He Is My Father

To Ipswich to visit Dad. He’s in a hospice, and very much bed bound, but is otherwise chatting about films and cracking jokes as ever. He deplores and rejects the default entertainment usually imposed on the elderly and immobile: banal daytime TV, shows like Countdown. Instead, he’s keen to see action sci-fi films like Man Of Steel as soon as they hit DVD, big budget spectaculars where the characters do anything but lie or sit around.  His condition, he says, means that more than ever before he wants to see people fly.’

He also does what any Star Wars fan with pulmonary fibrosis must at least consider: using his oxygen mask to do impersonations of Darth Vader. Though in this case Dad brings the impression bang up to date. He imagines the Darth Vader voice actor, James Earl Jones, responding to the one-star pasting the British press has just this week given him, regarding his performance in a West End staging of Much Ado About Nothing. Dad extends his arm to mimic the remote-control Jedi choking trick in the films, the unfortunate victim now becoming the drama critic of the Telegraph. And he knows the relevant Star Wars quote by heart:

“(sinister breathing noise) I find your lack of faith disturbing…”

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Getting Off

After my Dungeness trip for my birthday, I spent last Tuesday to Thursday (Sept 4-6) in Suffolk, staying with Dad while Mum was away. I’m tempted to say, ‘looking after Dad’, but although he’s physically very weak, he surprised me by using both flights of stairs several times a day, and even cooked a meal for the two of us. Dad is 75, and now has pulmonary fibrosis added to the medley of deterioration his body has thrown at him for the last few years. There’s been strokes, black outs, arthritis, leg ulcers, and now the fibrosis, which means he has to keep a flask of compressed oxygen to hand, like a particularly cumbersome form of asthmatics’ inhaler.

The fibrosis gives Dad coughing fits, which I find distressing to witness on my first day. It is coughing that goes far beyond coughing, mutating into a painful, drawn-out retching for breath. But come the second day I realise this is something Dad has become used to, so I become used to it too.

I’m also relieved to discover he has no shortage of help: he’s fitted out with a panic button on a bracelet, and carries the phone handset with him everywhere. On top of that, friends who live nearby drop in on him every day.

While there I do the shopping, mow the lawn, take Dad’s watch away to get a new strap fitted (courtesy of the shopping mall near Bond St tube), wind up the ancient living room clock, and refill his oxygen flask from the huge canister that has moved into the garden.


Thoughts on gadgets and internet addiction. Dad has one of the now-ubiquitous iPads, which he uses for emails, the Web, films and on-demand TV. Mum has one too. I don’t, just as I don’t have an iPhone or smartphone or Blackberry – my mobile is a 7-year-old cheap Pay As You Go Motorola, in grudging pink. I never worry about it being on show and at risk of being stolen, as I think any would-be thief would die of embarrassment first. My only concession to the more desirable cult of oblong strokers is having an iPod Touch, which I have to admit I enjoy, particularly the camera. But I fear I enjoy it too much, using it more as a toy than a tool. Having social media and the Web so easy to access, I find it hard to get on with other things, like the small matter of studying for my college course.

By way of contrast I’ve invested in what I suppose is the polar opposite of an iPad – a Neo 2. This is a portable offline word processor with a little LCD screen, made in tough plastic and aimed principally at schoolchildren. In my case, it also suits someone with the self-control of a schoolchild.  All you can do on it is write: a USB cable allows you to upload the results to a PC when you’re finished. It’s so basic that the battery lasts a whole year. I’m typing this on it in bed in the morning, in fact, as unlike laptops, it doesn’t get overheated on a duvet. Though I take what overheated bedfellows I can get.

The word ’empowered’ is often used for the way the Net has affected people’s lives, but in my case I feel far more empowered when I’m switching the Net off. So I’m trying out ways to cut down on internet usage without being cut off. At the moment I’m forcing myself to use college computers to check my email, and to only do so once a day. My home is now an offline oasis, with gadgets and power cables locked away in a cupboard until further notice. After only one day of not having Wikipedia or Twitter to hand I felt physical withdrawal pangs (how pathetic it seems to admit this), which rather suggests I was addicted. So it’s probably best to keep this detox routine going for a while longer.

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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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The Back Seat Exhibition Captioner

A few days into the New Year: with Dad to Somerset House Ice Rink. A favourite spot at this time of year, though we always go as spectators in the cafe, never as skaters.

We also drop into the Norman Parkinson exhibition, A Very British Glamour. Stunning photos of ladies from vintage fashion mags. But Parkinson also had a thing for combining beauty with humour, often putting his models in unexpected poses and locations.

In one early 50s shot, his wife and muse Wanda, looking immaculate in a cashmere twin-set, sits in a rural working man’s pub, seemingly playing shove ha’penny with a flat-capped old regular. An unlikely story.

Another, The Young Look In The Theatre (1953), depicts a gaggle of up and coming stage actresses of the day. I love all the different types of outfits, hinting at what the actresses think of their own real life personae. Some casual, some up-to-the-minute fashionable, some timeless and classic, some girlish, some noble, some vampish, some womanly, some motherly.

(Clicking on the photo takes you to a much larger version on the Christie’s website, with a click-and-zoom facility)

The exhibition doesn’t list who’s who, frustratingly. So I get on the Net and find out for myself.

Top row (upside down, the old wag): Norman Parkinson himself.

Middle row (on the bars, left to right): Virginia McKenna, Elizabeth Henson, Patricia McCarron, Josephine Griffin.

Bottom row (standing, left to right): Hazel Penwarden, Zena Walker, Yvonne Furneaux, Jill Bennett, Patricia Owens, Ruth Trouncer.

I also love one Vogue portrait of Enid Boutling, model and wife of the film director Roy. Captioned ‘Impertinence (1950)‘, she’s wearing a dandyish suit with a cropped hair, a stand-offish glare, and – shock horror – is smoking a cigarette without a holder. Regarded as very daring at the time, at least for Vogue.

Enid Boulting-Vogue-1950

Another favourite is of Audrey Hepburn with a baby donkey. Parkinson clearly punning on the ‘what an adorable creature’ response.


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Pride & Prejudice & Superheroes

Monday: meet Dad as he returns from the Caption convention in Oxford. Because his train gets into Paddington, I do what all Londoners should do at that station when meeting out-of-towners. I show him the statue of Paddington Bear. Along with the character’s merchandise stall, covered in books, soft toys and toddler-sized duffel coats.

We go to the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury, only to discover it’s closed on Mondays. I get a sense of deja vu from this time last year, when I was in New York and traipsed across most of Central Park in order to visit the Met. It was a Monday, and the Met – despite being the size of a football stadium – was closed that day.

I’m off to New York again this Thursday coming, for seven days. This time, I’ll ensure my museum stints avoid the first day of the working week.


In Gosh Comics, I pick up Issue 5 of Pride & Prejudice. It’s not a parody or homage but an entirely straight – and beautifully drawn – comic strip adaptation of the Jane Austen book. What really delights me is that it’s published by Marvel as a proper serialised A5 colour comic, and that it’s displayed alongside the latest issue of Spider-Man, X-Men, the Hulk and so on. So a novel that famously enticed readers despite a lack of any real heroes or villains is now translated into the one medium most accustomed to them. The Austen effect still triumphs: the staff at Gosh tell me it’s been flying off the shelf.


Walking along Royal College Street today, I pass a couple of elderly Irish men sitting outside a pub. As I approach, one calls out at me.

‘Walk straight!’

And then, after I’ve passed by:

‘Can I shag you?’

In the evening I recount this to Ms L, who works behind the bar at the Boogaloo. I do so hoping she’ll be amused. In fact, she takes a physical step back and stares at me, unnerved.

I’m reminded of Ms D telling me about someone she met recently.

‘This person asked me, “Do you know Dickon Edwards? I’m his nemesis.” And they weren’t smiling.’

I found this incredibly funny. But Ms D was appalled, verging on upset.

‘I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone’s nemesis before,’ she said. ‘I wondered if I should call the police.’

(‘Are you Jesus?’ I had at Latitude from two young men in the woods, when I was walking around in my white suit. ‘I forgive you,’ I shouted back.)

I suppose I do attract a certain… oddness from some people – as opposed to odd people per se  – from time to time. But they soon tire of me: I’m too busy stalking myself inside my own head, trying to nail my thoughts down, preoccupied with controlling my own madness, never mind anyone else’s.  There’s always an angle, a tilt, which part of me is at and which the rest is not; and it’s never by the same degree for more than a moment. So this predicament is a two-way barrier, for better or worse. I’ve said it before, but one ambition of mine is to have a syndrome named after me.

To act weirdly around an already weird person isn’t stalking, after all: it’s tautology.

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The Meaning of Companion

Yesterday – meet with Dad in town. We take a look round the London Transport Museum together, and I see the bits I didn’t see at the DJ event the other day. There’s a couple of horse-drawn vehicles on the top floor which are jaw-dropping objects of beauty in anyone’s book.

Then I take him for dinner at the Wolseley in Piccadilly. Something I couldn’t do for years while on the dole. Now I have a bit of cash, it’s the one of the most searingly rewarding things I can spend money on. As Michael Bywater points out in his book-sized rant on modern society, ‘Big Babies’, even the word companion means ‘with bread’. Friends are meant to eat together, not just ‘add’ each other online and eat alone. Parents, doubly so.

I used to hate being seen eating – equating it with being caught on the toilet. Nowadays I love cafes and restaurants, whether cheap or pricy, and hate being seen buying one-person food to take home.

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