Saint Paul, Saint Audrey
(A fortnight’s worth of entries.)
Sunday 19th July 2015.
According to Viktor Wynd, a group of Hackney-based Christians attacked his Museum of Curiosities in Mare Street today. They threw holy water and crosses, and shouted about Satanism. It could be argued that this is a redundant gesture, given the museum already celebrates someone who was indeed crucified, albeit non-lethally: Sebastian Horsley.
* * *
The solipsism of the Sunday supplement journalist. An article in the Sunday Times today begins: ‘Summertime means one thing… beaches flooding your Instagram feed’.
I wince at the arrogance of insisting that one writer’s way of life is the default. A further implication is that this is the way the reader should live. I know I’m overreacting, and that many people these days do indeed have smartphones and Instagram accounts, and that for many, summertime must indeed mean this ‘one thing’, however depressing that sounds. But what is also true is that plenty of people do not live this way, and have no immediate plans to join in.
Good writing, even for a fluffy lifestyle article, should celebrate difference, and resist the urge to generalise. Communicating with readers should not mean bevelling down the richness of human experience to a single, banal approximation of common ground. My credo here would be: speak for yourself. Write for yourself. And let universality take care of itself.
* * *
Tuesday 21st July 2015.
Birkbeck’s website confirms the breakdown of my final year marks on the BA English course. As I’d hoped, all of them are the same as the provisional ones. This gives me a clean run of First Class module totals throughout the whole course. I only realise today that the average overall ‘weighted’ mark, the one which leads to the classification (as a First, or a 2.1 etc), is never published. It’s meant only as a guide for the college boards who approve the degree: they decide the classification according to what they think is most fair to the student, but with this unpublished score in mind. So my final grade is not a number, but a phrase – ‘First Class’. I think I like that – it’s more tidy.
* * *
Wednesday 22nd July 2015.
Another Life Event today, this one directly connected to my BA result. Getting a good degree means I am now qualified to take an MA. For much of the last year, friends and tutors have been advising me to do an MA next. A common tip was that I should also do it immediately, rather than put it off for a year, in case the academic skills go slack.
So today I enrol – online – to do an MA at Birkbeck, starting in the autumn. Part-time, 2 years, Contemporary Literature and Culture.
One big reason – and this is something that I’ve kept quiet about until now – is that I’ve managed to get a bursary to fully cover the fees.
I successfully applied for one of the limited studentships offered by Birkbeck’s School of Arts in Gordon Square. Effectively, Virginia Woolf’s old house thinks I’m worth investing in as a Master’s student. So once I won that bursary, and got a First in the BA, and won a prize for showing ‘the most promise’ as an English Literature student, I thought it’d be unwise to not go ahead and do an MA.
I don’t get a maintenance grant, alas, so it still means two more years of getting by on whatever I can eke out from the kindness of the State. I’m hoping to find part-time paid work that I can do alongside the MA. Writing work would be ideal.
The most important thing I’ve learned is that I am finally, demonstrably good at something: studying literature. People at Birkbeck not only believe I have ‘promise’ as a student, but that I’m worth sponsoring too.
So that’s my life for the next two years, or at least part of it.
* * *
Thursday 23rd July 2015.
A couple of gallery visits. First, to the National Gallery, to see a painting I’d been reading about in Clive Barker’s book of essays, The Painter, The Creature and The Father of Lies. Barker’s favourite paintings are The Raft of the Medusa, which I know well, and Carlo Crivelli’s Annunciation with Saint Emidius, which I don’t know at all. It’s in the National Gallery’s permanent collection (room 59 of the Sainsbury Wing), so today I take a look.
The picture is stunning: bright, busy, geometric, intricate, and full of details one doesn’t tend to see in Renaissance Annunciations. Barker points out how the beam of God’s Message, a ray of light running from the clouds down to Mary, isn’t subject to the laws of perspective, while everything else is rigidly organised around vanishing points. ‘The meaning is plain,’ comments Mr B. ‘The power of God’s gift upends the laws of physics. Space folds up at His command’.
The painting’s aspects which most fascinate me, however, are the ones to do with urban architecture. It was commissioned for the city of Ascoli Piceno, and it is this Renaissance Italian city that the Biblical Mary appears to have a flat in. In fact, the city appears twice: once as the backdrop to this whole scene, and again in the form of a scale model, carried by the local patron saint, Emidius. Emidius lurks outside Mary’s door while chatting merrily to the Archangel Gabriel as if this were something that happens all the time. Mary herself seems oblivious to all these goings-on, as she’s busy reading her book. There are clearly things for which even Dick Francis cannot wait.
Before I leaving, I pay my respects to my own favourite painting there, Bronzino’s Portrait of A Young Man. It’s next to his Allegory With Venus & Cupid, in which Cupid’s foot can be recognised as the one used in the credits for Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
* * *
Then next door to the National Portrait Gallery, for their big summer show Audrey Hepburn – Portraits of An Icon. Cheaper on Thursdays with an NUS card.
Someone I follow on Twitter remarked grumpily that such an exhibition was targeted purely at women. ‘What man would ever go to an Audrey Hepburn exhibition?’ I told him that I’ve known several men likely to do so, aside from myself, and heterosexual men too. But admittedly, that says more about the company I keep.
The implication was that Audrey Hepburn’s image was unusually inert and asexual for such an iconic female pin-up; that with her, it would all be about the Givenchy frocks and gamine hairdos. Her beauty was for those who swoon – and men are not meant to swoon. Well, apart from the ones I know.
Today I go along to find out for myself, mindful of a quote from Dorian Gray:
“The Academy is too large and too vulgar. Whenever I have gone there, there have been either so many people that I have not been able to see the pictures, which was dreadful, or so many pictures that I have not been able to see the people, which was worse.”
I very much enjoy going to exhibitions to see the people as much as the pictures.
The Hepburn exhibition is busy – timed entry only – and indeed the visitors inside are predominantly female. I’d say 80%. One or two gay male couples, and a few attendant husbands and boyfriends, the types who do most of the talking, and I wonder if they’re doing so here as a defence mechanism. I count just other lone man. A typical older tourist sort: grey hair, backpack, shorts. Suddenly I realise I’ve never worn a backpack in my life, and that this too may have implications for my manliness, or at least my blokeyness. I am not a Backpack Bloke.
The show is mainly photographic portraits, as expected, but there’s also Audrey H’s ballet shoes, and some 1950s magazine adverts, when she was the face of calamine lotion. I especially like: the photo of her being read to by an ageing Colette, her costume as the water sprite in the play of Ondine, and her pre-acting cover for an issue of Dancing Times, 1952.
* * *
Friday 24th July 2015.
To Suffolk to celebrate my BA with Mum. We go for a lavish meal at Suffolk’s only vegetarian pub, The Red Lion in Great Bricett, then spend the rest of a rainy day in Bildeston, watching the DVDs I’ve brought. One is Charade – to follow on my Audrey Hepburn binge. It’s a Hitchcock-esque caper from the mid 60s, complete with Cary Grant, though Hitchcock would never let the Hepburn role have such an inner life. Even though she’s a damsel in distress, she has the air of a pre-existing character who has stumbled into a thriller plot, rather than a character who is defined by the plot. Lots of clever twists and unexpected revelations. We also watch Patience, a fine documentary on Sebald’s book Rings of Saturn, and Withnail and I. As we’re celebrating my student success, I thought re-watching a student-favourite film would be apt. I first saw it when it came out in 1987, while I was still at school. Today what stands out is what good value the film is: not just a sparkling, quotable script, but plenty of slapstick set-pieces too. The scene where Withnail tries fishing with a double-barrelled shotgun instead of a rod lasts about thirty seconds. Lesser films would have dragged it out into a central scene. The ending is still terribly sad: I used to think it was the film’s only flaw. Now that I’m older, I see the need for pathos and entirely agree with it.
Also: these days I empathise less with Richard E Grant and Paul McGann, and more with the old ladies in the tea room.
* * *
Saturday 25th July 2015.
Second day in Suffolk. The sun comes out. Mum and I drive to Southwold on the coast, the family’s favourite destination. We have Adnams champagne for two, in the high-class Swan Hotel. It’s a place Mum’s never actually entered before, despite her staying in the town most summers since the 1980s. Mum says that I look at home there, in my linen suit and my aloof Londoner air. Later on, I sit and read in the Sailor’s Reading Room, one of my favourite places in England. According to The Rings of Saturn, it was a favourite of WG Sebald’s too.
* * *
Thursday 30th July 2015
Thinking more about gender ratios at exhibitions, I go to one which is surely likely to attract more men than the Audrey Hepburn. Visitors to The Jam – About The Young Idea, at Somerset House, turn out to be about 65% male. A few Fred Perry shirts, indeed a few Paul Weller lookalikes – as he is now. Greying feather cut hair, Mods till they drop. The exhibition has a refreshingly unglossy feel to it, as if it were a fan club affair, despite the huge professional poster campaign at Tube stations. On display are carefully preserved guitars, clothes, records, gig posters, fan letters, videos of concerts, and calling cards from the Woking days (‘The Jam – Rock and Roll Group – Dances, Parties, etc. Woking 64717.’). A souvenir programme comes in the format of the old inky style of music paper. Much is made of the sheer boyishness of the Jam’s appeal – how they taught huge amounts of boys how to be a boy. In this way, the exhibition has a feel of a shrine to male identity, just as the NPG one is a shrine to a certain kind of female identity, via Audrey Hepburn. After a certain point, role models take on the appeal of secular saints.
Among the music paper clippings is a Smash Hits review for the Jam’s last London concert, in 1982. The reviewer is not especially upset about the band’s demise: ‘On stage you know what to expect – one reason they’re splitting up, I suppose.’ It’s written by a journalist who will himself go on to form a pop group, sing about London, and define a way of being a boy: Neil Tennant.
Tags: audrey hepburn
, clive barker
, national gallery
, national portrait gallery
, somerset house
, the jam
, the red lion
More Carrot Cake Than Popcorn
Sunday 12th July 2015.
Reading Francesca Martinez’s memoir, What the F*** Is Normal? She writes wittily about the difficulties of not only living with cerebral palsy, but living with the way others react around her. Comedy programmes have decided against adding her to their panels, apparently because her slow, slurring way of speaking makes people ‘nervous’. To understand a voice like hers is just a question of adjusting registers, like understanding an unfamiliar accent. Her book’s main message is that if disabled people are sufficiently included in every aspect of society, ‘normal’ will be redefined as something that applies either to everyone, or to no one.
* * *
Monday 13th July 2015.
I’m doing the Birkbeck ‘Step Up To An Arts MA’ summer course, which mainly involves downloading texts from the college website and working at home. One section about learning how to structure critical arguments includes watching a video of a Monty Python sketch – the one about paying to have an argument. Amongst all the silliness is a perfectly serious definition of an argument, as said by Michael Palin’s character: ‘an argument is a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition’. Interesting to think that even though John Cleese went on to make proper light-hearted training films, there was an educational element to the comedy he’d already made. ‘Undergraduate humour’ is a pejorative term often thrown at the Python or Footlights style of comedy. Indeed it was once flung at Palin and Cleese in person, during the notorious TV discussion of Life of Brian. But here’s an example of Python used as postgraduate humour, whatever that may be. Comedy that’s still clever, but more elegantly thoughtful, perhaps.
* * *
Errand for the day: picking up a box of pills in my neighbour Phil’s flat, and delivering it to a sound man’s letter box in Hornsey. He can then pass it on to Phil on tour in Europe. No need to involve the postal service. On the way I walk through Ducketts Common, near Turnpike Lane station, where grey-faced men in grey hooded tracksuits sit glumly on benches and swig from cans. Wood Green is not an unsafe part of London, but it is not a particularly happy one either. As the film Dreams of a Life shows, it’s a district where people can just die in their homes, with no one to check up on them. So this errand reminds me how glad I am that I know at least some of my neighbours, and that I can help them out.
* * *
Tuesday 14th July 2015.
I spend some time reading in The Smithfield Café, a tiny but cheeringly old fashioned working man’s café in Long Lane, opposite the market. Tea at 60p.
* * *
Wednesday 15th July 2015.
Ticking off another little emporium I’d always been meaning to investigate: the Huntley bar, on the corner of Gower Place and Gower Street. It’s part of the UCL student union facilities, though they seem okay with me using it (and I think my University of London membership covers it anyway). One has to walk through the modern canteen on Gower Street to get inside. Nice traditional pub décor, pumps on the counter, booths and more seats upstairs. All converted from one of the creaky Victorian houses in the area, the kind I imagine that the poet Amy Levy once lived in. Glass of wine £2.50, packet of peanuts 30p. London is not always overpriced.
* * *
Thursday 16th July 2015.
I decide to splash out on a new Pay As You Go mobile phone. My current one is about ten years old and starting to fall apart. It’s so old, I can’t find it listed on the phone recycling lists. Today, the O2 shop on Tottenham Court Road sells me a cute little Nokia for £9.99, though not without their valiant attempts to tempt me with something fancier. When I insist on the Nokia, they ask me, ‘Is it for a music festival?’
* * *
Friday 17th July 2015.
To a brand new local cinema: the Everyman Muswell Hill. It’s essentially the same building as the Odeon – a listed one, I think – now bought up and given a repaint. The Everyman chain’s pricy nibbles and wine-bar décor have replaced the Odeon’s unpretentious but unlovely blue livery, along with its suspect hot dogs and sullen plastic beakers of Coke.
What’s ironic is that a chain calling itself Everyman has associations with middle class exclusivity. Some local pundit has called the Everyman’s arrival ‘the final stage in gentrification’ for Muswell Hill, though financially there’s little difference for the customer. In terms of tickets and food prices the Odeon chain really isn’t that much cheaper than the Everymans. I have to admit I prefer Everyman to the current Odeon style aesthetically. And if pressed, I do favour the arthouse. I was always more carrot cake than popcorn. In the end, though, I just go wherever there’s films.
This evening I watch the restored (1998) version of Orson Welles’s 1950s crime thriller A Touch of Evil. It’s been given a cinema re-release in the wake of the new documentary on Welles, Magician.
A Touch of Evil is one of those much-referred to classic films that I always feel I’ve seen in the past, but somehow haven’t. The film’s opening is the part that people tend to go on about: a single night-time crane shot that follows a time bomb placed in the boot of a car. As the car drives off, the camera lifts and swoops around the whole neighbourhood to follow it, as the ticking gets louder.
The story itself is pure pulp noir: all the characters are stereotypes and grotesques one way or another. Welles’s obese cop has the kind of startling pudgy make-up that doesn’t look like make-up at all. Charlton Heston’s dark skin for his Mexican character might have made some modern audiences feel unconvinced if not uneasy, but it works fine for the film’s style. Even Janet Leigh is a grotesque of sorts: the whiter-than-white damsel in distress. Meanwhile, the actor playing the demented motel manager is so outrageously over the top, he threatens to break the film.
With its expressionistic close-ups and moody use of Mexican border locations (which makes me think of No Country For Old Men), the film is an extraordinary world spun around a standard crime plot. Just when I think it can’t get any better, Marlene Dietrich appears. Her gypsy madam role is minor, but she gets the last line. And what a line: ‘He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?’
* * *
A life event. Today I am officially notified by Birkbeck about my degree, via their website. As of now, I have graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in English, with First Class honours.
I also received the BA English course’s John Hay Lobben Prize, which is awarded to a student who is ‘judged to have shown the greatest promise in English Literature’. This is formally announced at the graduation ceremony in November, but I’m allowed to tell the world now.
I’ve never had a degree before. I think this is my greatest feeling of achievement since hearing Fosca played on John Peel.
* * *
Tags: a touch of evil
, everyman muswell hill
, francesca martinez
, muswell hill
, odeon muswell hill
Beautiful Art For The Lonely
Saturday 4th July 2015.
Noon: tea at High Tea of Highgate with Ella H. The place has changed a little since it changed hands. Gone is the vintage 1940s and 50s music, and the VE-day bunting. Gone is the painted clock on the wall. It’s now a bit more generic, but then again it might still be finding its feet. This must always be a problem when taking over a café. The dilemma is between pleasing the old regulars (like myself), while bringing in the new owner’s taste.
Afternoon: Hot and sunny, so I fancy hiding in a cinema. To the East Finchley Phoenix for Magician, a new documentary on Orson Welles (£5). Much is made of the way Citizen Kane became his life’s early peak, never again to be matched, and looks at how much of this was down to his reputation, as someone difficult to work with. The ever-fattening Welles is seen on umpteen chat shows down the years, forever recounting tales of people asking him if he’d ever done anything else after Kane. The film also makes a case for raising the reputations of Chimes Of Midnight, The Trial, and A Touch of Evil, all of which I’ve yet to see.
* * *
Sunday 5th July 2015.
To the Roundhouse in Camden for a gig by the Jesus and Mary Chain. Specifically, it’s a live performance of their debut album, Psychocandy, from 1985. I’m invited by my neighbour Phil King, who is the JAMC bass player, and I take the artist K Tregaskin, who says she knows all the drum parts to the album by heart. Before I go out, I listen to Psychocandy in preparation, and find myself still shocked by the sheer extremity of white noise enveloping all the songs. And to have this raggedness appear on a major label too (the same label as my band Orlando,– Blanco Y Negro, part of Warners). Psychocandy still sounds like a train accident, one where the collapsing metal has somehow managed to turn its own terrifying noise into an approximation of sweet, twangy guitar rock songs.
The band play a half-hour set of other material first (including ‘April Skies’, a stunning ‘Some Candy Talking, ‘Reverence’, and the riot-teasing ‘Upside Down’). Then after a short break they unleashing all fourteen songs from Psychocandy, with no encores. The youthful surliness is still intact. Jim Reid’s preying-mantis body language is still there; he’s still the reluctant frontman, still apparently annoyed to exist. ‘I wanna die on a sunny day’ he sings. Well, not yet.
What’s astounding is how perfectly they replicate the Psychocandy feedback noise. It’s a very specific, mid-80s type of feedback, which the guitarist William Reid seems to have carefully set up for the relevant songs. At several moments I feel the urge to reach out my hands as if to touch this thick wall of sound that fills the Roundhouse, this former Victorian railway shed. And it is a proper wall of sound, with all the connotations of Phil Spector. The opening drum pattern of Be My Baby, is used three times on Psychocandy, not least in ‘Just Like Honey’, the song that many people know from the end of Lost In Translation, as Bill Murray drives off. Here, Miki from the 90s band Lush supplies the female vocal. More shifts in time.
Aferwards, K and I install ourselves in one of the red booths in the Roundhouse bar, and we chat about the ‘land grab’ side of music fandom. How these ‘vintage album in its entirety’ gigs demonstrate the way rock music has created a territory to belong to, and how these gigs can show such territory being passed down from generation to generation. It’s nostalgia for elders, of course, but it’s also raw primary joy for the younger fans, who are fresh to the songs. They’re the ones down the front at these shows, doing much of the jumping around.
I bump into Ms Shanthi in the bar. ‘One of Birdland is here. He’s not got blond hair anymore.’
Then we wander Camden around midnight, drunk on theories of indie rock history (as well as just drunk). I end up putting my hands on the wall of The Falcon, the pub venue where so many indie bands once played, now turned into a couple of residential flats. History, memory, territory, ghosts colliding. Giddy on palimpsests.
It’s too easy to assume one’s own generation is the default. Beautiful art for the lonely does not belong to one era. We must remember this, and pass it on.
* * *
Monday 6th July 2015.
I am embarrassed to read how men drinking rosé wine – as I do – is now considered fashionable. A term is coined by a magazine: ‘brosé’.
* * *
Wednesday 8th July 2015.
To Birkbeck for the first seminar in a free ‘summer camp’ module, ‘Step Up: Arts’, aimed at would-be MA arts students. We have to watch a documentary on Vivian Maier in preparation. I’d already seen Finding Vivian Maier, the cinema film, but this one is a BBC Imagine take on Maier. It covers much the same story, except that it turns out Ms Maier’s photographs were discovered by a trio of different collectors, and not just the youngish man who presents himself as the hero of Finding Vivian Maier. Deliciously, Alan Yentob says at one point that the missing collector declined to be interviewed, ‘because he’s making his own film’. It’s a reminder that there’s no such thing as the truth, only a truth.
* * *
A tube strike starts up in the evening. My Northern Line dodge is to take a network rail train from St Pancras to Kentish Town, then a 214 bus to Highgate Village, where it terminates. As this bus only has a few stops left to go, it is less likely to be full up. While I wait, various 134 buses pass by, all rammed with people, all not stopping.
* * *
Thursday 9th July 2015.
The tube strike continues. Thankfully I have nothing to do in town that I can’t postpone, so I spend the day in Highgate. In the evening I walk to East Finchley (20 minutes) to see Amy at the Phoenix cinema (£5). I hadn’t realised the aptness of this: Amy Winehouse lived in East Finchley in her teens, before she moved to Camden Square. The Phoenix used to be her local cinema. Indeed, Amy includes a beautiful aerial shot of East Finchley rooftops.
The film is terribly sad, needless to say. I come away thinking Ms Winehouse should have taken the Kate Bush path: escaping the trappings of fame by becoming a recluse, somewhere far from the reach of photographers. But then again, she loved London so much. Tony Bennett appears – she records a stunning duet with him, and he endorses her as not just a talented singer, but a classic jazz singer in the traditional style. Commenting on her death, he says ‘If I’d known, I’d have told her: slow down. Life teaches you how to live it, if you live it long enough.’
Like the Orson Welles and Vivian Maier films I’ve seen this week, Amy feels that it won’t be the last word. All three lives are essentially the same story: a person with a burning talent, but a talent that is compromised. And in each case, the reasons behind the frustration are not fully explainable. Questions still remain. There is always more to say, and so more documentaries to make.
* * *
Friday 10th July 2015.
Another hot day. I try to attend Joanna Walsh’s event at the BookArtBookshop in Old Street, but I can’t physically get inside the bookshop, such is the crowd inside. I understand the event is to launch a story about failing to find a certain book. Perhaps I should write a story about failing to get into a Joanna Walsh event.
Old Street on a Friday evening is more packed than ever, though the crowds don’t seem as overtly trendy-looking as they used to be. Just Londoners full stop. I look for a cash machine. On the corner of Pitfield Street I pass a new Sainsbury’s with an ATM, but it has a queue of some fifteen people. I walk two blocks further, to City Road, and find a trio of ATMs there, all free to use.
Quite why people still queue at cash machines in London is beyond me. There must be some sort of phone app by now, to locate the nearest machines, and yet few seem to use it. Is it the herd instinct? Or the madness of crowds?
I did once go up to a long ATM queue and tell the people at the back where to find another one nearby. They just looked at me strangely. Admittedly, I get that a lot.
I remark about this on Twitter, and am told that people are subconsciously attracted to standing behind someone using an ATM. To them, a machine without a queue signifies there’s something wrong with it. And I thought I was pessimistic.
, amy winehouse
, ATM machines
, east finchley phoenix
, jesus and mary chain
, joanna walsh
, orson welles
, vivian maier
A Party Band For The Shy
Saturday 27th June 2015.
Summer in the city. My fellow males get out their shorts and flip-flops, I reach for my white linen suits and ties. The phrase ‘comfortable clothing’ is entirely subjective. I think of those women who say they always wear high heels, to the point where walking in flats would be more difficult.
* * *
Sunday 28th June 2015.
Watch some of the BBC’s impressive coverage of Glastonbury. Quite like the way Belle and Sebastian have become a party band for the shy. The singer Stuart Murdoch bounces around the vast stage, and gets people from the crowd to come up and dance with him. Very different to the time I saw them at the Union Chapel in 1997, when the band performed warily and nervously, as if scared of their own microphones.
* * *
Monday 29th June 2015.
I read Edward St Aubyn’s comic novel Lost For Words, just released in paperback. It’s an enjoyable if light satire, seemingly written by St Aubyn as a diversion into playfulness, following on from his more serious Patrick Melrose series. I’m reminded how James Hamilton-Paterson dabbled in camp comedy late into his career, and successfully so, with Cooking With Fernet Branca.
Mr St Aubyn’s tale concerns various figures involved with a high-profile British literary prize. It’s not actually called the Booker Prize in the book, but that’s obviously the main target, down to the televised ceremony in a London banqueting hall. Much of the comedy arises from the way the judging of the prize has little to do with literary merit, and everything to do with personal agendas and ego. The conceit that an unassuming cookbook by an Indian auntie is mistaken for an innovative postmodern novel may stretch credulity, but the pay-off is too irresistible for this to matter. St Aubyn himself has his own agenda, having been a Booker shortlister, and so a Booker loser, with Mother’s Milk a few years ago. So at first the novel might seem like a piece of blatant sour grapes. But any opportunity for true nastiness – like murder – is reined in, and it’s just egos that end up bruised. St Aubyn’s message is more about the arbitrary nature of arts awards per se, rather than an attack on the people who give them out.
I do have a soft spot for his elegant observations. One example is: ‘They had drifted apart, as people do when they promise to stay in touch; the ones who are going to stay in touch don’t need to promise’.
Another is allotted to an inept editor, who sinks into depression but eventually talks himself round with this thought:
We were not put on this earth to hate ourselves.
The sentence is stark, useful, and meant. I like Lost For Words for that line alone.
* * *
Tuesday 30th June 2015.
To Gordon Square for a meeting with my final year Personal Tutor, Peter Fifield, just to wind the degree course up. Then to a ‘taster’ class on the MA course I’m hoping to do, in Contemporary Literature and Culture. We look at Joyce’s Ulysses, which I still haven’t read in full. From the extracts I can tell I’ll really enjoy it if I do, as opposed to just reading it out of duty. Finnegans Wake is more off-putting.
* * *
Wednesday 1st July 2015.
The hottest day in London for nearly ten years. Many trains have to run slowly to stop the rails from buckling, so there’s lots of delays. Once the trains do arrive, the insides are like furnaces. All this, despite the expensive fares.
After much anguish, I decide against attending a friend’s birthday in Crystal Palace. One reason is it would mean over two and a half hours spent being baked alive on public transport. Another is that I’m riddled with a summer cold. I apologise and send a card, but the guilt eats away.
* * *
My dry cough is made worse by the heat. I go to Boots in Euston for a bottle of Pholcodine Linctus, a medicine so strong in its drowsy effects that it is kept behind the counter. Once taken, there must be no driving, no alcohol, and no captaining of nuclear submarines.
The pharmacist asks me a few questions before she lets me have the bottle.
‘Who advised you to buy this?’
I confess: ‘Mumsnet.’
* * *
Thursday 2nd July 2015.
I write a letter to a US reader who is curious about my living arrangements. Do I really share a shower and a W.C. with ‘strangers’? This disturbs her.
Well, yes. It’s not quite like an American boarding house, as each rented room has its own little kitchen area inside – that’s what makes them bedsits. Two of the other tenants are people I knew socially before they moved in. The other two are only strangers in the sense that neighbours are strangers. I occasionally say hello to them in the hallway, and they seem nice enough. We operate the shared washrooms on a system of karmic consideration. If you use something, like a toilet roll, you replace it. If you make a mess, you clean it up. No rotas. Somehow we manage to get along.
I have lived like this all my adult life.
* * *
Evening: A second Pilates class at Jacksons Lane. The summer heat makes it much more like hard work, and I come away drenched in sweat, but glad I went. I’m still the only man there, out of a class of about a dozen.
* * *
Friday 3rd July 2015.
I love going to cinemas when it’s hot in London. The air conditioning is usually decent, and there’s the extra friendship of the darkness, now that the sun is so unkind. No skin cream needed for cinemas.
To the Curzon Soho for The Overnight, a small-scale American comedy, about two pairs of youngish, middle-class couples who spend a night at the artier couple’s house, getting to know each other. As the night goes on, the conventionally-minded guests are increasingly worried that their hosts want to know them much more intimately. This ‘middle class swingers’ plot is always good value – I think of the film The Ice Storm, Martin Amis’s Dead Babies, Julian Barnes’s Metroland, and even episodes of sitcoms like I’m Alan Partridge. But with its broad strokes and some crude humour, The Overnight is more a straightforward comedy of manners than social comment. The chief pleasure comes from watching Jason Schwartzman play yet another creepy but charismatic character, another little man who seeks to tower over others psychologically.
In the Curzon café, a woman at the table next to me uses what I assume to be a mirror, to pluck at a lone hair on her chin. Except on looking closer I realise it’s not a compact mirror, but the reverse camera option on her iPhone.
* * *
Dinner at the 5th floor student canteen at Birkbeck, in Torrington Square. Fish and chips for £4. I like the occasional comfort of ‘fish on Friday’, the alliterative tradition of the menu, as it was at school. Today is the last day of the summer term, and so it’s the last time to get a cheap evening meal here. I eat alone on the rooftop terrace. There are plenty of students chattering nearby, but they’re all in the Birkbeck bar, on the balcony level below. Here, it’s breezy enough to make the napkins flutter.
I’m told there are still some weeks to go before I am sent a ‘transcript’: the piece of paper which officially confirms my degree. In the meantime a long Pass List, covering all of Birkbeck’s Class of 2015, will go up on the college website on the 17th July. Not so far away now.
* * *
Tags: belle and sebastian
, Edward St Aubyn
, The Overnight
Cufflinks: Piercings For the Squeamish
Saturday 20th June 2015.
To the Little Baobab Bar in Lower Clapton Road, for fellow student Hester R’s birthday. It’s one of those times where I seem to only know the birthday person, and not any of their friends. But this time I surprise myself and chat happily away to whomever I’m with. I wonder if one reason for this is that no one has been to the venue before, so there’s an extra need to speak to each other and overcome the unfamiliarity. The bar is Senegalese and West African, and despite the usual décor of exposed brickwork and dangling light fittings that one finds in East London eateries, it doesn’t feel overly trendy. The mojitos are made with baobab juice: delicious and cheap (and so even easier to enjoy). Later on, a couple of musicians play in one corner: one on acoustic guitar, and one on a tall, harp-like stringed instrument. The music, presumably Senegalese, turns out to be classical, slow and soothing, almost ambient.
* * *
On the tube. A group of young people all get on at once, decked out in matching red tracksuits, green baseball caps, and big plastic sunglasses. They huddle in the aisle and reel off a series of chants together, cheerleader-style. At first I wonder if they’re part of a spontaneous people-power event, like a flash mob, or a wry protest, or an immersive film night. Eventually one of them comes over to me and hands me a card, now more subdued and sheepish as he does so. It’s for a company that provides home deliveries from shops.
This is a common London feeling: the realisation that something intriguing and unusual is just another advert.
* * *
Irritations over modern language. A common subject line on emails is ‘in case you missed it’, sometimes abbreviated to ICYMI. It’s the neediness of the phrase that irks me, as well as the way it bevels down individuality to join in with a consensus of limited catchphrases. Another is ‘a thing’, as in ‘I did a thing’ or ‘it’s for a thing’ or ‘is X a thing now’?
Perhaps one reason for my resentment of such phrases is the same as the one for my resentment over the ubiquity of beards: I don’t think I am capable of joining in. So it becomes another way of feeling that modern life is something other people do, not me.
In any case, the idea of ‘in case you missed it’ has a threatening quality, to my mind. It’s like another cliché that journalists like, when talking about something that’s reached saturation level in the media: ‘Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last month…’ The only sane response to this phrase is to become a cave-dweller at once.
In the news this week, the slang acronym FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – is added to the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Romo’ has yet to be included, twenty years on after its coinage in the UK music media, and its association with my band, Orlando. Given that all life is missing out, one way or another, I like to think that Romo has acquired a new meaning as an acronym. ROMO: Relief Of Missing Out.
* * *
I amuse myself watching a late night music documentary about Prince, spoofing it in my head with lines like ‘In 1985, Prince was accused of unabashed naughtiness… In 1986, Prince invented a new note, X, which he only ever played for extra naughtiness.’ And to the tune ‘When Doves Cry’, I find myself thinking of our new Lord Chancellor, and sing the phrase ‘When Goves Cry’.
* * *
Sunday 21st June 2015.
More thoughts of in-jokery, this time for humanities students who are also fans of Mean Girls: ‘Stop trying to make Orientalism happen, Edward. It’s not going to happen.’
On the internet, where context is the first casualty, there is now the added entertainment of watching other people not get the joke. On Twitter, there’s an account that purely caters to this curious mix of schadenfreude and scorn, @YesThatsTheJoke. But presumably it only works for the jokes that the YesThatsTheJoke person gets, too.
On The Quietus site this week, there’s a review of the new Muse album by ‘Mr Agreeable’. Mr Agreeable is a jokey fictional avatar created in a pre-web age. He first appeared in the early 90s (possibly earlier), as a regular feature in Melody Maker. The joke is that Mr Agreeable is anything but agreeable. He not so much writes as spews out a torrent of asterisk-spattered swear words, disproportionate vitriol, and downright violent imagery. His over-the-top-ness is, as they say, the joke. For aging readers of Melody Maker like me, seeing new Mr Agreeable reviews now is a nostalgic pleasure. But this being the internet, there is a comments section underneath. And in that section are lots of angry young Muse fans complaining that the review is not proper journalism. Yes, one wants to say, with deadpan resignation. Yes, that’s the joke.
How to explain to them that there was once a magazine – sorry, a ‘thing’ – called Melody Maker? More to the point, how to explain that once upon a time, columns of pure hatred were clearly meant to be read as jokes? I now realise that Mr Agreeable was a prophet of the Web. Disproportionate anger is what people do constantly now, sometimes professionally (Katie Hopkins, Jeremy Clarkson). Except that they’re not joking.
* * *
Wednesday 24th June 2015.
Put off by one job advert today, purely by its usage of exclamation marks.
Most days this week, I am wearing a white suit with seahorse cufflinks. I like to think of cufflinks as the squeamish person’s piercings.
I binge-watch the new (third) series of Orange Is The New Black. The phrase is apt, as I feel a little ill and bloated afterwards. The series is superb, though, finding new backstories for even the minor characters. There’s about thirty recurring roles, so if a plotline isn’t interesting, a better one always comes along soon enough. What I’d like to see now is Carol Morley writing and directing an episode. She’d be perfect.
* * *
Thursday 25th June 2015.
I meet Mum at St Pancras, and we have lunch at the British Library, to celebrate her birthday. The library café area finally has plenty of free seats, and in the afternoon too. All the students seem to have either taken their laptops outside into the nice weather (more chairs and tables there), or – more likely – they’ve finished their studies. Where are they all now, I wonder?
Glastonbury must be one answer. I try to balance my envy of those going to or appearing at festivals, with the consolatory thought that I also love sleeping in a room with four walls. Not to mention my love of indoor flushing toilets. As it is, going to Glastonbury purely as a punter seems increasingly redundant. These days, with the blanket media coverage, it comes to you.
Mum and I take a look at the current free exhibition in the British Library foyer. It’s one big exhibit: Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery). Marking the anniversary of the real thing – which is on show next door – this Magna Carta is a stitched version of the Wikipedia page about the Magna Carta, as it appeared on the day of the 799th anniversary, last year. Most of the text has been stitched by people in the Fine Cell Work charity, which trains convicted prisoners in needlework skills. Mum is thrilled about this: she went to a FCW talk a few months ago – given by a former convict – and found his story of finding new purpose through the art of stitching utterly fascinating. A few of the words have been stitched by public figures, such as Jarvis Cocker, whose selected words are, rather wonderfully, ‘Common People’. Somehow they got Edward Snowdon to stitch a word, too, and it’s one which sums up the essence of the project: ‘liberty’.
* * *
In a lonely mood, I overreact when I realise that I’ve been blocked by a music writer on Twitter. A second one, in fact. I have no idea why. I don’t think I’ve ever had any kind of interaction with the writer – I just want to read his work. I ask around on Twitter and find someone who assures me that blocking is what that particular writer likes to do, apparently notoriously, and often of people he either doesn’t like, or doesn’t like by association. I also find another writer who happily blocks people he doesn’t like pre-emptively, because he hates the idea of them reading his work.
So much for Forster’s ‘only connect’. I have a vision of books in a library snapping shut as a reader approaches: ‘Oh no, not you!’
I come away from this thinking that (a) I’m not as unreasonably grumpy as I think I am, not compared to others, (b) I would never block someone on Twitter unless they’d actively sent me abuse, and (c) I do hope Virginia Woolf doesn’t think I’m a twat.
* * *
Friday 26th June 2015.
I watch the third and final episode of How to be a Bohemian with Victoria Coren Mitchell. There’s a brief glimpse of one of Maggi Hambling’s paintings of Sebastian Horsley, which Ms Coren Mitchell narrates as ‘portraits of other bohemians…’
For me, this is particularly interesting. Mr H once told me how Ms M had cancelled an interview she’d intended to have with him, due to his using one of his typically provocative comments. As she said herself in her column (2 September 2007):
I rang him to suggest meeting in Belsize Park, a leafy area of north London.
‘I can’t bear Belsize Park,’ yawned Horsley. ‘It’s full of Jews.’
I have a vivid memory of actually telling Mr H off about this, as I couldn’t agree with this particular manner of épater la bourgeoisie. ‘Why do you say things you don’t really mean?’ I said. ‘Oh well…’ was his reply.
On another occasion, when Mr Horsley was reading from his autobiography and got to some general statement about sex and women, a lady in the audience shouted out ‘You chauvinist swine!’ (or words to that effect), and stormed out. Sebastian smiled sweetly after her. ‘I’ll say the reverse if it makes you come back!’
So I now wonder if Ms Coren Mitchell has forgiven Mr Horsley, by including him in her film, albeit very briefly. Or if she accepted him as a modern bohemian, in spite of her reservations, as she did for the Bloomsbury Group. Either way, it was good to see him included.
One fictional bohemian that I’m surprised wasn’t mentioned at all is Sherlock Holmes. The story that made him famous was the first of the Doyle tales which appeared in The Strand, ‘A Scandal In Bohemia’. Much of the story plays on the pun of his client being the blackmailed King of Bohemia, while Holmes is scandalised as a bohemian in terms of his bachelor lifestyle. He falls for a woman who defeats him: Irene Adler. Even the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock makes much of the main character’s bohemianism. The word might not be mentioned, but his bachelor status and sense of being an odd child-like man, among conventional adults, is certainly focused upon in the series.
* * *
And that particular bohemian lives on even more. To the Phoenix cinema for Mr Holmes. Ian McKellen plays an elderly take on the Victorian detective, set in 1947. The conceit is that in this world, Doyle’s stories exist, but they are written by Watson as pieces of popular journalism. The story switches between a 60-year-old Holmes in Baker Street, with the circumstances surrounding his last case, and a 90-something Holmes in his Sussex cottage, teaching beekeeping to a small boy, while battling against memory loss. McKellen’s performance is worth seeing alone, but there’s also lots of standard Holmes deduction scenes, tied in with poignant hints of a denied emotional life. The price of bachelorhood.
* * *
I’ve had a week of feeling very ghost-like and detached from the world. Not quite knowing which path to take next. In fact, walking around in a white suit rather makes me resemble a ghost too.
However, today I have a nice surprise. At Foyles, the staffer on the till suddenly gives me £6 off the book I’m buying, by using his staff discount.
‘Because I like your records’.
* * *
, British Library
, getting recognised
, mr holmes
, orange is the new black
, Sebastian Horsley
, sherlock holmes
, victoria coren mitchell
An @ Of One’s Own
Saturday 13th June 2015.
I walk through Waterloo Station. The whole building has been turned into an advert for the new Jurassic Park film. Looped video trailers flank the train announcement boards, while the movie’s logo dots the entire concourse floor. In the centre of the station, a tableau of fibreglass full-sized dinosaurs are caught in the act of breaking out of their container. I bristle at this assault by Hollywood on my consciousness, but then feel guilty when I see small children taking delight in posing with the daft static creatures. It’s got dinosaurs in it, so children will be happy.
I’ve not seen the film, but I’m guessing that it involves something going wrong at a dinosaur park.
* * *
Evening: I watch a nostalgic TV show marking 20 years since Britpop. It feels far too soon, but I suppose two decades ago is long enough. A whole generation ago. The funny thing is it gives me flashbacks, not of the 90s, but of a previous 90s nostalgia show from the early 2000s: I Heart the 1990s. One episode had Edwyn Collins introducing himself with the phrase, ‘Hi! I’m Edwyn “A Girl Like You” Collins!’
So a new 90s nostalgia show triggers my nostalgia for an old 90s nostalgia show.
In the same way that Wikipedia has outsourced knowing things first hand, TV’s love of editing history to suit a convenient format has replaced first hand, organic, untidy memory. I feel that many of my actual memories of the 90s have been taped over in my head, replaced with 90s nostalgia pieces.
However, one thing that the run of 90s programmes seems to omit is how OK Computer changed music in 1997, just as much as Britpop did in 1994. After that, a huge swathe of rock bands switched from trying to be Oasis to trying to be Radiohead. The blueprint was now for big, mournful, stadium-friendly rock, devoid of any sense of a generational or national identity; angsty yet tasteful. The end result was Coldplay. But perhaps the full meaning of 1997 is something to look forward to in 2017.
* * *
Sunday 14th June 2015.
I visit the club The Nitty Gritty, at the Constitution bar in Camden. The DJ is Debbie Smith, a fellow 90s rock survivor, given her stints back then in the bands Curve and Echobelly. At The Nitty Gritty though, she plays a highly enjoyable set of vintage soul, R&B and 60s girl groups, to a very cool-looking crowd of vintage-dressed, and queer-friendly customers. One woman – a staffer, I think – has a kind of immaculate rockabilly take on Amy Winehouse’s look. Camden still has a certain fizzy life to it, if you know where to go.
As I enter the bar from the Regent’s Canal towpath, Ms Smith is playing ‘Sometimes I Wish I Were A Boy’ by Lesley Gore. It’s a tune I used to have as my band Fosca’s going-onstage music. And here I am entering a room to the song once again.
* * *
Monday 15th June 2015.
More coincidences. Today I’m re-reading Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat, including the part where the narrator imagines the whole Magna Carta ceremony. It’s only afterwards that I realise today is the 800th anniversary of the signing.
Jerome’s ‘J’ subscribes to the theory that the event took place on Magna Carta Island itself, rather than on the opposite bank of the Thames, at Runnymede:
Had I been one of the Barons, I should have strongly urged upon my comrades the advisability of our getting such a slippery customer as King John on to the island, where there was less chance of surprises and tricks. (Three Men In A Boat, Chapter 12).
* * *
The Queen’s Birthday Honours this week. My favourite reason for declining an honour: ‘So aging!’ – Francis Bacon. Favourite for accepting: ‘I thought of the people it would annoy’ – Kingsley Amis.
* * *
Tuesday 16th June 2015.
I watch the second episode of How to be a Bohemian with Victoria Coren Mitchell, the BBC4 series. Pleased to see Stephen Tennant given a look-in. And lots of shots of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, inside and out, due to its previous life as a Bloomsbury Group location.
Ms Coren Mitchell manages to have her moral cake and eat it, regarding Eric Gill’s incest and bestiality. ‘I’d like to go back in time and kneecap Eric Gill’, she says at one point, in case anyone was in doubt on where she stands on sexual abuse. Still, I suppose this is 2015, and it’s the BBC, with its Gill sculptures on the outside of Broadcasting House (one of which is now surrounded by the livery of a Caffe Nero), so some obvious things still have to be said aloud.
To her credit, though, Ms CM also lets interviewees with opposing views make their case. Grayson Perry challenges her scorn of the Bloomsbury Group’s snobbery and privilege: ‘Are we awarding creative points for being poor, or for being creative?’, while Richard Coles asserts how important it is that Gill’s sculptures remain in place, not only on the BBC building, but also in Westminster Cathedral: they serve as a reminder that ‘the sinner stands at the heart of Christianity’. Trust the art, not the artist.
* * *
I never felt like those people formerly in bands who look back on their music as a weird ‘phase’. I’m even weirder now.
* * *
Wednesday 17th June 2015.
To Senate House for the London Graduate Fair. Very crowded, lots of stalls. The actual type of work seems to be quite limited. Nothing arty. No publishers of literature, no arts organisations. As far as I can tell, the main options for graduates seem to be: the warzone of corporate management, the warzone of school teaching, or, given the prominent British Army stall, actual war.
A group of uniformed soldiers have various weapons lined up on trestle tables: bazookas, grenade launchers, rifles. It’s like a Fresher’s Fair, only with fewer Pot Noodles and more guns. I last fifteen minutes, which is longer than I’d last in the army. I suppose an ability to write High First Class essays on Oscar Wilde might be handy when battling insurgents in Helmand Province, but I didn’t stay to find out.
* * *
Thursday 18th June 2015.
To Jacksons Lane Community Centre for a new experience: a class in Pilates. ‘This is not going to be pretty,’ I think. ‘Not least because I have to wear something other than a suit.’
I turn out to be the only man in a class of women, and the least experienced by far; I’ve still never stepped inside a gym. But the female tutor is very sympathetic. She comes over to me whenever I’m struggling (which is often) and never makes me feel a fool. It’s hard work, and confusing at times, as I’m trying to work out how to move parts of my body which I’m fairly sure I’ve never moved before. On top of that, I have to work out when to breathe – something I keep forgetting to do, on account of trying to keep up with the instructions. But the effect is like blowing the dust off an entire lifetime. I feel the better for it afterwards, and decide to keep it up.
As for what I wore: my baggy grey jogging bottoms (though I haven’t gone running in years). Plus my sole t-shirt. It’s a promotional shirt for an absinthe company.
* * *
Friday 19th June 2015.
I walk up Shaftesbury Avenue and see that the new Picturehouse cinema has just opened: Picturehouse Central. It’s in the shell of the old CineWorld Shaftesbury Avenue, in the northwest section of the Trocadero. Although much of the Picturehouse is still not ready (including the rooftop members bar), it is already a vast improvement on its former self. The Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue will not be missed. Tacky, windowless and claustrophobic, it always felt like part of a run-down regional 1980s shopping mall. But then, a run-down regional 1980s shopping mall was pretty much what the Trocadero had become in recent years. Central London has always been torn between an embracing of garish franchises and souvenir shops, and a love of rarer emporiums steeped in history, character, and personality. The Picturehouses may be a chain, but they’re closer to Waterstones than WH Smith. A sense of humanity, rather than raw, faceless commerce.
The new cinema’s ground floor café does look a bit like a Shoreditch eatery, with its ceiling stripped back to the bare brick and concrete, and its air ducting and dangling light fittings on conspicuously trendy display. But there’s some nice proper booths with tables – rather like those in the late New Piccadilly Café in nearby Denman Street. When my veggie sandwich arrives on a proper china plate, and not on a recycled hubcap or an on old vinyl album, I find myself warming to the place.
(There is currently a popular social media account called ‘We Want Plates’. It campaigns against the trend in arty restaurants to present their meals on anything from wooden boards to slabs of rock. I have to admit I, too, want plates).
The wall of the café is covered in a mural rendered in a naïve, David Shrigley-like doodle, on the theme of cinema. There’s scenes from cinema history, diagrams on narrative theory, and fictional examples of cinema archetypes, such as ‘Man Shouting Out Of A Prius In LA, On His Way To A Thing’. As for the actual films, there’s seven screens, including a 341-seater with Dolby Atmos, whatever that is. The type of films on offer seem to be a bit of everything: in this first week, you can choose between the arty likes of Carol Morley’s The Falling, the critically loved Girlhood and London Road, and documentaries like The Look of Silence and Dark Horse. And if you absolutely must, there’s also Jurassic World 3D.
* * *
To Senate House Library in Malet Street, where I hand back my remaining library books in time for the expiry of my BA-affiliated membership card. Another sign of the degree coming to an end.
Birkbeck’s summer term still has a couple of weeks left, so tonight I attend an open lecture in the basement of Gordon Square. It’s on the history of sexuality, by Heike Bauer, one of the tutors who marked my dissertation.
Dr Bauer quotes the building’s old resident Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own. One problem when it comes to discussing sexuality in history is that as Woolf puts it, ‘fiction is likely to contain more truth than fact’.
Dr B also quotes a more modern example of a discussion on the subject: a recent Twitter conversation between herself and various other academics, who managed to boil down their arguments into 140 characters. Less than 140, in fact, as they need characters for the hashtags and the other ‘@’ names. In 2015, a paper’s abstract (its summary) is not nearly abstract enough.
Today, Woof’s ideal of a private room is less urgent, as so many writers enjoy working in crowded cafes and libraries, or even outdoors (a common sight on social media is a photo of a sunny park, with the caption: ‘My office today!’). Now, it’s more important to have an ‘@’ sign of one’s own.
Dr B also focuses on the work of Magnus Hirschfeld, he of the 1920s Berlin Institute of Sexology, as visited by Isherwood in Christopher and His Kind. She talks about how Hirschfeld visited Cambridge sometime around 1905-7, while Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland was studying there. However, he was careful to avoid bumping into young Holland and embarrassing him, due to the shame associated with his father. The very words ‘Oscar Wilde’ were, at this time, absolutely synonymous with male homosexuality, and his reputation was yet to recover. Instead, Hirschfeld witnessed a group of students – a kind of secret Edwardian Cambridge Gay Soc- who gathered together to read ‘ The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ in a ritual of solidarity. On their shirts they wore Wilde’s prison number: C33.
I’m reminded of John Betjeman’s poem ‘Narcissus’, about his childhood. In the poem, Betjeman’s mother chastises him for bonding too much with a friend. This would have been in the early 1910s:
My Mother wouldn’t tell me why she hated
The things we did, and why they pained her so.
She said a fate far worse than death awaited
People who did the things we didn’t know,
And then she said I was her precious child,
And once there was a man called Oscar Wilde.
, bloomsbury group
, debbie smith
, eric gill
, grayson perry
, heike bauer
, jacksons lane community centre
, jerome k jerome
, john betjeman
, magna carter
, nitty gritty
, oscar wilde
, picturehouse central
, richard coles
, victoria coren mitchell
, virginia woolf
Not The Conga Kind
Saturday 6th June 2015.
Still in a post-degree limbo, I find myself recalling my first encounter with the concept of academic writing. It was the 1983 book Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, the first such academic text on the TV series. No shortage of them now. One of my BA seminars on cultural nostalgia included the observation that the 50th anniversary episode, The Day of the Doctor, tapped directly into the programme’s association with generational memories. Specifically, the idea that people’s favourite Doctor was often the one they grew up with.
In 1983, I was a big enough fan to investigate any book on the show, and so picked up The Unfolding Text in a bookshop. The cover seemed fan-friendly enough: a photo of the current Doctor – Peter Davison – in front of the TARDIS. But the text inside was utterly baffling. English phrases, yet used in a way that I just couldn’t understand: ‘semiotics’ this, and ‘signified’ that. To an eleven-year-old boy, academia seemed rather, well, alien.
Today, I like to think I could finally go back to that book and understand it. Or at least, some of it.
* * *
To Smollensky’s, a restaurant in Canary Wharf, for the wedding reception of my cousin Jonathan. Mum and Tom are there, along with cousins I’ve not seen for years, like Caroline and Beth. Caroline says she saw me on that Imagine programme on blogging – and that was ten years ago. Time leaks away.
Wedding DJ music in 2015: the Jackson Five, One Direction, Beyonce, Franz Ferdinand.
At one point a conga line dances through the venue, and sweeps up most people in the room. All except the Peroxide Contingent: myself, Tom, and Tom’s partner Ms C, who has bleached white hair, shaved at the sides. For one horrifying moment, I think I’m going to be dragged into the conga line. But a code of respectful glances passes between us. Family though we all are, everyone is different, some more than others, and that’s okay.
Whatever I am, I know I am not the conga kind.
* * *
Sunday 7th June 2015.
To a sunny Regent’s Park for Martin W’s annual birthday picnic. Martin still sends out paper invites in the post, double-sided. This year’s invite star is Edith Sitwell, her photo tinted like a Smiths sleeve.
Also present: a few Birkbeck tutors such as Joe Brooker and Caroline Edwards (no relation, but the second C.E. in one weekend), Adrian Lobb, and Lauren Laverne, whom I last saw (I think) at the last ever Kenickie concert. It seems redundant to ask Ms LL what she’s been up to since then, but I’m very pleased to see her again. Birkbeck now, Kenickie then: worlds colliding, time collapsing.
* * *
Monday 8th June 2015.
Evening: to the beautiful Brunei Gallery in Bloomsbury, for a Birkbeck panel event about jobs in the arts sector, followed by a vegetarian dinner at the Coach and Horses, courtesy of Hester R.
At the event, one man from the BBC says, ‘Golden rule for getting work: close your Facebook account at once. People check.’ He doesn’t go into detail, but I presume he means just closing down the security settings. From my experience, FB can be helpful for networking and asking for advice, as long as it’s confined to friends only.
This is a very modern dilemma though: Googling a prospective employee may give quite an unfair impression of the way a person is now, as opposed to the way they used to be. One of the new influx of MPs at the recent election was a woman young enough to have grown up with Twitter. The media and Have I Got News For You soon found a series of embarrassing tweets she’d made in her teenage years, still there, still online. Not career-destroying, but it made me think of the way the internet is like Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale: a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.
If I were an employer, the fact that a candidate had recently closed down their social media account would be more worrying than if they hadn’t.
* * *
Funny how things get uninvented. Today I have to explain to a younger person on Twitter what an internet café was. I used to frequent them in London, before the explosion in wifi and broadband, circa 2002.
I remember one man shouting in through the door of an internet cafe: ‘Why don’t you all just make a phone call?’
The phone got its own back in the end.
* * *
Tuesday 9th June 2015.
An excellent evening spent in the ornate Cafe Royal on Regent Street, attending Ian Kelly’s talk on Beau Brummell. I cheekily turn up unannounced, hoping Suzette Field will let me in – it’s one of her Curious Invitation events – and am grateful that she does. I chat with Joanne Kernan, Laura Bridgeman, Debbie Smith and their dapper pals from the besuited butch female troupe, the Drakes. A suit-lover’s Utopia, frankly.
Learned tonight: the term ‘toff’ is thought to come from ‘toffee-nosed’, after the brown stains on the noses of Regency snuff-takers. And there are references to Beau Brummell in the lyrics of at least two musicals: Annie and Gypsy.
Mr Kelly’s scoop for his 2005 biography is that he discovered Brummell died of syphilis. No one had checked the medical records until then.
* * *
Wednesday 10th June 2015.
To St Thomas’s Hospital on the south side of Westminster Bridge, visiting Heather M after an operation. Her bed has an eighth-floor riverside view, directly opposite Big Ben. It is the view that so many London-set films insist can be seen from any window. ‘Scene: London’.
* * *
Thursday 11th June 2015.
I am given a tour of the new-ish BBC Broadcasting House, courtesy of Charley Stone, Lolo Wood and Billy Reeves. It’s exactly as the sitcom W1A implies: a post-Google HQ warren of transparent walls, vertiginous light-wells, and endless meeting rooms named after popular broadcasters of old. I’m not sure the ‘Frankie Howerd’ room of W1A really exists, but I pass ones for Ludovic Kennedy and Alistair Cooke. Plus there’s huge open plan offices where channels merge into each other (I’m not sure where BBC London ends and the World Service begins). Everyone has security passes worn around the neck on red lanyard straps, which Billy accessories with a silk scarf. BBC staff in 2015 look like they’re working for one huge arts festival that never stops.
One of my Birkbeck classmates turns out to work alongside Billy. ‘How do you know Dickon?’ she asks. ‘The 90s. Bands. London.’
The BBC is stuffed with people who used to be in indie bands. The Menswear drummer, the Field Mice guitarist, the BMX Bandits singer, Kenickie’s singer, Catatonia’s singer… Billy R was the main songwriter in the band ‘Theaudience’.
Outside, I walk past a queue of fans of a band that are making music now, and whom I suppose will end up joining the BBC circa 2025: All Time Low. The fans are all teenage girls, without exception, many with coloured hair. I’ve not heard the music, but from the hair alone I’m guessing it’s more Green Day than One Direction.
The band emerges to greet the fans: more coloured hair, but also: leather jackets. The clothes, the ability of teenage girls to worship bands, both not new. What is new is that today’s fan doesn’t carry an autograph book. Now they expect a photo alongside their idol. And then they show the photo to the entire world. As a result, today’s bands have to perform a lot more gracious smiling than the bands of the past, on a level that must rival the Queen.
The BBC entrance foyer has a Dalek, again popular with the cult of the selfie. Except the Dalek doesn’t have to look gracious.
Later: home to a sobering PRS statement of next to nothing. ‘If you anticipate your earnings will exceed £81k, contact HMRC’. Fat chance. I wonder if the BBC have room for one more 90s musician?
* * *
Early evening: Still in job-seeking mode, I attend a class at Birkbeck on how to use the LinkedIn website. ‘Your profile photo must show you looking happy. But not because you are drunk’.
* * *
Evening: get a bit upset when blanked in a bar by someone I have a crush on. Brood on this while walking home – and nearly don’t see an acquaintance waving frantically to me out of friendship. Which says it all.
Must be grateful for the affection one has.
Crushes tend to be based on a version of the person that doesn’t exist. Those All Time Low fans may look like they’re going through a phase, but the type of emotion is lifelong.
* * *
Friday 12th June 2015.
A muggy day. To the East Finchley Phoenix for London Road. ‘Ipswich, England’ goes the opening caption. I know Ipswich, England all right. Born there, raised nearby, worked there, studied there, and even lived there for a short time, in 1990. I wasn’t there in 2006, though, when this film is set, when the town found itself the centre of the world’s attention. The film adapts the National Theatre’s ‘verbatim’ musical about the killing of five Ipswich sex workers, and does so brilliantly, movingly, ingeniously, wittily, and most important of all, cinematically. The scenery doesn’t quite feel like Ipswich to me – more a kind of fantasy British Anytown – but the accents are right: a mixture of rural Suffolk and Estuary English. Tom Hardy briefly pops up behind a steering wheel (again), this time as a cab driver who imposes his amateur detective theories on a hapless passenger.
Evening: To Vout-O-Reenee’s in Tower Hill for the launch of the 20th anniversary issue of the Scottish poetry journal, The Dark Horse. Guest of Sophie Parkin. I get a copy of the magazine. It’s more like a large format paperback: 200 pages, a thick spine, red and black serif type, all carefully typeset by the editor Gerry Cambridge. He clearly has as much of an eye for beautiful fonts and book layouts as he does for beautiful verse.
Of the live readings, I catch one established poet that even non-poetry fans have heard of: Wendy Cope. She reads her exclusive poems for the issue (making it a must-buy alone), alongside some of her greatest hits: the one about the corkscrew, the one about not standing a chance with AE Housman, and my favourite, indeed called ‘Favourite’, about liking a particular poet – and his poems too.
, london road
, new broadcasting house
, so that's all good
, sophie parkin
, wendy cope
Department of Applied Peroxide
Saturday 30th May 2015.
To the countryside near Bishop’s Stortford, for a family gathering. The weather is still not summery enough, and despite a marquee in the garden, I lurk indoors in the kitchen. The FA Cup plays on a TV, for the indulgence of a lone football fan at the party. Later, on the Northern Line tube home, I see a trio of small boys decked out in what I take to be some sort of gaudy scout uniform. Either that or it’s a Harry Potter fancy dress party outfit: jumpers and scarves in striped bright yellow and blue. It is only later that I realise these are the away colours for Arsenal.
All dress is fancy dress, if the onlooker doesn’t get the memo.
* * *
Sunday 31st May 2015.
With Ella H for the afternoon. Tea and welsh rarebit at the travel-sized branch of Fortnums in St Pancras (a perfect hangover cure). Then across through the newly cleaned up area north of King’s Cross. We pass a glossy new building on the left, whose empty ground floor uses spooky neon displays and oddly-posed mannequins to announce its commercial availability. People are standing around and taking photos of the mannequins, unsure if this is an art installation or a glorified ‘To Let’ sign. It seems to be both.
Then to the House of Illustration gallery, for Mac Conner: A New York Life. The gallery is barely a year old, and has to be sought out behind the new St Martin’s college, rather than dropped into out of impulse. Last time I was here it was for Quentin Blake’s work for children. Mac Conner’s oeuvre in the 1950s was very much intended for adults: gouache paintings made to strict commission, by the Mad Men of the era. Those sharp-suited barons of public taste. There’s the inevitable adverts that have now acquired a tinge of comic hindsight, extolling the glamour of smoking and atomic energy. But many images are scenes from fiction, intended to accompany pulp-ish short stories and serialisations of novels. All the men in these dramatic, Hitchcockian scenes are square-jawed cads and rogues, while all the women are imaginary sisters of Audrey Hepburn or Doris Day. Their expressions are troubled, but their clothes are immaculate. Mac Conner himself is shown on a video, interviewed last year. He is still drawing at the age of 101.
We end up in the ornate Gilbert Scott bar, with its distinctive portico on Euston Road, and attack slightly too many glasses of rosé.
* * *
Monday 1st June 2015.
Evening: a drinks gathering at the Euston Flyer for fellow student (now turned student union worker) Miriam, and other friends – Charley, Jo, Sarah H, all not seen in months. It all gets very silly and giggly. The Flyer is opposite the British Library, a touch anonymous but not too touristy. And unusually for a pub near a London station, it has plenty of seats.
* * *
Tuesday 2nd June 2015.
Life among rented rooms. My neighbour David R-P knocks on my door in the morning. En route to the shower, he has locked himself out of his room, due to the fickle whims of Yale locks. Now he is stranded in the limbo of the shared hallway, equipped only with his pyjamas and towel. In films – most recently Birdman – this predicament is ripe for farce. But in real life it just means a combination of sheepishness and phone calls. The upshot is that I spend a pleasant couple of hours inviting David in for coffee, letting him use my internet and phone, and waiting for help to arrive. A spare key is located by the landlady, and all is well before lunchtime. I record this to disprove two common assumptions about London: that neighbours never help each other, and that landlords do not care about their tenants’ welfare.
* * *
In the evening: to Senate House for a special Birkbeck lecture by Marina Warner. It’s this year’s William Matthews lecture, funded by a bequest from the eponymous professor’s estate. I discover that Professor Matthews not only started out as a Birkbeck student (getting his BA, MA and PHD there in the 20s and 30s), but he also edited collections of diaries, including the definitive edition of Samuel Pepys.
Marina W’s talk centres on the UK’s ‘provincial’ tendency to shy away from world fiction in translation – ashamedly so, compared to other European countries. She talks about having recently judged the Booker International Prize, the winner being Hungary’s László Krasznahorkai, and champions his work in this talk. She also cites a quote by Joe Sacco that I like: ‘fiction allows a writer to connect the dots, while journalists often place the dots down without connecting them.’ (from an interview in the New Yorker, 14 November 2013).
David R-P unexpectedly turns up at the event’s wine reception afterwards: he and his companion, Nicoletta Wylde, are fellow fans of Ms Warner. An academic-looking man comes over to chat, curious about our appearance. DRP’s hair is bottle blond like mine, albeit much longer, while Nicoletta’s hair is a vivid Gothic Blue. ‘What is all this?’ he says, gesturing at us. ‘Department of Applied Peroxide’, I reply.
I chat to a few of my Birkbeck tutors, including Roger Luckhurst, about how Senate House turns up in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Day of the Triffids, and the Christian Bale Batman films. Even the ventilation ducts have an Art Deco labyrinth design, not unlike the striking logo for Christopher Nolan’s film company, Syncopy.
After this, David and Nicoletta accompany me over to Gordon Square, so I can pick up my latest essay result before we look for somewhere to eat. Fittingly, the essay is for my piece on Angela Carter, a favourite subject of Marina Warner. The mark is 75: a good First. Points off for not fully explaining who Ronald Firbank was, apparently (poor old Firbank…).
We repair to Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes around the corner for pizza and prosecco. (Would Virginia Woolf have approved? She did like cricket…) There’s a section of American diner-style booths, cordoned off in a separate glass section, so all the pool-playing and bowling can’t be heard. It’s pleasingly empty, too.
* * *
Wednesday 3rd June 2015.
A current cliché in online discourse is the phrase ‘to be fair’. It is so common that it has its own acronym: ‘tbf’. I find myself wincing at it, in the same way I wince at ‘famously’.
A joke suggests itself: “I have lightened my hair. To be fair.”
* * *
Evening: To Gordon Square yet again, this time for the English Department’s ‘end of studies’ party in the Keynes Library. I chat to a mixture of familiar and new faces, and we carry on the chat into the Birkbeck bar proper, over in Torrington Square. It’s becoming a week of heavy socialising, not to say over-indulgence. Unusual for me, but after so much putting aside of fun things into order to meet deadlines, I’m letting myself off the leash a little.
* * *
Thursday 4th June 2015.
I get the dissertation back, the one on 21st century literary camp. The mark is 70: a First, if only just. I’m pleased and grateful. I have to admit that dissertations are a new form of assessment for me, and the subject matter IS notoriously slippery – possibly even controversial. I had the temerity to invent a new term for it: ‘campism’ – to denote a deliberate use of camp in order to produce a subversive effect. So I was somewhat stepping into untested waters. Or, given it was about camp, untested John Waters.
Am also pleased with the comments, given that they’re the last word from the whole four-year course: ‘A confident and sophisticated piece of work… insightful, careful, nuanced critical textual analysis… compelling, excellent work, and a fitting conclusion to your degree’.
And that’s all the final year provisional marks back. I now have to wait till mid-July to have them finalised, by various mysterious ‘external boards’. I like to think they meet in darkened crypts with flaming torches. Only then do I get the degree.
I go to see A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, at the ICA. It’s a moody, slow, black and white tale of an Iranian skateboarding vampire. She uses her Islamic chador like bat wings. The film is stylistically original, but very demanding in its slowness. I prefer Only Lovers Left Alive in the Arty Vampire Film stakes (vampire puns do seem hard to avoid).
* * *
Friday 5th June 2015.
One more film this week: Listen Up Philip, at the Phoenix in East Finchley. A screen in the cinema café now displays a photo of Benedict Cumberbatch, along with his statement on becoming a patron, championing the cause of independent cinemas and so on.
Listen Up Philip isn’t a very likeable film, with its self-obsessed novelist character (Jason Schwartzman) moving out of the New York flat he shares with Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men again). He goes off to ‘find himself’ by staying at a summer house owned by another self-obsessed novelist, if a more fun one (Jonathan Pryce). There’s a god-like voice-over narrator, which I think is meant to make the film feel like a novel in itself. But in fact, it just doesn’t work – it pushes the audience away from any proper connection with the story. Ms Moss’s lesser character is more interesting and sympathetic, to the point where I wanted to see two hours about her instead. To carry on the novel simile, the film feels like an early draft that has accidentally been printed up, Franzen-like, as a proper edition.
Curiously, both A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and Listen Up Philip have long scenes involving the comforting appeal of cats. Perhaps the internet is to blame.
Both are also set in surreally indistinct time periods: some sort of pre-digital past, where people only listen to music on vinyl. It’s as if one has to go to the cinema now to remind oneself of a world where people didn’t worship pocket devices. We go to watch a big screen, in order to escape all the little ones.
Tags: a girl walks home alone at night
, BA marks
, house of illustration
, listen up philip
, marina warner
, senate house
Aphorisms For Ghosts
Saturday 23rd May 2015.
I feel I’m in a kind of limbo: I very nearly have a new qualification, but until late July it’s stuck on pause. As a result, there’s moments this week where the uncertainty of my future hits me hard.
I update my CV. This takes forever. Last time I went over my CV with a careers officer, she put virtually my entire life into the section marked ‘Other’. That says it all.
Still, as she told me at the time, ‘It’s not a life of inconsistent choices. It’s a PORTFOLIO CAREER!’
Perusing job vacancies makes me feel like Raymond Briggs’s Gentleman Jim. Most of the ads resemble little jargon-steeped walls of impenetrability, peppered with unexplained acronyms. Many career positions, whatever they are, seem to involve a complete lack of verbs.
But in contrast to Briggs’s uneducated Jim, it’s education that has skewed my reading. By studying literature, I’ve become overly sensitive to prose.
More aphoristic thoughts occur:
A CV is a haunted house. It is the home of the ghosts of one’s former lives. Some can jump out and surprise you.
In which case:
A CV should come with trigger warnings for its own author.
All work is acting work. The trick is not to be miscast.
* * *
Mum is in town today. We visit three exhibitions, and fit in lunch at Food For Thought in Covent Garden, which is about to close down.
Two shows are at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green: The Alice Look, and Small Stories: At Home In A Doll’s House.
The former is a mini-exhibition. There’s editions of the books throughout the years, concentrating on the way Alice’s imagery has permeated culture and fashion ever since. A mannequin wears a full ‘Lolita’ outfit, the kind currently popular in Japan. It’s Alice as a subcultural aesthetic: inspired by Carroll, manga, and (presumably) Nabokov, but claimed by young women for themselves.
There’s 1960s fashion posters, too, bringing Aubrey Beardsley into the equation. Mixing Tenniel’s Alice illustrations with Beardsley would have been pretty shocking in the 1890s, but by the 1960s, it’s all Victoriana, all up for grabs. Literally in the case of Carroll & Tenniel’s copyrights –both in the public domain before Disney could lock them away. Alice remains the people’s weird princess.
Her changing appearance is highlighted, starting with the eponymous hairband, only added by Tenniel for the second book, Through The Looking Glass. A 1920s cover is redrawn for a 1940s reissue. Her hairdo goes from a 20s bob to a 40s wave. Her dress alters accordingly. But the animals around Alice stay the same.
Perhaps this is one reason for the aesthetic popularity of animals: they never follow fashion (though there are those horses that look like they’re wearing flares). Dogs are the only real exception, with the fashions in breeds. So it makes sense that the only animal in Alice who doesn’t speak and join in with the other animals is the often-forgotten Puppy, which Alice encounters early on.
If literature is all about asking ‘Who gets to speak?’, children’s literature is about asking ‘Which animals don’t get to speak?’
* * *
The Small Stories exhibition is much larger, and pulls off an inspired double-theme: it uses doll’s houses over the years to illustrate changes in real life housing, as much as changes in favourite toys.
Then to the National Portrait Gallery, for its current blockbuster: Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends. More Victorians: adults and children, some rendered stately and formal, some touching and heartfelt. The actorly-looking young man with the goatee and red robe, as used on all the posters, turns out to be Dr Pozzi, a pioneering gynaecologist.
Highlights for me are two portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson. Not because of who he is but because they’re like candid snapshots, catching the wiry Stevenson pacing the room in mid-rant, or sitting awkwardly in a chair while addressing the viewer.
The Sargent show costs £14.50, while the two Museum of Childhood exhibitions are free. I know it shouldn’t make a difference, but I do find free exhibitions less stressful to walk around. With the big shows, one is at the mercy of timed entry, and there’s the sense of wanting to tick off everything, in order to get value for money (‘Done that room. How many more? Is this one famous? Where’s the caption?’).
Free shows have more of a sense of serendipity, because one can drift in and out, and so be more surprised.
* * *
Sunday 24th May 2015.
I walk through Trafalgar Square to find it rammed with shouting football fans – red-shirted supporters of Middlesbrough. Loud and visible, though not violent or frightening, they climb the stone lions and sing the ‘O-lay, O-lay’ song, which I suppose is now a kind of folk anthem. I find out later they’re in town to cheer on the important play-off at Wembley the next day, for a place in the Premier league. Despite all the fans’ efforts, it is the other team that triumphs: Norwich.
I find myself envying the way so many men find it so easy to belong. It’s also fascinating that football in 2015 hasn’t been upgraded (except in the ticket prices): it’s the same game, with the same songs, and the same way of showing the world that you like it.
Billy Reeves, who knows about football, tells me that Middlesbrough are ‘stoical’, while Norwich are ‘flamboyant’.
* * *
Wednesday 27th May 2015.
To the Vue cinema for Moomins on the Riviera, a French-Finnish cartoon film. It’s unusually old fashioned, playing on a series of 1950s jokes about film stars, bohemian artists, and glamourous lifestyles. A celebrity dog character, ‘Audrey Glamour’, is clearly meant to be Audrey Hepburn.
The film uses a hand-drawn animated style that faithfully reproduces the hippo-like Tove Jansson characters. So faithfully in fact, that I’m not sure the whole thing really works as a modern children’s film. Compared to the latest Paddington film, say, it’s gentle, slow, slight, and downright glacial in its pacing. Perhaps it’s one for children who find Shaun The Sheep a bit too stressful. But it’s nevertheless charming.
There’s also a London connection with the story. It derives not from Ms Jansson’s illustrated books, but from her Moomin comic strip, which was directly commissioned by the London newspaper, the Evening News – now defunct. According to the biography Tove Jansson – Work and Love, the newspaper signed her up to produce a daily strip for seven years – something she regretted when it hit year six. But it gave her her first regular wage, and with syndication it gave the Moomins their global fame. Significantly, Moomins on the Riviera is taken from the first year of the newspaper strip, when Jansson was still enjoying it.
Moomintroll himself is voiced by Russell Tovey, a pleasing parallel to Ben Whishaw’s Paddington: both exponents of modern British boyishness. Plus I like how Russell Tovey’s surname is nearly the correct pronunciation of Jansson’s first name (‘too-verr’).
* * *
Thursday 28th May 2015.
The first of the final marks comes back – 78. A First. This is for the last essay of the ‘American Century’ module, on US culture, 1900-2012. By my calculations, this gives the whole module a total of 77 (and a First). Two more marks to come. I’m especially anxious over the dissertation. But there’s nothing I can do – it’s so silly.
* * *
Friday 22nd May 2015.
I visit the secret oasis of surreal beauty that is Sophie Parkin’s Vout-O-Reenee’s bar, tucked away down some crypt steps, at 30 Prescot Street, Tower Hill. A private members’ bar, it carries on the spirit of the Colony Room, while adding a touch of the Bloomsbury Group’s Charleston. Every wall and floor is covered in hand-painted art. There’s a room decked out as a tribute to Monet, while the entrance hall has candelabra held in human hands, a la Cocteau’s Belle et La Bete.
The adjoining Stash Gallery is open to the public for exhibitions, and tonight is the private view of Ms Parkin’s show Sophie’s Choice. It comprises her own work alongside selections from her collection. Landscapes by her mother Molly, a watercolour by a young Cecil Beaton, and a couple of works that may or may not be by Francis Bacon (the dispute is very Colony Room). I love Sophie’s own work: vivid and colourful Frida Kahlo-like self-portraits, often with a kind of New Romantic Madonna & Child theme (she was one of the original Blitz Kids in the early 80s). Her daughter, Carson, runs the bar. The whole place has the feel of defiant Old Soho Bohemia. And as it’s not in Soho, it also feels like an expat watering hole, like Dean’s Bar in Tangier. (Actually, Sophie Parkin once wrote a children’s book about Tangier: Bazaar Nights and Camel Bites).
In Moomins on the Riviera there’s a moustachioed character who’s obsessed with bohemian artists. He’d love it here.
* * *
Tags: alice in wonderland
, moomins on the riviera
, museum of childhood
, national portrait gallery
, sophie parkin
, stash gallery
Cuckold’s Point, Crossrail Place
Saturday 16th May 2015.
Still enjoying my freedom after finishing the degree, while trying not to spend money in doing so. I’m tidying up at home, filing notes in lever-arch folders, then putting the folders away in cupboards. I wonder if I still need to keep quite so many handouts on revising for exams, but keep hold of them anyway. For now. I also make a series of trips this week, to empty my locker in Gordon Square, getting rid of my old set texts.
My copy of Malcolm X’s Autobiography is now in the hands of a young barista, who works in a café on Bedford Way. While paying for my americano, I idly mention I am on my way to Oxfam, and indicate my bag of paperbacks. The barista asks if he could have first dibs. He is delighted to get Malcolm, though he turns his nose up at The Bell Jar.
* * *
Sunday 17th May 2015.
I visit somewhere in London I’d been meaning to go since reading Eastward Ho!, the Jacobean comedy. There’s a scene set at Cuckold’s Point in Rotherhithe, opposite the Isle of Dogs. In the play, Slitgut, a butcher’s apprentice, has to renew the pair of ox horns which sit on the top of a pole there, thus giving the Point its name. One story goes that King John was caught in flagrante with a miller’s wife, and hastily offered the husband the land to one side of the Point, by way of apology. Hence the cuckold’s horns. The tale seems fairly apocryphal, though as transactions over sex scandals go, it’s hardly the strangest.
I take the tube to Canada Water, then a C10 bus to Pageant Steps, the nearest stop to the Point. The wharf is now built-up and lined with a series of pretty, Toytown-esque modern flats in red and cream brickwork. A new stone obelisk marks a break in the estates, with no markings at all. A monument to clean architectural blankness, perhaps. The Thames Path here is a public walkway, though it’s annoyingly broken up by private sections every now and then. There’s a set of old wooden steps leading down to the beach. The tide’s in when I visit, so the water breaks against the steps noisily. I stand and look out over the wall. A sunny, quiet Sunday. Canary Wharf’s monied towers blink warily at me from the other side.
I doubt that the steps are the ones that appear in the eighteenth century painting by Samuel Scott, A Morning, With A View of Cuckold’s Point. But this is Cuckold’s Point all right. The noise of the waves would make it a good spot to record a radio play version of Eastward Ho!
I stop for a drink at the Blacksmiths Arms nearby, a pleasant South London family pub. Then on through the Hilton Docklands Riverside hotel, exploring its covered walkway across the old dry dock. Then I catch the shuttle boat to Canary Wharf (£2.50, ten minutes).
I’m here to see a new part of the Isle of Dogs development that’s just been opened: Crossrail Place. It’s not even on many of the local signs, or even on Google Maps, which still has it down as ‘North Dock’.
As the name suggests, Crossrail Place is built over what will eventually be the Crossrail station for Canary Wharf. To get there, I walk through the Adams Plaza Bridge, a geometric covered walkway. The main attraction is a long roof garden, designed by Norman Foster, which has an even more futuristic feel than the bridge, albeit one imagined in 1970s films, such as Silent Running and Logan’s Run. There’s a hood-like tesselated roof, with some of its sections open to the air. The plants are chosen to represent the Docklands history of global imports: Japanese maples and magnolias, tea trees, gum trees, lots of ferns.
I visit the new Everyman Canary Wharf cinema, tucked away several floors below, deep inside this latest castle of Lord Foster. A blue-haired woman there recognises me from my sole visit to the Everyman Selfridges screen. That pop-up screen, she tells me, has now been transplanted to this one; scatter cushions and all. ‘It isn’t a pop-up this time. This is indefinite.’
I think about the meaning of Crossrail Place as a name. Something that’s definitely there, named after something that’s not there, not yet. The backwards chronology, of being named after something from the future.
Then I descend into the Canary Wharf underground shopping malls, looking for a way out. Overlit, nearly empty, most of the shops closed on this Sunday evening. I get lost. ‘Ground’, I realise, is not necessarily the ground: the promenade levels linked to the tube stations are underground, so they have minus numbers. When looking for the way out, minus is a plus.
On the third time of repeating my steps, I start to go a little crazy. I look at a shopping map and count up the franchises. The winner is Pret A Manger, with five branches. I have visions of a labyrinth of endless underground Prets, all closed, and me locked in with them. It triggers an existential panic. Pret A L’Etranger! No Exit!
Eventually, I find my way to one of the DLR stations, and take its ghost train up and round and out of there. It’s the words of the blue-haired girl that stay with me: ‘This is indefinite’.
* * *
Tuesday 19th May 2015.
Back to Birkbeck in Bloomsbury, for one of their free Arts Week events. The novelist Deborah Levy gives a talk, ostensibly for the MA Creative Writing students, but it’s opened up to the public. As a result, it’s been moved to one of the larger lecture halls in Torrington Square. Literary events do seem to be bigger than ever. (I wonder if I could give talks on diary writing?)
Ms Levy wears a black velvet dress and speaks beautifully and generously. Her writing covers more genres than I thought: fiction, poetry and scripts for animated films. She begins with a Ballard quote:
‘I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways […] I believe in the beauty of all women, in the treachery of their imaginations, so close to my heart’.
The latter line, about the female imagination as treacherous, is Ms Levy’s favourite. (I prefer the bit about charming motorways).
She talks about the changes in writing technologies; how her first novel, Beautiful Mutants (1987) was written using a typewriter and carbon paper. Now she has a range of Macs. The internet has changed the focus on research: it makes us ‘amateur experts in anything’, she says. But she warns that ‘staring at a screen is not staring at the world’. The first line of Swimming Home was inspired by Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
Ms L spent two years reading Freud ‘solidly’, and recommends everyone reads his case studies. Reading Freud for her was ‘like taking acid’.
* * *
Thursday 21st May 2015.
To the Barbican Screen One, for the new Mad Max film, Fury Road. I’m not at all keen on noisy action films, but the word of mouth on this one was intriguing. It’s the highly-wrought aesthetics and design that are its main appeal. They produce a fully realised world, with a very Australian feeling of a sun-scorched, marginalised take on the usual post-apocalyptic frolics (the Brisbane-born director, George Miller, also did the original Max Max films). It’s also reminiscent of the Duran Duran video for ‘Wild Boys’, of Heavy Metal the magazine, heavy metal the music (not least Iron Maiden album sleeves), and of the comic 2000AD in the 1980s, possibly because Brendan McCarthy (a veteran 2000AD writer) is involved. Despite this piling up of 80s influences, it overcomes any nostalgia by adding a very 2015 tone of pro-disabled & pro-feminist anger. Charlize Theron’s one-armed, crop-haired renegade carries the film’s main mission, while the male leads are either noble grunts who get drawn in (Tom Hardy’s Max) or white-skinned lost boys desperate for approval (Nicholas Hoult). I loved it for the same reason as I loved Mr Lurhmann’s Great Gatsby 3D: sheer, consummate design talent.
* * *
Friday 22nd May 2015.
Fashion blogger Danielle Bernstein is profiled in Harper’s Bazaar about the money she earns. She’s 22 and has a million followers on her Instagram account, ‘WeWoreWhat’. She commands ‘from $5,000 – to $15,000’ every time she posts a sponsored photo of some ensemble. Asked about her annual income, she says ‘it’s in the mid-six figures.’
While I wish Ms Bernstein well, it’s hard not to feel depressed how this reflects on my own situation. I’m technically a blogger of some 18 years experience now – most of Ms Bernstein’s lifetime. But I’ve so far failed to command even a minimum wage from it.
Still, I admit it’s not quite the same. I don’t really ‘blog’, I write a diary. I don’t do regular sponsored posts (though if a menswear firm wanted to sponsor me, I might make an exception). I don’t carry pop-up adverts, out of aesthetic choice. I also don’t do Instagram, being more of a wordsmith.
But the key difference is that she’s good at social media, and I feel relatively anti-social. The adage used to be that life was ‘not a popularity contest’, that the socially awkward kids, the quiet kids, the misfits, the bookish types, all had as much to offer as the popular kids, the jocks and the cheerleaders.
Today, social media has changed all that. It validates the cheerleader mentality as a lifelong ideal. Your value as a person is down to your amount of followers, rather than who they might be. The geek has not inherited the world: he’s just used the internet to become a new form of jock. The ‘core’ geeks – the quieter, the less financially driven, the weirder creative types, and anyone who doesn’t see mass popularity as an end – are in danger of being more marginalised than ever.
Still, I have also had some cheering news. A publisher wants to include some of my diary entries in a new anthology – a different one to A London Year. And this time they can afford to pay me. Not a life-changing amount. But it is the first time I’ve been paid in cash to contribute to a book. So I hope for more of that sort of thing.
It’s taken me most of my life to accept that I’ll never be among the cheerleaders. But I also know that I’m not as alone as I thought. And this is why I go on.
* * *
, canary wharf
, crossrail place
, cuckold's point
, deborah levy