This Slapstick Gatecrasher

Sunday 14th August 2016. To the Constitution pub in Camden, for the club night Nitty Gritty. Tonight is also the birthday of Debbie Smith, who’s one of the club’s DJs. Atalanta is on the door, sitting at a little table as one enters the basement down a narrow staircase. I keep her company there for a while, watching others make their way gingerly down the steps too. It’s a pleasingly old building, so the stairs were probably built not so much for club goers to walk down but for minor characters from Dickens to be thrown down.

I spend a pleasant couple of hours here, even dancing a little. The Constitution’s back garden looks peacefully over the canal. As the pub is detached and a good walk from the shops and the more touristy parts of Camden, it has the air of an oasis. Local London. Dog walkers use the towpath, and dogs have been known to wander through the basement’s back door and straight onto the dancefloor. A pug-ish one appears tonight and skips around for a few seconds to a Kinks b-side (‘What’s this? What’s this?’). Thankfully the owner removes this slapstick gatecrasher before it sees the platter of birthday cake in front of the DJ booth.


Monday 15th August 2016. I’m editing my review of the Pet Shop Boys book, Smile If You Dare. I cut a line about the possible influence of Paul Morley on the style, mainly because the writer is probably too young. My own generation of music writers essentially fell into two camps: those trying to be Paul Morley – mad, funny, rambling – and those trying to be Simon Reynolds – sober, stern, analytical. There’s a part of the Pet Shop Boys book where the appearance of a hidden track at the end of the Very CD is likened to bettering the resurrection of Christ. I would call this The Full Morley.

There is still a lot of love for the actual Mr Morley today, as his new book on David Bowie is in the Sunday Times General Hardback Top Ten. The music papers Mr Morley once wrote for have either died or become free handouts. For people to pay for a fat hardback of music journalism, and to do so in number, is not to be sniffed at. Most of the rest of the books in that chart are either Ladybird parody books or memoirs by the stars of YouTube. It’s very hard not to write something here that will sound like a rant from Ed Reardon’s Week.


Tuesday 16th August 2016. To the Regent Street Cinema, where I’ve been invited by Heavenly Films to host a Q&A after a screening of Lawrence of Belgravia. This is Paul Kelly’s documentary about Lawrence, the surname-less frontman with the bands Felt, Denim and Go-Kart Mozart. It premiered at the London Film Festival in 2011, where I saw it myself, before getting a proper cinema release in 2012. For whatever reason, the DVD has been only been released now, and tonight’s screening acts as a DVD launch. Paul Kelly and Lawrence himself are present, ready to answer the audience’s questions, and I’m the one with the clipboard, looking like an albino Denis Norden.

I’ve interviewed people professionally for magazines before, but this is my first time as an onstage interviewer. But I go to a lot of film and book Q & A events for my own pleasure, so I more or less know how they’re done. That said, there is a craft to asking the questions, and it’s not always instinctive.  When people talk normally, they tend to monologue at each other, or switch off, or repeat themselves, or interrupt, or go off on tangents. A public interview is a performance: there needs to be a sense of putting-on.

To prepare, I read about a dozen interviews with both Mr Kelly and Lawrence, and watch my own copy of the DVD again. I also watch some old editions of the Parkinson show on YouTube, noting what makes an ‘open question’: one that will ideally guide the interviewee into making those little trips of insight and revelation.

On the night, I am asked to give a short introduction, which I do happily, standing in front of the stage. Housekeeping, flavoured with opinion. I focus on Mr Kelly’s lack of clichés: particularly no uses of studio mixing desks as backdrops to talking heads. And no talking heads, either, in fact.

The Regent Street Cinema has had a long former life as a college lecture hall. This explains the seating, raked high on a steep slope, looking down at the screen. Not unlike the set-up for IMAX screens. A dramatic history too: the Lumiere brothers showed their early movies here in 1896. The tickets for tonight state that we’re in ‘The Birthplace of British Cinema’. A plaque on the street also declares this to be where members of Pink Floyd were students. Not the young Syd Barrett, alas, which would have been apt for a film about eccentrics in music. No, the less interesting but more sensible members. That’s my wording, not the plaque’s.

Special badges are given out to every person as they enter. Sky blue buttons saying ‘Lawrence of Belgravia, Tuesday 16th August 2016′. There’s a queue on the way in. The rows fill up. A staffer whispers to me before I go on: ‘This is more people than we usually have for these things’.

I haven’t spoken to Lawrence since the late 90s. ‘Never say ‘Long time no see’, says Warhol somewhere. Better to act as if it were yesterday. So that’s what I do. During the Q&A he smiles a lot, which throws me. The first question from the audience: ‘You’re one of my heroes, along with my dad’.

I can’t resist using the Q&A to tell Lawrence that his music is on Lynsey Hanley’s list of songs to accompany her book on class, Respectable. Lawrence says he’s read it; a Birmingham connection. I quote the lyrics Ms H quotes from Denim’s ‘Middle of the Road’, the ones about choosing to like whatever music you listen to. Much of her book is about the importance of breaking down cultural barriers, where areas of musical taste are psychologically prescribed.

On a couple of occasions I fall into the trap of asking closed questions, because my brain is wired to come up with theories, almost by default. That’s what five years of university does to you. But then I notice what I’m doing and move on. I’ll be better at doing that next time; I’d like to do more Q & As.

Lawrence stays to sign records for fans. Stephen Pastel and Tracey Thorn are in the audience. JC Brouchard, whom Biff Bang Pow once wrote a song about, gives me a copy of his book, Felt: Ballad of the Fan. ‘Is that a book on Felt?’ asks someone behind me. One of several books, now. There’ll be a BA course in Lawrence Studies one day.


Friday 19th August 2016. To the ICA to see Wiener-Dog, the new Todd Solondz film. I loved Happiness, and quite enjoyed Palindromes and Storytelling, but have reservations about this new one.

One thing is that I’m not really in the mood for his signature mix of misery, misanthropy and bad taste. Another is the form: a portmanteau film of four short stories, linked by the titular sausage dog. This works for old British horror films, but not so much for contemporary US black comedies. With one narrative paraded after the other, the overall experience is of fluffy disconnection. A little weaving together of the different strands is needed, a la Pulp Fiction. Or indeed, a la Happiness.

Still, there’s plenty of funny moments, not least the surreal ‘Intermission’, where the dog is filmed as if it were the size of a house, and walks through a series of unlikely backdrops to a Champion the Wonder Horse-like song. But I don’t think anyone sets out to make an intermission the highlight of a film.


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Lawrence, Movie Star

Postscript to yesterday’s thoughts on Julian Barnes and ebooks: I also wrote an email to the Evening Standard making roughly the same points, and they printed it.

Actually, I only wrote it because the Standard asked me to, on Twitter, after I Tweeted about the subject. I obliged, partly because I thought what I had to say re ebooks helping dyslexics needed to be spread to counteract a lot of knee-jerk negativity, but also because I just like to be helpful. I don’t know if this is how letters pages now work, with staff actively soliciting contributions, but at least it was my own words. There’s a sense that people are satisfied Having Their Say all over the internet – Twitter, Facebook, comments boxes, forums – and the idea of writing such comments in an email to a newspaper now seems curiously redundant.


Today: to the NFT, or the BFI Southbank as it’s now rebranded, even though the actual screens are still called NFT1, NFT2 and so on. I pay my first visit to its Mediatheque, a wonderful drop-in area where one can book a session at a booth with headphones and watch a rare film or programme from the BFI’s archive. I choose a superb Angela Carter ‘Omnibus’ documentary from the early 90s, and a bit of  Inappropriate Behaviour, an intriguing 80s TV film by Andrew Davies, with Charlotte Coleman as a troubled lesbian horserider (of course). The BFI’s Mediatheque is absolutely free – no membership or deposit required.

Then: to the afternoon screening of Lawrence Of Belgravia, the full length documentary about the eccentric, surname-less frontman of the bands Felt, Denim and Go-Kart Mozart. Beautifully made, if rather sad. The central theme is his lack of commercial success and life on benefits in a council flat (when he’s not being evicted), despite decades of critical acclaim and endorsement by The Smiths, St Etienne, Belle & Sebastian, Pulp and so on. The film itself, however, has already done well: its three screenings at the London Film Festival have sold out, with a fourth added due to demand. The festival’s programmer introduces the film, and it turns out he’s a serious fan of Lawrence’s music. A woman in front of me confesses that she had no idea who Lawrence was, but saw the film in the festival brochure and was interested enough to buy a ticket.

It certainly has the Captain Scott factor – the British love a tale of failure (or of success tinged with sadness, eg Kenneth Williams), added, perhaps, to the Syd Barrett factor – the image of a crazy old cult rock icon moping around the shops.

As one of the interviewers in the film says, maybe the film will finally make Lawrence a proper star. Or at least get him off the dole.

I say hello to Bob Stanley (and tell him that my degree course is studying the St Etienne film Finisterre), Tim from Baxendale and Harvey Williams, who says he saw my brother playing in Roddy Frame’s band.

Lawrence still refuses to do the most obvious thing of these reunion-saturated times – reform the now much-revered Felt and perform all the old songs – even though it would make a lot of people happy and – surely – would finally enable him to make a living from his talent.  Still, I admire his defiance, and make a note to buy the new Go Kart Mozart album when it comes out. Jan 2012 apparently.


Evening – lecture on Oliver Twist at Birkbeck, followed by workshop on literary research – at UCL’s medical lecture hall, for some reason. Large painting of what looks like a Victorian vivisection class on the wall. Also: at one side of the blackboard is a working dentist’s chair.

Memo to self: always eat before a lecture. Rumbling stomachs take on an embarrassing level of amplification in a big room with only one person speaking. Particularly ironic during a talk on the little boy who asked for more.

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