Some Passing Maniac

Wednesday 14 August 2019. I renew my passport. This is not because of any panic over Brexit, but because the ten year expiry date happens to be this month. I opt for the no-fuss renewal service offered by the Post Office. Contrary to the stereotype about the British, no true Londoner likes to queue.  Queuing in London is for tourists. Real Londoners know there’s usually a less busy version of whatever one wants, whether it’s a chain of cafes, a Post Office, a bank or an ATM. One quiet Post Office is in Grays Inn Road near Chancery Lane station. It’s hidden in the basement of a branch of Ryman’s, like a secret members’ club. There’s no one else there at all when I go today, even during lunchtime. Today I present my old passport, they take my photograph with a machine at one end of the counter, and it’s all done in five minutes.

Within the week, a new passport arrives in the post. It looks the same as the old one, with the same burgundy red colour. It takes me a moment before I realise there is one difference, though. The words ‘European Union’ are missing.

Evening: Drinks and Thai food at the Hemingford Arms with Shanti S., which warrants a selfie:

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Friday 16 August 2019. To Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, to DJ for the wedding reception of Maud Young. I play many of my old Beautiful & Damned tracks. It’s a fun return to a previous life, but as with making music I don’t have any further interest in dj-ing. Passions can wax and wane across a life. Some people are happy doing one thing all their life, and I envy them. Others are drawn to paths not yet travelled, even if it means leaving old worlds behind.

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Saturday 17 August 2019. Some old worlds are never quite left behind, though. In Russell Square today I receive a catcall from an older man on a bike: ‘Stop dying your hair, you poof.’

I wonder if that happens to Nick Cave?

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Sunday 18 August 2019. To the Rio for Marianne and Leonard, Nick Broomfield’s documentary about Leonard Cohen and his muse. Mr Broomfield declares an interest early on: like Cohen, he too once dated Marianne. There’s a sense of bragging here, and indeed Mr B can’t resist showing photos that show just how attractive he was in the 1960s, like Liam Gallagher with a thesaurus.

As with all Nick Broomfield documentaries, the choice of interviewees is wonderfully suspect. We get the testimonies of sacked collaborators, spurned relatives, or just some passing maniac. Still, Mr B always makes his subjectivity clear. The ‘official’ documentaries try to pretend otherwise.

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I visit a new bookshop and café in Dalston, ‘Ripley & Lambert’. It specialises in books about film. This might seem rather niche, but then ‘niche’ is now thought to be the way forward. Magazines on prog rock are thriving, while general music ones like NME have bitten the dust. A display about women in science fiction explains the shop name: Ripley and Lambert are the two female characters in Alien.

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Monday 26 August 2019. A stiflingly hot bank holiday. I loaf in Dalston all day, only venturing out to see Once Upon A Time in Hollywood at the Rio. Mr Tarantino is acquiring a Dickensian touch with age. There’s an idealised little girl who offers advice on acting for Leonard DiCaprio: ‘It’s the pursuit that’s meaningful’. Sadly, there’s not enough of this sort of thing, and the end of the film is the usual Tarantino bloodbath. Except that times have changed, and this sort of trashy violence – particularly against women – is now more of a problem. Or perhaps not. Perhaps this is what his fans just expect. Comfort in the familiar, however problematic. All of which makes Quentin Tarantino the Boris Johnson of cinema.

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Wednesday 28 August 2019. Pain and Glory at the Rio, the new Almodovar. In a way, this film is just as indulgent as the Tarantino, with much idolising of the culture of old films. But Almodovar at least nods towards the universal. There’s a beautiful scene early on of women washing blankets in a country river while singing, straight out of a painting by Sorolla.

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Thursday 29 August 2019. Seahorse at the Rio, being a documentary on a British trans man as he goes about becoming pregnant. The birth itself is in a birthing pool, making a neat extra nod to the seahorse analogy. Though the film is subtitled The Dad Who Gave Birth, the experience is not previously unrecorded. Last year saw a documentary on a different trans male pregnancy, A Deal with The Universe. And in Seahorse Mr McConnell mentions being in a Facebook group for ‘seahorse dads’, plural. The logical next film would be a portrait of such a group.

The collective noun for seahorses is a ‘herd’, which seems too commonplace for such an unconventional and ornate creature.  A better choice now, given the analogy for pregnant trans men, would surely be a ‘pride’.

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Sunday 1 September 2019. To the Posy Simmonds exhibition at the House of Illustration. I like her cover design for the 1966 gay-themed novel The Grass Beneath The Wire by John Pollack, with two men in dinner jackets, one with his arm around the other. Her 1981 book True Love is labelled as ‘the UK’s first modern graphic novel’.

The gallery also shows Marie Neurath’s illustrations for 1950s children’s science books. One caption has a response from an 8-year-old reader: ‘They are wizard books! I can read them by myself. I don’t need help from anyone.’

A third exhibition is Quentin Blake’s latest work, direct from his studio. There’s a John Ruskin children’s story, a wordless book of his own called Mouse on a Tricycle, a collaboration with Will Self titled Moonlight Travellers, and drawings for the corridors of Sheffield Children’s Hospital. And this is just Mr Blake’s work for the first half of 2019.

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Tuesday 3 September 2019. My 48th birthday. I go to Rye and Camber Sands, mainly on an EF Benson tip. There is a beach café that does prosecco at eleven o’clock in the morning.

Dinner at the Mermaid Inn, then a look at Radclyffe Hall’s house.Back to Dalston in time for the launch of La JohnJoseph’s book A Generous Lover,at Burley Fisher. At 48, I am all about books and book-related places.

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4 September 2019. I read an Observer review by Peter Conrad, which discusses Benjamin Moser’s new biography of Susan Sontag.  It seems the woman who gave the world ‘Notes on “Camp”’ wasn’t immune to moments of camp herself: ‘When, on one rare occasion, a man chivalrously supplied her with an orgasm, she complained that the sensation made her feel “just like everybody else”’.   

The phrase ‘a man chivalrously supplied her with an orgasm’ also says something about Mr Conrad. All reviews review the reviewer.

Mr Moser’s book claims that Sontag’s partner in later life, the photographer Annie Leibovitz, treated her to limousines, first class air travel, and an apartment in Paris. As Sontag never earned very much from her books, compared to Leibovitz, her partner served as her ‘personal welfare state’. Some welfare. Mr Conrad supplies these details to suggest Sontag was a terrible role model. But I see nothing wrong with being a kept intellectual.

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Tuesday 10 September 2019. To Stanford’s in Covent Garden for the launch of Travis Elborough’s latest, The Atlas of Vanishing Places. I chat to Daniel Rachel. Last time I met him he was telling me he was writing a book on the 1990s Cool Britannia era, Don’t Look Back in Anger. The book is now out and has had good press. Mr R tells me tonight that he wanted the subtitle to contain the phrase An Oral History, but the publishers had vetoed this wording, worried that the average reader of a book on Britpop might not know what ‘oral history’ meant.  

I wonder if this is down to the image of Britpop as anti-intellectual and laddish (or laddettish). Both Gallagher brothers still seem happy to perpetuate this image, like the cool boys at school who belittled the geeks. When Brett Anderson of Suede received rave reviews for his memoir recently, the reviews had overtones of surprise. The implication was that, as he was a rock star from the 1990s, it was a miracle he could string a sentence together at all.

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Monday 9 September 2019. A useful retort: ‘I’m afraid I don’t have the budget for any more unpaid work’.

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Thursday 12 September 2019. To Kings Place to be in the audience for a recording of the podcast, Girls on Film. The film critic Anna Smith presents three guests – all women – discussing the latest releases. Two are actors, Ingrid Oliver and Tuppence Middleton, the other is the BFI’s Director of Festivals, Tricia Tuttle.

The rise of podcasts against mainstream radio hit a tipping point for me when a young guest on Radio 4’s A Good Read recently called the programme ‘this podcast’ – and was not corrected.

Drinking in the Kings Place glass-plated bar afterwards, looking over the canal and Granary Square. This shiny redevelopment, all plate glass and escalators, seems popular and utopian, if still finding its feet.

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Tuesday 17 September 2019. All work is acting work. The trick is not to be miscast.

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Thursday 19 Sept 2019. I meet Shanthi at a cocktail bar in Islington, only to realise that drinks start at £9 – and that’s just for a glass of house wine. There has to be a word for the trick of trying to keep a straight face when such prices are communicated, and indeed for a staffer communicating them with their air of complete normalcy.

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Friday 20 Sept 2019. From today I’m being paid the Living Wage (17k) to do a PhD. Less money than the office job I had ten years ago (which was 19k, in 2009), but my gratitude for not being forced to do unsuitable work more than makes up for it.

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Monday 23 Sept 2019. I read an article about a young Instagram ‘influencer’, Caroline Calloway, and the world of pursuing internet fame for its own sake. This is new and yet not new. I’m reading about the Bright Young Things of the 1920s: pretty people whose lives and relationships were documented in the press without them appearing to actually do anything. So perhaps social media has just made that kind of lifestyle more democratic. Today, a 1920s figure like Stephen Tennant would have to maintain an Instagram account. Or rather, as seems to be the case with ‘influencers’, he’d have staff to ghost-write his posts for him.

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Wednesday 25 Sept 2019. I read Olivia Laing’s Crudo. The use of Kathy Acker reminds me how Acker has become hip all over again. I think of KA’s line ‘Dear Susan Sontag, please can you make me famous?’, the most honest statement in the history of literature.

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Wednesday 25 September 2019. Tonight, my seahorse brooch is described as ‘very Lady Hale’.

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Saturday 5 October 2019: Checking in on Twitter after a gap one feels besieged by the sheer infinitude of the lives of others. All I can add in response is that I too am alive. Still.

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Tuesday 8 Oct 2019. One of the delights of library books is encountering the traces of previous readers. In a London Library copy of Ronald Firbank’s Five Novels, from 1949, I recently found a ticket for Carmen at the New York Met opera house, dated October 2014. Today I’m reading a book from 1927, Movements in Modern English Poetry and Prose by Sherard Vines, which has an early assessment of Firbank. A slip of paper falls out. It is a handwritten note from the London Library to an anonymous reader, informing them that a couple of books they ordered are unavailable.

This would normally be dull, but the note is dated 20 April 1954. I can’t help scrutinising the handwriting of the librarian – a beautiful looping hand in fountain pen ink, and wondering about the lives of the reader and the staffer, and if this disposable note has now outlived them. I look up the unavailable books it mentions. Time and Place by Lyde and Garnett, a 1930s geography book which was ‘not possessed by the Library’, and A Myth of Shakespeare by Charles Williams – one of the Inklings – which in 1954 was ‘missing from the Library shelves’. I look both up in the Library’s catalogue. The Library never did acquire Time and Place, but the Wilkins is back in stock.

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Tuesday 15 October 2019. The Booker Prize is awarded jointly. One book is Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale,which has had a huge amount of publicity already, including midnight bookshop openings with actors dressed as Handmaids. The other is Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, which hasn’t. If you can’t decide between two books in a prize set up to raise the profile of literary fiction, why not give it to the book that hasn’t already had its profile already massively raised? There’s something of the spirit of the times in this decision: a misplaced sense of righteousness, and with a terror of divisiveness.

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Wednesday 16 October 2019. On a Sontag tip again, this time because of an excellent essay by Johanna Hedva on the White Review website. A quote by Sontag connects with my own thoughts:  ‘I wanted every kind of life, and the writer’s life seemed the most inclusive’.

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Saturday 19 October 2019. Finish reading Firbank’s New Rythum (sic), his unfinished novel set in New York. There’s a couple of superb set pieces, such as the strawberry-picking tea party held in a ballroom, and the arrival at the city harbour of a huge nude male statue. I wonder if the latter inspired the end of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, Orton being a Firbank admirer. There was talk lately of a new statue to Orton in his home town of Leicester. He’d have like that to be nude, too, but with his socks on.

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Sunday 20 October 2019. I listen to two long interviews with Chris Morris, on the Adam Buxton podcast. The latest Morris project is a feature film, The Day Shall Come, which I’ve just seen at the Rio. The film is in a similar vein to Four Lions: a conventional comedy drama, scripted and directed by Morris, and based on his research into real life incidents. Morris himself doesn’t perform in the film, and I come away missing his greatest asset, the one which made On The Hour so distinctive: his voice.

 **

Wednesday 28 October 2019. To the Tim Walker exhibition at the V&A, which ticks so many of my boxes: Tilda Swinton as Edith Sitwell (who turns out to be a relative of hers), Aubrey Beardsley, Angela Carter, Lord of the Flies, fashion, glamour, camp. In the exhibition shop, there’s a display of Mr Walker’s favourite books. These include The Swimming-Pool Library and Tintin in Tibet. And inevitably, Orlando.

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Tuesday 29 October 2019. To Homerston Hospital for surgery. This is a septoplasty (with ‘reduction of turbinates’) to correct a deviated septum. The procedure is to address the nasal breathing problems I’ve been having for some years. I go under general anaesthetic. All is well, though I have to spend the next 14 days at home to minimise the risk of infection. My landlady K is my designated escort, in that she collects me from the hospital and checks up on me during the first 24 hours. It’s a level of concern for a tenant that is difficult to imagine from many landlords.

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Thursday 31 October 2019. Halloween. It’s only today that I notice the first name of Kenneth Williams’s vampiric character in Carry On Screaming is Orlando.

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Saturday 9 November 2019. Irritations over redundant adjectives. A book review in the Sunday Times refers to ‘a little novella’.

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Sunday 10 November 2019. Less Boris Johnson, more BS Johnson.

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Sunday 17 November 2019. I read about the rise of gender reveal parties, and wonder if fans of Judith Butler hold gender congeal parties.

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Sunday 24 November 2019. Today’s disproportionate irritation: Eve Sedgwick making the common error of thinking the song ‘Over the Rainbow’ is called ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ (Epistemology of the Closet, p. 144).

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Sunday 1December 2019. I’ve turned my PhD thesis into an online Advent calendar. Every day in December I post an image on Instagram and Twitter, relating to camp modernism. Some of these ‘windows’ are writers like Gertrude Stein. Others are illustrations like Alan Cumming in Cabaret, to represent Christopher Isherwood. The resulting Camp Modernism Advent Calendar bears the hashtag #CaMoAdCal.

Link: https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/camoadcal/

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Thursday 12 December 2019. I cast my vote in the constituency of Hackney North and Stoke Newington. The polling station is Colvestone Primary School, near Ridley Road market. I’ve voted here twice before for council elections, with barely anyone about. This time there’s a long queue that snakes out into the playground, some forty people strong, even at 7.30am. I put my X next to Diane Abbott, for Labour. It’s not without some guilt as I’d rather vote Green, but removing the Conservatives has never been more important. The local result is that Ms Abbott is re-elected, while the Greens increase their vote, no thanks to me.

As I walk away I am so convinced of the unsuitability of Mr Johnson and the nobility of Mr Corbyn that I feel even long-standing Tory voters will not bring themselves to vote Tory now. Only masochists.

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Friday 13 December 2019. Masochism triumphs.

The subsequent days see constant post-mortems. I have to admit that I was ignorant of Mr Corbyn’s complete lack of appeal to voters outside of cities. My mother, who lives in the English countryside, is utterly unsurprised by the result. Whereas I am not immune to social media bubbles, little illusory worlds in which everyone appears to share the same opinion as you.

It seems incredible that between these two men Mr J appealed to more people than Mr C. Between Johnson’s Wodehousian blather and Corbyn’s inflexible sternness, it was the former that offered more space to more people. I thought that the public might at least give Corbyn a tentative go at the steering wheel, what with a decade of the Tories and several disastrous months of Johnson. But no: better the devil you know.

The overnight TV election coverage does not help. All the presenters and pundits seem unlikely to know what it’s like to, say, live in a rented room over the last five years. Channel 4’s programme is billed as an ‘alternative’ election night, but the pundits are equally comfortable and well-off, including Rachel Johnson, sister of Boris. In the 1980s Channel 4 was synonymous with proper ideas of the alternative: seasons of foreign films, a simulcast of Derek Jarman’s Blue with Radio 3, the Dennis Potter ‘Seeing the Blossom’ interview. Today, ‘alternative’ just means a different member of the Johnson family.

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Tuesday 24 December 2019. I’m so easily tired that even the idea of fun exhausts me. Whenever I see an event is sold out, I feel the warm glow of a lucky escape.

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Wednesday 25 December 2019. Christmas at Bildeston in Suffolk, visiting Mum, including a visit to Dad’s memorial in the village graveyard. Mum finds an old photo of myself where I’m slouching on the sofa in the living room, the cards on the wall dating the image to a Christmas past. I think it’s from 1989, so I would be 18. My hair is my natural brown, but I can tell it’s from my phase of slightly lightening  it with Sun-In spray – my gateway drug to full peroxide. I’m also wearing a black polo-neck jumper, a look I took to during my stage management trainee phase, first as an intern at the Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich (1989-1990), and then formally at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (1990-1992). I now think I just wanted a job that allowed me to wear black polo-neck jumpers. By 1992 I had lost interest in the jumpers, and indeed in stage management. But working on productions of Company and Side By Side By Sondheim made me realise that I did want to be a writer of thoughtful and quotable phrases, beginning with lyrics for songs. I still use ‘Move On’ from Sunday In The Park With George as inspiration. There is also the pleasing irony of not moving on from listening to ‘Move On’.

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Thursday 26 December 2019. I make the mistake of looking at Twitter over Christmas. Such relentless anger. It’s one thing to disagree about something, quite another to devote large amounts of passion arguing with people who have no intention of changing their mind, at least not on Twitter. Less energy on what one dislikes or finds offensive, more on what one likes and finds beautiful.

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Tuesday 31 December 2019. The cover of the late Alasdair Gray’s Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983)has as good a New Year’s resolution as any: ‘Work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation’.

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