Saturday, November 26, 2011

Back in London: Spectres of the Fantastic In and Out of Class

I went to London yesterday with Northampton University to take part in a symposium called "The Fantastic Imagination" with Richmond, the uni for American students in London. I did a presentation with my friend Martyna on "The Female Gothic" - a subject I know very little about, I hasten to add; it was just the first thing that popped into my head when the Head of English at Northampton asked what we were going to talk about. It seemed to go well. One of the American lecturers there said we looked like we were presenting the Oscars. Really? A portly, grey-bearded middle-aged man and a 23-year-old Polish Goth?

Unusually for me I had very little to contribute for the rest of the day - other than when we were freezing our arses (or perhaps I should say asses) off in the courtyard smoking area at lunchtime - because I know absolutely nothing about fantasy literature, almost nothing about Gothic literature, and the only science fiction author I've ever read is Phillip K. Dick (who I love, by the way). Lisa, sitting next to me, had to explain more than once the multiple references to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.

It was a nice way to spend a Friday though. A couple of Northampton students - who, sadly, had been grumbling about the lack of white people in London as we drove through Kilburn on the coach - came back from lunch animatedly telling us they had found Thackeray's house around the corner from the university campus. "What's the name of his book?" they said to the class. "Vanity Fair," I said, when nobody else made an offer. "Damn, yes, Vanity Fair!" said one of them. "I've been trying to remember that for ten minutes. What's it like?" I had to own that I'd never read that either.

My favourite moment of the day was driving past the Albert Hall. Seems odd, perhaps, for an Englishman, but I'd never seen it before, not in real bricks and mortar. I remembered, as we passed, Bob Dylan's concert there in 1965 as filmed in the documentary Don't Look Back. Ginsberg was present that night, and the Beatles. Some of the true titans of my own fantastic imagination. There is that wonderful moment in the movie when Dylan and Bobby Neuwirth are going into the hall before the first of the concerts. "This must be very old," Dylan says, apparently awestruck. "Queen Victoria built it for her dude," says Neuwirth, so hip and languid in his speech he can make the theatre of a queen sound like a beatnik crash-pad.

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