The Morning Would Be A Miracle

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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


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Distracted By Silence

Saturday 9th April 2016. I browse in Muswell Hill Bookshop, having not been inside for a while. Am dismayed to see it’s halved its size for the first time in twenty years, changing from a double-fronted premises to a narrow single-fronted one. The jettisoned half is now a dog grooming parlour. Similarly, the former premises of the Ripping Yarns bookshop in Archway Road is now a trendy barber’s. I suppose services for the body, and indeed services for the animal body, are less vulnerable to competition from the internet.

At least the older version of the Muswell Hill bookshop is immortalised on film, thanks to a scene in Tamara Drewe.

* * *

Sunday 10th April 2016. I listen to LBC. One of the adverts in heavy rotation (which always puts me off commercial radio stations) uses the Deacon Blue song, ‘Real Gone Kid’. It is an advert for hearing aids.

* * *

Tuesday 12th April 2016. Evening: to the ICA to see the new German film Victoria with Ms Shanthi. Except that we don’t see it there. I make the mistake of assuming there’ll be tickets available when we turn up. For the first time since I became an ICA member (3 years now), the cinema is sold out. It’s proof that Victoria is a bona fide word-of-mouth hit. That said, the fact that it’s still only £3 to see a film at the ICA on Tuesdays – for both of us – is probably a contributing factor.

Thankfully this is London, so we just see Victoria elsewhere. Shanthi uses her smartphone to find that it’s on at the Curzon Soho a few blocks away, and the Curzon is always a pleasant place to go anyway. I often just use the café to read and write. We wince at the more expensive tickets (over £10, even on a Tuesday night), but remember about booking the ICA in advance next time. ‘Tuition fee’, my dad used to say.

Victoria doesn’t disappoint. Like Boyhood, it’s defined by an impressive experimental concept: to tell an engrossing narrative in a single take. It lasts two and a bit hours without cutting once. This would be tricky enough if the action took place in a single location, but Victoria follows the heroine across real life Berlin in the early hours, moving between an underground nightclub, up a rickety ladder to the roof of an apartment block, then across the city to a café, a car park, a luxury hotel, a family flat, the inside of various vehicles, plus plenty of streets and open spaces.

The first half of the story is a sweet romantic drama, accurately capturing the way young people fall out of city nightclubs at 4am, yet are still keen to team up with fellow revellers to find more drink and continue the party elsewhere. It’s the story of many people’s twenties and thirties – certainly of mine – and it feels very real and very familiar.

But then the sun comes up, and the film changes gear to become, of all things, a full-on heist thriller. Guns are fired, people run for their lives, police officers give chase, hostages are taken, and blood is spilt. And still the camera has not cut. By this point, the thrills of the plot are only intensified by an awareness of all the planning and rehearsal involved. There’s a shot towards the end where Victoria stares at herself in a bathroom mirror, and the camera swings around to catch her reflection. Had the angle been a few degrees off, the camera would have been seen in the mirror too, so the whole film would have to start again.

As with Boyhood, there’s the question about whether the film would be of note without its central gimmick. Certainly, some of the plot twists seem unlikely when properly thought through. But as with Hitchcock’s Rope, one of my favourite films, which also pretends to a be a one-shot affair, the concept is so engrossing that all contrivances are forgiven. Besides, the well-observed realism of the first half makes Victoria much more than the sum of its parts. It is pure cinema, and a complete triumph.

* * *

Thursday 14th April 2016. To Colchester for the funeral of Uncle Bob, Dad’s brother. Tom and Mum meet me at the station, and we head for the civil funeral at the Co-Op chapel in Wimpole Road. Cousin Beth does the readings. The music includes ‘My Way’.

Then there’s a proper burial, my first, half an hour away at Firs Road Cemetery in West Mersea. We drive across the causeway, thankful to miss high tide. I find the sight of the dry Mersea mudflats adds to the symbolism: thoughts of earth, transition, the inevitability of nature. At the grave, the chapel celebrant, a spiky-haired woman, reads the rites. I discover that the coffin is first placed onto a couple of wooden supports that span the grave, so the straps can be attached. Then the supports are taken out, and the coffin is lowered. As music plays on a portable CD player, Bob’s family take turns to scatter earth onto the coffin. The sun shines throughout.

* * *

Saturday 16th April 2016. I reach 4727 words on the MA essay. I still have to add a few sections, which will take me well over the 5000 word limit, but I look forward to sorting that out in the editing stage. Two and a bit weeks to go.

I’m doing a lot of writing in Birkbeck Library, which I find conducive. Though today I glower at the woman at the computer next to me, when she launches into an eternal packet of Rich Tea biscuits. It’s not the rustling that irritates, so much as the munching. I hear every mastication of every molar.

And yet I work in cafes all the time, surrounded by people eating and talking, and that doesn’t bother me. Silence can be more distracting than a wash of noise, because it works like an amplifier on the few sounds there are. It’s the syndrome of the dripping tap at night.


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The Age Of Skeuomorphs

Friday 1st April 2016. April Fool’s Day seems increasingly redundant in this digitally-driven world of ever-uncertain contexts. Everyday life now relies on consulting the shifting facts of Wikipedia, or checking for the blue-ticked ‘verified accounts’ on Twitter. On social media one is used to seeing the phrase ‘genuine question’. This implies that any default question is not in the least bit genuine. Or indeed, that nothing is genuine full stop, if it’s online.

I think the turning point was a few years ago, with the case of the man arrested for making a joke on Twitter, the one about blowing up Robin Hood Airport. Someone then suggested that all future Tweets should come with the warning ‘may be a joke’. A genuine suggestion. I think.

But April Fool’s Day still goes on. The enforced jollity must be disheartening for any workers forced to smile at the unfunny pranks of management. It’s similar to the way New Year’s Eve parties can be no fun at all, not if there’s no option to opt out. I hear of some wag referring to April Fool’s Day as ‘W—ers Christmas’.

Still, today I quite enjoy Foyles’s elaborate YouTube gag, announcing a new cost-cutting measure: their first holographic sales assistant. In the video, which has the sort of special effects that were once quite expensive, but which now probably cost nothing, they jokily reassure people that they still need human staffers, as the hologram can’t pick up any books.

Holographic staffers are already a reality in some places. There’s one in King’s Cross station by one of the escalators, though it’s technically more of a projection, the screen being a flat, human-sized cut-out. This poor flickering soul is charged with telling people to grip the handrail. After five seconds it warns them again, and then again. It looks like a punishment for holograms: an eternal loop of banality.

* * *

I watch a newspaper review programme on one of the news channels. The Independent is no longer available in print, but it does continue to exist as a digital daily edition. This is a fixed document, best read on iPads, that is a separate entity to its ever-changing website. My head starts to reel with the implications of something that is ‘fixed’ like print, yet still virtual.

In this way, it still has a ‘front page’, so it can still appear on the review programme alongside all the other newspapers’ covers. But this disturbs me a little. Where is the ‘front’ of a digital document? A PDF or a Word document has a Page One, but a ‘front page’ implies it has three dimensions. In this manner, a digital object imitates an obsolete physical one. The term for this is a favourite word of mine: a ‘skeuomorph’ – a retained design that no longer fulfils the original purpose. Like the fake sound of a camera shutter used on a smartphone. We are in an era of enhanced simulation – which is again why April Fool’s Day feels redundant. With all the skeuomorphs, reality is skewed enough.

* * *

To the Barbican’s art gallery for Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. A fascinating and extensive display of social history from the 1930s to the present. Cartier-Bresson is among the names I recognise. Like many overseas visitors, he seems especially fascinated with the crowds that turn out for royal celebrations: Jubilees, Royal Weddings and so on. It’s something which I forget other countries often associate with the UK.

Also on display is Bruce Davidson, whose ‘Girl Holding Kitten’ from 1960 is now fairly well-known. The juxtaposition of vulnerability: the tiny kitten with its owner, a wide-eyed waif with a sleeping bag, caught on a wet London street.

What strikes me here is the way a photograph can capture objects and places that were already out of date at the time, making a kind of a double historicity. One example is an empty greasy spoon café in Peckham, which looks very 1950s to me, but is in fact from the 1980s. Another is a sign at a railway station: ‘All Season Tickets To Be Shewn’. This archaic spelling for ‘shown’ was apparently in use in public signage as late as 1962.

I wonder what an equivalent sign might be today. It might be the ‘Six Items Or Fewer’ signs at some supermarkets. Though grammatically correct, ‘fewer’ sounds increasingly clunky in some sentences, compared to ‘less’. Certainly in that one.

* * *

Saturday 2nd April 2016. To Vout-O-Reenee’s in Tower Hill, for Debbie Smith’s excellent club night, Nitty Gritty. Cocktails, vintage 60s soul and girl groups, dancing. A proper bohemian London ‘safe space’, the Nitty Gritty regulars (more women than men) mixing with the Vout’s Colony Room-style regulars. I sit with Fenella H, Vadim K and Lily, chat to members of Joanne Joanne, and get pleasingly drunk.

* * *

Tuesday 5th April 2016. To the ICA for the film version of JG Ballard’s High-Rise (£3). The film already has a reputation as being rather divisive, with reports of some people walking out, while others have called it an instant classic. Certainly, I find the heavy use of montages off-putting. At one point Jeremy Irons’s architect says that the problem with the failing tower block is not that he left things out, but that he put too much into it. Which rather sums up the film. It starts well, with Tom Hiddleston moving in and getting to meet the residents, but then gets increasingly messy and confusing. I suppose I wanted it to be more O Lucky Man and less Britannia Hospital. As in the latter, there’s some gory business with body parts that seems less of a clever metaphor for society and more just straightforward gore. However, I can’t fault the 70s aesthetics, from the clothes to the hairdos to the Brutalist architecture (Belfast posing as London, I think), which do a superb job of creating an alternative 1970s version of futuristic life. Particularly the horse in the penthouse garden.

* * *


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The WiFi in the Hall

Saturday 26th March 2016. A sign of the times. In the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, there are three public lavatories. Male, female, and a door marked ‘All Gender Toilet. Anyone can use this toilet regardless of gender identity or expression’.

* * *

Sunday 27th March 2016. The spring term is over. Current work: a second 5000 word essay, deadline of 2nd May. Reluctance overwhelms me, and I spend much of this week either working too slowly or not working at all. My diary is similarly affected (apologies for its lateness). It’s at times like this that I’m jealous of anyone who gets any work done at all.

I wonder about the psychology behind my problem. I can hardly put it down to lack of experience or lack of ability, what with my previous marks and my prize from Birkbeck last year, the one for showing ‘the most promise in English Literature’. But then I think about Cyril Connolly’s quip: ‘whom the Gods wish to destroy they first call promising’.

Interesting to think about Connolly now. A well-known public intellectual in his lifetime, being the mid-twentieth century, but not so much read today. Perhaps his work is too of its time. I once remarked on this in a bookshop, to a middle-aged woman at the till. She looked at Connolly’s bald, ogre-like face on the cover of Enemies of Promise. ‘Well, it doesn’t help that he was no oil painting. I’d rather spend time with Billy Connolly’.

He became synonymous with one particular excuse for a lack of productivity: ‘the pram in the hall’. But while parenthood is obviously demanding, there’s no shortage of people who’ve managed to get other things done too. Indeed, for many writers and artists parenthood actually fuels their career, as it gives them an enhanced sense of purpose. For some, it might be a lack of a pram in the hall that can lead to apathy: there might be less of a feeling that the world truly needs them.

A far greater ‘enemy of promise’ these days is surely the internet. If Connolly were around today, perhaps he’d be less worried about the pram in the hall and more about the WiFi in the hall. Indeed, there’s been reports of a new trend where people deliberately go without broadband connections at home, in order to get more done. Phones are enough. Never mind the current desirable pastime of ‘Netflix and chill’. There’s now the temptation to Netflix and Procrastinate.

Connolly was full of great lines, though. ‘It is better to write for yourself and have no public than to write for the public and have no self’. Again, it’s a sentiment that begs questions of ‘what about…’. I think of Pepys’s coded diary. He was writing for a public too, just not the public of his own life. All writing for the self is still public writing. Today, social media has blurred the distinction completely.

I also love Connolly’s description of his wartime magazine Horizon closing down, when the office was cleared out: ‘Only contributions continued inexorably to be delivered, like a suicide’s milk.’

* * *

Wednesday 30th March 2016. Ben Innes, a British hostage on the hijacked Egypt Air plane, uses his phone to have his picture taken alongside his captor. The hijacker, who is bespectacled and unusually frail-looking for a terrorist, stands with a neutral expression, his belt of explosives in clear view (which will later turn out to be fake). His expression is one of vague confusion. Innes, meanwhile, who is big and young and resembles a rugby player on a package holiday, pulls a broad ‘Hello Mum!’ grin.

The photo is soon everywhere in the media. It is a gift to contemporary cultural discussion, touching on such themes as terrorism, appropriate behaviour, selfie culture, the ‘banter’ of modern lads (something other men do, I believe, not me), the tradition of British pluck in the face of adversity abroad, and perhaps most British of all, pedantry. Though the photo is soon known as ‘that hostage selfie’, people rush to point out that it’s not technically a ‘selfie’ at all, because the photograph is taken by a third party (an obliging stewardess).

I think of Lee Miller’s photograph of herself in Hitler’s bath tub, taken during the Allies’ liberation of Germany in 1945. That too was taken by a third party, but it was Miller’s idea. Her name is thus the one more associated with the image. So I would call that, like the Ben Innes photo, a ‘selfie’, because of the person instigating the image, the pose, and the self-presentation.

Selfies are about control. One resentment against terrorism is the double unfairness for the victims. Their life stories are not just brutally interrupted, but eclipsed within wider narratives. Footnotes in bigger tales. Innes’s photo turned this aspect around, rewriting the event in his favour. The captured hijacker, now awaiting trial, is being referred to as the ‘selfie hijacker’. In the eyes of the media – the reality that most matters to society – he has become a hijacker, hijacked.

If I were Innes, I’d tell the world that the ‘selfie’ was part of an art project, and contact the Tate Modern at once. But Innes is no Lee Miller: as soon the news cameras came for him at the airport, he put his hand over the lens and talked about the need to get back to his normal life. Though, rather wonderfully, his day job is in health and safety.

* * *

Thursday 31st March 2016. To the ICA to see Anomalisa, the stop-motion animated film by Charlie Kaufman. Very much not for children, with a sex scene that would be considered unusually realistic were it not made of clay. The main character has David Thewlis’s British accent, but most of the other characters have the same adult male American voice, including all the women and children.

This only really hits me in the scene where the Thewlis character is on the phone to his wife, and the wife puts the child on the line. There’s no change in the speaker. When Thewlis eventually meets the Lisa of the title, she is his world’s ‘anomaly’, with a normal female voice. She alone connects with him. The film doesn’t quite open its ideas up fully, in the way that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind did, but like much of CK’s work, it’s funny and original, and stays with me for days.

* * *


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Among The Woggle Eared Boys

Thursday 24th March 2016. I notice that there’s been a fashion development among young men, or at least the sort of young men who seem to think of themselves as fashionable. It’s now not enough to have bushy beards, along with hairdos that have a slicked-back quiff on top, while closely shaved at the sides. Increasingly, these men also have their earlobes physically stretched and distended, in order to insert a large circular ear stud.

Sometimes this earring is a wide and hollow ring, which makes me think of the woggles used by cub scouts. At other times the hole is filled with a piece of black solid plastic. In which case it makes them look like they’ve been attacked by a bad loser in a game of draughts.

Part of me wants to ask them why they do it. But then, they could equally ask me why I bleach my hair blond.

Taste can be so mysterious. At least these woggle-eared boys have the excuse of fashion. It’s the eternal priority of the young – to rebel against their elders, but conform with their peers.

* * *

Friday 25th March 2016. To the Odeon Panton Street to see Bridge of Spies. Directed by Spielberg in relatively compact mode. He eschews big casts and big messages and just gets on with telling a story clearly and fluidly. It could well be a classic film noir from the 1950s, were it not for the occasional f-word. Mark Rylance’s Russian spy is quietness and dignity personified. What with the depressing events in Brussels this week, it’s good to see a mainstream war film that concentrates on such things as basic compassion, preservation of life, and human liberty, without passing judgement on beliefs. And Rylance’s catchphrase of ‘would it help?’ works as a succinct piece of life advice, full stop.

* * *

Saturday 26th March 2016.

A day trip to Cambridge. Mum’s idea, though a foot injury prevents her joining me on the day. I’ve already bought the ticket, so I go up anyway. I’ve travelled so little in recent years that it can only do me good.

The beauty of the colleges and quads still impresses, with the screen and tower of King’s College taking the breath away in particular. Standing by the chapel door, I feel tempted to burst into a rendition of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, but resist. I walk along the river. Lots of daffodils on the Backs, behind Clare College. A few brave tourists hiring punts (punters, I suppose) despite the wind and drizzle.

Kettle’s Yard is closed this year, so I spend a good few hours in the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is having its 200th anniversary. I find the lavish neo-classical architecture of the main entrance hall as inspiring as any of the exhibits; crammed with statues and gilded friezes, and now restored to an immaculate state. My favourite paintings turn out to be Gwen John’s The Convalescent (the painting equivalent of an Anita Brookner novel), Moreelse’s Allegory of Profane Love (the painting equivalent of an Angela Carter novel), Stanley Spencer’s Love Among The Nations (surely a contender for Most Hugs In Art), William Nicholson’s Flamingoes, and several Canalettos of Venice (more clean-lined architecture).

* * *

I buy the last print edition of The Independent. Its sister paper, the Independent on Sunday, bowed out the previous weekend with a rather nice detail in its masthead. Some of the letters in the words The Independent were highlighted to spell out The End.

The newspaper is still going to continue online, but as some of the readers’ letters indicate, this isn’t the same experience at all. Many people still like the physicality of paper, as evidenced by the popularity of free newspapers. It’s paying for news in any shape that seems to be increasingly resented.

The Independent website, like any commercial news site, has to pay for itself by cramming the screen with ‘clickbait’ content and adverts that break up the middle of articles. The end result is more ‘networked’ news, made to fit into the wider ocean of the Web, and then made to keep the reader clicking away on the website. The reading experience can only be more restless, diluted, even craven. There is a risk of diminishing concentration, and diminishing contemplation.

The last issue has lots of articles on its history, including one by the editor responsible for one particular story that made the newspaper stand out early on. In 1986, not long after the first issue, the Duke and Duchess of York had their first child. While the other British papers went with the usual lavish royal baby coverage, the Independent took a stance and listed it in its News In Brief column, a mere couple of sentences.

Also learned: the paper hadn’t made a profit since 1993. When it started, there was so much money swimming around – this being the mid 80s – that writers could double their income by defecting there from The Times or The Telegraph. By 2015, according to DJ Taylor in The Prose Factory, the Independent was paying some writers at lower rates than it did in 1986.

I leaf through the pop music reviews and read about the debut album from Zayn Malik, ex-member of One Direction. The review takes an unexpected slant:

‘The world needs Zayn Malik more than ever now, given the ghastly events of earlier this week… Though how much counterbalance, in terms of the wider public image of Islamic culture [he] can offer to such brutal, random killing remains debatable. But given Malik’s position as possibly the world’s most popular Muslim, there’s suddenly much more riding on his solo debut album than there was a week ago.’

‘Much more riding’ on it? Whatever one thinks about One Direction, it seems a bit much to expect their solo albums to address the aftermath of Islamist terrorism.

Still, if one applies the Bridge of Spies question to the Zayn Malik album – would it help? – the answer is: yes of course it would. In the sense that all art helps in some way. Or should help.


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Thameslink Odysseus

Sunday 13th March 2016. I’m reading a new study skills book aimed at dyspraxic students, The Dyspraxic Learner: Strategies For Success, written by Alison Patrick. It’s full of very clear and useful advice for coping with a myriad of dyspraxia-related problems, the majority of which really do seem to apply to me. There’s an intriguing literary reference; according to the book, Jane Eyre contains what is thought to be literature’s first dyspraxic character. In the boarding school scenes, early on in the novel, Jane befriends Helen Burns, a passive and solitary girl who spurns games, has trouble concentrating, and seems to be in a world of her own:

‘Her sight seems turned in, gone down to her heart: she is looking at what she can remember, I believe, not at what is really present’.

In the classroom, Helen turns out to be a talented student, always ‘ready with answers on every point’. However, she also has poor organisational skills, bad posture and dirty fingernails, and it’s this that gets her whipped by the teachers for being a ‘slattern’. Rather sadly, she scolds herself too:

‘I am, as Miss Scatcherd said, slatternly; I seldom put, and never keep, things in order; I am careless; I forget rules; I read when I should learn my lessons; I have no method; and sometimes I say, like you, I cannot bear to be subjected to systematic arrangements.’

These are all now regarded as classic dyspraxic traits. Though I’ve never been whipped with a bunch of twigs, I suspect that sort of thing would have happened to me in a less enlightened century. And I’m sure there are people who’ve harboured thoughts of doing it to me more recently, too.

* * *

To the V&A to meet up with Fenella H: a very welcome bout of socialising, at a time when I feel rather more removed from the world than usual, either bound up with studies or struggling with various ailments.

We arrive at 11am on a Sunday, just before it gets too busy, and so have the pick of the three ornate café rooms. We dither over which Victorian aesthetic we prefer: the majestic and imposing Gamble room, the cosy blue-tiled Poynter or the subdued, green-panelled Morris. In the end I decide to go for the Morris, not because I’m in a particularly William Morris-sy mood, but purely because it has the fewest crying babies.

We stroll through the Fashion section of the permanent collection, then upstairs to the new (and free) exhibition on West End and Broadway shows, Curtain Up. Lots of set models, costumes and props from the likes of War Horse, Matilda, The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night-Time, and Sunday in the Park With George. For a display on A Chorus Line, there’s a kind of installation with lighting effects: one walks through a mirrored corridor with a dance practice bar, over which a row of shiny top hats hang in the air.

* * *

Tuesday 15th March 2016. Evening: I walk through the new-ish Blackfriars Thameslink station, where the platforms span across the whole width of the Thames. As they’re enclosed in glass, the structure plays with paradoxes of indoors and outdoors, of movement and stasis. One can get on and off a train while standing above water.

After the rush hour, the place can be very empty and quiet, perhaps because the station’s Thameslink status confuses tourists (it’s not part of the Tube, but Travelcards still apply). Suddenly there’s a burst of sound: a female soprano, presumably a busker, sings an aria unaccompanied – though I can’t tell where she is. Her voice echoes all over the long, eerie platforms, turning the whole of Blackfriars into a kind of bridge-shaped megaphone. Intrigued, I ran up and down various stairs and balconies on the South side of the station, trying to find the singer. I feel like a Thameslink Odysseus. After running into several labyrinthine dead ends (two myths for the price of one) – I find the singer standing in a corner of the new embankment, by the pedestrian walkway. She’s blonde, and is wearing a red felt top hat. I want to tell her how far her voice is carrying, and how eerie and beautiful it sounds up on the platforms, particularly when there’s hardly anyone else there. But she’s in mid-aria. I put a pound in her pot, mumble ‘thanks’, and go back to catch my train.

* * *

Thursday 17th March 2016. To the Vue Islington to see Room. The lead, Brie Larson, won Best Actress at the Oscars, as a mother kept prisoner in a suburban shed, while raising her son. I read the Emma Donoghue novel some time ago. The film is a very faithful adaptation, except for the novel’s device of having everything filtered through the five-year-old boy’s perspective. Here the boy has plenty of voice-over narration, but otherwise the perspective is the usual external one of the camera. A straightforward treatment, replicating the book’s three distinct sections: grim urban horror (life in the room), gripping thriller (the escape), then the aftermath in the world outside. As with the novel, I found this last section less satisfying than the previous two, but the performances of both the mother and the boy are memorable.

* * *

To the first floor of 43 Gordon Square, for the last seminar of the Birkbeck term, and the last class on the Contemporary US Fiction module. We finish with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, a novel I’ve had on my To Read shelf for some time. It’s made up of a series of stand-alone stories, linked by a set of characters at different stages in their lives. The ‘goon squad’ is time itself: the implication is that the characters are victims of the world’s changing ways, as much as they are victims of getting older. The perspective changes from character to character with every section: a person referred to in passing in one story may become the main character in another. There’s some stylistic tricks too, the most unusual one being a story entirely told as a Powerpoint slide show, with the same SmartArt diagrams familiar to anyone who uses Microsoft Office. Here they’re used to describe the relationship between a 12-year-old girl, her parents, and her autistic brother.

The Powerpoint story ends with several diagrams of pure data, illustrating the brother’s obsession with pauses in rock songs. It’s a little like the A-level maths question at the end of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: irrelevant to the story, but it’s what the character would do. One of the slides is completely black, which I read as a wry reference to the all-black page in Tristam Shandy.

After the class, I join a few of the students at the IOE bar for pizza and drinks. There’s been some sort of local student protest. Earlier, during the class, we heard some indistinct chanting as the protest passed through Gordon Square.

A barman tells us he’s worried about ‘the rioters’. No such rowdiness here, even on St Patrick’s Day (the Pogues playing dutifully on the hi-fi). Just lots of students sitting around drinking and chatting peacefully.

On coming back from the bar I pass one table and notice a megaphone among the pint glasses.

* * *

Friday 18th March 2016. To the Odeon Covent Garden (£6 with NUS), for Spotlight, which won the Oscar for Best Film. Like Room, it’s a conventional moral drama, focusing on the victims of abuse rather than the perpetrators. In this case, it’s the real-life victims of child molestation in Boston’s Catholic community. The notion of blame here, though, is extended to ideas of collusion, whether it’s people who knew about the cases and covered them up, or people who knew but didn’t think to investigate further. The film has a very old-fashioned feel to it, mindful of not just All The President’s Men (the newspaper setting) but Judgement At Nuremberg: an ensemble piece where the actors serve the story entirely, and the story is told seriously and clearly. Is it the ‘Best’ film? Not compared to Inside Out or The Falling or Carol or Appropriate Behaviour. There’s no innovation or boldness of ideas whatsoever: it’s just a good, well-made, informative work that covers an important issue. A ‘fair enough’ film.


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Weirdness Is A Platform

Tuesday 8th March 2016. Starting research on the next essay, which is due at the end of spring. I’ve decided to properly examine the connection between Menippean satire and selected contemporary US fiction, after taking the cue from Margaret Atwood’s review of Eggers’s The Circle (see earlier diary). I had something of a Eureka moment when finding an article which equated literary camp in the Firbank style (one of my pet subjects) with the Menippean genre. I think the former can be more usefully viewed as a sub-genre of the latter. They both use a similar approach – they both draw attention to surfaces, and in a playful way.

* * *

Thursday 10th March 2016. MA class at Birkbeck. This week we do David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion, his last book of stories. Some of it I find hard going, particularly his long, drawn-out sentences with endless clauses. Vonnegut’s advice to ‘pity the reader’ didn’t apply to DFW. The story about suicide, ‘Good Old Neon’ now has an unavoidable autobiographical side to it. Funny how Wallace satirised brand culture so much, yet he became such a recognisable brand himself, with the long hair, the Lennon glasses, and the Axl Rose bandana. It’s certainly a distinctive look for a novelist.

I watch the news of the US presidential campaigns, and I wonder how much of Donald Trump’s success is down to his strong look, too. I think about him and Boris Johnson, and wonder if it’s to do with funny blond hair and a sense of being from a different planet. People are now bombarded with so many images every day, only the odd-looking can truly leave an impression. Weirdness is now a platform in itself. In which case perhaps now is the best time to launch some sort of new public career for myself (not politics, though).

* * *

Friday 11th March 2016. To the Leicester Square Odeon, for one of the smaller screens hidden at the back of a branch of Costa. This is where all the new films in London go when they’ve been out for a while, just before they come out on DVD.

(going by adverts, DVDs are still being made and sold, despite the closure of many entertainment shops, and the rise of Netflix. The new poster for the Carol DVD advises you to buy it at Sainsbury’s).

Along with the Prince Charles and the Odeon Panton Street, the smaller section of the Leicester Square Odeon is a Last Chance Saloon for those who like cinemas. I’m keen to mop up the rest of this year’s Oscar-winning films, so I’m here to see The Danish Girl, for which Alicia Vikander won Best Supporting Actress. Justifiably so: she’s one of the best things about the film. She plays Gerda Wegener, a real-life bohemian painter in 1920s Copenhagen, whose husband Einar underwent one of the first examples of sex reassignment surgery, and became Lili Elbe. Though, as it’s been pointed out by those who know the full story, the film isn’t always faithful to the facts. The cause of Elbe’s death, for one, is rewritten to suit the film’s narrative arc.

There’s a promising scene early on, where Gerda is working at her canvas, with a cigarette holder clenched in her mouth. Despite this she is still able to deliver a lecture to her nervous male sitter on the importance of the female gaze. Ms Vikander’s performance in scenes like this is one of liveliness, individuality, humour and nuance. Mr Redmayne, meanwhile, goes through Elbe’s changes from husband to woman with one unchanging emotion: Pained Martyrdom. He means well, but does the acting equivalent of walking on eggshells, not so much overly mannered as overly self-conscious. I wonder if he was hampered by realising that the wider climate of trans issues has changed, that people want to see more trans actors in such roles, and that this whole film now feels curiously out of date. One working trans actor, Rebecca Root, has a small part in the film as a nurse. But even she has said in interviews that she hopes The Danish Girl will be the last major film about trans lives without a trans person in the lead. It’s an issue that isn’t going away.

This week also saw the public coming-out by the Matrix co-director Lilly Wachowski (after some odious doorstepping by the UK Daily Mail). Her co-directing sister Lana Wachowski transitioned a few years ago, and is listed in the Danish Girl credits for helping Eddie R with his performance. The trans journalist Paris Lees and the trans pioneer April Ashley were similarly brought on board. But of course, performance advice is not the same as writing the script or directing the whole film. April Ashley has since commented that Eddie R’s performance verges on a dated, pantomime idea of femininity: he ‘should not be dropping his eyelashes every two minutes’.

I’m convinced The Danish Girl will become as out-of-date as those early attempts by Hollywood to depict gay characters, such as the 1960s film The Children’s Hour. Back then, a pro-gay narrative could only be put before a mainstream audience if it meant scenes of emotional agony, tearful admission and an untimely death. Then as now, the road to compromise is paved with good intentions.

The film’s director is Tom Hooper, of The King’s Speech fame, which also rewrote history. But like The King’s Speech I have to admit The Danish Girl still works as a lavish and visually engaging costume drama. It does look wonderful, with its locations shot from very carefully composed angles, the better to resemble the paintings in the story.

* * *

Saturday 12th March 2016. To the Tate Modern for the exhibition Performing for the Camera. This has rather an ambitious brief: the relationship between photography and performance, from the invention of the camera to the present day. Even narrowing it down to images by artists must have been a headache. By its own nature it can only be a series of examples. The final room is so inevitable it curates itself: new artists who use selfies on Instagram to construct little fictional narratives. Cindy Sherman did the ‘fictional selfie’ thing much earlier, of course, and it’s good to see she’s given her due here. But it goes back to the 1920s too, with Claude Cahun’s androgynous self-portraits, and Duchamp in his drag persona, an image which made the cover of Mark Booth’s 80s book, Camp. Bowie was on the back.

I like the Yves Klein jumping-into-space photo, here presented with the two images it cunningly combined – one with Klein jumping above a gang of men holding a safety net, and one with an empty street. The join is utterly invisible, a 1960 version of Photoshop. It blurs the lines between illusion, hoax, and art. Elsewhere, Ai Weiwei drops a Han Dynasty vase, in three horrifying stages.

There’s lots of 80s Warhol here too. A 1986 copy of NME shows Warhol and Debbie Harry sitting with a home computer, for some reason (is one needed?). I love AW’s photo of Keith Haring body-painting Grace Jones. This is also a neat reference to the exhibition’s photos of Yves Klein’s 60s ‘happenings’, where women would roll around in paint as part of a public performance, while a string quartet played. Actually, going by this exhibition, 90% of 1960s happenings seemed to involve nudity.

The whole exhibition radiates with the idea that performing for the camera is essentially a fun thing to do, even when it’s art. The camera click still has the essence of novelty, whatever the age. For all Klein’s trickery, the creation of a posed photo is magic enough.


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You Are The Flashback

Wednesday 2nd March 2016. I listen to a Radio 4 documentary in the Archive on 4 slot: Skill, Stamina and Luck. It’s an account of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks of the 80s, and of the wider history of interactive fiction before and after them.

Pure nostalgic bliss for me, as I was an avid fan of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, 1982) and the many books that followed it, all published by Puffin Books. As the documentary points out, the books sold in huge amounts at the time, often beating Roald Dahl in the children’s bestseller charts.

In 1982, aged ten, I already knew that the ‘go to page 142’ format existed, what with the Choose Your Own Adventure series and others like it. I think the first one I encountered was a picture-based game book for small children, inspired by the maze scene in Jerome’s Three Men in A Boat, titled Three Men In A Maze (by Stephen Leslie, Transworld Publishers, 1977 – I have a copy today).

The Fighting Fantasy series was the first to add a proper gaming element, though, with dice to throw, battles to win, and SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK scores to maintain, each of these crucial words always in upper case. I wasn’t so keen on the battle side (and so never graduated to a Warhammer phase), and I was useless at painting Citadel Miniatures. But I loved making annotated paper maps of the little worlds in each of the books, with notes on how to solve them – ‘walkthroughs’ these would be called now. I was so proud of my map for Steve Jackson’s House of Hell (1984) that I sold copies of it to school friends.

One specific memory is queuing up at a Puffin Show at Chelsea Town Hall, April 1985, to get a signed copy of the latest title, Ian Livingstone’s Temple of Terror. They would always be called something like that: The Alliteration of Awfulness, The Preposition of Scary Noun, The Place of Stuff. I must have been first in the signing queue (such was my ardour), because I can distinctly remember Mr Livingstone telling me that Temple of Terror was not yet published, so I was getting the very first copy sold. I don’t think Temple of Terror was one of the classic titles, but if I’m ever called upon to reveal my Secret Geek Credentials, that’s my main card.

The Radio 4 documentary also revealed that there’s been a recent book on the history of Fighting Fantasy: You Are The Hero, by Jonathan Green. Part-funded by Kickstarter, naturellement. I’ve just treated myself to a copy, and am getting all kinds of Proustian rushes. ‘If you want to eat the madeleine cake, go to 24…’

* * *

Thursday 3rd March 2016. Evening: MA class at Gordon Square. This week’s novel is Erasure by Percival Everett. Quite hard to get hold of. The last UK edition from 2004 seems to be already out of print. Rather ironic, considering it’s a satire on literary ambition. In Everett’s story, a struggling black academic, raging in frustration at the absurdities of the world, deliberately writes a lurid, stereotypical ‘ghetto’ novel. This accidentally becomes a hit, forcing him to adopt a pseudonymous ex-convict persona in order to satisfy the public’s desire for the ‘real thing’ – as in their perception of ‘real’ blackness. Quite a timely week to do this book, given the controversy over the Oscars. Plenty of arguments with no easy conclusions, other than Everett’s book is impressive, and uproariously funny at times. He certainly deserves to be better known over here.

* * *

Friday 4th March 2016. To the ICA to see Hail Caesar! It’s the new Coen brothers film: one of their lighter, quirkier comedies in the style of Burn After Reading, as opposed to the darker likes of Fargo or No Country For Old Men. This one is set in the world of early 50s Hollywood, the era captured in That’s Entertainment, when actors’ whole lives were owned by studios, when fears of Communist threats were rife, and when mainstream films were at their most colourful and escapist. There’s extended clips from loving pastiches of such films, such as Esther Williams’s aquatic ballets, or Gene Kelly’s song-and-dance routines in sailor suits, or westerns that were really excuses for rodeo stunts and singing cowboys. George Clooney spends the whole film in his Roman centurion costume, having been kidnapped from the set of the title film, a lavish Biblical epic in the vein of The Robe.

Ralph Fiennes proves, again, that he really should do more comedy, while Tilda Swinton does her ice queen bit yet again, this time as a pair of identical twins turned rival gossip journalists. The plot is all very unlikely, and it does feel that it needs a rewrite to give it more of a sense of direction. But it also feels that to do so would mean cutting out so many enjoyable set pieces. In that sense, the film is a piece of indulgence, albeit made with the suspicion that the audience will be fine with such indulgence. Because it’s done as gleefully as this. I certainly enjoyed it.

* * *

Saturday 5th March 2016. To the House of Illustration in King’s Cross, for the exhibition Comix Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics. It’s billed as ‘the UK’s largest ever exhibition of the work of pioneering female comics artists’. The House of Illlustration’s main exhibition space comprises just three gallery rooms plus a video screening room, so expectations of ‘large’ do not initially spring to mind. But as is often the case with the HoI shows, each room is so crammed with comic art, with lots of shelves of graphic novels to pick up and browse, that the time needed to take it all in can’t be so different to a blockbuster Tate show.

The message of the exhibition is simple: women have made comics too, and there’s more female creators than one might think. But the show also posits the theory that all female creators contribute to a distinct role in culture, like Mother Earth: the ‘Creatrix’. What’s certainly true is that the show proves how women have drawn every possible genre of comics and sequential art, often with their gender kept quiet or even deliberately hidden (in that JK Rowling way of a girl’s name being thought to put off boy readers). Until today I hadn’t realised that the Victorian character Ally Sloper was co-created by a woman, Marie Duval.

Some favourites in the show: an account from the US Saturday Evening Post in 1960, describing the working day of Dalia ‘Dale’ Messick, creator of the 1940s strip Brenda Star – Reporter. ‘The hi–fi is on full blast… if the music is appropriate, she jumps up and does a rumba. In meditative periods, she chews gum with popping sound effects.’

I also enjoy the exhibits by Tove Jansson (pencils for a Moomins strip), Posy Simmonds (an original page for Tamara Drewe), a strip by Kate Beaton, and one by Laura Howell, a contributor to Viz. Ms Howell’s strip is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read in any medium: ‘Benjamin Britten and his Embittered Bitten’.

The only shortcoming is that other people seem to have finally found out about the HoI, so the rooms are much more crowded than they were at my last visit. Oh, the dilemma of wanting to tell the world about a favourite place, while hoping that not too many people actually listen to you and go there.

I once heard of a Time Out restaurant critic who said that a handful of really nice restaurants in London never made it into the magazine. The rumour went that the staff deliberately kept these heavenly places quiet, so that they could still secure a table. It’s like the way Jehovah’s Witnesses advertise a version of paradise that nevertheless only comes in a limited edition.

Thinking about it, Time Out is now like The Watchtower in another respect. Another free handout of suspicious provenance, one of the many unasked-for concoctions of staples and hope, thrust ceaselessly into the faces of commuters each evening, as they rush to catch the Tube to eternal damnation. Or Euston, as it’s currently known.


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How We Used To Swear

Sunday 21st February 2016. Tom’s birthday. I take him for lunch in Soho, at The Crown and Two Chairmen. Nut roast for me, fish and chips for him.  Tom’s a big Alan Partridge fan, so I’m also delighted to alert him to the new series of Mid Morning Matters, just released online (and how to view it gratis, via the ‘Now TV’ free trial). It’s pleasing that this now vintage comedy character can still be as funny as he was in the 1990s. The new series follows the classic sitcom tip of ‘less sit, more com’, where a fixed, claustrophobic location – a radio station’s studio – forces the writers to work harder at producing the jokes. Past examples of this are the Hancock episode where the characters are just sitting around at home, bored (‘Stone me, what a life’), or the similar Porridge episode (‘A Night In’). The format is even there in the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs, where the gangsters are in a café, simply bickering over trivial subjects. This set-up may be more theatre than TV or film, but can be all the better for it. I’m convinced that the full-length film Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa suffered from a need to crowbar in a cinematic, three-act story.

The new series of Mid Morning Matters still has plenty of plot; it’s just weaved into the dialogue as off-stage remarks. One detail is particularly up-to-date: at one point Partridge’s hapless co-presenter, Sidekick Simon, heads off to a job interview for a new website that ‘aggregates content’.

* * *

Monday 22nd February 2016. To the Birkbeck offices in Gordon Square for a meeting with my MA tutor, Grace H. We discuss my last essay. She advises me to take the option to submit my own question next time, rather than choose from the list. It seems I over-did the urge to say the things I wanted to say, rather than prioritise the question’s criteria. That said, I still came away with a distinction, so it’s not like I can’t tick the boxes as well.

* * *

Tuesday 23rd February 2016. Finishing my review of Eternal Troubadour, the new biography of Tiny Tim, for The Wire. One thing I cut for space is a reference to Bowie being called ‘the undisputed king of camp rock’ by Melody Maker in 1972, a term that ‘glam rock’ seems to have usurped. Six years earlier, the Red Bird offshoot label Blue Cat Records labelled a Tiny Tim single with the words ‘The Camp Rock Sound’.

Another favourite detail is the wording for a mid-60s poster, advertising a late-night bill that Tiny shared with Lenny Bruce: ‘Lenny Bruce Speaks For Money. Tiny Tim Sings For Love’.

Interesting to think of some novelty records as entryism. One-off curios to many, gateway drugs to some. As well as Tiny Tim’s ‘Tip-Toe Thru’ The Tulips With Me’ there’s Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’. Ms Anderson is a productive performance artist, successful across the decades, yet for a certain generation of pop fans she’s just a quirky one-hit singer. The phrase ‘best known for’ demands the taking up of one specific perspective. It can sometimes be an unfair one.

 

* * *

Thursday 25th February 2016. Evening: MA class at Birkbeck. This week it’s Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I bring in Andrew O’Hagan’s review from the London Review of Books, which manages to praise Franzen’s novel while calling some of its stylistic elements ‘show-offy’, with others ‘pure millennial bullshit’. I suppose that’s one way of being balanced.

Afterwards myself, the tutor Joe Brooker, and some of the students go to the IOE student union bar for a quick drink; a much-needed bout of socialising for me. I order a small pizza and offer it around. One of the students, Serena, is Italian. ‘You do know this isn’t very good pizza, don’t you,’ she says. I reply that I hardly expect a student union bar to offer the height of gourmet food, and I’m just hungry.

Serena then suggests some Italian-approved places where one can definitely get decent pizzas. There’s the chain Franco Manca,  Il Piccolo Diavolo in Crouch Hill, and – her favourite of all – Rossella in Kentish Town.

* * *

 

Saturday 27th February 2016. To a third-floor flat in a pleasant part of Bethnal Green, for the latest attempt at relieving my back pain. This time, it’s an offer from Ms Maud Young to use her bathtub, so I can try out soaking in Epsom salts. My own place only has access to a shower. I think the last time I had a bath must have been in a hotel, which would have been at least five years ago. Afterwards I top up this rare experience with another suggestion: some spray-on magnesium oil, which stings.

Two books lie by the cistern in this shared flat: Douglas Adams’s and John Lloyd’s Meaning of Liff, and Mythologies by Roland Barthes. Toilet books are an interesting genre, though probably not one I can study at postgraduate level. The Barthes is, of course, not a typical toilet book, though it does serve the function of being something one can dip into at random. Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, with its structure of random fragments, might be a similar recommendation for the more bookish lavatory.

The Meaning of Liff is a classic toilet book, though. With its dictionary-like observations on wry commonplace predicaments, it’s like a form of stand-up comedy, albeit one read sitting down. When it was first published in the 80s, it seemed just another jokey and disposable tome firmly aimed at the ‘Humour’ section of bookshops. A book to be filed alongside the Sloane Ranger’s Handbook, the Wicked Willy books, 101 Uses For A Dead Cat, and anything by Nigel Rees. Yet The Meaning of Liff has long survived the usual expiry date for such books. Perhaps the respect for Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide books helps.

I mention this because today I’m also perusing a brand new toilet book, Get in the Sea! It’s the spin-off of a popular Twitter account by the very sweary Andy Dawson (aka Mr Profanity Swan), in which the objectionable aspects of modern life are instructed to go and away, well, just get in the sea. It’s the ‘get in’ which makes it unique. The words seem an unexpectedly careful, even gentle approach to what is otherwise an angry expression of disgust. A touch of the King Canute too, which keeps the tone of the book jokey and self-deprecating, rather than actually nasty.

Predictably, some of these fashionable irritations I agree with (chuggers, poverty porn TV, Jeremy Clarkson), and some I don’t (online petitions, cereal cafes, and Benedict Cumberbatch, though I do like the idea that Cumberbatch is thought to have ‘a face like an anagram’). In one case I find myself to be someone who must get in the sea too, as I am one of the ‘people who don’t like sport’.

Despite its status as a toilet book of the moment, Get in the Sea! might be valuable in decades to come as a slice of 2016 attitudes, just as The Sloane Ranger’s Handbook must now be useful for studying the 1980s. It’s another form of How We Used To Live. And indeed, how we used to swear.


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The Basic Pleasure Model

Saturday 13th February 2016. To the British Library for the exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song. I allow an hour but it’s still not enough. This is something I forget is often the case with the big BL shows. The gallery numbers only a few rooms yet it’s always crammed full of intriguing displays, virtually all of them demanding careful consideration. As the staff usher the visitors out at 5pm, I glance in frustration at the items I have to miss, feeling somehow punished. It’s the last week of the show, too.

What I do see are craved Adinkra stamps from Ghana, used to hand-print symbols on fabric. One stamp is a star-like symbol, meant to ward off jealousy. The full translation is: ‘Someone’s wish is to see my doom’. All that in a star.

I’m also fascinated by a letter from Laurence Sterne to his friend Ignatius Sancho, the former slave turned London writer and composer. In 1766, while Tristram Shandy was published in serial form to huge acclaim, Sancho asked Sterne if he’d consider writing something to raise awareness of slavery. Sterne replied that, by a ‘strange coincidence’, the chapter of Shandy he’d just finished included ‘a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl.’

The novelist went on to affirm his solidarity: ‘If I can weave the Tale I have wrote into the Work I’m [about]— ‘tis at the service of the afflicted—and a much greater matter; for in serious truth, it casts a sad Shade upon the World, that so great a part of it, are and have been so long bound in chains of darkness & in Chains of Misery.’

When Sterne’s correspondence was published in 1775, it aided the anti-slavery campaign and made Sancho a literary celebrity. When he died, he was the first African to receive an obituary in the British press.

* * *

Sunday 14th February 2016. Valentine’s day. I enjoy an animated GIF of an elderly William Burroughs talking to Alan Ginsberg.

Ginsberg: Do you want to be loved?

Burroughs: Oh… (lugubrious pause) Not really…

I think I’ve seen the full clip in a documentary. Burroughs goes on to add, ‘By my cats, perhaps.’ I don’t believe his not wanting to be loved, but it’s a good answer.

I also learn that February 14th 2016 is the ‘inception’ day in Blade Runner for Pris, the blonde ‘basic pleasure model’ android. As played so wonderfully by Darryl Hannah. I like to think of myself as a ‘basic pleasure model’ too.

Evening: I watch the Film BAFTAs, hosted by Stephen Fry, now pretty much the British Oscars. The Revenant triumphs, with Leo DiCaprio taking Best Actor. A mistake, in my view. His character is barely a character at all. He’s more of a generic everyman that a couple of unkind things happen to. First an unkind bear, then an unkind Tom Hardy. As far I remember, most of his performance consists of grunting, wincing and looking pained. I get enough of that on the Northern Line.

* * *

Monday 15th February 2016. Modern priorities. The big news story on the electronic board at St Pancras is that Stephen Fry has left Twitter.

Apparently, his quip at the BAFTAs about the Best Costume Design winner looking like a ‘bag lady’ produced something of an angry reaction from people on Twitter. For Mr Fry it was the last straw, and he closed down his account.

I sympathise, having just re-read Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, now reissued with an extra chapter about the book’s reception. Essentially Ronson received Twitter attacks himself, for daring to call for empathy for people like Justine Sacco. Sacco was an American PR woman who posted a joke on Twitter, intended to mock ignorance over AIDS in Africa. Instead, it lost all context (context being the first casualty of social media). By itself, the tweet ended up looking like a straightforward racist joke. Thousands of people on Twitter roasted her alive. She was sacked from her job and spent a year rebuilding her reputation. Ronson’s book about showing compassion for such cases has now been seen by some – incredibly – as a defence of white privilege. Those who attacked Ms Sacco regard her as deserving of being ‘called out’. The trouble is, as the book puts it, ‘the snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche’.

This is what seems to have happened with Stephen Fry. Lots of people thinking that, because he’s in a position of privilege, he needs to be held to account for his public remarks. The problem is, Twitter can turn well-intentioned criticism into an out-of-control, disproportionate firestorm of raw hatred. People are not to blame: it’s really the fault of the medium. A virtual reality founded on a frustration of space – 140 characters at a time – can only engender a distortion of meaning. If I were firestormed with angry messages, I’d close my account too. Life’s too short.

* * *

Thursday 18th February 2016

Evening: seminar at Birkbeck on Jonathan Lethem’s inspired novel Motherless Brooklyn, about a detective with Tourette’s syndrome. We discuss it in relation to Sontag’s book Illness as a Metaphor. One essay on the Lethem book suggests Ian McEwan’s Saturday as an example of how not to do illness as a metaphor. McEwan’s hoodlum, Baxter, has a convenient neurological condition that screams ‘metaphor for violence!’ to the reader. Lethem’s protagonist, meanwhile, is a more fleshed-out character who is fully aware where his personality ends and his condition begins.

More interesting, though, is Lethem’s referencing of pop single remixes, such as the extended 12” version of Prince’s ‘Kiss’. His Tourette’s hero, Lionel Essrog, hears the extra minutes of the Prince remix as ‘a four minute catastrophe of chopping, grunting, hissing and slapping sounds… apparently designed as a private message of confirmation to my delighted Tourette’s brain… The nearest thing in art to my condition’. It’s like a healing version of American Psycho.

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Saturday 20th February 2016. The back pain persists. I go to a flat in King’s Cross to take up Ms Dorcas Pelling’s offer of massage therapy. This turns out to be a combination of reflexology, Swedish massage, deep tissue, and trigger point. Dorcas adds her voice to the conclusion of the osteopaths: muscular rather than spinal. Forty-four years of knotted tension. As I write this, I’m still very sore from the treatment. The pain of removing pain.


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