Thameslink Odysseus

Sunday 13th March 2016. I’m reading a new study skills book aimed at dyspraxic students, The Dyspraxic Learner: Strategies For Success, written by Alison Patrick. It’s full of very clear and useful advice for coping with a myriad of dyspraxia-related problems, the majority of which really do seem to apply to me. There’s an intriguing literary reference; according to the book, Jane Eyre contains what is thought to be literature’s first dyspraxic character. In the boarding school scenes, early on in the novel, Jane befriends Helen Burns, a passive and solitary girl who spurns games, has trouble concentrating, and seems to be in a world of her own:

‘Her sight seems turned in, gone down to her heart: she is looking at what she can remember, I believe, not at what is really present’.

In the classroom, Helen turns out to be a talented student, always ‘ready with answers on every point’. However, she also has poor organisational skills, bad posture and dirty fingernails, and it’s this that gets her whipped by the teachers for being a ‘slattern’. Rather sadly, she scolds herself too:

‘I am, as Miss Scatcherd said, slatternly; I seldom put, and never keep, things in order; I am careless; I forget rules; I read when I should learn my lessons; I have no method; and sometimes I say, like you, I cannot bear to be subjected to systematic arrangements.’

These are all now regarded as classic dyspraxic traits. Though I’ve never been whipped with a bunch of twigs, I suspect that sort of thing would have happened to me in a less enlightened century. And I’m sure there are people who’ve harboured thoughts of doing it to me more recently, too.

* * *

To the V&A to meet up with Fenella H: a very welcome bout of socialising, at a time when I feel rather more removed from the world than usual, either bound up with studies or struggling with various ailments.

We arrive at 11am on a Sunday, just before it gets too busy, and so have the pick of the three ornate café rooms. We dither over which Victorian aesthetic we prefer: the majestic and imposing Gamble room, the cosy blue-tiled Poynter or the subdued, green-panelled Morris. In the end I decide to go for the Morris, not because I’m in a particularly William Morris-sy mood, but purely because it has the fewest crying babies.

We stroll through the Fashion section of the permanent collection, then upstairs to the new (and free) exhibition on West End and Broadway shows, Curtain Up. Lots of set models, costumes and props from the likes of War Horse, Matilda, The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night-Time, and Sunday in the Park With George. For a display on A Chorus Line, there’s a kind of installation with lighting effects: one walks through a mirrored corridor with a dance practice bar, over which a row of shiny top hats hang in the air.

* * *

Tuesday 15th March 2016. Evening: I walk through the new-ish Blackfriars Thameslink station, where the platforms span across the whole width of the Thames. As they’re enclosed in glass, the structure plays with paradoxes of indoors and outdoors, of movement and stasis. One can get on and off a train while standing above water.

After the rush hour, the place can be very empty and quiet, perhaps because the station’s Thameslink status confuses tourists (it’s not part of the Tube, but Travelcards still apply). Suddenly there’s a burst of sound: a female soprano, presumably a busker, sings an aria unaccompanied – though I can’t tell where she is. Her voice echoes all over the long, eerie platforms, turning the whole of Blackfriars into a kind of bridge-shaped megaphone. Intrigued, I ran up and down various stairs and balconies on the South side of the station, trying to find the singer. I feel like a Thameslink Odysseus. After running into several labyrinthine dead ends (two myths for the price of one) – I find the singer standing in a corner of the new embankment, by the pedestrian walkway. She’s blonde, and is wearing a red felt top hat. I want to tell her how far her voice is carrying, and how eerie and beautiful it sounds up on the platforms, particularly when there’s hardly anyone else there. But she’s in mid-aria. I put a pound in her pot, mumble ‘thanks’, and go back to catch my train.

* * *

Thursday 17th March 2016. To the Vue Islington to see Room. The lead, Brie Larson, won Best Actress at the Oscars, as a mother kept prisoner in a suburban shed, while raising her son. I read the Emma Donoghue novel some time ago. The film is a very faithful adaptation, except for the novel’s device of having everything filtered through the five-year-old boy’s perspective. Here the boy has plenty of voice-over narration, but otherwise the perspective is the usual external one of the camera. A straightforward treatment, replicating the book’s three distinct sections: grim urban horror (life in the room), gripping thriller (the escape), then the aftermath in the world outside. As with the novel, I found this last section less satisfying than the previous two, but the performances of both the mother and the boy are memorable.

* * *

To the first floor of 43 Gordon Square, for the last seminar of the Birkbeck term, and the last class on the Contemporary US Fiction module. We finish with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, a novel I’ve had on my To Read shelf for some time. It’s made up of a series of stand-alone stories, linked by a set of characters at different stages in their lives. The ‘goon squad’ is time itself: the implication is that the characters are victims of the world’s changing ways, as much as they are victims of getting older. The perspective changes from character to character with every section: a person referred to in passing in one story may become the main character in another. There’s some stylistic tricks too, the most unusual one being a story entirely told as a Powerpoint slide show, with the same SmartArt diagrams familiar to anyone who uses Microsoft Office. Here they’re used to describe the relationship between a 12-year-old girl, her parents, and her autistic brother.

The Powerpoint story ends with several diagrams of pure data, illustrating the brother’s obsession with pauses in rock songs. It’s a little like the A-level maths question at the end of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: irrelevant to the story, but it’s what the character would do. One of the slides is completely black, which I read as a wry reference to the all-black page in Tristam Shandy.

After the class, I join a few of the students at the IOE bar for pizza and drinks. There’s been some sort of local student protest. Earlier, during the class, we heard some indistinct chanting as the protest passed through Gordon Square.

A barman tells us he’s worried about ‘the rioters’. No such rowdiness here, even on St Patrick’s Day (the Pogues playing dutifully on the hi-fi). Just lots of students sitting around drinking and chatting peacefully.

On coming back from the bar I pass one table and notice a megaphone among the pint glasses.

* * *

Friday 18th March 2016. To the Odeon Covent Garden (£6 with NUS), for Spotlight, which won the Oscar for Best Film. Like Room, it’s a conventional moral drama, focusing on the victims of abuse rather than the perpetrators. In this case, it’s the real-life victims of child molestation in Boston’s Catholic community. The notion of blame here, though, is extended to ideas of collusion, whether it’s people who knew about the cases and covered them up, or people who knew but didn’t think to investigate further. The film has a very old-fashioned feel to it, mindful of not just All The President’s Men (the newspaper setting) but Judgement At Nuremberg: an ensemble piece where the actors serve the story entirely, and the story is told seriously and clearly. Is it the ‘Best’ film? Not compared to Inside Out or The Falling or Carol or Appropriate Behaviour. There’s no innovation or boldness of ideas whatsoever: it’s just a good, well-made, informative work that covers an important issue. A ‘fair enough’ film.

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