The Unserious Dog Show

Saturday 23rd August 2014. To the Phoenix cinema for Doctor Who – Deep Breath. It’s the first episode of the new series, and the first to properly feature Peter Capaldi in the title role. It’s on TV as usual, but as part of a huge publicity campaign the BBC have arranged for some cinemas to screen it at the same time. One has to pay for the cinema (about the same price as a standard cinema ticket), so it is a fascinating test of the interest in such a thing. One incentive is that there’s a couple of extra little films. First up is an amusing monologue from Strax the Sontaran, who comments on the Doctor’s various incarnations. ‘The fifth Doctor’, he says, indicating a hologram of Peter Davison, ‘had no distinguishing features whatsoever’. Then after the episode there’s a live Q & A with the main actors and the main writer, Steven Moffat. But it’s really the sense of occasion one pays for: the experience of watching the episode on a big screen in the company of Doctor Who fans.

There’s a mixture of all ages here. A small boy in the row in front of me is wearing a fez and a bow tie, a la Matt Smith. Elsewhere in the cinema, I see another fez, this time worn by a grown woman. I enjoy the episode: lots of good lines, such as ‘There’s nothing more important than my egomania!’ The plot is the usual goings-on (alien robots up to no good in Victorian London), but Capaldi himself is enough to keep one on tenterhooks for what happens next. His older Doctor is intriguing, shrewd, spiky, capricious and (so far) volatile. As I watch, my only worry is that small children won’t take to him as much as they did the boyish Doctors of recent years. But while walking out through the foyer I see a tiny girl of eight or so, having her photograph taken next to a life-size cardboard cut-out of Capaldi. She is hugging him.

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Sunday 24th August 2014. To Spa Fields Park in Clerkenwell. A mini festival. A stage is up, there’s a few stalls, a bouncy castle is in one corner, and a not-entirely-serious dog show is in the tennis court (some of the dogs’ ‘tricks’ include lying down and getting up again). I’m here for two reasons: Kitty Fedorec’s birthday gathering, plus a performance by Joanne Joanne, the all-female Duran Duran tribute band. I still love that two of the band really are called Joanne. I chat to: Pete M of Talulah Gosh (and umpteen other bands), Ian Watson, Charley Stone (once a guitarist with Fosca, today in Joanne Joanne), David Barnett, and Alex S & Alex P. The event has the feel of my 90s gig-going past – I keep seeing people in the crowd whom I nearly recognise, old regulars from gigs at Upstairs at the Garage. One face I do recognise is Jim Rattail, the dedicated London gig-goer of old. He still has his long plait of hair.

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Monday 25th August 2014. A Bank Holiday. There’s constant heavy rain all day, the weather unaware of its own Bank Holiday cliché. I discover that my only other pair of older but still comfortable shoes are also leaking water, a crack having developed in the sole.

On an impulse, I travel to Paddington to see if the floating bookshop there, Word on the Water, is open. It isn’t. The steps into Paddington station are covered in rainwater. In the station, revellers from the Notting Hill Carnival are mingling with backpacked-up Reading Festival refugees. Many wear all-over transparent raincoats, half poncho, half giant condom. One carnival lady slips and falls on the stairs. She’s in pastel-coloured platform heels, drenched yet defiant. Her gales of laughter are a relief; her pride more wounded than her ankle.

I end up at the Royal Festival Hall, where there’s ballroom dancing in the open space by the ground floor bar. It’s to do with the South Bank’s ‘Love’ festival. A large pinboard is nearby, covered in paper pink hearts. Each has a handwritten declaration of love. Most are to people, but one is ‘I LOVE WEST HAM’.

After my sadness over Foyles St Pancras closing, I’m pleased to find there are two branches of Foyles in the South Bank area, both of which are open late on Sundays and Bank Holidays. One is tucked under the Royal Festival Hall on the riverside, while another is in Waterloo station nearby. In the South Bank one I see the History Boys actor Dominic Cooper, being pleasant and chatty with the staff.

* * *

Tuesday 26th August 2014. To Suffolk. Train to Sudbury around noon, lunch in Bildeston with Mum, then north to the village of Bardwell to visit Mal and Kev Shepard, old family friends. Mal’s son Don is a professional jester and magician, now going by the name of Phoenix The Fool. There’s a large gold trophy of a conjuror in the living room, which he won at a magic tournament in China. I look at their vintage copy of Kathleen Hale’s picture book Orlando the Marmalade Cat – A Seaside Holiday. The seaside destination in it, ‘Owlborrow’, is based on Aldeburgh circa 1950.

The place names on the way back immediately suggest medieval scenes: Stowlangtoft. Ixworth Thorpe. And Woolpit, with its legend of the green children.

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Wednesday 27th August 2014. On the tube. The man in the seat next to me suddenly says, ‘I have to ask you, what on earth are you reading?’

I tell him: Probably Nothing, by Matilda Tristram. From a glance it might look like a children’s book. In fact, it’s a very adult (as in sweary) comic book memoir. It covers Ms Tristram’s time in 2013 as a cancer patient, made all the more complicated by her being pregnant as well. I read parts of it last year when it was an ongoing black-and-white webcomic. Since then, Penguin got involved – not a publisher known for putting out comic books. So now it’s a beautiful full colour hardback. Her drawing style is an urgent and simple doodle, suggesting snatched moments of meagre yet driven energy. I like her raw honesty, her depiction of life in the artier parts of Hackney, her accounts of the tactless things others say to her, and especially her trips to Walberswick and Southwold on the Suffolk coast, places I’m familiar with too:


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Thursday 28th August 2014. The shoe repair man in Muswell Hill says he can’t stretch my new Clarks, or repair my leaky sole. I come out feeling like I’ve been in a Monty Python sketch – a shoe repair shop that can’t repair any shoes. And so it goes on.

* * *

I enjoy reading the umpteen reviews of Kate Bush’s comeback gig. Referring to her simply as ‘Bush’, though, as in ‘Bush takes to the stage’ seems wrong somehow. Unlike David Bowie, her surname is not unusual enough to define her alone – there’s those pesky presidents for a start. But there’s also something about her work that makes ‘Bush’ sound wrong too, as if she demands a gesture of intimacy to properly describe her. The ‘Kate’ needs to be there.

As it is, I read the word ‘Bush’ so often today that I start humming the closing theme to Only Fools and Horses:

 ‘Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. No income tax, no VAT…’

* * *

Friday 28th August 2014. To the Curzon Soho to see Obvious Child. It’s a New York indie comedy-drama starring Jenny Slate, about a wise-cracking young woman’s romantic woes. It’s similar in genre to Frances Ha but closer to Knocked Up and Juno in terms of subject matter. In the latter two, the possibility of abortion was never properly addressed, at least not to the extent it might be had the stories taken place in real life. One theory I read at the time was that the jokes would just be eclipsed. Well, Obvious Child certainly dismisses that idea. It dares to treat the subject matter properly, while keeping the comedy going too – if letting it turn bittersweet and wry rather than laugh-out-loud. I also like the wordplay of the title (a reference to a Paul Simon song). It plays on the way the lead character is childlike herself, yet her choice is very much a grown up one. The film is not perfect, but it certainly makes other comedies’ moral squeamishness look, well, a bit childish.

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Not So Much A Place, More An Awkward Phase

Saturday 15th March 2014.

I meet Ella L for tea and eclairs at Maison Bertaux, the long-running patisserie and Soho landmark. It features in Derek Jarman’s diaries from the early Nineties, and appears as itself in The Look of Love, the Steve Coogan film about Paul Raymond, which came out last year and which not enough people went to see, frankly. Maison Bertaux itself now features permanent doodling on the walls by Noel Fielding of the Mighty Boosh.  On the upstairs window sill by our table is scrawled the phrase ‘Jane Birkin dances like a deaf woman’.

* * *

Sunday 16th March 2014.

To the Pembury Tavern in Hackney for Travis E’s birthday drinks. It must be one of the few pubs in London to not have any background music or TV screens. It’s also the first pub in the city to accept Bitcoins.

I buy a bottle of cider from the bar, and note the health warnings that have popped up on alcoholic packaging lately. The sentence ‘please drink responsibly’ is a common enough sight, but there’s also a tiny pictogram in the ‘DON’T’ style of a diagonal bar across a circle. Inside is a little silhouette of a woman with a ponytail and a baby bump, drinking from a bottle. An update of Hogarth, I suppose.

I’m currently reading George Gissing’s 1890s novel The Odd Women, about changing attitudes towards marriage in London at the time. Alcohol and pregnancy are represented there too, but Gissing is no Hogarth; he drenches both in euphemism.  To indicate the pregnancy of one character, Monica, he writes: ‘With a moan she lost consciousness. Two or three women who were in the room rendered assistance. The remarks they exchanged, though expressing uncertainty and discreetly ambiguous, would have been significant to Monica.’ Thus Gissing is ‘discreetly ambiguous’ too.

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Tuesday 18th March 2014.

At the Prince Charles Cinema to see Only Lovers Left Alive, a new film by Jim Jarmusch. It’s something of a contrast to the last new film I saw, Gravity (at the BFI IMAX the previous Tuesday). Gravity is all about the film as fairground experience: the director throws a series of jolly space-based obstacles at Ms Sandra Bullock until she starts saying aloud ‘Now what?’, thus pre-empting the audience’s response.  The answer being, ‘Now this, Ms B – a fire on the space station! Purely because you’re in a thriller, and we need a reason to introduce Chekhov’s Fire Extinguisher. That way it can be suddenly reused in a different way later on, and the audience will not question it.’

At first I found myself wincing at these clichés of the form. Another one in Gravity is the third astronaut of the mission dying early on, because he is (a) foreign, and (b) not played by a Hollywood star. For years this sort of thing was a joke made by stand up comedians about the 1960s Star Trek – the unknown ‘guy in the red jersey’  who would always perish on alien missions.

But after a while I realise it’s missing the point to mind these archetypes in Gravity – the film is really all about the innovations of its effects. So the hoary old plot stuff is needed, to cast the visual elements into starker relief. And besides there are still a few twists – what happens to George Clooney, for one.

Gravity has been at the IMAX for months, while Only Lovers Left Alive seems to have done a Look of Love at the box office. It has big stars (Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, John Hurt) and a cultish fanbase-baiting story (rock star vampires mooch about elegantly, in present day Tangier and Detroit). Yet it seems to have been all but dismissed by the public. Perhaps it’s for the crime of being what Quentin Crisp once called ‘unabashed festival material’. It’s unashamedly slow and atmospheric, and doesn’t throw obstacles at the characters for the sake of it. They just mope about prettily between sunrises, which is all anyone can ask of them.

It’s the sort of film I can see playing on a Prince Charles Cinema bill alongside the 1980s cult vampire film The Hunger, and indeed alongside Ms Swinton’s Orlando too – more otherworldly and immortal goings on. It’s only surprising she hasn’t played a vampire before. Mr Hiddleston, meanwhile, is the spitting image of Morpheus from Mr Gaiman’s  Sandman comic. And Mia Wasikowska appears too, as the sort of volatile waif that I thought only Ms Juno Temple was allowed to play (indeed, either would make a good Delerium in a Sandman film).

The listings at the Prince Charles Cinema are an entertainment in themselves. One forthcoming event is a ‘weep-along’ screening of Les Miserables, where the ticket includes free tissues.

* * *

Thursday 20th March 2014. Afternoon: I meet Mum in Primrose Hill, and walk with her through to Camden before catching a bus to Euston.  We have tea in the Quaker café opposite the station.

How to tell you are entering Camden: when a young woman in a black t-shirt and multicoloured hair suddenly looms into view carrying a foil tub of fried noodles. She eats them with a wooden fork while walking along the canal. She is An Eternal Camden Figure.

A prominent sign outside Camden Market reads ‘Piercings. Tattoos. Tattoo Removals.’  The full arc of youthful remorse right there. One stall purely sells t-shirts featuring variations on the ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’ poster. Even on an overcast Thursday afternoon, there’s still plenty of punkish young people from other lands sitting on the pavement outside the World’s End, like so many have done before them. Camden Town is not so much a place as an awkward phase.

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Friday 21st March 2014. I get the mark back for another essay. It’s an 80, for Ms Bechdel’s Fun Home, as part of the 21st Century module. I was in a bit of a state during its writing, due to Dad dying (an irony not lost on me given the subject matter). So I was concerned it would get a decent mark at all. I’m pleased and grateful.

And it’s very good of Kate Bush to mark my academic success by announcing her first concerts in 35 years.  She has made an awful lot of people happy today. I think my favourite Kate Bush song is the ballad ‘Under The Ivy’, as championed by Sebastian Horsley. ‘A great song should ache,’ he wrote in the appendix to Dandy In The Underworld. ‘And this song does. It has an aching creative heart. Its scope spans my life.’

Here’s Ms Bush playing it live… in a studio:


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