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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Promises That Were Possibilities

Saturday 25th June 2016. I don’t take part in the Pride march, but it impacts on my day when I try to get to St James’s from Trafalgar Square. I stand in Lower Regent Street and watch a few of the floats go by. In Trafalgar Square, one of the traffic lights has been altered so that the little green figure is now two female sex symbols, linked together. The London mayor, Mr Khan, has given his explicit blessing to Pride. Given he’s a Muslim, and given the events in Orlando the other week, there’s an extra resonance of justification to the march.

That said, I wince when I see a float emblazoned in the logos of Barclays Bank. How funny that the recent film Pride, set in the 1980s, is as much about anti-capitalist politics as it is about gay rights. Now capitalism has a float in the march too. If corporations like Barclays truly gave a hoot about LGBT culture, they’d intervene to stop venues like Madam JoJo’s and The Black Cap disappearing. Still, asking a bank to deal with inequality rather summons up the cartoons of HM Bateman.

***

Am reading Edward St Aubyn’s series of novels about Patrick Melrose, the upper class anti-hero who goes from abused child to self-destructive addict. Whereas I gobbled up books one to four with impatience, I’m taking my time with the fifth and final book, At Last, in order to properly savour the prose. I’m sure this is common when reading a series of books in order, one after the other.

I’m attracted to ESA’s books not only by the aphoristic quips and Waugh-esque style, but by St Aubyn’s admission in interviews of his dyslexia. It explains why the novels are often quite short, yet heavily polished. The D-word doesn’t appear in the novels, but knowing about St Aubyn’s learning difficulty gives an extra dimension to his protagonist’s taste in books:

‘He liked slim books which he could slip into his overcoat pocket… What was the point of a book if you couldn’t carry it around with you as a theoretical defence against boredom?’ (Bad News, p. 48).

Never Mind and Bad News are the best of the first four, I think, due to the shocking abuse scene in the former, and the mixture of New York high and low life in the latter. Difficult to call Bad News a narcotic novel, though, as the heroin taking is secondary to Melrose’s self-hatred.  It’s closer to the way that Sebastian Flyte ends up as an alcoholic in Brideshead.

***

I browse in the National Portrait Gallery shop and notice that they’ve put out a new postcard of Victoria Wood. It’s brand new, in fact, because on the back are the years of her birth and death. Given the surge of celebrity deaths this year, the NPG must be spoilt for choice.

***

I watch a DVD of The Pleasure Garden (1953), rented from Birkbeck library. This is a curious 40 minute black and white film, which Travis Elborough mentions in his book on parks. Directed by the American poet James Broughton, it’s now a time capsule of London topography and British social values. The main location is Crystal Palace Gardens, while it still had plenty of statues.

The plot is little more than a dream-like parade of amorous goings-on in the aforementioned Gardens, with a tone pitched somewhere between Luis Bunuel, Dick Lester, and the Carry On films. Hattie Jacques is a fairy godmother, using her powers to liberate courting couples from a censorious government official, played by John Le Mesurier in Victorian undertaker garb. In one scene he apprehends a trio of skimpily-dressed young people, two men and a women, for what we assume is canoodling in the long grass. The woman tells Le Mesurier that the two men are ‘together’, which prompts him to turn to a ‘special’ section of his rule book. Though the DVD is certificate U, this film must have felt pretty risqué for British viewers in 1953. Needless to say, it did well at a French film festival.

***

Sunday June 26th 2016. A quote from Iain Duncan Smith on the Andrew Marr programme, about his role in the referendum’s Leave campaign:

‘We never made any commitments. We just made a series of promises that were possibilities.’

It’s so beyond satire it hurts.

***

Tuesday, June 28th 2016. To the Barbican’s smaller screens in Beech Street for Tale of Tales, an Italian film comprising three traditional Italian fairy tales. They all take place in the same quasi-medieval world of castles and sea monsters. The cast is international (including Toby Jones, Shirley Henderson, and Salma Hayek), but the dialogue is in English. When there is any dialogue, that is. And what there is is very stilted, bordering on the badly translated. This makes it a frustrating watch, but the visuals are impressive enough. Vincent Cassell is typecast as a sex-mad king, making his entrance beneath the skirts of two women. At one point he gets up in the morning after an al fresco orgy on a beach, and knocks over a live peacock.

***

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016. I go to see Martin Parr’s ‘Unseen City’ exhibition, being images documenting the ceremonies of the Square Mile. It’s in the Guildhall, one of those London galleries that the tourists never seem to know about (another is the Wallace). The permanent collection is full of 19th century masterpieces, yet I’m one of about five visitors.

Parr’s trademark style is unmistakable: hyperreal slices of British daily life, the colours turned up to the full. A lady Lord Mayor stands alone in an empty marquee, waiting to go on, weighed down by her voluminous robes and oversized hat. A golden Great Mace rests bathetically in the back seat of a taxi. I suppose the word really does have to be ‘unceremonious’. Beadles and Drapers march in their garters past a branch of Pret a Manger. The names of the ceremonies are entertaining enough: ‘Cart Marking’, ‘The Silent Ceremony’, ‘Beating the Bounds’, ‘Swan Upping’. Men in blazers stand in row boats and toast the Queen. It all still goes on.

Quite an apt exhibition to see in the wake of the EU referendum, too, given the amount of foreign newspaper cartoons about men in bowler hats doing foolish things. Bowler hats are, of course, rarely worn in the City of London these days, but as these photographs prove, there are still worn in City ceremonies.

***

Friday, July 1st, 2016. There really is no escape from the referendum. Wandering through Cartwright Gardens in Bloomsbury, I stop take a look at the statue of John Cartwright, and learn from the plaque that he was a campaigner for universal suffrage and a supporter of US independence in 1776. Then, at the foot of the statue, I notice there’s a fresh bouquet of flowers, along with a handwritten paper note. It is clearly from a Leave the EU supporter:

‘23rd June 2016. Betrayed by our own representatives, we the people nevertheless voted to reclaim national sovereignty… Freedom is ours!’

***

I attend a Birkbeck end of term drinks gathering, at the Bree Louise pub near Euston station. After a few drinks, the Birkbeck table inevitably gets into an EU conversation. ‘Oh, I’m just enjoying the spectacle of it all’, I say airily, waving a hand about. The woman I’m speaking to (who I’ve not met before) is unimpressed. ‘It’s not a spectacle for ME! I’m in Labour!’

When she gets up to leave, she jabs a finger at me and says, quite sternly, ‘Join the Labour Party.’ Then she goes. I don’t say anything, but it occurs to me that the only reply is, ‘Why, are they falling apart? Oh, that’s right.’

I was being honest, though. Whether Corbyn or the Tories, it’s a spectacle all right, and one that I feel both depressed by and detached from.

***

Tuesday, July 5th, 2016. Evening: Dinner with Shanthi Sivanesan at Cozzo, Whitecross Street. It’s an unpretentious, inexpensive Italian restaurant, slightly rough at the edges, which I like. We sit out al fresco in Whitecross Street, which is narrow and virtually pedestrianised, with few cars about.

Then to the Barbican’s nuclear bunker, aka Cinema One, for Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (£5 with an NUS card on Tuesdays). Quite an apt choice, given my own current state of lassitude. Jennifer Saunders, who stars and writes the script, has admitted that she wrote it in a state of laziness. Not only did it take an age to come out, but the end result, I think it’s fair to say, has the minimum amount of ambition that could possibly be expected. The title says it all: a standard episode of the TV series Absolute Fabulous, padded out to pass as a film.

The most common plot for film versions of TV comedies has often been They Go On Holiday. So many spring to mind: Are You Being Served: The Movie, Holiday On The Buses, that Morecombe and Wise one with ‘Riviera’ in the title. The other common plots are They Run Out Of Money, and They Get Involved In A Big Crime That Moves Them To A New Location (Alan Partridge – Alpha Papa). The Ab Fab film manages to tick all these boxes: Edina and Patsy run out of money, get involved in a crime, and flee to the South of France. That really is it.

Thankfully, it’s still funny. There’s enough slapstick and topical jokes to keep the film afloat, and Joanna Lumley as Patsy is funny whenever she’s on screen full stop. She can pull a face and improve a scene a thousandfold.

Were it down to me, I’d turn it into an original musical. There’s a scene where Saffy, the prim daughter, sings karaoke at a drag queen night in the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. It’s a scene that has no justification other than being a nice record of the venue, much as The Pleasure Garden is a record of the Crystal Palace Gardens. Like Madame JoJo’s was, the RVT is one of those old-style gay clubs which is struggling to avoid the oligarchs’ bulldozer. But it also suggests that the film really wanted to be a full-blown musical.

Instead we get a multitude of celebrity cameos that do little more than prove how well-connected the producers are. The rule should be that cameos need to be as good as Marshall McLuhan’s in Annie Hall. McLuhan couldn’t act, either, but he’s there for a joke, and you don’t need to know who he is to get the joke, either.  The celebrities in AbFab are little more than attempts to distract the audience from the film’s complete lack of ambition. It’s still funny enough, when it’s those two main actors playing those two characters. They could have done more, that’s all.

***

Thursday, July 6th, 2016.  With some of the Boogaloo extended family to the fringe-y Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden. One of the Boogaloo staff, Kate Goodfellow, is in the current play there, A Year From Now. It turns out she’s also the artistic director of the company, RedBellyBlack, as well as this show’s producer, choreographer, and sound editor. She tells us afterwards that she even repaired some holes in the stage floor that were left behind by the previous company, with minutes to go until the technical rehearsal.

A Year From Now is an impressive documentary piece, which uses a similar device to one of my favourite films, The Arbor. To enhance the question ‘Where do you see yourself a year from now?’, actors lip-synch to the recorded voices of real life interviewees. Unlike The Arbor, though, there’s an element of modern dance too, with the actors constantly moving about in balletic styles as they illustrate or interpret the words they’re mouthing. This use of quotations from real life to make up an entire script is, I believe, called verbatim theatre. That said, it’s more common to have the actors performing the words with their own voices, as in the case of London Road, the musical about the Ipswich murders.

The voices on audio range from an elderly couple who are glad to still be about, to a toddler who has only just learned the concept of what a ‘year’ means – played by Kate G herself. There’s also a young-ish couple who are the parents of new born babies, to a man whose parent has just died, and to a trio of hospital patients battling or recovering from serious illnesses.

It’s also quite timely, given the present sense of uncertainty overall. A year from now there’ll be a different Prime Minister, and a different US President. Some politicians have scant ideas of what they’ll be doing next week. The referendum revealed that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove had made no plans whatsoever.

In my case, I do know what I’ll be doing a year from now. Working on a 15,000 word dissertation for an MA, to be delivered in the following September. That’s all I’ve got for now, but that’s still more than Boris.

***

Afterwards: to the Groucho Club in Dean Street. At least one of the Boogaloo party is a member of the GC, so off we go. Last time I was here, which must be about ten years ago, I’m sure it was more brightly lit, and that it felt like the public areas of a luxury hotel. Today it’s more like a private members’ club, which is what it’s meant to be. There’s friendly staff who know the members’ names, dark corners to loaf in, lots of sofas next to bookcases full of coffee-table books, art on the walls (quite a few Peter Blakes). A looser, more bohemian feel than last time. It’s as if part of the Colony Room’s spirit has moved here, with the rest of it going to Vout-o-Reenee’s in Tower Hill.

Am intrigued that the Groucho smoking area is not the pavement out front, but a kitchen yard on the first floor, hemmed between the backs of old Soho buildings. I share an Uber cab back to Highgate (‘Would you like to charge your phones?’ says the driver) and am treated to the cost. I must socialise with my neighbours more often.

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The EU Anxiety Mountain

Sunday 19th June 2016. I read an interview with Noma Dumezweni, the black actress cast as an older Hermione in the new Harry Potter play. Am intrigued to find out she was raised not so far from me, in Felixstowe, Suffolk, during the 70s and 80s. She speaks fondly of attending the Wolsey Youth Theatre in Ipswich, and being inspired by its director, Anthony ‘Dick’ Tuckey. I worked briefly with the WYT too, as a trainee stage manager during 1990. The show was an adaptation of The Odyssey, written specifically (by Mr Tuckey, I think) for a youth group. This duly meant there were lots of roles, Sirens, Greeks, mythical characters and so forth, spread across plenty of scenes. I remember Dick T being an avuncular director and a fearless leader in general (it’s no mean feat to keep out-of-school teenagers in order), but also that I was impressed by his eclectic taste in music. One of his Wolsey Theatre productions in 1989 used the debut EP by the edgy, Goth-tinged band Cranes, Self-Non-Self. It was the first time that I realised you didn’t need to be a certain kind of person to like a certain kind of music.

***

Afternoon: to Ladbroke Square Garden in Notting Hill, open today as part of Open Garden Squares Weekend. The garden is normally ‘communal’, meaning that the general public aren’t allowed in. The gates are normally kept locked, with the keys distributed only to the residents of the neighbouring streets. The idea is that it’s compensation for not having a large garden of one’s own. London has a couple of hundred miniature parks like this: a whole other world of semi-secret green spaces, hidden behind railings and high hedges. Perhaps the most well-known is Rosmead Gardens, a few blocks away from Ladbroke Square, which appears in the film Notting Hill. Hugh Grant tries to breaks into it at night.

I’ve come here today because I’m an admirer of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Line of Beauty, and was curious about the unnamed ‘communal gardens’ which back onto Kensington Park Gardens:

The communal gardens were as much a part of Nick’s romance of London as the house itself: big as the central park of some old European city, but private, and densely hedged on three sides with holly and shrubbery behind high Victorian railings… There were hidden places, even on the inside, … the enclosure with the sandpit and the children’s slide, where genuine uniformed nannies still met and gossiped with a faint air of truancy; and at the far end the tennis courts, whose overlapping rhythms of serves and rallies and calls lent a calming reminder of other people’s exertions to the August dusk. From end to end, just behind the houses, ran the broad gravel walk, with its emphatic camber and its metal-edged gutters where a child’s ball would come to rest… At regular intervals there were Victorian cast-iron benches, made with no thought of comfort, and between them on the grass a few people were sitting or picnicking in the warm early twilight.. At the end of the path there was the gardener’s cottage, huddled quaintly and servilely under the cream cliff of the terrace.

So today I take my paperback copy of the book and compare it with the real place. Some of Hollinghurst’s details are a little different from the real Ladbroke Square Garden: for one thing, there’s no metal gutters on the main path. Though for all I know that may be accurate in historical terms, as the novel is set in the 1980s. Otherwise, it matches the description. Once through the gate, which is today manned by some cheery locals on trestle tables, the space opens out into what might be a portion of Regent’s Park, such is its size. There’s three spacious lawn sections separated by rows of trees, with the children’s play areas and tennis court are all present and correct – though it’s quite easy to miss them, such is the winding density of the place. The gardener’s cottage is there too, and ‘quaintly huddling’ under the cliff of the proper houses sums it up.

According to the leaflet I take on the way in, Ladbroke Square Garden has over 650 families as subscribers, all of whom have to live within 100 yards of the perimeter. On top of that, they pay an annual fee of £240 to use the garden, though there’s also a ‘hardship’ rate of £75. It’s like a private members’ club, in that sense. The tennis court turns out to be a 1960s idea by the wife of Roy Jenkins, no less, while he was the Home Secretary. He lived at Kensington Park Gardens, just like the politician in The Line of Beauty. 

I spend the afternoon wandering around this private paradise, basking in the rare access. I briefly bump into Cathi Unsworth, another London novelist, also playing the city explorer.

***

Tuesday 21st June 2016. Evening: to the Boogaloo for the first time in ages; I’d been neglecting my own local watering hole. Chat to a couple of the current youthful crew, who have various projects in the offing – digital radio stations, dance theatre pieces. There’s a chance I might be involved in something Boogaloo-shaped soon. Have too good a time and end up hungover the next day. This is the only real difference: I can’t drink as much as I used to without wiping out my usefulness for the next 24 hours. This is purely down to age, though.

***

Wednesday 22nd June 2016. That said, I do end up going to the IOE bar for one glass of wine after a class today. It’s very much an end of year type of class: ‘Critical Top Trumps’. Essentially a fun discussion of academic theorists based on the Top Trumps trading card game. Interestingly, there’s already a set of Theorist cards on the internet, so we discuss those. They’re from 2000, which is just long ago enough to demonstrate how theorists can go in and out of fashion. Judith Butler and Adorno are there, Zizek is not. No one in the class recognises Anthony Giddens, a British sociologist who was once an advisor to Tony Blair.

The tutor mentions the Fear Factor rating of the classic ‘Dracula’ set of TT cards, which I adored at school. The more common Trumps games were usually to do with footballers, but Kevin Keegan was no match for Dracula. I now remember that I once made my own Doctor Who cards at school, with hand-drawn illustrations, though I don’t think I actually showed them to anyone. I gave one card to the much-unloved monster The Raston Robot, from The Five Doctors.

***

Thursday 23rd June 2016. Afternoon: to Jackson’s Lane Community Centre on Archway Road, to vote in the EU referendum. Such a little act – a stubby pencil on a string, an ‘X’ made in one of two boxes. Leave or Remain. It takes me all of five minutes.

People will mostly vote Remain, I think. It’s the obvious choice. I stay up all night and watch the results come in. Despite all the warnings, despite Obama and Cameron and all the writers in the TLS asking people to vote Remain, the Leave vote has it. London, Scotland and parts of England (Brighton, typically) decide to Remain. But out in the shires of Middle England, a backed-up store of anger is finally released.

It’s only 52% of the votes, but it’s enough. The prime minister resigns, the pound plummets, Labour’s top MPs try to remove Corbyn (again), and attacks on immigrants soar. The triumphant politicians, Johnson and Gove, are now back-pedalling about their promises and show no signs of indicating exactly how they’re going to carry out this ‘Brexit’. It’s a very British spectacle: hypocrisy, pettiness, and a lot of muttering.

All I can think about is battling a surplus of anxiety. It’s an EU Anxiety Mountain, a stockpile of worry. The only thing to do with it, is to do good. Not that any option currently presents itself. Online petitions seem little use when the government and the opposition are both too busy pulling themselves to bits.

The world points and laughs: a New Yorker cover has Monty Python’s Silly Walks men falling off a cliff. A German cartoon also uses Monty Python. The Black Knight of Britain cuts off his own limbs. ‘A mere flesh wound!’ Still, it’s interesting that for much of the world, Britain means Monty Python. Perhaps Michael Palin should be asked to step in as an emergency prime minister.

The two biggest quotes from the campaign were from the umpteen televised debates. One was ‘I want my country back’ (a Question Time audience member), the other Michael Gove’s: ‘People in this country have had enough of experts’ (from a Sky News debate).

Mr Gove was soon questioned about his own expertise. His college degree was revealed: a 2:1 in English Literature. With my First in the same subject, I suppose I am technically more of an expert than Michael Gove.

But nevertheless, this touched on the spirit of the times: an instinctive mistrust of those in positions of power. A vote to Leave was a protest, and now the voices of the Remain camp are protesting back. Later, on the following Monday, a huge crowd of Jeremy Corbyn supporters turned out in Parliament Square, implicitly protesting against the Labour MPs who’d been protesting in turn, with their string of resignations from Corbyn’s front bench.

So much protest, so little agreement on a solution. It’s a like an ancient satire on democracy. Everyone has their say, but no one can agree, so everything breaks.

Someone on Twitter said, ‘I can’t read another word of this. Let me know how it all ends, will you?’

I hope the Anxiety Mountain can be put to good use.

***

Friday 24th June 2016. To the ICA for the film Remainder, if only because of the timely pun of London as a city of ‘Remain-ders’. A frustrating film: it boldly tries to adapt the ideas from Tom McCarthy’s cult novel, but like High-Rise I find it a mess of mismatched tones, confused pacing, and stilted acting. Still, it’s a noble mess, perhaps proving that the novel can’t properly be filmed, just paid tribute to (indeed one of its themes is the failure of simulation). And Tom Sturridge does have a vacant surliness that’s perfect for the protagonist.


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