Cuckold’s Point, Crossrail Place

Saturday 16th May 2015.

Still enjoying my freedom after finishing the degree, while trying not to spend money in doing so. I’m tidying up at home, filing notes in lever-arch folders, then putting the folders away in cupboards. I wonder if I still need to keep quite so many handouts on revising for exams, but keep hold of them anyway. For now. I also make a series of trips this week, to empty my locker in Gordon Square, getting rid of my old set texts.

My copy of Malcolm X’s Autobiography is now in the hands of a young barista, who works in a café on Bedford Way. While paying for my americano, I idly mention I am on my way to Oxfam, and indicate my bag of paperbacks. The barista asks if he could have first dibs. He is delighted to get Malcolm, though he turns his nose up at The Bell Jar.

* * *

Sunday 17th May 2015.

I visit somewhere in London I’d been meaning to go since reading Eastward Ho!, the Jacobean comedy. There’s a scene set at Cuckold’s Point in Rotherhithe, opposite the Isle of Dogs. In the play, Slitgut, a butcher’s apprentice, has to renew the pair of ox horns which sit on the top of a pole there, thus giving the Point its name. One story goes that King John was caught in flagrante with a miller’s wife, and hastily offered the husband the land to one side of the Point, by way of apology. Hence the cuckold’s horns. The tale seems fairly apocryphal, though as transactions over sex scandals go, it’s hardly the strangest.

I take the tube to Canada Water, then a C10 bus to Pageant Steps, the nearest stop to the Point. The wharf is now built-up and lined with a series of pretty, Toytown-esque modern flats in red and cream brickwork. A new stone obelisk marks a break in the estates, with no markings at all. A monument to clean architectural blankness, perhaps. The Thames Path here is a public walkway, though it’s annoyingly broken up by private sections every now and then. There’s a set of old wooden steps leading down to the beach. The tide’s in when I visit, so the water breaks against the steps noisily. I stand and look out over the wall. A sunny, quiet Sunday. Canary Wharf’s monied towers blink warily at me from the other side.

I doubt that the steps are the ones that appear in the eighteenth century painting by Samuel Scott, A Morning, With A View of Cuckold’s Point. But this is Cuckold’s Point all right. The noise of the waves would make it a good spot to record a radio play version of Eastward Ho!

I stop for a drink at the Blacksmiths Arms nearby, a pleasant South London family pub. Then on through the Hilton Docklands Riverside hotel, exploring its covered walkway across the old dry dock. Then I catch the shuttle boat to Canary Wharf (£2.50, ten minutes).

I’m here to see a new part of the Isle of Dogs development that’s just been opened: Crossrail Place. It’s not even on many of the local signs, or even on Google Maps, which still has it down as ‘North Dock’.

As the name suggests, Crossrail Place is built over what will eventually be the Crossrail station for Canary Wharf.  To get there, I walk through the Adams Plaza Bridge, a geometric covered walkway. The main attraction is a long roof garden, designed by Norman Foster, which has an even more futuristic feel than the bridge, albeit one imagined in 1970s films, such as Silent Running and Logan’s Run. There’s a hood-like tesselated roof, with some of its sections open to the air. The plants are chosen to represent the Docklands history of global imports: Japanese maples and magnolias, tea trees, gum trees, lots of ferns.

I visit the new Everyman Canary Wharf cinema, tucked away several floors below, deep inside this latest castle of Lord Foster. A blue-haired woman there recognises me from my sole visit to the Everyman Selfridges screen. That pop-up screen, she tells me, has now been transplanted to this one; scatter cushions and all. ‘It isn’t a pop-up this time. This is indefinite.’

I think about the meaning of Crossrail Place as a name. Something that’s definitely there, named after something that’s not there, not yet. The backwards chronology, of being named after something from the future.

Then I descend into the Canary Wharf underground shopping malls, looking for a way out. Overlit, nearly empty, most of the shops closed on this Sunday evening. I get lost. ‘Ground’, I realise, is not necessarily the ground: the promenade levels linked to the tube stations are underground, so they have minus numbers. When looking for the way out, minus is a plus.

On the third time of repeating my steps, I start to go a little crazy. I look at a shopping map and count up the franchises. The winner is Pret A Manger, with five branches. I have visions of a labyrinth of endless underground Prets, all closed, and me locked in with them. It triggers an existential panic. Pret A L’Etranger! No Exit!

Eventually, I find my way to one of the DLR stations, and take its ghost train up and round and out of there. It’s the words of the blue-haired girl that stay with me: ‘This is indefinite’.

* * *

Tuesday 19th May 2015.

Back to Birkbeck in Bloomsbury, for one of their free Arts Week events. The novelist Deborah Levy gives a talk, ostensibly for the MA Creative Writing students, but it’s opened up to the public. As a result, it’s been moved to one of the larger lecture halls in Torrington Square. Literary events do seem to be bigger than ever. (I wonder if I could give talks on diary writing?)

Ms Levy wears a black velvet dress and speaks beautifully and generously. Her writing covers more genres than I thought: fiction, poetry and scripts for animated films. She begins with a Ballard quote:

‘I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways […] I believe in the beauty of all women, in the treachery of their imaginations, so close to my heart’.

The latter line, about the female imagination as treacherous, is Ms Levy’s favourite. (I prefer the bit about charming motorways).

She talks about the changes in writing technologies; how her first novel, Beautiful Mutants (1987) was written using a typewriter and carbon paper. Now she has a range of Macs. The internet has changed the focus on research: it makes us ‘amateur experts in anything’, she says. But she warns that ‘staring at a screen is not staring at the world’. The first line of Swimming Home was inspired by Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

Ms L spent two years reading Freud ‘solidly’, and recommends everyone reads his case studies. Reading Freud for her was ‘like taking acid’.

* * *

Thursday 21st May 2015.

To the Barbican Screen One, for the new Mad Max film, Fury Road. I’m not at all keen on noisy action films, but the word of mouth on this one was intriguing. It’s the highly-wrought aesthetics and design that are its main appeal. They produce a fully realised world, with a very Australian feeling of a sun-scorched, marginalised take on the usual post-apocalyptic frolics (the Brisbane-born director, George Miller, also did the original Max Max films). It’s also reminiscent of the Duran Duran video for ‘Wild Boys’, of Heavy Metal the magazine, heavy metal the music (not least Iron Maiden album sleeves), and of the comic 2000AD in the 1980s, possibly because Brendan McCarthy (a veteran 2000AD writer) is involved. Despite this piling up of 80s influences, it overcomes any nostalgia by adding a very 2015 tone of pro-disabled & pro-feminist anger. Charlize Theron’s one-armed, crop-haired renegade carries the film’s main mission, while the male leads are either noble grunts who get drawn in (Tom Hardy’s Max) or white-skinned lost boys desperate for approval (Nicholas Hoult). I loved it for the same reason as I loved Mr Lurhmann’s Great Gatsby 3D: sheer, consummate design talent.

* * *

Friday 22nd May 2015.

Fashion blogger Danielle Bernstein is profiled in Harper’s Bazaar about the money she earns. She’s 22 and has a million followers on her Instagram account, ‘WeWoreWhat’. She commands ‘from $5,000 – to $15,000’ every time she posts a sponsored photo of some ensemble. Asked about her annual income, she says ‘it’s in the mid-six figures.’

While I wish Ms Bernstein well, it’s hard not to feel depressed how this reflects on my own situation. I’m technically a blogger of some 18 years experience now – most of Ms Bernstein’s lifetime. But I’ve so far failed to command even a minimum wage from it.

Still, I admit it’s not quite the same. I don’t really ‘blog’, I write a diary. I don’t do regular sponsored posts (though if a menswear firm wanted to sponsor me, I might make an exception). I don’t carry pop-up adverts, out of aesthetic choice. I also don’t do Instagram, being more of a wordsmith.

But the key difference is that she’s good at social media, and I feel relatively anti-social. The adage used to be that life was ‘not a popularity contest’, that the socially awkward kids, the quiet kids, the misfits, the bookish types, all had as much to offer as the popular kids, the jocks and the cheerleaders.

Today, social media has changed all that. It validates the cheerleader mentality as a lifelong ideal. Your value as a person is down to your amount of followers, rather than who they might be. The geek has not inherited the world: he’s just used the internet to become a new form of jock. The ‘core’ geeks – the quieter, the less financially driven, the weirder creative types, and anyone who doesn’t see mass popularity as an end – are in danger of being more marginalised than ever.

Still, I have also had some cheering news. A publisher wants to include some of my diary entries in a new anthology – a different one to A London Year. And this time they can afford to pay me. Not a life-changing amount. But it is the first time I’ve been paid in cash to contribute to a book. So I hope for more of that sort of thing.

It’s taken me most of my life to accept that I’ll never be among the cheerleaders. But I also know that I’m not as alone as I thought. And this is why I go on.

* * *


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Story of The Hair

Saturday 9th May 2015.

A laid-back week of reading in cafes, or tidying up at home. ‘Cut thistles in May / They’ll grow in a day’, goes the gardening rhyme. No gardener I, not even of pot plants. Instead I prune my books, lest they march across the floor.

Lots of taking back of library books, and donating to charity shops. A certain elation now, over being able to read what I want, without the guilt of thinking I should be spending such time on a set text. But there’s also a kind of grieving, of not being able to comprehend how the course is finally over.

* * *

Monday 11th May 2015.

4pm: To Maison Bertaux in Soho for tea with Laurence Hughes. New paintings by Noel Fielding on the walls. Laurence reminds me how Derek Jarman was a regular here: he visited Jarman in his Charing Cross flat.

I rather like how this chat turns out to be my first social occasion after the election, given that LH is a UKIP member, and I’m a Green. We politely agree to disagree over matters political, but otherwise get on fine. As it is, we can grumble in unison over the unfairness of the voting system, when millions of votes can only result in a single MP.

Today I remind myself how many of my favourite writers were not exactly tuned into my political wavelength. Evelyn Waugh for starters. A man who in his novels could write so perceptively and beautifully about the business of being human full stop, while in his diary he made remarks like: ‘It is impudent and exorbitant to demand truth from the lower classes’ (Waugh: Diaries, July 1961, p. 784).

Similarly, I’ll always remember how during my candidacy in the 2006 Haringey Council elections, the people who were friendliest to me at the count, after the Greens, were the local Tories. All anyone ever wants to know about anyone is ‘were they nice?

* * *

Wednesday 13th May 2015.

A day trip to Brighton. £19 day return, a noon train from Victoria, the sea appearing in under an hour. I feel smug about the timing: the sunniest day all week. Some men on the pier are going bare-chested, in that time-honoured, overly optimistic, utterly English way. I revisit the Pavilion for tea on the balcony, this time learning from the staff that the Banqueting Hall was once used for a film dream sequence. It’s in the Barbra Streisand musical, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970). I find it on YouTube (one must search for the song ‘Love With All The Trimmings’). Given that the Pavilion is often held up as an example of camp avant la lettre, and that the building inspired Aubrey Beardsley, who in turn inspired a whole universe of camp, it’s fair to say that the Streisand scene attains a level of campness that soars off the scale. Even more so: her costume is designed by Cecil Beaton.

* * *

Thursday 14th May 2015.

To the new Maggi Hambling exhibition at Somerset House: War Requiem & Aftermath. A couple of sound installations, one using Britten’s War Requiem, one using ambient sea noises. Most of it is on the theme of war and ruins, but there’s also a posthumous portrait of Sebastian Horsley, which I’d not seen before. SH’s face is a mass of morbid, octopoid black swirls, in the typical Hambling style. Actually, my hair is very Hambling-esque at the moment. I’ve left cutting it for so long that it’s turned into a thick hedge of curved lines, without quite becoming curly. It never grows down, only out.

* * *

Friday 15th May 2015.

The Boston bomber gets the death sentence. He is 21.

For all its faults, today I feel glad to live in a country that has fully abolished capital punishment, in all circumstances.

* * *

To the Curzon Bloomsbury cinema in the Brunswick Centre, formerly the Renoir. A sign in the shopping centre nearby still points to it as the Renoir. This triggers a phobia of mine: signs that point to things that no longer exist. A hint of reality breaking down. Bloomsbury has a shaky relationship with time as it is: every other building is entirely held together by blue plaques.

In music news this week: Jarvis Cocker and the other members of Pulp unveil a plaque to mark the site of their first gig. Cocker gives a witty reply to the inevitable query as to the next Pulp reunion: ‘I think plaques are the way forward for Pulp now.’ The heritage explosion certainly mirrors the endless need for commenting online: primary content must be secured, anchored, celebrated, pored over. No end of anniversaries.

And so: no end of documentaries either. I’m here to investigate the new Bertha DocHouse inside the Curzon Bloomsbury, billed as London’s first documentary-only cinema. It’s one of several small screens inside the same underground complex, so I’m not sure it counts as a ‘cinema’ in itself. However, the screen is given its own little entrance lounge, Minotaur-like, deep within the labyrinth of the Curzon. This is two floors down, past three bars, and along several corridors, all of which are refurbished in a kind of Brutalist Deco style: part 1960s (to acknowledge the Brunswick Centre), and part 1920s Metropolis, with dark spaces punctuated by elegantly shaped pools of light,  with signs in Deco lettering.

The new documentary I see on the DocHouse screen is Lambert and Stamp. It’s about Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, who managed The Who during the band’s 1960s and early 70s heyday. In the archive footage, Chris Stamp is a shockingly pretty young man – a proper ‘Ace Face’ Mod, with an immaculate feathercut hairdo and a range of sharp suits. Much is made of the way he looked more like a rock star than the band he managed. When Terence Stamp turns out to be his brother, it all makes sense. The Epstein-esque Lambert – very gay and posh – is long dead, so Stamp – very straight and working class – does most of the talking in the film. He seems to have had a life of falling into things accidentally. He thought he’d be a documentary filmmaker himself – The Who were originally taken on in order to appear in some sort of film about the London music scene. But the band took over, and the film was never made. By the time a film was made – Tommy – Pete Townsend feared the managers had enough control, so it went to Ken Russell. Eventually it all ends in drug addiction, and the band sue Stamp and Lambert for mismanagement, though Stamp is at pains to point out that the Who owned Shepperton Studios thanks to them, so they can’t have been that bad. I later discover that Chris Stamp died in 2012. It’s proof that these independent documentaries can really take a while to come out.

Also learned: when the High Numbers changed their name to The Who (‘the High Numbers sounded too… Bingo‘), one name they considered was The Hair.

* * *

Evening: to the Birkbeck student union bar, for a drinks gathering among my fellow English BA finalists. The bar is on the fourth floor of the main college building, in Torrington Square. We stand outside, on the bar’s rooftop terrace.

Some years ago, when the smoking ban came in, the idea of there being non-smoking areas outdoors was laughed at. Not anymore. Despite being in the open air, and high above street level, half the rooftop terrace is designated for non-smoking, while the other half is for smoking. A security guard gets into a loud and embarrassing argument with one of our party. It turns out that our friend has accidentally dared to smoke slightly over the border between these two sections of unfettered breeze. It’s only now that we learn that an object, mounted on a nearby wall, is meant to mark the dividing line: ‘You’re standing on the wrong side of the satellite dish!’

* * *


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The National Masochism

Saturday 2nd May 2015.

A break from the essay writing, to attend a pre-wedding party in Peckham Rye. I was at Caroline & Lesley’s civil partnership a few years ago, and now they’re doing the upgrade to a proper marriage. The apple tree blossom is out in their garden, though the weather is too chilly to stay outside long. There’s a buffet of all vegetarian food, including what looks (and tastes) like salami, but is obviously some kind of meat-free substitute. Carnivores would never know. There was a scandal a year or two ago where horse meat was found to be in supermarket beef burgers. The implication was that it was the wrong kind of cruelty. I wonder what the reaction would be if a range of burgers was discovered to contain a vegetarian substitute.

* * *

Sunday 3rd May 2015.

Into the editing of the last essay, on Angela Carter. I take a break to read through the Sunday Times. A column by Rod Liddle on wolf-whistling has the headline ‘A whistle is far from harmless in the company of wolves’. Ms Carter gets everywhere.

Evening: I see Far From The Madding Crowd at the East Finchley Phoenix. A new adaptation with Carey Mulligan. She is perfect for the main role: capable and independent, yet still child-like enough for Michael Sheen’s character to go on about wanting ‘to protect’ her. The Gabriel Oak actor – a specially-imported Belgian, like the chocolates – is similarly well-cast: lunging around the scenery, brawny in just the wrong way, like an American footballer who needs no padding. The film feels properly cinematic: Thomas Hardy better suits film rather than TV serialisations. The viewer needs to feel cut off from the world, to feel the isolation of the Wessex characters. A TV serial would feel too much like one could come and go. Film – if seen in a cinema – is still a medium that forces the narrative into one, unavoidable burst. The cinemagoer is a volunteer captive. As a character in the film says, ‘Imagine having choice!’

* * *

Monday 4th May 2015.

I spend the bank holiday working on the third draft of the Carter essay.

* * *

Tuesday 5th May 2015.

Fourth draft of the essay. In the Barbican Cinema Café, I am the only person not staring at a laptop. The man at the table to my left is in the process of buying a house. He has a huge stack of paperwork and makes umpteen phone calls. I can see on his laptop what the house looks like – several bedrooms, Ealing. £999,000. An incomprehensible life, for me. But then, it’s currently beyond the reach of many who do comprehend it.

* * *

I read an article in the TLS on two memoirs by bass players. One book is by Kim Gordon, of Sonic Youth. The other is by Stuart David, of Belle and Sebastian. The reviewer refers to Sonic Youth as ‘the New York band’, while B&S are ‘a gently eccentric Glaswegian band’. It’s the choice of the indefinite article that fascinates me. The assumption that the average TLS reader has heard of one band, but not the other. These days, the need to second-guess your reader’s knowledge is more redundant than ever. If your reader has not heard of something, you can assume they have heard of Google.

* * *

Wednesday 6th May 2015.

Fifth draft. Poring over the MHRA style guide. Today it’s for the correct rules on using em-dashes in bibliographies. When listing several sources by the same author, you’re meant to put in a long dash rather than repeat the author’s name. The MHRA guide says this should be a ‘2-em’ dash, as in a double length dash, while other guides say it needs to be a triple-length dash. So I spend far too long checking the length of my dashes.

I know this is all trainspotting stuff, yet I’m terrified of getting it wrong. I worry there are markers out there who make Lynn Truss look laid-back.

* * *

Thursday 7th May 2015.

I vote Green at Jackson’s Lane Community Centre, opposite Highgate tube station. Still the stubby little pencil, still the bit of string. Still the bits of paper to post in boxes. In 2015. It’s a kind of comforting Ludditism.

Then into Bloomsbury for Birkbeck’s library, for the final draft of the essay. I panic while typing up the last revisions, suddenly seeing paragraphs that can be improved, or so I think. It’s the feeling that it’s all coming to an end that’s really to blame. It feels like reaching the edge of a cliff.

I get to a point where I’m clearly fiddling with the essay for the sake of it, rather than actually doing any good. After two hours of this, I force myself to let go, and upload the essay to the college website. Then I spend another half an hour checking and re-checking that it’s definitely uploaded. All this time spent – I wonder if it shows in the work.

Then I email a copy to myself, and print one out, which has to be deposited in the slot in Gordon Square. No feeling of ceremony as I’d hoped – I’m too anxious. Unable to believe it’s over.

It’s not really over till I get the grade, though. By early June I’ll receive provisional marks for the last three assessments, including the dissertation. Then in mid-July I’ll have the finalised marks, along with the actual degree grade.

Until then, I can take a bit of a break and reflect on the course.

Most of all, I’m proud that I made every single deadline over the four years. And that I stuck with it till the end. Not bad for someone with a history of giving up.

* * *

By way of a treat, I go to the ICA cinema in the Mall, for the absurdist Swedish film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. It’s essentially a series of slow, surreal tableaux, where a single shot can last for fifteen minutes. Some moments are funny, some nightmarish. Lots of subtle white face make-up, recalling Samuel Beckett on clowns. There’s a vague plot involving two travelling salesmen trying to sell practical jokes from a suitcase. Otherwise it’s more like a dark sketch show – part Monty Python, part Eugene Ionesco. I love the scene where a young king from the 18th century invades a modern bar, along with his entire army, some of whom are on horseback.

* * *

Friday 8th May 2015.

The election feels like a bout of national masochism, with no safe word. I think Mr Miliband really meant ‘Hell? Yes.’

* * *

In the end, everyone got it wrong. Even the people who organise the Queen, as she apparently had to be quickly transported to Buck House in time for Cameron’s audience.

It was assumed that today would be devoted to cross-party deals and negotiations for another coalition. Instead, just like in 1992, the Tories secured an outright win. Even David Cameron was surprised.

As with previous Tory wins, I’m mindful of the scene in Patrick Keiller’s London (1994), where Paul Schofield’s fictional narrator witnesses the 1992 victory by John Major. Keiller suddenly breaks into a splenetic rant, if a beautifully phrased one. The words seem more apposite than ever:

It seemed there was no longer anything a Conservative government could do to cause it to be voted out of office […] There were, said Robinson, no mitigating circumstances. [… ] The middle class in England had continued to vote Conservative because, in their miserable hearts, they still believed that it was in their interest to do so. Robinson began to consider what the result would mean for him. His flat would continue to deteriorate, and his rent increase. […] He would drink more and less well, he would be ill more often, he would die sooner. For the old, or anyone with children, it would be much worse.’

One silver lining is that there’s more fans of Keiller’s film out there than I previously thought. Today, the YouTube clip of this scene is being passed around on Twitter (https://youtu.be/v84byeueCBI). It was actually me who edited and uploaded the clip. I did so back in 2008, on the day that Boris Johnson got in as mayor. It’s rather gratifying to see the clip take on a modest life of its own. I also like that it remains the only video on my YouTube channel. I have to succumb to ‘vlogging’.

Other results: the Lib Dems lost a shocking amount of votes, UKIP were reduced to their Clacton seat, the Greens increased their majority in Brighton but didn’t gain any more MPs. Nigel Farage, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg all resigned – and all suspiciously quickly, before the election had properly finished. In the past an election defeat was not necessarily reason enough to quit – Kinnock certainly hung on through a few.

I hope the replacements for Miliband and Clegg will try to be themselves a little more, and be like Mr Blair a little less.

* * *

In the evening: a celebration of a less controversial victory – VE Day. It’s the 70th anniversary today. I go the Phoenix in East Finchley for a specially-timed preview screening of A Royal Night Out. The film is a loose retelling of the story that on VE day, the teenage princesses Elizabeth and Margaret went out incognito in London, and joined in with the revelries.

The Phoenix cinema has turned the screening into a 1945-themed event. The building has reverted to its 40s name, The Rex, the staff are in vintage costume, there’s Union Jack bunting, facsimile ration books on the cafe tables, Glen Miller on the hi-fi, and braised beef stew on the menu.

The film itself is suitably jolly and nostalgic. A little slight perhaps, but no less well made than The Young Victoria, a few years ago. The production design is impressive, particularly when the action moves to Trafalgar Square – so many costumed extras, in a location that’s so hard to close for filming. Parts of the story are a little unlikely, and there’s a lot of blatant homage to Roman Holiday, with a princess enjoying a short, chaste spell of romance with a commoner. But the young actresses playing the princesses ‘Lizzy’, and ‘Mags’, as they call themselves, really carry the whole thing off. It’s a sweet film, and eschews any purely royalist messages to make one about the importance of common humanity. One can only hope that’s something the new government thinks about.


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Mr Brand The Security Botherer

Saturday 25th April 2015.

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

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

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

* * *

Sunday 26th April 2015.

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

* * *

Monday 27th April 2015.

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

***

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

* * *

Tuesday 28th April 2015.

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

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

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

* * *

Wednesday 29th April 2015.

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

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

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

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

* * *

Thursday 30th April 2015.

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

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

* * *

Friday 1st May 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *


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The Secret Of Nerve

Saturday 18th April 2015.

Revising one essay while starting the research on another. I’m rather looking forward to the time when I don’t have to think about essays (May 8th). And indeed when this diary won’t be such a strain to write, because I’ll finally manage to do other things, rather than sit and stare at books and screens quite so often. And yet I look around on Tube trains and in cafes and so much daily life is just that: people staring at books (or newspapers) and screens.

* * *

Sunday 19th April 2015.

Bump into some fellow BA English students near the main library, and relish the chance to join them for some food at Leon on Tottenham Court Road. One is doing his dissertation on Roberto Bolano. As a result he’s had to study Bolano’s novel 2666, an absolute doorstopper at over a thousand pages long. ‘It is good, though’.

* * *

Monday 20th April 2015.

In the British Library. Busy in the café areas, but I still have no trouble finding an empty desk in the Rare Books reading room. Possibly because I always use the designated pencil and paper-only area, where laptops are banned. I’m not much of a regular, but two staffers recognise me. When it comes to my turn at the issue desk, I am greeted with a cheery ‘Mr Edwards’!

* * *

Tuesday 21st April 2015.

The penultimate class for the USA culture module. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Tutor: Anna Hartnell. Classroom: G01, in the knocked-through labyrinth of 43 Gordon Square. My last class in the building, in fact. More students turn up than Anna expects – after all, it’s the time of year when students have a swamp of deadlines and revision. But a healthy amount arrive, keen perhaps, like me, to add some structure to an otherwise vague timetable. McCarthy’s subtle tricks impress: the careful elision of apostrophes for some words, but not others, the avoidance of brand names in a post-apocalyptic America, except for two mentions of Coca-Cola. I was going to watch the film version after reading the book, but I couldn’t face going through such a grim story all over again.

* * *

Wednesday 22nd April 2015.

Astonished myself by cramming in more work than usual. Finished and delivered the penultimate essay (the post-9/11 meaning of masks in The Dark Knight and In The Shadow of No Towers), finished the last set text (Toni Morrison’s Home), sent off the MA application, wrote a draft supporting statement for the bursaries, and went to the last seminar for the post-war module. Ian McEwan’s First Love Last Rites, plus a short story, ‘Running Down’, by M John Harrison. Roger Luckhurst is quite scathing about later McEwan books, but praises the earlier, creepier fiction to the hilt. He also gives the course a general summing-up, arguing that there is no such thing as a post-WW2 canon of literature. No definitive and essential authors, like Dickens or Shakespeare are for their eras. He reminds us that Brideshead Revisited is still a controversial choice: many tutors won’t touch it. And yet it’s popular with the students, and from all backgrounds too. What the naysayers of Brideshead overlook is that, despite all the snobbery and wistful idealisation, it has two of the best characters in twentieth century literature: Sebastian Flyte and Anthony Blanche. All else can be forgiven.

* * *

Friday 24th April 2015.

To the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley for The Falling, the new film by Carol Morley. I loved her very original documentaries, The Alcohol Years and Dreams of A Life, and was curious to see what she would do with a fictional narrative. As per those two earlier films this one has the theme of wary, detached and mysterious girls, out of step with the world. In The Alcohol Years the mysterious girl was Ms Morley’s own younger self – she couldn’t remember her club-going past. Dreams of A Life told the sad story of an amateur singer who died alone in a North London flat – not so far from here – and no one even noticed she was missing for years.

The Falling is inspired by real accounts of unexplained mass faintings at girls’ schools, but here it’s entwined with metaphors for budding sexuality and the defiance of adults. It’s also an impressionistic art piece, covering the inherent surrealism of the teenage condition, and depicting the way intense friendships are made all the more intense by a single-sex environment. On top of that, it’s set in the 1960s, so there’s a sense of the whole world being on the cusp of change, albeit in the background. The atmosphere of the film is oneiric, hallucinogenic, and often puzzling. I know Maisie Williams is already a star from Game of Thrones, but this film puts her striking presence to proper use – with her thick eyebrows and owlish little face, she can be at turns witchy or ordinary, but always magnetic. Florence Pugh, her blonde best friend, has a very 60s face, like a teenage Shirley Eaton.

The Falling’s aesthetic influences are clear: Picnic At Hanging Rock (especially on the film poster – vintage schoolgirls in an outdoor drawing class), If…., Heavenly Creatures, The Virgin Suicides and possibly Jonathan Miller’s 1960s Alice In Wonderland (all favourites of mine). But as the film goes on it feels a lot more personal and unique. Full of images that linger in the mind afterwards. And a strong example of that rare thing in cinema – the female gaze. Not just the director, but all the assistant directors and much of the production crew are female.

* * *

Today’s good news is that Birkbeck have offered me a place on their MA course in Contemporary Literature & Culture. Barely two days after I sent off the application, too – my referees must have been prompt. I’ve accepted, in a pencilling-in sort of way, as it’s conditional on my getting at least a 2.2 on the BA (the result due in mid-July). And then there’s the rather trickier matter of getting funding for the fees: something I’m currently working on.

But for now, it’s back to the BA for two more weeks, with an essay on Angela Carter. I’m discussing The Passion of New Eve, along with her somewhat less examined radio play on Firbank, A Self-Made Man. Always with one eye on the gap on the bookshelf. And yet my best essay was for The Picture of Dorian Gray. No shortage of writing about that! Somehow I still found something new to say.

This is something I must remember, really, for the next time I worry that a subject has been done to death. A subject, perhaps. Your own take, never. The secret is so simple. Nerve.


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Notes On Twee

Sunday 12th April 2015.

To the Hackney Picturehouse for the screening of My Secret World, a film-length documentary about Sarah Records. It’s directed by Lucy Hawkins, and she’s invited me to DJ at the event. Shanthi S has agreed to accompany me, which makes things easier. I still have a searing awkwardness about going to chatty gatherings by myself. But as it turns out, I end up speaking to Tim Chipping and Clare Wadd in the cinema’s café before I see Shanthi, who’s at a table in the corner, wearing sunglasses indoors (‘a heavy night’). A happy reunion: the first time I’ve seen Matt and Clare for some time, as well as Tim Chipping. Travis Elborough there too.

After the film there’s a Q&A with the label co-runners, Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes, hosted by Pete Paphides. Then I install myself in the DJ booth of the venue’s Attic bar, playing only tracks released by Sarah.

So many documentaries about now. In the future, everyone who isn’t famous for fifteen minutes – or as in the case of the Field Mice, those who do their utmost not to be famous -will have an independent documentary made about them instead.

One good thing about premiere screenings of music documentaries, though, is that they can take the awkwardness off band reunions. One is really gathered to celebrate, or least discuss, a New Thing: a film.

Which turns out to be enjoyable, heartfelt and very nicely made. Lots of talking heads – band members and fans. Fans who started their own bands, like one fellow from The Drums. Lots of inspired use of graphics, making the record sleeves turn into their Bristol locations. And a good sense of the way Sarah represented a certain aesthetic – a kind of poetic wariness of the world, a subcultural Refusal (to quote Dick Hebdige), that risked being mistaken for simple shyness, and indeed was often dismissed with the pejorative of ‘tweeness’ (though I quite like that word). It’s an aesthetic perhaps best summed up in the Field Mice song, ‘Sensitive’.

The Field Mice singer Bobby Wratten is the voice most absent from the film (there’s always one – I hear Dave Grohl is frustratingly absent from the new Kurt Cobain doc), but then the mission to cover every band released on the label means that even the more popular bands’ stories get only a small amount of time. One must tell a story, because it’s impossible to tell the story. No such thing.

The film is about love, ultimately. The love of Matt and Clare, and their love of music. The film is often about their time together: how they met (at a Julian Cope gig), how fanzines brought them together, how Sarah Records was their ‘child’, and how the releases sometimes carried little oblique accounts of their relationship. Though they split up around the time the label stopped, they’re clearly both still friends, and are even happy to help promote the film together.

Tim C has a good anecdote in the film about the way the label actually told him off for not writing them enough letters. And I’m there in the film too, very briefly, in archive footage of our band Shelley (a version of Orlando), miming guitar while Tim C sings, in the old Top of the Pops studio. A whole other story why that happened. I’m just glad that I’m wearing a suit.

Afterwards I chat to some nice people from the ‘Doc ‘N Roll’ organisation, who put on the film. They tell me there’s a new Picturehouse opening soon, in the old Cineworld at the Trocadero, by Piccadilly Circus. ‘Picturehouse Central’. Any cinema chain that puts on a Sarah Records film has its heart in the right place.

Here’s what I played in the DJ set, though not in this order. I thought I had more than enough Field Mice songs, but Jonathan from Trembling Blue Stars demanded I played ‘Missing The Moon’ too. I let him plug in his iPod and play it himself. Such was his ardour.

The Field Mice: Sensitive, If You Need Someone, Let’s Kiss and Make Up, Coach Station Reunion, You’re Kidding Aren’t You, This Love Is Not Wrong, Emma’s House, When Morning Comes To Town.

The Orchids: Caveman, What Will We Do Next, The Sadness of Sex (Part 1), Bemused, Confused and Bedraggled, How Does That Feel

Heavenly: Our Love Is Heavenly, Three Star Compartment, Sperm Meets Egg So What, C Is The Heavenly Option, Atta Girl

Blueboy: Cosmopolitan, Imipramine, The Joy Of Living, Popkiss, Sea Horses

Even As We Speak: Swimming Song, Drown

Brighter: Ocean Sky, Never Ever, Killjoy

St. Christopher: And I Wonder, The Thrill Of The New

The Wake: Carbrain, Crush The Flowers

Action Painting: These Things Happen

Tramway: Boathouse

Another Sunny Day: You Should All Be Murdered

The Sea Urchins: Pristine Christine

* * *

Monday 13th April 2015.

The rest of this week is the last leg of the dissertation. Sitting in libraries and cafes, revising drafts 3, 4, 5. Emailing some drafts to kind friends, who detect all the typos I missed. I also get to a point where I have too many notes to fit into the text. Again, it’s like the Sarah Records film: impossible to cover everything. And never finished, but abandoned.

* * *

Thursday 16th April 2015

It’s getting to the point where I’m revising my dissertation while waiting at the traffic lights on Euston Road. Pen on folded print out, as if I’m doing a crossword.

* * *

Friday 17th April 2015.

Some more detail on a typical day this week.

Morning: I sit in the Barbican Cinema Café and revise the dissertation with a Bic Orange Fine pen, one last time in this case. Sixth draft. Around me, people with beards have meetings about podcasts.

Walk around London Wall by way of a break. Like so much in the City, it’s a mixture of cranes, hoardings, a few startling old buildings that have managed to escape the wrecking ball (listed, I’m guessing), and umpteen Dubai-like towers of glass that seem to be springing up at a worrying rate. Meanwhile, barely a week goes by without news of another historic venue closing. The Black Cap in Camden shut down this week. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is hanging on for dear life. Oh, Londinium.

Then to Birkbeck Library in Torrington Square, to type up the revisions. Even though I have a laptop, I prefer to use the college computers, or even one of the few remaining internet cafes (like the one in Marchmont Street today). Less to carry, less to lose, less to worry about. And I am not of the backpack persuasion.

I take a seat next to a student I slightly know, who’s in the same year. He’s flustered with the logjam of work that happens around this time, as are most students. ‘Wish I’d not left it till the last minute’. We have a whispered chat. ‘What’s the quickest time you’ve written an essay in?’

I finish typing the revisions, then upload the dissertation to the college’s online system, ‘Turnitin’ (ah, modern life!). Then I print out two copies, as required, and take them across the road. I get them bound in the secret branch of Ryman’s that lurks in the basement of Waterstones, Gower Street. A friendly woman with a heavy cold gives them a ‘comb’ style of binding, while I wait. Thirty-eight A4 pages, with copious footnotes. I was still agonising over every page reference on the last draft. Just how do they want me to use ‘Ibid’, again? Style guides have such niggling rules: capitalise this, except when you don’t. Full stops here, but not here.

A sunny day, bluebells out in Gordon Square. Not quite warm enough to sit on the grass, but the students do so anyway. I go into the School of Arts lobby and drop the two copies of the dissertation through the designated letter box. There. Done. Something I’ve been working on since last summer, finally finished. Will it show?

But there’s no time to rest. On with the next essay. Two of those to go before May 8th. Still, they’re only 2500 words each.

Now working on the penultimate essay. For the first time I’ve written the introduction before finishing the main text, because I can somehow see the whole shape of the thing at once. Perhaps it’s lit up by the light at the end of the tunnel.


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Carry On Hipster

Saturday 4th April 2015.

To Suffolk to spend three nights over Easter, guest of Mum. I have to do some college work while I’m there: revising the second draft of the dissertation, plus reading an Ian McEwan book of short stories (the creepy First Love, Last Rites). Spring flowers in the house and garden – anemones from me. Wild daffodils by the roadside, seen when driving from Stowmarket station. Egg-themed decorations on the dinner table. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed the Easter aesthetic so much. I have to remember to get an Easter brooch for next year. A tasteful rhinestone bunny, perhaps.

I seem to appreciate nature much more as I get older: flowers, blossom, birdsong. A replacement for youthful interests waning, perhaps, like my near-complete indifference to contemporary rock music. That said, I’ve been enjoying the new Monochrome Set album, Spaces Everywhere. Some superb new songs by Bid. Two dreamy ones remind me of Scarlet’s Well: Fantasy Creatures and Rain Check. I also love the catchy riff-based opening number, Iceman, which rather topically has references to voting.

* * *

Sunday 5th April 2015.

To a house near Stansted – dinner with the Kellermans (kind family friends whom I’m just getting to know). Many cats: on the drive there are signs warning delivery vans to watch out for curious felines sneaking into their vehicles. Accidental cat abductions have been known to happen. Tom joins us for dinner. He currently has an enormously bushy beard, though he shaves it off a few days later.

I watch Carry On Forever, a three part ITV documentary on the Carry On films. Very nostalgic, with lots of moments where the actors are filmed today, returning to the locations. Pretty girls from the 60s, now elderly of course. Tempting to judge which ones have aged better than others. Very touching moment when Bernard Cribbins and Juliet Mills reunite for the first time since Carry On Jack in 1963. Making what they thought was a disposable, lowbrow film at the time, but memories are still memories.

Funny how the films were getting a bit old hat even in the late 60s. I re-watch Carry On Camping – the UK’s most popular film in 1969! I’d misremembered the finale, where the regular characters sabotage a noisy, Woodstock-style hippy rock festival in the adjoining field. Sid James dresses in a hippy costume, and ludicrously threads the revellers’ beaded necklaces together, attaching them to a tractor so that they all get dragged off in a big lasso. Pure Beano stuff.  The sentiment appalled me last time I saw the film: it seemed to be forcing the viewer into siding against youth culture. But on watching it now I realise the hippies have the last laugh after all. Barbara Windsor’s gang of finishing school girls go off with them, rather than continue to hang out with seedy old Sid James and Bernard Bresslaw. Makes rather more sense than the lasso strategy.

The broad performances and jokes still make me laugh – and I have to admit I like the social history side. Englishness on film. How we used to live, and laugh. The documentary points out how the BFI included Carry On Up The Khyber in their list of the 100 best British films. It was at no. 99, one place above The Killing Fields. I feel like re-watching the whole run now, with the exception of the late 1970s Carry Ons. No desire to revisit the underwhelming Carry On England though. Or the barely watchable Carry On Emmannuelle, with its ill-advised disco soundtrack.

* * *

Tuesday 7th April 2015.

Back to London, and straight to the London Library for more research on the essays. The dissertation is due in on April 20th, and I’m trying to get a shorter essay finished around the same time.

In the London Library’s comments book, one complaint begins ‘I have nothing against young people using the library…’ It’s one of those phrases that flag up the word ‘but’ from several miles away. In this case, the complaint is over the use of music on headphones. Carry On Up The Library.

* * *

Thursday 9th April 2015

 The general election campaign is underway. Today the news is that a UKIP candidate has been an adult film star (and I have to admit his lack of repentance is impressive, even refreshing). Meanwhile Ed Miliband has had his romantic past raked over, with the shocking revelation that he dated several different women in the years before his marriage. It doesn’t seem so far from the world of Carry On after all.

 * * *

Friday 10th April 2015.

To the Curzon Soho for While We’re Young, the new film written and directed by Noah Baumbach, of Frances Ha fame. Lots of advertising for this one, including huge screens at St Pancras station. A lot has been written about the film, but I suspect I’m the first to compare it to Carry On Camping. The main theme is, after all, an older generation’s fear of young people. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play a jaded forty-something couple whose lives are invigorated after they befriend two hipster twenty-somethings, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. But suspicions of hidden agendas soon arise, and the alliance sours. The film sags in the last half-hour, when a plot about the ethics of documentary making takes over, but it’s more than made up for in the well-observed commentary on the anxieties of ageing, and on contemporary social habits, such as a moment where all four characters interrupt their conversation to Google something on their phones. At this point, the Adam Driver character insists that they put the phones down and just ‘enjoy not knowing something, for once’.

Another good moment is Stiller telling Driver off for helping himself to his video work: ‘It’s not ‘sharing’, it’s stealing!’ I think it’s also the first film where I’ve heard the beep of an Apple gadget being plugged into a charger, as part of the general background ambience. Two musicians turn in impressive minor roles: Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys is a tired aging dad, while Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500 is a New Age shaman – a convincing one, too.

* * *

I watch a BBC4 programme about bands that break up, and bands which manage to not break up. Coldplay’s longevity is attributed to a former manager kept on as the band’s ‘creative director’. I wonder if their drummer is known as an ‘implementer of percussion solutions’.


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Holy Late Capitalist Allegory, Batman!

Saturday 28th March 2015.

I finish Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Despite its stark, Hemingway-esque language, I can’t find myself as gripped by the story as the praise of the cover promises. I think it’s because I never was a fan of post-apocalyptic survival stories – or survival stories full stop. Robinson Crusoe repelled my interest up until the hero finally saw The Footprint (a scene mirrored in The Road). For all my love of being alone, I still need the knowledge that society is out there, burbling on reassuringly.

Two police officers hand out leaflets outside Highgate tube station. There’s been a spate of mobile phone thefts around the station exit. The thieves’ modus operandi is to drive up on mopeds, mount the pavement, and pluck a phone out from someone’s hands, before they realise what’s happened. So the police leaflet urges people to watch out for mopeds driving on the pavement. This would be a noticeable sight enough, I’d have thought. But no: the hypnotic effect of phones really does blind people to their environs. Heads in the clouds. Or rather, heads in the Cloud.

* * *

Sunday 29th March 2015.

Afternoon: to the BFI Southbank with Ella H, for another film in the Flare festival: Regarding Susan Sontag. For once, it’s a tribute that’s not approved by the subject or their relatives. Even though Ms Sontag’s son and sister appear, it’s clear that the director’s own agenda has priority. As it is, the sister admits that SS ‘was never honest with me all her life’.  There’s no new interview from Annie Leibovitz, her last long-term companion. Instead, the film uses lots of archive footage and readings from her works, including the recent diaries. Its theme is more biographical than critical, so it feels at times gossipy, and at others frustratingly cagey; but then that was rather the fault of the subject. There’s no attempt to either completely praise or condemn Sontag: the film just wants people to regard her, as the title suggests. Make up your own mind. One old girlfriend tells outrageously filthy and possibly unreliable anecdotes. A bow-tied critic says ‘Do you really need to ask the author of ‘Notes on “Camp”’ to come out?

In fact, coming out is demonstrably still news in 2015. This week has seen newspaper stories about Ruby Tandoh, the 22-year-old former contestant of The Great British Bake Off, coming out as a queer woman (in her words). What’s interesting to me is that (a) she prefers ‘queer’ to ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’, and (b) that she recently wrote an article about camp as a form of personal empowerment, as inspired by Molly Ringwald’s prom dress in Pretty in Pink. She quotes Susan Sontag’s 50-year-old essay.

* * *

Tuesday 31st March 2015.

Evening: to the Tottenham Court Road Odeon with fellow Birkbeck student Jon S, to see Get Hard. Jon’s suggestion. He suspects it’s not exactly My Sort Of Film, but I’m happy to give it a go. It turns out to be an undemanding, broader-than-broad Hollywood comedy. It stars Will Ferrell as a pampered businessman, who has to prepare for time in jail. Kevin Hart plays his car wash manager, who teaches Ferrell how to, as it were, ‘get hard’, so he’ll survive. The film seems to be trying to ape those rich-white-versus-poor-black comedies from the 80s, like Trading Places. Except it’s now 2015, and the places have done a fair amount of their own trading. Things have changed.

It is safe to say that this film is not going to usurp Citizen Kane from the canon of peerless art. The plot is risible, the jokes are obvious, tired, insulting, and the whole thing is doubtlessly offensive to many. But I find the tone intriguing – it uses racial and gay stereotypes for many of the jokes, then goes to pains to paint the characters as anti-racist and anti-homophobic. Interestingly, the one type of prejudice which it uses for comedy, but doesn’t apologise for, is sexism. Perhaps this is due to the in-built ‘male gaze’ of the Hollywood machine. As some female critics have pointed out, even the Oscar-winning Birdman gets away with sexism, in the guise of defining its male anti-heroes.

Still, the force of the performances – especially the manic Mr Hart – carry it along. There’s enough decent jokes to get the Tottenham Court Road Odeon’s mixture of students and tourists laughing loudly for much of it. Although it’s not nearly as witty as Appropriate Behaviour, I enjoy being in a room of laughing popcorn-guzzling strangers, as opposed to a silent room of arthouse fans, the kind who regard laughter as uncool.

* * *

Thursday 2nd April 2015.

Morning: to the V&A with Heather M, for the exhibition Alexander McQueen – Savage Beauty. It’s somewhat more than a collection of fashionable frocks. The late Mr McQueen was a pure artist, without a doubt, but also a very popular one – a kind of rock star designer. He managed to convert oddness and incongruity into mass-market glamour (see also Lady Gaga). In this exhibition, his short life’s productivity and range of invention leaves one dizzy, particularly in the room that becomes a gigantic Cabinet of Curiosities, with compartments spiralling upwards until the exhibits are out of sight. There’s screens, lighting effects, theatricality, lots of nods to animals and horror films, a room in mock-catacomb décor, and spooky mannequins with gimp masks and horns. It’s at turns beautiful, bizarre, frightening, and, like a lot of posthumous celebrations, life-enhancing.

Heather M is a member of the V&A, which means we can take tea in the member’s café. This is tucked away in the glassware gallery on the fourth floor. I never get tired of the way one has to access it behind a mirrored door.

* * *

Afternoon: at the London Library and British Library, researching my essay on American post-9/11 anxieties. I read some essays on capitalist symbolism in the 2008 Batman film The Dark Knight. It can be argued that Heath Ledger’s Joker is zero-hours capitalism taken to an extreme: he kills off his own henchmen as soon as they’ve completed their task in hand. Then he sets fire to all the money they’ve helped him steal, in a huge, blazing pyre of dollar bills.

Other essays read the film as an allegory for the War On Terrorism, but I prefer the capitalism-allowed-to-go-mad reading. I suddenly thought of Shelley’s apocalyptic poem The Mask of Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo massacre of 16 August 1819. An old, old story: a political protest leads to government violence upon crowds, with the result that new laws are rushed in to tackle the scapegoat of ‘anarchists’. Shelley’s point is that the government are the real ‘masked’ anarchists.

So I’ve decided to link this to mask imagery in 9/11 texts, such as in the aforementioned Batman film, in Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel In The Shadow of No Towers, and in Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalists. I’m also bringing in Native American ‘trickster’ mythology and a story by Henry James that describes the first NYC skyscrapers as having ‘sinister masks’ (in his American Scene of 1907, James really hates skyscrapers). Today I find a quote by Ralph Ellison on identity – ‘America is a land of masking jokers’. You can imagine how smug I felt after that.

* * *

Evening: to the Queen’s Head in Acton Street, Kings Cross. A birthday gathering for Ms Shanthi S. My anxiety levels are over the top already, what with the ever-approaching deadlines for college. Tonight there’s the double worry of having to arrive to join a group by oneself – I always feel a torrent of awkwardness when I do that – made worse by realising the birthday table is full up. But after an interval of getting in the way of the ladies loos, eventually the table is moved to allow more space for chairs. I squeeze in, have a glass of rosé, and calm down.

One of Ms S’s friends at the table is Bill Drummond. He was one of the men behind the 90s hit band The KLF, who went on to did Situationist-style art-pranks with all the money they made. One such project was the simple burning of a million pounds in cash, and filming themselves doing so.

I don’t manage to speak to Mr Drummond. It seems rude to go up to him purely to ask one question, the one which immediately occurs: did he see the cash-burning scene in The Dark Knight and think, ‘been there, done that’?

Mr D is speaking to a man who apparently is an advisor to the Labour Party’s business spokesman. Jokes about the burning of cash write themselves.


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Do I Sound Tough?

Saturday 21st March 2015.

I bump into Ms Hayley Campbell on the tube back to Highgate. ‘Hey neighbour!’ Her father, the comics artist Eddie Campbell – of From Hell fame – has just moved to the area. I go into local knowledge mode, and tell her about the Boogaloo and Highgate Wood, the area where the early Pink Floyd rehearsed, and the place where the second Suede album was written. I should do walking tours, really.

Hayley C now writes books about Neil Gaiman and articles for the Buzzfeed website. Buzzfeed is becoming quite a success story – from being a colourful, youthful web magazine full of ‘list-icles’ – articles based around lists – and now branching into serious news journalism, holding interviews with Prime Ministers and so forth. But their speciality is still their list-format stories, usually illustrated with animated gifs. I ask Ms H whether ‘gif’ is pronounced ‘jiff’ or ‘Giff’ at Buzzfeed. The latter. Hard G.

I finish studying Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty, for my dissertation on camp. A complete pleasure: well-crafted and concentrated prose, clever symbolism, social satire, a good sense of London locations (especially the Men’s Pond on Hampstead Heath) and moments of camp comedy tucked within the Henry James-style sobriety; hence my thesis. He writes parties so well, too – up there with Fitzgerald and Waugh. I re-watch the 2005 TV adaptation on DVD, with Dan Stevens in pre-Downton mode. It’s nicely written and acted, but I find the 80s hair and fashions are not quite garish enough – Mr Stevens just has tastefully big hair, rather than the bouffant he should have.

The other shortcoming is common to screen adaptations: the loss of the third-person narration. In the book, you have detailed access to the protagonist’s thoughts. In the TV version, all Dan S can do is stand around, looking like he’s thinking something. First person narrators transfer fine for some dramas – like Jeremy Irons talking over most of Brideshead Revisited – it’s just third person narrators that rarely work.

* * *

Sunday 22nd March 2015.

I convince myself that I can’t continue doing any work until I’ve bought a book stand, the kind that can hold a paperback open at one page. Browsing for one in Foyles and Ryman uses up most of my afternoon.

* * *

Monday 23rd March 2015.

I’ve fallen a week behind my proposed schedule for the dissertation, but find that sheer panic helps me speed up. One troublesome chapter is finished for good today – I don’t let myself stop until it is.

* * *

Tuesday 24th March 2015.

1000 words added to the dissertation. Half the chapter on Hollinghurst. Spend some time considering whether to quote the Sebastian Faulks introduction to a new edition – The Line of Beauty is now a Picador Classic, only eleven years after publication. Faulks calls it ‘a comic novel about mostly shallow people’, which isn’t quite true. Nothing comic about the final section.

* * *

Wednesday 25th March 2015.

Another 1000 words, finishing the bulk of the thing. 10,972 words and counting. Still have the conclusion and the introduction to do (one must always do those last). A small problem for a project with a maximum word count of 8800, but for me it’s a personal milestone: the first time I’ve written over 10,000 words of any one piece, ever. Quite a thrill to see the Microsoft Word odometer clock over into five figures. First of many, let’s hope.

* * *

 Thursday 26th March 2015.

Morning: I write all of the conclusion and half of the introduction. I have two possible candidates for a main title, to prefix the subtitle of ‘Subversive Uses of Camp In Twenty-First Century Fiction’. One is poetic and serious – ‘The Self-Aware Surface’, one is arch and jokey – ‘A Wink and a Pair of Claws’. I ask a few friends on Facebook, then decide to go for the serious one. I compromise by keeping the ‘Wink’ title for a chapter heading. Humour can be so subjective, and probably should be avoided in analytical, academic essays (seminars can be fun, though). As it is, I’m quite proud of calling camp ‘the self-aware surface’, and want to give the phrase something of a spotlight.

Afternoon: to BFI Flare, formerly the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, at the BFI Southbank. The rebranding of the LLGFF makes sense – it was beginning to sound dusty and out-of-date, to the point where it nearly closed down a few years ago. ‘Flare’ as a word sounds less worthy, more inclusive and forward-looking: it suggests a signal being shot into the sky – ‘we exist too’.

The film I’ve chosen is Do I Sound Gay?, a personal documentary by the Brooklyn-based writer, David Thorpe. It explores his dislike of his own voice, which he thinks sounds too gay – by which he really means effeminate. He interviews his old school friends, who remind him that he picked up the voice after coming out at college. So in his case it was acquired organically, in the same way some people pick up different regional accents when they move (I’m thinking of Hugh Laurie’s current US twang in his English accent). Mr Thorpe goes in for speech therapy (without much success), and discovers one theory of ‘the gay male accent’ – that it’s based on a combination of admiring women, as learned from mothers and sisters and screen idols, and on admiring notions of aristocratic European behaviour – notions of ‘queenliness’. All to define an identity that signifies as different from the average US man.

Of course, this only applies to those to whom it applies, and Mr Thorpe is careful to include examples of gay men with ‘straight’ voices, and straight men with effeminate voices. David Sedaris and George Takei appear, both contributing thoughtful insights, and giving very honest accounts of their personal lives. It’s worth seeing the documentary for these sections alone.

I think in Britain the idea of manliness in voices is a lot less of a concern, partly because America rules the world, and so cares more about how things appear to others. But also because the US suspects the British accent for having aspects of effeminacy anyway.

In the final scene of the film, Mr Thorpe interviews a group of young gay men on a beach. He asks them if they think he sounds gay. They chorus back as one: ‘Hell, yes!’

At the time I think, ‘that’s a very American reply’. Hours later I watch the latest pre-election TV interviews. Jeremy Paxman, rude as ever, asks Ed Miliband if he’s ‘tough enough’ for the job of prime minister. ‘Hell yes, I’m tough enough!’ says Miliband. Though he does stammer it.

After the film, there’s a Q&A with the director. One audience member asks if Mr Thorpe has heard of Polari, the gay language of 40s and 50s Britain. ‘Yes I have,’ he replies. ‘Thanks to Morrissey’.

* * *

Early evening: with Anna S, Senay S and friends, to the Museum of Comedy. This is in the crypt of St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, and turns out be one largish room, plus a performance space for live comedy nights. The current exhibition is a rare early 80s photo shoot of The Comic Strip – featuring a young Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, French and Saunders and so on. The permanent collection includes Max Miller’s patchwork dressing gown, Steptoe & Son’s stuffed bear, Irene Handl’s belt in a bell jar, and a huge amount of old books, videos and vinyl records, which visitors are invited to peruse or play at their leisure.

There’s framed transcripts of classic comedy sketches on the wall, with the Python ‘Silly Walks’ skit signed by John Cleese. ‘I’ve never found Monty Python funny’, says one of our party.

I forget that even comedy that has been proven to be funny for so many, and for so long, can still be considered unfunny by someone.

And I think to myself, ‘definitely don’t go with the funny thesis title’.

* * *

Friday 27th March 2015.

First draft finished. 12,373 words. Now I have to decide which 4,000 words needn’t have been written in the first place.


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St Rutger’s Day

Saturday 14th March 2015.

To the Hat and Tun pub in Farringdon, for Laura M’s birthday. Ms M and her friends favour vintage clothing, and this hired room suits them to a tee: Victorian décor, wood panelling, sofas, animal trophies on the wall, a fireplace, and it’s located deep in Oliver Twist territory, off Saffron Hill.

In the 1840s this area would have exemplified all those Dickens TV adaptations: noisy and muddy alleys, street hawkers, drunks in doorways, child prostitutes, horse dung, the poorest of the poor. Saffron Hill’s atmosphere is now closer to that of the financial district around the City: streets silent and empty, the buildings a mix of expensive flats and offices. All nightlife firmly confined to the inside of pleasant bars like this one.

At the party, there’ s lots of people in steampunk-compatible attire. A few corsets, some of them worn by men. I chat to a lady who is a practitioner of Bartitsu, the Victorian form of martial arts. It appears in the Sherlock Holmes stories. What might seem like a whimsical hobby can turn out to be very handy. She tells me how a couple of days ago, she used her skills to fend off a mugger in a rail station.

* * *

Sunday 15th March 2015.

To the ICA for the latest Gregg Araki film, White Bird In A Blizzard. Like a lot of arthouse films, it’s taken a year or so to find its way onto London screens. The young heroine is played by the likeable Shailene Woodley, who has since gone on to be something of a mainstream superstar.

I’m a big fan of Mr Araki’s work, particularly Mysterious Skin and Splendour. His last film, Kaboom!, about love among college students, slinks along prettily enough before the story turns absolutely insane in the last twenty minutes – and the world literally explodes. Don’t ask.

His trademarks tend to be tales of youthful and rebellious sexuality (often with a bisexual edge), with dream-like close-ups of faces, the framing of objects in the dead centre of the screen, and a soundtrack that favours British alternative rock. Just as Ms Sophia Coppola claimed custody of My Bloody Valentine for Lost In Translation, Mr Araki seems to have first dibs on Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins: White Bird comes with a brand new Guthrie soundtrack. On top of that there’s hit singles by Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order, the Cure, the Pet Shop Boys and the Jesus and Mary Chain. But there’s also a lesser-known Soft Cell b-side, ‘It’s A Mug’s Game’, one of my favourite 80s tracks full stop. This is an eight minutes-long upbeat synth tune, where Marc Almond rants in a half-sung, half-spoken style about the pitfalls of teenage life. It goes from gritty angst into uproarious humour: to get back at his dad, Almond’s character tells himself to ‘play your records so loud / all the ones that he especially hates /Deep Purple in Rock, Led Zeppelin II /Well, even you hate those!’

White Bird In A Blizzard concerns the disappearance of the main character’s mother, played by Eva Green in a highly mannered and campy style, almost as if she’s channelling Joan Crawford. Young Ms Woodley’s acting style, meanwhile, is pure twenty-first century naturalism, even though she’s been forced to wear Joy Division t-shirts and lie around pretending to enjoy Depeche Mode.

(This is unfair. There’s plenty of young people in 2015 who love 1980s music. La Roux, for one, whose records the BBC have insisted on restricting to the older-age station Radio 2, rather than the teen-orientated Radio 1. So she is officially a young person who makes music that is too old for her. Liking the Human League is now the equivalent of liking Bach)

So this film has two female leads speaking to each other in completely contrasting acting styles, post-war Hollywood and contemporary, while both are in an 1980s setting. I’m still not sure what this film actually is, but it’s different, and it’s art. And I like the songs.

* * *

Monday 16th March 2015.

Latest line in my thesis: ‘Masculinity isn’t for every man’.

* * *

Tuesday 17th March 2015.

St Patrick’s Day seems bigger than ever. I look in at the windows of bars in Bloomsbury. If I see a group of men wearing those spongy top hats, meant to resemble a pint of Guinness, I choose not to enter. It’s like Santa hats at Christmas. I find them stomach-churningly tacky.

I suppose these hats must be absolutely hilarious to the wearers – they certainly seem to be having a jolly time. But if people must walk around as unpaid adverts for Guinness, I’d much rather they emulated those 1980s TV adverts, the ones with Rutger Hauer. These were surreal vignettes where the Blade Runner actor would saunter around, vaguely dressed as a pint of the black stuff. White-blond hair atop a set of dark clothes, including a dashing black coat. He looked handsome, even cool. Why can’t people walk around dressed like that on St Patrick’s Day?

Class at Birkbeck: Philip Roth’s excellent Plot Against America. I had no idea about Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism in the 30s – nor Henry Ford’s.

* * *

Wednesday 18th March 2015.

Last class of the spring term at Birkbeck. Angela Carter’s Passion of New Eve, from the 70s. Still seems very bold and fresh today: freewheeling, imaginative, apocalyptic feminism. Only Margaret Atwood comes close, but she doesn’t have Carter’s giddy abandon. And, yes, nerve. Nerve is underrated.

* * *

To the Odeon Camden Town with Ms Shanthi, for a more conventional woman’s story: Still Alice. Julianne Moore is deserving of her Oscar, but then she’s experienced in the Woman Has A Terrible Time stakes. Not least in Safe. More unexpected is the performance of Kristen Stewart. She nearly steals the film as the surly, defensive daughter who turns out to be better suited to caring than the rest of the family. The Twilight films made young Ms Stewart rich enough to do whatever she wants, forever. So for her to do her best performance in a film about Alzheimer’s is a commendable use of her celebrity.

Thousands of ‘K-Stew’ fans around the world will see this film purely because she’s in it. That can only be a good thing. As Terry Pratchett pointed out, one factor in the history of incurable diseases becoming curable is the simple raising of awareness. Still Alice may be fairly ordinary as a film, but if it inspires young people to choose careers where they help the afflicted, or help to find a cure, it has value enough.

* * *

Friday 20th March 2015.

Thinking today about the way social media gives disproportionate power to throwaway remarks, I come across a follow-up to the Dorothy Parker quip about Katharine Hepburn. In the 1930s, Ms Parker was quoted as saying that Ms Hepburn ‘ran the gamut of emotions from A to… B’.

Some years later, though, she told a friend, Garson Kanin, that she regarded Ms H as a fine actress.

‘Are you saying that that ‘A to B’ quip wasn’t yours, then?’ said Kanin. ‘Or do you think she’s improved?’

‘Oh, I said it all right. You know how it is. A joke. When people expect you to say things, you say things. Isn’t that the way it is?’

Thus Dorothy Parker predicted Twitter.

 (source: Garson Kanin, Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir, via the blog QuoteInvestigator.com)


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