Something Where There Should Be Nothing

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Late March, and for the first time I find myself looking out for new leaves on the trees. Larkin’s rare positivity:  ‘Afresh, afresh, afresh’.

I recently had an email from someone organising an exhibition at Somerset House. The show is titled ‘Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and their Digital Descendents’, and will run from late May till July. I’ve given permission for them to use a quote from mine on some sort of screen, for use on just one day. They’ve chosen some entries from May and June of last year.

So the diary continues to find purchase. And yet I still resent the time and effort it requires. Perhaps because it is, occasional donations aside, unpaid work. Philip Glass on his early years, driving a taxi while being championed in the press: ‘What is success? Having an audience.’  I have to admit I still prefer the version that pays the bills. Perhaps it’s about time I look into Patreon. But anyway.

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How do I write this diary again? Empty my brain onto the page, take out all the libel, the self-libel, all the resentment, and as much of the self-pity as I can wake myself up to, then polish whatever’s left. And take too long to do it.

(That’s not entirely true: much of the time is spent procrastinating.)

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For this present update, so much time has gone unmarked that I will have to be concise, even fragmentary.

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12 December 2016. Most of my days from here to the 23rd of January are spent on the 3rd essay for my MA at Birkbeck, as in my MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture. This essay is a fairly bold argument towards a definition of ‘textual dandyism’, via selected novels by Muriel Spark, Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson. One of the other students said that my doing Carter was a ‘typical’ choice for me, which I took to be a compliment. The postgraduate mode is, after all, meant to involve a drift from the general to the specialised. And what else is specialisation but an advanced manifestation of taste? Discuss.

Regardless, few will disagree that Ms Carter is good for sparking off ideas. One of her essays in Shaking A Leg states that anorexia is a kind of female dandyism. There’s a thousand debates right there.

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13 December. Film: The Pass. Barbican. Russell Tovey as a closeted gay football star. Much commentary on the way football is, rather depressingly, the last bastion of default homophobia. Very play-like; a chamber piece. Mercifully there is no actual football in the film.

 

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15 December. More modern masculinity. The term ends, and I go with fellow Birkbeck students and tutors to the Museum Tavern, Great Russell Street, opposite the British Museum. I think the preferred term for a group of MA students is a ‘cohort’, though for me that sounds too much like Asterix the Gaul.

There is a moment of drama in the pub, when one customer – not one of our party it must be said – hurls his empty glass against the wall behind the counter. The glass shatters spectacularly into a starburst of tiny pieces, like a firework, though no one seems to be hurt. The hubbub duly stops and everyone watches.

This glass-thrower – whose patron saint must be Robert Carlyle’s character in Trainspotting – explains at some volume that it was really, definitely, his time to be served next.

Presumably it hadn’t occurred to him that (a) he wasn’t getting served for a reason, and that (b) throwing a glass against a wall is more likely to prevent one from ever being served in that pub again. How fascinating the logic of the drunken mind.

The burlier men in the room realise that Christmas has come early. They now have the whole pub’s implied permission to grapple this fellow out onto the street, and perhaps even get a few punches in for good measure. This they do with gusto. The joy of righteous violence: it almost makes one want to take up rugby. Sadly, the police arrive in minutes.

I notice how bar fights in real life are so unlike the choreographed ones in films. There’s little actual punching; more a series of headlocks and holding. Indeed, more like actual rugby.

Afterwards I notice there’s another under-discussed element to real life fighting: embarrassment. It’s in that moment of silence when everyone realises there is a troublemaker in the room, and that someone, ideally someone large, and more ideally several large someones, will indeed have to Do Something.

I was further disappointed that a pub fight in Bloomsbury didn’t involve rolled up copies of the London Review of Books.

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16 December. I visit the Heath Robinson museum in Pinner. One display has a fan letter from the WW1 trenches, suggesting a joke to Mr Heath R. Some sections of No Man’s Land, says the soldier, are so narrow that one could use a fishing rod to steal souvenirs from the enemy. Heath Robinson used the idea in a subsequent cartoon.

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18 December. Tate Britain. A brilliant video installation, Wot U :-) about?, by an artist I’d not seen before, Rachel Maclean. It depicts a nightmare world where social media controls bodies. She plays all the parts in the film, but is so buried under digital effects and masks that one would never recognise her. There’s a touch of Leigh Bowery about the characters: clownish faces with brightly coloured make-up. Demented Pac-Men, and indeed Pac-Women.

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20 December. Film: Uncle Howard. ICA. Documentary on an 80s NYC filmmaker whose career was abruptly shortened by AIDS. Has glimpses of an abandoned film starring Madonna.

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22nd December. Mum in town. We visit the 1920s exhibition in the Fashion Museum, Bermondsey. A lot of dresses resembling pyjamas, frankly. Helps illustrate the view that the 20s were full of lightness, invention and abandon, while the 1930s were when things became buttoned down, in every sense. No distance like the recent past. Also: a bonus display of frocks from the recent Gatsby film.

24th December. Film: Paterson. Curzon Bloomsbury. After the action of Star Wars, Adam Driver fronts an inaction film. Signifiers of quiet US dramas: a small town’s name as the title. See also Manchester by the Sea. Perhaps one can blame Paris, Texas.

English place names can do the same sort of thing – from ‘Adlestrop’ to Broadchurch. But they can also produce a wry bathos, which I think is exclusively English. Peter Sellers’s ‘Balham – Gateway to the South’ in the 60s. Billy Bragg’s parody of ‘Route 66’ as ‘A13 – Trunk Road to the Sea’. ‘Wichita Lineman’ is soulful, ‘Widnes GPO Man’ less so.

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25th December. Highgate. Ducks in Waterlow Park, Frozen, Doctor Who.

28th December. To the Harold Pinter Theatre with Minna Miller, for Nice Fish, a new absurdist play with Mark Rylance. Cocktails at the RA’s plush Academicians’ Room after.

31st December. New Year’s Eve in Suffolk, with Mum. We watch the Crown’s fireworks from the garden.

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Wednesday 11th January 2017. Working on my PhD proposal alongside the essay. My last module of regular taught classes begins. I’ve opted for ‘The Horror, The Horror’, taught by Roger Luckhurst. Professor L knows his stuff: he’s written academic books on mummies and zombies, and edited the present Oxford World’s Classics editions of Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, and HP Lovecraft’s short stories.

One theme of the module is the idea of two sorts of ‘horror’: a more literary ‘high’ category, as in Dorian Gray, and a ‘low’, trashier version, such as Saw 3.  In the case of HP Lovecraft, some works have journeyed from the ‘low’ to the ‘high’; albeit a precarious sort of ‘high’. RL tells us how hard it was to convince the gatekeepers of the OUP that Mr Lovecraft’s tentacle-based tales are worthy of inclusion alongside Chekhov, Dickens, and Austen.

Reading ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ now, I do find myself chucking aloud at some of the sillier excesses. But when considering the horror genre, Lovecraft’s influence is monumental.

We kick off with Arthur Machen’s Novel of the White Powder. Like Dorian and Jekyll, it gestures at the things a young single man might get up to, when on a night out in London. Horrors indeed.

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Sunday 15 January. Watch the (possibly) last ever episode of Sherlock in the biggest room possible: the Odeon Leicester Square. Even though the episode is being transmitted on TV at the same time, and for free, the organisers know there’s enough people keen to pay £10 or so to see it on the big screen, in the company of fellow fans. The cinema has truly been reinvented as a special (British) space first, and an advertising board of Hollywood second. There are cheers when Moriarty appears to have returned from the dead. Then boos, when a caption quickly reveals it’s a flashback. I see a couple of Sherlock fans wearing deerstalkers. Both are women.

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Saturday 21st January. Green Park station is crammed with people on their way to the women’s march against Mr Trump. One placard has a picture of a cat: ‘Try grabbing this pussy’. Despite the crowds making everyone’s exit from the station a much slower experience, the atmosphere is quite unlike the miserable air one feels from the crowds at rush hour. Here, there’s a fun, even joyous feel to it all.

A barista in Costa Piccadilly tells me that the big protests are always good business for him. A protest marches on its stomach.

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Monday 23rd January. Delivered the dandyism essay. Then off to my PhD application interview in Gordon Square. I am offered an unconditional place on the course, but will have to spend the next few weeks revising my proposal even more. This time, it’s for the second and much harder stage of the process – the competition for funding. I’m told I’ll hear back about the result in early April.

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Wednesday 25th January. To a literary event at Birkbeck: Eimear McBride interviewed by Jacqueline Rose. The hall is packed out, with people standing at the back, some sitting on the floor. Ms Rose makes it clear she regards Ms McBride as an important talent, almost in messianic terms: ‘I felt I was waiting for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’. But this means that her questions are all the more serious and worthwhile. In Joe Brooker’s write-up of the event, he points out there’s a history of such critic-and-artist double acts, going back to Ruskin and Turner. I also thought of David Sylvester and Francis Bacon. Sylvester’s interviews with Bacon are essential reading for anyone wanting to create.

Much has been made of the influence of Joyce and Beckett on McBride, but tonight she names a more recent cultural lodestone: the 1990s playwright Sarah Kane. Which makes perfect sense to me.

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Saturday 28th January. Back in London. First night alone after Tom’s death. Consoled by kind staff and friends at the Boogaloo, especially David Ryder-Prangley. I’m something of a drunken mess towards the end of the night, but am grateful that there are people out there who will drop everything to help.

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Tuesday 7th February. Eyes tested at Boots, Victoria Street. One test involves reading a passage of prose from a piece of laminated card. This turns out to be an extract from Brideshead Revisited.

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Monday 13 February. I get the essay mark back: 74. That’s three out of three first class marks on the MA so far. One more essay to do for Easter, then the big dissertation in the summer.

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Thursday 16 February. To take my mind off things, I go to the ICA to see the most talked-about drama of the moment, Manchester by the Sea. It is only as it starts that I realise it’s about the aftermath of a brother’s death. When Dad died, the book I was writing about was Fun Home. Which is about a father’s death. But that’s stories for you. Only ‘seven basic plots’ (and some insist there’s only three).

A highlight of Manchester is a moment of farce. The Casey Affleck character is driving his nephew around. At one point, when the car is parked, he mistakes the meaning of the nephew saying ‘Let’s go’ and starts to drive away. The nephew is actually opening the passenger door to get out, and nearly does himself an injury. It’s an entirely unnecessary scene in terms of the plot, but it works brilliantly within the whole structure of the film, balancing the more dramatic moments.

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Monday 20th February. Reading Tobias Wolff’s Old School. Page 53:

‘Grief can only be told in form. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry. Sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo’.

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Tuesday 21st February. Woolf’s diary for 13th June 1923: ‘Going to 46 (Gordon Square) continues to excite’. Same here, Virginia.

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Friday 24th February. The final line in Old School is a reference to the parable of The Prodigal Son, elegantly paraphrased by Wolff:

‘Those old words, surely the most beautiful words ever written or said: “His father, when he saw him coming, ran to meet him.”’

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Monday 27 February. To Seven Hills Crematorium, on the dark side of the Ipswich ring-road. Tom’s favourite guitar is propped up in front of his coffin.

Mum points out how it’s virtually three years to the day since Dad’s funeral. Same chapel. The same funeral directors, Deacon’s of Lavenham. The same celebrant, Chris Woods, at our request. It’s best to have a professional running these things, especially in the case of an unexpected death. If emotion overwhelms a speaker, the celebrant knows how to step in.

Today Mr Woods keeps up the required tone of civic dignity, even when uttering names like Fields of the Nephilim. I think of the moment in the Patrick Keiller film Robinson in Space where the narrator, Paul Schofield, has to fold his soft, 1940s vowels around the words ‘Adam Ant’. Indeed, Mr Ant is mentioned today as well, and much of his present band – Tom’s colleagues – are here in person.

Besides, I remember that this is Suffolk, home to so many goth and metal bands in itself. It’s not impossible that this room has hosted send-offs for the grandmothers of Cradle of Filth.

Boxes of tissues punctuate the hymn books in front of each pew. For some reason, perhaps an over-ordering of supplies, today’s boxes of Kleenex are packaged in a Christmas theme. I spend much of my brother’s funeral staring out a cartoon snowman. Tom would be the first to find this funny.

There’s speeches by Tom’s partner Charis and his best friend, Ewan. Ewan speaks for many when he goes off-script, sighs, looks at the coffin and says, ‘I still can’t believe it, to be honest’.

I’ve provided Chris W with memories of my own to read out, but spend the ceremony at Mum’s side in the congregation. Holly, Tom’s daughter, is at Mum’s other side. There’s a poem by Holly, a reading of Tagore’s ‘Peace My Heart’, and recorded music by Warren Zevon’s ‘Keep Me In Your Heart’, along with several tracks by Tom’s own band Spiderbites.

Then to the Ship Inn in nearby Levington for drinks and food. The pub looks over the Orwell estuary, with the container port at Felixstowe visible in the distance. Another coincidence, as I’m currently reading Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie, a recommended text for the class on horror fiction. There’s a chapter about the ‘eerie’ nature of this very part of Britain, where Fisher himself lived until his own untimely death last month (I didn’t know him, but I liked his work).

In the book, Fisher ties in the contemporary spookiness of Felixstowe’s container port with the rural desolation of the surrounding marshes, the latter used in M.R. James’s Edwardian ghost stories.

Fisher also defines the weird (as in the goings-on in HP Lovecraft) as ‘something where there should be nothing’, while the eerie (his prime example is Picnic At Hanging Rock) is ‘nothing where there should be something’.

Today I do a lot of gracious listening and a lot of thanking. I’m especially grateful to be able to pay all the bills related to Tom’s death, thanks to the memorial fund. The last few weeks have not been easy, but paying off the bills was my own moment of moving forward.

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Sunday 26th February. Back to the little things. I look at a display at the London Library about damaged books. I learn a word, culaccino. The circular mark made by a wet mug or glass.

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Wednesday 1st March. I start work on the horror essay. Tempted to call Clive Barker ‘Alan Hollinghurst with tentacles’. After reading The Weird and the Eerie, I realise Barker sees the weird as a queer antidote to the eerie. If the weird is ‘something where there should be nothing’, Barker puts a positive spin on this – as does Hollinghurst in The Swimming-Pool Library. Art as the ‘children’ of the childless, which often includes gay people. Barker and Hollinghurst both believe in showing things – the explicit rather than the implicit. Sometimes it’s better to be weird than to be eerie. So that’s the gist of my essay. Typically, I discover that the first major collection of academic essays on Barker is about to be published, but not until the autumn.

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Tuesday 7 March. With Charis and her friends to O’Neills in Wardour Street, Soho, once The Wag Club. A private night to celebrate Tom’s life, put on by and for his friends, particularly the ones that are fellow musicians. The hosts are Andy and Joe from Spiderbites. Tom played here in the past, and indeed so did I in various bands. As it’s a private function, the bar staff treat the people in the room as employers rather than customers, and let us hang around long into the small hours.

There’s a screening of some home movie clips of Tom onstage and off, then the rest of the night is musical performances. A rotating supergroup of people from different times in Tom’s life, some playing together for the first and perhaps only time. Ewan B digs out a song he wrote with Tom when they were children; I think I’m the only person in the audience familiar with it.

Back to Charis’s hotel room at the Camden Holiday Inn afterwards, drinking to nearly 5am. The hotel has a street map in the foyer with all the rock and roll history of the area. Camden these days is Carnaby Street with tattoos.

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Saturday 25 March. At 4pm I sit in the cafe in Russell Square Gardens. I have a late lunch then do  some reading. For some reason, the cafe’s plastic owl is sitting on the table next to me. It’s normally outside on a pole, doing its moulded upmost to scare away pigeons. A passing stranger says that the two of us would make for a good photo. I oblige. He asks for my email address and sends the photo to me. We chat about the lack of effectiveness of the owl, given the pigeons happily invading all the tables outside. On another pole is a rubber hawk.

Photo by Phoenix Anthony Robins

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