Thursday 22nd September 2016. I read this year’s shortlist for the BBC National Short Story Award. All five stories are by women, including Hilary Mantel and Lavinia Greenlaw. Were it down to me I’d give first prize to Ms Greenlaw’s ‘The Darkest Place in England’. It’s a tale of teenage life in a part of rural England where the skies are free from light pollution, hence the title. My runner up would be Mantel’s ‘In a Right State’, about the regular characters one sees in an A&E ward.
A few days later, my choice fails to agree with the judges’, who anoint KJ Orr as winner, with Claire-Louise Bennett as runner up. Both stories are perfectly well-written, it’s just that I feel the Greenlaw and Mantel entries connected more with me. One of my criteria is to notice if a piece of writing gets me underlining a memorable phrase in pen – I always read them on paper. Out of the shortlist, it was only the Greenlaw and Mantel stories that had me reaching for my Bic Orange Fine.
Ms Bennett is getting attention as one of the new trend of Irish writers who are influenced by James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, along with Eimear McBride. The Bennett story in this shortlist is full of Beckettian monologue and thought-stream, with touches of Woolf’s ‘Mark on the Wall’ too. I read Ms McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing recently, and like the Bennett story I admired it but found myself yearning for a little skylight of exteriority. A Modernist Style Is A Hard-Going Thing.
My favourite phrase in the Mantel entry captures the hand-gel dispensers in hospitals. One joke I’ve heard about these is that they make everyone in hospitals look like they’ve just thought of a cunning plan. Ms Mantel has another comparison in her story:
‘Sombrely she hand-gels herself, like jesting Pilate’.
The Lavinia Greenlaw story goes one better, with a line spoken by one teenage girl to another, during the latter’s first visit to a night club. Not only is it memorable and witty, it also encapsulates character, place and time:
‘Remember the rules. Don’t queue in groups of more than three, ditch the lads and don’t smile’.
Sunday 25th September 2016. To Tate Britain for Painting With Light, a juxtaposition of photography and paintings from the mid 1800s up to the early 1900s. The exhibition shows the way the two mediums influenced each other, with paintings becoming more realistic and detailed, and photographs emulating the poses and subject matter of paintings. Some familiar works are here, like Wallis’s Chatterton, but this time they’re used to show their photographic spin-offs. There’s a 3D stereogram of Chatterton, where some Victorian male model has mimicked the reclining corpse of the poet. Funny how depictions of suicide now often carry a ‘trigger warning’, while the Chatteron painting and its imitative photographs are deemed perfectly family-friendly. It’s a snuff movie as a painting. But then, so is Ophelia.
Rosetti’s Proserpine is also here – the one with the woman holding a half-eating pomegranate. It’s a painting so often reproduced that it all but bounces off my vision when I look at it, like a repelled magnet. I’ve not been to the Louvre, but it’s how I imagine seeing the Mona Lisa. An image so firmly fused into one’s memory that one’s brain goes into a state of unease when encountering the real thing. Two opposite reactions struggle to take control. There’s the starstruck, selfie-grabbing reaction: ‘I can’t believe it! It’s that famous painting! And I’m here with it!’ And there’s the resentful one: ‘What a cliché this painting is! I’ve seen it so many times that it’s become bland and meaningless. It’s been killed through overexposure.’
But here Proserpine comes alive, freshened up by its position alongside photographs and illustrations of similar wistful maidens clutching pomegranates. Wilde’s House of Pomegranates is here too, and one can now see how Rickett’s illustrations for the book were a nod to the Rossetti painting and its various photographic imitations. Something about that particular fruit made it an essential prop for images of women at the time: exotic, sensual. A craze of pomegranates, in fact.
(Which sounds like Marks and Spencer’s attempts to give their packets of dried fruit silly names. ‘Mango Madness!’ ‘A Craze of Pomegranates!’).
Then to the Royal Festival Hall’s riverside café, where I witness the BBC Radio 3 pop-up studio in action. It’s a large transparent box bisected into two rooms: a control room with an outer door, and an inner sanctum of a studio. The actors Fiona Shaw and Robert Glenister are seated in the latter, performing for the public vocally, yet otherwise pretending that the crowd gawping in at them is not really there. They are reading the texts for the ‘Words and Music’ programme, as it goes out live. A pair of speakers outside the box broadcast the show at a modest volume, but for a better experience one can approach some youthful BBC staff in t-shirts, who loan out special Radio 3 wireless headphones, which only work in the café. It’s like a Radio One Roadshow for the delicate.
This is all to mark Radio 3’s 70th anniversary. When it began in 1946 as the Third Programme, a BBC statement at the time said the station was intended to be ‘new and ambitious’ and ‘evidence of national vigour’ after the war. I watch Ms Shaw exert her vigour on TS Eliot as I queue for my latte.
Wednesday 28th September 2016. To the Camden Odeon for Bridget Jones’s Baby. I’m waiting in the foyer for a female friend – name redacted for reasons which will become clear – when I realise that in a crowded foyer, I am the only male in sight. Overwhelmingly, this film seems to attract pairs of women, and youngish women at that. Mostly late twenties. Given the heroine is in her forties, and indeed much of the film is about the ups and downs of being a forty-something, it seems odd that the bulk of this audience should be of a younger stripe. Perhaps it’s a Camden thing.
The most intriguing moment occurs when the Patrick Dempsey character returns to his Glastonbury yurt after a one-night stand with Ms Jones. He turns up with a tray of coffees and croissants, only to discover that she, mortified about the liaison, has fled. It’s at this point that my particular audience emits a huge female sigh en masse – ‘aww!’ – purely at the sight of breakfast in bed. It surprises my friend, too, who is closer to Bridget J’s age. We wonder later if today’s young women crave breakfast in bed as a romantic ideal, much more so than their elders. Perhaps the rise of Tinder and the general digitisation of love has amplified the appeal of more physical treats.
Bridget Jones’s Baby turns out to be much funnier than it needs to be. After the Absolutely Fabulous movie, which really did just tick the boxes for pleasing the fans, this one makes some sharp satirical quips on social mores. Here we have the perils of search engines, the rise of hipster beards, Middle Englanders having to move with the progressive times, and most of all, the now-common experience of ‘geriatric’ mothers. ‘Geriatric’ is still the medical term, as the film points out, for a pregnant 40-something.
Our evening ends on a somewhat less fun note when we repair to the Good Mixer, now joined by my friend’s boyfriend. We enjoy a couple of drinks for about an hour, but are then suddenly confronted by the bar’s owner. Accompanied by a muscled bouncer, he pulls up a chair opposite our seats and proceeds to interrogate my friend about her behaviour on a previous occasion. She is outraged and defiant, her boyfriend is protective, the argument becomes a repetitive loop of accusations (as all arguments do) and I’m shrinking into my seat. We eventually leave to a volley of execrations shouted across the darkness of Inverness Street. I’m just relieved it didn’t come to blows.
I don’t think I’m barred – the owner apologised to me – but I wonder if this is the last time I can go to the Good Mixer. Still, other bars are available.
Thursday 29th September 2016. To Suffolk to stay with Mum. We watch the new DVD of Akenfield together. I note the scene where the Suffolk workers go on a day trip to Southwold.
Friday 30th September 2016. And fittingly enough, we go on a day trip to Southwold. We’re treated to lunch on the pier by Mum’s friend Mary Gough, who owns the whole pier as a business. She tells me about the graffiti artist responsible for the huge George Orwell mural on the wall nearest the beach end: ‘He goes by the name of Pure Evil, but he’s very nice, really.’
I have a go on one of the arcade games in Tim Hunkin’s ingenious and satirical Under The Pier Show. This game is a new addition for 2016, ‘The Housing Ladder’. The player has to stand on the rungs of an actual ladder and frantically move its side rails up and down. This makes a little figure inside the machine rise to the top of its own ladder in order to reach the goal: a home. An ‘Age Indicator’ ticks away the time: if the player doesn’t get the house by the time he’s 80, it’s game over. Several ‘villains’ pop out of doors on the way up, making the figure fall back down the ladder. The villains in this case are The Foreign Buyer, The Developer, The Buy to Let Owner, and The Second Home Buyer. I make it to the house at the age of 70. ‘Good luck with that,’ says Mum.
Then a walk into town, via the Sailors’ Reading Room, which is one of my favourite places in the world. I also browse in the Southwold Bookshop, and buy a novel that’s being promoted as a recommended reissue: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, from 1978. Fitzgerald’s inspiration was the bookshop that used to be on the other side of Southwold High Street. I visited it during our family’s regular holidays in the town since the mid-1980s.
This newer emporium is really a branch of Waterstones pretending to be an indie, at least aesthetically. All traces of company branding have been removed in order to please the locals. Almost all: the receipt informs me of my ‘Waterstones Reward Points’. I wonder if this might be the future of high streets: branches of corporate franchises pretending to be unique local businesses. Pubs already do that.
Evening: We were going to watch a DVD of Terence Davies’s Sunset Song, but I’m keen to finish the set text I’m reading, Jackie Kay’s Trumpet. At the back of the book is a new interview with Ms Kay, in which she discusses how Trumpet couldn’t be set in the internet era, because it’s so much harder to keep a secret. I think of the exposing of JT LeRoy and more recently, Elena Ferrante.
Ms Kay also discusses her influences in Scottish literature. One of the books she mentions is Sunset Song, the novel behind the film. It got me in the end.
Saturday 1st October. Off the train at Liverpool Street, and straight over to the Liverpool St branch of Wahaca, the Mexican food chain. The occasion is Tom’s one year anniversary for being sober: no mean feat if you play guitar for a living, which means regularly being in bars and licensed venues. About twenty friends turn up for this meal, all eschewing alcohol by way of tribute. It’s my first restaurant meal to be paid for via an app; the calculation of who ordered what is thus made much simpler.
Sunday 2nd October 2016. To the Royal Academy for the David Hockney show, 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life. It’s the last day, and the gallery is absolutely packed (or ‘ram-packed’, as Jeremy Corbyn would have it). The portraits are all standardised in a kind of handmade tribute to Warhol: the same size, the same chair, the same simple background of two horizontal blocks of colour, though the colours are sometimes switched. The show suggests that painted portraits take on a new meaning in the age of the selfie. But more personally, it’s a touching record of his friends. If the measure of friendship today is tapping one’s finger on the word ‘Like’, painting someone’s portrait is a ‘Like’ of true commitment; three days’ work each one. The subjects are Hockney’s friends, including Barry Humphries (very dandified, in tie and fedora), and Celia Birtwell, of Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy fame.
Tuesday 4th October 2016. A day trip to Brighton, partly because I enjoyed Southwold so much and fancied another dose of the seaside, while the weather was still warm (just about). But also because Dennis Cooper’s new film is getting a screening at the Duke of York’s Picture House, and I seem to have missed it in London.
In the afternoon I walk on the pier and write letters in the café. The seagulls seem to be more aggressive than usual, hovering close to people in number. One touches momentarily on a woman’s head. She laughs it off, but it makes me stick to walking under the pier’s canopies.
I stop off at a new café in York Place, The Yellow Book. It’s decorated in Aubrey Beardsley illustrations, and calls itself ‘Britain’s First Steampunk Bar’. The bar man has a bowler hat with goggles on the brim. There’s some contemporary art on the wall with a steampunk theme. I wonder if they’d exhibit Dad’s Captain Biplane comic art; people were always telling him it was steampunk avant la lettre.
Then to the Duke of York’s cinema. The Dennis Cooper film, Like Cattle Towards Glow is really a series of five short films, each one touching on Mr Cooper’s trademark transgressive themes: trauma and gay sexuality, the world of male escorts, obsession, the death of pretty boys (in the tradition of Chatterton), and youthful vulnerability. In some ways, Mr Cooper is a more X-rated descendent of AE Housman.
Some of the film is unsettling, some of it is surreally funny. There’s several moments of explicit sex which make Brokeback Mountain look like a Disney cartoon. But the final story is virtually U-certificate: a woman uses drones and CCTV cameras to conduct a relationship with a homeless young man (a little like the Andrew Arnold film Red Road).
After the screening there’s a Q&A with Mr Cooper, along with his director Zac Farley and a couple of academics from the nearby University of Sussex. The event is supported by two of the university’s departments: the Centre For American Studies, and the Centre For The Study Of Sexual Dissidence. I assume at first that this must be a recent groovy development, but it turns out the Centre has been going for 25 years. It’s known on campus as ‘Sex Diss’. All very Brighton. I get Mr C to sign a copy of his book of essays, Smothered By Hugs.
Thursday 6th October 2016. First class of the new college year, and the start of my sixth year as a student at Birkbeck. This term’s module for the MA is ‘Post-War to Contemporary’. Tonight is an induction class, discussing the various artistic movements since 1945.
There must be a little chaos behind the scenes, as the room is changed at 3.30pm in the afternoon, for a class that begins at 6. An email goes out , but as I don’t have a smartphone I don’t get it in time. Myself and another phone-less student are left sitting like fools in the previously-announced room at the BMA building in Tavistock Square. No indication of a change here: no sign on the door. We only realise something is wrong when 6pm comes and goes, and no one else has turned up. Thankfully I’m texted on my non-smart phone by Jassy, one of my fellow students. I rush off and make it to the new room in Torrington Square, several blocks away, and am thus 15 minutes late. I hope this isn’t the beginning of a ‘zero hours’ approach to students.
Thinking back now, it’s an indication that the world increasingly expects people to be constantly online and checking their emails. In my case though, I have to go offline and off-phone for hours at a time or I can’t concentrate. I wonder if this is a new way of being ‘difficult’.
Friday 7th October 2016. Meeting with my personal tutor, Grace Halden, in Gordon Square. I don’t finish the MA until September of next year, but I’m now starting to look into what I should do with myself after that. Grace H thinks I’m a ‘perfect’ candidate for doing a PHD. It seems to be possible to be paid a full-time salary for such a thing. I have to keep up the good marks, though. And my PHD needs to be ‘crucial to the international field’, if I’m to receive funding. This will be the tricky part. I sometimes struggle to feel I have any intrinsic worth as a human being, let alone a ‘crucial’ one.
Saturday 8th October 2016. With Tom to the Islington Screen on the Green, to see Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie. Like many people on their first trip to the venue, Tom is delighted by the sense of luxury, never mind the film. There are plush sofas, foot stools, and a bar at the back of the screening room. The staff even bring your drinks to your seat.
At one point in the Theroux film the camera glances at a cease-and-desist letter received from the Church of Scientology’s lawyers. I make out the words ‘BBC’ and ‘John Sweeney’. Mr Sweeney was the reporter whose own attempts to converse with a Scientologist a few years ago, for Panorama, left him shouting at the top of his voice.
Mr Theroux is much better suited to the job. When the Scientologists turn up with their own cameraman, who refuses to reply to Theroux’s questions, Theroux gets out his phone – a cheap little flip-up one – and holds it up to the man’s camera in response, like a crucifix in a vampire film. They both stand like this for several seconds.
It’s more silly than aggressive, and a move that I think only Louis Theroux could make. His approach is often called ‘faux-naïve’, but it’s closer to a kind of weaponised passivity. It also helps to make the film unique, given the umpteen documentaries on the subject. Even Jon Ronson, whose journalistic style and taste is close to Theroux’s, wouldn’t hold up his phone like that.
Evening: to the Rich Mix in Bethnal Green for another film documentary: Supersonic, about the band Oasis. Despite this being the film’s opening weekend, Supersonic only seems to be playing in two central London cinemas tonight. I wonder if this is to do with the way music documentaries have a much narrower appeal than documentaries about other subjects: the Theroux screening was packed. The exception was Amy, because it was more of a biography about a tragic public figure who happened to work in music. Supersonic can’t even claim to look into a pop cultural moment, as the recent Beatlemania film, Eight Days A Week did, as Oasis never quite reached that level. There were no Oasis Boots and Wigs on sale, no spin-off cartoon series and films. There were a very popular band, but ultimately just that: a band.
Rather cheekily, the film leaves out any mention of Blur or Britpop, even though it purports to tell the story of the band, up till their enormous Knebworth concerts of 1996. According to this film, no other guitar bands existed in the 1990s. No wonder so many people came to their shows: there apparently weren’t any others to go to. These days, history is rewritten by the documentary makers.
That aside, the anecdotes about the Gallagher brothers and their endless spats and scrapes are imaginatively presented here, using lots of lively animations of letters and photos. The film moves quickly, and the melodies still impress. I remember hearing ‘Supersonic’ when it came out and thinking how ingenious it was to meld the aggressive, swaggering grind of Happy Mondays (the verses) with the aching, fuzzy sweetness of Teenage Fanclub (the choruses). ‘Live Forever’ and ‘Wonderwall’ were similarly impressive; what they lacked in intellectual prowess they made up for in heartfelt drive and emotion. It’s unlikely that their lyrics will ever merit a Nobel Prize, but the film certainly illustrates what a lot of fun it must have been, to be Liam and Noel Gallagher in the 1990s.
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, BBC National Short Story Award
, bridget jones's baby
, captain biplane
, david hockney
, dennis cooper
, good mixer
, Hilary Mantel
, Lavinia Greenlaw
, like cattle towards glow
, louis theroux
, my scientology movie
, painting with light
, royal academy
, southwold pier
, supersonic film
, tate britain
, the yellow book
, tim hunkin
, Tom Edwards
, under the pier
Monday 11th July 2016. I’m ashamed to have let this diary go fallow for longer than usual. There’s no excuse other than the despair brought on by general worries about money, or my lack of it, or my career, or my lack of one, or the usual anxieties over various health problems. Though I have yet to be diagnosed with anything other than that – anxiety. But there it is.
Listening to In Our Time today, I note how Melvyn Bragg gently steers his contributors to stop the discussion going off on a tangent. ‘We’re running out of time, so… what’s the most important thing you haven’t said?’
That’s such a good question to ask oneself when writing. It can apply when hitting a block, or when revising a piece for publication. What’s the most important thing you’ve not said?
In the London Library, reading an essay that argues how Muriel Spark’s style is a form of dandyism. It’s an interesting thesis, based mainly on Spark’s love of Max Beerbohm, but I’m not sure it holds up. The author soon goes on to do a general, trainspotter-y appraisal of her work, with the dandyism idea all but forgotten. Were it an essay submitted to be marked at a university, its lack of focus would prevent it from getting the highest grade, the one that indicates the work is ‘good enough to be published’. And yet here it is, published.
But of course, the real lesson is that it’s better to put out flawed work than no work at all. And that if I think I can do better (and I do), I should hurry up and put out some books of my own.
Tuesday 11th July 2016. Evidence of a high ‘Threat Level’ when I visit the Museum of London. Last time, a few months ago, I simply walked into the galleries from the street, or rather from the Barbican estate’s walkways. Today it’s like going through customs. In addition to having one’s bag searched, visitors have to take anything metal off their person and put it in a Perspex tray. Then a security guard asks you to spread your arms so he can scan your body with an electronic wand. All this, so I can use the café and toilets. Visiting the BBC’s Broadcasting House is even worse though, with my bag shoved on a conveyor belt so it can go through an x-ray machine. It’s easier to rob a bank than it is to appear on Woman’s Hour.
Reading Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. It’s a set text on my MA course, and also appears in the recent BBC poll of 100 Great British Novels, the one chosen by over 80 non-British critics, where Middlemarch came top. I’m bemused that Angela Carter’s novels are absent from that list. Not even Nights at the Circus is included, a book that kept springing to mind as I read The Passion. Winterson’s book has the same mixture of magical realism and historical fiction, the same backdrop of 80s feminism, and the same heroine with a fantastical body – or at least, a body that may or may not be fantastical. Where Carter’s Fevvers has wings, Winterson’s Villanelle has webbed feet that allow her to walk on water. The key difference is in tone, so I wonder if that’s why the international critics prefer Winterson to Carter. Carter is more baroque and mocking, perhaps even hostile, while Winterson is more wistful and romantic. I’d say Winterson is closer in spirit to Woolf’s Orlando, which is also in the BBC list. Winterson seeks a balance between the imaginative and the universal. Carter, meanwhile, has less interest in meeting the reader halfway; the reader needs to leap fully into her arms. But while Winterson ends with ‘Trust me’, Carter has ‘I fooled you!’
To the Barbican for Maggie’s Plan, a new film with Greta Gerwig. It’s yet another chatty New York comedy of manners, the kind Ms G is now synonymous with. Here she plays an academic – a bluestocking who wears actual blue stockings in one scene, as part of what can only be called Hipster Quaker Chic.
Despite its US setting, the world of Maggie’s Plan is the closest to my current life that I’ve seen in the cinema. Ethan Hawke’s arts tutor is seen reading The Paris Review in bed, or sitting in college seminars discussing the use of V For Vendetta masks in Occupy demonstrations, or getting excited about an event because ‘Zizek’s speaking!’ These are all things I’ve done myself at Birkbeck.
The Zizek joke is probably lost on most non-academics. Most people go about their lives in happy ignorance of Mr Zizek. Enrol at a university today, though, and you will never hear the end of him. Judith Butler is another campus pin-up; Fredric Jameson likewise. All industries, even those that look down on celebrity culture, have their own celebrities. I think of the phrase Anita Brookner said about great writers: ‘saints for the godless’.
Wednesday 13th July 2016. Mr Cameron leaves Downing Street, handing over the keys to the Thatcher-esque Theresa May. She in turn anoints Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. What with this and the Labour party in disarray over its leadership, British politics has never felt more unstable, even unreal. But then it’s the same in America, with the unlikely Mr Trump. He is a master of what the internet calls ‘trolling’: saying provocative things for attention. It used to be a tactic for lonely Star Trek fans trying to get attention on message boards. Now it’s a career plan for columnists and politicians.
The world is now so jaded that it can only go for the option that looks the most like sugary, knee-jerk fun. It’s more fun to either be outrageously right-wing, or to pay attention to the outrageously right-wing. Twitter makes Daily Mail readers of people who used to cross the road to avoid being seen with the newspaper. ‘Look at what this right-wing newspaper or person has said now.’ Link. Attention paid, career made.
If you don’t mind being hated by strangers, the world is at your feet.
Thursday 14th July 2016. One summer project is that I’m working on a book of my selected diary entries from 1997 to now, one that can hold up as a decent work of memoir. It would be honed down to the more useful parts, the lines of hope to the lonely and strange, along with the lines that present an alternative chronicle of London. A less heard voice, one hopes. Proposed title: Dysfunctional Dandy. I’ll put it together first, then seek out a publisher. It needs to be about the size of Woolf’s Writer’s Diary.
Friday 15th July 2016. Took an online vocabulary test. ‘Top 0.01%. You are Shakespeare!’
Saturday 16th July 2016. To the Photographer’s Gallery off Oxford Circus, to see the exhibition Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity. A proper summer is now finally upon London, with temperatures over 30 C, so air conditioned galleries like the PG become ideal places to cool off.
The dandyism show is curated by Ekow Eshun, and it’s really his idea of what the slippery d-word means. Dandyism rather than dandies: a practice rather than an identity. Eshun regards black dandyism as a form of protest and subversion, linking it with quotes by Fanon such as:
‘I grasp my narcissism with both hands and turn my back on the degradation of those who would make me a mere mechanism.’ – Black Skin, White Masks.
I bristle, however, when Eshun muddles the definition by including images of men in duos or groups. Dandyism is dependent on individuality, on standing ‘on an isolated pedestal of self’, as Ellen Moers has it in her book The Dandy. A group of young men posing in unusual clothes is not dandyism, but subculture.
Otherwise, the show impresses, cramming a wide range of history and geography into a couple of rooms. From Soweto to Mali to New York, and from the early 1900s to the present. The question of dandyism redefining masculinity is also addressed: I love Kristen-Lee Moolman’s portrait of a South African man in a flared white suit with bare shoulders, matching pearl earrings and necklace, standing defiantly in a tough-looking township.
Am smug to notice that a huge image from the set of Isaac Julien’s 1989 film Looking for Langston includes the staircase of the Midland Grand hotel in St Pancras, years before the Spice Girls used it for ‘Wannabe’. In an alcove, a display of books and albums makes valid connections between dandyism, musicians like Prince, and the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, thus bringing the show right up to date.
I bump into Stephen Eastwood, who is with his friend Caroline. Am delighted to be spotted wandering around a dandyism exhibition. There’s a moving slideshow in the foyer called ‘What Soho Wore’, consisting of images of club goers through the decades. Caroline poses in front of one of the images. It’s of her younger self in the late 90s, standing on another recognisable staircase – the red-painted one at the Ghetto club near Tottenham Court Road station. The Ghetto was demolished by the Crossrail works, so any photos of its clientele preserve the building as much as the people.
I myself have appeared in a similar set of photos on the Vice website, on 90s and early 2000s nightlife. The photographer is Adam Friedman. My one is from the club Trash.
Photo by Adam Friedman. Taken from the Vice article ‘Photos of People Looking Joyful and Unbothered in 80s and 90s Clubs’.
Someone linked to it online saying ‘Look, a young Dickon Edwards’.
I shuddered. A feeling that the game’s up. Or at least, that game’s up. But also that my history is now History, capital H. I was there. I was a camera, now I am an archive. The game now, at the age of 44, is to work out how best to mine this strata of experience, this bank of knowledge that no one under 40 has, so it can fuel a viable income.
I take a look at the other main exhibition, Terence Donovan: Speed of Light. I knew about Donovan’s reputation as a chronicler of Swinging London in the 1960s, so seeing images of a young Terence Stamp, Julie Christie and the other usual 60s faces is no surprise. What I didn’t know was that Mr Donavan was also behind that most heterosexual of 1980s pop videos, Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’. The video plays on a large screen in the gallery. Mr Palmer mimes in shirt and tie, looking the epitome of the American Psycho alpha male, while his backing ‘band’ are a group of identically-styled female fashion models, all in slicked-back hair and slinky black dresses, posing like dead-eyed mannequins, and barely able to mime to their instruments at the same time. There’s a Christmassy parody of the video in Love Actually, with Bill Nighy instead of Palmer, and the models in Santa hats.
Most fascinating of all is Donovan’s typed proposal for the ‘Addicted To Love’ concept, making it clear how the glossy and sexist world of advertising was the whole point of the video. He asks for a group of ‘models in Azzedine Alaia dresses – he produces clothes that make men become quite irrational… Hair should be slicked flat and shiny… [the models should be] repositories of sensuality… The video should be saturated in the unyielding quality that really sensational women possess… Any 20 seconds of it would be just as powerful as seeing the full video’. Which is quite true: it’s not so much a performance as a tableau.
A further 80s video by Mr Donovan plays in the exhibition, ‘Madame Butterfly’ by Malcolm McLaren. Again, Donovan parades lots of skinny, slick-haired models, though this time they’re less robotic and more sensual, sweating skimpily in a Sapphoerotic sauna, giving each other slow massages, while never, ever smiling (this is the 1980s). It reminds me of that Burne-Jones painting at the Tate, The Golden Stairs, where all the women have the same face. Female beauty – white female beauty – as a shored-up abstraction, without any troublesome trace of individuality. It makes the Terence Donovan show a rather good contrast with the black male dandyism show downstairs.
Tuesday 19th July 2016. To a basement lecture hall in Birkbeck’s Torrington Square building, for a discussion of Deleuze and psychoanalysis. I’m mainly there because, as Maggie’s Plan has it, ‘Zizek’s speaking!’ Slavoj Zizek has been officially attached to Birkbeck for some years, as International Director of the Institute of Humanities. Despite this I’ve never seen him speak after five years of being an arts student there. So tonight I fix that, and am not disappointed.
His distinctive voice arrives several seconds before the rest of him, chatting to the other people on the panel as they enter together. He is satisfyingly loud and animated, with that heavy East European accent and lateral lisp; proof that a speech impediment need be no impediment to public speaking. I take some personal comfort from this, as a lateral lisper myself. And then there’s his catchphrase, ‘And so on, and so on’. Other speakers at his events don’t stand a chance.
That said, Aaron Schuster, whose new book The Trouble With Pleasure the event is nominally about, does his best to hold his own. The discussion centres on the nature of complaining – how much pleasure is there in making a complaint? Is it ‘the motor of creation’? Sophocles’s line for Oedipus is an example of the Pure Complaint, one with no remedy – ‘It would be better to have never been born’. The talk takes in the Jewish word ‘kvetch’, the idea that all operas are based on complaints, and the dignity of prisoners in Auschwitz, when they complained about the food. I’d say that a large amount of social media is about The Complaint too, as a primary expression of basic existence. On Twitter, a common sentiment is ‘I complain therefore I am’. FFS ergo sum.
Wednesday 20th July. To the BFI Southbank, still called the National Film Theatre on some of the signposts at Waterloo. I see the newly restored print of Akenfield (1974). The film is directed by Peter Hall and adapted from the Ronald Blythe book, but it’s also, as the opening credit has it in large and proud letters, ‘made by the people of Suffolk’. The sweeping Tippett music is all the more effective when blasting out of auditorium speakers; a reminder that it’s worth going to the cinema for the sound as much as the visuals. There’s a Q&A afterwards with two of the actors, Garrow Shand and Barbara Tilney, plus the producer Rex Pyke. Mr Shand says he appeared in the film by answering an advert in the East Anglian Daily Times. It was looking for local young men who could ‘act and drive a plough’. He grew up on a farm, so the ploughing part came naturally. Akenfield’s strange, organic style manages to nod to both experimental European cinema and English community stage plays, though Ms Tilney now compares the use of non-actors to The Only Way Is Essex, ‘except in the past’.
I stick around in the BFI to see another restored old film, Burroughs: The Movie, a documentary on the Naked Lunch author from 1983. William S Burroughs’s dandyism impresses: three piece suits, hats and ties. A well-dressed corpse. He shows the camera his collection of weapons, stashed around his bedroom. A machete in a sock drawer, a pistol under the pillow. ‘You seem well prepared for a home invasion,’ says the director. ‘Well… I’m hoping there won’t ever be one,’ says Burroughs. ‘I deplore violence.’
Friday 22nd July 2016. Finish reading Miranda Sawyer’s Out of Time, her book on the mid-life crisis. I picked it up partly because of my own mid-life worries, but also because she’s roughly the same generation as me, and was a music journalist during the 1990s. She half-jokes, half-complains at one point about only being asked to appear on TV whenever there’s a discussion of Britpop or Madchester. Amusingly, though, she does begin one sentence with the words, ‘Shaun Ryder once said to me…’
She discusses how the term ‘mid-life’ was coined in the 60s and taken seriously in the 70s. Since the 80s, though, it became the butt of jokes and humour books. Indeed, one of the current bestselling books is The Ladybird Book of the Mid-Life Crisis, one of the umpteen Ladybird parodies. Why isn’t this choice of subject matter questioned, asks Ms Sawyer, and I agree with her. Why would, say, The Ladybird Book of Mental Illness be thought in bad taste, but the mid-life crisis is fair game?
Ms Sawyer suggests that as her own generation were the children of rave culture, they became the first to truly refuse to grow up, pursuing personal bliss as a priority. She says that at the height of the Ecstasy years, there was an article in a newsletter for clubbers imploring them not to quit their day jobs. The author – a rave promoter – was genuinely worried that society would fall apart.
The problem now, says Ms Sawyer, is that many of this freelance-heavy generation may be making a living, but live on much tighter budget than their forty-something counterparts in the past. Thanks to the internet killing off print, the fees in journalism are now pitiful, even for those with decades of experience. I’m a little shocked when she mentions she only has a couple of hundred pounds in her bank account, and that she can’t afford to upgrade her gardenless London flat. On top of this, she’s raising two children, the second of which she had at the age of 44 – something which is also increasingly common.
Of her advice to fellow mid-lifers, I like her tip about spending no more than two hours at a party, such as from 9.30pm to 11.30pm. No one really cares how long you’re at a party for. Just being there to say hello is enough to keep friendships fresh. Certainly fresher than only ever making contact on social media.
Tuesday 27th July 2016. I meet Charlie M in the Brill Café in Exmouth Market. The café is partly a record shop, selling new vinyl and CDs. Today it has the new Radiohead and the new Bat For Lashes. How funny to think that vinyl has become the connoisseurs’ format, and more expensive than CDs. It was the other way around in the late 80s, with CDs as the pricier, more elitist option. Some vinyl reissues are rebranded with the word ‘legacy’.
Charlie and I walk to the Victoria Miro gallery to see the Yayoi Kusama show, only to find there’s a queue some hundred-strong, stretching all the way down Wharf Road. Thankfully we agree that no art is worth that amount of queuing, not in a city so stuffed with alternatives. We head off to see the Punk 1976-78 exhibition at the British Library instead. The same space has had queues itself, for the Alice in Wonderland display late last year, but I’m confident that fewer tourists are drawn to Johnny Rotten. Music divides more than fiction, and punk rock still has a baffling or even frightening aspect, I think.
At a British Library talk on the exhibition recently, it was reported that Viv Albertine, the guitarist from the Slits, scrawled some graffiti on one of the information panels, the one that introduces the whole display. She accused the text of perpetuating punk rock as a boys’ club, and crossed off ‘Sex Pistols’, ‘the Clash’ to write in ‘X Ray Spex’, ‘Siouxsie and the Banshees’ and ‘The Slits’. She also signed these annotations. The BL has left them intact some weeks later. I suppose it helps that (a) the graffiti is in the spirit of the exhibition, and (b) Ms Albertine is a piece of Punk Rock History herself.
On another panel, Gina Birch’s name is misspelt as ‘Gina Burch’. I’m tempted to get out a pen and correct that myself. But I am not a legend of punk rock.
Wednesday 28th July 2016. To the Hampstead Everyman with Jon S, to see Star Trek Beyond. £10 with my NUS card, but it’s worth it for the luxurious sofas, each one detached from the rest of the row. No juddering sensations caused by the kicks of other customers.
The new Star Trek film is the expected parade of non-stop explosions and nick-of-time action, but there’s a handful of original visuals that make it worthwhile. Not least of these is the make-up for the swashbuckling alien woman. Her character’s skin is chalk white, with black ink-blot markings, a little like the zebra dancers in the Penguin Café Orchestra’s ballet. Despite all the advances in CGI, it’s the physical design touches like this that stick in the mind.
There’s an article by Catherine Shoard in the Guardian this week that remarks on the trend for Hollywood films to cut down on dialogue and play up the visuals, so the films can play better in foreign markets. What with Instagram and emojis, the world is become more image-based. The rising popularity of cosplay, that love of dressing up at fan conventions, has made the craft of costume and make-up just as important as computer graphics.
Much of Corbyn’s popularity might be down to the cosplay compatibility of his appearance. He is the wise old wizard of every grand narrative; a Gandalf, a Dumbledore, a Ben Kenobi. His nemesis Owen Smith, meanwhile, resembles an estate agent who seems always on the verge of delivering bad news.
Thursday 29th July 2016. Lunch with Charley S in the BBC Club, near Broadcasting House. In the evening she takes me to a screening of the JT LeRoy film, Author, in the House of Vans venue under Waterloo station. I’ve been there before, when I DJ’d at an event, but I still get lost on the way. One has to find a particular exit out of Waterloo, or risk wandering along the wrong dark tunnel for some time.
Author is the only JT LeRoy documentary that’s officially endorsed by Laura Albert, the writer behind the LeRoy pseudonym. Two other documentaries have already been made of the same story, with a fourth, a dramatization, in the pipeline. If the whole basis of the documentary form is about constructing a convincing version of the truth, then it’s no wonder why the LeRoy tale should be fertile. It is a story, after all, about how people construct the truth full stop.
I’m so fascinated with the issues raised by the film that it’s difficult for me not to go into another 5000 words of discussion. It touches on so many subjects, and resembles a whole set of fairy tales and fables. It merges The Emperor’s New Clothes with The Prince and The Pauper, and The Boy Who Cried Wolf. So I’ll bear in mind Melvyn Bragg’s line and keep to the most important things that I’ve not yet said.
I had some email dealings with JT LeRoy, in 2000, when I sought permission to quote from Sarah for the sleeve of the first Fosca album. JT kindly replied and said yes. So I’ll always grateful to him for that. The knowledge, gained a few years later, that I was not emailing a teenage transgender rent boy but a thirtysomething mother called Laura Albert, did throw me at first. But I shrugged. If it matters about the biography of the author, then the thing to do is point out autobiographical novels by transgender writers who are really transgender, such as Roz Kaveney’s Tiny Pieces of Skull.
I’m certainly sympathetic to the need to use a pseudonym. Author names are brands, handrails of truth and trust, or corrective stabilisers against prejudice. It’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. I think about how JK Rowling has done it twice, first as the androgynous ‘JK Rowling’, to market the first Harry Potter book to boys, then again with ‘Robert Galbraith’, so she could free up a different voice to write crime novels.
The difference with Ms Albert is that she created a whole backstory for JT LeRoy, presented that as truth, then hired a relative – Savannah Knoop – to play LeRoy at public events. Although Sarah may say ‘FICTION’ on the back cover, as Ms Albert says in the film, it was definitely marketed as autobiographical fiction. Marketing affects the choice to decide what to read, and the reading experience once that choice has been made.
The irony now is that Laura Albert’s name carries the taint of a literary hoaxer, however unfairly. She spends much of this film pointing out how hoaxes are intended to exploit the gullible and prove a point, while she just wanted to write and be read. The JT LeRoy persona was an accidental voice of hers, which became a necessary device to frame the reading experience, and then just got out of hand. The film goes some way to making all of this convincing. I suppose the problem for her now is that Author is being marketed with that one word she so vehemently denies – ‘hoax’. Because it makes for a better story.
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, British Library
, Burroughs the Movie
, Jeanette Winterson
, JT LeRoy
, Maggie's Plan
, Miranda Sawyer
, photographers gallery
, Slavoj Zizek
, Star Trek Beyond
, The Passion