Rehouse Your Darlings

Saturday 17th January 2015. Today’s discovery: Michael Bond’s 2001 afterword to A Bear Called Paddington (as in the first Paddington book, from 1958) includes a reference to Gertrude Stein. And he didn’t mean to write a children’s book – the stories just came out that way.

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Sunday 18th January 2015. First draft of the essay on post-war fiction done. Only 650 words over the limit. ‘Kill your darlings’ goes the adage. I still prefer my own version: ‘Write rococo, edit baroque’. By which I mean, cut out the indulgent stuff – but not if it turns out to have a kind of imposing beauty.

When cutting down a piece to fit a word count, I’ve found it’s a good idea to write a quick summary of the piece in synopsis form. Just the bare bones of what each paragraph actually does. After that, you can usually see which paragraphs should be cut and which ones should be merged together. Particularly if two paragraphs are saying the same thing.

Another tip that’s worked for me over the years is to have a separate offcuts file for each piece. You can then cut and paste the deleted sections of your piece into this separate file, and save it. That lances the ‘darlings’ feeling. The beloved paragraphs are still alive, just gone to a different home. Like kittens. Rehouse your darlings.

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Monday 19th January 2015. Wrote the second draft of the essay. Had to cut out the bits about whether it’s fair that Lucky Jim has been accused of sexism (in the character of Margaret Peel) and homophobia (in the treatment of Michel Welch). I have the same view on Amis as I do on Evelyn Waugh: the writer has some objectionable views, but the work redeems him.

The Angry Young Men of the 1950s now seem more reactionary than revolutionary. Women and gay intellectuals came in for their sneering just as much as the privileged classes. Properly angry people want to change the system, whereas the hero of Lucky Jim’s entire philosophy is that ‘nice things are better than nasty ones’. He just wants a pretty wife and a decently paid job where he feels vaguely happy – the system itself is fine. A better description for Kingsley Amis’s gang would be Resentful Young Men.

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Tuesday 20th January 2015. Birkbeck class in Gordon Square: Apocalypse Now, as in the late 70s film on the Vietnam war. Although my overall degree is in English Literature, this Tuesday course on ‘The American Century’ has a wider humanities side to it. So there’s a few films and non-fiction texts to study, alongside lots of novels. Any course that can go from Henry James to the Batman film The Dark Knight is fine with me.

As it is, I’d not seen Apocalypse Now until, well, now. The sheer organic chaos of it stays with me. Saving Private Ryan, to give an example of another big war film, has a very strict three-act structure (opening battle, quest, final battle). Despite the carnage of the Omaha beach scenes, there’s still a sense that Spielberg’s film is carefully controlled. Not so with Apocalypse Now. Copolla’s film feels more like it’s running away with itself and can’t remember who’s in charge – much like the Vietnam war itself. All the usual rules about sympathetic heroes and moral cores are completely thrown away. I don’t think I like it much, but I admire it. At its heart is the old problem, still to be solved: men resorting to violence just because they can. The horror, indeed.

Wrote the third draft of the essay.

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Wednesday 21st January 2015. Birkbeck class: A Clockwork Orange, as in the 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess. Tutor: Roger Luckhurst. He says that Burgess’s reputation is currently in a sort of dip; something that often happens to authors in the twenty years or so immediately after their death. I remember his autobiography Little Wilson And Big God coming out in 1986, and its publication being hyped as an important literary event. Right now, A Clockwork Orange remains a classic, but his umpteen other works rarely get much of a look-in. This is despite Burgess spending most of the rest of his life grumbling about how he’d written much better books. The Kubrick film was partly to blame; no film of Earthly Powers any time soon.

Learned from reading A Clockwork Orange: the bowler hat and white boiler suit costume is not in the book; that’s entirely Kubrick. The use of the invented ‘nadsat’ slang is hard going at times, and not really convincing. Young people have always used new slang, but not to the point of it resembling a full language. Just the occasional word. But I think one phrase used by real teens today has the ring of Burgess about it: ‘oh my days’.

One student in the class is Russian. She confirms that much of Burgess’s invented words are based on the Russian language, but that it still doesn’t make the book any easier to read.

I’m slightly surprised to find that one of the favourite texts with the other students has been Brideshead Revisited. Despite its world of upper-class English privilege, and its author’s snobbery, it still makes new fans from all kinds of backgrounds – my class is fairly diverse, ethnically and nationally. I think I forget that it’s not the poshness that gives Waugh’s novel its appeal as much as the well-drawn characters and the air of an addictive and blissful world, hermetically sealed from the real one. In terms of escapism, Brideshead has much in common with Game of Thrones. 

Fourth draft done.

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Thursday 22nd January 2015. Wrote the fifth draft of the essay. Still not entirely happy, so I do a sixth. More or less happy with that. Uploaded it to the college website, and that’s that. From now till May it’s all about the 7000 word thesis, plus two final essays.

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After two days of articles celebrating the apparent end of The Sun‘s Page 3, the newspaper brings it back. The tone of this is: ‘fooled you!’ Like boys in the playground crossing their fingers when they make promises.

Even in the 1980s Page 3 seemed like a cheesy hangover from the 1970s. The problem is that the people behind The Sun think that Page 3 is like Carry On Nurse – cheeky, populist, and harmless. In fact it’s more like Carry On Emmanuelle – anachronistic, grim, and doing no favours to anyone involved. It’s still staggering how some people cry ‘free speech’ while ignoring such obvious qualifiers as context, power structures, role models, and the way some free speech gets to shout louder than others. Despite all the debates, The Sun still sees a serious issue about gender roles as an opportunity for goading female politicians and writers.

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Friday 23rd January 2015.  To the East Phoenix Finchley, to see Into The Woods, the new film version of the 1980s Sondheim musical. Starry cast: Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt (in unexpectedly fine voice), and Chris Pine off the new Star Trek films as a Mills & Boon prince. James Corden okay – but like many British comedians in American films there’s a feeling that he’s not fully allowed off the leash.

The stage show is not one of my favourite Sondheims, but I like some of the songs – ‘Agony’, ‘No One Is Alone’, ‘Children Will Listen’. I’ve also always admired the clever lyric about the cow, sung in the film by Tracey Ullman: ‘We’ve no time to sit and dither / While her withers wither with her’. The film feels a bit saggy after the first hour, but then this is often a problem with musicals that have been adapted from stage to screen. The Rocky Horror Picture Show for one. I wonder if it’s due to a lack of interval. After so much singing, even a film needs a chance to pause, get its breath back, and go to the bar.

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Christmas Week Diary & Message 2014

Monday 22nd December 2014. Mum comes up to London, and we spend the day together. We do Somerset House Ice Rink (always as café spectators, never as skaters), then the National Gallery for Maggi Hambling’s new ‘Walls of Water’ paintings, and Peder Balke’s nineteenth century Nordic landscapes. Obligingly, one of the Balke paintings has reindeer.

Then to the NPG for Grayson Perry’s ‘Who Are You’ show. His gaudy portraits of Britishness are striking enough, but best of all is a unique self-portrait: an etching in the style of an old-fashioned map of a fortified town, ‘A Map Of Days’. We also visit the Museum of London, where there’s a mini-exhibition about Paddington Bear, tying in with the film. One of the exhibits is Michael Bond’s old portable typewriter, a 1950s Olympia Splendid 33. I point this out to Mum, because we had one exactly like it at home, originally owned by my grandmother. There was a mysterious key on the left which had four dots in a square pattern. I never did find out what it was for.

A surprise sight at the Museum of London: the 2012 Olympic cauldron, with an accompanying video of its building, lighting and extinguishing at the Games.

And to top the day off, we see Santa Claus. Or rather we glimpse the one installed in a corner of the Museum’s Victorian street, grotto-style. ‘That’s okay,’ he says to one particularly shy child.  ‘You don’t have to know what you want.’

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Wednesday 24th December 2014. Most of the museums are closed today, but I find that the Cartoon Art Museum is open. Dad was a member, so I go hoping they’ll have a Christmas tree to take my photo against, thus making a perfect photo for my Christmas diary. Alas, no tree.

I visit the current exhibition anyway. This turns out to be one on Hogarth. ‘Gin Lane’ is present and correct, but I learn today that it was one half of a pair. Hogarth also drew ‘Beer Street’, the solution to the problem of gin. In contrast to ‘Gin Lane’s decrepitude and despair, ‘Beer Street’ has well-dressed workers balancing work with play, all thanks to the right kind of booze, the ‘Industry and Jollity of Wholesome English Ale’. There’s one character who appears in both scenes: the pawnbroker. In Gin Lane his premises are well-kept and prosperous – he is the only person doing well out of all the poverty and decline. But on Beer Street, his shop sign is askew, and his shop itself is a crumbling hovel. This time, it is the pawnbroker who is fending off the bailiffs.

Another Hogarth sequence in the exhibition is ‘The Four Stages Of Cruelty’. In the first picture, the protagonist is a boy torturing stray dogs in the street. By the fourth panel he has become a highwayman, a murderer, and now a hanged corpse, dissected for the benefit of medical students. Underneath the operating table, a stray dog chews on his heart.

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Drifting, ghost-like, through the frantic North Londoners. Sadly, I tend to associate Christmas Eve with witnessing the desperation of the not-particularly-desperate. And not just empty supermarket shelves (panic-buying for one single day – as if it were a nuclear winter). Traffic on Archway Road is stressful on the 24th as it is, but today there’s also been a water mains leak. And so, roadworks. I do not envy the people stuck in the cliche of holiday gridlock, but I envy the Thames Water workers even less. Outside my window as I write: the distinct sound of cars using this side road as an unofficial diversion (‘I know a short cut!’). An angry velocity in the noise. I want to throw up the window and shout: ‘calm down!’

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Thursday 25th December 2014. I call Mum, then go off to feed the ducks in Waterlow Park. My funny little tradition. Just me this year.

Other people’s presents. In the park, a group of men try out a miniature drone. This year’s must-have gift, say the supplements. £400 or so. This little robot helicopter in question soars up, lights flashing, far higher than seems possible. Then it pauses in the sky, menacingly, rotates on the spot (where there is no spot) and zooms off into the void. It makes a horrible, wasp-like noise throughout. I hope they take it back and exchange it for a kite.

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Channel 4’s Alternative Christmas Message is this year delivered by William Pooley, the British nurse working in Sierra Leone. He survived Ebola himself, then went straight back to treating the victims in Africa. In the TV broadcast, he mentions he’s from Suffolk: Eyke, in fact, near Woodbridge. As I’m from the same part of the country, his point about the good fortune of one’s birthplace is all the more affecting.

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Friday 26th December 2014. I’m looking after a couple of cats in a house off the Seven Sisters Road. At about ten in the morning, I arrive and let them out into the back garden, as per the owner’s instructions. They are barely over the threshold when they freeze in their steps. A few feet away is a large fox, its bright orange beauty all the more striking in this December sun. There’s a pause, then it nonchalantly trots off through the neighbour’s hedge. It is only later that I realise how apt this is for Boxing Day, so synonymous with fox hunts.

It’s reported today that over 250,000 people have come out on rural ‘hunt meets’, which are effectively protests against the ban. Horses, hounds, costumes, horns. Everything but the fox. I sometimes glimpsed hunts while growing up in Suffolk. They seemed so obviously out of time. Yet many still want the full-on fox killing to come back. I’m reminded of the Hogarth pictures.

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The Daily Telegraph‘s website has a ‘paywall’ warning: ‘You have reached your 20 article limit for this month’. Its angry, punitive tone doesn’t make me want to subscribe one bit. Instead, it rather implies that reading Telegraph articles is an unhealthy habit, and one should try to cut down. Perhaps not the effect they intended.

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xmas tree 2014

Given this is my last Christmas as a Birkbeck undergraduate, this year’s tree is from the main Birkbeck foyer, in Torrington Square, Bloomsbury. Taken on Christmas Eve, with the kind permission of the security guard.

It’s been a year of ups and downs, to put it mildly. My college grades went through the roof, thus bolstering my feelings of self-worth (though it’s still a struggle). It proved – if only to myself – that I was demonstrably good at something, even now, and after so long of feeling surplus to the world’s requirements.

In February my father died. I’m still coming to terms with this. But while I am, I’m grateful that I still have a mother, and a brother, who have both helped me so much this year.

One thing I’m particularly proud of is that I managed to keep this diary updated every single weekend, always adding at least 1,000 new words per week. This is the first time since the diary began (in 1997) that I’ve kept to a weekly routine. It takes me a lot of time to write, and I still don’t find it easy. I’m slow, and I don’t get paid. So I was delighted to be included in Travis Elborough’s Guardian piece on his ‘Top Ten Literary Diarists’. It is also gratifying when I receive donations from readers, proving that it’s worth doing, worth keeping free of adverts, and worth carrying on. If that includes you, thank you.

Sometimes I receive messages from readers who don’t donate but who say that they’re enjoying the diary. This is always cheering, particularly with the way social media has made public or group-shared comments the more usual interaction. A recent message said the diary was ‘like having a friend I’ve never met’. That’s exactly what I’m trying to convey, and why I don’t have a comments box. The writing needs to feel as solitary as possible. There are no browser-crashing commercials here, no videos suddenly starting up, no links to celebrity gossip stories. Hardly any links full stop. This is a quiet place. A detached place. This is somewhere else to go. This is a letter to a friend I’ve never met.

Thank you for reading in 2014. I hope you’ll continue to do so in 2015. I’ll be right here. And I wish you a very Happy Christmas and a wonderful, beautiful New Year. Here it comes. Look.

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Pictures Of Gig Tickets Sell Flats

Saturday 13th December 2014. Browsing in Waterstones again. I pick up a book called Working On My Novel. It’s a Penguin paperback, by the conceptual artist Cory Archangel. Or rather it’s curated by him, as the entire book is a collection of tweets by other people, culled from the internet. All of them contain the phrase ‘working on my novel’, making the book essentially a printed-out Twitter search. The reader can draw their own conclusions: proof of mass procrastination, proof of hubris, proof of hope, proof of the universal urge to create.

One of the scenes in a novel I’d been tinkering with, ironically, was to feature an art gallery installation based on a live Twitter search. The searched-for phrase in this case was ‘is it just me or’. This would be displayed on screens around the gallery every time someone somewhere typed those words into Twitter (which in real life tends to be every few seconds). All these collected expressions of the fear of being unusual were then going to be converted in an energy source – powering the gallery lights, say. It was a comment on how the need to join in is both powerful and infinite. Seems too close to the Cory Archangel book now, so I’ve cut it.

‘Art isn’t easy’, goes the song in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George. But it’s even harder to make up fictional art, which doesn’t look corny or (as in this case) accidentally too close to someone else’s idea. As it is, by typing out my idea into this diary entry, I’ve scratched the itch and can ‘move on’, to quote another song from Sunday.

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I walk through Kilburn. Close to Kilburn Park station, on Cambridge Avenue, there’s a new block of flats in the process of completion. At street level is the usual parade of hoardings announcing the project. Only these are unusual. The property developers have put together a display celebrating the cultural heritage of Kilburn. There’s quotes by Zadie Smith and Bradley Wiggins – locals who did well – plus a photo of a nearby blue plaque of George Orwell, who wrote Animal Farm in the area. The blue plaque photo is thus a sign commemorating another commemorative sign, which makes me feel giddy.

There’s also some blown-up reproductions of rock concert tickets, all at the National Ballroom venue, which used to be nearby. One is for the Wedding Present in November 1990 – a gig I attended myself. Another is for Sonic Youth and Mudhoney in 1989. I was there too. I remember the first band on the bill was the all-female Ut, who managed to be even louder than the headliners. Ephemera of my gig-going indie rock teens, these tickets are now used to sell something else: duplex apartments at £665,000 a piece. The developers have also added punning slogans: ‘Top of the Blocks’, ‘Now That’s What I Call Living’. Most of the flats have already been sold.

Then I see a more unofficial advert, pasted over the glossy board. It’s a handwritten paper sticker. ‘Daniela, 22’, followed by a mobile number. Another sign, of a sign.

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Evening: to the Natural History Museum ice rink. I’m there to meet some fellow Birkbeck students and mark Jasmine B’s birthday, with drinks and skating. Or rather, I watch the others skate from the bar balcony, along with J. Jasmine can’t skate either, but this doesn’t stop her in the slightest – she holds the hands of others and goes round the rink with them. Colin turns out to be the son of a figure skater, and is rather more confident on the artificial ice. The sessions last 50 minutes a go. One of the others in our party complains that the rink is too busy – but even more people flood out when the next session starts. I look up at the animal-shaped gargoyles on the NHM building, even more dramatic at night. I muse that someone should really use them in a film, a la the Chrysler Building in Ghostbusters. This idle thought turns out to be satisfied a mere two days later, when I see the Paddington film. There, Hugh Bonneville scales the outside of the Museum to rescue the duffle-coated bear (or rather, his stunt double does).

J tells me about his time sleeping rough in London. There were moments of bleak comedy: while sleeping on the National Gallery steps one winter, he discovered – the hard way – that the first parts of the body to freeze are the genitals. So he had to cup his hands in that area to keep them warm. A passing woman saw this, at which he had to hastily assure her that what he was doing was not what it might appear. She gave him £10.

He also tells me of the time he was mugged at knifepoint – for his blanket. And how some hostels could be more frightening than sleeping out, because there’d be sleepers who would turn aggressive and threatening to the others when the staff’s backs were turned. Giving a sandwich is often preferable to giving money, he says, though not if – as was once the case with him – it’s a half-finished supermarket sandwich that’s been dunked in coffee. ‘To warm it up – there you go, mate.’

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Sunday 14th December 2014. Today, J is not only housed but is able to buy me drinks in bars. And he books cinema tickets, though I reimburse him for mine. We go to see The Hobbit – The Battle Of The Five Armies at Tottenham Court Road Odeon (an acceptable £7.50, after student discount). Martin Freeman cuts through all the swooping special effects with his naturalistic, unshowy performance. The perfect everyman. The finishing off of Smaug the dragon upstages the rest of the film, whose battle scenes resemble The Lord Of The Rings films much more than Tolkein’s Hobbit novel. But then, Peter Jackson was asked for so many years to make The Hobbit in the same style. And now he’s done so. It may not surprise but it satisfies – and it makes me want to re-watch LOTR all over again.

Monday 15th December 2014. To the Phoenix in East Finchley, to see the Paddington movie (£5 matinee). A good balance of children and adults in the audience: not too many children to make me feel out of place, and  enough to laugh along audibly, proving the film is pleasing the right people. The trailers misled me into thinking it was another formulaic CGI spectacle, all noise and lack of charm. In fact it’s charming to the hilt, and reminds me of One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing, the 1970s Disney film, which also has Natural History Museum escapades. Paddington’s slapstick is in keeping with Michael Bond’s books: I’d forgotten how the bear always got into chaotic situations from the off. Everyone who isn’t in The Hobbit  is in it, too: Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Matt Lucas, and some of the Horrible Histories cast. Which makes perfect sense: like Horrible Histories it manages to please adults along with the children. There’s a camp joke early on when the jungle explorer is naming Paddington’s parents: ‘the female after my mother, and the male after an exotic boxer I once met in Hyde Park’. I’m the only one in the cinema who laughs at this, and that’s as it should be.

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Thursday 18th December 2014. To UCL hospital in Euston for some minor surgery. Varicose veins; my right leg this time, and my first time under local anaesthetic. It’s a procedure where the dead vein is sealed shut via heating it from the inside, though they still have make cuts and ties at either end. The operation has its painful moments, but no more so than a trip to the dentists. I have to keep the leg dry and unwashed for the next seven days. This means that Christmas Day will see me unwrapping my own leg as a present.

My dislike of flannel washes leads me to purchase a rubber limb-protecting sleeve at Boots. It’s specifically designed so I can shower as usual without getting the leg wet. Unfortunately, it is only when I get home and am putting my foot into the wretched thing that I realise I’ve bought the wrong one. The box says ‘ARM’ in huge letters, yet this information was clearly lost on me. I had been forcing my toe into the thumb of a giant rubber mitten. Some days I shouldn’t be let out in public, frankly.

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