Route 66

Saturday 5th September 2015.

Viktor Wynd hires me to give a couple of guided tours in his Museum of Curiosities, in Mare St. The museum is so packed with objects that I have to be selective with what I talk about. As it is, I feel more confident in focussing on its ‘Dandy Corner’, my specialist subject. It has a handful of exhibits on the unholy trinity of Sebastian Horsley, Stephen Tennant and Quentin Crisp. I do the tours wearing SH’s silver suit, as a bonus for the visitors. Though perhaps I overestimate their interest in the history of dandyism. When I ask for questions, I get: ‘Where’s the shrunken heads?’

I’m given free cocktails by the museum bar. My favourite is a ‘Gone With The Wynd’ – absinthe, Chambord, raspberries, egg white. The late Mr H also has a cocktail, the ‘Sebastian Speedball’ – bourbon, pineapple and lime juice. There’s postcards for sale of SH during his crucifixion, plus one of a painting by Leonora Carrington. Tessa Farmer’s ‘evil fairy’ sculptures leave me in awe, such is their miniature intricacy. And humour, too, in the way they interact with the other exhibits. Two of her skeletal fairies hover around the Horsley suit, unleashing a vial of clothes moths.

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Monday 7th September 2015.

Heather M is a volunteer at the V&A. Today she takes me as her guest on an in-house tour of Blythe House, near the Olympia centre in Kensington. This is the museum’s archive and storage depot for its theatre and performance collection. The building is an endless Victorian warren of towering, tottering shelves, costumes on rails, bookcases, and the largest amount of filing boxes I’ve seen in one room. What springs to mind is the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. When the tour stops, I randomly lean out at a shelf and pick up a box to see what it contains. The correspondence of Paul Schofield.

In the archive reading room are two of the cardboard cut-outs used in the photoshoot for Peter Blake’s Sgt Pepper sleeve. Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allen Poe. I touch the Wilde cut-out, and feel almost giddy with history.

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Tuesday 8th September 2015.

With Shanthi S to see Ricki and the Flash, where Meryl Streep plays an aging rock singer. The plot – about her reconciliation with estranged relatives – is very slight, but it all comes together pleasingly enough. A touch of Richard Curtis idealism in the finale. The film’s real highlights are its concert scenes, along with its refreshing depiction of an equally-matched older couple, who clearly have a youthful sexual chemistry – the energetic Streep with the boyish Rick Springfield. Both are 66. The same age as Jeremy Corbyn.

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Thursday 10th September 2015.

I enjoy the Buzzfeed website, even though it’s clearly targeted at people younger than me. Today I idly start doing a quiz that is meant to guess your age. ‘Pick the phone you most loved as a kid’. It occurs to me that I have never once felt love for a phone.

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I read Taylor Parkes’s article on attending a Jeremy Corbyn event, for The Quietus. He notes that the average age of the Corbyn fans is ‘probably fifty, but there are almost no fifty-year-olds. Mostly, it’s the under-30s and the over-60s.’ I wonder if this is because many of those aged between 30 and 60 tend to channel their political energies onto the internet, shouting with their fingers on discussion threads. Whenever I make the mistake of glancing at the comments under an article, I am amazed that so many people spend so much of their lives hammering out so many unasked-for words. And to what end?

A great number of internet comments can be paraphrased as the same comment: ‘I am lonely’.

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Friday 11th September 2015.

Evening: to Vout-O-Reenee’s in Tower Hill for the launch of Liggers & Dreamers. It’s a new novella by Josie Demuth, published by Thin Man Press. The book is an entertaining depiction of a group of people who constantly gate-crash swanky parties and private views. The actress Jenny Runacre reads an extract, and later there’s a set of stunning, Bowie-esque piano songs by Bryn Phillips (who really should be putting records out). I chat to Debbie Smith and Mikey Georgeson (he of David Devant).

Manage to read the novella during the day. Some of the ruses of Ms Demuth’s characters remind me of my own attempts to get into rock aftershows in the past. Particularly the one where a single spare stick-on backstage pass can be carried back out by a second person, and used to get a group of people past a bouncer one-by-one, with much surreptitious unsticking and re-sticking going on. I suspect the rise of wristbands has made this less common.

Ms Demith’s novella also makes some thoughtful points, amid lots of broad satire, in-jokes and slapstick. One is that a party freeloader might think of themselves self-righteously, as if redressing the unfairness of the world. They might view their efforts as tantamount to being a canape-scoffing Robin Hood, however misguidedly (I thought of the woman caught on camera during the 2011 London riots, who said she was looting a small chemist’s ‘to get our taxes back’). Another is that some freeloaders might add to the atmosphere of an event, and so they ‘pay’ their way in that sense. There’s a scene where a gallery has managed to ban freeloaders so effectively that the only people at their openings are those who can afford to buy the paintings, ie wealthy bankers. As a result the events become uniform, perfunctory, and dull, and so the ban is soon lifted. For me, this is an optimistic take on what might happen with the current pricing-out of Londoners as a whole.

Though not just yet. The local newspaper regularly covers long-running independent shops which are having to close down, due to escalations in rent. This week it’s the second-hand bookshop Ripping Yarns in Archway Road, owned by Celia Mitchell since the 1970s (when it was named after the Michael Palin and Terry Jones TV series). ‘It’s like a death in the family,’ Ms Mitchell says in the paper. She’s talking about her own life, but the phrase applies to Highgate too.

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Core Values

Saturday 8th August 2015

Tired of my increasing sagginess, I start to make a concerted effort to live more healthily. Without resorting to the gym, that is. One measure is to clock up 10,000 steps worth of walking in the city every day. I record them by using the pedometer function on my pleasingly out-of-date iPod Nano (2011 vintage). I wince when I do so, however, as it means tapping a little red Nike symbol, presumably because of some Satanic corporate deal with Apple. It remains the only part of my life ever to have been invaded by the omnipresent multinational tick. ‘Just do it’, their adverts insist. I want to reply, ‘Just leave it with me and I’ll consider it.’

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Sunday 9th August 2015.

I’m also trying the NHS diet plan: cutting calories to the recommended men’s limit of 1900 a day, until good habits kick in. I find that I can easily achieve this if I cut out two things: bread, and utter filth. By which I mean the sadly delicious oat cookies that Sainsbury’s do in £1 paper bags. Up till now, I’d been hoovering them up like Elvis, wondering why my suits were getting tighter. By the end of this week, though, I walk past the cookies in the supermarket with the brisk confidence of a divorcee, shunning their raisin stares.

My new love: low calorie popcorn.

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Monday 10th August 2015.

On a walk around the Barbican, I discover that the Moorgate branch of HMV has quietly shut down. The only London branches left now are Oxford Street, Fopp in Cambridge Circus, and Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush. Mooching around Covent Garden later, I note how one entertainment store that seems to be thriving is Forbidden Planet, with its endless shelves of Doctor Who toys and Marvel comic spin-offs. Sci-fi and comic conventions seem bigger than ever. I wonder if it’s to do with the way cult entertainment plays upon the need to belong, in an era where identity can be up for grabs. At Forbidden Planet, you are not just buying something, you are buying into something. It’s there, too, in the explosion of literary festivals. Congregations of belonging, of praise (‘acclaimed’ ‘award-winning’), of sacred texts, of finding one’s tribe. ‘I am here because I am the sort of person that comes here’.

And yet some ages still take more traditional pleasures. In Forbidden Planet, a couple of small children seem to be ignoring all the superhero toys and dolls, and instead are gleefully chasing each other in and out of the silver bannisters, again and again.

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Tuesday 11th August 2015.

My first High First Class mark at Birkbeck was for an essay in December 2013, written on ‘Touch Sensitive’, an iPad-only comic by Chris Ware, published in 2011. I’ve still never owned an iPad: Senate House Library rents them out to students for free.

One quote I used in my essay was from a 2012 New Statesman interview with Mr Ware, in which he glumly pronounced his comic to be a one-off venture into the digital world. One reason, he said, was that he felt uneasy about charging people for something that had no physical presence (a rather alarming view now). Another was that he regarded his printed works as still readable in years to come, whereas a piece of bespoke iPad software is at the mercy of its compatible devices and host apps, which tend to be upgraded and replaced. He gave ‘Touch Sensitive’ a five year lifespan, maximum.

Today I discover that the McSweeney’s publishing house has withdrawn its iPad app, which exclusively hosted Ware’s comic. He was right after all.

More lessons versus digital versus paper. I find out that Amazon won’t let me read my purchased Kindle ebooks on more than five devices or reading programs (this has come from upgrading to Windows 10). I have to uninstall one device first. Kindle books ultimately remain Amazon property, even when paid for. So digital book buying is more a form of renting.

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Wednesday 12th August 2015.

I leave the house to buy milk, not wearing a tie. Later, I feel very ashamed about this omission, and resolve to never let it happen again. I think I blame the ubiquity of Jeremy Corbyn. (It’s since been pointed out to me that Mr Corbyn does wear a tie. Sometimes)

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To the East Finchley Phoenix for Diary of A Teenage Girl. An acutely personal coming-of-age drama, set in 1970s California, and starring Bel Powley, the young English actress who played the teenage Princess Margaret so well in A Royal Night Out. More teenage recklessness here, this time with an impeccable American accent. Lots of 70s beiges and browns. The story focusses on the protagonist’s on-off affair with her mother’s boyfriend, amid the messiness of her wider sexual curiosity. It peters out narratively towards the end, but that may just be part of its honesty. Nice use of animations in a Robert Crumb ‘comix’ style, based on the character’s notebook drawings.

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Thursday 13th August 2015.

Many corporate job descriptions aimed at English graduates appear to be steeped in exactly the kind of mangled language that students of prose are taught to avoid. Today I come across the following sentence in a recruitment newsletter:

You will show a commitment to the team, protecting the company’s brand and market reputation through demonstrating the following core values; Trust, Smart, Fresh, Diverse, Energy, Value, Green and Results.”

If I know anything at all, it is this: I could never work for a company that mistakes adjectives for nouns.

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Friday 14th August 2015.

To the Curzon Bloomsbury for Mistress America, the new film by Noah Baumbach. More middle class New Yorkers exchanging quips about life, love, angst, age and culture.  This one is co-written with its star,  Greta Gerwig, so it’s closer to Frances Ha than While We’re Young. I loved Frances Ha enough to watch it twice at the cinema. I revelled in Ms G’s charming character, and her realisation that – as in Withnail & I – a refusal to grow up is unfair on those around you who do want to grow up. Plus I liked its use of an early 80s British pop song for no reason other than it worked – in this case, Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’.

In Mistress America, the inexplicable 80s pop song is OMD’s ‘Souvenir’. And just as OMD may not be as artistically interesting as Mr Bowie, but are still pleasant enough, the new film pales in comparison to Frances Ha, but still has much to applaud. The dialogue is written so densely that it often feels more like a recital of a script than the spontaneous product of characters’ thoughts. But whereas Whit Stillman’s Damsels In Distress (also starring Ms Gerwig) took this idea to an extreme, Mistress America allows moments of realism and humanity to break through. Ms G’s character here is much more self-aware than Frances Ha, and I like how the narrative shifts between two main characters: the thirty-year-old girl about town Gerwig, and the 18-year-old nervous college student Tracy, whose tale begins the film.

At times, it’s hard to actually keep up as a viewer, such is the rapid fire of the well-crafted retorts. I especially like the response when Tracy is accused of putting Gerwig’s character into a short story:

‘But you did the same. You used a joke of mine in one of your tweets!’

And it was my least favourited tweet ever!’

Modern love indeed.

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