Friday 9th May 2014. This week’s work: drafting the final essay for the third year. For me it’s the most difficult part of the process, the writing from scratch. Once it moves into the editing and polishing side of things I’m far more confident.
When I edit, it’s like the text has been supplied by someone else – the Dickon Edwards of a few days before. This Dickon used to get upset when Dickon The Ruthless Editor butchered his work, cutting whole paragraphs and moving them around. But now he accepts that his raw creativity must look its best for the reader. Perhaps in my case editing is like putting an awkward body into a nice suit. With a bibliography as a pocket square handkerchief.
I’ve tried to bring this latest essay right up to date by discussing The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson’s film uses a triple frame device about authors. The effect lends credibility to the surreal tale which takes up most of the film. It’s the storyteller as authority figure, which goes back to the Canterbury Tales, the Arabian Nights and the Indian Panchatantra before that.
One theory why the ancient love of stories-within-stories went out of fashion is the Renaissance’s focus upon the individual, as a unified, separate whole. What’s changed now is that people are encouraged to see themselves as splinters of a community again, albeit the virtual community of the internet. Instead of nested narratives we have networked narratives. One especially sees this on Twitter, where the urge to ‘retweet’ takes us right back to sharing tales around the campfire. Except that the campfire is now the size of the world.
* * *
To the basement of the Atlantis Bookshop, in Museum Street, for a private view. The exhibition is Stephen Harwood’s ‘Visions of England’. The paintings are landscapes in vivid and fiery oils. What’s unusual is that Harwood has not visited theÂ places himself. Instead, they are recreations of stills taken entirely from the films of Derek Jarman, particularly The Garden (1990) and A Journey To Avebury (1971). Mr Harwood makes the connection between the Neolithic standing stones of Wiltshire and Jarman’s driftwood posts, punctuating his shingle garden at Dungeness.
The Atlantis Bookshop specialises in the occult. A poster announces that itsÂ next event is the launch of a pack of Tarot cards based on the stories of Sherlock Holmes. Fan fiction, just as Harwood’s paintings are Jarman fan fiction. But then, fan fiction is an occult practice in itself: the alchemy of transforming old magic into something new.
* * *
Saturday 10th May 2014. To the National Portrait Gallery with Mum, for the exhibition David Bailey: Stardust. The photographer as party animal. It’s a huge exhibition that takes up the entire ground floor of the NPG. Many of the photographs are blown up to beyond life-size. The one that sums Mr Bailey up is a portrait of him with Salvador Dali. Dali too liked being around celebrity and glamour as much as he did making art, but then party-going is an important art form too, if it’s the right party.
There’s also a magazine cover which puts the young Bailey next to Cecil Beaton, with quotes by each one upon the other. To his credit, Bailey is thoughtful and accurate about Beaton’s talent. Beaton just uses Bailey to talk about himself. ‘The best thing about you is that you remind me of me.’
* * *
Monday 12th May 2014. Â I have a phone landline in my home, but like a lot of people I mainly use it for access to the internet. If I do make the mistake of answering the phone, it’s nearly always a sales team. I realise there are services to prevent these calls, but I’ve tried them all. I still get the calls.
The person on the other end always begins their onslaught with ‘how are you today?’ It is the most depressing phrase in the English language. Not ‘how are you’, which a friend might say, but ‘how are you today‘. Only the cold world of commerce adds the ‘today’.
I used to reply to this with ‘Well, Dear Heart, the ‘how’ that I am today is considerably less happy, now that I’ve realised your sole interest in me is for my money, and not, as I was hoping, for the beauty of my eyes.’ But now I just hang up and put on the answering machine.
* * *
Tuesday 13th May 2014. To the Barbican cinema to see the film Frank. It’s my first visit to the cinema (now retitled Cinema One), though I’ve been going to the Barbican centre since a school trip in 1983. Back then, the Barbican’s brass banisters produced a loud crackle of static under one’s hands, something which provided endless pleasure for us children. We were really there to learn about the changing face of London, coupling this visit with one to the Museum of London next door. But the lesson which most remained was that statically charged banisters are a lot of fun. The banisters are now long gone. Or perhaps, long properly earthed.
The cinema screen is on floor Minus Two, on a level beneath the underground car park. As it was opened in the early 80s it makes me think of nuclear bunkers, Protect and Survive, and Threads. I wonder if it was ever on a list of places in which to take refuge during a nuclear attack. It wouldn’t be so bad, stuck down there as the bombs fell. A capacity of 280, a bar and an ice cream kiosk.
The film Frank turns out to be highly enjoyable and inventive, though the ending is incredibly sad. It’s the tale of a young Englishman – based on Jon Ronson, who co-wrote the script – who joins an eccentric American rock band, where the lead singer, Frank, constantly wears a huge papier-mÃ¢ché head. There’s lots of ingenious uses of Twitter and You Tube – it’s possibly the first film that successfully depicts online life in that way. The young Englishman is played by the likeable ginger boy from About Time, while the man inside the fake head is Mr Fassbender, who has a track record of playing troubled yet charismatic men – he was Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre. The intrigue of the film is, as the ginger boy says, to work out ‘what goes on inside that head, inside that head’.
At the end, the film announces that it was inspired by the cult comedy-rock star Frank Sidebottom. It should add, ‘but only a little’. As Mr Ronson’s accompanying book FrankÂ explains, there’s also aspects that draw on the story of Daniel Johnston. And there’s bits of Captain Beefheart and The Shaggs in there, too.
The film’s Frank is, like Johnston, a child-like Texan with mental health problems. Sidebottom, on the other hand, was a fictional character from the Manchester suburb of Timperley, played by a man who may have been devoted to his art, but who certainly didn’t live with the head always on. And Sidebottom was as much defined by his nasal Mancunian accent as he was the head.
In 1991 I witnessed Chris Sievey performing Frank Sidebottom for Marc Radcliffe’s BBC Manchester radio show. The head was nowhere in sight. Instead, there was just a brown-haired, ordinary-looking man in his thirties, speaking in a radio studio, albeit with a clip on his nose.
As it is, the real Frank Sidebottom has already appeared in a film. In Filth, James McAvoy watches an old Sidebottom TV show, then impersonates the voice for a phone prank.
* * *
Thursday 15th May 2014. I’m in the café of John Lewis, with its views across rooftops. As I wait to pay for my pot of tea, a man in a suit comes over to the cashier from the table area. He complains that none of the available tables have been cleared of their dirty cups. Moments later, he comes over again, this time asking for a wet cloth with which to clean a coffee stain on his shirt. He adds that this was their fault, as it was caused (somehow) by his trying to move the dirty plates while he was still holding his own tray. Shortly after that he comes over again, this time because his food isn’t hot enough. I look around. There are plenty of empty tables, with no dirty cups on them.
There is a moment when I wonder if he is acting for a hidden camera prank, so great is his umbrage. Or that he is doing it as part of a ‘social experiment’, which is really just a prank with a good lawyer.
When I used to watch those Jeremy Beadle TV shows, I envied the reactions of the people who were duped. Not their reactions as the prank was going on, but their reactions afterwards, the expressions of relief when all was revealed. I wondered if some people reacted more like me. Their confusion might turn not to relief but to even more confusion.
‘You don’t understand, Jeremy. I have a slippery enough grasp on reality as it is.’
Tags: atlantis bookshop, barbican, birkbeck, daniel johnston, david bailey, fan fiction, frank, frank sidebottom, john lewis, jon ronson, mum, national portrait gallery, npg, the grand budapest hotel, wes anderson