How I Learned To Love My Inhumanity

I apologise for leaving such a hiatus with the diary. The cause can be ascribed to the usual cocktail of moods: two parts anhedonia to one part general resentment. Lately the majority of my waking hours have been occupied with puzzling, if not to say brooding, over the more unpromising aspects of my situation: aged forty-six, single, living in a rented room, on a PhD course but not teaching (yet), so no wage, no savings, and generally feeling unattached to the world. Actually, I should just be honest and stop that list at ‘aged forty-six’: that’s really the problem. What is a forty-six-year-old? Hard to tell. I don’t think I’m a typical one. At least, I hope not. Best not succumb to the off-the-peg malaise of the midlife crisis. It is better to love one’s own unique version of inhumanity than try to belong to The Commonplace Depression Club.

Here is Mrs Woolf in her diary of 23 July 1927, reporting on her brother-in-law Clive Bell’s midlife whine:

‘My dear Virginia,’ [says Mr Bell], ‘life is over. There’s no good denying it. We’re 45. I’m bored, I’m bored, I’m unspeakably bored. I know my own reactions. I know what I’m going to say. I’m not interested in a thing. Pictures bore me. I take up a book and put it down. No one’s interested in what I think any more.’

A couple of days later, Bell is rather more cheerful. He is boasting about dating a twenty-something actress (his marriage is very much an ‘open’ one). The phrase ‘midlife crisis’ wasn’t around in the 1920s, but the clichés were clearly already in place. Woolf’s thoughts on this episode sum it up: ‘It is all so silly, shallow, and selfish’.

Best get on with things: make things, write things, support the worthy works of others, boycott Amazon (easier to do once one reads about their working conditions), and don’t drop litter. Suicide, like pollution, is just an extreme version of litter-dropping: unfair on those who have to do the clearing up.

**

Friday 8th December 2017. I borrow a first edition of Robert McAlmon’s story collection from 1925, Distinguished Air – Grim Fairy Tales. Only 115 copies; they mostly went to McAlmon’s friends in Paris, including James Joyce and Ezra Pound.  McAlmon is meant to have typed up the last fifty pages of the manuscript of Ulysses.

The ‘fairy tales’ of the subtitle is a pun: these are fictionalised reports of expat gay life in Berlin. Full of gay & drug slang, including ‘queer’, ‘camp’, ‘coked up to the eyeballs’, and ‘gay’ in the homosexual sense. Perhaps even more interesting is ‘One More to Set Her Up’, which appeared in McAlmon’s 1923 collection A Companion Volume. There, ‘camp’ is used to described the flamboyant behaviour of a heavy-drinking heterosexual woman, albeit one who hangs out with gay men.

***

Tuesday 12 December 2017. Sending Christmas cards. I still enjoy doing this, but suspect that many of the recipients do not care either way. That old insult – ‘they’re no longer on my Christmas list’ – is now an anachronism.

***

Thursday 14 December 2017. I read ‘Cat Person’, a short story published in the New Yorker which has gone ‘viral’ on social media. It’s a contemporary tale: a young US student dates an older man, then breaks off the relationship after an awkward night in bed. The twist is how quickly the jilted man’s feelings turn from heartbroken to hostile via his texts to her, though there’s also an implication that the medium of text messaging itself plays a part. The rise in instant communication means that not getting a reply has a more intense meaning.

I heard from a Birkbeck creative writing tutor that the rise of mobile phones has made contemporary plots more difficult, hence the surge in historical fiction. But modern technology has plenty of scope for plots of its own, just different sorts of plot. An angry character used to require huge amounts of justification. Now all it takes is to have them glance at Twitter.

**

Friday 15th December 2017. To Leeds University for my first giving of a ‘paper’ at an academic conference. The event is ‘New Work in Modernist Studies 2017’, as organised by BAMS, the British Association of Modernist Studies. It’s essentially a gathering of PhD students whose theses involve modernist themes, and each paper is meant to be a ten-minute ‘research position’. I’m on at 10am as part of a panel titled ‘Queering the Modern’. The other papers on offer during the day include Djuna Barnes and Eimear McBride. The exception is the ‘keynote’ speaker Hope Wolf, who gives an excellent ‘plenary’ lecture on her Sussex Modernism exhibition, which I saw. Plus there’s a panel on jobs in academia. The overall message of which is that it’s very hard to get one.

I’m still getting used to the language of conferences. ‘Plenary’ means a kind of summary of the day’s proceedings, while ‘keynote’ means the main speaker of the day – often a person of some accomplishment. I think of the ‘note’ in ‘keynote’ as a pound note, because a keynote speaker is often the only contributor to actually get paid.

I like how Leeds University has a proper ivory tower on its campus – the Parkinson building. The School of English is a nice mirror of Birkbeck’s School of Arts: a row of Victorian terraced houses, knocked through.

I speak in the Alumni Room. On the walls are framed photos of notable former students. One is Richard Hoggart, he of The Uses of Literacy. This is quite expected. Another is Chris Pine, the young American actor who plays Captain Kirk in the recent Star Trek films. This is less expected. It seems Mr Pine was once on some Gatsby-like exchange programme. I wonder if he can do the accent.

**

I devise a new acronym that I find myself using when taking notes in lectures. NYLM. Pronounced ‘nilm’. It stands for No, You’ve Lost Me.

The term can be used as both an adjective and a verb. To wit:

‘What did you think of that lecture?’

‘A bit NYLM in places.’

‘I know what you mean. I started to NYLM-out myself towards the end.’

I stay overnight at the Avenue Hotel in the Harehills district. A mistake. The tiny room may be a mere £25 a night, but the walls are paper thin. A late-night Christmas party is in full swing in the rooms around me. It is Trial By Endless Shouting In Northern Accents. I get little sleep.

**

Saturday 16th December 2017. I spend a day wandering around Leeds, including drinks with Kate H from Derby, whom I met at the conference. She shows me the cosy little Henry Moore Research Library, next to the Leeds Art Gallery. We are the only ones there. It’s open to all, but no one seems to know it’s there.

**

Saturday 23rd December 2017. To the ICA to see The Florida Project, an arthouse drama about poverty-stricken children and single mothers who live in pastel-coloured ‘slum’ motels. One of the pleasures of going to the cinema is witnessing the response of strangers. As the closing credits roll, one of my fellow patrons laughs his head off in derision and offers a vocal critique to the room: ‘What f—ing rubbish!’

Another patron down the front, an elderly man with his wife, turns around and addresses this unkind giggler: ‘Why are you laughing? It’s a tragedy!’ He is furious. For one exciting moment it looks like there’s going to a be a shouting match over the merits of the film. The older man’s wife is placatory, however: ‘Look,’ she tells him in the kind of half-whispered tone that hints at a history of similar interventions, ‘different people respond in different ways. No need to get upset.’ As we’re leaving, she asks some of the other cinemagoers what they thought, in the hope of recruiting support for her husband.

She doesn’t get to me, but I’m irritatingly half-and-half on this one. The Florida Project definitely lays on some sentimental manipulation with a trowel, with much dwelling on real tears shed by real children. But then Dickens went for this effect, and so did those Depression-era American movies which are clearly an influence, films where sooty-faced, cap-wearing urchins get up to No Good in New York slums. Whether The Florida Project oversteps its mark is really down to the onlooker’s taste. In fact, tonight’s elderly defendant shares the majority view of the critics, so I hope he discovers this and takes solace. It is the loud scoffer who is in the minority. But I can see both sides: the script has moral problems, but visually, with its rich sense of life in the environs of Disney World, the film is memorable and original.

**

25th December 2017. Christmas with Mum in Suffolk, just the two of us.

**

26th December 2017. Boxing Day sees us visit my cousin Olivia at her farmhouse in Layer Marney, Essex. It’s a contemporary note that Olivia is not a farmer but a TV producer. Though she does keep chickens. No one discusses Brexit at the dinner table.

We took a look at the nearby church and the Tudor gatehouse. The church porch has a list of the local electoral roll on a clipboard. Endless dog-walkers.

**

Friday 5th January 2018. To the Barbican with Shanthi to see Brad’s Status. Ben Stiller plays a self-regarding middle class man having a midlife crisis, again. Michael Sheen is very funny as a schoolmate who’s become a Boris Johnson-type figure: barely competent at the top jobs he’s managed to blag, yet his talent at maintaining a popular media profile means that he’ll always get away with murder. When people say ‘nothing succeeds like success’, they really mean nothing succeeds like the appearance of success.

Much is made of the fact that having a house in Sacramento, CA is apparently a sign of social failure. To many British people, having a house in even the dullest part of California would be a success. Partly because of the sunshine, but mostly because even a modest house in America seems exotic, not to say more spacious, to someone in a crumbling semi in Guildford. There’s a good reason why the phrase ‘The American Dream’ is in Western cultural parlance, while ‘The English Dream’ is not. The English Dream is just to make it to the end of the day without being too socially embarrassed.

Brad’s Status has its moments. There’s a scene in which the Ben Stiller character is waiting in an airport for his flight. He looks around at the other men slumped on the benches around him, and mourns at the state of being a fifty-ish man per se: greying boys betrayed by their bodies, defeated blokes, tortoise-like wrecks of humanity taking solace in grizzled beards and puffy anoraks. It’s a sentiment out of Philip Larkin.

**

Thursday 11th January 2018. The transcript of my MA arrives in the post. I can now officially say I have a postgraduate degree from Birkbeck, University of London, being a Master of Arts in Contemporary Literature and Culture, classified with distinction (the MA equivalent of first class). The ceremony is in April.

**

Monday 15th January 2018. To the Rio for Molly’s Game. Usual Aaron Sorkin fare: characters spouting snappy quips at each other. The father, played by Kevin Costner, has a big speech to his offspring at the end. It looks clumsy and formulaic compared to the father’s speech in Call Me By Your Name. Indeed, I thought at first that Molly was hallucinating when she bumped into her father in this scene: it feels that contrived. Still, I like the Sorkin dialogue, which is what one expects, and gets.

**

Tuesday 16th January 2018. My first visit to the National Archives in Kew. A modernist building right by Kew Gardens, which has its own moat. The security is even more diligent than that of the British Library: pencils only, but you’re not allowed to bring your own pencil sharpener.

**

Monday 22nd January 2018. With Shanthi S and Rose B to the Rio for Three Billboards Outside Epping, Missouri. Not up there with the director’s earlier work In Bruges, but the same mix of brutal black comedy, intriguing plot twists, and sudden shocks of violence. The film is essentially idiosyncratic and of its own world, yet it touches on the current feeling of anger over clear cases of injustice. In London, a group of Grenfell Tower activists have hired three vans with electronic screens: ’71 dead’, ‘And still no arrests?’, ‘How come?’.

**

Wednesday 24th January 2018. Mark E Smith dies. I have a vivid memory of decorating the family Christmas tree in December 1988, to the sound of my first Fall album, I Am Kurious Oranj – bought on cassette, probably from Andy’s Records in Ipswich. This was before I started immersing myself more fully in the world of indie music. I had been intrigued by the band’s connection with the Michael Clark ballet at the Edinburgh Festival that year. ‘Festival Ballet Entryism’ – a Fall title in waiting.

I was also fond of the 1991 album Shift-Work, with the unexpectedly Prince-like song ‘Rose’. Side Two is titled ‘Notebooks Out, Plagiarists’.  Mr Smith really was a complete one-off. The world is duller without him.

**

Thursday 25th January 2018. The first anniversary of Tom’s death. His partner Charis holds a gathering at The Star on Hackney Downs, close to where she’s recording with her band, The Curse of Lono. Ewan Bruce also there. Bus back to Dalston with Charis’s drummer friend Billie.

**

Studying literature for six years has made me rather intolerant of clunky prose. The Guardian today runs a news story about Mark E Smith’s death. It is so badly written I start to feel faint. The sub-headline reads: ‘Famously fractious frontman had been suffering from ill health throughout 2017’. The opening paragraphs then include these two sentences, back to back:

Smith famously once said: “If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s The Fall.” He was a famously prolific musician…

Repetition aside, ‘famously’ should be avoided full stop.  Even the Guardian’s style guide asks its writers to decline from using the term. ‘Famous’ is also frowned upon. They point out, rather reasonably:

If something’s famous, you don’t need to tell people; if you need to tell people something’s famous, it isn’t.

Worse still is the assumption that the reader shares the same incurious position. For a man as consistently original as Mr Smith, it seems all the more irksome to mark his death with stale writing.

Another irksome journalistic phrase: ‘The greatest author you’ve never heard of.’ Says who? Everyone’s not heard of someone.

**

Saturday 27th January 2018. To the ICA for a screening of the Armenian arthouse film The Colour of Pomegranates (1969). The screening sells out, and there’s a huge queue to get in. On a Saturday afternoon too. Some people like to go to football matches, and some like to go to a cinema to watch an Armenian art film that’s been available on DVD for years. An encouraging sight for those who worry about attracting an audience. Be as experimental as you like: the good will out.

**

Friday 2nd February 2018. To the Curzon Soho to see The Post. Entertaining enough, in that self-consciously ‘vintage’ way that Spielberg now goes in for. Nixon may as well be a CGI monster. Tom Hanks is refreshingly cast against type, swearing and bullying. The critics have overpraised it, proving that one way of securing good reviews is to portray journalists as heroes. Perhaps for balance it should be seen on a double bill with highlights from the Leveson Inquiry.

**

Saturday 10th February 2018. To Senate House Library to see the exhibition Queer Between The Covers. This is the exhibition that’s related to the conference I’m appearing at in March. The library is displaying a fascinating range of books on the theme of queerness in history, going back to a 1710 account of the Mollies Club. There’s the lyrics to a broadside about the Boulton and Park case in 1871 (the cross-dressing Londoners, whose letters contained the earliest known written appearance of ‘camp’). One grumbles about the saturation of news coverage today, but at least one doesn’t have to endure a strained ditty written about every single event.

In the 1980s section there’s a copy of the book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin (1987). This is the progressive children’s book about a little girl living with two dads. It’s thought to be one of the books that triggered Clause 28, the clumsy Tory law which banned anything that could be construed as ‘promoting’ homosexuality.

What I didn’t realise until today was that (a) the book was originally Danish, which explains a lot, frankly, and (b) it’s entirely told in photographs. While one can’t have sympathy for the reactionaries behind the clause, there is something problematic about using a photographic format for telling stories to small children. I find myself wondering why books for that age range tend to have drawings in the first place. There’s something about the pre-pubescent mind that favours cartoons and drawn illustrations rather than photographs and live-action films. If in doubt, use drawings of talking bears in aprons.

Photographic narratives, on the other hand, suggest the harsher, more teenage emotions of voyeurism, romantic angst, the loss of solipsism, and the cold cruelty of reality itself (‘reality is so unfair!’). It was no wonder that the photo-story became a popular form for teenage magazines like My Guy. I know I’m obsessed with style over content, but I wonder if Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin would have caused the same fuss had it been drawn by, say, Quentin Blake, rather than told in photos.

Presumably in 1980s Denmark the book was thought as groovy and worthy in that relaxed Scandinavian way. To Tory councillors in Britain, at the height of the AIDS panic, it must have looked like a crime scene.

Today, most people in Britain are relaxed about gay parenting, though, paradoxically, they’re more uneasy about the use of children in photographs full stop.

**

Wednesday 14 February 2018. I finish revising my application for one of the in-house PhD scholarships offered by Birkbeck’s School of Arts, and send it off via email. Here’s hoping.

This is my second annual attempt. Last year I was told of the outcome in early April. I was unsuccessful in winning one of the 12 scholarships, though they said I had made it down to the ‘the final 15’. I was offered a fees-only grant instead, which I accepted. This time, I have an MA, and a prize, from the same place that’s awarding the scholarships. I’m currently writing two papers for conferences (both unpaid). This surely has to be good for my chances.

The full scholarship pays a wage as well as the fees. It’s just £16k, but that’s more than many freelance writers manage to earn.  To be finally paid a sustainable wage at the age of forty-six, for doing a form of work I have been told I am objectively good at, and which I enjoy, would mark a huge turning point in my life. Well, we’ll see.

**

Thursday 15 February 2018. No sooner do I submit my application for funding than I come across something I wish I’d included. In Zadie Smith’s new book of essays, Feel Free, there’s a piece (pp. 181-86) on the artist Mark Bradford’s Niagara (2005). This is a video work consisting of a single shot of a young black man walking away from the camera along a tough-looking LA street. Dressed in a tatty vest and bright yellow shorts, the man sways his hips and arms in an ostentatious, self-possessed manner as he moves further into the distance. Mr Bradford’s title is a deliberate reference to the 1953 film Niagara, in which Marilyn Monroe walks away from the camera during a similarly long shot, the swaying movement of her hips being the intended focus.

Zadie Smith’s essay argues that the walk in the Mark Bradford video is an example of camp as ‘the nuclear option of the disenfranchised’. She alludes to the tradition of the slave’s shim-sham dance (or the shimmy), which she calls ‘as camp as any movement on earth’. I later find out that Mr Bradford is himself black and gay, which further contextualises the video.

Best of all is Ms Smith’s definition of camp in this respect: ‘being seen in all your glory, and within the terms of your own self-conception’. Camp is ‘doing more than is necessary with less than you need’ (p. 181). It springs from a lack, an exclusion, a margin.

**

Monday 20th February 2018. I read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, her memoir of becoming a very modern kind of mother. Her partner, Harry Dodge, grew up as female but now lives as a masculine non-binary person, as opposed to  transgender: ‘I’m not going anywhere’, he says.

It’s one of those books that’s been so talked about in certain quarters that reading it feels like joining the moshpit at a carefully-curated music festival. My edition’s cover has quotes from Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein, their names qualified not as musicians but as writers of memoirs themselves. A different edition has a quote from Emma ‘Harry Potter’ Watson on the cover. Publishing is getting more and more like this: before one gets to the text, one is acutely aware of being targeted by the cover blurbs. It’s the effect of algorithms.

The book’s title is based on the Ship of Theseus paradox, which questions if something remains the same when it has its constituent elements replaced. This too has different generational resonances. Maggie Nelson’s references reveal her to be a serious, forty-ish American academic with an interest in queer identity. So there’s lots of nods to Barthes, Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick. When I think about the Argo paradox I think about JJ Abrams’s book S, but also Trigger’s broom in Only Fools and Horses. Talking to a younger British person about this, she says she’s never heard of Only Fools and Horses but does think of the Sugababes, the 2000s pop group whose members were substituted one by one.  So I come away from the Maggie Nelson book thinking it needs more Sugababes and more Del Boy. Perhaps that’s a book I should write.

**

Wednesday 21st February 2018. Tom’s birthday, the second since his death. I keep thinking of the Michael Rosen poem about not wanting people to say if he’s mourning too much or too little.

**

Friday 23rd February 2018. The university union is on strike over pension cuts, and Birkbeck is affected. Some PhD classes have been cancelled as a result. The main library in Torrington Square is open today, but as there’s a fairly persuasive picket line outside, I feel the decent option is to study elsewhere. I look through the glass at a number of students who crossed the picket and wonder at their motivations. Was their need to use the library really that paramount? Are they grudgeful of being denied services they paid for with their fees? Or are they foreign students who feel that morality only applies at home (also known as the Las Vegas effect)? Hard to tell. French students in particular can’t possibly plead ignorance of the concept of strikes.

It’s freezing cold. Outside SOAS the strikers are warming themselves around a proper iron brazier, full of blazing coals. It’s like something out of a documentary on the Miners’ Strike. Certainly, the 1980s’ sense of a nation rigidly divided feels like it’s back. Lots of money swilling around, yet it’s hogged by a small amount of people at the top, who then talk about ‘necessary cuts’.

**

I listen to an interview with the comedian Diane Morgan, as part of Adam Buxton’s podcast. She’s very funny, and quite refreshing with some of her opinions: not seeing the appeal of having children, and not finding the private life of Woody Allen an obstacle to enjoying his films.

Podcasts are now everywhere: I keep seeing people I know getting involved with new ones. They’re often based around interviews or talks. Spoken word content is public domain, thus sidestepping the question of musical royalties. Though it does also mean that a lot of non-BBC podcasts use ugly library music as a theme tune.

Unlike printed interviews, podcasts do away with the arduous transcription process: one just gives the raw audio to the audience. The only problem is, of course, that a huge amount of them are full of people talking over each other, or rambling for too long. Another recent development is the need to have little adverts at the beginning. Russell Brand, who is currently a student at SOAS, now does a serious, academic-level discussion show which is slightly undermined by his having to advertise a condom company at the start.

The term is now out of date, too. ‘Pods’, being iPods, are now on the way out; ‘phonecasts’ would be more accurate.

**

Tuesday 27th February 2018. I’m reading Friends of Promise (1989) by Michael Shelden. It’s the story of Cyril Connelly’s literary magazine Horizon, which ran through the 1940s and featured pretty much all the notable British writers and artists of the day. Waugh’s The Loved One first appeared in its pages. In 1941 a fundraising notice appeared called ‘Begging Bowl’, inspired by the truly desperate situation of one of the writers – Dylan Thomas. Readers were asked to help by sending in extra money to the writers they especially liked:

‘If you particularly enjoy anything in Horizon, send the author a tip. Not more than One Hundred Pounds: that would be bad for his character. Not less than Half-a-Crown: that would be bad for yours. Horizon authors are in our judgement underpaid. By sending them gratuities the readers are forming themselves into a new patron class’ (Shelden p. 81).

It proves that today’s internet donation services, like Patreon, are nothing new.

**

Wednesday 28th February 2018. Heavy snow hits London, strikes are still hitting Birkbeck, but the London Library remains open and cosy.

Ms K the landlady teaches me to turn a dial on the house boiler to a setting that will prevent the pipes from freezing. The setting is a little icon of a snowflake. These days ‘snowflake’ has become slang, defined in the OED as ‘an overly sensitive or easily offended person, or one who believes they are entitled to special treatment on account of their supposedly unique characteristics’. It is hard not to feel that even the central heating is judging me.

Dalston High Street has a modest layer of snow, though the east side of the street, which gets the sun, has already melted dry. Each of the letters in the sign for the Rio Cinema is individually snow-capped. It’s like the logo on the Christmas editions of The Beano.

**

Saturday 3rd March 2018. The rest of the country is still suffering from the weather, with tales of commuters trapped overnight in trains. On Dalston High Street, the snow has melted, but there’s now an unappealing patina of mud-brown slush. One now longs for rain, though just enough to clean the pavements.

**

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Do I Sound Tough?

Saturday 21st March 2015.

I bump into Ms Hayley Campbell on the tube back to Highgate. ‘Hey neighbour!’ Her father, the comics artist Eddie Campbell – of From Hell fame – has just moved to the area. I go into local knowledge mode, and tell her about the Boogaloo and Highgate Wood, the area where the early Pink Floyd rehearsed, and the place where the second Suede album was written. I should do walking tours, really.

Hayley C now writes books about Neil Gaiman and articles for the Buzzfeed website. Buzzfeed is becoming quite a success story – from being a colourful, youthful web magazine full of ‘list-icles’ – articles based around lists – and now branching into serious news journalism, holding interviews with Prime Ministers and so forth. But their speciality is still their list-format stories, usually illustrated with animated gifs. I ask Ms H whether ‘gif’ is pronounced ‘jiff’ or ‘Giff’ at Buzzfeed. The latter. Hard G.

I finish studying Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty, for my dissertation on camp. A complete pleasure: well-crafted and concentrated prose, clever symbolism, social satire, a good sense of London locations (especially the Men’s Pond on Hampstead Heath) and moments of camp comedy tucked within the Henry James-style sobriety; hence my thesis. He writes parties so well, too – up there with Fitzgerald and Waugh. I re-watch the 2005 TV adaptation on DVD, with Dan Stevens in pre-Downton mode. It’s nicely written and acted, but I find the 80s hair and fashions are not quite garish enough – Mr Stevens just has tastefully big hair, rather than the bouffant he should have.

The other shortcoming is common to screen adaptations: the loss of the third-person narration. In the book, you have detailed access to the protagonist’s thoughts. In the TV version, all Dan S can do is stand around, looking like he’s thinking something. First person narrators transfer fine for some dramas – like Jeremy Irons talking over most of Brideshead Revisited – it’s just third person narrators that rarely work.

* * *

Sunday 22nd March 2015.

I convince myself that I can’t continue doing any work until I’ve bought a book stand, the kind that can hold a paperback open at one page. Browsing for one in Foyles and Ryman uses up most of my afternoon.

* * *

Monday 23rd March 2015.

I’ve fallen a week behind my proposed schedule for the dissertation, but find that sheer panic helps me speed up. One troublesome chapter is finished for good today – I don’t let myself stop until it is.

* * *

Tuesday 24th March 2015.

1000 words added to the dissertation. Half the chapter on Hollinghurst. Spend some time considering whether to quote the Sebastian Faulks introduction to a new edition – The Line of Beauty is now a Picador Classic, only eleven years after publication. Faulks calls it ‘a comic novel about mostly shallow people’, which isn’t quite true. Nothing comic about the final section.

* * *

Wednesday 25th March 2015.

Another 1000 words, finishing the bulk of the thing. 10,972 words and counting. Still have the conclusion and the introduction to do (one must always do those last). A small problem for a project with a maximum word count of 8800, but for me it’s a personal milestone: the first time I’ve written over 10,000 words of any one piece, ever. Quite a thrill to see the Microsoft Word odometer clock over into five figures. First of many, let’s hope.

* * *

 Thursday 26th March 2015.

Morning: I write all of the conclusion and half of the introduction. I have two possible candidates for a main title, to prefix the subtitle of ‘Subversive Uses of Camp In Twenty-First Century Fiction’. One is poetic and serious – ‘The Self-Aware Surface’, one is arch and jokey – ‘A Wink and a Pair of Claws’. I ask a few friends on Facebook, then decide to go for the serious one. I compromise by keeping the ‘Wink’ title for a chapter heading. Humour can be so subjective, and probably should be avoided in analytical, academic essays (seminars can be fun, though). As it is, I’m quite proud of calling camp ‘the self-aware surface’, and want to give the phrase something of a spotlight.

Afternoon: to BFI Flare, formerly the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, at the BFI Southbank. The rebranding of the LLGFF makes sense – it was beginning to sound dusty and out-of-date, to the point where it nearly closed down a few years ago. ‘Flare’ as a word sounds less worthy, more inclusive and forward-looking: it suggests a signal being shot into the sky – ‘we exist too’.

The film I’ve chosen is Do I Sound Gay?, a personal documentary by the Brooklyn-based writer, David Thorpe. It explores his dislike of his own voice, which he thinks sounds too gay – by which he really means effeminate. He interviews his old school friends, who remind him that he picked up the voice after coming out at college. So in his case it was acquired organically, in the same way some people pick up different regional accents when they move (I’m thinking of Hugh Laurie’s current US twang in his English accent). Mr Thorpe goes in for speech therapy (without much success), and discovers one theory of ‘the gay male accent’ – that it’s based on a combination of admiring women, as learned from mothers and sisters and screen idols, and on admiring notions of aristocratic European behaviour – notions of ‘queenliness’. All to define an identity that signifies as different from the average US man.

Of course, this only applies to those to whom it applies, and Mr Thorpe is careful to include examples of gay men with ‘straight’ voices, and straight men with effeminate voices. David Sedaris and George Takei appear, both contributing thoughtful insights, and giving very honest accounts of their personal lives. It’s worth seeing the documentary for these sections alone.

I think in Britain the idea of manliness in voices is a lot less of a concern, partly because America rules the world, and so cares more about how things appear to others. But also because the US suspects the British accent for having aspects of effeminacy anyway.

In the final scene of the film, Mr Thorpe interviews a group of young gay men on a beach. He asks them if they think he sounds gay. They chorus back as one: ‘Hell, yes!’

At the time I think, ‘that’s a very American reply’. Hours later I watch the latest pre-election TV interviews. Jeremy Paxman, rude as ever, asks Ed Miliband if he’s ‘tough enough’ for the job of prime minister. ‘Hell yes, I’m tough enough!’ says Miliband. Though he does stammer it.

After the film, there’s a Q&A with the director. One audience member asks if Mr Thorpe has heard of Polari, the gay language of 40s and 50s Britain. ‘Yes I have,’ he replies. ‘Thanks to Morrissey’.

* * *

Early evening: with Anna S, Senay S and friends, to the Museum of Comedy. This is in the crypt of St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, and turns out be one largish room, plus a performance space for live comedy nights. The current exhibition is a rare early 80s photo shoot of The Comic Strip – featuring a young Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, French and Saunders and so on. The permanent collection includes Max Miller’s patchwork dressing gown, Steptoe & Son’s stuffed bear, Irene Handl’s belt in a bell jar, and a huge amount of old books, videos and vinyl records, which visitors are invited to peruse or play at their leisure.

There’s framed transcripts of classic comedy sketches on the wall, with the Python ‘Silly Walks’ skit signed by John Cleese. ‘I’ve never found Monty Python funny’, says one of our party.

I forget that even comedy that has been proven to be funny for so many, and for so long, can still be considered unfunny by someone.

And I think to myself, ‘definitely don’t go with the funny thesis title’.

* * *

Friday 27th March 2015.

First draft finished. 12,373 words. Now I have to decide which 4,000 words needn’t have been written in the first place.


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In The Argot Of Perversity

Saturday 31st January 2015. This week’s work: finally making a start on the first draft of my 8000 word dissertation (or ‘final year project’) about literary camp. I’ve been researching it on and off since last summer, resulting in a satisfyingly fat pile of notes to dominate my desk for the next few weeks. The project is due in on April 20th, but I have to send a 2000 word extract to the supervisor, Dr Jo Winning, by February 16th.

‘Don’t make it a survey’, she’s advised. That’s often the problem with writing about camp. So many essays do just that: from Sontag’s ‘Notes on “Camp”’ onwards, they often get drawn into making lists: this is camp, that isn’t. It’s an approach that’s not dissimilar to the current ‘listicle’ trend brought about by the website Buzzfeed: articles as lists of things rather than proper analysis. The trouble is, as the success of Buzzfeed has proved, lists are so very seductive. Something cheap and quick about them. No hard work for the reader.

I’ve found that the best single volume on the subject is Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject – A Reader, edited by Fabio Cleto. His own name sounds like a shout of camp approval (‘How fab-io, Cleto!’). This academic doorstopper includes an extract from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, now considered to be the most essential book on gender theory in the last thirty years. Frustratingly, Ms Butler omits to mention the c-word, despite discussing drag queens and taking her title from Female Trouble, the highly camp 1970s film by John Waters. Perhaps she avoids any mention of camp because it’s just such a slippery term. And as Mr Cleto says, so many critics on camp are ‘babel-like, disagreement reigning’.

Thanks to Mr Cleto I’ve confirmed what seems to be the first appearance of the word ‘camp’ in printed journalism, as opposed to dictionaries of slang. It’s in the April 1922 issue of the New Orleans literary magazine The Double Dealer, in an article by Carl Van Vechten. He uses it in championing the work of (perhaps unsurprisingly) Ronald Firbank. The article is written in camp terms itself:

‘…and such dialogue! In the argot of perversity, one would call it “camping”… Sophisticated virgins and demi-puceaux [which I think means ‘semi-virgins’] will adore these books’.

I have to use the British Library’s microfilm machines at St Pancras to look this dusty article up. You have to run a spool of black film through a clunky projector-stroke-magnifier. Sometimes one hears the phrase ‘everything’s on the internet now’. Not yet.

The first appearance of the term ‘camp’ in fiction, meanwhile, according to both Cleto and the OED, seems to be in a 1933 novel by Maurice Lincoln, Oh! Definitely! I’ve just taken a copy out from The London Library, last borrowed in 1987. A lisping butler called Dennis is described first as a ‘fairy’ and then later as acting ‘slight more “camp”’ than usual’.

* * *

Sunday 1st February 2015. The British Library’s exhibition on all things Gothic has closed. I ask the shop staff which items of tie-in merchandise sold the most. Answer: skull-themed shot glasses.

* * *

Tuesday 3rd February 2015. Morning: snow in London at last. It lasts all of four hours.

Evening: class at Birkbeck on Ellis’s American Psycho. Tutor: Anna Hartnell. When I read it last summer there were moments where I actively thought, ‘please don’t make me read the next bit’. Such is the graphic nature of the violence. But once the shock of the Psycho has faded, the American part becomes more interesting. It’s an excellent representation of the late 80s yuppie boom, the sense of capitalism out of control for good (which hasn’t let up since), and the grim nihilism of consumer culture full stop. Novels are meant to encourage empathy, but American Psycho only encourages empathy for those utterly incapable of empathy.

It’s disturbing how Patrick Bateman’s face is so popular online, as played by Christian Bale in the film version. Still, it was the same with Clockwork Orange: a critique of violence taking on a cake-and-eat-it effect. Any passionate criticism is really an act of love, because of the passion. And villains always were more fun than heroes: in the medieval Mystery Plays, everyone wanted to be the Devil.

* * *

Wednesday 4th February 2015. Class with Roger Luckhurst on Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition. More violence and general unkindness. I’m grateful for the chance to finally read AE (if it’s possible to properly ‘read’ a series of cut-up fragments and repetitive scenarios), and I admire it so much that I might well write my essay on it. Nevertheless, I now feel the need to read something fluffy, where nothing remotely unseemly happens to anyone.

* * *

Friday 6th February 2015. To the Curzon Soho to see Ex Machina (a mere £5 with NUS). A quiet, minimal sci-fi production in the mode of Moon, it concerns a newly-created robot woman kept in a remote compound, who is put through a series of interrogations by Domhnall Gleeson from Frank and About Time. There’s also the robot’s alcoholic inventor played by Oscar Isaac from The Two Faces of January. He is so good in the role, I’m convinced a scene in which he disco-dances is cut short purely to stop him stealing the film.

Thematically, it’s quite close to those recent Scarlett Johansson sci-fi flicks, which all did different takes on ‘Woman As The Other’ (Her, Under The Skin, Lucy). I also thought of Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In from a few years earlier, with another constructed woman kept as a plaything. Ex Machina suffers in comparison with the Almodovar, at least when it comes to saying daring things about gender and sexuality. The film seems to favour Oscar Isaac’s glib remark: ‘Why give a robot sexuality? Because it’s fun.’ So all the interesting philosophical talk soon gives way to a more standard cat-and-mouse thriller. Still, it’s beautiful to look at and indeed to listen to, with the cogs of the semi-transparent robot  whirring delicately under her dialogue.


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Animal Hospital with Eric Gill

Tuesday 1st July 2014. To the Phoenix cinema in East Finchley. I see the film Chef, starring Jon Favreau, who also writes and directs. It has a similar ambience to Fading Gigolo, in that it’s a labour of love by one unstarry-looking Hollywood type, who has asked various more starry friends to appear in back-up roles. Just as Fading Gigolo had John Turturro supported by Woody Allen, Sharon Stone and Vanessa Paradis, Chef has smaller roles filled by Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey Junior. The ludicrously pretty Sofia Vergara is also in both films, playing the lumpen hero’s lover or former lover. The lead casting of Chef is rather more believable than Fading Gigolo, though. Whereas Mr Turturro seemed an implausible male escort, Mr Favreau makes an entirely convincing chef. Not least because he’s put on a fair amount of weight since he starred in Swingers – something that his own script makes jokes about.

The plot isn’t much – a top restaurant chef quits his job and runs his own sandwich van instead – but the detail is very up-to-date, particularly the depiction of the way Facebook and Twitter have become woven into lives. When a character in Chef writes a Tweet on a phone or laptop, a little input screen appears around their head. Once they click on ‘Post’, the floating screen turns into a tiny Disney-esque cartoon bird, which then flies off to do its work – or do its damage.

There isn’t much more to this film than an expression of Mr Favreau’s passion for good food, but it’s probably the happiest-feeling film I’ve seen in a long time. For all its slightness, it makes the East Finchley audience applaud at the end, and that doesn’t happen very often. The Phoenix cinema café has even changed its usual menu to match the film: it’s currently offering the same Cubanos sandwiches that Mr Favreau makes.

* * *

Wednesday 2nd July 2014. Hottest week of the year so far. Today I take advantage of the British Library’s air conditioning, skulking in the Rare Books Reading Room like the delicate object I am. I’m researching definitions of literary camp. One I’ve found – in Gary McMahon’s book Camp In Literature – contrasts camp with nineteenth century Decadence. Decadence is more about indulgence to the point of decay, while Camp blooms. Thus Dorian Gray is mainly Decadent, while Aubrey Beardsley’s art is mainly camp. His laughing fat woman on the cover of The Yellow Book is very much not heading for decay or doom. She’s taking on the wider world, and here to stay. Thus, she is camp.

* * *

Thursday 3rd July 2014. I’m standing at the bus stop in Muswell Hill, wearing a cream jacket and tie plus my near-matching new linen trousers, which I purchased cheaply from Uniqlo, on Oxford Street. At the bus stop, a woman passes me and remarks, ‘You look cool’, without stopping. I say thank you, though I do so warily, bracing myself for a mocking follow-up. I’m too used to people in London being sarcastic about my appearance. There was the woman who once blew a kiss at me from a passing car window on the Archway Road, only to shout back ‘NOT REALLY!’ as the car drove off. Or the young man at a Notting Hill bar who once chatted pleasantly to me and asked for my phone number, only to then send a series of insulting text messages after we’d parted.

I contrast this with my two trips to New York. There I also received unsolicited compliments from strangers, but ones which were clearly sincere from the off. Londoners are rather more mistrustful of each other than New Yorkers – the lack of speaking on the Tube being a good example. With guns banned, Londoners take instead to fearing words.

So when it comes to this latest surprise compliment offered to me at the Muswell Hill bus stop, my instinct is to put up my guard. But I have to assume the woman meant her compliment sincerely. I thus try my best to cover my instinctive wariness with enough outward signs of graciousness. Perform, perform, perform. All life is acting work.

* * *

Friday 4th July 2014. Rolf Harris gets five years in jail for assaults on young girls. Unlike that other children’s entertainer Jimmy Savile, who always had his rumours, Mr Harris seemed like a manifestly good man. Or rather, he did a very good impression of one. I was in the audience for the 2012 TV BAFTAs, at which he received his Fellowship award, the highest accolade one can get in British TV. It’s for a lifetime’s ‘outstanding and exceptional contribution to television’. But now I learn that the award has a condition attached. This week, BAFTA issue a single sentence as a press release:

‘The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) has made the decision to annul the BAFTA Fellowship bestowed upon Rolf Harris in 2012, following his conviction.’

So BAFTA giveth, but BAFTA can also taketh away.

I’m curious about the Orwellian effects of this. I was definitely at the 2012 ceremony, and the award was definitely given to Mr H. But today, all the articles on the BAFTA website related to Harris have been either updated to mark the annulment, or removed altogether. Any URLS which once linked to interviews with him now redirect back to the website’s front page. Such is the modern extent of disgrace – URL redirection. Today, the 2012 Fellowship is just listed on the BAFTA site as ‘n/a’.

As someone who believes in trusting the art not the artist, I’m uneasy about private disgrace being extended to undermine public achievements. But then, I suppose Rolf Harris is not, say, Eric Gill. Mr Harris’s programmes were ephemeral, not made to be repeated forever (which is now just as well), and they were very much based upon his chosen persona of someone to trust around children. Eric Gill, however, who made lasting and beautiful sculptures in public while committing bestiality (and much besides) in private, did not present Animal Hospital. Still, this news proves that to be given a BAFTA Fellowship is not just to be told ‘well done’, but also ‘behave’.

It used to be the case that whenever one spoke of meeting a TV celebrity, the follow up question was always, ‘were they nice?’

Now it might be, ‘did you have any idea?’

***

Evening: to the Barbican with Ms Charis and Ed, for a Neil Gaiman event. Gaiman is accompanied by the Australian FourPlay String Quartet, who use the classical quartet set up in an unusual and versatile way. There’s lots of rhythmical scraping, strumming and slapping, the cello often becomes the equivalent of a bass guitar, and the viola is sometimes played like a ukulele. The main piece of the evening is ‘The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains’, a Gaiman long-ish short story (or a ‘novelette’, as in shorter than a novella). It’s a kind of Walter Scott fantasy tale, about a Scottish dwarf from the Lowlands travelling to a cave rumoured to be filled with gold. Mr G reads this beautifully, while FourPlay perform a soundtrack and illustrations by Eddie Campbell are projected on a screen.

FourPlay also play a short set on their own, including a cover of the Doctor Who theme. And as well as the main piece, Mr Gaiman reads some shorter stories: the older one ‘The Day The Saucers Came’ plus two from his Blackberry project, A Calendar of Tales. ‘July’ is set on the 4th of July, making perfect sense to be read tonight, while ‘October’ is my favourite of the evening, about a genie whose liberator doesn’t actually want the usual three wishes.

But more unexpectedly, Neil Gaiman also sings. He gently croons a couple of arch songs, with FourPlay as his backing band. One is his own ‘I Google You’, which is the sort of thing I imagine Tom Lehrer writing now (if he hadn’t retired). Another is ‘Psycho’, which could be a Magnetic Fields ditty or possibly one by his wife, Amanda Palmer. But in fact, thanks to Google (what else), it turns out to a Leon Payne song, first recorded in 1968 by Eddie Noack. Elvis Costello has covered it too.

Afterwards: to the Phoenix pub in Cavendish Square for drinks until midnight, where I meet Tom with members of his new band, Spiderbites. Something the Edwards brothers have in common: we both shun our natural brown hair. Tom’s hair is now pink, while I’m freshly re-blonded.


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Wes Anderson, Saviour of Camp

Saturday 22nd March 2014. To the Phoenix in Cavendish Square for the 60s soul & indiepop club night How Does It Feel To Be Loved. It’s been going for nearly twelve years now, and I’ve been a guest DJ there once a year for quite a few of those years.

It’s flattering that Ian W keeps asking me back, as I’m not exactly a ‘name’ DJ. In fact, tonight I worry that my name might have the opposite effect. When I arrive at 10pm, one hour after it opens, he says I’m the first person through the doors. Thankfully a respectable amount of people eventually trickle in. I play records from 11.30 till about 1 am. Then I leave at about 2.30am, when Ian gently stops me from falling asleep in the corner of the DJ area. I’m not the all-nighter I used to be.

At my DJ stint there last year I was chatted up by a visibly intoxicated woman. I declined her advances, but for me the incident was so rare and so surprising that it topped up my self-esteem for months.  Tonight there is no repeat of the incident, but enough people dance to the records I play. So I feel ‘desired’ in that sense at least.

Fosca’s Rachel Stevenson and her partner David H are there tonight. I’m very happy to see them, after what must be years (previous HDIFs? the last Fosca gig?). Rachel S makes an anti-request: can I not play Prince’s ‘Raspberry Beret’ this time?

What I do play is lots of girl groups, including the Cookies song that The Smiths covered at their first gig but never recorded (there does exist, however, a brief audio clip from a 1982 rehearsal).

1. Broadcast – Before We Begin
2. Camera Obscura – The Sweetest Thing
3. Dressy Bessy – Just Like Henry
4. The Cookies – I Want A Boy For My Birthday
5. The Chiffons – He’s So Fine
6. The Honeys – He’s A Doll
7. The Ronettes – Baby I Love You
8. Velocette – Get Yourself Together
9. The Aislers Set – Hit The Snow
10. Frankie Valli – You’re Ready Now
11. The Angels – My Boyfriend’s Back
12. Spearmint – Sweeping The Nation
13. Belle and Sebastian – Women’s Realm
14. Morrissey – Sister I’m a Poet
15. The Chills – Heavenly Pop Hit
16. Carole King – I Feel The Earth Move
17. Shirley Bassey – Spinning Wheel
18. Dexy’s Midnight Runners – Plan B
19. The Supremes – Come See About Me
20. Aztec Camera – Oblivious
21. Stereolab – French Disko
22. Camera Obscura – French Navy
23. The Smiths – Ask
24. The Shangri-La’s – Give Him A Great Big Kiss
25. Nancy Sinatra – These Boots Are Made For Walking
26. Chairmen of the Board – Give Me Just A Little More Time
27. Gloria Jones – Tainted Love
28. Labelle – Lady Marmalade
29. Modern Lovers – Roadrunner
30. The Who – Substitute
31. Blondie – Dreaming
32. Sister Sledge – Thinking of You

When Ian plays ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ by The Byrds, I mishear one line as ‘There is a time for everything / And a time for breakfast.’

I’m reminded of another gem of a misheard lyric, related to me recently. It’s the opening line of Elvis Presley’s ‘Suspicious Minds’: ‘We’re courting a tramp.’

Ian W plays a new artist he’s keen on, Withered Hand. Sweet and pretty music, if a rather unattractive name. Still, once the music becomes known, a band name becomes meaningless.

* * *

Tuesday 25th March 2014. To the Hackney Picturehouse to see The Grand Budapest Hotel, the new film by Wes Anderson. Like Moonrise Kingdom and his other work it exists in its own strange and idealised bubble world, where everything is a treat for the eyes and people act in a quirky and unrealistic way.

It’s often the case that a comedy wants to be the audience’s friend. Just as stand-up comedy tries to connect with everyday observations, comedy films usually say ‘here are people just like you in funny situations’. There is none of that in Wes Anderson films, where the people are very much not like the audience – or indeed like any real person.  In Moonrise Kingdom, though, he managed to cut through this barrier by turning up the artifice to the point it became a kind of magical campness, while offsetting this with the poignancy of the two child actors.

Children cannot do camp. They’re still learning how to operate on a nominal level, let alone a knowing one. We are all born without irony, and only acquire it on the day we get the big cosmic joke – that the world isn’t made for us after all. Some of us bravely carry on as if we haven’t realised this joke, but I digress.

In The Grand Budapest Hotel, what makes the audience care is a combination of two things: Ralph Fiennes’s energetic and charismatic main character, and the device of nesting his tale within three outer frame stories. Like Shahrazad in the Arabian Nights, the tension of having to hold a frame story in one’s head increases the connection: we keep watching to see not just how Mr Fiennes’s story ends, but how the stories of Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson and the girl in the graveyard end too.

But what really intrigues me about the film is the way the Fiennes character is camp himself, in the aloof and sexually ambiguous sense. His discussion of a priceless stolen painting, ‘Boy With Apple’, is rather more Ronald Firbank than Allo Allo. The villainous Adrian Brody character, meanwhile, sees the flamboyant and perfume-obsessed Fiennes as something of a threat to masculinity de facto (see also David Tennant in the early 2000s BBC TV series Casanova).

If someone were to revise Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’ essay today (and by ‘someone’ I obviously mean ‘me’), they’d definitely have to include The Grand Budapest Hotel. And given the film is by no means a niche taste – it’s number one in the charts – perhaps Wes Anderson has become the mainstream saviour of old-fashioned camp.

* * *

Thursday 27th March 2014. I get the mark back for the class presentation. It’s a 71 – a low First. This seems something of a dip compared to my recent trio of 80-plus marks, but as it’s my first graded presentation and not an essay, I can’t complain. According to the tutor’s comments, my shortcoming was to skim over too many different points within a limited slot.

I still find the art of conciseness and selectivity difficult – which may be something to do with my dyspraxia. I either find it hard to start writing, or hard to stop. Writing for me is a long, slow bleeding process onto the page, followed by the equally long and slow trimming and moving about of what’s there. The second process is more enjoyable, but it still takes me ages.

Three more essays to do between now and May.


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On The Research Binge

Monday 10th February 2014. Room 321 at 43 Gordon Square, part of the Birkbeck campus. I am obliged to do a class presentation on Romantic Age Fiction, as part of the English degree. I choose William Beckford’s Vathek along with Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. This is partly in order to say something about the gothic and gender and camp, but mostly because the two novels rarely get discussed together as it is.

This is a sign that I’m starting to enjoy looking for these little gaps in literary studies, knowing that here is a space on the big collective bookshelf which I might be able to fill. The thought is one I used to view as impossibly vain and arrogant – the inner critical voice saying: ‘who are you to add yet more stuff to the world? The world doesn’t need more books, more words, more records. Other people do those. Not you.’ But arrogance and confidence have a shared border. And if everyone thought like that, there would be no books and records full stop.

The fun is knowing that it is possible to say something new and original and fresh about anything, even Jane Austen. So I stand up in the room in Gordon Square and I argue how Jane Austen is camp. Well, okay, she’s camp just for that one novel, and inadvertently on her part. Effect, rather than intention. But I’m convinced that when dipping her hands into the gothic with Northanger Abbey, Ms Austen accidentally comes out wearing black nail varnish.

Quips aside, I do my best to back this claim up with a decent amount of research and quotes and theory, and hope for the best. Arrogance plus commitment equals art.

No problem arguing that Beckford’s Vathek is camp, though. In his introduction to the Creation Books edition, Jeremy Reed singles out the Caliph’s unceremonious exit from a black marble bath: ‘he flounced from the water like a carp’.  Reed adds that ‘no camper note was ever sounded in the late eighteenth century novel.’

* * *

Tuesday 11th February 2014. In the British Library I find myself getting into spontaneous ‘research binges’, particularly when seeing a quotation without proper citation. The quote I’m thinking about this week is a favourite joke about footnotes:

‘Encountering a footnote, as Noel Coward remarked, is like going downstairs to answer the doorbell while making love.’ – GW Bowersock, ‘The Art of the Footnote’, American Scholar, Vol  53 No 1 (1984).

Did Noel Coward really invent this joke, I wonder? It seems a little too… physical for him.

I’ve also seen it in Chuck Zerby’s 2007 book The Devil’s Details: A History of Footnotes, but that just cites another book, Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History, from 1997. Grafton credits a 1989 essay on footnotes by Betsy Hilbert, which in turn cites the 1984 Bowerstock essay, as quoted above. With supreme irony, Bowerstock goes without any references or footnotes full stop.

Today, however, I find a revised edition of the Grafton book, from 1999, which says Noel Coward got the joke from John Barrymore, as in the vintage Hollywood actor. He refers to a 1976 biography by Cole Lesley, The Life Of Noel Coward (also known as Remembered Laughter), where the joke is a little more sexually explicit. According to Lesley, Coward ‘could never bring himself to glance at [a footnote], he said, after John Barrymore expressed the opinion that having to look at a footnote was like having to go down to answer the front door just as you were coming.’

Naughtier versions or not, there’s no mention of where Barrymore said it himself. So I keep digging away until I find Gene Fowler’s Good Night Sweet Prince: The Life and Times of John Barrymore, published in 1944. It has an anecdote about the actor preparing for Hamlet in 1922. He buys a copy of the play with no footnotes:

‘[John Barrymore] detested footnotes of any calibre, and said of them “It’s like having to run downstairs to answer the doorbell during the first night of the honeymoon.”’

The joke certainly suits the four-times-married grandfather of Drew much more than it does the publicly asexual Coward, and Coward is thought to cite Barrymore when he used it. To attribute the quote to Noel Coward alone does a disservice to both men.

* * *

Wednesday 12th February 2014. The web is 25 years old. I started using it at London’s first internet café, Cyberia, in Charlotte Street in 1995. The browsers were all Netscape – it was just before Internet Explorer. I once saw a man storm out of Cyberia saying ‘What a waste of time. You might as well make a phone call.’

* * *

Thursday 13th February 2014. I get my highest essay mark yet on the degree course. It’s an 85, for a piece on Wilde’s Dorian Gray. To put this in context, a First for a BA English is a 70, while an 80 is a High First, for showing ‘characteristics more usually found at postgraduate level’. And I still have over a year of the undergraduate course to go. Tonight the tutor takes me aside after the class to urge me to consider postgraduate courses when I finish.

I call Mum to tell her. It’s quite an emotional call, as it’s the first achievement of mine that she can’t share with Dad.

My original plan was just to get an English degree full stop, partly out of being fed up with feeling uneducated beyond GCSE level, but also because I felt instinctively that I might be one of those people better suited to doing a degree in later life. This has now turned out to be true – and then some.

Right now I have to admit I’ve no pressing desire for a career in academia, but I don’t dislike the idea either. My main concern, as ever, is how best to earn a modest living from this ability. It surely has to be of worth, to someone, somewhere. I’d even consider living abroad if it came to it.

* * *

After class, I dash off to the Platform Bar, a trendy Hackney hostelry, two floors up in an aging tower block. It’s the launch for The Yes, Sarah Bee’s uplifting book for children. Very Dr Seuss-like, illustrated with colourful abstract animals by Satoshi Kitamura. There’s a website at www.sarahbee.co.uk


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On Camp: Gaga v Perry

Saturday 28th December 2013. To Bildeston to visit Mum and Dad. Dad is pretty much the same as he was the month before: restricted to either the sofa or the bed in the living room, still relying on an oxygen mask and round-the-clock care. But he’s also still very chatty, enthusing about the latest escapist films on DVD, his Christmas presents from the family: Iron Man 3, Man of Steel. ‘I’m still that boy buying the first issue of Eagle comic’.

What he never watches is that baffling default prescription for the bedbound, the type piped into hospital wards at the request of no one sane: daytime TV. No fan of Bargain Hunt, my father.

I make myself useful by organising Dad’s DVD collection, gathering them from several scattered piles around the house into a single cabinet downstairs, then arranging them into alphabetical order. He has about 150. We wonder where best to file The Amazing Spider-Man, the recent big screen frolic starring the nervy Andrew Garfield (who really should play the young David Byrne if there’s ever a Talking Heads biopic). Should it go under ‘A’ for Amazing, or ‘S’ for Spider-Man, given that Dad also has the Tobey Maguire triptych of a few years ago? We agree on the latter. Keep all the Spider-Men in one place, and hope that Mr Maguire will not take the implication personally that he is officially… Not Amazing.

(As I type this up, a real spider dangles down from the ceiling onto my hand. It’s a thin greenish little thing, certainly not one of those False Widow spiders that the British newspapers got so aroused about last year. This one sadly has not bitten me and so I remain without a hyphenated secret identity. I have now carefully relocated the interloper to the outdoors, via the time-honoured dance of Mr Tumbler and Ms Nearest Piece of Paper. Before I go on, though, I think I should type the words ‘unmarked fifty pound notes’ and ‘Tom Daley’ in case they too need to fall from above. Nothing. )

* * *

Sunday 29th December 2013.  End of year lists. My heroes of 2013: Young Ms Malala, obviously. The brave Mr Snowden too. Closer to home: Ms Jack Monroe, the food blogger turned fearless anti-poverty campaigner. And also Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP. For her involvement in the protest against fracking (for which she was arrested), for being asked to cover up her ‘Ban Page 3’ shirt in a Commons debate, and for voting ‘yes’ to the food bank investigation and ‘no’ to MPs getting a pay rise. I know I’m biased, but Russell Brand’s calling for people to not vote seems unfair on the MPs who are trying to change things for the better. Though admittedly, they’re not quite as visible as he is.

* * *

Monday 30th December 2013.  Shamefully, I waste time on Twitter as a distraction from writing an essay on Anglo-Saxon poetry. Still, I hope I am redeemed  when I provide the author Sarah Churchwell with a dull but useful tip about how to copy text from a Kindle e-book (you use the ‘Kindle for PC or Mac’ program, open the book within it, use the ‘search’ facility to locate the passage, then copy and paste as normal). Ms Churchwell wrote Careless People, one of my favourite books of the year, about the influences behind The Great Gatsby. She tweets back that the tip worked for her, with thanks. I know so little about computers that supplying this mundanity, and hearing it was of use, makes my day.

A second good deed on Twitter: Ms Amber, whom I slightly know from the world of dressed-up London parties, asks the Twitter world for serious definitions of ‘camp’. Ideally, not from the over-quoted Susan Sontag essay.

I offer two: ‘The lie that tells the truth’ from the title of Philip Core’s 1980s book. And ‘a charging of the tension between performance and existence’, from Gary McMahon’s 2006 book Camp in Literature.

The trouble then is that I find myself distracted from the essay with my own musings on the subject. Is Lady Gaga a ‘Queen of Camp’, for instance, as some quarters have described her? Using the McMahon definition, I’d say no. There’s no ‘charging of the tension’, no wink, no knowing smirk. For her, performance is existence. But she may become camp as she gets older, because age ups the tension. A case in point is Grace Jones: all Gaga-esque performance when she was young, now very much camp. Katy Perry, on the other hand, is camp. She has that charged quality of self-awareness, finding the line where the self meets the performance, and then exaggerating it. That’s camp.

All this comes to me when I should be thinking about translating Old English from the Exeter Book.

* * *

Tuesday 31st December 2013. I meet with Laurence Hughes, up from Oxford. Mulled wine at The Flask in Highgate Village. He thinks I should take the academic thing further, doing a Masters and so on when I graduate. He says I ‘look’ the part of an academic. Perhaps in my case it’s just the air of an inability to cope with the physical.

At home, I work on the essay, then take a Nytol sleeping tablet, put in earplugs, and sleep through the fireworks. It’s the happiest New Year’s Eve I’ve had for some time.

* * *

Wednesday 1st January 2014. I start the year by appearing in the Guardian, to my surprise and squealing delight.

Or rather, I appear on the Guardian website, as the article in question is not in the printed newspaper (I buy a copy to check). Funny how prepositions work with new technology. It’s in the paper, but on the website. Or in an article on a website. Anyway.

The article is Travis Elborough’s Top 10 Literary Diarists. Here’s the link:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/01/travis-elboroughs-top-10-literary-diarists/print

I am included along with Samuel Pepys, Alan Bennett, Elizabeth Smart and Virginia Woolf.

* * *

Thursday 2nd January 2014. A few weeks ago I reviewed a graphic novel by Oscar Zarate, The Park, for The Quietus’s comics round-up column. The book is set mostly on Hampstead Heath. Here’s the link:

http://thequietus.com/articles/14192-behold-december-quietus-comics-round-up-column

Having been reminded about Elizabeth Smart’s diaries by the Travis Elborough article, I look them up at The London Library today. The first volume, Necessary Secrets, is a work of art, reading more as fully-formed literature than as a hastily jotted-down journal. It’s so close in style to her novella By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept that it deserves to be considered on the same level. Yet it’s been out of print for over twenty years. I recall how the Morrissey song ‘Late Night Maudlin Street’, from his album Viva Hate, is full of quotes from By Grand Central. No mention of Ms Smart’s influence in his Autobiography, sadly.


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