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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Mr Brand The Security Botherer

Saturday 25th April 2015.

Reading lots of Angela Carter this week, as research for the final essay (due in on the 8th). Her collection of essays, Shaking A Leg, is a joy. ‘Alison’s Giggle’ examines the moment in the Canterbury Tales where a young wife plays a sexual prank on an unwanted suitor. She giggles in triumph (‘Tee hee! quod she’). Carter argues that this giggle is rarely heard across the next five centuries of English literature, due to it being sexually knowing. She also compares the Wife of Bath to Mae West. So I’m linking all this to her use of Ronald Firbank’s effeminate 1920s giggle in her radio play, A Self-Made Man, along with theories of the meaning of laughter.

Feminine laughter is crucial to Carter. It dominates the finale of Nights At The Circus, and features in one of her greatest lines full stop. It’s the twist moment in her take on Red Riding Hood, in ‘The Company of Wolves’:

‘The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.’

* * *

Sunday 26th April 2015.

Sometimes when I’m researching, the few Google results that come up include my own diary. I like to think this means I’m creating a useful resource: that I’ve found something Google doesn’t know, and put it online so that it does. But really, the fear is that it’s just me who is looking.

* * *

Monday 27th April 2015.

Last day of research for the essay, in the British Library. I listen to A Self-Made Man on the BL Sound Archive. A couple of years ago there was a documentary on Radio 4, Writing in Three Dimensions, entirely about Carter’s radio plays. It’s still available on the BBC’s streaming iPlayer, and also as a digital audiobook. Yet none of the actual plays themselves are available. Just the documentary telling us how good they are.


Some good news about the Dubai-ification of London this week. A pretty 1920s pub, the Carlton Tavern in Maida Vale, was demolished by the usual profit-obsessed company. Only this time they did it without telling anyone first. As a result, the council ordered the company to rebuild the pub brick-by-brick, as a facsimile. It’s thought to be the first time this has happened. I hope it starts a trend of Londoners being asked if a building should be torn down, and asked whether yet another empty glass tower should go up. Thinking the unthinkable.

* * *

Tuesday 28th April 2015.

To a lesser-known Birkbeck building at Number 30 Russell Square, for the very last class in the BA English degree. It’s for the ‘American Century’ module, on Toni Morrison’s novella Home (2012). Pretty much a mini-Beloved, and unlikely to eclipse that earlier novel’s reputation. But I like its moments of suspense, its taut and careful prose, and the usual Morrison hallmark of shining a light on America’s shadier past. The tutor, Anna Hartnell, quotes a scathing review which accuses Ms Morrison of just doing the same thing over and over again. I’ve never understood why that’s a criticism. It’s called style.

Afterwards, to the Institute of Education bar, close by, for drinks with some of the students. We chat about what we’re doing after our BA’s. Some are moving into teaching. Some are taking other courses (dressmaking, in one case). Some are just going back to their jobs, pleased to be able to spend more time with their partners and children, but armed with an extra qualification.

I’ve finally sent off my application for an MA bursary at Birkbeck. My supporting statement took three drafts, and was shown to two kindly tutors for their feedback. Have to get it right – it’s essentially a begging letter. But then, so are CVs.

* * *

Wednesday 29th April 2015.

To the Prince Charles Cinema for the Russell Brand film, The Emperor’s New Clothes. Interesting audience for the screening – casual filmgoers, but also a lot of proper activists. Older, white-bearded veterans of protests, with their slogan badges, plus younger, louder student types. Afterwards I can hear them discussing where the next Occupy protest is going to be.

The film is in the mould of those Michael Moore documentaries – lots of scenes where Mr Brand turns up with his megaphone and film crew at some glossy City lobby, demanding to speak to a naughty banker. Funnily enough, he doesn’t get to speak to the boss, and instead is left taunting some blameless security guard. This futile spectacle happens five or six times in the film – Brand doesn’t seem to learn.  The rest of it is more interesting, though: interviewing those hit by government cuts, speaking to economists who point out why the erring rich are allowed to get away with it, and stark statistics about the gulf between the wages earned by cleaners, and those earned by the people who step over their hoovers. The main message is that historically, banks never used to be these self-serving monsters of unchecked growth – they were meant to be providers of services for everyone else. So they should go back to being that way. This would mean those in power bringing in new caps and regulations, even if, as one expert puts it, it’ll be like turkeys voting for Christmas (Noel Gallagher on Ed Miliband this week – ‘he’s a communist’). Perhaps this is all an obvious lesson, but when Mr Brand tells it, it does reach those who might be unaware.

Brand is funny and charismatic enough, but I can’t help thinking of Trickster myths. The Trickster – that priapic figure of tribal societies, who exists to represent disorder. Jung was convinced he represented something under the skin in everyone, and that he emerged in times of national crisis. Mr B certainly connects with that idea; the feeling that he is tapping into something primal and atavistic (I’m sure that’s one of his favourite words), so people pay attention. And in an era where attention is currency, Mr B is the richest of the super-rich. Still, he does seem to redistribute some of this attention to do good. And politicians do listen to him. This week, he interviewed the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, one-to-one – and Miliband came to Brand’s house! An audience with His Majesty The Trickster.

I renew my Prince Charles Cinema membership: only £7.50 a year, with NUS. For that, one can see brand new films, most days, for £4, and in the centre of London too. It remains one of the best cinemas in the city.

* * *

Thursday 30th April 2015.

I watch the latest leaders’ TV Q&A. All three of them – Cameron, Miliband, Clegg – have the same irritating habit of saying ‘look’ at the start of every other sentence. It’s pure Tony Blair. And that’s the whole problem – it’s 2015 and all the politicians are watching videos of Blair in 1997, and copying his mannerisms. The last landslide.

There’s a new Blur album out. More Nineties.

* * *

Friday 1st May 2015.

I finish the first draft of the essay (3000 words). The usual feeling that it’s a mess, and that the later drafts will sort it out.

Feel like treating myself, so to the Prince Charles cinema again. This time for the Kurt Cobain film, Montage of Heck. Well, if it must be a Nineties week…

It’s a curious music documentary: it expects the audience to be very familiar with the subject matter already. The music is there as a soundtrack, but that’s it. There’s hardly any details about the story of the band, what the songs might be about, why the drummers changed and so forth. Instead it’s more of an attempt to get under the skin of Cobain the man, via rare footage and home movies. There’s also some original animated segments, which I can take or leave, frankly. Some of them illustrate audio recordings, some make Cobain’s notebooks come to life. Plus there’s a few interviews with friends and family, which try to make a connection between his parents’ divorce and his problems with relating to the world – hating fame, seeking solace in drugs. As the film has been executively produced by his daughter, various people’s feelings have clearly been considered as a priority. Which is fair enough. But that’s always the way with such films. A truth. rather than the truth.

Something that dates the film. These days, family snapshots tend to be freely posted on social media, rather than hidden away on a shelf at home. Personal snaps? Taken now more than ever. But ‘rare and unseen’ like the ones in the Cobain film? Not so much. Today, people show photos of their children to millions of strangers. Everyone’s in their own documentary now.

And in my Canute-like way, today I sit in the Crypt café in St Martin in the Fields, and write a letter to Pittsburgh.

* * *

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