Little Threads of Infinity

Sometimes, writing can feel like tugging at little threads of infinity. This is a simile suggested by the jacket I’m wearing today. It’s a beloved linen number of some ten summers, as a result of which the jacket is now unravelling along a number of seams. It has reached the stage where it makes my dry cleaner suck in his breath so much, I wonder if there’s a point where the sound of reluctance ends and asthma begins.

I have the same fear of an infinite unravelling whenever I sit down to write. There’s a point where the mind has no reason to stop dwelling on even the tiniest detail – one thinks of the Woolf story ‘The Mark on the Wall’. Everything is interesting, really.

But the problem with this is that I have a backlog of events from the last few weeks, which really should be at least declared, if only to paint in the parameters of my funny little life. This week’s selection of diary entries, and the next one, will therefore be more of a mopping-up. The temptation to tug on The Threads of Fact until they become The Unravelled Garments of Reflection will just have to be resisted.


Tuesday 4th May 2016. To the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury. A small gallery that nevertheless crams in two superb exhibitions: a major one about ‘The Great British Graphic Novel’, and a smaller one upstairs about the Doctor Who Target novelisations, which came out regularly in the 70s and 80s. Virtually every Doctor Who adventure was turned into one of these little books. I remember them well as a child. It was the era just before TV shows were available to buy on home video (long before DVDs). To revisit a favourite story, the fans had to read prose fiction. How strange now to think of novels as catch-up TV.

Each Target paperback had a specially commissioned cover rendered as a painting (hence the exhibition), branding the books more as imaginative explorations in their own right, rather than disposable cash-ins. They also encouraged a feeling of community, which is what merchandise and events like Comic-Con should always do. Join our club.


Thursday 5th May 2016. In the TLS I read a review by Tom Lean of Electronic Dreams, a book about 1980s computer games. One game, Deus Ex Machina, apparently featured a segment ‘in which the player has to guide a sperm to an egg in order to fertilize it. The astronomer Patrick Moore had been invited to voice the semen; he consulted his mother and, on her advice, declined.’


Sunday 8th May 2016. Afternoon: To a marquee in St James’s Square, for one of the Words in the Square events. This is a miniature literary festival, held by the London Library to mark its 175th anniversary. I attend ‘Desert Island Books’, a group discussion about favourite reads. Six authors sit on a stage and explain their choices in categories such as ‘Childhood Favourite’, ‘Biggest Influence’, ‘Guilty Pleasure’, ‘Tarnished Favourite’, and ‘Recent Favourite’. The authors are Philippa Gregory, Deborah Levy, John O’Farrell, Sara Wheeler, Nikesh Shukla and Ned Beauman. A gender note: all three men try to make the audience laugh, while the three women are more serious and wistful about the pleasures of reading. Though that’s a kind of playing to the crowd too.

Ned B’s ‘Guilty Pleasure’ is to go on Amazon and use the ‘Look Inside’ function to read the bits in crime thrillers where the killer reveals his motive. Nikesh S’s ‘Tarnished Favourite’ is a poetry anthology he contributed to in his teens. His initial excitement at having his dream realised was soon doused; the book turned out to be a scam by a vanity press.

Evening: To the Constitution in Camden for Debbie Smith’s Nitty Gritty club night. It’s such a sunny day that I walk all the way from St James’s, via the canal. At the club I meet the singer from the band Bete Noire, who I’m reliably informed have been making waves with their song, ‘Piss On Putin’.


 Saturday 29th May 2016. Mum in London for the day. We visit the British Library’s big summer exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts. As usual with the BL, it’s a rich mix of the familiar (lots of rare books, a couple of First Folios present and correct), the educational (in-depth histories of early female and black actors) and the unexpected. In the latter case I’m fascinated with the details of the first overseas production, an amateur Hamlet on board a ship off the coast of Sierra Leone, as early as 1607. Shakespeare was still alive.

Also learned: King Lear was performed in a sanitised version for 150 years. This Restoration rewrite had a happy ending and omitted the character of the Fool entirely. When the full Shakespearean Lear was revived in the 1830s, the first actor to play the Fool was a woman, Priscilla Horton.

For me, the highlight is a whole room dedicated to Peter Brook’s 1970 production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. This was the radically minimalist version, staged against plain white walls, with brightly coloured costumes, trapezes and stilts. In the exhibition, all the rooms are dark except for this one, a witty recreation of Brook’s clean white box. There’s even a trapeze one can sit on, albeit firmly anchored.

Lunch at Albertini in Chalton Street, followed by a walk around Camley Street Natural Park and a quick visit to the House of Illustration. Three small exhibitions in the latter: 1920s Soviet children’s books (when animal tales were suppressed as bourgeois constructs), a permanent Quentin Blake gallery, and a display of Japanese girls’ Shojo manga comics. Am intrigued about Keiko Takemiya, who is thought to have pioneered the yaoi genre: comics about gay male love, made by women for girls.

It’s a sunny day, and we have drinks outside in Granary Square (buying them at the trendy Granary Store bar). The area is still being finished, but it’s already King’s Cross’s answer to the South Bank, the canal standing in for the Thames. As with the Royal Festival Hall, hordes of people now descend here at the weekend, and seem to just sit around all day. Alcohol on concrete, bridges over water, art galleries, and the inevitable small children playing in fountains, the kind made up of jets of water springing up from the pavement.

In fact, the Granary Square fountains seem to be more artily-minded than the South Bank ones, perhaps because St Martin’s is next door. The jets switch constantly between different patterns of varying rows and heights. On the South Bank, the jets just rise up and go down. Either way, the children seem happy. Or at least, busy. Which with children, unlike adults, is the same thing.

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The Relief Of Missing Out Revival

Further diary for Friday 13th December: I bump into Erol Alkan on the tube. I don’t see him much these days but today he’s as sweet and friendly as ever. There was a time in the mid 1990s when I would see him several times a week at various London clubs, pubs, gigs and music biz parties. I even met his parents in the house in Archway where he’d grown up. Back then he was a DJ at the more popular indie music clubs in London, like Going Underground and Trash. He then started playing in guitar groups himself (I saw his band Guernica a few times), before he concentrated on DJ-ing full time, then he got into remixing and producing, and today he is one of the country’s biggest DJs full stop.

On the tube he tells me he’s just released his debut single, after all these years: ‘A Hold on Love’. He’s en route that evening to Amsterdam for a charity DJ gig, along with the act Justice. I think I must have pulled an expression of barely concealed ignorance, because Mr A laughs and guesses (rightly) that I have no idea who they are. Later on I look them up. Wikipedia has a whole separate page titled ‘Awards and nominations received by Justice’.

I suppose I could attempt to keep up with the cultural big names one is meant to know, but it’s been years since I took a more than cursory interest in what’s on the A-list at MTV and Radio 1. The last time I was exposed to Radio 1 was about five years ago, when I had to visit the NHS sexual health clinic on Archway Road. It was their waiting room music of choice.  

There’s a fashionable acronym doing the rounds about this sort of thing: FOMO, short for Fear Of Missing Out. It’s the form of anxiety that technology has meant to have brought into people’s lives. It can be the need to constantly check updates in the personal lives of others (particular on Facebook), or the need to be up-to-date with current affairs due to its addictive overexposure (via Twitter, websites, free newspapers, screens in railway stations). People may become terrified of being the only person in the room who, say, wasn’t aware of X getting married, or of Y having children, or Z dying, or such and such a band reforming, or knowing what ‘selfie’ means. All because they missed seeing the right updates. They were looking in the wrong direction at just the wrong time, and so they Missed Out.

But missing out is nothing to be afraid of. It’s certainly nothing new. No one can watch every ‘must-see’ TV series, or investigate every vaguely celebrated new release in music, or read every shortlist of every literary award, and get the dog shampooed. So becoming anxious about missing out is nonsensical. Instead, we should cultivate our natural specialism, plough our own individual furrows of taste, and mutiny against the construction that is General Knowledge, whoever he may be.

Instead of Fear Of Missing Out, I propose we should embrace a Relief Of Missing Out. Or ROMO for short. It’s almost as if that acronym was made for me.

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Tuesday 17th December 2013. Something modern that I do get anxious about is the Mid Transaction Hustle. I go to Ryman’s on Lower Regent Street to stock up on stamps for Christmas Cards. Halfway way through the transaction, the assistant suddenly asks if I want to buy batteries as well. They are on special offer, and she gestures to a pile of them cluttering up the counter in an attention-seeking way. I have to stop myself saying ‘Please understand that if I had wanted to buy batteries, I would have asked for batteries. I have just come here to buy stamps and I rarely react well to mid-transaction surprises.’

In my case I think this particular anxiety is a symptom of my dyspraxia. One thought at a time is hard enough for a mind which is already struggling to get itself in order. The Mid Transaction Hustle can throw a spanner into some already fragile works. Thankfully, at the Ryman’s counter I manage to bottle up my cognitive confusion and mumble a simple ‘No thanks’. It is, after all, not the staff’s fault.

WH Smith are the worst culprits, though. For some time now, their till staff have been forced to ask every customer if they’d like all manner of additional unhealthy items to go with their newspaper or magazine. Haribo? Toblerone? An unacceptably oversized bar of Galaxy? As a result, the counter at Smiths is often covered in an unhappy clutter of these garish packets. Even if one uses the self-service machines (an innovation particularly suited for the British dislike of talking to strangers), by the time you’re about to pay, the screen suddenly asks you if you’d like to buy a reduced packet of Haribo there.

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Thursday 19 December 2013. To the Odeon Tottenham Court Road to see the new Hobbit film, with fellow student Jon S. Like Mr Jackson’s other Middle Earth outings. it’s so beautifully designed and realised that I don’t mind the requisite ho-hum fight scenes and nick-of-time action scenes, which aren’t my sort of thing. What I do enjoy is the immersive creation of a whole world. The dragon Smaug is well worth the wait, made even more potent by being plummily voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Fans of Sherlock therefore get the double pleasure of seeing the two lead actors from one successful interpretation of classic genre fiction, playing hero and villain in another adaptation of classic genre fiction. On top of that, the new Hobbit films are themselves revisits of Mr Jackson’s Lord of The Rings series. So the Smaug scenes have an acute sense of genre celebration several times over.

Good to see Lee Pace in there too. He was the lead actor in Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, one of those films that really should be better known. In The Fall, Mr Pace had an otherworldly kind of prettiness about him, so it makes perfect sense that he’s now been cast as an Elf King.

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Amid all the Doctor Who 50th anniversary celebrations was a welcome repeat of a radio documentary about Target Books. This was the range of paperback novelisations of the old Doctor Who TV stories. They fulfilled several generations of fans’ needs to relive the programmes, at a time when home video and DVD was yet to come. The documentary was by Mark Gatiss, and he reminded me of the stock phrase the Target writers used to describe the way the Tom Baker Doctor dressed: ‘casual bohemian elegance’.

It is only now that I realise two things about this phrase. One, that this would have been my first introduction to the use of the word ‘bohemian’ to mean a way of dressing. As a child, I remember being confused by it (wasn’t Bohemia a country?). And two, that ‘casual bohemian elegance’ sums up the way I think I dress now.

[Mark Gatiss article on Target Books: ]

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