The Late Legitimisation of Mr Edwards

Thursday 11th April. Some happy news. I am waiting for a train en route to a book event in Peckham (Isabel Waidner talking with Jennifer Hodgson) when I check my emails. I may have resisted the heroin lure of the smartphone but I do enjoy the methadone substitute of an iPod Touch, which can access wireless internet.

One email is from CHASE, the government organisation to whom I’d applied for PhD funding a couple of months ago. Before opening the mail I pause and brace myself for rejection. This application was, after all, my third and final attempt. The rules forbid any more.

This time, though, I am told I was successful.

From October the government will pay me the minimum wage in order to work on my thesis full-time. There is also the likelihood of additional expenses for research trips.

This is a significant event for me, mentally as much as financially. It is the first time in twenty years that I’ve bagged a full time job that I want to do, as opposed to not mind too much. The last time was when I had a major label record deal in the mid 1990s.  Now I will be paid to read and write what I want to read and write. My project has been deemed, by a group of professionals who do not know me personally, to be of use to the real world.

I can confidently pre-empt accusations of boastfulness over this by indicating the money: a minimum wage in one’s late forties, even for doing something agreeable, is no popular index of success. My accommodation still cannot advance beyond the level of the rented room. But perhaps this new stipend, once it kicks in from October, will give me the focus and energy to undertake more paid work, such as journalism and talks. More things now seem possible. I have work to do, and works to do.

**

Friday 12 April 2019. A visit to the British Library imbues one with the feeling that everyone is a student, a writer or a researcher, and no other life exists. The public areas are so crowded, even just the benches around the walls. A young man with a laptop hovers by me when he notices I’m preparing to get up and leave, so he can grab my space. This is paradise of a kind. By which I mean it’s too popular and there’s hardly any room.

Meanwhile, a brand new UCL student building has opened nearby in Gordon Street, next to the Bloomsbury Theatre, with 1000 desks. I think of the TV documentary from the 1970s in which Kenneth Williams laments the rise of university buildings in the Bloomsbury area. Perhaps this would upset him even more. It cheers me, though, as I like the way Bloomsbury manages to be a university campus without the campus, lacking the detachment one feels with the more obvious universities, from Oxford to UEA.  There may be an ivory tower – Senate House Library – but it’s as much a part of the city as its next-door neighbour, the British Museum. For Birkbeck students, this aspect is particularly appropriate. Mature students have spent some time in the wider world already. To study on a more isolated campus might be like moving into a dormitory: fine for the young, but awkward for a forty-seven-year-old.

One now hears the word ‘campus’ used for the headquarters of tech companies like Google. It’s a kind of university envy by corporations, who even dub their training set-ups as ‘academies’. While this is reasonable for a youthful workforce, one wonders if older workers, if any are allowed at Google, are required to act like students too. In which case, in my funny child-like way, perhaps I am more a sign of the times that I thought.

Google has meant that everyone is a student researcher now. Even student researchers. And yet the majority of writers still look so ordinary and non-descript. Given the way I look I have a vested interest in this aspect, obviously; a literally vested interest.

**

Sunday 14 April 2019. To the sun-kissed paintings of Sorolla at the National Gallery, then the Nitty Gritty club night at the Constitution in Camden (with Debbie Smith DJ-ing), which is also my landlady K’s birthday bash. My previous unease at group events is now diminished: if nothing else, the funding means I can answer the dreaded question ‘and what do you do?’

**

Tuesday 16 April 2019. A news story in the Times: ‘Hundreds of students with the worst A levels are going on to get first-class degrees each year, fuelling fears of grade inflation at universities’. One explanation which escapes the Times is the concept of change. Birkbeck responds on Twitter in this spirit: ‘We make admissions based on students’ future potential, not just their past attainment.’

I add my voice to confirm this, summarising my last decade in a single tweet: ‘Birkbeck admitted me for a BA despite my lack of A-Levels (had a crisis at 17). Got the BA, stayed on for an MA, now doing a fully-funded PhD, all at Birkbeck. Still no A levels.’

A little later Joan Bakewell quotes my tweet, adding: ‘As Birkbeck’s President I’m proud of the chances we give people and congratulate Dickon on his success’.

I’m not sure of the correct way to address the Baroness, though I find an article where she likes people to call her by her first name. So I tweet back: ‘Thanks Joan!’

**

Friday 19 April 2019. Rather aptly, I spend the morning of Good Friday in an act of self-sacrifice. I’m using the sink in the bathroom when a pool of water creeps onto my toes from the cupboard below the sink. I crouch down to open the cupboard doors and immediately identify the source of this impromptu Nile: one of the joints in the sink ‘s outlet pipe is leaking, so it’s probably a blockage. As my landlady is away, and I don’t fancy calling out a professional on a bank holiday weekend (the only time when these things happen), I decide to have a go at tackling the issue myself. I unscrew the u-bend section of the pipe, take it out, and then clean it out in the bath using the shower hose. Lumps of awfulness emerge to a satisfying relish: dark compounds of hair, mini-fatbergs and what the characters in Withnail and I would describe simply as ‘matter’. I replace the pipe and use a plunger on the sink for good measure. This fixes the problem.

My joy over this comes not so much from the feeling of making things better as it does from the relief that I haven’t made things worse.

**

Monday 29 April 2019. I submit my revised Chapter Two to my supervisors.

 **

Thursday 2 May 2019. To the Curzon cinema in Aldgate to meet Shanthi S. The area is highly gentrified: clean and pristine new blocks of flats, probably hugely expensive, and with the usual feeling that no one actually lives here. We miss the film but end up having a pleasant evening at local bars like The Pride Of Spitalfields off Brick Lane, one of those older pubs which still manage to exist. The pub’s cat, Lenny, comes to sit next to me. Shanthi takes a photo, which I tentatively share on my Instagram account.

**

Friday 3 May 2019. I read Jenny Turner’s article in the LRB on the Mark Fisher anthology, K-Punk.At one point she suddenly pulls off a haughty flourish regarding Fisher’s favourite music: ‘I’ve always made a point of not being impressed by Joy Division or New Order’. It’s the choice of words, rather than simply ‘I’ve never liked’. Indeed, much as I admire Mark Fisher and Joy Division myself, neither were much at home to camp. Though they did deal in a certain type of masculine sentiment, which Ms Turner appreciates.  

My credo, if I have one at all, is that art can be witty, and wit can be art. Hence my interest in camp modernism, which goes back to naming my first band in 1992 after Woolf’s Orlando. In the same way, I never thought it incompatible to be a fan of the band the Field Mice, along with Sondheim musicals, the Smiths, Stock Aitken Waterman and Take That, all at once without any tiresome claims to irony. With unlikely intersections comes new space, and new freedom.

**

Tuesday 7 May 2019: To the Odeon Tottenham Court Road with Jon S to see Avengers: Endgame. I go mainly because the previous Avengers film ended on a cliffhanger, and I’m admittedly curious to see how the superheroes cheat death. The answer is they cheat.

On the way out, the other cinemagoers are discussing which of the preceding films they managed to see: ‘I missed Iron Man 2 but I did see Thor 6: Hard Rock Café.’ This is the triumph of the series: to blend a brand with a mythos, while allowing each film to make sense on its own terms. More or less. It will be interesting to see if superhero films continue to dominate cinemas; this is surely their peak moment.

**

This week sees the Met Gala in New York, as in the glitzy launch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition. This year’s theme is camp, with reference to the Sontag essay, hence my interest from afar. The BBC News site initially refers to the author of ‘Notes on Camp’ as ‘photographer Susan Sontag’. The coverage of the Gala is nearly eclipsed by the hyperbolic coverage of the Royal Baby, which itself is a camp moment.

Many of the looks on the red carpet, such as Harry Styles’s lacey catsuit, would not look out of place on the mid-1990s Romo scene. Or indeed, at Kash Point in the mid 2000s. Vogue magazine has called Mr Styles ‘the King of Camp’. This is debatable, though does have a certain Caravaggio-esque look to him.

**

Weds 8 May 2019. To the ICA for their Kathy Acker exhibition. Some of the late Acker’s books are on display in glass cabinets, including her copy of – what else? – Woolf’s Orlando. Was Kathy Acker camp? She had her moments, such as the poem that goes ‘Dear Susan Sontag, Please Can You Make Me Famous?’

**

Thursday 9 May 2019. I like to think zookeepers regularly say to each other ‘we need to talk about the elephant in the room’, and that the joke never gets old.

**

Saturday 11 May 2019. Much of the news is now based on journalists simply scouring Twitter and helping themselves to other people’s words. It’s now quite common to see people sacked from their jobs for something they idly typed on Twitter years ago. The format lends itself so easily to the removal of context, that it is perilous to use it for anything other than the blandest of statements. The First Law of Twitter: if a tweet can be taken the wrong way, it will be.

**

Sunday 12 May 2019.To the Rio for Cleo From 5 To 7 (1961), directed by Agnes Varda. I’d never seen it before; it’s mesmerising. Though it’s not shot in one take, as the more recent Victoria was in Madrid, there’s a magical sense of real time unfolding in a city, and that this is a liberating idea rather than a limitation. There’s currently a vogue for nature writing, and for narratives of going to the countryside to be healed, but despite sharing my name with the boy in The Secret Garden I’m rather on the side of finding answers in the city.

**

Saturday 18th May 2019. I’m walking along a street in Hoxton. As I pass a man mutters ‘freak’ at me. I used to get upset about this, but my reaction now can only be: ‘Still got it!’

**

Tuesday 21 May 2019. There really should be some sort of HGV test for backpack wearers. Despite the ability of human beings to access whole centuries of culture from a small flat oblong, many of them still need to carry yet more stuff on their back as well. Twice today on crowded tube carriages I am nearly hit in the face with the things, their owners oblivious. A backpack wearer is a long vehicle, but it’s hard to get to their face to tell them. Would Truman Capote wear a backpack in the city? No. There’s no excuse.

**

To Waterstones Gower Street for a book event. The subject is ostensibly Woolf’s Orlando, but the focus is really on Paul Takes The Form of A Mortal Girl, a new novel by the American writer Andrea Lawlor, which I’ve just enjoyed. Paul is set in the indie band culture of America in the early 1990s, and features a shapeshifting queer protagonist who makes his own music fanzine. The publishers have sent out copies of the book with a promotional fake fanzine, Polydoris Perversity. I’ve managed to get hold of one. The publishers have done their homework (presumably with the author in consultation): the fanzine looks entirely authentic to me. I remember buying and making such zines myself. It’s A5 sized, photocopied and stapled, and features text that’s been cut and pasted, in the days when the phrase meant real scissors and real paste (or at least Pritt Stick). At the back of the zine there’s a tracklisting of a home-made compilation tape – ‘mixtape’ was always a purely American term. Anachronistically, there’s a Spotify code for the playlist. It works, too.

Lawlor is the same age as me, and I get a nostalgic thrill from this book, despite the American setting. It works as a vivid document of gay social history, along the same lines as Tales of The City and Alan Hollinghurst’s novels. Indeed, Lawlor’s Paul and Hollinghurst’s Sparsholt Affair both reference Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’ as a gay song. And as with Hollinghurst, Lawlor is fond of gay sex scenes, though there’s plenty of lesbian sex too, thanks to Paul’s ability to change sex at will. On top of the Orlando references there’s a touch of Brideshead Revisited,when a soft toy is named Aloysius. ‘Of course it is’ says another character, Robin, another androgyne, who in turn is based on the Russian princess in Orlando.

What Lawlor gets most of all, though, is the importance of iconography to identity:

 ‘Paul remembered seeing a picture of Patti Smith for the first time, that flash of recognition when he first came across the Mapplethorpe postcard at the gay bookstore in Binghamton, thinking that’s what he looked like on the inside, taping that postcard up in every room he’d lived in since.’ (p. 121)

**

Wednesday 22 May 2019. Another book event, this time at Burley Fisher in Haggerston. This is the launch of the Andrew Gallix anthology We’ll Never Have Paris. It’s so packed that I have to leave early just to be able to breathe. The Andrew Lawlor event was similarly popular, with an extra row of chairs added at the last minute.

This week also sees me fail to get into a couple of other book events, because they both sell out in advance. I wonder if something is going on. The way forward for writers, as with bands, would seem to be more live events, and more festivals.

**

Thursday 23 May 2019. The EU elections. I go to my local polling station, Colvestone Primary School near Ridley Road, and vote Green. Labour win in my borough, Hackney, while most of the country chooses Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Interesting times.

**

Friday 24 May 2019. I cram in three exhibitions: Beasts of London at the Museum of London, in which a plague bacterium is voiced by Brian Blessed. Then with Mum to Mary Quant at the V&A, in which I learn that Ms Quant’s fashion line was genuinely affordable by all. Then on to Manga at the British Museum in the evening. The manga show reveals the influence of Alice in Wonderland, which I didn’t know about, and selects three titles for its gay section: Poem of Wind & Trees (the men very feminine looking), My Brother’s Husband (the men very muscular and hairy), and What Did You Eat Yesterday, an unexpected tale of an middle-aged gay couple’s domestic life (the men very ordinary). There’s also a section on cosplay and conventions, with a set of garments for visitors to try on. I don’t join in, believing as I do that dandyism is already cosplay; the cosplay of the self.

**

Friday 31 May 2019. I read Jarett Kobek’s Only Americans Burn In Hell, an entertaining satirical novel which uses a lot of what’s now called autofiction, and manages to be very funny too. Very Tristram Shandy, in fact, with its mad, skittish digressions.Mr Kobek often apologises to the reader for being unable to write a particular scene, and makes a perfectly good point as to why: ‘I’m burnt out. Donald J Trump was elected to the Presidency of the United States! So there’s really no point. Stop hoping that books will save you.’

On corporate celebrations of diversity, he writes: ‘Native American women had a statistically better chance of being caricatured in a Google Doodle than they did of being hired into a leadership position at Google’

Steve Jobs, meanwhile, is glossed as ‘a psychopath who enslaved Chinese children and made them build electronic devices which allowed American liberals to write treatises on human rights’.

**

Saturday 1 June 2019. To the Tate Modern for the Dorothea Tanning show. Her first painting in her Late Surrealism style, from the 1940s, is a Dali-esque self-portrait amid infinite doors and strange creatures. It is titled Birthday, such was her sense of new life through art. But the exhibition reveals two further ‘births’. In the 1950s she changes to a more abstract technique, more Pollock than Dali. And then there’s a third style of soft sculptures run off her sewing machine. The centrepiece is an installation of a hotel room, where the furniture is turning into such sculptures, while further shapes burst through the wallpaper.

Tanning worked until her death at 101. I think of Leonora Carrington’s similarly long life, and while talking to Mum on the phone I wonder if there’s a connection between surrealism and longevity. Mum suggests that it might be because such women had to be tough in the first place to tout their art in such a male field.

**

Monday 3 June 2019. I see Booksmart at the Rio, a high school comedy about two bookish teenage girls having a late try at being party animals. It’s uproariously funny. There’s a couple of boy characters – drama queens in every sense – who threaten to steal the film from the girls.

**

Thursday 13 June 2019. I help to organise a student conference at Birkbeck, Work in Progress. The staff had picked me, along with three other 2nd years (Katie Stone, Matt Martin, Helena Esser), because they knew I had experience of organising club nights. In the weeks leading up to the event, the process soaks up a lot of time, and there’s some hitches with people cancelling, but it’s mostly a smooth running affair. Katie Stone live-tweets a lot of the day, using the hashtag ‘#bbkwip’.

We host twelve speakers in all, including our keynote speaker Anthony Joseph, who discusses his novel Kitch, about the Trinidad calypso singer Lord Kitchener. I do some tech supervising, chair one of the panels, and chair the plenary summing-up session, which I learn is pronounced ‘plee-nary’, and not ‘plenn-ary’. My main mission is just to keep the event running to its schedule, with echoes of the joke about Mussolini.

**

Monday 17th June 2019. To the Rio with Shanthi to see Gloria Bell (£5). A subtle and nuanced tale of ageing people going on dates. Very little really happens, but at a time of shrillness and noise, quiet films can be a tonic. Julianne Moore’s character has to struggle with two pairs of glasses. This is a detail I recognise in my own life now, finding as I do that fiddling with specs is still preferable to working with varifocals.

I’ve also discovered that increased myopia helps stage fright, or anxiety about public speaking. All I have to do is take my distance glasses off, and the audience disappears. I believe Dusty Springfield used the same technique.

**

Tuesday 18 June 2019. I watch the last episode of Years and Years, the highlight of which is a speech by the grandmother about people buying into the more ridiculous type of politician: ‘I didn’t see all the clowns and monsters heading our way. Tumbling over each other, grinning. Dear God what a carnival.’

By coincidence, this piece of fiction is broadcast after a live debate between the five candidates for the next Prime Minister, all sitting on stools like some grotesque five-part harmony boy band. The favourite is Boris Johnson, now trying his best to be quiet and sensible. Close on his heels is the bland Jeremy Hunt, who has a record of forgetting things, from his wife’s nationality to his ownership of seven luxury flats. If Hunt wins, it will be because people want to forget about Boris Johnson. Rory Stewart seems the most reasonable of this gaggle, and seems to realise that if he is to succeed he needs to play up his clownishness. Which in fact, tonight he does, suddenly taking off his tie and slouching in his seat, his gauntness making him look like a character from Mervyn Peake. To borrow Sontag’s phrase about camp, we are in an age of Instant Character.

**

Thursday 20th June 2019. To Sudbury to meet Mum. Sudbury seems mostly unchanged from my teen years, though Great Cornard Upper School (where I spent 1985 to 1989) has been renamed Thomas Gainsborough School. When I was there there was no uniform, just a dress code favouring plain grey shirts and jumpers. This was deemed to be progressive and modern at the time. Not any more. Today in Sudbury I see pupils of TGS wearing a full traditional uniform: blazer, striped tie and even a crest, which must have been invented yesterday. I wonder at this paradox, a twenty-first century school choosing a style that seemed out of date in the 1980s. Perhaps one can blame Harry Potter.

Naming buildings simply after the area they are in is no longer enough. One thinks of Liverpool’s Speke Airport becoming John Lennon Airport. It seems difficult to imagine that Mr Lennon needs the extra publicity, so omnipresent are the Beatles. That said, Mum has told me of a child who asked who Paul McCartney was. ‘He’s a bit like Ed Sheeran’.

The painter Thomas Gainsborough already has a prominent statue in Sudbury marketplace, and there’s also the nearby Gainsborough House gallery, which we visit today. Now he has a large school too. Even the local train line, which I take today from Liverpool Street, changing at Marks Tey, is labelled the Gainsborough Line. My fellow Sudbury alumni really need to hurry up and produce some masterpieces, if only so the town has more names to choose from.

**
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Choose Your Own Adventure

Saturday 17th May 2014. Hot and sticky in London. The British Library café is still very busy: lots of students testing each other on their revision. I’m polishing my final essay for the year, adding a few more secondary references, checking the whole essay ticks the right boxes, and then just re-reading it for grammar and general flow. I’m forcing myself to do six drafts this time, one draft per day. Whatever the mark is, at least I know I’ve put the hours in. It wasn’t so long ago that I left essays until the night before the deadline. That’s simply unthinkable now.

* * *

Sunday 18th May 2014. The Boogaloo bar now has a little den in the back yard, decked out entirely with references to the Tony Scott / Quentin Tarantino film True Romance. It’s called ‘Alabama’s’.

* * *

Tuesday 20th May 2014. To the Barbican to see the The Two Faces of January. A mere £5 for students on Tuesdays. It’s my first visit to the centre’s new Cinema Café building in Beech Street, two blocks away from the main Barbican complex. The venue consists of two cinema screens (officially the Barbican’s Cinema 2 and 3) and a large, not-too-trendy café. There’s plush high-backed chairs and sofas, and lots of tables for laptop users. And indeed, for exam revision groups, of which there’s several in evidence today: young people huddled over textbooks and ring binders.

It’s warm weather, and I watch The Two Faces Of January in Cinema 2 while wearing my cream linen suit, now getting somewhat threadbare and needing replacing. As it happens, the main character in the film, played by Viggo Mortensen, wears exactly the sort of suit I’m after. I miss whole sections of the plot due to staring at the suits. But that’s as good a reason for seeing a film as any.

It’s a very old fashioned film: a Patricia Highsmith adaptation, set in 1962 across Athens, Crete and Istanbul. The usual Highsmith elements are present and correct: morally dodgy men in sunny locations, arguments that quickly turn into violence, crime as a kind of filler for holes in masculinity, and subtexts of male-on-male obsession. The only 21st century thing about it is the warning of adult themes on the BBFC certification card, which precedes the film:

12A: Contains infrequent strong language, moderate violence & scenes of smoking.

* * *

Wednesday 21st May 2014. I finish and deliver the essay, thus ending my college work for the third year. The courses I chose for this year were all essay based, with no exams whatsoever. I don’t miss exams in the slightest, but I do miss the sense of a dramatic finale that they can create.

At Birkbeck, all essays have to be delivered electronically, via a link on the college’s website. But most of the tutors still ask for a paper copy as well. The student must print one out and take it to a special post box, being a slot in the reception of the Gordon Square building. And this is the case for today’s final essay. So I do get a little sense of an ending after all – it’s the moment when my fingers let go of the envelope when I drop it into the post box. Gone. Done. Third year over.

I now have no deadlines hanging over me for the first time since December last year, and won’t have to think about new ones until October this year. So I’m looking upon the next week or so as a proper holiday. Albeit on a budget. I have no money to travel, so it has to be a holiday in my own bedsit, punctuated with the cheaper pleasures of London. This suits me fine, though. Free time can be luxury enough.

* * *

In the evening: I attend a free Birkbeck event at Waterstones bookshop, Gower Street. It’s a talk with Travis Elborough about his various non-fiction books, including A London Year. The host is Joe Brooker, one of the head tutors on my English programme. He comments how A London Year might be best read by using the index in the back to choose different themes, rather than reading it linearly from start to finish. Though he doesn’t use the term, to me this makes A London Year a good illustration of the city as hypertext. Hypertext is now woven into so many day-to-day lives that it’s easy to forget about its usage as a metaphor. It’s the navigation of a large mass of material by cutting a path through the layers, pushing through the text via a lateral dimension.

On the Web, the hypertext element is the choice of one’s own reading path by clicking on links. Likewise A London Year, when read via choices made in the index, and likewise London itself. You have to take your own forked path through the many worlds and layers of the city, in both space and in time. Piercing the palimpsest.

Perhaps my own generation might think of hypertext theory in relation to those Choose Your Own Adventure books of the 1980s. You didn’t read them from start to finish; you chose links to different sections, and so produced your own text. What, after all, is the appeal of London but as a giant game of Choose Your Own Adventure?

***

Thursday 22nd May 2014. Heavy rain and thunderstorms. Possibly because it’s World Goth Day and Morrissey’s birthday.

I go to Jackson’s Lane Community Centre to vote. Two elections this time. One is for the European Parliament, one for local councils. I am the only one in the polling station. On the internet and in the news it feels like everyone is interested in politics. When you actually go to vote, it feels like no one is.

* * *

In the evening I go to the Muswell Hill Odeon for The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time, one of the National Theatre’s ‘Live’ screenings. It’s my first time to such an event. For the last few years, the NT has teamed up with cinemas to screen live broadcasts of their plays at the South Bank. Or in this case, a synchronised repeat screening of a past live broadcast. It’s an inspired solution for those who like theatre but can’t make it to the NT, as there’s the theatrical sense of a shared, one-off experience to the screenings. It’s not quite like being in a theatre, but neither is it a normal trip to the cinema.

In this case, the recording of the Curious Incident play is from 2012, during its original setting at the NT’s Cottesloe space. The audience are arranged on tiers, looking down onto a stage in the round.  The play uses a lot of choreography aimed at a vertical view, to such a degree that at times it’s like a scaled-down Busby Berkeley film. The stage is marked out in tiny squares like a maths exercise book, and there are so many intricate projections and lighting effects – not to mention live animals – that the technical rehearsal must have gone on for days. The recreation of the A Level Maths question from the end of the novel is quite brilliant – a seamless blend of acting, direction, animation and sheer nerve. Mum has gone to one of the screenings in Suffolk, so we discuss it over the phone afterwards.

* * *

Late night: I watch a little of the election coverage on TV. Some election-speak: ‘No overall control’. It’s one of those phrases which I feel is somehow criticising me personally. Like ‘approval needed’ at the supermarket.


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