The Hawks Of Stratford East
Saturday 30th August 2014. I’m reading a couple of 1950s novels, both dealing with issues of race. One is Doris Lessing’s Grass Is Singing, set among the white farmers of Southern Rhodesia, while the other is The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon, about West Indian migrants adjusting to Britain. Lessing’s prose turns out to be up there with Orwell in its unadorned realism (no messing with Lessing), but it also has the seamless shift between perspectives that one finds in George Eliot. That said, the white characters get the lion’s share of the empathy. Selvon, meanwhile, manages to represent 1950s London entirely through a kind of Caribbean modernist patois, most impressively in a section which runs to ten pages without any punctuation. The only dashes are to indicate swearwords. I’d expected the scenes detailing the grimness of being a penniless immigrant, but hadn’t realised that there’d be so much broad comedy too. Despite all the poverty, the novel is ultimately a love letter to the city.
* * *
In the evening I go to the Old Red Lion Theatre in Angel, in the hope of seeing a new play, The Picture of John Gray by CJ Wilmann. It’s about the real life Gray who inspired Wilde’s Dorian. It’s had rave reviews. Too many as it turns out, because the show is sold out, it’s the last night, and there’s no returns on the door. So instead I treat myself to a solitary meal at The Gate, the vegetarian restaurant nearby. I’m annoyed that I can’t see the play, but cheered that fringe drama is evidently in good shape.
Watch Doctor Who. Rather silly goings-on which involve shrinking Mr Capaldi’s Doctor so he can be injected inside a Dalek. Not the most logical of stories, but it’s very visually impressive. There’s a nice spooky moment where the Doctor is swimming about in a kind of distorted slow-motion world, meant to represent the Dalek’s eye.
* * *
Sunday 31st August 2014. To the Royal Albert Hall foyer, to look at the Peter Blake mural there, ‘Appearing at the Royal Albert Hall’. It’s a variation on his Sgt Pepper album sleeve, being a montage of photos of about 350 people who’ve performed at the venue, all jostling together in a crowd. Some are in black and white, including the Beatles and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There’s a Dalek (presumably from the Doctor Who Proms), and the main boyband of today, One Direction. I think the photos also indicate the age of the performers at the time they appeared there: the Monkees look much older than their 1960s heyday, and are minus Mike Nesmith, who I know didn’t join in with their reunion tours. So that would suggest the firstÂ Albert Hall showÂ by the Monkees was fairlyÂ recent.
* * *
I do some studying in Swiss Cottage library, which is open on Sundays. At one point a middle-aged man wanders past, talking to himself while staring at the bookshelves. ‘I can assure you the Americans are on the moon,’ he says. ‘What are we doing about it?’ He says this quite loudly and clearly, with a well-spoken accent. Then he moves on.
I dip into Peter Nichols’s memoir, Feeling You’re Behind. He’s honest about his envy of other playwrights’ success, particularly those who, like him, were living in Bristol in the 1960s. Funny how rivalry often involves shared locations as much as shared generations. Tom Stoppard’s stardom is one of those he resents, though he adds ‘he was already a star on Blackboy Hill’. Reading this today, I remember that I once met Stoppard’s Bristol landlady, when I lived there in the early 1990s. She lived in Clifton, and indeed close to Blackboy Hill, and had an old photograph of him framed in her living room, looking like a fifth Beatle.
* * *
Tuesday 2nd September 2014. A letter from Tobi H in New York. He thinks I should move there. Â ‘You’re just too British to stay in England.’
* * *
To mark the opening of itsÂ new branch in St Pancras International, Hatchards have installed someÂ display cases by the Eurostar arrival gates. They tell the history of the main Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly, and include artefacts from past book signings. This means that one of the first things people arriving in Britain willÂ see is a large ashtray once used by Bette Davis.
* * *
Wednesday 3rd September 2014. My 43rd birthday.
Where does the time go? OnÂ the internet.
I chat to Mum on the phone, then head off to do my usual birthday task. I like to celebrate that I still have working eyes and legs (what else is a birthday but a celebration of a still-working body?). So I try to go somewhere I’ve not been before, to treat my eyes to new sights, and my legs to new terrains. It needn’t even be outside London.
Today I visit the newly-opened Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, being the site of the Olympic Games in 2012. I’d kept clear of the Games while they were on, but was always keen to visit the actual site. So I take the High Speed train from St Pancras, and arrive just after noon. A dry, sunny day. I take in the Meccano-like ArcelorMittal Orbit watchtower, as designed by Anish Kapoor, go on a boat trip up the River Lea (the tour guide is a charming older lady, ‘born and bred in the East End’), then I wander around the fresh new parklands and wetlands of the area. Even though there’s plenty of other visitors (lots of East London families and pensioners), it’s incredibly tranquil and pleasant. All the garish branding of the Games has been stripped awayÂ – no more McDonalds logos. Just lots of new grass, wildflowers, waterways and ponds. There’s also lots of public art (I like the circle of mirrored columns in Victory Park), and there’s a scattering of tasteful kiosks and cafes. It’s a perfect place to spend a birthday, in fact: old material renewed for the future.
Small children in swimsuits splash around the snake-shaped fountain by the base of the Orbit, where the water jets sprout from the pavement one by one. Such a simple way to keep small children happy on a warm day. The Orbit turns out to have its own patrollingÂ hawks: I meet one of them on the gloved arm of a chatty gentleman by the entrance. From him I learn two things: 1) the colour red is particularly attractive to pigeons, and 2) nothing keeps pigeons off a huge red sculpture like the presence of a hawk.
A lift takes one up to the tower’s two 360 degree observation decks – one has to walk under a very Kapoor-looking funnel first. There’s a couple of long distorted mirrors on the top deck (more Kapoor ideas), offering an upside-down view of the skyline. The lower deck comes with high-definition zoom screens to identity the sights. I manage to locate Highgate Hill, seven miles away, by looking for the distinctive green dome of the Catholic church. I’ve often been able to see the Orbit all the way from Highgate High Street, so it’s satisfying to see this view in reverse. I also look into the Olympic stadium next door, currently closed and back to being a building site: nothing to see but cranes and forklifts. I learn that it’s being given a new roof, and that it will then serve as a ground for West Ham, while also hosting various athletics events.
A bit of drama in the Orbit view today, too: flames and black smoke are visible from a tower block, a few miles to the south. The staff pass around binoculars. One particularly bored staffer sings ‘London’s Burning’ over and over again, until his colleagues tell him to stop. I later find out that the fire is actually in Bermondsey, in Surrey Quays Road. No injuries, and it’s all put out by 4pm. Barely makes the local news. Still, it’s fairly alarming to watch at the time, and from such a vantage point.
I take the optional staircase back down. It runs around the whole tower inside its own tunnel. Every ten steps is punctuated with speakers, playing noises recorded at places like Borough Market, local football matches, and at the building site for the stadium.
* * *
In the evening: to the Odeon BFI Imax to see Lucy. Scarlett Johansson once again stars as a non-human. This time she’s a woman who accidentally becomes super-intelligent, but the transformation is progressive, and she has hours left to live. The film doesn’t hang about either: the entire future of mankind is done and dusted in about 90 minutes. The man who wrote, produced and directed the filmÂ is Luc Besson, which makes it not just comic book fun, but bande dessinée fun – it’s easy to imagine it drawn by Milo Manara. He even sets the finale in Paris, purely to stuff it with car chases andÂ shoot-outs for no very good reason. It’s an outrageous film, frankly, but its sheer abandon carries me away. Luc Besson is 55. I may not quite share his aesthetics, but his sheer energy and nerve is a good thingÂ for a fortysomething’s birthday.
Tags: arcelormittal orbit
, bette davis
, doris lessing
, luc besson
, peter blake
, peter nichols
, queen elizabeth olympic park
, sam selvon
, scarlett j
, stratford east
, Tobi Haberstroh
, tom stoppard
Animal Hospital with Eric Gill
Tuesday 1st July 2014. To the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley. I see the film Chef, starring Jon Favreau, who also writes and directs. It has a similar ambience to Fading Gigolo, in that it’s a labour of love by one unstarry-looking Hollywood type, who has asked various more starry friends to appear in back-up roles. Just as Fading Gigolo had John Turturro supported by Woody Allen, Sharon Stone and Vanessa Paradis, Chef has smaller roles filled by Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Junior. The ludicrously pretty Sofia Vergara is also in both films, playing the lumpen hero’s lover or former lover. The lead casting of Chef is rather more believable than Fading Gigolo, though. Whereas Mr Turturro seemed an implausible male escort, Mr Favreau makes an entirely convincing chef. Not least because he’s put on a fair amount of weight since he starred in Swingers – something that his own script makes jokes about.
The plot isn’t much – a top restaurant chef quits his job and runs his own sandwich van instead – but the detail is very up-to-date, particularly the depiction of the way Facebook and Twitter have become woven into lives. When a character in Chef writes a Tweet on a phone or laptop, a little input screen appears around their head. Once they click on ‘Post’, the floating screen turns into a tiny Disney-esque cartoon bird, which then flies off to do its work – or do its damage.
There isn’t much more to this film than an expression of Mr Favreau’s passion for good food, but it’s probably the happiest-feeling film I’ve seen in a long time. For all its slightness, it makes the East Finchley audience applaud at the end, and that doesn’t happen very often. The Phoenix cinema café has even changed its usual menu to matchÂ the film: it’s currently offering the same Cubanos sandwiches that Mr Favreau makes.
* * *
Wednesday 2nd July 2014. Hottest week of the year so far. Today I take advantage of the British Library’s air conditioning, skulking in the Rare Books Reading Room like the delicate object I am. I’m researching definitions of literary camp. One I’ve found – in Gary McMahon’s book Camp In Literature – contrasts camp with nineteenth century Decadence. Decadence is more about indulgence to the point of decay, while Camp blooms. Thus Dorian Gray is mainly Decadent, while Aubrey Beardsley’s art is mainly camp. His laughing fat woman on the cover of The Yellow Book is very much not heading for decay or doom. She’s taking on the wider world, and here to stay. Thus, she is camp.
* * *
Thursday 3rd July 2014. I’m standing at the bus stop in Muswell Hill, wearing a cream jacket and tie plus my near-matching new linen trousers, which I purchased cheaply from Uniqlo, on Oxford Street. At the bus stop, a woman passes me and remarks, ‘You look cool’, without stopping. I say thank you, though I do so warily, bracing myself for a mocking follow-up. I’m too used to people in London being sarcastic about my appearance. There was the woman who once blew a kiss at me from a passing car window on the Archway Road, only to shout back ‘NOT REALLY!’ as the car drove off. Or the young man at a Notting Hill bar who once chatted pleasantly to me and asked for my phone number, only to then send a series of insultingÂ text messages after we’d parted.
I contrast this with my two trips to New York. There I also received unsolicited compliments from strangers, but ones which were clearly sincere from the off. Londoners are rather more mistrustful of each other than New Yorkers – the lack of speaking on the Tube being a good example. With guns banned, Londoners take instead to fearing words.
So when it comes to this latest surprise compliment offered to me at the Muswell Hill bus stop, myÂ instinct is to put up my guard. But I have to assumeÂ the woman meant her compliment sincerely. I thus try my best toÂ cover my instinctive wariness with enoughÂ outward signsÂ of graciousness. Perform, perform, perform. All life is acting work.
* * *
Friday 4th July 2014. Rolf Harris gets five years in jail for assaults on young girls. Unlike that other children’s entertainer Jimmy Savile, who always had his rumours, Mr Harris seemed like a manifestly good man. Or rather, he did a very good impression of one. I was in the audience for the 2012 TV BAFTAs, at which he received his Fellowship award, the highest accolade one can get inÂ British TV. It’s for a lifetime’s ‘outstanding and exceptional contribution to television’. But now I learn thatÂ the award has a condition attached. This week, BAFTA issue a single sentence as a press release:
‘The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) has made the decision to annul the BAFTA Fellowship bestowed upon Rolf Harris in 2012, following his conviction.’
So BAFTA giveth, but BAFTA can also taketh away.
I’m curious about the Orwellian effects of this. I was definitely at the 2012 ceremony, and the award was definitely given to Mr H. But today, all the articles on the BAFTA website related to Harris have been either updated to mark the annulment, or removed altogether. Any URLS which once linked to interviews with him now redirect back to the website’s front page. Such is the modern extent of disgrace – URL redirection. Today, the 2012 Fellowship is just listed on the BAFTA site as ‘n/a’.
As someone who believes in trusting the art not the artist, I’m uneasy about private disgrace being extended to undermine public achievements. But then, I suppose Rolf Harris is not, say, Eric Gill. Mr Harris’s programmes were ephemeral, not made to be repeated forever (which is now just as well), and they were very much based upon his chosen persona of someone to trust around children. Eric Gill, however, who made lasting and beautiful sculptures in public while committing bestiality (and much besides) in private, did not present Animal Hospital. Still, this news proves that to be given a BAFTA Fellowship is not just to be told ‘well done’, but also ‘behave’.
It used to be the case that whenever one spoke of meeting a TV celebrity, the follow up question was always, ‘were they nice?’
Now it might be, ‘did you have any idea?’
Evening: to the Barbican with Ms Charis and Ed, for a Neil Gaiman event. Gaiman is accompanied by the Australian FourPlay String Quartet, who use the classical quartet set up in an unusual and versatile way. There’s lots of rhythmical scraping, strumming and slapping, the cello often becomes the equivalent of a bass guitar, and the viola is sometimes played like a ukulele. The main piece of the evening is ‘The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains’, a Gaiman long-ish short story (or a ‘novelette’, as in shorter than a novella). It’s a kind of Walter Scott fantasy tale, about a Scottish dwarf from the Lowlands travelling to a cave rumoured to be filled with gold. Mr G reads this beautifully, while FourPlay perform a soundtrack and illustrations by Eddie Campbell are projected on a screen.
FourPlay also play a short set on their own, including a cover of the Doctor Who theme. And as well as the main piece, Mr Gaiman reads some shorter stories: the older one ‘The Day The Saucers Came’ plus two from his Blackberry project, A Calendar of Tales. ‘July’ is set on the 4th of July, making perfect sense to be read tonight, while ‘October’ is my favourite of the evening, about a genie whose liberator doesn’t actually want the usual three wishes.
But more unexpectedly, Neil Gaiman also sings.Â He gently croonsÂ a couple of arch songs, with FourPlay as his backing band. One is his own ‘I Google You’, which is the sort of thing I imagine Tom Lehrer writing now (if he hadn’t retired). Another is ‘Psycho’, which could be a Magnetic Fields ditty or possibly one by his wife, Amanda Palmer. But in fact, thanks to Google (what else), it turns out to a Leon Payne song, first recorded in 1968 by Eddie Noack. Elvis Costello has covered it too.
Afterwards: to the Phoenix pub in Cavendish Square for drinks until midnight, where I meet Tom withÂ members of his new band, Spiderbites. Something the Edwards brothers have in common: we both shun our natural brown hair. Tom’s hair is now pink, while I’m freshly re-blonded.
Tags: aubrey beardsley
, dorian gray
, neil gaiman
, rolf harris
, Tom Edwards
On Being An Academic Muse
Saturday May 21st: I manage to honour three invitations in one evening. First: Sam Carpenter’s birthday drinks at The Constitution pub in Camden (7.30pm-8.15pm), then Charley Stone’s birthday concert at the Silver Bullet venue in Finsbury Park (8.45-9.30pm), before heading to the Phoenix in the West End to be guest DJ at How Does It Feel To Be Loved, where I stay till it ends (10.15pm till 3am).
Afterwards: I walk all the way from Oxford Circus to Archway. Nearly 4 miles. Partly because I need the exercise, partly because I’m drunk, but also because I like to avoid night buses whenever possible. I feel utterly safe walking the streets of Central and North London in the dead of night. It’s night buses that can be an ordeal.
Ms Stone’s night Â is ‘Charlapalooza’, featuring performances from the Keith TOTP All-Stars, the Deptford Beach Babes and the Abba Stripes, all of whom she plays guitar for. Â Her present from David Barnett is a huge poster of her own Rock Family Tree, linking all the bands she’s played in over the years. Fosca is one of them.
Also at the gig are other London Rock Women of note: Charlotte Hatherley (Ash, Client, solo), Debbie Smith (Echobelly, Curve) Deb Googe Â (My Bloody Valentine),and Â Jen Denitto: once of Linus, now drumming for the Monochrome Set. Â Jen D says I’m directly responsible for her being in the MS, via singer Bid’s other band, Scarlet’s Well.
I get a vicarious thrill hearing of friends’ gig-going and gig-playing, as if they’re carrying on with All That so that I don’t have to any more. Â From the reports of the Suede shows this week, to news of my brother Tom, who’s currently touring as guitarist for Adam Ant. Â I don’t envy his guitarist success (never feeling like a proper guitarist myself), but I do envy his earning a living from doing something he loves, and travelling too. Particularly Paris. The last time I was in Paris was a Fosca gig in 2001 – a marvellous floating venue in the Seine. I have a real urge to go again. Here’s hoping a reason to do so presents itself. Or better still, the money to go there presents itself.
Still not much luck in finding a regular source of income. Offers of work from kind friends keep falling through, from paid blogging to film reviews. I’ve pitched articles to the Guardian without even getting a reply, which makes me feel some random self-deluded lunatic. Maybe I am. But at least I’m a well-dressed random, self-deluded lunatic.
Last Wednesday I was invited to Treadwell’s Bookshop, now in a new location off Tottenham Court Road. The event was the reading of an academic paper by Dr Stephen Alexander, titled ‘Elements Of Gothic Queerness in The Picture of Dorian Gray.’ Stimulating stuff, reminding me just how rich Wilde’s novel is. You can link it to so much these days: the tragedy of a young man who doesn’t age pops up in Twilight and the newÂ Doctor Who, for instance. Dr Alexander focussed on the theme of coveting yet resenting objects for their static nature: something that certainly connects with today’s obsession with worshipping the latest version of a must-have gadget. In fact, posters for the original iPad showedÂ Dorian Gray as an example of an e-book to read on it. I’d love to know what made them choose it.
Not only was I delighted to be invited, but it turned out Dr Alexander – whom I didn’t know until now – actually dedicated his paper to me, after my appearance in Eliza Glick’s book Materializing Queer Desire.
I’ve never had an academic paper dedicated to me before. It’s so flattering. And it helps to remind me that I might not be the complete Â waste of space the Job Centre insists I am.
Problem is, they’ll say, one can’t earn a living from being a muse.
Well, unless you’re in Muse.
My DJ set at HDIF:
- Stereolab: Peng 33 (Peel session version
- Carole King: I Feel The Earth Move
- The Shangri-Las: Give Him A Great Big Kiss
- Chairmen Of The Board: Give Me Just A Little More Time
- The Wake: Carbrain
- The Chills: Heavenly Pop Hit
- The Siddeleys: You Get What You Deserve
- Dressy Bessy: If You Should Try To Kiss Her
- Camera Obscura: French Navy
- The Smiths: Ask
- Spearmint: Sweeping The Nation
- The Pastels: Coming Through
- Le Tigre: Hot Topic
- Prince: Raspberry Beret
- The Supremes: Â Stoned Love
- Ride: Twisterella
- Stereolab: French Disko
- Blueboy: Imipramine
- Sister Sledge: Thinking Of You
- Nancy Sinatra: These Boots Are Made For Walking
- April March: Chick Habit
- Shirley Bassey: Spinning Wheel
- Gloria Jones: Tainted Love
- Mel Torme: Coming Home Baby
- Dexys: Plan B
- Orange Juice: Blueboy
- Blondie: Rapture (a tribute to the real Rapture in the news)
- Felt: Sunlight Bathed The Golden Glow
- The Cure: Boys Don’t Cry
- Style Council: Speak Like A Child
- Labelle: Lady Marmalade
Tags: being a muse
, charley stone
, DJ gigs
, how does it feel to be loved
, treadwell's bookshop