I Don’t Know Where To Put My Eyebrows

Saturday 18th October 2014. To Hornchurch in darkest Outer London, virtually in Essex. It’s for my first ever MRI brain scan (which, I hasten to record, results in an all-clear). The NHS provides the scan free, as long as I don’t mind travelling for an hour and half to get to the only clinic that can fit me in. I discover with some delight that one of the trains I take is an adorable little single-track shuttle, going from Romford to Upminster and back. At Romford, the platform for the branch line is hidden away, out of sight of the rest of the station. I alight at the only stop along the way, Emerson Park.

In the clinic waiting room, I sit next to an elderly Essex couple. Their conversation is an endless stream of complaints about public services, peppered liberally with f-words.  ‘Paint your face black, you get everything.’

The scan only takes fifteen minutes. I give the operators a CD of my own choice, which surprises them. Usually they give patients some in-clinic muzak. As a result of my intervention they put the CD on at deafening volume, and I’m too nervous about being wheeled into the big white cylinder to realise this, until it’s too late. Never mind. It’s a privilege to be deafened by John Betjeman’s Late Flowering Love.

* * *

I pass through Friends House on Euston Road, the large building of bookable rooms, run by the Quakers. They now have digital display screens in the corridors which carry world news headlines. I suppose even the serenely peaceful need to be in touch. The rest of the board announces today’s room bookings: the Sunflower Healing Trust and the All England Netball Association.

* * *

Tuesday 21st October 2014. Tonight’s class at Birkbeck: In the American Grain by Walter Carlos Williams. Tutor: Joe Brooker. A curious 1920s medley of poetic essays about American history, each one written in a different voice. Difficult to get to grips with (due to the variety), but intriguing nonetheless.

* * *

Wednesday 22nd October 2014. Tonight’s class: Nineteen Eighty-Four by Orwell. Tutor: Roger Luckhurst. Hadn’t realised the symbolic significance of the paperweight, and how its meaning keeps shifting. The novel is always more complex and more layered than I realise, despite the clear, simple prose. On the latest edition of QI, Stephen Fry admitted he’d never read it. In fact, the show said it’s a book that people particularly lie about having read. Can’t think why: it’s not particularly long or difficult.

* * *

Meet with Ms Shanthi for drinks at the Cork & Bottle in Bear Street, off Leicester Square. A friendly little underground wine bar: very Old Soho. Then she takes me to the inexpensive yet ornate and Gatsby-esque Brasserie Zedel in Piccadilly for dinner. It’s been such a while since I’ve done anything vaguely sociable that I feel physically improved by the whole experience. I end up calling Ms S a veritable panacea. ‘I’m a what? I’m a Panatella?’

* * *

Friday 24th October 2014. To the Prince Charles cinema to see 20,000 Days On Earth, a curious quasi-documentary about Nick Cave. I may not be a fan of his Australian Gothicky-bluesy rock music but I do admire him for being such a sui generis artiste. I also am impressed with the way he’s kept his distinctive look and artistic style – and indeed, his rail-thin physique – so intact for so very long. The film’s title is from his observation of how many days he’s been alive. I can’t resist dividing 20,000 by 365 – it works out at 55 years.

I had heard that the film was as much about his adopted home of Brighton as it was about him. As it turns out, it is still rather more of a Nick Cave documentary, but there’s plenty of distinctive Sussex topography on show. Not least a scene where Mr C drives along the coast to have dinner with Warren Ellis, his main co-writer in the band. Mr Cave is seen parking his car outside one particularly recognizable location: the white coastguard cottages in Cuckmere Haven, in front of the Seven Sisters cliffs. These have appeared in countless tourist guides, postcards, jigsaw puzzles and indeed other films. In Atonement, James McAvoy and Keira Knightley end up there. 20,000 Days On Earth would thus have the viewer believe that this is the home of Nick Cave’s guitarist. It’s not very likely, though, and afterwards I can’t resist looking up where Mr Ellis really resides (Paris).  But given the whole film is full of staged scenes and artificial conceits, my reading of the scene is that it’s a nod to the way documentaries meddle with the facts to get the best looking results for the camera. If you’re going to pass off a hired location as someone’s home, you may as well think big. The staged effect also casts the truly real sections (live performances at concerts and in the studio) into more vivid relief.

I think one reason why I still don’t ‘get’ Nick Cave is that he takes his art very seriously, yet suddenly sings lyrics that namecheck Miley Cyrus and the Higgs bosun particle. I don’t know where to put my eyebrows. The Cave oeuvre operates on a very particular frequency – one has to buy fully into his world, or not at all. Hence his enduring status as a cult artist, rather than a mainstream one. And yet in the film he tells Kylie Minogue how he envies her being a waxwork at Madame Tussauds. Or is that a wry joke? I can’t tell.

* * *

I watch a YouTube interview by Mark Kermode. He asks a woman from the BBFC about their issuing of warnings for the start of films in UK cinemas. These take the form of a short sentence explaining why they’ve given a film a particular certificate.  More recently, however, these warnings have crossed into the realms of plot spoilers, such as ‘contains one scene of a suicide attempt’ for Two Days One Night. When I saw this film’s warning at the Dalston Rio, many of the audience tutted and sighed, appalled at such blunt specificity. When the suicide scene popped up, myself and my friends looked to each other and whispered, ‘Ah, here’s that thing we were told to watch out for, then.’ The immersive effect was completely ruined. I thought of the disastrous scheme which Channel 4 tried out in the 80s, where they indicated a film’s sexual content by adding a little red triangle in the corner. It didn’t last long.

Now, according to the Mark Kermode video, the BBFC have listened to people’s complaints. They are going to keep any spoiler-style warnings restricted to their website, so those who need to check for such things can do so individually. This makes sense. It’s the unasked-for placing at the start of the film that’s really the problem.

This is not to play down the importance of ‘trigger warnings’, however. I know now – thanks to Twitter – that to be ‘triggered’ by content is not the same as just being upset. A triggered reaction is associated more with post-traumatic stress disorder. Detailed depictions of domestic assault, sexual abuse or suicide – when unexpected – have now been known to trigger physical reactions in some people, just as strobe lighting can cause problems for those with epilepsy. So the BBFC’s dilemma is understandable.

I can think of some films where a full tally of triggering and upsetting content would never fit into a single warning full stop. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, for one. I saw it twice when it came out. At both screenings, people got up and walked out – and at the same scene. It involved a wooden spoon, a person, and a lot of blood. But by that point there had been so many similar scenes that this may have been the last straw.

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In Which I Compare Myself To Imelda Marcos

Saturday 16th August 2014. My reading matter this week includes Samuel Beckett’s short stories from the 1940s, such as ‘The Expelled’ and ‘The End’. They’re all about lonely layabouts trudging the streets in existential woe. I come away wanting to look at pictures of kittens.

* * *

Currently struggling with two mundane but time-consuming problems: the procurement of new shoes and new glasses. I record these non-experiences in the hope of exorcising their hold on me.

I put off these sort of purchases as long as I can. Partly out of poverty, but also because I know purchases of need rarely satisfy me, compared to purchases of luxury (such as alcohol, cinema tickets or books).

In the cases of the glasses, the nice optician at Boots Muswell Hill tested my sight and told me it had changed slightly. She gave me a new prescription. Then it emerged that (a) they cannot put new lenses into my current frames, and (b) Boots no longer make my current frames.

I tried on the free NHS frames they had, but couldn’t find any I liked. Then I tried some of the priced ones I can just about afford (ie under £100) and settled for a pair I thought were okay. Black rimmed, Boots own brand, a bit big and cartoonish. I was aiming for Vintage Michael Caine, rather than Current Gok Wan. £95, from a half price offer.

But this mundanity expands, sucking up hours. It takes me two visits to decide on this new pair, then a third visit for collecting them after the lenses are in. And then a few days after that, I decide I don’t like the specs so much after all. They feel heavy and clunky and goggle-like. Is it the newness? A resentment of change? Or is it that I just wanted to get out of the opticians as fast as possible, knowing I had to choose something? On top of this, I’m now unconvinced my eyesight has changed – my old pair seem to correct my vison well enough.

I can barely speak for sighing. I stand on a train platform on St Pancras, holding both the old and the new pairs, switching between the two while testing my sight on the train information signs. I must look mad.

* * *

And then, later in the week, I have a similar frustration with new shoes. I try to go for years without buying a new pair. My current everyday black shoes now have holes in the top. Seconds of rain leave both feet drenched. The cobblers in Muswell Hill have told me to throw them out, but I haven’t. I can’t, yet.

I go to Clarks in Oxford Street and spend a good hour trying on sand-coloured shoes to go with my linen suits. One pair seem right: Clarks Classics, suede Jinks, priced £75. Fine, done, happy. Yet a few days later I’m in pain. The suede creases when I walk, cutting into my left foot at the base of my big toe. I’m close to limping.

The Clarks receipt says ‘full refund if unworn’. By this point, I have dragged the shoes through a mile of London grime. I spend hours trying to solve the dilemma with Scholls padded plasters, stuck on the painful areas of my foot. That in turn means time has to be spent at Boots St Pancras, peering at their complex range of foot-based products. I go back to stock up on more when I realise the pads come off in the shower. And so it goes on. Incredibly, the world turns.

I worry that I’ll never find a single pair of comfortable yet affordable shoes. And then I worry that it’s my feet that are the problem; that they’ve become vertically misshapen with age, and that this pain is just another petty ache one has to get used to. Or: perhaps I’m walking wrongly. I’ve caught myself staring at how others walk on the street (evidence of more madness). I see other people tilting their feet at a much higher angle than I do. Maybe that’s it. Have I forgotten how to walk properly? I wouldn’t put it past me.

(At this point I fear I am turning into a Samuel Beckett character. You are what you read.)

So this is what dominates my life this week, to my utter shame. The resentment of simple self-maintenance that fails to be simple. I try to dwell on more important things, but my shoes have rather gone to my head. The only response I take away from reading the news is, ‘I bet Barack Obama’s shoes fit him okay.’

Another thought. Perhaps Imelda Marcos wasn’t so greedy after all, with her palace of infinite shoes. Perhaps she just couldn’t get it right.

* * *

Sunday 18th August 2014. I’m reading Ronald Blythe’s diaries, as collected in Under A Broad Sky (Canterbury Press, 2013). He says this on the student protests of 2011:

‘It is sad to grow old and to have never rioted.’ He’s about 90.

* * *

Monday 19th August 2014. Penguin’s annotated edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four includes a letter from Evelyn Waugh to Orwell, criticising the novel in a respectful, friendly way. Waugh’s main reservation is ‘the disappearance of the Church’ in Orwell’s vision. He means Catholicism, but he implies that religion as a whole is ‘inextinguishable’ – a word that directly recalls the ending of Brideshead Revisited.

The edition also reprints Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, next to a reader’s report by the publishers, Secker & Warburg, about Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the former, Orwell lists his rules for how to write clearly, which have been much quoted ever since (‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out’). In the latter, the publisher notes ‘It is a typical Orwellism that Julia falls asleep while Winston reads part of [O’Brien’s book] to her. Women aren’t intelligent in Orwell’s world’. And that’s from his own publisher! The lesson seems to be: feel free to take Orwell’s advice on how to write, but bear in mind that he wasn’t perfect either.

* * *

Tuesday 20th August 2014. I realise my ongoing shoe discomfort is not rare. Today I’m in Humanities One of the British Library Reading Rooms, studying Larkin’s The Less Deceived. The woman at the desk next to me has taken her shoes and socks off. One bare foot rests on her other knee, in a kind of bookish yoga position.

* * *

Wednesday 21st August 2014. To the Phoenix for The Congress. It’s a giddy, strange film that mixes live action with psychedelic animation. The actress Robin Wright plays a version of herself. The story starts out as a satire on the state of Hollywood, but then shifts into full-on science fiction. It’s often hard to keep up with what’s going on: only twenty minutes after I leave the cinema do I fully understand what happens at the end. The critics have been polarised, with some using the term ‘Yellow Submarine-esque’ as an insult. In which case, count me on the side of those who would take it as a compliment. I admit The Congress is not a perfect film, but there’s so much imagination and originality on show – and so many sights no one has seen before. It goes into the Top Five of my favourite films this year, along with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Punk Singer, and Frank.

* * *

Friday 22nd August 2014. At home all day. Reading, writing, failing to write, filling out paperwork for the final college year, idly social media-ing. I leave the house just once, at about 6pm, to go to Sainsbury’s on Archway Rd. Barely a minute’s walk, and a passer-by says to me: ‘love the suit!’ The only words I hear in person all day. Well, if I must have a single comment from the world.

I suppose I really do put on a suit and tie just to buy a pint of milk. Didn’t even realise it.

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Fish Of The Day

Sunday 10th August 2014. I chat with Mum over the phone. She’s busy, giving classes and talks on quilt making all over the country, most recently at the NEC. Tom has now built her a website as a kind of shop window. It’s her first ever web presence. The URL is www.lynneedwardsquilts.com.

* * *

Monday 11h August 2014. To the Boogaloo to watch Lea Andrews perform with Sadie Lee, as part of the Blue Monday gig night. An evening of seeing old friends. Charley Stone is there, Charlotte Hatherley too. This is my only socialising this week; the rest of my time is spent in the British Library in St Pancras, communing with the dead.

Currently re-reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Last read when I was a teenager. This time round I’m older than Winston Smith. I’d forgotten that he has varicose veins; something I’m rather familiar with now. The themes are more relevant than ever, as evidenced by Edward Snowden’s mention of the novel in his Alternative Christmas Message last year. Fear of state surveillance, the removal of privacy, the state control of information, the daily get together to hate something for the sake of joining in (thus anticipating Twitter), war being used to keep populations suppressed, bad entertainment doing the rest of the suppression. Orwell’s prose style surprises me with its simple, unfussy realism. Stylistically, it could be written today. The only 1940s anachronism I pick up is the usage of ‘dear’ by the two lovers.

But slang comes around too. ‘Oh my days’ sounds pure Dickens. I’ve heard it used by all kinds of young people in London now, and by some not so young people too. A friend says it derives from Caribbean patois. So I wonder if it came from the effects of the Empire before that.  I like the idea of slang being exported across lands, passing through social groups, then returning after more than a century, like the orbit of a comet.

* * *

Tuesday 12th August 2014. Robin Williams dies. It’s thought to be suicide. A lot of discussion online of depression and the eternal archetype of the sad clown. My local cinema, the Phoenix, is putting on a screening of Good Will Hunting, as a benefit for the Samaritans.

People on Twitter have taken tribute selfies, standing on tops of desks, holding up signs saying ‘O Captain My Captain’. This is a reference to a scene in Dead Poets Society, the words taken from a poem by Walt Whitman. My band Orlando did a similar tribute in 1996, for the video to ‘Don’t Kill My Rage’. We even dressed as schoolboys and filmed in a beautiful old private school. And we stood on the desks.

I can’t think of the Dead Poets motto ‘carpe diem’ now without recalling a joke from I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue:

Carpe diem: Fish of the Day.’

What a range of work Robin Williams left behind, though. Particularly given his problems. Some roles wacky (Mork and Mindy, Good Morning Vietnam), some serious (Dead Poets Society, Awakenings) some sinister (Insomnia). In theory I should have found his comedy style irritating, but the sheer speed of his invention always impressed me. Completely over the top, yes, but also completely out of the blue. Where did that ability come from? It seemed utterly unearthly – hence Mork.

His big, rubbery, Punch-like features seemed to also fit that other extreme of emotion – sentiment. There’s something very Victorian about that mix; the need to complement the uproarious with the lachrymose. Knowing that Williams was built to erupt into loud comedy made his restrained roles all the more watchable. The energy had to be channelled into reverse. He’s perfect for The World According To Garp, as the quiet centre in John Irving’s outlandish parade. I also like him as the murderous author in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, or the avuncular gay radio host in The Night Listener (based on Armistead Maupin), or the nightclub owner in The Birdcage, teaching Nathan Lane how to act more manly. In one scene they try discussing sports like heterosexual men. Or so they imagine:

WILLIAMS: (putting on manly voice) Al, you old son of a bitch! How ya doin’? How do you feel about those Dolphins today?

LANE: How do you think I felt? Bewildered! Betrayed…! (looks at Williams, wrist returns to limpness) Wrong response, right?

WILLIAMS: I’m not sure…

* * *

Wednesday 13th August 2014. London begging. On the tube today, a man gets on and promptly goes round the carriage carefully placing wrapped packets of pocket tissues (the Handy Andies type) on the empty seats next to each passenger. There’s also a piece of paper with each packet. Presumably it contains his written appeal for money, in return for the tissues, along with some detail of his circumstances. I say presumably because I don’t pick up a packet, and neither does anyone else. The British are so obsessed with taking the least embarrassing action in public as it is. Added to which, the London tube carriage is a place of non-action, of retrieving into yourself, of trying not to exist. Not the best place to ask for money.

The tissues man waits silently at one end of the carriage for no more than a minute. Then he goes round again, this time retrieving all the packets of tissues and paper notes and putting them back in his shoulder bag. He gets off at the next stop.

* * *

Thursday 14th August 2014. To the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley, for the film Lilting. It’s a low-budget piece in which Ben Whishaw acts his absolute socks off. He plays a grieving gay man trying to befriend the Chinese mother of his late partner. The added complication is that she speaks no English, she didn’t know her son was gay, and she lives in a London care home. Peter Bowles also appears (he of To The Manor Born and Only When I Laugh), playing an elderly Lothario. The film is emotionally tense, yet tender and quiet, and is clearly a labour of love. I recognise one of the locations: the canal towpath near the south end of Mare Street, in the East End.

* * *

Friday 15th August 2014. Today’s new word is ‘hoyden’. It means ‘a boisterous girl’. A dated expression, declares the Concise Oxford Dictionary. I’m introduced to it by a line in Brigid Brophy’s book Black and White: A Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (1968):

 ‘Are they female fops, these personages of Beardsley’s: female dandies: female effeminates, even? Or are they male hoydens, male tomboys, boy butches?’

The book contains some of Beardsley’s sexually explicit art from the 1890s. More grotesque than titillating, I’d have thought. Yet the British Library keeps its copy of Black and White in the Special Materials collection, the place for anything very valuable or very naughty. As the book isn’t that rare it must be Beardsley’s rudeness that qualifies. To read the library copy a while ago, I had to sit at a special desk in the Rare Books Reading Room, within view of CCTV cameras and library staff. I was not allowed to leave the book unattended, not even to go to the toilet. They might as well call the desk the Table of Shame.

Thankfully, Faber have now reprinted Black and White as part of their Faber Finds series. Today I pick up a copy from Gay’s The Word bookshop in Marchmont Street. I take it home and enjoy it behind closed doors, where the Big Brother eyes of the British Library cannot watch me.

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