An @ Of One’s Own

Saturday 13th June 2015.

I walk through Waterloo Station. The whole building has been turned into an advert for the new Jurassic Park film. Looped video trailers flank the train announcement boards, while the movie’s logo dots the entire concourse floor. In the centre of the station, a tableau of fibreglass full-sized dinosaurs are caught in the act of breaking out of their container. I bristle at this assault by Hollywood on my consciousness, but then feel guilty when I see small children taking delight in posing with the daft static creatures. It’s got dinosaurs in it, so children will be happy.

I’ve not seen the film, but I’m guessing that it involves something going wrong at a dinosaur park.

* * *

Evening: I watch a nostalgic TV show marking 20 years since Britpop. It feels far too soon, but I suppose two decades ago is long enough. A whole generation ago. The funny thing is it gives me flashbacks, not of the 90s, but of a previous 90s nostalgia show from the early 2000s: I Heart the 1990s. One episode had Edwyn Collins introducing himself with the phrase, ‘Hi! I’m Edwyn ‘A Girl Like You’ Collins!’

So a new 90s nostalgia show triggers my nostalgia for an old 90s nostalgia show.

In the same way that Wikipedia has outsourced knowing things first hand, TV’s love of editing history to suit a convenient format has replaced first hand, organic, untidy memory. I feel that many of my actual memories of the 90s have been taped over in my head, replaced with 90s nostalgia pieces.

However, one thing that the run of 90s programmes seems to omit is how OK Computer changed music in 1997, just as much as Britpop did in 1994. After that, a huge swathe of rock bands switched from trying to be Oasis to trying to be Radiohead. The blueprint was now for big, mournful, stadium-friendly rock, devoid of any sense of a generational or national identity; angsty yet tasteful. The end result was Coldplay. But perhaps the full meaning of 1997 is something to look forward to in 2017.

* * *

Sunday 14th June 2015.

I visit the club The Nitty Gritty, at the Constitution bar in Camden. The DJ is Debbie Smith, a fellow 90s rock survivor, given her stints back then in the bands Curve and Echobelly. At The Nitty Gritty though, she plays a highly enjoyable set of vintage soul, R&B and 60s girl groups, to a very cool-looking crowd of vintage-dressed, and queer-friendly customers. One woman – a staffer, I think – has a kind of immaculate rockabilly take on Amy Winehouse’s look. Camden still has a certain fizzy life to it, if you know where to go.

As I enter the bar from the Regent’s Canal towpath, Ms Smith is playing ‘Sometimes I Wish I Were A Boy’ by Lesley Gore. It’s a tune I used to have as my band Fosca’s going-onstage music. And here I am entering a room to the song once again.

* * *

Monday 15th June 2015.

More coincidences. Today I’m re-reading Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat, including the part where the narrator imagines the whole Magna Carta ceremony. It’s only afterwards that I realise today is the 800th anniversary of the signing.

Jerome’s ‘J’ subscribes to the theory that the event took place on Magna Carta Island itself, rather than on the opposite bank of the Thames, at Runnymede:

Had I been one of the Barons, I should have strongly urged upon my comrades the advisability of our getting such a slippery customer as King John on to the island, where there was less chance of surprises and tricks. (Three Men In A Boat, Chapter 12).

* * *

The Queen’s Birthday Honours this week. My favourite reason for declining an honour: ‘So aging!’ – Francis Bacon. Favourite for accepting: ‘I thought of the people it would annoy’ – Kingsley Amis.

* * *

Tuesday 16th June 2015.

I watch the second episode of How to be a Bohemian with Victoria Coren Mitchell, the BBC4 series. Pleased to see Stephen Tennant given a look-in. And lots of shots of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, inside and out, due to its previous life as a Bloomsbury Group location.

Ms Coren Mitchell manages to have her moral cake and eat it, regarding Eric Gill’s incest and bestiality. ‘I’d like to go back in time and kneecap Eric Gill’, she says at one point, in case anyone was in doubt on where she stands on sexual abuse. Still, I suppose this is 2015, and it’s the BBC, with its Gill sculptures on the outside of Broadcasting House (one of which is now surrounded by the livery of a Caffe Nero), so some obvious things still have to be said aloud.

To her credit, though, Ms CM also lets interviewees with opposing views make their case. Grayson Perry challenges her scorn of the Bloomsbury Group’s snobbery and privilege: ‘Are we awarding creative points for being poor, or for being creative?’, while Richard Coles asserts how important it is that Gill’s sculptures remain in place, not only on the BBC building, but also in Westminster Cathedral: they serve as a reminder that ‘the sinner stands at the heart of Christianity’. Trust the art, not the artist.

* * *

I never felt like those people formerly in bands who look back on their music as a weird ‘phase’. I’m even weirder now.

* * *

Wednesday 17th June 2015.

To Senate House for the London Graduate Fair. Very crowded, lots of stalls. The actual type of work seems to be quite limited. Nothing arty. No publishers of literature, no arts organisations. As far as I can tell, the main options for graduates seem to be: the warzone of corporate management, the warzone of school teaching, or, given the prominent British Army stall, actual war.

A group of uniformed soldiers have various weapons lined up on trestle tables: bazookas, grenade launchers, rifles. It’s like a Fresher’s Fair, only with fewer Pot Noodles and more guns. I last fifteen minutes, which is longer than I’d last in the army. I suppose an ability to write High First Class essays on Oscar Wilde might be handy when battling insurgents in Helmand Province, but I didn’t stay to find out.

* * *

Thursday 18th June 2015.

To Jacksons Lane Community Centre for a new experience: a class in Pilates. ‘This is not going to be pretty,’ I think. ‘Not least because I have to wear something other than a suit.’

I turn out to be the only man in a class of women, and the least experienced by far; I’ve still never stepped inside a gym. But the female tutor is very sympathetic. She comes over to me whenever I’m struggling (which is often) and never makes me feel a fool. It’s hard work, and confusing at times, as I’m trying to work out how to move parts of my body which I’m fairly sure I’ve never moved before. On top of that, I have to work out when to breathe – something I keep forgetting to do, on account of trying to keep up with the instructions. But the effect is like blowing the dust off an entire lifetime. I feel the better for it afterwards, and decide to keep it up.

As for what I wore: my baggy grey jogging bottoms (though I haven’t gone running in years). Plus my sole t-shirt. It’s a promotional shirt for an absinthe company.

* * *

Friday 19th June 2015.

I walk up Shaftesbury Avenue and see that the new Picturehouse cinema has just opened: Picturehouse Central. It’s in the shell of the old CineWorld Shaftesbury Avenue, in the northwest section of the Trocadero. Although much of the Picturehouse is still not ready (including the rooftop members bar), it is already a vast improvement on its former self. The Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue will not be missed. Tacky, windowless and claustrophobic, it always felt like part of a run-down regional 1980s shopping mall. But then, a run-down regional 1980s shopping mall was pretty much what the Trocadero had become in recent years. Central London has always been torn between an embracing of garish franchises and souvenir shops, and a love of rarer emporiums steeped in history, character, and personality. The Picturehouses may be a chain, but they’re closer to Waterstones than WH Smith. A sense of humanity, rather than raw, faceless commerce.

The new cinema’s ground floor café does look a bit like a Shoreditch eatery, with its ceiling stripped back to the bare brick and concrete, and its air ducting and dangling light fittings on conspicuously trendy display. But there’s some nice proper booths with tables – rather like those in the late New Piccadilly Café in nearby Denman Street. When my veggie sandwich arrives on a proper china plate, and not on a recycled hubcap or an on old vinyl album, I find myself warming to the place.

(There is currently a popular social media account called ‘We Want Plates’. It campaigns against the trend in arty restaurants to present their meals on anything from wooden boards to slabs of rock. I have to admit I, too, want plates).

The wall of the café is covered in a mural rendered in a naïve, David Shrigley-like doodle, on the theme of cinema. There’s scenes from cinema history, diagrams on narrative theory, and fictional examples of cinema archetypes, such as ‘Man Shouting Out Of A Prius In LA, On His Way To A Thing’. As for the actual films, there’s seven screens, including a 341-seater with Dolby Atmos, whatever that is. The type of films on offer seem to be a bit of everything: in this first week, you can choose between the arty likes of Carol Morley’s The Falling, the critically loved Girlhood and London Road, and documentaries like The Look of Silence and Dark Horse. And if you absolutely must, there’s also Jurassic World 3D.

* * *

To Senate House Library in Malet Street, where I hand back my remaining library books in time for the expiry of my BA-affiliated membership card. Another sign of the degree coming to an end.

Birkbeck’s summer term still has a couple of weeks left, so tonight I attend an open lecture in the basement of Gordon Square. It’s on the history of sexuality, by Heike Bauer, one of the tutors who marked my dissertation.

Dr Bauer quotes the building’s old resident Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own. One problem when it comes to discussing sexuality in history is that as Woolf puts it, ‘fiction is likely to contain more truth than fact’.

Dr B also quotes a more modern example of a discussion on the subject: a recent Twitter conversation between herself and various other academics, who managed to boil down their arguments into 140 characters. Less than 140, in fact, as they need characters for the hashtags and the other ‘@’ names. In 2015, a paper’s abstract (its summary) is not nearly abstract enough.

Today, Woof’s ideal of a private room is less urgent, as so many writers enjoy working in crowded cafes and libraries, or even outdoors (a common sight on social media is a photo of a sunny park, with the caption: ‘My office today!’). Now, it’s more important to have an ‘@’ sign of one’s own.

Dr B also focuses on the work of Magnus Hirschfeld, he of the 1920s Berlin Institute of Sexology, as visited by Isherwood in Christopher and His Kind. She talks about how Hirschfeld visited Cambridge sometime around 1905-7, while Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland was studying there. However, he was careful to avoid bumping into young Holland and embarrassing him, due to the shame associated with his father. The very words ‘Oscar Wilde’ were, at this time, absolutely synonymous with male homosexuality, and his reputation was yet to recover. Instead, Hirschfeld witnessed a group of students – a kind of secret Edwardian Cambridge Gay Soc- who gathered together to read ‘ The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ in a ritual of solidarity. On their shirts they wore Wilde’s prison number: C33.

I’m reminded of John Betjeman’s poem ‘Narcissus’, about his childhood. In the poem, Betjeman’s mother chastises him for bonding too much with a friend. This would have been in the early 1910s:

My Mother wouldn’t tell me why she hated
The things we did, and why they pained her so.
She said a fate far worse than death awaited
People who did the things we didn’t know,
And then she said I was her precious child,
And once there was a man called Oscar Wilde.

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I Don’t Know Where To Put My Eyebrows

Saturday 18th October 2014. To Hornchurch in darkest Outer London, virtually in Essex. It’s for my first ever MRI brain scan (which, I hasten to record, results in an all-clear). The NHS provides the scan free, as long as I don’t mind travelling for an hour and half to get to the only clinic that can fit me in. I discover with some delight that one of the trains I take is an adorable little single-track shuttle, going from Romford to Upminster and back. At Romford, the platform for the branch line is hidden away, out of sight of the rest of the station. I alight at the only stop along the way, Emerson Park.

In the clinic waiting room, I sit next to an elderly Essex couple. Their conversation is an endless stream of complaints about public services, peppered liberally with f-words.  ‘Paint your face black, you get everything.’

The scan only takes fifteen minutes. I give the operators a CD of my own choice, which surprises them. Usually they give patients some in-clinic muzak. As a result of my intervention they put the CD on at deafening volume, and I’m too nervous about being wheeled into the big white cylinder to realise this, until it’s too late. Never mind. It’s a privilege to be deafened by John Betjeman’s Late Flowering Love.

* * *

I pass through Friends House on Euston Road, the large building of bookable rooms, run by the Quakers. They now have digital display screens in the corridors which carry world news headlines. I suppose even the serenely peaceful need to be in touch. The rest of the board announces today’s room bookings: the Sunflower Healing Trust and the All England Netball Association.

* * *

Tuesday 21st October 2014. Tonight’s class at Birkbeck: In the American Grain by Walter Carlos Williams. Tutor: Joe Brooker. A curious 1920s medley of poetic essays about American history, each one written in a different voice. Difficult to get to grips with (due to the variety), but intriguing nonetheless.

* * *

Wednesday 22nd October 2014. Tonight’s class: Nineteen Eighty-Four by Orwell. Tutor: Roger Luckhurst. Hadn’t realised the symbolic significance of the paperweight, and how its meaning keeps shifting. The novel is always more complex and more layered than I realise, despite the clear, simple prose. On the latest edition of QI, Stephen Fry admitted he’d never read it. In fact, the show said it’s a book that people particularly lie about having read. Can’t think why: it’s not particularly long or difficult.

* * *

Meet with Ms Shanthi for drinks at the Cork & Bottle in Bear Street, off Leicester Square. A friendly little underground wine bar: very Old Soho. Then she takes me to the inexpensive yet ornate and Gatsby-esque Brasserie Zedel in Piccadilly for dinner. It’s been such a while since I’ve done anything vaguely sociable that I feel physically improved by the whole experience. I end up calling Ms S a veritable panacea. ‘I’m a what? I’m a Panatella?’

* * *

Friday 24th October 2014. To the Prince Charles cinema to see 20,000 Days On Earth, a curious quasi-documentary about Nick Cave. I may not be a fan of his Australian Gothicky-bluesy rock music but I do admire him for being such a sui generis artiste. I also am impressed with the way he’s kept his distinctive look and artistic style – and indeed, his rail-thin physique – so intact for so very long. The film’s title is from his observation of how many days he’s been alive. I can’t resist dividing 20,000 by 365 – it works out at 55 years.

I had heard that the film was as much about his adopted home of Brighton as it was about him. As it turns out, it is still rather more of a Nick Cave documentary, but there’s plenty of distinctive Sussex topography on show. Not least a scene where Mr C drives along the coast to have dinner with Warren Ellis, his main co-writer in the band. Mr Cave is seen parking his car outside one particularly recognizable location: the white coastguard cottages in Cuckmere Haven, in front of the Seven Sisters cliffs. These have appeared in countless tourist guides, postcards, jigsaw puzzles and indeed other films. In Atonement, James McAvoy and Keira Knightley end up there. 20,000 Days On Earth would thus have the viewer believe that this is the home of Nick Cave’s guitarist. It’s not very likely, though, and afterwards I can’t resist looking up where Mr Ellis really resides (Paris).  But given the whole film is full of staged scenes and artificial conceits, my reading of the scene is that it’s a nod to the way documentaries meddle with the facts to get the best looking results for the camera. If you’re going to pass off a hired location as someone’s home, you may as well think big. The staged effect also casts the truly real sections (live performances at concerts and in the studio) into more vivid relief.

I think one reason why I still don’t ‘get’ Nick Cave is that he takes his art very seriously, yet suddenly sings lyrics that namecheck Miley Cyrus and the Higgs bosun particle. I don’t know where to put my eyebrows. The Cave oeuvre operates on a very particular frequency – one has to buy fully into his world, or not at all. Hence his enduring status as a cult artist, rather than a mainstream one. And yet in the film he tells Kylie Minogue how he envies her being a waxwork at Madame Tussauds. Or is that a wry joke? I can’t tell.

* * *

I watch a YouTube interview by Mark Kermode. He asks a woman from the BBFC about their issuing of warnings for the start of films in UK cinemas. These take the form of a short sentence explaining why they’ve given a film a particular certificate.  More recently, however, these warnings have crossed into the realms of plot spoilers, such as ‘contains one scene of a suicide attempt’ for Two Days One Night. When I saw this film’s warning at the Dalston Rio, many of the audience tutted and sighed, appalled at such blunt specificity. When the suicide scene popped up, myself and my friends looked to each other and whispered, ‘Ah, here’s that thing we were told to watch out for, then.’ The immersive effect was completely ruined. I thought of the disastrous scheme which Channel 4 tried out in the 80s, where they indicated a film’s sexual content by adding a little red triangle in the corner. It didn’t last long.

Now, according to the Mark Kermode video, the BBFC have listened to people’s complaints. They are going to keep any spoiler-style warnings restricted to their website, so those who need to check for such things can do so individually. This makes sense. It’s the unasked-for placing at the start of the film that’s really the problem.

This is not to play down the importance of ‘trigger warnings’, however. I know now – thanks to Twitter – that to be ‘triggered’ by content is not the same as just being upset. A triggered reaction is associated more with post-traumatic stress disorder. Detailed depictions of domestic assault, sexual abuse or suicide – when unexpected – have now been known to trigger physical reactions in some people, just as strobe lighting can cause problems for those with epilepsy. So the BBFC’s dilemma is understandable.

I can think of some films where a full tally of triggering and upsetting content would never fit into a single warning full stop. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, for one. I saw it twice when it came out. At both screenings, people got up and walked out – and at the same scene. It involved a wooden spoon, a person, and a lot of blood. But by that point there had been so many similar scenes that this may have been the last straw.

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