I Don’t Know Where To Put My Eyebrows

Saturday 18th October 2014. To Hornchurch in darkest Outer London, virtually in Essex. It’s for my first ever MRI brain scan (which, I hasten to record, results in an all-clear). The NHS provides the scan free, as long as I don’t mind travelling for an hour and half to get to the only clinic that can fit me in. I discover with some delight that one of the trains I take is an adorable little single-track shuttle, going from Romford to Upminster and back. At Romford, the platform for the branch line is hidden away, out of sight of the rest of the station. I alight at the only stop along the way, Emerson Park.

In the clinic waiting room, I sit next to an elderly Essex couple. Their conversation is an endless stream of complaints about public services, peppered liberally with f-words.  ‘Paint your face black, you get everything.’

The scan only takes fifteen minutes. I give the operators a CD of my own choice, which surprises them. Usually they give patients some in-clinic muzak. As a result of my intervention they put the CD on at deafening volume, and I’m too nervous about being wheeled into the big white cylinder to realise this, until it’s too late. Never mind. It’s a privilege to be deafened by John Betjeman’s Late Flowering Love.

* * *

I pass through Friends House on Euston Road, the large building of bookable rooms, run by the Quakers. They now have digital display screens in the corridors which carry world news headlines. I suppose even the serenely peaceful need to be in touch. The rest of the board announces today’s room bookings: the Sunflower Healing Trust and the All England Netball Association.

* * *

Tuesday 21st October 2014. Tonight’s class at Birkbeck: In the American Grain by Walter Carlos Williams. Tutor: Joe Brooker. A curious 1920s medley of poetic essays about American history, each one written in a different voice. Difficult to get to grips with (due to the variety), but intriguing nonetheless.

* * *

Wednesday 22nd October 2014. Tonight’s class: Nineteen Eighty-Four by Orwell. Tutor: Roger Luckhurst. Hadn’t realised the symbolic significance of the paperweight, and how its meaning keeps shifting. The novel is always more complex and more layered than I realise, despite the clear, simple prose. On the latest edition of QI, Stephen Fry admitted he’d never read it. In fact, the show said it’s a book that people particularly lie about having read. Can’t think why: it’s not particularly long or difficult.

* * *

Meet with Ms Shanthi for drinks at the Cork & Bottle in Bear Street, off Leicester Square. A friendly little underground wine bar: very Old Soho. Then she takes me to the inexpensive yet ornate and Gatsby-esque Brasserie Zedel in Piccadilly for dinner. It’s been such a while since I’ve done anything vaguely sociable that I feel physically improved by the whole experience. I end up calling Ms S a veritable panacea. ‘I’m a what? I’m a Panatella?’

* * *

Friday 24th October 2014. To the Prince Charles cinema to see 20,000 Days On Earth, a curious quasi-documentary about Nick Cave. I may not be a fan of his Australian Gothicky-bluesy rock music but I do admire him for being such a sui generis artiste. I also am impressed with the way he’s kept his distinctive look and artistic style – and indeed, his rail-thin physique – so intact for so very long. The film’s title is from his observation of how many days he’s been alive. I can’t resist dividing 20,000 by 365 – it works out at 55 years.

I had heard that the film was as much about his adopted home of Brighton as it was about him. As it turns out, it is still rather more of a Nick Cave documentary, but there’s plenty of distinctive Sussex topography on show. Not least a scene where Mr C drives along the coast to have dinner with Warren Ellis, his main co-writer in the band. Mr Cave is seen parking his car outside one particularly recognizable location: the white coastguard cottages in Cuckmere Haven, in front of the Seven Sisters cliffs. These have appeared in countless tourist guides, postcards, jigsaw puzzles and indeed other films. In Atonement, James McAvoy and Keira Knightley end up there. 20,000 Days On Earth would thus have the viewer believe that this is the home of Nick Cave’s guitarist. It’s not very likely, though, and afterwards I can’t resist looking up where Mr Ellis really resides (Paris).  But given the whole film is full of staged scenes and artificial conceits, my reading of the scene is that it’s a nod to the way documentaries meddle with the facts to get the best looking results for the camera. If you’re going to pass off a hired location as someone’s home, you may as well think big. The staged effect also casts the truly real sections (live performances at concerts and in the studio) into more vivid relief.

I think one reason why I still don’t ‘get’ Nick Cave is that he takes his art very seriously, yet suddenly sings lyrics that namecheck Miley Cyrus and the Higgs bosun particle. I don’t know where to put my eyebrows. The Cave oeuvre operates on a very particular frequency – one has to buy fully into his world, or not at all. Hence his enduring status as a cult artist, rather than a mainstream one. And yet in the film he tells Kylie Minogue how he envies her being a waxwork at Madame Tussauds. Or is that a wry joke? I can’t tell.

* * *

I watch a YouTube interview by Mark Kermode. He asks a woman from the BBFC about their issuing of warnings for the start of films in UK cinemas. These take the form of a short sentence explaining why they’ve given a film a particular certificate.  More recently, however, these warnings have crossed into the realms of plot spoilers, such as ‘contains one scene of a suicide attempt’ for Two Days One Night. When I saw this film’s warning at the Dalston Rio, many of the audience tutted and sighed, appalled at such blunt specificity. When the suicide scene popped up, myself and my friends looked to each other and whispered, ‘Ah, here’s that thing we were told to watch out for, then.’ The immersive effect was completely ruined. I thought of the disastrous scheme which Channel 4 tried out in the 80s, where they indicated a film’s sexual content by adding a little red triangle in the corner. It didn’t last long.

Now, according to the Mark Kermode video, the BBFC have listened to people’s complaints. They are going to keep any spoiler-style warnings restricted to their website, so those who need to check for such things can do so individually. This makes sense. It’s the unasked-for placing at the start of the film that’s really the problem.

This is not to play down the importance of ‘trigger warnings’, however. I know now – thanks to Twitter – that to be ‘triggered’ by content is not the same as just being upset. A triggered reaction is associated more with post-traumatic stress disorder. Detailed depictions of domestic assault, sexual abuse or suicide – when unexpected – have now been known to trigger physical reactions in some people, just as strobe lighting can cause problems for those with epilepsy. So the BBFC’s dilemma is understandable.

I can think of some films where a full tally of triggering and upsetting content would never fit into a single warning full stop. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, for one. I saw it twice when it came out. At both screenings, people got up and walked out – and at the same scene. It involved a wooden spoon, a person, and a lot of blood. But by that point there had been so many similar scenes that this may have been the last straw.

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Rise Of The Floating Yodas

Saturday 6th September 2014.

I spend a day in town with Mum, meeting her off the 1031 train at Liverpool Street. We manage to pack in two exhibitions and one major art installation, along with lunch (stir fried tofu for two on the terrace of the British Library’s restaurant, with hardly anyone else about). First up is the Quentin Blake show at the House of Illustration, one of the buildings in the new Granary Square development, north of King’s Cross station. Like the station itself, the development is an impressive mix of Victorian buildings tidied up and put to new use, alongside scatterings of new architecture: the astroturf steps by the canal, and the matrix of pavement fountains, with their multi-coloured lights.

We investigate the viewing platform set up opposite the square. The usual aluminium panels denoting which building is which are covered in angry comments, scrawled in black ink. Everything in sight is attacked: ‘ugly!’, ‘terrible idea!’, ‘waste of space!’, ‘waste of money!’ The anonymous writer even accuses the sign of getting its facts wrong: ‘NO! That’s on the LEFT, not the RIGHT!’ I check the skyline. The sign is perfectly correct.

I can’t help thinking this is a real-life effect of the vogue to leave angry comments under every piece of information on the internet, and as a matter of course, too. The implied message really being ‘I exist and I am lonely and I want to matter.’ Or put more simply, ‘I troll therefore I am’.

Mum, however, does like Granary Square. She daringly adds her own comment to the graffiti – though she’s careful to do so in pencil: ‘Nonsense! Think positive! Be a Polyanna, not an Eeyore!’

[On Friday the 12th I revisit the viewing platform. The sign is now wiped clean of any graffiti, and is back to normal. This is the equivalent of that most ubiquitous statement on the Guardian site: ‘This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted.’]

* * *

The Quentin Blake show includes a whole room dedicated to Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. Other Blake works on display are his pictures for Voltaire’s Candide, for David Walliams’s Boy In The Dress, and for his own wordless book, Clown. A film reveals that Mr Blake does his drawing standing up, like an architect, and that he uses a light box, not just to trace but because it ‘feels friendly’. Illustration, he says, is about choosing a single moment in a text, then living in it. ‘You own that moment for as long as you like.’

In the gallery shop, Mum impulse-buys Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton, a mad and funny picture book about a naughty dog. Though it’s aimed at the very young, the lesson of self-discipline is all-connecting. I end up getting a copy for myself. Somewhat ironically, the book is hard to resist.

* * *

I show Mum the new Hatchards at St Pancras, fast becoming one of my favourite places to browse. It’s an example of how best to lay out a small bookshop: a little bit of everything, with as much as possible displayed face out, and lots of tempting tables. The new Beano annual (for 2015) is given prominence, and with good reason. The cover shows Dennis the Menace and Gnasher in St Pancras, running to catch the Eurostar.

At the National Portrait Gallery, we take in this year’s BP Portrait contest. Teeming with people. In contrast to the Kings Cross viewing platform, the thoughts of visitors are this time solicited, in the shape of a touchscreen. You tap on the painting you think should have won. I have no idea if the results are collated somewhere, but it gives the sense of feeling like one’s opinion matters, and that’s the true spirit of the age. My favourite painting is by Clara Drummond, ‘Portrait in Blue and Gold’. A second prize would go to ‘Eddie In The Morning’, by Geoffrey Beasley, which Mum is also keen on.

We wander through a corner of Trafalgar Square. At least three things are going on at once. In the main space is the stage for a rally by The People’s March for the NHS (sample slogan: ‘NHS – Everyone’s Concern, Nobody’s Business). In the corner is a busking set by Jake Heading, a pleasant, bespectacled young singer who’s drawn quite a crowd. And a few yards away from him are the usual living statues. Recently there’s been a spate of trompe l’oeil performers in the touristy parts of the city, particularly Floating Yodas. These are people dressed as the little green Muppet-y creature from the Star Wars films, whose costume hides a seat attached to a sturdy pole, so it looks like they are levitating. As we pass, one of the Yodas takes off his rubber mask to mop his streaming brow. ‘Sweatier than it looks, living statue work is’.

* * *

We end the day at the Tower Of London, there to see the red porcelain poppies planted all around the grassy moat. A staggering sea of red. One poppy for each life lost in WW1, arranged so it looks like they’re pouring out of one of the Tower’s windows. The poppies circle the whole Tower, and hundreds of other people are here to get a good look at them too. It may be a simple symbol, but it’s a powerful and unforgettable one.

* * *

Sunday 7th September 2014.

To the St James Theatre Studio in Victoria for a new one-man play: Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope. Written and performed by Mark Farrelly, it’s an interesting indication of where QC’s reputation might be today, fifteen years after his death. Certainly the 80s Sting hit ‘An Englishman In New York’ is heavily relied upon as a qualification. Not only is the song played in the show, but it’s alluded to three times in the limited space of the flyer. I always thought the association was unfair, given Crisp’s dislike of pop music full stop. But I should admit that I’ve never cared for the song itself, its melody and production being too bland for my liking. My apologies to Mr Sting.

Mr Farrelly is rather muscular in comparison with the two main actors who’ve played QC in the past, John Hurt (on film) and Bette Bourne (on stage). He makes me think how a young Laurence Olivier might have approached the role, because his version of Quentin seems as much critical as it is affectionate. It hints at unaddressed layers beneath the surface, perhaps even that Crisp was something of an unreliable narrator. The show is much more of a dramatisation than an impersonation. In fact, the sense of Quentin Crisp playing a part himself is accentuated halfway through, when Mr Farrelly changes clothes and wigs in full view of the audience, going from 1960s London Quentin (retelling the events of The Naked Civil Servant), to 1990s New York Celebrity Quentin (delivering his Messages Of Hope lectures, hence the title: Naked Hope).

There’s also a moment where a member of the audience is asked to get on stage and help him read his question cards, which I’m sure is something the real Crisp never did. At first this seems pure pantomime, just something fun to break up the format of a one-man show. Yet the lingering effect is to remind the audience of the way Crisp would go through the motions, always giving the same answers to questions, as if reading from a script. So Farrelly suggests there might be something not quite so inspirational about that. I disagree. I’m biased, but I think words in themselves can be a sufficient approach to the world, even if they’ve been polished and prepared and repeated so much that they might appear insincere. A good aphorism, like a good story, can retain its own self-contained freshness and sincerity, because it represents pure meaning.

* * *

Tuesday 9th September 2014.

I’m at Senate House Library, reading The Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham. At one point I realise with delight that Senate House itself plays a major part in the novel. It becomes the base camp for the London survivors, being one of the tallest landmarks in the city at the time it was written, circa 1950. I also discover that there’s a Book Bench celebrating the connection outside. It depicts triffids on Tower Bridge. The bench is tucked away amid the foliage by the front of the building, lurking there, as if ready to sting.

* * *

Wednesday 10th September 2014.

The opening line of The Day Of The Triffids is one of the greatest in literature:

‘When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like a Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’

But after that, some lines irritate with their deep 1950s-ness. The hero’s love interest is called Josella Playton, which makes her sound like a lingerie brand. Even the 1980s BBC TV adaptation inserted a scene where she says ‘I’ve always hated the name Josella. Just call me Jo.’

One line of the novel is:

‘His companion was a good-looking, well-built girl with an occasional superficial petulance’.

What exactly does Wyndham mean by ‘well-built’? Curvy? Athletic? Double-glazed? Upholstered? Cantilevered? Or just… waterproof?

* * *

Thursday 11th September 2014.

To Highbury to visit Shanthi S. She gives me a birthday present: The Animals, a fat collection of Isherwood’s letters. Then we walk to the Dalston Rio for Two Days, One Night, a French language film starring Marion Cotillard. The BBFC certification card at the start surely crosses the line from content warning into plot spoiler: ‘Contains one scene of attempted suicide’. So all the cinemagoers are waiting for that. That aside, it’s a very straightforward Ken Loach-esque tale of a factory worker tracking down all her co-workers during one weekend, in order to convince them to vote against her redundancy on the following Monday. The dilemma is that a vote to keep her is also a vote to lose their own bonuses. I felt it was the sort of film that might become socially important as time goes on, but found it a little too straightforward to be properly engaging.

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