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.

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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.

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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.

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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. (

* * *

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’.

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