Journal of a Plague Moment

4 January 2020. My talk ‘Notes on Camp 2019’ has been published at the Birkbeck website: http://www.ccl.bbk.ac.uk/notes-on-camp-2019. Somehow I relate Ronald Firbank to Killing Eve.

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6 January 2020. I read Mr Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder by John Waters, as bought at Ripley and Lambert, the new film bookshop in Dalston. Waters: ‘You need two people to think your work is good – yourself and somebody else (not your mother). Once you have a following, no matter how limited, your career can be born.’

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7 January 2020. With Jon S to see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker at the Tottenham Court Road Odeon. This is a half-hearted and essentially forgettable work. Star Wars is surely an exhausted franchise by now. The scent of desperation is palpable: trying to make something new yet not too new, and trying too hard to please the fans, who are never happy anyway. Stevie Smith once replied to a fan, ‘You liked my book and want more of the same? Read it again.’

The Odeon’s idea of a ‘small’ popcorn is a giant overpriced bucket of the stuff. That this sort of thing still goes on at cinemas is baffling. To prefer arthouse cinemas might seem snobbish, but the present management at Odeon seem utterly uninterested in such things as beauty and reason.

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9 January 2020. Woolf’s diary for the 20th of February 1930, on wasting time, which now seems to predict social media. ‘This fiddling and drifting and not impressing oneself upon anything – this always refraining and fingering and cutting things up into little jokes and facetiousness – that’s what’s so annihilating.’

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14 January 2020. To the Glory pub in Lower Dalston, also known as Haggerston, for an evening of work in progress variety acts. I’m there for ‘Velvet Webb’, the drag character of Ivan Kirby. She’s wonderful, like Victoria Wood’s Kitty mixed with Elizabeth Taylor in Boom. Drag is very popular now, a good thing, as it lends itself to such a wide range of creativity. At the heart of this trend is the feeling that all is camp now anyway – we only have to look to the politicians. In a time of too much imagery, people with noisy, exaggerated appearances cut through. We are living through a time of Populist Camp.

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18 January 2020. I read Unreliable Memoirs by Clive James, and find myself coming across lines that Dad once quoted to me in delight, decades ago: ‘We scored no goals. Count them – none.’ There’s an unexpected reference to Firbank, as the sort of name dropped by pretentious students: ‘As they worked, Cameron and Spencer kept up an exchanged of allusive wit that I found at once daunting and exhilarating. Spencer called something Firbankian. Who, what or where was Firbankian?’

Later on, the student James educates himself on these figures, and puts on a stage show. Against a modern jazz soundtrack, he takes to the stage and improvises ‘monologues in which such names as Ford Madox Ford and Ronald Firbank figured prominently. The audience stormed the exits.’

**

23 January 2020. Looking around on the Tottenham Court Road today, 80% of the men have the same look. A beard and a beanie hat. If nothing else, I like to think I supply punctuation.

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25 January 2020. My income as a fully funded PhD student is £17,000 a year, which though appreciated does not go very far. Many PhDs do paid work alongside their research, usually teaching. For my part, I am relying more and more on donations to the diary, my only asset.

Money is the way we indicate value. If you think a work has value, and the creator is asking for donations, the right thing to do is donate.

**

28 January 2020. The phrase “limp-wristed lullabies” suddenly surfaces in my memory. It’s from a 1990s Huggy Bear record sleeve, I think. It certainly sums up my present interests.

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30 January 2020. A Ronald Firbank field trip. To Borough Green with three fellow Firbank enthusiasts: Richard Canning, Alan Hollinghurst and John Byrne (not the Scottish writer). We have dinner at the home of Jenny Firbank, widow of Digory Firbank, grandson of Ronald’s uncle (Charles Herbert Firbank). Also present is her son Charlie, which makes him the great-great-grandson of Ronald’s grandfather, old Joseph Firbank, the Victorian railway builder. Joseph is the other family member in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  The entry for Ronald was written by Alan Hollinghurst. I mention this at dinner. ‘Thanks for that’, says Charlie. ‘I think I was paid £25,’ says Mr H.

We’re here to see one of Jenny’s possessions, the rare Alvaro Guevara painting of Ronald from 1919, in which he is shown sitting in his flat at 48 Jermyn Street. Firbank described it at the time as ‘a perfectly brutal little study’ of himself ‘huddled up in a black suit by a jar of Orchids, in a décor suggestive of Opium – or (even) worse!’ Jenny also has a wonderful print by Jean Carzou: a spiky masked female harlequin, in silhouette.

I am given a present by Charlie F. It’s a paperback of Michael Moorcock’s Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius (1976; repr. London: Grafton, 1987). Charlie thought I’d like it for the following quote: ‘Things had come to a pretty pass when the work of Firbank was ignored in favour of his imitator Waugh whose prose, diffuse in comparison with that of his master, was thought to represent the best of English style.’

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31 January 2020. Brexit fireworks in some parts of the country, but not in Dalston.

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Tuesday 4 February 2020. I see the new David Copperfield film at Islington Vue, directed by Armando Iannucci. Colourful, energetic, blowing the dust off the source material. A deliberately multi-racial cast, too, seeing if Dickens can take the same treatment as Shakespeare. I hope there’s more like it.

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4 February 2020. When buying a cinema ticket online, I am told: ‘Simply show this email on your phone’. It’s now the assumption that everyone has a smartphone, that ‘apps’ are as essential as shoes. When I go to meet my mother off a train at Liverpool Street, I find out that there’s no longer an arrivals board, showing which train arrives at which platform. I ask a staffer, who gives me the information by looking at his smartphone. ‘We assume people have phones these days’.

Even Alan Hollinghurst has a smartphone, as I discovered on the Firbank trip. I finally give in and buy an iPhone on the web, albeit a £99 refurbished SE model from four years ago. Modern life, here I come. 

** 

6 February 2020. I submit my PhD Upgrade document. This is the halfway point of the thesis, when a sample of 25,000 words has to be given to the university to be assessed. If it’s good enough, I am ‘upgraded’. If it’s not, I may have to do the PhD equivalent of being kept down a year. Here’s hoping.

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7 February 2020. I abandon Clive James’s follow-ups to Unreliable Memoirs, tiring of his renaming of real people. An Australian feminist writer who was at Cambridge with him in the 60s is called ‘Romaine Rand’. This coy approach to memoir irritates me. If you’re going to change the names of real people, you may as well write an autobiographical novel. Memoir in this form has a dryness to it: a sense of not wanting to get one’s hands dirty. I realise that I’m doing some of that with this diary, but diaries make up for it with a heightened sense of immediacy, coupled with liberation from the necessities of longer forms. Diaries combine the snapshot with the lucky dip. No need to crowbar the material into a beginning, middle, and end. Just dip in.

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8 February 2020. Keen to read more new novels, I finish Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. The book has been hyped as ‘the new Sally Rooney’, but it’s much wryer than Rooney, which I like. Final line: ‘And some days, Emira would carry the dread that if Briar [the child she sat for] struggled to find herself, she’d probably just hire someone to do it for her.’ On going to the mall: ‘Santa Claus made an appearance at the aquarium to say hello and talk about recycling.’

**

9 February 2020. ‘I KILL YOU’ shouts the teenage boy at me. This has just taken place at Euston tube station in the evening, by the ticket barriers. I was about to go through when I noticed the boy and a couple of his friends, all clad in black hooded tops and tracksuit trousers, are dodging the fare by squeezing behind other travellers as they walk through the automatic gates. Rather than let them use me in this manner, I back away from the barrier and watch them react. One of the boys is clearly the leader – this alone is interesting. He’s got through okay, but his friend who was hoping to wedge himself behind me has now been frustrated. From the other side of the barriers the leader looks back and gestures at his friend, indicating me as if to say: ‘use that guy, go through after him’. The friend shrugs in panic: ‘he won’t go through’. No one else is about. The friend gives up and vaults physically over the barrier – something I definitely did not do in my youth. By now the leader is staring directly at me. I stare back – a Paddington Bear stare. It is here that he shouts his death threat and runs off down the escalator with the others.

Why did I act this way? There’s some hypocrisy, as I did the same fare-dodging trick once or twice myself when I was his age. Today, I think one of my instincts is to play neither the whistleblower nor the accomplice, but the spanner in the works (the queer, in every sense). It’s the same instinct that once made me reply to a scam caller on the telephone with the words, ‘What are you wearing?’ Mainly, though, I sensed these boys were, unlike me at that age, not just fare-dodgers but alpha males, even illegal ones. Lads of violence. And given the death threat, I was right. Had he looked like me at that age I may have been more complicit. An unkind reader might suspect that, given the bad English of ‘I KILL YOU’, I was reacting against their revealed non-British status, but I’m not against that at all. It’s just the thuggery. Well, that and the bad dress sense.

I still feel some guilt over this, but none at all in the fact that I’ve never threatened violence, at least not pre-emptively. My core instinct is to challenge the assumptions of such lads that the world is theirs, and show how other ways of being are available too. I suppose that’s as close as I come to a credo.

As it is, I’ve been wished dead before. Usually by music critics.

**

23 February 2020. I’m currently typing up handwritten notes I made five years ago. Some of them I have no memory of writing. This is a form of communing with the dead. Every PhD hits a point where you start to research your own past self, the one whose idea it was.

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27 February 2020. Re Orlando.To stop time, camp it up. One definition of camp modernism might be: ‘what if modernism but too much’.

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28 February 2020. The coronavirus has meant that everyone must now wash their hands more regularly. This is hard on Default Man. Throughout my adult span, every time I have used a gents toilet, even a university one, I have seen a man walking straight from a urinal or a cubicle to the exit. Today, things are different. All it took was the realisation that the act can be a swagger. Men are now washing their hands in earnest, albeit with a lot of ostentation and noise. And possibly a sea shanty.

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1 March 2020.  I am such a natural self-isolator that the only words spoken to me in person today have been ‘are you using this seat?’

A table of Young People in this pub, saying ‘the hill to die on’ too loud.

*

Waldemar Januszczak in the Sunday Times today: ‘No amount of crossing your fingers and hoping will ever turn Leonora Carrington a good painter […] She is always naff.’ It’s good when critics say this sort of thing, as it means you can confidently ignore everything else they will ever write.

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2 March 2020. Britain has 39 cases of the new coronavirus, and Boris J has said it’s likely to become a serious problem in the coming weeks. All the Boots branches I visit today are out of hand sanitizing gel. It’s thought that some people have bought them in large amounts, not to stockpile for themselves but to resell for profit. It’s interesting what reactions the situation is bringing out in people: the best and the worst. As for me, I am panic-buying old editions of Ronald Firbank.

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7 March 2020. ‘Two patients who tested positive for coronavirus have sadly died’. The word ‘sadly’ should, one would have thought, be implicit. Clearly not. This jarring little adverb, an added insult to the bad news, must now be supplied. A linguistic lubricant, lest the system behind it appear cruel. What will survive of us is not love, but PR.

**

9 March 2020. Finish Swimming in the Dark (2020) by Tomasz Jedrowsky. A gay romance among graduates, set in Poland during the early 80s. The dedication is moving alone: ‘To Laurent, my home’. Some beautiful prose: ‘The shame inside me melted like a mint on my tongue.’ The underrated power of gay books is touched upon, specifically Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, banned in Poland at the time. ‘Here was a book that seemed to have been written for me. It healed some of my agony and my pain, simply by existing.’ I’m irritated, though, by a party scene in which ‘Heart of Glass’ by Blondie plays. ‘Blondie’ is referred to as the singer, rather than the band. No excuse for that, not even communism.

**

10 March 2020. I see Portrait of a Lady on Fire at the Rio. Another historical gay romance, this time among women during the late 18th century, in a crumbling coastal château. The film dares to be slow and quiet, and lets the lingering gazes really linger. It’s a film about looking, particularly women looking at women, as opposed to Orlando, in which the gazing is queer but androgynous. Men are close to absent. The only line in this film said by a man is ‘Good morning’.  

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11 March 2020. The UK now has over 400 cases, with 6 deaths, and it’s thought there’ll be much more. Assuming the virus will be defeated, it’s likely there will be more in its wake, unless humans change their crowded, globe-trotting ways. Looking for a silver lining, I wonder if air travel will become occasional and special again, even glamorous, rather than constant and humdrum. When I was at primary school, before the days of budget airlines, a nine-year-old classmate gave a talk about being on a plane; it was that unusual. I wasn’t aware that schools now took whole classes on Alpine skiing trips until the current news.

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13 March 2020. The coronavirus has become a pandemic. The government has moved from ‘contain’ to ‘delay’. Birkbeck has cancelled its face-to-face classes. The library remains open today, though, as does Senate House Library, where I write in my rented carrel. This is a small lockable one-person study room, so I like to think this is self-isolating enough. Nevertheless, I’ve made sure that if I suddenly have to work from home, there’s nothing exclusive in the carrel that I need.

The challenge is to write about the virus without infecting the reader with cliché. Disease itself is of limited interest, unless you’re in medicine. Say something else, say something different.

**

All is Decameron cosplay now. One theme of the Decameron is the need to tell stories at a time of plague. Anecdotes, useful advice, fake news are all shared narratives, told within a frame story. The same tradition includes the Panchantra and the Canterbury Tales. A frame structure suggests a bandage effect; a need for containing and healing. There’s also a sense of infinite stories within the frame, like the 1001 Nights tales, told to stay an execution. Even a sci-fi blockbuster like Inception touches on this: Mr Leo and Mr Cillian have their traumas healed through dreams framed within dreams. And now we retweet to connect and heal, whether through anecdotes, observations, or jokes. As Ms Didion put it, we tell ourselves stories in order to live. But when we really feel in danger, we frame stories. We go deep.

The phrase ‘doing the rounds’ applies to jokes, observations, and anecdotes as much as diseases, hence ‘going viral’. Social media may be new, responding to plagues with storytelling is not.

Today (noon on Friday 13th March) I do not have one of the two key symptoms, a cough or a fever, at least not yet. Though I do have a dry throat and a flushed sensation that I’ve had before, one which doesn’t show up as a high temperature. What I think I have today is not a dose of the virus, but a dose of high anxiety.

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Evening: to the National Portrait Gallery for the exhibition Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things. I decide it would be okay to go as long as I avoid crowds. I go during the NPG’s Friday late night slot, after the day-trippers from the regions have gone home. There’s only a few people in each room, and I keep my distance.

The walls, on the other hand, are crowded with beautiful ghosts. All the 1920s glamour and parties one can imagine. Lots of silver walls, glitter and shininess, all in Beaton’s exquisite black and white, plus a few paintings by Rex Whistler and the like. All the gang’s here. A young Evelyn Waugh cradling his pint of Guinness. Stephen Tennant lying down in profile as Prince Charming, first seen for me on the cover of an El Records sleeve. Today I own some of Tennant’s manuscripts.

There is a mention of Firbank in Beaton’s description of Sacheverell Sitwell: ‘He held forth, in the deepest coke-crackle voice, on such diverse subjects as the castrati, Offenbach, Norman wreaths, Ingres or Ronald Firbank’, while smoking Turkish cigarettes in ‘boyish, unformed hands’. Lots of 1920s cosplay. A young Beaton dresses up as King Cnut, sitting on a throne on a beach, close to the waves. His gesture to the sea is not the usual raised palm in ‘stop!’ mode, but a wagging finger. ‘Now, now, you naughty waves….’

A Beaton quote: ‘When I photographed Steven Runciman wearing his black hair in a fringe with a budgerigar poised on his ringed finger, looking obliquely into the camera in the manner of the Italian primitives, I knew I had not lived in vain.’ All this English camp was a response to the trauma of the First World War, just as the camp of Weimar Berlin responded to the Nazis. Camp often seems frivolous, even inappropriate, to others. But to some, camp is survival.

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Saturday 14 March 2020. In the carrel. The lobby for the main Senate House building now has a large red sign saying ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19)’, followed by a status message. Yesterday this read ‘Business as usual’. Today it says: ‘Large events postponed. Avoid handshaking. Social distancing encouraged.’

Quentin Crisp once said: ‘There is danger in numbers’. So now we have a new definition for dandyism: self-distancing with style.

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Sunday 15 March 2020. One joke doing the rounds, along with the virus, is about men having to talk to their wives for the first time, because of the cancellation of football matches. I am so grateful for being weird sometimes.

After looking at Twitter for a while today, exposing myself to so much news, hearsay, speculation, and terror, I make myself physically ill from information alone. Social distancing must include social media. Not isolation, not dependency, just moderation.

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