Little Threads of Infinity

Sometimes, writing can feel like tugging at little threads of infinity. This is a simile suggested by the jacket I’m wearing today. It’s a beloved linen number of some ten summers, as a result of which the jacket is now unravelling along a number of seams. It has reached the stage where it makes my dry cleaner suck in his breath so much, I wonder if there’s a point where the sound of reluctance ends and asthma begins.

I have the same fear of an infinite unravelling whenever I sit down to write. There’s a point where the mind has no reason to stop dwelling on even the tiniest detail – one thinks of the Woolf story ‘The Mark on the Wall’. Everything is interesting, really.

But the problem with this is that I have a backlog of events from the last few weeks, which really should be at least declared, if only to paint in the parameters of my funny little life. This week’s selection of diary entries, and the next one, will therefore be more of a mopping-up. The temptation to tug on The Threads of Fact until they become The Unravelled Garments of Reflection will just have to be resisted.


Tuesday 4th May 2016. To the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury. A small gallery that nevertheless crams in two superb exhibitions: a major one about ‘The Great British Graphic Novel’, and a smaller one upstairs about the Doctor Who Target novelisations, which came out regularly in the 70s and 80s. Virtually every Doctor Who adventure was turned into one of these little books. I remember them well as a child. It was the era just before TV shows were available to buy on home video (long before DVDs). To revisit a favourite story, the fans had to read prose fiction. How strange now to think of novels as catch-up TV.

Each Target paperback had a specially commissioned cover rendered as a painting (hence the exhibition), branding the books more as imaginative explorations in their own right, rather than disposable cash-ins. They also encouraged a feeling of community, which is what merchandise and events like Comic-Con should always do. Join our club.


Thursday 5th May 2016. In the TLS I read a review by Tom Lean of Electronic Dreams, a book about 1980s computer games. One game, Deus Ex Machina, apparently featured a segment ‘in which the player has to guide a sperm to an egg in order to fertilize it. The astronomer Patrick Moore had been invited to voice the semen; he consulted his mother and, on her advice, declined.’


Sunday 8th May 2016. Afternoon: To a marquee in St James’s Square, for one of the Words in the Square events. This is a miniature literary festival, held by the London Library to mark its 175th anniversary. I attend ‘Desert Island Books’, a group discussion about favourite reads. Six authors sit on a stage and explain their choices in categories such as ‘Childhood Favourite’, ‘Biggest Influence’, ‘Guilty Pleasure’, ‘Tarnished Favourite’, and ‘Recent Favourite’. The authors are Philippa Gregory, Deborah Levy, John O’Farrell, Sara Wheeler, Nikesh Shukla and Ned Beauman. A gender note: all three men try to make the audience laugh, while the three women are more serious and wistful about the pleasures of reading. Though that’s a kind of playing to the crowd too.

Ned B’s ‘Guilty Pleasure’ is to go on Amazon and use the ‘Look Inside’ function to read the bits in crime thrillers where the killer reveals his motive. Nikesh S’s ‘Tarnished Favourite’ is a poetry anthology he contributed to in his teens. His initial excitement at having his dream realised was soon doused; the book turned out to be a scam by a vanity press.

Evening: To the Constitution in Camden for Debbie Smith’s Nitty Gritty club night. It’s such a sunny day that I walk all the way from St James’s, via the canal. At the club I meet the singer from the band Bete Noire, who I’m reliably informed have been making waves with their song, ‘Piss On Putin’.


 Saturday 29th May 2016. Mum in London for the day. We visit the British Library’s big summer exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts. As usual with the BL, it’s a rich mix of the familiar (lots of rare books, a couple of First Folios present and correct), the educational (in-depth histories of early female and black actors) and the unexpected. In the latter case I’m fascinated with the details of the first overseas production, an amateur Hamlet on board a ship off the coast of Sierra Leone, as early as 1607. Shakespeare was still alive.

Also learned: King Lear was performed in a sanitised version for 150 years. This Restoration rewrite had a happy ending and omitted the character of the Fool entirely. When the full Shakespearean Lear was revived in the 1830s, the first actor to play the Fool was a woman, Priscilla Horton.

For me, the highlight is a whole room dedicated to Peter Brook’s 1970 production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. This was the radically minimalist version, staged against plain white walls, with brightly coloured costumes, trapezes and stilts. In the exhibition, all the rooms are dark except for this one, a witty recreation of Brook’s clean white box. There’s even a trapeze one can sit on, albeit firmly anchored.

Lunch at Albertini in Chalton Street, followed by a walk around Camley Street Natural Park and a quick visit to the House of Illustration. Three small exhibitions in the latter: 1920s Soviet children’s books (when animal tales were suppressed as bourgeois constructs), a permanent Quentin Blake gallery, and a display of Japanese girls’ Shojo manga comics. Am intrigued about Keiko Takemiya, who is thought to have pioneered the yaoi genre: comics about gay male love, made by women for girls.

It’s a sunny day, and we have drinks outside in Granary Square (buying them at the trendy Granary Store bar). The area is still being finished, but it’s already King’s Cross’s answer to the South Bank, the canal standing in for the Thames. As with the Royal Festival Hall, hordes of people now descend here at the weekend, and seem to just sit around all day. Alcohol on concrete, bridges over water, art galleries, and the inevitable small children playing in fountains, the kind made up of jets of water springing up from the pavement.

In fact, the Granary Square fountains seem to be more artily-minded than the South Bank ones, perhaps because St Martin’s is next door. The jets switch constantly between different patterns of varying rows and heights. On the South Bank, the jets just rise up and go down. Either way, the children seem happy. Or at least, busy. Which with children, unlike adults, is the same thing.

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You Are The Flashback

Wednesday 2nd March 2016. I listen to a Radio 4 documentary in the Archive on 4 slot: Skill, Stamina and Luck. It’s an account of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks of the 80s, and of the wider history of interactive fiction before and after them.

Pure nostalgic bliss for me, as I was an avid fan of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, 1982) and the many books that followed it, all published by Puffin Books. As the documentary points out, the books sold in huge amounts at the time, often beating Roald Dahl in the children’s bestseller charts.

In 1982, aged ten, I already knew that the ‘go to page 142’ format existed, what with the Choose Your Own Adventure series and others like it. I think the first one I encountered was a picture-based game book for small children, inspired by the maze scene in Jerome’s Three Men in A Boat, titled Three Men In A Maze (by Stephen Leslie, Transworld Publishers, 1977 – I have a copy today).

The Fighting Fantasy series was the first to add a proper gaming element, though, with dice to throw, battles to win, and SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK scores to maintain, each of these crucial words always in upper case. I wasn’t so keen on the battle side (and so never graduated to a Warhammer phase), and I was useless at painting Citadel Miniatures. But I loved making annotated paper maps of the little worlds in each of the books, with notes on how to solve them – ‘walkthroughs’ these would be called now. I was so proud of my map for Steve Jackson’s House of Hell (1984) that I sold copies of it to school friends.

One specific memory is queuing up at a Puffin Show at Chelsea Town Hall, April 1985, to get a signed copy of the latest title, Ian Livingstone’s Temple of Terror. They would always be called something like that: The Alliteration of Awfulness, The Preposition of Scary Noun, The Place of Stuff. I must have been first in the signing queue (such was my ardour), because I can distinctly remember Mr Livingstone telling me that Temple of Terror was not yet published, so I was getting the very first copy sold. I don’t think Temple of Terror was one of the classic titles, but if I’m ever called upon to reveal my Secret Geek Credentials, that’s my main card.

The Radio 4 documentary also revealed that there’s been a recent book on the history of Fighting Fantasy: You Are The Hero, by Jonathan Green. Part-funded by Kickstarter, naturellement. I’ve just treated myself to a copy, and am getting all kinds of Proustian rushes. ‘If you want to eat the madeleine cake, go to 24…’

* * *

Thursday 3rd March 2016. Evening: MA class at Gordon Square. This week’s novel is Erasure by Percival Everett. Quite hard to get hold of. The last UK edition from 2004 seems to be already out of print. Rather ironic, considering it’s a satire on literary ambition. In Everett’s story, a struggling black academic, raging in frustration at the absurdities of the world, deliberately writes a lurid, stereotypical ‘ghetto’ novel. This accidentally becomes a hit, forcing him to adopt a pseudonymous ex-convict persona in order to satisfy the public’s desire for the ‘real thing’ – as in their perception of ‘real’ blackness. Quite a timely week to do this book, given the controversy over the Oscars. Plenty of arguments with no easy conclusions, other than Everett’s book is impressive, and uproariously funny at times. He certainly deserves to be better known over here.

* * *

Friday 4th March 2016. To the ICA to see Hail Caesar! It’s the new Coen brothers film: one of their lighter, quirkier comedies in the style of Burn After Reading, as opposed to the darker likes of Fargo or No Country For Old Men. This one is set in the world of early 50s Hollywood, the era captured in That’s Entertainment, when actors’ whole lives were owned by studios, when fears of Communist threats were rife, and when mainstream films were at their most colourful and escapist. There’s extended clips from loving pastiches of such films, such as Esther Williams’s aquatic ballets, or Gene Kelly’s song-and-dance routines in sailor suits, or westerns that were really excuses for rodeo stunts and singing cowboys. George Clooney spends the whole film in his Roman centurion costume, having been kidnapped from the set of the title film, a lavish Biblical epic in the vein of The Robe.

Ralph Fiennes proves, again, that he really should do more comedy, while Tilda Swinton does her ice queen bit yet again, this time as a pair of identical twins turned rival gossip journalists. The plot is all very unlikely, and it does feel that it needs a rewrite to give it more of a sense of direction. But it also feels that to do so would mean cutting out so many enjoyable set pieces. In that sense, the film is a piece of indulgence, albeit made with the suspicion that the audience will be fine with such indulgence. Because it’s done as gleefully as this. I certainly enjoyed it.

* * *

Saturday 5th March 2016. To the House of Illustration in King’s Cross, for the exhibition Comix Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics. It’s billed as ‘the UK’s largest ever exhibition of the work of pioneering female comics artists’. The House of Illlustration’s main exhibition space comprises just three gallery rooms plus a video screening room, so expectations of ‘large’ do not initially spring to mind. But as is often the case with the HoI shows, each room is so crammed with comic art, with lots of shelves of graphic novels to pick up and browse, that the time needed to take it all in can’t be so different to a blockbuster Tate show.

The message of the exhibition is simple: women have made comics too, and there’s more female creators than one might think. But the show also posits the theory that all female creators contribute to a distinct role in culture, like Mother Earth: the ‘Creatrix’. What’s certainly true is that the show proves how women have drawn every possible genre of comics and sequential art, often with their gender kept quiet or even deliberately hidden (in that JK Rowling way of a girl’s name being thought to put off boy readers). Until today I hadn’t realised that the Victorian character Ally Sloper was co-created by a woman, Marie Duval.

Some favourites in the show: an account from the US Saturday Evening Post in 1960, describing the working day of Dalia ‘Dale’ Messick, creator of the 1940s strip Brenda Star – Reporter. ‘The hi–fi is on full blast… if the music is appropriate, she jumps up and does a rumba. In meditative periods, she chews gum with popping sound effects.’

I also enjoy the exhibits by Tove Jansson (pencils for a Moomins strip), Posy Simmonds (an original page for Tamara Drewe), a strip by Kate Beaton, and one by Laura Howell, a contributor to Viz. Ms Howell’s strip is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read in any medium: ‘Benjamin Britten and his Embittered Bitten’.

The only shortcoming is that other people seem to have finally found out about the HoI, so the rooms are much more crowded than they were at my last visit. Oh, the dilemma of wanting to tell the world about a favourite place, while hoping that not too many people actually listen to you and go there.

I once heard of a Time Out restaurant critic who said that a handful of really nice restaurants in London never made it into the magazine. The rumour went that the staff deliberately kept these heavenly places quiet, so that they could still secure a table. It’s like the way Jehovah’s Witnesses advertise a version of paradise that nevertheless only comes in a limited edition.

Thinking about it, Time Out is now like The Watchtower in another respect. Another free handout of suspicious provenance, one of the many unasked-for concoctions of staples and hope, thrust ceaselessly into the faces of commuters each evening, as they rush to catch the Tube to eternal damnation. Or Euston, as it’s currently known.

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Department of Applied Peroxide

Saturday 30th May 2015.

To the countryside near Bishop’s Stortford, for a family gathering. The weather is still not summery enough, and despite a marquee in the garden, I lurk indoors in the kitchen. The FA Cup plays on a TV, for the indulgence of a lone football fan at the party. Later, on the Northern Line tube home, I see a trio of small boys decked out in what I take to be some sort of gaudy scout uniform. Either that or it’s a Harry Potter fancy dress party outfit: jumpers and scarves in striped bright yellow and blue. It is only later that I realise these are the away colours for Arsenal.

All dress is fancy dress, if the onlooker doesn’t get the memo.

* * *

Sunday 31st May 2015.

With Ella H for the afternoon. Tea and welsh rarebit at the travel-sized branch of Fortnums in St Pancras (a perfect hangover cure). Then across through the newly cleaned up area north of King’s Cross. We pass a glossy new building on the left, whose empty ground floor uses spooky neon displays and oddly-posed mannequins to announce its commercial availability. People are standing around and taking photos of the mannequins, unsure if this is an art installation or a glorified ‘To Let’ sign. It seems to be both.

Then to the House of Illustration gallery, for Mac Conner: A New York Life. The gallery is barely a year old, and has to be sought out behind the new St Martin’s college, rather than dropped into out of impulse. Last time I was here it was for Quentin Blake’s work for children. Mac Conner’s oeuvre in the 1950s was very much intended for adults: gouache paintings made to strict commission, by the Mad Men of the era. Those sharp-suited barons of public taste. There’s the inevitable adverts that have now acquired a tinge of comic hindsight, extolling the glamour of smoking and atomic energy. But many images are scenes from fiction, intended to accompany pulp-ish short stories and serialisations of novels. All the men in these dramatic, Hitchcockian scenes are square-jawed cads and rogues, while all the women are imaginary sisters of Audrey Hepburn or Doris Day. Their expressions are troubled, but their clothes are immaculate. Mac Conner himself is shown on a video, interviewed last year. He is still drawing at the age of 101.

We end up in the ornate Gilbert Scott bar, with its distinctive portico on Euston Road, and attack slightly too many glasses of rosé.

* * *

Monday 1st June 2015.

Evening: a drinks gathering at the Euston Flyer for fellow student (now turned student union worker) Miriam, and other friends – Charley, Jo, Sarah H, all not seen in months. It all gets very silly and giggly. The Flyer is opposite the British Library, a touch anonymous but not too touristy. And unusually for a pub near a London station, it has plenty of seats.

* * *

Tuesday 2nd June 2015.

Life among rented rooms. My neighbour David R-P knocks on my door in the morning. En route to the shower, he has locked himself out of his room, due to the fickle whims of Yale locks. Now he is stranded in the limbo of the shared hallway, equipped only with his pyjamas and towel. In films – most recently Birdman – this predicament is ripe for farce. But in real life it just means a combination of sheepishness and phone calls. The upshot is that I spend a pleasant couple of hours inviting David in for coffee, letting him use my internet and phone, and waiting for help to arrive. A spare key is located by the landlady, and all is well before lunchtime. I record this to disprove two common assumptions about London: that neighbours never help each other, and that landlords do not care about their tenants’ welfare.

* * *

In the evening: to Senate House for a special Birkbeck lecture by Marina Warner. It’s this year’s William Matthews lecture, funded by a bequest from the eponymous professor’s estate. I discover that Professor Matthews not only started out as a Birkbeck student (getting his BA, MA and PHD there in the 20s and 30s), but he also edited collections of diaries, including the definitive edition of Samuel Pepys.

Marina W’s talk centres on the UK’s ‘provincial’ tendency to shy away from world fiction in translation – ashamedly so, compared to other European countries. She talks about having recently judged the Booker International Prize, the winner being Hungary’s László Krasznahorkai, and champions his work in this talk. She also cites a quote by Joe Sacco that I like: ‘fiction allows a writer to connect the dots, while journalists often place the dots down without connecting them.’ (from an interview in the New Yorker, 14 November 2013).

David R-P unexpectedly turns up at the event’s wine reception afterwards: he and his companion, Nicoletta Wylde, are fellow fans of Ms Warner. An academic-looking man comes over to chat, curious about our appearance. DRP’s hair is bottle blond like mine, albeit much longer, while Nicoletta’s hair is a vivid Gothic Blue. ‘What is all this?’ he says, gesturing at us. ‘Department of Applied Peroxide’, I reply.

I chat to a few of my Birkbeck tutors, including Roger Luckhurst, about how Senate House turns up in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Day of the Triffids, and the Christian Bale Batman films. Even the ventilation ducts have an Art Deco labyrinth design, not unlike the striking logo for Christopher Nolan’s film company, Syncopy.

After this, David and Nicoletta accompany me over to Gordon Square, so I can pick up my latest essay result before we look for somewhere to eat. Fittingly, the essay is for my piece on Angela Carter, a favourite subject of Marina Warner. The mark is 75: a good First. Points off for not fully explaining who Ronald Firbank was, apparently (poor old Firbank…).

We repair to Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes around the corner for pizza and prosecco. (Would Virginia Woolf have approved? She did like cricket…) There’s a section of American diner-style booths, cordoned off in a separate glass section, so all the pool-playing and bowling can’t be heard. It’s pleasingly empty, too.

* * *

Wednesday 3rd June 2015.

A current cliché in online discourse is the phrase ‘to be fair’. It is so common that it has its own acronym: ‘tbf’. I find myself wincing at it, in the same way I wince at ‘famously’.

A joke suggests itself: ‘I have lightened my hair. To be fair.’

* * *

Evening: To Gordon Square yet again, this time for the English Department’s ‘end of studies’ party in the Keynes Library. I chat to a mixture of familiar and new faces, and we carry on the chat into the Birkbeck bar proper, over in Torrington Square. It’s becoming a week of heavy socialising, not to say over-indulgence. Unusual for me, but after so much putting aside of fun things into order to meet deadlines, I’m letting myself off the leash a little.

* * *

 Thursday 4th June 2015.

I get the dissertation back, the one on 21st century literary camp. The mark is 70: a First, if only just. I’m pleased and grateful. I have to admit that dissertations are a new form of assessment for me, and the subject matter IS notoriously slippery – possibly even controversial. I had the temerity to invent a new term for it: ‘campism’ – to denote a deliberate use of camp in order to produce a subversive effect. So I was somewhat stepping into untested waters. Or, given it was about camp, untested John Waters.

Am also pleased with the comments, given that they’re the last word from the whole four-year course: ‘A confident and sophisticated piece of work… insightful, careful, nuanced critical textual analysis… compelling, excellent work, and a fitting conclusion to your degree’.

And that’s all the final year provisional marks back. I now have to wait till mid-July to have them finalised, by various mysterious ‘external boards’. I like to think they meet in darkened crypts with flaming torches. Only then do I get the degree.


I go to see A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, at the ICA. It’s a moody, slow, black and white tale of an Iranian skateboarding vampire. She uses her Islamic chador like bat wings. The film is stylistically original, but very demanding in its slowness. I prefer Only Lovers Left Alive in the Arty Vampire Film stakes (vampire puns do seem hard to avoid).

* * *

Friday 5th June 2015.

One more film this week: Listen Up Philip, at the Phoenix in East Finchley. A screen in the cinema café now displays a photo of Benedict Cumberbatch, along with his statement on becoming a patron, championing the cause of independent cinemas and so on.

Listen Up Philip isn’t a very likeable film, with its self-obsessed novelist character (Jason Schwartzman) moving out of the New York flat he shares with Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men again). He goes off to ‘find himself’ by staying at a summer house owned by another self-obsessed novelist, if a more fun one (Jonathan Pryce). There’s a god-like voice-over narrator, which I think is meant to make the film feel like a novel in itself. But in fact, it just doesn’t work – it pushes the audience away from any proper connection with the story. Ms Moss’s lesser character is more interesting and sympathetic, to the point where I wanted to see two hours about her instead. To carry on the novel simile, the film feels like an early draft that has accidentally been printed up, Franzen-like, as a proper edition.

Curiously, both A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and Listen Up Philip have long scenes involving the comforting appeal of cats. Perhaps the internet is to blame.

Both are also set in surreally indistinct time periods: some sort of pre-digital past, where people only listen to music on vinyl. It’s as if one has to go to the cinema now to remind oneself of a world where people didn’t worship pocket devices. We go to watch a big screen, in order to escape all the little ones.

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