Little Threads of Infinity

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 jacket is now unravelling along a number of 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, which 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 just 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 Who adventure was turned into one of these little books. 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 explorations in their own right, rather 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 realised 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 informed have been making waves with their song, ‘Piss On Putin’.


 Saturday 29th May 2016. Mum in London for the day. We visit the British Library’s big summer exhibition, 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 amateur Hamlet on board a ship off the coast of Sierra Leone, as early as 1607. Shakespeare was still alive.

Also learned: King Lear 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 Shakespearean Lear 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 of 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’ Shojo manga comics. Am intrigued about Keiko Takemiya, who is thought to have pioneered the yaoi 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.

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Notes on Stations

Friday, March 16th: I walk through King’s Cross and St Pancras stations and note a few things. King’s Cross is just about to have its new concourse open, with a panelled golf ball-like dome similar to the Great Court at the British Museum. There is even a countdown board, ticking away the seconds to the hoarding coming down. I pick up a leaflet about the changes:

“Have a wander around the new shops, you’ll notice a few surprises. Just don’t get so carried away that you miss your train!”

The ‘new’ shops include: Boots, WH Smith, Paperchase, Accessorize, M&S Simply Food, Pret A Manger, Starbucks and Caffe Nero.

Some thoughts on franchise cafes:

– I’m happy with the drinks and snacks being the same in every single branch of Costa and so on, yet I resent the music being the same. I wonder why this is. Possibly because music connects directly to the emotions, whereas for food and drink the only emotion is satisfying hunger and thirst. Unfamiliar music is interesting, unfamiliar food might be inedible. It’s okay to always drink the same coffee, eat the same panini. But when the same CD plays in every Costa cafe sound system, I am annoyed.

– Some franchise cafes express their individuality by either playing the standardised music on a very low volume, or – God bless them – not having music full stop.

– Franchises are popular because they give the illusion of familiarity, of being at home. One feels a regular, even if the branch itself is unfamiliar. The Marks & Spencer in Gibraltar is a surreal comfort. Perhaps arriving at King’s Cross and not seeing the usual high street brands would be upsetting.

– There is a link between the emotion of franchise cafes and of going to see a band when they’ve reformed,  just to hear the old hits. Comfort food. No surprises. A journey one has already been on. Reformed bands as trusted brands.

– I wonder what the ‘few surprises’ in the new King’s Cross concourse are going to be.

In St Pancras I pass the toilets near the southern end. There is usually a long queue for the ladies’, and no queue for the gents’. Why brand new public conveniences still fail to address this discrepancy between the sexes baffles me. Swanning in past the ladies’ queue to use the gents, and wandering out afterwards to see the same faces still waiting, I feel the unfairness of nature made worse by the myopia of architects. And I can’t help wondering what gender the architects are, and if that is something to do with it.

I also wonder if gendered toilets per se will be a thing of the past in my lifetime, and hope for more unisex facilities to be brought in – lots of cubicles for all, plus a few urinals for those who want to use them (whatever gender – with a free dispensing machine for those funnels one hears about). Or just increase the amount of cubicles for women until the queuing problem is dealt with. Maybe it’ll happen in Brighton first.

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