How To Explain Irony To Children
Saturday 29th November 2014. Late morning: I meet Mum in the basement café at Waterstones Piccadilly. We walk to the Coach and Horses in Soho for a vegetarian lunch. Tom joins us, making it an Edwards family meal, to mark what would have been Dad’s 78th birthday. Tom has a non-alcoholic brand of Becks beer, which nevertheless has the slogan ‘please drink responsibly’ on the label.
The Coach & Horses’s Private EyeÂ connections have diminishedÂ since I was last here. Gone are the framed photos on the wall of Ian Hislop and Richard Ingrams. I am told this may be to do with the pub’s new vegetarian-only kitchen, which clashes with the Private Eye lot’sÂ preference for meat. Perhaps the pub should approach Morrissey or Chrissie Hynde for patronship. I have ‘fish and chips’, the fish being fish-shaped tofu.
After lunch, we walk through Soho. Tom wants to show Mum the Soho Radio studios, where he has his own show. On the way, I hear someone call out ‘Dickon – where were you? We’ve just finished!’ It is a phrase from anyone’s nightmare – the forgotten appointment. But on this occasion it turns out to be a misunderstanding. Anne Pigalle is standing outside Madame JoJo’s in full black mourning garb, along with some similarly attired drag queens. It is a protest against the venue’s closure by way of a mock funeral. Ms Pigalle had invited me on Facebook. So she interprets my walking into Brewer Street as a late arrival to the protest. I feebly blurt out my excuse as I go by, and make sure I sign the inevitable petition when I get home.
(Link: Save Madame Jojo’s ).
* * *
Huge poster ads on the tube for Android, the operating system owned by Google. They feature lots of sinister robot creatures in different clothes, all clutching mobiles. Slogan: ‘be together, not the same’. The problem with this is that all the robots do indeedÂ look the same – because they’re Android robots. Actually, they look like the protagonist of the early 80s ITV kids’ show Metal Mickey.
Another smartphone advert irks in its ubiquity, at least at the cinema. Once the London film fan pays for their overpriced seat and popcorn, they still have to tolerate the sight of Kevin Bacon wandering jauntily along the streets of Britain, shouting at its citizens for having ‘buffer faces’. This means the expressions people have when staring at a phone or tablet screen, waiting for the content to load up. Mr Bacon is surely in no position to mock others, his life having come to whoring himself across cinema screens like this. But there he is, so we must be forgiving. And yet the sight of Mr Bacon’s curiously wizened yet boyish countenance makes me yearn to shout out, ‘Better to have a Buffer Face than an Iggy Pop Stunt Double face.’
* * *
I finish reading Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar. It’s set in New York and Boston, but unexpectedly there’s a mention of Clacton-on-Sea. The noun ‘fitting’ is what also stands out, being something that the heroine goes into town for. At first I think this means clothes, until it transpires that this particular ‘fitting’ is given to her by a doctor. The novel then cuts to her returning home with a mysterious box. The word ‘diaphragm’ is never mentioned. Ms Plath wroteÂ The Bell Jar in 1961, only months away from the mass availability of the Pill. In scenes like this it might as well be the nineteenth century.
* * *
Sunday 30th November 2014. I wake up late and rush off to the Tube without showering, thinking I’m late for a college appointment. As I walk down the path from Shepherd’s Hill to Highgate station, my brain suddenly realises it can’t be Monday, because I have no memory of Sunday. I am still not convinced. I’ve never trusted my mind: I don’t know where it’s been.The truth only hits home as I turn the corner in the station and see the newspapers on the station kiosk. The words Sunday Times loom out helpfully. It is like all those time travel stories where a newspaper must be found to give proof of the date.
Grateful to the newspaper for restoring my sense of reality, I buy a copy. And of course, the features are full of people whose idea of reality is rather far from mine. One article is on ‘social media party boys’. A trendy young man is concerned about turning his online popularity into real life money: ‘I think about the apocalypse a lot. Having a million Instagram followers during the apocalypse is going to be pretty useless, but having a yacht might not be.’
A TV newsreader boasts about his money, particularly how he gazumped when buying his farmhouse, ie snatched it away from someone who was ready to move in. I suppose one has to forgive.
I read a fascinating article on Singalong Frozen, which touches on the nature of camp. The Disney musical Frozen has been reissued in a format for children to sing along to, with lyrics on the screen. This is apparently the fault of the Prince Charles Cinema, which has been doing jokey film singalong events for some time, particularly The Sound of Music. Originally, as an organiser says, ‘the main audience was gay men and drunken women’. But soon children started to come too, and children don’t do camp and knowingness and irony. Children sing for themselves. When the PCC did singalong screenings of Frozen, the children were in the majority, and Disney took notice.
A quote from the article. When Rhona Cameron introduced a Sound of Music screening, she had to explain what irony was to the children present:
‘Children, irony is something you’ll understand later, when you’re disappointed in love and have to pay taxes’.
* * *
Tuesday 2nd December 2014. Evening: class at Birkbeck on Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle. Tutor: Joe Brooker. The reverse-world setting is intoxicating, full of details that only become apparent on re-reading, like the character who slips into ‘our’ world for a moment.
* * *
Wednesday 3rd December 2014. Evening: class at Birkbeck on John Wyndham’s The Day of The Triffids. Tutor: Grace Halden. Unlike the Dick book, which is more speculative fiction, Wyndham’s tale is traditional science-fiction. Though I always liked the double value of the mass blindness alongside the unkind plants. One student struggles to read beyond the first chapter, such is his dislike of science fiction (‘Can’t we do Graham Greene?’). The lower-case ‘triffids’ is a clever touch by Wyndham, indicating how the plants had quickly become part of the language. Much more sinister that way. I find the swift acceptance of the lower-case verbs ‘tweet’ and ‘google’ sinister, too, as they’re corporate brands. Invasions go on all the time, whether of land or of language. It’s just a question of anyone minding.
* * *
Friday 5th December 2014. In a discussion on disappointing Christmas crackers I find myself retelling the following tale.
One Christmas I went into Budgens Crouch End to buy a box of crackers. A huge pile of them were on sale at half price. People were buying the crackers, but they were also coming away with a broad smirk. I asked a staffer.
Me: Why are these crackers so cheap?
Her: They’re faulty.
Me: What, they don’t bang properly?
Her: No. They’ve all got the same joke.
The smirk had been the pleasure of acquiring a good anecdote.
, coach and horses
, john wyndham
, madame jojos
, philip k dick
, private eye
, sylvia plath
Animals and Men
Saturday 19th April 2014. To the Hammersmith Eventim Apollo, as it’s currently known, for a concert by Adam Ant. My brother Tom is playing guitar in Mr Ant’s backing band, as he has done for the past couple of years. Â Mum comes along too, making it our first family reunion in London since Dad died. Young Ms Holly also joins us, from the extended family on Tom’s side.
The Apollo is one of the largest theatre-style venues in London, and I’ve somehow never been to it until tonight. Built in the 1930s, it has a stunning Art Deco interior that has been recently refurbished. The upstairs bar looks like something from Grand Hotel: you half expect to bump into Joan Crawford as a pushy stenographer.
We have a slight panic when we get there and realise that our tickets are standing only, but Mr Ant’s crew help us to exchange them for seats in the upstairs circle (with our grateful thanks to Roy from the merchandise stall). Mum is 70, and is unlikely to be tempted to join a mosh pit. I’m 42, but increasingly prefer a seat myself.
That said, musing on the requirements of getting olderÂ is moot. Mr Ant’s main output was in the late 70s and early 80s, and many are here because they bought those records when they first came out. So they aren’t exactly spring, or even summer chickens themselves. But I look around and see a healthy amount of all ages and genders, albeit with the lion’s share in their 40s and 50s. There is indeed a mosh pit down the front – even a few people crowd surfing.
Tonight is also about one particular album: Dirk Wears White Sox, the first Adam Ant long player, which was released in 1979. Mr Ant is on top form tonight, and not only performs every song from the album in order, but goes straight into a decent amount of selections from his whole oeuvre, my favourites of the night being ‘Whip in My Valise’, ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’, and ‘Wonderful’. He performs for a straight two hours. No encores, no stopping. He even has a costume change onstage, behind a vintage screen, singing as he dresses (much as I saw Grace Jones do).
Dirk Wears White Sox is by no means a catchy album: it’s more of a cult favourite from the period just before he became a pop star. Much of the material is more experimental Â than post-punk: Tom confirms to me afterwards that ‘Animals and Men’ is particularly difficult to learn. It’s full of shifting, jazzy time signatures and lots of jagged stop-start moments. The more typical post-punk songsÂ sound very Franz Ferdinand now, of course, with that familiar slurping disco beat under the spiky guitar riffs. (Or perhaps that should be ‘very 2004’, when Franz Ferdinand’s debut came out.)
The moment when ‘Cartrouble’ shifts from Part One into Part Two, and the guitars suddenly change from wiry to widescreen, is even more startling when it’s live and turned up a thousandfold, and you’re sharing the moment with a whole temple of acolytes. In the past, I’d been a little wary about the validity of ‘classic album’ run throughs like this. But tonight I realise such concerts can be a joyous celebration of music history and of being alive full stop – still being alive – for artist and audience alike. A celebration of art and life, no less.
We stick around afterwards and chat with Tom at the aftershow party (held in the circle bar). Some public faces there: Keith Lemon (who obligingly poses for a photo with Holly, who’s a fan), Bill Bailey, Mark Lamarr, Mark Moore, Kevin Rowland. Lots of dandyish, well-dressed men in suits and hats, and women in Vivienne Westwood-esque takes on punk cabaret: a few berets with little polka dot veils.
* * *
Monday 21st April 2014. The dregs of the Easter weekend. I grumpily buy a Smarties chocolate egg from Muswell Hill Sainsbury’s, mainly because they’re left overs, bumped down to 40p.
Work this week:Â revising the essay on Late Victorian flÃ¢neuses, for the Fin De Siecle course. Also mopping up the last set texts of the academic year, such as Lara by Bernadine Evaristo. Glad to have finally read Jane Eyre. It didn’t quite become a personal favourite, but I can see how it’s pivotal to the general span of literature. My favourite book that the degree introduced me to this year is Vathek, closely followed by Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled.
* * *
Tuesday 22nd April 2014. I see Daisies at the ICA. It’s a 1966 cult film from Czechoslovakia, as it was called then. The director died a month ago, so the ICA are showing it as a tribute. Very of its time, like The Knack mixed with Bunuel. The story is essentially this: two childlike young women muck about in various surreal settings. There’s some moments of beauty, some of silliness, and some unnerving ones too. It definitely has its own identity – sheer psychedelic abandon.
* * *
Thursday 24th April 2004.Â This week’s new film is The Double, seen today at the Prince Charles Cinema. Jesse Eisenberg stars, last seen as a monotonous computer expert in The Social Network. It’s directed by Richard Ayoade, who was last seen as a monotonous computer expert in The It Crowd. So Mr Eisenberg’s character this time is, well, no surprises.
But here the computers are very different, as is the whole setting: a kind of nocturnal Orwellian world where technology seems stuck at an early 1970s level, all primitive screens and chunky beige keyboards. The architecture meanwhile evokes 1960s Eastern Europe: lifts that never work, brutal underground trains, tower blocks and wastelands. The aesthetic may owe a lot to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and indeed his short Python spin-off film, The Crimson Permanent Assurance (most of the office workers are elderly men), but it has its own original stamp. Sadly the world of the film doesn’t seem to gel with the story about doppelgangers. The aesthetic upstages the plot, while the plot doesn’t know which rules it’s meant to be following. The ending is baffling, but whether it’s meant to be baffling or has just made a mess of its own logicÂ it’s hard to tell. It’s very nearly a great film, just not quite.
* * *
I fume at an article in the Guardian about ‘Britpop casualties’. It’s based on interviews with members of UK bands from the 1990s, whose careers were not quite as successful as Blur and Oasis. The article seems less interested in music and more interested in the failure of those who dare to make it.
I’ve seen schadenfreude-laced features like this before, the gist of which is ‘don’t ever be in a band, be a music critic, that’s better’. In this latest article, there’s a sickening sense of crowing over the misfortune of the singer from Marion (drugs, near-death) and the one from Menswear (mental illness). As Wilde said, it’s the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Well, such journalists will never, ever know what it’s like to play a gig or hear their record on the radio or see the sheer bliss on the faces of people at the front row of a concert, and know that they made those people feel that happy, for that day. I saw Menswear play the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in the 1990s. They were absolute stars, and were loved as stars. They were on bedroom walls all over the world. I knew people who were absolutely, giddily besotted with Menswear. If such fans and even former band members now look back and think it was all rubbish, or that it now sounds impossibly dated, that changes nothing. Those bands added to the amount of joy in the lives of strangers. That’s as valid a life achievement as any, and should be celebrated as such.
Rock journalists who forget this have forgotten what it’s like to be a fan. To focus instead onÂ narratives ofÂ hubris and failure does them no favours. Music writing should be more about pop, and less about tall poppy syndrome.
Tags: adam ant
, the double
Friday 21st February 2014
Am starting to notice how a university degree re-wires the mind. Â Before I took the course, to me all non-fiction was either commercial (ie books I could understand), or academic (books I couldn’t). Now academic books are finally opening up to me, and it’s like being able to read a new language. The flipside, though, is that I started to get impatient with a lot of commercial non-fiction, wincing at their generalisations and agendas. Â But then I discovered that’s possible to switch reading levels, like switching between languages. One can then enjoy a commercial book on its own terms. There is a danger in calling a book ‘too light’ – such a phrase says more about the reader than the book.
Writing this down, I smile when I realise that this is more or less the plot of Educating Rita. Still, the message of Willy Russell’s play hasn’t changed: higher education doesn’t change people wholly – it gives them more options for approaching the world, which is quite different. A bigger toolbox.
Saturday 22nd February 2014
I meet with Mum in the basement café of Waterstones Piccadilly, in the old Simpsons building. It’s a rare example of a non-place being converted back into a place-place. The café used to be a Costa, but is now run by Waterstones themselves, decorating the walls with nice old book covers, rather than the corny photographs of continental bonhomie that can splatter the walls of every Costa everywhere. It may still be a franchise café, but any café which isn’t a Starbucks, Costa, Caffe Nero or Pret has a definite sense of being somewhere in particular, as opposed to nowhere in particular.
Mum and I have a vegetarian lunch at the Coach and Horses in Greek Street. At the table next to us is a group of young Japanese women using their smartphones to take photos of their afternoon tea.
Then we go on to the National Portrait Gallery. The David Bailey exhibition is sold out, so we take a look at the permanent collection instead. The unflattering painting of Kate Middleton – the one which makes her look 50 – is displayed more matter-of-factly than I’d thought, tucked within a row of other portraits and not very well-lit.
We also stumble on an engrossing mini-exhibition about Vivien Leigh. I’m reminded that even though Gone with the Wind is meant to be the most successful film in the UK ever (going by sales of cinema tickets), I have yet to get around to it myself. That and St Paul’s Cathedral: on the list of things one is assumed to have done, but which the same assumption puts one off doing.
Sunday 23rd February 2014
My anxiety over the funeral hits me so hard that I spend the entire day in bed, trying to get over excruciating stomach pains.
Monday 24th February 2014
Dad’s funeral. I brave the morning rush hour Tube in order to get to Tom’s place on time, and am staggered by the awfulness of what must be a daily experience for so many. Not only do people have to brave the train journey with strangers bodies’ pressed against them throughout, but the journey itself is delayed at each stop, due to the mass of passengers preventing the doors closing on the first go. Whatever the rewards of being a rail commuter must be (a decent salary? a house?), to me they can’t possibly be enough. A commuter friend once told me, ‘You just get used to it’.Â I don’t think I ever could.
So I go from the lack of respect for bodies per se, to paying respects to one particular body. Mum has insisted on no dress code, but I’m in a three-piece black suit and black tie anyway, because that’s me. I add a seahorse brooch, though, in case I’m mistaken for one of the crematorium staff.
Tom drives me to Bildeston to meet with Mum and Uncle Mike (Mum’s brother), and we all get into a hired people carrier. It’s then that I see Dad’s coffin for the first time, in the back window of the hearse in front of us.
Fittingly, it’s a cardboard coffin, looking just like one of Dad’s many boxes of comics in the loft. It also has a base made from the same sort of hardboard that Dad used, when he built scenery for Tom and myself to play with as children; rocket ships and puppet theatres. One of Mum’s homemade quilts covers the coffin, a beautiful science-fiction themed work with planets and stars. ‘I’m having that back before the actual burning,’ says Mum about the quilt. ‘It’s too nice!’
Seeing the coffin for the first time is the first of several moments when I nearly, but not quite, burst into tears.
We arrive at the crematorium at Nacton, near Ipswich. Then we get out and walk behind the pallbearers with the coffin, into the chapel. Unexpectedly, all the seats are taken: standing room only for Dad.
The Humanist host of the ceremony, Chris, does most of the reading. Then I follow with my own eulogy. At Mum’s request, it’s based on extracts from my diary, but I’ve added some of the liner notes from the Fosca album The Painted Side Of The Rocket, the album which features myself and Tom together. I wanted to make the point about creativity being something children do naturally, and which adult artists have to do on purpose. A quality of childlike unselfconsciousness – something Dad manage to manifest easily throughout his life, in both his art and his personality.
Then I read from the diary entry about Dad’s death, ‘Seeing Dad’, and I very nearly break down, twice. But only nearly.
We file out to ‘Monster Mash’, as promised. Dad’s favourite song, ‘Macho Man’ by the Village People, then follows on, with its opening line of ‘Body! Wanna feel my body, baby!’
Both are very silly records indeed for a funeral, and Dad, a fan of Joe Orton and Family Guy, knew this more than anyone else. We put little explanations about the choices – or warnings, rather – into Chris’s reading and mine, so one hopes the mourners understood.
* * *
In the courtyard outside the chapel, the mourners gather to chat. The first thing spoken to me after the service is, ‘Look! Muppet socks!’
A man in his seventies has collared me. He slips off his loafers to show off, yes, his Kermit the Frog socks. This turns out to be one of Dad’s schoolfriends from Clacton, a jokey gang raised on The Goon Show and who, like Dad, have managed to extend their in-jokes down the decades. One of them is wearing a luminous high-vis jacket: whether it’s for cycling or an outdoors day job I’m not sure, but it’s certainly a sign his own body has some years to go yet.
‘I’ll come visit you’ says one to the other as they part.
‘I don’t like threats’, says the other, deadpan.
Afterwards there’s sandwiches and tea at Chamberlin Hall, the new village hall in Bildeston. I chat with cousins I’ve not seen for decades, and some I’ve not seen full stop. Some live in Brighton, some in London, some in Sussex. There’s also people who babysat me in the village, or taught me in the local schools, and indeed the woman who helped Mum with Baby Dickon things when I was born, doing the sort of job that (I think) is now called a doula.
‘Do you remember me?’ is something I’m asked a lot. And for the most part, I do. Sometimes I don’t, and probably make a mess of pulling the right expression.
I still don’t know how I’ll be different now he’s gone. It’s still too soon.
In the evening, Tom drives me back to London.
Thursday 27th February 2014
Tom has made a little video memorial for Dad. It’s made up of photos of Dad (sometimes with me as a child), along with examples of his art. The soundtrack is an original instrumental written and performed by Tom:
, coach and horses
, dad's funeral
The Outsider Of Obituary Space
Sat 30th November 2013: My brother Tom and I visit Dad and Mum in Suffolk, for Dad’s 77th birthday. Dad needs round the clock care, but at least he’s at home and gets much of the care from nurses, who visit the house and work in shifts. When Tom and I visit, Dad is dressed, seated on the sofa and is chatty. It’s very different from our visit the month before, where he was in bed and barely able to open his eyes. That time, he said to me: ‘This is all very boring, I’m afraid’.
Dad relies on mains power for his oxygen pump, so a recent power cut due to the now-regular floods proved to be something of an ordeal. I find out afterwards that the electricity network has a priority register for people who are particularly vulnerable when the power goes down.
[Here’s the link in case anyone reading this knows someone in a similar situation]
Something that I’ve insisted Mum gets for future power cuts is a ‘corded’ phone, as in the pre-digital sort that just plugs into the landline socket. No need for batteries, chargers or any sort of power supply. It’s everything else that needs electricity: mobile chargers, answering machines, speed dial buttons, hands-free bases. Strange to think the phone evolved from not needing electricity to needing it badly.
Tom is currently playing guitar for Roddy Frame’s band. They’ve been performing all the songs from the 80s Aztec Camera album High Land Hard Rain, one of the concerts being at a sold out Drury Lane. These ‘classics albums live’ gigs are more popular than ever, though not all the bands stick strictly to the list on the back of the (inevitably reissued) CD box. I’m told that when Primal Scream performed ‘Screamadelica’ live, they mucked around with the song order, and even missed some tracks out.
Meanwhile, Monty Python have reformed for live concerts too. I suppose they could tour a set-list of all the scenes from each of their films, in the way bands do their back catalogue albums.
* * *
A notice in St Pancras library today, announcing a book of condolence for Nelson Mandela, this particular one at Camden town hall around the corner. There’s also a book at South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, where people are shown on TV queuing around the block.
Colin Wilson, the cult writer of ‘The Outsider’ and countless other books, dies on Thursday 5th, the same day as Mr Mandela. It’s reminiscent of Jeffrey Bernard going on the same day as Mother Teresa: not just the timing but the contrast. Global humanitarian bumps selfish British writer in the scrabble for obituary space. Only The Times manages to run an obituary for Mr Wilson the next day. I myself find out about his death through social media. I also find it’s best to check Twitter for things like the status of rail services and power cuts when -as there was this week – floods in Suffolk. For all my misgivings about it, Twitter is much better at supplying news than, well, the news.
Two media clichés that make me wince. ‘Tributes pour in’ (the only thing that tributes ever seem to do, with no explanation of exactly how they’ve attained this liquid form), and ‘took to Twitter’, which gives what is often a Â perfunctory, kneejerk act a misleading air of effort and considered choice. It’s also the alliteration that irks, giving it a unsuitable jaunty, skipping connotation. ‘He took to Twitter’. While I take to drink.
Recommended reading on Colin Wilson:
A highly naughty Guardian interview from 2004:Â http://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/may/30/biography.features1
An excellent piece on the blogÂ Another Nickel In The Machine:Â http://www.nickelinthemachine.com/2010/01/hampstead-heath-and-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-author-colin-wilson/
Tags: aztec camera
, colin wilson
, monty python
, nelson mandela
, power cuts
, the outsider