Saturday 30th August 2014. I’m reading a couple of 1950s novels, both dealing with issues of race. One is Doris Lessing’s Grass Is Singing, set among the white farmers of Southern Rhodesia, while the other is The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon, about West Indian migrants adjusting to Britain. Lessing’s prose turns out to be up there with Orwell in its unadorned realism (no messing with Lessing), but it also has the seamless shift between perspectives that one finds in George Eliot. That said, the white characters get the lion’s share of the empathy. Selvon, meanwhile, manages to represent 1950s London entirely through a kind of Caribbean modernist patois, most impressively in a section which runs to ten pages without any punctuation. The only dashes are to indicate swearwords. I’d expected the scenes detailing the grimness of being a penniless immigrant, but hadn’t realised that there’d be so much broad comedy too. Despite all the poverty, the novel is ultimately a love letter to the city.
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In the evening I go to the Old Red Lion Theatre in Angel, in the hope of seeing a new play, The Picture of John Gray by CJ Wilmann. It’s about the real life Gray who inspired Wilde’s Dorian. It’s had rave reviews. Too many as it turns out, because the show is sold out, it’s the last night, and there’s no returns on the door. So instead I treat myself to a solitary meal at The Gate, the vegetarian restaurant nearby. I’m annoyed that I can’t see the play, but cheered that fringe drama is evidently in good shape.
Watch Doctor Who. Rather silly goings-on which involve shrinking Mr Capaldi’s Doctor so he can be injected inside a Dalek. Not the most logical of stories, but it’s very visually impressive. There’s a nice spooky moment where the Doctor is swimming about in a kind of distorted slow-motion world, meant to represent the Dalek’s eye.
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Sunday 31st August 2014. To the Royal Albert Hall foyer, to look at the Peter Blake mural there, ‘Appearing at the Royal Albert Hall’. It’s a variation on his Sgt Pepper album sleeve, being a montage of photos of about 350 people who’ve performed at the venue, all jostling together in a crowd. Some are in black and white, including the Beatles and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There’s a Dalek (presumably from the Doctor Who Proms), and the main boyband of today, One Direction. I think the photos also indicate the age of the performers at the time they appeared there: the Monkees look much older than their 1960s heyday, and are minus Mike Nesmith, who I know didn’t join in with their reunion tours. So that would suggest the firstÂ Albert Hall showÂ by the Monkees was fairlyÂ recent.
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I do some studying in Swiss Cottage library, which is open on Sundays. At one point a middle-aged man wanders past, talking to himself while staring at the bookshelves. ‘I can assure you the Americans are on the moon,’ he says. ‘What are we doing about it?’ He says this quite loudly and clearly, with a well-spoken accent. Then he moves on.
I dip into Peter Nichols’s memoir, Feeling You’re Behind. He’s honest about his envy of other playwrights’ success, particularly those who, like him, were living in Bristol in the 1960s. Funny how rivalry often involves shared locations as much as shared generations. Tom Stoppard’s stardom is one of those he resents, though he adds ‘he was already a star on Blackboy Hill’. Reading this today, I remember that I once met Stoppard’s Bristol landlady, when I lived there in the early 1990s. She lived in Clifton, and indeed close to Blackboy Hill, and had an old photograph of him framed in her living room, looking like a fifth Beatle.
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Tuesday 2nd September 2014. A letter from Tobi H in New York. He thinks I should move there. Â ‘You’re just too British to stay in England.’
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To mark the opening of itsÂ new branch in St Pancras International, Hatchards have installed someÂ display cases by the Eurostar arrival gates. They tell the history of the main Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly, and include artefacts from past book signings. This means that one of the first things people arriving in Britain willÂ see is a large ashtray once used by Bette Davis.
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Wednesday 3rd September 2014. My 43rd birthday.
Where does the time go? OnÂ the internet.
I chat to Mum on the phone, then head off to do my usual birthday task. I like to celebrate that I still have working eyes and legs (what else is a birthday but a celebration of a still-working body?). So I try to go somewhere I’ve not been before, to treat my eyes to new sights, and my legs to new terrains. It needn’t even be outside London.
Today I visit the newly-opened Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, being the site of the Olympic Games in 2012. I’d kept clear of the Games while they were on, but was always keen to visit the actual site. So I take the High Speed train from St Pancras, and arrive just after noon. A dry, sunny day. I take in the Meccano-like ArcelorMittal Orbit watchtower, as designed by Anish Kapoor, go on a boat trip up the River Lea (the tour guide is a charming older lady, ‘born and bred in the East End’), then I wander around the fresh new parklands and wetlands of the area. Even though there’s plenty of other visitors (lots of East London families and pensioners), it’s incredibly tranquil and pleasant. All the garish branding of the Games has been stripped awayÂ – no more McDonalds logos. Just lots of new grass, wildflowers, waterways and ponds. There’s also lots of public art (I like the circle of mirrored columns in Victory Park), and there’s a scattering of tasteful kiosks and cafes. It’s a perfect place to spend a birthday, in fact: old material renewed for the future.
Small children in swimsuits splash around the snake-shaped fountain by the base of the Orbit, where the water jets sprout from the pavement one by one. Such a simple way to keep small children happy on a warm day. The Orbit turns out to have its own patrollingÂ hawks: I meet one of them on the gloved arm of a chatty gentleman by the entrance. From him I learn two things: 1) the colour red is particularly attractive to pigeons, and 2) nothing keeps pigeons off a huge red sculpture like the presence of a hawk.
A lift takes one up to the tower’s two 360 degree observation decks – one has to walk under a very Kapoor-looking funnel first. There’s a couple of long distorted mirrors on the top deck (more Kapoor ideas), offering an upside-down view of the skyline. The lower deck comes with high-definition zoom screens to identity the sights. I manage to locate Highgate Hill, seven miles away, by looking for the distinctive green dome of the Catholic church. I’ve often been able to see the Orbit all the way from Highgate High Street, so it’s satisfying to see this view in reverse. I also look into the Olympic stadium next door, currently closed and back to being a building site: nothing to see but cranes and forklifts. I learn that it’s being given a new roof, and that it will then serve as a ground for West Ham, while also hosting various athletics events.
A bit of drama in the Orbit view today, too: flames and black smoke are visible from a tower block, a few miles to the south. The staff pass around binoculars. One particularly bored staffer sings ‘London’s Burning’ over and over again, until his colleagues tell him to stop. I later find out that the fire is actually in Bermondsey, in Surrey Quays Road. No injuries, and it’s all put out by 4pm. Barely makes the local news. Still, it’s fairly alarming to watch at the time, and from such a vantage point.
I take the optional staircase back down. It runs around the whole tower inside its own tunnel. Every ten steps is punctuated with speakers, playing noises recorded at places like Borough Market, local football matches, and at the building site for the stadium.
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In the evening: to the Odeon BFI Imax to see Lucy. Scarlett Johansson once again stars as a non-human. This time she’s a woman who accidentally becomes super-intelligent, but the transformation is progressive, and she has hours left to live. The film doesn’t hang about either: the entire future of mankind is done and dusted in about 90 minutes. The man who wrote, produced and directed the filmÂ is Luc Besson, which makes it not just comic book fun, but bande dessinée fun – it’s easy to imagine it drawn by Milo Manara. He even sets the finale in Paris, purely to stuff it with car chases andÂ shoot-outs for no very good reason. It’s an outrageous film, frankly, but its sheer abandon carries me away. Luc Besson is 55. I may not quite share his aesthetics, but his sheer energy and nerve is a good thingÂ for a fortysomething’s birthday.
Tags: arcelormittal orbit, bette davis, birthdays, doris lessing, hatchard's, imax, luc besson, lucy, peter blake, peter nichols, queen elizabeth olympic park, sam selvon, scarlett j, stratford east, Tobi Haberstroh, tom stoppard, wilde