Sunday 31st January 2016. I leaf through the Sunday Times in the Barbican Cinema Café. There’s a column by Katie Glass which typically makes me want to set fire to things. Still, the fact I read it through, and deem it worthy of comment here, suggests that to touch a reader’s nerve is still a connection of a kind. It’s called ‘trolling’ online, of course, but newspaper columnists have been doing it for decades.
Ms Glass’s subject today is her belief that going to university is a waste of time, though she’s at pains to reveal that she nevertheless holds a First in BA English. This is because of the news this week that several of the big UK firms are no longer insisting on a degree as a requirement for skilled employment. I received my own degree certificate in the post the other day, so the cliché about them not being worth the paper they’re written on rather sprang to mind.
True enough, Ms Glass goes for the cliché: ‘we know that these pieces of paper mean nothing’. Universities, she says, do not contain ‘the brightest minds’ so much as ‘those who went to the right schools and are good at passing exams’. She believes what really matters is ‘passion, commitment and hard work’. As if passing exams and delivering essays on time don’t require those things as well.
All she really learned, she says, was that ‘having an outrageous opinion could be rewarded, and later turned into a job’. Well, quite.
Being a professional wind-up merchant is now the quickest route to a media career. As long as you don’t mind being hated by strangers, you’ve got it made. There’s one young British writer who does this, Milo Yiannopoulos, who’s now starting to pop up more and more often on TV. What worries me is not so much his views as his appearance: thick bleached hair in a side parting, suits and ties, and a haughty camp voice. Someone on Twitter has already made the comparison. I suppose it’s another catcall to add to the list.
* * *
Tuesday 2nd February 2016. To the ICA for the film Youth, starring Michael Caine. It’s a very unabashed arthouse film, about an elderly composer staying at an Alpine spa hotel. The director seems content to line up a series of visually striking tableaux that may not always make sense, but which can be justified through their sheer originality. When the singer Paloma Faith pops up as a parody of herself, complete with a loud pop video sequence, it is impossible to judge where the film will go next. Paul Dano’s character soon turns up at the hotel dressed as Hitler, for no good reason, but no one is in the least surprised. It’s that sort of film.
Remote hotels are always good for a cinematic aesthetic: I think of The Shining of old, but also The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Lobster. Rachel Weisz, who is in both The Lobster and Youth, now seems to have an Arty Hotel Film career ahead of her. Mr Caine is very introspective and gentle in the composer role; he uses the same softer, middle class English accent he had in Hannah and Her Sisters.
* * *
Thursday 4th February 2016. This week’s MA seminar is on Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle. I give a short presentation on Margaret Atwood’s review for the New York Review of Books. She picks up on the significance of its names, and cites their various literary associations. For instance, the villain is called Tom, which Atwood links to both Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Tom Riddle – aka Voldermort – in the Harry Potter books. It’s difficult to think of many literary critics making such casual leaps of genre, but challenging genre always was Atwood’s bag. Like many of her own novels, The Circle can be reliably defined as science-fiction or speculative fiction, though again Ms A avoids such terms. Instead, she opts for classifying the book as an ‘entertainment’ (which to me suggests The Arabian Nights). She also puts the phrase ‘literary fiction’ within two telling inverted commas of her own, as if holding the words at arm’s length.
A term she does like, however, is ‘Menippean satire’, which she also applies to The Circle. I hadn’t come across it before. It’s a classical reference, after the Greek writer Menippus, denoting a playful, humorous satire of ideas and attitudes rather than a vicious attack on people themselves. The prime example is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Circle is more tongue-in-cheek with its ideas than with its style, though. In one scene, the heroine is summoned to a disciplinary meeting at work, solely because she had not been keeping up with her social media, and so missed the invite to a co-worker’s party. Thus Jane Austen is updated for the Facebook era.
Late evening: to the DocHouse screen in the Curzon Bloomsbury, for a French documentary on last year’s Charlie Hebdo killings, Je Suis Charlie. The original title is L’humour Ã mort, which I suppose could also be translated as Dead Funny. The film concentrates on the perspectives of the magazine staff, and includes archive interviews on the subject of mocking Islam, from the murdered cartoonists themselves. One staffer was protected by the office dog: she jumped on her master’s face after witnessing the head shots doled out to the cartoonists.
* * *
Friday 5th February 2016. Evening: To the plush Wallace Collection in Manchester Square, for an event called ‘Look Out’. It’s curated by the artist Sadie Lee, as part of London’s LGBTQI History Month events. The toilets have been rebranded as queer-friendly – a row of lockable cubicles. All the cubicles have a single temporary sign: a hybid Ladies / Gents figure, with half a skirt. I catch a performance by the drag queen Virgin Xtravaganza in one of the smaller galleries – the nervous attendants asking the audience to stand away from all the ornate cabinets and gilded furniture. Debbie Smith DJ’s in another room, surrounded by Boucher’s opulent paintings of scantily-clad goddesses. She plays ‘Je T’aime’, an apt soundtrack for finding French naughtiness in London. The Serge Gainsbourg record was recorded in nearby Marble Arch.
I go to the Great Gallery to watch David McAlmont’s band Fingersnap. He punctuates the songs with potted lectures on the paintings, having lately taken a degree in Art History at Birkbeck; I used to bump into him in the college corridors. Frans Hals’s Laughing Cavalier is on the wall immediately stage right. Growing up, I always thought of it as London’s Mona Lisa, such was its regular appearance in The Beano. Another much-aired masterpiece, Fragonard’s The Swing, is in a room nearby. An attendant tells me how it’s used in the Disney film Frozen. At which point, I hear a version of ‘Let It Go’, as tastefully arranged by the Jolly Pops Wind Orchestra, who are serenading the main courtyard tonight. Their repertoire also includes Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’, and Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’. It’s quite an evening.
* * *
Saturday 6th February 2016. To the Tate Modern for Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture. By a neat coincidence, a huge Calder mobile makes an appearance in The Circle. A character explains that ‘This one used to hang in the French parliament. Something like that.’ I knew about Calder’s abstract mobiles, here with their floating gongs, monochrome leaf shapes and coloured discs. What I didn’t know about was his delightful wire sculptures of faces, figures and circus acrobats, from the 1920s. The Tate hangs them so that one can enjoy their projected shadows on the wall behind. One figure is of Josephine Baker, with breasts of steel abstract spirals. She really did get about.
Tags: alexander calder
, dave eggers
, je suis charlie
, margaret atwood
, tate modern
, the circle
, wallace collection
Sunday 17th January 2016.
I’m reading Dave Eggers’s The Circle. It’s a novel that sounds an Orwellian warning about the rise of Google and Facebook. Much is made about the growing desirability of ‘transparency’. This is meant figuratively, in the sense of increased accountability. But it’s also implied architecturally, in the sense of modern workplaces tending to be cathedrals of glass. Buildings where the workers can be easily seen, and so easily monitored. The price in both cases is privacy.
Today I walk past the shiny new Central St Giles development, near the east end of Denmark Street. There is now a branch of Caffe Nero there, one so entirely made of glass that I don’t know where to put my eyes as I pass by. It’s like walking past a display case of knees and hands and lattes. I’m used to seeing this in stations like St Pancras (particularly with the all-glass Starbucks there), because of the obvious security concerns. But in a central London street it feels very odd, and very fragile.
One of my favourite things about the Harry Potter books is the idea of Diagon Alley, the secret wizards’ street in London. It seemed so deliciously believable, making imaginative use ofÂ London’s reputation as an unplanned patchwork of hidden worlds. Now, with the current trend for see-through developments like Central St Giles, the nooks and crannies can onlyÂ disappear. A surfeit of glass underminesÂ a site’sÂ potential for secrets, intrigue, and magic. Transparency is a plot spoiler.
* * *
Monday 18th January 2016.
My review of Popkiss, the book about Sarah Records, is published in the new issue (February 2016) of the music magazine The Wire. Quite happy with it: it’s full of little points I hope will pique the interest of the casual Wire reader, someone who may be unfamiliar with Sarah. The death of Bowie is a reminder that music – of any level of success – never has a fixed reach. Never one generation, never one era, never one ear.
Bowie tributes are still appearing in the press. Some journalists use the U-word – ‘us’. It means well, but it makes me wince. Who is this ‘us’? Can you really speak for the entire human race? If so, who appointed you spokesperson? I find ‘you’ equally suspicious (‘you know how it is when you’re flying to Monaco in First Classâ€¦’). Even though it seems more vain to say ‘me’, it’s more honest and precise. Better to accept that all writing is vanity of a kind.
* * *
Tuesday 19th January 2016.
I meet with Shanthi S. in the NPG, and we wander around the National Gallery next door, taking in the free exhibition on Botticini’s sublime Assumption of the Virgin. I show S my favourite painting in the gallery, Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man (1550-5, with the pink curtain). We bump into Sophie Parkin, who is sitting right in front of the painting.
Then to the ICA for The Revenant – a mere £3 each. Currently the most talked-about film in town, having become a favourite for the Oscars. For all its technical innovation, it’s really a traditional Western, albeit a snowy one. The story is a simple one of survival against the elements, followed by revenge. There’s plenty of stunning set pieces, presumably enhanced by state-of-the-art CGI graphics: the bear attack, the white-water rapids, the gutting of the horse, and the Saving Private Ryan-like opening, as Mr DiCaprio’s party are besieged by Native American tribesmen. Whether or not Mr DC is putting in an Oscar-winning performance really depends on one’s definition of acting. He certainly suffers, but his character isn’t much more than that – just a man who has a terrible time. He grunts, he gasps, he crawls. He does things that regularly has the audience saying ‘Ouch!’, and ‘Goodness, that must be painful!’ and ‘Don’t hurt, though!’
There’s been a few articles which employ the irksome trend of adding ‘porn’ as a suffix. This seems to be a way of judging any film that a critic views as indulgent. The Revenant has been described variously as ‘pain porn’, ‘torture porn’, ‘wilderness porn’, and ‘forest porn’. Certainly all those elements are present in the film, and to an intense level, but calling them a form of ‘porn’ is helpful to precisely no one. Whatever happened to discussions of catharsis?
It’s also too long. My father used to judge films on the amount of times he looked at his watch. He once told me how he didn’t do this once during Lord of the Rings Part 3 – Return of the King, despite the three hour-plus duration. ‘That’s how good it was’. I’m afraid I checked my own watch four or five times during The Revenant. Â For all its focus on immersion, it really doesn’t need two and a half hours to tell such a straightforward tale.
* * *
Thursday 21st January 2016.
To Gordon Square for this week’s MA seminar. The text is Lorrie Moore’s A Gate At The Stairs. There’s several witty scenes consisting entirely of overheard dialogue between middle-class liberals, on such topics as the state of racism after 9/11. To me, these come close to Ronald Firbank, though it’s a style better known from his disciple, Evelyn Waugh. According to DJ Taylor’s new book The Prose Factory: Literary Life in Britain Since 1918 (which I’ve been leafing through), one legacy Firbank ‘bequeathed’ to fiction in the 1910s and 1920s is his ‘talking heads’ device. This is a depiction of a conversation as a long series of detached utterations, in which no speaker is named, and whereÂ there’s a sense of a satirical rhythm at play. The ‘chattering classes’ in action, then as now.
Not everyone in the seminar is enamoured of Moore’s use of humour for serious issues, though: one student even calls it ‘irritating’. This is always a risk, but it’s why I admire comedy, or comedy drama, over wholly dramatic texts. Comedy is hard to get right, but the best comedy can produce rich, lasting, soaring effects. Tragedy is closer to ground level.
In A Gate At The Stairs there’s also some scenes of violent death, and some occasionally grotesque imagery. But Moore manages to control the tone at every stage, and it’s never jarring. Knowing what happens also makes a secondÂ reading all the more rewarding: early details take on a pleasing new significance. It’s not a flawless novel, but it’s one of the best I’ve read in a long time, and it makes me want to read more of Ms Moore.
* * *
Tags: a gate at the stairs
, central st giles
, dave eggers
, lorrie moore
, ronald firbank
, the circle
, the revenant
Friday 20th December 2013. I am pleased to receive about two dozen cards this year, made all the more special by the high cost of postage and the dominance of the internet. Post from abroad is especially meaningful: I’m sent a beautiful pop-up one from Eileen C in New York and a pictorial Christmas aerogramme from Danika H in Australia.
Although people rarely send cards and letters today, two Christmas books this year on the subject have proved to be very popular. There’s Shaun Usher’s anthology Letters of Note and Simon Garfield’s historical account, To The Letter. The Usher book is based on his website, where the very technology that killed off the letter – the internet – has turned out to be perfect for celebrating it. I feel all the more grateful for receiving an actual letter at Christmas, from Danika, and I’ll make sure I reply in kind.
Another sign of the times this week: the gay section in Time Out magazine has been axed. It’s assumed that, like cinema listings, there’s no longer any need to turn to a paper magazine to find out about events: Facebook events pages and online listings have become the default. Gay issues, meanwhile, are more mainstream than ever, with Conservative politicians supporting campaigns for gay marriage, and campaigns against homophobia around the world (such as in Russia and Uganda) given decent coverage by the media. This week has also seen Alan Turing finally pardoned for the crime of having consensual sex with another man. His mistake was to have it in the 1950s. Actually, as my dad once told me, it was pretty much frowned on to have sex in the 1950s if you were heterosexual, too.
But the question of promoting gay culture separately in terms of identity and role models is an ongoing one. As it is, London still has its annual LGBT film festival (at the BFI) and its own gay bookshop (Gay’s The Word in Marchmont Street – hitting 35 years old next January). Coming out as gay is still a big issue – Tom Daley making the headlines of late. So Time Out’s decision does seem premature. But then, like all paper listings magazines, it’s been struggling full stop.
* * *
Saturday 21st December 2013. To Somerset House with Ella Lucas, to see the exhibition on the late British fashion editor, collector, string-puller, muse and Lady Gaga lookalike, Isabella Blow. Ingeniously, the exhibits that can’t go on mannequins, such as letters and faxes, are in white display cases which sit surreally on mannequin legs – with shoes from Ms Blow’s collection on the cases’ feet. One letter, on Harpers notepaper, is from Hamish Bowles, who is also one of the other dandies in the I Am Dandy book. He writes to Ms Blow, ‘Long for your next appearance – stepping out of a reverie by Ronald Firbankâ€¦’
Much of the exhibition is of Philip Treacy’s exotic hat and mask creations, Ms Blow being his biggest champion. One mask has a grid of jewelled Swarovski crystal nails in a black silk net, rather reminding me of the Pinhead monster in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. I check the caption, and it turns out to be a direct homage: ‘Hellraiser mask with nail detailing‘. Any exhibition which references Ronald Firbank and Hellraiser is fine by me.
A word learned: ‘chopine’. A historical type of women’s platform shoe, popular in the 15th to 17th centuries. Modern versions of which are in the Blow collection. More like a platform clog, really.
One of the information panels on Ms Blow’s history begins with the phrase ‘Forced to work for a livingâ€¦’
* * *
Sunday 22nd December 2013. I visit the Museum of London, and am pleased to see that its shop stocks A London Year, the diary anthology which includes me alongside Pepys and co. It’s the closest I’ve come yet to being a museum piece.
On the raised pedestrian walkway around the corner, I take a look at the ruins of the original London Wall, where the layers of medieval brickwork can be seen on top of the Roman foundations. There’s an information panel about the ruins, provided by the museum. It’s dated 1980 and has been laminated against the elements, though 33 years later the elements have won, and much of the text is now faded and illegible. The panel about the ruins is itself a ruin.
In the evening I turn a corner in Clerkenwell Green and suddenly see the Shard and St Paul’s from a distance, both lit up. From this angle they appear as if standing right next to each other, though the Thames and several districts separate them geographically. Tonight the former looks like a Christmas tree, and the latter like a bauble. I stare up from the silent street at them, thinking how London always was this constant shrug of old with new, just like the two parts to the Wall and the ruined panel. Inside the Crown Tavern, more shrugging: Wizzard’s eternal Christmas song on the pub stereo, while the first word I overhear as I enter is someone saying Â ‘Facebook’.
* * *
Monday 23rd December 2013.
The London Library’s last day before closing for Christmas, and the last day of its late night hours, closing at 9pm. It transpires that not enough members use the library quite that late, so in 2014 ‘late closing’ will mean 8pm instead. I sit in the historic Reading Room from 8.30pm till the end, which as expected means I am the only one there. Just me, all the books and journals, the famous soporific armchairs, the fireplace, and the Christmas tree. Utter, serene peace. I soak it in.
As soon as I leave, though: chaos. Heavy wind and rain has hit Britain, causing transport shut downs and power cuts at the worst possible time of year. Although the effect on London is relatively minor, my umbrella is a wreck before I make it out of St James’s Square. At Piccadilly Circus, where I get the tube, the clear plastic bubble over Eros has burst, scattering polystyrene chips of fake snow all over the road. Like some Biblical retribution against worshipping false gods, this idealised image of Christmas weather – pretty fake snow in a bubble – has been eclipsed by real Christmas weather – ugly, uncontained wind and rain.
* * *
Tuesday 24th December 2013.
To the Hackney Picturehouse to see a 1940s Christmas-themed film I’d not seen before,Â The Bishop’s Wife, in which Cary Grant plays an angel helping a troubled New York priest, played by David Niven. Despite his otherworldly role, Cary Grant is just dressed as Cary Grant, with the usual immaculate dark suit. One character is an eccentric aged scholar, Â an atheist who nevertheless loves the traditions of Christmas. On discovering Cary G’s celestial identity, he remarks ‘Oh, that’s annoying.’ I think that’s how I’d feel.
Even though the story centres on David Niven’s bishop, the film’s parting message about Jesus feels unusual, even jarring. Yet I remember how it works fine in The Holly and The Ivy, a British film from the early 50s, also about priests at Christmas. I think the fact that Niven’s daughter is played by ‘Zuzu’ from It’s A Wonderful Life reminds me why: American films are happy to tell Christmas stories about angels, but they usually leave out Christ himself.
It’s still an issue today. I read a piece in the Guardian this weekÂ where an American writer remarks how the British are perfectly happy to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to each other, as opposed to ‘Happy Holidays’, regardless of religion – or lack of it – of those present. It’s just tradition. But among the cards from British people I get, some are indeed saying ‘Happy Holidays’, so perhaps that’s changing.
The first time I saw the word ‘holidays’ used to mean Christmas was in a TV advert. The product was that great ambassador of the American way, Coca-Cola. That may be another reason why ‘Happy Holidays’ has yet to catch on: for some (and I include myself), it feels too American.
* * *
Wednesday 25th December 2013.Â I spend Christmas by myself in Highgate, once again enjoying the palpable and rare peace in the city. The changed background hum of low traffic without buses. Morning spent hungover from mixing prosecco and Baileys the night before. I chat to Mum at length on the phone.
At 1pm, I meet up with Silke R once again for my own tradition of feeding the ducks in Waterlow Park. Silke is currently staying in the flat attached to Archway Video, the film rental library on Archway Road where we both once worked. An independent family business since the 1980s, the shop stocked a huge range of films, first on VHS, then DVD, and eventually, Blu-Ray. The customers included Daniel Craig, Maureen Lipman, Ray Davies of the Kinks and Brett Anderson of Suede. This year, the shop is an empty shell, closed for good since the summer. Silke now works for Odeon, an irony given that video shops were first thought to be bringing about the death of cinema. It wasn’t cinema that killed video shops, though, but online services like Lovefilm, Netflix, and of course Amazon.
In Muswell Hill a few months ago I bumped into one of the shop’s old customers. ‘I do miss that shop,’ he said fondly. ‘Though of course I hadn’t been in for years.’ He didn’t seem to notice how one statement was related to the other.
Thursday 26th December 2013.
With the lack of traffic on Boxing Day, combined with the sense of enforced family gatherings reaching the point of strained boredom, some local teenagers play football in the street outside. I first worry about them breaking any windows, but then I realise that young people playing ball games in the road is very old indeed. All the museum photos say so.
I walk around St Pancras in the afternoon. Most of the people I see fall into two categories. There’s aimlessly wandering tourists, who seem baffled that everything is shut for a second day. A handful of them climb on the gates of the British Library to take photos of the empty piazza. The other category is football fans, because Boxing Day means sport. People in Chelsea scarves are looking particularly pleased with themselves.
Friday 27th December 2013.
CHRISTMAS MESSAGE 2013.
This year’s photograph of me with a London tree is of course a ‘selfie’, one of 2013’s Words of the Year. With thanks to the London Review Bookshop for letting me take it on their premises on Christmas Eve.
The bookshop tree represents not just my current life as a student of literature, but my increasing concern about the effect of digital culture on independence, in every sense. On a blunt commercial level, the online tax-dodging colossus that is Amazon is obviously threatening the future of independent, non-corporate shops like the LRB. Bookshops, like cinemas and libraries, are pleasant places for staff to work in and for customers to go and immerse themselves in culture, at their own pace, offline and away from the ubiquity of the computer screen. No advertising sidebars tearing your concentration to shreds. One book I bought at the LRB this year was The Circle by Dave Eggers, which paints a near-future world where Amazon and Google and social media have reduced people’s lives to a banal flatness of public algorithms and vanished privacy.
This theme also connects neatly with Channel 4’s Alternative Christmas Message by Edward Snowden, the whistleblowing fugitive of the USA security services. Mr Snowden cited another novel about a world without privacy, 1984, and said some rather powerful things:
‘A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalysed thoughtâ€¦ And that’s a problem, because privacy matters. Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.’
The Queen’s own Christmas message also touched on the need for personal time alone, though she linked it more with prayer and meditation.Â Certainly a child born today in the case of baby Prince George has evenÂ less privacy than most children, but the point stands. What grabbed my attention with the Queen’s message was that she also mentioned ‘even keeping a diary’ as an example of creating a space for private reflection. Which is where I come in.
This year saw my online diary’s first emergence in book form, in the form of extracts in the anthology A London Year. Like the books about letters, it’s a celebration of individual minds reflecting in privacy. Their words are only later published when the appropriate permissions have been sought, and when an editor has done their own reflecting on what part of private writing might, as Shuan Usher puts it, be ‘deserving of a wider audience’. An amount of consideration and reflection has been applied, in other words. Although my own diary is published online first, it actually begins life as a series of far more personal notes made in my own paper notebooks. And even when published online, I try to evoke the more private nature of the printed page by the omission of one key element: no comments box.
A blog with no comments is as close to the reflective, personal and locked-off experience of the printed page as it can get. If you write online, I highly recommend it. Let comments belong on social media. Writing and reading are after all anti-social activities, and need to be. Humans are social creatures, but socialising needs to be kept apart from the production and consumption of writing. The more people can disconnect by way of balance, the better.
(I’ve now realised that Mr Usher also omits a comments box from his Letters of Note website too.)
It’s rather impractical to call for a boycott of Amazon, Google and social media now, and I wouldn’t want to. I use those things all the time myself. But my wish for 2014 is to try to resist the technology that wants us to only live throughÂ an endless scrolling of screens, that only what matters is to join the shallow noise, the unconsidered chatter, the indiscretion, the unkind photos passed around at the expense of others and the Fear of Missing Out. I wish to balance these activities with more appreciation of three beautiful ‘I’s: individualism, independence and immersion.
And I wish you a very happy what’s-left-of-Christmas, and a splendid New Year.
, dave eggers
, gay issues
, hackney picturehouse
, hamish bowles
, isabella blow
, london review bookshop
, london wall
, museum of london
, Proper Letters
, ronald firbank
, The London Library
, time out