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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