The Basic Pleasure Model

Saturday 13th February 2016. To the British Library for the exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song. I allow an hour but it’s still not enough. This is something I forget is often the case with the big BL shows. The gallery numbers only a few rooms yet it’s always crammed full of intriguing displays, virtually all of them demanding careful consideration. As the staff usher the visitors out at 5pm, I glance in frustration at the items I have to miss, feeling somehow punished. It’s the last week of the show, too.

What I do see are craved Adinkra stamps from Ghana, used to hand-print symbols on fabric. One stamp is a star-like symbol, meant to ward off jealousy. The full translation is: ‘Someone’s wish is to see my doom’. All that in a star.

I’m also fascinated by a letter from Laurence Sterne to his friend Ignatius Sancho, the former slave turned London writer and composer. In 1766, while Tristram Shandy was published in serial form to huge acclaim, Sancho asked Sterne if he’d consider writing something to raise awareness of slavery. Sterne replied that, by a ‘strange coincidence’, the chapter of Shandy he’d just finished included ‘a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl.’

The novelist went on to affirm his solidarity: ‘If I can weave the Tale I have wrote into the Work I’m [about]— ’tis at the service of the afflicted—and a much greater matter; for in serious truth, it casts a sad Shade upon the World, that so great a part of it, are and have been so long bound in chains of darkness & in Chains of Misery.’

When Sterne’s correspondence was published in 1775, it aided the anti-slavery campaign and made Sancho a literary celebrity. When he died, he was the first African to receive an obituary in the British press.

* * *

Sunday 14th February 2016. Valentine’s day. I enjoy an animated GIF of an elderly William Burroughs talking to Alan Ginsberg.

Ginsberg: Do you want to be loved?

Burroughs: Oh… (lugubrious pause) Not really…

I think I’ve seen the full clip in a documentary. Burroughs goes on to add, ‘By my cats, perhaps.’ I don’t believe his not wanting to be loved, but it’s a good answer.

I also learn that February 14th 2016 is the ‘inception’ day in Blade Runner for Pris, the blonde ‘basic pleasure model’ android. As played so wonderfully by Darryl Hannah. I like to think of myself as a ‘basic pleasure model’ too.

Evening: I watch the Film BAFTAs, hosted by Stephen Fry, now pretty much the British Oscars. The Revenant triumphs, with Leo DiCaprio taking Best Actor. A mistake, in my view. His character is barely a character at all. He’s more of a generic everyman that a couple of unkind things happen to. First an unkind bear, then an unkind Tom Hardy. As far I remember, most of his performance consists of grunting, wincing and looking pained. I get enough of that on the Northern Line.

* * *

Monday 15th February 2016. Modern priorities. The big news story on the electronic board at St Pancras is that Stephen Fry has left Twitter.

Apparently, his quip at the BAFTAs about the Best Costume Design winner looking like a ‘bag lady’ produced something of an angry reaction from people on Twitter. For Mr Fry it was the last straw, and he closed down his account.

I sympathise, having just re-read Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, now reissued with an extra chapter about the book’s reception. Essentially Ronson received Twitter attacks himself, for daring to call for empathy for people like Justine Sacco. Sacco was an American PR woman who posted a joke on Twitter, intended to mock ignorance over AIDS in Africa. Instead, it lost all context (context being the first casualty of social media). By itself, the tweet ended up looking like a straightforward racist joke. Thousands of people on Twitter roasted her alive. She was sacked from her job and spent a year rebuilding her reputation. Ronson’s book about showing compassion for such cases has now been seen by some – incredibly – as a defence of white privilege. Those who attacked Ms Sacco regard her as deserving of being ‘called out’. The trouble is, as the book puts it, ‘the snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche’.

This is what seems to have happened with Stephen Fry. Lots of people thinking that, because he’s in a position of privilege, he needs to be held to account for his public remarks. The problem is, Twitter can turn well-intentioned criticism into an out-of-control, disproportionate firestorm of raw hatred. People are not to blame: it’s really the fault of the medium. A virtual reality founded on a frustration of space – 140 characters at a time – can only engender a distortion of meaning. If I were firestormed with angry messages, I’d close my account too. Life’s too short.

* * *

Thursday 18th February 2016

Evening: seminar at Birkbeck on Jonathan Lethem’s inspired novel Motherless Brooklyn, about a detective with Tourette’s syndrome. We discuss it in relation to Sontag’s book Illness as a Metaphor. One essay on the Lethem book suggests Ian McEwan’s Saturday as an example of how not to do illness as a metaphor. McEwan’s hoodlum, Baxter, has a convenient neurological condition that screams ‘metaphor for violence!’ to the reader. Lethem’s protagonist, meanwhile, is a more fleshed-out character who is fully aware where his personality ends and his condition begins.

More interesting, though, is Lethem’s referencing of pop single remixes, such as the extended 12′ version of Prince’s ‘Kiss’. His Tourette’s hero, Lionel Essrog, hears the extra minutes of the Prince remix as ‘a four minute catastrophe of chopping, grunting, hissing and slapping sounds… apparently designed as a private message of confirmation to my delighted Tourette’s brain… The nearest thing in art to my condition’. It’s like a healing version of American Psycho.

* * *

Saturday 20th February 2016. The back pain persists. I go to a flat in King’s Cross to take up Ms Dorcas Pelling’s offer of massage therapy. This turns out to be a combination of reflexology, Swedish massage, deep tissue, and trigger point. Dorcas adds her voice to the conclusion of the osteopaths: muscular rather than spinal. Forty-four years of knotted tension. As I write this, I’m still very sore from the treatment. The pain of removing pain.

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The American Way Of Shame

Saturday 7th March 2015.

An article in the Guardian profiles Ed Miliband on the campaign trail. With his second-class train travel and his unexpected love of snooker, he finally comes across a real person, even likeable, rather than as a collection of learned PR tactics. Though that too is a PR tactic. It’s like Hollywood giving Debbie Reynolds the image of the girl next door. As the old joke goes, the secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Meanwhile the Green Party leader, Natalie Bennett, has reached a higher plateau of public visibility. A professional look-a-likes company has added a Natalie B impersonator to its books. Success of a kind.

* * *

Monday 9th March 2015.

In the evening: to Birkbeck’s Keynes Library for an event about postgraduate courses.

The difference between BAs and MAs is reflected in the racks of leaflets available in the Gordon Square lobby. The BA leaflets are A4 and bright pink, suggesting the courses are cute, childlike, even huggy. The leaflets for the MA courses, meanwhile, are A5 and battleship grey. It implies they’re all about increased concentration, seriousness, no waste, no mucking about.

What throws me for six is that tonight I find out that applications for MA bursaries, as in grants to fund a Master’s this autumn, have to be in by the end of April. Which means applying for the course itself earlier than that.

So much of my week is spent worrying about MAs, which I was hoping I wouldn’t have to do until the summer. The funding alone seems to be a complete minefield: it’s not helped by ‘part-fee waiver’ bursaries, which don’t actually tell you the sum you are applying for. As with so much of modern life now, getting paid at all is meant to be a delightful surprise.

Many bursaries seem to be outrageously narrow in their requirements: ‘Applicable only for students from Tanzania, with a first class degree, who are looking to do an MA in Postal Museum Management. In Hull. Must love dogs.’

* * *

Tuesday 10th March 2015.

Still worrying about what to do with myself after the degree. I ask some friends. Some say it’s better to go straight into an MA, others recommend taking a year off. Some think I should get a job alongside it, to cover the inevitable shortfall in funding. Though no one has said what job.

Still, they pretty much all agree that academia is something I should pursue in the long run. It is, after all, the one thing in my recent life where I’ve actually been a success (if an unpaid one).

The question now is: which MA course, which institution, and when? This autumn, or defer to the year after that? And should I stay in London or look further afield?

My answer today is, pathetically, I don’t know. My mind is too full of the dissertation and the remaining BA essays to think about anything else. I’ve spent a few cursory hours looking courses up, but nothing yet takes my interest.

However, I have at least applied to do a Birkbeck MA that does leap out at me: Contemporary Literature and Culture. Whatever happens, it’ll be good to have that set up as an option for this autumn. I don’t have to formally commit until then.

* * *

Tonight I start to fill out the huge online MA application form. It’s one of those with Mandatory Asterisks of Doom, where the page won’t let you proceed until you enter something in a box. This one wants me to upload my GCSE certificates, as they are still my most recent formal qualifications. The BA’s not done yet, and I never took A-levels.

I never feel that a set of dusty acronyms acquired decades ago have any bearing on a much-changed person today. I’m not even the same person I was at the beginning of this sentence, frankly.  And that’s not flimsiness, that’s evolution. No, really.

* * *

Wednesday 11th March 2015.

Reading Jon Ronson’s latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.  A fascinating and copiously-researched work, which asks if social media has brought about an atavistic return to public executions, if figurative ones. Certainly, there’s been an almost daily occurrence of stories in the UK news, where someone has had to apologise for something they said on the internet. But many of the people in this book aren’t politicians or public figures, merely members of the public who were crucified online after posting ill-advised tweets.

I think it’s significant that the majority of Mr R’s subjects are American. Americans do shame so much bigger and better than the British. The way the people in the book react when speaking to Mr R is often acutely emotional and over-the-top: a touch of the Hollywoods. One talks about his shame being ‘radioactive’ – that it might be catching. He is called ‘tainted’ by other Americans.

The British, meanwhile, are far more circumspect with their shame. They secretly think it’s shameful to be British at all.

I wonder if the book’s long list of acknowledgments is Jon R’s safeguard against not falling into the trap of two of his subjects: journalists caught fabricating the truth in their work. I’m reminded of the case of Johann Hari, the crusading Independent journalist who was found to have made up quotes, and was soon shamed out of his job, albeit in a quieter, British way.

But Jon Ronson’s style is very different to Hari’s: he questions his own reactions at every stage, and keeps the tone (mostly) compassionate, rather than judgemental. If anything is being shamed in his book, it’s not people, but the internet.


* * *

Thursday 12th March 2015.

Tea at the Wolseley with Lawrence Gullo and Fyodor Pavlov, visiting from NYC. Also present: the cabaret artiste Vicky Butterfly and my rock musician neighbour, David R-P. Fyodor is Russian, and gives David and myself a huge bag of Russian sweets. Some are chocolates, some are wafers, some are mini versions of Penguin biscuits, and some are boiled sweets.

The sweet wrappers have Cyrillic script alongside different baffling images: swans, masquerade masks, scary doll-like children in headscarves, and lobsters.

Haven’t been to the ornate Wolseley in years. Delighted to see that their straightforward Cream Tea is still affordable, at £10.75 for a plate of scones, jam and cream, and a pot of tea, with refills. Cheap classiness – very me.

The discussion turns to aging. Learned today: Crispin Gray, the guitarist of the early 90s band Daisy Chainsaw, and currently in The Dogbones, is a descendant of the Victorian poet John Gray. As in the rumoured inspiration for Wilde’s Dorian. Fittingly, Crispin doesn’t seem to have aged since 1991.

* * *

Friday 13th March 2015.

I fear I am developing a brioche habit.

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The Best Thing About You Is That You Remind Me Of Me

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 the 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 its 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.  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-mâché 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 Frank 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.’

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