How To Explain Irony To Children

Saturday 29th November 2014. Late morning: I meet Mum in the basement café at Waterstones Piccadilly. We walk to the Coach and Horses in Soho for a vegetarian lunch. Tom joins us, making it an Edwards family meal, to mark what would have been Dad’s 78th birthday. Tom has a non-alcoholic brand of Becks beer, which nevertheless has the slogan ‘please drink responsibly’ on the label.

The Coach & Horses’s Private Eye­ connections have diminished since I was last here. Gone are the framed photos on the wall of Ian Hislop and Richard Ingrams. I am told this may be to do with the pub’s new vegetarian-only kitchen, which clashes with the Private Eye lot’s preference for meat. Perhaps the pub should approach Morrissey or Chrissie Hynde for patronship. I have ‘fish and chips’, the fish being fish-shaped tofu.

After lunch, we walk through Soho. Tom wants to show Mum the Soho Radio studios, where he has his own show. On the way, I hear someone call out ‘Dickon – where were you? We’ve just finished!’ It is a phrase from anyone’s nightmare – the forgotten appointment. But on this occasion it turns out to be a misunderstanding. Anne Pigalle is standing outside Madame JoJo’s in full black mourning garb, along with some similarly attired drag queens. It is a protest against the venue’s closure by way of a mock funeral. Ms Pigalle had invited me on Facebook. So she interprets my walking into Brewer Street as a late arrival to the protest. I feebly blurt out my excuse as I go by, and make sure I sign the inevitable petition when I get home.

(Link: Save Madame Jojo’s ).

* * *

Huge poster ads on the tube for Android, the operating system owned by Google. They feature lots of sinister robot creatures in different clothes, all clutching mobiles. Slogan: ‘be together, not the same’. The problem with this is that all the robots do indeed look the same – because they’re Android robots. Actually, they look like the protagonist of the early 80s ITV kids’ show Metal Mickey.

Another smartphone advert irks in its ubiquity, at least at the cinema. Once the London film fan pays for their overpriced seat and popcorn, they still have to tolerate the sight of Kevin Bacon wandering jauntily along the streets of Britain, shouting at its citizens for having ‘buffer faces’. This means the expressions people have when staring at a phone or tablet screen, waiting for the content to load up. Mr Bacon is surely in no position to mock others, his life having come to whoring himself across cinema screens like this. But there he is, so we must be forgiving. And yet the sight of Mr Bacon’s curiously wizened yet boyish countenance makes me yearn to shout out, ‘Better to have a Buffer Face than an Iggy Pop Stunt Double face.’

* * *

I finish reading Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar. It’s set in New York and Boston, but unexpectedly there’s a mention of Clacton-on-Sea. The noun ‘fitting’ is what also stands out, being something that the heroine goes into town for. At first I think this means clothes, until it transpires that this particular ‘fitting’ is given to her by a doctor. The novel then cuts to her returning home with a mysterious box. The word ‘diaphragm’ is never mentioned. Ms Plath wrote The Bell Jar in 1961, only months away from the mass availability of the Pill. In scenes like this it might as well be the nineteenth century.

* * *

Sunday 30th November 2014. I wake up late and rush off to the Tube without showering, thinking I’m late for a college appointment. As I walk down the path from Shepherd’s Hill to Highgate station, my brain suddenly realises it can’t be Monday, because I have no memory of Sunday. I am still not convinced. I’ve never trusted my mind: I don’t know where it’s been.The truth only hits home as I turn the corner in the station and see the newspapers on the station kiosk. The words Sunday Times loom out helpfully. It is like all those time travel stories where a newspaper must be found to give proof of the date.

Grateful to the newspaper for restoring my sense of reality, I buy a copy. And of course, the features are full of people whose idea of reality is rather far from mine. One article is on ‘social media party boys’. A trendy young man is concerned about turning his online popularity into real life money: ‘I think about the apocalypse a lot. Having a million Instagram followers during the apocalypse is going to be pretty useless, but having a yacht might not be.’

A TV newsreader boasts about his money, particularly how he gazumped when buying his farmhouse, ie snatched it away from someone who was ready to move in. I suppose one has to forgive.

I read a fascinating article on Singalong Frozen, which touches on the nature of camp. The Disney musical Frozen has been reissued in a format for children to sing along to, with lyrics on the screen. This is apparently the fault of the Prince Charles Cinema, which has been doing jokey film singalong events for some time, particularly The Sound of Music. Originally, as an organiser says, ‘the main audience was gay men and drunken women’. But soon children started to come too, and children don’t do camp and knowingness and irony. Children sing for themselves. When the PCC did singalong screenings of Frozen, the children were in the majority, and Disney took notice.

A quote from the article. When Rhona Cameron introduced a Sound of Music screening, she had to explain what irony was to the children present:

‘Children, irony is something you’ll understand later, when you’re disappointed in love and have to pay taxes’.

* * *

Tuesday 2nd December 2014. Evening: class at Birkbeck on Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle. Tutor: Joe Brooker. The reverse-world setting is intoxicating, full of details that only become apparent on re-reading, like the character who slips into ‘our’ world for a moment.

* * *

Wednesday 3rd December 2014. Evening: class at Birkbeck on John Wyndham’s The Day of The Triffids. Tutor: Grace Halden. Unlike the Dick book, which is more speculative fiction, Wyndham’s tale is traditional science-fiction. Though I always liked the double value of the mass blindness alongside the unkind plants. One student struggles to read beyond the first chapter, such is his dislike of science fiction (‘Can’t we do Graham Greene?’). The lower-case ‘triffids’ is a clever touch by Wyndham, indicating how the plants had quickly become part of the language. Much more sinister that way. I find the swift acceptance of the lower-case verbs ‘tweet’ and ‘google’ sinister, too, as they’re corporate brands. Invasions go on all the time, whether of land or of language. It’s just a question of anyone minding.

* * *

Friday 5th December 2014. In a discussion on disappointing Christmas crackers I find myself retelling the following tale.

One Christmas I went into Budgens Crouch End to buy a box of crackers. A huge pile of them were on sale at half price. People were buying the crackers, but they were also coming away with a broad smirk. I asked a staffer.

Me: Why are these crackers so cheap?

Her: They’re faulty.

Me: What, they don’t bang properly?

Her: No. They’ve all got the same joke.

The smirk had been the pleasure of acquiring a good anecdote.

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Muppet Socks

Friday 21st February 2014

Am starting to notice how a university degree re-wires the mind.  Before I took the course, to me all non-fiction was either commercial (ie books I could understand), or academic (books I couldn’t). Now academic books are finally opening up to me, and it’s like being able to read a new language. The flipside, though, is that I started to get impatient with a lot of commercial non-fiction, wincing at their generalisations and agendas.  But then I discovered that’s possible to switch reading levels, like switching between languages. One can then enjoy a commercial book on its own terms. There is a danger in calling a book ‘too light’ – such a phrase says more about the reader than the book.

Writing this down, I smile when I realise that this is more or less the plot of Educating Rita. Still, the message of Willy Russell’s play hasn’t changed: higher education doesn’t change people wholly – it gives them more options for approaching the world, which is quite different. A bigger toolbox.

Saturday 22nd February 2014

I meet with Mum in the basement café of Waterstones Piccadilly, in the old Simpsons building. It’s a rare example of a non-place being converted back into a place-place. The café used to be a Costa, but is now run by Waterstones themselves, decorating the walls with nice old book covers, rather than the corny photographs of continental bonhomie that can splatter the walls of every Costa everywhere. It may still be a franchise café, but any café which isn’t a Starbucks, Costa, Caffe Nero or Pret has a definite sense of being somewhere in particular, as opposed to nowhere in particular.

Mum and I have a vegetarian lunch at the Coach and Horses in Greek Street. At the table next to us is a group of young Japanese women using their smartphones to take photos of their afternoon tea.

Then we go on to the National Portrait Gallery. The David Bailey exhibition is sold out, so we take a look at the permanent collection instead. The unflattering painting of Kate Middleton – the one which makes her look 50 – is displayed more matter-of-factly than I’d thought, tucked within a row of other portraits and not very well-lit.

We also stumble on an engrossing mini-exhibition about Vivien Leigh. I’m reminded that even though Gone with the Wind is meant to be the most successful film in the UK ever (going by sales of cinema tickets), I have yet to get around to it myself. That and St Paul’s Cathedral: on the list of things one is assumed to have done, but which the same assumption puts one off doing.

Sunday 23rd February 2014

My anxiety over the funeral hits me so hard that I spend the entire day in bed, trying to get over excruciating stomach pains.

Monday 24th February 2014

Dad’s funeral. I brave the morning rush hour Tube in order to get to Tom’s place on time, and am staggered by the awfulness of what must be a daily experience for so many. Not only do people have to brave the train journey with strangers bodies’ pressed against them throughout, but the journey itself is delayed at each stop, due to the mass of passengers preventing the doors closing on the first go. Whatever the rewards of being a rail commuter must be (a decent salary? a house?), to me they can’t possibly be enough. A commuter friend once told me, ‘You just get used to it’.  I don’t think I ever could.

So I go from the lack of respect for bodies per se, to paying respects to one particular body. Mum has insisted on no dress code, but I’m in a three-piece black suit and black tie anyway, because that’s me. I add a seahorse brooch, though, in case I’m mistaken for one of the crematorium staff.

Tom drives me to Bildeston to meet with Mum and Uncle Mike (Mum’s brother), and we all get into a hired people carrier. It’s then that I see Dad’s coffin for the first time, in the back window of the hearse in front of us.

Fittingly, it’s a cardboard coffin, looking just like one of Dad’s many boxes of comics in the loft. It also has a base made from the same sort of hardboard that Dad used, when he built scenery for Tom and myself to play with as children; rocket ships and puppet theatres. One of Mum’s homemade quilts covers the coffin, a beautiful science-fiction themed work with planets and stars. ‘I’m having that back before the actual burning,’ says Mum about the quilt. ‘It’s too nice!’

Seeing the coffin for the first time is the first of several moments when I nearly, but not quite, burst into tears.

We arrive at the crematorium at Nacton, near Ipswich. Then we get out and walk behind the pallbearers with the coffin, into the chapel. Unexpectedly, all the seats are taken: standing room only for Dad.

The Humanist host of the ceremony, Chris, does most of the reading. Then I follow with my own eulogy. At Mum’s request, it’s based on extracts from my diary, but I’ve added some of the liner notes from the Fosca album The Painted Side Of The Rocket, the album which features myself and Tom together. I wanted to make the point about creativity being something children do naturally, and which adult artists have to do on purpose. A quality of childlike unselfconsciousness – something Dad manage to manifest easily throughout his life, in both his art and his personality.

Then I read from the diary entry about Dad’s death, ‘Seeing Dad’, and I very nearly break down, twice. But only nearly.

We file out to ‘Monster Mash’, as promised. Dad’s favourite song, ‘Macho Man’ by the Village People, then follows on, with its opening line of ‘Body! Wanna feel my body, baby!’

Both are very silly records indeed for a funeral, and Dad, a fan of Joe Orton and Family Guy, knew this more than anyone else. We put little explanations about the choices – or warnings, rather – into Chris’s reading and mine, so one hopes the mourners understood.

* * *

In the courtyard outside the chapel, the mourners gather to chat. The first thing spoken to me after the service is, ‘Look! Muppet socks!’

A man in his seventies has collared me. He slips off his loafers to show off, yes, his Kermit the Frog socks. This turns out to be one of Dad’s schoolfriends from Clacton, a jokey gang raised on The Goon Show and who, like Dad, have managed to extend their in-jokes down the decades. One of them is wearing a luminous high-vis jacket: whether it’s for cycling or an outdoors day job I’m not sure, but it’s certainly a sign his own body has some years to go yet.

‘I’ll come visit you’ says one to the other as they part.

‘I don’t like threats’, says the other, deadpan.

Afterwards there’s sandwiches and tea at Chamberlin Hall, the new village hall in Bildeston. I chat with cousins I’ve not seen for decades, and some I’ve not seen full stop. Some live in Brighton, some in London, some in Sussex. There’s also people who babysat me in the village, or taught me in the local schools, and indeed the woman who helped Mum with Baby Dickon things when I was born, doing the sort of job that (I think) is now called a doula.

‘Do you remember me?’ is something I’m asked a lot. And for the most part, I do. Sometimes I don’t, and probably make a mess of pulling the right expression.

I still don’t know how I’ll be different now he’s gone. It’s still too soon.

In the evening, Tom drives me back to London.

Thursday 27th February 2014

Tom has made a little video memorial for Dad. It’s made up of photos of Dad (sometimes with me as a child), along with examples of his art. The soundtrack is an original instrumental written and performed by Tom:

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Through A Class Snuffly

Wednesday 8th January 2014. I note how the phrase ‘please do not hesitate to contact us’ is usually appended to emails trying to tell you to go away.

Thursday 9th January 2014. Looking at the internet today, I want to gesture at the screen and say, ‘how can I compete with all… this?’ Just adding to the sheer volume of stuff seems wrong. And yet here I am. Adding to it.


Saturday 11th January 2014. I meet Liam J, a student friend of Tobi H, originally from Tennessee, now based in New York, and currently staying in London on a study exchange. They’re (they prefer gender neutral pronouns) friendly, charming, and like a lot of US friends count Stephen Fry and the Mighty Boosh among their favourite British things. Despite being in town for 9 days, Liam hasn’t seen the West End. Their lodgings and campus are close to Shoreditch and the trendier East End areas, so that’s been their main haunt up till now. It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of Dalston and Stoke Newington as hip places for a night out was unthinkable. Now many bars in the West End are cheaper than some of those in Hoxton.

I’ll always be grateful for the friends-of-friends who’ve shown me around foreign cities, so am happy to do my tour guide bit. We start out with afternoon tea at the Coach & Horses, going for the full version (£17.50), as they don’t take bookings at the weekend for anything cheaper. Possibly too full for both of us: after the sandwiches, the scones and one fairy cake each, the larger cakes at the end defeat us entirely.

I explain to Liam about the Coach & Horses history, about Jeffrey Bernard and Private Eye magazine and why there’s a framed photo of Ian Hislop looking down at us. And indeed, who Ian Hislop is. The old Heath cartoons inspired by the pub (‘The Regulars’) are still on display, and are still funny.

Given Liam’s a Mighty Boosh fan, I point out Maison Bertaux next door, which has Noel Fielding’s art on the walls. Then off to the Ku bar in Lisle Street. First time I’ve been in a gay venue for a long time, probably since First Out closed. Pleased to find it has a healthy mix of ages and genders. They’ve still got the policy – their trademark, really – of having good-looking barmen who look particularly good with no shirt on. But it’s still early in the evening, so they’re wearing their skimpy vests instead. There’s a time and a place.

I show Liam the Prince Charles cinema (my idea of a ‘studenty’ cinema), the ICA bar and bookshop in the Mall, the lights of Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, and the cavernous Waterstones Piccadilly. Then we walk to the geographic centre of London, always good for showing visitors. It’s the equestrian Charles 1st statue on the south side of Trafalgar Square, the site of the original Charing Cross. I’m disappointed, however, that the large blue cockerel isn’t properly lit up at night.

Then a walk on Hungerford Bridge – both sides. A good spot for pointing out the Thames, the Millennium Wheel, St Paul’s, the Shard, the Southbank centre, and Big Ben. I remember how it’s the location for one of the opening shots of Love Actually. It’s in the montage where a passer-by carries a Christmas tree past the camera, to reveal the view from the west walkway: Big Ben and the Wheel at once. A very quick way of saying ‘Look, we’re in 21st century London! And it’s Christmas! Got it at the back? Right!’

Liam’s main observation about London is one of absence: there’s so much less rubbish on the street than in New York. Another is that ‘cold’ in London is really not that cold.

Monday 13th January 2014
I always seem to get ill around the time of an exam. Today a heavy cold descends.  I’d assumed the winter flu jab I thought I’d been so sensible in getting would prevent colds as well. But no, no it doesn’t. This week sees most of the full menu: ugly coughing, even uglier running nose, a croaky voice, a touch of fever, wooziness, and general unpleasantness.

Tuesday 14th January 2014.
Coughing. Revising. Coughing some more. Could be worse, I say. I could be Dave Lee Travis. Someone has to be. Not his best week.

The news today is a parade of greying gentlemen from the history of British TV entertainment, their various alleged pasts catching up with them in court.

I understand that Operation Yewtree was just a random codename picked by the police. It’s a coincidence, then, that a yew tree tends to be incredibly old and has a distinguished reputation; it often hangs around old churches. Yet parts of it turn out to be highly toxic.

* * *

Meet up for a drink in the Birkbeck student bar with Martin W, once singer in The Boyfriends. He took the same Birkbeck course as me – BA English – 2 years earlier. He’s been very encouraging, passing on a rare textbook and offering practical advice.

He’s now doing a cultural studies MA, and his latest work is very up to date: on Morrissey’s Autobiography and how it fits in with theories of commodification (the Penguin Classics packaging and so on). Not at all an unusual subject, as there’s been a proliferation of academic work on The Smiths in the last few years. The first generation of teenage Morrissey fans are now the generation in charge of everything. Not least the Prime Minister.

Wednesday 15th January 2014.
I take the Anglo-Saxon module’s translation test. I feel absolutely awful right up to sitting down in the classroom. Then I suppose the adrenalin must kick in, because everything is suddenly razor sharp. Something in my body has told other parts ‘this is too important to cough and sniff through’.

Thursday 16th January  2014.
Classes. I cough so much in 21st Century Fiction that my eyes water. Roberto Bolano does not deserve this.

I don’t cough in Fin De Siècle, but have a highly unattractive, non-stop nose blowing session instead.  Still, I learn an important style tip: fin de siècle is only hyphenated when it’s an adjective (‘during the fin-de-siècle era’), and is not hyphenated when it’s a noun. Never noticed until now.

Friday 17th January 2014.  I barely do any work on the latest essay (on Dorian Gray, due in next Thursday), due to being ill and having to write up the diary. But my mental well-being receives a booster jab when I get a ’75’ mark for the essay before this one. A decent First. The tutor’s comments include ‘a pleasure to read’, which is even more important to me than the mark. The work still doesn’t get any easier (and I really wish it did), but feedback like this becomes a form of cheering on from the sidelines.

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Share This

Friday 3rd January 2014. My old problem persists: I have insomnia during most of the night, and as a result sleep straight through till noon, alarm clock and all. I know that to sleep through the morning is a cliché of student life, but for a mature student the joke is tired and old, because the student is tired and old too (and no amount of sleep ever seems to properly refresh me). It can only make one wake up in a foul mood, angry to feel time has been lost, and that the carefully prepared list of things to do must now be frantically revised to fit into whatever time remains. The next three weeks are particularly busy: a logjam of college deadlines. I have to finish an essay on Old English riddles, read Ms Austen’s Northanger Abbey, study an academic article about that, start revising for a translation test (again on Old English), write an essay on Dorian Gray, and prepare extracts from Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance. For me, just getting up in the morning is a definition of fist-pumping athletic success.

* * *

Saturday 4th January 2014. Time wasted today includes at least twenty minutes trying to get the zip on one of my boots unstuck.

One New Year’s Resolution is to favour independent cafes while they still exist. Today I’m in Bar Bruno in Wardour Street, one of the few of the 1960s kind left in Soho, and sit in the booth that Sebastian Horsley was fond of.

This month will see the closure of the Candy Bar in Soho, the lesbian hostelry which I’ve spent quite a few happy evenings in over the years – at the invite of Sapphic friends, I feel obliged to add. The overwhelming memory is not feeling unusually male in such a crowd, but feeling unusually tall.

Like the First Out café before it, the Candy Bar is the victim not of a lack of customers but of a prohibitive increase in the property’s rent. This combination of unchecked greed on the part of landlords, coupled with a lack of intervention by the authorities, is certainly not limited to London. But it does boil down to a worrying widespread shift in priorities: the pursuit of wealth for the few placed well above the pursuit of basic quality of life for everyone else. What are cities for? One definition is for hubs of variety and diversity, for spaces like the Candy Bar, where the likeminded and minorities can feel in the majority for once. The wealth of a city exists in more forms than money.

On the Internet, ‘Share this’ is a common mantra, a box to click on next to some offering of ‘content’. I want to tick such a box for London. Share this. Share this.

* * *

Sunday 5th January 2014

Today I investigate Soho’s Secret Tea Room. ‘Secret’ because one has to ask the bar staff of the Coach and Horses pub in Greek Street to gain access. This is the old stomping ground of Mr Jeffrey Bernard, and indeed forms the setting of the play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell. Today it identifies as ‘London’s First Vegetarian Pub’, serving very reasonably priced veggie roast dinners on Sundays. Mr Bernard and the old host ‘Norm’ may be long gone, but the pub’s other long-term association – with Private Eye magazine – seems to be still going strong. I have butternut squash stuffed with quinoa while being gazed upon by framed photographs of Ian Hislop, Richard Ingrams and Francis Wheen.  

Best of all is the décor in the upstairs room: a style of what can only be described as Unabashed Ruined Splendour. Some of the walls are in the shame shade of green as the Colony Room, and 1940s music plays in the background, much like it does at High Tea of Highgate. What I’ve not seen before is that your pot of tea arrives with a little hourglass, so you don’t pour out your tea too soon.

A grizzled-looking man sitting in my carriage on the Northern Line home. I suppose he counts as an actual wino. Visibly drunk, shouting and singing at anyone within range. But also swigging from a full bottle of white wine.

‘How many assumptions have you made in your life, eh?’ he shouts suddenly, at no one in particular. ‘291?’

Then he starts singing ‘Cherry-oh Baby’, the 1980s hit by the band UB40. The group’s oeuvre is normally thought of as remarkably inoffensive. Not today. I presume their much bigger hit, ‘Red Red Wine’, was rejected from the addled jukebox of this man’s mind, on the grounds that it’s the wrong colour of wine. Even drunks have consistency.

Except he can’t remember any more words than ‘Cherry-oh, Cherry-oh Baby’.

‘Cherry-oh, Cherry-oh Baby…’ Pause.

He thinks.

No. No, that is all. That is all the UB. All the 40.

‘Cherry-oh, Cherry-oh Baby…’

And so on, as we go forth together unto Tufnell Park.

I stare away. On the curve of the carriage wall above him there’s an advert for Boots, with the slogan ‘LET’S FEEL GOOD’. Not ‘feel better’ or ‘feel well’, but ‘feel good’. That can’t be helpful. The drunk man feels good.

* * *

Monday 6th January 2014. First class in a new module today: ‘Fiction of the Romantic Age’. Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, William Beckford and so on. So Monday night is now Bonnet Night.

I watch the new episode of Sherlock, where Martin Freeman’s Watson gets married. It daringly plays up the comedy and character development at the expense of much actual crime solving. I find myself rather empathising with Cumberbatch’s Holmes in one respect: having a demonstrably decent brain (if not exactly to his extent), yet socially useless to the point of tragic weirdness. If self-aware with it. I hope.

* * *

Tuesday 7th January 2014. An email from someone who must work in the Search Engine Optimisation business. She is offering to write a free blog post for my diary site, in return for linking some of the words in her text to the website of various commercial companies. As I understand it, the power to affect the order that results come up in Google searches is now worth a lot of money: hence the whole SEO trade. The deliberate proliferation of carefully chosen words linking to such sites is what such people do all day. Illustrate that, Richard Scarry.

She writes that each link will ‘add to the value it gives your visitors.’ What rather subtracts from the value of her offer is that she has clearly not even looked at my website. Even the briefest of glances indicates that it is manifestly not a blog for other people to submit their own pieces to, never mind those pseudonymous, hidden-advert, algorithm-like pieces that clutter up the web.

At least the last time this happened, I was offered money. Someone wanted me to host a Marks and Spencer advert on the diary, forever, for a one-off fee of £60.  I replied, saying that although I am indeed ready to sell my soul faster than it takes to eat one of their packs of M&S mango slices, which they insist on calling ‘Mango Madness’ to the delight of no one, I like to think I can get a better price for my soul than £60.

They didn’t reply.

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