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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Rise Of The Floating Yodas

Saturday 6th September 2014.

I spend a day in town with Mum, meeting her off the 1031 train at Liverpool Street. We manage to pack in two exhibitions and one major art installation, along with lunch (stir fried tofu for two on the terrace of the British Library’s restaurant, with hardly anyone else about). First up is the Quentin Blake show at the House of Illustration, one of the buildings in the new Granary Square development, north of King’s Cross station. Like the station itself, the development is an impressive mix of Victorian buildings tidied up and put to new use, alongside scatterings of new architecture: the astroturf steps by the canal, and the matrix of pavement fountains, with their multi-coloured lights.

We investigate the viewing platform set up opposite the square. The usual aluminium panels denoting which building is which are covered in angry comments, scrawled in black ink. Everything in sight is attacked: ‘ugly!’, ‘terrible idea!’, ‘waste of space!’, ‘waste of money!’ The anonymous writer even accuses the sign of getting its facts wrong: ‘NO! That’s on the LEFT, not the RIGHT!’ I check the skyline. The sign is perfectly correct.

I can’t help thinking this is a real-life effect of the vogue to leave angry comments under every piece of information on the internet, and as a matter of course, too. The implied message really being ‘I exist and I am lonely and I want to matter.’ Or put more simply, ‘I troll therefore I am’.

Mum, however, does like Granary Square. She daringly adds her own comment to the graffiti – though she’s careful to do so in pencil: ‘Nonsense! Think positive! Be a Polyanna, not an Eeyore!’

[On Friday the 12th I revisit the viewing platform. The sign is now wiped clean of any graffiti, and is back to normal. This is the equivalent of that most ubiquitous statement on the Guardian site: ‘This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted.’]

* * *

The Quentin Blake show includes a whole room dedicated to Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. Other Blake works on display are his pictures for Voltaire’s Candide, for David Walliams’s Boy In The Dress, and for his own wordless book, Clown. A film reveals that Mr Blake does his drawing standing up, like an architect, and that he uses a light box, not just to trace but because it ‘feels friendly’. Illustration, he says, is about choosing a single moment in a text, then living in it. ‘You own that moment for as long as you like.’

In the gallery shop, Mum impulse-buys Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton, a mad and funny picture book about a naughty dog. Though it’s aimed at the very young, the lesson of self-discipline is all-connecting. I end up getting a copy for myself. Somewhat ironically, the book is hard to resist.

* * *

I show Mum the new Hatchards at St Pancras, fast becoming one of my favourite places to browse. It’s an example of how best to lay out a small bookshop: a little bit of everything, with as much as possible displayed face out, and lots of tempting tables. The new Beano annual (for 2015) is given prominence, and with good reason. The cover shows Dennis the Menace and Gnasher in St Pancras, running to catch the Eurostar.

At the National Portrait Gallery, we take in this year’s BP Portrait contest. Teeming with people. In contrast to the Kings Cross viewing platform, the thoughts of visitors are this time solicited, in the shape of a touchscreen. You tap on the painting you think should have won. I have no idea if the results are collated somewhere, but it gives the sense of feeling like one’s opinion matters, and that’s the true spirit of the age. My favourite painting is by Clara Drummond, ‘Portrait in Blue and Gold’. A second prize would go to ‘Eddie In The Morning’, by Geoffrey Beasley, which Mum is also keen on.

We wander through a corner of Trafalgar Square. At least three things are going on at once. In the main space is the stage for a rally by The People’s March for the NHS (sample slogan: ‘NHS – Everyone’s Concern, Nobody’s Business). In the corner is a busking set by Jake Heading, a pleasant, bespectacled young singer who’s drawn quite a crowd. And a few yards away from him are the usual living statues. Recently there’s been a spate of trompe l’oeil performers in the touristy parts of the city, particularly Floating Yodas. These are people dressed as the little green Muppet-y creature from the Star Wars films, whose costume hides a seat attached to a sturdy pole, so it looks like they are levitating. As we pass, one of the Yodas takes off his rubber mask to mop his streaming brow. ‘Sweatier than it looks, living statue work is’.

* * *

We end the day at the Tower Of London, there to see the red porcelain poppies planted all around the grassy moat. A staggering sea of red. One poppy for each life lost in WW1, arranged so it looks like they’re pouring out of one of the Tower’s windows. The poppies circle the whole Tower, and hundreds of other people are here to get a good look at them too. It may be a simple symbol, but it’s a powerful and unforgettable one.

* * *

Sunday 7th September 2014.

To the St James Theatre Studio in Victoria for a new one-man play: Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope. Written and performed by Mark Farrelly, it’s an interesting indication of where QC’s reputation might be today, fifteen years after his death. Certainly the 80s Sting hit ‘An Englishman In New York’ is heavily relied upon as a qualification. Not only is the song played in the show, but it’s alluded to three times in the limited space of the flyer. I always thought the association was unfair, given Crisp’s dislike of pop music full stop. But I should admit that I’ve never cared for the song itself, its melody and production being too bland for my liking. My apologies to Mr Sting.

Mr Farrelly is rather muscular in comparison with the two main actors who’ve played QC in the past, John Hurt (on film) and Bette Bourne (on stage). He makes me think how a young Laurence Olivier might have approached the role, because his version of Quentin seems as much critical as it is affectionate. It hints at unaddressed layers beneath the surface, perhaps even that Crisp was something of an unreliable narrator. The show is much more of a dramatisation than an impersonation. In fact, the sense of Quentin Crisp playing a part himself is accentuated halfway through, when Mr Farrelly changes clothes and wigs in full view of the audience, going from 1960s London Quentin (retelling the events of The Naked Civil Servant), to 1990s New York Celebrity Quentin (delivering his Messages Of Hope lectures, hence the title: Naked Hope).

There’s also a moment where a member of the audience is asked to get on stage and help him read his question cards, which I’m sure is something the real Crisp never did. At first this seems pure pantomime, just something fun to break up the format of a one-man show. Yet the lingering effect is to remind the audience of the way Crisp would go through the motions, always giving the same answers to questions, as if reading from a script. So Farrelly suggests there might be something not quite so inspirational about that. I disagree. I’m biased, but I think words in themselves can be a sufficient approach to the world, even if they’ve been polished and prepared and repeated so much that they might appear insincere. A good aphorism, like a good story, can retain its own self-contained freshness and sincerity, because it represents pure meaning.

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Tuesday 9th September 2014.

I’m at Senate House Library, reading The Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham. At one point I realise with delight that Senate House itself plays a major part in the novel. It becomes the base camp for the London survivors, being one of the tallest landmarks in the city at the time it was written, circa 1950. I also discover that there’s a Book Bench celebrating the connection outside. It depicts triffids on Tower Bridge. The bench is tucked away amid the foliage by the front of the building, lurking there, as if ready to sting.

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Wednesday 10th September 2014.

The opening line of The Day Of The Triffids is one of the greatest in literature:

‘When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like a Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’

But after that, some lines irritate with their deep 1950s-ness. The hero’s love interest is called Josella Playton, which makes her sound like a lingerie brand. Even the 1980s BBC TV adaptation inserted a scene where she says ‘I’ve always hated the name Josella. Just call me Jo.’

One line of the novel is:

‘His companion was a good-looking, well-built girl with an occasional superficial petulance’.

What exactly does Wyndham mean by ‘well-built’? Curvy? Athletic? Double-glazed? Upholstered? Cantilevered? Or just… waterproof?

* * *

Thursday 11th September 2014.

To Highbury to visit Shanthi S. She gives me a birthday present: The Animals, a fat collection of Isherwood’s letters. Then we walk to the Dalston Rio for Two Days, One Night, a French language film starring Marion Cotillard. The BBFC certification card at the start surely crosses the line from content warning into plot spoiler: ‘Contains one scene of attempted suicide’. So all the cinemagoers are waiting for that. That aside, it’s a very straightforward Ken Loach-esque tale of a factory worker tracking down all her co-workers during one weekend, in order to convince them to vote against her redundancy on the following Monday. The dilemma is that a vote to keep her is also a vote to lose their own bonuses. I felt it was the sort of film that might become socially important as time goes on, but found it a little too straightforward to be properly engaging.

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