Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Time For Bed

Oh joy. Oh rapture. Oh heavenly delights.

VE is feeling giddy with excitement because... after months of promises and weeks of waiting, The New Bed has at last arrived.

Yes, as I came home this evening - all tired and drained from an hour of kick-boxing someone smaller than myself - I opened the front door and was greeted by the smell of fresh wood. I followed my nose into the bedroom and was confronted with The World's Biggest Bed. After nearly three years of pushing and shoving, we will finally have enough space to sleep in... and we shall be doing it on our Soil Association approved, organic mattress.

Frankly, dear reader, I'm surprised I'm not tucked up right now.


PS -Sadly the chief photographer in the house (ie the one who has pictures hanging in the National Portrait Gallery because he's actually rather good at it) is out at the moment... so you'll have to make do with my less professional effort.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Put Quite Simply... Bragging

There's no other phrase for it but showing off. Today's Christmas copy of OK! magazine features a fetching snap of yours truly looking like a chipmunk (with P) on its glossy pages. Which puts a smile on my self-satisfied face and appeases my shallow, fame-hungry nature as it's been a few months since I was last in there (with Paul – Lily Savage – O'Grady, ha ha). A quick consultation with my abacus reveals that this tots my OK! appearances up to, ooh, about seven or eight now. How many do I need before that deems me a socialite (or merely a hanger on)?

Monday, December 18, 2006

How Thick Do You Need To Be?

The Guardian has today printed a mini version of Schott's Almanac 2007 and I find myself reading this at "work". So far, two pieces of information have startled me. Firstly, tough guy rapper Busta Rhymes is really called Trevor Smith. Grr. But second of all, - that bastion of salesmanship that distributes anything and everything all around the world to the detriment of the independent retailer on the high street - has now included something called Text Stats on its website, to help potential readers decide how tricky a book will be for them to read.

These Text Stats includes a Fog Index: this tells you how many years of formal education you need to tackle a particular book (apparently 8.7 years to read Zadie Smith's "On Beauty" and a staggering 9.1 to read the loathsome "Da Vinci Code"). The stats also feature a count of complex words: this breaks down the percentage of words in the book that feature three of more syllables. Other categories are the average percentage of syllables per word; words per sentence; total characters in the entire book; total words in the entire book; and total sentences in the entire book.

Talk about spoon-feeding. I am horrified and genuinely aghast.

Just how stupid do you need to be? If you need this kind of information to help you decide whether or not you can read a book, quite frankly, you shouldn't be allowed to read books in the first place.

"Flags Of Our Fathers"

P and I went to a screening of Clint Eastwood's new Spielberg co-production "Flags Of Our Fathers" yesterday, and God, what a harrowing way to spend a Sunday morning. Released on 22 December, this is a bizarre choice of film to put out in the days before Christmas - but perhaps, since this is the least festive Christmas on record due to global warming, this is what we can expect from cinema schedulers in the years to come.

Coming in at over two hours long, "Flags Of Our Fathers" is a gut-wrenching, stomach-churning account of the true events of the American battle against Japan for Iwo Jima. The continually under-rated Ryan Rhilippe is again fantastic as John Bradley, one of the three surviving soliders who helped hoist an American flag at the top of the mountain, which was seen by the war-weary Americans as a symbol of hope. But the real story that unfolds is that it is all a con. Bradley and his colleagues - the Indian Ira Hayes and the naive Rene Gagnon - are thrilled to be taken out of the war and back to America, but stunned when they realise they are to be toured around America and hailed as heroes... when in fact they aren't the guys in the picture at all. The self-congratulatory back-patting of the American government and the ridiculous hyperbole that goes on is all highlighted here, and the irony of it is not lost in the wake of today's war-ridden climate.

The bloody images and severed limbs take their toll quite quickly, but the underlying message of pointless death and lie-fuelled governments is clear. But what really shocked was the appalling way the Americans dropped their "heroes" after the war was over, especially for Ira Hayes, who got a particularly bad treatment. Johnny Cash's song "The Ballad Of Ira Hayes" (not included here) says all you need to know.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"Every Eye" by Isobel English

I'm torn. I've finally read a Persephone book that I didn't get on with. I've read a couple before that I didn't adore ("Reuben Sachs" by Amy Levy, "The Wise Virgins" by Leonard Woolf...) but I always found that eventually I got something out of those books that I didn't have before I started them. But with "Every Eye" I'm just not sure. Admittedly the situation was all wrong - I read a library edition, wrapped in that horrible thick plastic they coat library books in, and with a white label stuck over the endpapers and not a matching bookmark in sight. Plus my mind is distracted by thoughts of "the gendering of commodification' for my modernism essay, but I thought this mini novel might be a brief distraction.

However, I struggled to care what happened to Hatty, who struck me as a rather unlikable and dull protagonist - bizarrely dating a much older man who repulsed her, seemingly because she thought no one else was interested. Did she have no self respect? The book flits between the past and her present, which takes her to Spain with her current husband and on a trip to unravel a mystery surrounding her past. But it was a mystery that failed to capture my interest either... or one that I even really noticed.

To be fair, I have been very distracted while reading "Every Eye" and I'm sure it would benefit from a second reading, although at the moment I can't find the enthusiasm (or time). But what did interest me was reading the preface (which I always read after the novel as they have an annoying habit of giving away the plot) and learning that Isobel English was tortured by horrific migraines and emotional stress, which in hindsight added quite a lot to the book. So many critics rave about "Every Eye" that I'm sure I have missed something... one day I'll have to go back and find out what it was.

Persephone Latest

The Persephone online newsletter dated 30 November 2006 (which VE shamefacedly admits she has only just got around to reading) thrills me because it quotes my nomination for the shop on the Guardian's Independent Bookshop pages. My third appearance on the Persephone newsletter and still the novelty hasn't worn off.,,1398384,00.html

Monday, December 11, 2006

Oh, Christmas Tree... beautiful you are.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Magic Of Rodin

VE was strolling alone along Piccadilly on Saturday afternoon (a vile experience in the run up to Christmas, but P wants a Savile Row shirt to be waiting under the tree and it had to be done), set to dash into the Royal Academy of Arts to pick him up a birthday card, when An Extraordinary Event happened.

First off, a Complete Stranger approached me in the courtyard by Rodin's impressive "Gates Of Hell" sculpture. As if that wasn't bad enough (this is central London after all), said stranger thrust a card into my hand and offered me a free ticket to go and see the Royal Academy's Rodin exhibition... for nothing... right now... he just has a spare ticket and doesn't want to waste it.

So I took it and thanked him very much, and as the Complete Stranger headed off to join the throngs on Piccadilly, I watched him, slightly dazed by this unusual turn of events. And then headed into the Academy, scrutinising the card he had given me as I went, assuming it to be some kind of con. But no... I showed it to an assistant, who thrust an e hibition guide into my hand and told me to bypass the queues and go straight in. So I did, baffled.

Now, I admit that I don't know a lot about Rodin - although I've seen The Kiss, The Thinker and The Gates Of Hell before (possibly in Paris, or maybe London?), and I did a mini project on him for my A'Level English coursework (although, as far as I know, Rodin is better known for his sculpting than hhis writing - don't doubt the minds of Yeovil College English Department).

And I also admit I wasn't hugely in the mood to see an exhibition (but I was of the opinion that An Opportunity had come my way and that if I didn't follow it up, something bad might happen - or, conversely, something really good might happen if I did follow it up). So I kind of whizzed through the whole thing in about 20 minutes (philistine, I hear you cry) and only stood to stare at the major works. And anyway, in my opinion, there is something Wrong about galleries hanging doodles drawn on the back of envelopes and labelling them 'important works of art' when the artist in question probably wishes they had been burnt as no one was ever meant to see them - and there were quite a few of these in place.

Anyway, it turns out my card is a magical one - and I, and whoever I pass it on to, can go to see the Rodin exhibition for free whenever they choose before January 1. So if you're interested, let me know. Otherwise, maybe I'll go again when I've prepared myself better for it and study him properly.

Monday, December 04, 2006

"This Morning!"

There was huge joy today as a lunchtime visit to the shops of the Oxo Tower led me to end up in a lift with Fern Britton and Philip Schofield of "This Morning!" fame. Your fickle writer has now decided that Fern (who is much thiner in real life) is the nicest person I have ever met in my entire life. Not only did she hold the door so I could get in the lift, but she also complimented me on my butterfly broach and said how pretty it was. Phil's hair is even whiter than you first thought - and he has amazing skin! It made my day (this coming from someone who managed to remain unimpressed during a face to face interview with Al Pacino. Clearly Al didn't have the same celebrity presence as Fern).

However, when I returned to my desk all a jitter (I'm at a top TV fortnightly this week), not one of my colleagues was impressed. Miseries!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Libraries - Further Appreciation

As a reinstated geek, I have been browsing the internet for information on my new favourite location - Senate House Library, the imposing 19-storey building belonging to the University of London, of which I am an addicted library member. And I've learnt some fascinating facts about the building (pictured above) today that I'd like to share:

* It took five years to build and was completed in 1937. King George V laid the foundation stone.

* Adolf Hitler was so impressed by the building that he intended to take it over as his London HQ after his invasion of Britain.

* He wasn't alone. Oswald Mosley also thought it was a special place and wanted to move Parliament from the Houses of Commons to Senate House in the event of him taking power.

* At 210 feet high, Senate House is the second tallest building in London (after St Paul's Cathedral) - apparently this spared it being bombed in WW2 as it was a handy reference point for pilots hovering over London.

* George Orwell was so inspired by the building he used it as the location for the Ministry Of Truth in "1984".

* The gay porn film "Spyboy" features an exterior shot of the building - which it rechristens MI69.

"The Ladies' Paradise"

"The Ladies' Paradise" - Emile Zola (Oxford World Classics, 1886)

At long last I have read a book for the MA that I have genuinely enjoyed - rather than made mumbling noises about obscure premises and unilateral thinking, mumble mumble, in an attempt not to seem too stupid. So much so that I raced through it.

I'm preparing for my first major essay - 5,000 words on something to do with the role of women as consumers in modernist literature (I'm going to hammer out the precise question with my tutor tonight). But I'm an eager beaver and love to organise, and as such I have spent much time on the inernet and library catalogues and databases compiling a reading list, printing off relevant articles and checking books out of the library to photocopy surreptitiously at work. One of which was the 1886 novel "The Ladies' Paradise" by Emile Zola, which bears the original title "Au Bonheur Des Dames" (despite being half French, my French vocabulary doesn't extend much beyond GCSE level so I opted to read the English translation). And I'm so glad I did. I started it on Sunday morning and have just finished reading the 432nd (and final) page.

Denise is a French peasant who, after the death of her parents, moves to Paris with her two younger brothers for whom she feels responsible. Her draper uncle is unable to employ her because his business (along with that of all the other small traders in Paris) has been ruined by the engulfing Ladies' Paradise department store opposite - which acts as a mecca for the rich and spoilt French ladies. With no alternative, Denise accepts a job at the Paradise as a salesgirl, and her humble status as a bullied employee pales in comparison with the nauseating oppulence of the store's owner, the bored Mouret. As Denise's life progresses and she struggles to make ends meet for the welfare of her helpless brothers, it is sharply contrasted with the wealth and indulgence that Mouret is wrapped up in. Mouret is used to being gossiped about by his staff for his indiscretions with his salesgirls, but Denise refuses to be bought - she is a strong-willed girl who is determined to hang on to her morals, while all those around her are happy to drop their knickers to make a few francs. Throughout it all, the spectre of the Paradise grows ever larger and larger, like the shadow of a monster swallowing everything it sees and destroying everything - and everyone - in its wake. The store itself - referred to continually as a machine - is clearly the protagonist of this novel.

"The Ladies' Paradise" shows how one man, Mouret, takes women for fools: as lower class beings he can exploit for his own profit, both in the department store and in his boudoir. And the book also shows how one girl, Denise, unwittingly plays this powerful man at his own game, despite sticking to her old-fashioned morals. It is interesting that although this book was written nearly 150 years ago, the tale of woe regarding monopolisation, globalisation and commodidification still holds true, and it could just as easily be set today in this Starbucks, Virgin and Microsoft embossed world. I wonder when people will learn their lesson.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

When VE returned to her ivory tower last night, she was pleasantly surprised to find a hand-delivered package containing four copies of the latest issue of Smoke - A London Peculiar. Contained within the new-improved, all-colour glossy cover of Issue 9 there is a two-page feature by yours truly, and if that's not incentive enough to make you buy a copy and support this worthwhile enterprise, then I don't know what is. (Click on the link on the left for more details).

Here's a sample from my piece, as teased on the Smoke website:
"The No. 6 swung round Marble Arch and set out up Edgware Road. Foolishly, I’d resumed gazing out of the window, my eye having been caught by the dazzling lights of the Odeon cinema, which was advertising a saucy new blockbuster where bodices were ripped and cherries popped. I say 'foolishly' because, when I turned back, I was both stunned and impressed to see the newly-formed friendship in front of me had progressed to kissing across the aisle. With steadfast British stoicism, my fellow passengers were burying their heads in their Standards, turning up their iPods, and giggling behind their hands; but I, as a diehard romantic, was gripped."
[No.6 Love Story]

Monday, November 27, 2006

World Wide Web

A month or two ago, VE installed a "Site Meter" to this blog to see, out of curiosity, if anyone was actually reading it. And I have been pleasantly surprised by the results.

I have learnt that I have readers all over the globe - from places as far flung as Texas, Kiev, New South Wales, Brooklyn, Tokyo, London and, erm, Norfolk. I have discovered that in the past seven days, 76 people have visited my blog (may not sound like many to you, but it seems a lot to me). And that their reasons for visiting include clicking on links from other blogs, or Googling things like "Woolworths" or "Lee Hazlewood". And I am extremely thrilled to learn that a member of Scritti Politti is among those who have Googled themselves and come to my blog to read about themselves. And leave me messages. I approve of that.

Friday, November 24, 2006


It's mere vanity, but VE has just had a lovely email from my former screenwriting tutor telling me that I should come back to his hallowed classes and bring my torrid script of a psychotic student who becomes obsessed with his school teacher with me. "To be honest, you are missed". Aah, he just misses the lust-fuelled pages of teenage testosterone and the random whales in the Thames. Since my classmates' scripts largely consisted of futuristic sci-fi yawns and middle-aged rom coms, maybe it's time I inflicted my latest script on them - an everyday tale of a nun who gives birth to Satan but the child is brought up to believe he's Jesus. No? Thought not.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Henry Green and Djuna Barnes

And these are some books I read recently

“Party Going” – Henry Green
(Vintage Classics, 2000 – originally 1939)
In the F Scott Fitzgerald vein, a bunch of over-priviledged and super rich London socialities are holed up in a railway hotel as a rog descends on the city and prevents them catching their train to France. On the cusp of the modernist vein, this novel spans a four-hour period in about 200 pages and focuses on the fear of the working-class crowd who are all gathering in the station below, battering on the hotel doors to seek refuge, and the contrasting wealth of our anti-heroes.

“Nightwood” – Djuna Barnes
(Faber & Faber, 2001 – originally 1936)
Apparently a lesbian classic, this virtually unreadable account of a group of thoroughly unlikable characters is highly praised by TS Eliot – who claims that only those who understand poetry will fully appreciate it. Felix marries Robin, who has his baby and leaves to go off with Nora. She then leaves Nora for Jenny. All this is narrated by the cross-dressing Doctor. Lots of metaphors, lots of long speeches about ‘the night’, and a confusing ending. Preposterous!

Films I have seen recently...

I have no time sadly to catch up properly on films I have seen in the last week or so at the cinema or on DVD - instead, here are some mini reviews.

“Orlando” (1992, Sally Potter)
Tilda Swinton is perfectly cast as the immortal man/woman in this adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s imagined biography of the man/woman who spans centuries of British aristocracy. Not a joy to watch, but manageable.

“The Libertine” (2004, Laurence Dunmore)
Johnny Depp in dull period piece about the sleazy Earl of Rochester, the king’s brother who shagged his way around the courts and then died a grizzly death as punishment. Very boring.

“The Hours” (2002, Stephen Daldry)
A re-watching of the re-interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway”, seen through three women in three eras. A second viewing and a greater understanding of Woolf helped considerably. Got much more out of it this time.

“Shopgirl” (2005, Arnand Tucker)
Steve Martin ‘stars’ in this adaptation of his own novella – in which he plays a rich and dull, emotionally retarded businessman seduced Claire Danes, who is significantly younger than him and has her own neurosis to deal with. Jason Schwartzman plays the klutz who also wants to date her. Unbelievably dull.

“Junebug” (2005, Phil Morrison)
Quirky, meandering account of hick family life seen through the eyes of a rich New York art dealer, played by Embeth Davidtz, who is baffled by their weird customs and family sensibilities. Good soundtrack by Yo La Tengo. Picked up after confusing start. Amy Adams is very good as the sweet but dim, pregnant wife Ashley.

“Borat” (2006, Larry Charles)
Sacha Baron Cohen is hilarious as the spoof Kazakh reporter. It’s noticeable how he only sends up those who take themselves too seriously. Highlights the flaws in petty-minded Americans. Favourite three scenes: the chicken on the subway; the naked wrestling; and the street kissing.

“Casino Royale” (2006, Martin Campbell)
Bond is back and Daniel Craig is better than expected. Quite refreshing to see a Bond who could equally be a Bond villain. Too long, but keeps momentum up, doesn’t get tedious and shows a new side to the super spy. Surprising.

"Amy's View"

Mrs M was in town last night and we met up to see the delightful Felicity Kendall in David Hare’s “Amy View” at the Garrick Theatre. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the play – but I certainly didn’t expect the theatre to be only two-thirds full just one week after the play opened. It must be so dispiriting for the actors to have to put on a stirling performance when they look out and see rows of empty seats. But, to their credit, they gave it their all – doubtless spurred on by the fact director Peter Hall was sitting perched in a first floor box, watching their every move.

The play is set in four different years, with the same small set of characters moving and progressing forward – with life and love threatening their happiness. Felicity plays successful stage actress Esme, and the play starts in 1979 when her daughter Amy (Jenna Russell) comes to visit with her wannabe media tycoon boyfriend Dominic, and this visit sparks off a chain of events that influence the play for later scenes set in 1985, 1993 and 1995.

Parenthood, the Lloyds financial crash and morals influence the later developments. But the whole thing is overshadowed by drawn out discussions between warring Esme and Dominic over the value of the theatre in contemporary society (which seemed ironic considering the half full house). Dominic, who becomes a successful media critic on TV, feels that theatre is dated and offers nothing to young people, who want to watch videos so they can fast-forward the boring bits. While Esme remains true to her art, despite having to later concede and take a job in a hospital TV drama where her co-stars are amateurs in paste bangles.

Felicity was marvellous as the fiesty, determined and strong Esme – a personality it is easy to see Barbara Good having turned in to. But quite why the seats were empty baffled Mrs M and me (although the price of the tickets might have had something to do with it – we rather wish we’d just turned up at the door and got the same tickets for £15 instead of £45. Ho hum).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Scritti Politti in W12

There was much excitement on Sunday night as we headed out in the freezing cold to Shepherds Bush to see Scritti Politti play live. This was a dream come true for me, as I've been a huge fan since I was seven and first heard "The Word Girl" in 1985 (in a cricket pavillion in North Perrott). Green Gartside (for whom Scritti is a musical vehicle) rarely plays live - and until earlier this year, he hadn't played live since 1980 owing to nerves... and his nerves were very evident on Sunday, especially in the early half of the set. But despite this, he put on a fantatsic performance.

Until very recently, Big Brother 2 lived in Dalston Kingsland, two doors down from Green, and frequented the same pub that Green apparently uses as his second home... which is the same pub in which Green (apparently) recruited his current backing band. Sadly BB2 has bizarrely chosen to emigrate to the cultural desert that is Melbourne, so instead of going with him, I had to take P - who barely knew what he was coming to see.

Opening on "Snow In Sun", with a glittery discoball light effect, Green kicked things off as he meant to go on - playing largely from his recent Mercury Prize-nominated album "Black Bread, White Beer", and adding in a few older smatterings such as "The Word Girl" (my personal highlight), "The Sweetest Girl" and even 1978's "Skank Bloc Bologna". As newcomer P observed, Green is nothing if not diverse - mixing in influences from ska, hip-hop, rap and reggae. But since we're talking about a man whose musical collaborators over the years include no less than Miles Davis, Kylie Minogue and Shabba Ranks, what more could you expect? Hell, he even had a track on a Madonna film soundtrack way back when.

It seemed like a very intimate concert experience, with a rather unique audience. There were no noticable smokers, no significant drinkers, and I (at 28) was by far the youngest person in attendance and one of the few females. We also counted three people with walking sticks, and lost count of the number of people with white hair. To sum the audience up, I'd say they went to art college in an out of the way place like Bromley around 1980, and like to wear their hair just a little touselled to show they still have a bit of edge. Quite what this says about Scritti I'm not sure I want to acknowledge.

To me, Scritti are up there with my all time favourites. I remember the excitement of going round second hand record shops, snapping up Rough Trade 7"s of "Asylums In Jerusalem" and "Lions After Slumber", and my joy at finding a German Virgin 12" of "The Word Girl" at a car boot sale in Somerset. But none could match the highlight of coming across a 1978 7" of the legendary "Skank Bloc Bologna" (complete with photocopied wrap-around sleeve detailing exactly how to press your own single) in the darkened gloom of the now defunct Revolver Records on Park Street in Bristol (this was the original HQ for the influential independent Revolver distribution chain, which is now, horiffically, a coffee shop and stands as further proof of the vile nature of global monopolisation by the big cheeses at EMI etc). To clarify this point, "Skanc Bloc Bologna" is one of those records that people like Simon Reynolds and Jon Savage always refer to in their books about punk because it had such a revolutionary new twist on the DIY ethic.

Anyway, I've waffled. But I'm excited. Still. I never thought I'd have the opportunity to see Scritti live, and I'm thrilled that I now have as I doubt it will happen again. For further reassurance of my fandom - if I had to pick just one album for my desert island, I'd make it a Scritti one.

Monday, November 20, 2006

VE Has Returned

Apologies for a quiet week on VE but I've been away. No time to go into proper details now, suffice to say the past nine days have seen me head to Somerset for four nights of babysitting and DVD viewing (including "Junebug" = not bad, and "Shopgirl" = diabolical).

Then back to London for two nights of education (intense three-hour lecture on the pre-history of the postmodern, and a two hour reading group on "Nightwood").

And off to Bath for two nights of high luxury and over-indulgence in a swanky Georgian hotel with Big P (with short breaks from the delights of our rooms to see "Borat" = hilarious, and "Casino Royale" = too long but better than expected). We also took a trip around the Roman Baths, to the aural accompaniment of that highly critical nasal Yank, Bill Bryson, and had a proper Georgian tea in the Pump Rooms.

Last night, one hour after our return to the Big Smoke, we took the 148 to the darkest depths of Shepherds Bush to see Scritti Politti live in concert = truly fantatsically amazing (total joy). This fulfilled one of my lifetime achievements (anyone who knows anything about frontman Green Gartside will understand why).

The break has also seen me bury my nose in "Party Going" by Henry Green, "Little Lord Fauntleroy" by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and "The Wild Body" by Wyndham Lewis, as well as a few Virginia Woolf short stories and some trashy womens' mags and the weekend papers.

However, I'm now back at work - so I sadly expect there to be a considerable downturn in cultural consumption and overall quality of life/joy. Ho hum. If I get a chance, I shall try to expand on the more enlightening of the above over the next few days.

PS - Have now had the sodding Freeview box for three full weeks. Despite claiming it has a five-minute easy-to-use set-up time, I still haven't managed to get the bloody thing to work. Multo grrr. And we're a whole week into "I'm A Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here!" - the only reason I bought the stupid thing. Am not impressed. Stupid technology.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

"Observer Music Monthly"

Yet more joy, yet more recognition - swoon, swoon. Today's Observer Music Monthly (the free magazine that's somehow better than the paid-for titles) saw fit to print my response to its Lee Hazlewood interview last month... and despite being disgruntled at not being letter of the month, I am greatly pleased to see my humble name in print. However, eager readers will have read my letter a month ago on these very pages (see "Lee Hazlewood - Some Velvet Morning" in the archive section if you can be bothered).

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Libraries - An Obsession

As a youngster, I was well-acquainted with the book-borrowing process. First of all from the mobile library that came to our village every Tuesday with its range of large-print Maeve Binchys. We then progressed to the town library - housed in a Portacabin. I fondly remember kneeling on the library floor with my Mum, flicking through the choice of Topsy & Tim books.

And then the town library proper was finished, and we moved on to a three-story building that not only lent books but, gasp, music tapes (my ultra-cool brother was one of the first members). I was a regular book borrower until the age of 14, surreptitiously shaking off my school friends to nip in after lessons and borrow a few Virginia Andrews paperbacks. But at around 14 my relationship with the library died.

Only to be resurrected when I went to university at 19... but it was never the same. It took me two terms to find the library (I didn't take my studies seriously) as I felt that by the end of the Easter term it was embarassing to ask where the library was. And I was never one of those students who could spend all day in the library, making copious notes and photocopying compulsively.

And while I often walk past the few remaining London libraries and think what nice Victorian structures they (mostly) are, I have never been in one. (Actually, that's a lie. I went in the one on Rampayne Street last year but lost faith when they didn't have the one book I wanted). Until now. As an MA student I realise that I am studying for a research degree... which means time must be spent in a library. So it's fortunate I have access to all the university libraries in London, as well as the British Library.

In the past few weeks, I've found myself going to Senate House Library (above) more and more often (I even contemplated nipping over in my lunch break yesterday, before realising that most of my lunch hour would be spent on the bus there and back) and borrowing in a fashion that could be termed compulsive. I have stacks of library books in the flat (not that I have time to read them), and have discovered the joy of renewing them online (because I haven't had time to read them). And I've taken to browsing the library catalogues online when I'm at work, and have started a Word document listing all the books (and their shelf references) for future borrowing.

Is this getting out of hand? Is it just a phase? Will I ever read the sodding books?

Just Desserts

Lunchtime found me sitting with Djuna Barnes in the delightfully-named Bernie Spain Gardens, munching a mince pie while a flock of scavenging, filthy pigeons kept getting nearer and nearer in search of crumbs. Until one of the flying rats got hold of someone's discarded sandwich crust and began the ridiculous ritual daft birds have of waving the offending crust around in it's beak and throwing it at the floor. Until a tiny sparrow appeared as if from nowhere, snatched up the maltreated crust and immediately flew off to loftier heights. Leaving the stupid pigeon looking like he couldn't care less. Vive le sparrow.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Gender Divide On The Book Shelf

The errant boyfriend finally returns from his two-and-a-half week sojourn to the heights of Peru and the sunny climes of the Carribean tonight. So last night I found myself frantically tidying up in anticipation of his return... and stumbled across his stack of bedside reading, which I'd previously paid little heed to.

On the top of the pile was a tatty paperback of "Do Not Pass Go" by Tim Moore (an attempt to solve all the mysteries of the Monopoly board via well-crafted sentences). What surprised me most about this (as I remember P reading this avidly a few weeks ago) is that there was a page marker in it... only three pages away from the last one. Could he really not be bothered to read the last three pages before going away and forgetting all about it? The fickleness of the male mind.

Also taking up space was a coffee-table sized book of Man Ray photographs, with a really tatty slip cover - so tatty it had, gasp, rips in it. What is it with boys and treating their posessions like rubbish? Now this book is no surprise, as anyone who knows P knows that he's a photographer by trade (and not just any old photographer either, mind).

"The Diaries Of Samuel Pepys" have been loitering around the bedroom for over a year now. P has a huge obsession with the city of London (as well as with furthering his mind)... but even he has to admit that Pepys' diaries can't be read in one go. That said, there have been numerous occassions when I've been interrupted to be enlightened on some fascinating old Londonioan fact or other.

Looking pristine were "The Collected Short Stories Of Roald Dahl" - a gift from an editor friend. Clearly not hugely appreciated, although a bookmark a third of the way in begs to differ.

To compare and contrast, these are the books on my side of the bed...

"Nightwood" by Djuna Barnes (Faber & Faber) - this is next on my reading list, now that "Flush" has been finished. To be honest, I'm not looking forward to it. But an eager beaver on my course has picked it for our reading group next Thursday, so I'd better get a wriggle on with it.

"The Haunted House and Other Stories" by Virginia Woolf (Hogarth Press) - I picked this up from the ULU library on Saturday hoping it might provide a diversion from my essay on Woolf and alternative realities. I've dipped in a little and what I like most is that the stories are rarely more than three pages long. Which appeals to my current addled state of mind.

"Little Boy Lost" by Marghanita Lanski (Persephone) - I loved "The Victorian Chaise Longue" so I wonder what's not to love about this one? Sadly the lovely Persephone books are having to creep down my priority list as the MA reading list takes over my life. But I still like to know I have a few in reserve.

"The Runaway" by Elizabeth Anna Hart (Persephone) - when I get a free few days between MA books, I shall lap this one up. The etchings look most appealing.

"Wild Highway" by Bill Drummond and Mark Manning (Creation Books) - I bought this over a year ago as I am fascinated by Drummond and his antics (and it also has an astonishing photo on the cover), but I've yet to summon up the strength to read it.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Persephone Joy

After a few glasses of vino bianco, VE finds herself checking the Persephone Books website before bed (don't laugh, some of us have boyfriends languishing in Peru and sadly nothing better to do with the witching hours) and it was with joy that I read the new (to me) Persephone Newsletter... which recommends that eager readers click on this very blog to read up on my humble thoughts on Denis Mackail's "Greenery Street". (I now feel even more guilty than ever for reading a library copy of Woolf's "Flush", but sadly funds are tight at the moment). Click on the Persephone link on the left, and read the letter dated 30 October 2006.

"Flush" - Virginia Woolf

As some kind of respite from the hardcore Modernist texts I've been downing for the MA, I thought I'd compromise with Virginia Woolf's novella-sized biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's pet Spaniel, Flush. (At this point I'd like to apologise for not having read the beautiful Persephone reprint but merely a library copy - ho hum).

"Flush" is by the far the most readable of the Woolf texts that I've read and seems to be intended as a break for her - and she must surely have had fun researching the pup's life through old letters and poems.

A dog's is an interesting point of view to write from since Flush never claims to understand English, however intuitive he becomes to his mistress. And this book also gives Woolf the chance to gently mock the lives of the Victorian women poets (such as Barrett Browning). "Flush" examines class and gender in Victorian era London by putting a new spin on it. Hugely enjoyable (compared to Wool'f s other texts), and I raced through the 100 or so pages in two gulps.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

"The Great Stink"

Very conveniently, Tate Britain is a five minute walk from Velvet Empire's ivory tower, so Matt and I went to see Peter Bazalgette's documentary "The Great Stink" at Tate Late on Friday night. (We'd also wanted to hear Iain Sinclair and Will Self talking about lost London, while promoting their new books, but were too late for tickets - which disappointingly were on a first come, first served basis.)

Peter Bazalgette is best known for being a stinking rich TV big wig who brought "Big Brother" to the UK (and Alan Titchmarsh's "Ground Force"). But his great-great-grandfather Sir Joseph Bazalgette designed the London sewage system - which is largely still in use today - which is credited with being quite possibly the largest feat of engineering ever.

To commemorate this fact, Peter made a documentary for Five about this in 1992, and called it "The Great Stink" in honour of the phrase the Victorians coined to refer to the overwhelming stench generated by rivers of human efluence flowing through the capital's streets (and the ensuing cholera epidemics). Although it's essentially a Five documentary (ie, filmed all in one day with one cameraman and no lighting or boom operators, and Peter's own house seems to form a large part of the set), it is still very informative and very entertaining. For instance, did you know where the expression "to get the wrong end of the stick" comes from? If you don't know, you don't want to. Yuk.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Wake Up Sleepy Jean

Velvet Empire is feeling a little tired these days. In fact, on Thursday I was so tired I thought I was going to be sick. (True).

And the reason? The bloody MA. I’ve only been doing it for five weeks, but already I am starting to resemble a grey, tired, haggard and dying heroin addict. The irony is, I haven’t even got the constitution to stomach so much as a glass of wine these days.

Wednesday really took the biscuit. After attending a seminar, my hundredth library tour, and then a workshop on writing a critical bibliography (2,000 words due in 10 days), I met my uni pals Paul and Rebecca and went for a moan and a pizza. A few hours spent sharing horror stories of dictatorial librarians and socially retarded PHD graduates was good therapy.

Anyway, it was midnight by the time I got home and half past by the time I fell into bed - and one minute later before I was comatose under the duvet. And it was 2am before I was woken by a horrible screeching sound, and realised with horror that it was the fire alarm in our building. I debated ignoring it but then had a vision of Trevor in EastEnders burning to death in the Slaters’ house, and hauled myself out of bed, pulled on my coat and joined my neighbours on the pavement. An hour later we were allowed back in but by this point I was so traumatised I couldn’t get back to sleep.

So my day at work on Thursday was spent yawning, blinking a lot and sitting in the ladies’ with my eyes shut for 40 winks. I spent Thursday trying to hold back the tears and the bile! And my double vision made it difficult to sub all the copy I was presented with at work. (So I’ll never get a repeat booking here!)

By the time the No 24 had crawled home from Camden to Westminster (cruelly kicking me out at Big Ben and making me walk the final 20 minutes in the cold), I was ready to slit my wrists. The thought of another few hours reading and preparation for the critical bibliography haunted me, but I had to admit defeat and collapse in bed by 9pm.

So roll on the weekend. I anticipate 10 hour library sessions and late nights sobbing into a keyboard trying to write my first assignment. Help. Anyone who knows anything about Virginia Woolf and the supernatural - please feel free to share.

Do Not Touch The Books

In one of the hallowed university rooms where I am educated, there is a bizarre sign on the wall.

The room is a large, impressive-looking space, with big arched windows looking over Russell Square and contemporary white domed lampshades suspended from the ceiling. And the walls are lined with hundreds of very interesting looking books, going all the way up to the ceiling.

So it's a bit of a shame that attached to these shelves is a tatty bit of A4 with a hand-written sign that reads, "Do not touch the books".

Surely that restricts the pursuit of education? Book worms.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

"The Carlyles At Home"

“The Carlyles At Home” by Thea Holme (Persephone, 1965)

At home in their literary shrine. Thomas and Jane Carlyle. The Victorian socialites open their door and reveal what really goes on below stairs.

For someone who has a large amount of time working on the editorial desk at OK! magazine for the past few years, there is a certain irony about a book called “The Carlyles At Home”. I can see the feature introduction now (accompanied by glossy shots of erstwhile Victorian gloom-mongers Thomas and Jane Carlyle scowling away in high-necked collars and tight eyebrows): “As OK! magazine reclined in the Carlyle’s Chelsea living room, gracious hostess Jane poured us tea while her delightful pooch Nero scampered on the hearth rug. And Thomas, looking dapper in a raw silk dressing-gown handmade by his mother, even left his 13-volume creation ‘Frederick The Great’ to join us for a chat. Read on as the Carlyles open their hearts about the trouble with maid servants, the reason why their building works are never ending, and the gritty truth about Thomas’s so-called affair with Lady Ashburton...”

It wouldn’t have happened.

Fresh from our visit to the Carlyle’s Chelsea home a few weeks ago, Big P and I are still keen supporters of the Carlyles (although we can’t quite bring ourselves to read any of Thomas’s turgid books). So I snapped up a copy of the Persephone reprint of Thea Holme’s book - in which she imagines, through Thomas and Jane’s letters, what life must have been like for them at home at 24 Cheyne Row.

The never-ending stream of useless maids, the never-ending stream of rip-off builders, and the never-ending quest for silence as Thomas struggles to finish “Frederick” are all covered. Each chapter is broken down into a different area of their life (clothes, money, the sound-proofed study etc), and into each chapter comes an assortment of wonderful visitors (Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë et al).

This is a fascinating and highly readable book about life for a prominent Victorian couple who are trapped in a time that doesn’t suit them. And many of their woes are ones we can still identify with today.

"Avenue Q"

It’s out of synch (being as how I’ve already written about the Tate on Sunday), but Hannah and I went to see the stage musical “Avenue Q” on Friday night - after I’d been desperately trying to find something suitable for an out-of-towner, who hasn’t seen many London shows, and is only up for a flying visit. And “Avenue Q” fitted the bill perfectly.

Personally, I can’t take much on a Friday night - so an adult version of the Muppets, with a bit of blue thrown in for fun, was just the ticket. Cheery, heart-warming songs such as “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist... Sometimes” and “The Internet Is For Porn” were rib-ticklers.

Once you get your head around the fact that there are actors walking around with puppets on their hands, and try to ignore the actors, it starts being really good fun. And the fact that everyone in the audience seemed to be laughing and put in a good mood by it really made the difference.

I’m sure there are many more worthy things to see on the London stage, and I’m sure I would enjoy many of them given the opportunity - but for last Friday, “Avenue Q” was all we needed.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Tate Haulage

Yesterday, Hannah and I went to see the Turner Prize shortlist at Tate Britain. And what a load of nonsense.

VE had a poke around the Turner Prize last year and felt equally baffled. However, last year at least VE was accompanied by Big P and his art teacher aunt - who was able to shed some kind of interpretation on the goings on.

But this year, well, it really is astonishing. That said, I enjoy looking at the Turner Prize for two reasons. 1) It fascinates me how disparate the four artists are from one another - how on earth do the judges reach their short list? and 2) My favourite bit is always the comments board at the end, where visitors can scribble on cards - and create a much more artistic statement than anything the pretentious art school graduates ever could.

This year we had Mark Titchner and his migraine inducing psychedelic swirls; Rebecca Warren and her plastic boxes full of bits of fluff; Tomma Abts and her admittedly quite appealing 3D canvases; and Phil Collins and his video interview (now, how's that art?). Tomma got our vote.

Apparently, next year, the Turner Prize will be taken away from Tate Britain and up pto Tate Liverpool in a bid to make the Turner Prize less London centric. And a good thing too. It'll free up some space for some real talent.

(Apologies for sounding ignorant - but having read the cards at the end of the exhibit, I'm clearly not alone). Wheee!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Lord Longford

Things have been tense lately. Mr VE is languishing in Peru for two-and-a-half weeks; the MA is taking its toll; work takes up too much of my valuable time; and to top it off, I spent 90 minutes hurling heavy weights around the gym last night (grr). So what better way to relax than with a spot of knitting and a two-hour TV fest about child murderer Myra Hindley and ertswhile do-gooder Lord Longford? And that's exactly what I found myself doing last night.

Jim Broadbent, who stepped in as Lord Longford, is one of my favourite actors. It has long been a source of amusement to my family and live-in lover that I have always had a thing for older men: Terry Wogan, Geoffrey Palmer, Michael Parkinson, Jim Broadbent etc. (My live-in lover finds this all particularly amusing as he himself is 15 years my senior). But I digress.

Yes, Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent is one of my favourite actors. It's hard to believe he is only 57 as he has been around so long. And he is so amazingly versatile. He takes on controversial characters and brings them to life, without putting too much of himself in there. In short, he does a damn fine job as an actor - recognising that acting is about being someone other than yourself, a fact many Sylvia Young graduates would do well to remember.

Twice-Oscar-nominated Samantha Morton as Myra Hindley was also very, very convincing. Samantha is another stirling actress and a huge credit to the British acting world. I found myself sympathising for Myra and then suddenly feeling shocked about how this had crept up on me - in exactly the same way as Lady Longford was stunned to find herself sympathising with a woman she had previously described as an evil child killer.

Sadly, it is not very often that TV produces a one-off drama of this calibre. But when it does happen, it's is truly worth the wait.

"Greenery Street" - Denis Mackail

Yesterday I finally finished reading Denis Mackail's "Greenery Street" (needless to say, published by the enduring Persephone Books). This has been such a hot-water-bottle of a book that I dragged it out for as long as possible - but sadly, yesterday I ran out of pages.

And what a comforting book it was. Detailing the first year of married life for the lovestruck Ian and Felicity Foster, who live on Greenery Street (based on the very real Walpole Street - in the house where PG Wodehouse once lived) in Chelsea. While nothing particularly significant happens in the 329 pages, it's gripping nonetheless because Ian and Felicity are at once both helpless and adorable, and you really want them to do well – despite the troubles of grandmother's ghastly pearls and the drunken maid servant. Felicity's problems with the household accounts are one I can well identify with, and Ian's bewilderment as he struggles to understand his emotional wife are one I'm sure many men can identify with.

Although written in 1925, which isn't so very long ago, the book is in some ways very dated. The Fosters live in a five-storey terraced house, but as soon as babies come along, it's time to up sticks and move somewhere bigger. Whereas today, a young couple with a baby would be ecstatic at the prospect of living across five floors in Chelsea - rather than in a pokey two-bedroom flat in zone three. And the fact that Felicity's days are occupied with nothing more than worrying about who to invite for dinner, and picking out library books from Andrew Brown's (a poorly disguised Peter Jones), is a far cry from the current housewive's daily routine of commuting, work, commuting, shopping, household tasks and then some.

Denis Mackail said he wrote the book (and two more on the Foster's non-adventures) based heavily on his own experiences of married life - and it appears that he and his wife Diana had an extremely happy marriage. So much so that when Diana sadly died in her 50s, Denis was so upset that his previously prolific output of novels stopped and he never wrote another one. As the younger brother of the more successful novelist Angela Thirkell - who by all accounts was rather beastly to her younger sibling – Denis was always in her shadow in a literary sense, but evidently rose above Angela's shortcomings to be a success in his own right.

(As an aside, my grandmother was a huge fan of Angela's books and when my mother and I first discovered the joys of Persephone, we wondered if Angela's novels - which we'd never read ourselves – would be in the same vein. Having read about what a nasty character she seemed, I feel rather put off even attempting her books now).

"Greenery Street" ranks alongside Eve Garnett's wonderful books about "The Family From One End Street" as a book to return to in times needing great comfort and reassurance.

Avenue Q

Velvet Empire is off to the theatre tonight to see saucy puppets Avenue Q, with out-of-town friend Hannah. While purusing the website just now, I see that my old mucker David Hasselhoff has already been to see the show. Here's proof:

If it's good enough for the Hoff, it's certainly good enough for me. By the way, have I shared yet that I went on a photo shoot with David in July and had my photo taken with him for The Times. AND... he kissed me on the cheek, AND... he left a little bit of Hoff saliva close to my top lip. AND... he stank of beer even though it was only 10am. AND... he was the nicest person I'd ever met and I fell totally in love with him (even though the boyfriend was there). Long live the Hoff.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

French Fancy

Velvet Empire indulged in fine wine and cake while watching Sophia Coppola's version of "Marie Antoinette" in Covent Garden last night. While many have booed the film and said it is little more than a two-hour pop video, I'd beg to differ. Following on closely in the vein of "The Virgin Suicides", Sophia has delivered a sumptuous two-hour Adam & The Ants video, circa 1982 - and nobody did it better than gun-toting Stuart Goddard, so you know you're in good company.

Kirsten Dunst is perfectly cast as the indulgent Austrian/French queen, as is Marianne Faithful as her snotty mama, although Steve Coogan is rather distracting as Ambassador Mercy - it is still hard to shake off Alan Partridge. And the choice of music to accompany this film is impeccable. The highlight being, without a shadow of a doubt, Siouxsie & The Banshee's "Hong Kong Garden" to accompany a hedonistic masked ball. Velvet Empire will shortly be hunting down a copy of the soundtrack to add to her collection.

Slight grumbles: while the final still of the palace rooms is a fantastic shot, it makes for rather an aprupt end - and while it's good to leave your audience wanting more, I didn't feel it was a satisfactory end (largely because Marie Antoinette was still in posession of her head). And obviously the plot is riddled with inconsistiencies and inaccuracies, but hell - when a film looks this good, surely Mr Kipling is hunting down the rights as we speak to throw in a few E numbers, package it up in a pink box and ship it off to the supermarkets?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Rupert and the Chavvy Disaster

Here is a picture of the much-loved, adventuring animal, Rupert the Bear.

Here is a picture of Rupert with his great chum, the pop singer Paul McCartney. Bum bum bum, baya.

And here is a picture of 86-year-old Rupert, after he was given a modern makeover by his new bosses, Entertainment Rights.

Today, The Guardian has a picture of the re=vamped Rupert wearing a red hoodie and plugged into an iPod. The caption informs us that Rupert's yellow checked scarf was abandoned for making him look "too chav". Thankfully, it now appears to have been returned. With the end result that Rupert now resmbles those salty European bear-shaped crisps, Pom Bears. Good grief.

The Rapid Disintegration Of The English Language

I know, I know, I'm laying myself open to criticism but...

Conversation in the editorial department this morning turned to one of my current hot topics for a rant - my recent discovery that A-level English Literature teachers are allowing students to submit essays for coursework containing the mis-spelling of English words such as '4', 'da', '4eva', 'l8r' and a million other text-speak 'words' that I neither know nor understand. Why doesn't the government do something useful for once and INTERFERE? Can't we get Jamie Oliver on to this? He seems to be a man who gets things done.

Later on I found myself looking up books on Amazon and realised with horror the travesty that is the 'customer reviews' section. I don't know why I've never looked here before. Or rather, perhaps I do. This is an area where – completely without editorial control – ordinary, illiterate members of the public can freely submit reviews of anything they choose. Without the use of a dictionary, apparently. And without the ability to press the shift button to put in a capital letter at the start of a sentence – assuming they manage to construct a sentence at all, that is. Would you care to see some genuine examples? (I couldn't make this up, however hard I tried, so I just searched some well-known titles):

"A Reader" says of "Great Expectations" by Mr Dickens
"if you like literature, do your self a favour and buy this book."

"porridge" says of "Emma" by Miss Austen
"I am studying this for A level English, but there is not really enough to say about it to write a decent essay."

"Minky" says of "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson
"Hving just finished this book i am amazed how much information there is in this book. Hving just finished my GCSE's and about to start physics for A levels i really recommend this book for anyone interested in science and who wants to extend there knowledge."

"Martin" says of "On Beauty" by Zadie Smith
"i couldnt help but to write something in defence of ON BEAUTY which made my holiday truly enjoyable this summer. i finished the book in two days and i was thinking about the characters as if they are real for another couple of days:-) it is a warm and soulfull book and i would recommend it to anyone."

"charltonsno1fan" says of "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince" by JK Rowling
"no no no no i cant believe it!!!!!!! the first 5 books were absolutly amazing but this book is just... its not well written it seems like it was rushed it didnt have the class and elegance of the other books i gave it 3stars ONLY COS IT WAS HARRY POTTER but i was very disapointed"

Jesus Christ!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Pen Pusher Three

Last night, Catarina and I popped in to the launch party for the third edition of the Pen Pusher magazine, at The Castle in Farringdon. It was a lovely do, in an ideal venue, frquented by interesting people. (Although VE was a little alarmed that designer Hape knew exactly who I was, despite the fact I'd furnished him only with my first name... and he also told me he knew where I lived. Eek!)

Have I mentioned Pen Pusher before? I think it's a fantastic idea. The two editors, Anna and Felicity, started this self-published, advert-free, gratis literary magazine earlier this year as an outlet for the creative endeavours of themselves and their like-minded friends... and it has rapidly grown. You only need to look down the contributors list at the front of each issue to see that even by issue three, the number has swollen. The paper quality is good, the design is simple and elegant, and the content is stimulating and interesting (aside from the slightly tedious wafflings of an imagined old coffer at the back). In the three issues to date, I've read articles about the fascinating BS Johnson, Persephone book reviews and short fiction by new writers... along with much more. Truly an inspired venture, and Catarina has declared herself a new convert. (Oh, and did I mention that yours truly may well be included in issue four? Blush, blush.)

Check out the website (see the link on the left), pick up a magazine and show your support.

Got Your Lipstick Mark Still On My Coffee Cup

Oh, joy! Could it be magic? Yesterday brought untold treasures and pleasures as deputy-art-director Danny delivered a promo of the new Take That single, "Patience", to my desk. I will never forget that moment.

But, before you say anything, I know, I know. Admitting an appreciation for Take That is hardly cool and, apart from anything else, belies my age. But I don't care. Most of the music I listen to is damn fine stuff, so I'm allowed a little foray into the pop underworld... and between Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Take That, there has been (and never will be) no finer boy band.

"Patience" is hardly up there with "Back For Good" - one of the best pop songs ever written (and I am the owner of a special TT-endorsed coffee cup with a lipstick mark still on it) - but, to be honest, anything that Gary and the boys care to put out will relight my fire. Although by the sheer fact that they've called it "Patience", Gary is hardly managing to shake off the pseudo-George Michael tag. Nonetheless, it's an innocent enough ditty and it won't stop me getting my hands on a copy of the new album when it comes out on November 27. And, if you need further indication of the enduring popularity, Take That's new live DVD currently ranks at No 11 in the Amazon charts - and it's not released until next Monday.

But everything changes and the boys have grown up. The most shocking news is that baby-faced Mark became a dad in August, to the unusally monikered Elwood. This I find deeply distressing as Mark was always the one I hankered after - despite him falling well below my 6ft minimum height restrictions. Gary continues to be a multi-millionaire in his gilded palace, nearly suffocating under the weight of his gold discs. While Jason and Howard carry on keeping the housewives happy. (There was another one, but I forget his name). I saw them live in London in May... and they rocked, big time - I certainly found heaven. I pray that they'll be back for good. x

Thursday, October 19, 2006

I Have No Qualifications!

Shit! In a panic at my lack of English BA, I have just had a look at my undergraduate university's website (Nottingham Trent University, for those interested) and discovered that my BA has been... dropped. It no longer exists. Media & Cultural Studies BA (Hons) now means precisely nothing. Those three years I spent studying Visage videos and the role of Tetris in feminist society were futile. The extended essay I wrote about George Michael's song-writing skills was wasted. And the whole term I spent analysing the social conditions surrounding the opening episode of 'Coronation Street' was an utter waste of time. Thank God I didn't pay tuition fees.


The MA is now in week three. I am rapidly learning that a 'taught research degree' largely translates as 'teach-yourself a research degree' after being informed last night that we only have two lectures a term, and the rest is made up of dicussion-based seminars. This is all well and good, but the lovely, mild-mannered tutor I have was struggling to get a word in between two 30-something women in my group last night who spoke at pretnetious length, using indecipherable language, about modernism - with inane grins on their faces. Not only had they clearly 1) managed to read all the set texts for this week, but they had also clearly 2) understood them enough to 3) compare and contrast and 4) (this one really takes the biscuit) form opinions of their own. Show offs.

While I sat there silently in the seminar, doodling on my pad and wondering if that was a hole in the toe of my shoe, I found myself wondering - not for the first time - if this really is the right course for me. Not only have I never studied modernism before, but I also haven't even done an English degree before... I feel a bit overwhelmed. And those two precocious madams didn't help.

But a few drinks in the student union afterwards led me to learn two useful things. Firstly, the nicer, more normal people on my course feel exactly the same as I do (even though most of them have already done an English BA). And secondly, they all think those two girls were just a lot of hot puff. (One of said girls also came to the bar - and after initially deciding I hated her for making me feel so thick, I changed my mind as I felt she might be a useful person to know. I also learnt that not only is she a sociology teacher, but this is her second MA. I mean, why? Just do a PHD and have done with it. Or maybe she's just not bright enough...)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Barbara Windsor Ruined My Life

The unthinkable has happened. Anyone who has ever met me can tell you that I am an ardent fan of British soap operas. And if push came to shove, if a gun was held at my head and I simply had to choose, my number one soap opera would quite easily be - without a shadow of a doubt - the BBC's flagship show, EastEnders.

For three years I wrote an acidic soap column for my uni's weekly paper; I've also worked at all three of England's soap opera magazines and had the pleasure of asking Gary Lucy what his favourite pudding was. And I've also made a three-panelled screen covered in autographed postcards of the stars of every British soap over a 10 year period (categorised into soap, and then into family groupings). This is an indication of how sad I am, without touching on my encyclopaedic knowledge of EastEnders past and present.

But on Monday night, at 8pm, I was about to switch on the TV and watch EastEnders when I realised... no, I didn't want to! After the horrors and trauma of seeing Scum-Of-The-Earth, Devil-Incarnate Windsor gargling like a cat on fire as she ruined Frank Sinatra's classic hit "My Way" last week... I realised I'd rather not watch EastEnders, possibly ever again, until the wicked old witch has been duly sacked from the programme and forced to apologise to every single licence payer personally for the misery and upset she has caused.

(As further proof of my love for EastEnders, let me share a tale with you from 1996 - a time in my life when I was hankering after a certain GN. It was a weekday evening, I was watching EastEnders, I even remember which episode - Mad Joe Wicks, Mad Christian Sarah and her gay brother Tony, his wannabe boyfriend SImon and Simon's cockney sparra sister Tiff had all headed off to Brighton for a jolly, when Mad Christian Sarah had her drink spiked with ecstasy and Mad Joe Wicks was suddenly made to seem not so mad after all in the face of her increased insanity. Anyway, after the programme finished I went into the kitchen where my mother informed me that one GN had rung - but she'd told him I was watching EastEnders and he'd have to ring back later... and he'd quite understood. THAT is an indication of where EastEnders USED to stand in my priorities. But that was in the days before Witch Windsor took the programme by the neck and utterly destroyed it.).

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Lee Hazlewood - Some Velvet Morning

Richard Hawley’s interview with Lee Hazlewood in today's Observer Music Monthly is the saddest but most life-affirming thing I have read in a magazine for a long time. The magazine industry is an incredibly shallow one, with editorial copy existing largely to fill the gaps between the adverts. But the interview with Lee had me holding back the tears as I read it in my local café. I first discovered the music of Nancy and Lee when I was 12 and lolling on an obscure Greek island… that was 16 years ago, and I have spent all of those 16 years devotedly collecting and listening to Lee’s music, and recording it to give to other people. I have had the enormous pleasure of seeing Lee perform live twice (both times at the Royal Festival Hall), and I can easily say that both concerts rank in my top five ever.

I had not known Lee is dying of terminal cancer and I am so sad to read that. But the pull-quote OMM used (“I’ve had 77 years of fun; cancer doesn’t bother me”) is such a positive statement in the face of inevitable death. I can only hope I will feel in a position to say such a brave thing when my time comes. Lee has led an extraordinary life and anyone who needs further proof should read his 2002 book “The Pope’s Daughter” about his experiences with the Sinatras.

But whatever way you look at it, 77 is no age in 2006. I’m listening to a live version of “My Autumn’s Done Come” as I write this, and at the end he simply says, “I’m old enough now”. I’d beg to differ.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Coming Out Of Your Ears...

I don't want to show off - but Velvet Empire has been one busy bunny this weekend. Today has seen the VE team snoop about the fascinating former home of Thomas and Jane Carlyle (Cheynes Row, Chelsea) and become totally absorbed in the writers and prophets who lived there - and counted Charles Dickens as a close chum.

But then we headed over the Kings Road to the Chelsea Cinema and took in the matinee of Alan Bennett's new play-slash-film, "The History Boys". An endearing, heart-warming romp - with a splendid '80s soundtrack - about the extra term eight Yorkshire grammar school boys take as they cra, for their Oxbridge entrance exams. A second crack at nnostalgia for the day.

Tally ho.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Barbara Bloody Windsor

In the current issue of New! magazine, thespian Ross Kemp says: "Barbara Windsor is the sexiest woman on TV. She's a lovely, lovely, sexy lady. And for her age she's doing brilliantly. She's absolutely stunning."

Coming from a 42-year-old queen, should we take any notice that the bald-headed buffoon fancies a 69-year-old harlot who single-handed ruined the once-stirling reputation of EastEnders? No.

By the way - as a licence payer, I was horrified to turn on my television last night and witness Barbara bloody Windsor slaughtring "My Way" on karaoke in the Vic. I want a refund.

Anyone who knows me, will already know my thoughts on the wickedness that is the loose-knickered Barbara-Ann Deeks from Stoke Newington, N16 (who, by the way, should really ask for a refund for that drama school she apparently went to). Outrageous. However, should anyone want further information regarding this loathsome witch, I have already compiled a dosier entitled "40 Reasons To Hate Barbara Windsor", which I have ready for immediate perusual - currently kept in the top drawer of the office of one of the UK's finest soap opera magazines. (Seriously).

Spleen has been vented.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

"Bussmann's Holiday"

“Bussmann’s Holiday” at the Soho Theatre

Fresh from a triumphant turn at the Edinburgh Festival, celebrity journalist Jane Bussmann has put together an action-packed, takes-no-prisoners, hilarious hour in which she details not only why Ashton Kutcher turned her to the arms of a White House director of African affairs, but how she nearly found herself killed in an attempt to become Kate Adie and save Uganda from the wicked clutches of its evil army leader – who has been systematically kidnapping in excess of 25,000 boys over 25 years to build his own army.

To make people laugh with a harrowing true tale of AIDS, orphans, kidnapping and near-death experiences is quite a feat – especially for someone who doesn’t profess to be a comedienne. But with Sally Phillips and Chris Morris behind her, and having notched up writing credits for “South Park” and ‘Brass Eye”, Jane is no stranger to the bizarre and the ridiculous realms of humour. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Coldest Feet

Velvet Empire is finally a student again. Having spent the past six years since my undergraduate graduation hankering for the security of the university environment and thinking, “Oh, if only I had the chance to do it all over again”, I’ve finally got the chance. It’s been a year since I first applied, but now it’s freshers’ week and it’s all kicked off. But predictably, I have a few complaints…

Birkbeck, University of London, is not a traditional university in that it is a college for mature students – ie, because everything is done in the evenings, the feeling of community of a more conventional university is absent. But you make of that what you will. However, as a result, the student union is rubbish – as I felt compelled to tell the union president last night (a little more politely – evidently he didn’t entirely hate me as he promptly asked me if I’d like to be editor of the university’s glossy magazine!).

Fresher’s Fair was a damp squib of an event. Having coughed up £10 for my NUS Extra card (as if students don’t have enough strains on their finances), I perused the clubs and societies. Having established there wasn’t even a copy of the student magazine, never mind a representative, I was left to choose between joining either the Fencing Club or the Tory Dining Society… and chose to leave in a huff instead.

But I have my two new friends Paul and Rebecca, who I met at the school disco-esque welcome drinks last week, and we went for a pizza afterwards and expressed our mutual horrors at how shabby the university is in reality and how we were all getting cold feet… but we’re all also hopeful it’ll wear off once we actually find our feet.

And last night I had my first lecture. The first hour was spent sipping warm white wine while the various lecturers introduced themselves, and the second hour was spent being told to introduce yourself to your neighbour… and then to introduce them to the rest of the room (and guess who had to go first). All well and good (apart from the public speaking), until the third hour when guest lecturer Peter Nicholls from Sussex came and spent an hour telling us about the modernist poet George Oppen.

It seemed a bizarre choice of first lecture to me – as Oppen is not on our syllabus, we have had no previous introduction to modernism and Nicholls, who sat at the front so we couldn’t even see him, talked in such an unbelievably dull monotonous drone that it was impossible to listen. I ended up spending an hour practicing my shaky shorthand skills, doodling furiously and watching the hands of the clock go backwards as I wondered if it was all a terrible mistake. (Fortunately, it turns out no one else understood a word of it either).

Sitting on the No 24 on the way home, I was forced to question if I could face ever going back. I’d spent three hours watching the PHD professors who will be my guiding lights for the next two years and on the whole I was led to believe they were a bunch of socially retarded freaks. One guy was even manically stepping backwards and forwards as he spoke to us, with an inane grin on his face and leather patches on his elbows. Is this what I want to become???

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

"The Devil Wears Prada"

The devil wears Prada… and Chanel… and Dolce and Gabbana… and... you get the idea. Sourpuss actress Meryl Streep is currently stealing the show in the silver screen adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s “The Devil Wears Prada” (out on Friday).

There are several implausible notions in this tale of a size-six girl who goes to work among the size-twos for a dragon lady boss, and in the end her love life suffers. Firstly, leading lady Anne Hathaway, who plays editor’s PA Andy Sachs, is hardly plump or dowdy – yet we’re led to believe that simply because wardrobe have concealed her size six frame beneath a frumpy blue skirt, she must not only be ugly but also fat… quite clearly, she’s neither. And having waltzed through the offices of a few high-profile fashion mags myself (albeit in London, not New York), I’ve never seen any of the kind of nonsense Meryl Streep’s OTT editor Miranda Priestly is supposed to demand. But once you leave your reality expectations at the door, “The Devil Wears Prada” turns into an enjoyable enough romp to amuse one on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

The major downside of the film, as far as I was concerned, was the ridiculously predictable sub-plot involving Andy’s doomed relationship with her nice but unfashionable boyfriend, Nate. It delivered nothing and added nothing, neither did the bar scenes between Andy, Nate and their two equally ‘uncool’ friends, neither of whom we saw enough of to garner any kind of character development so what was the point? The screen time would have been far better employed by focusing more on Andy’s relationship with Miranda, or cashing in on the hilarious demands Miranda makes of her staff with that glacial tone, culminating in a chilling, “That’s all”.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Alas, Poor Lady

“Alas, Poor Lady” – Rachel Ferguson (Persephone)

The saga of Gracie Scrimgeour – the thirteenth child of the persistent Scrimgeours (who kept on and on until they had a boy, despite the danger to the mother’s health by having babies well into her 40s), who was born in the 1880s into wealth and rapidly saw a decline in her fortunes as war and a lack of a husband eroded her chances.

A revealing insight into what life was like in the not-too-distant past for women of no particular role in the late-Victorian era. The Scrimgeour girls who were not fortunate enough to marry, were literally left on the shelf – with nothing to occupy their days except needlepoint, flower-arranging and caring for their elderly relatives, while their married siblings looked down on them with embarrassment. “Alas, Poor Lady” tells the story of what happens when you are bred for nothing except marriage, but marriage then eludes you… and it is a sorry tale.

While being thoroughly descriptive and rich in detail, the lengthy “Alas, Poor Lady” never once teeters on being boring, and becomes more and more gripping as Gracie grows older. Her resilience and strength of character in the face of ever more difficult and unsettling times is astounding, and a lesson to us all – who are thoroughly cosseted by modernity. It is horrific to think that all this happened less than 100 years ago.

What is also interesting is the lessons in social manners – ladies not only dress for dinner, but are unable to leave the house until after lunch, and even then not unaccompanied. And the debate about whether male visitors could be offered sherry at 6pm is interminably hilarious… and not intentionally.

New Term

Things are getting tense in the VE camp… as Wednesday finally heralds the start of term for the blessed MA (which has been a year in the offing).

Last Thursday things got off to a slow start when I went for welcome drinks with everyone else who was also doing a humanities course of some description – be it BA, MA, PHD or otherwise. Before I went I’d feared it would be a selection of people who didn’t know each other, stood around the edges, staring nervously into their warm glasses of wine and shifting their feet from side to side in an awkward fashion. And that’s exactly what happened… in a building that bore a harsh resemblance to a school hall. So I downed my wine as quickly as possible and plucked up the courage to make conversation… eventually finding my way towards a group of people also doing English courses of some description. I’m relieved to say that by the end of the evening things weren’t quite so bad and that me and my two new best friends were the last people left in the hall… and we all swapped numbers before agreeing to meet up for freshers’ fair on Wednesday. I wonder if I’ve met my new lifelong best buddies?

And yesterday I had the day off, so took myself off to the library to register and go on an introductory tour. After making my way through several libraries until I found the right one, I realised that a 10-minute library tour consists of little more than a mousy woman in black pointing at some books and saying, “Here are the books”. But using the common sense and basic intelligence that hopefully got me on the MA course in the first place, I worked out where the books I wanted were and set to photocopying the relevant chapters of my highlighted and colour-coded reading list.

Tomorrow I have my official library tour… which this time threatens to last for an hour and a half, so I’m thinking it might be a bit more indepth. And then I meet my new friends to go to the student union, get our NUS cards and join some societies that we’ll never turn up for. And on Thursday I finally have my first lecture. Should I tell them that I ditched “Ulysses” two months ago after losing the will to live?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Birdhouse In Your Soul

Have I shared with you just what it is I do for a living? I’m a freelance journalist and sub-editor, and spend my weeks flitting from pillar to post - mostly between pillars at high-profile celebrity weeklies and posts at top-selling TV magazines. Which is all well and good. But every so often I have a random week that I have to fill at short notice… and I end up working somewhere less, erm, desirable. Which is where I find myself this week.

I’m currently cooped up at a weekly trade magazine… which is like the land that time forgot. Working in an office that’s like the seventh-and-a-half floor in ‘Being John Malkovich’ - the floor has been raised for some inexplicable reason and the ceiling is lower than on any other floor in this building - I find myself with a random, although sweet, bunch of people. There is even one lady who has worked at this magazine for longer than I’ve been alive (hint: I’m getting on for 30), and she claims to remember the days when Tony Hadley - before he was in Spandau Ballet - worked in the postroom downstairs.

But what strikes me most about this bizarre brown office is the level of tedium I’m experiencing. While the people are undisputedly friendly and nice, the silence is deafening - and the click-click-click of the dirt-ingrained keyboard I’m using is overwhelming as I fail to hide the fact I’m spending my day on Hotmail rather than subbing their pages. Yesterday, for instance, I got so bored I found myself wondering who the most famous person I’d ever met was. Unable to decide whether it was Al Pacino or David Hasselhoff, I set about Googling them both (while the Hoff may not have won any Oscars he is the most searched person on Google, so I thought it might be close). Fact fans will be interested, if not surprised, to learn that Al won out - by a staggering 4 million pages.

Friday can’t come round fast enough. My spirit may have been well and truly crushed beyond all recognition by then.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

I've Been To London To See The Queen

Well, Chelsea actually. I've been to Chelsea to see 'The Queen' (Stephen Frears, 2006) and she was bloody good.

Helen Mirren must surely be up for an Oscar after her turn as HM, and Helen McCrory (who we saw on stage in 'As You Like It' last year, and she was fab in that, too) was hilarious as a totally disrespectful, unimpressed Cherie Blair.

Now, I'm not much of a Royalist. I've always seen the royal family as a further drain on the tax payer and a poor excuse for dragging the tourists to London, but 'The Queen' has made me a tad more sympathetic - although I'm sure that won't last long. Apparently Helen Mirren has even become a Royalist after putting herself in HM's round-toed shoes.

Cherie Blair and Alistair Campbell come off particularly badly (albeit hilariously), and Tony Bliar is confirmed as the smarmy git we all know him to be - and the funniest line comes at the end when HM assures Bliar that sooner or later there'll come a point when the public turn on him, too. HM is shown to have a sort of heart - she sheds a tear at one point (certainly not over Diana) and admires the beauty of a stag while listening to the gun shots of Philip, who has taken William and Harry off stag shooting to take their minds off their dead mother… a barbaric family riddled with archaic institutions.

'The Queen' was well scripted, well acted, well directed and well put together. The legal logistics of making a film like this, when most of the main characters are not only still alive but also still in power (fingers crossed Bliar is off any day, though), must be a minefield... but hats off to Stephen Frears for pulling it off.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Wild Body

Wyndham Lewis's 1929 collection of essays, 'The Wild Body', is another one that I'm reading for the MA. Initially I found it rather dry, but further delving makes me think that George Orwell must surely have been heavily influenced by it for his classic 1933 book, 'Down and Out in Paris and London', which I read with relish a few years back... while feeling that life was getting me considerably down in London (Vauxhall, to be precise... before the rennovation that saw the likes of 'stars' such as , ahem, Lee Ryan from Blue move in).

Presumably Lewis's book is autobiographical, of his time as a soldier in the inter-war era, travelling though Europe under the psuedonym Kerr-Orr. Staying in boarding houses of various degrees of ill repute and commenting on the assorted characters he meets there, it never ceases to amaze me how - despite his travels across the continent - Kerr-Orr meets so many people he already knows. Maybe the world really is a small place?

While I understand that it is undoubtedly interesting to read accounts like this of a time that is gone for good, I am also left a little perplexed as to why this has stood the test of time so well and remains such a classic. However, I'm still two weeks shy of starting the much-hyped MA and maybe once I've got my teeth stuck into that, I shall cease making such naive comments and actually start to know a little bit about what I'm talking about. Here's hoping.

Friday, September 15, 2006


And finally - the third part in today's trilogy - Persephone has given yours truly a brief mention in their latest fortnightly newletter. Follow the link here:

The Brontës... Adieu

(Hurrah! I've finished it - and I've also written a review for potential publication on proper paper...)

“The Brontës Went to Woolworths” - Rachel Ferguson

Best known simply as ‘Rachel’ in the magazine ‘Punch’, former suffragette Rachel Ferguson went on to become an actress and dance teacher before writing nine novels. “The Brontës Went To Woolworths”, originally published in 1931, was her second – and possibly her best known.

A little delving has found that “The Brontës…” is something of a cult classic, which the recent reprint of Ferguson’s more heavy-going novel “Alas, Poor Lady” by Persephone Books will hopefully rejuvenate once again.

Although it’s a relatively short novel, “The Brontës…” will totally capture the reader’s imagination. AS Byatt, who first loved the book as a teenager, writes in her introduction, “I was intrigued by the title, which seemed to suggest some impossible meeting of the urgent world of the romantic imagination and the everyday world of (in my case) Pontefract High Street”. And indeed, the title alone is precisely how the book caught my eye.

The three Carne sisters – Deirdre, Katrine and Sheil – live with their widowed mother and starchy governess in a state of relative poverty, but construct for themselves a fantastical world where the dead come back to life and the inanimate becomes animate. The protagonist, Deirdre, is a journalist and becomes infatuated by Lord Justice Toddington, who she first discovers archly presiding over his London courtroom. Fascinated by his presence and what she imagines his life and wife to be like, Deirdre and her family incorporate their fictitious version of him into their real home life. And so ‘Toddy’ joins the ranks of Dion Saffyd (a pierrot doll named after a real-life cause celeb they have never actually met in person), Ironface (the French doll) and Freddie Pipson (a larger-than-life music hall producer), among countless others. But it is during a bored night away from London that the family finds themselves reluctantly welcoming the real Brontë sisters into their world… and suddenly Toddy has a much larger role to play.

Through “The Brontës…” it is possible to see where contemporary writer Kate Atkinson found inspiration for her early novels (“Human Croquet” and “Behind The Scenes At the Museum”), seamlessly blending reality with the supernatural to create a haunting story.

And as “The Brontës…” picked up pace, I found myself turning the pages ever more rapidly as I not only feared for the characters at certain points but also rooted for them and willed them to succeed. The way the family incorporates both the imagined and the real Toddy into their lives is touching, and it is easy to imagine how much they not only felt they needed him in their lives but how much they really did need him in their lives… and vice versa. But when the Carne family’s security blanket of their fictional world starts to seep into reality, the girls pull together and face up to the fact that real-life may not be quite so cosy as the world they have built up to protect themselves.

Where “The Brontës…” succeeds is with it’s beautifully written and wonderfully eccentric style, and with it’s simple story of three girls struggling to cope without a father figure and trying to make the best of what life has dealt them. As well as being a touching comment on grief and questioning the possibility of an afterlife, the book is also a good example of London life pre-WWII for many families.