Not So Much A Place, More An Awkward Phase

Saturday 15th March 2014.

I meet Ella L for tea and eclairs at Maison Bertaux, the long-running patisserie and Soho landmark. It features in Derek Jarman’s diaries from the early Nineties, and appears as itself in The Look of Love, the Steve Coogan film about Paul Raymond, which came out last year and which not enough people went to see, frankly. Maison Bertaux itself now features permanent doodling on the walls by Noel Fielding of the Mighty Boosh.  On the upstairs window sill by our table is scrawled the phrase “Jane Birkin dances like a deaf woman”.

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Sunday 16th March 2014.

To the Pembury Tavern in Hackney for Travis E’s birthday drinks. It must be one of the few pubs in London to not have any background music or TV screens. It’s also the first pub in the city to accept Bitcoins.

I buy a bottle of cider from the bar, and note the health warnings that have popped up on alcoholic packaging lately. The sentence ‘please drink responsibly’ is a common enough sight, but there’s also a tiny pictogram in the ‘DON’T’ style of a diagonal bar across a circle. Inside is a little silhouette of a woman with a ponytail and a baby bump, drinking from a bottle. An update of Hogarth, I suppose.

I’m currently reading George Gissing’s 1890s novel The Odd Women, about changing attitudes towards marriage in London at the time. Alcohol and pregnancy are represented there too, but Gissing is no Hogarth; he drenches both in euphemism.  To indicate the pregnancy of one character, Monica, he writes: ‘With a moan she lost consciousness. Two or three women who were in the room rendered assistance. The remarks they exchanged, though expressing uncertainty and discreetly ambiguous, would have been significant to Monica.’ Thus Gissing is ‘discreetly ambiguous’ too.

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Tuesday 18th March 2014.

At the Prince Charles Cinema to see Only Lovers Left Alive, a new film by Jim Jarmusch. It’s something of a contrast to the last new film I saw, Gravity (at the BFI IMAX the previous Tuesday). Gravity is all about the film as fairground experience: the director throws a series of jolly space-based obstacles at Ms Sandra Bullock until she starts saying aloud ‘Now what?’, thus pre-empting the audience’s response.  The answer being, ‘Now this, Ms B – a fire on the space station! Purely because you’re in a thriller, and we need a reason to introduce Chekhov’s Fire Extinguisher. That way it can be suddenly reused in a different way later on, and the audience will not question it.’

At first I found myself wincing at these clichés of the form. Another one in Gravity is the third astronaut of the mission dying early on, because he is (a) foreign, and (b) not played by a Hollywood star. For years this sort of thing was a joke made by stand up comedians about the 1960s Star Trek – the unknown ‘guy in the red jersey’  who would always perish on alien missions.

But after a while I realise it’s missing the point to mind these archetypes in Gravity – the film is really all about the innovations of its effects. So the hoary old plot stuff is needed, to cast the visual elements into starker relief. And besides there are still a few twists – what happens to George Clooney, for one.

Gravity has been at the IMAX for months, while Only Lovers Left Alive seems to have done a Look of Love at the box office. It has big stars (Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, John Hurt) and a cultish fanbase-baiting story (rock star vampires mooch about elegantly, in present day Tangier and Detroit). Yet it seems to have been all but dismissed by the public. Perhaps it’s for the crime of being what Quentin Crisp once called ‘unabashed festival material’. It’s unashamedly slow and atmospheric, and doesn’t throw obstacles at the characters for the sake of it. They just mope about prettily between sunrises, which is all anyone can ask of them.

It’s the sort of film I can see playing on a Prince Charles Cinema bill alongside the 1980s cult vampire film The Hunger, and indeed alongside Ms Swinton’s Orlando too – more otherworldly and immortal goings on. It’s only surprising she hasn’t played a vampire before. Mr Hiddleston, meanwhile, is the spitting image of Morpheus from Mr Gaiman’s  Sandman comic. And Mia Wasikowska appears too, as the sort of volatile waif that I thought only Ms Juno Temple was allowed to play (indeed, either would make a good Delerium in a Sandman film).

The listings at the Prince Charles Cinema are an entertainment in themselves. One forthcoming event is a ‘weep-along’ screening of Les Miserables, where the ticket includes free tissues.

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Thursday 20th March 2014. Afternoon: I meet Mum in Primrose Hill, and walk with her through to Camden before catching a bus to Euston.  We have tea in the Quaker café opposite the station.

How to tell you are entering Camden: when a young woman in a black t-shirt and multicoloured hair suddenly looms into view carrying a foil tub of fried noodles. She eats them with a wooden fork while walking along the canal. She is An Eternal Camden Figure.

A prominent sign outside Camden Market reads ‘Piercings. Tattoos. Tattoo Removals.’  The full arc of youthful remorse right there. One stall purely sells t-shirts featuring variations on the ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’ poster. Even on an overcast Thursday afternoon, there’s still plenty of punkish young people from other lands sitting on the pavement outside the World’s End, like so many have done before them. Camden Town is not so much a place as an awkward phase.

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Friday 21st March 2014. I get the mark back for another essay. It’s an 80, for Ms Bechdel’s Fun Home, as part of the 21st Century module. I was in a bit of a state during its writing, due to Dad dying (an irony not lost on me given the subject matter). So I was concerned it would get a decent mark at all. I’m pleased and grateful.

And it’s very good of Kate Bush to mark my academic success by announcing her first concerts in 35 years.  She has made an awful lot of people happy today. I think my favourite Kate Bush song is the ballad ‘Under The Ivy’, as championed by Sebastian Horsley. ‘A great song should ache,’ he wrote in the appendix to Dandy In The Underworld. ‘And this song does. It has an aching creative heart. Its scope spans my life.’

Here’s Ms Bush playing it live… in a studio:


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On The Research Binge

Monday 10th February 2014. Room 321 at 43 Gordon Square, part of the Birkbeck campus. I am obliged to do a class presentation on Romantic Age Fiction, as part of the English degree. I choose William Beckford’s Vathek along with Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. This is partly in order to say something about the gothic and gender and camp, but mostly because the two novels rarely get discussed together as it is.

This is a sign that I’m starting to enjoy looking for these little gaps in literary studies, knowing that here is a space on the big collective bookshelf which I might be able to fill. The thought is one I used to view as impossibly vain and arrogant – the inner critical voice saying: ‘who are you to add yet more stuff to the world? The world doesn’t need more books, more words, more records. Other people do those. Not you.’ But arrogance and confidence have a shared border. And if everyone thought like that, there would be no books and records full stop.

The fun is knowing that it is possible to say something new and original and fresh about anything, even Jane Austen. So I stand up in the room in Gordon Square and I argue how Jane Austen is camp. Well, okay, she’s camp just for that one novel, and inadvertently on her part. Effect, rather than intention. But I’m convinced that when dipping her hands into the gothic with Northanger Abbey, Ms Austen accidentally comes out wearing black nail varnish.

Quips aside, I do my best to back this claim up with a decent amount of research and quotes and theory, and hope for the best. Arrogance plus commitment equals art.

No problem arguing that Beckford’s Vathek is camp, though. In his introduction to the Creation Books edition, Jeremy Reed singles out the Caliph’s unceremonious exit from a black marble bath: ‘he flounced from the water like a carp’.  Reed adds that ‘no camper note was ever sounded in the late eighteenth century novel.’

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Tuesday 11th February 2014. In the British Library I find myself getting into spontaneous ‘research binges’, particularly when seeing a quotation without proper citation. The quote I’m thinking about this week is a favourite joke about footnotes:

‘Encountering a footnote, as Noel Coward remarked, is like going downstairs to answer the doorbell while making love.’ – GW Bowersock, ‘The Art of the Footnote’, American Scholar, Vol  53 No 1 (1984).

Did Noel Coward really invent this joke, I wonder? It seems a little too… physical for him.

I’ve also seen it in Chuck Zerby’s 2007 book The Devil’s Details: A History of Footnotes, but that just cites another book, Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History, from 1997. Grafton credits a 1989 essay on footnotes by Betsy Hilbert, which in turn cites the 1984 Bowerstock essay, as quoted above. With supreme irony, Bowerstock goes without any references or footnotes full stop.

Today, however, I find a revised edition of the Grafton book, from 1999, which says Noel Coward got the joke from John Barrymore, as in the vintage Hollywood actor. He refers to a 1976 biography by Cole Lesley, The Life Of Noel Coward (also known as Remembered Laughter), where the joke is a little more sexually explicit. According to Lesley, Coward ‘could never bring himself to glance at [a footnote], he said, after John Barrymore expressed the opinion that having to look at a footnote was like having to go down to answer the front door just as you were coming.’

Naughtier versions or not, there’s no mention of where Barrymore said it himself. So I keep digging away until I find Gene Fowler’s Good Night Sweet Prince: The Life and Times of John Barrymore, published in 1944. It has an anecdote about the actor preparing for Hamlet in 1922. He buys a copy of the play with no footnotes:

‘[John Barrymore] detested footnotes of any calibre, and said of them “It’s like having to run downstairs to answer the doorbell during the first night of the honeymoon.”’

The joke certainly suits the four-times-married grandfather of Drew much more than it does the publicly asexual Coward, and Coward is thought to cite Barrymore when he used it. To attribute the quote to Noel Coward alone does a disservice to both men.

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Wednesday 12th February 2014. The web is 25 years old. I started using it at London’s first internet café, Cyberia, in Charlotte Street in 1995. The browsers were all Netscape – it was just before Internet Explorer. I once saw a man storm out of Cyberia saying ‘What a waste of time. You might as well make a phone call.’

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Thursday 13th February 2014. I get my highest essay mark yet on the degree course. It’s an 85, for a piece on Wilde’s Dorian Gray. To put this in context, a First for a BA English is a 70, while an 80 is a High First, for showing ‘characteristics more usually found at postgraduate level’. And I still have over a year of the undergraduate course to go. Tonight the tutor takes me aside after the class to urge me to consider postgraduate courses when I finish.

I call Mum to tell her. It’s quite an emotional call, as it’s the first achievement of mine that she can’t share with Dad.

My original plan was just to get an English degree full stop, partly out of being fed up with feeling uneducated beyond GCSE level, but also because I felt instinctively that I might be one of those people better suited to doing a degree in later life. This has now turned out to be true – and then some.

Right now I have to admit I’ve no pressing desire for a career in academia, but I don’t dislike the idea either. My main concern, as ever, is how best to earn a modest living from this ability. It surely has to be of worth, to someone, somewhere. I’d even consider living abroad if it came to it.

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After class, I dash off to the Platform Bar, a trendy Hackney hostelry, two floors up in an aging tower block. It’s the launch for The Yes, Sarah Bee’s uplifting book for children. Very Dr Seuss-like, illustrated with colourful abstract animals by Satoshi Kitamura. There’s a website at

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