Exile in Neasden

Tuesday 21 June 2005

One thing I’m not enjoying in London is the indignity of suffering through two summers in one year. Even English summer is too much for a wimp like me to handle. You can’t dress up in your best suits so you end up looking like every other daggy bogan. Sex becomes ten times as hot, sticky and exhausting, but only one-tenth as much fun; and to add insult to injury has a greater chance of being conducted in harsh, unflattering lighting.
And you can’t enjoy eating – let alone cooking – rich, heavy, meat-based dishes that every sensible person of taste and culture devours on a daily basis. Some of you may ask, but what about the great outdoor backyard barbecue? And I’ll tell you.
Last Saturday night I was contentedly curled up in my bunker in the peaceful suburb of Robson Green, reacquainting myself with the literary oeuvre of George Moore, when the telephone rang and I was foolishly lured away to a nearby house shared by about a dozen Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans, where a barbecue was purportedly taking place on their spacious back lawn.
As soon as I arrived I could tell something was very wrong when it turned out that the only English native in the house was in charge of the barbie. He was from some remote place Up North, where people speak in short, guttural grunts, and fire has not yet been discovered. His exertions for the night amounted to endlessly futzing with the same piece of dry, raw meat over an inert pile of briquettes giving off about as much heat as Jeremy Bentham’s corpse. Offers to assist were met with a beady-eyed, gently swaying glare and a gesticulated threat to put out an eye with the serrated end of the tongs.
To pass the time the Kiwis amused hungry onlookers by saying “Pimm’s” a lot. Someone’s mum visiting from Raupo intervened and helpfully suggested microwaving the snags before giving them a bit of finishing off on the barbie. The World’s Greatest Chef managed to light his cigarette off a briquette, or perhaps vice versa. The hours flew by as I was privileged to eavesdrop on a Kiwi and a Queenslander matching wits:
“The days are long here, eh bro?”
“Yairs. They never get this long in the southern hemisphere, but.”
“That’d be because of the equanox.”
Thanks to heroic efforts of organisation, no-one was sent away complaining that there wasn’t enough salad or cutlery.

Pelion on Ossa

Monday 20 June 2005

Just so everyone’s clear where we stand on Nick Hornby. In case you were wondering.

Present, but Not Voting

Monday 20 June 2005

Jeremy Bentham may have intended his Auto-Icon to work as a sort of object for contemplation on weighty matters of life and death. If so, it’s sort of worked because I’ve been thinking about it some more, but the absurdity of the contraption is too distratcing to produce any thoughts deserving of treatment better than posting them on a blog:
  • He’s been dead for 150 years and looks better than Sylvester Stallone does now.
  • When I considered asking the guard about bulletproof glass I was looking at the casters and was wondering if he had wanted to be taken out for a stroll every now and then, and that the Auto-Icon was a 19th-century ancestor of the Popemobile.
  • A wax head does not mitigate against my favourable comparison of Bentham to Stallone.
  • Pranks played on his real, disembodied head are alleged to have included being used as a football in a game on the college green, and being sent as a parcel on a train to Aberdeen.*
  • Why he would need bulletproof glass for protection when taken for a constitutional remains lost on me, given that he’s already dead, but I guess the last pope established a precedent.**
  • There are certain types on campus who get way too wrapped up in college life and perpetuate rumors that the Auto-Icon is wheeled in to attend council meetings, and is granted a casting vote in favour.
  • It’s way too late to make jokes about the last pope, even though they’re still selling that old “I like the Pope the Pope smokes dope” t-shirt at street markets.
  • If someone had taken a pot-shot at him and later asked for forgiveness, unlike the Pope, Bentham would probably have told the gunman he was using the wrong type of gun and recommended a form of assassination that was much more efficient but logistically impractical.
  • The Auto-Icon probably would have done his reputation for posterity more harm than good, had it not been ruined anyway by that whole panopticon thing.***
  • You can mispronounce his name as “bent ham”.*
* Bentham, not Stallone.
** Bentham, not Benedict XVI. Nor Stallone.
*** Bentham, not Stallone. Unless you count Lock Up.

Who are the People in Your Neighbourhood?

Sunday 19 June 2005

I took a wrong turn trying to find a shortcut across the University College campus and bumped into this bloke:
As any teenager can tell you, it’s Jeremy Bentham, famed early 19th century utilitarian thinker and inventor of the panopticon – every cultural theorist’s favourite gratuitously overused buzzword (although this has recently been deposed by ‘subaltern’).
For reasons best know to himself, Bentham thought it would be practical, or instructive, or something, to have himself embalmed after his death and kept on display at the College. Perhaps he foresaw the need for cheap TV filler programs, which is where I first learned about his ‘Auto-Icon’ many years ago, but had no idea where he was kept until I (literally) stumbled across it at the dead end of a corridor with a security guard parked behind a desk nearby.
The ‘Auto-Icon’ consists of your preserved philosopher in his own nicely-polished wooden cabinet, doors left open for display, but protected by a pane of glass – either to keep the pong in or the students out. I was going to ask the guard if the glass was bulletproof but something about him suggested he’d had enough dumb questions about keeping watch over the dead guy all day. The whole thing is mounted on little brass casters so he can be easily wheeled around campus in his own personal rosewood privy.
To tell the truth, there’s not much corpse left to look at. That’s not his head but a wax replica: something went wrong with the embalming process that left his noggin looking like an orange you find at the bottom of your garden sometime in late autumn. The head was left on a plate on the floor of the cabinet for many years before finally being removed, not so much because it was gross as because it was a favourite target for student pranks during Rag Week. His skeleton is somewhere underneath those clothes, but I gather that’s about it for mortal remains.
The original panopticon was Millbank Penitentiary, which was torn down a little over a century ago and the Tate Gallery built in its place. So now you know.

Boss to Customers: You Stink

Tuesday 14 June 2005

If you think the British are a bunch of sissies for passing out from the purported heat of an English summer, you’re overlooking one deadly factor: the Tube. The Underground can easily be mistaken for hell, given that it’s (duh) underground, packed with lost and tormented souls, at many times offers no chance of escape, and in summer is as hot as (duh) hell.
However, the authorities who run the Underground are developing some innovative schemes to alleviate commuter stress:

London’s Tube boss today urged passengers to “take a shower” to help fellow passengers cope in sweltering carriages.

Well, that’s this year’s productivity bonus in the bag!
When it was suggested that perhaps the Underground could contribute something as well – such as not letting the trains break down all the time, or even installing some type of cooling system – the beautifully named Tim O’Toole took the it’s-not-a-bug-it’s-a-feature approach and replied:

I think it would be fair to say those who are given the greatest challenge by the asset failures pose the greatest challenge to considerate behaviour.

It’s not a poorly-maintained and inefficient service, it’s a personal challenge to better hygiene!

Coming Soon to a Weekly Video Rental Shelf Near You

Sunday 12 June 2005

I knew I shouldn’t have mentioned The Specialist. It is a cursed abomination of a fillum, and just mentioning its name is enough to have appalling repercussions. I didn’t have a camera on me at the time, so you’ll have to take my word for it: a small convoy of film crew vans idling in Brewer Street, Soho. On the dashboard visible through the windscreen, along with the usual permits and empty Mars wrappers, was the large identifying sign “BASIC INSTINCT 2“.
And yes, Sharon Stone is in it; although she turned it down at first. However, as the production has stumbled on from one director to another, year after year, without anything getting done, she has had time to star in Catwoman, Beautiful Joe, Gloria, and The Muse, and subsequently reconsider her dwindling options.
No-one else from the original appears to be in the sequel, not even Jeanne Tripplehorn. It’s supposed to be set in London, in case you were wondering: everyone works cheaper here and they won’t have to spend money disguising the locations.

Filler by Proxy XIX: That’s Stallone on the right

Thursday 9 June 2005

He’s defeated the Soviet Army, Mr T, Rutger Hauer’s credibility, Stephen Berkoff’s film career, several mountains, the Cannon Group, Rod Steiger’s Hispanic accent, and cinema releases for his movies.
Now, Sylvester Stallone challenges you… TO EAT PUDDING!!
This is not one of those only-in-Japan deals, either. Start ordering now, so he can fund his Edgar Allan Poe biopic. Love the name of the company, too: is he referring to his co-star in The Specialist?

My dreams are getting better all the time

Wednesday 8 June 2005

I killed Arnold Schwarzenegger. It wasn’t easy but I managed it.
UPDATE: The spelling of ‘Schwarzenegger’ has now been corrected, so it’s not so Jewish.

Filler by Proxy XVIII: If you can’t say anything nice, come sit with me

Tuesday 7 June 2005

Book lovers: have some of the authors you have admired for so many years started to show unmistakeable signs that their heads have adjoured to a warm, sunny place up their own arses; have you heard muffled, lazily-constructed sentences from these exalted recesses to the effect that they like what they see and don’t care to withdraw any time in the forseeable future?
You are not alone! But wouldn’t you love to give them a piece of your mind, perhaps even – faint hope – penetrate the thick layer of self-regard that has fattened their heads, and just maybe shake them a little from their slough of complacency? Not from the comfortable redoubt of a book review or (god forbid) the sinecure of a literary column, but to their faces?
One man has done this, not once, but twice in an afternoon. You would think he had peaked when he asked Martin Amis if it’s ever occurred to him that he’s become the same dreary old fossil his father turned into, but not long after he’s quizzing Christopher Hitchens about whether he can honestly compare himself to George Orwell while simultaneously currying favour from George Bush’s moneyed cronies. Modestly, he describes both encounters as “accidental”.
Hail PolishBobStupak, making the literary world a better place, two writers at a time.
Link found via Bookslut.
BONUS: Nastiest. Review. Ever. Forget who forwarded this to me; it was some time last year. When someone begins “This is the worst thing I’ve ever read” and still has 1,339 words of elaboration left in him, you know you are in the presence of pure, burning hatred.

The London Review of Books personal ad of the month, June 2005

Tuesday 7 June 2005

Ah – to return to student days! Private Tuscan villas, carefree womanising, yachting and riding the horses on father’s orchard. Moneyed M (51), will make you aware of it at every opportunity, and then blame you for his downfall and current penury. Are you proud of dragging me down to your level? Maybe not now, but give it a month or so after you’ve replied to Box no. 10/11.
Plus, now they’re holding singles nights at their bookshop! I’m tempted to shell out 4 quid to go along and see just who writes these things.

Librarian Logic*

Monday 6 June 2005

Why are there always these bags of rubbish lying around London?
Because we got rid of all of the rubbish bins.
Why did you get rid of all the rubbish bins?
Because the IRA used to hide bombs in them.
Why don’t they put the bins back now the IRA have stopped bombing things?
Because now the Arabs fundamentalist Islamic terrorists might hide bombs in the bins.
Why won’t the terrorists just hide bombs in the thousands of bags of rubbish lying around on the streets?
Thanks to Mademoiselle Fifi for this observation.
* cf. Law of the Playground

Harold Faltermeyer must be pissed off, or relieved, or something

Friday 3 June 2005

BBC Breakfast is currently talking about a Crazy Frog going to the top of the charts with what sounds like a remix of Axel F’s old hit…
Jamstar’s reworking of Axel F’s theme to detective show Miami Vice is widely tipped to become the first mobile ringtone to top the charts.
Get mono and polyphonic ringtones by Axel F. You can choose from a selection of Axel F’s greatest songs.
Axel F’s, “Crazy Frog”
I used it to point out that Axel F’s first well known track which was the theme music to Beverly Hills…
please please tell me we are not talking the same Axel F that did the song out of the beverly hills films?

I do not understand what you wants to, formulates you gladly on something else ways.

Wednesday 1 June 2005

I’m listening to a Dutch Classic Cock station on a tinny AM radio and running a sweep with my imaginary friend on how soon until they play “We Built This City” so my judgement may be slightly impaired at the moment but, contrary to some people, I love Ikea.
Not as in “I love Big Brother“, or even “I love Big Brother“, but truly, honestly, genuinely love it: from its cheap, unobtrusive shelves for my books and records, to the $2.50 breakfast that makes the resident chef cry when he’s overrun with pikey students and backpackers. I know some people get the collywobbles and bitch about about the place, but they always end up coming back for more.
Now, my love for Ikea has a face, and a name: Anna. We’ve had some great conversations:

If your Swedish is not up to scratch, she speaks English too, but only on the American Ikea website. I don’t know why she doesn’t appear on the Australian website: perhaps that’s a reflection on the respective qualities of service you can expect in each country. Better still, American Anna has been given a box with extra headroom to live in, which gives the tantalising suggestion that if you ask the right question she will start jumping up and down.
I started searching Ikea homepages for other countries in hope of meeting exotic Annas around the world, particularly to see if the Saudia Arabian incarnation was wearing a burqa, but no luck.
But then, I was going to introduce my new best friend Anna to a colleague in London, and got a disturbing surprise:

What the hell happened to the real Anna? British Ikea gives you advice about life, love, and chipboard furniture through an Essex girl. Luckily, original flavour Anna is alive and well in Sweden and/or the States, but why this different look just for Britain? Are they trying to test us with some sort of Paula Wilcox/Sally Thomsett judgement-of-Paris dilemma? Contrary to appearances, British Anna is as reluctant to give out her phone number as Swedish Anna.

The first London pilgrimage: Ezra Pound

Tuesday 31 May 2005

This is Christine. She lives in Ezra Pound’s house. Well, it wasn’t his house exactly but he did live there for five years, on the first floor, according to Christine. She happened to be popping down to the shops at the time I was photographing her house and asked if I was a Pound fan.
I don’t care much about biography, particularly when it comes to “understanding” or learning more about writers or composers I’m interested in. It’s always the work I want to find out more about, not how the person who made it was living at the time. The one exception I’ve made is for Ezra Pound, my favourite poet. Yes, I know he was a mad, fascist anti-Semite, but he’s also a revolutionary, beautiful and fascinating writer (although some of that fascination comes from the writing’s frequent difficulty and wildly variable quality), and just about everyone writing over the past century has been influenced by him to some extent, whether they like it or not.
I was compelled to read Pound biographies because appreciating his work becomes inextricable from understanding his political and economic opinions, bizarre and repugnant as they often are. Untangling the issues of what he did or did not do, and how and why he did them, becomes essential when arguing with people who think he’s an unintelligible Nazi loony.
I remembered from one biography that Pound spent many of his years in London at 10 Kensington Church Walk, hanging out with an esoteric bunch: T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Hilda Doolittle, Rabindranath Tagore, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Ford Madox Ford, Robert Frost, and D.H. Lawrence (the last sleeping on his floor from time to time). One sunny afternoon I went over to Kensington to find the spot. This has been made easier because just last year a blue plaque was unveiled to commemorate his residence. The lingering controversy about him can be seen in the amount of time it took to get this official recognition – English Heritage has refused previous applications.
During his life and for the 33 years since, Pound has had the additional unfortunate tendency to be a crank magnet, so I was worried the plaque may be defaced or surrounded by graffiti about social credit. But no, just a quiet courtyard off a quiet walk behind the church (whose bells Pound complained about to the vicar, in an angry letter written in Latin).
Christine very kindly postponed her shopping to invite me in for a cup of tea and to look through the photographs of the unveiling ceremony. She said she had people stopping by every now and then, and were no bother: she rather enjoyed the attention. The committee from English Heritage gave her a bouquet, in case you’re wondering what’s in it for you if your house scores a plaque. We then turned to photographs of her cat, and her family living in the USA and Sydney.
Now I’ll have to get hold of a copy of Julian Rios’ novel Poundemonium, and go on a homage to a homage.
If you want to know what I’ve been reading, Humphrey Carpenter’s A Serious Character is the most detailed and dispassionate Pound biography currently available. The other books commonly found suffer from being written while Pound was alive and the author having an axe to grind, for or against the subject. Even Carpenter’s book is badly flawed by his evident dislike for Pound, and his inability or unwillingness to explain what his life amounted to. The Wikipedia entry is a pretty good summary but I’m getting worked up again now so I’m tempted to send in corrections on some small but niggling points.

Adventures Close To Home

Friday 27 May 2005

Another item I can cross off my list of things I never thought I’d ever do: jumping onto the back of a double-decker bus between stops. They were designed for this, but conductors these days don’t seem to be happy when you actually do it. In all likelihood they’re never happy but I don’t intend to stand around them for long to find out.
Most of these buses are gone now, replaced by boring new buses with lower insurance premiums and no conductors: the few remaining ones will be gone in the next few months. I intend to ride them as much as possible, even though they go only to horrible, out-of-the-way places like Hackney.
The photo below is taken from the front top window of one of the old Routemaster buses, showing another old Routemaster bus; proving the rule that you wait and wait and two old buses come along at once. For your convenience, a guide to this complicated piece of machinery is attached.

1. All the travel guides agree: the best way to see London is through a filthy, filthy bus window.
2. Ad for crappy musical you’ve already been taken to see against your will, with the same cast of nonentities as in the provincial touring production you once endured. (It’s this or We Will Rock You.)
3. Conductor in a fluorescent netball vest who yells at you when you get on between stops.
4. Male virility snake-oil ad, sadly not endorsed by a C-list celebrity so I cannot calibrate the British equivalent of Ian Turpie, Tim Webster, or Ugly Dave Gray.
5. The legendary open platform at the rear. If it doesn’t kill you, the conductor lurking inside will.