Friday 21st February 2014
Am starting to notice how a university degree re-wires the mind. Before I took the course, to me all non-fiction was either commercial (ie books I could understand), or academic (books I couldn’t). Now academic books are finally opening up to me, and it’s like being able to read a new language. The flipside, though, is that I started to get impatient with a lot of commercial non-fiction, wincing at their generalisations and agendas. But then I discovered that’s possible to switch reading levels, like switching between languages. One can then enjoy a commercial book on its own terms. There is a danger in calling a book ‘too light’ – such a phrase says more about the reader than the book.
Writing this down, I smile when I realise that this is more or less the plot of Educating Rita. Still, the message of Willy Russell’s play hasn’t changed: higher education doesn’t change people wholly – it gives them more options for approaching the world, which is quite different. A bigger toolbox.
Saturday 22nd February 2014
I meet with Mum in the basement café of Waterstones Piccadilly, in the old Simpsons building. It’s a rare example of a non-place being converted back into a place-place. The café used to be a Costa, but is now run by Waterstones themselves, decorating the walls with nice old book covers, rather than the corny photographs of continental bonhomie that can splatter the walls of every Costa everywhere. It may still be a franchise café, but any café which isn’t a Starbucks, Costa, Caffe Nero or Pret has a definite sense of being somewhere in particular, as opposed to nowhere in particular.
Mum and I have a vegetarian lunch at the Coach and Horses in Greek Street. At the table next to us is a group of young Japanese women using their smartphones to take photos of their afternoon tea.
Then we go on to the National Portrait Gallery. The David Bailey exhibition is sold out, so we take a look at the permanent collection instead. The unflattering painting of Kate Middleton – the one which makes her look 50 – is displayed more matter-of-factly than I’d thought, tucked within a row of other portraits and not very well-lit.
We also stumble on an engrossing mini-exhibition about Vivien Leigh. I’m reminded that even though Gone with the Wind is meant to be the most successful film in the UK ever (going by sales of cinema tickets), I have yet to get around to it myself. That and St Paul’s Cathedral: on the list of things one is assumed to have done, but which the same assumption puts one off doing.
Sunday 23rd February 2014
My anxiety over the funeral hits me so hard that I spend the entire day in bed, trying to get over excruciating stomach pains.
Monday 24th February 2014
Dad’s funeral. I brave the morning rush hour Tube in order to get to Tom’s place on time, and am staggered by the awfulness of what must be a daily experience for so many. Not only do people have to brave the train journey with strangers bodies’ pressed against them throughout, but the journey itself is delayed at each stop, due to the mass of passengers preventing the doors closing on the first go. Whatever the rewards of being a rail commuter must be (a decent salary? a house?), to me they can’t possibly be enough. A commuter friend once told me, ‘You just get used to it’. I don’t think I ever could.
So I go from the lack of respect for bodies per se, to paying respects to one particular body. Mum has insisted on no dress code, but I’m in a three-piece black suit and black tie anyway, because that’s me. I add a seahorse brooch, though, in case I’m mistaken for one of the crematorium staff.
Tom drives me to Bildeston to meet with Mum and Uncle Mike (Mum’s brother), and we all get into a hired people carrier. It’s then that I see Dad’s coffin for the first time, in the back window of the hearse in front of us.
Fittingly, it’s a cardboard coffin, looking just like one of Dad’s many boxes of comics in the loft. It also has a base made from the same sort of hardboard that Dad used, when he built scenery for Tom and myself to play with as children; rocket ships and puppet theatres. One of Mum’s homemade quilts covers the coffin, a beautiful science-fiction themed work with planets and stars. ‘I’m having that back before the actual burning,’ says Mum about the quilt. ‘It’s too nice!’
Seeing the coffin for the first time is the first of several moments when I nearly, but not quite, burst into tears.
We arrive at the crematorium at Nacton, near Ipswich. Then we get out and walk behind the pallbearers with the coffin, into the chapel. Unexpectedly, all the seats are taken: standing room only for Dad.
The Humanist host of the ceremony, Chris, does most of the reading. Then I follow with my own eulogy. At Mum’s request, it’s based on extracts from my diary, but I’ve added some of the liner notes from the Fosca album The Painted Side Of The Rocket, the album which features myself and Tom together. I wanted to make the point about creativity being something children do naturally, and which adult artists have to do on purpose. A quality of childlike unselfconsciousness – something Dad manage to manifest easily throughout his life, in both his art and his personality.
Then I read from the diary entry about Dad’s death, ‘Seeing Dad’, and I very nearly break down, twice. But only nearly.
We file out to ‘Monster Mash’, as promised. Dad’s favourite song, ‘Macho Man’ by the Village People, then follows on, with its opening line of ‘Body! Wanna feel my body, baby!’
Both are very silly records indeed for a funeral, and Dad, a fan of Joe Orton and Family Guy, knew this more than anyone else. We put little explanations about the choices – or warnings, rather – into Chris’s reading and mine, so one hopes the mourners understood.
* * *
In the courtyard outside the chapel, the mourners gather to chat. The first thing spoken to me after the service is, ‘Look! Muppet socks!’
A man in his seventies has collared me. He slips off his loafers to show off, yes, his Kermit the Frog socks. This turns out to be one of Dad’s schoolfriends from Clacton, a jokey gang raised on The Goon Show and who, like Dad, have managed to extend their in-jokes down the decades. One of them is wearing a luminous high-vis jacket: whether it’s for cycling or an outdoors day job I’m not sure, but it’s certainly a sign his own body has some years to go yet.
‘I’ll come visit you’ says one to the other as they part.
‘I don’t like threats’, says the other, deadpan.
Afterwards there’s sandwiches and tea at Chamberlin Hall, the new village hall in Bildeston. I chat with cousins I’ve not seen for decades, and some I’ve not seen full stop. Some live in Brighton, some in London, some in Sussex. There’s also people who babysat me in the village, or taught me in the local schools, and indeed the woman who helped Mum with Baby Dickon things when I was born, doing the sort of job that (I think) is now called a doula.
‘Do you remember me?’ is something I’m asked a lot. And for the most part, I do. Sometimes I don’t, and probably make a mess of pulling the right expression.
I still don’t know how I’ll be different now he’s gone. It’s still too soon.
In the evening, Tom drives me back to London.
Thursday 27th February 2014
Tom has made a little video memorial for Dad. It’s made up of photos of Dad (sometimes with me as a child), along with examples of his art. The soundtrack is an original instrumental written and performed by Tom:
, coach and horses
, dad's funeral
Friday 14th February 2014. In one corner of the Euston branch of Marks and Spencer is a huge display of unsold tins of shortbread, all close to their expiry date. It’s a special edition brand, made last July to commemorate the birth of the Royal Baby. The cover design is a twee painted trio of marching little boys, one in a sailor suit, one in a Beefeater uniform, and one dressed as a Queen’s Guard, with the red tunic and black bearskin hat. I stand there in the supermarket looking at the tins and pondering this tacky monument to cash-in hubris. I wonder if the unsold tins can somehow be converted into flood defences.
I suppose they could now rename the biscuit tins in honour of Simon Cowell’s baby, as this week his happy news is getting the same manic coverage allotted to the royal infant last year – days on end of front pages. In the supermarket, I stand around gazing at the fronts of these popular newspapers, wondering just who is interested, and why I am not like them.
* * *
Saturday 15th February 2014
I stumble on an old quote by Peter Nichols, which might now be regarded as an early version of the internet saying ‘don’t feed the trolls’:
‘Never reply to a critic. It’s feeding the hand that bites you.’
* * *
Sunday 16th February 2014
I finish writing my latest essay for college. It’s on Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, about her dead father. And then I go straight on to finishing my own eulogy for Dad’s funeral.
Unlike the college essay, the eulogy lacks a word count. So I put together what I think will be okay, hoping for the best.
Thankfully there are people who do know how long such pieces should be. A few days after I email the eulogy to Mum, the man from the Humanist Society, who is conducting the ceremony, steps in, reads everyone’s intended contributions, and tells us they all need to be drastically edited down in order to fit the time slot at the crematorium.
Dad would have found this amusing, being no man of few words himself.
* * *
I watch the film BAFTAs on TV. Peter Greenaway gets a special award, some years after the British film industry had more or less turned its back on him. He’s still around, still making films that properly put the Art into Art House. Martin Freeman starred in one he made in 2007 about Rembrandt, Nightwatching, which really should have been better known.
He gets the award from Juliet Stevenson, who talks about her part in Drowning By Numbers, my favourite Greenaway movie. It was filmed around Southwold in Suffolk, and gives the local landscape a defiantly spooky yet very English ambience – the Sebald kind which was already there. Greenaway added his trademark taste for the grotesque, but didn’t have to add too much. The film has a touch of Kit Williams too, with its numbers of 1 to 100 hidden in sequence throughout the film. Its soundtrack is also Michael Nyman’s best – I remember it even appeared in NME’s Albums Of The Year list for Christmas 1988.
Monday 17th February 2014
Mum tells me how in looking for Dad’s birth certificate, she found a letter from the author John Masters, from the time in the 60s when Dad illustrated book covers for Penguin. At some point during the author-to-illustrator process, Masters noticed Dad’s Bildeston address and wrote a full, personal letter to him from New York, revealing that he’d had a romance with a woman from Bildeston in the 1930s.
This is Dad’s cover for Coromandel!, published 1967.
Dad was also commissioned to do the cover for the first British edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, though his art wasn’t eventually used. He told me how the publisher had trusted him with the only copy of Vonnegut’s original manuscript, longhand scribblings and all. That was the way it was done, before the rise of word processing.
* * *
Tuesday 18th February 2014
In London ambassador mode, I meet up with Liam J again. This time I show them the Museum of London (which we discover needs more than 2 hours to do properly), followed by fish and chips (Liam’s first) at Bar Bruno in Wardour Street. We end up at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern for Bar Wotever, the friendly club night for trans people, androgynes and anyone of uncommon gender identity. The US writer S. Bear Bergman gives an entertaining reading of anecdotes, and I have my boots polished by Alex, a charming ‘shoe-shine boi’ (pronounced ‘boy’) in a checked shirt and bow tie, who has a proper shoe-shine stall set up in one corner. Alex takes a good fifteen to twenty minutes on my boots, applying a host of different unguents and waxes. This is bookended by the gentle rolling up and down of the ends of my trousers. It’s the closest I’ve come to having a sex life for some time.
* * *
Wednesday 19th February 2014
A teenage girl in Coventry writes, asking for permission to use my lyrics in her A-level art project. I duly give her my blessing. It’s good to know I have some sort of value, even it’s ‘the wrong kind of worth’, as a Job Centre employee once told me.
Meanwhile, I am besieged by what people are currently encouraged to view as the ‘right’ kind of worth – unabashed corporate greed. Today I get a letter from BT demanding I pay them a fee of £40 purely so I can leave them for another phone company. It’s a kind of telephonic alimony. The main reason I’m switching providers, of course, is BT’s spontaneous displays of legalised grasping, like this one. I am just grateful we never had children.
* * *
Thursday 20th February 2014
Two new marks in from college. The New Year essay on Old English poetry gets 77, while the January test on Old English translation also gets 77. This concludes my half module on Old English per se, giving it an overall grade of 77 in the process. A good First. Given my previous module grades have all been in the low 70s (Firsts, but only just), this either suggests I have an unexpected gift for Old English, or that I’ve more or less worked out how to tick the right boxes. The latter is more likely. I didn’t find Old English at all easy, as it requires not just hours of literary criticism but hours of translation and historical research on top. I’m slow enough with Modern English as it is.
, bar wotever
, john masters
, liam j
, peter greenaway
, vauxhall tavern
Friday 7th February 2014.
I am approached by a charity street fundraiser on Tottenham Court Road. ‘No thanks,’ I say. ‘Are you sure?’ he says, following me along the pavement. I’m tempted to reply, ‘My dad’s just died, you pestering git, leave me alone’. But that would be, as they say in warfare, a disproportionate response.
Saturday 8th February 2014.
To Suffolk to visit Mum. As I get on the train to Marks Tey I recognise that the only other person in the carriage is the comedian Stewart Lee. I enjoy his work enough to know where he’s probably going – and am slightly unnerved that I know this. Earlier this week I’d read an East Anglian Daily Times interview with him online, promoting his show in Ipswich (a reminder that local news is no longer local, thanks to the Web). He told the journalist that the fact he was speaking to the newspaper at all must mean he hadn’t sold enough tickets. Typically for Mr Lee, this was both a grumpy joke and a joke about the act of daring to make that sort of grumpy joke.
Recognising someone in a train carriage requires rather different etiquette to recognising them in the street. The latter predicament always makes me think of a line from a Half Man Half Biscuit song:
‘He’s seen me / And we both realise / That we’re going to have to put into operation / That tricky manoeuvre / that is Acknowledgement Without Breaking Stride’.
It’s more complex if the person you recognise is slightly famous, and though you have chatted to them socially in the past, that had been some years ago. And in Stewart Lee’s case, that Act of Recognising Stewart Lee in Public – and his resulting irritation – is something he has put into his work. There’s one stand-up show where he reads out a long list of unkind statements from Twitter:
‘I saw that Stewart Lee on the bus,’ goes one. ‘He looked fat and depressed and fat.’
I’m too socially awkward as it is to be the one that makes the move in such scenarios, whoever the other person is, and tend to prefer people coming up to me rather than the other way round. As it is, I think to myself, he might be well in a state of mental preparation for his show, and so shouldn’t be disturbed.
Something else I always worry about is – what if something terrible has happened to the person you’ve just recognised, and now is really not the time to bother them? A parent might just have died, for instance. That happens to people. That definitely happens to people.
So I don’t approach him during the journey. When I get off at Marks Tey, though, he sees me, recognises me and says hello.
I have to add that he looked thin and reasonably happy and thin.
Travelling on the little diesel train to Sudbury along the Stour Valley, I pass a line of pylons. They are standing in several feet of flood water.
I spend the afternoon in Bildeston with Mum and my aunt Anne. There’s no traces of the medical equipment that cluttered up the living room last time I was here. The hospital bed, the noisy oxygen machine, the mask, the tubes and the commode have all been taken away by various medical services. No sentimental value attached to those. I’m grateful that they kept him alive, but grateful to see the back of them. Off to sustain someone else.
It turns out that Anne wasn’t intending to be in the village on the day that Dad died. The floods in the South-West had wrecked the train track for her journey back to St Ives, and staying with Mum a few more days was the only option. So Mum had the benefit of her company when she heard from the care home. In fact, it was Anne who took the call. A silver lining of some literal clouds.
* * *
Mum and Anne are convinced Dad’s handwriting closely resembled mine, and vice versa. But I like to think I can see evidence of both parents’ styles coming together in my own spidery hand. It’s as good a reason as any for varying my typing with my longhand writing. Every time I write with a pen, there he is.
Sunday 9th February 2014
Dad’s phrases keep coming back to me. One is ‘I have better things to do’, in response to some conversation about a national talking point. As in ‘Did you see that Benefits Street everyone’s on about?’ ‘No, I have better things to do.’ Not meaning it unkindly, but honestly. And he was usually right. It seems a mundane, even obvious piece of life advice, yet it’s one that’s so useful and so easy to ignore. Dad was a fan of silliness, but it was always intentional and purposeful silliness. Mindful Silliness, I suppose. That’s the difference.
As a habitual procrastinator I try to ask myself, ‘Is this the best thing I could be doing right now?’ Or if I’m idling full stop, I wonder ‘What’s the best thing I could be doing now?’ That the phrase comes to me in Dad’s voice helps all the more.
Wednesday 12th February 2014
I’m currently being driven crazy by some sort of facial aching, with hot-and-cold sensations around my teeth, jaw and facial muscle area. Today I see the GP, who thinks it is a flaring up of TJD (Temporomandibular Joint Disorder), which I’ve always had a touch of (my jaw clicks). This might well have been brought on the stress of the more intensive college work in January, coupled with general anxiety over my penury, and now of course, Dad’s death.
‘Do you grind your teeth in your sleep?’ she asks. I have no idea. I live alone.
Valentine’s day is close, and like many I start to think about the pros and cons of relationships. The ability of couples to detect warning signs in each other’s health is one definite advantage. Still, I have to admit I enjoy my own company, and am relieved not to have to join the ranks of all the confused-looking men in card shops this week.
Thursday 13th February 2014.
Mum has written an introduction to be read out at the funeral by the Humanist official in charge (not sure what the correct term is – certainly not priest). It explains how he was known as Bib Edwards to some, and Brian Edwards to others. He tended to prefer the more informal nickname of Bib, but answered happily to either.
My brother Tom has been balancing his helping with the funeral, with his work as a guitarist. Today he performs in Adam Ant’s band on ITV’s This Morning.
Tom must have mentioned Dad’s passing to Mr Ant, because the singer introduces ‘Ant Music’ on national television with the phrase ‘This is for Bib’.
Tags: adam ant
, stewart lee
Thursday 6th February 2014.
At 9.20am Mum phones me to say that Dad died in his sleep, at about 8 this morning, very suddenly. He was 77 years old.
(This isn’t going to be a very cohesive diary entry. ‘What’s new?’ says the reader.)
In mid-January the pulmonary fibrosis had eaten his body away – as opposed to him - to the point where he needed live-in, round-the-clock nurses. There was no other option for Dad but to finally move out of the home in Bildeston, Suffolk where he had lived since the late 1960s, the house I grew up in. Thankfully the care home that took him in, Laxfield House, was one the family knew well and liked. It had looked after my Grandad 10 years earlier. Dad had his own room, which he could personalise. He had a Marvel Comics calendar, and a huge TV with a DVD player with which to watch his voluminous collection of films – never daytime TV. That helped.
(What Virginia Woolf said about a room of one’s own applies to everyone full stop, male or female, whether they’re writers or not.)
He was there for exactly two weeks. On Wednesday night Dad was visited by Mum and Auntie Anne, Dad’s sister. He wasn’t in any pain, just utterly exhausted, and he was as talkative as he could manage. Mum says the last thing he said before they left was ‘I have to go to bed now… ’. This made them laugh. He’d been bedbound for months and had meant to say ‘sleep’, of course. But like many last or last-ish words, the phrase now acquires a strange, significant poignancy.
After Mum phoned, I had a good cry. Then a good think. Then another good cry. Then I felt a bit better and went into town and got on with the work for my current essay, as best I could. The text I’m writing about is Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, about the death of a father. So that didn’t help. But then virtually all literature is about death in one way or another.
It’s already a miserable day in London. Rain hammers down, and there’s a tube strike. I walk through Islington, close to the cinema where Dad and I went the last time he visited the city. We saw the second Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Junior – right up Dad’s street. Unabashed blockbuster entertainment, with a sense of comic book escapism. But he’d also seek out and champion lesser known imaginative films, like Mr Nobody with Jared Leto. I’ve still not seen it yet (sorry, Dad).
* * *
In 1971, in a hospital waiting room in Ipswich, waiting for me to be born, Dad reads Philip K Dick’s The Unteleported Man.
* * *
Dad wasn’t a Londoner by birth, but he moved here when he was at art school. It was London where he met my mother. When they dated – ‘courted’ I think is more accurate for the time – Mum and Dad used to meet by the stone lions at the back of the British Museum.
In the 60s, he worked in Newman’s art bookshop in Charing Cross Road and bought his clothes from the trendy boutique ‘I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet’. I think he had a cape.
Members of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band came in to the shop on a regular basis. He knew John Gorman off The Scaffold and Tiswas. He knew Paddy O’Hagan off Pipkins, and saw him play the Meat Loaf part in the very first stage production of The Rocky Horror Show.
* * *
“I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.” - from Moby-Dick, Dad’s favourite novel.
I’ll miss his silliness. His jokes, his whistling, and his too-loud laugh. I’ll miss the way I could hear him laughing aloud to himself in his studio in the attic, because he’d just remembered something funny in his head. It could have been a bit from a Laurel and Hardy film, or it could have been something a school friend said to him in 1950. Whatever the funny thing was, it wasn’t there, but it didn’t need to be there. Dad still saw it.
Dad wanted the main song at his funeral to be ‘The Monster Mash’ by Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett. I’m hoping that will happen. His favourite song ever was ‘Macho Man’ by the Village People. I’m hoping that can be played at his funeral too. There’s no way I can type that without smiling, and Dad knew it. Knows it. The tenses are hard to get used to, this soon.
He made beautiful playthings out of wood for me and Tom when we were small: puppet theatres, soldier forts, painted rocket ships you could pretend to be inside. He made comic strip adventures featuring his own superhero character, Captain Bi-Plane, who lived in a world of airships and gears and gloves and goggles, some decades before people called such things steampunk. People who have seen the strip recently call it steampunk, of course.
He also had a thing about dodos. In 2010, at my request, he drew a dodo dressed as Matt Smith’s Doctor Who.
A long time ago, when I was about five, Dad made three children’s books about dodos, with Mum writing the words. He put me into one of them, The Dodo Is a Solitary Bird (Tadworth: World’s Work, 1977).
I posed for his drawings and became the character of ‘The Boy’.
This copy of the book has been annotated by Dad, using post-it notes. I’ll miss his handwriting too.
I was thinking of putting a ‘real’ photo of Dad here, but today I’m upset at the unfairness of his body collapsing, while his mind was still sharp.
Another quote from Moby-Dick:
Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me.
And besides, I worry that if I showed you a photo of Dad, you wouldn’t see the Dad I’m thinking about today (I’ll confess I’ve been reading Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida today, on the meaning on photographs, and how he refuses to show the reader the one photo of his mother in which he can truly ‘see’ her).
I’d much rather show you Dad through his artwork. In the top Dodo Tree House on this page from The Dodo Is A Solitary Bird is the studio of the artist Draw A. Dodo. It’s a version of Dad’s real studio in the attic of the house I grew up in. The child-me character, ‘The Boy’ is poking his head through a trap door.
Dad’s Post-It annotation reads:
This refers to the infant Dickon’s tendency to push up the loft trap-door and enter when I was trying to meet a deadline! (Note Hitchcock-type self portrait on wall)
And there’s Dad. A tiny drawn self-portrait, on the wall of a dodo’s studio, tucked away in the world of a children’s book. A little mirror, in a larger mirror of the studio he worked in. Where he’ll always be drawing, and always laughing too loud at something only he could see.
Friday 24 January 2014. The day after much of the Victoria Line was closed due to ‘flooding’, it turns out what really happened was somewhat surreal. The place being flooded was an automated signal control room at Victoria station, which seems reasonable enough. Less reasonably, though, the liquid in question was not the rainwater that has dominated January (the wettest ‘since records began’, as ever) but a knee-deep tide of fast-setting concrete. Intended to seal voids created in the endless construction work, the concrete had somehow been pumped into the wrong hole. When they realised what had happened, engineers were sent to nearby supermarkets to buy bags of sugar, which, it transpires, slows down the setting process. What pleases is the unlikely image of frantic, hard-hatted men rushing into a Sainsbury’s Local and asking directions to the Silver Spoon section. Whether it had to be just white granulated, or whether Demerara, cubes, Canderel and Sweetex worked just as well, we are not told.
For the first time since I was at school, I’m reminded of the entirely unacceptable term for the type of brown sugar which isn’t Demerara: ‘moist’.
* * *
Saturday 25 January 2014. Reading Ms Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for this week’s college classes. I also watch the 1995 film version, the one with Emma Thompson. The film particularly focuses on how poor the Dashwood women have to live, once they move to the Devonshire cottage. There’s scenes where Ms Thompson is going through their shopping budget and cutting down on food, while in another one, the sisters have to huddle together in the same bed to keep warm. Like the impoverished family in The Railway Children, what baffles (and fascinates) is the one item of middle class expenditure retained above all else, including food: their servants. I suppose the equivalent now would be hanging onto mobile phones or computers. Essential servants of a kind.
Sunday 26 January 2014. A video is doing the rounds of extracts from Noel Gallagher’s audio commentary on an Oasis greatest hits DVD. Always good value in interviews, Mr Gallagher regales the purchaser with his candid dislike of the pop video form. ‘I f—ing hate videos… I hate the fact they cost a fortune. I hate the fact you’ve got to be there at 8 in the morning. I don’t like the fact that the people who’re making them think they’re making Apocalypse Now… ’ But as the songs move onto the later albums, he attacks his own music too: ‘Is this video meant to be all backwards? Pity the song isn’t too – it might sound more interesting… Maybe the motorbike is rushing to the radio station to say, “Stop! This is shit!”… Can we listen to this with the sound down? We shouldn’t have really made this album, if I’m being honest.’
The album in question at this point is Standing on the Shoulder of Giants (2000), which despite its creator’s misgivings still went to Number 1 and sold in double platinum amounts. Some regrets are the dreams of others. Though I’m hardly their sort of target market, I rather liked the first two Oasis albums, and admired the Gallaghers as public characters, bickering like a music hall act.
* * *
Monday 27 January 2014. Peter Capaldi’s new costume as Doctor Who is unveiled. It includes a red-lined Crombie coat, which is exactly what I’m wearing when I find this information out. I’ve worn them for at least 20 years. I suppose this means that even a stopped clock keeps the right Time Lord twice a day.
I had thought Crombies were mainly associated with the British Mod subculture (characters in This Is England wear them), but I’m told they were also popular with the less trumpeted Suedehead look of the 1970s. The youth on the cover of Richard Allen’s Suedehead has a Crombie:
* * *
Tuesday 28 January 2014. Reading about the Theatre of the Absurd, I realise how so many umbrella terms for art and literature are often the invention of critics with theories to throw at the world, rather than arising from the art itself. Martin Esslin is at pains to point this out himself in a later edition of his 1960s book The Theatre of the Absurd, but lurking behind this is still the sense of pride at immortality by proxy. In lieu of creating lasting art himself, a critic creates a lasting term to describe art.
Thinking about Oasis, there is, of course, the 90s umbrella term Britpop, which the music critics Stuart Maconie and John Robb have both laid claim to coining. There was also a BBC programme of 1995 called Britpop Now which had live performances by various bands thought to illustrate the word: Blur, Pulp, Menswear, Gene, Echobelly. Oddly, the very un-Britpop PJ Harvey was on it, while Oasis were left out. No critic would call PJ Harvey a Britpop artist now – and not then, either.
Terms don’t always last, though. Despite Esslin’s decision to include Harold Pinter in his 1960s book, Michael Billington’s 1990s biography of Pinter ignores the phrase ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ entirely.
Wednesday 29 January 2014. A recent New Yorker cover has a new illustration by Chris Ware. It’s of an audience at a school play, all of whom are holding up their various smartphones and tablets and are viewing the performance entirely through their respective screens. His comment on the cover is just as striking:
‘Sometimes, I’ve noticed with horror that the memories I have of things like my daughter’s birthday parties or the trips we’ve taken together are actually memories of the photographs I took, not of the events themselves.’
I’m writing an essay on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home. There’s one large panel - a double page spread – which recreates a clandestine photograph taken by her father. It’s of the family babysitter, Roy, posing in his underwear. The babysitter was one of the young men her father, now deceased, had been having affairs with.
The panel takes on added significance as the book gets older, though, as the action of physically picking up a material, printed photograph from a storage box is itself becoming a thing of the past. Ms Bechdel draws her own hands holding the photograph at either side, with all the symbolism that implies: touching the past, touching the hidden, trying to connect and understand across the years. Had the events of Fun Home taken place now, the father’s secret snap would have to be lurking on his computer hard drive, and the resonance of the discovery would be quite different.
Tags: alison bechdel
, chris ware
, doctor who
, peter capaldi
, theatre of the absurd
The Fine Art Of Piping Down After Piping Up
Saturday 18 January 2014. The last of three weeks where all I’ve really done is struggle to stay on top of college assessments, alongside doing the reading for the regular classes. It’s just been essays, and coughing a lot (typing this up on the 12th day of a cold).
Sitting here to write up my life, I bemoan the distinct lack of a life. Sometimes a diary can work as a warning. One feels the need to explain away the time gone by. Yet so much of it can be taken up by utter mundanities. One night this week was dominated by my having to re-install the right driver for my computer printer. Not the greatest of nights ever lived in the history of literature.
There is also The Tale of The Missing Ryman’s Receipt, the details of which I shall spare the reader, but suffice to say it guzzled a disproportionately higher amount of hours than any small piece of paper has a feasible right to.
There’s so much in life which shouldn’t be work, but ends up becoming work. All too easily, an errand can become an epic. Beowulf has nothing on stationery receipts.
* * *
Sunday 19 January 2014. The current essay is on Dorian Gray. Many discussions of Wilde’s novel quote a particular letter of his, replying to a reader. The letter must have been a very minor thing to Wilde, yet it’s been used ever since as one of the great comments on his novel.
It’s a letter to Ralph Payne, of 50 Ennismore Gardens, London. Postmarked 12 February 1894.
‘Dear Mr Payne… [The Picture of Dorian Gray] contains much of me in it. Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be – in other ages, perhaps.’
There is a missing character from this line-up, though: Sibyl Vane. It’s tempting to suggest that she is what Wilde hoped not to be – but did become. The artist who gives up on their art when life (and love) gets in the way.
* * *
Monday 20 January 2014. Class text for tonight: the strange fashion for ‘it-narratives’ during the late eighteenth century. As in entire novels about the supposed life of inanimate objects. ‘The Story of a Thimble’, and so on. These were, it seems, just as popular as Pride and Prejudice at the time. Less so now. No Penguin Classics editions, so we have to read PDF scans of first editions, complete with all the letter ‘s’s looking like ‘f’s.
Tuesday 21 January 2014. I often wake up with a song playing in my head, a random selection from one’s iPod of the mind, forever on shuffle mode. Today it’s ‘Talking About A Revolution’ by Tracy Chapman. I have no opinion either way on Ms Chapman’s oeuvre, and indeed I am not aware what she thinks of mine. But let history pay witness: her inoffensive folk-pop outing from the late 80s has risen unbidden this morning from the crevices of my mind, and will not away.
In dutiful Proustian mode, the song has also dragged up, seaweed-like, various associated memories: the debut album it was on, ‘Tracy Chapman’, being everywhere when it came out – summer 1988. Our family owning it on cassette. Me staying in a Ludlow youth hostel, the woman on reception playing it loudly in the background while I check in.
But an unkind joke also pops up too, from an Alexei Sayle TV show, commenting on the lyrics of the song.
‘Poor people are gonna rise up and take what’s theirs…? No they’re not!’
* * *
Thursday 24 January 2014. Class texts: Plowing the Dark by Richard Powers and Salome by Oscar Wilde.
‘I’d like this class to be more of a seminar than a lecture,’ the tutor for 21st Century Fiction says, optimistically.
Although I’ve read the book and made lengthy notes, I’ve forgotten that this isn’t enough. You also have to boil your insights down into a few concise, seminar-ready soundbites that tutors want to hear. As it is I’ve spoken up a lot in previous classes. I don’t want to be known as That Sort Of Student, the kind that puts their hand up only for the tutor to say ‘Somebody else?’ So I feel it’s okay to keep quiet for this one.
Only one other student pipes up, who is a lot less concerned about annoying the others than I am. She is an older Spanish woman who has a tendency to go off into long, rambling monologues. Her conclusion tonight is: ‘And that’s why I think he wrote this – to make money’.
Still, at least she read the book. As it turns out, when the exasperated tutor finally grills each of us in turn, most of the class haven’t been able to finish the novel – probably due to all the essays they’ve had to turn in this month.
The art of being a good seminar student is tricky, though. You’re meant to contribute, but at the same time be concise and stick to the point.
The same problem often happens at public Q&As. Many audience members don’t realise that a question needs to be taut and pithy rather than an overlong thesis that they want to broadcast to the world. If the rest of the room is sighing heavily, that’s the time to stop talking. And yet, sighing heavily is still no good if you’re not going to say anything yourself.
* * *
The most discussed TV show this week is Benefits Street. I’ve not seen it myself, mainly because it’s a series rather than a one-off documentary. There’s always an element of fiction in one-off documentaries as it is, but in a series the artifice to fact ratio has to be much higher. The main message of such a series is not ‘this is how life is’ but ‘tune in next week’.
The illustration side of news and topical TV is always fascinating, though. There’s the strange world of stock photos (‘a lion, not this one, escaped from a zoo today’), while local newspapers often have articles over, say, pot holes in a road (which is fact) alongside a photo of the person doing the complaining, crouching next to the pot hole (which is fiction). I think about the setting up of such photographs: lighting, wardrobe, hair and perhaps even make-up must be concerns too, never mind holes in the road. ‘Can you look more cross?’
Tags: another fool judging a tv programme they've not seen
, isn't baby I love you by the Ronettes an amazing record?
, no life for Dickon
, passing off deleted scenes from essays as diary entries
, piping down after piping up
, poor richard powers
, poor tracy chapman
, the art of speaking up
Through A Class Snuffly
Wednesday 8th January 2014. I note how the phrase ‘please do not hesitate to contact us’ is usually appended to emails trying to tell you to go away.
Thursday 9th January 2014. Looking at the internet today, I want to gesture at the screen and say, ‘how can I compete with all… this?’ Just adding to the sheer volume of stuff seems wrong. And yet here I am. Adding to it.
Saturday 11th January 2014. I meet Liam J, a student friend of Tobi H, originally from Tennessee, now based in New York, and currently staying in London on a study exchange. They’re (they prefer gender neutral pronouns) friendly, charming, and like a lot of US friends count Stephen Fry and the Mighty Boosh among their favourite British things. Despite being in town for 9 days, Liam hasn’t seen the West End. Their lodgings and campus are close to Shoreditch and the trendier East End areas, so that’s been their main haunt up till now. It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of Dalston and Stoke Newington as hip places for a night out was unthinkable. Now many bars in the West End are cheaper than some of those in Hoxton.
I’ll always be grateful for the friends-of-friends who’ve shown me around foreign cities, so am happy to do my tour guide bit. We start out with afternoon tea at the Coach & Horses, going for the full version (£17.50), as they don’t take bookings at the weekend for anything cheaper. Possibly too full for both of us: after the sandwiches, the scones and one fairy cake each, the larger cakes at the end defeat us entirely.
I explain to Liam about the Coach & Horses history, about Jeffrey Bernard and Private Eye magazine and why there’s a framed photo of Ian Hislop looking down at us. And indeed, who Ian Hislop is. The old Heath cartoons inspired by the pub (‘The Regulars’) are still on display, and are still funny.
Given Liam’s a Mighty Boosh fan, I point out Maison Bertaux next door, which has Noel Fielding’s art on the walls. Then off to the Ku bar in Lisle Street. First time I’ve been in a gay venue for a long time, probably since First Out closed. Pleased to find it has a healthy mix of ages and genders. They’ve still got the policy – their trademark, really – of having good-looking barmen who look particularly good with no shirt on. But it’s still early in the evening, so they’re wearing their skimpy vests instead. There’s a time and a place.
I show Liam the Prince Charles cinema (my idea of a ‘studenty’ cinema), the ICA bar and bookshop in the Mall, the lights of Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, and the cavernous Waterstones Piccadilly. Then we walk to the geographic centre of London, always good for showing visitors. It’s the equestrian Charles 1st statue on the south side of Trafalgar Square, the site of the original Charing Cross. I’m disappointed, however, that the large blue cockerel isn’t properly lit up at night.
Then a walk on Hungerford Bridge – both sides. A good spot for pointing out the Thames, the Millennium Wheel, St Paul’s, the Shard, the Southbank centre, and Big Ben. I remember how it’s the location for one of the opening shots of Love Actually. It’s in the montage where a passer-by carries a Christmas tree past the camera, to reveal the view from the west walkway: Big Ben and the Wheel at once. A very quick way of saying ‘Look, we’re in 21st century London! And it’s Christmas! Got it at the back? Right!’
Liam’s main observation about London is one of absence: there’s so much less rubbish on the street than in New York. Another is that ‘cold’ in London is really not that cold.
Monday 13th January 2014
I always seem to get ill around the time of an exam. Today a heavy cold descends. I’d assumed the winter flu jab I thought I’d been so sensible in getting would prevent colds as well. But no, no it doesn’t. This week sees most of the full menu: ugly coughing, even uglier running nose, a croaky voice, a touch of fever, wooziness, and general unpleasantness.
Tuesday 14th January 2014.
Coughing. Revising. Coughing some more. Could be worse, I say. I could be Dave Lee Travis. Someone has to be. Not his best week.
The news today is a parade of greying gentlemen from the history of British TV entertainment, their various alleged pasts catching up with them in court.
I understand that Operation Yewtree was just a random codename picked by the police. It’s a coincidence, then, that a yew tree tends to be incredibly old and has a distinguished reputation; it often hangs around old churches. Yet parts of it turn out to be highly toxic.
* * *
Meet up for a drink in the Birkbeck student bar with Martin W, once singer in The Boyfriends. He took the same Birkbeck course as me – BA English – 2 years earlier. He’s been very encouraging, passing on a rare textbook and offering practical advice.
He’s now doing a cultural studies MA, and his latest work is very up to date: on Morrissey’s Autobiography and how it fits in with theories of commodification (the Penguin Classics packaging and so on). Not at all an unusual subject, as there’s been a proliferation of academic work on The Smiths in the last few years. The first generation of teenage Morrissey fans are now the generation in charge of everything. Not least the Prime Minister.
Wednesday 15th January 2014.
I take the Anglo-Saxon module’s translation test. I feel absolutely awful right up to sitting down in the classroom. Then I suppose the adrenalin must kick in, because everything is suddenly razor sharp. Something in my body has told other parts ‘this is too important to cough and sniff through’.
Thursday 16th January 2014.
Classes. I cough so much in 21st Century Fiction that my eyes water. Roberto Bolano does not deserve this.
I don’t cough in Fin De Siècle, but have a highly unattractive, non-stop nose blowing session instead. Still, I learn an important style tip: fin de siècle is only hyphenated when it’s an adjective (‘during the fin-de-siècle era’), and is not hyphenated when it’s a noun. Never noticed until now.
Friday 17th January 2014. I barely do any work on the latest essay (on Dorian Gray, due in next Thursday), due to being ill and having to write up the diary. But my mental well-being receives a booster jab when I get a ’75′ mark for the essay before this one. A decent First. The tutor’s comments include ‘a pleasure to read’, which is even more important to me than the mark. The work still doesn’t get any easier (and I really wish it did), but feedback like this becomes a form of cheering on from the sidelines.
Tags: coach and horses
, coughing for sympathy
, I know my Richard Curtis montages
, London tour guide duty
, one day one of these tags will change your life
, the less fun side of tissues
Friday 3rd January 2014. My old problem persists: I have insomnia during most of the night, and as a result sleep straight through till noon, alarm clock and all. I know that to sleep through the morning is a cliché of student life, but for a mature student the joke is tired and old, because the student is tired and old too (and no amount of sleep ever seems to properly refresh me). It can only make one wake up in a foul mood, angry to feel time has been lost, and that the carefully prepared list of things to do must now be frantically revised to fit into whatever time remains. The next three weeks are particularly busy: a logjam of college deadlines. I have to finish an essay on Old English riddles, read Ms Austen’s Northanger Abbey, study an academic article about that, start revising for a translation test (again on Old English), write an essay on Dorian Gray, and prepare extracts from Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance. For me, just getting up in the morning is a definition of fist-pumping athletic success.
* * *
Saturday 4th January 2014. Time wasted today includes at least twenty minutes trying to get the zip on one of my boots unstuck.
One New Year’s Resolution is to favour independent cafes while they still exist. Today I’m in Bar Bruno in Wardour Street, one of the few of the 1960s kind left in Soho, and sit in the booth that Sebastian Horsley was fond of.
This month will see the closure of the Candy Bar in Soho, the lesbian hostelry which I’ve spent quite a few happy evenings in over the years – at the invite of Sapphic friends, I feel obliged to add. The overwhelming memory is not feeling unusually male in such a crowd, but feeling unusually tall.
Like the First Out café before it, the Candy Bar is the victim not of a lack of customers but of a prohibitive increase in the property’s rent. This combination of unchecked greed on the part of landlords, coupled with a lack of intervention by the authorities, is certainly not limited to London. But it does boil down to a worrying widespread shift in priorities: the pursuit of wealth for the few placed well above the pursuit of basic quality of life for everyone else. What are cities for? One definition is for hubs of variety and diversity, for spaces like the Candy Bar, where the likeminded and minorities can feel in the majority for once. The wealth of a city exists in more forms than money.
On the Internet, ‘Share this’ is a common mantra, a box to click on next to some offering of ‘content’. I want to tick such a box for London. Share this. Share this.
* * *
Sunday 5th January 2014
Today I investigate Soho’s Secret Tea Room. ‘Secret’ because one has to ask the bar staff of the Coach and Horses pub in Greek Street to gain access. This is the old stomping ground of Mr Jeffrey Bernard, and indeed forms the setting of the play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell. Today it identifies as ‘London’s First Vegetarian Pub’, serving very reasonably priced veggie roast dinners on Sundays. Mr Bernard and the old host ‘Norm’ may be long gone, but the pub’s other long-term association – with Private Eye magazine – seems to be still going strong. I have butternut squash stuffed with quinoa while being gazed upon by framed photographs of Ian Hislop, Richard Ingrams and Francis Wheen.
Best of all is the décor in the upstairs room: a style of what can only be described as Unabashed Ruined Splendour. Some of the walls are in the shame shade of green as the Colony Room, and 1940s music plays in the background, much like it does at High Tea of Highgate. What I’ve not seen before is that your pot of tea arrives with a little hourglass, so you don’t pour out your tea too soon.
A grizzled-looking man sitting in my carriage on the Northern Line home. I suppose he counts as an actual wino. Visibly drunk, shouting and singing at anyone within range. But also swigging from a full bottle of white wine.
‘How many assumptions have you made in your life, eh?’ he shouts suddenly, at no one in particular. ‘291?’
Then he starts singing ‘Cherry-oh Baby’, the 1980s hit by the band UB40. The group’s oeuvre is normally thought of as remarkably inoffensive. Not today. I presume their much bigger hit, ‘Red Red Wine’, was rejected from the addled jukebox of this man’s mind, on the grounds that it’s the wrong colour of wine. Even drunks have consistency.
Except he can’t remember any more words than ‘Cherry-oh, Cherry-oh Baby’.
‘Cherry-oh, Cherry-oh Baby…’ Pause.
No. No, that is all. That is all the UB. All the 40.
‘Cherry-oh, Cherry-oh Baby…’
And so on, as we go forth together unto Tufnell Park.
I stare away. On the curve of the carriage wall above him there’s an advert for Boots, with the slogan ‘LET’S FEEL GOOD’. Not ‘feel better’ or ‘feel well’, but ‘feel good’. That can’t be helpful. The drunk man feels good.
* * *
Monday 6th January 2014. First class in a new module today: ‘Fiction of the Romantic Age’. Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, William Beckford and so on. So Monday night is now Bonnet Night.
I watch the new episode of Sherlock, where Martin Freeman’s Watson gets married. It daringly plays up the comedy and character development at the expense of much actual crime solving. I find myself rather empathising with Cumberbatch’s Holmes in one respect: having a demonstrably decent brain (if not exactly to his extent), yet socially useless to the point of tragic weirdness. If self-aware with it. I hope.
* * *
Tuesday 7th January 2014. An email from someone who must work in the Search Engine Optimisation business. She is offering to write a free blog post for my diary site, in return for linking some of the words in her text to the website of various commercial companies. As I understand it, the power to affect the order that results come up in Google searches is now worth a lot of money: hence the whole SEO trade. The deliberate proliferation of carefully chosen words linking to such sites is what such people do all day. Illustrate that, Richard Scarry.
She writes that each link will ‘add to the value it gives your visitors.’ What rather subtracts from the value of her offer is that she has clearly not even looked at my website. Even the briefest of glances indicates that it is manifestly not a blog for other people to submit their own pieces to, never mind those pseudonymous, hidden-advert, algorithm-like pieces that clutter up the web.
At least the last time this happened, I was offered money. Someone wanted me to host a Marks and Spencer advert on the diary, forever, for a one-off fee of £60. I replied, saying that although I am indeed ready to sell my soul faster than it takes to eat one of their packs of M&S mango slices, which they insist on calling ‘Mango Madness’ to the delight of no one, I like to think I can get a better price for my soul than £60.
They didn’t reply.
Tags: bar bruno
, candy bar
, coach and horses
, first out
, SEO madness
, soho's secret tea room
On Camp: Gaga v Perry
Saturday 28th December 2013. To Bildeston to visit Mum and Dad. Dad is pretty much the same as he was the month before: restricted to either the sofa or the bed in the living room, still relying on an oxygen mask and round-the-clock care. But he’s also still very chatty, enthusing about the latest escapist films on DVD, his Christmas presents from the family: Iron Man 3, Man of Steel. ‘I’m still that boy buying the first issue of Eagle comic’.
What he never watches is that baffling default prescription for the bedbound, the type piped into hospital wards at the request of no one sane: daytime TV. No fan of Bargain Hunt, my father.
I make myself useful by organising Dad’s DVD collection, gathering them from several scattered piles around the house into a single cabinet downstairs, then arranging them into alphabetical order. He has about 150. We wonder where best to file The Amazing Spider-Man, the recent big screen frolic starring the nervy Andrew Garfield (who really should play the young David Byrne if there’s ever a Talking Heads biopic). Should it go under ‘A’ for Amazing, or ‘S’ for Spider-Man, given that Dad also has the Tobey Maguire triptych of a few years ago? We agree on the latter. Keep all the Spider-Men in one place, and hope that Mr Maguire will not take the implication personally that he is officially… Not Amazing.
(As I type this up, a real spider dangles down from the ceiling onto my hand. It’s a thin greenish little thing, certainly not one of those False Widow spiders that the British newspapers got so aroused about last year. This one sadly has not bitten me and so I remain without a hyphenated secret identity. I have now carefully relocated the interloper to the outdoors, via the time-honoured dance of Mr Tumbler and Ms Nearest Piece of Paper. Before I go on, though, I think I should type the words ‘unmarked fifty pound notes’ and ‘Tom Daley’ in case they too need to fall from above. Nothing. )
* * *
Sunday 29th December 2013. End of year lists. My heroes of 2013: Young Ms Malala, obviously. The brave Mr Snowden too. Closer to home: Ms Jack Monroe, the food blogger turned fearless anti-poverty campaigner. And also Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP. For her involvement in the protest against fracking (for which she was arrested), for being asked to cover up her ‘Ban Page 3′ shirt in a Commons debate, and for voting ‘yes’ to the food bank investigation and ‘no’ to MPs getting a pay rise. I know I’m biased, but Russell Brand’s calling for people to not vote seems unfair on the MPs who are trying to change things for the better. Though admittedly, they’re not quite as visible as he is.
* * *
Monday 30th December 2013. Shamefully, I waste time on Twitter as a distraction from writing an essay on Anglo-Saxon poetry. Still, I hope I am redeemed when I provide the author Sarah Churchwell with a dull but useful tip about how to copy text from a Kindle e-book (you use the ‘Kindle for PC or Mac’ program, open the book within it, use the ‘search’ facility to locate the passage, then copy and paste as normal). Ms Churchwell wrote Careless People, one of my favourite books of the year, about the influences behind The Great Gatsby. She tweets back that the tip worked for her, with thanks. I know so little about computers that supplying this mundanity, and hearing it was of use, makes my day.
A second good deed on Twitter: Ms Amber, whom I slightly know from the world of dressed-up London parties, asks the Twitter world for serious definitions of ‘camp’. Ideally, not from the over-quoted Susan Sontag essay.
I offer two: ‘The lie that tells the truth’ from the title of Philip Core’s 1980s book. And ‘a charging of the tension between performance and existence’, from Gary McMahon’s 2006 book Camp in Literature.
The trouble then is that I find myself distracted from the essay with my own musings on the subject. Is Lady Gaga a ‘Queen of Camp’, for instance, as some quarters have described her? Using the McMahon definition, I’d say no. There’s no ‘charging of the tension’, no wink, no knowing smirk. For her, performance is existence. But she may become camp as she gets older, because age ups the tension. A case in point is Grace Jones: all Gaga-esque performance when she was young, now very much camp. Katy Perry, on the other hand, is camp. She has that charged quality of self-awareness, finding the line where the self meets the performance, and then exaggerating it. That’s camp.
All this comes to me when I should be thinking about translating Old English from the Exeter Book.
* * *
Tuesday 31st December 2013. I meet with Laurence Hughes, up from Oxford. Mulled wine at The Flask in Highgate Village. He thinks I should take the academic thing further, doing a Masters and so on when I graduate. He says I ‘look’ the part of an academic. Perhaps in my case it’s just the air of an inability to cope with the physical.
At home, I work on the essay, then take a Nytol sleeping tablet, put in earplugs, and sleep through the fireworks. It’s the happiest New Year’s Eve I’ve had for some time.
* * *
Wednesday 1st January 2014. I start the year by appearing in the Guardian, to my surprise and squealing delight.
Or rather, I appear on the Guardian website, as the article in question is not in the printed newspaper (I buy a copy to check). Funny how prepositions work with new technology. It’s in the paper, but on the website. Or in an article on a website. Anyway.
The article is Travis Elborough’s Top 10 Literary Diarists. Here’s the link:
I am included along with Samuel Pepys, Alan Bennett, Elizabeth Smart and Virginia Woolf.
* * *
Thursday 2nd January 2014. A few weeks ago I reviewed a graphic novel by Oscar Zarate, The Park, for The Quietus’s comics round-up column. The book is set mostly on Hampstead Heath. Here’s the link:
Having been reminded about Elizabeth Smart’s diaries by the Travis Elborough article, I look them up at The London Library today. The first volume, Necessary Secrets, is a work of art, reading more as fully-formed literature than as a hastily jotted-down journal. It’s so close in style to her novella By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept that it deserves to be considered on the same level. Yet it’s been out of print for over twenty years. I recall how the Morrissey song ‘Late Night Maudlin Street’, from his album Viva Hate, is full of quotes from By Grand Central. No mention of Ms Smart’s influence in his Autobiography, sadly.
Tags: andrew garfield
, caroline lucas
, elizabeth smart
, katy perry
, lady gaga
, laurence hughes
, sarah churchwell
, travis elborough
Xmas Week Diary and Christmas Message 2013
Friday 20th December 2013. I am pleased to receive about two dozen cards this year, made all the more special by the high cost of postage and the dominance of the internet. Post from abroad is especially meaningful: I’m sent a beautiful pop-up one from Eileen C in New York and a pictorial Christmas aerogramme from Danika H in Australia.
Although people rarely send cards and letters today, two Christmas books this year on the subject have proved to be very popular. There’s Shaun Usher’s anthology Letters of Note and Simon Garfield’s historical account, To The Letter. The Usher book is based on his website, where the very technology that killed off the letter – the internet – has turned out to be perfect for celebrating it. I feel all the more grateful for receiving an actual letter at Christmas, from Danika, and I’ll make sure I reply in kind.
Another sign of the times this week: the gay section in Time Out magazine has been axed. It’s assumed that, like cinema listings, there’s no longer any need to turn to a paper magazine to find out about events: Facebook events pages and online listings have become the default. Gay issues, meanwhile, are more mainstream than ever, with Conservative politicians supporting campaigns for gay marriage, and campaigns against homophobia around the world (such as in Russia and Uganda) given decent coverage by the media. This week has also seen Alan Turing finally pardoned for the crime of having consensual sex with another man. His mistake was to have it in the 1950s. Actually, as my dad once told me, it was pretty much frowned on to have sex in the 1950s if you were heterosexual, too.
But the question of promoting gay culture separately in terms of identity and role models is an ongoing one. As it is, London still has its annual LGBT film festival (at the BFI) and its own gay bookshop (Gay’s The Word in Marchmont Street – hitting 35 years old next January). Coming out as gay is still a big issue – Tom Daley making the headlines of late. So Time Out’s decision does seem premature. But then, like all paper listings magazines, it’s been struggling full stop.
* * *
Saturday 21st December 2013. To Somerset House with Ella Lucas, to see the exhibition on the late British fashion editor, collector, string-puller, muse and Lady Gaga lookalike, Isabella Blow. Ingeniously, the exhibits that can’t go on mannequins, such as letters and faxes, are in white display cases which sit surreally on mannequin legs – with shoes from Ms Blow’s collection on the cases’ feet. One letter, on Harpers notepaper, is from Hamish Bowles, who is also one of the other dandies in the I Am Dandy book. He writes to Ms Blow, ‘Long for your next appearance – stepping out of a reverie by Ronald Firbank…’
Much of the exhibition is of Philip Treacy’s exotic hat and mask creations, Ms Blow being his biggest champion. One mask has a grid of jewelled Swarovski crystal nails in a black silk net, rather reminding me of the Pinhead monster in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. I check the caption, and it turns out to be a direct homage: ‘Hellraiser mask with nail detailing’. Any exhibition which references Ronald Firbank and Hellraiser is fine by me.
A word learned: ‘chopine’. A historical type of women’s platform shoe, popular in the 15th to 17th centuries. Modern versions of which are in the Blow collection. More like a platform clog, really.
One of the information panels on Ms Blow’s history begins with the phrase ‘Forced to work for a living…’
* * *
Sunday 22nd December 2013. I visit the Museum of London, and am pleased to see that its shop stocks A London Year, the diary anthology which includes me alongside Pepys and co. It’s the closest I’ve come yet to being a museum piece.
On the raised pedestrian walkway around the corner, I take a look at the ruins of the original London Wall, where the layers of medieval brickwork can be seen on top of the Roman foundations. There’s an information panel about the ruins, provided by the museum. It’s dated 1980 and has been laminated against the elements, though 33 years later the elements have won, and much of the text is now faded and illegible. The panel about the ruins is itself a ruin.
In the evening I turn a corner in Clerkenwell Green and suddenly see the Shard and St Paul’s from a distance, both lit up. From this angle they appear as if standing right next to each other, though the Thames and several districts separate them geographically. Tonight the former looks like a Christmas tree, and the latter like a bauble. I stare up from the silent street at them, thinking how London always was this constant shrug of old with new, just like the two parts to the Wall and the ruined panel. Inside the Crown Tavern, more shrugging: Wizzard’s eternal Christmas song on the pub stereo, while the first word I overhear as I enter is someone saying ‘Facebook’.
* * *
Monday 23rd December 2013.
The London Library’s last day before closing for Christmas, and the last day of its late night hours, closing at 9pm. It transpires that not enough members use the library quite that late, so in 2014 ‘late closing’ will mean 8pm instead. I sit in the historic Reading Room from 8.30pm till the end, which as expected means I am the only one there. Just me, all the books and journals, the famous soporific armchairs, the fireplace, and the Christmas tree. Utter, serene peace. I soak it in.
As soon as I leave, though: chaos. Heavy wind and rain has hit Britain, causing transport shut downs and power cuts at the worst possible time of year. Although the effect on London is relatively minor, my umbrella is a wreck before I make it out of St James’s Square. At Piccadilly Circus, where I get the tube, the clear plastic bubble over Eros has burst, scattering polystyrene chips of fake snow all over the road. Like some Biblical retribution against worshipping false gods, this idealised image of Christmas weather – pretty fake snow in a bubble – has been eclipsed by real Christmas weather – ugly, uncontained wind and rain.
* * *
Tuesday 24th December 2013.
To the Hackney Picturehouse to see a 1940s Christmas-themed film I’d not seen before, The Bishop’s Wife, in which Cary Grant plays an angel helping a troubled New York priest, played by David Niven. Despite his otherworldly role, Cary Grant is just dressed as Cary Grant, with the usual immaculate dark suit. One character is an eccentric aged scholar, an atheist who nevertheless loves the traditions of Christmas. On discovering Cary G’s celestial identity, he remarks ‘Oh, that’s annoying.’ I think that’s how I’d feel.
Even though the story centres on David Niven’s bishop, the film’s parting message about Jesus feels unusual, even jarring. Yet I remember how it works fine in The Holly and The Ivy, a British film from the early 50s, also about priests at Christmas. I think the fact that Niven’s daughter is played by ‘Zuzu’ from It’s A Wonderful Life reminds me why: American films are happy to tell Christmas stories about angels, but they usually leave out Christ himself.
It’s still an issue today. I read a piece in the Guardian this week where an American writer remarks how the British are perfectly happy to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to each other, as opposed to ‘Happy Holidays’, regardless of religion – or lack of it – of those present. It’s just tradition. But among the cards from British people I get, some are indeed saying ‘Happy Holidays’, so perhaps that’s changing.
The first time I saw the word ‘holidays’ used to mean Christmas was in a TV advert. The product was that great ambassador of the American way, Coca-Cola. That may be another reason why ‘Happy Holidays’ has yet to catch on: for some (and I include myself), it feels too American.
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Wednesday 25th December 2013. I spend Christmas by myself in Highgate, once again enjoying the palpable and rare peace in the city. The changed background hum of low traffic without buses. Morning spent hungover from mixing prosecco and Baileys the night before. I chat to Mum at length on the phone.
At 1pm, I meet up with Silke R once again for my own tradition of feeding the ducks in Waterlow Park. Silke is currently staying in the flat attached to Archway Video, the film rental library on Archway Road where we both once worked. An independent family business since the 1980s, the shop stocked a huge range of films, first on VHS, then DVD, and eventually, Blu-Ray. The customers included Daniel Craig, Maureen Lipman, Ray Davies of the Kinks and Brett Anderson of Suede. This year, the shop is an empty shell, closed for good since the summer. Silke now works for Odeon, an irony given that video shops were first thought to be bringing about the death of cinema. It wasn’t cinema that killed video shops, though, but online services like Lovefilm, Netflix, and of course Amazon.
In Muswell Hill a few months ago I bumped into one of the shop’s old customers. ‘I do miss that shop,’ he said fondly. ‘Though of course I hadn’t been in for years.’ He didn’t seem to notice how one statement was related to the other.
Thursday 26th December 2013.
With the lack of traffic on Boxing Day, combined with the sense of enforced family gatherings reaching the point of strained boredom, some local teenagers play football in the street outside. I first worry about them breaking any windows, but then I realise that young people playing ball games in the road is very old indeed. All the museum photos say so.
I walk around St Pancras in the afternoon. Most of the people I see fall into two categories. There’s aimlessly wandering tourists, who seem baffled that everything is shut for a second day. A handful of them climb on the gates of the British Library to take photos of the empty piazza. The other category is football fans, because Boxing Day means sport. People in Chelsea scarves are looking particularly pleased with themselves.
Friday 27th December 2013.
CHRISTMAS MESSAGE 2013.
This year’s photograph of me with a London tree is of course a ‘selfie’, one of 2013’s Words of the Year. With thanks to the London Review Bookshop for letting me take it on their premises on Christmas Eve.
The bookshop tree represents not just my current life as a student of literature, but my increasing concern about the effect of digital culture on independence, in every sense. On a blunt commercial level, the online tax-dodging colossus that is Amazon is obviously threatening the future of independent, non-corporate shops like the LRB. Bookshops, like cinemas and libraries, are pleasant places for staff to work in and for customers to go and immerse themselves in culture, at their own pace, offline and away from the ubiquity of the computer screen. No advertising sidebars tearing your concentration to shreds. One book I bought at the LRB this year was The Circle by Dave Eggers, which paints a near-future world where Amazon and Google and social media have reduced people’s lives to a banal flatness of public algorithms and vanished privacy.
This theme also connects neatly with Channel 4’s Alternative Christmas Message by Edward Snowden, the whistleblowing fugitive of the USA security services. Mr Snowden cited another novel about a world without privacy, 1984, and said some rather powerful things:
‘A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalysed thought… And that’s a problem, because privacy matters. Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.’
The Queen’s own Christmas message also touched on the need for personal time alone, though she linked it more with prayer and meditation. Certainly a child born today in the case of baby Prince George has even less privacy than most children, but the point stands. What grabbed my attention with the Queen’s message was that she also mentioned ‘even keeping a diary’ as an example of creating a space for private reflection. Which is where I come in.
This year saw my online diary’s first emergence in book form, in the form of extracts in the anthology A London Year. Like the books about letters, it’s a celebration of individual minds reflecting in privacy. Their words are only later published when the appropriate permissions have been sought, and when an editor has done their own reflecting on what part of private writing might, as Shuan Usher puts it, be ‘deserving of a wider audience’. An amount of consideration and reflection has been applied, in other words. Although my own diary is published online first, it actually begins life as a series of far more personal notes made in my own paper notebooks. And even when published online, I try to evoke the more private nature of the printed page by the omission of one key element: no comments box.
A blog with no comments is as close to the reflective, personal and locked-off experience of the printed page as it can get. If you write online, I highly recommend it. Let comments belong on social media. Writing and reading are after all anti-social activities, and need to be. Humans are social creatures, but socialising needs to be kept apart from the production and consumption of writing. The more people can disconnect by way of balance, the better.
(I’ve now realised that Mr Usher also omits a comments box from his Letters of Note website too.)
It’s rather impractical to call for a boycott of Amazon, Google and social media now, and I wouldn’t want to. I use those things all the time myself. But my wish for 2014 is to try to resist the technology that wants us to only live through an endless scrolling of screens, that only what matters is to join the shallow noise, the unconsidered chatter, the indiscretion, the unkind photos passed around at the expense of others and the Fear of Missing Out. I wish to balance these activities with more appreciation of three beautiful ‘I’s: individualism, independence and immersion.
And I wish you a very happy what’s-left-of-Christmas, and a splendid New Year.
, dave eggers
, gay issues
, hackney picturehouse
, hamish bowles
, isabella blow
, london review bookshop
, london wall
, museum of london
, Proper Letters
, ronald firbank
, The London Library
, time out