He Believes In Beauty

A full week of activity, so much so that I have to stop myself going to new things in order to write about the old ones. Never mind a life/work balance; the trouble with diary writing is that it necessitates a life/writing balance.

Saturday 11th June 2016. The Tube stations are full of posters for summer festivals. I glance across the long lists of band names and logos, recognising one or two. Are they still going? Have they reformed now?

In my twenties I saw as many rock bands as possible. I once hitchhiked to see The Blue Aeroplanes – and slept on a strange man’s floor. Now rock festivals are something other people go to.

How much of action is taste, and how much is it wanting to belong? And why does this change? I ask myself this as I sit on the tube from Highgate to Balham today, at 9am. I am 44 years old and have paid £10 for a ticket to a literary discussion, one on walking in the city. It takes place at 10 o’clock in the morning in a large pub in South London. I was alerted to the talk by a kind staffer at the London Library, who knew it was what I’d been researching lately – flânerie, all that.

I suppose this is the sort of person I am now. Literary festivals in the morning. Book launches in the evening. I rather like them. There might be a little drama over getting microphones to work (‘Can you hear me okay?’ ‘Yes!’, ‘No!’), but that’s usually the sum limit of irritation. That, and the occasional audience member during the Q&A, the kind of who mistakes the word ‘question’ for a five minute recital of their own thesis.

I go to these bookish events quite happily, safe in the knowledge that there will be no trying to sleep in a tent while people kick a football about at 4am. No queuing to use a latrine. No trying to see past a too-tall man in a jester hat (though perhaps they have those at George R R Martin signings, I don’t know). No moshing down the front, not even for AS Byatt.

What literary festivals do have in common with their rock and pop counterparts is that there now seems to be more of them than ever. Perhaps one reason is that the word ‘tickets’ has acquired a whole new aura, thanks to the internet. It’s easy to get hold of a Kate Bush album. Kate Bush tickets, less so.  ‘Tickets’ means something live, something limited in number, something that can sell out, something fixed by time and place, something special. Tickets are proof of the real, anchors of promise, glimpses of satisfaction. As opposed to the empty calories of swiping a screen for hours, and hoping that counts as a life well lived. Tickets are more of a life.

The Balham Literary Festival takes place at The Bedford pub, near the tube station. This may sound modest, but the venue turns out to have a warren of large-ish function rooms upstairs, and there’s several events going on simultaneously. I’m impressed that there are a good 40 or so people in the audience. On top of that, there’s a healthy absence of commercialism. Of the three speakers, only Matthew Beaumont has a book out. Lauren Elkin’s book on the flaneuse, the female walker (which I really want to read and had hoped to pick up), isn’t yet published. Anna-Louise Milne’s book is only available in French. So I come away impressed that these sort of events really do exist for the sheer joy of ideas.

***

Afternoon: a late lunch at Orsini in Thurloe Place, then across the road to the V&A with Heather Malone. We see the big glamorous exhibition on the history of underwear, Undressed. There’s a remarkable photo of George Bernard Shaw modelling long johns, prancing happily on a beach. Heather takes my photo by the sea shell in the foyer, a prop to publicise the Botticelli show. I think of the Bjork song, ‘Venus As A Boy’.

vandashell

***

Monday 13th June 2016. Like many I’m reeling from the news about Orlando, Florida, where a man gunned down the clientele of a gay club. Fifty dead, more wounded. On social media, people post photos of men kissing, in solidarity. There’s a mass gathering in Old Compton Street, which I’d go to had I not a ticket to see another talk, this time at the British Library in St Pancras.

Still, this event concerns gay life in a way – it’s a discussion of the acquisition of Kenneth Williams’s diaries by the BL. One of the speakers is a BL curator, and she describes the fifty years’ worth of diaries as important to gay social history. Lots of genuine Polari in the earlier diaries, before the slang went public in Round the Horne.

David Benson performs selections from the unpublished diaries in his KW voice (and wears the suit from his one man KW show). He has the crowd in stitches. Nicholas Parsons (now 92) recounts memories of Just A Minute and singles out the performance in a Hancock’s Half Hour episode, ‘the one about the test pilot’ (The Diary). NP is convinced that the manic public persona and the depressive diarist were both the ‘real’ KW, caught at different times. Williams himself is quoted as saying, ‘My moods are up and down like a whore’s drawers’.

The curator explains that it will be a while before the later diaries are scanned and made available on the BL’s public website. They have to censor anything that libels the living.

***

Tuesday 14th June 2016. Afternoon: to The Hub gallery in Haddon Street, for a small but quite wonderful exhibition of David Bowie photographs. The street, off Regent’s Street, is the one on the sleeve of the Ziggy Stardust album, and there’s a fair amount of Ziggy-related photos inside, from his early 70s concerts at the Rainbow Theatre, in Finsbury Park.

One photo shoot is from 1989, where an older Bowie returns to the Rainbow Theatre, to promote a greatest hits tour. He stands in front of a montage of his old album sleeves, one hand across his mouth, the other on the mouth of one of the younger Bowies behind him, the long-haired androgyne of Hunky Dory. According to the caption, this is because the Rainbow had become a shelter for the homeless, and Bowie was responding to one of the homeless men who were standing about, watching the photo shoot and firing off questions. ‘Who’s that girl on that cover, there?’ said the man, indicating Hunky Dory. Bowie replied, ‘It’s a girl I used to know’.

My favourite photo is one from 1983, in a Tokyo restaurant. Bowie sits and chats with friends. He’s in his Let’s Dance mode, with bleached yellow hair, three-piece charcoal suit and a tie. Offstage, off duty, yet posing immaculately.

There’s several song lyrics stencilled on the gallery walls. I buy the catalogue (£5, for a cancer charity), and show it to Atalanta later on. She points out how one set of lyrics, from ‘Heroes’, now takes on a new meaning, in the days after the Orlando massacre:

I can remember standing by the wall
And the guns shot above our heads
And we kissed as though nothing could fall

***

Evening: to the Twentieth Century Theatre in Westbourne Grove, for a set of live performances to celebrate John Lee Bird’s exhibition, ‘Before Encore 6’. Mr Bird’s ‘Before Encore’ project has been going for about ten years. It comprises portraits of real people rendered as minimalist line drawings, against backgrounds of bright, single colours. I’d say the style lies halfway between Warhol’s screen prints and Julian Opie’s Miffy-like abstractions of human faces. The project also has a specific aim: to document figures from London’s alternative club scenes. These can be musicians, artists, poets, DJs, or just people seen at those clubs.

Tonight, the new portraits have been blown up into large canvasses and hung around the walls of the venue, a beautiful Victorian theatre. A further half a dozen portraits are dangling onstage as backdrops to the live acts. The subjects include veterans like Genesis P. Orridge and the Divine David Hoyle, established names like Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu, and newer faces like the singer with Bête Noire, David M Hargreaves. Bête Noire perform tonight, and I see them for the first time. Mr Hargreaves throws himself about and takes off his clothes, as I’m told he tends to do. What I didn’t expect is that the band is not an arty cabaret act but a serious guitar group, with a sound that wouldn’t be out of place at Glastonbury – they’re reminiscent of Interpol, or possibly The Strokes. I also enjoy readings by a couple of poets, Nathan Evans and Mark Walton. Mr Walton gives me a copy of his book, Frostbitten.

I spend much of my time there chatting with Atalanta K. On the way back to Notting Hill tube, we stop at Kensington Park Gardens, the street where Alan Hollinghurst set The Line of Beauty. I ask her to take my photo against No. 47, the last house in the street. In the novel the main location is given as Number 48, but this doesn’t seem to exist. Hence my compromise. I suppose it’s my version of those Harry Potter fans who pose by the platform in King’s Cross.

kenparkgardens

***

Wednesday 15th June 2016. Evening: to Birkbeck in Gordon Square for an MA class. The dissertations due for this autumn are presented by each student. Mine isn’t due till the autumn of next year, so for me this is a way of seeing what the other students are up to, and what sort of subject matter is considered suitable. Of the four students presenting, two are both doing Samuel Beckett, interestingly. One is on narrative technique in Malone Dies, the other is on the use of technology in Krapp’s Last Tape and Embers. The other dissertations are on the experimental poet Maggie O’Sullivan, and underground female comic creators, such as Phoebe Gloeckner. I knew about Gloeckner’s life from the recent film Diary of A Teenage Girl. Drinks in the Birkbeck bar afterwards, on the rooftop in Torrington Square.

***

Thursday 16th June 2016. Evening: to Waterstones Piccadilly for another bookish event. This one is for the independent Peter Owen Publishers, to mark their 65th anniversary (1951-2016). Peter Owen himself died only a few weeks ago. I had expected tonight to be about him, and about the history of the publishers, but it turns out to be a series of short talks about their latest releases. Still, these are diverse enough. One book by Tom Smith, One For My Baby, is partly a cocktail recipe book and partly a biography of Frank Sinatra. He mixes free cocktails for everyone who turns up. Another book is a novel about the painter Richard Dadd, by Miranda Miller. Evelyn Farr talks about her investigative history into Marie-Antoinette’s letters. Erin Pizzey – a living saint of a woman going by her anecdotes – has a memoir about her setting up a refuge for battered women, in 1970s Chiswick (‘You can be addicted to an abusive relationship, as if it were a drug. And you’ve got to go cold turkey.’)

The author I feel closest to in terms of shared interests is Jeremy Reed, who’s brought out a history of Piccadilly rent boys. Instead of discussing the book, however, he performs his poetry, swaggering from foot to foot in a black beret, pinstripe jacket, and black polka dot shirt. Sebastian Horsley and Marc Almond are namechecked. One poem celebrates Brydges Place, the tiny street off St Martin’s Lane that is barely wide enough to count as an alley.

***

Friday 17th June 2016. My review of the film Lawrence of Belgravia, now on DVD, appears in The Wire magazine, issue dated July 2016.

***

Saturday 18th June 2016. Afternoon. To the Prince Charles for the film Where to Invade Next, the new documentary by Michael Moore. I go out of a kind of film fan loyalty, remembering how Moore’s films Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 ushered in the current golden age of documentaries made for cinemas. I think Louis Theroux equally owes his career to appearing in segments for Moore’s 90s TV shows. Where to Invade Next is more positive than angry. It presents the benefits of different social initiatives adopted by different countries, and suggests that the US should adopt them too. Hence the ‘invading’ concept, to steal the ideas. As with Moore’s past work, there’s a lot of skewing the facts to fit an agenda, but MM is still a unique and funny film-maker,  with pertinent points to make.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
break

All You Need Is Curiosity

Sunday 10th January 2016.

Sometime during the late 90s, when Orlando were on tour. A catcall from a schoolchild, in my direction: ‘Is that… David Bowie?’

(Answer: Sort of…)

Today, David Bowie dies.

I was going to start this week’s diary with an explanation of a term I used last week – ‘queer’. One reader asked what exactly I meant by this, given it’s such a slippery term. ‘Do you mean gay?’ Well, yes and no.

‘Queer’ used to be a pejorative insult for gay people, from the early 20th century up to the 1980s. Then it started to be reclaimed by gay rights activists as a positive term, particularly as a more defiant and politicised form of identity.

Today, though, I have to admit it’s more complicated. I tend to use it to mean a look or attitude that plays with conventions of gender and sexuality, but also with an anti-authoritarian air. I forget, though, that some people (particularly young people) now identify with ‘queer’ as a separate identity away from gay, hence the use of ‘Q’ in the community acronym of ‘LGBTQI’ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex).

In academia, there’s also queer studies and queer theory. These tend to denote a certain troubling of conventions in society by non-heterosexual activity, a scrutinising of what ‘normal’ means – ‘to queer’ as a verb. ‘Queer’ in this sense is a spanner in the works, a critique, a pointing at the core from the margins. It is the moment in The Wizard of Oz where the man behind the curtain is paid attention to.

All this has a direct connection to David Bowie. He is a good example of someone who was not necessarily gay but who definitely could be read as a queer icon. His lasting relationships may have been with women, and he was more or less content with his gender, but he very much put out and amplified queer signals in his work, and these were of incalculable importance. To those looking out for such signals, they were nothing less than a lifeline. Whether it was the dress he wore on the cover of The Man Who Sold The World, his use of androgynous make-up and homoerotic poses in his Ziggy Stardust phase, or his dragging up in the Boys Keep Swinging video, Bowie was queer enough.

He could be explicit about the q-word in his lyrics, too. There’s the following line from his 1993 single ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’, written for the BBC TV adaptation of the Hanif Kureishi novel. I’ve only now realised that it also nods to the Lou Reed song ‘Vicious’:

Screaming along in South London / Vicious but ready to learn / Sometimes I fear that the whole world is queer / Sometimes but always in vain

* * *

This week, the wealth of coverage of Bowie’s death provoked a couple of grumpy letters in the press. Complaining about an excess of Bowie articles in the Independent, one reader wrote, ‘Anybody under 40 probably didn’t know who he was’. Another saw little value in ‘pages of nostalgic outpourings about musicians… I suggest your editors stop trying to relive their youth.’

I find this fascinating, partly as a study of sheer solipsism, but also as a gauge of the way culture and celebrity are subjective. To whom does Bowie’s death matter, and can this be turned into a proportionate amount of news coverage? What have people heard of? What do people care about? To quote ‘Hello Spaceboy’, ‘it’s confusing these days…

Certainly, the disgruntled letters are disproved by the content of the articles. True, there’s been lots of greying nostalgia (which I have no problem with), but there’s also been tributes by young musicians and artists too. Among those who cite him as an influence are La Roux, Grimes, Janelle Monae, Florence Welch, and Desiree Akhavan, the thirty-year-old director of Appropriate Behaviour, my favourite film of last year. She says, ‘I listen to ‘Modern Love’ at least once a day. It happens to contain the secret to successful filmmaking: ‘It’s not really work / It’s just the power to charm.’”

As it is, I don’t think the media coverage has been excessive at all. At least, not compared to the last Royal Baby.

Besides, music connects directly to the emotions. So when a popular musician dies, there’s obviously going to be lots of emotional expression. Why is that hard to understand?

As for my own favourite Bowie songs, there’s the aforementioned ‘Buddha of Suburbia’, released at a time when he was considered to be artistically treading water. I remember it sounded then, as it does now, as vintage Bowie, pure and simple.

I adore Hunky Dory, particularly ‘Changes’, and ‘Queen Bitch’. I love his Plastic Soul phase, especially ‘Young Americans’. From his 80s commercial pop phase, I’m fond of ‘Modern Love’ and ‘Absolute Beginners’. I love the way the former is used in the 2012 film Frances Ha, while Greta Gerwig is running through New York (itself an homage to the 80s film Mauvais Sang).

Though I’ve never tried to explicitly resemble him aesthetically, I know there’s a subconscious influence at work. I bleach my hair. I have a dandyish, Modern Weirdo look. Ergo, I owe a debt to Bowie.

It’s also important to remember he wasn’t perfect. Despite some of the more messianic pronouncements this week, Bowie was never a sacred cow. His late 80s albums and Tin Machine records (late 80s to early 90s) were given an extremely hard time by the critics. Bowie survived as long as he did by being a first-rate manipulator of as much information as possible – as evidenced in the way he kept his illness secret. He couldn’t stop the bad reviews, but I noticed how he played down his flops in the authorised V&A David Bowie Is… show.

Something else, then: he welcomed and encouraged praise. He liked being a star, and took himself seriously as one. What’s commendable is that this is a more honest trait than the false modesty which society usually requires (Oscar Wilde was another expert, Lady Gaga is a current example). Make no mistake: most people who make art do want praise from as many people as possible. It’s not selling out or vain, it’s basic self-validation.

What isn’t in question is his cultural influence. If the message of the Beatles was ‘all you need is love’, Bowie’s was ‘all you need is curiosity’. Another line from ‘Modern Love’ springs to mind: ‘But I try…’

He tried so many different styles and looks and genres and personae, and kept trying. Why did he do all the acting roles too (some of which, again, were better than others)? Why is he there at the beginning of The Snowman, introducing a children’s cartoon? Because he liked to try things. He tried. That’s inspiring in itself. I rather liked him.

* * *

Monday 11th January 2016.

I’m reading Lorrie Moore’s A Gate At The Stairs (2009). It’s a witty post 9/11 tale of Midwest America. Some favourite lines:

‘Death would come to me – I knew this from reading British poetry’.

‘Having no dog in the race doesn’t keep people from having extremely large cats’.

* * *

Thursday 14th January 2016.

MA class tonight, on The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’m intrigued that it’s dedicated to the son McCarthy had at the age of 65, and so comes with an older parent’s fear of not being able to see their offspring reach adult life. The Road is so relentlessly bleak and grim that I can’t say I enjoy it, though I do admire it.

* * *

Friday 15th January 2016.

To the Maritime Museum in Greenwich for the exhibition Samuel Pepys – Plague, Fire, Revolution. The one exhibit it doesn’t have is Pepys’s actual diary, due to his will forbidding it from leaving his old Cambridge college. But what is does have is a richness of everything else from the era: animated presentations of the Great Fire, excerpts from the diary on touchscreens, Charles 1st’s ornate gloves from the day of his execution, a pair of green glass spectacles Pepys wore when he thought the diary was making him blind (it wasn’t), and the shorthand codebook he used to encrypt his writing. When a Victorian scholar came to decode the diaries for the first time, he spent years trying to work out the code from scratch. It’s hard to imagine how he must have felt when he finally noticed the codebook was there too, just inches away on a different shelf.

Something I have in common with Pepys, and indeed Joe Orton and Kenneth Williams: not only diarists of London, but of spells in Tangier too.

* * *

Afterwards, dinner with my brother Tom and friends. We try the new Jamie Oliver restaurant in Nelson Road. Quite pleasant, food agreeable. The restaurant has the feel of a converted warehouse: spacious, high-ceilings, exposed brickwork, plenty of room. Perhaps a little too spacious for midwinter, though, and many of the diners keep their coats on.

Modern eating. My veggie burger arrives on a wooden chopping board, with the chips in a small tin pail.

Tom’s friend E teaches photography to schoolchildren in East London. ‘It’s hard to get them to do any work. We’re trying to get the examination board to accept selfies.’ This is not meant as a joke.

Taking selfies and using social media is a form of work, though: the work one must do in order to keep one’s friends. The problem for teens is when the need to fit in eclipses the need to do well at school. The technology involved may be new, but the dilemma is eternal.


Tags: , , , , ,
break