Thoughts On The Sentimental Uses Of Animals, And Subsequent Mockery

Saturday 14th November 2015.

Last night, after seeing The Lady In The Van at the East Finchley Phoenix, I couldn’t resist getting straight on the tube to Camden Town in order to look at the other star of the film: Number 23 Gloucester Crescent, NW1. The fake blue plaque for Miss Shepherd that appears in the film’s finale has gone. In Alan Bennett’s 2014 diaries (now published in a tie-in book about the film), he hopes the prop plaque would be left up, ‘as it may enhance the value of the property’. Mr B has since moved out for good, and on this night when a film about the house is opening in cinemas across the country, Number 23 is subdued, dark and silent.

I touch the spot on the gate post where Maggie Smith spills her yellow paint – now cleaned up – and walk back. The house is on the corner of Inverness Street, with the Good Mixer pub about thirty seconds’ walk away. About four years after Miss Shepherd’s death in 1989, the pub became the favourite drinking den of London’s Britpop bands. Given the lady in the van was so opposed to the ‘din’ of neighbours’ children playing their recorders, it’s hard to think how she’d have copied with the guitarist from Blur.

(Indeed, there’s a new film out about that era of London too – Kill Your Friends.)

One triumph of The Lady In The Van is that it captures the way English people can wrap themselves into complex emotional knots of awkwardness, guilt, etiquette and embarrassment, when it comes to helping the homeless. In one scene, Roger Allam’s character begrudgingly opens a jam jar for Miss Shepherd, while taking care to see no one in the street is looking. It’s Englishness in a nutshell.

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Sunday 15th November 2015.

On Twitter, the Sky News presenter Kay Burley reports on the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Among her postings is a photograph of an elderly Labrador, sitting in a Paris street, simply looking at the camera. Ms Burley adds the caption ‘Sadness in his eyes’. This photo is soon roundly criticised, mocked and parodied by countless Twitterers. At the very least, the question is raised as to whether anthropomorphic judgements of canine emotion are quite the priority for frontline reportage.

It’s a moment that now feels like a regular stage in the breaking down of tragedy. First, there is the initial shock of the news. Then there is a dominant wave of concern and sympathy. But after that – two days in or so – one section of the crowd begins to overdo their public sentiment. And another section of the crowd, eager to cheer itself up, begins to wince and smirk.

In 1997, with the death of Princess Diana, there were huge amounts of floral tributes left at the gates of Kensington Palace. Among these were a fair number of children’s toys. Not just soft toy animals, but Star Wars figurines. I distinctly remember going to the gates myself and seeing a dangling Stormtrooper doll. Presumably the toys were to do with children wanting to give up a favourite possession, but it all seemed very odd. A few years later, Stewart Lee performed a whole routine mocking such tributes, imagining grown adults rushing out to buy stuffed ET dolls. ‘It’s what she would have wanted.’

Come July 2005, with the London bombs, the mocking of anthropomorphic tributes became an internet sport. There was a spate of ‘crying bulldog’ photos posted on LiveJournal with the caption ‘London Hurts’. Initially these were perfectly sincere. But soon the parodies popped up, each bulldog and each badly Photoshopped teardrop getting more and more silly.

The point is that this form of mockery is never really malicious. No one really begrudges anyone’s feelings. Not even the feelings of dog-loving Sky News reporters. It’s all humans being human, expressing themselves healthily and without violence, and so evoking the anti-terrorist spirit at its purest. Indeed, the magazine Charlie Hebdo responded to this week’s events with a cover of a man drinking champagne, while riddled with bullet holes. To some, appalling taste; to others, defiantly funny, perhaps even touching. When it comes to what is and isn’t an appropriate response, vive le difference.

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Tuesday 17th November 2015.

To the Curzon Bloomsbury for the film Steve Jobs, about Mr Apple. It’s one of those films from the sub-genre of Overtly Blunt Titles, along with Twister, We Bought A Zoo, and of course, Snakes On A Plane. (‘What’s it about?’ ‘Well…’). The tale has already been told – there was an Ashton Kutcher biopic two years ago. But this time it’s told with bolder artistic strokes, perhaps in an attempt to evoke the aesthetic obsessions of the man. Danny Boyle directs, being Mr Spectacle, and Aaron Sorkin provides the script, being Mr Dialogue For Ambitious Americans. The film is play-like, with three distinct acts, each one taking place at the launches of Mr Jobs’s pretty machines.

There’s a fascinating 1960s clip of Arthur C Clarke used right at the beginning, where he predicts the rise of domestic computers. Then we’re straight into Mr Fassbender as the 1984 Jobs, shouting at people to get the Macintosh launched without a hitch. Various figures from his life turn up in the corridors and dressing rooms, in the Sorkin-esque walking-and-talking way. It’s a unique stylistic conceit, yet at times it still hits the same notes as any corny biopic (like Jobs pointing at a cassette Walkman and saying there should be a way of carrying around hundreds of songs). But Mr Sorkin gets away with it with his sheer speed of ideas.

The only problem, perhaps indicated by the film’s lack of success in the US, is that despite all the talent involved, Steve Jobs’s real life is still not that interesting. A clever man makes some pretty machines and makes a lot of money very early on. He’s a bit of an ‘asshole’ to others, but hey, he gave us the pretty machines, so that’s okay. At first there is a slightly interesting problem with his daughter, but it’s more or less sorted out by the middle act. His ‘worst night of his life’ is when he is sacked from Apple for not making quite as many millions as planned. When one character tells him ‘You’re gonna get killed!’, this really means: ‘your new computer won’t sell all that much’. It’s not exactly Saving Private Ryan.

Mr J ends up quoting Dylan, wearing roll-neck Beatles jumpers and round John Lennon glasses. Perhaps that’s the problem. A computer star is not a rock star. ‘I’m poorly made’, he says towards the end. This is not the admission of a flawed hero, but the admission that he’s not the hero after all. The star quality is all in the machines, and not in the man.

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The Excaliber Handbrake

Saturday 7th November 2015.

To the Goya exhibition at the National Gallery. Purely portraits of Spanish nobility, plus a few self-portraits. His subjects display unusually informal expressions for the late 1700s and early 1800s: cagey, jokey, rougish, sensual. The fleshy-faced young Goya looks not unlike the comedian Matt Berry, particularly in the portrait where he wears a top hat customised with burning candles around the rim, to provide more light on the canvas. His vanity is shameless: one duchess points to the words ‘Only Goya’ in the sand by her feet.

A small delight: the Moomins Shop in Covent Garden sells Moomin-branded glasses cleaning cloths.

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Sunday 8th November 2015.

The large Waterstones student-friendly bookshop in Gower Street has booted out the rather cramped Costa café in the basement, and installed an airy new in-house café of its own, on the ground floor. Better still, the café is called Dillons, in memory of the bookshop that occupied the building in the 80s and 90s (which I can just about remember). Dillons is also nicely immortalised in the first page of Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, as Nick Guest gazes at a window display, soon after the 1983 election.  

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Wednesday 11th November 2015.

Evening: with Ms Shanthi to the Leicester Square Odeon, to see Legend. This is the new film about the Kray Twins, both played here by Tom Hardy. For Reggie he plays up his beauty, all quiff and pouts and open jackets – possibly the best looking Mr H has ever been. The more psychotic Ronnie is from Hardy’s repertoire of grotesques (like Bane and Bronson): horn rim glasses, slicked down hair, hunching, growling, grunting. The film’s highlights are when the traits are swapped between the brothers: when Ronnie is suddenly gentle, and Reggie is suddenly unstable. The special effect of the dual roles threatens to upstage the film at times, making it more of a gimmick (one thinks of those Eddie Murphy films where he insists on playing six characters). There’s also a few scenes where the film is trying very hard to be a British Scorsese – a Goodfellas or Casino – with its tracking shots of gangster bars as the main characters walk around the room, chatting with everyone they meet. But Hardy is riveting enough.

Shanthi also takes me to an old-fashioned Soho bar, which I think I’ve never been to before. It’s the New Evaristo Club, or ‘Trisha’s’, at 57 Greek Street. Private members’, apparently, but tonight the staff seem to be okay with our just swanning in politely and buying glasses of wine (£4 each). The club is the longest-running in Soho, now that the Colony has gone. It is steeped in 1950s character, with dim green lighting, round café tables with tablecloths, and old photos on the wall of Sinatra and Italian boxers. Three trendy young men with beards and backpacks come in, take one look at the décor, and promptly walk out again. It is too Old London for them.

Shanthi takes a photo:


Something rare for London happens: the barmaid comes over and tops up our glasses for free. ‘Shame to waste the bottle,’ she says. I need to come back.

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iPhones with shattered screens are the new ripped jeans.

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Friday 13th November 2015.

To the East Finchley Phoenix for The Lady in the Van, the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s memoir. It’s fair to say the film is pure, distilled Bennett. It’s directed by Nick Hytner, AB’s main stage collaborator since the 90s, and it’s also something of a History Boys cast reunion, with all eight ‘boys’ and all three teachers from the original stage production (not counting the late Richard Griffiths) popping up in little roles. Plus it brings together Maggie Smith, reprising her performance as the titular lady from the 90s stage version, with Alex Jennings’s take on Bennett himself, a role he’d performed in the play Cocktail Sticks. But the World Of Bennett preservation goes further, as the story’s location – his former home in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town – is shot in situ. His old house is played by his old house. And there’s even a glimpse of Jennings as Bennett as the character Graham in A Chip in the Sugar, one of the Talking Heads monologues. At one point, Roger Allam’s cynical neighbour says that the monologue is really ‘all about him, as usual’, and so it proves with this new film. Despite the subject ostensibly being Miss Shepherd, the eccentric elderly woman who lived in Bennett’s front yard for fifteen years, the film is ultimately more about Bennett scrutinising his own life and work together. As soon as it’s clear that Mr Jennings is surreally playing two Alan Bennetts – the writer and the man – the film becomes more Brechtian than realistic, and the use of the History Boys cast works more as a reference than an indulgence.

While watching, I realised that, what with Legend I’d accidentally gone to see two films this week where both were set in late twentieth-century London, both were based on true stories, and both featured a lead actor playing dual roles. But whereas Tom Hardy’s doubling as the Krays has to work as if they’re played by real twins, Jennings’s two Alan Bennetts serve as a reminder that the film is a playful fantasy based on truth. Dame Maggie’s superb performance then works against this fantasy, putting the handbrake on Bennett’s constant flow of quips, aphorisms and literary quotations. When Miss Shepherd moves her van into the yard for the first time, she puts on the handbrake with such force that it becomes like Excaliber in Arthur’s stone, unable to be moved by any other hand. Years later, the vehicle has to be lifted out via a crane. This is a nice touch of symbolism, given the way Miss Shepherd becomes a fixture in Bennett’s life, to the point where he feels almost married to her.

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Both The Lady in the Van and Legend are romances of the city. They celebrate London as a place to form an identity. But this quality is not, of course, exclusive. As I type up this week’s diary, news comes through of the sickening attacks in Paris. The people who have died were civilians in concert halls and theatres, people using Paris to just be themselves. I take some comfort from the Fred Rogers quote about reacting to distressing events: ‘look for the helpers’.

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