Some Passing Maniac

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

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

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

**

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

**

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

I wonder if that happens to Nick Cave?

**

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

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

**

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

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

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

 **

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

 **

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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

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

**

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

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

**

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

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

**

Friday 13 December 2019. Masochism triumphs.

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

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

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

**

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

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Summer Distortion

Thursday 10 August 2017. Tobi H visits from New York, friends Kyle and Caroline in tow, and we have a heady night out at the Ku bar in Soho. Tobi stays the night. A rare spike in the otherwise sparse history of my love life. At least, since the Tories got in.

**

Friday 11 Aug 2017.  To the Rio for a screening of 1991: The Year Punk Broke, accompanied by Kath G, Shanthi and Paul. A live band goes on first: Skinny Girl Diet. Two young women, guitar and drums only. Lights up throughout, audience all seated. This might diminish the rock gig effect, but it does show off the Rio’s Art Deco architecture.

I still enjoy much of the music from the film: the pre-Britpop wave of American grunge bands all signing to major labels. Hence the title, implying that the footage represents a version of the punk spirit ‘breaking’ into the mainstream. It’s mostly footage of Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, and Nirvana touring European festivals in the summer of the year in question, just before the release of Nevermind. Thurston Moore’s larking about to the camera turns him from ice-cool poet to brattish irritant. At one point he lets the camera film him using and flushing a backstage toilet: a dangerous taunt for critics. Well, ‘Teenage Riot’ still astonishes. The other three of Sonic Youth come out better: the drummer is a virtuoso in any genre.

Kim Gordon has the same invulnerable charisma as Stevie Nicks, then as now. To be worshipped so much for so long takes a large amount of nerve, so it helps to be American. As ever, there’s an element of timing, of a vacancy being filled. Role models, like ideas, depend on the right historical moment. The Stone Roses saw that their generation needed a Beatles, and filled the vacancy out of sheer arrogance. They got away with worse than murder: they got away with laziness. And still the worship came, because the need for new gods is too powerful. On the canal down the road, a gallery sells prints of Stone Roses photographs for £720 each.

In the 1991 film, Babes in Toyland sound like the noisiest group on earth. That was the ‘punk’ aspect of the music: certain noise settings on guitar pedals, sonic distortion as the creation of new space. And Nirvana: then on the cusp of global domination, the footage now imbued with inevitable gravitas. The young man in pain, the noise of fame and suicide still in the future, now helplessly distorting the past.

**

Saturday 12 Aug 2017. With Tobi and co once more, this time to the club night Pink Glove. It’s walking distance for me: the Victoria pub off Dalston Lane. Named after the Pulp song, it’s a gay indie night where the bulk of the music is vintage alternative: 80s and 90s. I have to explain who Pulp are – or were – to my American friends. Were they the wrong kind of British, compared to Oasis, or just too arch? No Doubt’s ‘Just A Girl’ comes on, and I remember it as the theme from Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. This in turn points out how these kind of club nights are school reunions of a kind for me too. I worry about wallowing in the past: how soon is now? And yes, they play that too.

Perhaps when I’m finally satisfied with the present I’ll be fine about the past.

I part company with the Younger Americans and walk alone up Kingsland Road. Saturday night, 3AM. Little silver canisters all over the pavement, beneath the rising tower of the luxury flats at Dalston Kingsland station. The canisters are to do with drugs, though legal. Today’s drug of choice is nitrous oxide. Laughing gas. How else to react to the times?

Two drunk women sidestep into my path. Here we go.

‘We just want to say… You really look like… Will Ferrell.’

Well it’s preferable to ‘Oi, Donald Trump!’ heard on the escalator at Euston a few weeks ago.

Then they let me pass. I go home.

**

Thursday 17 Aug 2017: I see The Big Sick at the Rio. Terrible title, but an excellent comedy about the culture clash. Though it has that Judd Apatow trait of going on too long. Also an indication of the mainstream American knowledge of Pakistani culture, or the lack of it: it’s as if all those 80s British films – My Beautiful Laundrette and so on – never happened. Is America thirty years behind in the cultural awareness stakes? Don’t answer that. The film has a very good joke about 9/11 which probably had to wait till 2017 to be allowed in. Not too soon any more, not now.

**

Struggling with the dissertation for the MA (Contemporary Literature and Culture, Birkbeck). 15,000 words, titled ‘Music and Belonging in Alan Hollinghurst’. It’s exactly the sort of thing I’m interested in, except that I’ve never written 15,000 words about anything before.

The other three students in my summer ‘Study Buddies’ group are doing class in contemporary Indian novels, female villains in X-Men comics, and the environmental anxieties behind Godzilla films.

I have a complete lack of motivation at this point. The question keeps coming: is this really the best thing I should be doing with my summer, with my time, with my life, at this age? So hard to know. Right now I have a feeling of being utterly out of the swim of society. Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Society and I exist in mutual suspicion.

Not earning an income is unavoidably troubling, though. People in their forties are meant to have a fair amount of spending money – almost by way of compensation. I see friends going on foreign trips to festivals and big concerts and West End plays, and I admit I’m envious. But this is to make the mistake of comparing myself with others. I soon remember how ill-suited I am to so many normal jobs, and how I wouldn’t last. What am I suited to, now, today? Writing, editing, research, and (hopefully) lecturing. I’ve now clocked up six years studying English literature at graduate and post-graduate levels, and on top of all that I have my long experience of life in the real world before. That has to count for something. But – oh, one’s moods are all over the place.

**

Wednesday 30th August 2017. Saturation coverage of the twentieth anniversary of Diana’s death. As notable deaths from the summer of 1997 go, I’m thinking more about William Burroughs and Jeffrey Bernard. Princesses for the wrong kind of people.

The blameless subject of my dissertation, Alan Hollinghurst, puts out a new novel only every 6 or 7 years. The latest one, The Sparsholt  Affair is due out later this year, three weeks after my dissertation deadline. Happily, today I acquire an advance proof courtesy of a kind person at Pan MacMillan. If nothing else, the dissertation will be right up to date.

**

Thursday 31st August 2017. Richard Smith dies. In the 90s he was the main British music critic to specialise in gay perspectives, albeit with a provocative agenda. Cheeky, bitchy, and sometimes downright cruel, he was nevertheless kind to my own bands. Orlando and Fosca had rave reviews from him in Gay Times.

Mr Smith’s review of the first Fosca album was entirely made up of quotes from the lyrics sheet. I suppose I could have invoiced him. But I suspect he thought I’d be amused or flattered or both. He was quite right.

RS was one of those few journalists whose work you could actually identify without consulting the byline. Today, despite all the emphasis on ‘building your brand’, so many journalists strive to be exactly the same as each other. That dreaded contemporary acronym, FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – is really a version of TOSO – Terrified of Standing Out. What I suppose I’m saying is that I think most journalists are a bunch of TOSOs.

***

Saturday 1st September 2017. A better day: I finish another chapter of the dissertation.

**

Saturday 2nd September. Mum visits, and I show her around my new stomping ground. We start off with the trendy Café Route in the core of the current gentrification, Dalston Square. This is followed by the Curve Garden, Café Oto and the Arcola Theatre – all part of the New Dalston spirit – and then we hit the Babel intensity of Kingsland High Street. Here, Old Dalston bumps along with the new:  multi-cultural, multi-income, multi-desperation, multi-sanity. In such streets is the true flavour of the metropolis, where everyone, even the mad, seems aglow with purpose.

Then north on the bus to Stoke Newington, with its more Richard Curtis-sy style of London. We see the beautiful fallow deer in Clissold Park, and the umpteen trendy cafes in Church Street, including one whose name is the chemical formula for caffeine. Then back south to the canal in Haggerston, where we walk along to the towpath to Islington.

I’m audibly aware of the presence of rich people who sit drinking wine on many of the boats, Eton accents broadcasting across the canal. But then one feels that about London full stop: the danger of it becoming a playground for the rich. Thankfully, people are starting to ask questions about what London is actually for, so one remains optimistic. The Arcola Theatre has Pay What You Can days for its plays.

**

Sunday 3rd September 2017. My 46th birthday. Ms G my landlady says ‘Happy birthday!’ in the hallway. Well, I have to spend another day in the library. Have to. I battle stomach pains (seeing doctors about this) and wrestle not very happily with the dissertation.

**

Monday 4th September 2017. Finish Chapter 1 and write 1000 new words for Chapter 4.

Thoughts on books as objects. I’m shopping for a new mp3 player, and become increasingly bad tempered with the dominance and cost of Apple products. I settle for a SanDisk Clip Jam, only to find out that it cannot play the audiobooks I bought off iTunes. It’s the sort of thing that makes me want to spend the equivalent sum on print books. Books are cheap, calming, offline machines. And they actually belong to you after you’ve bought them. If a house is a machine for living in, a book is a machine for living.

**

Tuesday 5 September 2017. To Barberette in Hackney Downs to have my roots done. It’s a gender-neutral, bohemian-friendly, affordable hairdresser’s. Pictures on the wall of David Bowie in the 70s and Agyness Deyn in the 2000s. I ask for a bleached ‘do that somehow looks contemporary but without a ‘fade’, the current name for shaving the sides. Style, not fashion.

Today I somehow manage to have my hair bleached and cut and still find time to write over 1000 words on the dissertation. I think this is called ‘putting a spurt on’.

***

Wednesday 6th September 2017. An unexpected present from Liz at the London Library, who’s leaving: Woolf’s Writer’s Diary, the beautiful Persephone edition. Lots of words in there about persisting when the spirit sags, of course.

Evening: a Study Buddies meeting, with fellow Birkbeck MA students Craig, Jassy and Hafsa. I’ve found that this really helps. Our first meetings were simply ‘Shut Up and Write’ sessions: an enforced two hours of silent writing in exam conditions, broken into four 25-minute bursts. For the last fortnight, we meet up and pass around chapters of our work, adding proofreading and presentational suggestions, while being careful not to cross over into the realms of collusion (of which there’s strict rules). Most of it is about getting the wording of references and footnotes right.

The sessions have really helped alleviate the sense of being cut adrift. In my case, it triggers a healthy burst of productivity. In short, it gives me a kick up the bum. I suppose it’s why people still go to offices to work. Procrastination is site-specific.

**

Saturday 9th September 2017. Finish reading The Sparsholt Affair, just in time for the dissertation.

**

Monday 11 Sept 2017. Finish the cuts on Draft 1. Straight onto Draft 2. Write the abstract and the acknowledgements.

Each draft takes a lot less time than the one before. I make dramatic cuts to Draft 1 to fit the word count, and then by Draft 4 it’s really just pedantic polishing. That’s the hope, anyway.

Tuesday 12th Sept 2017. Finish Draft 2. I note the term ‘androcentric’ for Hollinghurst’s novels (used by my supervisor Joe B). It means male-focused, but in a more aesthetic and less pejorative way than ‘phallocentric’. The latter tends to have overtones of masculine repression. ‘Androcentric’ is also perfect for describing Christopher Nolan’s films.

Wednesday 13th Sept 2017. Finish Draft 3. Evening: drinks with the three Study Buddies at the College Arms, Store Street, Bloomsbury. They’ve all finished and delivered their dissertations. I’ve been granted the option of a two week extension, because of my dyslexia. Except that my competitive urge has now kicked in, and I want to prove I can make the normal deadline after all. That, and the fact that I could really do with a break before the PhD starts in early October.

**

Thursday 14 September 2017. I work like mad. Finish Draft 4.

**

Friday 15th September 2017. Up at 5am to maximise working time. Finish Draft 5, and hand in the MA dissertation on time by noon. So I make the proper deadline after all. One copy is uploaded electronically, then I have to print out two copies using the college printers, get them bound at Ryman’s, and post them into the big slot in the wall at Birkbeck’s School of Arts reception, 43 Gordon Square. All done. I’ll receive the grade for the whole MA around early December.

After sending the thing off, I now realise I should have included Debbie Smith and Atalanta Kernick in the acknowledgements. It was their 45th birthday present to me, the Carl Wilson book Let’s Talk About Love, that inspired the whole theme of the dissertation.

**

Saturday 23 September 2017. To Brighton for the weekend. An impulsive treat for myself, aimed at creating something vaguely in the way of a holiday. I’m trying to mark the small gap of time between the end of my MA (15 September) and the start of my PhD (5 Oct).  Too poor to go abroad (haven’t done so in 8 years), but I always like Brighton.

There’s a visible increase in rough sleepers on the pavement, especially around the station. But then it’s the same in London. Inequality has never had it so good.

I stay at the decrepit and shambling Royal Albion Hotel. This is partly because I prefer a Shining-esque labyrinthine hotel to a B&B or a boutique one, but mostly because every other large hotel in Brighton is booked up, thanks to the Labour conference. Large hotels, to paraphrase F Scott Fitzgerald on parties, are so intimate. At small hotels there isn’t any privacy.

Evening: attend Simon Price’s 50th birthday party, held across two floors at the Latest bar in Brighton’s Manchester Street. I chat to Taylor Parkes, Seaneen, Emma and Adrian, and Toby Amies (whose film The Man Whose Mind Exploded I absolutely love ). Simon P tells me how he still regards the Orlando album, Passive Soul, as a classic.

Withstand the less welcome attentions of drunk people I don’t really know, though one of them says:

‘I’ve just got to say who you remind me of’

‘Go on then.’

‘David Sylvian’.

‘Oh, that’s a comparison I actually quite like.’

It’s the second 50th birthday party I’ve been to, and I notice a common feature of such events. There’s a projected slideshow on the wall of photos from the host’s past. I’d previously thought such projections were only for funerals. But I suppose it’s a use of photography to defy death, or possibly to help prevent early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Mr Price puts on a good party: a free vegan buffet, two floors for dancing or chatting. I drink too much red wine (ruining my throat for two days), talk rubbish, and stay too late. Taylor P shows me a photo of his son, who like all ten-year-old boys looks a bit like the left-wing commentator Owen Jones.

Lots of Eighties pop music plays on the dancefloor, just as it did when I first met Simon P in the 90s. The Eighties haven’t aged a bit.

**

Sunday 24 September 2017. I walk around the seafront in my black suit (slightly too cold for the white one), bumping into Seaneen again – this time with her child. Huge banners on the centre next to the Grand: ‘FOR THE MANY’.

One new sight on the beach is the ‘i360’ tower, a heavily-branded attempt by British Airways to duplicate the success of the London Eye. Instead of a wheel of transparent pods, it’s a single oval capsule that goes up and down a central cylinder for no very good reason. A Space Needle and Thread, as it were. It’s right by the wreck of the old West Pier. As I pass I see that the ride is offering 10% off for Labour delegates. There’s also a wicker basket champagne stall on the way in. A comment suggests itself about champagne socialism and looking down on people, but I’m too hungover to make it.

***

Wednesday 27th September 2017. Evening: to the Prince Charles Cinema with Tim Chipping for Oxide Ghosts, a film of out-takes of the 1997 Chris Morris TV series, Brass Eye. It’s made and presented in person by the Brass Eye director, Michael Cumming. Cumming turns out to be a boyish, rather Terry Gilliam-like maverick, slouching in baseball cap and ripped shirt sleeves.

Although the Prince Charles is packed with cult comedy fans, Cumming is clearly a fan of Brass Eye himself. He delights in Morris’s unique similes and malapropisms, quoting them constantly and calling his explanation of references in the credits as ‘trainspotting’ on his part. There’s even some footage of Cumming unlocking dusty crates of his own VHS tapes, as if chancing upon the Ark of the Covenant.

This is something that Tim and I discuss before the screening when talking about our own records. How proud are you allowed to be of your own work? There’s the common response of saying that you haven’t looked at your work for decades, but there’s some vanity in this too, of course. Humility can be a brand-building strategy – ‘he’s just like us!’ Self-mythologizing, meanwhile, can be more honest. A form of un-false modesty. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because the art has the last word, while the humans and their vanities come and go. The blooper sections are droll enough, but it’s the cut sections of whole ideas that make Oxide Ghosts worthwhile. ‘Just give us more to see’, sings Dot in Sunday in the Park With George. 

Chris Morris is still as careful to control his work as ever, and has only given his blessing to this film on the understanding that it’s not to be made available in any other format. I understand that this is partly for rights reasons – always a nightmare – but it’s also to make the event a bit more special. To see the film, you have to attend one of Mr Cumming’s cinema screenings or nothing.

I’m reminded how Kate Bush declined to release a video recording of her Hammersmith comeback concerts after all. Both cases become protests against the assumption that live events are just YouTube content in waiting. But there’s some irony in this, given Oxide Ghosts’ reliance on archives. And indeed, here I am, mediating my memory of the evening in a public diary. That tension between wanting to record everything, and knowing that there will be always be distortion in doing so.

***

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Pride & Prejudice & Superheroes

Monday: meet Dad as he returns from the Caption convention in Oxford. Because his train gets into Paddington, I do what all Londoners should do at that station when meeting out-of-towners. I show him the statue of Paddington Bear. Along with the character’s merchandise stall, covered in books, soft toys and toddler-sized duffel coats.

We go to the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury, only to discover it’s closed on Mondays. I get a sense of deja vu from this time last year, when I was in New York and traipsed across most of Central Park in order to visit the Met. It was a Monday, and the Met – despite being the size of a football stadium – was closed that day.

I’m off to New York again this Thursday coming, for seven days. This time, I’ll ensure my museum stints avoid the first day of the working week.

***

In Gosh Comics, I pick up Issue 5 of Pride & Prejudice. It’s not a parody or homage but an entirely straight – and beautifully drawn – comic strip adaptation of the Jane Austen book. What really delights me is that it’s published by Marvel as a proper serialised A5 colour comic, and that it’s displayed alongside the latest issue of Spider-Man, X-Men, the Hulk and so on. So a novel that famously enticed readers despite a lack of any real heroes or villains is now translated into the one medium most accustomed to them. The Austen effect still triumphs: the staff at Gosh tell me it’s been flying off the shelf.

***

Walking along Royal College Street today, I pass a couple of elderly Irish men sitting outside a pub. As I approach, one calls out at me.

‘Walk straight!’

And then, after I’ve passed by:

‘Can I shag you?’

In the evening I recount this to Ms L, who works behind the bar at the Boogaloo. I do so hoping she’ll be amused. In fact, she takes a physical step back and stares at me, unnerved.

I’m reminded of Ms D telling me about someone she met recently.

‘This person asked me, “Do you know Dickon Edwards? I’m his nemesis.” And they weren’t smiling.’

I found this incredibly funny. But Ms D was appalled, verging on upset.

‘I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone’s nemesis before,’ she said. ‘I wondered if I should call the police.’

(‘Are you Jesus?’ I had at Latitude from two young men in the woods, when I was walking around in my white suit. ‘I forgive you,’ I shouted back.)

I suppose I do attract a certain… oddness from some people – as opposed to odd people per se  – from time to time. But they soon tire of me: I’m too busy stalking myself inside my own head, trying to nail my thoughts down, preoccupied with controlling my own madness, never mind anyone else’s.  There’s always an angle, a tilt, which part of me is at and which the rest is not; and it’s never by the same degree for more than a moment. So this predicament is a two-way barrier, for better or worse. I’ve said it before, but one ambition of mine is to have a syndrome named after me.

To act weirdly around an already weird person isn’t stalking, after all: it’s tautology.


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The Reverse Leonard Cohen

‘You’ll have trouble keeping that suit clean!’ laughs the 537th person today.  Yet when I take off my jacket and neckscarf and pretend to be normal, I find myself envying some other besuited dandyish guy walking about.

I just like to look like myself. Only problem is, to most people I am not myself, I am ‘Oy! Suit!’ until further notice. Roll on further notice.

***

Latitude is more eclectic than ever: this year’s bill includes Mew, Squeeze (the two following each other), Patrick Wolf, and Chas And Dave.  Not Patrick Wolf AND Chas and Dave. But I would never rule out such a team-up here.

A group of 11-year-old boys passes me. A plump, posh one – clearly the leader – suddenly shouts  ‘Hands up who wants to see Spiritualized?’

***

My Friday is very much a day of bits. Bits of acts watched, bits of bands heard. The way sound carries from the various PAs, it’s possible to stand in the woods some distance from the main stage, and hear a kind of organic remix. I can make out the Pet Shop Boys, sounding half underwater, with Bat For Lashes over the top, plus the occasional angry burst of existential swearing from the Poetry Arena. As the wind changes, the mix changes.

Today, I don’t see a single act from start to finish. It starts with me sticking my head inside the Literary Tent for a few minutes to catch Shappi Khorsandi, the Iranian-born comedienne who is currently everywhere. She’s reading from her book, ‘A Beginners Guide To Acting English’, specifically a conversation held at cross purposes with a taxi driver. The cabbie assumes that because she is a lone woman doing two ‘pub gigs’ in one night, she must be a stripper. When he asks her, ‘What do your parents think about your job?’ the daughter of an exiled Iranian satirist replies innocently, ‘Oh, my dad doesn’t mind at all. In fact, he does something similar himself…’

John Joseph B says hello, and I catch a bit of his show in the Cabaret Arena, called I Happen To Like New York. It’s a cross-dressing, picaresque monologue in the vein of Hedwig And The Angry Inch. As it’s more of a scripted story than a cabaret turn, one really needs to see the whole thing from start to finish, and I feel a bit guilty when I pop in about halfway through.

The latest score from the Ashes (or Test Match, or whatever it is), is displayed on a special hand-made board outside the festival’s Supermarket Tent. Years ago, one would assume the person doing the updating would have had a portable radio. These days they could be getting the score from their iPhone. But the score board is still hand-affixed numbers on bits of card, and that’s what pleases me.

I catch a little bit of Lykke Li (though miss her actual song ‘A Little Bit’). By this point I have Fickle Festival Goer syndrome, deliberately wanting a brilliant artist’s next song to be less than brilliant, so it’s okay for me to go and get my jacket from the yurt, or get a drink, or go for a pee, or whatever. Her opening number is heart-stoppingly wonderful, and I am happy. Her second song is just okay, so I am happier still. It means I can get my jacket.

FFG syndrome applies even more to established acts, as nostalgia enters the equation. When the Pretenders are on, you don’t want to be in the toilets for ‘Brass In Pocket’, so the more recent stuff has the Time For A Pee feel. But it can work the other way around. For some, dusty old hits might feel overfamiliar, even stale, and thus toilet-break bound. Going through the motions in every sense. Tracks from poor-selling recent albums may sound fresher live, performed with more gusto.

It depends what people want from their concerts, and what the artists think they might want. Cosy old destinations, or trips to unknown territory? It’s odd how people prefer new material to come from younger acts only (when everything is new), with the exception of Seasick Steve. He’s the Right Kind Of Old.

In my case, I flinch when bands reform just to play the old stuff, if I’ve already seen them first time around. My Bloody Valentine and the Pixies – whom I both saw circa 1990 – are back, but with no new albums. Take That can come back with new hits which eclipse their old stuff, so why can’t MBV and the Pixies?

Every other friend of mine has been raving about the concerts by the reformed Blur. As much as I like a few Blur singles, I can’t get over the sense of Pavlov’s jukebox – a conditioning for nostalgia. It’s as Philip Larkin described his later appearances when his poetry was drying up – ‘pretending to be myself’.

Is the appeal of the Pixies playing ‘Doolittle’ live any different to the appeal of ‘Mamma Mia’? And is there a Pixies musical yet?

There’s hypocrisy here, though: last year I watched the Buzzcocks run through all their old hits, and utterly loved every minute.  So there goes my own argument.

***

Never quite a nostalgia act themselves (I think they’ve resisted the ‘classic album in full’ gigs), the Pet Shop Boys typically pull out all the visual design stops, transforming a standard rock festival stage into their own Devo-meets-Gilbert & George installation. The theme of this one is cubes, squares, boxes and pixels, with a backdrop of white cubes as a projection screen, somewhat recalling Pink Floyd’s The Wall, of all things. Both Boys start off in blocky, Lego-like costumes with gauze cubes over their heads, accompanied by two robot-mannequin dancers whose cube heads revolve in sync. I notice how the older Neil Tennant gets, the higher and sweeter and more nasally-androgynous are his vocals. It’s like Leonard Cohen in reverse.

Despite all the synchronised videos, backing tracks of umpteen synth parts and programmed drums, the only aspect which feels unreal is Mr Tennant swaying slightly on his legs, or indeed moving about at all. Anything other than deadpan stillness seems too much like Rock. Which would never do.

The PSBs do a medley blending ‘Can You Forgive Her’ with a newer track in the same 6/8 time signature. This really does test my ‘old v new’ feelings. ‘Can You Forgive Her’ is one of my favourite songs by anyone ever. By playing snatches of it alongside bits of an unfamiliar new song, I feel frustrated. Medleys are not trying something new: they’re  non-commital dips, unsatisfying gestures, the musical equivalent of a DJ playing the start of a record for it to morph into a bootleg ‘mash-up’ with something else. Which might please the head (‘how clever!’), but rarely the heart (‘Aw… my favourite song. Where’s the rest of it?’)

On the recordings of Noel Coward’s 1950s supper-club performances, his medleys are outrageously cheeky: 20 seconds of one hit, followed by 15 seconds of another and so on. Just enough for the audience to recognise the song and to do that irksome thing of clapping to show they know what it is:

‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington (CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP)…. Someday I’ll find yooooooo (CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP)… Mad dogs and Englishmen go out – (CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP).’

Ultimately I’ll always want a whole song over any messing about with it. It feels okay to wander about a festival, sampling little bits of different acts, but not okay for the acts to do the same thing to their own material.

***
I meet up with Charley Stone and company (including Charlotte Hatherley) in one of the open-air Obelisk Arena’s raked seating sections. Combined with the huge video screens either side of the main stage, magnifying the performance with lots of  camera angles, it’s far and away the most comfortable audience option. At least, if like me you’re getting to that stage when you crave A Nice Sit Down, and can’t sit on the ground. My days of standing with the packed crowds Down The Front and braving the constant shoving are over. The only problem with the Obelisk Arena seats is being exposed to the elements, but it’s easily solved with an umbrella-cum-parosol.

[Update Sat morning: A strong wind turns the umbrella inside out and splits its spokes irretrievably. I did wonder why it was so cheap. Duration of brolly ownership: less than 24 hours.]

Charlotte H is playing twice this year, as guitarist for Bat For Lashes and as a solo act. Charley and I go to watch her with ‘The Lashes’, headlining in the Uncut Arena. It’s the largest marquee, with standing room only. The options are either standing at the back if you like a little space, though with a severely obscured view, or going further forward into the crowd and suffering the constant pushing and shoving. I remember how I used to deliberately follow bands with limited fanbases but brilliant records, so I’d never have to worry about this happening.  The Garage or New Cross Venue was my limit for standing-only gigs (or The Luminaire today).

Although I’m pleased that BFL’s brand of unbashed artiness and love of dressing-up (the singer enters in a big gold cape) is so popular, after two songs I am nearly kicked in the face by a child sitting on their dad’s shoulders. I read far too much symbolism into this.

By half past ten I’m in bed, utterly exhausted.


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A Yurt Of One’s Own

At Latitude, typing this in my rented mini-yurt. What bliss to have the space, the head room for standing up, and the hut-like sturdiness of the bamboo frame. Plus a perfectly comfortable fitted carpet; no need for an air bed. The ‘tent hotel’ field has extra security and the nicest showers I’ve seen to date.

Yurtpics:

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Space to stand, to hang up one’s suits and shirts…

Note the little girls’ umbrella in the first pic. It was all the festival market had left in the way of rain protection, apart from thoseponcho things which are not really me. Walking about with a little girls’ brolly rather gives onlookers even more reason to point at giggle at me as I pass (or maybe call the police), but compared to being drenched in one of the sudden showers and lightning storms which have hit this year’s Latitude so far, it’s by far the lesser of two humiliations. Were I an enterprising sort, I’d rush to the nearest town, buy up all the cheap umbrellas I could find, and sell them at the festival for twice the price. Brolly and wellington boot stalls at Glastonbury must make an absolute fortune.

I had brought my own, thinking how prepared I was, only to leave it in the wings of the Film & Music Arena while I was DJ-ing. After we finished the set, the umbrella had vanished. I managed to get about 1 minute’s mileage out of it, walking from our dressing cabin to the stage during last night’s storm.

(Update: I’ve just found a different stall which sells proper man-sized brollies, and inexpensively too. It even matches my silk scarf. Third umbrella owned in two days.)

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Miss Red outside our dressing room. Cigarettes ‘n’ alcohol ‘n’ ukelele.

So, last night: Miss Red and I DJ in the Film & Music Arena. Five sets throughout the evening, including an hour at the start (accompanying excerpts of ‘Pandora’s Box’ on screens to the side of the stage) and 90 minutes at the end, when we turn the place into a nightclub:

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One happy dancing Film and Music Arena, Thursday night 1AM

We also play mini-sets in between the live acts: the ‘live silent movies’ show called ‘1927’, Patti Plinko, Smoke Fairies and Camille O’Sullivan, just the kind of acts I’d go to see anyway.

I provide several bunches of chrisanthemums bought in Southwold market earlier that day – Red’s idea. They’re perfect for dancing with, throwing about, wheeling around one’s head (to ‘Panic’ by the Puppini Sisters), and triumphantly tossing into the crowd at the end of selected songs.

Bump into Edwyn Collins and Grace Maxwell in the backstage area just before we go on. Tom is playing guitar for him, so that’s my handy reason for going up and saying hello. Tom apparently told them, ‘You’ll definitely notice my brother when you see him.’ Although Mr Collins isn’t singing at Latitude, Ms Maxwell is appearing in the Literary Tent to talk about her book on his recovery, which bears the perfect title: Falling and Laughing.

Photo by Grace M:

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Now it’s Friday afternoon, and as ever I’m missing lots of acts I’d wanted to see. Last nights exuberance, not to mention consumption of the generous rider the festival laid on, has rather left me wanting to do little but lie in this lovely, airy yurt and recover from my various aches and pains (tired feet, hangover, friction rash from lots of walking in hot weather – made worse by wearing a suit). I know I should investigate a few acts, but fun is such hard work.

I get the kid-in-a-sweet-shop feeling so often these days. Overwhelmed with so much choice, I find myself doing nothing at all. It happens in libraries and book shops, when deciding what to pick, unable to decide and leaving with nothing, or choosing something then wishing I’d gone for the other thing afterwards. But it’s so silly – all life is missing out. One thing at a time means nothing else at one time. I suppose I want someone to just tell me, ‘Do this today. Read this. Watch this act. It’ll definitely the best possible choice.’ I can sometimes get high on sheer indecision.

But then, the one thing I was most excited about doing Latitude this year was renting A Yurt Of One’s Own. So it  isn’t really such a waste. I’m enjoying the private space, somewhere to go which isn’t just somewhere to sleep (which was the only thing I could do in the little tent last year).

I find myself scanning the Latitude programme photos and going by unfair rules. I say no to watching any rock act in checked shirts, or any photos of four gruff blokes in coats on a windswept beach looking into the middle distance (which is meant to say ‘hey, we’re a broadsheet compatible rock band’), or any comedian who pulls that wide-eyed, eyebrows aloft, mugging expression (indicating ‘hey, I’m a comedian’).

Ah well, off into the festival, to miss things I wanted to catch, but hopefully catch things I didn’t know I’d like.

Walking through the woods between the Guest Area and the lake, my white suit gets a comment from two passing young men (that eternal formula):

‘Excuse me, are you Jesus?’

An ant has just crawled inside the keys of this laptop.


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Games For Boys

In Southwold for one day before Latitude. I’m staying with Mum & Dad in the cottage they’ve rented every year for decades, their choice of week conveniently coinciding with the music festival nearby. Two things hit me most after coming straight from London: the palpably fresher air, and the almost sinister tidiness of both beach and street. Modern changes: smoothies on the tea room menu. Less modern: small boys playing football on Gun Hill, using – yes – jumpers for goalposts.

I’m wearing my new chalk-white linen suit: more Alec Guinness than Man From Del Monte.

A couple of young men chatting by a ladder stop and snigger as I walk by. The first time I came here during Latitude week, walking around Southwold High Street in my cream suit, a young man stuck his head out of a passing van and shouted, ‘Hello, Poof!’

I’ve had the same treatment on Shaftesbury Avenue, though. And indeed, in the toilets of the South Bank Centre the other day. I was there for a discussion on the future of literary magazines, hosted by Erica Wagner from the Guardian.

Two young men in shorts and backpacks were at the urinals. As I went in to check my hair in the mirror, the boys looked at me, then at each other, then one started to pretend he was having a loud orgasm, while his friend laughed. Seconds passed and his friend exited, yet the orgasm boy was still making his faux-ecstatic racket. As it was just me and him in the toilets I felt the need to say something.

‘Are you all right?’

He stopped.

‘Yeah, yeah. Just…. having a wee…’ He smirked feebly, zipped himself up and headed for the door without washing his hands.

Then as he left, his tone turned to a half-muttered playground retort: ‘No, are YOU all right… white suit!’

I saw them both walk off into the Centre to attend a talk on the legacy of Swinburne. Okay, no I didn’t.

Maybe I’d still get catcalls at The International Conference for Allegedly Poofy-Looking Men In White Suits. (‘Oy! White suit!’ shouts Tom Wolfe).

***
A Jeremy Hardy joke, not unrelated. ‘A sign on the back of a white van: ‘No tools left in this vehicle overnight. During the day they’re in the front seat.’

***

Also in Southwold I pass by the putting green opposite the pier, and remember Grandad took me and Tom for games there over twenty years ago. Once I actually managed to score a hole in one, though by a sheer fluke. Otherwise I was less interested in the actual putting as I was by the vintage-looking yellow score card that came with the putter and ball.  Sport was baffling; stationery divine.


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Dickon-Baiting Is So Last Season

Recent outings? Well, there was the Last Fosca Show on Sat 13th. Islington Bar Academy, as part of the club night Feeling Gloomy. Line up is myself, Rachel, Charley, Tom and Kate. Three guitars, which means I can concentrate more on my singing, such as it is. Excellent professional sound, as it’s a modern purpose-built venue. No style in the shopping centre location, perhaps, but sometimes a hitch-free sound is preferable to a battered PA in a more historic venue.

Downstairs at about 7pm is some kind of under-18s hip hop event. There’s lots of audibly excited dressed-up teenage girls in a queue snaking around the other side of the building. I’d like to say they point or shout out things when I have to squeeze past them on the stairs to get to the soundcheck, but in fact they just go quiet and pull their friends out of the way to let me pass. So I feel rightly shamed by my own paranoia and preconceptions.

In fact, I’ve found this happening a lot lately – having to walk past loud teens on street corners I brace myself for cat calls or worse, only to find they just go quiet, look at their shoes, and politely wait for me to pass. I wonder what has changed – me, or teenagers.

The only Dickon-baiting incident of late has been on my journey to the night shift job on a Saturday evening. It’s arguably the most jarring aspect of the job, soberly commuting to work while surrounded by much less sober people on their Saturday night out. But I’m suited at being the odd one out, after all.

At about 9.15pm at Camden Town tube one recent Saturday, I pass two small party girls who must be about 19, and who have clearly started drinking early. They’re shrieking and falling about with their friends as I walk past them from the corridor onto the platform, hoping not to catch their eye but still curious to see who is making all the noise. And of course the moment I glance at them is the moment one of them sees me.

I try to act ‘invisible’ (hah!), keeping my head down and walking right to the other end of the platform to sit down on the farthest possible seat on the farthest possible bench. But without looking back, I know they’re following me. Here we go again.

I dive into my bag and pull out that ubiquitous cloak of invisibility – the i-Pod. The ‘I’m Not Really Here, Don’t Touch Me’ Pod. Some people use their music players as a social shield. A kind of cowardly retreat and ‘f— off’ statement to one’s fellow man at the same time, particularly if the volume is loud enough. Music as an alibi.

Never worked for me, though. I’m sitting on the far bench, eyes to the floor, iPod in place (though I’m not listening to anything). And I know the two drunken teen girls have sat down next to me. They’ve even left their larger party of friends to come over to me. What DO they want? They’re smiling at me and elbowing each other. I’m the shared joke.

There’s no escape. I take out the iPod earphones and sigh. And I surprise myself with what I say.

‘What do you want with me?’

Said with a smile, mind. A slightly worrying smile.

Never done this before. It’s come from somewhere. Maybe just pure tiredness after all the years of strangers Coming Over to me to helpfully tell me what I look like, or who I look like, when all I want to do is get to where I’m going without incident. Maybe it’s actual anger about feeling At The Mercy Of Others. The notion that I’m a funny little walk-on part of other people’s evening’s entertainment, rather than the other way around. Which I don’t mind, actually.

But there are times when I’m feeling fragile, when I’m trying to psych myself up for going to work, and the thought of having to play the Funny Blond Man On The Tube Platform We Saw Tonight for the 756th time isn’t always something I feel up to doing. Is that bad of me?

‘What do you want with me?’

It surprises me more than they can know, but it does the trick, and they find themselves wrong-footed from the off, alcohol or not. They blurt out a few questions about why I look the way I do, and where I’m going, but the power balance of the encounter is now in question. And they go back to their friends.

Yet I feel a little guilty about daring to question them back, for the sinister utteration, because it’s out of character for me. I never like to ruin anyone’s fun. Even if it’s at my expense. It’s just that sometimes even lifelong figures of street ridicule need a sick note.


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