Sometimes, writing can feel like tugging at little threads of infinity. This is a simile suggested by the jacket I’m wearing today. It’s a beloved linen number of some ten summers, as a result of which the jacketÂ is now unravelling along a number ofÂ seams. It has reached the stage where it makes my dry cleaner suck in his breath so much, I wonder if there’s a point where the sound of reluctance ends and asthma begins.
I have the same fear of an infinite unravelling whenever I sit down to write. There’s a point where the mind has no reason to stop dwelling on even the tiniest detail – one thinks of the Woolf story ‘The Mark on the Wall’. Everything is interesting, really.
But the problem with this is that I have a backlog of events from the last few weeks, whichÂ really should be at least declared, if only to paint in the parameters of my funny little life. This week’s selection of diary entries, and the next one, will therefore be more of a mopping-up. The temptation to tug on The Threads of Fact until they become The Unravelled Garments of Reflection will justÂ have to be resisted.
Tuesday 4th May 2016. To the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury. A small gallery that nevertheless crams in two superb exhibitions: a major one about ‘The Great British Graphic Novel’, and a smaller one upstairs about the Doctor Who Target novelisations, which came out regularly in the 70s and 80s. Virtually every Doctor WhoÂ adventure was turned into one of these little books.Â I remember them well as a child. It was the era just before TV shows were available to buy on home video (long before DVDs). To revisit a favourite story, the fans had to read prose fiction. How strange now to think of novels as catch-up TV.
Each Target paperback had a specially commissioned cover rendered as a painting (hence the exhibition), branding the books more as imaginative explorationsÂ in their own right, ratherÂ than disposable cash-ins. They also encouraged a feeling of community, which is what merchandise and events like Comic-Con should always do. Join our club.
Thursday 5th May 2016. In the TLS I read a review by Tom Lean of Electronic Dreams, a book about 1980s computer games. One game, Deus Ex Machina, apparently featured a segment ‘in which the player has to guide a sperm to an egg in order to fertilize it. The astronomer Patrick Moore had been invited to voice the semen; he consulted his mother and, on her advice, declined.’
Sunday 8th May 2016. Afternoon: To a marquee in St James’s Square, for one of the Words in the Square events. This is a miniature literary festival, held by the London Library to mark its 175th anniversary. I attend ‘Desert Island Books’, a group discussion about favourite reads. Six authors sit on a stage and explain their choices in categories such as ‘Childhood Favourite’, ‘Biggest Influence’, ‘Guilty Pleasure’, ‘Tarnished Favourite’, and ‘Recent Favourite’. The authors are Philippa Gregory, Deborah Levy, John O’Farrell, Sara Wheeler, Nikesh Shukla and Ned Beauman. A gender note: all three men try to make the audience laugh, while the three women are more serious and wistful about the pleasures of reading. Though that’s a kind of playing to the crowd too.
Ned B’s ‘Guilty Pleasure’ is to go on Amazon and use the ‘Look Inside’ function to read the bits in crime thrillers where the killer reveals his motive. Nikesh S’s ‘Tarnished Favourite’ is a poetry anthology he contributed to in his teens. His initial excitement at having his dream realisedÂ was soon doused; the book turned out to be a scam by a vanity press.
Evening: To the Constitution in Camden for Debbie Smith’s Nitty Gritty club night. It’s such a sunny day that I walk all the way from St James’s, via the canal. At the club I meet the singer from the band Bete Noire, who I’m reliably informedÂ have been making waves with their song, ‘Piss On Putin’.
Â Saturday 29thÂ May 2016. Mum in London for the day. We visit the British Library’s big summer exhibition,Â Shakespeare in Ten Acts. As usual with the BL, it’s a rich mix of the familiar (lots of rare books, a couple of First Folios present and correct), the educational (in-depth histories of early female and black actors) and the unexpected. In the latter case I’m fascinated with the details of the first overseas production, an amateurÂ HamletÂ on board a ship off the coast of Sierra Leone, as early as 1607. Shakespeare was still alive.
Also learned:Â King LearÂ was performed in a sanitised version for 150 years. This Restoration rewrite had a happy ending and omitted the character of the Fool entirely. When the full ShakespeareanÂ LearÂ was revived in the 1830s, the first actor to play the Fool was a woman, Priscilla Horton.
For me, the highlight is a whole room dedicated to Peter Brook’s 1970 production ofÂ A Midsummer’s Night Dream. This was the radically minimalist version, staged against plain white walls, with brightly coloured costumes, trapezes and stilts. In the exhibition, all the rooms are dark except for this one, a witty recreation of Brook’s clean white box. There’s even a trapeze one can sit on, albeit firmly anchored.
Lunch at Albertini in Chalton Street, followed by a walk around Camley Street Natural Park and a quick visit to the House of Illustration. Three small exhibitions in the latter: 1920s Soviet children’s books (when animal tales were suppressed as bourgeois constructs), a permanent Quentin Blake gallery, and a display of Japanese girls’Â ShojoÂ manga comics. Am intrigued about Keiko Takemiya, who is thought to have pioneered theÂ yaoiÂ genre: comics about gay male love, made by women for girls.
It’s a sunny day, and we have drinks outside in Granary Square (buying them at the trendy Granary Store bar). The area is still being finished, but it’s already King’s Cross’s answer to the South Bank, the canal standing in for the Thames. As with the Royal Festival Hall, hordes of people now descend here at the weekend, and seem to just sit around all day. Alcohol on concrete, bridges over water, art galleries, and the inevitable small children playing in fountains, the kind made up of jets of water springing up from the pavement.
In fact, the Granary Square fountains seem to be more artily-minded than the South Bank ones, perhaps because St Martin’s is next door. The jets switch constantly between different patterns of varying rows and heights. On the South Bank, the jets just rise up and go down. Either way, the children seem happy. Or at least, busy. Which with children, unlike adults, is the same thing.
Tags: bete noire, British Library, cartoon museum, doctor who, house of illustration, king's cross, mopping up, nitty gritty, shakespeare, target books, The London Library