Happy New Year, Old Sport

Saturday 27th December 2014. In the morning: to Seven Sisters Road for the last of the cat-sitting jaunts. Parts of the UK had snow on Boxing Day. London just had heavy rain, followed by a night of gales. My windows and doors rattled at 5am, waking me up. At 10am, when I reach the cat owner’s house, I see the heavy cat flap has been shattered in two by the gale. A hasty text to the owner. She’s returning in the afternoon, so doesn’t need me to do anything, thankfully. ‘I’ll stick some cardboard over the hole when I get back’. But somehow I come away feeling bad about the broken flap, because it happened on my watch.

Laurence G sends myself and David R-P a surprise present: a box of food from Fortnum & Mason. I polish off the champagne truffles far too quickly. My favourite item is a jar of mulled wine jam. Partly because I’m partial to mulled wine as a flavour, but mainly because I know it’ll last well into the New Year.

* * *

Sunday 28th December 2014. Alan Bennett’s diary this year contains an obscure word: ‘batrachoidal’. It’s a slight neologism on Mr B’s part, as the OED only has ‘batrachoid’, meaning frog-like. He uses it to describe a man who is very much not obscure at the moment: Nigel Farage. The Times makes him their Man Of The Year. The general election in May will be very interesting.

* * *

Monday 29th December 2014. I meet with Danika H at the British Library, to take her round the Gothic exhibition. I arrive ready to burden her with my annoyance over having to wear a surgical stocking for two weeks, due to my varicose vein op. But Danika turns out to have been in an ankle cast for weeks, and is still struggling on crutches when I meet her today. So that shuts me up. The crutches haven’t stopped her coming up to London to see friends and walk around galleries, but they still make things difficult. Just before I arrive, D buys a cup of tea from the café. The awkwardness of having to pick up the cup while holding on to the crutches makes her spill the tea across her hand. It is scalding hot. The British Library staff are very helpful though, sending a first-aid lady to escort D to the toilets and help her run her hand under the cold tap. When we’re leaving, much later on, she comes back and check’s D’s okay.

It’s my third visit to the Gothic show, yet I still find things I’ve not seen before. Today it’s a recent edition of Wuthering Heights with a jacket design that deliberately mimics the Twilight books. There are few vampires in Emily Bronte, but presumably the publishers thought the general theme was close enough: gothic-tinged and overwrought romantic goings-on, then as now.

Or rather then as a few years ago, as the Twilight phenomenon is now firmly in that distant region known as the recent past. Going by the end-of-year bestseller lists this week, teens are now either buying John Green’s sensitive teen novels (especially The Fault In Our Stars) or spin-off books for the Minecraft video game (and I have no idea what that is). When it comes to the fashions of the book charts, even the undead have an expiry date.

While chatting in the café, Danika and I bond over – of all things – those star-studded and lavishly-located Agatha Christie films of the 70s and 80s. Death On The Nile and Evil Under The Sun are particular favourites. The former has Angela Lansbury, Maggie Smith and Bette Davis, all camping it up like mad. But then, what else can they do with those sort of supporting characters: flamboyant romantic novelists, waspish elderly heiresses, and mannishly-attired companions. I find out today that the film shoot required all three women to share a dressing room on the boat, which was a real paddle steamer. It’s said that this particularly irked Miss Davis, who bemoaned the post-Golden Age tendency for films to shoot on location: ‘in the old days they’d have built the Nile for you.’

* * *

The experimental radio station Resonance FM are having a Yesterday Day. They are playing nothing but cover versions of the Beatles’ song ‘Yesterday’, for 24 hours, thus making some sort of statement about it being the most covered song ever. I tune in, and last five songs before tuning out again. It’s just that song. I could probably stand 24 hours of ‘It’s All Too Much’, from Yellow Submarine. That may sound like cooler-than-thou contrarianism, but as it’s a pulsing, hypnotic song with a continuous upbeat groove, it’s far better suited to repeated plays. I know that’s missing the point, though.

Like a lot of conceptual art that demands commitment from the onlooker, I admire the idea but would rather just read the reviews. ‘No, you go ahead and watch that Warhol film of the Empire State Building without me. Tell me what happens.’

There’s a character in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan who boasts that he only reads criticism of novels rather than actual novels. ‘That way, you get an idea of what the writer was trying to do, along with an opinion you can take or leave. It saves time.’

He’s not doing a degree in literature, though.

* * *

Tuesday 30th December 2014. Struggling to write the latest essay, which is on The Great Gatsby. I can’t tell how much of my resistance to work is down to my general despond, and how much is down to the way Fitzgerald’s novel feels so over-written about. It’s hard to find an original angle. Yet I managed it okay with The Picture of Dorian Gray, and there’s no shortage of material about that.

Some statistics from a textual search of Gatsby. Gatsby’s catchphrase ‘old sport’ appears 28 times in the novel. Baz Luhrmann’s film manages to increase this to 54 times. And the name ‘Daisy Buchanan’ never appears once. The only time Daisy is mentioned along with her surname is when she is Daisy Fay, in the flashbacks. ‘Nick Carraway’ doesn’t appear as a full name either, but as he’s the narrator that’s less unusual.

* * *

Wednesday 31st December 2014. I meet Laurence Hughes for drinks in the afternoon, then see the New Year in at home and alone, while trying to work on the Gatsby essay. In fact most of my time is spent procrastinating, idly watching videos or reading some rubbish or other on the internet. No live TV or radio, though. So before I know it, it’s half past midnight, and I go to bed. I don’t even stop to hear the chimes. I think this is my most low key New Year’s Eve yet.

I probably should do something next year: go to a party or a fireworks display or somesuch. But the older I get, the more I realise how important it is to not do things against one’s will. I am getting out and seeing friends, like Laurence and Danika this week. It’s not enough, though. I’d like to spend more of 2015 with people, rather than with a screen. So that’s one resolution right there.

* * *

Thursday 1st January 2015. Spent all day on the essay. Happy New Year, old sport.

* * *

Friday 2nd January 2015. The first thing I hear in Central London in 2015, as I exit the tube, is the cry of a shopkeeper. He has a little mobile phone shop on Shaftesbury Avenue, and is offering his wares like the street-criers in Oliver! (as in ‘Who will buy this wonderful morning?’, and ‘Ripe! Strawberries, ripe!’)

This real life street cry is rather more 2015:

‘Selfie sticks! Selfie sticks!’

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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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