A Very Big-Hearted Shrug

Saturday 2nd August 2014. Around the back of St Pancras station, I stumble upon a brand new public library. A rare thing in this era of cuts and closures. Camden Council has moved its St Pancras branch to a freshly-built building, 5 Pancras Square. There’s a leisure centre below, council offices above, the main library is up on the second floor, and there’s a pleasant café on the first floor, next to the children’s library. It’s a typical modern building: the usual open plan rooms, high ceilings, plate glass outer walls. Space, transparency, glass, geometry. I sit and watch the streets below. Goods Way to my right, Pancras Road to my left, the harsh blocks of the Eurostar terminus on one side, the greenery of Camley Street Natural Park on the other. I am the only person in the café. Peace and quiet can always be found, even in Kings Cross. ‘We’re still unpacking!’ says the librarian.

* * *

Sunday 3rd August 2014. In the British Library café, the man at the table behind me has no fewer than three devices plugged into power sockets on the wall. Two sockets by his table, one by mine. He is a mass of untidy cables. Today’s devices make life more convenient in some ways, less convenient in others. ‘Wireless’ life is still yet to be wireless enough.

Hot weather. A curly-haired man walks into the BL café wearing denim shorts that are so short, heads turn en masse. He was born to justify the adjective ‘callipygian’ – ‘possessing well-shaped buttocks’. Not necessarily to everyone’s taste, though. I once knew a woman who liked her men to be so skinny that the seat of their trousers had to hang as a sheer drop. That was her main requirement – a complete absence of buttock definition. So there needs to be a word for that too. It would be particularly useful when describing indie guitar bands.

* * *

Monday 4th August 2014. This week’s reading is Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I sit in libraries and cafes reading it, accidentally dressed like one of its characters. It’s one of those novels that comes with a defensive-yet-defiant preface, the author alluding to a second story – that of the book’s first reception. Dorian Gray has one, which Wilde disguises as a list of aphorisms. Jane Eyre as well, and Oliver Twist: ‘the girl is a prostitute’. So shocking at the time. Thus Waugh’s preface apologies for some aspects of Brideshead, while being defiant about others. In 1944, he was so convinced that England’s country houses would vanish overnight that he stuffed the novel with a wistful ‘gluttony’ for the past. In the 1960 preface, he admits to finding this aspect ‘distasteful’ and offers the novel as a ‘souvenir’ – but crucially, of his feelings during WW2. So the preface is a memory (1960) of a memory (1944) of a memory (the 20s and 30s). And here I am, recording my memory of spending some time in 2014 reading that. All is explanation, reflection, apology, and not apology.

I also can’t resist revisiting the 80s TV series (no surprises, no apologies). It too is a kind of gluttony, with its many hours of screen time, its lavish detail and locations. An early version of the box set immersive TV drama. A kind of Game of Thrones of its day. All fantasy of a kind. Anthony Andrews, Jeremy Irons, Diana Quick. How can anyone not want to leap through the screen and run off with them?

* * *

Thursday 7th August 2014. To the British Library for its big summer exhibition, Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK. There is a sign on the poster for the show encouraging ‘parental guidance for the under 16s’. The poster makes this clear, too: an excellent new Jaimie Hewlett design, featuring a depressed costumed heroine slumped against an alley wall, brandishing a hip flask. The exhibition is constantly busy, with queues for some of the displays. I spend some of my visit looking discreetly at the visitors, partly because they’re in the way of the comics, but mostly because I’m curious to see what sort of people are interested in a comics exhibition today. There’s the expected amount of solitary, loafing men (and I am one too), but they do not dominate the crowd. Instead, there’s women with punkish haircuts and summer dresses, couples, besuited business people, foreign tourists, and hipster academics who narrate everything too loudly.

The show is fascinating, and full of unexpected curiosities. There’s a rare 1940s strip written by Bob Monkhouse, featuring monsters that look suspiciously like giant penises. I’m also intrigued by a 1970s strip by William Burroughs, a rare American in this UK-themed show. But then, he always was an exile. Any exhibition that manages to include Bob Monkhouse and William S. Burroughs (and Posy Simmonds!) can only be a good thing.

I particularly enjoy the documents that form the scaffolding behind comics. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman script is more like a chatty personal letter to a friend than a set of instructions to an artist. Alan Moore’s Watchman script is heavy in detail, yet it still leaves a lot of decisions up to the artist. The inspiring lesson from all this is that there’s no fixed way to write comics.

Peppered throughout the galleries are shop window dummies dressed as Occupy protestors, all wearing spooky Guy Fawkes masks, the ones from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. The popularity of that mask is probably more down to the Noughties movie adaptation than Mr Moore’s 1980s strip, but the point is hammered home: new international activism has a connection with old British comics. Every Bonfire Night, one used to have to explain who Guy Fawkes was to visiting foreigners. Now we can say, ‘You know those masks…?’

A minor grumble. After three years of an English Lit BA, I’ve become hard-wired to always check the source of a literary quotation. So I wince when reading the following in the exhibition guide: ‘Everything in the world is about sex except sex – Oscar Wilde‘. No mention of where Wilde is supposed to have said this line. I don’t think he did say it. It’s a good quote, but it sounds a bit too twentieth-century for him.

I’m reminded of a quip by Dorothy Parker, which she definitely did say. It’s in her poem sequence ‘A Pig’s-Eye View of Literature’:

If with the literate I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it

* * *

In the evening: to the ICA for the film Boyhood. An ambitious undertaking, filmed in little annual bursts over twelve years. We watch the same four actors age by one year every fifteen minutes: the boy, his older sister, their mother, and their divorced father. The actual story is very slight – nothing too dramatic happens to the boy. His mother goes through a series of bad husbands, but otherwise he has a fairly safe, middle-class Texas upbringing, taking in references to the Iraq war, the last Harry Potter books, the rise of Obama, smartphones, and eventually Facebook. What the film does pull off is an all-encompassing sense of compassion and awareness of mortality: that time passes, life passes with it, we all watch it go, so we might as well be kind to each other. It’s one big shrug, but it’s a very big-hearted shrug.

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