Things Other Boys Like

Saturday 12th December 2015.

I watch the new film documentary Future Shock! – The Story of 2000AD, via iTunes’s streaming service. It’s paid and official, but it’s still a format I access with reluctance. I’d seek out a London cinema screening, but there doesn’t seem to be one.

I was an avid reader of 2000AD comic during its first ten years, though Dad initially ordered it from the village newsagent for himself. The first issue in 1977 resurrected his 1950s comic hero, Dan Dare, and came with a free Space Frisbee. Once I was old enough to share his copy, I enjoyed the highly imaginative artwork, and the witty left-leaning satire of stories like Judge Dredd. This was all instinctive, though: I was too young to really know what left-wing meant, or indeed what satire meant. As far as I was concerned they were just entertaining and exciting tales, close in tone to my beloved Tintin and Asterix, and an anecdote to American superheroes and Star Wars. I had already filed away the latter under Things Other Boys Like (and I still do).

I remember the Judge Dredd saga that naughtily used mutant versions of Ronald McDonald and the Jolly Green Giant as villains. As a result, the comic found itself on the sticky end of legal action. Watching this film, I finally discover what sort of people were behind it such childhood pleasures. Most of the comic creators interviewed are gentle and soft-spoken gentlemen of a certain vintage. One is Alan Grant, who lived in a Suffolk village and was a friend of Dad’s for a while. I visited Mr Grant myself as a teen, and remember him lending me a book on quantum theory, In Search Of Schrodinger’s Cat.

In the film, the original editor of 2000AD, Pat Mills, comes across as a veritable force of nature. Despite his years he is still full of energy, still ranting away against authority as if it were 1977. The story goes that the comic’s publishers wanted a new sci-fi weekly to cash in on the late 70s success of Star Wars. Mills, meanwhile, wanted to give Britain’s kids action-packed adventures of rebellion and anti-fascism, but had fallen foul of the censor with his previous comic, Action. For him, science fiction was a compromise. As with much sci-fi, the comic used ideas about the future to say things about the present day.

I think it took me a while to realise that Judge Dredd was a satire on fascism. Despite this, the helmet-wearing Dredd was still a character you were meant to root for, in the same way you were meant to root for vigilante anti-heroes like Dirty Harry. I stopped reading the comic in the late 80s, when it became increasingly violent – or so I thought. This documentary points out that it was always rather gory from the start. So perhaps it was me who changed. I certainly missed out on a phase in the 1990s where 2000AD apparently became so laddish, it published adverts featuring women pulling dim expressions, with the caption, ‘2000AD. She doesn’t get it. She never will.’ The editor responsible appears in the new film, and says he now regrets those adverts.

* * *

Monday 14th December 2015.

Last session for the term with my college dyspraxia mentor, Katie W, at Senate House. I admit to her that I’ve let procrastination creep into my essay schedule, though some of it is not my fault. The freelance review took longer than I thought, because I had to revise it for that particular readership. It’s useful to remember that a review for a magazine is also a negotiation, between an opinion of the material, and an idea of what the reader wants.

I wonder what’s behind my struggling with this new essay. Possibly because it’s the first essay of the MA, so it’s all new. Another theory is it’s to do with my creeping uncertainty about whether I’m doing the right thing with the MA. Yet the moment I began, I felt a surge of relief that I hadn’t taken a year out. To have left it for over a year would have been even harder. So at least that was a right decision. And yet the reluctance this week is overwhelming.

I’m not drastically behind: just a couple of days. But I need to pick up the slack over the Xmas & New Year break. The deadline is January 4th, the word count 5000. I’ve done about 3000 words this week. It’s a mess, but a mess is still a start.

In terms of research, I have a huge pile of handwritten notes, with further piles of books on the floor, and a few JSTOR e-texts on my computer. Yet the worry remains that I’ve missed some perfect book out there. How do proper writers get over the worry that they’ve missed something? Sheer ego? No: sheer deadline.

* * *

Tuesday 15th December 2015.

I’m writing a letter back to an American reader. She asks me if I have a best friend. By which she means, someone to whom I pour out the cares of a hard day, perhaps over the phone. I tell her there is no such person. One reason is that I’m naturally aloof and detached (there might some element of dyspraxia in this mix). Another is that I’m grateful to have a range of friends and acquaintances, and I like to see as many of them as I can. That is, when I’m not feeling so aloof. But it could also be that I just don’t feel confident at making phone calls, not if it’s purely for a chat (my mother being the only exception). I prefer full presence company, or messages.

* * *

Thursday 17th December 2015.

To the Viktor Wynd Museum in Hackney, to give one more guided tour. A huge amount of people – it’s remarkable how they seek it out. Quite pleased that I can update my speech on the Mervyn Peake display, with the news that a new film of Gormenghast is in the pipeline, scripted by Neil Gaiman. Barnabas, who works behind the bar, recognises the Caravaggio painting on the cover of my TLS. He turns out to be something of a Caravaggio fan, and tells me of the masterpieces he sought out in the churches of Rome. Many of them are extremely dimly lit, even allowing for the whole chiaroscuro effect.

* * *

In the evening, I sit in the Barbican Cinema Café and write out my Christmas cards. I try to cut the list down to the people I’ve felt particularly fond of or grateful to within the last year. That great phrase that used to mark the excommunication of a friend, ‘they’re no longer on my Christmas list’ – how anachronistic that now is. Many people no longer bother with cards full stop. This may be because they count their affection in pixels, or because of the pricy postage costs, or because of the waste (though it’s not as if cards are difficult to recycle). I send cards because it makes me happy: that should be reason enough.

* * *

Friday 18th December 2015.

Petulance in the newsagent. I decide not to buy one particular magazine purely because it carries a writer who unfollowed me on Twitter.

Private Eye‘s Christmas issue has its usual ‘log rolling’ feature at the back. This is where they examine all the Books of the Year articles in British newspapers, and highlight how many of them appear to be the brazen returning of favours. Either that, or friends cosily scratching each other’s hardbacks. I always thought this overlooks how some friendships are often forged because of an admiration for a body of work. Still, I do enjoy the description of male Elena Ferrante fans, unfair as it is: ‘like sweaty chaps sneaking into the back of a zumba class for yummy mummies’.

* * *

Tags: , , , , , , ,

‘What A Personality!’

Saturday 3rd October 2015.

Evening: to the Silver Bullet rock venue in Finsbury Park. I’m here to see Debbie Smith’s band Blindness, playing as part of a benefit for women’s charities, ‘Loud Women’. Entrance is donation only, and there’s a raffle and a table of home-made cakes. Let it not be said that noisy bands cannot provide a good cake stall. Blindness have a textured, gothic and moody sound, a bit like Garbage and Curve (the latter being another of Ms Smith’s groups). I also catch the band on before them, Argonaut, who sound like a classic post-punk indie group with female vocals – a touch of the Raincoats, perhaps.

What is rather more up-to-date is a machine in an alcove at back of the venue: a Bitcoin ATM. I try asking people how exactly Bitcoin works (other than being a ‘virtual currency’), but no one around me seems to be in the know. My gut feeling is that it’s the money version of Esperanto: a nice idea but no, really, you go first, I’ll wait and see. As it is, tonight the futuristic Bitcoin machine is out of order.

(As I write this, my internet broadband has also broken down. Douglas Adams: ‘technology is the name we give to things that don’t work’).

Still, a trio of young men come into the venue at one point, purely to use the ATM, and leave disappointed. And near to the Bitcoin ATM is a poster advertising the services of ‘London’s first Bitcoin-accepting professional photographer’.

Raffle prizes at this gig include CDs donated by the bands (I win an Argonaut CD), and books such as Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, and a collection of Anais Nin’s erotica. I chat with Dawn H, Deb from Linus and Scarlet’s Well (and from Fosca at one point), and Jen Denitto, also of umpteen bands. It’s good to see such faces again.

* * *

Sunday 4th October 2015.

I’m reading some academic texts for the first MA class. The ideas are stimulating enough, but my brain seems to be resisting the dense and sometimes convoluted style of the authors. These are sentences that need a run-up from a distance; sentences that still refuse to give up their meaning after running one’s eyes over them for a fifth time. And there is the anxiety that there is still another fifty pages of this impenetrable stuff to go, and it’s late on a Sunday night, and I’m still not sure I’ve grasped the basic argument. But as I lack the excuse of the novice, the only excuse I can offer is the analogy of starting a car on a frosty morning. I feel I need a few seminars to properly warm up.

What I also suspect is going on, though, is a question of taste. After steeping myself in literary prose for four years, I find myself automatically thinking about style, even for a text where all that matters is content.

In the Sunday Times bestseller list is a rare appearance of a graphic novel, Username: Evie. In fact, it’s the fastest selling graphic novel in the UK full stop. This turns out to be written by Joe Sugg, one of the young stars of YouTube. His sister is an even bigger star, Zoella. Spin-off books by celebrities are nothing new. What is new is the DIY type of fame that has emerged with video bloggers, where the stars cultivate an audience on the internet directly, without having to go through a more traditional showbiz system of agents, magazines, TV shows and so on.

Recently, Mr Sugg’s sister came under fire for using a ghostwriter for her novel, which also broke all kinds of records. A famous person using a ghostwriter is again nothing new – one thinks of Katie Price’s novels. But what fascinated me in the case of Zoella was that she said she had to hire a ghostwriter because books take a lot of time to write. As a YouTuber she was already busy making videos (sometimes on a daily basis), on top of having to write all the comments and tweets that are necessary for sustaining internet stardom. In effect she was too busy being creative online, to be creative offline. Her brother has similarly confessed to using a more experienced co-writer on his graphic novel.

I suppose a positive spin on this is that it shows how an invention as ancient as the book can have a role in ultra-modern, digitally-steeped young lives. The blogging fame is not enough: a tactile product is needed too.

* * *

Monday 5th October 2015.

First proper MA seminar, for the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. The class room is familiar from the BA (Room 124 of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, in Gordon Square), as is the tutor (Anna Hartnell). I also recognise a couple of my fellow students from the BA course. But what’s changed is the atmosphere. There’s a much higher ratio of academically articulate students than there was for the BA. It’s very clear that this is a class of not just students, but high-achieving graduates. To use a suitably contemporary phrase, for an MA on contemporary culture, I have to ‘up my game’.

* * *

Tuesday 6th October 2015.

The winner of the BBC National Short Story Award is announced. Jonathan Buckley wins with ‘Briar Road’; Mark Haddon gets the runner-up with ‘Bunny’. My own choices were quite different: I favoured Hilary Mantel’s ‘Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’, with Jeremy Page’s ‘Do it Now, Jump the Table’ as second. I really am baffled by the judges’ choices this time. I wonder if it’s to do with Ms Mantel and Mr Page daring to employ elements of humour, and the judges mistaking humour for relative lightness. I think the opposite: humour adds depth.

* * *

Wednesday 7th October 2015

I give another tour of the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, this time to a visiting party of foreign tourists. I’m wearing the Horsley suit once more, and have freshly bleached my hair. One of the tourists comes up to me, looks me up and down and says, ‘Wow! What a… personality!’

The photographer Philip Woolway is taking photographs for a feature on the museum. He asks me to pose for a shot of the cocktail bar.


Then to the crypt café of St Martin-In-The Fields, near Trafalgar Square, to meet up with my friend Maud Young. Maud is one of the people I sometimes exchange letters and postcards with. This time we see if we can actually arrange a meeting purely via postcards, without recourse to the internet or phones. It takes three or four cards, but we manage it, and here we are today. I wonder, out of all the thousands of meetings set up in London today, if ours is the only one organised via postcard. If nothing else, it has lasting anecdotal value.

Then to the basement of Stanfords Travel Bookshop, in Long Acre, Covent Garden, for the launch of A Traveller’s Year. This is a new anthology of diary entries on the theme of travel, edited by Travis Elborough and Nick Rennison. There are extracts from my blog in there, covering trips to Brighton, Tangier, Bruges, New York, Sweden and The Hague, and then one on taking forever to get from Harwich back to London, on a day of replacement rail services. It’s a reminder how a lot of travel is carried out in a spirit of undiluted irritation, and even murderous rage. As anyone who has tried to take a train in Britain on a Sunday will tell you, sometimes travel narrows the mind. I read the Brighton extract read aloud tonight, for the crowd. Also say hello to Emily Bick, Andrew Martin, Cathi Unsworth, Karen McLeod, and Guy Sangster Adams.

Then off for drinks at the French House in Soho, where we’re joined by Shanthi S and her friend Helen, finishing with a late meal at Café Boheme on Old Compton Street. At which point I am visibly wilting and dash off to catch a late tube home.

* * *

Thursday 8th October 2015.

Something of a hangover, thanks to the large amounts of free drink at three different locations on Wednesday (the Wynd museum bar, the book launch, the French House).

Despite this I stagger off to a private view all the same, this time at the Stash Gallery, in Vout-O-Reenee’s. The show is called ‘held’, by Jane Fradgley, and comprises many black and white photographs of Victorian straitjackets, spookily shot again black backgrounds for a ghostly effect. The collar label of one is clearly identified as ‘Bethlem Hospital’. If it were not for the sinister straps at the end of the sleeves, some of the garments look quite pretty.

* * *

Friday 9th October 2015.

To the East Finchley Phoenix to see the new film version of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. It’s a gritty and intense rendition, dominated by outdoor locations. Lots of battle scenes, smoke, mud, and (naturally) blood. Some nice medieval make-up and costumes, when they’re not covered in mud. There’s a number of interesting choices taken with the text, though the cutting of the ‘toil and trouble’ speech by the witches is quite common these days, particularly as the supernatural details are thought to be added by Thomas Middleton. What is original in this film is visions of dead children as justification for the whole plot – either visions of Macbeth’s own offspring, or boy soldiers whom he feels responsible for. The dagger he sees before him is actually held by a ghostly boy, while Lady M’s ‘damned spot’ is not a vision of indelible blood on her hands, but spots of disease (or possibly burns) on the face of a dead child.

On leaving the cinema, I overhear a group of middle-aged women in front of me. ‘I think we’ll choose something cheerier next time’, says one. As if they were expecting Macbeth to be a light-hearted romp.

* * *

Tags: , , , , , , , ,