Happy New Year, Old Sport

Saturday 27th December 2014. In the morning: to Seven Sisters Road for the last of the cat-sitting jaunts. Parts of the UK had snow on Boxing Day. London just had heavy rain, followed by a night of gales. My windows and doors rattled at 5am, waking me up. At 10am, when I reach the cat owner’s house, I see the heavy cat flap has been shattered in two by the gale. A hasty text to the owner. She’s returning in the afternoon, so doesn’t need me to do anything, thankfully. ‘I’ll stick some cardboard over the hole when I get back’. But somehow I come away feeling bad about the broken flap, because it happened on my watch.

Laurence G sends myself and David R-P a surprise present: a box of food from Fortnum & Mason. I polish off the champagne truffles far too quickly. My favourite item is a jar of mulled wine jam. Partly because I’m partial to mulled wine as a flavour, but mainly because I know it’ll last well into the New Year.

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Sunday 28th December 2014. Alan Bennett’s diary this year contains an obscure word: ‘batrachoidal’. It’s a slight neologism on Mr B’s part, as the OED only has ‘batrachoid’, meaning frog-like. He uses it to describe a man who is very much not obscure at the moment: Nigel Farage. The Times makes him their Man Of The Year. The general election in May will be very interesting.

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Monday 29th December 2014. I meet with Danika H at the British Library, to take her round the Gothic exhibition. I arrive ready to burden her with my annoyance over having to wear a surgical stocking for two weeks, due to my varicose vein op. But Danika turns out to have been in an ankle cast for weeks, and is still struggling on crutches when I meet her today. So that shuts me up. The crutches haven’t stopped her coming up to London to see friends and walk around galleries, but they still make things difficult. Just before I arrive, D buys a cup of tea from the café. The awkwardness of having to pick up the cup while holding on to the crutches makes her spill the tea across her hand. It is scalding hot. The British Library staff are very helpful though, sending a first-aid lady to escort D to the toilets and help her run her hand under the cold tap. When we’re leaving, much later on, she comes back and check’s D’s okay.

It’s my third visit to the Gothic show, yet I still find things I’ve not seen before. Today it’s a recent edition of Wuthering Heights with a jacket design that deliberately mimics the Twilight books. There are few vampires in Emily Bronte, but presumably the publishers thought the general theme was close enough: gothic-tinged and overwrought romantic goings-on, then as now.

Or rather then as a few years ago, as the Twilight phenomenon is now firmly in that distant region known as the recent past. Going by the end-of-year bestseller lists this week, teens are now either buying John Green’s sensitive teen novels (especially The Fault In Our Stars) or spin-off books for the Minecraft video game (and I have no idea what that is). When it comes to the fashions of the book charts, even the undead have an expiry date.

While chatting in the café, Danika and I bond over – of all things – those star-studded and lavishly-located Agatha Christie films of the 70s and 80s. Death On The Nile and Evil Under The Sun are particular favourites. The former has Angela Lansbury, Maggie Smith and Bette Davis, all camping it up like mad. But then, what else can they do with those sort of supporting characters: flamboyant romantic novelists, waspish elderly heiresses, and mannishly-attired companions. I find out today that the film shoot required all three women to share a dressing room on the boat, which was a real paddle steamer. It’s said that this particularly irked Miss Davis, who bemoaned the post-Golden Age tendency for films to shoot on location: ‘in the old days they’d have built the Nile for you.’

* * *

The experimental radio station Resonance FM are having a Yesterday Day. They are playing nothing but cover versions of the Beatles’ song ‘Yesterday’, for 24 hours, thus making some sort of statement about it being the most covered song ever. I tune in, and last five songs before tuning out again. It’s just that song. I could probably stand 24 hours of ‘It’s All Too Much’, from Yellow Submarine. That may sound like cooler-than-thou contrarianism, but as it’s a pulsing, hypnotic song with a continuous upbeat groove, it’s far better suited to repeated plays. I know that’s missing the point, though.

Like a lot of conceptual art that demands commitment from the onlooker, I admire the idea but would rather just read the reviews. ‘No, you go ahead and watch that Warhol film of the Empire State Building without me. Tell me what happens.’

There’s a character in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan who boasts that he only reads criticism of novels rather than actual novels. ‘That way, you get an idea of what the writer was trying to do, along with an opinion you can take or leave. It saves time.’

He’s not doing a degree in literature, though.

* * *

Tuesday 30th December 2014. Struggling to write the latest essay, which is on The Great Gatsby. I can’t tell how much of my resistance to work is down to my general despond, and how much is down to the way Fitzgerald’s novel feels so over-written about. It’s hard to find an original angle. Yet I managed it okay with The Picture of Dorian Gray, and there’s no shortage of material about that.

Some statistics from a textual search of Gatsby. Gatsby’s catchphrase ‘old sport’ appears 28 times in the novel. Baz Luhrmann’s film manages to increase this to 54 times. And the name ‘Daisy Buchanan’ never appears once. The only time Daisy is mentioned along with her surname is when she is Daisy Fay, in the flashbacks. ‘Nick Carraway’ doesn’t appear as a full name either, but as he’s the narrator that’s less unusual.

* * *

Wednesday 31st December 2014. I meet Laurence Hughes for drinks in the afternoon, then see the New Year in at home and alone, while trying to work on the Gatsby essay. In fact most of my time is spent procrastinating, idly watching videos or reading some rubbish or other on the internet. No live TV or radio, though. So before I know it, it’s half past midnight, and I go to bed. I don’t even stop to hear the chimes. I think this is my most low key New Year’s Eve yet.

I probably should do something next year: go to a party or a fireworks display or somesuch. But the older I get, the more I realise how important it is to not do things against one’s will. I am getting out and seeing friends, like Laurence and Danika this week. It’s not enough, though. I’d like to spend more of 2015 with people, rather than with a screen. So that’s one resolution right there.

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Thursday 1st January 2015. Spent all day on the essay. Happy New Year, old sport.

* * *

Friday 2nd January 2015. The first thing I hear in Central London in 2015, as I exit the tube, is the cry of a shopkeeper. He has a little mobile phone shop on Shaftesbury Avenue, and is offering his wares like the street-criers in Oliver! (as in ‘Who will buy this wonderful morning?’, and ‘Ripe! Strawberries, ripe!’)

This real life street cry is rather more 2015:

‘Selfie sticks! Selfie sticks!’

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The Followers Of The Small Dog And Gramophone

Saturday 25th October 2014. I come home to find a hole in my wall. The house I live in is having its brickwork repointed, and the force of the builders’ chisels has pushed a whole brick right through onto my floor. A pile of broken plaster and brick lies behind my fridge. I clear it up and inform the landlady. Thankfully there’s a fresh new brick to replace the one that crumbled through, so I’m not exposed to the elements. I sigh heavily: the repairing of the damage is something new to organise my nervous little life around.

Still, in a city one is always at the mercy of builders, one way or another. Particularly around the Crossrail works in Soho. In the land of the upgrade, the fluorescent tabarded man is king.

* * *

Sunday 26th October 2014. Reading Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Radical American Gothic, with black comedy thrown in. Its short chapters and shifting voices would still be pretty experimental now. ‘My mother is a fish’ indeed.

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Tuesday 28th October 2014. The class at Birkbeck tonight is on The Great Gatsby. The optician’s spectacle-shaped billboard in the Valley of Ashes reminds me how I can feel disturbed by abandoned adverts. There’s a few window-sized ones for HMV in an alley near the Piccadilly Trocadero. Arrows direct people to that particular branch, or rather to the space where it used to be. The HMV shop itself has been closed for some time now, yet these adverts remain. Like the floating spectacles in Gatsby, I imagine them outlasting everything around them in an apocalyptic wasteland. A future society then forms around these sacred images, their arrows of promise and hope taking on new meaning. The Followers Of The Small Dog And Gramophone.

Abandoned adverts do seem worse than stopped clocks. It’s the horror of unexpected stasis where one takes change for granted.

I’m similarly spooked out in Piccadilly Station nearby, where there’s a bank of empty alcoves labelled ‘Public Telephones’. More signs pointing to nothing. And yet, opposite the alcoves is an element of stasis that I do like: ‘The World Time Today’ clock. Installed in the 1920s, it’s still there and still working, with its strip of timezones moving endlessly across a now anachronistic map of the world. ‘Queen Maud Land’ in Antarctica is highlighted as a major territory. So now this clock has outlasted the station’s public telephones. It’s like it’s won a very long staring contest.

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Wednesday 29th October 2014. Birkbeck class at Gordon Square: Beckett’s Four Novellas. I’m initially taken aback by the language, given the text dates from the 1940s – particularly the point where the readers are called c***s (‘Oh Mr Beckett! You do know how to woo an audience!’). But then I realise Beckett first published them in French, and only in Paris too. English editions didn’t emerge until the late 1960s. From Wilde’s exile right up to Lady Chatterley, not counting wartime, Paris was the place to be really free.

* * *

Thursday 30th October 2014. I’m in the British Library, bumping into Birkbeck tutors, researching for an essay on Hemingway. Today I come across a volume of the Fitzgerald / Hemingway annual that reproduces Scott and Zelda’s marriage certificate. I read about how Gertrude Stein returned a draft of Hemingway’s story ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ with the comment ‘remarks are not literature’. He’d originally ended the tale with a self-reflexive discussion on writing per se, in a style that might today be called metafictional. But Stein’s feedback led to him cutting the section out. Instead it became one of Hemingway’s first great examples of his signature style: an apparently simple tale of activity, yet laced with symbolism and deeper implications. But really, Ms Stein: ‘remarks are not literature’ indeed. So much for Borges.

Brigid Brophy is not at all keen on Hemingway. In her essay collection Baroque-‘n- Roll is a scathing parody: ‘He pretended that tormenting and killing animals who are no threat to you was a brave and somehow a mystic thing to do.’ In case it isn’t clear whether this applies to his fishing stories, the book also has a 1980s piece where she champions the C.A.A. – the Campaign for the Abolition of Angling.

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Friday 31st October 2014. To the East Finchley Phoenix for the new Mike Leigh film, Mr Turner. Timothy Spall’s Turner is mesmerising: bestial, even porcine. He growls and grunts and (in one particularly emotional scene) howls his way across the screen, through landscape after landlady. I think of Charles Laughton’s Rembrandt. Spall is up there with him, filling out the film as much as he does the man. I’m an enormous admirer of Mr Leigh’s last nineteenth-century film, the Gilbert & Sullivan biopic, Topsy-Turvy. Mr Turner is much sparser, quieter and more tragic, but it’s the same loose and naturalistic approach to period drama. This is still very rare – a more conventional film like the recent Effie Gray suffers by comparison, particularly as it depicts some of the same people (Ruskin, Ruskin’s parents, and Effie herself all pop up in Mr Turner). In the Leigh film the dialogue is actually allowed to breathe. People pause, or say nothing at all, or sound hesitant when they do speak. Despite the attention to historical syntax, the words still sound like they’ve risen spontaneously from thought – ie, the way people speak normally. And in the case of Spall’s Turner, words are often served better by grunts.

Two and a half hours long, yet it never bores once. A completely immersive and fully realised world. Most evocative of all are the scenes at Margate harbour – the detail is so vivid that one can almost smell the piles of rotting fish. No need for 3D there.

It’s Halloween, and the Phoenix cinema café is selling toffee apples. People take them in to eat while watching Mr Turner. At the time I think this is a suitably Victorian England foodstuff for the screening. But afterwards I look them up to discover they were in fact invented in twentieth-century America. Originally called ‘candy apples’.

‘Candy’, to mean sweets, is one Americanism that is still resisted in the UK, but otherwise Halloween seems bigger than ever. In St Pancras today I see a woman sitting behind an information desk, dressed in a full witch costume. Her leaflets about railway engineering works are weighed down with a small plastic pumpkin.

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Slow Excavations

Once again, I find gaps in my diary impossible to properly fill. Skimming over the unrecorded seems unfair, but leaving it out altogether seems worse. Am constantly amazed how anyone else gets anything done at all. There seems so much to keep tabs on – literal tabs in the case of the Web. Other people manage to easily write things on Facebook AND Twitter AND update their Goodreads account AND top up their various portable gadgets with power and credit (something that constantly defeats me) AND presumably earn incomes as well. And many of these people have children and partners too! I frequently feel like I’m the slowest person on earth.


Weds 22nd May – Last exam of the 2nd year, as in my BA English degree at Birkbeck. The exam was half on Chaucer’s Troilus & Criseyde, half on a selection from the renaissance plays we’d been studying. I chose The Tempest  and Eastward Ho!

I don’t feel at all confident of getting a decent mark for this last exam, as I’d spent most the time I’d hoped to spend on revising on instead writing the final two essays plus revising for the other exam. I ran out of not just time, but also energy and motivation. By the 22nd of May I was utterly drained and found it hard to care very much about memorizing the names and arguments of Chaucer critics.

On top of that the stress for the exams gave my first ever migraine. The week before the last exam the sight in my left eye suddenly failed completely. It stayed like that for about an hour. The GP packed me off to Moorfields A&E, as he couldn’t rule out something retinal that might need emergency surgery. Thankfully Moorfields and all their eye machines diagnosed a ‘bilateral’ migraine. I was told to lie down in a darkened room and avoid whatever it was that was causing the anxiety. So my exam revision suffered there as well.

I understand why universities still hold exams – they’re proof one can spontaneously come up with the goods without access to books or the internet. But I’m grateful that the rest of the course has the option of being exam-free. They just don’t agree with me.

After the exam, I celebrated with a few fellow students: Jasmine, Kim, Jon et al. Cheap drinks in the university bar, then a restaurant meal in Marchmont Street.


The good news is that my two last essay marks for the 2nd year were Firsts. I also received a First in my overall grade for the Narratives of the Body module, the first grade to actually go towards my final degree grade. I get the other two overall module grades of the 2nd year when the exam marks come in, sometime in late July.

Since then I’ve mostly been recovering from it all. Attended a brilliant talk by Philip Hensher on vocatives, an entertaining one by Will Self on his novel Umbrella and one by Alan Bennett at the ICA doing his usual ‘Evening With’ set-up. Also saw the new Star Trek  film (fun), and the new Great Gatsby movie in 3D (absolute heaven).


Read Clampdown, a new cultural studies book by Rhian E Jones on the effect of 90s UK music on class and gender. What’s unusual is that it focusses on the cultural meaning of Britpop from the personal yet highly academic perspective of someone who grew up with that music – the author. I think previous books on Britpop have tended to be either by people working as journalists at the time (John Harris), or by those who were involved in the music business (Luke Haines). People who were actually informed by that culture during their teenage years logically have a different take, one that is only now starting to emerge. In Ms Jones’s case she talks about the importance to her of Kenickie and Shampoo as signifiers of female agency. But there’s so many other points in the book: many of which just hadn’t occurred to me. I could argue with some of her conclusions, but then I was never a working class teenage girl in the 90s. It’s an essential text for anyone trying to make sense of that ludicrous era.

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