Drinking Wine In Hospitals And Libraries

Saturday 21st November 2015.

I meet Tom, Charis and their friends at the British Library, to see the new Alice In Wonderland exhibition in the lobby. Or at least, we try to see the exhibition. A huge queue for it stretches across the width of the building, doubles up at the end, and appears not to be moving. A woman at the information desk tells me that interest in the exhibition has been overwhelming, and they were taken by surprise. This is the first weekend, though, after all the press coverage, and it’s open till April. So we postpone the visit for another day. How interesting, though, that a mid-Victorian children’s book can have such a hold on a twenty-first century public, and that people will queue to see old books in glass cases.

Well, people except us. Instead, we take a look at the Alice pop-up shop – also crammed – before I show them the Spice Girls Staircase in the St Pancras hotel next door. I also point out this year’s Christmas tree in St Pancras station. It’s a tottering pile of Disney soft toys, from Mickey Mouse to the heroine of Frozen. Among them is the White Rabbit from the Disney cartoon of Alice In Wonderland, which is a neat consolation. Then we go for refreshments in Drink Shop And Do, in the Caledonian Road. I suggest this crafts-based female-friendly venue, partly because most of our group is female, but mainly because I get nervous around football fans in pubs, and it’s a Saturday afternoon. There’s a pile of board games available, and I play my first ever game of Jenga.

* * *

Monday 23rd November 2015.

MA class on The Submission, by Amy Waldman. It’s a clever novel about the politics of post-terrorism grief, where the winner of a competition to design a 9/11 memorial turns out to be a Muslim, thus triggering a range of protests. The timing of this class with the Paris attacks makes the issues all the more relevant. There was an article this week about how one of ISIS’s aims is the elimination of the ‘grey zone’, as in toleration, nuance of thought, consideration of complexity, and the peaceful co-existence of different faiths. By firmly foregrounding this theme, Ms Waldman’s book works as a good memorial in itself.

* * *

Tuesday 24th November 2015.

I am in the British Library to work on my first MA essay. I’ve not been here since May, but there are a couple of staffers in the Rare Books Reading Room who still greet me with ‘Mr Edwards!’ when I go to collect my requested items. They also add that they enjoyed seeing me in the book I Am Dandy.

The Rare Books room still has 40 desks where laptops are banned. I tend to favour these, partly to keep up my longhand writing, but also because they are rarely occupied.

* * *

Wednesday 25th November 2015.

To the private view of Quentin Blake – The Hospital Drawings, at South Kensington and Chelsea Mental Health Centre. This is a clinic next to the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital on Fulham Road. Mr Blake has made specially commissioned drawings for the walls of British hospitals for ten years now, and this exhibition features a selection of these works. His productivity is all the more impressive, given he is now in his eighties. Asked to provide nineteen drawings, one for each bedroom on a mental health ward, he delivered sixty. His scribbly, sketchy style is typically colourful and lively for a sequence designed for a children’s ward – images of friendly space aliens, to help children be less fearful of doctors. But the drawings for adult clinics are more restrained. There’s dots for eyes instead of his usual googly circles, and his signature messy lines are calmed through washes of pale watercolour – greys, greens, light browns and golds. There’s still plenty of silliness, though: he illustrates therapeutic activities by having elderly people sitting in trees playing cellos or feeding mad-looking birds. One sequence has older people performing circus tricks on a senior-friendly level – a tightrope walker is mere inches from the ground.

Mr Blake himself turns up tonight to open the exhibition in person. A consultant introduces him as ‘Britain’s most famous living illustrator’, which is surely true. ‘At first I worried,’ QB says in his speech, ‘that the drawings of elderly people might be in bad taste. Then I realise I’m part of the same social group as they are, so I’m allowed.’ The last time I was in the same room as him, it was at a Puffin Club Show in the early 80s. I would have been about ten. The prints and drawings in this exhibition are all for sale, in aid of the Nightingale Project, an organisation that puts art into British hospitals. Many of the works are a mere £300 each. He is an artist of the people, in many ways.

One of my favourite lesser-known Blake works is The Bed Book, where he illustrated Sylvia Plath’s poems for children. (Link to an article about it here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/04/04/the-bed-book-sylvia-plath-quentin-blake/)

* * *

Thursday 26th November 2015.

After last night’s free wine in the corridors of a mental health clinic, I enjoy more free drinks in an unlikely space – the London Library’s Reading Room, in St James’s Square. It’s the Members’ Christmas Party, and I chat with the likes of Travis Elborough, Andrew Martin, and various fellow Library members, some of whom turn out to be fellow Birkbeck postgraduate students too. I’ve found that my seahorse brooch is perfect for getting conversations started with strangers. I rarely go up to people I don’t know, so it’s good if they have a reason to come up to me. If only to say they like the brooch.

* * *

Friday 27th November 2015.

Afternoon: I give another tour at Wynd’s Museum of Curiosities in Mare Street, some of it filmed by a lady from Time Out.

Evening: to the East Finchley Phoenix for the film Carol, directed by Todd Haynes. His last big screen affair was the experimental Bob Dylan biography, I’m Not There. After seeing Carol I realise that both films end with a shot of Cate Blanchett looking directly at the camera. Then she was in male drag as the 60s Dylan. In Carol she’s in a more conventional female role, but still with an otherworldly air. Her character is a spellbinding New York society wife during the 1950s, who draws a young shopgirl into a romance. Like many of Mr Haynes’s films, the emphasis is on outsiders coping to be themselves in an artificial world, though this is his most accessible work yet. In fact, it’s based on Patricia Highsmith’s autobiographical novel of the same name, which was notable for reaching selling nearly a million copies in the 1950s, while daring to give its gay characters a happy ending. So it’s only right the film version is aimed at a mass audience.

Despite this, Carol still has an arthouse sensibility. Every frame of this film is ravishing and balletic in its rendering of the era, much like an Edward Hopper painting. The two leads (Rooney Mara as the younger) manage to channel the mannerisms of the films from that period, with much blowing of cigarette smoke in stylish directions. Ms Blanchett has a touch of a slowed-down Katharine Hepburn (in a dreamy reprise of her actual Hepburn in The Aviator), while Ms Mara closely resembles Audrey Hepburn, albeit a more inscrutable, guarded version. Just when it can’t get any better, Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia and Sleater-Kinney turns up.

It’s only occurred to me now that the title ‘Carol‘ is not just a reference to the Blanchett character, but a play on the Christmas setting of the story, and how this links to the gift-giving themes of the story. So the release date is well-chosen, too.

* * *

I leaf through the London Evening Standard. As it’s a free newspaper, I take pains to save waste and only read it after it has been discarded by someone else, usually onto the seat of a Tube carriage. A few years ago, when the ES cost 50p and had to compete with two free papers, it ran a poster campaign depicting a carriage covered with copies of its rivals. ‘No one throws away the Standard‘, the poster boasted, making the connection between litter and financial worth. Today the Standard is free, and people indeed throw it away. The poster turned out to be the advertising equivalent of Neville Chamberlain’s ‘Peace For Our Time’ speech. It’s the same lesson: never make hasty claims about pieces of paper.

* * *

Tonight’s ES carries a decent interview with Sian Berry, the Green candidate for next year’s mayoral election. She turns out to be the only candidate who lives in a rented studio flat, being one room with an en-suite bathroom. I suspect that this fact alone could swing things in her favour. There may be more to London’s problems than the property crisis, but (to misquote The Smiths) not much more. Other problems – crime, poverty, the closing of small businesses, the overcrowding of transport networks – all link to the failure to do something about property prices. This week sees the closure of yet another Soho landmark, the Stockpot café in Old Compton Street.

Another property story in the paper has an element of schadenfreude, though. In Barnes, a multi-million-pound Georgian townhouse has collapsed ‘like a deck of cards’, while undergoing construction work. It had been in the process of having its basement enlarged; a fashionable move among London’s wealthy. It always seems to be the basement, and always to accommodate a range of further luxuries, in this case, ‘a cinema, gym, and wine room’.  As if there was a shortage of such things on their doorstep.

Flipping through the Standard, one gets an impression that Londoners either live in overpriced rented rooms, or that they own vast mansions which must nevertheless be remodelled, with much disruption to the neighbours, in order to be even bigger. The abiding question with all of this is: what is a city for?

* * *

Tags: , , , ,

Dough Balls With Virginia

Saturday 12th September 2015.

Jeremy Corbyn is voted leader of the Labour party. For much of the weekend his critics call him ‘unelectable’, an odd thing to say of someone who has just won an election. So much is said about this man this week, much of it hysterical. Not nearly enough is said about how he is just that rare thing: a MP that people like.

The 1997 style of Labour, with its focus upon slickness, spin and presentation, seems to be over for good. A rougher, ‘grass roots’ Labour is popular once again. If nothing else, I hope this means MPs will at last stop copying Mr Blair’s strange. Staccato. Way. Of Speaking. When. Making. Speeches.

* * *

I wander into town, and drift into the ICA to find that there’s a small-press fair on. Phoebe Blatton is running a stall for Coelacanth Press. She’s put out a new issue of Strangers In A Zine, her fun little Patricia Highsmith fanzine. This issue is a ‘Carol Film Special’, to celebrate the new film with Cate Blanchett (out in the UK in November). In the zine, PB relates an anecdote from a few years ago, where she met a film distributor on a plane, enthused to him about Highsmith’s novel Carol, and mentioned that, given he made Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes would be perfect for directing a film of Carol. The distributor told her he happened to be a good friend of Haynes’s, and would ‘pass the message on’. PB is not certain that she was inadvertently the seed of the new film, but it’s a nice tale, and indeed a very Highsmithian one: a fateful encounter between two strangers.

* * *

Tuesday 15th September 2015.

To Lauderdale House in Highgate Village. It’s a venue mentioned by one noted diarist – Pepys – and the setting tonight for a talk by another: Michael Palin, currently promoting his third volume of journals. The event is a charity fundraiser organised by the Mayor of Camden Council, a rather assertive, motherly woman who makes sure everyone stays behind afterwards to listen to the support act – a saxophone recital by a 16-year-old Camden schoolboy.

Lots of other mayoral types in the audience. They tend to be ordinary looking people of a certain age, often former councillors, who just happen to be walking around in heavy, clunking ceremonial jewellery.

Mr Palin is a delight, of course. He gives what is clearly his honed ‘Evening With…’ talk. A good hour or so of anecdotes, something to please everyone, and a Q&A at the end. Tales from the formation of Monty Python, tales from the controversy around Life Of Brian – with a nice link from the mayors in the room to the story about how the actress playing Brian’s girlfriend in the film is now the Mayor of Aberystwyth. And that, with delicious irony, the Welsh town was one of the places that banned the film in 1979. Once she was in power, she made sure she lifted the ban. Then there’s tales from his travel programmes, tales about diary-keeping, some pleasingly rude quips (including one about how he hates being called nice), and some poetry: Cavafy, Wordsworth, Hilaire Belloc, and Spike Milligan. A perfect public speaker, really, and a good example of a Not-Grumpy Old Man.

* * *

Wednesday 16th September 2015.

Meet Hester R for a drink at the IOE bar, followed by a meal at the Pizza Express on Euston Road, the one that’s directly opposite the British Library. Artworks based on writers on the walls: Orwell, Kakfa, Woolf. It’s the place to go if you know someone who likes Mrs Dalloway and dough balls. There’s a display of books, all face out, on a trendy shelving unit near our table. I’m not sure if they’re for sale or to read or just to make the restaurant more bookish. One in my eyeline is about the history of stealth warfare, ‘From Ancient Greece To The SAS’. The book next to that is a memoir by Maureen Lipman. I try not to make too much of this.

Hester has a voucher of some sort. I always suspect everyone who goes to Pizza Express has A Voucher Of Some Sort.

* * *

Thursday 17th September 2015.

I visit the Ripping Yarns bookshop on Archway Road. It’s my last time before this treasure trove of a second-hand shop closes its Highgate premises for good. The business is going to continue trading online, at the house of the owner Celia, with occasional events and ‘open days’ planned. But the Archway Road shop will be gone.

Some symmetry. Today, people in the shop are talking about Mr Corbyn, just as they are doing so everywhere in London (this week I overhear the word ‘Corbyn’ in every café, bus and tube). On my first ever visit to Ripping Yarns, not long after I’d moved to Highgate, I heard an earnest conversation about the then Labour leader, John Smith, how he had suddenly died that day, and how he was ‘the best Prime Minister we never had’ (Gore Vidal: ‘Death is a good career move’). The date of my first visit to Ripping Yarns is thus easy to work out: May 12th, 1994.

I walk out from today’s visit with a 1961 Penguin Classic copy of Firbank’s Valmouth. It’s the edition that appears in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library, with its Augustus John cover and what Hollinghurst calls the ‘faint smell of lost time’ about its pages. Jen Campbell is working there today. She points me out to Celia. ‘Would you believe this man is 44?’ Her book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops was inspired by the clientele of Ripping Yarns, who could indeed be eccentric. On my way out, I see a hunched man browsing through a box of paperbacks. He is in his bare feet.

* * *

To the House of Illustration in King’s Cross, for the exhibition on Ladybird Books. Lots of colourful paintings of rosy-cheeked, healthy and smiling children in a post-war Utopian vision of Britain. Peter and Jane and their impeccably polished ball are the stars, but there’s also the series of ‘Well-Loved Tales’: ‘Cinderella’, ‘Puss In Boots’, and the slightly less loved tale ‘The Big Pancake’.

I realise how interesting it is that ‘well-loved’ has been eclipsed by ‘much-loved’ in common speech. The changing fashions in adjectives say as much about a society as the changing fashions in clothes.

The main thing I learn from the exhibition is how these popular pocket-sized children’s books were born from a ingenious bit of wartime economising. A whole Ladybird book of 56 pages was designed so it could be cut from a single sheet of paper – the largest size that could be printed in the presses of 1940. All the books were priced at half a crown each – and remained at that price until decimalization in 1971.

I find the title of one Ladybird book, ‘Some Great Men And Women (1972)’ disproportionately amusing. I think it’s the pedantic implication of the modifier ‘some’; as if a simple ‘Great Men And Women’ was deemed too imperial for the softer, long-haired world of 1972.

I buy a postcard in the gallery shop. A young staffer seems amazed when I confirm that I am going to send it without an envelope. ‘With the message on the outside? But surely other people can read it?’

I tell her about the history of sending postcards – the text messages of times outworn. It really does seem to be new to her. But I wish now that I’d told her about the Postcrossing website, where the practice of sending postcards is very much alive and well. (https://www.postcrossing.com/)

* * *

Friday 18th September 2015.

Afternoon: to the V&A for tea in the Members’ Room, courtesy of Heather M. Ms M tells me about her experiences of dating websites. She prefers men to be at least her own height – ‘it’s to do with being hugged’. Judging by her encounters, it seems a lot of men lie about their height in their profiles. This seems a highly optimistic move, as if they hope that, by the time it comes to meeting in person, their shortness will be somehow… overlooked. But Heather says it’s sometimes necessary for a woman to adjust the truth too. ‘A woman aged 41 or 42 has to put ’40’, to attract people her own age. If she puts ’41’, all she gets are men over 70′.

After tea, we wander around the V&A, and I am quite taken with an interactive installation called Mise-en-abyme. It’s a series of shaped transparent arches across one of the museum’s walkways, each arch narrower than the one before. The phrase itself is one of my favourites in literary criticism, where it means a recursive framing of stories within stories. I’ve seen the phrase used for everything from The Canterbury Tales to Inception.

Evening: I watch the latest Woody Allen film, Irrational Man, at the Barbican’s Cinema Café.  There’s a very good film to be made of this story, but this film isn’t it. Like so many late Allens, it’s oddly stilted and over-narrated when it should be brooding and organic. I find myself fantasising about being able to edit the script and improve the film, fix it. Still, the story has some fine twists, and the cast are superb. It’s so good to see Parker Posey, now aging into a sharp, Katherine Hepburn-like persona, while Emma Stone is the young generation’s Mia Farrow (and Allen’s camera adores her). Joaquin Phoenix, meanwhile, is perfect for the sort of character who plays with a loaded revolver at parties.

* * *

Ian Hislop speaking on Radio 4 today, re Jeremy Corbyn: ‘It’s a measure of how much current capitalism has failed that Dave Spart [Private Eye‘s joke socialist character] is back and seems to be making sense’.

* * *

If you enjoy this exclusive content, please help to keep it free from adverts and those suspicious ‘other news’ links that all the big websites do now, even the supposedly serious sites. A donation to the Diary Fund will also help to keep the impoverished author free from starvation, homelessness, and thoughts that he should just give up and hurl himself into the nearest pond. Thank you. 

Donate Button with Credit Cards

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