In Which I Compare Myself To Imelda Marcos

Saturday 16th August 2014. My reading matter this week includes Samuel Beckett’s short stories from the 1940s, such as ‘The Expelled’ and ‘The End’. They’re all about lonely layabouts trudging the streets in existential woe. I come away wanting to look at pictures of kittens.

* * *

Currently struggling with two mundane but time-consuming problems: the procurement of new shoes and new glasses. I record these non-experiences in the hope of exorcising their hold on me.

I put off these sort of purchases as long as I can. Partly out of poverty, but also because I know purchases of need rarely satisfy me, compared to purchases of luxury (such as alcohol, cinema tickets or books).

In the cases of the glasses, the nice optician at Boots Muswell Hill tested my sight and told me it had changed slightly. She gave me a new prescription. Then it emerged that (a) they cannot put new lenses into my current frames, and (b) Boots no longer make my current frames.

I tried on the free NHS frames they had, but couldn’t find any I liked. Then I tried some of the priced ones I can just about afford (ie under £100) and settled for a pair I thought were okay. Black rimmed, Boots own brand, a bit big and cartoonish. I was aiming for Vintage Michael Caine, rather than Current Gok Wan. £95, from a half price offer.

But this mundanity expands, sucking up hours. It takes me two visits to decide on this new pair, then a third visit for collecting them after the lenses are in. And then a few days after that, I decide I don’t like the specs so much after all. They feel heavy and clunky and goggle-like. Is it the newness? A resentment of change? Or is it that I just wanted to get out of the opticians as fast as possible, knowing I had to choose something? On top of this, I’m now unconvinced my eyesight has changed – my old pair seem to correct my vison well enough.

I can barely speak for sighing. I stand on a train platform on St Pancras, holding both the old and the new pairs, switching between the two while testing my sight on the train information signs. I must look mad.

* * *

And then, later in the week, I have a similar frustration with new shoes. I try to go for years without buying a new pair. My current everyday black shoes now have holes in the top. Seconds of rain leave both feet drenched. The cobblers in Muswell Hill have told me to throw them out, but I haven’t. I can’t, yet.

I go to Clarks in Oxford Street and spend a good hour trying on sand-coloured shoes to go with my linen suits. One pair seem right: Clarks Classics, suede Jinks, priced £75. Fine, done, happy. Yet a few days later I’m in pain. The suede creases when I walk, cutting into my left foot at the base of my big toe. I’m close to limping.

The Clarks receipt says ‘full refund if unworn’. By this point, I have dragged the shoes through a mile of London grime. I spend hours trying to solve the dilemma with Scholls padded plasters, stuck on the painful areas of my foot. That in turn means time has to be spent at Boots St Pancras, peering at their complex range of foot-based products. I go back to stock up on more when I realise the pads come off in the shower. And so it goes on. Incredibly, the world turns.

I worry that I’ll never find a single pair of comfortable yet affordable shoes. And then I worry that it’s my feet that are the problem; that they’ve become vertically misshapen with age, and that this pain is just another petty ache one has to get used to. Or: perhaps I’m walking wrongly. I’ve caught myself staring at how others walk on the street (evidence of more madness). I see other people tilting their feet at a much higher angle than I do. Maybe that’s it. Have I forgotten how to walk properly? I wouldn’t put it past me.

(At this point I fear I am turning into a Samuel Beckett character. You are what you read.)

So this is what dominates my life this week, to my utter shame. The resentment of simple self-maintenance that fails to be simple. I try to dwell on more important things, but my shoes have rather gone to my head. The only response I take away from reading the news is, ‘I bet Barack Obama’s shoes fit him okay.’

Another thought. Perhaps Imelda Marcos wasn’t so greedy after all, with her palace of infinite shoes. Perhaps she just couldn’t get it right.

* * *

Sunday 18th August 2014. I’m reading Ronald Blythe’s diaries, as collected in Under A Broad Sky (Canterbury Press, 2013). He says this on the student protests of 2011:

‘It is sad to grow old and to have never rioted.’ He’s about 90.

* * *

Monday 19th August 2014. Penguin’s annotated edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four includes a letter from Evelyn Waugh to Orwell, criticising the novel in a respectful, friendly way. Waugh’s main reservation is ‘the disappearance of the Church’ in Orwell’s vision. He means Catholicism, but he implies that religion as a whole is ‘inextinguishable’ – a word that directly recalls the ending of Brideshead Revisited.

The edition also reprints Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, next to a reader’s report by the publishers, Secker & Warburg, about Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the former, Orwell lists his rules for how to write clearly, which have been much quoted ever since (‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out’). In the latter, the publisher notes ‘It is a typical Orwellism that Julia falls asleep while Winston reads part of [O’Brien’s book] to her. Women aren’t intelligent in Orwell’s world’. And that’s from his own publisher! The lesson seems to be: feel free to take Orwell’s advice on how to write, but bear in mind that he wasn’t perfect either.

* * *

Tuesday 20th August 2014. I realise my ongoing shoe discomfort is not rare. Today I’m in Humanities One of the British Library Reading Rooms, studying Larkin’s The Less Deceived. The woman at the desk next to me has taken her shoes and socks off. One bare foot rests on her other knee, in a kind of bookish yoga position.

* * *

Wednesday 21st August 2014. To the Phoenix for The Congress. It’s a giddy, strange film that mixes live action with psychedelic animation. The actress Robin Wright plays a version of herself. The story starts out as a satire on the state of Hollywood, but then shifts into full-on science fiction. It’s often hard to keep up with what’s going on: only twenty minutes after I leave the cinema do I fully understand what happens at the end. The critics have been polarised, with some using the term ‘Yellow Submarine-esque’ as an insult. In which case, count me on the side of those who would take it as a compliment. I admit The Congress is not a perfect film, but there’s so much imagination and originality on show – and so many sights no one has seen before. It goes into the Top Five of my favourite films this year, along with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Punk Singer, and Frank.

* * *

Friday 22nd August 2014. At home all day. Reading, writing, failing to write, filling out paperwork for the final college year, idly social media-ing. I leave the house just once, at about 6pm, to go to Sainsbury’s on Archway Rd. Barely a minute’s walk, and a passer-by says to me: ‘love the suit!’ The only words I hear in person all day. Well, if I must have a single comment from the world.

I suppose I really do put on a suit and tie just to buy a pint of milk. Didn’t even realise it.

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What To Give William Blake

Lots of moaning to myself lately.

A request from the singer-songwriter Lettie. Would I like to play guitar and sing for her at a gig in a few weeks’ time? I tentatively agree. Last night: she comes to the Boogaloo, buys me drinks and lends me an acoustic guitar.

This morning I try playing the thing. It’s the first time there’s been an instrument in my home since I sold them all 18 months ago. I think it’s also the first time I’ve picked up a guitar since the last Fosca gig in Sweden, Spring 2009.

I’d like to say my fingers fall easily onto the guitar and it feels like coming home. Not a bit of it. The strings cut into my fingers and it hurts and I’m not sure I feel like a guitarist any more. But then, I’ve always found acoustic guitars so much harder to play than electrics. I decide to try again later.


This week I upload my CV onto a job-matching website. It returns just one vacancy. Street fundraiser. Also known as ‘charity mugger’ or ‘chugger’. ‘Do you want to develop your interpersonal skills?’ says the ad. By which they mean, do you want to annoy innocent passers-by and risk being punched fully in the face? I sympathise with the people who do this job, but it doesn’t change my moral opposition to it.

A couple of friends say I should just take any job going. But I can’t do what I can’t do. It’s like asking a man with vertigo to clean the windows of a skyscraper. He could do it, but he wouldn’t last and he wouldn’t be at all happy.

Not that I’m happy being on the dole. As soon as I think I’m managing, something comes along like a dental check-up bill –even at the NHS level – and I have to cancel all going out for the next fortnight.

Here’s hoping something comes along soon.

On top of this I’m angry at my shoes. New smart flaneur-ing boots, a present from my parents, who were appalled that I couldn’t afford to replace my disintegrating old pair. Although they fitted okay in the shop, they’re still pinching my feet painfully after ten days of wear. I’ve tried using a softening spray (£7, more pain) but the pinching persists.  Trouble is, I don’t think you’re allowed to exchange shoes once they’ve clearly been worn  – that’s the Catch-22 of footwear.

The temperature has dropped close to freezing and I can’t afford to heat the room all day. So this morning I wander outside, shivering and feet-hurting and guitar-resenting and penniless and feeling utterly sorry for myself. If in doubt, go for a walk.

In Highgate Village, I bump into Brian David Stevens, the photographer whom I last spoke to at the Felt book launch. He invites me to a private view this afternoon in London Bridge. It’s free and sounds interesting, but I can’t even afford the return bus fare.

Then I think, stuff it, I’ll just walk. It’s all downhill, and I have all the time in the world. So I do it. Six miles, from Highgate to Archway, down the full length of Holloway Road to Highbury Corner, through Islington to Old Street, down to Moorgate and Bank and across the river. Proper flaneur stuff. It warms me up, it’s good exercise, it might help to make the boots stop pinching, and by the end of it I think I’m a kind of New Romantic Iain Sinclair.

The exhibition in London Bridge is called Civil Unrest, featuring photos from the recent London protests. The venue is the Depot, where I’ve DJ-d in the past. A series of cavernous black warehouse spaces underneath the arches of London Bridge station. The photos are blown-up prints pasted around the dark walls in suitably gritty fashion. There’s crowd control barriers, piles of rubbish in corners and it’s all very ‘themed’. The staffer on the door is dressed in full riot squad gear, complete with shield, while the free drinks – brandy punch – are served in tin campsite mugs. I say hello to Marc Vallee, another of the photographers.

On the way back, I stop off at Bunhill Fields to look at William Blake’s grave. There’s a pile of people’s tributes on top of the stone: mostly pennies and cents, a few seashells and stones, some earrings. And more unexpectedly, an FM radio attachment for an iPod.

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