This Slapstick Gatecrasher
Sunday 14th August 2016. To the Constitution pub in Camden, for the club night Nitty Gritty. Tonight is also the birthday of Debbie Smith, who’s one of the club’s DJs. Atalanta is on the door, sitting at a little table as one enters the basement down a narrow staircase. I keep her company there for a while, watching others make their way gingerly down the steps too. It’s a pleasingly old building, so the stairs were probably built not so much for club goers to walk down but for minor characters from Dickens to be thrown down.
I spend a pleasant couple of hours here, even dancing a little. The Constitution’s back garden looks peacefully over the canal. As the pub is detached and a good walk from the shops and the more touristy parts of Camden, it has the air of an oasis. Local London. Dog walkers use the towpath, and dogs have been known to wander through the basement’s back door and straight onto the dancefloor. A pug-ish one appears tonight and skips around for a few seconds to a Kinks b-side (‘What’s this? What’s this?’). Thankfully the owner removes this slapstick gatecrasher before it sees the platter of birthday cake in front of the DJ booth.
Monday 15th August 2016. I’m editing my review of the Pet Shop Boys book, Smile If You Dare. I cut a line about the possible influence of Paul Morley on the style, mainly because the writer is probably too young. My own generation of music writers essentially fell into two camps: those trying to be Paul Morley – mad, funny, rambling – and those trying to be Simon Reynolds – sober, stern, analytical. There’s a part of the Pet Shop Boys book where the appearance of a hidden track at the end of the Very CD is likened to bettering the resurrection of Christ. I would call this The Full Morley.
There is still a lot of love for the actual Mr Morley today, as his new book on David Bowie is in the Sunday Times General Hardback Top Ten. The music papers Mr Morley once wrote for have either died or become free handouts. For people to pay for a fat hardback of music journalism, and to do so in number, is not to be sniffed at. Most of the rest of the books in that chart are either Ladybird parody books or memoirs by the stars of YouTube. It’s very hard not to write something here that will sound like a rant from Ed Reardon’s Week.
Tuesday 16th August 2016. To the Regent Street Cinema, where I’ve been invited by Heavenly Films to host a Q&A after a screening of Lawrence of Belgravia. This is Paul Kelly’s documentary about Lawrence, the surname-less frontman with the bands Felt, Denim and Go-Kart Mozart. It premiered at the London Film Festival in 2011, where I saw it myself, before getting a proper cinema release in 2012. For whatever reason, the DVD has been only been released now, and tonight’s screening acts as a DVD launch. Paul Kelly and Lawrence himself are present, ready to answer the audience’s questions, and I’m the one with the clipboard, looking like an albino Denis Norden.
I’ve interviewed people professionally for magazines before, but this is my first time as an onstage interviewer. But I go to a lot of film and book Q & A events for my own pleasure, so I more or less know how they’re done. That said, there is a craft to asking the questions, and it’s not always instinctive. When people talk normally, they tend to monologue at each other, or switch off, or repeat themselves, or interrupt, or go off on tangents. A public interview is a performance: there needs to be a sense of putting-on.
To prepare, I read about a dozen interviews with both Mr Kelly and Lawrence, and watch my own copy of the DVD again. I also watch some old editions of the Parkinson show on YouTube, noting what makes an ‘open question’: one that will ideally guide the interviewee into making those little trips of insight and revelation.
On the night, I am asked to give a short introduction, which I do happily, standing in front of the stage. Housekeeping, flavoured with opinion. I focus on Mr Kelly’s lack of clichés: particularly no uses of studio mixing desks as backdrops to talking heads. And no talking heads, either, in fact.
The Regent Street Cinema has had a long former life as a college lecture hall. This explains the seating, raked high on a steep slope, looking down at the screen. Not unlike the set-up for IMAX screens. A dramatic history too: the Lumiere brothers showed their early movies here in 1896. The tickets for tonight state that we’re in ‘The Birthplace of British Cinema’. A plaque on the street also declares this to be where members of Pink Floyd were students. Not the young Syd Barrett, alas, which would have been apt for a film about eccentrics in music. No, the less interesting but more sensible members. That’s my wording, not the plaque’s.
Special badges are given out to every person as they enter. Sky blue buttons saying ‘Lawrence of Belgravia, Tuesday 16th August 2016’. There’s a queue on the way in. The rows fill up. A staffer whispers to me before I go on: ‘This is more people than we usually have for these things’.
I haven’t spoken to Lawrence since the late 90s. ‘Never say “Long time no see”, says Warhol somewhere. Better to act as if it were yesterday. So that’s what I do. During the Q&A he smiles a lot, which throws me. The first question from the audience: ‘You’re one of my heroes, along with my dad’.
I can’t resist using the Q&A to tell Lawrence that his music is on Lynsey Hanley’s list of songs to accompany her book on class, Respectable. Lawrence says he’s read it; a Birmingham connection. I quote the lyrics Ms H quotes from Denim’s ‘Middle of the Road’, the ones about choosing to like whatever music you listen to. Much of her book is about the importance of breaking down cultural barriers, where areas of musical taste are psychologically prescribed.
On a couple of occasions I fall into the trap of asking closed questions, because my brain is wired to come up with theories, almost by default. That’s what five years of university does to you. But then I notice what I’m doing and move on. I’ll be better at doing that next time; I’d like to do more Q & As.
Lawrence stays to sign records for fans. Stephen Pastel and Tracey Thorn are in the audience. JC Brouchard, whom Biff Bang Pow once wrote a song about, gives me a copy of his book, Felt: Ballad of the Fan. ‘Is that a book on Felt?’ asks someone behind me. One of several books, now. There’ll be a BA course in Lawrence Studies one day.
Friday 19th August 2016. To the ICA to see Wiener-Dog, the new Todd Solondz film. I loved Happiness, and quite enjoyed Palindromes and Storytelling, but have reservations about this new one.
One thing is that I’m not really in the mood for his signature mix of misery, misanthropy and bad taste. Another is the form: a portmanteau film of four short stories, linked by the titular sausage dog. This works for old British horror films, but not so much for contemporary US black comedies. With one narrative paraded after the other, the overall experience is of fluffy disconnection. A little weaving together of the different strands is needed, a la Pulp Fiction. Or indeed, a la Happiness.
Still, there’s plenty of funny moments, not least the surreal ‘Intermission’, where the dog is filmed as if it were the size of a house, and walks through a series of unlikely backdrops to a Champion the Wonder Horse-like song. But I don’t think anyone sets out to make an intermission the highlight of a film.
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, go-kart mozart
, heavenly films
, lawrence of belgravia
, lynsey hanley
, nitty gritty
, paul kelly
, Paul Morley
, pet shop boys
, regent street cinema
, todd solondz
Saturday 30th July 2016. To a garden in Clapham for Heather M’s housewarming party. It’s one of those occasions where I only seem to know the host, reminding me how bad I am at fitting into social circles. But I enjoy chatting with the others there – a funny, friendly gang. There’s a curious plastic box on a short pole in one of Heather’s flower beds. After placing our bets as to what it might be, Heather explains it’s to repel local cats from using her garden as a latrine. From time to time the box emits an ultrasonic hum. Cats apparently take an extremely dim view of the sound. Presumably even those felines who are partial to experimental music.
Coming back on the train from Clapham, I am surrounded by people in wedding clothes, or in the case of hen nights, pre-wedding clothes. Tiara-ed up bridesmaids, lads in hired suits falling over each other by the station barriers, group outings in specially made t-shirts. The height of the wedding season. All the reports about weddings being too expensive, or about young people preferring to be married to the naughtier parts of the internet, seem exaggerated, at least looking around today. Though I’m not exactly an expert, squeezing past all these glimpses of love lives at Victoria station, then traipsing home to my unshared bed.
Sunday 31st July 2016. I’m going through old CDRs of music, throwing them out, wondering just how much music a person ever needs to own. It’s not the same with books. Anthony Powell had it right: books do furnish a room. CDRs, being inelegant and at the mercy of the march of technology, clutter it up.
I read Anita Brookner’s A Start In Life. Penguin have gone Brookner mad since her death, and reissued about a dozen of her umpteen novels as rather beautiful new paperbacks. They look a little like the record sleeves for The Smiths: vintage twentieth-century stock photos in black and white. The exception is the new edition of Hotel Du Lac, which has a colour photo of a summery mountain road, dominated by a clear blue sky. The special treatment is, I suppose, because it was the only one to win the Booker Prize.
With its tale of a quiet, bookish girl at the mercy of a childish and slovenly mother, A Start In Life often reads like Absolutely Fabulous from the point of view of the daughter. The opening line, often quoted, is still the best part: ‘Dr Weiss, at forty, knew her life had been ruined by literature.’
Tuesday 2nd August 2016. Bump into Roz Kaveney in Bar Italia, Soho, and spend a pleasant hour chatting. Some discussion of the Bowie Prom the other night, where various singers covered the songs of the late David B. I think a problem with tribute concerts is that one has to like the singers as well as the songs. On top of that, when it comes to covering Bowie, the man’s image eclipses the material. Bowie’s own versions of his songs are always going to be the most interesting, because it’s Bowie. Still, I admit I have a soft spot for Nirvana’s take on ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. And indeed, for Barbra Streisand’s entirely unasked-for ‘Life on Mars’.
Thursday 4th August 2016. I’m reading Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable, her new book on the psychological effects of the British class system – ‘the wall in the mind’ as she calls it. It draws heavily on her experiences growing up on a vast Midlands council estate, and takes its tonal cue from Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy. What I most like about it is Ms Hanley’s unabashed digressions into her love of pop music and indie bands, seamlessly linking them with her wider discussions of statistics. There’s a section on her life as a member of the Pet Shop Boys fanclub in the late 80s. I’m currently reviewing a new book about the PSBs for The Wire, written by someone not even born until 1988 – a ‘millenial’ I think the term is. It’s interesting to compare the way the different generations write about 80s music; millennials will never know how hard it was to access music that spoke to them, pre-internet. It meant late night BBC Radio 1, or the music papers, or nothing. And then it meant journeying off to a decent record shop. Fandom was harder won.
At one point in the book Ms Hanley recounts a moment where her personal diary was discovered at school by her classmates, only to leave them baffled. It was covered in quotes from the Pet Shop Boys’ book, Annually. This sort of experience is, of course, now vanishing, as the personal jotter of today is more likely to be Tumblr. Teenagers may still feel isolated at school, but once they get online they can at least find a community to suit them. The use of pop music – and pop radio – as a sole access to another world is over.
Ms Hanley views the PSBs’ hits as a kind of entryist portal into a ‘secret language of taste and class’. The Pet Shop Boys were not only ‘The Smiths you can dance to’, as the critics’ tag went. Given daytime radio’s dislike of The Smiths, the PSBs were also The Smiths you could actually be exposed to. It was an era, says Ms H, ‘when it was possible to be sophisticated without apologizing for it’.
She goes on to talk about Momus, in fact, whose music she found through the Annie Nightingale show on Radio 1. A playlist made to accompany Respectable (kindly forwarded to me by the publicist, Emma Bal) includes the PSBs, Momus, and Denim’s ‘Middle of the Road’. Ms H likes that Lawrence is from Water Orton, close to where she grew up on the Chelmsley Wood estate, and that he keeps his accent for singing. I’m conducting a Q&A event next week with Lawrence himself, for a screening of Lawrence of Belgravia, so I shall try to mention this.
Having had my interest in the Pet Shop Boys renewed, I’ve also been investigating their fan club magazine Literally, which Ms Hanley must have received as a teenager, and which is still going today. It’s always been in the same A5 print-only format, and has never been issued in an electronic version. How fascinating that a group as electronic as the Pet Shop Boys also believes in print-only media. That said, I do wish they’d reissue the Chris Heath biographies on Kindle.
I get hold of an issue from 2014, which captures the duo on a US tour. The PSBs now have a strict rule about never letting fans take their photo with them. Autographs, yes, photos, no. Saying no to a selfie is, I suppose, the new way of being sophisticated.
Evening: to Vout-o-reenee’s for the private view of a members’ group show. The club has its own art gallery, and many of the members are working artists. So the current show is a pleasingly eclectic experience which nevertheless holds together, thanks to some careful juxtapositions. There’s paintings, sculpture, electronic light displays, and some sort of conceptual work based around a fake blue plaque for Ralph Steadman. I’m a bit baffled by the latter.
Atalanta K’s artwork is a huge painting of two thin greyhound-like dogs, Borzois I think (Atalanta writes: ‘They’re actually Sloughis‘), posed vertically against a black background in the medieval heraldic style.
I also enjoy a painting of an anguished male face, in a pastiche of Francis Bacon’s ‘Screaming Pope’ style. The title is ‘Ceci n’est pas une pape’, or whatever the French is for ‘this is not a Pope’; thus punning on Magritte’s pipe. It takes a while to dawn on me that the figure is Ian Paisley.
Tuesday 9th August 2016. To the Curzon Soho for The Neon Demon. I go to a late showing, after 9pm, which suits the film perfectly. Ostensibly a tale of struggling fashion models in LA, it quickly moves into a parade of stagey surrealism, eroticism, bizarre hallucinatory scenes, necrophilia, and finally violent horror. The idea that the fashion world is a form of cannibalism, where young bodies are ‘fresh meat’, is first taken figuratively, and then literally.
The film has had some of the most scathing reviews of the year, so it does rather force the viewer to take a binary side, for or against. In which case I’m on the ‘for’ side, as to write it off is overlook the manifestly superb visuals. Lots of pink-saturated tableaux of the models, whose beauty is so abstracted that it makes me think of the Terence Donovan video for Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Madame Butterfly’, currently on show in the Photographers’ Gallery. It also fits with the recent revival in unrepentant surrealism, as seen in The Lobster, Black Swan and Under the Skin, though mercifully it doesn’t have the latter’s scenes of people moping about aimlessly for minutes on end. I get enough of that at home.
But also it reminds me of Liquid Sky, the bizarre early 80s New Romantic film about models and aliens in New York. This is mainly because The Neon Demon has a very early 80s-like soundtrack, all pulsating synths and ominous drum machines.
What clinches the film as a work of worth is that it’s the first time in years I’ve seen strangers in a central London cinema turn to each other after the lights go up, and start up conversations about the film. That alone makes The Neon Demon special. ‘I think everyone should see it,’ says one woman to me. But not everyone can take gruesome imagery, however beautifully shot.
Wednesday 10th August 2016. In the British Library or London Library at the moment, working on the review of the Pet Shop Boys book. There’s not many people about, which is nice, probably because of the fine weather, holidays, and the Edinburgh festival going on.
I’m using my old-school Neo2 word processor, which keeps me offline. Today I spend far too much time fiddling with the opening sentence of the review; always a mistake. You need to press on with the bulk of any piece, and then rework the beginning and ending after that. Today, thinking about Neil Tennant’s changing hairline on the Pet Shop Boys’ record sleeves, a joke suggests itself:
‘I’m not balding. My hair’s just gone post-imperial.’
Thursday 11th August 2016. I’m in WH Smith’s in St Pancras, looking for the right colour clipboard to co-ordinate with my summer suits. I regard WH Smiths as a sort of non-binary option for stationery shops. It’s there for those times when one feels neither feminine enough for Paperchase, nor butch enough for Ryman.
I pass some young people sitting on a wall outside Birkbeck. They notice me, laugh and shout out:
‘Haha! His hair’s the same colour as his suit!’
I want to turn around and say, ‘Yes, dear heart. It’s called coordination. You wouldn’t understand.’
Something I don’t miss about being young: having to hang about in groups like that. On corners, or sitting on walls. But I’m not sure I ever did that when I was their age, anyway.
Friday 12th August 2016. Early morning. I write this sitting in Spreads café on Pall Mall. A bedraggled, worn-out looking old woman is sitting near me, surround by bags, and trying not to fall aleep. She is dressed entirely in clothes from souvenir shops, topped off with a Union Jack beanie hat. Her t-shirt is an ‘I Heart London’ one. If she were a character in a drama about homelessness or immigration, the makers would be criticised for clunky symbolism. But that’s what she’s wearing.
A man at another café table is on his phone, telling off a colleague:
‘We’re not singing from the same hymn sheet, that’s the problem.’
There is a pause.
‘Okay, fair enough. We are both singing from the same hymn sheet. But you’re miming.’
Tags: anita brookner
, lawrence of belgravia
, lynsey hanley
, pet shop boys
, the neon demon
The Most Important Thing You’ve Not Said
Monday 11th July 2016. I’m ashamed to have let this diary go fallow for longer than usual. There’s no excuse other than the despair brought on by general worries about money, or my lack of it, or my career, or my lack of one, or the usual anxieties over various health problems. Though I have yet to be diagnosed with anything other than that – anxiety. But there it is.
Listening to In Our Time today, I note how Melvyn Bragg gently steers his contributors to stop the discussion going off on a tangent. ‘We’re running out of time, so… what’s the most important thing you haven’t said?’
That’s such a good question to ask oneself when writing. It can apply when hitting a block, or when revising a piece for publication. What’s the most important thing you’ve not said?
In the London Library, reading an essay that argues how Muriel Spark’s style is a form of dandyism. It’s an interesting thesis, based mainly on Spark’s love of Max Beerbohm, but I’m not sure it holds up. The author soon goes on to do a general, trainspotter-y appraisal of her work, with the dandyism idea all but forgotten. Were it an essay submitted to be marked at a university, its lack of focus would prevent it from getting the highest grade, the one that indicates the work is ‘good enough to be published’. And yet here it is, published.
But of course, the real lesson is that it’s better to put out flawed work than no work at all. And that if I think I can do better (and I do), I should hurry up and put out some books of my own.
Tuesday 11th July 2016. Evidence of a high ‘Threat Level’ when I visit the Museum of London. Last time, a few months ago, I simply walked into the galleries from the street, or rather from the Barbican estate’s walkways. Today it’s like going through customs. In addition to having one’s bag searched, visitors have to take anything metal off their person and put it in a Perspex tray. Then a security guard asks you to spread your arms so he can scan your body with an electronic wand. All this, so I can use the café and toilets. Visiting the BBC’s Broadcasting House is even worse though, with my bag shoved on a conveyor belt so it can go through an x-ray machine. It’s easier to rob a bank than it is to appear on Woman’s Hour.
Reading Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. It’s a set text on my MA course, and also appears in the recent BBC poll of 100 Great British Novels, the one chosen by over 80 non-British critics, where Middlemarch came top. I’m bemused that Angela Carter’s novels are absent from that list. Not even Nights at the Circus is included, a book that kept springing to mind as I read The Passion. Winterson’s book has the same mixture of magical realism and historical fiction, the same backdrop of 80s feminism, and the same heroine with a fantastical body – or at least, a body that may or may not be fantastical. Where Carter’s Fevvers has wings, Winterson’s Villanelle has webbed feet that allow her to walk on water. The key difference is in tone, so I wonder if that’s why the international critics prefer Winterson to Carter. Carter is more baroque and mocking, perhaps even hostile, while Winterson is more wistful and romantic. I’d say Winterson is closer in spirit to Woolf’s Orlando, which is also in the BBC list. Winterson seeks a balance between the imaginative and the universal. Carter, meanwhile, has less interest in meeting the reader halfway; the reader needs to leap fully into her arms. But while Winterson ends with ‘Trust me’, Carter has ‘I fooled you!’
To the Barbican for Maggie’s Plan, a new film with Greta Gerwig. It’s yet another chatty New York comedy of manners, the kind Ms G is now synonymous with. Here she plays an academic – a bluestocking who wears actual blue stockings in one scene, as part of what can only be called Hipster Quaker Chic.
Despite its US setting, the world of Maggie’s Plan is the closest to my current life that I’ve seen in the cinema. Ethan Hawke’s arts tutor is seen reading The Paris Review in bed, or sitting in college seminars discussing the use of V For Vendetta masks in Occupy demonstrations, or getting excited about an event because ‘Zizek’s speaking!’ These are all things I’ve done myself at Birkbeck.
The Zizek joke is probably lost on most non-academics. Most people go about their lives in happy ignorance of Mr Zizek. Enrol at a university today, though, and you will never hear the end of him. Judith Butler is another campus pin-up; Fredric Jameson likewise. All industries, even those that look down on celebrity culture, have their own celebrities. I think of the phrase Anita Brookner said about great writers: ‘saints for the godless’.
Wednesday 13th July 2016. Mr Cameron leaves Downing Street, handing over the keys to the Thatcher-esque Theresa May. She in turn anoints Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. What with this and the Labour party in disarray over its leadership, British politics has never felt more unstable, even unreal. But then it’s the same in America, with the unlikely Mr Trump. He is a master of what the internet calls ‘trolling’: saying provocative things for attention. It used to be a tactic for lonely Star Trek fans trying to get attention on message boards. Now it’s a career plan for columnists and politicians.
The world is now so jaded that it can only go for the option that looks the most like sugary, knee-jerk fun. It’s more fun to either be outrageously right-wing, or to pay attention to the outrageously right-wing. Twitter makes Daily Mail readers of people who used to cross the road to avoid being seen with the newspaper. ‘Look at what this right-wing newspaper or person has said now.’ Link. Attention paid, career made.
If you don’t mind being hated by strangers, the world is at your feet.
Thursday 14th July 2016. One summer project is that I’m working on a book of my selected diary entries from 1997 to now, one that can hold up as a decent work of memoir. It would be honed down to the more useful parts, the lines of hope to the lonely and strange, along with the lines that present an alternative chronicle of London. A less heard voice, one hopes. Proposed title: Dysfunctional Dandy. I’ll put it together first, then seek out a publisher. It needs to be about the size of Woolf’s Writer’s Diary.
Friday 15th July 2016. Took an online vocabulary test. ‘Top 0.01%. You are Shakespeare!’
Saturday 16th July 2016. To the Photographer’s Gallery off Oxford Circus, to see the exhibition Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity. A proper summer is now finally upon London, with temperatures over 30 C, so air conditioned galleries like the PG become ideal places to cool off.
The dandyism show is curated by Ekow Eshun, and it’s really his idea of what the slippery d-word means. Dandyism rather than dandies: a practice rather than an identity. Eshun regards black dandyism as a form of protest and subversion, linking it with quotes by Fanon such as:
‘I grasp my narcissism with both hands and turn my back on the degradation of those who would make me a mere mechanism.’ – Black Skin, White Masks.
I bristle, however, when Eshun muddles the definition by including images of men in duos or groups. Dandyism is dependent on individuality, on standing ‘on an isolated pedestal of self’, as Ellen Moers has it in her book The Dandy. A group of young men posing in unusual clothes is not dandyism, but subculture.
Otherwise, the show impresses, cramming a wide range of history and geography into a couple of rooms. From Soweto to Mali to New York, and from the early 1900s to the present. The question of dandyism redefining masculinity is also addressed: I love Kristen-Lee Moolman’s portrait of a South African man in a flared white suit with bare shoulders, matching pearl earrings and necklace, standing defiantly in a tough-looking township.
Am smug to notice that a huge image from the set of Isaac Julien’s 1989 film Looking for Langston includes the staircase of the Midland Grand hotel in St Pancras, years before the Spice Girls used it for ‘Wannabe’. In an alcove, a display of books and albums makes valid connections between dandyism, musicians like Prince, and the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, thus bringing the show right up to date.
I bump into Stephen Eastwood, who is with his friend Caroline. Am delighted to be spotted wandering around a dandyism exhibition. There’s a moving slideshow in the foyer called ‘What Soho Wore’, consisting of images of club goers through the decades. Caroline poses in front of one of the images. It’s of her younger self in the late 90s, standing on another recognisable staircase – the red-painted one at the Ghetto club near Tottenham Court Road station. The Ghetto was demolished by the Crossrail works, so any photos of its clientele preserve the building as much as the people.
I myself have appeared in a similar set of photos on the Vice website, on 90s and early 2000s nightlife. The photographer is Adam Friedman. My one is from the club Trash.
Photo by Adam Friedman. Taken from the Vice article ‘Photos of People Looking Joyful and Unbothered in 80s and 90s Clubs’.
Someone linked to it online saying ‘Look, a young Dickon Edwards’.
I shuddered. A feeling that the game’s up. Or at least, that game’s up. But also that my history is now History, capital H. I was there. I was a camera, now I am an archive. The game now, at the age of 44, is to work out how best to mine this strata of experience, this bank of knowledge that no one under 40 has, so it can fuel a viable income.
I take a look at the other main exhibition, Terence Donovan: Speed of Light. I knew about Donovan’s reputation as a chronicler of Swinging London in the 1960s, so seeing images of a young Terence Stamp, Julie Christie and the other usual 60s faces is no surprise. What I didn’t know was that Mr Donavan was also behind that most heterosexual of 1980s pop videos, Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’. The video plays on a large screen in the gallery. Mr Palmer mimes in shirt and tie, looking the epitome of the American Psycho alpha male, while his backing ‘band’ are a group of identically-styled female fashion models, all in slicked-back hair and slinky black dresses, posing like dead-eyed mannequins, and barely able to mime to their instruments at the same time. There’s a Christmassy parody of the video in Love Actually, with Bill Nighy instead of Palmer, and the models in Santa hats.
Most fascinating of all is Donovan’s typed proposal for the ‘Addicted To Love’ concept, making it clear how the glossy and sexist world of advertising was the whole point of the video. He asks for a group of ‘models in Azzedine Alaia dresses – he produces clothes that make men become quite irrational… Hair should be slicked flat and shiny… [the models should be] repositories of sensuality… The video should be saturated in the unyielding quality that really sensational women possess… Any 20 seconds of it would be just as powerful as seeing the full video’. Which is quite true: it’s not so much a performance as a tableau.
A further 80s video by Mr Donovan plays in the exhibition, ‘Madame Butterfly’ by Malcolm McLaren. Again, Donovan parades lots of skinny, slick-haired models, though this time they’re less robotic and more sensual, sweating skimpily in a Sapphoerotic sauna, giving each other slow massages, while never, ever smiling (this is the 1980s). It reminds me of that Burne-Jones painting at the Tate, The Golden Stairs, where all the women have the same face. Female beauty – white female beauty – as a shored-up abstraction, without any troublesome trace of individuality. It makes the Terence Donovan show a rather good contrast with the black male dandyism show downstairs.
Tuesday 19th July 2016. To a basement lecture hall in Birkbeck’s Torrington Square building, for a discussion of Deleuze and psychoanalysis. I’m mainly there because, as Maggie’s Plan has it, ‘Zizek’s speaking!’ Slavoj Zizek has been officially attached to Birkbeck for some years, as International Director of the Institute of Humanities. Despite this I’ve never seen him speak after five years of being an arts student there. So tonight I fix that, and am not disappointed.
His distinctive voice arrives several seconds before the rest of him, chatting to the other people on the panel as they enter together. He is satisfyingly loud and animated, with that heavy East European accent and lateral lisp; proof that a speech impediment need be no impediment to public speaking. I take some personal comfort from this, as a lateral lisper myself. And then there’s his catchphrase, ‘And so on, and so on’. Other speakers at his events don’t stand a chance.
That said, Aaron Schuster, whose new book The Trouble With Pleasure the event is nominally about, does his best to hold his own. The discussion centres on the nature of complaining – how much pleasure is there in making a complaint? Is it ‘the motor of creation’? Sophocles’s line for Oedipus is an example of the Pure Complaint, one with no remedy – ‘It would be better to have never been born’. The talk takes in the Jewish word ‘kvetch’, the idea that all operas are based on complaints, and the dignity of prisoners in Auschwitz, when they complained about the food. I’d say that a large amount of social media is about The Complaint too, as a primary expression of basic existence. On Twitter, a common sentiment is ‘I complain therefore I am’. FFS ergo sum.
Wednesday 20th July. To the BFI Southbank, still called the National Film Theatre on some of the signposts at Waterloo. I see the newly restored print of Akenfield (1974). The film is directed by Peter Hall and adapted from the Ronald Blythe book, but it’s also, as the opening credit has it in large and proud letters, ‘made by the people of Suffolk’. The sweeping Tippett music is all the more effective when blasting out of auditorium speakers; a reminder that it’s worth going to the cinema for the sound as much as the visuals. There’s a Q&A afterwards with two of the actors, Garrow Shand and Barbara Tilney, plus the producer Rex Pyke. Mr Shand says he appeared in the film by answering an advert in the East Anglian Daily Times. It was looking for local young men who could ‘act and drive a plough’. He grew up on a farm, so the ploughing part came naturally. Akenfield’s strange, organic style manages to nod to both experimental European cinema and English community stage plays, though Ms Tilney now compares the use of non-actors to The Only Way Is Essex, ‘except in the past’.
I stick around in the BFI to see another restored old film, Burroughs: The Movie, a documentary on the Naked Lunch author from 1983. William S Burroughs’s dandyism impresses: three piece suits, hats and ties. A well-dressed corpse. He shows the camera his collection of weapons, stashed around his bedroom. A machete in a sock drawer, a pistol under the pillow. ‘You seem well prepared for a home invasion,’ says the director. ‘Well… I’m hoping there won’t ever be one,’ says Burroughs. ‘I deplore violence.’
Friday 22nd July 2016. Finish reading Miranda Sawyer’s Out of Time, her book on the mid-life crisis. I picked it up partly because of my own mid-life worries, but also because she’s roughly the same generation as me, and was a music journalist during the 1990s. She half-jokes, half-complains at one point about only being asked to appear on TV whenever there’s a discussion of Britpop or Madchester. Amusingly, though, she does begin one sentence with the words, ‘Shaun Ryder once said to me…’
She discusses how the term ‘mid-life’ was coined in the 60s and taken seriously in the 70s. Since the 80s, though, it became the butt of jokes and humour books. Indeed, one of the current bestselling books is The Ladybird Book of the Mid-Life Crisis, one of the umpteen Ladybird parodies. Why isn’t this choice of subject matter questioned, asks Ms Sawyer, and I agree with her. Why would, say, The Ladybird Book of Mental Illness be thought in bad taste, but the mid-life crisis is fair game?
Ms Sawyer suggests that as her own generation were the children of rave culture, they became the first to truly refuse to grow up, pursuing personal bliss as a priority. She says that at the height of the Ecstasy years, there was an article in a newsletter for clubbers imploring them not to quit their day jobs. The author – a rave promoter – was genuinely worried that society would fall apart.
The problem now, says Ms Sawyer, is that many of this freelance-heavy generation may be making a living, but live on much tighter budget than their forty-something counterparts in the past. Thanks to the internet killing off print, the fees in journalism are now pitiful, even for those with decades of experience. I’m a little shocked when she mentions she only has a couple of hundred pounds in her bank account, and that she can’t afford to upgrade her gardenless London flat. On top of this, she’s raising two children, the second of which she had at the age of 44 – something which is also increasingly common.
Of her advice to fellow mid-lifers, I like her tip about spending no more than two hours at a party, such as from 9.30pm to 11.30pm. No one really cares how long you’re at a party for. Just being there to say hello is enough to keep friendships fresh. Certainly fresher than only ever making contact on social media.
Tuesday 27th July 2016. I meet Charlie M in the Brill Café in Exmouth Market. The café is partly a record shop, selling new vinyl and CDs. Today it has the new Radiohead and the new Bat For Lashes. How funny to think that vinyl has become the connoisseurs’ format, and more expensive than CDs. It was the other way around in the late 80s, with CDs as the pricier, more elitist option. Some vinyl reissues are rebranded with the word ‘legacy’.
Charlie and I walk to the Victoria Miro gallery to see the Yayoi Kusama show, only to find there’s a queue some hundred-strong, stretching all the way down Wharf Road. Thankfully we agree that no art is worth that amount of queuing, not in a city so stuffed with alternatives. We head off to see the Punk 1976-78 exhibition at the British Library instead. The same space has had queues itself, for the Alice in Wonderland display late last year, but I’m confident that fewer tourists are drawn to Johnny Rotten. Music divides more than fiction, and punk rock still has a baffling or even frightening aspect, I think.
At a British Library talk on the exhibition recently, it was reported that Viv Albertine, the guitarist from the Slits, scrawled some graffiti on one of the information panels, the one that introduces the whole display. She accused the text of perpetuating punk rock as a boys’ club, and crossed off ‘Sex Pistols’, ‘the Clash’ to write in ‘X Ray Spex’, ‘Siouxsie and the Banshees’ and ‘The Slits’. She also signed these annotations. The BL has left them intact some weeks later. I suppose it helps that (a) the graffiti is in the spirit of the exhibition, and (b) Ms Albertine is a piece of Punk Rock History herself.
On another panel, Gina Birch’s name is misspelt as ‘Gina Burch’. I’m tempted to get out a pen and correct that myself. But I am not a legend of punk rock.
Wednesday 28th July 2016. To the Hampstead Everyman with Jon S, to see Star Trek Beyond. £10 with my NUS card, but it’s worth it for the luxurious sofas, each one detached from the rest of the row. No juddering sensations caused by the kicks of other customers.
The new Star Trek film is the expected parade of non-stop explosions and nick-of-time action, but there’s a handful of original visuals that make it worthwhile. Not least of these is the make-up for the swashbuckling alien woman. Her character’s skin is chalk white, with black ink-blot markings, a little like the zebra dancers in the Penguin Café Orchestra’s ballet. Despite all the advances in CGI, it’s the physical design touches like this that stick in the mind.
There’s an article by Catherine Shoard in the Guardian this week that remarks on the trend for Hollywood films to cut down on dialogue and play up the visuals, so the films can play better in foreign markets. What with Instagram and emojis, the world is become more image-based. The rising popularity of cosplay, that love of dressing up at fan conventions, has made the craft of costume and make-up just as important as computer graphics.
Much of Corbyn’s popularity might be down to the cosplay compatibility of his appearance. He is the wise old wizard of every grand narrative; a Gandalf, a Dumbledore, a Ben Kenobi. His nemesis Owen Smith, meanwhile, resembles an estate agent who seems always on the verge of delivering bad news.
Thursday 29th July 2016. Lunch with Charley S in the BBC Club, near Broadcasting House. In the evening she takes me to a screening of the JT LeRoy film, Author, in the House of Vans venue under Waterloo station. I’ve been there before, when I DJ’d at an event, but I still get lost on the way. One has to find a particular exit out of Waterloo, or risk wandering along the wrong dark tunnel for some time.
Author is the only JT LeRoy documentary that’s officially endorsed by Laura Albert, the writer behind the LeRoy pseudonym. Two other documentaries have already been made of the same story, with a fourth, a dramatization, in the pipeline. If the whole basis of the documentary form is about constructing a convincing version of the truth, then it’s no wonder why the LeRoy tale should be fertile. It is a story, after all, about how people construct the truth full stop.
I’m so fascinated with the issues raised by the film that it’s difficult for me not to go into another 5000 words of discussion. It touches on so many subjects, and resembles a whole set of fairy tales and fables. It merges The Emperor’s New Clothes with The Prince and The Pauper, and The Boy Who Cried Wolf. So I’ll bear in mind Melvyn Bragg’s line and keep to the most important things that I’ve not yet said.
I had some email dealings with JT LeRoy, in 2000, when I sought permission to quote from Sarah for the sleeve of the first Fosca album. JT kindly replied and said yes. So I’ll always grateful to him for that. The knowledge, gained a few years later, that I was not emailing a teenage transgender rent boy but a thirtysomething mother called Laura Albert, did throw me at first. But I shrugged. If it matters about the biography of the author, then the thing to do is point out autobiographical novels by transgender writers who are really transgender, such as Roz Kaveney’s Tiny Pieces of Skull.
I’m certainly sympathetic to the need to use a pseudonym. Author names are brands, handrails of truth and trust, or corrective stabilisers against prejudice. It’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. I think about how JK Rowling has done it twice, first as the androgynous ‘JK Rowling’, to market the first Harry Potter book to boys, then again with ‘Robert Galbraith’, so she could free up a different voice to write crime novels.
The difference with Ms Albert is that she created a whole backstory for JT LeRoy, presented that as truth, then hired a relative – Savannah Knoop – to play LeRoy at public events. Although Sarah may say ‘FICTION’ on the back cover, as Ms Albert says in the film, it was definitely marketed as autobiographical fiction. Marketing affects the choice to decide what to read, and the reading experience once that choice has been made.
The irony now is that Laura Albert’s name carries the taint of a literary hoaxer, however unfairly. She spends much of this film pointing out how hoaxes are intended to exploit the gullible and prove a point, while she just wanted to write and be read. The JT LeRoy persona was an accidental voice of hers, which became a necessary device to frame the reading experience, and then just got out of hand. The film goes some way to making all of this convincing. I suppose the problem for her now is that Author is being marketed with that one word she so vehemently denies – ‘hoax’. Because it makes for a better story.
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, Burroughs the Movie
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Promises That Were Possibilities
Saturday 25th June 2016. I don’t take part in the Pride march, but it impacts on my day when I try to get to St James’s from Trafalgar Square. I stand in Lower Regent Street and watch a few of the floats go by. In Trafalgar Square, one of the traffic lights has been altered so that the little green figure is now two female sex symbols, linked together. The London mayor, Mr Khan, has given his explicit blessing to Pride. Given he’s a Muslim, and given the events in Orlando the other week, there’s an extra resonance of justification to the march.
That said, I wince when I see a float emblazoned in the logos of Barclays Bank. How funny that the recent film Pride, set in the 1980s, is as much about anti-capitalist politics as it is about gay rights. Now capitalism has a float in the march too. If corporations like Barclays truly gave a hoot about LGBT culture, they’d intervene to stop venues like Madam JoJo’s and The Black Cap disappearing. Still, asking a bank to deal with inequality rather summons up the cartoons of HM Bateman.
Am reading Edward St Aubyn’s series of novels about Patrick Melrose, the upper class anti-hero who goes from abused child to self-destructive addict. Whereas I gobbled up books one to four with impatience, I’m taking my time with the fifth and final book, At Last, in order to properly savour the prose. I’m sure this is common when reading a series of books in order, one after the other.
I’m attracted to ESA’s books not only by the aphoristic quips and Waugh-esque style, but by St Aubyn’s admission in interviews of his dyslexia. It explains why the novels are often quite short, yet heavily polished. The D-word doesn’t appear in the novels, but knowing about St Aubyn’s learning difficulty gives an extra dimension to his protagonist’s taste in books:
‘He liked slim books which he could slip into his overcoat pocket… What was the point of a book if you couldn’t carry it around with you as a theoretical defence against boredom?’ (Bad News, p. 48).
Never Mind and Bad News are the best of the first four, I think, due to the shocking abuse scene in the former, and the mixture of New York high and low life in the latter. Difficult to call Bad News a narcotic novel, though, as the heroin taking is secondary to Melrose’s self-hatred. It’s closer to the way that Sebastian Flyte ends up as an alcoholic in Brideshead.
I browse in the National Portrait Gallery shop and notice that they’ve put out a new postcard of Victoria Wood. It’s brand new, in fact, because on the back are the years of her birth and death. Given the surge of celebrity deaths this year, the NPG must be spoilt for choice.
I watch a DVD of The Pleasure Garden (1953), rented from Birkbeck library. This is a curious 40 minute black and white film, which Travis Elborough mentions in his book on parks. Directed by the American poet James Broughton, it’s now a time capsule of London topography and British social values. The main location is Crystal Palace Gardens, while it still had plenty of statues.
The plot is little more than a dream-like parade of amorous goings-on in the aforementioned Gardens, with a tone pitched somewhere between Luis Bunuel, Dick Lester, and the Carry On films. Hattie Jacques is a fairy godmother, using her powers to liberate courting couples from a censorious government official, played by John Le Mesurier in Victorian undertaker garb. In one scene he apprehends a trio of skimpily-dressed young people, two men and a women, for what we assume is canoodling in the long grass. The woman tells Le Mesurier that the two men are ‘together’, which prompts him to turn to a ‘special’ section of his rule book. Though the DVD is certificate U, this film must have felt pretty risqué for British viewers in 1953. Needless to say, it did well at a French film festival.
Sunday June 26th 2016. A quote from Iain Duncan Smith on the Andrew Marr programme, about his role in the referendum’s Leave campaign:
‘We never made any commitments. We just made a series of promises that were possibilities.’
It’s so beyond satire it hurts.
Tuesday, June 28th 2016. To the Barbican’s smaller screens in Beech Street for Tale of Tales, an Italian film comprising three traditional Italian fairy tales. They all take place in the same quasi-medieval world of castles and sea monsters. The cast is international (including Toby Jones, Shirley Henderson, and Salma Hayek), but the dialogue is in English. When there is any dialogue, that is. And what there is is very stilted, bordering on the badly translated. This makes it a frustrating watch, but the visuals are impressive enough. Vincent Cassell is typecast as a sex-mad king, making his entrance beneath the skirts of two women. At one point he gets up in the morning after an al fresco orgy on a beach, and knocks over a live peacock.
Wednesday, June 29th, 2016. I go to see Martin Parr’s ‘Unseen City’ exhibition, being images documenting the ceremonies of the Square Mile. It’s in the Guildhall, one of those London galleries that the tourists never seem to know about (another is the Wallace). The permanent collection is full of 19th century masterpieces, yet I’m one of about five visitors.
Parr’s trademark style is unmistakable: hyperreal slices of British daily life, the colours turned up to the full. A lady Lord Mayor stands alone in an empty marquee, waiting to go on, weighed down by her voluminous robes and oversized hat. A golden Great Mace rests bathetically in the back seat of a taxi. I suppose the word really does have to be ‘unceremonious’. Beadles and Drapers march in their garters past a branch of Pret a Manger. The names of the ceremonies are entertaining enough: ‘Cart Marking’, ‘The Silent Ceremony’, ‘Beating the Bounds’, ‘Swan Upping’. Men in blazers stand in row boats and toast the Queen. It all still goes on.
Quite an apt exhibition to see in the wake of the EU referendum, too, given the amount of foreign newspaper cartoons about men in bowler hats doing foolish things. Bowler hats are, of course, rarely worn in the City of London these days, but as these photographs prove, there are still worn in City ceremonies.
Friday, July 1st, 2016. There really is no escape from the referendum. Wandering through Cartwright Gardens in Bloomsbury, I stop take a look at the statue of John Cartwright, and learn from the plaque that he was a campaigner for universal suffrage and a supporter of US independence in 1776. Then, at the foot of the statue, I notice there’s a fresh bouquet of flowers, along with a handwritten paper note. It is clearly from a Leave the EU supporter:
‘23rd June 2016. Betrayed by our own representatives, we the people nevertheless voted to reclaim national sovereignty… Freedom is ours!’
I attend a Birkbeck end of term drinks gathering, at the Bree Louise pub near Euston station. After a few drinks, the Birkbeck table inevitably gets into an EU conversation. ‘Oh, I’m just enjoying the spectacle of it all’, I say airily, waving a hand about. The woman I’m speaking to (who I’ve not met before) is unimpressed. ‘It’s not a spectacle for ME! I’m in Labour!’
When she gets up to leave, she jabs a finger at me and says, quite sternly, ‘Join the Labour Party.’ Then she goes. I don’t say anything, but it occurs to me that the only reply is, ‘Why, are they falling apart? Oh, that’s right.’
I was being honest, though. Whether Corbyn or the Tories, it’s a spectacle all right, and one that I feel both depressed by and detached from.
Tuesday, July 5th, 2016. Evening: Dinner with Shanthi Sivanesan at Cozzo, Whitecross Street. It’s an unpretentious, inexpensive Italian restaurant, slightly rough at the edges, which I like. We sit out al fresco in Whitecross Street, which is narrow and virtually pedestrianised, with few cars about.
Then to the Barbican’s nuclear bunker, aka Cinema One, for Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (£5 with an NUS card on Tuesdays). Quite an apt choice, given my own current state of lassitude. Jennifer Saunders, who stars and writes the script, has admitted that she wrote it in a state of laziness. Not only did it take an age to come out, but the end result, I think it’s fair to say, has the minimum amount of ambition that could possibly be expected. The title says it all: a standard episode of the TV series Absolute Fabulous, padded out to pass as a film.
The most common plot for film versions of TV comedies has often been They Go On Holiday. So many spring to mind: Are You Being Served: The Movie, Holiday On The Buses, that Morecombe and Wise one with ‘Riviera’ in the title. The other common plots are They Run Out Of Money, and They Get Involved In A Big Crime That Moves Them To A New Location (Alan Partridge – Alpha Papa). The Ab Fab film manages to tick all these boxes: Edina and Patsy run out of money, get involved in a crime, and flee to the South of France. That really is it.
Thankfully, it’s still funny. There’s enough slapstick and topical jokes to keep the film afloat, and Joanna Lumley as Patsy is funny whenever she’s on screen full stop. She can pull a face and improve a scene a thousandfold.
Were it down to me, I’d turn it into an original musical. There’s a scene where Saffy, the prim daughter, sings karaoke at a drag queen night in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. It’s a scene that has no justification other than being a nice record of the venue, much as The Pleasure Garden is a record of the Crystal Palace Gardens. Like Madame JoJo’s was, the RVT is one of those old-style gay clubs which is struggling to avoid the oligarchs’ bulldozer. But it also suggests that the film really wanted to be a full-blown musical.
Instead we get a multitude of celebrity cameos that do little more than prove how well-connected the producers are. The rule should be that cameos need to be as good as Marshall McLuhan’s in Annie Hall. McLuhan couldn’t act, either, but he’s there for a joke, and you don’t need to know who he is to get the joke, either. The celebrities in AbFab are little more than attempts to distract the audience from the film’s complete lack of ambition. It’s still funny enough, when it’s those two main actors playing those two characters. They could have done more, that’s all.
Thursday, July 6th, 2016. With some of the Boogaloo extended family to the fringe-y Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden. One of the Boogaloo staff, Kate Goodfellow, is in the current play there, A Year From Now. It turns out she’s also the artistic director of the company, RedBellyBlack, as well as this show’s producer, choreographer, and sound editor. She tells us afterwards that she even repaired some holes in the stage floor that were left behind by the previous company, with minutes to go until the technical rehearsal.
A Year From Now is an impressive documentary piece, which uses a similar device to one of my favourite films, The Arbor. To enhance the question ‘Where do you see yourself a year from now?’, actors lip-synch to the recorded voices of real life interviewees. Unlike The Arbor, though, there’s an element of modern dance too, with the actors constantly moving about in balletic styles as they illustrate or interpret the words they’re mouthing. This use of quotations from real life to make up an entire script is, I believe, called verbatim theatre. That said, it’s more common to have the actors performing the words with their own voices, as in the case of London Road, the musical about the Ipswich murders.
The voices on audio range from an elderly couple who are glad to still be about, to a toddler who has only just learned the concept of what a ‘year’ means – played by Kate G herself. There’s also a young-ish couple who are the parents of new born babies, to a man whose parent has just died, and to a trio of hospital patients battling or recovering from serious illnesses.
It’s also quite timely, given the present sense of uncertainty overall. A year from now there’ll be a different Prime Minister, and a different US President. Some politicians have scant ideas of what they’ll be doing next week. The referendum revealed that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove had made no plans whatsoever.
In my case, I do know what I’ll be doing a year from now. Working on a 15,000 word dissertation for an MA, to be delivered in the following September. That’s all I’ve got for now, but that’s still more than Boris.
Afterwards: to the Groucho Club in Dean Street. At least one of the Boogaloo party is a member of the GC, so off we go. Last time I was here, which must be about ten years ago, I’m sure it was more brightly lit, and that it felt like the public areas of a luxury hotel. Today it’s more like a private members’ club, which is what it’s meant to be. There’s friendly staff who know the members’ names, dark corners to loaf in, lots of sofas next to bookcases full of coffee-table books, art on the walls (quite a few Peter Blakes). A looser, more bohemian feel than last time. It’s as if part of the Colony Room’s spirit has moved here, with the rest of it going to Vout-o-Reenee’s in Tower Hill.
Am intrigued that the Groucho smoking area is not the pavement out front, but a kitchen yard on the first floor, hemmed between the backs of old Soho buildings. I share an Uber cab back to Highgate (‘Would you like to charge your phones?’ says the driver) and am treated to the cost. I must socialise with my neighbours more often.
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Tags: a year from now
, absolutely fabulous the movie
, bree louise
, Edward St Aubyn
, eu referendum
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, pride 2016
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The EU Anxiety Mountain
Sunday 19th June 2016. I read an interview with Noma Dumezweni, the black actress cast as an older Hermione in the new Harry Potter play. Am intrigued to find out she was raised not so far from me, in Felixstowe, Suffolk, during the 70s and 80s. She speaks fondly of attending the Wolsey Youth Theatre in Ipswich, and being inspired by its director, Anthony ‘Dick’ Tuckey. I worked briefly with the WYT too, as a trainee stage manager during 1990. The show was an adaptation of The Odyssey, written specifically (by Mr Tuckey, I think) for a youth group. This duly meant there were lots of roles, Sirens, Greeks, mythical characters and so forth, spread across plenty of scenes. I remember Dick T being an avuncular director and a fearless leader in general (it’s no mean feat to keep out-of-school teenagers in order), but also that I was impressed by his eclectic taste in music. One of his Wolsey Theatre productions in 1989 used the debut EP by the edgy, Goth-tinged band Cranes, Self-Non-Self. It was the first time that I realised you didn’t need to be a certain kind of person to like a certain kind of music.
Afternoon: to Ladbroke Square Garden in Notting Hill, open today as part of Open Garden Squares Weekend. The garden is normally ‘communal’, meaning that the general public aren’t allowed in. The gates are normally kept locked, with the keys distributed only to the residents of the neighbouring streets. The idea is that it’s compensation for not having a large garden of one’s own. London has a couple of hundred miniature parks like this: a whole other world of semi-secret green spaces, hidden behind railings and high hedges. Perhaps the most well-known is Rosmead Gardens, a few blocks away from Ladbroke Square, which appears in the film Notting Hill. Hugh Grant tries to breaks into it at night.
I’ve come here today because I’m an admirer of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Line of Beauty, and was curious about the unnamed ‘communal gardens’ which back onto Kensington Park Gardens:
The communal gardens were as much a part of Nick’s romance of London as the house itself: big as the central park of some old European city, but private, and densely hedged on three sides with holly and shrubbery behind high Victorian railings… There were hidden places, even on the inside, … the enclosure with the sandpit and the children’s slide, where genuine uniformed nannies still met and gossiped with a faint air of truancy; and at the far end the tennis courts, whose overlapping rhythms of serves and rallies and calls lent a calming reminder of other people’s exertions to the August dusk. From end to end, just behind the houses, ran the broad gravel walk, with its emphatic camber and its metal-edged gutters where a child’s ball would come to rest… At regular intervals there were Victorian cast-iron benches, made with no thought of comfort, and between them on the grass a few people were sitting or picnicking in the warm early twilight.. At the end of the path there was the gardener’s cottage, huddled quaintly and servilely under the cream cliff of the terrace.
So today I take my paperback copy of the book and compare it with the real place. Some of Hollinghurst’s details are a little different from the real Ladbroke Square Garden: for one thing, there’s no metal gutters on the main path. Though for all I know that may be accurate in historical terms, as the novel is set in the 1980s. Otherwise, it matches the description. Once through the gate, which is today manned by some cheery locals on trestle tables, the space opens out into what might be a portion of Regent’s Park, such is its size. There’s three spacious lawn sections separated by rows of trees, with the children’s play areas and tennis court are all present and correct – though it’s quite easy to miss them, such is the winding density of the place. The gardener’s cottage is there too, and ‘quaintly huddling’ under the cliff of the proper houses sums it up.
According to the leaflet I take on the way in, Ladbroke Square Garden has over 650 families as subscribers, all of whom have to live within 100 yards of the perimeter. On top of that, they pay an annual fee of £240 to use the garden, though there’s also a ‘hardship’ rate of £75. It’s like a private members’ club, in that sense. The tennis court turns out to be a 1960s idea by the wife of Roy Jenkins, no less, while he was the Home Secretary. He lived at Kensington Park Gardens, just like the politician in The Line of Beauty.
I spend the afternoon wandering around this private paradise, basking in the rare access. I briefly bump into Cathi Unsworth, another London novelist, also playing the city explorer.
Tuesday 21st June 2016. Evening: to the Boogaloo for the first time in ages; I’d been neglecting my own local watering hole. Chat to a couple of the current youthful crew, who have various projects in the offing – digital radio stations, dance theatre pieces. There’s a chance I might be involved in something Boogaloo-shaped soon. Have too good a time and end up hungover the next day. This is the only real difference: I can’t drink as much as I used to without wiping out my usefulness for the next 24 hours. This is purely down to age, though.
Wednesday 22nd June 2016. That said, I do end up going to the IOE bar for one glass of wine after a class today. It’s very much an end of year type of class: ‘Critical Top Trumps’. Essentially a fun discussion of academic theorists based on the Top Trumps trading card game. Interestingly, there’s already a set of Theorist cards on the internet, so we discuss those. They’re from 2000, which is just long ago enough to demonstrate how theorists can go in and out of fashion. Judith Butler and Adorno are there, Zizek is not. No one in the class recognises Anthony Giddens, a British sociologist who was once an advisor to Tony Blair.
The tutor mentions the Fear Factor rating of the classic ‘Dracula’ set of TT cards, which I adored at school. The more common Trumps games were usually to do with footballers, but Kevin Keegan was no match for Dracula. I now remember that I once made my own Doctor Who cards at school, with hand-drawn illustrations, though I don’t think I actually showed them to anyone. I gave one card to the much-unloved monster The Raston Robot, from The Five Doctors.
Thursday 23rd June 2016. Afternoon: to Jackson’s Lane Community Centre on Archway Road, to vote in the EU referendum. Such a little act – a stubby pencil on a string, an ‘X’ made in one of two boxes. Leave or Remain. It takes me all of five minutes.
People will mostly vote Remain, I think. It’s the obvious choice. I stay up all night and watch the results come in. Despite all the warnings, despite Obama and Cameron and all the writers in the TLS asking people to vote Remain, the Leave vote has it. London, Scotland and parts of England (Brighton, typically) decide to Remain. But out in the shires of Middle England, a backed-up store of anger is finally released.
It’s only 52% of the votes, but it’s enough. The prime minister resigns, the pound plummets, Labour’s top MPs try to remove Corbyn (again), and attacks on immigrants soar. The triumphant politicians, Johnson and Gove, are now back-pedalling about their promises and show no signs of indicating exactly how they’re going to carry out this ‘Brexit’. It’s a very British spectacle: hypocrisy, pettiness, and a lot of muttering.
All I can think about is battling a surplus of anxiety. It’s an EU Anxiety Mountain, a stockpile of worry. The only thing to do with it, is to do good. Not that any option currently presents itself. Online petitions seem little use when the government and the opposition are both too busy pulling themselves to bits.
The world points and laughs: a New Yorker cover has Monty Python’s Silly Walks men falling off a cliff. A German cartoon also uses Monty Python. The Black Knight of Britain cuts off his own limbs. ‘A mere flesh wound!’ Still, it’s interesting that for much of the world, Britain means Monty Python. Perhaps Michael Palin should be asked to step in as an emergency prime minister.
The two biggest quotes from the campaign were from the umpteen televised debates. One was ‘I want my country back’ (a Question Time audience member), the other Michael Gove’s: ‘People in this country have had enough of experts’ (from a Sky News debate).
Mr Gove was soon questioned about his own expertise. His college degree was revealed: a 2:1 in English Literature. With my First in the same subject, I suppose I am technically more of an expert than Michael Gove.
But nevertheless, this touched on the spirit of the times: an instinctive mistrust of those in positions of power. A vote to Leave was a protest, and now the voices of the Remain camp are protesting back. Later, on the following Monday, a huge crowd of Jeremy Corbyn supporters turned out in Parliament Square, implicitly protesting against the Labour MPs who’d been protesting in turn, with their string of resignations from Corbyn’s front bench.
So much protest, so little agreement on a solution. It’s a like an ancient satire on democracy. Everyone has their say, but no one can agree, so everything breaks.
Someone on Twitter said, ‘I can’t read another word of this. Let me know how it all ends, will you?’
I hope the Anxiety Mountain can be put to good use.
Friday 24th June 2016. To the ICA for the film Remainder, if only because of the timely pun of London as a city of ‘Remain-ders’. A frustrating film: it boldly tries to adapt the ideas from Tom McCarthy’s cult novel, but like High-Rise I find it a mess of mismatched tones, confused pacing, and stilted acting. Still, it’s a noble mess, perhaps proving that the novel can’t properly be filmed, just paid tribute to (indeed one of its themes is the failure of simulation). And Tom Sturridge does have a vacant surliness that’s perfect for the protagonist.
Tags: alan hollinghurst
, cathi unsworth
, ladbroke square garden
, Noma Dumezweni
, tom mccarthy
He Believes In Beauty
A full week of activity, so much so that I have to stop myself going to new things in order to write about the old ones. Never mind a life/work balance; the trouble with diary writing is that it necessitates a life/writing balance.
Saturday 11th June 2016. The Tube stations are full of posters for summer festivals. I glance across the long lists of band names and logos, recognising one or two. Are they still going? Have they reformed now?
In my twenties I saw as many rock bands as possible. I once hitchhiked to see The Blue Aeroplanes – and slept on a strange man’s floor. Now rock festivals are something other people go to.
How much of action is taste, and how much is it wanting to belong? And why does this change? I ask myself this as I sit on the tube from Highgate to Balham today, at 9am. I am 44 years old and have paid £10 for a ticket to a literary discussion, one on walking in the city. It takes place at 10 o’clock in the morning in a large pub in South London. I was alerted to the talk by a kind staffer at the London Library, who knew it was what I’d been researching lately – flânerie, all that.
I suppose this is the sort of person I am now. Literary festivals in the morning. Book launches in the evening. I rather like them. There might be a little drama over getting microphones to work (‘Can you hear me okay?’ ‘Yes!’, ‘No!’), but that’s usually the sum limit of irritation. That, and the occasional audience member during the Q&A, the kind of who mistakes the word ‘question’ for a five minute recital of their own thesis.
I go to these bookish events quite happily, safe in the knowledge that there will be no trying to sleep in a tent while people kick a football about at 4am. No queuing to use a latrine. No trying to see past a too-tall man in a jester hat (though perhaps they have those at George R R Martin signings, I don’t know). No moshing down the front, not even for AS Byatt.
What literary festivals do have in common with their rock and pop counterparts is that there now seems to be more of them than ever. Perhaps one reason is that the word ‘tickets’ has acquired a whole new aura, thanks to the internet. It’s easy to get hold of a Kate Bush album. Kate Bush tickets, less so. ‘Tickets’ means something live, something limited in number, something that can sell out, something fixed by time and place, something special. Tickets are proof of the real, anchors of promise, glimpses of satisfaction. As opposed to the empty calories of swiping a screen for hours, and hoping that counts as a life well lived. Tickets are more of a life.
The Balham Literary Festival takes place at The Bedford pub, near the tube station. This may sound modest, but the venue turns out to have a warren of large-ish function rooms upstairs, and there’s several events going on simultaneously. I’m impressed that there are a good 40 or so people in the audience. On top of that, there’s a healthy absence of commercialism. Of the three speakers, only Matthew Beaumont has a book out. Lauren Elkin’s book on the flaneuse, the female walker (which I really want to read and had hoped to pick up), isn’t yet published. Anna-Louise Milne’s book is only available in French. So I come away impressed that these sort of events really do exist for the sheer joy of ideas.
Afternoon: a late lunch at Orsini in Thurloe Place, then across the road to the V&A with Heather Malone. We see the big glamorous exhibition on the history of underwear, Undressed. There’s a remarkable photo of George Bernard Shaw modelling long johns, prancing happily on a beach. Heather takes my photo by the sea shell in the foyer, a prop to publicise the Botticelli show. I think of the Bjork song, ‘Venus As A Boy’.
Monday 13th June 2016. Like many I’m reeling from the news about Orlando, Florida, where a man gunned down the clientele of a gay club. Fifty dead, more wounded. On social media, people post photos of men kissing, in solidarity. There’s a mass gathering in Old Compton Street, which I’d go to had I not a ticket to see another talk, this time at the British Library in St Pancras.
Still, this event concerns gay life in a way – it’s a discussion of the acquisition of Kenneth Williams’s diaries by the BL. One of the speakers is a BL curator, and she describes the fifty years’ worth of diaries as important to gay social history. Lots of genuine Polari in the earlier diaries, before the slang went public in Round the Horne.
David Benson performs selections from the unpublished diaries in his KW voice (and wears the suit from his one man KW show). He has the crowd in stitches. Nicholas Parsons (now 92) recounts memories of Just A Minute and singles out the performance in a Hancock’s Half Hour episode, ‘the one about the test pilot’ (The Diary). NP is convinced that the manic public persona and the depressive diarist were both the ‘real’ KW, caught at different times. Williams himself is quoted as saying, ‘My moods are up and down like a whore’s drawers’.
The curator explains that it will be a while before the later diaries are scanned and made available on the BL’s public website. They have to censor anything that libels the living.
Tuesday 14th June 2016. Afternoon: to The Hub gallery in Haddon Street, for a small but quite wonderful exhibition of David Bowie photographs. The street, off Regent’s Street, is the one on the sleeve of the Ziggy Stardust album, and there’s a fair amount of Ziggy-related photos inside, from his early 70s concerts at the Rainbow Theatre, in Finsbury Park.
One photo shoot is from 1989, where an older Bowie returns to the Rainbow Theatre, to promote a greatest hits tour. He stands in front of a montage of his old album sleeves, one hand across his mouth, the other on the mouth of one of the younger Bowies behind him, the long-haired androgyne of Hunky Dory. According to the caption, this is because the Rainbow had become a shelter for the homeless, and Bowie was responding to one of the homeless men who were standing about, watching the photo shoot and firing off questions. ‘Who’s that girl on that cover, there?’ said the man, indicating Hunky Dory. Bowie replied, ‘It’s a girl I used to know’.
My favourite photo is one from 1983, in a Tokyo restaurant. Bowie sits and chats with friends. He’s in his Let’s Dance mode, with bleached yellow hair, three-piece charcoal suit and a tie. Offstage, off duty, yet posing immaculately.
There’s several song lyrics stencilled on the gallery walls. I buy the catalogue (£5, for a cancer charity), and show it to Atalanta later on. She points out how one set of lyrics, from ‘Heroes’, now takes on a new meaning, in the days after the Orlando massacre:
I can remember standing by the wall
And the guns shot above our heads
And we kissed as though nothing could fall
Evening: to the Twentieth Century Theatre in Westbourne Grove, for a set of live performances to celebrate John Lee Bird’s exhibition, ‘Before Encore 6’. Mr Bird’s ‘Before Encore’ project has been going for about ten years. It comprises portraits of real people rendered as minimalist line drawings, against backgrounds of bright, single colours. I’d say the style lies halfway between Warhol’s screen prints and Julian Opie’s Miffy-like abstractions of human faces. The project also has a specific aim: to document figures from London’s alternative club scenes. These can be musicians, artists, poets, DJs, or just people seen at those clubs.
Tonight, the new portraits have been blown up into large canvasses and hung around the walls of the venue, a beautiful Victorian theatre. A further half a dozen portraits are dangling onstage as backdrops to the live acts. The subjects include veterans like Genesis P. Orridge and the Divine David Hoyle, established names like Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu, and newer faces like the singer with Bête Noire, David M Hargreaves. Bête Noire perform tonight, and I see them for the first time. Mr Hargreaves throws himself about and takes off his clothes, as I’m told he tends to do. What I didn’t expect is that the band is not an arty cabaret act but a serious guitar group, with a sound that wouldn’t be out of place at Glastonbury – they’re reminiscent of Interpol, or possibly The Strokes. I also enjoy readings by a couple of poets, Nathan Evans and Mark Walton. Mr Walton gives me a copy of his book, Frostbitten.
I spend much of my time there chatting with Atalanta K. On the way back to Notting Hill tube, we stop at Kensington Park Gardens, the street where Alan Hollinghurst set The Line of Beauty. I ask her to take my photo against No. 47, the last house in the street. In the novel the main location is given as Number 48, but this doesn’t seem to exist. Hence my compromise. I suppose it’s my version of those Harry Potter fans who pose by the platform in King’s Cross.
Wednesday 15th June 2016. Evening: to Birkbeck in Gordon Square for an MA class. The dissertations due for this autumn are presented by each student. Mine isn’t due till the autumn of next year, so for me this is a way of seeing what the other students are up to, and what sort of subject matter is considered suitable. Of the four students presenting, two are both doing Samuel Beckett, interestingly. One is on narrative technique in Malone Dies, the other is on the use of technology in Krapp’s Last Tape and Embers. The other dissertations are on the experimental poet Maggie O’Sullivan, and underground female comic creators, such as Phoebe Gloeckner. I knew about Gloeckner’s life from the recent film Diary of A Teenage Girl. Drinks in the Birkbeck bar afterwards, on the rooftop in Torrington Square.
Thursday 16th June 2016. Evening: to Waterstones Piccadilly for another bookish event. This one is for the independent Peter Owen Publishers, to mark their 65th anniversary (1951-2016). Peter Owen himself died only a few weeks ago. I had expected tonight to be about him, and about the history of the publishers, but it turns out to be a series of short talks about their latest releases. Still, these are diverse enough. One book by Tom Smith, One For My Baby, is partly a cocktail recipe book and partly a biography of Frank Sinatra. He mixes free cocktails for everyone who turns up. Another book is a novel about the painter Richard Dadd, by Miranda Miller. Evelyn Farr talks about her investigative history into Marie-Antoinette’s letters. Erin Pizzey – a living saint of a woman going by her anecdotes – has a memoir about her setting up a refuge for battered women, in 1970s Chiswick (‘You can be addicted to an abusive relationship, as if it were a drug. And you’ve got to go cold turkey.’)
The author I feel closest to in terms of shared interests is Jeremy Reed, who’s brought out a history of Piccadilly rent boys. Instead of discussing the book, however, he performs his poetry, swaggering from foot to foot in a black beret, pinstripe jacket, and black polka dot shirt. Sebastian Horsley and Marc Almond are namechecked. One poem celebrates Brydges Place, the tiny street off St Martin’s Lane that is barely wide enough to count as an alley.
Friday 17th June 2016. My review of the film Lawrence of Belgravia, now on DVD, appears in The Wire magazine, issue dated July 2016.
Saturday 18th June 2016. Afternoon. To the Prince Charles for the film Where to Invade Next, the new documentary by Michael Moore. I go out of a kind of film fan loyalty, remembering how Moore’s films Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 ushered in the current golden age of documentaries made for cinemas. I think Louis Theroux equally owes his career to appearing in segments for Moore’s 90s TV shows. Where to Invade Next is more positive than angry. It presents the benefits of different social initiatives adopted by different countries, and suggests that the US should adopt them too. Hence the ‘invading’ concept, to steal the ideas. As with Moore’s past work, there’s a lot of skewing the facts to fit an agenda, but MM is still a unique and funny film-maker, with pertinent points to make.
Tags: atalanta k
, balham literary festival
, David Benson
, david bowie
, Heather M
, jeremy reed
, john lee bird
, kenneth williams
, lawrence of belgravia
, michael moore
, peter owen publishers
, the bedford
, where to invade next
Italo Calvino Prats About
Saturday 4th June 2016. More clearing out. I find some 1970s issues of Puffin Post, the magazine of the Puffin Books children’s club. There’s accounts of events like an audience with Tove Jansson, held for children (‘Did you know I have my own island?’ These days the adult Jansson fan’s response would be ‘Yes, yes, we do.’). I have a feeling the British Library has a run of copies with gaps. Mustn’t throw any of these out without checking with them first.
O, the thin line between archiving and hoarding. Must keep some things, can’t keep everything. I find a good tip is to write down in one’s diary what one throws out, as in the more notes-based diary I keep in school exercise books.
Also jettisoned: mid-1990s address books. I glimpse a phone number for the House of Kenickie in Camden, a mews pad where all the band lived together, not unlike the Monkees. And a number for David Walliams in his pre-Little Britain days. Both would have been circa 1996, both are landlines, with mobiles still in the future – just. Even the London dialling codes are obsolete: 0171, rather than 020.
To date this further: I think the first mobile I perused was shown to me around the same time, by Sarah from Dubstar. It was in the Good Mixer, too, that ne plus ultra of Britpop locations.
Another memory from a few years earlier: an unkind news report in an early 90s music paper. David Gedge of the Wedding Present seen using – O horrors! – a mobile phone at a music festival. The caption implied that this was evidence he’d sold out. Today, in the film Green Room, the retrieval of a rock band’s iPhone triggers the whole plot.
I have my hair cut on Archway Road: £13.50, including tip. Cropped short to the roots, which seem to be darker than ever. Then I re-bleach it myself with a £5 kit, until 90 minutes are up, or when my scalp is aflame in agony. Whichever happens first.
I read Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (1979). It has so many of the things I believe in: humour, experimentation, daring, skittishness, and a sense of all things being possible. If there is a shortcoming, perhaps it is a lack of full engagement with the characters. But that’s the price of all the fragmentation and, well, all the pratting about. Or as they say in universities, all the ludic discursiveness.
David Mitchell has cited the novel as an inspiration for Cloud Atlas, except that where Calvino keeps starting new stories, Mitchell goes back and gives each of his tales an ending. The current paperback edition of Calvino makes this link, too, with a quote on the back reading Breathtakingly inventive – David Mitchell’.
Actually, this doesn’t specify which David Mitchell. To say the David Mitchell is no good. There’s nothing to stop this back cover quote being not from the literary novelist but from the one off the TV, the actor from Peep Show and Upstart Crow and panel games. Or perhaps it’s another David Mitchell, one who isn’t either of these two, but who is a Calvino fan. It’d be a very Calvino-esque move for a publisher to find such a man and quote him instead.
In the novel, Calvino’s list of books in a bookshop is honest and funny:
‘Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First’
‘Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered’
‘Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They Come Out in Paperback’
‘Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them’.
The last category is the one that always confronts me. Indeed, it includes the other works of Calvino.
Sunday 5th June 2016. To the Lexington in Pentonville Road for a gig by Blindness, with Debbie Smith on guitar. They announce it as the band’s last show: singer Beth is moving to a different country. Debbie wears a vintage flat cap, waistcoat and matching trousers. ‘I’ve just realised what this look is called,’ says at the microphone. ‘Peaky Blindness’.
Tuesday 7th June 2016. Evening: To the ICA for The Measure of A Man. £3. A contemporary French film that fits neatly with the current celebration of Ken Loach, given it’s about a man struggling to make ends meet during unemployment. It’s also filmed in a very naturalistic style – even more so than Loach. The dialogue, which must be based on improvisation, frequently goes into bursts of repetition, where people say the same things to each other over and over again. This is the way conversations go in real life, of course, but it’s so tricky to do this on screen without boring the audience rigid. That the film manages to carry this off is, I think, partly thanks to the charisma of the main actor, who mopes around under a moustache that rather recalls a French Bernard Hill. Les Garcons Du Black Stuff. Another reason is the use of footage from supermarket security cameras, where a desperate security guard is forced to spy on other desperate people. It’s CCTV as reality TV, where poverty and spectacle collide.
Wednesday 8th June 2016. Evening: to Victoria Park in Hackney Wick. This is for the launch of Travis Elborough’s latest book, A Walk In the Park, on the history of public gardens. I get a copy, and am flattered to find myself in the thanks list at the back. It’s billed as ‘everything about parks from Gilgamesh to Gary Numan’. I check: there really is a fair bit about Gary Numan in there.
I’ve never been to Victoria Park before, and am fascinated with the two stone alcoves that can be found near the east gate, surreally plonked on the grass. They’re labelled as alcoves from the old London Bridge, which is a nice coincidence, given the bridge was the subject of TE’s last book. That said, Travis himself goes on to tell me that there’s a chance the alcoves are from the old Westminster bridge instead.
The book launch is at the sleek and trendy Hub building in the middle of the park. It’s a warm day, and we sip wine outside, our view of the park somewhat obscured by the long fence of green hoarding that encloses the Field Day festival site. I see from the posters that the headline act will be PJ Harvey – and I suddenly remember how that was first the name of the band, rather than the singer.
Further drinks afterwards, at the People’s Park Tavern, walking into the tail end of the pub quiz. I open a door and suddenly met with an amplified voice: ‘What colour is Marge Simpson’s dress?’. Over drinks, a discussion about camp and indie music leads to the theory that Morrissey found the photos for several Smiths sleeves from the same book, Philip Core’s Camp – The Lie That Tells The Truth. Then I stagger home via Homerton, and think of the way that station lends itself to Simpsons jokes.
Friday 10th June 2016. To the Bishopsgate Institute – first visited as a child for a Puffin Club show. Today I’m here too see the display on Lady Malcolm’s Servants Ball. This was the notorious series of parties at the Royal Albert Hall in the 1920s and 30s, ostensibly intended to let servants and gentry dance in fancy dress together. Its atmosphere of rule-breaking en masse soon led it to be associated with the London gay and lesbian scene, such as it was back then. The later tickets to the balls carried a statement that gave away what had been going on: ‘No man impersonating a woman will be admitted’. It must have helped that Jeanne Malcolm, the aristocrat who hosted the events, had an official name that sounded like a cross-dressing act in itself – Lady Malcolm.
Evening: To Birkbeck Cinema in Gordon Square for an event about the science of stage magic. It includes a free screening of The Prestige, as in the Christopher Nolan Noughties thriller about Victorian magicians, which I’ve not seen till now. The film is superb. It makes the link between the masculine world of magic tricks, and Nolan’s recurring themes of male obsession and confusion. There’s one key scene where Christian Bale’s character performs his ‘Transported Man’ trick for the first time. Nolan suddenly cuts away from the climax of the trick – the ‘prestige’ section – and has the characters narrate what happened instead. It’s a disorientating device that Nolan uses in all his films, but in this case it also stops the audience guessing the big twist at the end.
There’s then a talk on the science of misdirection by an academic from Goldsmith’s. He is a practitioner of magic himself, and performs a couple of the classics: the one with the rope cut into three pieces, and the one with the three cups and three little balls. I surprise myself at being delighted by his sleight of hand. Perhaps it’s the way that stage magic allows adults to tap into a pure form of wonder, the kind not felt since childhood.
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, christopher nolan
, david mitchell
, italo calvino
, lady malcolm's servants ball
, puffin post
, the measure of a man
, the prestige
, travis elborough
The Line of Bottom
Monday 30th May 2016. I enjoy the new BBC film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as adapted by Russell T Davies. Maxine Peake is Titania, Matt Lucas is Bottom. Both are perfectly cast. Ms Peake already has that angular face one finds in Victorian paintings of fairies, while Mr Lucas brings cuddliness to the pompous Bottom even before he acquires the ass’s head (and then he really is cuddly, like a giant soft toy).
It’s made with the same team as Mr Davies’s Doctor Who productions, the ones with Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant. I’d say it’s especially like the Davies mini-series just before that: the David Tennant Casanova. It’s that same feeling of a fizzy, dressed-up world operating on a line of tension, with a progressive approach at one end – deliberate anachronisms, multi-ethnic casting, gay characters – and an embracing of popular entertainment at the other. This latest take on Shakespeare went out at 8.30pm on BBC1, so it had to appeal to as many people as possible. Yet it still had Davies’s personal vision at its heart: a world where fascist flags are ripped up into party decorations, where love comes in all shapes and sizes, and everyone dances to Bernard Cribbins singing ‘It Was A Lover And His Lass’. Can’t argue with that.
For all the liberties taken with the story – such as Theseus as a fascist dictator with an iPad – it’s difficult to say it’s any more radical than an average modern stage production. Since I visited the British Library’s Shakespeare exhibition, I’ve been reading about the Peter Brook 1970 RSC Dream, with its minimalist white squash court, stilts and trapezes. Birkbeck Library has two books about that production alone: a detailed making-of account by David Selbourne, and an RSC script with all the stage directions, where one can study Brook’s decisions line-by-line. His Bottom, for instance, merely gains a red nose when transformed by Puck. If a modern production has Bottom with ass’s ears, as in the BBC one, it’s still more traditional than Brook.
In the press there was a slight fuss about the BBC Titania kissing Hippolyta. This is nothing new. I read that the current Globe production of Midsummer Night’s Dream has Helena as a gay man called Helenus, with Demetrius as his lover in denial. The Globe’s previous Dream three years ago had Puck and Oberon passionately kissing. That particular Puck was played by Matthew Tennyson, a very pretty young man who happens to be a descendent of the Tennyson. He now pops up in the BBC film as Lysander, with a pair of glasses that rather makes him resemble Harry Potter. I read that as a deliberate nod to the way Shakespeare has direct links to popular culture now. If it uses the English language, it’s connected to Shakespeare.
I’ve also just remembered that there’s a lesbian bar on the Charing Cross Road, called Titania.
I’m going through my untidy piles of old papers, with a rule of throwing out five things every day. Discarding the ephemeral is easier when you realise it gives more value to the things you keep. And yet I do like the physical evidence of a life; the proof that whatever I’ve done, I’ve lived.
Today, with my head full of thoughts of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, I find a couple of letters from Dad that reference that very play.
They’re written on the backs of his own photocopied cartoons. One has a tiny Puck flying around the shoulders of two American comic book superheroes. Or rather, two versions of the same superhero, The Flash. One is the 1940s Golden Age Flash, with the winged hat; the other is the later Silver Age incarnation, with the one-piece costume and the mask.
Puck is saying: ‘I will put a girdle around the Earth in forty minutes‘. The two Flashes reply, ‘Been there, done that!’
Dad’s other cartoon has a tiny Titania offering a rose to Mr Spock from Star Trek. Says Titania: ‘Come sit thee down upon this flowery bed / While I thy amiable cheeks do coy / And stick musk roses in thy sleek, smooth head / And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.’
Mr Spock, who of course has ‘fair large ears’, replies, ‘Fascinating!’.
Friday 3rd June 2016. I find a Dutch newspaper supplement from late 2007, where I’m the cover star. Well, that’s if the cover of a supplement counts as a cover. It’s for an article on Modern Dandies of London (I think). Me alongside Sebastian Horsley, with his two fingers up to the camera. I still live in the same room, albeit with different curtains.
More mopping-up of unpublished activity.
Friday 6th May: While people have stopped me in the street to ask me why I hadn’t written more about the death of Prince, no one has yet chided me for my complete omission of the London mayoral election. Perhaps that sums up what sort of diarist I am.
Still, it needs to be said that I did indeed vote. Voters had a second preference, so I gave my first choice to the Greens’ Sian Berry, and my second to Labour’s Sadiq Khan. Khan triumphed, his victory announced late into the night of the 6th (after an agonising delay of many hours). Ms Berry came in at an impressive third, after the Conservatives’ Zac Goldsmith. She also took up a seat on the London Assembly, thanks to the Greens doing well enough on the ‘London-wide’ polling sheets.
It’s the first election result in years where I’ve felt optimistic about the future.
Films seen recently:
Tuesday 17th May 2016: Green Room at the ICA. £3. A horror thriller with the unusual backdrop of a right-wing skinhead music scene, in contemporary rural Oregon. Rather different to the Portland liberals of that same state, as spoofed in Portlandia. But then I suppose it’s analogous to the way parts of Sussex can be rather less progressive than Brighton.
Imogen Poots’s character has one of those skinhead-scene girls’ haircuts that flatter while adding a certain toughness: long at the sides with a sharp fringe at the front (a Chelsea Fringe? a Feathercut? not sure). The boots and braces look for the men is well-researched too – straight out of 1970s Britain, but jostling here alongside iPhones and American accents. Much significance given to the colour of laces in DMs. A couple of the scenes are extremely gory. But then it is meant to be a horror film too. I suppose boxes must be ticked in plot, in the same way that the characters must tick boxes with their clothes, their taste in rock music, and with their beliefs. These days, I find discussions about belonging thrilling enough; blood and violence less so.
Friday 20th May 2016: Heart of a Dog at the ICA. £3. Laurie Anderson’s stunning film essay, ostensibly about the death of her rat terrier Lolabelle, but touching on life and death in all kinds of ways, from the passing of friends and relatives, to the changes in New York after 9/11. Her husband Lou Reed’s death (which happened during the making of the film) isn’t explicitly referred to, but he’s there briefly as an actor (playing a doctor), and as himself (in footage of the couple on a beach). He also provides the closing song, and in the very last shot he is seen holding the dog.
At one point Anderson talks about that unhappy experience that most pet owners must endure: going to the vet to hear what she calls ‘The Speech’. The one that asks the owner if the pet can be put to sleep. It reminded me how I was recently told, separately, of the deaths of two cats I used to look after in North London: Claudia Andrei’s cat Sevig, and Jenn Connor’s Vyvian. When Sevig became very frail, Claudia pushed him around the streets of Edinburgh in a shopping trolley – ‘the Sevig-mobile’. After seeing Heart of a Dog I realised how lucky I was to have the pleasure of living with these beautiful creatures, without ever having to face The Speech.
Tuesday 24th May 2016: Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, ICA. £3. A documentary on a group of artists in the late 60s and early 70s, who turned vast, desolate parts of the US into their own canvasses in the pure pursuit of Making Art. I was familiar with the Lightning Field artwork – all those lightning rods against the sky- but I hadn’t heard about works like Double Negative, where two gigantic rectangular chunks were carved out of a rocky mesa. According to the credits, some of the works begun in the 1970s are still in progress today.
Thursday 26th May 2016: Love and Friendship at the BFI. Free, courtesy of Tim Chipping, a fellow Whit Stillman fan (we went to see Barcelona together on its 1990s release). The film is followed by a Q&A with Whit Stillman, who is in typically eloquent and wry form. The film adapts Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, though there are touches of Wilde in Stillman’s script too. It’s verbose without ever being dry, and in terms of quips and jokes, it’s funnier than most modern comedies. My favourite film this year.
Friday 3rd June 2016: The Witch at the Prince Charles. £4. A tale of supernatural goings-on amongst a family of Puritan settlers, in seventeenth-century New England. Like Green Room, it blends the horror genre with more unusual aspects, in this case, gritty historical drama. The dialogue is lifted straight from the literature of the time: all ‘thy’s and ‘thee’s. As with Whit Stillman, the style only works once you realise what the director is trying to do: in this case, make a film that takes folk legends as real without question. It’s as if the film was made by seventeenth-century Puritans, as well as being about them.
A useful acronym from Atalanta K, who lost her bag after a night of carousing: ‘I had a CRAFT moment. As in: Can’t Remember A F-ing Thing.’
Tags: a midsummer's night dream
, Claudia Andrei
, green room
, heart of a dog
, jenn connor
, laurie anderson
, love and friendship
, Prince charles cinema
, Sebastian Horsley
, the witch
, whit stillman
Little Threads of Infinity
Sometimes, writing can feel like tugging at little threads of infinity. This is a simile suggested by the jacket I’m wearing today. It’s a beloved linen number of some ten summers, as a result of which the jacket is now unravelling along a number of seams. It has reached the stage where it makes my dry cleaner suck in his breath so much, I wonder if there’s a point where the sound of reluctance ends and asthma begins.
I have the same fear of an infinite unravelling whenever I sit down to write. There’s a point where the mind has no reason to stop dwelling on even the tiniest detail – one thinks of the Woolf story ‘The Mark on the Wall’. Everything is interesting, really.
But the problem with this is that I have a backlog of events from the last few weeks, which really should be at least declared, if only to paint in the parameters of my funny little life. This week’s selection of diary entries, and the next one, will therefore be more of a mopping-up. The temptation to tug on The Threads of Fact until they become The Unravelled Garments of Reflection will just have to be resisted.
Tuesday 4th May 2016. To the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury. A small gallery that nevertheless crams in two superb exhibitions: a major one about ‘The Great British Graphic Novel’, and a smaller one upstairs about the Doctor Who Target novelisations, which came out regularly in the 70s and 80s. Virtually every Doctor Who adventure was turned into one of these little books. I remember them well as a child. It was the era just before TV shows were available to buy on home video (long before DVDs). To revisit a favourite story, the fans had to read prose fiction. How strange now to think of novels as catch-up TV.
Each Target paperback had a specially commissioned cover rendered as a painting (hence the exhibition), branding the books more as imaginative explorations in their own right, rather than disposable cash-ins. They also encouraged a feeling of community, which is what merchandise and events like Comic-Con should always do. Join our club.
Thursday 5th May 2016. In the TLS I read a review by Tom Lean of Electronic Dreams, a book about 1980s computer games. One game, Deus Ex Machina, apparently featured a segment ‘in which the player has to guide a sperm to an egg in order to fertilize it. The astronomer Patrick Moore had been invited to voice the semen; he consulted his mother and, on her advice, declined.’
Sunday 8th May 2016. Afternoon: To a marquee in St James’s Square, for one of the Words in the Square events. This is a miniature literary festival, held by the London Library to mark its 175th anniversary. I attend ‘Desert Island Books’, a group discussion about favourite reads. Six authors sit on a stage and explain their choices in categories such as ‘Childhood Favourite’, ‘Biggest Influence’, ‘Guilty Pleasure’, ‘Tarnished Favourite’, and ‘Recent Favourite’. The authors are Philippa Gregory, Deborah Levy, John O’Farrell, Sara Wheeler, Nikesh Shukla and Ned Beauman. A gender note: all three men try to make the audience laugh, while the three women are more serious and wistful about the pleasures of reading. Though that’s a kind of playing to the crowd too.
Ned B’s ‘Guilty Pleasure’ is to go on Amazon and use the ‘Look Inside’ function to read the bits in crime thrillers where the killer reveals his motive. Nikesh S’s ‘Tarnished Favourite’ is a poetry anthology he contributed to in his teens. His initial excitement at having his dream realised was soon doused; the book turned out to be a scam by a vanity press.
Evening: To the Constitution in Camden for Debbie Smith’s Nitty Gritty club night. It’s such a sunny day that I walk all the way from St James’s, via the canal. At the club I meet the singer from the band Bete Noire, who I’m reliably informed have been making waves with their song, ‘Piss On Putin’.
Saturday 29th May 2016. Mum in London for the day. We visit the British Library’s big summer exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts. As usual with the BL, it’s a rich mix of the familiar (lots of rare books, a couple of First Folios present and correct), the educational (in-depth histories of early female and black actors) and the unexpected. In the latter case I’m fascinated with the details of the first overseas production, an amateur Hamlet on board a ship off the coast of Sierra Leone, as early as 1607. Shakespeare was still alive.
Also learned: King Lear was performed in a sanitised version for 150 years. This Restoration rewrite had a happy ending and omitted the character of the Fool entirely. When the full Shakespearean Lear was revived in the 1830s, the first actor to play the Fool was a woman, Priscilla Horton.
For me, the highlight is a whole room dedicated to Peter Brook’s 1970 production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. This was the radically minimalist version, staged against plain white walls, with brightly coloured costumes, trapezes and stilts. In the exhibition, all the rooms are dark except for this one, a witty recreation of Brook’s clean white box. There’s even a trapeze one can sit on, albeit firmly anchored.
Lunch at Albertini in Chalton Street, followed by a walk around Camley Street Natural Park and a quick visit to the House of Illustration. Three small exhibitions in the latter: 1920s Soviet children’s books (when animal tales were suppressed as bourgeois constructs), a permanent Quentin Blake gallery, and a display of Japanese girls’ Shojo manga comics. Am intrigued about Keiko Takemiya, who is thought to have pioneered the yaoi genre: comics about gay male love, made by women for girls.
It’s a sunny day, and we have drinks outside in Granary Square (buying them at the trendy Granary Store bar). The area is still being finished, but it’s already King’s Cross’s answer to the South Bank, the canal standing in for the Thames. As with the Royal Festival Hall, hordes of people now descend here at the weekend, and seem to just sit around all day. Alcohol on concrete, bridges over water, art galleries, and the inevitable small children playing in fountains, the kind made up of jets of water springing up from the pavement.
In fact, the Granary Square fountains seem to be more artily-minded than the South Bank ones, perhaps because St Martin’s is next door. The jets switch constantly between different patterns of varying rows and heights. On the South Bank, the jets just rise up and go down. Either way, the children seem happy. Or at least, busy. Which with children, unlike adults, is the same thing.
Tags: bete noire
, British Library
, cartoon museum
, doctor who
, house of illustration
, king's cross
, mopping up
, nitty gritty
, target books
, The London Library
The Artist Known As…
Tuesday 17 May 2016. To Vout-o-Reenee’s to take a photo. It’s for my entry to a Birkbeck competition, which is asking for photos on the theme of ‘London Relocated’. An idea occurred to me, so I thought I’d give it a go. I thought about the way the Vout’s club is effectively the spirit of bohemian Soho relocated, in this case a few miles east in Tower Hill. Tonight I get Sophie Parkin to pose at the bar for my hopeful little image, alongside her book on the deceased Soho club, the Colony Room. I also get my own membership card of the Colony into the shot, visible on the counter of the Vout’s bar.
Sophie tells me about the charity Little Paper Slipper, which is having a major event at Vout’s in June. This is a charity that organises therapeutic art workshops, for women affected by domestic abuse. The end result is a series of exhibitions of the eponymous slippers, each one personalised by the woman who made it. There’s about 150 of them now. The event at Vout’s is going to be a fundraising auction, featuring shoes specially made for the charity by a group of artists, including Gavin Turk, Molly Parkin, and John Claridge.
I’m happy to help publicise the event. There’s further details at Facebook here.
There’s some fascinating photos of the workshop slippers at the charity website: www.littlepaperslipper.com/slippers.html
Wednesday 18 May 2016. Evening: my debut as a conceptual artist. I am given a sticker for my lapel which says: ‘Dickon Edwards – Artist’. So it must be true.
The venue is Birkbeck’s School of Arts, on the east side of Gordon Square, once home to Virginia Woolf. This week is Birkbeck’s annual Arts Week, a series of free talks and events that are open to the public. Over the cast iron railings at the main entrance are the words ‘ARTS WEEK’ rendered as huge, colourful knitted letters. I discover that this display is not, as I’d hoped, the product of an MA course in Comparative Knitting, but the handiwork of two knitting-loving administrators, Claire Adams and Catherine Catrix.
Given the building’s history, I wonder what would have happened if those fateful railings in Mrs Dalloway had been similarly wool-clad. Septimus Smith might have ended the novel in better shape. Another thought is The Muppets’ Mrs Dalloway. Starring Miss Piggy as Clarissa: ‘Moi will buy the flowers myself!’
Inside, Room 112 hosts The Contemporary: An Exhibition. This is a ‘pop-up’ show by four students of the MA Contemporary Literature and Culture course, and addresses the question: what is ‘the contemporary’? The contributors are Kathryn Butterworth (in partnership with James Watkinson), Jassey Parmar, Dylan Williams, and myself. The event is the idea of the main course tutor, Grace Halden, who thought it would be good to have the MA represented during Arts Week.
Kathryn and James’s display is a multimedia look at technology and literature: there’s large boards covered in texts, computer diagrams, a model of DNA code, and laptops playing audio and video content. Jassey’s exhibit is a series of photographs of London shop fronts, which blend different cultures and brands in unexpected ways. Twice during the evening, Dylan performs a selection of his own poetry. And I’ve contributed a social media installation titled Is It Just Me?
I had the idea some years ago. It was one of those ideas that don’t go away. So I thought I’d either put it in a story, or just keep it in reserve, in case someone asked me to contribute to an exhibition.
So one day someone did, and here I am. A debut artist.
At the event, I give out an A4 handout to explain my thinking behind the installation. I’ve uploaded it here as a PDF:
Is it Just Me – installation handout
I also leave out a sheet of my handwritten notes for the project. I like the juxtaposition of the shifting internet content on the screen, with the fixed artifact of my handwriting on paper. Private traces of the body, versus public traces of the mind.
The event turns out to be decently attended, with tutors stopping by to say kind things. It all seems to go okay, and there’s no technical hitches, thanks to the efficiency of Birkbeck’s staff. How wonderful it is to have an idea which involves cables and equipment, but not have to worry about the cables and equipment oneself.
Here’s some photos from the course’s Facebook page (most of them taken by Lee Smith, used with permission):
And here’s a link to the Facebook page for the MA in Contemporary Lit and Culture
Thursday 19th May 2016. Thinking more about Prince, and about camp uses of the colour purple, I’m reminded of this anecdote from Gary McMahon’s Camp in Literature (2006, p. 144):
‘Brigid Brophy notes that [Ronald] Firbank often wrote his tales in purple ink on blue postcards, surface and colour being everything to camp. Brophy reveals that she too wrote her critical biography of the man [Prancing Novelist, 1973] in purple ink. My working copy of Brophy’s book is on loan from Manchester University’s library. At this purple confession on page 173, a university student […] has written this response in the margin:
“Are you [Brophy] really as besotted as this? If so, we don’t want to know. At least maintain a pretence at objectivity, please.”
McMahon remarks that this student represents a certain academic sensibility ‘that is always going to be exasperated and offended by camp’.
Returning to Prince, I think of a friend’s anecdote along the same lines. When this friend was growing up in the 80s, some blokish gentleman known to them – a friend or possibly a dad – took one look at a Prince record sleeve and remarked, quite out of the blue, ‘I don’t care what he sounds like. I’m not listening to anyone who dresses like that.’
Friday 20th May 2016. I receive the grade for my second essay on the MA. Despite my struggles with it, I am very pleased indeed to get a 76 (a mark over 70 is a Distinction, the MA equivalent of a First). The first essay got a 73. It’s a nice boost to my confidence when I needed it most, wracked as I was with Difficult Second Term Syndrome.
For the rest of the summer, I have to get on with postgraduate-y things under my own steam, such as attending open lectures and pursuing my own research. But as far as the big assessments go, the pressure is off until the autumn.
, birkbeck arts week
, brigid brophy
, colony room
, little paper slipper
, ronald firbank
, sophie parkin