Mr Edwards Mans Up

Monday 24 June 2019. Working slowly on the third chapter of the thesis. It is currently like walking in mud. To stretch the analogy further, one fears either becoming stuck for good or that one’s shoes will come off, leaving our hero looking foolish. Well, why stop now?

This evening I go to the Birkbeck arts department in Gordon Square and attend my Graduate Monitoring Interview for the second year of the PhD. This is an annual check-up with a tutor who is not your supervisor. You can discuss any problems that may have emerged over the past school year, which includes any difficulties with one’s supervisors.

Supervisors often get a bad press, the stereotype often being that they have flings with their students. Even the hip Netflix series Russian Doll continues this rather tired tradition. I’ve never heard of any such goings-on at Birkbeck, though perhaps the less traditional set-up of evening classes and mature students makes that possibility less likely. In real life, the student’s concern is not so much that a supervisor might be too hands-on, but that they’re not hands-on enough. One hears horror stories of supervisors failing to reply to emails for months on end, or of them being too busy for even the briefest meeting, or of them forgetting that their students even exist. In this respect, I have been lucky, as so far mine have been perfectly responsive. The problems I have had are entirely my own fault: wobbles of doubt, worries over my abilities, bouts of procrastination. 

So that’s what we discuss tonight. The tutor I have for this meeting, Dr Owen, suggests a useful motto: ‘write ugly words first’. Don’t worry about the quality of the first draft. Just hit the word count. Only afterwards, during the editing stage, are you allowed to turn it into The Great Gatsby. This may be an obvious lesson, but I still have problems learning it.

**

Thursday 27 June 2019. I give a tour of Birkbeck for my friend Sonja T and her daughter Daisy. Daisy is about 18, and is keen to do a degree. She’s apprehensive of the competitive side of being among her own generation, so the mixed-age aspect of Birkbeck appeals. Indeed, the class discussions are much more interesting as a result: glimpses of different domestic situations, of people with different daytime jobs, of people who’ve already had long lives and are now topping up their intellect, and of younger people who can be surprising with their choices of favourite texts. Brideshead Revisited was one such book on my BA course: despite its snobbishness and sentimentality, the younger students, including girls of ethnic and religious minorities, could not get enough of it. It was the character of Sebastian Flyte they liked: for all his wealth and privilege he is still a troubled young person, struggling with sexuality, family and faith. No shortage of that in the world, whatever the background. 

I also remain a fan of the 1980s TV adaptation, the influence of which could be seen in an episode of Killing Eve recently. When Villanelle turns up in Oxford, she dresses in what she imagines is an Oxford boy look: light shirt, brown slacks and a cream tie, with a cricket jumper knotted over her shoulders. According to the costume designer, this was a deliberate nod to Anthony Andrews as Sebastian in the TV Brideshead.

**

Friday 28 June 2019: I have a rule on not going to any festivals unless I am invited to appear. It rubs in my own sense of failure otherwise.

**

Saturday 29 June 2019. I read Bret Easton Ellis’s White, his new collection of essays. I’d been enjoying his podcasts, with his soft-spoken monologues railing against the world. So I was interested to see how he would render them into prose. Sadly the result on the page is a shapeless rant lacking any sense of cohesion. It doesn’t help when he admits a tendency to go on Twitter in the middle of the night fuelled by ‘a mixture of insomnia and tequila’. That says it all. To update Capote, that’s not writing, that’s tweeting. 

Still, there’s something in his theory that the hyper 1980s world of his novel American Psycho has come to pass on today’s social media, with the valorising of ‘likes’ and dislikes’ and the posting of photographs of one’s restaurant meals.

**

The Women’s Football World Cup has becoming immensely popular this year. I don’t know much about football, but I like Megan Rapinoe’s hair.

**

Saturday 6 July 2019. I see Yesterday at the Everyman cinema in King’s Cross. This turns out to be in the rather soulless new buildings to the north of the Granary Square development. The film has a bizarre premise about a struggling singer-songwriter waking up in a world where the Beatles never existed, except in his memory. So he goes about becoming a pop star by passing off their songs as his own. Unlike Groundhog Day, the magical conceit isn’t properly connected to the love story, so the latter feels added to pad out the film. However, the lead actor Himesh Patel’s rendition of ‘In My Life’ – simple and sincere – quite takes me by surprise, and I’m in floods of tears when he does it.

**

Sunday 7 July 2019. The day after Pride, Holborn tube platform is covered in little silver gas canisters, as well as the discarded box they came in. This reveals that the objects are manufactured as ‘cream chargers’, intended to go in dispensers of whipped cream. Not here, though. The gas, nitrous oxide, can be sniffed (once decanted into a balloon) to produce a legal high. But not a harmless one: there’s reports of the things causing permanent nerve damage, breathing problems, and even death from asphyxiation. I’m more grumpy about the litter aspect. Knock yourself out, just be tidy when you do it.

Nitrous oxide is better known as laughing gas. With the clown-like Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, the idea of his Britain being one where the drug of choice is laughing gas might read as a corny political metaphor. That’s the trouble with reality. It’s so badly written.

**

Monday 8 July 2019. Going in through the barriers at Dalston Junction tube station, a woman going the other way calls out my name. This turns out to be Suzy Woods, with whom I was at Great Cornard Upper School, Suffolk in 1989, last seen briefly at a Spearmint gig in Brighton circa 1999. Suzy has two hulking teenage boys in tow. ‘These are my sons’.

**

Tuesday 9 July 2019. The strangest catcall in my life – which for me is saying something. An grey-haired, red-faced man passing me in Covent Garden today: ‘You’re not in France, you’re in Britain!’. I am wearing my usual cream linen suit and tie. Still, à chacun son goût.

It’s since occurred to me that he might be one of the slightly crazed pro-Brexit protestors that are currently a common sight in central London, often walking to or from the protests at Downing Street and Parliament. The Pro-Brexit lot are usually found installed next to an equally passionate group of anti-Brexit protestors, kept apart by a few bored-looking police officers. I think of Quentin Crisp’s quote from the late 1970s: ‘protest has become a game any number can play’. I also keep thinking of that phrase in Decline and Fall, used for the Bullingdon Club: ‘confused roaring’.  That rather sums up what’s going on in Britain now: a huge amount of confused roaring.

**

Weds 10 July 2019. Last week of summer term, and my last supervisory meeting of the academic year. I’ve agreed to crank out at least 1000 words a week from July 22 onwards, after a proper break.

**

Friday 12 July. To the Rio for The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy. It’s entertaining at first, but when the characters start making comments about being in a film, my patience evaporates. Blazing Saddles or Airplane might be able to do such a thing, but this film isn’t in the same league. It’s one big indulgent shrug. Not awful, just inert (there’s a comment for the poster).

**

Saturday 13 July 2019. Another auteur horror film at the Rio: Midsommar. Unlike The Dead Don’t Die, the aesthetic in this case cares about its viewers. It slowly pulls one into a hyper-sunny world, about a sinister pagan community in rural Sweden. As the film goes on, the flowers pulsate with CGI irises, and the film’s own colours become as bleached as the linen frocks. There’s an upsetting moment of two of violence, which has a couple of people at the Rio walking out (I’ve heard some have even fainted), and which is arguably unnecessary. A further criticism is that the debt to The Wicker Man prevents the film from being entirely original. But Midsommar’s confidence in its own vision is spellbinding. After it’s over I have to take time to adjust to the normal world, as I did with The Neon Demon. This is the highest compliment one can pay: a film that can shift reality.  

**

Sunday 14 July 2019. I read Fabulosa! by Paul Baker, a new book on Polari, the historical gay slang. Baker’s other two books on the subject came out a while ago; I’ve read those too. One is an academic linguistic study, the other a straightforward dictionary, beefed up with more general gay slang. I was once going to write a book on the subject myself. One of the reasons I didn’t is that, as Baker proved, there’s not quite enough on the topic to fill a whole book on its own. Polari makes for a good magazine article, or a few pages in a book on gay history, but that’s about it. Where it does come in handy is when it’s used as a way in to the wider story of homosexual social life during times of criminalisation. This is what Baker focuses on with this new book, adding his own life story into the mix.

I’m especially fascinated by a section on a late 1990s debate in the pages of Boyz, the free magazine in gay bars (in which I once appeared, though not as one of the nude pin-ups). In this debate, the magazine polled its readers for their views on reviving Polari, and by extension on camp in general. There’s evidence for an anti-camp attitude among gay men from at least as early as the 1930s; it’s also in Angus Wilson’s novels of the 1950s, with the rise of straight-acting ‘golden spivs’, not unlike the Kray twins. In the 1990s the surge in interest in indie rock gave rise to gay indie nights in London like Popstarz and Club V. One consequence was letters to Boyz like those in Baker’s book, which railed against gay men for listening to Kylie Minogue.

Why does camp persist now? Why are there TV programmes about drag queens in 2019? My answer would be because there’s still a sense of rules about what ‘normal’ looks like. A rainbow flag on a town hall may say ‘we are fine with LGBT people’, but by implication it also says ‘LGBT people are not the “we”’. Camp responds to the idea that there’s still a ‘normal’, and has fun in the process. As Judith Butler puts it, camp is ‘working the trap’. The only thing that would really make camp die out would be a world in which everyone was exactly the same.

**.

Monday 15 July. To the Rio for a third horror film with an arty aesthetic. This time, In Fabric. I find Peter Strickland’s faux-1970s stylings impressive, but am not convinced they sustain a whole film. As with The Dead Don’t Die,there’s a detached indifference that tests one’s patience. I’m glad these films exist and get made – they are, after all, art rather than commerce – but I prefer Midsommar’s more immersive approach.

**

Weds 17 July 2019. Trying to calm myself with the thought of Boris PM with the phrase ‘interesting times’. Either that or the end of Planet of the Apes.

**

Thursday 18 July 2019. Vita & Virginia at the Empire Haymarket. Mrs Woolf is played by the towering Elizabeth Debicki. I’m reminded of the line in Alan Bennett’s play Forty Years On about Woolf being proud of winning the Evening Standard Award for the Tallest Woman Writer of 1927, ‘an award she took by a neck from Elizabeth Bowen’.

Also today: the Kiss My Genders exhibition at the Hayward. Lots of portraits of gender-bending figures, some of which, like Luciano Castelli’s androgyne in sparkling gold, seem very up-to-date, but turn out to be from the 1970s.

Friday 19 July 2019. To Knole mansion on a whim, inspired by seeing the house in Vita & Virginia the day before. This takes a mere 23 mins on the train from London Bridge to Sevenoaks, in Kent. Then one has to walk (or get a taxi) from the north of Sevenoaks, through the town, to get to Knole on the southern side. The rooftop views are startling: straight out of Orlando, with the deer in the grounds and the countryside going back for miles all around. The gatehouse has been converted into a sub-museum of its own, recreating the 1920s rooms of Eddy Sackville-West, the gay cousin who inherited Knole in place of Vita, even though she grew up as a child there. As Orlando satirises, she was disinherited purely by being female. A letter from Vita is quoted on a panel, on what she thought Eddy had done to Knole: ‘It made me cross; it was all so decadent, theatrical, and cheap. And Eddy himself mincing in black velvet. I don’t object to homosexuality, but I do hate decadence.’ It takes me a minute to realise that Vita, no stranger to same-sex love herself, used the word ‘homosexuality’ to mean men only.

There are signs in the grounds at Knole asking visitors people not to pet the fawns, ‘as this confuses their mothers’. I’d have thought mothers being confused by their offspring was an occupational hazard. Particularly in the case of the sort of people who lived at Knole.

The café at the house is so busy that I walk back into Sevenoaks to get something to eat (fish and chips at the Chequers pub, the staff kind and charming).

**

I read Normal People by Sally Rooney, the biggest-selling literary novel of the moment. There’s a story in the news that the most played song on UK radio since 2000 is ‘Chasing Cars’ by Snow Patrol.  Normal People is the literary equivalent. It’s tasteful, competent, well-crafted, and able to appeal to a huge amount of people. It seems designed not to put anyone off. And that rather puts me off.  

The main idea of this novel – checking in with an everyman-ish couple over a period of years – rather recalls One Day by David Nicholls, another massive-seller, except with the quotation marks taken out. There’s no spikiness or oddness. For me, it’s too… normal. 

**

Tuesday 23 July 2019. Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister. Reality has officially eaten itself. It seems that there is no amount of gaffes, ineptitude and misconduct that can stop him. In giving up his journalism to be PM, Mr J has had to take a substantial pay cut. That says it all.

Perhaps Brexit really is the last gasp of the old ways. The photos of Boris meeting the Queen show him absolutely in his element – though according to the Sunday Times even the Queen has apparently voiced her concerns. Still, in a culture of ‘confused roaring’, of laughing gas canisters, of a babyish obsession with colourful characters, who else is there?

**

Thursday 25 July 2019. A ludicrously hot day in London: 37 degrees. I decide against braving the tube, and instead work at home, followed by seeing Varda By Agnes in the air-conditioned Rio basement. Still feel so lucky to have a cinema on my doorstep.

**

Saturday 27 July 2019. Only You at the Rio. A low budget British drama about a couple’s relationship, and how they try for a baby against the odds. Despite the gritty realism, I can only see the couple as a couple of actors. Still, the IVF injections seem real enough – and very unpleasant. I really had no idea that women put themselves through such ordeals. In the educational respect, at least, the film is a success.

**

Wednesdays 31 July 2019. I finally get around to reading Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936). Quite a wry introduction by Jeanette Winterson, saying that the book is now mainly read by students. What really interests me is the story of TS Eliot, Dylan Thomas and others championing the book while trying to play down its camper, gayer aspects. This was not so much out of homophobia as the desire to get Nightwood taken as seriously as The Waste Land. Which is where my research comes in: campness as thought to be incompatible with serious art, because of the element of humour. Or rather, queer humour, and so the wrong kind. 

**

Thursday 1 August 2019. A book event at Burley Fisher Books: Savannah Knoop, Lee Relvas, Linda Stupart and Isabel Waidner. There’s a volatile, disruptive, older woman in the audience with a loud voice and wild, staring eyes, whom I’d seen shouting at passers-by on the Kingsland Road earlier. I assume she hasn’t come for a free literary event so much as just wandered into the bookshop off the street. But perhaps I am wrong. At the event she’s given the benefit of the doubt by the staff, and is provided with a seat, albeit with much ‘shush!’-ing when she occasionally shouts over a speaker. Linda S sits down to talk with the woman afterwards, which makes me feel guilty for tending to avoid such people pre-emptively, fearing as I do sudden violence. I suppose I also think, ‘one of us has to be mentally stable here, and it sure as hell isn’t going to be me’.

Roz K, Jonathan N, Laura B also here. Savannah Knoop reads a piece on their experiences in a gym. With their non-binary pronouns and self-designed clothes, a mixture of Dickensian rags, Alice skirts, and lycra, Knoop is a good example of a gender-neutral dandy.

**

Saturday 3 August 2019. To the Rio for a screening of JT Leroy, the dramatization of Girl Boy Girl, Savannah Knoop’s memoir. There’s a nice parallel here with Vita & Virginia. Both films have scenes in which a woman writer gets a camera and takes photos of a (rather wary) androgynous friend, in order to represent a fictional character. Just as Virginia Woolf used Vita Sackville-West as Orlando, Laura Albert used Savannah Knoop as JT LeRoy. In JT LeRoy, though, Savannah hints at the more exploitative aspects of the arrangement, yet still tries to be sympathetic to Ms Albert’s need for artistic ventriloquism.    

By way of balance, I also watch The Cult of JT Leroy on Amazon Video, a more investigative documentary in which Laura Albert is called everything from ‘predatory’ to ‘ill’ to ‘evil’ to ‘genius’. What with Author, the documentary that presents Albert’s own take, it’s fascinating that there’s now at least three films telling exactly the same story from different sides. One can imagine a Borges-like situation in which every possible real life narrative, however mundane, is turned into an infinite number of documentaries and dramatisations, each one edited to represent every possible take. There is no such thing as the truth, only a forking path.    

**

Monday 5 August 2019. I read an interview in the Guardian with Noel Gallagher. Typically the focus is less on music as it is on celebrity gossip, as in his broken relationship with his brother Liam. He calls Liam’s solo music ‘unsophisticated music for unsophisticated people’. This is probably fair, but in the same interview he admits to never having heard of gender fluidity: ‘What’s that? I know what gender I am – Mancunian’. It’s probably too much to expect Noel Gallagher to be au courant with the theories of Judith Butler, but if he thinks himself to be more ‘sophisticated’ than his brother, a little more curiosity about the world is surely in order.  Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a good (and short) introduction to the subject of gender fluidity, and one which other rock stars have manage to endorse, namely Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein. So there’s no excuse. I used to enjoy Mr Gallagher’s music, and indeed his interviews, but now I worry when I see intelligent people making jokes about being ignorant. If the legacy of Britpop means laddish incuriosity as something to aspire to, then speed its death.

Still, this all says rather more about me than Noel G. I’m less curious these days about rock music and more curious about books, so that’s a kind of ignorance on my part. I feel I have to be epicene to be believed.

**

Thursday 8 August 2019. Today I find myself delving into the Terry Pratchett archive at Senate House Library, by way of a diversion from my own research. I’m working in the library anyway, and stumble upon the Pratchett items as part of the integrated catalogue. One item intrigues me, so I call it up to take a look. It’s a printed manual for a 1991 computer training course, ‘Introduction to Word For Windows 3.1’.  The manual uses licensed extracts from Good Omens, the 1990 fantasy novel written by Pratchett with Neil Gaiman (and lately adapted for TV).

In the manual, the extracts are presented as raw text with which to teach the correction of typos, play with fonts and paragraph breaks, and so on. Quite why the manual used a copyrighted novel rather than one from the public domain (like Dickens), I don’t know. But the screenshots of pre-Web computer programs fascinates me: so inelegant in their two-colour blockiness. And those floppy disks and diskettes to save the files upon: cutting-edge materials then, now obsolete and difficult to access. This 1991 manual, however, printed on paper, has long outlived the software it was designed to serve. Such manuals are maps of lost worlds.

**

Friday 9 August 2019. A cat-call from three crisp-munching teen boys as I turn a corner in Bloomsbury: ‘Look at THIS c—.’ It could have been worse.

Once again, I think to myself: ‘Still got it!’ (to be sung to the tune of Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’).

**

At Birkbeck’s main building in Torrington Square, one of the men’s toilets has been refurbished and renamed on the door as ‘gender neutral’. Inside, the urinals have gone. The four stalls now have walls and doors running from ceiling to floor. Inside each stall is a bin for sanitary towels, plus an advert for Birkbeck’s counselling service aimed specifically at men. According to the advert, some men might feel that they cannot easily talk about their mental health problems, because they might be told to ‘man up’ and ‘grow a pair’, in the parlance of today. Recently, someone got out a marker pen and scrawled over one of these adverts with the words ‘MAN THE F— UP’.

I wonder if this commentator realises that the phrase they used already appears on the advert underneath, thus justifying its existence in the first place. And what course is this graffiti writer doing, anyway? An MA in self-defeating irony? I wish I could meet this person, if only to tell them that if being unkind and unintelligent is their idea of manliness, then they need to man the f— down.

**
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The Late Legitimisation of Mr Edwards

Thursday 11th April. Some happy news. I am waiting for a train en route to a book event in Peckham (Isabel Waidner talking with Jennifer Hodgson) when I check my emails. I may have resisted the heroin lure of the smartphone but I do enjoy the methadone substitute of an iPod Touch, which can access wireless internet.

One email is from CHASE, the government organisation to whom I’d applied for PhD funding a couple of months ago. Before opening the mail I pause and brace myself for rejection. This application was, after all, my third and final attempt. The rules forbid any more.

This time, though, I am told I was successful.

From October the government will pay me the minimum wage in order to work on my thesis full-time. There is also the likelihood of additional expenses for research trips.

This is a significant event for me, mentally as much as financially. It is the first time in twenty years that I’ve bagged a full time job that I want to do, as opposed to not mind too much. The last time was when I had a major label record deal in the mid 1990s.  Now I will be paid to read and write what I want to read and write. My project has been deemed, by a group of professionals who do not know me personally, to be of use to the real world.

I can confidently pre-empt accusations of boastfulness over this by indicating the money: a minimum wage in one’s late forties, even for doing something agreeable, is no popular index of success. My accommodation still cannot advance beyond the level of the rented room. But perhaps this new stipend, once it kicks in from October, will give me the focus and energy to undertake more paid work, such as journalism and talks. More things now seem possible. I have work to do, and works to do.

**

Friday 12 April 2019. A visit to the British Library imbues one with the feeling that everyone is a student, a writer or a researcher, and no other life exists. The public areas are so crowded, even just the benches around the walls. A young man with a laptop hovers by me when he notices I’m preparing to get up and leave, so he can grab my space. This is paradise of a kind. By which I mean it’s too popular and there’s hardly any room.

Meanwhile, a brand new UCL student building has opened nearby in Gordon Street, next to the Bloomsbury Theatre, with 1000 desks. I think of the TV documentary from the 1970s in which Kenneth Williams laments the rise of university buildings in the Bloomsbury area. Perhaps this would upset him even more. It cheers me, though, as I like the way Bloomsbury manages to be a university campus without the campus, lacking the detachment one feels with the more obvious universities, from Oxford to UEA.  There may be an ivory tower – Senate House Library – but it’s as much a part of the city as its next-door neighbour, the British Museum. For Birkbeck students, this aspect is particularly appropriate. Mature students have spent some time in the wider world already. To study on a more isolated campus might be like moving into a dormitory: fine for the young, but awkward for a forty-seven-year-old.

One now hears the word ‘campus’ used for the headquarters of tech companies like Google. It’s a kind of university envy by corporations, who even dub their training set-ups as ‘academies’. While this is reasonable for a youthful workforce, one wonders if older workers, if any are allowed at Google, are required to act like students too. In which case, in my funny child-like way, perhaps I am more a sign of the times that I thought.

Google has meant that everyone is a student researcher now. Even student researchers. And yet the majority of writers still look so ordinary and non-descript. Given the way I look I have a vested interest in this aspect, obviously; a literally vested interest.

**

Sunday 14 April 2019. To the sun-kissed paintings of Sorolla at the National Gallery, then the Nitty Gritty club night at the Constitution in Camden (with Debbie Smith DJ-ing), which is also my landlady K’s birthday bash. My previous unease at group events is now diminished: if nothing else, the funding means I can answer the dreaded question ‘and what do you do?’

**

Tuesday 16 April 2019. A news story in the Times: ‘Hundreds of students with the worst A levels are going on to get first-class degrees each year, fuelling fears of grade inflation at universities’. One explanation which escapes the Times is the concept of change. Birkbeck responds on Twitter in this spirit: ‘We make admissions based on students’ future potential, not just their past attainment.’

I add my voice to confirm this, summarising my last decade in a single tweet: ‘Birkbeck admitted me for a BA despite my lack of A-Levels (had a crisis at 17). Got the BA, stayed on for an MA, now doing a fully-funded PhD, all at Birkbeck. Still no A levels.’

A little later Joan Bakewell quotes my tweet, adding: ‘As Birkbeck’s President I’m proud of the chances we give people and congratulate Dickon on his success’.

I’m not sure of the correct way to address the Baroness, though I find an article where she likes people to call her by her first name. So I tweet back: ‘Thanks Joan!’

**

Friday 19 April 2019. Rather aptly, I spend the morning of Good Friday in an act of self-sacrifice. I’m using the sink in the bathroom when a pool of water creeps onto my toes from the cupboard below the sink. I crouch down to open the cupboard doors and immediately identify the source of this impromptu Nile: one of the joints in the sink ‘s outlet pipe is leaking, so it’s probably a blockage. As my landlady is away, and I don’t fancy calling out a professional on a bank holiday weekend (the only time when these things happen), I decide to have a go at tackling the issue myself. I unscrew the u-bend section of the pipe, take it out, and then clean it out in the bath using the shower hose. Lumps of awfulness emerge to a satisfying relish: dark compounds of hair, mini-fatbergs and what the characters in Withnail and I would describe simply as ‘matter’. I replace the pipe and use a plunger on the sink for good measure. This fixes the problem.

My joy over this comes not so much from the feeling of making things better as it does from the relief that I haven’t made things worse.

**

Monday 29 April 2019. I submit my revised Chapter Two to my supervisors.

 **

Thursday 2 May 2019. To the Curzon cinema in Aldgate to meet Shanthi S. The area is highly gentrified: clean and pristine new blocks of flats, probably hugely expensive, and with the usual feeling that no one actually lives here. We miss the film but end up having a pleasant evening at local bars like The Pride Of Spitalfields off Brick Lane, one of those older pubs which still manage to exist. The pub’s cat, Lenny, comes to sit next to me. Shanthi takes a photo, which I tentatively share on my Instagram account.

**

Friday 3 May 2019. I read Jenny Turner’s article in the LRB on the Mark Fisher anthology, K-Punk.At one point she suddenly pulls off a haughty flourish regarding Fisher’s favourite music: ‘I’ve always made a point of not being impressed by Joy Division or New Order’. It’s the choice of words, rather than simply ‘I’ve never liked’. Indeed, much as I admire Mark Fisher and Joy Division myself, neither were much at home to camp. Though they did deal in a certain type of masculine sentiment, which Ms Turner appreciates.  

My credo, if I have one at all, is that art can be witty, and wit can be art. Hence my interest in camp modernism, which goes back to naming my first band in 1992 after Woolf’s Orlando. In the same way, I never thought it incompatible to be a fan of the band the Field Mice, along with Sondheim musicals, the Smiths, Stock Aitken Waterman and Take That, all at once without any tiresome claims to irony. With unlikely intersections comes new space, and new freedom.

**

Tuesday 7 May 2019: To the Odeon Tottenham Court Road with Jon S to see Avengers: Endgame. I go mainly because the previous Avengers film ended on a cliffhanger, and I’m admittedly curious to see how the superheroes cheat death. The answer is they cheat.

On the way out, the other cinemagoers are discussing which of the preceding films they managed to see: ‘I missed Iron Man 2 but I did see Thor 6: Hard Rock Café.’ This is the triumph of the series: to blend a brand with a mythos, while allowing each film to make sense on its own terms. More or less. It will be interesting to see if superhero films continue to dominate cinemas; this is surely their peak moment.

**

This week sees the Met Gala in New York, as in the glitzy launch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition. This year’s theme is camp, with reference to the Sontag essay, hence my interest from afar. The BBC News site initially refers to the author of ‘Notes on Camp’ as ‘photographer Susan Sontag’. The coverage of the Gala is nearly eclipsed by the hyperbolic coverage of the Royal Baby, which itself is a camp moment.

Many of the looks on the red carpet, such as Harry Styles’s lacey catsuit, would not look out of place on the mid-1990s Romo scene. Or indeed, at Kash Point in the mid 2000s. Vogue magazine has called Mr Styles ‘the King of Camp’. This is debatable, though does have a certain Caravaggio-esque look to him.

**

Weds 8 May 2019. To the ICA for their Kathy Acker exhibition. Some of the late Acker’s books are on display in glass cabinets, including her copy of – what else? – Woolf’s Orlando. Was Kathy Acker camp? She had her moments, such as the poem that goes ‘Dear Susan Sontag, Please Can You Make Me Famous?’

**

Thursday 9 May 2019. I like to think zookeepers regularly say to each other ‘we need to talk about the elephant in the room’, and that the joke never gets old.

**

Saturday 11 May 2019. Much of the news is now based on journalists simply scouring Twitter and helping themselves to other people’s words. It’s now quite common to see people sacked from their jobs for something they idly typed on Twitter years ago. The format lends itself so easily to the removal of context, that it is perilous to use it for anything other than the blandest of statements. The First Law of Twitter: if a tweet can be taken the wrong way, it will be.

**

Sunday 12 May 2019.To the Rio for Cleo From 5 To 7 (1961), directed by Agnes Varda. I’d never seen it before; it’s mesmerising. Though it’s not shot in one take, as the more recent Victoria was in Madrid, there’s a magical sense of real time unfolding in a city, and that this is a liberating idea rather than a limitation. There’s currently a vogue for nature writing, and for narratives of going to the countryside to be healed, but despite sharing my name with the boy in The Secret Garden I’m rather on the side of finding answers in the city.

**

Saturday 18th May 2019. I’m walking along a street in Hoxton. As I pass a man mutters ‘freak’ at me. I used to get upset about this, but my reaction now can only be: ‘Still got it!’

**

Tuesday 21 May 2019. There really should be some sort of HGV test for backpack wearers. Despite the ability of human beings to access whole centuries of culture from a small flat oblong, many of them still need to carry yet more stuff on their back as well. Twice today on crowded tube carriages I am nearly hit in the face with the things, their owners oblivious. A backpack wearer is a long vehicle, but it’s hard to get to their face to tell them. Would Truman Capote wear a backpack in the city? No. There’s no excuse.

**

To Waterstones Gower Street for a book event. The subject is ostensibly Woolf’s Orlando, but the focus is really on Paul Takes The Form of A Mortal Girl, a new novel by the American writer Andrea Lawlor, which I’ve just enjoyed. Paul is set in the indie band culture of America in the early 1990s, and features a shapeshifting queer protagonist who makes his own music fanzine. The publishers have sent out copies of the book with a promotional fake fanzine, Polydoris Perversity. I’ve managed to get hold of one. The publishers have done their homework (presumably with the author in consultation): the fanzine looks entirely authentic to me. I remember buying and making such zines myself. It’s A5 sized, photocopied and stapled, and features text that’s been cut and pasted, in the days when the phrase meant real scissors and real paste (or at least Pritt Stick). At the back of the zine there’s a tracklisting of a home-made compilation tape – ‘mixtape’ was always a purely American term. Anachronistically, there’s a Spotify code for the playlist. It works, too.

Lawlor is the same age as me, and I get a nostalgic thrill from this book, despite the American setting. It works as a vivid document of gay social history, along the same lines as Tales of The City and Alan Hollinghurst’s novels. Indeed, Lawlor’s Paul and Hollinghurst’s Sparsholt Affair both reference Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’ as a gay song. And as with Hollinghurst, Lawlor is fond of gay sex scenes, though there’s plenty of lesbian sex too, thanks to Paul’s ability to change sex at will. On top of the Orlando references there’s a touch of Brideshead Revisited,when a soft toy is named Aloysius. ‘Of course it is’ says another character, Robin, another androgyne, who in turn is based on the Russian princess in Orlando.

What Lawlor gets most of all, though, is the importance of iconography to identity:

 ‘Paul remembered seeing a picture of Patti Smith for the first time, that flash of recognition when he first came across the Mapplethorpe postcard at the gay bookstore in Binghamton, thinking that’s what he looked like on the inside, taping that postcard up in every room he’d lived in since.’ (p. 121)

**

Wednesday 22 May 2019. Another book event, this time at Burley Fisher in Haggerston. This is the launch of the Andrew Gallix anthology We’ll Never Have Paris. It’s so packed that I have to leave early just to be able to breathe. The Andrew Lawlor event was similarly popular, with an extra row of chairs added at the last minute.

This week also sees me fail to get into a couple of other book events, because they both sell out in advance. I wonder if something is going on. The way forward for writers, as with bands, would seem to be more live events, and more festivals.

**

Thursday 23 May 2019. The EU elections. I go to my local polling station, Colvestone Primary School near Ridley Road, and vote Green. Labour win in my borough, Hackney, while most of the country chooses Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Interesting times.

**

Friday 24 May 2019. I cram in three exhibitions: Beasts of London at the Museum of London, in which a plague bacterium is voiced by Brian Blessed. Then with Mum to Mary Quant at the V&A, in which I learn that Ms Quant’s fashion line was genuinely affordable by all. Then on to Manga at the British Museum in the evening. The manga show reveals the influence of Alice in Wonderland, which I didn’t know about, and selects three titles for its gay section: Poem of Wind & Trees (the men very feminine looking), My Brother’s Husband (the men very muscular and hairy), and What Did You Eat Yesterday, an unexpected tale of an middle-aged gay couple’s domestic life (the men very ordinary). There’s also a section on cosplay and conventions, with a set of garments for visitors to try on. I don’t join in, believing as I do that dandyism is already cosplay; the cosplay of the self.

**

Friday 31 May 2019. I read Jarett Kobek’s Only Americans Burn In Hell, an entertaining satirical novel which uses a lot of what’s now called autofiction, and manages to be very funny too. Very Tristram Shandy, in fact, with its mad, skittish digressions.Mr Kobek often apologises to the reader for being unable to write a particular scene, and makes a perfectly good point as to why: ‘I’m burnt out. Donald J Trump was elected to the Presidency of the United States! So there’s really no point. Stop hoping that books will save you.’

On corporate celebrations of diversity, he writes: ‘Native American women had a statistically better chance of being caricatured in a Google Doodle than they did of being hired into a leadership position at Google’

Steve Jobs, meanwhile, is glossed as ‘a psychopath who enslaved Chinese children and made them build electronic devices which allowed American liberals to write treatises on human rights’.

**

Saturday 1 June 2019. To the Tate Modern for the Dorothea Tanning show. Her first painting in her Late Surrealism style, from the 1940s, is a Dali-esque self-portrait amid infinite doors and strange creatures. It is titled Birthday, such was her sense of new life through art. But the exhibition reveals two further ‘births’. In the 1950s she changes to a more abstract technique, more Pollock than Dali. And then there’s a third style of soft sculptures run off her sewing machine. The centrepiece is an installation of a hotel room, where the furniture is turning into such sculptures, while further shapes burst through the wallpaper.

Tanning worked until her death at 101. I think of Leonora Carrington’s similarly long life, and while talking to Mum on the phone I wonder if there’s a connection between surrealism and longevity. Mum suggests that it might be because such women had to be tough in the first place to tout their art in such a male field.

**

Monday 3 June 2019. I see Booksmart at the Rio, a high school comedy about two bookish teenage girls having a late try at being party animals. It’s uproariously funny. There’s a couple of boy characters – drama queens in every sense – who threaten to steal the film from the girls.

**

Thursday 13 June 2019. I help to organise a student conference at Birkbeck, Work in Progress. The staff had picked me, along with three other 2nd years (Katie Stone, Matt Martin, Helena Esser), because they knew I had experience of organising club nights. In the weeks leading up to the event, the process soaks up a lot of time, and there’s some hitches with people cancelling, but it’s mostly a smooth running affair. Katie Stone live-tweets a lot of the day, using the hashtag ‘#bbkwip’.

We host twelve speakers in all, including our keynote speaker Anthony Joseph, who discusses his novel Kitch, about the Trinidad calypso singer Lord Kitchener. I do some tech supervising, chair one of the panels, and chair the plenary summing-up session, which I learn is pronounced ‘plee-nary’, and not ‘plenn-ary’. My main mission is just to keep the event running to its schedule, with echoes of the joke about Mussolini.

**

Monday 17th June 2019. To the Rio with Shanthi to see Gloria Bell (£5). A subtle and nuanced tale of ageing people going on dates. Very little really happens, but at a time of shrillness and noise, quiet films can be a tonic. Julianne Moore’s character has to struggle with two pairs of glasses. This is a detail I recognise in my own life now, finding as I do that fiddling with specs is still preferable to working with varifocals.

I’ve also discovered that increased myopia helps stage fright, or anxiety about public speaking. All I have to do is take my distance glasses off, and the audience disappears. I believe Dusty Springfield used the same technique.

**

Tuesday 18 June 2019. I watch the last episode of Years and Years, the highlight of which is a speech by the grandmother about people buying into the more ridiculous type of politician: ‘I didn’t see all the clowns and monsters heading our way. Tumbling over each other, grinning. Dear God what a carnival.’

By coincidence, this piece of fiction is broadcast after a live debate between the five candidates for the next Prime Minister, all sitting on stools like some grotesque five-part harmony boy band. The favourite is Boris Johnson, now trying his best to be quiet and sensible. Close on his heels is the bland Jeremy Hunt, who has a record of forgetting things, from his wife’s nationality to his ownership of seven luxury flats. If Hunt wins, it will be because people want to forget about Boris Johnson. Rory Stewart seems the most reasonable of this gaggle, and seems to realise that if he is to succeed he needs to play up his clownishness. Which in fact, tonight he does, suddenly taking off his tie and slouching in his seat, his gauntness making him look like a character from Mervyn Peake. To borrow Sontag’s phrase about camp, we are in an age of Instant Character.

**

Thursday 20th June 2019. To Sudbury to meet Mum. Sudbury seems mostly unchanged from my teen years, though Great Cornard Upper School (where I spent 1985 to 1989) has been renamed Thomas Gainsborough School. When I was there there was no uniform, just a dress code favouring plain grey shirts and jumpers. This was deemed to be progressive and modern at the time. Not any more. Today in Sudbury I see pupils of TGS wearing a full traditional uniform: blazer, striped tie and even a crest, which must have been invented yesterday. I wonder at this paradox, a twenty-first century school choosing a style that seemed out of date in the 1980s. Perhaps one can blame Harry Potter.

Naming buildings simply after the area they are in is no longer enough. One thinks of Liverpool’s Speke Airport becoming John Lennon Airport. It seems difficult to imagine that Mr Lennon needs the extra publicity, so omnipresent are the Beatles. That said, Mum has told me of a child who asked who Paul McCartney was. ‘He’s a bit like Ed Sheeran’.

The painter Thomas Gainsborough already has a prominent statue in Sudbury marketplace, and there’s also the nearby Gainsborough House gallery, which we visit today. Now he has a large school too. Even the local train line, which I take today from Liverpool Street, changing at Marks Tey, is labelled the Gainsborough Line. My fellow Sudbury alumni really need to hurry up and produce some masterpieces, if only so the town has more names to choose from.

**
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break

Unselfing

I find a couple of old photos of myself online, and rather like them. One (at poor resolution) is of myself singing back-up with Fosca’s Kate Dornan, while onstage with Bid’s group Scarlet’s Well, sometime in the mid-2000s. The venue is the Spitz in Spitalfields Market, London, now no longer there.

The other is from 2008, in my old room at Highgate. It’s taken by Jamie McLeod, capturing me in bedsit dandy mode. I rarely smoke cigarettes today.

Tuesday 5th February 2019. To the British Library to appear as part of a panel discussion hosted by Travis Elborough, Diaries – Lives and Times. The other guests are Simon Garfield, Virginia Ironside and Anita Sethi. The five of us are seated on a stage in an auditorium, in a separate building which, despite being physically part of the same gently utopian mass as the British Library itself, is accessed via a separate entrance in the courtyard. This event is accompanied by a live transcription on a screen, much like one has these days on TV news channels. Inevitably, ‘diary’ appears on the screen at least once as ‘diarrhoea’.

Mr G discusses his fat book of mid-century diaries, A Notable Woman. Ms Ironside’s anecdotes about Robert Maxwell at the Daily Mirror are pleasingly vicious: she says he used to enjoy firing staff in front of visitors, while giving tours of the Mirror offices. I like the title of one of her books about growing old: No! I Don’t Want To Join A Bookclub.

For my part, I mention that it’s the centenary of a cult diary, Journal of a Disappointed Man by the ailing WNP Barbellion. I also find myself demonstrating how diaries tend to leave things unsaid between the lines, sometimes unconsciously, and use my own as an example. A jokey entry from 1999 about Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is now, I can see, an allusion to a boyfriend I was seeing at the time, who was a fan of the films. Back then, I remarked how there was a minor character in the film called Yarael Poof, and how I found that childishly amusing. And clearly I still do.

Afterwards for drinks at a pleasant pub nearby, the Skinners Arms, recommended by the British Library staff. I invite along Max, a young fan of my work, such as it is, who’s come up to London specifically to see me. They’re non-binary, even wearing a badge which states their pronouns as ‘they/them’. Since discovering me, they’ve sought out the Orlando and Fosca records, some of which were made before Max was born.

Being on a stage again after so long, and indeed being able to inspire young people again, rather buoys my sense of usefulness. My concern now is that I am still billed as a musician, even though I’ve not made music for ten years, being these days more interested in books and prose. Clearly I need to hurry up and get some books out of my own.

**

Wednesday 6 February 2019. I’m working on a new revision of my PhD funding proposal, allowed as I am to do so for a third and final time, after been turned down in 2017 and 2018.

Meanwhile I receive a rejection email from a conference in Princeton. The euphemism is ‘we are unable to find room for your paper’. I think I’d prefer ‘we didn’t care for it’, or even ‘it’s rubbish’; that would at least be more honest. There is no feedback attached to refusals from conferences, so exactly what I’ve done wrong, or not well enough, I’ll never know.

Still, as my supervisors remind me, I have a ready-made abstract to use for another time. And so, licking my bruises, I stagger on. I’m beginning to understand why so many academics throw in the towel and get proper jobs.

**

A useful note to all tutors and editors, from bitter experience. When giving feedback in which you tell the writer or student they ‘need to say more about X’, always follow with ‘you can afford to say LESS about Y’. Otherwise, you’ve plunged them into the terror of fathoming which bits can be cut to make room within the word count, at the risk of making the piece more skeletal rather than concise. No one wants that.

‘Kill your darlings’ is only a useful tip if it is clear which bits are the surplus darlings in question. For the writer, it’s often not clear. Better to offer Hobson’s choice rather than Sophie’s.

**

Saturday 9 February 2019. I do my first bit of peer reviewing, for my fellow PhD-er Katie S’s journal. This is for an essay by a non-English speaking student on the American activist and poet Wendy Trevino. The essay in question ticks the right boxes for the journal in terms of content, but the writer’s command of English grammar needs a fair amount of improvement. My problem is that my idea of good style is probably a step too far for many editors: I want all English prose to read like The Great Gatsby, even if it’s just the instructions for a microwave meal. But I also believe a certain amount of non-Englishness in the voice needs to be preserved, by way of national identity – which is the subject of the essay, after all. It’s not an easy task. Thankfully in this case I’m reviewing rather than editing, and am limited to making recommendations rather than hacking away with a red pen. I also end up buying the Trevino book, Cruel Fiction, so that’s surely a good thing on the part of the essay.

**

To the Barbican to see the film Can You Ever Forgive Me. Much has been made of Richard E Grant’s fine supporting performance, for which he was nominated for an Oscar; the lead performance by Melissa McCarthy is equally good. But I’m further delighted by a cameo by Justin Vivian Bond, whom I once saw in the cabaret duo Kiki and Herb. Good to see the British comedy actress Dolly Wells, too, as a lonely book dealer. Her American accent is so perfect that it takes me a while to recognise her. 

**

15th February 2019. One effect of my late flowering education is to find myself using a pen to edit the articles in magazines.

**

23rd February 2019. To the British Library’s hidden auditorium again, this time to be in the audience. It’s an event to celebrate 40 years of the nearby bookshop Gay’s the Word. There’s a lot of lavender-coloured party balloons in the bar, a colour I prefer to the more typical rainbow flag; I agree with Hannah Gadsby that the latter is aesthetically ‘a bit busy’. Purple (and lavender, and mauve, and violet) is a more historical queer colour, dating back to the 1890s, which were sometimes called the Mauve Decade. Then there’s Firbank and his love of the colour, writing his novels in purple ink, and Brigid Brophy doing the same by way of tribute in the 1970s, the better to write her big mad book on Firbank, Prancing Novelist. Leila Kassir keeps me company, and points out how Uncle Monty in Withnail and I uses the colour as part of his antiquated gay lexicon: ‘He’s so mauve, we don’t know what he’s planning’.

Much of the event is, understandably, about gay books and gay writers. Neil McKenna recommends Angus Wilson’s No Laughing Matter, proving that Wilson is not quite as forgotten as I’d thought. The evening ends with readings by poets, including Richard Scott, whose collection Soho is, as they say, right up my street.

**

26th February 2019. I submit my application for funding. This time round the money has rather been dangled in front of me. Whereas previously I was simply told by email that I’d been declined, this time there’s a series of panels one has to please: first one for the Birkbeck English department, then one for the department’s parent ‘school’, being the School of Arts, then one for Birkbeck college overall. Now I’m up against about 170 other students from the London and South-East area, all of us competing for 56 scholarships.

I was given two further chances to revise my proposal, according to feedback from a couple of the panels. It feels like being nominated for an Oscar, then told you have to shoot parts of the film again, in order to give your performance more of a chance at winning.

What I find difficult is that this process is less about the work as it is about selling the work. It’s really PR, marketing, pitching. These are things I’ve always resented doing, despite my reputed vanity. It’s the same as a job interview, or writing a CV, arrogantly providing the answer to the question, ‘Why do you think you’re great?’ Deep down, I don’t think anyone should give me anything at all.

Still, I can’t pretend that being funded would not alter my mindset for the better. I hear back in late April.

**

28th February 2019. To Hackney’s Earth venue, two blocks away from my rented room in Dalston, off Stoke Newington High Street. Earth is a brand new arts venue, though the building is a former 1930s cinema, The Savoy, which became an ABC in the 1960s. I like the sense of layers of history, especially as the street outside cuts through in time to the first century AD. The Romans built the road to link London to York; the Saxons named it Earninga Straete – ‘Ermine Street’. Every day I step out onto this road and have a clear view south into the City, with the Gherkin in the distance.

All of which seems apt for the electronic recording artiste Gazelle Twin, given her demonic stage costume as part English jester, part football hooligan, with a red stocking mask, red and white tunic and tights, and a white baseball cap. ‘What is century is this?’ she sings in the opening track of Pastoral, her 2018 album about Englishness after Brexit. She performs that album tonight, and only that album, never breaking character. I realise that her look evokes the costumes of Leigh Bowery, particularly when he was in the ballet I am Curious Orange. Indeed, that ballet’s accompanying album by the Fall, I Am Kurious Oranj, has a track called ‘Jerusalem’, as does Pastoral. Mark E Smith left a gap in British music when he died; for me, Pastoral helps to fill it. 

**

Friday 1st March 2019. With Mum in town. We visit the ‘Unclaimed’ exhibition at the Barbican – an inspired look at aging and elders in Britain, presented as a lost property office. It’s now thought that half the current population could reach the age of a hundred. As Quentin Crisp put it when talking about being in his sixties, ‘medical science is so unkind’. Culture will have to change quite drastically: there’s now protests about literary awards which favour the young. ‘Emerging writers’ is preferred, instead of ‘young writers’.

**

Tuesday 5th March 2019. Read an excellent article in The Guardian by Emily Beater on dyspraxic students. Much of it rings true with me, especially having to read a sentence several times before the meaning sinks in, and how this affects self-confidence and career aspiration. It is still hard to convince people that dyspraxics are suitable for higher education, but the evidence proves that they can succeed and even win awards, if diagnosed and supported.   

**

Thursday 7th March 2019. A long stint in the Keynes Library at Gordon Square, starting with an in-department conference of papers by my fellow students, then finishing with a lecture by the visiting academic Zara Dinnen, on ‘userness’ in narratives. Her examples are, rather refreshingly, the plotlines of Batgirl comics. In a gritty 1990s incarnation, Batgirl became a wheelchair-bound computer hacker. More recently she was ‘rebooted’ as hip and wisecracking, with a memorable cover image of her taking a selfie, in full costume, in the mirror of a crowded women’s toilet. There’s so much that can be said about this single image: satire, gender, society, the gaze in comics and so on.

One of the students discusses her experience of organising a conference. When looking to hire guest speakers, she found something of a gender pay gap. All the male lecturers she approached quoted their usual fixed fee, even though they were aware this was a low-budget, student-run event. Whereas the female lecturers responded along the lines of, ‘How much can you afford?’ ‘Can you pay the Living Wage?’

**

Sunday 10th March 2019. A note to myself: Be more fearless. Be more tender. Be more kind.

This reminder is obvious, even glib. Yet without it a whole host of petty irritations and cruelties creep in to make a nest of the day.

**

Tuesday 12 March 2019. Ms May’s Brexit deal is kicked out of Parliament by 149 votes. I’ve definitely been rejected 149 times. Can I be Prime Minister?

**

Wednesday 13th March 2019. To the Burley Fisher Bookshop for a talk by Isabel Waidner and Joanna Walsh. The world of contemporary experimental fiction, including autofiction, fascinates me more than ever, and these writers are among those producing the best of it today.

**

Thursday 14th March 2019. To the Stratford East Picturehouse, right next to the Stratford East Theatre Royal, with its floating Joan Littlewood statue. I see a screening of two documentaries on an LGBT theme. Poshida (2015) is about the compromised lives of gay and trans people in Pakistan, and mixes a style of mainstream news reportage with a cinematic aesthetic. There’s a lot of questions asked in its short length, alongside beautiful imagery of the Faisal Mosque and the Margalla Hills in Islamabad. The director is Faizan Fiaz, who is British-Pakistani and now trans-masculine, and who once played bass in my band Fosca. According to Faizan in the Q&A afterwards, all of the interviewees have stuck with their Muslim faith.

The other film, DES!RE (2017), is a black and white ‘jazz meditation’ on butch and trans-masculine people in Britain, directed by the dapper Campbell X. I spot Derek Jarman’s Dungeness cottage used as a backdrop at one point: a reminder that Jarman’s tradition of queer DIY filmmaking is still continuing and still needed.

The Q&A is more of a community gathering than a film discussion. Many of the audience speak up to thank the directors for simply making them feel seen. Indeed, the English translation of Poshida is ‘hidden’. These are still lives that are different from the default, and so still tend to be less acknowledged. As Campbell X says tonight, these films say: ‘We were here. They can’t erase us’.

**

Tuesday 19th March. Blame the systems, not the humans.

**

21st March 2019. ‘We can’t be ordinary now because there isn’t the time.’  – Angela Carter, ‘Fools Are My Theme’, from her essay collection Shaking a Leg.

**

Friday 22 March 2019. Something of a crisis. After spending a large amount of time and energy writing a review of Music & Camp, a new book of academic essays, the editor at the magazine isn’t happy and wants me to rewrite it. And this is meant to be my specialist subject.

After much agonising, I tell the editor I’d rather ‘spike’ the piece instead, as in cancel it altogether. They’re sympathetic, and fill the space in the magazine okay without me. The world continues to turn. In the streets around me people are marching with blue pro-EU flag, in the hope of revoking the Brexit process. Perhaps some of that same spirit has leaked into my thoughts over my article.

After a series of setbacks in recent months, this one completely derails me. I sink into a fug of depression, questioning my ability to do anything much at all. The depression is ontological rather than existential. There’s never any risk of self-harming, because when it happens it feels like there is no self to harm in the first place. It is more of a paralysis state: a complete alienation from human systems, including the systems of reading and writing.

I think one problem is that when one is immersed in a subject at a PhD level, it can be difficult to shift between that mode and the more detached ‘general readership’ mode for journalism. This is clearly a separate skill that needs learning, but I’m already struggling how to write a PhD as it is.

I wonder if I am simply not cut out to write journalism. Or, more likely, not cut out to do both the PhD and journalism at this stage. It feels schizophrenic, even fraudulent. Which one is the ‘real’ me? I don’t do impressions.

With both types of writing, I resent the second-guessing aspect, that scent of desperation always between the lines: ‘Please let me fit in with other PhDs / other journalists!’. But I’m really aware that I don’t easily fit in anywhere.

I’d been heading for this moment for some time. Every task, including this diary, has felt more and more difficult, and my working speed has become slower and slower. I have a fantasy of putting the universe on pause so I can just get my breath back.

What to do? I remind myself of my achievements in recent years: 1st class BA, distinction MA, three prizes. This is not vanity, this is trying not to crumple into a heap.

**

Monday 25th March 2019. To the BFI Southbank for one of the special events in Flare, the London LGBT film festival. Trans Creative at the Movies is a panel discussion comprising clips from films. The five people on the panel, all of whom identify as transgender, each pick a film which spoke to their trans-ness when they were growing up, or, as in the case of Faizan Fiaz, when they were reflecting on their identity more recently. Faizan’s choice is a Bollywood film from 2013, Ram-Leela, seen when they were looking at Bollywood films for the first time. Despite being Anglo-Pakistani, or possibly because, Faizan was uninterested in Bollywood while growing up.

The clip in question is a colourful dance number in a city street, led by Ranveer Singh, a muscular beauty in that pumped-up Love Island fashion. Faizan points out how it’s the dozens of male dancers around Singh who are more interesting, with their rather more achievable-looking torsos.

Of the other panellists, Jamie Hale’s choice is on a similar theme of men among men, Lawrence of Arabia. Zorian Clayton chooses Big, Kate O’Donnell chooses Gypsy, and La John Joseph goes for Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.

I’ve now realised that, with the revelation that Quentin Crisp explicitly declared himself as transgender in his last months, The Naked Civil Servant can now technically be classified as a trans-related film. And indeed, the 1992 film of Orlando can now be said to have a trans actor in its cast. 

**

Wednesday 27th March 2019. I glance at the Brexit mess in the news. It feels as if the nation is in one massive BDSM relationship where no one can remember the safe-word.

**

Friday 29th March 2019. Brexit protestors of either stripe are currently a daily sight on the streets of London. On the Mall I walk past a man brandishing a mass-produced pro-Brexit banner: ‘NO DEAL? NO PROBLEM!’. Underneath this in smaller letters are the words ‘Brexit means Brexit’. He’s white, in his sixties, with a Panama hat, blazer and a striped tie. If it wasn’t for the banner, I’d have said he was on his way back from watching cricket.

**

To the BFI Southbank for another screening in the Flare festival. United We Fan is a documentary about the fans who organise campaigns when their favourite TV series is cancelled. The oldest examples here are the Star Trek Trimbles, a married couple, now in their eighties. They’re credited with a letter-writing campaign which led to the original Star Trek returning for a third series.

The film then moves to the 1980s pressure group, Viewers For Quality Television, which campaigned not only to save a number of programmes from cancellation, such as Cagney and Lacey, but became a kind of index of well-made programmes. This was a time when TV was still thought to be a low quality, disposable medium de facto. The film brings us up to date with a young lesbian supporter of the recent series Person of Interest, which had a same-sex relationship among its storylines. When the series returned thanks to her online campaigning, however, one of the gay characters was killed off. Thankfully, this fan didn’t take after Kathy Bates in Misery, whose response was to imprison and torture the writer in question. Nevertheless, the hurt felt by fans when this is happens is real enough. The Person of Interest fan responded by dropping her support of the show altogether. It was soon cancelled for good.

All of which begs questions not just about the changing role of the fan, from consumer to consultant, but also the role of the writer, from trying to gain an audience, to trying to keep them satisfied. The Person of Interest creator protests, quite reasonably, that a gay character can’t not be killed off just because they’re gay and have gay fans. A story has to go somewhere; that’s what makes it a story. What some fans want is really a static loop. I think of the Stevie Smith poem ‘To An American Publisher’:

You say I must write another book? But I’ve just written this one.
You liked it so much that’s the reason? Read it again then.

But of course, fans already do this. They re-watch or re-read their favourites again and again, and still it’s not enough. It’s there in Sherlock Holmes, killed off halfway through the stories by Conan Doyle, then brought back by popular demand. It’s the same with music fans, with reunion tours, jukebox musicals, tribute bands, and now the Queen film Bohemian Rhapsody, a manifestly bad film that exists to make fans of the music happy. Re-playing the original songs a thousand times is still not enough. Fans want more, as long as it’s more of the same.

I’ve just found myself watching all of the first series of Russian Doll again. Do I want a second series? Hard to say.

**

Sunday 31st March 2019. To the Rio with Jennifer H for Out of Blue, the new Carol Morley film. It’s steeped in woozy originality, secretive and strange. I feel I need to see it again to appreciate it. It’s one of those.

**

Wednesday 3rd April 2019. With Jon S to the Odeon Tottenham Court Road for Us, a horror-thriller by the man behind Get Out.There is a theme about America and oppressed selves, personified by sinister doppelgangers in red boiler suits. It’s tempting to ask questions about the logic of the plot, which, like the end of Get Out, dips jarringly into realism after what seems to be a lot of allegory.

There’s a final twist which forces the audience to rethink the meaning of everything that’s gone before. I’m not sure that’s fair on the audience, or indeed fair on the rest of Us. By that point the film has already delivered a rich parade of symbolism, striking visuals, thrills, terrors, and ideas. A plot twist undermines those achievements, as it forces the audience to make one reading only. Whereas an inscrutable film like Out of Blue may make demands on its viewers, but the bond of trust is never in question.

If Us becomes a classic, it will be because of everything in the film except the twist ending. The same, after all, became true about Citizen Kane.

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The Strange Risk of the Sarcastic Catcall

Monday 10th December 2018. One reason for carrying with this diary, or carrying on with writing at all, is the hope of being understood, if only by myself. I find my own existence more baffling than ever, and writing the diary is one way to stop myself going absolutely mad. Except I’m not even sure what madness means. Still, it wouldn’t do for me to feel normal. I can’t pull off ‘normal’ as a look.

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Friday 18th December 2018. I’m reading a lot about Angus Wilson, partly in preparation for a discussion on the Backlisted podcast, but also because he relates to my ongoing interest in camp, in this case as a kind of literary style. But he was camp in his own persona too. He makes a cameo in Ian McEwan’s novel Sweet Tooth, where he’s described as ‘camp as a tent peg’. And McEwan should know: he was Wilson’s pupil at UEA.

Angus Wilson was known for dressing in linen suits, with flamboyant bow ties, colourful shirts, and a swept-back leonine mane of hair. He spoke in a rapid, verbose kind of nattering; intellectual, but with a hint of gossip, not unlike Ned Sherrin. Margaret Drabble’s biography notes how in his older, fleshier years Wilson joked about his close resemblance to the actress Margaret Rutherford.

From what I can tell, Wilson currently tends to be left out of discussions of post-war British literature. The degree course I did a couple of years ago preferred the likes of Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis (but not Martin), Philip Larkin, Colin McInnes, John Wyndham, Sam Selvon, Anthony Burgess, Margaret Drabble, Doris Lessing, and John Fowles. I now can see how Drabble’s Ice Age, which depicts 1970s Britain through a Victorian realist style, owes a debt to Wilson. It’s also mentioned in The Clash song, London Calling.

Wilson’s books are currently only available via Faber Finds, the automated print-on-demand service. While better than nothing this does lack the sense of care one has with a proper reissue. It’s telling that the most recent proper edition is the New York Review of Books one for Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, from 2005. Sometimes it takes America to value Englishness.

The novels aside, Angus Wilson should be better known for at least four other things. First, there was his work as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during the war – against Mussolini rather than Hitler. Despite his later work among the world of fiction, his choice of a book on Desert Island Discs was a Bletchley nod: ‘any volume on mathematical logic’.

Another achievement was his work in the late 1940s and early 50s as Deputy Superintendent at the British Museum Library, now the British Library. Wilson had to organise the replacement of thousands of books destroyed in the Blitz. The British Library now has a painting of him in the Humanities 1 Reading Room, right by the entrance.

Then there’s his co-founding, with Malcolm Bradbury, of creative writing as a British university subject, which happened at UEA around 1970. This is probably his greatest legacy, given the huge industry that creative writing is today. This particular fact was even included in the general knowledge round on an edition of Mastermind. 

Still, it’s the fourth achievement that really interests me: his campaigning for gay rights. In 1980 he became the first openly gay man to be given a knighthood, a mere thirteen years after the law was changed. That really can’t be underestimated. Even though he was at pains for Hemlock and After not to be called a gay book, or for himself to be called a gay author, he nevertheless went out of his way to help the cause. In 1985, during the height of AIDS paranoia, when the same government who had honoured him raided the Gay’s the Word bookshop, Wilson used his position to intervene. ‘It is intolerable’, he wrote, ‘that officials should have such wide-ranging powers of indiscriminate seizure of books. It is even more intolerable that those powers should be exercised’. The shop was acquitted.

If books do furnish a room, Angus Wilson’s books rather furnish second hand bookshops.  Today I’m browsing in Any Amount Of Books in Charing Cross Road, and have no problem finding some cheap Wilson paperbacks. The man at the till remarks on my choice: ‘Angus Wilson! I didn’t think anyone read him these days!’ He tells me that Wilson appears in a scene in ‘a recent novel’ which has a party at a gay bookshop. He can’t recall the name of the author, or the title of the book, but as the fictional shop is probably based on Gay’s The Word, he advises me to ask there.

So I walk to Gay’s the Word, twenty minutes away in Marchmont Street, where Uli and Jim confirm the book in question: it’s Philip Hensher’s The Emperor Waltz (2014). It is instances like these that show how bookshops can be better at providing information than Google, and better at providing a memorable shopping experience than Amazon.

The novel I’m talking about, Hemlock and After (1952), is mainly set in a fictional Hertfordshire village, Little Vernon. It’s probable that Wilson drew inspiration from Little Hadham, near Bishop’s Stortford, where he lived just after the war. The same village was later the home and inspiration for Fairport Convention, who immortalised the Angel Pub in their album Angel Delight.

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Wednesday 19th December 2018. It’s become something of a cliché for successful writers to say they read ‘all the books’ in their school library when they were growing up. At which I always think: except any books on humility.

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Thursday 20th December 2018. A rather silly article in the New Statesman, arguing that the role you were given in your primary school nativity play is connected to who you are as an adult. I indulge the idea, though, and recall how at primary school I was the only boy angel. Though I did insist.

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Friday 21st December 2018. I must stop mistaking irritability for a cheap source of happiness.

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Saturday 22nd December 2018. The great thing about Christmas jumpers is that they allow one to identify a gang of lads approaching with vital seconds of notice. I’ve found that there now seems to be divergence in the colour scheme. The jumpers with a blue background tend to be more tasteful and wry. It’s the red jumpers that mark out lads who are out to make trouble. At least, that’s what’s worn by a group of drunk men in St Pancras Marks & Spencers tonight, as they hijack some wheeled stacks of baskets and push each other around in them.

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Sunday 23rd December 2018. Statistically, Christmas is responsible for an awful lot of depression. I myself run low on money today, hitting that dreaded ‘card declined’ moment in shops. I walk the streets in despair for some time. But what helps me snap out of it is the realisation that Christmas was, like many midwinter festivals, invented as a remedy against the despondency and fear caused by the season’s lack of light. Beneath the surface of the enforced jollity and the pressure to buy and to consume, it turns out that Christmas was your friend all along.

I also cheer myself up by noticing that there’s a mosaic of a Christmas pudding on the floor of a certain public building in central London, so I take a photo and run a quick seasonal quiz on Twitter. Alexandra Chiriac (@arthistorynomad) wins. The answer is Boris Anrep’s mosaics in the main entrance hall of the National Gallery. Specifically, it’s the east vestibule mosaic, ‘The Pleasures of Life’ (1929). ‏Also in the mosaics are Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill, and Greta Garbo. But unless you look down, you miss them.

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To Hackney Picturehouse for Mary Poppins Returns. The audience applauds at the end, which doesn’t easily happen at the self-consciously trendy Picturehouse.

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24th to 27th December 2018. I spend Christmas with Mum in Suffolk. Just the two of us. An entirely pleasant and happy time.

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Saturday 29th December 2018. I watch an ‘alumni’ edition of University Challenge. There’s a question put to the Peterhouse, Cambridge team, which is led by the former Conservative leader, Michael Howard. ‘Name the author of these books: The Sadeian Woman, The Passion Of New Eve, and The Magic Toyshop.’ None of them know the answer. Then again, perhaps it would be more upsetting if Michael Howard was a fan of Angela Carter.

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Monday 31st Dec 2018. I’m reading Sentencing Orlando, a new book of essays on the Woolf novel. One writer remarks that Woolf’s Orlando would have voted for Brexit. There’s no explanation as to why this might be the case, other than a vague indication of Orlando’s conservatism, on account of his/her aristocratic status. I’d have thought that given Orlando’s defiance of the boundaries of gender and mortality, for them to embrace geographical boundaries would then be out of character. Still, this is a parlour game for the times: which among the dead or the fictional would have voted for Brexit? And so it goes on.

I see in the New Year alone in my room in Dalston, half watching TV, half looking at Twitter, with pleasant drinks and food to hand. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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Tuesday January 1st 2019. Resolution: to embrace my oddness. I used to, but in recent years I’ve tried to be more normal in case it led to being more liked. It rather backfired: I just met with more rejection. So here’s to Weirdo Visibility. But in a good way.

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Thursday 3rd January 2018. In 1970 my father, Brian Edwards, was hired to illustrate the cover of the first UK edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. They sent him Vonnegut’s own manuscript to work with. The publishers didn’t use his design on the finished book, instead going for a straightforward title-only design:

Today I’m searching the web and find an auction of a rare proof copy, which has Dad’s design. It must be something of a collector’s item. I tell Mum and she finds one among Dad’s things in the house in Suffolk. This is the front cover:

The illustration carries on to the back of the dust jacket:

Dad’s name appears on the bottom of the back flap:

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Friday 11th January 2019. I submit my third & final annual attempt to secure a maintenance grant for my PhD. Applying for funding makes me think of that line from Michael Frayn’s Clockwise: ‘It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope’.

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Friday 18th January 2019. Editing my own work. Note to self: ‘Dear Dickon, you are only allowed one ‘accordingly’.

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Sunday 20th January 2019. I watched the Fyre Festival documentary, or at least the one on Netflix. There’s another one out at the same time. In 2017, Fyre was a ‘luxury’ music festival on an island in the Bahamas, which quickly became a disaster. The documentary is an entertaining piece of storytelling, depicting the hubris of the Instagram generation, how young people with too much money can come a cropper of the need to be ‘where it’s at’. A sort of Bullingdon Club mentality, in fact, just like the opening scenes of Decline and Fall.Some good has come of this glossy schadenfreude: there’s crowdfunding sites to help the local caterers and builders who worked on the festival, only to be left out of pocket. While this is cheering, there’s still the uneasy sense of, as with Bullingdon, rich people getting away with it, or even profiting, because of who they are.

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Wednesday 23rd January 2019. To Islington, and the offices of the publisher Unbound, to be the guest on the Backlisted podcast. The discussion takes place after office hours, on a table in a corner of the open-plan, modern building, close to the canal. They dim the lights and provide pink gin. Andy Miller and John Mitchinson, the regular hosts, are extremely good at what they do. They carve out their own territory on a spectrum between an amateur book group, with its connotations of rambling indulgence, and a Radio 4 book programme, which, while more professional, can evoke an unconvincing stiffness. Backlisted captures the appeal of old books for those who take their interest seriously but never without a big, kind heart. The Unbound office is also close to Noel Road, where Joe Orton lived and so graphically died. There’s a nice connection there for talking about the different ways a post-war English gay writer might align himself: Wilson the establishment man, Orton the outlaw.   

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Saturday 26 January 2018. In Russell Square I walk past a lad sitting on a bench. He shouts at me.

‘Like your hair, mate.’

‘Thank you very much.’

‘I was joking.’

‘I’m afraid I have to accept your first answer.’

I feel I should add that this retort was a prepared one. I’ve had these sarcastic, two-part cat calls before.

It’s the desperation of the second part that intrigues: the catcaller is now anxious to inform you of their true intention. In the case of the Russell Square lad, if I’d just said, ‘Thank you very much’ after his initial remark, and immediately put in my headphones, it’s not a stretch to imagine him getting off the bench and racing after me. ‘OY! You need to know that I was joking!’

Why make a two-part catcall? Perhaps, contrary to the song, the second cut is the deepest.

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Sunday 27th January 2019. To the Lexington for a charity gig by The Fallen Women, being the all-woman Fall karaoke band, with Fosca’s Charley Stone on guitar. The guest singers, who do one song each, include a bearded Stewart Lee, who does ‘Iceland’ (I think), and takes it extremely seriously. Another young woman, a DJ with afro hair whose name I can’t remember, does ‘Repetition’ and turns in a first-class post-punk performance.

Sharon Horgan, the comedy actress, also sings – I’m later told she’s something of a Fall expert. I chat to Beth and Bobby of Trembling Blue Stars, plus Sarah Bee.

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Saturday 2nd February 2019. I listen to the podcast version of the BBC Radio 4 programme, A Good Read. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is the choice of Scarlett Curtis, the Sunday Times’s pink-haired voice of young women. The Argonauts really is a book of these times, the talisman of a generation which thinks more fluidly about gender and sexuality, though Maggie Nelson herself is a little older. This issue may indeed end up as a fleeting fashion (I’m thinking of The Bisexual line: ‘Everyone under 25 these days calls themselves queer’) but I nevertheless find it cheering and exciting.

Something else on A Good Read that defines this age: one of the guests, the comedian Catherine Bohart, calls the radio recording a ‘podcast’, even though it’s been a BBC radio show for years. She is not corrected. Perhaps all audio recordings are now podcasts full stop, while live radio is ‘live podcasting’. It’s all content from the web. Except that the device that spawned the ‘pod’ part – the iPod – is nearly obsolete. The word is already a tribute to recent history.

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Monday 4th February 2019. The Backlisted podcast was published (or uploaded) today. I listen, and squirm at the sound of my voice, gabbling and lisping in my strange little way. Still, I take comfort from the speaking career of Slavoj Zizek, who has a similar lateral lisp and air of tenseness, but who also has that strong Eastern European accent. Does that stop him from being booked to speak? Quite the reverse. He’s worked his shortcomings into a unique brand. All the same, while I can’t help the lisp, I need to put more effort into making my voice slower and more controlled next time. But this is vanity. The best result from the podcast appearance would be that people seek out the books of Angus Wilson.

I take comfort from Wilson too, who clearly had a level of camp hysteria to his personality, but which he managed to channel into productive writing and clear (if fast) speaking. That’s one reason why I chose Hemlock and After: it tries to explain why people are the way they are, with an emphasis on camp men.  

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Announcement: On the 5th of February at 7pm I shall be appearing at the British Library in London, as part of the event Diaries: Lives and Times. Tickets are available online at: https://shar.es/aaPxH6

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How To Be Punk And Camp

Friday 28 September 2018. Further to my wistful renaming of the DLR line as the Delightful Little Railway, my friend Miriam gets in touch with her own interpretation. She thinks of it as the Dave Lee Roth.

Mum is in London. We have lunch in the Stratford Palace of Glittering Delights, otherwise known as the Westfield shopping centre. The place is pure postmodern excess: too many floors of too many shops. Though at least it’s above ground, unlike the underground mall at Canary Wharf, which is clearly modelled on the Hell of Beckford’s Vathek.

Whoever hires waiters at Wagamama’s has a thing for muscular young men. It seems unlikely that a Love Island six pack is the basic requirement for serving pad thai, but it certainly helps with one’s digestion.

In the nineteenth century, the department stores in London were spaces that women could feel safe inside, walking about by themselves. (Source: Erika Diane Rappaport, Shopping For Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End (2000)). Malls these days are also safe spaces environmentally: safe from traffic and pollution. But the main attraction is the comfort of global brands. Here they are arranged in such proliferation, the experience mimics online shopping. The paradox of a non-place like Westfield is that it makes shoppers feel entirely at home.

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Tuesday 2 October 2018. Learned today: Woolf’s Orlando was labelled as ‘camp’ in the mid-1960s, thanks to the articles responding to Sontag’s 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’. Here’s Thomas Meehan in the New York Times Magazine, 21 March 1965 (p. 30):

‘The favourite parlor game of New York’s intellectual set this winter has been to label those things that are Camp and those that are not Camp. Moreover, finding nuances within nuances, they have now divided Camp into high Camp (e.g., Virginia Woolf’s Orlando), middle Camp (Winnie the Pooh), low Camp (Batman comic books), intentional Camp (Barbra Streisand), unintentional Camp (Lana Turner in Love Has Many Faces), active Camp (dancing at the Dom), passive Camp (sitting through seven straight days of the Bette Davis film festival at the New Yorker Theater) and summer Camp (Cherry Grove).’

I look up ‘The Dom’ and ‘Cherry Grove’ – both are very New York references. The Dom was a trendy hangout for the Beats in St Mark’s Place, while Cherry Grove was, and still is, a summer beach resort on the nearby Fire Island, popular with gay men.

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Monday 8 October 2018. I watch some of the new Doctor Who, with Jodie Whittaker. I’m intrigued that they’ve made one of the companions, Ryan, dyspraxic. Another character accuses him of blaming things on his dyspraxia, including an alien invasion. Both actions are understandable. The irritation of being diagnosed as dyspraxic should at least allow one to blame things on it. But of course this only makes others suspicious.

Evening: to the Rio with Ms Shanthi, to see A Star Is Born. For all the glamour of Lady Gaga, the film’s focus is really on the troubled masculinity of Bradley Cooper’s character, whose music here is a strange form of 90s grunge rock. One theme is the way gender works in showbusiness: Mr Cooper first sees Lady Gaga’s character when she’s performing as the token ‘real’ woman on a cabaret bill of drag queens. The film equally suggests that the bad behaviour of famous men might be due to the stresses of trying to be a ‘real’ man, whatever that may mean.

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Tuesday 9 October 2018. History repeats itself. This week the media is full of articles about camp, and it’s New York’s fault once again. The Met Museum’s Costume Institute has announced that ‘Camp’ will be the theme of their 2019 exhibition and gala, and the 1964 Sontag essay will be the inspiration. Says the curator Andrew Bolton, ‘We are going through an extreme camp moment. Trump is a very camp figure — I think it’s very timely.’ Even The Sun runs a story.

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To the Rio to see Female Human Animal. This is an experimental thriller based loosely around the work of Leonora Carrington. It’s shot very cheaply, as if on an 1980s camcorder. There’s footage from a number of real life arty events. I’m nearly in the film myself: one scene is at a Last Tuesday Society event, at which I’m certain I DJ’d. Viktor Wynd’s Shop of Horrors is also in there, for which I’ve given guided tours. One of the cast is the artist Philippa Horan, who lived at the Boogaloo in Highgate for a while: I used to go to parties with her. At the screening I chat to the man in the seat next to mine. He turns out to be Brian Dillon, author of Essayism, which I read and enjoyed. He asks me about Momus.

The upshot of all this is that I feel I’m in the presence of a club I’m nearly part of, but not quite.

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‘Disease is reductive in mode, and endeavours to reduce the world to itself’ – Oliver Sacks, Awakenings (1973).

I don’t have any serious health problems, but I do feel my body is starting to fall apart in various typically aging ways: more aches and pains, more slowness, more tiredness. But I’m also mindful of the reductive aspect of writing about them. The appeal of Derek Jarman’s diaries is the art he made despite being ill. One way of dealing with illness is embrace the outer world more forcefully.

I love the way Audre Lorde puts it:

‘I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do. I am going to write fire until it comes out my ears, my eyes, my nose holes — everywhere. I’m going to go out like a f-ing meteor!’

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Thursday 11 October 2018. I present a paper on Grant Richards, Ronald Firbank’s publisher, at the ‘Publishing Queer’ conference in Senate House Library. Richards, a monocled London dandy who put out books from the time of Wilde till the early 20th century, is often painted as ‘unscrupulous’, due to his financial unreliability. He sometimes asked untested authors to pay for the production costs themselves.

Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth devotes a couple of paragraphs defending Richards. Like Firbank, she had to pay for some of the costs of her first book The Dark Tide (1923). But she credits Richards with starting her writing career, and for enabling more lasting happiness. When The Dark Tide came out, she received a fan letter from a reader, George Catlin. This turned into a correspondence, and then a courtship, and then marriage and children. One child was Shirley Williams, the Liberal MP. So it can be argued that just as Grant Richards gave us Ronald Firbank’s novels, alongside Joyce’s Dubliners and Tressell’s Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, he also gave us Dame Shirley Williams.

On the same theme of queer publishing, today happens to be Orlando Day. Charleston in Sussex is marking the anniversary of the book’s publication date, 11 October 1928, with a 9-hour reading of the whole novel, in which different readers take it in turns. I’d forgotten how the date is in the story too, marking the end of the narrative. Woolf must have added it when editing the final proofs. Indeed, these days many books appear on Amazon with a release date and even a cover, long before the text itself has been finished.

Something else that I forget about Orlando is that it was Woolf’s biggest selling book at the time. More so than Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse. Despite all the in-jokery between her and Vita Sackville-West, Orlando really connected with the public. It was something about that fantastical gender-shifting premise, combined with the camp tone she adopted from Lytton Strachey’s jokey biographies (which aren’t nearly as read as Orlando is now). With fantasy, there’s also an element of giving readers a new world to play in. This is especially valuable for those who feel the real world isn’t built for them.

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Friday 12 October 2018. Today’s finding. In 1934 Winifred ‘South Riding‘ Holtby wrote to Vera Brittain. She mentions having Sean O’Casey’s little son Brian to tea, along with the 5-year-old daughter of her friend John Brophy. I realise that this must be an early appearance in the world of letters by Brigid Brophy. (Source: Selected Letters of Winifred Holtby & Vera Brittain (1960), p. 297).

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‘He had the vaguely distraught air of a kitten that had seen visions’ – Firbank, Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli.

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Sunday 14 October 2018. A copy of the new book Bus Fare arrives. This is an anthology of bus-related writings, edited by Travis Elborough and published by the AA. My diary is in there, along with the bus-related passage in Mrs Dalloway, Amy Levy’s poem ‘Ballade of an Omnibus’ (which I love and which I wrote about for my BA), and a fascinating memoir of Matt Monro, the London bus driver turned pop singer. It’s the fourth book to use excerpts from my diary.

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Thursday 18 October 2018. The Metro has a paparazzi photograph of the pop star Harry Styles, one of the hosts of next year’s Met Gala ball. He is caught in the ultimate transgressive embrace: holding a book. It is Sontag’s Against Interpretation, which includes ‘Notes on Camp’. This can be no bad thing. The headline is ‘Harry Styles Rocks Pink Beanie And Gets Deep With Susan Sontag Book As He Leaves Recording Studio’ (Metro 18 Oct 2018). I suppose it’s possible that Harry Styles’s fans might now discover Ronald Firbank, who is named twice in Sontag’s essay. Either that or pink beanies.

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The OED announces that it is adding new adjectives to describe styles of filmmaking: ‘Wellesian’, ‘Capraesque’, ‘Tarantinoesque’. ‘Firbankian’ has been in the OED since 1972. One goal of my research is explain what ‘Firbankian’ may mean, and why it might be useful today. Perhaps Harry Styles now uses it.

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Friday 19 October 2018. To the Gielgud Theatre with Minna Miller, to see the new revival of Company, the Sondheim musical, originally from 1970. The main character, Bobby, has been gender-switched into ‘Bobbie’. In the wake of Doctor Who this might at first smack of some sort of concession to a zeitgeist. In fact it fixes a lot of the problems of doing the original show as it was. The plight of a single thirty-something man is now a lot less interesting, whereas with a woman one only has to point to Bridget Jones and Sex and the City.

There’s also an Alice in Wonderland theme, suggesting that an adult woman navigating the world of relationships has to put up with a lot of Carroll-like absurdities: people talking at her rather than to her.

My favourite detail is the switching of the girlfriend who sings ‘Another Hundred People’ into a male English hipster, complete with beard and skinny jeans. When he ‘city-splains’ New York to her, the irony is much funnier. And yet there’s poignancy too, as sets of figures in subway trains are shown acting out ‘Another Hundred People’ behind him, suddenly dancing or embracing each other, before separating and returning to their detached reality once more. This could be irksome, but thanks to the inventive spirit of the production it’s properly moving.

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Sunday 21 October 2018. I’m reading Audre Lorde. ‘When we define ourselves, when I define myself, the place in which I am like you and the place in which I am not like you, I’m not excluding you from joining – I’m broadening the joining.’ (Sister Outsider, p. 11).

I’m fascinated with the way Lorde’s late 1970s writings use a capital B for ‘Black’, and a small ‘a’ for ‘america’. But I’m also surprised that the term ‘homophobia’ was in use in the late 1970s at all. I’d previously thought it appeared around the early 1990s, seeing it in films like Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) or in the titles of records like Chumbawamba’s Homophobia (1994), or the Senseless Things’ Homophobic Asshole (1992).

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To the Rio to see Fahrenheit 11/9, the new documentary by Michael Moore. Mr Moore’s films no longer have the same ‘event’ feeling of Bowling for Columbine. On that film’s release, around 2002, people in London sat in the aisles of sold-out cinemas rather than miss out. Now, Mr Moore is an establishment figure himself. Unexpectedly, Barack Obama comes under fire, over not doing enough about a water pollution scandal. The overall message is that real hope lies with younger activists rather than the present run of politicians.

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Tuesday 23 October 2018. That eternal writing dilemma: knowing I need to explain some points further, while realising that the whole piece is over the word limit as it is.  One always needs to say more, and always needs to say less.

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Thursday 25 October 2018. To the Ivor Cutler exhibition at Goldsmiths CCA, reviewing for The Wire. Two 1970s easy chairs with headphones are set up as if to illustrate Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, one of his works. One set of headphones is connected to a vinyl turntable. The visitor is encouraged to put on Cutler’s LPs: Dandruff, Jammy Smears. There is a brand new LP here too: Gruts For Tea Again, a bootleg compilation on blue vinyl.

The exhibition next door involves some sort of noisy mechanical installation, the clunking and whirring of which leaks into the Cutler show. Cutler himself was a member of the Noise Abatement Society, so I wonder what he would have said about this.

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To the Rio with Ewan Bruce for Bohemian Rhapsody, the dramatic film about the band Queen. We only go because Mandy sold out in the other screen.

Queen were one camp gay man who died and three Top Gear presenters who didn’t, and films are not made by the dead. This fact shapes the whole film.

The story is partly about sexuality, yet there’s no sex in it whatsoever. What it is full of is ludicrous inaccuracies, terrible impressions (apart from the Brian May actor, who is excellent), bad prosthetic teeth, and irksome attempts at pathos. But then, this is the band who gave the world ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’. High Art was never going to be high on the list.

The film ends with an extended recreation of the Live Aid gig, even though the real version is available for free on YouTube. But presumably there are lots of people who pay to watch Queen tribute bands, so who I am to deny them? The fairest thing I can say is that this film is not unwatchable.

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Friday 26 October 2018. Despite the vast choice of recorded music now available, high street shops in London still insist on imposing the same few songs on their customers. One example is ‘Broken Stones’, by Paul Weller, from the mid-1990s. I quite like the song, or at least I used to. Today ‘Broken Stones’ is playing in Boots in Piccadilly Circus, while I look for their least butch deodorant. Then when I queue to buy a coffee in Pret A Manger in Regent Street ‘Broken Stones’ is playing there too. I wonder how this happens, and who is responsible, and whether they were ever really loved as a child.

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‘None but those whose courage is unquestionable can venture to be effeminate.’ – Ronald Firbank, Valmouth (1919).

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Tuesday 30 October 2018. Halloween has changed. The ‘een’ part has been deemed unfit for consumer purpose, and one evening is not nearly enough. In London, people are on the streets in costumes night after night, particularly on the weekend before October 31st. Still, the upside of this pumpkin-based Lebensraum is that the retreating forces of Christmas have finally been pushed back into early November. Retailers have admitted that even they cannot put fake cobwebs and fake snow on the same windows at the same time. To everything there really is a season; even to seasons.

**

Thursday 1 November 2018. William Sitwell, the editor of the free food magazine at Waitrose, is under fire for being unkind about vegans. If I could get a message to him, I’d say: ‘Why didn’t your great-uncle Osbert check his facts when writing his 1929 memoir of Ronald Firbank? It’s a mess.’

It is, though. Osbert confuses Vainglory with Inclinations, the fool (They are pretty similar, though).

**

Friday 2 November 2018. In the British Library reading rooms, St Pancras. When I go to the desk to collect my books, I am recognised by one of the staffers. ‘Aren’t you on the cover of a queer studies book?’ He means Elisa Glick’s Materializing Queer Desire: Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol.

Perhaps I should have denied this to make things more interesting: ‘But it really looks like you…!’ ‘I can’t see it myself’.

**

Saturday 3 November 2018. To the Rio for the London premiere of Something Left Behind, a documentary about the band The Wedding Present. It includes a Q &A with the singer, David Gedge. The film is more specific than I’d realised: it only covers the band’s first album, George Best, from 1987, as framed by footage of recent gigs, in which the current Wedding Present line-up play all the George Best songs in order. This event might sound as if it’s aimed at a very small audience, but the screening is so popular that the Rio opens up its balcony to provide extra tickets. I’ve been going to the cinema regularly for over a year, and this is the first time I’ve seen this happen.

Specialization is the way forward now: the more niche, the better. One can see the evidence in newsagents. The general music magazines like NME have withered away, while magazines on prog rock or metal or just David Bowie are thriving. It is all about recognising that, more than ever before, people want to feel less lonely.

**

Sunday 4 November 2018. An obituary in the Times about Derrick Sherwin, producer of Doctor Who in the late 1960s. ‘He became fed up with television and moved to Thailand where he worked as a bungee-jump proprietor’.

**

Tuesday 6 November 2018. I go on a binge-watch of Killing Eve, managing five episodes before finally going to bed. Senate House Library is a location once again, this time doubling as MI5. The only other TV series I’ve enjoyed as much as Killing Eve this year is Please Like Me. They both dare to mix comedy with serious situations, and they do it with an individual own sense of style.

**

Wednesday 7 November 2018. To the Old Vic with Katie Stone, to see Wise Children. This is Emma Rice’s version of the Angela Carter novel. I enjoy it immensely: the performers rattle through the story at high speed, throwing in song, dance, puppetry, colour and pantomime too – reminding me that Carter herself wrote an essay on the latter, ‘In Pantoland’. One of the themes of Wise Children is legitimacy, which Ms Rice maps onto the idea of South London being less ‘real’ than the rest of London, or indeed that The Old Vic is not as ‘proper’ a theatre as the venues in the West End or on the South Bank.

Perhaps one can compare Ms Rice’s productions to Baz Luhrmann’s films: that sense of using pop culture as a giddy dressing-up box. Like Luhrmann, she throws a parade of ideas at the audience at such a rate, that if one doesn’t please, there’ll be another along in a few seconds. And for all her liberties with the text, she still captures that core Carter tone.

Katie tells me that a copy of Woolf’s Orlando has a cameo in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the new Netflix series. It’s used to hint that the Susie character may be gay, non-binary, or trans (Episode 9 of Series 1, about 20 mins in). What interests me is how this very contemporary topic maps so well onto Woolf’s 90-year-old novel. I suppose it’s the non-binary aspect of Orlando that most appealed to me when I named my band in 1992. I have always felt like a not-man, but without wanting to be a woman either.

**

Sunday 11 November 2018: Whenever Noel Coward needed to go to the toilet, he would say: ‘I must telephone the Vatican’.

**

Tuesday 13 November 2018. I’m reading Brigid Brophy’s Reads, her book of essays from 1989. On the cover is the Fabritius painting The Goldfinch, the subject of one of her essays. More recently, the painting appeared on the cover of Donna Tartt’s hugely popular novel The Goldfinch. I wonder now if Ms Tartt was influenced by Brophy.

**

Wednesday 14 November 2018. One of those days when I go from wishing I was more like a normal person, to being grateful that I’m not. The working title for the novel I’m writing is The Beautiful and Weird.

**

Thursday 15 November 2018. The news has become such an unending spiral of Brexit-ity awfulness that I’m doing my best to avoid it full stop. Ideally, a 3-minute morning bulletin on a music station is all one needs. That way, the reminders of humanity at its worst (news) can be quickly compensated with reminders of humanity at its best (music).

**

Friday 16 November 2018: I think of the title for my chapter on theorising camp modernism: ‘Vile Bodies That Matter’.

**

Sunday 18 November 2018. To the Barbican Cinema 2 for Never Silent, a screening of two Audre Lorde-related films. One is The Edge of Each Other’s Battles, a documentary about a 1990 conference. The other is The Body of a Poet, from 1995, a more experimental film which is inspired by Lorde, but actually features the work of other poets. When the old 1990s Channel Four logo goes up at the end, I’m reminded how this sort of thing used to be synonymous with the channel: strange and quiet little arty films, just put on TV for the general good. Still, this screening is sold out, so perhaps that indicates what has happened. Art films now need to be sought out at cinema screenings like this rather than stumbled upon while flicking through channels on the TV.

There’s more art than ever before, but it’s also more fenced off and carefully ‘curated’. While this means one is more likely to find the sort of thing one already likes, it does mean being less likely to stumble upon works that you never realised might speak to you. Serendipity is becoming harder to find.

**

Saturday 24 November 2018. My landlady Ms K hosts a cheese and wine party in the shared kitchen. I wear the Sebastian Horsley silver velvet suit, if only because it’s good for getting conversations going. I wear a seahorse brooch for the same reason. Always wear something a stranger can remark upon. I usually explain that I’m trying to promote the seahorse as a symbol of unusual maleness (because seahorses – and their close relations, like the rather cruelly-named Weedy Sea Dragon – are the only species where the males give birth). One can then talk about seahorses, or the art of weirdness, or just favourite animals.

Even though most people at the party are at least forty, people hang around late into the night. But I weaken and go up to bed at about midnight. With alcohol, I’m getting more tired more easily. But the upside is that my stomach is stronger. Perhaps it’s my sterner sense of an aesthetic: I can’t pull off vomiting as a look.

**

Monday 26 November 2018. I hand in Chapter Two of my thesis to my supervisors. It’s far too long (20,000 words), and yet not long enough; many of the points need more development. But I had reached the stage where I found everything I’d researched to be interesting, and so was unable to know what to cut. Thankfully, this is what supervisors are for. There’s some irony here, too, as Firbank, my main subject, was obsessed with conciseness. His novels are barely a hundred and fifty pages long, but they’re highly polished and dense with their brevity. ‘Firbank has loaded every rift with ore’, said Edmund Wilson.

But there’s also the spirit of the times here, with everyone typing so, so much, and saying so, so little in the process. Everyone’s writing too much, and everyone’s not writing enough. Perhaps, as Quentin Crisp, said, more of us need ‘chains of our own making’.

**

Tuesday 27 November 2018. I see the film Widows with Jon S. Essentially a crime drama – a remake of the Lynda La Plante series from the 1980s, moved to contemporary Chicago and touching on modern issues of race, class, and gender. For all its artistic ambition (there’s one unexpected scene in which characters in a car are overheard yet not seen), the story is still rooted to the genre. It can’t quite bring itself to be as goofy as Killing Eve. Even the inept people in Widows are still gritty and cool, because the genre demands it. Perhaps I should visit Chicago myself, to prove that someone like me can even be allowed to exist there.

**

Wednesday 28 November 2018. To the Barbican for their current major exhibition, Modern Couples. It is the exhibition equivalent of Love Actually, partly because it crams a large number of different love stories into one space, but also because it’s trying to please as many people as possible. Just like Love Actually, the sheer amount of characters on display means there’s an inevitable loss of detail. Once one finishes reading all the captions, it’s closing time. All one can do is wolf as much down as possible and try not to feel overstuffed.

In fact, I’m reminded how Love Actually is itself the film equivalent of one of those boxes of assorted chocolates one gets at Christmas. The bits with Emma Thompson and Bill Nighy are the popular chocolates that always get eaten first, while the bit with Keira Knightly standing in her doorway while her husband’s friend serenades her with signs, and she doesn’t call the police, is the kind of small baffling jelly best left uneaten.

In Modern Couples everything is interesting: there’s just so much of it. The actual manuscript of Woolf’s Orlando is here, for one. There’s also a wonderful photo of Nancy Cunard leaning over a printing press while dressed in a dandyish dinner jacket and bow-tie.

The Barbican gallery shop sells novelty pairs of socks, illustrated with the faces of famous artists. They have punning names: ‘Sole-adore Dali’, ‘Frida Callus’, ‘Feetasso’, ‘David Sock-Knee’, ‘Vincent Van Toe’. The woman behind me in the queue is buying great fistfuls, or rather footfuls, of these nearly amusing items. Perhaps I need to do my own line. ‘Dickon Footwards’ is the best I can think of. Though that’s surely no worse than ‘Frida Callus’.

I buy a postcard and hand over some money to the young woman on the till. She says: ‘Oh, your hands are really soft!’ Buying a postcard in the Barbican shop is the closest someone like me comes to having a sex life.

**

Monday 3 December 2018. Acquiring two degrees in English literature has made me disproportionately intolerant of errors. I no longer just read: I scrutinise. This week I see an article in a mainstream newspaper, which uses this quotation: ‘If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to – Dorothy Parker’.

I know that this is not the invention of Dorothy Parker at all. She did say it in an interview in 1956, but she pointed out it wasn’t her own:

‘I hate almost all rich people, but I think I’d be darling at it. At the moment, however, I like to think of Maurice Baring’s remark: “If you would know what the Lord God thinks of money, you have only to look at those to whom he gives it.”’ (The Paris Review Interviews, Vol 1 (Canongate, 2007))

The quip is much older as it is. There is a version recorded by Alexander Pope in 1727, who in turn is quoting his friend ‘D.A.’ – Dr John Arbuthnot:

‘We may see the small value God has for Riches, by the People he gives them to.’ (Thoughts on Various Subjects (1727)).

**

Friday 7 December 2018. Pete Shelley, singer of the Buzzcocks, dies. I always loved the way  Orange Juice’s ‘Rip It Up’ suddenly references the Buzzcocks’ ‘Boredom’, quoting some of the lyrics (rhyming ‘dum-dum’ with ‘humdrum’), then copying the two-note guitar solo. This wasn’t just a tip of the hat but a declaration of affinity. Edwyn Collins and Pete Shelley both believed that arch humour could have its place in serious rock music.

In Pete Shelley’s case, his archness crosses over into bisexual camp: ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)’ was written about a boyfriend. He became much more explicit with his solo synth-pop single, ‘Homosapien’. There’s a 1977 film clip in which he comments on the way punk rock gigs were being cancelled by local authorities. A local education committee spokesman had said that ‘punk rock is vile and obscene’ (Source: a news article in Sounds, 16 July 1977).

In the film Shelley says: ‘These people who are banning us, they’re saying that I’m vile and obscene.’ Then he smiles, widens his eyes, arches his eyebrows, and tilts his head: ‘Do I look vile and obscene?’

It’s the tilting of the head that does it, like a human italic. Firbank once said ‘I adore italics, don’t you?’ (Source: Siegfried Sassoon, Siegfried’s Journey 1916-1920 (1945), p. 136).

Susan Sontag’s idea of camp also applies. For her, camp is ‘seeing everything in quotation marks’. In the clip, Pete Shelley uses his whole face as quotation marks, reframing the words ‘vile and obscene’ with a flirtatious Bet Lynch voice. It was this sort of thing that made him so easy to love. Though, as so often with camp, it also made him easy to underrate.

**

I keep thinking about an employer who once turned me down with the words ‘you have the wrong kind of experience’. Today, brooding on my lack of money, I feel punished for wanting to do different things in my life, as opposed to picking one thing at 18 and sticking to it. Though as Anthony Powell says, growing old in itself is ‘like being increasingly penalized for a crime you haven’t committed’ (Powell, Temporary Kings (1973)).

But to be fair to myself, there is one form of work I have stuck at: this diary. On February 5th, I will be speaking at a British Library event about diaries in general:

https://www.bl.uk/events/diaries-lives-and-times

 

**
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Keynesian Camp

Wednesday 22nd August 2018.  I read Beverly (2016), the graphic novel by Nick Drnaso. Mr Drnaso’s second, Sabrina, has just been longlisted for the Booker Prize, the first time a comic book has had the pleasure. Beverly is a series of short tales with overlapping characters, set mainly in the suburbs of contemporary Illinois. Various drab and mundane lives are examined, with hints of psychosis lurking beneath the surface. The tone recalls Todd Solondz’s film Happiness, not least with a troubled boy who has visions of mass slaughter. Artistically, Chris Ware’s style is the nearest point of reference: quiet panels, pastel shades, human faces reduced to bare lines, much like the diagrams in the safety instructions on airplanes. Drnaso’s style is more deliberately crude though, hinting at the frustration of the characters; brave faces as masks of loneliness.

But I wonder if this approach now touches on cliché. When I saw Solondz’s latest film Wiener Dog I felt the weariness of a once-fresh vision turned into repetition and staleness. Perhaps this is unfair: did people tell Henry Moore, ‘Not another big lump of stone with holes and curvy bits! Haven’t you done that enough?’ What does one want from a favourite artist – more of the same, or a radical departure? It is difficult to tell. Still, Mr Drnaso’s work has the confidence and seriousness of lasting art.

I have dinner at Pizza Express on Coptic Street, near the British Museum. Chosen mainly because Derek Jarman’s early 1990s diaries mention it as a regular London eaterie. It’s still here, a Pizza Express since 1967. The building itself is a former Victorian dairy, with the original decorative lettering left unchanged on the exterior; the letters are like a children’s picture book. Hardly anyone else is in there tonight: quite the contrast to the more packed branch on the Euston Road.

**

Thursday 23rd August 2018. One of my favourite Pet Shop Boys songs is ‘Delusions of Grandeur’ (1997), a b-side, or ‘bonus track’ as they are known in these less physical days. I now learn from the sleeve notes to the reissued CD of Bilingual that the song was inspired by the Baron Corvo novel Hadrian VII. This is enough for me to love the group forever. I also realise that Neil Tennant is a rare example of a male entertainer today who has never been tempted to grow a beard. I take some comfort from this.

Indeed, on the tube today there is an advert for a young person’s 18-24 railcard. The accompanying photo is of two young men playing video games. They both resemble George Bernard Shaw. In my case, despite the excuse of age, I feel that growing a beard would be fraudulent. It would signal to the world that I felt the slightest bit manly, and that would not do.

**

To Islington Vue with Ms Shanthi to see Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. The film is not exactly Citizen Kane, but I come for Cher singing ‘Fernando’ and I get it so I’m happy.

I note that the director is Ol Parker, who did Imagine Me and You. This was the Richard Curtis-esque lesbian romcom that was a flop when released in the mid-2000s, but which has now become a cult favourite. In the Abba film Lily James, playing the young version of the Meryl Streep character, has the most to do: she works her socks off to make the sequel work, and succeeds. ‘Sentimental’ is usually a pejorative, but if the film is well-made enough, to the point where nothing feels lazy or banal, it’s hard not be won over. On the way out of the screening room two teenage girls are walking ahead of me. They clearly love the film, despite the ancient songs and aging flesh (except for Cher, who is now 90% Tupperware). One girl is in such a good mood that she spontaneously does a cartwheel while walking down the corridor. It’s that sort of film.

**

Friday 24th August 2018. I read a lengthy interview with Stewart Lee which has been issued as an A4 fanzine, ‘Where Are the Thinkers?’ (published by Post-Nearly Press). There is much discussion of how best to make art in one’s forties. Mr L talks about the group Sleaford Mods, two men who were too old for the Radio 1 crowd, and who made no concessions to joining in with current trends whatsoever. Instead, they just worked on their music and put it out, to the point where an audience came to them. By this time their work sounded confident and defiant and lasting. It didn’t sound needy, that’s the secret. The best way to build an audience is to sound like you don’t need one. Whereas hype, fashion, and youthfulness might attain success more quickly, but it’s less self-sufficient.

(This is what I need to do now, but with books.)

Mr Lee talks about the time in the mid-2000s when he ‘massively slimmed down his expectations of life’, and just worked on making his work work. A more intense version of the same thing happened to Russell Brand, though only after he exaggerated his image into a cartoonish, camp blaze. Sebastian Horsley was on the verge of a similar, neo-dandy success when he died. I admit it’s what I want to happen to me, too. If only because I don’t really make sense otherwise.

**

Evening: to the Regent Street Cinema for a double bill of old Arena BBC TV documentaries. One is on the 1960s record producer Joe Meek, the other on the 1960s playwright Joe Orton. Both were gay men called Joe who lived in small flats in North London, and who both met with untimely deaths in 1967. Travis Elborough introduces the films, and points out the irony of 1967 being the year of the partial decriminalization of homosexuality; indeed, 1967 also saw the death of a third gay pop culture figure: Brian Epstein. After the Meek film there’s a Q&A with the drummer on many of the  records, Clem Cattini. Now 80, he’s full of polished anecdotes about the various egotistical characters he’s worked with over the years. It’s quite cheering to see someone from rock and roll history who’s not only alive, but who isn’t mentally scarred or bitter about money. Mr Cattini just got on with making music. When he casually mentions that he was the drummer on ‘Shakin’ All Over’ by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, that monument of rock history, tonight’s audience breaks into applause.

**

Saturday 25th August 2018. I am wearing a chalk-white suit today. Partly because Tom Wolfe has gone, so I like to think there’s a vacancy, but mainly as a kind of yin to Roger Stone’s yang.

I’m reading Derek Jarman’s diaries when the news comes through that Keith Collins has died. Collins was Jarman’s ‘HB’ in the diaries: the director’s late muse and live-in companion at Dungeness. I’m intrigued to discover from the Guardian obituary that they were never lovers in the sexual sense: Collins had a lifelong boyfriend, Garry, whom he married this year, just before he died. Thinking of the diaries now, I realise that they hint of a non-sexual relationship, though it’s never made obvious.

Nevertheless, the two were devoted to each other. One photo in Smiling in Slow Motion has Collins cradling a frail Jarman on the latter’s hospital bed. The younger man has a tattoo of a seahorse on his arm. A couple of years ago I was in the same room as Collins when I attended an IMAX screening of Blue, which he introduced. But I never had the chance to speak to him. I wish I had, if only to show him my seahorse cufflinks.

Some more thoughts on Smiling in Slow Motion. Vintage are planning to reissue At Your Own Risk and Chroma next year, both of which were written in the period covered by these diaries. Interesting to compare the old book covers with the new: Jarman’s face is gone, replaced by shots of the Dungeness garden. It’s a reminder that the man himself was once a brand – a TV chat show guest, in fact. In 2018 perhaps his selling power relies more on the work, not least the garden. Jarman himself says somewhere that he should have been a gardener rather than a film director.

Neil Bartlett’s introduction to the new edition of Smiling is a useful contrast to Olivia Laing’s introduction to Modern Nature, the earlier diaries. Whereas Laing specialises in renewing artists’ lives down the years through a detached and personal reading, Bartlett is a direct witness from the era in question. Accordingly, he can corroborate the queer rights struggles depicted in Jarman’s diaries.

Bartlett reveals that one of Jarman’s aborted projects was a modern-day film of Dorian Gray, with Bartlett himself as the writer. He also reminds the reader that although usually labelled as a filmmaker, Jarman was rated by the art world as a painter, so much so that he was shortlisted for the Turner prize in the 1980s. This is the key to Jarman’s work, and what makes it so intoxicating and addictive. As with the films, Jarman’s prose has a highly aesthetic sense of its own artisan integrity. He wrote the diaries with a fountain pen in a decorative hand – a page of which is reproduced in Smiling in Slow Motion – and kept writing until he was physically incapable of continuing.

Mr Bartlett further argues that for all the rainbow-branded awareness of today’s more enlightened times, there is still a dearth of depictions of gay domesticity, then as now. Certainly, the book is evidence of the way that in the early 1990s gay people were not just struggling for their rights, but for the right way of struggling. Jarman favoured the radical street protests of Peter Tatchell and Outrage, as opposed to Ian McKellen and Stonewall’s more polite, lobby-based efforts. Indeed, there’s times in the diaries when Stonewall seems as much Jarman’s enemy as the Conservative government.

It is the old dilemma of speaking to power: is it more effective to kick down the doors, or to politely knock?

When thinking of death, Jarman mentions artists whose passing wasn’t so sad, as ‘their work was complete’. In his case, despite the tonal finality of Blue, he was working on even more films when he died: his Dorian, plus an adaptation of James Purdy’s Narrow Rooms.

Meanwhile, Keith Collins is the hidden star. Not only is he a recurring character, as Jarman’s handsome companion, collaborator, and eventually carer, but he also transcribed, edited and named this posthumous volume (after a line in the diaries about Ken Hicks, one of the actors in Sebastiane who had died of AIDS by the early 1990s, but is immortalised in the film, smiling in slow motion). The book is now a memorial to Collins as well as Jarman. It is required reading for those who live an artistic life against the odds.

 

**

Monday 27th August 2018. To Broadway Market, my first visit since moving to Dalston. Though it’s technically within the same postcode, it’s slightly difficult for me to get to. I can either take a cramped and infrequent bus that winds through residential streets (the 236), or I can ride the smooth Overground train from Dalston Junction to Haggerston, then walk east along the canal.

Unlike Dalston, where social worlds collide, Broadway Market is more overtly arty. At Donlan Books, one of those shops where one wants to buy everything, I pick up Not Here – A Queer Anthology of Loneliness. I have a sandwich at La Bouche, a busy deli where one can barely move for all the laptops.

Dinner with Kath G at the veggie-only Mildred’s in Dalston Square. I like the space of the high ceiling here, the clear lines of the new building.  My other favourite local restaurant is Mangal 2, which is smaller but cheaper, and one often sees Gilbert and George in there.

**

Tuesday 28 August 2018. I cannot get used to the idea of an album ‘dropping’, as in being released. It smacks too much of the testicular.

**

Wednesday 29 August 2018. Evening: to the BFI Southbank for a screening of Jarman’s Sebastiane. There’s a short introduction which acknowledges the recent deaths of Lindsay Kemp and Keith Collins. Mr Kemp’s face is the first sight in Sebastiane: the bald dancer covered in white body paint and little else. I note how the first image is briefly a blank blue screen, just before the credits start, which makes for a neat bookending with Blue. The infamous erection shot now seems unusual rather than shocking, and entirely fitting to the dreamy, loving ambience. The film is now tame compared with what one can see on the internet, and yet still daring in terms of what is seen in the cinema. Once, people went to cinemas in central London to enjoy pornography. Now they go to the cinema to escape all the pornography online.

I look around at the audience, which is half the pleasure of going to the cinema in the first place. There’s a few gay men, as might be expected, but also a group of four or five young women, who are very quiet and who take the film extremely seriously. Students of film, I decide. And one or two elderly heterosexual couples. I’ve found there’s always at least one elderly couple at any film screening I go to, but for arthouse gay fare it does rather seem less expected. All of which hints about my own prejudice. One can never tell who will enjoy what.

In the foyer of the BFI I’m recognised by one of the staff, Rastko Novakovic. ‘We have a shared passion, Mr Edwards’. He is making a Ronald Firbank film. The details are at theflowerbeneaththefoot.com.

**

Thursday 30 August 2018. Thinking about Big Brother, the TV show, and how the first series in 2000 was the only one to allow books, I consult the British Library copy of Big Brother: The Official Unseen Story  by Jean Ritchie (London: Channel 4, 2000). This confirms that the first set of rules indeed allowed books and magazines – two of each per person. If it were me, I’d have taken in The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Complete Ronald Firbank.

Of the BB housemates in 2000, Anna took in To Kill A Mockingbird. Mel took in Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, which she then lent to Darren, who had previously described himself as a non-reader (a dangerous example of the power of books). Most of the other books taken into the house were cookbooks, self-help and spiritual books, or self-teaching manuals for languages or science, brought with the hope of learning new skills. By the second series, the books were banned.

**

Friday 31 August 2018. An impulsive trip to Southend, mainly because I’ve developed a love of sea air, if only because I’ve also developed a cold. Southend is very quick by train from East London: one goes via West Ham and is there under the hour.

I love the little pier train, which exists purely to take people from one end of the pier to the other. I also love that one can send postcards from the postbox at the sea end.

Afterwards: fish and chips at the Royal Hotel, with a sea view, reading the LRB. Then I escape back to London before the infamous Essex nightlife kicks into action. My white suit is already getting comments.

In the LRB, Sally Rooney reviews Sheila Heti’s Motherhood in the best possible way: reviewing the other reviewers. The book asks whether a female artist should have children, in terms of having a fulfilling life. Heti’s narrator – who is essentially Heti – eventually decides to be childless, the better to concentrate on making art. Art for her is ‘the child that will not die’. Well, I think, that depends on the reviews.

Rooney quotes Willa Paskin’s review in Slate, in which Paskin declares her own motherhood. Outrageously, Ms P wonders whether the book might have been ‘better’ if Heti had chosen to be a mother in the end. This seems an incredibly rude thing to say, even for an arts critic. Ms Rooney doesn’t hint at her own maternal status, but she sympathises with Heti if only because of all the female critics rushing forth to rub their own motherhoods in the author’s face. It is as if the book is criticising them personally for being a different person.

A similar thing happened with John Updike’s review of Alan Hollinghursts’s The Spell (1998). Updike went from judging a literary novel to judging all gay people ever. They were not ‘proper’ human beings because they did not have children (Updike forgetting about the ones who do).  This was not a question posed by the novel, but Mr Updike rushed forward to answer it anyway.

Between parents and the childless, one would have thought it would be the latter who would be more defensive about their choices. With these critics it seems to be the reverse. All reviews review the reviewer.

**

Saturday 1 September 2018. A sunny day. I wander around Battersea Park. The Pump House Gallery is closed for a wedding. A sign reads ‘Mr & Mrs Alford’. Outside there’s a marquee full of dressed-up people drinking a toast. One of them beckons to me (I think). I wonder if he recognises me, or is drunk and wants to mock me, or that he thinks I’m a late guest. I walk on.

It’s a shame I’m not invited to more weddings, if only because I often dress like I’m going to one.  ‏

Near the Old English Garden I find a 1980s monument to animals abused through vivisection. The memorial is a small statue of a dog. A plaque reveals that it in fact replaces a much older memorial from 1906, which a subsequent council decided was too controversial, and removed. I think of Fergus the white rat, my landlady’s pet, whom I occasionally looked after. Fergus was saved from a lab. He died this week of old age, at two and a half years.

The Peace Pagoda is another 1980s fixture of the park. Like the dog statue, it was paid for by the left-wing GLC, and symbolises another protest, this time against nuclear war. The view of the Thames standing on the Pagoda platform is superb, and underrated.

**

Monday 3 September 2018. My birthday. Cards from Mum and Auntie Anne, and a text from Charlie M. I do my usual birthday thing of getting on a train to somewhere I’ve not been before. Today I’m still on a coastal theme, and am curious about Hastings.

This is a slight cheat, as I was in Hastings once before. Spearmint, the band in which I briefly played guitar, played a gig there circa 1999. After the gig I was left sitting in the tour bus by myself, for some reason. Outside the van, which was parked near the town centre, a group of laddish young men appeared, clearly on their way back from a pub. They then proceeded to have a vicious fight with each other for no other reason than it was a Saturday night. This went on for some minutes: there was blood on their t-shirts. I had no choice but to sit there until this depressing sight ended. That said, afterwards I noted the pleasing resonance of witnessing a real life battle in that particular town.

Since then, I’ve been told that Hastings has become a much nicer place to visit, with hardly any violence, at least not on Monday afternoons. So here I am. The tourist information office sells an entire book about the locations used in Foyle’s War. I stop for a drink in Crowley’s Bar, an Aleister Crowley-themed venue near the railway station. One might think it plays death metal, but when I visit they’re playing 70s disco hits. Tonight the upstairs room is hosting a session of role-playing games. There’s a small library in the corner, with books on Crowley, a Clive Barker novel, and a comic, Satanic Mojo.

Mum has been to Hastings before, albeit not to the Aleister Crowley bar. She recommends a book-lined café, Hanushka, so I investigate. It is heaven. I spend a pleasant hour or two just leafing through the hundreds of books they have, with bookshelves coating every wall, ceiling to floor. I look through The Abba Annual 1982. Agnetha’s favourite film director is Roman Polanski. There’s a quiz of ‘Abbagrams’: ‘Nina Pretty Ballerina’ is the answer to ‘Bleary Anna In Triplet’.

Some aspects haven’t changed from my previous experience, though. As I walk past a pub in the town centre, some pint-downing men outside nudge themselves at my white suit. ‘Oy! Ghostbusters!’ As catcalls go, it doesn’t even make any sense. Hastings really needs to get a better class of idiot.

The pier has been refurbished. There’s dozens of little metal plaques around the handrail, the results of a fundraising drive. Many of the plaques are engraved with the usual memorials. Some mark happy memories of youth, such as the time in the 1960s when the pier hosted concerts by the likes of The Who and Dusty Springfield. Others are mysterious in-jokes: ‘Thick as These – Andy and Felix’, ‘Take Off Your Stockings and Pee In Your Shoe – Peggy’.

**

Tuesday 4 September 2018. One benefit of living in London without much money is that one can take advantage of last minute tickets. If you turn up at a show with minutes before it starts, there are often cheap or even free tickets available. Particularly at industry events, where the guest lists are large.

Tonight I walk into the BFI Southbank on a whim. I am soon handed a free ticket to a preview of the new Channel 4 TV series The Bisexual. The show is a comedy directed by and starring Desiree Akhavan. I had enjoyed her film from a couple of years ago, Appropriate Behaviour, about the ups and downs of a wisecracking Iranian-American woman (Ms Akhavan) in New York, as she looked for love across the genders, or failing that, a fling that wasn’t terminally embarrassing. The Bisexual is more of the same, except in East London. There’s a Q&A afterwards with Ms A and her fellow cast and crew, including Maxine Peake, but Ms A dominates proceedings. She points out how many lesbian films are directed by men: Carol, Imagine Me and You, Blue is the Warmest Colour. On top of which, there’s too few bisexual role models: ‘There’s Anne Heche, but she’s not the best one. She broke Ellen’s heart.’

The first two episodes, which are screened tonight, are very funny and engaging. There’s satirical echoes of Nathan Barley, along with the cult, sardonic feel of Peep Show. Except more queer and more female. It’s on in October. It deserves to do well.

**

Saturday 8 September 2018. To the Rio for another Desiree Akhavan project: The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a new film. This time Ms A stays behind the camera and adapts a novel about a gay conversion camp for teenagers, with 1990s period details. The protagonist listens to an album by the Breeders – on cassette. I wonder what the young actors made of cassettes, those obsolete if mostly unmissed little objects.

I quite enjoy the film, but compare it unfavourably to But I’m A Cheerleader. That film had the same plot, was also directed by a queer woman, and was (in every sense) much more camp. Cameron Post is made in a traditional realist style, so it feels like a straight text about gay people. This might be what reading Ronald Firbank novels and watching Derek Jarman films has done to me, though. I’ve started to hunger for idiosyncratic styles. It can be a style of dialogue: The Bisexual is conventional in form, but the catty quips and bon mots bring the required amount of style.

That’s what’s really underrated now: style. People are typing away too quickly, posting, tweeting, churning out the content, all the time valorising quantity and frequency over individuality. Writers are terrified of sounding different. As a result, so much content reads the same and sounds the same.

More style, less content. There’s too much content. We need to get post-content.

**

Monday 10 September 2018. To the Horse Hospital for the launch of Travis Elborough’s latest, Atlas of the Unexpected. It’s his second book of strange and unusual places. This one has the Shell Grotto at Margate, which I have visited. The Shell Grotto is the sort of place one can’t believe really exists – the stuff of HP Lovecraft’s dreams. Actually, it also evokes that Jeff VanderMeer Neo-Lovecraft novel, Annihilation. I chat to Cathi Unsworth about Edith Sitwell, and Ann Scanlon about Joyce. Blueboy’s ‘Chelsea Guitar’ is played by the DJ – the b-side of ‘Popkiss’.

**

Wednesday 12 September 2018. To Gay’s the Word bookshop. I’ve been asked by Birkbeck Library to recommend books which might denote ‘reading for pleasure’, as opposed to academic texts. The library encouraged me to pick books that were in stock at local independent shops, such as GTW. Very happy to given this shop as much business as possible. Now that Foyles has been taken over by Waterstones, independent bookshops need more support than ever.

I ask Jim at GTW which books have been recurring bestsellers at the shop over the years. It’s an intriguing list, including Tove Jansson’s Fair Play, John Rechy’s City of Night, Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance and Jackie Kay’s Red Dust Road.

**

Friday 14 September 2018. Watching all four series of Please Like Me on Amazon Prime (they’re doing a free six-month offer for students). The programme is adorable. It gives the impression that Melbourne is stuffed with ludicrously good-looking men who dress like they’re in Belle and Sebastian.

Am now reading Jarman’s At Your Own Risk (1992), a fragmentary, aphoristic book which channels his personal history through the wider history of gay rights in Britain. There’s an anecdote, repeated in Jarman’s Kicking the Pricks (also titled as The Last of England) in which he remembers going to the London gay club The Sombrero in 1972, and seeing people sing along to the Carly Simon song ‘You’re So Vain’. I wonder if Alan Hollinghurst used Jarman’s anecdote when researching The Sparsholt Affair, because that novel uses the same song for a 1970s scene set in a London gay club, the fictional ‘Sol y Sombra’.

Some lines from At Your Own Risk: ‘I have a vocation that comes before illness’. ‘We are all failures and we know it. It’s that knowledge which keeps us trying’.

And: ‘The lid was off; the dance was on.’

**

Saturday 15 September 2018. My co-supervisor Heike Bauer asks me if I’d like to give a special LGBT / camp tour of 43 Gordon Square, as part of Open House London Weekend. It’s short notice, and unpaid (like all such tours) but the research is compatible with my PhD, so I agree.

Today I take a look in the Woolf and Whistle bar, on the ground floor of the Tavistock Hotel. This is the site of Woolf’s flat in the 1920s and 1930s, where she wrote most of her major books and ran the Hogarth Press. The Woolf and Whistle bar has a modest Woolf theme to it. There is a large, glossy black decoration on one wall, made up of lines from Mrs Dalloway. The bar sells a ‘Virginia Woolf’ cocktail: gin, Prosecco, gomme syrup, lemon juice: £6.90. In the gents toilets the cubicles are lined with reproductions of Vanessa Bell’s covers for the books. One of them is A Room of One’s Own. It’s not clear if this is meant as a joke.

**

Monday 17 September 2018. To a training session at Gordon Square for Open House Weekend. I offer my research regarding the often-quoted joke about the Bloomsbury Group: ‘they lived in squares and loved in triangles’.

Most sources give no attribution. A few, like Amy Licence’s book, Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles: The Lives and Loves of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, attach the quip to Dorothy Parker, but without any proof of where Parker said it.

Lisa Appignanesi’s book All About Love, attributes it to the New Statesman editor of the mid-twentieth century, Kingsley Martin. Martin did say it in a column in 1941, but he was quoting someone else:

I wonder what people mean by “Bloomsbury”? […] Certainly it is no longer what Margaret Irwin used to describe in the ‘twenties as the place where “all the couples were triangles and lived in squares.”

  • Kingsley Martin, ‘A London Diary’, New Statesman and Nation, vol 21, issue 527 (29 March 1941), 317-18 (p. 317).

The Margaret Irwin source was recently identified in an article by Stuart N. Clarke (‘“squares where all the couples are triangles”’, Virginia Woolf Miscellany, 92 (Fall 2017/ Winter 2018), 38-40 (p. 39)). It’s in a satirical scene from Irwin’s 1928 novel Fire Down Below. I’ve checked a library copy of the book to confirm this:

Mr. Wem knew everyone who was a philosopher or politician or artist or writer or thinker, or rather, everyone whom he counted as such, which did not mean that his acquaintance was at all wide. It was in fact limited to a part of London that Peregrine had referred to in his absence from lunch as Gloomsbury.

“Where’s that, Father?”

“It is a circle, my fair child, composed of a few squares where all the couples are triangles.”

  • Margaret Irwin, Fire Down Below (London: Heinemann, 1928), p. 109.

So Margaret Irwin, the author of historical novels like Young Bess, seems to have originated the ‘squares and triangles’ joke, rather than Dorothy Parker.

It’s also interesting that the joke was made while the Bloomsbury Group was at its height, proving just how famous their polyamory was at the time it was still going on.

The joke would have been pleased the Bloomsbury gang themselves. For them, gossip was a force for social progress. As Virginia Woolf wrote herself: ‘the fact that [same-sex affairs] can be mentioned openly leads to the fact that no one minds if they are practised privately.’ – from ‘Old Bloomsbury’ (1922), in Moments of Being.

Woolf would have felt vindicated by this passage in Jarman’s At Your Own Risk, about being a young gay man in the 1960s:

The sixties were infatuated with the Bloomsbury Group – upper-class Bohemians who led open and ambisexual lifestyles in the twenties and thirties. […] We were smothered with information about the Bloomsbury artists. It wasn’t to do with their work, more to do with their love life – Virginia Woolf was bisexual, Vita Sackville-West had a lesbian affair, Maynard Keynes was queer, so was Lytton Strachey who had my friend Robert read him Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in a Paris hotel one night. There was a spate of biographies. The lives of the upper-classes were being popularised. This broke the secrecy that surrounded us and we pitted ourselves against the old moralities.

– Derek Jarman, At Your Own Risk (1992; repr. Vintage, 1993), p. 65.

Jarman put this sentiment into his film Wittgenstein (1993). One of the supporting characters is Maynard Keynes, who is shown in a relationship with a young man, played by Keith Collins. Jarman’s other muse, Tilda Swinton, plays the Bloomsbury hostess Ottoline Morrell. She was fresh from the film of Woolf’s Orlando.

**

Tuesday 18 September 2018. Reading an interview with Olivia Laing, I’m intrigued that she calls herself a former Riot Grrrl, and once published a fanzine, Blah Blah Blah. I mention this to Leila Kassir at Senate House Library, who knows about fanzine archives. She directs me to the London College of Communication in Elephant & Castle. This is a good reminder that one should consult human librarians over Google, whenever possible. Librarians are the keepers of the Un-Googleable things: we must cherish them.

So here I am in the LCC, an imposing modern building by the roundabout, where the computer terminals are state-of-the-art Macs.

Issues 3 and 4 of Blah Blah Blah are indeed typical fanzines from the early 90s Riot Grrrl scene. They’re A5 photocopied pamphlets, written entirely in longhand, alongside images cut and pasted from magazines: and it would have been a literal cutting and pasting, too with scissors and glue. The teenage Ms Laing gave her name as ‘Olivia’, of Denmead, Hants.

The zines are undated, but references to records like God Is My Co-Pilot’s Speed Yr Trip and the Voodoo Queens’ ‘Kenuwee Head’ place them in 1993 or 1994. The writing isn’t so reviews and interviews, but energetic and passionate sloganeering, in the spirit of groups like Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill: ‘Take over the NME and Radio One!’ ‘Burn down the schools!’

The last issue mentions that she’s started a band of her own: ‘We rock!’ And, like a lot of fanzine writers did in those days, the younger Olivia attacks music critics, in this case Melody Maker’s Simon Price. Today, like many former zine writers, Olivia Laing is a professional arts critic herself. I wonder if her band made any records.

These fanzines, and others, have been donated to the LCC by the musician Jen Denitto, she of the bands Linus, Scarlet’s Well, and The Monochrome Set. When I was in Scarlet’s Well I played with Jen myself, her on drums, me on guitar.

Reading between the lines of my own thinking here, I realise I’m still coming to terms with being part of the generation that’s moved from consuming culture to curating, championing and preserving it, taking it seriously. I wince at seeing bands like the Manic Street Preachers being marketed as ‘Dad Rock’, and pejoratively so (and indeed, overlooking the female fans of that same generation). Even if we are not parents, many of us now feel a need to pass on our knowledge and experience – our cultural genes – in a wider sense. It’s down to us to tell and to guide. ‘Pass it on’, as The History Boys says. Well, everyone has something to pass on; the trouble is deciding what ‘it’ might be.

I recently came across an article on the Bustle website (bustle.com), a site which describes itself as ‘the largest premium publisher reaching millennial women’. The article was titled ‘9 LGBTQ+ British Books Perfect For Film Adaptation Because They Deserve The Big Screen’. Woolf’s Orlando appeared in the list:  ‘This list would be woefully incomplete without Orlando […]. It needs a film adaptation NOW.’

While it’s worrying to think that the young journalists of 2018 place scant importance on fact-checking, it’s interesting that the 1928 Woolf novel has become better known than the 1992 Tilda Swinton film.

Still, there’s more to being an ‘educator’ than going online and typing ‘wrong, o embryo!’ under some overworked urchin’s listicle. Best make everything you do part of your own work (as with this diary) and put it out there. If only to stop future generations thinking that John Harris’s book on Britpop is the last word on the 1990s.

History is not written by the victors, but by those who can be bothered to write it.

**

Wednesday 19 September 2018. I do some research on a large painting which hangs in the Keynes Library at Birkbeck’s Gordon Square building. It’s The Garden Room (1951) by Vanessa Bell, a colourful rendering of a room at the Charleston farmhouse, with the garden in bloom seen through French windows. Two women and two little girls are sitting or standing around in a rather staged manner. According to Frances Spalding’s biography, Vanessa Bell, the seated woman in 1950s clothes is her daughter Angelica, staring across the room at herself as a three year old child. The other little girl, in red, is Angelica’s daughter Amaryllis. The remaining woman is deliberately ‘unknown’ according to Bell, though to me it looks like a self-portrait. The painting was originally a commission to mark the Festival of Britain. The idea was that a number of artists would provide works on large canvases, in line with the spirit of life coming off the ration. The painting appeared in The Listener magazine, in its original form with the seated woman looking entirely different. Bell reworked the painting afterwards, making the figure more like the adult Angelica.

I often sit near this painting in seminars, so it’s good to know a bit more about it.

**

Saturday 22 September 2018. I do my LGBT-themed tour of 43 Gordon Square as part of Open House London Weekend. The rain pours down, so I can’t stand outside and talk about the different houses, but the three tours indoors go well enough.

I don’t have time to memorise a set of monologues for each room, so I ramble using my notes, but better that than drearily reading from a script. For the last tour only one visitor turns up, so it becomes more of a conversation. It turns out that she was at the Sebastiane screening at the BFI. So I make more of my Jarman-Bloomsbury connections.

**

Monday 24 September 2018. The titles of this year’s new albums by Spiritualized and Moby both quote the same line from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, ‘Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt’. Spiritualized’s effort quotes the last three words, while Moby’s, which came out earlier in the year, uses the whole line. One wants to tell them: other novels are available, dear hearts. I like that Vonnegut line myself, but I am also sensitive to the way Vonnegut has become the sort of ‘default cool’ writer that people in bands are meant to like. ‘Great minds think alike’ is the alibi of those who lack great minds.

**

Tuesday 25 September 2018. Still on a queer Bloomsbury tip, I go to the British Library to consult a couple of handwritten letters from Maynard Keynes to Duncan Grant. While researching the tour, I had consulted the Richard Davenport-Hines book Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes (2015), which has a colourful account of the economist’s love life.

I was especially intrigued to learn that in 1910, while living in Cambridge, Keynes had not only met Magnus Hirschfeld, the German sexologist, but had provided information about his anonymous gay flings, for Hirschfeld’s research. The Davenport-Hines book cites a couple of letters held at the BL as evidence, so here I am in St Pancras like a good researcher, deciphering Keynes’s handwriting for myself.

It turns out that Keynes doesn’t refer to Hirschfeld by name, but to a ‘German doctor’ who specialises in homosexuality, and who was ‘the principal witness in the Eulenburg trial’. If that wasn’t enough to narrow it down, my co-supervisor, Heike Bauer, who has written extensively on Hirschfeld, confirms that MH indeed visited the UK in 1910 for his study Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes (1914), and that this included a trip to Cambridge where he saw (but did not meet) Oscar Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland.

What piques my interest is that the letters prove that Keynes and Duncan Grant were familiar with the gay slang usage of the word ‘so’. Rather wonderfully, Keynes calls Hirschfeld ‘The Secretary of the Society of International So.’ (This is not quoted in the Davenport-Hines book, so it may be an exclusive for this diary). I’d known that ‘so’ was an old slang adjective for homosexual (it’s in the film of The Naked Civil Servant), but this appears to be a rare usage of ‘so’ as a noun, to mean homosexuality. I’m tempted to rustle through Keynes’s other correspondence, to see if he uses ‘camp’.

**

Thursday 27 September 2018. I have taken to calling the DLR ‘The Delightful Little Railway’.

When I put this on Twitter, Richard Hamblyn replies: ‘I always mishear “a TfL announcement” as “a tearful announcement”. And often it is.’

**
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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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