Letters As Pandas

Monday 25th April 2016. Working on the second draft of the MA essay. It’s 3000 words over the limit, so most of the work is working out which bits to cut. Some are obvious – simply any sections that I feel less confident about. Others fall into the category of ‘Fascinating And Original Insights That I Feel The World Will Benefit From, But Which Aren’t Relevant To The Current Matter At Hand’.


Reading Hollinghurst’s Swimming-Pool Library, I find a line in which a character refers to Brideshead Revisited as ‘that deplorable novel’. All the more amusing, given that the AH’s later works The Line of Beauty and The Stranger’s Child are often compared to Brideshead.  Today, Sebastian Flyte and his teddy bear seem more invulnerable than ever: there’s a new stage production of Brideshead doing the media rounds.


Tuesday 26th April 2016. To Senate House Library, for one of the many Shakespeare exhibitions for the 400th anniversary of his death. This is one is called Shakespeare: Metamorphosis. It presents a history of the Bard in print, via a ‘Seven Ages of Man’ theme. The last age, the decrepit ‘sans teeth, sans eyes’ one, is used for the digital era, now that every play is easily accessible online. Thus the great man is now ‘sans binding, sans pages’. Some irony, though, as I’m writing this up from the exhibition leaflet.

Among the exhibits is a copy of Golding’s sixteenth-century translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an edition similar to the one that inspired Shakespeare. The title page says: ‘Tr. Arthur Golding Gentleman. A work very pleasant and delectable.’ I’m also intrigued by some pristine copies of a 1940s series aimed at schoolchildren, The Satchel Shakespeare. Each play was published as a slim, dark green paperback, light yet somehow sturdy enough to survive a child’s satchel.

As is increasingly the case with historical exhibitions, displays of personal letters tend to be a highlight. Given that the medium of letters is more of an endangered species than the medium of books, even a copy of the First Folio can seem less exotic than letters from a few decades ago.  One only has to point to the success of the Letters of Note books and the Letters Live events to show the changing role of letters; from commonplace pursuit to otherworldly public spectacle. If curators are the zoo keepers of culture, letters are the new pandas.

Consequently, my favourite item in this Shakespeare show is a 1957 correspondence between the University of London’s JH Pafford, and the German scholar Richard Flutter. At the time, Pafford was editing the Arden Shakespeare edition of The Winter’s Tale. Flutter had just published a letter in which he argued that Shakespeare only wrote a fraction of the play. Pafford duly wrote to Flutter asking him to explain this theory in more detail, though he adds that he’s already firmly convinced the play is fully Shakespeare’s. In the reply, also on display, Flutter replies, quite reasonably: ‘Why do you want me to mix a cocktail for you when you are firmly determined not to drink it?


Saturday 30th April 2016. The essay seems to be taking forever. I’m finally on the third draft, working most days in Birkbeck Library, in Torrington Square. Today I don’t finish till half past ten at night. As I walk out, thinking this is late enough, I notice that dozens of students are still hard at it. The library doesn’t close until quarter to midnight.


Sunday 1st May 2016. Weather getting warmer at last. Speak to Mum on the phone in the morning. Then off to the library again. Fourth draft of the essay.


Bank Holiday Monday, 2nd May 2016. Essay deadline at noon, so I’m up early to revise the fifth draft in pen. By the time I finish, it’s getting on for eleven. I still have to type up the corrections. So I hit the PCs in Birkbeck Library and frantically type away, barely taking a breath. I upload the finished version to the college website just in time, with about a minute to spare. It’s like a scene from a bad thriller.

All done now. The essay is by far the one I’ve worked the hardest on, at least to date. I only hope the effort comes across. Still, I’m at least confident that it’s full of uncommon and useful insights – the silver lining of a mind stuck in Lateral Mode.

There’s a phrase used to describe Peter Cook which I feel sums up the sentiment: ‘at a slight angle to the universe’. To be worried about being the wrong kind of ‘different’ in some respects, yet hoping to be the right kind of ‘different’ in others, such as in one’s writing. That’s the hope, anyway.


Evening: to the Odeon Leicester Square, in one of the smaller screens reserved for the less recent films. I see Star Wars: The Force Awakens, nearly five months after it opens. I’m making good on my (slightly silly) promise, made as a reaction to the aggressive, ubiquitous marketing of the film last December. I resolved to only go and see it when it had been reduced to one screen in central London. Which is now the case.

Tonight’s screening is still fairly well-attended, with a mixture of ordinary-looking people and tourists, and of all ages too. No rabid geeks seeing it for the umpteenth time – at least not visibly.

Then again, Star Wars fans come in all forms. A while ago I listened to an edition of A Point of View on BBC Radio 4. Helen Macdonald, the author of H is for Hawk, who is the same generation as me, talked about going back to see The Force Awakens six times. And this was back in February.

Ms Macdonald explained that for her, the new film represented a reassessment of her late 70s childhood, filtered through more up-to-date concerns, like a moving away from older stereotypes of race and gender. She also suggested that it acknowledged the rise of fan fiction, the genre where admirers of a fictional world remodel it for themselves and write their own amateur stories – often improving on it. They are like the heroine Rey in the film – ‘scavengers’ of the old, seizing on the elements which still work, and giving them new purpose. I’d say that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock does the same. What might look like indulgent nostalgia at first, becomes an expression of human continuity.

Actually, the original Star Wars was itself a kind of 1970s fan fiction, what with George Lucas drawing on the campy Flash Gordon serials of his own youth, and bringing in Joseph Campbell’s theories of an even older continuity – classical mythology. Harry Potter has similar aspects: the orphan hero, the boarding school, touches of E Nesbit and CS Lewis – but with the less troubling and politically incorrect bits updated. A sense of exploring within a tradition, though, rather than mere box ticking.

The first half hour of the new Star Wars has some stunning imagery, particularly the isolated use of blood stains on a white Stormtrooper’s helmet – the first sign that the bad guys might be complicated humans too. Adam Driver steals the show: a walking, ready-made metaphor for all kinds of masculinity. From the way little boys can be inexplicably drawn to violence (I think of the Saki tale, ‘The Toys of Peace’), to the sons who join Islamic State, to the long-haired villains in manga comics.

I’m still not wholly converted to the cause, though: for all the reports of the director, Mr Abrams, making the film look more physical and haptic than the wafer-thin prequels, there’s still some pedestrian CGI monsters with tentacles halfway through. I miss the fabulous rubbery tentacles of the 1977 Trash Compactor Monster. Perhaps that’s where the line is drawn these days. The making of rubber tentacles has become a lost art. As with ‘craft beer’, perhaps there needs to be a revival in ‘craft tentacles’.


Wednesday 4th May 2016. Evening: to the Dalston Rio with Shanthi S and Rosie. We see the biopic of Miles Davis, Miles Ahead. Don Cheadle growls his way quite convincingly through the life of the volatile trumpeter. The film constantly flashes back and forth in time, often quite randomly. So the audience is grateful for Mr Cheadle’s vivid changes in appearance: neat short hair and shirt sleeves for the classic phase in the 50s and 60s, then afro and loud shirts for the sadder, reclusive Davis of the late 70s. Ewan McGregor turns up as a Rolling Stone reporter, looking like he’s auditioning for the next Kurt Cobain biopic.

It’s the later showing, at 9.20pm, and we down a few drinks at the Arcola Theatre bar first. Drinks and lateness turn out to be perfect companions for Miles Ahead, just as they were for Victoria the other week. Both films are steeped in an atmosphere of booze, late nights and city bars. The main difference with Miles Ahead, though, is that it’s a period piece. So there’s a huge amount of smoking inside the bars, too. Ashtrays sit on the tops of pianos in darkened clubs, each one duly cradling a lit cigarette. The smoke snakes its way up and around the scene, as much part of the visuals as the actors. It’s an unthinkable sight for a city bar now. It’s How We Used To Smoke.

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Distracted By Silence

Saturday 9th April 2016. I browse in Muswell Hill Bookshop, having not been inside for a while. Am dismayed to see it’s halved its size for the first time in twenty years, changing from a double-fronted premises to a narrow single-fronted one. The jettisoned half is now a dog grooming parlour. Similarly, the former premises of the Ripping Yarns bookshop in Archway Road is now a trendy barber’s. I suppose services for the body, and indeed services for the animal body, are less vulnerable to competition from the internet.

At least the older version of the Muswell Hill bookshop is immortalised on film, thanks to a scene in Tamara Drewe.

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Sunday 10th April 2016. I listen to LBC. One of the adverts in heavy rotation (which always puts me off commercial radio stations) uses the Deacon Blue song, ‘Real Gone Kid’. It is an advert for hearing aids.

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Tuesday 12th April 2016. Evening: to the ICA to see the new German film Victoria with Ms Shanthi. Except that we don’t see it there. I make the mistake of assuming there’ll be tickets available when we turn up. For the first time since I became an ICA member (3 years now), the cinema is sold out. It’s proof that Victoria is a bona fide word-of-mouth hit. That said, the fact that it’s still only £3 to see a film at the ICA on Tuesdays – for both of us – is probably a contributing factor.

Thankfully this is London, so we just see Victoria elsewhere. Shanthi uses her smartphone to find that it’s on at the Curzon Soho a few blocks away, and the Curzon is always a pleasant place to go anyway. I often just use the café to read and write. We wince at the more expensive tickets (over £10, even on a Tuesday night), but remember about booking the ICA in advance next time. ‘Tuition fee’, my dad used to say.

Victoria doesn’t disappoint. Like Boyhood, it’s defined by an impressive experimental concept: to tell an engrossing narrative in a single take. It lasts two and a bit hours without cutting once. This would be tricky enough if the action took place in a single location, but Victoria follows the heroine across real life Berlin in the early hours, moving between an underground nightclub, up a rickety ladder to the roof of an apartment block, then across the city to a café, a car park, a luxury hotel, a family flat, the inside of various vehicles, plus plenty of streets and open spaces.

The first half of the story is a sweet romantic drama, accurately capturing the way young people fall out of city nightclubs at 4am, yet are still keen to team up with fellow revellers to find more drink and continue the party elsewhere. It’s the story of many people’s twenties and thirties – certainly of mine – and it feels very real and very familiar.

But then the sun comes up, and the film changes gear to become, of all things, a full-on heist thriller. Guns are fired, people run for their lives, police officers give chase, hostages are taken, and blood is spilt. And still the camera has not cut. By this point, the thrills of the plot are only intensified by an awareness of all the planning and rehearsal involved. There’s a shot towards the end where Victoria stares at herself in a bathroom mirror, and the camera swings around to catch her reflection. Had the angle been a few degrees off, the camera would have been seen in the mirror too, so the whole film would have to start again.

As with Boyhood, there’s the question about whether the film would be of note without its central gimmick. Certainly, some of the plot twists seem unlikely when properly thought through. But as with Hitchcock’s Rope, one of my favourite films, which also pretends to a be a one-shot affair, the concept is so engrossing that all contrivances are forgiven. Besides, the well-observed realism of the first half makes Victoria much more than the sum of its parts. It is pure cinema, and a complete triumph.

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Thursday 14th April 2016. To Colchester for the funeral of Uncle Bob, Dad’s brother. Tom and Mum meet me at the station, and we head for the civil funeral at the Co-Op chapel in Wimpole Road. Cousin Beth does the readings. The music includes ‘My Way’.

Then there’s a proper burial, my first, half an hour away at Firs Road Cemetery in West Mersea. We drive across the causeway, thankful to miss high tide. I find the sight of the dry Mersea mudflats adds to the symbolism: thoughts of earth, transition, the inevitability of nature. At the grave, the chapel celebrant, a spiky-haired woman, reads the rites. I discover that the coffin is first placed onto a couple of wooden supports that span the grave, so the straps can be attached. Then the supports are taken out, and the coffin is lowered. As music plays on a portable CD player, Bob’s family take turns to scatter earth onto the coffin. The sun shines throughout.

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Saturday 16th April 2016. I reach 4727 words on the MA essay. I still have to add a few sections, which will take me well over the 5000 word limit, but I look forward to sorting that out in the editing stage. Two and a bit weeks to go.

I’m doing a lot of writing in Birkbeck Library, which I find conducive. Though today I glower at the woman at the computer next to me, when she launches into an eternal packet of Rich Tea biscuits. It’s not the rustling that irritates, so much as the munching. I hear every mastication of every molar.

And yet I work in cafes all the time, surrounded by people eating and talking, and that doesn’t bother me. Silence can be more distracting than a wash of noise, because it works like an amplifier on the few sounds there are. It’s the syndrome of the dripping tap at night.

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