Life, the Universe, and Dandyism

Sunday 24th January 2016.

I am on something of a Gore Vidal tip, after watching Best of Enemies for the third time. Am delighted to find there’s another documentary on Netflix, United States of Amnesia, entirely about Mr Vidal’s life. I don’t always agree with his relentless cynicism – he even finds something negative to say about the election of Obama. But his wit and style is a delight. Vidal’s utterations on chat shows contain epigrams worthy of Wilde:

TV interviewer (on Vidal’s running for a Democrat candidacy in 1982): Did you like that experience? All the hand shaking?

Gore Vidal: Oh yes. I love that. I like crowds. I have depths of insincerity as yet unplumbed.

* * *

Sitting in the Barbican Cinema Café this evening, I am recognised from the I Am Dandy book. This time it’s by one of the other dandies within its pages: the pristinely moustachioed Johnny Vercoutre, there to see The Revenant (‘It’s very Boys’ Own,’ I tell him).

Getting out the dandy book at home, I see he’s on page 238. I’m on page 42, looking rather otherworldly in my chalk white suit. There’s whiteness around me too: the picture was taken in a snow-covered Parkland Walk, here in Highgate. Being a Douglas Adams fan, I can’t help feeling pleased by my page number’s association with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Here, 42 means the answer to life, the universe, and Highgate dandyism.

Which Hitchhiker’s character do I most resemble? I admit to having Marvin the Paranoid Android moments. I recently caught myself grumbling about my inability to turn a high IQ (well, 141) into a decent income, before realising that this was all too close to Marvin’s catchphrase: ‘Here I am, brain the size of a planet…’ Mustn’t be a Marvin. He moans about his health too: ‘And me with this terrible pain in all the diodes down my left side.’

Of course, Marvin’s saving grace is that his depression manifests as a form of amiability, much like Eeyore’s does in Winnie the Pooh. Huggable depressives. In the film version of Hitchhiker’s, Marvin’s voice was perfectly cast in the form of Alan Rickman, who died the other day. He was an actor I was lucky enough to see on stage in the 80s, at the Barbican in fact. Back then he played another great huggable depressive – Jacques in As You Like It.  I don’t know if a recording exists of Mr Rickman doing the ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech, but given his voice was so memorable, it’s easy to imagine it.

There’s a further Rickman connection here: one of his best films, Truly Madly Deeply, is set in Highgate. In one scene Juliet Stevenson walks out of Highgate Tube station, very close to where the I Am Dandy photo was taken.

* * *

Monday 25th January 2016.

Am finally exhausted with reading commentary pieces on David Bowie. The more original and personal pieces aside, the bandwagon is rather showing its wheels, often adding little more than affirming Bowie’s obvious worth. In some cases, the facts are not even checked (the BBC website seems to think Bowie acted in the film Cat People, instead of providing the theme song). What I’m not exhausted with is the man himself: the actual music and concert footage. I rewatch the superb BBC documentary, Five Years. Rick Wakeman is amusing about his piano part on Life on Mars, which he recreates on a keyboard for the cameras. He demonstrates the cleverness of the key changes, while admitting having not played it for decades. ‘It’s a joy to perform.’ He pauses. ‘I must go home and learn it properly.’

Shanthi S points out to me how Bowie in drag (as seen in the ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ vid) rather resembles Billie Whitelaw, she of Samuel Beckett fame. Indeed, it’s a shame Bowie never acted in a Beckett play himself: he’d have been perfect.

* * *

Thursday 28th January 2016.

MA class tonight: Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour. An environmentally-themed novel, with lots of detail about working class farm life in the Appalachians. Some Hardy-esque elements: strong female characters with Biblical names, dreaming of affairs amid the sheep-shearing. Less Hardy-like are the references to the internet and Google, though the protagonist is too poor to have her own computer, despite being a twenty-something American in 2010. There’s a wry scene in which an environmental campaigner suggests the heroine cuts down on her carbon footprint by taking fewer flights. She and her husband have yet to travel outside of the state. It’s a neat illustration of media solipsism – the way one forgets how plenty of people in the US (and indeed the UK) still have none of the technological convenience enjoyed by the majority.

I look up the latest figures for adults without internet access. It’s 11% in the UK (6 million people), 15% in the US (47 million). It’s one reason why public libraries are still essential, with their free internet terminals.

Sometimes, though, such utterly offline lives might be enviable. I watch a programme tonight on internet abuse, ‘Troll Hunters’. Various recipients of malicious Twitter messages are shown tracking down their antagonists, then confronting them in person. What’s unexpected is the way one 40-something working-class man – his face blurred – is utterly unrepentant about his behaviour. He even claims a kind of moral defence. The people he attacks, he says, like the former MP Louise Mensch, are far more powerful than he is, so they need taking down a peg or two. ‘It’s all about destroying authority… The world owes me. If they block me, I move onto someone else.’

Certainly the programme touches on one unassailable truth about the appeal of trolling. It’s about wanting to feel powerful.

* * *

Friday 29th January 2016.

Another phone call from someone claiming to be from ‘the technical department of Windows’. They want to provide remote access to my computer so they can deal with ‘hacking’. Apart from anything else, the people behind these obvious scams don’t seem to realise that Windows is a product, not a company. This one hangs up at the slightest challenge.

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Dress Like Jazz

Saturday 1st August 2015

An article in the Guardian about writers who spent their early years on the dole. The potted narratives range from jokey (Geoff Dyer) to political (Alan Warner) to ones showing off about their overcoming of hardship, like the Monty Python sketch about the four Yorkshiremen. All the writers end their tales with the information that they have a new book out. Except for one, which notes they are now a university chancellor. The British capacity for point-scoring knows no bounds.

Another common showing-off tale told by successful writers is ‘When growing up, I read all the books in the school library’.

This rather begs the response, ‘except for the one on modesty’.

* * *

Sunday 2nd August 2015.

Three of the bestselling books in the Sunday Times list are by authors described as ‘YouTube sensations’. They are all youthful; such is the connection between age and technology. Once, the standard older person’s joke was that they had no idea how to programme their VCR. Now, no one knows what a VCR is, much less how to programme it. Instead, older people have no idea how to record a YouTube blog. That is what young people are for. But it works both ways: it’s been reported that some of the YouTube spin-off books have been written by professional ghostwriters, who tend to be a bit older.

* * *

Monday 3rd August 2015.

An email from the MHRA. They thank me for pointing out a small typo in their style guide, which is used to instruct college students on the proper way to format their essays. The typo was for the wrong kind of numeral when referencing books in a series. This will now be corrected in the next edition.

Thus begins my seismic effect on academia.

* * *

To the East Finchley Phoenix for Best of Enemies, a superb documentary about the 1968 US TV debates between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley Junior. Buckley, the right-wing founder of National Review magazine and advisor to Ronald Reagan, is all flashing teeth and glaring eyes. Vidal, meanwhile, is a mass of elegant flounces, pursed lips and pre-honed putdowns. The late Christopher Hitchens appears as a talking head- very much a Gore Vidal fanboy. Much is made of the way public discourse has changed since; that the coming of multiple TV channels and the internet means that there is no sense of a national ‘village square’ platform any more. Comment is not only free, it is everywhere, and it is customised. We choose the pundits we feel comfortable with, to feel secure in our own beliefs. Or we choose to consult the ones we know we disagree with – Katie Hopkins, say – for exactly the same reason. On Twitter, minor disagreements can lead to sudden anger, unfollowing, and blocking. There is no nuance, and no two-mindedness. The format doesn’t allow it.

That said, I think the film overestimates the nature of the Buckley/Vidal debates too. Despite the men’s intellectualism, these discussions on the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions quickly turn into personal attacks, just as they do on social media today. In one heated moment, Vidal calls Buckley a ‘crypto-Nazi’ for his support of police violence. Buckley immediately goes one further (and so loses the argument): ‘Now look, you queer. Don’t you call me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.’ It is a moment that both men are forced to revisit for the rest of their lives, whether in subsequent interviews, or in their memoirs.

Best of Enemies is essential viewing for anyone interested in the art of having an opinion. At the Phoenix cinema tonight, the audience applauded at the end.

The best thing about the film is that it asks questions as much as it entertains. One is: can nuanced debate exist on a medium that has a huge reach, but which suffers frustrations of time (or on Twitter, frustrations of space)? Right at the end, there’s a clip of Buckley on a chat show.

Interviewer: We’ve got ten seconds left. Can you sum up?

Buckley: No.

(cut to black)

* * *

Tuesday 4th August 2015.

More post-BA celebration. This time, Ella H treats me to pink champagne at the ornate Oscar Wilde bar in the Café Royal, followed by dinner in the all-vegetarian Coach & Horses pub, Soho. A bit of luxury, chased down with a bit of Bohemianism. It’s a perfect evening.

* * *

Wednesday 5th August 2015.

There’s Jeremy Corbyn posters all over the IOE student union bar, off Russell Square. Here at least, he seems to be the student favourite for the new Labour party leader. I wish him well, but I do wish he’d wear a tie.

* * *

Thursday 6th August 2015.

 I’m on the fourth of six units of the Birkbeck ‘Step Up’ summer module, aimed at students preparing to do an MA. It mostly involves logging onto a website and reading through various resources. One shortcoming is that some of the materials on non-Birkbeck websites have been deleted since the course was written. I click on a YouTube link only to see the standard error message for missing content: ‘this video does not exist’. With my head expecting some short film about cultural analysis, my response is to ponder this statement’s existentialist implications. If a video ‘does not exist’, did it ever exist in the first place? Or is it like an updated caption for a Magritte painting: ‘Ce n’est pas une vidéo’?

Often a video can be taken down purely because it includes a copyrighted song, however briefly. The burning down of the ancient library at Alexandria is nothing compared to the havoc wrought online by the employees of Universal Music.

* * *

Friday 7th August 2015.

To the Curzon Mayfair for Iris, a documentary by the late Grey Gardens director, Albert Maysles, about the ninety-something New York fashion collector, Iris Apfel. Unlike the psychological and tensely Gothic atmosphere of Grey Gardens, this film is lighter fare. It’s essentially a straightforward and even cosy profile, almost like a magazine article. Despite her advanced years, Ms Apfel is a busy professional who is careful to protect her ‘brand’, and the film seems to be complicit in this. Still, spending an hour and a half in Ms Apfel’s colourful and funny company is entertaining enough.

I knew nothing about her before the film. Apparently her fame only came recently, when the Met staged an exhibition of her collection of clothes and accessories. Up till then she was just known as an eccentrically-dressed interior decorator, albeit one with big name clients, including the White House. Her trademark look is a shock of short white hair, a pair of enormous round spectacles, almost like binoculars, and a clattering mass of chunky, multi-coloured necklaces and bangles. At times it’s a wonder she can stand up. Dressing for her, she says, is ‘like jazz’. She also quotes something she was told as a young woman, by a fashion retailer: ‘You’re not pretty and you’ll never be pretty. But it doesn’t matter, because you’ve got something more important. You’ve got style.’

In addition to her double-decker wardrobes, Iris Apfel’s home is crammed full of baroque furniture and kitsch toys. There’s a stuffed rabbit whose ears spring up to the sound of a Hanna-Barbera ‘boing’. A huge ostrich statue in the corner turns out to be a bar (‘His wing lifts up and he’s full of booze’). A Kermit the Frog doll is draped, drunkenly, around the ostrich’s neck.

One of my favourite comments in the film comes from behind the camera. Maysles is filming the 100th birthday party of Iris’s husband, Carl. On turning the big hundred, Carl comments to the camera, ‘I’m not sure what to do for an encore.’ Maysles is in his late 80s himself. He replies off-screen, ‘The way I see it, you’ve come this far, so you might as well keep going.’

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