Things Other Boys Like

Saturday 12th December 2015.

I watch the new film documentary Future Shock! – The Story of 2000AD, via iTunes’s streaming service. It’s paid and official, but it’s still a format I access with reluctance. I’d seek out a London cinema screening, but there doesn’t seem to be one.

I was an avid reader of 2000AD comic during its first ten years, though Dad initially ordered it from the village newsagent for himself. The first issue in 1977 resurrected his 1950s comic hero, Dan Dare, and came with a free Space Frisbee. Once I was old enough to share his copy, I enjoyed the highly imaginative artwork, and the witty left-leaning satire of stories like Judge Dredd. This was all instinctive, though: I was too young to really know what left-wing meant, or indeed what satire meant. As far as I was concerned they were just entertaining and exciting tales, close in tone to my beloved Tintin and Asterix, and an anecdote to American superheroes and Star Wars. I had already filed away the latter under Things Other Boys Like (and I still do).

I remember the Judge Dredd saga that naughtily used mutant versions of Ronald McDonald and the Jolly Green Giant as villains. As a result, the comic found itself on the sticky end of legal action. Watching this film, I finally discover what sort of people were behind it such childhood pleasures. Most of the comic creators interviewed are gentle and soft-spoken gentlemen of a certain vintage. One is Alan Grant, who lived in a Suffolk village and was a friend of Dad’s for a while. I visited Mr Grant myself as a teen, and remember him lending me a book on quantum theory, In Search Of Schrodinger’s Cat.

In the film, the original editor of 2000AD, Pat Mills, comes across as a veritable force of nature. Despite his years he is still full of energy, still ranting away against authority as if it were 1977. The story goes that the comic’s publishers wanted a new sci-fi weekly to cash in on the late 70s success of Star Wars. Mills, meanwhile, wanted to give Britain’s kids action-packed adventures of rebellion and anti-fascism, but had fallen foul of the censor with his previous comic, Action. For him, science fiction was a compromise. As with much sci-fi, the comic used ideas about the future to say things about the present day.

I think it took me a while to realise that Judge Dredd was a satire on fascism. Despite this, the helmet-wearing Dredd was still a character you were meant to root for, in the same way you were meant to root for vigilante anti-heroes like Dirty Harry. I stopped reading the comic in the late 80s, when it became increasingly violent – or so I thought. This documentary points out that it was always rather gory from the start. So perhaps it was me who changed. I certainly missed out on a phase in the 1990s where 2000AD apparently became so laddish, it published adverts featuring women pulling dim expressions, with the caption, ‘2000AD. She doesn’t get it. She never will.’ The editor responsible appears in the new film, and says he now regrets those adverts.

* * *

Monday 14th December 2015.

Last session for the term with my college dyspraxia mentor, Katie W, at Senate House. I admit to her that I’ve let procrastination creep into my essay schedule, though some of it is not my fault. The freelance review took longer than I thought, because I had to revise it for that particular readership. It’s useful to remember that a review for a magazine is also a negotiation, between an opinion of the material, and an idea of what the reader wants.

I wonder what’s behind my struggling with this new essay. Possibly because it’s the first essay of the MA, so it’s all new. Another theory is it’s to do with my creeping uncertainty about whether I’m doing the right thing with the MA. Yet the moment I began, I felt a surge of relief that I hadn’t taken a year out. To have left it for over a year would have been even harder. So at least that was a right decision. And yet the reluctance this week is overwhelming.

I’m not drastically behind: just a couple of days. But I need to pick up the slack over the Xmas & New Year break. The deadline is January 4th, the word count 5000. I’ve done about 3000 words this week. It’s a mess, but a mess is still a start.

In terms of research, I have a huge pile of handwritten notes, with further piles of books on the floor, and a few JSTOR e-texts on my computer. Yet the worry remains that I’ve missed some perfect book out there. How do proper writers get over the worry that they’ve missed something? Sheer ego? No: sheer deadline.

* * *

Tuesday 15th December 2015.

I’m writing a letter back to an American reader. She asks me if I have a best friend. By which she means, someone to whom I pour out the cares of a hard day, perhaps over the phone. I tell her there is no such person. One reason is that I’m naturally aloof and detached (there might some element of dyspraxia in this mix). Another is that I’m grateful to have a range of friends and acquaintances, and I like to see as many of them as I can. That is, when I’m not feeling so aloof. But it could also be that I just don’t feel confident at making phone calls, not if it’s purely for a chat (my mother being the only exception). I prefer full presence company, or messages.

* * *

Thursday 17th December 2015.

To the Viktor Wynd Museum in Hackney, to give one more guided tour. A huge amount of people – it’s remarkable how they seek it out. Quite pleased that I can update my speech on the Mervyn Peake display, with the news that a new film of Gormenghast is in the pipeline, scripted by Neil Gaiman. Barnabas, who works behind the bar, recognises the Caravaggio painting on the cover of my TLS. He turns out to be something of a Caravaggio fan, and tells me of the masterpieces he sought out in the churches of Rome. Many of them are extremely dimly lit, even allowing for the whole chiaroscuro effect.

* * *

In the evening, I sit in the Barbican Cinema Café and write out my Christmas cards. I try to cut the list down to the people I’ve felt particularly fond of or grateful to within the last year. That great phrase that used to mark the excommunication of a friend, ‘they’re no longer on my Christmas list’ – how anachronistic that now is. Many people no longer bother with cards full stop. This may be because they count their affection in pixels, or because of the pricy postage costs, or because of the waste (though it’s not as if cards are difficult to recycle). I send cards because it makes me happy: that should be reason enough.

* * *

Friday 18th December 2015.

Petulance in the newsagent. I decide not to buy one particular magazine purely because it carries a writer who unfollowed me on Twitter.

Private Eye‘s Christmas issue has its usual ‘log rolling’ feature at the back. This is where they examine all the Books of the Year articles in British newspapers, and highlight how many of them appear to be the brazen returning of favours. Either that, or friends cosily scratching each other’s hardbacks. I always thought this overlooks how some friendships are often forged because of an admiration for a body of work. Still, I do enjoy the description of male Elena Ferrante fans, unfair as it is: ‘like sweaty chaps sneaking into the back of a zumba class for yummy mummies’.

* * *

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How To Explain Irony To Children

Saturday 29th November 2014. Late morning: I meet Mum in the basement café at Waterstones Piccadilly. We walk to the Coach and Horses in Soho for a vegetarian lunch. Tom joins us, making it an Edwards family meal, to mark what would have been Dad’s 78th birthday. Tom has a non-alcoholic brand of Becks beer, which nevertheless has the slogan ‘please drink responsibly’ on the label.

The Coach & Horses’s Private Eye­ connections have diminished since I was last here. Gone are the framed photos on the wall of Ian Hislop and Richard Ingrams. I am told this may be to do with the pub’s new vegetarian-only kitchen, which clashes with the Private Eye lot’s preference for meat. Perhaps the pub should approach Morrissey or Chrissie Hynde for patronship. I have ‘fish and chips’, the fish being fish-shaped tofu.

After lunch, we walk through Soho. Tom wants to show Mum the Soho Radio studios, where he has his own show. On the way, I hear someone call out ‘Dickon – where were you? We’ve just finished!’ It is a phrase from anyone’s nightmare – the forgotten appointment. But on this occasion it turns out to be a misunderstanding. Anne Pigalle is standing outside Madame JoJo’s in full black mourning garb, along with some similarly attired drag queens. It is a protest against the venue’s closure by way of a mock funeral. Ms Pigalle had invited me on Facebook. So she interprets my walking into Brewer Street as a late arrival to the protest. I feebly blurt out my excuse as I go by, and make sure I sign the inevitable petition when I get home.

(Link: Save Madame Jojo’s ).

* * *

Huge poster ads on the tube for Android, the operating system owned by Google. They feature lots of sinister robot creatures in different clothes, all clutching mobiles. Slogan: ‘be together, not the same’. The problem with this is that all the robots do indeed look the same – because they’re Android robots. Actually, they look like the protagonist of the early 80s ITV kids’ show Metal Mickey.

Another smartphone advert irks in its ubiquity, at least at the cinema. Once the London film fan pays for their overpriced seat and popcorn, they still have to tolerate the sight of Kevin Bacon wandering jauntily along the streets of Britain, shouting at its citizens for having ‘buffer faces’. This means the expressions people have when staring at a phone or tablet screen, waiting for the content to load up. Mr Bacon is surely in no position to mock others, his life having come to whoring himself across cinema screens like this. But there he is, so we must be forgiving. And yet the sight of Mr Bacon’s curiously wizened yet boyish countenance makes me yearn to shout out, ‘Better to have a Buffer Face than an Iggy Pop Stunt Double face.’

* * *

I finish reading Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar. It’s set in New York and Boston, but unexpectedly there’s a mention of Clacton-on-Sea. The noun ‘fitting’ is what also stands out, being something that the heroine goes into town for. At first I think this means clothes, until it transpires that this particular ‘fitting’ is given to her by a doctor. The novel then cuts to her returning home with a mysterious box. The word ‘diaphragm’ is never mentioned. Ms Plath wrote The Bell Jar in 1961, only months away from the mass availability of the Pill. In scenes like this it might as well be the nineteenth century.

* * *

Sunday 30th November 2014. I wake up late and rush off to the Tube without showering, thinking I’m late for a college appointment. As I walk down the path from Shepherd’s Hill to Highgate station, my brain suddenly realises it can’t be Monday, because I have no memory of Sunday. I am still not convinced. I’ve never trusted my mind: I don’t know where it’s been.The truth only hits home as I turn the corner in the station and see the newspapers on the station kiosk. The words Sunday Times loom out helpfully. It is like all those time travel stories where a newspaper must be found to give proof of the date.

Grateful to the newspaper for restoring my sense of reality, I buy a copy. And of course, the features are full of people whose idea of reality is rather far from mine. One article is on ‘social media party boys’. A trendy young man is concerned about turning his online popularity into real life money: ‘I think about the apocalypse a lot. Having a million Instagram followers during the apocalypse is going to be pretty useless, but having a yacht might not be.’

A TV newsreader boasts about his money, particularly how he gazumped when buying his farmhouse, ie snatched it away from someone who was ready to move in. I suppose one has to forgive.

I read a fascinating article on Singalong Frozen, which touches on the nature of camp. The Disney musical Frozen has been reissued in a format for children to sing along to, with lyrics on the screen. This is apparently the fault of the Prince Charles Cinema, which has been doing jokey film singalong events for some time, particularly The Sound of Music. Originally, as an organiser says, ‘the main audience was gay men and drunken women’. But soon children started to come too, and children don’t do camp and knowingness and irony. Children sing for themselves. When the PCC did singalong screenings of Frozen, the children were in the majority, and Disney took notice.

A quote from the article. When Rhona Cameron introduced a Sound of Music screening, she had to explain what irony was to the children present:

‘Children, irony is something you’ll understand later, when you’re disappointed in love and have to pay taxes’.

* * *

Tuesday 2nd December 2014. Evening: class at Birkbeck on Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle. Tutor: Joe Brooker. The reverse-world setting is intoxicating, full of details that only become apparent on re-reading, like the character who slips into ‘our’ world for a moment.

* * *

Wednesday 3rd December 2014. Evening: class at Birkbeck on John Wyndham’s The Day of The Triffids. Tutor: Grace Halden. Unlike the Dick book, which is more speculative fiction, Wyndham’s tale is traditional science-fiction. Though I always liked the double value of the mass blindness alongside the unkind plants. One student struggles to read beyond the first chapter, such is his dislike of science fiction (‘Can’t we do Graham Greene?’). The lower-case ‘triffids’ is a clever touch by Wyndham, indicating how the plants had quickly become part of the language. Much more sinister that way. I find the swift acceptance of the lower-case verbs ‘tweet’ and ‘google’ sinister, too, as they’re corporate brands. Invasions go on all the time, whether of land or of language. It’s just a question of anyone minding.

* * *

Friday 5th December 2014. In a discussion on disappointing Christmas crackers I find myself retelling the following tale.

One Christmas I went into Budgens Crouch End to buy a box of crackers. A huge pile of them were on sale at half price. People were buying the crackers, but they were also coming away with a broad smirk. I asked a staffer.

Me: Why are these crackers so cheap?

Her: They’re faulty.

Me: What, they don’t bang properly?

Her: No. They’ve all got the same joke.

The smirk had been the pleasure of acquiring a good anecdote.

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