Sunday 16th October 2016. I notice a flyer on my table at the Quaker café, opposite Euston. It’s publicising an event in Oxford: ‘Lines on the Left: Poems for Jeremy Corbyn. A celebration in words and music to launch this major anthology.’ Hard to imagine a similar volume for his rivals: sonnets in praise of Theresa May, or a Festschrift for Owen Smith. At least, not outside of sarcasm.
A common critique of Mr Corbyn is that he has integrity but is unelectable. The implication is that integrity itself is impractical. I’m reminded of something Zadie Smith said about the film V For Vendetta: ‘Personal integrity is always ridiculed by adults and worshipped by adolescents, because principles are the only thing adolescents, unlike adults, really own’. (from Changing My Mind).
Mr Corbyn certainly has a fanbase among the young:Â one sees red Momentum t-shirts around the University of London’s Bloomsbury campus. It’s the people in middle life that aren’t so impressed, their youthful ideals knocked out of them. Parenthood, money, and the ownership of property loom larger in the crosshairs, and compromise usually goes with them.
A small amount of integrity is nevertheless still valued over wealth alone, at least in mainstream UK politics. The huge fortune of Zac Goldsmith did not prevent him from losing the London mayoral race, when his campaign became tainted with racism. Whereas Donald Trump, frequently described as an actual racist, is still seen as electable. Over there, one has to conclude that money may not be everything, but it can be enough.
As with the poems for Corbyn, there’s been a flurry of political pop songs in the last days of the US election. The trouble is, these are not so much in celebration of Ms Clinton as in condemnation of Mr Trump. The website for the project 30 days, 30 songs – run by the novelist Dave Eggers – says it all in its ‘Note to feminists who can’t get behind Hillary’:
‘If you vote for Hillary Clinton, you accomplish two aligned goals at once: You elect the first woman president, and you prevent the election of Donald Trump.’
In other words, better the devil you know.
A subgenre of protest songs: panic songs.
Afternoon: to Soho to try the new vegetarian branch of Pret a Manger, on the corner of Broadwick Street and Lexington Street. It was tried out as a pop-up a few months ago, and like the Millennium Wheel has become permanent due to popular demand.
Why the bosses of Pret were cautious in the first place is beyond me. Despite the frequent reports of health risks from processed meat, or the environmental warnings about the carbon effects of cow breeding, there still seems to be this mainstream fear of going without flesh even for a single meal. But Veggie Pret is packed today.
Lots of green coloured branding over the usual red Pret logos. It’s still a novelty to see a franchise café’s cabinet of sandwiches, and not find them dominated by meat. I’m sure there’s a market for a whole chain of veggie cafes like this: it just takes the nerve of an Anita Roddick figure
Monday 17th October 2016. Modern life: the daily practice of clicking on a button marked ‘Not Now’.
Currently reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977), for college. What impresses, as with Beloved, are her little shifts into magical realism, like the witchy sister who seems to able to change her size. Morrison says in the introduction that it’s really a novel about men, but the section that really stands out is where the spurned girlfriend, Hagar, goes on a demented spree of beautification, raiding perfume counters and clothes shops.
Tuesday 18th October 2016. More things that leave me like a ranting Canute. People emailing me for a mobile number to continue a discussion. Probably naive of me, but after contact has been made via email, I don’t see why we can’t conduct the conversation that way. In email, statements can be carefully polished, details are easily copied and saved, and ambiguities can be kept to a minimum.
As well as my slight phobia with speaking on the phone, there’s a practical reason to this: I spend a lot of my time in libraries. If I took calls there, it would not end well. But there’s also the redundancy of someone switching from email to making a call, only for them to say, ‘have you got a pen?’
If a phone conversation is truly necessary, then it’s surely worth booking a phone appointment – and sticking to it. But this seems not to be taken very seriously.
Today I agree via email on a time I can be called. I then duly choose a quiet café and have the phone to hand, ready for the time in question. This designated moment passes. So do two hours after that. They still don’t call. I switch the phone off and go to the library to get on with some studies. Later I get a text message saying they were ‘trying to reach me’.
This is all about trying to book a therapist. It’s tempting to wonder if it’s in their interest to drive people mad.
A message for a memorial bench: ‘He refused to be available on a zero hours basis.’
Afternoon: to the British Library café to meet Rachel Stevenson. It’s been some years since we properly met for a conversation, after the end of Fosca in 2009. Today,we talk more about books than music. Except for talking about the music of our past, perhaps inevitably. Indeed, Rachel’s own blog is currently reviewing the songs that made up the John Peel Festive Fifty of 1988. [Link: http://millionreasons.livejournal.com/ ]
Evening: to the Horse Hospital in Russell Square, the kind of small, idiosyncratic venue that’s been vanishing from London in recent years. Happily, the HH persists, with its steep entrance ramp still in place, evidence that the building was indeed a hospital for horses.
Tonight is an evening headlined by the writer Geoff Nicholson, who discusses his psychogeography-inspired work, such as Bleeding London. Kirsty Allison, who I don’t think I’ve seen before, gives a charismatic poetry set which uses a projected film. At times she seems to be narrating the film, at others reacting against it. I take a copy of her fanzine, ‘Unedited’, hand stitched and hand made, though it says it was written on an iPhone.
I also enjoy a set by Alexander’s Festival Hall, the band fronted by Alex Mayor, who once produced some Fosca recordings. Very soulful in the Scritti Politti, Style Council way. One song is especially beautiful, ‘Upturned’.
In the breaks between acts I bump into Clare Wadd of Sarah Records, a nice coincidence on the day of meeting up with Rachel S. And given the evening is about psychogeography, and especially London, I remember that it was Clare who helped me move from Bristol to London in 1994, driving me and my things all the way to Highgate in her car. I tell her that Michael White’s book on Sarah, Popkiss, is now on the shelves at Birkbeck Library. Nothing to do with me; I assume it’s on a reading list for some humanities course.
Something I’ve learned is that everything creative becomes worthy of serious study in time, even the things that feel like fleeting, niche interests at the time. Though of course, Clare and Matt themselves took Sarah Records very seriously from the off. That was part of the appeal.
Thursday 20th October 2016. Evening: classes at Birkbeck at the Montague Room in the Anglo Educational Services building, in the southwest side of Russell Square. Like Birkbeck’s School of Arts in Gordon Square the place is a warren of knocked-through Victorian houses.
First up is a seminar with Mpalive Msiska on Philip Larkin’s The Less Deceived, at which it’s my turn to give a fifteen minute presentation. I’ve just started reading the new Alan Bennett collection of diaries, Keeping On Keeping On, published today. The first page mentions how Mr Bennett dips into Larkin for inspiration. Though in this case he thinks the poet’s tone is too ‘valedictory’: ‘the valedictory was almost Larkin’s exclusive territory’. I mention this in my Larkin presentation, pleased to bring it as up to date as possible.
What I didn’t know until I did my research was that Larkin is due to get a memorial in Westminster Abbey, with the unveiling this December. So my presentation focuses on the tale of his reputation. I think about the way public image is such a pressing matter now, from Jimmy Savile and his ilk to the people in Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The Ronson book covers the rise of ‘reputation management firms’ – companies who will make your Google results more flattering.
Accordingly I chart the tale of the public Larkin, from fashionability in the 1950s with The Movement, to the popular poet in the 1960s and 70s, to refusing the Laureateship in 1984; I’d forgotten that Ted Hughes was the second choice. Then to the posthumous publication of his letters in the 90s, and his near writing-off as a misogynistic and racist figure, whose poetry was now of diminishing relevance. Finally I cover the subtle recovery in the 2000s, with Larkin quietly topping polls again as a favourite English poet, a festival in Hull with a statue, and now the Abbey.
Mr Msiska adds that in the 90s, teaching Larkin was so controversial, tutors had to seek permission.
Afterwards: a lecture by Peter Fifield on 1960s fiction and Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat. Very hard to label the latter in terms of genre, beyond the 1960s type of postmodern play that one finds in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Though when Mr F mentions its lack of ’rounded characters’ I wonder if Menippean satire might be a useful framework. Certainly Ms S admired the concise flippancy of Max Beerbohm, and Zuleika Dobson isn’t so far from Spark. Waugh was an admirer too: Spark’s work was one of the few things about the 1960s he did like. Mr Fifield further argues that Ian McEwan’s style is essentially a 1960s one.
I suppose a truly 2010s style might be to write a novel made up of animated gifs. Dennis Cooper is the only novelist I can think of who has done this. It may not catch on, but it’s at least a move towards acknowledging the way a lot of people interact online. They use gifs – little animated stills – of actors, often subtitled, to express their emotion for them.
I once wrote a Fosca song called ‘We See the World as Our Stunt Doubles’. Not quite the world, perhaps, but people do see gifs of Phoebe from Friends as their stunt doubles.
Saturday 22nd October 2016. To Vout-o-Reenee’s for ‘Azizam: A Night of Pre-Revolution Persian Glamour’. A theme of 60s and 70s Iranian exotica, scratchy scenes of belly dancing on screens, those jellied snacks which are like Turkish Delight but nicer, and lots of dressing up. Hosted by Vout’s regulars Emily and Emma. Emma is from a family of Iranian Geordies: her cousin sings a set of Persian language songs, interspersed with commentary in her Newcastle accent. The two Ems are also a couple, and tonight’s crowd includes a contingent of Iranians and gay people, and indeed both. All getting along fine in this former Catholic crypt turned into a bohemian artists’ bar. It’s events like this that are one of the things I love about London.
Sunday 23rd October 2016. Morrissey turns out to be pro-Brexit, going by a new interview. I feel as I do about Waugh and Larkin: I may not share their politics, but that doesn’t mean their work doesn’t speak to me. Trust the art, not the artist.
Though admittedly some artists are easier to trust than others.
Monday 24th October 2016. I finish The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Bought on a whim from Euston WH Smiths, before I realised the eponymous train in question is in fact a Euston one.
This is the current unstoppable bestseller novel. Published in hardback last year, it hung around the top 10 lists for the best part of eighteen months, even outdoing the ubiquitous Dan Brown. Despite the pricy and format, people didn’t stop buying it until the paperback came out, which wasn’t until May this year. I want to see the film, so it seems the time to try the book.
As with One Day a few years ago, there’s no real explanation as to why this book should do so much better than others, other than through a fortuitous synchronicity of word-of-mouth momentum. That said, both novels do share one thing: the premise of an easy to grasp concept, applied to characters who touch on everyday recognition.
So whereas One Day is broken up into the ‘one day a year’ premise, Girl on the Train has its narration broken up into digestible ‘morning’ and ‘evening’ chunks, mirroring the commuter journeys of the protagonist. Fairly early on, the perspective shifts to a second character in flashback, and then again to a third. The idea of a thriller based around witnessing an event from a window isn’t new: one thinks of Agatha Christie’s 4.50 From Paddington, or Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The fresh appeal here might be the contemporary, ordinary setting of the Euston commuter belt. Plus there’s the ‘girl’ in question’s downbeat situation: she’s divorced, living in a rented room, is overweight, and is an alcoholic who has black outs. She’s an unreliable narrator, but crucially never unrelatable.
The meaning of the train window has also changed from Christie and Hitchcock’s day: now it’s a surrogate iPad, another screen through which to scroll resentfully past the nicer lives of others.
I wince a little at the box-ticking elements for the genre, though, such as the scene where the villain delivers a speech about how they did it and why. But this is a reminder why I prefer literary fiction: it’s the genre where no boxes need ever be ticked.
Wednesday 26th October 2016. Write a review for The Wire, of The Infinite Mix exhibition on the Strand. I think this marks my debut as an art critic, not counting pieces for catalogues in the past.
Thursday 27th October 2016. Evening: Birkbeck classes. A seminar on Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, followed by a lecture by Harriet Earle on Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In preparation for the Pynchon class, I go to Senate House and leaf through a book of Remedios Varo’s surreal paintings. Pynchon refers to a real Varo painting in one scene, though her whole style is a good primer for the novel’s skewed, strange world. Post-war Bosch.
Friday 28th October 2016. Winter flu jab at Selfridges. It costs the same whichever chemist one uses, so one might as well be vaccinated with style.
Read a review in the LRB by Rosemary Hill, of Minoo Dinshaw’s Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman:
‘Later he claimed to have slept with people whose names began with every letter of the alphabet except Q, because the only possibility was Quentin Crisp and he couldn’t face it.’
Â From the same article, a remark by Runciman’s father:
‘I put up with the rouge and the mascara and the velvet clothes, but if I ever catch him sitting down to pee, I’ll cut him off without a penny.’
Saturday 29th October 2016. To the Vue Piccadilly for the film of The Girl on the Train. It’s terrible. One can just about forgive the Hollywood switch from an overweight heroine to the decidedly semi-skimmed Emily Blunt, and indeed the move from England to the US. But all the twists and revelations of the book are well and truly botched. Ms Blunt does her best, but what grips on the page bores on the screen. Shame.
Still, the use of houses on the Metro-North line, running along the valley of the Hudson river, certainly makes the notion of Ms Blunt’s envy all the more convincing. A house with a major railway line at the bottom of its garden isn’t always desirable, but the Hudson Valley is one of the most picturesque areas in the US. It’s also a nice reminder of my own trip on the line a few years ago, going all the way from Poughkeepsie into Grand Central.
Sunday 30th October 2016. On an Evelyn Waugh binge. Lots of insights into the English Condition (never mind the human condition), but also lots of good jokes. Some prescience too. Thinking now about the line in Decline and Fall about ‘the sound of English county families baying for broken glass’, I note how it can apply to the Brexit vote.
I dip into Selina Hastings’s biography of EW, to find this about Evelyn Gardner, his first wife:
‘She read Proust, but undermined this sign of intellectual discernment by referring to him always as ‘Prousty-Wousty”.
Thus She-Evelyn anticipates the rise of Russell Brand.
In June 1960 Waugh writes to apologise for some typos in a recent book:
‘I am told that printers’ readers no longer exist because clergymen are no longer unfrocked for sodomy.’
Waugh’s letters are full of entertaining jokes like this, painting a picture of a much more likeable man than the one in the published Diaries. One reason for this, as suggested by the editor, Mark Amory, may be that Waugh wrote his letters in the morning, while sober, and wrote the diary in the evening, when drunk.
I’d say that another is that letters are much more of a performance, even if it’s just for one person. Private diaries, drunken or not, get the unflattering sides: the complaints, the vanity, the pettiness, the self-pity, the resentment. Letters, meanwhile, have more of a sense of performed morality, even if it’s just a note to a local newspaper on some gossamer oversight by the council.
Letters necessitate thinking about others, even if it’s thinking ill. And as with charity, letters can tease vanity into philanthropy. The writer aligns themselves with what they think is right, and plays a Sunday Best version of selfhood.
Ideally social media should be more like letters (and postcards), but the form too often tempts its users into the less flattering indulgences of a private diary.
Thursday 3rd November 2016. Evening: Birkbeck classes. A seminar on Angela Carter’s Passion of New Eve, followed by a lecture by Grace Halden, on alterity in post-war science fiction. We look at Judith Merril’s ‘That Only A Mother’ – with its very 1940s fear of the Bomb – and Samuel R. Delany’s ‘Aye, and Gomorrahâ€¦’, which has a very late 60s theme of sexualities as subcultures. Needless to say, I love it, and make a note to read more Delany.
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Tags: Angela Carter, birkbeck, clare wadd, evelyn waugh, horse hospital, Kirsty Allison, michael white, paula hawkins, philip larkin, popkiss, quentin crisp, Rachel Stevenson, samuel r delany, sarah records, steven runciman, the girl on the train, the wire, vout-o-reenee's