The Last Six Months

Saturday 8th November 2014. I’m putting my college deadlines into my diary when something occurs to me. Exactly six months from today, I will finish my degree. The 8th May 2015 is my last deadline. There’s no exams or timed tests this year, thanks to my careful selection of options. Instead (let’s see…) I have to research and write one 8,000 word thesis (due in April), four 2,500 word essays (two due January, two in May), a 1,500 word essay that doesn’t count towards my degree grade but which I have to do anyway (due in a few days), and a 1,000 word piece that does count towards the grade, though only a little (due in a couple of weeks).

Between now and then I also have to read about 20 further set texts for the regular class modules (ranging from slim poetry collections to fat novels). Plus there are all the books I have to consult for the thesis, the amount of which is up to me.

I wander round the British Library concourse, seeing all the hundreds of laptopped-up hordes – some of whom seem happy to sit all day on the floor if it means access to a power socket. What are they all doing? Studying? Programming? Writing content for websites? ‘You won’t believe what this dressed-up puppy did next!’

I pass them in my breaks from essays, their fingers flying. I see all the reams of words generated every day, even just Facebook posts, and I seethe with envy. I feel so slow in comparison.

I’m managing to do other things, though. This week the artist Becky Boston asks me to write a piece to go with a new artwork of hers. I get it done within three days of her asking. It’s the third or fourth commission I’ve done for her now. I’m grateful to be asked.

* * *

Tuesday 11th November 2014. To Maison Bertaux for tea with Ella Hitchcock. Good to see her again. She’s busy with her studies. I tell her I’m the same with mine. Lots of work, little money.

Then To the ICA for The Possibilities Are Endless, a film about Edwyn Collins’s life, since his devastating stroke in 2005. Like the Nick Cave film the other week, this is another example of how to do a music documentary without repeating the usual clichés. No musicians interviewed in front of – I can barely write it without feeling ill – a recording studio mixing desk. In fact The Possibilities Are Endless has more in common with Under The Skin, with its opening sounds of Edwyn’s voice struggling to form words, and its impressionistic shots of the beach by the village of Helmsdale, north east Scotland, where the Collins family has a cottage. The title is one of the few phrases Mr Collins managed to say during the initial stages of his recovery – and which he kept repeating. ‘Grace Maxwell’, the name of his wife, was another phrase. She helped him cope at every painstaking stage, and is seen acting as his literal right-hand woman, given he’s lost half of his body’s movement. She strums his guitar with one of her hands while he forms chords with his hand. In another scene she cuts his fingernails.

Ms M wrote an excellent memoir a few years ago, Falling and Laughing – The Restoration of Edwyn Collins. It covers a lot of the same ground, though ends at the point where Mr C started writing songs again. Her book ends with some simple yet powerful advice to any family affected by strokes: ‘make up your own story’.

And so this is the spirit of the film. There’s some semi-fictional sequences of a teenage boy who has a strong resemblance to Collins, flirting with a girl in a chip shop. I first took this to be an illustration of Edwyn and Grace’s youthful affection for each other. But the boy then turns out to be William Collins, their son. He steps out of the staged romcom scenes into the more conventional rehearsal room footage, and helps his father make music. The fact Mr C has written and recorded three albums since his stroke (including the film soundtrack) should be inspiration enough, not least because the new songs are as good as those he made before the stroke. One new soul-pop song, ‘Two Steps Back’ is instantly catchy, and stays with me long after the film ends. But The Possibilities Are Endless is about a lot more than music: it’s a portrait of a couple in love, coping with illness in a dignified, funny, idiosyncratic and determined way. The last line is Edwyn’s, and it sums up the film’s sense of freshness and hope: ‘let’s see what happens next’.

* * *

The Quaker café on Euston Road sells chocolate brownies from the ‘Bad Boys Bakery’. A sticker explains: ‘Made in HM Prison Brixton’.

* * *

Class today: Hemingway’s In Our Time. We are required to rewrite other works into a Hemingway style: Henry James, Scott Fitzgerald, Stein. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to do this for the English degree before. Something about Hemingway really invites parody; possibly his machismo.

* * *

Masculinity and comedy is being discussed a lot this week, with reference to Dapper Laughs, a tiresome laddish comedian. As in parodying of Hemingway, the problem seems to be one of targets: punching up or punching down. To mock Hemingway as we do (affectionately) in class is punching up – he sees himself as an alpha male. To mock women, as Dapper Laughs does in an everyman, laddish way (as opposed to a Russell Brand, dandy-Casanova way), is punching down. So this week petitions have been signed, comment pieces have circulated, protests have been made. He has now lost his ITV series, and has appeared on Newsnight to explain how he won’t be doing the ‘character’ of Dapper Laughs any more. The problem was, he wasn’t enough of a character. His form of barbaric, white-van-man style cruelty was all too real.

* * *

Wednesday 12th November 2014. Lecture in Mary Ward House on Philip Larkin’s Less Deceived. Lecturer: Roger Luckhurst. One wonders what Larkin would make of the UK today, given his more reactionary views. Would he have voted UKIP, or would he have seen them as too politically correct? One young student, Ralph, is particularly energised by the lecture, telling me how Larkin really captures the regional England sense of being left out of things, compared to London and Manchester and so on. But there’s always a ‘well, but’ moment when reading Larkin. Such as: ‘They f— you up, your Mum and Dad? Well, but… what about when they don’t?’ And yet his turn of phrase still dazzles, and so he lives on, politics or no.  Without the poetry, there’d be no biographies anyway.

* * *

Thursday 13th November 2014. Sad news: the Buffalo Bar in Highbury is to close. Their final night is on New Year’s Eve. Fosca played there. I’ve DJ-d there, danced there, met new friends there, fallen over drunk there. Here’s a photo of me at the BB singing with Fosca, during a Club Bohemia night. From oh, 1897 or whenever (mid 2000s really):


* * *

The nature presenter Chris Packham appeals to Ant and Dec, hosts of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. In an open letter, he asks them to drop the rounds involving live animals, equating them to a form of bloodsport. Mr P’s language to Ant and Dec is particularly striking: he says the treatment of animals is ‘a shame that I imagine neither of you will want to take to your graves’.

On Twitter, I retweet a link to this news story. Then I get into a slight spot of trouble when some people think I’m linking to it in order to condemn Mr Packham. In fact, although I support his cause, I don’t entirely support his use of terms like ‘shame’. The problem is, Twitter is too limited for combining a full response to a story within the same tweet as the link. There’s no room for the spectrum of nuance between the binary polarities of ‘spot on!’ and ‘FFS!’ (‘for f***’s sake’). All is binary on Twitter. You can’t be a bit of both.

I get a rather good comment from Robin Ince on the matter:

‘If you’re not in at least two minds about something, you’re just not putting the effort in’.

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Looking For Squlchy

Saturday 1st November 2014. I enjoy the latest Doctor Who, in which the Master comes back as Missy, a kind of evil Mary Poppins. She’s played with scene-stealing relish by Michelle Gomez. It must be a lot of fun being her.

* * *

Sunday 2nd November 2014. While writing an essay about Ernest Hemingway, I find myself getting obsessed with the made-up word ‘squlchy’. It appears in some US editions of his book In Our Time, yet is corrected to ‘squelchy’ in all the UK ones. I spend hours of this week poring over this tiny matter, seeing if any critics have commented on it (only a couple – one thinks it’s intentional, the other thinks it’s a typo that should have been corrected). I call up different editions in the British Library to trace the differences. Then I try to see if Hemingway ever insisted on keeping the invented spelling (my results: he doesn’t seem to have cared either way, while a later ‘definitive’ US edition uses the corrected spelling). After all this I decide that my findings are irrelevant to the essay in hand. So I cut them out.

I do this sort of thing a lot. I suppose it’s called a research wormhole.

* * *

Monday 3rd November2014. I find out that a favourite TV series of my childhood is now on YouTube. It’s the 1979 BBC adaptation of E Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle. Seeing it now, and comparing it to, say, the trailers for the new Paddington Bear film – I realise just how slow and quiet children’s entertainment used to be. Almost Pinteresque. Very little incidental music, and certainly none of the roller-coaster editing one is used to now. The new CGI Paddington film has a noisy, nick-of-time chase sequence, just like the new Hobbit films.

* * *

Tuesday 4th November 2014. An intriguing article in the New Statesman by Daniel Glaser, a scientist who was on the Booker panel this year. He chose to read all the novels on paper rather than on an iPad or a Kindle, because ‘your encoding of memory is richer if it’s multi-sensory’.

Evening: to the function room of the Lamb pub in Lamb’s Conduit Street, Bloomsbury, for a literary salon. More an informal get-together of literary types, really. I’m invited by Thom Cuell, and bump into a couple of others I know. James Ward is there, once someone I knew from Fosca and Baxendale gigs, now the author of Adventures in Stationery. He has grown a beard.

It’s nice to meet new people, particularly bookish ones. But I still feel so awkward about introducing myself – I feel I have to pitch a version of myself.  I’ve done all kinds of things – which ones to say? Thom introduces me as a singer – and I haven’t done that for years. I have enough trouble explaining my existence to myself, let alone to strangers.

* * *

Wednesday 5th November 2014. A current fashion for young men is to grow as bushy a beard as possible. There are some truly striking examples in the library today: their faces a mass of billowing hair clouds, as if offsetting the weight of their backpacks. The hair on top of their head, meanwhile, is immaculately short, shaven at the sides and slicked down. Bearded striplings. Or better yet: beardlings.

* * *

Thursday 6th November 2014. I go on Twitter and very nearly find myself joining in with the talking points of the day. Remembrance Day poppies is one hot topic, while the new John Lewis Christmas advert is another. But then an immense feeling of pointlessness overwhelms me, and I decide against it.

The impulse to comment on a topical subject is often just loneliness, really. One problem of wanting to belong is that you can join the crowd only to vanish within it.

* * *

To the Leicester Square Odeon Studios for The Riot Club. The cinema is really a hive of small screens built into the cavities and corridors to one side of the Leicester Square Odeon. The Studios even lack their own entrance: you have to walk through a branch of Costa coffee instead. Quite where the Costa part ends and the Odeon part begins is unclear – it’s just a typically anonymous, franchise non-place, one ubiquitous brand blurring depressingly into another. I’m only here because it’s the only cinema showing the film I’m after. Aptly enough, The Riot Club is a critique of the way Britain is at the mercy of a few powerful names. The club of the title is a thinly-disguised version of the Bullingdon Club, the notorious society for wealthy Oxford students, which once included David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson.

Most of the film takes place during one of their dinners, with shorter scenes acting as a prelude and an aftermath. The dinner is such an unusually extended scene that I soon realise I am watching an adaptation of a stage play (called Posh, it turns out). This is where the film doesn’t quite work – it’s tonally torn between its original form and the new one. As it is, these days plays are being filmed on stage to be shown in cinemas directly – and the Billy Elliot musical’s screening outsold all the proper films earlier this year. The Riot Club either needs to stay on stage or needs to be filmed like If…. An allegorical, deliberately unreal treatment.

There’s a moment where one character delivers a State Of The Nation Speech, about how it’s the true way of the British to be trodden on by their betters. This sort of thing is perfect for the stage, but is utterly unbelievable in a realistic film. Still, it’s a triumph aesthetically, if only because it rounds up so many beautiful young actors in one place (including Freddie Fox and Ben Schnetzer from Pride, and Douglas Booth from Great Expectations).

* * *

Friday 7th November 2014. Two launches in East London. First to 11 Mare Street for the Viktor Wynd Museum Of Curiosities. The museum isn’t officially open yet, but tonight it hosts a launch for Mr W’s book on the art of collecting, Viktor Wynd’s Cabinet of Wonders. In the museum is a Dandies’ Corner, featuring Sebastian Horsley’s red sequinned suit, lots of Stephen Tennant art, and a sketch of the young Quentin Crisp by Mervyn Peake. Upstairs there’s a range of beautiful Leonora Carrington sketches and paintings. At the other end of the scale: a box of Russell Brand’s pubic hair, or so the label claims. (More info at:

Then I hop on the 394 bus to go the Mercer Chance gallery, Hoxton Street. This is the launch for Parallel Evolution, the debut CD by the ambient music group Shadow Biosphere, aka Lesley Malone and Caroline Jago. It’s a spooky, space-inspired soundscape reminiscent of the Under The Skin soundtrack. I can also imagine it being on Radio 3’s Late Junction. Highly recommended. (More info at

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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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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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