A Hundred Letters Of Note

Saturday 5th December 2015.

In Bloomsbury, I stumble upon the Boy Story exhibition by Magnus Arrevad. Very much in the tradition of Robert Mapplethorpe – a mix of queer sensuality, vulnerability, and humour. Large black and white portraits of male cabaret performers, including drag queens, singers (including Dusty Limits), and ‘boylesque’ dancers. The subjects are often caught backstage in states of undress, or half-dress. Lots of mirrors in dressing rooms, or in makeshift dressing rooms, or in toilets. In one image, a group of drag queens are discovered standing at urinals.

This is all at 5 Willoughby Street, near the British Museum.

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Monday 7th December 2015.

To Birkbeck for the last class in the first term of the MA. That time already. I give a presentation on the 5000 word essay I’ve got to write over Christmas. It’s on materiality and the role of the printed book in the contemporary age. I’m especially fascinated by the reports in Paris, where copies of Hemingway’s Moveable Feast were used as funeral offerings, in street memorials to the recent attacks. It’s not just the meaning of the book itself – Hemingway’s celebration of Paris as a playground – but the fact that paper books can have this role, and e-books cannot. Like wreaths and bouquets, paper books are plant material given meaning by humans. And then they are given further meaning on top, when used symbolically like this. Books as the body, touching bodies.

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Tuesday 8th December 2015.

Find myself singing ‘You Ain’t No Muslim Bruv’ to the tune of Cohen’s ‘Ain’t No Cure For Love’.

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Wednesday 9th December 2015.

I am writing a review of the Sarah Records book by Michael White, Popkiss, for The Wire magazine. What stands out from that late 80s and early 90s indie scene now are the things which have vanished for good. Not the music, as that’s all on YouTube and iTunes. It’s the exchanging of letters and cassettes and fanzines – the social media of their day. A whole chapter of White’s book is devoted to the letter-writing activity of Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes, the sole staffers of the Sarah label. In addition to providing idiosyncratic typed sleeve notes to each release, being their potted memoirs or manifestos or other musings, they would send ‘surprisingly lengthy’ handwritten missives in response to mere mail order enquiries, thus bonding with their audience. In the book, Clare W says she once attempted to write a hundred letters in a day.

Also intriguing is Clare’s comment regarding one or two of the songs by Bobby Wratten, as recorded by his band The Field Mice. According to the book, these were not only autobiographical, but concerned his romantic relationship with Clare. The problem with being immortalised in song, she says, is that ‘Their truth stands, and your truth is lost’.

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Thursday 9th December 2015.

Thoughts on the meaning of hype. The new Stars Wars film has reached saturation point in its coverage. There was a week in the late 80s when all three music papers – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds – accidentally had the same band on the front cover: U2. They had just become the biggest band in the world, and so their new album, Rattle and Hum, was a big event. At the same time, each publication had to present itself as something different to the others. They had to remind people that other music was available too (I remember that the late 80s Melody Maker was always a little more Goth-friendly than the NME).

On this occasion, the urgency to jump on the U2 bandwagon was so strong, all three papers inadvertently ran with the band on the cover. To make matters worse, it was U2 in their most earnest, messianic, cowboys of rock phase. Even U2 would soon find that phase of theirs irksome. Years later I remember one of the papers remarking how that hat-trick of covers was a low point. It looked too craven, too desperate.

So that’s what the media looks like this week, with Star Wars. Trying so hard to keep up the hype, it feels insincere, a denial of polyphony.  For the last few weeks I had been half-curious about going to see the new film. Now it feels redundant. It would be like going to see a Coldplay concert. If you believe in the redistribution of wealth, then you have to apply that very same principle to the billionaires of attention. So the stunt-double analogy kicks in. Other people will go, so you don’t have to. Doubtless I’ll see the film when the fuss dies down.

I think it was Darren Hayman, the singer of Hefner, who said he deliberately put off listening to the Strokes’ debut album for years, for similar reasons. Art is more enjoyable when the gallery is less crowded.

This ties in with the Sarah Records book too. No one could call Star Wars ‘my secret world’.

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Friday 4th December 2015.

To the Museum of London for the exhibition The Crime Museum Uncovered. This is a selection of exhibits from the so-called Black Museum, as in the London Metropolitan Police’s private collection of criminal memorabilia, from the 1870s to the present. The collection is really intended to educate the British police’s own officers, and has never been fully open to the public before. The Museum of London has a reputation for being educational and thoughtful, and with this show they’ve taken pains to avoid sensationalism. This is no Jack The Ripper Museum, though there are exhibits on that particular case, too (mainly posters appealing for information). The exhibition is brightly lit, and the whole thing feels historical and curious rather than ghoulish. The captions give the bare facts of the crimes: who was caught doing what, with what evidence, and what happened to them as a result.

There’s a strict ban on photography, and a sign points out that the displays on murder stop after 1975, ‘to avoid causing further distress to the victims’. There are, however, a range of exhibits connected with later events, filed under riots and terrorism. The 7/7 attacks of 2005 are represented with some empty peroxide containers found in the bombers’ car, along with reconstructions of the backpacks used. There’s a burnt laptop taken from the jeep that was rammed into Glasgow Airport in 2007. Plus a suitcase packed with nails from the foiled attempt to bomb London’s Tiger Tiger club in the same month. Going back in history, there’s displays on attacks by the IRA and the Angry Brigade. And further back, an 1884 clockwork bomb, courtesy of the Fenians. London is no stranger to terrorism.

Other exhibits are on John Christie, the Great Train Robbers, and The Krays. Ronne Kray’s record card includes the line: ‘eyebrows meet over nose’. There’s a hinged folder ladder that belonged to an 1870s cat burglar. The gun used in the 1840 assassination attempt on Queen Victoria turns out to be tiny. Some of the Victorian sentences shock, of course: one courtroom illustration is of a 22-year-old woman gets 14 months hard labour – for attempting suicide.

The most startling items for me are a set of anthropometric record cards from the 1890s. These record the basic details of each prisoner, along with a photograph. It’s these mug shots that shock: they are of an extraordinary clear quality, as if taken yesterday. On top of that, perhaps because they’re dishevelled and not looking their best, the faces do not seem Victorian either. Just people like us, trapped in a different century. Looking at them, I feel a jolt of pure time travel.

The history of the death penalty in the UK is always engrossing. There’s a business card of a prison hangman, alongside a set of used Newgate Prison nooses. Until 1868, the executions were held in public. People would rent rooms overlooking the scaffold, to get the best view.

What I knew already – but it still fascinates me – is that the death penalty was technically still in place from 1969 right up to 1998, albeit only for three particular crimes. These were: ‘treason’, ‘piracy with violence’, and ‘arson of the Sovereign’s ships’.

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