Notes On Twee

Sunday 12th April 2015.

To the Hackney Picturehouse for the screening of My Secret World, a film-length documentary about Sarah Records. It’s directed by Lucy Hawkins, and she’s invited me to DJ at the event. Shanthi S has agreed to accompany me, which makes things easier. I still have a searing awkwardness about going to chatty gatherings by myself. But as it turns out, I end up speaking to Tim Chipping and Clare Wadd in the cinema’s café before I see Shanthi, who’s at a table in the corner, wearing sunglasses indoors (‘a heavy night’). A happy reunion: the first time I’ve seen Matt and Clare for some time, as well as Tim Chipping. Travis Elborough there too.

After the film there’s a Q&A with the label co-runners, Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes, hosted by Pete Paphides. Then I install myself in the DJ booth of the venue’s Attic bar, playing only tracks released by Sarah.

So many documentaries about now. In the future, everyone who isn’t famous for fifteen minutes – or as in the case of the Field Mice, those who do their utmost not to be famous -will have an independent documentary made about them instead.

One good thing about premiere screenings of music documentaries, though, is that they can take the awkwardness off band reunions. One is really gathered to celebrate, or least discuss, a New Thing: a film.

Which turns out to be enjoyable, heartfelt and very nicely made. Lots of talking heads – band members and fans. Fans who started their own bands, like one fellow from The Drums. Lots of inspired use of graphics, making the record sleeves turn into their Bristol locations. And a good sense of the way Sarah represented a certain aesthetic – a kind of poetic wariness of the world, a subcultural Refusal (to quote Dick Hebdige), that risked being mistaken for simple shyness, and indeed was often dismissed with the pejorative of ‘tweeness’ (though I quite like that word). It’s an aesthetic perhaps best summed up in the Field Mice song, ‘Sensitive’.

The Field Mice singer Bobby Wratten is the voice most absent from the film (there’s always one – I hear Dave Grohl is frustratingly absent from the new Kurt Cobain doc), but then the mission to cover every band released on the label means that even the more popular bands’ stories get only a small amount of time. One must tell a story, because it’s impossible to tell the story. No such thing.

The film is about love, ultimately. The love of Matt and Clare, and their love of music. The film is often about their time together: how they met (at a Julian Cope gig), how fanzines brought them together, how Sarah Records was their ‘child’, and how the releases sometimes carried little oblique accounts of their relationship. Though they split up around the time the label stopped, they’re clearly both still friends, and are even happy to help promote the film together.

Tim C has a good anecdote in the film about the way the label actually told him off for not writing them enough letters. And I’m there in the film too, very briefly, in archive footage of our band Shelley (a version of Orlando), miming guitar while Tim C sings, in the old Top of the Pops studio. A whole other story why that happened. I’m just glad that I’m wearing a suit.

Afterwards I chat to some nice people from the ‘Doc ‘N Roll’ organisation, who put on the film. They tell me there’s a new Picturehouse opening soon, in the old Cineworld at the Trocadero, by Piccadilly Circus. ‘Picturehouse Central’. Any cinema chain that puts on a Sarah Records film has its heart in the right place.

Here’s what I played in the DJ set, though not in this order. I thought I had more than enough Field Mice songs, but Jonathan from Trembling Blue Stars demanded I played ‘Missing The Moon’ too. I let him plug in his iPod and play it himself. Such was his ardour.

The Field Mice: Sensitive, If You Need Someone, Let’s Kiss and Make Up, Coach Station Reunion, You’re Kidding Aren’t You, This Love Is Not Wrong, Emma’s House, When Morning Comes To Town.

The Orchids: Caveman, What Will We Do Next, The Sadness of Sex (Part 1), Bemused, Confused and Bedraggled, How Does That Feel

Heavenly: Our Love Is Heavenly, Three Star Compartment, Sperm Meets Egg So What, C Is The Heavenly Option, Atta Girl

Blueboy: Cosmopolitan, Imipramine, The Joy Of Living, Popkiss, Sea Horses

Even As We Speak: Swimming Song, Drown

Brighter: Ocean Sky, Never Ever, Killjoy

St. Christopher: And I Wonder, The Thrill Of The New

The Wake: Carbrain, Crush The Flowers

Action Painting: These Things Happen

Tramway: Boathouse

Another Sunny Day: You Should All Be Murdered

The Sea Urchins: Pristine Christine

* * *

Monday 13th April 2015.

The rest of this week is the last leg of the dissertation. Sitting in libraries and cafes, revising drafts 3, 4, 5. Emailing some drafts to kind friends, who detect all the typos I missed. I also get to a point where I have too many notes to fit into the text. Again, it’s like the Sarah Records film: impossible to cover everything. And never finished, but abandoned.

* * *

Thursday 16th April 2015

It’s getting to the point where I’m revising my dissertation while waiting at the traffic lights on Euston Road. Pen on folded print out, as if I’m doing a crossword.

* * *

Friday 17th April 2015.

Some more detail on a typical day this week.

Morning: I sit in the Barbican Cinema Café and revise the dissertation with a Bic Orange Fine pen, one last time in this case. Sixth draft. Around me, people with beards have meetings about podcasts.

Walk around London Wall by way of a break. Like so much in the City, it’s a mixture of cranes, hoardings, a few startling old buildings that have managed to escape the wrecking ball (listed, I’m guessing), and umpteen Dubai-like towers of glass that seem to be springing up at a worrying rate. Meanwhile, barely a week goes by without news of another historic venue closing. The Black Cap in Camden shut down this week. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is hanging on for dear life. Oh, Londinium.

Then to Birkbeck Library in Torrington Square, to type up the revisions. Even though I have a laptop, I prefer to use the college computers, or even one of the few remaining internet cafes (like the one in Marchmont Street today). Less to carry, less to lose, less to worry about. And I am not of the backpack persuasion.

I take a seat next to a student I slightly know, who’s in the same year. He’s flustered with the logjam of work that happens around this time, as are most students. ‘Wish I’d not left it till the last minute’. We have a whispered chat. ‘What’s the quickest time you’ve written an essay in?’

I finish typing the revisions, then upload the dissertation to the college’s online system, ‘Turnitin’ (ah, modern life!). Then I print out two copies, as required, and take them across the road. I get them bound in the secret branch of Ryman’s that lurks in the basement of Waterstones, Gower Street. A friendly woman with a heavy cold gives them a ‘comb’ style of binding, while I wait. Thirty-eight A4 pages, with copious footnotes. I was still agonising over every page reference on the last draft. Just how do they want me to use ‘Ibid’, again? Style guides have such niggling rules: capitalise this, except when you don’t. Full stops here, but not here.

A sunny day, bluebells out in Gordon Square. Not quite warm enough to sit on the grass, but the students do so anyway. I go into the School of Arts lobby and drop the two copies of the dissertation through the designated letter box. There. Done. Something I’ve been working on since last summer, finally finished. Will it show?

But there’s no time to rest. On with the next essay. Two of those to go before May 8th. Still, they’re only 2500 words each.

Now working on the penultimate essay. For the first time I’ve written the introduction before finishing the main text, because I can somehow see the whole shape of the thing at once. Perhaps it’s lit up by the light at the end of the tunnel.

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Xmas Week Diary and Christmas Message 2013

Friday 20th December 2013. I am pleased to receive about two dozen cards this year, made all the more special by the high cost of postage and the dominance of the internet. Post from abroad is especially meaningful: I’m sent a beautiful pop-up one from Eileen C in New York and a pictorial Christmas aerogramme from Danika H in Australia.

Although people rarely send cards and letters today, two Christmas books this year on the subject have proved to be very popular. There’s Shaun Usher’s anthology Letters of Note and Simon Garfield’s historical account, To The Letter. The Usher book is based on his website, where the very technology that killed off the letter – the internet – has turned out to be perfect for celebrating it. I feel all the more grateful for receiving an actual letter at Christmas, from Danika, and I’ll make sure I reply in kind.

Another sign of the times this week: the gay section in Time Out magazine has been axed. It’s assumed that, like cinema listings, there’s no longer any need to turn to a paper magazine to find out about events: Facebook events pages and online listings have become the default. Gay issues, meanwhile, are more mainstream than ever, with Conservative politicians supporting campaigns for gay marriage, and campaigns against homophobia around the world (such as in Russia and Uganda) given decent coverage by the media. This week has also seen Alan Turing finally pardoned for the crime of having consensual sex with another man. His mistake was to have it in the 1950s. Actually, as my dad once told me, it was pretty much frowned on to have sex in the 1950s if you were heterosexual, too.

But the question of promoting gay culture separately in terms of identity and role models is an ongoing one. As it is, London still has its annual LGBT film festival (at the BFI) and its own gay bookshop (Gay’s The Word in Marchmont Street – hitting 35 years old next January). Coming out as gay is still a big issue – Tom Daley making the headlines of late. So Time Out’s decision does seem premature. But then, like all paper listings magazines, it’s been struggling full stop.

* * *

Saturday 21st December 2013. To Somerset House with Ella Lucas, to see the exhibition on the late British fashion editor, collector, string-puller, muse and Lady Gaga lookalike, Isabella Blow. Ingeniously, the exhibits that can’t go on mannequins, such as letters and faxes, are in white display cases which sit surreally on mannequin legs – with shoes from Ms Blow’s collection on the cases’ feet. One letter, on Harpers notepaper, is from Hamish Bowles, who is also one of the other dandies in the I Am Dandy book. He writes to Ms Blow, ‘Long for your next appearance – stepping out of a reverie by Ronald Firbank…’

Much of the exhibition is of Philip Treacy’s exotic hat and mask creations, Ms Blow being his biggest champion. One mask has a grid of jewelled Swarovski crystal nails in a black silk net, rather reminding me of the Pinhead monster in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. I check the caption, and it turns out to be a direct homage: ‘Hellraiser mask with nail detailing‘. Any exhibition which references Ronald Firbank and Hellraiser is fine by me.

A word learned: ‘chopine’. A historical type of women’s platform shoe, popular in the 15th to 17th centuries. Modern versions of which are in the Blow collection. More like a platform clog, really.

One of the information panels on Ms Blow’s history begins with the phrase ‘Forced to work for a living…’

* * *

Sunday 22nd December 2013. I visit the Museum of London, and am pleased to see that its shop stocks A London Year, the diary anthology which includes me alongside Pepys and co. It’s the closest I’ve come yet to being a museum piece.

On the raised pedestrian walkway around the corner, I take a look at the ruins of the original London Wall, where the layers of medieval brickwork can be seen on top of the Roman foundations. There’s an information panel about the ruins, provided by the museum. It’s dated 1980 and has been laminated against the elements, though 33 years later the elements have won, and much of the text is now faded and illegible. The panel about the ruins is itself a ruin.

In the evening I turn a corner in Clerkenwell Green and suddenly see the Shard and St Paul’s from a distance, both lit up. From this angle they appear as if standing right next to each other, though the Thames and several districts separate them geographically. Tonight the former looks like a Christmas tree, and the latter like a bauble. I stare up from the silent street at them, thinking how London always was this constant shrug of old with new, just like the two parts to the Wall and the ruined panel. Inside the Crown Tavern, more shrugging: Wizzard’s eternal Christmas song on the pub stereo, while the first word I overhear as I enter is someone saying  ‘Facebook’.

* * *

Monday 23rd December 2013.

The London Library’s last day before closing for Christmas, and the last day of its late night hours, closing at 9pm. It transpires that not enough members use the library quite that late, so in 2014 ‘late closing’ will mean 8pm instead. I sit in the historic Reading Room from 8.30pm till the end, which as expected means I am the only one there. Just me, all the books and journals, the famous soporific armchairs, the fireplace, and the Christmas tree. Utter, serene peace. I soak it in.

As soon as I leave, though: chaos. Heavy wind and rain has hit Britain, causing transport shut downs and power cuts at the worst possible time of year. Although the effect on London is relatively minor, my umbrella is a wreck before I make it out of St James’s Square. At Piccadilly Circus, where I get the tube, the clear plastic bubble over Eros has burst, scattering polystyrene chips of fake snow all over the road. Like some Biblical retribution against worshipping false gods, this idealised image of Christmas weather – pretty fake snow in a bubble – has been eclipsed by real Christmas weather – ugly, uncontained wind and rain.

* * *

Tuesday 24th December 2013.

To the Hackney Picturehouse to see a 1940s Christmas-themed film I’d not seen before, The Bishop’s Wife, in which Cary Grant plays an angel helping a troubled New York priest, played by David Niven. Despite his otherworldly role, Cary Grant is just dressed as Cary Grant, with the usual immaculate dark suit. One character is an eccentric aged scholar,  an atheist who nevertheless loves the traditions of Christmas. On discovering Cary G’s celestial identity, he remarks ‘Oh, that’s annoying.’ I think that’s how I’d feel.

Even though the story centres on David Niven’s bishop, the film’s parting message about Jesus feels unusual, even jarring. Yet I remember how it works fine in The Holly and The Ivy, a British film from the early 50s, also about priests at Christmas. I think the fact that Niven’s daughter is played by ‘Zuzu’ from It’s A Wonderful Life reminds me why: American films are happy to tell Christmas stories about angels, but they usually leave out Christ himself.

It’s still an issue today. I read a piece in the Guardian this week where an American writer remarks how the British are perfectly happy to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to each other, as opposed to ‘Happy Holidays’, regardless of religion – or lack of it – of those present. It’s just tradition. But among the cards from British people I get, some are indeed saying ‘Happy Holidays’, so perhaps that’s changing.

The first time I saw the word ‘holidays’ used to mean Christmas was in a TV advert. The product was that great ambassador of the American way, Coca-Cola. That may be another reason why ‘Happy Holidays’ has yet to catch on: for some (and I include myself), it feels too American.

* * *

Wednesday 25th December 2013. I spend Christmas by myself in Highgate, once again enjoying the palpable and rare peace in the city. The changed background hum of low traffic without buses. Morning spent hungover from mixing prosecco and Baileys the night before. I chat to Mum at length on the phone.

At 1pm, I meet up with Silke R once again for my own tradition of feeding the ducks in Waterlow Park. Silke is currently staying in the flat attached to Archway Video, the film rental library on Archway Road where we both once worked. An independent family business since the 1980s, the shop stocked a huge range of films, first on VHS, then DVD, and eventually, Blu-Ray. The customers included Daniel Craig, Maureen Lipman, Ray Davies of the Kinks and Brett Anderson of Suede. This year, the shop is an empty shell, closed for good since the summer. Silke now works for Odeon, an irony given that video shops were first thought to be bringing about the death of cinema. It wasn’t cinema that killed video shops, though, but online services like Lovefilm, Netflix, and of course Amazon.

In Muswell Hill a few months ago I bumped into one of the shop’s old customers. ‘I do miss that shop,’ he said fondly. ‘Though of course I hadn’t been in for years.’ He didn’t seem to notice how one statement was related to the other.

Thursday 26th December 2013.

With the lack of traffic on Boxing Day, combined with the sense of enforced family gatherings reaching the point of strained boredom, some local teenagers play football in the street outside. I first worry about them breaking any windows, but then I realise that young people playing ball games in the road is very old indeed. All the museum photos say so.

I walk around St Pancras in the afternoon. Most of the people I see fall into two categories. There’s aimlessly wandering tourists, who seem baffled that everything is shut for a second day. A handful of them climb on the gates of the British Library to take photos of the empty piazza. The other category is football fans, because Boxing Day means sport. People in Chelsea scarves are looking particularly pleased with themselves.

Friday 27th December 2013.



This year’s photograph of me with a London tree is of course a ‘selfie’, one of 2013’s Words of the Year. With thanks to the London Review Bookshop for letting me take it on their premises on Christmas Eve.

The bookshop tree represents not just my current life as a student of literature, but my increasing concern about the effect of digital culture on independence, in every sense. On a blunt commercial level, the online tax-dodging colossus that is Amazon is obviously threatening the future of independent, non-corporate shops like the LRB. Bookshops, like cinemas and libraries, are pleasant places for staff to work in and for customers to go and immerse themselves in culture, at their own pace, offline and away from the ubiquity of the computer screen. No advertising sidebars tearing your concentration to shreds. One book I bought at the LRB this year was The Circle by Dave Eggers, which paints a near-future world where Amazon and Google and social media have reduced people’s lives to a banal flatness of public algorithms and vanished privacy.

This theme also connects neatly with Channel 4’s Alternative Christmas Message by Edward Snowden, the whistleblowing fugitive of the USA security services. Mr Snowden cited another novel about a world without privacy, 1984, and said some rather powerful things:

‘A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalysed thought… And that’s a problem, because privacy matters. Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.’

The Queen’s own Christmas message also touched on the need for personal time alone, though she linked it more with prayer and meditation.  Certainly a child born today in the case of baby Prince George has even less privacy than most children, but the point stands. What grabbed my attention with the Queen’s message was that she also mentioned ‘even keeping a diary’ as an example of creating a space for private reflection. Which is where I come in.

This year saw my online diary’s first emergence in book form, in the form of extracts in the anthology A London Year. Like the books about letters, it’s a celebration of individual minds reflecting in privacy. Their words are only later published when the appropriate permissions have been sought, and when an editor has done their own reflecting on what part of private writing might, as Shuan Usher puts it, be ‘deserving of a wider audience’. An amount of consideration and reflection has been applied, in other words. Although my own diary is published online first, it actually begins life as a series of far more personal notes made in my own paper notebooks. And even when published online, I try to evoke the more private nature of the printed page by the omission of one key element: no comments box.

A blog with no comments is as close to the reflective, personal and locked-off experience of the printed page as it can get. If you write online, I highly recommend it. Let comments belong on social media. Writing and reading are after all anti-social activities, and need to be. Humans are social creatures, but socialising needs to be kept apart from the production and consumption of writing. The more people can disconnect by way of balance, the better.

(I’ve now realised that Mr Usher also omits a comments box from his Letters of Note website too.)

It’s rather impractical to call for a boycott of Amazon, Google and social media now, and I wouldn’t want to. I use those things all the time myself. But my wish for 2014 is to try to resist the technology that wants us to only live through an endless scrolling of screens, that only what matters is to join the shallow noise, the unconsidered chatter, the indiscretion, the unkind photos passed around at the expense of others and the Fear of Missing Out. I wish to balance these activities with more appreciation of three beautiful ‘I’s: individualism, independence and immersion.

And I wish you a very happy what’s-left-of-Christmas, and a splendid New Year.

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