Modernist Cosplay

Saturday 22nd August 2015

My over-sensitivity to traffic noise is put to a new test. This week, gas works at the junction between Archway Road and Southwood Lane have meant that my quiet little avenue is soaking up some of the traffic from the A1. Today I learn that diverted traffic has a special sound all of its own. It’s not just an increased volume of vehicles: it’s an increased volume of newly angry vehicles. As they turn into the avenue, the drivers hit the accelerator and take out their frustration on the residents, just because they can. It is the motorist equivalent of flouncing out of a room and slamming the door.

* * *

Tuesday 25th August 2015

Days of rain and bad temper. I am beginning to discover how much of the financial help I’d received as an undergraduate isn’t available to postgraduates. MA students are expected to just have reserves of money. Today I have the confirmation that my discounted Tube travelcard cannot be extended for the MA. I put down the phone, seething, as the clouds burst over the city.

I brood on this an hour later, having trudged through the rain onto a Tube train. Then I learn something else: that my only summer shoes go into aquaplane mode if they so much as look at a raindrop. They also have the ability to retain a lethal amount of water on the soles. I learn this hard, as in the hardness of a tube station platform. I step off the train, and immediately slip over. Fully and bodily, the impact of the platform easily eclipsed by the impact of the watching tourists. I feel their eyes far more than the ground, and it is my dignity that really suffers. By Charing Cross Station I Fell On My Arse.

Miraculously, my white suit remains unsullied. A passing passenger checks I’m okay, as I scrabble to stand up. ‘Take it easy, man’.

* * *

Writing this up days later, I feel the need to apologise to the blameless escalator at Charing Cross. I’m ashamed to say that I suddenly thumped it – once, but as hard as possible – as I made my ascension from the platform. I was still reeling from the fall, but of course there was more to be angry about. It had really been the worry over money, as much as the rain, and the shoes. The punch was my version of the motorists diverted from Archway Road, with their little angry bouts of needless noise.

* * *

Wednesday 26th August 2015.

I’m reading Clive James’s new book of literary essays, Latest Readings. Given Mr J’s terminal illness, and its very public nature, it must have been tempting to call the collection Last Readings. But as Mr J himself has commented, with the dark humour suggested by the title of his book of poems (also just published), Sentenced To Life, medicine has developed to the point where a terminal diagnosis can still mean another five years. In which time, Mr J has had the condolence of the career-boosting attention of death, while still being alive to enjoy it. And he is no Harper Lee: there’s no shunning of the press. Despite being housebound, he still gives interviews and poetry readings for visiting media. Perhaps one reason is that he disliked the way an actor read his poem ‘Japanese Maple’ on the radio. ‘I tuned in on the web to listen,’ he says. ‘And I felt that I had been tied to a chair and beaten up by Basil Rathbone.’

Latest Readings is an account of the prose works he has consumed since falling ill (he’s already covered poetry in Poetry Notebook). The one work that ‘cured’ his fear of lacking enough energy for prose was Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which is over a thousand pages. Then he found himself devouring Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey yarns, the novel sequences of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, and large swathes of Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad. His rediscovery of Conrad became an unexpected compulsion: ‘Time felt precious and I would have preferred to spend less of it with him, but he wouldn’t let me go.’ He also sings the praises of Game Of Thrones on DVD, while assuring the reader that he has not become an all-embracing saint either: Dan Brown’s novels are still of ‘semi-mental merit’, and the Carry On films remain ‘brain dead’. I can’t agree with the latter, though I have to admit it applies to Carry On Emmanuelle.

In the book’s last essay, ‘Coda’, Mr James links his reading of a new Florence Nightingale biography to his experiences of the nurses at Addenbrooke’s hospital, in Cambridge. On a night nurse who had to clean up his burst urinary tract, he notes how she herself ‘had a deformed body, with limbs all the wrong lengths. Life could never have been easy for her. But now she was making the end of life easier for me. […] I can only hope that the sum total of my writings has been as useful to the world as her kindness, but I doubt that this is so’. He dedicates the book to the hospital.

Books may indeed be little use when it comes to cleaning up urinary tracts (the absorbing properties of paper aside), but I like the way Latest Readings proves that sickbed reading can not only be a comfort, but a process of discovery.

When Dad was in the hospice in Ipswich, I found myself intrigued by the communal bookcase, noting which authors were deemed hospice-friendly. The most common names on the shelves were Agatha Christie, PG Wodehouse, and Terry Pratchett.

Tonight happens to be the release of Pratchett’s last Discworld novel, The Shepherd’s Crown. There’s news reports of a midnight launch at Waterstones Piccadilly, with photos of adult fans dressed up in wizard costumes (the practice is now called ‘cosplay’ – costume play). On Twitter I see a certain amount of sneering at this. And yet, how is this any different from the James Joyce fans who wear straw boaters when they go on ‘Bloomsday’ walks?

One Pratchett fan is interviewed. She says that her father found comfort in the Discworld books, while on his own terminal sickbed.

Terms like ‘award-winning’, ‘longlisted’ and ‘acclaimed’ are really all steps to the same thing; the one thing all writers want, whatever their genre or literary standing. They just want to be read. As Philip Glass says somewhere, to have an audience is success enough.

* * *

Thursday 27th August 2015.

I find a college jobs advert with a sentence in urgent capitals: ‘DUE TO THE HIGH NUMBER OF APPLICATIONS WE EXPECT TO RECEIVE FOR THIS POST, THERE WILL BE A CAP OF 100 APPLICANTS.’ It’s for a part-time library shelver.

* * *

To the Curzon Bloomsbury, and its documentary-only screen for The Wolfpack. This is a frustrating film on an intriguing subject. Six teenage brothers have been confined by their father to their New York apartment, for most of their life. They have been schooled at home by their mother, who has some kind of license and arrangement with the authorities to do so. In lieu of contact with the outside the world, the boys become avid DVD buffs, recreating scenes from Reservoir Dogs and The Dark Knight with the use of props made from cereal boxes.

Despite the appeal of such an unusual scenario, and the poignancy of letting these isolated boys tell their tale to a mass audience, I felt the film needed more voices. I wanted to hear from the social services, the police, the neighbours, even a narration from the off-camera director. It’s exactly the kind of film where a Q&A with the director feels necessary.

* * *

Friday 28th August 2015.

To the Curzon Victoria for Gemma Bovery. After my frustration with the true story of The Wolfpack, I thought I might be more satisfied with some straight-ahead fiction. Particularly as it was an adaptation of a graphic novel I’d enjoyed, Posy Simmonds’s 1999 book. I hoped it’d be as fun as the film of Tamara Drewe, the other graphic novel by Ms Simmonds. I also liked the symmetry of Gemma Arterton starring in both films, and I liked the way she was already called Gemma for this new one.

Or so I thought. The film turns out to be a lifeless bore. It omits all of Ms Simmonds’s wry humour and social satire, as if they were mere distractions from the plot. The film is French-made, so I wonder if Ms S’s style of comedy was just too English to be translated. Whatever the reason, what is left is a rather dull tale of English people in Normandy.

When I get home, I dig out the original graphic novel. As I thought, it’s packed with everything the film lacks: ingenuity, originality, wit. I love the French baker’s narration, the English husband’s matching of crossword anagrams to his ex-wife’s demands (‘”parent” is an anagram of “entrap”!’). I love the influence of Vanessa Bell on Gemma’s decorations for her farmhouse, the English ex-pat neighbours installing of red telephone boxes by their swimming pool (‘one for a shower, one for a changing cabin’), Gemma’s resentment that ‘all French women seem to have brand new handbags’, and her comment that her husband’s children ‘can recite the names of pizzas but not a single wild flower’. All this is missing from the film, every word of it, and I miss it madly.

The most revealing omission of all, though, is Gemma’s quip that her husband’s beret makes him look ‘like someone in a Stella Artois ad’. The film Gemma Bovery is exactly that. A misty, pretty idea of rural Frenchness, and not much more. I worry that far more people will see the limp film than will read the sparkling graphic novel. If so, it’s a real dommage.

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