The Excaliber Handbrake

Saturday 7th November 2015.

To the Goya exhibition at the National Gallery. Purely portraits of Spanish nobility, plus a few self-portraits. His subjects display unusually informal expressions for the late 1700s and early 1800s: cagey, jokey, rougish, sensual. The fleshy-faced young Goya looks not unlike the comedian Matt Berry, particularly in the portrait where he wears a top hat customised with burning candles around the rim, to provide more light on the canvas. His vanity is shameless: one duchess points to the words ‘Only Goya’ in the sand by her feet.

A small delight: the Moomins Shop in Covent Garden sells Moomin-branded glasses cleaning cloths.

* * *

Sunday 8th November 2015.

The large Waterstones student-friendly bookshop in Gower Street has booted out the rather cramped Costa café in the basement, and installed an airy new in-house café of its own, on the ground floor. Better still, the café is called Dillons, in memory of the bookshop that occupied the building in the 80s and 90s (which I can just about remember). Dillons is also nicely immortalised in the first page of Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, as Nick Guest gazes at a window display, soon after the 1983 election.  

* * *

Wednesday 11th November 2015.

Evening: with Ms Shanthi to the Leicester Square Odeon, to see Legend. This is the new film about the Kray Twins, both played here by Tom Hardy. For Reggie he plays up his beauty, all quiff and pouts and open jackets – possibly the best looking Mr H has ever been. The more psychotic Ronnie is from Hardy’s repertoire of grotesques (like Bane and Bronson): horn rim glasses, slicked down hair, hunching, growling, grunting. The film’s highlights are when the traits are swapped between the brothers: when Ronnie is suddenly gentle, and Reggie is suddenly unstable. The special effect of the dual roles threatens to upstage the film at times, making it more of a gimmick (one thinks of those Eddie Murphy films where he insists on playing six characters). There’s also a few scenes where the film is trying very hard to be a British Scorsese – a Goodfellas or Casino – with its tracking shots of gangster bars as the main characters walk around the room, chatting with everyone they meet. But Hardy is riveting enough.

Shanthi also takes me to an old-fashioned Soho bar, which I think I’ve never been to before. It’s the New Evaristo Club, or ‘Trisha’s’, at 57 Greek Street. Private members’, apparently, but tonight the staff seem to be okay with our just swanning in politely and buying glasses of wine (£4 each). The club is the longest-running in Soho, now that the Colony has gone. It is steeped in 1950s character, with dim green lighting, round café tables with tablecloths, and old photos on the wall of Sinatra and Italian boxers. Three trendy young men with beards and backpacks come in, take one look at the décor, and promptly walk out again. It is too Old London for them.

Shanthi takes a photo:


Something rare for London happens: the barmaid comes over and tops up our glasses for free. ‘Shame to waste the bottle,’ she says. I need to come back.

* * *

iPhones with shattered screens are the new ripped jeans.

* * *

Friday 13th November 2015.

To the East Finchley Phoenix for The Lady in the Van, the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s memoir. It’s fair to say the film is pure, distilled Bennett. It’s directed by Nick Hytner, AB’s main stage collaborator since the 90s, and it’s also something of a History Boys cast reunion, with all eight ‘boys’ and all three teachers from the original stage production (not counting the late Richard Griffiths) popping up in little roles. Plus it brings together Maggie Smith, reprising her performance as the titular lady from the 90s stage version, with Alex Jennings’s take on Bennett himself, a role he’d performed in the play Cocktail Sticks. But the World Of Bennett preservation goes further, as the story’s location – his former home in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town – is shot in situ. His old house is played by his old house. And there’s even a glimpse of Jennings as Bennett as the character Graham in A Chip in the Sugar, one of the Talking Heads monologues. At one point, Roger Allam’s cynical neighbour says that the monologue is really ‘all about him, as usual’, and so it proves with this new film. Despite the subject ostensibly being Miss Shepherd, the eccentric elderly woman who lived in Bennett’s front yard for fifteen years, the film is ultimately more about Bennett scrutinising his own life and work together. As soon as it’s clear that Mr Jennings is surreally playing two Alan Bennetts – the writer and the man – the film becomes more Brechtian than realistic, and the use of the History Boys cast works more as a reference than an indulgence.

While watching, I realised that, what with Legend I’d accidentally gone to see two films this week where both were set in late twentieth-century London, both were based on true stories, and both featured a lead actor playing dual roles. But whereas Tom Hardy’s doubling as the Krays has to work as if they’re played by real twins, Jennings’s two Alan Bennetts serve as a reminder that the film is a playful fantasy based on truth. Dame Maggie’s superb performance then works against this fantasy, putting the handbrake on Bennett’s constant flow of quips, aphorisms and literary quotations. When Miss Shepherd moves her van into the yard for the first time, she puts on the handbrake with such force that it becomes like Excaliber in Arthur’s stone, unable to be moved by any other hand. Years later, the vehicle has to be lifted out via a crane. This is a nice touch of symbolism, given the way Miss Shepherd becomes a fixture in Bennett’s life, to the point where he feels almost married to her.

* * *

Both The Lady in the Van and Legend are romances of the city. They celebrate London as a place to form an identity. But this quality is not, of course, exclusive. As I type up this week’s diary, news comes through of the sickening attacks in Paris. The people who have died were civilians in concert halls and theatres, people using Paris to just be themselves. I take some comfort from the Fred Rogers quote about reacting to distressing events: ‘look for the helpers’.

* * *

Tags: , , , , ,

Saint Paul, Saint Audrey

(A fortnight’s worth of entries.)

Sunday 19th July 2015.

According to Viktor Wynd, a group of Hackney-based Christians attacked his Museum of Curiosities in Mare Street today. They threw holy water and crosses, and shouted about Satanism. It could be argued that this is a redundant gesture, given the museum already celebrates someone who was indeed crucified, albeit non-lethally: Sebastian Horsley.

* * *

The solipsism of the Sunday supplement journalist. An article in the Sunday Times today begins: ‘Summertime means one thing… beaches flooding your Instagram feed’.

I wince at the arrogance of insisting that one writer’s way of life is the default. A further implication is that this is the way the reader should live. I know I’m overreacting, and that many people these days do indeed have smartphones and Instagram accounts, and that for many, summertime must indeed mean this ‘one thing’, however depressing that sounds. But what is also true is that plenty of people do not live this way, and have no immediate plans to join in.

Good writing, even for a fluffy lifestyle article, should celebrate difference, and resist the urge to generalise. Communicating with readers should not mean bevelling down the richness of human experience to a single, banal approximation of common ground. My credo here would be: speak for yourself. Write for yourself. And let universality take care of itself.

* * *

Tuesday 21st July 2015.

Birkbeck’s website confirms the breakdown of my final year marks on the BA English course. As I’d hoped, all of them are the same as the provisional ones. This gives me a clean run of First Class module totals throughout the whole course. I only realise today that the average overall ‘weighted’ mark, the one which leads to the classification (as a First, or a 2.1 etc), is never published. It’s meant only as a guide for the college boards who approve the degree: they decide the classification according to what they think is most fair to the student, but with this unpublished score in mind. So my final grade is not a number, but a phrase – ‘First Class’. I think I like that – it’s more tidy.

* * *

Wednesday 22nd July 2015.

Another Life Event today, this one directly connected to my BA result. Getting a good degree means I am now qualified to take an MA. For much of the last year, friends and tutors have been advising me to do an MA next. A common tip was that I should also do it immediately, rather than put it off for a year, in case the academic skills go slack.

So today I enrol – online – to do an MA at Birkbeck, starting in the autumn. Part-time, 2 years, Contemporary Literature and Culture.

One big reason – and this is something that I’ve kept quiet about until now – is that I’ve managed to get a bursary to fully cover the fees.

I successfully applied for one of the limited studentships offered by Birkbeck’s School of Arts in Gordon Square. Effectively, Virginia Woolf’s old house thinks I’m worth investing in as a Master’s student. So once I won that bursary, and got a First in the BA, and won a prize for showing ‘the most promise’ as an English Literature student, I thought it’d be unwise to not go ahead and do an MA.

I don’t get a maintenance grant, alas, so it still means two more years of getting by on whatever I can eke out from the kindness of the State. I’m hoping to find part-time paid work that I can do alongside the MA. Writing work would be ideal.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that I am finally, demonstrably good at something: studying literature. People at Birkbeck not only believe I have ‘promise’ as a student, but that I’m worth sponsoring too.

So that’s my life for the next two years, or at least part of it.

* * *

Thursday 23rd July 2015.

A couple of gallery visits. First, to the National Gallery, to see a painting I’d been reading about in Clive Barker’s book of essays, The Painter, The Creature and The Father of Lies. Barker’s favourite paintings are The Raft of the Medusa, which I know well, and Carlo Crivelli’s Annunciation with Saint Emidius, which I don’t know at all. It’s in the National Gallery’s permanent collection (room 59 of the Sainsbury Wing), so today I take a look.

The picture is stunning: bright, busy, geometric, intricate, and full of details one doesn’t tend to see in Renaissance Annunciations. Barker points out how the beam of God’s Message, a ray of light running from the clouds down to Mary, isn’t subject to the laws of perspective, while everything else is rigidly organised around vanishing points. ‘The meaning is plain,’ comments Mr B. ‘The power of God’s gift upends the laws of physics. Space folds up at His command’.

The painting’s aspects which most fascinate me, however, are the ones to do with urban architecture. It was commissioned for the city of Ascoli Piceno, and it is this Renaissance Italian city that the Biblical Mary appears to have a flat in. In fact, the city appears twice: once as the backdrop to this whole scene, and again in the form of a scale model, carried by the local patron saint, Emidius. Emidius lurks outside Mary’s door while chatting merrily to the Archangel Gabriel as if this were something that happens all the time. Mary herself seems oblivious to all these goings-on, as she’s busy reading her book. There are clearly things for which even Dick Francis cannot wait.

Before I leaving, I pay my respects to my own favourite painting there, Bronzino’s Portrait of A Young Man. It’s next to his Allegory With Venus & Cupid, in which Cupid’s foot can be recognised as the one used in the credits for Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

* * *

Then next door to the National Portrait Gallery, for their big summer show Audrey HepburnPortraits of An Icon. Cheaper on Thursdays with an NUS card.

Someone I follow on Twitter remarked grumpily that such an exhibition was targeted purely at women. ‘What man would ever go to an Audrey Hepburn exhibition?’ I told him that I’ve known several men likely to do so, aside from myself, and heterosexual men too. But admittedly, that says more about the company I keep.

The implication was that Audrey Hepburn’s image was unusually inert and asexual for such an iconic female pin-up; that with her, it would all be about the Givenchy frocks and gamine hairdos. Her beauty was for those who swoon – and men are not meant to swoon. Well, apart from the ones I know.

Today I go along to find out for myself, mindful of a quote from Dorian Gray:

“The Academy is too large and too vulgar. Whenever I have gone there, there have been either so many people that I have not been able to see the pictures, which was dreadful, or so many pictures that I have not been able to see the people, which was worse.’

I very much enjoy going to exhibitions to see the people as much as the pictures.

The Hepburn exhibition is busy – timed entry only – and indeed the visitors inside are predominantly female. I’d say 80%. One or two gay male couples, and a few attendant husbands and boyfriends, the types who do most of the talking, and I wonder if they’re doing so here as a defence mechanism. I count just other lone man. A typical older tourist sort: grey hair, backpack, shorts. Suddenly I realise I’ve never worn a backpack in my life, and that this too may have implications for my manliness, or at least my blokeyness. I am not a Backpack Bloke.

The show is mainly photographic portraits, as expected, but there’s also Audrey H’s ballet shoes, and some 1950s magazine adverts, when she was the face of calamine lotion. I especially like: the photo of her being read to by an ageing Colette, her costume as the water sprite in the play of Ondine, and her pre-acting cover for an issue of Dancing Times, 1952.

* * *

Friday 24th July 2015.

To Suffolk to celebrate my BA with Mum. We go for a lavish meal at Suffolk’s only vegetarian pub, The Red Lion in Great Bricett, then spend the rest of a rainy day in Bildeston, watching the DVDs I’ve brought.  One is Charade – to follow on my Audrey Hepburn binge. It’s a Hitchcock-esque caper from the mid 60s, complete with Cary Grant, though Hitchcock would never let the Hepburn role have such an inner life. Even though she’s a damsel in distress, she has the air of a pre-existing character who has stumbled into a thriller plot, rather than a character who is defined by the plot. Lots of clever twists and unexpected revelations. We also watch Patience, a fine documentary on Sebald’s book Rings of Saturn, and Withnail and I. As we’re celebrating my student success, I thought re-watching a student-favourite film would be apt. I first saw it when it came out in 1987, while I was still at school. Today what stands out is what good value the film is: not just a sparkling, quotable script, but plenty of slapstick set-pieces too. The scene where Withnail tries fishing with a double-barrelled shotgun instead of a rod lasts about thirty seconds. Lesser films would have dragged it out into a central scene. The ending is still terribly sad: I used to think it was the film’s only flaw. Now that I’m older, I see the need for pathos and entirely agree with it.

Also: these days I empathise less with Richard E Grant and Paul McGann, and more with the old ladies in the tea room.

* * *

Saturday 25th July 2015.

Second day in Suffolk. The sun comes out. Mum and I drive to Southwold on the coast, the family’s favourite destination. We have Adnams champagne for two, in the high-class Swan Hotel. It’s a place Mum’s never actually entered before, despite her staying in the town most summers since the 1980s. Mum says that I look at home there, in my linen suit and my aloof Londoner air. Later on, I sit and read in the Sailor’s Reading Room, one of my favourite places in England. According to The Rings of Saturn, it was a favourite of WG Sebald’s too.

* * *

Thursday 30th July 2015

Thinking more about gender ratios at exhibitions, I go to one which is surely likely to attract more men than the Audrey Hepburn. Visitors to The Jam – About The Young Idea, at Somerset House, turn out to be about 65% male. A few Fred Perry shirts, indeed a few Paul Weller lookalikes – as he is now. Greying feather cut hair, Mods till they drop. The exhibition has a refreshingly unglossy feel to it, as if it were a fan club affair, despite the huge professional poster campaign at Tube stations. On display are carefully preserved guitars, clothes, records, gig posters, fan letters, videos of concerts, and calling cards from the Woking days (‘The Jam – Rock and Roll Group – Dances, Parties, etc. Woking 64717.’). A souvenir programme comes in the format of the old inky style of music paper. Much is made of the sheer boyishness of the Jam’s appeal – how they taught huge amounts of boys how to be a boy. In this way, the exhibition has a feel of a shrine to male identity, just as the NPG one is a shrine to a certain kind of female identity, via Audrey Hepburn. After a certain point, role models take on the appeal of secular saints.

Among the music paper clippings is a Smash Hits review for the Jam’s last London concert, in 1982. The reviewer is not especially upset about the band’s demise: ‘On stage you know what to expect – one reason they’re splitting up, I suppose.’ It’s written by a journalist who will himself go on to form a pop group, sing about London, and define a way of being a boy: Neil Tennant.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,