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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Something Where There Should Be Nothing

Late March, and for the first time I find myself looking out for new leaves on the trees. Larkin’s rare positivity:  ‘Afresh, afresh, afresh’.

I recently had an email from someone organising an exhibition at Somerset House. The show is titled ‘Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and their Digital Descendents’, and will run from late May till July. I’ve given permission for them to use a quote from mine on some sort of screen, for use on just one day. They’ve chosen some entries from May and June of last year.

So the diary continues to find purchase. And yet I still resent the time and effort it requires. Perhaps because it is, occasional donations aside, unpaid work. Philip Glass on his early years, driving a taxi while being championed in the press: ‘What is success? Having an audience.’  I have to admit I still prefer the version that pays the bills. Perhaps it’s about time I look into Patreon. But anyway.

***

How do I write this diary again? Empty my brain onto the page, take out all the libel, the self-libel, all the resentment, and as much of the self-pity as I can wake myself up to, then polish whatever’s left. And take too long to do it.

(That’s not entirely true: much of the time is spent procrastinating.)

***

For this present update, so much time has gone unmarked that I will have to be concise, even fragmentary.

***

12 December 2016. Most of my days from here to the 23rd of January are spent on the 3rd essay for my MA at Birkbeck, as in my MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture. This essay is a fairly bold argument towards a definition of ‘textual dandyism’, via selected novels by Muriel Spark, Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson. One of the other students said that my doing Carter was a ‘typical’ choice for me, which I took to be a compliment. The postgraduate mode is, after all, meant to involve a drift from the general to the specialised. And what else is specialisation but an advanced manifestation of taste? Discuss.

Regardless, few will disagree that Ms Carter is good for sparking off ideas. One of her essays in Shaking A Leg states that anorexia is a kind of female dandyism. There’s a thousand debates right there.

***

13 December. Film: The Pass. Barbican. Russell Tovey as a closeted gay football star. Much commentary on the way football is, rather depressingly, the last bastion of default homophobia. Very play-like; a chamber piece. Mercifully there is no actual football in the film.

 

***

15 December. More modern masculinity. The term ends, and I go with fellow Birkbeck students and tutors to the Museum Tavern, Great Russell Street, opposite the British Museum. I think the preferred term for a group of MA students is a ‘cohort’, though for me that sounds too much like Asterix the Gaul.

There is a moment of drama in the pub, when one customer – not one of our party it must be said – hurls his empty glass against the wall behind the counter. The glass shatters spectacularly into a starburst of tiny pieces, like a firework, though no one seems to be hurt. The hubbub duly stops and everyone watches.

This glass-thrower – whose patron saint must be Robert Carlyle’s character in Trainspotting – explains at some volume that it was really, definitely, his time to be served next.

Presumably it hadn’t occurred to him that (a) he wasn’t getting served for a reason, and that (b) throwing a glass against a wall is more likely to prevent one from ever being served in that pub again. How fascinating the logic of the drunken mind.

The burlier men in the room realise that Christmas has come early. They now have the whole pub’s implied permission to grapple this fellow out onto the street, and perhaps even get a few punches in for good measure. This they do with gusto. The joy of righteous violence: it almost makes one want to take up rugby. Sadly, the police arrive in minutes.

I notice how bar fights in real life are so unlike the choreographed ones in films. There’s little actual punching; more a series of headlocks and holding. Indeed, more like actual rugby.

Afterwards I notice there’s another under-discussed element to real life fighting: embarrassment. It’s in that moment of silence when everyone realises there is a troublemaker in the room, and that someone, ideally someone large, and more ideally several large someones, will indeed have to Do Something.

I was further disappointed that a pub fight in Bloomsbury didn’t involve rolled up copies of the London Review of Books.

***

16 December. I visit the Heath Robinson museum in Pinner. One display has a fan letter from the WW1 trenches, suggesting a joke to Mr Heath R. Some sections of No Man’s Land, says the soldier, are so narrow that one could use a fishing rod to steal souvenirs from the enemy. Heath Robinson used the idea in a subsequent cartoon.

***

18 December. Tate Britain. A brilliant video installation, Wot U :-) about?, by an artist I’d not seen before, Rachel Maclean. It depicts a nightmare world where social media controls bodies. She plays all the parts in the film, but is so buried under digital effects and masks that one would never recognise her. There’s a touch of Leigh Bowery about the characters: clownish faces with brightly coloured make-up. Demented Pac-Men, and indeed Pac-Women.

***

20 December. Film: Uncle Howard. ICA. Documentary on an 80s NYC filmmaker whose career was abruptly shortened by AIDS. Has glimpses of an abandoned film starring Madonna.

***

22nd December. Mum in town. We visit the 1920s exhibition in the Fashion Museum, Bermondsey. A lot of dresses resembling pyjamas, frankly. Helps illustrate the view that the 20s were full of lightness, invention and abandon, while the 1930s were when things became buttoned down, in every sense. No distance like the recent past. Also: a bonus display of frocks from the recent Gatsby film.

24th December. Film: Paterson. Curzon Bloomsbury. After the action of Star Wars, Adam Driver fronts an inaction film. Signifiers of quiet US dramas: a small town’s name as the title. See also Manchester by the Sea. Perhaps one can blame Paris, Texas.

English place names can do the same sort of thing – from ‘Adlestrop’ to Broadchurch. But they can also produce a wry bathos, which I think is exclusively English. Peter Sellers’s ‘Balham – Gateway to the South’ in the 60s. Billy Bragg’s parody of ‘Route 66’ as ‘A13 – Trunk Road to the Sea’. ‘Wichita Lineman’ is soulful, ‘Widnes GPO Man’ less so.

***

25th December. Highgate. Ducks in Waterlow Park, Frozen, Doctor Who.

28th December. To the Harold Pinter Theatre with Minna Miller, for Nice Fish, a new absurdist play with Mark Rylance. Cocktails at the RA’s plush Academicians’ Room after.

31st December. New Year’s Eve in Suffolk, with Mum. We watch the Crown’s fireworks from the garden.

***

Wednesday 11th January 2017. Working on my PhD proposal alongside the essay. My last module of regular taught classes begins. I’ve opted for ‘The Horror, The Horror’, taught by Roger Luckhurst. Professor L knows his stuff: he’s written academic books on mummies and zombies, and edited the present Oxford World’s Classics editions of Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, and HP Lovecraft’s short stories.

One theme of the module is the idea of two sorts of ‘horror’: a more literary ‘high’ category, as in Dorian Gray, and a ‘low’, trashier version, such as Saw 3.  In the case of HP Lovecraft, some works have journeyed from the ‘low’ to the ‘high’; albeit a precarious sort of ‘high’. RL tells us how hard it was to convince the gatekeepers of the OUP that Mr Lovecraft’s tentacle-based tales are worthy of inclusion alongside Chekhov, Dickens, and Austen.

Reading ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ now, I do find myself chucking aloud at some of the sillier excesses. But when considering the horror genre, Lovecraft’s influence is monumental.

We kick off with Arthur Machen’s Novel of the White Powder. Like Dorian and Jekyll, it gestures at the things a young single man might get up to, when on a night out in London. Horrors indeed.

***

Sunday 15 January. Watch the (possibly) last ever episode of Sherlock in the biggest room possible: the Odeon Leicester Square. Even though the episode is being transmitted on TV at the same time, and for free, the organisers know there’s enough people keen to pay £10 or so to see it on the big screen, in the company of fellow fans. The cinema has truly been reinvented as a special (British) space first, and an advertising board of Hollywood second. There are cheers when Moriarty appears to have returned from the dead. Then boos, when a caption quickly reveals it’s a flashback. I see a couple of Sherlock fans wearing deerstalkers. Both are women.

***

Saturday 21st January. Green Park station is crammed with people on their way to the women’s march against Mr Trump. One placard has a picture of a cat: ‘Try grabbing this pussy’. Despite the crowds making everyone’s exit from the station a much slower experience, the atmosphere is quite unlike the miserable air one feels from the crowds at rush hour. Here, there’s a fun, even joyous feel to it all.

A barista in Costa Piccadilly tells me that the big protests are always good business for him. A protest marches on its stomach.

***

Monday 23rd January. Delivered the dandyism essay. Then off to my PhD application interview in Gordon Square. I am offered an unconditional place on the course, but will have to spend the next few weeks revising my proposal even more. This time, it’s for the second and much harder stage of the process – the competition for funding. I’m told I’ll hear back about the result in early April.

***

Wednesday 25th January. To a literary event at Birkbeck: Eimear McBride interviewed by Jacqueline Rose. The hall is packed out, with people standing at the back, some sitting on the floor. Ms Rose makes it clear she regards Ms McBride as an important talent, almost in messianic terms: ‘I felt I was waiting for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’. But this means that her questions are all the more serious and worthwhile. In Joe Brooker’s write-up of the event, he points out there’s a history of such critic-and-artist double acts, going back to Ruskin and Turner. I also thought of David Sylvester and Francis Bacon. Sylvester’s interviews with Bacon are essential reading for anyone wanting to create.

Much has been made of the influence of Joyce and Beckett on McBride, but tonight she names a more recent cultural lodestone: the 1990s playwright Sarah Kane. Which makes perfect sense to me.

***

Saturday 28th January. Back in London. First night alone after Tom’s death. Consoled by kind staff and friends at the Boogaloo, especially David Ryder-Prangley. I’m something of a drunken mess towards the end of the night, but am grateful that there are people out there who will drop everything to help.

***

Tuesday 7th February. Eyes tested at Boots, Victoria Street. One test involves reading a passage of prose from a piece of laminated card. This turns out to be an extract from Brideshead Revisited.

***

Monday 13 February. I get the essay mark back: 74. That’s three out of three first class marks on the MA so far. One more essay to do for Easter, then the big dissertation in the summer.

***

Thursday 16 February. To take my mind off things, I go to the ICA to see the most talked-about drama of the moment, Manchester by the Sea. It is only as it starts that I realise it’s about the aftermath of a brother’s death. When Dad died, the book I was writing about was Fun Home. Which is about a father’s death. But that’s stories for you. Only ‘seven basic plots’ (and some insist there’s only three).

A highlight of Manchester is a moment of farce. The Casey Affleck character is driving his nephew around. At one point, when the car is parked, he mistakes the meaning of the nephew saying ‘Let’s go’ and starts to drive away. The nephew is actually opening the passenger door to get out, and nearly does himself an injury. It’s an entirely unnecessary scene in terms of the plot, but it works brilliantly within the whole structure of the film, balancing the more dramatic moments.

***

Monday 20th February. Reading Tobias Wolff’s Old School. Page 53:

‘Grief can only be told in form. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry. Sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo’.

***

Tuesday 21st February. Woolf’s diary for 13th June 1923: ‘Going to 46 (Gordon Square) continues to excite’. Same here, Virginia.

***

Friday 24th February. The final line in Old School is a reference to the parable of The Prodigal Son, elegantly paraphrased by Wolff:

‘Those old words, surely the most beautiful words ever written or said: “His father, when he saw him coming, ran to meet him.”’

***

Monday 27 February. To Seven Hills Crematorium, on the dark side of the Ipswich ring-road. Tom’s favourite guitar is propped up in front of his coffin.

Mum points out how it’s virtually three years to the day since Dad’s funeral. Same chapel. The same funeral directors, Deacon’s of Lavenham. The same celebrant, Chris Woods, at our request. It’s best to have a professional running these things, especially in the case of an unexpected death. If emotion overwhelms a speaker, the celebrant knows how to step in.

Today Mr Woods keeps up the required tone of civic dignity, even when uttering names like Fields of the Nephilim. I think of the moment in the Patrick Keiller film Robinson in Space where the narrator, Paul Schofield, has to fold his soft, 1940s vowels around the words ‘Adam Ant’. Indeed, Mr Ant is mentioned today as well, and much of his present band – Tom’s colleagues – are here in person.

Besides, I remember that this is Suffolk, home to so many goth and metal bands in itself. It’s not impossible that this room has hosted send-offs for the grandmothers of Cradle of Filth.

Boxes of tissues punctuate the hymn books in front of each pew. For some reason, perhaps an over-ordering of supplies, today’s boxes of Kleenex are packaged in a Christmas theme. I spend much of my brother’s funeral staring out a cartoon snowman. Tom would be the first to find this funny.

There’s speeches by Tom’s partner Charis and his best friend, Ewan. Ewan speaks for many when he goes off-script, sighs, looks at the coffin and says, ‘I still can’t believe it, to be honest’.

I’ve provided Chris W with memories of my own to read out, but spend the ceremony at Mum’s side in the congregation. Holly, Tom’s daughter, is at Mum’s other side. There’s a poem by Holly, a reading of Tagore’s ‘Peace My Heart’, and recorded music by Warren Zevon’s ‘Keep Me In Your Heart’, along with several tracks by Tom’s own band Spiderbites.

Then to the Ship Inn in nearby Levington for drinks and food. The pub looks over the Orwell estuary, with the container port at Felixstowe visible in the distance. Another coincidence, as I’m currently reading Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie, a recommended text for the class on horror fiction. There’s a chapter about the ‘eerie’ nature of this very part of Britain, where Fisher himself lived until his own untimely death last month (I didn’t know him, but I liked his work).

In the book, Fisher ties in the contemporary spookiness of Felixstowe’s container port with the rural desolation of the surrounding marshes, the latter used in M.R. James’s Edwardian ghost stories.

Fisher also defines the weird (as in the goings-on in HP Lovecraft) as ‘something where there should be nothing’, while the eerie (his prime example is Picnic At Hanging Rock) is ‘nothing where there should be something’.

Today I do a lot of gracious listening and a lot of thanking. I’m especially grateful to be able to pay all the bills related to Tom’s death, thanks to the memorial fund. The last few weeks have not been easy, but paying off the bills was my own moment of moving forward.

***

Sunday 26th February. Back to the little things. I look at a display at the London Library about damaged books. I learn a word, culaccino. The circular mark made by a wet mug or glass.

***

Wednesday 1st March. I start work on the horror essay. Tempted to call Clive Barker ‘Alan Hollinghurst with tentacles’. After reading The Weird and the Eerie, I realise Barker sees the weird as a queer antidote to the eerie. If the weird is ‘something where there should be nothing’, Barker puts a positive spin on this – as does Hollinghurst in The Swimming-Pool Library. Art as the ‘children’ of the childless, which often includes gay people. Barker and Hollinghurst both believe in showing things – the explicit rather than the implicit. Sometimes it’s better to be weird than to be eerie. So that’s the gist of my essay. Typically, I discover that the first major collection of academic essays on Barker is about to be published, but not until the autumn.

***

Tuesday 7 March. With Charis and her friends to O’Neills in Wardour Street, Soho, once The Wag Club. A private night to celebrate Tom’s life, put on by and for his friends, particularly the ones that are fellow musicians. The hosts are Andy and Joe from Spiderbites. Tom played here in the past, and indeed so did I in various bands. As it’s a private function, the bar staff treat the people in the room as employers rather than customers, and let us hang around long into the small hours.

There’s a screening of some home movie clips of Tom onstage and off, then the rest of the night is musical performances. A rotating supergroup of people from different times in Tom’s life, some playing together for the first and perhaps only time. Ewan B digs out a song he wrote with Tom when they were children; I think I’m the only person in the audience familiar with it.

Back to Charis’s hotel room at the Camden Holiday Inn afterwards, drinking to nearly 5am. The hotel has a street map in the foyer with all the rock and roll history of the area. Camden these days is Carnaby Street with tattoos.

***

Saturday 25 March. At 4pm I sit in the cafe in Russell Square Gardens. I have a late lunch then do  some reading. For some reason, the cafe’s plastic owl is sitting on the table next to me. It’s normally outside on a pole, doing its moulded upmost to scare away pigeons. A passing stranger says that the two of us would make for a good photo. I oblige. He asks for my email address and sends the photo to me. We chat about the lack of effectiveness of the owl, given the pigeons happily invading all the tables outside. On another pole is a rubber hawk.

Photo by Phoenix Anthony Robins

***

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The Devil Wears Car Robes

Saturday 19th September 2015.

I learn that I am affected by the Department for Work and Pensions’s ‘new rules’, and may have to get by on less than I’d thought. Much of this week is spent on the phone to their blameless staffers, resisting the urge to make comments about the whereabouts of Mr Duncan Smith’s heart. I suspect they get that a lot. They sigh down the line and use phrases such as ‘our hands are tied’. They also tell me to try the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.

This is a clever ploy, because many of the CABs are themselves on the receiving end of ‘new rules’, in the shape of government cuts. There are now fewer of them per borough, and the ones that are still going are rarely open for more than a handful of hours a week. The upshot is that I traipse over to Tottenham twice this week. There, I sit in a prefabricated bungalow located in an alleyway near Bruce Grove station, in a colourless waiting room not unlike the ones in documentaries about prisons. I have to go twice, because the first time all the appointment slots are filled up before me. The second time I go, I still have to wait two and half hours in the waiting room before finally seeing an advisor. Her advice, such as it is, is that I need to take my money woes to a more specialist office in Crouch End. And so it goes on.

I take a train from Bruce Grove into Liverpool Street, and walk around the gleaming skyscrapers of the financial district. The contrast between these looming citadels of wealth and the rundown, deprived streets of Tottenham, mere minutes away, has never been more shocking. Anyone doubting the appeal of Mr Corbyn needs to make this journey.

* * *

Sunday 20th September 2015.

Jackie Collins dies. In the papers there are a number of ‘guilty pleasure’ tributes for her novels, along with lots of photographs taken during her modelling career. Like Joan Crawford, and indeed like her own sister Joan, she managed to project a level of camp at every stage. A picture from 1956 shows a 19-year-old Jackie at an Earl’s Court motor show, posing with ‘The Goggomobil T300 – the smallest family four-seater car on the market’. She smiles at the camera while stepping out of this stunted vehicle, showing off a zebra print two-piece which matches the car’s own upholstery. A caption confirms that her clothes are indeed designed by ‘Car Robes, makers of car seat covers’. Low Camp she may have been at the time, she went on to turn this ability into a knowing and deliberate form of High Camp, and to lucrative effect too. It is what Quentin Crisp calls getting the joke on your own terms.

* * *

Monday 21st September 2015.

I am on a bus in Crouch End when a man in a corduroy suit gets on and engages me in conversation. It turns out that he knows me from the book I Am Dandy. We have a conversation about the various definitions of dandyism, and how dandyism relates to the breaking of one set of rules while adhering to another. Then he asks me for employment advice, given he sees himself as a dandy too.

I quote Crisp on the subject – try life modelling in art schools, because it fulfils a societal role while having the mild air of scandal. The other suggestion is anything involving the use of one’s own unique persona. This can include teaching, performing, lecturing, writing, or even tour guide work. As I’ve found from my own experience, a tour guide can often be dandy-like in spirit. They can tailor the facts of a gallery or museum to fit their own bespoke personality. And of course, tour guides have to perform a form of outsider’s view, because tourists and outsiders share a common border.

I was reminded of the time I was recognised in the street for being in the band Orlando. This was long after I’d left the band and was back on the dole. The person who recognised me said that he too was in a band, and did I have any advice on how to make it in the music business?

* * *

Wednesday 23rd September 2015.

The Daily Mail runs excerpts from a unkind book on David Cameron, written by Lord Ashcroft, his former friend. Chief among the revelations – or rather, allegations – are those involving debauched conduct at Oxford University during the 80s, especially an act involving an ‘intimate part of the future Prime Minister’s anatomy’ with a dead pig’s head. What interests me is the mention of Brideshead Revisited. At the time, the TV series had apparently made such an impression on Mr Cameron’s college friends that they all wanted ‘to play at being Sebastian Flyte’ and ‘live the Brideshead lifestyle’, according to the new book. The pig incident was part of this aspiration. As tributes to Evelyn Waugh go, the very public circulation of this one takes some beating, regardless of its veracity. I think Waugh himself, who so bemoaned the defeat of the Conservatives in 1945, would have been very pleased, even proud.

* * *

Thursday 24th September 2015.

Snark: a word that combines ‘snide’ and ‘remark’, often used as a default emotion on social media. But when viewed properly, snark is just a less honest kind of loneliness.

This occurs to me when I glance at the online response to the Morrissey novel, List of the Lost, which is published today. The trouble is, it’s impossible to judge the novel for its own worth, because of who the author is. The only reviews I’d really want to read are ones from a parallel world, where it was published pseudonymously.

I will read it and judge for myself as soon as I can. But then, I’m already on its side, just because so many critics rushed to savage it. From the extracts, it sounds a little like Ronald Firbank.

* * *

Facebook can sometimes feel like a memorial of gently-faded friendships. Today the site briefly crashes. I imagine it being hacked by someone who couldn’t take any more photos of weddings they had not been invited to.

* * *

Friday 25th September 2015.

To the Invisible Dot in King’s Cross, for a comedy show by Mae Martin, ‘Us’. The venue is east of Caledonian Road, in an area of King’s Cross that the big clean-up hasn’t quite reached. The Invisible Dot is small, brick-built, and single-level, with rows of skylights; probably a former workshop or garage. The stage is flanked by two toilets, which turns out to be something of a design flaw. Anyone getting up to use the toilet immediately pulls the focus of the show, and this happens towards the end of Ms Martin’s hour-long set. I wonder if her friendly persona allows it to happen, more so than it would for other performers. Her comedy style is a kind of sweet and knowing nervousness (belied by her years of experience). She also channels her physical androgyny into a form of female boyish charm, much like Tig Notaro. This cunningly means that it is impossible to heckle her when she’s on, as she never takes a ‘high status’ position – quite unusual for a comedian. Much of ‘Us’ is serious and heartfelt: themes of sexual identity, the pitfalls of bisexual dating, and the conflict of wanting to eschew labels while still attracting homophobic catcalls in public. I like Ms M a lot. So much so, that I wonder if I could ever do stand-up comedy myself. I already have the ill-advised suits. (This is not entirely a joke, though…)

* * *

I have my hair cut short into its natural brown, ready to be freshly re-bleached. It makes me realise how large my head is. I look like a camp Easter Island statue.

* * *

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How Big To Make The Bear

Saturday 24th January 2015. A favourite track for starting the day – and for tackling most things – is Percy Faith’s Theme From A Summer Place. It soothes with a slight smirk: a camp calmative.

* * *

Sunday 25th January 2015. Woolf’s birthday, much quotes of hers doing the rounds. Have been thinking about this one, given I’ve been reading a lot about reality and realism:

‘I haven’t that reality gift […] distrusting reality, its cheapness’. Diary, 19 June 1923.

* * *

Monday 26th January 2015. I watch the 2008 film version of Brideshead Revisited. Its two hours can’t compete with the eleven hours of the 1980s TV series, and there’s an inevitable skipping and skimming over aspects of the story which really need room to breathe. But it gives the world Ben Whishaw as Sebastian Flyte, an interpretation that makes the character vulnerable and kittenish, which in turn makes me realise how outgoing and puppyish Anthony Andrews is in the TV series. Both takes are perfectly valid: after all, critics have been arguing over the character since 1945.

The film also turns up the bisexuality aspect, moving Hayley Atwell’s Julia into scenes she wasn’t anywhere near in the novel. At one point Michael Gambon (as Lord Marchmain) faces Matthew Goode (who plays Charles Ryder), while extending his arms around Sebastian and Julia. He then says: ‘There must be many temptations for you here’. Quite.

And how apt it is now, that Ben Whishaw would go from carrying around a teddy bear, to providing the voice of Paddington. Whishaw’s teddy in Brideshead is a lot smaller than Anthony Andrews’s, though it suits his more wary performance. Perhaps that’s the first question anyone adapting Brideshead should ask themselves: how big to make the bear.

* * *

Tuesday 27th January 2015. Class on Don DeLillo’s 80s novel, White Noise. It’s my first encounter with Mr DeLillo. Very witty, without being wisecracking. Fascinating how a fear of over-consumption of information was a concern even in the 1980s. The wry scene about The Most Photographed Barn In America seems a thousand times more relevant now, in this age of the selfie-stick.

We discuss postmodernism and Thomas Pynchon. Or as he might be described, The Least Photographed Man In America.

My favourite quote from White Noise:

‘Eating is the only form of professionalism most people ever attain.’

* * *

Wednesday 28th January 2015. The Natural History Museum announces that it will remove ‘Dippy’, the diplodocus skeleton, from its main hall, having been installed there since 1979 – just before my own first visits there as a child. The choice for its replacement is fair enough, though: the huge blue whale skeleton, whose effect in the tucked-away Whale Hall has always tended to be diminished by having the 1930s plaster model of the same creature hanging alongside it. The model was later found to be biologically inaccurate, while ‘Dippy’ is only a plaster cast itself (something I didn’t know until today), so having a genuine whale skeleton as the first sight for visitors makes sense. But for me the main attraction of the Hall is really the hall itself: Waterhouse’s Romanesque architecture, with the terracotta arches and staircases, the painted ceiling panels, and the intricate animal sculptures carved into the stone.

Class at Birkbeck: Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. That this class occurs in the same week as the DeLillo is exactly the kind of coincidence that either author would relish. Both sessions include looking at the same quotes on postmodernism from Frederic Jameson. One theme of White Noise is deja vu.

* **

Thursday 29th January 2015. To the ICA for Beyond Clueless. This is a fascinating film-length essay as opposed to a documentary, made up entirely of clips from (slightly) old films, edited together and narrated over to make its points. The films under discussion are from 1994 to 2006, and are all chosen for what they have to say about American teenagers. The film’s thesis – as written by its British director, Charlie Tyne – is that Clueless marked the beginning of a new style of teenager, in the same way that John Hughes’s films (like The Breakfast Club) helped to define teenagers for the 80s. This new wave, as it were, focussed on the viciousness of power cliques, the need to conform and rebel at the same time, troubled forms of sexuality, and out-of-control instincts. Most of the choices are high school comedies and dramas (Mean Girls, The Girl Next Door, She’s All That, and the now rather shockingly titled Slap Her She’s French), but there’s also a few teen horror films (Ginger Snaps, Final Destination, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Idle Hands) art house adaptations (The Rules of Attraction), and films that have become cult classics in their own right (The Craft). They’ve all had their pop song soundtracks stripped away and replaced with a new uniform score, while the narration is by The Craft’s Fairuza Balk.

It’s more about depictions of teenage identity than it is about the films themselves, but one has the pleasure of seeing them in a fresh context. Along the way it insists that Jeepers Creepers and Eurotrip are about repressed homosexuality, while 13 Going On 30 is pernicious anti-feminist propaganda. I’m not sure I agree in all three cases, but the arguments are entertaining in themselves. To me it feels a bit like one of those Adam Curtis films, except with more footage of Freddie Prinze Jr moping about in school corridors. A slight shortcoming is that it sometimes undermines its own thesis in order to just show random montages cut to music (so exactly like Adam Curtis then, ho ho). But otherwise it’s worth seeking out. I now have an urge to re-watch Cruel Intentions.

* * *

Friday 30th January 2015.  It’s about time I recorded my gratitude to Esther Ranson, the Birkbeck School of Arts administrator. Over the past three and a half years, Ms R has not only answered my many queries about the nuts-and-bolts side of the degree course, but she has invariably done so with swiftness and in clear, calming and perfectly-written messages. Today I send her a rather meandering question about thesis word counts, which (typically) I’d been getting upset about for hours. I finally realise I should just ask Esther R about it. So I do so, and she replies within ten minutes. She gives me the precise answer I wanted, uses references to official guidelines to back it up, and makes me feel that my mind has been put at rest on the matter. I imagine she has to deal with a constant barrage of similar queries all day, both from students and staff, yet her replies never show any sign of being rushed. It’s another form of lesson.


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Between Bowie and Bronzino

Saturday 15th November 2014. I listen to an archive radio talk by Arthur Machen, about the superiority of artists who invent over those who replicate. He cites GK Chesterton on the difference between Dickens and Trollope. With Dickens, says Chesterton, the reader knows they’ll never meet his characters in real life. With Trollope, the reader never stops meeting his characters in real life. Machen concludes that Dickens was a better writer, because he added rather than reflected. He adds an anecdote about Turner:

A friendly critic once said to Turner, ‘Your pictures are undoubtedly splendid works, but I never saw such landscapes in nature as you paint.’

‘No,’ said Turner. ‘But don’t you wish you had?’

* * *

Evening: to Elton U’s house party in Ladbroke Grove. Mostly fellow Birkbeck BA English students. No particular occasion other than getting together socially. Other guests: Jasmine B, Jon S. Elton’s place is covered in books – almost every shelf of every room. I pick one up. He not only covers the margins in handwritten notes, but the inside cover pages too. Jon turns out to have had some training as a chef. He brings his own Christmas cake, and we all wolf it down.

* * *

Sunday 16th November 2014. Working on an essay on Waugh. Can’t resist bringing in a discussion on camp. I have good reason to though: Philip Core’s A-Z of camp (The Lie That Tells The Truth) gives Evelyn Waugh his own entry, plus there’s two separate entries for Brideshead Revisited. One for the novel, one for the 1981 TV series. They are filed between ‘Bowie’ and ‘Bronzino’.

* * *.

Monday 17th November 2014. I get the new Quentin Blake advent calendar from Foyles Charing Cross. Many advent calendars are reissued every year, because the dates are non-specific (eg the National Gallery’s advent calendars). But the eighty-something QB manages to put out a brand new design. This year it’s a towering, glittery snowman in the process of decoration.

* * *

A new bad habit, related to my love of eating Christmas food early: Starbucks’s eggnog flavoured lattes. I can confirm that they are overpriced sugary filth from the devil’s own armpit, and that I’ve bought about five of them in the last week. I record this purely as an act of contrition.

As it is, I’m irritated by Starbucks’s insistence on asking for a customer’s name to put on the cup, even when it’s obvious whose drink is whose. I’ve begun to work my way through an alphabet of pseudonyms each time I go to a branch: Adam, Bob, Carl, Dave, Eustace. I do this partly because people often pull a confused expression when I say ‘Dickon’, but mainly because I resent the demand full stop. The whole point of going to a franchise café is the comfort of anonymity. Still, as Ben Elton used to say, don’t blame the staff, blame the management.

* * *

Tuesday 18th November 2014. Class tonight: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Tutor: Joe Brooker. The Southern Gothic landscape drips off the page. ‘My mother is a fish’ indeed. Difficult to read without thinking one is in muddy dungarees.

* * *

Wednesday 19th November 2014. Class: Lessing’s The Grass Is Singing, set in what was then Southern Rhodesia. Tutor: Grace Halden. Fascinating how Lessing’s publisher insisted on a rape scene to be included. And that she refused, even though it was her first book.

* * *

Thursday 20th November 2014. To the Arcola Theatre in Dalston for First Love, a stage adaptation of the Samuel Beckett story. The venue is an old converted paint factory, with its history very much on display: lots of wires drooping aesthetically across exposed brickwork. I go as the guest of Hester R, fellow student on the ‘Literature 1945-1979’ course. First Love is one of our set texts.

It turns out that the production is the whole story performed as a one-man, 80 minute monologue – quite a feat of memory. That said, Hester later tells me she went to see Gatz, the full recital of The Great Gatsby on stage (about 6 hours with breaks), and that involved one actor learning the whole Fitzgerald novel. I have enough trouble remembering my door keys.

The First Love actor is bald, wiry, performs with a thick Irish accent, and wears a modern hooded top under a business suit, though the story is from the 1940s. The only set dressing is a couple of wooden benches, though these are both propped up on their sides, giving the impression they’re about to fall over at any time (again, all very Beckett). The story does involve the use of benches, and at one point the actor nearly takes one to sit on – then puts it back.

He delivers the whole piece in a state of twitchy paranoia and nervousness, often pausing as if the words are occurring to him naturally. This interpretation suits the text, but I can’t help thinking it must also come in handy for any moments where he forgets the words. No one would know.

The enduring appeal of Beckett owes something to the way he captures the universal sense of not quite coping with being in the world. Of everything and nothing. Of anywhere and nowhere. In a way, Beckett is a kind of comfort food. The great thing about nowhere is that you always know where you are.

* * *

I stay up too late to watch the result of the Rochester by-election. Why do I bother with live election TV? ‘Anything to report?’ ‘No.’  Even more depressing is that the media found something trivial to inflate into front-page significance: the Labour MP Emily Thornberry tweeting a photo of a house covered in England flags, with a white van in the drive. Her caption was simply ‘image from Rochester’. She was soon accused of anti-regional snobbery (being a London MP), and was forced to resign her place in the Shadow Cabinet. Disgrace is so very fast these days: a mere five hours from tweet to resignation. It’s one of those Thick Of It plotlines that seem unlikely to happen in real life. Until they do.

UKIP won their second seat in Rochester. Despite all the national media coverage, 50% of the electorate didn’t bother voting. The owner of the white van was one of them.

* * *

Friday 21st November 2014. To the Museum of London with Minerva M., for the Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived exhibition. We go in the evening, for one of those late openings which include a bar and special mini-events around the galleries. Many of the big London museums do these things now – it’s all about giving people an undownloadable experience. We watch a ‘Reichenbach Fall’ sideshow in which people learn how to fall a couple of feet onto a crash mat mindfully. They first have a conversation with some sort of ‘fall instructor’, then they get up on a stage, sign their name on a whiteboard under the words ‘I Want To Fall’, then topple backwards over onto the mat, to the crowd’s applause. Some of the participants imitate Benedict Cumberbatch’s crucifixion dive from Sherlock. We also watch a suitably well-dressed demonstration of Bartitsu, Holmes’s self-defence method, and a series of very funny improvisation games, by the comedy troupe Shoot From The Hip.

The exhibition itself turns out to feature plenty of serious contextual items: rare maps, photos and paintings of 1890s London, including several Whistlers and a superb Monet. Plus an early 1800s rendering of the Reichenbach Falls by JMW Turner (he really does get everywhere). Then there’s lots of film and stage posters from the umpteen SH adaptations, and Benedict C’s actual Milford coat from Sherlock, with the red buttonhole. Conan Doyle’s original stories are given the most attention – there’s a huge lit-up mural of the Dancing Men stick figures on the outside of the museum. One wall-sized quotation is from A Study In Scarlet, where Watson makes a list of ‘Sherlock Holmes: His Limits’. They include ‘Knowledge of Literature – Nil. Philosophy – Nil. Politics – Feeble’.

I think one of the reasons for the success of the character is that from the start Doyle presented him as a brilliant man with flaws. But the flaws have to be of the right kind.

I thought of the British scientist Matt Taylor, from the news this week. He was one of the Rosetta space team who’d managed to land a robot probe on a moving comet. However, he also went on TV wearing a shirt made up of illustrations of scantily-clad women. The sort of thing that even an amateur heavy metal band might view as a bit ‘unsubtle’. In a time when science still has an image problem as a male-dominated arena, this didn’t go down at all well. Dr Taylor was forced to apologise.

I suppose the moral is: even a brilliant man’s limits must have their limits.


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The Silence Of Christmas Sandwiches

Saturday 11th October 2014. I watch the new BBC documentary about Genesis, mainly because I’m curious about their 1970s prog-rock phase. Fittingly, the documentary goes on a bit.

* * *

Monday 13th October 2014. Modern signs of the seasons. In their grab-for-lunch fridge section today, Boots are stocking their Christmas ranges. Red cardboard packaging with snowflake motifs. I note how fine I am with this sort of thing, mainly because it’s not accompanied with in-store festive music – yet. It’s only unrequested noise that really depresses. Thus I come away from Boots praising the silence of sandwiches.

I am trying out some organic remedies for anxiety. One is rubbing warm sesame oil onto the skin. I duly give it a go, and spend the rest of the day smelling like a Chinese takeaway.

* * *

Tuesday 14th October 2014. There’s a popular Internet catchphrase, ‘You had one job’. It’s often appended to photographs of badly installed doors, lavatories, and so on. Tonight I find myself saying it while watching the BBC’s live TV coverage of the Booker Prize ceremony. Within a half hour programme of comment and preamble, a technical hitch means they miss the actual announcement. Instead the camera stays on poor Andrew Motion in emergency pundit mode, forced to fill for time with comments on the various nominees. At this point, it’s not what he says that matters, it’s only that he says something. It’s not the worse BBC Booker slip-up, though. That has to be the time in the 80s when Selina Scott not only failed to recognise one of the judges, Angela Carter, she also asked her what her favourite one on the list was. ‘You’re not supposed to ask me that,’ said Ms Carter.

More recently, Howard Jacobson’s acceptance speech was cut off by the BBC News channel in mid-sentence. This was in order to go live to the trapped Chilean miners, where something was said to be happening. It wasn’t.

* * *

Tonight’s Birkbeck class (Joe Brooker teaching): Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. From 1909, yet still so fresh in its experimentation. I find some of the repetition hard going, but come to admire its dedication to new takes on form and subject matter. Stein’s layered rhythms take some getting used to, but then the same is said of David Peace now. ‘You can’t lose yourself in it’ remarks one student.

* * *

Wednesday 15th October 2014. Tonight’s class: Brideshead Revisited. Roger Luckhurst teaching. A nice contrast to the previous night. Decades later than Stein, yet such a throwback in style. And a throwback for many of Waugh’s admirers, too. Its wistful love of the aristocracy still provokes, just as it did on publication. Yet it was a hit with the book buyers of the 1940s. Professor L suggests that the popularity of the 1980s TV series may have had something to do with the gloom of Thatcherism at the time. An understandable response, just as Waugh’s novel was his understandable response to WW2.

Prof L also recounts how a fellow tutor was appalled at having to teach the book on another module. ‘You’ve reminded me who the enemy are.’

I suppose in theory I should be against it too. Yet the wit and craft of his writing sparkles and connects. Universal sentiments, despite all the elitism. Certainly Waugh himself was often snobbish and misanthropic in his interviews – but then much of the time he was something of a wind-up merchant. There’s a Paris Review piece where he insists on getting into his pyjamas and doing the interview in the hotel bed, smoking a cigar. When the interviewer asks him to comment on something by Edmund Wilson. Waugh replies, ‘Is he an American?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I don’t think what they have to say is of much interest, do you?’

* * *

Thursday 16th October 2014. In the British Library, very much a welcoming oasis for those with laptop lives, with its free wifi, pleasant atmosphere and lack of piped music. The BL has now somehow squeezed dozens of attractive new study tables into its lobby and café areas, thus freeing up more desks in the reading rooms for those who actually need to consult the BL’s books. Certainly the Rare Books Reading Room seems quieter than it has been. The new lobby tables are packed for much of the day. I look out at them: a sea of faces all lit by the glow of their respective screens. Life in 2014. Footlight faces.

I read a lecture by Shirley Jackson. It’s on the response to her short story, ‘The Lottery’, upon its publication by the New Yorker in 1948. She received hundreds of scathing letters, including one from her mother. ‘It does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?’

* * *

Friday 17th October 2014. To the East Finchley Phoenix for Effie Gray, the new Emma Thompson-scripted period drama. It’s pretty to look at, and the true story it tells is fascinating enough, but somehow it feels cold and unengaging. Maybe that’s the fault of the story in question, being the coldness of the marriage between art critic John Ruskin and nineteen-year old Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray. Ruskin was about thirty at the time, though in this film he seems much older. I wonder if this was a deliberate move to play up the age difference, because it’s certainly accentuated by a flashback scene, with Ruskin taking an even younger Effie around a museum. There’s hints of a Lewis Carroll theory here – Ruskin had known Effie since she was twelve and even wrote a fairy tale for her, The King of the Golden River. The film also begins with Effie retelling her marriage aloud as if that were a fairy tale. A few minutes in we get the expected wedding night scene, where Ruskin is appalled by his wife’s naked body. Although Emma T seems unwilling to subscribe to the theories as to which specific body parts put him off, for me the film suggests it was her whole adulthood that appalled him. The rest of the film is essentially her moping around unhappily, if immaculately in picturesque settings, particularly Venice and rural Scotland. The casting of Dakota Fanning is perfect. At times she resembles the saddest yet best dressed doll in the shop, at others like she’s just walked out of a Holman Hunt.

The film’s poster has been all over the walls of Tube stations lately. It is slightly misleading, as it juxtaposes Ms Fanning next to Millais’s masterpiece Ophelia, familiar to any visitor of the Tate Britain. This might make people think Effie was that painting’s model. Millais himself is in the film all right – as a better lover for Effie – but there’s no direct reference to the painting other than in a montage of Pre-Raphaelite hits. Perhaps a mention of its true model, Lizzie Siddall, would have been too much for the story. After all, Ms Siddall had a pretty interesting life herself – doubtless to be covered in another film sometime.

There seems to be no shortage of art biopics. Tonight’s screening comes after a trailer for Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, with Timothy Spall as the shimmery dauber. And there in the trailer is another version of John Ruskin. Sibelius is meant to have said, ‘No one ever erected a statue to a critic’. But they certainly put them into films.

Effie Gray had to fend off lawsuits from other writers, who apparently had similar ideas for adapting the tale. There’s no ending to the interest in flawed fame. In the credits, I notice that Young Effy is played by Tiger Lily Hutchence, the daughter of Paula Yates and Michael Hutchence. She must certainly know something about private lives becoming public narratives.


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A Very Big-Hearted Shrug

Saturday 2nd August 2014. Around the back of St Pancras station, I stumble upon a brand new public library. A rare thing in this era of cuts and closures. Camden Council has moved its St Pancras branch to a freshly-built building, 5 Pancras Square. There’s a leisure centre below, council offices above, the main library is up on the second floor, and there’s a pleasant café on the first floor, next to the children’s library. It’s a typical modern building: the usual open plan rooms, high ceilings, plate glass outer walls. Space, transparency, glass, geometry. I sit and watch the streets below. Goods Way to my right, Pancras Road to my left, the harsh blocks of the Eurostar terminus on one side, the greenery of Camley Street Natural Park on the other. I am the only person in the café. Peace and quiet can always be found, even in Kings Cross. ‘We’re still unpacking!’ says the librarian.

* * *

Sunday 3rd August 2014. In the British Library café, the man at the table behind me has no fewer than three devices plugged into power sockets on the wall. Two sockets by his table, one by mine. He is a mass of untidy cables. Today’s devices make life more convenient in some ways, less convenient in others. ‘Wireless’ life is still yet to be wireless enough.

Hot weather. A curly-haired man walks into the BL café wearing denim shorts that are so short, heads turn en masse. He was born to justify the adjective ‘callipygian’ – ‘possessing well-shaped buttocks’. Not necessarily to everyone’s taste, though. I once knew a woman who liked her men to be so skinny that the seat of their trousers had to hang as a sheer drop. That was her main requirement – a complete absence of buttock definition. So there needs to be a word for that too. It would be particularly useful when describing indie guitar bands.

* * *

Monday 4th August 2014. This week’s reading is Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I sit in libraries and cafes reading it, accidentally dressed like one of its characters. It’s one of those novels that comes with a defensive-yet-defiant preface, the author alluding to a second story – that of the book’s first reception. Dorian Gray has one, which Wilde disguises as a list of aphorisms. Jane Eyre as well, and Oliver Twist: ‘the girl is a prostitute’. So shocking at the time. Thus Waugh’s preface apologies for some aspects of Brideshead, while being defiant about others. In 1944, he was so convinced that England’s country houses would vanish overnight that he stuffed the novel with a wistful ‘gluttony’ for the past. In the 1960 preface, he admits to finding this aspect ‘distasteful’ and offers the novel as a ‘souvenir’ – but crucially, of his feelings during WW2. So the preface is a memory (1960) of a memory (1944) of a memory (the 20s and 30s). And here I am, recording my memory of spending some time in 2014 reading that. All is explanation, reflection, apology, and not apology.

I also can’t resist revisiting the 80s TV series (no surprises, no apologies). It too is a kind of gluttony, with its many hours of screen time, its lavish detail and locations. An early version of the box set immersive TV drama. A kind of Game of Thrones of its day. All fantasy of a kind. Anthony Andrews, Jeremy Irons, Diana Quick. How can anyone not want to leap through the screen and run off with them?

* * *

Thursday 7th August 2014. To the British Library for its big summer exhibition, Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK. There is a sign on the poster for the show encouraging ‘parental guidance for the under 16s’. The poster makes this clear, too: an excellent new Jaimie Hewlett design, featuring a depressed costumed heroine slumped against an alley wall, brandishing a hip flask. The exhibition is constantly busy, with queues for some of the displays. I spend some of my visit looking discreetly at the visitors, partly because they’re in the way of the comics, but mostly because I’m curious to see what sort of people are interested in a comics exhibition today. There’s the expected amount of solitary, loafing men (and I am one too), but they do not dominate the crowd. Instead, there’s women with punkish haircuts and summer dresses, couples, besuited business people, foreign tourists, and hipster academics who narrate everything too loudly.

The show is fascinating, and full of unexpected curiosities. There’s a rare 1940s strip written by Bob Monkhouse, featuring monsters that look suspiciously like giant penises. I’m also intrigued by a 1970s strip by William Burroughs, a rare American in this UK-themed show. But then, he always was an exile. Any exhibition that manages to include Bob Monkhouse and William S. Burroughs (and Posy Simmonds!) can only be a good thing.

I particularly enjoy the documents that form the scaffolding behind comics. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman script is more like a chatty personal letter to a friend than a set of instructions to an artist. Alan Moore’s Watchman script is heavy in detail, yet it still leaves a lot of decisions up to the artist. The inspiring lesson from all this is that there’s no fixed way to write comics.

Peppered throughout the galleries are shop window dummies dressed as Occupy protestors, all wearing spooky Guy Fawkes masks, the ones from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. The popularity of that mask is probably more down to the Noughties movie adaptation than Mr Moore’s 1980s strip, but the point is hammered home: new international activism has a connection with old British comics. Every Bonfire Night, one used to have to explain who Guy Fawkes was to visiting foreigners. Now we can say, ‘You know those masks…?’

A minor grumble. After three years of an English Lit BA, I’ve become hard-wired to always check the source of a literary quotation. So I wince when reading the following in the exhibition guide: ‘Everything in the world is about sex except sex – Oscar Wilde’. No mention of where Wilde is supposed to have said this line. I don’t think he did say it. It’s a good quote, but it sounds a bit too twentieth-century for him.

I’m reminded of a quip by Dorothy Parker, which she definitely did say. It’s in her poem sequence ‘A Pig’s-Eye View of Literature’:

If with the literate I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it

* * *

In the evening: to the ICA for the film Boyhood. An ambitious undertaking, filmed in little annual bursts over twelve years. We watch the same four actors age by one year every fifteen minutes: the boy, his older sister, their mother, and their divorced father. The actual story is very slight – nothing too dramatic happens to the boy. His mother goes through a series of bad husbands, but otherwise he has a fairly safe, middle-class Texas upbringing, taking in references to the Iraq war, the last Harry Potter books, the rise of Obama, smartphones, and eventually Facebook. What the film does pull off is an all-encompassing sense of compassion and awareness of mortality: that time passes, life passes with it, we all watch it go, so we might as well be kind to each other. It’s one big shrug, but it’s a very big-hearted shrug.


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