Ekphrastically Yours

Monday 21st December 2015.

Mum comes up to London for the day, and we do our own metropolitan version of the family get-together. First: to Somerset House Ice Rink, now a favourite symbol of Christmas in twenty-first-century London, as immortalised in the opening of Love Actually. Unfortunately today it rains like mad, and the ice rink is waterlogged. But this doesn’t stop the skaters, and they carry on gliding through the puddles.

We stick around at Somerset House to have a look at the current exhibitions. I’m delighted to see there’s a Tintin show, Tintin – Herge’s Masterpiece. Every inch of the gallery walls and windows are covered in Tintin illustrations. There are detailed scale models of scenes from the books, including a dolls’ house of Marlinspike Hall.

Then to the Courtauld next door, for Soaring Flight – Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings, and Bridget Riley – Learning From Seurat. I always wonder how Ms Riley managed to create her 60s works without getting dizzy. A mere five minutes of her op-art canvases unsteadies my sense of reality. Though admittedly, that doesn’t take much.

We revisit some of the Courtauld’s permanent collection too. Paintings as old friends, world-famous masterpieces, right here by the ice rink. The Van Gogh self-portrait, Manet’s barmaid, Modigliani’s nude, Monet and Cezanne’s landscapes, Degas’s dancers.

Lunch in the top floor café of Foyle’s in Charing Cross Road, then a spot of book browsing, moving onto in Waterstone’s in Trafalgar Square. We’re impressed by their Book of the Year, The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith. It’s a beautiful children’s picture book, printed in blue cloth hardback on thick, high quality paper. Ms Bickford-Smith is a book designer by profession – her work can be seen in the Penguin English Classics range. Hers is an ornate and symmetrical  style that nods to William Morris’s woodcut designs for the Kelmscott Press, but also to Jan PieÅ„kowski’s more recent silhouettes. With The Fox and The Star Ms Bickford-Smith not only writes the original story, but illustrates, designs and typesets the finished object as well. Even the credits for the font and the paper stock have a touch of the exotic: ‘set in Agfa Wile 12pt/15pt, printed on Munken Pure Rough’.

Waterstones are also making a small point here about the current role of print books in a digital age. 2015 saw them withdraw Kindles from their shops, while the sales of print books rose for the first time since the rise of ebooks. Significantly, although The Fox and the Star has clearly been produced using the latest digital design and publishing programs, the end product is entirely physical; there is no ebook edition. In this sense, print is the ultimate upgrade of digital. The page is a screen that finally stops moving, and the viewer can finally relax.

Ms Bickford-Smith’s story is a simple fable for small children, about a young fox coping with the loss of his friend, the Star. But it lends itself to wider readings of grief and personal bereavement, particularly when one learns that the author was inspired by the loss of her mother at an early age.

Mum treats me to a copy. Later, I peruse the pages at home. My own reading of the tale is inevitably bound up with thoughts of Dad, and I get a little weepy.

By 4pm on this Shortest Day, it’s completely dark. We take a busy Clipper boat up the Thames to Greenwich, taking in the lights of the city. Then a further ride, this time on the Emirates Air Line cable car link, which spans the Thames from the O2 Dome in Greenwich to the Royal Victoria Dock in Newham. It turns out to be easy to just turn up and get a whole car to yourself. No queues; in fact, barely anyone on the thing at all. The moment when the car first ascends from the terminus and soars high above the water is the most heartstopping one. It swings a little in the wind, which is unnerving, but only a little.

We take the DLR and tube to Liverpool Street, where I see Mum off on the train to Suffolk.

* * *

Thursday 24th December 2015.

Adventures in youth slang. In a branch of Pret today, a young man at the table next to me says his companion, ‘I find that so jokes‘. As in funny. I knew about this usage from the internet, but thought it was confined to the enclaves of cyberspace. This is the first time I’ve heard it said aloud. But it’s still yet to appear on Gardener’s Question Time, I think.

I attempt to see a film in the evening with Shanthi S, but we’re thwarted by her news website employers, who force her to work late. She has to work on Christmas Day as well, via her computer at home. The news must not rest.

All the cinemas in London seem to shut down completely on Xmas Eve after 6pm, but we have a pleasant time with cocktails and food at the Dean Street Townhouse in Soho (see previous entry).

Shanthi reminds me how in New York it’s common for people to go to the cinema on Christmas Day, often combining it with Chinese food. There’s nothing like that in London. Many pubs, restaurants and convenience stores are open, but certainly no cinemas. The transport system still shuts down completely on December 25th – the only day in the year when it does. Even in 2015, London is essentially a Christian city.

* * *

Friday 25th December 2015.

Christmas Day, spent in Highgate. Rainy, windy, cold and overcast. I phone Mum for a chat in the morning, then brave the rain to walk up to Waterlow Park, for my traditional feeding of the ducks.

The rest of the day is spent in my room, hacking away at the essay, while swigging from a large bottle of Baileys. My Christmas lunch is a microwaved carton of ‘White Christmas’ soup from the New Covent Garden Soup Co. Plus Quorn cocktail sausages. And lashings of back pain (currently seeing a GP, trying treatments).

Still, I’m grateful not to be one of the thousands in Northern England affected by devastating floods. I think about how we’re now getting close to 2019, the year that Blade Runner is meant to be set in. A film in which the future means constant heavy rain.

* * *

Saturday 26th December 2015.

I upload a diary entry that was meant to be a few words, apologising for not writing a diary entry. It ends up ballooning into 1500 words.

Evening: to the Curzon Soho, a cinema that proudly advertises itself in its window posters as a ‘Force Free Zone’. Its three screens are showing a diverse programme of films, none of which are the new Star Wars. There’s Carol, Grandma, the Peggy Guggenheim documentary, The Lobster (still), and Ice and the Sky. I plump for Grandma, a low-key indie road movie in the vein of Little Miss Sunshine and The Daytrippers.

Grandma stars Lily Tomlin as a grumpy lesbian poet (in her first leading role since 1988’s Big Business with Bette Midler!). She drives her pregnant granddaughter around various locations in order to raise the money for an abortion. It’s a simple conceit, but full of wit, poignancy and thoughtful characterisation; with jokes that rely on the audience knowing who Simone De Beauvoir is.

* * *

Monday 28th December 2015.

Evening: To Vout-O-Reenee’s for Atalanta Kernick’s birthday drinks. Lots of queer, dapper ladies, and women from the 90s London music scene. I chat to the writer Ngaire-Ruth, Debbie Smith (AK’s partner), Harris (one of the Drakes, a performance group of besuited butch women), and also to Ms Shir from Israel (which she refers to as ‘the land of blood and honey’). Plus Alex, the (straight male) drummer from the band Nightnurse. He’s now in Department S, of ‘Is Vic There’ fame. I discover that he also pops up in Shaun of the Dead, as a zombie on a daytime TV talk show. Indulge myself with the bar’s ‘Dunkin Donut’ cocktail: milk, cacao, Kahlua.

* * *

Thursday 31st December 2015.

New Year’s Eve. I stay in by myself. Again, by choice. Again, to work on the essay. I discover the true sound of NYE in residential city streets: the constant revving of pizza delivery mopeds.

In the essay, I suddenly find myself using the word ‘ekphrastically’. At which point it’s midnight, so I take a break, open the Prosecco, and watch the fireworks at the London Eye, via the internet. Far better than being surrounded by drunken people who don’t know what they’re doing. Here’s to choice, difference, and 2016.

* * *

Sunday 3rd January 2016.

I finish the essay – with a fifth draft – and deliver it online. Celebrate by watching the new Sherlock film, the Victorian one, which is superb. Also enjoy Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe, his satirical review of the year. It ends on a pessimistic note, but I take comfort from the knowledge that Mr Brooker’s style of ‘loner grumpiness’ is now a necessary fabrication. It’s quite funny that he has to keep up the image of the angry, lonely outsider shouting at the TV from his sofa, when these days he is married and has children, and indeed a successful TV career. I worry, though, about my own grumpiness. I’m heading into a new year, still without any sense of a ‘career’, still very much feeling like a outsider. And yet Ms Shanthi said to me this week, when I was apparently acting in a bar like I owned the place, ‘You’re more like Hugh Grant than you think!’

* * *

Tuesday 4th January 2016.

To the ICA cinema to see Joy, the new David O. Russell film, starring Jennifer Lawrence. As was the case with Mr Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, it also has Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro, and the same mix of quirky plot details with straightforward realism. The quirky plot in this instance being the tale of a young woman who invents a self-rinsing mop. There’s a little of Frank Capra’s ‘American inspiration’ style in this particular mix, though, and thanks to Ms Lawrence being so utterly likeable, it all works. Indeed, I come out of the cinema with a real sense of warmth. It’s also a nice companion to Carol, being another Christmas tale of a woman finding out who she really is.

* * *

Thursday 7th January 2016.

First class of the MA’s spring term. I’m now on a module that’s specifically about contemporary US fiction. This week we study Paradise (1997) by Toni Morrison. It uses elements of mystery and magical realism, much like Beloved, but with a much larger cast of characters. As a result, the reader has to do a fair amount of work just to work out what’s going on – the narrative can switch perspectives and even historical eras, halfway through a sentence.

* * *

Friday 8th January 2016.

I finish reading Diana Athill’s Alive Alive Oh! Some new words: she calls Highgate ‘a bosky place’ (leafy, wooded). As a child she wore ‘jemimas’ – overshoes of waterproofed felt. ‘Galoshes were considered sissy, whereas jemimas, although they looked much more old-womanish, were perfectly acceptable on manly feet’.

Also, she expresses the unexpected luxury of having to use a wheelchair, especially when visiting art exhibitions. ‘The crowd falls away on either side like the Red Sea, and there you are, lounging in front of the painting of your choice in perfect comfort’.

On life advice at 98: ‘Avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness’. And on her innate sense of not wanting to be a mother: ‘I remember thinking when looking at a small baby, ‘I’d much rather pick up a puppy.”

* * *

I look back over the previous year’s diaries. I think I saw more films than ever – it must be close to a hundred. In which case, here’s some Favourite Things of 2015. I recommend them all.


  1. Appropriate Behaviour
  2. Birdman
  3. Carol
  4. The Falling
  5. Inside Out
  6. The Lady In The Van
  7. London Road
  8. Mistress America
  9. White Bird In A Blizzard
  10. The Lobster


  1. Best of Enemies (Gore Vidal)
  2. Do I Sound Gay? (campness as identity)
  3. Beyond Clueless (US high school films)
  4. My Secret World (Sarah Records)
  5. Regarding Susan Sontag


  1. St Aubyn – Lost For Words
  2. DeLillo – White Noise
  3. Carter – Passion of New Eve
  4. Abrams & Dorst – S
  5. Hamid – Reluctant Fundamentalist

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