings: Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, and so on. I love how this concept is channelled through the ragged charm of the song and the band’s visible enjoyment, playing irreverently with the paintings’ gender roles and depictions of nudity:

Video: 70 Million by Hold Your Horses

The Bug website interviews the ’70 Million’ directors, and lists all the paintings:

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