Letters As Pandas

Monday 25th April 2016. Working on the second draft of the MA essay. It’s 3000 words over the limit, so most of the work is working out which bits to cut. Some are obvious – simply any sections that I feel less confident about. Others fall into the category of ‘Fascinating And Original Insights That I Feel The World Will Benefit From, But Which Aren’t Relevant To The Current Matter At Hand’.

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Reading Hollinghurst’s Swimming-Pool Library, I find a line in which a character refers to Brideshead Revisited as ‘that deplorable novel’. All the more amusing, given that the AH’s later works The Line of Beauty and The Stranger’s Child are often compared to Brideshead.  Today, Sebastian Flyte and his teddy bear seem more invulnerable than ever: there’s a new stage production of Brideshead doing the media rounds.

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Tuesday 26th April 2016. To Senate House Library, for one of the many Shakespeare exhibitions for the 400th anniversary of his death. This is one is called Shakespeare: Metamorphosis. It presents a history of the Bard in print, via a ‘Seven Ages of Man’ theme. The last age, the decrepit ‘sans teeth, sans eyes’ one, is used for the digital era, now that every play is easily accessible online. Thus the great man is now ‘sans binding, sans pages’. Some irony, though, as I’m writing this up from the exhibition leaflet.

Among the exhibits is a copy of Golding’s sixteenth-century translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an edition similar to the one that inspired Shakespeare. The title page says: ‘Tr. Arthur Golding Gentleman. A work very pleasant and delectable.’ I’m also intrigued by some pristine copies of a 1940s series aimed at schoolchildren, The Satchel Shakespeare. Each play was published as a slim, dark green paperback, light yet somehow sturdy enough to survive a child’s satchel.

As is increasingly the case with historical exhibitions, displays of personal letters tend to be a highlight. Given that the medium of letters is more of an endangered species than the medium of books, even a copy of the First Folio can seem less exotic than letters from a few decades ago.  One only has to point to the success of the Letters of Note books and the Letters Live events to show the changing role of letters; from commonplace pursuit to otherworldly public spectacle. If curators are the zoo keepers of culture, letters are the new pandas.

Consequently, my favourite item in this Shakespeare show is a 1957 correspondence between the University of London’s JH Pafford, and the German scholar Richard Flutter. At the time, Pafford was editing the Arden Shakespeare edition of The Winter’s Tale. Flutter had just published a letter in which he argued that Shakespeare only wrote a fraction of the play. Pafford duly wrote to Flutter asking him to explain this theory in more detail, though he adds that he’s already firmly convinced the play is fully Shakespeare’s. In the reply, also on display, Flutter replies, quite reasonably: ‘Why do you want me to mix a cocktail for you when you are firmly determined not to drink it?

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Saturday 30th April 2016. The essay seems to be taking forever. I’m finally on the third draft, working most days in Birkbeck Library, in Torrington Square. Today I don’t finish till half past ten at night. As I walk out, thinking this is late enough, I notice that dozens of students are still hard at it. The library doesn’t close until quarter to midnight.

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Sunday 1st May 2016. Weather getting warmer at last. Speak to Mum on the phone in the morning. Then off to the library again. Fourth draft of the essay.

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Bank Holiday Monday, 2nd May 2016. Essay deadline at noon, so I’m up early to revise the fifth draft in pen. By the time I finish, it’s getting on for eleven. I still have to type up the corrections. So I hit the PCs in Birkbeck Library and frantically type away, barely taking a breath. I upload the finished version to the college website just in time, with about a minute to spare. It’s like a scene from a bad thriller.

All done now. The essay is by far the one I’ve worked the hardest on, at least to date. I only hope the effort comes across. Still, I’m at least confident that it’s full of uncommon and useful insights – the silver lining of a mind stuck in Lateral Mode.

There’s a phrase used to describe Peter Cook which I feel sums up the sentiment: ‘at a slight angle to the universe’. To be worried about being the wrong kind of ‘different’ in some respects, yet hoping to be the right kind of ‘different’ in others, such as in one’s writing. That’s the hope, anyway.

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Evening: to the Odeon Leicester Square, in one of the smaller screens reserved for the less recent films. I see Star Wars: The Force Awakens, nearly five months after it opens. I’m making good on my (slightly silly) promise, made as a reaction to the aggressive, ubiquitous marketing of the film last December. I resolved to only go and see it when it had been reduced to one screen in central London. Which is now the case.

Tonight’s screening is still fairly well-attended, with a mixture of ordinary-looking people and tourists, and of all ages too. No rabid geeks seeing it for the umpteenth time – at least not visibly.

Then again, Star Wars fans come in all forms. A while ago I listened to an edition of A Point of View on BBC Radio 4. Helen Macdonald, the author of H is for Hawk, who is the same generation as me, talked about going back to see The Force Awakens six times. And this was back in February.

Ms Macdonald explained that for her, the new film represented a reassessment of her late 70s childhood, filtered through more up-to-date concerns, like a moving away from older stereotypes of race and gender. She also suggested that it acknowledged the rise of fan fiction, the genre where admirers of a fictional world remodel it for themselves and write their own amateur stories – often improving on it. They are like the heroine Rey in the film – ‘scavengers’ of the old, seizing on the elements which still work, and giving them new purpose. I’d say that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock does the same. What might look like indulgent nostalgia at first, becomes an expression of human continuity.

Actually, the original Star Wars was itself a kind of 1970s fan fiction, what with George Lucas drawing on the campy Flash Gordon serials of his own youth, and bringing in Joseph Campbell’s theories of an even older continuity – classical mythology. Harry Potter has similar aspects: the orphan hero, the boarding school, touches of E Nesbit and CS Lewis – but with the less troubling and politically incorrect bits updated. A sense of exploring within a tradition, though, rather than mere box ticking.

The first half hour of the new Star Wars has some stunning imagery, particularly the isolated use of blood stains on a white Stormtrooper’s helmet – the first sign that the bad guys might be complicated humans too. Adam Driver steals the show: a walking, ready-made metaphor for all kinds of masculinity. From the way little boys can be inexplicably drawn to violence (I think of the Saki tale, ‘The Toys of Peace’), to the sons who join Islamic State, to the long-haired villains in manga comics.

I’m still not wholly converted to the cause, though: for all the reports of the director, Mr Abrams, making the film look more physical and haptic than the wafer-thin prequels, there’s still some pedestrian CGI monsters with tentacles halfway through. I miss the fabulous rubbery tentacles of the 1977 Trash Compactor Monster. Perhaps that’s where the line is drawn these days. The making of rubber tentacles has become a lost art. As with ‘craft beer’, perhaps there needs to be a revival in ‘craft tentacles’.

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Wednesday 4th May 2016. Evening: to the Dalston Rio with Shanthi S and Rosie. We see the biopic of Miles Davis, Miles Ahead. Don Cheadle growls his way quite convincingly through the life of the volatile trumpeter. The film constantly flashes back and forth in time, often quite randomly. So the audience is grateful for Mr Cheadle’s vivid changes in appearance: neat short hair and shirt sleeves for the classic phase in the 50s and 60s, then afro and loud shirts for the sadder, reclusive Davis of the late 70s. Ewan McGregor turns up as a Rolling Stone reporter, looking like he’s auditioning for the next Kurt Cobain biopic.

It’s the later showing, at 9.20pm, and we down a few drinks at the Arcola Theatre bar first. Drinks and lateness turn out to be perfect companions for Miles Ahead, just as they were for Victoria the other week. Both films are steeped in an atmosphere of booze, late nights and city bars. The main difference with Miles Ahead, though, is that it’s a period piece. So there’s a huge amount of smoking inside the bars, too. Ashtrays sit on the tops of pianos in darkened clubs, each one duly cradling a lit cigarette. The smoke snakes its way up and around the scene, as much part of the visuals as the actors. It’s an unthinkable sight for a city bar now. It’s How We Used To Smoke.


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