Reanimate Your Darlings

Saturday 22nd November 2014. I finish the first draft on the Waugh essay. Nearly a thousand words over the 1,500 word limit. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but academic writing is so painstaking. Every paragraph has to be crafted to fit a template. It has to introduce a new point, followed by an explanation of the new point, then offer up evidence in quotations. And then you have to add a little arm-wrestling with a critic on the same point, to prove you can not only look all this stuff up but that you’ve managed to think for yourself as well (something which only comes with practice).

Then there are the citations in the footnotes, which all have to be tailored to fit a particular style guide. Birkbeck’s English programme uses the one issued by MHRA. Which may sound like an unpleasant virus but is actually a little book of infallible commandments, along the lines of ‘Thou Shalt Use Full Stops In Footnotes, But Not In Bibliographies. Do Not Ask Why.’

And on top of all that, you have to abide by a word count. Which – and this is truly the bane of the student – has to include the footnotes. It’s bad enough when academic articles have long titles, but then you also have to cite the book the article is collected in, which often has a long title itself. And then you have name the book’s editors, who are often at least three people who insist on having three-word names. So the footnotes can really eat away at a word count. I always feel like Alice in the White Rabbit’s house, banging my pretty yet oversized head against the ceiling.

But then I’m bad at conciseness per se, whether it’s haikus at school or tweets today. I can’t feel at home if there’s not enough room to swing a clause.

* * *

Evening: to the BFI Southbank. I still dislike the inelegant name and think of the venue as the old NFT. But these are branded times and one must be brave. Anyway, whatever the BFI Snickers wants to call itself, I am grateful that tonight it is showing the cult 80s film Liquid Sky. I am also grateful that Ms Silke noticed it was on, remembered that it was one of my favourite films, and invited me to see it on the big screen for the first time.

I first saw Liquid Sky on VHS, in the year 1999. A copy fell into my hands when I was in a rehearsal studio in one of the less sequinned parts of Outer London. It was the sort of area that is not so much a district as a punctuation mark. Like a lot of rehearsal studios, it existed purely to stop industrial estates from being seen together in public.

This was during my role as quondam guitarist for the band Spearmint. At one particular rehearsal the singer Mr Lee gave me the video in question. I think it may have been a gift to him, or perhaps it was an impulse buy on his own part. Either way, after seeing Liquid Sky he passed the video onto me for good, with the words ‘I think this is more your sort of thing than mine’.

He was quite right. Liquid Sky is a low-budget tale of dayglo-attired and androgynous New Romantics, who spend their days taking drugs, dressing up, performing experimental poetry, and generally draping themselves around New York until the time of the next photo shoot. As is so often the case, a flying saucer arrives full of invisible aliens who feed on sexual energy. In one scene, the heroine has sex with a male model, who in turn is played by the same actress in male drag. All this occurs to a soundtrack which resembles a synthesizer being attacked by an embittered squirrel. So yes, it is very much My Sort Of Thing.

Thankfully for the BFI, it is other people’s thing as well. This screening is healthily attended: about two-thirds full. Watching it now, I note how it nearly crosses the line from trashiness into plain bad cinema in terms of  acting and production values. Yet with its startling costumes and make-up, and with its sense of not wanting to be anything but itself, it triumphs.

* * *

Afterwards Silke and I walk around the temporary Christmas Market on the South Bank. There is a miniature railway running along the riverside. Not only miniature in height, either: it barely runs a few hundred yards. I imagine it appeals to the sort of children who find vaguely moving about to be enough excitement for one day.

We buy mulled wine from a tasteful stall outside the RFH. £3.80 for a generous mug. All the really popular stalls in the market are for food: Polish sausages, fries, Dutch pancakes, pizza slices. Silke points out a stall that only sells wooden neckties. She says it’s there every year, yet she’s never seen anyone buy a tie.

* * *

Sunday 23rd November 2014. I hack away at the essay, and get it down to the required word count. I find the process less painful if I paste the deleted words into a separate Word file marked ‘Offcuts’.

* * *.

Monday 24th November 2014. Third draft of the essay. The hacking gives way to moulding and shaping. I restore one of the deleted sections from the ‘Offcuts’ file. Some other poor passage of text takes its place instead. I walk away from its pleadings. ‘You lied to me! You said I was special!’

Never mind the writing advice about ‘kill your darlings’. It’s not enough. Kill, then reanimate your darlings. Then kill other darlings to make room. It’s a bloodbath, frankly, whatever happens.

* * *

Tuesday 25th November 2014. Fourth and fifth drafts of the essay. The moulding and shaping becomes tweezing and polishing. I think it’s okay. I upload it to the college’s website, then print out a paper version and drop it into the designated essay-scoffing letterbox in Gordon Square. That’s my deadlines for the Autumn all done. From now till January, it’s all about planning, research and reading.

Class tonight: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Tutor: Joe Brooker. I have a slight argument in the class about whether the novel qualifies as a modernist text. The gist of my argument is this: no.

* * *

Wednesday 26th November 2014. Tea with Silke in a trendy Fitzrovian emporium, ‘Sharps’, in Windmill Street. A barbers shop and café. I read their price list. As well as haircuts, they offer a full shave which takes 45 minutes, at a cost of £35. My tea comes in a cup without handles.

Class tonight: The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon. Tutor: Grace Halden. Much discussion on identity, from race to nationality to accents. Funny how accents are still the acceptable home of prejudice. I once met a young academic who had a strong Essex accent. She said she was so tired of getting jokes about Essex Girls and The Only Way Is Essex, that she often introduced herself as being ‘from outside of London’.

* * *

Thursday 27th November 2014. To the Phoenix cinema for The Imitation Game. Benedict Cumberbatch brilliant as Alan Turing. That said, it’s a straightforward wartime thriller, rather than a biopic. Although there’s a little about Turing’s past as a schoolboy in frustrated love, his life as a gay man isn’t fleshed out at all.

When I was a teenage stage hand at the Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, I worked on a production of Breaking The Code, Hugh Whitemore’s play about Turing. I have a vivid memory of watching a scene from the wings, my headphones on, where two men kissed onstage. The scene was a sunny hotel room in Corfu, where the post-war Turing finds happiness with a young Greek. At one point Turing addresses the youth fondly and says, ‘Oh Nikos, Nikos from Ipsos’. This was turned into a joke at the Wolsey: ‘Oh, Nikos, Nikos from Ipswich’.

The Imitation Game is oddly closer in tone to Dirk Bogarde’s Victim from 1961. There’s a character seen briefly in a police station who has a sexual connection to Turing, but he’s not deemed important enough to speak. Instead, the film focusses on Turing’s achievements during the war. I found this frustrating, but I saw the filmmakers’ point. It’s more in the style of those old praise-singing John Mills films about war heroes, and less about tragic private lives.

* * *

Evening: A drinks do at the London Library, then I nip over to the 4th floor of Waterstones Piccadilly for a book event. This is for Tony O’Neill, promoting his latest novel, Black Neon. I’ve known Tony since 1996, when he was the keyboard player in the band Kenickie. These days he’s a noir-ish New York-based novelist in the vein (in every sense) of Burroughs, Welsh, Thompson and Bukowski. Tony turns up in red braces, dark grey shirt, and trilby hat. In the queue to get books signed, the person before me is the novelist Tom McCarthy, while behind me is the singer Marc Almond. I say hello to the photographer Lili Wilde. She reminds me how she once took my photo a block away from this shop, standing on ‘The Four Bronze Horses of Helios’ fountain at the corner of the Haymarket. This would have been as one half of Orlando, in 1995. She looks exactly the same now as she did then.

Tony O’Neill is an admirer of Sebastian Horsley, and starts Black Neon with a Horsley quote: ‘Any movie, even the worst, is better than real life‘. In fact, this is Horsley paraphrasing Quentin Crisp, which he did frequently, even more so than me. That was one of the main reasons I was drawn to him. The Crisp quote occurs right at the beginning of the 1975 film The Naked Civil Servant, spoken by Crisp himself. Horsley has made it harsher, because Crisp’s exact wording is just that little bit more camp: ‘Any film, even the worst, is at least better than real life‘.

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