Thoughts On The Sentimental Uses Of Animals, And Subsequent Mockery

Saturday 14th November 2015.

Last night, after seeing The Lady In The Van at the East Finchley Phoenix, I couldn’t resist getting straight on the tube to Camden Town in order to look at the other star of the film: Number 23 Gloucester Crescent, NW1. The fake blue plaque for Miss Shepherd that appears in the film’s finale has gone. In Alan Bennett’s 2014 diaries (now published in a tie-in book about the film), he hopes the prop plaque would be left up, ‘as it may enhance the value of the property’. Mr B has since moved out for good, and on this night when a film about the house is opening in cinemas across the country, Number 23 is subdued, dark and silent.

I touch the spot on the gate post where Maggie Smith spills her yellow paint – now cleaned up – and walk back. The house is on the corner of Inverness Street, with the Good Mixer pub about thirty seconds’ walk away. About four years after Miss Shepherd’s death in 1989, the pub became the favourite drinking den of London’s Britpop bands. Given the lady in the van was so opposed to the ‘din’ of neighbours’ children playing their recorders, it’s hard to think how she’d have copied with the guitarist from Blur.

(Indeed, there’s a new film out about that era of London too – Kill Your Friends.)

One triumph of The Lady In The Van is that it captures the way English people can wrap themselves into complex emotional knots of awkwardness, guilt, etiquette and embarrassment, when it comes to helping the homeless. In one scene, Roger Allam’s character begrudgingly opens a jam jar for Miss Shepherd, while taking care to see no one in the street is looking. It’s Englishness in a nutshell.

* * *

Sunday 15th November 2015.

On Twitter, the Sky News presenter Kay Burley reports on the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Among her postings is a photograph of an elderly Labrador, sitting in a Paris street, simply looking at the camera. Ms Burley adds the caption ‘Sadness in his eyes’. This photo is soon roundly criticised, mocked and parodied by countless Twitterers. At the very least, the question is raised as to whether anthropomorphic judgements of canine emotion are quite the priority for frontline reportage.

It’s a moment that now feels like a regular stage in the breaking down of tragedy. First, there is the initial shock of the news. Then there is a dominant wave of concern and sympathy. But after that – two days in or so – one section of the crowd begins to overdo their public sentiment. And another section of the crowd, eager to cheer itself up, begins to wince and smirk.

In 1997, with the death of Princess Diana, there were huge amounts of floral tributes left at the gates of Kensington Palace. Among these were a fair number of children’s toys. Not just soft toy animals, but Star Wars figurines. I distinctly remember going to the gates myself and seeing a dangling Stormtrooper doll. Presumably the toys were to do with children wanting to give up a favourite possession, but it all seemed very odd. A few years later, Stewart Lee performed a whole routine mocking such tributes, imagining grown adults rushing out to buy stuffed ET dolls. ‘It’s what she would have wanted.’

Come July 2005, with the London bombs, the mocking of anthropomorphic tributes became an internet sport. There was a spate of ‘crying bulldog’ photos posted on LiveJournal with the caption ‘London Hurts’. Initially these were perfectly sincere. But soon the parodies popped up, each bulldog and each badly Photoshopped teardrop getting more and more silly.

The point is that this form of mockery is never really malicious. No one really begrudges anyone’s feelings. Not even the feelings of dog-loving Sky News reporters. It’s all humans being human, expressing themselves healthily and without violence, and so evoking the anti-terrorist spirit at its purest. Indeed, the magazine Charlie Hebdo responded to this week’s events with a cover of a man drinking champagne, while riddled with bullet holes. To some, appalling taste; to others, defiantly funny, perhaps even touching. When it comes to what is and isn’t an appropriate response, vive le difference.

* * *

Tuesday 17th November 2015.

To the Curzon Bloomsbury for the film Steve Jobs, about Mr Apple. It’s one of those films from the sub-genre of Overtly Blunt Titles, along with Twister, We Bought A Zoo, and of course, Snakes On A Plane. (‘What’s it about?’ ‘Well…’). The tale has already been told – there was an Ashton Kutcher biopic two years ago. But this time it’s told with bolder artistic strokes, perhaps in an attempt to evoke the aesthetic obsessions of the man. Danny Boyle directs, being Mr Spectacle, and Aaron Sorkin provides the script, being Mr Dialogue For Ambitious Americans. The film is play-like, with three distinct acts, each one taking place at the launches of Mr Jobs’s pretty machines.

There’s a fascinating 1960s clip of Arthur C Clarke used right at the beginning, where he predicts the rise of domestic computers. Then we’re straight into Mr Fassbender as the 1984 Jobs, shouting at people to get the Macintosh launched without a hitch. Various figures from his life turn up in the corridors and dressing rooms, in the Sorkin-esque walking-and-talking way. It’s a unique stylistic conceit, yet at times it still hits the same notes as any corny biopic (like Jobs pointing at a cassette Walkman and saying there should be a way of carrying around hundreds of songs). But Mr Sorkin gets away with it with his sheer speed of ideas.

The only problem, perhaps indicated by the film’s lack of success in the US, is that despite all the talent involved, Steve Jobs’s real life is still not that interesting. A clever man makes some pretty machines and makes a lot of money very early on. He’s a bit of an ‘asshole’ to others, but hey, he gave us the pretty machines, so that’s okay. At first there is a slightly interesting problem with his daughter, but it’s more or less sorted out by the middle act. His ‘worst night of his life’ is when he is sacked from Apple for not making quite as many millions as planned. When one character tells him ‘You’re gonna get killed!’, this really means: ‘your new computer won’t sell all that much’. It’s not exactly Saving Private Ryan.

Mr J ends up quoting Dylan, wearing roll-neck Beatles jumpers and round John Lennon glasses. Perhaps that’s the problem. A computer star is not a rock star. ‘I’m poorly made’, he says towards the end. This is not the admission of a flawed hero, but the admission that he’s not the hero after all. The star quality is all in the machines, and not in the man.

Tags: , , , , ,

The Excaliber Handbrake

Saturday 7th November 2015.

To the Goya exhibition at the National Gallery. Purely portraits of Spanish nobility, plus a few self-portraits. His subjects display unusually informal expressions for the late 1700s and early 1800s: cagey, jokey, rougish, sensual. The fleshy-faced young Goya looks not unlike the comedian Matt Berry, particularly in the portrait where he wears a top hat customised with burning candles around the rim, to provide more light on the canvas. His vanity is shameless: one duchess points to the words ‘Only Goya’ in the sand by her feet.

A small delight: the Moomins Shop in Covent Garden sells Moomin-branded glasses cleaning cloths.

* * *

Sunday 8th November 2015.

The large Waterstones student-friendly bookshop in Gower Street has booted out the rather cramped Costa café in the basement, and installed an airy new in-house café of its own, on the ground floor. Better still, the café is called Dillons, in memory of the bookshop that occupied the building in the 80s and 90s (which I can just about remember). Dillons is also nicely immortalised in the first page of Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, as Nick Guest gazes at a window display, soon after the 1983 election.  

* * *

Wednesday 11th November 2015.

Evening: with Ms Shanthi to the Leicester Square Odeon, to see Legend. This is the new film about the Kray Twins, both played here by Tom Hardy. For Reggie he plays up his beauty, all quiff and pouts and open jackets – possibly the best looking Mr H has ever been. The more psychotic Ronnie is from Hardy’s repertoire of grotesques (like Bane and Bronson): horn rim glasses, slicked down hair, hunching, growling, grunting. The film’s highlights are when the traits are swapped between the brothers: when Ronnie is suddenly gentle, and Reggie is suddenly unstable. The special effect of the dual roles threatens to upstage the film at times, making it more of a gimmick (one thinks of those Eddie Murphy films where he insists on playing six characters). There’s also a few scenes where the film is trying very hard to be a British Scorsese – a Goodfellas or Casino – with its tracking shots of gangster bars as the main characters walk around the room, chatting with everyone they meet. But Hardy is riveting enough.

Shanthi also takes me to an old-fashioned Soho bar, which I think I’ve never been to before. It’s the New Evaristo Club, or ‘Trisha’s’, at 57 Greek Street. Private members’, apparently, but tonight the staff seem to be okay with our just swanning in politely and buying glasses of wine (£4 each). The club is the longest-running in Soho, now that the Colony has gone. It is steeped in 1950s character, with dim green lighting, round café tables with tablecloths, and old photos on the wall of Sinatra and Italian boxers. Three trendy young men with beards and backpacks come in, take one look at the décor, and promptly walk out again. It is too Old London for them.

Shanthi takes a photo:


Something rare for London happens: the barmaid comes over and tops up our glasses for free. ‘Shame to waste the bottle,’ she says. I need to come back.

* * *

iPhones with shattered screens are the new ripped jeans.

* * *

Friday 13th November 2015.

To the East Finchley Phoenix for The Lady in the Van, the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s memoir. It’s fair to say the film is pure, distilled Bennett. It’s directed by Nick Hytner, AB’s main stage collaborator since the 90s, and it’s also something of a History Boys cast reunion, with all eight ‘boys’ and all three teachers from the original stage production (not counting the late Richard Griffiths) popping up in little roles. Plus it brings together Maggie Smith, reprising her performance as the titular lady from the 90s stage version, with Alex Jennings’s take on Bennett himself, a role he’d performed in the play Cocktail Sticks. But the World Of Bennett preservation goes further, as the story’s location – his former home in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town – is shot in situ. His old house is played by his old house. And there’s even a glimpse of Jennings as Bennett as the character Graham in A Chip in the Sugar, one of the Talking Heads monologues. At one point, Roger Allam’s cynical neighbour says that the monologue is really ‘all about him, as usual’, and so it proves with this new film. Despite the subject ostensibly being Miss Shepherd, the eccentric elderly woman who lived in Bennett’s front yard for fifteen years, the film is ultimately more about Bennett scrutinising his own life and work together. As soon as it’s clear that Mr Jennings is surreally playing two Alan Bennetts – the writer and the man – the film becomes more Brechtian than realistic, and the use of the History Boys cast works more as a reference than an indulgence.

While watching, I realised that, what with Legend I’d accidentally gone to see two films this week where both were set in late twentieth-century London, both were based on true stories, and both featured a lead actor playing dual roles. But whereas Tom Hardy’s doubling as the Krays has to work as if they’re played by real twins, Jennings’s two Alan Bennetts serve as a reminder that the film is a playful fantasy based on truth. Dame Maggie’s superb performance then works against this fantasy, putting the handbrake on Bennett’s constant flow of quips, aphorisms and literary quotations. When Miss Shepherd moves her van into the yard for the first time, she puts on the handbrake with such force that it becomes like Excaliber in Arthur’s stone, unable to be moved by any other hand. Years later, the vehicle has to be lifted out via a crane. This is a nice touch of symbolism, given the way Miss Shepherd becomes a fixture in Bennett’s life, to the point where he feels almost married to her.

* * *

Both The Lady in the Van and Legend are romances of the city. They celebrate London as a place to form an identity. But this quality is not, of course, exclusive. As I type up this week’s diary, news comes through of the sickening attacks in Paris. The people who have died were civilians in concert halls and theatres, people using Paris to just be themselves. I take some comfort from the Fred Rogers quote about reacting to distressing events: ‘look for the helpers’.

* * *

Tags: , , , , ,


Saturday 31st October 2015. 

Halloween. A lone young man is at Barbican Tube platform, staring glumly at the screen of his phone. It’s a typical sight for 2015, except he is dressed as the Incredible Hulk.

* * *

Wednesday 4th November 2015.


(photo by Mum)

My graduation ceremony, for my BA in English from Birkbeck, University of London. Mum and my brother Tom attend.

For a while I wasn’t sure whether I’d attend. Graduation ceremonies are entirely optional to graduates. The diploma certificate is sent out whether one attends the ceremony or not.

Early on in the four-year course, I was umm-ing and err-ing about attending my ceremony. Then Dad became too ill to travel, and Mum had to look after him. A further reason to decline presented itself when I was walking past the LSE, and saw a group of young students standing outside in their gowns. They reminded me how graduation is mainly associated with students in their early twenties; the ones who get those inspiring ‘commencement’ addresses (though some time after writing this I found out such speeches are mainly an American tradition). These ceremonies are as much a rite of passage as they are benchmarks of achievement.  Watching these pert young students in their gowns, I felt a bit too ‘commenced’ in the tooth to join them.  No, a ceremony wasn’t for me.

And then Dad died. And time passed. And the ceremony came around. Mum wanted to go – assuming I did. This time I had to admit I was curious. I felt an anxiety of the era: that looking at a computer screen to get one’s results, or receiving them in the post, isn’t a proper memory. This is why people dress up at Halloween more than ever, or go to festivals more than ever, or go to dressed-up graduation ceremonies, or have big weddings. They crave a life beyond screens. This means going to a special place, wearing special clothes, performing a symbolic act. So I said yes.

Graduating in public isn’t cheap. It’s £45 to hire the gown, including the mortar board and hood. Then there’s the guest tickets for relatives and friends at £33 each. Still, this does include wine, buffet food (both of which are quite decent) and Birkbeck Alumni mugs. Thankfully, I discovered that the pricey portrait services can be waived. I’m not keen on a formal portrait as it is, and in my dark mind I can’t help associating those images with tabloid reports of murder. ‘HAPPIER TIMES… Mildred on her graduation day. The inquest continues.’ 

Students can also get a photo taken for free at Birkbeck’s publicity stall. This was all I wanted by way of an image, really. Proof.


(from Birkbeck’s official Facebook page)

For the ceremony itself, Birbeck borrows a venue from one of its Bloomsbury campus neighbours: Logan Hall, in the Institute of Education, Bedford Way, off Russell Square. The architecture is pure 1970s Brutalism – lots of wide, unsilly lobbies that now have a vintage feel. It’s a close stylistic relative of the Barbican Centre. I especially like the little ‘airlock’ rooms that funnel out from the Logan Hall doorways.

The ceremony begins with a procession onto the stage by the gaudily-gowned ‘platform party’, which includes the Master, Professor David Latchman, the ceremonial President, Baroness Joan Bakewell, and the School of Arts Executive Dean, Professor Hilary Fraser. There’s also a few tutors, including Fleur Rothschild, who taught me how to fix my recurring essay problems. And there’s a gentleman in white gloves who carries a ceremonial mace.

The actual graduation performance is a simple but symbolic act of ‘going forth’. As Professor Fraser announces each name, the student comes up to one side of the stage, walks across  to shake hands with the Master and the President, then returns to their seat via the opposite side. No mention of First Class, or Second Class – all graduates are equal. However, if the student has won a prize for an ‘outstanding achievement’ during their studies, this is the one time it’s publicly announced. Today I had my name read out as the joint winner of the John Hay Lobban Prize, ‘for a student who is judged to have shown the greatest promise in English Literature’, and as the winner of the Stephen Thomson Prize, for my work on the Writing London module.

Learned today: PHD grads (who shared the ceremony) have to kneel on a Special PHD Cushion, so they can be anointed with a Special Hood.

Also learned: Birkbeck graduation colours can trigger pangs for Liquorice Allsorts.

There’s no honorary degrees or commencement speeches, but Baroness Bakewell’s speech does include advice. She mentions the current hot topic in academia  – whether Germaine Greer should be allowed to speak at university events, in the light of her unkind thoughts on transgender people. While not judging Professor G’s words, or indeed the petition to stop her speaking, the Baroness suggests that today’s graduates be mindful of both the content of their public statements and the proportion of their public responses. My own thoughts lean to a third party – the way the media stir up heated reactions as a kind of spectator sport.

At the wine reception afterwards, I chat to fellow graduates: Hester, Colin, Kim, Keith.

Keith: Would it be corny if we did that thing where we throw our mortar boards in the air?

Me: Yes.

Keith: Let’s do it.

Me: Okay.


(photo by Mum)

After this photo is taken,  we retrieve up our hired mortar boards from the dry and clean Brutalist floor. Only unthinking graduates would throw up their hats outside, with the mud and wet pavements.

I then realise the hat I have is in the wrong size. There follows a sheepish amount of label checking and hat swapping. It’s a scene that must follow every photo of group hat-throwing.

Afterwards, to an Edwards family dinner at Smollensky’s restaurant in Canary Wharf, where cousin Jonathan had his wedding reception. Mum opens the curtain that looks out onto Reuters Plaza, then closes it again when it exposes our table to the huge dot matrix sign on the building opposite, which displays Reuters news headlines in a constantly moving, ticker-tape fashion. ‘We don’t want to have our dessert serenaded by the latest on ISIS, do we.’

* * *

Thursday 5th November 2015. 

To Dulwich Picture Gallery with Mum, for the big MC Escher show. Even though it’s a wet Thursday lunchtime, and the gallery’s slightly out of the way for most tourists, the exhibition is packed. At times I feel in danger of becoming one of Escher’s animal tessellations, my body precisely filling the space between two other visitors.

The show is billed as ‘The Amazing World of MC Escher‘, which is a telling indication of his critical reputation. The title rather consolidates his image as a circus showman, a maker of absorbing posters for maths classrooms and dentists’ surgeries, rather than what this exhibition reveals him to be: a fine surrealist artist in the vein of Leonora Carrington. One early woodcut is a simple, charming rendition of a white cat, from 1919. The cat was a gift from his landlady. I’m reminded of my own late landlady, Mrs Wilson. For 20 years she gave each tenant boxes of chocolates at Christmas. Sometimes at Easter too.

Random kindnesses. The zip-pull on my shoulder bag falls off. I go into Ryman’s on Regent Street and ask if they sell something I could use as a replacement – a luggage keyring, perhaps. The assistant says, ‘Let me try something.’ He takes a large paper clip from a drawer, carefully bends it into shape and fixes it onto my bag. It works perfectly. No charge.

Tags: , , ,

It’s The Most Schizophrenic Time Of The Year

Saturday 24th October 2015.

Ed Sheeran is one of the biggest rock stars of the moment, yet he seems to evince no traits of ego or megalomania whatsoever. There doesn’t seem to be a single photo of him in existence where he doesn’t look like a competition winner.

* * *

I give another tour of the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities. Some of the visitors have come for the Sebastian Horsley ‘Dandies Corner’ display, to my delight, as that’s where I feel the most knowledgeable. There’s now a single lipstick smear on the glass of the Horsley case, in the fashion of the lipstick marks on the Oscar Wilde tomb.

Sunday 25th October 2015.

Modern language. A phrase being bandied by some disability campaigners is ‘inspiration porn’’. This denotes the packaging of a personal struggle, such as in a TV programme, primarily to tug at the heartstrings, rather than raise awareness. It follows on from ‘poverty porn’, to describe shows like Benefits Street. There’ll be ‘sex porn’ next.

* * *

I read the latest Ian McEwan novel, The Children Act. Like Saturday, I wince at the author’s love of privileged protagonists with central London homes and top professional jobs – a High Court female judge in this case – and the main young character seems impossibly idealised. But his prose style still impresses: a clear and controlled flow which completely draws the reader in.

Meanwhile, Mr McEwan’s chum Martin Amis is in the Sunday Times, penning an attack on Jeremy Corbyn. The piece is meant to be scathing, but Amis uses imagery that inadvertently appeals. Because of his ‘incurious domesticity’, he says, Corbyn is like a ‘marmalade cat’. It’s like the time in the 90s when John Major said Labour and taxes went together like ‘strawberries and cream’. The negative sentiment is eclipsed by an entirely pleasant image.

* * *

Monday 26th October 2015.

MA class at Birkbeck, on Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Lecture by Hallvard Haug. The novel’s suitability becomes evident in the seminar: the more we discuss it, the more we realise it covers a rich variety of contemporary themes. Environmentalism, fundamentalism, feminism, globalisation, trauma, literary genres – it’s all there. A good, all-purpose novel.

* * *

Tuesday 27th October 2015.

Some unexpected praise this week. One is my inclusion in a list of ‘Top 5 pop lyricists of all time’, by La JohnJoseph, at the Dandy Dicks website. It’s a site that features erotica, though the article in question is clean enough: ‘Dickon Edwards – ‘The only man living with any real right to call himself both a flaneur and a dandy’.

I also receive a lengthy email from a young man in Baltimore, who only stumbled on the blog this year: ‘Thank you for existing – You have restored my faith in so many things’.

Plus a handwritten letter from a reader on a Scottish island, who took comfort from my entry about my father. When her own mother died, she dug it out of the archives to re-read.

I’m grateful for these responses. Too often it can feel like no one’s reading, and too often I wonder if I should continue.

* * *

Wednesday 28th October 2015.

A visit to the Foundling Museum, in Brunswick Square. The museum tells the story of the Founding Hospital, which cared for abandoned children and orphans. Though it turns out that the story is more complicated than I’d thought. By the mid-19th century, the demand for admittance was so high that the Hospital had to implement a ‘petition’ system, where the mother had to prove she had been ‘seduced’, which often meant raped, or ‘abandoned’. The idea of single parent families was so shameful that many women give up their children to institutions like the FH, rather than raise them on their own. There’s a temporary exhibition, The Fallen Woman, which focuses on these women’s stories, while the permanent collection portrays the children. A sound installation by Steve Lewinson features the mothers’ petitions read out by actresses like Maxine Peake and Ruth Jones.

I really like the café’s mural, Superman Was A Foundling by Lemn Sissay. The walls are covered in statements about the foundling status of so many characters from popular culture. From Harry Potter to Snow White to Wolverine to Sophie Fevvers, as in the heroine of Angela Carter’s Nights At The Circus. Two characters are illustrated by logos between the café windows: the ‘S’ symbol of Superman, and a dragon tattoo, for Lisbeth Salander.

* * *

Thursday 29th October 2015.

I meet Ms Atalanta for a drink in the Marlborough Arms, in Bloomsbury. The pub is a favourite with students from the nearby colleges. Many students in Halloween fancy dress tonight, two days before the 31st. A party of young men are in animal ‘onesies’, while a group of girls are dressed as characters from Scooby Doo, with one as the titular dog. The pub décor is somewhat schizophrenic in its festive theme: there’s Christmas presents and a Santa Claus cut-out in one corner (with a sign, ‘Book Now For Christmas Dinner’), alongside Halloween pumpkins, skeletons and cobwebs.

We walk to King’s Cross and decide on another drink while waiting for Ms A’s train. Really, thought, it’s an excuse for me to show her The Parcel Yard pub at one end of the revamped station. This in is the former King’s Cross postal sorting office. There’s stripped wooden floors, white-painted dividing walls, old railway signs that manage to be tasteful rather than twee, and an interior covered courtyard with potted trees. Plenty of alcoves and small rooms in which to feel safe – this way, no single loutish party can dominate the whole bar. The pub is right by the Harry Potter embedded trolley, yet it doesn’t feel too tourist-heavy, or even too commuter-heavy.

* * *

Friday 30th October 2015.

To the Tottenham Court Road Odeon with Jon S, to see Spectre, the new James Bond film. I miss the jokier, almost Carry On-like aspect of the Bond films in the past. In one of the Roger Moore films, there’s a moment following a punch-up in an exotic den, where a belly dancer bemoans the loss of a diamond. ‘I’ve lost my charm!’ she wails. ‘Not from where I’m standing,’ says Moore, straightening his tie.

This sort of thing was attempted more recently with the Piers Brosnan films – where strained innuendos were exchanged with the likes of Madonna – but the tiredness of the style was showing. It made perfect sense to move on to a more gritty, realistic approach, with a suitably serious actor in charge. So enter Mr Craig. This means that the violence that would have been read as jokey in the old days (such as Sean Connery and the laser beam) is now made all too believable and unpleasant – one scene in Spectre with Craig strapped to a chair is particularly wince-inducing. I also feel Lea Seydoux’s character here, though nicely acted, is a touch too youthful for the forty-something Craig. Far more interesting are his earlier romantic scenes with Monica Bellucci, who is not only closer to his age, but has more chemistry. Otherwise, the action set-pieces are breathtaking without being banal, the globe-trotting locations dazzle, and the tailoring of the menswear is immaculate. All the male characters, even the absolute thugs, somehow manage to stop off between punch-ups to collect a fresh new ensemble, clean and pressed. The Bond world may be less jokey, but it is still steeped in wish-fulfilment.

* * *

Tags: , , , , , ,

Be Your Own Cosplay

Saturday 17th October 2015.

I watch a new Ted Hughes documentary made by the BBC, Stronger Than Death. Unusually for a TV documentary, there’s no celebrity presenters trampling their own uncalled-for views all over the material. Instead the film lets the poems, the archive footage and the interviewees do all the talking. There’s still omissions and bias, of course: Jonathan Bate appears, and it’s clearly timed to coincide with his major new Hughes biography.

Despite having 90 minutes to play with Hughes’s life, a lot of time is given to the shadow of Sylvia Plath. There’s a recital of a US feminist’s poem which openly dreams of Hughes’s murder, as revenge for Plath’s suicide. This is at the expense of even mentioning The Iron Man or Meet My Folks (both of which delighted me as a child). Hughes’s widow Carol is also noticeably absent – perhaps because she’s appeared in the news headlines lately, complaining about ‘damaging and offensive claims’ in Mr Bate’s book. Instead, one of TH’s extra-marital flings speaks about the poem she apparently inspired, with clear pride.

It’s tempting to say a lot of this is unfairly intrusive or even gossipy, but as Simon Armitage says early on in the film, Ted Hughes is one literary figure where the biography really is essential when considering the work. For my own part, I find myself reaching for my copy of Emma Tennant’s memoir Burnt Diaries, to look up her own contributions to the Tales of Ted. There’s much about Ms Tennant’s own affair with the poet in the 70s, but most memorably for me is the anecdote about his encounter with a mentally ill poet. This man had stalked Hughes for months and had even threatened him with a knife. Finally confronted by the man on a London street, Hughes shoves him into the passenger seat of his car, binds him with the seatbelt, and grabs a sheet of plain A4 paper from his satchel. Then he gets out his penknife, shouts, ‘Look at this!’ to the stalker, and slices the paper diagonally in two.

According to Ms Tennant, who witnessed all this from the back seat of the car, the stalker sat there looking at the paper, ‘as if a living creature had been sacrificed before his eyes – or his soul had been cut in two.’ He was then let out of the car and shambled off into the city. ‘He won’t trouble us again,’ said Hughes.

Bate’s new biography includes this story, and adds that the stalker in question may have been Henry Fainlight, troubled brother of Ruth, though he thinks the anecdote is ‘probably exaggerated in order to dramatise Ted’s quasi-occult powers.’ But Hughes was steeped in ideas of mythology himself, and what else is gossip but a form of mythology? From Leda and the Swan to Kim Kardashian, it’s all tale-telling of a kind.

* * *

Wednesday 21st October 2015.

To the Tate Britain for the big Barbara Hepworth exhibition, Sculpture for a Modern World. It’s labelled as the first major Hepworth show for nearly 50 years. Perhaps the long gap is because people are used to Ms Hepworth’s work being part of the landscape – literally, given her association with outdoors art. This large-scale indoor exhibition brings out the ambient, calming side of her sculptures: a world of humane and peaceful geometry. One room recreates a 1960s outdoor installation in the Netherlands, the Rietveld Pavilion. The pavilion’s concrete walls have been transplanted inside the Tate’s galleries, to show Hepworth’s works in the intended context, though without the grass and sky. I see more visitors sitting and sketching the exhibits than usual. Perhaps there’s something about Hepworth’s sculptures that particularly invites sketching. Carving away at the paper, joining in.

* * *

Thursday 22nd October 2015.

I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of The Flood. A satisfying sequel to Oryx and Crake, focussing on two women caught up in a post-apocalyptic world, where a ‘waterless flood’ – a global pandemic plague – has destroyed most of humanity. A pull-quote for the cover praises the novel for being ‘as pacy as a thriller’. This is a very telling statement on the way genre is viewed by the British literary scene: it implies that literary novels aren’t meant to be pacy, and thrillers aren’t meant to be read. But it’s also accurate for The Year of the Flood: the book uses short chapters, cliffhangers, parallel viewpoints, and flashbacks. All are devices of thrillers. I wolf through its 500 pages in three days.

* * *

Friday 23rd October 2015.

To the ICA cinema for The Lobster. A surreal black comedy, in the Absurdist tradition – shades of Ionesco and Bunuel. It’s by a Greek writer and director, but is filmed in English, and has an impressive cross-European cast (including Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, Olivia Colman, Lea Seydoux). The dialogue has a stilted, almost robotic feel, as if translated by a computer program, but this is clearly part of the whole deadpan aesthetic. The plot concerns an alternative world where single people are forced to find a compatible partner in a month, while imprisoned in a rural hotel. If they fail, they are surgically transformed into an animal of their choice. Mr Farrell escapes one such hotel, only to find that the woods-dwelling ‘loners’ he joins have brutal rules of their own. It’s a very strange film indeed, but like the best Absurdist plays, the comedy balances out the alienation.

Then to Vout-o-Reenee’s to prop up the bar with Debbie Smith. I also bump into Hazel Barkworth, a friend I’ve not seen for years. We discuss how we’ve solidified our own looks – my blond hair and suits, her bob hair and black dresses. ‘Be your own cosplay’ is our decree. (cosplay being short for ‘costume play’, the practice of dressing up as a genre character).

Tonight the venue is hosting the launch of two new poetry pamphlets (I think ‘chapbooks’ is the proper term). Both are published by Annexe Magazine: Susie Campbell’s The Frock Enquiry and JT Welsch’s The Ruin. The former uses historical research into the plight of early 20th century British female workers, a kind of Suffragette in poetry form. Mr Welsch’s work is inspired by a visit to the ruined ancient temples of Tunisia, and makes some nice comments about the way Star Wars fans now make a similarly holy pilgrimage to this area, due to the landscape’s role as a Star Wars location. Certainly, the latest Star Wars sequel is generating anticipation on a level of religious rapture, and it’s not even out for another two months.

I also take a look at the latest exhibition in the venue’s Stash Gallery, Wilma Johnson’s Cat Amongst The Dogs. Ms Johnson lost her life’s work of paintings in a house fire last June, so this show represents something of a rebirth of her creative spirit. Some forty or fifty canvasses are here – not bad for four months. The theme is a playful and colourful celebration of film icons and pets, with a touch of the mythic about both. There’s also a little of a Pop Art Frida Kahlo in the mix. There’s Garbos and Hepburns and Taylors amongst marmalade cats and borzois. Perhaps proving the point about the British love of pets, about half the paintings have already been sold – and the cat paintings are going more than the dog paintings. Tonight, I chat to the artist and discover that she’s staying at her mother’s house in Highgate, which turns out to be the house opposite mine. We share an obvious cab home.

* * *

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Teases, Not Summaries

Monday 12th October 2015.

This week’s MA class is on Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty. I’d read it before earlier this year, but read it again anyway. It’s a joy to do so: the carefully-controlled wit running through every sentence. The seminar takes in ‘retromania’, via Simon Reynolds’s book and the TV series Mad Men. We’re shown a clip where Don Draper gives a speech to clients about a new home slide projector. He muses on the nature of nostalgia, how the word is based on a sense of an ache, or a form of pain, while showing snaps from his own troubled family. The scene is as good as any from literature.

* * *

Tuesday 13th October 2015.

To the Barbican Cinema 2 in Beech Street for Suffragette. The trailer for this film has played heavily in cinemas for months, so much so that at times the actual film feels like the extended 12-inch remix. Trailers should tease, not summarise. And yet all of Meryl Streep’s moments as Emmeline Pankhurst turn out to be the same as those in the trailer. It’s barely a cameo role. The posters mislead too, implying that Ms Streep is in the film as much as Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham-Carter: the image is just of the three of them, lined up against the Suffragette flag. Today at a Tube station I see a small girl jump in front of the poster, and point out Helena BC to her parents – I’m guessing because of her vampy role in the Harry Potter films. Is Suffragette for children? It has the air of an important history lesson, and bears a 12A certificate, so technically children are allowed to go and see it if accompanied by an adult (I can certainly see it used in schools). But there are one or two scenes that are certainly not for smaller children. One is the unpleasant and painful force-feeding of Carey Mulligan’s fictional heroine, in order to thwart her hunger-strike in prison. The real death of Emily Davison at the Epsom Derby is also presented as a traumatic moment (if a brief and gore-free one).

I feel the film’s script is a little eclipsed by its mission to educate. Its characters are more illustrations of issues than they are living, breathing humans in their own right. But everyone involved with the project clearly believes in it wholeheartedly. The acting and staging lifts the film out of the Worthy History Lesson field and into something more lasting. It’s designed to get people talking about feminism, the value of voting, and the morality and pitfalls of ‘deeds not words’.

* * *

Thursday 15th October 2015.

Marlon James, the new Booker Prize winner, is interviewed in the Guardian. He mentions how his first novel was rejected 78 times by publishers. One of the rejection letters included the phrase ‘not for us’. ‘Luckily for them,’ says the interviewer, ‘James can’t remember their name’. This is a common narrative in tales of literary success, the inspiring message for budding writers being that those whose job it is to spot talent frequently fail to do so, even when it is offered to them on a plate. So don’t give up. It’s an idea that has been backed up with experiments, such as the one a few years ago where one of the more obscure Booker winning novels was submitted to slush piles under a pseudonym. Inevitably, it couldn’t find a publisher. But the explanations that arose, once the true nature of the manuscript was revealed, were perfectly reasonable. Tastes change, tastes differ, and sometimes publishers really are just looking for something else. Everything is ‘not for us’ to someone. It doesn’t mean the publishers in question are fools; it just means one should look elsewhere.

* * *

I give another tour of the Viktor Wynd Museum for an attentive group. After that, to Vout-o-Reenee’s for a talk by the author Petra Mason, fresh in from Miami, on the subject of 1950s American Pin-ups. Her books are glamourous tomes in every sense: one covers the career of the striking model Bettie Page, while another celebrates Bunny Yeager, the beauty queen turned photographer, who indeed often worked with Ms Page. There’s much leopard skin in evidence, whether on bikinis or on actual live leopards, used as props. These days, one need only look to the videos of Katy Perry to see the influence. That same cartoonish sexuality – and so very American.

Ms Mason’s latest book turns to the same era’s male ‘beefcake’ photography. 100% Rare! All Natural!  These are essentially muscular male nudes and near-nudes, which appeared in ‘health and fitness’ magazines – the camper side of Charles Atlas. Obscenity laws meant that the only ‘permissible interactions’ between two men in such photographs were for ‘wresting or fighting’ only. Then it was okay. What’s also interesting is that this was a pre-steroids era, so all the muscles on show have a quaint bygone aesthetic to them. They are the same kind of gym boys that Jane Russell tiptoes around in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as she sings that knowing number, ‘Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love’.

In Ms Mason’s talk, she mentions that sometimes the beefcake genre crossed the line, and many photographers found themselves in jail. ‘But prison only gave them more ideas… and more models.’

* * *

Friday 16th October 2015.

To the Imperial War Museum for the exhibition Lee Miller – A Woman’s War. Like Bunny Yeager, Ms M was another American model turned photographer. This must be the third Lee Miller show I’ve been to in ten years – she clearly remains a reliable subject for an exhibition, with her fascinating life story. The commercial modelling, the Surrealist muse work, the move into photography, and then into war photography. Here the focus is on the latter, with lots of her shots of women in wartime, in uniform, in the workplace (typists in bomb-proof basements in London), or just women caught in the day-to-day coping with it all. Fashion shoots against Blitz ruins, girls in Paris cafes, casually sipping drinks against bullet-shattered windows.

The news this week says that Kate Winslet is about to play Ms Miller in a biopic, and there’s certainly some photos of the older 1940s Miller in this new show where there’s a resemblance, particularly the mouth. The one of Miller washing in Hitler’s bathtub is present and correct, but I’m also impressed by the large amount of her personal possessions on display: her war correspondent uniforms, her portable typewriter, her camera equipment, letters to and from the Front. There’s also a rare colour photo in which she returns to a kind of War Effort Surrealism by posing nude in camouflage-coloured body make-up, under a net, while lying on a garden lawn in Highgate (The Elms, Fitzroy Park, to be precise). Apparently this was to help illustrate Roland Penrose’s wartime lectures in camouflage instruction – but it’s clearly meant to provoke more than educate. The pose is Penrose’s idea but like the Hitler bathtub photo, it’s taken by the US photographer David E. Scherman. Scherman was also Miller’s lover, a relationship that Penrose – her husband- consented to at the time.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

‘What A Personality!’

Saturday 3rd October 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Sunday 4th October 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Monday 5th October 2015.

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

* * *

Tuesday 6th October 2015.

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

* * *

Wednesday 7th October 2015

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

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


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

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

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

* * *

Thursday 8th October 2015.

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

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

* * *

Friday 9th October 2015.

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

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

* * *

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Pogonophobia, Twinned With Geminiphobia

Saturday 26th September 2015.

Much discussion in the media – and on social media – about the attack on the Cereal Killer Café in Brick Lane, by anti-gentrification protesters. Since it opened last year, this harmless novelty café that purely serves bowls of cereal has received a baffling amount of ire. Usually the criticism is based on the fact that the cafe serves cereal for several pounds more than it would cost to buy in a supermarket, as would be the case with food in any café. This is such a mind-scorchingly obvious point, yet there’s something about the café that has led to it being held up as a symbol – nay, the symbol – of The Trouble With London Hipsters. In recent years, East London has seen a surge in fashionable emporiums aimed at the affluent young, but with little of this wealth reaching the poverty-stricken communities who have lived there for generations. When the cereal café opened, the owners were forced to justify their very existence to the press. This is despite London having always been a city for quirky concept shops – I’m rather a fan of the Tintin and Moomin shops in Covent Garden, and the Cybercandy shops, with their imported sweets.

It would have been far more logical to throw accusations of gentrification at East London estate agents, landlords, and the corporate coffee franchises that speckle the streets. But as with the David Cameron pig story last week, the man-bites-dog angle wins out. Tonight’s anti-gentrification protests did indeed attack estate agents too, but once the cereal café – an independent business – was splattered with paint, and had the word ‘scum’ scrawled on their windows, a lot of public sympathy for the protest was lost.

A few days later, some of the protesters complained of biased reporting. They stressed that the café attack was collateral damage, rather than a prime target. It seems the revolution will not only be televised, it will be unfairly edited.

I wonder, though, if the attention on the café also borders on a form of phobia. ‘Hate crime’ is too much, but there is certainly a disproportionate level of hatred being thrown about. This week, the café owners, two young-ish brothers from Belfast, are ludicrously called ‘the most hated men in London’ by the Evening Standard. Perhaps some of this is to do with their having not only the current hipster look of bushy beards and swept-back hair, but also being identical twins. To be a fashionable-looking man is yearning to be a twin too – a twin of thousands. So the brothers are twins twice over, which must add to the resentment.

For years, a common question in games like Trivial Pursuit was ‘what is pogonophobia a fear of?’ Answer: beards. Writing this entry, I learn the word for an irrational fear of identical twins: geminiphobia. This must be an instance where both words can legitimately be used.

* * *

Monday 28th September 2015.

First class of the MA. A gentle introduction to the course, in a Birkbeck building in the north-west corner of Russell Square, which I’ve not been in before. Seems to be a converted townhouse. Spiral stars (like the ones in Somerset House), moulded patterns on high ceilings. Then a group trip to a pub. This turns out to be the aptly-named Perseverance, in Lamb’s Conduit Street. A pleasant and quiet little bar, the kind one wants to keep a secret.

* * *

I read the shortlisted entries for this year’s BBC National Short Story Award, as I’ve done most years. Comma Press publishes them in an attractive little paperback, brought out in time for the announcement of the winner, which will be next Tuesday.

All five are well-written enough and do what they set out to do, though this year there’s nothing as truly ambitious as, say, a story by Jorge Luis Borges, or as stylistically bold as something by Angela Carter.

I admire the straightforward style of Mark Haddon’s ‘Bunny’, about a lonely and chronically obese man, though I’m disheartened by the grim ending. I wonder if Mr H thinks that, as his name is synonymous with the feel-good resolution of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, he could use this new tale to play against that expectation. It’s also a reminder of the joke about the difference between commercial and literary fiction. Commercial fiction pleases with happy endings, literary fiction pleases with miserable endings.

Of the others on the shortlist, Jonathan Buckley’s ‘Briar Road’ demands a certain amount of re-reading to fill in the blanks. It’s one interpretation of that popular piece of creative writing advice: ‘show, don’t tell’. In this case I rather prefer Mr Vonnegut’s maxim: ‘pity the reader’.

Frances Leviston’s ‘Broderie Anglaise’, meanwhile, has a touch of Woolf about it, with its relatives using domestic tasks to take up power positions. It’s well-crafted, but doesn’t quite come alive for me.

My choice of runner-up would be Jeremy Page’s ‘Do it Now, Jump the Table’. A young man negotiates the awkwardness of staying with his girlfriend’s parents, who like to be naked around their house. There’s a similar scene in David Nicholls’s Starter For Ten, and one in The League Of Gentlemen TV series. But Mr Page properly explores the implications of this awkwardness, bringing in pathos and character depth alongside the humour.

But my favourite is Hilary Mantel’s ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’. I realise Ms Mantel does not need the extra acclaim, and the collection that includes this tale has already been a bestseller (a feat indeed for a book of short stories). But if it were down to me she would still win. Her story thrills, amuses, shocks and grips from start to end, and shares the confidence and precision of a sniper, appropriately enough. One line particularly stays with me, describing the walk of the doomed Baroness: ‘High heels on the mossy path. Tippy-tap. Toddle on.’

* * *

Thursday 1st October 2015

My first ever visit to an osteopath, at the Highgate Holistic Clinic on Archway Road. I come away feeling better twice over. Once for the treatment of my back’s muscular tension, then again for not making a comment about the osteopath’s name, Ms Payne.

* * *

Friday 2nd October 2015.

To the ICA to see By Our Selves (£3), directed by Andrew Kotting. I enjoyed his last film, Swandown, and this is a similarly experimental documentary based around a journey in contemporary England, again with a lot of Iain Sinclair and a little of Alan Moore. No Stewart Lee this time, though the comedian appears in the thank-you credits.

The subject matter is the nineteenth-century poet John Clare, and specifically Clare’s four-day walk across Middle England in 1841, from a mental asylum in Epping Forest to his home near Peterborough. Clare is personified by the actor Toby Jones (looking like a dishevelled Samuel Beckett character), while his father Freddie Jones also appears (now in his late 80s). Jones Senior once played Clare in a 1970 BBC film, and can still recite some of the poems by heart. He shares the narration with Iain Sinclair, the latter stalking Jones Junior while wearing a Wicker Man-esque goat mask.

There’s lots of dream-like sequences merging Clare’s work and English folk costumes with 2014 props and landscapes. One of the discussions speculates on Clare’s initials, J.C. – did they give him a messianic complex? Do all people with those initials have a sense of self-importance? (Jeremy Clarkson? Jeremy Corbyn?). Am surprised that Ronald Blythe isn’t involved with the film – he constantly champions Clare in his Word From Wormingford diaries.

* * *

Then to Gordon Square for the launch party of the Open Library of Humanities digital platform. This is a major project built by two Birkbeck lecturers, Caroline Edwards and Martin Eve, involving the publishing of academic humanities journals in an ‘open-access’ space online, so everyone can read the articles without having to pay, subscribe or be a member of an institution. The OLH is also a ‘megajournal’, a charity, and a community space, as well as a non-profit publisher. Tonight in Gordon Square there are speeches, wine, and a special OLH launch cake, courtesy of Bea’s of Bloomsbury. I have ‘open access’ to that too (delicious).

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The Devil Wears Car Robes

Saturday 19th September 2015.

I learn that I am affected by the Department for Work and Pensions’s ‘new rules’, and may have to get by on less than I’d thought. Much of this week is spent on the phone to their blameless staffers, resisting the urge to make comments about the whereabouts of Mr Duncan Smith’s heart. I suspect they get that a lot. They sigh down the line and use phrases such as ‘our hands are tied’. They also tell me to try the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.

This is a clever ploy, because many of the CABs are themselves on the receiving end of ‘new rules’, in the shape of government cuts. There are now fewer of them per borough, and the ones that are still going are rarely open for more than a handful of hours a week. The upshot is that I traipse over to Tottenham twice this week. There, I sit in a prefabricated bungalow located in an alleyway near Bruce Grove station, in a colourless waiting room not unlike the ones in documentaries about prisons. I have to go twice, because the first time all the appointment slots are filled up before me. The second time I go, I still have to wait two and half hours in the waiting room before finally seeing an advisor. Her advice, such as it is, is that I need to take my money woes to a more specialist office in Crouch End. And so it goes on.

I take a train from Bruce Grove into Liverpool Street, and walk around the gleaming skyscrapers of the financial district. The contrast between these looming citadels of wealth and the rundown, deprived streets of Tottenham, mere minutes away, has never been more shocking. Anyone doubting the appeal of Mr Corbyn needs to make this journey.

* * *

Sunday 20th September 2015.

Jackie Collins dies. In the papers there are a number of ‘guilty pleasure’ tributes for her novels, along with lots of photographs taken during her modelling career. Like Joan Crawford, and indeed like her own sister Joan, she managed to project a level of camp at every stage. A picture from 1956 shows a 19-year-old Jackie at an Earl’s Court motor show, posing with ‘The Goggomobil T300 – the smallest family four-seater car on the market’. She smiles at the camera while stepping out of this stunted vehicle, showing off a zebra print two-piece which matches the car’s own upholstery. A caption confirms that her clothes are indeed designed by ‘Car Robes, makers of car seat covers’. Low Camp she may have been at the time, she went on to turn this ability into a knowing and deliberate form of High Camp, and to lucrative effect too. It is what Quentin Crisp calls getting the joke on your own terms.

* * *

Monday 21st September 2015.

I am on a bus in Crouch End when a man in a corduroy suit gets on and engages me in conversation. It turns out that he knows me from the book I Am Dandy. We have a conversation about the various definitions of dandyism, and how dandyism relates to the breaking of one set of rules while adhering to another. Then he asks me for employment advice, given he sees himself as a dandy too.

I quote Crisp on the subject – try life modelling in art schools, because it fulfils a societal role while having the mild air of scandal. The other suggestion is anything involving the use of one’s own unique persona. This can include teaching, performing, lecturing, writing, or even tour guide work. As I’ve found from my own experience, a tour guide can often be dandy-like in spirit. They can tailor the facts of a gallery or museum to fit their own bespoke personality. And of course, tour guides have to perform a form of outsider’s view, because tourists and outsiders share a common border.

I was reminded of the time I was recognised in the street for being in the band Orlando. This was long after I’d left the band and was back on the dole. The person who recognised me said that he too was in a band, and did I have any advice on how to make it in the music business?

* * *

Wednesday 23rd September 2015.

The Daily Mail runs excerpts from a unkind book on David Cameron, written by Lord Ashcroft, his former friend. Chief among the revelations – or rather, allegations – are those involving debauched conduct at Oxford University during the 80s, especially an act involving an ‘intimate part of the future Prime Minister’s anatomy’ with a dead pig’s head. What interests me is the mention of Brideshead Revisited. At the time, the TV series had apparently made such an impression on Mr Cameron’s college friends that they all wanted ‘to play at being Sebastian Flyte’ and ‘live the Brideshead lifestyle’, according to the new book. The pig incident was part of this aspiration. As tributes to Evelyn Waugh go, the very public circulation of this one takes some beating, regardless of its veracity. I think Waugh himself, who so bemoaned the defeat of the Conservatives in 1945, would have been very pleased, even proud.

* * *

Thursday 24th September 2015.

Snark: a word that combines ‘snide’ and ‘remark’, often used as a default emotion on social media. But when viewed properly, snark is just a less honest kind of loneliness.

This occurs to me when I glance at the online response to the Morrissey novel, List of the Lost, which is published today. The trouble is, it’s impossible to judge the novel for its own worth, because of who the author is. The only reviews I’d really want to read are ones from a parallel world, where it was published pseudonymously.

I will read it and judge for myself as soon as I can. But then, I’m already on its side, just because so many critics rushed to savage it. From the extracts, it sounds a little like Ronald Firbank.

* * *

Facebook can sometimes feel like a memorial of gently-faded friendships. Today the site briefly crashes. I imagine it being hacked by someone who couldn’t take any more photos of weddings they had not been invited to.

* * *

Friday 25th September 2015.

To the Invisible Dot in King’s Cross, for a comedy show by Mae Martin, ‘Us’. The venue is east of Caledonian Road, in an area of King’s Cross that the big clean-up hasn’t quite reached. The Invisible Dot is small, brick-built, and single-level, with rows of skylights; probably a former workshop or garage. The stage is flanked by two toilets, which turns out to be something of a design flaw. Anyone getting up to use the toilet immediately pulls the focus of the show, and this happens towards the end of Ms Martin’s hour-long set. I wonder if her friendly persona allows it to happen, more so than it would for other performers. Her comedy style is a kind of sweet and knowing nervousness (belied by her years of experience). She also channels her physical androgyny into a form of female boyish charm, much like Tig Notaro. This cunningly means that it is impossible to heckle her when she’s on, as she never takes a ‘high status’ position – quite unusual for a comedian. Much of ‘Us’ is serious and heartfelt: themes of sexual identity, the pitfalls of bisexual dating, and the conflict of wanting to eschew labels while still attracting homophobic catcalls in public. I like Ms M a lot. So much so, that I wonder if I could ever do stand-up comedy myself. I already have the ill-advised suits. (This is not entirely a joke, though…)

* * *

I have my hair cut short into its natural brown, ready to be freshly re-bleached. It makes me realise how large my head is. I look like a camp Easter Island statue.

* * *

If you enjoy this advert-free diary, please help support it with a donation to the Diary Fund. Thank you. 

Donate Button with Credit Cards

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Dough Balls With Virginia

Saturday 12th September 2015.

Jeremy Corbyn is voted leader of the Labour party. For much of the weekend his critics call him ‘unelectable’, an odd thing to say of someone who has just won an election. So much is said about this man this week, much of it hysterical. Not nearly enough is said about how he is just that rare thing: a MP that people like.

The 1997 style of Labour, with its focus upon slickness, spin and presentation, seems to be over for good. A rougher, ‘grass roots’ Labour is popular once again. If nothing else, I hope this means MPs will at last stop copying Mr Blair’s strange. Staccato. Way. Of Speaking. When. Making. Speeches.

* * *

I wander into town, and drift into the ICA to find that there’s a small-press fair on. Phoebe Blatton is running a stall for Coelacanth Press. She’s put out a new issue of Strangers In A Zine, her fun little Patricia Highsmith fanzine. This issue is a ‘Carol Film Special’, to celebrate the new film with Cate Blanchett (out in the UK in November). In the zine, PB relates an anecdote from a few years ago, where she met a film distributor on a plane, enthused to him about Highsmith’s novel Carol, and mentioned that, given he made Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes would be perfect for directing a film of Carol. The distributor told her he happened to be a good friend of Haynes’s, and would ‘pass the message on’. PB is not certain that she was inadvertently the seed of the new film, but it’s a nice tale, and indeed a very Highsmithian one: a fateful encounter between two strangers.

* * *

Tuesday 15th September 2015.

To Lauderdale House in Highgate Village. It’s a venue mentioned by one noted diarist – Pepys – and the setting tonight for a talk by another: Michael Palin, currently promoting his third volume of journals. The event is a charity fundraiser organised by the Mayor of Camden Council, a rather assertive, motherly woman who makes sure everyone stays behind afterwards to listen to the support act – a saxophone recital by a 16-year-old Camden schoolboy.

Lots of other mayoral types in the audience. They tend to be ordinary looking people of a certain age, often former councillors, who just happen to be walking around in heavy, clunking ceremonial jewellery.

Mr Palin is a delight, of course. He gives what is clearly his honed ‘Evening With…’ talk. A good hour or so of anecdotes, something to please everyone, and a Q&A at the end. Tales from the formation of Monty Python, tales from the controversy around Life Of Brian – with a nice link from the mayors in the room to the story about how the actress playing Brian’s girlfriend in the film is now the Mayor of Aberystwyth. And that, with delicious irony, the Welsh town was one of the places that banned the film in 1979. Once she was in power, she made sure she lifted the ban. Then there’s tales from his travel programmes, tales about diary-keeping, some pleasingly rude quips (including one about how he hates being called nice), and some poetry: Cavafy, Wordsworth, Hilaire Belloc, and Spike Milligan. A perfect public speaker, really, and a good example of a Not-Grumpy Old Man.

* * *

Wednesday 16th September 2015.

Meet Hester R for a drink at the IOE bar, followed by a meal at the Pizza Express on Euston Road, the one that’s directly opposite the British Library. Artworks based on writers on the walls: Orwell, Kakfa, Woolf. It’s the place to go if you know someone who likes Mrs Dalloway and dough balls. There’s a display of books, all face out, on a trendy shelving unit near our table. I’m not sure if they’re for sale or to read or just to make the restaurant more bookish. One in my eyeline is about the history of stealth warfare, ‘From Ancient Greece To The SAS’. The book next to that is a memoir by Maureen Lipman. I try not to make too much of this.

Hester has a voucher of some sort. I always suspect everyone who goes to Pizza Express has A Voucher Of Some Sort.

* * *

Thursday 17th September 2015.

I visit the Ripping Yarns bookshop on Archway Road. It’s my last time before this treasure trove of a second-hand shop closes its Highgate premises for good. The business is going to continue trading online, at the house of the owner Celia, with occasional events and ‘open days’ planned. But the Archway Road shop will be gone.

Some symmetry. Today, people in the shop are talking about Mr Corbyn, just as they are doing so everywhere in London (this week I overhear the word ‘Corbyn’ in every café, bus and tube). On my first ever visit to Ripping Yarns, not long after I’d moved to Highgate, I heard an earnest conversation about the then Labour leader, John Smith, how he had suddenly died that day, and how he was ‘the best Prime Minister we never had’ (Gore Vidal: ‘Death is a good career move’). The date of my first visit to Ripping Yarns is thus easy to work out: May 12th, 1994.

I walk out from today’s visit with a 1961 Penguin Classic copy of Firbank’s Valmouth. It’s the edition that appears in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library, with its Augustus John cover and what Hollinghurst calls the ‘faint smell of lost time’ about its pages. Jen Campbell is working there today. She points me out to Celia. ‘Would you believe this man is 44?’ Her book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops was inspired by the clientele of Ripping Yarns, who could indeed be eccentric. On my way out, I see a hunched man browsing through a box of paperbacks. He is in his bare feet.

* * *

To the House of Illustration in King’s Cross, for the exhibition on Ladybird Books. Lots of colourful paintings of rosy-cheeked, healthy and smiling children in a post-war Utopian vision of Britain. Peter and Jane and their impeccably polished ball are the stars, but there’s also the series of ‘Well-Loved Tales’: ‘Cinderella’, ‘Puss In Boots’, and the slightly less loved tale ‘The Big Pancake’.

I realise how interesting it is that ‘well-loved’ has been eclipsed by ‘much-loved’ in common speech. The changing fashions in adjectives say as much about a society as the changing fashions in clothes.

The main thing I learn from the exhibition is how these popular pocket-sized children’s books were born from a ingenious bit of wartime economising. A whole Ladybird book of 56 pages was designed so it could be cut from a single sheet of paper – the largest size that could be printed in the presses of 1940. All the books were priced at half a crown each – and remained at that price until decimalization in 1971.

I find the title of one Ladybird book, ‘Some Great Men And Women (1972)’ disproportionately amusing. I think it’s the pedantic implication of the modifier ‘some’; as if a simple ‘Great Men And Women’ was deemed too imperial for the softer, long-haired world of 1972.

I buy a postcard in the gallery shop. A young staffer seems amazed when I confirm that I am going to send it without an envelope. ‘With the message on the outside? But surely other people can read it?’

I tell her about the history of sending postcards – the text messages of times outworn. It really does seem to be new to her. But I wish now that I’d told her about the Postcrossing website, where the practice of sending postcards is very much alive and well. (

* * *

Friday 18th September 2015.

Afternoon: to the V&A for tea in the Members’ Room, courtesy of Heather M. Ms M tells me about her experiences of dating websites. She prefers men to be at least her own height – ‘it’s to do with being hugged’. Judging by her encounters, it seems a lot of men lie about their height in their profiles. This seems a highly optimistic move, as if they hope that, by the time it comes to meeting in person, their shortness will be somehow… overlooked. But Heather says it’s sometimes necessary for a woman to adjust the truth too. ‘A woman aged 41 or 42 has to put ‘40’, to attract people her own age. If she puts ‘41’, all she gets are men over 70’.

After tea, we wander around the V&A, and I am quite taken with an interactive installation called Mise-en-abyme. It’s a series of shaped transparent arches across one of the museum’s walkways, each arch narrower than the one before. The phrase itself is one of my favourites in literary criticism, where it means a recursive framing of stories within stories. I’ve seen the phrase used for everything from The Canterbury Tales to Inception.

Evening: I watch the latest Woody Allen film, Irrational Man, at the Barbican’s Cinema Café.  There’s a very good film to be made of this story, but this film isn’t it. Like so many late Allens, it’s oddly stilted and over-narrated when it should be brooding and organic. I find myself fantasising about being able to edit the script and improve the film, fix it. Still, the story has some fine twists, and the cast are superb. It’s so good to see Parker Posey, now aging into a sharp, Katherine Hepburn-like persona, while Emma Stone is the young generation’s Mia Farrow (and Allen’s camera adores her). Joaquin Phoenix, meanwhile, is perfect for the sort of character who plays with a loaded revolver at parties.

* * *

Ian Hislop speaking on Radio 4 today, re Jeremy Corbyn: ‘It’s a measure of how much current capitalism has failed that Dave Spart [Private Eye’s joke socialist character] is back and seems to be making sense’.

* * *

If you enjoy this exclusive content, please help to keep it free from adverts and those suspicious ‘other news’ links that all the big websites do now, even the supposedly serious sites. A donation to the Diary Fund will also help to keep the impoverished author free from starvation, homelessness, and thoughts that he should just give up and hurl himself into the nearest pond. Thank you. 

Donate Button with Credit Cards

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,