Mr Edwards Mans Up

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

**

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

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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

**

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

**

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

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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

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

**.

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

**

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

**
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The Late Legitimisation of Mr Edwards

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

**

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

**

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

 **

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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