How To Be Punk And Camp

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

I love the way Audre Lorde puts it:

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

**

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

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

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

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

 

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The Artist Known As…

Tuesday 17 May 2016. To Vout-o-Reenee’s to take a photo. It’s for my entry to a Birkbeck competition, which is asking for photos on the theme of ‘London Relocated’. An idea occurred to me, so I thought I’d give it a go. I thought about the way the Vout’s club is effectively the spirit of bohemian Soho relocated, in this case a few miles east in Tower Hill. Tonight I get Sophie Parkin to pose at the bar for my hopeful little image, alongside her book on the deceased Soho club, the Colony Room. I also get my own membership card of the Colony into the shot, visible on the counter of the Vout’s bar.

Sophie tells me about the charity Little Paper Slipper, which is having a major event at Vout’s in June. This is a charity that organises therapeutic art workshops, for women affected by domestic abuse. The end result is a series of exhibitions of the eponymous slippers, each one personalised by the woman who made it. There’s about 150 of them now.  The event at Vout’s is going to be a fundraising auction, featuring shoes specially made for the charity by a group of artists, including Gavin Turk, Molly Parkin, and John Claridge.

I’m happy to help publicise the event. There’s further details at Facebook here.

There’s some fascinating photos of the workshop slippers at the charity website: www.littlepaperslipper.com/slippers.html

***

Wednesday 18 May 2016. Evening: my debut as a conceptual artist. I am given a sticker for my lapel which says: ‘Dickon Edwards – Artist’. So it must be true.

The venue is Birkbeck’s School of Arts, on the east side of Gordon Square, once home to Virginia Woolf. This week is Birkbeck’s annual Arts Week, a series of free talks and events that are open to the public. Over the cast iron railings at the main entrance are the words ‘ARTS WEEK’ rendered as huge, colourful knitted letters. I discover that this display is not, as I’d hoped, the product of an MA course in Comparative Knitting, but the handiwork of two knitting-loving administrators, Claire Adams and Catherine Catrix.

Given the building’s history, I wonder what would have happened if those fateful railings in Mrs Dalloway had been similarly wool-clad. Septimus Smith might have ended the novel in better shape. Another thought is The Muppets’ Mrs Dalloway. Starring Miss Piggy as Clarissa: ‘Moi will buy the flowers myself!’

Inside, Room 112 hosts The Contemporary: An Exhibition. This is a ‘pop-up’ show by four students of the MA Contemporary Literature and Culture course, and addresses the question: what is ‘the contemporary’? The contributors are Kathryn Butterworth (in partnership with James Watkinson), Jassey Parmar, Dylan Williams, and myself. The event is the idea of the main course tutor, Grace Halden, who thought it would be good to have the MA represented during Arts Week.

Kathryn and James’s display is a multimedia look at technology and literature: there’s large boards covered in texts, computer diagrams, a model of DNA code, and laptops playing audio and video content. Jassey’s exhibit is a series of photographs of London shop fronts, which blend different cultures and brands in unexpected ways. Twice during the evening, Dylan performs a selection of his own poetry. And I’ve contributed a social media installation titled Is It Just Me?

I had the idea some years ago. It was one of those ideas that don’t go away. So I thought I’d either put it in a story, or just keep it in reserve, in case someone asked me to contribute to an exhibition.

So one day someone did, and here I am. A debut artist.

At the event, I give out an A4 handout to explain my thinking behind the installation. I’ve uploaded it here as a PDF:

Is it Just Me – installation handout

I also leave out a sheet of my handwritten notes for the project. I like the juxtaposition of the shifting internet content on the screen, with the fixed artifact of my handwriting on paper. Private traces of the body, versus public traces of the mind.

The event turns out to be decently attended, with tutors stopping by to say kind things. It all seems to go okay, and there’s no technical hitches, thanks to the efficiency of Birkbeck’s staff. How wonderful it is to have an idea which involves cables and equipment, but not have to worry about the cables and equipment oneself.

Here’s some photos from the course’s Facebook page (most of them taken by Lee Smith, used with permission):

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And here’s a link to the Facebook page for the MA in Contemporary Lit and Culture

***

Thursday 19th May 2016. Thinking more about Prince, and about camp uses of the colour purple, I’m reminded of this anecdote from Gary McMahon’s Camp in Literature (2006, p. 144):

‘Brigid Brophy notes that [Ronald] Firbank often wrote his tales in purple ink on blue postcards, surface and colour being everything to camp. Brophy reveals that she too wrote her critical biography of the man [Prancing Novelist, 1973] in purple ink. My working copy of Brophy’s book is on loan from Manchester University’s library. At this purple confession on page 173, a university student […] has written this response in the margin:

“Are you [Brophy] really as besotted as this? If so, we don’t want to know. At least maintain a pretence at objectivity, please.”

McMahon remarks that this student represents a certain academic sensibility ‘that is always going to be exasperated and offended by camp’.

Returning to Prince, I think of a friend’s anecdote along the same lines. When this friend was growing up in the 80s, some blokish gentleman known to them – a friend or possibly a dad – took one look at a Prince record sleeve and remarked, quite out of the blue, ‘I don’t care what he sounds like. I’m not listening to anyone who dresses like that.’

***

Friday 20th May 2016. I receive the grade for my second essay on the MA. Despite my struggles with it, I am very pleased indeed to get a 76 (a mark over 70 is a Distinction, the MA equivalent of a First). The first essay got a 73. It’s a nice boost to my confidence when I needed it most, wracked as I was with Difficult Second Term Syndrome.

For the rest of the summer, I have to get on with postgraduate-y things under my own steam, such as attending open lectures and pursuing my own research. But as far as the big assessments go, the pressure is off until the autumn.


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Diamonds and Beaus

Friday 13th May 2016. Early afternoon: I’m recognised in Jermyn Street by a gentleman who says he enjoys this diary. In fact, he crosses the street to tell me this, narrowly avoiding being run down. Surely no writer can ask for higher praise than this: a reader risking their own life to pass on a good review. Perhaps it should go on the back of a book. ‘I enjoyed Dickon Edwards so much, I was nearly hospitalised’.

He adds that he was disappointed I didn’t say more about the death of Prince, given what I’d said about Bowie a few months earlier. This is a perfectly good point.

I think one reason might be that, when I was growing up, I’d always regarded Prince as one of my brother Tom’s favourites; his territory more than mine. For some reason we divided up singers and bands between us, as if they were soft toy animals. I got to cuddle New Order, the Pixies and the Smiths, Tom had the Cult, the Beastie Boys, and Prince.

But if one loves good pop songs, and believes, as I do, that pop music is at its best when used as a platform for individuality, eccentricity, and indeed dandyism, obviously one has to admire Prince.

It’s all the more apt that this request took place on Jermyn Street. The street is something of a dandy Mecca, being home to some of London’s most stylish menswear shops, to the church of St James’s Piccadilly, where Sebastian Horsley had his funeral in a red squinned coffin, and to a statue to that most influential of London dandies, Beau Brummel. It is a statue close enough to the ground to be hugged, an act which dandyish American friends of mine make a point of doing whenever they visit.

A further coincidence is that I was on my way to the London Library, a block away in St James’s Square. After parting company with the reader, I remember that I’d once found a book on dandyism in the library, one which directly compared Prince with Beau Brummell. So today I go straight into the stacks and retrieve the book in question.

The book is called Rising Star: Dandyism, Gender and Performance in the Fin de Siècle, by Rhonda K. Garelick (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998). As part of a chapter on the legacy of dandyism, Garelick reprints a 1995 Esquire cover, on which Prince pulls a definite dandyish pose. It’s from his Artist Formerly Known As phase, just after his hit, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl In The World’. His hair at this point is short, dark, combed and straightened, with a touch of the silkily feminine (even a Hugh Grant-ish schoolboy floppiness). He has a thin pencil beard that seems an extension of his cheekbones, and wears a slim pinstripe suit, buttoned down, over a white shirt with big cuffs. He sports a dark tie (collar button undone), fingers covered in rings, and leans against a silver cane.

According to Garelick, Prince’s image at this point follows in the classic nineteenth-century dandy traits. Prince ‘borrows unmistakably from the likes of Beau Brummell, Baudelaire and Jean Lorrain’. The main criteria are his aloofness, his air of contempt for convention, and his highly stylized persona. On top of that, his 1990s adoption of an unpronounceable symbol allies him with Barbey d’Aurevilly’s idea of the dandy life: one of pure surface and symbol, an influence beyond language: the dandy is ‘that which can hardly be recounted’. Certainly, changing one’s name to an actual symbol takes that aspect of dandyism to the limit. Though I’d say Prince had already put his stamp on language by that point, given his love of turning words into single letters or numbers, as in ‘I Would Die 4 U’.

The gendered aspects of Prince’s dandyism were equally fascinating. Granted, it may not have been original for a male, black, American performer to play with femininity in the rock and pop field; one thinks of Little Richard and Rick James. But Prince used his influences in order to do as Bowie did: make something new. He especially intensified the androgynous aspects of his imagery, imbuing them with that most deviant of colours – purple.

I think of that campest of pre-war dandy writers, Ronald Firbank, and his love of writing with purple ink. I also think of Brigid Brophy taking this detail of Firbank’s so much to heart, she apparently switched to using purple ink for the longhand manuscript of Prancing Novelist, her 1973 study of Firbank. The Brophy book is 600 pages long. That’s a lot of purple.

Through these deviant codes, Prince’s dandyism became an outrageous queering of heterosexuality – a machismo-troubling version of Camp Rock which he shared with such figures as Marc Bolan, Tiny Tim and Russell Brand (who isn’t even a musician, but he hasn’t let that stop him).

Garelick’s book also compares Prince’s use of female dancers and co-singers with names as Vanity, Apollonia, and Mayte, as echoing 1890s Decadent ‘tableaux’, such as ‘Aubrey Beardsley’s Salome drawings of androgynous, erotic, and nearly twin creatures’. Though in Prince’s case, says Garelick, the women were not so much twins as shadows in his wake, a ‘merging of the dandy and the danseuse’.

Certainly, any woman appearing with Prince had to become remade in his image. I never saw Prince in concert, but I was interested enough to catch his 1987 concert film Sign o’ the Times, when it hit British cinemas. For the song ‘U Got The Look’, the female role was filled by the Scottish singer Sheena Easton, who’d already had a successful career in her own right. For ‘U Got The Look’, though, she became well and truly Prince-i-fied. From her singing to her clothes to her poses, she was not so much a guest vocalist as just another interchangeable cog in the man’s machine. When in Purple Rome, you do as the Purple Roman does.

More recently, I thought of Prince when I heard the song ‘Quicksand’ by La Roux, aka Elly Jackson, a young singer who might herself be described as a dandy (the National Portrait Gallery’s shop currently has her on a postcard, wearing a very Bowie-esque mustard yellow suit). Musically, ‘Quicksand’ is clearly influenced by ‘When Doves Cry’, from the chords to the clipped 80s synths. But Ms Jackson’s singing is a very Prince-like style too: shifting across the genders from high feminine falsetto to low, growing boyish swagger. For me, that’s when art is at its best: when there’s a breaking out of prescribed roles, and the same trappings of said roles are re-used on the artist’s own terms, to communicate their individualism. And that’s also a definition of dandyism, in my book.

***

Evening: to the ICA to see Mustang, a Turkish film, set in the present day, about five teenage orphan sisters living in what seems like an idyllic picturesque setting: a hillside village near the Black Sea coast. Their mildly rebellious behaviour during the school holidays, however, sees them dramatically punished by their guardians – first with imprisonment in their own home, complete with bars on the windows, and then into forced marriage to equally reluctant young men. The film’s sensualised, slightly surreal atmosphere accentuates the idea of a close-knit group of girls disappearing into a world of their own, thus placing the film in the same tradition as Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Virgin Suicides, and last year’s The Falling.

With the added dimension of the conservative Turkish setting, though, Mustang has more complex questions about the role of arranged marriage in a changing world. The girls’ captor, their grandmother, is no fairy tale tyrant; she merely believes that, because she herself was married off straight after puberty, that’s the way it should be. Indeed, for one of the sisters, her marriage to the boy she was already seeing is shown as a good thing, if a hasty one. For the others, though, freedom comes in the form of escape to the big city – Istanbul – and to the parent they really want: a beloved schoolteacher. The real asset of the film, though, is the utterly naturalistic and convincing performances, particularly by the youngest sister.


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Fish Of The Day

Sunday 10th August 2014. I chat with Mum over the phone. She’s busy, giving classes and talks on quilt making all over the country, most recently at the NEC. Tom has now built her a website as a kind of shop window. It’s her first ever web presence. The URL is www.lynneedwardsquilts.com.

* * *

Monday 11h August 2014. To the Boogaloo to watch Lea Andrews perform with Sadie Lee, as part of the Blue Monday gig night. An evening of seeing old friends. Charley Stone is there, Charlotte Hatherley too. This is my only socialising this week; the rest of my time is spent in the British Library in St Pancras, communing with the dead.

Currently re-reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Last read when I was a teenager. This time round I’m older than Winston Smith. I’d forgotten that he has varicose veins; something I’m rather familiar with now. The themes are more relevant than ever, as evidenced by Edward Snowden’s mention of the novel in his Alternative Christmas Message last year. Fear of state surveillance, the removal of privacy, the state control of information, the daily get together to hate something for the sake of joining in (thus anticipating Twitter), war being used to keep populations suppressed, bad entertainment doing the rest of the suppression. Orwell’s prose style surprises me with its simple, unfussy realism. Stylistically, it could be written today. The only 1940s anachronism I pick up is the usage of ‘dear’ by the two lovers.

But slang comes around too. ‘Oh my days’ sounds pure Dickens. I’ve heard it used by all kinds of young people in London now, and by some not so young people too. A friend says it derives from Caribbean patois. So I wonder if it came from the effects of the Empire before that.  I like the idea of slang being exported across lands, passing through social groups, then returning after more than a century, like the orbit of a comet.

* * *

Tuesday 12th August 2014. Robin Williams dies. It’s thought to be suicide. A lot of discussion online of depression and the eternal archetype of the sad clown. My local cinema, the Phoenix, is putting on a screening of Good Will Hunting, as a benefit for the Samaritans.

People on Twitter have taken tribute selfies, standing on tops of desks, holding up signs saying ‘O Captain My Captain’. This is a reference to a scene in Dead Poets Society, the words taken from a poem by Walt Whitman. My band Orlando did a similar tribute in 1996, for the video to ‘Don’t Kill My Rage’. We even dressed as schoolboys and filmed in a beautiful old private school. And we stood on the desks.

I can’t think of the Dead Poets motto ‘carpe diem’ now without recalling a joke from I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue:

Carpe diem: Fish of the Day.’

What a range of work Robin Williams left behind, though. Particularly given his problems. Some roles wacky (Mork and Mindy, Good Morning Vietnam), some serious (Dead Poets Society, Awakenings) some sinister (Insomnia). In theory I should have found his comedy style irritating, but the sheer speed of his invention always impressed me. Completely over the top, yes, but also completely out of the blue. Where did that ability come from? It seemed utterly unearthly – hence Mork.

His big, rubbery, Punch-like features seemed to also fit that other extreme of emotion – sentiment. There’s something very Victorian about that mix; the need to complement the uproarious with the lachrymose. Knowing that Williams was built to erupt into loud comedy made his restrained roles all the more watchable. The energy had to be channelled into reverse. He’s perfect for The World According To Garp, as the quiet centre in John Irving’s outlandish parade. I also like him as the murderous author in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, or the avuncular gay radio host in The Night Listener (based on Armistead Maupin), or the nightclub owner in The Birdcage, teaching Nathan Lane how to act more manly. In one scene they try discussing sports like heterosexual men. Or so they imagine:

WILLIAMS: (putting on manly voice) Al, you old son of a bitch! How ya doin’? How do you feel about those Dolphins today?

LANE: How do you think I felt? Bewildered! Betrayed…! (looks at Williams, wrist returns to limpness) Wrong response, right?

WILLIAMS: I’m not sure…

* * *

Wednesday 13th August 2014. London begging. On the tube today, a man gets on and promptly goes round the carriage carefully placing wrapped packets of pocket tissues (the Handy Andies type) on the empty seats next to each passenger. There’s also a piece of paper with each packet. Presumably it contains his written appeal for money, in return for the tissues, along with some detail of his circumstances. I say presumably because I don’t pick up a packet, and neither does anyone else. The British are so obsessed with taking the least embarrassing action in public as it is. Added to which, the London tube carriage is a place of non-action, of retrieving into yourself, of trying not to exist. Not the best place to ask for money.

The tissues man waits silently at one end of the carriage for no more than a minute. Then he goes round again, this time retrieving all the packets of tissues and paper notes and putting them back in his shoulder bag. He gets off at the next stop.

* * *

Thursday 14th August 2014. To the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley, for the film Lilting. It’s a low-budget piece in which Ben Whishaw acts his absolute socks off. He plays a grieving gay man trying to befriend the Chinese mother of his late partner. The added complication is that she speaks no English, she didn’t know her son was gay, and she lives in a London care home. Peter Bowles also appears (he of To The Manor Born and Only When I Laugh), playing an elderly Lothario. The film is emotionally tense, yet tender and quiet, and is clearly a labour of love. I recognise one of the locations: the canal towpath near the south end of Mare Street, in the East End.

* * *

Friday 15th August 2014. Today’s new word is ‘hoyden’. It means ‘a boisterous girl’. A dated expression, declares the Concise Oxford Dictionary. I’m introduced to it by a line in Brigid Brophy’s book Black and White: A Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (1968):

 ‘Are they female fops, these personages of Beardsley’s: female dandies: female effeminates, even? Or are they male hoydens, male tomboys, boy butches?’

The book contains some of Beardsley’s sexually explicit art from the 1890s. More grotesque than titillating, I’d have thought. Yet the British Library keeps its copy of Black and White in the Special Materials collection, the place for anything very valuable or very naughty. As the book isn’t that rare it must be Beardsley’s rudeness that qualifies. To read the library copy a while ago, I had to sit at a special desk in the Rare Books Reading Room, within view of CCTV cameras and library staff. I was not allowed to leave the book unattended, not even to go to the toilet. They might as well call the desk the Table of Shame.

Thankfully, Faber have now reprinted Black and White as part of their Faber Finds series. Today I pick up a copy from Gay’s The Word bookshop in Marchmont Street. I take it home and enjoy it behind closed doors, where the Big Brother eyes of the British Library cannot watch me.


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