Sunday 31st January 2016. I leaf through the Sunday Times in the Barbican Cinema Café. There’s a column by Katie Glass which typically makes me want to set fire to things. Still, the fact I read it through, and deem it worthy of comment here, suggests that to touch a reader’s nerve is still a connection of a kind. It’s called ‘trolling’ online, of course, but newspaper columnists have been doing it for decades.
Ms Glass’s subject today is her belief that going to university is a waste of time, though she’s at pains to reveal that she nevertheless holds a First in BA English. This is because of the news this week that several of the big UK firms are no longer insisting on a degree as a requirement for skilled employment. I received my own degree certificate in the post the other day, so the cliché about them not being worth the paper they’re written on rather sprang to mind.
True enough, Ms Glass goes for the cliché: ‘we know that these pieces of paper mean nothing’. Universities, she says, do not contain ‘the brightest minds’ so much as ‘those who went to the right schools and are good at passing exams’. She believes what really matters is ‘passion, commitment and hard work’. As if passing exams and delivering essays on time don’t require those things as well.
All she really learned, she says, was that ‘having an outrageous opinion could be rewarded, and later turned into a job’. Well, quite.
Being a professional wind-up merchant is now the quickest route to a media career. As long as you don’t mind being hated by strangers, you’ve got it made. There’s one young British writer who does this, Milo Yiannopoulos, who’s now starting to pop up more and more often on TV. What worries me is not so much his views as his appearance: thick bleached hair in a side parting, suits and ties, and a haughty camp voice. Someone on Twitter has already made the comparison. I suppose it’s another catcall to add to the list.
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Tuesday 2nd February 2016. To the ICA for the film Youth, starring Michael Caine. It’s a very unabashed arthouse film, about an elderly composer staying at an Alpine spa hotel. The director seems content to line up a series of visually striking tableaux that may not always make sense, but which can be justified through their sheer originality. When the singer Paloma Faith pops up as a parody of herself, complete with a loud pop video sequence, it is impossible to judge where the film will go next. Paul Dano’s character soon turns up at the hotel dressed as Hitler, for no good reason, but no one is in the least surprised. It’s that sort of film.
Remote hotels are always good for a cinematic aesthetic: I think of The Shining of old, but also The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Lobster. Rachel Weisz, who is in both The Lobster and Youth, now seems to have an Arty Hotel Film career ahead of her. Mr Caine is very introspective and gentle in the composer role; he uses the same softer, middle class English accent he had in Hannah and Her Sisters.
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Thursday 4th February 2016. This week’s MA seminar is on Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle. I give a short presentation on Margaret Atwood’s review for the New York Review of Books. She picks up on the significance of its names, and cites their various literary associations. For instance, the villain is called Tom, which Atwood links to both Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Tom Riddle – aka Voldermort – in the Harry Potter books. It’s difficult to think of many literary critics making such casual leaps of genre, but challenging genre always was Atwood’s bag. Like many of her own novels, The Circle can be reliably defined as science-fiction or speculative fiction, though again Ms A avoids such terms. Instead, she opts for classifying the book as an ‘entertainment’ (which to me suggests The Arabian Nights). She also puts the phrase ‘literary fiction’ within two telling inverted commas of her own, as if holding the words at arm’s length.
A term she does like, however, is ‘Menippean satire’, which she also applies to The Circle. I hadn’t come across it before. It’s a classical reference, after the Greek writer Menippus, denoting a playful, humorous satire of ideas and attitudes rather than a vicious attack on people themselves. The prime example is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Circle is more tongue-in-cheek with its ideas than with its style, though. In one scene, the heroine is summoned to a disciplinary meeting at work, solely because she had not been keeping up with her social media, and so missed the invite to a co-worker’s party. Thus Jane Austen is updated for the Facebook era.
Late evening: to the DocHouse screen in the Curzon Bloomsbury, for a French documentary on last year’s Charlie Hebdo killings, Je Suis Charlie. The original title is L’humour Ã mort, which I suppose could also be translated as Dead Funny. The film concentrates on the perspectives of the magazine staff, and includes archive interviews on the subject of mocking Islam, from the murdered cartoonists themselves. One staffer was protected by the office dog: she jumped on her master’s face after witnessing the head shots doled out to the cartoonists.
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Friday 5th February 2016. Evening: To the plush Wallace Collection in Manchester Square, for an event called ‘Look Out’. It’s curated by the artist Sadie Lee, as part of London’s LGBTQI History Month events. The toilets have been rebranded as queer-friendly – a row of lockable cubicles. All the cubicles have a single temporary sign: a hybid Ladies / Gents figure, with half a skirt. I catch a performance by the drag queen Virgin Xtravaganza in one of the smaller galleries – the nervous attendants asking the audience to stand away from all the ornate cabinets and gilded furniture. Debbie Smith DJ’s in another room, surrounded by Boucher’s opulent paintings of scantily-clad goddesses. She plays ‘Je T’aime’, an apt soundtrack for finding French naughtiness in London. The Serge Gainsbourg record was recorded in nearby Marble Arch.
I go to the Great Gallery to watch David McAlmont’s band Fingersnap. He punctuates the songs with potted lectures on the paintings, having lately taken a degree in Art History at Birkbeck; I used to bump into him in the college corridors. Frans Hals’s Laughing Cavalier is on the wall immediately stage right. Growing up, I always thought of it as London’s Mona Lisa, such was its regular appearance in The Beano. Another much-aired masterpiece, Fragonard’s The Swing, is in a room nearby. An attendant tells me how it’s used in the Disney film Frozen. At which point, I hear a version of ‘Let It Go’, as tastefully arranged by the Jolly Pops Wind Orchestra, who are serenading the main courtyard tonight. Their repertoire also includes Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’, and Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’. It’s quite an evening.
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Saturday 6th February 2016. To the Tate Modern for Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture. By a neat coincidence, a huge Calder mobile makes an appearance in The Circle. A character explains that ‘This one used to hang in the French parliament. Something like that.’ I knew about Calder’s abstract mobiles, here with their floating gongs, monochrome leaf shapes and coloured discs. What I didn’t know about was his delightful wire sculptures of faces, figures and circus acrobats, from the 1920s. The Tate hangs them so that one can enjoy their projected shadows on the wall behind. One figure is of Josephine Baker, with breasts of steel abstract spirals. She really did get about.
Tags: alexander calder, dave eggers, je suis charlie, margaret atwood, tate modern, the circle, wallace collection, youth