Oh, Those Queasy Undergraduates

Saturday 14th February 2015. Valentine’s day. I suppose, Eeyore-like, that one silver lining of an uncoupled life is that it means fewer obligations in the calendar. Today, the occasion seeks to invade spaces far beyond its agreed diocese of coupledom. Now, it infects Tube tannoy announcements. ‘This train is for Kennington via Bank,’ goes an announcer today, before adding: ‘And it’s Valentine’s Day, so make sure you appreciate the loved ones in your life’. I spend most of the journey trying to decide if this is charming, or a threat. It’s certainly out of character: taciturn misery is what one holds dear about the London Underground.

Still, what I do like are the Quotes Of The Day that now appear on the whiteboards in station entrances. Partly because they’re handwritten, often displaying a Tube staffer’s flair for calligraphy. But also because they’re silent.

Leicester Square is dominated by a gigantic hoarding for the movie of Fifty Shades of Grey, playing at the square’s main Odeon. I walk through to Charing Cross Road, and see that one of the sex shop windows is offering Fifty Shades-themed intimate accessories, proudly labelled as official merchandise for this naughty film. I suppose it makes a change from school lunchboxes.

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Sunday 15th February 2015. Over 4000 words clocked up so far on the project, not including the footnotes. Past the halfway mark.

I prefer the term ‘project’ to ‘dissertation’, though they’re technically interchangeable. ‘Dissertation’ sounds obscure, dreary, a chore. ‘Project’ sounds open, hopeful, even useful.

But I also can’t think of the word ‘dissertation’, without hearing it said by Steve Coogan’s stand-up character from early 1990s TV; the intoxicated, staggering, can-swigging Mancunian, Paul Calf. ‘Bloody STEW-dents… doing their dissss-er-TAY-shuns…paying for a bag of chips… with a cheque!

There is nothing new in students being mocked full stop, though. ‘Undergraduate’ has long been a pejorative term off-campus. It’s often used to suggest something with pretensions of cleverness, something that is ill-thought-out and fatally jejune. Complainants to Radio 4 refer to ‘undergraduate humour’, when castigating a new sketch show. It doesn’t help that the word is similar to ‘underwhelming’, and indeed, ‘underpants’.

My favourite usage is in Virginia Woolf’s diaries for 1922, where she berates a book for being written as if ‘by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’. The book in question is Ulysses.

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Tuesday 17th February 2015. With Fenella H to the Wellcome Collection in Euston, for the exhibition The Institute of Sexology. Most of the visitors are female. Plenty of men on display, of course, not least Mr Freud, and Mr Kinsey, in his statutory sexologist bow tie. In fact, I wonder if sexologists eschewed long neckties because of Mr Freud.

I’m pleased to have an assumption shattered – that an exhibition on the history of sexual research has to be very serious.  I’d heard there’s a museum of erotica somewhere (Italy, I think) where sniggering gets you thrown out. But here there’s a Woody Allen clip, the discussion on ‘orgasmatrons’ from Sleeper. There’s also a witty 1980s video sketch, spoofing Clause 28, as performed by Neil Bartlett. It’s more subtle and angry than Sleeper, but it’s still very funny.

Class at Birkbeck: The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich. A tale of Native American families, with touches of magical realism and mythology. I find it lacks a sense of momentum, at least on a first read, but there’s an excellent and amusing section narrated by a dog, ‘Almost Soup’. If in doubt, send in a funny dog.

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Wednesday 18th February 2015. Class at Birkbeck: The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. I had no idea it was much more than just a historical novel; that it subtly filters its Victorian melodrama through an anachronistic 1960s perspective, with clever digressions on the meaning of fiction. I especially enjoy the reference to ‘the egregious McLuhan’ when explaining why a character owns no books.


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Thursday 19th February 2015. To the Curzon Soho to see Love is Strange. This is a tender-hearted drama about two older gay men in New York getting married. John Lithgow is a retired 70-something, while Alfred Molina is a fifty-something music teacher at a Catholic school. Or at least he is until news of the wedding reaches his employer. There’s an excellent moment early on when, after dismissing Mr Molina in his office, the head priest asks him to stop and pray with him before leaving. He is worried that Mr M might now lose his faith, given it has lost him his job. ‘I still regard Christ as my saviour,’ replies Molina, ‘But I don’t think I can pray with you any more.’  What’s remarkable is that there aren’t any more references to his Catholicism after this – it’s as much a matter-of-fact aspect of his life as his homosexuality. Many other films would make that the main issue of the story.

What the film is really about, though, is the present cruelty of metropolitan housing markets; arguably a far more pressing issue now, more than religion or sexuality. Without Mr Molina’s job, the newly-weds are forced to sell their flat and stay separately with New York relatives and friends, until they can find somewhere affordable. They could move out of town, but they’ve become as emotionally attached to the city as they have to each other. There’s also the suggestion – quite an honest one – that a long-standing gay couple used to the city might feel uneasy about relocating to a small town community. Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears may have been the toast of Aldeburgh, Suffolk, but would Poughkeepsie, upstate NY (to give the film’s example) be quite so tolerant?  Thus Love is Strange is ultimately about the way relationships can become strained, both with beloved people and beloved places. I do wonder how it’ll play in Poughkeepsie cinemas, though.

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Friday 20th February 2015. To Soho Radio in Great Windmill Street, where I’m a guest for the second time on my brother Tom’s show. I burble on about the way some rock genres have changing statuses over time. ‘Shoegazing’ was once a music press insult for a group of early 90s UK indie bands, all of whom made a dreamy, fuzzy racket with their guitars while staring intently at their footwear. Not because the shoes in question were particularly interesting, but because ‘showmanship’ was a dirty word. Even looking up through one’s fringe, to make the slightest eye contact with the audience, was tantamount to artistic death. Come the more heads-up, personality-based era of Britpop in the mid 90s, such bands found themselves out of time, and soon split up. Today, the likes of Swervedriver, Ride, and Slowdive have quietly reformed to capitalize on what seems to be a ‘shoegazing heritage’, where their records have found a sizeable new audience, particularly in the US. Like an indie version of the Quakers’ story, the Shoegazers turned an insult into an identity.

* * *

I sit and do some studying in The Old Café, on the first floor of the old Foyles building in Charing Cross Road. The café is independent, friendly, cheap, and pleasingly ramshackle, in contrast to the new Foyles café proper, which is designed to within an inch of its life. As it is, the new Foyles café is often packed, while today The Old Café is virtually empty. A new place to meet up with friends in central London, then, and proof that the bohemian side of Soho is not yet dead.

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MC Escher’s IKEA

Saturday 7th June 2014. To the new Foyles bookshop at 107 Charing Cross Road. It’s a few doors down from the motley warren Foyles inhabited from the 1930s right up until last month. Number 107 is a more uniform space, being the former home of the St Martins School of Art, which is now at King’s Cross.

I’ve read that the old Foyles shop might become a hotel. Right now it’s a desolate shell. A lone security guard stands behind the glass doors, surrounded by bare walls and cardboard boxes. Despite the notices on the windows, some confused-looking people – possibly tourists – are banging on the door. So he spends much of his time passing on the same piece of information, via a combination of mouthing and waving: ‘GO NEXT DOOR. IT’S NEXT DOOR. NOT HERE. NOT ANY MORE.’

As I understand it, the actual amount of books on display is more or less unchanged. What’s different is that Foyles Charing Cross is now a lot better organised, more spacious, and more opened-out. It’s a bit furniture store-like, I suppose, complete with the smell of sawdust, but it’s still pleasingly labyrinthine too, with fixed staircases rather than escalators. MC Escher’s IKEA.

Ray’s Jazz shop is tucked away inside, with signs apologising for the late arrival of the shelves. The café on one of the upper levels has yet to be finished, but I can go up to see the space anyway, where there’s a superb view over the Soho rooftops.

A central London property turned into a huge bookshop rather than luxury flats is no small event. Foyles are not in it for the money. They see a future in physical bookshops, even now, and I salute their optimism. Blackwells across the road is closing, blaming the Crossrail development, while the excellent Foyles branch in St Pancras has had to close, apparently for not making enough to meet the lease. However, a branch of Hatchards is now to open in a different part of the station, so the day of the bookshop isn’t quite over yet.

Today there’s a long queue to get into Foyles, and the shop is soon packed. There’s the excited atmosphere akin to an Apple Store opening, if not quite on the same evangelical level (which would unnerve me).

Something else I admire, which it’s hard to think of other companies doing. Foyles are not only aware of the somewhat ‘mixed’ reputation they had under the eccentric Christina, they are even happy to single it out for customers today. One table labelled ‘Honorary Mentions’ displays novels that allude to the shop, and not always positively. From JM Coetzee’s Youth the display highlights this quote:

[Foyles] has proved a disappointment. The boast that Foyles stocks every book in print is clearly a lie, and anyway the assistants, most of them younger than himself, don’t know where to find things. He prefers Dillons.

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Sunday 8th June 2014. To the Camden Head for ‘Z List Dead List’, a comedy show comprising mini-lectures about obscure historical figures. I go by myself but bump into Cat Rogers and her friends. Afterwards we go for drinks at The Spread Eagle in Parkway.

At Z List Dead List, the regular host is the very funny Iszi Lawrence, whom I adore. The guest speakers are Kate Smurthwaite, who does Mary Reed, a cross-dressing pirate; Pete Johansson, who does Pierre Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister who once dated Barbra Streisand; Tracy King, who does the Pompeii banker from the Cambridge Latin Course; and Richard Herring, who does Felix Yusupov, assassin of Rasputin. I find Ms King’s talk to be the funniest, despite her not being a proper comedian – she’s actually a producer of computer games and animations. I vote for the pirate woman, but Pierre Trudeau triumphs.

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Tuesday 10th June 2014. To the Prince Charles cinema to see The Wind Rises, the latest animated film by Miyazaki. It’s set in the 1930s, about a young aviation engineer whose successes with the Japanese Air Force are marred by his wife’s tuberculosis. The moral question of a peace-loving person using his talents to aid warfare isn’t really addressed, though Miyazaki – himself a pacifist – makes it clear that all planes are beautiful in their own right. I think of Dad, another pacifist who liked tales of warcraft, and who would have loved this film rather more than me. War or no war, I’ve never found aviation history all that interesting. Still, like all Miyazaki’s work the film is aesthetically sublime, and the ending leaves me tearful.

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Wednesday 11th June 2014. I receive the last mark for the third year of the BA English course. It’s 79, for a Fin De Siecle essay. So I’ve achieved what I was hoping for: a clean run of ten First Class marks throughout the year. Four of those were even High Firsts, ie postgraduate quality, something I never thought I’d achieve this early on.

The only competition is with oneself, of course. So this is rather a big deal for me. Last year my marks were constantly up and down. But now my highest essay mark in years 1 and 2 – 75 – has been my lowest essay mark in year 3.

It hasn’t been without obstacles, either. The work became more difficult (four modules rather than three, all at level 6 difficulty, as opposed to level 5 last year). Plus Dad passed away in February. It’s Father’s Day this weekend. I wish I could tell him how I’ve done.

The secret behind this improvement is, I’m afraid to say, very boring. It’s putting the hours in, and then spreading the hours across as many days as possible, so you don’t go too long without doing that kind of work. A couple of tutors have now approached me to consider doing an MA. Assuming I can get the fees covered by some sort of scholarship (which now looks possible) I think that’s what I’ll do. Till then, I have one more year of the BA to concentrate on.

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In the evening: to Birkbeck in Gordon Square once more, for a talk by the writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh, aka Badaude. She discusses her stories in the collection Fractals, along with the campaign ‘#readwomen2014’, which she instigated to encourage people to read more female authors.

I ask Ms W about a tale of gendered publishing that’s always fascinated me: how Joanna Rowling was forced to adopt the androgynous ‘J.K.’ by her publisher, because they believed boys didn’t read books by girls (so much for Rosemary Sutcliff). She even had to invent the ‘K’ part of her name, because she had no middle name in real life. Ms Walsh points out how the recent Hunger Games books sold in huge amounts to boys, despite the author’s name being Suzanne Collins. So things have changed for the better there.

* * *

Friday 17th June 2014. Every time the World Cup comes around it seems more popular than ever. This is despite the inelegant millionaires of the England team still refusing to be any better at kicking a ball about than me.

[I write this up on Saturday afternoon to the sound of football too. A couple of boys are kicking a ball about in the road, despite cars passing every few minutes. I’m tempted to open the window and shout, ‘ISN’T THERE ENOUGH FOOTBALL ABOUT ALREADY?’]

Today I’m standing on one of the Northern Line platforms at Euston. As usual I glance at the dot-matrix board, which says how long the next train will be. Something new today, though. The bottom of the board clears, indicating that it is probably about to flash the words ‘NEXT TRAIN APPROACHING’. In fact it announces the latest score of Mexico v Cameroon.

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