Typewriters Do Furnish A Cafe

Saturday 15th August 2015

Thinking about what to do on my 44th birthday, which is on 3rd Sept. My usual rule is to go somewhere I’ve not been before. Somewhere affordable, though. Still can’t afford to go abroad (and it’s been 6 years now). I get excited when I realise that the former NatWest Tower, in the City, has a bar at the top, and that I think it’s called Tower 44.  But when I check, I find out that it’s actually called Tower 42, is rather pricey (at least for me), and that they don’t take bookings for parties of one.

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Currently reading Mindful London, by Tessa Watt. Some useful advice on finding quiet spaces, practicing mindfulness in the city, and dealing with over-sensitivity to traffic noise (a current problem of mine). Thje trick is to imagine yourself acting like a microphone, simple hearing the distracting sounds rather than thinking about them. Seems so simple, but for me it takes an enormous amount of effort. I’m still working on it. Some days I just feel besieged by irritations. ‘What fresh hell is this?’ – Dorothy Parker’s response to the phone ringing.

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Current work: the Birkbeck summer course, ‘Step Up To PG Arts’. A lot of reading and academic exercises, all to help me warm up to doing the MA. I’m also going to one-off workshops on the separate ‘Get Ahead’ programme.

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Wednesday 19th August 2015.

To the Keynes Library in Gordon Square, to deliver a short PowerPoint presentation, as part of the ‘Step Up to PG Arts’ course. .

I talk about the Alan Moore & Oscar Zarate graphic short story from 1996, ‘I Keep Coming Back’. It takes me long enough just to scan the pages into PowerPoint. I also make things harder for myself by linking it to a recent news story, about the controversial new museum in Cable Street. The museum reportedly applied for planning permission on the grounds that it was to be an archive of women’s history in the East End. When it opened, it was simply The Jack The Ripper Museum. Lots of protests, and the controversy is still ongoing. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to it. I should really take a look myself.

Moore typically stuffs his story with references to other books, like Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor, and Iain Sinclair’s 1994 book Radon Daughters. The latter is particularly subtle: just a mention of an ‘author friend’ of Moore’s who has recently written about a one-legged protagonist. I feel disproportionately pleased about working out he means Radon Daughters. So much so, I can’t cut it out of the presentation, even though I know I need to. As a result I end up rushing through the slides, when I really should be pausing and reflecting. Still, it’s all good practice for the next time. Always more to do, always more to say.

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Friday 21st August 2015.

I do some reading in the pleasant, anti-corporate café in the Quakers’ Friends House on Euston Road. I like how a centre for a religion based around silent meditation is on one of the most traffic-clogged roads in London. The café gives discounts for Birkbeck students, as the college rents some of its rooms for classes.

Then to Haggerston station on the Overground. Like a lot of the new-ish Overground stations (this one was opened in 2010), it’s airy and high-ceilinged. Filling one wall in the ticket hall is a trompe l’oeil mural by Tod Hanson. Titled The Elliptical Switchback, it’s based around a huge red and silver magnetic compass set within concentric circles. The design pays tribute to Edmond Halley, of comet fame, who was born nearby. It’s a reminder that Halley did rather more than just map the stars: he also invented magnetic compasses, put forth the idea of the Earth having a hollow structure (hence the concentric shells), devised weather charts, designed diving bells, translated Arabic, and commanded the first British scientific voyages around the world. So he’s something of a Haggerston hero.

From there, I walk west along Regent’s Canal. A bright and sunny day, not too hot. I take a look at The Proud Archivist, a new arts venue right on the towpath. It’s fashionable-looking but friendly. I note Richard Herring is doing some comedy previews here. There’s also an intriguing ‘Library’ with a wall of bookshelves, where the books are shelved according to the colour of their spines. Anthony Powell’s title Books Do Furnish A Room has never been more true. I’m reminded how another common decorative element in London cafés is old manual typewriters. Even the Caffé Nero outside BBC Broadcasting House has several on view. These spidery old machines now exist as a kind of visual punctuation between the lattes. They sit on their shelves and glower dustily at their upstart successor – the laptop.

Today the Proud Archivist is full of people in wedding dress. I wander into the main room, and catch the best man giving a speech by the DJ booth. I am not challenged, and wonder if it’s because of the way I dress. One of the cat-calls I have had on the street is, after all, ‘OY MATE – WHERE’S THE WEDDING? Har! Har!’  For a moment I compare my situation with the Owen Wilson film, The Wedding Crashers. Then I realise I am not Owen Wilson, not even slightly, and leave.

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I walk further west to Whitmore Road, a quiet street between residential tower blocks, to visit an even newer café: The Trew Era, owned by Russell Brand. It was opened in March as part of Mr B’s social enterprise schemes. It’s also connected with his campaign to prevent the residents of the adjoining New Era estate from being evicted by greedy landlords. The cafe is small, but there’s a garden section in the back, and a pleasant set of seats al fresco out front. The staff are apparently recovering drug addicts, on the abstinence-based programmes that Mr B champions. All non-corporate brands in the chiller, as might be expected: Thirsty Planet bottled water, rather than Evian. I have a home-made iced latte in a jam jar. A slogan on the wall says ‘“To live will be an awfully big adventure” – Peter Pan’.

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I walk further west along the canal. There’s signs along the towpath that say ‘Priority to Pedestrians – Share The Space, Slow Your Pace’. To little effect. Most of the cyclists I pass this evening – and I should mention it is rush hour – just pedal aggressively at full speed and ring their bells at walkers like myself, firmly implying that they have priority instead.

I turn off the canal at Noel Road in Islington, take a moment to look at the Joe Orton plaque, enjoy a light vegan dinner at the Candid Café (a rare wifi-free cafe), then go to the Vue cinema to see the new Pixar film, Inside Out.

I learn today that it’s better not to see family films in the afternoon, in case the screening turns out to be one of the many ‘kids clubs’ screenings, where lone adults are not admitted. This is fair enough, except that the special nature of these screenings often doesn’t show up in the general cinema listings. So it’s better to go to an evening showing, and as late as possible. The Vue Islington audience, at 7.45pm, are mostly adults.

Inside Out is another Pixar triumph, up there with Monsters Inc. It’s based on a simple enough idea – the inside of a little girl’s head becomes a factory run by anthropomorphised emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. But this is fully explored to a dazzling, hilarious & moving extent. It’s frequently sophisticated and original on a level far above most mainstream cinema (childrens’ or not), and is clearly influenced by some proper research into child psychology. Yet I’m sure small children can still enjoy it as a tale of cartoon characters having slapstick adventure. Just the opening sequence of Joy being ‘born’ and becoming self-aware, inside the darkness of a baby’s mind, is a breathtaking moment. The extra short film, Lava, is a little tear-jerking masterpiece, too.

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Mr Brand The Security Botherer

Saturday 25th April 2015.

Reading lots of Angela Carter this week, as research for the final essay (due in on the 8th). Her collection of essays, Shaking A Leg, is a joy. ‘Alison’s Giggle’ examines the moment in the Canterbury Tales where a young wife plays a sexual prank on an unwanted suitor. She giggles in triumph (‘Tee hee! quod she’). Carter argues that this giggle is rarely heard across the next five centuries of English literature, due to it being sexually knowing. She also compares the Wife of Bath to Mae West. So I’m linking all this to her use of Ronald Firbank’s effeminate 1920s giggle in her radio play, A Self-Made Man, along with theories of the meaning of laughter.

Feminine laughter is crucial to Carter. It dominates the finale of Nights At The Circus, and features in one of her greatest lines full stop. It’s the twist moment in her take on Red Riding Hood, in ‘The Company of Wolves’:

‘The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.’

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Sunday 26th April 2015.

Sometimes when I’m researching, the few Google results that come up include my own diary. I like to think this means I’m creating a useful resource: that I’ve found something Google doesn’t know, and put it online so that it does. But really, the fear is that it’s just me who is looking.

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Monday 27th April 2015.

Last day of research for the essay, in the British Library. I listen to A Self-Made Man on the BL Sound Archive. A couple of years ago there was a documentary on Radio 4, Writing in Three Dimensions, entirely about Carter’s radio plays. It’s still available on the BBC’s streaming iPlayer, and also as a digital audiobook. Yet none of the actual plays themselves are available. Just the documentary telling us how good they are.


Some good news about the Dubai-ification of London this week. A pretty 1920s pub, the Carlton Tavern in Maida Vale, was demolished by the usual profit-obsessed company. Only this time they did it without telling anyone first. As a result, the council ordered the company to rebuild the pub brick-by-brick, as a facsimile. It’s thought to be the first time this has happened. I hope it starts a trend of Londoners being asked if a building should be torn down, and asked whether yet another empty glass tower should go up. Thinking the unthinkable.

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Tuesday 28th April 2015.

To a lesser-known Birkbeck building at Number 30 Russell Square, for the very last class in the BA English degree. It’s for the ‘American Century’ module, on Toni Morrison’s novella Home (2012). Pretty much a mini-Beloved, and unlikely to eclipse that earlier novel’s reputation. But I like its moments of suspense, its taut and careful prose, and the usual Morrison hallmark of shining a light on America’s shadier past. The tutor, Anna Hartnell, quotes a scathing review which accuses Ms Morrison of just doing the same thing over and over again. I’ve never understood why that’s a criticism. It’s called style.

Afterwards, to the Institute of Education bar, close by, for drinks with some of the students. We chat about what we’re doing after our BA’s. Some are moving into teaching. Some are taking other courses (dressmaking, in one case). Some are just going back to their jobs, pleased to be able to spend more time with their partners and children, but armed with an extra qualification.

I’ve finally sent off my application for an MA bursary at Birkbeck. My supporting statement took three drafts, and was shown to two kindly tutors for their feedback. Have to get it right – it’s essentially a begging letter. But then, so are CVs.

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Wednesday 29th April 2015.

To the Prince Charles Cinema for the Russell Brand film, The Emperor’s New Clothes. Interesting audience for the screening – casual filmgoers, but also a lot of proper activists. Older, white-bearded veterans of protests, with their slogan badges, plus younger, louder student types. Afterwards I can hear them discussing where the next Occupy protest is going to be.

The film is in the mould of those Michael Moore documentaries – lots of scenes where Mr Brand turns up with his megaphone and film crew at some glossy City lobby, demanding to speak to a naughty banker. Funnily enough, he doesn’t get to speak to the boss, and instead is left taunting some blameless security guard. This futile spectacle happens five or six times in the film – Brand doesn’t seem to learn.  The rest of it is more interesting, though: interviewing those hit by government cuts, speaking to economists who point out why the erring rich are allowed to get away with it, and stark statistics about the gulf between the wages earned by cleaners, and those earned by the people who step over their hoovers. The main message is that historically, banks never used to be these self-serving monsters of unchecked growth – they were meant to be providers of services for everyone else. So they should go back to being that way. This would mean those in power bringing in new caps and regulations, even if, as one expert puts it, it’ll be like turkeys voting for Christmas (Noel Gallagher on Ed Miliband this week – ‘he’s a communist’). Perhaps this is all an obvious lesson, but when Mr Brand tells it, it does reach those who might be unaware.

Brand is funny and charismatic enough, but I can’t help thinking of Trickster myths. The Trickster – that priapic figure of tribal societies, who exists to represent disorder. Jung was convinced he represented something under the skin in everyone, and that he emerged in times of national crisis. Mr B certainly connects with that idea; the feeling that he is tapping into something primal and atavistic (I’m sure that’s one of his favourite words), so people pay attention. And in an era where attention is currency, Mr B is the richest of the super-rich. Still, he does seem to redistribute some of this attention to do good. And politicians do listen to him. This week, he interviewed the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, one-to-one – and Miliband came to Brand’s house! An audience with His Majesty The Trickster.

I renew my Prince Charles Cinema membership: only £7.50 a year, with NUS. For that, one can see brand new films, most days, for £4, and in the centre of London too. It remains one of the best cinemas in the city.

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Thursday 30th April 2015.

I watch the latest leaders’ TV Q&A. All three of them – Cameron, Miliband, Clegg – have the same irritating habit of saying ‘look’ at the start of every other sentence. It’s pure Tony Blair. And that’s the whole problem – it’s 2015 and all the politicians are watching videos of Blair in 1997, and copying his mannerisms. The last landslide.

There’s a new Blur album out. More Nineties.

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Friday 1st May 2015.

I finish the first draft of the essay (3000 words). The usual feeling that it’s a mess, and that the later drafts will sort it out.

Feel like treating myself, so to the Prince Charles cinema again. This time for the Kurt Cobain film, Montage of Heck. Well, if it must be a Nineties week…

It’s a curious music documentary: it expects the audience to be very familiar with the subject matter already. The music is there as a soundtrack, but that’s it. There’s hardly any details about the story of the band, what the songs might be about, why the drummers changed and so forth. Instead it’s more of an attempt to get under the skin of Cobain the man, via rare footage and home movies. There’s also some original animated segments, which I can take or leave, frankly. Some of them illustrate audio recordings, some make Cobain’s notebooks come to life. Plus there’s a few interviews with friends and family, which try to make a connection between his parents’ divorce and his problems with relating to the world – hating fame, seeking solace in drugs. As the film has been executively produced by his daughter, various people’s feelings have clearly been considered as a priority. Which is fair enough. But that’s always the way with such films. A truth. rather than the truth.

Something that dates the film. These days, family snapshots tend to be freely posted on social media, rather than hidden away on a shelf at home. Personal snaps? Taken now more than ever. But ‘rare and unseen’ like the ones in the Cobain film? Not so much. Today, people show photos of their children to millions of strangers. Everyone’s in their own documentary now.

And in my Canute-like way, today I sit in the Crypt café in St Martin in the Fields, and write a letter to Pittsburgh.

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