Beautiful Art For The Lonely

Saturday 4th July 2015.

Noon: tea at High Tea of Highgate with Ella H. The place has changed a little since it changed hands. Gone is the vintage 1940s and 50s music, and the VE-day bunting. Gone is the painted clock on the wall. It’s now a bit more generic, but then again it might still be finding its feet. This must always be a problem when taking over a café. The dilemma is between pleasing the old regulars (like myself), while bringing in the new owner’s taste.

Afternoon: Hot and sunny, so I fancy hiding in a cinema. To the East Finchley Phoenix for Magician, a new documentary on Orson Welles (£5). Much is made of the way Citizen Kane became his life’s early peak, never again to be matched, and looks at how much of this was down to his reputation, as someone difficult to work with. The ever-fattening Welles is seen on umpteen chat shows down the years, forever recounting tales of people asking him if he’d ever done anything else after Kane. The film also makes a case for raising the reputations of Chimes Of Midnight, The Trial, and A Touch of Evil, all of which I’ve yet to see.

* * *

Sunday 5th July 2015.

To the Roundhouse in Camden for a gig by the Jesus and Mary Chain. Specifically, it’s a live performance of their debut album, Psychocandy, from 1985. I’m invited by my neighbour Phil King, who is the JAMC bass player, and I take the artist K Tregaskin, who says she knows all the drum parts to the album by heart. Before I go out, I listen to Psychocandy in preparation, and find myself still shocked by the sheer extremity of white noise enveloping all the songs. And to have this raggedness appear on a major label too (the same label as my band Orlando,– Blanco Y Negro, part of Warners). Psychocandy still sounds like a train accident, one where the collapsing metal has somehow managed to turn its own terrifying noise into an approximation of sweet, twangy guitar rock songs.

The band play a half-hour set of other material first (including ‘April Skies’, a stunning ‘Some Candy Talking, ‘Reverence’, and the riot-teasing ‘Upside Down’). Then after a short break they unleashing all fourteen songs from Psychocandy, with no encores. The youthful surliness is still intact. Jim Reid’s preying-mantis body language is still there; he’s still the reluctant frontman, still apparently annoyed to exist. ‘I wanna die on a sunny day’ he sings. Well, not yet.

What’s astounding is how perfectly they replicate the Psychocandy feedback noise. It’s a very specific, mid-80s type of feedback, which the guitarist William Reid seems to have carefully set up for the relevant songs. At several moments I feel the urge to reach out my hands as if to touch this thick wall of sound that fills the Roundhouse, this former Victorian railway shed. And it is a proper wall of sound, with all the connotations of Phil Spector. The opening drum pattern of Be My Baby, is used three times on Psychocandy, not least in ‘Just Like Honey’, the song that many people know from the end of Lost In Translation, as Bill Murray drives off. Here, Miki from the 90s band Lush supplies the female vocal. More shifts in time.

Aferwards, K and I install ourselves in one of the red booths in the Roundhouse bar, and we chat about the ‘land grab’ side of music fandom. How these ‘vintage album in its entirety’ gigs demonstrate the way rock music has created a territory to belong to, and how these gigs can show such territory being passed down from generation to generation. It’s nostalgia for elders, of course, but it’s also raw primary joy for the younger fans, who are fresh to the songs. They’re the ones down the front at these shows, doing much of the jumping around.

I bump into Ms Shanthi in the bar. ‘One of Birdland is here. He’s not got blond hair anymore.’

Then we wander Camden around midnight, drunk on theories of indie rock history (as well as just drunk). I end up putting my hands on the wall of The Falcon, the pub venue where so many indie bands once played, now turned into a couple of residential flats. History, memory, territory, ghosts colliding. Giddy on palimpsests.

It’s too easy to assume one’s own generation is the default. Beautiful art for the lonely does not belong to one era. We must remember this, and pass it on.

* * *

Monday 6th July 2015.

I am embarrassed to read how men drinking rosé wine – as I do – is now considered fashionable. A term is coined by a magazine: ‘brosé’.

* * *

Wednesday 8th July 2015.

To Birkbeck for the first seminar in a free ‘summer camp’ module, ‘Step Up: Arts’, aimed at would-be MA arts students. We have to watch a documentary on Vivian Maier in preparation. I’d already seen Finding Vivian Maier, the cinema film, but this one is a BBC Imagine take on Maier. It covers much the same story, except that it turns out Ms Maier’s photographs were discovered by a trio of different collectors, and not just the youngish man who presents himself as the hero of Finding Vivian Maier. Deliciously, Alan Yentob says at one point that the missing collector declined to be interviewed, ‘because he’s making his own film’. It’s a reminder that there’s no such thing as the truth, only a truth.

* * *

A tube strike starts up in the evening. My Northern Line dodge is to take a network rail train from St Pancras to Kentish Town, then a 214 bus to Highgate Village, where it terminates. As this bus only has a few stops left to go, it is less likely to be full up. While I wait, various 134 buses pass by, all rammed with people, all not stopping.

* * *

Thursday 9th July 2015.

 The tube strike continues. Thankfully I have nothing to do in town that I can’t postpone, so I spend the day in Highgate. In the evening I walk to East Finchley (20 minutes) to see Amy at the Phoenix cinema (£5). I hadn’t realised the aptness of this: Amy Winehouse lived in East Finchley in her teens, before she moved to Camden Square. The Phoenix used to be her local cinema. Indeed, Amy includes a beautiful aerial shot of East Finchley rooftops.

The film is terribly sad, needless to say. I come away thinking Ms Winehouse should have taken the Kate Bush path: escaping the trappings of fame by becoming a recluse, somewhere far from the reach of photographers. But then again, she loved London so much. Tony Bennett appears – she records a stunning duet with him, and he endorses her as not just a talented singer, but a classic jazz singer in the traditional style. Commenting on her death, he says ‘If I’d known, I’d have told her: slow down. Life teaches you how to live it, if you live it long enough.’

Like the Orson Welles and Vivian Maier films I’ve seen this week, Amy feels that it won’t be the last word. All three lives are essentially the same story: a person with a burning talent, but a talent that is compromised. And in each case, the reasons behind the frustration are not fully explainable. Questions still remain. There is always more to say, and so more documentaries to make.

* * *

Friday 10th July 2015.

Another hot day. I try to attend Joanna Walsh’s event at the BookArtBookshop in Old Street, but I can’t physically get inside the bookshop, such is the crowd inside. I understand the event is to launch a story about failing to find a certain book. Perhaps I should write a story about failing to get into a Joanna Walsh event.

Old Street on a Friday evening is more packed than ever, though the crowds don’t seem as overtly trendy-looking as they used to be. Just Londoners full stop. I look for a cash machine. On the corner of Pitfield Street I pass a new Sainsbury’s with an ATM, but it has a queue of some fifteen people. I walk two blocks further, to City Road, and find a trio of ATMs there, all free to use.

Quite why people still queue at cash machines in London is beyond me. There must be some sort of phone app by now, to locate the nearest machines, and yet few seem to use it. Is it the herd instinct? Or the madness of crowds?

I did once go up to a long ATM queue and tell the people at the back where to find another one nearby. They just looked at me strangely. Admittedly, I get that a lot.

I remark about this on Twitter, and am told that people are subconsciously attracted to standing behind someone using an ATM. To them, a machine without a queue signifies there’s something wrong with it. And I thought I was pessimistic.

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MC Escher’s IKEA

Saturday 7th June 2014. To the new Foyles bookshop at 107 Charing Cross Road. It’s a few doors down from the motley warren Foyles inhabited from the 1930s right up until last month. Number 107 is a more uniform space, being the former home of the St Martins School of Art, which is now at King’s Cross.

I’ve read that the old Foyles shop might become a hotel. Right now it’s a desolate shell. A lone security guard stands behind the glass doors, surrounded by bare walls and cardboard boxes. Despite the notices on the windows, some confused-looking people – possibly tourists – are banging on the door. So he spends much of his time passing on the same piece of information, via a combination of mouthing and waving: ‘GO NEXT DOOR. IT’S NEXT DOOR. NOT HERE. NOT ANY MORE.’

As I understand it, the actual amount of books on display is more or less unchanged. What’s different is that Foyles Charing Cross is now a lot better organised, more spacious, and more opened-out. It’s a bit furniture store-like, I suppose, complete with the smell of sawdust, but it’s still pleasingly labyrinthine too, with fixed staircases rather than escalators. MC Escher’s IKEA.

Ray’s Jazz shop is tucked away inside, with signs apologising for the late arrival of the shelves. The café on one of the upper levels has yet to be finished, but I can go up to see the space anyway, where there’s a superb view over the Soho rooftops.

A central London property turned into a huge bookshop rather than luxury flats is no small event. Foyles are not in it for the money. They see a future in physical bookshops, even now, and I salute their optimism. Blackwells across the road is closing, blaming the Crossrail development, while the excellent Foyles branch in St Pancras has had to close, apparently for not making enough to meet the lease. However, a branch of Hatchards is now to open in a different part of the station, so the day of the bookshop isn’t quite over yet.

Today there’s a long queue to get into Foyles, and the shop is soon packed. There’s the excited atmosphere akin to an Apple Store opening, if not quite on the same evangelical level (which would unnerve me).

Something else I admire, which it’s hard to think of other companies doing. Foyles are not only aware of the somewhat ‘mixed’ reputation they had under the eccentric Christina, they are even happy to single it out for customers today. One table labelled ‘Honorary Mentions’ displays novels that allude to the shop, and not always positively. From JM Coetzee’s Youth the display highlights this quote:

[Foyles] has proved a disappointment. The boast that Foyles stocks every book in print is clearly a lie, and anyway the assistants, most of them younger than himself, don’t know where to find things. He prefers Dillons.

* * *

Sunday 8th June 2014. To the Camden Head for ‘Z List Dead List’, a comedy show comprising mini-lectures about obscure historical figures. I go by myself but bump into Cat Rogers and her friends. Afterwards we go for drinks at The Spread Eagle in Parkway.

At Z List Dead List, the regular host is the very funny Iszi Lawrence, whom I adore. The guest speakers are Kate Smurthwaite, who does Mary Reed, a cross-dressing pirate; Pete Johansson, who does Pierre Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister who once dated Barbra Streisand; Tracy King, who does the Pompeii banker from the Cambridge Latin Course; and Richard Herring, who does Felix Yusupov, assassin of Rasputin. I find Ms King’s talk to be the funniest, despite her not being a proper comedian – she’s actually a producer of computer games and animations. I vote for the pirate woman, but Pierre Trudeau triumphs.

* * *

Tuesday 10th June 2014. To the Prince Charles cinema to see The Wind Rises, the latest animated film by Miyazaki. It’s set in the 1930s, about a young aviation engineer whose successes with the Japanese Air Force are marred by his wife’s tuberculosis. The moral question of a peace-loving person using his talents to aid warfare isn’t really addressed, though Miyazaki – himself a pacifist – makes it clear that all planes are beautiful in their own right. I think of Dad, another pacifist who liked tales of warcraft, and who would have loved this film rather more than me. War or no war, I’ve never found aviation history all that interesting. Still, like all Miyazaki’s work the film is aesthetically sublime, and the ending leaves me tearful.

* * *

Wednesday 11th June 2014. I receive the last mark for the third year of the BA English course. It’s 79, for a Fin De Siecle essay. So I’ve achieved what I was hoping for: a clean run of ten First Class marks throughout the year. Four of those were even High Firsts, ie postgraduate quality, something I never thought I’d achieve this early on.

The only competition is with oneself, of course. So this is rather a big deal for me. Last year my marks were constantly up and down. But now my highest essay mark in years 1 and 2 – 75 – has been my lowest essay mark in year 3.

It hasn’t been without obstacles, either. The work became more difficult (four modules rather than three, all at level 6 difficulty, as opposed to level 5 last year). Plus Dad passed away in February. It’s Father’s Day this weekend. I wish I could tell him how I’ve done.

The secret behind this improvement is, I’m afraid to say, very boring. It’s putting the hours in, and then spreading the hours across as many days as possible, so you don’t go too long without doing that kind of work. A couple of tutors have now approached me to consider doing an MA. Assuming I can get the fees covered by some sort of scholarship (which now looks possible) I think that’s what I’ll do. Till then, I have one more year of the BA to concentrate on.

* * *

In the evening: to Birkbeck in Gordon Square once more, for a talk by the writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh, aka Badaude. She discusses her stories in the collection Fractals, along with the campaign ‘#readwomen2014’, which she instigated to encourage people to read more female authors.

I ask Ms W about a tale of gendered publishing that’s always fascinated me: how Joanna Rowling was forced to adopt the androgynous ‘J.K.’ by her publisher, because they believed boys didn’t read books by girls (so much for Rosemary Sutcliff). She even had to invent the ‘K’ part of her name, because she had no middle name in real life. Ms Walsh points out how the recent Hunger Games books sold in huge amounts to boys, despite the author’s name being Suzanne Collins. So things have changed for the better there.

* * *

Friday 17th June 2014. Every time the World Cup comes around it seems more popular than ever. This is despite the inelegant millionaires of the England team still refusing to be any better at kicking a ball about than me.

[I write this up on Saturday afternoon to the sound of football too. A couple of boys are kicking a ball about in the road, despite cars passing every few minutes. I’m tempted to open the window and shout, ‘ISN’T THERE ENOUGH FOOTBALL ABOUT ALREADY?’]

Today I’m standing on one of the Northern Line platforms at Euston. As usual I glance at the dot-matrix board, which says how long the next train will be. Something new today, though. The bottom of the board clears, indicating that it is probably about to flash the words ‘NEXT TRAIN APPROACHING’. In fact it announces the latest score of Mexico v Cameroon.

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