Mr Edwards Mans Up

Monday 24 June 2019. Working slowly on the third chapter of the thesis. It is currently like walking in mud. To stretch the analogy further, one fears either becoming stuck for good or that one’s shoes will come off, leaving our hero looking foolish. Well, why stop now?

This evening I go to the Birkbeck arts department in Gordon Square and attend my Graduate Monitoring Interview for the second year of the PhD. This is an annual check-up with a tutor who is not your supervisor. You can discuss any problems that may have emerged over the past school year, which includes any difficulties with one’s supervisors.

Supervisors often get a bad press, the stereotype often being that they have flings with their students. Even the hip Netflix series Russian Doll continues this rather tired tradition. I’ve never heard of any such goings-on at Birkbeck, though perhaps the less traditional set-up of evening classes and mature students makes that possibility less likely. In real life, the student’s concern is not so much that a supervisor might be too hands-on, but that they’re not hands-on enough. One hears horror stories of supervisors failing to reply to emails for months on end, or of them being too busy for even the briefest meeting, or of them forgetting that their students even exist. In this respect, I have been lucky, as so far mine have been perfectly responsive. The problems I have had are entirely my own fault: wobbles of doubt, worries over my abilities, bouts of procrastination. 

So that’s what we discuss tonight. The tutor I have for this meeting, Dr Owen, suggests a useful motto: ‘write ugly words first’. Don’t worry about the quality of the first draft. Just hit the word count. Only afterwards, during the editing stage, are you allowed to turn it into The Great Gatsby. This may be an obvious lesson, but I still have problems learning it.

**

Thursday 27 June 2019. I give a tour of Birkbeck for my friend Sonja T and her daughter Daisy. Daisy is about 18, and is keen to do a degree. She’s apprehensive of the competitive side of being among her own generation, so the mixed-age aspect of Birkbeck appeals. Indeed, the class discussions are much more interesting as a result: glimpses of different domestic situations, of people with different daytime jobs, of people who’ve already had long lives and are now topping up their intellect, and of younger people who can be surprising with their choices of favourite texts. Brideshead Revisited was one such book on my BA course: despite its snobbishness and sentimentality, the younger students, including girls of ethnic and religious minorities, could not get enough of it. It was the character of Sebastian Flyte they liked: for all his wealth and privilege he is still a troubled young person, struggling with sexuality, family and faith. No shortage of that in the world, whatever the background. 

I also remain a fan of the 1980s TV adaptation, the influence of which could be seen in an episode of Killing Eve recently. When Villanelle turns up in Oxford, she dresses in what she imagines is an Oxford boy look: light shirt, brown slacks and a cream tie, with a cricket jumper knotted over her shoulders. According to the costume designer, this was a deliberate nod to Anthony Andrews as Sebastian in the TV Brideshead.

**

Friday 28 June 2019: I have a rule on not going to any festivals unless I am invited to appear. It rubs in my own sense of failure otherwise.

**

Saturday 29 June 2019. I read Bret Easton Ellis’s White, his new collection of essays. I’d been enjoying his podcasts, with his soft-spoken monologues railing against the world. So I was interested to see how he would render them into prose. Sadly the result on the page is a shapeless rant lacking any sense of cohesion. It doesn’t help when he admits a tendency to go on Twitter in the middle of the night fuelled by ‘a mixture of insomnia and tequila’. That says it all. To update Capote, that’s not writing, that’s tweeting. 

Still, there’s something in his theory that the hyper 1980s world of his novel American Psycho has come to pass on today’s social media, with the valorising of ‘likes’ and dislikes’ and the posting of photographs of one’s restaurant meals.

**

The Women’s Football World Cup has becoming immensely popular this year. I don’t know much about football, but I like Megan Rapinoe’s hair.

**

Saturday 6 July 2019. I see Yesterday at the Everyman cinema in King’s Cross. This turns out to be in the rather soulless new buildings to the north of the Granary Square development. The film has a bizarre premise about a struggling singer-songwriter waking up in a world where the Beatles never existed, except in his memory. So he goes about becoming a pop star by passing off their songs as his own. Unlike Groundhog Day, the magical conceit isn’t properly connected to the love story, so the latter feels added to pad out the film. However, the lead actor Himesh Patel’s rendition of ‘In My Life’ – simple and sincere – quite takes me by surprise, and I’m in floods of tears when he does it.

**

Sunday 7 July 2019. The day after Pride, Holborn tube platform is covered in little silver gas canisters, as well as the discarded box they came in. This reveals that the objects are manufactured as ‘cream chargers’, intended to go in dispensers of whipped cream. Not here, though. The gas, nitrous oxide, can be sniffed (once decanted into a balloon) to produce a legal high. But not a harmless one: there’s reports of the things causing permanent nerve damage, breathing problems, and even death from asphyxiation. I’m more grumpy about the litter aspect. Knock yourself out, just be tidy when you do it.

Nitrous oxide is better known as laughing gas. With the clown-like Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, the idea of his Britain being one where the drug of choice is laughing gas might read as a corny political metaphor. That’s the trouble with reality. It’s so badly written.

**

Monday 8 July 2019. Going in through the barriers at Dalston Junction tube station, a woman going the other way calls out my name. This turns out to be Suzy Woods, with whom I was at Great Cornard Upper School, Suffolk in 1989, last seen briefly at a Spearmint gig in Brighton circa 1999. Suzy has two hulking teenage boys in tow. ‘These are my sons’.

**

Tuesday 9 July 2019. The strangest catcall in my life – which for me is saying something. An grey-haired, red-faced man passing me in Covent Garden today: ‘You’re not in France, you’re in Britain!’. I am wearing my usual cream linen suit and tie. Still, à chacun son goût.

It’s since occurred to me that he might be one of the slightly crazed pro-Brexit protestors that are currently a common sight in central London, often walking to or from the protests at Downing Street and Parliament. The Pro-Brexit lot are usually found installed next to an equally passionate group of anti-Brexit protestors, kept apart by a few bored-looking police officers. I think of Quentin Crisp’s quote from the late 1970s: ‘protest has become a game any number can play’. I also keep thinking of that phrase in Decline and Fall, used for the Bullingdon Club: ‘confused roaring’.  That rather sums up what’s going on in Britain now: a huge amount of confused roaring.

**

Weds 10 July 2019. Last week of summer term, and my last supervisory meeting of the academic year. I’ve agreed to crank out at least 1000 words a week from July 22 onwards, after a proper break.

**

Friday 12 July. To the Rio for The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy. It’s entertaining at first, but when the characters start making comments about being in a film, my patience evaporates. Blazing Saddles or Airplane might be able to do such a thing, but this film isn’t in the same league. It’s one big indulgent shrug. Not awful, just inert (there’s a comment for the poster).

**

Saturday 13 July 2019. Another auteur horror film at the Rio: Midsommar. Unlike The Dead Don’t Die, the aesthetic in this case cares about its viewers. It slowly pulls one into a hyper-sunny world, about a sinister pagan community in rural Sweden. As the film goes on, the flowers pulsate with CGI irises, and the film’s own colours become as bleached as the linen frocks. There’s an upsetting moment of two of violence, which has a couple of people at the Rio walking out (I’ve heard some have even fainted), and which is arguably unnecessary. A further criticism is that the debt to The Wicker Man prevents the film from being entirely original. But Midsommar’s confidence in its own vision is spellbinding. After it’s over I have to take time to adjust to the normal world, as I did with The Neon Demon. This is the highest compliment one can pay: a film that can shift reality.  

**

Sunday 14 July 2019. I read Fabulosa! by Paul Baker, a new book on Polari, the historical gay slang. Baker’s other two books on the subject came out a while ago; I’ve read those too. One is an academic linguistic study, the other a straightforward dictionary, beefed up with more general gay slang. I was once going to write a book on the subject myself. One of the reasons I didn’t is that, as Baker proved, there’s not quite enough on the topic to fill a whole book on its own. Polari makes for a good magazine article, or a few pages in a book on gay history, but that’s about it. Where it does come in handy is when it’s used as a way in to the wider story of homosexual social life during times of criminalisation. This is what Baker focuses on with this new book, adding his own life story into the mix.

I’m especially fascinated by a section on a late 1990s debate in the pages of Boyz, the free magazine in gay bars (in which I once appeared, though not as one of the nude pin-ups). In this debate, the magazine polled its readers for their views on reviving Polari, and by extension on camp in general. There’s evidence for an anti-camp attitude among gay men from at least as early as the 1930s; it’s also in Angus Wilson’s novels of the 1950s, with the rise of straight-acting ‘golden spivs’, not unlike the Kray twins. In the 1990s the surge in interest in indie rock gave rise to gay indie nights in London like Popstarz and Club V. One consequence was letters to Boyz like those in Baker’s book, which railed against gay men for listening to Kylie Minogue.

Why does camp persist now? Why are there TV programmes about drag queens in 2019? My answer would be because there’s still a sense of rules about what ‘normal’ looks like. A rainbow flag on a town hall may say ‘we are fine with LGBT people’, but by implication it also says ‘LGBT people are not the “we”’. Camp responds to the idea that there’s still a ‘normal’, and has fun in the process. As Judith Butler puts it, camp is ‘working the trap’. The only thing that would really make camp die out would be a world in which everyone was exactly the same.

**.

Monday 15 July. To the Rio for a third horror film with an arty aesthetic. This time, In Fabric. I find Peter Strickland’s faux-1970s stylings impressive, but am not convinced they sustain a whole film. As with The Dead Don’t Die,there’s a detached indifference that tests one’s patience. I’m glad these films exist and get made – they are, after all, art rather than commerce – but I prefer Midsommar’s more immersive approach.

**

Weds 17 July 2019. Trying to calm myself with the thought of Boris PM with the phrase ‘interesting times’. Either that or the end of Planet of the Apes.

**

Thursday 18 July 2019. Vita & Virginia at the Empire Haymarket. Mrs Woolf is played by the towering Elizabeth Debicki. I’m reminded of the line in Alan Bennett’s play Forty Years On about Woolf being proud of winning the Evening Standard Award for the Tallest Woman Writer of 1927, ‘an award she took by a neck from Elizabeth Bowen’.

Also today: the Kiss My Genders exhibition at the Hayward. Lots of portraits of gender-bending figures, some of which, like Luciano Castelli’s androgyne in sparkling gold, seem very up-to-date, but turn out to be from the 1970s.

Friday 19 July 2019. To Knole mansion on a whim, inspired by seeing the house in Vita & Virginia the day before. This takes a mere 23 mins on the train from London Bridge to Sevenoaks, in Kent. Then one has to walk (or get a taxi) from the north of Sevenoaks, through the town, to get to Knole on the southern side. The rooftop views are startling: straight out of Orlando, with the deer in the grounds and the countryside going back for miles all around. The gatehouse has been converted into a sub-museum of its own, recreating the 1920s rooms of Eddy Sackville-West, the gay cousin who inherited Knole in place of Vita, even though she grew up as a child there. As Orlando satirises, she was disinherited purely by being female. A letter from Vita is quoted on a panel, on what she thought Eddy had done to Knole: ‘It made me cross; it was all so decadent, theatrical, and cheap. And Eddy himself mincing in black velvet. I don’t object to homosexuality, but I do hate decadence.’ It takes me a minute to realise that Vita, no stranger to same-sex love herself, used the word ‘homosexuality’ to mean men only.

There are signs in the grounds at Knole asking visitors people not to pet the fawns, ‘as this confuses their mothers’. I’d have thought mothers being confused by their offspring was an occupational hazard. Particularly in the case of the sort of people who lived at Knole.

The café at the house is so busy that I walk back into Sevenoaks to get something to eat (fish and chips at the Chequers pub, the staff kind and charming).

**

I read Normal People by Sally Rooney, the biggest-selling literary novel of the moment. There’s a story in the news that the most played song on UK radio since 2000 is ‘Chasing Cars’ by Snow Patrol.  Normal People is the literary equivalent. It’s tasteful, competent, well-crafted, and able to appeal to a huge amount of people. It seems designed not to put anyone off. And that rather puts me off.  

The main idea of this novel – checking in with an everyman-ish couple over a period of years – rather recalls One Day by David Nicholls, another massive-seller, except with the quotation marks taken out. There’s no spikiness or oddness. For me, it’s too… normal. 

**

Tuesday 23 July 2019. Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister. Reality has officially eaten itself. It seems that there is no amount of gaffes, ineptitude and misconduct that can stop him. In giving up his journalism to be PM, Mr J has had to take a substantial pay cut. That says it all.

Perhaps Brexit really is the last gasp of the old ways. The photos of Boris meeting the Queen show him absolutely in his element – though according to the Sunday Times even the Queen has apparently voiced her concerns. Still, in a culture of ‘confused roaring’, of laughing gas canisters, of a babyish obsession with colourful characters, who else is there?

**

Thursday 25 July 2019. A ludicrously hot day in London: 37 degrees. I decide against braving the tube, and instead work at home, followed by seeing Varda By Agnes in the air-conditioned Rio basement. Still feel so lucky to have a cinema on my doorstep.

**

Saturday 27 July 2019. Only You at the Rio. A low budget British drama about a couple’s relationship, and how they try for a baby against the odds. Despite the gritty realism, I can only see the couple as a couple of actors. Still, the IVF injections seem real enough – and very unpleasant. I really had no idea that women put themselves through such ordeals. In the educational respect, at least, the film is a success.

**

Wednesdays 31 July 2019. I finally get around to reading Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936). Quite a wry introduction by Jeanette Winterson, saying that the book is now mainly read by students. What really interests me is the story of TS Eliot, Dylan Thomas and others championing the book while trying to play down its camper, gayer aspects. This was not so much out of homophobia as the desire to get Nightwood taken as seriously as The Waste Land. Which is where my research comes in: campness as thought to be incompatible with serious art, because of the element of humour. Or rather, queer humour, and so the wrong kind. 

**

Thursday 1 August 2019. A book event at Burley Fisher Books: Savannah Knoop, Lee Relvas, Linda Stupart and Isabel Waidner. There’s a volatile, disruptive, older woman in the audience with a loud voice and wild, staring eyes, whom I’d seen shouting at passers-by on the Kingsland Road earlier. I assume she hasn’t come for a free literary event so much as just wandered into the bookshop off the street. But perhaps I am wrong. At the event she’s given the benefit of the doubt by the staff, and is provided with a seat, albeit with much ‘shush!’-ing when she occasionally shouts over a speaker. Linda S sits down to talk with the woman afterwards, which makes me feel guilty for tending to avoid such people pre-emptively, fearing as I do sudden violence. I suppose I also think, ‘one of us has to be mentally stable here, and it sure as hell isn’t going to be me’.

Roz K, Jonathan N, Laura B also here. Savannah Knoop reads a piece on their experiences in a gym. With their non-binary pronouns and self-designed clothes, a mixture of Dickensian rags, Alice skirts, and lycra, Knoop is a good example of a gender-neutral dandy.

**

Saturday 3 August 2019. To the Rio for a screening of JT Leroy, the dramatization of Girl Boy Girl, Savannah Knoop’s memoir. There’s a nice parallel here with Vita & Virginia. Both films have scenes in which a woman writer gets a camera and takes photos of a (rather wary) androgynous friend, in order to represent a fictional character. Just as Virginia Woolf used Vita Sackville-West as Orlando, Laura Albert used Savannah Knoop as JT LeRoy. In JT LeRoy, though, Savannah hints at the more exploitative aspects of the arrangement, yet still tries to be sympathetic to Ms Albert’s need for artistic ventriloquism.    

By way of balance, I also watch The Cult of JT Leroy on Amazon Video, a more investigative documentary in which Laura Albert is called everything from ‘predatory’ to ‘ill’ to ‘evil’ to ‘genius’. What with Author, the documentary that presents Albert’s own take, it’s fascinating that there’s now at least three films telling exactly the same story from different sides. One can imagine a Borges-like situation in which every possible real life narrative, however mundane, is turned into an infinite number of documentaries and dramatisations, each one edited to represent every possible take. There is no such thing as the truth, only a forking path.    

**

Monday 5 August 2019. I read an interview in the Guardian with Noel Gallagher. Typically the focus is less on music as it is on celebrity gossip, as in his broken relationship with his brother Liam. He calls Liam’s solo music ‘unsophisticated music for unsophisticated people’. This is probably fair, but in the same interview he admits to never having heard of gender fluidity: ‘What’s that? I know what gender I am – Mancunian’. It’s probably too much to expect Noel Gallagher to be au courant with the theories of Judith Butler, but if he thinks himself to be more ‘sophisticated’ than his brother, a little more curiosity about the world is surely in order.  Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a good (and short) introduction to the subject of gender fluidity, and one which other rock stars have manage to endorse, namely Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein. So there’s no excuse. I used to enjoy Mr Gallagher’s music, and indeed his interviews, but now I worry when I see intelligent people making jokes about being ignorant. If the legacy of Britpop means laddish incuriosity as something to aspire to, then speed its death.

Still, this all says rather more about me than Noel G. I’m less curious these days about rock music and more curious about books, so that’s a kind of ignorance on my part. I feel I have to be epicene to be believed.

**

Thursday 8 August 2019. Today I find myself delving into the Terry Pratchett archive at Senate House Library, by way of a diversion from my own research. I’m working in the library anyway, and stumble upon the Pratchett items as part of the integrated catalogue. One item intrigues me, so I call it up to take a look. It’s a printed manual for a 1991 computer training course, ‘Introduction to Word For Windows 3.1’.  The manual uses licensed extracts from Good Omens, the 1990 fantasy novel written by Pratchett with Neil Gaiman (and lately adapted for TV).

In the manual, the extracts are presented as raw text with which to teach the correction of typos, play with fonts and paragraph breaks, and so on. Quite why the manual used a copyrighted novel rather than one from the public domain (like Dickens), I don’t know. But the screenshots of pre-Web computer programs fascinates me: so inelegant in their two-colour blockiness. And those floppy disks and diskettes to save the files upon: cutting-edge materials then, now obsolete and difficult to access. This 1991 manual, however, printed on paper, has long outlived the software it was designed to serve. Such manuals are maps of lost worlds.

**

Friday 9 August 2019. A cat-call from three crisp-munching teen boys as I turn a corner in Bloomsbury: ‘Look at THIS c—.’ It could have been worse.

Once again, I think to myself: ‘Still got it!’ (to be sung to the tune of Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’).

**

At Birkbeck’s main building in Torrington Square, one of the men’s toilets has been refurbished and renamed on the door as ‘gender neutral’. Inside, the urinals have gone. The four stalls now have walls and doors running from ceiling to floor. Inside each stall is a bin for sanitary towels, plus an advert for Birkbeck’s counselling service aimed specifically at men. According to the advert, some men might feel that they cannot easily talk about their mental health problems, because they might be told to ‘man up’ and ‘grow a pair’, in the parlance of today. Recently, someone got out a marker pen and scrawled over one of these adverts with the words ‘MAN THE F— UP’.

I wonder if this commentator realises that the phrase they used already appears on the advert underneath, thus justifying its existence in the first place. And what course is this graffiti writer doing, anyway? An MA in self-defeating irony? I wish I could meet this person, if only to tell them that if being unkind and unintelligent is their idea of manliness, then they need to man the f— down.

**
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The Ghost of Fancy Dress Resentment

Tuesday 24 October 2017. I read an speech by Ali Smith on the present importance of the novel. ‘We’re all exiles, and the novel is one of our homes’. She quotes Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight (1937), on the immigrant experience: ‘The roofs that you see are not built for you’.

The trouble is, London’s new roofs are not built for many of the natives, either. I stare up at ‘FiftySevenEast’, the soaring new block by Dalston Kingsland station. I wonder what sort of people will live there. Anyone who badly needs a home full stop, like the growing number of beggars around the station? Anyone who’s lived in London for years? Anyone at all?

**

Wednesday 25 October 2017. An update to my earlier entry. I remembered how computer printer paper once came as ugly perforated scrolls, with dots along the sides and mysterious green stripes throughout. I’m now informed that this paper was commonly used to print tables of numbers, so each line was more readable when the alternate lines were striped green. Contrary to Genesis, in the beginning was the number.

I definitely recall seeing literary manuscripts on this sort of paper in the past. It’s so easy to forget about old ways which are not quite so old. Typewriters and Tippex did not graduate directly to today’s A4 print outs, but it somehow feels that they did.

Spend late morning and early afternoon in the London Library. Richard Canning’s introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Firbank’s Vainglory crams an impressive amount of research into a small space. I’m also fascinated that Professor Canning once performed in an Oxford student comedy team, the Seven Raymonds, along with Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. There’s a connection there in terms of trying to do humour in a modernist way; Stewart Lee’s jazz-like repetition of whole phrases isn’t so far from Gertrude Stein.

I surprise myself by hitting this week’s PhD goal in terms of word count. And it’s only Wednesday. Then again, I did the same on the MA in the final weeks: hitting a state of despair at falling behind, but then following it with an intense burst of speeding up. New bouts of energy and concentration suddenly arrive, but from where? The reservoir of sheer panic, one supposes.

Evening: To Gordon Square for a seminar on writing abstracts for academic conferences. I’m given lots of feedback on my own tentative attempt at an abstract. It’s for a forthcoming conference in the nearby Senate House Library, on ‘Queer Publishing’. One thing I’ve noticed is that some professional scholars seem to submit clumsily written abstracts, confident that their name will get them included regardless. It’s difficult to imagine Zizek being unsuccessful with a submission. Academia, like everywhere else, has its celebrities. The subtext of this being, obviously, that I’d quite like to be one myself.

**

Thursday 26 October 2017. A Boots optician’s bill for £260. And that’s with the student discount. This is for ‘varifocal’ lenses. It seems my eyesight has taken a turn for the worse. The cheap option is carry two pairs of spectacles everywhere, one for reading, one for distance. Or I can fork out for the all-in-one varifocals. I don’t have a spare £260. What to do? Develop a squint?

Evening: To Gordon Square for two seminars. One is on critical theory, specifically Franco Moretti’s rather subjective but intriguing Graphs, Maps, Trees. Then there’s a lecture by the theatre scholar Aiofe Monks, on theatrical ‘virtuosity’ in relation to ‘bad art’.

We’re shown a video of a Michael Flatley show, in which the Irish dancer stages an interpretation of the Easter Rising through the medium of tap dance. It’s like the ‘Springtime for Hitler’ scene in The Producers, except that Flatley’s audience are cheering and applauding. My own audience, being PhDs in a classroom that once was Virginia Woolf’s house, are culturally rather closer to the Producers audience. We may not be shocked about the tastelessness, but we’re wincing and trying our best not to giggle.

This is one of the points of Dr Monks’s lecture. Being not just a scholar of theatrical forms but Irish herself, she talks about being a schoolgirl and watching Flatley’s star-making moment on TV in the early 90s, as in the ‘Riverdance’ interval act in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. Back then, she says, this single TV appearance engendered a communal feeling of excitement for lovers of Irish culture and Irish dance the world over. Previously the dance style was purely amateur: now, overnight, it was professional, respected, and visible for the whole world.

But later on, and after gaining her education, Dr M went to see one of Mr Flatley’s Las Vegas-style shows, and found them trashy, ridiculous, even hilarious. Technically he’s impressive: no one would deny that he dances extremely well. It’s just everything else that irks: the corny production and the garish choice of themes. Such shows are, to an academic critic or to anyone possessing what Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘cultural capital’, demonstrably Bad Art.

Except, of course, it’s also Successful Art, and that’s the problem for scholars. How can one explain why more fans of Irishness buy Michael Flatley tickets than they do copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses? It’s the same dilemma addressed by the critic Carl Wilson in his book Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. Wilson has to come to terms with the fact that Celine Dion (Bad Art) has sold more albums than most of the albums by the Beatles (Good Art). Wilson is Canadian, like Ms Dion, so there’s a conflict over national pride too.  I imagine that if one’s an expert on Irishness in contemporary theatre, Flatley is the tap-dancing elephant in the room.

I think of Edmund Wilson using the term ‘Bad Art’ to describe HP Lovecraft’s horror fiction in 1945. Lovecraft’s work is now considered to be culturally important and influential. Indeed, Dr M wonders tonight if her problem – and any scholar’s problem – is just one of not enough time having passed. Were Flatley performing in the 1850s, say, his work would be far easier to judge in a cultural and historical context, away from questions of taste and cultural capital and the things that scholars believe are canonically Good or Bad. And one wouldn’t feel such an ugly sense of snobbery. History dissolves snobbery.

**

Saturday 28 October 2017. Trying to catch up with the world of films, I see three in three days. Tonight it’s Daphne at the ICA. This is a low budget drama set in contemporary London, in which a young, red-haired, middle class woman mopes and sulks around the city in a rather nice blue coat. Sometimes she lies on a sofa and reads books by Slavoj Zizek, though she doesn’t know how to pronounce his name properly (and I’m not sure if the makers realise this). There is one plot of sorts, involving Daphne witnessing a stabbing in an off-license, along with another concerning her strained relationship with her mother, as played by Geraldine James. But the whole effect is disconnected and unsatisfying. No theme or plot seems to have been put through even a minimum level of development. It’s as if they’ve accidentally released a collection of first drafts as a finished film. I come away in troubleshooter mode like this, knowing that the film could have been improved, and wondering why it wasn’t. The answer, I suppose, is that the makers were happy with the end product, and that it’s just me. It’s funny how taste can engender loneliness.

**

Sunday 29 October 2017. A delicious veggie brunch at Dalston Superstore with Kath G. It’s nearly Halloween, and the drag queen on the DJ decks has managed to add some zombie make-up to her usual palimpsest of panstick. It’s more accomplished than the common look I saw on the Tube the previous night: people whose costumes solely consisted of half-hearted skull make-up. Hastily scrawled black lines on white faces. The bare, grumpy minimum. ‘Who have you come as? ‘The Ghost of Fancy Dress Resentment’.

A Twitter game doing the rounds: one calculates one’s ideal Halloween costume by taking one’s own greatest fear and making it into a sexy version. I nominate ‘Sexy Manila Envelope’.

Afternoon: to the Rio for The Ballad of Shirley Collins, a new documentary on the Sussex folk singer, now in her 80s and living in Lewes. She retired some years ago, a move triggered by the strange loss of her voice after the trauma of her husband leaving her (which sounds like a folk song in itself).

This is a very well-made and thoughtful film, and lets its choices of what to see do much of the narration. A case in point is a glimpse at an MBE in a box, made without comment, along with shots of various objects on Ms Collins’s bookshelves and mantelpieces. One object is a box set of EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books. Because of my interest in Firbank, I tend to think of Mapp and Lucia in the lineage of camp English literature. Benson is more traditional than Firbank, but they share a love of female characters speaking in arch and campy ways. In Shirley Collins’s case, though ,it’s probably the books’ association with Sussex that appeals: Benson’s fictional ‘Trilling’ is based on Rye.

**

Monday 30 October 2017. To the Rio for The Death Of Stalin. The directior is Armando Ianucci, who is now a big enough comedy name to attract other big names: Michael Palin, Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs. The presence of Paul Whitehouse as one of the Russian ministers reminds me of a sketch in a recent Harry and Paul special, where Mr Enfield managed to play Alan Bennett as Stalin and Jim Broadbent as a Russian officer. The odd thing about The Death of Stalin is that it seems to be trying to not have a style at all, probably because it’s funded by French investors. The comedy is mainly in the madness of the historical facts and in its broad slapstick, rather than the language. There are little nods to the style of The Thick of It (government staffers swearing a lot), while Jason Isaac’s thick Northern English accent as the head of the Russian army is surely a purely British joke. But otherwise the emphasis is on making a funny film where the humour will translate internationally.

In this way, it’s closer to The Lobster than The Thick of It: a film in English which comes across as translated from a foreign script. I later discover that the source material is a French graphic novel, so that must be at least part of the reason. The film is worth it for the sight of a respected stage actor like Simon Russell Beale ramming his formidable stomach against Steve Buscemi’s, as part of a drunken argument. The scene is slapstick and silly, and well beneath the talents of either actor, but it’s still funny.

**

Tuesday 31st October 2017. Halloween. I welcome the way this utterly American festival – which first seem to percolate over here with the film E.T. – has forced London shops to mercifully put back their Christmas branding until November. However, I have to take a Canute-like stand in one respect: I can’t yet call chocolate bars ‘candy’.

**

Wednesday 1st November 2017. I read the late Peter Hall’s diary entry for this day in 1977. It was his trip to Buckingham Palace to receive his knighthood. The ceremony seems unchanged from the one  I witnessed in July 2008, for my mother’s MBE. Sir Peter lined up in the same long, unbroken parade of recipients in alphabetical order, all to meet the same royal who stands in the same spot for a full hour and half. The royal is somehow able to say something interesting and special to each one of over a hundred people. In his case it was the Queen Mother, managing this feat in her late seventies. Like me Sir Peter H also records, ungraciously, that ‘we should have been given a drink’.

**

Thursday 2nd November 2017. To Gordon Square for a seminar on bibliographies, followed by a lecture on speech acts in the age of slavery. The seminar refers to Umberto Eco’s 1977 book How To Write A Thesis. Eco’s book now works as a historical reminder of the way things used to be for PhDs, in the days before computers. He advises students to create a bibliography using alphabetical cards kept in a box file, and that they should take such a box with them every time they go to a library. At first it seems easy to scoff at this vision of the bulky awkwardness of the past, but then today’s students are not exactly unburdened either. Laptops are still fairly heavy, and hardback books and thick pads of paper are very much in use. It’s not uncommon to see huge backpacks and wheeled suitcases in a university library. Despite all the advances in digital convenience, people are still physically weighed down by their work. Why isn’t the future easier?

**

Friday 3rd November 2017. With Ms Shanthi to Mangal 2, one of the many likeable and unintimidating Turkish restaurants on the Kingsland Road (I am easily intimidated in restaurants). I’d heard that this is Gilbert and George’s regular haunt, though Shanthi says they only come here on Tuesdays, and that when they do they use the back entrance. O, the mythologies of artists! Minutes after we sit down, in comes the alliterative duo themselves, greyer these days but still very recognisable, the smaller one wearing a furry Russian hat, even though it’s quite mild. Through the front door too. Shanthi glances over at them as we eat, and afterwards swears that they didn’t speak a word to each other throughout.

A younger, long-haired man comes into the restaurant with a paperback ostentatiously protruding from his jeans pocket: Iron John: A Book About Men. Everyone’s discussing the Trouble With Men as it is, what with the news dominated by tales of sexual harassment.

Then to the Rio for a rather more edifying tale of male sexuality. Call Me By Your Name is a sun-kissed, understated film about sexual obsession, set in the Italian countryside in the early 80s (Ms S especially enjoys the use of the Psychedelic Furs). A skinny boy in his late teens becomes attracted to a (very) grown man in his twenties, though the desire is complicated. The younger actor is remarkable. He is devoted to the part not on a tiresomely overdone and ‘actorly’ level, but on a level of focus and diligence which makes one want to work harder oneself.  I suspect everyone who sees this film thinks of two scenes towards the end, one with a long speech from the boy’s father (a character not unlike Umberto Eco), and one based around a phone call which brings me to tears.

**

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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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Getting To

Friday 14 July 2017. I’m clearing out boxes of old clutter, in preparation for moving house. Today I go through a folder of old song drafts and unused lyrics. One idea for an album title, from 2002 is ‘The Ladybird Book of Resentment’.

***

Saturday 15 July 2017. The big move. I still have two boxes of clutter to go through, but time has run out. So the boxes have to come with me, to be tackled some other day.

At 10am Ms J arrives with her white van, which has a tendency to stall. ‘You have to give it twenty minutes, then it’ll be okay’.

There are more slapstick antics when we’re loading the van and Ms J somehow receives a cut on the hand (no good turn goes unpunished). As it turns out, she carries plasters with her at all times: she works with the Girl Guides.

A single van load covers my twenty-three years of possessions – though that’s after I’d spent the week paring them down. We trundle cautiously along the full length of the Holloway Road, then it’s Eastward Ho, turning left into the Balls Pond Road. Soon after this, we turn left again into the Dalston and Stoke Newington borderlands. My new street is partly in N16, partly in E8. At the end, the satnav demands a turning that makes no sense. So I take enormous delight in ignoring it.

My new landlady Ms K comes out to help unload, as does Ms Shanthi. So I move in with the aid of three women: the Three Graces of Removals. My new room comes with an antique bureau, which suits me perfectly.

Shortly after I’m unpacked I walk out onto Kingsland High Street for the first time. It’s a warm Saturday evening, about 8pm. I’m wearing my linen suit trousers with braces and no jacket. A dressed-up group of men and woman in their thirties pass me, probably on their way to a bar or a restaurant. One of the women grabs one of my braces as she passes, and pings it. This is the full extent of the encounter. She says nothing by way of annotation, not even to her friends. I’m left slightly shocked and confused.

I wonder if this means my appearance is already too much for Dalston, mere hours after I move in. But then, walking south and passing Dalston Kingsland Overground station, I see the sort of person the area is meant to be notorious for. He is a tall man with floppy greying hair, glasses, and a beard. In his hair are two pink ribbon bows. I wonder if the braces-pinging woman would grab at those. Perhaps not: he has the confidence of the 2017 hipster about him.

Still, I get another kind of welcome. I look in at Dalston Superstore, the gay bar which doubles as a café during the day. It currently has a fascinating exhibition of qay London history. There’s party invites going back to 1920, private letters, and a photo of Quentin Crisp.

***

Sunday 16 July. To Café Oto for a talk by Val Wilmer, the veteran music writer and photographer, notably of black American jazz musicians. I bump into various Wire Magazine types, including Frances May Morgan.

***

Friday 21 July 2017. The first of what will surely be many trips to the Rio cinema, given it’s on my doorstep. I go with Shanthi to see The Beguiled, a Civil War drama starring Nicole Kidman. Colin Farrell is forced to stay at a girls-only boarding school. It’s no surprise that this situation doesn’t turn out well. Sophia Coppola maintains her usual unearthly atmosphere, though very much with a Female Gaze in evidence, more so than The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation. We also have a meal at The Stone Cave nearby, a quirky Turkish restaurant which really does look like a cave (fibreglass, I’m told).

***

A quote from Hunter S Thompson: ‘Everybody is looking for someone who can stand up in the wind. It is lonely standing up and crowded lying down.’ (from Proud Highway, 1994).

***

Friday 28 July 2017. To the Rio to see Christopher Nolan’s new film, Dunkirk, with Ewan B. I find it hard to persuade any female friends to join me, their reason being a dislike of Mr Nolan’s style. This is reasonable enough. His films do tend to be overtly interested in the struggles of men in harsh, often paranoid situations. Women, if there are any, exist at the mercy of said men. A war film by Nolan promises to be even more male-heavy. And so it proves: the only line uttered by a woman in Dunkirk is ‘Cup of tea, love?’

Nolan’s aesthetic tends to also be one of architectural tidiness. The most recent cinematic depiction of the Dunkirk evacuation was Atonement, with its five-minute shot gliding around a cluttered and muddy beach, teeming with soldiers, horses being executed, bonfires, bandstands and seaside rides. Messy, in a word. In Nolan’s Dunkirk, even the chaos is tidy. Soldiers queue up in nice lines along vanishing points, or collapse to the ground in perfect choreography. Kafka at the ballet.

We emerge to a real-life mess of conflict: the aftermath of a small riot on Kingsland Road. Like a Nolan film, the riot seems to have been contained along the long straight line of the high street (one of the straightest roads in London – possibly Roman). It’s all over when we come out of the cinema, so I have to read local news reports to find out what happened.

The death of Rashan Charles, a young black man who died in police custody, led to a protest outside the off-licence where he was arrested. Some of the protestors then blockaded the whole road with bins, cones and mattresses. When the police arrived, bottles and fireworks were thrown. The officers later returned with heavier reinforcements: helicopters, dogs, horses, armoured riot squads, dozens of vans. The blockade was pushed further north– like a World War rout – where it seems the protestors were bested; though not before several shop windows and cash machines were smashed. Only one person was arrested.

Though virtually ignored by the national media, the skirmish was enough for some emporia to lock their customers inside with them while it was going on (I refuse to write ‘while it was kicking off’). One patron of Dalston Superstore said that seeing the goings-on from the inside of a gay bar was like watching The Line of Duty soundtracked by Abba.

***

Having lived here for three weeks, I know that Dalston is not quite the overtly bohemian paradise its present reputation would have one believe, but it’s also not the multicultural, inner city locale it used to be either. It’s more like a multiverse, a patchwork of different worlds. All of London is like that, but Dalston has a more concentrated version.

Thinking how the 2011 summer riots spread from an incident similar to Rashan Charles’s death, I wonder what’s changed. Perhaps the patchwork quality of Dalston works as a kind of protection: no single world can take over for very long (except the world of the police). Or perhaps it’s now hard for a riot to spread in an era of constant distraction. Even anarchy needs a sense of focus. Or perhaps, as some people have said, tempers were doused by the heavy rain the next day.

***

Wednesday 9 Aug 2017. I take a break from my dissertation and meet Mum for afternoon tea at the Academicians’ Room, in the Royal Academy. We’re the guests of Minna M. I like how the Club has its own entrance, to the right of the main RA doors in the Piccadilly courtyard. It’s the Brideshead Revisited phrase, following on from The Secret Garden and Alice in Wonderland: ‘that low door in the wall’. The V&A Member’s Room is hidden behind a wall of mirrors.

The British Library in St Pancras has opened its own plush Members’ bar (a bar in a library!).  Private members’ clubs seem to be more popular than ever, possibly thanks to Soho House. I wonder if the rise of non-places, like franchise cafes and transport plazas, makes people yearn for places steeped in uniqueness. There’s so much emphasis on the identity of humans, while the identity of places is often overlooked.  And yet the two are connected. Being a member of a place is a declaration of identity. I used to acquire my own identity from being a fan of bands. Now I get it from being a fan of places.

***

Thursday 10 Aug 2017. Notes on language. Saying ‘you get to’ do something, rather than ‘you can’, is becoming widespread. In the news today, a young American woman describes her battle to stop a corporation running some sort of pipeline through her neighbourhood. She says, ‘This isn’t a protest you get to come home from’.

I wonder why she says ‘get to’. ‘Get to’ has more overtones of permission than ‘can’, but specifically it’s a child’s permission. ‘On Friday I get to stay up late’. ‘If you don’t do your homework, you don’t get to watch TV’. There’s an aura of youthful irony about the usage, but also the implication that all adults are now permanent children, with the real ‘parents’ being systems, institutions, networks. There may also be a touch of gaming language, along the lines of using ‘it’s all kicking off’ to describe a riot. See also ‘achievement unlocked’ and ‘goals’.

Outside Senate House Library today, an angry woman bellows into her mobile: ‘You don’t get to tell me off for eavesdropping!’

With some irony, I realise that my writing this event down is itself a form of eavesdropping. But then, in an age when people are so used to consuming the intimacies of others, from social media to loud private phone calls made in otherwise silent public spaces, the meaning of eavesdropping has rather changed. Now, whether one likes it or not, one ‘gets to’ be an eavesdropper.


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Slouching Towards Dalston

Monday 29 May 2017. After the self-pity of before, two pieces of good news. My MA essay on horror fiction came back with a distinction mark. The last assessment is the big dissertation, due in September. From the weighting system, I’ve worked out that in order to get a distinction for the whole MA, the dissertation needs to come in at a minimum of 62. So I shouldn’t need to sweat over things too much, in theory. The mark for the horror essay was especially gratifying as it came from Professor Roger Luckhurst, author of introductions for the Oxford Classics editions of Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde and HP Lovecraft: Classic Stories.

The other big news is that I have found and committed to a new rented room. It’s in a Victorian house in Dalston, close to the Rio cinema. The nearest tube is Dalston Kingsland, on the Overground line. The landlady is a friend and fellow Birkbeck graduate. She approached me directly when she heard of my forthcoming eviction, and offered me the room. So that’s one less thing to worry about. I’ll move in mid-July, which will give me time to bevel down 23 years of possessions into a nomadic minimum.

Dalston is a rather different environment to Highgate: more youthful and urban, less of a privileged bubble. I was going to say less leafy too, but I’ve just found out about the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden, a piece of disused railway line turned into a public garden. It will mean a new life of sorts, frequenting places like the Rio, Dalston Superstore, Café Oto, the Arcola Theatre, and the Burley Fisher bookshop.

The Arcola’s current production is Richard III, the only Shakespeare play with a mention of a Dickon. I took that to be an encouraging sign. Though what really swung it was the closeness to the Rio. It’s only now that I’ve realised how much I’ve always wanted to have an Art Deco cinema on my doorstep. And Dalston has that very London sense of crossing borders in time, the old constantly overlaid with the new.

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John Ruskin’s diary for 8th October 1880: ‘No time for anything here but pleasant walks and lessons’. Most of my days have been like that recently. Sitting in libraries, working on the dissertation. The British Library has the best air conditioning. When the temperature soars, as it has of late, that’s where I tend to work. Or lurk.

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Earlier activity:

Wednesday 24 May 2017. With Jon S to the Hampstead Everyman for Alien: Covenant. A spin-off of a spin-off, following on from Prometheus, which in turn was a prequel to Alien. I think. I started to stop caring towards the end, things becoming so formulaic that I didn’t even notice how they got rid of the new alien that one is meant to give a hoot about in the last fifteen minutes. It doesn’t help that the creatures’ CGI-ness somehow becomes more obvious when relayed on a spaceship monitor. At that point it looks like a harmless video game character, not the dripping, gooey creations of the 70s and 80s films that had to be built from latex and servo-motors. In the past special effects had to hide the rubber. Now they have to hide the pixels.

Still, up to this point the film is entertaining enough. Michael Fassbinder is always worth watching, and here he meets his ideal date – himself. ‘I know wheat’ is an actual line of dialogue, as is ‘I’ll do the fingering’. And there’s good news for those who think science-fiction films need more scenes of recorder lessons.

Katherine Waterston is the Tough Woman Lead this time (one remembers that Ridley Scott was also behind Thelma and Louise and G.I. Jane). Though here Ms Waterston’s short bob hairdo and permanently mournful expression make her character more child-like and sensitive-looking, which is to the film’s credit. She looks like she’d be better off playing bass in a late 80s indie band, rather than battling monsters with mouths like Rexel office staplers.

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Thursday 25 May 2017. To Somerset House (specifically the East Wing’s Indigo Rooms), for the private view of Dear Diary: A Celebration of Diaries and Their Digital Descendants. I’d agreed to let the curators use an extract from my diary for a digital screen on the way in. The idea is a different entry from someone’s diary is shown on the screen each day. What I didn’t expect was to see my diary acknowledged more substantially, in a large timeline on a wall. The timeline tells the history of diaries from the invention of writing to the current state of the internet, with the Terminator-like rise of ‘the internet of things’. Along the way there’s Pepys, Anne Frank, and in 1997 the first entry in my own diary. The implication is that mine is thought to be the longest-running of its kind. The earliest web diary is by Carolyn L Burke, who kept hers from 1995 to 2002. She wrote in raw HTML code, as did I at first. Black letters on white.

The bulk of the exhibition manages to address the appeal of paper versus digital, but the print diaries work better emotionally. I feel a shudder when I see the artist Keith Vaughan’s diary is here. It’s a large ledger, opened to the final entry, which records his suicide in the 1970s. Judging by his handwriting, which gets more illegible by the letter, he was writing the entry as the pills took effect:

‘65 was long enough for me. It wasn’t a complete failure. I did some good work…’

Then the letters shrink to a scrawl, and stop. The upside is knowing that he was right about the ‘good work’. Twelve of his paintings are in the Tate’s collection. One of them is currently on display in the Tate Britain’s Queer British Art show.

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Sunday 28 May 2017. To the Odeon Covent Garden for Colossal with Ms Shanthi. Anne Hathaway finds her alcoholic antics in a small American town are connected with the appearance of a giant Godzilla-like monster, which is causing havoc on the other side of the world. There’s a serious message here about the effects of heavy drinking, though viewers might be put off by the lurches in tone, from social realist comedy-drama to a Transformers-like sci-fi thriller, and back again. An odd film, but I admire its nerve. It’s a little like Being John Malkovitch in that respect; difficult to imagine it was allowed to be made it all.

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Rise Of The Floating Yodas

Saturday 6th September 2014.

I spend a day in town with Mum, meeting her off the 1031 train at Liverpool Street. We manage to pack in two exhibitions and one major art installation, along with lunch (stir fried tofu for two on the terrace of the British Library’s restaurant, with hardly anyone else about). First up is the Quentin Blake show at the House of Illustration, one of the buildings in the new Granary Square development, north of King’s Cross station. Like the station itself, the development is an impressive mix of Victorian buildings tidied up and put to new use, alongside scatterings of new architecture: the astroturf steps by the canal, and the matrix of pavement fountains, with their multi-coloured lights.

We investigate the viewing platform set up opposite the square. The usual aluminium panels denoting which building is which are covered in angry comments, scrawled in black ink. Everything in sight is attacked: ‘ugly!’, ‘terrible idea!’, ‘waste of space!’, ‘waste of money!’ The anonymous writer even accuses the sign of getting its facts wrong: ‘NO! That’s on the LEFT, not the RIGHT!’ I check the skyline. The sign is perfectly correct.

I can’t help thinking this is a real-life effect of the vogue to leave angry comments under every piece of information on the internet, and as a matter of course, too. The implied message really being ‘I exist and I am lonely and I want to matter.’ Or put more simply, ‘I troll therefore I am’.

Mum, however, does like Granary Square. She daringly adds her own comment to the graffiti – though she’s careful to do so in pencil: ‘Nonsense! Think positive! Be a Polyanna, not an Eeyore!’

[On Friday the 12th I revisit the viewing platform. The sign is now wiped clean of any graffiti, and is back to normal. This is the equivalent of that most ubiquitous statement on the Guardian site: ‘This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted.’]

* * *

The Quentin Blake show includes a whole room dedicated to Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. Other Blake works on display are his pictures for Voltaire’s Candide, for David Walliams’s Boy In The Dress, and for his own wordless book, Clown. A film reveals that Mr Blake does his drawing standing up, like an architect, and that he uses a light box, not just to trace but because it ‘feels friendly’. Illustration, he says, is about choosing a single moment in a text, then living in it. ‘You own that moment for as long as you like.’

In the gallery shop, Mum impulse-buys Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton, a mad and funny picture book about a naughty dog. Though it’s aimed at the very young, the lesson of self-discipline is all-connecting. I end up getting a copy for myself. Somewhat ironically, the book is hard to resist.

* * *

I show Mum the new Hatchards at St Pancras, fast becoming one of my favourite places to browse. It’s an example of how best to lay out a small bookshop: a little bit of everything, with as much as possible displayed face out, and lots of tempting tables. The new Beano annual (for 2015) is given prominence, and with good reason. The cover shows Dennis the Menace and Gnasher in St Pancras, running to catch the Eurostar.

At the National Portrait Gallery, we take in this year’s BP Portrait contest. Teeming with people. In contrast to the Kings Cross viewing platform, the thoughts of visitors are this time solicited, in the shape of a touchscreen. You tap on the painting you think should have won. I have no idea if the results are collated somewhere, but it gives the sense of feeling like one’s opinion matters, and that’s the true spirit of the age. My favourite painting is by Clara Drummond, ‘Portrait in Blue and Gold’. A second prize would go to ‘Eddie In The Morning’, by Geoffrey Beasley, which Mum is also keen on.

We wander through a corner of Trafalgar Square. At least three things are going on at once. In the main space is the stage for a rally by The People’s March for the NHS (sample slogan: ‘NHS – Everyone’s Concern, Nobody’s Business). In the corner is a busking set by Jake Heading, a pleasant, bespectacled young singer who’s drawn quite a crowd. And a few yards away from him are the usual living statues. Recently there’s been a spate of trompe l’oeil performers in the touristy parts of the city, particularly Floating Yodas. These are people dressed as the little green Muppet-y creature from the Star Wars films, whose costume hides a seat attached to a sturdy pole, so it looks like they are levitating. As we pass, one of the Yodas takes off his rubber mask to mop his streaming brow. ‘Sweatier than it looks, living statue work is’.

* * *

We end the day at the Tower Of London, there to see the red porcelain poppies planted all around the grassy moat. A staggering sea of red. One poppy for each life lost in WW1, arranged so it looks like they’re pouring out of one of the Tower’s windows. The poppies circle the whole Tower, and hundreds of other people are here to get a good look at them too. It may be a simple symbol, but it’s a powerful and unforgettable one.

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Sunday 7th September 2014.

To the St James Theatre Studio in Victoria for a new one-man play: Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope. Written and performed by Mark Farrelly, it’s an interesting indication of where QC’s reputation might be today, fifteen years after his death. Certainly the 80s Sting hit ‘An Englishman In New York’ is heavily relied upon as a qualification. Not only is the song played in the show, but it’s alluded to three times in the limited space of the flyer. I always thought the association was unfair, given Crisp’s dislike of pop music full stop. But I should admit that I’ve never cared for the song itself, its melody and production being too bland for my liking. My apologies to Mr Sting.

Mr Farrelly is rather muscular in comparison with the two main actors who’ve played QC in the past, John Hurt (on film) and Bette Bourne (on stage). He makes me think how a young Laurence Olivier might have approached the role, because his version of Quentin seems as much critical as it is affectionate. It hints at unaddressed layers beneath the surface, perhaps even that Crisp was something of an unreliable narrator. The show is much more of a dramatisation than an impersonation. In fact, the sense of Quentin Crisp playing a part himself is accentuated halfway through, when Mr Farrelly changes clothes and wigs in full view of the audience, going from 1960s London Quentin (retelling the events of The Naked Civil Servant), to 1990s New York Celebrity Quentin (delivering his Messages Of Hope lectures, hence the title: Naked Hope).

There’s also a moment where a member of the audience is asked to get on stage and help him read his question cards, which I’m sure is something the real Crisp never did. At first this seems pure pantomime, just something fun to break up the format of a one-man show. Yet the lingering effect is to remind the audience of the way Crisp would go through the motions, always giving the same answers to questions, as if reading from a script. So Farrelly suggests there might be something not quite so inspirational about that. I disagree. I’m biased, but I think words in themselves can be a sufficient approach to the world, even if they’ve been polished and prepared and repeated so much that they might appear insincere. A good aphorism, like a good story, can retain its own self-contained freshness and sincerity, because it represents pure meaning.

* * *

Tuesday 9th September 2014.

I’m at Senate House Library, reading The Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham. At one point I realise with delight that Senate House itself plays a major part in the novel. It becomes the base camp for the London survivors, being one of the tallest landmarks in the city at the time it was written, circa 1950. I also discover that there’s a Book Bench celebrating the connection outside. It depicts triffids on Tower Bridge. The bench is tucked away amid the foliage by the front of the building, lurking there, as if ready to sting.

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Wednesday 10th September 2014.

The opening line of The Day Of The Triffids is one of the greatest in literature:

‘When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like a Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’

But after that, some lines irritate with their deep 1950s-ness. The hero’s love interest is called Josella Playton, which makes her sound like a lingerie brand. Even the 1980s BBC TV adaptation inserted a scene where she says ‘I’ve always hated the name Josella. Just call me Jo.’

One line of the novel is:

‘His companion was a good-looking, well-built girl with an occasional superficial petulance’.

What exactly does Wyndham mean by ‘well-built’? Curvy? Athletic? Double-glazed? Upholstered? Cantilevered? Or just… waterproof?

* * *

Thursday 11th September 2014.

To Highbury to visit Shanthi S. She gives me a birthday present: The Animals, a fat collection of Isherwood’s letters. Then we walk to the Dalston Rio for Two Days, One Night, a French language film starring Marion Cotillard. The BBFC certification card at the start surely crosses the line from content warning into plot spoiler: ‘Contains one scene of attempted suicide’. So all the cinemagoers are waiting for that. That aside, it’s a very straightforward Ken Loach-esque tale of a factory worker tracking down all her co-workers during one weekend, in order to convince them to vote against her redundancy on the following Monday. The dilemma is that a vote to keep her is also a vote to lose their own bonuses. I felt it was the sort of film that might become socially important as time goes on, but found it a little too straightforward to be properly engaging.


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