The Silence Of Christmas Sandwiches
Saturday 11th October 2014. I watch the new BBC documentary about Genesis, mainly because I’m curious about their 1970s prog-rock phase. Fittingly, the documentary goes on a bit.
* * *
Monday 13th October 2014. Modern signs of the seasons. In their grab-for-lunch fridge section today, Boots are stocking their Christmas ranges. Red cardboard packaging with snowflake motifs. I note how fine I am with this sort of thing, mainly because it’s not accompanied with in-store festive music – yet. It’s only unrequested noise that really depresses. Thus I come away from Boots praising the silence of sandwiches.
I am trying out some organic remedies for anxiety. One is rubbing warm sesame oil onto the skin. I duly give it a go, and spend the rest of the day smelling like a Chinese takeaway.
* * *
Tuesday 14th October 2014. There’s a popular Internet catchphrase, ‘You had one job’. It’s often appended to photographs of badly installed doors, lavatories, and so on. Tonight I find myself saying it while watching the BBC’s live TV coverage of the Booker Prize ceremony. Within a half hour programme of comment and preamble, a technical hitch means they miss the actual announcement. Instead the camera stays on poor Andrew Motion in emergency pundit mode, forced to fill for time with comments on the various nominees. At this point, it’s not what he says that matters, it’s only that he says something. It’s not the worse BBC Booker slip-up, though. That has to be the time in the 80s when Selina Scott not only failed to recognise one of the judges, Angela Carter, she also asked her what her favourite one on the list was. ‘You’re not supposed to ask me that,’ said Ms Carter.
More recently, Howard Jacobson’s acceptance speech was cut off by the BBC News channel in mid-sentence. This was in order to go live to the trapped Chilean miners, where something was said to be happening. It wasn’t.
* * *
Tonight’s Birkbeck class (Joe Brooker teaching): Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. From 1909, yet still so fresh in its experimentation. I find some of the repetition hard going, but come to admire its dedication to new takes on form and subject matter. Stein’s layered rhythms take some getting used to, but then the same is said of David Peace now. ‘You can’t lose yourself in it’ remarks one student.
* * *
Wednesday 15th October 2014. Tonight’s class: Brideshead Revisited. Roger Luckhurst teaching. A nice contrast to the previous night. Decades later than Stein, yet such a throwback in style. And a throwback for many of Waugh’s admirers, too. Its wistful love of the aristocracy still provokes, just as it did on publication. Yet it was a hit with the book buyers of the 1940s. Professor L suggests that the popularity of the 1980s TV series may have had something to do with the gloom of Thatcherism at the time. An understandable response, just as Waugh’s novel was his understandable response to WW2.
Prof L also recounts how a fellow tutor was appalled at having to teach the book on another module. ‘You’ve reminded me who the enemy are.’
I suppose in theory I should be against it too. Yet the wit and craft of his writing sparkles and connects. Universal sentiments, despite all the elitism. Certainly Waugh himself was often snobbish and misanthropic in his interviews – but then much of the time he was something of a wind-up merchant. There’s a Paris Review piece where he insists on getting into his pyjamas and doing the interview in the hotel bed, smoking a cigar. When the interviewer asks him to comment on something by Edmund Wilson. Waugh replies, ‘Is he an American?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I don’t think what they have to say is of much interest, do you?’
* * *
Thursday 16th October 2014. In the British Library, very much a welcoming oasis for those with laptop lives, with its free wifi, pleasant atmosphere and lack of piped music. The BL has now somehow squeezed dozens of attractive new study tables into its lobby and café areas, thus freeing up more desks in the reading rooms for those who actually need to consult the BL’s books. Certainly the Rare Books Reading Room seems quieter than it has been. The new lobby tables are packed for much of the day. I look out at them: a sea of faces all lit by the glow of their respective screens. Life in 2014. Footlight faces.
I read a lecture by Shirley Jackson. It’s on the response to her short story, ‘The Lottery’, upon its publication by the New Yorker in 1948. She received hundreds of scathing letters, including one from her mother. ‘It does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?’
* * *
Friday 17th October 2014. To the East Finchley Phoenix for Effie Gray, the new Emma Thompson-scripted period drama. It’s pretty to look at, and the true story it tells is fascinating enough, but somehow it feels cold and unengaging. Maybe that’s the fault of the story in question, being the coldness of the marriage between art critic John Ruskin and nineteen-year old Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray. Ruskin was about thirty at the time, though in this film he seems much older. I wonder if this was a deliberate move to play up the age difference, because it’s certainly accentuated by a flashback scene, with Ruskin taking an even younger Effie around a museum. There’s hints of a Lewis Carroll theory here – Ruskin had known Effie since she was twelve and even wrote a fairy tale for her, The King of the Golden River. The film also begins with Effie retelling her marriage aloud as if that were a fairy tale. A few minutes in we get the expected wedding night scene, where Ruskin is appalled by his wife’s naked body. Although Emma T seems unwilling to subscribe to the theories as to which specific body parts put him off, for me the film suggests it was her whole adulthood that appalled him. The rest of the film is essentially her moping around unhappily, if immaculately in picturesque settings, particularly Venice and rural Scotland. The casting of Dakota Fanning is perfect. At times she resembles the saddest yet best dressed doll in the shop, at others like she’s just walked out of a Holman Hunt.
The film’s poster has been all over the walls of Tube stations lately. It is slightly misleading, as it juxtaposes Ms Fanning next to Millais’s masterpiece Ophelia, familiar to any visitor of the Tate Britain. This might make people think Effie was that painting’s model. Millais himself is in the film all right – as a better lover for Effie – but there’s no direct reference to the painting other than in a montage of Pre-Raphaelite hits. Perhaps a mention of its true model, Lizzie Siddall, would have been too much for the story. After all, Ms Siddall had a pretty interesting life herself – doubtless to be covered in another film sometime.
There seems to be no shortage of art biopics. Tonight’s screening comes after a trailer for Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, with Timothy Spall as the shimmery dauber. And there in the trailer is another version of John Ruskin. Sibelius is meant to have said, ‘No one ever erected a statue to a critic’. But they certainly put them into films.
Effie Gray had to fend off lawsuits from other writers, who apparently had similar ideas for adapting the tale. There’s no ending to the interest in flawed fame. In the credits, I notice that Young Effy is played by Tiger Lily Hutchence, the daughter of Paula Yates and Michael Hutchence. She must certainly know something about private lives becoming public narratives.
Tags: booker prize
, brideshead revisited
, British Library
, effie gray
, evelyn waugh
, gertrude stein
, shirley jackson
, three lives
On Being A Harbinger Of Grayson Perry
Saturday 4th October 2014.
To the Conway Hall in Holborn for a spot of DJ-ing. It’s Suzette Field’s Black and White Masked Ball, inspired by Truman Capote’s 1966 party (a party which has its own Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_and_White_Ball).
There’s a strict dress code of black and white colours only. I don my chalk white suit, freshly cleaned. Ms Shanthi meets me at the event, and says I look like an advert for Daz Automatic. There’s several rooms packed with dancing, arty bands and cabaret acts, plus there’s an oversized chess game. Naked stewards walk around offering plates of food, their body paint conforming to the rules. They literally are wearing only black and white. I’m impressed that the punkish marching band Perhaps Contraption have eschewed their bespoke yellow and plum uniforms for some one-off black and white apparel. Their spiky-haired glockenspieliste and co-vocalist Felicity is in a stunning white ballgown. I play my usual mix of 1920s jazzy pop, easy listening, showtunes and anything else that fits the moment. It’s a joy watching a room full of such beautifully dressed up people dance and indeed strut to my hopeful selections.
* * *
Sunday 5th October 2014. I write a presentation script on literary camp for college, and put together Powerpoint slides to go with it. I do this at home while standing up at my desk. This is partly because I have to keep referring to books from my bookcase, but mostly because I’m restless. Not sure if lectern-style writing is better, but it certainly feels healthier. I am also a great lover of frequently getting up to pace around the desk, which is only really acceptable in the privacy of one’s home. If I tried that in a library, it would only be a matter of time before other members set fire to me.
To the ICA for Tony Benn: Last Will and Testament. It’s billed as a documentary, but is better described as a fond memorial. There’s certainly no critical voices explaining just why some newspapers called Mr Benn ‘dangerous’ or ‘evil’ or even in one case, ‘werewolf’ (?). But then, there’s no other voices full stop: this is entirely narrated by Benn himself, who took part in the film’s making before he died. Regardless of one’s political views, the film is an excellent whistle-stop through decades of British political and social change, from the 1940s till Mrs Thatcher’s funeral last year. It also uses emotive scenes from archive news footage and even from other films, such as Brassed Off (captioned as Benn’s favourite), and Network, for Ned Beatty’s speech about there being ‘no more countries, only companies’. I’m delighted by the inclusion of shots of the Sailors’ Reading Room in Southwold, along with the beach huts. The Reading Room now reminds me not just of my own regular visits there with Mum and Dad since the 80s, but also of Sebald’s Rings Of Saturn.
Tony Benn’s analogy for the old House Of Lords. ‘It’s like your dentist saying, “I’m not really qualified for this, but my dad did it.”’
* * *
Monday 6th October 2014. I finish a short story I’ve been chewing over all summer. It’s called ‘Forova, Not Found’ and features a Tube station theme bar in Tangier (which exists and which I’ve been to), a Moroccan Amy Winehouse impersonator and Wilde’s Dorian Gray. The story is a response to a piece of art by Eleanor Bedlow. I’m pleased with it. I need to write more fiction. Editing fiction is the real pleasure: watching themes emerge naturally, then nudging them into place. A form of gardening, really.
* * *
Tuesday 7th October 2014. Autumn temperatures at last. I take the cream linen suit to be cleaned for the last time this year, and slip back into my dark ensembles. It’s my version of putting the clocks back.
Back to Birkbeck for the first classes of the final year of the degree. Henry James’s ‘The Jolly Corner’ kicks off the course on US modern literature, while a lecture by Roger Luckhurst begins my Post-War UK module. This is the shape of my Tuesday and Wednesday evenings from now till next May. I also have to work on my year-long thesis, which has the working title of ‘The Satirical Usage of Camp in Twenty-First Century Fiction.’ As well as defining literary camp (via Sontag etc), I’m discussing three texts: a camp moment in Alan Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty, a camp main character in James Hamilton-Paterson’s Cooking With Fernet Branca, and a camp narrative style in Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. Fairly confident about it, as long as I can keep it academically rigorous, as they say in the classroom.
* * *
Thursday 9th October 2014
Grayson Perry is in the news for writing a provocative essay in the New Statesman. It’s about how middle-class, white straight men are still dominating UK culture, and how this needs to change. He uses the term ‘Default Man’, which he says he’s invented. In fact, I was bandying it about in my diary ten years ago. There’s evidence in this old entry from 2004 (if one scrolls down past the whining about my health): http://www.dickonedwards.com/diary/index.php/archive/this-is-dickon-edwards/
Admittedly, I only coined it in a spirit of flouncy cattiness, and certainly didn’t extend it into a sociological proposal. Still, it’s amusing to see the phrase getting such prominence all these years later.
* * *
To the British Library for its latest big exhibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. It covers everything under the G-word from Walpole’s Castle of Otranto to a set of Martin Parr photographs taken at this year’s Whitby Goth Weekend – the latter being typically vivid portraits of ways to be British. So many treasures on show. My favourites are: the manuscripts of Frankenstein and Jane Eyre, a Jan Svankmajer film on Otranto, a vintage cardboard model of Fonthill Abbey, the ‘horrid’ novels from Austen’s Northanger Abbey all lined up in their own case, a Victorian alarm clock in the shape of a skeleton riding a coffin, a ‘Dear Boss’ letter from the Ripper case, a calling card from Oscar Wilde in exile, when he was ‘Sebastian Melmoth’, manuscripts for both Clive Barker’s Hellraiser script and its source novella The Hellbound Heart, and a manuscript of Angela Carter’s ‘The Company of Wolves’, as in the original story.
I note how some works are Goth-Compatible rather than only Gothic. Kate Bush’s song ‘Wuthering Heights’ is quoted in the section on the Brontes, for instance. In terms of modern Goth-Compatible literary ficition, there’s Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. To go with the exhibition, the British Library shop sells moustache wax, razorblade cufflinks, and – inevitably – black nail varnish.
* * *
I’ve had my blond hair cut off. It’s to give my roots a chance to breathe before the next round of peroxide. So today I have dark brown, very short hair. I like to think this means I’ll get fewer than usual catcalls. I like to think I even look more normal. But I hadn’t reckoned to something else that might invite comment from those who insist on offering it – my voice.
On the tube. An older, slightly grizzled-looking man gets on, sits down, and immediately starts talking to – or more accurately, at – the man next to him and the woman opposite him. I’m standing by those perches near the door, and have my earphones in, but I can tell he’s being humoured by these suddenly besieged passengers. They smirk demurely back. At the next stop, the man he sat next to gets up and leaves. The chatty older fellow then nods to me. I take out an earphone.
He says, ‘do you want to sit next to me, now?’
‘I’m fine here, thanks,’ I say.
Except I only get two words into the sentence when he suddenly puts out his hand, pulls a 1970s limp-wristed ‘teapot’ gesture, affects the attendant effeminate voice, and shouts ‘OH! He-LLOOOO!’ And he does this to the whole carriage, rather than to me.
I burst into laughter. Central London, 2014. No different to a Suffolk playground, 1980.
There was a time when this sort of thing used to upset me. Now I think to myself, ‘Still got it!’
Tags: black and white ball
, British Library
, conway hall
, default man
, eleanor bedlow
, forova not found
, grayson perry
, suzette field
, terror and wonder
, tony benn
You Stay, You Paint
Saturday 27th September 2014. A day trip to Charleston Farmhouse, in Sussex. I’d been meaning to go for ages, given I spend so much time mooching around the Bloomsbury Set’s city haunts in actual Bloomsbury. Charleston was ostensibly the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant from 1916, but in practice it became the whole group’s countryside retreat. I’m fond of two particular facts about its story. One is that it was discovered by Virginia and Leonard Woolf while they were walking across the Sussex Downs. The other is that a farmhouse was a practical choice as much as a romantic one. Duncan Grant and David Garnett were conscientious objectors in WW1, so they needed to be in jobs that could exempt them from fighting. It was a choice between mining or farming.
This week Charleston plays host to the Small Wonder literary festival, ‘The Short Story Festival’ as it bills itself. Seven days of events connected with the short story form. Despite being out of the way and focussing on a type of fiction that rarely sells many books, the festival is very busy. Slightly more women than men. There are free shuttle buses to Lewes station, but most people seem to come by car. I’m here to attend one particular event: a discussion on the BBC National Short Story Award. It features two of the judges, Di Speirs and Philip Gwyn Jones, along with two of the shortlisted writers, who turn out to be Lionel Shriver and Tessa Hadley. Although I wasn’t so keen on her story, I’m captivated by Ms Shriver’s performance today when she airs an excerpt. She pauses in the all right places, and looks up at the crowd at all the right times – and so steely-eyed, too. Tessa H makes the observation that there isn’t a UK equivalent of the New Yorker, ie a newsstand-style magazine that regularly includes literary short stories. It’s true. I wonder why.
Small Wonder is entirely contained in two barns next to the house. One is for the actual events, while the other manages to house the box office, bar, bookshop and lounge area. The other barns are still in use as part of a working farm. I only discover this when Ms Shriver is briefly interrupted by loud mooing.
The Charleston house itself can only be visited by going on a guided tour, so that’s what I do while I’m there. It is such a unique attraction. Site-specific art is everywhere. Every possible surface has been painted, not just by Grant or one of the Bells, but by anyone who was staying in the house at the time. You stay, you paint. Walls, bathtubs, bed-boards, even box files are decorated. And that’s before you get to the paintings. One Vanessa Bell canvas is titled ’46 Gordon Square’. It is a view any student at Birkbeck School of Arts is familiar with: the east side of the square as seen from one of the windows. Charleston’s walled garden is full of colourful flower beds, mosaic pavements, tidy ponds and elegant statuary, my favourite being Quentin Bell’s ‘Levitating Lady’.
Earlier, I’d glimpsed some modern levitation, from the window of the train into Lewes. A paraglider over the Downs, their dot of a chair suspended against the green hills. At Charleston, I ask one of the other visitors about the difference between hang gliding and paragliding. ‘Hang gliding is where you hang. Paragliding is where you have a nice sit down.’
The merchandise at Charleston’s shop includes Virginia Woolf mouse-mats, along with cotton stockings of the sort worn by V & V. You too can have legs like Virginia’s.
* * *
Sunday 28th September 2014. Occasionally I like to battle through the Sunday Times in paper form, though I feel guilty about the amount of waste it entails. A certain amount of gutting is always necessary too: out goes the Sports supplement, out goes Travel and Property. Worlds not meant for the likes of me. Sunday papers have their own bubble of affluence. Despite all the coverage of writers going unpaid, here is a Wilbur Smith interview where he says his novels earn him more than one million pounds a year (‘an average year for me’). I wince at an instance of my least favourite word, ‘famously’. Today it’s ‘Ed Sheeran’s famously arduous work rate’.
I peruse the Bestseller lists. Always fascinating to see what people are buying to read, though they still don’t allow for e-book sales. Ian Rankin is at Number One. Lee Child and Ken Follett shifting suitably butch amounts of their hardbacks. Jeffrey Archer still sells by the truckload. The biggest novel of the year so far is a title for teens (or Young Adults, rather): The Fault In Our Stars.
Kate Mosse has a novel out called The Taxidermist’s Daughter. It has the same title as my favourite entry in this year’s BBC NSSA, by Francesca Rhydderch. I suppose you wait ages for a story about a taxidermist’s daughter, then two come along at once.
* * *
The immortality of innuendo. I walk through Covent Garden. A juggler is entertaining a large crowd. I only hear one line of his routine: ‘I’m now going to ask this beautiful lady to hold my balls.’ He must have said it a thousand times before, and indeed it must have been said by a thousand jugglers before him. But the crowd laughs, and I smirk as I pass through.
* * *
Monday 29th September 2014. Term begins. All the BA English students have a one-off ‘induction lecture’, this year by Isabel Davis. It’s on the medieval Apocalypse, by way of Chaucer. We’re not expected to be tested on the lecture. It’s more a kind of warm-up, helping the students get used to going to lectures on literature again, and indeed helping them find their way around the labyrinth of the School of Arts. I still end up getting lost, and it’s my fourth year.
Afterwards: drinks in the Keynes Library upstairs. Pleasingly, the room has some Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant paintings of scenes at Charleston, views which I’ve now been to see in person. What with seeing a painting of a Gordon Square room hanging at Charleston, I feel like I’ve returned from the other side of a mirror.
* * *
Tuesday 30th September 2014. The NSSA winner is announced on the BBC’s Front Row programme. Lionel Shriver wins, with Zadie Smith second. Ms Smith was my second choice too, so I’m half happy. I suspect the Shriver won because of the way it compresses a whole life, rather than dips into an episode. I still think ‘The Taxidermist’s Daughter’ did more with the form, though.
* * *
Wednesday 1st October 2014. To the Crouch End Arthouse for Stephen Fry Live: More Fool Me. Like Charleston, I combine an event with a visit to a place on the To Do list. Crouch End is fairly near me, but it’s still a 25 minute walk – and only a walk, so I tend to favour the East Finchley Phoenix as my local cinema. The Arthouse is the former Music Palace on Tottenham Lane – I once attended a wedding party there. Before then it was a Salvation Army Hall. Now it’s been cut up into a lively warren of little rooms, including a foyer-cum-bar (which sales tiramisu ice cream), a main cinema room (tonight showing Pride), and a live space which doubles as a second screening room. The latter is where the Stephen Fry show is shown. Watching a live show in a cinema is no longer a novelty, but I think this is the first time a live book launch has been broadcast in the same way.
It turns out to be simple enough: Stephen Fry, on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall, talking for 90 minutes about his latest memoir, More Fool Me. No Q & A, no interviewer, no slide show. Apart from a section where he reads from the book at a lectern, Mr Fry paces the stage without a script. He unleashes a seamless flow of anecdotes, memories, quotations, musings on his beliefs, a few QI-style facts, and a crash course in how to do different accents (my favourite being the Australian Heartburn accent – a constant – gulp – stifling – gulp – of a burp). He really is a perfect raconteur, in the old fashioned sense.
* * *
Friday 3rd October 2014. Incredibly, a literary short story collection is in WH Smith’s Top 10 today. It’s Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Two grand dames for the price of one.
Still hot and sunny. Still plenty of flip-flops in the city.
Tags: arthouse crouch end
, bbc na
, BBC National Short Story Award
, bloomsbury group
, Francesca Rhydderch
, lionel shriver
, stephen fry
, zadie smith
A Pop-Up War
Saturday 20th September 2014.
The last week of the summer holiday at last. This year’s new students are moving into Bloomsbury. Torrington Square is packed with food marquees serving hordes of eager young things. For them it’s the week of Fresher’s events, halls of residence, tours of the campus, induction parties, and queues to register for library cards at Senate House. On display are vivid experiments with dyes and beards, despite the changing fashions. Always the girls with oddly coloured hair lying on grass, lost in books. Always the flamingo-legged boys running in packs and shouting ‘OY!’ to each other, looking to belong. Oh, the eternal ‘OY!’. The trees and the college blocks shrug and watch over them all, welcoming. Continuity. Life. And yes, peace. One must never underestimate that.
* * *
Sunday 21st September 2014.
I’m reading a lot of short stories this week, particularly the five in the shortlist for this year’s BBC National Short Story Award.
Of these, Lionel Shriver’s ‘Kilifi Creek’ has some interesting musings on near-death experiences, coupled with another selfish and unlikeable protagonist (as per We Need To Talk About Kevin). Rose Tremain’s ‘The American Lover’ is a straightforward affair tale, though still a moving one. Tessa Hadley’s ‘Bad Dreams’ is more a scene than a story, though I like the idea of dreaming that a book has a secret chapter. If I were judging, I’d give second prize to Zadie Smith’s ‘Miss Adele Amidst The Corsets’, for its camp title, its gender exploration, and its acknowledgement of the modern world (it mentions Obama, apps and ‘googling’ in the lower case). First prize would go to Francesca Rhydderch’s ‘The Taxidermist’s Daughter’, which manages to bring in poetic details about the art of taxidermy, plenty of witty symbolism, a touch of modernist narration, and an inspired text-within-the-text moment. And it’s a proper story too, rather than a scene or an encounter or a musing. The winner is announced on Radio 4, the evening of Tuesday 30th. If the Shriver or the Tremain wins, I will be cross. I suppose this is my form of World Cup.
Other stories I read this week: Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ (an impulse buy, as Penguin Classics have put out a 99p stand-alone edition), Jean Cocteau’s only short story ‘The Phantom of Marseilles’, Angela Carter’s ‘Reflections’ and ‘Puss In Boots’, and Ronald Firbank’s ‘A Tragedy In Green’. ‘The Lottery’ is still as shocking as ever – I suppose these days it can lend itself to interpretations of religious fundamentalism. I like Cocteau’s story of a beautiful cross-dressing criminal, though I prefer the monologue version he wrote for Edith Piaf. In the 80s, Judi Dench performed an English translation on the radio, which I find in Oberon Books’s Thirteen Monologues.
The Carter tales still dazzle. ‘Reflections’ is startling and ambitious, ‘Puss In Boots’ is an outrageous and entertaining romp. Firbank’s early story, meanwhile, is a curious hybrid of his novel style with a touch of Saki-esque twisted fantasy. AS Byatt includes it in The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, one of my favourite anthologies.
* * *
Monday 22nd September 2014. I’m browsing in Paperchase, Tottenham Court Road. This year’s Christmas cards are out. One design has a London skyline, with the usual snow picked out in glitter. Present and correct is St Pauls, the Tower of London, and Big Ben. But there’s also the Gherkin, the Millennium Wheel, and – surely making its debut on a Christmas card – the Shard.
* * *
Tuesday 23rd September 2014.
I try an experiment in reading. I time myself reading books on Kindle, versus the paperback versions. The result: I read a book faster, and I take more in, if it’s on paper.
Amazon has just announced a new range of Kindles this week. All of them are heavier than the 2011 model I have now. Given one central attraction of ebook readers is to save weight when travelling (especially on holiday), this seems a disastrous move. No need for me to upgrade, then.
I still do not own a tablet device or a smartphone. I still buy and send postcards.
* * *
Wednesday 24th September 2014.
To the new Selfridges cinema for Magic in the Moonlight, the latest Woody Allen. The cinema is run by the Everyman chain. It’s been advertised as the first in the world to operate inside a department store, though when I ask the staff (who are very charming), it turns out it’s only a six month ‘pop-up shop’, ie intentionally temporary. This is one of those worrying new phrases which hint at an ever more uncertain and insubstantial world. Another is ‘zero hour contract’. Regardless, I rather like this pop-up cinema, with its little Hollywood canopy and red carpet at its entrance, all enclosed within the store’s basement. Inside there’s a bar and a lounge, though one has to go out into the main store for the toilets. In the screening room there’s 60 seats in the ‘boutique cinema’ style – a mix of sofas and armchairs with scatter cushions, little tables for drinks and popcorn, and a couple of spherical 1960s den seats at the back.
Magic in the Moonlight certainly suits this cinema in aesthetic terms. It’s set in an idealised, nostalgic 1920s world, nodding to a little of Scott Fitzgerald and a lot of Agatha Christie. Cue shots of pretty locations in the south of France, pretty people who are all pretty rich, pretty vintage cars and clothes, and the requisite Charleston dances. Colin Firth grumbles his way through the film as a sceptical stage magician, investigating a young woman’s seemingly genuine powers of clairvoyance. The girl in question is Emma Stone, an ethereal and doll-like actress with the kind of saucer-sized eyes reminiscent of the young Mia Farrow – no surprises there. Like many of the recent Allen films, there’s a strangely stilted feel to the dialogue and direction, as if he is just eager to get the script shot then move on. But the mystery of Ms Stone’s powers is enough to keep me interested. That and the visuals.
* * *
Thursday 25th September 2014.
Jason Orange leaves Take That. What I always admired about him is that after the first splitting up, he enrolled at a college and continued his education. English A-Level, too. The other four never went beyond GCSEs. That said, I admit this says rather more about me than it does about them. And it’s a sign of what I particularly believe in today, ie that a return to education is a good idea de facto. Whoever you are.
* * *
Friday 26th September 2014.
The majority of MPs support the UK’s bombing of Iraq yet again, this time against Islamic State. 43 MPs oppose the motion, including the Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas. ‘I know that when I stand up and oppose the Government’s motion, I am representing the views of many,’ she writes on the GP website. I may not be in her constituency, but on this issue she represents mine. I know the IS situation needs a solution. But a pop-up war, like a pop-up shop, can only add more uncertainty to the world.
Tags: BBC National Short Story Award
, caroline lucas
, Francesca Rhydderch
, Green Party
, jason orange
, magic in the moonlight
, selfridges cinema
, woody allen
Propaganda For Compassion
Saturday 13th September 2014. To the Phoenix cinema for Pride. This evening screening is nearly sold out; such is the film’s reputation. It’s been sold as the must-see British film of the moment, and promises something to please everyone. It’s very funny and moving, and that’s just Dominic West’s perm.
Despite the theme of gay activism, the film is very much aimed at the mainstream. I think of Quentin Crisp in the 1970s, grateful that The Naked Civil Servant was a TV film, because a big screen version would, he said, have only been seen by gay men, ‘plus liberals wishing to be seen going into and coming out of the cinema’. Times have changed, and gay people are now more regarded – at least in Britain – as people who happen to be gay, and are finally allowed to have other aspects to their lives as well. So it’s fairer to regard Pride as part of the same genre as Brassed Off, Billy Elliot, The Full Monty and especially Made In Dagenham: gritty tales of British social struggles sweetened with broad laughs and big emotional moments. Pride retells a number of true events from 1984, when a group of gay activists from London got involved in supporting the striking miners in Wales.
The requisite 1980s clothes, hair and pop music are all in place: lots of quiffs, little hats, and blue jeans with turn-ups at the bottom. In fact, looking at young people in London today, that particular trouser statement is starting to, well, turn up again. It’s also heartening to see the Gay’s The Word bookshop in Bloomsbury having a key role in the film – I only hope that people who enjoy Pride realise that the shop is still going strong today.
Inevitably some historical facts are played with: entirely fictional characters interact with those based on real people, while my pedantic side winces at the use of the AIDS ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ TV adverts for a scene set in 1984. They didn’t appear till two years later. But when the big emotional moments come, and the music swells on cue, the sense of earning the right to such manipulation is overwhelming. It’s hard to disagree with propaganda, if all that’s being preached is the need for basic compassion.
And there’s nothing like the sound of a packed audience laughing together at funny lines in a film. As the credits go up, this audience applauds.
* * *
Monday 15th September 2014. Advice for writers from Kipling: ‘Drift, wait, and obey.’
* * *
I feel increasingly non-everyman. I wince at non-fiction writing that uses ‘we’ and ‘you’, passing off the writer as some sort of default point of view. I wouldn’t dream of such an assumption. Which is why I can’t do that kind of work.
I don’t write to join in. I write to make sense of my own thoughts, then publish them in the hope they make a connection with the mind of a reader. I can’t speak for my generation, my class, my gender, my country, my race, my historical era, or even for writers.
From this somewhat self-sabotaging stance, the hope is that what I write might be unique. The fear is that it might be irrelevant.
* * *
Thursday 18th September 2014. What happiness means. I am sitting on the floor in a corner of a large library (Senate House today), pulling out several books at once and leafing through them on the spot, rather than taking them to a desk. Some are quite old (today it’s a 1950s four volume edition of The Arabian Nights). No one is bothering me. I am not in anyone’s way. There are no screens or phones about. I think about the people who have turned these pages since the 50s, and those who have walked this floor since the 30s. The silence hangs and comforts.
* * *
Friday 19th September 2014. I wake to the news that the people of Scotland have voted a firm No to independence. I think this is a shame. A Yes result would at least have blown the cobwebs off so many centuries-old situations and systems, and that would have been no bad thing. Still, Mr Cameron has promised all kinds of new governing powers to the Scots by way of a thank you, and the referendum has triggered the start of an ongoing discourse over what nationhood means. What I found particularly uplifting was the huge turnout for voters up in Scotland, particularly amongst the young. I do hope this is the start of a new trend: more people using their vote. Perhaps even Russell Brand – who advocates non-voting – might admit he is wrong about something. That would be a new dawn indeed.
* * *
It’s a warm and sunny day, possibly the dying gasp of summer. Still a few flip-flop wearers about. I go to Camden to see the new Amy Winehouse statue. On the way, I stop off in Camden Square to see the older, more unofficial memorial: the decorated trees near her old house. Fresh messages and little gifts are still tied to the trunks, just as they’ve been since she died three years ago. One offering is a silver eyelash curler. A girl from Paris has included photos of herself in her laminated letter, dated a few weeks ago: her hair and make-up clearly emulating Ms Winehouse’s. ‘Amy Winehouse We Love You’ is scrawled over a nearby council sign, battling with the printed phrase ‘Clean Up After Your Dog’. As I walk on, I realise I’ve trodden in some dog shit.
It takes me fifteen minutes to walk to Camden Town proper. Here people from all over the world can be seen united in a single activity: eating cheap noodles from tinfoil tubs. The generations come and go, but Camden’s t-shirt stalls are clocks to consult for the pop culture of the day. Today I spot a t-shirt for Breaking Bad.
I find the Winehouse statue in Staples Market. It’s on a semi-circular sunken dais behind the Proud Camden building. This dais in turn juts over the lower ground level, so the statue looks like she’s performing onstage. The figure is close to the ground rather than on a plinth, and as she is more or less life-size she has a Madame Tussaud’s quality. More tourist attraction than memorial. You can put your arm around her, should you wish. In fact, I’m guessing this is the intention. And yet the tourists I see around me today seem hesitant to get too near. They take photos, but do not include themselves in the shot. I wonder if this is because it’s so new (installed September 14th), or if they feel too self-conscious, what with it being so conspicuous and public. Still, there’s some tidy bouquets at her feet, and with a letter of love from someone in Barcelona. The stature is grey except for a red rose in her beehive hairdo. The rose turns out to be real; it’s up to others to replace it. She would have been 31 this week.
Tags: amy winehouse
, gay's the word
, pride the movie
, scottish referendum
Rise Of The Floating Yodas
Saturday 6th September 2014.
I spend a day in town with Mum, meeting her off the 1031 train at Liverpool Street. We manage to pack in two exhibitions and one major art installation, along with lunch (stir fried tofu for two on the terrace of the British Library’s restaurant, with hardly anyone else about). First up is the Quentin Blake show at the House of Illustration, one of the buildings in the new Granary Square development, north of King’s Cross station. Like the station itself, the development is an impressive mix of Victorian buildings tidied up and put to new use, alongside scatterings of new architecture: the astroturf steps by the canal, and the matrix of pavement fountains, with their multi-coloured lights.
We investigate the viewing platform set up opposite the square. The usual aluminium panels denoting which building is which are covered in angry comments, scrawled in black ink. Everything in sight is attacked: ‘ugly!’, ‘terrible idea!’, ‘waste of space!’, ‘waste of money!’ The anonymous writer even accuses the sign of getting its facts wrong: ‘NO! That’s on the LEFT, not the RIGHT!’ I check the skyline. The sign is perfectly correct.
I can’t help thinking this is a real-life effect of the vogue to leave angry comments under every piece of information on the internet, and as a matter of course, too. The implied message really being ‘I exist and I am lonely and I want to matter.’ Or put more simply, ‘I troll therefore I am’.
Mum, however, does like Granary Square. She daringly adds her own comment to the graffiti – though she’s careful to do so in pencil: ‘Nonsense! Think positive! Be a Polyanna, not an Eeyore!’
[On Friday the 12th I revisit the viewing platform. The sign is now wiped clean of any graffiti, and is back to normal. This is the equivalent of that most ubiquitous statement on the Guardian site: ‘This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn't abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted.’]
* * *
The Quentin Blake show includes a whole room dedicated to Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. Other Blake works on display are his pictures for Voltaire’s Candide, for David Walliams’s Boy In The Dress, and for his own wordless book, Clown. A film reveals that Mr Blake does his drawing standing up, like an architect, and that he uses a light box, not just to trace but because it ‘feels friendly’. Illustration, he says, is about choosing a single moment in a text, then living in it. ‘You own that moment for as long as you like.’
In the gallery shop, Mum impulse-buys Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton, a mad and funny picture book about a naughty dog. Though it’s aimed at the very young, the lesson of self-discipline is all-connecting. I end up getting a copy for myself. Somewhat ironically, the book is hard to resist.
* * *
I show Mum the new Hatchards at St Pancras, fast becoming one of my favourite places to browse. It’s an example of how best to lay out a small bookshop: a little bit of everything, with as much as possible displayed face out, and lots of tempting tables. The new Beano annual (for 2015) is given prominence, and with good reason. The cover shows Dennis the Menace and Gnasher in St Pancras, running to catch the Eurostar.
At the National Portrait Gallery, we take in this year’s BP Portrait contest. Teeming with people. In contrast to the Kings Cross viewing platform, the thoughts of visitors are this time solicited, in the shape of a touchscreen. You tap on the painting you think should have won. I have no idea if the results are collated somewhere, but it gives the sense of feeling like one’s opinion matters, and that’s the true spirit of the age. My favourite painting is by Clara Drummond, ‘Portrait in Blue and Gold’. A second prize would go to ‘Eddie In The Morning’, by Geoffrey Beasley, which Mum is also keen on.
We wander through a corner of Trafalgar Square. At least three things are going on at once. In the main space is the stage for a rally by The People’s March for the NHS (sample slogan: ‘NHS – Everyone’s Concern, Nobody’s Business). In the corner is a busking set by Jake Heading, a pleasant, bespectacled young singer who’s drawn quite a crowd. And a few yards away from him are the usual living statues. Recently there’s been a spate of trompe l’oeil performers in the touristy parts of the city, particularly Floating Yodas. These are people dressed as the little green Muppet-y creature from the Star Wars films, whose costume hides a seat attached to a sturdy pole, so it looks like they are levitating. As we pass, one of the Yodas takes off his rubber mask to mop his streaming brow. ‘Sweatier than it looks, living statue work is’.
* * *
We end the day at the Tower Of London, there to see the red porcelain poppies planted all around the grassy moat. A staggering sea of red. One poppy for each life lost in WW1, arranged so it looks like they’re pouring out of one of the Tower’s windows. The poppies circle the whole Tower, and hundreds of other people are here to get a good look at them too. It may be a simple symbol, but it’s a powerful and unforgettable one.
* * *
Sunday 7th September 2014.
To the St James Theatre Studio in Victoria for a new one-man play: Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope. Written and performed by Mark Farrelly, it’s an interesting indication of where QC’s reputation might be today, fifteen years after his death. Certainly the 80s Sting hit ‘An Englishman In New York’ is heavily relied upon as a qualification. Not only is the song played in the show, but it’s alluded to three times in the limited space of the flyer. I always thought the association was unfair, given Crisp’s dislike of pop music full stop. But I should admit that I’ve never cared for the song itself, its melody and production being too bland for my liking. My apologies to Mr Sting.
Mr Farrelly is rather muscular in comparison with the two main actors who’ve played QC in the past, John Hurt (on film) and Bette Bourne (on stage). He makes me think how a young Laurence Olivier might have approached the role, because his version of Quentin seems as much critical as it is affectionate. It hints at unaddressed layers beneath the surface, perhaps even that Crisp was something of an unreliable narrator. The show is much more of a dramatisation than an impersonation. In fact, the sense of Quentin Crisp playing a part himself is accentuated halfway through, when Mr Farrelly changes clothes and wigs in full view of the audience, going from 1960s London Quentin (retelling the events of The Naked Civil Servant), to 1990s New York Celebrity Quentin (delivering his Messages Of Hope lectures, hence the title: Naked Hope).
There’s also a moment where a member of the audience is asked to get on stage and help him read his question cards, which I’m sure is something the real Crisp never did. At first this seems pure pantomime, just something fun to break up the format of a one-man show. Yet the lingering effect is to remind the audience of the way Crisp would go through the motions, always giving the same answers to questions, as if reading from a script. So Farrelly suggests there might be something not quite so inspirational about that. I disagree. I’m biased, but I think words in themselves can be a sufficient approach to the world, even if they’ve been polished and prepared and repeated so much that they might appear insincere. A good aphorism, like a good story, can retain its own self-contained freshness and sincerity, because it represents pure meaning.
* * *
Tuesday 9th September 2014.
I’m at Senate House Library, reading The Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham. At one point I realise with delight that Senate House itself plays a major part in the novel. It becomes the base camp for the London survivors, being one of the tallest landmarks in the city at the time it was written, circa 1950. I also discover that there’s a Book Bench celebrating the connection outside. It depicts triffids on Tower Bridge. The bench is tucked away amid the foliage by the front of the building, lurking there, as if ready to sting.
* * *
Wednesday 10th September 2014.
The opening line of The Day Of The Triffids is one of the greatest in literature:
‘When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like a Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’
But after that, some lines irritate with their deep 1950s-ness. The hero’s love interest is called Josella Playton, which makes her sound like a lingerie brand. Even the 1980s BBC TV adaptation inserted a scene where she says ‘I’ve always hated the name Josella. Just call me Jo.’
One line of the novel is:
‘His companion was a good-looking, well-built girl with an occasional superficial petulance’.
What exactly does Wyndham mean by ‘well-built’? Curvy? Athletic? Double-glazed? Upholstered? Cantilevered? Or just… waterproof?
* * *
Thursday 11th September 2014.
To Highbury to visit Shanthi S. She gives me a birthday present: The Animals, a fat collection of Isherwood’s letters. Then we walk to the Dalston Rio for Two Days, One Night, a French language film starring Marion Cotillard. The BBFC certification card at the start surely crosses the line from content warning into plot spoiler: ‘Contains one scene of attempted suicide’. So all the cinemagoers are waiting for that. That aside, it’s a very straightforward Ken Loach-esque tale of a factory worker tracking down all her co-workers during one weekend, in order to convince them to vote against her redundancy on the following Monday. The dilemma is that a vote to keep her is also a vote to lose their own bonuses. I felt it was the sort of film that might become socially important as time goes on, but found it a little too straightforward to be properly engaging.
Tags: dalston rio
, john wyndham
, marion cotillard
, mark farrelly
, naked hope
, quentin blake
, quentin crisp
, senate house
, shanthi s
, st james theatre studio
, tower of london
, two days one night
The Hawks Of Stratford East
Saturday 30th August 2014. I’m reading a couple of 1950s novels, both dealing with issues of race. One is Doris Lessing’s Grass Is Singing, set among the white farmers of Southern Rhodesia, while the other is The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon, about West Indian migrants adjusting to Britain. Lessing’s prose turns out to be up there with Orwell in its unadorned realism (no messing with Lessing), but it also has the seamless shift between perspectives that one finds in George Eliot. That said, the white characters get the lion’s share of the empathy. Selvon, meanwhile, manages to represent 1950s London entirely through a kind of Caribbean modernist patois, most impressively in a section which runs to ten pages without any punctuation. The only dashes are to indicate swearwords. I’d expected the scenes detailing the grimness of being a penniless immigrant, but hadn’t realised that there’d be so much broad comedy too. Despite all the poverty, the novel is ultimately a love letter to the city.
* * *
In the evening I go to the Old Red Lion Theatre in Angel, in the hope of seeing a new play, The Picture of John Gray by CJ Wilmann. It’s about the real life Gray who inspired Wilde’s Dorian. It’s had rave reviews. Too many as it turns out, because the show is sold out, it’s the last night, and there’s no returns on the door. So instead I treat myself to a solitary meal at The Gate, the vegetarian restaurant nearby. I’m annoyed that I can’t see the play, but cheered that fringe drama is evidently in good shape.
Watch Doctor Who. Rather silly goings-on which involve shrinking Mr Capaldi’s Doctor so he can be injected inside a Dalek. Not the most logical of stories, but it’s very visually impressive. There’s a nice spooky moment where the Doctor is swimming about in a kind of distorted slow-motion world, meant to represent the Dalek’s eye.
* * *
Sunday 31st August 2014. To the Royal Albert Hall foyer, to look at the Peter Blake mural there, ‘Appearing at the Royal Albert Hall’. It’s a variation on his Sgt Pepper album sleeve, being a montage of photos of about 350 people who’ve performed at the venue, all jostling together in a crowd. Some are in black and white, including the Beatles and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There’s a Dalek (presumably from the Doctor Who Proms), and the main boyband of today, One Direction. I think the photos also indicate the age of the performers at the time they appeared there: the Monkees look much older than their 1960s heyday, and are minus Mike Nesmith, who I know didn’t join in with their reunion tours. So that would suggest the first Albert Hall show by the Monkees was fairly recent.
* * *
I do some studying in Swiss Cottage library, which is open on Sundays. At one point a middle-aged man wanders past, talking to himself while staring at the bookshelves. ‘I can assure you the Americans are on the moon,’ he says. ‘What are we doing about it?’ He says this quite loudly and clearly, with a well-spoken accent. Then he moves on.
I dip into Peter Nichols’s memoir, Feeling You’re Behind. He’s honest about his envy of other playwrights’ success, particularly those who, like him, were living in Bristol in the 1960s. Funny how rivalry often involves shared locations as much as shared generations. Tom Stoppard’s stardom is one of those he resents, though he adds ‘he was already a star on Blackboy Hill’. Reading this today, I remember that I once met Stoppard’s Bristol landlady, when I lived there in the early 1990s. She lived in Clifton, and indeed close to Blackboy Hill, and had an old photograph of him framed in her living room, looking like a fifth Beatle.
* * *
Tuesday 2nd September 2014. A letter from Tobi H in New York. He thinks I should move there. ‘You’re just too British to stay in England.’
* * *
To mark the opening of its new branch in St Pancras International, Hatchards have installed some display cases by the Eurostar arrival gates. They tell the history of the main Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly, and include artefacts from past book signings. This means that one of the first things people arriving in Britain will see is a large ashtray once used by Bette Davis.
* * *
Wednesday 3rd September 2014. My 43rd birthday.
Where does the time go? On the internet.
I chat to Mum on the phone, then head off to do my usual birthday task. I like to celebrate that I still have working eyes and legs (what else is a birthday but a celebration of a still-working body?). So I try to go somewhere I’ve not been before, to treat my eyes to new sights, and my legs to new terrains. It needn’t even be outside London.
Today I visit the newly-opened Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, being the site of the Olympic Games in 2012. I’d kept clear of the Games while they were on, but was always keen to visit the actual site. So I take the High Speed train from St Pancras, and arrive just after noon. A dry, sunny day. I take in the Meccano-like ArcelorMittal Orbit watchtower, as designed by Anish Kapoor, go on a boat trip up the River Lea (the tour guide is a charming older lady, ‘born and bred in the East End’), then I wander around the fresh new parklands and wetlands of the area. Even though there’s plenty of other visitors (lots of East London families and pensioners), it’s incredibly tranquil and pleasant. All the garish branding of the Games has been stripped away – no more McDonalds logos. Just lots of new grass, wildflowers, waterways and ponds. There’s also lots of public art (I like the circle of mirrored columns in Victory Park), and there’s a scattering of tasteful kiosks and cafes. It’s a perfect place to spend a birthday, in fact: old material renewed for the future.
Small children in swimsuits splash around the snake-shaped fountain by the base of the Orbit, where the water jets sprout from the pavement one by one. Such a simple way to keep small children happy on a warm day. The Orbit turns out to have its own patrolling hawks: I meet one of them on the gloved arm of a chatty gentleman by the entrance. From him I learn two things: 1) the colour red is particularly attractive to pigeons, and 2) nothing keeps pigeons off a huge red sculpture like the presence of a hawk.
A lift takes one up to the tower’s two 360 degree observation decks – one has to walk under a very Kapoor-looking funnel first. There’s a couple of long distorted mirrors on the top deck (more Kapoor ideas), offering an upside-down view of the skyline. The lower deck comes with high-definition zoom screens to identity the sights. I manage to locate Highgate Hill, seven miles away, by looking for the distinctive green dome of the Catholic church. I’ve often been able to see the Orbit all the way from Highgate High Street, so it’s satisfying to see this view in reverse. I also look into the Olympic stadium next door, currently closed and back to being a building site: nothing to see but cranes and forklifts. I learn that it’s being given a new roof, and that it will then serve as a ground for West Ham, while also hosting various athletics events.
A bit of drama in the Orbit view today, too: flames and black smoke are visible from a tower block, a few miles to the south. The staff pass around binoculars. One particularly bored staffer sings ‘London’s Burning’ over and over again, until his colleagues tell him to stop. I later find out that the fire is actually in Bermondsey, in Surrey Quays Road. No injuries, and it’s all put out by 4pm. Barely makes the local news. Still, it’s fairly alarming to watch at the time, and from such a vantage point.
I take the optional staircase back down. It runs around the whole tower inside its own tunnel. Every ten steps is punctuated with speakers, playing noises recorded at places like Borough Market, local football matches, and at the building site for the stadium.
* * *
In the evening: to the Odeon BFI Imax to see Lucy. Scarlett Johansson once again stars as a non-human. This time she’s a woman who accidentally becomes super-intelligent, but the transformation is progressive, and she has hours left to live. The film doesn’t hang about either: the entire future of mankind is done and dusted in about 90 minutes. The man who wrote, produced and directed the film is Luc Besson, which makes it not just comic book fun, but bande dessinée fun – it’s easy to imagine it drawn by Milo Manara. He even sets the finale in Paris, purely to stuff it with car chases and shoot-outs for no very good reason. It’s an outrageous film, frankly, but its sheer abandon carries me away. Luc Besson is 55. I may not quite share his aesthetics, but his sheer energy and nerve is a good thing for a fortysomething’s birthday.
Tags: arcelormittal orbit
, bette davis
, doris lessing
, luc besson
, peter blake
, peter nichols
, queen elizabeth olympic park
, sam selvon
, scarlett j
, stratford east
, Tobi Haberstroh
, tom stoppard
The Unserious Dog Show
Saturday 23rd August 2014. To the Phoenix cinema for Doctor Who – Deep Breath. It’s the first episode of the new series, and the first to properly feature Peter Capaldi in the title role. It’s on TV as usual, but as part of a huge publicity campaign the BBC have arranged for some cinemas to screen it at the same time. One has to pay for the cinema (about the same price as a standard cinema ticket), so it is a fascinating test of the interest in such a thing. One incentive is that there’s a couple of extra little films. First up is an amusing monologue from Strax the Sontaran, who comments on the Doctor’s various incarnations. ‘The fifth Doctor’, he says, indicating a hologram of Peter Davison, ‘had no distinguishing features whatsoever’. Then after the episode there’s a live Q & A with the main actors and the main writer, Steven Moffat. But it’s really the sense of occasion one pays for: the experience of watching the episode on a big screen in the company of Doctor Who fans.
There’s a mixture of all ages here. A small boy in the row in front of me is wearing a fez and a bow tie, a la Matt Smith. Elsewhere in the cinema, I see another fez, this time worn by a grown woman. I enjoy the episode: lots of good lines, such as ‘There’s nothing more important than my egomania!’ The plot is the usual goings-on (alien robots up to no good in Victorian London), but Capaldi himself is enough to keep one on tenterhooks for what happens next. His older Doctor is intriguing, shrewd, spiky, capricious and (so far) volatile. As I watch, my only worry is that small children won’t take to him as much as they did the boyish Doctors of recent years. But while walking out through the foyer I see a tiny girl of eight or so, having her photograph taken next to a life-size cardboard cut-out of Capaldi. She is hugging him.
* * *
Sunday 24th August 2014. To Spa Fields Park in Clerkenwell. A mini festival. A stage is up, there’s a few stalls, a bouncy castle is in one corner, and a not-entirely-serious dog show is in the tennis court (some of the dogs’ ‘tricks’ include lying down and getting up again). I’m here for two reasons: Kitty Fedorec’s birthday gathering, plus a performance by Joanne Joanne, the all-female Duran Duran tribute band. I still love that two of the band really are called Joanne. I chat to: Pete M of Talulah Gosh (and umpteen other bands), Ian Watson, Charley Stone (once a guitarist with Fosca, today in Joanne Joanne), David Barnett, and Alex S & Alex P. The event has the feel of my 90s gig-going past – I keep seeing people in the crowd whom I nearly recognise, old regulars from gigs at Upstairs at the Garage. One face I do recognise is Jim Rattail, the dedicated London gig-goer of old. He still has his long plait of hair.
* * *
Monday 25th August 2014. A Bank Holiday. There’s constant heavy rain all day, the weather unaware of its own Bank Holiday cliché. I discover that my only other pair of older but still comfortable shoes are also leaking water, a crack having developed in the sole.
On an impulse, I travel to Paddington to see if the floating bookshop there, Word on the Water, is open. It isn’t. The steps into Paddington station are covered in rainwater. In the station, revellers from the Notting Hill Carnival are mingling with backpacked-up Reading Festival refugees. Many wear all-over transparent raincoats, half poncho, half giant condom. One carnival lady slips and falls on the stairs. She’s in pastel-coloured platform heels, drenched yet defiant. Her gales of laughter are a relief; her pride more wounded than her ankle.
I end up at the Royal Festival Hall, where there’s ballroom dancing in the open space by the ground floor bar. It’s to do with the South Bank’s ‘Love’ festival. A large pinboard is nearby, covered in paper pink hearts. Each has a handwritten declaration of love. Most are to people, but one is ‘I LOVE WEST HAM’.
After my sadness over Foyles St Pancras closing, I’m pleased to find there are two branches of Foyles in the South Bank area, both of which are open late on Sundays and Bank Holidays. One is tucked under the Royal Festival Hall on the riverside, while another is in Waterloo station nearby. In the South Bank one I see the History Boys actor Dominic Cooper, being pleasant and chatty with the staff.
* * *
Tuesday 26th August 2014. To Suffolk. Train to Sudbury around noon, lunch in Bildeston with Mum, then north to the village of Bardwell to visit Mal and Kev Shepard, old family friends. Mal’s son Don is a professional jester and magician, now going by the name of Phoenix The Fool. There’s a large gold trophy of a conjuror in the living room, which he won at a magic tournament in China. I look at their vintage copy of Kathleen Hale’s picture book Orlando the Marmalade Cat – A Seaside Holiday. The seaside destination in it, ‘Owlborrow’, is based on Aldeburgh circa 1950.
The place names on the way back immediately suggest medieval scenes: Stowlangtoft. Ixworth Thorpe. And Woolpit, with its legend of the green children.
* * *
Wednesday 27th August 2014. On the tube. The man in the seat next to me suddenly says, ‘I have to ask you, what on earth are you reading?’
I tell him: Probably Nothing, by Matilda Tristram. From a glance it might look like a children’s book. In fact, it’s a very adult (as in sweary) comic book memoir. It covers Ms Tristram’s time in 2013 as a cancer patient, made all the more complicated by her being pregnant as well. I read parts of it last year when it was an ongoing black-and-white webcomic. Since then, Penguin got involved – not a publisher known for putting out comic books. So now it’s a beautiful full colour hardback. Her drawing style is an urgent and simple doodle, suggesting snatched moments of meagre yet driven energy. I like her raw honesty, her depiction of life in the artier parts of Hackney, her accounts of the tactless things others say to her, and especially her trips to Walberswick and Southwold on the Suffolk coast, places I’m familiar with too:
* * *
Thursday 28th August 2014. The shoe repair man in Muswell Hill says he can’t stretch my new Clarks, or repair my leaky sole. I come out feeling like I’ve been in a Monty Python sketch – a shoe repair shop that can’t repair any shoes. And so it goes on.
* * *
I enjoy reading the umpteen reviews of Kate Bush’s comeback gig. Referring to her simply as ‘Bush’, though, as in ‘Bush takes to the stage’ seems wrong somehow. Unlike David Bowie, her surname is not unusual enough to define her alone – there’s those pesky presidents for a start. But there’s also something about her work that makes ‘Bush’ sound wrong too, as if she demands a gesture of intimacy to properly describe her. The ‘Kate’ needs to be there.
As it is, I read the word ‘Bush’ so often today that I start humming the closing theme to Only Fools and Horses:
‘Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. Bush. No income tax, no VAT…’
* * *
Friday 28th August 2014. To the Curzon Soho to see Obvious Child. It’s a New York indie comedy-drama starring Jenny Slate, about a wise-cracking young woman’s romantic woes. It’s similar in genre to Frances Ha but closer to Knocked Up and Juno in terms of subject matter. In the latter two, the possibility of abortion was never properly addressed, at least not to the extent it might be had the stories taken place in real life. One theory I read at the time was that the jokes would just be eclipsed. Well, Obvious Child certainly dismisses that idea. It dares to treat the subject matter properly, while keeping the comedy going too – if letting it turn bittersweet and wry rather than laugh-out-loud. I also like the wordplay of the title (a reference to a Paul Simon song). It plays on the way the lead character is childlike herself, yet her choice is very much a grown up one. The film is not perfect, but it certainly makes other comedies’ moral squeamishness look, well, a bit childish.
Tags: deep breath
, doctor who
, kate bush
, matilda tristram
, obvious child
, peter capaldi
, phoenix cinema
, probably nothing
In Which I Compare Myself To Imelda Marcos
Saturday 16th August 2014. My reading matter this week includes Samuel Beckett’s short stories from the 1940s, such as ‘The Expelled’ and ‘The End’. They’re all about lonely layabouts trudging the streets in existential woe. I come away wanting to look at pictures of kittens.
* * *
Currently struggling with two mundane but time-consuming problems: the procurement of new shoes and new glasses. I record these non-experiences in the hope of exorcising their hold on me.
I put off these sort of purchases as long as I can. Partly out of poverty, but also because I know purchases of need rarely satisfy me, compared to purchases of luxury (such as alcohol, cinema tickets or books).
In the cases of the glasses, the nice optician at Boots Muswell Hill tested my sight and told me it had changed slightly. She gave me a new prescription. Then it emerged that (a) they cannot put new lenses into my current frames, and (b) Boots no longer make my current frames.
I tried on the free NHS frames they had, but couldn’t find any I liked. Then I tried some of the priced ones I can just about afford (ie under £100) and settled for a pair I thought were okay. Black rimmed, Boots own brand, a bit big and cartoonish. I was aiming for Vintage Michael Caine, rather than Current Gok Wan. £95, from a half price offer.
But this mundanity expands, sucking up hours. It takes me two visits to decide on this new pair, then a third visit for collecting them after the lenses are in. And then a few days after that, I decide I don’t like the specs so much after all. They feel heavy and clunky and goggle-like. Is it the newness? A resentment of change? Or is it that I just wanted to get out of the opticians as fast as possible, knowing I had to choose something? On top of this, I’m now unconvinced my eyesight has changed – my old pair seem to correct my vison well enough.
I can barely speak for sighing. I stand on a train platform on St Pancras, holding both the old and the new pairs, switching between the two while testing my sight on the train information signs. I must look mad.
* * *
And then, later in the week, I have a similar frustration with new shoes. I try to go for years without buying a new pair. My current everyday black shoes now have holes in the top. Seconds of rain leave both feet drenched. The cobblers in Muswell Hill have told me to throw them out, but I haven’t. I can’t, yet.
I go to Clarks in Oxford Street and spend a good hour trying on sand-coloured shoes to go with my linen suits. One pair seem right: Clarks Classics, suede Jinks, priced £75. Fine, done, happy. Yet a few days later I’m in pain. The suede creases when I walk, cutting into my left foot at the base of my big toe. I’m close to limping.
The Clarks receipt says ‘full refund if unworn’. By this point, I have dragged the shoes through a mile of London grime. I spend hours trying to solve the dilemma with Scholls padded plasters, stuck on the painful areas of my foot. That in turn means time has to be spent at Boots St Pancras, peering at their complex range of foot-based products. I go back to stock up on more when I realise the pads come off in the shower. And so it goes on. Incredibly, the world turns.
I worry that I’ll never find a single pair of comfortable yet affordable shoes. And then I worry that it’s my feet that are the problem; that they’ve become vertically misshapen with age, and that this pain is just another petty ache one has to get used to. Or: perhaps I’m walking wrongly. I’ve caught myself staring at how others walk on the street (evidence of more madness). I see other people tilting their feet at a much higher angle than I do. Maybe that’s it. Have I forgotten how to walk properly? I wouldn’t put it past me.
(At this point I fear I am turning into a Samuel Beckett character. You are what you read.)
So this is what dominates my life this week, to my utter shame. The resentment of simple self-maintenance that fails to be simple. I try to dwell on more important things, but my shoes have rather gone to my head. The only response I take away from reading the news is, ‘I bet Barack Obama’s shoes fit him okay.’
Another thought. Perhaps Imelda Marcos wasn’t so greedy after all, with her palace of infinite shoes. Perhaps she just couldn’t get it right.
* * *
Sunday 18th August 2014. I’m reading Ronald Blythe’s diaries, as collected in Under A Broad Sky (Canterbury Press, 2013). He says this on the student protests of 2011:
‘It is sad to grow old and to have never rioted.’ He’s about 90.
* * *
Monday 19th August 2014. Penguin’s annotated edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four includes a letter from Evelyn Waugh to Orwell, criticising the novel in a respectful, friendly way. Waugh’s main reservation is ‘the disappearance of the Church’ in Orwell’s vision. He means Catholicism, but he implies that religion as a whole is ‘inextinguishable’ – a word that directly recalls the ending of Brideshead Revisited.
The edition also reprints Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, next to a reader’s report by the publishers, Secker & Warburg, about Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the former, Orwell lists his rules for how to write clearly, which have been much quoted ever since (‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out’). In the latter, the publisher notes ‘It is a typical Orwellism that Julia falls asleep while Winston reads part of [O’Brien’s book] to her. Women aren’t intelligent in Orwell’s world’. And that’s from his own publisher! The lesson seems to be: feel free to take Orwell’s advice on how to write, but bear in mind that he wasn’t perfect either.
* * *
Tuesday 20th August 2014. I realise my ongoing shoe discomfort is not rare. Today I’m in Humanities One of the British Library Reading Rooms, studying Larkin’s The Less Deceived. The woman at the desk next to me has taken her shoes and socks off. One bare foot rests on her other knee, in a kind of bookish yoga position.
* * *
Wednesday 21st August 2014. To the Phoenix for The Congress. It’s a giddy, strange film that mixes live action with psychedelic animation. The actress Robin Wright plays a version of herself. The story starts out as a satire on the state of Hollywood, but then shifts into full-on science fiction. It’s often hard to keep up with what’s going on: only twenty minutes after I leave the cinema do I fully understand what happens at the end. The critics have been polarised, with some using the term ‘Yellow Submarine-esque’ as an insult. In which case, count me on the side of those who would take it as a compliment. I admit The Congress is not a perfect film, but there’s so much imagination and originality on show – and so many sights no one has seen before. It goes into the Top Five of my favourite films this year, along with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Punk Singer, and Frank.
* * *
Friday 22nd August 2014. At home all day. Reading, writing, failing to write, filling out paperwork for the final college year, idly social media-ing. I leave the house just once, at about 6pm, to go to Sainsbury’s on Archway Rd. Barely a minute’s walk, and a passer-by says to me: ‘love the suit!’ The only words I hear in person all day. Well, if I must have a single comment from the world.
I suppose I really do put on a suit and tie just to buy a pint of milk. Didn’t even realise it.
, evelyn waugh
, george orwell
, imelda marcos
, philip larkin
, ronald blythe
, samuel beckett
, suit wearing
, the congress
Fish Of The Day
Sunday 10th August 2014. I chat with Mum over the phone. She’s busy, giving classes and talks on quilt making all over the country, most recently at the NEC. Tom has now built her a website as a kind of shop window. It’s her first ever web presence. The URL is www.lynneedwardsquilts.com.
* * *
Monday 11h August 2014. To the Boogaloo to watch Lea Andrews perform with Sadie Lee, as part of the Blue Monday gig night. An evening of seeing old friends. Charley Stone is there, Charlotte Hatherley too. This is my only socialising this week; the rest of my time is spent in the British Library in St Pancras, communing with the dead.
Currently re-reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Last read when I was a teenager. This time round I’m older than Winston Smith. I’d forgotten that he has varicose veins; something I’m rather familiar with now. The themes are more relevant than ever, as evidenced by Edward Snowden’s mention of the novel in his Alternative Christmas Message last year. Fear of state surveillance, the removal of privacy, the state control of information, the daily get together to hate something for the sake of joining in (thus anticipating Twitter), war being used to keep populations suppressed, bad entertainment doing the rest of the suppression. Orwell’s prose style surprises me with its simple, unfussy realism. Stylistically, it could be written today. The only 1940s anachronism I pick up is the usage of ‘dear’ by the two lovers.
But slang comes around too. ‘Oh my days’ sounds pure Dickens. I’ve heard it used by all kinds of young people in London now, and by some not so young people too. A friend says it derives from Caribbean patois. So I wonder if it came from the effects of the Empire before that. I like the idea of slang being exported across lands, passing through social groups, then returning after more than a century, like the orbit of a comet.
* * *
Tuesday 12th August 2014. Robin Williams dies. It’s thought to be suicide. A lot of discussion online of depression and the eternal archetype of the sad clown. My local cinema, the Phoenix, is putting on a screening of Good Will Hunting, as a benefit for the Samaritans.
People on Twitter have taken tribute selfies, standing on tops of desks, holding up signs saying ‘O Captain My Captain’. This is a reference to a scene in Dead Poets Society, the words taken from a poem by Walt Whitman. My band Orlando did a similar tribute in 1996, for the video to ‘Don’t Kill My Rage’. We even dressed as schoolboys and filmed in a beautiful old private school. And we stood on the desks.
I can’t think of the Dead Poets motto ‘carpe diem’ now without recalling a joke from I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue:
‘Carpe diem: Fish of the Day.’
What a range of work Robin Williams left behind, though. Particularly given his problems. Some roles wacky (Mork and Mindy, Good Morning Vietnam), some serious (Dead Poets Society, Awakenings) some sinister (Insomnia). In theory I should have found his comedy style irritating, but the sheer speed of his invention always impressed me. Completely over the top, yes, but also completely out of the blue. Where did that ability come from? It seemed utterly unearthly – hence Mork.
His big, rubbery, Punch-like features seemed to also fit that other extreme of emotion – sentiment. There’s something very Victorian about that mix; the need to complement the uproarious with the lachrymose. Knowing that Williams was built to erupt into loud comedy made his restrained roles all the more watchable. The energy had to be channelled into reverse. He’s perfect for The World According To Garp, as the quiet centre in John Irving’s outlandish parade. I also like him as the murderous author in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, or the avuncular gay radio host in The Night Listener (based on Armistead Maupin), or the nightclub owner in The Birdcage, teaching Nathan Lane how to act more manly. In one scene they try discussing sports like heterosexual men. Or so they imagine:
WILLIAMS: (putting on manly voice) Al, you old son of a bitch! How ya doin’? How do you feel about those Dolphins today?
LANE: How do you think I felt? Bewildered! Betrayed…! (looks at Williams, wrist returns to limpness) Wrong response, right?
WILLIAMS: I’m not sure…
* * *
Wednesday 13th August 2014. London begging. On the tube today, a man gets on and promptly goes round the carriage carefully placing wrapped packets of pocket tissues (the Handy Andies type) on the empty seats next to each passenger. There’s also a piece of paper with each packet. Presumably it contains his written appeal for money, in return for the tissues, along with some detail of his circumstances. I say presumably because I don’t pick up a packet, and neither does anyone else. The British are so obsessed with taking the least embarrassing action in public as it is. Added to which, the London tube carriage is a place of non-action, of retrieving into yourself, of trying not to exist. Not the best place to ask for money.
The tissues man waits silently at one end of the carriage for no more than a minute. Then he goes round again, this time retrieving all the packets of tissues and paper notes and putting them back in his shoulder bag. He gets off at the next stop.
* * *
Thursday 14th August 2014. To the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley, for the film Lilting. It’s a low-budget piece in which Ben Whishaw acts his absolute socks off. He plays a grieving gay man trying to befriend the Chinese mother of his late partner. The added complication is that she speaks no English, she didn’t know her son was gay, and she lives in a London care home. Peter Bowles also appears (he of To The Manor Born and Only When I Laugh), playing an elderly Lothario. The film is emotionally tense, yet tender and quiet, and is clearly a labour of love. I recognise one of the locations: the canal towpath near the south end of Mare Street, in the East End.
* * *
Friday 15th August 2014. Today’s new word is ‘hoyden’. It means ‘a boisterous girl’. A dated expression, declares the Concise Oxford Dictionary. I’m introduced to it by a line in Brigid Brophy’s book Black and White: A Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (1968):
‘Are they female fops, these personages of Beardsley’s: female dandies: female effeminates, even? Or are they male hoydens, male tomboys, boy butches?’
The book contains some of Beardsley’s sexually explicit art from the 1890s. More grotesque than titillating, I’d have thought. Yet the British Library keeps its copy of Black and White in the Special Materials collection, the place for anything very valuable or very naughty. As the book isn’t that rare it must be Beardsley’s rudeness that qualifies. To read the library copy a while ago, I had to sit at a special desk in the Rare Books Reading Room, within view of CCTV cameras and library staff. I was not allowed to leave the book unattended, not even to go to the toilet. They might as well call the desk the Table of Shame.
Thankfully, Faber have now reprinted Black and White as part of their Faber Finds series. Today I pick up a copy from Gay’s The Word bookshop in Marchmont Street. I take it home and enjoy it behind closed doors, where the Big Brother eyes of the British Library cannot watch me.
Tags: aubrey beardsley
, ben whishaw
, brigid brophy
, British Library
, charley stone
, george orwell
, london beggers
, robin williams