Promises That Were Possibilities

Saturday 25th June 2016. I don’t take part in the Pride march, but it impacts on my day when I try to get to St James’s from Trafalgar Square. I stand in Lower Regent Street and watch a few of the floats go by. In Trafalgar Square, one of the traffic lights has been altered so that the little green figure is now two female sex symbols, linked together. The London mayor, Mr Khan, has given his explicit blessing to Pride. Given he’s a Muslim, and given the events in Orlando the other week, there’s an extra resonance of justification to the march.

That said, I wince when I see a float emblazoned in the logos of Barclays Bank. How funny that the recent film Pride, set in the 1980s, is as much about anti-capitalist politics as it is about gay rights. Now capitalism has a float in the march too. If corporations like Barclays truly gave a hoot about LGBT culture, they’d intervene to stop venues like Madam JoJo’s and The Black Cap disappearing. Still, asking a bank to deal with inequality rather summons up the cartoons of HM Bateman.

***

Am reading Edward St Aubyn’s series of novels about Patrick Melrose, the upper class anti-hero who goes from abused child to self-destructive addict. Whereas I gobbled up books one to four with impatience, I’m taking my time with the fifth and final book, At Last, in order to properly savour the prose. I’m sure this is common when reading a series of books in order, one after the other.

I’m attracted to ESA’s books not only by the aphoristic quips and Waugh-esque style, but by St Aubyn’s admission in interviews of his dyslexia. It explains why the novels are often quite short, yet heavily polished. The D-word doesn’t appear in the novels, but knowing about St Aubyn’s learning difficulty gives an extra dimension to his protagonist’s taste in books:

‘He liked slim books which he could slip into his overcoat pocket… What was the point of a book if you couldn’t carry it around with you as a theoretical defence against boredom?’ (Bad News, p. 48).

Never Mind and Bad News are the best of the first four, I think, due to the shocking abuse scene in the former, and the mixture of New York high and low life in the latter. Difficult to call Bad News a narcotic novel, though, as the heroin taking is secondary to Melrose’s self-hatred.  It’s closer to the way that Sebastian Flyte ends up as an alcoholic in Brideshead.

***

I browse in the National Portrait Gallery shop and notice that they’ve put out a new postcard of Victoria Wood. It’s brand new, in fact, because on the back are the years of her birth and death. Given the surge of celebrity deaths this year, the NPG must be spoilt for choice.

***

I watch a DVD of The Pleasure Garden (1953), rented from Birkbeck library. This is a curious 40 minute black and white film, which Travis Elborough mentions in his book on parks. Directed by the American poet James Broughton, it’s now a time capsule of London topography and British social values. The main location is Crystal Palace Gardens, while it still had plenty of statues.

The plot is little more than a dream-like parade of amorous goings-on in the aforementioned Gardens, with a tone pitched somewhere between Luis Bunuel, Dick Lester, and the Carry On films. Hattie Jacques is a fairy godmother, using her powers to liberate courting couples from a censorious government official, played by John Le Mesurier in Victorian undertaker garb. In one scene he apprehends a trio of skimpily-dressed young people, two men and a women, for what we assume is canoodling in the long grass. The woman tells Le Mesurier that the two men are ‘together’, which prompts him to turn to a ‘special’ section of his rule book. Though the DVD is certificate U, this film must have felt pretty risqué for British viewers in 1953. Needless to say, it did well at a French film festival.

***

Sunday June 26th 2016. A quote from Iain Duncan Smith on the Andrew Marr programme, about his role in the referendum’s Leave campaign:

‘We never made any commitments. We just made a series of promises that were possibilities.’

It’s so beyond satire it hurts.

***

Tuesday, June 28th 2016. To the Barbican’s smaller screens in Beech Street for Tale of Tales, an Italian film comprising three traditional Italian fairy tales. They all take place in the same quasi-medieval world of castles and sea monsters. The cast is international (including Toby Jones, Shirley Henderson, and Salma Hayek), but the dialogue is in English. When there is any dialogue, that is. And what there is is very stilted, bordering on the badly translated. This makes it a frustrating watch, but the visuals are impressive enough. Vincent Cassell is typecast as a sex-mad king, making his entrance beneath the skirts of two women. At one point he gets up in the morning after an al fresco orgy on a beach, and knocks over a live peacock.

***

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016. I go to see Martin Parr’s ‘Unseen City’ exhibition, being images documenting the ceremonies of the Square Mile. It’s in the Guildhall, one of those London galleries that the tourists never seem to know about (another is the Wallace). The permanent collection is full of 19th century masterpieces, yet I’m one of about five visitors.

Parr’s trademark style is unmistakable: hyperreal slices of British daily life, the colours turned up to the full. A lady Lord Mayor stands alone in an empty marquee, waiting to go on, weighed down by her voluminous robes and oversized hat. A golden Great Mace rests bathetically in the back seat of a taxi. I suppose the word really does have to be ‘unceremonious’. Beadles and Drapers march in their garters past a branch of Pret a Manger. The names of the ceremonies are entertaining enough: ‘Cart Marking’, ‘The Silent Ceremony’, ‘Beating the Bounds’, ‘Swan Upping’. Men in blazers stand in row boats and toast the Queen. It all still goes on.

Quite an apt exhibition to see in the wake of the EU referendum, too, given the amount of foreign newspaper cartoons about men in bowler hats doing foolish things. Bowler hats are, of course, rarely worn in the City of London these days, but as these photographs prove, there are still worn in City ceremonies.

***

Friday, July 1st, 2016. There really is no escape from the referendum. Wandering through Cartwright Gardens in Bloomsbury, I stop take a look at the statue of John Cartwright, and learn from the plaque that he was a campaigner for universal suffrage and a supporter of US independence in 1776. Then, at the foot of the statue, I notice there’s a fresh bouquet of flowers, along with a handwritten paper note. It is clearly from a Leave the EU supporter:

‘23rd June 2016. Betrayed by our own representatives, we the people nevertheless voted to reclaim national sovereignty… Freedom is ours!’

***

I attend a Birkbeck end of term drinks gathering, at the Bree Louise pub near Euston station. After a few drinks, the Birkbeck table inevitably gets into an EU conversation. ‘Oh, I’m just enjoying the spectacle of it all’, I say airily, waving a hand about. The woman I’m speaking to (who I’ve not met before) is unimpressed. ‘It’s not a spectacle for ME! I’m in Labour!’

When she gets up to leave, she jabs a finger at me and says, quite sternly, ‘Join the Labour Party.’ Then she goes. I don’t say anything, but it occurs to me that the only reply is, ‘Why, are they falling apart? Oh, that’s right.’

I was being honest, though. Whether Corbyn or the Tories, it’s a spectacle all right, and one that I feel both depressed by and detached from.

***

Tuesday, July 5th, 2016. Evening: Dinner with Shanthi Sivanesan at Cozzo, Whitecross Street. It’s an unpretentious, inexpensive Italian restaurant, slightly rough at the edges, which I like. We sit out al fresco in Whitecross Street, which is narrow and virtually pedestrianised, with few cars about.

Then to the Barbican’s nuclear bunker, aka Cinema One, for Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (£5 with an NUS card on Tuesdays). Quite an apt choice, given my own current state of lassitude. Jennifer Saunders, who stars and writes the script, has admitted that she wrote it in a state of laziness. Not only did it take an age to come out, but the end result, I think it’s fair to say, has the minimum amount of ambition that could possibly be expected. The title says it all: a standard episode of the TV series Absolute Fabulous, padded out to pass as a film.

The most common plot for film versions of TV comedies has often been They Go On Holiday. So many spring to mind: Are You Being Served: The Movie, Holiday On The Buses, that Morecombe and Wise one with ‘Riviera’ in the title. The other common plots are They Run Out Of Money, and They Get Involved In A Big Crime That Moves Them To A New Location (Alan Partridge – Alpha Papa). The Ab Fab film manages to tick all these boxes: Edina and Patsy run out of money, get involved in a crime, and flee to the South of France. That really is it.

Thankfully, it’s still funny. There’s enough slapstick and topical jokes to keep the film afloat, and Joanna Lumley as Patsy is funny whenever she’s on screen full stop. She can pull a face and improve a scene a thousandfold.

Were it down to me, I’d turn it into an original musical. There’s a scene where Saffy, the prim daughter, sings karaoke at a drag queen night in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. It’s a scene that has no justification other than being a nice record of the venue, much as The Pleasure Garden is a record of the Crystal Palace Gardens. Like Madame JoJo’s was, the RVT is one of those old-style gay clubs which is struggling to avoid the oligarchs’ bulldozer. But it also suggests that the film really wanted to be a full-blown musical.

Instead we get a multitude of celebrity cameos that do little more than prove how well-connected the producers are. The rule should be that cameos need to be as good as Marshall McLuhan’s in Annie Hall. McLuhan couldn’t act, either, but he’s there for a joke, and you don’t need to know who he is to get the joke, either.  The celebrities in AbFab are little more than attempts to distract the audience from the film’s complete lack of ambition. It’s still funny enough, when it’s those two main actors playing those two characters. They could have done more, that’s all.

***

Thursday, July 6th, 2016.  With some of the Boogaloo extended family to the fringe-y Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden. One of the Boogaloo staff, Kate Goodfellow, is in the current play there, A Year From Now. It turns out she’s also the artistic director of the company, RedBellyBlack, as well as this show’s producer, choreographer, and sound editor. She tells us afterwards that she even repaired some holes in the stage floor that were left behind by the previous company, with minutes to go until the technical rehearsal.

A Year From Now is an impressive documentary piece, which uses a similar device to one of my favourite films, The Arbor. To enhance the question ‘Where do you see yourself a year from now?’, actors lip-synch to the recorded voices of real life interviewees. Unlike The Arbor, though, there’s an element of modern dance too, with the actors constantly moving about in balletic styles as they illustrate or interpret the words they’re mouthing. This use of quotations from real life to make up an entire script is, I believe, called verbatim theatre. That said, it’s more common to have the actors performing the words with their own voices, as in the case of London Road, the musical about the Ipswich murders.

The voices on audio range from an elderly couple who are glad to still be about, to a toddler who has only just learned the concept of what a ‘year’ means – played by Kate G herself. There’s also a young-ish couple who are the parents of new born babies, to a man whose parent has just died, and to a trio of hospital patients battling or recovering from serious illnesses.

It’s also quite timely, given the present sense of uncertainty overall. A year from now there’ll be a different Prime Minister, and a different US President. Some politicians have scant ideas of what they’ll be doing next week. The referendum revealed that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove had made no plans whatsoever.

In my case, I do know what I’ll be doing a year from now. Working on a 15,000 word dissertation for an MA, to be delivered in the following September. That’s all I’ve got for now, but that’s still more than Boris.

***

Afterwards: to the Groucho Club in Dean Street. At least one of the Boogaloo party is a member of the GC, so off we go. Last time I was here, which must be about ten years ago, I’m sure it was more brightly lit, and that it felt like the public areas of a luxury hotel. Today it’s more like a private members’ club, which is what it’s meant to be. There’s friendly staff who know the members’ names, dark corners to loaf in, lots of sofas next to bookcases full of coffee-table books, art on the walls (quite a few Peter Blakes). A looser, more bohemian feel than last time. It’s as if part of the Colony Room’s spirit has moved here, with the rest of it going to Vout-o-Reenee’s in Tower Hill.

Am intrigued that the Groucho smoking area is not the pavement out front, but a kitchen yard on the first floor, hemmed between the backs of old Soho buildings. I share an Uber cab back to Highgate (‘Would you like to charge your phones?’ says the driver) and am treated to the cost. I must socialise with my neighbours more often.

***

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The EU Anxiety Mountain

Sunday 19th June 2016. I read an interview with Noma Dumezweni, the black actress cast as an older Hermione in the new Harry Potter play. Am intrigued to find out she was raised not so far from me, in Felixstowe, Suffolk, during the 70s and 80s. She speaks fondly of attending the Wolsey Youth Theatre in Ipswich, and being inspired by its director, Anthony ‘Dick’ Tuckey. I worked briefly with the WYT too, as a trainee stage manager during 1990. The show was an adaptation of The Odyssey, written specifically (by Mr Tuckey, I think) for a youth group. This duly meant there were lots of roles, Sirens, Greeks, mythical characters and so forth, spread across plenty of scenes. I remember Dick T being an avuncular director and a fearless leader in general (it’s no mean feat to keep out-of-school teenagers in order), but also that I was impressed by his eclectic taste in music. One of his Wolsey Theatre productions in 1989 used the debut EP by the edgy, Goth-tinged band Cranes, Self-Non-Self. It was the first time that I realised you didn’t need to be a certain kind of person to like a certain kind of music.

***

Afternoon: to Ladbroke Square Garden in Notting Hill, open today as part of Open Garden Squares Weekend. The garden is normally ‘communal’, meaning that the general public aren’t allowed in. The gates are normally kept locked, with the keys distributed only to the residents of the neighbouring streets. The idea is that it’s compensation for not having a large garden of one’s own. London has a couple of hundred miniature parks like this: a whole other world of semi-secret green spaces, hidden behind railings and high hedges. Perhaps the most well-known is Rosmead Gardens, a few blocks away from Ladbroke Square, which appears in the film Notting Hill. Hugh Grant tries to breaks into it at night.

I’ve come here today because I’m an admirer of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Line of Beauty, and was curious about the unnamed ‘communal gardens’ which back onto Kensington Park Gardens:

The communal gardens were as much a part of Nick’s romance of London as the house itself: big as the central park of some old European city, but private, and densely hedged on three sides with holly and shrubbery behind high Victorian railings… There were hidden places, even on the inside, … the enclosure with the sandpit and the children’s slide, where genuine uniformed nannies still met and gossiped with a faint air of truancy; and at the far end the tennis courts, whose overlapping rhythms of serves and rallies and calls lent a calming reminder of other people’s exertions to the August dusk. From end to end, just behind the houses, ran the broad gravel walk, with its emphatic camber and its metal-edged gutters where a child’s ball would come to rest… At regular intervals there were Victorian cast-iron benches, made with no thought of comfort, and between them on the grass a few people were sitting or picnicking in the warm early twilight.. At the end of the path there was the gardener’s cottage, huddled quaintly and servilely under the cream cliff of the terrace.

So today I take my paperback copy of the book and compare it with the real place. Some of Hollinghurst’s details are a little different from the real Ladbroke Square Garden: for one thing, there’s no metal gutters on the main path. Though for all I know that may be accurate in historical terms, as the novel is set in the 1980s. Otherwise, it matches the description. Once through the gate, which is today manned by some cheery locals on trestle tables, the space opens out into what might be a portion of Regent’s Park, such is its size. There’s three spacious lawn sections separated by rows of trees, with the children’s play areas and tennis court are all present and correct – though it’s quite easy to miss them, such is the winding density of the place. The gardener’s cottage is there too, and ‘quaintly huddling’ under the cliff of the proper houses sums it up.

According to the leaflet I take on the way in, Ladbroke Square Garden has over 650 families as subscribers, all of whom have to live within 100 yards of the perimeter. On top of that, they pay an annual fee of £240 to use the garden, though there’s also a ‘hardship’ rate of £75. It’s like a private members’ club, in that sense. The tennis court turns out to be a 1960s idea by the wife of Roy Jenkins, no less, while he was the Home Secretary. He lived at Kensington Park Gardens, just like the politician in The Line of Beauty. 

I spend the afternoon wandering around this private paradise, basking in the rare access. I briefly bump into Cathi Unsworth, another London novelist, also playing the city explorer.

***

Tuesday 21st June 2016. Evening: to the Boogaloo for the first time in ages; I’d been neglecting my own local watering hole. Chat to a couple of the current youthful crew, who have various projects in the offing – digital radio stations, dance theatre pieces. There’s a chance I might be involved in something Boogaloo-shaped soon. Have too good a time and end up hungover the next day. This is the only real difference: I can’t drink as much as I used to without wiping out my usefulness for the next 24 hours. This is purely down to age, though.

***

Wednesday 22nd June 2016. That said, I do end up going to the IOE bar for one glass of wine after a class today. It’s very much an end of year type of class: ‘Critical Top Trumps’. Essentially a fun discussion of academic theorists based on the Top Trumps trading card game. Interestingly, there’s already a set of Theorist cards on the internet, so we discuss those. They’re from 2000, which is just long ago enough to demonstrate how theorists can go in and out of fashion. Judith Butler and Adorno are there, Zizek is not. No one in the class recognises Anthony Giddens, a British sociologist who was once an advisor to Tony Blair.

The tutor mentions the Fear Factor rating of the classic ‘Dracula’ set of TT cards, which I adored at school. The more common Trumps games were usually to do with footballers, but Kevin Keegan was no match for Dracula. I now remember that I once made my own Doctor Who cards at school, with hand-drawn illustrations, though I don’t think I actually showed them to anyone. I gave one card to the much-unloved monster The Raston Robot, from The Five Doctors.

***

Thursday 23rd June 2016. Afternoon: to Jackson’s Lane Community Centre on Archway Road, to vote in the EU referendum. Such a little act – a stubby pencil on a string, an ‘X’ made in one of two boxes. Leave or Remain. It takes me all of five minutes.

People will mostly vote Remain, I think. It’s the obvious choice. I stay up all night and watch the results come in. Despite all the warnings, despite Obama and Cameron and all the writers in the TLS asking people to vote Remain, the Leave vote has it. London, Scotland and parts of England (Brighton, typically) decide to Remain. But out in the shires of Middle England, a backed-up store of anger is finally released.

It’s only 52% of the votes, but it’s enough. The prime minister resigns, the pound plummets, Labour’s top MPs try to remove Corbyn (again), and attacks on immigrants soar. The triumphant politicians, Johnson and Gove, are now back-pedalling about their promises and show no signs of indicating exactly how they’re going to carry out this ‘Brexit’. It’s a very British spectacle: hypocrisy, pettiness, and a lot of muttering.

All I can think about is battling a surplus of anxiety. It’s an EU Anxiety Mountain, a stockpile of worry. The only thing to do with it, is to do good. Not that any option currently presents itself. Online petitions seem little use when the government and the opposition are both too busy pulling themselves to bits.

The world points and laughs: a New Yorker cover has Monty Python’s Silly Walks men falling off a cliff. A German cartoon also uses Monty Python. The Black Knight of Britain cuts off his own limbs. ‘A mere flesh wound!’ Still, it’s interesting that for much of the world, Britain means Monty Python. Perhaps Michael Palin should be asked to step in as an emergency prime minister.

The two biggest quotes from the campaign were from the umpteen televised debates. One was ‘I want my country back’ (a Question Time audience member), the other Michael Gove’s: ‘People in this country have had enough of experts’ (from a Sky News debate).

Mr Gove was soon questioned about his own expertise. His college degree was revealed: a 2:1 in English Literature. With my First in the same subject, I suppose I am technically more of an expert than Michael Gove.

But nevertheless, this touched on the spirit of the times: an instinctive mistrust of those in positions of power. A vote to Leave was a protest, and now the voices of the Remain camp are protesting back. Later, on the following Monday, a huge crowd of Jeremy Corbyn supporters turned out in Parliament Square, implicitly protesting against the Labour MPs who’d been protesting in turn, with their string of resignations from Corbyn’s front bench.

So much protest, so little agreement on a solution. It’s a like an ancient satire on democracy. Everyone has their say, but no one can agree, so everything breaks.

Someone on Twitter said, ‘I can’t read another word of this. Let me know how it all ends, will you?’

I hope the Anxiety Mountain can be put to good use.

***

Friday 24th June 2016. To the ICA for the film Remainder, if only because of the timely pun of London as a city of ‘Remain-ders’. A frustrating film: it boldly tries to adapt the ideas from Tom McCarthy’s cult novel, but like High-Rise I find it a mess of mismatched tones, confused pacing, and stilted acting. Still, it’s a noble mess, perhaps proving that the novel can’t properly be filmed, just paid tribute to (indeed one of its themes is the failure of simulation). And Tom Sturridge does have a vacant surliness that’s perfect for the protagonist.


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He Believes In Beauty

A full week of activity, so much so that I have to stop myself going to new things in order to write about the old ones. Never mind a life/work balance; the trouble with diary writing is that it necessitates a life/writing balance.

Saturday 11th June 2016. The Tube stations are full of posters for summer festivals. I glance across the long lists of band names and logos, recognising one or two. Are they still going? Have they reformed now?

In my twenties I saw as many rock bands as possible. I once hitchhiked to see The Blue Aeroplanes – and slept on a strange man’s floor. Now rock festivals are something other people go to.

How much of action is taste, and how much is it wanting to belong? And why does this change? I ask myself this as I sit on the tube from Highgate to Balham today, at 9am. I am 44 years old and have paid £10 for a ticket to a literary discussion, one on walking in the city. It takes place at 10 o’clock in the morning in a large pub in South London. I was alerted to the talk by a kind staffer at the London Library, who knew it was what I’d been researching lately – flânerie, all that.

I suppose this is the sort of person I am now. Literary festivals in the morning. Book launches in the evening. I rather like them. There might be a little drama over getting microphones to work (‘Can you hear me okay?’ ‘Yes!’, ‘No!’), but that’s usually the sum limit of irritation. That, and the occasional audience member during the Q&A, the kind of who mistakes the word ‘question’ for a five minute recital of their own thesis.

I go to these bookish events quite happily, safe in the knowledge that there will be no trying to sleep in a tent while people kick a football about at 4am. No queuing to use a latrine. No trying to see past a too-tall man in a jester hat (though perhaps they have those at George R R Martin signings, I don’t know). No moshing down the front, not even for AS Byatt.

What literary festivals do have in common with their rock and pop counterparts is that there now seems to be more of them than ever. Perhaps one reason is that the word ‘tickets’ has acquired a whole new aura, thanks to the internet. It’s easy to get hold of a Kate Bush album. Kate Bush tickets, less so.  ‘Tickets’ means something live, something limited in number, something that can sell out, something fixed by time and place, something special. Tickets are proof of the real, anchors of promise, glimpses of satisfaction. As opposed to the empty calories of swiping a screen for hours, and hoping that counts as a life well lived. Tickets are more of a life.

The Balham Literary Festival takes place at The Bedford pub, near the tube station. This may sound modest, but the venue turns out to have a warren of large-ish function rooms upstairs, and there’s several events going on simultaneously. I’m impressed that there are a good 40 or so people in the audience. On top of that, there’s a healthy absence of commercialism. Of the three speakers, only Matthew Beaumont has a book out. Lauren Elkin’s book on the flaneuse, the female walker (which I really want to read and had hoped to pick up), isn’t yet published. Anna-Louise Milne’s book is only available in French. So I come away impressed that these sort of events really do exist for the sheer joy of ideas.

***

Afternoon: a late lunch at Orsini in Thurloe Place, then across the road to the V&A with Heather Malone. We see the big glamorous exhibition on the history of underwear, Undressed. There’s a remarkable photo of George Bernard Shaw modelling long johns, prancing happily on a beach. Heather takes my photo by the sea shell in the foyer, a prop to publicise the Botticelli show. I think of the Bjork song, ‘Venus As A Boy’.

vandashell

***

Monday 13th June 2016. Like many I’m reeling from the news about Orlando, Florida, where a man gunned down the clientele of a gay club. Fifty dead, more wounded. On social media, people post photos of men kissing, in solidarity. There’s a mass gathering in Old Compton Street, which I’d go to had I not a ticket to see another talk, this time at the British Library in St Pancras.

Still, this event concerns gay life in a way – it’s a discussion of the acquisition of Kenneth Williams’s diaries by the BL. One of the speakers is a BL curator, and she describes the fifty years’ worth of diaries as important to gay social history. Lots of genuine Polari in the earlier diaries, before the slang went public in Round the Horne.

David Benson performs selections from the unpublished diaries in his KW voice (and wears the suit from his one man KW show). He has the crowd in stitches. Nicholas Parsons (now 92) recounts memories of Just A Minute and singles out the performance in a Hancock’s Half Hour episode, ‘the one about the test pilot’ (The Diary). NP is convinced that the manic public persona and the depressive diarist were both the ‘real’ KW, caught at different times. Williams himself is quoted as saying, ‘My moods are up and down like a whore’s drawers’.

The curator explains that it will be a while before the later diaries are scanned and made available on the BL’s public website. They have to censor anything that libels the living.

***

Tuesday 14th June 2016. Afternoon: to The Hub gallery in Haddon Street, for a small but quite wonderful exhibition of David Bowie photographs. The street, off Regent’s Street, is the one on the sleeve of the Ziggy Stardust album, and there’s a fair amount of Ziggy-related photos inside, from his early 70s concerts at the Rainbow Theatre, in Finsbury Park.

One photo shoot is from 1989, where an older Bowie returns to the Rainbow Theatre, to promote a greatest hits tour. He stands in front of a montage of his old album sleeves, one hand across his mouth, the other on the mouth of one of the younger Bowies behind him, the long-haired androgyne of Hunky Dory. According to the caption, this is because the Rainbow had become a shelter for the homeless, and Bowie was responding to one of the homeless men who were standing about, watching the photo shoot and firing off questions. ‘Who’s that girl on that cover, there?’ said the man, indicating Hunky Dory. Bowie replied, ‘It’s a girl I used to know’.

My favourite photo is one from 1983, in a Tokyo restaurant. Bowie sits and chats with friends. He’s in his Let’s Dance mode, with bleached yellow hair, three-piece charcoal suit and a tie. Offstage, off duty, yet posing immaculately.

There’s several song lyrics stencilled on the gallery walls. I buy the catalogue (£5, for a cancer charity), and show it to Atalanta later on. She points out how one set of lyrics, from ‘Heroes’, now takes on a new meaning, in the days after the Orlando massacre:

I can remember standing by the wall
And the guns shot above our heads
And we kissed as though nothing could fall

***

Evening: to the Twentieth Century Theatre in Westbourne Grove, for a set of live performances to celebrate John Lee Bird’s exhibition, ‘Before Encore 6’. Mr Bird’s ‘Before Encore’ project has been going for about ten years. It comprises portraits of real people rendered as minimalist line drawings, against backgrounds of bright, single colours. I’d say the style lies halfway between Warhol’s screen prints and Julian Opie’s Miffy-like abstractions of human faces. The project also has a specific aim: to document figures from London’s alternative club scenes. These can be musicians, artists, poets, DJs, or just people seen at those clubs.

Tonight, the new portraits have been blown up into large canvasses and hung around the walls of the venue, a beautiful Victorian theatre. A further half a dozen portraits are dangling onstage as backdrops to the live acts. The subjects include veterans like Genesis P. Orridge and the Divine David Hoyle, established names like Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu, and newer faces like the singer with Bête Noire, David M Hargreaves. Bête Noire perform tonight, and I see them for the first time. Mr Hargreaves throws himself about and takes off his clothes, as I’m told he tends to do. What I didn’t expect is that the band is not an arty cabaret act but a serious guitar group, with a sound that wouldn’t be out of place at Glastonbury – they’re reminiscent of Interpol, or possibly The Strokes. I also enjoy readings by a couple of poets, Nathan Evans and Mark Walton. Mr Walton gives me a copy of his book, Frostbitten.

I spend much of my time there chatting with Atalanta K. On the way back to Notting Hill tube, we stop at Kensington Park Gardens, the street where Alan Hollinghurst set The Line of Beauty. I ask her to take my photo against No. 47, the last house in the street. In the novel the main location is given as Number 48, but this doesn’t seem to exist. Hence my compromise. I suppose it’s my version of those Harry Potter fans who pose by the platform in King’s Cross.

kenparkgardens

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Wednesday 15th June 2016. Evening: to Birkbeck in Gordon Square for an MA class. The dissertations due for this autumn are presented by each student. Mine isn’t due till the autumn of next year, so for me this is a way of seeing what the other students are up to, and what sort of subject matter is considered suitable. Of the four students presenting, two are both doing Samuel Beckett, interestingly. One is on narrative technique in Malone Dies, the other is on the use of technology in Krapp’s Last Tape and Embers. The other dissertations are on the experimental poet Maggie O’Sullivan, and underground female comic creators, such as Phoebe Gloeckner. I knew about Gloeckner’s life from the recent film Diary of A Teenage Girl. Drinks in the Birkbeck bar afterwards, on the rooftop in Torrington Square.

***

Thursday 16th June 2016. Evening: to Waterstones Piccadilly for another bookish event. This one is for the independent Peter Owen Publishers, to mark their 65th anniversary (1951-2016). Peter Owen himself died only a few weeks ago. I had expected tonight to be about him, and about the history of the publishers, but it turns out to be a series of short talks about their latest releases. Still, these are diverse enough. One book by Tom Smith, One For My Baby, is partly a cocktail recipe book and partly a biography of Frank Sinatra. He mixes free cocktails for everyone who turns up. Another book is a novel about the painter Richard Dadd, by Miranda Miller. Evelyn Farr talks about her investigative history into Marie-Antoinette’s letters. Erin Pizzey – a living saint of a woman going by her anecdotes – has a memoir about her setting up a refuge for battered women, in 1970s Chiswick (‘You can be addicted to an abusive relationship, as if it were a drug. And you’ve got to go cold turkey.’)

The author I feel closest to in terms of shared interests is Jeremy Reed, who’s brought out a history of Piccadilly rent boys. Instead of discussing the book, however, he performs his poetry, swaggering from foot to foot in a black beret, pinstripe jacket, and black polka dot shirt. Sebastian Horsley and Marc Almond are namechecked. One poem celebrates Brydges Place, the tiny street off St Martin’s Lane that is barely wide enough to count as an alley.

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Friday 17th June 2016. My review of the film Lawrence of Belgravia, now on DVD, appears in The Wire magazine, issue dated July 2016.

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Saturday 18th June 2016. Afternoon. To the Prince Charles for the film Where to Invade Next, the new documentary by Michael Moore. I go out of a kind of film fan loyalty, remembering how Moore’s films Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 ushered in the current golden age of documentaries made for cinemas. I think Louis Theroux equally owes his career to appearing in segments for Moore’s 90s TV shows. Where to Invade Next is more positive than angry. It presents the benefits of different social initiatives adopted by different countries, and suggests that the US should adopt them too. Hence the ‘invading’ concept, to steal the ideas. As with Moore’s past work, there’s a lot of skewing the facts to fit an agenda, but MM is still a unique and funny film-maker,  with pertinent points to make.


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Italo Calvino Prats About

Saturday 4th June 2016. More clearing out. I find some 1970s issues of Puffin Post, the magazine of the Puffin Books children’s club. There’s accounts of events like an audience with Tove Jansson, held for children (‘Did you know I have my own island?’ These days the adult Jansson fan’s response would be ‘Yes, yes, we do.’). I have a feeling the British Library has a run of copies with gaps. Mustn’t throw any of these out without checking with them first.

O, the thin line between archiving and hoarding. Must keep some things, can’t keep everything. I find a good tip is to write down in one’s diary what one throws out, as in the more notes-based diary I keep in school exercise books.

Also jettisoned: mid-1990s address books. I glimpse a phone number for the House of Kenickie in Camden, a mews pad where all the band lived together, not unlike the Monkees. And a number for David Walliams in his pre-Little Britain days.  Both would have been circa 1996, both are landlines, with mobiles still in the future – just. Even the London dialling codes are obsolete: 0171, rather than 020.

To date this further: I think the first mobile I perused was shown to me around the same time, by Sarah from Dubstar. It was in the Good Mixer, too, that ne plus ultra of Britpop locations.

Another memory from a few years earlier: an unkind news report in an early 90s music paper. David Gedge of the Wedding Present seen using – O horrors! – a mobile phone at a music festival. The caption implied that this was evidence he’d sold out. Today, in the film Green Room, the retrieval of a rock band’s iPhone triggers the whole plot.

***

I have my hair cut on Archway Road: £13.50, including tip. Cropped short to the roots, which seem to be darker than ever. Then I re-bleach it myself with a £5 kit, until 90 minutes are up, or when my scalp is aflame in agony. Whichever happens first.

***

I read Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (1979). It has so many of the things I believe in: humour, experimentation, daring, skittishness, and a sense of all things being possible. If there is a shortcoming, perhaps it is a lack of full engagement with the characters. But that’s the price of all the fragmentation and, well, all the pratting about. Or as they say in universities, all the ludic discursiveness.

David Mitchell has cited the novel as an inspiration for Cloud Atlas, except that where Calvino keeps starting new stories, Mitchell goes back and gives each of his tales an ending. The current paperback edition of Calvino makes this link, too, with a quote on the back reading Breathtakingly inventive – David Mitchell’.

Actually, this doesn’t specify which David Mitchell. To say the David Mitchell is no good. There’s nothing to stop this back cover quote being not from the literary novelist but from the one off the TV, the actor from Peep Show and Upstart Crow and panel games. Or perhaps it’s another David Mitchell, one who isn’t either of these two, but who is a Calvino fan. It’d be a very Calvino-esque move for a publisher to find such a man and quote him instead.  

In the novel, Calvino’s list of books in a bookshop is honest and funny:

‘Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First’
‘Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered’
‘Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They Come Out in Paperback’
‘Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them’.

The last category is the one that always confronts me. Indeed, it includes the other works of Calvino.

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Sunday 5th June 2016. To the Lexington in Pentonville Road for a gig by Blindness, with Debbie Smith on guitar. They announce it as the band’s last show: singer Beth is moving to a different country. Debbie wears a vintage flat cap, waistcoat and matching trousers. ‘I’ve just realised what this look is called,’ says at the microphone. ‘Peaky Blindness’.

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Tuesday 7th June 2016. Evening: To the ICA for The Measure of A Man. £3. A contemporary French film that fits neatly with the current celebration of Ken Loach, given it’s about a man struggling to make ends meet during unemployment. It’s also filmed in a very naturalistic style – even more so than Loach. The dialogue, which must be based on improvisation, frequently goes into bursts of repetition, where people say the same things to each other over and over again. This is the way conversations go in real life, of course, but it’s so tricky to do this on screen without boring the audience rigid. That the film manages to carry this off is, I think, partly thanks to the charisma of the main actor, who mopes around under a moustache that rather recalls a French Bernard Hill. Les Garcons Du Black Stuff. Another reason is the use of footage from supermarket security cameras, where a desperate security guard is forced to spy on other desperate people. It’s CCTV as reality TV, where poverty and spectacle collide.

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Wednesday 8th June 2016. Evening: to Victoria Park in Hackney Wick. This is for the launch of Travis Elborough’s latest book, A Walk In the Park, on the history of public gardens. I get a copy, and am flattered to find myself in the thanks list at the back. It’s billed as ‘everything about parks from Gilgamesh to Gary Numan’. I check: there really is a fair bit about Gary Numan in there.

I’ve never been to Victoria Park before, and am fascinated with the two stone alcoves that can be found near the east gate, surreally plonked on the grass. They’re labelled as alcoves from the old London Bridge, which is a nice coincidence, given the bridge was the subject of TE’s last book. That said, Travis himself goes on to tell me that there’s a chance the alcoves are from the old Westminster bridge instead.

The book launch is at the sleek and trendy Hub building in the middle of the park. It’s a warm day, and we sip wine outside, our view of the park somewhat obscured by the long fence of green hoarding that encloses the Field Day festival site. I see from the posters that the headline act will be PJ Harvey – and I suddenly remember how that was first the name of the band, rather than the singer.  

Further drinks afterwards, at the People’s Park Tavern, walking into the tail end of the pub quiz. I open a door and suddenly met with an amplified voice: ‘What colour is Marge Simpson’s dress?’. Over drinks, a discussion about camp and indie music leads to the theory that Morrissey found the photos for several Smiths sleeves from the same book, Philip Core’s Camp – The Lie That Tells The Truth. Then I stagger home via Homerton, and think of the way that station lends itself to Simpsons jokes. 

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Friday 10th June 2016. To the Bishopsgate Institute – first visited as a child for a Puffin Club show. Today I’m here too see the display on Lady Malcolm’s Servants Ball. This was the notorious series of parties at the Royal Albert Hall in the 1920s and 30s, ostensibly intended to let servants and gentry dance in fancy dress together. Its atmosphere of rule-breaking en masse soon led it to be associated with the London gay and lesbian scene, such as it was back then. The later tickets to the balls carried a statement that gave away what had been going on: ‘No man impersonating a woman will be admitted’. It must have helped that Jeanne Malcolm, the aristocrat who hosted the events, had an official name that sounded like a cross-dressing act in itself – Lady Malcolm.

Evening: To Birkbeck Cinema in Gordon Square for an event about the science of stage magic. It includes a free screening of The Prestige, as in the Christopher Nolan Noughties thriller about Victorian  magicians, which I’ve not seen till now. The film is superb. It makes the link between the masculine world of magic tricks, and Nolan’s recurring themes of male obsession and confusion.  There’s one key scene where Christian Bale’s character performs his ‘Transported Man’ trick for the first time. Nolan suddenly cuts away from the climax of the trick – the ‘prestige’ section – and has the characters narrate what happened instead. It’s a disorientating device that Nolan uses in all his films, but in this case it also stops the audience guessing the big twist at the end. 

There’s then a talk on the science of misdirection by an academic from Goldsmith’s. He is a practitioner of magic himself, and performs a couple of the classics: the one with the rope cut into three pieces, and the one with the three cups and three little balls. I surprise myself at being delighted by his sleight of hand. Perhaps it’s the way that stage magic allows adults to tap into a pure form of wonder, the kind not felt since childhood.

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The Line of Bottom

Monday 30th May 2016. I enjoy the new BBC film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as adapted by Russell T Davies. Maxine Peake is Titania, Matt Lucas is Bottom. Both are perfectly cast. Ms Peake already has that angular face one finds in Victorian paintings of fairies, while Mr Lucas brings cuddliness to the pompous Bottom even before he acquires the ass’s head (and then he really is cuddly, like a giant soft toy). 

It’s made with the same team as Mr Davies’s Doctor Who productions, the ones with Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant. I’d say it’s especially like the Davies mini-series just before that: the David Tennant Casanova. It’s that same feeling of a fizzy, dressed-up world operating on a line of tension, with a progressive approach at one end – deliberate anachronisms, multi-ethnic casting, gay characters – and an embracing of popular entertainment at the other. This latest take on Shakespeare went out at 8.30pm on BBC1, so it had to appeal to as many people as possible. Yet it still had Davies’s personal vision at its heart: a world where fascist flags are ripped up into party decorations, where love comes in all shapes and sizes, and everyone dances to Bernard Cribbins singing ‘It Was A Lover And His Lass’. Can’t argue with that.

For all the liberties taken with the story – such as Theseus as a fascist dictator with an iPad – it’s difficult to say it’s any more radical than an average modern stage production. Since I visited the British Library’s Shakespeare exhibition, I’ve been reading about the Peter Brook 1970 RSC Dream, with its minimalist white squash court, stilts and trapezes. Birkbeck Library has two books about that production alone: a detailed making-of account by David Selbourne, and an RSC script with all the stage directions, where one can study Brook’s decisions line-by-line. His Bottom, for instance, merely gains a red nose when transformed by Puck. If a modern production has Bottom with ass’s ears, as in the BBC one, it’s still more traditional than Brook.

In the press there was a slight fuss about the BBC Titania kissing Hippolyta. This is nothing new. I read that the current Globe production of Midsummer Night’s Dream has Helena as a gay man called Helenus, with Demetrius as his lover in denial. The Globe’s previous Dream three years ago had Puck and Oberon passionately kissing. That particular Puck was played by Matthew Tennyson, a very pretty young man who happens to be a descendent of the Tennyson. He now pops up in the BBC film as Lysander, with a pair of glasses that rather makes him resemble Harry Potter. I read that as a deliberate nod to the way Shakespeare has direct links to popular culture now. If it uses the English language, it’s connected to Shakespeare.

I’ve also just remembered that there’s a lesbian bar on the Charing Cross Road, called Titania.

***

I’m going through my untidy piles of old papers, with a rule of throwing out five things every day. Discarding the ephemeral is easier when you realise it gives more value to the things you keep. And yet I do like the physical evidence of a life; the proof that whatever I’ve done, I’ve lived.

Today, with my head full of thoughts of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, I find a couple of letters from Dad that reference that very play.

They’re written on the backs of his own photocopied cartoons. One has a tiny Puck flying around the shoulders of two American comic book superheroes. Or rather, two versions of the same superhero, The Flash. One is the 1940s Golden Age Flash, with the winged hat; the other is the later Silver Age incarnation, with the one-piece costume and the mask.

Puck is saying: ‘I will put a girdle around the Earth in forty minutes‘. The two Flashes reply, ‘Been there, done that!’

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Dad’s other cartoon has a tiny Titania offering a rose to Mr Spock from Star Trek. Says Titania: ‘Come sit thee down upon this flowery bed / While I thy amiable cheeks do coy / And stick musk roses in thy sleek, smooth head / And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.’

Mr Spock, who of course has ‘fair large ears’, replies, ‘Fascinating!’.

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Friday 3rd June 2016. I find a Dutch newspaper supplement from late 2007, where I’m the cover star. Well, that’s if the cover of a supplement counts as a cover. It’s for an article on Modern Dandies of London (I think). Me alongside Sebastian Horsley, with his two fingers up to the camera. I still live in the same room, albeit with different curtains.

dutch dandies article

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More mopping-up of unpublished activity.

Friday 6th May: While people have stopped me in the street to ask me why I hadn’t written more about the death of Prince, no one has yet chided me for my complete omission of the London mayoral election. Perhaps that sums up what sort of diarist I am.

Still, it needs to be said that I did indeed vote. Voters had a second preference, so I gave my first choice to the Greens’ Sian Berry, and my second to Labour’s Sadiq Khan. Khan triumphed, his victory announced late into the night of the 6th (after an agonising delay of many hours). Ms Berry came in at an impressive third, after the Conservatives’ Zac Goldsmith. She also took up a seat on the London Assembly, thanks to the Greens doing well enough on the ‘London-wide’ polling sheets.

It’s the first election result in years where I’ve felt optimistic about the future.

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Films seen recently:

Tuesday 17th May 2016: Green Room at the ICA. £3. A horror thriller with the unusual backdrop of a right-wing skinhead music scene, in contemporary rural Oregon. Rather different to the Portland liberals of that same state, as spoofed in Portlandia. But then I suppose it’s analogous to the way parts of Sussex can be rather less progressive than Brighton.

Imogen Poots’s character has one of those skinhead-scene girls’ haircuts that flatter while adding a certain toughness: long at the sides with a sharp fringe at the front (a Chelsea Fringe? a Feathercut? not sure). The boots and braces look for the men is well-researched too – straight out of 1970s Britain, but jostling here alongside iPhones and American accents. Much significance given to the colour of laces in DMs. A couple of the scenes are extremely gory. But then it is meant to be a horror film too. I suppose boxes must be ticked in plot, in the same way that the characters must tick boxes with their clothes, their taste in rock music, and with their beliefs. These days, I find discussions about belonging thrilling enough; blood and violence less so.

Friday 20th May 2016: Heart of a Dog at the ICA. £3. Laurie Anderson’s stunning film essay, ostensibly about the death of her rat terrier Lolabelle, but touching on life and death in all kinds of ways, from the passing of friends and relatives, to the changes in New York after 9/11. Her husband Lou Reed’s death (which happened during the making of the film) isn’t explicitly referred to, but he’s there briefly as an actor (playing a doctor), and as himself (in footage of the couple on a beach). He also provides the closing song, and in the very last shot he is seen holding the dog.

At one point Anderson talks about that unhappy experience that most pet owners must endure: going to the vet to hear what she calls ‘The Speech’. The one that asks the owner if the pet can be put to sleep. It reminded me how I was recently told, separately, of the deaths of two cats I used to look after in North London: Claudia Andrei’s cat Sevig, and Jenn Connor’s Vyvian. When Sevig became very frail, Claudia pushed him around the streets of Edinburgh in a shopping trolley – ‘the Sevig-mobile’. After seeing Heart of a Dog I realised how lucky I was to have the pleasure of living with these beautiful creatures, without ever having to face The Speech.

Tuesday 24th May 2016: Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, ICA. £3. A documentary on a group of artists in the late 60s and early 70s, who turned vast, desolate parts of the US into their own canvasses in the pure pursuit of Making Art. I was familiar with the Lightning Field artwork – all those lightning rods against the sky- but I hadn’t heard about works like Double Negative, where two gigantic rectangular chunks were carved out of a rocky mesa. According to the credits, some of the works begun in the 1970s are still in progress today.

Thursday 26th May 2016: Love and Friendship at the BFI. Free, courtesy of Tim Chipping, a fellow Whit Stillman fan (we went to see Barcelona together on its 1990s release). The film is followed by a Q&A with Whit Stillman, who is in typically eloquent and wry form. The film adapts Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, though there are touches of Wilde in Stillman’s script too. It’s verbose without ever being dry, and in terms of quips and jokes, it’s funnier than most modern comedies. My favourite film this year.

Friday 3rd June 2016: The Witch at the Prince Charles. £4. A tale of supernatural goings-on amongst a family of Puritan settlers, in seventeenth-century New England. Like Green Room, it blends the horror genre with more unusual aspects, in this case, gritty historical drama. The dialogue is lifted straight from the literature of the time: all ‘thy’s and ‘thee’s. As with Whit Stillman, the style only works once you realise what the director is trying to do: in this case, make a film that takes folk legends as real without question. It’s as if the film was made by seventeenth-century Puritans, as well as being about them.

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A useful acronym from Atalanta K, who lost her bag after a night of carousing: ‘I had a CRAFT moment. As in: Can’t Remember A F-ing Thing.’


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Little Threads of Infinity

Sometimes, writing can feel like tugging at little threads of infinity. This is a simile suggested by the jacket I’m wearing today. It’s a beloved linen number of some ten summers, as a result of which the jacket is now unravelling along a number of seams. It has reached the stage where it makes my dry cleaner suck in his breath so much, I wonder if there’s a point where the sound of reluctance ends and asthma begins.

I have the same fear of an infinite unravelling whenever I sit down to write. There’s a point where the mind has no reason to stop dwelling on even the tiniest detail – one thinks of the Woolf story ‘The Mark on the Wall’. Everything is interesting, really.

But the problem with this is that I have a backlog of events from the last few weeks, which really should be at least declared, if only to paint in the parameters of my funny little life. This week’s selection of diary entries, and the next one, will therefore be more of a mopping-up. The temptation to tug on The Threads of Fact until they become The Unravelled Garments of Reflection will just have to be resisted.

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Tuesday 4th May 2016. To the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury. A small gallery that nevertheless crams in two superb exhibitions: a major one about ‘The Great British Graphic Novel’, and a smaller one upstairs about the Doctor Who Target novelisations, which came out regularly in the 70s and 80s. Virtually every Doctor Who adventure was turned into one of these little books. I remember them well as a child. It was the era just before TV shows were available to buy on home video (long before DVDs). To revisit a favourite story, the fans had to read prose fiction. How strange now to think of novels as catch-up TV.

Each Target paperback had a specially commissioned cover rendered as a painting (hence the exhibition), branding the books more as imaginative explorations in their own right, rather than disposable cash-ins. They also encouraged a feeling of community, which is what merchandise and events like Comic-Con should always do. Join our club.

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Thursday 5th May 2016. In the TLS I read a review by Tom Lean of Electronic Dreams, a book about 1980s computer games. One game, Deus Ex Machina, apparently featured a segment ‘in which the player has to guide a sperm to an egg in order to fertilize it. The astronomer Patrick Moore had been invited to voice the semen; he consulted his mother and, on her advice, declined.’

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Sunday 8th May 2016. Afternoon: To a marquee in St James’s Square, for one of the Words in the Square events. This is a miniature literary festival, held by the London Library to mark its 175th anniversary. I attend ‘Desert Island Books’, a group discussion about favourite reads. Six authors sit on a stage and explain their choices in categories such as ‘Childhood Favourite’, ‘Biggest Influence’, ‘Guilty Pleasure’, ‘Tarnished Favourite’, and ‘Recent Favourite’. The authors are Philippa Gregory, Deborah Levy, John O’Farrell, Sara Wheeler, Nikesh Shukla and Ned Beauman. A gender note: all three men try to make the audience laugh, while the three women are more serious and wistful about the pleasures of reading. Though that’s a kind of playing to the crowd too.

Ned B’s ‘Guilty Pleasure’ is to go on Amazon and use the ‘Look Inside’ function to read the bits in crime thrillers where the killer reveals his motive. Nikesh S’s ‘Tarnished Favourite’ is a poetry anthology he contributed to in his teens. His initial excitement at having his dream realised was soon doused; the book turned out to be a scam by a vanity press.

Evening: To the Constitution in Camden for Debbie Smith’s Nitty Gritty club night. It’s such a sunny day that I walk all the way from St James’s, via the canal. At the club I meet the singer from the band Bete Noire, who I’m reliably informed have been making waves with their song, ‘Piss On Putin’.

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 Saturday 29th May 2016. Mum in London for the day. We visit the British Library’s big summer exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts. As usual with the BL, it’s a rich mix of the familiar (lots of rare books, a couple of First Folios present and correct), the educational (in-depth histories of early female and black actors) and the unexpected. In the latter case I’m fascinated with the details of the first overseas production, an amateur Hamlet on board a ship off the coast of Sierra Leone, as early as 1607. Shakespeare was still alive.

Also learned: King Lear was performed in a sanitised version for 150 years. This Restoration rewrite had a happy ending and omitted the character of the Fool entirely. When the full Shakespearean Lear was revived in the 1830s, the first actor to play the Fool was a woman, Priscilla Horton.

For me, the highlight is a whole room dedicated to Peter Brook’s 1970 production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. This was the radically minimalist version, staged against plain white walls, with brightly coloured costumes, trapezes and stilts. In the exhibition, all the rooms are dark except for this one, a witty recreation of Brook’s clean white box. There’s even a trapeze one can sit on, albeit firmly anchored.

Lunch at Albertini in Chalton Street, followed by a walk around Camley Street Natural Park and a quick visit to the House of Illustration. Three small exhibitions in the latter: 1920s Soviet children’s books (when animal tales were suppressed as bourgeois constructs), a permanent Quentin Blake gallery, and a display of Japanese girls’ Shojo manga comics. Am intrigued about Keiko Takemiya, who is thought to have pioneered the yaoi genre: comics about gay male love, made by women for girls.

It’s a sunny day, and we have drinks outside in Granary Square (buying them at the trendy Granary Store bar). The area is still being finished, but it’s already King’s Cross’s answer to the South Bank, the canal standing in for the Thames. As with the Royal Festival Hall, hordes of people now descend here at the weekend, and seem to just sit around all day. Alcohol on concrete, bridges over water, art galleries, and the inevitable small children playing in fountains, the kind made up of jets of water springing up from the pavement.

In fact, the Granary Square fountains seem to be more artily-minded than the South Bank ones, perhaps because St Martin’s is next door. The jets switch constantly between different patterns of varying rows and heights. On the South Bank, the jets just rise up and go down. Either way, the children seem happy. Or at least, busy. Which with children, unlike adults, is the same thing.


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The Artist Known As…

Tuesday 17 May 2016. To Vout-o-Reenee’s to take a photo. It’s for my entry to a Birkbeck competition, which is asking for photos on the theme of ‘London Relocated’. An idea occurred to me, so I thought I’d give it a go. I thought about the way the Vout’s club is effectively the spirit of bohemian Soho relocated, in this case a few miles east in Tower Hill. Tonight I get Sophie Parkin to pose at the bar for my hopeful little image, alongside her book on the deceased Soho club, the Colony Room. I also get my own membership card of the Colony into the shot, visible on the counter of the Vout’s bar.

Sophie tells me about the charity Little Paper Slipper, which is having a major event at Vout’s in June. This is a charity that organises therapeutic art workshops, for women affected by domestic abuse. The end result is a series of exhibitions of the eponymous slippers, each one personalised by the woman who made it. There’s about 150 of them now.  The event at Vout’s is going to be a fundraising auction, featuring shoes specially made for the charity by a group of artists, including Gavin Turk, Molly Parkin, and John Claridge.

I’m happy to help publicise the event. There’s further details at Facebook here.

There’s some fascinating photos of the workshop slippers at the charity website: www.littlepaperslipper.com/slippers.html

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Wednesday 18 May 2016. Evening: my debut as a conceptual artist. I am given a sticker for my lapel which says: ‘Dickon Edwards – Artist’. So it must be true.

The venue is Birkbeck’s School of Arts, on the east side of Gordon Square, once home to Virginia Woolf. This week is Birkbeck’s annual Arts Week, a series of free talks and events that are open to the public. Over the cast iron railings at the main entrance are the words ‘ARTS WEEK’ rendered as huge, colourful knitted letters. I discover that this display is not, as I’d hoped, the product of an MA course in Comparative Knitting, but the handiwork of two knitting-loving administrators, Claire Adams and Catherine Catrix.

Given the building’s history, I wonder what would have happened if those fateful railings in Mrs Dalloway had been similarly wool-clad. Septimus Smith might have ended the novel in better shape. Another thought is The Muppets’ Mrs Dalloway. Starring Miss Piggy as Clarissa: ‘Moi will buy the flowers myself!’

Inside, Room 112 hosts The Contemporary: An Exhibition. This is a ‘pop-up’ show by four students of the MA Contemporary Literature and Culture course, and addresses the question: what is ‘the contemporary’? The contributors are Kathryn Butterworth (in partnership with James Watkinson), Jassey Parmar, Dylan Williams, and myself. The event is the idea of the main course tutor, Grace Halden, who thought it would be good to have the MA represented during Arts Week.

Kathryn and James’s display is a multimedia look at technology and literature: there’s large boards covered in texts, computer diagrams, a model of DNA code, and laptops playing audio and video content. Jassey’s exhibit is a series of photographs of London shop fronts, which blend different cultures and brands in unexpected ways. Twice during the evening, Dylan performs a selection of his own poetry. And I’ve contributed a social media installation titled Is It Just Me?

I had the idea some years ago. It was one of those ideas that don’t go away. So I thought I’d either put it in a story, or just keep it in reserve, in case someone asked me to contribute to an exhibition.

So one day someone did, and here I am. A debut artist.

At the event, I give out an A4 handout to explain my thinking behind the installation. I’ve uploaded it here as a PDF:

Is it Just Me – installation handout

I also leave out a sheet of my handwritten notes for the project. I like the juxtaposition of the shifting internet content on the screen, with the fixed artifact of my handwriting on paper. Private traces of the body, versus public traces of the mind.

The event turns out to be decently attended, with tutors stopping by to say kind things. It all seems to go okay, and there’s no technical hitches, thanks to the efficiency of Birkbeck’s staff. How wonderful it is to have an idea which involves cables and equipment, but not have to worry about the cables and equipment oneself.

Here’s some photos from the course’s Facebook page (most of them taken by Lee Smith, used with permission):

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And here’s a link to the Facebook page for the MA in Contemporary Lit and Culture

***

Thursday 19th May 2016. Thinking more about Prince, and about camp uses of the colour purple, I’m reminded of this anecdote from Gary McMahon’s Camp in Literature (2006, p. 144):

‘Brigid Brophy notes that [Ronald] Firbank often wrote his tales in purple ink on blue postcards, surface and colour being everything to camp. Brophy reveals that she too wrote her critical biography of the man [Prancing Novelist, 1973] in purple ink. My working copy of Brophy’s book is on loan from Manchester University’s library. At this purple confession on page 173, a university student […] has written this response in the margin:

“Are you [Brophy] really as besotted as this? If so, we don’t want to know. At least maintain a pretence at objectivity, please.”

McMahon remarks that this student represents a certain academic sensibility ‘that is always going to be exasperated and offended by camp’.

Returning to Prince, I think of a friend’s anecdote along the same lines. When this friend was growing up in the 80s, some blokish gentleman known to them – a friend or possibly a dad – took one look at a Prince record sleeve and remarked, quite out of the blue, ‘I don’t care what he sounds like. I’m not listening to anyone who dresses like that.’

***

Friday 20th May 2016. I receive the grade for my second essay on the MA. Despite my struggles with it, I am very pleased indeed to get a 76 (a mark over 70 is a Distinction, the MA equivalent of a First). The first essay got a 73. It’s a nice boost to my confidence when I needed it most, wracked as I was with Difficult Second Term Syndrome.

For the rest of the summer, I have to get on with postgraduate-y things under my own steam, such as attending open lectures and pursuing my own research. But as far as the big assessments go, the pressure is off until the autumn.


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Diamonds and Beaus

Friday 13th May 2016. Early afternoon: I’m recognised in Jermyn Street by a gentleman who says he enjoys this diary. In fact, he crosses the street to tell me this, narrowly avoiding being run down. Surely no writer can ask for higher praise than this: a reader risking their own life to pass on a good review. Perhaps it should go on the back of a book. ‘I enjoyed Dickon Edwards so much, I was nearly hospitalised’.

He adds that he was disappointed I didn’t say more about the death of Prince, given what I’d said about Bowie a few months earlier. This is a perfectly good point.

I think one reason might be that, when I was growing up, I’d always regarded Prince as one of my brother Tom’s favourites; his territory more than mine. For some reason we divided up singers and bands between us, as if they were soft toy animals. I got to cuddle New Order, the Pixies and the Smiths, Tom had the Cult, the Beastie Boys, and Prince.

But if one loves good pop songs, and believes, as I do, that pop music is at its best when used as a platform for individuality, eccentricity, and indeed dandyism, obviously one has to admire Prince.

It’s all the more apt that this request took place on Jermyn Street. The street is something of a dandy Mecca, being home to some of London’s most stylish menswear shops, to the church of St James’s Piccadilly, where Sebastian Horsley had his funeral in a red squinned coffin, and to a statue to that most influential of London dandies, Beau Brummel. It is a statue close enough to the ground to be hugged, an act which dandyish American friends of mine make a point of doing whenever they visit.

A further coincidence is that I was on my way to the London Library, a block away in St James’s Square. After parting company with the reader, I remember that I’d once found a book on dandyism in the library, one which directly compared Prince with Beau Brummell. So today I go straight into the stacks and retrieve the book in question.

The book is called Rising Star: Dandyism, Gender and Performance in the Fin de Siècle, by Rhonda K. Garelick (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998). As part of a chapter on the legacy of dandyism, Garelick reprints a 1995 Esquire cover, on which Prince pulls a definite dandyish pose. It’s from his Artist Formerly Known As phase, just after his hit, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl In The World’. His hair at this point is short, dark, combed and straightened, with a touch of the silkily feminine (even a Hugh Grant-ish schoolboy floppiness). He has a thin pencil beard that seems an extension of his cheekbones, and wears a slim pinstripe suit, buttoned down, over a white shirt with big cuffs. He sports a dark tie (collar button undone), fingers covered in rings, and leans against a silver cane.

According to Garelick, Prince’s image at this point follows in the classic nineteenth-century dandy traits. Prince ‘borrows unmistakably from the likes of Beau Brummell, Baudelaire and Jean Lorrain’. The main criteria are his aloofness, his air of contempt for convention, and his highly stylized persona. On top of that, his 1990s adoption of an unpronounceable symbol allies him with Barbey d’Aurevilly’s idea of the dandy life: one of pure surface and symbol, an influence beyond language: the dandy is ‘that which can hardly be recounted’. Certainly, changing one’s name to an actual symbol takes that aspect of dandyism to the limit. Though I’d say Prince had already put his stamp on language by that point, given his love of turning words into single letters or numbers, as in ‘I Would Die 4 U’.

The gendered aspects of Prince’s dandyism were equally fascinating. Granted, it may not have been original for a male, black, American performer to play with femininity in the rock and pop field; one thinks of Little Richard and Rick James. But Prince used his influences in order to do as Bowie did: make something new. He especially intensified the androgynous aspects of his imagery, imbuing them with that most deviant of colours – purple.

I think of that campest of pre-war dandy writers, Ronald Firbank, and his love of writing with purple ink. I also think of Brigid Brophy taking this detail of Firbank’s so much to heart, she apparently switched to using purple ink for the longhand manuscript of Prancing Novelist, her 1973 study of Firbank. The Brophy book is 600 pages long. That’s a lot of purple.

Through these deviant codes, Prince’s dandyism became an outrageous queering of heterosexuality – a machismo-troubling version of Camp Rock which he shared with such figures as Marc Bolan, Tiny Tim and Russell Brand (who isn’t even a musician, but he hasn’t let that stop him).

Garelick’s book also compares Prince’s use of female dancers and co-singers with names as Vanity, Apollonia, and Mayte, as echoing 1890s Decadent ‘tableaux’, such as ‘Aubrey Beardsley’s Salome drawings of androgynous, erotic, and nearly twin creatures’. Though in Prince’s case, says Garelick, the women were not so much twins as shadows in his wake, a ‘merging of the dandy and the danseuse’.

Certainly, any woman appearing with Prince had to become remade in his image. I never saw Prince in concert, but I was interested enough to catch his 1987 concert film Sign o’ the Times, when it hit British cinemas. For the song ‘U Got The Look’, the female role was filled by the Scottish singer Sheena Easton, who’d already had a successful career in her own right. For ‘U Got The Look’, though, she became well and truly Prince-i-fied. From her singing to her clothes to her poses, she was not so much a guest vocalist as just another interchangeable cog in the man’s machine. When in Purple Rome, you do as the Purple Roman does.

More recently, I thought of Prince when I heard the song ‘Quicksand’ by La Roux, aka Elly Jackson, a young singer who might herself be described as a dandy (the National Portrait Gallery’s shop currently has her on a postcard, wearing a very Bowie-esque mustard yellow suit). Musically, ‘Quicksand’ is clearly influenced by ‘When Doves Cry’, from the chords to the clipped 80s synths. But Ms Jackson’s singing is a very Prince-like style too: shifting across the genders from high feminine falsetto to low, growing boyish swagger. For me, that’s when art is at its best: when there’s a breaking out of prescribed roles, and the same trappings of said roles are re-used on the artist’s own terms, to communicate their individualism. And that’s also a definition of dandyism, in my book.

***

Evening: to the ICA to see Mustang, a Turkish film, set in the present day, about five teenage orphan sisters living in what seems like an idyllic picturesque setting: a hillside village near the Black Sea coast. Their mildly rebellious behaviour during the school holidays, however, sees them dramatically punished by their guardians – first with imprisonment in their own home, complete with bars on the windows, and then into forced marriage to equally reluctant young men. The film’s sensualised, slightly surreal atmosphere accentuates the idea of a close-knit group of girls disappearing into a world of their own, thus placing the film in the same tradition as Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Virgin Suicides, and last year’s The Falling.

With the added dimension of the conservative Turkish setting, though, Mustang has more complex questions about the role of arranged marriage in a changing world. The girls’ captor, their grandmother, is no fairy tale tyrant; she merely believes that, because she herself was married off straight after puberty, that’s the way it should be. Indeed, for one of the sisters, her marriage to the boy she was already seeing is shown as a good thing, if a hasty one. For the others, though, freedom comes in the form of escape to the big city – Istanbul – and to the parent they really want: a beloved schoolteacher. The real asset of the film, though, is the utterly naturalistic and convincing performances, particularly by the youngest sister.


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Letters As Pandas

Monday 25th April 2016. Working on the second draft of the MA essay. It’s 3000 words over the limit, so most of the work is working out which bits to cut. Some are obvious – simply any sections that I feel less confident about. Others fall into the category of ‘Fascinating And Original Insights That I Feel The World Will Benefit From, But Which Aren’t Relevant To The Current Matter At Hand’.

***

Reading Hollinghurst’s Swimming-Pool Library, I find a line in which a character refers to Brideshead Revisited as ‘that deplorable novel’. All the more amusing, given that the AH’s later works The Line of Beauty and The Stranger’s Child are often compared to Brideshead.  Today, Sebastian Flyte and his teddy bear seem more invulnerable than ever: there’s a new stage production of Brideshead doing the media rounds.

***

Tuesday 26th April 2016. To Senate House Library, for one of the many Shakespeare exhibitions for the 400th anniversary of his death. This is one is called Shakespeare: Metamorphosis. It presents a history of the Bard in print, via a ‘Seven Ages of Man’ theme. The last age, the decrepit ‘sans teeth, sans eyes’ one, is used for the digital era, now that every play is easily accessible online. Thus the great man is now ‘sans binding, sans pages’. Some irony, though, as I’m writing this up from the exhibition leaflet.

Among the exhibits is a copy of Golding’s sixteenth-century translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an edition similar to the one that inspired Shakespeare. The title page says: ‘Tr. Arthur Golding Gentleman. A work very pleasant and delectable.’ I’m also intrigued by some pristine copies of a 1940s series aimed at schoolchildren, The Satchel Shakespeare. Each play was published as a slim, dark green paperback, light yet somehow sturdy enough to survive a child’s satchel.

As is increasingly the case with historical exhibitions, displays of personal letters tend to be a highlight. Given that the medium of letters is more of an endangered species than the medium of books, even a copy of the First Folio can seem less exotic than letters from a few decades ago.  One only has to point to the success of the Letters of Note books and the Letters Live events to show the changing role of letters; from commonplace pursuit to otherworldly public spectacle. If curators are the zoo keepers of culture, letters are the new pandas.

Consequently, my favourite item in this Shakespeare show is a 1957 correspondence between the University of London’s JH Pafford, and the German scholar Richard Flutter. At the time, Pafford was editing the Arden Shakespeare edition of The Winter’s Tale. Flutter had just published a letter in which he argued that Shakespeare only wrote a fraction of the play. Pafford duly wrote to Flutter asking him to explain this theory in more detail, though he adds that he’s already firmly convinced the play is fully Shakespeare’s. In the reply, also on display, Flutter replies, quite reasonably: ‘Why do you want me to mix a cocktail for you when you are firmly determined not to drink it?

***

Saturday 30th April 2016. The essay seems to be taking forever. I’m finally on the third draft, working most days in Birkbeck Library, in Torrington Square. Today I don’t finish till half past ten at night. As I walk out, thinking this is late enough, I notice that dozens of students are still hard at it. The library doesn’t close until quarter to midnight.

***

Sunday 1st May 2016. Weather getting warmer at last. Speak to Mum on the phone in the morning. Then off to the library again. Fourth draft of the essay.

***

Bank Holiday Monday, 2nd May 2016. Essay deadline at noon, so I’m up early to revise the fifth draft in pen. By the time I finish, it’s getting on for eleven. I still have to type up the corrections. So I hit the PCs in Birkbeck Library and frantically type away, barely taking a breath. I upload the finished version to the college website just in time, with about a minute to spare. It’s like a scene from a bad thriller.

All done now. The essay is by far the one I’ve worked the hardest on, at least to date. I only hope the effort comes across. Still, I’m at least confident that it’s full of uncommon and useful insights – the silver lining of a mind stuck in Lateral Mode.

There’s a phrase used to describe Peter Cook which I feel sums up the sentiment: ‘at a slight angle to the universe’. To be worried about being the wrong kind of ‘different’ in some respects, yet hoping to be the right kind of ‘different’ in others, such as in one’s writing. That’s the hope, anyway.

***

Evening: to the Odeon Leicester Square, in one of the smaller screens reserved for the less recent films. I see Star Wars: The Force Awakens, nearly five months after it opens. I’m making good on my (slightly silly) promise, made as a reaction to the aggressive, ubiquitous marketing of the film last December. I resolved to only go and see it when it had been reduced to one screen in central London. Which is now the case.

Tonight’s screening is still fairly well-attended, with a mixture of ordinary-looking people and tourists, and of all ages too. No rabid geeks seeing it for the umpteenth time – at least not visibly.

Then again, Star Wars fans come in all forms. A while ago I listened to an edition of A Point of View on BBC Radio 4. Helen Macdonald, the author of H is for Hawk, who is the same generation as me, talked about going back to see The Force Awakens six times. And this was back in February.

Ms Macdonald explained that for her, the new film represented a reassessment of her late 70s childhood, filtered through more up-to-date concerns, like a moving away from older stereotypes of race and gender. She also suggested that it acknowledged the rise of fan fiction, the genre where admirers of a fictional world remodel it for themselves and write their own amateur stories – often improving on it. They are like the heroine Rey in the film – ‘scavengers’ of the old, seizing on the elements which still work, and giving them new purpose. I’d say that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock does the same. What might look like indulgent nostalgia at first, becomes an expression of human continuity.

Actually, the original Star Wars was itself a kind of 1970s fan fiction, what with George Lucas drawing on the campy Flash Gordon serials of his own youth, and bringing in Joseph Campbell’s theories of an even older continuity – classical mythology. Harry Potter has similar aspects: the orphan hero, the boarding school, touches of E Nesbit and CS Lewis – but with the less troubling and politically incorrect bits updated. A sense of exploring within a tradition, though, rather than mere box ticking.

The first half hour of the new Star Wars has some stunning imagery, particularly the isolated use of blood stains on a white Stormtrooper’s helmet – the first sign that the bad guys might be complicated humans too. Adam Driver steals the show: a walking, ready-made metaphor for all kinds of masculinity. From the way little boys can be inexplicably drawn to violence (I think of the Saki tale, ‘The Toys of Peace’), to the sons who join Islamic State, to the long-haired villains in manga comics.

I’m still not wholly converted to the cause, though: for all the reports of the director, Mr Abrams, making the film look more physical and haptic than the wafer-thin prequels, there’s still some pedestrian CGI monsters with tentacles halfway through. I miss the fabulous rubbery tentacles of the 1977 Trash Compactor Monster. Perhaps that’s where the line is drawn these days. The making of rubber tentacles has become a lost art. As with ‘craft beer’, perhaps there needs to be a revival in ‘craft tentacles’.

***

Wednesday 4th May 2016. Evening: to the Dalston Rio with Shanthi S and Rosie. We see the biopic of Miles Davis, Miles Ahead. Don Cheadle growls his way quite convincingly through the life of the volatile trumpeter. The film constantly flashes back and forth in time, often quite randomly. So the audience is grateful for Mr Cheadle’s vivid changes in appearance: neat short hair and shirt sleeves for the classic phase in the 50s and 60s, then afro and loud shirts for the sadder, reclusive Davis of the late 70s. Ewan McGregor turns up as a Rolling Stone reporter, looking like he’s auditioning for the next Kurt Cobain biopic.

It’s the later showing, at 9.20pm, and we down a few drinks at the Arcola Theatre bar first. Drinks and lateness turn out to be perfect companions for Miles Ahead, just as they were for Victoria the other week. Both films are steeped in an atmosphere of booze, late nights and city bars. The main difference with Miles Ahead, though, is that it’s a period piece. So there’s a huge amount of smoking inside the bars, too. Ashtrays sit on the tops of pianos in darkened clubs, each one duly cradling a lit cigarette. The smoke snakes its way up and around the scene, as much part of the visuals as the actors. It’s an unthinkable sight for a city bar now. It’s How We Used To Smoke.


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The Morning Would Be A Miracle

Tuesday 19th April 2016. Still struggling with basic motivation, so I read a couple of books in the self-help vein. One is on depression, Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. Despite the title, Haig manages to avoid any sentimental irksomeness. Instead he goes in for a lot of self-deprecation, honesty, and little wry jokes. The advice isn’t so uncommon (yoga, mindfulness, breathing exercises, travel, walks in parks), but Haig’s tight prose style and lack of vanity make the book quite special.

The other is The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod, as recommended by my college mentor, Katie W. The gist of this one is to force oneself to get up earlier than useful, but in a deliberate spirit of hopefulness, with added meditation, exercise, reading and writing tasks, a sense of savouring the day, and all that. It’s probably very obvious stuff, but I’ve lately come to resent not being much of a ‘morning person’, and need all the help I can get.

I’ve found that getting on the Tube at Highgate before 7.15am makes all the difference in terms of one’s nerves. Any later than that, the madness of the rush hour starts to kick in.

I’ve been getting to Birkbeck library for its opening time, at 8.30am. There’s usually three or four other people keen to go in at this time, though not quite to the point of forming a queue. This is nothing compared to the British Library in St Pancras, which usually has a queue of at least thirty, long before opening time at 9.30. I think the ones at the front of the queue must insist on having the same desks. I’ve noticed that some foreign visitors find this hilarious, and take pictures of the queue for Twitter. ‘British people: any excuse for a queue’.

* * *

Friday 22nd April 2016. Have reached 8071 words on the essay, with just over a week to go. So now I have to decide which 3000 words I can lose without risking the tutor comment, ‘you could have said more…’ Am fairly confident that there’s original and useful insights in there. One thing I’m particularly pleased about is that I’ve quoted a new academic book called Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction, by Lee Konstantinou. It has lots of pertinent quotes on the texts I’m using, like the way Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is structured like ‘an online social network of short stories’. The book only came out last month, but I’ve managed to borrow a copy via the London Library. I like the feeling of an essay being bang up-to-date.

* * *

Saturday 23rd April 2016. Prince and Victoria Wood die this week. Radio 4’s programme on topical statistics, More or Less, gives an interesting argument for what seems like an increase in celebrity deaths this year. They note there was a surge of ways to be famous in the 1960s, due to the rise of TV and rock music. So that generation is now starting to hit its autumn years. Well, that may apply for Bowie, but Prince and Ms Wood were still too young.

Victoria Wood was a fellow Highgate resident. I glimpsed her once in a rather apt setting, given her association with Englishness: she was sitting in High Tea of Highgate, a 1940s-style tea shop.

My favourite Wood sketches were the ‘Kitty’ monologues, as delivered by Patricia Routledge:

She said, “What do you think of Marx?” I said, “I think their pants have dropped off but you can’t fault their broccoli.”’

* * *

Sunday 24th April 2016. On my way to the ICA this morning, I duck my way through the London Marathon crowds on the Mall. Lots of police about, stalls representing charities, and several jolly teams of St John’s Ambulance volunteers. The marathon gives central London a kind of village fete atmosphere. There’s a sense of an uncommon cheeriness among strangers.

Afterwards, I’m standing at a pedestrian crossing in Trafalgar Square. One of the runners stands there too, still in his shorts and vest, but now wearing a medal on a red ribbon. He is on his way to the Tube like the rest of us. Two elderly passers-by chat to him at the lights.  ‘Well done! How long?’ He holds up three fingers.

* * *

At the ICA, while the Mall is rapt to all the sporty goings-on, I spend two hours in the dark watching the film Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures. This is a new, full-length documentary about the life and work of the New York photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. I guess he’s now more or less synonymous with three things: serene black & white homoerotica, serene black & white celebrity portraiture, and for being Patti Smith’s companion in the 1970s, thanks to her recent memoir Just Kids. Ms Smith’s book was such a bestseller that I think it’s managed to rebrand Mapplethorpe as a character within the Patti Smith story. I wonder if that’s one reason behind the appearance of this new film. It’s certainly not a Patti Smith product, as, rather significantly, she’s not one of the people interviewed. As with the omission of Dave Grohl in the recent Kurt Cobain film, there does seem to be a trend in documentaries to play down or leave out key voices. I think of Ted Hughes’s widow left out of the recent film on the poet, or Amy Winehouse’s father accusing the film Amy for portraying him as a villain.  The recurring lesson is that there’s no such thing as non-fiction, only perspective.

In the case of this new film, though, the documentary works as a neat compliment to Patti Smith’s book. It plays up the side of Mapplethorpe’s life that she wasn’t involved with, even while she was around. So for the 1970s, the film acknowledges Smith’s role, but dwells far more on his connection with the New York gay scene, notably his relationships with several men, many of whom appeared in his work. Then from 1980, Smith moved away from New York while Mapplethorpe’s fame rocketed. There’s testimonials from his celebrity subjects (like Debbie Harry), gallery owners, critics, studio assistants, and most notably from his younger brother Edward, with whom Mapplethorpe seems to have had a rather tense relationship, complicated by Edward’s own ambitions as a photographer.

Mapplethorpe himself comes out of the film as a great talent whose life was tragically cut short by AIDS in 1989, which we knew already. But it also suggests that he was a ruthless careerist who could let his ambition steamroll over the feelings of others. I suppose that might be an unfair impression, as Mapplethorpe isn’t around to defend himself. History is written by the ones who lived longer.

What’s unquestioned, though, like all these arts documentaries, is the objective merit of the work away from the subjective ambiguities of the life. The photographs are properly discussed in detail, from his explicit S&M images (some of which are still rather shocking), to the well-known head and shoulders shot of the two bald young men in profile, one black, one white. Both models are interviewed today, both not looking much older (the silver lining of youthful baldness). The black model is asked: was Mapplethorpe making a statement on race, by positioning the white model in front, craning his neck over the black model’s shoulder? ‘No, I just have a shorter neck.’


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