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:

latitude-012
latitude-010

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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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