March 29, 2013 6:09 pm

The Diary: Nicola Barker

The English novelist and short story writer enjoys the challenge of giving up a series of indulgent things for Lent
An illustration of a French bulldog with an 'Argo' DVD©Luke Waller

I love Lent. I even prefer it to Christmas. I suppose this is because I’m not terribly good at many things – can’t drive (no sense of direction); can’t spell; bad memory; can’t budget; am partially deaf; clumsy; can’t administrate; swear excessively; am impatient; own badly trained dogs – but one thing I am really good at is giving things up. So every Lent I give up as much as I possibly can. I enjoy the challenge. This year I have given up everything sweet (including my sugar-free hot chocolate), booze, internet shopping (in fact, any form of retail indulgence) and a series of other little indulgent things like cream and long baths and mood lighting.

Imagine how astonished I was, then, when, by pure happenstance (I was just strolling past the DVD aisle), I discovered that Argo, Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, was reduced to £10 in Tesco’s. But, obviously, I couldn’t buy it because it was, you know, Lent. So I phoned my partner Ben (who has given up absolutely nothing – not a thing! – for Lent), and asked him if he would like to see Argo. Ben was walking the dogs in a field and did not want to see Argo. “It’s obviously crap,” he says.

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“But it’s only £10!” I say.

“Nope,” he says, “too expensive. That’s definitely a £3 film, at best.”

“Well, I can’t buy it,” I announce, “because it’s Lent.”

“True,” he says.

“Although I suppose, since it won the Oscar,” I continue, “you might find watching it of cultural interest at the very least.”

“Hardly!” he snorts. “The one certainty with an Oscar winner is that the panel will generally always select the worst possible film.”

“I don’t care either way,” I insist, “but I heard a Frenchwoman on the World Service the other day saying it was so incredibly suspenseful that she watched it twice, and both times was on the edge of her seat.”

“Suspenseful?” he echoes.

“Yes,” I confirm. “And it’s based on a true story – apparently it’s quite partisan, politically. It’s Affleck’s big comeback film.’

At this point, Ben yells at one of the dogs who is devouring some sheep poo.

“And it’s only £10,” I repeat.

“Sorry?”

“Only £10, Argo.”

“Buy it if you want to,” he suggests.

“No,” I scoff, “I won’t buy it. It’s Lent, remember?”

We hang up. Thirty seconds later I receive a text.

“I really want that Argo DVD,” it says, “Please would you buy it for me?”

I buy Ben his copy of Argo and we watch it two days after. It is terrible. So thin and rudimentary. Such one-dimensional characterisation. The direction, leaden, at best. It’s like some dull TV movie that has been mistakenly liberated from a long-forgotten 1970s time warp.

“Never trust an actor/director,” Ben mutters.

“I can’t believe you actually bought that shite,” I sigh.

. . .

I own a Brett Murray! I only just found out. It’s a stained-glass mounted wall-light in the shape of a sacred heart. It’s lovely. In fact, I’ve had it for years – it was a gift from my sister Tania, who lives in Cape Town. But I didn’t know it was a Murray – or who Murray was – when she bought it for me. Of course, Murray is now notorious as the artist who painted South African president Jacob Zuma with his genitals hanging out.

This painting, “The Spear”, caused huge controversy in South Africa, and internationally, last year. So much so that it was actually vandalised, twice, by two, unrelated individuals (one an Afrikaans art activist, the other a black taxi driver) on the same day. My sister (after breaking the news to me that I owned a Murray – yip yip!) went on to tell me that an excellent ebook had recently been published about the controversy, so Ben promptly downloaded it on to my iPad (it’s Lent – I couldn’t download it, obviously. In fact, I couldn’t download it even if I could download it because I lack the requisite technical facility).

The book is called Heart of Dickness (classic title!) by Andrew Donaldson. It’s only short but it’s an utterly fascinating, dry, funny and at points rather sobering investigation into the conflict between creative expression and human dignity in the post-apartheid era. It’s an absolute snip at a mere £2, and I’ve been feasting on it all week. Well, when I say feasting ...

. . .

I almost dropped the phone last week when a text arrived from my mother, which read, “Went to the Quentin Blake at the Fitzwilliam ...”

Eh?! I gazed at it, perplexed. I had told my mother, weeks ago, that I was desperate to get some Blake postcards from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (where she was enjoying a short break). “No postcards of the work as they are so new,” the text continued, “but worry not, a small pre-birthday gift will be with you soon.”

 

My face dropped. I wanted William Blake and she patently thought I meant Quentin Blake (the cartoonist, who has a new exhibition on at the Fitzwilliam). Disaster! But how to wrangle my greedy acquisition of said William Blake artefacts without offending my mother and, worse still ... Aaaargh! NIGHTMARE!

I love Lent. I really do. I even prefer it to Christmas. I love Lent. But roll on Easter.

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Nicola Barker’s most recent novel, ‘The Yips’ (Fourth Estate £8.99) is out in paperback this week

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