I Saw The Glitter On His Face

Friday 13 July 2018. I read about a commotion at this year’s Pride march. A group of women calling themselves Get the L Out made their own mini-protest against the main march. Before the procession could begin, they lay down in the road, preventing the others from setting off. It appears that they claim the LGBT movement is somehow ‘erasing’ the ‘L’ – lesbians – by overly favouring the ‘T’, as in transgender people. This argument was soon condemned by more established lesbian voices, such as DIVA magazine. Subsequent marches have included banners saying ‘L with the T’.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Clause 28. I remember how lesbian protests back then meant women invading BBC TV news bulletins and handcuffing themselves to Sue Lawley’s desk. Or it meant abseiling onto the floor of the House of Lords. These were actions aimed upwards in society, against authority. To protest against trans people, whose lives are much more compromised, is manifestly kicking downwards. There are surely worthier fights for the same passion. Around the world LGBT people as a whole still have a hard time of things. Division among the ranks cannot help.

**

Picador Classics has published a new edition of Firbank’s Flower Beneath the Foot with an introduction by Alan Hollinghurst. The cover is a decadent illustration by Georges Barbier, of fantastical, semi-nude tango dancers circa 1919. They look like Aubrey Beardsley characters updated into the Jazz Age, just as Carl Van Vechten’s described Firbank as ‘Aubrey Beardsley in a Rolls-Royce’.

**

Saturday 14 July 2018. A comment from my PhD supervisor on my latest work: ‘This sentence is less clear than usual’. It’s the one sentence in 30,000 words in which I tried my hardest to write in an academic style. Now I realise that, contrary to the misconception, many academics value the art of elegant prose. It’s the lack of care during editing that results in convolution. Still, nice to know that Dr B associates me with good writing.

**

Sunday 15 July 2018. Lunch at the Salisbury pub in St Martin’s Lane. No TV screens, for once. It’s the only pub I can find in central London which says ‘Sport Free’ on the blackboard outside.

Then to the Curzon Soho for McQueen, the documentary on the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen. The film follows the usual arc, rags to riches to the tragic early death, with the bonus that the riches are indeed from rags. I’d forgotten about the phrase ‘the rag trade’ as slang for the clothes industry, but it’s used in the film by members of McQueen’s family, who are working class East Londoners. McQueen played up his Cockney background as a career move – his relatives admit as much. Though it’s the family’s Scottish roots which really fascinated him: hence his Highland Rape show. It is easier to mythologise one’s ancestors if they seem a world away. The answer to the family tree show on TV, Who Do You Think You Are, is really: Someone Exotic, I Hope. Still, I find myself drawn to his daring and artistry. He was a rare example of someone in fashion with a sense of individualism, as opposed to joining in and keeping up. I’d love to have a McQueen suit, but for the style rather than the status.

**

Monday 16 July 2018. I’m trying a new hairdresser: Open Barbers, in Clunbury Street near Old Street tube. Like Barberette in Hackney, they favour a gender neutral approach. With no pun intended, this does appear to be a growth industry. Many high street hairdressers seem stuck in the 1970s. My heart sinks at the implication that in order to have a trim I need to talk knowledgeably about football, or am fine about having The Sun or The Mirror as reading matter while waiting.

Open Barbers has a library of queer A5 fanzines, and even offers its own fanzine on the way in. The general atmosphere of social progressiveness extends to a pay-what-you-can service. In theory you can pay as little as £10, though a poster points out their own costs (£15 per hour to break even, a bit more for colouring). They certainly do a good job with my ludicrous mop, which seems thicker than ever.

**

Thursday 19 July 2018. Reading a couple of books about books. One is Damon Young’s The Art of Reading, which mixes philosophy with references to Star Trek spin-off novels. The other is Alberto Manguel’s Packing My Library. ‘I’ve never felt alone in a library’ he says, which is very true. And yet, it’s funny how reading presents an image of isolation, of not-there-ness. When Big Brother started in the UK, they allowed books. These were soon banned, as images of people reading made for bad TV. This is why appearing on a reality TV show is less appealing than going to prison. In Wormwood Scrubs they at least allow books.

Mr Manguel relates an anecdote about Noah Webster, author of the eponymous dictionary. One day, Webster is caught by his wife locked in an embrace with the family maid.

‘Noah, I am surprised!’ says Mrs Webster.

‘No, madam,’ says Webster. ‘I am surprised. You are astonished.’

**

Friday 20 July 2018. London’s heatwave continues, to the delight of no one. The green grass in Russell Square is giving way to a rash of yellow. Scenes from The Day the Earth Caught Fire suggest themselves: people abound in sweat-drenched work clothes. Tempers on the tube flare like forest fires.

I’m in a café when Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ comes on the speakers. The original, for once. Franchise cafés tend to favour cover versions, of the kind favoured by John Lewis at Christmas. They fit the franchise theme of replication: the appeal of a Starbucks or a Pret is that it’s a space which is a cover version of other spaces. In every branch of Leon, the walls have copies of a family’s holiday snapshots. On the walls of Caffe Nero are photographs of people drinking coffee in an idealised Italian setting. It’s all fake and artificial and I quite like it, like Warhol liked Coca-Cola (‘all the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good’).  It’s only the cover versions in the piped music that irritate, because music plays closer to the heart.

I once asked the staff of a Pret if they had ever thought of tuning the speakers to a local radio station, like greasy spoon cafes do. They looked as if they were going to set fire to me.

Today I sit and listen to the original Cyndi Lauper record, properly. I’m intrigued by the soulful male voice that suddenly appears on the choruses. How tempting to impose a narrative: the spirit of a dead lover, or a figure from a dream. (I look him up: it’s the song’s co-writer, Rob Hyman, of The Hooters). Bowie’s ‘Absolute Beginners’ is another example: a mysterious female voice accompanying Bowie in the background.

**

Evening: to the Curzon Soho for a special screening of Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (1998). The film is set in the New York club Studio 54 in the early 80s, but now, twenty years on, I see the film as a nostalgia piece for my own youth in 1998: going out to club nights on a regular basis, living to purely go out. It’s my Saturday Night Fever. Tim Chipping is also here, and we spend the time afterwards in the bar chatting – but not too late (we’re older). Tim says he’s thinking of finally moving out of London, because of the soaring costs of living. He has his sights on Glasgow, ‘my second home’. My thought is that, had I the means to do so, I’d also quite like to live in Scotland, but only seasonally, to escape hot summers like this one.

**

Tuesday 24 July 2018. It occurs to me that at the age of nearly 47, I still have absolutely no idea what I want to do with my life. I was rather hoping something would suggest itself.

It doesn’t help that today the PhD students are sent a jargon-splattered 100-page document about the Research Excellence Framework. This is a government initiative designed to make sure (as I understand it) that British universities are doing Good Work with Proven Impact. I can only assume that the main purpose of the REF is to put people off a career in academia.

The irony of acquiring qualifications in English literature is that they give one an increased intolerance of the literature of the workplace.

In your forties, you start to feel like a ghost. Less visible to the swim of things, but able to slip between worlds more easily. And you know more things. I’ve still yet to solve the puzzle of how best to translate my own abilities into a regular minimum wage, but I can tell more easily what paths would be unsuitable.

I’ve enrolled for a second year on the part-time PhD. Here’s hoping I can find some sort of funding.

**

Friday 27 July 2018. Today thunderstorms are forecast. I find myself desperately willing them to arrive. ‘Let it come down!’ – Macbeth.

On the tube the Victoria Line is especially unbearable. There are now adverts on the trains for ‘cut-price’ cremations, priced at £1195. What with the current temperatures, it would be cheaper to put the body on the Central Line and just give it a couple of hours.

On another tube poster the Mayor announces that he is building ‘genuinely affordable housing’. ‘Affordable’ no longer means ‘affordable’, just as ‘housing’ by itself does not mean housing for anyone (because it’s not affordable). And soon, ‘genuinely’ will too become suspect, and the phrase will require, ‘no, really’. Linguistic sticking plasters, over gaping social wounds.

**

Idling on Twitter reveals one’s age. I see conversations about the 1990s which are clearly made by people too young to remember them – millennials, as the generation is now known. I want to say, ‘Just because you were a child in the 90s doesn’t mean that all 90s culture apart from Harry Potter and Friends doesn’t exist.’

I wonder if there’s a term equivalent to mansplaining. Eldersplaining? Two suggestions are sent to me: ‘passéxplaining ‘, and ‘Gen X-plaining’.

**

Thursday 2nd August 2018. ‘At full strength, wit is rage made bearable, and useful’. – Gore Vidal on Evelyn Waugh. This is from a 1962 review in the New York Times. Vidal came to dislike Waugh in later life, but the truth of the quote still stands.

**

Friday 3rd August 2018. A suggestion for renaming the Death Star in Star Wars: The Bauble of Unkindness.

**

Sunday 5th August 2018. A headline from an article in Pitchfork: ‘How do we support musicians when the easiest way to listen to their music barely pays them at all?’

My answer:  PayPal them directly. If you like an artist’s work, and they’re alive, seek out their website. If they are taking donations, they are struggling. So, donate.

**

Wednesday 8th August 2018. I’m reviewing some Pet Shop Boys reissues for The Wire and am reading the group’s old interviews. Today I learn that Neil Tennant wrote most of the lyrics to Electronic’s ‘Getting Away With It’ (1989), including the title. Also: it’s about Morrissey. (Source: liner notes to the 2001 reissue of Behaviour, which is getting a re-re-issue this month).

Also learned: Behaviour was a response to Depeche Mode’s ‘Enjoy The Silence’, which the PSBs were envious of. Depeche Mode became globally massive around this time. Tennant cites an interview with an American journalist, who told him, ‘you and New Order make this great music, but then you just whine over the top of it’. Depeche Mode whine in much the same way, and yet are much more popular around the world. I wonder why this is.

Perhaps the Pet Shop Boys’ lack of physicality is an obstacle to mass worship. Their image is of two men, one of whom seems embarrassed to be there, while the other one seems even more embarrassed to be there. Whereas Dave Gahan is more giving of his whining English flesh: more blood and sweat. Neil Tennant was never one for tattoos.

Since then, there’s been a thousand bands trying to emulate ‘Enjoy The Silence’. Ironic, as that song in itself is DM trying to outdo Cure/Smiths/New Order/PSBs all at once. It’s a template based on other templates.

**

In Lorrie Moore’s introduction to her new book of essays, See What Can Be Done, she quotes a reader who tells her, ‘Your pieces in the New York Review of Books are the only ones I can actually understand’. Moore adds that this was not a compliment. The speaker was really admiring the knotty sophistication of the other writers, and was being patronising to her. But Ms Moore took it as a compliment anyway – which is a very Lorrie Moore thing to do.

Quite a few critics talk of having ‘crushes’ on Ms Moore, or of wanting to be her best friend, without worrying that they too might be thought as condescending. It’s the way she writes: intellectual, yet funny and humble. ‘Quirky’ would be another word: usually thought patronising, but it shouldn’t be. ‘Quirky’ is a slightly tarnished version of ‘ludic’.

I’d be happy to be the token ‘quirky’ guest at a literary festival, say. Better quirky than dreary.

**

Thursday 9th August 2018. To Gay’s The Word to mark the reissue of Smiling in Slow Motion, Derek Jarman’s final volume of diaries. The bookshop appears in the diaries (page 270, in the entry for 30 November 1992), though rather unflatteringly. Jarman rages against the shop for declining to stock Love Bites, a book of sexually explicit photographs by Della Grace (now known as Del LaGrace Volcano). Jarman sympathises with Grace, calling the bookshop ‘the Jesse Helms of Marchmont Street’ and ‘the vinegar dregs of the right-on’. Jesse Helms was a homophobic American politician at the time.

I mention this to Jim MacSweeney, the shop owner, who was there in the early 90s. He tells me that GTW would have been still recovering from the mid-80s raid by HM Customs & Excise, who were looking for anything they could claim was illegally obscene. The shop narrowly escaped closure, and for a few years afterwards they couldn’t take any risks: they were being watched. What gets me is Jarman’s lack of sympathy for both sides, the queer indie shop as much as the queer indie photographer. I like to think he might have changed his mind were he alive today. The shop is still independent and still going strong, even in this age of Amazon, and is still fending off instances of homophobic window-smashing, as recently as this year.

Still, I love that a bookshop is not just stocking but celebrating a book which criticises it. And besides, Jarman was always a difficult figure within the LGBT community. Stonewall and Ian McKellen come in for similar treatment in the diaries. I think many readers today will politely disagree with this side of Jarman, and focus on the more positive and inspirational examples of his life and art. The final words of Smiling in Slow Motion are ‘true love’, after all. And that’s the focus of tonight’s event.

As with the new edition of Modern Nature, the cover depicts the landscape around Jarman’s garden in Dungeness, this time at sunset. It’s interesting that the original books had Jarman himself on the front. His face was his brand – a celebrity of the early 90s. Indeed, the diaries themselves relate people asking him for his autograph (those paper versions of selfies). These days his work takes the focus. One might say his garden is now more Brand Jarman than the films. Certainly the diaries frame his garden as his magnum opus, with the films almost as diversions from the flowers: Edward II, Wittgenstein, Blue.

The new edition has an introduction by Neil Bartlett. Tonight Mr B is at the bookshop to give not just a talk but a tree-planting at the Marchmont Community Garden nearby. I’ve never noticed the garden was there, though I must have walked past it countlessly. It’s in a sliver of land next to the Brunswick Centre, right by Skoob Books and the back of Waitrose. It’s also close to the blue plaque for another gay diarist, Kenneth Williams. Something about the juxtaposition of the concrete Brunswick with this defiant little garden seems fitting for a Jarman tribute.

The tree in question is a little black elder, chosen by Bartlett ‘as it’s hard to kill and has slightly poofy foliage’. The tree is efficiently planted in the north-west corner, with the help of a man from the garden’s management team. Mr Bartlett tops up the hole with a spade and poses for photos: ‘I’m in Princess Margaret mode’.

**

Wednesday 15th August 2018. Irritations over ambiguities in English. When describing the use of Google as a verb, Fowler’s and the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors advise ‘googling’, without capitalising, because you can’t trademark a verb. Hence ‘hoovering’. But the LRB and the Guardian prefer ‘Googling’. This sort of thing keeps me awake at night.

**

Thursday 16th August 2018. I watch some of the new Celebrity Big Brother. The term ‘mystery housemate’ is rather redundant in a house of people whose level of celebrity is already a mystery.

**

Friday 17th August 2018. Reading Jarman’s diaries. My favourite flower name in his Dungeness garden has to be jack-go-to-bed-at-noon (tragopogon pratensis). Closely followed by eggs-and-bacon (lotus corniculatus), which I imagine Jack, a night shift worker, having for breakfast before turning in.

**

Saturday 18th August 2018. Looking for an air-conditioned pub in King’s Cross, I venture into Parcel Yard, the station’s old sorting office. I don’t get far. Three men in football shirts see me, then go into exactly the same kind of homophobic catcalls I’ve had since I was a teenager: kissing noises with their mouths, ‘woo-hoo!’ noises. And not meant kindly. I feel threatened and so leave, though a bleakly positive response occurs to me: ‘Still got it!’

I suppose my catcallers could well have been from out of town, given that the pub was inside King’s Cross Station. As expensive as London is, I still worry that the moment I step outside the M25 I’ll be put straight in a wicker man.

What I would have liked to have done is something like the actions of Nick Hurley, a young man whose anecdote became a popular tweet this month. He had been walking in the streets of Manchester on his way to Pride, and was wearing coloured glitter on his face. A passing driver shouted ‘faggot’ at him. Mr H caught up with the car at the traffic lights, and emptied a tube of glitter through the window.

**
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The Freak Manifesto

Sunday 17 June 2018. Breakfast at Dalston Superstore, my regular Sunday habit. I sit there quietly by myself at one of the tables, usually reading the Sunday Times for the book charts, careful to finish before the lunchtime cabaret performance by a drag queen.

Am currently reading The Sound of Nonsense by Richard Elliott, reviewing it for The Wire. The book makes some fascinating links between the nonsense sound-words used in classic children’s literature, notably by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and the rather more adult nonsense of Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. A 1958 audio version of Alice in Wonderland is singled out for verging on the experimental. It was released on the Argo label, produced by Donald Cleverdon, with a 12-year-old Jane Asher as Alice.

Looking up Mr Cleverdon, I’ve since found out about a BBC Third Programme broadcast he produced in 1951, featuring ‘sequences’ from 1920s experimental literature, as chosen by V. S. Pritchett. There’s excerpts from Ulysses (Joyce), The Apes of God (Wyndham Lewis), The Flower Beneath the Foot (Firbank), Kangaroo (DH Lawrence), and To the Lighthouse (Woolf). I discover that the British Library owns an analogue recording of this. It will only be digitised and made accessible if someone puts in a request. I put in a request.

Also in the nonsense book, Mr Elliott discusses nonsense in music, both experimental and pop. He brings in Ivor Cutler and the Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band, as well as the ‘plunderphonic’ albums of John Oswald. Elliott quotes the Bonzos’ ‘My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe’. I love the section at the end when Vivian Stanshall performs a spoken word ramble. It is a mission statement for misfits; a freak manifesto:

‘Oh, who cares anyway because I do not… So, Norman, if you’re normal, I intend to be a freak for the rest of my life. And I shall baffle you with cabbages and rhinoceroses in the kitchen and incessant quotations from Now We Are Six through the mouthpiece of Lord Snooty’s giant poisoned electric head… So THERE!’

The ‘there’ goes on forever, until the needle lifts off the record.

***

Tuesday 19 June 2018. What to believe in, when one writes? Strive for the perfect sentence? Yes, but also: dare to write a sentence that might be of use, if only to the lonely and the strange.

Strive to be quotable, too. I like how Hamlet is essentially a string of quotations. Alice in Wonderland likewise.

***

Wednesday 20 June 2018. To the Rio to see The Happy Prince, the Rupert Everett film about the last years of Oscar Wilde. Mr Everett writes, acts and directs the whole thing himself: clearly a labour of love.

It’s a neat complement to the Wilde of Stephen Fry, because it uses one of the fairy tales as a metaphor: the Fry film used ‘The Selfish Giant’. Both films have scenes in which Wilde reads the story to his sons.

But whereas Wilde presented a more public, fairly conventional take on Wilde (the sex scenes notwithstanding), Everett’s is much more personal, and more queer. His Wilde is a broken, complicated man at the mercy of his feelings. He is also an aging, single gay man battling an existential crisis, and that is a narrative one still doesn’t see very often. Young angsty gay men are fine (Call Me By Your Name), as are older happy ones with partners, or groups of friends, or poodles. But single, angst-ridden gay men of an older age? One gets the sense that the wider world doesn’t want to know. So this film does not care who cares for it, and that in itself makes it admirable.

Everett’s Bosie is Colin Morgan, who played the young Merlin on TV. With long blond hair he is barely recognisable, and threatens to steal the film. Bosie after the trial: the original toxic boyfriend. Still sexy in a reptilian way, but still destructive. And nice to see Colin Firth as Wilde’s pal Reggie Turner, the actor here helping out his real life friend Everett, all those years after they appeared as floppy-haired schoolboys in Another Country.

Actually, I think Another Country has fallen off the radar somewhat. Maybe in time it will only be known as a poster behind Paul Weller’s head, on the sleeve of the Style Council’s Our Favourite Shop.

**

Thursday 21 June 2018. Finished writing the review for The Wire. Lunch: tagliatelle at Café Deco in Store Street. A cheap, unfashionable café with tables in the basement, usually empty. All the students prefer the trendier Store Street Espresso nearby, or the café in Waterstones Gower Street, the window of which is usually full of pale bearded children, sitting at their pristine Mac laptops, seemingly all day.

One of the recurring subjects taught at university these days is the concept of utopias (and indeed dystopias, like The Handmaid’s Tale). The lack of money aside, student life is a utopia in itself. To sit all day in a Waterstones café, or the huge yet still packed cafe at the British Library, writing endless essays on Margaret Drabble (I imagine). Paradise of a kind. There are whispers of mythical things called offices, but no one here has ever seen one.

**

To the London College of Fashion, off Oxford Circus, to join the library there, part of the University of Arts. I think I have about twenty library cards now. And yet there’s still books which I do need to consult, which can only be found in one library. In this case, an admittedly obscure collection of essays on Sontag and camp.

**

Bump into Ben Moor in the basement café of Waterstones Tottenham Court Road – another little utopian cafe, with lots of tables. He asks if I am going to any of the many festivals this summer. No is the answer, really. I had a good time as a hanger-on at the Stoke Newington Lit Fest a few weeks ago. It taught me that I was fine with festivals as long as they’re in London (and a lot are).

The thing is, so many live events are recorded or podcasted now (Glastonbury on the BBC for instance). It doesn’t seem worth the inconvenience and expense purely to be in someone else’s audience. And indeed, I’d probably be envious of seeing all the other people who were booked instead of me, and be reminded of my own lack of bookings.

This isn’t vanity entirely. At one festival I went to, some young people came up to me to ask what time I was on. They didn’t know who I was: they just assumed that someone who looks like me must be a performer or a presenter. Given I hadn’t been booked, this was both flattering and depressing.

Still, there do seem to be more events than ever. And Grayson Perry can’t appear at all of them.

I really need to get some new work out, if only so it gives me a reason to appear at events.

**

Friday 22 June 2018. Cheap fish & chips at Birkbeck canteen (5th floor, overlooking RADA). Someone unkind has installed a flat-screen TV in the corner of the college canteen, tuned permanently to the coverage of the World Cup. This evening I’m the only customer in the canteen: the exams are over, and the summer term is nearly at an end. But the football burbles on in the background. If Gareth Southgate falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear him, does he still make a sound? In this instance, sadly for me, he does.

**

I read McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, prompted by the film coming out (which I’ve yet to see). The repressed sexuality theme is laid on so heavily, to the point where I laugh aloud. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be funny.

It’s an elongated short story, really, in the same tradition as ‘Cat Person’ more recently. The familiar narrative of the bad date. Mr McEwan tops up what is essentially a short story by adding details of the backstory of each character, and then gives us a look into the future at the end, though only for the young man. It’s odd that he denies the reader the girl’s later perspective. Still, McEwan’s clear, cold style is perfect for portraying a very English kind of awkwardness.

I contrast this by watching Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up show Nanette, hosted online by Netflix. The show has become a word-of-mouth hit – indeed, it had already won awards as a stage act. Her Netflix performance was filmed at the Sydney Opera House, no less.

I was aware of Ms Gadsby before. Like many comedians, her act involved jokes about the way she appears: in her case, a butch-looking lesbian with an Australian-sounding accent – Tasmanian, in fact. But on this occasion she takes the comedy into a questioning of the form itself. What is comedy for?

It’s something which only Stewart Lee is really doing at a high profile level, though Ms G adds a twist of female, gay anger. Why, she asks, she should have to play the self-mocking card, given that, as Quentin Crisp would say, she’s already at the mercy of the world?  We learn that in Tasmania homosexuality was only legalised in the late 1990s. How easy it is to forget that the way things are in the UK are not the way things are everywhere, even in English-speaking countries.

What impresses chiefly is Ms Gadsby’s seamless shifting from jokes to politics to memoir to angry rant, and back again. And art history too: ‘Picasso wanted to paint a woman from every perspective at once – except the perspective of a woman’.

She’s meant to be giving up comedy after this, as proof of her frustration with the medium. I wonder if she’ll move into some sort of essay-cum-documentary form. Jonathan Meades and Adam Curtis do it, so why not her?

My landlady is away, so I’m feeding Fergus, her pet albino rat. He eats little specialist biscuits, though he prefers to grab each biscuit and scurry under his layers of blankets to eat it, out of sight. I know the feeling.

**

Monday 25 June 2018. Mum’s birthday. We spend the day in London together. I show her the London Library, though she finds the stacks with the cast iron grills set off her vertigo. If one looks down from the top floor, one can see the four or five floors of shelving beneath one’s feet. There’s no question of falling, unless one is a small wingless insect. But the awareness of stepping over so much raw vertical space is enough for Mum. Thankfully, there’s other sections, such as the rolling stacks in the basement, with their treasure trove of old journals and magazines.

Then to Mildred’s in Lexington Street in Soho, which it turns out is best visited at 2pm onwards: no queues. Then to the NPG for the BP portrait show, where we agree on the best effort: A portrait of two female painters by Ania Hobson. Two tough-looking women are shown sitting on a sofa, painted at such an unusual angle that one of the women’s high-heeled boots dominates the frame.

**

Tuesday 3 July 2018. Another hot day in a library, working away on the PhD. Except today I make a trip to Oxford to join the Bodleian. So another library card. ‘Yours is more powerful than the standard Oxford undergraduate’s card’, says the nice lady in Admissions. ‘Oxford is your oyster’.

Except that I only want to access the one item: Alan Hollinghurst’s M.Litt thesis, on Firbank, Forster and LP Hartley. Written 1979. Despite the feeling that everything old is now available online, there’s still documents like this which have never been digitised – I think AH might have specified this. So the only way to read the thing is to make to the trip in person to the David Reading Room, high up on the fifth floor of the Weston Library, the shiny modern part of the Bodleian.

I have to hand over my reader’s ticket when collecting the thesis. I also have to sign my name on a sort of visitor’s book slip, which is attached to the flyleaf. All the previous borrowers are listed on older layers of slips underneath. It’s like the old date stamps on a library book, but with the added benefit of seeing the names of the borrowers too. A palimpsest effect. The history of an object. Handled by all these other people since 1980.

I recognise the names of some of the previous users, because they’ve written articles about Firbank or Hollinghurst: Allan Johnson, Richard Canning, Paul Vlitos, Emily Horton, Joseph Bristow. And there’s my friend and fellow indie musician turned scholar, Martin Wallace. And now, today, I add my name to the list.

The thesis is an A4 black hardback, made of typewritten pages with the odd handwritten correction. Hollinghurst is full of praise for Brigid Brophy’s Prancing Novelist (1973). He also writes that Firbank’s campness ‘dissolves’ any sense of moral judgement, due to its inspiration by ‘the suzerainty of the libido’.

(‘If you knew suzerainty of the libido like I knew suzerainty of the libido….’)

I break for lunch at the pub opposite, the King’s Arms, which I think I’ve been to before, with Oxford friends, decades ago. The football is on the screens.

Barman: You looking forward to the match?

Me: Not really. Football is… awful.

Actually, I don’t say that. I just like the idea of doing so. But the ‘Three Lions’ song from 1996 is now everywhere, so no one can blame me.

Perhaps ‘Three Lions’ is the true legacy of Britpop. Yet it’s not even a World Cup song: it’s a European Cup song. According to David Baddiel, the ‘football’s coming home’ phrase was originally a reference to England’s hosting of the Euro 96 tournament, which makes more sense.

But oh, how one hears it now, yelled in that guttural, frightening, tribal manner.

Football’s coming home?

Coming?

I’m at home, and I’ve never heard the end of it.

Still, as with the royal wedding, one mustn’t begrudge the joy of others. What gets me far more excited is the discovery at Ryman’s that Bic are now selling their fine-tipped biros in packs of four.

**

Saturday 7 July 2018. I walk through Tavistock Square, past the little plaque marking the explosion of the bus on 7/7. Today is the 13th anniversary. There’s fresh bouquets: one from a family to a lost daughter.

England are in the World Cup quarter finals, and the big Pride march is on too. I don’t go, but I enjoy the surge on the tube of sparkly boys. My landlady is in the march, which reminds me of something Quentin Crisp says in his one man show, on stage in New York in the late 1970s: ‘The other day my landlady got into the wrong march. That’ll give you an idea of what’s going on there’.

In the British Library I consult the 1929 five-volume set of Firbank’s collected works. Osbert Sitwell provides an introductory essay in the first volume, calling RF’s books ‘the product of the war … more truly than any others in the English language’. Really? More so than Wilfred Owen?

For one artist to champion another involves a degree of vanity. Nothing delights a film critic more than seeing their review quoted on a poster. It makes them feel like they matter after all.

Still, it is true that WW1 forced Firbank into taking writing seriously. I like the idea of the spirit of English camp fiction passing from Saki into Firbank the moment HH Munro was shot dead in the trenches. (Not quite: Munro died in 1916; Firbank’s Vainglory came out in 1915).

**

I’m writing this in Café Route, Dalston Square. The young man next to me on this window bench has just left and been replaced by someone looking exactly the same. Shorts, t-shirt, backpack, laptop, quiff hairdo.

**

Wednesday 11 July 2018. To Gordon Square for a meeting with my PhD supervisor. This marks the end of my first year as a PhD student. Dr B is more or less happy with my work so far, and gives me plenty of suggestions as to which paths to go down next. My plan is now to get the second chapter finished by the end of September: 15,000 words, of which I already have written 10,000. All being well, I should then have enough material for the ‘upgrade’ to proper PhD status in my second year, which for a part-timer is quite speedy.

I work in the London Library till 8pm, then take the tube home. The World Cup semi-final with England is taking place this evening. The current manager, Gareth Southgate, is known for wearing a waistcoat with suit trousers. On him it’s admittedly quite stylish, but now the media and the fans have all gone a bit silly and started promoting this look as a sign of fandom. Football ‘cosplay’, I suppose. So today I have to ensure I do not wear a waistcoat, for fear of being engaged in a conversation about football.

Despite the increase in the amount of women football fans, there’s still a clear gender bias among those who are defiantly indifferent. This is evidenced by my tube journey home. Most of the other passengers around me are women. It’s the same as I walk past restaurant windows: a sudden awareness of women dining with other women. All the men have gone away. It’s like being in Y: The Last Man.

At home I check Twitter to learn that England have lost. I am sad about this, but the silver lining is that the song ‘Three Lions’ is instantly redundant. People in pubs are instead singing the Monty Python song ‘Always Look On the Bright Side of Life’, from Life of Brian, a film that criticises crowds acting in mindless unison.

To stop myself getting too grumpy, I think of the many intellectual and artistic treatments of the game that I do like, such as the novels of David Peace, or the Tom Stoppard play Professional Foul.

There is an anecdote on Ronald Firbank and football, as told by Vyvyan Holland in 1929:

‘Firbank never played games, though he occasionally appeared in the costume of sport, apparently returning from some strenuous and probably purely imaginary form of exercise. Seeing him once clad in a sweater and football shorts, I asked him what on earth he had been doing. ‘Oh, football,’ he replied. ‘Rugger or Soccer?’ ‘Oh, I don’t remember’ – and a laugh. ‘Well, was the ball round or egg-shaped?’ ‘Oh! I was never near enough to it to see that!’

(from Ronald Firbank: A Memoir, ed. by I.  K. Fletcher, 1930).

**
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Everybody Loves Raymond

Thursday 17th May 2018. To the Birkbeck Cinema in Gordon Square for an evening of archive documentaries, all on the subject of Raymond Williams. The co-organiser, Colm McAuliffe, is in the same PhD group as myself. He had wanted to call tonight’s event ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’, but someone had advised him that this would be frivolous. He mentions this anecdote in his spoken introduction, thus getting mileage out of the joke after all.

The documentaries in question are Border Country from 1972, and The Country and The City from 1979. The latter was made to tie in with Mr Williams’s book of the same name. The book is a set text at Birkback: I consulted it when writing an essay about London.

Both these films feature Williams wandering around the landscape of England and Wales, on the 1970s. He walks and talks to the camera, and often smokes a pipe while doing so. Sometimes he uses the pipe as a means of punctuation, finishing his sentence, then inserting the pipe into his mouth and walking off into the distance. A fluid, natural movement to him, but one which these days would be rare. Williams’s pipe is his prosthetic, much as smartphones are prosthetics today. People regard them as part of their own body. My fellow student Simon King tells me of the verb ‘to lunt’, meaning to walk while smoking a pipe. The OED regards this meaning as too obscure, though, and only allows ‘lunt’ to mean ‘to smoke a pipe’ full stop, regardless of any auxiliary behaviour.

Finally there’s a screening of a 1980s TV studio discussion, made just after Williams’s death. Possibly BBC2, late night. Or Channel 4, from the time when Channel 4 catered for intellectuals. Terry Eagleton, Stuart Hall and others sit apart from each other in a circle, in an overly lit red-draped TV studio, with a mysterious vase of lilies in the middle. It is the Open University as directed by David Lynch.

Williams’s book ‘Keywords’ is mentioned as one of those life-changing, mind-improving books people buy to press into the hands of others. After the films, there’s a panel discussion, and the question arises about where a discussion like the 1980s one might be found today: it seems too highbrow even for BBC4. I’d say possibly a segment in Newsnight, though these days the guests would have been booked purely with a hope to getting a shouting match, and so produce a clickbait clip to pass around on the internet.

Afterwards, some of us repair to a pub in Marston Street, an unpretentious one of the kind that still exists in London. It is covered in union jacks and bunting, with lots of images of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle looking like their own Madame Tussaud’s dummies.

**

Friday 18 May 2018. Working on the paper for the Work in Progress conference at Birkbeck.

A current irritant: the backpack. Perfectly acceptable in its place, such as on the cover of a book by Patrick Leigh Fermor. But today’s backpackers are not walking across Europe, or even going to a rock festival. They are merely going to work. The backpack has replaced the briefcase. On the tube, every day is Glastonbury Day.

These things are ugly enough, but the imposture extends when the backpacker gets into a congested tube carriage or a lift, like the ones at Russell Square that I endure every day. Soon, without realising it, the backpack is pushing into the face of a stranger. More considerate wearers take their backpack off, holding the things in front of them until there is more space to become the human version of a long vehicle once again. I long for this fashion to move on.

**

Saturday 19 May 2018. A British prince and an American divorcee get married, with pleasing historical resonance. I avoid the wedding itself, but glance at some of the reports and photos. Today I’m in the London Library reading Firbank’s The Flower Beneath the Foot, a novel which ends with a royal wedding.

There probably will not be another royal wedding on this scale for another 25 years, so I suppose one must not begrudge the pleasure this one provides for so many. I do find it intriguing how the royal-loving public nevertheless likes some royals much more than others. One of the Duchess of York’s daughters is also marrying in Windsor later in the year, but it is unlikely that there will be quite the same level of public attention. It seems that even people who like royal weddings have taste.

**

Sunday 20 May 2018. I’m thinking about Tom Wolfe, who died this week. His dandyism was a hangover from the New Journalism movement, when American writers were encouraged to look as stylish as their prose. Wolfe, Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Hunter S Thompson, Joan Didion – they all played up to the camera as much as the typewriter. They worked on their brand.

When it comes to beach shorts and Hawaiian shirts, Hunter S Thompson is the exception that proves the rule: only he is allowed to dress like that. Joan Didion’s photographs indicate hours of learning how to pose – usually with a cigarette angled just so.

And so it was with Tom Wolfe. The white suits kept his writing on the radar. I discover now that he was fairly conservative in his politics. This is true of many dandies and white suit wearers;  Trump’s friend Roger Stone is the most notorious example. The left wing look, meanwhile, favours a pipe (Raymond Williams, Tony Benn, Umberto Eco, Harold Wilson). Quite why a pipe should signify socialism is beyond me: the odorous things are incredibly anti-social.

The other lefty look is, of course, the Bob Dylan cap. As favoured by Lenin and, indeed, Lennon. And now, Corbyn. Dylan himself did both looks, exchanging the cap and the denims for Swinging London suits when he went electric. In the process, he adopted if not quite a conservative look, certainly a more camp look (an electric guitar is more camp than an acoustic one). Todd Haynes’s film has Dylan played by a woman at this point (Cate Blanchett), putting a neat spin on the idea of a ‘Judas’.

The trouble is, I’m writing all this while dressed like Jacob Rees-Mogg.

**

Sunday 20 May 2018. I’m going through old computer files, in the process of backing up my data. I’d been meaning to do so since I went to a talk by a British Library archivist. He warned that hard drives can start to degrade after a mere five years. A new external hard drive is pricier than I thought – £45 is the cheapest one at Argos – but the space it gives, 1000GB, makes the computers of one’s youth so laughable. Magazine adverts in the 1980s promising the glories of extra RAM chips of 64k.

**

I find an old review of the first Fosca album. Quite damning. The critic is an Orlando fan who says I went from articulating universal angst (Orlando) to peddling idiosyncratic misanthropy (Fosca). The truth is that these were not phases but facets. The idea that people are monolithic has never found favour with me. People are complicated, but this does not fit with the instinct to judge someone as one thing only.

Still, no review lasts like a negative review. The original is not online – I think it was just written for a webzine. It may only exist today on this old digital file I’ve just found. The author may even have forgotten it himself. But years later here I am brooding upon it.

I once saw a documentary on Radiohead’s album OK Computer. It was the most praised album of its time. This was mainly because it came on the heels of Britpop, and everyone was just relieved that bands were now allowed to sound different from Oasis. Yet the singer, Mr Yorke, was shown dwelling morosely on a rare negative review he had come across. It was the only one he believed.

Many people flatter their favourite writers or musicians in an attempt to become their friend. This rarely succeeds. If you really want to make an impact on the mind of your hero, give them a bad review.

**

Wednesday 23 May 2018. To the Rio to see Jeune Femme. French film (obviously), in which a young-ish woman is kicked out of her boyfriend’s Paris flat and has to fend for herself, looking for jobs and accommodation on the way. It burbles along pleasantly in this picaresque, if narcissistic fashion; not so much a story as time spent with a character.

**

Thursday 24 May 2018. To the ICA for ‘Queers Read This’, an evening of queer-related prose and poetry. The ICA theatre space is unchanged since the days of Kathy Acker: the same scuffed black room. I watch Joanna Walsh and Isabel Waidner perform, and I say hi afterwards. There’s a young man in red high heels who’s put out a book on Queer Loneliness. He in turn reads a piece by Olivia Laing, who also put out a book on loneliness. Both people seem well connected, so one presumes they’re not quite so lonely any more. I’d feel lonely myself, having turned up on my own, but Martin Wallace is here, and he keeps me company. We talk about the dilemma of being Morrissey fans, now that the great man has begged his admirers to vote for an anti-Islamic political party, For Britain. I’m just glad I’m not doing any indie music DJ-ing at the moment.

**

Friday 25 May 2018. To 30 Russell Square for a Birkbeck talk about careers after the PhD – specifically ones unrelated to academia. One speaker works for the Ministry of Defence. It sounds well paid, but she admits that her heart is really in academia – and she’s trying to get academic work published alongside that job.

Owen Hatherley is the other speaker: a foppish Birkbeck PhD graduate who has become a respected author, specialising in architecture. He bemoans not making a huge living as a freelance writing – especially now that freelance rates are frozen or are even getting lower.

The pitfalls of writing a non-fiction book, according to Mr H, are that if it’s with a small publisher and it’s not a massive seller, there’s unlikely to be a new edition. So any factual errors in the book are left seemingly unaddressed, shaming the writer down the years.

**

Wednesday 30 May 2018. To Covent Garden Odeon with Jon S to see Avengers: Infinity War. Although I’m not a superhero fan, I find this to be a far more entertaining film than the first Avengers one a few years ago. Here the emphasis is on teasing the audience that the good guys might not win after all – indeed that some favourite characters might die. Except they won’t, of course. This is the true ‘infinity war’: the struggle to convince audiences that an immortal character can die. Immortal as in the way Sherlock Holmes is immortal: he is a creature of infinity too.

Genre heroes are also trademarks and franchises, and any franchise similarly exists in a spirit of infinity. How many branches of Pret A Manger can be enough? If it were down to me, I’d open a chain of cafes called Borges Burgers, plus a chain of Hilbert Hotels.

‘Infinity? Is that old thing still going?’

**

Saturday 2 June 2018. Spend all day in Gordon Square, attending the PhD students’ in-house-only ‘Work in Progress’ conference. This is a laid-back affair. It is organised by students in the upper years and generally intended to get us in the habit of academic life. I am on in the morning, and deliver my paper on Firbank’s monocled publisher, Grant Richards.

Of the other papers, I am intrigued by one presented by the poet Sogol Sur, on ‘The Iranian Queer’. I learn that the language Farsi has genderless pronouns. As progressive as this may sound, it has meant that some Iranian poetry expressing same-sex love has been translated into English with the wrong pronouns, effectively heterosexualising the work.

Helena Esser presents research from her thesis on steampunk, which comes with that very contemporary reference: a Netflix recommendation – the documentary Vintage Tomorrows. I also enjoy Simon King on a psychogeographic walk inspired by Woolf’s Orlando. He quotes the passage where the boy Orlando sits by the oak tree on a hill and is able to see ‘nineteen English counties […] and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty’. This unlikely calculation is, I’d say, an example of the camp tone of the novel: that playful sense of exaggeration.  Camp is not just playing with gender: it is the whole feeling of pumping things up in a knowing way.

Then a couple of talks from Julia Bell, Birkbeck’s top creative writing tutor, and Sophie Jones, a youthful tutor who once taught me in a class on the BA, though neither of us can remember the text in question.

**

Sunday 3 June 2018. Brunch at La Duchesse café on Stoke Newington Church Street, then along the road to pick up a guest pass to the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, courtesy of Travis E. I attend a few events: a performance of Wilfred Owen’s war poems by Penny Rimbaud, which takes place in the atmospheric Old Church. I also go to Travis’s own event with Margaret Willes, discussing John Evelyn’s diaries alongside Pepys, and then diaries in general. They remind me that so many well-known diaries are by gay men: Jarman, Orton, Kenneth Williams, Noel Coward, Keith Vaughan, James Agate, Denton Welch, Alan Bennett. One theory might be the lack of children, though in Orton’s case I was always amazed he found the energy alongside all the sex.

Then to ‘Juke Box Fury’, presented by Richard Boon, in which guests talk about favourite songs. This year the guests are all record sleeve designers. One guest has a t-shirt spoofing John Lennon’s ad: ‘BREXIT IS OVER (if you want it)’. The thing is, I wonder how Lennon himself, who would be in his seventies now, would vote. Given the musical conservatism of his solo work, I can easily see him supporting the Leave vote.

Finally I attend ‘Sex, Love & Monogamy’, a comedy lecture by Rosie Wilby, with a poetry slot by Salena Godden. By this point I’m in a pleasant drunken haze – the sort of light hedonism I haven’t done for a long while.

I speak to Andy Miller off the Backlisted podcast. Then spend time with Sophie Parkin and Tim Wells, repairing to the Mascara Bar in Stamford Hill, which is rather like the Boogaloo. I also spot Suzanne Moore, the recognisable columnist, closely followed by Thurston Moore, the even more recognisable rock musician. There’s a Half Man Half Biscuit song in there somewhere.

The festival green room is an old reference library, now used as the repository for Hackney Council’s housebound service. They deliver books & audiobooks to the incapacitated – the most used service of its kind in London. For the festival guests there are not only books to read, but also a free prosecco pump. Borges’s quote about paradise being a library acquires a vital detail.

**

Monday 4 June 2018. I call Mum: her hand is out of the plaster cast and she’s gently getting back to normal, via physiotherapy.

I have now watched A Very English Scandal twice and I am still not satisfied.

**

Tuesday 5 June 2018. Breakfast at L’Atelier, a hip café on the Kingsland Road: stripped walls, dangling light fittings, no sign outside, an unbranded bohemian atmosphere, bearded men with small dogs, a row of Mac laptops, buzzing smartphones among the flat whites.

I join the Wellcome Library in Euston, mainly to read Testo Junkie by Paul B. Preciado, though the library has an older edition with the author’s former female name on the cover. At the time of the book’s writing (2008), he was a butch woman taking testosterone as part of a philosophical experiment into gender.

The book is written in a poetic, fragmentary style, with much digression into memoir, theory and history, rather like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Though Nelson’s book was about the partner of a natal female taking testosterone, whereas Preciado’s is from the hormone-taker’s point of view. If The Argonauts is a gateway drug, Testo Junkie is the hard stuff.

**

Wednesday 6 June 2018. To Senate House in Malet Street, to see my mental health counsellor.

Her: What do you think needs to change?

Me: Other people.

**

In Senate House lobby there are lots of security guards standing around. To each side of the central staircase are groups of young people lying on the floor, blocking the way. Some of them are blowing whistles. These turn out to be protestors in ‘Occupy’ mode. I presume it’s to do with the recent protests against the outsourcing of cleaning staff. The protestors let me pass, thankfully. I am sympathetic with their cause, though not to the point of joining them in the dust.

A few days I later I see photographs of a Free Tommy Robinson march becoming mixed up with this year’s Naked Bike Ride. Jokes about arses suggest themselves.

I once thought of going on a march – the cause now forgotten – with a placard saying, ‘MY VIEWS ON THIS ISSUE ARE FAR TOO NUANCED FOR ONE PLACARD’.

The only proper protest march I’ve ever been on was an Anti-Nazi rally in the early 90s. I remember having whistles blown in my ear, and feeling utterly out of place. It felt – perhaps unfairly – that protest was a social pastime first, and a means of change second. It felt like you had to enjoy crowds to do them; all shouting and chanting and the joy of being the one among the many – a joy which I do not share. Perhaps I lack the Mass Protest Gene, in the same way that I lack the Glastonbury Gene. I feel awkward and unsafe in a crowd. As Quentin Crisp said, there is danger in numbers.

Dandyism is the only solution: recognizing one’s failure to join the crowd, then turning this into an identity. A protest march made up of one person. And a dandy can still vote, and sign petitions, and raise awareness.

**

Thursday 7 June 2018. To Hackney Picturehouse with Shanti to see My Friend Dahmer. Followed by a delicious meal at Mildred’s in Dalston Square, the trendy chain of vegetarian restaurants. The film is well made, if fairly standard arthouse fare: a character study of a mixed up teenager as he tries to make friends at school. Rather close to home, the murders aside.

**

Friday 8 June 2018. To the exhibition at the Peltz Gallery, Transitional States, followed by a talk with one of the artists, Raju Rage, plus a woman who’s doing a PhD on the work of Paul B. Preciado. I now realise that Preciado must have changed their name and gender identity halfway through this lady’s PhD, which must surely have had an effect on her thesis. With a PhD, as opposed to an MA, one is very much at the mercy of one’s subject, and a living subject is a moving target.

**

Monday 11 June 2018. To Gordon Square for my annual ‘monitoring’ interview, to check on my progress as a doctoral student. This is conducted by a third party tutor, Dr Caroline Edwards, rather than one of my supervisors. It all seems to go well. The failed bid for funding aside, I’ve had a fairly good first year on the PhD. Four papers accepted at conferences, plus at least 27,000 words written for the PhD itself. The trick now is, as Dr E says, to keep up the momentum.

**

Wednesday 13 June 2018. Evening: to Gordon Square at the invite of my old MA tutor, Grace Halden. I am one of four PhD students addressing a class of MA students, telling them about my experiences of doing a thesis. Grace encourages me to be honest, so I talk about the idea of worth: how the lack of funding has made me brood on thoughts of my research having no worth, and that this in turn can make me feel that I have no worth as a human being full stop. This is not a rare emotion, though, and a few of the other speakers are equally gloomy about their financial prospects. This society puts so much emphasis on, as Wilde said, ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’.

It’s good to be reminded that Wilde himself saw particular ‘value’ in that quote, using it in both Dorian Gray and Lady Windermere’s Fan. In Lady Windermere (Act 3, said by Lord Darlington) it’s about the definition of a cynic. In Dorian, Lord Henry says ‘Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing’ (Chapter 3 of the 1890 magazine version, Chapter 4 of the 1891 novel version). I rather think it’s the Dorian version that applies at the moment.

Thankfully, I’m not quite as energised about this as I was a few months ago. I now focus on what I alone recognise as ‘worth’, and try to take faith from that – the Van Gogh approach, I suppose. Plus I acknowledge the worth of the fee waiver, and the unpriceable worth of my supervisor.

I still struggle with the fact that I am essentially doing an unpaid internship – for myself. But the positive spin is that this is still preferable to doing an unpaid internship for someone else.

**

Thursday 14th June 2018. I meet up with Sarah K Marr for a drink in Bloomsbury. Have just finished reading her debut novel, All the Perverse Angels. The book jumps between a contemporary narrative and a Victorian one, via diaries and letters. There is a main theme of lesbian romance, though the twentieth century protagonist’s sexuality is entirely matter-of-fact: her more pressing stigma is her mental health. She sees the world, and events and emotions and memories, first as colours, and then more specifically as known paintings. As she is the main narrator, the reader is forced to share her strange, unreliable, dream-like perspective.

The story gets going when she finds a Victorian painting in the attic of a Cotswold cottage. It’s a Pre-Raphaelite-style retelling of the Iphis and Ianthe myth from Ovid – which reminds me of Ali Smith’s similarly Sapphic version of the myth from a few years ago, Girl Meets Boy. Because of the heavy use of paintings as part of a homosexual narrative, I thought of the tradition of ekphrasis (the rendering of paintings into prose) as a queer literary device. Ekphrasis can reclaim the default framing of the world: a queer eye for the queer guy. The best example is Dorian Gray, but Wilde does it again in his short story The Portrait of Mr W. H.  Hollinghurst’s latest, The Sparsholt Affair, updates the tradition by comparing it to the present world of Tumblr and Grindr.

All the Perverse Angels is an example of lesbian ekphrasis: women falling in love with women in paintings, driven by curiosity mingled with desire and a need for self-projection. It’s closer to The Portrait of Mr W. H. than Dorian Gray, in that there’s also a puzzle to be solved. I was reminded of how much I like the genre of historical mysteries – if it’s done well. It’s a genre lately belittled by the trashy Mr Dan Brown and his imitators. A better example is Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time. The theme of dream-like crushes between girls in historical settings also evokes Charlotte Sometimes and Picnic at Hanging Rock.

The World Cup has begun, and it’s hard to find a single pub which isn’t commandeered by visible groups of Blokes suddenly appearing everywhere. Blokes with a capital ‘B’, with their endless reserved tables in front of TV screens. I spend my life going to classes on gender theory, queer theory, feminist issues and transgender issues, and somehow expect everyone else to be doing the same. So it’s a shock to me that there’s still men like this around today – it’s like finding out that Page 3 of the Sun is still going.

Or perhaps these men are really historians dressing up in tribute to the way men used to be, like the Sealed Knot Society (is there a society for reconstructing Civil War reconstructions? A Sealed Knot Society Society?)

I want to stand on a pub table and shout to these men, ‘But where do you stand on Judith Butler’s theory of gender as performativity?’ (Answer: ‘It’s a bit gassy’)

**

Friday 15 June 2018. Favourite films change behind your back. On re-watching Withnail & I, I find myself siding with the old ladies in the tearoom.

**
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Art Deco for Dyslexics

Tuesday 1st May 2018. Worked on Chapter 1 of the doctorate. Treated myself to Lorrie Moore’s book of essays, See What Can Be Done. The title is from Bob Silver, her commissioning editor at the New York Review of Books. He would send her a book to write about, and his accompanying note would end with the phrase, ‘See what can be done’. It’s a good motto full stop.

**

Wednesday 2nd May 2018. I haven’t owned a television for years. I have a desktop PC which accesses the house wifi (included in the rent), and it can play DVDs and CDs too. Plus there’s the Rio cinema across the road. Sometimes I subscribe to Netflix or NOW, where the video streaming is perfect quality. That’s more than enough entertainment. Who needs television?

One feels overstuffed with culture. And yet there’s still books which one wants to read but which seem to be unavailable, even to British libraries. James McCourt’s Time Regained is one.

For a mad moment I nearly went to see the new Avengers film. But then I remembered that I’ve not seen most of the others in the series, and more to the point the ones I saw I didn’t much care for. I don’t like superhero films, unless they have the self-contained stylistic approach of the Nolan Batman trilogy. The Marvel films are more about building up a whole universe, then getting as many people as possible to commit to it. I have enough trouble comprehending the universe I’m already in.

**

Thursday 3rd May 2018. To Colvestone Primary School, transformed into a polling station for today’s local elections. The school is behind Ridley Road market; Pevsner has it listed as built in 1862. I think of how my mother once taught at a school in Dalston in the 1960s, though not this one.

The school has a series of overtly triangular roofs, like blocky Toytown pyramids. Or as Mr P says, ‘unusually florid Gothic’.

I wonder about the emotion of voting after moving house. New possession, new legitimacy.  ‘It’s my first time’, I tell the people at the trestle tables, in the room with the booths. They are not impressed with this information, and find it no trouble to refrain from bursting into applause.

One card is to elect two councillors to represent the ward of Dalston, within the wider area of Hackney. The other is to elect a Hackney Mayor. I vote Green in all three, and give my second preference vote for Mayor to Vernon Williams, an independent candidate.

Hackney is a Labour stronghold, with Diane Abbot the local MP. Today, Labour triumph on the council, while Labour’s Philip Glanville is re-elected as Mayor. I note that he is married to another man, an American. This might still be controversial in a Prime Minister, or a President, but it raises no eyebrows on the Kingsland Road.

In Dalston, the difference between the two winning Labour candidates and the Green who made 3rd place was a mere 21 votes. It is nice that I have moved to a ward where the Greens are properly electable.

Evening: To Birkbeck in Gordon Square. Over the next two weeks all the students in my PhD ‘cohort’ have to give a ten minute presentation about their thesis, by way of a status report. I link my study of Firbank – the first artist to be called camp – to the rise of camp in politics (Trump, Boris Johnson, Putin riding a horse topless). I also highlight Zadie Smith’s article on Mark Bradford in her book Feel Free, which has the idea of camp as a strategy by black American slaves to mock power, in the form of a dance. I now think she means the cakewalk rather than the shim-sham. There’s quite a lot of scholarship on the cakewalk in this respect (eg in Moe Meyer’s Poetics and Politics of Camp).

**

Friday 4th May 2018. Read Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask. This is a 1990s book with a cult following, yet is currently hard to get. Something of a niche genre: a lesbian detective tale, set in contemporary Australia and told entirely in verse. The form and setting is unusual, and keeps me intrigued for a while. But once the novelty wears off, I’m just left with a straightforward murder mystery. I think studying literature with a capital L has made me intolerant of genre. Whether it’s crime, or sci-fi, or horror. Genre has to tick boxes. I find reading a genre novel is like banging my head on the ceiling. Though I may just be reading the wrong books. One could argue that literary fiction has to consciously avoid the trappings of genre, and that is a kind of box-ticking too. Indeed, modernism has certain boxes to tick, as does modern art. Not doing something is still doing something.

**

Saturday 5th May 2018. I’ve calculated that I’ve written 33,430 words of the PhD, including footnotes. This is ahead of my target, which is cheering. A PhD tends to be about 80,000. In theory, I could finish it in three years. We shall see.

**

Sunday 6th May 2018. I watch a documentary on Netflix, Get Me Roger Stone. Mr Stone is an American political advisor who tends to work for Republican Presidential candidates. His experience dates back to working for Richard Nixon as a teenager. Now in his sixties, Stone played a major part in the Trump campaign. His speciality is ‘dirty tricks’: spreading damaging information about opponents and rivals. What interests me is that Mr Stone favours a flamboyant dandyish image: white suits especially. Less usual is that he also goes in for tattoos and bodybuilding. On his back is a tattoo of Nixon’s face. He gets it out at the slightest invitation.

If Trump is naïve camp, Stone is gangster camp. He takes pleasure in being thought ruthless. I recall how Mr Blair thought of himself as a good person, even during Iraq. Is it better to style oneself as a good man with blind spots, or a bad man with self-awareness? Either is arrogance. What has happened with Trump is that impulsive arrogance has proved more appealing than the anodyne blankness of career politicians.

Today, you can push hatred like a drug. Stone says that he believes ‘hate is a more powerful motivator than love’. This is truly depressing. Perhaps it is true of what’s going on right now, but I hope it passes. Better to think of what Burroughs wrote in his last days, despite his love of guns, despite all the violence in his books:

‘Only thing can resolve conflict is love… Pure love. Most natural painkiller what there is.’

**

Monday 7th May 2018. To the Rio to see A Quiet Place, starring Emily Blunt. This turns out to be a sci-fi thriller, albeit made on a small scale and indeed an intensely quiet one. The planet has been ravaged by unkind CGI monsters, again. But the twist here is that this particular army of gooey fiends attack anything that makes a sound, however small. So Emily Blunt and family have to spend the film in a remote farmhouse, trying to make contact with survivors while keeping the Mars branch of the Noise Abatement Society at bay. Conveniently for them, their eldest daughter is deaf, so they all know how to speak in sign language. Conveniently for the audience, the sign language is subtitled. As with reading The Monkey’s Mask, I find an unusual and original style can only go so far. The content is soon revealed as utterly conventional, and that’s not enough.

This should be the credo of any artist, and any writer: you must strive to produce original content in an individual style. You have to have both.

**

Tuesday 8th May 2018. The new home secretary, Sajid Javid, is photographed standing in the street with his legs apart in a ludicrous ‘power pose’. Some minion at Conservative HQ has thought this to be a good idea, because George Osborne and Teresa May were similarly photographed in recent years.

I keep thinking of an image from the era of punk rock. A shot of three young men posing in an alley with their legs spread apart like inverse letter ‘v’s. It is the sleeve to the first album by the Clash.

**

Thursday 10th May 2018. To Birkbeck in Gordon Square. First I have a supervisory meeting about my PhD. Joe B is more or less happy with my first of five chapters, representing 18,000 words of work. He thinks the chapter needs a day or so more to improve one section, but can be then put aside. The next step is to work on the second chapter, submitting half of it at the end of June.

Then to the Keynes Library for the rest of the class presentations. I did mine the week before, so I can now take it easy and just be the supportive audience.

Finally there’s a lecture on contemporary sci-fi by Chris Pak. His authors include Cory Doctorow and Kim Stanley Robinson. Drinks on Marchmont Street afterwards, followed by a late night bar in Somers Town. An unusual evening of extended drinking and socialising for me. It’s the kind I used to do all the time, but which these days requires two days to recover. At home I tipsily flirt online with TH in New York, who’s also in a bar, and that helps.

**

Saturday 12th May 2018. To the ICA to see a French film, The Wild Boys, aka Les Garcons Sauvages. Written and directed by Bertrand Mandico. Five schoolboys commit an act of murder and sexual violence, and are sent to a tropical island as punishment, where strange transformations await. I’d read that the film was based on the William Burroughs novel, but it turns out to be an original work. That said, there’s also some business here involving sexualised phallic plants, which appears in Burroughs.

Another connection is Peter Pan. Burroughs thought of a more sexual twist on JM Barrie’s Lost Boys, and this film reminds one of the way Peter Pan is often played by a woman. Here, all the boys are acted by women, in short haircuts, ties and braces.

In Burroughs’s letters to Brion Gysin, he’s not very keen on women: ‘They are a perfect curse. The ‘wild boy’ book is even more anti-female by total omission.’

After the book The Wild Boys was published in the early 70s, Burroughs was in discussion with a film producer with a view to turning the text into an explicit adaptation. But he thought that it was ‘about a world without women. And that’s a difficult subject for a film. No women no trouble no problems.’ This rather overlooks the many films without female characters, explicit or otherwise, which still manage to be stuffed with ‘trouble’. But anyway.

Perhaps a Wild Boys with girls is the only way to out-shock the shocking Mr B. The film has touches of Kathy Acker – who styled herself as a female Burroughs – as well as Angela Carter at her most perverse. It also evokes If…. by shifting from black and white to colour for no reason, other than to enhance the idea of a hermetically sealed dream. Other films that spring to mind are Fassbinder’s Querelle and Lord of the Flies. Especially, Summer Vacation 1999, the Japanese film in which an isolated group of schoolboys are played by young women. Manga comics, too. Perhaps at times the film becomes too French, even for me: there are rather a lot of shots of people smoking cigarettes in that very Serge Gainsbourg way, the angle of the cigarette forever being just so.

I can only find a few English reviews of the film, though one published in Film Comment, by Jonathan Romney, namechecks Ronald Firbank, because of the effect of a bubble-like world created through its own imagery and language. So that was me sold.

Then to Vout-o-Reenee’s for their 4th birthday party. Much pink champagne doled out by Sophie Parkin (who gets a thank you in the Barry Miles biography of William Burroughs, I’ve just noticed.)

The evening has a theme of pink, to denote getting out of the red of debt, but only just. I end up in a conversation about the camp of politicians, arguing that if Amber Rudd was as camp as Boris Johnson, she’d have kept her job. Sontag calls camp ‘instant character’. What else are people like Trump, Johnson, and Rees-Mogg but instant characters?

**

Sunday 13 May 2018. Watch the first episode of Patrick Melrose, the TV adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch. A summer or two ago I read all five of the Edward St Aubyn novels. They’re comfortingly short, with a crisp and witty prose style, though the subject matter is sometimes harrowing, even disturbing.

Mr St Aubyn is dyslexic, as am I. This explains the tightness of his prose: dyslexics often over-compensate in their revising. The downside is that it takes longer to generate prose in the first place. The upside is that one tends to polish one’s words within an inch of their life, the better to detect any errors. In Bad News, the second book which became the episode broadcast tonight, Patrick Melrose comments on his need for carrying an ‘overcoat book’, a paperback of decent literature, slim enough to fit into a coat pocket, though one which he takes forever to actually read. One example he mentions is Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.

The TV adaptation shows off yet another use of the Art Deco lobby of Senate House in Malet Street. In the episode the lobby becomes an upmarket restaurant in New York. In real life, it’s the building where I go for my weekly sessions with a study skills advisor, with view to managing my various problems, such as dyslexia.

**

Monday 14 May 2018. ‘His hilarity was like a scream from a crevasse’ – Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter.

**
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A PhD In Flux

Monday 5th March 2018. In bed for most of the day, laid low with despair and anxiety. Still struggling with a lack of purpose, a lack of money, and a lack of knowing what best to do about it all.

**

Tuesday 6th March 2018. To the Rio for Lady Bird, the Greta Gerwig film. Fairly straightforward coming-of-age fare; funny and poignant. Not a patch on her wonderful Frances Ha, which I went to see twice. But enjoyable enough. There’s an unexpected pleasure in the form of Sondheim songs, performed as part of a school musical. It’s like the secret helpings of Britten one stumbles upon in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.

**

Thursday 8th March 2018. Researching George Barbier, the Art Deco artist and Beardsley collector, whose work is on the cover of the forthcoming Firbank edition from Picador. Despite the 1920s fizzy beauty of his work, books on Barbier aren’t easy to come by. So I make my first visit to the Courtauld library, part of Somerset House on the Strand. The place has a higher ratio than usual of elegantly dressed female students, so balletic and pristine that they seem to have not so much enrolled as floated off the shelves. One or two even wear berets.

I am reading Author Hunting (1934), the second memoir by Grant Richards, publisher of Ronald Firbank. Richards is often painted as the villain in the story, only agreeing to publish Firbank’s strange, experimentally camp novels if the author paid for the production costs out of his own pocket. Brigid Brophy calls Richards a ‘publisher’ in inverted commas throughout her huge book on Firbank, Prancing Novelist. Alan Hollinghurst calls him ‘unscrupulous’. Even the Times obituary, which was written by a friend, said Richards had a ‘recurrent lack of scruple’. I see him as closer to certain indie record bosses: Anthony H Wilson of Factory Records springs to mind. People who are dodgy when it comes to paying their artists or dealing with money full stop (Richards went bankrupt twice). Yet ultimately they’re still fans, allies and enablers of art. Often they are the only ones making the art exist at all.

Richards not only published Firbank when no one else would do so, but also Lord Alfred Douglas’s poems when Wilde was out of prison. Plus all of AE Housman’s poems, and Joyce’s Dubliners, which he somehow fails to mention in his memoirs.

In 1917 Richards took out a regular advert in the Times Literary Supplement, one that was cleverly disguised as an opinion column. He would gossip about life in publishing, plugging his own titles in the process. Today one would called this ‘sponsored content’ or ‘advertorials’. It’s possible that Richards may have invented the idea. These days he would an active tweeter.

**

Monday 12 March 2018. Bad news from Birkbeck: my application for a PhD maintenance grant on the PhD is unsuccessful, for the second year running. This is despite my doing everything I was told to do last year, when I was told I came close to being accepted. I joined extra reading groups, I got accepted at conferences, and I did my best on the MA. In fact, I got the course prize for being the best student on the MA that year. But evidently this still wasn’t enough.

So today I’m demoralized. I drown my sorrows at Mangal 2 with Shanthi and Paul, her partner, before being slightly cheered up by seeing I Tonya across the road at the Rio. The film manages to balance its self-aware moments of camp bitchery with serious ideas about class, domestic abuse, and the pain of public shaming. The scene in front of the mirror is remarkable, with Margot Robbie (the lead) valiantly daubing on her make-up and practicing her smile, all the time fighting back tears. Well, that’s how I feel now, particularly when smiling politely at the Birkbeck tutors I pass in Gordon Square, some of whom would have been behind the decision not to fund me.

On the plus side, I do have five years of the PhD fees paid for by the smaller fee-waiving grant I won last year, so I can’t claim to feel entirely rejected by academia. And my supervisor is attentive and encouraging. And it’s not as if the world of paid work is exactly kicking down my door.

A PhD maintenance grant is 16K – the minimum wage, effectively. The recommended London Living Wage is about £20k. But I’m a cheap date, still fine with renting rooms at the age of 46. I hope I can find it from some alternative funding body, or make it up through smaller amounts. My research is on Firbank and modernist camp, so there might be a LGBT charity out there who could be interested.

Two other options would involve abandoning the PhD altogether:

(1) finding a pre-funded PhD in a similar but different subject – and successfully applying for it; or

(2) finding a full-time paid job which I’m actually suited for. That elusive dream!

Another idea is to start a Patreon page, offering little self-published books of my arts writing, as rewards for the support. Fully annotated and indexed collections of essays, like Woolf’s Common Reader or Waugh’s essay on the Pre-Raphaelites, which his friend had printed up for him at Oxford, and which led to his career proper. This way my research could be made available in a way that would actually remunerate me: professional academic publishing is notoriously underpaid.

The first such book would be called Dorian’s Book, Irene’s Coat. It would feature my essays on The Picture of Dorian Gray and the Sherlock Holmes story, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’. Not quite as niche as Firbank.

**

Friday 16 March 2018. I give a paper on camp, Firbank, and Aubrey Beardsley at a conference on Beardsley, Mary Ward House, Tavistock Place. Unpaid work, of course, though I do enjoy it on this occasion. Go for dinner afterwards with the other speakers, including Kate Hext, scholar on decadence from Exeter University. Talking to others about my funding woes, I get the same sort of answer: academia is so competitive, the arts subjects even more so. My abiding impression is that the system seems designed to put people off rather than attract them. And yet there’s more students than ever.

Kate H’s paper points out how Beardsley is on the cover of Sgt Pepper, and that his prints are mentioned as a girl’s choice of decoration in a Rod Stewart hit, ‘You’re in My Heart’ (1977). Similarly there’s a scene in Carry On Girls (1970 ish) in which Terry Scott is trying to seduce a girl in a fashionable London flat. The walls are covered in Beardsley prints. Two types of camp at the same time, high and low.

Another note from today: with all that black and white art, it’s easy to forget that Beardsley himself had red hair.

**

Thursday 22 March 2018. My former landlady Ms JW tells me that the house in Highgate, where I lived in one bedsit for 23 years, has now been converted back into a single home and sold, to a family with three young children. I think of the ending of the film Exhibition. Ms J adds that during the house’s sixty-year history as a building of rented bedsits, about a hundred people must have lived there.

**

Friday 23 March 2018. A meeting at Gordon Square with my supervisor. Then to the BFI Southbank for a couple of films in the LGBT ‘Flare’ festival: They, a quiet, ethereal study of a trans teenager, and The Carmilla Movie, a colourful, campy spin-off of a low budget web series. Very Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but also very arch in a distinctly queer way. Someone makes a joke: one sign of a lesbian-made film – the credits are full of Jessicas.

**

Saturday 24 March 2018. Still brooding over the funding. I find myself looking up which of my post-war heroes had PhDs, not counting honorary ones. Far fewer than I thought. One who did was Christine Brooke-Rose. She probably wrote her thesis entirely in anagrams.

Susan Sontag taught, but never completed her doctorate, which shocks me. Hollinghurst taught at UCL and had a Master’s from Oxford, but no doctorate. Angela Carter and William Burroughs likewise. See also Will Self and Martin Amis. In her latest book of essays Zadie Smith says modestly that although she teaches a MFA course in New York, she has no MFA herself. She fears she has ‘no real qualifications’ to pronounce on literature. It’s tempting to think Will Self would have made the same statement into a boast.

Birkbeck only let you teach a class once you’ve ‘upgraded’ on the PhD course. This is the halfway point, where you submit a large chunk of your thesis and have it approved as good enough to continue.

I can’t stop thinking about William Burroughs. No PhD, he shot a woman dead, and he still got work as a teacher.

**

Friday 30 March 2018. When researching on a deeper level, checking the sources of the sources, one realises just how many errors there are in scholarly books. Today it’s a recent Penguin Classics introduction. This has quotations from letters which I realise have just been copied out of an old biography. The writer – an academic – hasn’t checked the full original letters. I have, and I can see he’s made a few (minor) mistakes. So that boosts my confidence somewhat.

**

Saturday 31 March 2018. With Mum to Cambridge to see the newly refurbished Kettle’s Yard. My favourite painting is by Christopher Wood, Boy with Cat (1926). I had no previous knowledge of Wood but am delighted to discover his work is very much compatible with my interests: the 1920s, queer bohemian circles and so on. The beautiful, tie-wearing Boy in question is one of the twins that inspired Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles.

**

Sunday 1 April 2018. To the Shakespeare’s Head for Shanthi’s birthday. The pub is in Arlington Way, round the back of Sadler’s Wells. It’s the sort of old fashioned showbiz pub one now rarely finds: walls covered in signed photos of light entertainment stars. Danny La Rue, Kenneth Williams, John Inman, Roy Hudd.

**

Wednesday 4 April 2018. Evidence of the ‘zero hours’ economy. With Shanthi to the Rio for The Square. A satire on the art world, like a kind of Swedish Nathan Barley, with touches of Lindsay Anderson’s Britannia Hospital. Quite original and engrossing, but goes on for too long. So much so that Shanthi loses out on a temping job she had applied for that day. Shanthi says that the only reason she didn’t check her phone for emails was because the film was longer than she’d thought. Her would-be employer expected her to reply at once to the job offer, at 8pm in the evening, or he’d give it to someone else. So that’s what happened. There’s a satirical scene right there.

The same day I say no to appearing on BBC Radio 4. It would have been an unpaid task anyway: a magazine programme about PhD arts students; asking why there are too many, and why it’s hard to get the funding, and so on. I decline partly because I’m still sore about the funding, and might say something that would make things worse. But also because my thoughts on doing a PhD at all are currently in flux.

**

Sunday 8 April 2018. To the Constitution pub in St Pancras Way for Kath G’s birthday. It’s at Debbie Smith’s club, The Nitty Gritty. I chat to Deb Googe, who’s preparing to play with My Bloody Valentine at this year’s Meltdown (as curated by Robert Smith of the Cure). She says she sometimes bumps into her fellow MBV member Bilinda Butcher in the audiences of West End musicals, of all things. Half a Sixpence, An American in Paris, those sort of shows.

I wonder if there should be a MBV jukebox musical, where their distinctive white noise sound is replicated along with the songs. This isn’t so far-fetched: MBV once covered ‘We Have All The Time In The World’, the James Bond song. I can imagine an album: My Bloody Valentine Perform Hits From The Shows.

**

Wednesday 11 April 2018. Hair bleached at the Tony and Guy Academy, New Oxford Street. Only £25, but the risk is that the student may get it wrong. And they do: after nearly 4 hours I come away with a pale reddish-gold colour, darker than the shade I usually have. The student played safe and put too weak a level of peroxide in the mix. But I should be grateful to have such resilient hair full stop.

**

Sunday 15 April 2018. With Jennifer Hodgson, she of the Ann Quin story collection, to Café Oto in Dalston for a gig by The Pastels. Support is by Eva Orleans, a spellbinding Polish performer. The Pastels do ‘Through Your Heart’ and ‘If I Could Tell You’, so that’s me happy. Say hello to Clare Wadd, Jon Slade, Beth and Bobby from Trembling Blue Stars, Paul Kelly, and Debsey. Faces from my past, I suppose, though as I’m still struggling to have a present (by which I mean a career), I don’t feel ready to admit to a past. For me, the present is a foreign country too.

**

Tuesday 17 April 2018. My MA diploma arrives in the mail. I am out when it arrives so have to collect it from a mysterious and barely signposted delivery office, deep among the residential streets of Stamford Hill. As in Golders Green, many of the locals are in Hasidic Jewish apparel: the men and boys in black hats and coats, with beards and side curls. In fact, the same beards are now fashionable with all men in East London.

Fashion is also a faith: the joy of conformity, of taking instructions, and so belonging. It’s fair to say, in my white suit and bleached hair and defiant lack of beard, I stand out even more than usual.

**

Thursday 19 April. To the Royal Festival Hall for Stewart Lee – Content Provider. Ticket: a very reasonable £19. I suppose this is where I feel I do belong, being a Stewart Lee fan. And yet I feel so alienated by the teeming hordes of blokish un-weird men around me, in the identical look of beards, backpacks and shorts, that I nearly go home in the interval. As it is, when Mr Lee does his usual remarks about attracting too many non-fans, this time blaming the Friends of the Southbank Mailing List, he really seems to be right. On the way in I see a group of men consulting a print-out, with one of them saying, ‘So we’re seeing this guy called… Stewart Lee?’. People heckle his anti-Brexit remarks (the heckle being: ‘It was voted for by ORDINARY PEOPLE!). When he goes into one of his extended ramblings, someone shouts ‘Get on with it!’ Would they do so at a Samuel Beckett play?

What I don’t understand is why someone would pay £20 to see an act they have zero knowledge about. Or if, as Mr Lee suggests, they are only there because a friend or partner has dragged them along, why do such ‘friends’ forget about the existence of different tastes?

Though I suppose that’s the lot of many relationships. I once went to see the film of The Hobbit (or one of them). As the lights went down, the man next to me said to his wife: ‘I’ve no idea what this is about’.

He spent most of the film miserably looking at his phone. I wanted to tell his wife, who was clearly the Hobbit Fan in the marriage: ‘If you love someone, set them free’.

**

Friday 20 April 2018. Wrote a book review for The Wire. Margo Jefferson on Michael Jackson. She quotes John Gielgud: ‘Style is knowing what play you’re in’.

**

Sunday 22 April 2018. I delete my Facebook account, taking care to download my photos first.

One reason was the increasingly sinister reports about Mr Zuckerberg and his chums. They’re currently being hauled over the coals for farming out people’s data to third parties. Another was the increasingly cluttered interface, which recalled the last days of MySpace (so much for lessons learned). The posts of friends were becoming hard to find among all the adverts.

A further reason was the way photos from my past were being spontaneously regurgitated by algorithms, to remind me what I was doing this time five years ago, or whenever. I suppose the hoped-for emotion is gratitude (‘Look at me back then!’). But because the memory-jolting is not only unsolicited but performed by a machine, my emotion is closer to horror. I have enough of a problem putting my present into order, without having my memories toyed with by a website.

A further reason still, though, is that I’m just curious to see whether going without Facebook will make me happier, or less happy, or will have no effect whatsoever. There is only one way to find out.

I’m still on Twitter, which at least is easier to navigate.

I also need to get my mailing list up and running again: that’s the way to get information to people.

**

Mon 23 April 2018. Read an article about the fuss over The Simpsons character Apu, and whether or not he has become an outdated racial stereotype. I think of Mickey Rooney’s Japanese character in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and how that became increasingly unwatchable over time. The columnist bemoans how one cannot be a ‘woolly liberal’ anymore: it’s either join in with the accusers, or be labelled as tacitly supporting the sin under discussion. I don’t think things are that extreme, but certainly online there’s a sense of constantly having to take up binary positions. The internet encourages ‘conversation’, but it rarely is an actual conversation. More like an exchange of jerking knees.

**

Thursday 26 April 2018. My MA graduation ceremony, held at the Royal National Hotel in Bedford Way, Bloomsbury. Mum bravely attends, her wrist currently in plaster after a fall last Sunday.

My course prize is announced as I go up to shake hands with the Master of Birkbeck. I also meet up with my fellow ‘study buddy’ students Craig and Hafsa. Last summer we helped each other along on our dissertations, making suggestions for structure and footnotes, and having our own little ‘Shut Up and Write’ sessions. It’s a kind of positive shaming strategy: so much harder to avoid work if you’ve promised to show it to your friends.

**

My former MA tutor Grace H asks me if she can use an excerpt from my dissertation in her class, as an example of ‘outstanding practice’. She says that to show it to the current students ‘would really help their development’. I agree, of course, and feel honoured.

Still not sure if I’m the right sort of person to be a classroom teacher. I can’t do crowd control, so that rules out teaching teens and children. (I could never say, ‘It’s your own time you’re wasting’ without wanting to get into a philosophical discussion). Lectures and talks, certainly. One to one tutoring? Possibly.  But as in the case of my dissertation being used to teach future students, I think I’m best suited to writing things, and putting them out there, and hopefully people getting something out of them. The tricky part, though, is how to do this and get paid.

**

Friday 27 April 2018. To the Tate Britain for the exhibition All Too Human. A rather vague and random theme, to do with London art schools (I think), which somehow connects nude studies with London street scenes. Anything to justify rounding up lots of Bacons and Freuds – those crowd pulling names. Plus a few other British artists of the last century: Jenny Saville supplies a portrait of a big, sweaty, fleshy face. I still can’t stand many of the Freuds, especially the one with the girl strangling the kitten, to the point where I wonder if it’s just the surname that got him his esteem. To be a Freud must certainly open doors, or at least raise eyebrows.

One painting is of Dalston, by Kossoff: Demolition of the Old House, Dalston Junction, Summer 1974. It’s so abstract, though, a bafflement of splodges, that I can’t tell which street is which. Or indeed, which way up the canvas is.

**

Saturday 28 April 2018. In the London Library, working on Chapter 1 of the thesis. Still more research to be done. Always my problem: when to stop looking things up and start turning the notes into prose.

I find myself going down rabbit holes of inquiry, ones which have no reason to ever end. Lately it’s been Angus Wilson, who not only was described as camp before Sontag’s essay, but who also wrote about writing in a camp style himself, in 1963.

Wilson also uses the French word chichi as a synonym for camp. When Proust used chichi in A la recherche, Scott-Moncrieff translated it simply as ‘camp’.  This was the late 1920s: not quite the first appearance of the term in fiction (Robert McAlmon got there in 1923) but still daringly early. It was proof that Scott-Moncrieff was either au fait with queer slang, or (as seems to be the case) he was of that inclination himself.

**

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How I Learned To Love My Inhumanity

I apologise for leaving such a hiatus with the diary. The cause can be ascribed to the usual cocktail of moods: two parts anhedonia to one part general resentment. Lately the majority of my waking hours have been occupied with puzzling, if not to say brooding, over the more unpromising aspects of my situation: aged forty-six, single, living in a rented room, on a PhD course but not teaching (yet), so no wage, no savings, and generally feeling unattached to the world. Actually, I should just be honest and stop that list at ‘aged forty-six’: that’s really the problem. What is a forty-six-year-old? Hard to tell. I don’t think I’m a typical one. At least, I hope not. Best not succumb to the off-the-peg malaise of the midlife crisis. It is better to love one’s own unique version of inhumanity than try to belong to The Commonplace Depression Club.

Here is Mrs Woolf in her diary of 23 July 1927, reporting on her brother-in-law Clive Bell’s midlife whine:

‘My dear Virginia,’ [says Mr Bell], ‘life is over. There’s no good denying it. We’re 45. I’m bored, I’m bored, I’m unspeakably bored. I know my own reactions. I know what I’m going to say. I’m not interested in a thing. Pictures bore me. I take up a book and put it down. No one’s interested in what I think any more.’

A couple of days later, Bell is rather more cheerful. He is boasting about dating a twenty-something actress (his marriage is very much an ‘open’ one). The phrase ‘midlife crisis’ wasn’t around in the 1920s, but the clichés were clearly already in place. Woolf’s thoughts on this episode sum it up: ‘It is all so silly, shallow, and selfish’.

Best get on with things: make things, write things, support the worthy works of others, boycott Amazon (easier to do once one reads about their working conditions), and don’t drop litter. Suicide, like pollution, is just an extreme version of litter-dropping: unfair on those who have to do the clearing up.

**

Friday 8th December 2017. I borrow a first edition of Robert McAlmon’s story collection from 1925, Distinguished Air – Grim Fairy Tales. Only 115 copies; they mostly went to McAlmon’s friends in Paris, including James Joyce and Ezra Pound.  McAlmon is meant to have typed up the last fifty pages of the manuscript of Ulysses.

The ‘fairy tales’ of the subtitle is a pun: these are fictionalised reports of expat gay life in Berlin. Full of gay & drug slang, including ‘queer’, ‘camp’, ‘coked up to the eyeballs’, and ‘gay’ in the homosexual sense. Perhaps even more interesting is ‘One More to Set Her Up’, which appeared in McAlmon’s 1923 collection A Companion Volume. There, ‘camp’ is used to described the flamboyant behaviour of a heavy-drinking heterosexual woman, albeit one who hangs out with gay men.

***

Tuesday 12 December 2017. Sending Christmas cards. I still enjoy doing this, but suspect that many of the recipients do not care either way. That old insult – ‘they’re no longer on my Christmas list’ – is now an anachronism.

***

Thursday 14 December 2017. I read ‘Cat Person’, a short story published in the New Yorker which has gone ‘viral’ on social media. It’s a contemporary tale: a young US student dates an older man, then breaks off the relationship after an awkward night in bed. The twist is how quickly the jilted man’s feelings turn from heartbroken to hostile via his texts to her, though there’s also an implication that the medium of text messaging itself plays a part. The rise in instant communication means that not getting a reply has a more intense meaning.

I heard from a Birkbeck creative writing tutor that the rise of mobile phones has made contemporary plots more difficult, hence the surge in historical fiction. But modern technology has plenty of scope for plots of its own, just different sorts of plot. An angry character used to require huge amounts of justification. Now all it takes is to have them glance at Twitter.

**

Friday 15th December 2017. To Leeds University for my first giving of a ‘paper’ at an academic conference. The event is ‘New Work in Modernist Studies 2017’, as organised by BAMS, the British Association of Modernist Studies. It’s essentially a gathering of PhD students whose theses involve modernist themes, and each paper is meant to be a ten-minute ‘research position’. I’m on at 10am as part of a panel titled ‘Queering the Modern’. The other papers on offer during the day include Djuna Barnes and Eimear McBride. The exception is the ‘keynote’ speaker Hope Wolf, who gives an excellent ‘plenary’ lecture on her Sussex Modernism exhibition, which I saw. Plus there’s a panel on jobs in academia. The overall message of which is that it’s very hard to get one.

I’m still getting used to the language of conferences. ‘Plenary’ means a kind of summary of the day’s proceedings, while ‘keynote’ means the main speaker of the day – often a person of some accomplishment. I think of the ‘note’ in ‘keynote’ as a pound note, because a keynote speaker is often the only contributor to actually get paid.

I like how Leeds University has a proper ivory tower on its campus – the Parkinson building. The School of English is a nice mirror of Birkbeck’s School of Arts: a row of Victorian terraced houses, knocked through.

I speak in the Alumni Room. On the walls are framed photos of notable former students. One is Richard Hoggart, he of The Uses of Literacy. This is quite expected. Another is Chris Pine, the young American actor who plays Captain Kirk in the recent Star Trek films. This is less expected. It seems Mr Pine was once on some Gatsby-like exchange programme. I wonder if he can do the accent.

**

I devise a new acronym that I find myself using when taking notes in lectures. NYLM. Pronounced ‘nilm’. It stands for No, You’ve Lost Me.

The term can be used as both an adjective and a verb. To wit:

‘What did you think of that lecture?’

‘A bit NYLM in places.’

‘I know what you mean. I started to NYLM-out myself towards the end.’

I stay overnight at the Avenue Hotel in the Harehills district. A mistake. The tiny room may be a mere £25 a night, but the walls are paper thin. A late-night Christmas party is in full swing in the rooms around me. It is Trial By Endless Shouting In Northern Accents. I get little sleep.

**

Saturday 16th December 2017. I spend a day wandering around Leeds, including drinks with Kate H from Derby, whom I met at the conference. She shows me the cosy little Henry Moore Research Library, next to the Leeds Art Gallery. We are the only ones there. It’s open to all, but no one seems to know it’s there.

**

Saturday 23rd December 2017. To the ICA to see The Florida Project, an arthouse drama about poverty-stricken children and single mothers who live in pastel-coloured ‘slum’ motels. One of the pleasures of going to the cinema is witnessing the response of strangers. As the closing credits roll, one of my fellow patrons laughs his head off in derision and offers a vocal critique to the room: ‘What f—ing rubbish!’

Another patron down the front, an elderly man with his wife, turns around and addresses this unkind giggler: ‘Why are you laughing? It’s a tragedy!’ He is furious. For one exciting moment it looks like there’s going to a be a shouting match over the merits of the film. The older man’s wife is placatory, however: ‘Look,’ she tells him in the kind of half-whispered tone that hints at a history of similar interventions, ‘different people respond in different ways. No need to get upset.’ As we’re leaving, she asks some of the other cinemagoers what they thought, in the hope of recruiting support for her husband.

She doesn’t get to me, but I’m irritatingly half-and-half on this one. The Florida Project definitely lays on some sentimental manipulation with a trowel, with much dwelling on real tears shed by real children. But then Dickens went for this effect, and so did those Depression-era American movies which are clearly an influence, films where sooty-faced, cap-wearing urchins get up to No Good in New York slums. Whether The Florida Project oversteps its mark is really down to the onlooker’s taste. In fact, tonight’s elderly defendant shares the majority view of the critics, so I hope he discovers this and takes solace. It is the loud scoffer who is in the minority. But I can see both sides: the script has moral problems, but visually, with its rich sense of life in the environs of Disney World, the film is memorable and original.

**

25th December 2017. Christmas with Mum in Suffolk, just the two of us.

**

26th December 2017. Boxing Day sees us visit my cousin Olivia at her farmhouse in Layer Marney, Essex. It’s a contemporary note that Olivia is not a farmer but a TV producer. Though she does keep chickens. No one discusses Brexit at the dinner table.

We took a look at the nearby church and the Tudor gatehouse. The church porch has a list of the local electoral roll on a clipboard. Endless dog-walkers.

**

Friday 5th January 2018. To the Barbican with Shanthi to see Brad’s Status. Ben Stiller plays a self-regarding middle class man having a midlife crisis, again. Michael Sheen is very funny as a schoolmate who’s become a Boris Johnson-type figure: barely competent at the top jobs he’s managed to blag, yet his talent at maintaining a popular media profile means that he’ll always get away with murder. When people say ‘nothing succeeds like success’, they really mean nothing succeeds like the appearance of success.

Much is made of the fact that having a house in Sacramento, CA is apparently a sign of social failure. To many British people, having a house in even the dullest part of California would be a success. Partly because of the sunshine, but mostly because even a modest house in America seems exotic, not to say more spacious, to someone in a crumbling semi in Guildford. There’s a good reason why the phrase ‘The American Dream’ is in Western cultural parlance, while ‘The English Dream’ is not. The English Dream is just to make it to the end of the day without being too socially embarrassed.

Brad’s Status has its moments. There’s a scene in which the Ben Stiller character is waiting in an airport for his flight. He looks around at the other men slumped on the benches around him, and mourns at the state of being a fifty-ish man per se: greying boys betrayed by their bodies, defeated blokes, tortoise-like wrecks of humanity taking solace in grizzled beards and puffy anoraks. It’s a sentiment out of Philip Larkin.

**

Thursday 11th January 2018. The transcript of my MA arrives in the post. I can now officially say I have a postgraduate degree from Birkbeck, University of London, being a Master of Arts in Contemporary Literature and Culture, classified with distinction (the MA equivalent of first class). The ceremony is in April.

**

Monday 15th January 2018. To the Rio for Molly’s Game. Usual Aaron Sorkin fare: characters spouting snappy quips at each other. The father, played by Kevin Costner, has a big speech to his offspring at the end. It looks clumsy and formulaic compared to the father’s speech in Call Me By Your Name. Indeed, I thought at first that Molly was hallucinating when she bumped into her father in this scene: it feels that contrived. Still, I like the Sorkin dialogue, which is what one expects, and gets.

**

Tuesday 16th January 2018. My first visit to the National Archives in Kew. A modernist building right by Kew Gardens, which has its own moat. The security is even more diligent than that of the British Library: pencils only, but you’re not allowed to bring your own pencil sharpener.

**

Monday 22nd January 2018. With Shanthi S and Rose B to the Rio for Three Billboards Outside Epping, Missouri. Not up there with the director’s earlier work In Bruges, but the same mix of brutal black comedy, intriguing plot twists, and sudden shocks of violence. The film is essentially idiosyncratic and of its own world, yet it touches on the current feeling of anger over clear cases of injustice. In London, a group of Grenfell Tower activists have hired three vans with electronic screens: ’71 dead’, ‘And still no arrests?’, ‘How come?’.

**

Wednesday 24th January 2018. Mark E Smith dies. I have a vivid memory of decorating the family Christmas tree in December 1988, to the sound of my first Fall album, I Am Kurious Oranj – bought on cassette, probably from Andy’s Records in Ipswich. This was before I started immersing myself more fully in the world of indie music. I had been intrigued by the band’s connection with the Michael Clark ballet at the Edinburgh Festival that year. ‘Festival Ballet Entryism’ – a Fall title in waiting.

I was also fond of the 1991 album Shift-Work, with the unexpectedly Prince-like song ‘Rose’. Side Two is titled ‘Notebooks Out, Plagiarists’.  Mr Smith really was a complete one-off. The world is duller without him.

**

Thursday 25th January 2018. The first anniversary of Tom’s death. His partner Charis holds a gathering at The Star on Hackney Downs, close to where she’s recording with her band, The Curse of Lono. Ewan Bruce also there. Bus back to Dalston with Charis’s drummer friend Billie.

**

Studying literature for six years has made me rather intolerant of clunky prose. The Guardian today runs a news story about Mark E Smith’s death. It is so badly written I start to feel faint. The sub-headline reads: ‘Famously fractious frontman had been suffering from ill health throughout 2017’. The opening paragraphs then include these two sentences, back to back:

Smith famously once said: “If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s The Fall.” He was a famously prolific musician…

Repetition aside, ‘famously’ should be avoided full stop.  Even the Guardian’s style guide asks its writers to decline from using the term. ‘Famous’ is also frowned upon. They point out, rather reasonably:

If something’s famous, you don’t need to tell people; if you need to tell people something’s famous, it isn’t.

Worse still is the assumption that the reader shares the same incurious position. For a man as consistently original as Mr Smith, it seems all the more irksome to mark his death with stale writing.

Another irksome journalistic phrase: ‘The greatest author you’ve never heard of.’ Says who? Everyone’s not heard of someone.

**

Saturday 27th January 2018. To the ICA for a screening of the Armenian arthouse film The Colour of Pomegranates (1969). The screening sells out, and there’s a huge queue to get in. On a Saturday afternoon too. Some people like to go to football matches, and some like to go to a cinema to watch an Armenian art film that’s been available on DVD for years. An encouraging sight for those who worry about attracting an audience. Be as experimental as you like: the good will out.

**

Friday 2nd February 2018. To the Curzon Soho to see The Post. Entertaining enough, in that self-consciously ‘vintage’ way that Spielberg now goes in for. Nixon may as well be a CGI monster. Tom Hanks is refreshingly cast against type, swearing and bullying. The critics have overpraised it, proving that one way of securing good reviews is to portray journalists as heroes. Perhaps for balance it should be seen on a double bill with highlights from the Leveson Inquiry.

**

Saturday 10th February 2018. To Senate House Library to see the exhibition Queer Between The Covers. This is the exhibition that’s related to the conference I’m appearing at in March. The library is displaying a fascinating range of books on the theme of queerness in history, going back to a 1710 account of the Mollies Club. There’s the lyrics to a broadside about the Boulton and Park case in 1871 (the cross-dressing Londoners, whose letters contained the earliest known written appearance of ‘camp’). One grumbles about the saturation of news coverage today, but at least one doesn’t have to endure a strained ditty written about every single event.

In the 1980s section there’s a copy of the book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin (1987). This is the progressive children’s book about a little girl living with two dads. It’s thought to be one of the books that triggered Clause 28, the clumsy Tory law which banned anything that could be construed as ‘promoting’ homosexuality.

What I didn’t realise until today was that (a) the book was originally Danish, which explains a lot, frankly, and (b) it’s entirely told in photographs. While one can’t have sympathy for the reactionaries behind the clause, there is something problematic about using a photographic format for telling stories to small children. I find myself wondering why books for that age range tend to have drawings in the first place. There’s something about the pre-pubescent mind that favours cartoons and drawn illustrations rather than photographs and live-action films. If in doubt, use drawings of talking bears in aprons.

Photographic narratives, on the other hand, suggest the harsher, more teenage emotions of voyeurism, romantic angst, the loss of solipsism, and the cold cruelty of reality itself (‘reality is so unfair!’). It was no wonder that the photo-story became a popular form for teenage magazines like My Guy. I know I’m obsessed with style over content, but I wonder if Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin would have caused the same fuss had it been drawn by, say, Quentin Blake, rather than told in photos.

Presumably in 1980s Denmark the book was thought as groovy and worthy in that relaxed Scandinavian way. To Tory councillors in Britain, at the height of the AIDS panic, it must have looked like a crime scene.

Today, most people in Britain are relaxed about gay parenting, though, paradoxically, they’re more uneasy about the use of children in photographs full stop.

**

Wednesday 14 February 2018. I finish revising my application for one of the in-house PhD scholarships offered by Birkbeck’s School of Arts, and send it off via email. Here’s hoping.

This is my second annual attempt. Last year I was told of the outcome in early April. I was unsuccessful in winning one of the 12 scholarships, though they said I had made it down to the ‘the final 15’. I was offered a fees-only grant instead, which I accepted. This time, I have an MA, and a prize, from the same place that’s awarding the scholarships. I’m currently writing two papers for conferences (both unpaid). This surely has to be good for my chances.

The full scholarship pays a wage as well as the fees. It’s just £16k, but that’s more than many freelance writers manage to earn.  To be finally paid a sustainable wage at the age of forty-six, for doing a form of work I have been told I am objectively good at, and which I enjoy, would mark a huge turning point in my life. Well, we’ll see.

**

Thursday 15 February 2018. No sooner do I submit my application for funding than I come across something I wish I’d included. In Zadie Smith’s new book of essays, Feel Free, there’s a piece (pp. 181-86) on the artist Mark Bradford’s Niagara (2005). This is a video work consisting of a single shot of a young black man walking away from the camera along a tough-looking LA street. Dressed in a tatty vest and bright yellow shorts, the man sways his hips and arms in an ostentatious, self-possessed manner as he moves further into the distance. Mr Bradford’s title is a deliberate reference to the 1953 film Niagara, in which Marilyn Monroe walks away from the camera during a similarly long shot, the swaying movement of her hips being the intended focus.

Zadie Smith’s essay argues that the walk in the Mark Bradford video is an example of camp as ‘the nuclear option of the disenfranchised’. She alludes to the tradition of the slave’s shim-sham dance (or the shimmy), which she calls ‘as camp as any movement on earth’. I later find out that Mr Bradford is himself black and gay, which further contextualises the video.

Best of all is Ms Smith’s definition of camp in this respect: ‘being seen in all your glory, and within the terms of your own self-conception’. Camp is ‘doing more than is necessary with less than you need’ (p. 181). It springs from a lack, an exclusion, a margin.

**

Monday 20th February 2018. I read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, her memoir of becoming a very modern kind of mother. Her partner, Harry Dodge, grew up as female but now lives as a masculine non-binary person, as opposed to  transgender: ‘I’m not going anywhere’, he says.

It’s one of those books that’s been so talked about in certain quarters that reading it feels like joining the moshpit at a carefully-curated music festival. My edition’s cover has quotes from Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein, their names qualified not as musicians but as writers of memoirs themselves. A different edition has a quote from Emma ‘Harry Potter’ Watson on the cover. Publishing is getting more and more like this: before one gets to the text, one is acutely aware of being targeted by the cover blurbs. It’s the effect of algorithms.

The book’s title is based on the Ship of Theseus paradox, which questions if something remains the same when it has its constituent elements replaced. This too has different generational resonances. Maggie Nelson’s references reveal her to be a serious, forty-ish American academic with an interest in queer identity. So there’s lots of nods to Barthes, Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick. When I think about the Argo paradox I think about JJ Abrams’s book S, but also Trigger’s broom in Only Fools and Horses. Talking to a younger British person about this, she says she’s never heard of Only Fools and Horses but does think of the Sugababes, the 2000s pop group whose members were substituted one by one.  So I come away from the Maggie Nelson book thinking it needs more Sugababes and more Del Boy. Perhaps that’s a book I should write.

**

Wednesday 21st February 2018. Tom’s birthday, the second since his death. I keep thinking of the Michael Rosen poem about not wanting people to say if he’s mourning too much or too little.

**

Friday 23rd February 2018. The university union is on strike over pension cuts, and Birkbeck is affected. Some PhD classes have been cancelled as a result. The main library in Torrington Square is open today, but as there’s a fairly persuasive picket line outside, I feel the decent option is to study elsewhere. I look through the glass at a number of students who crossed the picket and wonder at their motivations. Was their need to use the library really that paramount? Are they grudgeful of being denied services they paid for with their fees? Or are they foreign students who feel that morality only applies at home (also known as the Las Vegas effect)? Hard to tell. French students in particular can’t possibly plead ignorance of the concept of strikes.

It’s freezing cold. Outside SOAS the strikers are warming themselves around a proper iron brazier, full of blazing coals. It’s like something out of a documentary on the Miners’ Strike. Certainly, the 1980s’ sense of a nation rigidly divided feels like it’s back. Lots of money swilling around, yet it’s hogged by a small amount of people at the top, who then talk about ‘necessary cuts’.

**

I listen to an interview with the comedian Diane Morgan, as part of Adam Buxton’s podcast. She’s very funny, and quite refreshing with some of her opinions: not seeing the appeal of having children, and not finding the private life of Woody Allen an obstacle to enjoying his films.

Podcasts are now everywhere: I keep seeing people I know getting involved with new ones. They’re often based around interviews or talks. Spoken word content is public domain, thus sidestepping the question of musical royalties. Though it does also mean that a lot of non-BBC podcasts use ugly library music as a theme tune.

Unlike printed interviews, podcasts do away with the arduous transcription process: one just gives the raw audio to the audience. The only problem is, of course, that a huge amount of them are full of people talking over each other, or rambling for too long. Another recent development is the need to have little adverts at the beginning. Russell Brand, who is currently a student at SOAS, now does a serious, academic-level discussion show which is slightly undermined by his having to advertise a condom company at the start.

The term is now out of date, too. ‘Pods’, being iPods, are now on the way out; ‘phonecasts’ would be more accurate.

**

Tuesday 27th February 2018. I’m reading Friends of Promise (1989) by Michael Shelden. It’s the story of Cyril Connelly’s literary magazine Horizon, which ran through the 1940s and featured pretty much all the notable British writers and artists of the day. Waugh’s The Loved One first appeared in its pages. In 1941 a fundraising notice appeared called ‘Begging Bowl’, inspired by the truly desperate situation of one of the writers – Dylan Thomas. Readers were asked to help by sending in extra money to the writers they especially liked:

‘If you particularly enjoy anything in Horizon, send the author a tip. Not more than One Hundred Pounds: that would be bad for his character. Not less than Half-a-Crown: that would be bad for yours. Horizon authors are in our judgement underpaid. By sending them gratuities the readers are forming themselves into a new patron class’ (Shelden p. 81).

It proves that today’s internet donation services, like Patreon, are nothing new.

**

Wednesday 28th February 2018. Heavy snow hits London, strikes are still hitting Birkbeck, but the London Library remains open and cosy.

Ms K the landlady teaches me to turn a dial on the house boiler to a setting that will prevent the pipes from freezing. The setting is a little icon of a snowflake. These days ‘snowflake’ has become slang, defined in the OED as ‘an overly sensitive or easily offended person, or one who believes they are entitled to special treatment on account of their supposedly unique characteristics’. It is hard not to feel that even the central heating is judging me.

Dalston High Street has a modest layer of snow, though the east side of the street, which gets the sun, has already melted dry. Each of the letters in the sign for the Rio Cinema is individually snow-capped. It’s like the logo on the Christmas editions of The Beano.

**

Saturday 3rd March 2018. The rest of the country is still suffering from the weather, with tales of commuters trapped overnight in trains. On Dalston High Street, the snow has melted, but there’s now an unappealing patina of mud-brown slush. One now longs for rain, though just enough to clean the pavements.

**

Begging Bowl. If you enjoy this ad-free diary and its twenty years of archives, please help support it with a donation to the Diary Fund. Not too much: that would be bad for my character. Thank you.

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DE’s New Year Message 2018

Every Christmas I take a photograph of myself in front of a different Christmas tree. This one is the foyer of the Rio cinema, Dalston, 31st December 2017, at about 12.30pm. Thanks to the Rio staff. 

This time last year I wrote about the notion of control. This was partly in relation to the way 2016 had been framed as a year of constant celebrity deaths, with the sense of a cultural landscape winking out into darkness, star by star, faster than the speed of grief. There was also that year’s voting results: it’s hard to think of President Trump and Brexit and not feel that one’s own sense of control was under threat. In London, the editorship of the main local newspaper, the Evening Standard, was given to George Osborne, a politician with little of the necessary experience for running a newspaper, but lots of the right friends. 

Among the deceased of 2016 was the writer Anita Brookner. She once said that she wrote ‘to control rather than be controlled’. Writing (and I include blogging) is therefore one way to feel less overwhelmed by events, if nothing else. So that was the spirit in which I began 2017. Trying to believe that life is more than just being at the mercy of events.

It was just as well. A few weeks into January, my younger brother Tom died, very suddenly and very unexpectedly. A few months on, I was evicted from my home of 23 years.

But although I felt very much at the mercy of events, I was reminded that I was not alone. Tom’s death was made easier by the generous donations to his memorial fund, for which I remain utterly grateful. After getting the eviction news, I found a new rented room quite quickly: a bohemian friend turned landlady got in touch. Further kind friends helped me move in. I have to remember it could have been worse. I didn’t have to get into debt sorting out the many bills relating to Tom’s death, or go through a period of sleeping on floors while looking for a new home. Homelessness is a constant fear of mine: I know I’m the sort of person, mentally speaking, that homelessness happens to. I’ve always hoped that an unusual mind, ideally, might lend itself to producing Exclusive Content, and that I might make a living from such contentBut the flipside is that eccentricity risks becoming a quick route to the sleeping bag on the pavement. So although I felt at the mercy of events in some ways, I felt blessed in others.

I’ve since heard that the Highgate house has been turned back into a single 6-bedroom property, on sale for £2.4 million. Meanwhile I now rent a furnished room in Dalston. Dalston might as well be New York, given the contrast with leafy, safe, monolithic N6 (monolithic in the sense of being not very diverse, as well as having actual stone monoliths in its famous cemetery). One might say Dalston is out of control too, in the sense of being hard to pin down. The district is currently thought hip and trendy for some, yet too gentrified for others, given the rise of its first luxury flats. In local news it would seem not gentrified enough: the summer saw a riot in Kingsland High Street, albeit a very short and contained one. For me Dalston has an uncertain, out of phase, off-the-map feeling, with no single kind of person in charge (yet). And I like that. I think of Burroughs’s idealised Tangier: a busy interzone of all human life, where madness is just a matter of taste. My fears as to looking too unusual were allayed when I saw an effeminate young man walking out of Dalston Junction station wearing glitter make-up, high heels, a floaty dress, and not much else. On a December night too. I think he was just on his way to buy a pint of milk.

So I feel I’ve moved from one London, to a site of Londons, plural. Having the Rio cinema on my doorstep was reason alone to move in: all those other worlds. And the cinema has just installed a second screen. My New Year’s Resolution is to see as many new releases there as possible.

The bulk of my 2017 was spent finishing my postgraduate MA at Birkbeck, namely a course in Contemporary Literature and Culture. That I finished it at all was a quiet miracle. There was a point where I was considering putting off the summer dissertation until the following year, such was my difficulty with things. Several of my fellow students on the BA had done this, dropping out for reasons of ill health, whether mental or physical, but coming back to finish their studies later.

My epiphany of the year was suddenly finding the hidden energy and drive to finish the 16,000 word dissertation on time, even though I’d applied for a 2 week ‘mitigating circumstances’ extension (the mitigation being the usual mix of dyspraxic slowness and depression). I put this partly down to seeing a weekly mental health mentor, as provided by Birkbeck’s disability office, but also down to my joining a ‘study buddies’ group of fellow students. We would meet up and compare accounts of our progress, and generally egg each other on. It turned out that despite all my claims to being an outsider, a light application of community can even sort me out. Not only did I finish on time, I managed to achieve an overall distinction and get the MA course’s ‘student of the year’ prize. By which point I had started a PhD. I may (still) lack money, but I ended a year of loss gaining something after all. All down to the help of others.

I’m wary of making any hopes for the year – though I am trying for a full-time paid PhD scholarship in February. That would obviously be a nice thing to win. Otherwise, I just hope for the unplanned events of life to not be quite so seismic.  But if they are, I have proof I can take them on.


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The Everlasting Carrier

Saturday 4th November 2017. Working in the London Library. Stop for lunch with Amy Prior (now a fellow LL member), at Wright’s in Pall Mall. This used to be Spreads, but the café seems identical under new management.

Evening: to Fontaine’s on the Stoke Newington Road. This is a nice vintage-tinged cocktail bar with clean black walls and portraits of vintage actors on the wall. Tonight I’m irritated by that swell of strangers who insist on having fun on a more aggressive level, purely because it’s a Saturday. Saturday night fun is Competitive Fun. Un-fun fun. Some barn door of a man rams his shoulder into mine as he walks past. I decide I can’t remember how to enjoy myself, so I leave early. The bar lady upstairs is busy making an infinite number of cocktails, shaking and pouring, shaking and pouring again. It looks like incredibly hard work. Tonight I find that fun is too much like hard work too. Really, there are days when all one wants is an early night.

**

Sunday 5th November 2017. Incredibly, some diary readers have taken pity and quietly donated the cost of my getting varifocals. I am delighted about this. However, the process still offers up a few hurdles.

First of all, I ask the assistant at Boots Opticians why their NUS discount applies for new frames, but not for fitting new lenses into current frames. Answer: ‘I don’t make the rules’. John Coltrane she is not.

She also warns me that old frames can snap in the ‘reglazing’ process.  A day letter she phones to say that my beloved old frames have indeed snapped. ‘I did warn you’, she adds, helpfully.

So I get brand new frames after all: slightly trendy, goggle-like ones. The varifocals aspect takes some getting used to: one feels one has to do extra work just in order to see, so that’s me in a bad mood already. I expect spectacles to do the work for me from the off, not offer a little game of ‘find the right bit to look through’. Boots Opticians have promised me they’ll exchange them for separate pairs (distance and reading). If I’m not happy with them after four weeks. Well, we shall see. Or not, as the case may be.

With me, ‘getting used to’ is an unwelcome sensation as it is. I’ve always had a reluctance to embrace new systems. I’ve quit whole jobs purely because the management brought in a new cataloguing system, just when I’d perfected my own funny little way around it (my dyspraxia is probably in the mix too). I’ll wear a pair of shoes until my toes poke out the front, not because of my lack of funds, but because I don’t like the idea of change. But equally, the trouble with the clothes one likes best is that they get worn out. Because they get worn, out.

PhD now at 4000 words.

**

Monday 6th November 2017. I’m reading Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker. Very impressed by Kraus’s level of research, with pages and pages of her sources, and it’s not even a conventional biography. Find myself annoyed at a music error on page 219. Kraus says Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ ‘rose to the top of the UK single’s [sic] charts’. The typo aside, it made Number 2, which is not quite the top. Kraus’s point is that Acker took over from Anderson as a kind of ambassador for the 80s New York art scene.

Kraus also seems to get less interested in her subject as her life goes on. I’d have like to have read more about the work with the band the Mekons, or Acker’s forays into the early 90s scene of electronic literature, when email was just starting to come into use. Instead, Kraus gives the reader the gossip on her sex life, and her money life. We learn how much she had stashed away in a family inheritance (or didn’t), how she owned three homes at one point, and how she bought a flat in Brighton only to ask Neil Gaiman to sell it for her. And then there’s the damning accounts of her fall from literary fashion in the 90s, to the point where she can’t get teaching work in universities, even though her work is being studied.

According to Kraus, one publisher asked a young author of theirs not to get a praiseworthy quote from Acker for his back cover, because she was considered ‘no longer popular’. It’s a reminder that those quotes on books tell you less about the book than they do about the publisher.

**

Wednesday 8th November 2017. PhD at 6000 words. I am on schedule for once. It’s mostly notes, but I’ve taken the advice to try and write in full sentences at all times. That way, the notes can just be fleshed out and edited, and it never feels like Writing, capital ‘W’.

**

Thursday 9th November 2017. The 100th birthday of Firbank’s Caprice, if one goes from the date it went on sale. The London Library has a first edition copy, available to borrow. It’s in excellent condition, though as with clothes this reminds one how seldom Firbank’s books are read. Still, the beautiful Augustus John frontispiece is intact and bright, a whole century later.

**

Friday 10th November 2017. More from Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker. On aging:

‘Before time accelerated, deaths among friends in the art world were like salt to a sting, bringing unresolved feuds to the surface. Now we care less, or are nicer.’ (p. 14).

Elsewhere, Kraus interviews one of Acker’s old schoolmates via text message. Rather brilliantly, Kraus includes the signing-off part from the end of the message:

‘We should talk again. Right now, I have to watch wolf hall!’ [sic] (p. 41).

From Acker’s Pussy, King of the Pirates, quoted by Kraus (p.44): ‘I was strange; I tried to hide my strangeness…’

And from Acker’s own diary: ‘I’m sick of not knowing who I am’.

**

Saturday 11th November 2017. One reason for using the London Library or the British Library over the university libraries is that one can properly hang up one’s coat. In the BL there’s a choice between a manned cloakroom or a row of lockable hangers in the basement. Lockable, because each hanger comes with a suspiciously fetishistic chain (I’m still thinking about Kathy Acker). The idea is that the chain threads through a coat sleeve to be locked to a clasp on the outer frame, thus securing one’s coat. When there are no coats on the hangers, one can run one’s hands along the dangling chains and pretend to be a Cenobite demon from Hellraiser.

By contrast, college libraries in winter resemble refugee centres. Coats, scarves, backpacks and massive wheeled suitcases clutter up the aisles. I have to bundle up my poor coat and shove it unceremoniously onto a window sill.

After my death, I’d like my bones to be made into coat hooks for the users of Birkbeck Library. It would be like Jeremy Bentham’s embalmed body in UCL nearby, but more useful.

**

Sunday 12th November 2017. In the British Library, I find an old book on student grammar, Today and Tradition by Riley Hughes (1960). ‘A cliché is a pre-package word group’ says Riley. ‘It prevents you from examining the object before you, from thinking about it and then describing it accurately. When you use a cliché, your mind is engaged in doing absolutely nothing’. True, but clichés can often give the reader a break.

Another thought: to use a cliché is to plagiarise from everyone in particular.

**

Monday 13th November 2017. More Kathy Acker. Chris Kraus says Acker was more ‘shocking and singular’ in London than she was in New York. This is no surprise. For the British, just being American is shocking enough. ‘You mean you aren’t constantly uneasy in your own skin? What must that be like?’

**

Were it down to me, the new female Doctor Who, who is meant to be hundreds of years old and – we now learn – is able to change gender, would meet Virginia Woolf. Thus the Doctor would give Woolf the idea for Orlando.

**

Tuesday 14th November 2017. An email from Birkbeck: I’ve been selected to receive the MA Contemporary Literature and Culture course prize, for an ‘outstanding performance, as every piece of assessed work fell within the distinction category’.

I’m still awaiting the dissertation mark, but this prize means that it has to be a distinction (first class), and that my overall grade is a distinction too. I couldn’t hope for a better result.

When I finished the BA English in 2015, I received the course’s ‘student of the year’ prize then, too. Now I’ve done the same thing again with the MA.

I’m really hoping this will make a difference when I re-apply for a PhD scholarship next year. In the meantime, I have such a crush on my own mind right now. I may have to stalk it.

I celebrate impulsively, by myself, with a glass of prosecco at the Barbican Cinema Café. It turns out that one of the staff saw my news (I posted it on Facebook). He congratulates me, and lets me into a screening of Paddington 2 for free.

**

Wednesday 15th November 2017. Dinner downstairs in the Dalston house, courtesy my landlady K and guest Charley Stone, our mutual friend. K adds prosecco to celebrate my result.

**

Thursday 16th November 2017. Mum in town for lunch (Albertini, near the British Library). This had been booked for weeks, but now we have something nice to celebrate. Prosecco for the third day.

**

Monday 20th November 2017. I deliver a book review for The Wire: a collection of essays on punk rock. The title is Punk Is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night. I also submit my favourite books of 2017: Hollinghurst’s Sparsholt Affair, Mark Fisher’s The Weird and The Eerie, and CN Lester’s Trans Like Me.

**

Wednesday 22nd November 2017. A seminar at Birkbeck with a curator from the British Library. He uses a phrase to describe the dream of every archivist throughout history: ‘The Everlasting Carrier’. As in something that will store information forever. Books crumble away, computer discs can deteriorate, or their respective readers can become obsolete (what to do with floppy disks now?). I learn that cassette tapes are thought to last for 50 years, if you’re lucky. But also: today’s hard drives are thought to last no more than five years without file degradation, even the brand new ones. I make a note to get my back-up drive backed up.

**

Monday 27th November 2017. To the annual Birkbeck Booker Prize talk, this year featuring Julian Barnes. This is held in the main room at Friends House, the Quaker building on the Euston Road. I’ve been to the café but the never the main room. I suppose it’s what the Quakers use by way of a cathedral: a vast and geometrical space, with rows of seating rising vertiginously on three sides, and a huge tiered skylight. But still without a hint of ornateness, thus keeping the Quaker ideal of pure function without noise (in any sense).

Barnes mainly discusses The Sense of an Ending. He remarks on the film version’s Richard Curtis-sy happy ending. ‘Cinema needs redemption. Novels do not’. Well, I think, that only applies to commercial cinema, and literary novels. There are plenty of art house films with troubled endings, and commercial novels with heartwarming conclusions – the ones one sees in WH Smiths. Redemption guaranteed, or your money back.

**

Tuesday 28th November 2017. Today I discover that if you don’t save your work to a USB stick before the battery in a rented university laptop runs out, the laptop resets its temporary memory. So your work is gone forever. Four hours of it in my case. It’s an education of a sort, though for a few angry minutes I curse the very idea of computers, and vow never to use one again.

**

Wednesday 29th November 2017. An event at the Wheatsheaf in Fitzrovia. Travis E. is talking about his new book of the twentieth century, as told in diaries. He points out how many of the entries are written in a kind of Canute-like grumpiness about the way the world is happening without the writer’s permission. Noel Coward, Kenneth Williams, Barbara Pym, all whining about how they dislike the Beatles or the groups on Top of the Pops.

A diary entry involves stepping out of the stream of life, in order to reflect. But in these cases, the writers are aware that pop culture is not for them. They’ve not so much stepped out of the stream as noticed how the stream has moved away from them. Aging can make one into a cultural outsider. Or rather, it did in the 60s and 70s. Nowadays rock gigs and festivals are aimed as much at the middle-aged as they are the young. And indeed, many of the bands performing are no spring chickens themselves.

**

Thursday 30th November 2017. The dissertation mark comes in: 78. This was for the big project on music and belonging, as depicted in the novels of Alan Hollinghurst. Satisfyingly, it’s my highest mark of the MA. So I got out not just with a sense of achievement, but improvement.

**

Tuesday 5th December 2017. The diary is twenty years old this week. I posted the first entry as 8th December 1997, writing in raw HTML code. It was before the invention of blogging platforms.

I steel myself to re-read the first entry today. It seems I was calling myself ‘Richard’ at the time – well, that didn’t last. And I was playing in an early version of my band Fosca, a noisy guitar-based one that lasted about a year. We made recordings, as the diary indicates, but I eventually decided they weren’t really ‘me’. Starting a diary is often an attempt to work out who one is.

So: twenty years ago I was rehearsing for a gig at the Wag Club in Wardour Street, sharing a bill with the band Guernica. I recall that Guernica was Erol Alkan’s band, before he took his DJ-ing more seriously. I revisited the Wag earlier this year, in 2017: it was where my brother Tom’s friends put on a private gig after he died. I see I also mention my friend Charley playing with the band Salad. As of recent weeks Charley is once again playing with Salad, who’ve now reformed.

The person that wrote that entry, twenty years ago, certainly wasn’t the one writing this entry. I wasn’t even the same person a year later, let alone two decades later. After failing so publicly with the band Orlando, I was in a state of trying new things, and not always nobly. At first I was trying hard just to second-guess what the world wanted, and how I could fit in. Then I became more honest, and accepted the way I was. Fosca found little success in the UK, but it had a small impact overseas, especially in Sweden. And I was making music that was me being utterly honest about myself – that’s what mattered.

If there’s one lesson to be learned from diary keeping, it’s that it’s a good way of finding out not so much who one is, as who one is not. Self-delusion becomes more obvious when written down, even more so when published.

So this has been a twenty-year record of trying and failing. From different versions of my own band, to playing in different bands (Spearmint, Scarlet’s Well), to trying different types of work (DJ-ing, journalism), and moving in different social circles (The Last Tuesday Society, The Boogaloo, Shane MacGowan, Sebastian Horsley). From making obscure music on no money, to becoming a mature student on no money.

I note how my economic status is unchanged from the way it was twenty years ago: I still live on hardly any money, and I still live by myself, in a rented furnished room (and my new landlady reminds me that I have at least upgraded to a double room!). Still, looking around in London now, I’m grateful that I am not homeless, and I’m grateful that I can still live in London.

London is this diary’s other subject: the centre of the world, then as now. Except that it is really a centre of worlds, plural, as in worlds of possibility. In that respect, it is London that feels like the archivists’ everlasting carrier. For centuries, the city has borne endless souls and given them endless chances.

Today I learn that I’ve been accepted to give a twenty-minute paper at my first academic conference. This will be at London’s Senate House Library, in March.

In the trying of new things there is a sense of the eternal.


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The Ghost of Fancy Dress Resentment

Tuesday 24 October 2017. I read an speech by Ali Smith on the present importance of the novel. ‘We’re all exiles, and the novel is one of our homes’. She quotes Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight (1937), on the immigrant experience: ‘The roofs that you see are not built for you’.

The trouble is, London’s new roofs are not built for many of the natives, either. I stare up at ‘FiftySevenEast’, the soaring new block by Dalston Kingsland station. I wonder what sort of people will live there. Anyone who badly needs a home full stop, like the growing number of beggars around the station? Anyone who’s lived in London for years? Anyone at all?

**

Wednesday 25 October 2017. An update to my earlier entry. I remembered how computer printer paper once came as ugly perforated scrolls, with dots along the sides and mysterious green stripes throughout. I’m now informed that this paper was commonly used to print tables of numbers, so each line was more readable when the alternate lines were striped green. Contrary to Genesis, in the beginning was the number.

I definitely recall seeing literary manuscripts on this sort of paper in the past. It’s so easy to forget about old ways which are not quite so old. Typewriters and Tippex did not graduate directly to today’s A4 print outs, but it somehow feels that they did.

Spend late morning and early afternoon in the London Library. Richard Canning’s introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Firbank’s Vainglory crams an impressive amount of research into a small space. I’m also fascinated that Professor Canning once performed in an Oxford student comedy team, the Seven Raymonds, along with Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. There’s a connection there in terms of trying to do humour in a modernist way; Stewart Lee’s jazz-like repetition of whole phrases isn’t so far from Gertrude Stein.

I surprise myself by hitting this week’s PhD goal in terms of word count. And it’s only Wednesday. Then again, I did the same on the MA in the final weeks: hitting a state of despair at falling behind, but then following it with an intense burst of speeding up. New bouts of energy and concentration suddenly arrive, but from where? The reservoir of sheer panic, one supposes.

Evening: To Gordon Square for a seminar on writing abstracts for academic conferences. I’m given lots of feedback on my own tentative attempt at an abstract. It’s for a forthcoming conference in the nearby Senate House Library, on ‘Queer Publishing’. One thing I’ve noticed is that some professional scholars seem to submit clumsily written abstracts, confident that their name will get them included regardless. It’s difficult to imagine Zizek being unsuccessful with a submission. Academia, like everywhere else, has its celebrities. The subtext of this being, obviously, that I’d quite like to be one myself.

**

Thursday 26 October 2017. A Boots optician’s bill for £260. And that’s with the student discount. This is for ‘varifocal’ lenses. It seems my eyesight has taken a turn for the worse. The cheap option is carry two pairs of spectacles everywhere, one for reading, one for distance. Or I can fork out for the all-in-one varifocals. I don’t have a spare £260. What to do? Develop a squint?

Evening: To Gordon Square for two seminars. One is on critical theory, specifically Franco Moretti’s rather subjective but intriguing Graphs, Maps, Trees. Then there’s a lecture by the theatre scholar Aiofe Monks, on theatrical ‘virtuosity’ in relation to ‘bad art’.

We’re shown a video of a Michael Flatley show, in which the Irish dancer stages an interpretation of the Easter Rising through the medium of tap dance. It’s like the ‘Springtime for Hitler’ scene in The Producers, except that Flatley’s audience are cheering and applauding. My own audience, being PhDs in a classroom that once was Virginia Woolf’s house, are culturally rather closer to the Producers audience. We may not be shocked about the tastelessness, but we’re wincing and trying our best not to giggle.

This is one of the points of Dr Monks’s lecture. Being not just a scholar of theatrical forms but Irish herself, she talks about being a schoolgirl and watching Flatley’s star-making moment on TV in the early 90s, as in the ‘Riverdance’ interval act in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. Back then, she says, this single TV appearance engendered a communal feeling of excitement for lovers of Irish culture and Irish dance the world over. Previously the dance style was purely amateur: now, overnight, it was professional, respected, and visible for the whole world.

But later on, and after gaining her education, Dr M went to see one of Mr Flatley’s Las Vegas-style shows, and found them trashy, ridiculous, even hilarious. Technically he’s impressive: no one would deny that he dances extremely well. It’s just everything else that irks: the corny production and the garish choice of themes. Such shows are, to an academic critic or to anyone possessing what Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘cultural capital’, demonstrably Bad Art.

Except, of course, it’s also Successful Art, and that’s the problem for scholars. How can one explain why more fans of Irishness buy Michael Flatley tickets than they do copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses? It’s the same dilemma addressed by the critic Carl Wilson in his book Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. Wilson has to come to terms with the fact that Celine Dion (Bad Art) has sold more albums than most of the albums by the Beatles (Good Art). Wilson is Canadian, like Ms Dion, so there’s a conflict over national pride too.  I imagine that if one’s an expert on Irishness in contemporary theatre, Flatley is the tap-dancing elephant in the room.

I think of Edmund Wilson using the term ‘Bad Art’ to describe HP Lovecraft’s horror fiction in 1945. Lovecraft’s work is now considered to be culturally important and influential. Indeed, Dr M wonders tonight if her problem – and any scholar’s problem – is just one of not enough time having passed. Were Flatley performing in the 1850s, say, his work would be far easier to judge in a cultural and historical context, away from questions of taste and cultural capital and the things that scholars believe are canonically Good or Bad. And one wouldn’t feel such an ugly sense of snobbery. History dissolves snobbery.

**

Saturday 28 October 2017. Trying to catch up with the world of films, I see three in three days. Tonight it’s Daphne at the ICA. This is a low budget drama set in contemporary London, in which a young, red-haired, middle class woman mopes and sulks around the city in a rather nice blue coat. Sometimes she lies on a sofa and reads books by Slavoj Zizek, though she doesn’t know how to pronounce his name properly (and I’m not sure if the makers realise this). There is one plot of sorts, involving Daphne witnessing a stabbing in an off-license, along with another concerning her strained relationship with her mother, as played by Geraldine James. But the whole effect is disconnected and unsatisfying. No theme or plot seems to have been put through even a minimum level of development. It’s as if they’ve accidentally released a collection of first drafts as a finished film. I come away in troubleshooter mode like this, knowing that the film could have been improved, and wondering why it wasn’t. The answer, I suppose, is that the makers were happy with the end product, and that it’s just me. It’s funny how taste can engender loneliness.

**

Sunday 29 October 2017. A delicious veggie brunch at Dalston Superstore with Kath G. It’s nearly Halloween, and the drag queen on the DJ decks has managed to add some zombie make-up to her usual palimpsest of panstick. It’s more accomplished than the common look I saw on the Tube the previous night: people whose costumes solely consisted of half-hearted skull make-up. Hastily scrawled black lines on white faces. The bare, grumpy minimum. ‘Who have you come as? ‘The Ghost of Fancy Dress Resentment’.

A Twitter game doing the rounds: one calculates one’s ideal Halloween costume by taking one’s own greatest fear and making it into a sexy version. I nominate ‘Sexy Manila Envelope’.

Afternoon: to the Rio for The Ballad of Shirley Collins, a new documentary on the Sussex folk singer, now in her 80s and living in Lewes. She retired some years ago, a move triggered by the strange loss of her voice after the trauma of her husband leaving her (which sounds like a folk song in itself).

This is a very well-made and thoughtful film, and lets its choices of what to see do much of the narration. A case in point is a glimpse at an MBE in a box, made without comment, along with shots of various objects on Ms Collins’s bookshelves and mantelpieces. One object is a box set of EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books. Because of my interest in Firbank, I tend to think of Mapp and Lucia in the lineage of camp English literature. Benson is more traditional than Firbank, but they share a love of female characters speaking in arch and campy ways. In Shirley Collins’s case, though ,it’s probably the books’ association with Sussex that appeals: Benson’s fictional ‘Trilling’ is based on Rye.

**

Monday 30 October 2017. To the Rio for The Death Of Stalin. The directior is Armando Ianucci, who is now a big enough comedy name to attract other big names: Michael Palin, Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs. The presence of Paul Whitehouse as one of the Russian ministers reminds me of a sketch in a recent Harry and Paul special, where Mr Enfield managed to play Alan Bennett as Stalin and Jim Broadbent as a Russian officer. The odd thing about The Death of Stalin is that it seems to be trying to not have a style at all, probably because it’s funded by French investors. The comedy is mainly in the madness of the historical facts and in its broad slapstick, rather than the language. There are little nods to the style of The Thick of It (government staffers swearing a lot), while Jason Isaac’s thick Northern English accent as the head of the Russian army is surely a purely British joke. But otherwise the emphasis is on making a funny film where the humour will translate internationally.

In this way, it’s closer to The Lobster than The Thick of It: a film in English which comes across as translated from a foreign script. I later discover that the source material is a French graphic novel, so that must be at least part of the reason. The film is worth it for the sight of a respected stage actor like Simon Russell Beale ramming his formidable stomach against Steve Buscemi’s, as part of a drunken argument. The scene is slapstick and silly, and well beneath the talents of either actor, but it’s still funny.

**

Tuesday 31st October 2017. Halloween. I welcome the way this utterly American festival – which first seem to percolate over here with the film E.T. – has forced London shops to mercifully put back their Christmas branding until November. However, I have to take a Canute-like stand in one respect: I can’t yet call chocolate bars ‘candy’.

**

Wednesday 1st November 2017. I read the late Peter Hall’s diary entry for this day in 1977. It was his trip to Buckingham Palace to receive his knighthood. The ceremony seems unchanged from the one  I witnessed in July 2008, for my mother’s MBE. Sir Peter lined up in the same long, unbroken parade of recipients in alphabetical order, all to meet the same royal who stands in the same spot for a full hour and half. The royal is somehow able to say something interesting and special to each one of over a hundred people. In his case it was the Queen Mother, managing this feat in her late seventies. Like me Sir Peter H also records, ungraciously, that ‘we should have been given a drink’.

**

Thursday 2nd November 2017. To Gordon Square for a seminar on bibliographies, followed by a lecture on speech acts in the age of slavery. The seminar refers to Umberto Eco’s 1977 book How To Write A Thesis. Eco’s book now works as a historical reminder of the way things used to be for PhDs, in the days before computers. He advises students to create a bibliography using alphabetical cards kept in a box file, and that they should take such a box with them every time they go to a library. At first it seems easy to scoff at this vision of the bulky awkwardness of the past, but then today’s students are not exactly unburdened either. Laptops are still fairly heavy, and hardback books and thick pads of paper are very much in use. It’s not uncommon to see huge backpacks and wheeled suitcases in a university library. Despite all the advances in digital convenience, people are still physically weighed down by their work. Why isn’t the future easier?

**

Friday 3rd November 2017. With Ms Shanthi to Mangal 2, one of the many likeable and unintimidating Turkish restaurants on the Kingsland Road (I am easily intimidated in restaurants). I’d heard that this is Gilbert and George’s regular haunt, though Shanthi says they only come here on Tuesdays, and that when they do they use the back entrance. O, the mythologies of artists! Minutes after we sit down, in comes the alliterative duo themselves, greyer these days but still very recognisable, the smaller one wearing a furry Russian hat, even though it’s quite mild. Through the front door too. Shanthi glances over at them as we eat, and afterwards swears that they didn’t speak a word to each other throughout.

A younger, long-haired man comes into the restaurant with a paperback ostentatiously protruding from his jeans pocket: Iron John: A Book About Men. Everyone’s discussing the Trouble With Men as it is, what with the news dominated by tales of sexual harassment.

Then to the Rio for a rather more edifying tale of male sexuality. Call Me By Your Name is a sun-kissed, understated film about sexual obsession, set in the Italian countryside in the early 80s (Ms S especially enjoys the use of the Psychedelic Furs). A skinny boy in his late teens becomes attracted to a (very) grown man in his twenties, though the desire is complicated. The younger actor is remarkable. He is devoted to the part not on a tiresomely overdone and ‘actorly’ level, but on a level of focus and diligence which makes one want to work harder oneself.  I suspect everyone who sees this film thinks of two scenes towards the end, one with a long speech from the boy’s father (a character not unlike Umberto Eco), and one based around a phone call which brings me to tears.

**

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Inelegant Acronyms

Thursday 28 September 2017. I must record that on the 20th July I contributed to a pop record. At least, I recorded some backing vocals for Tim Benton, he of the band Baxendale, in a Hornsey studio under a railway bridge. The song was called ‘Wild Swimming’. Mr B invited me to do it out of the blue, and I said yes.

It’s my first contribution to music since I stopped Fosca in 2009. I still have no interest in making new music myself just yet. How funny the way one’s passions wax and wane. Still, one silver lining of my failing to make money from music is that there’s no temptation to play my old songs in concert purely for the money.

My other excuse is a refusal of that common alibi: ‘being in bands was a phase I was going through: I’m more normal now’. I feel I’m more weird now. For now, other boxes await: book-shaped projects, experiments with language, ideas, narrative, the art of words. I look to my award from Birkbeck in 2015, for showing ‘the most promise in English Literature’, and feel I owe it to myself to do something along those lines.

**

On a whim, I watch the late 70s Doctor Who serial The Invisible Enemy, with Tom Baker, as rented from iTunes. It’s the one that introduces K9, the robot dog who resembles an upturned wash basin on remote-controlled wheels; very slow wheels at that. And yet the TV-watching children of Britain loved him, and he became a regular character. All the special effects are shockingly primitive, needless to say. Yet there’s a certain cheapskate charm which makes the programme uniquely attractive now, in these glossy days of production values.

I wonder if it’s to do with the dressing-up box aspect: that instinctive need in childhood to tell a quick-moving story using whatever materials are to hand. In the case of The Invisible Enemy, even the story is cheap: a simple fusion of sci-fi cliches. It’s like a small child retelling a film using plastic figures. But there is one unique element: Tom Baker. He was already in a world of his own when he was propping up the bars of 70s Soho. It made perfect sense to cast him as a benign alien; someone who takes on his enemies armed with nothing but nerve.

I think I may have even been introduced to the word ‘bohemian’ in a Target Books description of Baker as the Doctor – I certainly had no interest in the Queen song. Like ‘camp’, I was too young to understand what ‘bohemian’ meant. Though I suspected it sort of meant an adult acting like a child – in a good way.

**

Friday 29 September 2017.  I read Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by the US writer Sarah Manguso. A curious short memoir, fragmentary and poetic. It concerns her keeping a diary over decades, from 1990 till today. Yet she does not quote a word of the actual diary.

From Manguso: ‘I use my landlady’s piano as a writing desk (p. 60)’. I’m starting to look particularly kindly on forty-something writers who live in rented accommodation.

**

Saturday 30 September 2017. I’ve always had clumsy and weak hands, something which has led to a lifelong resentment of cricketers. In recent years though my hands have become oddly worse for short amounts of time. A visit to a glamorous NHS neurologist a couple of years ago ruled out anything sinister. Glamorous, because I later found out that she was a consultant on the big film about Stephen Hawking. I was impressed with this implied proximity to Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar, even though I would probably drop it.

No, my condition seems to be a mild but irritating combination of anxiety and dyspraxia, one that makes me into a kind of camp Incredible Hulk. At times of extreme stress, I become more limp-wristed.

I suppose I could blame this condition for my uselessness at DIY jobs. When I moved into the new room I bought a self-assembly bedside table for £15, from the Dalston branch of Argos. I felt right at home there, among the crazy, the shouting, the desperate, and the cheap.

Naturally, when I got the table home it did not lend itself to being assembled at all. And despite my careful scrutiny of the Cy Twombly-like hieroglyphics which the makers had the temerity to call instructions, I managed to nail one of the panels on upside down. The world of manual labour and I continue to look upon each other with mutual suspicion.

**

Sunday 1st October 2017. I’m writing a review of The Sparsholt Affair for the Birkbeck university website. It’s a commission by Joe Brooker for Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature (www.ccl.bbk.ac.uk). I discovered that a couple of the images in the novel are taken from real-life photographs or album sleeves, making my review something of a scoop. It’s my first piece of published academic writing.

**

Monday 2nd October 2017. More work on the Hollinghurst review. I also look over the handbook for the PhD course. I’ve found that whenever I mention I’m doing a PhD, some people have made little noises of mild awe. Indeed, when I did well at my BA a friend said: ‘I should think so too: BAs are for children.’ So I had to do an MA for that reason alone. Halfway through that I found myself increasingly curious about a PhD. If only because PhDs get more privileges in academia: special PC rooms, extra access at college libraries, and the sense of being, well, more grown up. Which for me is truly rare. I wonder how I’ll do.

**

Tuesday 3rd October 2017. I meet Laurence Hughes in the top floor bar of Waterstones Piccadilly. The windowed area has spectacular views of the London skyline, but it also has piped music. Laurence, who is older than me, is more sensitive about piped music. So we plump for the area away from the windows, losing the view but gaining freedom from the music.

I did a little research about this sort of thing for my MA. There’s some sociological evidence that the intolerance of piped music in public spaces increases with age. This is despite the way one’s hearing itself starts to decline – frequencies go missing, hearing aids beckon. One theory is that older people resent the loss of control over public space, which the piped music represents. It’s a glimmer of mortality: you are not in charge of this world after all, chum.

In cafes, the music may be designed to soothe customers, but it’s also designed to possess and impose the brand on a room, and so reminds the customers that they are at the company’s mercy. Younger people tend to mind this sort of thing a lot less, even if it’s other people’s music. The young are more keen to lap up brands, trends, fashionable haircuts, and of course, ideologies.

Perhaps as evidence of my aversion to trendy things, I get the new Ronald Blythe collection of Church Times columns, Forever Wormingford. It’s his last one: he’s retired from doing the weekly column at the age of 94. Calming prose, beautiful little mini-essays on Suffolk life, worthy of a much wider audience than the readers of a Christian newspaper. As in Akenfield, Blythe’s style favours the sudden comparing of moments across decades, or even centuries, presenting life as a palimpsest on all the lives that came and went before. The similarities are always more startling than the differences.

***

Thursday 5th October 2017. My PhD officially begins. Tonight at Gordon Square there’s an induction talk in the Keynes Library by Sue Wiseman, the course director. A handout with a list of all the new students and their projects goes around, and I’m slightly startled to see my name at the top. It’s alphabetical, and unusually for a diverse ‘cohort’ of twenty students, no one has a surname beginning with A, B, C, or D. So there I am at the start. Meaningless, really, but at this stage, with the fear creeping in about how serious it all is, and with my constant inner questions about whether I’ve made a good decision, I’ll take any good omen I can get.

This year’s English and Humanities intake seems a healthy mix: roughly equal genders, all ages, lots of different nationalities, and a good scattering of subject matter from medieval to contemporary, via steampunk, cyberpunk, and graphic novels. One student is doing fairy tales with Marina Warner: the best possible supervisor in the country for that topic. I chat to one student who is also an accomplished poet, Fran Lock.

**

Friday 6th October 2017. Today sees an induction lecture for the wider School of Arts students, as in not just my fellow English and Humanities researchers, but also their counterparts in History of Art, Film and Media, Languages, and The Arts more generally. The lecture is by Marina Warner, and is on curses and entreaties in storytelling.

Beforehand, I’m in St James’s Park looking at some sculptures by Sophie Ryder, which all seem very Marina Warner-esque: nude humans with animal heads dancing with giant dogs, or holding hands in a ring, like an out-take from The Wicker Man.

Spend some time – probably too much – reading about the current online goings on among the ‘alt-right’. Buzzfeed have published a long investigation into email exchanges by various journalists from the conservative website Breitbart, linking them with what appears to be actual white supremacists. The figure at the heart of the story is Milo Yiannopoulos, the British writer who saw a gap in the market left by Christopher Hitchens: a charismatic posh British man spouting opinions on American media despite a complete lack of qualifications. Except that Hitchens was at least more considered in his style: Milo Y is more like a camp internet troll, and one who has stolen my look, frankly.

**

Saturday 7th October 2017. To the Museum of London for a gig by The Fallen Women. It’s part of some sort of mini-festival themed around radical art. Like Joanne Joanne, the all-female tribute band who play Duran Duran songs, the Fallen Women are a mostly female band who play the songs of The Fall: ‘Hit the North’, ‘Victoria’, ‘Mr Pharmacist’, ‘Big New Prinz’ and so forth.

During the gig, three energetic little girls dance unexpectedly down the front. They can’t be older than eight. I presume they’re the untethered children of someone else here, though I like to think they just escaped and are on the run. They are invited onto the stage to do guest vocals on ‘How I Wrote Elastic Man’. Afterwards, while the band pack up, they ask the guitarist – my friend Charley Stone – if they can use the microphones. Charley points out that they’ve been switched off, because the DJ, Mr Doran from The Quietus, is now playing his set.

‘That doesn’t matter’, says one of the little girls. ‘We just want to show off our girl group moves’. And so they do, posing and dancing with the microphones.

**

Sunday 8th October 2017. I am sent a copy of Travis Elborough’s handsome new anthology, Our History of the 20th Century: As Told in Diaries, Journals and Letters. Once again, it includes extracts from my web diary, though just ones from 1997 to 2000. Much of the rest of the book is exclusive material: private diaries never before published. Mr E had asked me if I had kept a paper diary before 1997. I hadn’t, sadly: the novelty of the web format was one of the reasons I started.

At 9am I go to the V&A for Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains. After the huge success of the David Bowie exhibition, the V&A have attempted something similar with the band behind Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. The show has proven so popular that the museum has added tickets by opening throughout the night too: I could have gone at 4am in the morning.

So what does that say about Pink Floyd? I thought the band had rather more of a niche following than Bowie. In fact, a statistic I learn at the exhibition is that Dark Side alone sells 7000 copies every week, worldwide.

All kinds of theories suggest themselves. I wonder if it’s the band’s reputation for anonymity. Music usually divides people, so a lack of personality might mean there’s less to get in the way, and so less to dislike (one might say the same about Coldplay). Certainly Dark Side of the Moon was all about the ambience promised by the enigmatic sleeve, the triangular prism against the black background. Then there are the subjects of the song titles, which are so basic they must translate easily around the world: ‘Breathe’, ‘Time’, ‘Money’. Hardly niche topics. ‘Hey, I breathe too! I too have heard about money!’

What interests me, and what justifies this exhibition, is that they went through so many different phases, all of which involved highly visual and theatrical elements. One highlight is the row of face masks used in The Wall live show, as worn by a ‘surrogate band’ of extra musicians who open the concert. The idea played on the pitfalls of their own success: the concerts were now such a special-effects spectacle, with exploding jet planes, flying inflatable pigs, film projections, and huge grotesque puppets by Gerald Scarfe, the actual band members were secondary concerns. The mask idea is now rich in irony, given that the bassist Roger Waters, who was the band’s driving force in the 70s, tried to stop the other members using the name ‘Pink Floyd’ without him. He was proved wrong. Or rather, he didn’t listen to his own ideas.

They had one member with star quality, though: Syd Barrett. The band’s first incarnation, the late 1960s line-up with Barrett as frontman, was part of the London psychedelic club scene. Here, the V&A shows many of the gig posters of the time. These illustrated adverts have figures with swirling, distorted proportions rendered in a clear line style, not at all unlike the 1890s work of Aubrey Beardsley. In fact, it’s thought that the V&A’s 1966 Beardsley show directly influenced such art, and indeed there’s a Beardsley on display. This gives the new exhibition a nice sense of symmetry: echoes of influence returning home.

I take a bus into Piccadilly and get off at St James’s church. In the church grounds is an exhibition of sculptures by Emily Young, once the inspiration for the 60s Pink Floyd song ‘See Emily Play’. Here, one can.

**

Monday 9th October 2017. To the University of Surrey, in Guildford, for a symposium, New Perspectives on Alan Hollinghurst. Three papers are delivered, each speaker neatly representing one of the three academic books on Hollinghurst, all of which suddenly emerged, like buses, in the last few years. This is followed by a public interview with the author himself, tirelessly promoting The Sparsholt Affair. The interview is also in the university, but as part of the Guildford Literary Festival. Unusually, AH doesn’t mention Firbank, so I perk up at the end, mention my PhD, and get him to confirm that he’s writing the introduction for a new Picador edition of The Flower Beneath The Foot. The Sparsholt Affair makes the Top 10 bestseller list: there’s huge posters for it on the Tube.

Surrey university is a proper campus in the American sense: a self-contained town of glossy modernist buildings that takes a long bus ride to get around. I forget how many universities are like this, physically separate and bubble-like, rather than smuggled across a city in public squares and streets like my own, the University of London.

**

Tuesday 10th October 2017. To the Members’ Room in the London Library for an event concerning the second Travis Elborough book out this month, this one co-edited with Helen Gordon, Being A Writer. No one can say that Mr E is a slouch at the practice himself.

It’s a collection of quotes by notable authors: writerly anecdotes mixed with general advice on the craft, and all beautifully designed by the publisher, Frances Lincoln. There’s a quote by David Mitchell (the Cloud Atlas one) that reminds me how expensive writing used to be before the net: the era of typewriters and Tippex, of old printers with holes down the side of the paper (which was striped with green for some reason), of bulky manuscripts photocopied and sent in the post. Today it’s harder to earn money from writing, but at least it’s cheaper to actually write.

**

Wednesday 11th October 2017. Evening: to Gordon Square for a meeting by a ‘collective’ of Birkbeck research students. One of the PhDs talks about how she transferred to Birkbeck halfway through her thesis, after her relationship with a supervisor broke down irrevocably. There were no other supervisors in the same field, so she had to move colleges altogether. It’s a good lesson in the importance of having the right supervisor, however good the reputation of the college.

Anyone who looks into doing a PhD usually hears a few horror stories on this subject: supervisors who forget their students even exist; supervisors who don’t reply to emails for months on end and need to be hunted down in the politest possible way; and neglected students who shrug and think they can submit their PhD without the supervisor’s input (and they usually come a cropper). One advantage of sticking with the same college for ‘the triple’ – BA, MA, PhD – is that my supervisor already knows what I’m like.

There’s a London diarist connection here. The definitive edition of Samuel Pepys’s diaries was edited by William Matthews (1905-1975), a specialist in British and American diaries. Matthews did ‘the triple’ at Birkbeck in the 1920s and 30s, before going on to a glittering academic career in the States, hoovering up awards as he went. Birkbeck’s English department honour his memory every year with the annual William Matthews lecture. So I like to think I’m ‘doing a William Matthews’, if only the first bit.

**

Sunday 15th October 2017. To the ‘Esquire Townhouse with Dior’ as it’s officially called. It’s both a pop-up members club and an arts festival, held at the plush building at 10 & 11 Carlton House Terrace, right behind the ICA. I’m here for yet another Alan Hollinghurst event, this time about the ten books that made him who he is. He omits Firbank in favour of, unexpectedly, The Lord of the Rings, which he loved as a teenager. It seems unlikely that AH will venture into writing fantasy novels any time soon. Then again, Kazuo Ishiguro’s last book, The Buried Giant, was just that, and they’ve just given him the Nobel Prize.

I say hello to Martin Wallace, who knows AH. The author himself recognises me from the Guildford talk, and asks me about the scope of my Firbank thesis. When I tell him it’s about the concept of camp modernism, he thinks for a moment then tells me it’s a very worthwhile line of research. I feel officially blessed.

**

Tuesday 17th October 2017. The London Review of Books has an excellent article by Jenny Turner on Kathy Acker, by way of the new biography by Chris Kraus. Ms Acker marketed the ink on her skin as much as she did the ink on her pages. It’s quite a common look now, but her tattoos and piercings were thought to be fairly daring and punkish in the 80s and 90s, even shocking.

As Ms Turner points out, there hadn’t really been a female version of the William Burroughs-style ‘Great Writer as Countercultural Hero’ role before, and there hasn’t really been one since. Jeanette Winterson may have been spiky in her manner when she started out, but she was still part of the literary establishment; one of ‘them’, not one of ‘us’. According to this article, one of Acker’s books was accidentally printed with the last two chapters the wrong way around, and no one noticed. That’s one definition of the avant-garde.

I note that there’s an advert alongside the Acker piece for Stewart Lee’s current stand-up comedy show. It’s difficult to think of other comedians who might regard the LRB readership as their target audience. And yet I’m reminded that in 1981, when the LRB had photographic covers and a slightly more ‘Time Out’-y approach, they put Alexei Sayle on the front. This was to illustrate an article by the poet Ian Hamilton on the alternative comedy scene.

Since then the magazine hasn’t expected its readers to take much of an interest in comedy. I know this because in 2011, one LRB piece quoted a joke from Peep Show, but had to qualify this as ‘a Channel 4 sitcom’, rather than ‘the Channel 4 sitcom’. By this time it had been running for eight years, and was on its seventh series. Perhaps, given the Stewart Lee advert, things have changed. Or perhaps, in the same way Kathy Acker is described as an author who had fans ‘among people who didn’t usually buy books’, Lee is a comedian for people who don’t usually like comedy.

I admit I’ve always been intrigued by the way magazines second-guess their readers’ tastes, and so have to reach for the words ‘a’ or ‘called’ to qualify something, rather than a more flattering ‘the’. As in, ‘I was listening to a band called the Beatles’ (because you, the imagined reader, won’t have heard of them). Or ‘I was watching a film called Citizen Kane’. The practice is even more curious now, because it assumes the reader hasn’t got access to Google.

**

Wednesday 18th October 2017. To Birkbeck for a training session on archiving ‘intractable’ objects. I choose Firbankiana, a miniature book published in 1989 by the New York independent press Hanuman, who operated in the 80s and early 90s. The book is part of a quirky series on figures from avant-garde culture. Other subjects include Candy Darling, Burroughs, Richard Hell, and David Hockney. Quite collectable now. In preparing to talk about the Firbank book, I discover that Hanuman operated out of the Chelsea Hotel, and that the books were based on Indian prayer books, hence the idea of carrying about a little book of Burroughs or Firbank by way of demonstrating one’s  faith. Indeed, they hired the same prayer-book printers in Madras, who in turn used the same local fishermen to hand-stitch the pages together (Source: website for the Hanuman archive, University of Michigan Library). I wonder what the fishermen made of Candy Darling.

Thursday 19th October 2017. Library inductions for the new PhDs. We start with a tour of the historic Senate House Library, followed by a lesson on how to use their online catalogue. Then to Birkbeck’s more modern library next door, where we are taught about using the many electronic databases. I come away with my head swimming in inelegant acronyms. Like ‘PhD’, in fact.

Birkbeck Library has just refurbished its upper floor in Torrington Square. Over the summer they removed whole banks of shelving and replaced them with some fifty or so brand new study desks. The shelves are unlikely to be missed, as they contained ancient periodicals and directories. These materials are now in storage, so people can still request them. But one suspects they’re all digitised and available online.

This is very much a sign of the times. In Birkbeck there seems to be more students this year than ever before, despite all the reports of high fees and the difficulties in housing. Last year the free desks in the library ran out completely every day, with the peak time around 4pm. Some clichés about students being late risers never change. Meanwhile the back numbers of academic journals, encyclopaedias, dictionaries and directories have migrated to the electronic ether.

Libraries are now as much about spaces for bodies (and their laptops) as they are about spaces for books. For many students, a library’s key role is as a quiet, conducive and above all heated space in which to work at a laptop, away from the piped music of franchise cafes, and away from the unheatable shoebox that a student probably has to call a home.

But some of the old reference materials still manage to lurk among all the bodies and the backpacks. In Senate House today, while on the tour, I spy the Oxford English Dictionary on the shelves in its thick black hardbacks, all twenty volumes of it. I ask a librarian if anyone still consults these out-of-date tomes. ‘Probably hardly anyone, but we like to keep them there for nostalgia.’

 

***

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